Morbid Tales – Quentin S. Crisp

I’m due to start below another of my gradual real-time reviews, turning leitmotifs into a gestalt. A highly aesthetic paperback book I recently purchased from the publisher and received today (24 Jan 12). And it is entitled:-

Morbid Tales – by Quentin S. Crisp

Tartarus Press 2012

Previously published as a hardback by the same publisher: 2004

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

CAVEAT (1): 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 book, or (ii) to wait until you have finished reading it. In either case, I hope it gives a useful or interesting perspective.

All my other real-time reviews are linked from here:

My previous real-time reviews of fiction by Quentin S. Crisp: All God’s Angels, Beware! – Quentin S Crisp ; “Remember You’re a One-Ball!” – by Quentin S. Crisp ; Cinnabar’s Gnosis


The Mermaid

Prelude: Philosophy in the Underwear Drawer

“I believe that everybody has a story. It falls to their life’s epicentre like a meteorite.”

There is a difference between morbid and misanthropic, I guess.  Here, we balance on the edge of each in turn and discover these edges do not overlap – necessarily. Imagine, the narrator of HP Lovecraft’s ‘The Hound’ preambling  not a Hound but a Mermaid, discovered not from a fruit-mulched grave-plot but perhaps another slot closed up as if there’s nothing to penetrate… I am entranced by the prose and its erotic touches as well as by the “mer-monkey” from the Horniman Museum, Penge, to which the writer of the book’s Foreword once introduced me decades ago.  The narrator is in a coastguard’s cottage where his obsessions may drift ashore? (24 Jan 12)

{later} Chapter One: Beachcomber’s Delight

“…fashioned by someone for whom this was the world, for whom jellyfish were floating flowers…”

Now here a moving solidification – via unsolid visions of sea and sea’s accoutrements and ‘object’ magic and a spoken “Sunken Tongue” and Medusa-musing and a “Kraken powder” – of the Mermaid taken to the Narrator’s home, where the purpose-built tank etc. amid narcotic prose gives birth to all manner of thoughts in my mind. The use of gills?  The felt literalness (as here) of wonder being more wonderful than more wonderful wonder.  And the beauty of reading such flotsam-blessed fiction – partly at least as a result of narrating one’s own journey in it as I am here – is that serendipities are often convoked – [e.g. (for me) from today’s immediacy as well as the recent past; Capek HERE, Reggie Oliver HERE and a Medusa-like HERE.]

“…as if I were a tomb-robber fleeing the winged shadow of a pharaoh’s curse.” (24 Jan 12 – two hours later)

{later} Chapter Two: To Have and Not to Have

“It was one of those times that form lightly without you realising that they are to become a poignant memory.”

And I suspect my reading of this story is one such ‘time’, tantamount-to-a-novella instilling in me both joy and despair at the same time: no mean feat.  Yet the narrator is mean to himself.  Guilt plays with innocence, like a mermaid with a lobster: and not always ‘respectively’ (or even ‘respectfully’).  And the love-physical implications – tied to that earlier ‘literalness’ which I see is in turn tied up with that in the War of the Newts book by Karel Capek – are striking to say the least: a tail like a sheath; onanism making one two (a tail eventually bifurcates) etc.; “this story-book love” telling its own story of perceived self-denigration: but, like two multiplicative negatives making a positive, two stories telling each other possibly make a positive reality along their own Escher combined audit trail or ley line of disguised fiction.  Good, too, to know that “vowel sounds travel better underwater“. (24  Jan 12 – another 3 hours later)

{Later} Chapter Three: The End of the Tail

“Yes, yes, the memories trail together as elegant as houseplants growing at different levels in an ornamental stand.”

Indeed. Just like this novella and the book it becomes. A book from the tides of sea-voice and anemone and jellyfish, shaped and hinged (like the Necronomicon?), a book that is as distant from what books are now fast becoming in 2012 as it is possible to be.  This is a perfect ending: where my earlier joy and despair are explained, reconciled, transcended – with even a passing, yet explicit, contextual reference on page 57 to the human curse of end-of-one’s-days dementia in the story mentioned above (‘Flowers of the Sea’) that had yet another 7 years to be written after ‘The Mermaid’ was first published in 2004. I shall not give away the ending of ‘The Mermaid’  – but it is something you will never forget in the context of everything that happens before it.  Not exactly “passive aggression” but something, although similar, more cataclysmic within the human pattern of weakness and strength.  There are no words for it yet except perhaps in ‘Sunken Tongue’.  I guess, you need your own “passive aggression” to appreciate this novella fully, but that’s not all that you need : you need a willingness and an ability to empathise.  To not be you.  First and last, “Certain sacrifices have to be made...” (24 Jan 12 – another 90 minutes later)


Far-Off Things

“They become nothing more than an anonymous ‘you’.”

