Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Spirit of the Place and Other Strange Tales: The Complete Short Stories of Elizabeth Walter (ed.) Dave Brzeski

9780957296251
Shadow Publishing, 2017
409 pp



paperback

"You've got to be careful when dealing with spirits."

The work of Elizabeth Walter, whose name I didn't know before buying this book this past spring, has found its way into many an anthology, including several volumes of The Fontana Book of Great Horror Stories, New Tales of Unease (ed. John Burke), The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories, and The Virago Book of Ghost Stories. (Sadly, as I was looking up the last book just now, the little red guy with the pitchfork on my right shoulder made me hit the buy button, so I expect I'll be talking about that one here after my vacation in August). Considering how little there is about her to be found (and believe me, I tried), I think Brzeski has done a great job here in compiling so much information about Elizabeth Walter.

So now on to the book, which all told comprises a whopping thirty-one stories, each listed under the titles of Walter's original books in which they first appeared. In this book, those forces lying outside the realm of nature are not of the beneficent sort, but have a rather cruel, malevolent streak to them. To her credit, and with only minor exceptions, Walters manages to sustain this idea throughout most of the stories throughout this book; when all is said and one, however, it's the human reaction to these forces that matters in this volume.  As she is quoted in the introduction,
"The thing I like most about the supernatural is that it enables you to play God, to dispense justice -- only you dispense it from beyond the grave." (3)
I can guarantee that this happens here, in spades.  Like any other anthology, it's not perfect -- the writing can be uneven, the later stories are not as good as the earlier ones, but as a whole, The Spirit of the Place and Other Strange Tales is well worth reading. The big plus for me was the stories with Welsh settings -- it's amazing how old superstitions still abide in some places.  

Just FYI: not only is this probably going to be a lengthy post, but I am briefly annotating here so opting out at this point would be a good option for those people who want to go into this book knowing absolutely nothing. For those brave enough to read on, don't worry -- there is no leakage of critical detail. I've organized the stories into their original collections.

Book one is Snowfall and Other Chilling Events, from 1965, containing five stories. "Snowfall" takes on the benighted traveler, who this time finds himself stuck in a horrific storm with only a few miles to go until the next town. He's fortunate that someone just happens to be walking around and takes him in, or is he? "The New House," well, when you live in a home that is built in an area once known as Gibbet Hill, you might expect some creepiness to crop up. Let me just say that while the trope's been used before, the ending just about made me jump out of my chair. The best way to describe the next tale, "The Tibetan Box," is grotesque. A little carved box with a strange history finds its way into a home via a jumble sale, and gives its new owners more than they'd bargained for. Yikes. And now, just four stories in, we've come to "The Island of Regrets," my favorite story in this entire volume. Set in Kéroualhac, a small town in Brittany,  from "the hill above the village," one can see a small island in the Channel, "Like a child's toy left floating by the beach." On their way to St. Malo, Dora Matthews and her fiance Peter Quint (ring any bells, Henry James readers?) stop in this little town for the night, and learn about the superstitions surrounding this island, which the locals call the Ile des Regrets. "The island is a magic place," they are told, one that
"grants the first wish you make when you first set foot there, but grants it in such a way that you will wish it had not been granted." 
Even though they're also warned that "the island is an unlucky place," Dora drags a passive Peter along with her to visit it. Wild horses couldn't drag the rest of the story out of me -- this one is beyond chilling, and needs to go in a hall-of-fame sort of collection of best supernatural/weird tales ever told. The final story in this group is "The Drum," which, while it does highlight Walter's concept of justice meted from beyond the grave, I wasn't so keen on since I've read this same kind of thing before more than once. 

from Weavers of Tradition

The next block of six tales is from Walter's The Sin-Eater and Other Scientific Impossibilities (1967), which I'll say is a mixed bag of stories ranging from good to okay to whatever. This group begins with "The Sin-Eater," which when all is said and done is rather eerie, involving a hiker who accidentally finds himself caught up in a bizarre ritual that will come back to haunt him later. "Dearest Clarissa," which is set in a sanitarium, starts out well enough, but I figured it all out long before the narrator was able to. I really hate when that happens. Moving right along, "A Scientific Impossibility" was less creep-inspiring than laughworthy, especially because it takes place among a group of arguing academics, and then we come to "A Question of Time," which builds ever so slowly but ends up with a gutpunch. Discussion among friends about the subject of a certain centuries-old painting turns very strange in a big way. Up next is a story that Brzeski says was turned into a segment of the old Night Gallery show called "A Fear of Spiders," which I'll admit I've never seen, but I'm kind of inspired to see if I can find it now. Walter's tale is called simply "The Spider," and ultimately it's a tale of revenge served cold with a rather hair-raising twist. To say more would be to wreck it but I ended up pitying that poor fool, even if he is a jerk. Closing out this batch is another one I didn't care for very much, although its title, "Exorcism" will probably arouse some readers. Here the victim of a murderer appears shroud and all, to exact vengeance, but the murderer's wife is having no part in the dead guy's scheme. I think this one was supposed to be humorous, but the comedy escaped me for the most part.


