Thursday, January 3, 2019

Exemplary Departures, by Gabrielle Wittkop, to close out 2018

9781939663139
Wakefield Press, 2015
originally published 1995
translated by Annette David
157 pp

paperback, read in December.



In the translator's postscript, Annette David says of this book that here
"we have at least five spectacular -- contingent or planned -- ways to make one's exit from the world of the living."  
It sounds bizarre to say this, but Exemplary Departures, even with its focus on death, is a beautiful book, one that should not be missed by readers of dark fiction, especially in the macabre zone,  who appreciate superb writing.  Wittkop, again quoting from the translator, was
"drawn to the realm of a decadent romantisme noir of previous centuries, and to writers of a scandalous reputation," 
including Poe, de Sade, Lautréamont, Mandiargues and Huysmans.  The back-cover blurb also reveals that she
 "spins these tales with her trademark macabre elegance and chilling humor, maneuvering in an uncertain space between dark Romanticism, Gothic Expressionism, and Sadistic cruelty." 
While most of these stories carry a streak of cruelty, there is a touch of dark humor to be found in them, as well as a sadness that permeates each one to the point where it's difficult not to engage in a certain amount of empathy for her subjects, four of which were real people who met with strange, untimely ends.  One of these, while never named, will be clearly and instantly recognizable once the story starts and the literary and biographical references start flying. I won't spoil it for you, but it is one of the best stories in this book although I truly enjoyed them all.

Five "exemplary departures" are found here, and so as not to spoil things and leave the pleasure of discovery to other readers, I won't say too much about them.  First up is "Mr. T's Last Secrets," based on the real-life Jim Thompson (not the author), once known as "the most famous American in Asia,"
"ex-architect, retired army officer, one-time spy, designer, silk merchant, and renowned collector of antiques"
also known as the "Thai Silk King," who simply vanished in 1967, leaving behind "his cigarettes and above all his pillbox..."   In the search for Thompson,  "soothsayers, clairvoyants, bomohs, Buddist Ascetics, sorcerers, and charlatans" all had an opinion as to where he might be, but I will say that none of them could have ever guessed what had happened to him in Wittkop's reimagining of his disappearance.   A much more stunning story is told in "Idalia on the Tower," set in the Rhineland of Germany in 1851.   I knew this one was going to be great right away since it started with an old legend involving an invocation made by Scots "when caught up in a catastrophe," before proceeding to whet the appetite with a hint of the
"catastrophic situation that  that Miss Idalia Dubb at the age of seventeen finds herself in, her agony and her death, would also be self-provoked, by her little foot in its fine ankle boot as well as by tacit betrayal."
"Idalia on the Tower" is just sheer writing excellence, in my humble opinion.  It also led me to buy another book, which purports to be based on the diaries left behind by the real life Idilia (not a typo) supposedly cobbled together while she awaited her fate: The Diary of Miss Idilia by Genevieve Hill, one of the real Idalia/Idilia's best friends.    Next comes "Baltimore Nights," concerning the unnamed main character of this tale.  Not only is it another piece of outstanding writing,  but Wittkop prolongs this person's suffering as she reveals his slide into complete, utter, hallucinatory madness.  Oh my god. It's like I wanted it to stop but couldn't help but turn the pages.



