The New Death and Others by James Hutchings

There is a talent in James Hutchings’ writing that becomes apparent when one reads his collection of short stories, parables and poems: The New Death and Others, and I have hitherto been remiss in my duties to it, having months ago agreed to review it.

Perhaps best described as a work of weird irony, the majority of the pieces satirize the tropes of weird literature. By and large this is a good thing, for there is a great need for the weird to be able to laugh at its own melodramatic melancholy and oft-exaggerated features. Within this atmosphere of parody Hutchings also sets his sights on political and cultural topics, targeting reality television, war, consumer and business culture and many general acts of superficiality and ostentation.

Not all of the works in the collection, however, are ironic, and it is clear from the number of poems and prose inspired by the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Lord Dunsay and Robert E. Howard that the author does indeed see himself writing from within the tradition of the weird tale, employing often elegant language to describe the oddities of his otherwordly settings.

Hutchings’ greatest strength seems to lay within the conceptual spaces he explores, and in his talent for the clever concluding twist that he employs in such pieces as “How the Isle of Cats got its Name”, “The God of the City of Dust”, “The Face in the Hill” and “The Scholar and the Moon”, which describes the fantastical culture of the Mayajenese people, and their often deadly rooftop politics.

Despite the growing ubiquity of flash fiction, particularly on the internet, there has been proportionately little increase in the number of writers employing the styles of the aphorism, allegory or parable. The gallows humour that the author brings to bear on many of his subjects, as well as his talent for allegory and unexpected endings mentioned previously, makes The New Death a positive contribution to this body of literature.

Internally a few indicators hinted that the work was self-published. There were some consistent but minor errors of proof reading throughout, the kind that inevitably find their way into a work no matter how many times a single pair of eyes happens to pour over it (sadly, I did not notice until the very end of the work that Hutchings has provided a contact address along with a request that readers alert him to these matters, and so unfortunately I did not record them as I read). There was also a slight unevenness in quality of the contributions, and I have the feeling that with some editorial oversight certain pieces would not have been included, or else would have been divided up differently. Considering the overall quality of many of the collection, these are minor points, but it is indicative of the effect that ebook publishing has on the material writers are releasing upon the world.

I myself am certainly no exception to this.

Even with an editor, my ebook collection of poetry “Songs Unsung, Poems Unspoken” shows the over-eagerness or lack of circumspection that tends to accompany this form of publishing. I was so taken with the seemingly magic number “50” that I included pieces in that collection that were, upon reflection, probably not worthy of it, and in the name of eclecticism I gave little thought to the overall effect of the work.

And like my own work, a certain lack of unity of tone and style was one difficulty I found myself encountering with The New Death, sometimes finding it jarring when what I took to be a weird tale had its eldritch atmosphere dispersed by some modern reference made in jest. It is possible that designated sections for satirical and non-satirical prose, and another two for satirical and non-satirical poetry would have helped the reader in this regard. Even with this though, some stories, such as “Todd” and some poems such as “If My Life Was Filmed” seemed slightly out of place in the collection taken as a whole.

I very much appreciate the narrative quality of the poems, and while employing largely rhyming verse, Hutchings often succeeds in evoking the fantastical, folkloric potential of the style without descending into the stretched sounding turns of phrase that have, in many ways, made it fall into a state of disrepute among the modish literati. Still, I must confess that I do not know quite what to make of his decision to base so much of his poetry off of the stories of other writers of weird tales. While these pieces often have many remarkable stanzas, at some points it seemed that the author was forced to spin out a few too many of them in order to approach the scope of the stories they were based upon to the determent of the poetry itself, and at these points the verses do occasionally seem to stumble on the need to make the lines fit into even rhymes.

Despite this, there are many striking stanzas in The New Death that I will not soon forget, such as this one from “Diamanda and the Isle of Wives”:

“The babe in arms, the maiden fair
the childhood friend – not one was spared.
Was this an end that you would choose
or was your love of freedom used
to blind your heart and cruelly cloak
the wicked plans of wicked folk?”

It is thus with some humility that I recognized in this collection several of my own errors as a writer, yet Hutchings’ successes are all to his own credit, and many of the stories and the stanzas from his poems will no doubt remain in my mind for some time to come, drawn up by some meandering reflection or other. And after all, this is the lasting power to which all writers, I suspect, actually aspire.

James Hutching’s second collection of poetry and prose “Flights of Fancy” is slated for release on September 28, 2012.

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What Sound Does the Valley Make?: The Music of Jack McDonald

All of these songs are from the album Domestic Acoustic, composed and arranged by the Nova Scotian musician Jack McDonald. I had the privilege of being able to spend a great deal of time with Jack and his family growing up around the Annapolis and Gaspereau valleys.

Deeply rooted in the landscape, Jack’s songs have come to represent for me an experience with the valleys which I think I may have missed growing up amidst my graveyard and haunted house, but which I have come to respect and appreciate as I travel ever further away. In 2007 he received the Valley Arts Award for his “steadfast support of musicians in [the] area, both through recording projects (Domestic Acoustic) and through the Night Kitchen (open mic variety show)”. His song “Bluenose Cowgirl” speaks to the all too common exodus that I’ve commented on in my previous post about Stan Rogers’ “The Idiot”, while songs such as “Burtland Brook” and “The Valley Below” echo the ebb and flow of life around the Bay of Fundy.

Still my favorite of Jack’s songs has always been “Coffin Carpenter” for its resonance with any creative task that a psyche can seek to pour itself in to, and for its ability to render somehow sweet the obsession with the end which I think many artists are inclined towards. In this regard Jack, with his many years of making music in and around the valley, has certainly left a part of himself in his work that will no doubt be appreciated for years to come.

Though speaking of morbid obsessions, while searching for images to put up with Jack’s music I came across the work of the Acadian wood carver Jamie Thibault who has done a number of sculptures that are certainly my cup of strange, and can be seen on the website below.

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