Sunday, February 28, 2021

The Collected Connoisseur, by Mark Valentine and John Howard

 

"What we seek, and what we also half-fear, is all around us, always, had we the necessary calm intentness to discern it. "

 



9781905784202
Tartarus Press, 2010
308 pp

paperback

Over the years I've read my fair share of stories featuring supernatural detectives, and prior to starting this book, that's what I thought I had here. What I discovered was not at all what I was expecting, but something unique instead: an "aesthetical detective extraordinaire" in the form of the Connoisseur.   He is described as a
"connoisseur of the curious, of those glimpses of another domain which are vouchsafed to certain individuals and in certain places." 

The Connoisseur is a nickname given to this man by Valentine, who with the Connoisseur's consent, "dependent on anonymity and all necessary discretion," recounts "some of his encounters with this realm. "  The narrator notes that while the Connoisseur  is far from wealthy, he "supplements a decent inheritance" with "administrative work," he "shuns many of the contrivances of modern living," and is therefore able to indulge in a "keen pleasure in all the art forms."   He is a seeker of knowledge and a walking encyclopedia of the arcane; if there's something he does not know, he knows any number of people to whom he can turn for answers.  The mysteries he encounters are often  built around some sort of cultural artifact either in his possession or brought to his attention, for example, in the first story "The Effigies," the narrator is looking at a "dark earthenware jug of quite perfect form" on the Connoisseur's mantel, sparking a story about his friend's visit to its creator, Austin Blake,  renowned maker of "amphorae and delicate vessels" who had suddenly stopped producing at the height of his fame.   There are also a few occasions in which Valentine accompanies the Connoisseur and witnesses events firsthand.   

It is not difficult at all to recognize the influence in these stories of those writers Valentine notes in his introduction as "lifelong companions," and "household gods":  Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany, Walter de la Mare and William Hope Hodgson.  "The Hesperian Dragon," for example, is easily recognized as a delightful sort of play on Machen's "Three Impostors."  Blackwood's finely-tuned sensitivity to the hidden awe of the natural world is reflected in "The Last Archipelago," and as in the case of our narrator throughout The Collected Connoisseur,  Hodgson's Dodgson serves as chronicler of the adventures of Carnacki.    Beyond the recognition of Valentine's "household gods", however, lies something even deeper where these authors are concerned -- in the introduction, in discussing a few other writers of the 1890s he'd read, including M.P. Shiel,  Valentine notes that 
"These then, the wondrous, the spectral and the aesthetical, were the airs floating around me when I began to think whether I could go one step further than reading, and try writing, the sort of fiction I enjoyed."

It is this sense of the "wondrous, the spectral and the aesthetical" that he and in the last few stories, John Howard capture here in a style that reflects the writing of those previously-mentioned authors who came before, but still manages to remain quite original.    Not everyone can carry off the voice of times past in his or her writing, but here it is pitch perfect.  The last six of these stories were collaborations between the two authors, and anyone who's read the work of John Howard will recognize his style immediately.  These tales are also a bit more fleshed out, with a bit more action involved, and provide a great ending to this collection.  

I loved these stories, all of which on the whole offered days of fascinating reading,   but of course and as always there were a few that stood out.   "In Violet Veils" is probably my favorite of the collection, in which an experiment in the "revived art of the tableau vivant" results in a warning by the Connoisseur that 

"such curious re-enactments were not to be essayed without some peril of affecting, in unforeseen ways, those involved: who could tell what might result from such a hearkening back to the original power of the mythological image portrayed?"

He knows whereof he speaks, having experienced firsthand an eventful, bizarre tableau vivant in the past.   "In Violet Veils" has the feel of the decadent/symbolist literature I love to read, with more than a touch of the weird that gives it an extra edge of eerieness.  In "The Craft of Arioch"  the Connoisseur relates to Valentine his strange experience during  a "walking holiday" in Sussex with his cousin Rebecca. Having left "the high roads and the dormitory towns" and traveling the "winding roads and nestling villages," they eventually find themselves at a barn where they expect to find hand-crafted rocking horses.  Let's just say after a ride on a "cross between a horse and a white dragon," and "a winged cat with preternaturally pointed ears and peridot eyes," they return from "unknown regions" and "a plane of experience different to anything we may find in this world."  "Sea Citadels," "The Mist on the Mere," "The White Solander" and "The Descent of the Fire" round out the list.   