the author, from Alchetron

A bit of a reader jolt occurs  in the next story as we're taken from nineteenth-century Baltimore to a modern-day New York City in "The Descent."  The title is sort of a double entendre, although I won't explain why here.  Knowing that four of these tales were based on real-life people, prior to reading this story I spent way too much time online looking for the name Seymour M. Kenneth; it was only after I'd finished the book and read the translator's postscript that I discovered the following:
"Whether there is a precise actual basis to this story remains obscure. One can only guess that Wittkop perhaps came upon Seymour Kenneth's name on some missing persons list."
What a great idea (if true) to go along with a truly great story  This may just be the most cruel story in the entire collection, another one where when you think it can't possibly get any worse it actually does.  If you've read Hoffman, you'll catch the reference here, as Seymour makes his way from a "distraught" mama's boy to willing partner (read slave) of a woman, Emily,  he refers to as "Mammily," to a place where
"eternal Mothers who rumble in the lava, of jealous fairies who, like the one in Falun, live at the bottom of mines."
The cruelty at the heart of this story is just heartbreaking, but it exemplifies that old cliché about knowing you're about to witness a trainwreck but you can't look away.  I actually had to put the book down at this point because I was afraid of what Wittkop would next pull out of her hat, although  the fnal story, "Claude and Hippolyte or The Inadmissible Tale of the Turquoise Fire," while strange (in a good way) was not thankfully nearly as gut wrenching.  The Countess Marguerite de Saint-Effory gives birth to twins in 1724, of whom
"No single sex dominated the other and herein resided the unique phenomenon of this perfect completeness, the one that according to Gnostic legends and the science of alchemy represents the hermaphrodite."
She revels in the fact that they are "freaks of nature," filling her with a "pride she was at pains to keep secret."  Inseparable, with a life that might have been envied by other children at the time,
"Handsome in the way of statues, the twins would nevertheless rejoin the dark subterreanean world of roots and blind larvae in the alluvial soil"
 with their journey to their departure the subject of this tale.

The literary references at work here range from Goethe to Hoffman to Poe to Kubin (and much more) on down to Somerset Maugham, so as you might imagine, there is great depth in Wittkop's writing.  Exemplary Departures  not only encompasses a macabre, often surrealistic look at death but also offers a look at human minds spiraling down into the darkest depths possible.  This is my first book by this author, but I have two others on the shelf,  The Necrophiliac and Murder Most Serene, that I'm now eagerly looking forward to reading.   If it's excellence in writing you're looking for, you will most certainly find it here.

so very highly recommended that it's not even on the scale of highly recommended.










Saturday, December 22, 2018

'tis certainly the season: The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories, Volume Three, (ed.) Simon Stern

9781948405218
Valancourt Books, 2018
245 pp
hardcover



"Night, and especially Christmas night, is the best time to listen to a ghost story.  Throw on the logs! Draw the curtains!  Move your chairs a little nearer the fire and hearken!"
           -- Frederick Manley, "The Ghost of the Cross-Roads"


Let's put ourselves in the moment.


from  from Visit Lancashire

Outside the snug home of Andy Sweeny, a terrible storm is raging, while inside the house, the Christmas celebrations are in full swing.  Everyone's got
"a glass of steaming punch in his hand; every one's face is lighted with love and radiant with joy; every one toasts every one, sings merry songs, dances with his sweetheart,or makes love to her in some shady corner, while the aged every-ones make matches for their their boys and girls; and the blind fiddler plays away for dear life. The flames grow brighter as the storm without increases... In short, there never was a happier home; there never were such music and such punch as Mrs. Sweeny's, nor jollier souls to drink it."
Space has just been cleared for dancing when the revelers are interrupted by what one of them describes as the "banshee's cry," and the door is opened to a stranger.   When asked if he'd seen a ghost that night, the newcomer  promises to tell them "all that happened."  It is "these words"
"which promised the glorious entertainment always to be had from a ghost story ...."  
"The Ghost of the Cross-Roads" by Frederick Manley is the absolutely perfect story with which to begin this book since it really does place the reader right into  the heart of Victorian Christmas warmth and merriment, complete with "crackling fire," "steaming punch," and above all, the promise of a ghost story to round out the evening.  As Jerome K. Jerome wrote in his Told After Supper,  
"Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about spectres. It is a genial, festive season, and we love to muse upon graves, and dead bodies, and murders, and blood."
This promise of  "glorious entertainment" at Christmas, as Colin Fleming relates in a 2014 article at  the Paris Review blog, anticipates a sort of  "pleasing terror," in which
"the status quo is infused with a sensation of something being a touch off, chuckles give way to shared, uneasy glances that maybe this isn't all merrymaking."
The twenty stories in this volume were originally published between 1867 and 1898, and while there are plenty that fall on the more traditional and disquieting, "uneasy"  side of ghostly tales that include hauntings and even a vanishing village (!),  there are definitely a few in which the ghosts (again quoting Colin Fleming),
"even when they mean to  avenge themselves upon us, also seem to have dipped into the nog a time a time or two, with their own playfulness in evidence."
There are at least two spirits who take their cues from a certain character in one of Oscar Wilde's stories, and more than one who seem to be right out of  Dickens,  but with unexpected endings that are funny and at the same time a bit refreshing.  Simon Stern, who wrote this volume's introduction, comments on the more comical sort of ghost stories, saying that most of them came from century's end,
"when the familiarity of the genre in its traditional form, carrying the accumulated weight of many decades, may have prompted writers to seek out new directions."
That's not a bad thing, really, especially not here.

