Saturday, April 20, 2013

Review: An Emporium of Automata by D.P. Watt

You sit in the darkened theater waiting for the show to begin, at a table close to the stage. The glass of absinthe sweats in your hand, and you can't recall if it is your third or your fourth. Come to think of it, you can't recall how you came to be here. Quiet murmurs and muted laughter blend together into an incoherent background noise. As you glance around you have trouble making out any of your neighbor's features in the dim, murky light yet you are sure that a man in a top hat two tables to your left is staring at you intently. You take another sip of the  sweet drink, and the taste of anise burns in your throat. Although it didn't seem possible, the lighting grows even dimmer, as the background noise fades to a thick silence. The man two tables down clears his throat, and the stage curtains open.

When I reviewed Shadows Edge, I noted how much I enjoyed D.P. Watt's story, and said that I wanted to read more of his work. As luck would have it, Eibonvale Press recently printed an expanded reprint of his hard to find first collection, An Emporium of Automata. Watt's background in theater is apparent in his stories, and his unique, eloquent voice lends an ethereal beauty to his fiction.

The collection is broken into three sections: Phantasmagorical Instruments, Genealogical Devices, and Ex Nihilo. divided among these three sections are a total of 21 stories (22 counting the afterword), with most stories averaging about ten pages apiece.

Mr. Watt's fiction puts one in mind of decaying Europe cities. Bizarre, archaic secrets hide behind the facade of fringe theater, puppetry, and mechanical toys. The language is reminiscent of older theater, poetic, and at times using words that have an eccentric, archaic feel to them. This itself is present in the titles of the stories (which are wonderful): Erbach's Emporium of Automata, Dr. Dapertutto's Saturnalia, Of Those Who Follow Emile Bilonche, Archaic Artificial Suns, and Pulvaris Lunaris or The Coagulation of Wood just to name a few. Almost every single story in this book is deep enough for the reader to benefit from re-reads.

The first section, Phantasmagorical Instruments, features eight weird tales, each one a pleasure to read. Although it's hard to choose favorites from this section, as all eight stories are great, there are some I enjoyed even more than others. In Erbach's Emporium of Automata a man recounts his childhood memories of a mysterious arcade of mechanical toys that opened in his seaside town. Of Those Who Follow Emile Bilonche features a crazed narrator obsessed with the works of Emile Bilonche. They Dwell in Ystumtuen looks at a small excerpt from a history book about a woman's hanging, and then takes readers to see the history behind it which involves fairies and sacrifice. It's a sad, beautiful story. The Butcher's Daughter features a couple who moves into the house of a recently deceased 110 year old woman. After a startling discovery in the woodshed, the couple starts to uncover the woman's disturbing secrets. Room 89 follows a grumpy, misanthropic man on holiday in a mysterious hotel. The story blends humor and scares for a particularly effective weird tale. Dr. Dapertutto's Saturnalia sees an inspector (in Russia or some Eastern European country) drawn into investigating a film reel sent to him by a mysterious "entertainer", and makes for one of the best stories in the book.

The second section, Genealogical Devices, features five short, interconnected stories. I know I wasn't able to put the entire puzzle together, but it did not keep me from enjoying this section.

The final section, Ex Nihilo is more reminiscent of the first section, and features eight more weird tales, further exploring weird little pockets of Russia/Eastern Europe and Britain. Again, it's hard to pick favorites as the entire section is great. Archaic Artificial Suns follows a narrator (I'm pretty sure it's Mikhail Bulgakov) encountering mysterious, impish actors and witnesses them commit a horrible crime. Pulvaris Lunaris, or The Coagulation of Wood is another story that vies for my overall favorite with Dr. Dapertutto's Saturnalia. This story follows a man recently released from jail who detours into a "puppet theater/brothel" and witnesses true magic. The Subjugation of Eros is another sad story, in which a father tells the tale of his son, who becomes isolated and obsessed with his own imaginary world. The Comrade is about a man who, after the bizarre death of his father, is approached by two mysterious men who offer to show him the "truth" about the world.

This collection offers much to weird fiction connoisseurs, and up until now was only available as an expensive, hard to find hardcover. Watt's collection appeals to the curious child in all of us; the macabre mysteries within shot through with a melancholy, captivating beauty.

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