Monday, April 6, 2020

and now, for some well-earned (but really good) fluff: Strange Island Stories (ed.) Jonathan E Lewis

9781944520434
Stark House Press, 2018
342 pp

paperback



"We have come to the devil's workshop. All the horrors of the inferno are invented here."

The truth of the matter is that sometimes I just need fluff.  Fluff fluff fluff fluffity fluff. And right now, with coronavirus stress alive and well in our home, this book was just what the doctor ordered.  From the very first I was completely sucked in, able to forget about grocery store shortages and face masks for the duration (although I did clean the book with a Lysol wipe before opening).   Reading old horrorish-slash-weird pulp makes me feel good for some reason.  I've never analyzed as to why, but as long as it does the trick, who cares?

As editor Jonathan E. Lewis says in his introduction (which you can read without fear of spoilers),
"The strange island short story form, like the island novel, utilizes island locations to examine human society and human nature.  But it pushes beyond that and and takes the reader on a journey into the weird, the bizarre, the scary, and the unsettling."
All of those categories -- "the weird, the bizarre, the scary, and the unsettling" are well represented here over the course of these twenty stories.   Of course, as it is an anthology, there are some that I didn't care for but that's a matter of personal preference.  On the whole, the editor has done a fine job finding and compiling these strange tales, the majority of which I'd never read before.  The table of contents reads like a who's who of short story creepiness,  featuring stories by such greats as Edward Bulwer Lytton (here simply Edward Bulwer for authenticity's sake), MP Shiel, John Buchan, Frank Norris, Algernon Blackwood and Henry S. Whitehead (and others), and then some names that were not as well known to me including  Henry Toke Munn, Fred M. White, and George G. Toudouze, among others.  Lewis also includes one of his own stories at the end of the book as well as introducing each tale. 

Of the twenty stories in this book, I've previously read four: "Monos and Daimonos," by Edward Bulwer,  "Hugenin's Wife," by MP Shiel, "The Camp of the Dog," by Algernon Blackwood, and Lovecraft's "Dagon."   Of the remaining sixteen, I'll  list only my favorites, presented in reading order.   First up is McTeague author Frank Norris' "The Ship That Saw a Ghost,"  in which a group of men sail away to complete a secret venture guaranteed to bring riches.  Their destination:
"...that region of the Great Seas where no ship goes, the silent sea of Coleridge and the Ancient One, the unplumbed, untracked, uncharted Dreadfulness, primordial, hushed,"
where they were "alone as a grain of star-dust whirling in the empty space beyond Uranus and the ken of the greater telescopes."   Of course, there's a hitch -- and serious repercussions.    "Island of Ghosts" by Julian Hawthorne, son of Nathaniel, is next, and it is indeed a truly creepy story of a young woman who decides to go and spend some time on an island reputed to be haunted.  Hawthorne delivers a tension-ratcheting tale here with an ending I did not see coming.  When I started reading "Spirit Island" by Henry Toke Munn I was hit with a wave of "I've read this before," but I really hadn't.  The more I thought about it the more I realized that it had some of the same vibe as Dan Simmons' The Terror, at least for a while.  This was my favorite story, and it takes the form of a narrative of a man's complete and utterly terrifying adventure in the Arctic which he expects that no one will believe. However, if anyone ever does and decides to send someone to check it out in the future, he notes, don't bother asking him to go along.  All I will divulge is that when your Eskimo companions tell you that a particular island is taboo, and you go anyway, well, that's on you.  "The Purple Terror" by Fred M. White is another good one, making its debut in The Strand in September 1899.  Set in the Caribbean during the Spanish-American War, Lieutenant Will Scarlett is given a mission to carry a letter from his captain to an Admiral waiting for it across the isthmus.  The trek will involve covering some "fifty miles through practically unexplored country,"  and the trouble begins when Scarlett and his men stop for the night and decide to "join the giddy throng" of people at a bar and Scarlett just happens to notice the "purple band of flowers," the likes of which he'd never seen before, twined around a dancer's shoulders.   He also notices that they have the "perfume of a corpse."  I shall say no more except that had I seen a movie based on this story  on one of those tv shows I used to watch as a kid where they ran back to back science fiction/horror movies, I would have been beyond delighted. 


