Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Slade House, by David Mitchell


Random House, 2015
238 pp


"Proper X-File, this is..."

I had absolutely no idea what I would be letting myself in for with this novel, nor had I even planned to throw it into the October mix.  Someone in one of my goodreads groups had just finished the book and really liked it, describing it as a haunted house novel, so I decided I'd dust it off and read it.   My bad for letting sit on my shelves gathering dust for five years, because I really had great fun with it.  

Slade House started out as a Twitter story entitled The Right Sort in 2014, and according to the author it "asked more questions than it answered," so he "re-translated it out of Twitterese and into English."  The basic premise of this story, as the back-cover blurb notes, is that every nine years, 
"the residents of Slade House extend an invitation to someone who's different or lonely..."

 and the true question to be answered here is this: "But what really goes on inside?"

The house itself is located off an alley, and one must go through a "small black iron door" set in a brick wall to enter the grounds.  In a nutshell (because to tell is definitely to spoil), over the thirty-six year period during which this novel takes place, a number of different people find the mysterious door, make their way through and are never seen again.  While they are inside, each person finds himself/herself  in the midst of something unique and caught up in an experience specifically tailored for each indivual  -- the teenager, Nathan Bishop, for example, has been invited to come along with his mom Rita who has been invited to Slade House by a certain Lady Grayer  to attend a  musical soirée along with other guests including Yehudi Menuhin.  Then there's the cop who after nine years comes to investigate the Bishops' last known location and meets up with the present owner of the place. Or as just one more example,  Sally Timms, who accompanies a small group of fellow Paranormal Society friends who had planned to investigate the  house but  find themselves invited to a crazy party going on inside.  Each character provides his or her own firsthand narrative of his or her own experiences, allowing for more of a sense of immediacy to the novel, which heightens the chills and the creep factor all the way through.  Giving the book even more of an eerie edge are the ties between past and present that link together everyone who has entered Slade House.  Characters reappear in others' experiences, playing a role in some way or another, and with each successive visitor, we also get closer to what exactly is going on at the heart of it all.  

inside of Slade House, from the cover inset. Blurry, so it's obviously my photo. 

Some readers have found the continual firsthand narratives to be "tedious" after a while, what I call a sort of lather-rinse-repeat format,  but I didn't at all -- with each chapter I braced myself for what could possibly come next, and there was even one that fooled me completely, prompting a huge out-loud gasp and a "holy s**t"  when I tumbled to what was going on.  Each character has a distinct life, a distinct background and his or her own voice; in reading their stories, it was easy to see that the author spent quite a lot of time on the people in this book, getting into their somewhat damaged psyches and fleshing them out with the most human of qualities, and as time moved on, so did worldly concerns outside of Slade House.   My only complaint about the book is that there seemed to be bits of expository overload here and there when I just wanted to move on with things , and that's really just a minor niggle in the face of what is a most delightfully-absorbing, sinister, haunting and mysterious story. Any writer who can toss in a trove of old tropes  into one novel, blend them together and make them come out as a rollicking good read and not same old same old tired certainly gets my vote. 

A  heads up to potential readers:  while  not particularly necessary, it might be a good idea to have read Mitchell's The Bone Clocks prior to reading Slade House.  I didn't, but having just read a synopsis of The Bone Clocks earlier (knowing that this book was somehow related), the last chapter made much more sense; I also just discovered  that this book is just one more in the "vast shared universe"  in his other works.   The bottom line is that it probably won't really matter too much here -- curl up, grab your favorite tea, and just have fun with it. 

Friday, October 9, 2020

Into the London Fog: Eerie Tales From the Weird City (ed.) Elizabeth Dearnley


British Library Publishing, 2020
319 pp


The British Library Tales of the Weird series is back again with several new titles (yay!).  I love these books,  so I'm always excited when one lands at my door.  

