SF by Starlight: “The Chiaroscurist” by Hal Duncan in Logorrhea, edited by John Klima

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Image“The Chiaroscurist” by Hal Duncan

Set during the crusades, this tale concerns the self-absorbed, first-person account of a chiaroscurist, as he takes nearly five years to paint the ceiling and walls of the antesanctum of the Monadery di Sanze Manitae.  The centerpiece figure of the grand mural as backdrop to the altar is a gnomish figure, a hobben and friend to the unnamed plaster artist, who creates his Art in complicated plays of shadow and light.

Through the hobben, the artist believes he has seen God and has therefore chosen him as the central conceit of his work, forever in progress. However, because this monumental work is so detailed and painstakingly slow to complete, Iosef, the hobben, has died and been left to rot, unburied, in his final death pose on the altar; putrid slick flesh, glistening maggots and all, while the artist struggles to complete his masterwork. With Iosef’s death, God has now become transformed into Death, and the religious work envisioned to make the chapel a place in which to honor God, now represents the Death of God as seen through the worm-eaten, bloated corpse and partly exposed skull of poor Iosef.

A somber, meditative work, we learn fine points in the art of chiaroscury as given to us by the first-person narrator as but preamble to the dark journey he experiences, as time passes and his once hopeful vision of light turns gradually to grey, then to the blackest of blacks. Which is but one of the meanings of the word chiaroscuro: “the arrangement or treatment of light and dark parts in a pictorial work of art.” As such, Duncan’s work succeeds wonderfully on several levels: as his fictional artist’s work begins from the light, and almost imperceptibly shades toward the dark, so too does Duncan’s story begin with the light of hope only to find its resolution in  death—the ultimate and final darkness.

There are, to be sure, additional layers worthy of exploration in this progressively bleak journey: after its own fashion, for instance, some might view this as a fellow traveler’s nod to Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” but this loose thematic comparison might be stretching things a bit overmuch for any measure of critical certainty; also, the inclusion in the master mural of the protagonist’s lover, the “whore angel” Rosah, rife with all of the traditional religious symbolism surrounding the Virgin, as yet another example.

Suffice to say, however, that “The Chiaroscurist” is a thoughtfully envisioned tale (with at least one stylistic convention usually associated with practitioners of “literary” fiction) set amidst one of the most violent eras in the history of Christianity. It will be nearly impossible for other stories in this all-new collection to surpass it for its overall thematic and artistic sense of symmetry. It is a rewarding example of dark, imaginative fiction at its finest.

Publisher: Bantam Spectra (May 2007)
Price: $11.05
Paperback: 448 pages
ISBN: 0553384333