Saturday, August 19, 2017

Under a Watchful Eye, by Adam Nevill

9781509820405
Macmillan, 2017
400 pp

hardcover

Just recently I said to someone that I don't believe Adam Nevill could ever write a bad book, and with the publication of Under A Watchful Eye, he has proven me right once again.  There are a number of surprises awaiting the reader of this novel, so anyone thinking maybe they'd like to read it is in line for a definitely bizarre but highly-satisfying experience.  As in most of the books of Nevill's that I've read, while there is definitely a horror story here, the threats also come from within. The author really excels in his ability to focus on a few characters and pull out what's deeply embedded; he is also a master of atmosphere that immediately grabs hold and never lets go until well after the final page is turned.

No long synopsis here since I will wreck someone's enjoyment of the novel by actually providing one. What I will say is that the novel centers around Seb Logan, a writer who has sacrificed much and worked hard to become successful.  Things are going quite well for him -- he's living a quiet, orderly and idyllic life, one he's definitely earned over the years -- until he begins to see a "dark figure"  watching him where ever he goes. But it's not just the figure that bothers him -- soon the sightings, some of which seem physically impossible,  are accompanied by the feeling that whoever it is knows his name, and he starts becoming paranoid, wondering why this is happening to him. Enter an old acquaintance whose presence once again in his life throws his very being into not just disarray,  but utter chaos, putting at risk everything Seb's worked for and achieved.  Because of their past connection he takes this person in, and that's when everything starts to hit the fan and come unglued.  What follows is a record of a spiral into the deepest levels of darkness -- and as Seb begins to discover, it is a darkness from which there may be no chance of escape.

As always, the author has written a novel that completely jangles the nerves as the story,  the dark atmosphere and the people all insinuated their way into and under my skin the entire time I was reading.  I could smell, see, hear and feel along with Seb -- that's how good of a writer Nevill is.  Add to that his uncanny ability to ratchet not just the tension but the sheer malevolence as the story progresses, and it's no wonder that I couldn't put this book down until I'd finished it, reading in the car as a passenger and  long into the night in a Miami hotel before we started our week of vacation. The outside world just completely vanished for hours, which to me says that I was completely and deeply enveloped in the novel.    I will say that although my favorite book is his Last Days, which I don't believe can be topped, this one comes very close to that same level of excellence.  Then again, as I said earlier, I don't think he's capable of writing a bad book at all.  

While other readers may want to go into detail about what happens here, my advice is to not let yourself know ahead of time what's going to happen. Earlier I noted that there are a lot of surprises to be found here, but even more than being taken aback at just how very clever this novel is, the deliciousness is in letting everything unfold slowly.     I know when I've got something fresh, original, and just downright frightening in my hands when I have to resist the temptation to flip to the end, and I had to restrain myself from doing so many times.

Modern horror writers are many, but great modern horror writers are few and Nevill belongs in the latter camp. Read the book.


The Virago Book of Ghost Stories (ed.) Richard Dalby

9781844085385
Virago Press, 2008
496 pp

paperback

"...there's awful strange things in this world."
                     --  from "The Open Door, by Margaret Oliphant.

The Virago Book of Ghost Stories combines two of my reading passions.  First, of course, there are the ghost stories themselves, and these are, as Richard Dalby states in his preface, "arranged in chronological order,"  making for a great way to watch the development of the "form of the ghost story" over the last 150 years.  Yes -- that's correct -- 150 years.  The second thing I'm impressed with is that here, each and every story is written by a woman, some familiar and some more obscure writers whose work I've just read for the first time.   It is a superb collection and a definite must-have for the serious ghost-story aficionado, complete with little bio blurbs about each woman at the end of the book.   The only downside is that I've made a list of books to hunt down based on said bio blurbs, so there goes the wallet again.

There are thirty-one stories in this book and while some are good, there are others that are downright great and for me there wasn't one bad one in the bunch.  I suppose it's all about what people enjoy in a ghost story so I get that not everyone will share my enthusiasm, but I read them all of the time and I think it's one of the better collections I've read.

--break --

From here on I list the stories with only teensy bits about what's in them, so feel free not to read from here on, although I swear there are no spoilers whatsoever.

--back to our program --

The book opens with a short tale by Charlotte Bronte, "Napoleon and the Spectre", which is a bit comical and sort of reminded me in a way of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," but was quite different when all is said and done.  This one is followed by one of my all-time favorites, "The Old Nurses's Story," by Elizabeth Gaskell, one which is quite well known and which I've read many, many times but still manages to provide a spine chill each time.  That's greatness right there.  Amelia B. Edwards' "The Story of Salome" set in Venice also gave me a nice case of the willies as did "Reality or Delusion" by Mrs. Henry Wood of East Lynne fame.  Next up is a short story by one of my favorite ghost-story writers of yesteryear, Charlotte Riddell, "The Old House in Vauxhall Walk," which has a twisty ending I wasn't expecting, as do most of her stories.  Margaret Oliphant is next with her "The Open Door," set in Scotland, a true page-flipper from beginning to end as a man races to save his son from what's haunting him.

