Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Cornish Horrors: Tales from the Land's End (ed.) Joan Passey


British Library, 2021
365 pp


"Why not tell them of the Cornish horror ..."

Cornwall, editor Joan Passey reminds her readers in her introduction to this volume, is "not a fantasy land," but rather "real, and close, alternately viewed as the end of the land and its beginning," and her hope is that in reading this anthology, "thinking of Cornwall's rich lore, stories, and creative legacy" will  "serve to illuminate its realities than obscure them."  The history of Cornwall looms large throughout this book,  spectral and real, so that one cannot help but to encounter the past even in the present, as so many Victorian tourists evidently discovered.   As the back-cover blurb notes, the stories in this volume explore "the rich folklore and traditions of the regions in a journey through local mythology, mines, shipwrecks, the emergence of the railway and the rise of tourism."  The editor also takes a moment to introduce each story, explaining how these factors play out in the context of what the reader is about to encounter.  It is a unique way to look at what otherwise might be to some just some entertaining Gothic or ghostly tales, revealing that there is more to the story than what lies on the surface.  

My previous encounters with the stories in this book are limited to four out of the fifteen:  "Ligeia," by Edgar Allan Poe, "The Roll-Call of the Reef," by Arthur Quiller-Couch, "The Screaming Skull," by F. Marion Crawford (and by the way, don't bother to watch the 1958 film supposedly based on this story -- Crawford's version is great, but the movie absolutely stinks), and "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot," by Arthur Conan Doyle.  Moving on to those unread,   "My Father's Secret" written anonymously and published in All the Year Round in 1861, represents a "cultural exchange" between Brittany and Cornwall in the form of the story of the bisclavet, "the tale of the knight who, owing to some fearful but unexplained fatality, was compelled at certain times to assume the shape and nature of a wolf."  No knights here, but this story seems to have its roots in the idea of Cornwall as a "land of barbarous people and uncivilized behavior," as the author notes in the introduction, as well as its perceived isolation.  It's also beyond suspenseful.  Next up is "Cruel Coppinger," by Robert Stephen Hawker from 1866;   Hawker also wrote  "The Botathen Ghost," a popular and atmospheric ghost story set in the Cornish moors.  The action here focuses on a particular "legend of renown," Cruel Coppinger, who arrived during "a terrific hurricane," surviving an ensuing shipwreck after which he  took up a life as captain of "an organised band of desperadoes, smugglers, wreckers, and poachers."  Larger than life he is, indeed.  Of the next story, Mary E. Braddon's "Colonel Benyon's Entanglement", the author notes that it is "less on the villainous side" than another one of Braddon's stories set in Cornwall;  I found it to be the most tame of all the stories in this volume.  Here past and present collide in a not so pleasant way, as the Colonel finds himself staying in the home of an absent old friend whose wife has behaved so very badly.  The "false wife" is also gone, but the Colonel can't help feeling that she'd left an "evil influence upon the scene of her iniquity."  "The Phantom Hare" penned by an author known only as M.H. (1873) thankfully is not tame at all, offering the story of a white hare which bodes "no good when seen."  Any man who finds one passing over his feet should absolutely beware.  "Christmas Eve at a Cornish Manor House" by Clara Venn (1878) is a ghostly story within a story as "heard from an eye-witness," or perhaps rather an "ear-witness. "  

from Kernow Coasteering

When thinking of Cornwall, one of the most popular images that comes to mind is that of the caves hidden along the coastline, often used for smuggling.  This feature plays a role in Mary L. Penn's  "In the Mist" (1881), as a lovers' quarrel at the top of a cliff takes a terrible turn.  "The Baronet's Craze," by Mrs. H.L. Cox (1889) centers on a young man who rushes to Cornwall to find the woman he loves, only to come upon a scene that shakes him to his core.  The port of Pencastle is the scene of Bram Stoker's "The Coming of Abel Behenna" (1893) in which two friends fall in love with the same woman.  The rivalry intensifies until (it seems) the only way of settling the issue is a coin toss. There is a twist: whoever wins also gets the money of both men and use it for trade, thus returning richer after the period of one year.  It sounds like a good idea, but oh, so much can go so very wrong in this scenario. And it does.  

