“They listen, the dead. They’re always listening. What else is there for them to do?” Taking his cue from the classic writers of supernatural fiction in his new anthology, while there are a variety of styles and locations in the stories of John Connolly there is an evident devotion to the past, both in setting and in the writing, his unhurried pace a reassuring step back from the breathless modernity which too often cries plot! plot! above considerations of atmosphere and character.
Instead, beyond Jim Tierney’s line illustrations which preface each story, the first thing which strikes the reader is the elegant prose which flows effortlessly across the pages, every sentence generously furnished with the flourishes of not only a master of the craft but one who is without trace of smugness of indulgence delighted to revel in the sharing of their work.
All of these aspects are fully present in The Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository, opening in the autumn of 1968 but with roots stretching back further, to the classics of literature so beloved by protagonist Mr Berger, recently relocated from the city, but which come to haunt him, led on his evening walk by a mysterious yet familiar figure to the titular establishment.
Books and the power of words are also visited in the longest piece, the five linked fragments of The Fractured Atlas, each a separate tale of dread and creeping terror whose shapes together form a hideous whole, each narrator pursued by powerful and unknowable manifestations which Connolly has confirmed continue to carry a torch lit long ago by H P Lovecraft in his uncanny tales (“a book is a carrier, and the ideas within its covers an infection waiting to be spread!”), the sinister atmosphere at least partially leavened by the jaunty prose before the final descent into madness.
Shorter and sharper is The Blood of the Lamb, a working class Irish family preparing to play host to a delegation despatched from the Vatican to investigate the claim that their daughter is gifted, a healer; unlike the tailored temptation offered to Mr Berger, Angela Lacey’s gift is one she would happily return.
Briefer are On ‘The Anatomization of an Unknown Man’ (1637) by Frans Mier, a bleak and twisted character portrait captured in paint and canvas as much as in ink and paper, and A Dream of Winter a haunting seen through the memory of a frosty pane of glass told in only a single page of prose.
Lazarus and A Haunting are thematic outliers, one a new perspective on the titular character’s life after death and the consequences unspoken of that ill-conceived miracle, the other an interlude in the company of an elderly widower in his own fading moments, while the greatest departure is the grimly evocative fairy tale The Hollow King, a shift to the overtly fantastical as a kingdom is besieged by an enveloping fog from which no man returns alive and the devoted queen waits patiently for her husband to return.
More traditional horror tales are The Lamia, a modern revenge tale of a violated woman drawing on the mythological tradition of classic tales, The Children of Dr Lyall, where a gang of thieves bring about the probability of their own doom as they enter the last house standing on a London street otherwise torn down by the blitz, while Razorshins is a cold tale of prohibition era Maine where the bootleggers’ strong spirit may not be enough to get them through the winter night when payment is due for their shelter.
The final story, Holmes on the Range, is a frivolity, a tale of the Caxton Library examining the consequences of a literary contradiction, a unique situation in the history of that establishment which results in a paradox. Affectionate yet knowing, it examines both the genius of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most celebrated creation even as it dissects the contrivances and flaws of the works in which he appeared, particularly the later adventures Doyle was pressured to write to appease his enraged and demanding fans.
Closing the volume is the essay I Live Here in which Connolly gives an entertaining and informative insight into the history of supernatural fiction with reference to his own childhood bookcase and the reading and viewing habits which have influenced his career interspersed with witty observations and anecdotes, a fascinating and lively bookend to a collection of consistently superior quality.
Night Music: Nocturnes Volume 2 is available now from Hodder & Stoughton