Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Soul of Countess Adrian, by Rosa Campbell Praed

CreateSpace, 2017
originally published 1891
152 pp


"Soul somehow was the last attribute one would associate with Countess Adrian."   -- 23

This book was meant to be part of my "brain break" after a very full 2017 reading year, but the "brain break" idea sort of backfired.  Not that it isn't fun, and not that it isn't an easy read, but as I discovered, there's plenty of food for thought in this short novel  that takes place among the "upper Bohemia" set in London.  If you google the title, you may find the word "vampire" used more than once, but don't get your hopes up for the blood-sucking variety -- that's not exactly where Praed takes this story.  It is, as my edition's back-cover blurb states, "A tale where love and the occult collide;" the "vampire kiss" is only a part of a much larger picture.

Information about Rosa Campbell-Praed's life can be found here at the website for the National Library of Australia.  In terms of her interest in the supernatural, the article reveals that after she'd married, she and her husband were living on an "almost uninhabited"  Curtis Island, off the coast of Queensland where he owned a cattle station.  Often feeling isolated and lonely, we are told in this article that
"At her lowest and loneliest moments on Curtis Island, Rosa turned to her dead mother for help. The message of hope she received, she recorded in automatic writing ... This was the first step in what was to become, in later life, an almost overwhelming interest in the supernatural in its many forms, from the messages of mediums, the predictions of astrologers, spiritualism, occultism, theosophy, reincarnation, as well as the Catholic religion."
 She may be most familiar to readers as the author of the short story "The Bunyip," which has been anthologized several times.

Rosa Campbell Praed

Our story, as I said, is set in the milieu of "upper Bohemia," where
"...mummers, novelists, poets, artists, dilettanti members of parliament, and sensation-hunting visitants from a more aristocratic sphere, made a brave show in the spacious drawing rooms."
It is a place of "at-homes," and it is at one of these gatherings that we first encounter Countess Adrian.  The new girl in town, also at the same gathering is young Beatrice Brett, an American woman and aspiring actress, to whom we are first introduced as she makes the crossing from New York to Southampton.  It is there that she encounters the painter Bernard Lendon, who is taken with her immediately.  These three characters comprise the "He, She, and Another -- the triangle of the human drama!" at the center of this novel.

I don't really want to give away too much of what happens in this book but while it's a fun novel of the occult on its surface, populated with a number of strange characters, in this story it's really about what's happening underneath.   Beatrice (aka Beaty)  is a vulnerable, innocent young woman, with whom the upper Bohemian set is quite taken.  She is a medium as well as an actress with the ability to channel spirits which provide her with "inspiration" for her unscripted performances, during which  Beatrice becomes "unconscious of herself, unconscious of her surroundings."  Beaty's mother evidently shared the same gift, but the "influences" that inspire Beaty drove her mother insane.  As Beaty's uncle reveals, she was an "idle woman," but Beaty's safeguard is acting:  "As long as she keeps real grip on her work she has nothing to be afraid of."  As her uncle also reveals, Beaty has a certain form of  "genius,"
"... the unconscious power of access to the highest influences of the past - a power as rare as are the Talmas and the Siddons themselves. It's the open door through which these bodiless beings from the other side can enter into our world again - the body by which they can vent their unsatisfied cravings and pent-up aspirations." (29)
Beaty at one point reveals to Lendon that she often feels as though she has no soul of her own; that when she is inspired while doing a part, it is
"the soul of someone else which has come in to the help of mine, or has driven mine out for the moment," 
She also knows that any power that she might have as "great actress" would lie in the power of these spirits, "ghosts" as she calls them,  a situation which Lendon compares with the legend of Paganini's violin:
"...Paganini had contrived, by some unearthly arts, to conjure the soul of his dying sweetheart into his violin, and that marvellous (sic) music which the instrument gave out ever after was the wail of the soul eternally imprisoned within it."  
Beatrice lives for her art; love is not in the cards for her immediate future and she has no "room for any slighter affection," since she is sure that any man "would be jealous of my Art," and that there would "hardly be space enough" in her life for both.

