Monday, October 24, 2016

hb #7 -- The Delicate Dependency: A Novel of the Vampire Life, by Michael Talbot

Valancourt Books, 2016
originally published 1982
373 pp


Oh, what wonderful things this author would probably have accomplished had he not unfortunately died so early. This guy was only 29 -- 29,  mind you!  -- when he wrote this book, and his death followed only ten years later.  The Delicate Dependency is my first venture into Michael Talbot's work, although not too far in I decided he was worth reading again, so I bought a copy of his Night Things.  Now I'm looking at his very short bibliography and  I see I will need to also pick up his The Bog, both of which, like The Delicate Dependency, are fortunately available through Valancourt Books.

There are just some books that make me feel like I've been wrapped up in a cocoon of perfect happiness while reading them, and this novel is one of those.  Not only is it a fun story with a number of unexpected twists and turns,  it also has that Victorian-style pulpy aesthetic that I love so much.  Once I started reading it, I was beyond happy that it turned out not to be your average vampire novel, but something that moved well beyond the same old same old and into the realm of just pure reading pleasure.

The story actually begins in 1856 when our narrator, John Gladstone, who is only seven years old at the time, sees what he believes is an angel.  Thinking about why the face is familiar to him,  he realizes that the young man looked exactly like the angel in the Madonna of the Rocks, da Vinci's famous painting that John had seen recently at the National Gallery.  It was a face that Gladstone never wanted to forget.

Flashing forward to Gladstone's adult years when this story really begins, he finishes medical school, marries, becomes a doctor to the socially prominent, and has two daughters, Ursula and Camille.  His wife, Camille had meant everything to him before her untimely death, and when he begins to specialize in research as a virologist, he studies the influenza virus that had killed her, Haemophilus influenzae.   He has even named a certain strain of the virus after her, Camillus influenzae, and has written a number of papers which have "caused quite a stir in the medical world." In short, he's an up and comer who is quite focused on his work.  One night in April, his carriage driver hits someone on the street who had "just stepped out of the shadows" and as Gladstone goes to check out the poor guy, he has a major shock -- the man who's just been knocked down happens to be none other than his childhood angel.

In the hospital, the patient, whose name is Niccolo Calavanti,  makes everyone else uneasy and because of his particular quirks like never eating,  a rival of Gladstone's decides to take over the case.  Gladstone decides to take the patient home where he learns that Niccolo is in reality, a vampire, and where he also learns a bit about Niccolo's history.  When Gladstone's daughters return from being away, Ursula becomes fascinated with Niccolo,  but it's little Camille who draws his real attention -- she is an idiot savant who has the ability to hear a piece of music once, and reproduce it perfectly on the piano no matter the complexity.  But it isn't long before Niccolo leaves the Gladstone residence, taking little Camille with him, vanishing off the face of the earth, so it seems, without a trace.  Enter Lady Hespeth Dunaway, with an eerily similar story about the disappearance of her son, also an idiot savant, after Lady Dunaway had made Niccolo's acquaintance.  They decide to team up when they get a lead that Niccolo just might be in Paris, and thus begins the adventure of a lifetime.  In and around the main thrust of the story, other things are happening that have a lot of bearing on their quest, but those I'll leave other readers to discover, and even giving away the subtexts running throughout the story will give away the show, so I'll leave those as well.

What's lovely about this novel is that there are so many twists and turns here that as soon as I thought I had it figured out, everything changes, and then once I thought I had it sorted "this time", I was happily and completely wrong.  And as I said earlier, the novel has that amazing Victorian ambience combined with pulpy aesthetic that I just love -- an old dark house with lots of secrets,  a very well-sequenced set of pursuit-and-evade scenes that I think I held my breath through, and much, much more, all leading to a stunning conclusion.

While other readers may be busy reading modern vampire novels like these, which are what's current in the market, I was happy as a little clam curling up with my succession of chai lattes and The Delicate Dependency,  which is so very different and actually more satisfying than any other vampire novel I've read in a very long time.  Readers who are looking for the sinking of fangs into the neck may not find this one to their particular tastes, nor will readers looking for yet another vampire romance likely find satisfaction here.  It is a very intelligent book, but most of all, it's just plain fun. Caution: do NOT, I repeat, do NOT read the introduction first, and above all, do NOT read any review that gives away anything else. The fun is definitely in the unfolding here.

