Zencore! Scriptus Innuminatus ed. by D F Lewis
New writings in Horror, Fantasy and Alternative Fiction in Filthy Creations and The Thinking Man's Crumpet

Zencore! Scriptus Innominatus ed. by D F Lewis (2007)

Or the 7th Nemonymous – which I gather includes the “missing” 6th volume.

No, I didn’t understand that, either.

Look, it’s edited by Des Lewis. That should be enough explanation.

My idea of experimental writing rarely goes beyond changes of viewpoint, tense or pace. Some authors who’ve been published Nemonymously have said that the experience freed or empowered them. The Nemonymous experience has produced a good deal of interesting fiction; in a way I suppose it’s the New Worlds of its time. And reading stories published without a by line definitely allows a reviewer to be more honest.

Note: Although the authors of these stories have now been named, it seems a shame if new readers want to play the guess-the-author game for themselves, so their names aren't immediately visible on this page. But there are three ways to find them if you want: (1) Hover your mouse over the first instance of a title; (2) or click the title to visit the author's website (if I could find it); (3) or lastly, go to the Titles/Authors index and match the story titles to the author's names.

On with the write-up:

The anthology gets off to a great start with Torsion: “Imagine that your favourite place on earth has been invaded – violated, as it were; you never asked much from life, except for a small place with a patch of green and gurgling of a brook spilling into an oval, calm pond fringed with cattails and sedges.”

The narrator’s favourite pastime of fishing without bait and observing the pond life in this quiet and depressing spot is probably no more pointless than evenings spent by others watching TV. But his idyll is interrupted by an unpleasant old man who he finds eating the snails. He chases the man off, but the invader curses him, and he becomes like one of the creatures he loves to watch. Jim Stratton, in his angent review describes the story as “...a lovely tale, a diamond among the gravel...” and to a point I’d agree. It’s beautifully written with a dense atmosphere and stays with you long after reading.

MM - Delicious: is a story told by Lucy at the Harrison-Hargrave advertising agency. Lucy is the first person to spot Tony White, the actor chosen to star in an almost unbelievably successful series of TV commercials for Wheatsheefs breakfast serial. Similar, equally successful commercials follow. The reason for these adverts’ success is a mystery; nothing seems to mark them out from other adverts, except the fact that they star the very unremarkable, indeed very bland, Tony White.

Lucy decides to investigate the actor and his ferociously possessive agent Dinah Shuckwell, and we begin to wonder if the actor has an identity of his own or is even human. This story’s a real page-turner and left me with a lasting sense of having touched on something dreadful – without really knowing what. It’s taken a long time to figure out what other story this reminded me of, but finally the answer came: it reminds me of Robert Aickman’s Swords.

Comparing reviewers comments (reviewing the reviewers?), Jim Stratton liked Torsion and didn’t seem to dislike MMM – Delicious. Jim Steel wrote: “The first suffers from being too brief and the second has the occasional clunky turn of phrase, but they are entertaining enough stories.” (Link to Ook Ami here removed as 'account suspended - by Orange. Damn Orange.)

I thought these two were great.

Stratton thought the next story, Undergrowth, “unfocussed”. Steel on the other hand wrote that it’s “exceedingly well written”.

Undergrowth is a second-hand booksellers' term for those dull volumes found in most junk shops which are consigned to the bottom shelves. It’s also the title of Francis Brett Young’s rare first novel. We’re told that Young came to dislike the book because “the treatment was vitiated by a vague and rather shallow mysticism,” written at a time when the author was steeped in the supernatural tales of Arthur Machen.

The narrator enjoys browsing interminably in second-hand bookshops, and when the proprietors finally lose patience with him, asks if they have this obscure volume in stock. The ploy usually works until the day that he meets the dealer who, a little like the girl in The White People, does “a few things that I suppose I must not mention”, so that exploring this curious literary undergrowth becomes a more immediate and personal experience for him.

Fugly is another winner. Lenore and Pete have a miserable relationship. Pete’s attitude is “out of sight, out of mind”. Lenore tries to accommodate him by concealing things as nicely as possible. One night something breaks in through the bathroom window. It’s not human and it’s hurt and it appeals to Lenore’s protective instincts. Both Steel and Stratton liked this one, Jim Stratton wrote “’Fugly’ is another of the true gems of this collection, one of the successes of the experiment.” Jim steel: “It’s a cracker.” I liked it, too.

