Sunday 4 October 2009

The Smell of Telescopes, by Rhys Hughes

This is a new edition from Eibonvale Press from 2007 of a collection of short stories first published by the highly respected small press, Tartarus Books, in 2000. I don’t have the original version for comparison, but this one has a couple of oddities: like the other Eibonvale books so far, each paragraph begins with a gigantic indent, creating hundreds of unintentional ellipses, and full stops are followed by two spaces instead of one, which gets annoying over the course of a whole book. Also, the space between each story includes two to four blank pages: providing time to decompress, perhaps, but adding up to about sixty blank pages in total. On the other hand, this edition adds striking illustrated title pages to each story, and the author has said that this is his preferred version of the text.

Though each of the stories works alone, there are connections between them. Largely they fall into four categories.

One set deals with Captain Morgan’s retired pirates, scoundrels such as Spermaceti Whiskers, Thanatology Spleen, Muscovado Lashes, Lanolin Brows and Omophagia Ankles. These were the stories I had most trouble with – the first couple I found almost entirely impenetrable – I had to nail my eyes to the page to stop them running away. “Lanolin Brows”, though, was brilliant: a pirate makes himself a suit of armour from wood, and goes on to create an entire city from the stuff. “Omophagia Ankles” ties together many of the book’s threads for a very satisfying conclusion.
Four stories tell of two troubled lovers, Myfanwy and Owain, and their travails with pies, imps, trousers and souls: “The Blue Dwarf”, “The Orange Goat”, “The Yellow Imp” and “The Purple Pastor”. The first was almost painfully quirky, but the last was superb, leaving the hero in a most unusual position.

Five stories concern the strange town of Ladloh, its inhabitants and politics: “Ten Grim Bottles”, “The Purloined Liver”, “A Person Not in the Story”, “Burke and Rabbit” and “The Hush of Falling Houses”. These were my favourites in the volume, in particular “The Hush of Falling Houses”, in which Ladlow must face its final fate – again.

Twelve stories are more or less standalones, including “The Banker of Ingolstadt”, “The Squonk Laughed”, “Telegraph Ma’am”, “The Tell-Tale Nose”, “A Girl Like a Doric Column”, “Nothing More Common”, “Bridge Over Troubled Blood”, “The Haunted Womb”, “There Was a Ghoul Dwelt by a Mosque” and “The Sickness of Satan”. All of these were very good, and are the most accessible. My favourites from this group were “Depressurised Ghost Story” and “Mr Humphrey’s Clock’s Inheritance”, a story on the perils of licking furniture.

This was a very challenging book to read. Every line is so dense, so filled with allusions, in-jokes and puns that I halted and stuttered in my reading, reminding me of when I began to read novels in French for the first time. Every line needed to be decoded, sifted for meaning before I could understand it or move on to the next. But the more of it I read, the more I settled into it, the more I enjoyed it. I started to pick up on the internal connections, stopped worrying so much about catching every nuance, and stopped looking up the words I didn’t know in a dictionary. By the time I finished Le Comte de Monte Cristo I was reading French very well; by the end of this book I wouldn’t say I was fluent in Hughes, but I was making my way with more confidence, and looking forward to the next volume.

When you read a book of short stories, it’s easy to assume the stories appear in chronological order. I don’t know if that’s the case here, but even allowing for my steady acclimatization to Rhys Hughes’ writing, my impression was that as the book went on the puns became less laboured, the twists became more natural, and the stories were better. The first edition of this book dates back to 2000, the stories I imagine are even older: I’m very much looking forward to reading the author’s subsequent work, especially the forthcoming Twisthorn Bellow from Atomic Fez.

The Smell of Telescopes, Rhys Hughes, Eibonvale Press, hb, 464pp

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