Mostly Monochrome Stories – by John Travis
My 23rd real-time review
posted Wednesday, 27 May 2009
Mostly Monochrome Stories
by John Travis
The ExaggeratedPress 2009
Having just bought this book, I intend to write one of my real-time reviews…
I shall write here a review of each of the 23 stories as and when I read them, while trying to discover leit-motifs and the book’s eventual gestalt.
I am not reading the Author’s Note or Simon Clark’s introduction until I’ve reviewed all the stories.
Caveat: There is one story written in collaboration with myself (‘Hey Garland, I Dig Your Tweed Coat’) and one of the stories (‘Nothing’) was first published in ‘Nemonymous’ in 2002.
MY PREVIOUS REAL-TIME REVIEWS ARE LINKED FROM HERE.
…is the place of punishment with which Slink, the protagonist as a child, was threatened by his mother if he didn’t sleep deeply enough. Now, Slink, in late middle age, discovers it wasn’t just a silly story.
This opening Travision makes the particular general or the personal universal or your enemies avuncular or the inanimate directional or text tactile. And all vice versa.
Travis, judging by this story alone, cannot be labelled. I have read much literature over my 60-odd years – but, to me, this is a genuinely ‘primary cause’ seedbed or some ‘first mover’ clockmaking that cannot be called by any expression such as (author’s name)-ian or (genre-generated word)-ific or even (invented word)-esque. Perhaps I’ll think of something by the time my off-kilter kiln is fired up enough. (27 May 09)
The Guy Who Nailed Himself to the Bench
(Dedicated to a stupid little band from Boston)
I’ve now realised why these are ‘monochrome stories’ – the print on the paper shows up black and white. But I have as yet to fathom the ‘mostly’.
Large nails in the previous story; large nails in this.
Indeed, I sense stigmata. This story is like being laid-back in a surreal fairground-ride (where you feel unduly safe), one which takes your breath away until it comes to rest with an anchor of thought that seems to make you think you’ve returned to some form of reality – albeit an entropy that most realities tend to be.
The tramps, the lodgers, the cars, the trains, the supermarkets, the indefinable diurnal objects are all ingredients of what we believe to be reality. This makes me think there is a distinction indeed between one reality and a different, but equally real, reality, both of which realities dream of the other. And literary surreality or weird fiction (which these Truth-Travisions (so far) tend to approximate but fundamentally differ from) are satellites in orbit around a balance of realities that is rollercoaster-oblique but which the author (I infer) thinks is static-straightforward.
“…the lack of light meant he wasn’t sure what he was looking at.” (27 May 09 – 3 hours later)
…are the Devil’s tools? That’s why my hands are busy reviewing this book. Meanwhile, do many idle hands make light work even lighter?
This is a relatively short empathic monologue-fable which made me want to write this review on my office wall rather than on the computer screen. Are today’s youth all that bad? In the early sixties, one of my Grammar School teachers was rumoured – on his many sick days – to be watching the static Test Card consistently all day on his TV, waiting for the real programmes to start at 5 pm. How did they know? One or two of his truanting pupils spied him doing this through the crack in his parlour curtains. I don’t know why, but this ‘story’ reminded me of that long-forgotten (till now) memory. I wonder if he turned down the Test Card’s musak? The generation gap is between two realities. A gap now filled in with various real and virtual surfaces to paint words on. New culture-breaking words. And we can all become writers…whatever the scribbled nonsense.
“…eat from a can and drink yourself into insensibility in front of an out-of-focus TV set…” I wonder if it’s in monochrome, like the actual reality of the old days was? (28 May 09)
Unlike with most of the other stories in this book, I have been familiar with ‘Nothing’ for a few years. It is close to my heart. I can only say – upon re-reading it just now – it remains a genuine classic for me, a story that should win awards and be filmed or dramatised and anthologised in famous books. The only story that is genuinely successful in depicting dimmer-switch controlled identities – a most beautiful treatment of love and bereavement…
And, in my current frame of mind, this quite short story is tantamount to the noth or nth degree.
