Monday, 31 December 2018

Death Makes Strangers of Us All

This collection from The Swan River Press contains ten well-crafted stories by R. B. Russell, better known to many of us as Ray Russell, co-founder of Tartarus Press. The tales here qualify as weird, strange, sometimes ghostly, and occasionally horrific. They are hard to classify in more specific terms, but all offer a perspective on our mortal condition.

The first story, 'Night Porter', concerns a young woman in need of a job who accepts a post at a somewhat dodgy hotel. Marianne is disturbed by a strange client, Miss Fisher, who is in the habit of renting a room for herself and various drunken men. Odd things happen, terrible stains are found, an old man with a hypodermic needle appears briefly. Marianne's position as an apparently innocent observer is somewhat subverted by the ending, which suggests that she is in fact involved in something deeply wrong.

'At the End of the World' is the first-person narrative of a man with a wayward brother called Paul. Paul has led a nomadic and often dangerous life, dabbling in drugs, travelling widely, never staying anywhere for long. Finally his brother finds him living in a old railway carriage, wintering at a bleak seaside town. Paul, it transpires, has had a good reason to keep moving, but has run out of options. A strange force is on his trail, in a story slightly reminiscent of Bradbury's 'The Wind'.

'Brighthelmstone' is one of those stories that taught me a fact - the title is the original name of Brighton. This is a relatively slight tale of a boyhood incident in the resort, and is very evocative of seaside holidays a couple of generations ago. It has a Ruth Rendell twist, in which a terrible event comes almost out of nowhere, and is then finessed into the fabric of the narrator's life.

The title story is an account of a British woman's struggle to make sense of her predicament, which is to wander in a nameless foreign city with no idea how she got there. Katherine Blake may be a ghost - that was my initial guess. The near-deserted city is a slightly Kafkaesque place, however, and the story can be read on more than one level. In the end Katherine's fate remains as mysterious as the world in which she finds herself.

'The Man Who Missed the Party' is a tale of Sixties nostalgia, memory, and loss. A bookshop owner is visited by a strange man who may be a lover from decades earlier. The party in question was a catastrophic affair in Austria, complete with sex, drugs, and a fatal overdose. The mysterious visitor at first seems to offer a kind of closure, but then events take a surreal turn, and in a way the party catches up with the man who missed it.

'It's Over' is an interesting tale of tragedy, set in Toledo. David has lost his love, Amalia, to another man, one who is manifestly unworthy. Conventional troubles arise, including fisticuffs when David meets the slimy Salvatore. There is a dark undertone of abuse, or the threat of it, in Amalia's new relationship. Then, having resigned himself to loss, David encounters Amalia for one last time.

Very different in tone is 'The Mighty Mr. Godbolt', in which a couple set out to visit the eponymous stamp collector and railways enthusiast. The pair are separated and the wife finds herself on the last journey of Godbolt, someone whose force of personality is remarked upon by all. This is quite an old-fashioned ghost story, in its way, and would not be out of place (barring a few anachronisms, of course) in any between-the-wars anthology.

'One Man's Wisdom' is an odd, slightly unfocused tale of a family ironmongery business, and the strange machine the only employee has constructed in a big shed. I wish I I could say more about it, but for me it was a little pointless. I kept expecting something to happen, but it didn't. Perhaps this one was based on a dream, or the result of an experiment. Still, if you like accounts of large, incomprehensible machines and the unlikable men who tend them, this one is for you.

'Afterwards' is a post apocalyptic tale of a man who survives the mass die-back of the human race. It is slightly reminiscent of John Wyndham and other British authors (John Christopher springs to mind) and of the Seventies TV series Survivors.

The final story is 'The Ghosts of Begbie Hall'. A sceptical researcher returns to an old house that she knew well when it became the focus of a famous haunting. She delivers a talk to a group of convinced ghost hunters, thinking to finally scupper the occult reputation of the hall. But instead she seems to trigger a response that mocks her claims that the original haunting was all a hoax.

So, there are my brief takes on the stories, most of which certainly deserve more attention and thought that I can give. Death Makes Strangers of Us All is a varied and interesting collection, and helps cement Russell's reputation as an accomplished author as well as a discerning bibliophile and publisher.

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