Journeys Beyond Advice – Rhys Hughes


Originally published by Sarob Press in 2002, and now re-published in 2014 by Gloomy Seahorse Press, a new book to me that I have just purchased direct from the printer.

My previous real-time reviews of Rhys Hughes works are linked from HERE.

Quoted on the back cover:

“Thank you so much for the novella ‘The World Beyond the Stairwell’ in Journeys Beyond Advice. It has given me such great pleasure, even though the light here is quite dim. How wonderful to read a story that is unabashedly a tip of the hat/ homage, and yet truly original, funny and yet serious. And sprinkled with the additional pleasures of meeting up with so many amazing beasties. This, to my mind, was one of the best novellas of 2002. I hope it gets on award ballots.” – JEFF VANDERMEER

“‘The World Beyond the Stairwell’ may well be the finest tribute (with love) to William Hope Hodgson ever written.” – JOHN CLUTE


22 thoughts on “Journeys Beyond Advice – Rhys Hughes

  1. The World Beyond the Stairwell
    January 1994: Friday 21st – Sunday 23rd
    “It was absurd to even consider any alternative.”
    There can indeed be no alternative to reading this novella, even while, with healthy break-neck speed, we cannot help ourselves in pursuing the narrator, Howard Boon, from Swansea into the wild realms and the building itself of a forebodingly unhealthy house – the house generously floored and fenestrated, owned by Howard’s friend Barnaby who sent him the key so as to draw him into some jest of a boobytrap – or something with more friendly seriousness it is still unclear – and as some means for Howard to escape his unsatisfying marriage? The trappings of ill-matched laws of physics including stray windows or an unnaturally tall turret he tries to climb, pursued by … What? But the break-neck speed of these first few days of narrative-diary real-time that gets me into this story in a different reader real-time determines me to slow the pace by reading it slowly, perhaps as slowly as the diary itself, so as to savour it perhaps, but more likely for me to stymie the process creatively…and not divulge much more of the plot to you other than what is necessary to adumbrate my own journey alongside Howard. I relish the prospect of how I anticipate this journey’s probability of panning out, relish it with due respect and stolid certainty that I shall enjoy myself, and hopefully not without a few healthy (or even unhealthy) frights along the way … but, I insist, slowly does it in a determinedly perverse reaction to the author’s haste to tell me about it – or to tell himself about it by means of what appears to be Howard’s diary that I am now reading.

  2. Monday 24th
    “Well, I had not seen the tentacles, which implies that I had not reached the halfway point!”
    Indeed, I am only a day beyond yesterday.
    This is a good healthily-told tale of unhealthy matters (including a very intriguing creature called a ‘A Bao A Qu’) and unhealthy repercussions for humanity unless Howard can thwart the forces that exist beyond unmentionable distances within mentionable walls, or vice versa. I am still not convinced this isn’t a jest on the part of his friend Barnaby (in cahoots with Howard’s mordant-witted wife) whose posthumously left letter tells Howard about this ‘choose your own route to adventure’ instructions within the text of this real letter itself that is in turn within the text of an unreal fiction, or vice versa.

  3. Pingback: Journeys Beyond Advice – Rhys Hughes | Rhysipedia

  4. Tuesday 25th
    Howard’s quest mission is crystallised and the dangers assessed.
    I have just noticed that if I am to take my own rules seriously in a parallel mission to review this novella I won’t be able to read the next section until twelve years from now! Or this novella’s audit trail is to become quite different from what I first anticipated?

  5. And indeed the next few pages – about the deliberate flooding in 2006 (four years after this novella was first published by Sarob Press) of the area where Howard wrote his diary in 1994 – causes me now to announce this novella is the first work I have encountered that is impossible to real-time review and still retain the reviewer’s sanity! I shall therefore now keep my powder dry and make this one of my rare traditional reviews which hopefully will describe my findings below when I finish reading all of it. No promise of when, though, as I am already busy real-time reviewing, on a daily basis, the 330 flash fictions and fables of Rhys Hughes as well as the complete stories of Alasdair Gray. Alas, I dare not overstretch myself.

  6. It’s as if I am compelled by something following me as I interminably climb the still endless stairway of this stepped commentary – or me following it, a synergy of real-time reviewing. Something or someone that is ineluctably taking shape like a trial gestalt.
    “Without my daily journal sessions, I would lose all sense of self. They are essential.” August 22 1996

  7. “I remembered an entry in the bestiary concerning a type of fish called the Remora. Although it is small, shoals of them can hold a vessel fast by sticking to its hull.” May 16th 1997

  8. “My bestiary contributes to the dire reputation of the thing by failing to describe it adequately, simply noting that ‘the Hidebehind… is always hiding behind something. No matter how many times or whichever way a man turns, it is always behind him…'” March 30th 2002

    Strictly perhaps the word ‘Hidebehind’ should have been redacted?

