by Jean Roberta
For the past few weeks, I’ve done more reading than writing. I’ve plowed through six recent books, and started reading a seventh.
Steve Berman of Lethe Press often sends me gifts through the mail: uncorrected advance proofs of Lethe books that aren’t available to the public yet. He doesn’t ask me to review them, but the request seems to be implied.
The latest batch consists of:
1) Forget the Sleepless Shores, a collection of stories by classics scholar and poet Sonya Taaffe (from New England).
2) Does It Show? A novel in the “Phoenix Court” series by Paul Magrs from northern England.
3) Perennial: A Garden Romance, a slim volume by fiction-writer and cancer-survivor Mary Anne Mohanraj of Chicago.
4) Read by Strangers, a collection of stories by Philip Dean Walker (who lives in Washington, D.C.)
All these books are scheduled to be released in August.
Forget the Sleepless Shores is the one I read first. The title put me off because I thought it looked pretentious, and it has no clear relevance to any of the stories. Another aspect that both charmed and irritated me was the author’s poetic style in fiction. She clearly prefers to “show, not tell,” and is unwilling to “murder her darlings” (clever turns of phrase that don’t advance a plot). There is so much description of water in this collection that I felt as if I had to dry out between stories.
To sum up, I found Sonya Taaffe to be an acquired taste. However, her work rewards perseverance.
Here is the opening paragraph of “Chez Vous Soon,” the story of a doomed sexual relationship:
“The rain was full of leaves, like hands on her hair as she hurried home. Grey as a whale’s back, the last cold light before evening: the clouds as heavy as handsful of slate, pebble-dash and mortar; the pavement under Vetiver’s feet where blown leaves stuck in scraps to her sneakers, brown as old paper, tissue-torn. There were few trees on her street, but the wind hurled through them as hungrily as for a forest.”
The viewpoint character, “Vetiver” (who prefers her middle name to her first name, Julia) is going to visit her artist lover in the run-down apartment where he is obsessively trying to capture the look, sound, smell and feel of Autumn on canvas. The word-pictures in the story illustrate his efforts to express what seems inexpressible, at least to him. Asked if he has taken his medication for mental illness, he responds that he doesn’t want to blunt the power of his mind when he is working. The distance between the lovers seems unbridgeable, and the tragic outcome seems inevitable.
Most of the stories in this collection were previously-published in various anthologies and journals of speculative fiction (the on-line journal Not One of Us ran five of them), and therefore they are inconsistent in length, theme, and impact.
The author’s literary style is excellent for creating atmosphere, and the stories about the spirit world are effectively spine-tingling, even though most aren’t clearly identifiable as horror stories. (Or at least they have little in common with the work of Stephen King.)
Several of these stories seem to channel the voices of immigrant ancestors, translated from Yiddish and various other European languages. In “The Dybbuk in Love,” a contemporary woman is the love-object of a man who is long-dead but is capable of temporarily possessing the bodies of the men in her life.
The most brilliant of the stories that invoke Jewish folklore is “The Trinitite Golem,” in which an animated bomb confronts J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who created it. Here is the clinical description of its making:
“It is easy to destroy a life. Take thirteen and a half pounds of 8-phase plutonium-239, stabilized by alloying with gallium at three percent molar weight and hot-pressed into solid hemispheres of slightly more than nine centimeters in diameter, electroplate with galvanic silver to reduce chemical reactivity and encase within seven-centimeter tamper of neutron-reflecting uranium-238.”
The recipe for the “golem” continues in detail, and is then followed by a recipe for the ruined creator, a kind of twentieth-century Victor Frankenstein:
“It is easy to destroy a life. Take one theoretical physicist who has not published a paper in four years, who a dozen years ago made himself over into a director and administrator as thoroughly and ruthlessly as he once metamorphosed a misfit rock collector from Riverside Drive into a mesmerizing polymath with quotations in nine languages at his Chesterfield-callused fingertips, the benefit being the A-bomb, the cost being the rest of his concentration, and then in open court and the public eye strip him of all authority and trust.”
All this accurately reflects the life-story of Oppenheimer and the “Red Scare” of the 1950s. (I looked him up.)
Space doesn’t allow me to discuss all the stories in the collection, but several others are also brilliant and haunting.
Did I mention water? I was intrigued by “All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts,” a story based on “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” by H.P. Lovecraft. Taaffe’s story was originally published in Dreams from the Witch House: Female Voices of Lovecraftian Horror (Dark Regions Press, 2016).
Two of us here at the Grip have written very different versions of that same Lovecraft piece. Lisabet posted a spoof, “The Shadow Over Des Moines,” here quite awhile ago.
My version of the story, “Innsmouth Blues” (narrated by an African-American schoolteacher of the 1920s) appeared in Equal Opportunity Madness: A Mythos Anthology (Otter Libris Press, 2017). This anthology was intended to overturn Lovecraft’s prejudices.
Taaffe’s more serious version focuses on the process of transformation, in which a contemporary woman who is at least “half-deep” (descended from “the people of the sea”) comes of age by desperately trying to return to her true home in the Atlantic. The references to an incomplete genocide, from which the scattered survivors reconstruct a group identity over several generations, echo several historical atrocities.
When the book becomes publicly available next month, I recommend buying a copy.
Stay tuned for my descriptions of the rest of my recent reading-matter. I’ll try to be more concise!