27 thoughts on “Brutal Pantomimes – Rhys Hughes


    “His dreams were his larder. Less tastefully, so were his nightmares.”

    This is a fine Rhys Hughes tale, the basic premise of which is Florian the hero’s ability to dream food that then becomes real and edible. Various all-consuming themes and variations on that theme. But I felt something more, least of which was the question of how this story could once have appeared in an anthology inspired by Poe, other than the word Edgar sounds edible with a gulp! No, to be serious, this story has caused me to abandon my normal reviewing rules dictated by the Intentional Fallacy. From what I know of Rhys Hughes, his works and his strivings as an author, the audit trail of this work seems a telling rite of passage of Rhys from a young man as a wonderful writer trying to earn a living from it, to put food on the table, as it were, as well as being a wonderful writer. Read in that light, it takes on a new drive, a new impulse, and becomes a poignant glimpse of the inner man. And of his well-known attitude to Horror literature. On an island beset by his own doubles. Or others striving to reach that island, some drowning on the way.

    “It was the first time his gift had felt closer to a curse and he understood this even as he continued dreaming…”

    “This gift could not distinguish between good and nasty dreams…”

    “The cycle had commenced and whether it was a closed circle or a downward spiral he did not know…”

    Almost a religious yearning perhaps unfelt:

    “…and he dreamed of single wholesome item, a bland wafer.”

    Later, in this story, he felt he became the God addressing himself as Florian…

    “…and there was no way of hiding from his own mind.”

    “But we have reached a point where we have no more space to accommodate any new arrivals…”

    “It is only necessary for one of us to escape…”

    A general writerly angst, in recent years accentuated by the Internet – ever now to be known as the Jam of Hypnos syndrome?

    A lesson to us all involved in this sometimes brutal pantomime.


    “Pirates are everywhere! Pirates are a fashion and a myth, a savagery and a custom, a colour and a doom.”

    I have already mentioned the Internet above, and in many ways the above quote seems relevant to the sense of its spreading logjam of skullduggery.
    It is a while since I have read a new Rhys Hughes book (although I have reviewed a good many of them in the past as my link to all of them above attests). And I have decided to try to hypnotise myself into believing this experience today is the first time I have ever read his work. And, as a result, I feel it is a VERY strange experience, judging by all the various disarming conceits that border on nonsense, but it is an experience that seems to grow on you like hairs on a bar of soap or tachyons on a synapse, here with a series of tales within a tale about and from a club of people who have escaped from pirates, all tales without punchlines about the pecking order of badness of the bad pirate captains of the Seven Seas, except the very last punchline of the tale-carrying tale itself as told by the headlease tale-carrier himself, with his sense of his own superlative unworth that must logically lead straight to the ultimate tale-carrier in the form of the freehold author himself whom I claim I discovered in the Jam of Hypnos. After all, to escape from one’s existential island one could very well make use of a walk along the longest plank not only in the world but around it, too.

    “The desert island held me to its bosom in the same way a mad monkey holds a small coat.”

    (I note this is the original text of a tale that was, by implication, printed earlier as a wrong text. I will now search out my review of that earlier but not original text and link to it below. I have no memory of what I said there.)


    I thought this was going to be a tale about Superwoman, but it turns out to feature Oscar Milde the retired ukulele player who is persuaded to make a comeback with the two other members of his previous ukulele-trio with a performance at a Steampunk-themed party. It is full of out-jokes and in-jokes with many jokes in between – and it is a bit of a relief not to find any hidden meanings in it that I can theorise about!

  4. Thanks Des!

    ‘The Jam of Hypnos’ was actually written secretly in work hours while I was working in one of my very rare office jobs. Financially I was comfortable enough at the time and didn’t need to write for a living. That was back in 2003. I worked for a ‘health alliance’ sub-department for the local government and I held that job for 13 months, my longest office job ever! Funding ended in early 2004 as the sub-department was merged with a new department and my contract wasn’t renewed, so I took my final payment and went off to Spain, Portugal and Morocco.

