Tenebrous Tales – by Christopher Barker

I’m due to start below another of my gradual real-time reviews, turning leitmotifs into a gestalt.

And it is of the collection entitled ‘Tenebrous Tales’ by Christopher Barker (Ex Occidente Press 2010).

There is no guarantee how long it will take to complete this review, whether days or years.

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.

All my real-time reviews are linked from here: https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/df-lewis-real-time-reviews/

Tenebrous Tales

The Melancholy Haunting of Nicholas Parkes

“Listening to the album, it’s like he’s really there with you, sitting in the corner of the room on his stool, hunched over his guitar like a rook on a perch.”

Similarly, with this fluid, compelling prose, I can really believe someone is in my room as I read this substantial ghost story, whether it be the Narrator, the Narrator’s Narrator in the pub, Nicholas Parkes himself, or, even, the head-lease author himself. It is an obsessive rite-of-passge that is one of those rare stories that you only find from time to time: a story that really makes you believe in the ghost.  And in the levels of narration, the locations, the characters, the fear left with the reader, the history it tells of obsessive music making with a Jimi Hendrix / Nick Cave (?) imaginarium-of-lyrics built in. 

Nick Parkes, the musician central to the plot, apparently is distantly related (significant for me) to my favourite symphonist but who is also my least favourite composer-as-a-reputed-real-person: the late Sir Malcolm Arnold.

Seriously impressed by this long story. And I do not say that lightly. (31 Oct 10)


Snow Train

“There would be no shovels for him, no cheering hot toddy, no ‘take your weight off your feet, old boy…’…”

A shorter, less substantial story, but one with a similar feel of what I can only call puckish paranoia by the protagonist.  It tells – often poetically – of a snow-marooned salesman catching a train after his car broke down. It is steeped in some memorable horror tropes, too, and the inferred paranoia is not the only puckish element, but the plot is also intriguingly oblique as well as straightforward. A hard trick to make.

I should mention at this stage that I am not reading the Foreword by the Author or the Introduction by Reggie Oliver until I’ve reviewed all the stories. Also, the hardback book itself is exquisitely produced with lusciously stiff pages and an impressively stiff dust-wrapper. A few typos, though, so far, the only cause for slight dismay.

“perhaps ‘perhaps’ was an ambiguous word.” (31 Oct 10 – two hours later)


The Sinister Cupboard

“I am myself, someone replied. Vere asked: but who is ‘myself’?”

Another substantial story. If you enjoy stories by sir-real Aickman or mannequinine Ligotti or theatrickal Reggie Oliver, you are bound to enjoy this. An optimum blend of the three with an added ingredient: a puckish Barker towards whom I’m beginning to acclimatise with great enjoyment.  Even an alternate world Mrs Bennett from Austen who has no daughters but a single son who buys a ‘sinister cupboard’ – and an open-ended ending like ‘Snow Train’. A shadow cabinet. A perfect story, too, for Hallowe’en.  You know, where’s this Barker author been? (31 Oct 10 – another 4 hours later)


The Man Who Fell Awake

“…the clocks are playing subtle tricks…”

An appropriate story to read on the day the clocks stopped still for real. British Summer Time changed to GMT today!

A five page waking-up-to-weirdness story – embracing the endgame of this book’s first story, but here the protagonist’s parents thrust his suicide note down his throat….

Anyone out there read Elizabeth Bowen’s horror masterpiece ‘The Inherited Clock’? They’d do well to read it after Mr Barker’s.  A synergy of synchronicity seems to be going on. Better leave off while the going’s good. I will resume this review another day. (31 Oct 10 – another hour later).


Some interim comments: The green dust-wrapper is indeed extraordinarily heavy-duty yet aesthetically pleasing.   I can’t help noticing, however, that the cover being advertised on-line by the publisher is the design on the actual sturdy black hardboard beneath the dust-wrapper, i.e.:

At the bottom of the inside back flap of the dust-wrapper is this small print:

“Cover illustration, At the Bottom of the Pass,

Kerry Buck, MMIX

Ex Occidente Press, Bucharest, MMX

In Spite of All Affronts.”

Within the book – as well as the aforementioned Foreword and Introduction – is a fetching portrait photograph of the author in black & white.

(1 Nov 10)


Subtle Differences

“There is no such word as ‘muddifying'”.

