Tuesday 16 July 2024

'Lost Estates'

This is part of a running review of Lost Estates by Mark Valentine (Swan River Press 2024)

The title story of the collection! And it begins in fine form. 'I was playing the trans-dimensional crumhorn when the man from the Treasury called.' As the plot develops, we learn about the unusual musical combo the narrator was once part of and the unusual link to the inventor of a perpetual motion machine. 

The group is reassembled in response to the man from the Treasury. The latter is in search of an 'estate' that is in fact something altogether stranger and more significant. A musical performance turns into a very unusual gig, The theme of disappearance - accidental or deliberate - is central again. Did the perpetual motion machine work, but in an altogether unexpected fashion?

A light story, this, but not a frivolous one. It reflects a not-uncommon ambition, to discover that our quirky little interest might have wider significance - that we are as important as the people we are told are important. 

Sunday 14 July 2024

'The Understanding of the Signs'

This is part of a running review of Lost Estates by Mark Valentine (Swan River Press 2024)

Many years ago I submitted a tale about pub signs to Ro Pardoe of Ghosts & Scholars and was delighted when it was published. The story is due to reappear next year in a G&S anthology. I only wish that, when I created my supernatural conspiracy theory around the symbolism of pub names, I had had a tithe of Mark Valentine's knowledge of the topic.

The central conceit of 'The Understanding of the Signs' is far more effective than mine. What if changing the name of an old tavern somehow unleashes some archetypical entity that dwells in that location? Could the Gray Horse and the Red Lion run amok? The climax of the story grants the protagonist a glimpse of a landscape shot through with mystical significance. He senses a 'baleful power' in the motion of 'shadow beasts', which does not bode well for modern Britain. 

And now so many pubs are closing down. If only one in a dozen is the domain of some ancient entity, what might not be unleashed upon us? 

Saturday 13 July 2024

'Readers of the Sands'

(This is part of a running review of Lost Estates by Mark Valentine (Swan River Press 2024)

There is something about sand. It gets between your toes, certainly, but it also gets into your imagination. It informs Algernon Blackwood's Egyptian novella 'Sand', Ramsey Campbell's Lovecraftian 'The Voice of the Beach', Stephen King's weird sci-fi 'Beachworld', and every other short story by J.G. Ballard. The granulated rock gets everywhere. 

Mark Valentine's take on the significance of sand is somewhat gentler than those examples, but nonetheless intriguing. An eccentric scholar - is there any other kind in a story? - invites three people to visit his seashore mansion. Each of the guests has a particular expertise that relates to the strangely patterned sands of that particular coastline. One is a veteran guide to the treacherous shore, the second practices divination by sand, the third makes sandglasses but also has a strange paranormal gift. Between them they explore the possible significance of the ephemeral patterns, and almost come a metaphysical cropper in the process.

This is a seaside tale that successfully evokes British beaches at their more mysterious and even menacing. The next time I am on the coast, I will seek out the shifting, rippling patterns. But cautiously.

Wednesday 10 July 2024

'Laughter Ever After'


This is part of a running review of Lost Estates by Mark Valentine (Swan River Press 2024)

Two stories in this collection - 'The Seventh Card' and 'Maybe the Parakeet Was Correct', first appeared in ST so of course I rate them highly. Moving swiftly along we come to the next tale, whose premise might be baffling to some younger readers. Or is the song The Laughing Policeman still well known? Somehow I doubt it.

Humor being central to a tale of supernatural persecution is not common. The only story vaguely like this one that springs to mind is 'A Psychical Invasion', the first of Blackwood's John Silence tales. There are of course lots of stories - Wells' 'The Inexperienced Ghost', for instance - that are humourous, but that's another matter. 

Anyway, 'Laughter Ever After' sees a bibliophile (yes, another one!) going to a small provincial town in search of an obscure pamphlet containing a ghost story. The story, our collector knows, concerns a song written and made famous by Charles Penrose, a music hall performer. Penrose, we learn, followed up The Laughing Policeman with the Laughing Postman and other chortling characters. He was, it seems, the classic one-hit wonder who tried to repeat his success but found he didn't really have a winning formula.

