Monday, November 19, 2018

a little late for Halloween, but read it anyway: The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories, Volume Three, by James D. Jenkins and Ryan Cagle (eds.)

9781948405133
Valancourt Books, 2018
327 pp

hardcover


I actually meant to make this post around Halloween when I read this book,  but life's been seriously hectic here at home so I'm a bit late.  It doesn't matter though, since this third volume of The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories can really be read and enjoyed at any time.

There is not a single misstep in this entire collection, something I can't always say about most horror anthologies I read.  Normally I find at least one story that just doesn't work; that is just not the case here. Here's something else that's great about this book: the arrangement of the stories is excellent.  It starts off with R. Chetwynd-Hayes' somewhat humorous  "Don't Go Up Them Stairs" and concludes with Robert Westall's   "Beelzebub" (also somewhat laughworthy), almost as if the editors thought they'd put their readers through enough horror in between.  I don't know about anyone else, but I tend to carry tension while reading horror, so beginning and ending with touches of humor here is perfect. 

While each and every story in this book is top notch, I did have a few personal favorites, with  "Mr. Evening" by James Purdy at the top of the list.   It is probably the most atypical horror story in the book, but in my case, it did its job.  The chills grow slowly in this one,  increasing in increments until the end where I had a sort an overall  bird's-eye view of what was happening here, and then I actually had to put the book down for a while to recover as the actual horror of it all left its impact. When I come across a story like this one where the implications are truly frightening, sometimes they scare me much more than the ones where all is explained.    Forrest Reid's "Courage" offers a new dimension to the standard haunted house story, as does Helen Mathers' "The Face in the Mirror," which also hits every one of my Victorian ghost story buttons.  "Mothering Sunday" is another great tale by one of my favorite writers of horror and the strange,  John Keir Cross, whose "Glass Eye" remains one of the creepiest stories I've ever read.  Steve Rasnic Tem's "The Parts Man" while horrific, is also surprisingly poignant, in which a man strikes a strange deal, with high costs to pay.    I'll also add Elizabeth Jenkins' "On No Account, My Love" to this list, although I have read it before. It's another one where only in the final moments do you realize the nature of the implications of this story, at which point the chill runs up the spine. And finally, there's  "Blood of the Kapu Tiki" by Eric C. Higgs,, which has a great, old-fashioned pulpy horror feel to it that I absolutely couldn't resist. 


the tiki cover edition of this book,
9781948405157 (from Valancourt)

And speaking of "Blood of the Kapu Tiki,"  I also had to buy the paperback tiki cover edition of this book.

I'm beyond happy that James and Ryan have continued the tradition they started with the first book in this series, compiling amazing horror stories written by the authors whose work they publish. As I've said all along, they have an uncanny feel for knowing not only what's good, but also unique; I appreciate  both of them for having such great taste.  The same applies to Valancourt's publications in general; as I've also said all along, they somehow manage publish exactly what I want to read.  And as for this book in particular,  to be honest, at this point it just wouldn't be Halloween without a volume of Valancourt horror stories in my hands. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The Virgin Vampire, by Etienne-Leon de Lamothe-Langon

9781612270326
Black Coat Press, 2011
translated by Brian Stableford
257 pp

paperback

"Who dared to lift the mysterious veil with which Heaven covers the accomplishment of its terrible will?"

While I'm not a huge fan of vampire fiction, last year I discovered Black Coat Press, and their lineup of novels featuring vampires sort of reinvigorated my interest. And while The Virgin Vampire isn't likely to land in the category of  greatest vampire fiction ever written, it is still historically significant in terms of the history of vampire literature, and offers readers a look at an entirely different sort of vampire altogether.