A pagan paean  – as a heart-felt, old-fashioned investigation (amid modern times) into the nature of love and into a Wordsworthian Pantheism (here sown with demons and bugbears as well as the unpagan, quite human-needed magic of Christmas Day between the “folds” of Autumn and Winter) –  to another self-denigrated obsession, another explicit story-book love, not now a Mermaid, but a Milkmaid with (for me) Rapunzel’s hair raining like teardrops to feed both hope and, with eventual inevitability, despair. Yet the hope remains by being crystallised here for me on real paper so as to hold the fleeting emotion of ‘fabulous’ fiction for as forever a forever as possible.  Another oxymoron of permanence and transience. Another of those “gooligars” (no point in googling). (25 Jan 12)


Cousin X

Pages 77 – 101: There was the discreet feeling of her feet leaving the earth. She even forgot this was strange. She was simply rapt.”

Discrete or discreet? Probably both in resonance – as, here, is the optimum blend of autistic gaucheness and  single-minded wondrousness.  Well, those who know me, will guess this story is written just for me. It’s just up my street – where, I imagine, the lorries and buses float in the sky like kites.  Proustian, yes a little.  Rather more it is another optimum blend: of Elizabeth Bowen and Sarban (especially their stories about children if not for children).  The prose immaculate reveals another form of unrequited love to match those earlier: a love as yet unfelt, the deepest unrequital of all (immortal, invisible, God only wise)? — here via the free gift or bought on approval from an old comic of x-ray specs between the Cousin X (why no name?) and his cousin Sasha, she warned by her parents not to spend time with him during his vist to her house. But she is Calmahained towards other-wordliness, self from self. As I am. You see, possibly misjudged Cousin X is unnervingly obsessed with taking apart contraptions like clocks etc. [A bit like doing real-time reviews…?] – exploring rock-pools for see-through sea-creatures and “kisses like jellyfish.” A story so far for the reader to (un?)”solidify” into potential “shapes“.  (25 Jan 12 – five hours later)

{Later} Pages 101 – 122: “And in the next instance there flashed out from this calm remembrance a vicious fear, like a hound left to guard a forgotten chamber, crazed and half starved, no longer able to distinguish between those who put it there and those who it is meant to guard against.”

Remembrance of things past: having gained a past like Proust – I would not have thought to write about this story’s first half like I did above if I had already read its second half before starting to write about the whole story.  Two hours ago, I had not reached the Earth’s Core. Nor had I reached this story’s deja-vu or hindsight of adulthood (and this is truly a drama that MUST one day be filmed by Stephen Poliakoff).  It is one incredible reading experience.  You need Cousin X’s concept of ‘air’ as well as the gaps between the words just to gain breath. I hate getting into superlatives and ever try to resist them. But sometimes they take you over just as subsumings take you under? As both do here. It’s just that all animals and other creatures, not only mermaids, need penetrating somehow, even if you have to enter by some strange byways. As I have done here, I hope, between the story’s claws and into its underbelly of meaning.  It’s possibly Aickman’s ‘The Same Dog’ rather than Sarban’s ‘Calmahain’.  Or, more likely, both.  And “darkle” is just the root of ‘darkling’. And k just a mutant x. (25 Jan 12 – another 2 hours later)


A Lake

Pages 123 – 146: “There passed a few moments of expectant ambiguity, bobbing moistly like an Adam’s apple.”

At first or mostly or ostensibly, a workmanlike narration about Stephen in Japan: his visit to an uncanny Lake that he discovers is associated with suicides in the past: but set within gradually more and more stunningly conceived flashes of observation about fate and choice and identity and language and landscape and weather and morbidity and…, observations that often take the reader by pleasant or unpleasant (jarring) surprise and makes him or her stagger back on the balls of his or her feet for a nonce.  [Inter alia, a black rectangle wall emerges to bar Stephen’s eventual path of aggressified passivity: that erstwhile Necronomicon-like book again? And the lake, we learn, early on, has given up many dead fishes or they have given themselves up like lemmings – brilliantly described – with their size difficult to assess as “nowhere a whole specimen to be found” (intriguing in view of the first story?).] And we reach the end of the first half of the story with a tinge of a haunting, a woman, one of the earlier suicides, returned, I feel, to requite … exactly what? I shouldn’t have stopped reading to write this. But too late. (25 Jan 12 – another three hours later)

{Later} Pages 146 – 168: “Although he could not see more than two or three feet in any direction, he became increasingly aware of a poignant depth of water beneath him, needling his innards.”