the Cornish Coast, from The Book Trail

My favorite story, which also wins my award for most disturbing, is Elliott O'Donnell's "The Haunted Spinney" from 1903.   It is one of those stories where I read it once, did a WTF? double take and immediately read it again.   On a country road  in the Cornish moors, a man takes a walk in the rain and encounters a "woman in a dark cloak" and decides to follow her.  In so doing, he comes across a "poor, common man" who he writes off as just a "stupid, sturdy son of toil" who believed in "Cornish bogies," but there's more to come, including a murder.  Anyone deciding to read Cornish Horrors should leave off reading the editor's introduction to this story until after finishing this eerie tale so as to be completely taken by surprise.  The next story, "A Ghostly Visitation," by E.M. Bray (1907) finds a woman traveling alone stopping at a private hotel.  Of the two rooms available, one is "a miserable little room" and one is "very spacious and better furnished," and it's the latter the landlady wants her to take.  That night we discover why the landlady is so antsy about the woman's choice of the smaller.  Passey notes that this is a story that "builds upon an existing tradition of Gothic tourist fiction set in Cornwall;" it seems that travellers even then enjoyed "seeking out frightening places."   The last of the previously unread is by F. Tennyson Jesse, whose A Pin to See the Peepshow helped to inspire Sarah Waters' novel The Paying Guests.  On offer here is Jesse's "The Mask" from 1912, also quite disturbing and once read, unforgettable.  The woman at the center of things is Vashti Glasson, who is unhappily married but finds solace in another man who has become completely "enslaved" by her.  At the last of their secret meetings things go horribly wrong and all hell breaks loose, but this is not the end of the story, by far.  

For people who think of Cornwall in literature and immediately conjure up Daphne du Maurier, this book reveals that long before she made her way into the literary scene, the Victorians were already capturing readers' attention with their tales of the land's end.  The majority of the stories included in Cornish Horrors stem from that era, and it seems that Victorian Cornwall was indeed fruitful ground for the Gothic imagination for several reasons that the editor covers in her overall introduction to this collection.   Very nicely done; it is a fantastic book, and I have to say that while I've never considered Cornwall as a "fantasy land," it has for some time now been in my reading mind a place rich in history, folklore and adventure, and my shelves are filled with novels and story collections with Cornwall as their home base.  

Very highly recommended, especially to others who have been enjoying the entire series over the last few years. 

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

A Maze for the Minotaur and Other Strange Stories, by Reggie Oliver


Tartarus Press, 2021
340 pp

hardcover (#47)

Tartarus continues to delight with this newest volume, A Maze For the Minotaur and Other Strange Stories, by Reggie Oliver.    The first time I encountered this most prolific writer was some time back with his The Dracula Papers, Book I: The Scholar's Tale  (Chomu Press, 2011), after which I  began collecting his books as well as several anthologies containing this author's short stories.  He is yet another writer whose tales tip my world ever so slightly askew while reading. That's a good thing.  The publication by Tartarus of this the eighth volume of stories by this author is a milestone: it "marks the fact that they have published over one hundred of his tales."  Here's to one hundred more.  

The title story, "A Maze for the Minotaur," is probably one of the strangest in the book and an absolute stunner.  Before moving to a Victorian brothel where a client nicknamed "the Minotaur" by the women there gets his strange jollies, we learn from a newpaper article of December 15, 1897 about the strange disappearance of a certain Mr. Frederick Cooper, a "local philanthropist" and "man of some eccentric habits." Last seen by his groom as he got out of his carriage, walked to his front door and went inside, Mr. Cooper was never to be seen again.  Exactly what happened to Cooper may remain a mystery to the outside world, but the truth is known by a certain young woman by the name of Mabel who "had learned to disguise her passions well," but once these became aroused, "would doggedly pursue them until they were satisfied."   Nothing I can say here will prepare anyone for what happens in Mrs. Belling's drawing room at Number 2 Boscobel Place, nor would I wish to ruin anything by giving away the show.    "A Maze for the Minotaur" first made its debut in Soot and Steel: Dark Tales of London, edited by Ian Whates (Newcon Press, 2019), another sadly still-unread book on my shelves.    

