Defeated Dogs by Quentin S. Crisp, Eibonvale, h/c, £23.00/p/b, £9.50, Website
Reviewed by David Brzeski
I’ve been promising to get around to reviewing one of Quentin S. Crisp’s collections for quite some time now. Too many books, too little time. But I’ve finally got around to it and I have to say, it was worth the wait. Having said that, it was also a daunting prospect, as the brilliant introduction by Brendan Connell says everything I might wish to say in a far more erudite manner than I could ever hope to achieve.
The book opens with ‘The Fairy Killer’. Fairy stories, retold or otherwise, seem to be big these days and, for the most part, they don’t generally appeal to me. This one is an exception. More than that, I will state that it’s the best fairy-related story I’ve read in a long, long time. Young Faye Brion believes in fairies. This brings her into conflict with her Uncle Jamie, a logic-obsessed rationalist who simply couldn’t bear to let his little niece’s nonsense beliefs go unchallenged. I loved it right up to the wonderfully chilling last line.
In ‘Dreamspace’, Lester, a divorcee, takes his small daughter, Clara, to the current fairground sensation—a sort of cross between a bouncy castle and an art installation. What follows is a truly disturbing and terrifying experience, which ends in tragedy. Much of modern horror has lost its teeth through the readership’s over familiarity with the standard scary bug-bears. Here, Crisp reacquaints us with that primal fear of the unknown and unknowable. It’s the sort of story that could well inspire long discussions as to what actually happened.
‘Tzimtzum’ is quite challenging to describe. It involves dreams and a grail quest of sorts—albeit to offload it, rather than find it—and a search for purpose/inspiration/motivation, which seems to be the real quest of the piece. Reminiscent of John Cowper Powys and Gustav Meyrink (I take the latter on faith, as I haven’t yet read any Meyrink, but this story first appeared in a Meyrink tribute anthology) it is , however, pure Crisp at his most eccentric/eclectic.
I was tempted to email Quentin S. Crisp and ask him how much, if any of ‘Sado-Ga-Shima’ was actually fiction. It’s convincingly believable, and reads very like a factual travelogue, although I doubt that Mr Crisp is even capable of writing anything as dry as that suggests. In the end, I decided it didn’t matter if it were fact, fiction, or a combination of the two. Many of us have experienced places that give us a sense of the eerie, the weird, or just plain wrongness. Here the narrator and his brother visit an Island in the Japanese sea that delivers such feeling in spades. I challenge anyone to read this without sharing at least some of the anxiety of the narrator.
‘The Gay Wolf’ is a very personal piece, comprising as it does much of the philosophy of the author, or to be more precise his rejection of the common aspirations of western life. His acceptance that the philosophy of his contemporaries would label him (and I, most certainly) as a loser is, if a little bleak, as empowering as it is damning.
‘The Temple’ is a nice, atmospheric fantasy tale, which will appeal to Lord Dunsany fans. It’s hard to say much more about this short piece without giving the plot away.
‘Lilo’ is the longest story in the book, and possibly the most complex. It’s science fiction of the sort that will appeal to fans of Philip K. Dick, or ‘The Prisoner’. Reality and illusion are confused/confusing. Glenn is an immortal—a plastic doll—an author, except the written word has all but died out. Glenn is a dream writer (the author’s insecurities regarding his chosen art are once again central to the story). As Brendan Connell states in his introduction, Crisp has a deep suspicion of anything digital. This unease with advances in virtual media is at the heart of this story, something which is made quite plain when he refers to the periodic treatments needed to cope with immortality as “rekindling”.
‘Non-Attachment’ is a story that will take a few re-readings, before I can really get a handle on it, I think. Lec has died and, having not fallen foul of certain temptations, is on his way to a heaven—if he passes a final test—which looks suspiciously like hell to me.
I found ‘The Broadsands Eyrie’ a little difficult to review. Not that it’s bad, but I’m simply not quite sure what to make of it. It has become obvious, while reading this collection, that much of it is autobiographical, just as much of it examines the author’s own philosophy and his thoughts on writing—often to the extent that the reader is left unclear as to how much of it is truth, and how much is fiction. Here we have musings on lost dreams of a happier time in the author’s life. Beautifully written, it evokes the underlying magic of nature better than most things I’ve read.
Finally, we come to ‘The Gwyllgi of the Lost Lanes’, a very Jamesian story, based on “The Black Dog” legends. I was captivated by the clever way Quentin S. Crisp managed to tell a story, so much in the style of the period ghost stories of M.R. James, and yet have it set in the modern day—with roads bearing cars just yards away from “The Lost Lanes”. I was almost disappointed to discover that this was one of the four tales original to this collection, as such an excellent example of the sub-genre of ghost stories would likely find its way into the hands of more readers had it been published in a collection of similarly themed material. ‘The Fairy Killer’ had remained my favourite tale in the book right up until the point where ‘The Gwyllgi of the Lost Lanes’ knocked it off that pedestal.
Quentin S. Crisp delights, informs, disturbs and confuses in equal measure. Really, what more could a discerning reader ask for?