Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Third Ghost Book (ed.) Lady Cynthia Asquith

03300260617
Pan, 1975
originally published 1955, 1957
253 pp

mass market paperback
(read earlier)

I am a sucker for a good ghost story, and over the years my shelves have started groaning as I continue to add more collections to my library.  I finally discovered the Pan Ghost Books series, the first three of which are edited by Lady Cynthia Asquith, and I'll definitely be revisiting some of these in the future, although others took their turn as editor after Asquith's three.  For more about these books, you can visit Tabula Rasa where Nick Kennett has a nice article (including contents!) about the series.

Twenty-seven stories are included in this little book, some of which  I've read before:  "The Ghost of the Valley", by Lord Dunsany,  Aickman's "Ringing the Changes," "The Tower," by Marghanita Laski, and "Poor Girl," by Elizabeth Taylor. Out of the remaining 23, several authors are familiar, although their stories were not:  Elizabeth Bowen, Mary Fitt, Elizabeth Jenkins, L.P. Hartley, and Lady Cynthia Asquith herself.  That leaves a total of 18 writers whose work I've never read, offering lots of possibilities for further reading (yay!).  The collection as a whole is not the greatest, but as I'm always saying, when you pick up an anthology it's bound to be a mixed bag where there are treasures and there are those stories that are not so hot.  Depending on the reader though, people's choices in each category will be different.

The entire table of contents is as follows, my favorites annotated:

"The Telephone," by Mary Treadgold
* "The Claimant, " by  Elizabeth Bowen,  my favorite story in this book.  A man and his wife inherit a home in the West Country from a relative in Australia who died intestate.  Their happiness is interrupted when someone writes about his intentions to claim the house, which he says has been left to him by his uncle, and then tells the couple that it is his inheritance, and that "no one shall cheat me of it."  Things get very weird after they learn he is flying out from Australia to set things straight.
"Napoleon's Hat," by Evelyn Fabyon
"The Bull," by Rachel Hartfield
"The House That Wouldn't Keep Still," by L.A.G. Strong
* "The Doctor," by Mary Fitt.  Set in the moors of Devon, a woman who loves the moors and long walks finds herself lost in the darkness.  Taking a short cut, she sees another woman coming towards her, who invites her to stay at her home for the night. Of course she's not going to say no, but later, I'm sure she probably wishes she had.
*"On No Account, My Love," by Elizabeth Jenkins, in which a young woman is keen to visit the empty house that once belonged to her great-grandmother, known as an "abominable old tyrant," who used it as a school for girls. Hoping to connect with her past, she "felt sure some contact" with her great-grandmother might be possible.  This one really doesn't hit you until the last sentence. Yikes.
"The Ghost of the Valley," by Lord Dunsany
"The Day of the Funeral," by Margaret Lane
* "Take Your Partners," by Ronald Blythe is both bizarre and creepy, in which a grandfather relates a strange experience to his grandson that took place at his first ball.  As an eighteen year-old, he was miserable being there until he met a young woman who seemed as unhappy as himself.  One of the better stories in the book, for sure.

arrrrrr 

"Someone in the Lift," by L.P. Hartley
*"The Tower, by Marganita Laski -- in an earlier post.
*"Ringing in the Changes," by Robert Aickman -- again, one of his best stories ever, a work of pure genius.
* "I Became Bulwinkle," by Jonathan Curling, is less a ghost story than a tale of terror involving a "third-rate conjurer" who received his "baccalaureate in black magic" while in Sierra Leone before returning home. It's a slow burner, but damn, it's good.
"Mrs. Smiff," by Collin Brooks
"Somebody Calls," by James Laver
*"Harry," by Rosemary Timperley -- I will say that this sort of thing has been done a number of times, but this is one of the best examples of the imaginary friend story I've ever come across.
"The Shades of Sleepe," by Ursula Codrington
"The Woman in Black," by Daniel George
"A Laugh on the Professor," by Shane Leslie
*"Poor Girl," by Elizabeth Taylor.  As I said in another post, this one's just flat out creepy on more than one level. Just thinking about it is giving me the willies.
"The King of Spades," by Nancy Spain
"The Uninvited Face," by Michael Asquith
"Remembering Lee," by Eileen Bigland
"Who is Sylvia," by Cynthia Asquith



While I can't promise that each and every tale will produce goosebumps, there's probably here something for everyone who enjoys these older stories. For  me it's all about discovering those obscure, long-forgotten authors whose work has just sort of faded away, and in that sense, this book was a goldmine.

recommended for strange, nerdiferous people like me who revel in the older stuff.  I know you're out there.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff

9780062292063
HarperCollins, 2016
372 pp

hardcover

"... you think you can forgive, forget, the past. You can't. You cannot.  The past is alive, a living, thing. You own, owe it."

