The Felicity of Epigones by Derek John. Book review

The Felicity of Epigones by Derek John, Published by Egaeus Press 2016. A Keynote Edition. ISBN 978-0-993527814. Price £22.00

Reviewed by Nigel Robert Wilson

As a marketing device the Keynote Edition is a cunning plan. Each book is packaged in a particular way suggesting both antiquity and quality. Furthermore, the edition is limited. In this case to 275 copies. The idea of a collector’s item with a second-hand value is implied.

During the Thirties my maternal grandfather was a voracious second-hand dealer in just about anything he could get his grubby, often thieving, hands on. This included small quantities of such special editions which my mother purloined in turn because of her simple love of books. As the inheritor of her library I have had to employ my sternest puritan nature to donate these sentimental and often pigskin bound volumes to Oxfam.

The concocted Forward and Afterword wrap this collection of stories around with a dolorous atmosphere including some amiable references to items that appear in the actual stories. The presentation is a device calculated to exploit a sense of intimacy, if not conspiracy between the writer and the reader. A former boss of mine once said there is nothing like a perception of value to excite the punter. I can only guess this is the purpose of the Keynote Edition. Who in their right mind would choose to be a publisher these days? A hiding to nothing, I fear. Good luck to them all!

This is a fascinating set of six short, macabre stories involving both humour and a shrewd observation of the human condition. In some there is an invocation of the late M R James, whereas in others there is an original insight into human nature that can both horrify and amuse. Most of the stories have been previously published elsewhere.

`A Tale from Bede’ is about a Sunday morning car boot sale at Wandlebury Camp. Immediately a sudden image of the late T C `Gogmagog’ Lethbridge wandering around the slopes looking for buried gods, springs happily to mind, along with all those questions that possess me at any car boot sale. How much? For that? You see, I am only a generation removed from second hand dealing myself. Yet still the gods beckon! The story recounts a crying Action Man, the insane expectations of the sellers of crockery and the absence of customers. Then at a dealer’s table our hero comes across an Apostles’ spoon, buys it for a quid only to notice that due to wear and tear the Apostle seems to be screaming.

`Le Frotteur de Livres’ is a hilarious, if bizarre, tale about a man who derived sexual gratification from books. No, not pornography, but the very book itself. Are we back to the concept of the Keynote Edition? The older or more arcane the book might be, excites the fellow even more. Once caught out the `frotteur’ is consigned to a criminal lunatic asylum. This is in Paris of the Thirties so once France falls to `les sals Boches’ our man is released as they want the prisons for other purposes.  Following the vile Drancy expulsion of the Jews to Auschwitz, our man contrives to acquire an antiquarian library. As a consequence, he acquires a full carnal knowledge of the Necronomicon.

In `Our Deep Vaulted Cell’ a retired English couple purchase an old medieval castle off the beaten track in rural Italy. They accidentally discover a chapel hidden under the courtyard. On the encouragement of the local parish priest, who is not what he appears to be, they open up the chapel for worship. Now at this point all the ingredients for a superb Jamesian-style classic are in place. Naively this reviewer looked to a feast as the location was right, the atmosphere was superb, the proprietors naïve, the priest evidently venal, a holy relic duly hidden and a Satanic history implied. Sadly, due to too much confusing detail the story deteriorates into Denis Wheatley, even to the point where the Red Brigades are involved. Obviously the tale does not end well which is suitably satisfactory but more by tedious contrivance than anything else. A faster and shorter denouement would have been so much more successful.

`Oblivion’ starts with the line `It is Tuesday the 43rd of March and I have hanged myself’. Brilliant! It then recounts a tale of a line of local squires in East Anglia with their own back door into Tir na Nog, the legendary land of eternal summer and timeless indulgence. This is a truly original tale deserving commendation. A very unique story about time itself, its very nature, coupled to the perils and loneliness of immortality. A truly excellent story.

`A Note from the Archives’ is a delicious if tongue-in-cheek tale of a film archivist recovering a seemingly lost film that had been started in Communist Poland in the Fifties but failed to progress to completion due to dissidence and drunkenness. Additional portions of the film keep arriving by post in increasingly degenerate forms as the would-be producer’s funds run out. The story and the film concludes in London of the Nineties with a strange denouement.

`Cosmogony of Desire’ is a very sensitive tale as to the modern history of some of the paintings of the late Gustav Klimt. These works were confiscated by the Nazis from their original Jewish owners and stored in an Austrian castle. During the final days of Herr Hitler’s ghastly little Reich, the castle and its contents were blown up. A fragment of a painting survives to be carried from one person to another in a strange accidental progression. This tale is worthy of Alan Moorhead’s `Eclipse’ (published 1945) and W John Koch’s `No Escape’ (published 2004) where the horror and peril of war, defeat and collapse are enunciated by witnesses and participants. A truly memorable tale.

This is a decent if small set of very imaginative stories, well written and, dare I say it, uniquely presented. The title means the `happiness of an undistinguished imitator’. This is too modest for such a grandiloquent presentation. The price is a lot for six short stories but as always the publisher seems optimistic.