Thursday, December 19, 2019

Ornaments in Jade

Ornaments in JadeOrnaments in Jade by Arthur Machen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've shouted Machen's praises before, and even the praises of those who successfully evoke his work. I can't seem to get enough of his work. And so, I bought this slim little volume, even though fully half of these tiny postcard stories are collected in the Oxford World's Classics collection. Knowing that this was coming in the mail, I omitted any review of the stories contained in this volume when I reviewed the Oxford book. Call me a tease.

The most difficult thing about telling you about this work is telling you how great I think it is without spoiling anything. Most of these stories are 3, maybe 4 pages long. It was wonderful to read during my lunch breaks at my new job, because I knew I could squeeze one of these ornaments in and still have time for (inspired!) writing of my own. If I had thousands of these jewels, I might never read another thing on my lunch break again.

Yet, despite my fears, I will outline - very, very briefly - my impressions, at least, of the story. Because impressions left in the reader's mind might be the most important aspect of these wee tales. Not every tale can evoke a character's breadth of personality in a sentence or two (though some do) nor can a "satisfying" ending be presented each time when the ending is just a beginning (though, again, some stories do just this). Some of the works here might be considered mere fragments, even. Despite the incomplete jigsaw puzzle that is each story, a more-or-less coherent oeuvre emerges. One might think of each of these stories as "episodes" in Machen's psycho-emotional history of the world - they are "of a piece," though the characters and places are never connected. Here we see Machen's mind working, almost as if we are in his head looking out and exploring, grasping small coincidences and visions, while anticipating what lay before or after (or even during) them, beyond our chronological reach. This anticipation is what makes the collection complete.

"The Rose Garden" is beautiful not because of it's beautiful descriptiveness, but because of its somber, yet hopeful emotional resonance. Five stars. Machen at his poetic best.

"The Turanians" is a brief sketch of the encounter of a young, expressive, imaginative girl on the edge of womanhood. Her mother warns her about being too expressive and arranged for a young gentleman to visit, but not before the girl encounters a young Turanian boy who gives her a wonderful gift. There is so much more roiling under the surface of this story than what is presented, and one can feel it as one reads it, like standing outside of a concert hall and hearing the cadence of the music without being able to hear individual notes in the muddle of sound. But you know there is an intricate structure under that bass thumping. This is what I felt about the protagonist: There was something more about her, her life was on the edge of . . . something. Five stars.

"The Idealist" is a glimpse into a strange inner life of resentment replaced by weird accomplishment. This is a deep dive into the main characters inner thoughts, though there are hints of shadows beyond what is made explicit and it is in that darkness that the readers mind can fester and grow its own imaginings. Five stars.

"Witchcraft" is a tease. All prelude and even the climax and denouement happen offstage, and most of the story consists of decontextualized dialogue. This is one of the most stunning examples of how to evoke - pun intended! If I taught writing, I'd teach this! Five stars.

Another beautiful story, but one that seems less "anchored" in itself, is "The Ceremony". It lacks the depth and twist that Machen has spoilt me with. But still, like the grey stone, beautiful and forbidden. Four stars.

"Psychology" is a prelude without a story appended to it. It's beautiful writing, as you would expect, but it's just a fragment, a jumping off point that doesn't jump. This "worst of" the stories in this collection would probably be among the better stories in most collections. Three stars.

"Torture" is a complete tale, though we only see the outward actions of the young protagonist. But there is much more going on in his head, not made explicit, only inferred. Therein lies the story, in the unseen caverns of the protagonist's heart and mind. Five creepy stars.

Machen shows his fascination with illicit rites carried out by moonlight in his story "Midsummer". I happen to share that fascination with dancing in the groves at midnight, but more as an observer than participant. Though sometimes . . . Four stars

The splendor of "Nature" is carefully poured out, like honey, from the narrator. The trick here is the offstage, implied conversation that happened before the present dialogue, where the listener coaxed the passionate descriptions from the narrator. Five stars

A bored-with-life man (an artist and poet) takes an unexpected turn from ennui to an ecstatic vision of Holborn in "The Holy Things". This feels like the turnabout moment in a story of decadence, but we can only imagine the rest for ourselves. Four stars.

Years ago, in Ellen Datlow's fabulous series of The Years Best Fantasy and Horror, there was a story whose title I can't remember, where redactions (with actual blocks of blackness) "told" a story of sexual abuse and horror. It was a highly disturbing story and has stuck with me for many years now, probably one of the most deeply-affecting stories I have ever read. Ornaments in Jade works in much the same way, but without the disturbing subject matter. It is more eerie (in the sense used by Mark Fisher) than horrific. It is what is missing here that fills the volume beyond the capacity of the pages. We read into the void and hear it speaking back to us in a deep, reverberating voice.

View all my reviews

No comments:

Post a Comment