Friday, September 28, 2007

Just Like Us, Only Smaller, A Review of Simon King’s Insect Nations: Visions of the Ant World from Kropotkin to Bergson

After recently reading and reviewing two fiction titles from the up and coming British publisher InkerMen Press, I was looking forward to reading something from their nonfiction Axis Series.

I was not disappointed.

Simon King has put together an entertaining and thought-provoking collection of three essays (plus an introduction and a coda) looking at the relationship of human society to ant colonies through the joint lenses of Cultural Entomology and the fiction and nonfiction writing of the anarchist Peter Kropotkin, the novelist/socialist HG Wells, and the philosopher Henri Bergson, among others.

King’s journey into the social world of the ant began when he received as a gift a modern ant farm, contained in Perspex and filled with a blue-green gel, based on a 2003 NASA experiment.

Along the way, we get everything from philosophy to hard science, to sociological and anthropological considerations examining the influence of the ant’s (perceived) daily condition on that of humans. There is plenty of literary exploration as well. After all, as pointed out by Dr. King, ants appear in the Old Testament and the Koran and are the model for Achilles’ warriors in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. King also draws on the likes of Eliot, Conrad, Jules Verne, Blake, Orwell, Ariosto, and DH Lawrence.

I have always found the human propensity to compare our very unique species to everything from ants to the Gods to be telling. The Other is frightening, which assigns it power it might not otherwise have. Either through assimilation, assumption, or annihilation, the Other is then dealt with in tidy and limiting ways. To have value, Cultural Entomology, when considering an insect species’ influence on humankind, would do well to take its cue from Cultural Relativism as originally formulated by the anthropologist Franz Boas (as opposed to its present, corrupted form) and not see the Other in terms of better or worse, but simply as different and of equal worth. This book for the most part, takes that tact.

King considers the more insidious mechanisms of comparison and judgment in the sense of “politicised science—Social Darwinism, eugenics, degenerative and racial theories of all kinds.” There are also numerous references to ants seen as mere machines (think slave labor), evidenced by the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory making robot ants an inch and a half long. Ant are seen as mindless, unfeeling masses swarming over the Earth, ruining picnics and contaminating kitchens in their quest to serve the Queen. Of course, throughout history, politicians and war-mongers have categorized dozens of world cultures in much the same terms.

We get thoughts on the condition of anthood/ant-ness from a wide variety of authors: Belgian symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck (who calls the ant “a profoundly mystical being”), novelist Bernard Werber (who says that “ants are incapable of suffering and this is the basis of their society’s cohesion”), and the authors mentioned above. The brain-hologram work of Karl Pribram (misspelled as Pribaum) and David Bohm is also touched upon.

Werber’s book, Empire of the Ants (1991; which King compares to Watership Down in the sense of anthropomorphized animals) is considered in some detail. Interestingly, one of the characters is named Wells, an homage to HG Wells (who wrote a story of the same name in 1911), who said in War of the Worlds (1898) that you don’t make war on ants, you exterminate them, which certainly smacks (one might imagine) of the private conversations post-9/11 of some right-wing U.S. politicians when considering foreign policy.

It is apt that King’s ant farm was modeled on an outer-space experiment, because he pulls in some writers and works from the field of science fiction as well. There is Wells’ The First Men in the Moon and some of Maeterlinck’s quoted writing brought to mind Sigourney Weaver battling the Queens in the Alien films.

