Sunday, October 12, 2008

“A Tour of Lands and Legends”: A Review of The InkerMen’s Green and Unpleasant Land (InkerMen Press, 2007)

Having read and reviewed some of the early InkerMen titles about a year ago (also posted here), I looked forward to this new anthology of stories from the self-labeled “Independent publishers of alternative fiction and criticism” with eager anticipation, and it did not disappoint.

Green and Unpleasant Land is a collection of tales and poems that “reimagine some of the stories and events of British legend and a want to write about places that had never been adequately mythologised” (back cover).

I should say up front that this review is an American’s take on a very British set of tales, so I’ll be framing some of the stories for U.S. audiences. For instance, I imagined many of them being read aloud by Jude Law or Paul Bettany, which helped me to glide easily into their pacing¬—almost all of the selections mix fantasy with humor (the old Monty Pythonesque “nudge, nudge, wink, wink”) and although many of the places and figures mentioned were unfamiliar to me, it did not detract from my enjoyment of the tales.

American or otherwise, I suggest that the reader take the time to read the very eloquent and interesting editors’ Preface¬—it situates this collection and the larger context of the InkerMen and gets us on our way.

The book contains 13 pieces, all of which contribute something specific to the editors’ overall aim—there are no rehashes or repetitions here. No fillers. I have chosen a handful of the most intriguing—at least to this author—to keep things manageable.

“Heirlooms,” by James Scott, is written with the same distinctive tone as his previous collection for The InkerMen, the Just Maybe…Stories, which I reviewed last year. Scott’s narrator employs a mischievous and entertaining voice that is as untrustworthy as it is wise. Memory is elastic in Scott’s stories and the gardens, fields, and people (especially the very precocious children) are never what they seem, for good or for bad. This is one you’ll want to read again and again.

“The Witch House of Canewdon,” a poem penned by The Governess, is a cautionary tale of a father who goes to great lengths to try and keep his daughter from growing up and having to face the treacheries of the world. Those who love Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”—and fathers whose daughters are rapidly approaching puberty—will especially enjoy this piece (I stand, at the present time, guilty on both counts).

Another InkerMen title I reviewed last year was D.P. Watt’s Pieces for Puppets and Other Cadavers, whose contribution to the present collection is called “They Dwell in Ystumtuen” (Ystumtuen being the location of lead and silver mines in late eighteenth- century Wales). Watt’s stories have the flavor of Lovecraft without being mere mimicry, and this tale of trickery and treachery, centering on the fate of a single mother fallen upon hard times, has a shocking execution ending that calls to mind Suskind’s Perfume and L.A. Morse’s The Flesh Eaters.

“Double Meanings,” by S.J. Davies, is a well-crafted story of abundant childbirth across generations with a good bit of numerology and multi-leveled meanings (considerably more than advertised in the title) that invite numerous reads.

The next notable story, entitled “A Perfect World,” is by Matt Morrison. It’s one of the more originally conceived and executed stories I have read in quite some time. It’s one of the shorter pieces in the collection, but it packs significant emotional punch from beginning to end with its competing tensions of building suspense while its narrator vehemently denies its doing so. Morrison also gives us an ending that begs a moment or two of contemplation and (especially) self-reflection…

In “Document 16a. Within the Rubric of an Electric Postman,” Antony Pickthall provides a multi-layered postmodern style that is rich in imagery and hidden meaning. With its use of both language and footnotes, “Document 16a.” brings to mind the works of Jose Luis Borges, while both the title and tone echo Philip K. Dick. The story demands a careful, considered reading and is ultimately well worth the effort. I intend to go back to it every few months until all its meaning has been gleaned.

“Confessing Ruins,” by Julian Wolfreys, is a poem paying homage to London in the tradition of Jacques Raubaud’s language poems about Paris and Alan Moore’s tour of the city beneath the city through the eyes of Dr. Gull in From Hell. The poem paints the city as a puzzle to be deciphered, with the author’s own specificities (including several of her photographs intermingled with the poem) providing a set of points in a more general landscape. For those readers, like me, not familiar with some of the names and phrases, a little research provides a good bit of illumination. Wolfreys’ skill with language, rhythm, and image is considerable.

Peter DeVille resurrects the legend of Leir (Shakespeare’s Lear) in “Montsorel.” Readers who love the Bard’s caustic king and who may be familiar with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (as well as those interested in Grail imagery) will find a great deal here to enjoy, while the fine writing and pace will also make this an excellent read for more general readers.

“The Chalk Man,” penned by Stephen Loveless, is an interesting tale within a tale with a strong, satisfying ending. The spookiest story in the bunch, it unfortunately suffers from a consistent problem of long, winding sentences and grammatical construction that makes it hard to submerge yourself into the world Loveless creates. A guiding editorial hand, especially in the middle section, would help for later editions.

The editors, in my estimation, certainly saved the best for last. I thoroughly enjoyed Robert John Brocklehurst’s multi-era story, “The Flat of the Land.” Employing a parade of vivid and entertaining characters, Brocklehurst provides political, social, and economic commentary worthy of the recently deceased George Carlin with the seemingly simple device of examining numerous interactions over some 400 years on a single plot of well-trod land. As you note the overlaps, cross-commentaries, and contradictions across time, you’ll no doubt appreciate it’s not very simple at all. He makes good use of a play-script dialogue format, allowing his skill with vernacular and characterization to fully shine. The Pythonesque word play is particularly enjoyable and I especially appreciated the irony of a failed Hamburg music promoter considering the role Hamburg played in the early career of the Beatles.

I hope that this review has captured the varied styles and strengths of Green and Unpleasant Land. A quick look through the “Notes on Conspirators” will show potential readers just how talented and professional this group of writers really is. There are professors, writers, artists, and accomplished individuals of all kinds.

InkerMen Press is building a catalog of books that is noteworthy on many levels and I look forward to reading and reviewing their 2008 anthology, Land’s End, soon.