BOOK REVIEW: Fungus of the Heart, by Jeremy C. Shipp

There are times when I can liken writing to the fine art of crafting a wine. There will be some writers who, in order to get their point across, will serve up a cheap commercial variety, with a blunt, unsubtle palette. Its purpose is simply to bludgeon, and isn’t afraid to show its true colours from the off. Then there are those writers who want their words to be appreciated and mulled over, and so consequently craft their stories exactingly and with attention to the minutest detail. Nuances are allowed to reveal themselves slowly, almost shyly. There are layers upon layers of ideas and images, and each time you reread them new ones show themselves. There are times when complexity disguises itself as simplicity, those very qualities concatenating unexpectedly into a sensation that is at once surprising and delightful. These stories are not meant to be read just the once or casually imbibed without regard; they have been lovingly created to be savoured.

So, if the metaphor holds, then Jeremy C. Shipp’s tales are amongst the finest of vintages indeed. Each of the thirteen stories contained within this collection are rich, exotic, and rare nectars, culled from all the far-flung corners of Shipp’s imagination. However, just like those long ago days of the Age of Exploration, as rich and exotic as those corners are, seen from the outside they’re dark and sometimes dimly lit, full of mystery and hidden dangers. The people, places and situations are as familiar to us as daylight, yet there is an edginess and darkness to them that warns us to keep ourselves at arm’s length. And this is the central core of Shipp’s art; that he is able to twist and subvert the stuff of the everyday and make it somehow menacing and threatening, whilst simultaneously emphasising just how extraordinary and wonderful it all is.

Superficially, like the best of the vintner’s artistry, the tales are delicately and minimally spun, slippery, elusive and fragile, brightly absurdist and dizzyingly surreal, transporting us to other places and other times. Don’t let that fool you, however, because running underneath the seeming fragility are hints of darkly delicious and sinister flavours of terror and malignancy. These tales are exactly like the delicately scented wine that, upon tasting, proves to have a surprisingly strong backbone and can more than hold its own.

Here, the fragility extends to the people who inhabit the tales; the fragility of relationships, how we see ourselves, how we see others and how we relate to each other, as well as the brittleness of ideas. Like the ‘war’ hero in The Escapist, where the idea of the heroic man (or Gnome, in this case) as a symbol of hope in a time of war is easily shattered by the onslaught of the realities of conflict, and the atrocities it inspires in otherwise ordinary folk. Or, perhaps, the eggshell thin psyche of the father in Kingdom Come, a man whose reality breaks when the truth intrudes on his seemingly idyllic life. Or how the ‘ghost’ in Haunted House is just as fragile and fractured as the girl he’s trying to help: in bringing suppressed memories to the surface it triggers some of his own. Or maybe we should ponder on the fragility of both love and memories, as exemplified in the eponymous story, Fungus of the Heart. Human frailty is found even in the midst of strength and purpose, and love lurks where it is least expected. And sometimes relationships, once strong, shatter and change irrevocably through simple words, as in the beautifully and strangely simplistic Just Another Vampire Story.

The strongest element of Shipp’s spare and minimalist writing is its deep humanity. Look beyond the strangeness and the fantastic, and you’ll find the entire panoply of human experience and emotion arrayed before you. Despite the weirdness you’ll meet people very much like the ones you know or have met. However, it’s those very elements of the outré and magical that draws the reader in, and enables them to hone in on the solid heart of the matter. They may delight, infuriate, frustrate and entertain, but they’re no mere baubles; look deeper and you’ll discover that here are parables for today. That, my friends, is the art and craft of the verbal vintner that is Jeremy C. Shipp.

(This review originally appeared at Beyond Fiction)

—()—

Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones

Publisher: Raw Dog Screaming Press

Publication Date: November 2010

ISBN: 978-1-935738-00-8 (hc)/978-1-935738-01-5 (pbk)

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