The Nightfarers – by Mark Valentine
posted Sunday, 2 August 2009
I’m starting another of my real-time reviews. This time it is of ‘The Nightfarers’ a collection of short fiction by Mark Valentine (Ex Occidente Press 2009). I shall attempt to draw out the book’s leitmotifs and mould them into its gestalt.
This review will be done slowly, savouringly, in real time, so please do not look back here more than once every few days for additions.
All my real-time reviews are linked from here: https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/df-lewis-real-time-reviews/
Upon the cover is writ large:
“WHO IN THIS MORTAL LIFE WOULD SEE
THE LIGHT THAT IS BEYOND ALL LIGHT,
BEHOLDS IT BEST BY FARING FORTH
INTO THE DARKNESS OF THE NIGHT.”
Caveat to my review: This book contains a story entitled ‘Undergrowth’ that was first published in NEMONYMOUS in 2007.
The 1909 Proserpine Prize
This is a delightful tale of a literary prize that should itself win a literary prize for invention and imagination. But no, it is not imagination. It is a truthifiction upon the cross of fantastical literature, in a gloriously textured prose and atmosphere: an admixture of the two Jameses, M.R. and Henry, sown with many of the weird fiction giants, some of whom are mentioned in this very story.
It tells of the judging of a literary prize that is awarded for works in the tradition of Lord Lytton. in the year in question, Hodgson, Stoker, Bowen (Marjorie not Elizabeth), Shiel, Upward, Blackwood and a near nemonymous work which causes the judges much coincidence-angst and trial author late-labelling. Both hilarious and dark. A true treasure of conceits. The best conceit is left to the end.
I was delighted that the Blackwood came close. This was because the work in question, his novel JIMBO, has long been a favourite of mine. To prove it: HERE is me including it in my top ten novels in 2000.
I won’t give away what book won and the circumstances of its winning. A story that simply has to be read. (2 August 09)
Carden in Capaea
A philosophy of the ineffable here cast as a highly-honed ‘poetic / scientific’ explication to a within-text audience. On the face of it a fantasy of a fantasy, making a special form of palimpsest. An alchemy of colours, an ethos of dust and nemonymity. The intrinsic power of more words for things than sense. This story is made up of words. There is also a clue in Marsh Fever, and therefore in Swine Flu (?), to unlock further linguistic delight from this text. Yet its sense-flow of words is more limpid than these words of mine portend. We’re all in its audience. Not outside looking in, but inside looking out. And, thus, we reach some form of literary grace. (3 August 09)
Oh, Crikey, for me, this is tops. For a start, I love seeking out obscure books in secondhand bookshops simply for the quest itself. But, here, we have the quest for varieties of blank books! Heaven!
I’ve already formulated a picture of THE NIGHT-FARERS’ gestalt: the drogulus. And I already truly think that it is THIS book that is the book I’ve been seeking all my life.
‘White Pages’ is beautifully worked and imaginatively illuminated – and prefigures ‘Undergrowth, or vice versa. But I’m jumping ahead of myself … literally.
[A personal note: Nemonymous Six doesn’t actually exist, and it probably never will. “The Non-Existent Edition,” as it’s dubbed by the editor, was announced in May 2006 as existing in the tradition of stories such as ‘The Vanishing Life and Films Of Emmanuel Escobada’, ‘Four minutes thirty-three seconds’ (the world’s first blank story published in print, i.e. in Nemonymous 2) and ‘Mighty Fine Days’ (in Nemonymous 2) and ‘The Painter’ (in Nemonymous 4), plus the blank cover of Nemonymous 4 … and other features of previous editions. Nemonymous Six is a drogulus… [from ‘Wikipedia’ that possibly will be blank, too, one day, when the Internet as a whole vanishes up my fundament.]]
[Further personal note: I was earlier wondering why I found myself not quoting directly from the text of each story in this book as I have done in all my other real-time reviews so far. It has dawned on me that the reason is twofold and too obvious to describe.] (3 August 09 – 3 hours later)
The Inner Sentinel
The prose is golden. It is a sheer delight, both textured and simple at once. This is surely a classic weird tale of the first water. Why have I not read it before? It shimmers with dream and MR Jamesian scholarship, but eventually effulgent with Hodgson, Lovecraft, Blackwood, Wagner, Tolkien, Sir Granville Bantock, John Cowper Powys (and more) in varying degrees of word-anvil beating. Here we see the making of the drogulus into a form of waking dream where it seems to begin to exist as a double negative. The word ‘Redoubt’ takes on a double meaning, in this very sense of ‘magic fiction’ as opposed to ‘magic realism’. I cannot recommend this tale enough to the Weird tale specialist and layman alike. But how do we know we can trust the story’s Narrator – or, even, the story’s head-lease author? Into the Vale of the Valentine.
