Tartarus Press, as some Teleread readers at least will know by now, is doing a sterling job of producing a really fine series of contemporary and classic British (and other) dark, weird, strange, and horror fiction, with some excellent and unbelievably cheap ebooks to accompany their high-quality print editions. Latest addition to their list is Orpheus on the Underground, by Welsh author Rhys Hughes, who received a lot of extremely approving recognition for his 1995 Tartarus volume Worming the Harpy and Other Bitter Pills.
British writers very often major in whimsy – a sort of literary corollary to that famous well-bred English gentlemanly eccentricity, which makes them excellent purveyors of often mild-mannered weirdness. At its best, this can deliver some remarkable and fantastic imaginative elaborations – think Mervyn Peake and Gormenghast, for instance. At its less inspired, it can get mannerly and develop all kinds of mannerisms and quaint inflections and archaisms. Rhys Hughes arguably exhibits both tendencies, though as a proven disciple of European Surrealist and absurdist traditions, and a regular producer of more experimental excursions into the realms of the bizarre, he has every right to be taken seriously in the field of the weird.
Some of the best stories in the book, such as the title piece or “Double Meaning,” do pack gifted writing together with some ingenious conceits. “The Bicycle-Centaur,” for instance, has a great deal of fun with both its title protagonist (exactly what it says) and various other word games and tropes, including “Damon Nomad, king of the travelling palindromes.” On a more serious … ahem … note, “The Phantom Festival” has a striking, even Lovecraftian, exploration of the genesis of music that would make any cosmic horror author proud. And the jeweled faceted heads and “pickfaces” of “The Great Me” are excellent items to bundle into a self-referential story about writing.
Meanwhile, some of the less inspired and inspiring – to me at least – tales, such as “New Improved Recipe for Disaster” or “Behind Every Ghost,” evoke … ahem … the shade of that English master of the short weird tale Saki (by references to “Saki Town” and various Saki protagonists), but miss anything like Saki’s clipped sardonic brutality, preserving chiefly his period diction and drawing-room flavor, even when more modern settings and items like lasers intrude. Perhaps I’m a little too prone to react against this ludic dinkiness in British literature, but it does rub me up the wrong way.
For those who do like this, though, here is one of the best new collections in the field that you could hope for. The illustrations by Chris Harrendence are beautifully reproduced in the excellent ebook production by Tartarus, which is retailing the ebook version for almost one tenth the price of the limited-edition hardback edition, but arguably with the same production standards. All in all, it’s a mixed bag, but the jewels in the grab bag are very bright and well cut indeed.