1 June 2013

Review: A Pretty Mouth by Molly Tanzer

I read this book after it was mentioned in a round up by Damien Walter in The Guardian. It was enjoyable, though I think that Ms Tanzer will write better, and to a British reader there were a number of howlers where very un-British phrases were placed in the mouths of English characters.

The book consists of four short stories and a novella ("A Pretty Mouth"). These are based around the mythology of the aristocratic Calipash family of Devon, different stories being set from the Roman occupation to the 1920s (they go backwards in time) although the dating of some is vague.

The Calipashes are a cursed family, their affliction having distinctly Lovecraftian overtones (though mainly of the Innsmouth, children-with-webbed-feet variety rather than the unspeakable-horrors-from another dimension sort). This allows the author to spin a variety of spooky Gothic stories told in different forms, loosely suited to the different times they're set in.

The first story, "A Spotted Trouble at Dolor-on-the-Downs" is a PG Wodehouse pastiche, narrated by Jeeves, Bertie Wooster's gentleman's gentleman, who has to investigate some fishy goings on at a seaside resort. I take my hat off to Tanzer's ambition here. Mimicking Wodehouse's style - or even his ambience - would be a tall order for any writer, and while the story is fun, I don't think that she quite hits the mark with this. There's also, perhaps, a slight cultural unfamiliarity which shows up: for example the English seaside town was at its peak in the 20s and 30s and Dolor-on-the-Downs would not have been "seedy" (in any case, Aunt Agatha would not have visited anywhere that could have been so described).

The second, "The Hour of the Tortoise" is much more successful - set in the late 19th century, it's basically a Gothic tale of a young girl returning to her childhood home, Calipash Manor, to find her guardian dying, and something distinctly rum going on. There's a twist in that the young lady is a writer of literary smut, and another in the ending of the story. Again, though, Tanzer misses one or two points of etiquette - the servants wouldn't have addressed Chelene by her first name, she would be "Miss Chelene". The phrase "visit with" is also out of place

The third, "The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins", set in the very early 19th century, is perhaps written in the vein of MR James, though like most of the others in the volume it is rather more saucy than he would have liked. It manages to both chill and amuse.

The novella, " A Pretty Mouth", takes place around the time of the Restoration and is set in an Oxford college (Wadham). It has something of a Hell-fire club ambience, recounting the doings of a particularly debauched member of the Calipash family who befriends a young man, Henry Milliner, with unfortunate consequences for the latter.

The final story, "Damnatio Memoriae" is almost an origin story for the Calipashes, based on a Roman expedition to Britannia. Alone in this volume, it has (almost) no supernatural aspect.

The stories are all satisfyingly creepy, the effect being heightened by one's growing knowledge, through the book, of the Calipashes and what they're capable of. Tanzer has clearly given some though to creating an overall story arc. Given the family's history of dealings with the unspeakable over many centuries, it would have been tempting to set them up by the end as potent villains, to the detriment of the story but she avoids that by hinting at and then describing various failings and twists of chance that limit them.

Where I felt the stories fell down slightly was in some of the language. For example, "A Pretty Mouth", set at Oxford in 1660, was full of what read to me as modern US college slang including references to "grades" and terms like "whatever!" and "awkward!" and a discussion in one place of the effect of "social class" (I think this anachronistic and natives of 17th century England would have been more likely to use a term like "station".) I may be being over sensitive here. After all, the story is written in Modern, not Jacobean, English, so why not go the whole way and use up to date terms? And as Tanzer is (I'm pretty sure) an American writer, it's clearly no more wrong to use Modern American English here than Modern English English (as it were). Nevertheless this grated on me in places (though the story is good enough to carry it) and I wondered how far it was deliberate - in some places she has used 17th century terms (such as referring to the "middling sort" when describing Henry's background)

So I'm giving this three rather than four stars. But all the same I hope she writes more soon, because hers is a distinctive voice and I think she's found - or created - a richly unsettling vein of horror to exploit.

No comments:

Post a Comment