Friday, December 28, 2012

Patrick McGrath, Blood and Water and Other Tales (1988)

McGrath, Patrick, Blood and Water and Other Tales, Poseidon Press, February 1988
McGrath, Patrick, Blood and Water and Other Tales, Ballantine Books, April 1989

For Friday's Forgotten Books

Blood and Water and Other Tales at Goodreads
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Rating: 7/10

Patrick McGrath is most often described as a Gothic writer, which is certainly a more appropriate description than horror. Though the two are closely connected, McGrath's stylistics are heavily Gothic, whereas many of his stories have only a tenuous link with horror as we have come to understand the genre. Genre aside,   is a strong collection of stories that are vastly varied in their approach and content, but utterly similar in their tone.

This is McGrath's only collection of stories; the later book The Angel and Other Stories (Penguin Books, 1995) includes four stories from Blood and Water, and was part of the Penguin 60s series of books celebrating the publishing house's 60th birthday, and issuing a series of short books at 60 pence apiece. Amid its varied approach, the stories in Blood and Water offer tales narrated by both men and women, as well as by other more unusual narrators, such as a boot and a fly. Stories take place in England, India and the US, from Manhattan and Greenwich Village to the Louisiana bayou. We have tales about houses, family histories, vengeance, psychological breakdowns and the post apocalyptic, with the prominent undercurrent of sexual repression and perversion. Consistent throughout is McGrath's elegantly verbose and controlled prose. The writing throughout each of the thirteen stories is a pleasure to read.

While the stories in this collection do include some clear horror tales, they encompass aspects of the darker parts of our inner selves rather than of an exterior threat. Whatever horrors the characters encounter, they are inflicted not by outward malevolent forces, but as a result of human malevolence. Our dark subconscious, our repressed desires and our inability to recognize truths about ourselves and those around us, or to simply deal with them appropriately, are factors lying in abundance here. These stories are unconventional, and many don't have a clear, linear plot, but are presented more as character sketches, people confronted or dealing with unusual circumstances. Most of the stories borrow elements of classic literature, both of classic supernatural tales as well as elements of Victorian and Edwardian prose, Gothic and otherwise.

McGrath is very much a stylist. His prose is flawless, smooth and literate. His sentences are so well constructed that often I read them aloud in order to better appreciate them. The stories also embody elements beyond simple story-telling, as McGrath imbues many of his tales with serious thematic elements. Often he will open a story with a kind of discussion on a topic, such as colonialism in "The Dark Hand of the Raj" and the humourous considerations on priesthood in "Ambrose Syme." He is not being didactic or preachy in any respect, but rather playful.

There is not a bad story in this collection, but a few do suffer in that the plot aspect is lacking in a tale that should be more story than sketch.

The Angel     6/10     The Quarterly #4, Winter 1987
During a sweltering New York heat wave, our narrator makes the acquaintance of Harry Talboys, an elderly and eccentric old man. Over gin Harry talks while our narrator thinks of topics to use for a book, yet Harry manages to grasp the other's interest when he tells him he once met an angel. "The Angel" uses the classic supernatural trope of a narrator telling a story he heard from another, the act of removal adding distance between the narrator and the unusual event, yet McGrath's use is more modern as narratives come together and our narrator is a less than trustworthy conduit of information.

The Lost Explorer     7/10     Blood and Water and Other Tales, 1988
Playing in the family garden, little Evelyn encounters an explorer struck with malaria and mumbling in a fevered haze that they must get away from the pygmies. Evelyn is both fascinated and sympathetic, while her parents, oblivious of the world outside their own little cocoon of concerns, are wholly unaware of Evelyn's new interest and of the explorer's existence.

This story was an absolute pleasure, fusing pathos with comedy and the obscure. The sadness lies in Evelyn's father's self-importance and in her mother's unnatural estimation of him, whereas the little girl is partially neglected. Conversations and aspects of this self-interest is treated with humour, and the explorer's existence provides the obscure.

"The Lost Explorer" was made into a short film by photographer Tim Walker, starring Richard Bremmer. I have not yet seen it but here is a trailer. Interestingly Walker's site refers to the short story as a novel.

The Black Hand of the Raj     7/10     Blood and Water and Other Tales, 1988
In 1897, Lucy Hepplewhite travels to India to meet her fiancé Cecil Pym (a reference to Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket?). Excited and concerned, she's heard that once an Englishman has spent ample time in India, he is a changed man, and once reunited she is immediately aware of Cecil's brooding silence and the fact that he will not remove his hat. To her horror he reveals that, after receiving a slight bump on the head from an old Indian man, a hand has begun to grow from the top of his head.

Cecil's fate is predictable, but his fate is not what the story is about, nor where the story ends. Lurking behind the curse is a comment on colonialism, since Cecil is cursed after stepping out into what he considered to be "my" garden. Yet beyond the curse we have a story of sexual repression and carnal sin.

Like "The Angel," "The Dark Hand of the Raj" uses classic weird tale tropes. For one thing it is set in colonial India and involves a British officer and a curse. Yet also like "The Angel," McGrath modernises these aspects by taking the story in other direction, and the creepiness in "Dark Hand" lies well beyond the presence of that malicious hand. Moreover, McGrath opens the story with some details about British imperialism which is a nice, unique touch, both paying homage to its story-telling roots, while simultaneously distancing itself by being conscious of those roots.

Lush Triumphant     6/10     Between C & D, 1988
An alcoholic painter slowly reveals to himself the nature of his current work, and thereby of himself. "Lush Triumphant" is a difficult story to pull off, since McGrath relies on a combination of character and description to reveal what is lurking behind both. Another tale of sexual repression and latent homosexuality.