 "The Old Nurse's Story," from Fiction Fan's Book Reviews
New to me is the writer Ella D'Arcy, whose "The Villa Lucienne" takes on a somewhat ethereal tone as a small group takes an "expedition" to a villa on the Riviera and gets much more than they'd expected.  That one is followed by "The Vacant Lot," by Mary E. Wilkins, an American tale in which a family decides to move when they get the bargain of a lifetime on a wonderful house -- but then come to realize that maybe it wasn't such a great deal after all.  E. Nesbit's "The Violet Car" also managed to produce hackles, as a woman comes to take on a job as nurse to a mentally ill patient, but realizes she can't tell which of the two people she's living with is actually the one needing her services.  It's a sad story, but done very, very nicely.  "The Eyes" by Edith Wharton is next, another one I've read before but still worth reading since Wharton's stories go right to the heart of human nature, as do those by May Sinclair, whose "The Token" is one of my favorites of the entire collection, focusing on a sadly-neglected wife who only wants to know if her husband still loves her.  Oh my gosh -- May Sinclair is one of my favorite authors and this story is one of her best.  That one is followed by another author who is new to me, Richmal Crompton.  Her story "Rosalind" is also a favorite and, like Sinclair's work, works on different levels requiring a second read for what's really going on here. This one is not only deliciously spooky, but very telling as well.

from Exemplore

Margery Lawrence makes an appearance next with her "The Haunted Saucepan" which seemed a bit silly for a while until I realized exactly what was going on here, at which point it wasn't at all funny.  Margaret Irwin's "The Book" is a great story, one I've read before and one which has been redone a few times by modern writers.   Oh my god -- I was on pins and needles with this one even after having already read it and that speaks volumes.  Another equally good one with more than a tinge of sadness is "Miss De Mannering of Asham," by another author I've never read, F.M. Mayor.  Another page turner,  this story is one of the most haunting tales in the entire collection about a young woman whose life is lived in solitude until that one moment when ... Yikes! Great ghostly fare here, for sure, and I absolutely must find more by this author.  That sad tale is followed by a different sort of ghost story by yet another unknown writer, Ann Bridge, "The Station Road," in which a doctor's wife going to meet a family friend at the station is herself met by one of the strangest occurrences imaginable, and that's just the beginning.  Moving on, I will say that while the next story, "Roaring Tower," by Stella Gibbons isn't the best in the book, it's yet another one that is more than meets the eye at first glance.  It's set in Cornwall (perfect place for a supernatural tale!) and finds a woman looking back on her self-absorbed adolescence to a time when strange things found their way into her life.  I'm not a huge Stella Gibbons fan in the first place, but there's a definite undercurrent to be unearthed here.  Following this one we get back into the ethereal zone with Elizabeth Bowen's "The Happy Autumn Fields," about which I can say nothing except it deserves a double reading and is quite good.



from The Daily Mail



Dalby's included a story by another favorite writer here, "The Mistress in Black," by Rosemary Timperley, which takes place in a small school where a young teacher was fortunate enough to find a position last minute, then comes to learn why.  Very nicely done, but then again, Timperley is a fine, albeit sadly-neglected author.  Next up is Celia Fremin's "Don't Tell Cissie" in which two women looking at retirement plan a weekend ghost hunt but don't want their friend to find out what they're up to.  This one is somewhat humorous when all is said and done.  That one is followed by a story by Antonia Fraser, "Who's Been Sitting in My Car?" another that needs attention between the lines but is just downright creepy.  Ruth Rendell is next with her "The Haunting of Shawley Rectory," which centers on a house in a small village that is only haunted some of the time, as the two people who stay there soon discover.  And you thought she only wrote mystery novels. Oy.  This is a good one, for sure. A.S. Byatt's entry, "The July Ghost" may be the saddest story in this book, one that offers a variant meaning of "haunted."   Next up is "The Dream of Fair Women," by A.L. Barker, the ending of which brings everything back full circle to its beginning, and that's all I'll say because to tell here would definitely be to spoil.