In her introduction,  editor Elizabeth Dearnley  notes that in the years following the  Clean Air Act of 1956, "true London fog" had disappeared.  The stories and essays in this book range from 1868 to 1957, "all written within the decades when London was at its foggiest..."  She also presents a unique method of ordering her lineup, arranging the stories as a sort of literary tour  of London,  inviting readers to "take a closer look at some the more uncanny corners of the city."  The first story is set in Temple, with the final entry taking us to Peckham.   It's quite clever, actually, although not being a Londoner myself, I had to have a map of the city to refer to while going from story to story. 

An unusual, and now that I think about it,  unsurprising  thing happened to me with this book -- aside from the five nonfiction entries, I found that I had read all but one of the stories included here, Rhoda Broughton's "The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth" (1868).  I knew that would happen at some point, as I tend to spend quite a bit of time reading ghostly/supernatural tales from yesteryear, especially those written by women.  Out of the nine fictional tales in this anthology, seven of these stories are from female authors; of those seven,  four are Victorian-era writers whose collected works are a large part of my home library.  It's okay though,  because aside from missing that feeling of joy derived from finding someone new to explore, the editor chose some of my personal favorites, Victorian and later.  The two male writers, EF Benson and especially Arthur Machen,   have also provided me with hours and hours of great reading in the past.

my photo, my book, published by Anchor Books, 2006

Speaking of favorites, Elizabeth Bowen's "The Demon Lover" (1945) gets my vote in this book.  John Banville wrote of her wartime stories that 
"the city becomes an ethereal, haunted place, unhuman, otherworldly, where people move about in a fevered, dreamlike state." 

Given that Banville's description  of  Bowen's wartime London aligns so closely  with Dearnley's vision for this collection,  I'm not surprised that "The Demon Lover" is included in this book.  What's great about this story  is that it works on different levels; if, however, you only give it a supernatural meaning, you miss something even darker underneath.  Mrs. Drover's "first scream" has haunted me for years.  This is not just a good story -- it is a great story.  

Now to the one story I hadn't read,  Rhoda Broughton's "The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth."   This one is her first ghost story, written in 1868 as a series of letters between two women friends, Elizabeth and Cecilia. Elizabeth has found a London house for Cecilia and her family in Mayfair after an exhausting search, with the price an absolute steal. It's not until a few weeks later that Cecilia learns something about the house and informs her husband, but as a typical male knowing better than his wife, he "pooh-poohed the whole story," and "derided" her "babyish fears." Little does he know.  I have to say that I loved the male humbling in this story, in which the actual terror comes only at the very end, while in the meantime, Broughton does a fine job of escalating the tension.  

The other stories in this book are as follows: 

-- "The Telegram," by Violet Hunt (1911)
-- "The Seance Room," by Lettice Galbraith (1893)
-- "N," by Arthur Machen (1934)
--"The Lodger," by Marie Belloc Lowndes (not the novel but the short story first appearing in McClure's, 1911)
-- "The Mystery of the Semi-Detached," by Edith Nesbit (1893)"
--"The Old House in Vauxhall Walk," by Charlotte Riddell (1882) 
-- "The Chippendale Mirror," by EF Benson (1915)

As part of  Into the London Fog, the editor has chosen to add in five pieces from various authors who have both experienced and written about the foggy city, another factor making this volume a bit different from the norm of this series.  At first, I was sort of  like "what the ... ?" because "eerie" must be in the eye in the beholder and I didn't particularly find any of the four to be so;  they were nonfiction, which completely threw me, and finally here I am, having made my way through four ghostly tales and then I run into Thomas Burke's "War" extracted from London In My Time, followed by thirty pages of Virginia Woolf and Claude McKay, completely distrupting the reading flow  until returning to the supernatural with Machen's "N" and the psychologically creepy "The Lodger. " Then it's back to Sam Selvon and more nonfiction before three more other-worldly tales, and by the time I'd  reached the article written about "Spring-Heeled Jack," my reading rhythm was just completely off. 

Don't get me wrong: these little glimpses that offer "further constructions of the city and how it was experienced, showing the potential for strangeness in the most mundane urban encounters"

"War, an extract from London In My Time"  by Thomas Burke
"Street Haunting" by Virginia Woolf
"Pugilist vs. Poet, an extract from A Long Way From Home," by Claude McKay
"My Girl and the City," by Sam Selvon

were fine in their own right, informative, and very well written -- my complaint is that having them tossed into the midst of the fictional stories threw me off balance readingwise.  Perhaps a better way to introduce them would have been to have them all grouped together at the end of the fictional tales; I know I would have enjoyed the book a lot more had that been the case.  