This one blindsided me, as the ending manages to feel artistically right and at the same time raise just enough doubt as to what is going on. All in all, it's a piece that sticks in the mind, a clever take on the M.R. Jamesian idea of the scholar whose quest takes him way too close to the heart of a mystery. 

Friday 5 July 2024

'The House of Flame'

This is part of a running review of Lost Estates by Mark Valentine (Swan River Press 2024)

The life and death of General Gordon is little known today. A typical Victorian hero - courageous, strange, and obsessive - Gordon's spiritual beliefs informed his many military exploits. He suppressed slavery in much of North Africa, led an 'Ever Victorious Army' that defeated the insanely destructive Taiping rebels in China, and then died in controversial circumstances at the hands of Mahdist rebels in the Sudan. 

And it is the death of Gordon that begins this unusual story, or perhaps meditation is a better word. A young man takes to his clergyman father the terrible news learned from newspaper vendors in a small Welsh town. Later, he discovers a small book that outlines Gordon's mystical ideas. The young man is the writer known as Arthur Machen, and his contemplation of Gordon's intellectual legacy informs his visionary approach to literature.

I found this story interesting, but as I have only read Machen's better known works I suspect that I missed out on some significant references. But, as stories about (non-fictional) writers go, this is a fine example of its kind. 

Thursday 4 July 2024

'Fortunes Told: Fresh Samphire'

This is part of a running review of Lost Estates by Mark Valentine (Swan River Press 2024)

Disappearances, Chesterton remarked, are harder to account for than manifestations. After all, the family ghost is merely keeping up appearances. In this story Mark Valentine interweaves two narratives, one of a chap called Crabbe, and the other of a friend who investigates (to the best of his ability) Crabbe's vanishing. 

This is Machen territory, to some extent, with emphasis on the mysteries of landscape and deep, strange folklore. Crabbe has undoubtedly left our world - but did he end up in a better place? We read of 'voices in the garden. Lord serpent and the moss boy, iridescent...' It is a world of wonders, but is it safe? Crabbe seems to be losing his sense of identity. But is it really a loss? Or the laying down of an all-too-human burden? 

In the end it is indeed the mystery that endures. The nameless friend resolves to follow the path Crabbe took, an apparently innocuous trail across an unremarkable part of England. We can be sure he will find something. Perhaps even the person he cares for. It is as much a story about friendship, of doing the best you can, as it is about other realms, other realities. 

I'm enjoying this collection. It is relaxing to read to good prose, to encounter interesting ideas. I am writing this on election night. I hope to wake up in a new realm tomorrow. 

Wednesday 3 July 2024

'Worse Things Than Serpents'

 This is part of a running review of Lost Estates by Mark Valentine (Swan River Press 2024)

The title of this story comes from an innocent remark by a character in Thomas Hardy's first published novel. Hardy's reference is to a musical instrument. But in this tale, Mark Valentine's bibliophile narrator finds something far stranger. 

Anyone who has visited Hay-on-Wye knows that there are bookshops without shopkeepers, where you can leave money in an honesty box after taking some obscure paperback from a somewhat straggling array. In this tale the protagonist finds himself in an isolated shop full of books on one particular theme - the Brazen Serpent. I am sadly ignorant of the significance of this entity but significant it certainly is. 

The atmosphere is well evoked. Do I take something and leave the money? Do I leave a note of my address so I can pay later? The book hunter decided to do the latter, but then a sudden tempest arises, the lights fail, and he encounters strange, tactile sensations in the darkness. This M.R. Jamesian touch is neat, as is the later suggestion that leaving any form of document in such a place might be hazardous. 

A slight story, perhaps, built around a single incident, but a good one nonetheless. I look forward to the next tale from the Lost Estates.

'Lost Estates'

This is part of a running review of  Lost Estates  by Mark Valentine (Swan River Press 2024) The title story of the collection! And it begin...