Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Our Share of Night, by Mariana Enriquez


"You have something of mine, I passed on something of me to you, and hopefully it isn't cursed. I don't know if I can leave you something that isn't dirty, that isn't dark, our share of night."

Hogarth, 2022
originally published as Nuestra Parte de Noche
translated by Megan McDowell 
588 pp.


My introduction to author Mariana Enriquez was her short-story collection Things We Lost in the Fire, which I loved so much that I moved on directly to her The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, also exceptional.  I was super excited for the release of this novel, Our Share of Night and I have to say that I was not at all disappointed.  

It's a hot day in Buenos Aires Argentina as 1981 begins.  Juan has everything ready for the long trip he is about to make with his young son Gaspar to the home of his in-laws.  It's just the two of them, as Gaspar's mother Rosario had died some three months earlier, but Juan has decided that he needs the time with just his son.    Juan knows he must be careful as "the repressive forces were unpredictable," and that he needed to "avoid any incidents" -- after all,  Argentina was in the midst of the dictatorship period (aka the Dirty War) and the police and the army "kept a brutal watch over the highways."   On reaching the hotel where they will spend the first night, Juan, who suffers from a serious heart condition, has also taken precautions so that if he fails to wake up, Gaspar knows what to do and who to call.   It is also there that  Juan comes to realize that Gaspar can plainly see a strange woman in the hallway, not a living one, but an "echo," part of  "the restless dead" (i.e.  "discarnates," ghosts of the disappeared),   "moving quickly," because they wanted to be seen.  Juan sees them all of the time and has learned how to banish these visions;  it's something he'll have to teach Gaspar, but of concern at the moment is that he's realized that his son has inherited his own ability to see into "the floating world."   This is not the best news; Rosario's wealthy and very powerful family is part of  a longstanding "secret society" known as the Order,  and they have their own plans for the boy, beginning with a test to ascertain whether or not he is a medium like his father.   

While I won't give too much away plotwise, members of the Order, as the dustjacket blurb notes, seek "eternal life" or more to the point, the preservation of one's consciousness after death.  Juan's role as medium allows them contact with an entity called the Darkness which Juan refers to as "demented... a savage god, a mad god,"  and there are steep, atrocious and even inhuman costs to be paid in doing so.  It is not a role he relishes -- Juan feels trapped, and even worse,  he knows that he likely won't live long enough to protect Gaspar from the Order as much as he needs to.  He makes plans that he hope will safeguard his son long after he's gone, but the question here, as noted on the dustjacket, is whether or not Gaspar can actually escape what has been foreordained to be his destiny.  

The book moves back and forth through time and events before, during and after the dictatorship, following Juan's efforts to protect Gaspar, while simultaneously examining the horrific violence and human wreckage caused by the Order, a way to reckon with colonialism as well as the corruption and evil bred from wealth and power.  Horror is the perfect vehicle to tell these stories -- as the author states in an interview at Literary Hub (2018), 
"There's something about the scale of the cruelty in political violence from the estate that always seems like the blackest magic to me. Like they have to satisfy some ravenous and ancient god that demands not only bodies but needs to be fed their suffering as well" 
and in a 2018 article for the Freeman's Channel at Literary Hub Enriquez writes that she had asked herself
 "what were the first written texts, the first horror texts that I had ever read? They were the testimonies of the dictatorship.  Bodies disappeared. Common everyday houses which served as concentration camps in neighborhoods. The secrecy of it all, the negation of reality. Children in this time taken from their parents and given another name. It was phantasmagoric."
In Our Share of Night, she brings this "blackest magic" to vivid, horrific life; as with her other books, Things We Lost in the Fire and The Dangers of Smoking in Bed,  this one also reminds readers that the traumatic past has the power to linger and to haunt the present. While the dictatorship may have ended, there are still the scars and shadows to be reckoned with. You need not look any further than the recurring image of the child who disappeared inside of a house and completely vanished, never to be seen again, her disappearance affecting her friends and family for years to come. 

While not everyone seems to share my feeling about it, I loved this book. While I've kept any spoilers out of this post, trust me, there are more than enough horrors filling these 588 pages to satisfy any reader of the genre; there is also more than enough historical base and cultural lore to satisfy someone like me.  I do think perhaps it could have used some editing here and there, but all and all, it's likely going to be a novel I will never forget, one that made such a strong impression that I've had it on my mind since finishing it.  Very, very highly recommended.  

