My dear unknown friend,
The synchronicities keep piling up. No sooner do I mention Joel Lane’s penetrating insights on “the brutal show-trial of Oscar Wilde” then the next day I am writing a review of an anthology based on Oscar Wilde’s revered and beloved work, The Picture of Dorian Gray. The anthology in question is entitled The Scarlet Soul: Stories for Dorian Gray published by Swan River Press out of Dublin, Ireland. What initially caught my eye was that the anthology was edited by Mark Valentine, the man behind the journal Wormwood, creator of The Collected Connoisseur (on which he now shares creative duties with John Howard) and the books of essays Haunted by Books and A Country Still All Mystery among other works of poetry and short fiction. My point being Mark Valentine is well-rounded, worth following in all his endeavors yet this breadth of knowledge truly shines in assembling an anthology. I feel confident placing an order on any project with his name attached.
The second thing that caught me eye was the table of contents. Timothy Jarvis, D. P. Watt, and Avalon Brantley I was immediately familiar with. Reggie Oliver and John Howard I have read one or more stories from and have friends that are passionate of their work. A few more names I have seen mentioned before and this would be a good chance to become acquainted with their writing before taking the plunge on their collections. That still left a good amount of names entirely unknown to me yet given the high quality they were surrounded by in this table of contents this bode well. This a welcome and much-needed change from the vast majority of anthologies published today recycling the same stable of writers over and over again.
Before we begin let me just say Swan River Press understands the joy that comes with interacting with a small press. Included with my order were a trio of postcards, Bram Stoker and William Hope Hodgson among them, and inside the front cover to The Scarlet Soul was another postcard, a full color facsimile of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine from July, 1890 which had contained The Picture of Dorian Gray. Combine these with the obvious attention to detail with which the book was packaged and shipped and it reminds one once again why small, independent presses are so vital to our public welfare.
The dust jacket’s beautiful cover illustration is by the esteemed John Coulhart with Meggan Kehrli applying her considerable design skills to the dust jacket and cover design, as she does to all of Swan River Press’ releases, which lends them a consistent, dignified air. I routinely remove the dust jackets from my hardbound volumes while reading them and the “Peacock and Dragon” design by William Morris which Meggan Kehrli chose to encase The Scarlet Soul only heightens the experience of reading this volume. Let me say once more, as an ardent admirer of Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style, reading a properly typeset volume is a pleasure all too rare in this day and age and my hat is off to Ken Mackenzie for this uncommon luxury. When a book’s myriad elements come together as gracefully as this, the proper proportions, well-chosen font, all of a piece, it elevates the reading experience to a sensual pleasure. I am indebted to Swan River Press for gracing me with just such a one.
After a brief yet perceptive introduction by Mr. Valentine the volume opens with “Love and Death” by Reggie Oliver. I was keen to read this, my interest in Mr. Oliver having previously been piqued by a video on his book collecting habits and then Forrest Aquirre’s recent review of Mr. Oliver’s Mrs. Midnight’s and Other Stories only fanned the flames. Set within the same time and milieu as the original Picture of Dorian Gray, “Love and Death” tells the tale of a painter, Martin Isaacs, hired to find the titular painting of the story after the painting and the painter disappear following the painting’s sale at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1855 where it has caused an unprecedented furor. Martin Isaacs has been hired by Sir Joseph, the purchaser of Love and Death, because he was a former student of George Frederick Watts and the two had subsequently formed a friendship over the years. Much like the original Dorian Gray “Love and Death” asks deeper questions about art, obsession and the uncanny beneath Mr. Oliver’s delightful and carefully measured prose.
Caitriona Lally was one of the names that was unfamiliar to me yet upon finishing her short story, “This Is How It Will Be” I immediately ordered her debut novel Eggshells. This story proves the point I was making above about anthologies including writers with which I am entirely unfamiliar. Set in contemporary times, “This Is How It Will Be” concerns itself with two strangers that meet at a party, both bored with the proceedings, and the relationship that forms from their initial contact. This story affected me and Caitriona Lally shows a deft hand with a premise that many simply could not handle. Lally displays a psychological depth that matches her marvelous writing and the humanity in the very last line of the story which simply left me thankful.
Lynda E. Rucker’s “Every Exquisite Thing” is an alluringly strange and ambiguous tale that truly leaves one guessing. Rucker is truly effective at portraying the effects of an attraction that pulls one across borders chasing a relationship unraveled. This is one of those stories I feel the less said the better, respect the future reader’s imagination. I can easily see “Every Exquisite Thing” being heavily anthologized in the future.
