Book Review: The Three Books by Paul StJohn Mackintosh
May 25, 2018
Paul StJohn Mackintosh is one of those writers who just seems to quietly get on with the business of producing great fiction. Though he may not be a name immediately recognisable by those who enjoy genre, he is nevertheless a prolific and widely published author. With a career spanning quite a few years, he has produced shorts, novellas, and poems in a wide array of styles and venues and is also a translator and reviewer. If you haven’t yet read any of his work, then you really must rectify that; and where better to start than his most recent release, The Three Books through Black Shuck Books.
Firmly situated in the literary/quiet end of the horror pool, this novella is a subtly affecting look at a variety of themes. Some of these include the cult of celebrity, the hypnotic power many famous—and infamous—people have over others, and the often pathological and sociopathic mindset displayed by driven, gifted individuals. It is also a love letter of sorts to books, writing, and the process of creativity itself.
Beginning with our protagonist, Sophia Amory, we meet her as she is preparing to examine the legend of one Desmond Carvill, a mysterious poet, for her university post-grad assignment. Carvill has been incognito for years, and a shroud of nebulous rumour and speculation hangs over his whereabouts and activities. He is the author of two highly-acclaimed volumes of poetry, and a disappointing third which many regard as not even having been produced by his genius. Sophia’s searches and investigations throw up ever more mysterious and strange myths surrounding the poet; and then, she is suddenly offered the chance to actually meet him. In agreeing to the stringent and binding terms of a contract, she puts herself on a journey which takes her into the very heart of dark desire and creativity.
Straight off, the story is beautifully written. The prose, the clean and measured writing draws the reader in with ease. We are introduced to Sophia via a quick few paragraphs of back-story and exposition, before a number of key scenes flesh out her character. She is someone who is deeply in love with the world of fiction, a substitute for a lonely childhood. It is inevitable that an individual like her would be drawn to the charismatic figure of Carvill. There is the sense that she is searching for meaning and purpose in her literary endeavours, and in life, and is possibly prone to hanging her needs on less than stable pegs. And where Carvill is concerned, she starts to display what amounts to obsessional behaviour. No-one can dissuade her from her task; not her friends, not the dissertation committee.
Mackintosh ensures the story never veers too far from Carvill, even before he takes the stage. Right from the start, his enigmatic presence haunts and infuses the book. In fact, he doesn’t appear until nearly halfway through the story. In the build up to this anticipated meeting, we follow Sophia and her amateur investigation. An investigation which uncovers far more than anyone else has ever been able. It might almost seem contrived except there is the lingering sense Sophia was meant to find this man. Not in any predestined way, but, without spoiling the latter part of the book, in that she is the type of ‘muse’ he goes for. This sense of subtle suggestion and ambiguity permeates the novella. Nothing is necessarily straightforward; there are layers and layers of meaning to be had, as long as the reader is prepared to dig a little. Beneath the skin, one might say…
For example, on the surface, the relationship between Carvill and Sophia—once they meet—might seem, at first glance, to lie in the realms of gothic romance. Erotic fantasy, only far better written than most. Yet as the finale slowly looms, and the final outcome begins to coalesce, it is clear Carvill is a predator. He is charismatic, yes, but he is also narcissistic, serving only his own needs and desires like any true psychopath. It soon becomes clear—to those readers who are sharp of eye—that Carvill is a most dangerous manipulator. Deadly, in fact. It gives the story a weighty amount of the psychological thriller. Yet it is also definitively a horror story. Perhaps this is another example of its multi-layered aspect; it can be read by a wide variety of reader who might see different things from others. And though it shifts into very dark territory towards the end—recalling the finale of the film Martyrs to similar great effect—it doesn’t feel jarring or shoehorned in. It works in context and from what has preceded it. But regardless of how it is read, it is a story which remains in the mind long after it’s finished. Yes, the themes and content could easily be examined on a far larger canvas (hopefully not one like those in the book), and there is enough here for a novel-length work. But equally, this version of the story as presented is perfect for its aims. And that, ultimately, is the hallmark of a great story; no matter how dark or unpleasant it gets, if it is well-written and conceived, the reader will always want more.
