Book Review: The Silent Garden: A Journal of Esoteric Fabulism

“There is the sense that something special is going on here. Despite the variety and differing types of contributions, it all hangs together like an intricate tapestry or jigsaw puzzle.”

 

It’s been said many times—both on this site and by various other people—that Undertow Publications are producing some of the most exciting books in the horror and weird fiction field. Owned and curated by Michael Kelly, the press produces gorgeous editions by some of the best and most interesting writers around. And it’s not just the contents that are of a consistently high standard; the covers, the design, the layout, all aspects compete with, and in many ways surpass, those books put out by the so-called ‘big’ presses. But it’s with their latest release that Undertow may just have outdone even themselves. The Silent Garden is less of an anthology and more of a labour of love project put together by a number of writers, editors, and scholars called the Silent Garden Collective. The aim, according to the ‘About’ section at the end of the book, is to “provide an annual journal of exceptional writing and art focussed on horror and the numinous, the fabulist, the uncanny, the weird, the gnostic, the avant-garde, the esoteric, and the dark interstices of the known and the unknown world.”

From the contents page, one can see the book is a mix of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and art, with some pieces translated into English from their native languages. A truly cosmopolitan and wide-reaching venture. However, the majority of the content is short fiction, and the book opens with one such piece. ‘Blood and Smoke, Vinegar and Ashes’ by D. P. Watt follows a woman beseeched by her ex-husband to go to Poland and deal with the arrangements for his father’s funeral. Once there, she discovers the deceased man’s surprising obsession—considering his life as a practical, science-based individual—with apparent folk remedies and spells. With a foolish arrogance borne of understandable disbelief, she partakes, and sends herself spiraling into visions and obsessions of her own. It’s a wonderful piece that sets the tone for the rest of the book, a mix of ambiguity, cautionary themes, and a sense of the cosmic that isn’t necessarily horrific or dark, but can be destructive and forbidden. It is followed by ‘Palisade’ by Brian Evenson, a story that seems on the surface to be a “just desserts” tale, but is so much more. Essentially, a young man and his uncle flee to a remote island following the uncle’s stabbing of a debt collector. There, the young man enters a derelict house, which further takes him into a strange construct that traps and disorients. The uncle cannot find the boy and from the older man’s point of view, the palisade does not exist except as ruined suggestion. From there, the uncle experiences strange sounds and shadows in the house, until he is beset by true horror. The writing is gorgeous, full of inventive, suggestive dark-nature imagery, and despite the intentional enigmatic narrative, the story is utterly, genuinely terrifying. Then we have the first poem, ‘Lincoln Hill’ by Daniel Mills, which continues the tone set by the first two stories with its melancholic nature- and weather-infused imagery. Lovely. Then there is the first article, ‘Cinema of the Body: The Politics of Performativity in Lars Von Trier’s Dogville and Yorgos Lanthimo’s Dogtooth’ by Angelos Koutsourakis. It’s a deeply informative and informed piece, that fully dissects both films, and offers them up as examples of a wider movement. Very interesting, if perhaps a shade dense for the average film-goer and layman.

Back to fiction with ‘The Palace of Force and Fire’ by Ron Weighell. A very nice tale of regret, mortality, and ghosts real and of the mind. It’s perhaps weighed down a little at the beginning with a wealth of—clearly knowledgeable—ancient history and myth, but powers along soon enough to a suitably melancholic but almost transcendent ending. Next is ‘Under the Casket, a Beach!’ by Nick Mamatas, a story about a largely carefree young American woman holidaying in Greece with her cousins (one of many relatives she has been sponging off). Full of local knowledge and practices, it’s a story of austerity, tradition, and injustices. A deft mix of the old and the modern, and the darkness that sits where the two meet. The next poem is one translated by Kristine Ong Muslim; ‘Deposition of Darkness’ by Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles. Very short, but with a lovely cadence and tone, it fits perfectly in this book. ‘The Other Tiger’ by Helen Marshall revels in its sense of fable, yet might easily be set in some unknown future. It’s a beautiful piece that suggests as much as it shows, and encompasses many themes; war, gender roles, patriarchy, friendship, feminism, the beauty in nature. It’s perhaps the one piece here that fully and completely embodies the intent of the book, and is fitting it should be at the centre point. ‘Unstitching the Patriarchy: A Review of Camilla Grudova’s The Doll’s Alphabet’ by Rudrapriya Rathore is a review of that book, which tantalises and dissects just enough to whet any reader’s appetite. Then we have ‘The Embolus of Cinnabar’ by Patricia Cram, which takes what might be mythological Chinese characters and stories, and weaves a gorgeous, rich narrative that reads almost like a classical prose piece.

