Monday, March 6, 2017

in which you, dear reader, must judge for yourself: The Statement of Stella Maberly, by F. Anstey

Valancourt Books, 2017
originally published 1896
171 pp


I am just in awe of the old, often forgotten books that Jay and Ryan, aka the Valancourt guys,  have decided to reintroduce into the modern reading world.  I haven't yet met a Valancourt book I didn't like, but this new release,  The Statement of Stella Maberly, is a book I absolutely loved, and I'm not exaggerating at all.  It has that wonderful ambiguity that I love in a novel, and I can honestly say that I can't remember reading anything quite like it.

When this book was first published back in 1896, the publisher, T. Fisher Unwin, decided to print it without crediting Anstey as the author. Instead, as Peter Merchant reveals  in his excellent introduction, it was released as The Statement of Stella Maberly, "written by herself," with different reviewers saying it should be read as a  "madness memoir," "a curious portrayal of the neurotic temperament," or an account of "a madwoman, who takes it into her head that an evil spirit is occupying her friend's body."  That all changed about six months later when Anstey was identified as the real author, at which point it could then be seen as "a carefully crafted thriller about demonic possession" or "based on a strong storyline idea suggested by the spirit world."

From somewhere in "a place of permanent confinement," Stella Maberly has "determined to make a full statement" of "circumstances" that led to her committing what she calls "an act that, in itself, would seem a crime deserving of nothing but condemnation."  Her memory has become "confused," so while she's lucid, she needs to get it all down, not just for herself but for those of us reading her statement.  Perhaps, she says, we will discover that once we know the facts, we might judge her to be "more to be pitied than blamed."  This is the setup for what turns out to be a most bizarre story, which as she also reveals, begins in Stella's childhood.

What follows is a strange, sometimes shocking account, and whether Stella should be "pitied" or "blamed" comes down to reader perspective.  The cover blurb reveals that Stella Maberly has been "forced" to make her own way in the world after her father's fortune is all but lost.  Stella writes an acquaintance about the possibility of acquiring a position as a governess, and to her surprise, she discovers that one of her old school friends, the lovely Evelyn Heseltine, has need of a companion. Evelyn, who suffers from a weak heart, hasn't been in the best of health, and has been abroad for a while. Now she's back, and  Stella takes the job.  For a while, everything is going quite nicely between the two young women, and Stella is beyond happy. But things change owing to circumstances which I won't reveal here, and one morning, eager to sit beside Evelyn and "wait until she awoke," Stella enters Evelyn's room, opens the curtains to "let in the light," and gets the first shock of the day:  when she sees Evelyn's face, she realizes that
"Nothing would wake her any more, no words of love and sorrow would ever reach her. She was dead."
The night before, she'd loaned Evelyn's aunt some chloral to help Evelyn sleep, and now Stella is wracked with guilt since chloral is not to be used for people with weak hearts, going so far as to  beseech God to "give me back my dead."  However, before she can "rouse the house," to let others know of Evelyn's death, she gets another shock --  Evelyn has come back to life. The surprises aren't quite over though, with the biggest one yet to come in the days that follow. It slowly begins to dawn on Stella that it is not
"...Evelyn's stainless soul that was gazing at me now through her eyes, but some evil, mocking spirit that my rash and blasphemous prayer had called to animate the form she had left."
The  events that follow set up the question asked on the cover blurb,
"Is Stella insane, or has a dark spirit actually taken possession of Evelyn's body?"
The Statement of Stella Maberly  is cleverly written, and as Mr. Merchant notes in the introduction, the book is nicely balanced, with the potential of becoming
"as much a Gothic encounter with embodied evil as a curious portrayal of the neurotic (or neurasthenic) temperament."
As I noted in my post title, it's really up to the reader to decide what's going on. While I have my own opinion as to what  the real story is here, I am not going to share, but instead let readers enjoy this excellent novel for themselves and make up their own minds.  I went through this book two times to explore these "competing possibilities," and the second time through, the story became a completely different experience. The devil, as they say, is in the details, and that is definitely the case here.  Reading it twice is something I would definitely recommend to anyone who decides to give it a try.

