Thursday, November 21, 2019

Starve Acre, by Andrew Michael Hurley


9781529387261
John Murray, 2019
243 pp

hardcover


"That is a quiet place --
That house in the trees with the shady lawn."
If, child, you knew what there goes on
You would not call it a quiet place.
Why, a phantom abides there, the last of its race,
And a brain spins there till dawn."

-- Thomas Hardy, "The House of Silence"
epigraph



(read earlier this month)

I don't read a lot of contemporary horror novels, but there are a few authors whose books I will preorder once I know they're on the horizon for publication.  Andrew Michael Hurley is one of these people -- I absolutely loved his The Loney (in my opinion the best book he's written),   quite enjoyed his Devil's Day,  and now he's back with another fine novel,  Starve Acre.  This time around Hurley  is much more straightforward in terms of horror than the previous two, but don't be fooled: what happens here, as in the case of his earlier books,  plays out on many different levels other than simply gut-reaction horror.  It is truly one of the most disturbing contemporary novels on the darker side I've read in a while, in a good way, of course. 

Once again, Hurley sets his story in a remote, rural locale, more specifically in the Yorkshire Dales.  It is here where Richard Willoughby  and his wife  Juliette have come to live in his family home, Starve Acre, handed down to Richard after the death of his mother.  Juliette was convinced that it would be better to start and raise their family in the Dales rather than the city in which they live, and eventually their son Ewan was born.  As the novel begins,  it is clear however that this is a couple in the depths of grief, as their only child has died.  Juliette spirals into deep depression and despondency to the point of spending each night on a mattress in Ewan's room, where she hopes to "pick up the faintest traces of Ewan," still remaining there by filling the space with mirrors and making recordings every night, hoping for "moments of contact."  Richard, who is on a sort of enforced sabbatical from teaching History at university, copes by staying busy with some sort of work, organizing his father's library and after discovering old woodcuts there, seeking the location of and hoping to excavate the roots of the old Stythwaite Oak, which, as legend has it served as the local gallows tree.  His friend Gordon tries to warn Richard away from continuing his search, but disregarding his advice,  Richard continues on, finding nothing but a skeleton of a hare which he brings into his home to study it.   In the meantime, Gordon, hoping to offer help to Juliette in some measure, introduces her to a strange group of mystics called The Beacons who organize a sort of seance in the Willoughby home.  The story truly launches from this point, and we are taken back in time to Ewan's childhood and life at Starve Acre up to the time of his death.   A few somewhat cryptic hints by the author clue us in that perhaps not all was well there, but   little by little we get a more complete picture as to why.



the April 2020 paperback cover, from Amazon 

Anyone who has read Starve Acre will recognize key hallmarks of Hurley's writing, and I'll offer only two here.    For one thing, upon entering this story, you will find yourself caught in an overwhelming atmosphere of isolation.  He sets this up so very nicely, not only in terms of Starve Acre's remote location outside of the village, but  as events transpire, the growing distance between the Willoughbys and the local villagers becomes palpable, as Richard and Juliette slowly become outsiders and "outcasts" among them.  It also strikes me that he portrays the world of the Willoughbys as becoming ever more enclosed and slowly shrinking, as the majority of what happens in this story happens within the space of the Willoughby home and its immediate environs.  Further isolating this family, both before and after Ewan's death,  there is also much that occurs solely within the space of this couple's respective minds, into which neither wants to intrude.   But perhaps the key feature so well done in Hurley's novels is his trademark use of the landscape.  Aside from the physical bleakness of Starve Acre, the rooks that fly everywhere, and other features described throughout the story,  much of the sadness evoked here turns on this piece of land which had first captured Juliette's imagination as being the perfect place to raise children.  While she saw it as a "natural physical playground" that would grow as "they grew," the reality is that the Willoughby land lingers under a curse that leaves it doomed to having "not an inch of soil that's still alive."  And as young as he is, even little Ewan realizes a particularly close connection not just to the land, but to the very spirit of the place, which as this family will discover, is by no means benign.   This is a landscape upon which the past has been inscribed; it may well seem a "quiet place," but it is one which hides secrets that perhaps were better left undisturbed. 

