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Black Static

New Horror Fiction BLACK STATIC ISSUE 71 OUT NOW!

The Late Review: Pan

5th Aug, 2019

Author: Peter Tennant

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Throughout their eight year existence Egaeus Press have enthusiastically pursued the terms of their mission statement - "to publish morbid, decadent and baroque fiction in limited volumes of a quality of ornateness rarely seen in modern books". Edited by publisher Mark Beech, SOLILOQUY FOR PAN (Egaeus Press hc, 354pp, £35), which was released in June 2015 with a second printing in September of that year, is a perfect example of that intention in action.

This is a beautiful volume, with superb attention to detail in the production and an obvious love of the bookmaker's art shining through. It features work inspired by the god Pan, a "compendium of new and previously unpublished fiction, essays and poetry along with lesser known archive material" that combine to give the reader an overview of Pan's importance to culture, art, literature, and spirituality throughout the centuries.

The book opens with Dion Fortune's melodic and incantatory poem 'A Magical Invocation of Pan', which sets the mood perfectly. And, because I'm in a categorising state of mind at the moment, before moving on to non-fiction and fiction, we'll consider the other poems that appear between the covers of this volume. From Robert Frost we have 'Pan With Us', in which the god comes out to play on his pipes, with a teasing hint of ambiguity as to the nature of the world in which he now resides. A. C. Benson's 'Pan' presents a rustic and somewhat minatory iteration of the god, while 'Leaf-Foot, Petal-Mouth' by Bethany van Rijswijk gives us the myth of Pan in more modern form, the poem evocative of the god's wild nature and with the feel of a eulogy running through it. But you can't keep an old god down for long. Like the monsters in horror films they always come back, as Lord Dunsany records in the delightful prose poem that is 'The Death of Pan'. Our last poem and a fitting end piece to the volume as a whole, 'Summer Enchantment' by Harry Fitzgerald hints at the passing of the god, that Pan's time is finally done and only the ruins of his dreams remain.

The non-fiction element of the book begins with 'The Rebirthing of Pan' in which Adrian Eckersley explores the history of the God, from his passing in the classical world to Renaissance rebirth and continuing popularity in folklore and fiction, discussing why he appeals so much to artists and intellectuals, giving us a fascinating and insightful overview of the subject. Sheryl Humphrey gets to list plants that will appeal to the deity in 'Faun and Flora: A Garden for the Goat-God Pan', which basically means categorising every plant with a touch of Greek in its pedigree or a name having to do with goats. I found it tedious and the low point of the book, but that could simply be down to my personal aversion to gardening in general and weeding in particular (my ideal of a garden would be a window box that you then concrete over).

Diane Champigny's 'The Role of Pan in Ritual, Magic & Poetry' gives us a potted history of Pan's role in occultism, with biographies of some of the magicians and mystics who evoked him, such as Aleister Crowley and Dion Fortune. I was fascinated by what was divulged and wish the piece had been much longer, perhaps even a book in its own right. In 'An Old God Almost Dead: Pan in the 1940s' Nick Freeman takes a long, hard look at three works of fiction from that decade in which the god is celebrated and ponders on what they tell us of mankind's relationship with the myth that gave the stories birth.

The fiction is of course the real meat of this volume, and our first fictional offering comes courtesy of R. B. Russell. 'Panic' tells how a man's concern for a former lover who is now living in an isolated spot and acting strangely, leads to an encounter with the numinous, one that completely upends his belief in a causal, material world. Russell is especially good at evoking the wildness of the story's setting and how that is reflected in the actions of the characters, with a subtext that only those with closed minds have much to fear from Pan. The next story I originally reviewed in Black Static #62 when it appeared in Reggie Oliver's collection Holidays from Hell. I had this to say - "A statue of the god Pan at the heart of 'The Maze at Huntsmere' is the undoing of a thespian and producer who has been elevated to the status of national treasure, if only in his own mind, and the cause of a second chance at love for the owner of a stately home. The story is told with an almost Wodehousian relish, Oliver gleefully committing his larger than life characters to the page and adding one unsettling detail after another until the plot veers off into the realm of nightmare."

In 'The Secret Woods' by Lynda E. Rucker the protagonist returns to her childhood haunts and the scene of a family tragedy, one for which she feels herself responsible, remembering how as a child Pan himself had been her imaginary friend, or perhaps more than that. It's a story that deftly explores the lines between fact and fiction, childhood and adulthood, guilt and responsibility, obsession and fear of the unknown, with echoes in the text of Machen's classic 'The Great God Pan'. 'A Song Out of Reach' by John Howard is an apocalyptic piece in which a strange melody heard everywhere seems to herald the end of technological civilisation. Told from the viewpoint of a gay couple on retreat in an isolated spot, the story brings to the material a sense of menace but perhaps ultimately a feel of rightness about what is happening, that the balance is being restored.