Image from "A Fear of Spiders," from Night Gallery, via Genre Snaps 
The next bunch are included in her Davy Jones's Tale and Other Supernatural Stories (1971), and it's here that I discovered my second favorite story, which is coincidentally, "Davy Jones's Tale." It begins with the story of a shipwreck  a century earlier "with the loss of all hands," without which, as the narrator tells us, "nothing in this tale makes sense." Set in Wales, the modern-day story goes along and builds to a conclusion where the reader has to make his/her own choice about what actually happens here, and I have to say, it's not an easy one to make. The draw here is most definitely the ambiguity; this one demands more than a casual read. The next one is a kind of weirdo Cold War spy story that absolutely didn't do it for me called "The Hare." Seriously, had I never read it, I wouldn't have missed a thing. It may float someone's boat, but not mine. Following that one there comes another one that was less than satisfying and less original than most of the stories in this book, "In the Mist." All I would have to do is give the storyline, and I guarantee that someone reading this would go "oh yeah...I know that one."  Enough said. We enter into the zone of completely weird with the next story, "The Lift," in which a man in trouble seeking help finds himself in a building where strangeness follows. Not a fan of this one either. In "The Street of the Jews," while there is a supernatural element, it's the history here that rattles. "Hushabye, Baby" is a tough one to talk about without giving anything away, so I won't, but it's a good one. Really good. 


from The Telegraph

1973's Come and Get Me & Other Uncanny Invitations begins (obviously) with "Come and Get Me," set deep in the Elan Valley of Wales. A house that was put on the market and remains vacant years later is the setting for this one, which begins with military maneuvers interrupted by a "terrible shrill ha-ha-ha that was human but maniac." Here past aligns with present; in the end, it was just okay. Luckily, the next one is pretty good, "The Concrete Captain," where a newcomer learns the hard way that "You've got to be careful when dealing with spirits," followed by "The Thing," another one I just didn't care for. It starts out very nicely, has a lot of potential for weirdness, but frankly, this one just sort of fizzles into meh. "The Travelling Companion" is yet another I figured out way earlier than I should have since it's another been there, read that, bought the t-shirt kind of ghostly tale, as is "The Spirit of the Place," set in Italy. Next is "Prendergast," which is somewhat of a departure from the other stories in this book. A string of killings of young girls prompts concerned citizens to form a group that patrols the streets between 6 pm and midnight. The narrator of the story gets the cemetery beat, and it doesn't take long until the strangeness begins. This one really relies on its ending, although admittedly it was suspenseful on the path to getting there and I quite enjoyed it. "The Grandfather Clock" is quite fun though, as a young woman wants no part of family tradition and it comes back to haunt her. Sort of.



from Ambient-Mixer

Two years later  Dead Woman & Other Haunting Experiences was published,  and the "Dead Woman" in this case is a hill in Wales with a tainted history. Another personal favorite, this story underscores the idea that superstitious beliefs are alive and well in this part of the country, and have everything to do with what happens to a newcomer to a village where "everyone was polite but no one was friendly." Great story. The next one, "The Hollies and the Ivy" could have benefited from fleshing out the story a bit more fully. Like "The Thing," it had the potential to be terrifying but fell somewhat short, in my opinion. A couple sinks everything they have into their new home The Hollies, bought to be renovated. If only they could get rid of that damn ivy that covers everything. I liked everything about the next story "A Monstrous Tale" except the last couple of pages where what could have been majorly creepifying just fell flat. A vacation turns into a nightmare for one couple when they decide to take a ride on a small boat to accompany a yacht across the Bodensee; luckily for the wife she had a tantrum and decided not to go with her husband, who didn't fare so well. "The Little House" is very well done although somewhat predictable, but still very nicely written. Once again, like so many of Walter's stories, past deeds come back to haunt the present when the owners of a newly-bought home clear out their garden and discover a Wendy house. That's when the weirdness begins. In "Dual Control" two people on their way to a party are sniping at each other and in the midst of their argument, they happen to bring up the girl they've just run down and left to die. The driver, Eric, refuses to go back to take a look, but the story is far, far from over. Oy! In "Telling the Bees" a gardener's superstitions regarding his bees turns out to be not just another old wives' tale when a young woman who's convinced her husband has been trying to kill her takes steps to do something about it. This one took two reads, but I ended up liking it. And last but not least in this volume comes "Christmas Night," which takes place at an inn with the name The Hanged Man, so I just felt in my bones that something weird was going to happen there. My bones were right.