I appreciated not only the "wide variety of incarnations" of Victorian ghosts represented here, but also the variety of authors of these stories as well.  Some of the authors will be quite familiar to regular readers of Victorian ghost stories, including Mrs. J.H. Riddell and Mrs. Henry Wood, but there are others I've never heard of before to add to my inner database of obscure Victorian writers, as well as their anonymous storytelling counterparts.

I look forward to reading The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories every year at this time; it's now become a regular part of my holiday season routine. As Frederick Manley tells us,
"Night, and especially Christmas night, is the best time to listen to a ghost story,"
but this collection of Victorian tales of ghostly mayhem is perfect reading for any night of the year.




Saturday, December 15, 2018

The King in the Golden Mask, by Marcel Schwob. I loved this book. Absolutely loved it.

9781939663238
Wakefield Press, 2017
originally published as Le roi au masque d'or, 1892
translated by Kit Schluter
188 pp

paperback

The other day I decided that I really ought to read this book since it's been just sitting on my shelves sort of being neglected.   I grabbed the hardcover edition (Carcanet New Press, 1982; Iain White, translator) that I've been holding on to forever, and then I picked up this edition from Wakefield to see if there were any differences between the two before I started reading.  I chose the Wakefield over the Carcanet because translator says here that
"Although Iain White has translated a brilliant volume of Schwob's selected stories under the title of The King in The Golden Mask -- first published by Carcanet Press and recently updated and reissued by Tartarus Press -- White's selection includes roughly half of the original 1892 collection of that title.  As such, the book in your hands marks the complete publication of Schwob's original King in the Golden Mask in English. "
 Back went the Carcanet edition onto its shelf.  Why would I only want to read half a book?


from Abe Books
The titular first story sets the tone and the main theme that carries through this collection of stories.  Before that begins, however, there's Schwob's own preface that will clue readers in to what they're about to experience:
"There are, in this book, masks and covered faces: a king masked in gold, a wild man in a fur muzzle, Italian highwaymen with plague-wracked faces, and French highwaymen with false faces, galley slaves under red helmets, little girls aged suddenly in a mirror, and a singular host of lepers, embalming women, eunuchs, murderers, demoniacs, and pirates, between which I pray the reader belive I take no preference, as I am certaint hey are not, in fact, so various. And in order to demonstrate this most clearly I have made no effort, throughout their masquerade, to yoke them together along the chain of their tales: for we find them linked by their similarity or dissimilarity."
and, perhaps more importantly for the purposes of this book:
"To an observer from another world, my embalming women and my pirates, my wild man and my king, would possess no variety."
Schwob goes on to say that this "observer from another world"  would have "the blinkered view of the artist and the generalization of the scientist," which would help to shape his perspective; this "superior observer" would say that "all in this world is but signs and signs of signs."   Masks, he would say, are "signs of faces."

In an interview at The Paris ReviewTranslator Kit Schluter says that Schwob's book is "all about the way identity is a mask over our 'true' selves,"  and in the book's "translator's afterword" section, goes on to explain that the mask functions
"both literally and figuratively by turns, to represent the impossibility of attaining truth, be it of identity or narrative, or even of belief" 
 and is presented here in different ways, both physical and
"in the way many of the stories' narrators doubt or are uncertain of, what what they see for example -- there is an ambient paranoia throughout that narrative, even the most neatly 'historical' is only a mask laid over the inaccessible truth of the event..."
Both the author's preface and the translator's afterword lend themselves quite nicely to a discussion of semiotics if anyone's interested.   In terms of this book, quoting Schluter once again, The King in the Golden Mask
"suggests time and again that one's true identity comes to light only in the crucible of a struggle so intense that it bares him of any privilege or nicety behind which he could otherwise hide."