The longest story in the book, 'Lithe Tenant' by Stephen J. Clark is a powerful and unsettling evocation of the kind of madness Pan inspires, with a son returning to learn the truth about his father's alleged suicide, and a friend of the family with secrets of his own drawn into the search. Clark builds with magnificent skill, assembling tiny details, hints of madness and the numinous, and in the character of bestial Peter giving us a memorable nemesis, all of it leading into a visionary climax, one redolent with both menace and the miraculous. The subtext seems to be that there are some truths it is better not to know. Originally published in 1901, there's a quaint feel to 'A New Pheidippioes' by Henry Woodd Nevinson in which an Englishman abroad and his guide encounter Pan and chat amiably with the God about his place in the modern world and the nature of divinity, the account feeling slightly ludicrous, but at the same time offering more food for thought than almost anything else in this volume.

Charles Schneider tells of a boy who likes to scare his best friend with tales of the monstrous things that lurk in the world, and who gets his deserved comeuppance when the two become lost in 'Goskin Woods'. There are echoes of the King of 'The Body' here, with a wealth of characterisation and slyly horrific ending. The brief 'Pan's Pipes' by Robert Louis Stevenson celebrates Pan as the embodiment of the non-scientific, the principle that there are more things in heaven and earth given a bodily form. Sebastian Alvanley inherits 'The House of Pan' in John Gale's story, an abode that brings to mind Gormenghast in its larger than life qualities and the way in which its treasure seeking owner is destined to find far more than he bargained for within the walls. There was a pleasing almost Baroque feel to this tale, with its tongue in cheek qualities and carefully selected nomenclature.

Jonathan Wood's 'The Company of the Lake' tells of a group of friends on holiday at an isolated lakeside lodge who have an encounter with the numinous. I found it rather laboured, as if the writer was very conscious of the need to present us with something strange and special, but couldn't quite deliver the goods. It felt artificial, a totally contrived situation, with characters I couldn't really believe in. The place where wild wood and urban civilisation collide is marked in Colin Insole's marvellously atmospheric 'The Rose-White Water' in which a yuppie entrepreneur tries to tame the tangle of undergrowth at the bottom of her newly purchased property, with somewhat unlooked for results. I loved the build-up here, the way in which my attitude to the character changed, and the end twist is executed with panache, taking the reader completely by surprise but with hindsight perfectly obvious.

'Meadow Saffron' by Martin Jones is the kind of story Michael Haneke might have delivered had he been asked to submit to this anthology, with a theme of home invasion and an erotic undercurrent propelling the narrative along. This is strange stuff indeed, but you have the feeling that it could very well happen just as described, with a hint of the numinous on every page. Be careful what you invite into your life seems to be the minatory subtext. Many years ago Suzy had an encounter with 'The Lady in the Yard' in Rosanne Rabinowitz's story, and she longs for a repetition of the experience, but things don't go quite as she expected. Rabinowitz is superb at conveying the character of her outsider heroine, who with her love of science fiction and feelings of alienation will probably be somebody many readers can identify with, while the way in which the miraculous intrudes on her life is pulled off with real skill, making us look at the everyday in a new light and see an abandoned swimming pool as the gateway to another realm.

Written in 1914, 'A Puzzling Affair' by Ivar Campbell has a modern feel to it, giving us the story of a man who is scared of trees. There's a claustrophobic atmosphere to the story, as if we can feel the trees pressing in, as does the protagonist. More mood piece than story, Nina Antonia's 'South-West 13' tells of a rural enclave within the big city's confines, a place where the veil between different realities wears thin. It was evocatively written, with an eye for detail in the natural world. A famous director with a reputation for the unusual turns a theatrical production into something else entirely in Cypress Shades' by Mark Valentine. It starts amiably enough, but there's a growing sense of unease as the narrative unfolds, with closing scenes that hint at something terrible that has taken place, but the nature of which remains intangible for reader and protagonist alike, though we have our suspicions and they do not bode well for the story's protagonist despite his apparent peace with what has taken place. In the book's last story, a shy couple on 'Honey Moon' in a remote cottage are introduced to a more primal form of existence and sexuality. D. P. Watt's story builds gradually, giving us time to become attached to these characters and unnerved by the setting in which they find themselves, with a wealth of tiny details that hint at what is to come, counterbalanced by sly touches of humour.

There is of course more to Soliloquy for Pan than the written content. Accompanying the text is a wealth of antique illustrations of the God and scenes from mythology, all of which add to the appeal of this remarkable book, one in which something old and something new, something borrowed and something blue, all come together to remarkable effect. Egaeus Press have ushered something strange and beautiful into the world.

The book was a limited edition, though I'm not sure how many copies were produced. It's shown as sold out on the publisher's website, but copies are still available from various dealers at a price that should evoke panic even if the stories don't.

Check out the product page for Soliloquy on the Egaeus site for the actual running order of the book's contents.

 

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