Review: The Feast by Matthew G. Rees
The French poet Gérard de Nerval would occasionally take his pet lobster Thibault for a walk, the tame crustacean tied safely at the end of a length of blue silk ribbon. I imagine he’d have felt very much at home partaking of The Feast, the delicious collection of oddball offerings from Matthew G.Rees, in which this masterful storyteller clearly lets down his hair and has a great deal of of fun.
One of the stories concerns a clam which escapes from a plate of fruits de mer to attach itself to a diner’s finger so strongly that even dynamite can’t dislodge it. In the mushroom inflected cannibalism of Fungal a man literally dines on bits of himself: I won’t expand in case you’re currently eating.
There’s also a very fishy story featuring a spectral carp and another which is enlivened by a talking caterpillar, as well as beetles that are the very flip side of Kafka’s famous insect: these are helpful creatures that will bore through the leg of a restaurant table when you want them to, who work in concert with some crack teams of cockroaches.
And in another tale, the spookily unsettling The Twilight Maiden, the owner of a Roman trattoria goes in search of a legendary type of native tomato only to find that tasting one can cost you an arm or a leg, quite literally.
It’s all deliciously bonkers, as if the Monty Python team had turned to over-the-top and screwball short fiction.
The collection assembles as curious a cast of characters as you’re ever likely to encounter, all brought to vivid and pulsing life.
There’s Seymour Thrale, a thin, rich old man straight out of B-movie central casting, who wears pale linen suits and cotton shorts from which his ‘neck and limbs extrude’ as if they were mere stows for ‘a motley collection of prods, pitchforks and pipe-cleaners.’
The love for his life, go-go dancer Candice Canyons earns her living on stage among silver and blue shafts of light that clash and cross ‘like giant light sabres.’ Not only does she dance lasciviosuly but she also makes peach pies so delicious that you could die for one, as is sadly the case for Seymour, to whom she is very briefly wedded.
As anyone who’s read previous collections such as Keyhole or The Smoke House & Other Stories will know, Rees is possessed of a feverish, fecund imagination backed up by a ready flair for naming things.
In the meat-heavy Devilled Kidneys at the House of Mrs Usher the definite nod to Edgar Allen Poe present in the title is there in the story too. A lowly legal clerk finds himself journeying to Bonebury Assizes via Skullwick and Gravesditch with an eccentric judge called Jawlock.
A Poe-ish flair for arcane vocabulary is here very much on display, not least in the description of Judge Jawbone himself as he sits in a railway carriage, washed in in a pallid light:
Lips thin and grey, like old, tarnished knives; eyes dark as mineshafts; cheekbones high as any eagle’s eyrie, with – below them – cliff faces of flesh, drumskin-tight on his firmly locked jaws…
As with any feast there’s far too much here between the lurid covers to devour in any single sitting, what with the amuse-bouches of flash fiction such as We Want Candy or Mr Yang and the Giant Beansprout being a crisp little story that acts as a sort of hors d’oeuvre for the main, often very substantial stories.
There is dark folk horror such as the aforementioned quest for the legendary Tuscan tomato and ribald, scatalogical stuff as in the final tale in the collection, the genuinely stomach-churning Uncorked which probably needs some sort of cautionary note about the story’s ingredients.
Then there is a twistedly tasty tale of revenge in which the subject of a restaurant critic for The Gullet’s most excoriating pieces serves him a dastardly burger he’ll never forget.
One of my stand-out favourites is a story that is perhaps most reminiscent of Rees’ other collections, namely the eponymous The Feast. This is set in a farm called Y Pinsiad (‘The Pinch’) and it has all the macabre panache of, say, Rhys Davies’s prose, not least when Matthew G. Rees conjures up the skeleton of of its owner Enoch ap Owain.
This was ‘a white and flensed tree’ which had seemingly always been ‘dry and cinderous, scraping and splintering inside the thin, shroud-skinned rest of him, like the cold clinker of a fire long extinguished.’
Everything about his starved patch of earth is miserable, from the unfertile uplands where his sheep starve to death to the ‘skin-and-bone horse of the farm,’ an empty-bellied creature that can barely stand up and ends up offering scant pickings to the ravens.
His pigs meanwhile, devour themselves, their ‘yellow teeth crimsoning in the gloom of the charnel houses.’ I won’t give too much away but the redoubtable turkey, intended for the table, proves to be tougher than it looks.
Many of the stories will live on in the mind for various reasons, from the sudden musket-blast ending of The Onglebury Arms through the clang of a murderous frying pan in The Gong to the monastic horror of The Lamb of God.
They all offer plentiful evidence of an unfettered imagination at play, a serious and seriously gifted writer happy here to be a little more frivolous, more tongue-in-cheek.
Rees is clearly having a veritable ball as he constructs his mad universe in which things are skewed completely out of kilter, with steampunk lapses of time and laws of physics cast to all the winds.
But be warned. You’ll need a strong stomach for some of short stories herein as they’re close to being positively emetic. I cite the story of the champion eater who is encouraged to eat a dinosaur egg whole which left me feeling more than a little queasy.
Mind you, the day-glo primary colours of the cover have to be a warning in that regard. Or as Shakespeare puts it in the book’s epigraph, taken from Richard II: ‘Things sweet to taste prove in digestion sour.’
The Feast is published, appropriately enough by Last Supper Press and is available through Amazon.
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