"For do not we all wait for something that we know nothing of, something that has not arrived, and possibly never will." -- from "Vigil," A Damask of the Dead
A few months ago for reasons I still can't put my finger on, I picked up a copy of his Saraband of Sable from Egaeus Press (the third book in the Egaeus Press Keynote Edition series), never having read anything by John Gale before that time. Now I would read anything this man writes.
Egaeus Press, 2018
illustrated by Alfredo Guido
185 pp; hardcover
With absolutely no idea what to expect from this author on opening the book, it didn't take me long at all to realize that I had something exquisite in my hands. By the time I'd finished it, I was telling everyone and anyone who reads dark/strange/weird fiction that they need to buy a copy of this short but sophisticated, highly-satisfying collection of tales, not just because the stories are so good, but also because of the unique quality of the writing. I'm actually lost for words in trying to describe it, so perhaps I should refer to the description at Egaeus (from the link above) which says that
"Saraband of Sable presents eight of Gale's sumptuous strange tales; dreamlike at times, dense in their imagery yet delicate as dimming perfume."It also noted there that the author's "previous collections" ... "garnered praise for their sophisticated and decadent prose styling," and I'd only add that I found a sort of ethereal quality to his work, but it really goes much deeper than any description that my non-writer's head can produce. The most surprising quality of these stories, though, is that while basking in the sheer beauty of the writing, it's like the clouds lift and there at the heart of each story is the darkness that's been peeking through all along, finally emerging with gut-punching force. And while it seems that we're in the middle of long ago and far away, the essentially-human traits that are represented here are tragic, real and timeless. One more thing -- the incorporation of the natural world flows beautifully through each and every story, as in this description of a city's necropolis:
"... a few do venture here, to tarry for a while amidst the cypress and the ebony poplars, basking in the light which falls here like tarnished copper during the diurnal hours; they are the dreamers that revere the lank and elegant grasses that grow between the monuments of obsidian and chrysoberyl, the grasses that turn from jade to gold during autumn; and they love the jackdaws who inhabit the sable green of the elder yews and who often speak in the voices of the dead through eating the fruits of the trees that look like crimson pearls, the trees whose roots bind tight the ivory bones of the long departed." (from "Lord of the Porphyry Nenuphar").The truth is that even before finishing Saraband of Sable, I was so enchanted that I absolutely had to have more, so I tracked down a copy of the now out-of-print A Damask of the Dead published by Tartarus.
Tartarus Press, 2002
100 pp, hardcover (#136)
The dustjacket blurb really tells you all you need to know about this book:
"The perfumes of the East suffuse these tales, of poets, lovers and kings who, despite the luxury and beauty of their surroundings, desire something beyond."Immediately we find ourselves standing at the gates of "Death's City", with "palaces with colonnades flooded with darkness, stretching away into infinity," moving later onto "a castle of many turrets that reared up from a cliff of dark rock," complete with "black tourmaline crypts," at some point reaching an "onyx-domed city." The fourteen stories in this book transport the reader completely out of this world and into others where sorcery is a natural part of life, where poets can really fall in love with the moon, or where the ghost of a king appears one night to give advice to his son and heir, and more.
Fantastical these stories may be, but they are not breezy tales with rewards at the end; as with Saraband of Sable, there is only tragedy, unhappiness, and darkness to be found within.
On the dustjacket blurb of A Damask of the Dead, Mark Valentine has this to say:
"As Machen has observed, literature consists in the art of telling a wonderful story in a wonderful manner. Few writers today acknowledge the need for either element. John Gale is someone who has mastered both."I couldn't agree more, and that goes for Saraband of Sable as well. John Gale is a rare find indeed.
So highly recommended that no scale exists for how highly I recommend these books.