R.B. Russell's Literary Remains Reviewed

Saturday, May 29, 2010

R.B. Russell's weird fiction has hit the weird literary world in a remarkable surge, balancing quality with production. Close on the heels of his first story collection Putting the Pieces in Place and the novella Bloody Baudelaire, both published by Ex Occidente Press, is a new offering by PS Publishing: Literary Remains. This collection of ten new tales is an expression of haunting otherworldliness seeping into realities well known to Russell. At times, reading the book seems like a journey through a carnival funhouse, but one filled with pale whispers and wayward gentleman instead of gaudy ornaments. More than anything, Literary Remains presents the emergence of an unusual other reality so disorienting that it dazzles and terrifies in equal proportions.

Russell's attention to clearly writing what he knows convincingly solidifies the recognizable setting in his stories, and perhaps this is why their nicely paced breakdown is so strange. The author's position as Tartarus Press' chief operator is no secret, so it is not surprising that many of this collection's stories are set in bookish environs. In the titular story, "Literary Remains," a young woman's work at a bookstore leads her into tending the graveyard library of a deceased collector and writer, which seemingly harbors more ghosts than old books and papers in his house. "Asphodel" toys with the dark side of the publishing world when an elderly religious fanatic seeks to get his treatise published through a vanity publisher. The astounding success of this shadow writer and his bizarre transfiguration ring the notes of religious mystery, extracted and distilled from the world's orthodoxies. The publishing world's troubles are again displayed in "Another Country," where a representative of a major house journeys to a strange land to meet a reclusive, bitter writer. The foreigner's painful secrets are awkwardly revealed in a land made genuinely unintelligible to Russell's visitor, and these elements are only a precursor to the real horror.

If any one source of inspiration can be pinned down for this collection, it is unequivocally Robert Aickman. Russell's mixture of erotic tension and unexplained elements strongly reflect an Aickmanesque worldview, though his stories are original enough to avoid obvious parallels. Not surprisingly, the best tales have the strongest Aickman traces. "Blue Glow" spins the old dream of exchanging lives with someone else in a new direction. A middle aged fellow is slowly integrated into the luxurious flat and lifestyle of a wealthy playboy across the street, while his old life is seized by this other man. A bizarre transference of apartments, women, and wealth occurs beneath the inexplicable and melancholy aura of dark blue lighting that seems to follow the narrator's evasive partner.

Other stories also drive on the fog of Aickmanesque mystery, which is often so impenetrable it forces readers to invent their own interpretations, like reading constellations in the stars. "Loup-Garou" (which means "werewolf") showcases an artsy French film that uncannily mirrors its viewer's life. Later, the movie has an unsettling transformative effect (or is it a second transformation?) when it is viewed anew many years later. "A Revelation" hides a secret in the attic--an ancient plot device of the horror and mystery genres--but Russell's garden shed in the rafters is far more baffling than horrifying. This brief narrative is especially forceful in the sheer oddness of its revelation, which mirrors the best cosmic awe in H.P. Lovecraft's "The Music of Erich Zann" and the eeriness of "doubles" from Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone.

"Where They Cannot be Seen" exudes further architectural mystery, but tangles it with strands of forbidden longing and lust in a way that admirably demonstrates the layered power of Russell's prose. In this story, two adulterous spouses at a couples' retreat discover a hidden chamber in their vacation house invisible to everyone else. Curiously, the room rearranges itself as their emotions evolve, reflecting and encouraging their affair, until the disturbing and sad climax. Consciously or not, Russell effectively utilizes structural unease and spacial anomaly to generate a weird atmosphere, somewhat like Mark Z. Danielewski's novel, House of Leaves. "Another Country" exhibits another type of placement distortion. Russell's authentic depiction of a foreign land (probably inspired by Eastern Europe) is an anxiety-inducing trap that accurately represents the horrors of finding oneself among strange buildings and garbled languages.

Despite Aickman's ghostly polish, R.B. Russell's fiction differentiates its mysteries by conjuring disorientation and distortions that often probe deeper into our world than Aickman's. Russell's blurring of memory is a useful and recurring tool for making the dizzy uncertainty that dominates Literary Remains. No story better exemplifies memory distortion than "Llanfihangel," where a guest at a party leads a man to mount an effort at assisting an old girlfriend, Cara, who has fallen onto hard times. Questions abound in this tale, from the narrator's own uncertainty about Cara's status and possible fraud, to the estate she formerly occupied which seems as haunted as everything else surrounding this memory ghost. The supernatural encroaches more ominously than in any other tale in "Una Furtiva Lagrima," as a young man visits the home of his father's mistress. This story takes on the appearance of shared haunting, as the literal and figurative ghosts of a terrible incident from her past manifest themselves. "An Artist's Model" sees an art student achieving the unlikely success he longs for from the story's outset. However, it comes only after sleep tainted episodes painting his instructor's curious model and a physical altercation he cannot understand. Overall, memory confusion and misunderstanding in these tales are the worst demons of all.

The most important gift of Literary Remains is a small peek behind reality's curtain into another realm, with landscapes and players which cannot be fully understood. This short story collection forces readers to become active investigators rather than passive observers. Fortunately, this follows the best tradition of weird literature, and unraveling the book's many mysteries can be immensely rewarding, besides being the only way of really appreciating the high class strangeness Russell has cultivated here. Since Literary Remains is already the third thoughtful book R.B. Russell has released in a short time, readers can expect even more from this talented conqueror of weird fiction writing and publishing. This collection sets the bar high for himself, not to mention future authors, but also ensures a special place for his fiction in the contemporary weird's bright future.

-Grim Blogger

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