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Old 06-05-2010   #1
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Agra Aska by D F Lewis (Scorpion Press, 1998)


Published by Scorpion Press, 1998

With introductions by Tim Lebbon, Allan Ashley, Paul Pinn, Simon Clark and Rhys Hughes

I’ve had D F Lewis’s Agra Aska on a shelf for some years now, and I’d say that I actually felt nervous of starting it. Sometimes his short stories appear to take the shape of ingenious puzzles and can be approached better in the morning with a clear head than late at night when simpler tales of hoods and horrors usually relax me with my mug of hot milk. But at last I began the book, and I'm glad that I did. There are a number of reviews of this book on the net. What follows here is a rough and fairly simple synopsis-so-far, with a few comments.

*

Agra Aska is a multi-viewpoint novella, which opens in Bridge House boarding school in Britain during the Second World War. Those familiar with D F Lewis’s writing will anticipate that this prosaic setting will prove oddly skewed before too many pages are turned, but as an opening it allows the reader to come to grips with the book’s characters against a fairly comfortable and familiar background.

The book’s first narrator is John Bello, a pupil at Bridge House School. John is having strange dreams in which his friend David Binns accompanies him. In the dream a woman John imagines to be a royal personage appears from a white mist. The two boys' awareness of their sexuality develops along with that of a more complex and vaguely mystical development.

The relationship between the two boys, “although deep, was more intellectual than emotional.” The dreams of the female presence in the mist persist, until “I almost dreaded waking up and leaving the dreams’ dull embraces” (a pleasing vein of sensuality runs throughout the book).

John’s perception of events and sense of destiny is expressed through music, while David refers to “an indefinable concept he described as ‘Unheard Keys’. He used this when indicating the path of my body and mind through his own existence”.

Although the two boys don’t actually share John’s dream of the woman in the mist, they conjure from their imaginations a similar kind of mythic or mystic Goddess figure named Estrella, “a hybrid of both the school’s Matron and the headmaster’s beautiful wife”.

In this way the reader is gradually led into a world where the mundane world appears to blend with the mystical and what we assume to be historical might possibly be an alternative world.

Before the end of the first chapter is reached, we discover that this wartime boarding school does not exist in our own continuum – somehow the story seems to be shifting between realities without even bumping over the rails. The names of two teachers are similar to those of writers of this world, Robert Orwell and Governor Chesterton (G K Chesterton’s ‘metaphysical thriller’ The Man Who Was [Named] Thursday is referred to and deliberately misnamed later in the story). In John Bello’s reality, some cars have skis, a teacher descends in a mechanical moth, a great church straddles the city’s River, Zeus shines in the sky, while glamorous female Guides, whose brown uniforms bring to mind those of the WLA or WVS of our own history, show around visitors to the city.

While John Bello attends Bridge School, another narrator is introduced. Joan Turner is a pupil at Lady Margaret Academy where, in the darkened dormitory, something stirs at the foot of her bed. Even as she submits, the earth shakes as the city is attacked from the air. But even as the bombs save her from one threat, she is asked to submit to another: Chesterton has chosen her and has decided to exercise his Droit du Seignour.

These events take us four chapters into the book.

More will follow.
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Old 06-06-2010   #2
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Re: Agra Aska by D F Lewis (Scorpion Press, 1998)

Thanks, Rog.
Just as an aside - I first wrote Agra Aska around 1984 before I had seriously started submitting stories to the Small Press (i.e. first with 'Padgett Weggs' in 1986). Agra Aska was lightly rewritten by me for its publication in Scorpion Press in 1998.

PS: In many ways Agra Aska inspired Padgett Weggs.
But this is getting very 'Intentional fallacy' on my part!

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Old 06-06-2010   #3
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Re: Agra Aska by D F Lewis (Scorpion Press, 1998)

Quote Originally Posted by Nemonymous View Post
Thanks, Rog.
Just as an aside - I first wrote Agra Aska around 1984 before I had seriously started submitting stories to the Small Press (i.e. first with 'Padgett Weggs' in 1986). Agra Aska was lightly rewritten by me for its publication in Scorpion Press in 1998.

PS: In many ways Agra Aska inspired Padgett Weggs.
But this is getting very 'Intentional fallacy' on my part!
Des, you gave me a serious brain ache with that 'intentional fallacy' thing once before. Or was it explaining Proust that hurt so much? Anyway, if Agra Aska inspired 'Padgett', but the latter was published first, then rather than intentional fallacy I think you've created a time paradox.

