Stephen J. Clark’s The Satyr & Other Tales is an anthology of his earlier book releases The Satyr (2010) and The Bestiary of Communions (2011) now released as a paperback edition.
Uniting the 4 tales in a single anthology is a good move as the tales compliment each other and are united not only by all the tales being set around the times of the two world wars but there is also a thread of artistic significance that weaves through all the stories.
Beginning with the book’s eponymous tale The Satyr, we the readers, are taken into the world of the great artist and occultist Austin Osman Spare. Although familiar no doubt to many Folk Horror Revivalists, Spare’s star as one of Britain’s greatest lost artists has begun to deservedly shine more in the last decade, he is still too unknown a quantity in the wider public consciousness. Though he was accepted into the Royal Academy whilst still a teenager and reputedly asked by a pre-war Adolf Hitler to paint his portrait (which Spare refused), he faded into semi-obscurity living almost a hermitic (and hermetic) life, reportedly paying for beer with paintings and taking care of a clowder of stray cats in his small London home. Being a somewhat enigmatic and eccentric character in real life, he is suited to be cast as a character within fiction. For me however there is always a sense of reticence upon beginning any fictional tale that features real people – what if their characterisation is ill-fitting and totally alien to how I imagined that person? In this case my fears are unfounded, Clark’s personification of Spare is well crafted. For the most part Spare is represented by reputation within the tale as the mysterious ‘Borough Satyr’ but when we do get to meet him in person as it were, Clark’s portrayal of him is very much how I’d envision the nature of Spare.
The main characters of the story however are an ex-con called Paddy and a strange visual artist he has took up with, who (her own name being unknown), is referred to as ‘Marlene Dietrich’ and her pursuer, a psychiatrist named Doctor Charnock. The story unfolds in WWII London during the aerial blitzkrieg as Marlene seeks to find Austin Osman Spare through the bombed out rubble of the nation’s capital and show him her portfolio of strange esoteric drawings and of Charnock’s endeavours to seize those drawings for her own purpose.
A difference made by Clark and his publisher Swan River Press to the anthologised edition is the inclusion of Clark’s own drawings in the style of Spare. I am biased as I approve of illustrated books and I like it when authors illustrate their own work as it gives a greater insight into the original creative vision of the piece. Clark does this justice. The art certainly emulates Spare but not only does it illustrate the story, it is suggestive of what Marlene’s own portfolio would look like. The tale itself is an esoteric adventure of crime, war and occult drama.
Unfortunately Clark has not illustrated the second half of the book, the trinity of novellas that make up The Bestiary of Communion. It would have been interesting to see the tales illustrated in the author’s own hand or if he can evoke (invoke?) other artists as well as he has Spare, then illustrations in the manner of Bruno Schulz, Nicolai Kalmakoff and Marie Čermínová would be fitting as probably would be a style befitting Alfred Kubin, Hugo Steiner-Prag, the New Objectivity movement or others of that era and ilk.
It is curious that earlier authors that came to mind in reading The Satyr, literally made their presence more apparent in the triumvirate that followed.
In the first of the Bestiary Tales, The Horned Tongue, a bookseller in Amsterdam, comes to learn that there were secrets about his late wife that he would never have imagined. My mind had flitted to the Russian novel The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, upon the introduction of a key character and it becomes apparent that readers familiar with that book are intentionally led down that path. I found this theme that recurs of having real creative luminaries inspiring and influencing the texts intriguing.
The Lost Reaches is the next tale and possibly the one that sidesteps most from early 20th Century European gritty post-decadence into the world of surrealism as refugees take sanctuary in an art-house nestled in the Carpathian mountains.
Again another author whom passed through my mind in reading Clark’s work first came to mind and then manifestation. This time the remembrance of Bruno Schulz makes an appearance. Schulz, a Polish-Jewish artist and writer, whose work has been brought to the screen and a wider audience by both the visionary film director Wojciech Jerzy and the master animators The Brothers Quay, was tragically murdered by the Nazi regime during WWII.
Finally in a re-working of his novella My Mistress The Multitude, now renamed The Feast of the Sphinx (personally I preferred the first title, but I appreciate the name change in differentiating the versions) takes us to Prague whereby a strange chimeric Countess becomes the focus of attention and obsession in a time where the imminent arrival of invading Germanic troops into the city is a cause of profound dread.
These collected tales of Stephen J. Clark put me in mind of several notable authors – in addition to those mentioned above I perceived shades of Franz Kafka, JK Huysmans and Gustav Meyrink. That is not a complaint but a compliment. Clark’s writing is not derivative of these authors, his work is not a pastiche – it is just a case that his vision and settings are evocative of those times and souls and this book can stand alongside the works of these authors on its own merits. The Satyr & Other Tales may very well then be of interest to folk who like that strain of weird fiction that rose from the bones of Fin de Siècle decadent Europe, through secessionist expressionism and entartete kunst to interbellum and post-war surrealism. But how would it fare to the general reader? You do not need to be familiar with the artists and writers that cast a spell upon Clark’s tales – indeed his stories may be the gateway to discovering those creatives if previously unfamiliar with them and your curiosity piqued. But the tales need the reader’s attention, they are likely not suitable for a light summer holiday read but would suit dark nights and long rainy days.
Intriguing work, unknown to me upon its original release but that I’m very pleased to have caught The Satyr & Other Tales this time around.
All art © Stephen J. Clark
The Satyr & Other Tales is available from HERE and other online bookstores
Review by Andy Paciorek