Friday, January 24, 2014

99. An unfinished review of a } Secret Europe.

1. The Other Salt

Mark Valentine’s descriptions of the Marais Gat, a country of salt water marshes, and the pitiful habitations built there, are clear—all is sodden, rotted and rusted, all is silver-gray. These “wastes” are lovely. When there is color, they are warm colors: “a pane of gold,” red and yellow bed clothes—and belong to the narrator’s hosts, brother and sister Alain and Jeanne, who are themselves warm people. Neat technique. An example of Valentine’s control.

The narrator of “The Other Salt,” Etienne Frank, is in Marais Gat as the result of a long search for:
The “other salt,” that was what he was here to find, if it existed. A different salt that old chroniclers mentioned respectfully in their accounts… the “other salt,” rarer than all the spices of the east….
When he finds it, the calm melancholy of the landscape transforms. With a few deft strokes, the quaint notion of folk who are “salt of the earth” suggests a long history of atrocity. A history of humans exploited, all for the pleasure of a rarified few.

“The Other Salt” is a story in Secret Europe, a collection by Mark Valentine and John Howard, published in 2012. There’s a poorly written review of it by Jeff VanderMeer here. If you can get through the thicket of superlatives and book review cliché (“luminous”), you’ll find links to “The Fall of Ashes,” another Valentine story from the collection, and a link to a better written review by Mark Andresen. Andresen hopes the book will be reissued, so it may be discovered by a larger audience. Me too.

Stories from Secret Europe have popped up elsewhere, and I’m especially pleased that “The Other Salt”—one of the best horror stories I’ve recently read—is included in the second Swan River Press selection of Valentine’s fiction, Seventeen Stories. As for John Howard, the Swan River selected Written By Daylight also includes a few from Secret Europe, “Wandering Paths” among them.

2. Wandering Paths

Paths cut through tall grass by a man with a scythe. “How do you know where to go?” Vasile, protagonist, asks. “I’m allowed to do it my way.” Paths shaped by “hissing grass” and flowing water. Fluid way. What happens happens “in the light of day”—minutes after noon, under an oppressive sun. Are the meadowland paths a part of the gardens at Brukenthal Palace, or is Vasile elsewhere?

That he’s at Brukenthal is out-of-schedule: a day taken from work, a place familiar but, “…small towns in this part of the country all looked much the same….” For Vasile to be at the Palace is a perverse choice: it was Mirela, the woman he loves but who does not love him, who suggested it for a meeting to discuss their future she cancelled with a text: “there was no chance after all of her changing her mind.”

John Howard’s “Wandering Paths” makes physical Vasile’s psychic state. Heat and sweat, bitterness, a desire to be alone with his embarrassing self-pity—Vasile’s life in those hours is human—real—until he reaches the meadowland. There, he enters myth—Pan, Death, confusion, and peace.

These landscapes, so rightly described, connect. Reminiscent of childhood rambles. Salt marshes, tall grasses; these environments stand out in the otherwise urban landscape of Secret Europe, but “The Other Salt” and “Wandering Paths” may also be the best stories in the collection. And they stand well on their own; most of the stories in Secret Europe are best in collection.

I don't know what's going on with Ex Occidente, the publisher of Secret Europe. After Transactions of the Flesh was published, I've heard nary a word from Dan Ghetu or his new associate, Jonas J. Ploeger of Zagava Books, in spite of assurances I would; the Ex Occidente website has vanished and while the Zagava Books site is up and running, it's far from informative. If you've a few hundred dollars to spare, you can still purchase Secret Europe from other sources—and it is very good, but you might do better for the time being with the Swan River selecteds, in spite of the real value in reading the stories of Secret Europe in concert with each other.

[Image: Eoin Llewellen's "Man Sleeping in L.A. Apartment" (2011), which appears on the cover of John Howard's Written By Daylight.]

[Update: Mr. Ploeger sent me a note on Feb. 17th and asked that I "look at Zagava's website if you find the time." I've done. Now, there are five new titles listed. Information, but not yet informative.]

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