Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Morbid Tales

When reading a single-author short story collection with an introduction or foreword by another writer, I usually leave the foreword until after I've finished all the stories.  When I'm just beginning a book, the substantial claims and effusive appreciation of the introducer can seem wildly overblown and be tremendously off-putting; by the time I reach the end, I'm often inclined to agree with them.  So it was with Quentin S. Crisp's Morbid Tales, of which Mark Samuels writes, "His work is quite simply literature of the highest quality."  Indeed it is.

I shouldn't have been surprised by this, I suppose.  I had described Crisp's novel "Remember You're A One-Ball!" in rapturous terms, as "a literary novel of the first order," which indeed it is.  And yet I wasn't sure what to expect from his collection, even though it was published by Tartarus Press, the standard-bearer for classic and contemporary supernatural fiction.  But as I read the first of the eight stories in Morbid Tales, the novella "The Mermaid," I realized I was once again at the beginning of something truly special.

What distinguishes "The Mermaid" is not its plot outline, which is familiar from many a similar supernatural tale, but its combination of fantasy world-building and psychological depth.  Like many of Crisp's protagonist, the first-person narrator is somewhat at odds with the world, a searcher after beauty and purity of a type that is difficult if not impossible to find.  The titular creatures are the object of his particular obsession, and given the sort of book this is, it will come as no surprise that he eventually finds one.  What ensues is at once a classically eerie tale and a deft portrait of sexual repression and something not unlike pedophilia.  All this is brought across by Crisp's prose, which has a visionary quality and contains but is not confined by the vaguely formal voice of much 20th-century British fiction.
Moments after I had swallowed the powder I experienced a strange, rippling disturbance of my senses.  I heard the bubbling of an underwater world, the great wash and drag of currents through a reef, like the eerie, stifled workings of the inside of a body.  I saw the rush of bubbles, twists of light dissolving, drowning and beneath, and around, the restless swelling shadows of ocean, a phantasmagoria distorted by the constant motion of waves, stirring as furtively as the tentacles of an octopus.  Then I began to hear the chattering of voices in a language unknown to me.  It seemed a language as sad and cold and ancient as the dripping, silvery waves themselves, a language like the forgotten treasure of a sunken ship.  And the voices-- they were shrill, almost human, like the cries of gulls.  I do not know how to describe them except to say that they brought to my mind, without me knowing why, certain very distinct images, such as the fins of fish spread thin and elegant, and fish bones, and sea storms, and fresh, dark, dripping blood, cold and salty.
 "The Mermaid" is the longest of these morbid tales, and perhaps the finest, but there are several other small masterpieces, including "Cousin X," in which a childhood visit from a strange and mysterious cousin opens up a young girl's sense of the world, with far-reaching and rather disturbing consequences; "The Two-Timer," in which a Twilight Zone-style supernatural talent becomes the basis for a meditation on cruelty, unhappiness, and the loss of transcendent innocence; and "The Tattooist," a hypnotic story about pain, sexuality, nostalgia, and joy that I cannot possibly describe simply by listing its plot elements; its success is all in atmosphere and language, the unearthly calm of its engimatic central figure and the paradoxical beauty of the landscapes with which he is associated.

Of the four long stories in the collection, the only one that I don't think succeeds is "The Lake."  The psychology of its protagonist is less clear than in other stories, and as a result the manifestations of supernaturalism, while individually striking, feel disconnected and fail to contribute to a larger whole.  On the level of sentence-by-sentence craft the story is a joy to read, but its conclusion lacks the weight for which it seems to strive.

Of shorter pieces, "The Two-Timer" has already been mentioned.  The relatively brief "Far-Off Things" retells a lesser-known fairy tale in a literary language that captures the underlying cruelty of the story's moral universe, creating a storyteller's distance and then smashing it to great effect.  "Ageless," the shortest of these stories, is a well-crafted evocation of a particular moment, but that moment and ones like it are so much a common thread in Crisp's work that the story feels like a side-note, a variation on a theme rather than something meaningful in itself.  And then there is "Autumn Colours," the final tale in this collection.  It takes up some of the same motifs as others, but approaches them in a different way, resulting in a story that is closer to traditionally-defined contemporary literature, and yet has an effect unlike anything else I've ever read.  (It may, from an allusion within the text, bear some similarity to Japanese literature, with which I am woefully unfamiliar.)  It is not a pleasant reading experience, and after first finishing it I wasn't sure the story was a success.  But I now think that was a kind of shrinking away from its truth rather than an honest critical response.  "Autumn Colours" is, in its own way, as fine a tale as "The Mermaid."

Unfortunately, Morbid Tales was released only in a 300-copy hardcover edition, now out of print and commanding high prices on the secondhand market.  By my own judgment, it is well worth what you'll pay for it, but I know I'm more accustomed than many to paying high prices for quality fiction.  I can only reiterate my recommendation that anyone who comes across this blog entry read Crisp's affordably-priced novel "Remember You're A One-Ball!", and, if you admire that book as much as I did, seek out a copy of Morbid Tales or the (for the moment) in-print limited edition collection All God's Angels, Beware!  It will provide entry to a particular world of beauty, terror, and eccentricity that no other writer can access.

Postscript: After writing the above I discovered that "The Tattooist" is available as an online PDF through the publisher's website.  It, too, would be an excellent way to determine your appreciation of Crisp's work.

Further postscript: it seems that Tartarus Press hopes to issue a paperback reprint of Morbid Tales later this year. Need I say that I encourage you to buy a copy once it's formally announced?

1 comment:

  1. Crisps's novella "Suicide Watch" is available here: http://www.ligotti.net/showthread.php?t=3106
    Another possible candidate for determining one's Crisp appreciation (worked for me!)...