The Long Retreating Day
UK Hardcover First
ISBN 1 872621 96 1
Publication date: January 2006
205 pages; £ 27.50
Date reviewed: February 12, 2006
Reviewed by Mario Guslandi 2006
Faithful to its tradition of publishing only high quality fiction, the UK imprint Tartarus Press provides yet another splendid volume of short stories defined as 'Tales of Twilight and Borderlands' by John Gaskin whose first collection,'The Dark Companion', was published in Dublin in 2001 to critical acclaim.
If you're used to the shallow narrative style so common in today's fiction you may find the author's style a bit elaborate as one might expect from either a professor or a philosopher (and Gaskin is indeed both). If you like easy and fast reading, you may take this writer's learned prose and accurate wording -- to be slowly savoured -- as evidence that he's an aged gentleman in grey flannels (and Gaskin probably is). But if you like solid, elegant fiction apt to make the act of reading almost a physical pleasure, then this is a book you shouldn't miss for any reason .
Take, for instance, 'The Conceit of the Dancing Man', a dark, mocking tale clearly inspired by the work of MR James, blending standard themes such as the overnight stay in a lonely place on a bet, the intellectual rivalry between two brilliant students and the inexplicable horrors lurking in some ancient churches. What could have been a mere pastiche turns out an accomplished, modern story with only a slight trace of good, old flavours.
'Tapiola' is a bleak, unsettling piece of fiction reporting about a doomed trip to the Baltic area by an ambiguous couple of friends, surrounded by an hostile nature, silence, loneliness and the anger of ancient gods.
In the atmospheric 'St John's Wood,' strange events take place in a weird-looking wood during a haunting session in a foggy afternoon. Past horrors are hinted at, in a reticent but disquieting manner capable of giving the creeps. Likewise the fog engulfing a train station constitutes the unnerving background of the supernatural piece 'The Bay Platform' conveying to the events a dream-like quality that adds to the already sinister ambience.
Academic feuds and supernatural influences merge in 'The High-Stepping Man' , the delightful, enjoyable description of the unusual occurrences at a University college ruled by an incompetent and greedy master, while in 'From Lydia, With Love and Laughter,' a TV personality on a tour in Turkey pays his toll to a wicked god haunting some ruins.
'Rigor Mortis' is another superb tale where the subject of a haunted piece of furniture (a chair) is rejuvenated by a captivating narrative style and a peculiar attention to the smallest technical details.
In the melancholy 'Omega,' memories return from the past to enlighten a man's final day of life.
'Road Closed' to me is the collection's best story, a veritable masterpiece depicting the end of a love affair during an ill-fated weekend spent in a mountain cottage during a bout of extreme weather and marked by the mounting feeling of impending disaster. Set in breathtaking scenery among high cliffs and the roaring sea, the tale gains momentum page after page, while suspense and disquiet get stronger. Powerful storytelling and fine characterization for a vivid piece of fiction portraying the vagaries of a merciless fate.
Curiously, by contrast, the title story ('The Long Retreating Day'),an obscure tale where time and space get superimposed during a dangerous night walk, is the only weak point in this superior collection.
Bookended by a few verses, the merits of which I don't feel qualified to discuss, this volume is a literary gem that everybody should be entitled to enjoy. Alas, even if this edition sells out ( and I expect it will) only a few hundred readers will be fortunate enough to get a copy.
Once again shame on the mass book market for ignoring writers like Gaskin. But this is another story.