Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Nightcharmer and Other Tales of Claude Seignolle (ed) Eric Hollingsworth Deudon

Texas A& M University Press, 1983
115 pp


How odd that I should choose to read this book at this particular time, since 2017 marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the author's birth. Claude Seignolle was born in Périgueux, and then at the age of 12 moved with his family to Paris. Eventually he crossed paths with archaeologist  Henri (aka l'Abbe) Brueil, who stirred his interest in the past, and later he met Arnold van Gennep, an ethnologist and folklorist who would motivate both Seignolle and his brother Jacques to start collecting rural legends. His childhood had been spent listening to his grandmother recount folk tales and legends in Occitan, so it's no surprise that Seignolle chose this path. He crisscrossed the French countryside, picking up old tales wherever he went, resulting in, as Lawrence Durrell notes in his foreword,  several "huge compilations" (the titles of which, if you're interested, can be found here).   He wrote his first novel in 1945, Le Rond des sorciers, and his first short story in 1958, "Le bahut noir."  Editor Eric Deudon  tells us that Seignolle's stories contain "a whole retinue of creatures of the night," but he 
"does not portray them merely as frightening characters, for the totality of these themes represents a direct transposition from his research on folklore into the literary domain."
And finally, Deudon reveals that
"Seignolle does not write gothic tales simply to intrigue, or even to terrorize, the reader. Above all, he writes in order to revive at the literary level a popular oral tradition in danger of becoming extinct."
And to me, aside from the fact that his stories are very different from standard gothic/weird/dark/horror fare, the fact that this "popular oral tradition" is on the edge of extinction should merit more publisher/English-reader interest in this man's work.  Someone should publish his books and introduce him into the world of dark fiction readers.  I know that Ex Occidente Press put out a limited edition of his The Black Cupboard, but sheesh -- a decent copy starts at $200 and I saw one on Amazon for over $800.  It's time to put this man's work into print at a price people can actually afford.

from Epistol'Arts

On to the book now, which was an absolute delight from beginning to end. It's once again a collection of tales that works more beneath the surface than on it, although it is also quite readable for readers who just want to be entertained by the stories. One thing I discovered here is that Seignolle is a master of irony, which adds much more dimension to his tales in a very  human sort of way and in more than one case, actually provides room for a bit of very black humor.   I can't really explain what I mean without giving things away, but trust me, you'll recognize it when you see it.


At this point, anyone contemplating reading this book who doesn't want to know anything at all about it should take the opportunity to bail. I'm going to list the stories, with minor annotations, but I will be giving neither spoilers nor great detail here, so just in case ...


The collection begins, of course, with "The Nightcharmer," from Seignolle's Les cheveaux de la nuit at autres récits cruels (1967).   Here, a man visits the home of an "eccentric zoologist" whose collection of various species of "dusty and docile fauna" takes up twenty rooms in an old manor house.  Not only is his home filled but he enjoys sharing his knowledge and memories about all things, including "the mythical creatures that the people of Brenne, dreadfully superstitious, grant to the nights there." One such legend he shares is that of the Nightcharmer.  As our visitor is about to discover, there is actually something the zoologist doesn't know.    Next comes "A Dog Story," played out in the trenches in October, 1939. As the "Khaki foxes" face "an invisible lumbering pack of green wolves" (I love the animal imagery here, and it will come back later in this book as well), back in the field kitchen, a mangy dog comes to visit the narrator and his friend.  As a dog lover myself, I'd advise a strong stomach for this one, since this is no ordinary canine. One more thing: look deep under the surface in this one and the story seriously intensifies.  From Comtes de Sologne, 1969, comes "The Healer," in which a man who takes three gold coins for each cure he provides finally meets his match in a most horrific way, as he discovers that he's "accepted a satanic proposition."  The next story, which has one of the most ironic twists I've encountered in a long while, is "Starfish," taken from "Contes Fantastiques de Bretagne" 1969.  An obviously-wealthy woman takes refuge in old villa in a "small village by the sea" that had been "deserted and abandoned." While the caretaker gets her settled, regaling her with stories from the villa's past, she's mentally elsewhere and could care less. All she can focus on is one thing... No more from me on this one, but oh, that ending!

okay, it's from a commercial, but it works. 