In the first essay, “Renouncing Hobbes: Kropotkin on Ants,” we look at the coldy mechanistic view of Nature espoused by the likes of Thomas Hobbes (such as in the 1651 Leviathan), Newton, and Descartes. And, although he is not mentioned in the book, Francis Bacon certainly applies. Hobbes’ works have been co-opted (much like Boas’) in the name of social and political realism, something all too evident in the numerous “non-partisan” foreign policy journals put out by think tanks that take their cue from such political theorists as Hans Morgenthau. This very Hobbesian notion that war and violence (and, on a far larger scale, the mere threat of them) are inevitable and can be used to keep societies in line (consider “shock and awe” in modern times) is overthrown by Kropotkin who said in 1902: ants have “renounced the Hobbesian war and they are the better for it.” Although I have to wonder at ants making a conscious choice to not engage in war (I think they are probably, like most of the rest of the animal kingdom, not genetically designed for it, which seems to be in line with Maeterlinck’s saying ants are a holy order who have taken a vow of poverty—they simply are not “strong” enough to riser higher on the food chain), Kropotkin was giving human society an alternative model (although he does admit that ant communities make war on others, and King quotes some stirring examples of ant wars being likened to World War I trench warfare). Kropotkin, along with Werber, believed that ants were nation-builders, just like humans. The message appears to be: if you build a nation, you sure as hell have to defend it.

The second essay, “The Ant Invasion: Wells on Ants,” begins with an analysis of ant-like warriors in a 1964 episode of Doctor Who, which King says “seems to anticipate Czechoslovakia in 1968.” He then moves to the appearance of ants in the work of Salvatore Dali and other Surrealists. Wells is the key focus of this essay, however, and there is a discussion of his 1903 short story “The Land Ironclads.” Dr. King discusses Wells’ interest in Eugenics (a subject I have looked at in my fiction writing), the essence of which I have always found clearest in his novel The Island of Dr. Moreau. There are some excellent biological explorations in this essay as well.

The third essay, “Coming to Consciousness: Bergson on Ants,” looks at several important considerations concerning the differences between ants and humans (and other species as well), such as the lack of autonomy in the ant and the author’s understandable observation that ants “are not dogs and cats” and cannot be bonded with in the same way. This last notion brings to mind a bit by the comedian Denis Leary where he talks about humans only wanting to save “cute” animals like seals and dolphins and being utterly cold and brutal when it comes to turning cows into baseball mitts and leather jackets. Ants, it is pointed out in this book, don’t have faces, so, despite what Maeterlinck purports—that their lives are barely divided by our own—the distance between us is far greater than he would like.

I highly recommend taking the time to carefully consider Bergson’s ideas on wholeness and the true nature of the falsely dual tracks of intelligence and instinct. This point of view—which led Betrand Russell to condemn Bergson for being a metaphysician (as if this is somehow a bad thing)—is now gaining greater steam over the mechanistic because of quantum physics. I say, it’s about time. The nexus of thought and feeling, science and spirituality, form and function could take us out of our own mundane ant-like lives and into a richer, fuller experience of the Universe.

The book ends with a Coda discussing such animated films as Antz (I have always thought casting Woody Allen as a neurotic, against-the-grain ant was a stroke of brilliance), A Bug’s Life, and last year’s The Ant Bully.

Insect Nations is a book I will go back to over and over in the course of my own writing, research, and consideration of life’s larger issues.

I look forward to reading more books in the Inkermen Press Axis Series and applaud Dr. King for this very interesting and thought-provoking work.

For ordering information and to learn about InkerMen Press and their talented authors, go to http://inkermenpress.tripod.com and contact them at inkermen@stri.freeserve.co.uk or befriend them at http://www.myspace.com/inkermenpress

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Lost Lore: A Review of James Scott’s Just Maybe…Stories (InkerMen Press, 2006) by Joey Madia

Every so often we are lucky enough to stumble across a collection of stories that speak to us on several levels all at once—the tone, the atmosphere, the characters, and the locales all coalesce into a whispering wind in our ear—the unconscious is awakened and vaguely recalled stories from our childhood come bubbling up to the surface of our carefully managed swamp of secret information.

This is one of those books.

From the moment I opened the Just Maybe..Stories and mistakenly read the table of contents as a disjointed, fascinating poem, I knew that I was walking in a familiar wood. I was none too surprised to see on the inside cover that the stories were all Traditional, and arranged by the author. I read each story with growing interest and a buzzing in my gut and as soon as I was done I hit the Internet, searching out the distinctive character names and when that turned up dry, entering every combination of keywords my mind put forth.

I came up as empty as the treeline as the morning sun that never quite broke through in the mysterious land of these tales.