The first clue that this is not going to be your average Lovecraftian pastiche or rehash is on the cover -- what some people may see as ghosts or white spaces between tentacles actually bears much more resemblance to the white hoods of the KKK.  In fact, if you're thinking this is going to be Lovecraft redux, you seriously have another thing coming.  While his own particular brand of racism was horrific in itself, anything that Lovecraft produced in his fiction is dwarfed here by  the real-life terror that the characters in this book experience in their daily lives in Jim Crow America of the 1950s, and that little yellow, starry-looking thing on the cover that says "America's DEMONS Exposed" certainly isn't just there to add to the cover art.

    The book begins with an army vet, Atticus Turner,   leaving Jacksonville for Chicago,  driving 450 miles the first day nonstop except for getting gas. With his copy of The Safe Negro Travel Guide in hand, Atticus spent that night in Chattanooga, where the Guide showed that there were "four hotels and a motel, all in the same part of the city." The next day, wanting to "put the South behind him," he has the diner next to his motel fill a basket with food and Cokes so that he wouldn't have to stop in Louisville, Kentucky where again according to the guide, there was a "restaurant that would serve him lunch."  An hour after crossing a "bridge named for a dead slave owner" on the Ohio River, he blew a tire, sending him on foot out to find a garage..  Just his luck -- a Confederate flag hangs over the entrance and, of course, that didn't quite work out.  Pulling out his Safe Negro Travel Guide once more, he discovers that the nearest "Negro-owned garage" was fifty miles away; with no other options, he had to wait seven hours for help to arrive. And this is all just the beginning of worse to come.

So at this point (and I'm only on page four), I'm already creeped out about the necessity of something like a  Safe Negro Travel Guide, and after a little digging, came across the story of The Negro Motorist Green Book, and now I'm really interested to see what else Matt Ruff is going to do here.  I just sort of sat flipping pages as the real horrors of the  lives of the characters unfolded in each of the interconnected stories in this book.

The way Ruff sets up this book is clever -- as he notes in an interview at The Seattle Review of Books,  his idea was to start with "classic story" ideas
"... like, somebody buys a haunted house or somebody finds themselves being chased by an animated doll"
and with that, he asks himself the questions of
"how does this happen to my protagonist and how does having a black protagonist change the nature of the story?"
 Without giving away too much of what happens here, Atticus has returned to Chicago after receiving a letter from his dad Montrose in which he reveals to his son that he's discovered "something about your mother's ... forebears," and that there's some sort of "legacy, a birthright" that's been kept from Atticus, something that "has something to do with the place that Mom's people supposedly came from." Now Montrose has gone missing, and Atticus has only the letter he was sent as a clue to finding him.   From that letter, it turns out that "Mom's people" came from Ardham, Massachusetts, in what Atticus calls "Lovecraft Country."  Atticus, his Uncle George and a friend from childhood named Letitia Dandridge set out for Ardham, and encounter the Braithwhites, who have a strange connection with the Turners through "Mom's people."  The Braithwhites are white,  rich,and powerful; they are also key figures in a strange group known as the Order of the Ancient Dawn. (I have to say that my pulp-loving heart went pitterpat here with this name.)  I won't say why, but what happens during their time with the Braithwhites at this meeting sets up all that follows in this book, during which we come to understand the phrase "Lovecraft Country", as one reader puts it, as having
 "more to do with the rampant racism in that part of the US at the time, rather than the Lovecraftian horror subgenre."  
The way that Mr. Ruff has brought out his story here is very nicely done, and the little "mini-adventures" do, as he also notes in the Seattle Review of Books interview linked above, turn out to be each character's "own weird tale." Some of these are much better than others -- I loved "Horace and the Devil Doll," for instance because it's so on point as far as old-fashioned pulpy horror is concerned -- but really,  each story added to a wider picture of  Jim Crow practices of this time, things that, as anyone sane would realize, were just horrific and inhuman.  At the same time, there's a very real sense of empowerment that comes from the characters in each story in some fashion, as they fight back as best they can, each in his or her own way.   Speaking of pulpy/horrorish tropes here,  Ruff obviously went well beyond Lovecraft in framing his tales -- HG Wells, Ray Bradbury, Robert Louis Stevenson and many more authors find their way into this book as well.