Ambrose Syme     7/10     Bomb, 1988
The third tale of sexual repression and the second involving homosexuality. A young Ambrose Syme is forced by his father to enter the seminary, and though he progresses with his education he is nonetheless overly aware of his sexual desires, which unfortunately culminate in a terrible tragedy.

The story begins with a humourous attack on the inherent sexual repression of the priesthood, and evolves into something quite tragic and sad. Among the more powerful pieces in the collection.

The Arnold Crombeck Story     6/10     Blood and Water and Other Tales, 1988
In 1954, an ambitious American woman reporter is sent on assignment to London to interview serial murderer Arnold Crombeck shortly before he is hanged. Again McGrath takes on a familiar premise, the relationship between a level-headed interviewer and a man, evidently unstable, behind bars. Mildly similar to the 1975 Thomas Harris novel, Silence of the Lambs, in that an up-and-coming female career person is involved in a potentially dangerous series of interviews with a serial killer behind bars. There is a little twist in this one which I saw coming early on, though the story does not hinge on this twist. Well written but as fresh as the other stories.

Blood Disease     8/10     Bomb, 1988
A multi-layered and complex story. Anthropologist "Congo Bill" is struck with malaria among the Pygmies (elements used also in the story "The Lost Explorer"), yet manages to survive a broken man. On his return he, wife Virginia and son Frank, along with a monkey he had brought back for his son, find themselves at an inn, where Virginia meets an old flame Ronald Dexter who is travelling with his attendant Clutch. Only Clutch is aware that the inn is run and inhabited by a kind of vampire community, victims of pernicious anemia, a condition according to our omniscient narrator, which can result in a chemical balance that can lead to the craving for blood.

This is a busy story, and without ruining any elements of suspense I will note only that the story is superbly written, with strong, descriptive prose, solid characters, great elements of both mystery and suspense, as well as a good, rounded structure and mysterious, open-ended finish. There are many nice allusions to vampirism, with the anemia, the descriptive passage on malaria development, fleas sucking blood and so forth, marking "Blood Disease" among the better vampire stories, or rather non-vampire vampire stories.

Of McGrath's short stories, this is the most anthologized, which isn't stating much since his work tends not to appear in anthologies. "Blood Disease" appeared in both The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales (Chris Baldic, editor, Oxford University Press, 1992) and A Taste for Blood (Martin H. Greenberg, editor, Dorset Press, 1992).

The Skewer     7/10     Confrontation #37-38, Spring/Summer 1988
Neville Pilkington experiences odd hallucinations as he sees the miniature forms of Sigmund Freud and other analysts, such as Otto Rank and Ernest Jones. The story is pieced together by Neville's nephew from journal entries, Neville's own psychoanalyst's impressions of the case, and the truth as our narrator sees it.

The story is an homage to Sheridan LeFanu, with unusual ghostly appearances as we have seen in LeFanu's excellent stories "Green Tea" and "The Familiar." In case the reader is in doubt, Neville visits the LeFanu café, and one of the ghosts is described as "simian," a direct allusion to the ghostly monkey in "Green Tea."

An odd premise rewards well as the story is simultaneously entertaining and suspenseful, and features a solid finish. Psychoanalysis is poked at, and the title refers not only to the object but to the fact that psychoanalysis is like putting a skewer to the brain.

Marmilion     7/10     Blood and Water and Other Tales, 1988
This Louisiana tale features a female photographer specializing in, you guessed it, monkeys. Specifically spider monkeys, and while in the Louisiana swamp she comes across a crumbling house where, spending the night, she hears an odd scraping in the chimney. This leads her to research the house, Marmilion it's named, and learns of former owner Randolph Belvedere, his family and the tragic circumstances surrounding all. A strong story with a creepily mysterious conclusion.

Hand of a Wanker     5/10     Between C & D, 1988
The weakest of the stories, this one features the runaway hand of a chronic masturbator. The story doesn't fit in with the others in the collection. It tries to be funny and playful, but McGrath's other somewhat humourous story of the collection, "The E(rot)ic Potato" works far better, particularly since it also carries with it some serious undertones. "Hand of a Wanker" is just silly.

The Boot's Tale     7/10     New Observations, 1988
A post apocalyptic tale of the decline of an American family told through the point of view of an old and wise boot. Yet another strong story, this one with a kind of 1950s atmosphere, mixing dark humour with an apocalyptic scenario featuring a bomb shelter and a commentary on modern American families and their gluttonous nature. The story can be narrated by an omniscient voice rather than footwear, and it's not fully clear why it is told by a boot since throughout much of the story the boot takes a back seat and we even forget about it (as I did), but McGrath succeeds well in that the boot narrator does not detract from a great story.

The E(rot)ic Potato     6/10     East Village Eye, 1988
A short piece told by a fly as it searches for food along with a myriad of other insects. This fly is observant and McGrath does well with giving him a personality, and the narrator has more (obvious) purpose than the boot in the previous story. Not as strong as "The Boot's Tale," it is nonetheless good, with a vivid and striking image to finish off, and an incidental commentary on human life.

Blood and Water     6/10     The Missouri Review 11.1, 1988
This tale of a man snapping under the pressures of keeping his wife's unusual sexual secret from the public features much to nearly make the reader snap. Boilers and boiling water help escalate our madman's plight in a story that manages to garner sympathy for its aggressive and eventually violent protagonist.

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