Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Nightfarers

The NightfarersThe Nightfarers by Mark Valentine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mark Valentine's name and fiction is often associated with authors such as Reggie Oliver, Quentin S. Crisp, John Howard, Stephen J. Clark, and Mark Samuels, largely because of these authors' associations with a handful of publishers known for producing extremely high-quality books, in limited editions, that focus on the borderline between the classic ghost story and the modern strange tale (e.g., Tartarus Press, Ex Occidente, Egaeus, Zagava, etc). These contemporary authors can be seen as the inheritors of a line of literary descent that includes such authors as M.R. James, Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen, and Robert Aickman, among others. And yet, to lump them all together does a disservice to the individual authors and to the unique approach of each author to writing stories of this ilk.

This is particularly true of Mark Valentine's work. Valentine's writing is not as "weird" as Oliver's or Crisp's, for example. Nor is it as horrific as Samuels' or Clark's work. It is more . . . "restrained," is probably the best word, though "stoic" might be used to describe his work, as well. There's a certain nobility to Valentine's work in subject matter, tone, and structure; a bit of the old "stiff upper lip", if you will. His characters (primary or secondary, depending on the story) are often aristocrats. The stories themselves, at times, are of a more formalist bent - not the straight academic track, mind you, but something more like an armchair philosopher or dabbler in history might find most attractive. Something you would expect to be written by a man wearing a smoking robe and using a cigarette holder routinely. This is not to say that Valentine's fiction is unapproachable. No, far from it. But there is a certain "air" about it that will sometimes make you wish you had worn your best clothes to read in.

This collection is a beautiful hardcover book put out by Ex Occidente, limited to 350 copies. The cover I have is a full wrap-around of a beautiful purple (literally) painting of a handsome figure, nude, staring at the painter with glowing, nay, glowering yellow eyes as it (he) rests his chin in his hand. Though the frontispiece in the book is done by John Coulthart (and is clearly, distinctively, one of his pieces of art), I don't know who did the actual cover painting. But it is beautiful and sinister and entirely appropriate to the mood of the book. So, on to the contents:

"The 1909 Proserpine Prize" is a wonder. A story about the judgement of a literary prize for dark literature in which one of the books itself has a say. Include mystic languages and auctorial subterfuge on a cold winter night locked away in a storied building and, well, you get the picture. But not until the very end! This is one of several books wherein Valentine shows, through his fiction, his love of book collecting. Five stars and this collection starts off with a bang!

"Carden in Capaea" is an ephemeral tale, or is it an ethereal tale of . . .? I forget. The words escape me. I felt that I had them, long ago, but their meanings have blanched from my memory, fading into . . . what I don't exactly recall. But whatever they were, they were beautiful, if indescribable. Five stars is all I know, was all I ever knew.

"White Pages" is a beautifully written ghost of a story that could, itself, have served as the beginning of a ghost story. The ending-as-beginning was intriguing, but could have been further built into something far more terrifying. Still, it provides its own sort of satisfaction by letting things play out in the reader's theater-of-the-imagination. Four stars.

"The Inner Sentinel" is a brooding story caught somewhere between the oast houses of Kent and a fantastical, dreamland weald. The sense of dread is palpable and the prospect of betrayal by infiltrators is unnerving. A moody story, not terrifying, yet disturbing in the same way that one might feel after waking from a nightmare and almost forgetting the specifics of the fright behind you. I loved this story for the way it caused my emotions to ebb and sway as I read it. Five stars.

"The Dawn at Tzern" is pretty, but unspectacular. It carries the mood of the stories before it, but does little to deepen it. It's not boring; neither is it particularly exciting. Three stars.

"The White Sea Company" is a ghost story without being a ghost story wherein the "ghosts" are spoken of, but never seen, their presence so thin as to be almost imperceptible. They are presented in a manner of storytelling that can only be called "ethereal". Thin MR James meets Dunsany, but with some unique, unexpected "twists" on the canonical oeuvre. Five stars you can barely see in the mists.

Well, the five star stories can't go on forever, can they? "Undergrowth" is erudite, but less than compelling. "Underwhelming" is, I think, the right word. Three stars.

Joyce's Ulysses, Richard Francis Burton, a masked ball, a bizarre octopus-god that might merely be a preserved carcass, yet-unwritten secret books, and rituals involving white-clad virgin boys invoking writing by candlelight. What's not to like about "The Seer of Trieste"? I loved this literary occult tale. Five stars!

Though I appreciate the dark mystical message and tone of "Their Dark and Starry Mirrors," I think this story suffers just a touch from a lack of engaging plot points. Normally, I don't mind this at all - I love atmosphere over plot - but in this instance, it just feels like a blank space in an otherwise excellent piece of prose. Four stars.

At first, I felt that the ending to "The Bookshop in Novy Svet" was abrupt; non-sequitur. But as I re-examine the plot lines, I see that it was inevitable. And when I recognize the titular reference to Prague, it is clearly evident: This strange story of actuarians, artists, booksellers, and poets ended right where it must. It is a story I will read again, several times, and savor, a masterpiece. This is the kind of story where any writer of strange fiction will say "I wish I had written this". Or at least this writer did. Five stars.

"The English Leopard: An Heraldic Dialogue" is intriguing in its subject matter and stylistically exploratory, but not compelling. I have to be honest here and only give three stars to this one. This is the one story where I felt that Valentine was waxing a bit too academic. I wanted to like this story more than I actually did, which is a shame.

"The Box of Idols" is more or less a mystery story, albeit a short, curt mystery story. Still, the story fills the measure of its creation and is a satisfying tale involving idols, the ancient Assyrian language, and the process of printing itself. It's a great dalliance for book lovers with a slightly dark bent. Four stars.

"The Axholme Toll" is a clever metafictional slight-of-hand about a mysterious series of islands and books associated with these islands. I enjoyed it, but I couldn't shrug the feeling that this is what an author does when he knows the story he really wants to tell but really doesn't know how to tell it. So I appreciate the careful artifice, but felt that there was too much left unexplored or left unexplored in the right manner. Still a four star story.

"The Seven Treasures of Bucharest" is a beautiful story to end this excellent collection. A spiritual, sort of Arthurian quest, but a quest carried out by the intellect, shrewdness, and diplomacy, rather than the sword. And rather than ranging across England, this quest is confined to a quarter of Bucharest. But the "adventure" here is no less than that of the Knights of the Round Table. The sense of mystical wonder that permeates this story is palpable. Five stars.

Up to this point, this is the most I've spent on one book. Ex Occidente titles are notoriously expensive, and this one is no exception. But was it worth it? Totally! The incredibly high quality of the book, from presentation to construction to contents, bumps this one well into the five star range. I think I have here yet another example of what I call my "chained books". I will lock this one up and take it out to savor from time to time, re-reading and smelling its pages, which reek of ancient magic, though produced not so very long ago.

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