  9. July 6th 2004
    “Today I lost ABAQ! We have become separated! / This is total disaster. A catastrophe. Without him, I have no faith in myself. Without him there is no direction to my quest.”
    Lost for over a year, two years after this book was first published with the above words in it.
    I sense this is related, if inadvertently, with Virginia Woolf’s Mr Ramsay in ‘To The Lighthouse’ where he could never get past Q in the alphabet, and indeed in Laurence Sterne’s ‘Tristram Shandy’ where the alphabet is listed from A to Q at one point, but not beyond.
    ABAQ is Howard’s name for the aforementioned ‘A Bao A Qu’ – and when I finally review this whole novella, I might bring this consideration into full context. I am still resisting, by the way, this novella’s page-turning, compelling insistence for me to read it quickly.
    [An ‘abaqus’ is perhaps an aid toward overcoming the numerate form of the alphabet ‘disability’?]

  10. End of Howard’s Journal because there is no more space left to write in his journal. About moebius section dimensions of truth and fiction, but all the same place. I now should only comment on his bestiary monsters using letters beyond Q in the alphabet….?

  11. “Do not be so shocked. All souls look like that, including yours…”
    I have now finished ‘The World Beyond the Stairwell’, this bestiary of a novella, in tantamount to a resistless rush of flood-water flowing through nested dimensions…
    Myths about myths, and phone-box calls from dimension-trapped explorers, and a John Dos Passos type collage of newspaper reports, novel synopsis pitches, and carefully planted letters via coded inevitabilities of fated arrival whither and hither…and more. The novella thus manages in its own way to create the gestalt from its own leitmotifs thus pre-empting my own attempts to do so. A myth not always just about the same or a different myth but a new myth born from that other or same myth. Myth upon myth. Together with a Susanna Clarke ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’ type machination of harnessing supernatural forces in politics, warfare, even police work and in an indelibly RhysHughesian exposure of humanity for what it is, including both its downright bad or improvable souls and its rare brave new world of souls who inhabit the sometimes foolhardy imaginative-philosophical ‘rock-climbing’ from fiction to truth and from truth to fiction, achievements that only autonomous-seeming high-speculative fiction itself can manage to do with or without the imputed collusion of humanity or such other character development that humanity is often shown to have in more general literature.
    (I do not see much of Hodgson in this novella to whom I think I saw it is meant to be a tribute. But I don’t think that matters, even though Hodgson’s ‘The House on the Borderland’ and ‘The Night Land’ have long been two of my all time favourite fantasy novels.)

  12. A Rape of Knots
    “While I could accept a gestalt rat with an evolved sentience, the application of this talent to metaphysics was too ungainly a conceit for such humid stews as Nassau.”
    At different times I come to a certain side of Rhys Hughes’ work that appeals strongly to a certain side of my reading taste. I relish his work’s various sides, ironic as well as visionary, simply because I think I have many sides to myself that can individually tune into what is being asked of me by whichever Rhys Hughes work I happen to find myself reading. But this story immediately replaces my current favourite of his works (i.e. The Quixote Candidate) – and ‘A Rape of Knots’ may even become, at a good rate of knots, my favourite fiction story by anyone.
    I know that is a bit strong, but I feel sufficiently strong about it to make that perhaps dangerously premature assessment.
    This story combines the almost religious ‘soul-searching’ (literally) quest of the previous Stairwell novella together at one point with that novella’s dimensionless feel of a secret passage potentially reaching forever… Also a stunningly strong genius loci of the place in question, here Nassau, brilliant turns of phrase and conceit, an examination of evil and the Nature of God that does not disrupt the flow of the plot, and effectively deep character development, too, here, of a gay priest and his precarious relationship with the ungay narrator, and a creatively dangerous approach to these factors and to notions of racialism, and the most memorable human-entwined ‘monster’ that is prefigured by that wheel of a ‘gestalt rat’ and its knot of tails about which my quotation above from earlier in the story is concerned.
    I have long defined the word ‘ligotti’ as ‘knots’ (plural of ‘ligottus’) and the themes of Thomas Ligotti’s anti-Natalism, evil dolls, puppets etc and the examination of the nature of evil present in this Rhys Hughes story seem to dovetail.
    But I came away from ‘The Rape of Knots’ uplifted, not depressed. Uplifted by its intrinsic truth – but a truth from a healing fiction or a devastating nightmare? Or both?