Overall, though, it is a good anthology, perhaps not the best in the series, but  another fine volume of the British Library's Tales of the Weird to add to the growing number of these books on my shelves.  

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

And My Head Exploded: Tales of Desire, Delirium and Decadence from Fin-de-Siecle Prague (ed.) Michael Tate


Jantar Publishing, 2018
translated by Geoffrey Chew
204 pp


"... liberation is to be found solely when reality is abandoned and when everything that has constricted us hitherto is left behind." 
                     -- Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic,  "The Legend of Simon Magus." 

Some time back I read and loved Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic's A Gothic Soul (Twisted Spoon Press, 2016; originally published in 1900) and searching for more of his work online, I came across And My Head Exploded, which contains one story by this author.   Buy button clicked. 

The truth is that I know little to nothing about Czech decadence or Czech fiction in general.  The introduction by Professor Peter Zusi  helped a bit, as he explained that  "the international reputation of Czech literature stands under the shadow" of "the best known and most influential work of Czech modernist literature," The Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk (1923) by Jaroslav Hašek, as well as the work produced by writers of " 'dissidence' against the Communist regime in the second half of the twentieth century."   The stories in  And My Head Exploded  are representative of "another" Czech literature which has been "remarkably absent from the consciousness of English-language readers of Central European literature" ranging in date from 1892 to 1917.   He refers to it as ambiguous, unsettling, and "at times ... more grotesque," descriptors that are very much reflective of the work found in this volume, which is imbued with shades of gothic, horror, and the weird as well.  

I've always felt that the opening story in any anthology or collection should not only whet the appetite for what will follow, but also offer the reader an idea of what to expect thematically. The first story,  Julius Zeyer's "Inultus: A Prague Legend" (1892) meets both of those criteria.  This story  is a blending of art, aestheticism, myth, death and a femme fatale sort of figure, along with an added religious/nationalistic dimension that enhances this tale of "bloodthirsty madness."  It begins with a chance meeting between a poor poet and a sculptress who is trying to create a sculpture of Christ; eventually and reluctantly he agrees to serve as  her model.  His face, though "beautiful and melancholy" isn't quite enough for her as she desires something more.   Zeyer also has another story in this book, "El Cristo de la Luz: A Toledo Legend" the story of  a zealous, would-be murderer who has a rather unexpected mystical union with Christ. After reading these two, which are part of a tryptich called Tři legendy o krucifixu (1895),  I decided I would really like to read more of Zeyer but there seems to be little of his work published in English, and a book I would like to have about him, Julius Zeyer: The Path To Decadence by Robert Pynsent,  is long out of print with used copies selling in the three figures.  Yikes. 

Following Zeyer are two stories by Bozena Benešová, another writer who is woefully untranslated as well as the sole woman writer represented here.   The "Biographical Notes" section  describes her prose as 

"anti-sentimental and psychological, dealing with women's issues, typically from the point of view of a marginalized female protagonist"

all of which are reflected in her "Tale for All Souls' Day" (1902) and "In the Twilight" (1900).  The first  takes place over five days in October and is related through the point of view of a woman in mourning.  She has four months left to go until the end of her "imprisonment"  so that she can go "out into the world, for the sun, for life, for love."  After all, social convention requires that the "year of mourning must run up to its last minutes."  It is from this story that the book's title is derived, as she recounts the crumbling of her brain, her  steps toward regrowing , and the moment when, as she says, "straight away my head exploded."  More overtly  critical in nature, her second story finds a woman "wholly overcome with pain and sorrow ... so long suppressed" finding herself letting it all "burst out in full force."  