This short novel will certainly appeal to readers interested in Victorian fiction, to people who read "madness memoirs," and to lighter-fare horror readers interested in demonic possession. It may also appeal to some crime fiction readers as well.  Do not miss the texts that follow the story, and while the introduction is worth its weight in gold, it may be best to leave it until after finishing the book.

This book just may be my favorite Valancourt release yet, and considering how many I've read, well, that should speak volumes. Hats off!!!!

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

something to look forward to in April: An Ossuary of the North Lagoon and Other Stories, by Frederick Rolfe Baron Corvo

Snuggly Books, 2017
108 pp


I'd heard of Frederick Rolfe (aka Baron Corvo) before reading this book, but until Anna sent me a copy of An Ossuary of the North Lagoon and Other Stories (thanks!), I'd never actually read anything he'd written.  After reading this one, though, I'm now hooked -- I picked up his Stories Toto Told Me and  I already have his Hadrian VII. 

Jason Rolfe, who introduces this collection of Corvo's short stories, notes that his work "foreshadowed the Modernist movement that would eventually define 20th Century literature," and yet while serving as a precursor,
"his writing held to its deeply rooted Decadent themes, blending 19th Century aestheticism with 20th Century introspection in unique and highly intelligent ways."
After two times through Ossuary of the North Lagoon, I'd have to say that I completely concur with this assessment -- and, aside from my happiness in finding another writer of this period,  the book itself  is a genuine pleasure to read.  There was more than one story that gave me a case of the giggles;  Corvo's personality and sexuality is writ large on these pages and the innuendo is often hot and heavy.  And then of course, there's the writing -- pointed barbs at his enemies (to which I will return momentarily), a knack for settling the reader into the time and place in which his stories are set, and beautiful description, especially when we're taken along the canals of Venice by barcheta.   Mostly though, from what I've read about him, this book is filled with stories that reveal quite a lot about Corvo himself and his rather odd worldview.

The three tales from Venice  (1913): "An Ossuary of the North Lagoon," "On Cascading into the Canal" and "Venetian Courtesy" open the book, followed by what has to be an experimental piece, "The Tattooed Wedding Ring" from 1897.  To be honest, it was a bit difficult to simultaneously keep up on the patterns in the writing and focus on the story itself.  The second time through it was much easier, but prepare to spend a bit of time on this one.  It's a good story -- just a tad difficult to read.  Next up comes "The Armed Hands" from "Circa" 1906 -- this one is a mind blower as the author once again puts himself into his tale not just as the narrator, but also as an object of the narrator's interest.. Another bit of honesty  -- I didn't catch on the first time through to what Corvo was doing in this story, but before coming back to it the second time, I read through  AJA Symons' The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography,  (NYRB, 2001), and without even discussing the story itself, Symons' recounting of a particular piece of jewelry that Corvo always wore set off the light bulb over my head when I picked up Ossuary of the NorthLagoon the second time.  Following that one, there are two stories that close the book, "The Princess's Shirts," which plays off an image of the boyish St. Sebastian (look here to get an idea in one of Corvo's photographs)   and "Deinon to Thely" which likely reflects Corvo's own, as one writer put it,  "defiant impiety against Catholic Church officialdom."

from Withnail Books, October 2013

From what I understand, the pointed barbs I mentioned earlier show up in a lot of Corvo's work.  The chance to strike out at those whom Corvo felt had wronged him evidently became a regular part of his writing.   As just one example, he had become friends with Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson, an author  who was one of Corvo's benefactors for a while.  After some time Benson had decided not to deal professionally with Corvo any longer, and had left a less than sterling depiction of Corvo in his novel The Sentimentalists. For his trouble, he shows up as "The Reverend Bobugo Bonsen" in one of Corvo's novels.  In Ossuary of the North Lagoon, another real-life benefactor he labels as "The Professor of Greek" is pilloried. This seems to have been Rolfe's pattern -- the writer at the blog Short Story Review  notes that almost all of Rolfe's benefactors would be "rewarded with deranged suspicion and histrionic abuse." He also notes that
"The twist to Rolfe's character, and the riddle for us is this: he seemed plausibly a brilliant writer, which persuaded many wealthy benefactors to give their money to a maniac, but deep beneath his mania he was implausibly a brilliant writer."
And from what I've experienced while reading this book, I'd have to concur.

