Review: “Horthólary: Tales from Montagascony” by Michael Reynier

But Horthólary? Horthólary actually entertains the idea that such a creature may have existed. He believes the “evidence” before his eyes. It is inconceivable to him that the facts could lie; that stones might deceive him.
from “The Nephilim”

HortholaryLet us say that you saw something strange, just for a second. What do you do? You might have a chance to turn and regard the creature for an instant before it vanishes into the air. There it will remain a tantalizing reminder. But if that weird thing is archived or fossilized, hidden in the rocky heritage of terra firma, then you may be able to come to grips with this strangeness. Michael Reynier’s Horthólary: Tales from Montagascony tells four stories of the eldritch compact between these weirding elements; to do so, Reynier’s stories tell of one man’s struggle to understand and, if possible, master them. Meet the natural historian and investigator of the weird, Professor Summanus Florant Horthólary.

Let us get properly introduced. Horthólary contains four stories that tell of strange events in the good professor’s life and span his childhood to old age. These stories partially follow from Reynier’s previous book, Five Degrees of Latitude (2011), also published by Tartarus Press, but read excellently to the newcomer in their own right. Along with Professor Horthólary, readers meet his lifelong friend Jean Gélis and the devilish priest Philippe Rapin, as well as the many other figures who populate Montagascony, a fictionalized rendition of mid-eighteenth century France. Each tale teasingly unravels its own weird thread and these, in turn, the book weaves into a unified iridescent fabric of narrative conception. The book is thus neither a collection nor a novel but something much more interesting: a hybrid narrative that engineers its successes through creative innovation and revisiting traditional tropes in equal measures.

Each tale employs familiar scenes of historical fiction: towns divided between rival families or industrial and pastoral roots, churches and priories witness to corrupt clergy and earnest monastic brethren, menacing castles and ominous woods, and the seemingly unchanging provincial style of life lived alongside that of the mysterious Romany, or gypsies, whose wanderings occasionally cross the lives of village folk and clergy alike. Yet other mysterious elements darken each tale with an uncanny lustre. Taken as a whole, Horthólary’s tales juxtapose the air as a space of generative, if capricious, weirdness and the earth as the stolid repository of the weird. Asteroids crash from the heavens to bury themselves in the ground. The skies send a swirling wind to open devilish pits below. Those who stand taller than is natural or those who wish for flight find themselves at risk, and only the earth’s bones might witness their passage. Darkness may ripple the many-coloured fabric of Reynier’s imagination but it seems to be woven from a single cloth. However familiar the stories’ weird elements might be for readers, in Reynier’s tales they are presented with thrilling freshness.

In addition to an alluring and vivacious textual world, readers of Horthólary are treated to images and maps which elucidate the mysteries and punctuate the tales. While I reviewed an electronic copy of the text where these images were expandable and fascinating, I can only imagine that in the hardback edition these images and maps would draw the eye to even better effect.

Horthólary’s major attraction is its narrative alchemy of what could be called the “antiquarian weird,” a faux-documentarian’s style of rustic narrative that adopts conventions of realist prose, antiquarian mystery, and regional detection. The antiquarian’s voice is nothing new. M.R. James’s example is perhaps the most pronounced, but H.P. Lovecraft and E.F. Benson before him partook as well, to name only a few prominent weird writers. To the antiquarian’s measured and detailed fictions Reynier adds the premise, well-known in today’s stories of detectives on television and in literature, of the patient investigator faced with a regional mystery almost beyond comprehension. In this predominantly masculine tradition, Arthur Conan Doyle’s distant semblance can be seen. But so too are figures more similar to Horthólary’s professor, including G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki the Ghost Finder or David Lynch’s FBI Agent Dale Cooper. Only occasionally, as in the first tale, “The Angel of Pessane,” does Horthólary read as an Holmesian homage. By the time of the second and third tales such familiarity recedes to allow the grand happenings of the “Landscape of Events,” as the professor himself calls it, to take its deserved centrality.

Even among such an established company, Professor Horthólary stands on his own, in part because of his deep roots in the spiritual milieu of Montagascony, but also because the good professor of anatomy is a devotee of Natural History and the empirical method. Unlike those detectives who use intuition, religion, or noir-esque conventions to conduct their adventures, Horthólary uses his powers of observation and study. Like his readers, Horthólary traces the outside sphere of the tales’ events and has only his eyes to trust when confronted with the unknown. Unlike us, however, he can intervene in a crisis, and with him readers peer into dark depths confident that they are in good hands. Narratively speaking, Horthólary’s travels serve as a convenient excuse to experience the creeping strangenesses of Reynier’s antiquarian weird.

Horthólary’s lineaments of plot are often traditional, such as the familial conflict between Lienards and Poquelins in “Dii Nixi” that conjures up names such as “Montague” and “Capulet.” Yet in this case Reynier takes more than plot from Romeo and Juliet. He also takes drama’s perhaps counter-intuitive ability to sketch well-realized characters through action and setting. Even better, he takes the old bard’s ability to surround borrowed plotlines with characters, events, and other plots that reinvent the familiar with great pleasure. Likewise, in the same story, a reference to H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds cleverly pulls an inverted page from that master of ingenious narrative. The more time spent with Reynier’s tales, the more their traditional elements feel natural to the gorgeously detailed tapestry of Montagascony and environs.