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Dark Arts, by Eric Stener Carlson


Tartarus Press,
243 pp


The end of our January and the entire month of February was just terrible after a death in our family, and although I managed to actually finish reading this book midway through February,  it's really only now that I have the mindspace to talk about it.  

When I first found out about the release of Carlson's new Tartarus Press publication of Dark Arts, I didn't hesitate to add it to my library immediately,  having loved both of  his novels The Saint Perpetuus Club of  Buenos Aires and  Muladona.  On my nightstand (sadly unread as of right now) also sits his two-volume chapbook The Story of Anja Sigmundsdottir, published by Zagava, which I moved off the tbr shelves directly after reading this book and which I will be taking with me on our sorely-needed vacation in April.   In short, I'm a huge fan of this man's work.  

In his introduction, the author writes that 

 "Art is illuminating, but there's also something dark about it -- something menacing, magical, obscure ... a conjuring of sorts, a reaching beyond the circle of the campfire, a groping of sorts, a reaching beyond the circle of the campfire, a grouping for dangerous things hidden in the faintly-perceived undergrowth."

 As the dustjacket blurb notes, art is also a "spirit board" that allows his people to "contact shades from the past, or to discover danger in the shadows."  

While I could certainly write great things about each and every story in this book, I'll have to settle for just a few of my favorites in the interest of time and space.  In  "Golden Book," the collection's opener, a woman makes contact and finds connection with a young girl in a library in Thailand while introducing her to a completely different understanding of the afterlife.  Up next is "Bradycardia,"   a reality-bending (and pardon the phrase from the psychedelic 60s), utterly mind-blowing stunner of a tale which you will want to reread straight away before even thinking about going on.  The subject of this story is a successful editor whose work has allowed him to "shout into the void" a number of "new voices," but who is also plagued by a debilitating series of nightmares of being on the editorial board of a company that has published some really crap hack material. Reality is interwoven with vivid dreamscape here as well as the "contradictory images" that keep floating through the editor's mind, and just when you start to wonder what the heck might happen next, Carlson provides a most shocking, unexpected and horrific ending to it all.  "Salt" is a redacted transcript of the interrogation of a professor who enjoys witty rebus puzzles and who, like the character Campbell in Vonnegut's Mother Night (mentioned more than once here and throughout Dark Arts) believes in his own form of a "Kingdom of Two"  -- "a closed circuit" where he and his wife are deeply in love, and 

"thought for each other, lived for each other. We would finish each other's sentences, were probably thinking each other's thoughts..."

and, as he says, came to develop other distinct ways to communicate with each other so as to "avoid detection" -- a "triple layer of communications" -- when she first drew him into the world of espionage. As he lays out their life together including the birth and death of their son (with whom he can still  supposedly communicate afterward) his interrogator drops a bombshell that very likely changes this man's life completely, and yet, because "all those messages have to count for something ... some greater meaning," the show must go on.  

from Circady

Eric Stener Carlson is an incredibly gifted writer who never fails to offer a deep, enriching and soulful quality in his work which illuminates the humanity of the author's characters no matter where they exist in the world.  Like the best of the best weird tales, the stories in Dark Arts reach that certain point where people in the mundane world find themselves at some point having crossed a threshhold into a completely different reality; like the best authors, Carlson's skill is in illuminating the challenges of his characters who must make their way through what he describes as the "dark spaces" that are "intertwined with life and death and art."  At the same time, it seems to me that one major idea that he never loses sight of throughout this book is that even in the darkness there will continue to be love and hope that may help to offset the horrors found there, so very much the case in our current world.  Dark Arts is a truly excellent collection, both beautiful and terrifying, written by a skilled master of his own art.   Beyond highly recommended, I cannot praise this book enough.  

Thursday, January 5, 2023

Fox Tales, by Tomihiko Morimi

"On short summer nights, in between the rice paddies, the foxes scatter."  

Yen On, 2022
published as Kitsune no Hanashi, 2006
translated by Winifred Bird
228 pp


I don't remember where I first came across this title, but I do remember looking at the description and thinking that this book is so me:
"A collection of four spooky tales for the modern era, all tied to a certain Kyoto curio shop."
These stories play out in the streets of the city, and as the dustjacket blurb goes on to say, over the course of the book the author "offers an eerie glimpse into the beguiling and mysterious darkness of the old capital."   Eerie, most definitely.  Mysterious, an understatement. 