Judith in the Tent of Holofernes,
by Johann Liss.  From The National Gallery

My hands-down favorite in this volume is "Cortigiana" by Miloš Marten.  Here, as in Zeyer's work, art and death come together in the story of Isotta, a beautiful scholar of Plotinus from childhood and now a courtesan in plague-ridden Florence.  She has discovered a way of "taking her revenge from life for its fradulence," and after one such moment, decides to "pursue the caustic fire that was penetrating her," taking her cue from the story of Sardanapalus in one final, fatal act of revelry. I couldn't help but think of Poe as reading this one, but there's more than a touch of the vampiric as well.  

The Death of Sardanapalus
from Wikipedia 

Two stories by Arthur Breisky are up next, "Prose Poem, After Felicien Rops, Mors Syphilitica," and "Confession of a Graphomaniac" (1909).  Translator Geoffrey Chew notes that Breisky "appended" both of these tales to his translation of The Suicide Club by Robert Louis Stevenson, adding a fake "translator's note" to the first.  In "Prose Poem" the Knight of Death pays a visit to a man stricken with syphillis in order to propose a deal.  The second story  is far darker, involving a narcissistic narrator relating a tale of incest, love, madness, betrayal and a mother who could be a stand in for Salome. I'll admit to having a good laugh at the end of   Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic's "The Legend of Simon Magus" (1911), about which I'll say nothing here.  

The two stories closing out this anthology, "My Travelling Companion" (1912) by František Gellner and Richard Weiner's 1917 story "The Empty Chair: An Analysis of an Unwritten Tale" are very different in tone from those that have come before.  The first involves a man with a passion for travelling who takes on a companion "renowned for his ill-bred behaviour"  as he makes his way to Bavaria and the "Alpine countries." I had to give some extra thought to Weiner's masterful and very well-crafted tale, in which a writer has come up with a title for his work, "The Empty Chair," but the "story has never actually been written."  He plans to lay out the circumstances for why this is so, but something happens as he explains what he considers to be his failure. Watch carefully what happens as he does this.   I'd love to share more, but that would ruin an otherwise excellent story. 

For someone like me unable to read the works of these writers in their native language, the publication of And My Head Exploded is a hugely-welcome addition to my reading repertoire. There's just something exciting  about knowing that there are all of these yet untapped, untranslated works out there waiting to be read and appreciated, especially  more Czech fiction in the vein of  Professor Zusi's  "another literature," and I'm sure this book represented only a small sampling.  I will say that as I looked up these authors online, it started to become important to me to know more about the times in which these stories were written  to provide some sort of context (for example, women's writing/women's issues  of the time) which is omitted here, but that's about the only complaint I can muster.  

Very highly recommended and oh, what a pleasure to read! 

Thursday, October 1, 2020

There is a Graveyard That Dwells in Man (ed.) David Tibet

"...when men say that there are strange things in the world, they little know the awe and the terror  that dwell always with them and about them."
                                                                                   -- Arthur Machen, "The Inmost Light"

It's like forever since I posted here last, thanks to the books that were on this year's Booker International longlist and a deep dive into James Ellroy's LA Quartet, but really, there's nowhere I'd rather be than in the reading realm of the strange.  It's October now, so that won't be difficult to manage.  

My latest read is an excellent anthology of short stories edited by David Tibet, There is a Graveyard That Dwells in Man. Some time ago I'd read his The Moons at Your Door and have been waiting impatiently for this book ever since.  I was not disappointed -- this collection more than delivered, something I don't generally say about most anthologies I read, and I don't think that it's an understatement at all to say that if any book will get you in the October/Halloween frame of mind, it's this one.   The completely unnerving, the weird, the ghostly,  the horrific, the familiar and the forgotten all come together here, making for hours of unsettling reading.  

