14 thoughts on “VALERIE AND OTHER STORIES – Colin Insole

  1. I very much look forward to reading for the first time and reviewing VALERIE, THE BINDING, A BLUE DISH OF FIGS and DREAMS FROM THE APPLE ORCHARDS in due course below.

    Meanwhile, I show below the body of my earlier reviews of the other stories which I had the privilege of reading when they were first published in Ex Occidente /Mount Abraxas. These reviews were written in the context of the anthologies in which the stories appeared. (The Hill of Cinders appeared alone in a separate book.)

  2. Reviewed October 2015 here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2015/10/20/the-hill-of-cinders-of-colin-insole/

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    THE HILL OF CINDERS

    Pages 7 – 31 (about halfway through this story)

    “As he lay awake, it seemed that the moon, the stars and the hill, were aligned, part of the slip and drift of the cosmos, whilst he remained below, cut off from its magic.”

    As I read that passage, I immediately thought of another book by this author, one entitled ‘The Gold of Decayed Stars’.
    This story so far really hits certain notes that any Colin Insole fan would expect, as I am, as I do. The school where James Bulverton attended in 1912, and we crisscross with his time then, and now returning to the area in 1940, with memories of action in the First World War, all to the striking visual backdrop in words, that of the red terrain around the school, the hill itself from the title, the mining and its collapsed remains, a sense of the chemical smell, with James also thinking about the school’s self-imposed ‘cocktail of horror and glamour’ of two necessary scapegoat pupils who grew up treacherous, and James’ anti-paradisal Miltonic epiphany, where he boisterously became his own boyhood person by absconding — like (in my mind and perhaps my mind alone) The Magic Mountain’s Hans Castorp in his epiphany amid the snowy Alps — to this quite contrastive red terrain. The meteor shower, the affinity of the terrain with Flanders that he had then only experienced retrocausally, I sense.
    Somehow I do not wish to read the rest of this story – until I have to. As I will. Later rather than sooner, to keep the work on the brink of completion as long as possible.

    ***

    Pages 32 – 59

    I now know why I instinctively wanted to finish reading this book halfway through last night. It was because, in hindsight, I unaccountably knew that I could not proceed in this review without dropping plot spoilers like bombs in 1940 upon the school buildings, their windows duly blacked-out — or without dropping red ash from some meteor storm upon James Bulverton as he sought out the old site, on Cinders Hill, of his epiphany in 1912.

    You see, this is one of those rare events when my sense of wonder about a story becomes exponential. It is really something special, and I dare not tell you anything specific, but the various teasers and trailers in the first half fit perfectly with what transpires in the second. It is absolutely perfect. The cunning interpretation of intentions, the descriptions of environment both cosmic and local, scapegoats feeding on scapegoats, and past bullying recouped. The school itself as an entity, the hidden thoughts of those associated with the school artfully revealed through the reader’s own ability to scry them, having been given that ability by the structure of the story itself.

    Some may claim that one story (that I estimate to be between 9000 and 10000 words) to be given a single physical book as its vehicle is going over the top. The book is indeed spectacularly designed and superbly handleable with what I assess to be the costliest of materials, and this story does indeed deserve this exquisite setting. In fact it can only be read in such a setting, and in two bites, as I have just done, otherwise you would be diminishing the experience. A landmark experience of both form and content for anyone. And the scapegoat is finally transcended or fulfilled.

    Still, I do easily imagine this story being republished time and time again with the retroactive impulse of future literary history. And those future readers will very much appreciate it, no doubt, for what it is, but they will never be able to appreciate it in the way that owners of this book as its first readers were privileged to read it.

    • Note the last sentence above, one that applies to all my original reviews of the previously published stories. But many thanks to my friend Snuggly for reprinting them so attractively.

  3. Reviewed September 2014: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2014/08/01/infra-noir/#comment-3107

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    THE SLAVES OF PARADISE

    “And from the lofty balconies of the gods, for four centimes, they entered a paradise of ribaldry, raucous humour and the smells of oranges, cigar smoke and cheap scent.”

    If you think you have a favourite Colin Insole story, don’t decide too soon before you have read this one! It is a highly atmospheric, hedonistically prose-textured Insolution for Vichy France (Nice) and its postludes, and the intricacies of Resistance codes amid a panging love story of two artists, where one item of her art is manhandled by a sort of Laurel and Hardy on a chimney and the other, his sketches, like the washed drawings earlier in this book, that sort of lead to codes being broken in a tragic way I am still grappling with enticingly. They are in a sort of Enfants de Paradis film, too, by dint of the words, and things happen without you knowing they are happening till it is too late and you are on to the next thing.

