Nightingale Songs

I’m due to start below another of my gradual real-time reviews, turning leitmotifs into a gestalt. A paperback book I recently purchased from the publisher & received a few days ago.

Nightingale Songs – by Simon Strantzas

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Dark Regions Press 2011

Good to review a Dark Regions book as I had a story (‘First Sight’) in Joe Morey’s Dark Regions Vol 3 No 1 in 1995.

My previous real-time reviews of books by Simon Strantzas here (the second one I ever did!) and here.

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 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: http://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/ (25 Feb 12)

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Out of Touch

“I grew up in the suburbs, in a small bungalow house identical to every other bungalow house on my block.”

The term ‘bungalow house’ reminds me of Ligotti’s bungalow house, and my own bungalow house where I have lived for 17 years, but my bungalow house road is full of completely different bungalow houses from each other. I’m not sure if a bungalow house in USA or Canada is the same as a bungalow house here in the UK. Mine has two bedrooms ‘upstairs’ in the large roof each with a dormer window at the front, a pairing like staring eyes, and containing eaves-cupboards instead of a loft or attic that unbungalow houses normally have.  The bungalow house opposite the young protagonist (Dad has left him and his mother for another woman, it seems) has remained vacant in his living memory, overgrown garden, butterflies, otherwise a mirror image of his own bungalow house.  He has a chum whose OCD mother keeps him swaddled from the contagion of the outside world, a chum who rather ‘dotes’ on our protagonist and likes to keep him occupied with board games. Until he is told that a face has been spotted in the bungalow house opposite our protagonist’s bungalow house, a girl’s face.  Enticing both boys to discover more… An atmospheric contagion in itself evolving horrifically: an OCD vision in itself where butterflies in the overgrown garden seem to become more bugs or insects and swarm (with the hive-psychology of all swarms leaving space for images of ghosts between parts of the swarm)… I will need to remain dwelling on this story. Meanwhile, it just sits there somewhat, a mirror image of itself, until I summon up my own courage to leave my occupying of it to delve deeper into the neighbourhood of other stories that I’ve only seen out of the corner of my eye so far. As with all my real-time reviews, I am not attempting (until, that is, I’ve completed my real-time survey) to pay heed to the gossip from any extraneous introductory or afterwordy parts of this book while visiting the other stories themselves (upstairs and downstairs stories or not)… An intriguing start. (25 Feb 12 – 2.45 pm gmt)

Her Father’s Daughter

The house’s three stories loomed over Claire, eclipsing anything beyond.”

In the half-shuddering light of the previous story, this second one becomes an original theme and variations on a piano fragment by Robert Aickman.  Or on an étude by Elizabeth Bowen. More shades of over-protectiveness akin to the earlier OCD. And vaguely repetitive paintings on the walls as a new neighbourhood within the once only slightly varying ‘bungalow houses’ now become one (here, tellingly, a “small rectangle of light” that distance and duration don’t seem to control): the House of the Femalely and Familially Filial. And, like the previous be-windowed girl, someone else looking here from one “like a prisoner in a castle“. The resonances are uncanny. And this second story, when standing on its own, has satisfyingly lingering images of crashed cars and frustration of being lost, like we all will be in this story, but do we care? No, we don’t. We feel confident enough to understand fully any fiction we don’t understand at all. Like Claire, the protagonist here. Meanwhile, this story continues playing the book’s variations on the ‘cabin fever’ theme (so far). A number eight inside a box. (But is it possible to be confident enough to nail an unread book’s pervading theme here by page 27 of about 180? We shall see if I’m riding for a fall.) (25 Feb 12 – ninety minutes later)

The Deafening Sound of Slumber

At least Doctor Wy’s lab was soundproofed, and the din of the outside world did not carry through its brick walls.”

The earlier swarm-psychology and ‘cabin fever’ are factored into our current times of financial and politically-troubled ‘entropy’ / bully-culture and, also, into a scenario of sleep research, where one of the research-laboratory workers named Fisher – sound hypersensitive or synaesthesic and appropriately, as it turns out, nicknamed Fish (out of water?) – is faced with visionary anxieties: all imaginatively handled by the author and causing the reader to stretch his or her own imagination beyond any run-of-the-mill ‘mad scientist’ fiction which, otherwise, this story could have easily slipped into. [Doctor Wy / Doctor Who?] (26 Feb 12 – 9.30 am gmt)

Unreasonable Doubt

“…and that night Melinda and Rand had once more returned — except they were now inside the house.”

