Paul Di Filippo reviews Spirits of the Vasty Deep by Brian Stableford
Spirits of the Vasty Deep, by Brian Stableford (Snuggly Books 978-1-943813-54-4, $17.95, 300pp, trade paperback) March 2018
For a stretch of years in the recent past, the indefatigable and talented Brian Stableford was producing upwards of a dozen books annually. These consisted of his own fiction; translations for the essential Francophile publisher Black Coat Press; and non-fiction critical works, including the massive four-volume set New Atlantis: A Narrative History of Scientific Romance (review here). But even the superhuman Stableford could not sustain this backbreaking pace forever, and he has lately slowed down a tad, making us appreciate each new book all the more. And so his new fantasy novel should reach his eager readers even more forcefully than perhaps it would have, were it lost in a scintillating flood of Stableford books.
The new book has a contemporary setting, and might be frutifully deemed an “urban fantasy,” if that term still meant Crowley’s Little, Big and not the Twilight saga. Anyhow, perhaps we should call it “rural fantasy,” since it’s set in the hinterlands of coastal Wales. In any case, it will appeal to fans of Robert Aickman, M. R. James, Robert Holdstock and Ramsey Campbell, and is fully worthy of residing on the lofty plane occupied by those masters.
The book is less dark, surreal and esoteric than some of the works by those three men, but is nevertheless still High Weird, with plenty of subtle shivers and cognitive estrangement. It is, truth be told, a book of much dialogue and philosophizing–a mode out of fashion these days–wherein small acts take on oversized significance and the big action-packed scenes are reserved for the climax. Nonetheless, I found it engrossing, and it never failed to compel my interest.
The first thing one notices right from the get-go is Stableford’s masterly storytelling assurance and deftness. This is a book that insinuates itself slyly into your life. In just a page or two we meet the protagonist, learn his current situation and some of his backstory, garner an impression of his character, and experience the first uncanny incident of the plot, although it’s deliberately underplayed and seemingly inconsequential. Only a true maestro, seasoned from many previous outings, could produce such subtle craftsmanship.
Our hero is one Simon Cannick, a fellow some sixty-eight-years old, though still vibrant and vital. He’s been a professional writer of some small success for his whole life, but the marketplace has discarded him, and now, although he continues to write daily, his work is all issued from micro-presses or through self-publishing. (Given the parallels with Stableford’s own CV, magnified in later passages, I sense a real horror story right in those parameters.) He’s recently inherited a small cottage, dubbed the Raven, in the “arse end of nowhere,” St. Madoc, Wales. Relocating himself for reasons of poverty and a desire for a change, he finds from the very first night of his residence that he’s fallen among oddballs and the uncanny.
Next door is Megan Harwyn, an ex-hooker his own age, and now something of a local gadfly. Her obsession is the Murden family (to whom she might just be related): down-on-their-luck aristocrats who occupy the local, possibly-haunted Abbey. The family consists of James, Felicia and Melusine, all seemingly in their early elder years; a reclusive, truly ancient “Grandmother” named Ceridwen; and a young woman named Cerys. Oh, yes, a talking raven named Lenore, given to intelligibly quoting Shakespeare, is also a resident. Add in a visiting churchman, Reverend Usher; a soap-opera-addicted barkeep; some local unemployed workmen, and you have more-or-less the whole human cast.
But this roster omits the lurking supernatural beings and places. Unconventional sea-maidens dubbed the “morgen.” Sea-serpents known as “neider.” The sunken realm of Caer-Ys. Undersea caverns. And two ghosts, the Faceless Monk and Owain Glyndwr.
Now, such a setup alone would guarantee a mildly diverting supernatural outing, as newcomer Simon began to investigate his adopted home. But here’s where Stableford’s genius erupts. These marvels are not separate from or exterior to Simon. He is part and parcel of them! A strange destiny has ensured that he would end up in St. Madoc, and his entire sense of self, his whole notion of his personal history, is about to be upended, inverted, and revalued. It is this inner psychic journey, betokened by the fascinating outer events, that forms the core of the book.
It seemed to Simon that something stirred within him, as if awakened from a torpor, and almost uncoiled, but it was paralyzed; it did not know how to uncoil, or what to do next if it did. But that had to be pure imagination…if there was any purity left in his imagination, which had been corrupt for a long time.
Stableford has grabbed hold of a very potent trope: the recovery of lost identity, the revelation of a sham life, where the ground one assumed was solid and stable falls away. We’ve seen this deployed very powerfully in a number of SF stories, works from van Vogt and Zelazny to Philip Jose Farmer’s The Maker of Universes. And Stableford wrings every last drop of suspense and poignancy out of the motif. The ultra-decompressed timeframe of the book–the action spans only four days–allows for intense and meticulous evocations of every step of the journey. And an element of black humor and ironic distance from events–Simon is relatively unconcerned with his own importance or even his own survival–adds to the resonance.
This is not to say that Stableford does not also spin a fascinating conspiracy theory of lost races and secret human histories. His erudite assemblage of historical tidbits and speculations is at times Lovecraftian, or maybe Eco-ian. The reader will enjoy this intellectual gameplaying very much.
Ringing in a palpably real setting, an assortment of human misfits, some truly creepy cosmic forces, and one man’s journey to self-knowledge, Stableford has proven that when he summons spirits from the vasty deep, they come running!
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