The workmanlikeness is a form of well-written ‘pulp horror’ fiction: reminding me, inter alios, of A. Merritt. As in the first half, there are shafts of perception that stun one’s path through this darkly cosmic foray into a vast universe of self and selflessness reflected within the lake and its darkling Japanese myths and demons and inter-coiling snakes.  And the word ‘poignant’ when related to a depth of water actually does take on a real, perhaps unintended, meaning – in the half-resonant light (or darkness) of the earlier Mermaid story – when Stephen discovers the layered conjoined remains upon remains of… well, that would be a Spoiler.  “Not only space, but time too will disintegrate in The Ray.” (25 Jan 12 – another 90 minutes later)


Time too will disintegrate? Seems to be a fascinating slant on the next story that I’ve just read this early morning…

The Two-Timer

“As a result, here I am today. I have remained discreet, apart from now, of course, divulging my adventures to you, here.”

An “anonymous ‘you'” who is somehow complicit? This is a telling, gradually maturity-accreting monologue to ‘you’ by Terry Buzzacott about a boyhood of “flobbing techniques” and a special power that he wields of freezing time (resonant with Cousin X’s x-ray specs and dissecting contraptions such as clocks (and, possibly, the book’s earlier ‘experiments’ with a mermaid)) while everyone else in his life is oblivious of his ‘fiddlings’ with them during the time that time is thus temporarily frozen.  I spoke of a relative ‘foreverness’ earlier in this review and that now takes on new meaning here: “drunk on the perfume of forever” with an arguable factoring-in of Bradbury’s butterfly effect… This boyhood tale at least partially resonates with the author’s novel (Remember You’re a One-Ball) and with my own recent interpretation of ‘two-timing’ in Jeremy Reed’s novel “Here Comes the Nice”.  A fascinating slant on early love, puberty, relationships with peers and teachers as filtered through an autistic aloneness’s yearning for ‘silence’ against the pisspot that life seems.  The plot’s final pay-off makes this  a really compelling story of beginning, middle and end, with the emphasis on the art of traditional story-telling but mixed with experimental conceits. Another landmark read for me.  “Meanwhile“, I just found myself wondering if a flob still oozes down the wall even when time is frozen?  But that’s just me. (26 Jan 12)

I just had a rainy constitutional by the sea and, while doing so, it occurred to me that real texts in traditional books are time frozen and ebooks are transient text subject to both benign and malicious ‘fiddlings’ over time.  Or other variations upon that theme.  (26 Jan 12 – 90 minutes later)


It now turns out that those thoughts of art’s transience and permanence, text and etext, during my constitutional, have some significant bearing on the next story (novella?)…

The Tattooist

Pages 193 – 218: “So why do you want death impregnated in your skin, might I ask? You don’t think it’s a bit morbid?”

The Laconics of a professional Tattooist as he tells so tellingly another anonymous ‘you’ (in non-laconic, stun-jarring images and stylish syntax and word-choice) about the Boy who visits his Tattoo Studio for a customised comic-book image of a girl called Death (semi-irrelevantly reminding me of a Manga image and I sense the Japanese are richly laconic (a contradiction in terms?), laid-back, too)…   This story’s first half, too, is full of well-characterised portraits of pub-goers in modern Britain (jealous of each other’s tattoos), contrasting with the almost religious, almost parthenogenetic immaculacy of two men creating a woman between them over the “needling” poignant depths (cf: The Lake) of their interaction to the sound of “dirty guitars“. The religion of stigmata, too. And Pre-Raphaelite art. And life’s accessorization. And the Intentional Fallacy (“To be astonished at one’s own work is involunatarily to disclaim it.“). And the pain that makes non-pain worthwhile. As well as all the astonishing richnesses of theme and composition, this (so far) is a genuinely compelling story that any reader would not be able to put down, susceptibility to such rarefications or not.  A “Women in Love” (Gerald Crich and Rupert Birkin) type of struggle, a struggle that is also a parthenogenesis, creating the struggle as a thing-in-itself rather than the brutality of two men simply fighting: that of reader and author, too.  The dull-beating of the ever-new and ground-breaking, skin-breaking SF-fantastical from the portal of crowding creations upon screen and in book (or both). All tantalisingly touched upon: touching (at first tentatively) upon the ‘skin’ of reading this story.  Then puncturing it… “Actually he was as punctual as the haunting of a ghost.” (26 Jan 12 – another 3 hours later)

{Later} Pages 219 – 241: “There are so many kinds of relationships we don’t really have names for them at all. In fact, each is unique, and the most insignificant and influential relationships in a person’s life are not always those with people they see regularly and often.”

