Strange Tales: Tartarus Press at 30

Tartarus Press 2020

Edited by Rosalie Parker

My previous reviews of this publisher:

Stories by Rebecca Lloyd, Mark Valentine, Andrew Michael Hurley, N.A. Sulway, Stephen Volk, Inna Effress, Ibrahim R. Ineke, Eric Stener Carlson, Jonathan Preece, Tom Heaton, J.M. Walsh, Angela Slatter, John Gaskin, D.P. Watt, Karen Heuler, John Linwood Grant, Carly Holmes.

When I read this book, my thoughts will appear in the comment stream below…

26 thoughts on “Strange Tales: Tartarus Press at 30

  1. GRASSMAN by Rebecca Lloyd

    “, her eyes strayed across to Cauldred’s massive head. She calculated that as big as her hands were, it would take a necklace times four of them to span the reddened girth of his neck.”

    Tom Boulder tells the two sisters something about the Grassman, one sister 16, the other 14, the former plain, the latter pretty, and that something he tells turns out, for me, significant, and I remembered it even as far as the closing feast in the Field of Boulders. And at the later finale, I also somehow remembered the above quote from the text from much earlier in this bewilderingly haunting story, bewildering unless you can read between the lines and between the hoods and faces and fears, especially the fearful hold that men have on the women. But which man is which? And perhaps that ‘hold’ ends here in reverse, amid this tale of a Wicker Man type community legend. A seaside and family story that has an uncanny strength — as if it has written itself from a hidden leasehold of inner strength as facilitated by its freehold author.

    by Mark Valentine

    “…diagrams which plotted out the extent to which pedestrians walked straight ahead, and when they swerved to avoid each other,…”

    We all seem to be at the of end of Alpha Street, today, aka Eve Garnett’s One End Street? Waiting for the chance piece of paper with a map on it to blow our way. To show our way.
    Rest assured this is a Mark Valentine masterpiece. I should know. And I will leave you to read it, to discover its homely charms, its William Trevor like characters and the nature of the street where they live with a waste paper company at its end, and the visiting, almost prying, narrator with ambitions to share the minutiae of personal superstitions. And the memorable, if low-key, nature of those superstitions. If he visited me, I would have deemed him a scammer, but I know more about him through the good offices of Mark Valentine, so let it rest at that.
    Just one personal superstition of my own that came to mind as I read through this story’s account of its own ‘microethnomethodology’, i.e. my gestalt-real time reviewing, my fearless faith in fiction but also my phobia of possibly descrying the wrong minutiae of a work’s leitmotifs to craft my hugely pretentious literary theories about a particular work…

    “: and those at the darker end who lived beneath the high wall and within the influence of the waste-paper depot, where words and pictures were compressed and baled and twined and made ready to become something else, as these words will be, sooner or later.”

    My previous reviews of this author:

  3. HUNGER by Andrew Michael Hurley

    “The hook had gone in awkwardly at the hinge of the fish’s mouth…”

    …as a sort of Angler’s faux pas. At least, elsewhere, the earlier hospice owners made sure the food served in over-generous dollops on huge plates was cooked properly! Here, however, hunger eventually becomes so great, even rawness might suffice. This story’s influence on me whereby my reading hook unpardonably worries at its edges till my nerves likewise fray. A story of a wayside French community of a town where Julian has been invited to stay by Stewart whose house it is where he is staying and Stewart who will turn up later, Julian expects — but, meanwhile, Julian is keen on the prospect of fishing in the relatably angleable river there. He later perceives a diaspora of the townspeople from not so much the Houses of the Russians nor even of the Angles, but from the Houses of the local Frenchfolk as a hidden lore unto themselves — Houses that Julian discovers having been abruptly bereft of all their stored kitchen food as well as of their inhabitants. Faim was the spur? Unpardonable, meanwhile, the prospect of my own faux pas which is almost a religious sacrilege when saying anything more about this story might spoil your reading experience. So I must leave it there. Other than perhaps to mention the dismantling of the cartwheel, thus made to seem more like residue than something integral. And, oh yes, the Houses’ windows had unmatching volets.

