Saturday, September 24, 2011

Rhys Hughes, Brothel Creeper (2011)

Rhys Hughes, The Brothel Creeper. Gray Friar Press, 2011. Pp. 230.
ISBN 978-1906331221. $16.00/£8.99.

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

Rhys Hughes: a name to conjure with. Already a solid presence in speculative and fantastical fiction for his outrageously weird and wonderful storytelling, he has turned out this collection of his short (tall) tales; some reprinted from magazine sources, others new, with the combining themes of “sexual and spiritual tension”. Along a line of tension the speculative writer can have a lot of fun playing with extremes and relishing in the clichéd outcomes of the questing extravagances of the protagonists. Basically, if you lurk in the line between zones (for a line of tension is the final frontier between A and B; there would be no tension, if not for opposing forces growling at each other over the fence), then pretty much anything goes. It is to Hughes’s credit that instead of submerging into an indulgent series of rants, over-florid of language and confusing of image, he has a lighter hand that trips merrily along that line, producing clear if disturbing visions that spark the reader’s mind and the reviewer’s appetite. While on the surface the greater shapes of his tales are recognisable, they are constructed from strangely contorted details. These are everyday items and events as viewed through a glass, distorted. Yet the clarity of meaning is not for one minute lost.

The first impression that shouts off the page is this incredible use of description to paint lurid, hallucinatory pictures of reality: a boat made of humans sailed by wooden men, using a washing machine to change the polarity of vampires; shopping trolley blood bath and the use of a credit card reader as genitalia. First to come to my mind was the strongest impression of Angela Carter’s visionary tales of sexual tension, but Hughes goes beyond this. The metaphorical content does feel as if it is being slapped across your face, but it is beautifully done, so you mind not a jot and welcome the violation. The mouthy, impotent husband of an unfaithful wife and unfaithful lover becomes the mere ‘figurehead’ of that human boat; no power, but a lot of demands. Vampires of an altered polarity are, we are told, ostracised by their own community, and so it seems natural she should find her consummation with a monster of a different ilk (a mummy in this case), although the use of their offspring (one negative, one positive in vampire terms) as a sort of anti-matter/matter drive to shoot them into the stars seems selfish, although since when has parenting ever been purely altruistic; living one’s dreams through one’s children? Angela Carter-esque: lurid, metaphorical. And the clever, yet obvious, theoretical connections between consumerism, sex, and the abdication of the self in the commercial modern environment; a cog in the greater machine, make a solid base for an otherwise nightmarish take of death by trolley and blood in the isles. In fact, the relationship between human (animal) need the strange patterns and constraints our modern world forces us into is, I would say, the most prevalent overriding concern of this collection. No matter how sensational the parable presented, the protagonists are basically struggling to find their place, and their self of self in that place, in a world of confusing and conflicting demands.

Just occasionally there is a ‘normal’ tale; not one set in a fantasy nightmare, which is just as shocking for the brutality of its reality. ‘The Flesh Stocking’, situated around halfway through the book, set during the terrifying blitz and the fire-fighters who were tasked with controlling the blazes, underlines the fact that despite what the human imagination can conjure, nothing beats the awfulness of a ‘real’ human experience. This is the sadness and loneliness, of one man in a group, exposed through his proclivity for female undergarments, and the passionate refutation of such perceived ‘deviancy’ forming an ostracising factor in an otherwise close-knit all-male group that manages to fragment itself despite the lunacy of the greater war around them. Humans are mercurial, selfish, amazing creatures; Hughes seems to know this very well, and boldly celebrates the fact. It is strangely uplifting not to have grand heroes against which the reader will inevitably feel they fall short. Carter was concerned with the position of the female; Hughes happily takes exception to the fallibility of both sexes, and as such his stories are more rounded than hers.

Indeed, a private correspondence with Hughes had him trying to assure that he is not “an unreconstructed male from the 1970s”. In fact, I do not see what he has to worry about. The main protagonist(s) for each tale could be male, female, or an alien from the planet Trumbukee. What is more important by far is the crazy stuff that happens to and around them: Hughes’s wider metaphorical preoccupation with the greater human experience. This is not to say that the choice of gender for the main figures is not important, for any decent storyteller will draw on the traditions of his cultural gestalt as a short-hand towards meaning. A cuckolded husband is more comically impotent than a cuckolded wife. A male cross-dresser is a figure of pity in the blitz scenario, at the time when women were starting to dress more masculine for practicality. The death of that secret transvestite is more poignant for that non-conformist furtiveness. But at no point did I feel that either sex was being particularly victimised. Indeed, there is a neat book-ending front and back of the volume that splits the honours between the sexes. It begins with a divorced male pilot flying his doomed jet into the window of his ex’s house, straight into her face and body in a final act of phallic defiance and revenge, and finishes with an apocalypse begun over the actions taken to fulfil a woman’s sexual drive; planetary end by vulva overload.

As advertised, these tales balance on the boundary between sexual energy and spiritual drives. As mentioned above, it is on the boundary between opposites that creative energy can sparkle and find a purity of meaning. Sexual and spiritual are two elements that have long had a turbulent but close, two-sides-of-a-coin relationship. The aesthetic, the holy man; to deny the flesh is a badge of the religious, the separate, the spiritual, the better-than-the-rest-of-the-herd. The Catholic church in the West- for a long time the dominant denomination, held free, unsanctified personal sexual expression as a sin. It denied its priests, monks and nuns such knowledge.

