Sunday, December 22, 2019

time to gather 'round the yuletide fire ... Spirits of the Season: Christmas Hauntings (ed.) Tanya Kirk

9780712352529
British Library, 2019
318 pp

paperback

Not to steal thunder from either this book or the British Library, but ever since Valancourt came out with their first Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories, I've sort of made it my yearly mission to read this type of thing around Christmas time, in a very small way carrying on a tradition which, as the editor of this volume notes, began orally, changing to print in the early 1820s.   (Speaking of Valancourt, Dr. Tara Moore, who edited the above-mentioned book,  also offers her thoughts on the matter in a 2018 podcast, which you can find here.)

As you will notice from the cover photo, this is yet another volume included in the British Library Tales of the Weird series, of which I have become a huge fangirl.  Believe it or not,  I've actually had this book in my possession since August, but through sheer willpower I somehow managed to put off reading it until now, not an easy task.  The good news is that it was completely worth the wait.  Many hours of pure reading pleasure are to be found here, and I'm not exaggerating.  The stories in Spirits of the Season are all somehow connected to events that occur around Christmas time,  and of the fourteen stories in this book, I had previously read only five: "The Four-Fifteen Express," by Amelia B. Edwards (1867), "Number Ninety," by B.M. Croker (1895), E. Nesbit's "The Shadow" from 1905,  "The Kit-Bag," by Algernon Blackwood (1908), and "Smee," by A.M. Burrage (1929), leaving nine new-to-me tales to discover, which is always a good thing.

One thing I suppose I ought to mention is that not all of these tales are ghost stories per se; as the title suggests, they are "Christmas hauntings," with more than just the shadow of the supernatural hanging over them.    Another thing I should say is that it seems as if not all of these stories were written with a mind to scaring the pants off the reader, as evidenced by "The Curse of the Catafalques," by F. Anstey (1882), Frank Stockton's "The Christmas Shadrach" (1891), and most especially "The Demon King," by J.B. Priestly (1931), in which one particular scene had me absolutely giggling out loud.  I think it's perfectly fine when good, supernaturally-tinged stories don't always end up on the scarier side;  I also think that it's a pity that people often dismiss them simply because they didn't get the fright they expected, often missing the underlying points of the story.  But enough of that.




from The Telegraph

My candidate for best story in this volume is M.R. James' "The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance" from 1913.  From what I gather while researching this one, it isn't among the most popular of James' stories -- more's the pity since it's quite the shocker.  As the story begins,  W.R., the narrator of this tale, writes to his brother Robert that he is unable to join him for the Christmas holidays because it seems that their uncle the Rector has disappeared, and that he has been called to join in the search for the missing curate.  After a few days with no results and the police having left town,  W.R. begins to accept the inevitable.  In writing to his brother on Christmas day,  he tells of a "bagman" he encountered who shares his thoughts on a "capital Punch and Judy Show" that W.R. must not miss "if it comes" ... which, in a way, it does all too soon, just not in the way one would expect.  No antiquaries here.   Read this one slowly, savor it,  read it again, resavor.



The full table of contents is as follows, with starred titles new to me:

"The Four-Fifteen Express," by Amelia B. Edwards -- anthologized many times, but well worth the time once again

* "The Curse of the Catafalques," by F. Anstey -- snerk

* "Christmas Eve on a Haunted Hulk," by Frank Cowper, in which a man gets lost while duck hunting and lives through a horrific night

* "The Christmas Shadrach," by Frank R. Stockton.  Light, a bit silly, but edging on the strange side with purpose. Beware of what you might find in a curio shop...

"Number Ninety" by B.M. Croker, one of my favorite ghost story writers; here the action takes place in a house no one will rent no matter how low the cost

"The Shadow," by E. Nesbit, another sad tale by this author

"The Kit-Bag," by Algernon Blackwood -- after a long court case involving a killer with a "dreadful face," the private secretary of the legal firm involved decides it's time for a vacation.  Whether or not he'll get his kit-bag packed beforehand is another story. 

* "The Story of a Disappearance and An Appearance," by M.R. James

* "Boxing Night" by EF Benson, in which dreams play the major role -- another example of the underlying story here being worth much more than the potential scare

* "The Prescription," by Marjorie Bowen -- although a wee bit predictable, still very much worth the read

* "The Snow," by Hugh Walpole, in which a wife learns the hard way that she should have listened to someone else's advice.    

"Smee," by A.M. Burrage, a favorite of the Christmas ghost story circuit, with very good reason. 