    My previous reviews of this author:

  4. …and thus, perhaps significantly, we read on to:
    The only way of showing respect for somebody suffering from hunger is to give them something to eat.” — Simone Weil (1943)
    – a quote derived from…

    Tell me, whacher, is it winter? by N.A.Sulway

    “That truth became, like a seed whose provenance is unknown, a kind of weed that must be quarantined in case it flourishes and overtakes the world.”

    “We are, she said, solitary monsters. Our memories and our madness all our own.”

    ‘Hongerwinter’, that winter in the title. A second world war war whereby some ate their own hands? Whether marzipan or real hands.
    And I wonder if stories these days have the tantalisingly evoked impenetrability of the co-vivid about them because the reader, such as me, is now part of that co-vivid as I read it, or because, with sufficient time having now elapsed since the co-vivid arrived, at least some stories we now read were actually written under co-vivid circumstances themselves …. or both these things?
    This story is ultra-tantalising, even frustrating, with a real mother or an ‘oma’ or ‘Oma’ or ‘Ombra’ and some words misspelt or antique like ‘whacher’, and even a possible typo, “it’s beak”, and more, with Dantean references. Nevertheless, this is an utterly absorbable text through osmosis as well as via a veneer of understanding, as we share the fingers we eat and then the knuckles (see my reference to fingers and knuckles and germs earlier today here in ‘Bulk’ before reading this Sulway). There is much graceful writing in this work where I imagined flayings as well as flensings and other nightmares, that have all come to a perfectly imperfect expression here with a teenage girl on drugs and visions of more than one mother and who hungers from some wartime’s archetype in the world history that provides a dark umbrella of osmosis around her.

    “Some ghosts are shadows of the future.”

    My previous reviews of this author:

  5. C50EF9F4-21EE-47A6-8B64-FADC1F8AB71DTHE FLICKERING LIGHT by Stephen Volk

    “Maybe ghosts don’t believe in God either,”

    C871D1AC-196A-4CB2-9E2D-A785985A3C76A quiet, effectively thoughtful story about brashly name-checked art as well as minimal art, a dinner party of well-characterised OCD-factored preparations and the flickering lights emblemising the hosting, ghosting couple themselves. Their guests are two archetypal male-female pairs, and I doubt if I would have a dinner party with such people, but one must have sympathy for people just being people, I guess. The male host is a well-known architect like a God with his control of ghosts in a stark modernist rhombus of a building…but who controls whom, what what, amid the imminent or the immanent?

    My other reviews of this author:

  6. NERVOUS SYSTEM by Inna Effress

    “The stingy always pay twice.”

    This is an ‘extreme eating’ restaurant experience though the evocative eyes of one of its waitstaff, Vera, whose parental heritage has more than its own sting in the tail. Or the tentacle. And the ratty detritus outside the restaurant as well as in one’s own backstory. The cooking of live octopus and the need to chew it rather than swallow. You will probably never forget the description of the training session vis à vis serving this dish, well, not as positively forgetful as Vera turns out to be! And the nervous system of the octopus itself a newly effective symbol for CO-vivid transmission through the Jungian gestalt of us all?
    In welcome mutual-synergy with these prepared food fiction books I happened very recently to review:

    My previous reviews of Inna Effress:

  7. …and, so, seamlessly, from Inna to Ineke, via ‘BIRTH of Cephalopods’ by Mark Rothko…


    WHAT IT SAYS by Ibrahim R. Ineke

    With my “arrogating this wholeness”, midwiving the child of meaning, hunted and hunter as one, amid a schoolboy’s co-vivid “dreamtime”, and the quite innocently resonating feelings of a complex life within this boy and his thoughts of his mother, his vying ‘uncles’ as suitors for her sex, more wildly DHLawrencian or werewolf-feral than Lovecraftian, belying Ineke with my instinctive inky cephalopod reference prelude above. Rothko is, however, explicitly significant, of course. But the muddling of Birch and Birth still gives me much food for thought. That house on the gratuitous ridge. Children see more than us, certainly more than me. The dirt under the words. A ‘shabby’ house on the ridge and a ‘shoddy side-table’. Never for him to enter any uncle’s less shoddy mansion of promised meaning? ‘Summer as a nesting Russian Doll’, a brilliant conceit, just on its own. A significant story bearing a different meaning for each reader, meanings that need triangulating by whatever bespoke reading process is necessary for reading it at all.

