Sunday, October 15, 2023

Nocebo, by R. Ostermeier


Broodcomb, 2023
281 pp


First things first:  a mega thank you to Jamie Walsh -- you know why. 

I had actually started this post Tuesday of this past week, and I had meant to finish it long before today,  but I've had a weird week of waking up at 4:30 in the morning and have subsequently been  living in a haze from the lack of sleep.  Today's the first day of clarity since.  

 The latest volume published by the phenomenon that is Broodcomb Books is Nocebo, a collection of stories that I've been raving about to anyone who will listen.  Once again we find ourself back at the Peninsula, not surprising since Broodcomb Press is, as noted on its website, the "House publisher " for the region.  First time visitors should know that the Peninsula,  according to a quote from the author's Therapeutic Tales is  a place that is "welcoming to the unusual."  

Three new stories grace this book along with a fourth, "Upmorchard," which was published in 2021 as a limited-run hardcover  book.  The publisher made it very clear at the time that Upmorchard was "never to be reprinted as a standalone volume," so anyone who missed it at the time has a second chance now. I urge you to take it.   You can read my post about it if you'd like, but the bottom line is that it was such a disturbing story that I had to stop reading for a couple of days after finishing it because I needed a mental reset.  It still bothered me this time around with the second reading, especially in the context of what comes before it. 

photo from Ancient Yew Group

In "Winn's Clock," which opens this volume, there is a particular moment in which the narrator finds himself in conversation with a green-eyed girl, and wonders if  his participation in that discussion, "having grown up on the peninsula, with its long history of strange tales..."  might " close a door" between the fields he knew and the fields he "knew not -- vanishing behind me so I'd never be able to return."   I tabbed this particular passage when I'd gone back to reread this story after finishing the book because it hit me at the time that in its own way,  it characterizes what happens throughout all of the stories in Nocebo. 

Although I can't really reveal too much about this or any other story here since these tales (as are all written by this author)  are experienced, rather than just read,  I can offer a slight peek into the three that are new as of this reading.   "Winn's Clock" is  a prized possession in the narrator's otherwise poor household, belonging to his grandfather Winn, who had "been largely itinerant for much of his life, spending time on the seas and for long periods travelling with the caravans."  People used to say about Winn that "He wanders" which as the narrator notes, "had a financial effect on us."  It was only the occasional "windfall" that would save the family, but like the clock, the origin of the money was a mystery to the boy until he was later enlightened by his uncle.   The clock itself was a unique piece, with "no winder or hole where a winding key might be inserted," and with steel "seemingly without join or access" that was always "bright as if new-worked." The only problem with the clock was in the wood, which "suffered from woodworm," yet was never destroyed.  Winn worked at the problem but could never fully solve it, as new tunnels would appear in different parts of the wood after one part had been fixed.  An offhand remark from the boy's mother leads to an act of love and kindness on his part that will change everything for this family, with long-lasting effects.     "Moving the Yew" is my favorite, actually remaining in my head for a full two days after reading it and preventing me for the duration from  moving on to the third story.  Members of The Yew Society, "whose remit was the preservation of yews on the peninsula," have taken on the project of moving a certain yew tree near Buddyn, due to a change in the course of the river.   The narrator, R. Ostermeier, on a break from his counseling duties, is asked to join his friend and the others in the group as they move the tree "the old way," with the only modern equipment a backhoe.  Doing it this way was the idea of the project manager, Rebecca Birdwhistell, as "she was insistent on traditional methods." The project gets underway and the yew is uprooted, but something is left behind in the earth, "right in the centre of the tree."  As the narrator notes, "Only then did the implications come clear. Birdwhistell had said the yew might be over a thousand years old, perhaps older still."  But there is much more to come for these people, and the implications will be become even clearer as the object is opened and its contents revealed.  The story takes  place over several days as the tree is moved; in time even small things will come to take on the greatest significance for a few members of the group, as "the whole area of land came to life. Or took hold of people."   Even more significant is the epigraph by Rainer Maria Rilke that precedes this story:
"... Life that is not concerned with us celebrates its festivals without seeing us, and we look on with a certain embarrassment, like chance guests who speak another language."
 Trust me here, it's absolutely killing me to say nothing about this incredible story, which like "Winn's Clock," has deep connections to history, nature and ritual.  The final story is "Mommick," about which writer and real-time reviewer Des Lewis says "... we have a dark masterpiece on our hands."  I have to wholeheartedly agree (and in a Facebook-post conversation with him I did agree)  with his assessment -- I have never nor do I believe I will ever again read something quite like this one.  If the first two stories left me feeling especially unsettled and uneasy, "Mommick" took me completely over the edge, making me feel that there must be some way beyond ordinary verbiage to express what this story did to me.  This story outdarks both of its predecessors, and as deeply as "Upmorchard" affected me, "Mommick" is even more frightening in its implications.  At this juncture I will offer readers the same warning that comes with all of the Broodcomb books  -- "it might not be for you." The narrator of this story is Bartoš Gerard, named after his grandfather, a photographer who had a love for "single subject focus."  His work found its way into books he'd put together, one of which, Murder Ballads, was a favorite of the narrator's as a boy.  In this book, he set models, dressed in "ordinary street clothes," into tableaux depicting various murder scenes, "some unwisely or unfortunately close to notorious crimes of the  time."  His grandfather's book, Scarecrows, on the other hand,  "terrified" him, filled with photos of "a succession of sinister figures in stark black-and-white, few what might be called regular."  As he notes, "To a child, those photographs were dream poison."   While in his twenties, a small publisher put together a bibliography of his grandfather's books, and the narrator discovered a book he'd known nothing about, a volume called 6:20.   It kept with his grandfather's "single subject focus" approach, but the photos were not his work, and he was the subject -- "naked and grotesque."   He has no idea where the photos originated, he doesn't remember having the photos taken, and they were not the object of blackmail.  His friend had collected each one as they arrived in the mail.   Starting with the photos themselves, his grandson decides that he needs to find out what he can about this "episode" that had changed his grandfather's life, setting off on a quest to discover what he can.  This is where it all turns very weird, and that is all I'm going to say about this one.   

The dustjacket notes that "Winn's Clock" and "Mommick" draw from deep wells of rural disquiet," and that's an understatement, especially with "Mommick."  The ending of "Winn's Clock" left my jaw on the floor, I'm sure, and with "Mommick," despite the darkness, it is on many levels a most poignant and very human story. It completely scared the holy bejeezus out of me while simultaneously hitting me very hard on a gut, psychological level.   "Moving the Yew" hit some deep level of resonance within, largely due to my own interests in myth, folklore and ritual, as well the author's focus on the connections between humans and the natural landscape through time.   When I closed the book after finishing it, I said to my husband that this may be the best Broodcomb book yet, but as he replied back,  "you say that about each one."   This time I'm positive.  Beyond positive.  Well beyond positive.  

So highly recommended that it's off the charts highly recommended, and anyone who has become a fan of Broodcomb and the Peninsula should definitely not miss Nocebo.  It will also appeal to readers of the strange and the weird, and quite honestly, I don't know how the author continues to produce such great, intelligent work but please, keep it coming.  

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