The Last Balcony: stories and novellas by D.F. Lewis.
A large new hardback collection from InkerMan Press. Received on August 20th 2012. This is going to be a 'real-time review', which basically just means that I'm going to review the book as I go along rather than waiting to finish reading it, a type of reviewing style that D.F Lewis (also known as Des Lewis) has made his own in recent years. He has reviewed dozens of books this way. Some people may say it's a flawed method, that we can't grasp what any book is really about until we have the whole picture, but I disagree. There's no guarantee that a whole picture (whatever that is) will be available to us simply because we defer writing about a book until we have finished it. A real-time review can have freshness and vigour; it relies on anticipation and excitement: and sometimes a hunch can be more truthful than a careful analysis.
Des Lewis has 'real-time reviewed' many of my own books. Is this now a case of payback, of tit for tat? This is what I think of tit for tat... So make up your own mind. All I know is that he deserves to be more reviewed than he currently is. So do I, as a matter of fact. And so do many other writers I know.
Now then. The Last Balcony consists of 43 short-stories and 2 novellas. That's a lot of work, but the short-stories are mostly rather brief. Looking at the contents list I'm pleased to see that 'Between White Lines' has been included. This was the first D.F. Lewis story I ever read (back in 1991 or 1992) and it baffled me completely but I enjoyed it nonetheless.
'A Pie With Thick Gravy' -- the first story in the collection is one page long, no more. It's a single paragraph, hardly a story in any meaningful sense of the term. Nothing startling happens, there is no plot, no great conceptual juggling; and yet it works, it's effective. It's horrid and funny and I imagine it sets up the rest of the book very well, like a signpost at the start of a mountain path.
'Warm Air' -- a fabulous story, D.F. Lewis at his best. This story probably references H.P. Lovecraft's story 'Cool Air' (one of the first Lovecraft stories I ever read and worth reading for the absurd 'Spanish' accent) and begins with a Lovecraft quote (also from 'Cool Air'? I imagine so). Lewis reverses many conventions in this piece, with its daytime sleeper, flooded attic and waft of warm air as the mysterious upstairs lodger walks past the room of the narrator. It's wonderfully written; it dates from 1990 when clarity and a certain kind of twisted directness clearly mattered more to Lewis than it did at certain later points of his career. There are three high obvious phases in Lewis' career, when he was firing on all cylinders. The late 80s and early 90s was the first of these phases; and this story is a classic from that period.
'The Pillowghost Stories' -- this is either a fully integrated novelette made up of nine thematically linked parts or a retroactive fix-up of loose vignettes unnaturally forced together. I just don't know. I should know, but I don't. I have to say that this piece grew on me, but at first I didn't like it. A character who refers to himself in the third person (but who at least is aware of this horrible mannerism), people trapped in a room for reasons unknown to them (and also unknown, I suspect, to the author), an analysis of several neologisms (including 'pillowghost'), confusing and cluttered descriptions, awkward wordplay ('...the tell-tale scribbled poster-message pastry-pasted to a pane...') and a general feeling of baffling self-indulgence... but then suddenly it changes in the segment subtitled 'The Weathering'. Clarity of a sort returns and the disparate elements do seem to connect on some level (though I'm at a loss to say how or why). It turns out to be a good story, but I worry that its difficulty and obscurity might put off some readers from pressing ahead, which would be a shame, because the next story is absolutely wonderful...
'My Giddy Aunt' -- one of the five best D.F. Lewis stories I have ever read. It's similar in many ways to 'Warm Air', with the odd lodger on the top floor, the decaying house, the alien domesticity, but despite the overlap the two stories don't really tread on each other's feet in any way. There's a certain sort of conjuring with a particular kind of atmosphere that Des Lewis does better than anyone else (in the same way that Bruno Schulz made 'mercantile gothic' his own subgenre) and in this story his abilities in this regard reach their zenith.
'A Work of Art' -- another strong piece, a two part tale (or two tales joined together?) that simply asks the question: what is art? The fact that no definite answer is forthcoming is a relief. The first part concerns a middle-aged asylum seeker who spends his time in a library researching the question, looking for perhaps a 'de jure' solution; the second part is about two people on the outside seeking perhaps a 'de facto' answer in the roofs of the surrounding buildings. The writing is good, lyrical and clear and rhythmic.
I'll be having a brief rest from reading The Last Balcony now, just for a day or two. I rarely read short-story collections without pausing for breaks. I'm enjoying it very much so far, though...
I've had a slightly longer break from reading this book than I expected. I went climbing and hiking on Sunday, a really hard all-day slog, and I was still too tired yesterday to do much writing, so I mostly had a day off from the computer. I did, however, read two more stories of The Last Balcony.
I ought to point out that I tend to have more than one book on the go at any time. At the moment I am also reading the following: Trawl by B.S. Johnson; Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa; The Human Angle by William Tenn and L'Abbé C by Georges Bataille. Until a few days ago I was also reading a Raymond Carver collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, but I hated it and abandoned it halfway through. When I was younger, I had the strange rule that if I started a book I had to finish it. These days I'm acutely aware that life is too short to waste on books that one isn't enjoying.
The Raymond Carver was exactly the sort of fiction I dislike; but I didn't just hate it because of its boring subject matter (alcoholics) and its style (pared down) but because none of the stories actually made much sense. I don't demand plot. One of my favourite writers is Donald Barthelme, who never used plot; but if you're not going to use plot, then you must have wit and invention as substitutes.
Des Lewis has wit and invention. He doesn't always show it and some of his worst short stories are as pointless as Carver's (though always written in a more interesting way, at least in my opinion) but the wit is there, the invention is there. Sometimes you have to dig deep to find it; other times it jumps out at you.