Borley Rectory, from The Harry Price Website

Coming to the end of the book, we find Penelope Lively's "Black Dog," which is by no means an average ghostly/supernatural tale; like many of the tales in this volume, there's much more going on under the surface than on it. I will say no more.   Following that one comes Rosemary Pardoe's "The Chauffeur," in which a woman discovers that her friends' home has its very own ghost and goes out seeking answers.  This one is okay, not great but still worthy.  Next up is a story with more of a Caribbean feel, "Diamond Jim," by Lisa St. Aubin de Teran, and it is truly an old-fashioned ghost story -- you know, the kind that should be read at night during a loud thunderstorm with rain and lightning while you're safely wrapped in a blanket. "Ashputtle: Or, the Mother's Ghost" by Angela Carter follows that one, and it is one of Carter's best short stories. Again, to tell is to spoil, so ... Elizabeth Fancett's "The Ghosts of Calagou" is another old-fashioned, shuddersome tale set in the "haunted hills of Calagou," where there are legends of dead men "jealously guarding their treasure." One man is about to check it out for himself.  Joan Aiken's "The Traitor" joins the ranks of the other sad, poignant tales, related by a a middle-aged "lady librarian" turned lady's companion who finds herself back in the home of her childhood quite by circumstance.  Last, but absolutely by no means least, is "Redundant," by Dorothy K. Haynes, about a man who "had always taken jobs that nobody else wanted" and the one he has here is likely the most surprising of them all.  Great ending on this one.

So that's it -- I cannot recommend this book highly enough, and as I said, it's a definite must-have for people like me who have a passion for ghost stories over the centuries, especially those written by women.  Absolutely delightful it is indeed, and now it's time to hunt down the other Virago volumes of ghost stories.





Monday, August 7, 2017

Just published and well worth every damn second: The Grip of It, by Jac Jemc

978037453916
FSG Originals 2017
288 pp

paperback/arc -- my thanks to the good people at Powell's.

"It's like a closed circuit."
                                                                      
Jac Jemc certainly gets major points for ingenuity here in her newest novel, The Grip of It, and coming from me, Ms. picky-pants, that says a lot.  The official blurb calls it "a literary horror novel about a young couple haunted by their newly purchased home," which is definitely the case, but it is not at all your standard haunted house fare.

The Grip of It is related via alternating viewpoints between Julie and James, the couple who have bought the old Victorian house at the end of Stillwater. They'd left the city to take James away from his "old haunts" because his wife felt they'd needed a change after he'd gambled away all of the money in his bank account. His gambling problem had put him into therapy, but she thinks that it's time for a "fresh start".  They buy a house that's been on the market for quite some time, and it isn't too long after they've moved in that they discover a number of things that need fixing. There's also something very off kilter here, and weirdness sets in almost from the moment they begin unpacking to start their new life.  Because creepy moments need to be experienced on one's own, I'm not going to go into detail as to what's going on, but things quickly begin to spiral out of control for this young couple to the point where it becomes difficult to separate what is and isn't real.

The ingenuity here is not so much in the haunted house horror story per se -- when all is said and done, the tropes that the author uses here have most certainly been done elsewhere, and the truth is that there are some things that are left unanswered.    What is original here, and what is in my opinion the thing that makes this book very much worth reading, is in the way the author mirrors the couple's search to try to get to the root of what's ailing this house (what's actually haunting it) with what's actually ailing/haunting this couple -- complete with "undercurrents," gaps, walls, and as James reveals, the "buried, fetid stories" which have "bubbled to the surface."  As Julie notes at one point,
"This house is sapping us, pulling out our cores"
and as the novel progresses, the reader comes to understand that the "grip" the house has come to have on this couple is far more menacing than either one of them could have ever realized.

There are so many things going on in this book that make it worthwhile. As just one example, there are several scenes that bring out the idea of   "alternative versions" of ourselves that we reveal to everyone, even those closest to us, and the idea of others'  unacceptability of "the wilderness of the mind," where people "will always wonder what to believe," since they "expect the mind's voice to unstitch only when alone."  The Grip of It  is also another fine example of a writer using the horror genre in a most original way well beyond the norm as a vehicle for exploration into the human psyche.

Readers who go into this novel expecting the standard haunted house fare may be somewhat disappointed, since, as I said, this story, when all is said and done, actually moves further beyond, well into the literary zone where the focus is more on people.   My only real issue is that sometimes what the author has her characters thinking is more authorial than real-world speak, which for me came across a bit overblown at times, but hey -- that's a minor thing compared with what she's done here.  I hope this book does well and that people will come to realize that horror can convey so much more than the content of  much-overdone tales of zombie apocalypses or vampire plagues and that when done right, it can move into the realm of the literary.