A declining intransitive (or intravistive) verb: I noth, you noth, he noths, he is nothing, I am nothing, I was nothing, I had been nothing, we would have been nothing, you nothed, we had nothed, I will noth … not so much the opposite of ‘become’ but rather its necessary partner in a symbiosis of verbal power. The plurality of both. The singularity of neither.
“…but still he couldn’t be with them, as they filled every room and cranny and nook.” (28 May 09 – 2 hours later)
The Happy Misanthropist
“Time had no meaning; it was just a procession of dark and shade, dark and shade…”
Molière, eat your heart out. And Suzy Quatro. I note from Google that this story was first published in print during 2006. But it is one crazy capricious flash fiction of mixed-up Proustian selves for today in 2009. Particularly in the UK!
“Looking from the windows I saw a group of men and women attacking a man in an expensive suit. Looking closely I recognised him as the local MP. That made me laugh, at least.” (28 May 09 – another 2 hours later)
Dance of the Selves
More Proustian selves? Not exactly. But I shall pencil in a thesis for later this year that shall explore with some rigorous scholarship the angle of selves in this Book of Travisions. Meanwhile, this story is a substantial tale of one of those shops one sometimes finds and often can’t find again, although the protagonist here does find it again. Sometimes stationary, sometimes shifting stationery. This perfect gem of a story, I’m sure, will be found most delightful to all lovers of fantasy, weird, supernatural and horror fiction – and of old-fashioned school pencil-cases or geometry-sets. And to answer this question: ‘All the lonely people / Where do they all come from?’ one must first look to one’s own time-flow of selves as elves, because one will soon feel them attenuate … to become someone else’s selves? Or worse.
“It’s a rare adult indeed who retains any creativity after puberty. Personally I think the world would be a much better place if we were all creative. It’d give us something to look forward to for a start. Bring the magic back into people’s lives, that’s what I say. A bit of magic. Self expression! It’s a wonderful thing, isn’t it?” (29 May 09)
The Terror and the Tortoiseshell (A Benji Spriteman Story)
A skittish ‘film noir’ where anthropomorphisals masquerade as detectives and detective’s molls. I’d have thought this perfect for the forthcoming ‘Cern Zoo’ book had it been submitted! The most dead-pan oblique ending that makes normal punch-lines judy-squeezers. A Travisty. [Wasn’t it Angus Wilson, not Arthur Machen, who wrote that Zoo story this story mentioned? Ah, ‘The Terror’ was by Machen. Hmmm.] (29 May 09 – 3 hours later)
Hey Garland, I Dig Your Tweed Coat (Written in collaboration with D F Lewis)
Well, I can’t exactly remember knuckledragging with Travis on this one and which finger is whose. It reads a crazy well. The pen is like the pencil in ‘Dance of the Selves’? And actual black-and-white words are anthropomorphised amid back doubles and rat runs of plot made mock-poetic. Either pretentiously silly or shamefacedly clever. Protagonist’s identity angst seemed very nemonymous to me. Don’t hold back, I say to the two writers. No half-measures. [Sandstorms? Didn’t Alex Garland write something about a beach?]
“But there was the book. Alan saw it standing before the door flapping its pages and rustling its cover like so many cardboard peacocks eager to get between the shelves.” (29 May 09 – another hour later)
The Flooding of Mark Wiper
“‘All for nothing. All for nothing.’ I wanted to tell him how wrong he was.”
An inverse or mutant version of the story called ‘Nothing’ – reminding me at moments of the (retrospectively risky) shape-of-a-mountain-building scene from the film ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ … and of certain aspects of Allen Ashley’s story ‘Life Under Water’. An ironically vicious circle where an artist’s creation can be its own destruction. “Misery breeding Misery”.
You try to build props in a theatrical attempt to underpin your existence. But when they collapse or turn against you, it’s worse than having built them in the first place. That often happens with any artist, especially so-called fiction writers who take these risks on behalf of the readers. The more make-believable these risks, the riskier they are.
“The walk brought back the loneliness of Christmas; the only difference being the colour of the paving slabs, a dull beige here instead of grey.” (30 May 09)
This title takes on a new force in the light of the treatment of Proustian selves in some of the previous stories. It is about a beach. It only takes up a page – but what power can be in just one page of prose. This was a vision (for me) of the nature of dying. Frightening enough simply being that.