The first in Black Shuck’s Signature Novella series, it’s a fine start to the run. And as an introduction to Mackintosh’s work, it’s an excellent showcase for his obvious talents. His writing, his imagination, his ability to lay out a well-paced and intricate story in only 100 pages is a great testament to his skills. Here’s to more from this writer, and—hopefully—to longer works.
Publisher: Black Shuck Books (Great British Horror)
eBook: (108 pps)
Release Date: 9 April 2018
Steven J. Shaw, publisher of Black Shuck Books, has kindly decided to take a chance on my novella “The Three Books,” which will be appearing under his new Black Shuck Signature Novellas imprint in March 2018. I’m very proud of this one, and glad to have it in such good hands.[Top]
Egaeus Press, creator of very fine quality collectible editions, has announced my latest short story collection, The Echo of The Sea & other Strange War Stories. It’s up to their usual impeccable standard, and I couldn’t be prouder. Available for order now!
Speaks for itself, really… 🙂[Top]
My article on Lovecraft, N.K. Jemisin, and other current Lovecraftian controversies, on Greydogtales.
There are many reasons to despise fascism, but for me, one of the most telling is its cowardice. I could be wrong, but I don’t ever remember anyone describing Marxism, Maoism, or any other Left totalitarianism as creeds of fear. Senseless cruelty and brutality to others has been practised often in the name of the highest motives, however warped, but nothing invalidates and damns a creed from the roots like craven, despicable cowardice – above all, when that creed claims to embody the exact opposite. Fascism may be one way that cowards learn to live with themselves, but denial of the truth of your situation, to compensate and cover for your own weakness and fear, screams intellectual cowardice to accompany the general cowardice infecting every aspect of fascism.
Fascist fear begins in a weak or threatened identity. Identities are like assholes – everybody’s got one. And yet, everybody seems proud of their identity, to identify with it, far more than their asshole. They ground themselves on their identity when they would never ground themselves on their asshole, even though they sit on it all the time. They pride themselves on how distinct and unique their identity is, when fundamentally all identities are the same, just as all assholes are the same. They’re round. They shit. The same with identities.
One very fundamental reason, though, that humans attach such significance to identities is fear. The common identity is all the identity that many individuals have, their inheritance from the group. Truth be told, it’s all that we all have, only some of us inherit from a wider compass and more electively than others. Identity is the refuge from existential terror and doubt for most of us. Shared identity and the continuity of the group is the only escape for many from the horrible realization that one day you as an individual will die, and the equally horrible realization that you have no grounding in reality, no given order to follow, no certainty of what to do and how to be. And of course, the group as a whole suffers from the same terror and doubt, but seeks safety in numbers. Follow the traditional cycles of birth and death, marriages, confinements, and above all, funerals, and you have a communal shelter, a huddling place, to seek refuge from the naked fear of standing alone and self-aware against death and meaninglessness. Plus, practically, the group, the family, the community, is all that many of us have to support us and shield us from the day-to-day problems and perils of life. Exile, ostracism, was long seen in many cultures as the worst of punishments, equivalent to a death sentence.
Group identity is all about fear. The whole concept is shot through with fear, born out of fear. Fear of others, with a slightly different identity. Fear of the world beyond the huddling place. Fear of reality. Fear of solitude. Fear of responsibility, fear of autonomy, fear of freedom. Most people, perhaps all, derive their actual position towards freedom, responsibility, authority, etc. not from something like Hobbes’s state of nature, unless that’s one of their society’s prejudices, but in fact from basic tribal instincts little changed since prehistory. To the tribe, individual judgment, individual identity, individual achievement, count for nothing. The collective judgment of the tribe dictates values and social reality. The development of social institutions and specializations may have ramified and diversified this pattern, but they have not changed it at all. Social classes, codes of law, rulers and ruled, are all still the taboos and traditions of the tribe. Fear of change is prevalent among tribal communities. The tribe’s true educators and motors of development are not scepticism and dissent, but trade and war. Isolated tribes preserve their original traditions because they have been least exposed to these. As soon as you see any other people doing things differently, and have to deal with them, your whole ontology is called into question and the abyss of existential despair opens, because the tribe’s traditions and cult almost always have provided the ground of all being and all value. Foreign ways remind us of the foreignness of life; the stranger incarnates the strangeness of reality. We are always lost on any map that contains any other country – one great inducement to conquest.
