The title alone is provocatively paradoxical. Is sanity
now the rarer mental state? The aspect that needs to find an asylum? The connotations of asylum are also jumbled. Originally meaning a safe haven, it has come to mean in the popular psychology a high walled prison for the frightening and unacceptable. The 'lunatics taking over the asylum' is a staple of psychological horror flicks.
But this is not intended as an assault on sensibility or sensitivity. As the e-book's blurb on Smashwords and Amazon sites suggests; "You will discover enlightenment or madness . . . or both or neither. It is entirely up to you."
Hey, dude, you might get something out of this, or not, it's all cool. As The Ark once sang, 'it takes a fool to remain sane.'
Further, this is a "literary thrill ride for distinguished tastes." A nice little caveat: this book is setting up for mature, well-read readers; a new thrill for jaded palettes. One cannot help drawing conclusions with the visitation to the madhouses of London by the social elite in the 18th and 19th centuries; to take in the abhorrent side of human psychology as a thrill and a 'new sensation'. Altamont puts themselves on the side of the darker, the weirder, the metaphysical and the hallucinatory. And the clearly metaphorical.
There isn't much out there on Shelley Altamont, either. All sites have them listed as "a poet of the perverse. No allegiance is submitted to any value but that of beautiful writing." So, define beautiful. One man's art is another man's trash, but if beauty is in the passing of things, then these stories, mostly statements and reminiscences, have the glow and fascination of personal history. Whatever one thinks of their form, they hook you in with a gentle and determined grip of velvet-clad steel.
These are short tales; some only a page or so, and aiming to throw deliberate curve balls with every innocent-sounding non-sequiteur. There is a definite desire for poetry to be derived from reality, and if a situation does not allow for the poetic to become a narrative reality, it is directly allowed to flourish, as real as anything in the tales. Fiction becomes a form of reality within the context of the tale; what 'sane' people would consider to be an 'insane' perception is given a polish and laid delicately before us.
'We Must Have Faith' starts the show with what is recognisable, if lunatic: the ecstatic character voice is one very recognisably of the fanatical convert; attempting to promote social change using a pure, impractical theory
, and the political zealot who cannot but see how everyone
has to follow one ideal, and be saved by it. Any number of extremist ideas can be mapped onto the reaction of the narrator. By 'Humid Thesis' the zealot mentality has become the instigator. An enthusiastic man, possessing what he thinks the best method for spiritual and bodily satisfaction, sells his idea and it spreads country-wide. How easy, says Altamont, it is for an idea to take root and economically, religiously, philosophically, integrate itself into our homes and minds. 'Ten' appears straightforward; a successful polygamist's cool statement of murder when his secret is revealed and threatened. The simplicity of it is a devious trick not so much a story as a joke with a clanger of a punch line. It's ghastly; but still, delivered in a fashion that produces a grimace of humour. This is Altamont's plan: they will make you think sideways, if not backwards, to what you would consider your 'normal'.
The next tale, 'Cherry Soda', redolent of madness and even something a bit fantastical (just what does lie at the bottom of the garden?), has a father awaiting his son's return from beyond the grasses at the end of their yard. Yet although his wife is 'uneasy', at no point does either consider calling the police. No, that would make this a normal
tale: a kidnap or murder mystery. This is an archetype tale, instead. The boy will return because he was sent on a quest by his father, and until that is done; the boy proved a man and any wrongs righted, they will have to wait. These are the parents of the fairy tale heroes, juxtaposed on the very modern consideration that the parents should be shipped off by social services and the police for neglect, or worse.
Altamont's possibilities dangle tantalisingly onward after the tales finish. What a mind can conceive of is far more powerful than a presented image: a truth long, and universally, accepted. Altamont is making best use of this by letting the reader make their own conclusions. The "enlightenment" alluded to in the blurb is the result of this engagement by the reader.
Metaphorical stories and allegories are ancient tools for moral instruction and it is Altamont's 'perversity' that they use specifically questionable
moral and psychological situations in order to deliver their most determined messages. The paranoid voice of 'The Final Image'; the distrustful lover, literally believes in the justice of an eye for an eye (or both and total blindness in this case) over a perceived crime of betrayal, even though it is his own telescopically-viewed stalking that reveals this to him. 'Bone Hotel' suggests an almost vampiric beauty that will drain the life, love and vitality of young men who become attached to her. The narrator secretes himself in her luggage along with others who have willingly submitted. This smacks of a distinctly Oedipal desire to return to the female, to hide within her small spaces, as well as an abjuration to not succumb to all that glitters. 'The Pain Painter', while written in terms that are phantasmagorical (a wife's privates are zipped up and padlocked, a meal of raw meat and grass, sex offered as the 'dessert'), is a Dorien Gray
-esque tale of change. The power politics involved in a marriage are played out in the changing colours
of an artist's paintings of husband and wife. As one dominates over another; as they are sexually subdued and humiliated, and the paintings change hue. A rawer description of selfish fulfilment at the expense of others could hardly be imagined. 'The Cat of Unknowing' is a sad paean for acceptance. The simple, un-judgemental, companionship of a dumb animal is welcomed by an individual who is torn between the demands of being a social chameleon. There is the confused, possibly post-modern, cry of one struggling to acclimatise their personality with the demands of a multiple public life: "I appear at all times to be things I am not." That this desperation leads to the death of acceptance (the narrator kills the cat in frustration), is the tragedy of trying too hard to become
. Indeed, in order to try to discover his true oneself, we have to accept who we are. 'Rumor's Run' could be read as a fantastical hunter-and-hunted tale in a world gone mad. The imbalance of something that is hunted but not caught within fairy tales and ancient epic tales caused the rest of the world to run mad. But the hunted here is rumour, too; and desire, and purpose. The hunter is the jealous greed of humanity wanting but not catching that unnameable 'something' that would make one's life better
in some indefinable but ultimate way. It runs through paranoid cities, past the lonely mystic in the hills, it sweeps down into the madness of war and causes men to fight and debauch themselves for what they think they need
. It is the secret of life itself, and it can never be caught, although we will die trying.