In talking with the author, I learned that these were not traditional tales—not in a, well, traditional sense of Traditional, anyway (although they do have thematic and phrasing roots in British folklore and a feeling much like Machen)—and that Scott wanted to add a little more mystery to his already mysterious tales with those notations. The full scope of his plan included burying copies of the book around the countryside and sponsoring a treasure hunt.

My copy of the book has no author’s name on the cover, although a graphic on the InkerMen Press My Space page shows the book with the author’s name included, which works in a fine kind of juxtaposition with the way characters come and go in the tales.

The book is advertised on some bookseller sites as a found text discovered among the briar on a lonely hillside (a remnant of Scott’s original plan). The stories certainly lend themselves to such a feeling—nothing is ever too clearly defined, and most of the characters either die or disappear, the latter being the far more sinister way to go and the Narrator is a voice out of time—at certain instances he seems to be a pre-teen boy, at others middle-aged, and at still others as old as the wood itself. He speaks from a place of wisdom: “i’ve seen what you know, but know more than you’ve seen” [notice the lowercase possessive—it is used throughout and gives the Narrator his childlike quality]. He speaks youthfully of hidey-holes and says more than once “i am no big silly.” He says: “People will talk, although they have been known to stop when they are dead.” Precocious youth or fading mind of a dying man? Neither and both, it seems.

What I like most about the nearly 30 stories that make up this collection is the pervasive feeling that Nothing is what it seems (as Scott told me, there is nothing that is “just so,” referencing the Kipling tales from which his own title is a nod) and no place and no one (especially the Narrator) can be trusted. He plays with us throughout, saying (and I can picture the Narrator’s grin): “do not ask me how i know this, as i would never think of telling you” and in my favorite of the stories, “the owls of darkly lane” he says in a nastier tone: “don’t think you know the truth, because you don’t.” We are on the outside looking ever-greedily in, like the voyeurs JD Morrison truly knew we are.

There are gaps and unexplained references in the stories that bring to a knife’s point the fact that all fairy tales and just-maybe stories are derived from an oral tradition where the larger legends and archetypes are well known among the people of a certain place. This couples nicely with Bruno Bettelheim’s astute observation that fairy tales speak to the viscera precisely because they have undergone so much revision over the course of their existence. The story most representative to me of the fairytale model is “when I went to market” with its use of threes and repetition. There are also three “touches” and one of the characters, Lazily Watchful, has told the Narrator three stories.

Scott told me that he wrote the stories in ten days in a “windowless, breathless room” and the very imps and gnomes of inspiration that must have lodged upon his shoulders and keyboard-tapping fingers in that period still pervade the pages of the book. He said that the book occupies “an empty space in the wake of faded magic”—a place we can read about and imagine, but which (regrettably) no longer exists in a world so stainless-steely modern and proudly impervious to the bad ends that befall the children who populate this out-of-time woodland of briar and blood; this gnarled world of “angry and grabbing trees.”

But some of us know better.

Beyond the backs of milk cartons, bulk mailer coupons asking “have you seen us?” and Amber alerts, we know that some children simply disappear, never to be seen nor heard from again.

Where then, do they go?

None of the possibilities are hopeful. Some are lured away by such things as “the song of yet to come” or by invisible beings that make the trees and bushes noticeably grow as a little girl named Piper swings on her swing and one day disappears. There is talk of cooking babies and of swallowing people whole. This village of briar reminds me of a place of the damned, forgotten by God—the kind of town or island that exists in Stephen King’s Maine-of-the-mind—a place where secrets and an unidentified, pervasive evil conspire to target the Unjust and Just alike, while most adults pretend not to see (“…the thing roasting on the spit resembling the missing Franklin boy goes unnoticed by the Cavalcade of Fools”/children with “sticky fingers, oozing lips, [and] … raw stares”). This is a place of darkness—and a place where children are always prominently in the lens (although adults get their share of abuse as well—consider the old lady tied to an old oak tree). Images such as “deceitful signposts pointing one direction and then the next” call to mine the forest on the way to Oz and the way to the witch in Hansel and Gretel.