    “There was a cold emptiness in the soot and ash of the grate.”

    This highly sensitised story by Insole leads within itself to madnesses and close shaves off the soul – and you must beware yourself where you step or have stepped between its lines of print, as tutored by the tenor of the whole of this book and its overlapping ink-blot pointillisms and pierrots, whereby things automatically radiate between the collages and variations: dreamcatching the dreamcatchers: even foolhardily encouraging me to radiate out toward other books I am concurrently reading and reviewing, for example, the emblematic Othello and Desdemona from the Insole story now seeming to be ‘charring’ with the interracial couple here. This book makes you stretch wider than you have ever stretched before. There will never again be another book like it. In fact, I suspect some of you doubt that it has ever existed at all.

  4. Reviewed February 2016: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2016/01/30/the-gift-of-the-kosmos-cometh/#comment-6397

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    DANCE FOR A WINTER MOON

    “The night had given up its pretence of glamour and beauty; its tinsel tricks of moonbeam and sentimental star glow. Little flurries of frost or dirty snow scudded in the air, as if the firmament was swollen with their filth and they dropped like lice from an old mattress.”

    This story needs to be treated in isolation from the rest of the stories so far. Not because it is another fine example of Colin Insole’s meticulously stylish prose (which it is) but because it depicts unadulterated gloominess, beneath sickly moonshine, after a doctor and his wife as expatriates in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 slide from success at dealing with the locals’ physical ills toward an incantatory superstition of a downward path, where everything around them decays with, for example. vandalism gouging out eyes from the icons’ faces in the church.
    It is BEAUTIFULLY gloomy and tragic, not only with the present day’s entropy but also by retrieving sad memories, such as the father of the doctor’s wife having broken his neck picking apples when she was young. I have never read a story that has such effectively managed gloom, with a moon that keeps popping back in different abjectly visual forms to accentuate this gloom.
    It is gloom for gloom’s sake. Moon for moon’s sake. Utterly perfect in its rite of accruing imperfection.

    ***
    Someone kindly pointed out to me that the word ‘inconsolable’ is used in this story.

    I N con S O lab L E = Insole

    I N C O N so L able = Colin

  5. Reviewed December 2013: https://nemonymousnight.wordpress.com/transactions-of-the-flesh/#comment-415

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    Salammbô and the Zaïmph of Tanit

    “But there was a sulky irritation as she inspected the dishes of cherry stones, pomegranate skins, and sniffed the empty plates of shellfish.”

    Can any one Work of Art be equally suet-pudding decadent and soaringly celestial? Yes, not only equally, though, but also with both those respective elements ‘in extremis’. Don’t believe me? Well, read this story. Another gem from Insole. This fiction has the explicitly Villon-ended Holman story’s withering of woman and matched by the fiction evolving from another fiction like ladders of light as that woman’s husband builds upon the eponymous novel by Flaubert with another woman who literally UNwithers before our eyes from the words used to create her by such evolving. But that’s not how it ends.
    I’m now going to read the Grimms’ Cat-Skin.

  6. Reviewed October 2016: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2016/09/08/and-the-whore-is-this-temple/#comment-8386

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    THE ABDICATION OF THE SERPENT

    “He fabricated eyes and faces, sometimes whole bodies, deceiving himself that the picture was forming.”

    It has always been a monumental occasion for me to encounter a new substantive work by this author, and this is no exception. It is a resplendently pan-sculptural scenario of a genius loci (and I happened to make a coincidental timely visit to an ancient rococo garden in Painswick two days ago, one that blended beauteous autumnal vistas of land with architectural follies, agricultural tricks and coiling sculptures and mazes) and now today here, having read this new Insole work, blended that visit with the text’s interwoven gods and snakes, interwoven artistic rivalries, cynical watching by an oldster like me as he surveys spurious twin artists vying with a suspiciously dead but talented woman artist, seemingly dead except for her living art’s tentacles moulding those whence it wreaks vengeance and evolves stony cornucopia, followed by a mighty ending of the oldster’s farewell as panoramic hindsight to diminish false importance and to magnify the vastness of time and space and memory, to give unparalleled scale to all our individual perspectives…
    I cannot do justice to this literary mammoth of a text. I’ll just leave you one picture from my visit to Painswick…
    img_2558

  7. THE BINDING

    “The landscape seemed to have been arranged to parody the things she had seen…”

    A dreamy lore-textured tale over two generations of a small 19th century Isle of Man community, where a woman’s barrenness is ‘cured’ by visitant and changeling processes. A whole skein of vervain and vooinjer veggey, maintained for the music, the fiddling skills passed between half-twins. Its ending with the word of the newly ‘subdued’ on an island with a St Mary’s matches a story I finished here about an hour ago of another set of islands with another St. Mary’s and the newly ‘subdued’ at the end. Stories’ binding….

