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Book Review: The Life of Polycrates and Other Stories for Antiquated Children by Brendan Connell

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The ever-inspired Brendan Connell’s masterful tales of misery and imagination don’t settle for being merely unsettling, and can never be taken for standard-issue uncanny and creepy. At the same time, he shines in his willingness to experiment with structure, language, theme and control over how he triggers his desired gut reactions. His pointillistic off-kiltered 36-city set Metrophilias abounds in tones from seeming poignancy to black humor, ricocheting in styles and lopsided storylines while reined in by a modus operandi of expressive scattershot minimalism. And in the decadence-drenched Unpleasant Tales, the inventive collection of 22 short and dark stories takes an unflinching and matter-of fact approach to a kaleidoscopic horror of depravity, with a bent toward themes of borderless obsession and perversity.

Now, in The Life of Polycrates and Other Stories for Antiquated Children, another showcase of Connell’s ‘Lovecraftsmanship’ emerges in which real figures and characters live off-kilter lives or exist amid the fringes of mythopoeic terrain. It’s a wide-ranging and wavering but nevertheless rewarding collection consisting of one novella and 10 short stories, previously published in journals and anthologies, as well as never before published material.

The titular tale is perhaps the biggest departure for Connell, chronicling, indeed, the life of Polycrates, tyrant of Samos c. 538 BC to 522 BC. Though he was fated through bloodlines to rule the Greek island, his father was murdered and the killers overthrew the dynasty. Biding his time while plotting his revenge, Polycrates began a charitable program to help the populace. With the people consequently by his side by the time he fought the patricide, he came to reign over Samos. Outwitting his scheming brothers, Polycrates ultimately grew too settled in his ways, facing the consequences when he ignored the wisdom of his soothsayers.

Though it lacks the surreal touches and disquieting foreboding of many of Connell’s works, the relatively leisurely pace of the 77-page “Life of Polycrates” draws you into a grab-bag of epistles, history, classical literature, Greek myth, and some more original fictional elements – where one starts and another begins is anyone’s guess, however. A sharp-eyed reader might also surmise – and he or she might also be wrong – that there are such allusions as a prose passage evocative of “Kubla Khan” (“The palace of Polycrates, the roof covered with quasi-translucent Pentelic stone tiles from Naxos, was splendidly decorated, the floors of certain chambers interlaid with precious stones and agate, others with extravagant mosaics…”). One might also speculate that a mischievous Mr. Connell channeled a little Johnny Cash when he described Polycrates’ ruthless brother Pantagnotus as one who once “stabbed a man in Magnesia just to watch him die.”

Speaking of men in black… The book’s other stories – many of which are intensely focused character studies — are loaded with dark souls, or regular Joes drawn to or stumbling into the shadows. Like “Polycrates, “Brother of the Holy Ghost” is based upon a real-life figure, the mystic Pope Celestine V (Pietro da Morrone), and while the facts of his unfortunate and machination-plagued five-month papacy are conducive for some atmospheric fictional treatment, the haphazard patches of stream-of-consciousness narrative and perplexing passages detract from full effectiveness.

Perhaps the most unrelenting and bloody account from the heart of dark humor comes in “The Life of Captain Gareth Caernarvon,” featuring a title character who is a “Bungalow Bill”-like big game hunter whose bloodlust knows no bounds. His unconscionable killing even goes out of bounds into cannibalism, with no qualms, and he has discriminating tastes, too: “I would rather have one good stout Englishman in my larder than a dozen Frenchmen.” Will the Captain ever get his comeuppance? Take aim — there’s a perverse and devilish little twist off in the distance.

In the “be careful what you wish for” category, the beguiling and entrancing “The Chymical Wedding of Des Esseintes” centers around the world weary ennui of a traveler in another country who has finally found himself bored and satiated by his wanderlust. Accepting the invitation of a stranger to a wedding, he is taken through a circuitous route through many alleys and shortcuts, most of which involve the consumption of alcohol, until they get to where they want to go. At the wedding, the phantasmagorical Marx-Brothers goings-on leave Des Esseintes even more in a quandary about ever packing his suitcase again:

“A shiver coursed over Des Esseintes’ body and he was considering what course to take when the door to the apartment was flung open and everyone entered in a storm. The musicians were banging on pots and swinging their arms in the air. Harro Pernath carried the caged bird on his head and the old man was dexterously juggling the hard-boiled eggs. The African mice were mounted on Gustav’s shoulders.”  

If Des Esseintes was to fully regress he might choose the path of self-disparaging Dino in “The Slug,” a tall, rich, handsome man who — upon seeing and envying a homeless beggar in the streets — finds himself going through a transformation. “Very short, balding men in baggy, ill-fitting pants fascinated him,” he thought. “Below average mammals. Hiccupping, stuttering idiots with social disabilities, cognitive dysfunctions, tumbling backward on the evolutionary scale.”

“Peter Payne” is a deviation from the Connell norm for its sunny, wide open American setting. Though the author’s works typically take place in Europe, Connell was born in Sante Fe, and there’s not one false note in the Southwestern environs of “Peter Payne” and its warts-and-all story of a motorcycle daredevil and his family, including his son, who judiciously emulates his father – even if his fearlessness is of the foolhardy kind. In any case, Connell captures that national, independent spirit as Peter Payne considers himself part of a continuing force that “saw the world through the fog of the Western Anglo, subliminal frequencies transmitting silhouettes of cowboys, victorious soldiers, tattered flags, hitchhikers on lone prairies, longhorns – all overlapping, American in label.”

One thing about those small American desert towns, though – things get real dark and spine-chillin’, real fast.

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch