Friday 21 May 2010

'waiting for a chance to return'

In Sarah's House
by Stefan Grabinski

CB Editions was begun by poet Charles Boyle in 2007 (who wrote two of the first four titles himself under pseudonyms) after receiving one rejection letter too many, and 'publishes short fiction, poetry, translations and other work which, as the Guardian noted, ‘might otherwise fall through the cracks between the big publishers’.' One of Boyle's own titles, 24 for 3, was picked up by Bloomsbury and reviewed by me (rather briefly) here. I'm afraid to say that I picked up this second title from their initial catalogue when I found it on the reduced shelf in a bookshop. I'm glad I did pick it up though. Each of the six tales in this collection translated by Wiesiek Powaga are satisfying in the way you might expect from a man known as 'the Polish Poe.'

The opening story White Virak feels like The X-Files transported to another era with disappearing chimney sweeps leading to the discovery of something otherwordly in the soot-encrusted factory towers. The Grey Room uses a recurrent dream to chilling effect, our narrator deciding to 'wage war against [his] invisible predecessor' by systematically removing the furniture they have shared from the titular room. The title story works like a twist on Dorian Gray with our narrator watching his friend, locked in a consuming sexual passion with the succubus Sarah, waste away before his eyes. A series of portraits that hang in her house raise the suspicions of our narrator further, but also provide him with a clue, finally spurring him on to revenge.

There were ten of them, hanging in two parallel rows. The top row consisted of five images of Sarah; underneath hung five portraits of men. One was struck immediately by two significant details. In all her portraits Sarah looked the same age, as if she was painted at short intervals. Yet on each of the them the features of her face were slightly different and, what is more - bore an uncanny resemblance to the features of the man directly beneath her.

Disused railways provide the setting for two stories. The first of these, The Dead Run, sees a retired conductor get back to work restoring a stretch of track that has been decommissioned. Slowly, with pride, he returns the track and its 'station' to full working order. The incredulity of his friends in the face of this folly only serves to deepen his commitment and delusion; Wawera's connection to 'the dead run' can only lead to disaster. The second, Szatera’s Engrams, contains an illuminating theory of the world, one that reminded me of a book I read and loved recently but won't mention by name for fear of spoiling it by association.

The strange occurrences witnessed on Kniejow and at the station gave rise to the future-redeeming 'theory of engrams.' For now Szatera was convinced that nothing in the world is lost - that no event, even the most trivial, passes and dissolves into nothing. In the contrary: everything is preserved and recorded. Where, he could not say. Perhaps somewhere in a metaphysical dimension, like the Indian universe of akasha or in some astral ether, or the invisible cosmic fluid. Real events, having played themselves out on the screen of the visible world, are absorbed into the fourth dimension and their image is burnt onto the astral film. Those impressions of moments and matter past that registered somewhere in the other-worldly plane, like metaphysical photographs, Szatera chose to call engrams.
   These engrams of facts and past events are preserved in a state of suspension, like images of the physical world engraved by light on the glass of a negative or a sheet of paper covered by emulsion. They exist in potentia, waiting for a chance to return to the visible world and repeat themselves like an echo.

This theory is something of a unifying theme for this collection. Dreams, memories, history; the past is reaching out to grab the protagonists in these tales and, in much the same way as Steven Moffat kicked of his tenure at the helm of Doctor Who, the danger lurks in the corner of your eye, or, even worse, at that moment when you choose to close them. Don't blink.


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