Frederick Rolfe/Baron Corvo is a writer I'll be revisiting, and I have to applaud Snuggly for putting this collection into print. My only suggestion would be that it's worthwhile reading something about Rolfe's life before settling down with this book -- so many things in this book are made clearer once you have a little knowledge about this most fascinatingly-strange man under your belt. I can honestly say I've never read anything like this.  And frankly, I loved it.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Haunting Women: Chilling Stories of Horror by Fourteen Acclaimed Women Writers, (ed.) Alan Ryan

Avon Books, 1988
210 pp

mass market paperback

another January read that I'm just getting to, but whatever. There are fourteen stories in this book, and while most are definitely "chilling," here it's also all about the writing.

The editor's introduction, which gives nothing away as far as content is well worth reading before launching into the book itself.  Here, Ryan posits an interesting question:  given the fact that these stories are all written by women, he wonders if these stories are "different from the horror stories written by men."  His answer -- yes, "in some ways," they are.  How so, one might ask, and his answer would be that for one thing,
"For years in the past ... magazines were filled with 'wife-killer' stories written by men. The other side of the picture is represented here by three stories from earlier in the century, those by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, May Sinclair, and Ellen Glasgow.  Rosemary Timperley's story brings a more contemporary  view to the subject."
His observation is spot on -- May Sinclair's "The Villa Desirée," for example, written in 1926, is the story of a young woman who has become engaged to a man who is, on the outside anyway, absolutely perfect and just too damn good to be true.  But we know better and eventually so does the heroine of this story, just in the nick of time.

Another thing Ryan notes is that
"... many of these stories reflect a very strong concern for the sanctity of the home and the safety of children,"
again, spot on. Take Shirley Jackson's entry here, "The Renegade," which may not be as horrific as many of her other short stories,  but "The Renegade" reflects her recurring themes of isolation and paranoia once a family leaves its safe, familiar environment and as Ryan says, it's the woman here who is "trying to keep her sanity amid swirling domestic horrors."

The fourteen stories are, in order, with no spoilers:

1. "The Renegade," by Shirley Jackson
2. "The Villa Desirée," by May Sinclair
3. "The House of the Famous Poet," by Muriel Spark -- what I will say about this one is that aspiring authors really might appreciate this one
4. "Loopy," by Ruth Rendell, which is my absolute favorite story in this entire collection and is just downright chilling, but not for any scenario ever imagined by a horror writer.  Nope, this one is frightening without the author having to pull any supernatural punches. More than frightening, it's beyond disturbing.
5. "The Yellow Wallpaper," by Charlotte Perkins Gilman -- which still kicks me in the gut even after I don't know how many readings because of the nature of its subject matter
6. "The Foghorn," by Gertrude Atherton.  Another one to send a frisson of horror up the spine, but not until the very end when it all clicks.
7. "The Ghost," by Mrs. Henry Wood -- oh! This is a good one! Sad, but well done.
8. "Simon's Wife," by Tanith Lee is also amazing in a very human sort of way;  another gutpuncher when all is said and done.
9. "Hell on Both Sides of the Gate," by Rosemary Timperley, which is seriously just plain disturbing on any level anyone can possibly imagine.
10. "The Shadowy Third," by Ellen Glasgow -- another startling entry here, oh dear god. If I were going to offer a course in the creepiest stories written by women, this one would definitely make my list. It's the psychology in this one that really matters.
11. Jean Rhys is represented nicely here with her "The Sound of the River," which is, as The Cambridge Introduction To Jean Rhys notes, based on the death of her second husband (95). If you know anything at all about the author, you know she's written some very powerful work and this one is no exception.
12. "Robbie" by Mary Danby is so well known that it's been reprinted in several anthologies. It still, for me, has the power to shock.
13. "Heartburn," by Hortense Calisher, is beyond weird, and like the other stories in this collection, what is has to say about human nature will stick with its reader for a long, long time. Shivers.
14. "The Cloak," by Inek Dinesen just plain knocked my socks off.  Holy crap.

I will say that by modern standards most of these tales may seem a bit tame, but really, they're anything but.  "Chilling" is less the adjective at play here than "disturbing," and that's on a very human level even though there are certainly supernatural overtones involved in many of these stories.  This one I highly recommend -- another really good one for wrapping oneself up in a blanket with cup of tea in hand.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Those Who Haunt Ghosts: A Century of Ghost Hunter Fiction, (ed.) Tim Prasil

Coachwhip Publications
459 pp
(read in January)

paperback - from the author, thanks!!!