from Culture Trip

The final story I count among the chilling standouts in this volume is "Three Skeleton Key" by French writer George G. Toudouze.  Although in this day and age elements of this story might come across as old hat, but published in 1937, it had to have been horrific in its day.  The action takes place in a lighthouse on a rock island out in the ocean, where a group of three men are completely happy with their isolated life there,  until one day when they see a ship heading straight toward them.  The ship, it seems, has no crew, but that does not mean that there are not passengers aboard. "Three Skeleton Key" was later adapted for radio,  with the broadcast starring none other than Vincent Price.  You can listen to one of these shows here at Journey Into, but I will warn you that the story is abridged, changed quite a bit, and doesn't quite convey the horror of the situation.  On the other hand, back before television, it must have caused quite a stir sitting in the living room at night listening.

Honorable mention to Jack London's "Good-by, Jack" a rather poignant story disguising the horror that doesn't hit until the very end, at which point I was in shock.

With the exception of "The Fiend of the Cooperage" by Conan Doyle (I just thought it was strange but I wasn't enthralled)  all of the rest of the stories (listed below)  are quite good.  Two exceptions come in the form of futuristic, scifi-ish pulpy tales, "Friend Islandand "In the Land of Tomorrow," simply because I am not particularly fond of this sort of thing as a general rule, although I'm sure they will delight true pulp fans who are.


"The Gray Wolf," by George MacDonald 
"The Isle of Voices," by Robert Louis Stevenson (this one made me laugh in parts, actually)
"Dagon" by HP Lovecraft 
"The People of Pan," by Henry S. Whitehead 
"The Sixth Gargoyle," by David Eynon (mystery writers take note: great plot possibilities here)
"The Isle of Doom" by James Francis Dwyer

and 

"An Adriatic Awakening," by Jonathan E Lewis -- a bit jarring because of moving into modern times, but still a pleasure.


Stark House is one of my very favorite indie presses and I love their crime novels; this is my first foray into the other genres they cover.  Strange Island Stories is delightful and should be a no-miss for readers who love old pulp horror or pulp weird tales;  Lewis has done a terrific job putting it together.  


Friday, April 3, 2020

The Child Cephalina, by Rebecca Lloyd

9781912586202
Tartarus Press, 2019
260 pp

hardcover


"One mistake begats another in those folk who are blinded by their own desires." 

Mid-century Victorian London is the setting for this thoroughly disquieting but captivating novel which will not release you from its grip until you've read the very last word.  Even then it may take some time; it is so cleverly done and so unsettling that in my case, it was impossible to stop thinking about it long after I'd finished.

Narrator Robert Groves is a bachelor living in a house near Russell Square.  With the help of his housekeeper Tetty Brandling and a young boy by the name of Martin Ebast, he's spent the last three years interviewing "children of the streets" as part of his research for his forthcoming book Wretched London, The Story of the City's Invisible Children.   Every Sunday Martin rounds up and brings a small group of these children to Groves' house on Judd Street; it is on one of these days that young Cephalina first appears.  It is apparent to everyone that she isn't a part of that day's group of "nippers;" the first things Tetty and Martin notice are her clean, recently-washed and plaited hair as well as the "slender and white" hands that are "delicately formed" and obviously unused to street dirt or hard work.  Groves is more than fascinated, Tetty is suspicious, and Cephalina offers little information about herself except that she lives in Hackney with her guardians the Clutchers, for whom she does some sort of work and that she has a twin she calls "E." When she returns to Judd Street a second time, she adds a bit more to (and changes part of)  her story; further visits with Robert reveal a bit more about her life with the Clutchers and a strange bond develops between the two.  In the meantime, Tetty has enough on her plate dealing with the stress caused by an embarrassing lack of funds required to run the household, and the tension between Tetty and Robert escalates as Tetty tries to warn Robert about the "sordid child," who has "too much knowing about her" and  he refuses to listen.  He  credits  her fear to her "superstitious nature," failing to notice just how deeply afraid she is of Cephalina.  Ignoring Tetty and her warnings, his obsession with and devotion to the young "waif"  grows ever stronger, as does his desire to help her, which in his own words, leads him to a "sorry mess indeed."   That is seriously all I'm going to say about the plot -- it's better to go into this book knowing as little as possible.