 That short tale is followed by the longest story in the book, "The Outlander," running about forty pages long, from Un Corbeau de toutes coleurs, 1962.  A stranger shows up at the local inn, pockets filled with gold, and in making smalltalk, the innkeeper manages to discover that the man is a blacksmith by trade, and that he's ready to settle down.  The innkeeper tells him that the town already has a blacksmith and that he won't get any business because everyone goes to Christophe.  As if on cue, a crowd of people burst in to inform the innkeeper and his wife that Christophe is dead.  With the widow ready to sell, the new guy sets up shop, and that is where this story really begins.  Let's just say that the original title was called "Le Diable in Sabots" and leave it at that.   From Contes Sorciers (1974), the next story is one of my favorites, precisely because of that irony I mentioned earlier.  In "The Last Rites," a cuckolded husband prays earnestly to Hubertine, the local saint of "hapless victims of unrequited love," and gets way more than he'd bargained for. Oh my gosh -- this was a good one!    Another tale that is laced with irony is "Hitching a Ride," where looking back to a time where he actually saw death,  a man remembers the day he was in a rut and decided to pick up a hitchhiker. . He lives to tell the tale, but the question here is why and how.   I couldn't help laughing out loud after reading this one; the same was true for "The Last Rites," gruesome as it was.  "Night Horses" finishes off this lovely collection, in which a traveler learns the hard way that "The night does not belong to the living" at a small inn in Brittany.  His curiosity, as well as his desire to get to his fiancée as quickly as possible,  makes him fail to heed the warning, at a huge cost.  No humor here, for sure, just good old-fashioned dark storytelling with suspense plus major jolt  at the end.

I'd love to really get deeper into this book here and dive underneath,  but as I always say, to tell is to spoil, so you're on your own.  As I said, Seignolle is well deserving of a large audience, and after finishing this book, I bought an old copy of a two-story collection of his work entitled The Accursed. The Nightcharmer and Other Tales is unique, very nicely done and is a beyond-welcome addition to my home library which seems to be taking a French turn here lately.  I can recommend it without any qualms whatsoever, although I'm sure for the splatterfest crowd this would be way too mild.  It is absolutely perfect for me though, and for those who enjoy their dark fiction more on the cerebral side, it is not to be missed.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Horror on the Links: The Complete Tales of Jules de Grandin, Volume One by Seabury Quinn (ed.) George A Vanderburgh

Night Shade Books, 2017
494 pp


I find myself in complete agreement with George A. Vanderburgh and Robert Weinberg who say that the tales in this book "might not be great literature, but they don't pretend to be." They also remark that the stories found here are "good fun" which is absolutely the case.   The Horror on the Links is the first book in a proposed five-volume set, and if the remaining four installments are even half as much fun as this one, then I'm in for a seriously good time.  Let's just say that I enjoyed this series opener so much that I already have volume two, and I've pre-ordered volume three which is supposed to be out in March.  I love good old pulp fiction, I love occult-detective stories, and I love weird tales, so I'm absolutely in my element here.  Ahhhhhhh.

Vanderburg and Weinberg refer to Jules de Grandin as "the occult Hercule Poirot," and it's really difficult not to make the comparison while reading. They also say that he shares "more than a passing resemblance" to Sherlock Holmes, with a "Dr. Watson-like sidekick, Dr. Trowbridge.  As a detective who sees himself as "a scientist; no more", Grandin is not at all quick to dismiss the possibility that there may be more going on than science can explain.  As he notes in "The Poltergeist,"
"There is nothing in the world, or out of it, which is supernatural, my friend; the wisest man today can not say where the powers and possibilities of nature begin or end. We say 'Thus and so is beyond the bounds of our experience' but does that therefore but it beyond the bounds of nature? I think not. Myself, I have seen such things as no man can hear me relate without calling me a liar..."
And indeed, in the scope of the twenty-three stories included here ranging (in order of publication in Weird Tales) from 1925 to 1928, some of the answers to these puzzling tales are definitely of this world while some are to be found in the darker realm of the occult.  The real-world solutions are actually far more frightening than the supernatural ones, for example, after "The White Lady of the Orphanage" (September 1927), I had to put the book down for a while, and I posted somewhere that this was one of the most gruesome stories I'd ever encountered.  Eek and Ick.

My personal favorite is "The Isle of Missing Ships," which is a straight-up pulp fiction story with no foot in the occult world; it is also the only one that does not follow the formula/pattern by which a solution is discovered which is found in all of the other entries in this volume; and then there's "The Chapel of Mystic Horror," because who in their right mind can pass up a story about an old abbey transported from Europe to America, former home of the Knights Templar?  