Schwob is known to have combed through all manner of  literary, historical, and biographical works as source material.  While the author is well known for his disbelief in "originality," Mr. Schluter notes that he
"made fiction new by making it deeply diachronic, indebted to history..."

Rather than simply regurgitate though,  he uses the material to explore what it is that makes people human. In most of these stories, it seems that he uses the potential that exists in everyone to engage in some sort of violence or cruelty as a part of his definition.


There are twenty-one stories in this volume, each dedicated to a different friend, ranging from science fiction-ish to contes cruels to the out-and-out weird.  Honestly, I loved them all, and on the whole, the entire collection is just beautiful both in terms of writing and in what Schwob is able to bring out in each story.  I won't go into them but I will share a rather eye-opening experience about myself in reading "The Plague" that sort of sideways makes the point of the book.  Consider the seriousness of the spreading of the plague  in Medieval Europe for a moment, the fear that everyone had that they would become its next victim, and at the end of this particular story, I actually had to stop and reflect on my reaction at the end when I didn't know whether to laugh or to be horrified.  That's the sort of writer he is and when a story can make me go inward to try to examine myself, well, that's power.

You could read this book in one sitting, but don't. Take the time to go through it slowly and think about it.  If you're in it  looking only  for the horror/weird shockness (I know that's not a real word but it works here) you're reading it for the wrong reason. It's definitely there, but this book is a work of art between two covers, and those don't come along every day.  Highly, highly recommended for the thinking reader,  and for people who appreciate the beauty found in the written word.  You'll certainly find it here.


Tuesday, December 4, 2018

This is a good one: Number Seven Queer Street, by Margery Lawrence

Mycroft and Moran, 1969
236 pp
hardcover
originally published 1945, Robert Hale


"People do generally come to me as a last hope!"


There's nothing like getting to the end of a book only to discover that it's an abridged edition, which is exactly what happened to me with this one.  First panic set in, and then I got busy trying to find the remaining two stories that had come with the 1945 original.  After a little sleuthing, I found a modern edition so I could finish the book as it was intended to be read.




from the IFSDB

It's a bit confusing, actually, since in the 1945 original shown on the right (Robert Hale), there are seven stories; in the 1969 edition I have there are five, and in the Ash-Tree Press kindle version,  Ash-Tree Press Occult Detectives Volume Two: The First Casebook of Miles Pennoyer, there are six.   Luckily between the Mycroft and Moran edition and the Ash-Tree Press edition, I managed to read them all.  There is yet another edition of four later stories featuring Miles Pennoyer, Master of Shadows (1959) that to my knowledge has not been reprinted since it was published, and according to Biblio.com, there was a twelfth Pennoyer story published after the author's death.   I'm really hoping that Ash-Tree decides to publish (as promised at the end of the Kindle version of Volume 1),  The Second Casebook of Miles Pennoyer, which the blurb says "will be available soon."    Not soon enough for me -- even though these stories can definitely become a bit long winded at times, as the author starts to hone in on the actual problems solved by the "psychic doctor" and their cures, it's eyes on the page without budging an inch.


Ash-Tree Press, 2013
Kindle edition, B00H599QN6
234 pp

In the foreword which is given by Jerome Latimer, the fictional pupil, assistant, and chronicler of  the exploits of  Miles Pennoyer, we are given a clue as to the author's influences in writing this book:
"There are not many people who are fortunate enough to know these selfless and splendid people, the psychic doctors -- and there are still fewer books that record the wonders they can do and are still doing.  Algernon Blackwood's book John Silence was one of the first, and Dion Fortune's book The Secrets of Dr. Taverner is another..."
 The title of the book comes from Pennoyer's address, No. 7 Queer Street, where Pennoyer lives with his housekeeper Friedl and his dog Hans; it is a "top-floor eyrie" perfectly suited to his need to be alone, without "too close contact with the crowd."   According to Latimer, Pennoyer is  a "psychic doctor -- one who deals  in ills that beset the soul rather than the body of man;" Brian Stableford says in his entry on Margery Lawrence in St. James Guide to Horror Ghost and Gothic Writers that   Pennoyer's "ostensible purpose" is to "put an end to the supernatural disturbances by healing the experiential wounds they symbolize." (350)   Over the course of these seven stories, he arrives on the scene to try to understand what is causing someone to act the way they do, but before he can do that and effect a cure, he must get to the root of his or her psychic disturbance. Sometimes he is able to do this alone; at other times he must call on "Them," aka "the Masters" for guidance and help.

