Recently, one of the most beautiful books we’ve ever received crossed our desk: Secret Europe, a collection by John Howard and Mark Valentine from Ex Occidente Press. It’s an oversized hardcover with a gorgeous imprint upon the boards, spot color and a ribbon inside, and a lovingly typeset interior with generous margins and a restrained design that perfectly suits the tales within.
Most of these stories, as The Pan Review notes, take place in the Eastern Europe in the period between World War I and II, with Howard’s stories and Valentine’s both giving the reader the delight of perfectly detailed portraits of interesting and eccentric people. Plot in a conventional sense does not figure prominently in the stories, as that isn’t the point, and the subtle qualities mean that readers need to enter into the experience understanding that although strangeness abounds, an overt in-your-face (crass?) supernatural element is not usually present. Instead, a luminous quality permeates Secret Europe, and a sense of things not quite being what they appear to be on the surface. You’ll need to let these stories resonate and quietly take you over; in other words, devote a close reading and your patient attention to this book. For those who think they are familiar with the work of both writers, Secret Europe may reveal additional undercurrents and propensities. (Valentine, Howard, and Dan from Ex Occidente are pictured at a castle in Romania above.)
But there’s nothing better than sampling a book. The two stories Ex Occidente and the authors have generously allowed us to reprint on Weirdfictionreview.com, “The Fall of Ashes” and “The Waltz of Masks” should give readers an idea of the quiet allure of the collection as a whole.