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UNPLEASANT TALES
By BRENDAN CONNELL (Eibonvale; 2010)

Having read Brendan Connell’s recent collection METROPHILIAS, I figured I had a good idea of what to expect from Mr. Connell. Turns out I couldn’t have been more wrong, as UNPLEASANT TALES, a collection of 22 startling and outrageous stories written over the last decade, goes far beyond the previous book in every respect. It reveals an unusually erudite talent who luxuriates in elegant depravity and baroque extravagance. The subject matter of these tales is grim and often repellant, yet always couched in wildly lavish prose.

     The lengthy “Maker of Fine Instruments” starts off UNPLEASANT TALES in fitting fashion. It’s an astonishing account of a music student falling under the spell of a master musician who makes instruments out of living things, distinguished by a wealth of wild Raymond Rousellian invention. “The Black Tiger” follows. As with quite a few of these stories, it’s set in an exotic past era, in this case the Roman province of Numidia, where a seductive woman (who’s “reminiscent of a solitary puff of cloud against a blue sky, a piece of fine glassware balanced on the edge of a sharp blade”) single-handedly takes on a ravenous beast.

     “The Putrimaniac” reveals an all-embracing infatuation with the grotesque in its darkly inventive portrayal of a connoisseur of rot and decay. “The Girl of Wax,” by contrast, is about a prince obsessed with beauty and purity who kills a lover because she fails to live up to those ideals, but incriminates himself through a most unexpected set of circumstances. Obsession also drives “The Skin Collector,” a man who collects tattooed human skin because “truly, this was the architecture of the flesh, where dragons and gorgons guard the gate of the human frame, and emblems of mortification and salvation tie its hallways.”

     Particularly transgressive tales include “A Dish of Spouse,” containing one of most arresting opening lines I’ve yet encountered (“After Mrs. Shapiro had eaten Maurice, her husband, she felt a sense of regret”); “The Last of the Burroways,” which concerns an incestuous father-daughter union that produces a son--and builds from there; “The Tongue,” about a man who loses his tongue, which eventually sends him a note explaining why it absconded (among other sins, its host “once made me read Diderot out loud”); and “The Cruelties of Him,” about a learned but thoroughly amoral doctor and the depraved experiments he performs on a young boy and his own wife.

     For sheer weirdness the standout is “Wiggles,” a tiny tale of madness and mutilation related in fractured, sensory-inflected prose that’s about as bizarre as anything I’ve read. So too “Kullulu,” a demented evocation of (possible) bodily possession. Two more for the profoundly weird category are “The Woman of Paper,” about why it’s not a good idea to create one’s prospective mate out of paper, and “The Nasty Truth About Dentists,” which somehow mixes dental-phobia, obsessive love and backwards messages in rock ‘n roll songs.

     Also noteworthy is “Mesh of Veins,” an outrageous account of body modification that concludes with the protagonist looking at his insanely modified body in a mirror--and finding he knows “the meaning of true fear.” “The Last Mermaid” (initially published in the CERN ZOO anthology) concerns a Spanish king looking to capture a mermaid so he can eat it. The final story is “We Sleep on A Thousand Waves Beneath the Sea,” centering on pirates and a female sea monster they acquire, with much indiscriminate slaughter adding to the aura of a tale, and overall book, of elegant and profound grotesquerie.

     

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