Groaning Shadows – by Paul Finch
I’m due to start below another of my gradual real-time reviews. And it is of the collection entitled ‘Groaning Shadows’ by Paul Finch (Gray Friar Press 2009).
There is no guarantee how long it will take to complete this review, whether days or years.
This books seems, at first sight, to contain a handful of novellas.
CAVEAT: Spoilers are not intended but there may be inadvertent ones. You may wish (i) to take that risk and read my review before or during your own reading of the stories, or (ii) to wait until you have finished reading them. In either case, I hope it gives a useful or interesting perspective.
The Sundered Flesh
“There could easily be a connection there.”
At 38 pages, a long short story (rather than a novella), one that starts as a genuine page-turner with striking effective Horror prose narration stylising two young student viewpoints separately and in parallel (a narrative feat brought off against all the odds) – in a believable ‘genius loci’ of seedy Mid-Eighties student-land in Lewisham. A story involving an old church about to be demolished and its monstrous haunting (by its own-ex-vicar?) and with historical under-pinning. It is that under-pinning (literally and metaphorically) that made me think of the very nature of the Horror story in general. This one exhibits supernatural rationale by reincarnation and I believe it is a case-study in modern Horror fiction (although not a true classic in itself but good enough to warrant praising as a genuinely memorable story). This contention of mine is doubly under-pinned when one sees it has a theme of “mechanical leviathans” and “all the time absorbing information, learning how they might be controlled” applying to the imputed author himself and, incredibly, the very book (or the book that underpins the story) acting a part physically to ‘solve’ the action’s danger itself – rather than just solving its post-dénouement by theory. (12 Jul 10)
We Are The Shadows
This is a novella that I shall probably read in three sections for the purposes of this review.
pp 39 – 62
“Bob wondered if maybe they were connected to each other, if perhaps, by some remote chance, this was a bizarre game…”
I leave this novella on page 62 at a most enticing cliff-hanger. But I am determined to let things percolate for quite a while before proceeding further as an experiment in ‘fiction-finching’. The novella starts with a highly effective scenario of night life and seedy pubs in a downtrod town in the proximity of the sea – as a girl, abandoned by other hens in her hen party, is accosted. Then a depiction of newspaper man, Bob, who feeds off slightly bent coppers for his stories – a man with a history in the town. And then the most startling depiction of a street-walker, one who also is accosted – but her described thoughts strike me most with the way she sometimes pays her rent! This is a story of connections or attempted connections to transcend the mystery of a serial accoster of strange mien, or more than one serial accoster. Brutal accoster(s) – recognisable in a clownish or theatrical way? Finch-fiction seems to tantalise with a teasing sense of the fiction itself investigating the connections even as it knowingly narrates them…. (12 Jul 10 – four hours later)
pp. 62 – 85
” ‘Why join the fuzz if you’re worried about Health and Safety?’
‘It’s the law.’ “
There are are many amalgams of people and place that conspire for connections and many that conspire against connections, and Bob working in unofficial partnership on this case with his ex-wife — in this dark seaside town of built-in pubs and violent girls on the loose and the even more violent man or men (in theatrical disguise) in pursuit of them all imbued in the sea-granite of the location — serves to conspire both ways. This is an extremely intriguing plot that hangs fire in the Hitchcockian scenes and events. A mystery – and actors playing themselves or people pretending to act as actors playing them and so on in concertina of role. I can’t wait to read the last section of this novella but I shall withstand the temptation for the sake of any words still needing to be put in place for satisfactory dénouement. Some books shuffle words in the night. I can just about hear it happening if I place the book by my bed in the darkness, as I did with this one last night. (13 Jul 10).