This is a book I would certainly recommend to anyone who has an interest in the supernatural or in older weird tales in general, although obviously these are pretty tame in comparison to modern horror tales so maybe a less jaded audience without a need for gore or the severely grotesque would more likely appreciate these stories. Collectively, they make for a great time, and kudos to the editor for bringing the work of Elizabeth Walters into the public eye once again.  

one last thing: readers thinking about this book may well want to read it on Kindle or another e-reader, since this book is huge dimension-wise. As I said to someone recently, it's not one you can take to the vet's office to read while you're waiting, and if I had it do over again, I would have foregone the print copy for the electronic. Either way, though, read the book! 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Big Machine, by Victor LaValle


9780385527989
Spiegel and Grau, 2009
366 pp

hardcover

"To be an American is to be a believer!...But y'all don't even understand what you believe in."  


Trying to make a concerted effort to read the books that have been sitting on my shelves forever, I decided to read this one, Big Machine, by Victor LaValle.  I've read his The Ecstatic, The Devil in Silver and The Ballad of Black Tom, and I have his newest offering, The Changeling, in a book bag reserved for vacation reading in August.  He has become one of my very favorite contemporary writers -- his work is original for sure, something I very much appreciate these days; he's funny, and he tackles important issues through his fiction.   Another thing about him that I like is that, at least in this book and in Devil in Silver, is that he has great stories to tell and frames them using horror-story tropes -- I recently read an interview where he had just published Devil in Silver and he called it his "haunted house story." I'm sorry -- I just don't remember where I read it. The point is that Victor LaValle is no ordinary writer, as anyone who's read his work will recognize.

In chapter three of this book, there is a bus passenger who is "three-quarters bum" standing in the aisle yelling at his fellow passengers, telling them that there's a fight going on in the country -- a fight about "faith, people. Faith and belief."  Before he gets booted off this bus, he has one final thing to say which is this:  "To be an American is to be a believer!...But y'all don't even understand what you believe in."  This one line sets up one of the most offbeat but finest novels I've read this year.  

The main character in this novel is Ricky Rice, a janitor at Union Station in Utica New York.  The receipt of a strange note one day during his shift sends him off to an even stranger place deep in the northern Vermont woods. He ends up at a place called the Washburn Library, which "doesn't care who you were, only who you want to be." Like Ricky, the people he meets there have had problems in their pasts; they are also all "descendants of America's greatest losers. Black folks. The only population that came to America to be enslaved."  As he meets his fellow "Unlikely Scholars" for the first time, his first thought is this:
"Seven black people in the Northeast Kingdom. Sounds like the start of a gruesome old folktale."
 And at this point, I knew this was not going to be any ordinary book, and it's only page 29.  As it turns out, I was right.

The Dean of the Washburn Library reveals at the first meeting that
"There is a voice whispering in the darkness. I have heard it. Everything it says is true. It's been talking to us, to all of us, but the world is so noisy we can't make out the message. Not unless we go off somewhere, someplace, remote and undisturbed and quiet..."
The job of the Unlikely Scholars? To listen.

It seems that the Washburn Library holds a vast "inventory" of "impossible events, documented, recorded, and even photographed until they seem to be more than just hearsay."   The Dean  reveals to Ricky the story of Judah Washburn, the original founder who had been a slave who "escaped bondage" in 1775.  Judah, it seems, had made his way to Northern California where he'd eventually "wandered off into the marshlands." It was there he first heard a voice coming from under ground, where the Voice once again spoke to him.  After some time, and after Judah had been struck blind, he was directed back above ground where he found a fortune in Spanish gold coins. Making his way to Vermont, over the next twenty-six years, he attended séances, and "knocked on the door of every 'haunted house,'" waiting for the Voice to speak to him again. But it never did.    As time passed, his daughter became an alcoholic, and he decided that she should take his place in the field, perhaps hoping that she'd feel a sense of purpose and that "a mission would defeat an addiction."  As she sent reports back home, he read everything, hoping that the Voice had hidden its "next commandment" within her reports.  This was the beginning of the Washburn Library.

The Dean also reveals to Ricky that he has a special mission for him -- it seems that the Washburn Library is "under threat" from one of its own who believes the Library is "corrupted," and that his job is to start all over.   It is Ricky's chance to "be brave" -- to find and take out the rogue "traitor" Solomon Clay.  Off he goes to California with another Unlikely Scholar named Adele, and it's here where our story actually begins, as they discover that Clay has taken on the role of "Father of the Despised," a modern-day prophet planning to organize the homeless into action.   Or maybe I should say that this is where our story takes off like a rocket.