Originally published in 1825 (or quite possibly 1824),   La Vampire, ou la vierge de Hongrie is not your average vampire tale by any stretch. The story opens in 1815, as  Colonel Edouard Delmont has resigned his army commission, and has informed his dutiful and loving wife Hélène that he wants to move the family to the countryside just out of Toulouse, to an area where he is "unknown" so that they can life a life of "peace and quiet." After the usual strangers-in-the-village uneasiness passes, the family settles  comfortably in their new home where they find happiness for quite a long time; soon,  however,  Delmont is called away for a family matter, leaving  Hélène and their two children  in the hands of his former sergeant and now trusted servant Raoul. During his absence, the two Delmont children, accompanied by Raoul, make the acquaintance of a "foreign woman" along with her strange servant.   While she is new to the area, to his horror, Raoul discovers that she is no stranger, and  immediately writes the Colonel to inform him that Alinska is in the neighborhood, reminding him that he
"will never be happy or tranquil as long as that unfortunate Hungarian woman exists"
or as long as she continues to pursue him.  It isn't too long before some strange events take place in the area, including  the discovery of a dead body drained of all of its blood, leading Raoul to bring up the subject of vampires:
"No blood!...No blood!  O Heaven! The horrors of Hungary are being renewed in France!"
Shortly thereafter Alinska's house burns down, and in doing her Christian and charitable duty Madame Delmont  invites her to come to their chateau to live. Raoul, who has a "peculiar presentiment" that this is probably not a good idea, can't bring himself to tell  Hélène of his misgivings because it would mean that he would have to reveal something involving the Colonel's past, of which his wife is completely ignorant. He promises himself that he will watch over Delmont's family, but not even he can imagine what's about to happen next.

If you're suspecting that you know how the story is going to play out from this point on, well, you're probably wrong. I know I was way off the mark with my own predictions, and that was a definite plus as far as the reading experience.  But it's not just a matter of the book deviating from the usual path taken in vampire fiction as we know it -- as Brian Stableford says in his afterword, Lamothe-Langon's vampire is "not a predator in her own right," but more a "mere instrument of a higher power, more puppet than actor," caught up  in a "plan for vampiric vengeance." This facet of the story is only one way in which The Virgin Vampire differs from the more familiar plots of  vampire lore; another difference  is found in the very nature of this "higher power."  And there are many more deviations to be found here as well if you read carefully.

The Virgin Vampire is a fine bit of dark, supernatural, and gothic fun which can be chilling at times, and while I wouldn't say that Lamonthe-Lagon's  writing is destined to make this book a classic,  Stableford believes that this book is "not without literary merit as an item of dark Romantic fiction." I agree, and  I also think that the story reveals much about the nature of Enlightenment thinking in terms of rational thought vs superstition.

It may be  a bit tame for readers of modern vampire tales, but it does make for a rollicking good yarn;  to be very honest, it was unputdownable fun. Considering that I'm not a rah-rah fan of vampire stories, well, that should say something.

recommended, but mainly for people interested in the history of literary vampires, and for readers who are looking for something entirely different in their vampire fiction.


Monday, October 1, 2018

haunted house, anyone? The Silent Companions, by Laura Purcell


9780143131632
Penguin, 2018
originally published (UK) 2017
304 pp

paperback

The Silent Companions is my real-world book group's pick for our meeting on October 30th.  I racked my brains trying to come up with a book that would be a good Halloween-ish read -- I could have, of course, easily gone and scanned my shelves for a title but the women in my group tend to not share my love of dark dark books, so it was tricky.  I needed to find a novel that would not only fit in with the occasion, but one that was well written with intelligent themes that would hopefully provide for some good discussion.  When I found out about The Silent Companions, I added it to the list.  I will confess that near the midpoint of this novel, I was beginning to regret my choice because the book was moving along at a slow pace, but just after complaining about it on Goodreads, a few pages later I was actually hooked and couldn't put the book down.  It's not great literature, but on the other hand,  it's fun, it's creepy, and once I got in the groove of its gothic weirdness, I couldn't stop turning pages.  Certainly it isn't without its faults, but it is a perfect Halloween read, just filled with that lovely ambiguity that made me wonder if there's more than meets the eye here, right up until the very last page.