"The Tenants of Broussac" as cover art, Weird Tales December 1925. From Tellers of Weird Tales
I'll reveal the table of contents below, without annotation -- to tell is to spoil and I don't want to do that. My advice: sit back, relax, and enjoy these wonderful weird tales of yesteryear  and appreciate them for what they are -- delicious pulpy goodness.  My hat is off to the team of Vanderburgh and Weinberg for making these old stories available once again -- I had the time of my life reading this book, and I can't wait to get to Volume two!

Table of Contents

"The Horror on the Links"
"The Tenants of Broussac"
"The Isle of Missing Ships"
"The Vengeance of India"
"The Dead Hand"
"The House of Horror"
"Ancient Fires"
"The Great God Pan"
"The Grinning Mummy"
"The Man Who Cast No Shadow"
"The Blood-Flower"
"The Veiled Prophetess"
"The Curse of Everard Maundy"
"Creeping Shadows"
"The White Lady of the Orphanage"
"The Poltergeist"
"The Gods of East and West"
"Mephistopheles and Company, Ltd."
"The Jewel of Seven Stones"
"The Serpent Woman"
"Body and Soul"
"The Chapel of Mystic Horror"

Thursday, August 31, 2017

in my humble reader's opinion, this book is a masterpiece: 'Twixt Dog and Wolf, by C.F. Keary (ed.) James Machin

Valancourt Books, 2017
originally published 1901
110 pp


"I am the spirit of the place."
                                    -- 72

Honest to god, 2017 has been one of my best reading years ever, and I am pretty sure it's because I've started to become much more selective in my reading as I start to zero in on what really hits my buttons as a reader.  Admittedly, some books I read just for relaxation and fun or for  when my brain is exploding after having been through several literary choices in a row; others are repeat works by favorite authors, some are great for when I'm in the mood for chills up the spine, but the true, inner joy for me has become finding works that are different, exquisitely written, way off the beaten path, out of the mainstream books in which plot is but a handrail for making my way through what's really going on.

To add to my delight,  Valancourt  has published what I consider their best release in their history,  'Twixt Dog and Wolf, by C.F. Keary, reinforcing my belief that Valancourt has somehow managed to tap into my reading wavelength.  It's positively eerie when I stop to  think about it.

As we're told by James Machin in his excellent introduction to this book, the title 'Twixt Dog and Wolf  "comes from the French expression for twilight,"
"... 'Entre chien et loup' which conveys so poetically the eerie crepuscular shift from the prosaic and familiar to the baleful and unknown."*
He goes on to say that this book
"collects work that ... expertly evokes an oneiric, vesperal realm of disconcerting shadows and dark forces moving unseen, yet tangible, in tandem with our own" (vi)
and in that brief description, he's perfectly captured the feel of each of the stories in this book, but wait, there's more: Mr. Machin has also so kindly added the contemporary opinion of writer John Buchan (who also wrote his fair share of strange tales) which offers readers just a bit more insight into what they're about to read.  Buchan found in Keary's work
"...stories of diablerie of the strange sights and sounds which follow on the twilight, between the dog barking and the appearance of the grey wolf." (vii)
I'm not going to give any major details about any the stories in this book, but there are three long ones that fall under the title "As Breath into Wind."  The first is  "The Message from the God," in which the reeds whisper a terrible truth and bring word of an "unspeakable terror;" followed by "Elizabeth" a magnificent piece of writing set in Medieval Germany, where a woman comes to understand her true destiny.  This story was superb, a story which demands more than one reading since, as Machin reveals, it is laden with "alchemical allegory and symbolism." Personally, whether the reader truly gets into understanding those details or not, it is a beautiful, absolutely gorgeous piece of writing that prompted the immediate purchase of several works by German Romanticists. But for me (and please pardon the use of clichés here but I can't help it),  the true pièce de résistance, the jewel in the crown, the masterpiece of the entire collection here is "The Four Students" which is one of the best stories I've ever read set in this time period.  Oh my god -- if the whole book had just been this one tale it still would have been worth the price.  Set mainly during the Terror following the French Revolution, here a man hears and heeds the call of "the spirit of the place" with absolutely horrifying results. I can't say more, and anyone who decides to read this book will understand why.   Speaking of "the spirit of the place," I think readers who move beyond plot will discover that this is a prominent theme that is woven deftly into the fabric of all three of these stories -- how this is so I won't reveal but look for it.  Finally, the last section of this book is composed of ten short "Phantasies" that pretty much speak for themselves, with a level of macabre depth that belies their brevity.