Guffaw! Retch!  I wish I had read this one yesterday on Hallowe’en proper. It would have been even more effective.

There are many emotions that this crazeee story evokes, implications of at least some of which are very worrying, including one’s own sanity or the author’s or someone who is not you who is you.  Ostensibly, a well-characterised, well-written story of the Locationers (a group of young people from Britain whose hobby is visiting location sites of films) here travelling to America to visit the Blair Witch Project location complete with Cherie joke.  But then you the reader – if you dare to – read on into something like Texas Chain Saw Massacre.  I am at a complete loss how to evaluate this story other than instinctively knowing it is rather special in a memorable and, yes, a worrying way.  Puckish at the edge of dangerous.  The ‘subtle differences’ between Brits and Yanks just possibly being diverting decoys from something more important that one needs to keep an eye on at the edge of sight..  And a possible suicidal ending (in more than one sense of the plot itself and writing the plot) to match previous cut-outs. 

“I hate seeing into dark rooms from outside.” (1 Nov 10 – three hours later)


The Motiveless Pursuit

“…November – I remember that quite clearly – what with all the bonfires and fireworks…”

A fictional treatment of semi-madness, suicidal preoccupations, a ‘monstrous’ paranoia and a satire on corruption – and I’m sure glad that, with this story, I have long been a believer in a literary theory – that I’ve studied since the 1960s – called ‘The Intentional Fallacy’….as now underpinned by the story’s title!

 This is a genuinely horrific fiction, involving a knocking on the door that this time of year makes seem natural until…

It is Lovecraftian in the sense of a narrative dictaphone-recorded message left to degenerate into death’s terror as part of the climax (cf ‘The Hound’) – whereby, on its own, and as part of the book’s context so far, one is taken by this message (as filtered by the policemen listening to it) inch by inch further into a narrative ontology grotesquely bordering on the contrast of omniscience and mindless extinction. (1 Nov 10 – another 90 minutes later)


The Tableaux

“Why, surely he had stumbled upon the Three Wonders Of Nowhere In Particular.”

I am so far about two-thirds through this story and I thought I should get some thoughts down on electronic paper while I still thought them!  I seem to be getting through this book very quickly, much more quickly that I expected – voraciously. I did not really have any other expectations before starting this book – and I tried to put out of my mind anything I think I knew about its author. But if I had had expectations, then they must surely now have been exceeded, whatever they were. It’s as if I have entered a fiction world with fiction characters and situations from the Horror and Weird and Ghost Story part of my love for literature: almost caricatures, some almost mad, but it’s like they have come out of fiction, then been ‘seasoned’ with real life, and later put back into fiction for me to read. That’s the only way I can explain it.  This is a story of stumbling upon a sort of museum in the countryside, a stockade, a mock-up of a Saxon village, with creepy wax figures that we often see in tableaux in such ‘living’ museums (e.g. I saw Rasputin recently in a room in St Petersburg) – and, similar to a scene in the Nicholas Parkes story, a protagonist is tempted to pilfer things from the untenanted scenarios, light-fingeredly, although he is not a thief…. More later. (1 Nov 10 – another 2 hours later)

The aptly numb ending to this story reminding us that death is ultimately painless, spiking a dumb doll like a pin cushion amid the gowns and masks. A dead  splinter in the palm, this time. The author himself  becoming the keeper or curator (curer as healer or skin-‘curer’?) of the museum of life having his dare-not-to-keep-off-the-bed kip?

“Behind the house, the crimson sun was bubbling down into the trees…” (1 Nov 10 – another hour later)

In my real-time reviews, I don’t usually question what I wrote the day before – but after revisiting the previous story this morning, I am not sure what I meant by the last paragraph above (written just before I went to bed) about a ‘numb ending’. I must have been over-tired or I had a wisdom then that I don’t now. In any event, the ending of ‘The Tableaux’ is another ‘dying fall’ typical of other themes in this book. A most haunting story, without a doubt. (2 Nov 10)


The Cliff Path

“Outside it is a bleak, hopeless land, full of greed and cold loathing. Venture out I will not.”