   In contrast to the vulnerable Beatrice stands Countess Adrian. Born in Jamaica, she is the exotic "other" in this case,  a woman whose obvious sexuality, passion and very presence reveal a strength capable of mesmerizing those with whom she comes into contact, and I don't use the word "mesmerizing" lightly. She has a checkered past that keeps her as a hot topic of gossip in the drawing rooms of upper Bohemia; she also has a strange yet personal interest in Theophile Gautier's Avatar, the "vampire spirits" of "Sheridan Le Fanu's story," and the teachings of the occultist Maddox Challis, a friend of Beatrice's family.   In the first encounter between the two women, the Countess, who is  watching Beatrice perform one of her improvisations for the first time, interrupts the spirit flow in a most unusual way, as if she were "quenching the girl's inspiration and forcing her soul back to the commonplace." When the connection is broken, Beatrice suffers a minor breakdown.   Beatrice understands completely that this woman has some strange power over her and asks Lendon to be there for her to stand between herself and the Countess; Lendon humors her and speaks to the Countess, but what Lendon views as "fancy," is for Beatrice a true life-threatening situation.

 As Andrew McCann notes in his excellent book Popular Literature, Authorship and The Occult in Late Victorian Britain,  Praed's story can be viewed in part as
"an account of the aesthetic as a background for opposed sensibilities, each a form of possession," (126)
and there's much,  much more going on as well for those who want to explore underneath its surface.  I had  great fun with it both times through. But most intriguing is this: there is a very short line I missed in the first reading,   in one scene where Lendon and the Countess are talking, where she says that she and "this Agnes Adrian had "gone through a good deal together."  It begs the question of not only who or what is this Countess Adrian, but also, if indeed, she ever had a soul.

Readers of gothic, supernatural and Victorian sensation novels will enjoy this book; I definitely recommend it.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

and another by Andrew Michael Hurley, Devil's Day

John Murray, 2017
295 pp

"Like salt boiled out of water, these things remain. Everything else has evaporated."

read in December

Andrew Michael Hurley is a gifted author; there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that I will be reading every book this man writes.  He has this uncanny ability to bring nature and landscape to life to the point where they are inextricably bound to plot and characters.  The Loney  is a perfect example of how he does this, and he's managed it once again here, in Devil's Day, set in a remote farming village in Northern Lancashire.

The book starts out with a bang.  As the back cover blurb reveals, "All stories in the valley have to begin with the Devil,"  and this one is no exception:
"One late October day, just over a century ago, the farmers of the Endlands went to gather their sheep from the woods as they did every autumn. Only this year, while the shepherds were pulling a pair of wayward lambs from a peat bog, the Devil killed one of the ewes and tore off her fleece to hide himself among the flock." 
According to the legend, the Devil moved down among "the heathen folk of the Endlands," to become "the maggot in the eye of the good dog, the cancer that rotted the ram's gonads, the blood in the baby's milk."  There are hundreds of stories that can be told about this place, but as our narrator, John Pentecost, reveals,
"The problem is that in the Endlands one story begs the telling of another and another and in all of them the Devil plays his part."
Things pick up from this point, beginning with the return of John to his family home for the funeral of his grandfather that everyone called "The Gaffer."  He has brought his pregnant wife Kat with him; they plan to stay on for the traditional "Devil's Day" celebration, which is built on more rural myth about the "Owd Feller" being driven away for another year, and return to their normal lives once everything is over.  However, a number of strange things begin to happen during their stay there that defy explanation, leading the reader to ponder whether they're of this world, or whether the Owd Feller has put on his fleece once again and taken his place among these people.

At the very core of this story, which completely envelops the reader in the Endlands, its mythologies, and its history, is John's return home.  Watching his father trying to manage the family farm under adverse conditions  after the death of the Gaffer tugs at something within him that had been trying to surface since John and Kat's wedding.   And while this book definitely has all of the trappings of a horror or supernatural tale, it comes down to a question of family ties and tradition, memory, and the legacy of one's ancestors. As in The Loney, the author once again does his beautiful thing with opposites, to explore tradition and change, insiders and those who don't belong, as well as a number of other issues that crop up throughout the story.  He also sets up the narrative to move between present and past as he explores the secrets held in this place.