The two stories unique to this book are "The Wet Woman," and "Via Mortis," both of which touch on the entertainment world in very different ways.   Anyone who's read Oliver's stories knows that this is a world very much familiar to the author  and that show business in its many forms is often a key feature of his work.   In the first story, a "fairly successful actor" now "out of condition," has been "more or less ordered" by his agent to spend a month in a detox center in Suffolk.  His wife has left him, he's become too fond of a "particular tipple," and he needs to get himself together before the filming of his next movie.  Luckily for him, he meets two fellow inmates with whom he gets along famously, but the fun really begins when the three come across another acquaintance whom the three decide needs to be "shaken from his pedestal." Opportunity arises in the form of Halloween hijinks, but perhaps the three may have taken things a bit too far.   The action moves to the Edinburgh Fringe in "Via Mortis," beginning with a chance meeting of two former colleagues, one of whom went on to become a well-known director, and the other finding less success as an actor.  Talk eventually turns to "recollections of past times," when the two worked together in a small group called the Ruffian Theatre Company and a play called "The Last Man In" which ran for two weeks at an old chapel.  The director remarks that it was "all a complete blur,"  but the shock on his face says otherwise.  I have to admit to a deep fondness for the sort of creepy atmosphere that can only be found in an old church, especially when the lights go out and someone is left behind with no way out.  

"The Wet Woman" (p. 49), illustration by Reggie Oliver. 

The full content of this book can be found at the website of Tartarus Press; among other things, in these stories one can find ghosts in the Dordogne,  dream visions, an avian guide (which may or may not be an old friend),  a crime and a haunted house.   One story that was just lovely and particularly poignant is "Collectable," about an elderly performer of times past who "in life had become a ghost," unable to remember her life while waiting out her days in a "Theatrical Old Folks Home."  This one reminds me that horror comes in many different forms, and then there is "Monkey's" one of the most brilliant stories in this entire volume, which I nominate for most disturbing of them all, set on a small, private island in the Thames.  I actually had to put the book down after reading this one, go outside for fresh air and sunlight before I could start reading again and even then the images this story produced never quite left my head.    Off the beaten path somewhat is "A Cabinet of Curiosities," a collection of five short tales, my favorite of which was "Temporary Disappearance of a School," but all are absolutely delightful, a perfect antidote to the darkness that came before.  That leaves me with the one novella-length story that to me didn't quite fit here, "The Armies of the Night," which admittedly had its moments and also  reminded me of the old Delta Green novels I used to devour in my Lovecraft phase, in which the FBI finds itself involved with the stuff of Lovecraftian nightmares become real before moving into the pulp territory of gangsters, J. Edgar Hoover and other stuff. This one appeared in volume two of an anthology called The Lovecraft Squad , edited by Stephen Jones.  And finally, I didn't mention the illustrations, but they are outstanding, serving as signposts to whatever weirdness the reader is about to encounter.

The dustjacket blurb notes that 
"Oliver's work is notable for its style, wit humour and depth of characterisation, and also for its profound excursions into the disturbingly bizarre and uncanny" 

and I have to tip my hat to this man who's given me so many hours of reading pleasure over the last few years, and to Tartarus as well for bringing forth this eighth volume of Oliver's stories.  It is definitely one not to miss whether you are a regular fan of Oliver's stories, or a reader drawn to the realm of the strange or the weird.  Don't be surprised if you find yourself feeling a bit off kilter after reading this book -- it's part and parcel of the Oliver experience.  

most highly recommended.  

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Bluebeard's First Wife, by Ha Seong-Nan

Open Letter Books, 2020
(originally published 2002)
translated by Janet Hong
229 pp


On the back cover there is a blurb from writer Brian Evenson who notes that Ha Seong-Nan  is "A master of the strange story," and as I discovered while reading this book,  he is not exaggerating.  It's also not an exaggeration to say that Bluebeard's First Wife is one of those rare books that can take me out of the here and now so thoroughly --it is a collection of stories  which often start out offering a picture of normal, every day life before slowly taking that turn that moves the reader to a point where it becomes obvious that not only has something gone very, very wrong, but also by then that it's too late. Each and every story in this collection took me by surprise and left me feeling completely off-kilter and disoriented, and I found myself  having to give my head a shake or two while reading to let go of the feeling of uneasiness each story provided. 