At the beginning of "The Secret Stars" The Connoisseur in conversation with Valentine notes the following:

"What we seek, and what we also half-fear, is all around us, always, had we the necessary calm intentness to discern it."

 The Connoisseur's "rare glimpses" are the very heart and soul of this book.



The Collected Connoisseur is one to read curled up in your favorite reading space, hot cup of something or other in hand.  Like the Connoisseur, I am quite partial to Qimen/Keemun tea; I  am also one of those people described on the back cover blurb -- "the lover of esoteric mystery and adventure fiction. " More to the point,  I am also in complete awe of Valentine and Howard's visionary writing here and elsewhere.    Every reader of the weird, the fantastical, and of the occult  should have The Collected Connoisseur sitting on his or her shelves.  No collection would be complete without it. 



Thursday, February 18, 2021

Of One Blood, Or The Hidden Self by Pauline Hopkins


 9781464215063
Poisoned Pen Press, 2021
196 pp

paperback



"...the wonders of a material world cannot approach those of the undiscovered country within ourselves -- the hidden self lying quiescent in every human soul." 


Of One Blood made its first appearance serialized in The Colored American Magazine in 1902 and 1903.  The magazine, as stated on the cover, was an

"Ilustrated monthly devoted to literature, science, music, art, religion, facts, fiction and traditions of the Negro race." 

from coloredamerica.org




Author Nisi Shawl notes in her introduction that not only did Pauline Hopkins write for this magazine, she also edited it.  About the author Shawl says that Hopkins 

"is in some ways the foremother of Octavia E. Butler, and Tanarive Due, and many of today's leading science fiction, fantasy, and horror authors -- primarily because she's another African-descended woman using a popular genre to write speculatively about hard philosophical questions, surprising truths, and the wonders of the occult."

At the beginning of this novel Reuel Briggs is contemplating "the riddle of  whence and whither," which not too much later he will say the solving of which is his life; it is "that alone" that he lives for.  I marked this passage and after finishing this book, came back to it, finding it beyond appropriate given what happens in this story.  

Briggs is a poor Harvard medical student, a black man who keeps his heritage hidden because of the "infernal prejudice" that "closes the door of hope."   An authority on "brain diseases," and a believer in "supernatural phenomena or mysticism,"  he often contributed articles to scientific magazines on the topic to help pay the rent.  While we are privy early on to a few of his visions, it isn't until he is called to the hospital after a train wreck to help out a woman  whom the doctors have pronounced dead that we discover that Reuel also has certain powers.  His diagnosis is that no, the woman isn't dead but rather in a state of "suspended animation," and has also been "long and persistently subjected to mesmeric influences. " Knowing this, he is able to reanimate her, although her memory has been affected; he also discovers that he is in love with her.   Eventually he decides he wants to marry this woman, Dianthe Lusk, and they become engaged, but as a poor student, he can in no way afford to offer her a decent life.  Unfortunately, his attempts at finding a medical job are thwarted, and at this very low point, Reuel's  closest friend, a certain Aubrey Livingston, has great news for him: he can make quite a bit of money as a "medical man" for an expedition going from England to "the site of ancient Ethiopian cities" to "unearth buried cities and treasure which the shiftng sands of the Sahara have buried for centuries."  Livingston has the connections to make this happen, but the catch is that there is a two-year commitment.  Although at first he doesn't want to be away from Dianthe,  but being practical about the whole thing, he decides he'll take the job.  They marry, and leaving her in the care Livingston's fiancée, off he goes, dreaming of  "the possibility of unearthing gems and gold from the mines of Ancient Meroe and the pyramids of Ethiopia."  And while in Africa, as the back-cover blurb describes, as Briggs faces "unexpected danger" before making some startling discoveries about himself in the hidden city of Telassar, he has no clue that life for Dianthe back home has also taken a rather sinister turn.  It seems that Livingston's help in getting Briggs the job on the expedition was not given out of love for his best friend, but rather for that of Dianthe.   Before this story is over,  there will be further twists that build up to a number of beyond-surprising revelations, and what Briggs finds in Ethiopia will be a treasure far more valuable than any he may have imagined.  

