The Collected Connoisseur by Mark Valentine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Two of my favorite contemporary authors, Mark Valentine and John Howard, combine their talents on what I thought might be a promising character, The Connoisseur - aesthetical detective extraordinaire. I had been waiting a while to savor this. With a few days off on holiday, I was able to bathe in this reading a bit more than is usual with my frantic life. I'm glad I took this one slow - I'm hoping I've given Valentine and Howard more time to write more Connoisseur, because I didn't want this to end. This might be as close to a perfect short story collection as I will ever read. This is definitely becoming one of my "chained books" (meaning I'm figuratively chaining it up so you'll have to remove it with a bolt cutter to get it out of my library or pry it from my cold, dead hands). It ranks up with Brian Evenson's The Wavering Knife and Thomas Ligotti's Teatro Grottesco as one of my favorite single-author collections of all time. Every story is excellent, and the sum of the parts is an order of magnitude more magnificent than the stories themselves. Yes, this collection is THAT good. Tartarus Press is offering this in an affordable paperback version. I cannot recommend it strongly enough.
You probably have some sort of notion about what an "aesthetical detective extrodinaire" should be and do. And, in places, you would be correct. But it's when the stories buck my preconceived ideas that they shine the brightest. That's not to say that I was displeased when a story met my expectations, but the surprises were the best.
The collection starts with "The Effigies," which is just what I had hoped it would be: witty, erudite, fantastically well-written in such a way that the eloquence is un-noticed, just absorbed. The Connoisseur explains his vase, which holds water, but never flowers, and for good reason. Imagine if the physical objects of Huysman's Against Nature each had a tale to tell. This should give a bit of a hint as to what an "aesthetical detective" is all about. Five stars.
"After the Darkness" has it all: a pre-Great War poet, a masquerade, an apparition, and a mystery involving a sundial - or is it a moondial? In any case, what's not to like? Five stars.
I was reminded of Doyle's "The Hound of the Baskervilles" when reading "The Paravine Cries," for reasons that become obvious when one reads the story's conclusion. I won't spoil that ending, however. Suffice it to say that, while it does reflect some of those old tropes, it does so in a fresh way. Fresh enough for four stars like glowing eyes in the night.
"Pale Roses" is as English a winter's tale as there could possibly be. It brought back those always rainy, sometimes snowy days of my youth when I lived in England. If you're not familiar with English history, you may want to brush up. If you are familiar, you are in for a treat, a mystery surrounding the Connoisseur's ailing cousin leads to decay and a discovery about a possible lost scion of the Stuart house. How does the protagonist know what he knows? I don't care. I want to believe. Five stars.
"In Violet Veils" is an exquisite piece that owes its existence to both the Decadents and the Symbolists, but that takes it's own place in the hierarchy of each. Five stars
How apropos that, so close to the end of the year, I read what may be the best story I've read all year. "The Lost Moon" is a hypnotizing piece of esoterica. Truly an "occult detective" story so deeply immersive and compelling that it will not leave me for a long, long time. An enigmatic orrery, a secret society, and Saturn. What more do you need? Five stars circling the wrong direction, summoning chaos itself!
From darkness to light . . . "Cafe Lucifer" is not merely a switch in emphasis from "The Lost Moon", it is a deeply poignant story. Any who have loved and lost quickly will feel a pang of deep emotion resounding in the heart. I recall a "tryst" I had in the Netherlands with a girl who I met there. Vicki was her name, but I can't recall her last name. It's probably changed now anyway. She was beautiful. Probably the most beautiful girl I ever loved. We were together for two weeks, while we were both representing our High Schools at the Model United Nations in the Hague. Alas, her father was stationed at a different Air Force base in England that was a ways away from the base I lived at. Given our meager means and the fact that I didn't have a car (no one really *needed* a car in England), I didn't ever see her again, though there were two occasions where I might have run into her: once, when I visited the base she lived at and another when I went to London to see U2 and a bunch of her friends were going to the concert, as well. It was a grueling few months, and I don't know that I ever got over it. I am quite happily married to the most wonderful woman in the world, but I'm still curious what ever happened to her. So, if you know anyone named Vicki whose father was stationed at RAF Upper Heyford in 1987, let her know I'd love to hear from her and find out how she's doing. But it wasn't just the deepness of my own emotions that caused this story to stand out. I still have the images of Cafe Lucifer and its mysterious prism-embedded-in-a-glass-sphere burning deep in my brain. The visual cues were enough to make this story unforgettable, let alone the emotional connection I made with the characters. Needless to say, this story gets five stars.
