The Tangled Web of Time

The Tangled Web of Time, by Brian Stableford. Wildside Press 2016.

Review by Sally Startup.

Every ten years or so, Jimmy McKinnon has attempted to break out of the prison of his everyday consciousness. To do so, he has always sought help from Mark, his ‘astrological twin’ and the the narrator of this novel. And although Mark wants to say no, he has always ended up getting involved.

Now Jimmy, through his fieldwork in ethnomedicine, has obtained a new psychotropic drug. He also has a new accomplice, with whom he has been exploring metempsychosis and transanimation. The time has come for Mark to truly consider his own desires, and to examine the tangled web of time from his own perspective.

Under the influence of Jimmy’s new drug, his lover, Christiane, appears to channel Sosipatra of Ephesus, thus reaching back in time. Mark’s own past in relation to Jimmy is revealed in flashbacks as the novel progresses. The tangled narrative is cleverly controlled all the way through, until its interesting resolution. Background concerns about the ethics of ethnomedicine in the context of commercial research are also explored.

Mark cannot really ever be a detached observer of Jimmy’s experiments. He is vulnerable to delusion in the same way as everyone else. So what Mark experiences is open to a variety of interpretations; And what makes this novel so fascinating is that Mark’s very scepticism allows for the existence of any, or all of them.

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The Mirror of Dionysus

The Mirror of Dionysus, by Brian Stableford. Hollywood Comics 2016.

Review by Sally Startup

A further sequel to The Wayward Muse and Eurydice’s Lament, The Mirror of Dionysus clears up some mysteries introduced in the earlier books, as well as bringing in some new and very fascinating possibilities.

Axel Rathenius seems to have lost some of the arrogance he appeared to display in The Wayward Muse. Or perhaps he is just more self-aware. Given his true age, this is understandable.

He finds himself entangled in some political consequences of the traumatic events described in Euridyce’s Lament. It falls to him – along with Mariette, who has previously been muse to a different painter, and Elise, a musically talented child – to join in a ritual that may help to prevent further harm. When they look into the Mirror of Dionysus, they have been told to expect visions of their true selves. Axel, being a great artist, sees far more than his own face.

This story might encourage imaginative readers to think about how myths are used, and why. In my earlier review of the Wayward Muse, I described the fictional island of Mnemosyne as a place I enjoyed escaping to. In The Mirror of Dionysus, Axel Rathenius is required to use his art to political effect more widely than he did in the earlier books. Escape can lead to freedom. And reading for escapist purposes is always a useful way to illuminate the stories of our own lives.

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The Portals of Paradise

The Portals of Paradise, by Brian Stableford. Wildside Press 2016.
Review by Sally Startup

A playful novel, narrated by Gabriel, an aspiring playwright on his Grand Tour. Having already spent some time in Paris, where he attended many plays and also fell in love, he has recently arrived in Venice. It is the mid Eighteenth-century, at the time of Carnival, only ten years before the festivities will be abolished under Austrian rule. Gabriel is especially interested in the commedia dell’arte, and also admires Carlo Goldoni, Carlo Gozzi and Molière.
Not long after arriving in Venice, Gabriel stumbles, quite literally, on the Devil. The young man is kind to the Devil, who appears to have fallen. The Devil is grateful and offers to return the favour with an invitation to a play. Some time later, after the entanglement of various strands of narrative, it becomes clear that this particular play has great significance to those characters in search of ‘the portals of paradise’.
Having initially perceived Venice as decadent and dispiriting, Gabriel is slowly drawn into a more lively appreciation of its layered complexity. Gradually, his role as detached observer develops into that of a player. However, he has no idea which of the plots slowly revealed to him are the most truthful.
Since the story is told in the form of a novel, Gabriel’s own inner thoughts can be reported at length. As he puzzles over what happens to him, readers may also play imaginatively with ideas of their own. Such activity will remake the story differently for every reader, layering personal interpretations over Gabriel’s narrated thoughts and his retrospective descriptions of events. Characters, narrator, author and reader are all most skilfully encouraged to play together.

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The Devil in Detail

The Devil in Detail, An Odyssey in the Surreal by Brian Stableford. Wildside Press 2016.

Review by Sally Startup

Here is a writer having fun. This book is wonderful, although it did make my head spin. It shows what can be done when a writer follows patterns of his own devising rather than conforming to convention. He even tells the reader exactly which conventions he is steering away from.

The narrative voice is that of Brian Stableford, writer of science fiction. He is relating events set in 1997. At that time, he taught creative writing on the MA course ‘Writing for Children’ at the University of Winchester, where I was later to become one of his students. Distinguishing the author from the narrator becomes part of the game.

Not only a thought-provoking read, this book is poetic and often humorous. Where, exactly, the narrative crosses and re-crosses boundaries between fact and fiction, imagination and material reality, only the author himself can possibly know.

Brian Stableford the narrator, tells of visiting a haunted bookshop in the company of Lionel Fanthorpe, who was then the presenter on Fortean TV. Brian’s obsession with rare books leads him into an encounter with the Devil. The possibility of a pact, or a bet, is discussed. Brian is far too sensible to risk betting his heart, but he is willing to use his head.

Much of the action takes place in Wales, and the circumstances of the Devil’s arrival have a plausibly welsh flavour. The Devil wears a red cravat, which gives Brian some clues as to his nature.