    While I was away I received an email from Gary Fry asking for submissions to the first proposed anthology of his new publishing house. POE’S PROGENY required stories inspired by *any* of the ‘classic greats’ of weird fiction. I emailed Gary back and told him that I wanted to try to write a story inspired by Borges. Then I waited a month and simply sent him the story I had written the previous year. My story is not Borgesian at all in terms of style, tone or voice, and not even especially Borgesian in terms of vision or concept, but it was possible to draw parallels between it and Borges’s ‘The Circular Ruins’ which concerns dreams nested within dreams. In my cover letter to Gary I really hyped up this tenuous connection, turning it into the main driving force behind my own story. Whether he was fooled by this or not, I have no idea. Later I learned that most of the other contributors had done something similar, sending him stories they had already written while pretending they were written especially for the anthology.

    ‘The Private Pirates Club’, on the other hand, was written in early 2007 when financially I was almost destitute. Luckily, a month later, I received £1000 from an Arts Council in order to write a novel and I used this money to go abroad again, where I remained for a year. Anyway, the point of all this is that I don’t know if life circumstances always incorporate themselves into a psychology in such a way that they manifest themselves in some way on written pages of fiction, but just for the record ‘The Jam of Hypnos’ was written when I was financially secure and ‘The Pirate Pirates Club’ when I was utterly penurious…

    • Thanks for commenting on my review, Rhys. Disregarding the literary theory of the Intentional Fallacy for a moment, I think it makes psychological sense that an anxiety is best exorcised when not suffering from it, i.e. when it is least able to bite back.


    “Yes, you can be wise and wrong.”

    Wrong about something even when you are being wise about that very something? Rhys Hughes fiction, in my experience, often revelatorily deploys a child-like urge to deconstruct not only figurative expressions/idioms but also accepted wisdoms (in the plural). This is a monologue or lecture by Bogardus Suds, but I suspect it is Rhys himself, talking ostensibly to one person whom he addresses as one person, the single reader that is you, but I infer he is talking to the world. He flays the philosophy of various so-called wise saws to the bottom bone of ad absurdum, and much wisdom is the productive result by ricochet, revealing a different wisdom from the original wisdom in the homily being examined. Some call it brainstorming. But it does not always pay to be wise, as wisdom is often a red rag to a bull that wants to bring you down, as this lecture itself implies at one point.
    One wise saw being examined is “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” That shaken bottle is thus opened?

  6. Thanks again Des… The best advice given to writers is never to respond to reviews, but your particular style of reviewing seems to solicit interaction. I therefore must crave your tolerance of the comments I now intend to make as you progress with this review; and I am wondering if this might not become something that the other authors you review might also do? I can foresee the review then becoming something that resembles a dialogue as well as an analysis, with the writers talking about what each particular story means to them… Just an idea.

    Anyway ‘Corsets on the Outside’ was written in 2013 as a direct result of being asked to submit a story for a tribute anthology to Joris-Karl Huysmans that was published by an alliance of Zagava and Ex Occidente; and in fact you have real-time reviewed this anthology yourself. My story was submitted but rejected for that anthology. The basis of the story, however, was a passage in Huysmans’s *À Rebours* which mentions locomotives wearing corsets. The entire story springs from that imagery but (as I often do) I connected with other stories I have written. Therefore the main character, Oscar Milde, originally appeared in the final story in my first collection, *Worming the Harpy*. If I hadn’t been asked to submit a story for that anthology, I would not have written this story. That’s often how it works with me, and I suspect with many or most other short-story writers.

    ‘Wise Man’ was written last year, and initially all the six constituent parts were separate stories. You are absolutely right that the driving force behind this story is a desire to deconstruct clichés in everyday ‘wise’ phrases and to play logical games with lazy thinking. It’s a tricky and rather risky urge of mine, as it can be perceived as a symptom of some form of elitist condescension; but I genuinely believe that this is not really what it is. I suspect I learned this approach from John Sladek, one of my favourite writers of my student days. You are also right that the story is less a conventional story in terms of narrative voice(s) and reader conventions and more an essay-lecture in fictional guise. But in my own view, these can be perfectly acceptable fictions too.


