By Quentin S. Crisp
Introduction by Mark Samuels
Tartarus Press, 2018
Morbid yet marvellous.
These eight deftly crafted tales are, yes, let’s be honest, a bit morbid. But alongside the eschewal of the everyday, the plentiful violence overt and covert, the protagonists’ perverse foraging after meaning – all of that – you can glean, often, a kind of tainted wonder.
The first tale, ‘The Mermaid’, shows us a solitary man in a coastal cottage. It is clear that a lot of curious choices have led him there, the most immediate being local legends about the sightings of mermaids. And in due course he comes across one of the mythic creatures, whom he calls Gwendoline (an approximation of the phonetic sound of her actual name). This is a tale where the mermaid’s world, her civilisation and culture, is vividly imagined and convincingly rendered. The relationship between the man (he thinks of himself as a beachcomber) and the mermaid is at times playful and touching, but at root is sinister. There are elements of the grotesque too. If you can conceive of a collaboration between EC comics and John Fowles’ The Collector (a loose adaptation of the novel) then you’ll have a decent idea of what this tale is like and how it might end.
Water as a source of mystery and danger occurs in another tale, ‘A Lake’, which is set in Japan. Here Stephen, an Englishman, comes upon myriad dead fish by the shoreline of a lake and sets out to discover why, uncovering along the way a suicide cult and a lethal, Lovecraftian Leviathan. It is a rich concoction, this tale: there are passages, images , even single sentences (include an exquisite instance of quantum horror: ‘Something that never had been was allowed to know, for a while, that it never had been.’) that stop you short, force you to pause and ponder. Furthermore, it is one of those fictions where someone (Henry Jekyll being, I suppose, the paradigmatic case) is plucked out from a conventional, safe existence because fated to meet a tragic end. And since it’s someone else suffering, they are always fun to read, aren’t they?
England is recognisably the setting in many of the tales, not least ‘The Two-Timer’, a tour de force about a boy who discovers that he has the power to stop time. There are some delicious moments of nastiness here – this is a boy, after all, and anyway why should a reader expect a protagonist to be better than they are? Altogether an engaging yarn, the boy’s voice giving it an almighty narrative whoosh and propulsion, and with wonderful sentences such as:
I had found my way to fields upon fields of amazement, all in full bloom, and I was ready to roly-poly down them, drunk on the perfume of forever.
Of all the tales my favourite was ‘Autumn Colours’, and that even though it is bereft of any mythic or paranormal or supernatural elements. What it has, though, is a subdued, insinuating dread that steadily increases in intensity so that the final pages, and they are the final pages of the book as well, are absolutely devastating. It traces a relationship between two people, Andy and Adrienne, with their ways parting, Andy striking out on his own, forging an idiosyncratic path, that yet ends in failure. But then, at the close, something remarkable happens, for what had been Andy’s story suddenly becomes Adrienne’s. She succumbs to emotion, what seems rage above all (but rage at what? rejection? lost time? something else?), a rage that hitherto had been controlled and unexpressed but is now overpowering. It is breath-taking, this switch of perspective, and it compels you to read the tale once again. One thing to notice here (and it is true of other of Quentin S. Crisp’s tales I noticed) is how the end is prefigured by what has gone before: Andy looking at his reflection in the window of the bus, self absorbed, Adrienne’s impromptu confession regarding the Jack in the Box.
Just a few comments before I end. In my notes I describe ‘Cousin X’ as a dangerous, disturbing dance and, again, it’s a fiction that reminds you that it is the human you have to fear above all else. Another tale that appealed to me was ‘Far-Off Things’, which had a mysterious. fairy tale quality reminiscent of Adalbert Stifter. Whereas I concluded that ‘The Tatooist’ was like This England queered by Genet but with a Walter de la Mare interlude. I am sure that makes perfect sense.
I greatly enjoyed these marvellously Morbid Tales, not a few of which I have reread with relish.
The publisher’s description of Morbid Tales by Quentin S. Crisp can be read here.