I can't really explain in writer or reviewer terms (because I'm neither -- just an average reader person) the depth that this man can reach in his writing but his ability to get there is, for me, what sets him apart from a number of writers at work these days.  When I said above that he "envelops the reader," I meant exactly that.  I'm there in the Endlands and I'm just as steeped in rural mythology/tradition as the locals. I felt the cold during the big snowstorm.  On and on.   Now, having said that, I felt that the pace of this novel was just plain dragging in parts -- it starts out so well and is so lovely, and then it slows to where a snail could have traveled the distance of the Endlands before things picked up again.  And then there's the constant telegraphing of  John and Kat's future (no surprise there) and as I'd waited for an explanation of how all that came about, I was rather disappointed that it was all tied up in a few paragraphs.  To add to my disappointment, the story of John's boyhood was rather obvious in how things were all going to turn out -- it was almost to the point where I'm just like "get it over already, since I know what's going to happen."  On the other hand, the big secret that lies at the bottom of what happens in this book was well done, and completely unexpected, and added a new dimension to several questions I had while reading.

So I'm sort of torn -- I love the writing, I love the central focus of this book, I love the landscape.  I wasn't exactly enamored of parts of this story, which I thought could have been handled better. What can I say? I'm a picky audience.  However, yes to recommending this book, because this man is an author to keep an eye on, and no one should bypass the first two novels or any that he plans to write in the future. I don't often find novelists I admire this much, and even though I had issues with Devil's Day, in the long run it's all about the writing for me.

Monday, January 1, 2018

The Loney, by Andrew Michael Hurley

John Murray, 2015
originally published by Tartarus Press, 2014
360 pp


"...there was so little of the modern world there that it was difficult not to think of the place being at a sort of standstill ... primed in some way." 

I turned the last page of this novel yesterday evening, and said out loud to absolutely no one "That was a great book."   The big surprise is that it is Hurley's first novel; I say surprise because it is beyond rare that I find a debut so polished and so near-perfect.  The only negative thing I have to say about this book is about its ending, but by then I was already so entrenched in the story and so in love with the writing that  I just did not care.

It was somewhere around page 90 that I noted on my GR status update that what really struck me at the time was how the author set up a number of dualities in this story, and from there they only intensified. Opposing forces are definitely at work throughout this novel,  which is the story related by the narrator about events that happened  thirty years earlier when a small group of Catholic parishioners decided to make a pilgrimage to visit the shrine of St. Anne on the northern Lancashire coast in an area known as the Loney.  The narrator, who we know only as Smith or Tonto, was a teen at the time; he, along with his parents and his brother Andrew, known as Hanny, who had not spoken a word since he was born, make up part of the group. There, Hanny's mother will have him once again drink the holy waters of the shrine; the trip would also serve as a sort of remembrance of the now-deceased Father Wilfred, who would take a group there on retreat at Easter, a tradition "very dear to Wilfred's heart."  Leading the group is Father Bernard, who had been assigned to take Father Wilfred's place.  It turns out though, that Father Bernard's ideas aren't resting well with some of these people, none the least of whom is Hanny's mother, resistant to change, who thinks things ought to be left the way they were.   While Father Wilfred may be dead, he continues to haunt not only this group of people, but the Loney itself as well.     Of course, things don't go as smoothly as planned, not just among the adults, but for the two boys  who become caught up in things well beyond their control and above all, their understanding.

As I said, there are a number of opposites that coexist in this novel, including insiders and outsiders; superstition and traditional practices as opposed to Catholic beliefs; faith and certainty;  change and tradition, and the author uses these to great effect throughout the story, exemplified strongly in the two houses which feature prominently here, The Moorings and Thessaly.

 What Mr. Hurley does best, however,  is to translate the very landscape of the Loney into language so that we can visualize it as  "a dangerous place. A wild and useless length of the English coastline," with tides which could "come in quicker than a horse could run..." isolating the small spit of land known as Coldbarrow by making it an island.  Its marshes seem to be aware of one's presence; they are
" a dark and watchful place that seemed to have become adept at keeping grim secrets; secrets that were half heard in the whispered shibboleths that passed from one bank of dry reeds to the other." 
There are dunes that cast lengthening shadows, there are "sprouts of marram grass" here; the wind has a number of different voices.  The beach during the rain
"turned to brown sludge, and the dunes ruptured and sometimes crumbled altogether, so that the sea and the marsh water united in vast lakes, undulating with the carcasses of uprooted trees and bright red carrageen ripped from the sea bed." (74)
Most of all though, we come to understand it as a place that hides secrets and one that has its own pulse that beats under the surface: as our narrator notes, it's where "A sudden mist, a mumble of thunder over the sea, the wind scurrying along the beach"  could be all one needed "to make you feel as though something was about to happen." 