    The above specific eponymous concept is brilliant!
    It also symbolises for me the triangulation of a fiction book: a spectating corroboration or collusion or collaboration by author, reader and the book itself. (For ‘reader’, read any number of readers with various breath levels and smells of breath.)
    The story as a whole is astonishingly free-wheeling (and I will not here itemise all the conceits nor any of the jokes about Wales or who Peachy Poo is). Meanwhile, it reminds me again of the constructively child-like in this author, whereby I remember building towers of stick men upon paper with a pencil, figures who looped around the universe of my mind, and also the consequence games that one played with other children, using drawings or words, folding down the paper, before the next one is written or drawn. I do not wish to imply there is a lack of authorial control here, merely that there is an incredible skill in using authorial control to give the impression there is no authorial control at all. This story is the finest example of that phenomenon that you would go far to find. It is mind-massage for its own sake and you won’t come away from these types of Rhys-Hughesian stories as the same person as you entered them. Maybe an acquired taste, but if it isn’t a taste you have yet acquired, beware that it doesn’t acquire YOU – should you dip your toe into such a story as this one and then can’t escape! I genuinely have that feeling about it.
    As an afterthought, putting wheels on a ship reminds me of what I have done to book reviews or trying to do. It has dangers as well as potential benefits, but it might be very exciting as this story’s audit trail shows. And who knows where and with whom it is taking me, my own friendly skull notwithstanding.


    “…for here was only indecision and failure, mounds of abandoned and apparently flawed projects.”

    The operative word being ‘apparently’, e.g. when In certain moods as a writer, relevant, as an aside, to my interpretation of the first story in this book, the eerinesses being symbols of the ease with which fantasy or furniture can turn to horror, however one is repelled by that?
    Notwithstanding such arguable points on my part, this is a genuine Rhys Hughes masterpiece and should not be missed. Full of the texture that I enjoy about weird literature, its title taken from a Lord Dunsany quote, a quote given at the beginning of the story, a story touching upon Polish (polish furniture?) history in the Napoleonic era, densely atmospheric, but also dealing with classic Rhys-Hughesian fictionatronics about ‘total efficiency’, extrapolating from the obvious to the non-obvious, artefacts as works in progress, a progress man-made or inherent within the artefact itself, the ambiance such artefacts radiate as expressed by wonderful tropes of weird literature, an absurdist audit trail from ‘total efficiency’ to the dead as the most alive… And much more in a relatively short work.
    The ending represented by the penultimate paragraph is beautiful, and the last paragraph an equally beautiful coda to the work as the perfect throwaway. Thrownaway, as we all are eventually, whether artefact or person.

  9. Again I must thank you, Des… ‘The Inflatable Stadium’ was written in late 2004. It was a simple case of me thinking that it was time I wrote another story in my ‘Lladloh’ cycle of stories. But I also hadn’t written any ‘Captain Nothing’ or ‘Dr Mondaugen’ stories for a while either; so I decided to combine all three cycles in one new tale. Although this might seem a contrived way of creating fiction, it can work well, the particular advantages being that the pre-existing characters from other story cycles already have specific histories and characters, quirks and inclinations, so one must operate within limits already defined. This can push the mind to be more ingenious, as constructive constraints force the imagination away from low-level patterns of outcomes in plots, etc.

    But anyway, the meaning of ‘peachy poo’ is that it was the email address of my girlfriend, Lowri, with whom I was living when I wrote the story. She later went off to India and I lost touch with her (the reason why I joined Facebook in the first place was to keep in touch with her)… The expansive (quasi-chaotic) unfolding of this story in which there appear to be too many things happening at once in an uncontrolled manner, but in which ultimately everything turns out to be finely-tuned, is something I enjoy doing and is a procedure borrowed from certain types of engineering. In fact what I regard as the greatest compliment my work ever received is when a review stated that my stories seemed to be ‘engineered’ rather than conventionally written.

