Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Collected Connoisseur, by Mark Valentine and John Howard

Another set of the adventures of a supernatural sleuth! Only in this case he's quiet modern...and very different from the usual pulpiness. These stories are obviously influenced by visionary authors like Machen and by the Decadents, making quite my cup of tea.

The Connoisseur (his name is never given) is a collector of antiquities and objets d'art. He has an inheritance, actually works ("regular, if uncongenial, administrative work"), and lives modestly in a cathedral town. Every story revolves around some antique or piece of art, and there's a lot of 'em.

Among the strange objects involved in these stories...

  • Pottery made with clay from a sacred well
  • A rare book of poetry dedicated to a ghost
  • A strange silver sphere
  • A rocking horse
  • A surreal charcoal sketch
  • Iron finials on old buildings
  • Rare stamps
  • A weathervane
  • An ebony cane
Some stories also involve unusual architecture, performance art, music, and even a trip on an old ferry. The stories range from mere hauntings and possessions to spectral loves and revivifications of ancient gods to an attempt to bring on a Biblical holocaust. There's also a manuscript of a polar expedition that has weird encounters. And in a couple of the stories the Connoisseur is called on to investigate a weird happening.

There's some great writing here, too. The prose is artistic, sometimes surreal and dreamlike, and while there's a moment or two when it overwhelms the story, it doesn't take over and the plots are still allowed to shine through when it matters. The time period is vague, and sometimes the characters seem like they're from the 30s or 40s, but there's also references that make it clear these stories are set in the modern world, only without much (if any) mention of things like cell phones and computers.

And the menaces aren't always cut-and-dried examples of the supernatural menagerie. Some are ambiguous, like a ghost that might also be a bit of time slippage. There's also some cults and witchcraft and sorcery. Sometimes it's quite mystical, and there's hints of a hidden world just out of site that may not be quite evil or good, but with an agenda of its own that we may be swept up in...or trampled under. It's like the realization we sometimes have that we're not the center of the universe, and that our gods may not be good or evil, but have their own purposes and may even be indifferent to us.

The Collected Connoisseur is available in physical format, at some pretty outrageous prices, but Tartarus Press has made available a very reasonably-priced electronic edition. I highly recommend this!

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