VISIONS & VOYAGES by Chico Kidd
Reviewed by Peter Bell for ALL HALLOWS 36
Chico (A. F.) Kidd needs no introduction to All Hallows readers, who will be familiar with her numerous ‘Jamesian’ tales and her marvellous evocations of campanology as a setting for the supernatural (collected in 2000 in the Ash Tree Press volume Summoning Knells and Other Inventions); and, more latterly, for her creation of that remarkable personality, the Portuguese Captain Luís da Silva, who is able to perceive ghosts after losing one eye in an encounter with a demon. Both the character of da Silva and his confrontations with the supernatural have been widely praised as an original and witty contribution to the genre; he has been described as ‘a jaundiced Romantic modelled somewhat in the mould of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe’ (Jim Rockhill, All Hallows 32). For those unfamiliar with Chico Kidd’s fascinating da Silva tales, available also in the booklets Second Sight and The Vengeance Jar, it is difficult to offer an adequate description of such an unusual character; the best advice is to read the stories. Her latest publication will please existing fans, and offer a useful, economically priced introduction to others, as it includes two new adventures of the redoubtable Luís da Silva, ‘Heart of Darkness’ and ‘María Lisboa’, which, as Kidd explains in her introduction, come from ‘two quite different stages in his journey’, and in which we learn that there are two further stories in the making. Visions & Voyages also includes two other tales, best described as fantasy, which mark a new venture for Kidd; she herself states ‘You could, if you stretched the term a bit, call them fairy stories.’
There is always a danger in the creation of genre characters like da Silva, who become vehicles for repeat performances on more or less familiar stages, that they can get rapidly overworked, clichéd, and lead ultimately to tedious, formulaic plots, and one thinks here, for example, of Seabury Quinn’s occult detective Jules de Grandin. On the other hand, there are some writers who transcend these limitations, the most obvious, of course, being Conan Doyle. Some characters, such as the Prichards’ Flaxman Low, Margery Lawrence’s Miles Pennoyer, and William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki may well be best remembered precisely because they inhabit a relatively limited range of stories, even though they leave us wishing there were many more. Among current writers, Mark Valentine and John Howard’s anonymous ‘Connoisseur’ thus far continues to whet the appetite for more, and to show that variations on a theme, if well executed, are certainly no bad thing. It is interesting to note that Chico Kidd, together with Rick Kennett, has successfully perpetuated Hodgson’s Carnacki in Ash Tree Press’s No. 472 Cheyne Walk; Carnacki: the Untold Stories (2002); in its own way as effective as David Rowlands’ re-creation of E. G. Swain’s Mr Batchel. It may be too soon to deliver a verdict on da Silva, but to judge from the two exploits recounted here, there is much life left yet in the idiosyncratic captain, while Kidd’s prolific output, breadth of imagination, and story-telling skills still seem to have no bounds.
To summarise the plots of the two latest da Silva stories would take away much of the pleasure of reading them, as so much depends on the unexpected twists and turns of the narrative and the captain’s reactions. Suffice it to say that they convey the surrealistic and macabre, yet amusing and slightly crazy world we have come to expect, and that they are utterly original. Kidd’s deft command of ‘Jamesian’ techniques and themes is on display in one of the tales, as shown in the following description of a sinister statue in ‘María Lisboa’:
“There was nothing about it [the statue] that would encourage anyone to want to linger, the time-damaged figure of a man wearing old-fashioned clerical garb. His hair curled down to the kind of high collar with bands seen in old paintings, but the thinning crown and lines on his face suggested early middle age, though not maturity. There was something disturbing about its expression, about the way its blind eyes gazed upwards as if at something no-one else could see and its mouth gaped open in a kind of welcoming awe or dawning comprehension. It was lipless and revealed a row of broken jagged teeth that looked capable of crunching bones without trouble. The lichen encrusting the stone resembled some foul disease or rash.”
M. R. James is also evoked in the demonic theme: pursuit by things unpleasant and references to an order based on that ill-omened place, Chorazin, which features in ‘Count Magnus’. As ever, though, Kidd’s voice is wholly original, never mere pastiche; and it is clever the way the ‘Jamesian’ motif is incorporated into the world of da Silva. The story is interestingly and effectively structured in two parallel, overlapping narratives, further testimony to the author’s versatility of style.
In the aptly titled ‘Heart of Darkness’, we read of the captain’s adventures with witches, zombies, magic, and mutilation in the Dark Continent, in a quest to find Prester John’s ‘Panoptikos’, which allegedly enabled him to see all that was going on in his kingdom. It is refreshing in these days of a misplaced post-colonial political correctness still to be able to read a good yarn set in the white man’s graveyard of tropical Africa, to re-enter the darkly mysterious world of Conrad, or Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines. Kidd skilfully mines this lost vein of weird writing and comes up with gold; as one of the men in the story says, Ex Africa, semper aliquid novi. An early tale, ‘something that happened before I lost my left eye’ and before ‘I started seeing ghosts, let alone talking to the damn things’, it illustrates the author’s flexibility in the deployment of her protagonist. Her ability to combine the grotesque and the comic, and something of da Silva’s earthy mode of expression, which is one of his charms, is evident in the following description of his feelings on witnessing the vision of a native boy’s head hovering above a brazier:
“I’ve weathered the worst storms the wind and ocean can throw at me, there’ve been times when I’ve been convinced I won’t come out of it alive, let alone my ship. Not to mention some pretty hairy fights. But those things, mostly, are exhilarating as well as frightening. This, though—it wasn’t just ball-shrinking. I thought they were trying to crawl back inside. Though it looked quite alive, the eyes laminated, lashes blinking, mouth mobile, the head appeared to have been neatly severed. Sitting on the floor I could almost make out the cut tissues of the neck, the white glint of bone. If I’d wanted to. I didn’t. Dead severed heads are bad enough, thank you.”
The two other pieces making up this booklet, ‘How Hope Came Back’ and ‘The Absence of Dragons’, are interesting for the author’s exploration of a new field, and in them we enter a world of spells, sphinxes, mermaids, dragons, and magic queens, relayed in Kidd’s characteristic prose style. They may not be to the taste of readers preferring the more conventional supernatural fare they have come to expect from her writing, or the racy adventures of da Silva; and they are inevitably overshadowed here by the da Silva tales, alongside which they appear unremarkable. Nevertheless, they do repay the reading, offering the lyrical passages and mild philosophy one expects of a fairy tale; and Kidd presents her material in a way that stands good comparison with more established fantasy writers, though they are not employed in the serious allegorical manner of, say, Angela Carter. Like the da Silva stories themselves in a way, the impact is of fairly light-hearted, good-natured entertainment, where the purpose is not so much to shock, disturb, and terrify as to indulge the reader in the many possibilities of the fantastic, the weird, and the supernatural as a subject of enjoyable excitement. In any case, the booklet is well worth it for the da Silva tales alone, and I am sure they will leave fans anxious for the imminent appearance of work in progress. The booklet is attractively presented in blue card with a drawing on the front by Kidd.