As I said in the title of this post, in my humble reader's opinion, 'Twixt Dog and Wolf is a masterpiece, one of those collections that come along only once in a blue moon, and one that any serious reader of dark fiction absolutely must have in his or her home library so that he/she can return to it often.  As Machin notes at the end of his introduction,
"Keary's accomplishment is such that these stories and sketches delight and entertain, even as they contemplate some vague and dismal abyss." (ix)
For me, it is perfection between two covers.

* "Entre Chien et Loup"

"A dog is howling at the court-yard door;
Within, the horses drag their halter chains;
Behold! the world is full of misty rains;
And the old Shepherd knows the twilight frore.
The sea of Night will soon the Vale engulf,
With waves of dimness washing to the height;
And now from a near pinewood into sight
Steals one grey wolf." 

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Under a Watchful Eye, by Adam Nevill

Macmillan, 2017
400 pp


Just recently I said to someone that I don't believe Adam Nevill could ever write a bad book, and with the publication of Under A Watchful Eye, he has proven me right once again.  There are a number of surprises awaiting the reader of this novel, so anyone thinking maybe they'd like to read it is in line for a definitely bizarre but highly-satisfying experience.  As in most of the books of Nevill's that I've read, while there is definitely a horror story here, the threats also come from within. The author really excels in his ability to focus on a few characters and pull out what's deeply embedded; he is also a master of atmosphere that immediately grabs hold and never lets go until well after the final page is turned.

No long synopsis here since I will wreck someone's enjoyment of the novel by actually providing one. What I will say is that the novel centers around Seb Logan, a writer who has sacrificed much and worked hard to become successful.  Things are going quite well for him -- he's living a quiet, orderly and idyllic life, one he's definitely earned over the years -- until he begins to see a "dark figure"  watching him where ever he goes. But it's not just the figure that bothers him -- soon the sightings, some of which seem physically impossible,  are accompanied by the feeling that whoever it is knows his name, and he starts becoming paranoid, wondering why this is happening to him. Enter an old acquaintance whose presence once again in his life throws his very being into not just disarray,  but utter chaos, putting at risk everything Seb's worked for and achieved.  Because of their past connection he takes this person in, and that's when everything starts to hit the fan and come unglued.  What follows is a record of a spiral into the deepest levels of darkness -- and as Seb begins to discover, it is a darkness from which there may be no chance of escape.

As always, the author has written a novel that completely jangles the nerves as the story,  the dark atmosphere and the people all insinuated their way into and under my skin the entire time I was reading.  I could smell, see, hear and feel along with Seb -- that's how good of a writer Nevill is.  Add to that his uncanny ability to ratchet not just the tension but the sheer malevolence as the story progresses, and it's no wonder that I couldn't put this book down until I'd finished it, reading in the car as a passenger and  long into the night in a Miami hotel before we started our week of vacation. The outside world just completely vanished for hours, which to me says that I was completely and deeply enveloped in the novel.    I will say that although my favorite book is his Last Days, which I don't believe can be topped, this one comes very close to that same level of excellence.  Then again, as I said earlier, I don't think he's capable of writing a bad book at all.  

While other readers may want to go into detail about what happens here, my advice is to not let yourself know ahead of time what's going to happen. Earlier I noted that there are a lot of surprises to be found here, but even more than being taken aback at just how very clever this novel is, the deliciousness is in letting everything unfold slowly.     I know when I've got something fresh, original, and just downright frightening in my hands when I have to resist the temptation to flip to the end, and I had to restrain myself from doing so many times.

Modern horror writers are many, but great modern horror writers are few and Nevill belongs in the latter camp. Read the book.

The Virago Book of Ghost Stories (ed.) Richard Dalby

Virago Press, 2008
496 pp


"...there's awful strange things in this world."
                     --  from "The Open Door, by Margaret Oliphant.

The Virago Book of Ghost Stories combines two of my reading passions.  First, of course, there are the ghost stories themselves, and these are, as Richard Dalby states in his preface, "arranged in chronological order,"  making for a great way to watch the development of the "form of the ghost story" over the last 150 years.  Yes -- that's correct -- 150 years.  The second thing I'm impressed with is that here, each and every story is written by a woman, some familiar and some more obscure writers whose work I've just read for the first time.   It is a superb collection and a definite must-have for the serious ghost-story aficionado, complete with little bio blurbs about each woman at the end of the book.   The only downside is that I've made a list of books to hunt down based on said bio blurbs, so there goes the wallet again.