I loved them all but I won't be divulging story contents here, with the exception of  "The Star-Shaped Stain," which as an appetite-whetter opening tale serves as a signpost as to the strangeness found in this book.  It begins as a mother sifts through photos of her child in a pile on the floor trying to find the best one.  Each of the pictures doesn't fully capture her face, and as she notes, she herself is having trouble remembering her daughter's face.  Immediately the reader wonders why, but mom goes on to pick out a photo from last year.  It is framed, put in the mom's bag, and along with several other people, mom and her husband make their way to the site of the camp for a memorial service where their children died in a fire a year earlier.  A stop along the way throws all into chaos, as a shopkeeper reveals that there may have been one survivor, as he'd seen a "wee littlle thing in yellow" walking by "crying all by itself,"  just before the fire broke out;  he'd also noticed that on the shirt was a star-shaped pin.   The true horror here though is yet to come.    One goodreads reviewer  noted that this story was based "around a fictionalised version of a real-life incident ... in 1999 when a fire broke out at a summer camp at the Sealand Youth Training Centre," (you can read about it here)  which made me wonder if perhaps Ha had used any other true events in her work.  I found one in "Flies" (which in my mind is tied for most disturbing and unsettling story in this book along with "On That Green, Green Grass").  I discovered via translator Janet Hong's Twitter  feed of June of last year that with "Flies," Ha wrote this story, "imagining the circumstances leading up to Korea's deadliest mass murder to date."  Toward the beginning of this dark tale one particular image stood out enough that I knew that this was going to be horrific: twelve fish put out to dry hanging on a clothesline and teeming with maggots.    Added to the ranks of most disturbing is  "A Quiet Night," and the eerie, excellent  "Daisy Fleabane" which finishes the book.  

A large part of Bluebeard's Wife is concerned with the constraints on women or the expectations placed on them by family and society; sins, secrets, deception, despair and guilt are found throughout. There is a definite feel of detachment in the telling of these "paranoia-inducing, heart quickening stories," and there is also the sense all along that  something is just not right, making for unsettling reading.  There are no easy conclusions or resolutions to be found, leaving the reader with the feeling that what happens is inevitable, or that things are just how they are, which may just be the most frightening element of all.   Susan Choi's front-cover blurb says that these stories "unfurl with the surreal illogic of dreams," and that is really everything you need to know in a nutshell.  My kind of book, most certainly.  

I loved this book.  Absolutely. 

I ran across an interesting take on Bluebeard's First Wife at Ploughshares , in which Marta Balcewicz examines this book through the lens of the fairy tale, given the book's title.   As she says about these stories, 
"This is a place where at your most vulnerable, you will encounter no fairy godmother, no knight will rush in on a horse."

I couldn't agree more. 

Monday, June 28, 2021

Minor Hauntings: Chilling Tales of Spectral Youth (ed.) Jen Baker


British Library, 2021
317 pp


On to yet another fine volume in the British Library Tales of the Weird Series, and it's somewhat unique in that the stories all center around the spirits or spectral imprints of dead children.  

Jen Baker, the editor who put all of these terrific stories together here in one book,  reveals in her introduction that most of the tales included here 
"ask whether children who do not have a good and peaceful death will definitely go to heaven; what the consequences might be if no glory awaits to compensate the child's suffering"

while also asking "what if the child is angry or even vengeful for their treatment in life and the fate to which they have been consigned?"  These stories, as Baker also explains, 

"revive, appropriate, and often merge domestic folkloric and literary traditions where the spirit of a wronged child would passively wander and bewail its fate with the darker traditions of non-Anglophone cultures, in which such spirits would terrorise and sometimes kill those who wronged them or even passers-by."

In between each story there are brief "snippets" of other literary works in various forms that "illustrate the sense of historical and cultural debt," all of which may send you on a quest to read the original source material once you've finished reading this book.  At least that happened with me -- I am easily sent down that kind of tangential rabbit hole where I'm happy to linger a while. 

I have previously read roughly half of the stories in this book, but even so, revisiting them was not at all a waste of my time.   Two of these are  beyond famous: Elizabeth Gaskell's "The Old Nurse's Story," which I think anyone who is a true ghost-story lover has read more than once as it has been widely anthologized, and M.R. James'  "Lost Hearts," which made its way to the tv screen more than once, first in 1966 and later in 1973 when Robin Chapman adapted it as part of the BBC's "Ghosts at Christmas" series.  I'd read the story long ago, and recently read it again, but I'd only heard about the 1973 adaptation after reading Edward Parnell's excellent Ghostland: In Search of a Haunted Country.   

