Purchase almost insentient, almost divine.
My dear unknown friend,
One of the benefits of being a bear of limited intelligence is I frequently forget that I have read an author’s contributions in anthologies prior to sitting down with their collection. Such is true with the volume at hand. It was not until I was well engrossed in D.P. Watt’s almost insentient, almost divine that I realized that I had indeed read and deeply enjoyed his work in Aickman’s Heirs previous to this.
The first thing that strikes you with this collection is the sheer beauty of the cover. Tran Nguyen has created a hauntingly beautiful piece that simultaneously encapsulates and evokes the delicacies that await the intrepid reader lucky enough to venture within.
My first clue as to the depth of marvels I was to find was the preface written by Timothy Jarvis. I’ve written before of my admiration for his novel The Wanderer yet I’d had no inkling of his involvement with Watt’s collection. And what a preface! In a lesser collection there could be the very real danger of Jarvis’s piece overshadowing the main attraction. This piece will only inflame the chorus of those asking Jarvis for more of his own work.
From the very first story “With Gravity, Grace” Watts establishes a delicacy of voice that sings soft and clear throughout the entire collection. Within our corner of the world writers are often praised for linking the stories within their collection. D.P. Watt works at a higher level revealing this as a clumsy conceit by establishing an effortless mythology within his creations that do not require the sympathetic chains of a demiurge. From the opening quote by Kleist through to its closing sentence this story establishes a perfect tone in this tale of the interactions between a craftsman and the eccentric demands of his peculiar customer. D.P. Watt eschews the current vogue for the twist ending and instead has mastered the soft reveal. The gentle morbidity and the beautiful construction of his sentences reminds me of Gabrielle Wittkop. With most writers I would hesitate to use this comparison yet with D.P. Watt I feel as if there is no need to fear injured sensitivities.
“A Delicate Craft” is the next story within the collection and the one I had previously read in Aickman’s Heirs. I adored this story when I first read it and its effect grows with each visit. This was also the story where I first grew aware that Watt shares in common with Ray Bradbury a love of writing. Some of my favorite Bradbury stories bear not the slightest touch of the fantastic. “The Terrible Conflagration Up At The Place” and “The Cold Wind And The Warm” (Both of which are in Bradbury’s collection I Sing The Body Electric) are two which spring immediately to mind. “A Delicate Craft” could easily sit alongside them as the tale of a Polish immigrant learning to make bobbin lace and yet… I leave this for you to discover.
Watt’s work here reminds me of Angela Carter in that it approaches the level of fairy tale. Yet unlike Mrs. Carter he is not utilizing specific fairy tales for his workings. I believe in Watt’s case the German name wundermärchen or “wonder tale” may be a more elegant fit for his craft.
With “Shallabalah” we enter the world of Punch and Judy shows and here I must admit my bias. I love Punch. That anarchist little puppet and his savage exploits have obsessed me for years, to the point that while I have not swallowed my swazzle (supposedly the mark of a true Punch man) I do own one and can create the raspy, buzzing voice of that repugnant little bastard. So I must admit I approached this story with a touch of, “Alright, what have you got?” Oh did he deliver. “Shallabalah” is a lyrically haunting story that caresses the back of your neck long after you’ve finished. Here also a beautiful piece of sleight of hand and an example of “the larger motion covers the small” because not until much later in the collection did I realize this story sets up elements that are whispered at far deeper in the collection. This is what I mean when I say the Watt’s operating a level higher than the “connected stories” trope. I know it sounds terribly pretentious to say yet when it is true it is true. Watt is a truly elegant and refined writer operating at the top of his craft.
I do not wish to ruin all the surprises that await you within almost insentient, almost divine so let me hit some of my personal highlights. I’m sure others will find their own within this collection for I am confident this will be an underground treasure once news of its existence reaches its true audience for as Tarkovsky said, “A book read by a thousand different people is a thousand different books.”
“Mors Janua Vitae” is an absolute delight of a tale. A one-sided conversation that I’m sure we all can easily imagine taking place as we’ve been accosted by the desperately friendly looking for someone to listen. It’s Watt’s gift for dialogue that allows this tale to breathe with a refreshing ease.
“Honey Moon” is an atavistic story of a newly wed couple short of cash utilizing a relative’s offer of a dilapidated old car and an even more dilapidated cottage for their honeymoon. Here Watt’s skill in weaving hints of murky mythology with believable characters carries the story into unexpected yet coherent territory.
“In Comes I” deals with a mythology in which I’ve been seeing a resurgence as of late. From Timothy Jarvis’s The Wanderer to Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney. This theme is being explored more deeply than I remember from any time previous. Given the high-caliber of the company it keeps obviously reflects well upon the story in question. In truth I do not know whether this is the same phenomenon whereby once a friend purchases a new car you see that same model everywhere or if our friends from the UK have delighted upon a treasure trove of high weirdness in their midst but I for one am grateful for said revival.
“The Mechanised Eccentric” will simply delight anyone with a passion for theater or art history. DP Watt has shot high on my list of people I’d love to drink and trade lies with until the wee hours of the morning. The breadth and scope of his knowledge which he brings into his wonderful creations amply rewards those who cherish education and knowledge.
“The Pornographer’s Calendar” will be the last one I give a peek into. Please do not believe that I think any less of the stories I have not mentioned, I deliberately left out some of my most beloved to ensure there is still that thrill of discovery is still there for you. “The Pornographer’s Calendar” however is a fine place to end for this was the tale that cemented the comparison to Angela Carter or perhaps Poppy era Koja in my head. The story of a Victorian photographer and his mounting obsession with an enigmatic subject is a carefully crafted jewel of a tale.
Undertow Publications has stunned me once again. I’ve grown to expect high quality releases from this press yet they consistently surprise me. This is an exquisitely turned collection, from the beautiful cover art by Tran Nguyen, the preface by Timothy Jarvis which would be a stand out short story in any anthology, the stories of DP Watts with the great swath of knowledge and craft behind them, to the 16th Century Flemish mask designs in the grotesque style that mark the passage of the reader through the sections of the book. almost insentient, almost divine is a collection that will be treasured by readers for decades to come and doubtlessly recommended to those looking for an introduction as to what makes this genre special. I relish the fact DP Watts has a long career ahead of him and if some day I read his name alongside Carter and Calvino it will not surprise me.
For a soundtrack I listened to Broadcast & The Focus Group – Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age. Appropriate for the season and with the Ghost Box label’s love for a lost time of British culture it felt as if it fit right in.
Purchase almost insentient, almost divine.
This review by Acep Hale.