I have to say that this is the sort of contemporary horror story I actually enjoy reading, very rare in my repertoire these days.    Starve Acre is a novel about what is left behind after the loss of a child, with much of the story focusing on the landscape of grief itself.  The supernatural elements are subtle and nicely layered,  secrets are unfolded little by little, and there is that lovely sense of ambiguity that kept this book in my mind for a long time while thinking about it.  While it may seem to move a bit slowly, that's actually a plus in this case since it culminates in one of the most unexpected, horrific endings I've encountered in a very long time.   My single complaint centers around Richard and the hare,  to which the author provides a not-so satisfying explanation toward the end of the novel which I didn't buy at all.    Since I don't want to spoil things I can't go into detail, but astute readers will figure it out. Despite that particular flaw, I can without hesitation recommend Starve Acre   --  Hurley is so very talented, his work is refreshingly original, and I've become a true fangirl.


Wednesday, November 20, 2019

"... ideal for that lonely train journey" -- The Platform Edge: Uncanny Tales of the Railways (ed.) Mike Ashley

97807122352031
British Library, 2019
300 pp

paperback




So far there are thirteen books in the British Library Tales of the Weird series, making me wonder if we've come to the end because of the supernatural association with the number thirteen.  I hope not, since the editors of these books have put together stories I've never seen before, ranging from Victorian times through I'd say mainly mid-20th century, and so far, these books have brought me many hours of pleasure.    The blurb at the back of the book where the other titles are given says that
"British Library Tales of the Weird collects a thrilling array of uncanny storytelling from the realms of gothic, supernatural, and horror fiction..." 
and

 "revives long-lost material from the Library's vaults  to thrill again alongside beloved classics of the weird fiction genre."  While not all of the stories I've read so far in this series have necessarily been   "thrilling," they are beyond fun to read and for me at least, have served as a stepping stone into the work of   authors whose work I've never read.  In my case,  it's not just the stories themselves but more importantly, the discovery of these previously-unknown-to-me writers that has been the draw.  This time around there were only six, but that's okay -- it's six more than I knew of before.

The stories in this volume range from 1878 to 1985, thus covering over a century of railway-related weird/ghostly/supernatural and other types of tales.  In his short but informative introduction, Mike Ashley explains the rise of stories about "haunted stations and phantom trains" that hearken back to the early nineteenth century.  By 1860, as he writes, there had been "over thirteen hundred accidents in the UK alone," and that there is "little surprise" that with the mounting death toll, these sorts of tales "started to circulate." The earliest story in this volume in fact, the anonymously-written "Desperate Run,"  not only reflects the sort of anxieties felt about the trains at the time, or as Ashley puts it, the contradictory idea of the train as "sinister as it is remarkable," but also the dedication of those whose duty it is to see that all runs smoothly, two themes that carry strongly through a number of these tales in different variations.   As we move forward in time here, it's not surprising to see a number of stories in this book reflecting many of these same concerns about the subway.   

 The complete table of contents for this volume can be seen here; I'm not going to go through them in any major way in this post.


Illustration by Paul Orban for AJ Deutsch's "A Subway Named Möbius," December 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction (Vol. 46, No. 4).   From Worlds Envisioned

The stories in the first section of this book, "Departures in the Light" are of the weird/supernatural variety, with one exception: "The Tragedy in the Train" by Huan Mee, which is more a locked-room sort of mystery story.  Ashley included it because "it is such a convoluted and seemingly impossible crime" that he couldn't "let it go."  While they're all fun, honorable mention needs to go to L.G. Moberly's "A Strange Night," which starts out along the lines of the beginning of Aickman's "The Trains" before it goes elsewhere altogether, still more than managing to satisfy my appetite for the eerie.   Strangely enough and so very unlike me, my favorite story in the book was written in 1950; even stranger is the fact that it came from Astounding Science Fiction since I'm not heavy into the genre.   Even now I can't explain why this one grabbed me as it did, but AJ Deutsch's "A Subway Named Möbius" in the section entitled "Approaches in the Dark" captured my imagination so thoroughly that I read it twice in one sitting.  Maybe it was because of the idea that nobody noticed a missing Boston subway train at first, or perhaps it was the chilling ending; I just know I still haven't forgotten it and it's been some time since I first read it.  I remember thinking while reading it how very weird it would have been for someone riding on the subway at the time and first encountering this story.  While that one is an American story, the British subway system isn't at all ignored in this book:  there's Rosemary Timperley's  "The Underground People,"   T.G. Jackson's "A Romance of the Piccadilly Tube,"  "In the Tube" by EF Benson, "The Underground," by R. Chetwynd-Hayes, and my favorite of all of the British subway stories, "The Last Train" by Michael Vincent, which is the shortest but definitely the one I found weirdest, in a good way.