    ‘The Eeriness that Lurks on the Far Side of Furniture’ was written in 2002 and essentially was just an attempt to put some real philosophical speculation into a story. I know that ‘weird fiction’ is often supposed to be about philosophical speculation and that such things are an essential part of why the genre exists. Fans of Lovecraft, for example, often talk about his metaphysical insights. But to me there doesn’t seem to be much genuine understanding of philosophy among most weird writers. I mean rigorous analytical philosophy at an academic level. In fact the rare exceptions (I might mention John Sladek, Barrington Bayley and Rudy Rucker as three examples) stand out in sharp relief. So I wrote about ontological epiphenomenalism in the setting of a supernatural tale. I am aware this sounds pretentious, but that is always a consequence of explaining the workings of philosophical fiction…


    “‘Writers don’t have curiosity all to themselves,’ he said.”

    I am curious whether it is significant that a saudade in Portuguese means a melancholic yearning while sauter is to jump in French?
    This novelette starts methodically as if heading for seriousness, about a relatively successful writer of adventure stories. It includes some instructive material regarding the two world wars and their effect on Europe and Africa. But with the internal story told to the writer (who is about to live in Portugal to commence his new novel), told by an Arabic ‘mad scientist’ (once with a saudade for Portugal and a growing one for Africa), telling of his invented kangarooing of a land – complete with township upon it – from Africa to Portugal, then I am not surprised that there is also another character within the Arab’s story who is simply made boring as a character so he can later become a disposable spear-carrier without upsetting the reader.
    Some of this novelette seems relevant today when the news is full of talking about the ‘sovereignty’ of land masses in connection with the UK withdrawing from the EU. And now I wonder if this can be anything to do with this novelette’s arguably propounding the general (inherent?) pessimism and optimism of different land masses or their peoples.
    A thought-provoking set of conceits, but not one of my favourite Rhys Hughes fiction works.

  11. Two significant points so far coming out, for me, from this book. The absurdist-help given to the recent EU debate and the topic of sovereignty / psychological view of one’s own country by the Knees of Kionga. And the brutal pantomime that the art of writing fiction has become, rather than an objective view of the fiction itself. (For ‘the art of writing fiction’, read any number of other walks-of-life.)
    The Jam of Hypnos that is all of us.


    “For a long time, women have been little more than ovals, under bonnets, with sometimes a smile to disrupt the geometry.”

    With that oblique reference in 1655 arguably to a burqa, this Rhys Hughes text then goes into overdrive, a delightful experience like a dangerous fairground ride of reading, not politically correct or incorrect but politically skew-angled along with all the brainstorming science of gravitational waves (waves that astonishingly were discovered in real life news around me in the last few days) and now evoked by this story written at least a few months ago as it is now published in this printed book for the first time as published itself a few days ago, too, about a Dutch 17th century scientist with several mistresses who seem to swap over by the day, and his propensity for examining Saturn through his windmill-powered telescope and listening to music, new music for him but since old or lost for us. His findings about space and Saturn will stagger your mind but if I itemise them here they will be spoilt by premature exposure. Here, too, are thoughts on pouting to follow those on shrugging earlier in this book. And possible Saturnian ships, not with Captain Nothing’s erstwhile wheels, but with something far more rarefied to propel them, DQ’s tilting at windmills notwithstanding.
    I love Dufay’s sonata upon a liquid vacuum. I love this story, too. A second classic in this book, so far.


    “I have never been winked at by a chin before!”