'The Candlemass Stories' -- another fix-up, a sort-of novelette similar in structure to 'The Pillowghost Stories' but much much better. In fact my regard for that other work has gone down in the light of this mosaic masterpiece. Here is wit and invention, lots of it, jumping out (and jumping back in, only to jump back out elsewhere in a changed form). The wealth of images can't be kept inside the prose. So we have whistling ears, limbs that go walkabouts on their own, giant snails in a circus, a mountain climbing clown, a library that is a nightmarish gathering place for directional arrows. What any of it means is beyond me, and whether the parts add up into an integrated whole is equally a mystery, but the piece works. It's emotionally affecting. I think this must be a fairly recent Lewis piece (I have no real idea about the chronology of any of these stories; the fact that one tale was published before another doesn't mean it was written first) and if so, then I am considerably cheered, because it means he hasn't lost his touch, has, in fact, improved in many ways, and his finest days aren't behind him. The pretentious flimflam that was characteristic of Lewis at his lowest period (in the mid noughties) doesn't appear here at all. There's no "serependipity of the nemonymous noumena is doodah retrocausal" or any of that meaningless artschool bollocks. Here is a welcome clarity, heartily welcome, but not so much that the mystery, the riddle, the enigma is impaired, diluted or broken.
'Chain Letters' -- this is a good story, but one of the characters annoyed me and because of that I was soured somewhat to the strengths of the tale. This is unfortunate, but I'm not such an objective fellow that I can shrug off annoyances so easily. This story is one of what is now a very rare breed indeed, the epistolary fiction. It's a story about deceit and dogs, I think. The annoying character is named Oscar Ablitt and he's a precious pansy and that's why I can't have any empathy for him; and without such empathy I suspect it's impossible or difficult to enjoy this tale as much as it probably deserves to be enjoyed. Published in 1998 it contains curiously old-fashioned allusions to the internet ('Neither of you, of course, are members of the Internet, that Global Information Super-Highway' [don't you just love that members tag and the capitalisation]) and almost self-predicts its own redundancy. This review is more negative than it should be. Please bear that in mind. That simpering affronted Oscar Ablitt is the reason...
As you can see from this photograph, I have taken off the jacket covering the book. It kept sliding down and making the reading experience less comfortable than it could be. The book is now a solid and pure blue hardback. In one sense this is a shame, because the cover design is very good; it was executed by Tony Lovell, an artist of considerable nascent talent but a bonafide weirdo. I will replace it when I have finished the book.
'Entries' -- a fairly early Lewis tale, a decent short (three pages) horror story. Early Lewis tends to be more gruesome than later Lewis. There's more blood. I wonder if he was influenced by the fact that 80s 'Horror' was primarily gore-oriented before the genre became more 'sophisticated' in the 90s? I don't know. I've never seen Lewis as having much to do with the scene as it was in the 80s, with its embossed black paperback covers and titles such as The Blood, The Crypt, The Hood, The Demon, The Hatstand, The Pentacle, and stories filled with flabby prose derived as much from Dennis Wheatley as from Stephen King... Anyway 'Entries' is a perfectly fine addition to the 'strange-child-brought-up-by-strange parents' subgenre, the ultimate example of which must be 'Jack-in-the-Box' by Ray Bradbury (and coincidentally, or not, my very favourite Des Lewis story [not necessarily his best] is also called 'Jack-in-the-Box' but isn't a member of this particular subgenre).
'Dorothy Alone' -- the weakest story in the collection so far, at least in my opinion (and I can only ever have my opinion; it shouldn't be necessary to state this fact, but stating it does seem to lessen tension, oddly). This story encapsulates why Des Lewis isn't as popular and appreciated as he deserves to be. Let's not misunderstand that remark: he is actually quite popular and appreciated, more popular and appreciated than he believes himself to be. But he deserves to be even more popular and appreciated. Stories like 'Dorothy Alone' (and he has written many, many, many of them) have served only to keep him back, in my opinion, in my opinion.
The main problem with this story is that it's not alive, it doesn't feel as if it's part of the world, not even the world of literature. There are several reasons for this. One of them is that the writing is awkward, and the main reason why the writing is awkward is because of the grammar. The grammar is bad. I'm all for experimental writing, I love writers who find their own rhythms and play around with sentence structure. But when there is unconventional grammar that isn't musical, then we have problems. This is, or can be, one of Lewis' biggest failings. ('Her staccato thoughts were punctuated like the steps of her dolls which she dreamed they made around her bedside when she slept...', 'They were the only two within a mere arm's length jurisdiction vis à vis the mistress Dorothy...', 'A love long won was a love long had. Sudden passions between strangers were little better than self-abuse upon each other...')
This story was published in 1999, so it's mid-Lewis. The early Lewis hadn't yet learned to be too awkward for his own good; the later Lewis seemed to learn self-discipline. But mid-Lewis did his best to ruin Lewis, to bury all the great stuff under a morass of what is little better than word salad, words bunged together into sentences almost haphazardly, sentences woven into impenetrable paragraphs full of meaningless pseudo-tautologies ('Dorothy alone was Dorothy with her Danubian dolls which, I claim, was just another version of Dorothy alone...')
Another reason this story doesn't feel alive is that it gives no indication whatsoever that it was inspired on any level by any real experience, even tangentially. I know from my own writing efforts that stories based at least partly on something I have experienced instantly come more alive on the page than stories that are purely birthed from the imagination (I'm not talking about stories that rely on analytic logic; they don't require much empirical input). 'Dorothy Alone' feels as if it was written by a man who had been sitting indoors for a long long time without going anywhere or doing anything. I have the same problem with many other contemporary horror writers (I won't name names because that gets me into trouble; they are writers who don't travel anywhere ever). Fiction inspired only by other fiction is somehow dead... 'Dorothy Alone' is at least a useful signpost as to the direction Lewis should be trying to avoid. In my opinion. Stuff like this is why his Weirdtongue novel didn't sell very well. People are reluctant to engage with things that don't make sense and Lewis provided ample evidence, again and again, that he knows how not to make sense.