from Pinterest

While there are only two stories in the final section, "Return to the Light," they're both very nicely done.  I wasn't at all surprised by the pleasure gained from the slow-growing creepiness of Ramsey Campbell's "The Companion," but I was completely taken aback by  "A Short Trip Home" written by of all people F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I had no idea he wrote this sort of thing, but I was not at all disappointed.

It's difficult to describe what I look for while reading the weird or while reading strange/supernatural tales in general, but I know it when I find it,  and I think appreciation of this sort of thing reflects more of a personal, internal aesthetic.  Most readers (if you can go by the few ratings/reader reviews on Goodreads) seemed to enjoy this book, minus the one reader who referred to it as "pedestrian," an opinion I don't happen to share, but to each his or her own.   Overall, I have to say that my investment of time and money in the British Library Tales of the Weird series has paid off handsomely; the same is true of this book. While there were a few I didn't particularly bond with as is common in most anthologies, the majority of the stories here will delight any true-blue fan of older supernatural or weird tales.   It certainly delighted me.


Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Six Ghost Stories, by Montague Summers

978164520074
Snuggly Books, 2019
214 pp

paperback


"Gare à qui nous touche"



There is nothing quite like a good ghost story.  I read them all the time, and am beyond happy when I come across spectral tales previously unknown to me.  When Snuggly published this volume of ghost stories by Montague Summers, the add-to-your-cart button couldn't be pushed quickly enough.  It wasn't just that these were six more ghostly tales to be added to my reading repertoire, but the sad truth is that I don't believe I've ever read anything by Summers before.   I have a copy of  The Supernatural Omnibus which he edited (no Summers stories included), and of course his translation of The Malleus Maleficarum of Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, but that's about it. Mistake rectified now, with Six Ghost Stories, which sadly, as stated in the introduction written by Daniel Corrick, doesn't cover "the entirety" of Summers' "ghost oeuvre," but I will take what I can get.

In the author's preface to these six ghostly tales, he writes the following:
"When like Owen Glendower we 'call Spirts from the vasty deep,' let us be sure that the Spirits are no kindly commonplace apparitions but veritable powers of darkness, grisly evil things of terror and dread and doom, able to send a cold shiver through the reader who sits alone at eleven o'clock on a winter night, and perhaps even to make him hesitate a moment before he switches out the light in bed."
He goes on to say that
"unless the stage is well set and the situation made intensely real, ground-work which save in very exceptional cases entails fairly ordinary and not too romantic surroundings with everyday characters, the ghost story goes for naught."
I mention these bits of Summers' preface since they make clear what will be going on between these covers.  There will be no "beneficent" ghosts to be found here, and most of the haunting that goes on takes place in rather ordinary circumstances, happening to rather ordinary people.




Toy Theatre, from V&A


The winner of this collection is  "A Toy Theatre," because of which I will never think of Shakepeare's Othello in the same way again.  The story begins as Sir Gilbert Richie makes a promised visit over the Easter holiday to the country house of his friend Tom Hunstanton.  Life follows a somewhat strict pattern there (Sundays being described as "at Northanger"), so on the day before he is about to leave, he is happy to step out and heads to the old nearby town to go to the post office.  He has some time afterward to  meander through the "quaint streets" of the old town, where he takes a look in the window of one of the "shabbier and dustier" old shops.  Having been an avid collector since boyhood of "tinsel actors, toy theatres, and colored sheets of characters," he is attracted by a "maple-framed tinsel picture of some absurd actor at Astley's of the Grecian Salon in the role of Aureato, the Golden Knight." Having ascertained that this picture and another like it had belonged to the now-deceased husband of the snuff-pinching proprietor, Sir Gilbert makes the mistake of asking if perhaps she has more of his belongings she'd like to sell.  "A Toy Theatre" sent a chill right through my bones, making me identify with the aforementioned "reader who sits alone at eleven o'clock on a winter night," hesitating just a moment before turning out my reading light.