"Lonely Hearts" 1973; photo from sandra's first rule of filmclub

Others falling into my previously-read category are Charlotte Riddell's "Walnut-Tree House, Amelia B. Edwards' "Was it an Illusion? A Parson's Story,F. Marion Crawford's  "The Doll's Ghost," "The Lost Ghost" by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman and "The Shadowy Third," by Ellen Glasgow.   Of these, I'm most particularly fond of "The Doll's Ghost," which is sad but creepy enough that it easily could have been made into an episode of the old The Twilight Zone series. 

Starting with "The Dead Daughter: A Tale" by Henry Glassford Bell, I struck out into new territory. 
According to Baker,  this story influenced Poe's story "Morella;"  Poe scholar T.O. Mabbott  went a bit further saying that the plot of Morella "comes almost entirely" from Bell's story.  "The Dead Daughter" is one of the most morbid and gloomy tales found in this book, and without going into plot, on one hand the surface story centers around rebirth of the soul, but on the other, and more deeply embedded, there is just something darkly off about the relationship between father and daughter that gave me chills more than the main story.    "The Dead Daughter"  can be found in Bell's collection My Old Portfolio; or Tales and Sketches, available via Gutenberg or Google Books, which I've  just picked up.   Moving on, "Kentucky's Ghost," by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps  is a ghostly adventure that takes place on the high seas, beginning with the discovery of a young stowaway.  This boy is in for a terrible experience; as the narrator notes, he'd 
"as lief see a son of mine in a Carolina slave-gang as to see him lead the life of a stow-away.  What with the officers from feeling that they've been taken in, and the men, who catch their cue from their superiors, and the spite of the lawful boy who hired in the proper way, he don't have what you may call a tender time."

The boy's treatment is so harsh that one of the crew remarks that "Dead or alive," he will be the one to bring to his tormentor a "summons" to hell.  Mark his words.   "The Ghost of Little Jacques" by Ann M. Hoyt is also rooted in a strange household, but here the story unfolds almost like a whodunit, as a child is murdered and makes his way back to the household to point the finger at his killer.   Unfortunately, the narrator to whom he first appears doesn't understand until much later,  jeopardizing her own future.  Again, much more at work here than an average ghost story but I'll leave that for others to discover.  

my photo, from the book's frontispiece, from "Walnut-Tree House," by Charlotte Riddell in Illustrated London News, 28 December 1878. 

At this juncture I'm bypassing  one story to get to the final two, "Anne's Little Ghost" by H.D. Everett and Margery Lawrence's "Curse of the Stillborn."    I have to say that evidently I've already read the first but had completely forgotten it, so I'm counting it as (sort of) new.    Narrated by the husband, a  young married couple rent a "half-house" in the country where he is looking forward to fishing time after recuperating in the hospital.   In a strange twist, the ghost of a little girl, coincidentally the same age their daughter would have been had she lived more than "a brief space of only weeks,"  makes her presence known.  Enough said.   Working as both a bit of  exotica and a piece that takes an anti-colonial stance,  "Curse of the Stillborn" takes place in a small settlement in Egypt, where a young Egyptian girl who had come there with her mother gives birth to a stillborn child.  Mrs. Bond, a "well-meaning" missionary and wife of the chaplain who had been there for three years, will not rest until the child is given a proper Christian burial, but the girls's mother will not allow it.  Another man, an Egyptologist named Frith, warns Mrs. Bond to let the women observe their own rites -- he knows exactly what will happen when a "puny might" is pitted "against a great and ancient Force ... thwarted of its right."  And neither last nor least, my favorite story which is beyond horrific:  "Two Little Red Shoes," by a rather obscure writer, Bessie Kyffin-Taylor.  On my shelves here at home is her single collection of supernatural writing, published by Leonaur under the title of The Collected Supernatural and Weird Fiction of Bessie Kyffin-Taylor: From Out of the Silencewhich I'll definitely be reading before the end of summer.  As a brief aside, Leonaur is a great publisher for readers of older, obscure works; and they also publish more well-known authors of yesteryear as well. The narrator of  "Two Little Red Shoes"  is a woman who loves to visit and dally in "tenantless houses," who one day finds herself in a place she hadn't yet been to.   While there, she decides she must get inside of the house and  the first room she enters utterly  delights her.  The same can't be said of the next room, but in the third room, full of children's toys, she finds a pair of little red shoes that she can't resist picking up to "imagine the wee soft pink feet that they had covered."  Promising herself to return the shoes to the house the next day, she makes her exit.  It is then that she hears "the whimpering cry and the soft-tapping of tiny baby fingers" on a window pane, the first of many experiences she will have at this house before she discovers what everything means.  Not only did her experiences chill me to the bone, but when all is revealed, it turns out that there is a greater horror than what she had been through.  As  Baker notes, this tale is one where  "visible and audible imprints on the landscape"  as well as the "ghostly visions" replay a terrible tragedy. 

