As the author declares, on entry to this anthology, we see all that is ‘distilled within that secret place where love and madness meet’.
He tells tales ‘of mortality and desire, of nostalgia, regret, isolation, loneliness and longing’, and he invites us to scrutinize ourselves as sexual beings; only in so doing can we know ourselves.
Diverse in style and in content, they unfailingly explore the human condition, in all its madcap glory.
There is cleverness, playfulness, wit and wisdom, light as well as dark.
Mr. Shaw gives us wry comedy in 'Señor Gordo' (dialogue with a willful-minded penis) and macabre humour in 'Drunk and Disorderly', nostalgia in 'A Sense of History' (cataloguing a mattress’ exploits), and cheeky verbage in describing the ‘gossamer prisons’ of a woman’s underwear in 'Mazelblum': ‘frilly gussets and diaphanous drawers, hot-pink tangas like tulle fig-leaves, raspberry hipsters, tangerine boy shorts and sea-foam green bow cheekinis, French-cut mesh and jeweled G-strings like removable vajazzle facades’.
There is regret for a life half-lived in 'Salix Sepulcralis', in which we are invited to see ourselves one day no more than a ‘mass of diverse necrotic tissues’, a ‘voiceless assortment of cells in random, untidy decay’.
Where Mr. Shaw uses poetic prose, it is lush, as in 'Nox':
‘The ancients believed that darkness was a thing substantial, that Night poured into the world from below, a malignant emanation of the nether regions, filling the dome of heaven with a miasma of poisonous atoms, even as the moon cast its spell of madness from above.’
My favourite of the tales is 'La Sonnambula': a story of obsession, and the grotesque, told with delicious theatricality, an opera diva’s stalker at last fatally cutting off his penis and sending it to the object of his admiration, wrapped in a skein of her hair.
There is an undercurrent of the disturbing, and of the bittersweet philosophical. In 'A Little Death', ‘she howls as if to frighten away the dark things beyond the guttering firelight, the fears that lurk behind the mirrors she loathes to look in, the doubts that would whisper to her when she is alone.’ In 'Ad Astra', we feel the ‘dread of standing still, of being in one place too long, of rooting too deeply in the soil of past pain or bleak future’.
As Mr. Shaw declares, writers ‘live in hope that what they write will have meaning, though it is almost always left to readers to find it’.
These tales are the outer ripples of memories lost. Search your own past and you’ll find their echo. They float here on a ‘lawless realm of dreams’ where time ‘moves as easily backwards as forwards’. Step your way through the fragments and seek out the shards glittering most brightly. Your touch will inevitably linger, perhaps where you least expect it. Those slivers may prick your tender flesh.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
(I read these tales in e-format, but would recommend a print copy, as they are certainly best savoured in small bites, so that each can be relished and mused upon before entering the next)
(reviewed 47 days after purchase)