The stories in Unpleasant Tales are horrific, weird, fantastical and shocking. They feature, amongst many other things, a woman who serves her husband to her dinner guests, an instrument maker who is as much the owner of a macabre menagerie as he is a collector of unusual instruments and the last mermaid in existence.
The standard of writing in this collection raises it. It’s perhaps a little rich for some tastes, indeed, I don’t believe that Connell’s style is something that is necessarily desirable to see in all fiction (but then, I suppose, it’s good to read many different styles). However, in most of these stories, Connell’s style works well. The lavish prose helps to elevate the stories – I think a more direct style would perhaps have resulted in an altogether nastier book.
As it is, the writing in these stories is such that, rather than simply being shocking, or gory, there is a real sense depth to the characters and the situations. Though, often, you may be unnerved by the behaviour of one or another of the characters – and much of it is shocking - it is believable and consistent with what you have already read. Whilst many of these stories are visceral, nothing that transpires feels arbitrary or cheap.
The idea of obsession is one which features strongly as a thread throughout the collection. Charles Martens (and his pupil) of The Maker of Fine Instruments is obsessed with finding ever more inventive ways of making music; in The Putrimaniac, Alfonso seeks beauty in the corrupt to the extent that he follows a path to self-destruction and Prince Tolfi drives him self to madness and despair with his search for an unobtainable perfection in The Girl of Wax.
There were a few stories that particularly stood out for me. The Putrimaniac, about a man who, believing that conforming to conventional ideas about beauty demonstrates a lack of refinement, and that real beauty is to be found in the broken and decaying. The character of Alfonso, though by most reasonable standards, perverse, is believable as an aesthete. He derives great pleasure from surrounding himself with the rotten and decrepit.
“He handed the phial to Millard, who, after gazing for a moment at its oily limpid contents, cautiously undid the top and feebly sniffed. His whole head was suddenly suffused with the extreme smell of foul, disgorged food; he felt sickened, dizzy as if he was about to lose consciousness. For a moment his mind was plundered of its reason and he was filled with an overwhelming sense of panic.
‘Easy fellow,’ Alfonso murmured. ‘When you are not used to the stuff . . .’
‘Revolting . . . almost hallucinogenic . . . ‘ Millard gasped.
Alfonso lit another cigarette, and from within the murky clouds of smoke he had created around his person continued talking, his voice and meditative.
‘And my diet gradually became more refined. . . . Fresh foods, in whatever form, no longer found their way to my table. I, like the Europeans of old, realised that my meat needed to be well aged before it was fit to touch my palate. . . . Fly-blown beef, fermented fish, fowl made tender by time, its enzymes turning the flesh and muscular fibres soft as pudding – all these piquant things I came to relish, every day refining my luxury. In my upstairs chambers, where visitors never go, I have my works. Currently under a glass case I possess a Berkshire swine decomposing, maggots tumbling through it most madly. . . .’”
The Maker of Fine Instruments sees a young musician, obsessed with his art, take up lessons with an older man who collects and creates unusual (to say the least!) musical instruments. Again, this perfectly captures the single-mindedness of both its main characters, and the refusal to conform to norms.
The Nasty Truth About Dentists is a novel take on dental phobia; while The Cruelties of Him is an entertaining bodyshock story (reminded me a little of a more horrific The Island of Doctor Moreau). Though it is less extreme in the physical mistreatment of its characters, The Last of the Burroways, is no less uncomfortable reading than anything else here. There is degradation and perversity, but the discomfort comes more from the aberrant relationship, the deception involved in maintaining it and finally the acceptance of the relationship by the deceived. Not easy reading.
If all this sounds quite grim (and it mostly is) this is offset slightly by the fact that there is a streak of humour – albeit jet black – through many of the stories in the collection. While not quite bringing levity to it (well, that would just be incongruous) it does prevent the book from being po-faced, which is always welcome.
It’s probably not to all tastes. The writing style and the relish that each of these stories is told with could be off-putting to some. However, it is certainly successful in living up to the title of the book. I was actually put off my dinner slightly (though anybody that knows me who is reading this can rest assured that this effect didn’t last too long) as I recalled The Putrimaniac, so I think it’s fair to say that Brendan Connell’s writing is evocative (and memorable).
If you’re interested in reading some piquant horror, I’d recommend giving this a go. However, it’s perhaps best not to read all this at once; it could become a little unrelenting if you tried to plough through all the stories one after another (and that’s not to imply any criticism, the book is just successful at what it sets out to do).
Good, inventive and satisfying horror. Worth your time.
- The Maker of Fine Instruments
- The Black Tiger
- The Putrimaniac
- A Dish of Spouse
- The Girl of Wax
- The Tongue
- The Skin Collector
- The Nasty Truth about Dentists
- The Nanny Goat
- Mesh of Veins
- The Flatterer
- The Last Mermaid
- The Cruelties of Him
- The Woman of Paper
- The Last of the Burroways
- The Unicorn
- Virgin Hearts
- We Sleep on a Thousand Waves Beneath the Stars