This book spans three different timelines, alternating between present and the past.  First, as the novel opens, we find ourselves in main character Elsie Bainbridge's present, which, as we learn pretty quickly,  is during Elsie's time in an asylum  where she is undergoing a psychological assessment.  Before her doctor can pass judgment, though, he begs her to tell the truth about the events that landed her there, but Elsie cannot speak.  Giving her a slate, and then later a pencil and paper, he encourages her to write down all she knows, and we are immediately taken back to the time before Elsie's incarceration when she had first arrived at the Bainbridge family home, The Bridge, in 1865.  Her husband Rupert had gone ahead of her,  leaving Elsie in London while he got the place ready for the two of them and their unborn baby, but his unexpected death while at the house brings Elsie there as a woman in mourning.   Also at The Bridge  are a handful of servants, as well as Rupert's cousin Sarah, who had served as lady's companion and who is now at The Bridge to keep Elsie company.  It doesn't take long until Elsie becomes aware of strange noises that seem to emanate from a room that has always been kept locked, but that's just the beginning of a series of bizarre events that plague the household.   The house itself has a long history and a dark past that continues to keep the villagers away, which is reflected in the third timeline (the 1630s) during the reign of Charles I.  I'm not saying another word about the actual plot here or how the time periods interweave; I was perfectly happy not knowing anything at all about this story until I'd it read it.



from Treasure Hunt


The Silent Companions has it all: hints of witchcraft, gypsies, locked rooms, strange noises, a black cat, eerie happenings, madness and an asylum, but as the title suggests, the centerpiece of this story is "the silent companions."  The photo above is one of these and is the cover image of the Penguin edition of this book; they are also called "dummy boards,"  which as noted by the blogger at Treasure Hunt, were made out of wood, but had a "lifelike quality"  which could "render them a little spooky as you suddenly come upon a solemn little child, a gesturing servant or even a soldier with gun at the ready."   The first of the silent companions is discovered in a locked garret, but soon others begin to appear, heightening the already-existing tensions within the household, making for a creepy and unforgettable tale.

As I said earlier, the book starts out very slowly and sort of trudges along for a while as we get the picture of the house and its environs as well as the people within, but that all changes very quickly just about midway and zooms toward the ending.  Aside from the atmospheric sense of place and time that is built into this story, the best part of this book is the underlying and particularly unsettling sense of ambiguity that not only ratchets up the tension, but makes you want to question everything you've read after finishing. 

Considering that I prefer my horror from yesteryear, the author's done a fine job here and I can certainly recommend this novel.  Do yourself a favor and carve out a few hours -- once the creepiness gets rolling, it doesn't let up.



It's October again,


and that means Halloween reading. I'm so ready. 





Tuesday, September 18, 2018

rats. I should have saved this book for October: The Moons At Your Door, (ed.) David Tibet

97981907222429
Strange Attractor Press, 2016
450 pp
paperback

As I'm sitting here writing this, in the background I'm listening to the eerie music of Current 93's album Faust .  Had I been listening to this  when I read Count Eric Stanislaus Stenbock's tale in this book of the same name,  it would have totally heightened the creep factor that the story produced in my head.   The editor of this collection of strange, hallucinatory tales just happens to be David Tibet, the founder of Current 93, and that particular album was inspired by that particular story. 

Tibet's music isn't solely limited to Stenbock as inspiration though;  it reflects at least one way in which the stories and authors in this book (and beyond) have "crept, crept, crept" into his work; in the introduction to this book he lists other music which has been inspired by Ligotti, Machen,  M.R. James and others, whose "names and phrases and worlds and dreams" he has "channeled" into what he's done.  And if Faust is any indication of how he's managed this, I need to listen to more.

Getting to the book now, it's one thing reading an anthology of strange, supernatural tales and it's quite another to read a book that serves as part of a roadmap of stories that have not only made a huge influence on someone's life, but continue to "enthral, and terrify" that person. All of these stories, he says,
"...spell how close is the darkness, how subtly and slyly it may seep into our lives and change them utterly." 
"Enthral, and terrify" they did in my case, and seep into my life is an understatement in the case of some of these stories.  For example,  Stenbock's "Faust" I had to put down in the middle and continue the next day because it was so utterly terrifying;  "The Tower of Moab" by L.A. Lewis and  "The Testament of Magdalen Blair" by Aleister Crowley  took me out the comfort of my reading chair, out of my living room, and into another place entirely.  Those last two are probably imprinted on my brain forever now, and along with the two stories and two poems by Stenbock in this book, have raised the bar for what I'll be expecting from my strange/dark fiction reading from this point on.  Some of these twenty-eight stories I've read before, but I didn't care -- I got a  sense that they belonged here for some reason so I reread them with absolute pleasure.


I'll post the contents here, but I will not be going into any detail about any of them. That should be a pleasure best left to anyone reading this post.