Her quest for "beautiful writing" will admit of no moral boundaries; and when morality is unconsidered, we are into the world of the 'mad.' This is the place of Id; our darkest thoughts and feelings. Altamont wants to be our Pandora and open it a crack and make us admit our own fascination with the 'wrong'. Some of the tales seem to be directly challenging us; not so much metaphorical teaching as outright dives into what should-not, must-not. 'An Instinct for Beauty' is the voice of a killer; one who wishes to preserve a moment of perfection. It's a twisted logic for a very real truth. As in 'The Vain Vein', it is that which is subject to change, to decay, which will prove the most fascinating, the most beautiful. 'My Birth's Revenge' is the enraged agenda of Jocasta's child: just what would a child of vilified incest do to verify their existence?
Altamont wants to be our 'poet of the perverse'. Perverse also means to be head-strong and stubborn. Perhaps Altamont, then, wants us to be more stubborn about admitting to our buried deviancies. Each tale is a sliver of glass to slide under the skin and niggle and poke. Altamont's style is not a death of a thousand cuts, but a reminding
stab of a hundred splinters. We are not the 'better' creatures we thought we were. After all, there are chuckles to be had, here, and amazement; positive emotions made questionable by the contexts in which we find them. The language is perversely differential. Using deliberately dated, thesaurus-worthy, or highly unusual synonyms, the authorial voice dips and glitters just beyond the area of easy-reading comfort.
The author's identity is one final, doubly-'perverse' detail. Here's the twist, kids; Altamont is, in fact, a nom de plume
, a playful pseudonym for Yarrow Paisley, a curious fellow who is undertaking to republish some of his older works and new fictions under Altamont's useful umbrella as an exercise in self-publishing. The quality of writing is genuine, but the idea that this is an experiment, a playground for a creative inquisitiveness, only adds to the suspicion that we are being loaded on to one hell of a ride: play is paramount, in theme, style and word.
Perversity as deviancy is mentioned directly in my favourite tale, 'The Vain Vein'. This is a directly allegorical tale of class and race and the loneliness of individuality. This is about the human intelligence that probes but does not find satisfactory answers; of personal dissatisfaction; of distrust of the other
, of fascination with the same, and of the very human
desire to be
another, but retain the known, precious self. Altamont's protagonist is a perfectly smooth, silver man. He has aspirations and desires to be golden, he finds fleshy humans fascinating, sex unfulfilling, and he appreciates the distinction between himself and his plain, iron landlady. The restless questing for more
(knowledge), that has driven human development and curiosity, and later human greed, is succinctly laid bare in this heartfelt account of one who feels too heavy, too earth-bound. Through the silver man's desire to experience humanity's fragility somehow
, we are being reminded that it is the very fragility of life, its ephemeral nature, which makes experience precious. Two tales stick in the mind for their very stark human qualities.
There is very recognisable sorrow in 'Death and Harleys.' The tale of an extremely unlucky man, who loses two wives and a daughter to accidents while riding their Harley bikes, will make him become an ogre of over-protectiveness. His surviving children will not be "let […] out of my sight. They are mine. They will not die." And we are left to speculate the tragedy of such a course of action on his children and for his family life to come.
On one level, the story is darkly, sickly comic: every grown woman this man loves comes to a very sticky end. A small manifesto is inserted at the very beginning. "Humour, as grief, must be free to seek beyond artificial limits. Humour and grief must not be parallel, but must intersect." In extreme situations, laughing and crying can become confused. It is worth recalling that the lunatic; the one freed from social constraint, can do both, simultaneously.
In 'Two Bits', for the titular amount, a child, used to the restrained and repressed 'games' of the older men down at his local barbershop (if the barber, play-act shaving the underage customer, nicked his cheek, the blood is wiped from there by male regulars and the boy licks it from their hands), is persuaded to be strapped down in the chair and suffer what is patently extreme sexualised abuse. This is the actual penetration of his cheek by penises, after the barber slices it open by 'accident'. Then he is to lick his blood up from the same members. The quarter he was given by the stranger who instigated the 'game,' he has kept closely ever since, and "to have it gone, finally, will be a joy." The memory still burns, although it is remembered as something more 'playful'; a mind protecting itself in altered imagery. Yet still the actuality of the crime is shockingly clear as day.
Altamont wants to be our Ovid in this deliberate tour of the human psyche. Instead of plunging outright into a tasteless, alienating orgy of sickening detail; Altamont's writing dances along the fence, pointing out, reflecting and suggesting. By making the reader responsible for completing those suggestions; by dangling over our own reference points of knowledge within that morass below, we are sent to explore to a depth we can understand, while pricking us to remember that there is more lurking within. We may not want or agree with it, but it remains part of us. Of ourselves, Altamont does not want us to forget - and how can we?! - that we have enjoyed
over some of her suggestions. We are as culpable as they, but we have choices. We can submit and become the lunatic, or fly away and become the aesthete. Or we can try to understand that the frustrating, amazing, deviant, perverse, creative and destructive people we are is so very ordinary.
has tried many lives before settling on one that combines contemplative literary consideration with practical public service. When she isn't working as a nurse, she reviews literature and fiction for various forums and private authors. She lives in Oxford, UK, and enjoys indulging in cafe-crawls with tea and cake. She has no one preferred genre of writing, but does have a bit of a thing for the supernatural set. She has strutted on stage, massaged sore backs and modelled for artists. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org