The Nightmare Reader: “Over the years I had come to realize that, through a process born initially of suspicion... my thoughts were being transmitted across time and space to be recorded in a journal by a boll weevil-shaped creature bearing the name Old Rothrad,” So begins this journey into madness. At Thomas Ligotti Online, Slaweck (Yellowish Haze) writes that he likes this story because “I love to experiment with dreams myself and enjoyed the cynical tone of the story.” Jim Stratton thought that it was “An interesting presentation, but overlong and less than engaging.” I thought there was an interesting story here struggling to emerge from the dense writing. The sentence which I partly quoted to start this actually ran for a couple more lines before my edit. Overwriting is probably the problem with a few of these stories. A love of words sometimes overpowers the storytelling, resulting in that lack of focus.

There are tersely told stories here, and those are usually my favourites. But this same love of words seems to be precisely what appeals to so many Nemonymous or Zencore readers and authors.

There’s no problem with overwriting in The Secret Life of the Pandar as Denis does his best to stay out of life’s way, then is thrown abruptly into it when he has to cope with an emergency. Will becoming an active player in life change him? I think there’s something a bit “John Updike” about this one, if memory serves me.

Upset Stomach: Another good one as Todd gets that bloated feeling and gives birth to a horror in the toilet at work. Entertainingly funny and in the best possible taste, it’ll be interesting to see if anyone owns up to writing this one.

The Awful Truth About the Circus: Nothing ever happens in Carly Carmichael’s life. The world is passing her by and she’s been praying for a miracle for weeks, when she sees the poster advertising “PROFESSOR MUSTO’S AMAZING THREE-RING CIRCUS!”

The story has a small-town background and plot which shows certain similarities with those of Ray Bradbury, but without much of the Bradbury magic. But the circus could hardly be more different to the one in Something Wicked This Way Comes. I quite liked it, though, as it’s an honest enough story, simply told.

Red Velvet Dust : “One morning Chelsea woke, knowing exactly where her mother was, and that they needed to talk, immediately.”

Twenty years after the death of her mother, Chelsea has still not come to terms with the death. Chelsea is a dramatist, and when she needs another actor for her new play, she straight away thinks of her mother and asks her to join the cast. Death, clearly, presents no obstacle to the true thespian.

The Coughing Coffin : A bunch of old duffers are passing the port at their club, when Major Guthrie begins one of his many strange anecdotes, this time about the visit he made to the vault of Morstan House. His friend Hadingly-Scott has died, and the Major wants to pay his respects. But in the vault, he is disturbed when he hears the sound of coughing which apparently could only have come from the sealed casket.

This one’s marvellously funny and the plot accomplishes the amazing feat of emulating the flight of the incredible oozlum bird, which as we all know flies in ever decreasing circles, until... well, we won’t go there.

James Stratton writes that: “The Coughing Coffin is the cleverest tale of the collection, built around a joke within a joke within a joke...”

Terminus: “You asked me about my assertion that life is a condition, like a terminal illness, for which there is not so much a cure as a protracted but always provisory series of allayments, mere distractions for the brain to keep it occupied and far away from the dangerous questions of human existence.”

From the start, it was obvious that I wasn’t going to be given an easy time by the author of Terminus. As often happens, I felt like I was trying to do a half-decent job with a brain only working on quarter power. Anyway, the narrator explains that he’s going to summarize the ‘salient points’ (presumably he’s still talking about his view of life). Then he begins describing the labyrinthine streets around Barstowe by way of illustrating his argument.

The maps of Barstowe are inaccurate, showing "references to places that don’t exist”. Only one man has made an accurate map - Mr Zott.

Zott first contacts the narrator about a photograph taken while on safari in some country bordering Africa. The photo shows “‘a hairless cat-like thing with the face of a man.’”

Despite the effort required to read this – as I said, I don’t have the brain for it – I was being slowly drawn in. I liked labyrinthine Barstowe. I liked the narrator and his manservant Guy who seem like adventurers from another age. I liked the photographed monster straight out of Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World. Although the writing is in my opinion terrible, it felt worthwhile struggling with these overlong sentences because they're positively loaded with images and atmosphere. The effort seems worth it.

At one point I convinced myself this was the work of Thomas Ligotti. Odly enough som others seemed to agree with me. Des remarked that, as I found the story almost unreadable, it was unlikely to be TL’s work. Probably not, but I don’t know how consistent Ligotti’s work is.

Whoever wrote it, the admixture of myth, philosophising and the supernatural in this weird tale of a monster - a lesser god with a human face in an almost unnavigable city - does fascinate me. Although the writing is terrible – just as much of Lovecraft’s writing is terrible – this is the story I’ve spent most time studying in Zencore. Studying rather than reading. You could say it fascinates me. Just as Lovecraft is often fascinating.