I don't think this is a novel that you read so much for plot -- keeping in mind that this story was written in 1902, it must have been positively mind-boggling at the time, perhaps holding out some measure of hope and redemption to its readers.  It is a truly visionary novel that in the long run transcends plot, and in that sense it remains an important work still relevant today.    Of One Blood moves well beyond the combination (as Shawl notes in the introduction) of Victorian society novel and lost-world  narrative to explore "contemporary racial issues" through a variety of lenses, ultimately positing a hidden truth or two that upends everything and has, as she says "cosmologically expansive implications."  I don't wish to divulge how this comes about, but if you really want to know, you can go to Tor's website where she has written pretty much the same material that appears in her introduction to this book.  I will caution that it gives away the show so that reader awe may be diminished, and the same goes if you have this particular edition of the novel and you read the introduction before launching into the story.  

I'll also note that my edition is part of the Horror Writers Association series of Haunted Library of Horror Classics and that across the top of the front cover it says that the book is from "the first great female horror writer of color."   I'd call it more speculative fiction myself, but the recognition of Pauline Hopkins and her work is well deserved and very long overdue.  

Sunday, February 7, 2021

arachnaphobes beware (part two): The Sign of the Spider, by Bertram Mitford

 

9781934555460
Valancourt Books, 2008
originally published 1898
247 pp

paperback

"Every conventionality violated, every rule of morality, each set aside, had brought him nothing but good..."

The back-cover blurb describes The Sign of the Spider as a "thrilling mixture of adventure, romance, and horror." It was the combination of "adventure" and "horror" that was the draw for me, and while I'm not a huge reader of monster-type horror fiction, in this book it works.  

A most unhappy, dissatisfied Laurence Stanninghame who is "just touching middle age,"  has decided that he's had enough of his "awful life," and has booked passage to Johannesburg to try his luck in the "boom."  Some of his acquaintances had done the same and had "made their pile," so why shouldn't he have a shot at the same? He has also become a bit tired of the "warfare" with his wife, a woman who had many fine qualities, but who was also his equal in will.   Once "eager, sanguine, warm-hearted..." he has become as this story begins, "indifferent, sceptical, with a heart of stone of the chronic sneer of a cynic."   Perhaps this change has come about because Laurence is one of those people for whom "everything he touched seemed to go wrong," but now he's decided that it's time to "cast in the net for the final effort."

Once in Johannesburg, however, it seems that he has arrived a "day too late," in the midst of a speculation market (and a colonial economy in general)  facing setbacks.   At first things were "rosy" but as time went on and Stanninghame had taken the route of "all or nothing," he loses everything:
"He had come to this place to make one final effort to retrieve his fortunes. That effort had failed. He had put what little remained to him into various companies -- awaiting the boom -- and no boom had ensued...He was ruined."

 Things look so bleak for him that he picks up his gun, contemplating suicide, but in his room the face of Lilith Ormskirk, a young, independent woman whom he'd met on the passage from Southampton, comes to him and saves him at the last moment.  But what to do now?  As far as Stanninghame is concerned, he would sell his soul "to the devil himself."   Not too long afterwards,  a certain Hazon offers him the opportunity to go up country and "come back a fairly rich man."   As rumor has it, Hazon has taken men up country before,  but "not one of them has ever returned."  Laurence, however, views the opportunity as "the suggestion of adventure "on a magnificent scale, and with magnificent results, if successful." As the back-cover blurb reveals, Hazon is a slave trader, but as Laurence says at one point, 

"The one thing to make life worth living is wealth. I will stick at nothing to obtain it -- nothing! Without it life is a hell; with it -- well, life is at one's feet. There is nothing one cannot do with it -- nothing!"

