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Bone Idle in the Charnel House cover

Orpheus on the Underground cover

Thirty Tributes to Calvino cover

Mirrors in the Deluge cover

Frost on Glass cover

Here is an anecdote enclosing a story by Rhys Hughes exposing an author who says Hi! You Have Just Passed Go.

So. A little while ago I receive an unmarked parcel in the post containing a volume of stories by Rhys Hughes, a man I've read and written about but never met: he lives in Wales, like several hundred of his protagonists or partials, wavium mimes reciting at fixative pitch the armillary geometries that bespeak them, colicky Quixotes wrassling maggots in Panza-speak: I mean here the Panza and the Quixote we meet only in Part Two of Don Quixote, because Hughes's driven mimes believe in themselves with the same edgy fervent insecurity that Don Quixote or Sancho Panza believe in themselves by this point: in fact the huge uncanny Cervantes who wrote the astonishing metafictional Part Two of Don Quixote out of thin air should be added to any list of Hughes's literary ancestors, most of whom (but not all, and not always) are parodists: but I digress.

So. I've been reading Hughes for two decades now, with an ongoing sense that wherever I follow him is worth tracing; but I don't get around to opening Bone Idle in the Charnel House: A Collection of Weird Stories for a week or so, not until it comes time to read it for review. At this point I look at the introduction, and notice that Hughes has chosen to mention three authors who have deeply influenced him in the stories here selected: Edgar Allan Poe, Jorge Luis Borges, and Italo Calvino.

So. My own list of daedalists in Hypnopomp Theatre (Hughes Wing)—which I published in an introduction to The New Universal History of Infamy (2004), Hughes's travesty-with-love of Borges's Universal History of Infamy—does include these three central figures, and quite a few more precursors as well, though a lot are missing; and it strikes me now that if Hughes has evoked these three in particular, out of a wide-ranging conspectus of those who have touched him without making him feel anxious, then he is probably telling us that the stories assembled in Bone Idle may be particularly daedal: that even more than usual they will treat their premises as compasses, and will tend to be narrated by solipsists so the maggots can shine through: that they will dazzle us even more than usual with faux clarities, hoax recursions, pun-driven turns that ape the literalisms of fantastika: and that in the end they will play gay havoc with but not ultimately attempt to rebut the substrate beneath: that no more than the three touchstone authors mentioned will they scant our knowledge that these pinball machines are substrated by World. Reader beware, I thought, of thinking Hughes is just a joker; and continued into the tales.

So. The first three stories are, in a sense, as expected, orthodox executions of the kind of unicursal Arabian Nightmare geometries Hughes's chosen influences might reasonably encourage. Each of them is told in the first person, by a thrawn-afflicted male, like maybe most of his tales to date (unsafe, of course, to make any assortative claims about the 750 or so works he has currently completed in his long-held project to create an uber-series of a thousand tales—one might pray for 1001—and then stop: I doubt anyone has yet had the chance to read all of them to date). Therefore I am lulled into thinking I know the country. Heck, I might even skip a few tales if I feel lazy (which I always do) or bored (which I do not in this case). I finish a superb novella, "The Old House Under the Snow" (2004 Postscripts), which turns out to be one of the two or three best of the near century of examples assembled in the four books on review. I'm way deeper into Bone Idle than browsing. I reach the fourth story, "Degrees of Separation," original here. This is its first sentence:

When the cigarette and glass of whisky were finished, all that was left was the knife. Clute turned it slowly in his hands as he sat in front of the mirror.

You bastard, I think.

Because there's not much choice here. Because there aren't really many Clutes in the world spelled that way; even fewer (is there a doctor in the house?) who write stuff about the stuff Rhys Hughes writes about; and only one Clute has composed introductions to the work of this Welsh person of some considerable genius but a trickster: so I say you bastard: because if I don't make some mention of the joke, maybe that's because I never read that far; but if I do mention myself, I've done a selfie. So be it. In any case, it was a good tickle: good to be a namecheck of a partial of a Rhys Hughes story, a spear-carrier in the Theatre of Memory, I thought, even if Clute cuts his throat in the end.