"The Moons at My Door" by David Tibet

*"Faust," "The True Story of a Vampire," "Vol d'Amor," and "Requiem"  by Count Eric Stanislaus Stenbock 

"Casting the Runes," "A School Story," and "O, Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad" by MR James

*"He Cometh and He Passeth By" and "Look Up There!" by HR Wakefield

"The Horla" by Guy de Maupassant

"The White People," by Arthur Machen

* "The Testament of Magdalen Blair," by Aleister Crowley

"The Frolic" and "Les Fleurs," by Thomas Ligotti

"The Monkey's Paw," by WW Jacobs

 * "Ravissante," by Robert Aickman

"Smee," by A.M. Burrage

"Sredni Vashtar," by Saki

"Bluebeard," by Charles Perrault

"The Touch of Pan," by Algernon Blackwood

From "The King in Yellow," by R.W. Chambers

 *"Young Tambling," traditional (as sung by Anne Briggs)

* "The Hobyahs," traditional

 *"Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrows," by Thomas de Quincey

 *From "The Thunder: Perfect Mind"

From The Epic of Gilgameš

 *"Couching at the Door," by DK Broster

"The Old Nurse's Tale," by Elizabeth Gaskell

Rounding out the rest of this book are "Biographical and Story Notes," by Mark Valentine and "Lunar Tunes," by David Tibet. 

The asterisks by a few of the story titles mark those I hadn't previously read; I'll just briefly mention a few of those here.  Some time ago I preordered (and am now anxiously awaiting) Strange Attractor's  edition of Of Kings and Things: Strange Tales and Decadent Poems by Count Eric Stanislaus Stenbockalso edited by David Tibet. Not to steal Strange Attractor's thunder, but if anyone's interested, Snuggly Books has recently published a collection of Stenbock's work called Studies of Death.   If the Stenbock entries in The Moons at Your Door are any hint of what's to come, I'll be freaked out, utterly terrified, and delighted all at the same time. HR Wakefield's two entries reminded me of MR James, perhaps not with as much depth, but both had eerie twists; Aleister Crowley's "The Testament of Magdalen Blair" chilled me to my bones with its implications.   Aickman's "Ravissante" actually woke me up one morning at 4:30 with an "aha" moment; evidently it was strange and powerful enough to have lingered on in my sleeping subconscious after reading it twice.  "Young Tambling" sent me to youtube to listen to the haunting voice of Anne Briggs;  "Couching at the Door" seems mild and even a bit silly at first but don't let it fool you: it hides a darkness that completely crept under my skin and has stayed there. 

I'm now deep into a second round of Current 93's Faust and thinking how sad I am that this book is over, but fortunately all is not lost.  I have Tibet's newest collection, There is a Graveyard That Dwells in Man (also preordered) to look forward to.  I'm just sorry I didn't save The Moons At Your Door for October reading -- it would have been great to include it in the heading-to-Halloween lineup.

One more thing: yes, you may have many of these stories in various anthologies shelved in your library, but the ones you probably don't are well worth the cost of this book.  The Moons At Your Door should be a mainstay in the home libraries of any serious reader of strange/dark/supernatural fiction.




Tuesday, September 11, 2018

two beautiful books from John Gale: Saraband of Sable; A Damask of the Dead

"For do not we all wait for something that we know nothing of, something that has not arrived, and possibly never will."  -- from "Vigil," A Damask of the Dead 



A few months ago for reasons I still can't put my finger on, I picked up a copy of his Saraband of Sable from Egaeus Press (the third book in the Egaeus Press Keynote Edition series), never having read anything by John Gale before that time.  Now I would read anything this man writes.