But this isn't the whole of Lewis, this is only one aspect of Lewis, the leftover artschool Lewis. The better Lewis is utterly wonderful and he's here in this book too, probably dominant in fact; and I feel sure he's going to return with a vengeance in the next few stories. Flipping ahead at random I find this killer line: "The ghost was immediate. Like love with no foreplay." That's the Lewis I want to read!
'Candle-Dreaming' -- a short tale with a nice conceit about static dreams, i.e. dreams that are a single freeze-framed image rather than a moving sequence of images, and how such dreams, being essentially representative of eternity (which is the absence of time rather than infinite persistence), are the most troubling of all. It's a good idea neatly expressed; and this story utilises multiple-perspective shifts in order to make the whole thing more dreamlike, each shift presented as a separate tableau that is almost a single frozen frame in itself. Form and content are closely matched and the result is aesthetically pleasing.
'The House of Cutt' -- a superb tale, one of the best in the book so far. It's another early Lewis (published in 1988; the oldest story in the collection) and it rather unexpectedly turns out to be a proper story. In other words it has a plot. This is very unusual for Lewis. An old house in the fenlands is the gateway to the centre of the earth, where lurks a being that is part demon, part abstract force, part monstrous cuckoo. The feeling generated by this excellent tale is akin to that created by William Hope Hodgson in his novel The House on the Borderland and I imagine that Hodgson was a direct influence on Lewis when he decided to write this tale, but in fact I prefer 'The House of Cutt' to Hodgson's book: it's more concise, condensed and frankly weirder. Some of the writing tricks are great ('...God must have entered a horizon-throwing competition when creating this part of the world, and had won it hands down...'). A classic Lewis fiction.
'Headcount' -- also an early Lewis but not as accomplished as the previous tale. This is almost another example of the 'strange-child-brought-up-by-strange-parents' subgenre (see 'Entries' above) but not quite. The child isn't very strange, only the father. It feels like something of a filler, this piece, but there's nothing wrong with that really.
'Down to the Boots' -- another early Lewis (published in 1989) and another goodie. I have finally worked out what it is about early Lewis that is different from mid and late Lewis: before about 1993 there's more energy in his stories and this energy comes from a feeling of hope that suffuses the work, not that the stories themselves are based on hope, but one can feel the hope of the writer himself; and this hope is probably the hope of a writer who believes that success, fame and happiness are possible, are within reach, that he is at least heading in that direction and that these are concrete goals that he will achieve if he keeps going. Then a certain feeling of disillusionment set in and Lewis' work lost that energy; but later, as compensation, he acquired a composure, an equanimity, that gave his work a pleasing symmetry.
Early Lewis: energy. Late Lewis: symmetry. It's the mid Lewis I like less. But these are very broad generalisations and don't hold true in every case, by no means. Anyway, 'Down to the Boots' is as Lovecraftian as 'The House of Cutt' was Hodgsonian: the fishy fenlands are evoked with truly affecting atmosphere. Lewis does crepuscular decay better than almost anyone.
'Tugging the Heartstrings' -- a gem, a minor masterpiece, a beautiful story that I found uplifting. I find horror writing too entangled with despair and negativity to make it an easy read (my character doesn't really 'click' with the values of the genre) and when Lewis does horror I have the same difficulty with endurance: I can only take it in small doses. But fiction like this tale I could happily read all day! It's a very brief story, only two pages long, but it's a true delight, extremely odd and yet not forced in any way. The juxtaposition of mock-feudal and space opera setting is curious almost to the point of perversity and yet it feels utterly right.
There's a great visual joke in this story that anticipates my favourite visual joke in my favourite episode of my favourite TV comedy ever. Here it is. The visual joke occurs at the 5:00 minute mark. In Des Lewis' story it's a spaceship, not an ordinary ship. The rest of this remarkable story is a tumble of superb images,including an intertextual reference to 'Jack in the Box', my favourite Lewis story. 'Tugging the Heartstrings' has completely knocked on the head my theory that Lewis went downhill in the 'mid' part of his career. This tale was published in 1997 and is wonderful. I clearly know nothing. Highly recommended indeed!
Today is September 17th. I've had a quite a long break from reviewing this book. I have in fact read four more stories since I posted my last instalment, but I simply didn't have time to write anything about them. I was too busy arranging a charity auction for my next novel. In a sense this is a bit pathetic of me. Des Lewis simply steams ahead with his real-time reviews and makes no excuses because he doesn't need any. Anyway I'm back now, at least for the time being, and so...
'The Plug' -- if I had to grade all the stories in this book like some sort of school exam, I would give this story a 'B'. It's good, very good in fact, but it's not in the same category as 'Warm Air' or 'Tugging the Heartstrings'. In many ways it's a traditional horror story with a fairly conventional ending. It feels a little bit like a reprisal of the first part of 'A Work of Art' but is more substantial. The thing is that for me Des is at his best when his stories are set either in Dickensian territory (crumbling tenements, toyshops, inner cities) or in isolated rural locations (especially marshes, fenlands) and he is slightly less good when his stories are set in the suburbs. In a sense this almost makes him the opposite of J.G. Ballard. But anyway... 'The Plug' is disturbing and effective enough; and it's disturbing not because of the brutal climax but because of the (deliberate) non-sequiturs of the dialogue, which give it almost a Kafkaesque edge.
'Sisters in Death' -- an almost pure 'Gothic' vignette rather than a proper story. I have no feelings about it either way. It left me unmoved. This story of dying/dead sisters is atmospheric but little more than that. It's a filler.
