Thursday, September 24, 2020

The Voice of the Air


The Voice of the AirThe Voice of the Air by John Howard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I already knew that John Howard is an amazing wordsmith. And I knew that Howard knows something about architecture, as is evidenced by a few stories in his earlier collection Buried Shadows. What I did not know, and what was proven in The Voice of the Air is that Howard can sustain that beautiful writing and demonstrate architectural acumen at the novel length. Don't be fooled, yes, these are three novellas, but all of them tie neatly together in the character of Christian Luca, a Romanian architect with a gift that I shall not reveal, but that is pivotal to the long drama that unfolds here.

Christian Luca is a complicated character made even more complex by the multiple viewpoints from which Howard examines him, not the least of which is Luca's own view of himself. Though of one voice, the narrative is kaleidoscopic, morphing through perceptual changes. One must always ask "who is speaking now?" as each perspective sheds new light, casts new shadows, and reveals new aspects of this mysterious man.

Even the simplest of constructions serve Howard's auctorial purposes here. It's amazing what a little phrase uttered by a character can do to your perception of them. The phrase I am referring to: "How much can keep on being subtracted?"

There's more weight to this than that carried by the simple words. Much more. When you read it, in context, you will know . . .

One (ironically consistent) aspect of change throughout these novellas is that of shifting political winds before, during, and after the Second World War. This brings about an intriguing double twist: regime change and the questioning of whether Lucas' greatest architectural achievement (so far) ever even existed. Eerie brought on by weird. Mark Fisher (RIP) would have loved this.

Luca himself simultaneously acknowledges and preserves the mystery of his fluctuating appearance, vaguely referenced political ambitions, and apartment building, which may or may not have existed in this reality or never existed at all. Because of this, there is a note of sustained tension that plays through all three novellas, effectively tying them all together. It's difficult to find three novellas, each published separately, that "infiltrate" each other so well. Not only is the voice consistent (though varied), but the plot(s) layer on top of one another. And this is reflective of Christian Luca's very strange "talent," which, again, I will not reveal.

Eventually we get the view from inside Luca's head. The monologue about ghosts on pages 80 - 82 is a fantastic piece of writing. Too long to quote, but the thread from poetry to postage stamps to sedition to coup to ghosts embedded in the architecture is a thing of beauty, the sort of prose that a writer will devote to study in order to glean some insight into how it was created. I'll be studying those two pages for some time to come.

Luca is haunted by his past, and yet as he pushes toward the future(s), he, in some ways, inevitably moves backward, toward it, by trying to move forward. I don't know if this was Howard's intent in writing Luca's story, but this is the impression I get: a sort of "push-me/pull-me" action of past happenings, present action, and future possibilities. Like a tempo-spatial slinky toy.

Finally, Howard intertwines Luca with his architecture throughout. The man's life is a reflection of his building(s) and vice versa, including the demolition of both. He has his "secret stairway", built in the spiral of the public stairway, both in his building and in his soul. That is not to say that Luca is merely a meek architect, always withdrawn and introspective. No, there is action in the man, a conniving, plotting side. One does not survive so long by merely being passive. But one is strengthened by passing through things, or having things pass through . . . I must stop the utterance there . . .

I may have said too much.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Oppressive Light: Selected Poems by Robert Walser


Oppressive Light: Selected Poems by Robert WalserOppressive Light: Selected Poems by Robert Walser by Robert Walser
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I made the grave error of promising I would quote some of these poems in full in my review. Now I have to hold up my end of the bargain. I have reasons for each, but I don't want these few poems to overshadow the rest. Each is good, most are exceptional. And if I could plant a translator in your head so that you could read and understand the poems in the original German, I would. The translations are well-done for the most part, but miss some of the subtleties, the innuendos and shadings contained in the German. If you have even a rudimentary grasp of German, take that Langenscheidt off the shelf and dig into the words and phrases Walser so expertly weaves. I promise you, there are hidden rewards there.

Oppressive Light

Two trees stand in the snow,
the sky, tired of light,
moves home, and nothing else
but gloom close by.

And behind the trees
dark houses tower up.
Now you hear something said,
now dogs begin to bay.

And the dear, round lamp-
moon appears in the house.
And the light goes out again,
as a wound yawns open.

How small life is here
and how big nothingness.
The sky, tired of light,
has given everything to the snow.

The two trees bow
their heads to each other.
Clouds cross the world's
silence in a circle dance.