There are thirty-one stories in this book and while some are good, there are others that are downright great and for me there wasn't one bad one in the bunch.  I suppose it's all about what people enjoy in a ghost story so I get that not everyone will share my enthusiasm, but I read them all of the time and I think it's one of the better collections I've read.

--break --

From here on I list the stories with only teensy bits about what's in them, so feel free not to read from here on, although I swear there are no spoilers whatsoever.

--back to our program --

The book opens with a short tale by Charlotte Bronte, "Napoleon and the Spectre", which is a bit comical and sort of reminded me in a way of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," but was quite different when all is said and done.  This one is followed by one of my all-time favorites, "The Old Nurses's Story," by Elizabeth Gaskell, one which is quite well known and which I've read many, many times but still manages to provide a spine chill each time.  That's greatness right there.  Amelia B. Edwards' "The Story of Salome" set in Venice also gave me a nice case of the willies as did "Reality or Delusion" by Mrs. Henry Wood of East Lynne fame.  Next up is a short story by one of my favorite ghost-story writers of yesteryear, Charlotte Riddell, "The Old House in Vauxhall Walk," which has a twisty ending I wasn't expecting, as do most of her stories.  Margaret Oliphant is next with her "The Open Door," set in Scotland, a true page-flipper from beginning to end as a man races to save his son from what's haunting him.

 "The Old Nurse's Story," from Fiction Fan's Book Reviews
New to me is the writer Ella D'Arcy, whose "The Villa Lucienne" takes on a somewhat ethereal tone as a small group takes an "expedition" to a villa on the Riviera and gets much more than they'd expected.  That one is followed by "The Vacant Lot," by Mary E. Wilkins, an American tale in which a family decides to move when they get the bargain of a lifetime on a wonderful house -- but then come to realize that maybe it wasn't such a great deal after all.  E. Nesbit's "The Violet Car" also managed to produce hackles, as a woman comes to take on a job as nurse to a mentally ill patient, but realizes she can't tell which of the two people she's living with is actually the one needing her services.  It's a sad story, but done very, very nicely.  "The Eyes" by Edith Wharton is next, another one I've read before but still worth reading since Wharton's stories go right to the heart of human nature, as do those by May Sinclair, whose "The Token" is one of my favorites of the entire collection, focusing on a sadly-neglected wife who only wants to know if her husband still loves her.  Oh my gosh -- May Sinclair is one of my favorite authors and this story is one of her best.  That one is followed by another author who is new to me, Richmal Crompton.  Her story "Rosalind" is also a favorite and, like Sinclair's work, works on different levels requiring a second read for what's really going on here. This one is not only deliciously spooky, but very telling as well.

from Exemplore

Margery Lawrence makes an appearance next with her "The Haunted Saucepan" which seemed a bit silly for a while until I realized exactly what was going on here, at which point it wasn't at all funny.  Margaret Irwin's "The Book" is a great story, one I've read before and one which has been redone a few times by modern writers.   Oh my god -- I was on pins and needles with this one even after having already read it and that speaks volumes.  Another equally good one with more than a tinge of sadness is "Miss De Mannering of Asham," by another author I've never read, F.M. Mayor.  Another page turner,  this story is one of the most haunting tales in the entire collection about a young woman whose life is lived in solitude until that one moment when ... Yikes! Great ghostly fare here, for sure, and I absolutely must find more by this author.  That sad tale is followed by a different sort of ghost story by yet another unknown writer, Ann Bridge, "The Station Road," in which a doctor's wife going to meet a family friend at the station is herself met by one of the strangest occurrences imaginable, and that's just the beginning.  Moving on, I will say that while the next story, "Roaring Tower," by Stella Gibbons isn't the best in the book, it's yet another one that is more than meets the eye at first glance.  It's set in Cornwall (perfect place for a supernatural tale!) and finds a woman looking back on her self-absorbed adolescence to a time when strange things found their way into her life.  I'm not a huge Stella Gibbons fan in the first place, but there's a definite undercurrent to be unearthed here.  Following this one we get back into the ethereal zone with Elizabeth Bowen's "The Happy Autumn Fields," about which I can say nothing except it deserves a double reading and is quite good.