'Starfish Has Lost an Arm' -- great title, but I have no idea what this tale is about, no real idea at any rate. A giant starfish on the bed, possibly metaphorical or illusory or accidental. A tangible sense of fear that envelops the two main characters that might be a radiance of evil or might be nothing at all. However, there is some very effective writing going on here; it's just that I'm not sure what is going on. Maybe that doesn't matter much. Certainly this book has changed my ideas about Des and clarity. I always thought that clarity was his weak point, but the prose in the vast majority of the stories in this collection is beautifully clear and sometimes highly lyrical. I understand the prose of this story but not the meaning (if there is one) or even the dynamic. Perhaps I should read it again.
'Independent Image' -- another classic. Grade 'A' to this one. We're back to what Des does best. Weird toyroom/puppet capers, disturbing as anything, odd, offbeat, leftfield, richly textured and dense but also highly digestible. The language is intricate but slips into the mind easily. Every so often Des conjures up a small detail that changes everything, that loads a story with so much menace that it seems thereafter to palpitate. The key to the toyroom being on the inside is that moment of magic in this story. A synopsis won't do the piece justice. It needs to be read in its totality. Wonderful.
I'm more than a third of the way through this collection now and I have my definite favourites, as follows: 'Warm Air', 'My Giddy Aunt', 'The Candlemass Stories', 'The House of Cutt', 'Tugging the Heartstrings' and 'Independent Image'.
'The Mentioning' -- this book seems designed to disprove every assertion I make. No sooner do I make a claim that Des is at his best in 'inner city' or 'isolated rural' (specifically I meant marsh and fenland) locations than he writes a superb piece set on the coast among the cliffs of a wild beach. This story is a meditation, on death, loss and fate, and is utterly infused with the authentic ambience of that margin where land meets sea.
'The Front Room' -- many years ago (back in the late 1980s) I remember reading a collection of stories by a writer named Gabriel Josipovici. I don't recall anything about the plots, characters or themes of the stories themselves (not even the titles) but I came away from that book with a surfeit of certain images that may actually be unrelated to the main concerns of the texts. These images primarily include rooms in strange houses, the smokestacks of factories, grey skies, urban labyrinths as convoluted as those of Gormenghast.
I have never met anyone since who has read anything by this writer, but that book, In the Fertile Land, has always stayed with me, unremembered but ineradicable. This story by Des Lewis seems to occupy the same ground, taking all that ambience and compressing it into a mere three pages. It's a story of exploration, but exploration on a small scale, reduced to the inner horizons of a strange and lonely house, inexplicable but full of (dark) opportunity for the young protagonist. 'The Front Room' is powerful, unsettling and lyrical. It should be clasutrophobic too but somehow isn't.
I've had another unscheduled break. As I said before, I rarely whizz through short story collections in the same way that I devour novels. I often have many short story collections on the go at the same time and I'll dip into them every so often. Have I already mentioned that I've been reading Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's Cruel Tales since 1991? I am also reading The Human Angle by William Tenn, Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, The Twilight of the Gods by Richard Garnett and The Book of Fantasy, the big famous anthology of fantastical stories edited by Jorge Luis Borges, Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo. So Des's book is only one of several collections I am simultaneously reading. It's holding its own, though, so far.
'Crumbling Edges' -- A story in two parts (as are several in this collection) in which the second part probably echoes and amplifies (or maybe mutates and subverts) the themes and concerns of the first part. However I can't personally see the connection between them. This doesn't matter, as both parts are interesting enough on their own. The first part is very Beckett-like, a simple tableau of isolation and introspection, a man without energy or hope sitting on a rocking chair. The second part is about a haunted domestic couple. The writing is superb, crystalline and yet not plain, far from it!
'The Resident' -- a lesser story, more of a vignette or even a detached scene. An old man in a retirement home of some kind is visited by his wife and son. Nothing happens, or if it does (and knowing Des I suspect it does) I have no idea what that thing is.
'A Hairshirt Called Husband' -- another story that completely baffled me. Once again I have absolutely no idea what it's about. But if you go to Des Lewis looking for linear plot then you will generally be dismayed. Des doesn't do such things, he's not an algorithmic writer. Neither was Barthelme, for that matter; so it shouldn't matter, and it doesn't. Here we have fragments of darkness, but in this case they are connected (to what purpose I can't guess) and undoubtedly they add into a sum greater than the parts. At least I'm willing to bet they do. But I don't know what that sum is. Des is able to make a simple game of clock patience seem sinister, to imbue it with a seepiness, for want of a better word, that is even more sinister than plain old-fashioned creepiness. I don't feel qualified to say more about this story other than that it feels substantial. So it works on some emotional level even if I can't comprehend it with my intellect; and that's something worthwhile, surely?
‘Shaped like a Snake’ – first published in the traditional (i.e. Jamesian) ghost story journal Ghosts & Scholars, this is one of the most orthodox and straightforward stories I’ve ever read by Des. This is not to say that it’s especially orthodox and straightforward by the normal standards of most genre writers. With the hints of ancient pagan secrets and slightly sinister references to the nature god Pan, there’s much more of an Arthur Machen (‘The Ceremony’, etc) flavour than an M.R. James ambience to this piece. The best thing about this story is the monologue by the woman Myrtle, which is wryly amusing and exasperating.
‘Gates’ – brilliant. A classic. One of my favourites so far. One of the best Des Lewis stories I’ve ever read, definitely in the top ten, possibly in the top five. What I love about this story so much is the fact that it relies on experimental form, but an experimental form that works well, extremely well in my view. It’s almost a Donald Barthelme story. It also put me in mind of Rabelais, with his comical, rhythmic, demented lists of objects as an integral part of the developing story. ‘Gates’ utilises this technique to perfection thanks to the rhythm of the bulleted lists. The conclusion of the story is the last item on the final bulleted list. It’s far better than this brief and inadequate resume makes it sound, believe me! I love this story and I wish I had written it. These days almost no one plays with form. Form is almost a dirty word. And yet it shouldn’t be. There’s still so much that a good writer can do with form, whether that form controls the content, is controlled by it, independent of it, or utterly entwined with it.