All those fears are especially well developed in the fascist. External threats might terrorize many people into fascism, but the original fascist has far stronger internal fears to contend against – all the anxieties and insecurities and weak identity and self-worth that drive fanaticism and bigotry. The general fears and insecurities that drive the group huddling instinct in people as a whole are far more personal and far more fully developed in the fascist. A history of abuse, sexual inadequacy, hidden emotional scars, confusion over origins, all these and more can contribute to creating the flawed, fearful, inadequate, overcompensating, core personality of the basic fascist. And above all, as with the most stereotyped narcissistic behaviour, the fascist is afraid above all to confront the sources of their own weakness, fear and pain, and flees to totems of strength, integrity and wholeness – sometimes flees all the way to death with eyes wide shut. Hence the shrillness and hysteria of fascism, the characteristic notes of overcompensation and denial. Demagogues are the mirror image of the weak and cowardly, what any coward would like to be. Any tyranny is propped up by desperate overcompensation, not so much by the cowardice of the ruled as by the cowardice of the rulers.
Unfortunately for the fascist, though, group identity has no coherent, rational wholeness. Since no group identity is the product of a rational, articulate, structure, without internal contradictions, the fascist is driven by all the force of fear to embrace irrational, inarticulate, contradictory values to elevate the random accumulation of chance developments and local facts that make up a group identity into the invulnerable totem of strength. In his typology of Ur-Fascism, the very first feature Umberto Eco identifies is the cult of tradition. Features 2, 3, 4, and 5, and to a lesser extent, 10, 13, and 14, are all basically there just to support Feature 1. Rejection of modernism and the embrace of irrationalism; action for action’s sake to avoid thought; rejection of analytical criticism; hatred of the contradiction represented by the outsider; appeal to a savant elite as initiates of Tradition; disdain for parliaments and representative forums; Newspeak simplifications – all ways to sustain the cult of tradition by abandoning or attacking anything that calls it into question. And because tradition is a random mess of arbitrary facts brought together and handed down by history, so fascism is – or has to support – a random mess of arbitrary ideas. Fascism’s aggression, permanent state of tension, and death wish stems partly from the stress of sustaining its internal contradictions.
There’s a special, personal brand of fear that motivates the fascist intellectual. Fascist thinkers of all stripes follow a fairly common trajectory through doubt, disbelief, narcissistic retreat into themselves, and eventual re-emergence into fascism. Nihilistic fascists, those solitary and sensitive individuals who escape from the terrors of solipsism, scepticism, and existential despair by fetishising authority and unreason, worshipping tradition and the nation, are classic manifestations of this: Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Emil Cioran, Julius Evola, Knut Hamsun, Lucien Rebatet – and for modern successors overwhelmed by their own subjectivity, Michel Houellebecq and Karl Ove Knausgård. Houellebecq, one representative misanthrope, misogynist, and anti-rationalist, declares: “Good, evil, morality, sentiments? Pure ‘Victorian fictions.’ All that exists is egotism. Cold, intact, and radiant.”
Fascism is the totalitarianism of tradition: the past, with all its random incoherence, elevated to a totalitarian principle. It’s the squalling tantrum of a child told there is no Santa Clause, unnaturally prolonged into adulthood. It’s the perverse fetishism of an adult baby, Peter Pan pirate games with real swords. Naturally, it’s riddled with contradiction and confusion. Hence the appeal to the irrational, to permit all those inconsistent traditions and taboos to persist alongside each other without their incompatibilities tearing the whole edifice apart – and one major contributory factor to the incoherent aggression of fascism, as tensions and contradictions seek their release.