The  five other stories in this book are also highly satisfying and quite delicious.   "The House Agent" finds a London couple married less than a year finding a perhaps too-perfect cottage for their weekend getaways in a small village.  "The Governess" begins as a tale told by an aunt to her nephew about a certain Miss Howard, the new governess at 27 Harley Crescent, St. John's Wood NW.  It seems that some strange phenomena began to follow her arrival there in 1890, which the inhabitants of the house could deal with, but for Miss Howard it was a different story altogether. "Romeo and Juliet" begins as a story told with curtains drawn, two people sitting in the firelight, providing the perfect atmosphere for recounting the tale of a young girl honoring her father's dying wish  that she "remain on the operatic stage for at least three years."  Looking forward to the end of that time, she has a feeling that "something is going to happen... ," which, of course, it does.  Along with "The Toy Theatre," another of my favorites from this volume is  "The Grimoire," a most outstanding story about a "collector of books on alchemy, witchcraft and the occult sciences" who lays hands on a rare volume he's previously never seen just prior to a visit to a Canon friend of his who shares his interests in old books.  The final story, "The Man on the Stairsis also quite brilliant, providing a bizarre take on the stereotypical haunted house story.  The owner of Cherton Manor is upset when a friend refuses to visit him because of his home's reputation, and is so upset with "this spook business" that he makes an offer another man finds hard to refuse.




Montague Summers, from Goodreads


There are two things potential readers may wish to know before plunging into this book.  First, Summers seems to take his time in more than a few of these stories  setting the scene prior to the actual appearance of the "veritable powers of darkness."  While this is a necessary step, he tends to be a bit long winded at times, especially in terms of dialogue.    Second, I found that there were a couple of instances in which I found the outcomes predictable, but I chalk that up to having read a large number of ghost stories in my time.  While they're valid concerns, these minor flaws did not at all detract from my enjoyment of this book since these are definitely NOT your average ghost stories, and I have to applaud Snuggly for publishing this volume which may otherwise have never actually been put into print.

recommended, most certainly.



Thursday, November 7, 2019

cross posting: Suicide Woods, by Benjamin Percy

97816444450062
Graywolf Press, 2019
193 pp

paperback

I've recently read Suicide Woods by Benjamin Percy, a collection of nine short stories and one extremely creepy novella-length tale at the end.  I never believe blurbs, but this time things are different: Luis Alberto Urrea's short take on the book, direct from the front cover, notes that Suicide Woods
"deals in a shivery fear, a dreamlike unease, a sense of eldritch hallucinations creeping toward us."
Never a truer word spoken.

From the first page onward, the stories speak to the idea that any attempts to alter or conquer nature, both human and otherwise, turn into the stuff of nightmares. 

If you are so inclined, you can read about it here; although I didn't think the book was perfect, it did burrow into my head enough to where I'm still  thinking about it days after reading it.


Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Ziska: The Problem of a Wicked Soul, by Marie Corelli

9781934555682
Valancourt, 2009
originally published 1897
184 pp

paperback

"In certain men and women spirit leaps to spirit, -- note responds to note -- and if all the world were to interpose its trumpery bulk, nothing could prevent such tumultuous forces rushing together."




Think what you will, but I love Marie Corelli's novels, at least the few I've read so far, with others waiting for my attention on their shelves.  The critics of her day had little nice to say about her work, but her reading public loved her, from "the eccentrics at society's lower end" to Queen Victoria herself.  One Corelli scholar notes that more than half of her novels were "world-wide best sellers," with more than an estimated 100,000 copies selling annually for several years.  Corelli's  1895 The Sorrows of Satan, according to Annette R. Federico in her book Idol of Suburbia: Marie Corelli and Late-Victorian Literary Culture, had an "initial sale greater than any previous English novel," selling twenty-five thousand copies its first week with and fifty thousand over the next seven weeks (2000, University Press of Virginia, 7).  Curt Herr, in his introduction to this Valancourt edition of Ziska, notes that 1897 also saw the publication of Stoker's Dracula and Richard Marsh's The Beetle, and that Corelli  outsold "Stoker and Marsh by the hundreds of thousands" (xi), which sort of begs the question as to why today she is all but forgotten, which is a true pity.