I have to say that on the whole, I liked this book, didn't love it and maybe that's not entirely the author's fault.  Not too far into it, I was reminded in a very big way of what Victor LaValle had done with his excellent  Ballad of Black Tom which uses Lovecraft's own work "The Horror at Red Hook,"  to turn Lovecraft's particularly nasty brand of racism on its own head, so (and I hate that this happens, but I can't help it), there was already a comparison at work in my head. Frankly, when it comes right down to it, LaValle's book, in my opinion, is the better of the two, since  LaValle is hands down, no question,  the better writer.  Having said that though, I don't  mean that readers won't like this one --  there are plenty of reasons to recommend Lovecraft Country to anyone, especially since it seems to be sadly pertinent to our own times.

*****

for more in-depth coverage of this book, I give you

Alex Brown, "Cthulhu Gon' Slay," at tor.com

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Scarlet Boy, by Arthur Calder-Marshall

Rupert Hart-Davis, 1961
222 pp

hardcover

(read earlier this month)

I was doing a bit of reading on the topic of British ghost stories some time ago (I forget where exactly), hoping to find more authors of such tales for my library, and I came across a reference to this book by a writer I'd never heard of.  The fact that he was unknown to me was a definite plus so I decided to take a chance and I bought the book -- and it seems that with only a few reservations, my gamble paid off.

According to George Grantley, the narrator of this tale, the story "undoubtedly" had its start on April 3, 1959.  On that day, he had received a letter from his friend Sir Christopher Everness (aka Kit), who reveals that "after years of wanderlustiness," it's time for the Everness family to settle down.  Kit is married to artist Nieves, who wants to live in Wilchester.  It seems that their eleven year-old daughter Maria hates the boarding school she goes to and so her mom wants a home near a day school.  He's also very specific about the type of house he wants -- it has to be
"the run-down shell of place that we can make over to our own idea of home...with a garden and plenty of room."
Grantley asks around and comes to learn that a certain Anglesey House is on the market. It's a house that Grantley knows well, since he had spent quite a bit of time there as a child playing with young Charles Scarlet. He also adored Charles' mother Helen -- Grantley had always "envied" Charles because Helen was "much more beautiful and gracious" than his own mom had been.  Although they were playmates, George came to realize that Charles was "obscurely vicious," often wanting the two of them to play "Tortures" in Charles' treehouse, becoming a "different person, almost as if he were possessed." Grantley was actually afraid of Charles, "too frightened by this strange creature within Charles not to do what I was told." It isn't too long into the story that we discover that Charles died later in 1916, having fallen and broken his neck; Grantley would often go and visit Helen afterwards, and their friendship lasted for well over thirty years.

There is, however, one hitch -- Anglesey House, as Grantley becomes aware, is rumored to be haunted.  While he tries to warn his friend, Kit is having none of it.  But as things turn out, perhaps he should have heeded George's advice.

the author, courtesy of Great War Fiction


While The Scarlet Boy is an unsettling, creepy ghost story and a good haunted house tale, there's a lot more going on here than just a simple haunting. Family relationships are put in the spotlight,  as is the age-old debate between faith and reason, with the narrator of this tale often changing his own ideas and beliefs as he sifts through the past to find answers.  Considering the author's background, this isn't so surprising.  According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (I'll add the link, but it's a subscription-only website), Calder-Marshall leaned left in his thinking during the 1930s, but later edged toward a belief in Christianity, a move that was "underpinned by unchanging ethical concerns."

Sometimes it gets a little boggy, interrupting the flow,  but overall, it's a good read.  While I wouldn't say it's in my top ten of haunted house novels, it definitely kept me turning pages, making it one I'd recommend.   This is another book that will probably be appreciated mainly by niche readers, but I'm quite happy that it crossed my path.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century Ghost Stories (ed.) Michael Cox

0192142607
Oxford University Press, 1996
425 pp

hardcover

"I could tell you lots of things you wouldn't believe..."
                         -- Joanna Russ, "The Little Dirty Girl" - 346

As I write this post, we are on vacation in Cancun -- well, not exactly Cancun, but more like an hour south on the lovely Riveria Maya in Playa del Carmen.  Nothing but sun, balcony, bebidas,  and lots of great food (my downfall, sadly) all of which  translates into much reading time.