I am terribly nervous about doing justice to these pages that form tantamount to the powerful coda of this ‘novella’ (forming about half of the whole work).  It’s akin to (Cousin X’s) knife reaching beyond (The Two-Timer’s) “nervous test” – and here that takes on enormous importance where Struggle struggles out in full sharp relief.  Suffice it for me just to recall the Nursery Rhyme that this coda quotes in full: meaningful as hell for me personally. And the daydream of the Primary School scene (NF “British bulldogs” pent within it).  And so many other startling images and expressions here that will last me for many a “Holy Grail” of memories. “When the past is gone, it becomes unreachable“. But this coda, this further Proustian hindsight, has a creative tension and its own ‘struggle’ with what the narrator feels, without him even realising it. I cannot hope to cover everything I wish to say about this coda (this Nemonymous Apocrypha?)… It has become, not another landmark read, but a skin one.  Despite its inferred “morbid” watermark running from page to page like the name of the resort through a stick of holiday rock (by the way, never read this book on an ebook!), the plot’s “oral fossil” — its version of the mermaid’s tail-pouch — readily disperses the “covert accusations” and “grey spirit of oppression” that seems so prevalent in today’s sadly forever world.  And for that I thank it. (26 Jan 12 – another 2 hours later)



When I look at your arm just below your sleeve, I realise there is no more nostalgia.”

A short prose vision of a couple on a city roof playing chess. Frozen  by Terry Buzzacott’s time magic?  A riposte to the creative tension regarding Proustian ‘petit madeleine’ nostalgia I read into ‘The Tattooist’?  Or a variation on the Wordsworthian Pantheism as background to the two essentially (for me) parallel protagonists in ‘Far-Off Things’, but now here not classic grazing-land Nature or even Tintern Abbey Nature as such but a (Japanese?) city and its buildings as an organic stasis within Nature just as much as our sun is that, too?  Or perhaps just another “gooligar”? Perhaps the book’s last story (yet to be read) will give me the answer? [Earlier in this review: “Yet the hope remains by being crystallised here for me on real paper so as to hold the fleeting emotion of ‘fabulous’ fiction for as forever a forever as possible.  Another oxymoron of permanence and transience.”] (26 Jan 12 – another 3 hours later)


Autumn Colours

“…the jellyfish glistening of street lights on the wet tarmac,…”

I always relish dealing with Prince Autumn. This is Andy, student, finishing a sort of gap year, then later, more gaps later, adulthood’s hindsight (so common in this book) – the earlier time: Socratic dialogue in modern voice about studentish things with a girl called Adrienne whom he only half knows; later time: this author’s work Suicide Watch in a ‘new’ monologue to the anonymous ‘you’ in counterpoint (the reader doesn’t or at least shouldn’t know which comes first: this present monologue or the earlier one in an ostensibly later book): mirrors aligned face-to-face like those cosmic mirrors in ‘A Lake’. Terry Buzzacott’s consequential “Time betrayed him, trapping him in this ageing body” (his body being the only thing in which Andy can be): the dreaded “kick of death” like that kick as the gooligar springs from the box with empty face… and a real story-book time when people wrote letters on real paper and translations of foreign works were kept not like as zip file but as valued manuscript in a box, ready itself to spring out.  And over time, through only half-knowingness between Cousin X and Sasha, Terry and Nicola, Stephen and Mariko, ‘you’ and Gwendoline, ‘you’ and Leah, Andy and Adrienne, they reach out to make each other better, or simply to make each other come.  Or make each other go.  The choice is yours.  This book paradoxically eases the choice by making it more difficult.  Morbidity: Actuarial tables regarding statistical proneness to illness. Mortality: Actuarial tables regarding statistical proneness to death.  But when the tables are turned into tales, we smile knowingly that the battle is to know which “someone whose part in [her] life had seemed almost incidental” is now waiting to spring out of the book-shaped box or box-shaped book to become more than just incidental to us (even to themselves). Kill or cure. To be you or not to be you. To requite or to reject.  I know what this book’s answer is but it will never be clear-cut enough for me to put into words or translate from any ‘sunken tongue’ that may have the exact words.  But somehow, against all the odds, this book has made me feel the potential power of achievable fulfilment.  And no need of Kraken Powder! “A vague daydream is always more exquisite than something clearly defined.”  (26 Jan 12 – another 90 minutes later)



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5 responses to “Morbid Tales – Quentin S. Crisp

  1. I have now read the book’s interesting Foreword by Mark Samuels.

  2. The high orange contrast of Ageless leading to Autumn Colours…
    There is also a tinge of 1Q84 in Ageless.

    PS: I have now ordered QSC’s book SHRIKE for my first reading of it.

  3. The author here:
    “The story of my life, if I have written it, is ‘Troubled Joe’ in the collection All God’s Angels, Beware!

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