What starts out sounding like a sort of Dan Brownish kind of thing quickly moves into, as one of the  book cover blurbs says,  a "mind-rattling mystery about doubt, faith, and the monsters we carry within us," and this story with its somewhat crazy premise gets serious really quickly. Reading through, there is a LOT  going on here as among other things, LaValle looks at class, race, religion and the institutions that often fail those who depend on them the most.  It is a very human story, and as one reader put it,
"...it's a book that makes outcasts its heroes, and reminds us how powerful it can be to get a helping hand." 
I think that maybe the author is also saying that doubt isn't always a bad thing -- while it may be the "Big Machine" that "grinds up the delusions of men and women," it can also serve as an antidote to our penchant for blindly placing our faith in something  without questioning, rather than believing in ourselves or reaching out to others.

Big Machine, despite its rather strange but on the other hand optimistic ending, is a gorgeous novel and the bottom line is I loved it.  It may not be for everyone, and that's okay, but there was something about this book that really tugged at my insides, making it perfect for me.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Other Side, by Alfred Kubin -- prepare to be disturbed


9781910213032
Dedalus, 2014
originally published 1909 as Die andere Seite
translated by Mike Mitchell
248 pp

paperback (read earlier)

"...it all had a touch of the madhouse." 

Imagine this: one very ordinary day, you're sitting at home and suddenly a man appears at your door with a proposal that, should you accept, will change your life completely.   That's exactly how this very disturbing novel begins.  How it ends I won't say, but imagine any  dream you've ever had that starts out being sort of quirky and then rapidly devolves into a nightmare from which you struggle to awaken, and that describes this novel in a nutshell.  Sort of.

Alfred Kubin is famous for his art, which in illustration form has also graced the pages of many writers' works, including Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Poe, and Nerval. While there are a number of places anyone can turn to to look at his work, it's obvious that Kubin was no ordinary artist.  As author Jeff VanderMeer has stated, Kubin "allowed his subconscious to lead his creative expression," and  Karen Rosenberg wrote in a 2008 article in the New York Times that "Kubin's drawings map the shadowy corners of the unconscious,"  and I can say that the same is definitely true regarding The Other Side. This is no ordinary book by any stretch of the imagination.

In Kubin's 1917 autobiography (with the great title Alfred Kubin's Autobiography)  he says the following:
"The scraps of memory -- that is all they are -- that stay with us after a dream seem illogical only to superficial observers, on whom the splendid power and beauty of this kingdom are lost." (xli)
This quotation works perfectly as an introduction to his novel The Other Side, in which the unnamed narrator of this tale finds himself living in a strange place known as "The Dream Realm."  Indeed, those who are accepted into the Dream Realm are "predestined to do so, either by birth or later experiences," and there is a "strict selection process for people who are invited to take part in our community."   The inhabitants have "abnormally sharp sense perceptions," which allow them to experience "relationships in the outside world which do not exist for the average person;" and it is these "non-existent things" which "form the unfathomable foundation of the world which the Dream people never forget for one moment."

The Dream Realm is the creation of the narrator's old school friend  Claus Patera, who he hasn't seen in sixy years or so.  They had been "wild hooligans" together, but eventually they'd lost touch. Now, after a marriage and a career as an "artist and illustrator," the narrator is handed a note from Patera's agent inviting him to come and live in Patera's country.  Patera, it seems, had been fortunate enough to have come into "possession of what is probably the largest fortune in the world," with access to "fairly inexhaustible resources," which allowed to him to realize an idea he'd had to "found a dream realm," the present population of which was 65,000 people.  It is
"... shut off from the rest of the world by a surrounding wall and protected against any attack by strong fortifications. There is a single gate for entry and exit, facilitating strict control of people and goods. The Dream Realm is a sanctuary for all those who are unhappy with modern civilisation and contains everything necessary to cater for their bodily needs."
Patera's agent goes on to say that it hadn't been Patera's intention to "create a utopia, a kind of model state for of the future." Instead, it is a place, as the narrator and readers will discover, where the idea of progress is completely rejected.    Our narrator's first thought is that he's been confronted by a madman, but eventually he accepts Patera's invitation and he and his wife make their way to the Dream Realm, which lies hidden somewhere in Asia. The final step of the journey to the city of Pearl finds them entering a tunnel, in which the narrator was suddenly
"...assailed by a sensation of horror such as had never felt before"
 and indeed,  what starts out as  an "adventure story," as the author refers to this book in his autobiography,  quickly turns into the stuff of nightmares.