Most sinister of all is the old man who lures a little girl away by chanting “just a little further, just a little further…” all the way to her custom-laid grave.

Will anyone make it home? And if they do, are their chances of surviving this odd land any better? After all, there are cats being skinned alive, pop up books that “get bigger at night,” and “vomit on the dinner table, what it contained, and my [the Narrator’s] grandmother’s resulting heart attack.” And the houses themselves (like those of Jackson, Matheson, and King) are not safe—there is the “house of angles,” with a “living room that had done so for far too long.”

So who are these people fighting the monsters of shadow and mostly not succeeding?

There is Swoon, who disappeared for seven years although she thought it was a mere five minutes. There is Lorelei, who becomes a queen of the wood, complete with a tiara of twigs. There is Ox Eye Daisy, who has a bulging, dripping, dead eye like a blood orange. There is mother Leftfinger and Harry-with-the-Wound, the latter of which is “grinning like a rotten apple.” Then there are the “ladies of the may”—in their kitchens are the “muffled cries of babies” and “the bits your cat was missing.”

Some of these, and other characters, recur, such as Pigskin (who had “dead rats knotted to his untied shoelaces”) and his sister Cherry (whose name evokes sexual and secret things), who is rumored to “live off bacon fat”; a “giant of a girl” who gutted owls with her knife because they “screech without feeling.”

No one here is well, which works to sustain the fairytale atmosphere. As the Narrator observes, “the words of the sick are like magic”.

The Narrator, who we once encounter “chasing a goat through the woods at dusk,” is not just an observer-reporter; he has experienced first-hand the strange goings-on of his town. In fact, his own baby sister was transformed into a hairy, monkey-like creature after he was called away momentarily under false pretenses. True to the off-kilter nature of this world, he steadfastly swears, “she will always be my new baby sister and I will love her forever.” She shows up in a later story (now with a “scaly wing”) as the lone companion of Ox Eye Daisy. Like a Carnival of Outcasts, these oddities stick together.

I find it very appealing that the Narrator (and one would presume, his creator) is forthcoming enough to let us know that the stories are subjective and their details not Absolute. He tells us: “As far as i know this is the truth, i can picture it in my mind, so it must have a certain truth to it.” And like a game of Telephone gone gruesome, he says of the stories told to him by Lazily Watchful, “i will try and repeat the stories exactly as he told them, but be warned that they might become stories of my own.” Any story we tell, whether as writers, family members, or in other facets of our lives, must, by necessity, be that way as well. Such is the plastic nature of memory and the deep-rooted desire for self-expression.

The story that hits me most viscerally is “the ugly thing that tried to sing,” which has a sinister little rhyme that recalled the equally less-than-pleasant (if you know their origins) “London Bridge” and “Ring Around the Rosey.” It goes: “all the children formed a ring, formed a ring, around the ugly thing that tried to sing.” I get the image of a child with a physical or mental disability being taunted on your average, everyday school ground.

Scott is as potentially enigmatic as his narrator. His bio simply says: “James Scott was born in 1972. He is still not dead.”

The book is laid out well, mixing typeset text with handwritten sections. Two of my favorites of the latter are “as i explore the Open countryside often i wonder, open to what???” and “like the woods i am a lyre.” Hannah Taggart’s illustrations are varied and illuminating—I especially enjoyed her rendering of the village, complete with labels as to where each event in the book took place. She has contributed artwork to the last Yeah Yeah Yeah’s album and has been having successful exhibitions as of late.

We’ll no doubt be hearing and seeing more from them in the future.

You can find out more about this relatively new and promising small press at http://inkermenpress.tripod.com (their website design is what initially drew me to them) and contact them at inkermen@stri.freeserve.co.uk or befriend them at http://www.myspace.com/inkermenpress

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

In the Shadow of the Lizard: A Review of Grey Crow’s The Underside of Flight

The Underside of Flight is a stark, poetic chronicle of one artist’s journey into the darkness brought on by losing his job after 10 years and facing the uncertainties that poured forth from such a deep, piercing wound. It is a collection of 120+ pieces categorized as Poems, the writer’s own Quotes (e.g., “Life is a granting of living; when is the last time you lived?”), and Mind-Blasts (e.g., “Some of my favorite madmen were scholars of their craft”).