Another long pause... I'm not really cut out for this lark!
'Mort Au Monde' -- excellent. Another classic. They are coming thick and fast now. But not thick: intelligent. This is a story that is very simple in construction but it lingers in the mind long after it has been read. There's a deceptively ordinary symmetry that works extremely well at the heart of this piece: hotel rooms, cabins on a ferry, and a physical distance between a couple that is also a distance of minds, fates, souls? Who knows? I don't, but I don't care. I love the writing. And there's an overt (or perhaps not overt but core) Kafka strain to the development over only three pages. Sometimes I think I've cracked Des Lewis: he's a kafkaesque writer, resembling the Kafka of 'A Country Doctor'. But no, that's not quite right. Great story. Great.
'The Body in the Bed' -- not as convincing a piece, but still good. It's a tale of perversion but the perversion is never made explicit. Or perhaps the perversion is only a background detail or setting. For some reason I initially assumed the narrator was a dog, and it can be read that way, except for a few troubling details that contradict this assumption (he takes a train on his own). It's odd, it's dark. I don't really know what else to say about it.
The last word I would ever use in connection with a Des Lewis story is 'conventional'. He's absolutely not a conventional writer, neither in subject matter nor form, therefore I was suprised when I read...
'Cloysters' -- awesome. What a great story! Let me explain, if I can... It's very un-Des-like; it doesn't feel like a Des Lewis story on certain levels. So if I claim it's one of his best, will that somehow logically suggest that his normal work is too odd (a neat paradox that, I feel)? No, because although this story doesn't feel like Des in its packaging, it's Des through and through underneath; and although we might read it as a non-Des story, we'll think about it later as a bonfide total Des Lewis tale, one of his best, as I've already said.
The format is orthodox. A rich businessman and his wife move out of the rat race of the city and into the country. Things go wrong in an unsettling way; a return to the urban jungle results in a slide down into misery. I have often said that Des Lewis doesn't use algorithms in his writing, but this story is as algorthmical as a Roald Dahl or May Sinclair tale; but it's far denser and stranger than anything by those (very good) writers. The writing, the prose, is just excellent. There are the curious similes and weird-angle narrative approaches, but there's nothing here that couldn't be use to teach a class of creative writing students; and they would undoubtedly be better at the end of it.
'Knee Jerks for Nancy' -- this is also much more conventional in terms of narrative drive than most Des Lewis stories, but unlike 'Cloysters' it has more of a colloquial style, and therefore I didn't enjoy it as much, though it's still a neat tale, a waking nightmare about baby-sitters and the mundane horrors of modern domestic life. If 'Cloysters' deserves a mark of 10/10 (and it does) I would give this one 6/10. That's just the way I feel.
Reading 'Cloysters' this morning made me regret taking another break from this collection after 'The Body in the Bed'...
Time is one of the many things I am short of. I am also short of arms and eyes (having only two of each). Otherwise I would read this collection faster than I have been doing, perhaps. Anyway, my estimated time of completion is January 2013. And so...
'Mr Rampives' -- Just like the narrator of this story I have sometimes been asked to help fix a car. I don't own a car of my own and I don't know too much about car mechanics (I was an electronics engineer, not a mechanical engineer; I understand valves and transistors, not gears and pistons. But anyway, on the few occasions where I did successfully fix a car engine, it was always because the spark plugs were malfunctioning. Sometimes it was enough to take them out, clean the ends and re-insert them. I doubt that such 'repairs' were more than very temporary, though! Anyway, this story is a minor delight; there are overtones of menace but they remain overtones only, thankfully.
'Nancy's Mother' -- I have a vague memory of having read this story somewhere before. According to the publication information at the beginning of the book it was published in the first issue of a magazine entitled Uneasy Reading, which I'm positive I never received. So maybe my memory is false. It's a very vague memory, though. Some flavour, some wisp of atmsophere, seems familiar. And yet it's not one of the best stories in this volume, far from it. It's a fairly unremarkable brief account of a grotesque wedding. Not that there's anything 'wrong' with it. It just is what it is.
'The Horn of Europe' -- great title for a story! I wish I had come up with this title. Brilliant. This is a great little philosophical tale, the sort of tale I wish more writers would write more often. It wears the cloak of a horror story, but it's not really; the possible horror is only incidental. Maybe a maniac attacked a little girl. That's not what the story is really about. It's about time and change and that curiously intense bittersweet feeling that comes when we truly think about the state of the universe, about entropy, about everything being in flux. It's a Heraclitian story. A time travel story without a time machine; a story about memory and supposition. One of the most important stories in the book so far...
Another long pause... I am going to try to read the remaining short stories this month and the two novellas in January 2013. Real Time Reviewing is harder than it looks. Actually, all reviewing is harder than it looks; or maybe I'm just finding it harder as I get older. I find myself growing increasingly reluctant to review anything. If I like something I'll plug it to my friends and people who I think might appreciate it; if I dislike something, I'm tending more and more just to keep quiet about it. There doesn't seem too much point in saying too much either way. However, as I have started this Real Time Review, I'll certainly try to finish it. I note, however, that Des himself has given up writing them. Rightly so, in my view: he's done more than his fair share on contributing to the 'cause' of weird fiction. It's time others made a contribution too...