Joy of Life

How beautiful it is when you're silent,
when you stop talking to yourself.
There you see happy and beautiful
people, charmingly joined into a circle,
enjoying their conversations beneath
the trees, cute dancers who move
to the rhythm of a concert. Nature
is a sugar baker's confection; costumes,
elegant gestures! On the water
those who rock in boats delight
in their gliding over a mirror,
the landscape seems painted,
life, you imagine, is eternal,
and an unpleasant parting from these
gracious, flowered pastures, impossible.
How difficult it is to dress death
and his harsh suffering in fertile words.

Now, lest you feel that Walser's poems all reflect some inner nihilism or that his dark corners are only the misgivings of a mentally-troubled man, I share with you the defiant poem "Self-Reflection". I am reminded of Henley's Invictus, but with a less grim, much more mischievous bent. Walser is a trickster with the kind of attitude I find often resonating in the halls of my own skull and heart. If I were ever to get an entire poem tattooed on my body (not bloody likely, but if), this would be it:


Because they didn't want me to be young, I became young.
Because i should've been a sufferer, many pleasures flattered me.
Because they tried their best to put me in a bad mood,
I sought and found ways into moods more welcome than any I ever
could've wished for.
Since they impressed fear on me, courage cheered and laughed with
They abandoned me, so I learned to forget myself,
which allowed me to bathe in my inspired soul.
When I lost much, I realized losses are winnings,
because no one can find something he didn't first lose,
and to discover what's lost is worth more than any safe possession.
Because they didn't want to know me, I became self aware,
became my own understanding, friendly doctor.
Because I found enemies in my life, I attracted friends,
and friends dropped away, but enemies, too, stopped being hostile,
and the tree that bears the most beautiful fruits of luck is called
On life's path, we lift all the peculiarities given to us
by our birth, our family home and our schools,
and only those who couldn't help but strain themselves need to be
No one who's content with himself ever needed help,
unless he happened to be in an accident and needed to be carried to the

Probably too many letters for a headstone engraving, huh?

We'll see . . .

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Monday, September 7, 2020

Hard Copy Short Fiction Bibliography (so far)

 While moving, I tried packing together all the physical books in which I had a story appear. I'm recording those here, now. Consider it a sort of bibliography, but without the appearances in online venues, the novel, and any of the short story collections. Here goes:

"The Nut Lady's Cabin" - Earwig Flesh Factory #3/4, Fall/Winter 2000

"Wachui" - Indigenous Fiction #7, February 2001

The Reverie Styx" - Flesh & Blood #8, 2001

"The Pressures of Being a Single Parent" - Thirteen Stories #1, September 2002

"Willendorf Venus" - (Poem) Lunatic Chameleon, October 2002

"Somewhere Between Delta Piscium and Van Maanen's Star" - (Poem) Lunatic Chameleon, October 2002

"Bearing Seed" - Yellow Bat Review #4, Fall 2002

"Downstream Flow: A Fugue" - Flesh & Blood #10, 2002

"Queen Phoebe" - Whispers from the Shattered Forum #9, 2002

"The Enthroned Remember" - Redsine #9, 2002

"McKendrick's Bayonet" - (co-authored with Scott Thomas) Redsine #10, 2002

"Waiting for Felicity" - Journal of Experimental Fiction #24, 2002

"The Search for Savino" - (co-authored with Brendan Connel) Neotrope #4, April 2003

"Kaleidoscopes of Africa" - 3rd Bed #8, Spring/Summer 2003

"Return from Abaddon" - Flesh & Blood #11, 2003

"Submissions Status" - 3rd Bed #10, Spring/Summer 2004

"The Bones of Ndundi: An Archaeology" - Notre Dame Review, Winter 2004

"Frenzy" - Problem Child #2, Winter 2004

"Matriarch" - All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories, 2004

"Over Alsace" - Polyphony 4, 2004

"The Further Adventures of Star Boy" - Surreal Magazine #2, Spring 2005

"The Other" - The MacGuffin, Fall 2005

"Soma" - Tel:Stories, 2005

"Color of Laughter" - Wondrous Web Worlds 4, 2005

"The Seven Tattoos of Inisto Cantaglia" - Prague Literary Review v.3, #1, 2005

"Among the Ruins" Polyphony 5, 2005

"Jamalerdapala's Refractor: A History" - American Letters & Commentary #18, 2006

"Treason is" - Grendel Song, 2006

"Keys I Don't Remember" - Polyphony 6, 2006

"The Death Machines" - Scribe Revolution Volume II: Virology, 2006

"The Saint of the Bells" - Postscripts #11, Summer 2007

"The Auctioneer and the Antiquarian, or, 1962" - Asimov's, June 2008

"Andretto Walks the King's Way" - Paper Cities, 2008

"Ecphoriae" - Avant-Garde for the New Millenium, 2009 (also in Hatter Bones, 2009)