 If you're not familiar with Japanese mythology, in a nutshell, kitsune or foxes (according to The Collector) "possess many powerful magical and spiritual abilities, including shapeshifting, far-seeing, high intelligence and longer lifespans." They are also viewed as tricksters, and can be benign or benevolent.   There are any number of websites you can turn to such as Ancient Pages, Yokai.com or anywhere you can get to by looking up Japanese mythology or folklore. 

The title story, "Fox Tales" introduces the reader to Hourendou (and I do wish I could see the Kanji for this word to try to glean some sort of meaning),  a curio shop "the size of maybe six tatami mats."  The narrator, a university student, first met Natsume,  the proprietor of the shop, when he worked delivering bento lunches.  A year later, he was working at Hourendou, his job to watch the shop and make deliveries.  The story opens as he is delivering something to a strange man by the name of Amagi, who lived in an old mansion near the Saginomori Shrine.   Natsume reveals to the narrator that she should have gone there herself, but she doesn't like going to Amagi's house.  He, in turn, decides that it was his duty to take on the Amagi deliveries himself to "ensure that Natsume never went there again."  Things begin to happen when the narrator drops a particular plate in the shop and  is sent to Amagi for a replacement.   Natsume warns him that Amagi might "jokingly" request something, but "under no circumstances should you agree" and that he must not "promise him anything, no matter how insignificant."  Unfortunately he fails to heed that advice, and after the first trade he makes with Amagi, he soon finds himself involved in a trade involving a fox mask.  It's really at the this point that things take that turn to the strange and the weird, and all the while the narrator tries to understand how Amagi had "managed to sink his claws so deeply into my soul. "  Pay attention: this one lays many a foundation for what follows. 

"Kitsunebi" (foxfire) from Yokai.com

  In "The Dragon in the Fruit," a university student spends a great deal of time with a rather isolated and lonely senior student, listening to his numerous stories.  The senior has many --  as he tells the other, in the five years he'd been in Kyoto,  "some mysterious things have happened," and he proceeds to relate a few of his bizarre experiences in the city.  His tales encompass a woman in a fox mask, unique magic lanterns, the strange appearance of a "lightning beast",  a very real serpentlike creature with a face like a crocodile supposedly captured in the Meiji era,  and a netsuke of a dragon "coiled inside a piece of fruit," any of which he feels he might run into as he walks through the city.  

As the senior says about the people of Kyoto, 
"Most them are strangers, but I know they're connected by mysterious threads I can't even imagine.  And when I have the chance to touch one of those threads, it makes a strange sound under my fingers. I think that if I could trace them all to their source, they would lead to a mysterious, shadowy place at the very core of the city."

Holding that thought, the weirdness continues in "Phantom,"  in which a guy who enjoys "exploring the tangled backstreets" and alleys takes a job as tutor to a somewhat "laconic high school student" and becomes caught up in a hunt for a "phantom ..."  also described as "something like a spirit" in the area. Surprises are in store in this one, and the ending is not only eerie, but sinister and foreboding.    "The Water God" rounds out the collection, with a family which has gathered on the death of an elderly relative telling stories and sharing memories and family history that go back in time as they wait for a "family heirloom" to be delivered from Hourendou.  All I can say is 神聖なたわごと ...  this was my favorite story, as well the absolute weirdest tale in the entire book and one of the creepiest I've ever encountered.  

 Fox Tales just sucked me right in, with the combination of the author's skill in creating a dark, almost suffocating at times atmosphere as well as his awesome storytelling abilities.  This is the type of book I look forward to reading, where the mystery of it all pulls me in further and further until there is no outside world for the duration. And as I mentioned in an earlier post, I love folklore of any kind, and  I actually got a bit more from this book than I bargained for in a good way, with Japanese mythology and folklore interwoven into each and every story.  Along with the strange connections to the curio shop advertised on the dustjacket, it is this element, I believe, that ties everything together and gives this collection its heft.  This book may not be for everyone, especially those readers who need explanations to make their reading complete, which leads my to my only criticism:  it might have been helpful to have added some sort of introduction for non-Japanese readers who may not have much familiarity with Japanese folklore.   

For me, this book was a great way to end the 2022 reading year,  and it's one I can recommend highly.  