Strange Attractor Press, 2020
440 pp

The full table of contents is here, and of these twenty-three stories I was delighted to have discovered eleven that I hadn't previously read, but the joy didn't stop there.  Rereading the other twelve became far more than a refresher -- in some cases casting a new eye made for a completely different reading experience.  To offer only two examples of many,  this time around it dawned on me that Walter de la Mare's "Seaton's Aunt" gave off more than just a little bit of an Aickman vibe  and EF Benson's "The Room in the Tower" took on much more of vampiric tone for me than I had originally noticed.    There were actually many of these moments, so anyone inclined to skip the familiar might want to do a rethink.  Adding to these two, the  list of my "already-reads" as I call them still managed to produce chills yet again:   "The Death Mask" by HD Everett, "The Slype House" by AC Benson, "The Shrine of Death" by Lady Dilke, The Inmost Light" by Arthur Machen, "The Beckoning Fair One" by Oliver Onions, "The Sweeper," by A.M. Burrage,  "The Other Wing" by Algernon Blackwood,  "Afterward," by Edith Wharton, "The Watcher," by RH Benson and last but not least, "The Yellow Wallpaper," by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.  

from Pinterest

This book is described at Strange Attractor's website as offering an "unnerving, serpentine tributary to the canon of supernatural literature,"  and I can attest that  "unnerving" in some cases is a mild descriptor.   Of those stories I hadn't read until now, L.A Lewis' "Last Keep," Thomas Ligotti's "The Small People," and Nugent Barker's "One, Two, Buckle My Shoe" so creeped me out that a) I woke up in a sweat one night after dreaming about Ligotti's story, b) I had to put the book down for some time after sitting and thinking about "Last Keep" which is absolutely evil, and c) at midday I had scared myself absolutely silly after finishing the Barker story.  All three of these tales were not only unnerving but downright chilling once I pondered the ramifications, but they also satiated my hunger for the off-kilter, uneasy feeling that I crave as I read.  They all go way beyond the boundary of simply a good scare to becoming so unforgettable to the point of swirling around in the brain long after finishing them.

from Tim Hill,  Pixabay 

Also falling into the strange zone are  "Paymon's Trio" by Colette de Curzon and "Liszt's Concerto Pathétique" by Edna W. Underwood,  both of which share a musical theme, but couldn't be  more different.  The first is somewhat subdued initially before it becomes a dark tale involving the call of the forbidden, while the second explores the question of 

"what vague but mentally potent beings dwell on the border line separating the real from the unreal, floating up perhaps from unthinkable depths of time and space, there to await the propitious moment for tapping some nerve of consciousness in us and establishing telegraphic communication with the soul?"

Underwood's tale is short, frightening and so beautifully written. In  "Padolo," set on a small, uninhabited island near Venice, author  LP Hartley may economize on words, but even though left somewhat unspoken, not on terror.   "Brickett Bottom" by Amyas Northcote and "A Black Solitude" by H.R. Wakefield move into more ghostly territory, while Wakefield's  "Present at the End" finds a man ridding himself of the demons that plague him.   There's also a dark poem by John Gower, "Slep Hath His Haus," which I had great fun reading out loud (it's in Old English), and a story by Richard Middleton, "The Bird in the Garden,"  in which a veil hangs about a child "which served to make all things dim and unreal,"  with the true horror coming when that veil is lifted. Oh. Gutwrenching. 

In my reading, there were two different times I found quotations that I thought so nicely expressed what I saw in all of these stories.  First from A.C. Benson's "The Slype House" comes the idea that 

"Oh, it is as appears; he hath been where he ought not, and he hath seen somewhat he doth not like"

followed later by the words of Arthur Machen in "The Inmost Light" in which says 

"...when men say that there are strange things in the world, they little know the awe and the terror that dwell always with them and about them."

I was so sorry to see this book end -- the choices of stories that David Tibet made to fill this volume are outstanding.  Do not miss his opening piece  "A Rainbow Rag to an Astral Bull," where he explains his idea of "the Graveyard," and be sure to read author Mark Valentine's "Biographical Notes" that close this volume.  

So very, very highly recommended, for lovers of the supernatural, the weird, and the forgotten.  

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Dabbling With Diabelli, by D.F. Lewis

Eibonvale, 2020
277 pp


"...human histories and emotions could never be encompassed by one person. You needed different viewpoints ... to obtain as true a picture as possible." 

