Review: The Life of Polycrates by Brendan Connell

Monday, May 2, 2011

Single layers of degeneracy and strangeness are familiar in weird fiction. Just enough to satisfy one's appetite for weirdness, but not so decadent that readers can't walk away relatively unscathed. This isn't the case with Brendan Connell's new collection from Chomu Press, The Life of Polycrates and Other Stories for Antiquated Children. Connell's recipe draws together elements that are all certified with strangeness of the highest grade. Bizarre plots, legendary characters, and experimental narrative structures compose a towering wedding cake that joins the unconventional in unholy matrimony.

At one level, the book may be enjoyed as eleven demented histories and legends. The most authentically historic piece is the titular story, “The Life of Polycrates,” which retells the life of Samos' tyrant with rich details making it impossible to see where history ends and fiction begins. Polycrates' elegant court, unlikely triumphs, and torturous death are related in a format very similar to classical literature. “Brother of the Holy Ghost” effectively discloses another terrible downfall, this time of a mystic and one-time Pope in the Middle Ages who is defeated by his own faith and outside conspiratorial machinations. A colorful and mildly unsettling tale awaits in “The Search for Savino,” where a late 19th century artist who paints eyelids is uncovered in several haunting documents. Meanwhile, “The Chymical Wedding of Des Esseintes” turns Joris-Karl Huysmans' decadent aesthetic upside down, in a nearly Aickmanesque horror tale sure to enthrall lovers of decadent literature.

While Connell is often successful in establishing atmospheric conditions in his stories that are eerie, unusual, and (by some infernal logic) believable, his outrageous and frequently damaged characters are a greater success. The Life of Polycrates features an offbeat cast so mentally deformed and curious that few authors would be capable of matching it. “The Life of Captain Gareth Caernarvon” takes the pompous, globe trekking hunter of the last century and builds him into something more: a brutal caricature groomed for a demonic role in hell itself.

Maledict Michela” and “Collapsing Claude” are compatriot stories allowing us to see the awkward sexual depravity of the story's eponymous characters. Michela surrenders herself in middle age to a bloated beast of a man, while Claude submits to a domineering and repulsive woman who embodies an inverse attractiveness. Connell balances heavy unease with just enough fascinating voyeurism to keep readers from slamming the book shut out of embarrassment. These tales also represent recurring self-destructive tendencies usually stemming from erotic habits.

The Life of Polycrates' abundant self-immolation continues in stories like “The Slug,” when a fairly comfortable young man decides to relinquish his easy life and utterly destroy himself. This meat grinder alteration in identity isn't always clear in each story, but does become easier to speculate about when the collection as a whole is digested. “Molten Rage” shows us the slow motion destruction of a blue collar worker after he is led astray by a radical left-wing pied piper. Brendan Connell grants no reprieve in “The Dancing Billionaire” and “Peter Payne” either. Here, an exceedingly wealthy gentleman and a biker dare devil are imprisoned, just on the verge of suffocating, by their past as much as their present. The author incorporates fate's heavy fist in these pieces, as their demise is predictable, but nonetheless interesting enough to see it through, as though the book's self-fulfilling prophecy traps readers as well.

Connell fires many of his stories off with a vast, diverse arsenal of experimental techniques. Though his boldness and talented craftsmanship must be admired, the effect is not always successful. For instance, “Brother of the Holy Ghost” flits between a traditional structure and stream-of-consciousness at uneven intervals to the point where it becomes difficult to recognize what is going on. “The Life of Polycrates,” though wonderful in its imagery and historic realism, is perhaps too successful in imitating antiquated narrative forms. In a world where few readers receive a classical education, the finer points of Connell's tragedy may be lost on many.

However, these rare imperfections should not dissuade readers from picking up The Life of Polycrates and Other Stories for Antiquated Children. Brendan Connell is a rare mind who can confidently mold unique narrative styles into forceful distillates of the surreal and the strange. One day, his unhinged themes and experimental methods may enjoy much wider recognition in the weird literary community and beyond.

-Grim Blogger

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