Saturday, July 29, 2017

Kzradock the Onion Man and the Spring-Fresh Methuselah: From the Notes of Dr. Renard de Montpensier, by Louis Levy

9781939663283
Wakefield Press, 2017
originally published as Menneskeløget Kzradock, den vaarfriske Methusalem: Af Dr. Renard Montpensiers Optegneiser, 1910
translated by W.C. Bamberger
137 pp

softcover

"What is the truth, and what are the lies in this damned business?" --95


Well, that certainly is the question at the heart of this book, which our narrator tells us is a
"dreadful and bloody mystery, one that is still not entirely understood by the author."  
The word "mystery" here is certainly in line with the back-cover blurb which calls this book "a fevered pulp novel," but really, it is anything but.  There are certainly a number of pulp elements found here that make for fun reading; on the other hand, the true mystery it presents is deadly serious.

When Dr. Renard de Montpensier first took on Kzradock's case, he soon realized that Kzradock was not "really insane," but that he'd "been made insane" because he holds the solution to a heinous crime, one which had been "encased" inside his psyche by a certain Lady Florence. As the novel opens, we are made privy to what the good doctor calls a "séance" -- in truth a session of hypnosis -- where he's attempting to unlock the dark secrets that are the source of Kzradock's  ongoing torment. The only way to help him, thinks de Montpensier, is to "investigate the crimes forming the basis of Kzradock's state," and using his own "science," he hopes to "send him back into society."    Okay -- so far so good, sounds right up my alley, but then, after a crazy night out at a theater where the crime itself is the movie,  and a wild scene that greets him on his return to the Paris asylum where Kzradock is a patient, everything shifts as the doctor finds himself  "At the edge of the abyss between madness and reason."  From this point on, things become surreal (and I don't use the term lightly) as de Montpensier tries to get to the root of the secrets buried deeply in Kzradock's soul.

The back-cover blurb says that this book combines "elements of the serial film" (check), "detective story" (check), and "gothic horror novel" (check), but what it doesn't say is that ultimately it is a nightmarish journey into "the sufferings of a sick soul."   Reading this book felt like standing in  constantly shifting sands where I was trying to gain some sort of foothold on solid ground but couldn't. As quickly as some sort of rational explanation for it all would come to mind, things would change so I just gave up trying to go the rational route and let the book speak for itself, which is a good way to approach this story.   This book is not your usual narrative sort of thing but rather a gigantic puzzle that doesn't yield up its secrets until the very end, and to say that I was gobsmacked is an understatement.  It is the epitome of cryptic, and obviously this post doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of this novel, but there's a good reason for that which is all explained at the book's conclusion.

Wakefield is publishing some incredible books, and I certainly loved this one and enjoyed the journey although there were times I had to walk away because it was so intense.  I mean, there is horror, and then there is horror, and to me the most horrific things often have their roots in the human psyche.  As de Montpensier says at one point,
"... a strained soul creates an entire world within the skin that surrounds it..." 
and truer words have never been spoken.




fiction from Denmark






Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Spirit of the Place and Other Strange Tales: The Complete Short Stories of Elizabeth Walter (ed.) Dave Brzeski

9780957296251
Shadow Publishing, 2017
409 pp



paperback

"You've got to be careful when dealing with spirits."

The work of Elizabeth Walter, whose name I didn't know before buying this book this past spring, has found its way into many an anthology, including several volumes of The Fontana Book of Great Horror Stories, New Tales of Unease (ed. John Burke), The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories, and The Virago Book of Ghost Stories. (Sadly, as I was looking up the last book just now, the little red guy with the pitchfork on my right shoulder made me hit the buy button, so I expect I'll be talking about that one here after my vacation in August). Considering how little there is about her to be found (and believe me, I tried), I think Brzeski has done a great job here in compiling so much information about Elizabeth Walter.

So now on to the book, which all told comprises a whopping thirty-one stories, each listed under the titles of Walter's original books in which they first appeared. In this book, those forces lying outside the realm of nature are not of the beneficent sort, but have a rather cruel, malevolent streak to them. To her credit, and with only minor exceptions, Walters manages to sustain this idea throughout most of the stories in this book; when all is said and one, however, it's the human reaction to these forces that matters in this volume.  As she is quoted in the introduction,
"The thing I like most about the supernatural is that it enables you to play God, to dispense justice -- only you dispense it from beyond the grave." (3)
I can guarantee that this happens here, in spades.  Like any other anthology, it's not perfect -- the writing can be uneven, the later stories are not as good as the earlier ones, but as a whole, The Spirit of the Place and Other Strange Tales is well worth reading. The big plus for me was the stories with Welsh settings -- it's amazing how old superstitions still abide in some places.  

Just FYI: not only is this probably going to be a lengthy post, but I am briefly annotating here so opting out at this point would be a good option for those people who want to go into this book knowing absolutely nothing. For those brave enough to read on, don't worry -- there is no leakage of critical detail. I've organized the stories into their original collections.