I could spend days talking about this book because  it is absolutely beautiful in the telling.  There are a number of things that happen here that when put together, combine to create a dark atmosphere that doesn't let up until the last pages.  I'm left with the idea that there are some things for which in the Loney  there are no clear explanations; then again, I think that's part of the point. I loved this book.  Go into it with no expectations, and the book speaks loudly and clearly to you.

highly, very highly, recommended. This is definitely going on my real-world book group's lineup.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories, Volume Two (ed.) Allen Grove

Valancourt Books, 2017
230 pp


"For our own part, we believe in ghosts."
                       -- from "A Real Country Ghost Story," by Albert Smith

On December 22nd, I baked scones, brewed tea, snuggled up in my leather wingback chair and started reading. I'd had this book in my possession for a while, but I'd saved it, having made a plan to finish  the last few stories on December 24th, so that I could try to catch at least a tiny measure of the Christmas Eve ghost story feel. As it turns out, I did finish late on Christmas Eve, and the only thing that could have made my experience any better than it was would have a been a roaring fire with the sound of wood crackling and embers popping as it burns.

part of my British Reading Room (aka the former living room)

All of that was just ambiance though; it's fun to close your eyes and imagine, as editor Allen Grove says in his introduction (quoting from Henry James' The Turn of the Screw),
"a group of men and women sitting 'round the fire, sufficiently breathless' as they share strange tales in an old house on Christmas Eve."
The stories in this book are an excellent sampling of ghostly tales appearing in Victorian periodicals, ranging from some with darkly-comic edges to full-on hauntings to vengeful spirits.  I counted ten separate publications from which these fifteen stories were taken, including Bentley's Miscellany, The London Society Christmas Number, and Belgravia's Christmas Annual, to name only three.  And while that's all part of what makes this book special, the truth is that it can be read and enjoyed any time of the year by anyone who has a deep and abiding fondness for these old tales.  As Grove reveals,
"Ghost stories are meant to surprise and scare us, but at the same time their conventions bring a certain level of pleasure in their familiarity.  The stories here don't disappoint on this front,"
citing "vacant old houses" with cheap rents, "secret rooms and hidden staircases,"...and many other pleasurable chills and thrills.  And for me, there's the added attraction of discovering new stories "by little known or anonymous authors," whose work resonates in  "echoes"  found in  more "popular and influential writers of dark and disturbing tales."  (12,13) 

from The Life Adjunct

The fifteen stories are as follows:

"A Real Country Ghost Story," by Albert Smith
"The Ghost of the Treasure-Chamber," by Emily Arnold
 "Number Two, Melrose Square," by Theo Gift
"The Weird Violin," Anonymous
"Walsham Grange," by E. Morant Cox
"Haunted!" by Coulson Kernahan
"The Steel Mirror," by W.W. Fenn
"White Satin" Anonymous
"Nicodemus," by Alfred Crowquill
"Wolverden Tower," by Grant Allen
"Christmas Eve in Beach House," by Eliza Lynn Linton
"The Necromancer," by Isabella F. Romer
"The Veiled Portrait," by James Grant
"The Ghost Chamber," by Anonymous
"A Terrible Retribution; or, Squire Orton's Ghost," by A.S.

I loved each and every story, and there is not a bad one to be found in the entire book.  As far as personal favorites go, it's very tough to choose. In my top three are ""Wolverden Tower," for several reasons aside from the chills it produced,  "The Ghost of the Treasure-Chamber,"  its "doggerel" verse included (I love clue-like "doggerel" verses in stories), and  "Number Two, Melrose Square,"  which is referred to in the pre-story blurb as "one of the most accomplished and effective tales in this volume."  It is exactly that, and just plain creepy to boot.  Coulson Kernahan's  "Haunted" has that lovely ambiguity I crave, while  "Christmas Eve in Beach House" takes us to a "threatening Christmas Eve on that wild Cornish coast."  But as I said, I loved them all.  