The collection opens with a page full of dedications to family and friends—a signal that although the word-shaman has gone into the wilderness, alone, to seek the darkest of caves and deepest of rivers, he has not forsaken his vital connection to his Tribe.

These works are some of the most raw, honest, and at times brutal that I have read in quite some time. The artist wrote with his mental blood as he bled and was not so presumptuous or cowardly to feel the need to go back and cover his tracks, soften his truths, or make any apologies in the form of veiled allusions. He was “cast into the mystery of misery” and took the journey (“a map appeared as an engraving upon his eye-lids”) with eyes and ears open. When he says “I can testify,” it is well worth listening because he went into places the vast majority of people won’t even explore third-hand and he lived to tell the tale. In truth, the experiences have strengthened him and given him the ability to fly (“IF NOT FOR THE DARKNESS/I would have no wings.”)

Namaste.

Grey Crow and I share an affinity for the poetry of James Douglas Morrison (one of several alter-egos of the rock god most people know as Jim Morrison, front-man for The Doors) and I saw a great deal of direct influence throughout The Underside of Flight. The book opens with a quote of Jim’s about poetry, and phrases such as “mystic rivers,” “hello…I lust you!,” “glide immaculate,” “a butterfly; screaming,” “dancing naked in a forest,” and “I died between her gates” seemed to stem from the same palette of ancestral and mythic images Jim was working from, and there were also more direct uses, such as the phrase “dance on fire” and a quote by Jim (from the song “Peace Frog,” itself an amalgamation of two poems)—“Blood is the rose of mysterious union”—placed right in the middle of a poem. Given that Morrison borrowed freely from Blake and Rimbaud and a host of other writers, this connection and extension of such words and images seems all to the good.

We also share a connection with Crow and are both exploring the condition of the Visionary¬–Shaman. Grey Crow says in one poem: “I’m told that the visionary dies slow” and in another he asks: “did those without vision crucify them?”—meaning the gods and (s)aints of the poem’s title. The author has experienced some of this first hand as he says they “rape my shine” and “nailed me there/stitched to the sun.” When he writes “I have been throbbing within the throb,” “My wants have even been screamed as pleas,” and “In my mind I’ve died a thousand times,” it does not read like a would-be artist of no experience throwing around bullshit lines of pseudo-feeling, but the words of the Initiate, who has begun his or her journey through the secret death rites and has begun to emerge, reborn and transcendent.

Raw and untempered though the poetry may be, there are some notably well-wrought phrases along the way. In “Pulse and Pause” he says: “Her eyes were ice storms circled by flames…her flicker grazed my flesh.” While in Dar-nger he writes: “I saw an angel named Jersey rise from the grains—/of tan shores painted by on coming tides./Shells fell from her hair—/As the surroundings launched from her piercing eyes.” Many of the poems evoke the image of the blood-goddess Kali, the serpent queen of wisdom, Sophia, Lilith, Proserpine, and a host of other misunderstood and vital aspects of the Sacred Feminine.

The collection never holds too long to one path or one level of spiritual, cultural, or political consciousness. Poems like “Dry Love and Liars” are unapologetically slicing when it comes to the current political situation in America and the larger world, whereas poems such as “Your” are erotic explorations of the male–female blood-bond.

Speaking of the political, one passage in particular stands out: “They have these ideas of what the perfect-productive-piece of shit-numb-programmed-multi tasked-walking corpse should be like. The sad thing is that it is working.”

Proud of and shaped by his life-long connection with Detroit, Grey Crow brings a sense of place to his poetry that is akin to Jim’s connection to LA and Jacques Roubaud’s or Charles Baudelaire’s to Paris.