There are a whopping thirty-three stories to be found in this anthology, ordered chronologically from 1910 to 1994.  Two most excellent tales bookend the entire collection -- E. Nesbit's "In the Dark" is the opener, while the grand finale is Jane Gardam's "The Meeting House," completing an entire book short but memorable tales. Like most anthologies, there will be something for everyone here, and also like most anthologies, it's a mixed bag of good, great, excellent, and oh my god yes. And while for me there really is nothing better than the old, classic ghost stories, some of these modern ones should be taken just as seriously.

Since there are thirty-three stories here, I'll just give the barest of barebones outline on what someone might expect to find within. I was quite delighted to discover some of my favorite writers on display here, for example Angela Carter, May Sinclair, Elizabeth Jane Howard, and Robert Aickman are here, along with other writers whose names are legend in the realm of ghost-story writing and some whose appearance is a nice surprise.  Let's begin, shall we?

** indicates my favorite stories

1. "In the Dark," by E. Nesbit -- when a story begins with "It may have been a form of madness. Or it may be that he really was what is called haunted," well, it's sure to be a good one. And it was. A man decides he's going to kill himself, and wants someone to know why ...

2. "Rooum," by Oliver Onions -- in which echoes abound, and like most stories by this author, it's a seriously and delightfully slow-burning, creepy tale.

3.** "The Shadowy Third," by Ellen Glasgow.  I read this previously in a collection edited by Alan Ryan called Haunting Women, and it's still disturbing now.

4. "The Diary of Mr. Poynter," by M.R. James. What ghost-story collection would be complete without M.R. James?  After reading this one, though, my first thought was "I've finally found an M.R. James story I don't really like." Here, a decision to decorate a room with curtains using a certain pattern causes havoc at Redcomb Manor.

5. ** "Miss Porter and Miss Allen," by Hugh Walpole -- this is a good one. Two women live together in a "conspiracy of silence," that probably should have been broken much, much earlier.

6. ** "The Nature of the Evidence," by May Sinclair. Seriously one of the most downright creepy stories in this entire book, in which a widower's new wife gets much more than she bargained for in the marriage.  I love May Sinclair's writing, and this story is just reason why.

7. "Night-Fears," by L.P. Hartley, the story of a man who's happy to have taken on a new job but then has second thoughts after running into a stranger.

8. **Bewitched," by Edith Wharton.  Holy crap. This one is just flat-out terrifying and not just in a supernatural sort of way, as a man admits to having an affair with a young woman and is accused of being "bewitched." There's definitely a reason why in this case.  Edith Wharton truly was a master of terror.

9. Next up is "A Short Trip Home," by of all people F. Scott Fitzgerald.  It's okay -- not brilliant, but read between the lines on this one.

10.** "Blind Man's Buff", by H. Russell Wakefield is truly panic inspiring, taking place in a house where "none of us chaps" ventures "after sundown."

11. "The Blackmailers," by Algernon Blackwood, follows, and while it's not his best, it's still quite squirmworthy especially at the end when that particular 'aha' moment hits.

read this book!


12. Next comes "Yesterday Street," by Thomas Burke -- I've seen several variations on this theme in my ghost-story reading, but this one is really quite sad. It burns slowly, but is well worth the payoff.

13. Fritz Leiber makes an appearance with his "Smoke Ghost," in which a man whom "you might call a sensory prodigy" meets his match in something that seems to follow where ever he goes.  Very nicely done.

14. "The Cheery Soul," by Elizabeth Bowen -- again, not her best work, but still immensely creepy. A young woman accepts an invitation to stay as guest in a lovely home, but is puzzled by what she discovers there, interrupting her "disreputable psychic pleasure." Oh -- if she only knew!

15. Wow! Graham Greene has a nice little tale here with his  "All But Empty" from 1947,  which has a great surprise ending I never saw coming.