(N.B. Added later: I decided I needed to define exactly what I meant by 'terrible writing' (Terminus) before I posted that comment elsewhere. Terrible writing for me means sentences so long that they incorporate several ideas or questions, by the end of which you've forgotten how they started. Or I have. Now I know that I once gave up on To the Lighthouse for similar reasons, and clearly Zencore's reading public needs to be made aware of this. )

Mary's Gift, the Stars and Frank's Pisser: Mary and Frank are a homeless couple. While she lies in the filth next to Frank, Mary likes looking up at the stars. She knows them all by name: “the Shoplifter’s Elbow on the rise to the east, Mad Alf’s Pigeons almost overhead, the snaking Frank’s Pisser to the south.”

Mary’s very possessive and protective of her stars. And also of Frank’s Pisser, which she likes to ride while looking up at them.

This one’s written with a brutal honesty, and for me, this is another argument in favour of smaller future Zencore volumes. There are a number of worthy stories here, but as I’ve said, not all are easy reading so that what should be a pleasurable reading experience becomes an endurance test. My own reading tends to be done with notebook to hand, a stack of new and old anthologies half-read, half-written-up beside me and maybe a half-read novel to fall asleep over last thing. I’d say that my attitude towards reading most stories these days is similar to that of a student swotting for an exam. This is probably not what the authors or Editor Des Lewis had in mind as their ideal reader when they penned their stories. It’s certainly not how I used to read and probably explains why I actually finish so few books now.

Anyway, the story of Mary, one of life’s victims, channelling the energy of a distant star for her abusive love is one of the least palatable and best stories in the book.

Blue Rasberries was the title of an old pamphlet which the narrator found hidden on top of his father’s bookcase as a child. Ostensibly a pornographic magazine, it told the story of how someone had infiltrated a nudist colony and manipulated it until he became its leader, forcing the members to perform humiliating rites and wear “heavy military uniforms that are the antithesis of the nudity they originally practised and which made them happy.”

Now, convinced years after the book itself has disappeared that the text it contained was somehow viral, self-replicating and continuing to affect those who read it – not unlike one of those mythical rock albums with a sinister message coded into it – he determines to contact the book’s author and find others like himself who have been changed by it. This one struck me as being clever where I'd have preferred it to be funny. (Maybe I should add that the stuff which usually gets me laughing is Tom Sharpe or Terry Pratchett, whereas this seems "knowing" but not very slapstick!)

Berian Winslow & the Stream of Consciousness Storyteller: Close to Christmas, the narrator is looking around the shops when he sees a group of children surrounding a seated figure reading from a large book. After a while, it occurs to him that the figure is actually a cleverly disguised automaton, and then that the story it’s telling has its audience apparently gripped in a spell.

I was put off reading this story for a while by the name ‘Henry Tumblegoat’ in the first line - such unfortunate character names should be discouraged as dangerous, I believe. And once I’d passed that name, the conversational nature of the narrative with anecdotes about automated donkeys didn’t help. But once properly into the story, I found there was something genuinely original and entertaining here. Readers of Philip K Dick would almost certainly appreciate this one.

The Plunge: Frank is working at snapping the necks of children before sending their bodies into the furnace. Like any factory job, it’s tedious, and any lapse of concentration can lead to embarrassingly botched work. It gives Frank plenty of time to think about his wife who wants to go somewhere where children are liked.

This very short piece succeeds in creating a believable portrait of Frank and also a quite memorable and transcendent ending.

I’ve read England and Nowhere once, and now I’m reading it again. Somewhere on the Cornish coast, a man watches a young couple exploring the land by the sea and each other. And there’s a sense that he’s watching a part of his own past. Perhaps they are in his past? Beautifully written, it’s evocative yet seems abstract, the spaces around a story?

Jim Stratton synopsised it similarly: ““England And Nowhere” is a slice out of the life of an old, alcoholic man as he diverts himself watching the people around him between martinis at the beach resort hotel where he lives. And so his days go, living other peoples lives secondhand from his balcony, martini glass in hand.”

This one frustrates me because I won’t be able to work it out satisfactorily tonight, I have the feeling there’s more to it – yet it feels time to bring this writing to some sort of end. Perhaps that’s a good way of describing any good piece of writing, a feeling that there’s more...

Word Doctor is the last story. I’ve said that what seems to unite the writers in Zencore is a love of words – sometimes at cost to the story. "Word Doctor" is a last song - or hymn - to words themselves, how they change, mutate, and how their origins can be found so that they can be restored or mended. Or how they can mend us. Of course it had to be the last story here.

'Honourable Mentions' from Ellen Datlow's Year's Best Fantasy and Horror were for:

Torsion
Mmm-Delicious
Undergrowth
Fugly
Terminus
Mary's Gift, the Stars, and Frank's Pisser
England and Nowhere

You can visit D F Lewis'sNemo's Ark blog and buy the book there.

There is a very interesting review by Jetse De Vries here In the Plane of the Ecliptic

The above review was previously posted at Vault of Evil: Zencore! Scriptus Innuminatus

Rog Pile

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