Dissonant Intervals by Louis Marvick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I had seen the numbers: high ratings on Marvick’s fiction by my highest-tier of respected reader friends. I had heard rumors, but only in the genericized “he’s an amazing writer” and, of course, the inevitable “you’ll love his work!” Like anything of great worth, though, I had to experience it myself, to know for myself. Call me a readerly hedonist – it’s true! I took a chance, visiting the (very excellent) Sidereal Press website (through which I had ordered Hanns-Heinz Ewers’ The Hearts of Kings), owned by the exceedingly interesting and erudite John Hirschhorn-Smith. Given Sidereal’s reputation, I expected and received a beautiful book-as-artifact. With a nearly-clear dust jacket (save for the title and author’s name) that let the beautiful cover (the painting for which was created by the author’s brother, I believe) breathe its colorful miasma. As I read, I came to understand that this breath was infused throughout the stories in the book.
Straight from the beginning, I was struck by the writing. The first two sentences of the first story are perfect, from a writerly perspective. Perfect.
The first story, "Pockets of Emptiness" may be one of the most effective ghost stories I have read because it explicitly ignores any attempt at scaring the reader but instead slowly scoops hope out of the reader and fills the gap with a grey, drizzling depression. It is not scary, but absolutely dreadful. The writing is exquisite, carefully-crafted to draw the reader into a hazy mist of hopelessness. It powerfully robs the reader of power, pick-pocketing essence.
"Devil's Music" is the work of a literary craftsman who has done his (horrific) homework. I love a well-researched story and here Marvick shows that he has a firm grasp of musicology and liturgy (or at least he convinced me of such), as well as a touch of early modern history. Combine this with a good sense of moral repulsion for things that ought not to be, and this makes for a powerful, yet carefully restrained tale that disturbs deeply.
Forgive an author for his ever-so-slight over-reach. "The Mirror of Don Ferrante" strains just a tick too hard to be horrific, but does not stumble into ludicrous territory. The understated ending reins in earlier hints of melodrama and saves the story, keeping it disturbing, but not gratuitous. You will be wary of your reflection, going forward. Note the changes.
Marvick gets into territory that touches on some very personal experiences of my own, feelings I am deeply familiar with, musings that I've had myself, in "The Madman of Tosterglope". It's inspiring to me as a writer, causing me to dig deeper into my own sometimes painful experiences for inspiration. It has been a while since a work of fiction has pushed me in this way. Terrifying and refreshing, "The Madman of Tosterglope" is a drab revelation, the uncovering of an occulted soul, the scrying of a haunting brought on by heartache and brought to light (or darkness) through further heartbreak. It is a stunning piece of not-quite-doppelganger-horror. The balance is set and, within it, an imbalance is created, setting up the final resonance that restores balance, but in a malformed sense, full of remorse.
I admit it: halfway through "A Connoisseur of Grief," I thought "this is one of those stories that the author or editor plugged in here because it wasn't good enough to be published elsewhere. Then, things took a turn. The abrupt switch from flowing narrative to journal entries snapped the story into place. Into a very grim place. But a place that satisfied my grim sense of humor and scratched my dark itch. I found that many of Marvick’s stories in this collection start slowly, sometimes so slowly that one begins to lose interest. Then, at a certain point, the author turns on the lights, and one realizes that this entire long, slow-burn was a fuse leading to a powderkeg. It’s a difficult way to write, but powerful when it’s handled right, and Marvick knows how to handle it right.
How to classify "The Red Seed"? It's a historical mystery (by "historical," I mean having to deal with history - the story itself is a-historical), complete with a pulpish feel, but of a highbrow nature. Combine Thomas Ligotti, Clark Ashton Smith, and M.R. James, and you start to get an inkling of the idea, but just an inkling, the merest hint of a segue. This story is very much Marvick’s own. The adventure lies in uncovering secret connections and bringing to light mistaken interpretations. But at its heart it is an adventure, of sorts. An academic adventure of discovery and, ultimately, horror.
"Is for Ilinx" is a precarious story, set on the edge of a blade, both structurally and thematically. Thankfully, like so many of the stories in Dissonant Intervals, it balances there just so (as Nick Cave might say), where such a tale could lose balance and falter, with fatal results for everyone involved.
"Maculate Vision" is a weird tale where the denouement comes before the climax, a difficult and brilliant literary trick for such a strange tale. Supporting characters come to the forefront and the plot of the arc is not what the reader would expect at all. It is a lesson in the art of deception and the deceptin of art. Of course, the writing is beautiful, which sustains interest through the meanderings of the plot, especially as one approaches the striking end.
Marvick tricks us with a little sleight-of-hand by entitling the next story "Of Interactive Surveillance and the Circular Firing Squad" when this story of music, suffering, summoning, an innocence has nothing obvious to do with the title. But there are hidden symbols in the title, which I will not reveal. The story feels "loose" and "rambly," until the final scene, where it ties off in a spectacular frisson.
"The Purloined bibelot" is, well, a bibelot. At three and a quarter pages, it is a wisp, compared to the other work herein, but carries a powerful, if predictable punch, about the human need to damn another based on no evidence at all. This story punctuates the collection with another glimpse into the just plain rotten. I might also add that this last story is contradictory to all the other stories in being so succinct. Most of these tales are long, slow burns with a wicked twist at the end. This one gets to the point and drives it home like a nail to humanity's forehead. The contrast is stunning.
Throughout this collection, Marvick proves that he is a writer’s writer. Not a showman, but an artist, a crafter, with a high degree of skill – so high, in fact, that you won’t even notice what’s happening until you look back on the story you just consumed and dissect it in order to understand its full anatomy, the sinews and systems that give it literary life. It’s a fascinating study. One of the most compelling I’ve taken recently. Enroll yourself, but keep in mind: slots are limited. Mine is 175 of 300 numbered editions. It’s worth the tuition and worth giving your fullest attention.
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