Oh, I would spend a healthy sum of money on the creations of "The Craft of Arioch". Or an unhealthy sum of money. A wonderfully whimsical tale of rocking horses . . . and others. The phrase "flights of the imagination" perfectly encapsulates this magical story, but doesn't do it enough justice. It is an exquisite piece of fancy with a central conceit that is simple, yet enervating. This five star tale was one of the more playful of the collection, but play of the most serious sort!
"The Secret Stars" feels, at first, like Valentine and Howard are veering far away from The Connoisseur's oeuvre, like the narrative is spinning in a different direction than the authors intended. But, at the end, the narrative clearly "belongs" to The Connoisseur. Four secret stars.
"The Hesperian Dragon" should be turned into a BBC one-shot staring, of course, Benedict Cumberbatch as The Connoisseur. This is the longest and most "film ready" of the stories in this collection so far. Unfortunately, it is way too "smart" and steeped in aesthetic theory for it ever to be translated to the screen. A shame. Brush up on your Milton/Confucius, cretins! Five multicolored stars. You'll know why . . .
"The Lighting of the Vial" may be a perfect story, without blemish or fault. It is the most beautiful thing I have read in many years, possibly the most beautiful and poignant story I've ever read. Here, the Connoisseur relates his journey to the museum of an artist, Hugh Kerwyn, a friend of his, from the hints that are given. Kerwyn's friends and admirers gather there for a wake for the recently deceased artist. There hope is to recreate the moment captured in his most-perfectly-realized still life painting. But, for some reason, the anticipated moment does not "take" as they feel it ought to have done. Afterwards, The Connoisseur is approached by a young woman who admits to replacing one of the objects in the still life with a substitute, which is enough to break the spell, as it were, of the original.
'I looked at her. she settled herself on the bench, straightening her pale dress. I resumed my place, and she continued: "I sometimes wonder if poeoples' thoughts might stay in a place. You know, if they thought about something in a certain way so they were almost a part of it, whether that might stay behind when they are gone. We would sort of know their thoughts were there but not quite. So we would feel strange about the place, or feel it was special somehow, but we couldn't be sure why."
'I nodded thoughtfully and prodded the dust with the toe of my shoe. The drifting fragrance returned dimly to my senses. It was as if there was a palpitant ache in the air. We gazed at the tumbledown garden silently.
'Suddenly I thought that I did not want these moments to end: the decaying garden, the earnestness of the young woman from the quiet town below, the frail flow of the late noon, the cracked stone flags, the slow flowing of the countryside beyond, the cool lustre of the little flagon in my hand, the merest possibility of some lingering presence of the thoughts, the whimsical meditations of Hugh Kerwyn: all these things seemed so finely, so perfectly poised before me; I did not want to emerge from them. I would gladly have stayed all the while that the long day dwindled into dusk, trying to stem its ebbing, to seize some moments of it, some few fragments, to try fiercely to prevent it all from disappearing into the darkness.
'But: "I must go," she said. The words descended like a first chill shiver across that strange onrush of bliss. I shook her hand somewhat awkwardly, told her I was sure she had acted rightly in saving the little jug from that foolish ritual, and said I hoped our paths might cross again whenever I revisited the museum. Then, settling back on the bench and watching her go through the blue wicket gate at the garden's end, savouring the active, poignant vacancy caused by her leaving, I thought again of what she had said, comparing her impressions with what I remembered of Hugh Kerwyn's art and thought.'
This touched me deeply. This is something I believe. Something that rings a familiar, melancholy chord, especially since the death of my parents last spring. I will never forget this story. It may be the most wonderful, sad, and meaningful story I've ever read. 5 stars.