Taken as a whole, the tales gather accretionary power as their unfurling world becomes first subtler and then more vivid. Fossils, archival documents, and stories of infamous characters precipitate swelling mysteries that are redeemed through dramatic dénouements; in turn, each offers tantalizing hints of other mysteries. Wisely, Reynier is parsimonious with details and careful to delay crucial revelations until sufficient dramatic interest exists. Such delays rarely feel coy but are, to their author’s credit, mannered and weighted. Throughout his tales Reynier twists the lemon-squeeze of the uncanny with the judicious eye of a master. In Horthólary the weird is rarely spliced into the world with ungainly violence (until the very climax of the work). Instead, events beyond the pale are calmly introduced in the very concepts that undergird its characters’ narrative world so that they too feel oddly real and pressing.

While canny readers will see some narrative twists before they arrive, their pleasure is not diminished by any anticipation. Cumulatively, the effect is like a series of small but precisely controlled detonations (or, at times, expositions) that shuttle readers from one dramatic moment to the next. It nicely complements Horthólary’s occasional pulpy trick of dialogue in which sudden pronouncements shock readerly complacency. Take, for example, the following passage:

Jean Gélis holds the other at arm’s length, his face suddenly severe. “…I fear I have stumbled upon something awry, Summanus; something strange and dreadful!”

Enjoyment here is contingent on reading such exclamations with an appropriate sense of drama.

More broadly, Reynier’s fluid control over dramatic sequences and world-building descriptions is considerable. Most impressive is his talent for transforming details of colour, shape, and smell into minor scenes of narrative import that give depth to Montagascony’s ecological and social realities. An archeologist’s keen eye for sedimentary detail is represented well in these tales and counterweighs the dialogue’s at-times archaic or formal speech. In particular, “The Nephilim” stands out for its blend of ancient creatures, guardian monastic brethren, and mysterious artefacts alongside sophisticated description of objects and a palpable sense of historical gravity.

My most serious criticism of Horthólary is its implied gendering of values and perspectives. With one notable exception, most speaking and perspectival characters are men. It is not unusual to hear these characters describe female characters with coarse language that emphasizes women’s sexual value and promiscuity. In one egregious passage, a young girl’s uncle describes his niece by saying that “I wouldn’t dip my wick in that one, I might not get it back again!” As a comment on the strangeness of the girl, the sentiment exposes an alarmingly sexualized vision of youthful female identity; when it is applied to a character who stands as a rare example of a realized woman, it detracts from the vision of human identity expressed by the tales. Equally troubling is the unfortunate commentary that one of the tales, “Dii Nixi,” propounds, as it draws an ingenious parallel between a pool’s infestation and a woman’s pregnancy. In the rousing action of this tale, a toothed worm and a new child seem rough cognates. While dramatically convenient and thoughtfully composed, the comparison is ugly in its extension – especially when contextualized by the sensitive intelligence in Reynier’s portrayals of many male characters as well as the romantic heroism ascribed to characters such as André de Gubernatis and Rémi Cassadó.

In James, Lovecraft, Doyle, or Chesterton an imbalanced gendered perspective could be accounted as historically regrettable. A contemporary work has no such luxury. As close as Montagascony comes is the witch-woman Clotilde Lefrebre of “Nemestrinus,” or, as she is known, Gylou, a “female devil.” Unfortunately, when readers meet her, Clotilde is dead through the darkest means, violently and startlingly disassembled. The potential perspective she offers is limited in its remit; Clotilde has “allowed [magic] to devour her,” Horthólary fastidiously observes. Too often women in these tales prove devices for narrative progression more than they are able to proffer perspectives on their world’s events. The lack of women in perspectival or heroic roles is striking; their almost uniformly sexualized roles serves as cause for discontent.

Aside from the question of gendered perspectives, it is a pleasure to note that other idiosyncrasies are extremely rare. When “kowtow” humorously becomes the idiomatic “cow-tow” at one point, it is notable only because the text is otherwise meticulously detailed and presented, inventive in its regional customs for the Montagasconaise and attentive to a more recognizable history as well.

In closing, a confession is due: despite their recent quarter century anniversary, previously to reading Michael Reynier’s Horthólary I had only heard of Tartarus Press in passing. Their print runs are small and superbly made, a practice admirable to the collector but one that makes it difficult for a general audience to access Tartarus’ truly impressive roster of classic and contemporary authors (seeing Walter de la Mare and Edith Wharton gave me a particular thrill). Happily, like many of their other books Horthólary is available in electronic format. E‑books lack the heft and craftsmanship of a well-made hardback and yet the prices are eminently reasonable in comparison and have the additional benefit of being widely available.

With the quality of Reynier’s Horthólary so well established, I see no reason why he or Tartarus should not gain popularity in coming years. Indeed, both deserve it.

One reply to “Review: “Horthólary: Tales from Montagascony” by Michael Reynier

  1. I must say that I am rather disappointed with reviewer’s decision to dedicate so much space to pointless gender politics,

    Reynier’s writing is indeed excellent, by the way. I acquired Kindle version of his previous collection when I was but mid-point through “Dii Nixi”.