16. ** And now, my favorite story of the entire book, Elizabeth Jane Howard's "Three Miles Up," which is also one of my lifetime favorites because it is so frightening. While I won't give away the show, I could only imagine the horror facing the people in this story as their situation finally dawns on them.  The story begins "There was absolutely nothing like it," and that's definitely the case here.

17. "Close Behind Him," by John Wyndham comes next, another tale in which two criminals have no idea what they're about to get themselves into, with serious results. Pleasantly terrifying.

18. Walter de la Mare's "The Quincunx" is also quite good, a tale in which an inheritance from a dead aunt proves to be the main character's downfall.

19. ** To my great surprise, an author I've recently discovered, Marghanita Laski, makes an appearance here with her "The Tower." Italy is the setting for this story which centers on a young wife who decides to visit the Tower of Sacrifice built in 1535, which was the only thing that survived the destruction of an entire village in 1549. Another slow burner, but terrifying.

20. ** Elizabeth Taylor's "Poor Girl" demands two readings -- once for the supernatural element, which is in no way typical, and the second for what is really going on underneath the horror.  Very well done.

21. Robert Bloch's "I Kiss Your Shadow" is nothing if not entertaining, and definitely vintage Bloch.  A mixture of the supernatural and mystery/pulp gives it a kind of easy-read, fun sort of feel but there's a lot going on here once you get into it.

22. "A Woman Seldom Found," by William Sansom finds a mysterious veiled woman the object of attraction of a young man on his first visit to Rome.  He probably should have stayed home. Yow. The last line of this one...

Elizabeth Jane Howard (from The Telegraph)


23.** "The Portobello Road," by Muriel Spark is also a good one in which secrets have a way of coming back to haunt those who harbor them, not just in this life, but beyond.

24. ** A true virtuoso performance is up next in Robert Aickman's "Ringing the Changes," which is one of most truly-terrifying stories he's ever written.

25. "On Terms" by Christine Brook-Rose - well, let's just say it wasn't on my top ten or top twenty lists of stories in this book, but that's just me. A very strange tale related as a body lies slowly decomposing...

26. William Trevor has an entry here, "The Only Story," in which one man slowly deteriorates over time to the detriment of everyone around him, but mostly himself.  Talk about psychological insight ... whoa.

27. **"The Loves of Lady Purple" is a mind-blowing story by another of my very favorite writers, Angela Carter.
"She, the sole perpetrator of desire, proliferated malign fantasies all around her and used her lovers as the canvas on which she executed boudoir masterpieces of destruction. Skins melted in the electricity she generated."
Greatness in print. Enough said.

28.  **Penelope Lively's "Revenant as Typewriter," is also wonderful as a woman tries to exert herself and her will over the home she recently bought. Note I said "tries."

29. "The Little Dirty Girl," by Joanna Russ I've read before (I can't remember where) -- the second time through made it better than the first, but again, not in my top ten.

30. "Watching Me, Watching You," is by Fay Weldon, and reflects what a justice-loving ghost sees as the years roll by.

31. "The July Ghost" by A.S. Byatt -- good but not up to (in my opinion) Byatt's usual literary greatness.

32. "The Highboy, " by Alison Lurie -- this one's also good with a sort of sarcastic, funny edge to it as well as a great ending.

33. ** Jane Gardam's "The Meeting House" centers on the struggle for quiet in a Quaker meeting house. The Quakers eventually find it, but not in the way they'd expected.


I am just delighted to see so many women writers represented in this collection, and it's definitely a book serious readers of ghostly tales should include in their home libraries. It's certainly one I'd recommend.





Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Book of Monelle, by Marcel Schwob -- beautiful and brilliant.


978098411587
Wakefield Press, 2012
originally published 1894
translated by Kit Schluter
115 p

paperback

With only a couple of minor exceptions, it's been an outstanding reading year so far, and it just got better with The Book of Monelle, by Marcel Schwob. It's such a great feeling when I lose myself in something this good not just once, but twice.  