"Never nor Ever" - Clockwork Phoenix 2, 2009

"Clockwise, Counter" - Falling Star Magazine 2010

"Subscription" - Pear Noir! No. 4, 2010

"Fossiloctopus" - Gargoyle 50, 2010

"The Flowering Cage" - Kaleidotrope, Fall 2011

"Der Automatikmann" - Space & Time #115, Fall 2011

"Langknech and Tzi-Tzi in the Land of the Mad" - The Book of Apex #3, 2011

"Geppetto" - Gargoyle 57, 2011

"The Arch:Conjecture of Cities" - Tattered Souls 2, 2011

"The End of Right Ascension" - (Poem) Poe Little Thing Presents: In Space, No Once Can Hear You Scream, 2011

"Red-Roofed Temples in the Mountains Beneath Me" - Postscripts 30/31, 2013

"Sinfonia 22" - Farrago's Wainscot Anthology, 2016

"Putting the Pieces Back Together" - Cyaegha #19, Spring 2017

"Four Elemental Invocations" - Infranoir, 2017

"All the Stage is a World" - Vastarien vol. 2 issue 1, Spring 2019

"MirrororriM" - Eldritch Tales v. 2, #6, 2019

"Creatures of Breathtaking Beauty" - Synth #4, 2019

"Gemini" - Eighteen: Stories of Mischief and Mayhem (Underland Tarot #2), 2020

"The Ivory Tower" - The Varvaros Ascensions, Mount Abraxas Press, 2020

"Shadow Ensemble" A Vigil of Black Scars (forthcoming, Mount Abraxas Press)

"The Simulacra" (forthcoming standalone with Raphus Press)

That's 53 (as of September 2020, when I'm creating this post) so far and two on the horizon. Again, not including some stories that appeared exclusively online and not including stories that were first published in my early collections: The Butterfly Artist (2002) and Fugue XXIX (2005). Honestly, I feel like I'm just getting started . . . 

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

The Acephalic Imperial

The Acephalic ImperialThe Acephalic Imperial by Damian Murphy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

While in my mid- to late-teenage years, I lived in England. As an American raised in a military family, I had already lived overseas several times, but England, at that time of my life, felt magical.

On the base where we lived was Chicksands Priory, an old (12th-century, possibly earlier) building that was supposedly haunted by the ghost of a nun whose monk-lover had been killed. Rumor was, when I lived there, that the nun had been walled up in a window bay while giving birth to the baby. My friends and I became awfully fond of breaking into the Priory, drinking, making out - all the things you would expect teenagers to do in an ancient haunted building.

One day, me and two of my friends, Randy and Marc (who were brothers), were planning our next foray into the Priory, to take place that night. We were sitting around, joking, as we always did, playing with our D&D dice - not actually playing the game, but playing with the dice. Someone, I can't remember who, said "Okay, I'm going to roll this dice and whoever's age shows up on the dice first - something bad is going to happen to them". Randy rolled the d20, then me, then Marc, eventually, we hit the number 14 - Marc's age. We laughed about it, then went about our day, eventually meeting up with the other guys and girls that we were breaking in with.

Somehow we didn't have any alcohol on us (a rare thing when we went into the Priory), but the girls and a couple of the guys made up for the giddiness of alcohol by doing a seance in an upper room in the priory, a semi-hidden room, quite small, where they made a makeshift Ouija board with the floor, some markers, and a matchbook for a planchette. Randy and I grew bored pretty quickly, as we wanted to go exploring. In the past we had found hidden tunnels in the walls of an upstairs hallway (I kid you not - with removable wall panels and all), a medieval stone wine cellar (where we usually went if we were going to drink), and a trapdoor that led to a tunnel that had been walled off about 50' down, but, we were told, used to connect to an abandoned church in Clophill, several miles away, before military personnel walled up the tunnel to prevent egress. This was the Cold War and we were on a US military installation, after all.