  8. A BLUE DISH OF FIGS

    “It was an incest of body and spirit — of hands and parts, reaching out into the darkness of slime and rock pool, in intimacy and hideous harmony with things that crawl and bite.”

    An ‘ancient depravity’ gradually garnered between schoolteacher Helen Mathon and pupil Lilian, as the former reads the latter’s floridly dark-imaginative or dark-real essays with narrative coincidences that contrast with the girl’s unimaginative background and the environs of an otherwise downbeat London where they live, a whole fantastical mutant-Dunsany world lying behind the backstreets … a fragment of life ….and strong prose stuff, inchoate and haunting. And one fears for the relationship and for Ms Mathon’s own lifestyle if uncovered or decanted by the girl … in this world where one single accusation, false or true, by a child can bring down an adult’s life. But, Mathon or Machen, I note “the selfless kindness shown between pariah and solitaries”…. Figs or figments?

    “She kept the child’s gift in her pocket, along with the blue dish.”

  9. DREAMS FROM THE APPLE ORCHARD

    1938 — A small village in the Banat region of Yugoslavia, near the banks of the Danube, some sixty miles from Belgrade.

    “The child has gathered windfalls on a fool’s errand whilst we feared for her safety in the darkness. The flesh of these apples stinks with rot and maggots.”

    Seems to resonate obliquely with the child in the Figs story. Here it is Katya and here the blue figs and figments are on the Blue Danube, nah!, we are steeped in a darker direr diurnality of life in the Yugoslavian history, mixed with visions and dreams, here in a richly textured, sometimes uniquely nightmarish, apotheosis of the Insole (and if you have read the Insole as I have read the Insole, you will know what I mean), a dream of ladders on apple trees like gallows, a “veiled and hidden” vision or memory of one’s father and his tales, a whole family’s backstory, Katya’s own sense of her own reincarnation, medlars and pedlars, the star-bear, “faithlessness and betrayal”, “kinship of the Thracian horse”, “a savage insouciance”, “Ottoman incursion”, “an ecstatic fusion of horse and rider”, “collaborators and opportunists”….the collaboratorism and opportunism provided by gestalt real-time reviewing?

  10. VALERIE

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    “We snuggled deep into her armchairs, their stuffing oozing through the fabric, dunking our stale biscuits into weak milky tea.”

    But the snuggly book eventually has words in this work that “twist, elongate and concertina—“, with echoes of the half-twins of THE BINDING, binding an unholy holism and crystallising a family secret of shame. Yet a holy nostalgia as recompense, a dark nostalgia, but still a nostalgia. This is a mighty mighty novelette, achingly beautiful as a written garden of paradoxically luxuriant words in the shape of “faded glamour” and dried flowers and discovering obliquely secret byways of houses and unknown landscapes of childhood amid the otherwise familiar, a novelette never to be forgotten, as we meet the girl narrator during the thawing of the great 1963 snows that I remember well as a person five years older than the narrator and Valerie, a foster child who was taken on by the narrator’s parents for an endless seven months, or it seemed endless at the start. I cannot tell everything that makes this an undoubted classic of literature. The glimpses of the ghosts and real slanting faces of time and ringmaster and monster and more. It teems with everything that makes it great, if that makes any sense. It is utterly unmissable. [And a blue cushion as a recurring figment.] [It mentions Richmal Crompton’s William Brown. I would mention Evadne Price’s girl version of that boy in a similar era: Jane Turpin. And just one other aspect struck a chord with me. The narrator’s now dead-eyed parents whom she discovers by dint of photos and other keepsakes were originally lightsome and social creatures. My own parents were lightsome and sociable, too, till the arrival of television halted them in their tracks in the 1950s, with them spending each evening in front of it with swollen drooping eyelids…]

    This book is a major collection of rich story-telling prose to be treasured, not only to be felt deeply with a sense of darkness but also to be mutually harnessed by some yearning for an inexplicable joy.

    end

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