'Was That a Message or a Movement' -- another good title, another enigmatic brief tale. The interior location has almost a Dickensian flavour (Des is good at Dickensian flavours). There's a growing sense of unease as the main character Donald waits to learn what is being planned for him. It turns out that... well, I still don't know what was being planned for him, and maybe neither does he. Suitably it has a 'Christmasy' feel to it, perfect for the season in which I read it.
'A Benchmark for Ghosts' -- Crikey! This story feels very very familiar, But why? When I checked the publication credits I can see that it wasn't published in any small-press magazine I might have encountered in the 1990s. And yet I'm sure I've read it before. Where and how? It's a good story, set in Des' own stamping ground on the Essex coast, with (probably accurate) autobiographical elements co-opted into this tale of loss and the passing of time (at least this is what the tale seems to be about to me: regrets, hankerings, the failure to 'carpe diem'; and let me add that it's easy to urge people to 'carpe diem' but I have found through long experience that women don't like their diems to be carped without a fair amount of work; which is something that the narrator of this story also seems to be extremely annoyed about -- though he'll only admit to being mildly 'jealous').
'Glimpse' -- a classic sudden fiction. Less than a page long, it packs a punch; it's a brief philosophical fable (or disquisition). Des does these short pieces brilliantly. This could almost be a Pu Songling tale in terms of brevity, conciseness and punch of theme, although the incidental mechanics are completely different, of course. Superb.
January 1st, 2013
I failed to read all the short-stories before the end of 2012. No matter. I’ll read them now and also read one of the novellas before the end of January. This means I ought to finish the book in February.
‘Nipping the Bud’ -- a menacing and very dark little tale, almost evil. Des does what he does best: he gives us a slightly sordid, neo-Dickensian interior but riddled painfully through with shafts of bleak loneliness and with such a concrete absence of warmth and sentiment that the reader feels relief that he is outside the tale, even as he feels disturbed by the ghost of an idea that perhaps the reality described in the text is around him. In essence it’s a gruesome and effective black gem of a horror story. It’s perfectly Des-esque and not bulked out by a single unnecessary word. I note that it appeared in 1990 in the very first issue of the fairly well-known (in British small press horror circles) magazine Peeping Tom. Des was more popular back then than he is now: this tale demonstrates why he was popular and also makes inexplicable the fact he is less popular now. But maybe republication in this book will help to rectify this situation...
‘Inside the Bud’ -- this title makes the story sound as if it might be a sequel of some sort to the preceding tale, but it’s not. It has one of the best opening lines I have ever encountered (“I have dreams whilst dreams have me”) but betrays itself a little later (at least in my eyes) by introducing H.P. Lovecraft into the story and presenting him as some sort of Guru of the Imagination (which I don’t believe he really was). This story was written for a magazine called Crypt of Cthulhu, so this example of Lovecraft-Licking may have been a tactical device, though Des rarely plays tactical games of this nature, so probably not. It’s not a bad story, but not a patch on the one that came before.
‘Clad Bone’ -- a dream story, but I don’t get it. I don’t get it in the sense that I don’t really believe there’s much going on it anyway, but also that I don’t understand why Des decided to include it in this magnificent collection. It’s a neither-here-nor-there story. Female vampires in a dream. Not my cup of tea. Was my cup of tea once, when I was about 18 years old, but that was a long time ago. One of the weaker stories in the book so far.
‘The Five Mentagras’ -- a biggie. One of those crypto-novelettes made up of separate and supposedly linked stories that aren’t even really stories but chapters from an unwritten book (or from many unwritten books). I feel I have read this work before. It’s not listed on the publication credits page. Why then, is it vaguely familiar? Was I present when Des was discussing it on some online forum or other? But he doesn’t do that in detail. The first pseudo-chapter, ‘The Drogulus’ (nice allusion to Logical Positivism there) is a jerky and odd tale in which Des refers to himself in the third person; but not in an annoying way because it’s perfectly metafictional. The second pseudo-chapter, ‘The Famulus’, takes us right back into the heart of Des-esque excellence, but how it fits in with what has gone before isn’t clear to me at all; but it’s a superb piece of writing, so who cares? The subsequent pseudo-chapters, ‘The Grinagog’, ‘The Hummum’ and ‘The Mentagra’, all go about their business of being just themselves while nodding and gesturing at each other in ways that I’m barely aware of. This suite of tales, this crypto-novelette, has a perfect ending that probably does tie everything together. It’s a seeking of the opposite of something that is cast as sense but in fact is nonsense. The Logical Positivists believed that all mystical questions were simply nonsense put into the form of sense. Anyway, I enjoyed ‘The Mentagras’ but I can safely say that 10 years ago I wouldn’t have enjoyed it at all. One must learn to loosen up when confronted with Des’s work. It’s almost never pretentious (as I once assumed it often was) but just oddly faceted.
It has been snowing. Not much, certainly not enough to get into a flap about, but a perfect excuse for staying indoors by the fire and reading. So now I have finally finished all the short-stories contained in this book. I have only the two novellas left to read. Here are my remarks (for what they’re worth) about the stories I have lately read:
‘Build a Character’ – Des himself said something a while back to the effect that he was very happy with this story. He didn’t actually say that in those words. I can’t recall what he did say, but it gave me that impression, namely that he was proud and pleased with this story. I read it and thought... well, it’s not bad but it isn’t a classic. Not in my view anyway. It’s a sort-of metafictional piece which describes the creation of a character without any pretence that he’s a real person. The story then gives this character an adventure with mythical overtones, an airy fairy (but well written) crepuscular rummage through a magical fantasyland but with gothicky overtones, freak show flavour, like Angela Carter but not quite. Then the character is metafictionally dismantled. I love metafiction but this piece has just a little too much respect for the writer as an important and powerful creator. Writers generally aren’t important creators and they are virtually never powerful. My own experience as a writer is that I’m not important or powerful enough to avoid my tax demands and national insurance bills, for example.