    “Being and form are a crossroads.”

    A photo of a previous book (Half-Blood) that I read by Ibrahin R. Ineke, with a sort of Rothko image in its background?

  8. MONSIEUR MACHINE by Eric Stener Carlson

    “But I slowly realised the truth — the way things had lost their taste, the way the air had grown stale, and how a sense of unreality hovered over me constantly. I’d died on the operating table, but no one had the heart to tell me. They’d moved my stomach and intestines and filled my veins with antifreeze.”

    …a strange premonition, I guess, alongside the “riots in Belarus.” Yet, that is not even a small part of this story, it is a broken check on Madame X’s cheek typo amid a portrait of a conductor of broken things, bits of a machine in the workings of God. Even a door lock to the lockdown that is more like a clock than a lock. A proof of God as immovable Mover followed by a Deepening even beyond God (towards the gestalt I have long sought?), that God is just another cog, a proof beyond proof somehow proved by a type of Damian Murphy like ritual quest, including ‘The Editor’ (Romania is explicitly mentioned) and a particular missing book, the Editor as a Mover in this quest, and works by Alice A Bailey that I read for myself in the 1970s. This Carlson is a significant fiction that needs its significance taken for granted as well as later slowly absorbed and realised. Many striking passages of machine parts and instinctive linkages with our own times, but I wouldn’t mind guessing that it was written before 2020 started.

    “If I had an appetite, I would find it distasteful.”

    “He sees things no one else can. He sees through things.”

    Afraid that I might not find the answer here, but equally afraid that I will find it!

    “He coughed, ‘I’ve decided to retrieve his book for you.’”

    My previous reviews of this author:


    “I am shopping trolley and I live in lovely Cwmbran
    Please wheel me carefully, like you would a pram . . .”

    An engagingly amusing account of a poetry slush-pile reader and secondhand bookseller in Cwmbram, involving his co-vivid dream of his encounters in that town with Brautigan, Bellow and Toole, from the In-Seine to an “insane fountain.” Or like all co-vivid dreams, was it real, too? Or was it a leasehold fiction of truth from a freehold author about literary/publishing satire and other meta-Breakfast Specials? I found I once wrote a brief blog post in 2013 about Brautigan and it seems highly revelatory to link to it here:, unless I, too, am dreaming up false intentional fallacies. A plague on amateur poems, meanwhile!

  10. THE WOMEN by Tom Heaton

    “I knew that if she reached the house, twisted the antique handle of the door, was suddenly bound by the same walls, then I would stop breathing, that asphyxiation would be sudden and inexorable.”

    A satisfyingly stylish, constructively old-fashioned prose as honed by depicting a less old-fashioned, almost modernistic and clotted co-vivid dream of a woman’s building of scenarios with her dolls, depicting feral countryside after an even crueller city, Jungian nightmares instead of real bullies, the various womenfolk that featured in her life and her father, with a stolen notebook’s “professional distance” of narration, paradoxically making the inferred emotions more powerful. A “peculiar marriage of sweet and vulgar sounds”, gross memories with, factored into them, her future desperate attempts to die in whatever institution she ended up transcending past hopes of life changes and past battles against environmental disaster. I wonder if we all end up under the edge of the medical equipment her father sold? Do we undergo other people’s penances? The danger of seemingly mere puddles? “…I could not hope to draw air.” Miniature ships between mountains of mud?