pp. 85 – 110
” ‘My ex-husband’s a writer. He can afford to be imaginative.’ “
A suitably thrusting climax that I shall not reveal for fear of spoilers. It is is a neatly extended, cinematic and fulsomely Horror Fiction genre climax. But, as the novella itself more than implies, if you need to discard the impossible, the solution must be one of the improbables, if no probables are available (or as I understand it!). However, for me, there is an ‘impossible’ here more likely than the narrated ‘improbables’ : an ‘impossible’ that I think the author – whether intentionally or unintentionally – has subtly led me (and perhaps other readers) to fall in line with. The power of the book itself. The only real clue as to knowledge of certain things by certain characters in the book is in having read the book itself, waiting for it to shuffle its words around them in real-time – making them appear “godlike” (a word used in this novella in what I believe to be a significant way). Meanwhile, they were no more privy to matters than the ordinary reader. The question is – who has the most clout in the pecking-order of freehold author or author’s leased fiction-narrative point of view (reliable, unreliable, collusive, non-collusive?) or the ‘author’ character within the story itself … or you the reader giving to the story as much as your taking from it allows you to give back to it?
“…it was the embodiment of namelessness, a walking anonymity.” (14 Jul 10)
The Ogre of the Scraggs
” ‘He’d gone totally crazy, you see. Because his feet had been swapped round!’ “
This seven page interlude is a special gem all in itself. The scrambling-routes amid old slag heaps and the biking boys exploring its alien-like landscape. It is a generic type of story to which I cannot currently compare anything but itself, with its various off-kilter punchline horrors and special sense of place. Indeed, I may often claim that, say, a certain story is a ‘Lord of the Flies’ type story or an ‘Oliver Twist’ type story or a ‘Treasure Island’ type story etc etc. This story is an ‘Ogre of the Scraggs’ type story: an expression I expect to use in the future for other stories I happen to read, stories that approach its skills and unmistakeable ethos but don’t quite reach them. (16 Jul 10)
Better than calling it a ‘Daftie‘ type story! (16 Jul 10 – ten minutes later)
Their Bones Picked Clean
pp. 118 – 144
“…he knew there were many unexplained mysteries below the skin of the world, just waiting to leak out through some rent or rip.”
When I wrote my story ‘Abrecocks & Zawns’ (published in the Eighties), I’m sure a Zawn was a real word for a cave not a cove. But that is an aside. This, for me, is a Cornish-based ‘Houses of the Russians’ (Aickman) type story, one with a police detective on official sick leave on the Lizard – and a black girl who according to a theory propounded not by the story but in the story should not be able to swim very well by nature of her race but ironically needs to escape danger at the end of this first half of the novella by swimming from an island because the boat she came in has been shattered by a humped monster …. and a whole span of Horror innuendos and oily characters – and legends of sickness…all in a racy yet textured prose style. I’m loving it.
“At one time, Cornish folk had preferred to build circular dwellings so that there’d be no corner behind which His Satanic Majesty could lie in wait for them.” (16 Jul 10 – another 2 hours later)
pp. 145 – 171
“As Nick mulled over this, he drifted into a more relaxed state and knew that he’d soon be counting zeds.”
Having now finished this novellatory fiction, I shall not give away its full plot of black magic, bones and sickness — the bodily sickness of the main hero and the inherited bones of the heroine as well as the bones of the slave-ship wreckers piled up in an ossuary and their centuries old sickness. I need to concentrate on the excitingly driven power of the story-line that depicts a classic horror monster and the Cornish stone-bones that underpin the wild scenery of the backdrop. But what I shall draw most attention to is the nature of why this is a masterpiece of its kind, a serious caricature – with words as bones themselves. Footnotes to another story by the same author featuring this policeman protagonist and to his Manchester vernacular. And not only cinematic in itself, but, at one point, it actually states: “Like a cinematic special effect…”
This caricature allows the changing narrative points-of-view to work (against all the odds) and allows us to suspend disbelief as if we are conspiring with a mad author to summon archetypal horrors that transcend their own caricatures. [A florid yet honest Horror with a knack for craggy words but containing sophisticated sensibilities via well-honed and woven smoothness of syntax.] (17 Jul 10)
The Baleful Dead
pp. 172 – 194
“…his face a a wrinkled parchment, and personal hygiene his lowest priority, it was all rather – well, skuzzy.”
