Here With The Shadows by Steve Rasnic Tem
My review (continued from HERE) will take place in the comment stream below:-
Inside William James
I am reminded of my own marbles. And their eventual loss. This is a remarkable portrait from the inside of your second childhood – with memories skewed or all too real: in constant self-betrayal or others’ betrayal of you. An insane world made sane, or vice versa, as you face the newcomers in the residential care home (where you’ve been kept, you assume, for caring), making sure you shake their hands as a sign of welcome to the home, however much they fear your ashen face or you fear theirs. This story fulfils the uneasy promise of this book’s vulnerable house or vulnerable man syndrome as an estranged metaphor for late life (and, in this story, not diddling any ‘kiddies’ left behind with false bargains regarding one’s lost marbles?).
I once had a genuine dream that I have recounted before. There was a house fire in the dream and one of the inhabitants (me) escaped rather later than the others, i.e. barely reaching safety by the skin of my teeth. When asked about my lateness of escape, I said I had been in the middle of reading a very long sentence by Proust – or, today, I wonder if the sentence was by the American Philosopher William James or, more likely, his brother Henry James!
“The world we see that seems so insane is the result of a belief system that is not working. To perceive the world differently, we must be willing to change our belief system, let the past slip away, expand our sense of now, and dissolve the fear in our minds.” – William James
“…pulse of our slumber, dreambookpage…” James Joyce (Finnegans Wake)
Back Among the Shy Trees
“…it was like two people in a burning house — they were both drawn independently to the open door.”
I may have been spoilt by previous stories in this book, but this one, although reasonably enjoyable and evocative, seemed merely workmanlike. It does, however, serve to paint more variations on ‘the vulnerable house’ syndrome (here trees cut down around it to aid the wind’s battering), on the man returning to the childhood home, an archetypal gloomy mansion as if already primed for subsidence or for gutting by that earlier Lewis, and family estrangements, dust webs, pictures or photos with blurred edges or questionable faces like the book’s cover, and a shocking implication at the end stemming from the man’s slow-motion regression to childhood events, revealing his own vulnerability to match that of the house.
Seeing the Woods
“What met her at the edge of the porch was heat,…”
More shy trees…
You know, I really achingly liked this touching short threnody of a woman in the still hopeful way ageing people have for maintaining the Perpetual Autumn of their lives; she is threatened by blindness, but venturing to live in a cabin beside a forest of trees of which she can triangulate or coordinate a map with her fading sight by the sheer plucky ‘feel’ of each of her walks, despite her daughters’ concern for their mother’s ability to look after herself. We should triangulate and coordinate each book we read together, too. The same process of gestalt.
The cabin is of course vulnerable, but her friends the trees are even more vulnerable to nature’s dangers, here by fire. Books made from trees, too, vulnerable to the mass electronic blaze heading their way…
Smoke in a Bottle
“Then he’d sway like a ruined house in a hurricane wind, and sometimes he’d stagger around the room. We knew Christmas was over when Dad fell into the Christmas Tree.”
A tipsy Dad remembered or conjured up as a ghost? Another revisit by a son, after many years, to a childhood home, with the initial onset of snow settling, a cosmetic snow upon a past’s poverty. Dad’s trick with a row of his empty beer bottles, filling them with the entertaining shapes of smoke, resonates with the book’s earlier fires – and essentially this is an unforgettable image reprised, allowing a reinterpretation of a parent’s past actions now seen in a favourable light, once seen unfavourably, a sense of well being rather than that earlier ugly regression amid shy trees, today a timely reminder of a seasonally decorated tree that forgets its shyness and a prospect of a seemingly perpetual season of life with one’s own kids…
Atmospheric and beautifully configured. Yet a story imbued, I feel, with recurrences of inevitable regret, generation upon generation. The past through a smoky lens. The future, too.
Est Enim Magnum Chaos
“My old house was only a block away from a major highway. All I had to do was to step outside to see, hear and smell it.”
We all live close to a highway, wherever we actually live, the highway called death, I thought. This story is reminiscent of one of my favourite authors: Anita Brookner, whose novels, I guess, perhaps wrongly, it is unlikely any American author would have read or even heard of. Anyway, I can give it no greater compliment. The encroaching old age of a man with a few long-standing male friends in gentlemanly, mystical, Machen-like aura or setting that such friends often comfortably occupy, give or take the odd wife or daughter. They once formed a living pact, a sort of mortality ‘tontine’. An original and haunting take on death and messages back from its ‘highway’. The main protagonist, the vulnerable culmination of the tontine, still writes notes to himself despite no longer being able to read his own handwriting. The ultimate pathos of personal bathos. With my mention of ‘Perpetual Autumn’ earlier in this review, the last two words of this story actually made me want to cry.
These Days When All is Silver and Bright
“Trina didn’t like to think of it as a family resemblance, but as a family difference…”
…like this story within the family or gestalt of the book’s other stories. A story of a bereaved woman (in interface with her caring parents and brother), a bereavement causing a form of synaesthesia that reminds me of the effects of my own lifelong recurrent iritis. A bereavement, too, with mutant metaphors of, say, meat magnified enough on the plate to envelop you, the confused identity of brother and son in different time zones of memory and despair, mirrors in the jagged hot sun…
I wonder if the last sentence of the story means she had X-Ray vision, too, or was she simply not there at all and survived by whom she mourned? I leave you to decide. A fascinating foundling or changeling of a story, an abstract painting in enduringly configurable emotions.
“A series of vaguely realised trees led you to the front porch, caked in soot, deteriorating under the assault of some oily disease.”
This has all the ingredients for being a great story, but its images, frights, connections to the book’s other ‘vulnerable house’, ‘childhood home’, ‘parent and offspring relationship’, ‘regression’ etc. all seem to me to be a bit crammed, rushed and methodical. Meanwhile, however, the ending, if I interpreted it correctly (together with the fact it needed to be interpreted at all!), is indeed effective. And the woman as a professional painter artist of actual residential houses in the context of this whole book was something I enjoyed.
Wheatfield with Crows
The past negligence of a parent through the power of temporary trivial pleasure is revisited in a land of wheatfields that are gathered — by the author through the now adult sketching brother of the small girl who went missing many years ago — as a Van Gogh-like re-configuration of the book’s earlier ocean, autonomous with sporadic pockets whence living things can emerge… A neat, if sometimes hackneyed, coda.
But the sound of these wheat seas, as it were, do have persistent ‘crackle and fuzz’ and I return with a sweet knowing to the book’s diaphanous dissemination or desiccation that may one day begin for me like a dusting of snow.
This book is all good. But a number of stories are special, more than just good. Those stories as well as the whole book’s gestalt itself represent a matchless literary experience to cherish for watchers of man’s ‘endless fall’. An ocean, you see, would not be an ocean at all without the dips between the tidal furrows: dips only by dint of the wavetops between them.
“For dear old grumpapar, he’s gone on the razzledar, through gazing and crazing and blazing at the stars.” – “Crackajolking away like a hearse on fire.” –Finnegans Wake
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