A Review Asks Only Whether One Can Live With It Or Die Of It

I've been reviewing small press publications on www.bugpowder.com for a few years now. Totemic small presser Andy Luke recruited me; he'd been impressed with my essay, Closing Shots From A Grassy Knoll, and was convinced that I could restore some cheer to the reviews section.

Ostensibly a scoff-mixture, Closing Shots From A Grassy Knoll discusses the pathogenic presence in UK small press of comics creators eager to produce work sterilized by an ambition to be adaptable to the strictures of an intrusive company bent on 'product development', and who derive a vanity-buzz of satisfaction from tucking themselves into deadlines and knocked-off scripts. "This budding hack is fuelled by little more than the desperation for a sense of celebrity," I wrote, "and must be destroyed."

My muscular reviewing-style grated with small press enthusiasts' indulgence in self-satisfied congeniality and writer/artist shape-throwing, but I refused to conveniently dismiss creators with throwaway compliments, employing instead a reviewing discipline based on four simple tenets: 1, perspective is to be achieved; 2, the standards by which one is judging the work are to be made clear; 3, credit is to be given where it is due; and 4, one should not be such a fucking misanthrope, you above-being-human narcissist.

Regularly achieving three of the four principles with my aesthetic evaluations, and quickly developing an obsessive-compulsive urgency for production of symmetrically paragraphed reviews, the meaningless absurdity of opinionative writing soon revealed itself to me. I was not deterred.

John Robbins

Harriet Staunton: A Victorian Murder Ballad

Posted on May 4, 2006

M J Weller turns his attention to the Penge murder mystery of 1877, chronicling the sad life and death of Harriet Staunton, and the dramatic trial of her accused killers: her husband Louis and his mistress Alice Rhodes; her brother-in-law Patrick and his wife Elizabeth. It is the compelling tale of a fasting girl of weak mind, but of financial providence, who escapes the damnable company of a harridan mother and unkind sister for the precarious interdependence of an ill-advised marriage. Her husband is soon loving and living in criminal intercourse with the housekeep; her brother-in-law painting under Harriet's patronage; and she confined to bed, a convenient concealment facilitated by her deteriorating health.

With sympathetic sobriety, Weller depicts a troubled soul caught in the momentum of mental illness, driving herself and others to despair. Hollowed-out by a progressive emaciation fuelled by an eating disorder, Harriet Staunton's disease of the mind sucks all semblance of selfless Christian charity from those caught in her orbit, and imposes on carers a fatalistic acceptance and philosophy of futility. Ultimately, the resultant deterioration of their collective conscience, the complicit abandonment of responsibility, and the nineteenth century's lax notion of accountability relating to the treatment of the mentally ill, allows both the demise of Harriet and of Thomas, the wizened being that was her son.

For those eager to bask in the resilience of the human spirit, there is little comfort here in Weller's fact-filled prose (and insinuations?). However, the bond of immovable lovers – an expression of the solidarity of the four accused – offers redemption of sorts as it frustrates the tactic of defence counsels to trade off degrees of guilt. Here then were four accused of the same crime, but unwilling to fall out of love. "How can love be a mortal sin," asks the manipulative Patrick Staunton early in this penetrating book. Other questions too are posed, specific to the case and otherwise, but Weller sensibly offers no conclusions. 'Res ipsa loquitur,' he might say as he points to the evidence. The thing speaks for itself.

A5 pbk, 176 pp, £6 (+ £1 UK, £2 Europe, £3 airmail USA p&p) – available from www.homebakedbooks.co.uk