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Stories From a Lost Anthology

by Rhys Hughes

(Tartarus Press, £27.50 / US$45, 296 pages, paperback, published 2002.)

A weaver of neither daydream nor nightmare, fantasy nor realism, Welsh author Rhys Hughes creates through cover scanan explosion of emotions, ideas, and experimental narrative structure a literature independent of any pre-conceived logical notion of genre, tradition, or objective art. A fantasist in love with words, symbolic meaning, and the process subverting the expectations of readers weaned on the tit of traditional beginning-middle-end story structures and modern minimalism, Hughes's sly and often hilarious anti-fictions bleed with philosophical insight, apprehension, and, most often, a sense of the absurd openly challenging expectations and the conventionalities of the fantasy genre within which he is most often placed.

Stories From A Lost Anthology, a collection of his newest anti-stories from Tartarus (the specialty press that has graced collector's shelves with rare volumes of Machen, Onions, and Sarban), is a challenging celebration of experimental storytelling and the power of language. Compared to such authors as John Barth and Italo Calvino, Hughes's revisionist nightmares and often comic dreamscapes explore the complex territories of the human heart and mind, mirroring the puzzles found therein through the accompanying dimensions of space, time, and thought which themselves are often treated in the author's fictions as extensions and/or reflections of the human perceptions struggling to understand internal and external universes in varied states of intellectual and emotional flux.

Lending ideas a life that many authors selfishly reserve for flesh-and-blood characters, abstract thoughts and idle speculations are as apt to transform through the author's purposely fractured prose as characters conceptualized as both symbolic gestures of abstract symbols and as intimate personas of motivation, effect, and reaction. Exposing further the impressionistic ability displayed in The Smell Of Telescopes and Rawhead And Bloody Bones, Stories From A Lost Anthology emits the grand sense of lyrical mystery and timelessness found in the absurdist ranks of Beckett and Strindberg while refusing to bow to their nihilism. Emotions (like thoughts) live and breath with the intimacy of characters in Hughes's elusive exploratory style. The act of writing itself is personalized and personified in the context of Hughe's worlds of inner reflection and outer realization, applied by Hughes as its own purpose and reward. Creating for creation's sake appears a consistent sub-text in this collection, and while this aesthetic philosophy might appear shallow or needlessly experimental to readers who seek in their literature rigid models of imitative behaviors, a reaffirmation of morals and pre-conceived rules of objective logic, or simple entertainment, in Hughes's capable, delightfully dangerous hands fiction written to celebrate the very art of writing (as well as the process of discovery inherent in the process) proves both invigorating and intimidating -- a very fine and very rare value.

Rich, evocative prose, and satirical humor drive home the force of Hughes's unconventional fantasies of apprehension, journey, and both the process and act of transformation. Change, flow, and transition characterize Stories From A Lost Anthology. It appears that the author, following in the steps of one of his literary idols, Calvino, has indeed succeeded in crafting a book he himself would enjoy reading -- "the sort of an unknown writer, from another age and another country, discovered in an attic." A collection, in short, that manages to both entertain and defy simplistic categorization.

Influential fantasist Michael Moorcock suggests in his introduction, Hughes is "drunk on language and wild imagery" and "sober on the essentials of thought." This sentiment best embodies a glimpse of the author's technique and suspected motives, employing a poetic style of sensual, metaphoric overload to peel back and explore the unresolvable mysteries of emotion, abstract notion, sensory impression, and the contrasting limitations/freedoms of creative process. Hughes is a particularly successful explorer of the latter. A fabulist refusing to obediently ally his visions and revisions to the narrowly defined parameters of popular genre fantasy, Hughes concentrates on the absurdities inherent in seemingly insignificant actions and settings, coaxing nuances of the impossible into rowdy, larger-than-life symbols. Thankfully, although much of the work in this volume offers the sometimes scathing, oftentimes jovial leanings of the satirist, Hughes never drops puns with the irksome wink of the half-hearted sensationalist. Rather, the parodies and fabulist workings of "Journey Through A Wall," a cheeky examination of the punishment system of the after-life, and the mockery-cum-homage of "Portrait Of An Artist As A Rusty Bus" use pun and metaphor as one of the very foundations upon which the delightful narratives stand.

A refreshing honesty of purpose and idea, technique and effect, grace such stories as "Asparagus On The Tooth," "Robin Hood's New Mother," and the undeniably hilarious, heart-wrenching liberations of "Toastmaster, Buttermistress." Besides demanding that readers become active partners in illuminating various layers of meaning in stories both inviting and defying analysis, Hughes defies the first rule of literary realism and conservative fantasy fiction by ignoring the supposed need for a "suspension of disbelief" that, while alien to many cultures, has dominated Westernized artistic thought for generations. Instead of laboring to convince readers that his textual worlds are temporarily taking the place of reality, which is the hallmark of realism, Hughes delights in revealing the wheels of invention within which his stories operate. More than a collection of non-traditional storytelling and narrative invention, Stories From A Lost Anthology is a challenging assemblage of unique ideas expressed in an unusual, captivating style by an author systematically creating a fresh, unique world by a recasting of elements of the old.

Review by William P Simmons.

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