Almost Insentient, Almost Divine {Review}

October 24, 2016 § Leave a comment

Almost Insentient, Almost Divine
DP Watt
Undertow Publications (2016)

It’s commonly accepted practice, when reviewing story anthologies, to make brief mention of the work as a whole and then pick out a handful of key tales to work through in detail. This is not one of those reviews.

almost-finalAlthough the stories in DP Watt’s collection are almost universally excellent, it’s the sense of world building that develops through them which is the most impressive part of this book; a weirdly out-of-time Mitteleuropa, cut through with theatricals and theatricalities, where masks fall from mannequins only to reveal yet more masks underneath, puppet-mummers snigger in darkened rooms and the human players shimmer between realities, sometimes never to return. Even the handful of stories that don’t fit directly into this milieu are haunted by fragments of a greater whole; mysteriously indistinct figures that lurk outside the circle of firelight or even atavistic thoughts that echo beguilingly from the darkness. The sense of theatre, of the blood-smeared grand-guignol being acted to its terrible conclusion whether wittingly or not, pervades the book and gives the observant reader a more subtle interpretation of that most contentious of themes; the weird.

In Watt’s work, the weird is invoked in many ways – there is very little here that is not unsettling or shiveringly unexpected – but what is most evident is that archaic British sense of a person’s weird being their fate, their unavoidable destiny. Watt’s protagonists, if any of them deserve such a self-determining title, never seek their narrative conclusion nor, often, do they have it thrust upon them. The things that happen to them simply happen, but they happen because they had to. Artists become smothered by their own art, artisans lose themselves in sordid rapture, wanderers wander across boundaries they never even imagined existed into strange mirror worlds redolent of transgression. Interestingly, even once this is revealed, the protagonists rarely struggle against their fates knowing, as we as readers know, that there is no escape.

This is all bound up in ‘The Usher’, one of the collection’s most narratively complete tales and a nexus for elements in others, where our narrator attends a play that is itself a device to uncover the plays that we all act out with each other; the poor doggerel of small-talk and decorum, the impermanence and unreliability of our own experiences and memories, the lingering sense that somewhere, just a whisper away, is another world that’s populated with something far more real, far less pleasant. Watt levers all this, as he does in many of the tales present here, to create a thinness, a threadbare fire-curtain, in the story where what we still think of as normality, albeit a slightly skewed normality, becomes suddenly threatening and so very much darker. A threshold is crossed without us realising it and our own personal weird, jumping closer like figures in a poorly locked film reel, engulfs us. The doll’s painted smile widens almost imperceptibly to reveal sharp, saliva-slicked teeth.

Whether this style, which relies so heavily on the gossamer interlinks between narrative, could support a novel-length work is something that is yet to be seen. I, for one, can’t wait to find out and perhaps that is my own, personal weird to confront…

A quiet knock came at the door.
I picked up my knife and called, “Who is it?”
“A visitor,” a commanding voice responded. “You have been expecting me.”

Special mention should go to Timothy J Jarvis’ haunting introduction which says so much about the following stories by saying nothing about them. Instead he summons up a parade of spectres, artists, writers and thinkers of dark thoughts, who add their own flavour as a kind of smirking overture to the grand work. As a final word it should be noted that Undertow’s design aesthetic is, as ever, flawless.

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