  13. I have already read and reviewed the next story in a different book HERE and this is a copy and paste of what I then wrote about it:

    [[ Mah Jong Breath
    “…pressing objects into other items, some wider than their receptacles, the nested results then compressed into geometrical shapes, pyramids, dodecahedra and cones…”
    And the Great Wall of China.  I have a real-time admission to make.  In my earlier review of ‘Pyramid & Thisbe’,  I wrote “I need a firewall between me and such a conception of an author with just a chink to peer through to savour his prose images surreptitiously as well as safely.” Before publishing that sentence finally on the blog page, I had originally drafted ‘Chinese Wall’ but I then changed it to ‘firewall’ because I noticed that the later reference to ‘chink’ might be considered dubious in some way, however unintentional that might have been. What this fact signifies, I’m not sure, but, meanwhile, the ‘Mah Jong Breath’, as an utter masterpiece of literature (no exaggeration), may not even have been written  if I had not made that last minute change. The universe is a strange place, but the universe of magic fiction (as opposed to magic realism) is even stranger. A similar retrocausal conundrum is conjured here from the brilliantly described ambiance of Cardiff’s Chinatown and its whorehouses, and this conundrum is on a sort of sliding scale of the whore’s age in real-time during sex — leading to the most incredibly stunning prose of reprehensible salaciousness. Seriously, it is something one will never forget reading, so I can indeed be sure that I’ve never read it before. The conundrum, you ask? It is embodied in this quote from the story: “How could a sexual act be risky and harmless simultaneously?” This intensely atmospheric story is not only a wonderful exploratory answer to that conundrum, but also adds to an assuagement of other real-time elements of one’s own sporadic infiltration by archetypal “guilty dream“, a dream that tends to squat inside while also forging self-hate or self-deception or paranoia in the same pervasive way that a sense of “death squats on one’s shadow…”  (19 Sep 12 – 2.40 pm bst) ]]

  14. The Swine Taster
    “He reasoned that an ape which climbed into a pie of its own volition would taste more grotesquely refined than one simply bludgeoned inside. The syrup of the mind would blend more harmoniously with the blackened fur and bubbling flesh.”
    This is a 57 page story that I’ve just read in one sitting – leaving my mind literally aching and buzzing with a unique form of stimulation and pleasure, having completed and largely understood the most wild and rarefied Rhys Hughes work I have ever read (and I have already read a lot as you can tell from the reviews I have done of his work over the years).
    It is a tour de force. It is not the best story as a STORY per se that he has written, but it is the most wildly tantalising work, bordering on both madness and genius. I cannot do justice to it here, but it comes nearer to Hodgson than the Stairwell novella; it features the House on the Borderland rebuilt as a ship (with, inter alia, a front door in its hull below the water-line) and there are also swine-things (one scene taken up with seeking, as a result, the definition of the word ‘thing’ in a dictionary and there being a mind-boggling list of many different such ‘things’ toward the end of the story) and the basic plot involves a nefarious scheme to sink this ship for the insurance on the galley-slaves working it, as an alternative to the Voluntary Ape Pie scheme …. ending up in a Sargasso Sea of….
    No, if I fully itemise everything like that, things such as the multi-interlinking conceits, the bizarre reader grooming, the digressions, the authorial intrusions, it will put you off, and you must NOT be put off because you will seriously miss out on one of the most exciting experiences in literature, as exciting for me as were once Diderot’s ‘Rameau’s Nephew’ and Sterne’s ‘Tristram Shandy’, both of these works being pre-cursors of ‘The Swine Taster’. But the Rhys Hughes work is essentially original and incomparable; it simply needs to be experienced. In fact, there may be nothing remotely comparable within the Rhys Hughes canon itself to ‘The Swine Taster’. Not my favourite story as STORY written by him, but a work that has stirred my brain most.

  15. The Semi-Precious Isle
    “If you spend too long tuning your piano, the audience will go home.”
    This is embarrassing. This book is a series of dormant volcanoes (other than ‘Mah Jong Breath’ that came back to life again relatively recently) and now they are all coming alive again, and I think I should eke out my praise for them soberly, but I can’t help being enthusiastic. I hope I do not seem OVER-enthusiastic, though. This story is another masterpiece, where the piano ceased being tuned and it was sounding forth in full throat. A language ostensibly flowery or old–fashioned yet conceitful and poetic and haunting, perfect for the story being told, mixing dream and fiction as forces that work forward as well as backward: a man, involved with a woman as flowery as his prose, and he runs, in the preterite of the preinternet, a small press magazine called the ‘Troubadour’s Trumpet’ and deals with a large incoming snailmail post of submissions, and he writes himself into future fame, as another of the passionate budding writers, as we all were in those heady days. And he uses one pet submitter’s apparent preternatural powers to fathom his own sexually scandal-riven ancestor, in a wondrous Dingly Irish setting, as a past that merges with his own, by the power of such fiction. It all works perfectly: a worm ouroboros of genealogy and fate and shame…
    “My readers are fools and unemployed men. Touché!”