Once again I find myself a happy reader; I knew the British Library Tales of the Weird series was going to be great after the first book I read and I have yet to be disappointed; Minor Hauntings continues that streak.Very highly recommended.    

Friday, May 28, 2021

Creatures of Another Age: Classic Visions of Prehistoric Monsters (ed.) Richard Fallon


Valancourt Books, 2021
223 pp


I have to be honest here and say that when I first heard about this book, I was a wee bit iffy as to whether I'd be reading it, since a) my interest in paleontology has generally been limited to the nonfictional side of things and b) I'm not much of a creature-involved story kind of reader.  But because it is from Valancourt and they haven't yet steered me wrong,  I took a chance and it paid off. Even before finishing, I was so impressed that I started looking online everywhere for more of this sort of thing, resulting in a few novels written in the general time frame as the selections here in Creatures of Another Age, noted in the introduction as being
"between the 1830s, when the popularity of geology and paleontology skyrocketed, up to the end of the First World War, when cinema began to offer its own primordial prospects." 
The authors included in this collection, as the editor also states, "took geoscientific research to original and creative places,"  resulting in "necromantic fantasies, time-travel narratives, political poetry, weird ffin-de-siècle short stories, and even pseudo-Elizabethan verse drama."  Not only does this book make for hours of fun reading, but it also opens a window or two into scientific and social concerns of the time, both in the UK and here in the US.   

Not uncommon for me, my favorite stories were those written by authors I knew absolutely nothing about and whose work I didn't even know existed.    Hands down the strangest, most off-the-charts different (and in my mind for those reasons the best) of these is the work of an obscure writer by the name of Wardon Allan Curtis, whose "The Monster of Lake LaMetrie" reveals much about evolutionary anxieties (and so much more) of the time. I am not at all going into any detail here,  and I'm even offering a caveat  to anyone interested in reading this story against reading anything about it at all beforehand.  Set in the state of Wyoming,  it  first appeared in Pearsons Magazine, September 1899, and Fallon reveals in his brief introduction that in this tale the author "melds Wyoming's prehistoric associations" with the hollow-earth theory proposed by John Cleves Symmes in 1818.  What I will divulge is that it has awesome shock value in a weird/sci-fi sort of way, and it gave me a serious case of the willies once I considered the implications.      Another top-notch offering is "The Dragon of St. Paul's, by Reginald Bacchus and Cyril Ranger Gull (1899).  Fleming, the editor of a daily newspaper in London, holds the presses after hearing an incredible story so that journalist Tom Trant can write an article for a "special"  that should boost sales into the hundreds of thousands.  Back at home,  Tom relates a story that to him,  his fiancée and her brother seems to be "gaudy nonsense," "simply laughable" and "absurd"  about a strange discovery solidly encased in ice found on the return voyage of a two-year Arctic scientific expedition headed by the now-deceased Professor Glazebrook. Just hours before reaching the Channel, everything was going as planned up until the moment the professor decided to melt the ice containing his spectacular find, which turns out to have been a rash decision indeed.  As has been repeatedly revealed in old sci-films, sometimes what's been stuck in polar ice for eons should probably just be left alone.   "The Last of the Vampires," published in 1893 and penned by another unknown-to-me writer, Phil Robinson  (1847-1902),  is also on my list of favorites.   As with the previous two stories I've mentioned here, it involves humans pitted against "eerie creatures previously thought extinct," as Richard Fallon notes, so familiar to readers of popular periodicals during the Victorian fin-de-siècle.  This story is more atmospheric than the previous two, and starts out with a legend familiar to the Zaporo Indians of Peru.  As the legend goes, "Very long ago ...
there were many vampires in Peru, but they were swallowed up in the year of the Great Earthquake when the Andes were lifted up, and there was left behind only one 'Arinchi' who lived where the Amazon joins the Marañnon, and he would not eat dead bodies, only live ones, from which the blood would flow."

