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For today's stop, J. Ashley-Smith would like to introduce you to one of his favorite books:
J. Ashley-Smith recommends
The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea by Yukio Mishima
As a student, way back in nineties Sheffield, I had an
obsession with thrift store book finds. I was studying film and creative
writing and had a voracious, directionless reading habit, fuelled almost
entirely by random discoveries on the shelves of this or that charity shop between
my house and the campus. I judged every book by its cover, bought anything that
aligned with my aesthetic of the time – mostly mass market paperbacks of the
sixties and seventies. This was how I discovered Japanese author Yukio Mishima
and his incomparable classic, The Sailor
Who Fell From Grace With The Sea.
The first copy I bought was the 1976 Penguin edition,
a tie-in with the movie released that year (a shamelessly westernised
adaptation, which I have still never seen and am not endorsing here). That version
has a squint-eyed and beardy Kris Kristofferson, hair tousled and wafted in
unseen ocean breezes, gazing into the distance. I thought the cover was kind of
cool and was sold on the blurb:
After five years of
celibate widowhood, Fusako consummates her two day relationship with Ryuji, a
naval officer self-convinced of his glorious destiny… and they are spied on by
Fusako’s son, Noboru, a self-possessed thirteen-year-old, ‘No.3’ in a sinister
élite of precocious schoolboys.
While the back cover text alludes to the wonders
inside the book’s 150 pages, it does nothing to convey the intensity, the
beauty and stark horror of this perfect novella. There is something about this
length of book, the short novel, that is like a swift gut punch. The opening
pages – which depict with cold detachment, the killing and dissection of a
neighbourhood cat by a group of prepubescent boys, led by the otherwise unnamed
‘Chief’ – set the tone for what proves to be an incredibly bleak, incredibly
beautiful tale of glory and betrayal.
The story is simple: the collision of three dynamics
embodied by the sharply drawn central characters. The romanticised longing of
the sailor, Ryuji, for some inarticulate glory awaiting him at sea (a longing
artfully penned by Mishima to be both transcendent, absurd, and painfully,
pathetically human). The loneliness of Fusako, kept always at arm’s length for
the sake of her son – the son she believes, mistakenly, to be in need of a
father. And Noboru himself, highly intelligent and intense, his learned
’objectivity’ a rationalisation for the prevailing culture of sociopathy among
his gang of school friends.
Noboru’s interest in ships leads Fusako to take him to
visit a commercial steamer. There they meet Ryuji, the ship’s second mate, and
both mother and son are charmed by the sailor, though for entirely different
reasons. Fusako and Ryuji become immediately involved in a brief romance, while
Noboru is inspired by what he sees in Ryuji as a kind of perfection, the
quintessence of those ideals espoused by his highly intellectual and rigidly
moral gang. Through a peephole in the back of his chest of drawers, Noboru
watches his mother and the sailor make love. As long as the sailor leaves and
abandons Fusako, Noboru rationalises, then that perfection he first saw will
But Noboru’s detached infatuation with the sailor
quickly pales, as one after another incident reveals Ryuji’s flawed humanity,
his less-than-perfection. When the sailor and Fusako become engaged, Noboru’s
sense of betrayal reaches its peak.
The second half of the book is an agonising descent
towards tragedy. When Ryuji returns from the sea, he remains on shore and his
ship leaves without him. His attempts to ingratiate himself with the boy, to
wear the ill-fitting uniform of loving father, are entirely at odds with
Noboru’s own desires – and the philosophy of his gang, who have a particular
resentment of fathers and father figures. Fusako’s attempts to domesticate
Ryuji, installing him as a manager in her fashionable boutique, only serve to
emasculate him further in the eyes of Noboru. As the wedding draws near, the
boy calls an emergency meeting of his gang. Something drastic needs to be done.
It’s so hard to write here all that I love about this
novella. The story – its perfect, utterly horrific ending, at once surprising
and inevitable – cannot be encapsulated in any form other than itself. If I
write too much, I fear I’ll do more harm to it than good. And there is so much
to say about Mishima himself, that author as troubled, complex and problematic as
his own characters – the repressed homosexuality, the right-wing nationalism,
the failed coup, the ritual suicide…
Nothing I have read, before or since, has had so
powerful an impact on me, both as a reader or as a writer. This slender,
immaculate book is infused with darkness, with a potent aliveness that is
intensely human. A work of literary horror of the highest order, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea
captures with art and precision the beauty and brutality, the monstrousness and
transcendence of the everyday, constructing from its architecture of minor
betrayals a tragedy of Shakespearean grandeur.
Release date - 6/9/20
Dark Fantasy / LGBT / Novelette
never called them ghosts, but that’s what they were—not that George ever saw
them herself. The new girl, Sylvie, is like a creature from another time, with
her old-fashioned leather satchel, her white cotton gloves and her head in the
clouds. George watches her drift around the edge of the school playing fields,
guided by inaudible voices.
George stands up for Sylvie, beating back Tommy Payne and his gang of thugs, it
brings her close to the ethereal stranger; though not as close as George would
have liked. In the attic of Sylvie’s father’s antique shop, George’s scars will
sing and her longing will drive them both toward a tragedy as veiled and
inevitable as Sylvie’s whispering ghosts.
J. Ashley Smith is
a British–Australian writer of dark fiction and other materials. His short
stories have twice won national competitions and been shortlisted six times for
Aurealis Awards, winning both Best Horror (Old
Growth, 2017) and Best Fantasy (The
Further Shore, 2018). J. lives with his
wife and two sons in the suburbs of North Canberra, gathering moth dust,
tormented by the desolation of telegraph wires.