In his publicity materials, Grey Crow says that his work has been compared to that of EA Poe and William Blake, and these comparisons became readily apparent as I made my way through the book. In the case of Poe, there are plenty of dark images of ravens, razors, vampires, and the like, while the ghost of William Blake seems to be breathing sacred life into poems that speak of beauty in unlikely, counterintuitive places.

I’d like to add another favorable comparison, because of the flight, wing, and bird imagery (and the tone and themes of “De Authors Prayer”)—James Joyce, especially in Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, which opens with the quote: Et ignotas animum dimittit in artes, which the mythologist Joseph Campbell translated as “He turns his mind to unknown art.” In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, from where Joyce took these stirring words, Daedalus decides to fly from his island prison of Crete to the mainland of creative abundance on the wings of his Art. This was Joyce speaking of Dublin, and I sense that Grey Crow has sought his own escape from mental prisons in much the same way.

I wish him safe and speedy journey, as all of us learn that the darkness burns just as thoroughly and cleansingly as the sun to which Icarus flew too close. Intent is everything, and Grey Crow’s intentions, as illuminated in his “Author’s After-Flight” are well worth exploring either before or after reading his works.

You can order this fine collection and learn more about Grey Crow’s other artistic endeavors in both music and short story by visiting his My Space page at www.myspace.com/greycrow or by e-mailing him direct at GreyCrow2099@yahoo.com

Tell him his brother Crow Feather sent you.

A Theatre of Horrors: Pieces for Puppets and Other Cadavers, by D.P. Watt (Inkermen Press, 2006)

Pieces for Puppets… is a well-written and engaging collection of six short stories (totaling 89 pages) split into two sections: Past Puppets and Modern Marionettes. Watt is a skilled writer whose precise use of language, attention to rhythm and flow, and capable story structuring weave subtle tapestries of the supernatural where the darker, more sinister world of the popular theatre is never far out of reach.

Past Puppets opens with a quote by the influential Swedish playwright August Strindberg: “The characters split, double, multiply, evaporate, condense, dissolve and merge. But one consciousness rules them all: the dreamer's; for him there are no secrets, no inconsistencies, no scruples and no laws.” (Although it is unattributed here it is from the prefatory note to Strindberg’s 1901 A Dream Play, produced in 1907.)

It is a most fitting opening quote in many ways, as the first three short stories take place soon after the turn of the century and Watt is a drama lecturer who seems well equipped to tread on the fine line between the theatre space and what is just beyond.

My intention here is not to spoil the surprises, twists, and turns of these six stories but to highlight what I as a fellow theatre practitioner and lover of dark tales from the Victorian and Edwardian eras enjoyed most about them.

The first selection, “Dr Dapertutto’s Saturnalia,” takes place in a “tattered” theatre in post-Revolutionary Russia and is one of two stories that takes its cues (pun intended) from the world of the popular stage. Dr Dapertutto, the self-styled “Direktor, Entertainer, Reveller, Charlatan and Misanthrope” of this theatre of horrors, takes his name from the title of VE Meyerhold’s journal of the theatre, The Journal of Dr Dapertutto. Dapertutto means “open for [or over] all.” Meyerhold was an innovator in the Russian theatre who was tortured and imprisoned because of his opposition to Josef Stalin. He is well known among theatre practitioners because of his work with Biomechanics as a method of training actors (referencing back to an image of manipulated puppets) and his intense dislike of Realism.

The Saturnalia is, of course, the winter solstice feast and it was in the Roman tradition during this time to have masters and slaves switch places, which figures into the story’s ending. As we go along, we meet some interesting characters, most notably a “peculiar projectionist” whose laugh was “like a midnight breeze that awakens fallen leaves.” Watt draws his characters well, in the tradition of Poe, Doyle, and Lovecraft, which made it easy for me to be drawn into the tales. Also in the tradition of such craftsmen we meet an Inspector who stands in opposition to what Dapertutto is unfolding on his stage, although he cannot help but be drawn in to “the gratuities of theatrical indulgence” (the very thing that we in the theatre want from all those who enter our doors) and become an almost willing participant in what Dapertutto has in store for him.