And indeed, he seems to have few qualms about what he does, feeling as though he is complying with the "iron immutable law of life" of "Preyer or preyed upon."  As he sheds the trappings of "that damned respectability" while traveling deeper into the interior with Hazon over the next few years, he is captured and taken into the hidden realm of the so-named "People of the Spider." There he is somewhat hesitantly accepted among the tribespeople, but in time Stanninghamme finds himself, as the back-cover blurb reveals, "marked out as a sacrifice to the monstrous spider-god."  

As with other books written during this time period, The Sign of the Spider is incredibly difficult to read today because of its racism and subject matter,  but when all is said and done it is a story of one man's journey as he discovers "the consistent and unswerving irony of life as he had known it."   He explains that 
"Every conventionality violated, every rule of morality, each set aside, had brought him nothing but good to him and his,"

but  for me, the question here centers on the price he has paid and will continue to pay in the long run.  I have to say that I thought I'd be reading a sort of rugged pulp adventure story complete with a cryptid arachnid thrown into the bargain, but what I got instead was a story that has a depth I was not at all expecting.  

Save the excellent introduction for last, but most certainly do not skip it, as it adds even more to the reading of this novel.  

With the acknowledgment that it's tough going subjectwise, I can certainly recommend this novel, and I'm looking forward to reading the other book by this author now sitting on my shelves, The Weird of Deadly Hollow.  

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

arachnaphobes beware: Tenebrae, by Ernest G. Henham





9781934555293
Valancourt Books, 2014 (reprint)
213 pp

paperback

Just about a quarter of the way through this novel, I remarked on Goodreads that Tenebrae is a book so filled with gloom that even when the characters are out in the garden it's hard to imagine sunlight.  Mind you, I had no idea that it was about to get even darker before all was said and done, but considering that the Latin word tenebrae translates to "darkness," I should have at least had an inkling.   Originally published in 1898, Tenebrae  is the story of two brothers, with "extraordinary affection for each other," right up until the time a woman came between them.  

The two brothers (names are not used here)  "formed the last representatives of an ancient family, proud of its history and its name," although the house itself has been left in a state of "gradual decay." The family home sits near a cliff above the sea, with the property also containing a "desolate moor." Some of its windows had been "closed up" by "forgotten ancestors,"  now 
"peered blankly through the clinging ivy, striking into the spectator's mind a latent suggestion of guarded horrors lying concealed behind..."

all of which, it seems, was pleasing to the elder brother's "naturally morbid imagination."  As just a brief aside, let me say that those three words struck a chord, keeping me on guard through the remainder of the novel.  We also learn that aside from the two brothers, this family also consisted of an uncle, who had once been a "nameless adventurer and wanderer"  now a "human derelict" whose mind had been affected by a long history of drug use of every kind, as well as an old nurse who in her own way continues to look after the two siblings.  

I won't say much in the way of plot -- I could talk about it all day but in the long run, it's better to go into this book knowing little more than what's revealed on the back cover blurb.  I will say that it is quite clear that there is something not right from the outset.  As the elder brother begins writing this account of events, he reveals that he is "curiously liable to ... fits" when thinking of the younger, now dead, to the point of  the ink turning "red upon the paper," the pen "dripping with blood," and "the horror" surging before his eyes.  This is quite strange, given that he goes on to describe their past relationship as one of "great unspoken love," sharing "the same heart, the same mind, equal portions of the same soul," and the fact that they "understood each other so well that speech was often unnecessary."  Something has obviously changed, and throughout the first part of this book, so aptly entitled "The Foreshadowing," we discover what that is as we follow the course of events involving two men who loved the same woman driving the elder to, as the back-cover blurb notes,  a "murderous jealousy" that will change the lives of all three involved.  The second and darkest part of Tenebrae, "The Under-Shadow," becomes a dizzying amalgamation of madness, mania, guilt and vengeance, all coming together in the form of a giant spider, "the most hideous of gaolers." 

This isn't a book I read in fits and starts -- it's actually impossible to stop reading once begun.  It is a novel that moves well beyond disturbing, owing to Henham's most excellent and atmospheric writing that has produced some of the most nightmarish imagery I've encountered over the course of my reading.   Do not bypass the excellent introduction by Gerald Monsman, but I would suggest leaving it until the last.  