* "The Demon King," by J.B. Priestley -- the "stolid Bruddersford crowd" definitely gets its money's worth  and more during a pantomime and the Happy Yorkshire Lasses make their debut dance appearance 

* "Lucky's Grove," by H.R. Wakefield.   This story came in second in my personal favorites lineup.  The Braxtons'  land agent finds and cuts down the perfect tree for their family Christmas celebration; unfortunately, no one bothered to tell him that he shouldn't have taken it from Lucky's Grove.  A fine story this one, so much so that I'm actually considering buying a copy of the old Arkham House edition of The Clock Strikes Twelve to read more of Wakefield's work. 



from the Library of Congress


 Spirits of the Season makes for great Yuletide reading, but if you missed it this holiday season, not to worry.  It can be enjoyed just as much any time of the year, and for true fans of these old stories -- the famous and the "unjustly obscure" -- it is a definite no-miss.  Editor Tanya Kirk has certainly made some excellent choices for inclusion here, and they are very much appreciated by this reader.


Just one more thing: for those who may not know, Ms.  Kirk also has another volume of stories called The Haunted Library, which picks up many stories that have never been anthologized.  Buy button clicked.  Expect more on that book to come later.


Sunday, December 15, 2019

Tales of the Tattooed: An Anthology of Ink (ed.) John Miller

9780712353304
British Library, 2019
317 pp

paperback

Each time I take one of these books off the shelf, I know I'm in for a few hours of reading pleasure.   I bought my copy at Book Depository since the American publication isn't scheduled until July of 2020 (as if I could wait that long);  should anyone decide to pick up a copy there, it also says that the publication date is July 2020 but it shows as being available, with copies sent out within two business days. 

Admittedly, the majority of tales in this book trend less toward what I'd personally consider as weird and more toward pulpy crime fiction (albeit some with a strange edge); given the focal point of tattoos I would have thought there would be plenty more to be found on the weirder side.  Having said that, the stories themselves are entertaining enough; they also, as Miller states in his introduction, "emerge from an intriguing window in tattooing's history."   How that works I'll leave to the reader to discover, but I have to say I was surprised more than once. 

The table of contents reads as follows; the starred titles are my favorites:

"Two Delicate Cases," by James Payn (1882)
"The Green Phial," by TW Speight (1887) *
"A Marked Man," by WW Jacobs (1901) 
"The Tattoo," by Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews (1909)
"The Tattooer," by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki (1910)**  
"The Background," by Saki (1911)
"The Tattooed Leg," by John Chilton (1919)*
"Branded," by Albert Payson Terhune (1919)
"The Tattooed Eye," by Arthur P. Hankins (1920)
"The Starfish Tattoo," by Arthur Tuckerman (1921)
"The Secret Tattoo," by Frederick Ames Coates (1927)
"The Tattooed Card," by William E. Barrett (1937)
"Skin," by Roald Dahl (1957)*


While not exactly on my favorites list, the opening story gave me my first jolt in the form of a woman who comes to a doctor to have a tattoo removed.  I've read a lot of Victorian fiction, but this is the first time I've read about an obviously well-to-do woman of position who opts to have a tattoo inscribed upon her skin.  I was away and unplugged from the world at the time I read this book, but on the basis of this part of the story alone, as soon as I got home I had to buy one of the sources listed at the end of Miller's introduction, Bodies of Subversion: A  Secret History of Women and Tattoo by Margot Mifflin.  Yes, I am that geeky.    "The Green Phial" is an eerie blend of weird and murder mystery, beginning with a "singular and very vivid dream."  The dreamer, Langholme, is convinced that the tattooed man he encountered in his dream had a similar dream in which he played a role in Langholme's.  When by chance (?) Langholme and his friend run into this tattooed man, Langholme seeks proof that such is the case.  "The Tattooed Leg" is one of the more macabre stories in this book, in which a man whose leg had been lost in a wreck discovers that the tattooed leg under his cast  belonged to another and has been grafted on to his body.  Although he gains assurances from the surgeon that he's going to be "good as new," it isn't long until after being released from hospital that he realizes that something has gone horribly wrong.  Science gone awry is the matter at hand here, with this story making for a fun yet bizarre read.  "Skin" by Roald Dahl has a sort of commonality with Saki's "The Background," but Dahl's story has much more of a finely-honed,  implicitly-horrific edge to it that gave me a true case of the willies.  An older man, down on his luck, finds himself on the Rue de Rivoli where he sees a painting by a Paul Tichine displayed in the window of a gallery.  His discovery takes him back in his mind to a time when he knew the artist; his wife had been Tichine's model back before Tichine was Tichine and before his art was so highly prized.  Entering the gallery, where he is immediately asked to leave, he makes the mistake of revealing that he has a picture given to him years before by the artist.  Not a good move, really.  While "Skin" was downright creepy, Tanizaki's "The Tattooer" works on a completely different level uniting beauty, eroticism, ecstasy, and pain, beginning with an Edo-era tattoo artist with a sadistic edge: 
"His pleasure lay in the agony men felt as he drove his needles into them, torturing their swollen, blood-red flesh; and the louder they groaned, the keener was Seikichi's strange delight. Shading and vermilioning - these are said to be especially painful -- were the techniques he most enjoyed."
 However, his true desire was to "create a masterpiece on the skin of a beautiful woman."  He'd been searching for the perfect subject for four years without success, but all of that changes when he just happens to notice a most exquisite young woman's foot sticking out beneath a palanquin's curtain.  He continues his search, this time for that one woman; little does he realize what will happen when he finds her.   I love Tanizaki's novels, but sadly I seem to have neglected his short stories, something I'll certainly be rectifying in the near future.


