Thursday, 9 June 2016

PAGAN TRIPTYCH - Review

When I learned that Sarob Press were going to issue a book consisting of three novellas paying homage to Algernon Blackwood (following the success of their Machen tribute, Romances of the the White Day) I was pleased. But I also wondered which Blackwood they would pay homage to? Because in a very long career Blackwood did write a lot of stories and novels, and while there are certain common ideas in his work,  he did range more widely than, say, Machen or M.R. James.

I'm pleased to report that in Pagan Triptych Ron Weighell, John Howard, and Mark Valentine do indeed explore different aspects of Blackwood's legacy. In the first novella, 'The Letter Killeth', Weighell explores the world of arcane knowledge and shadowy conflict between occult forces. A sinister figure (something of a Karswell, in fact) demands to view a collection of unusual items bequeathed to a college. A polite refusal leads to a curse and attempts to protect the innocent family targeted lead into some very dark and erudite byways. While more complex than the John Silence stories this novella is like them in spirit - occult detection and doing the decent thing are both to the fore.

'In the Clearing' by John Howard couldn't be more different. Here a City chancer who's got rich by dodgy methods is sent on gardening leave to a cottage in rural England. Howard's self-centred protagonist encounters the numinous forces of nature in old woodland, and in the person of a gardener who communes with the trees. It's a rich, rewarding story that affirms - as Blackwood often did - that we are less monstrous and more truly ourselves if we set aside most of the paraphernalia of civilisation and see the world as it is, rather than as a source of power or wealth.

'The Fig Garden' by Mark Valentine introduced me to the splendid word figgery. It is the only story set in the historical past, the 'Blackwood era' of early 20th century Britain. Its protagonist works for an organisation that protects national monuments and is therefore constantly pestered by eccentrics/nutcases. But what category does Mr Scaramander fall into? He wants to classify certain parts of the landscape as monuments and argues that they are, in a sense, doorways to Atlantis - not the lost continent of Doug McClure fame, but something altogether more strange and numinous. All of these novellas require re-reading, I think, but fir me 'The Fig Garden' is the most subtle and difficult to assess on first acquaintance. This is a tribute to the Blackwood of mysticism who (in 'Sand' for instance) attempted to conjure up the essence of an entire culture through visionary fable.

Considered as a whole this is a remarkable book, offering a broad sweep of weird fiction. I don't think Blackwood would be unhappy to have his name linked with any of these works.

There is, as always, an excellent Paul Lowe cover.

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