Very highly recommended, especially to readers who like myself, love this older stuff -- it may be well over one hundred years old, but the horror it carries hasn't faded over the years. Not one iota. 



Saturday, January 2, 2021

Snuggly Tales of Hashish and Opium (ed.) Brian Stableford

 "The fay of opium is a mistress who refuses herself at first, but soon lavishes her lovers with the most intoxicating caresses."
--- Jane de La Vaudère, "Parisian Orgies"




9781645250401
Snuggly Books, 2020
291 pp

paperback
read in December

Prior to buying this book, it was the back-cover blurb that sold me, promising a "hallucinogenic sampling of psychotropic fashionability and fin-de-siècle exoticism."  Couple that with the star-studded table of contents and the fact that it was edited by Brian Stableford, it was a no-brainer -- I had to read it.   

That promise was definitely kept, and my god, I reveled in this book from first page to last. First, the selection of stories is  excellent, and second, Stableford's extensive scholarship and knowledge is beyond compare.  This isn't the first book  he's edited which  I've read pen in hand, iPad at the ready, and I always find something either in his introductions or notes that sends me scuttling through the internet.  

There is no bad story at all to be found here, and the "sampling" includes not only Hashish and Opium, but also those who engage in other hallucinogens of choice.  My personal favorites begin with two stories by Theophile Gautier, "The Club of Hashishins" and "The Opium Pipe," which open this anthology.  The first, as is explained in the introduction, borrows  "extensively from Hoffman" and presents 
"within the context of a hallucination a brief tribute to the extravagant fringe of the French literary and visual imagination."

I couldn't help myself -- Gautier's drug-induced encounters and dreams made me laugh out loud, as did Charles Newill's "The Club of Hilarants," in which a man gets his comeuppance after rejecting a suitor's offer for his niece's hand in marriage.  The mood changes from humorous after X.B. Saintine's "The Doctor's Hallucinations: A Moving Terrain. The Danae Delusions" with Marcel Schwob's "The Portals of Opium," in which curiosity (and opium) lead a man with "a desire for strange experience" to become "lost -- as wretched as Job."  Speaking of exoticism, you can't do better than   "Opium and Smara"  by Jean Lorrain which I'd read before (although it was a great, decadent pleasure to read them again),  but Jane de La Vaudère's "Parisian Orgies," my favorite tale in this book, exemplifies it.   The description of the "great hall of the Moulin Bleu," for example, stopped me in my tracks with some of the most descriptive prose to be found in this anthology:

"There were Hindu Pyres there, surrounded by byaderes with gauze langoutis, tragic mourners and Brahmin sacrificers. Egyptian houses, boats of flowers, gallant guinguettes, Byzantine Palaces and prehistoric grottoes offered women of all colors, all sellers of lust. The Moloch of Salammbo reared up in a corner, gigantic and terrifying, and the faint sounds of kisses departed from niches where cardboard gods raised their murderous arms. The priestesses of amour, always ready for sweet sacrifices, only had to disturb their jewels to offer their flesh to caresses..."

but that is nothing compared to her descriptions of what  follows at the "rendezvous of the Ladybird" cabaret.  According to the editor, this story "first appeared as three chapters in the novel Les Androgynes, roman passionel," in 1903, later appearing in Snuggly's The Demi-Sexes and the Androgynes, which after reading this story, I immediately pulled from my shelves onto the physical tbr pile.    The last story I'll mention is also delightfully decadent and bizarre, "The Night of Hashish and Opium" by Maurice Magre, which begins with a woman in India encountering three bad omens before undertaking a strange encounter at the Pagoda of Chillambaram.  