 While it takes them some time to get used to their new home and its quirks and the strange occurrences there, our narrator begins to gradually become  "so accustomed to the improbable that nothing seemed out of the ordinary."  What he also notices though is that while the eye of Patera (read the bureaucracy) is everywhere, he himself remains hidden and inapproachable, much like K. in Kafka's The Castle.  [As a sidebar, according to a 2014 article in The New York Review of Books, Christopher Benfey notes that Kubin's book is "widely assumed (though on scant evidence)" to have influenced Kafka's work.]

the author, from the blog Alfred Kubin 

Kubin  wrote The Other Side during a period in which he was unable to draw, a time which he says "filled me with alarm," and "in order to do something, no matter what, to unburden myself," he decided to write.  He finished this book in twelve weeks; within another four weeks he'd also illustrated it.  As he notes,
"During its composition I achieved the mature realization that it is not only in the bizarre, exalted, or comic moments of our existence that the highest values lie, but that the painful, the indifferent, and the incidental-commonplace contain these same mysteries,"
and that this is "the principle meaning of this book."  This idea plays out time and time again throughout the story, although I'll leave it to others to discover how.

I loved this book. It is so very different, so far out of the realm of normal; it is the very stuff I crave and go out of my way to look for.   It is extremely rare that I read a book that affects me like this one did,  but it did me in. When I find something out of the ordinary like The Other Side, I tend to get sucked in completely and have trouble getting out until the very last page. I wasn't too far in before the Moleskine notebook and the pens came out;  two notebooks later it was over. The first time through this novel I was shaken, my nerves were working overtime, and  I couldn't think straight for a while after having finished it. Being inside Kubin's head is a dangerous and very scary place to find oneself, even if it's only for the duration of the book.

Jeff VanderMeer (from the link above) says that this novel has a "cult status," and I can see why.  Reading it also validates my theory that there is most definitely greatness and wisdom to be found in a lot of what's old. Granted, this one is a tough and demanding read on several levels, but thinking people who really want to be stretched in their reading will most certainly appreciate this book, disturbing though it may be.

***

Ad Blankestijn has an excellent blog called Splendid Labyrinths, where there is a great discussion about how to possibly approach/read this book.  

Friday, June 30, 2017

The Somnabulist's Dreams, by Lars Boye Jerlach

9780692746608
Angry Owl, 2016
181 pp

"and the stars look very different today..."

paperback, and a big thanks to the author for my copy

When I first heard about this book, I knew I had to read it. I am fascinated with the use of lighthouses in literature, since they have a sort of ambiguous symbolism to them.  In some books, lighthouses imply safety, while in others they convey a deep sense of isolation.  While I won't say which camp this book falls into,  the back-cover blurb, which barely even hints at what's in store for readers of this book, describes  a New England lighthouse keeper who comes across a collection of "seemingly deranged" writings left behind by his predecessor.

It seems that what Enoch Soule has actually left behind is a collection of his dreams, as he puts it, "the fantasies of my mind, over which I have no control."   And what dreams they are indeed.  It took me no time to discover that not only is this book something very much out of the ordinary, but also that there is nothing straightforward here until the somewhat jaw-dropping ending which puts everything into perspective. In the meantime, as soon as we find ourselves peering into Enoch's dreams, it becomes obvious, once again referring to the back-cover blurb, that we have found ourselves in a "narrative that ... defies time and space."  I won't say how, but trust me, this concept continually manifests itself as the book progresses, and as the dreams of Enoch Soule's become darker and stranger, they start taking on an ethereal quality that is difficult to describe.

this isn't how I pictured the lighthouse keeper of this book,  but it's a cool drawing nonetheless. From the website of the Australian National Maritime Museum


I hate being so vague about this book, but I'm doing it purposely since to give away anything is definitely a crime and would spoil the reading for the next person.   The minor niggle here is word usage ... I had to look up certain words such as "fuliginous," "caliginous," and "sudoriferous" and while I've now enhanced my knowledge of vocabulary, sometimes for me just sticking to what one means in a clearer way is best. Other than that minor issue, though, I was pretty much awed by this book, most especially in terms of the author's  literary and philosophical knowledge which he's put to great use here.

This isn't a book to speed read through.  The author has obviously spent a long time putting it together, combining elements of literature, mythology, pop culture and philosophy here to help shape the narrative, and I found myself feeling elated whenever I'd recognize a reference, since in my head, each served as a clue in my own effort to piece together what is actually going on here.  I will say I got a vague sense of what the ending reveals long before I got there (some of these "clues" are pretty self explanatory),  but I'll also admit that certain recurring/changing symbols got the better of me, causing me to take time to go over them again and again, throwing out some ideas, keeping others.  And then, of course, the element of time is a definite conundrum, one that kept me on my toes trying to puzzle out what the author was doing here.  The point I'm trying to make is that it is a challenging read and a book for serious readers who enjoy thinking.  I was in hog heaven here.

***
personal note to Lars:
I took down my copy of Conrad's Nostromo thanks to you -- on the summer list it goes.




Wednesday, June 28, 2017

crazytown .... The Fourth Monkey, by J.D. Barker

9780544968844
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017
416 pp

arc - sent from the author/publisher, thank you!

