Mark Valentine is the author of several volumes of short stories and the editor of Wormwood, "a journal devoted to writings about fantasy, supernatural and decadent literature". These eleven stories share a theme of old empires and introduce us to a trade in looted icons in St. Petersburg, death of an emperor and the actions of a rebellious postmaster, signs of the future, lost faiths of the Ottoman empire and exiles in cafes.
'A Certain Power' opens in a poverty stricken backwater, unreached by the revolution, "the air treacherous and the mists, the many mists, into a greenish-yellow, sulphurous presence, a livid, living, hovering slime." There are mysterious dark characters, gossip amongst the neighbours and old princesses. The 'certain power' is held by the dark characters and the atmosphere is mysterious. 'The Dawn at Tzen' tells the tale of Postmaster Conrad. On the death of the Emperor and the arrival some weeks later of stamps bearing the image of the new Emperor-and-King, the Postmaster decides not to use them but to show loyalty to the late Emperor and continue issuing the old ones.
These stories all share an air of mystery as they are slowly revealed in Valentine's gentle enigmatic voice. The characters are mysterious or exotic in their foreignness and of being 'other' and the reader feels a need to put together the meaning of these part-explained stories. The story titles bring their own sense of mystery in their foreign sounds, 'The Ka of Astrakhan', 'The Bookshop in Novy Svet', 'The Walled Garden of the Bosphorus', each draw you into their 'otherworld-ness'. In some you even feel the author is playing with us, his wordplay and depth of mystery digging into near ridicule. Take Valentine's description in 'The Amber Cigarette' of the unwrapping of the silver cigarette case, "The sliver of silver slipped from its sheath of shadow and shone like a shivering stream: and the stone stared at him"- truly sibilance gone mad!
"Fantastic, supernatural and decadent", as the Wormwood Journal Valentine edits describes its work, certainly fits here in this specialist genre of fiction which readers will find challenges the normal expectations of story telling, taking them to a new location and a new way of thinking.
Selected Stories by Mark Valentine is published by The Swan River Press