The remainder of these excellent stories are as follows:

"The Double Room" by Charles Beaudelaire
"The Opium Smoker's Dream," by Pompon
"The Malay," by Jean Richepin
"The Green God," by Gabriel de Lautrec
"The Phantom of Opium," by Louis Latourette
"Telepathy," by Theo Varlet
"The Opium Den," by Louy de Lluc
"The Initiation," by Frederic Boutet
"Dropping in on Anika," by Victor Margueritte

The only downside of reading this book, is that it is yet another  that needs to come with a warning label, as it caused me to pick up five more books even before I'd finished it.  Of these, four were from Black Coat Press and were edited or adapted by Brian Stableford: 

The Second Life, by X.B. Saintine 
 The Crazy Corner, by Jean Richepin 
Weird Fiction in France: A Showcase Anthology of its Origins and Development 
 The Sacred Fire, by Gabriel de Lautrec 

while number five, Claude Farrere's  Black Opium: Ecstasy of the Forbidden (1904) is a reprint of the 1974 edition, from Ronin Publishing (2016).   The toll on my wallet would have been much worse except for the fact that I already own several books mentioned in this one, a number from Snuggly books, some from Black Coat Press, and a couple from Dedalus.  

I get that French decadence is not for everyone, but it certainly is something I love, and this book is no exception.  Truth be told, I could read this book over and over for days on end -- it's that good, an experience of sheer reading bliss.  








Friday, December 25, 2020

ghosts at Christmas, part three: The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Stories, Volume Four


 9781948405805
Valancourt Books, 2020
231 pp

hardcover

You need look no further than the announcement of "the Best Ghost Story" contest (reproduced on p. 74)  as advertised in New York's  Evening World, December 23, 1889 issue to see that ghost stories,  "in Keeping with the Christmas Holidays," were alive and well in America.    In this book, rather than drawing on the Victorian British tradition of telling ghostly tales at yuletide,  editor Christopher Philippo makes the case throughout that the Christmas ghost story tradition was also going strong in America during the same time. 

Volume four is a fine mix of stories, ghostly and otherwise, set at Christmas time along with a few poems, Christmas-themed advertisements and holiday-based newspaper articles of the period.  As with the best anthologies, it starts out with a bang, whetting the appetite for what follows.   Joseph Holt Ingraham's "The Green Huntsman; or The Haunted Villa," a "Christmas Legend" hailing from Louisiana was originally published in 1841, then later got "an English stamp of approval" in 1858 with its appearance in the Huddersfield Chronicle and West Yorkshire Advertiser of December 24.   Set during a "Christmas festival" at a villa in the "upper faubourg" of New Orleans,  a new bride and bridegroom are also celebrating their nuptials and the "bridal night" is about to begin. Everyone is happy until things become weird at the neighboring "ruined mansion" known as the Haunted Villa, which "to every mind supernatural terror was associated," and with good reason.  

My favorite story in this book is Julian Hawthorne's "The Devil's Christmas" which would be fully at home in any anthology of the weird.  It seems that the narrator of this tale has been invited to a Christmas party at the home of a well known socialite, at which the highlight of the affair is to "meet the Prince." It will be a Christmas he will most likely never forget.  

Others receiving my vote of honorable mention are the anonymously-written  "Worse Than a Ghost Story"  in which a dying "spiritualist with the reputation of being a superior 'medium'" gives a warning to her disbelieving husband, followed by  Frank Ibberson Jervis' "The Frozen Husband," the story of a beautiful young woman who falls for and marries a stranger known only as "the brown man." This one was delightfully creepy and thoroughly chilling.  F.H. Brunell's "The Ghostly Christmas Gift" also makes this list in a story of events in the gold fields of South America that turns utterly eerie as a man receives a bizarre Christmas gift each year in payment for the treachery that made him wealthy.   "The Blizzard" by Luke Sharp (pen name of Robert Barr, Jr.)  has more than a touch of irony that made me laugh when all was said and done, while  Henry Beaugrand's "The Werwolves" has the feel of a mini-epic involving native Americans who disappear "by enchantment" and who may actually be "a band of loups-garous."  Add to the mix a spurned and vengeful lover, and you have one hell of a fun story    Supernatural indeed, with an added feel of delicious pulp goodness.  