On page 225 I found the perfect words to describe the content of this book, as these thirty stories take both characters and reader into

"... an alternate world beyond fiction itself into a realm that was even realler than reality..."

with the power to leave the reader shaken, unsettled, thrown off kilter and majorly disturbed. That was my experience anyway -- more than once I found myself having to put this book down before starting it again as I stopped to think about what I'd just read and then to regroup.  Here the space between writer and the reader tends to shrink or fold in on itself, making for a jolting reading experience.  That is a positive thing, as it is becoming ever more rare readingwise in my case these days, and it is what I look for in a well-written collection of weird stories, which Dabbling With Diabelli most certainly is.

Because there are thirty of them, and because of the involvement on the part of the reader, I won't be going through any of these stories in detail, but I will say that throughout this collection, what starts out as ordinary quickly moves into what I can only describe as fringe territory as the weirdness slowly moves in.   A visit to a fair or to a museum, for example,  are normal activities for most people, as is a trip to the seaside or a boat trip down a river,  but it soon becomes apparent that the author has other things in mind.  Unexpected shifting points of view startle and jar any hint of reader complacency.    Dreamers dream other people's dreams.  Time moves in and out of sync in many cases or has no meaning in others.  Unexpected others pop up.  Stories shift gears out of nowhere.  Benign objects become symbols with particular meaning to the observer.   The characters meander through "mental spaces" as they look back, reflect, reminisce, engage in their respective nostalgias,  dream or write of their lives.

In sitting down to read Dabbling With Diabelli, be warned:  the reader becomes a "full-blooded stalker" and "real participant" in this "experiment in the human art of fiction, " and  I found that as such, some mental-rebalancing time was necessary after reading a few stories, or in some cases, after only one.    Having said that however,  my humble reader's gut feeling is that we're meant to be, as the author says in one of these tales,
"cohering the disparate widepread elements into a composite whole; gaining an organic gestalt of plot from the broadcast kaleidoscope of printed appearances,"
 with an eye to examining our own often illogical, absurd and fully human selves and the world in which we live  through this collection of "human histories and emotions."

The stories in this book highlight the author's offbeat (verging on the avant-garde), often-hallucinatory prose style, which invites you in and then often  leaves you scrambling for sanity.  That is not something I say idly -- it's days later and I'm still caught up in the mental wake left behind after reading.   It is a book not to be missed by readers of the weird -- this is my first experience with D.F. Lewis, but I can easily see that the author is a genuine master of this territory.

Close encounters indeed.

My many thanks once again to Alice and to David Rix at Eibonvale for my copy.  I loved every second of it. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Del Rey, 2020
298 pp


"We thought monsters and ghosts were found in books, but they're real, you know?"

 It was actually the blurb that led me to preorder this novel eons ago:

"After receiving a frantic letter from her newlywed cousin, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside, unsure what she will find. Noemí is an unlikely rescuer: She's a glamourous debutante, more suited to cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing. But she's also tough, smart, and not afraid: not of her cousin's new English husband, a stranger who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who seems fascinated by Noemí, and not even of the house itself, which begins to unearth stories of violence and madness ... there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place, as Noemí discovers when she begins to unearth stories of violence and madness," 
and the clincher was the back-cover blurb from author Yangsze Choo which noted that "Readers who love old houses and family secrets will devour this book..."  Oh, that is so me.

Very briefly, because here to tell is to definitely spoil, we're in Mexico in the early 1950s, and when Noemí Taboada's  father receives a letter from his niece Catalina, he becomes alarmed and consults his daughter. He's convinced after reading it that Catalina needs psychiatric help because of her insistence that she is being poisoned, and that "they" will not let her go. She also mentions seeing the "restless dead, these ghosts," and "fleshless things," and begs Noemí to rescue her, "For God's sake," because she cannot save herself.     He wants Noemí to go to Catalina and try to decide whether or not Catalina neeeds to be moved to Mexico City and to convince her husband Virgil that it would be the smart thing to do if that is the case.   In return, he will allow his somewhat "flighty" and spoiled (but hugely intelligent) daughter  to enroll at the National University to study anthropology (which her dad had deemed "waste of time and unsuitable," an offer she couldn't refuse.  At the same time, she wants to succeed in this mission to make a point to her father.

