Brian M. Stableford, The Wayward Muse (Black Coat Press, 2005)

It grieves me to realize that Brian M. Stableford is one of those (too many) authors whose work I have never encountered before. At least, it does after reading The Wayward Muse. Before that, of course, it was pretty much value-neutral, but now I'm faced with adding another body of work to my "to read" list, and Stableford has been publishing for forty years.

The Wayward Muse is a small collection, containing two previously published stories, "The Secret Exhibition" and "The Incubus of the Rose," and a new novella, "The Arms of Morpheus." All are told by Axel Rathenius, and all take place on an island off the coast of somewhere in Europe. The Roman Empire never fell, it just grew as it absorbed the various peoples around it, and it is the 190th decade after the birth of the Divine Caesar. The island Mnemosyne is home to an artists' colony, and in the summer provides a retreat for wealthy patrons as well. Rathenius is a painter. His close friend and former lover, Hecate Rain, is a poet. Other characters who appear throughout the volume include the physician Fion Commonal; the funeral director, Emmaus Partibus; Ragan Barling, an antiquary; and, perhaps most important, Eirene Magdelana, the morpheomorphist, who practices the art of dream shaping, an art that Rathenius considers perhaps the most profound of all the arts, and certainly the most troubling. She is also quite mad -- except when she's not.

Stableford's introduction to the book is somewhat more than helpful: these stories all fit into a tradition that goes back to the English Decadents, which perhaps explains some of what I call the "nineteenth-century feeling" that I got from the book. Stableford himself cites Jean Lorrain's novel Monsieur de Phocas (which actually gave him the idea for "The Secret Exhibition") and Ben Hecht's Fatazius Mallare, but I also got a sense, perhaps, of The Picture of Dorian Gray and even some feel of Conan Doyle. It's a context in which art bleeds over into the supernatural (as evidenced by the fact that the ideas were actually first developed for a "horror book of days" anthology).

"The Secret Exhibition" plays into old questions about the power of a painter to capture his sitter's soul. We usually think of it in a metaphorical sense, but Stableford has made it a literal reality in the competition between Rathenius and the latest fashionable painter from the mainland, Claudius Jaseph, to paint the newest debutante of good family -- among other things. "The Incubus of the Rose" follows the somewhat bizarre courtship of Conrad Othman, a composer, and Dorothea Rosa, also a musician, who desires no company but that of women.

The final story, "The Arms of Morpheus," gathers all the strands for a full-blown treatment in a tale of seduction, incest, dark purposes, lost loves, and dreams, told in the story of a new lighthouse keeper, his sister who has just awakened after sleeping for thirty years, Hecate Rain, Axel Rathenius, and a tangled skein of histories.

Be forwarned, these are talky stories, as fits this particular type of storytelling. If you're looking for action adventures, look elsewhere. The character of Rathenius, who narrates throughout; however, is more than justification enough for all the discourses. Enigmatic, and somewhat jaundiced in outlook, he's really an archetype of the total aesthete. The other characters are equally quirky, sometimes even more vivid, and subject to Rathenius' sometimes merciless observations.

These are really three gems, and I have to admit that I enjoyed them thoroughly, even though I can be a real beast about "more words than story." Not in this case. There are absolutely the right number of words.

[Robert M. Tilendis]