At this point, we are treated to a gallery of paintings by David Whitlam, whose work graces the covers of the book. His art is beautifully grotesque, surreal and baroque, horrific yet compelling. His work draws on fantasy, myth, ancient cultures and religious symbolism. ‘Waystations of the High Night’ is a story from 1942 by Marcel Brion and translated from the French by Edward Gauvin. Despite it’s age, it is still hugely effective, taking us on a surreal, dark journey through a nameless city full of nightmare images but almost no people. It’s compellingly readable and could be set in the purgatory of its main character or could just as easily be a fantastic world he’s inadvertently slipped into. A mix of Bradbury and Alighieri. ‘Nox Una’ by Marian Womack is another dark tale filled with suggestion and ambiguity which teases out its story without surrendering its subtlety and enigmas. Portentous, tragic, and with a touch of paranoia and fatalism, it’s beautifully written and hugely affecting. Following this is V. H. Leslie’s article, ‘The Raw Food Movement: Comparing Transformative Diets in Han King’s The Vegetarian (2015) and Julia Ducournau’s Raw (2016)’. Comparing and contrasting book—The Vegetarian—with film—Raw—Leslie dissects and interprets both with intelligence and insight. Fascinating stuff. Changing gears slightly is ‘Coruvorn’ by Reggie Oliver. It follows a well-to-do, upper middle-class gent who confides in his friend that he’s bene dreaming of being a god in another world. He relates his adventures matter-of-factly, believing unequivocally that it’s all real. There’s areal sense of sardonic humour to Oliver’s writing, a delight in the absurd that fits its almost old-fashioned or traditional prose style. Even when tragedy strikes, the humour bubbles beneath. A lovely piece.

J.T. Glover pens the article, ‘Translating The Ritual’, where he looks at the film adaptation of Adam Nevill’s book of the same name. Insightful, detailed, and informative, Glover pulls the film apart, comparing and contrasting the differences necessitated by a different medium. ‘La Tierra Blanca’ by Maurizio Cometto (translated from the Italian by Rachel S. Cordasco) is a surreal epistolary story ostensibly written by a sailor following the sinking of his ship and a subsequent miraculous salvation on a strange island with many of the crew. Strange imagery and religious fervour combine in a story that has the feel of something from a classic text—The Odyssey, perhaps, or The Rime of the Ancient Mariner—but with a modern sensibility. Beneath the religious overtones lies hints of a sinister cosmic horror. The final poem is another translated by Kristine Ong Muslim; ‘Contortionist’, also by Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles. Another short piece that is again atmospheric and rich in imagery despite its brevity. And finally we come to the last piece of fiction, and the last contribution to the book; Georgina Bruce’s ‘Her Blood the Apples, Her Bones the Trees’. Ending on what is undoubtedly a high note, Georgina gives us a beautifully poetic, richly—yet subtly—detailed dark fable. The prose equivalent of a thoughtful, inspired art-house film that—like Helen Marshall’s story—combines the poetic, the prose, and the artistic to encompass all that this collection is attempting to achieve. It is also filled with vibrant imagery thick with nature; primal, threatening, but also comforting to the protagonist. Masterful stuff.

There is the sense that something special is going on here. Despite the variety and differing types of contribution, it all hangs together like an intricate tapestry or jigsaw puzzle. Themes recur and resonate, the natural world is never far away, often red in tooth and claw, and a certain type of cosmic horror abounds. It is something greater than the sum of its parts, which is no mean feat when those individual parts are of such high quality themselves. If this is to be the first of a series—and one would hope there are many more to come—it sets the bar very high indeed. This is the kind of book that should be on everyone’s shelf: Anyone who considers themselves a fan of the very best in dark, weird fiction; anyone who appreciates the look and feel of a beautifully produced tome; anyone who is serious about supporting one of the best small presses operating today. Undertow continue to show they are one of the best, and everyone involved in the creation of The Silent Garden should be very proud indeed.

PAUL MICHAELS

Publisher: Undertow Publications.
Deluxe, large hardback: 252 (pps)
Release Date: 4 September 2018.

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