Monday, August 13, 2018

Buried Shadows

Buried ShadowsBuried Shadows by John Howard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This reading year has been chock full of great short story collections. Reggie Oliver's Mrs. Midnight And Other Stories, Alcebiades Diniz's opium-dream-like Lanterns of the Old Night, Paul Willem's The Cathedral of Mist, and Laird Barron's Occultation and Other Stories were all outstanding reads. I think I may have used up my allotment of superlatives on the stories contained in these collections.

Now I'm wondering if I shouldn't have kept a few of them in reserve. The quality of John Howard's writing met with perfect timing. I have been eyeball deep in "hauntology", with a focus on that-which-was-but-was-not. Not nostalgia, per se, but a mis-remembering of the past that has little concern with trying to accurately recall the past. For the absolute best delve into hauntology, go to Rouge Foam's entry on "Hauntology: The Past Inside the Present". Better pack your things. You're going to be a while . . .

This book as artifact is amazing, as I've come to expect from Egaeus Press. It has heft and texture not normally found in most books. The cover and end-papers show a crumpled, slate-colored map of Berlin. Throughout the book are illustrations based on the work of the mysterious Balthasar Holz, architect and theorist.

Of all things, I was most struck by the typography of the title on the cover. The "overtyping" lets the reader know that we are delving into the era of typewriters that didn't have the ability to correct themselves. That's actually an amazing touch. I know that the stories herein will either take place in or evoke some time from the 1890s to the 1970s because of the typography. Egaeus gets all the details right!

And the stories do not disappoint . . .

My current fascination with hauntology seems to have found voice in Howard's story about the ghosts of Berlin, "To the Anhalt Station". Here, the line between past and present is blurred, with a sense of fascination and loss for the events one never saw, but one sees now, out of time, against the grain of chronology. Anachronostic haunting is contagious, it seems. Four stars, bordering on Five.

If you had asked me to point to the perfect example of Magic Realism a week ago, I'd point you to Borges or Marquez. But now, I'd point you to "Mr S. and Dr S." This story is so finely-honed that you're unlikely to find another quite as good. I've tried, myself, to write an original doppleganger story. Trust me: it's no small feat. In Howard's tale, dopplegangers, possible traitors, Vigilance Police for a potential dictator, all mingle in this very weird tale of mistaken(?) identity. The mere fact that the characters even exist as they do provide a mystery worth plumbing, but Howard is careful not to reveal all. Why would he? The unanswered questions posed between the lines of this story allow you, the reader, to explore the streets of this city yourself, without a guide. Five stars for five Mr S.'s.

"Least Light, Most Night" first appeared in the Aickmann's Heirs anthology. You can see the tribute in the focus on the atmosphere and environment, as well as the open-endedness of the weird here. Weird because it's eerie (I'm using both words in the sense Mark Fisher defines them in his excellent work The Weird and the Eerie), because something fundamental is missing, namely closure. Four stars for this understated story that forces you to again read between the lines.

When I was a teenager, I was legally "banished" from a place that I loved. It's a long story involving the war on drugs. But I was literally, physically and legally cut off from my family, home, and friends. It kept me out of prison . . . of a sort. So I read "The Defiant Sky" and ached with that sense of longing that only the banished know. You need not have been banished from anything to enjoy the story, but it does intensify the effect, and the sting homed deep into my heart. This is a story of defiant hope and belief wherein the city of London becomes a means to an end. A mysterious end that isn't an end. Five stars.

Sex and murder and . . . architecture? Yes, it's as strange as it sounds. "Buried Shadows," the title story, was not my favorite. Not bad, but not terribly compelling, either. Three stars.

"Numbered as Sand or the Stars" is a humor-filled, yet deathly-serious foray into man's ability to adapt to new regimes that overlap the place where one lives, where one has grown. This thread interweaves with that of, of all things, economics and inflation. Issues of old versus new class structure and political power undergird all of it. The economy of cosmic-horror in the form of regime change and geography. It is in this story that Howard shows his most whimsical side, eschewing, for but a moment, the normally restrained, careful (yet mystically-charged) prose:

He dreams of muttering and booming stars, the stars flung across the black sky like icing sugar. He runs and jumps among them, sliding along the frozen waterfall of the Milky Way and playfully hurls galaxies into the speckled blackness as if they were dinner plates or the flat stones he loves to skim across the river as it flows around the base of Castle Hill. The stars open their eyes and mouths to him, until each one is a silent exclamation or scream, wide as a zero. Then all the stars are zeros. Mihaly turns in fright but there is no Earth. All the zeros - every nought, every loss, every pain he can imagine - flow across the black sky and mount up over him like a wave about to break. Then Mihaly is falling through a tube or shaft made from the glowing rings of nothing. He looks down and can discern no end as he plummets. He breathes in to take a tremendous scream, his mouth opening wide in an empty zero. The zeros start to force their way into Mihaly's throat, threatening to drown him in nothings at all. All the time he is still falling. He cries out for his parents, the Emperor, and all the members of the Order of the Valiant he can name.

Five stars turning to the best possible nothings ever.

"The Shape and the Colour of the Moon" is one of the more beautifully dark stories I've read in a long time. First published in a Machen tribute anthology, it reads as if the ghosts of Machen and Borges where whispering in Morrisey's ear when we wrote "Every Day is Like Sunday". Transformation and devotion to the City behind London drive the subtle, evocative plot. I could drown in this grey story. Five stars.

"More Than India" is an emotional gut-punch of a story. A rather melancholy older man makes the acquaintance of a young rower on the River Thames. But the older man's life is now a sort of palimpsest of his younger life, and the faint words of his earlier story are starting to show through. A ghost story without ghosts, this is a powerfully emotional story worthy of five stars.

"You Promised You Would Walk" is an engaging exploration of Berlin and the cyclical nature of time that mentions and evokes Dr. Caligari. I feel like Howard "telegraphed" a little in this story, that I caught on far too soon to spoil the latter part of the story. I'll blame Twilight Zone: The Movie, as there is a similar vignette in there (though with much more deadly and deserved results). Still, this was more subtle and nuanced than TZTM. Four stars.

"The Floor of Heaven" is a dream - that dream where you know that there is someone, somewhere, who you have absolutely met, where you've absolutely been, but when you go to find that place and that person, they are impossible to find, though you know you are there. This is how I dream of England. Often. Like I'm back there, but the people and places that should be there are gone. It haunts me, not with potential terror, but with a dreamstate longing, a reaching that is unable to grasp, though I can feel the air moving between my fingers as the object of my desires - the sense of firmness of place and surety of remembered experience in physical space - escapes me. Now I think I am truly beginning to understand the tragedy of Tantalus in full. There are times when I yearn for my time in England, or at least my mis-remembering of that time, that place, those people. It breaks my heart and invades my dreams, repeatedly and unexpectedly. This story captured that specific feeling of pathos that I really don't have adequate words to describe.

And all the stars turn to noughts, to loss, to pain. Sweet pain. May it never stop hurting.

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