Local superstition also said that when a sacrificial victim was offered to "the Vampire," he would be "bound in a canoe," and after some time on the river,  the canoe would stop in "banks of slimy mud" to a creek  through which a "very slow current flowed," taking anything in the water there to a cave. Into this milieu comes a University professor and "mighty hunter of beetles" from Germany who decides to explore the cave for himself, his fate recorded in journal entries over the ensuing months.

Worthy of honorable mention is "Our Phantom Ship on An Antediluvian Cruise," by Henry Morley, part of a series making its appearance in Household Words in which the phantom ship took the periodical's readers  on "informative trips around the world."  In this installment the ship leaves London to go back "into the depths of time." 

Another fine Valancourt publication, Creatures of Another Age is neither limited to short stories nor obscure writers.  There are poems, essays, and even a short play, as well as selections by more familiar authors such as George Sand, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle and Thomas Hardy. While not all of the entries included here worked for me personally (as is always the case),  in putting this collection together editor Richard Fallon hopes that readers will "see the distant past in a strange new light," and that's exactly what happened to me here.   Very much recommended.   What a great idea for a book!! 

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Cormorant, by Stephen Gregory

Parthian Books, 2021
originally published 1986
160 pp

paperback (my e-copy sent by the publisher, to whom I owe my many and grateful  thanks)

Recently reissued by Welsh publisher  Parthian Books just last month, Stephen Gregory's The Cormorant (1986) is exactly the sort of dark fiction I look forward to reading, in which the weird makes its way into regular life making it difficult to decide whether there is something supernatural at play here or if it's something else altogether.  I first read this book seven years ago when it was published by Valancourt,  and that was the question I was left with at the time;  after finishing this time around, the ambiguity remains.  Added to the uncertainty is the fact that we have only the narrator's word to rely on for what happens here.  My kind of book indeed.  

Winter in Northern Wales provides the natural backdrop to this story that begins when a man is bequeathed a cottage in a Welsh village "nestled under the cloud-covered summit of Snowdon, on the road between Caernafon and Beddgelert."  He  and his wife Ann were able to quit their teaching jobs in the Midlands, affording him the opportunity to devote time to the history textbook he is writing. She has a job at a local pub and he tends to their eleven-month old child Harry while she works.   The cottage had belonged to his Uncle Ian whom the (unnamed) narrator had not known very well, and it comes with the "binding condition" that the cottage was theirs as long as they took care of the cormorant Uncle Ian had rescued some time earlier.   To the narrator, the bequest is a "thunderbolt of good fortune,"  and he wasn't too worried about taking care of the cormorant, but when the bird arrives and its crate is opened, the "some kind of placid, domestic fowl" they'd been expecting turned out to be anything but.   In the middle of a quiet, lovely, warm domestic sort of perfection, as he notes, 
"it came from its box as ugly and as poisonous as a vampire bat" 
spewing feces and urine everywhere and causing destruction to their otherwise cozy environs.  

Ann, who "shuddered at the sight of the cormorant's demonic arrogance," sees the bird (which the narrator calls Archie)  as menacing, while baby Harry seems to be enthralled with the thing.  The narrator works to exert dominance and control over the bird, mentioning more than once Archie's dependence on him for its survival; at the same time it's obvious that while he's completely obsessed with it,  he has a sort of love-hate relationship with this cormorant,  referring to it once as a "Heathcliff, a Rasputin, a Dracula."  In the meantime, Ann becomes further unsettled because of her husband's increasingly strange behavior and Harry's growing fascination with Archie.  Then there's the matter of the narrator's brief (hallucinatory?) encounters with someone who leaves behind cigar smoke -- is this some sort of haunting, some sort of possession, or is there more to it,  perhaps grounded in more earthly concerns?  

The flaws in the characters begin to appear early on, but then again, we're watching this story unravel from the point of view of the narrator, whose choices throughout the narrative are just mind boggling.  One of the highlights of this novel is Gregory's purposeful, highly-controlled and taut writing style which allows for him to  adeptly turn  up the volume little by little on the slow-building horror that fills this book,   and in my case at least, setting forth an eerie atmosphere from the moment the bird's crate is opened in the cozy living room, offering its entrance as a harbinger of dread and doom. 

I won't deny that there are some extremely disturbing scenes in this book (including one especially beyond-squirmworthy event that takes place in a bathtub which is mentioned in pretty much everyone's review of this novel and got a serious and out-loud WTF from me as well), but in a sick way they accord with the narrator's increasingly-disturbed state of mind, which is in my opinion is at the heart of this novel. 