Meanwhile, some scientists have designed an experiment to measure and record the presence of the Cosmic Mind. Brian is invited to volunteer as an  experimental subject, but perhaps he is not really the kind of participant they are looking for.

Layered within the book are ruminations on many interrelating subjects. There is the nature of the Devil and the Cosmic Mind. Why do non-existent things exist? There is the past, present and future of books. What makes them valuable, or not? There is the biology of infectious disease, and much more. And there is the process of constructing stories.

Brian the narrator (and possibly also the author) even manages to insert various story ideas he had previously deemed ‘far too silly ever to see print’. Brian the author has managed to fit all of this together, including such magnificent sentences as: ‘What sort of coal, I wondered, might magic mushrooms make after a few tens of millions of years of patient squeezing?’; and ‘The extent to which one can be caught by surprise by a figment of one’s own imagination is really quite surprising.’

Overall, a dizzying read, but most definitely worthwhile.

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The Darkling Wood

The Darkling Wood (A Scientific Fantasy) by Brian Stableford

Review by Sally Startup

Entomologist, John Hazard, reluctantly finds himself advising the doomed protectors of a rather sickly, supposedly ancient, woodland. He is forced to accept the company of various ecowarriors, along with a formidable historian, a post graduate biochemist and a reporter from the Fortean Times. In spite of all his misgivings, his curiosity is engaged and he becomes involved.

The woodland appears to have some purpose of its own. John Hazard, as a scientist, must try to guess what it is and why it might be important. In the process, he uncovers a deeper understanding of himself and opens to the beginnings of some possible friendships. Nevertheless, he remains so much of a scientist that he is willing to pursue a new discovery even when doing so will put him beyond the support of the establishment. Science is, after all, a matter of exploration.

I found this story quite thrilling because of its plausibility. Something so far undiscovered (by humans) and unrecorded, almost certainly does exist, somewhere. The geographical area that is fictionalised in the novel is not far from where I live. There is no reason such a story should not take place close to my home, or anyone else’s.

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Vampires of Atlantis

Vampires of Atlantis (A Love Story) by Brian Stableford.

Review by Sally Startup.

This novel-length story is about love, life, creativity and vampires.

The narrator, telling his tale years after the events he describes, claims to be an inexperienced novel-writer. He admits the dialogue may not have actually occurred word-for-word as he remembers it. This is just as well, because the style of some of the characters’ reported speech does sometimes appear rather literary. However, readers who are prepared to accept this and stay with the novel all the way to the end will be rewarded.

Those who have read Brian’s short story ‘Sheena’, first published in 2000, will also be able to enjoy some extra layers of meaning.

A Yorkshire lad, with a degree in sociology, falls in love with a goth girl. They meet at work in a Leeds call centre in 1999. The girl is very seriously weird. Yet he is utterly in love and will do anything at all to be with her. It quickly becomes clear that his experience of love must take him far beyond anything he has been taught to expect.

As the love affair develops an increasingly gothic tone, the narrator remains infatuated and tender-hearted. However strongly he is able to maintain his own understanding of reality, he is also open to the existence of other interpretations. It is this gentle lack of dogmatism that allows him to love so deeply. He finds himself able – and willing – to become intimate with another, even when her otherness seems extreme. Whether, in the end, this turns out to be a blessing or a curse, each reader must decide for themselves.

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Echoes of Eternity

Echoes of Eternity by Brian Stableford

Published by Chambrion Books 2016

Review by Sally Startup

Set in Paris in 1830, this is a tale with a complicated weave. It deserves attentive reading. There is much interesting historical detail. There are threads from Brian’s previous work and that of H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe. And there are some mind-expanding ideas.

On the eve of Quasimodo, five people meet in Notre Dame Cathedral. Victor Hugo, Paul Lacroix and Blaise Thibodeaux are all developing ideas for the books they plan to write. The Byronic violinist, Doctor Prospero, has arrived in Paris only recently and has been searching for the lost sheet music composed by Erich Zann. These four are all interested in the legend of the Quasimodo Peal, and are willing to experiment in order to discover more.

Brother Barnabas, on the other hand, is a Dominican who has been trusted by his superiors with glimpses of forbidden literature. As a child, he heard the Quasimodo Peal, before revolutionaries melted down all but one of the bells for cannon. However, he has no conscious memory of what they sounded like, much to the disappointment of Doctor Prospero. After what happened to the violinist Erich Zann, Barnabas is also well aware of the risk taken by those who go actively looking for evidence of such things as Nyarlathotep, the crawling chaos.

Being a keen reader myself, I could not help finding metaphorical connections between the magic of literature and the kind of magic that interests Prospero and Thibodeaux. There are plenty of clues that the author agrees. However, it is through the art of music, its echoes and its effects on the emotions, that these characters wish to test their theories. And thoughts can be infectious, however they are transmitted, especially when they connect with minds already primed to receive them.

There are great many ‘what if?’ ideas mentioned within this story (my personal favourite being, ‘what if artistic creativity were transmitted by invisible organisms?’). The significance of such ideas to physical and metaphorical worlds is likely to depend on one’s point of view. Since the main characters are all conscientious thinkers, their discussions and internal thoughts are described at length. The progression of these theories as they are revealed provides a slowly developing, yet powerful, narrative tension.

When the harmonies of Hell are performed, what effects do they have, whom do they affect, and when? Several characters suggest possible answers. For myself, I found the resultant tale initially chilling, then ultimately reassuring and encouraging.

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