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

The Shrieking Skull & Other Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories (by) James Skipp Borlase, (ed.) Christopher Philippo

"Truly, we little understand the mysteries of that world unseen, yet so near." 

Valancourt Books, 2022
184 pp


 This book marks, I do believe, the first time a Valancourt Christmas edition has featured a single author; here it's a Victorian writer by the name of James Skipp Borlase (1839-1909).    Datewise, the stories in this volume range from 1867 to 1907, part of the "untold number of short stories" he'd written;  Borlase also, according to the editor's informative introduction, wrote "as many as a hundred serialized novels," a seriously major output over a very long career. 

One thing I've discovered while reading this book in particular is that evidently, Victorian readers must have truly enjoyed reading tales based on their own history, as there are a number of stories set in the 17th and 18th centuries.  They seemed to also enjoy stories that hearkened back to old, familiar folklore and legends, and after 1880 Borlase began employing a technique in which he would identify
"short passages regarding ghosts, witches, deals with the devil, and so on from works of local history and folklore, then writing a longer story of his own from that germ of an idea and resetting the events around Christmas."

 Personally, I think that was a good choice on his part, starting with the familiar and then embellishing, and that concept takes shape at the very beginning of this collection, with the first story,  "A Weird Wooing."  It begins on  Christmas Eve in January, 1748 and concerns an ill-fated romance between a young woman and her ardent suitor whose lands had been confiscated because he "drawn his sword, on the losing side, during the Civil War of 1745 and 1746." It  seems that this guy means to make his fortune and win the girl back by going to  Edinburgh where a treasure lies hidden in a house beset by the plague in 1645, sealed up "lest the pestilence should burst forth ..."  It seems that Death guards the place, so we shall wish him well.  The titular story, "The Shrieking Skull,"  set in Lancashire, begins in 1650, the year after Charles I was executed at the hands of Oliver Cromwell.  Once again politics divides a young couple in love.  She, Ruth,  the daughter of a Puritan is being (once again -- a very common theme throughout many of these stories) forced into a marriage to which she refuses to agree, and he, Ralph Osbaldiston, a Cavalier having lost his ancestral lands to her father when they were confiscated by Cromwell.  His family has long been known to have the "second sight," and he puts a curse on her groom-to-be that on the wedding day, he will either die "the death of a wolf" or will live "the life of a tortured fiend in hell."   As the next chapter heading begins, "Enter the Shrieking Skull."  I did not know this, but according to the editor,  a shrieking skull is a "British tradition," and with just a bit of googling, I found a few examples  of this phenomenon.  Actually, there are two different skull stories in the book, but this one is the best.    Yet another story, "The Black Cat or The Witch Branks of Loughborough,"  goes back even further in history, set in Leicestershire in the 1630s in a small town of  Loughborough, where one young woman, Madge Calvert,  covets the admirer of Muriel Fenton and will do absolutely anything to have him for herself.  The idea of just how to obtain her goal begins when Muriel finds a black kitten.  You may likely guess where this might be heading, but there are a few surprises yet to come.   

from Folk Horror Revival, Twitter

A somewhat bizarre tale  that I thought fit quite well in the weird fiction zone is "Tale of Two Christmases," which employs the old "White Lady" legend (which, I might add, is not limited solely to the UK, but is famous on a global scale in different variations) along with a wee bit of fairy lore.  It seems that a "family spectre"  guides two brothers, one a widower still missing his much beloved wife, to a small hill of snow, where they make a surprising discovery of a young girl who likely would have died without their White Lady's help.  The strangest thing about all of this is that this child bears a striking resemblance to the older brother's dead wife, who had promised on her deathbed that she would one day return.   And finally, the story that gets my nomination as most Christmas-y is "The Haunted Silk Mill; or the Ghost-Guarded Treasure," first appearing in 1905.  Set twenty years earlier, the story begins on a "blazing hot day" in Derby when at 6:30  p.m. the local silk mill catches fire. Fast forward five months plus and the heat has given way to the freezing cold and a "most severe winter."  A strike has closed the silk mills and the workers are starving.  Jane Morgan is with her beau, Joe Need and his mother, Joe having been seriously injured in the earlier fire and unable to work.  He tries to convince her to throw him over, since his injury prevents him from any labor, and he won't stand in the way of her marrying someone else who might take better care of her.  Jane refuses to hear it, having loved Joe since childhood, and hits on a plan to better all of their lives.  According to rumor,  there is a treasure hidden in Joe Lombe's silk mill, and she plans to go and get it.  She hands Joe a "scrap of discoloured, mouldy parchment, which smells as though it had recently been taken out of some grave" with the key to gaining the treasure.   The note promises that "no grizzly ghost can do her ill" if she fulfills certain conditions; in fact it's just the opposite.  If all goes well, it says, "... perhaps a ghost may point the way."  

