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Posted on 9 Jul 2024 in Fiction, SFF | 0 comments

JOHN RICHARDS The Gorgon Flower. Reviewed by Paul Anderson

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John Richards’ stories explore the phantasmagoric, the mysterious, and the follies of empire.

The Gorgon Flower, John Richards’ first book, is an intriguing collection of speculative short fiction of impressive range that explores the space-time continuum. It comprises the titular novella and six shorter stories. Some are historically set, others are (presumably) future-set, or in an alternative present. All are well-imagined and involved, the products of an inquiring mind, written in an assured, eloquent-to-baroque high style, bejewelled with hand-picked references to classical music, literature and art.

These are mysterious and fantastic stories concerned with the possibilities of an afterlife and phenomena beyond our ken. Characters seemingly die only for their bodies to transmogrify into spectacular forms. Others, like ‘the Man Who Watched’, appear from the multiverse. Richards has fun in ‘Jacksi Packsi’, the stand-out story, breaking the fourth wall to explain this term (indeed the whole book has a dash of metafiction):

Whoa, hang on, I hear you saying, alternative dimensions, parallel universes, are you kidding me? But I’m not, believe me, and I can quote in my defence a phalanx of immensely eminent, world-renowned physicists … The upshot of all this is a realisation that the elementary building blocks of everything we see [subatomic particles] behave in an utterly incomprehensible manner.

‘Jacksi Packsi’ reads like a novel: it’s certainly open-minded enough. I enjoyed this story the most for its ambition, and thematically it can be read as a key to the collection. The narrator – unnamed, but let’s call her ‘Jacqui’ – is an only child, now in her late twenties, looking back on the life of her kind grandmother, specifically the six-year period leading up to her Nana’s disappearance when ‘Jacqui’ was 14 years old.

Nana was a mathematician. Not just any [academic] mathematician but one of the most brilliant of her generation (as they say).

Maybe too brilliant: Professor Millicent’s work could have unlocked quantum mechanics and, by extension, ‘the ability [for humankind] to slip between universes’. So what happened to her? A decade and a half later, ‘Jacqui’, also smart – she has tenure and teaches Philosophy of Science at university – goes looking for answers. The characterisation and dramatic structure are superbly done. It is hinted that Nana could be Polish and Jewish; that maybe she survived the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943. Or are we in a simulacrum world reading a negative of this story? This is a thought-provoking work about understanding reality, as well as culpability.

The other stories in the collection can be thought of in couplets. ‘A Fall from Grace’ and ‘The Wolf-boy of Ruggianto’ are historical fiction, told in the third-person with Gothic touches of mythology and heresy. These reminded me somewhat of Nicolas Rothwell’s European fiction (as in Belomor, for example). ‘The Interventions’ and ‘The Malumbra’ are science fiction, noirish first-person voice-overs that are technological and slightly terrifying; stories of watching and being watched over. These put me in mind of some of George Saunders’ futuristic-dystopic fiction (as in Tenth of December, for example). Finally, ‘The Gorgon Flower’ and ‘Emanation’ are fantasy, mysterious tales told by late-nineteenth-century English gentlemen that teeter between horror and wonder. These are post-Enlightenment stories that lie beyond science and reason. Both involve forensically described metamorphoses, which I will not spoil.

In ‘A Fall from Grace’, Jean-Michel Houvrée (1694–1756?) is a preternaturally gifted French painter. (The question mark is mine: he may actually have died in 1725, from a horse fall, or at least he disappears then from the public record.) Jean-Michel can paint his subjects in a prodigiously hyper-realistic way, as if rendered from ‘a celestial blueprint to which he alone had access, he alone could see in his spirit’s eye’. He apparently continues to produce paintings after his ‘death’, but on closer inspection these ‘peintures etonnantes’ morph eerily, ‘as if the nightmarish, hallucinogenic creatures of Hieronymus Bosch had invaded and taken occupation of the calm, ordered world of Vermeer’. This is a story about religious belief and the hand of God.

‘The Wolf-boy of Ruggianto’ is set in 1266, in a small village in the Italian Alps. An unnamed ten-year-old boy is accused of taking the form of a wolf, the penalty for which ‘was to be cooked on your own bonfire until your organs and muscles shrivelled more speedily than a salted snail and your bones calcified into white brittle twigs’. Most of the story is taken up with the proceedings of the ensuing episcopal trial, at which the boy is ‘defended’ by an unknown cleric, a Mother Clodagh of Ballytundle. It’s a blatant show trial and Richards trowels on the hypocrisy. This is a story about religious superstition with a nice sleight of hand.