‘Between White Lines’ – the first D.F. Lewis story I ever read, and ah! it brings back memories. Memories of the early 1990s British small-press scene. I look and I see that this was published in 1991 in the eighth issue of a magazine with the charming title Dementia 13. It must have been the first issue I ever saw of that magazine, which was soon after to publish a number of my earliest tales. I remember chatting (via letter) with Pam Creais, the editor of Dementia 13, about this story and about Des in general. “I rarely know what his stories mean but they are addictive anyway,” she told me. Yes, that’s exactly right. I think that ‘Between White Lines’ is about two sentient cars, like dark Herbies or like the robot racing cars in Roger Zelazny’s very first published short-story, ‘Passion Play’. Or they might be dragons or rocs instead of cars. Who knows? I loved this when I first read it 22 years ago and I love it again now.
‘The Lost Balcony’ – A brief tale about a very specific kind of obsession. I recall when I was young playing in the grounds of a large deserted house and noticing a tiny balcony on a high wall, but there seemed no access to it. There was no window behind the balcony and no ladder or staircase up to it. Maybe it was a balcony solely for the benefit of climbers, specifically those climbers who indulge in the difficult and dangerous variation called ‘buildeering’ (buildings tend to be more symmetrical than rockfaces, so hoping for unexpected ledges or big handholds is generally pointless). This story is good but not remarkable.
‘When I was an Old Man’ – a superb title! That needs to be said first of all. A truly great title; and I am a connoisseur of titles. As for the story itself: this one feels odd, even odder than the average Des story, which is odd enough already. I think that the extra oddity comes from the science fictional element, which is unusual and weirdly unsuited to Des’ style. Des has done a few SF stories in his time and none of them are normal SF by a long way. But the images in this story are acute and wonderful. The giant drill on a ramp brings into mind At the Earth’s Core or When Worlds Collide or any episode of Thunderbirds. But the twist in the tale isn’t like the twist in the drill bit: it takes the narrative into Lovecraftian territory, where I really wish it wouldn’t go. But I’m not in control of the destination and yes, it does go into Lovecraftland and that’s a shame. I hate to say this, because it will offend Lovecraft fans, but... the Great Old Ones are boring. Sorry.
I have had another long break. I have been very busy. I won’t give details, but I’ll make two points relevant to the amount of time (six months!) it is taking me to read this book to the end and complete this so-called ‘real time’ review: (a) as I’ve already said several times, this is the speed at which I normally read single author story collections (with a few exceptions: Donald Barthelme and Kurt Vonnegut spring to mind) and (b) nonetheless this present speed is too slow to accurately conform to what Des himself means when he calls a review a ‘real time’ review. So this real time review is a real time review de jure but not de facto. Personally I think that when it is finished, at last, someone else should have a go at real time reviewing one of Des’ books, or if not real time reviewing it, then just reviewing it in the ordinary sense of the term. He deserves it.
Anyway, I enjoyed the short story section of this book, as is surely clear from all I have written above over previous months. Some of the stories were better than others; but isn’t that always the case with any collection? Now a confession. From the moment I began reading The Last Balcony I naturally assumed that the short story section was going to be the strongest part. I took it for granted (though I said nothing on the score) that the two novellas that came after would be weaker than the shorter pieces; that they were probably tacked on simply because they existed and Des didn’t want them to go to waste. Yes, I have read and enjoyed Des Lewis at longer-than-his-usual lengths. His novella ‘Agra Aska’, for instance, was very good, very intriguing. But Des is best known for very tight, concise, dense, almost inhumanly compressed prose; and such prose, apt and significant as it may be in a three page story, is too taxing for novelettes and novellas.
Have no fear, fellow readers! The first of the two novellas has defeated my fears and negative pre-judgments that it might be unreadable or extremely difficult to read. In fact, ‘The Apocryphan’ (subtitled ‘The Epifany of the Augusthog’) is Des Lewis’s best work so far, i.e. the best work of his that I have encountered. It goes without saying that this is purely my own opinion. I consider the piece immensely refreshing, bracing even, for here at last, Des has opened out his prose. I won’t go so far as to say that ‘The Apocryphan’ is light reading, no, but it’s perfectly viable rhythmic modern English literature with plenty of momentum. It is extremely well written. More importantly, in terms of literary definition, it is non-horror, non-fantasy, non-weird weird, or rather it is weird writing that seems to be approaching the weird from the mainstream, rather than the other way around, in the same way that a jazz band like the Mahavishu Orechestra approached rock from jazz, rather than approaching jazz from rock, as did The Soft Machine. But enough early ’70s jazz fusion music analogues!
I regard ‘The Apocryphan’ as closer in tone and style and achievement to Ian McEwan, Patrick McGrath or even Will Self than to the standard horror writers one images a modern horror writer would wish to emulate. Set in the rain-drenched seaside town of Bonnyville, the story meanders pleasingly but troublingly through a series of vignettes, little scenes graded in oddity. The background menace, which is always there, never feels contrived or even unavoidable; and the atmosphere is deeply nostalgic instead of horrific. Sadness and dread are there aplenty but muted and made bearable by the solid and therefore ambiguously comforting feel of real life as it is lived all around. There are acute observations galore: I enjoyed the pitch perfect analysis of a barmaid’s task at acting the flirt in such a way that she appears not to be acting to you alone, a sort of play within a play. But that is just one minor example among many. For a relatively short novella it manages to pack a heck of a lot of incident and half-incident into its pages.