1897 original edition, from WorthPoint

There is no messing around as the story begins; the prologue puts us in the Egyptian desert of long ago, on a night when  "the air was calm and sultry; and not a human foot disturbed the silence."  A "Voice" breaks the stillness towards midnight,  "as it were like a wind in the desert," crying out for
" 'Araxes! Araxes!' and wailing past, sank with a profound echo into the deep recesses of the vast Egyptian tomb. Moonlight and the Hour wove their own mystery; the mystery of a Shadow and a Shape that flitted out like a thin vapour from the very portals of Death's ancient temple, and drifting forward a few paces resolved itself into the visionary fairness of a Woman's form -- a Woman whose dark hair fell about her heavily, like the black remnants of a long--buried corpse's wrappings; a Woman whose eyes flashed with an unholy fire and waved her ghostly arms upon the air."  
Flash forward to contemporary Cairo, where "full season" is in swing, where the "perspiring horde of Cook's 'cheap trippers' " have flocked for their holidays. We are introduced to one such group of British tourists, some of whom are in the lounge of the Gezireh Palace Hotel discussing  the arrival of the famous French painter Armand Gervase while others are preparing for a costume ball.  Expectations are highest, however, over the attendance at the ball of a certain Princess Ziska, of "extra-ordinary" beauty.  As the festivities begin and Gervase and the Princess meet, he is stunned:
"There was something strangely familiar about her; the faint odours that seemed exhaled from her garments, -- the gleam of the jewel-winged scarabei on her breast, -- the weird light of the emerald-studded serpent in her hair; and more, much more familiar than these trifles was the sound of her voice -- dulcet, penetrating, grave and haunting in its tone."
Ziska captivates this small group of tourists with her dazzling beauty and stories of ancient Egypt, but none more so than Gervase, who begins to believe himself in love with her, and  Denzil Murray, whose sister Helen knows that his obsession with the princess will eventually come to no good.  After confiding her woes to keen observer/researcher Dr. Dean of their party,  he notes that they have been caught up in "a whole network of mischief, " and that the
"...spider, my dear, -- the spider who wove the web in the first instance, -- is the Princess Ziska and she is not in love! ... She is not in love with anybody any more than I am. She's got something else on her mind -- I don't know what it is exactly, but it isn't love."
 As Gervase, as the back-cover blurb states, becomes more and more "haunted by strange and distant memories of her" over the short time in which this story occurs, it will become ever clearer exactly what it is that Ziska has on her mind.

The pulp/supernatural/gothic/occult-fiction reader in me of course positively swooned over Ziska, and if story alone was what it had amounted to I would have been happy enough.  Although I knew eventually what was going to happen here, it didn't matter -- the novel makes for an intense, compelling read.   But of course, there's always more that is not-so hidden under the surface with Corelli, whose beliefs often make their way into her work as debate between characters, and this book is no exception.  She begins right away with a look at the cultural imperialism of her day before tackling upper-class society, love, marriage, gender, and  her stock in trade, the undying soul.  Curt Herr has provided an excellent introduction that discusses all of this and more, including brief comparisons to the two other novels published the same year that I mentioned above.

'tis an old book, but a fine one, and I loved every second of it.  I really can't ask for more.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

in which the angel in the house becomes delightfully devilish: The Strange Transfiguration of Hannah Stubbs, by Florence Marryat

9781241582876
British Library Historical Print Editions, 2011
originally published 1896
339 pp

paperback



"It isn't all jam to have a medium in the house..."



H.G. Wells evidently didn't care for this book, saying that it was  "absurd," and that rather than "transfiguring Spiritualism," as was its intention,  it made Spiritualism to seem a "highly dangerous and idiotic pastime."   
Another reviewer from The Academy (1896) also criticized it, commenting that if "this volume was intended to commend spiritualism to unbelievers," it would more likely, in his opinion, "confirm them in their scepticism."

