The Satyr & Other Tales by Stephen J. Clark
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Try as I might, I have been unable to identify what it is about Stephen J. Clark’s syntax that I find so mesmerizing. It’s clear that there is a pattern - In Delirium's Circle has the same "fingerprint". But I can’t pinpoint, mechanically, where and how his syntax turns to create the great looping shape I feel as I read his writing. There is something of the labyrinth in all of this, and I am so fascinated being lost in it that I can’t focus on the gears that make this machine turn.
Take, for example, the main protagonist (or antagonist?) in the title story. I can't quite tell if Marlene is half-crazy, outright insane, or the wisest person on the crumbling streets of London. Is she really Marlene Dietrich? If not, does she actually think she is? Maybe she's bluffing. Maybe not. In any case, though, I find her fascinating.
The very setting of the story is, itself, a labyrinth – a bombed-out London during World War II. The city blocks are ruined crenellations along the castle of the underground. But by “setting,” I don’t just mean the physical setting, but also the sociological and even mystical setting. Clark has the ability (and a way) to infuse the knockabout underworld of London with a certain mysticism, even a shift from the banal mean streets to a series of transcendental portals. Grit and magic meld together in a way that seems not only natural, but logical.
Clark's ability to clearly describe "dream logic" is awe-inspiring. Such a difficult thing to describe, yet Clark does so in such a way that reading the words on the page invites one into the dream there portrayed. It is a spell, a summoning of the reader into Morpheus' realm.
“The Satyr” is a strange, esoteric thriller, as if David Lynch and Alfred Hitchcock had collaborated on a film script. Yes, it’s as good as you’re imagining it. In fact: it’s better.
Here is a sample of the beautiful, dark, opium-dream prose:
The Lanes I tried to follow pulsed with lightning. At each junction paths multiplied around me. As I staggered on through the furnace of that red-brick maze my fingers trailed cracked walls, unsettling a lacework of shadows in my wake., Alleys wheeled about me as I turned to take another direction, so I reached out from one wall to the next, feeling my way like a blind man, the furrows of the world deepening and multiplying as I went. Pausing to wait for an eternity the intoxication would not pass, yet to remain standing still only left me vulnerable to the widening fissures beneath my feet. If I hesitated the pavements and walls were sure to sprout coarse black hair. All were signs that suggested whoever t was that had hired Bloaters had now sent something far worse after me. So I pushed on even if it meant I had to crawl.
Casting my gaze upward provided no peace or hope of escape. A barrage balloon in the sky overhead throbbed in time with my heartbeat as distorted faces emerged from the enflamed clouds around it. As thunder filled the alleys naked strangers ran criss-crossing from one yard doorway to another. From broken windows ancient faces peered, their translucent skin lit by their bones within. All around me ack-ack fire erupted against the sounds of agonized cries and collapsing walls. And the flies again buzzing; everywhere buzzing.
Then the confines of the backstreets gave way to an overwhelming sweetness of sap, of burnt stripped bark as I found myself straying across an open green surrounded by blasted and still-burning trees. An unearthly silence fell within the square of lifeless facades surrounding me, every pathway a glittering mosaic of glass slivers, until another cataract of incendiaries enveloped the rooftops with streams of dancing blue-white flames. In the debris and embers, in the depths of the white-hot flames fluid forms, shapeless phantoms stirred and rose up, invoked in the fire. From the blackened rafters, from the spaces in between, wings unfurled and limbs were born, reaching out only to vanish again. And what did I hear crying as it was born that night? As all of my childhood haunts were devoured, the blaze of all those memories burned at once; it was the sound of one world dying as another emerged. Through the great veil of broken frames and shattered glass I glimpsed the world’s secret face.
As the dream-labyrinth that is “The Satyr” ends, the question remains: "Who is dreaming and who is the dreamed". Our view from the labyrinth (or from the wartime "trenches," psychogeographic trenches, really) it's never completely clear.
In addition to this most excellent novella, there are several shorter stories. In "The Horned Tongue," a young bookseller finds that his dead wife had had congress with the Devil. Clark does what he does best, weaving an intricate web of intrigue and betrayal, though one must not pity the young bookseller . . . Five luciferian stars for this beautiful weaving of deceipt and desire, with language itself as a supporting character (or is that "characters")?
To give a mental glimpse of the next story, “The Lost Reaches,” imagine Jan Svankmajer, Angela Carter, and David Lynch getting together to do a long story about prisoners fleeing soviet agents and finding themselves in The House of Leaves - but worse . . . on acid. This is a different tone for Clark, to be sure, but not bad-different, just different. A phantasmagoric cabinet of wonders.
“The Feast of the Sphinx” takes place in Nazi-occupied Prague. The dialogue between a prisoner and his possibly-altruistic interrogator, as well as the slippage from within the prisoner from starving artist to “the Countess” is what makes "The Feast of the Sphinx" really hum. A lot of people, a lot of readers, in fact, would say "no one really talks like that"!
You know what? You're right. No one really does talk like that . . .
AND THAT'S WHY I LIKE IT!!!
Banality is not automatically "artistic" or "daring" or "outre". Give me a pile of adjectives, strange syntax, beautiful metaphors. Shove me into that syntactical maze, never to escape. Give me the literary esoteric . . .
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