This is a brilliant pen picture (honestly and thoroughly brilliant characterisation also conveying much knowledge of the erstwhile music scene) of a has-been metalhead band called Wolfbane re-called by their manager to exhume some of their glory days, particularly rejigging some of their earlier concept music for a film featuring Julius Caesar and Roman history … visiting a country house (in splendid Reggie Oliver mode) where they can summon inspirations and where there is further pungent characterisation of its inhabitants, and an architectural folly (that I can fully visualise from the words) in the grounds, and the snap of a twig where there shouldn’t have been a snap of a twig…..
[The ‘folly’ is an interesting trope here for the fiction itself (indeed as the fiction describes the motivations of building a ‘folly’) … and this (what I have already called) fiction-finching is of highly emblematic and caricatural power especially when judging by the earlier participative ‘character’ of the book itself. And is ‘The Baleful Dead’ a play on ‘The Grateful Dead’?] (18 Jul 10)
pp. 194 – 210
” ‘I might do a bit of writing,’ Joe said. He was trying to pen yet another book about his life in the rock business. Even now, I was sure that some publisher would probably snap his hand off – if only he could get more down on paper than ‘Chapter One’.”
The interesting thing is that the first person narrator of this story (the ‘I’ above: a member of Wolfbane, also) is ostensibly writing this stunning novella. And it is stunningly written. Whose folly is whose?
This section builds up further atmosphere and supernatural / historical undercurrents via a séance and the ever-‘wild’, if aging, lead-singer (a Syd Barrett-type figure?) possessing an ability to translate Latin from his childhood days as a choirboy. And a pair of parallel dreams of an earlier concert, indicating that a ‘spirit of place’ applies equally in a country house today or urban Manchester of the Seventies. (18 Jul 10 – two hours later)
pp. 210 – 230
“The trees of the plantation closed around us like a pair of dusty, green curtains. / That must sound like a very over-the-top description of an English coppice on a warm spring evening, and I can’t really deny it.”
There are knowing looks here, to parallel those between the band members as they are taken deeper into the plot’s conspiracy of silence, dark forces ever mustering at its edges. The narrator actually lives for real (or writes himself into) a visit to a derelict chapel or church with scars and gouges on its walls outside (like attempted script or writing?) and inside there unfolds a near pornographical-encounter (the narrator in the more passive or reluctant mode) with the larger-than-life country house lady owner. Then, later, it seems Wolfbane’s manager (who is portrayed as mysteriously and ominously complicit with the plot’s as yet incomplete dénouement) has a camping trip in mind – overnight at the folly – for all of them…. with enticements as to the band’s revival even at their advanced ages. They were the music and the music still is – with all its erstwhile trappings of epic-fantasy and/or devilry… (18 Jul 10 – another 90 minutes later)
pp. 230 – 253
“Forget what you’ve read in books, or seen at the cinema.”
And regarding ‘The Baleful Dead’:
“Somewhere in the back of my head, a voice was shouting: ‘It doesn’t mean anything. It’s nothing more than an entry in an old, probably discredited book.’ “
But, almost by paradox, we ‘credit’ it the more. A clever technique, if technique it is. Not a technique, but a sense of someone’s unspoken ‘howling’ at the end for his own self-sacrifice. I won’t give more away, other than perhaps the baked potatoes at the start of the camping-trip. There are hordes, too, reminding me of those bones in an earlier story’s ‘ossuary’ and the switched feet in Scraggs. How can one evaluate this book? Only by picking it up and recalling what is inside, listen to its shuffling words, its caricatures, its Ligottian mannequins come to life, its truly unique larger-than-life spirit.
The book’s cover design – for some, perhaps, a ‘folly’ in itself – is quite constructively provocative for what I have found in this book and for what it has left me with … and that is me come to praise Caesar, not to bury him. Not so much the ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ but more ‘Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii’. This Planet Rocks. (18 Jul 10 – another 100 minutes later)
All my real-time reviews are linked from here: https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/df-lewis-real-time-reviews/