Her arrival at the rather isolated house known as High Place, "an old house atop a hill, with mist and moonlight, like an etching out of a Gothic novel," was not met with the warmest of welcomes by the Doyle family.  People in the house insist on quiet, even at dinner where the rare family meals are generally eaten in complete silence, an atmosphere Noemí likens to "a dress lined with lead."  Her first visit with the once vibrant Catalina, whom she finds somewhat fragile and not herself, is short and controlled by Florence, the niece of the head of the Doyle household, but when they next meet, Catalina reveals that the walls talk to her.  She warns Noemí that there are "ghosts" and that she'll "see them eventually."  It doesn't take long for Catalina's warning to become reality -- first come strange dreams, then visions of a woman "in a dress in yellowed antique lace," which intensify as time goes on, followed by sleepwalking before things get even stranger and become even more grotesque.  Aside from Catalina, her only friend at High Place is Virgil's younger brother Francis, who tells her that "it's the house" that has made Catalina so miserable and that Noemí needs to leave.  She will absolutely not go without her cousin, but once she realizes the secrets that High Place holds, it may be too late.

I made the mistake of starting Mexican Gothic at about 10 p.m. a few nights ago; needless to say I finished it in one sitting which meant another sleepless night.   Nearly every Gothic trope there is can be found here, which made for quick turning of pages.  Regular readers of Gothic novels will pick them up, and will also notice that into the familiar structure the author has woven quite a bit of social commentary, bringing out issues of class, race, inequality, and most especially the vulnerability of many women at this time, who for one reason or another find themselves trapped.   As it happens, women in 1950s Mexico didn't even have the right to vote, and married women were largely under the control of their husbands;  Mexican Gothic reveals the underlying strength that women command when it comes down to survival.

The combination of ever-mounting suspense, the creepy, gloomy atmosphere, the sheer villainy and the concern for the main characters that made me want to go to the end at one point to make sure things came out okay (I didn't) that kept me flipping pages should have made me love this book, but I had some issues.  The day after finishing the novel, I read a review at Kirkus that kind of summed it up:
"Fans of gothic classics like Rebecca will be enthralled as long as they don't mind a heaping dose of all-out horror." 
While I love weird fiction and ghost stories, "a heaping dose of all-out horror" isn't quite my thing, which is what this story turned out to be.  Even then,  I might have been willing to overlook it had it not also been for the fact that long before we got to the horror elements I had figured out the main elements of the central plot around which this novel is built. (And just as an aside here, Mexican Gothic is not at all Du Maurier's Rebecca -- don't go there.)  The basic meat and bones of what was to come were sort of telegraphed very, very early on; I even marked the spot and wrote my ideas on a post-it I'd put on the page where I guessed what was going to happen.  Obviously, I couldn't have known everything, but I was so close to the mark that I ended up being somewhat disappointed.  I run into this phenomenon sometimes (usually in a mystery/crime novel),  and then all I can do is let the  story unfold, knowing what's going to happen and waiting for things to play out, and it does not make me a happy reader.

In this case, it was more that I loved the messages delivered here but wasn't a huge fan of the delivery.  I liked it, didn't love it, preferring the sort of puzzling strange stories that tend to leave me off-kilter, jittery and pondering rather than the "heaping dose of all-out horror" mentioned above.  However, everyone is LOVING this novel, so once again it's probably me.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Unholy Tales, by Tod Robbins

Tartarus Press, 2020
291 pp


I don't know what inspired the powers that be at Tartarus Press to put out this volume featuring stories written by Tod Robbins, but it was more than a great idea.  Megacheers to you.

Robbins' work may not be familiar to everyone (it certainly wasn't to me before reading Unholy Tales) but the 1932 film Freaks directed by Tod Browning, based on Robbins' short story "Spurs," is  a movie which is regarded "as a classic, or at least a cult favorite."   And speaking of movies, another Robbins story in this volume, The Unholy Three was made into two different film versions:  a silent (also directed by Browning) in 1925 and a 1930 remake which was, as Jeff Stafford notes at TCMLon Chaney's "talking picture debut, and ironically, what would prove to be his final film." 