This second volume of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories is a true treasure, and I just want to say to the Valancourt team how very much I appreciate all of the time and thought that went into the selections found within.  I know that the purpose of publishing books is to sell them, but James and Ryan go well beyond the commercial to bring into our homes books that they love, which is why I'll keep buying them.  Once again, they have outdone themselves.  Highly, highly, highly recommended.  

Thursday, December 21, 2017

and now, one of THE greatest ghost story writers ever -- The Dead of Night: The Ghost Stories of Oliver Onions

Wordsworth Editions, 2010
657 pp


I feel absolutely  monotonal by reading and posting about all manner of ghost stories, and I'm sorry about that,  but I just can't help myself.  They're like the comfort food of reading for me, and I say the more the merrier (and the older the better).   I finished this collection back at the beginning of the month after starting it towards the first of November, and it actually did take me the entire month to get through it, reading it only late at night.  To be honest, some stories took longer to get through than others because they were just plain tedious, but the joy came in finding the really, really good ones that I'll probably never forget.

Onions is probably best known for his excellent "The Beckoning Fair One," which will live in my head as one of the greatest ghost stories of all time, one that explores the tenuous connection between, as editor David Stuart Davies says in his introduction, "creativity and insanity."    That one I've read several times and I'd read it several times again because it's so good.  It's his lesser-known stories that captured my attention here, and there are twenty-four of them in this collection:

Hey - it's easier than typing them all. Sorry about the blur --
While several of these tales follow on in the same thematic mode as "The Beckoning Fair One," there are many that branch out in other directions, including (but not limited to) more traditional ghostly fare, time slips, reincarnation, murder,  ghosts who enter the present via objects from the past, and strangely enough lycanthropy and a bizarre Kali-like cult.   All are a beautiful blending of the supernatural and the psychological, which is actually why I'm drawn to this author in particular.  Even though I read this sort of thing for fun, I also read in order to extract what I can about different aspects of human nature, and Oliver Onions has this uncanny knack of moving deep into the psyche.

So, let's see... favorites...hmm:
aside from "The Beckoning Fair One," there's "Benlian," "The Honey in the Wall," "The Rosewood Door," which is just bloody creepy when you give pause for thought,  "The Painted Face," "Hic Jacet," which is probably my second favorite after "Beckoning Fair One," and one that  all would-be authors should read, as  it comes down to the question of writing for love or money.  "The Rope in the Rafters" is another one that chilled, as was "The Woman in the Way" and "The Master of the House."  That last one was just downright creepy and considering that I'm not big on the subject matter involved as a general rule,  well, that says a lot.

While the stories are not all what I'd call perfect, The Dead of Night  is a must-have collection worth owning for the home library and definitely a no-miss collection for the avid ghost story reader.  I love Oliver Onions' work, and he should certainly be read by anyone aspiring to write horror.  Not that I fit that bill, but he has a lot to offer anyone who does. 

Thursday, December 14, 2017

from well-known to truly obscure, The Haunters and the Haunted: Ghost Stories and Tales of the Supernatural, (eds) Ernest Rhys and M. Larigot