Freud, declaiming the non-existence of God as a father figure burden of guilt that every person should strive to emerge from, placed underlying sexuality and sexual energies as the driving force of mankind: an energy beyond the merely visceral; replacing a denying god with a driven one, a negating guilt with an overwhelming one.

But when two purported oppositions are laid up against each other, what seems an inevitable function of human thinking and understanding is that the more extreme one travels along the two directions; they in fact end up pretty much meeting around the back of all things, now so far gone in their opinions that they have more in common that not. And it is around the back that Hughes’s stories are situated, demonstrating that human crisis comes when most excess is achieved, and that the excess of one propels the psyche into the other as the antidote and outcome. What we have here is the inescapable conclusion that for humans the sexual and spiritual and intrinsically bound together. Whether by soul or by hormones, we are a creature that cannot separate the two entirely, and Hughes’s stories rather strongly imply that we would destroy ourselves if we tried.

A good example is the three stories that concern Raymond, a man with strong and strange sexual appetites, and to whom we return in the course of the book. ‘One Man’s Meat’ is the unlikely tale of Raymond and his encounter with a vegetable whore; a talking plant (or possibly a normal girl that Raymond’s fevered state of arousal translates into the sprouting object of his tastes) that he destroys; a violent death-by-peeler that sends him to his climax. Again with the metaphors (insert your own here, it’s not rocket science!). Afterwards, he feels dirty and a little ashamed for his furtive brothel visit (a visit punctuated by a small band that plays fast, exciting music as he peels away his girl-plant—I could not get the Benny Hill theme out of my head over this one; and I think it’s appropriate to make this connection to give you an idea), and takes his ‘appetite’ elsewhere and has a quick, dirty meal cooked for him in an alley-way by an oriental chef (again, simile at play here is about as subtle as a brick in the face).

The next time we meet him, for the somewhat fetidly-entitled ‘Mah-Jong Breath’ an accident has rendered him wheelchair-bound and feeling as frustrated and impotent as such a position could be used to represent. Not to say disabled people can’t have a satisfying love life, but this isn’t about PC-ness, this is about a man’s journey. It began purely sexual. This middle story crosses the border between sexual and spiritual. Having paid heavily (and not just in the sense of hard cash), he is given license to do what he wishes with a prostitute; and using a remote control, he humiliates and mutilates her by forcing her to become young then grow old; total mastery over her being the object of the experience to give him a thrill. Instead he is left desperately unsatisfied, now in a world of fear: fear of women, of what he wants to do to women, of his own position, still impotent and forgotten. All this is wrapped up in the ‘mysticism of the East’: Raymond’s ‘taste’ for eastern food now translated into an adventure in a select, decidedly weird, eastern brothel. Plus, of course, this monkeys around with the old cliché of the East as a place of the strange, frightening and Other to which any punishment metered out is colonially justified. Except this time it is Raymond, the white male, who is left in pieces.

The final story, ‘The Small Miracle’ has Raymond now more at a sense of defeated peace. Secluded in a ‘hospital’, locked there by his jet-setting wife and for the most part forgotten, except for the bills he incurs for her, Raymond is lost in depression. He has an arrangement with one of his prettier nurses, but it seems to give him no fulfilment. When he regains the use of his legs, his attempts to escape are thwarted by a motorway and a never-ending lake and swamp. One feels that this is Raymond, pushing at the boundaries of his self-imposed exile, but not finding the strength to break free. Instead he reaches a spiritual apotheosis; a vision of brothel buildings going to confession; confessing the sins of their customers, within the walls of an old abbey building. Realising he has rendered his own hospital a brothel by the arrangement with the nurse, Raymond returns and, jumping from the attic, crushes his legs, returning to the safety of his wheelchair, the closed-off world of the hospital, choosing to be shut away, refuting his sexuality, recognising his spiritual darkness. We feel he is setting himself up as a hermit specifically as the opposite of the man he was; Raymond has travelled from sexuality with no hindrance to the spiritual with, likewise, no restraining factor. Raymond is the spirit of the book; more an everyman than the pallid souls that populate more mainstream fictions. Not to say that Hughes expects to present this as a morality tale; the extremity of Raymond’s withdrawal is just as unbalanced as that of his sexual drive in the beginning, but the irony of the ‘small miracle’ of the title is that Raymond is able to make any choice at all that he thinks is pure, when he is still driven by the tides of his emotions and guilt. Hughes shows us that we never will truly escape our selves and the forces that drive us, no matter how much we try to kid ourselves we will.

The ‘Creeper’ of the title; a force, we are told on the reverse, that “lurks in us all” is never explicitly remarked on. But I feel that Hughes, in touch with his own Creeper and stepping out with him unafraid into the corridors of his imagination, has produced a collection that will startle, amuse, astonish and possibly change the way you think and challenge your conception of your limits. Hughes is the Creeper taking us on the journey: a brutally honest journey on the duality of the human condition that is at the same time entertaining and fascinating.

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Rhys said...

Thanks for this review! I'm delighted with it; it's rare indeed for a reviewer to make such an effort to truly understand what I'm trying to do... I really appreciate it! And so refreshing not to be told I use too many puns!

Rhys said...

(I often get told I use too many puns even when I don't use any, you see...)