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Beauty as the Beast : THE CONSOLATION OF NATURE by Valerie Martin (Houghton Mifflin: $16.95; 147 pp.)

February 07, 1988|Susan Slocum Hinerfeld | Hinerfeld reviews frequently for The Times.

"The Consolation of Nature" is a title ironically meant. (It is also cleverly wrought, to sound authentically Romantic.) The principal subject of these freakish short stories is the fatal relation between people and animals. It's nightmare stuff: The rat scrambling in a child's long hair; the mermaid with her prize of fisherman's testicles; the dead cat, head trapped in a salmon can; the mice fed casually to the snake; the vicious dog, put to death. No consolation here.

We wince and turn away; Valerie Martin keeps on staring. Her fascination with the bloody and bizarre is itself fascinating. The genre is neo-Gothic hyperbole of the New Orleans School.

This is the literature of excess, swerving toward violence and despair. It's not easy to control such iridescent prose, such ardent imaginings.

At times, the control is absolute, and the work is beautiful. In "The Woman Who Was Never Satisfied," a widow realizes that freedom is hers: "She could do as she pleased, if she could ever find anything to please her again." (What does please her is blood-letting. In plain chilling prose, her lover complains, as he prepares a syringe in their hotel bathroom, "Eva . . . this is so unnecessary.")

Nothing could be simpler or finer than the language in the story, "Sea Lovers." The beached mermaid, "aghast with pain," lies face-down on the sand, her hair spread out on her shoulders.

The fisherman is bent on rescue, but to the mermaid, "He is in his element and she is at his mercy." He thinks her "a woman half devoured by an enormous fish"-- until "he . . . sees the line where the pale skin turns to silver."

The mermaid, "thanks to the sea," is strong. "Her tail is powerful and sinuous; it has come up between his legs like an eel and now the sharp edge of it grazes the inside of his thighs. It cuts him; he can feel the blood gathering at the cuts. . . ." The tide upsets his tackle box, and "all his lures and hooks, all the wiles he used to harvest the sea, bob gaily on the waves."

Just so. But it is difficult to go on being meticulous. Martin's taste is not for refinements of detail. This is Romantic literature, with macabre preoccupations. Grand gestures, though, are risky. And a steady diet of death and the dreadful brings quick surfeit.

The party in "Death Goes to a Party" is a masquerade. (What else?) A beautiful young woman dressed as death brings home a wolf-man. (She has uncanny powers, and should know better.) When, after midnight, they unmask, and her fingers grope at the back of his headpiece for the place where it parts from his neck. . . . But you've guessed.

Martin, reared in New Orleans, is a lecturer in English at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. Canadian novelist and poet Margaret Atwood brought her work to the attention of Houghton Mifflin, which published her third novel, "A Recent Martyr," last year.

"The Consolation of Nature" is chock-full of sensation. What it lacks--entirely--is humor. Laughter is the antidote for fiction like this. One good giggle, and the whole sealed, serious world splits apart.

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