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Book Review: Unpleasant Tales by Brendan Connell

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“Nothing really matters much it’s doom alone that counts,” sings Bob Dylan of a certain place and time. In the case of Brendan Connell’s inventive collection of 22 short and dark stories, don’t count too much on any “shelter from the storm,” and don’t believe that we’re necessarily making allusions in any metaphoric bardic manner. Things, when they can’t be bothered to go bump, will — in the eerie Unpleasant Tales of misery and imagination told in the tome at hand — just as soon bump you off in the night and be done with it.

Indeed, the author of the scattershot minimalism of this year’s 36-city set Metrophilias takes an unflinching and matter-of fact approach to a kaleidoscopic, phantasmagoric horror of depravity and decadence, with a bent toward themes of borderless obsession and perversity. ”For an artist, all experiences are exquisite,” says a character in “The Tongue,” and by extension this all-access awareness turned all-excess experience is instrumental in shaping many of the stories’ extreme characterizations and storylines. Get your warm ‘n’ fuzzy somewhere else. These aren’t your father’s shudders and shocks.

Oh sure, literary but hardly standard-issue hallmarks and highlights feature the few, far between — and perhaps in at least in one case, sickening — vampires, unicorns, and mermaids. On the other hand, there’s a couple of fact-inspired tales; “The Last Mermaid” — about one that got away for good, but only after leaving a little gastric havoc — is based on Carlos II of Spain. More unsettling than an unsettled stomach is “The Last of the Burroways,” in which the plot thickens upon the discovery of a grave marked with data and dates for one particular put-upon and multitasking Alice:

Here Lies the Body of Christopher Burroways, who departed this life on the 18th day of October, Anno Domini 1730, aged 59 years. And next to me Lies Alice, who by her Life was my Sister; my Mistress, my Mother, and my Wife. Died on the 12th Day of February, 1729, aged 76 year. 

In other ‘unpleasantness,’ Connell might retain the trappings of a workaday world as a foundation for his stories or for his main characters when innate obsession makes for a bad case scenario writ worse, overcoming our hero and/or anti-hero. In “The Maker of Fine Instruments,” some Gothic shocks comes via a story of a musician seeking out an eccentric luthier in Zurich to repair his broken cello, and finding what he needs in the studio of a knowledgeable scholar, collector, and anti-social “maverick genius,” whose place was “set up more like the residence of some fin-de-siècle poet than a shop.”

The shop owner/luthier soon becomes a mentor to the cellist and upon trying to expound upon his theory of music as “an alchemy of mind and flesh,” and showing off a secret room of exotic, unorthodox, and decidedly bizarre musical instruments, gruesomeness ensues when we find that the persuasive Prof has instilled more than a little of the physiological to his philosophical. And the instruments? Let’s just say that PETA would not approve, first of all, in their construction. Moreover, in a related bit of happenstance, some unforeseen circumstances occur when our hapless and accommodating cellist becomes a little too game….

From game to gamey, in a different vein, “The Putrimaniac” offers a transformation that is just as disturbing, if not more so, with its almost clinical chronicling at mental and physical decay and putrefaction. Just as a concerned friend of the protagonist in “The Maker of Fine Instruments” wonders at one point whether “he should fetch a psychiatrist, plastic surgeon or priest – or simply flee from all responsibility,” there is a character in “The Putrimaniac” who, in visiting an old friend in Milan he hasn’t seen in years, becomes alarmingly appalled at the degenerated state of a once-was intelligent and charming bon vivant.

Ah, the old ennui… The two catch up, with such one-sided wonderment and childhood memories, instigated by the host, reveries about the smells of rotting fish, the sight of a decaying frogs, and “the poetry of flies as they buzzed around some vile bit of excrement.” But these are just gateway prompts that will lead to the harder stuff and senses working overtime as Connell goes on to develop for his seriously ‘hooked’ putrimaniac – and detail for the reader – the idea of “cultivated” odors and tastes that just might make you gag before you get it off your dinner plate. You may never look at Chihuahuas and tea cups in quite the same way again.

Far from playing up stories such as “The Putrimaniac” as a shock-for-schlock’s sake, Connell’s craftsmanship as a writer dictates a refined and well-honed multi-layered purpose to many of his tales. “The Putrimaniac,” for example, employs some twists and turns before the unpredictable conclusion, while featuring amid the not-for-the-squeamish elements a tension-building character development rooted in his worldview, as wacky as that is. “When ugliness is taken to the limits,” he says at one time, “it turns into beauty. This is something uncultivated minds do not do.”

At another time when our putrimaniac pal feels compelled “to explain things” about his “present state of mind,” we get a better sense that maybe, just maybe, this isn’t just another Igor eating flies: “To me it was all very interesting, that dark, ominously intellectual side of the universe that makes men turn their heads away in ignorant revulsion and unfounded shame…”

Even the taut three-pager “The Black Tiger” goes for the jugular yet also goes for the sensual. “Wiggles” cuts to the chase in, indeed, a bizarre chase – with more cutting and cutting, and some slashing and a pitchfork to boot. “A Dish of Spouse” says it all, but what it may not say is: red wine or white? And in “We Sleep on a Thousand Waves Beneath the Stars,” we come to see that while “the most violent passions are often between beings who share no common language,” we might also come to the conclusion that they may also exist between beings who share more than the usual difference in anatomy.

I could go on and on with the uncanny and creepy. But that’s where you come in — or should.  Unpleasant Tales is an unconventional collection of erudite horror stories that — while each tale has in common a firm and cohesive writing tautness – together achieves a solidity of scope and scale, a force of breadth-and-depth adventurousness. Plan for more than your fair share of thrills and shivers, too, as you enter “another lifetime one of toil and blood / When blackness was a virtue…”

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch

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