While I'm not really a major poetry person, there are two that I feel are beyond noteworthy: first, Paul Lawrence Dunbar's poem "The Haunted Oak," about which the editor says "the voices and silences" therein "seem as raw and necessary as ever" (to which I wholeheartedly agree),  and on a much lighter note,  HC Dodge's shape poem, "Poor Jack," the musings of a somewhat "demonic" jack-in-the-box.  Quite honestly, I've never seen anything like it, and I was so fascinated that I posted a photo of it on my facebook page:





 I may be wrong since I haven't read every anthology of Christmas ghost stories ever published, but at least in my experience this is the first time someone has taken the time to put together a volume such as this one.   Given that I've never come across anything  like it before, it is a most welcome addition to my home library as well as a book I'm recommending to everyone.   Do not skip Mr. Philippo's informative and  excellent introduction, and above all, do not feel badly if you miss out on this book at Christmas time because it makes for great entertainment any time of the year.  Nicely done!

Monday, December 21, 2020

ghosts at Christmas, part two: Chill Tidings: Dark Tales of the Christmas Season (ed.) Tanya Kirk

 

9780712353236
British Library Publishing, 2020
212 pp

paperback

"Oh, it is a stirring night in Ghostland, the night of December the twenty-fourth!!"
                -- Jerome K. Jerome, Told After Supper


In Chill Tidings I have a double bonus -- a first-class collection of specially-chosen ghostly Christmas stories and another installment of the excellent British Library Tales of the Weird series. I originally bought this book to read on Kindle since Amazon said it was not due to be published in hard copy until August 2021 (??)  but  I was so completely nettled  over not having a physical book to hold in my hands that I went directly to British Library publishing for my copy.  I was so happy to have been notified about this book by one of my like-minded goodreads friends (Thank you, David!) because I'd already read and loved Ms. Kirk's Spirits of the Season (2018), also part of the Tales of the Weird series.  This volume presents thirteen stories that the editor says she wished she could have "fitted into the first book," chronologically arranged from 1868 to 1955 with one exception -- Jerome K. Jerome's "novelette" Told After Supper from 1891, placed at the end of this anthology.   

Between these covers one can look forward to (according to the editor's introduction)  "traditional Victorian spookiness,"  as well as "a weird pagan vision," a "sentimental tale of redemption," and then 
"spooky monks, a Vampire lady, a fatal duel, a gruesome Father Christmas and festive gifts from beyond the grave."

How could anyone possibly say no to all that?  Each and every story is set at Christmas time, with not a bad story to be found anywhere.  

For "Traditional Victorian spookiness" you can't go wrong with Irish writer Charlotte Riddell.  Her "A Strange Christmas Game" finds a brother and sister who after years of grinding poverty inherit a house called Martingdale, and in doing so, discover the cause of their kinsman's strange disappearance on Christmas Eve forty years earlier.  As the narrator says, "you pooh-pooh the existence of ghosts, and 'only wish you could find a haunted house in which to spend the night ...' but wait until you are left in a dreary, desolate old country mansion .." well,  you get the drift.  Not to steal thunder from the British Library, but Leonaur has an excellent collection of Riddell's Complete Supernatural and Weird Fiction available for readers who may be interested.   Creepiness continues with Hume Nesbit's "The Old Portrait," about which the editor notes that "it's a powerful story of the Fin-de-Siècle period, and is akin to Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and Bram Stoker's Dracula, the latter of which it predates."  Once you've read it, you'll immediately see why this is so.  In the meantime, not even one baby hint.  Next up from Louisa Baldwin (1895) is "The Real and the Counterfeit."  In this story, the Christmas holidays bring  "three young fellows"  to "kick it up alone" at the Musgrave family home, Stonecroft.  As one of the three notes, "an old house is not complete unless it is haunted," and to his surprise, he learns that the family has its own ghost, not seen since Grandfather Musgrave's time.  Young Musgrave's lifetime desire to "become personally acquainted" with the family ghost just may happen, if his friend Armitage has anything to say about it.  As a brief aside, for some reason, I was very much reminded of Montague Summers' "The Man on the Stairs" while reading this one.    Described as "sweet rather than scary," and a story that "features a very Victorian idealised Christmas,"   Frank Richard Stockton's "Old Applejoy's Ghost" takes it very personally when his elderly grandson, "the old curmudgeon,"  makes absolutely no moves toward celebrating Christmas in the old family home. 