from Business Mirror

While I've only briefly hinted at my favorite stories above, the rest are also quite nicely done, although in my opinion, the weirdness is a bit tamped down in those.  Overall, Tales of the Tattooed is another fine entry in the Tales of the Weird series, and I haven't found a bad book in the bunch.  I have been highly impressed with the wide range of stories presented in these volumes, and whoever dreamed up the concept in the first place ought to be congratulated. 



Saturday, December 14, 2019

Animals of the Exodus, by Alexander Zelenyj


9781908125828
Eibonvale Press, 2019
Eibonvale Chapbook Line #12
hardcover
cover art by David Rix 


(read earlier this year)


"When your Earth-mud walls are scaled at last, 
strike out: your home waits in the vault
None of it was your fault

We belong somewhere, too."




The cover blurb of this book describes Animals of the Exodus as "A 70-page festival for the world-broken. Because there are paths..."  a concept that I first came across in Alexander Zelenyj's Songs for the Lost, a most brilliant collection of stories which  I've been recommending to everyone and anyone who will listen.   It was there also that I first encountered the Deathray Bradburys,  "the most infamous cult band in the history of rock and roll" as noted on the back cover of this author's Ballads to the Burning Twins (Eibonvale, 2014).   The quotation above is from one of their songs, "Migration of the Ancient Children" which is found at the end of this book.  The Deathray Bradburys themselves are legendary, when at the end of August, 2000, they 
"along with 225 of their fanatical followers, disappeared from the face of the Earth as part of the fulfillment of a self-prescribed cosmic prophecy."
As explained in Animals of the Exodus, their quest was to
"fulfill a cosmic destiny of finding those who've suffered irreparable trauma, and taking them away from the place of their suffering to a distant Paradise: the binary star, Sirius."
 And indeed, in keeping thematically with past works by Zelenyj,  the world in these 70 or so pages of interlinked stories is indeed one filled with "irreparable trauma," and the paths taken by those who suffer who seek to find, again quoting from Ballads to the Burning Twins, "a place, far beyond all of this despair..."




The book begins with "Taking Karen Away," which unfolds under the "twin stars of Sirius"  with a horrendous act, the reverberations of which will later resurface in another story as one of the two people here will soon find herself hoping to find "a paradise among the stars."  "Celeste Had to Go Away" occurs ten years after the "initial disappearance" of the Deathray Bradburys, with the actual story beginning much earlier during "72 hours like lifetimes endured in Hell."  In "Some Saw the Fire Exodus," a boy watches as his sister and her boyfriend come to the culmination of their own particular path, knowing that one day he'll see her again.  Finally, in what is certainly the best of the four and most exquisitely written, "The Mayflies Want to Fly," a boy and his "goddess" teacher take a roadtrip toward "That bright pair" of stars in the east, "in case they're good places."  My advice: read each story slowly and carefully -- the links will emerge without having to look for them --  and consider the book as a whole even though it is divided into short stories. 

Anyone who has had the pleasure to have read anything by this author will feel the same emotional gutpunch as before; here he offers such an incredible depth of not just feeling but the very real sense of a broken world  in the very short span of less than 70 pages. Some authors take forever to build that sort of reality in their fictional universes; that is not the case here at all.   Also, like most of the best books I read, there is absolutely no denying that Animals of the Exodus is beyond relevant to our own times.   As I've said before, Mr. Zelenyj really gets it; he's such a brilliant writer that I'd read absolutely anything he writes in the future. 

I loved this book; it will not be for everyone but it cannot fail to touch more sensitive souls like myself. 


*****
My very special thanks once again to the most excellent people at Eibonvale.  It was such a great, smile-producing surprise to have discovered it a few months back in my mail.  And please,  more of the Deathray Bradburys!! 

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.