Perhaps most compelling and enlightening of all in this story is when Dapertutto says “There are moments played out for the delectation of the spectators…and others for the pleasure of the players.” Anyone who has spent any time in the theatre understands this line in our deepest, darkest places.

“Room 89” is a classic English tale of the supernatural, complete with an ill-tempered and pompous main character, Dr Alexander Weatherby, and well-rendered descriptions of the Isle of Wight and its environs. Watt shows his dexterity in weaving in local lore and historical fact from the cultural, political, and scientific fields from turn of the century England, laying a detailed background but never letting it get in the way of the story. There are elements of this story that will appeal to those interested in the modern stories of Dan Brown and the mood again recalls the supernatural stories of AC Doyle and HP Lovecraft.

To say any more would be to spoil the fun.

“The Hobby” is a story of barely five pages that takes the idea of people as puppets to its most extreme point and Watt does it with some compelling characters and a heart-wrenching story of loss.

The three stories that comprise Modern Marionettes are prefaced with a quote from Georg Fuchs, a relatively unknown theatre avant-gardist who proposed that all boundaries between audience and actor be removed so that the audience could participate in the process. He is linked historically with Meyerhold (who read Fuchs’ works), a bridge which links the two halves of the books historically as well as thematically. The quote goes thus: “This whole sham world of cardboard, twine, canvas and gilt is ripe for destruction.”

The first story in this section is called “Glorious White Marble Lady” and is the most ambitious of the stories in this collection. It uses the backdrop of the pre-production of a staging of Shaw’s “Pygmalion” to explore the emotional life of a man torn between his troubled life with his wife and children and the mysterious lure of a woman tortured by the memories of the atrocities inflicted on her Serbian relatives by the Croats. Watt explores a great deal in the pages of this story, from the theatrical and psychological implications of Shaw’s Pygmalion (and by extension those of the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea) to the captured essences held in such static art forms as photographs and sculpture. He also uses the intriguing device of a third person narrator who shares with us information that he has read in the protagonist’s diary. His ambition pays off as the story flows into a cohesive and satisfying conclusion.

Reminding me of the book El Club Dumas by Arturo PĂ©rez-Reverte and the Roman Polanski film version The Ninth Gate, “Of Those Who Follow Emile Bilonche” is a finely constructed tale of the pursuit of occult knowledge figureheads and the madness and destruction that ensues. I particularly enjoyed the brisk pace and compelling Voice inherent in the narrator’s relentless pursuit of the works of this metaphysical grandmaster of secret, “syncretic vision,” a character who brought to mind the likes of Aleister Crowley and Helena Blavatsky.

The final story, “The Comrade,” crafted with a fine Lovecraftian tone, was the most distinct of the stories in terms of its modern feel and pacing. Like “The Hobby” it is a very short tale that leaves much for the reader to ruminate upon in the end.

While working from a long and venerable tradition of Victorian and Edwardian craftsmen of supernatural tales, Watt’s voice and theatrical background make each of his tales distinct and noteworthy in their own right.

The book is nicely illustrated by Amanda Wilson and the photographs and illustrations that adorn the cover and dedication page add much to the feel and themes of the collection, as any wisely chosen graphics should.

All too often in the small press I find a lack of a strong editorial hand in the books that are being produced, as if a small budget and audience means that professional presentation and proper attention to typos, typesetting, and grammatical errors are no longer applicable or worth the worry. I am happy to say that Pieces for Puppets… is well edited and nearly error free, which is a credit to both the author and his publisher, Inkermen Press.

If you love the tales of Poe, Lovecraft, Machen, Doyle, Blackwood, and the like, I highly recommend Pieces for Puppets and Other Cadavers and other works from the ever-expanding catalogue of The Inkermen Press.

You can find out more about this relatively new and promising small press at http://inkermenpress.tripod.com (their website design is what initially drew me to them) and contact them at inkermen@stri.freeserve.co.uk or befriend them at http://www.myspace.com/inkermenpress