The story behind The Book of Monelle is a sad one, yet it's  vital to the contents of this little book.  In the translator's afterword, Kit Schluter writes about Schwob meeting Louise, a "young, working-class girl" who may have been a prostitute, who was quite ill with tuberculosis.  The two of them grew very close, and according to Schwob himself, "without her affection, he would have lost his taste for life," 
"She taught him to see again the levity of existence, to find joy in fairy tales and little toys made for children. Perhaps without ever saying it, she taught him that the falsehoods we believe as children are not detrimental or misleading, but joyous and fruitful, that the certainty of adulthood is a sorrowful and wasteful thing." 
They were together for a couple of years, during which time he wrote stories for her, and as her condition deteriorated,  a "fictional girl named Monelle began to appear everywhere" in his little tales, and he began to use the voice of an "adult narrator" who related them "with desperation."   Schluter notes that the name conveys the meaning of something along the lines of  "My-her" (mon elle), which is, if you think about it, just beautiful.   On her death, Schwob was so grief stricken that he couldn't write for a full six months, and then came The Book of Monelle, as Schluter notes in an interview with Paris Review
"an assemblage of fairy tales, nihilist philosophy, and aphorisms tightly woven into a tapestry of deep emotional suffering."
That suffering is writ large here and I felt every second of it.

While I won't go into detail -- it's another book that is genuinely felt by the reader -- the book is structured as a sort of triptych.  The first part is called "The Words of Monelle," which begins poignantly with Monelle finding the narrator "in the plain where I was wandering." Here it's easy to imagine the narrator (think Schwob himself) as being lost and unsettled, wandering in grief. She goes on to speak about prostitutes, who "leave the crowds of the night for an act of kindness," who
"heave a cry of compassion to all of you and stroke your hands with their bony hands. They only understand you if you are extremely unfortunate; they cry with you and console you."
More importantly, for the next section, Monelle says
"And I shall lead you among my sisters who are myself and similar to witless prostitutes.
And you shall see them tormented by selfishness and desire and pride and patience and pity, not yet having found themselves at all. And you shall see them set out in search of themselves in the distance..."
However, before arriving at the next section, "The Sisters of Monelle," there is a burst of things that Monelle "shall speak to you of," including destruction, formation, the gods, etc which reminded me of  manifesto-like sutras, or as the translator puts it, "commands."

Once we're in "The Sisters of Monelle" though, the tone changes.  There are a number of short stories in fairy tale/parable form here, parts of which have been mined from already-existing tales, but which are clearly original and incredibly sad. Personally, for me, "The Fated" is the best story of them all, because it really highlights what Schwob is saying here, as does "The Dreamer," but read carefully, it's easy to see that they all reflect what Schwob had written in "The Words of Monelle."

 Part three is entitled "Monelle," which for me was the most gutwrenching part of this entire book, but strangely enough (and most gratefully, I have to say), it does end on a very brief note of hope.  "Of Her Emergence" nearly had me in tears, and I was even worse off by the time I got to "Of Her Patience," where the narrator finds Monelle after having lost her only to be told that he cannot stay with her.  "Of Her Emergence"  begins with the narrator once again lost, in the dark, not knowing how he came to be where he is. It is there where he finds the "dim weak lights of the little lamp girl," who cannot sell her lamps to anyone except children.  As she says,
"...the little lamps I sell don't last forever. Their flames wane, as if burdened by the dark rain. And when my little lamps go out, the children no longer see the glow in the mirror, and they despair. For they fear they won't be able to foresee the moment when they will start to grow up."
That's sad enough, but when the little lamp girl and the narrator look into a mirror by the light of her lamp, he sees "well-known stories play out:"
"But the little lamp lied, lied, lied. I saw the feather rise up from Cordelia's lips; and she was smiling and convalescing; and she was living in an enormous cage like a bird with her old father, and she kissed his white beard. I saw Ophelia playing on the glassy surface of the pond, and wrapping her wet arms, garlanded with violets, around Hamlet's neck. I saw Desdemona, awoken, wandering beneath the willow trees. I saw the princess Maleine take her two hands off the eyes the eyes of the old king, and laugh, and dance. I saw Mélisande, freed, admiring herself in the fountain.
And I cried: 'Lying little lamp...' "
I almost lost it right there, trying to fathom just how much pain this man must have been in while writing this book. The translator notes that as Louise was dying, he
 "spoke to none of his friends of her, but retreated instead into a world of symbol and metaphor, at the center of which was Monelle."
And really,  I've never read such a personal, grief-filled book, but it makes sense that he wrote it. I've read tons of books about people trying to come to terms with loss, but there's something unique about this one. He also, I think, succeeded in keeping Louise alive here, making her immortal through Monelle, and she continues to live with every person who now reads this book.  Jeez -- just read it.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Victorian Chaise-Longue, by Marghanita Laski

0953478041
Persephone Books, 1999
originally published 1953
99 pp

paperback

At the end of this novel, I was actually very relieved to be out of it -- not because it's not good (it's excellent, as a matter of fact) -- but rather because while I was in it,  I felt as trapped and as powerless as the narrator of this story.  In fact, those two words -- trapped and powerless -- are actually good concepts to use here in thinking about the novel as a whole.

