Rhys Hughes on Best of DFL

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Re: THE BEST OF DF LEWIS (Tal Publications 1993)

In an ocean of fiction, which tales make the splash that sinks the ship of fools? After a thousand and one nights, who washes the pyjamas? Such questions are meaningless, though the words inside them are not without lyrical force. Trying to answer them is pointless, and it certainly must have seemed an equally futile task to the enormously prolific D.F. Lewis when he was first asked to select just fifteen pieces for this chapbook. How can a writer in the habit of composing at least one story every day be expected to sift, rate and compare the individual units of a backlog so gigantic that a list of the titles alone would exceed the specified maximum wordcount? The Emperor of China can scarcely be expected to make an accurate rating of all the merits and failings of every inhabitant of his nation. How could Lewis, puckish panjandrum and little Essex tinker, not feel a similar inscrutable impotence as he gazed far out across the rolling lands of his collected works?
As it turned out, Lewis did not bother, choosing the required number at random. Fortunately his powers of randomness were at their height at the time. Glib critics may state that he is an acquired taste, comparing him to celery, stout or even himself. The simple fact remains that Lewis has only three major faults: ideas, plot and character. But that is not the point. His stories seem reluctant to acknowledge a human creator at all. They know what they mean, even when he lies and pretends he does too. Occidental and surely accidental, they are like those inverted calottes stuffed to the brim with dragées which these days are found only on the darkest shelves of closed delicatessens in sundry imaginary versions of London. It is too difficult to learn the particular style of haggling necessary to actually own a Lewis tale. The best that can be achieved is to borrow its ambience for a page or three, or however long it takes to choke on its miasma, rarely more than that. The effect never quite wears thin.
This slim chapbook, with its sinister and cluttered illustrations, contains some of the weirdest and most ineffable fiction in the history of dark fantasy writing. Reading it is an experience akin to discovering a forgotten room in the semi-detached house of a very old, semi-deranged uncle, full of rusty bicycles and tinned food with indecipherable labels and oddly faded daguerreotypes of small girls and giant rabbits. Often a dreamlike agenda blurs the edges of the nostalgic evil, and Lewis begins to sound like a miniature Thomas Ligotti who dwells, or is trapped, in a dolls’ house. At other times he paints pure moods between the lines with the ultra-subtle shades of Bruno Schulz. Yet there is also a totally new voice here, superficially the mumbling of Lewis himself but more likely that of the varnished but chipped tongue of a malevolent wooden puppet, and uniquely a sense that the prose has ears as well as lips, that it is eavesdropping, spying on the reader. Combined with the arcane density of the wordplay, the climate of distrust soon becomes stifling. It must be a relief to hurl Lewis down the stairs.
The opening story, ‘Jack the Ratter’, is both one of the most cruel and ultimately weakest of the brood, though the god of spikes, if there is one, will probably be satisfied with its central sprung conceit. At a pinch, it is worse than ‘The Weirdmonger’, which although one of Lewis’s most successful and famous pieces, plays too much with the sun, on both sides, to display enough of what disturbs itself best, or worst. Another partial failure is ‘Dabbling with Diabelli’, which tinkles those ivories of the demon maestro theme too brusquely for this time of evening, thank you, and ‘Slaughtergirl’, a timeslip parable which even a recommendation from Ramsey Campbell fails to rescue from its destiny as nervous theistic hash. And yet even these milder offerings are more excessively troubling than anything normal sick authors can produce. The same is more true of ‘Trepanning’, which seems to be about absolutely nothing, and ‘Entries’, an ailourophobic fable which shoots itself in its own cat’s paw just in time to avoid making sense. And so not to bed…
Paradoxically less distressing are the depressing tales, two of which share the flavour of a guano, doom and mirror cocktail served in a grimy carafe. ‘Dognahnyi’ is a challenge to all designer nihilists everywhere, a service ceiling of bleakness, decorated with chicken beaks and crumbs of deformed spine. ‘Look Don’t Touch’ is warmer and greasier but grossly suicidal. If any story in any collection can be said to be tired of its own reasons, whatever they might be, for inclusion, then this is it. The title gives ambiguous advice. Wiser not even to look. Better to focus on ‘Blasphemy Fitzworth’ and ‘Pogrom Panjandrum’, masterpieces of poisoned atmosphere and barbed shadows. Pure, simple and awful. ‘Beyond the Park’ is another classic, with its huge finger poking about in a cellar inside the text and into the reader’s nose outside it. Whatever was picked from there is probably not as disturbing as the accuser of the broom-cupboard squatter in ‘Muse of Murder’, who lingers like sartorial gristle between sanctuary and a foul den of aunts.
The three remaining tales are works of genius. ‘Dreamaholic’ squeezes most of Kafka and a lot of Ligotti into a tiny area, smaller than a hand or genital sausage. ‘Bloodbone’ does the same for Lovecraft and Dickens, even while it is busy playing with skin and gutters. But before the scar of Lewis’s earlier lunges can heal, it is ‘Jack-in-the-Box’ which really mustards the cut. The agony is charming. Apart from Fitz-James O’Brien’s ‘The Wondersmith’, this is the greatest horror story about a puppet ever conceived. There are some incidental coincidences which make the tale even stranger. The central character is clearly Tim Lebbon, and yet Lewis wrote ‘Jack-in-the-Box’ long before Lebbon had published his first story, years before Lewis had heard of him. This is delightfully horrid. If a comprehensive anthology of the best short horror fiction written in the 20th Century was ever produced, it would be a crime if this tale was omitted. It is a text worthy of Schulz, Leiris, Csáth, Bradbury, Cadbury and Hamleys. It is bonkers.
For a long time I have been grappling with what it is exactly about Lewis’s prose which affects me so oddly. I can only return again to that analogy of the forgotten room in an uncle’s house, only this time it was for real and was a grandmother. Beyond the bicycles, tins and photograph albums, there were ornaments balanced on the mantelpiece of an obsolete fireplace. They were old and indescribable, and I was left with the violent realisation that the past can be as alien in an evolutionary sense as the future. I never asked what they were for. Now it is too late, and yet I have a sneaking suspicion that Lewis alone might be able to tell me what those items were called and what purpose they served, almost as if he grew up among such artefacts himself. “This is a squigmalion,” I can almost hear him say. “And this is an antimadhatterssar.” And further on: “Here is a Cthulhu Catcher.” But now I am not so confident. I wonder if he was one of them all along, perched on the rim of the mantelpiece and batting his eyelashes like a clockwork imp.

Copyright © 2000 Rhys Hughes

 

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