The Man Who Collected Machen by Mark Samuels
Now I’ve retired (except when people pay me to write which, perhaps surprisingly, remains moderately common) I get to spend my days doing what I like the best which is reading and writing for fun. For all I’m reading professionally most of the time, the motive remains the same — to find authors whose work is interesting. With tens of thousands of books published every year, there’s no way I can read them all, and with Sturgeon’s Law endlessly proved correct, it’s a case of serendipity or following the recommendation of others to find the good stuff. With The Man Who Collected Machen by Mark Samuels (Chômu Press, 2011) it’s a punt into the small press world to try someone new to me. We start of with “Losenef Express”. This is rather elegant as a piece of atmospheric writing. We’re so far off the beaten track, even the track has given up caring where it is. Eddie Charles Knox, a disillusioned human being, looks up from the bottom of a bottle and sees a man in the shadows watching him. When the man leaves and goes into the foggy streets, Knox follows. It may not be the most original of plot ideas but the execution works well as an exercise in existential despair. The titular “The Man Who Collected Machen” plays with another well-known trope as a poor man who’s fascinated by the author but can’t afford to buy collectible editions, meets a man who’s been able to put together an impressive collection of books and ephemera. The outcome is rather pleasingly Machenish as a veil is lifted.
“THYXXOLQU” is a quite wonderful idea. In many ways, language remains one of humanity’s greatest achievements — the perfect system for communicating meaning both face-to-face and over distances. If there’s a flaw, it’s that, as a species, we never agreed on a single language. Consequently, we’re left with a veritable Babel of different scripts, syntaxes and vocabularies. Would it not therefore be convenient if we could all agree to speak the same language? No more problems with translation. Just universal understanding. Life would be so much richer if there were no barriers to communicating ideas. And talking of universality, “The Black Mould” shows us a rather more cosmic version of the drive to bring the multiplicity into the singular form. This story shows pleasing self-discipline, spending just enough time on the set-up and development, and finishing before the idea runs out of steam. “Xapalpa” is a small town in Mexico which may have had a slightly less than savory reputation in earlier times, but may just be the place for an American ex-pat to retire to. Or not, as the case may be. So when our hero sits down in the most obvious bar and finds a friendly face prepared to talk to him, he hears a little of the town’s history. The result is nicely understated.
It’s somewhat ironic to find a story like “Glickman the Bibliophile” in a collection from any publisher. It’s message is that the annihilation of meaning is double plus good and, if you don’t agree, we haff ways of making you zink zo as Nazi book burners pursuing Säuberung in 1933 might have said. “A Question of Obeying Orders” is a delightful joke, albeit one based on a rather obvious confusion. As you might expect, a German soldier might balk at continuing to fight once the battle has been won. It’s only natural he should run away. It’s just unfortunate he chooses this particular path out of the forest. “Nor Unto Death Utterly by Edward Bertrand” is another very effective atmosphere piece in which a village doctor is called in to examine a dying recluse only to find something rather unexpected. It has a nicely judged Victorian air about it as the veneer of his medical detachment is pierced, leaving a mixture of superstition and religion to fight over the ruins of his mind. “A Contaminated Text” returns to the central notion behind the earlier “THYXXOLQU” and produces a very elegant variation on the theme. In this case, we have a Mexican library receiving a consignment of books from a local collector, recently deceased. When they are shelved, something rather interesting occurs. “The Age of Decayed Futurity” moves along a parallel track and speculates there might be some truth to the conspiracy theories of a secret cabal running Earth. In some of these theories, these are beings from the future. But such beliefs are just the product of delusional minds. And, finally, we come to “The Tower”, an original story, which takes a highly political view of the world and an academic interpretation of how we perceive it and attribute meaning to it, and produces a kind of postmodern or semiotic horror story. Obviously we are all surrounded by our own small plot of geography as it moves slowly through time from the past to the future. If we were to become alienated from the world, we might withdraw into a small subsection of our environment. At times we might meditate. Alternatively we might explore the remnant of our world in search of a symbol, something to inspire us. If we conceived a tower as that totem, how might we approach it — assuming it was possible to do so? The answer is given here.
The overall effect of this book is of a writer who loves ideas and the power of words to express them. Each of the stories is most carefully controlled. Young writers feel length is important and they overwrite. These stories which, I suppose, one classifies as supernatural, weird, or postmodernist horror are told with economy and therefore power. I’m pleased and relieved the recommendation given to me proved correct and I pass on the recommendation to you.