"And you, my dear sir, ...would also do well not to play with things, the dark and terrible nature of which you are far from being aware of." -- 45

"It's grown rather dark now, and I've got the keys to the haunted house right here. Allow me to admit you. I hope that you enjoy your night -- and that, come morning, you'll be of sound mind and body. Alive, at the very least."   And with that word of warning at the end of the introduction to this book, we're off and running. I could almost hear that evil "bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha" laughter in my head as Prasil throws down that  challenge, and it definitely sets the tone for what's to come. 

 Editor Tim Prasil has spent what I'd say were likely countless hours "digging through nineteenth- and early twentieth-century supernatural literature" to find these tales and the ones that appeared earlier in his lovely collection Giving Up the Ghosts: Short-lived Occult Detective Stories.   In the introduction he reveals what he means by a "true ghost hunter," saying that it is 
"that brave soul who learns of a haunting across town or in a wing of a castle they're visiting, and who then very purposely investigates it."  (10)  
And that is most certainly the case with the stories in this volume, where the ghost hunters are either brave souls motivated by "curiosity" or "skepticism," or those who've been hired to investigate, then, of course,  there are tales of brave people, both men and women, who spend the night in a haunted location on a bet.

The opening story by an anonymous author "The Haunted Chamber" stems from 1823, while the final story is HP Lovecraft's  "The Shunned House," from 1928. These two bookend other works by a few more anonymous writers along with those who are much more well known among readers of old ghostly tales.  Just as a tiny sampler,  Edward Bulwer-Lytton has an entry here from 1859, Henry James makes an appearance with "The Ghostly Rental" from 1876 (excellent story, by the way),  and Prasil has included Ambrose Bierce's "A Fruitless Appearance" from 1888.  And anyone who's read Coachwhip's Shadows Gothic and Grotesque will recognize the name of Ralph Adams Cram, whose wonderful "No. 252 Rue M. Le Prince" (1895) also is included here.  To see the  full table of contents, you can follow this link to Tim Prasil's blog, The Merry Ghost Hunter; as I said earlier, there are 28 stories in this book, and I won't be giving away anything about any of them here.

from Pinterest

There are too many stories that I loved in this book to cull out a single favorite -- I'm such a sucker for this sort of thing, especially those ghostly yarns that take place in an old house or in a reputedly-haunted castle that I was very happy with all of them. And while one might think that an entire volume of tales that take place in various haunted locations would soon enough become same-old same-old, that doesn't happen here at all.  To his credit, Mr. Prasil has chosen a wide variety of stories in terms of place, hauntings, and the ghost hunters themselves;  there are a also number of tales here with surprise endings that I never saw coming.

I can't wait to see what's coming from Coachwhip next -- every time I pick up one of this publisher's books I'm off into my own little world and loving every second of being there.  Ghost- and haunted-house story aficionados do NOT want to miss this one at all.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Green Face, by Gustav Meyrink

Dedalus Books, 2004
originally published 1916
translated by Mike Mitchell
224 pp


This is one trippy book, and that's putting it mildly.  It is certainly classic Meyrink, though, and anyone who's read his The Golem would have to agree that the two books were definitely the work of the same person.  Once again turning to legend as a basis for his book, this time Meyrink uses the story of the Wandering Jew, and as in The Golem, he also incorporates several different sorts of esoteric and occult elements within the text.

Fortunatus Hauberrisser finds himself in Amsterdam.  Meyrink's Amsterdam is now "flooded with people of all nations," since the war was now over and people are there either hoping for "permanent refuge in the Netherlands," or they've made it a stopover while they consider where to go next.  Hauberriser finds himself going into a shop called Chidher Green's Hall of Riddles.  While waiting for the assistant to finish her phone call, he falls into "a deep sleep," after which he awakens and is spoken to by the old Jewish man who owns the shop. The old man had a face "like nothing he had ever seen before," with "eyes like dark chasms," and skin "a greenish olive colour." The face continues to haunt him long after he leaves the shop -- and  Hauberisser doesn't know it, but his sighting of this face will launch Hauberriser on a quest, not just to find the old man again as he wanders through Amsterdam, but also for the truth.  And, since it's Meyrink writing here, we know that his search will involve initiating Hauberriser and the other characters that he encounters into the journey to a higher plane of existence and spiritual knowledge.  However, there are major obstacles that Hauberriser and his fellow seekers will have to overcome before they can achieve their goals, none the least of which  is a Zulu bent on murder and destruction.