"The Nephoseum" is as fragile and ethereal as its subject-matter and its protagonist. Unfortunately, despite its utter stunning beauty of form, the story's frailty is one touch too ephemeral. Of course, anything would be a disappointment after reading the perfect story just before. Four stars.
"Sea Citadels" is a song to the British isles, a sort of keening for the ancient days that taps into a certain resonance between the sea and human longing. It is the tonal inverse of Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth". And where HP's loquacious purple-prose falters on the shoals of the ears, Valentine's simple eloquence is like a gentle wave-born lullaby, like a Dunsany for the sea. Four stars.
"The Prince of Barlocco" is a gentle, yet powerful tale of dignity in the midst of degeneration. It's almost a sort of parable (though not exactly such) about the power of family in one's later years. Or maybe I'm just reading it this way because my daughter just told us our 2nd grandchild is on the way (!). 4 stars.
"The Black Eros" holds a compelling idea. It is far more sinister than mere satanism or the occult. Yet the "reveal" seemed a bit contrived. Still, a beautiful idea, mostly well-executed. Four stars, but it could have easily been five had the underlying tensions and reveal been left to boil a little longer. A textbook example of what happens when the author is over-eager to get to the end or when artificial word-limits hold a story back from its full potential. I'm not sure which way to interpret that here, but it is a bit of a shame, either way.
"The Mad Lutanist" starts off slowly and hits a crescendo of supernatural strangeness, but it is in the denouement that Valentine pulls his most deft auctorial maneuver: just when one thinks that it is an unnecessary info dump via Deus-Ex-Machina, the other shoe drops and one is smitten by the perfect brilliance of it all. I love this sort of sleight-of-hand. Five stars.
"The Mist on the Mere" feels like the Classic English Ghost Story, with deep roots in James and Dunsany. It is the first of these that is structured like a standard Occult Detective story. This is, simultaneously a strength and a weakness. Four stars glowing like Celtic goddesses in the mist.
"The White Solander" is exactly the sort of story I imagined for The Connoisseur before I had ever read any of these stories. I'm glad it came later in my reading, however, so that I could explore his many other facets first. Here, though, is a true occult detective story, replete with incantations, swordplay (of a sort), Symbolist poets, and a beautiful conspiracy from early modern times. Five stars to this gem.
"The Last Archipelago" is what Algernon Blackwood would have written had he he wished to reprise "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym" or "At the Mountains of Madness". It's more subtle than either of those, more spiritual, if you will, but clearly a story of nature's winsome personality. This is my least favorite story of this collection, thus far, and still it clocks in at a very solid Four stars.
Empires folded within empires in a timeless, but time-stricken state. "The Rite of Trebizond" is a mystery and a history of the trickle of power between the interstices of civilization. The Holy of Holies is hid right in our midst, and we do not see it. World-builders walk in our midst and we are unaware of the intrigue. This is a beautiful story in which nothing happens, but everything happens. Five stars.
"The Serpent, Unfallen" would make an excellent Call of Cthulhu scenario. I am not joking. And I am seriously thinking about writing such a thing. Anyway, the Oil of Mercy figures prominently in this occult tale of satanic ritual and its despoilers. One of the more straightforward tales of the Connoisseur, and yet a very satisfying one. Five stars on the crown of a black serpent . . . with or without wings.
Even a less-clever Connoisseur story like "The Temple of Time" deserves four stars. The plot is unsurprising, the main protagonist (not The Connoisseur, this time) is forgettable, the language is, as always, excellent. But what gives this story strength is it's poignancy of speculation: a "what if" that sinks deep into the heart and mind.
Folk horror, Phaeton, and fire-worship are all on brilliant display in "The Descent of the Fire". This is an excellent conclusion to the collection, gathering all of The Connoisseur's cohorts in an effort to stop the burgeoning of luciferean cabals. Five bright stars!
Your reading experience may be different than mine, of course. As I have shown, this collection hit some emotional resonances with me that are the result of my experiences and my time in life. I'm glad I read it when I did. The perfect book at the perfect time. Perhaps it's your time?
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