Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Tales of the Tattooed, an Anthology of Ink - edited by John Miller

I've been curious about this collection since I first saw it announced, but spider's give me the creeps - even on book covers, so this one got covered by other books quite quickly and has languished for weeks more than it might have done if I wasn't such an arachnophobe. 

Incidentally, the story that inspires the cover is probably the creepiest in the book even if you don't mind spiders, the creepiness derived from a sadistic eroticism which I found queasily disquieting. Otherwise what makes the tales weird is simply the presence of tattoos and the implications they bring.

I think I was vaguely aware that there had been a Victorian high society vogue for tattoos (it didn't surprise me to read about it anyway) amongst women as well as men, but there are a few stories that touch on this. There are more that pick up the links between tattoos and people living on the margins of society - sailors who come and go, criminal gangs, and secret society's. There's also a fascination with the Japanese tradition of tattooing, and Pacific island traditions.

Miller takes care to flag the problematic nature of how Maori tattoos are appropriated in 'The Green Phial' from 1884 both in the general introduction, and the individual story introduction - which is another plus for this collection. The introduction is really interesting, more than worth reading. It raises a host of interesting questions about how we think about, and have thought about, tattoos as well as providing some suggestions for further reading. The individual introductions are excellent for context, and both together make this much more than just an amusing collection of stories.

If amusement is what you're after though there are some gems here - W. W. Jacobs 'A Marked Man' is a particular favourite. I can't describe it without spoiling it, but there's drink, and sailors, and a scam that goes wrong, and it's a delight. There's a Saki story too, which is always a treat, and in this case forms a nice pair with a Roald Dahl effort which is the nicely macabre note the book ends with. 

My absolute favourite story would be Albert Payson Terhune's 'Branded'. In it a truly unpleasant man has who bullies the wife he married for her money (only to discover she doesn't have any) has taken a violent dislike to his prospective sister in law because she doesn't have any money either. He tries to catch her in an indiscretion but is foiled on every front by an excellent display of female solidarity.

The best thing about this book for me though was that it tugged at my imagination in a way that little else has over the last few weeks, and it was so good to feel that excitement again. The Tales of the Weird series has been good from the start ('Lost in a Pyramid' is a collection of stone cold genius) and Tales of the Tattooed is now firmly one of my favourites within it. 

It also looks like you can get a copy with sprayed edged from The British Library Shop which is frankly the icing on the cake.

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