An old-fashioned, told-within-dialogue, MRJamesian, ‘gentlemanly’ story – at first – as a man, publicly suspected of murder (of his wife and wife’s lover) but cleared, seeks sanctuary with a discreet old friend (this story’s first person narrator)…but leading to more suffocating darkness or claustrophobia, where the concept of guilt sticking like mud even if one is innocent and the cloying media (much in tune with today’s phone-hacking scandal?) become part of an insinuating, often silent, staring ‘lynch-mob’ from the narrator’s community that metaphorically ‘tars and feathers’ both men by association … and the felt sense that such a malevolent force (tantamount to discrete elements of a swarm) emanating from otherwise ordinary people is thought to be igniting other forces: spirits of those the man was supposed to have murdered in a distant town…  and I am left with a definite frisson. [But, meanwhile, I do wish authors or publishers would get their use of ‘discrete’ / ‘discreet’ clear, something I’ve mentioned several times before in my real-time reviewing!] (26 Feb 12 – four hours later)

Tend Your Own Garden

The marriage, in an instant, had become a dark void, no different than the basement of their house,…”

Good weird literature can do much that other literature can’t do, even if potentially over-ripe with rich horror tropes and further “growth and customization” of that genre: but here we are given a truly powerful sense of the utter ‘resentment’ of the injured party in a broken marriage (a stifling resentment that is similar – and just as powerful as implied here – to those I have witnessed during my life in others) via a  cataclysmic act of Samson and a Voltairean undercurrent; the book’s paper tangibly reeks with it, as the man explores the now damp, dark, strangely disfigured and disorientating basement of the house which he once bought for that marriage, today allowed to enter it by his ex-wife and new husband to look for some of his possessions that might have been left there: a basement, tellingly, for this book’s context, complete with a concrete floor; “a viscous cycle” and some stained glass, letting in light like “snow or ash“, leading indirectly to an eventual thought of swarming insects …. I have been genuinely stirred by this story; and admiring of its fable-fabulous ending, and its accomplished revellings in burgeoning language to convey a burgeoning but serious meaning.  Others may think it over-the-top, but they’d be wrong in my estimation. (26 Feb 12 – another 90 minutes later)

The Nightingale

The room darkened and a spotlight turned on, focusing on the stage and revealing a dark red curtain I hadn’t seen being drawn. The large owlish man had vanished,…”

This story is either great or verges on greatness (too soon to tell); it either fits with this book’s gestalt so far or it doesn’t fit.  It is no secret that I have the biggest skull in the world (you can tell from the photograph at the head of this review, placed there on day one)…so hard to swallow.  The story starts with a ‘Twin Peaks’ or Reggie Oliver feel of a theatrical event: the Nightingale Club and the singer – Elaina Munroe – whose songs are captivating, as are her other luring charms: twin men (Pellet and Pane), triplets even when I am added to the mix, all of us, I sense (but do not know) elephantiasised for optimum enrichment as food: set up against each other to compete – with the losers suffering life’s unrequited external emptiness.  The winner to be promised the ultimate fulfilling: that of body-within-body claustrophobia: … with the oiling or easing of a sweet salivating song’s digestive juices towards ineluctably repetitive – once bungalow houses, paintings on the wall – but now reptilian engulfments of ingesting/extruding eternity: while remaining threatened by life’s halting real-time in the form of a fob watch.  “David to his Goliath” following Samson’s bringing down the walls of applause.  The more it means, though, the less it means. Like a nightingale’s song. (26 Feb 12 – another two hours later)

Pale Light in the Jungle

I’m sure you’ll be able to make your books stretch far enough.”

