I’ve long been a fan of the Tartarus Press, and although it was over a decade ago I still remember how delighted I was to receive my first ever TP book, the purple and almost impossibly beautiful hardback of the Collected Macabre Stories of L.P. Hartley. So I’ve been following the subsequent writing careers of both the editors, R.B. Russell and Rosalie Parker, with some interest. TP have been doing more paperbacks recently (a move I applaud!) and they’ve recently put out a “Why Take Two Books Into The Shower?” compilation of Russell’s first two collections of short stories, Putting The Pieces in Place and Literary Remains. (apologies for the Abebooks link – the TP website doesn’t seem to exist anymore so I couldn’t link to that.)
Putting The Pieces in Place, which originally came out in 2009, contains only five stories, but they are quite long. The title story, about a music collector who seeks to recreate a youthful encounter with a gifted violinist, gets things off to a weak start – an excessive amount of background information is conveyed in the dialogue, which feels stilted and unrealistic as a result. Fortunately things pick up immediately with ‘There’s Nothing That I Wouldn’t Do’, about an architecture student whose study visit to Eastern Europe includes an awkward affair with a local boy, ending in further alienation and horror. This is one of the best stories in the collection, with a nice John Howard Mittel-Europa vibe, psychological realism and a light touch that makes the ending even more impactful. ‘In Hiding’ is another good one, somewhat reminiscent of John Fowle’s The Magus with its sunny Greek island setting, preoccupation with identity and disorienting plot twist – but more economical in style! The remaining two stories are okay – ‘Eleanor’ is a fairly light-hearted, modern riff on the familiar theme of a writer haunted by one of his characters. ‘Dispossessed’ is darker and deals with a woman whose precarious living conditions are involved in the warping of her perception of the world, with sinister and surreal consequences.
Literary Remains only came out a year later, but there are definite signs of Russell developing as a writer. The type of quiet, slightly dreamlike tale that forms his stock-in-trade is well-represented here. The title story is good, and again deals with writers and old cultural artifacts, since it’s about two literary types going over the flat of a deceased author. This is certainly not a typical antiquarian ghost story though: the malaise is augmented by sexual anxiety and it has a very close, personal feel. The dance between the haunters and the haunted as they negotiate the past-choked apartment is impressively well-done. I also liked ‘An Artist’s Model’, especially for the insight it gives into life as an art student. I don’t know if Russell himself has any artistic training – though the excellent black-and-white illustrations that used to grace the old Tartarus Press books all seem to be credited to him – but he certainly seems to know what he’s talking about.
Similarly, ‘Asphodel’ is an interesting look at the world of vanity publishing, told from the point of view of an editor who works in such a company. It would’ve been easy to make such a person into a hate figure, but Russell eschews the obvious here. Other good stories in this collection include ‘Loup Garou’, which makes deft use of the fascination of old film to convey a tale of rustic romance and tragedy, ‘Llanfihangel’ (an original and convincing haunted-house number) and ‘A Revelation’ (a shorter, darkly humorous tale about the weird stuff that goes on within the walls of other peoples’ houses.) Aickman is an obvious influence, though in general it’s the softer, more gently mournful and romantic type of of Aickman story, rather than the more overt horror of stories like ‘Ringing The Changes’. The subject matter is often quite reminiscent of Oliver Onions too, with all that art and literature and clinging, nebulous influences.
The collection as a whole does suffer from a certain sameness of tone, and some of the longer stories have a muffled quality which began to pall after a while. Many of the characters seem to be living in a constant state of flattened affect, which is almost certainly deliberate, but the way they tend to drift through their stories makes you want to give them a good shake occasionally. That said, I don’t think this would be half so much of a problem if one were encountering these stories in an anthology with other authors. Overall this is a highbrow collection of gentle, elegant writing that avoids anything lurid or coarse, and when the tales are successful they do have the sort of lingering effect on the mind that many authors strive to achieve.