Crow Press, 2015 
originally published 1921

The cover of my edition of this book shows the author as "unknown," but a little digging reveals that it was writer (and editor) Ernest Rhys who was responsible for bringing us this volume of ghostly and supernatural tales.  Rhys (1859-1946) according to an article in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB, 24 May 2007) began his writing career in 1886, where in London, he established his "base as the British Museum Room," and became a "familiar figure in literary London."  He had a "passion for eastern mysticism,"  was a friend to Yeats and Madame Blavatsky, and was part of the founding group of the Rhymers' Club.   However, Rhys' claim to fame was not so much his poetry, but more because of his role as editor of Everyman's Library.  The idea had been conceived by Rhys and J.M. Dent with the vision of, as Rhys puts it,
"a large collection of the great books of the world, in a handsome edition that would be affordable by the common man." 
By the time Rhys died, the ODNB article reveals that there were over 983 volumes that had been published for Everyman's Library, and so those of us who have their works in our home libraries now know how it all began.   As far as this book goes, Rhys writes in the introduction that he intended to "widen the area of research, and relate the ghost-story anew to the whole literature of wonder and imagination."    He notes that
"One can take the book as a text-book of the supernatural, or as a story-book of that middle world which has given us the ghosts that Homer and Shakespeared conjured up."
What's interesting here is that the book seems to consist completely of works collected by a M. Larigot, "himself a writer of supernatural tales," as Rhys explains, but I haven't been able to find anything about Larigot anywhere.  Maybe as I get more into French tales I'll come across him, but doing a search brings me back around to this book and Rhys' introduction.  Rhys says that "In this Ghost book," Larigot has "collected a remarkable batch of documents, fictive or real, describing the one human experience that is hardest to make good."  He calls Larigot's collection "varied and artfully chosen," but that's about it except to mention that Larigot had
"in the course of his investigations, during many years, arrived at the conclusion that there is an Art of the Supernatural, apart from the difficult science of psychical research, worth cultivating for its own sake.  So he has gone to Glanvil and Arise Evans and the credulous old books -- to Edgar Poe and Lord Lytton and the modern writers who tell supernatural tales.  He gives us their material insight without positing its unquestionable effect as police-court evidence..."
which, one could take to mean that not only is Larigot an author in his own right, but a researcher into tales of the supernatural, which seems a good guess, since not only does this book present some already well-known stories, but also stories gleaned from Scottish castle lore, Irish legends, various diaries and accounts, as well as stories that go back to Plutarch and Homer.

The Haunters and the Haunted is divided into three distinct sections:  "Ghost Stories From Literary Sources," "Ghost Stories from Local Records, Folk Lore, and Legend," and finally "Omens and Phantasms."    The table of contents can be found here at Project Gutenberg, which contains the footnotes that my edition is missing.   Just an FYI though -- "The Old Nurse's Story" that's mentioned is written by George MacDonald and NOT Elizabeth Gaskell, so don't pass it by thinking you've read it before.  I have quite a few favorites in this section, especially "Teig O'Kane and the Corpse," translated from the Irish by Dr. Douglas Hyde, which is one I hadn't read before.  This story is truly one of the best in the entire book, and focuses on a young man who won't heed his father regarding a marriage, preferring instead to "follow on at his old tricks -- drinking, sporting, and playing cards."  That all changes one night when he meets up with a "band of little people coming toward him, ... carrying something big and heavy with them."  What happens next well and truly makes for great ghostly reading.   In second place is "The Seven Lights," from John Mackay Wilson's Tales of the Borders, which is just eerily and creepily delightful but very sad at the same time.   "The Lianhan Shee" by Will Carleton follows in my list of favorites here, in which a wife realizes that showing charity is good thing, but only to a point.   This one has a most unexpected outcome with a nice twist as well.  One more thing about this section -- Bulwer-Lytton's "The Haunted and the Haunters" appears here, and it's the unabridged version, which tends to become a bit tedious after a while but is still quite good.

After finishing the tales in "Ghost Stories from Local Records, Folk Lore and Legends," I decided that it would have been fun to sleep in an old haunted Scottish castle for even one night.  Glamis and Powys castles are represented here, as are various British homes (halls, if you will), and then comes a strange but good one called "Croglin Grange," which isn't at all a ghost story but I won't say what it is exactly so as not to spoil it.  I ended up spending a lot of time researching this particular tale for my interest in the legend itself and how it's been handed down over time.  Don't go looking it up though until you've read the story because you'll wreck it for yourself, and you really, really don't want to do that.

Under "Omens and Phantasms," there's what I would consider a rather obscure ghostly tale called "The Vision of Charles XL of Sweden," which, interestingly enough, (supposedly) comes from an historical document.  This one was just great and the imagery amazing.  There's also a very different version of "The Pied Piper," that sent me looking at all of the various retellings of this one,  a no-miss story called "Anne Walker," with a plot that's been used many times but is still well worth the reading, as is  "The Hand of Glory." My favorite, though is "The Bloody Footstep," another one where giving away the plot would just not be a good idea.

On the whole, this collection is probably most geared toward readers like me who have not only an interest in older ghostly tales, but who also are into the history behind them.  Some of these stories are very short, a paragraph in length, and if you don't read French you'll want to skip the small piece about Joan of Arc, which was left untranslated.  I will say that the best way to read this book is probably the Project Gutenberg version, since my edition has omitted the footnotes which to me are absolutely critical. Then again, I'm a nerd and enjoy knowing where things come from so I can go look them up.   There will be something for everyone here, especially anyone looking for something way, way off the beaten path.

