Lady Stanhope’s Manuscript
and Other Stories
Well now, here’s an odd one: an anthology that is not only very good indeed, but also comes damned near to being totally satisfying. And let’s be honest here, I’m not ever going to be to objective about a book that reintroduces me to Sibelius’s ‘Tapiola’ as well as to the music of John Tavener. Yep. For some weird reason Tavener has gone under my radar all these years; and how did that happen?
Yet this book will bring you to other people, books, composers and events that you may never have heard of.
Dale Nelson’s Lady Stanhope’s Manuscript and Other Stories consists of two purely magnificent tales that bookend the collection and which manage to sandwich between them nine others that are finely crafted pieces – including one in the middle that you can also file under ‘magnificent’. The bookends are the title story itself and a strangely compelling closing shot called Pastor Arrhenius and the Maiden Brita. The one in the centre is a small gem by the name of Rusalka.
As we probably all know, an anthology can often, just by its very nature, be pretty hit-and-miss. It is rare that every story will please every reader. Yet this particular reader finds himself having read most of these stories twice over the past couple of months and some have been revisited three times.
And not only that, but with a feeling that I’ve learned something new each time.
Just as an example: in The Ergushevo Icon, the author skillfully takes us through the intricacies and theological arguments behind a schism in the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile.
As you do. After all, who amongst us can say that we haven’t spent many hours a day wondering about the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile?
And yet he makes what is going on crystal-clear. Considering that I would guess that most readers are as snow-blind on the subject as I am, that’s quite an achievement; and it is one that Nelson manages to make seem effortless, because this author is a man who comes across as one who wears his considerable learning very lightly. There’s a deft touch at work here that will never bore you.
Although similarly complex issues turn up in this wildly diverse collection, he never deals with a heavy hand. Everything becomes of interest. On an initial read I found the stories themselves so fascinating that I sped straight through them; yet on rereading I stopped on several occasions to make a note of things discussed that I found to be worth following up on.
In every case, I found it worthwhile to do so; again, quite an achievement.
Nelson’s stories have characters that exist beyond the pages than those to which they’re confined. Think Sherlock Holmes. Think almost anyone from Dickens’s Bleak House.
They exist beyond the pages.
I can think of no finer a compliment to give. I want to know more about that beef-eating, stolid, slightly boring, yet wholly admirable grocer from Lady Stanhope’s Manuscript; I want to know more about how that deftly-drawn, cynical religious reporter from the brilliant Ergushevo Icon thinks.
Take a glance through something as deceptively slight as Aqualung in Svalyava. But don’t take it lightly: here is something important. And I’m not just talking about how it made me dig up my old Jethro Tull album from the seventies, in glorious cover art that reminds us of how bloody good these album designs were back then.
You come across holiness in the strangest of places, after all. And in his stories Nelson offers us windows into both Heaven and Hell. More on the side of the former, I suspect; but his windows into Hell are as terrifying — if rather more subtly so — than the in-your-face writers.
This is a guy who can paint landscapes in deft pen-and-ink sketches – and sometimes in full-blown colour. His stories move effortlessly from San Francisco to England to Russia and beyond – and when you read them, it’s hard to imagine that he hasn’t visited every single one:
“He knew that the sea lay somewhere out in the deepening gloom…but that would not, he thought, be a very lovely stretch of British coastline; rather, poor, sandy patches of land imperceptibly surrendering to salt marshes and lonely shingle, dreary clumps of grass, and, at last, grey water flowing over the shoals, and crying birds.”
Maybe I read his superb Powers of the Air at just the right time. (To me, as good as any early Lovecraft tale, except more human.) I had just finished Nick Hayes’s Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl Ballads and watched for the first time in thirty years Hal Ashby’s wonderful biopic of Guthrie, Bound for Glory. And then along comes Nelson’s piece. I was damned near smothering on North Dakota dust at the end of it.
Then you have a quieter story like the above mentioned Pastor Arrhenius and the Maiden Brita and I’m thinking that I’m reading something that is very close to genius. There’s this thing that Nelson does, and it is seamlessly working in ‘stories-within-the-stories’, something that reminds me of the cinema of John Sayles.
Nelson adds both a richness and texture to his tales when he does this that you can almost touch. Get a load of this, just as an example:
“A peasant was fishing from a river bank. He saw a little boat coming towards him with a bent-over hag poling her way across. He rose to offer her assistance getting out of the boat and onto shore. When he had placed her on the land, she said to him, ‘You have been kind to an old woman.’ She indicated a birch broom lying on her boat: “Choose, shall I pass on, or shall I stay and sweep?” The peasant laughed. “God bless you, grandmother,” he said. “Sweep, if you have the strength.” That was the wrong thing for him to say. Everyone in that district died: she was the Black Death.”
I’ve gone on long enough, but that’s just because of my enthusiasm for this book. I’ll leave you with one thing: having read Rusalka three times now, I no longer think that it one of the finest weird stories I’ve ever read; I think that it is one of the finest stories. Period. It is a pleasure to examine the subtleties in this masterpiece.
And I’m STILL not sure if it is told by an ‘unreliable narrator’ or not.
But I’m sure of this: the guy who wrote it has an uncanny responsiveness to nature; and is given to some pretty profound musings on religion.
In the end, I think that Rusalka may just be about surrendering the dead, not hanging onto them. And even if I’ve interpreted that the wrong way, I’ll also say this:
Lady Stanhope’s Manuscript is, beneath all of the genre trappings, the wisest and most profound book that I have read in quite some time.
Lady Stanhope’s Manuscript and Other Stories
by Dale Nelson
Nodens Books, 2017.