After the in-depth, not-to-be-missed introduction "Tod Robbins: An Unholy Biography" by a very knowledgeable Jonny Mains,  Unholy Tales brings together  the above-mentioned "Spurs," as well as three of four stories from Robbins' 1920 collection Silent, White and Beautiful: "Silent, White and Beautiful," "Who Wants a Green Bottle?," and "Wild Wullie, The Waster."

original edition, from LW Currey

 Rounding it all off, pretty much the last half of this book is given over to The Unholy Three, published in 1917.

original 1917 edition, from

The Unholy Three is definitely the jewel in this crown.  It is an extraordinary piece of pulpy crime fiction with a supernatural-ish vibe.  I use the term "extraordinary," as I am huge fan of crime fiction from this era and have read (and continue to read) a wide variety of books filled with what I call sweet  pulpy goodness, but never have I come across anything like this story, which sets a new bar for me in that zone.  As with "Spurs,"  Robbins begins The Unholy Three at a circus,  where Tweedledee (in the movie described as "Twenty inches! Twenty years! Twenty pounds!") sits contemplating the day "Men would fear him! and he would read this fear in their eyes." It's his small body,
"this caricature that made him a laughing-stock for the mob to jibber at, that turned his solemnity of soul into a titbit of jest for others, his anger into merriment, his very violence into the mimicry of violence"
that keeps him from being "taken seriously."   But deep within his soul burns an "insatiable fire" that produces "scenes of violence" and visions of a "new transformed self" in which he would be feared, with an audience that would "tremble at his villainy." Along with his fellow circus friends Echo the ventriloquist and Hercules the strong man, he grabs his chance to turn his visions into a reality.  A word of advice: don't watch the movie and think you've read the book.  As much as I enjoyed both versions, neither holds a candle to the original text.

Harry Earles, from Freaks.  Earles also played Tweedledee in both versions of The Unholy Three. From IMDb.

Moving on ever so briefly (so as not to spoil)  to the short stories,  "Spurs" reminds me so much of the French contes cruels that I love.  As in Freaks, a circus love triangle is at the center of this story of revenge.  M. Jacques Courbé, a man of twenty-eight inches,  had fallen in love with Mlle. Jeanne Marie the bareback rider the first time he'd seen her act.  She, however, has eyes for the "Romeo in tights" Simon Lafleur, her partner, and views Courbé's attentions and utterances of love as a "colossal, corset-creaking joke. "  The wheels in her head begin to turn when  Jacques just happens to mention that he has been left a large estate and that he has plans to turn her into a "fine lady" if she will marry him.  Trust me on this one, she should have most definitely said no.   Not quite as grotesque as the fate of Venus in the film, but still beyond bone-chillingly horrific.   "Silent, White and Beautiful" also falls into the realm of the horrific, as an artist returns to France after a depressing attempt at a career in America, where his art fails to sell.  On his return he hits on a solution as to how to make his work as life-like as possible.  After a nonstop reading session of these two stories which open the book, I was very much ready for a wee bit of humor in  "Who Wants a Green Bottle?,"  which examines what happens to the soul of the Lockleavens after they've left this world.  I must say, this is one of the most ingenious and original wee folk stories I've ever read.  Last but definitely not least is "Wild Wullie, The Waster," which is also a story of death and the afterlife but with a twist (or two) I'd not encountered in other ghost stories.

The question that opens this book is this:
"How does an author fêted as equal in genius to Edgar Allan Poe disappear into relative obscurity?"
Unfortunately, that seems to be  very much the case with a number of writers of yesteryear whose work I admire.   Where Tod Robbins is concerned, though,  I've taken the first step onto  that "path to becoming a fervent worshipper of a deliciously twisted writer who knew how to keep his readers more than entertained" mentioned at the end of  Mains' introduction.  Two more books of Robbins work arrived yesterday, I bought and made time to watch all three films I mentioned above, and I am certainly recommending Unholy Tales to anyone who will listen.   Deliciously twisted writer indeed, and I can't get enough.