Joy Silence (joysilence) wrote in darkling_tales,
Joy Silence

New Quentin Crisp anthology

Well it has been a long time since I last posted here! Work, illness and other dismaying concerns have kept me very busy lately, but things are easing off a bit now so I thought I would break the surface to review Quentin S. Crisp's latest anthology Defeated Dogs from Eibon Vale Press.

I say "latest", but in fact many of these stories are quite old. I believe the collection is a sort of retrospective of those Crisp stories that have failed to appear in any of his previous books, the "non-album singles" if you like. Six of the ten stories have previously appeared in books by Tartarus Press, PS Publishing and the like, and there are also four previously unpublished tales.

I was pleased to see Defeated Dogs begin with 'The Fairy Killer', one of the stories that made Tartarus' Strange Tales II such an enjoyable anthology. When I read this the first time around I was still reeling a bit from the savage and intensely chilly beauty of Crisp's Tartarus anthology Morbid Tales, and was pleasantly surprised to find a good deal of warmth in this story. I enjoyed rediscovering the pre-pubescent Fay, who has an (even) more intense relationship than most children with the traditional "fairies at the bottom of the garden", and is thrown into torment when her hyper-rational uncle claims with malicious glee that fairies do not exist. I enjoyed the unsentimental way the sometimes unnerving inner life of children is approached (a strength on display again in 'Dreamspace', a story of a father-and-daughter visit to a modern art installation inspired by this recent unfortunate event.). The nature (and supernature!) writing is very good and so vivid that at times I felt like I was reliving parts of my own childhood, as many readers who have enjoyed a British rural upbringing will no doubt agree. Of course that doesn't mean it isn't profoundly unsettling at times.

Indeed, one of the main reasons to read Crisp is his splendid evocation of the natural world and its effect on humans. This is more obvious then ever in Defeated Dogs, which contains a good few stories exploring the enchanting but often frightening forces latent in the landscape. Some of these pieces appear to draw on the author's own life while others are more obviously fiction. In 'The Broadsands Eyrie', a dramatic stretch of Westcountry coastline is the setting for another journey into the secret world of childhood make-believe. The narrator's belief that this youthful capacity to generate magic is inevitably dispelled by "time and education" lends the story a sad and wistful feel, without descending into lazy nostalgia (something of a disease in weird fiction at the moment.) In this respect it reminded me of the Sarban story 'Calmahain', only without the happy ending.

The more conventional ghost story 'The Gwilgii of the Lost Lanes' is another dip into the variegated beauty of the British landscape (Welsh, in this case) where a recently-bereaved hero encounters one of British folklore's most widespread scary beasts as he wanders the "lost lanes" near his late father's isolated cottage. Although more easily fittable into the horror genre than much of Crisp's writing this is still a disconcerting read with its multi-layered, non-chronological structure and a sense of rustic Doom Thomas Hardy himself would've been proud of. It is, however, firmly anchored in the modern world with its themes of animal cruelty and collective responsibility, and a scene featuring a professional psychic performing in a down-at-heel village hall whose dark humour gives Hilary Mantel's eviscerating Beyond Black a run for its money.

But possibly the most extended and spell-binding appearance of Nature is in the novella-length 'Sado-ga-Shima', another partly autobiographical tale doubtless inspired by Crisp's time in Japan, and in my opinion the best story in the book. The narrator, who is on an exchange trip to Japan, decides to accompany his visiting brother on a trip to the eponymous island. Sado was formerly one of the country's many "exile islands", hosting society's rejects for almost a thousand years, and boy does it show. The place still has a bad reputation locally and our two adventurers are affected by the island's mood of melancholy, mildly threatening isolation before they've even had time to stow their belongings in a hostel of unbelievable dourness. As the two travellers explore the island's fun-spots the atmosphere of dread, despair and loneliness grows in a manner reminiscent of Robert Aickman, but with an undeniable shimmer of beauty and touches of humour, and it provides further proof of Crisp's mastery of the numinous.

Further exoticism is provided by 'Tzimtzum', a heady inter-dimensional piece that recently appeared in a Gustav Meyrink tribute anthology, and the mythological fantasy of 'The Temple', which I think is meant to be a nod to Lord Dunsany, and has an Asian vibe although the setting is imaginary. But in fact nearly all of the stories in this collection are "exotic" in the sense of being disorienting, evading easy categorization and challenging assumptions about reality. They are the opposite of cosy, as befits a publication of Eibonvale Press, which specializes in "slipstream" writers like Nina Allen and David Rix. Identity, the meaning of life and moral philosophy are also recurring themes, in the agonized self-exploration of 'The Gay Wolf', the Matrix-like science fiction of 'Lilo' and the theological fantasy 'Non-Attachment'.

Perhaps because it spans many years of the writer's career, Defeated Dogs has more variety of tone than many single-author collections, and the extremely high standard of writing throughout makes it a worthy contribution to weird fiction. Crisp's writing definitely crosses genres but I imagine most lovers of traditional ghost stories and innovative fantasy would find it a very good read that, in an ideal world, would draw the attention of "literary" publishing houses and genre imprints alike. When Eibonvale started out their production values were on the "cheap and cheerful" paperback side, so I was glad to see Eibonvale have given this one a reasonably-priced but handsome soft-bound edition with good editing.

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