Fascism is not only irrationalism, it is ultimately anti-reality, the retreat of overburdened or fragile identities in the face of the complexities and responsibilities of modern adult life, the political equivalent of anorexia. As G.K. Chesterton wrote in Heretics, “Nietzsche’s aristocracy has about it all the sacredness that belongs to the weak. When he makes us feel that he cannot endure the innumerable faces, the incessant voices, the overpowering omnipresence which belongs to the mob, he will have the sympathy of anybody who has ever been sick on a steamer or tired in a crowded omnibus. Every man has hated mankind when he was less than a man. Every man has had humanity in his eyes like a blinding fog, humanity in his nostrils like a suffocating smell. But when Nietzsche has the incredible lack of humour and lack of imagination to ask us to believe that his aristocracy is an aristocracy of strong muscles or an aristocracy of strong wills, it is necessary to point out the truth. It is an aristocracy of weak nerves.”
And naturally, in such a complex and contradictory writer, Nietzsche said much the same thing himself. “I have found strength where one does not look for it: in simple, mild, and pleasant people, without the least desire to rule – and, conversely, the desire to rule has often appeared to me a sign of inward weakness: they fear their own slave soul and shroud it in a royal cloak (in the end, they still become the slaves of their followers, their fame, etc.) The powerful natures dominate, it is a necessity, they need not lift one finger” (Friedrich Nietzsche. Nachlass, Autumn 1880 6 ).
That fits exactly fascism’s historical pedigree, its emergence fully formed alongside aestheticism, Wagnerism, Decadence, and the retreat from industrial civilization – one more symptom of fin-de-siecle neurosis. And, as for fascism’s cult of adventure and pioneering colonialism, “Doubtless men flee from small environments into lands that are very deadly. But this is natural enough; for they are not fleeing from death. They are fleeing from life.” And Chesterton on the genesis of fascism in modern societies: “A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises.”
>Fighting fascism becomes much easier when you realize that your opponents are cowards – just like all bullies. And cowardice may often drive people into acts of hysterical courage, or hysterical brutality, but a desperate rearguard action or suicidal sacrifice to avoid confronting truth and reality is not much to admire, when inner pain and inner fear drives the adult child. Never be afraid to take up arms against the greatest, most complete cowards humanity has ever produced.[Top]
After the news that the Oxford Literary Festival has finally decided to start paying authors for their participation, I don’t think anyone will mind me sharing Susan Hill‘s blog post (archived from 2008, but nothing much has changed), on how much money the organizers of literary festivals can make. No disrespect intended for those festivals that share some of this lucre with participating authors, but for the rest, now read on:
Psst. wanna earn a few bob ? Then start a Literary Festival. It`s one of the best kept secrets in the world – litfests make a lorra lorra money for those who run them. Let us exclude Councils who start them in order to give their towns and cities a higher profile and who want to show off the place a bit and up the visitor numbers. No, it is the privately run smaller Litfests which are a licence to print money. Recently I happened to talk to 2 people who had been involved in them. One runs hers from her own large stately home, the other has just started one from a small but affluent and literate village. Why do you think someone like Charles Spencer runs a litfest ? Because it makes money of course.
Here is how it goes. If you own the venue, you`ve a head start since you don`t have to pay hire charges. If you offer accomodation, as a perk to the writers, of course you have pay your cleaning and housekeeping staff a bit more. But after that you`re laughing. But surely, you have to pay your helpers, all those people who run the office, move chairs about and fetch authors from the station. Oh no you don`t, you have students, arts graduates and other people who want to mingle with the Famous Authors. You don`t have to pay them anything, except maybe with a free lunch, because they`re absolutely queuing up to do it, it looks good on their CVs. They would pay YOU. for the privilege of helping.
