Thursday, October 28, 2021

Ghosts, by R.B. Russell


Swan River Press, 2021
189 pp


The other night I grabbed this book on my way up to bed, promising myself to read only three stories before turning off the light and calling it a day.  I should have limited myself to two -- when I finished the third one, "In Hiding,"  my first thought was "did I just read what I thought I read?" so I had to go through it again. By that point I was wide awake, so it was "just one more," and before I knew it I'd gone through all six stories.  Who needs sleep anyway?

The spotlight in this collection shines on its players.  As Mark Valentine in his excellent introduction notes, Russell's people are "often rather gauche, hesitant interlopers in a contemporary world that does not quite work for them."  They are also "already ill at ease with themselves, with others, with the world before any hint of the inexplicable comes on the scene."   This idea makes itself manifest from the very beginning, but I'll go straight to my favorite story first,  the above-mentioned "In Hiding."  Here a disgraced MP, The Right Honourable David Barrett, decides to get away from it all and takes refuge in the small Greek fishing village of Arkos.  It's only day two when he is recognized, by Taylor,  a fellow countryman, who owns and has been living on a small island named Elga,  just off the coast.  He too had left England "under a cloud," and invites Barrett to visit the following day.  Barrett is met early next morning by Simon, who also lives on Elga and who takes Barrett there by boat; it's what happens next that throws everything off kilter, and not just solely for  the reader.   I believe this is one of the finest short stories I've ever read; it was also nominated in 2010 for a World Fantasy Award.  As I said earlier, don't be surprised if you read it and want to right away read it again. 

   Moving back to table-of-contents order, the collection opens with "Putting the Pieces in Place."  When he was about fourteen, out taking a walk in the summer sun,  Neil Porter hears "yearning, longing music" floating in the air, and looking for its source, comes across a party of people "like in Le Grand Meaulnes" just in time to hear the music stop. As he watches, he sees a young woman in a "white flowing dress" pick up her violin and began playing again. It was a moment in time he'll always remember, and since then he has become obsessed, hoping to recreate that moment somehow by collecting her music, her instruments, and even her house, but there's one thing of Emily Butler he doesn't yet have.  He does, however, know a way to get it.   Mark Valentine notes about this story that it is a "subtle meditation on our tendency to enshrine the past instead of engaging with the present."  In  many ways, this story also sets the tone for the rest of what follows.   Moving on, "There's Nothing I Wouldn't Do" follows a young PhD student in Odessa where she had decided to study the work of a famous architect there.  International travels on her own are nothing new for this woman, and she has taken her time learning about and working in her chosen profession before moving on for the doctorate.    After leaving Ukraine and returning home for Christmas, she reveals to a friend that she was somewhat nervous about going back; her story as given  begins  when she meets another student studying English who falls in love with her.  She, however, toys with him, leading to a very one-sided  affair that will, when all is said and done, have major (and completely unexpected)  consequences.   Trust me when I say that this story is a serious jaw-dropper.  

Moving on to story number four, "Eleanor" is the name of a character in a book created by David Planer twenty years earlier; since then she's gone through a few iterations ever since via television, graphic novels and computer games in the hands of people who had "explored sides of her personality" the author had "not even dreamed of."   The original Eleanor was never meant to be a science fiction character, but now at the sci-fi convention where David is speaking,  it's not so out of place to see someone dressed as Eleanor.  David, however, believes that this is his Eleanor, a belief that persists despite his assistant's assurances otherwise.   A truly gorgeous and most poignant story, it captures, as Valentine notes, the mind's "pride in its one creation," that the creator clings to until the end.   I realize that this trope in some form has been done many times, but certainly not as it is written here.   On the more depressingly sad side of things is "Disposessed," in which a young woman's rather empty life has been a series of things going very wrong, punctuated each time by the idea that "It had happened again."  But one  more thing finally materializes when she becomes trapped in an untenable situation, and that's all I will say, except that the ending of this one is a shocker.  

"Bloody Baudelaire," which closes this collection,  is novella length and I swear, there came a point at which I couldn't help but think of The Picture of Dorian Gray while reading it.  Lucian Miller and his girlfriend Elizabeth come to Cliffe House as a getaway before they both go on to University, invited to stay by Lucian's school friend Adrian. Lucian loves the atmosphere of the house, its "decay and grandeur."   The house actually belongs to Miranda, Adrian's sister, and her partner Gerald, a painter with a beyond-pretentious attitude who has an annoying habit of quoting "bloody Baudelaire," which ticks off Miranda to no end.  As this very long and rather boozy night goes on, Lucian becomes involved in a bizarre card game with Gerald; an argument ensues between his hosts, and the next day Elizabeth leaves before Lucian wakes up and Gerald has disappeared altogether, leaving Lucian and Miranda alone.  What happens next borders on the dark stuff of nightmares, and I won't go there.  A brilliant story, one of my favorites in this book.

The description of this book in part says that the stories in Ghosts make for a "disquieting journey through twilight regions of love, loss, memory and ghosts."  This collection of strange tales  is my introduction to the shorter fiction of Ray Russell, and I have to say that I am absolutely in awe of the talent this man displays here, not just in the writing (which is excellent)  but also in the depths he reaches in his characters, allowing their often-troubled souls to surface.  As the blurb notes,  "you are likely to come away with the feeling that there has been a subtle and unsettling shift in your understanding of the way things are," a promise made and kept.  

very highly recommended.  Many thanks to Brian at Swan River Press as well. 

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