This is probably the most different of all of the Valancourt Christmas volumes, and the stories included in The Shrieking Skull may not be the most frightening ghostly tales ever written,  but more important than leaving modern readers with a case of the heebie-jeebies, I think, is what Philippo says about Borlase's stories here, that 
"... this first collection of so many of his Christmas ghost stories should provide an informative and enjoyable window into the tastes of the Victorian era."
That it definitely does, and really, it's not too difficult to imagine a Victorian dad with his family all cozied up in the dark around the blazing fire in the hearth as he reads a few of these tales (in my head by candlelight),  inducing many a shiver among the wee ones.   My only complaint here is that many of the stories tend to center around romantic rivalries or lost loves that  make for one-note reading at times, and really, it's like a breath of fresh air when something different actually pops up in the story lineup.   On the flip side though, it's very much a plus to have been introduced to the work of James Skipp Borlase, whose name has never before blipped up on my reading radar.  I happen to very much enjoy this sort of thing because I'm a total folklore fanatic and a three-times history major, and I especially enjoyed the way Borlase reworked old history and old legends in his own way to fit the bill for the Christmas holiday season.  

As the editor notes, 
"Victorian readers' concept of 'ghost stories' generally and 'Christmas ghost stories' in particular was broader than the conception of some readers today,"
something I totally understand having read so many of these, and something for other readers to keep in mind as they read through these old tales.  I totally appreciate all of the work Christopher Philippo has put into this book, and for me, it's a welcome addition to my home library,  a book I'd certainly recommend, especially for regular readers of Victorian ghostly tales.   My advice -- be patient, but then again, if you've read a lot of Victorian ghost stories, you already know that you should.


Wednesday, November 30, 2022

A Different Darkness and Other Abominations, by Luigi Musolino


Valancourt Books, 2022
translated by James D. Jenkins
316 pp


I am a passionate advocate of translated fiction and I am loving this latest wave of translated horror collections from Valancourt.  First they wowed me with their two world horror anthologies, and then it was the off-the-charts excellent  The Black Maybe, by Hungarian author Attila Veres.  My latest Valancourt read is from Italy, A Different Darkness, by Luigi Musolino, and it is dark with a capital D.   After having finished both books now,  if this is the direction weird fiction is heading, I'm all for it.  Keep it coming. 

 In the translator's note, James Jenkins (co-founder of Valancourt) says that he and Musolino jointly selected the stories to appear in A Different Darkness.  Some of these are from  Musolino's two-volume collection Oscure Regioni (Dark Regions), which we're told number twenty stories, "one from each of Italy's regions, each inspired by local folklore from that region."  A few were also selected from some of the author's other works as well, and together these tales were chosen "to represent the best of his work over his career, which so far spans about ten years."  They did a great job in the choosing  -- the horrors begin immediately and do not let up, keeping the reader in a squirmworthy state throughout.  Musolino is a master of the existential dread and the gloom that pervades all of these stories,  many involving  strange creatures that make themselves known now and then, but at the heart of it all, human nature is also scrutinized in these tales as the author zeroes in on human psyches that have somehow become (as he describes in the titular story of this collection)  "derailed from the tracks of normality." 