 I normally shy away from modern writers' work set in Victorian England, because I'm a huge reader of Victorian fiction and some of these people just do not get things right.  That is not true in this case --  Rebecca Lloyd has done great things here. Her depiction of Victorian London is striking, not just in her descriptions of the "dirty, grit-filled fog," the "stench of the Thames" or the "incessant din" that could drive a person mad, but she also captures the current mood of the city, for example, in the excitement over the new Crystal Palace, or the "giant wave of spiritualism" which had found its way into London over the past three years, along with its adherents, practitioners and critics.  Her characters are substantial and realistic as individuals, but it's in the various relationships she's created between them where they thrive and give this novel meaning.   But by far the author's greatest achievement is in her ability to keep the reader on edge  as she cleverly puts together a story in which she has interwoven a number of things left unsaid, things kept hidden,  misperceptions,  misjudgments, and above all, the mystery of the enigma that is Cephalina.  From the beginning she leaves the reader with the feeling that there is something a bit off about this strange girl, and continues to heighten our interest in her by revealing her story slowly and only in small bits at a time.  The same is true in the slight scattering of clues that she leaves for the reader to follow to the chilling and shocking end.

I'm just a reader (and a casual one at that),  not a critic, but I know when I've found something of quality  and this is definitely it, a book that tells me that the author is indeed a master of her craft.   The Child Cephalina at times feels like an old serial cliffhanger, and inevitably I read it into the wee hours of the morning, unable to put it down.  It kept me guessing, very much on edge, and when that last page was turned at 4 a.m. I just sat there unable to even think of sleeping.

Very, very highly recommended.  You will want to read this book.  Trust me.  It's unlike anything I've read before.




Monday, March 30, 2020

Wisteria Cottage, by Robert M. Coates


9781948405607
Valancourt Books, 2020
originally published 1948
189 pp

paperback



"I knew there was some way that they could be saved." 


It was the second day of Richard Baurie's three-day walking trip in the Long Island Sound area when he first came upon Wisteria Cottage, set among the dunes overlooking the beach below.  It was that moment when,  according to the small bit of the Psychiatrist's Report which opens this novel, "even though faintly," a  "criminal intention" first entered his brain.  There is no clue as to what his "criminal intention" may have been, nor as to why Richard even merits a psychiatrist's report, but it should be apparent at once that we're not dealing with someone psychologically sound here. I have to say up front that Wisteria Cottage is disturbing with a capital D, because from the very beginning the author places his readers into the mind of this young man whose sense of reality is seriously distorted, and keeps us there as Richard's  mind begins to slowly but steadily unravel and deteriorate over the course of the summer spent at Wisteria Cottage.

Richard, who writes poetry and has a part-time job at a bookstore in New York City, has inveigled his way into the lives of  Florence Hackett and her adult daughters Louisa and Elinor.  He'd met Florence at a grocery store, and it didn't take long until he'd "come to have the run of the apartment."   It was on the night before his three-day trip that Florence had happened to mention to Richard that while he was away he might look for  a "nice place" for them to rent for a month or so, offering Richard the opportunity to spend summer weekends with them.   Having discovered Wisteria Cottage, Richard feels that now
"all he wanted in the world, at this moment, was to have them rent the place for the summer, and for him to spend the summer there with them.  It was the right thing, the perfect thing; more than that it was the just thing for them to do."
Being with the Hacketts at the cottage, he believes, would "straighten them out, quell the evil forces that were working among them."