I settled on this book as an October read because I was looking for a novel with a séance, so when I found this one, I was a happy camper.   I'm a fangirl of Florence Marryat's novels and this book is one of hers that I hadn't yet read. 

Author and scholar Michael Sadleir, as quoted in Sutherland's  The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction (Pearson, 2nd ed, 2009) said about Marryat's  work that it was  "dangerously inflammatory fiction, unsuitable for reading by young ladies..." which was my original invitation to read her works, and I have to say that in this case he was probably correct.  (416)  This is one of the most lurid supernatural Victorian novels I've encountered up to now, and unlike the two contemporary reviewers quoted above who seemed to have missed the point,  I quite liked it.  The Strange Transfiguration of Hannah Stubbs ticks more than just a few of my reader boxes:  it is the story of a vengeful ghost, has the feel of a sensation novel cloaked in spiritualist garb but turned completely on its head, and it simultaneously engages topics and themes of fin-de-siècle New Woman literature.   It's also fun -- what more can I ask?

The story is centered around a natural spirit medium,  young Hannah Stubbs.   It seems that around Hannah, the furniture "dances,"  "shadders" appear, and "woices" haunt her at night.  Her mediumistic powers are so strong that they completely disrupt life in the family  home in Shropshire, providing the reason for "many a beating." They've also come between her and her young man  Joe Brushwood, to whom she had promised that she would try to stop "raising them sperrits." It's a promise she is unable to keep, however, and things get so bad that her mother feels she has no alternative but to find her a position in service with a family friend in London, a Mrs. Battleby.    Poor Hannah wishes for a normal life so she can go back to the country and to Joe,  but she is unable to stop all of the phenomena, no matter how much she wants to.

Enter Mrs. Battleby's lodger, Professor Ricardo, formerly the Marquis of Sorrento before exile and the relinquishment of his title.  While Mrs. Battleby  is constantly on the verge of turning Hannah out because of the disruptions in her home,  the Professor is fascinated.  As it happens, the death of his wife Leonora has left him wishing he could speak to her again (for reasons I won't mention here), and he has turned to an intense study of "the Art of Magic" to make it happen.  He  has also constructed a "séance room" in a part of his lodgings, and it is there that he shuts himself in to "burn the differing incenses recommended in the books of Magic," waiting to commune with spirits.  After he witnesses firsthand the phenomena that follows Hannah, he tells Mrs.  Battleby that Hannah is a "victim to what we call hysteria," and that if Hannah agrees, he will "undertake to cure her."   Eventually he also convinces Hannah that under his guidance, and that of his friend Dr. Steinberg,  she would be "quite cured of the annoyance she objected to."   Thus begins a series of "experiments," designed to heighten Hannah's powers while she sleeps (shades of Trilby!) to take them even further, with the aim of bringing forth the spirit of Leonora at his beck and call.  However,  a misunderstanding on the landlady's part gets both Hannah and the Professor tossed out of Mrs. Battleby's home; neither her mother nor Joe will have her back, so Ricardo decides that it would be beneficial to both if he and Hannah marry.




original title page (obviously I took this, as it's blurry)

At this point is where this story really begins, and we follow Hannah as she is molded and shaped by both men to suit and to exploit their own needs and desires.   What neither men realize, however, is that once they've opened the door, there is no going back; they will be left to  deal with the "transfiguration" fallout and neither are prepared for what comes next.  As both will discover, "it isn't all jam to have a medium in the house."

I think I might agree that on the face of it the plot, as Wells so eloquently put it, may seem "absurd," but there is method to Marryat's madness here, as there is in many of her later novels.  There is so much at work here under the surface that I could never  cover it in a short post; suffice it to say that this could easily be included in a study of Victorian women's  fin-de-siècle literature.  The novel is delightfully subversive,  it makes for fun supernatural reading, and I can't help it -- I am a huge fangirl  of  novels in which there are séances.  I got way,way more than I bargained for here.

Recommended, certainly, especially for aficionados of more obscure Victorian supernatural tales. 




October again




...my favorite part of the reading year. 












from Pinterest