On a lighter note (and I do not lightly use that terminology), I was glad to see an Oast-House (that Kentish birther of beer) likened to a ‘great cone turned slightly awry, twisted out of true’… LAWKS! I’ve just quoted part of the text. (4 August 09)
The Dawn at Tzern
I will not repeat mention of the prose in this book. Please take it as read.
This story is a charming tale of an enclave called Tzern, the death of an Emperor, a postman’s loyalty to the deceased’s immanent spirit by retaining in defiance the old stamps with the Emperor’s head, a priest who likes his tobacco and reads things, not into its leaves, but into the wrapping in which it is delivered, who also reads a breviary or what one assumes to be a breviary. A retreating army, one of whom is a young man who thinks himself invulnerable. And that’s only scratching the story’s surface. It’s gorgeous. Thought-provoking. And resplendent with the resurrectional power of a story’s soul.
The story’s ending, that I will not give away other than to call it a ‘dawn’, gives justification to my form of real-time reviewing of books. You see what you see. And I see Tzern as in Cern Zoo. And that gives me all manner of readings from and into the story’s innermost being and outermost wrapping, readings with which I will not bother you. But they are there. (4 August 09 – 5 hours later)
The White Sea Company
As a long-time visitor to Dunwich, Suffolk and a seeker of the engulfed cathedral, I love this Debussyan, Dunsanyan well-characterised take on the the voyages of historic exploration made meticulously ledger-within-ledger of open-ended terrestrial treasures of discovery emerging either because simply you have not found them before (like Darkest Africa) or because they actually emerge from the fantasy itself as fully-formed land masses. A delightful tale told with conscientious precision as well as with a wide magnanimity of the careless soul. The paper on which words float itself is a White Sea, methinks. (6 August 09)
There is no avoiding it. I have for well over two years thought this story to be a genuine well-seasoned literary gem that shall be an anthologised evergreen. And it is, even more so when seen in the context of this beautiful artefact: ‘The Nightfarers’. If you are browsing this book in a bookshop this is the one to read for free as you stand there. Short enough and inspiring enough to set you on your way and loosen your purse – because you’re then certain to buy the book itself. A deadly curse, however, if you pilfer it. Anything I say about its plot and sensibility and references will spoil it, I feel, which is rather a cop out thing for a reviewer to say. One person’s undergrowth is another’s overgrowth. This, though, for me, sprouts between them both: a benignancy bang right in the middle of my soul. (7 August 09)
The Seer of Trieste
Literary constructions built upon a ‘genius loci’, richly evoked by words and the spirits of words, trawling not only myths of authorial intention but also masked balls, alter-boys, an octopus and more entwined. I sense I need to read this tale at least twice more before I write anything about it. But I fear that the second time I’d be engulfed by a sort of ‘Finnegans Wake’ monster that was only stirring slightly during the first reading.
I am utterly dumbfounded by this book, I have to say. I have known of MV for many years and in fact a friend of mine used to correspond with him in the late eighties. I may even have done so. But I can no longer be sure. Icons seem to have no past. And, as a result of this book, MV is a new authorial icon for me. (7 August 09 – 4 hours later)
Their Dark and Starry Mirrors
Echoing from the quoted verse on the book’s front cover shown above and following the previous story, this is of semi-disgraced seer (or, in this case, eventual non-seer), exiled to scry, for the Caliph, scintilla of distant messages by light and mirror. He is still well-regarded by the court astrologer and, indeed, the harmonics of astrology I myself have studied to the point of scrying the darknesses (droguli) between the stars and the planets as more efficacious than scrying the stars and planets themselves….
This is a beautifully told story of ephemeris and banner. I took it personally. I, too, ill-jested and crossed swords with tradition … and was exiled to sea-lit Clacton to fiddle with anonymous texts…. (8 August 09)
The Bookshop in Nový Svet
I’ll say straight off: I can’t do justice to this story. I’d only rewrite the whole story, if I started analysing its connections and charms, its synchronised shards of random truth and fiction, its highly-honed magic of conceit and prosody. Merely, let me say that over many years (during my career as Principal Pension Trust Secretary) I mixed socially and professionally with highly-placed Actuaries but, truth to say, I never imagined them extrapolating their highly-wrought and empirically tested Mortality (Death) and Morbidity (Illness) Tables towards the statistics and mathematically-matched considerations of poetry, art, imagination, ‘me-ness’ and professional mourning…all for financial gain! There is a poet in this story, too, who is known under the nemonym of Z. I merely add that because of my own mischievous sip at the black spirit. Rest assured, meanwhile, I shall not relinquish my struggle with this book’s gestalt as a drogulus-in-disguise. (8 August 09 – 3 hours later)
The English Leopard: An Heraldic Dialogue
A non-linear academic overture to its own inbuilt Notes (Notes with Numbers but no correlative Numbers adjacent to the correct references in the Dialogue’s text and, in fact, the last Note has no reference at all to de-Note, let alone an adjacent Note number in the text)…followed by a double-barrelled Appendix. The Adjacency and non-Adjacency and Double-Barreledness are tantaleon to a form of Alternate Heraldry in my mind. The core of this Chamber exercise in ill-notated Early Music is the devices of Lion and Leopard and how each or both relate to the de-Noting heraldrically and occultishly of our heritage through the onward thrust of Social, Monarchical / Maniacal, Religious History in England-France and elsewhere. Knowledge of History in general is recommended when construing this admittedly well-limbed exercise. My knowledge of History is cloudy, so I shall move on and seek my drogulus rampant elsewhere. (9 August 09)
The Box of Idols
Again I am astonished at this book’s substance of language. ‘The Box of Idols’ tells of a bibliophile who tries to solve the mystery of his friend’s idols (or household gods) fidgeting once they were housed in a compartmented box found by chance.