I had this debate with myself about where I should make this post -- it is technically a crime novel so it should go on the crime page of my reading journal, but at the same time, what happens in this book, at least in the diary entries from the past, is dementedly dark, so I figured maybe it should go here.

I have to start off here with a disclaimer. I'm not at all a fan of serial-killer novels. I used to be, having read all of what I'd call "the classics,"  but that all changed after I made the mistake of reading Mo Hayder's The Treatment a couple of years back, which was just outrageous in terms of the number of graphic torture scenes one person can cram into a book. Then I started noticing that a lot of newer serial-killer novel blurbs boasted about torture, violence, etc., and I just couldn't do it any more.   Some people like that stuff, to which I say whatever floats your boat, but it's just not me. Luckily, that sort of thing is at a minimum here. Don't get me wrong --   there are some pretty sick things going on in this book ( my first impression was "demented serial killer served with a side of sadism"), but unlike a huge number of other serial-killer novels, the sick stuff is definitely not the book's main raison d'être and frankly, that's what counts for me.

The police have been after a particularly nasty man whom they've dubbed the Four Monkey Killer (4MK) for several years with no success.  The guy has never left a single clue that would help them determine his identity, and he has been clever enough to be able to move throughout Chicago without ever being seen, despite the fact that he's left a couple of victims in public spaces. However, it looks as though their luck has changed as the novel begins, when a man launches himself in front of a bus and does himself in. Detective Sam Porter is called out to the scene,  a situation he wouldn't normally be called out for, but when he gets there, he gets the surprise of his life -- it seems that before the dead guy offed himself, he'd been carrying a "small white box tied up with black string," the only thing ever left behind after 4MK had done his dirty work in the past.  This box is just one more added to the twenty-one boxes Porter and his task force have collected over the years -- seven victims with three boxes per person, containing their ears, eyes and tongues, relating to the old adage of  hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.  4MK isn't 4MK for nothing -- despite the fact that he's a killer, the "4" reflects  "do no evil," as in the representation of the four monkeys shown below.   The "do no evil" message is  always left behind with the dead bodies in some form or another, but that's it. No clues, no evidence, no nothing that would help Porter find this guy. The cops are elated until they realize that the discovery of the box with its contents means that while their killer might be dead, somewhere there's another victim out there.  Oh -- and this time the killer has left behind a huge clue in the form of a diary that just may help the police find a missing teenage girl before it's too late. The killer evidently intended the cops to find the diary, so that Porter could, in the killer's words, "understand what I have done."


the four monkeys, from Wikipedia


So far, so good, and I'm turning and burning pages as fast as I can.  And then, we get to the diary, where quite frankly, all things start pretty normally enough and then BAM -- things get full on insane  in the space of a few entries.  Now, I know that the diary thing is a gimmick that a lot of writers use in your standard serial-killer fare, but I'm here to tell you that you've probably NEVER seen anything quite like this one.  Holy crap! When at the end of the book the author says that this story was "born of 'what if' and an imagination that lost its governor some time ago" he wasn't just filling in space in the acknowledgments section.  What's in that diary is a) definitely reflective of why our killer does what he does in the present, but b) so insane and (as I said earlier) darkly demented that I wasn't sure what the hell I was reading for a while. Talk about a new spin -- sheesh! It's like a Wally-less Leave it to Beaver gone wrong that plays out in a bizarre parallel universe, and god help me, although it is over the top and I was enjoying the investigation itself, I couldn't wait to get back to the diary entries every time they popped back into the story.  I've decided that I'm in need of mental help because of that, but to my credit, I will say that the phrase "there are some sick f***s out there"  kept running through my head so perhaps I'm not so inwardly twisted as I might think.

Now that I've said all of this and have revealed myself to be mentally deranged for being so engrossed in the ongoing saga of MK4's childhood, I will say that I figured out the first major twist before I was a quarter through the book, so loss of points there. Writers of crime novels (standard fare or not) really ought to be aware that long-time mystery/crime readers like myself have become quite  good at predicting twists here and there after years of reading this sort of thing, so for me the lack of originality there was a bit disappointing. Also, the whole serial-killer-playing-a-game-with-the-cops thing is a bit overused, so that was also a bit bothersome.   However, it was the second big twist (which I didn't see coming and which was definitely original - yay),  along with what happens in the diary entries that sort of evens things out, not to mention the fact that although the Four Monkey Killer has done some pretty messed-up things, it becomes very clear that he was in his own way, looking for some measure of justice for those who've been wronged in a very big way.

Read it, and just keep telling yourself that thankfully, it's only fiction.



Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Third Ghost Book (ed.) Lady Cynthia Asquith

03300260617
Pan, 1975
originally published 1955, 1957
253 pp

mass market paperback
(read earlier)

I am a sucker for a good ghost story, and over the years my shelves have started groaning as I continue to add more collections to my library.  I finally discovered the Pan Ghost Books series, the first three of which are edited by Lady Cynthia Asquith, and I'll definitely be revisiting some of these in the future, although others took their turn as editor after Asquith's three.  For more about these books, you can visit Tabula Rasa where Nick Kennett has a nice article (including contents!) about the series.

Twenty-seven stories are included in this little book, some of which  I've read before:  "The Ghost of the Valley", by Lord Dunsany,  Aickman's "Ringing the Changes," "The Tower," by Marghanita Laski, and "Poor Girl," by Elizabeth Taylor. Out of the remaining 23, several authors are familiar, although their stories were not:  Elizabeth Bowen, Mary Fitt, Elizabeth Jenkins, L.P. Hartley, and Lady Cynthia Asquith herself.  That leaves a total of 18 writers whose work I've never read, offering lots of possibilities for further reading (yay!).  The collection as a whole is not the greatest, but as I'm always saying, when you pick up an anthology it's bound to be a mixed bag where there are treasures and there are those stories that are not so hot.  Depending on the reader though, people's choices in each category will be different.

The entire table of contents is as follows, my favorites annotated:

"The Telephone," by Mary Treadgold
* "The Claimant, " by  Elizabeth Bowen,  my favorite story in this book.  A man and his wife inherit a home in the West Country from a relative in Australia who died intestate.  Their happiness is interrupted when someone writes about his intentions to claim the house, which he says has been left to him by his uncle, and then tells the couple that it is his inheritance, and that "no one shall cheat me of it."  Things get very weird after they learn he is flying out from Australia to set things straight.
"Napoleon's Hat," by Evelyn Fabyon
"The Bull," by Rachel Hartfield
"The House That Wouldn't Keep Still," by L.A.G. Strong
* "The Doctor," by Mary Fitt.  Set in the moors of Devon, a woman who loves the moors and long walks finds herself lost in the darkness.  Taking a short cut, she sees another woman coming towards her, who invites her to stay at her home for the night. Of course she's not going to say no, but later, I'm sure she probably wishes she had.
*"On No Account, My Love," by Elizabeth Jenkins, in which a young woman is keen to visit the empty house that once belonged to her great-grandmother, known as an "abominable old tyrant," who used it as a school for girls. Hoping to connect with her past, she "felt sure some contact" with her great-grandmother might be possible.  This one really doesn't hit you until the last sentence. Yikes.
"The Ghost of the Valley," by Lord Dunsany
"The Day of the Funeral," by Margaret Lane
* "Take Your Partners," by Ronald Blythe is both bizarre and creepy, in which a grandfather relates a strange experience to his grandson that took place at his first ball.  As an eighteen year-old, he was miserable being there until he met a young woman who seemed as unhappy as himself.  One of the better stories in the book, for sure.

arrrrrr 

"Someone in the Lift," by L.P. Hartley
*"The Tower, by Marganita Laski -- in an earlier post.
*"Ringing in the Changes," by Robert Aickman -- again, one of his best stories ever, a work of pure genius.
* "I Became Bulwinkle," by Jonathan Curling, is less a ghost story than a tale of terror involving a "third-rate conjurer" who received his "baccalaureate in black magic" while in Sierra Leone before returning home. It's a slow burner, but damn, it's good.
"Mrs. Smiff," by Collin Brooks
"Somebody Calls," by James Laver
*"Harry," by Rosemary Timperley -- I will say that this sort of thing has been done a number of times, but this is one of the best examples of the imaginary friend story I've ever come across.
"The Shades of Sleepe," by Ursula Codrington
"The Woman in Black," by Daniel George
"A Laugh on the Professor," by Shane Leslie
*"Poor Girl," by Elizabeth Taylor.  As I said in another post, this one's just flat out creepy on more than one level. Just thinking about it is giving me the willies.
"The King of Spades," by Nancy Spain
"The Uninvited Face," by Michael Asquith
"Remembering Lee," by Eileen Bigland
"Who is Sylvia," by Cynthia Asquith



While I can't promise that each and every tale will produce goosebumps, there's probably here something for everyone who enjoys these older stories. For  me it's all about discovering those obscure, long-forgotten authors whose work has just sort of faded away, and in that sense, this book was a goldmine.

recommended for strange, nerdiferous people like me who revel in the older stuff.  I know you're out there.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff

9780062292063
HarperCollins, 2016
372 pp

hardcover

"... you think you can forgive, forget, the past. You can't. You cannot.  The past is alive, a living, thing. You own, owe it."