Since this is another book that a reader will experience,  I will very briefly list only a few of my favorites without going into any sort of detail so as not to spoil things for potential readers.  In order of appearance  "Black Hills of Torment" comes first on the favorites list, in which it is clear from the outset that something has gone horribly wrong in the small town of Orlasco. Money "doesn't matter one damn bit any more," a certain song plays over and over"  as a "neverending dirge" and has done so for a year, people are out of food and living on mice, leaving town is impossible and everyone finds themselves living in a "nonsensical seclusion."  As the narrator notes, "We have become a town of shadows. A non-place."   I won't say how things have come down to this point but it makes sense that Brian Evenson  likens this one  in his intro to a certain story by Jerome Bixby. In this case however, there are twists that makes it even darker.  This tale is bleakness and sheer hopelessness personified.      "Pupils" is outstanding, and in its own unsettling way,  revisits the Pied Piper legend.  In Italian it's  Il Pifferaio Magico, but here it's actually The Lord of Dust, who had "always lived in Idrasca, since before the town existed or had a name." He is  a "specter of the lost future," and took up residence in the book storeroom of the local elementary school. His task, as he sees it, is to "open their eyes, to make them become like him, to share what he knows" to stave off his loneliness.  Children love fairy tales, right?  The Lord of Dust decides that he will write his own ("fairy tales, as everyone knows, are terrible"), and after a year he finishes his book, invites the children to come to him "one by one" at some point in their day, and begins reading "to open their eyes."   Let the horrors commence.  Good god. This is probably the most pessimistic story in this book, but in its own way the bottom line is beyond realistic, which is pretty damn scary.    Finally, the spectacular titular story "A Different Darkness" is an utter mind bender, beginning with a visit to an empty apartment by the police.  At first it was a child who went missing, but police are now wondering where her missing parents have gone.  What they do find is an apartment filled with bizarre paintings that were "abstract, focused on a single subject,"  representing "an obsession, a disease, the product of a mind derailed from the tracks of normality."  

It seems that in these stories  Musolino has discovered a number of cracks hidden in the mundane world into which, often without notice, his characters fall, slowly making their way into a completely different and certainly unexpected darker reality if not directly into the abyss.    I will be honest and say that there were a couple of stories that were just too dark or gross for my taste that I didn't care for,  but it is most certainly a book that no reader of  intelligent horror fiction or weird tales should miss.  

 Brian Evenson hits the nail on the head about this book, when he says in his introduction that 
"Musolino is expert at making us feel the void yawning below us, waiting to swallow both us and his characters up ..."
which is a perfect description that encompasses each and every story in this volume from page one on.

Very highly recommended.  

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Strange Relics: Stories of Archaeology and the Supernatural, 1895-1954 (eds.) Amara Thornton and Katy Soar


"We do not know what queer intricate effects the human soul may have on inanimate things. A physical environment may be charged with psychical stuff as a battery is charged with electricity, and, when the right conductor appears there may be the deuce to pay."
      -- John Buchan from "Ho! The Merry Masons"

Handheld Press, 2022
227 pp

Strange Relics is another fine anthology of strange tales from Handheld Press,  this time linking archaeology to the supernatural.    As the editors reveal in the introduction to this volume, "all but one of the authors ...  called Britain home,"  where remains of the past were "being researched, mapped and excavated,"  spawning not only  historical and archaeological societies but also awakening different writers to the link between the uncanny and the remnants of the past.  Margaret Murray acknowledged that connection in her autobiography noting that "due to the nature of their work, archaeologists were essentially assumed to have supernatural encounters."  And then, of course, there's the fact that many of these stories were written during a time of great interest in "psychical research, spiritualism and the occult," involving intellectuals across a range of different disciplines. The  stories in Strange Relics, as the editors explain, move well beyond the "discovery-led trope in which a naive (white male) scholar/excavator brings to light that-which-should-be-left-buried," instead focusing on capturing  " 'fantastic' ; one might say magical, encounters with the material remains of the past..."  and it is through these encounters that "the barrier between the present and the past becomes thin, and strange happenings result." 

Strange happenings indeed!   I'm sure the people in these stories would never have been the same after experiencing the weird phenomena that crops up throughout the book via "horrible" relics

 "from a Neolithic rite to ancient Egyptian religion to Roman battle remains to medieval masonry to some uncanny ceramic tiles in a perfectly ordinary American sun lounge..."

 and much, much more.  

Readers who are well into weird fiction will recognize pretty much all of the authors whose work appears here; I only found one whose work I'd not read before,  Alan JB Wace,  and it's likely because he was an archaeologist, not a writer of weird tales, whose wife had put together a book called Greece Untrodden after his death containing stories that he and his field colleagues would tell each other after their evening meals.    I've previously enjoyed seven of the twelve stories found here, but rereading them in Strange Relics was  a pleasure:  "The Shining Pyramid" by Arthur Machen, "Through The Veil" by Arthur Conan Doyle,  "View From a Hill" by MR James, "Curse of the Stillborn," by Margery Lawrence (which I must say is a great tale in which someone truly gets what they deserve) as part of her Number Seven Queer Street,  "The Cure" by Eleanor Scott (from her Randall's Round) and  "Cracks of Time" by Dorothy Quick, which I first encountered in The Horned God: Weird Tales of the Great God Pan,  edited by Michael Wheatley and published by the British Library just this year and finally, "The Ape," by EF Benson.   