I'm sorry to keep comparing this book to The Golem, but it's really hard not to.  In both, elements of alchemy, Kabbalah, Buddhism, mysticism, and other esoteric beliefs find their way onto the pages; secret knowledge is given and the recurring idea is the way to transcendence of the physical self, and indeed of the physical world, while keeping one foot in both.  Here, though, a new element creeps into the story, a dark ending that is clearly a reflection of the anxieties of the time -- I mean, it is 1916; World War I is still going -- and the end, which many readers have noted as "apocalyptic" ... but I think I'll leave it there for now.

Meyrink's commentary on civilization is excellent here -- there's a scene that takes place in a "mixture of music-hall and restaurant" on Amsterdam's Nes that has Hauberriser shaking his head once the audience changes to "the same cosmopolitan would-be society" who have come to watch the most bizarre show.  Hauberisser is dumbfounded at what he witnesses both on stage and in the audience, noting that
"...a mask had been cast aside that had never concealed anything but intentional or unintentional hypocrisy, lack of vitality positing as virtue or ascetic monstrosities conceived in the mind of a monk!" 
He goes on to say that "a diseased organism" had been "taken for culture; now it had collapsed, laying bare the decay within."  And also, as one might expect at this time in history, Meyrink  tackles nationalism, demagoguery, and racism (although strangely, he does use a racial slur more than once to describe the Zulu so you've been warned).

Frankly, The Green Face isn't quite as good as The Golem, but I'd certainly rate it much higher than his The Angel at the West Window.  It's another novel that is NFE (not for everyone), but it's one I certainly recommend to anyone who is already of fan of Meyrink who may not have read this book yet.  It's another out-of-the-box read for people who enjoy pondering what they've just read, tailor made for someone like me.

for an awesome perspective on this novel, check out this blog post at Zen Throwdown. 

Monday, January 23, 2017

and now, once again from the realms of obscurity, I give you The Stuff of Dreams: The Weird Stories of Edward Lucas White

Dover Publications, 2016
213 pp


This may be a first for me --  a book completely composed of a number of the author's dreams, then put into written form "to get them out of his system."  Not all translate very well from the mind to the page, but for the most part, The Stuff of Dreams is a fun, compact collection of ten tales and two poems; it's a nice blending of the supernatural with a bit of the old, adventure-type pulp that I just love.  Ghosts, ghouls, and sorcerers (among other things) all make an appearance here, and it's not by chance that the word "weird" happens to be in the title.

Edward Lucas White (1866-1934) started writing in his teens, prior to becoming a student at Johns Hopkins University.  He left school for a year for medical reasons, then, upon returning in 1886, finished out his time there with a BA in Romance Languages in 1888.  He'd wanted to continue on with his studies through the PhD, but his father didn't have the money to fund his education.  In 1892, he got a job teaching Latin to Dartmouth freshmen; from there he went on to teach high school in Baltimore, retiring in 1934.  Most of his writing happened between 1905 and 1909, never really gaining commercial success for his short fiction or his poetry, but his very popular historical novels were "well received by critics and readers." Seven years after the death of his wife in 1927, White was constantly plagued with financial difficulties and he ended up committing suicide in 1934.  He's an author whose work is new to me, and I am quite happy to have discovered this collection of his work.

from Slattery's Horror Weblog
So now we get to the stories, which I just can't describe in any sort of depth without wrecking things.