9780993527890
Egaeus Press, 2018
illustrated by Alfredo Guido
185 pp; hardcover

With absolutely no idea what to expect from this author on opening the book,  it didn't take me long at all to realize that I had something exquisite in my hands. By the time I'd finished it, I was telling everyone and anyone who reads dark/strange/weird fiction that they need to buy a copy of this short but sophisticated, highly-satisfying collection of tales, not just because the stories are so good, but also because of the unique quality of the writing.  I'm actually lost for words in trying to describe it, so perhaps I should refer to the description at Egaeus (from the link above) which says that
"Saraband of Sable presents eight of Gale's sumptuous strange tales; dreamlike at times, dense in their imagery yet delicate as dimming perfume."
It also noted there that the author's "previous collections" ... "garnered praise for their sophisticated and decadent prose styling," and I'd only add that I found a sort of ethereal quality to his work, but it really goes much deeper than any description that my non-writer's head can produce.  The most surprising quality of these stories, though, is that while basking in the sheer beauty of the writing, it's like the clouds lift and there at the heart of each story is the darkness that's been peeking through all along, finally emerging with gut-punching force. And while it seems that we're in the middle of long ago and far away, the essentially-human traits that are represented here are tragic, real and timeless. One more thing -- the incorporation of the natural world flows beautifully through each and every story, as in this description of a city's necropolis:
"... a few do venture here, to tarry for a while amidst the cypress and the ebony poplars, basking in the light which falls here like tarnished copper during the diurnal hours; they are the dreamers that revere the lank and elegant grasses that grow between the monuments of obsidian and chrysoberyl, the grasses that turn from jade to gold during autumn; and they love the jackdaws who inhabit the sable green of the elder yews and who often speak in the voices of the dead through eating the fruits of the trees that look like crimson pearls, the trees whose roots bind tight the ivory bones of the long departed."  (from "Lord of the Porphyry Nenuphar"). 
The truth is that even before finishing Saraband of Sable, I was so enchanted that I absolutely had to have more, so I tracked down a copy of the now out-of-print A Damask of the Dead published by Tartarus.




1872621635
Tartarus Press, 2002
100 pp, hardcover (#136)

The dustjacket blurb really tells you all you need to know about this book:
"The perfumes of the East suffuse these tales, of poets, lovers and kings who, despite the luxury and beauty of their surroundings, desire something beyond."
Immediately we find ourselves standing at the gates of  "Death's City", with "palaces with colonnades flooded with darkness, stretching away into infinity," moving later onto "a castle of many turrets that reared up from a cliff of dark rock," complete with "black tourmaline crypts," at some point reaching an "onyx-domed city."  The fourteen stories in this book transport the reader completely out of this world and into others where sorcery is a natural part of life, where poets can really fall in love with the moon, or where the ghost of a king appears one night to give advice to his son and heir, and more.

Fantastical these stories may be, but they are not breezy tales with rewards at the end; as with Saraband of Sable, there is only tragedy, unhappiness, and darkness to be found within.

On the dustjacket blurb of A Damask of the Dead, Mark Valentine has this to say:
"As Machen has observed, literature consists in the art of telling a wonderful story in a wonderful manner. Few writers today acknowledge the need for either element. John Gale is someone who has mastered both."
I couldn't agree more, and that goes for Saraband of Sable as well.  John Gale is a rare find indeed.

So highly recommended that no scale exists for how highly I recommend these books.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Marvelous Story of Claire D'Amour, by Maurice Magre, adapted by Brian Stableford

9781612276526
Black Coat Press, 2017
254 pp

paperback

"They were all dreamers, and they were there because they had dreamed of the ideal on earth, and were suffering bitterly..." -- 175

After spending the summer exploring other areas of reading interest, I'm back here again with this book, which is the first of twelve in a series exploring the work of Maurice Magre, a French writer, who as Brian Stableford reveals in this book's introduction, was "one of the most far-ranging and extravagant writers of fantastic fiction active in France in the first half of the 20th century," and  "perhaps the finest of them."   The fourteen stories in this book are examples of "contes merveilleux," or "tales of enchantment," but as Stableford notes (and which quickly became obvious once I started reading), some of these are actually quite nihilistic, trending more along of the lines of tales of "disenchantment."  As I also discovered not too far into these tales, he's also on the money when he says that "in Magre's work the tragic component usually outweighs the comedic component, and sometimes swamps it entirely." [For a more complete take on Magre's work, I can point you to Stableford's articles in The New York  Review of Science Fiction  (NYRSF) vols. 341, 342, and 343; the last article is available for free online; the other two you can pick up as pdfs for $3.00 each.]