Back in the mid ’90s, Des published a story entitled ‘A Brief Return to Bonnyville’ in a now-transformed magazine called The Third Alternative, and I remember at the time being impressed with the superior pacing of that story and the wider spaces that opened out within it as a result; but that piece was still claustrophobic and controlled, whereas in ‘The Apocryphan’, Bonnyville seems like a place one could genuinely stroll around, dig behind, poke around in; there’s an authentic sense of place. And the characters that inhabit this novella are three-dimensional too. The fact that the story is told in many interrelated brief sections, rather than as a single clump, also helps to open out the piece still further and lighten it more; or perhaps the structure was necessitated by the spry content (the tone is spry, but it is dark sprightliness.) And yes, the mode is melancholy despite the briskness; and the briskness is luxurious, not hectic; and this peculiar mix of rates of flow and density of detail is handled with supreme skill.
So, like I said: my favourite Des Lewis piece so far. If he wrote a novel just like this, opening out all the time, I reckon he might make it big.
I'm a month late, even when I revised my expected finish date for this RTR, and there's no excuse for that, apart from... what I've already said many times, namely: I don't read story collections straight through, the way I read novels. I guessed that the novella 'Yesterfang' would be something special, but even so I didn't plunge into it immediately after reading 'The Apocryphan'. I had to keep the original rhythms of my reading. But now...
I started reading 'Yesterfang' two days ago. I haven't finished it! I have read 20 pages. There are another 50 or so to go; but I decided to start writing about it anyway because that's the point of a RTR review (and I kind of feel I have done this one a bit wrong).
It seems that Des Lewis himself holds 'Yesterfang' in high regard. I believe he said somewhere that he rates it as superior to 'The Apocryphan', something which if true would make it a very very good piece of work indeed. What I liked so much about 'The Apocryphan' was its maturity: I don't mean maturity of substance or intention (it would be presumptuous and slightly insulting if I meant that, as it would imply Des' previous work wasn't mature); I don't even mean maturity of style in the strict sense of the word, but maturity of control... 'The Apocryphan' was very controlled, but controlled in a very mature way, i.e. the author was prepared to ease up on the control and let the story tell itself when necessary, hence the prose felt much more 'opened out' than Des' usual work.
So I was expecting something similar with 'Yesterfang'. But I didn't get it. What I got (or have started to get) is something completely different. The tone is much darker, more 'Des Des', if you see what I mean. So a return to the ultra-dense Des? No, not exactly. It's sort of halfway between the open prose of 'The Apocryphan' and the dense closed prose of Des' short stories... The main thing being that it works. It works marvellously.
The reason it works so well is probably (or undoubtedly) because it's a story. There's a story here; and it's a damn good one. I am reminded somehow of Harlan Ellison, that story he wrote with the shuffling Victorian figure scampering through the chrome city of the future; not because the imagery of this novella is remotely the same but because the contrast is: the contrast between the horror core and science-fiction setting of 'Yesterfang'. Yes, it's science-fiction, absolutely!
The main character Jawn (John) is a nightmarish figure in a world that is equally nightmarish. Is this a post-apocalyptic future or some sideways dimension? I don't yet know for sure. There are some superb jokes: the city of London being named after the writer Jack London (as all the other cities are named after other writers)... There's also the immortal phrase "Welcome to Lewis" on page 280. Island or man?
I am looking forward to reading the rest of this novella. It promises to be pretty darn amazing.
I am now on page 311 of this book, which means that I'm on page 47 of the novella 'Yesterfang', with another 22 pages to go. This means I will probably finish the novella and the book tomorrow.
I don't know what else to say about 'Yesterfang'. The story has changed direction. It has become a very agreeable quest story, part Spanish picaresque, part hemi-semi-demi-Western, part something else. I forgot to mention earlier that the the novella is divided into two parts. The first part, 'In All Dreams But Yours', is dark and groping in comparison with the second part, 'The Pest of All Worlds', which is almost sprightly. The range of scholarly and pulp influences is staggering, and they come from everywhere, and the novella itself picks a path between them, like a man exploring a chasm. It's all rather enthralling.
I like the idea of treating Gulliver's Travels as a Bible, not just as a favourite book but as a literal guide to a belief system...
Des is excelling himself here. Tomorrow (with luck) I will finally finish this volume. I already know that I'll be recommending it most highly to any and all readers whoe love original weird fiction...
It is done. It is finished. It took seven months to read from beginning to end and in that time I read many other books (if you want to see which ones then check out my Goodreads page); I also wrote a lot of new stories. My reading of The Last Balcony coincides with my rediscovery of rock climbing but that means nothing really. Here’s the book. I seem to have lost the cover. It may be lurking around somewhere and probably will turn up when I stop searching for it.
‘Yesterfang’ progressed well. Swift City, Lovecraft City... The atmosphere and movement were handled with dexterity. And the old Des was there, peeking out from behind the new Des (I can’t help but think of the author of this novella and ‘The Apocryphan’ as a newer Des than the Des I am familiar with, though perhaps this is just an illusion). The old Des... “Cheapest, ripest, dampest tentacles of dampest bite!” That is such a quintessential Des Lewis line!
I wonder at the genesis of this novella. It’s a recent work but parts of it feel as if they have been lifted from an earlier (unpublished) Des work, I don’t know why. Did Des himself safe so somewhere? Another imagining perhaps.
In the final analysis I don’t rate ‘Yesterfang’ quite as highly as I rate ‘The Apocryphan’. It’s extremely good, though... the second best Des Lewis work ever.
If I was Des, and I’m not and never will be, I would now push for a paperback version of this book. I know he doesn’t want to do that, but I would do it. I would also make sure an ebook version was available. In fact I would split this volume into three parts, three separate ebooks: the short stories on their own and the two novellas as an ebook each. They deserve to be more widely read, that’s why.
I salute Des Lewis, a genuine and original voice, a craftsman of the weird who is at the top of his game in what he does!
I will never ever attempt another real time review. No sir!