Book one is Snowfall and Other Chilling Events, from 1965, containing five stories. "Snowfall" takes on the benighted traveler, who this time finds himself stuck in a horrific storm with only a few miles to go until the next town. He's fortunate that someone just happens to be walking around and takes him in, or is he? "The New House," well, when you live in a home that is built in an area once known as Gibbet Hill, you might expect some creepiness to crop up. Let me just say that while the trope's been used before, the ending just about made me jump out of my chair. The best way to describe the next tale, "The Tibetan Box," is grotesque. A little carved box with a strange history finds its way into a home via a jumble sale, and gives its new owners more than they'd bargained for. Yikes. And now, just four stories in, we've come to "The Island of Regrets," my favorite story in this entire volume. Set in Kéroualhac, a small town in Brittany,  from "the hill above the village," one can see a small island in the Channel, "Like a child's toy left floating by the beach." On their way to St. Malo, Dora Matthews and her fiance Peter Quint (ring any bells, Henry James readers?) stop in this little town for the night, and learn about the superstitions surrounding this island, which the locals call the Ile des Regrets. "The island is a magic place," they are told, one that
"grants the first wish you make when you first set foot there, but grants it in such a way that you will wish it had not been granted." 
Even though they're also warned that "the island is an unlucky place," Dora drags a passive Peter along with her to visit it. Wild horses couldn't drag the rest of the story out of me -- this one is beyond chilling, and needs to go in a hall-of-fame sort of collection of best supernatural/weird tales ever told. The final story in this group is "The Drum," which, while it does highlight Walter's concept of justice meted from beyond the grave, I wasn't so keen on since I've read this same kind of thing before more than once. 

from Weavers of Tradition

The next block of six tales is from Walter's The Sin-Eater and Other Scientific Impossibilities (1967), which I'll say is a mixed bag of stories ranging from good to okay to whatever. This group begins with "The Sin-Eater," which when all is said and done is rather eerie, involving a hiker who accidentally finds himself caught up in a bizarre ritual that will come back to haunt him later. "Dearest Clarissa," which is set in a sanitarium, starts out well enough, but I figured it all out long before the narrator was able to. I really hate when that happens. Moving right along, "A Scientific Impossibility" was less creep-inspiring than laughworthy, especially because it takes place among a group of arguing academics, and then we come to "A Question of Time," which builds ever so slowly but ends up with a gutpunch. Discussion among friends about the subject of a certain centuries-old painting turns very strange in a big way. Up next is a story that Brzeski says was turned into a segment of the old Night Gallery show called "A Fear of Spiders," which I'll admit I've never seen, but I'm kind of inspired to see if I can find it now. Walter's tale is called simply "The Spider," and ultimately it's a tale of revenge served cold with a rather hair-raising twist. To say more would be to wreck it but I ended up pitying that poor fool, even if he is a jerk. Closing out this batch is another one I didn't care for very much, although its title, "Exorcism" will probably arouse some readers. Here the victim of a murderer appears shroud and all, to exact vengeance, but the murderer's wife is having no part in the dead guy's scheme. I think this one was supposed to be humorous, but the comedy escaped me for the most part.


Image from "A Fear of Spiders," from Night Gallery, via Genre Snaps 
The next bunch are included in her Davy Jones's Tale and Other Supernatural Stories (1971), and it's here that I discovered my second favorite story, which is coincidentally, "Davy Jones's Tale." It begins with the story of a shipwreck  a century earlier "with the loss of all hands," without which, as the narrator tells us, "nothing in this tale makes sense." Set in Wales, the modern-day story goes along and builds to a conclusion where the reader has to make his/her own choice about what actually happens here, and I have to say, it's not an easy one to make. The draw here is most definitely the ambiguity; this one demands more than a casual read. The next one is a kind of weirdo Cold War spy story that absolutely didn't do it for me called "The Hare." Seriously, had I never read it, I wouldn't have missed a thing. It may float someone's boat, but not mine. Following that one there comes another one that was less than satisfying and less original than most of the stories in this book, "In the Mist." All I would have to do is give the storyline, and I guarantee that someone reading this would go "oh yeah...I know that one."  Enough said. We enter into the zone of completely weird with the next story, "The Lift," in which a man in trouble seeking help finds himself in a building where strangeness follows. Not a fan of this one either. In "The Street of the Jews," while there is a supernatural element, it's the history here that rattles. "Hushabye, Baby" is a tough one to talk about without giving anything away, so I won't, but it's a good one. Really good. 