This book’s cover vaguely embodies that very concept? Although there is no explicit reference to the new (and increasingly successful?) phenomenon of ebooks, there is certainly a ‘kindling’ of fate at the end of this story!  A story which is more formulaic than some of the previous stories: a possibly over-the-top ‘fabulous-fable’ of the book’s ‘house-watching-house’ theme: dealing here specifically with 24/7 TVs  and other material possessions that we all take for granted – such accoutrements of modern life blotting out the intrinsic sound of life and nature (e.g. ants in a tree-trunk with their own form of hive- or swarm-psychology) – but when one declutters oneself of such accustomed accoutrements, what is then let through? Frightening things… [Those who identify with the ‘house-watching-house’ theme of this book will also be interested in reading Gary Fry’s classic ‘Fragment of Life’ story at the end of this book.] (27 Feb 12 – 8.55 am gmt)

An Indelible Stain upon the Sky

Memories are strange and elusive, yet they can return at a moment’s notice and from out of nowhere, appearing so vividly it feels as though time has not passed.”

Although I feared the previous story was over-generous in its sharing of this book’s richly dark weirdness, this one, for me, is pitch perfect. Pitch perhaps being the operative word. Pitch and tar.  Also, it contains a concept of ‘retrocausality’ (my suggested word for what is going on, not the story’s): a retrocausality never before so satisfyingly or grimly explicit as in this story: a phenomenon with which I have been personally obsessed since publishing,  in 2009, the ‘Cern Zoo’ book that was in synergy with my then research into the Large Hadron Collider. Here, in this, for me, classic Strantzas story, more collisions (as well as the factoring-in of the orphaned emotions evoked by Ligottian-like dolls): i.e. Nature collides with Mankind’s potential, often inadvertent, suffocation of it: a Biblically cataclysmic oil slick that hits the town where the male protagonist once had, years before, much romantic happiness with Suzanne (Zoocern from Cern Zoo?): while, also, dark deja-vu collides with joyful ‘real-time’.  And the oil slick is like this  book’s earlier ‘swarms’, but with its own autonymity, where the gaps for ghosts are quickly sealed away by cloying. (27 Feb 12 – three hours later)

Something New

But when reading this, I had a growing vague sense that this is nothing new at all!  And eventually, against all the odds of my customarily bad memory, I located it here.  I must have liked it then, judging by what I said. But, today, this seems to be the out-of-place stranger at the book’s Reception following the mis-attempted Marriage of Gestalt and Guest; a stranger who was once jilted or jilted itself but is determined to make its presence felt, to locate, in itself or by itself, leitmotif for leitmotif, a rasion-d’etre as felt within the piano music, at least, from ‘Her Father’s Daughter‘, but this ‘new’ story’s internal absurd organicity does not manage to match the more successful absurd organicity I noted within that earlier story in this book, and, here, in something new, the Aickman-like theme and variations on a fragment do not fully achieve the tantalising optimisation: its surreal or absurd contiguities do not blend into the new-archetypal dream or nightmare that Aickman (and often Strantzas in his own terms) accomplishes.  Hence, this ‘new’ story’s spurning back to the stale sweat of a non-existent taxi….  If ‘Something New’ were not by Strantzas, I’d be less critical. It’s seriously not good enough for Strantzas, I personally feel.  Its retrocausality, furthermore, has perhaps soured it or disorientated it like the basement in “Tend Your Own Garden” … or Topiary?  Yet, thinking further on this, the fact that I eventually recalled reading it (even if vaguely) about three years ago does say something new about the story! My memory only recalls certain stories worth recalling, I guess. (27 Feb 12 – another 90 minutes later)

The tail-end of the last entry seems to reflect the psychological effect on any reviewer of knowing the previous work of an author – despite the power, otherwise, of the Intentional Fallacy. If the story had been presented nemonymously – and I had not recalled it at all – who knows what bearing that would have had on what I reported feeling when reading it. (27 Feb 12 – another 80 minutes later)

Mr. Kneale

Conventions are awash with repetition, after all.”