I cannot for the life of me say why, but as disturbing and horrific as this book is, I absolutely loved it. I found, as the author says in the introduction to this novel, that  
"Like the bird, the book is beautiful and ugly, intriguing and upsetting, appealing and appalling, in its different, changing moods."

 The Cormorant is not only effective as a horror story, but as literary fiction with a weird bent as well. The ambiguity here left me thinking about it long after I'd finished, going through evidence in my head for both the psychological and supernatural.  Writing it down now, I'm still thinking about it.  I cannot recommend this novel highly enough, although on many levels it is a difficult read, so beware.  

Once again my many thanks to the very good people at Parthian.  

Saturday, May 8, 2021

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, by Mariana Enriquez


Hogarth, 2021
originally published as Los Peligros de fumar en la cama (2017)
translated by Megan McDowell
187 pp


I had picked up this book this past January, long before it was longlisted (and then shortlisted) for this year's International Booker Prize.  There was never a question of not buying it;  I had read and loved this author's Things We Lost in the Fire some time ago.  That book was excellent, with a slight edge over this one, but after finishing The Dangers of Smoking in Bed I was not only impressed, but my first reaction to this book echoes exactly what Lauren Groff says about it on its back cover:

"After you've lived in Mariana Enriquez's marvelous brain for the time it takes to read The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, the known world feels ratcheted a few degrees off-center."

It didn't take until the end of the book for that "off-center" feeling to take hold -- after the first story alone I had to stop, think, and sort of shake my head back into the real world before moving on.  

In an interview after the publication of Things We Lost in the Fire, the author noted that her stories
"are quite rooted in realistic urban and suburban settings and the horror just emanates from these places,"

and in The Dangers of Smoking in Bed the author examines the darkness and the terrors that co-exist in "these places" side by side with every-day life --  as one character says so eloquently in "Rambla Triste" (one of my favorites in this book), "the incarnations of the city's madness."  Most of her characters are women from adolescence upward,  their daily concerns are normal, including appearance, sex, relationships, family, drugs, and so on.  It isn't too long into any of these stories however before it dawns on you that you've made your way into a situation where normal has taken a bizarre turn.  In "Our Lady of the Quarry," for example, a group of girls all hanker after the same guy who doesn't seem to notice them in the way they would like; they are jealous of their "grown-up" friend Silvia ("out of high school for two years") whom Diego does notice. A typical scenario, to be sure, but what one girl does in trying out  "an infallible way to snag your beloved" provides the spark for what comes next as the story moves into the realm of the eerie.  Elsewhere, a girl digging in a garden unearths bones that turn out not to be those of an animal as her father had told her; a young girl who looks in a well at the home of a "witch" becomes stricken with paralyzing agoraphobia; a homeless man who is turned out of a neighborhood leaves behind a terrible curse; gentrification leaves homeless ghosts walking the streets of Barcelona; two teenaged groupies take the words of their favorite singer to heart ... and more. 

Nothing is out of bounds here -- fetishes, voyeurism and cannibalism included -- but as the dustjacket blurb says, the stories are written with "resounding tenderness toward those in pain, in fear, and in limbo."  They  also reveal a concern with economic and social inequality as well as Argentina's inescapable past.  Two chilling stories in particular (which also happen to be my top two favorites) also highlight the anxieties of the period of the Dictatorship (1976 - 1983):  "Kids Who Come Back," in which a woman who maintains the archive of lost and disappeared children begins to notice an unsettling trend in Buenos Aires, "this city full of ghosts," and "Back When We Talked to the Dead"  centering on a group of five girls who spend time with their Ouija board as a way of asking the spirits about their relatives who had been disappeared.  Violence and ghosts go hand in hand in this book. 

I read a lot of supernatural and weird fiction but not a lot of what I'd call  horror, but if more writers in the genre did it like Mariana Enriquez, I could easily go that route as well.  Here the terrors leave in their wake a "city of ghosts" and women doing what they must to find stability in their unstable, even haunted surroundings.  With the exception of "Kids Who Come Back," the stories are relatively short which, in my opinion, gives them an incredible measure of power.  Whereas some readers have noted that the stories felt underdeveloped, I disagree.  I don't need everything explained to me -- each story made an impact as is.   Enriquez's work is original, fresh, modern and above all powerful, and while not all of these tales were to my personal taste, overall this is a stunning collection that should not be missed, except perhaps, by the squeamish.