The story’s precision is no match for its own conceits. A story that out-stories itself. An imputed Sherlock Holmes descrying connections, connections that lead to concerns outweighing the weightiest imaginings.
I once owned a toy printing-set when a child, whereby, with tweezers, I meticulosuly transposed the tiny letters from their bank to a their new home of language, then ready to be stamped on an ink-pad of black spirit and later dye-cast upon the white sea of paper. Little did I know what revelations would be unlocked by my future reading of those very same letters – if in different positions – compiling this excellent story today.
The characters are well drawn. The rationale pitch perfect. And the letters thankfully no longer lonely. (9 August 09 – 7 hours later)
The Axholme Toll
This story has the strongest ‘genius loci’ I think I have encountered in all literature. Seriously. Even more so than this book’s own Vale of Valentine I earlier sensed, if not read about: a place where, as towards this story’s end, there is an ‘amiable and pottering sort of man’ assisting you to explore … a tutelary spirit who may or may not be the head-lease author himself.
I will let the reader explore this story’s ‘genius loci’ for him- or herself, without describing it at second-hand. I have not checked all its facts in obvious places of reference, but the place rings true, in more ways than one of its title. It is a delightful MR-Jamesian journey of a solitude-loving man who meets lore and legends, not head on, but head within. Four ghosts, or what I took to be ghosts, that will haunt me forever. And, serendipitously for me, there is an unresolved famous nemonymous book that acts as backdrop to the ‘genius loci’.
This story is this book’s island where the only toll needed is the price of ‘The Nightfarers’. It is essential to remain blinkered to the other more modern things that have been built on this ‘island’. This story’s amiability of narration does just that for you, but, miraculously, not without describing those modern things for the sake of your complete ‘reality’ as visitor. (10 August 09)
The Seven Treasures of Bucharest
(a collaboration with Geticus Polus)
In the Nineteen Sixties, it is on record that I formed the Zeroist Group, loosely tied with the Dada movement, or an attempt even to reach some Sub-Dada realm. I also collected my then near-juvenile poems under the overall title of ‘Dark Lights’… perhaps all that culminated today with Cone Zero … and this makes me think that the gestalt of this whole book is not one single gestalt but each and every reader’s past, each and every reader’s own set of personal connections with it, connections and leitmotifs that the book actually entices into existence in different forms according to which reader is reading it at the time.
Looking back at what I have written in the whole review above, this theory of bespoke gestalt very much seems to be the case, and its final realisation or crystallisation was at this very moment ignited by my reading ‘The Seven Treasures of Bucharest’ (a story in seven parts and of near novella length). However, that is not to say that each reader’s individual ‘crystallisation’ is not a drogulus in itself. Each a drogulus with different characteristics.
‘The Seven Treasures of Bucharest’ itself tells of arcane matters, but essentially of quests and quests within quests, the garnering of relics or ‘ready-mades’. I could delve into each and every ‘ready-made’, each and every quest endlessly. It is a significant event in my literary life and perhaps I should devote much space here to explaining why. But, no, let it suffice to say that the main quest is for the ultimate throw, the ultimate chance, i.e. the optimum Synchronised Shard of Random Truth and Fiction … mixed with religious and semi-religious affairs, politics and gameplaying, loyalty to self even if the self’s constituent selves are slippery, art and preservation of one’s environment in traditional ways, diplomacy, imprisonment, luck, statistics, language, serendipity, the ‘Circle of Contemplative Thought’…
“The letters gleamed as if their darkness was coated with a curious light.” LAWKS! I’ve quoted from the text again! I thought that there’s no teaching an old dog new tricks. But this book has proved me wrong. I highly recommend the whole book for its separate ‘ready-mades’ (first the letters and then the words), for its quests within quests (the stories that can either be enjoyed like ‘islands’ or as a ‘white sea company’) and, finally, for its gestalt within the larger gestalt that is you. (10 August 09 – 4 hours later)
Mark Valentine has now written to to me about above review, and below quoted with permission: “The way you turn the pages of the book releases ideas and images that present the stories freshly even to me.”