from The Telegraph

1973's Come and Get Me & Other Uncanny Invitations begins (obviously) with "Come and Get Me," set deep in the Elan Valley of Wales. A house that was put on the market and remains vacant years later is the setting for this one, which begins with military maneuvers interrupted by a "terrible shrill ha-ha-ha that was human but maniac." Here past aligns with present; in the end, it was just okay. Luckily, the next one is pretty good, "The Concrete Captain," where a newcomer learns the hard way that "You've got to be careful when dealing with spirits," followed by "The Thing," another one I just didn't care for. It starts out very nicely, has a lot of potential for weirdness, but frankly, this one just sort of fizzles into meh. "The Travelling Companion" is yet another I figured out way earlier than I should have since it's another been there, read that, bought the t-shirt kind of ghostly tale, as is "The Spirit of the Place," set in Italy. Next is "Prendergast," which is somewhat of a departure from the other stories in this book. A string of killings of young girls prompts concerned citizens to form a group that patrols the streets between 6 pm and midnight. The narrator of the story gets the cemetery beat, and it doesn't take long until the strangeness begins. This one really relies on its ending, although admittedly it was suspenseful on the path to getting there and I quite enjoyed it. "The Grandfather Clock" is quite fun though, as a young woman wants no part of family tradition and it comes back to haunt her. Sort of.



from Ambient-Mixer

Two years later  Dead Woman & Other Haunting Experiences was published,  and the "Dead Woman" in this case is a hill in Wales with a tainted history. Another personal favorite, this story underscores the idea that superstitious beliefs are alive and well in this part of the country, and have everything to do with what happens to a newcomer to a village where "everyone was polite but no one was friendly." Great story. The next one, "The Hollies and the Ivy" could have benefited from fleshing out the story a bit more fully. Like "The Thing," it had the potential to be terrifying but fell somewhat short, in my opinion. A couple sinks everything they have into their new home The Hollies, bought to be renovated. If only they could get rid of that damn ivy that covers everything. I liked everything about the next story "A Monstrous Tale" except the last couple of pages where what could have been majorly creepifying just fell flat. A vacation turns into a nightmare for one couple when they decide to take a ride on a small boat to accompany a yacht across the Bodensee; luckily for the wife she had a tantrum and decided not to go with her husband, who didn't fare so well. "The Little House" is very well done although somewhat predictable, but still very nicely written. Once again, like so many of Walter's stories, past deeds come back to haunt the present when the owners of a newly-bought home clear out their garden and discover a Wendy house. That's when the weirdness begins. In "Dual Control" two people on their way to a party are sniping at each other and in the midst of their argument, they happen to bring up the girl they've just run down and left to die. The driver, Eric, refuses to go back to take a look, but the story is far, far from over. Oy! In "Telling the Bees" a gardener's superstitions regarding his bees turns out to be not just another old wives' tale when a young woman who's convinced her husband has been trying to kill her takes steps to do something about it. This one took two reads, but I ended up liking it. And last but not least in this volume comes "Christmas Night," which takes place at an inn with the name The Hanged Man, so I just felt in my bones that something weird was going to happen there. My bones were right.


This is a book I would certainly recommend to anyone who has an interest in the supernatural or in older weird tales in general, although obviously these are pretty tame in comparison to modern horror tales so maybe a less jaded audience without a need for gore or the severely grotesque would more likely appreciate these stories. Collectively, they make for a great time, and kudos to the editor for bringing the work of Elizabeth Walters into the public eye once again.  

one last thing: readers thinking about this book may well want to read it on Kindle or another e-reader, since this book is huge dimension-wise. As I said to someone recently, it's not one you can take to the vet's office to read while you're waiting, and if I had it do over again, I would have foregone the print copy for the electronic. Either way, though, read the book! 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Big Machine, by Victor LaValle


9780385527989
Spiegel and Grau, 2009
366 pp

hardcover

"To be an American is to be a believer!...But y'all don't even understand what you believe in."  


Trying to make a concerted effort to read the books that have been sitting on my shelves forever, I decided to read this one, Big Machine, by Victor LaValle.  I've read his The Ecstatic, The Devil in Silver and The Ballad of Black Tom, and I have his newest offering, The Changeling, in a book bag reserved for vacation reading in August.  He has become one of my very favorite contemporary writers -- his work is original for sure, something I very much appreciate these days; he's funny, and he tackles important issues through his fiction.   Another thing about him that I like is that, at least in this book and in Devil in Silver, is that he has great stories to tell and frames them using horror-story tropes -- I recently read an interview where he had just published Devil in Silver and he called it his "haunted house story." I'm sorry -- I just don't remember where I read it. The point is that Victor LaValle is no ordinary writer, as anyone who's read his work will recognize.

In chapter three of this book, there is a bus passenger who is "three-quarters bum" standing in the aisle yelling at his fellow passengers, telling them that there's a fight going on in the country -- a fight about "faith, people. Faith and belief."  Before he gets booted off this bus, he has one final thing to say which is this:  "To be an American is to be a believer!...But y'all don't even understand what you believe in."  This one line sets up one of the most offbeat but finest novels I've read this year.  