And where were the police? you ask. They wouldn't come into the Priory at night. We knew a couple of the police quite well and they told us that when they were on duty, if they got an alarm at the Priory, they would simply wait outside and see if anyone came out. If no one came in ten minutes, they would leave. We knew we were pretty safe if we hunkered down in there.

Or were we? This was a haunted Priory, after all.

Randy and I took our leave of the others. We found an interesting room where there was some restoration being done. I decided to take one of the metal cross-members of some scaffolding as a weapon because it's well-known that ghosts can be hit with iron, right? And Randy had a knife with him, so we could protect ourselves.

Next door, we stumbled on what was an excavation of the floor of a room. The flooring had been removed and digging in the dirt had begun. We were careful not to spoil it - even vandals have their limits. It was one of the more intriguing things we had ever spotted in the Priory. We wondered if there were bones underneath that dirt (given the number of skeletons that have been found on the property since then, there actually is a pretty good chance that there were remains interred there). With that creepy thought, Randy and I left that area.

We made our way to one of the previously-restored areas where there were occasionally dances hosted by the youth club or the high school (even though our high school was 45 minutes away). We turned the corner to walk down the longest straight stretch, a hallway running perpendicular to the front door of the Priory. Ahead of us, to the right, were the front doors. To the left, directly across from the doors, was a large stairway that led up to the area nearest where the others were having their seance.

About halfway between the place where we entered the hall and this junction of door and stairs, Randy and I looked back. There, against the wall of the hall behind us, maybe thirty feet away, was a single chair, nestled in the corner. It was very dark in that corner, darker than all the other parts of the Priory that we had been in that night. We both stopped. "Do you see that?" we both said, almost simultaneously.

It appeared that the darkness there got a little lighter, but in that subtle way that makes it difficult to tell if the light actually changed, or if one's eyes were just becoming acclimatized to the darkness.

It was enough.

"It's her!" we both said in a whisper-scream. We backed away from that end of the hall, toward the door and stairs behind us. On our left was a doorway, which we passed with some hesitancy, exposing our flank. And at that moment, the world seemed to explode.

A sound like an explosion shot out from that empty doorway. We screamed at the top of our lungs and bolted to the stairs and up! The seance-attendees all stood up screaming, in confusion "What's going on?!?" We all gathered into one ball of teenagers, all nine or ten of us, and ran screaming down the stairs.

About a third of the way down, Randy and I realized that the horrid sound that had erupted from the doorway was the automatic-flush toilets, timed just right to send us into a frisson of terror. We both started laughing . . .

. . . then Marc, who was trying to get ahead of us, tripped over the metal staff I was carrying and went tumbling down the stairs.

Randy and I stopped laughing, looked at each other, looked at Marc, who was scrambling to get up from his fall, an started screaming again. 14! The prophecy was true!

We burst out of the front door, something we never did before or after, for fear of running into the arms of the police, but there were no police waiting for us. We ran out into the night across the front lawn of the Priory.

When we looked back, we saw that one room, that we knew was dark when we entered the Priory, now had a light on. None of us had turned it on and no one else had been in the Priory with us. There were no proximity lights at the Priory at that time. But that light had definitely, somehow, turned on. This was 1987.

Summer, 2019: My wife and I go to Europe. I take her to the Chicksands Priory, where we do a formal tour with the local historical society. I share some of the things I knew about the Priory with our hostess, and elderly lady who had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the Priory. We speak for quite some time before, during, and after the tour, during which time I show here some things she had not known about the Priory. She also shows me some things I did not know about the Priory. After a time, I confess that the reason I knew so much is that, as kids, we broke into the Priory all the time to party, make out, and scare each other. I feel a trite guilty. This elderly lady smiles and gives me a knowing wink and says "I think it's wonderful. Kids will have adventures, won't they?"

I share this story (all of it true) because amidst all the obfuscation there is a clarity to Murphy's work. I am glad that I am unable to explain that clarity in any other way than sharing my own experience, completely divorced from the book - or is it? It's a "color" of sorts that imbues his work - playful, bright, but at the same time, regal, dignified. It is also a space, a room, perhaps painted with subterfuge and scattered with idols of trickster gods. I cannot describe this to you as it is my space alone, though the author has invited me to come in, has opened the portal and left it up to me to peek in through the darkened glass.

This is everything you need to know about The Acephalic Imperial. Everything. Those who know, know . . .

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