from Tea and Rosemanry

Speaking of Pan, he is well represented here.    HD Everett's "The Next Heir"  concerns a young man, Richard Quinton, who answers an advertisement proclaiming that he may hear something to his advantage if he meets with a solicitor representing another Mr. Quinton, a relative in England.   It seems that the elder Mr. Quinton is looking for an heir to whom he might pass on his estate, but as young Richard will come to learn, there are certain conditions that must be met for this to happen.  In this story, the author approaches the great god Pan differently than in any other story I've read about him; I won't say how but it is certainly unique as well as thought provoking. "Roman Remains" by Algernon Blackwood also contains a Pan figure, and we are clued in to this right away as we're told that "Queer things seem to go on in a little glen called Goat Valley" and that the "superstitious" locals avoid it in the daytime.    Enough said about this one except that it is truly a gem among Blackwood's tales.  

Not a Pan-related story, in "The Golden Ring" by Alan J.B. Wace a man is gifted a golden ring on a string of yarn by three women and given orders not to lose, sell or cut it.   He finds the whole thing "rather silly" but trust me, there is nothing at allsilly about what happens next.  This story delves not only into mythology, but academic debate as well.  

The Stone Tape from Freedonia

 I positively loved John Buchan's "Ho! The Merry Masons." Edward Leithen (now with the Thursday Club, the successor to the Runagates Club) relates a bizarre incident that happened to him on a visit to his friend Barnes Lacey ("with an antiquarian conscience") at his house named Scaip.  While on a walk to see a nearby church with "several Lacey tombs" at Fanways,  Leithen finds the village with its "string of ancient homesteads, each sending up its drift of smoke from its stone chimneys"  to be "snug and comfortable," but this description does not extend to the church.  His host finds it "A noble house of God," but swears that "the Devil had a good deal to do with the building of it."  Turns out that the medieval masons may have been "under the special protection of the Church," so as to secure a heavenly afterlife, but it wasn't exactly Christianity that served as their inspiration as much as "Pagan miscreants."  What does one do, exactly, when the associated rites of these masons find themselves embedded into the "very framework" of one's medieval-era home, "built out of the heart of darkness," the mortar "wet with tears and blood, and death had plied the mallets."     Think Stone Tape  -- I first encountered this term earlier this month while reading Will Maclean's novel The Apparition Phase then watched the film/teleplay written by Nigel Kneale and was seriously blown away.  That was 1972; evidently Buchan had figured it out in 1933, and the concept goes back even further -- apparently in 1911 (according to the introduction), as one of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research had recognized that "those now living" who may be "endowed with some psychic sensitiveness" might pick up on echoes or phantoms in places where "some kind of imprint on material structures" has been left.  

My vote for most disturbing story in this anthology goes to Rose Macaulay's "Whitewash."  While vacationing in the Mediterranean on the Isle of Capri, a woman reading The Story of San Michele expresses to her aunt  that "it's nice to know what an excellent man Tiberius actually was, after all one was brought up to think of him."  Evidently, Suetonius was all wrong about him -- as she notes, "Tiberius has been cleared" and he was in truth a "saintly" emperor.  But after what was supposed to have been a refreshing swim in one of the caves ...   Super shivers from this one, and even better, the aunt's take on whitewashing is more than relevant to our present.

Editors Amara Thornton and Katy Soar have selected some great stories for inclusion in this volume; I can only imagine the huge amount of time and effort they've put into making their choices.  I have to say that  Handheld Press is fast becoming one of my favorite small indie presses, and each of their  "Handheld Weirds" that I've had the pleasure to have read have turned out to be absolutely awesome.  I have discovered many new-to-me authors from the past and  many stories I'd not previously encountered, which is of course something I always look forward to in my reading.   Strange Relics is a must read for anyone who enjoys weird tales or strange fiction; in this book the added angle of archaeology takes these stories to another level indeed.  

definitely recommended.  