The main character in this novel is Ricky Rice, a janitor at Union Station in Utica New York.  The receipt of a strange note one day during his shift sends him off to an even stranger place deep in the northern Vermont woods. He ends up at a place called the Washburn Library, which "doesn't care who you were, only who you want to be." Like Ricky, the people he meets there have had problems in their pasts; they are also all "descendants of America's greatest losers. Black folks. The only population that came to America to be enslaved."  As he meets his fellow "Unlikely Scholars" for the first time, his first thought is this:
"Seven black people in the Northeast Kingdom. Sounds like the start of a gruesome old folktale."
 And at this point, I knew this was not going to be any ordinary book, and it's only page 29.  As it turns out, I was right.

The Dean of the Washburn Library reveals at the first meeting that
"There is a voice whispering in the darkness. I have heard it. Everything it says is true. It's been talking to us, to all of us, but the world is so noisy we can't make out the message. Not unless we go off somewhere, someplace, remote and undisturbed and quiet..."
The job of the Unlikely Scholars? To listen.

It seems that the Washburn Library holds a vast "inventory" of "impossible events, documented, recorded, and even photographed until they seem to be more than just hearsay."   The Dean  reveals to Ricky the story of Judah Washburn, the original founder who had been a slave who "escaped bondage" in 1775.  Judah, it seems, had made his way to Northern California where he'd eventually "wandered off into the marshlands." It was there he first heard a voice coming from under ground, where the Voice once again spoke to him.  After some time, and after Judah had been struck blind, he was directed back above ground where he found a fortune in Spanish gold coins. Making his way to Vermont, over the next twenty-six years, he attended séances, and "knocked on the door of every 'haunted house,'" waiting for the Voice to speak to him again. But it never did.    As time passed, his daughter became an alcoholic, and he decided that she should take his place in the field, perhaps hoping that she'd feel a sense of purpose and that "a mission would defeat an addiction."  As she sent reports back home, he read everything, hoping that the Voice had hidden its "next commandment" within her reports.  This was the beginning of the Washburn Library.

The Dean also reveals to Ricky that he has a special mission for him -- it seems that the Washburn Library is "under threat" from one of its own who believes the Library is "corrupted," and that his job is to start all over.   It is Ricky's chance to "be brave" -- to find and take out the rogue "traitor" Solomon Clay.  Off he goes to California with another Unlikely Scholar named Adele, and it's here where our story actually begins, as they discover that Clay has taken on the role of "Father of the Despised," a modern-day prophet planning to organize the homeless into action.   Or maybe I should say that this is where our story takes off like a rocket.

What starts out sounding like a sort of Dan Brownish kind of thing quickly moves into, as one of the  book cover blurbs says,  a "mind-rattling mystery about doubt, faith, and the monsters we carry within us," and this story with its somewhat crazy premise gets serious really quickly. Reading through, there is a LOT  going on here as among other things, LaValle looks at race, religion and the institutions that often fail those who depend on them the most.  It is a very human story, and as one reader put it,
"...it's a book that makes outcasts its heroes, and reminds us how powerful it can be to get a helping hand." 
I think that maybe the author is also saying that doubt isn't always a bad thing -- while it may be the "Big Machine" that "grinds up the delusions of men and women," it can also serve as an antidote to our penchant for blindly placing our faith in something  without questioning, rather than believing in ourselves or reaching out to others.

Big Machine, despite its rather strange but on the other hand optimistic ending, is a gorgeous novel and the bottom line is I loved it.  It may not be for everyone, and that's okay, but there was something about this book that really tugged at my insides, making it perfect for me.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Other Side, by Alfred Kubin -- prepare to be disturbed


9781910213032
Dedalus, 2014
originally published 1909 as Die andere Seite
translated by Mike Mitchell
248 pp

paperback (read earlier)

"...it all had a touch of the madhouse." 

Imagine this: one very ordinary day, you're sitting at home and suddenly a man appears at your door with a proposal that, should you accept, will change your life completely.   That's exactly how this very disturbing novel begins.  How it ends I won't say, but imagine any  dream you've ever had that starts out being sort of quirky and then rapidly devolves into a nightmare from which you struggle to awaken, and that describes this novel in a nutshell.  Sort of.

Alfred Kubin is famous for his art, which in illustration form has also graced the pages of many writers' works, including Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Poe, and Nerval. While there are a number of places anyone can turn to to look at his work, it's obvious that Kubin was no ordinary artist.  As author Jeff VanderMeer has stated, Kubin "allowed his subconscious to lead his creative expression," and  Karen Rosenberg wrote in a 2008 article in the New York Times that "Kubin's drawings map the shadowy corners of the unconscious,"  and I can say that the same is definitely true regarding The Other Side. This is no ordinary book by any stretch of the imagination.

