Rhys Hughes, The Smell of Telescopes. Eibonvale Press, 2008. Pp. 464. £22.99.Reviewed by Sarah Ann Watts
‘I arched an eyebrow. It remained arched for the rest of the day – I was determined to anticipate any more impossibilities. Sighing, I made an appeal: “Has anyone got any bright ideas? Wan ones will suffice.”’
So speaks Giovanni Ciao, narrator of ‘The Hush of Falling Houses’ and citizen of Lladloh in just one of the twenty six interlaced stories that make up The Smell of Telescopes. It isn’t easy to read 460 pages with an arched eyebrow but it might be prudent. However I defy anyone to anticipate the trove of ‘impossibilities’ that this collection contains and that Rhys Hughes lays out so generously for our delectation and delight. Wan ideas may suffice for Giovanni but his creator is unlikely to settle for anything so mundane – these stories are all amusing, inventive and absurd.
We begin in Ingolstadt where Fraulein Radcliffe is endeavouring to persuade a recalcitrant bank clerk to open a student account for her. Many of us will have fond memories of similar interviews while seeking a sympathetic home for our grant cheques. Fraulein Radcliffe – studying Sociology and Reanimation - has to deal with old fashioned prejudice in that the clerk refuses to accept that she, as a woman, can really be a student. “Begone! Take your provocative bosom and radical egalitarianism away!” ‘The Banker of Ingolstadt’ is a tale of the unexpected that sets the bar for the rest of the collection and concludes with one of many inspired final lines.
The second story is ‘Ten Grim Bottles’ set in the village of Lladloh where ‘the uncanny is a part of every day life.’ Here we meet Emyr the landlord, Hywel the baker, Elizabeth Morgan the fiery witch of cobweb cottage and the local poet who has been denied planning permission to extend his – small - ego. It begins: ‘I want to tell a story about the cannibal who lives under our stone bridge but first I need some characters and a pot – I mean a plot.’ Who could resist such an opening?
In the next story we meet a pirate barber, Spermaceti Whiskers where we learn that ‘A corsair’s etiquette is that of a vicar; only the quality of china is different’. Other members of Henry Morgan’s immortal pirate crew are the eponymous heroes of their own stories: Lanolin Brows, Muscovado Lashes, Thanatology Spleen and Omophagia Ankles.
‘The Blue Dwarf’ is a Faustian tale introducing the fateful love triangle between Gruffydd and Myfanwy and Owain ap Iorwerth , and featuring trousers, lost souls, a clock, a carrot and blueberry pie.
So it goes on – characters slip in and out of each other’s stories like friends dropping into the ‘local’ inn – perhaps The Plucked Eyeball in the quaintly named village of Purloin My Liver where the ales are a little too real for comfort – ‘Leprous Pustule, Purple Haemorrhage, Garrotted Baby, Witch Burn, Eat My Cousin and Twisted Ear.’ How the eyeball came to be plucked and the village to be named are mysteries that will be revealed in ‘The Yellow Imp’.
The stories range through many strange landscapes from Lladloh to Monmouth to the wilds of Shropshire, Cornwall and Yorkshire. In ‘Depressurised Ghost Story’ the narrator takes us on an expedition from Colchester to Tibet and urges us to ‘stay close to my prose’. ‘The Haunted Womb’ features a true phantom pregnancy and in ‘Telegram Ma’am’, tradition is the mother of invention. Perhaps my favourite story is the wonderful ‘Bridge Over Troubled Blood’ with Mrs Robinson, Artery Garfunkle and Appalling Simon and there is also the surreal brilliance of ‘Burke and Rabbit’.
Rhys Hughes’ writing is brilliant and inventive and carries us along in a sparkling stream of stories that reflect and complement each other. In ‘Nothing More Common’ Mr Hugo Bloat, ‘an oddity among antique collectors’ asks the proprietor of the Trevaunance Point Hotel, “Why did you call Mr Grebe a ‘bedsheet’?” and receives the reply, “He comes over all comfortable and snug but then tangles himself around your legs’ – which somehow makes perfect sense and seems, to me at least, to sum up some of the peculiar and irresistible quality of this collection of stories – in which the author does nothing less than have his characters remake the shape of the world.
‘You, sir, are a squonk. There is no sadder entity in the known cosmos.’
If you want to know why ‘The Squonk Laughed’ - there is no alternative but to read and enjoy.
Buy this item from Amazon.com
Buy this item from Amazon.co.uk