In "The House of the Nightmare," a traveler finds himself stranded after a car wreck and forced to stay in an old, rundown house before being able to seek help.  This one has a bit of a twisted ending that I can honestly say I didn't see coming. It is followed by "The Flambeau Bracket," which has a macabre twist at the end.  Things start to pick up in the way of creep factor with "Amina," set in the inhospitable desert of Persia, where absolutely nothing is as it seems.  This is a good one.  The next tale is that of "The Message on the Slate," one of the jewels in this collection, which begins with a visit by a well-respected woman to a clairvoyant who is reluctant to take her on as a client, for very good reason, as it turns out.  "Lukundoo" is also quite good, a cautionary tale in which a smug, self-righteous explorer gets his comeuppance in an horrific sort of way.  That story is followed by "The Pig-Skin Belt," about a wealthy man whose paranoia no one really understands.   Another good one here is "The Song of the Sirens."  Another personal favorite, this not-so-brief story concerns the fates of a ship's crew, one not shared by the deaf mate, who lives to tell the tale, but ... 

the author's Lukundoo and OtherStories, 1927
"The Picture Puzzle" is up next and it's a doozie.  A lost child's absence from the home has destroyed her parents, who have never given up hope that she'd be found one day.  Trying to stay busy, to do anything at all to keep their minds off of their sadness, jigsaw puzzles become the parents' "salvation," especially one puzzle in particular. Not only is this one strange, but it's also quite poignant.  In "The Snout," some would-be home invaders after a fortune in diamonds find much more than they'd originally  bargained for.  The final story before the two poems "Azrael" and "The Ghoula" is "Sorcery Island," in which a man flying his airplane is confused by hallucinations and is forced to crash land on a private island, where he learns that the rich even have the power to buy men's souls. 

While I enjoyed reading this book, there is one big reader-beware thing I need to point out.  There is enough racial stereotyping and ethnic slurring going on here to make sensitive readers uncomfortable in our current times, but on the other hand, considering that White died in 1934, it's not at all surprising. 

Overall, it's a fun little volume and it's always a good day when I read work by an author of whom I've been previously unaware.  While it's not perfect, I do love the mix of strange/pulpy and strange/supernatural, and it certainly meets my need for discovering the obscure.  Recommended with the caveat mentioned above. 

when science goes completely mad: The Cadaver of Gideon Wyck, by Alexander Laing

Valancourt Books, 2016
originally published 1934
316 pp


William Hjortsberg's little back-cover blurb describes The Cadaver of Gideon Wyck as 
"part mystery novel, part Gothic mad scientist tale, part grotesque horror story..."
and the combination of all three of these descriptors was just too much for me to pass up.  What he doesn't tell you there is that it's also a crazy ride with a number of what I call WTF-did-I-just-read moments, some of which came back to haunt me one night while riding out a very high fever.  You haven't lived until you're already a bit delirious and little harnesses hanging from the shower find their way into your fever dreams along with a "series of monster babies," the repeated images of which I could have lived without.  Then again, none of that surprises me since the novel sort of crawled under my skin in a weird (but good) way.  

There's some pretty bizarre stuff going on at the Maine State College of Surgery, all of it capped off by the discovery of the dead Dr. Gideon Wyck, who had only recently gone missing.  Medical student David Saunders decides to investigate for himself in order to discover who in the small community may have wanted Wyck dead.  By the time we arrive at the discovery of Wyck's body, the number of people who have motive to kill the good doctor include a group of women who have recently given birth to severely deformed babies,  his own daughter, disgruntled medical students, a man whose arm Wyck amputated for no apparent reason and who now has gone over the mental edge,  and any number of others whose lives have been affected by Dr. Gideon Wyck. Saunders, who also works as secretary to the school's director,  has been keeping a diary of a number of strange occurrences , and finds himself in the unenviable position of being unable to trust anyone because he himself is also implicated in Wyck's death.

frontispiece, by Lynd Ward

While this all may sound like the description of a typical crime novel, The Cadaver of Gideon Wyck is actually anything but -- at its core is scientific experimentation, the very nature of which places this book firmly in the strange tales camp.  It appears on Karl Edward Wagner's list of favorite horror works under "Thirteen Best Science Fiction Horror Novels," which is a good way to describe this book, but there are other adjectives that also come to mind about it as well.   "Demented" is a word I've used more than once in trying to explain this story to people;  "out there" is also a good way to describe it, as is "crazytown."   It's also a book where bad science meets mad science, but since I have no intention of revealing any more about this story than I absolutely have to, I think that's about all that I should say about it except that it is truly one of the weirdest novels I've read in a very long while, which is not at all a bad thing.  Recommended -- not only is it bizarre, but it's also fun. Just don't read it while you have a fever.