Looking at a pair of stories that revive a grand old tradition of stand-alone short fiction.
The ‘chapbook’ is a fairly rare phenomenon these days; originally small, affordable collections of poems or fiction which had their heyday in the 18th and 19th centuries, they drifted out of vogue in favour of longer collections of poems and stories in the 20th century and haven’t really returned in great numbers since then. This lack of familiarity on my part may be why the stories I have just read as part of the Eibonvale range of chapbooks seem undeveloped in some respects; they’re not novellas, nor are they quite short stories with a definable, fleshed-out beginning, middle and end. Still, there is diverting enough material on offer here, with evidence of written skill.
Coming in at just thirty-three pages, The Lighthouse follows the fates of two grown brothers – the unnamed narrator, and Charles, his thirty-year-old brother and his junior by a decade. After a lull in communications, Charles calls his brother and asks for his help after getting arrested for trying to break into the lighthouse which stands at the edge of their old hometown, near Lake Michigan. Our narrator travels home, posts bail and spends some time catching up with Charles, reminiscing old times and the ways their lives deviated from one another’s. Charles seems obsessed with the lighthouse, which to him stands as a kind of mysterious potential he associates with his earlier life. This outlook begins to affect his brother, too, who finds himself heading to the lighthouse that same evening, and his efforts to reach out to his brother generate a strange set of experiences, part nostalgia and part supernatural.
This is an overall well-written vignette, with descriptions of the lighthouse itself the most evocative. As Schliewe is a Michigan native, it could be a case of ‘write what you know’. The Lighthouse also touches on interesting perspectives regarding symbols from one’s past, using one of these to forge a new understanding between the brothers (though the conclusion of the tale, even if minus the overblown mythos, smacks of The Shadow over Innsmouth). However, due to its brevity, characterisation and development are limited, and there are a couple of slips where the narrator uses language which seems far older than the forty-year-old he is supposed to be. Still, The Lighthouse is engaging enough, as well as suitably melancholy, given its setting and themes.
A whole forty-six pages long, The Man Who Murdered His Muse makes far more obvious overtures to the horror genre via the goth scene. It also labours under such a determination to cram in so many references either to occult literature or to subculture, it could easily have lost a few pages; it’s still not clear to me whether this tendency to parenthesise in-text every scrap of knowledge the narrator has stems from an attempt to characterize them as overly wordy, or whether this is a compulsion on the part of the author. The first paragraph references Blavatsky, acromegaly, Earth possibly being ‘lemniscate’ and the Voynich Manuscript.
Still, the basic plot is this: goth barmaid Hamsa Cauldron (!) encounters a mysterious stranger on one of her shifts who tells her that he was once a famous author. This Hector Teufel lost it all, he claims, when he destroyed the ‘muse’ he had conjured up by occult means. Scroll forward by a year and Hamsa encounters Teufel again: now a born-again Christian author, she can’t help but wonder how he got his mojo back, so she makes it her business to find out.
The narrative itself is quite reminiscent of a short film, with acres of visual references that resemble a screenplay and would likely look good transferred to screen. It also combines the foreseeable with the less predictable in its narrative arc, albeit one which would have benefitted from a little more explanation. Given the abundance of detail elsewhere, it would have been good to know more about the eventual payoff here, which is altogether briefly offered and not in keeping with the style of the rest of the tale. The Man Who Murdered His Muse clearly showcases a love of the goth scene, however, with a keen eye for its visual forms and predilections. I would just suggest that ‘less is more’, and there’s no need to reference everything you’ve read in your own writing.