    A pout or a shrug, notwithstanding.
    Or the rather youthful habit of the tip of the tongue poking out the corner of the mouth in concentration when writing something important..
    Meanwhile, further to the latest discovery of those aforementioned ‘gravitational waves’, the central ‘objective correlative’ of this novellette is a version of an Executive Toy called a Newton’s Cradle, this one made up of five skulls.
    But, above all, this is an experience of firstly shrugging my shoulders and then stuffing my mouth with stinging nettles as this text developed.
    Despite the interesting quest for ‘impossible angles’ that coincidentally links with my reference above in this review to triangulations (a reference effectively stirred by the book’s actual author with his interpolation to this review itself!), I nearly threw this book into the corner of the room in literary despair, but then I smiled as I eventually recognised an utter, perhaps unintended, even authorially unwanted, ‘avant garde’ stroke of genius.
    It is a relentless, obsessive, disarming, quite insane, sometimes frustrating theme-and-variations upon writing journals in lonely out of the way places (as in the Welsh setting here), initially but not fundamentally, I guess, as a satire on Horror like Lovecraft.
    The very act of the journal writing itself is claimed to have caused the Gothic events, not the other way around. And the competing journal writers (including the main journal writer’s wife and the train driver on the journey to the out of the way place, even one of the journals writing itself!), and the cross-disseminations of these journals and their cross-exorcisms represent, for me, quite the most outrageous art installation of a Zeroist happening that could possibly be conceived (other than perhaps the pages later turning blank because the words were written in liquid vacuum ink?)
    Meanwhile, I keep my powder dry.

    • I had waking dreams last night about these ‘impossible angles’ and cohering ideas in any book towards a gestalt. In this novelette, the various passages in the form of their individual journal-writers are appearing to do this autonomously for themselves. Also, in connection with the skew-angled politics that I broached earlier, I thought of Boris Johnson’s admission this past weekend that he had been agonising for some time on which of two diametrically opposed paths of politics he should take and represent / sell to the nation. What does this say of the ‘impossible angles’ of direction in politics and sincerity that one falsifies and that in turn falsifies oneself?
      Fiction is everything. Everything is fiction.


    Pages 181 – 214

    “It was a remarkable demonstration of sympathetic magic, the manipulation of a bigger object by controlling an identical smaller version.”

    …as if reading a book is like becoming a smaller version of that very book? That rings, for me, some deep instinctive bell of truth.
    This first half of a novella is like one of Perceval Pitthelm’s adventure books (from Kionga), blended with a Mondaugen contrivance from the Inflatable Stadium and an old-fashioned SF invasion of humanity by some tropical yeti in Haiti called mabadangoo akin to ‘War with the Newts’ (my review here).
    Fast-moving with plenty of Rhys-Hughesian conceits/ jokes/ puns and featuring voodoo, chakras, scientific rivalries in an academy, an underground world like a hairy gothic cathedral (but bigger), miscegenate sex with an Egyptian-oasis-born servant woman, a sea voyage, silly names for characters, living rock, the gingerbread house style of architecture, Crusoe-like marooning et al…

    “…they possess guns that fire mechanical wasps and those wasps hold other guns in their little feelers…”

  15. Page 214 to end

    “Europe was coming apart.”

    I will not dwell on the adventure of the resultant cataclysm (whether an impossible or implausible inferno), with internecine strife, the pre-catastrophic voodoo-needle giantism, the cinematic Hitchcock like train journey to Wales from Paddington with all its villains, brigands and conspiracies, the machinations of world domination, the affectionate afeminism of the times, the inventive objects involved, the thought that Welsh is more easier to pronounce than English, the ability to be ‘unshot’, frogs croaking being a relief from an engine idling, the sheer fantastical bravado of narration – you will either enjoy such shenanigans or not.
    But I will linger on the telling nature of the aforementioned Academy: “All men and women were deemed equal in their eyes, but humanity itself was considered holy,”, a movement against aliens or other species taking over, reminding me hilariously of Great Britain as satirically symbolic of humanity and the rest of Europe as other such inimical species in some British eyes (not in my eyes nor this author’s, I’m sure), concepts that seem to fit some observations I’ve already mentioned about the preternatural connection of synchronicity between recent days’ events in the UK news and this book, as pulling at each other via the gravitational waves of literature. “A magical fusion”, as this novella has it, along ‘impossible angles’ , with possibly admissible “self-delusion” given a “strong survival value” that is the power of fiction, self-delusion not always being a negative Dickensian eccentric, but a power for good, rather than an ‘impossible inferno’ – and I am also moved by this novella’s sentence: “He was simultaneously happy and sad; and the resulting fusion was considerably more poignant than the unadulterated versions of either one of those rather overrated emotions.”
    And so ends this quick fusion with hyper-imaginative fiction, in slow motion.

    end of my review

  16. Oh gosh, you finished already! It usually takes me months to work through a short story collection, but this is mainly because I tend to have eight or nine of them on the go at the same time. Something that needs to be remedied actually, as I pine for the days when I read one or two at a time.