In ‘The Interventions’, Daniel is a London-based company director who works for an unnamed entity in another dimension charged with watching over us (they can see, through our eyes, what we are looking at). They’re akin to our guardian angels, protecting us ‘through life-choice and life-decision interventions’.

You might think the number of ways any one of us can consciously and deliberately mess up our life would be infinite – or at least, a very great number – but in my considerable experience it’s nearly always down to the trinity of sex, drink/drugs (that’s just one, by the way) and financial greed.

Stuart Fairlie is one of Daniel’s supervisees. Stuart’s in Jakarta on business but when we see him, he’s out on the town, about to transact for ‘adulterous paid-for-sex with Citra Candawati’ (Stuart is married with three young children). The story dramatises the various fast-paced options Daniel and his team work through to ‘intervene’ to stop Stuart making this poor choice. This is a story about moral-ethical choices and our better selves with more than one twist.

In ‘The Malumbra’, Hugh Penton is a retired ‘rontogen’ (think: blade runner) and there are clues that we could be in Australia. It’s been 15 years since Penton last worked a case but Ritter calls him in to assist with interrogation of Manzy, a perp caught in a preparatory act of terrorism who, it is suspected, has been captured by a ‘malumbra’ (think: malevolent daemon). ‘Penton’s one of only a handful of rontogens with a one hundred per cent successful detection rate. He wrote the fucking manual,’ exclaims one of Ritter’s team. This is a story about predestination.

‘The Gorgon Flower’ novella (110 pages) is the major set-piece in the collection, a Conradian tale of Lord Tobias Henry Edmundson, an English gentleman botanist on a fated expedition in Borneo in 1861, going up river in search of this exotic – and carnivorous – plant. The story is told by way of extracts from the journal that Tobias steadfastly maintains en route at a less-than-portable writing desk. ‘The Royal Society had ambitious plans to announce with considerable fanfare, on our return, the induction of the Gorgon flower into the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew,’ he explains. Richards nails his ludicrous character’s voice, which is erudite-to-florid, and so apposite for his class and the time. ‘The Gorgon flower must be here; patience and further investigation will induce a favourable outcome. For now, some laudanum and rest in my tent.’ Tobias’s prolixity is fun to begin with but his self-absorption and zeal steadily wear on the reader and eventually for me his voice became a structural impediment. This is a story big in scope about the follies of empire, legacy, and vanity, which can also be read in more than one way as a revenge on colonialism. There are multiple strands here (magic realism, eros) but it is our mortal flesh that is paramount.

‘Emanation’ was my second favourite story, for its intricacy. Richards writes adeptly in Chekhovian show-don’t-tell mode:

For the first time that night, the moon unfurled itself from its heavy cloak and escaped into the night sky, washing the grass heath ahead with a pale luminescence which made the frost glitter and picked out a path of hard, beaten earth.

The body of recently deceased Alfred Hickling undergoes a strange yet captivating transformation in London in 1892. Dr Christopher Maltby is a physician-in-residence at the Royal Brompton Hospital who is assisting the chief surgeon Professor Sir Malcom Hartlett with the post-mortem. Neither has seen anything like this before: ‘Christopher, what if we are wrong about this – about God, the afterlife, all that?’ the Professor eventually confides (earlier it’s implied he’s an atheist). Mrs Hickling, Alfred’s self-composed wife, asks the key question, however: ‘Do you believe the soul survives the death of the body and that we live on in spirit form?’ This is a quite delicate story about non-conforming religion, spiritual exaltation and angels.

The Gorgon Flower is an intelligent collection of suspenseful and edifying stories. There are dark arts in play here but the lycanthropy and phantasmagoria et cetera elides schlock through a coherent questioning tone. The prose remains as rational as it can possibly be, notwithstanding that we are in supernatural realms and extra-dimensional space-time. The set-ups are ingenious and while some of these stories may end in the equivalent of an ellipse, there has been something to marvel over on the way through. These are stories that have been carefully honed, written to be re-read.

John Richards The Gorgon Flower University of Queensland Press 2024 PB 304pp $32.99

Paul Anderson is a freelance editor. He is the co-editor of The Power of a Football, a collection of Reclink footy stories, published in 2022 by WestWords Limited.

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