In "The Case of the Bronze Door," Pennoyer reveals to Latimer how he came to be the owner of  a certain Chinese screen, a gift from "a patient" who marriage started going very wrong once the piece was put in his study.   "The Case of the Haunted Cathedral" finds him investigating a new cathedral which is haunted by not just one, but two spirits, keeping the practitioners from wanting to worship there.  An invitation in the mail prompts Pennoyer to tell Latimer about "The Case of Ella McLeod," whose strange attachment to a stray dog and her strange knowledge of Ancient Greek gives Pennoyer his first clues as to what's going on.  And then we come to "The Case of the White Snake," which to be really honest, absolutely disturbed me at first because of the device used in this story, which honestly made me question her judgment here.  I won't go there so as not to spoil things, but even Brian Stableford notes that the symbolism was "sanitized."  Yikes.

Next is my favorite of the collection, "The Case of the Moonchild."  To bring Stableford into the discussion again, he remarks that this one was "obviously borrowed from Alistair Crowley," and it shows.  Talk about creepy! In this story, Latimer gets a call from Pennoyer to come to Exeter, where the doctor is visiting an old friend.  He asks Latimer to bring the "bogey-bag," a nickname for a bag
"filled with all sorts of oils and unguents, queer-looking metal contraptions, robes and headgear, various documents, and a book or two, packets of herbs, odd-looking amulets, all manner of things that might be needed by my colleague in his frequent battles with the Forces of the Outer Dark..."
Obviously something weird is happening where Pennoyer is, and Latimer will get his chance to discover what it is when he gets involved in the case on his arrival.

At this point, I bought the Kindle edition for the remaining two stories, "The Case of the Young Man with the Scar" and "The Case of the Leannabh Shidhe."  In the first one, Pennoyer takes on the strange case of a young fellow whose prospective father-in-law wants the boy's "trouble" to be "cleared up" before the relationship can go any further.  It seems that the young man has a strange scar that "comes and goes," one that takes on the shape of a "dull red snake curling round the arm." Possibly the most pulpish story of the seven (and to be honest, for me, the most fun because of the all of the elements involved in this tale), Pennoyer will have to depend on the word of a strange source to get to the root of the scar's random appearance.   The last story finds Pennoyer in the guise of a tutor to a child who
"had got the entire village, besides his mother and the staff of the Manor House, entirely under his thumb. They dreaded and feared without in the least knowing what they feared..."
 It seems that "if Master Patrick's crossed, and especially if he's struck, something nasty'll happen to whoever touches him," reminding me so much of the boy played by Billy Mumy in that episode of  The Twilight Zone called "It's a Good Life."   The doctor and the family have to travel to Ireland to unravel this one, as it turns out, on Halloween.

On the strength of these stories I bought Margery Lawrence's Nights of the Round Table, The Terraces of Night, and The Floating Cafe. While it may not be great literature, Number Seven Queer Street is by an author whose works have been left to drift into obscurity, and that's just a shame.  I agree with  Brian Stableford, who says that "an eclectic collection of her best supernatural short stories...is long overdue."  I'd be first in line to buy it, for sure.

Recommended highly for readers of lost or forgotten authors of dark/supernatural fiction, who also don't mind the pulpy side of horror.


Monday, November 19, 2018

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

9781948405133
Valancourt Books, 2018
327 pp

hardcover


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

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

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


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

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

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

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

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

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

paperback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, October 1, 2018

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


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

paperback

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


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



from Treasure Hunt


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

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

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