I'm not really going to do much of  that here though, since The Victorian Chaise-Longue is one of those novels that a reader actually feels and so to give away too much just plain wrecks the experience.

We meet first a rather over-indulged, somewhat spoiled Melanie Langdon who has just recently had a baby boy.  She had been diagnosed with tuberculosis early on in the pregnancy, but her two doctors had allowed her to carry her baby to term.   Now, it seems, the doctor has given her a bit of happy news: as long as she continues to rest, to treat herself as if she were "a piece of Dresden china," and have three good TB tests in a row, she'll be able to play with the baby every so often. Not only that, she'll be able to leave the bedroom, the scene of her long confinement, for a "change of view."  The drawing room seems the right place, and Melanie has decided that she could rest on the old Victorian chaise-longue that she'd bought just after she discovered she was pregnant.

She'd found it in an antique shop where she was looking for a cradle, and knew she had to have it -- as she notes, she had a "profound want of this Victorian sofa."  It had the "singular startling quality of berlin-wool cross-stitch embroidery that sprawled in bright gigantic roses from the top of the head-rest to the very end of the seat".  It also had a "brownish stain on the seat," which Melanie didn't care about.  As she looked at it,
"she tried to envisage the frail young mother in the floating clouds of negligée, the tender faces of solicitous admiring friends, but the picture remained in unfelt words, and instead of it there was only her body's need to lie on the Victorian chaise-longue, that, and an overwhelming assurance, or was it a memory, of another body that painfully crushed hers into the berlin-wool."
From then on, it had been an unused fixture in the drawing room of Melanie's house;  back in the present, happy to be away from the bedroom, Melanie lays down on the chaise-longue for the first time:
"And as she lay there, so nearly, so very nearly asleep, she was unthinkingly aware of the sky and the flowers and the music, of the sun-warmed air on her body that was at last sure of happiness to come. Time died away, the solitary burden of human life was transformed in glory, and Melanie, withdrawn in ecstasy, fell asleep." 
She awakes in a "darkness charged with a faint foul smell," and finds herself in the middle of what can only be described as a nightmare that just keeps getting worse as time goes on. The first thing she hears is someone asking her if she's "ready to wake up now," but the question is addressed to "Milly," rather than "Melly," -- and at some point she realizes that she's no longer in her own home or her own time, but in the year 1864.  And that's just the beginning of Melanie's nightmare.

While the novel most certainly reads like a horror novel (and it is most certainly horrific, trust me on that one),  it is impossible to miss what Laski is saying here about women and their lives. By the 1950s, it seems that in some ways, not much had changed from a century earlier -- I used the words "powerless" and "trapped" at the beginning of this post, and  these words epitomize the plights of both women. The idea plays out over and over throughout this story; I'll leave it to others to figure out how.

So - after finishing, a reader's first thought just may be -- "what the heck is going on here," because there are a number of ways the story might be interpreted.  For example, is there something mentally off with Melanie? Or is this book just one long dream that we've stumbled into? Or is it something else entirely?  One thing I noticed was the use of the word "ecstasy" in several places here, so geekperson that I am, I googled "Marghanita Laski and ecstasy" and  I discovered that she had actually written a book in 1961 called Ecstasy: A Study of Some Secular and Religious Experiences.  According to one scholar, in that book, she discusses "the numinous," examining
 "accounts of ecstasy and aesthetic states from average people and from classical mystical experience"  (18)
in order to seek out commonalities.  What follows briefly in that paragraph opened my eyes a bit and offered food for thought relevant to Laski's novel.  It made me wonder if Melanie herself had been somehow caught up in some sort of numinous moment or numinous space (which then required me to go back and reread the novel)  but as I said -- there are different possibilities to explore in this book, which is why I'm adding it to my real-world book group's reading list for October. It is just perfect for an in-depth group discussion, with so much to talk about and to mull over.