    I must take this opportunity of thanking you again… Briefly I shall say that ‘The Knees of Kionga’ was written in 2013 for a Portuguese anthology featuring ‘winepunk’ stories, a new sub-genre created specifically for that anthology. It hasn’t been published in that book yet, but hopefully still will be. I have already seen the illustrations for my story and I really like them. When I was putting together *Brutal Pantomimes* I just decided it would be nice to have the story published in English as well as Portuguese, hence the English version here. There are, incidentally, several of my stories that are still only available in Portuguese that need to be published in English. The guidelines for the anthology were that stories had to have a Portuguese basis and my story was entirely inspired by the guidelines.

    The story opens in a town called Figueira da Foz, which I first visited in 2004, making an attempt to walk 120KM along the coast to Espinho. I failed because it was summer and I couldn’t carry enough water, but I vowed that I would make another attempt one day. Ten years later I tried again and succeeded. In Espinho I went for a meal with one of the two editors of the anthology, Ariana Aragão, whom I also used as the main character in a tribute story that I wrote to Fernando Pessoa that was published by the same publishing company who issued the Huysmans tribute volume that my ‘Corsets on the Outside’ didn’t appear in. Everything is connected!

  17. ‘Shipyards on Saturn’ was written in the year 2000 and is the earliest tale in this present volume. I wanted it to appear in my Tartarus collection *Stories from a Lost Anthology* but the publisher wasn’t keen. I think I later tried to get it into my collection *Link Arms with Toads*, also without success. I tried and failed a few other times since then. It seemed to be one of those stories that I rate highly but no editor does. It is essentially an attempt to combine the tone of (Donald) Barthelme with the ideas of (Barrington) Bayley. The concept that space is a fluid and therefore subject to waves is nothing new, by the way. It goes right back into classical times and long precedes the idea of space being an empty vacuum. Descartes believed a universal liquid medium was an explanation for why the planets revolved around the sun instead of going off in straight lines (because they were caught in eddies that pushed against each other). Bayley wrote a story in 1962 called ‘The Ship that Sailed the Ocean of Space’ that was about a race of aliens for whom space is a tangible liquid. I wanted to borrow this idea but work it in a different direction. As for the main character of the story, Christiaan Huygens: he was one of the great scientific genius from an age of scientific geniuses. He wrote in one of his journals that he had seen through his telescope a civilisation on the planet Saturn including its “shipyards” and that was why I chose him as my protagonist.

    ‘How Gangrene was my Sally’ is my favourite (or one of my favourites) of all my stories inspired by some aspect of Lovecraft or his work. I wrote it last year and it is my most substantial work from 2015 (my least productive writing year for more than two decades). I don’t really have much to add to what you say in your review, other than the whole journal-writing-in-a-supernatural-or-weird-story thing has always seemed such a quaint technique, but a very useful one too. It seems easier to write stories this way than any other. This is not to disparage the technique. I regard ‘The Monster of Lake LaMetrie’ by Wardon Allen Curtis, for example, as just one example of an excellent story out of many that uses the journal format.

  18. Oops! I haven’t commented on the last story in the book yet… I feel I have been talking too much, so I will just say that ‘The Impossible Inferno’ was the 500th story to be written in my proposed cycle of 1000 stories, so I tried to make an extra big effort with it; as a consequence it remains one of my all time favourites of my own work… Thanks again, Des!

    • Thanks for all your comments, Rhys. It is good to have you on board the dreamcatching of your own book! It is now impossible to unread this book and I infer no preternatural messages can be assumed as excluded from existing , even those messages hidden from yourself but evolving from you as the book’s First Mover.

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