End of anecdote.

Down to the book. Here, more than ever, perhaps because there are more stories all the time, it is good to remember a sensation that Hughes was able to generate from the first: that the various individual texts in Bone Idle—plus in three further titles published over the next three months, Orpheus on the Underground, Thirty Tributes to Calvino, and Mirrors in the Deluge—all float in a sargasso of some yet-indecipherable whole, that though tales taken in isolation may seem coherently autonomous, it is exceedingly difficult to distinguish figure from ground when looking at more than a few of them in succession. Is a circular bracelet of Hughes tales a caldera or badlands? Or both? Is the Arabian Nightmare structure of most of the tales in Bone Idle an accident, an artifact that passes in the night, or a key to the labyrinth, a Poe Yale? I adhere pretty strongly to all three possibilities. Even some of the clumsier tales, which look like adhocs spun out of the you-may-think-I'm-kidding enragedness of a mind capable of generating circa forty stories a year for twenty years, give a sense that their underlying premise, usually conveyed through punchlines, may be that the malice of the world is intended.

So even the shortest pun-driven throwaways in the Tributes to Calvino volume are instinct with intention: by which I mean to say more than the obvious, that a story based on a pun means nothing more than what the pun directs it to mean: I mean also to claim that even if Hughes never achieves his purpose, never attains his thousand (and one?) nights of telling, we must in 2015 read each story as though that story were somehow a parsable iteration of a whole, which is to say that none of them can intuitively be read as though they ever had a chance to be disobedient.

This can get too heavy a burden for Hughes to bear, or us. A punchline that shows the world to be intended can all the same be read as more wit than revelation; and some of Hughes's tricks may seem easy when too many stories are read at once. But the inexorably expanding taxonomical sublime of "The Old House Under the Snow" effortlessly survives its protagonist's terminus/terminal decision to reverse his path downward through the world, as he rappels down sheer walls of house after house, each house huger than the one above it, until he reaches the house below the house which is bigger than the planet, and then turns back: because his progress "upwards" no longer seems vertical but timewards: and the houses en suite are the long day of his life. Or not. Even here, we find ourselves looking over our shoulders, like bellmen belling the snark: because we may have mistaken a knob in this superb moment in the uberseries for a hollow. It is easy to be upside-down in a world nailed by imperialisms of wordplay.

A few markers may help us get a fix on the tales in the four books here under review. Both Mirrors in the Deluge and Thirty Tributes to Calvino contain mostly shorter works, some of them only tautened by the consequence of their endings, some of them ungalvanized by the prod; Bone Idle, which contains both "The Old House Under the Snow" and "The Hydrothermal Reich" (one of the best post-Hitler revanchist fantasies I've yet read), is perhaps the title to start with. But the tales assembled in Orpheus in the Underworld are technically more various—"The Bicycle-Centaur" is almost impossibly ingenious—and add nuance to the palette of Bone Idle. In all four volumes there is a weighting toward the first person narrator, which accumulatively generates some consequences. A lot of these stories, being in the first person, are shaped as tales that are being told, and because this implies an audience, the four volumes include a large number of Club Stories, even when auditors are only implicit. So there are a lot of pubs, inhabited by solitaries who cannot keep their mouths shut.

So. Hughes is clearly attempting to square a circle here: to traverse and to intend an overall universe complex enough to warrant a thousand tales set within its boojum grasp, while all the while depending again and again for narrative texture on solitaries cankering away in their favourite corners of a thousand pubs (which are one pub) at their auditors, with a sometimes unconvincing semblance of the jovial. Most of these men, who boast colourful names and blocky bodies with add-on features, are obsessives who describe themselves in terms dangerously evocative of the Lovecraftian model of the obsessed exsanguinate soi-disant scholar haunted by a basilisk maggot, by an idée fixe that grants a crabbed exceptionalism to the victim by virtue of the fact that it cannot be escaped; and because most of the maggots they exudate in their almost sung, Welsh-inflected narratives are soul-devouring and binding, we seem at points to be asked to accede to a vastly populous universe inhabited almost solely by spatchcocked solipsisms: a labyrinth of gravel-voiced Scheherezades shouting at our ears.