What he views as these "evil forces working among them" I won't divulge and nor will I say anything more about the plot.  I will only add that in his self-appointed quest to "save" these women,  the "summer of pleasant companionship and fun" the Hacketts are expecting will turn out to be anything but as "their relaxing summer holiday will soon turn into a terrifying nightmare."




from Buckingham Books

In her informative introduction which should not be missed but read after finishing this book, Professor Mathilde Roza states that the most "memorable aspect" of Wisteria Cottage is the "approach" taken by the author:  "never hysterical but always low-key," and quotes Commonweal's remark that in this book
"No tiled asylums, no mental bedlams are employed to wring the reader's emotions"
 and once I'd read the intro,  I realized that yes, this sentence describes to a tee why I found this book so disturbing.   I've read plenty of fiction that hones in on the disintegration of an individual's psyche, but Richard Baurie's case so unnerved me to the point that I had to make this a daytime-only read.    Professor Roza  also explains how the novel reflects concerns extant in post-World War II America, including "popular culture's deepening interest in psychiatry and psychoanalysis," which is very much apparent throughout the story.

  Very highly recommended, but beware -- it took everything I had and several days after reading Wisteria Cottage to get it out from under my skin.  As I said -- disturbing with a capital D.

******



from Film Noir of the Week


I also watched the film based on this novel, Edge of Fury (1958), and whoever chose Michael Higgens to play the role of Richard totally nailed it.    It's available on youtube.  

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

WB Yeats: Stories of Red Hanrahan, The Secret Rose, and Rosa Alchemica

"O Divine Rose of Intellectual Flame, let the Gates of thy peace be opened to me at last!
                       "Out of the Rose," from The Secret Rose



Never having been much of a poetry person, I was a bit taken aback when I discovered that WB Yeats also wrote some pretty strange fiction.   The truth is that he wouldn't have even come up on my reading radar had it not been for the essays about him I read in  The Library of the Lost: In Search of Forgotten Authors  by Roger Dobson (ed. Mark Valentine), where I learned about his work The Secret Rose. 

9780486493817
Dover, 2013
originally published by Macmillan, 1914
119 pp
paperback


I picked up the Dover edition containing The Secret Rose and Rosa Alchemica, but never one to read just part of a book, I began with Yeats'  Stories of Red Hanrahan, which starts like this:
"Hanrahan, the hedge schoolmaster, a tall, strong, red-haired young man, came into the barn where some of the men of the village were sitting on Samhain Eve."
I knew with just that opening sentence that something supernatural or at least strange was about to happen -- it's Samhain Eve after all.

 I wasn't wrong: after a card game with some of the fellows and an "old mountainy man" who owns the deck, Hanrahan is told to follow the "great hunt" that ensues when a hare leaps out of the cards, quickly followed by a dog and then an entire pack of hounds.  Hanrahan leaves the barn, but in the darkness quickly loses the hounds.  What he does find, however, as he sits in the heather "in the heart of Slieve Echtge," is a door with a light behind it.  Judging by what happens next, it seems that this itinerant schoolmaster has discovered an entrance to the Otherworld (here in the form of "big shining house"); on entering within, he notices a woman, "the most beautiful the world ever saw," with "the tired look of one that had been waiting."  Unbeknownst to Hanrahan, on entering this doorway he has entered into the realm of immortals --  the beautiful woman is "Echtge, the Daughter of the Silver Hand;" aka daughter of  Nuada, one-time king of the Tuatha dé Danann and therefore a goddess. Four old women appear, and with each appearance he is presented with a sort of test which he promptly fails. He is found "weak," and wanting, but even worse, his failure causes this goddess to remain asleep. His failure also has personal consequences;   Hanrahan must somehow make up for his fault;  throughout his wanderings,  he is bound to never know "content for any length of time..."   This first tale is key to what follows, a series of short tales that contain a blending of traditional, political, and mystical elements that weave their way through an entire Hanrahan story cycle.  It also seems to have elements of the traditional Romantic quest, albeit one that is interior and suffused throughout with the occult. 


from Ask About Ireland

The Secret Rose is described by the author himself as having "but one subject, the war of spiritual with natural order." In his dedication of this group of stories to A.E., aka George William Russell, Yeats notes that
"If a writer wishes to interest a certain people among whom he has grown up, or fancies he has a duty towards them, he may choose for the symbols of his art their legends, their history, their beliefs, their opinions.."
and goes on to say that "as this book is visionary, it is Irish for Ireland, which is still predominantly Celtic" and that it preserves "a gift of vision, which has died out among more hurried and more successful nations."