from The Daily Mail

Dalby's included a story by another favorite writer here, "The Mistress in Black," by Rosemary Timperley, which takes place in a small school where a young teacher was fortunate enough to find a position last minute, then comes to learn why.  Very nicely done, but then again, Timperley is a fine, albeit sadly-neglected author.  Next up is Celia Fremin's "Don't Tell Cissie" in which two women looking at retirement plan a weekend ghost hunt but don't want their friend to find out what they're up to.  This one is somewhat humorous when all is said and done.  That one is followed by a story by Antonia Fraser, "Who's Been Sitting in My Car?" another that needs attention between the lines but is just downright creepy.  Ruth Rendell is next with her "The Haunting of Shawley Rectory," which centers on a house in a small village that is only haunted some of the time, as the two people who stay there soon discover.  And you thought she only wrote mystery novels. Oy.  This is a good one, for sure. A.S. Byatt's entry, "The July Ghost" may be the saddest story in this book, one that offers a variant meaning of "haunted."   Next up is "The Dream of Fair Women," by A.L. Barker, the ending of which brings everything back full circle to its beginning, and that's all I'll say because to tell here would definitely be to spoil.

Borley Rectory, from The Harry Price Website

Coming to the end of the book, we find Penelope Lively's "Black Dog," which is by no means an average ghostly/supernatural tale; like many of the tales in this volume, there's much more going on under the surface than on it. I will say no more.   Following that one comes Rosemary Pardoe's "The Chauffeur," in which a woman discovers that her friends' home has its very own ghost and goes out seeking answers.  This one is okay, not great but still worthy.  Next up is a story with more of a Caribbean feel, "Diamond Jim," by Lisa St. Aubin de Teran, and it is truly an old-fashioned ghost story -- you know, the kind that should be read at night during a loud thunderstorm with rain and lightning while you're safely wrapped in a blanket. "Ashputtle: Or, the Mother's Ghost" by Angela Carter follows that one, and it is one of Carter's best short stories. Again, to tell is to spoil, so ... Elizabeth Fancett's "The Ghosts of Calagou" is another old-fashioned, shuddersome tale set in the "haunted hills of Calagou," where there are legends of dead men "jealously guarding their treasure." One man is about to check it out for himself.  Joan Aiken's "The Traitor" joins the ranks of the other sad, poignant tales, related by a a middle-aged "lady librarian" turned lady's companion who finds herself back in the home of her childhood quite by circumstance.  Last, but absolutely by no means least, is "Redundant," by Dorothy K. Haynes, about a man who "had always taken jobs that nobody else wanted" and the one he has here is likely the most surprising of them all.  Great ending on this one.

So that's it -- I cannot recommend this book highly enough, and as I said, it's a definite must-have for people like me who have a passion for ghost stories over the centuries, especially those written by women.  Absolutely delightful it is indeed, and now it's time to hunt down the other Virago volumes of ghost stories.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Just published and well worth every damn second: The Grip of It, by Jac Jemc

FSG Originals 2017
288 pp

paperback/arc -- my thanks to the good people at Powell's.

"It's like a closed circuit."
Jac Jemc certainly gets major points for ingenuity here in her newest novel, The Grip of It, and coming from me, Ms. picky-pants, that says a lot.  The official blurb calls it "a literary horror novel about a young couple haunted by their newly purchased home," which is definitely the case, but it is not at all your standard haunted house fare.

The Grip of It is related via alternating viewpoints between Julie and James, the couple who have bought the old Victorian house at the end of Stillwater. They'd left the city to take James away from his "old haunts" because his wife felt they'd needed a change after he'd gambled away all of the money in his bank account. His gambling problem had put him into therapy, but she thinks that it's time for a "fresh start".  They buy a house that's been on the market for quite some time, and it isn't too long after they've moved in that they discover a number of things that need fixing. There's also something very off kilter here, and weirdness sets in almost from the moment they begin unpacking to start their new life.  Because creepy moments need to be experienced on one's own, I'm not going to go into detail as to what's going on, but things quickly begin to spiral out of control for this young couple to the point where it becomes difficult to separate what is and isn't real.