It was a great book to curl up with during late nights of zero sleep, and one I'd recommend but more to nerdish people like myself.

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Twenty Days of Turin, by Giorgio de Maria

W.W. Norton, 2017
originally published as Le venti giornate del Torino, 1977
translated by Ramon Glazov
187 pp


"The dark forces that seek to hold us back are far from vanquished."  -- 53

"Take heed! ... The Twenty Days of Turin were the final warning of the LORD!"  --57,58

By the time I'd put this book down, I was actually shaking.  Not so much for the horror elements here, but more because of the feeling that this book, while written in the late 1970s, has a certain timeliness about it that terrifies me, one that is more frightening than the contents of any horror novel.

Our guide through this book of strange events in the city of Turin both past and present is an unnamed man who has decided to write a book about the "Twenty Days of Turin
...neither a war nor a revolution, but as it's claimed, 'a phenomenon of collective psychosis' - with much of that definition implying an epidemic
and actually, the word "epidemic"  seems an appropriate description for what follows as the twenty days are recounted through interviews and other media uncovered by our narrator. It was a time of drought, a time when men and women struggled with a strange insomnia that prompted them to "shamble" through the streets and plazas of Turin during the night.  Some witnesses reported strange smells in the air; others were disturbed by unworldly noises, screams that seemed to relay "some kind of message," with "always something gray and metallic deep behind it," ... conveying the "intonation of war cries...virulent and hostile." And then, of course, there were the strange murders that took place during this time, and witnesses who "made certain they didn't see anything."   It was as if the city was in the grip of unknown dark forces unleashed by the cosmos itself, blanketing Turin's citizens in terror to the point where, as our narrator discovers, people are still reluctant to discuss their experiences some ten years later.  And it is to get "behind that silence" that the narrator seeks to understand exactly who it is that is "hiding the mystery of the Twenty Days."

As he proceeds with his investigation, he begins to understand that there are forces at work who do not want him to succeed. The first warning comes after a visit to the remnants of the mysterious  Library, which, according to the narrator, must be part of any picture being painted about "Turin in the time of the Twenty Days."  It had been started with the idea of "encouraging people to be more open with one another," in which people could  collaborate in submitting "documents reflecting the real spirit of the people." They weren't looking for people to contribute works of literature ("there's too much artifice in literature"), but rather "a diary, a memoir, a confession of some problem that really worries you," with the promise that there would be someone who would be interested enough to read what you had to say, and then for a small fee, could get your address and be able to contact you.  Back in the present though, our narrator continues to be plagued by strange occurrences, including a murder, all part of an attempt to get him to back off.

 I see this book in part as an allegory of the fear and upheaval that resulted from Italy's tumultuous "Years of Lead" a time when, as the translator notes in an interview at Weird Fiction Review
"People were scared of being killed as soon as they stepped out of their houses and also scared that the government wouldn't be on their side,"
which also became a "taboo-ish topic to speculate about too loudly."  On the other hand,  I can't get out of my head that since the narrator's real quest is, as he stated,  to discover who (or what)  it is that is "hiding the mystery of the Twenty Days,"  it seems to me that a very big part of this book reveals that those strange dark forces responsible for that dark time haven't disappeared, but are still there, lurking and hiding in the shadows, unseen and unknown, but still in control.

 De Maria used the stuff and the language of horror fiction to tell an horrific story here, and it works, especially upon reaching the ending which seriously chilled me to the bone. One more thing -- there's been a lot said about this novel's prescience in De Maria's early vision of social media, and it is a big part of this story but don't let that be the only thing you get out of it.   There's much, more here -- as just one example, people turning to spirituality (including strange cults) as a sort of bulwark against the darkness,  and the translator in his introduction spends a great amount of time helping the reader to understand how the novel can be viewed as an artistic expression of the turmoil of an Italy in its years of great upheaval.  But skip the intro  until you've finished the novel, so you can experience the chills without any hints first.

 I can see why this book is considered a cult classic, and while it may not be for everyone, I thought it was brilliant.