One of my favorite stories in this group of tales that illuminates all of this  is  "The Wisdom of the King," which begins with the "High-Queen of Ireland" having died in childbirth.  Her son was given in the care of a woman who lived in the woods, and  who one night was visited by a "grey-clad woman, of great age.." who had grey feathers on her head instead of hair.   Calling herself a "crone of the grey hawk," she places herself at the head of the baby's cradle.  The hut soon fills with a number of these women, and they proceed to mix their grey blood, a drop at a time, with the baby's; he is now imbued with their knowledge, their wisdom.   As he gets older, his head begins to sport grey hawk feathers; when he is old enough to rule in the place of his now-dead father, "the poets and the men of law" decreed that everyone (even visitors outside the realm who come to seek his wisdom)  "upon pain of death" had to weave into his or hair the feathers of the grey hawk.  Furthermore, anyone who told the boy the truth was to be "flung from a cliff into the sea."  You can only imagine what happens when he learns of the deception.

 These nine stories are like taking a mythical/mystical spin through history and tradition and they speak to an older wisdom, the knowledge of which only few are gifted and thus live a rather isolated life; sacrifices are made, and individuals take part in their own spiritual or mystical quests for the ideal. They were also my favorite part of this book. 

After finishing The Secret Rose, I started researching what to look forward to in Rosa Alchemica, and realized that this Dover edition did not include either "The Tables of the Law" or "The Adoration of the Magi," so I picked up Mythologies, which does. 

9780684826219
Simon and Schuster, 1998
originally published 1959
368 pp
paperback

It also contains Celtic Twilight and the mind-bending (and patience-expending) Per Amica Silentia Lunae, but I won't comment on either here.

 With  these last three stories, we delve deep into the realm of the alchemical, the mystical, and the apocalyptic.   The narrator of "Rosa Alchemica", who reminds me a bit of Huysmans' Des Esseintes because of his need to "fashion" his life according to his desire,  is sitting in quiet reverie in his Dublin home when he is interrupted by a knock at the door.  His visitor is a certain Michael Robartes, who is there to ask him yet again if he would join Robartes' Order of the Alchemical Rose.  He had declined earlier in Paris, and now asks Robartes why he would say yes when he'd already refused him? But become an initiate he does, or at least he's on the way to doing so at a temple on the coast when it seems as though all hell breaks loose. It's the inner workings of the ceremonies at the Temple of the Alchemical Rose which are fascinating here, but the ending speaks volumes as well.

 The same narrator appears again in  "The Tables of the Law" and "The Adoration of the Magi."  In the first story, rather than Robartes, it is Owen Aherne who appears to introduce his own mystical/spiritual philosophy.  Based on the writings of Joachim of Flora, an abbot of the twelfth century, his proposed system picks up Joachim's more heretical beliefs (from a secret book) that will displace "the commandments of the Son by the commandments of the Holy Spirit," and usher in a new age. Things, of course, go terribly wrong.  In the second, our narrator is once again in the company of visitors, three elderly brothers who tell him that they were there to reveal "important things."  Their strange story begins as one of the brothers fell asleep while  reading Virgil and a "strange voice spoke through him," bidding them to
set out for Paris, where a dying woman would give them secret names and thereby so transform the world that another Leda would open her knees to the swan, another Achilles beleaguer Troy."
Their travels take them to a brothel where a prostitute has just given birth; it seems that now "the Immortals are beginning to awake."  Or at least one that can "take many forms."

I have to say that this has been my first Yeats experience, and I do not claim to understand all of it, but I do have a newly-found reverence for Yeats scholars who do.  Still, it was absolutely a trip to read, and this book was definitely an experience most fascinating and one I'll never forget. It took me a long time to go through this one, stopping to check on various references here and there, but even with my limited understanding it is a book that I can certainly recommend. 



Sunday, December 22, 2019

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

9780712352529
British Library, 2019
318 pp

paperback

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

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

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




from The Telegraph

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



from the Library of Congress


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


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


Sunday, December 15, 2019

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

9780712353304
British Library, 2019
317 pp

paperback

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

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

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

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


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


from Business Mirror

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



Saturday, December 14, 2019

Animals of the Exodus, by Alexander Zelenyj


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


(read earlier this year)


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

We belong somewhere, too."




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




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

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

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


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