The ingenuity here is not so much in the haunted house horror story per se -- when all is said and done, the tropes that the author uses here have most certainly been done elsewhere, and the truth is that there are some things that are left unanswered.    What is original here, and what is in my opinion the thing that makes this book very much worth reading, is in the way the author mirrors the couple's search to try to get to the root of what's ailing this house (what's actually haunting it) with what's actually ailing/haunting this couple -- complete with "undercurrents," gaps, walls, and as James reveals, the "buried, fetid stories" which have "bubbled to the surface."  As Julie notes at one point,
"This house is sapping us, pulling out our cores"
and as the novel progresses, the reader comes to understand that the "grip" the house has come to have on this couple is far more menacing than either one of them could have ever realized.

There are so many things going on in this book that make it worthwhile. As just one example, there are several scenes that bring out the idea of   "alternative versions" of ourselves that we reveal to everyone, even those closest to us, and the idea of others'  unacceptability of "the wilderness of the mind," where people "will always wonder what to believe," since they "expect the mind's voice to unstitch only when alone."  The Grip of It  is also another fine example of a writer using the horror genre in a most original way well beyond the norm as a vehicle for exploration into the human psyche.

Readers who go into this novel expecting the standard haunted house fare may be somewhat disappointed, since, as I said, this story, when all is said and done, actually moves further beyond, well into the literary zone where the focus is more on people.   My only real issue is that sometimes what the author has her characters thinking is more authorial than real-world speak, which for me came across a bit overblown at times, but hey -- that's a minor thing compared with what she's done here.  I hope this book does well and that people will come to realize that horror can convey so much more than the content of  much-overdone tales of zombie apocalypses or vampire plagues and that when done right, it can move into the realm of the literary.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Kzradock the Onion Man and the Spring-Fresh Methuselah: From the Notes of Dr. Renard de Montpensier, by Louis Levy

Wakefield Press, 2017
originally published as Menneskeløget Kzradock, den vaarfriske Methusalem: Af Dr. Renard Montpensiers Optegneiser, 1910
translated by W.C. Bamberger
137 pp


"What is the truth, and what are the lies in this damned business?" --95

Well, that certainly is the question at the heart of this book, which our narrator tells us is a
"dreadful and bloody mystery, one that is still not entirely understood by the author."  
The word "mystery" here is certainly in line with the back-cover blurb which calls this book "a fevered pulp novel," but really, it is anything but.  There are certainly a number of pulp elements found here that make for fun reading; on the other hand, the true mystery it presents is deadly serious.

When Dr. Renard de Montpensier first took on Kzradock's case, he soon realized that Kzradock was not "really insane," but that he'd "been made insane" because he holds the solution to a heinous crime, one which had been "encased" inside his psyche by a certain Lady Florence. As the novel opens, we are made privy to what the good doctor calls a "séance" -- in truth a session of hypnosis -- where he's attempting to unlock the dark secrets that are the source of Kzradock's  ongoing torment. The only way to help him, thinks de Montpensier, is to "investigate the crimes forming the basis of Kzradock's state," and using his own "science," he hopes to "send him back into society."    Okay -- so far so good, sounds right up my alley, but then, after a crazy night out at a theater where the crime itself is the movie,  and a wild scene that greets him on his return to the Paris asylum where Kzradock is a patient, everything shifts as the doctor finds himself  "At the edge of the abyss between madness and reason."  From this point on, things become surreal (and I don't use the term lightly) as de Montpensier tries to get to the root of the secrets buried deeply in Kzradock's soul.

The back-cover blurb says that this book combines "elements of the serial film" (check), "detective story" (check), and "gothic horror novel" (check), but what it doesn't say is that ultimately it is a nightmarish journey into "the sufferings of a sick soul."   Reading this book felt like standing in  constantly shifting sands where I was trying to gain some sort of foothold on solid ground but couldn't. As quickly as some sort of rational explanation for it all would come to mind, things would change so I just gave up trying to go the rational route and let the book speak for itself, which is a good way to approach this story.   This book is not your usual narrative sort of thing but rather a gigantic puzzle that doesn't yield up its secrets until the very end, and to say that I was gobsmacked is an understatement.  It is the epitome of cryptic, and obviously this post doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of this novel, but there's a good reason for that which is all explained at the book's conclusion.

Wakefield is publishing some incredible books, and I certainly loved this one and enjoyed the journey although there were times I had to walk away because it was so intense.  I mean, there is horror, and then there is horror, and to me the most horrific things often have their roots in the human psyche.  As de Montpensier says at one point,
"... a strained soul creates an entire world within the skin that surrounds it..." 
and truer words have never been spoken.

fiction from Denmark