Yet, it was overlaid with a more positive aspect: one’s own selves dying one by one … to provide an evolution of selves. (Cf. The Close Encounters reference above). There is this tension . There was this tension in the previous story. Nothing is black and white in Travis.
“Waves crawl over discoloured beige sand then retreat in bubbles of gritty foam.” (30 May 09 – 2 hours later)
The Other Exhibition
“The sky, a mixture of pumice grey, purple and orange, hummed at him like a refrigerator.”
Dear Reader of this Review,
Reading this delightful story is like entering an exhibition of my favourite painter: René Magritte … in palimpsest!
It is simply wonderful. Over-dosing on my own senses for their own sake.
Yours nothingly, Oswald Masters.
“…nothing spoiled by signatures or explanations.” (31 May 09)
The Arse of Dracula
A disappointing piece of Horror Film satire. Presumably not conducive to my sense of humour … and equally unsuitable for cauterising in my aforementioned kiln. (31 May 09 – 1 hour later)
The Splintered Forest
This represents more variations on the ‘Nothing’ story theme – heartachingly. Here it is involuntary – ratcheting insidiously beyond your control. And selves…
Laughter here tragically betokens that the one you love so deeply has suddenly multiplied the love required from you…
A traditional supernatural tale embodying a hex far deeper than such tales normally can embody. May Sinclair, Gary Fry are just two names that come to mind as writers who have produced comparable tales. This one will haunt me for a long time, I anticipate. One day I’ll come back and tell you if it did.
“But the air had felt thicker in recent weeks, as if it was listening to them all.” (31 May 09 – another 2 hours later)
Random Events in the Life of a Victim
Random, yes, but also synchronised. Shards of truth & fiction that Fate employs in its attempt to steer our lives. This story conveys this very well by the means of portraying (externally and internally) one of life’s losers who is implied here existing between the negative and positive poles of near-berserkness (like today’s Reality TV /Talent Show songstress taken quite beyond herself by life’s limelight?)
We writers giving directions to reader-strangers who happen to encounter us by picking up our books; we wonder if we point them in the right or wrong direction…
This poignant story works perfectly. So utterly believable.
“Looking at it now I can see the power you have, being on your own like that, being anonymous. But at the same time not being recognised is the worst part of all.” (1 June 09)
It Grows In Your Face
Did you know barbers are trained by having to shave balloons? This is a story about a building that houses a barber and a dentist – the former about to retire who notices that a queer hair on his face betokens a ‘House of Leaves’ type scenario in the building. This is a story that conveys much with an oblique tone but a straightforward language of narration and dialogue. It is a story that makes me look through the roof of my head to see if the brain can be by-passed and my dentures become real teeth again. But that’s just me. You will be made to think of different things, no doubt. It’s absurd that one does not think the absurdities of this story are absurd at all. An inverse entropy that perhaps will save the world. Everything ends with a party. Disturbing, too, as I examine my own face for aberrations. But there’s a mark on the mirror… and a pie crust (mentioned in this story) that’s perhaps a tortoiseshell… Loved it.
“Even the radio wouldn’t stay in tune any more, spitting static if you happened to stand in the wrong place in the room.” (1 June 09 – 2 hours later)
Reduced to Clear
As in the ‘Random Events…’ story we have a bullied protagonist, this time a child who malingers and cries wolf … and his well-meaning Mum – subject to splinters and off-cuts of unpredictable life – with an easily recognisable extrapolation of a perceived nightmare visit to a supermarket and tribulations of the school run and health-and-safety cut loose … special offers … and an own brand life. Things go off-kilter in the kiln of existence. One recognises the labels as one passes but the chronology skews – is this morning or evening? Well-meaning, true, but often ill-read. We readers need to take responsibility for what the writer is trying to tell us. It’s a two-way filter. And that goes for this whole book so far. But the prose pottery is not yet fully fired. We need to be patient. Reduced to clear / expanded to confuse. Perceived confusion is sometimes clearer – through elusiveness and allusiveness – than clarity itself. This story, somehow, made me want to ask: is the meat in cat food tins for innocent kittens made from dead cats? (1 June 09 – another 90 minutes later)
Beyond The Call of Duty
A zombie story where even mindlessness can suffer its erstwhile mind’s guilt at failing duties that it once had … paralleled by a fiction writer’s grappling with words so as to create a reality beyond the writer’s own reality.