  16. From here earlier this morning about a different Rhys Hughes book:

    [[ Volcano Zoo
    A neat flush fiction with extinct volcanos where their cones are caged in a zoo for all to admire. Yet they are not really extinct, like the veils and piques, vales and peaks, the rugged range of crepitating cones that are Rhys Hughes. He has, until recently, kept captured some of his, for me, most powerful volcanoes ready to erupt again after 12 years of dormancy, and they have just erupted and are still erupting one by one. I spent most of yesterday experiencing and describing a newly released mind-blowing cluster of such cones. A journey now open to advice, my advice, its path from the cage’s gaping door for you to follow into the wilds of imagination: too long pent up, now gushing philosophical and visionary and absurdist lava into your brain. ]]

  17. The Herb-Garden of Earthly Delights
    “He opened the front door and I found myself at the bottom of a cool stairwell.”
    I don’t think Hieronymous Bosch is in this 72 page story but, probably, everyone and everything else is. A truly scalene work of art that I enjoyed well enough in this morning’s sugar rush of reading it. It’s not a patch as a whole on the Swine Taster that as a whole is a similar but superior work to the Herb Garden, but there are certain parts of the Herb Garden story that are superior to any single parts of the Swine Taster, if that makes any sense. The Herb Garden’s scalene sides are, generally, genius, middling and downright off-putting. I cannot go into detail about its sprawling conceits, its occasional longueurs of quest, and the Rhys-personal references that will mean very little to any large readership and the more recognisable satirical and writerly and often hilarious references (such as Jane Ostentatious and Rococo Chanel) that will mean quite a lot.
    “(but if all the world’s a stage, where do the audience sit?)”
    The whole work seems to encompass elements of James Joyce, ‘The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath‘, and the Golden Dawn and those Illuminati with their ‘ear in the sunrise’ and the story’s ‘shrinkon’ born from Microscope and Shrinkoscope into that elusive particle sought by CERN Zoo, I guess. There are some very touching moments in it as well as absurd extrapolations of some genius and wonderful visions of Middle Europe, and I sense the author will feel very fondly of this personal-seeming work. You need to read it, if only to argue with me about its worth. I fully recognise I may be wrong. It is a ‘pathetic mission’, indeed a ‘journey beyond advice’, as this story explicitly states, if ironically.
    “All good things must go out of print sooner or later.”

  18. The Singularity Spectres
    Here the ‘abacus beaded with rations’ (cf ABAQus) and the earlier knots/ligotti and pulleys up and down the tunnels (here the Finsbury Park underground escalator) as a form of ‘hawling’ as I see it, also featured in my 2011 novel ‘Nemonymous Night’ as my characters travel to the Earth’s Core in a craft called ‘Jules Verne’, with also a shrunken sun and moon inside the Earth, and this Rhys Hughes book’s earlier gestalt rat wheel or core or singularity sphere of ghosts possibly similar to the Azathoth core of compressed souls in my novel – and this story having been published in 2002 in this Rhys Hughes book that I’ve not read before this week, there can only be such purely coincidental connections, albeit astonishing ones. Or they are my long sought-after ‘synchronised shards of random truth and fiction’? The Jungian pull of like-minded souls from the ether? And this Rhys Hughes book has indeed much to do with the concept of souls.
    But other than all that, it is quite a different crate on an escalator story to my novel. It is at first an old-fashioned SF story; a man, goaded by his wife and by academic career ambitions, seeks the proof that ghosts exist. The first half of this story is brilliant with the journey down the escalator and the hawling devices involved; the second half from the point of the info dump regarding the backstory and the rivalries involved and the potential singularity of humanity is, for me, and perhaps for me alone, an incomprehensible confusion. A shame.
    But, as just one example of this story’s partial greatness, there is one scene of a young girl floating down through the earth close to the escalator as she ‘dies’, and its concomitant rationale, that is a masterful and a significant moment in the annals of literature, I’d say.
    Meanwhile, The Rape of Knots (my favourite), Mah Jong Breath, The Semi-Precious Isle, The Swine Taster and the Stairwell novella (plus choice moments from the rest of this Rhys Hughes book) cause it to be a literary landmark: a once dormant volcano erupting, via a nest of dimensions, into your brain – gushing into (or hawling from) the absurdist or avant garde or seriously philosophical concept of your own ‘soul’ and its earth-like core as provided by the gestalt of these works.


  19. PS: I would not like my reservations about the last two stories in this book to affect my assessment of its other stories and of the book as a whole. (A note to anyone who only reads the end of book reviews!)

  20. “…like all the knotted events of the past and the unraveling of those knots in the future, like birthdays and funerals,…” — Thomas Ligotti (My Work Is Not Yet Done)

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