Before launching into just brief sketches of each story, I'll add here that while not true for every tale, there's no missing the message (as Stableford tells us)  that "amour, although irresistible is invariably fatal because it is blinded by illusion" (NYRSF, 341, 7), which may reflect on events in Magre's own life and how they influenced his fiction.  In the introduction, for example, we learn about the author's breakup with "the first woman with whom he became infatuated as soon as he discovered that she had slept with someone -- someone he found particularly loathsome," and that this same motif also runs "incessantly" through Magre's stories. It may be that the author "changed his philosophy of amorous relationships abruptly in 1903", and if so, it is probably
" not a coincidence that Maurice, in "Histoire merveilleuse de Claire d'Amour" is blinded by illusion, and thus immunized against jealousy. Such, so far as it can be determined, is the personal context of Magre's early fiction, insofar as it deals with claire d'amour -- i.e., the bright light of amour in the broad sense."
Whether or not this background is of interest to anyone else or not, the bottom line is that I fell in love with this book while reading it, and as brutal as it can be sometimes, it is absolutely delightful.

In this collection of tales, it is "amour," "the flower of youth," the power of illusion, and "the ideal" that takes center stage, beginning with "Marcelle."  Unlike the stories that follow it, there are no elements of the fantastic to be found anywhere, just a man whose lover deceives him with other men. He breaks it off in anger, later bemoaning that he'd killed "amour...by virtue of stupidity and pride."  "Doctor Faust's First Love" follows a young student named Fritz in love with the daughter of the local burgomaster, Elsbeth. Sadly, Elsbeth has a "mediocre soul" under her outer beauty and accepts her father's choice of husband, a "rich and aged lord." Fritz, believing that "science and labor might perhaps bring a remedy to his woes," goes to visit local sage Dr. Faust and arrives at just the wrong time. "Marinette and Old Water-Sprite" is a delightful tale about a sad young girl and those who love her, including a water sprite, a simple young man "full of gaiety and charm, and a "very rich lord," born under the sign of Saturn. The centerpiece of the book, and the titular story is next, "The Marvellous Story of Claire D'Amour. "  One would think that when one has Jesus Christ and the Holy Virgin as godparents, life would be great for young Maurice.  It may have been except for the "gift of illusion" bestowed upon him by the Sandman that will permit Maurice "never to see life as it is." When he meets and falls in love with the poor, amoral but beautiful Claire, that extra gift will cost him.   Beyond excellent, it is my favorite story in the book and while this one is definitely on the nihilistic side, it is a joy to read.


Maurice Magre, from Black Coat Press

"The Toy Merchant" is the story of Lubin and Colette, who vow as children to love each other forever.  It starts out sweetly enough and then BAM!, end of that.  How I won't say, but it's another good one.  Next up is "The Story of Lili-Des-Roses and the Black Prince," in which Lili, "the glory of the country" scorns the simple pastor Jean-des-Bois and his "limitless love for her" in favor of the black prince"because he is rich."   This one is followed by "The Poor Musician and the Little Genie," which also touches on amour but also something a bit different -- the love and dedication of an artist for his art.  "The Flower of Youth" comes next, a true quest story in which young Joël must find the flower of youth in order to marry Princess Raphaële, who has sworn to love only the "King of France, the Devil," or the man who brings her this treasure.  She is, of course, taking advantage of his "naivety" and being cruel, but he doesn't know this, and off he goes, abandoning everything previously dear to him in his search.  A very twisty ending has this one, catching me completely by surprise.  In "The Story of an Unlucky Grenadier," a young man who has, since childhood, had the worst luck ever, desperately wants to impress the parents of the woman he loves after they refuse to consent to the marriage.  All I'll say about this story is that maybe he should have rethought that idea.  "The Doll" is its own way a poignant story, focusing on a man whose attraction to a beautiful actress causes him to rethink his career choices in order to get her attention while he wonders what he can do to make her love him.   "The Goatherd King" has a lovely touch of irony, beginning with a prophecy made to young Eloi by a witch who reveals that he is destined to be a king; this is followed by "The Last Siren" who is discovered by a man in the Seine after deciding to end it all.  Finally, the end of this book offers  "Jeannett's Three Professions," reminding me a bit of a rather twisted "Parable of the Talents."

I can't begin to say how very much I enjoyed this book and how I looked forward to coming back to it every time I had to put it down.  I've been stockpiling books from this series for a while, and now that I've had my first taste of Magre, I don't doubt that I'll be reading as many of them as I can.

yes, yes, yes, highly recommended.