Bastards of the Absolute by Adam S. Cantwell. Book review

Bastards of the Absolute by Adam S. Cantwell, Egaeus Press, 2015, h/b £32

Reviewed by Simon Ives

This is a delight of a book.  It comprises ten short stories and a novella, “Orphans on Granite Tides” and invokes only the best of the format’s writers; Borges, James, Lovecraft and Poe.

The style throughout is gothic.  Settings include castles, dungeons and cave complexes and the scenes are often oppressive, emphasised by the lack of light, overbearing rooms and inclement weather.  The protagonists are in the main troubled artists, as often as not thwarted in their ambition and endeavours.  Authors and composers feature as well as a trade agent and a book hound.  Most are European and in the main the stories themselves are set in the first half of the 20th Century Europe, featuring evocative cities such as Berlin, Paris and Helsinki.  Exceptions are “The Filature”, a tale of a German businessman exiled to China to conduct interminable negotiations with a sadistic factory owner and “Orphans on Granite Tides” which revolves around the supposed journal of a Native American mystic.

Each tale involves fantasy, horror and the bizarre.  They are told in the first person in classic gothic styles. Journal and diaries feature strongly, as do letters and the transcript of an interrogation.  The literature and classical music of the period are explored and there is a constant struggle between the traditional and orthodox conservatism and the new and revolutionary movements typical of the period.

So what are the stories about?  “The Face in the Wall” centres on, well, a face in a wall.  “The Notched Sword” is set in Warsaw in 1939 and features a double agent who, whilst riding a horse, is literally split vertically in two.  Not that it stops him (them?) from carrying on his life and work.  The protagonist of “Moonpaths of the Departed” is a composer, recovering from a breakdown, enticed to a mid-European castle built upon a series of prehistoric caverns.  What he witnesses down there influences him to compose a dark and dangerous work that has unexpected effects on those who hear it and lead to him fleeing for his life.

I cannot conclude without remarking on the splendid presentation of this book.  It features illustrations by Charles Schneider and cover and endpapers by Eduard Wiiralt.  Like the stories themselves, they are grotesque, beautiful, complex and haunting and reward repeat visits to fully appreciate their worth.