(Speaking of time paradox's, did anyone see Dr Who this week, showing Vincent Van Gogh with both ears only days before his death...? Sorry, I digress.)

As you know, I posted on my reading of 'Padgett Webbs' only recently. And I've read past that part of Agra Aska which inspired it, also days ago - a curious synchronicity? - but I haven't had time to write up more of the latter yet.

Never mind. I'll get there in the end.
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Old 06-06-2010   #4
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Re: Agra Aska by D F Lewis (Scorpion Press, 1998)

Thanks for the review of this brilliant novella, Calenture. I have a very vivid memory of it and yet I'm sure that a second reading will reveal so much more, as is usual with any piece of fiction penned by Des.
Here is my own publication-on-reading edition of Agra Aska:



"In my imagination, I have a small apartment in a small town where I live alone and gaze through a window at a wintry landscape." -- TL
Confusio Linguarum - visionary literature, translingualism & bibliophily
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Old 06-06-2010   #5
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Re: Agra Aska by D F Lewis (Scorpion Press, 1998)

Quote Originally Posted by Calenture View Post
(Speaking of time paradox's, did anyone see Dr Who this week, showing Vincent Van Gogh with both ears only days before his death...? Sorry, I digress.)


The whole production (beautifully set, e.g. within van Gogh's own studio) was highly, deeply, emotionally, often absurdly, logical. Without question, a significant high point in the Dr Who canon since I started watching the series in 1963. Probably the best ever Dr Who.

It was the archetypical Van Gogh, if not the real one...
Poignant as well as rumbustiously Whovian.
(Pignant was what VVG put in his paints before eating them).
Acting brilliant, including the regulars, but especially Bill Nighy (unusually for him) and the actor who played Vincent (Tony Curran).


The monster was a representative of Hieronymous Bosch in a Van Gogh painting.?

Bosch's monster:
http://www.ligotti.net/showpost.php?p=16302&postcount=3

and also Grunewald:
http://shocklinesforum.yuku.com/sreply/45310/t/Horror-Paintings-pre-1800-.html

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Old 06-06-2010   #6
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Re: Agra Aska by D F Lewis (Scorpion Press, 1998)

Quote Originally Posted by yellowish haze View Post
Thanks for the review of this brilliant novella, Calenture. I have a very vivid memory of it and yet I'm sure that a second reading will reveal so much more, as is usual with any piece of fiction penned by Des.
Here is my own publication-on-reading edition of Agra Aska:


That's amazimg, Slawek.
And thanks for the kind words.

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Old 06-06-2010   #7
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Re: Agra Aska by D F Lewis (Scorpion Press, 1998)

That's an attractive volume, and thanks for the photo! Reading Agra Aska was prompted of course by the news of the forthcoming publication of Weirdtongue.

Very early on in my reading, I thought Agra Aska would probably take the shape of "post apocalypse meets alternate universe" fiction. And as it's written by Des Lewis, I expected those forms to take a battering; borrowed vehicles in the hands of a literary joy rider.

I think my account of the book has been quite staid so far. I was surprised to find that its plot seems quite clear and uncluttered; but as new information is presented, it casts light on past events in the story, which then sometimes need reassessing so that the story we appear to have read is undergoing constant metamorphosis. Just this evening I found a review by Peter Tennant (from Unreal Dreams), who I think has expressed similar thoughts.

Rog

"That is the story as told from the viewpoint of John Bello and filtered through the sensibilities of one reader, but there are other versions of events and other interpretations may apply; nobody can say with certainty which, it any, is finally to be regarded as the truth."

Peter Tennant

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Old 07-15-2010   #8
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Re: Agra Aska by D F Lewis (Scorpion Press, 1998)

We left the story (much too long ago) with Joan being saved by the tumult of an air raid from the glowing-eyed, thick-lipped lurker in the darkened dormitory, a scene that reminded me more than a little of the great cat on the bed in Carmilla.

After this, the peculiar ritual enacted by Dame Emerald and Chesterton in the Head Mistress’s study, with Chesterton kneeling before Joan’s photo while the Dame passes her black-stockinged legs around his body, is as amusing and grotesque as anything in Titus Groan (and as another fictional memory brought back by this scene, I’m tempted to throw in the Satanic ritual from To the Devil a Daughter for good measure. And probably Des wouldn’t mind. He’s probably read it!)