We all need to deliver.
Echoes, too, of the ‘ratcheting’ I mentioned with regard to ‘The Splintered Forest’.
This book also goes ‘beyond the call of duty’. It will continue delivering once I’ve finished it, I anticipate. Most good books do that for years and years. Delivering themselves piecemeal for the rest of your life, leit-motif by leit-motif till the final gestalt. I’ll come back one day as a dead kitten through your cat-flap to confirm whether this book fulfilled its duties.
“There were days when the words seemed to fly through his mind, too quickly to see, other days they were painted white, invisible against his white screen.” (1 June 09 – another 3 hours later)
After the peacock book in ‘Hey Garland…’, we have this paper-weighty story of an agoraphobic who is also a claustrophobic, one who uses a glassware gift from Venice as a portal of potential escape. I now know why these are mostly monochrome stories – as this one is literally awash with sumptuous colours – an exotic psychedelic experience, ending with a decision (or effective non-decision), i.e. whether to leave your body as a living husk or stay within that body as the husk yourself — a decision that in no way casts a retrospective shadow on the colourful conduit towards that decision. Despite the book’s overall title and its moments of shadow or fear or touching poignancy or gaucheness-of-self or grotesque absurdity, this book is ironically very much like the Venetian paperweight, as especially enhanced by the most beautiful cover artwork by Faye Grimwood.
“…and about halfway up is something resembling a fish with a brown head and blue green body…” (1 June 09 – another 3 hours later)
The Mutt Who Knew Too Much (A Benji Spriteman Story)
Another captivating ‘film noir’ or crime fiction story featuring ‘Rupert the Bear’ type clothes-dressed animal characters, where many human frailties are reflected, including xenophobia but here different breeds are really different breeds rather than (with humans) different versions of the same breed. An extravaganza of double-dealing, debts and Bumps-a-daisy. I wonder if Travis has invented a new Trans-genre here? More ‘First Mover’ clockmaking? It would be interesting to see a whole collection of Benji Spriteman stories.
A quest to find a dog-shaped hole in a cityful of roofs. And all the repercussions – and the condensation-wiping top and tail of the story. All is neat, enjoyable, but arguably not profound. Except it resonates deeper than it seems. I almost feel my own phantom tail wagging. The prehensile clothes from ‘Pyjamarama’ and ‘Nothing’ and the motive-filled furskins of the Benjie stories are already prickling awake again in anticipation of the author re-filling his pen with black and white ink ready to create more Transvisions…
“‘How’s the tail?’
‘It feels like it’s the size of a Gorilla’s arms.'” (2 June 09)
He Destroyed His Image
A powerful horror story – and like the previous story starting with someone looking out through his window. This story was simply waiting to come. It’s the dark side of all that’s come before in this book. It’s a culmination, as it were (except I see there are three more stories left to read). There is something Ligottian about this story – Corporate Horror – but taken a notch further.
I destroy my image every day. Each thing I write today alters what I wrote yesterday. Only Horror writers out there will know what I mean. We are a select bunch and other breeds of human are just simply by-standers. That’s not what Travis is saying. It is what I am saying. I have now taken over this story. I have thieved it. I deserve the Bum Bumps: a painful bunch of grapes to hang at the root of my phantom tail as punishment for an earlier negative review above. But this present story is now mine alone … done, dusted and my new image securely cauterised. A mere collaboration was not enough for me.
