Portraits of Ruin by Joseph S. Pulver Sr. Book review

Portraits of RuinPORTRAITS OF RUIN by Joseph S. Pulver Sr.,

Hippocampus Press, p/b, $20.00, http://tinyurl.com/cwszqtc

Reviewed by David Brzeski

Joe Pulver is a one-off. His novel, ‘The Orphan Palace’, which I reviewed a while back, was my personal choice for best novel of 2011, even if it didn’t actually sweep the board for awards. Not enough people read the book, or it surely would have.

This is his third collection of stories. They’re not your usual fare for a horror collection. Pulver’s poetic prose is frankly awe-inspiring. His plots are vague, to say the least. The underlying power of cosmic horror, as written by Lovecraft and his peers, was always the sense of otherness, of man being an insignificant speck in the vastness of creation. Pulver gets this on an instinctive level and somehow transfers it to the reader by osmosis as they read the words. That’s not to say that the stories in this book are necessarily cosmic horror, or particularly Lovecraftian. His protagonists seem to exist in a universe over which they have little control, or understanding, which is what inspires me to draw that comparison. It’s not fiction as we know it, but somehow it’s never difficult to read. It flows organically in a way that gets under the reader’s skin.

I started this review, in my normal manner for a book of short stories, by making notes on each story as I read them. It wasn’t long before I came to realise that this method simply wasn’t going to work in this case. For one thing, there are a lot of stories in this extraordinary book, so there’s no way I could mention them all. In more than a few cases, to try to describe the story would be to pretty much retell it, and that would serve no one.

One could describe Joe Pulver’s work as challenging. Those who share some of Pulver’s tastes will have an easier time working out what is going on in some of the tales in this book. He is a major fan of the ‘King in Yellow’ stories of Robert W. Chambers, and this, along with the films of David Lynch, informs his work to a great degree. I had to read a few of the stories more than once before I got a handle on them. His protagonists tend to range from damaged to completely insane, and Pulver gets into their heads brilliantly. No-one has ever written train of thought from the perspective of madness better than Pulver. He often writes in a sort of prose beat-poetry style, which is just coherent enough for the reader to follow; the result is very powerful. The way his writing absolutely does follow a sort of logic, just not a familiar logic, is very clever. I don’t know of many writers who could pull it off. Hell, I’ve read more than one writer who has tried and fallen headlong into the murky ditch of pretentiousness.

Having used the words “train of thought” to describe the way Pulver writes, I have to qualify my statement. Every word, every space, every punctuation mark in his work is of equal importance. There’s nothing “off the top of his head” about this stuff. It’s painstakingly crafted.

I sincerely hope I haven’t put too many readers off the book, here. Yes, it can be challenging, but it is oh so very worth it. Don’t be frightened to give it a go. Sit back, relax, don’t think too hard and just let the words seep into your consciousness.

Joseph Pulver is a unique voice in modern fiction. Help me spread the word.