The first clue that this is not going to be your average Lovecraftian pastiche or rehash is on the cover -- what some people may see as ghosts or white spaces between tentacles actually bears much more resemblance to the white hoods of the KKK.  In fact, if you're thinking this is going to be Lovecraft redux, you seriously have another thing coming.  While his own particular brand of racism was horrific in itself, anything that Lovecraft produced in his fiction is dwarfed here by  the real-life terror that the characters in this book experience in their daily lives in Jim Crow America of the 1950s, and that little yellow, starry-looking thing on the cover that says "America's DEMONS Exposed" certainly isn't just there to add to the cover art.

    The book begins with an army vet, Atticus Turner,   leaving Jacksonville for Chicago,  driving 450 miles the first day nonstop except for getting gas. With his copy of The Safe Negro Travel Guide in hand, Atticus spent that night in Chattanooga, where the Guide showed that there were "four hotels and a motel, all in the same part of the city." The next day, wanting to "put the South behind him," he has the diner next to his motel fill a basket with food and Cokes so that he wouldn't have to stop in Louisville, Kentucky where again according to the guide, there was a "restaurant that would serve him lunch."  An hour after crossing a "bridge named for a dead slave owner" on the Ohio River, he blew a tire, sending him on foot out to find a garage..  Just his luck -- a Confederate flag hangs over the entrance and, of course, that didn't quite work out.  Pulling out his Safe Negro Travel Guide once more, he discovers that the nearest "Negro-owned garage" was fifty miles away; with no other options, he had to wait seven hours for help to arrive. And this is all just the beginning of worse to come.

So at this point (and I'm only on page four), I'm already creeped out about the necessity of something like a  Safe Negro Travel Guide, and after a little digging, came across the story of The Negro Motorist Green Book, and now I'm really interested to see what else Matt Ruff is going to do here.  I just sort of sat flipping pages as the real horrors of the  lives of the characters unfolded in each of the interconnected stories in this book.

The way Ruff sets up this book is clever -- as he notes in an interview at The Seattle Review of Books,  his idea was to start with "classic story" ideas
"... like, somebody buys a haunted house or somebody finds themselves being chased by an animated doll"
and with that, he asks himself the questions of
"how does this happen to my protagonist and how does having a black protagonist change the nature of the story?"
 Without giving away too much of what happens here, Atticus has returned to Chicago after receiving a letter from his dad Montrose in which he reveals to his son that he's discovered "something about your mother's ... forebears," and that there's some sort of "legacy, a birthright" that's been kept from Atticus, something that "has something to do with the place that Mom's people supposedly came from." Now Montrose has gone missing, and Atticus has only the letter he was sent as a clue to finding him.   From that letter, it turns out that "Mom's people" came from Ardham, Massachusetts, in what Atticus calls "Lovecraft Country."  Atticus, his Uncle George and a friend from childhood named Letitia Dandridge set out for Ardham, and encounter the Braithwhites, who have a strange connection with the Turners through "Mom's people."  The Braithwhites are white,  rich,and powerful; they are also key figures in a strange group known as the Order of the Ancient Dawn. (I have to say that my pulp-loving heart went pitterpat here with this name.)  I won't say why, but what happens during their time with the Braithwhites at this meeting sets up all that follows in this book, during which we come to understand the phrase "Lovecraft Country", as one reader puts it, as having
 "more to do with the rampant racism in that part of the US at the time, rather than the Lovecraftian horror subgenre."  
The way that Mr. Ruff has brought out his story here is very nicely done, and the little "mini-adventures" do, as he also notes in the Seattle Review of Books interview linked above, turn out to be each character's "own weird tale." Some of these are much better than others -- I loved "Horace and the Devil Doll," for instance because it's so on point as far as old-fashioned pulpy horror is concerned -- but really,  each story added to a wider picture of  Jim Crow practices of this time, things that, as anyone sane would realize, were just horrific and inhuman.  At the same time, there's a very real sense of empowerment that comes from the characters in each story in some fashion, as they fight back as best they can, each in his or her own way.   Speaking of pulpy/horrorish tropes here,  Ruff obviously went well beyond Lovecraft in framing his tales -- HG Wells, Ray Bradbury, Robert Louis Stevenson and many more authors find their way into this book as well.

I have to say that on the whole, I liked this book, didn't love it and maybe that's not entirely the author's fault.  Not too far into it, I was reminded in a very big way of what Victor LaValle had done with his excellent  Ballad of Black Tom which uses Lovecraft's own work "The Horror at Red Hook,"  to turn Lovecraft's particularly nasty brand of racism on its own head, so (and I hate that this happens, but I can't help it), there was already a comparison at work in my head. Frankly, when it comes right down to it, LaValle's book, in my opinion, is the better of the two, since  LaValle is hands down, no question,  the better writer.  Having said that though, I don't  mean that readers won't like this one --  there are plenty of reasons to recommend Lovecraft Country to anyone, especially since it seems to be sadly pertinent to our own times.

*****

for more in-depth coverage of this book, I give you

Alex Brown, "Cthulhu Gon' Slay," at tor.com