An intriguing, peer-reflective story about Horror conventions which – from my own experience – are often insular with ‘cabin fever’. I thought that before I finished reading its first page, so you can probably imagine me nodding knowingly when, later, the words ‘insular’ and (literally) a ‘fever’ turn up in the plot’s text. So, yes, a story that is intrinsic to this book’s gestalt. It is skilfully satiric/poignant about people who attend such conventions and whom I think I can recognise specifically and generally: while conceptually matching Horror’s ‘fun’ / populism with its Art/ Literature: all laced with an element of host/parasite symbiosis: Dorian Gray or, tellingly, yet perhaps not explicitly, with some Quatermass plots? I enjoyed the experience of this story with a sense of constructive sadness and internal creeping. (28 Feb 12 – 11.25 am gmt)

Everything Floats

Doyle thought of all Jenn must be going through, at home all day like a prisoner, unable to do anything but care for their daughter,…”

This tells of the microcosm of maternity in retrocausality, as emblemised by a supposedly haunted, oh-too-easily-puchased-as-the-idyllic home (but you only get what you pay for – or otherwise, as the case may be): although this does not, for me, quite organically come together as a similarly effective fabulous-fable of marital resentment in ‘Tend Your Own Garden’, its comparable attempt to portray a form of ‘cot death’ syndrome by the means of horror or haunted-house tropes is certainly powerful: and, intentionally or unintentionally, encapsulates, for me, the surprisingly new core of this book (the ‘cabin fever’ leitmotif paradoxically as expansion (or ‘floating’? – “He lived in fear the wash would separate them,…”) – in significant contrast to the tiny constricting body of any baby: and the body’s further encapsulation within the TV Monitor care-system (cf: ‘Pale Light in the Jungle’): death as an escape? And, so, here is the core (please forgive the lengthy quote) which I think I have identified (still with one further story to read after this one): “He looked around frantically but nothing was amiss – nothing wrong save that it didn’t feel as though nothing were wrong. There was a low hum, a droning noise that dug deep into his body, into his soul, but it was a noise he could not actually hear. He only felt it; felt it growing colder, stronger, and as it did the empty nursery seemed to enlarge around him, its walls creeping outward while his vision focused tighter on Angella’s crib. Every detail hidden by shadow revealed itself: the tiny nails that held the wood together; the nicks in the carved newels; every wrinkle in her small blanket.”  Why do those last few phrases make me want to cry?  If we knew the answer, we would write passages like that every time we wrote a story.  It’s almost if the expanding, now floating, of the child is due to reduce towards the ultimate (or optimum) state of existence: not diminishing to a dot on the Monitor Screen: but Angella –> Angela –> Angel… (28 Feb 12 – four hours later)

I have now currently enjoyed reading about a third of the final story. I’m having to halt reading, in time for dinner in the next few minutes. Already, in view of my prediction above, when at page 27, I can already tell that, serendipitously, this situation is close, amazingly, to replicating my recent experience as a reviewer here: Hearts. This does not necessarily mean that ‘Nightingale Songs’ is, for me, a greater book in itself because of this experience, but it does help! (28 Feb 12 – another 90 minutes later)…

When Sorrows Come

Not the best story in this book – and retains some of the sporadic naivety of a writer, I guess, still feeling his way towards ultimate greatness – but, having read these stories, I am sure this book as a whole is truly wonderful and is the necessary forerunner — along with the previous Strantzas collections of which I am not a completist reader so far — of his very own Weird Fiction masterpiece surely yet to come.  It’s in this book’s bones, as it were. This final story literally concerns an explicitly stated ‘cabin’, one with window nailed shut.  It is ‘cabin fever’ incarnate, and it’s another treatment of marital difficulties so brilliantly conveyed by ‘Tend Your Own Garden’.  And, even more tellingly, this final story’s clinching climactic scene concerns “thousands of tiny buzzing wings” taking reader as well as protagonist nearer to the edge of suffocating darkness than you can possibly believe. On the other hand, wings can help you expand or float or even swarm beyond the final cabin…or bungalow house.

Stories of nagging shapes and anxieties, shadows and shuttling swarms, relationships and nightmares, closed boxes and empty despairs, some of which are close to genuine classics of their kind. But I know Strantzas has even more to offer, judging by the potential I sense in, say, ‘The Nightingale’, ‘Tend Your Own Garden’, ‘Her Father’s Daughter’, ‘An Indelible Stain Upon the Sky’…  Follow the blue gravel trail, not the yellow brick road.

As is my custom, I shall now read other matter in this book for the first time, i.e. the Introduction by John Langan and the Afterword by the author which shall hopefully give me further food for thought. But I shall not be back here to review them. (28 Feb 12 – another 100 minutes later)

END

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