    “Every word was part of the pattern that I began to perceive.”

  11. MEIKO by J.M. Walsh

    “…and all he had to work with were the bigger shards of the larger whole—“

    By dint of what I have long called ‘the synchronised shards of random truth and fiction’, this is the perfect story, a real discovery, a sheer mischievous delight. No hesitation in stating that fact. It also blends, inter alios, this book’s earlier architectural faith’s tutelage of a flickering light, the secrets of Alpha Street, and the clock within a lock of Monsieur Machine, here it being a cuckoo clock embedded within something as diversely multi-levelled as sexual wood and perhaps a shared worm. The young precocious Lucy amid the secret passages of a giant house where guests — each with their conundrum of a role in the world, and why they are invited here — are as intriguing as this very story about them. Her spying on them from within the vents of rooms. And one particular guest she spies on when he is alone with the eponymous ‘doll’ as female ‘valet’. And eventually Lucy’s chastisement. Too dangerous to reveal anything else here, but fully revealed the workings of this work must be, when you ineluctably, during your life, reach the reading of it and its “inner materials”, its “accretion of patterns.”

  12. THE GATHERING by John Gaskin

    “I know, but I dreamt about him — at least I think they were dreams.”

    Dreams used to be for other people, like Old Testament prophets or any Freudians left, but now they are for all of us? Even for people concerned with what matters in the world? This is a page-turning, civilisingly old-fashioned ghost story in a large turreted house in the middle of nowhere, a scenario perhaps to be turned into an opera by Britten, if not a symphonic poem by Scriabin, where a slowly dying octogenarian gentleman is helped by the ‘boys’ he employs to do so. The story also tells of the eventual drive — through a heavy rain front’s swelling, by inference, of the flow of ineluctable time’s river — to this house by two members of the increasingly suitable-named Torpids club that was founded by a rowing eight from university days. A club that is a spiritual Tontine of death’s reach, if not of a singular survival beyond it? The gathering at the house, of which these two octogenarians are guests, is to witness the playing out of the Tontine. With the last pressure in the lungs or a heady river smell of rot that soon steeps deep within us all, I feel.

    “…an impression of cosy warmth.”

    My previous review of this author:

  13. THE WARDIAN CASE by D.P. Watt

    “It was a mixture of stench; rotting meat, faeces and mould. What possessed me to enter I cannot fathom — duty, professional curiosity, or some weird fascination that overpowers all reason; a drive within us all towards darkness and oblivion.” [A quote, incidentally, that might equally have come from the previous story above!]

    They are thoughts I ask myself often especially when I put each studied and critiqued fiction in its miniature glasshouse case. Indeed, I have thousands such now. Whether this is also a ‘theme and variations’ on the Case of Charles Dexter Ward and/or Sherlock Holmes or on The Collector by John Fowles, it is a commendably compelling and imaginative ‘pulp mad scientist’ horror story wherein the science is botany and the intended exhibits women.

    My previous reviews of this author:

  14. DF8B29AA-22D2-4F3A-9923-258CC2C1EB5D

    Death and the Afterlife: A Chronological Journey, from Cremation to Quantum Resurrection

    THE AFTERLIFE OF BOOKS by Karen Heuler

    In wonderful mutual-synergy with Shearman’s Censor’s Report here, and vice versa like a filter that works both ways, this Heuler is an unforgettable Kafkaesque portrait of two people sorting through books that are dead people’s enervating and pretty uniformly smug life-works of autobiography, written in some limbo of the afterlife, perhaps ‘auto’ being the operative word! Including, eventually, picking over each other’s books when they are replaced in this picking over work by going up into their own chute which ironically is somewhere above! I find chutes usually go downward when one is discarding something, not upward: and this is more than just a desultory picking over of books but more what I might call a non-uniformed Heuler’s hawling between optima of books we know are not just ones from an undistinguished crowd. Not burnt, but resurrected by quantum gestalt real-time reviewing as FICTION. Give Me Strength.