A powerful vignette of retributive ghosts, a fiction as a sibling to ‘The Motiveless Pursuit’, a cousin to ‘Snow Train’ and an obscure genealogical find for ‘The Sinister Cupboard’. Intruded-upon hermitage fiction at its best.  A nocturne of untrammelled paranoia, puckish only by inference from within the book’s previous context.

At this point, I felt driven to revise my understanding of the word ‘tenebrous’, eg: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tenebrous (2 Nov 10 – another hour later)


Drill Head

“Outside the rig was cocooned by an artificial halo of white light which always caused Clough to feel absurdly paranoid about the huges swathes of sinister, immense blackness beyond.”

Another excellent retributive ghost story vignette (here on the paradoxically claustrophobic, open-air, twilit tenebrousness of an oil-rig as communal hermitage) – but with a twist – a twist that reminded me of implications behind my own novel ‘Nemonymous Night’.  Sorry, as well as striving for a feel of real-time reading, my reviews often tend to become highly personal. The only way to read I guess. In real-time, that is.  And for real. (2 Nov 10 – another hour later)


The Thing in the Tree

“How easily we hurt those we profess to love…”

Brilliant! In many ways, the best left to last. All puckishness abandoned, this story left me with a tear in my eye. I talked about being ‘highly personal’ just now with regard to the previous story, and with this story – I guess – ‘personal’ meets ‘personal’, reader meets author.  Not in real life, but in something possibly more real than real: a fiction realm.

Successfully written from two points of view, this poetic-fantasy yet reality-riddled story contains a certain magic from a MR James feel and slightly oblique Lewis Carroll – and something or someone else that pervades this whole book. Utterly entranced. (2 Nov 10 – another hour later).


I have now read the Foreword and Introduction, giving me additional food for thought. I will not go into them too much as I feel you should read the fiction before you read these, as I did. However they seem to conflict on one point:

Foreword: “It is highly unlikely that I will produce a second collection of short stories.”  Making this book Christopher Barker’s lifetime Collected Stories, I sadly guess.

Introduction: “I am confident there will be more…”

Also there is this statement after the Foreword: “NB: The author specifically requests that in the unlikely event that this book receives any favourable reviews that it is not nominated for any genre award.”

Also, I forgot to mention earlier that this book has a wonderful colour frontispiece (Near and Far) by Kerry Buck.


“…school-and-cold-custard-skin  or playgrounds-and-scabby-knees.”

END (2 Nov 10 – another hour later)


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8 responses to “Tenebrous Tales – by Christopher Barker

  1. Pingback: DF LEWIS REAL-TIME REVIEWS | My Last Balcony

  2. Pingback: Ex Occidente Press – My Real-Time Reviews | My Last Balcony

  3. Christopher Barker sent me an email out of the blue a day or so after my completion of the above review. He has given me permission to quote it:

    “Dear Des: I just wanted to drop you a line to thank you far having taken the time out to read and then review “Tenebrous Tales”.

    I was genuinely touched by some of your comments and insights. I found the composition of the book to be emotionally-draining so it is heart-warming to discover that others have found some of the pieces emotionally-engaging.

    Usually a review involves someone ponderously re-interpreting a piece of fiction with a view towards asserting his or her authority to judge it; that’s when the review isn’t a piece of nepotist puffery by a friend of the author. However, you have demonstrated the enviable talent of being able to review in an insightful, intuitive and original way. In reviewing my book, you swiftly zoned in upon the key aspects and commented accordingly. I *am* puckish, often dangerously so, but you’ve been the first person with enough integrity to say so out loud. This is both an endearing and a refreshing style of review. It also exhibits a healthy intellectual regard for your reader, whether he or she be author, publisher or genre enthusiast.

    I’m sure my book can’t be half as good as you portray it but I will delude myself otherwise by virtue of pandering to vanity.”

  4. Just read this excellent new review of the first story in the above collection:
    For my “Nick Cave (?)”, evidently read ‘Nick Drake’. Don’t think that affects my reading of it as a great ghost story, however.

  5. I wish Christopher Barker all the best and hope that he soon recovers from the illness that I understand in the last few days he has been suffering.

  6. Pingback: DF Lewis's Real-Time Reviews

  7. Just noticed that Chris Barker has had his acclaimed, out-of-print TENEBROUS TALES (2010) brought out as a kindle: http://eleganthorrors.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/tenebrous-tales-finally-published-as-e.html?m=1

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