(I wonder sometimes just how D F Lewis approaches a lengthy piece of writing such as this one. I once attended a workshop given by the late poet and novelist Peter Redgrove, who had devised a technique known as ‘sealed writing’.

(Each night, one sits at a keyboard and, without planning or censorship, types out one full single-spaced page, which is then physically ‘sealed’ - covered by another page, which is taped in place. After a month the page is uncovered and read, pen in hand, and on that first reading any ‘unimportant’ text is scratched out. What remains might be a poem, a story or – in one case, we were told – a full novel.

(I can imagine Agra Aska being written that way.)

There is a coherent narrative, returned to possibly reluctantly at times, but probably not thought of as being of most significance to the book. It’s enough to drive the reader crazy, but I fancy that’s not one of Lewis’s chief concerns. Reading Lewis is a bit like seeing a detail of a painting through a pinhole. After a while you realise that trying to make out the rest of the picture surrounding that detail is actually to miss the point. What’s more interesting is the pinhole that allows you to see it.

Getting back to the novella, just as Joan has been saved from the succubus in the dormitory by an air raid, now she is saved from the Chester by the most violent air-attack of the war so far.

The next day she is to attend the ceremony at the great straddling church where she will be initiated into the Guild of Guides, and we learn here that the war has had a secondary effect on the human race. There is mutation. John Bello will also be at the church with the other boys for the grisly ceremonial removal of mutant growths from their bodies.

And as the ceremony concludes (and as almost incidentally we learn the secret of the succubus that stalked Joan’s dormitory), and as the recuperating boys are sitting up ‘like waking vampires from their niches amid the statuary, their eyes agog with fear and innocence. The very ground seemed to shake, or was it the buildings being splintered by the blanket bombing that the enemy had loosed?’

The great straddling church with its antique treasures is destroyed; John and Joan (and Ervin) emerge from the shattered remains.

‘…shapes of lost humanity silhouetted against the redness of setting Zeus.’

More follows.

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Old 07-16-2010   #9
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Re: Agra Aska by D F Lewis (Scorpion Press, 1998)

Now in secret closets and bathrooms, the monsters are dropping their human guises. Dictor Wilson and his wife Amy bare their fangs, and it was never a secret that Robert Orwell should bay at the moon while his wife Emily writhes in the pain of neglect.

With Chapter Six – Joan’s Childhood – we are taken to the Clockhouse Estate and the wooden backwoods house where she grew up. On my first reading of the book this struck me as one of those ‘benches’ that Shirley Jackson used to say were sometimes necessary in any story to allow the reader to rest. As intensely crowded with detail as ever but without too many puzzles, we are introduced to Peter Goone and Spikey and led through the swamp and woods at the edge of the estate, where twisted fallen trees make monstrous shapes and the music of a flute recalls a similar tune from The Wind in the Willows, but here somehow tainted and tortured like the sounds made by the wind blowing through the branches.

Childhood will soon be gone.

The narrative continues through twisting chronology, leading us through an England now gripped in the cold of a nuclear winter, then back to a more intimate horror when Ervin had brought home a human hand in an umbrella. And with Chapter Nine, we enter the strange bedroom, which will later become home to Padgett Weggs.

Just as Padgett raised a great arch over his bed to protect him, so John Bello has built a Gothic cathedral.

“He constructed this model from wall to wall, with the toppled timber and dead-fall branches of nearby woods, including the waste material from the local carpentry firm. In his eyes, it was a masterpiece, a veritable Chartres cathedral, complete with stained-glass windows, gargoyles, rococo architecture and resplendent altar and side-altars. It arched grandly over his bed, one foot by his bookcase and the other by his sink-cum-bath. Protect and survive, said the government – well, this was a neat nuclear shelter to end all such shelters.”

An active member of the local UFO Society, John is well placed to invite a girl to his room to admire the architecture. They are listening to the same Dell Shannon record on the radio as, two chapters before, Joan’s brother Ervin and Neville Niblett, hear in their car, when ‘Alaska came to Suffolk. The orange blossom burst over Croydon and, seconds later, an even brighter orchid uncurled over Ipswich.'
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Old 10-29-2010   #10
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Re: Agra Aska by D F Lewis (Scorpion Press, 1998)

Thanks for all those reviews of AGRA ASKA above, Calenture, and also for sight of Yellowish Haze's bespoke version of the book.

Some may be interested to know that AGRA ASKA has just been republished:
AGRA ASKA re-published | My Last Balcony

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