Saturday, February 22, 2020

The Sound of His Horn and Other Stories

The Sound of His Horn and Other StoriesThe Sound of His Horn and Other Stories by Sarban

I had heard the name "Sarban" whispered in mysterious tones for years. The pseudonymous author's works were difficult for me, an American with very limited resources at the time I had heard of his fiction, to procure. Now, more well-off and a beneficiary of the internet age where the acquisition of books from across the world is much easier, I ordered The Sound of His Horn and Other Stories from one of my favorite publishers, Tartarus Press.

Expectations had been building for some time - many years, in fact - and I had, in my imagination, a certain type of story, a certain voice that I associated (with no prior experience) with Sarban. I suppose my imaginary Sarban was a mixture of Machen and Aickman, influenced by Arabic poetry.

I was not terribly far off.

But I was off just enough that my expectations were . . . sidestepped. It's not that expectations were not met, not at all - this is a fabulous collection of stories that will immerse your reading mind - but what I imagined I was going to read and what I read in reality were overlapping, but slightly offset from each other. This created a pleasant sense of familiarity that was also full of surprises and a bit of bafflement that added to the mystique of the act of reading. What more could a reader ask for?

I am usually not a fan of alternate histories (probably because I am a historian by academic training) but knowing that "The Sound of His Horn" is alternate history did not encroach on my enjoyment of the story. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised that I quite liked the tale: the first bucking of expectations.

Somewhere between "The Most Dangerous Game" and "The Great Escape," the titular story is well-crafted, borderline "literary," but shot through with pulp sci-fi elements. It mostly works, despite some of its intentional anachronism. Four stars.

The second story, curiously, was about a subject that I'm usually not interested in - that is, mermaids (or maybe mermaids) - hooked me and reeled me in. "The Sea Things" is a creepy one set in the Middle-East. Questions of the relationship between colonials and the colonized pop off like fireworks, but in the background, not at the main focus of the story. The tale is of its time, when the sun was, indeed, setting on the British Empire, with echoes of the Arabic poets mentioned above. As far as the horror element, this was a "B" creep factor for me, not chilling but definitely attention-grabbing; still worthy of four stars, one for each mermaid and their hapless victim.

"Number Fourteen" is, by far, the creepiest of the stories in this volume. There is a strong proto-Aickmanesque vagueness to the resolution of this story that heightens, rather than resolves the mystery. Sarban realizes, here, that the reader's flights of supposition are the most powerful plot-engine available to the author. My thoughts have gone places I'd not care to revisit after this horrific tale, including the far reaches of colonialism, which play a vital part in the plot. This was exactly the Sarban I had been seeking! Five stars to this powerful story.

A classic English weird story, "The Sacrifice" is precisely what I had hoped for when I picked up this volume. I'm glad for the variety of tonal textures between the stories, however. Because of the differing voices, this story stood out for what it was. Had more of the stories been more similar, "The Sacrifice" might have been drowned (pun intended) by same-ness. Again, the far reaches of India play a critical role in this story. It seems that most of the stories in this volume are a sort of lingering swan-song to the diminishing British Empire and some of the unforeseen consequences of contact and retreat with conquered peoples. The empire touched many places, but those places left their mark, in turn, on Great Britain. Strangely, though, one does not find the bigotry one might expect in this story. There is sort of a fearful respect of the Other, not altogether prejudice-free, but not as condescending and loathing as, say, Lovecraft or Howard. Five stars. This one will become an RPG adventure, I will see to that!

Lastly, a pair of English adventurers, young women with a penchant for exploration, go into the Sahara for "The King of the Lake". It's interesting to see the late- or post-colonial influence on these stories. They are of their time, and yet, somehow, timeless. Maybe because I studied so much about colonialism in college and was raised on U.S. military bases overseas - spending some of my most formative years in England - yes, my perspective may be different than that of most Americans.

"The King of the Lake" further shows Sarban's fascination with forcibly turning humans into animals . . .of a sort. There is a demonization of the autochthonous inhabitants of the desert here, or, perhaps, a nod to the justifiable revenge of the colonized on their colonizers, it's difficult to tell. One's demon is another's Angel of Vengeance. Four stars.

The more I ruminate on this volume, the more I am struck by the complexity of the tales here. Sarban is still a bit of a mystery to me, even knowing his real name and a bit of his background. I'm okay with leaving some mystery in this puzzle so my imagination can continue to fill in the gaps between my expectations and his printed words on the page. That shadow cast by the light of a book is one of my favorite places to take shelter.

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