There are exceptions, and each exception refreshes the reader like cool water, returns the born-again reader to the enormous engine of the whole. A story like "Shelling the Toad," which features one of Hughes's rare female characters—she is in fact an assured figure he draws with ease—may end almost inevitably with the guy who tells the tale shooting her: female intersubjectivity stuff being a trigger warning to the typical Hughes raconteur. The murder of a female far realler than the protagonist of the tale does allow Hughes, all the same, one of the rare but extremely telling moments where he allows an action to be lived by more than one person at the same time:

The handle of the sheath knife was hard and cold under my knee. I took it and my grip was sure. I once accidentally disturbed an owl in the morning, and it took flight with a look of furious disbelief. I saw the same look in her big eyes. I knew how gullible I was.

In the middle of guy shout, the still small voice of a real death. Then an almost extradiegetic aside, a taste of self-exculpatory narcissism evocative of late Moorcock, perhaps even Pyat.

So. We end these books in a state of exhilaration and something approaching fear, almost certainly something more than a somatic spookiness at being told so much with such energy, after having opened a hundred doors that are ajar but fisted. For it is more than merely exciting to give ear to this archipelago of hard knocks, this eucharist of smithereens, and to see her die like an owl in the morning.

A hundred or so tales by Rhys Hughes, taken in a rush, come together in the mind's eye like some coral reef: bravura exoskeletons protecting with their hardened glue the fragile soft islands of polyp within. A single tale by Ian R. MacLeod, softer on the outside but tougher within, seems to have grown alone, and not all the interleaved forewords and afterwords and pensées that mediate and attempt to devote to community service the tales assembled in Frost on Glass do much to alleviate—or betray—their classical solitude. What the nonfictional matter percolating this fine collection does accomplish, which is in fact what MacLeod may have planned to generate, is a portrait of the artist himself, not really of the work. Hughes is never visible in the noli me tangere cacoethes scribendi of the reef, except for the fact that every story he writes confesses him; MacLeod, amply and amiably self-revelatory, never really gives us a clue.

The collection itself is a canny mixed bag: most of its contents have already been weathered by previous publication. "The Discovered Country" (2013 Asimov's), set in a Virtual Reality Theatre of Cruelty, neatly adumbrates Homo sapiens's performative destiny after the singularity, as does "Re-Crossing the Styx" (2010 The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction), which is set on a Ship of Fools; Hector Douglas Makes a Sale (2011), originally published as a standalone story, existentializes Galaxy of yore; "The Traveller and the Book" (2014 Subterranean Magazine) is like a Rhys Hughes story in which a literalization of a turn of Story generates something like an Arabian Nightmare, but at an adagio pace; "Tumbling Nancy" (2012 Subterranean Magazine) reminded me of some Thomas M. Disch tale of writerly possession and paranoia; and the long "Frost on Glass" (original here) embeds a pained narrative unpacking of writer's block in a dystopian world, where the dissimulations of the blocked anchor join in unholy wedlock with the diktats of our owners.

So. Different strokes. A dozen stories by MacLeod, which cannot be taken in a rush, each one of them taking its time to breast its solitude to speak, make a dozen worlds. Tortoise and hare both win.

John Clute ( has been writing SF and fantasy criticism since the 1960s, and has been involved in writing encyclopedias since the 1970s. His novel Appleseed (2001) was a New York Times Notable Book in 2002. His most recent book is a new collection, Stay, which includes both criticism and short fiction. He is currently working on the third edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
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