“Speck” by John Howard is one of the stories within The Scarlet Soul that has truly stayed with me. You do not wish to know how long it took me to find the word “malapropism” which is what the main character in this story, a mentally challenged busboy in a hotel, nicknamed Speck, employs to devastating effect. Here is the definition of malapropism so you yourself don’t have to go searching for it:
“A malapropism (also called a malaprop or Dogberryism) is the use of an incorrect word in place of a word with a similar sound, resulting in a nonsensical, sometimes humorous utterance. An example is the statement by baseball player Yogi Berra, “Texas has a lot of electrical votes”, rather than “electoral votes”. Malapropisms often occur as errors in natural speech and are sometimes the subject of media attention, especially when made by politicians or other prominent individuals. Philosopher Donald Davidson has noted that malapropisms show the complex process through which the brain translates thoughts into language.”
As I read “Speck” the malapropisms revealed new depths of understanding that made me recoil not simply at what was occurring within this character’s life but also the raw talent on display within John Howard’s writing. I swore in sheer admiration several times while reading “Speck”.
“Doreen” by D. P. Watt is where I hit my first stumble and it pains me to write this as not only am I a great admirer of Watt’s work but I truly liked “Doreen” right until the very end. “Doreen” is a tale of childhood friends who quarreled as teenagers. Doreen stayed in their childhood estate while Steph married and left with her new husband for Spain where he set up a construction company and became successful. Now that her husband has died Steph has sold their assets and returned to her childhood home, seeking to rekindle her friendship with Doreen. As I said, I enjoyed “Doreen” right until the very end where Watt chooses to drop all ambiguity for a denouncement that feels completely unnecessary. This may be a matter of taste and for others it may work. Even a lesser tale by D. P. Watt is something to savor.
Rosanne Rabinowitz’s “All That Is Solid” is another story from The Scarlet Soul that has stuck with me. It is the story of two friends, Gosia and Ilona, living in London after the passage of Brexit. As both of them have Polish backgrounds uncertainties start to creep into Gosia’s psyche as more and more overt examples of British nationalism start happening around her. Ilona passes on the number of a counselor who suggests that since Gosia is a freelance designer art therapy may help? I feel that Rabinowitz displays an acute sensibility with “All That Is Solid” that is as respectful as it is chilling.
“A Little Chamber Music: Untology in C♭ Minor” by Avalon Brantley. I have written previously of my admiration for Avalon Brantley’s writing and this piece has only deepened that appreciation. If you have not yet had the chance to encounter her work this is a fine place to do so. “A Little Chamber Music: Untology in C♭ Minor” is what most probably envision decadent literature will resemble as they close their eyes to imagine. Lithesome artists sipping absinthe discussing creation, religion and philosophy, elegant wordplay, deadly quips, “A Little Chamber Music” has this and much, much more. Only a writer of Brantley’s caliber could pull this off without sliding into parody. I have heard that Zagava plans on issuing a collected works this year. I will be first in line.
Following is Timothy Jarvis’s “The Yellow Book”. A tale within a tale, Jarvis shows his deep understanding of the form to tell a gripping folk horror tale of a stag’s night out and adds his own volume, Day’s Horse Descend, to the Borges Memorial Library. The pleasure of reading Jarvis is that the more one learns of the history of fantasy, Gothic and horror fiction the more one begins to see lurking in the depths of his writing.
On my initial reading of John Gale’s “A Labyrinth of Graves” I said it was akin to sitting between Lord Dunsany and Clark Ashton Smith while elevated on illicit substances. Repeated readings have merely confirmed this first response.“A Labyrinth of Graves” is an account of a jealous god’s descent and the gaze of his most ardent worshiper. With a scintillating use of language, the descriptions alone will make one swoon. Truly brilliant.
Upon reading “The Anatomy Lesson of Professor Stebbing” by Derek John I immediately went to the site of Egaeus Press and ordered his collection, The Felicity of Epigones. A medical illustrator is hired by the titular Professor Stebbing to document the professor’s pursuits in radionics. Drawn by the alluring promises of the Delphic Colony nearly as much as the pay, unexpected results arise from Professor Stebbing’s experiments. If you have any interest at all in the occult detective genre I firmly believe “The Anatomy Lesson Of Professor Stebbing” will make you an instant fan of Derek John’s work. It certainly had this effect on me.
As is readily apparent I loved The Scarlet Soul. It gave me brilliant works by writers I already love, introduced me to writers I proceeded to fall in love with and put a major hurting on my wallet in the process. The book itself is a testament to the love and dedication Swan River Press put into their craft and they should be applauded for the physical allure alone. This is a book one can see becoming an heirloom object. My advice would be to snap up a copy of The Scarlet Soul while they are still available, keep an eye out for future releases by Swan River Press and subscribe to their journal The Green Book. While their price range is affordable, their books are imminently collectible.
Soundtrack for this review: