‘The Stone Mirror’, by Ian Spring

Ian Spring’s collection of short stories encapsulates the spirted approach to publishing that is contributing to Rymour fast acquiring a striking reputation for their catalogue. There are fifteen in this particular collection which is marked by a distinctly self-effacing and rip-roaringly funny Author’s Note at the beginning. Whilst the subtitle is ‘It is not necessary to read this’ I would encourage readers to from start to finish. Noticeably the author himself recounts attending a writers summer school with his friend Simpson Grears, also published by Rymour, and the subsequent rapprochement that formed in the process of writing The Stone Mirror. This reviewer can only dream at the prospect of a Spring/Greers collaboration. 

‘Faustian Fiction’ is a punchy and creative reworking of the Faust tale which, whilst imaginative and ambitious, feels as though it gets lost in the complexities of its own plot. An artist is seduced at an exhibition of his own paintings by Faustine, a lingerie-clad temptress who he marries. Following the early points of their coital frenzy she declares ‘you have conjured me for your pleasure alone’ (p. 25) before he realises that there is a contract to which he must adhere in return. As the Faustian agreement morphs into a consumer contract and debt recovery services, the unnamed narrator is required to provide his soul to the underwriter who provided him with Faustine. A second narrator is then seduced by Faustine at the publication of his third novel and dreams of success in his chosen field before realising she is not the ‘model’ he would have selected. By the time the conclusion comes, I found I was skipping back to remind myself of what had gone before and its relevance.

‘The World Turned Upside Down’ is a tour-de-force, taking as its inspiration an English ballad published in the mid-1640s that was a polemic protesting against the policies of Parliament in relation to Christmas. The source has appeared in many different cultural references ranging from Christopher Hill to Mark Wallinger. Spring namechecks the Earl of Rochester, Alexander Pope and Dr Swift (Jonathan?) in this recounting of Augustan prose and delivers a delightful satire with aplomb. 

‘Babylon’ is a sharply drawn and startling 8 pages which is set in New Orleans and contextualised by the Great Depression of 1930–38. This period is narrated by Charmaine, a prostitute, who meets and propositions Georgy, a bookish Francophile from a colonial city visiting after Mardi Gras. The narrative moves to 1834 and a chained slave named Babylon is at the mercy and bidding of Madame Lalaurie. The conclusion, when it arrives, is jolting and jarred this reader into a sharp realisation of the contrasts being drawn, the recurrent Gothic nature of New Orleans in its historical reverie and contemporary troubles. 

‘FAQs’ is a comedic three-page skit where four philosophical questions are posed and responses which ‘puts your mind at rest’ are provided. The subtlety and tone with which the answers are composed makes for amusing reading and if Spring is aiming to imitate the standard banality of corporate or AI-driven language then he achieves it. 

 ‘The Stone Mirror’ is the headline story and longest in the collection. Set in what appears to be the Far East (possibly Imperial Asia), the protagonist is the son of The Archer and seeks to be sent to Earth to establish the difference between life and death. It is this request which leads Chiang Yee to be adopted by Chiang Li, scribe to the Emperor’s Censor, who ensures Yee is educated by tutors and, finally, the Grammarian who will teach him. Yee’s teaching involves repeated punishment with a bamboo cane until he is able to achieve the knowledge sufficient to graduate. As the narrative progresses, Yee is sent as an apprentice to a foundry worker in a country where there is no colour, a repressive ruling regime and where the dialogues around the possible existence of colour lead to revolutionary thoughts being exchanged. The Emperor calls upon Yee to attend his court and be trained as a scribe where Yee compiles lists, inventories and deals with other linguistic challenges whilst he is promoted numerous times through the Imperial ranks. The endgame when it arrives is benignly apocalyptic, a revelation which brings a more peaceful and placatory conclusion. 

Aptly for a collection which listed its own set of literary influences in the author’s note at the beginning the final story is heavily influenced by Borges. The intermingling of Gothic, Scotland, Calvino and other postmodern heavyweights works at points but seems to collapse under the weight of its own ambition in others. I admire complexity and I am an enthusiast of its execution which is why The Stone Mirror is a brave and memorable attempt to fuse much of these qualities. Whether it succeeds remains to be seen but it has a lot of fun trying.    

The Stone Mirror is published by Rymour Books

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