Victorian Christmas card from Ripley's Weird News


 From 1913, Algernon Blackwell's "Transition" is the story of "an ordinary man" who finds himself caught up in an extraordinary situation on his way home to deliver Christmas presents to his family, and that's all I will say.   A.M. Burrage, whose name you may recognize from his story "Smee,"  is up next with "The Fourth Wall" from 1915,  one of my favorite stories in this volume, and so very different from the others.  Solicitor Jack Forran is told he must take time off work to recuperate from severe headaches; he, his wife, her brother, her sister and her sister's boyfriend all share a cottage "just outside the region of the fens."   It's an ideally-secluded, "ripping old place"  for these "normal, hard-headed people," until one of them begins to feel that the room they're in seems "stagey."  Let the weirdness begin.  Frankly, I am a bit sad that Burrage's work is not as well known as it should be -- he is one heck of a neglected but great teller of supernatural tales.   I was sort of wondering why HP Lovecraft's "The Festival" would show up here, but as it turns out, the poor narrator in this story had absolutely no clue just how terrible his Christmas was about to get -- it's likely he will never, ever forget the strange Yule-rite.  Creepsville. Seriously.  In "The Crown Derby Plate"  Marjorie Bowen has written  one of the most effective ghost stories ever.  It all begins when Miss Martha Pym hears of a nearby recluse who collects china and begins to wonder if perhaps she might just have a Crown Derby Plate to finish off her set which is one plate short.  Going to see her at Hartleys just might provide Martha a double pleasure --  finding the plate and seeing the ghost in that house which is supposedly haunted. After all, as she says,  she would very much like to, "particularly at Christmas for you can laugh as you like, that is the correct time to see a ghost." 


more Christmas card fun from Ripley's Weird News


Elizabeth Bowen's excellent "Green Holly" from 1944 follows, with seven housemates "Experts -- in what the Censor would not permit me to say" living and working in an old country house called Mopsam Grange while  obviously engaged in some sort of covert work for the government.  They aren't alone -- it's Christmas Eve, a special anniversary for the ethereal inhabitant, who falls for one of the earthly ones.  There is so much to this little story that goes well beyond the supernatural and miles beyond ghostly entertainment -- I've read it three times now and it's just as powerful every time.  I could talk about this one for days, but you know.   I LOVE her work, supernatural or not.  Next comes Andrew Caldecott's "Christmas Re-union" which is, as Ms. Kirk reveals, based on an idea of M.R. James as described in an essay he wrote called "Stories I Have Tried to Write." Not only is this story à la James, but his name is even mentioned within the story.   What was supposed to have been a joyful family Christmas party at the Dreyton home turns out to include a guest described by Mr. Dreyton as "a busted balloon" or a "wet blanket" that no one is happy to have there.  When Father Christmas arrives as scheduled for the children, well, let's just say that I'll never again view Santa in the usual light.  Rosemary Timperley's short  "A Christmas Meeting" from 1952 falls squarely into the weird zone, as a woman spends Christmas alone for the first time, thinking over her "so many Christmases over the years."  Her thoughts are interrupted with the arrival of a young man, a writer who didn't go with his family for the holiday, staying behind instead to work. The two strike up a conversation, and on the verge of coffee and plum cake, he disappears.  This one's a bit of a mindbender, when all is said and done, and another I read more than once.   Very nicely done.  L.P. Hartley's "Someone in the Lift" is a rather gruesome tale I'd read elsewhere, about a boy who sees a "shadowy passenger" in a hotel elevator when his father's not with him.  Let's just say that dad shouldn't have told him his thoughts on who it must be.  Memo to self: must find a good, used copy of Tartarus' The Collected Macabre Stories . Finally, last but by no means least, is Jerome K. Jerome's delightful Told After Supper, which made me laugh out loud, receiving strange looks from the spouse all the while. 

This volume is truly a fine anthology, and I don't know how Ms. Kirk will top her two Christmas anthologies for the Tales of the Weird series, both of which are excellent.  If she does go on to do a third, I'll be waiting eagerly.  Of course, it's not necessary to wait until the Christmas season to read either, but I'm sort of into this whole ghostly Christmas reading tradition now and quite enjoying it. 

very, very highly recommended