    My previous review of this author’s own book:

  15. THESE PALE AND FRAGILE SHELLS by John Linwood Grant

    “Schoenberg played on broken flutes.”

    …or Hugh Wood’s ‘Scenes from Comus’ wherein I imagine the gulls are in diaspora from terror at the prospect — rather than merely being spooked by sounds — of actually being cooked and eaten for a civilised dinner or especially for a banquet with guests’ shooted-up sidesnorts of hallucinatory chalkiness amid the glib sexualities of some of these gathered sculptors in a large house by the sea, men with wondrously exaggerated envies and acrimonies. Apatite as a legendary means to assuage confused frustrations here in itself frustrated, and coccoliths hooning, where hoon means acting like a hooligan as well as now being a neologism for an insidious sound. This mighty story, on its upper surface, tells us of an art installation built from the chalk landscape near the house in the same way, I feel, that Christo and Jeanne-Claude may have built it. As if the Rushmore Presidents had been resculpted into a land mass with braying noises from natural forces of wind and weather, burying, for me, an added version of a recent Potus in the form of this story’s gestalt sculptor, burying them in their own sound mire and into the Earth’s crumbling, once hedonistically perfect, whiteness. Self is fed to self, symbolised by ‘Iscariot’ now being fed to himself — in the same way as I imagine we writers were equally chuted-up in the previous story! No idle scrimshaw this stirring Linwood Grant story. A new Dunwich?

    My previous reviews of this author:

  16. 44C2DE7A-BF5B-4CC8-8579-E59C38F9D3AE

    COLLECTABLE by Reggie Oliver

    “I knew that all of us have a tendency to forge a meaning out of mere coincidence,…”

    I do not believe there is any such thing as mere coincidence. Well, whatever the case, I do believe this to be a classic Reggie Oliver theatrical tale, one with an even deeper poignancy when one takes into account the plight of actors today, worse even than the circumstances for some of them in the past. This work literally had me in tears, at the events themselves and at the manner in which they are couched. A tale of the narrator who is an actor between parts, as it were, here getting a position in a Croydon residential home for elderly actors, one of them being a forgotten actress nonagenarian with whom, by coincidence, he had recently fallen in love, by dint of buying postcards of her in her past heyday roles. The auras he thus evokes for both of them (or effectively evoked by both of them in some rarefied collusion) are thus contained within a co-vivid dream of her past theatrical experiences, one event in particular, after the narrator found an old recording of her performing a song and playing it back to her, a song that this story makes unforgettable, the song’s naïve lines turned, by incantatory refrain, into pure poetry of golden memory and romantic sadness. (The narrator himself is fulsomely characterised, by these events and also by a later coincidental fling with the actress’s elegantly flighty niece.)

    “‘Page 113,’ she said.”

    My previous reviews of this author:

  17. My previous reviews of the following author:

    FLOOD by Carly Holmes

    “But she knew she needn’t fear the water, she just had to give herself to it, trust it.”

    A powerful, attritional portrait of an ageing woman left behind in a severe rain-induced river flood of her house and surroundings in the village’s valley, left even by her husband, left alone with her two cats named Drift — (strangely while just reading this story I was listening to Radio 3’s Breakfast programme when they suddenly played, among the classical music items, the spooky IT’S RAINING TODAY as sung by Scott Walker; please check their on-line playlist if you want to verify this) — and Flight. “…the urge to name things and pin them down, make them knowable, was uniquely human.” As she does, pinning down swollen veins as if self-harming is a form of self-helping. This flood now a symbol of our times, symbols perhaps pinning things down better than literalism. The teasing out of her own “microethnomethodology”? She has voile on her windows in contradistinction to the fisherman’s volets earlier above. “Chalky spume” to match Linwood Grant’s overflow? “…the weight of true isolation.” How old is she, this woman, 60? Not ageing at all.

    “The world would revert to what it had been.”

    Worthy of thirty years of the tremendous Tartarus. Here’s to the next thirty.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s