A Pretty Mouth by Molly Tanzer

7/10 As much as I enjoy a bit of titillation with my horror, there needs to be a more substance.

Henry Milliner thinks his days of being the school pariah are over forever when he attracts the attention of Wadham College's coolest Fellow Commoner, St John Clement, the Lord Calipash. St John is everything Henry isn't: Brilliant, graceful, rich, universally respected. And as if that wasn't enough, St John is also the leader of the Blithe Company, the clique of Natural Philosophy majors who rule Wadham with style. But when being St John's protégé ends up becoming a weirder experience than Henry anticipated - and the Blithe Company doesn't quite turn out to be the decadent, debauched crew he dreamed of - Henry has some big decisions to make. Should he beg the forgiveness of his only friend, naive underclassman John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, or should he ride it out with St John and try to come out on top?

A Pretty Mouth, the debut collection of short stories and novella of the same title by US author Molly Tanzer, was brought to my attention by an article in the Guardian newspaper where writer and Guardian columnist Damien G Walter said that this publication was his favourite novel out of the hundreds from independent publications that he’d looked through. He said that within the collection ‘a variety of historical literary styles from the Gothic to the Edwardian are mashed up’ with ‘the eldritch weirdness of Poe and Lovecraft’.

Likewise, the two pages of praise for Tanzer’s writing at the front of the collection, referencing ‘wine-dark seas’, and ‘flounces and corsets and blood and tentacles’ bring to mind a sort of steampunky Victorian fetish overtone to a series of stories focusing on various members of the degenerate Calipash family and the horrors that they indulge in across the centuries. However, I feel this may head you off down the wrong path for this collection, and maybe this expectation has made me feel less inclined towards it than I may otherwise have been.

The first short story, ‘A Spotted Trouble at Dolor-On-The-Downs’ is the written testimony of a valet and the strange goings-on at an Edwardian seaside resort in southern England, where he finds himself unwillingly embroiled in the twenty-seventh Lord Calipash’s schemes, whilst the second and third, ‘The Hour of the Tortoise’ and ‘The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins’, are both set at the Calipash family seat in Devonshire in 1887 and mid to late 1700s respectively and focus on the horrors being bred under its roof. The novella that gives its title to the collection, ‘A Pretty Mouth’, takes the story back to 1660 where lawyer’s son Henry Milliner longs to involve himself with the Lord Calipash St John Clement but finds out the Lord’s tastes are far more horrifying than the debauched, privileged entertainments he was expecting. The collection is then brought to a close in Roman times on the south coast of England in the final short story ‘Damnatio Memoriae’.

I was expecting a mix of influences from the above-mentioned Poe and Lovecraft combined with the sex, violence and adventure of Alan Moore’s League of Gentlemen, but I don’t think such an extravagant level is ever reached. Obviously, due to their short nature, the stories were based on one small area – a holiday resort, a public school, a manor house – which then had to build the character of whichever Lord Calipash was the focus and the various nefarious deeds they were up to. Overall, I think this succeeded better in some cases than others.

A Spotted Trouble at Dolor-On-The-Downs for example was my favourite of the stories, with a valet called Jeeves in the service of a Bertie Wooster, who is far cleverer than his master and narrates the tale with a highly amusing combination of incredulity and resignation. Why the author chose to use Wodehouse’s characters directly by name though I’m not sure. ‘The Hour of the Tortoise’ and ‘The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins’ move more towards Turn of the Screw territory where evil twins, wildly libidinous characters and dark magic start to strain the credulity of the plot. Characters come and go, and the story is so ridiculous that I lost interest in what was supposed to be going on with half-formed ideas about symbols and ancient languages never fully coming to fruition.

A Pretty Mouth forms the bulk of the book, and is therefore better paced with a gradual unveiling of aristocratic schoolboy St John Calipash’s fascination with science and inherent viciousness, seen from the point of view of the socially ambitious and self-centred, but unprepared, Henry, who has until now idolised him from afar. It takes a while to get going, and never really climaxes in a particularly satisfying manner (pun definitely intended), and unfortunately Henry as a character is immensely annoying. St John’s experiments and control over the Blyth Company were interesting, but the again heavy focus on sex and ludicrous ending made it more of a farce than a horror story.

The final short story, Damnatio Memoriae, explains how the Calipash curse first came about, and was my least favourite of all of the stories, mainly due to the failure to create a convincing world of Celts and Romans in a pagan Britain. Historical setting is the collection’s weakest point as a whole, with the contrasting time periods unfortunately serving to highlight this further.

Overall, this isn’t a bad collection and Tanzer was ambitious in bringing in a range of styles and settings, whilst maintaining the thread of the Calipash family, but I don’t feel that she managed to pull it off as well as it could have been and the different styles jarred.

In an author’s note at the end Tanzer tries to convince the reader that she is merely recounting the real life stories of the Calipash family, drawn from documents ‘bequeathed to me by… my lover… just before his researches into the mutability of the human flesh when subjected to strange extracts from specimens of the order Cucurbitales, gathered on certain far-flung plateaus, turned him permanently into a begonia.’ I think this excerpt is a good example of the kind of fantasy alternate-universe Victorian-style language that appears in the book, which you either go along with or you feel is a bit overwrought. I’m with the second unfortunately, and as much as I enjoy a bit of titillation with my horror, there needs to be a more substance and less overdressing.

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