To say I was locked into this book is an understatement .  It is just so powerful and when I say that it didn't let me go, it's not cliché --  I really mean it.  I was so eager for the book to end, not because I didn't like it (I loved it), but because I was actually starting to become claustrophobic and panicked while reading it.  I swear -- a book that can mirror the feel of what's happening in the text in the mind of the reader is just too good not to read. It won't be for everyone, since there are no easy answers here, but for those who like an intellectual challenge and who like to put their brains to work, it's beyond excellent.

Very highly recommended.





Friday, April 14, 2017

Requiem at Rogano, by Stephen Knight - in which I had great fun and did a serious double take


9781943910663
Valancourt Books, 2017
originally published 1979
301 pp

Another fine release from Valancourt, Requiem at Rogano is a novel that you may think you've read before as you get further into it, but trust me, that just isn't the case.  While a number of authors in the 1970s produced something similar along these lines (I won't say but you'll know what I mean after reading it), this one stands on its own as something unique. As mentioned on the back-cover blurb, the reviewer from The Financial Times wrote about this novel that he can "recommend this to all who enjoy literate crime fiction," a sentiment I share. I'll also add that not only is it literate, but it is twisty to the point where every time I thought I had it all figured out, something happened that nixed my solution and sent me off in another direction entirely. The light bulb only went on in my head during the final moments of the story, just before the reveal.   Now, I don't know about anyone else, but when a writer comes up with a mystery story that I can't solve, well, to me he or she has done his or her job, and has done it well.  These days it takes a lot to find such a writer of mysteries since I've been reading them since I was just a wee girl -- usually I pick up on what's going on and have to settle for waiting not so patiently while the crimesolver person catches up.  It's frustrating, but happily, that's not an issue here. Thank goodness. 

It's 1902, and we are in London. The newspaper headlines are filled with reports of a strange series of murders done by a figure the police have dubbed "The Deptford Strangler," that are leaving police baffled. In the meantime, because of the police regulations requiring an officer to retire at age sixty, Reginald Arthur Brough has been made to take a retirement he's not quite ready for. He'd "tried to make the best of it," but so far, it's not been a happy time.  Things begin to look up when his nephew, Nicholas Calvin, writes to inquire whether or not he'd like to help him with a History of Murder that he's writing. He also notes that he has "stumbled on one case the like of which you've never seen," one that has brought him to Italy.  Brough doesn't take long deciding yes or no -- it is a way out of the "mental stagnation" of retirement, which he sees as a "slow march to death."  However, when he meets Nicholas later, Brough is disappointed in learning that Nicholas wants to "abandon" the project.  In its place he wants to "write a book on one single crime and its aftermath," and relates to his uncle the bizarre story of a series of murders that took place in the Italian town of Rogano in the fifteenth century, complete with strange figures in black clothing, an abbey built on sheer cliffs of solid granite, and the Inquisition.  So at this point I'm hooked like a fish and it's only page 15. After that, it just gets better, as it slowly dawns on the reader that, à la back-cover blurb, the pattern of the 1454 Rogano murders is "identical" to that of the string of murders happening in the present day.  The question of how this is possible sets Brough and Nicholas on the path of a bizarre journey that only gets stranger as time goes on.

There is a LOT more, which I'm not going to reveal here, because as I said a few days ago when talking about  Uncle Silas, the less prospective readers know about this book going into it the better.  While there are several reviews scattered here and there in the cyberworld, my advice would be to restrain yourselves from reading them until you've turned the last page. It is a mega-twisty book with a number of big surprises on the way to the ending, and trust me -- you don't want to know too much about it beforehand other than what you can glean from the back-cover blurb, which is pretty much all I've said about it here. Read spoilers at your peril -- I didn't and I'm very happy I didn't know anything beforehand to ruin the fun I had with this book. 

What I will say is that when I got to the end, I had to completely re-evaluate all that I'd just read.  The conclusion was a downright shocker and so I went racing back through the novel a second time, at which point I discovered exactly how truly ingenious a book Requiem at Rogano really is and how well the author plied his craft here.  And, just in case anyone's wondering why  I'm posting about this book here and not on the crime page of my reading journal, well, there is a definite reason, but I'm not going to give away anything except to say trust me, it definitely belongs here. Plus, if it's read as just a crime thriller, well, that's just wrong. 

James - you picked a good one. Thanks!!!!