“I saw a sleeved arm pounding on an anvil, raising the hammer and letting it fall in perfect time.” (2 June 09 – 90 minutes later)
Aptly, following my extra-mural ponderings on the previous story above, here we have an ‘arse story’ to end all ‘arse stories’. Incidentally, I invented the Toilet Mythos in fiction many years ago. And this would have been a worthy inclusion in such a Mythos. In fact better than anything I ever could write. I won’t give the game away about this excellent vignette, but only to issue a warning about reading it to those with weak stomachs. Also in “the long-dead faces of freshly-scrubbed pygmies”, is ‘faces’ a misprint for ‘faeces’? (2 June 09 – another hour later)
Dragging the Grate
“Everything in here was black.”
An excellent short horror vignette of huge mind-boggling proportions. Another culmination of a culmination conveying many of the book’s themes such as dimmer-switch controlled identities and selves – and the involuted or mirrored creativity of writing a fiction like this one: a ‘magic fiction’ beyond any ‘magic reality’ whereby a new reality is created by fiction that is more real than reality itself, a new reality that does not simply suspend our disbelief but demolishes it forever.
If one can exist as a knuckledragger or a skeleton or a headless body or a bodiless head or a mere ghost, it is only one further step of imaginative power needed to exist as any animal or human being. But it remains too far-fetched to imagine actually existing as yourself. (2 June 09 – another 45 minutes later)
Ode to Hermes #54
The typewriter “was the kind wily old reporters hammered away on in black and white films.”
I was a bit premature above. This is the culmination. A story that stands on its own but becomes an even greater story in the context of the whole book. It is full-blooded magic fiction without the quote marks needed for ‘magic fiction’ above.
“Oh, what was the use? Just more dots on the screen. Sighing he deleted both lines, preferring the blanket whiteness.”
It tells of an office-worker non-entity’s writer’s-block: like the constipation in ‘The Strainer’, a condition that also requires a powerful laxative. Followed by a Rorschach ritual. Then an iconoclastically colourful (as well as olfactory) synaesthesia. A Burroughsian relationship with a typewriter. And those theatrical props again (cf. ‘The Flooding of Mark Wiper’) – props here needed to become Hermes (or Mercury). You’ve become yourself at last: a Greek God! From Gaucheness to Divinity. From Office Non-entity to … but the ending must be kept secret from those who have not read this book. Nine times six after all equals fifty-four. A celestial equation. An astrological harmonic. A Ford Zodiac.
“Finishing the third beermat he realised black ink wouldn’t show up on the black card.”
I think this book’s gestalt is the word I was seeking to fire in my kiln: a word that has now dawned on me: Travisthesia, Travesthesia, Travaesthesia, spell it how you like, i.e. the ability to dare journeying geographically and non-phobically into one’s own senses? Over-dosing on one’s waking dreams, risks and all. Other definitions welcome. It is a condition that many suffer. But once you learn how to cease ‘suffering’ it and begin accepting it, you can gain full control over one’s own personal synchronisable dimmer-switch. This Book is a Revelation.
END: (2 June 09 – another 3 hours later)
Exaggerated Press is run by Terry Gates Grimwood (who had a great story in Nemonymous One in 2001) – and the email address in this book is: firstname.lastname@example.org
2. Weirdmonger left… Monday, 1 June 2009 8:07 am :: http://www.knibbworld.com/campbelldiscus
Gary Mc Mahon – Just ahead of you in reading this collection, des, and I have to disagree regarding “The Arse of Dracula”. I thought it was hilarious; the final coda made me laugh out loud.
Stephen Bacon – The story ‘Nothing’ (which I think was also originally in Nemonymous) is heartbreaking. The sense of bereavement really struck a chord. ‘The Strainer’ unsettled my stomach (you’ll know if you read it).
3. Weirdmonger left… Tuesday, 2 June 2009 3:15 pm
Since writing my real-time review above, I have read the Author’s Note, Simon Clark’s excellent Introduction and Terry Gates Grimwood’s publisher’s Afterword. Further food for thought. Thanks.
4. Steve Jensen left… Tuesday, 14 July 2009 8:03 pm :: http://stevenjensen.wordpress.com
Des, you set the bar too high! 😀 I’m due to review Mostly Monochrome Stories for Sein und Werden magazine soon – how can I possibly compete with your work? 😀
5. Weirdmonger left… Tuesday, 14 July 2009 8:55 pm