Monday, November 7, 2022

These Long Teeth of the Night: The Best Short Stories 1999-2019 by Alexander Zelenyj


Fourth Horseman Press, 2022
421 pp


A few weeks back when I found an email from this author in my inbox asking if I might like to read this book & post my thoughts about it,  there was absolutely no way I was going to say no.  I have loved Alexander Zelenyj's work from my first encounter with it because there is just some inexplicable something in his writing that really touches me.  His stories here and in his other books are a mix of horror, fantasy on the darker side, speculative fiction, science fiction, the weird and the strange, so that any attempt to strictly pigeonhole his work is just plain folly.    As to the stories he offers here, as he says in his introduction, his "strange fiction babies" can be 
... rotten little bastards, merciless and feral and long-toothed, who won't hesitate going for your jugular"
while at the same time, there are others who are "gentler companions and provide good safehouses along a dangerous route."  There are more who fall between the two, "just plain oddball kids, a little deformed, a little peculiar (occasionally with uncanny abilities), but sometimes with a whole lot of heart."   Now that I'm thinking about it, maybe it's that "whole lot of heart" combined with compassion for those who have suffered that gets under my skin when I read Zelenyj's stories.  At the same time though,  most  of these stories seriously disturbed  the hell out of me, causing me at times to put the book down and go do something else while thinking about what I'd just read.   If I'm spending time rolling a particular tale around in my head, that's a good thing -- here there are no tidy answers, which is just the way I like it.  

Since there are twenty-eight stories in this collection, I'll just pick a few of my favorites to highlight here.  Ever since I was introduced to the work of Alexander Zelenyj I've been absolutely fascinated with his stories of the Deathray Bradburys, an underground band (and much more)  described on the back-cover blurb of his Ballads to the Burning Twins (Eibonvale 2014) as I noted in a post about his Animals of the Exodus , as "the most infamous cult band in the history of rock and roll."  In  "On Tour With the Deathray Bradburys" in this volume, their songs are described as having "an obsessive focus revolving around themes of escape from a decadent, increasingly violent and racist world to a paradisiacal place of salvation."  The "chosen" to accompany the band in a "mass exodus" scheduled for the end of August 2000 have a "deep spiritual need to escape their own personal woes," as well as "the misery inherent in life on Earth."   And by the way, they have more than a slight connection to Sirius "the dog star," which reappears in another story in this volume called "Elopers to Sirius," describing what will come to be known later as the Magahatti Massacre as witnessed by a freelance reporter who ultimately published a book about it.   "The Prison Hulk" is related by a man arrested for stealing a loaf of bread for his children and a snuff box for his wife.  The "gaols and bridewells" are "filled to brimming" so the powers that be decided to repurpose old ships into "floating dungeons" to accommodate prisoners. Existing in the most godawful conditions, the narrator soon comes to realize the truth of a "Pirate Prophet"  that "Apocalypse will save you..."  I have to say that this story completely unnerved me because of the images that went through my mind  while reading.  

Sirius, from Farmers' Almanac

  One of the most haunting stories is "Highway of Lost Women" which starts out with four women on a road trip.  As the author notes in his brief introduction to this tale, "each of their lives has met with insurmountable obstacles as a result of their gender," with the trip designed for "reclaiming their friendship, which has fragmented over the years."  The weirdness begins immediately, with the car coming to a screeching halt on a deserted highway, the way blocked by a line of fifteen naked women seemingly having come out of nowhere.  As the friends are trying to figure out exactly WTF is going on, they look back in the direction they came from, only to see another line of women behind them.  Flashback time ... and then?   Also thoroughly unnerving is "Gladiators in the Sepulchre of Abominations" about which I will say very little except for the fact that the author goes full-on monster in this one but the question really is one of which species is more monstrous?   

Broken worlds, broken people, trauma, promises of escape and salvation and here and there a glimmer of hope fill these pages, and unless you're  completely void of feeling, these stories hit the reader with a huge emotional impact. As the dustjacket blurb notes, his stories "confront the most abhorrent of monsters, embrace the truth and the wonder of the human condition, and pose questions without answer."  It's like Zelenyj has his finger on the pulse of human nature,  brilliantly investigated here,  which is one reason why his stories reach incredible depths and resonate so long after they're done.   Once again, he's produced a winner with These Long Teeth of Night, and I very highly recommend it.  

Personal note to AZ:  thank you and Fourth Horseman so much for my copy!  I loved it.  'Nuff said.