In Kubin's 1917 autobiography (with the great title Alfred Kubin's Autobiography)  he says the following:
"The scraps of memory -- that is all they are -- that stay with us after a dream seem illogical only to superficial observers, on whom the splendid power and beauty of this kingdom are lost." (xli)
This quotation works perfectly as an introduction to his novel The Other Side, in which the unnamed narrator of this tale finds himself living in a strange place known as "The Dream Realm."  Indeed, those who are accepted into the Dream Realm are "predestined to do so, either by birth or later experiences," and there is a "strict selection process for people who are invited to take part in our community."   The inhabitants have "abnormally sharp sense perceptions," which allow them to experience "relationships in the outside world which do not exist for the average person;" and it is these "non-existent things" which "form the unfathomable foundation of the world which the Dream people never forget for one moment."

The Dream Realm is the creation of the narrator's old school friend  Claus Patera, whom he hasn't seen in sixty years or so.  They had been "wild hooligans" together, but eventually they'd lost touch. Now, after a marriage and a career as an "artist and illustrator," the narrator is handed a note from Patera's agent inviting him to come and live in Patera's country.  Patera, it seems, had been fortunate enough to have come into "possession of what is probably the largest fortune in the world," with access to "fairly inexhaustible resources," which allowed to him to realize an idea he'd had to "found a dream realm," the present population of which was 65,000 people.  It is
"... shut off from the rest of the world by a surrounding wall and protected against any attack by strong fortifications. There is a single gate for entry and exit, facilitating strict control of people and goods. The Dream Realm is a sanctuary for all those who are unhappy with modern civilisation and contains everything necessary to cater for their bodily needs."
Patera's agent goes on to say that it hadn't been Patera's intention to "create a utopia, a kind of model state for of the future." Instead, it is a place, as the narrator and readers will discover, where the idea of progress is completely rejected.    Our narrator's first thought is that he's been confronted by a madman, but eventually he accepts Patera's invitation and he and his wife make their way to the Dream Realm, which lies hidden somewhere in Asia. The final step of the journey to the city of Pearl finds them entering a tunnel, in which the narrator was suddenly
"...assailed by a sensation of horror such as had never felt before"
 and indeed,  what starts out as  an "adventure story," as the author refers to this book in his autobiography,  quickly turns into the stuff of nightmares.

 While it takes them some time to get used to their new home and its quirks and the strange occurrences there, our narrator begins to gradually become  "so accustomed to the improbable that nothing seemed out of the ordinary."  What he also notices though is that while the eye of Patera (read the bureaucracy) is everywhere, he himself remains hidden and inapproachable, sort of echoing the experiences of K. in Kafka's The Castle.  [As a sidebar, according to a 2014 article in The New York Review of Books, Christopher Benfey notes that Kubin's book is "widely assumed (though on scant evidence)" to have influenced Kafka's work.]

the author, from the blog Alfred Kubin 

Kubin  wrote The Other Side during a period in which he was unable to draw, a time which he says "filled me with alarm," and "in order to do something, no matter what, to unburden myself," he decided to write.  He finished this book in twelve weeks; within another four weeks he'd also illustrated it.  As he notes,
"During its composition I achieved the mature realization that it is not only in the bizarre, exalted, or comic moments of our existence that the highest values lie, but that the painful, the indifferent, and the incidental-commonplace contain these same mysteries,"
and that this is "the principle meaning of this book."  This idea plays out time and time again throughout the story, although I'll leave it to others to discover how.

I loved this book. It is so very different, so far out of the realm of normal; it is the very stuff I crave and go out of my way to look for.   It is extremely rare that I read a book that affects me like this one did,  but it did me in. When I find something out of the ordinary like The Other Side, I tend to get sucked in completely and have trouble getting out until the very last page. I wasn't too far in before the Moleskine notebook and the pens came out;  two notebooks later it was over. The first time through this novel I was shaken, my nerves were working overtime, and  I couldn't think straight for a while after having finished it. Being inside Kubin's head is a dangerous and very scary place to find oneself, even if it's only for the duration of the book.

Jeff VanderMeer (from the link above) says that this novel has a "cult status," and I can see why.  Reading it also validates my theory that there is most definitely greatness and wisdom to be found in a lot of what's old. Granted, this one is a tough and demanding read on several levels, but thinking people who really want to be stretched in their reading will most certainly appreciate this book, disturbing though it may be.

***

Ad Blankestijn has an excellent blog called Splendid Labyrinths, where there is a great discussion about how to possibly approach/read this book.