Next, you ring and e-mail round all the publishers and ask what Top Names they have on the road flogging a new book. It is the Top Names who are going to make you most of your money. You can charge £15 – £20 a head for Sebastian Faulks or Ian McEwan easily and you put them in the Main Hall. That holds 500, with 50 standee students at a fiver each, at the back These are the authors who really bring in the punters and with luck, those punters will then also book up for the filler-authors. These are the lesser-known or mid-list or obscure-subject writers who are thrilled to be asked to do a lit fest. Like the Free Helpers, they would pay you to come. The only downside is that have to put them in the Library which only holds 30 and you can`t charge more than a fiver or seven fifty. Still, that`s an hour, half an hour for the turn-round, four filler-authors a day minimum…it starts to add up doesn`t it ?
The publishers pay the travel and accomodation expenses of the authors so no money for you to spend there. If you do not have room /inclination for them to stay in your Stately home, you book them into local hotels and B and Bs.The publishers pay but you, the organiser, can ask for a cut from the hotelier for filling their rooms for a few nights. They`ll give you 10% easily, maybe more.
So what else is to pay for, out of the ticket money that is now pouring in ? Office expenses and advertising/marketing. But you ask the publishers to help with that. You also ask the Arts Council to give you money. After a year or two you ask them for some more because your festival is successful so you want / need to expand your offices. The AC will probably give you a nice chunk of dosh for this, maybe as much as 100K, with which you do indeed move your office into the restored Stable Block or Garage. But as you own both, and the house, you are increasing the value of your own property very considerably, at someone else`s expense.The public`s actually but never mind a little detail like that. Now also comes the moment to try and get major Sponsorship from a national newspaper – if you can`t manage it because they are all already sponsoring your rivals, at least a local chain of papers might cough up. This is all Marketing and Advertising and PR for them so they write it off anyway. So that`s your expenses sorted. The rest is pure profit – but when people start making money, naturally and understandably they want to make more. Of course, selling the books ! Now you either set up your own bookstall and take all the profits, or you generously invite a local bookseller to take the franchise. This is a whole lot less hassle for you and you ask him for 20% of the profits, settle for 15% – plus a Site Rental Fee in advance.
And while you are at it, you would love a load of free books wouldn`t you ? OK, first write to every major publisher saying you are running A Lit fest and asking to be put on all their lists for Review and Publicity copies. That`ll get you a very nice load of re-saleable books per week. (Don`t forget to register as an Amazon /ebay powerseller.) In addition to this, you ask the publisher of every author coming to talk to send you 6 free copies of their book. Why do you need 6 ? You don`t, stupid, you may need one for an interviewer of the author to read, but the publisher won`t ask, they`ll just bung the 6 along and the re-sale of those all adds to your amazon income. If you don`t want the bother of amazon, try to find a second hand dealer or private library supplier who will drive down, pick everything up, and give you a nice cheque – saves all those jiffy bags and running to the post.
If you decide to launch out into catering for the punters, then make sure you take a percentage of every sandwich and cup of tea plus the usual Site Rental lump sum. They charge a fiver a sandwich at these things you know. You do the math.
And of course do not forget the highlight of your Festival, the Grand Literary Lunch. Make this exclusive. Only 150 tickets, at £45 a ticket. ( £60 if you can get Alan Titchmarsh as the Speaker.) Outside caterers will do this for £20 a head. But you make a good deal from the outset that you will be doing the drinks separately. This is one of the best earners of the week. Wholesale mid-price wine (don`t serve gut-rot, no one will come back next year), trainees from the local catering college to serve it -and give an especially warm welcome to the non-drinkers, because the mark-up on elderflower presse is astronomical.
In addition to a very nice profit all round, your bonus reward is the warm-glow of knowng that you are Supporting the Arts, Culture, the Book Trade and the Local Tourist Economy. And remember, the people who go to litfests are extremely nice and law-abiding ,as well as being ones with disposable income to spend on their chosen hobby of Going to Litfests and paying through the nose for it. If you ran a pop music festival you might pack in thousands and charge the earth but look at how much mayhem they cause. It would take you a month to clear up, and would more than likely involve the police and the Public Health Officials. Litfest people are quiet, polite, clean, drug-free and they pick up their own litter and take it home with them in plastic bags.
What are you waiting for ?