I know I tend to get overly enthusiastic about these old books, a feeling I know is not shared by everyone and I apologize about babbling so, but seriously, I can't help it.  I know when I've got my hands on something good, and well, this one definitely is among the cream of the crop.

hb#6: what would Halloween be without nightmares? Well, we can't let that happen: Nightmares: A New Decade of Modern Horror (ed.) Ellen Datlow

Tachyon, 2016 (November 1)
432 pp

advance reader copy from the publisher - thank you!!

Looking at the bigger picture, the choice of title for this collection is absolutely spot on, for indeed, the majority of these stories are truly the stuff of modern nightmares.

 Squirmworthy might also have been an appropriate title, since some of these stories were disturbing enough to the point where I had to put the book down, do something else, and then pick it up again.  There's no way I could have read this book in one sitting -- I'm sure that if I had, I'd have ended up with my own collection of nightmares and they still wouldn't have been as disturbing as what's between the covers in this book. It's definitely not for the faint of heart, and my guess is that for readers of modern horror, that's  a good thing. While personally I'd much rather curl up with a book of Victorian ghost stories or long-forgotten or neglected horror tales on the tamer side, I have to say that some of the stories in this book grabbed me  by the throat and just wouldn't let go.

My pick for best story here is one I've already read, but it is so horrific that I've never forgotten it.  "Little Pig" by Anna Taborska is the gut-wrenching tale of a mother who must protect her children and ends up paying a terrible price for their safety.  Oh my god.  Mark Samuels'  "Shallaballah" is another really good one, in which needing to get his face out there again, a famous soap opera star is taken to a strange clinic after a car accident disfigures his face. But is a comeback even possible? Admittedly I had to read this one twice, but the horror was all the better the second time.  Also requiring a second read was "Spectral Evidence," by Gemma Files.  The uniqueness in this author's storytelling method is to be applauded; it's one that owing to how it's written, must definitely be read between the lines.  A series of bizarre, randomly shuffled photos , helped by the "scribbles" on the backs of each  "appears to 'tell a story,' " of the deaths of two psychic investigators. One I've read before is Nicholas Royle's "Very Low-Flying Aircraft," the details of which I won't reveal.   It's a slow burn sort of horror story right up until the last minute when the lightbulb above my head goes off  -- my favorite type of creepy tale. And then we come to Laird Barron's "Strappado," which I have to say after reading it a number of times, still manages to scare the bejeezus out of me.  It's so good that whenever someone mentions Laird Barron, the first thing out of my mouth is "have you read 'Strappado'?"   Moving right along, I can't even begin to explain why I loved this story,  but "Was She Wicked? Was She Good" by M. Rickert had some particularly messed-up quality that appealed to me.  Here a little girl who is indulged by her mother has a terrible way of having a good time until her father decides he's had enough.


And now, for the rest of the stories. 

In "Sob in the Silence," by Gene Wolfe, a horror writer invites his old roommate and his family to his home, which has a rather sordid and cruel history. I will say no more. Brian Hodge's "Our Turn Too Will One Day Come" is another one I've read previously, a creepy tale about a horrific family legacy. Very nicely done, the horror builds slowly until we're all in on the secret.   "The Goosle" by Margo Lanagan puts a new, sad, and downright creepy spin on an old familiar tale, while Steve Duffy's "The Clay Party" does the same with a group of Donner Party-like travelers who put too much trust in their guide. The only negative here is that the author gives away the show very early on so I knew what was coming down the pike and just had to wait for it.  "Lonegan's Luck" by Stephen Graham Jones is different -- the next time a snake-oil salesman shows up in your town, run.  This one has an appropriate twist that brought forth a chuckle.

  "Mr. Pigsny" by Reggie Oliver details what happens when a man craves immortality and gets his wish. I've read better stories than this one by Oliver, but it's still disturbing.   Ray Cluley has an interesting tale here called "At Night, When the Demons Come By," a post-apocalyptic tale which, even though I'm not a fan of this sort of thing, was very much worth the read for two reasons: one, because of the demons themselves (one in particular),  and two (and more interesting),  it reveals how far people will go to ensure their own survival.  "The Shallows" by John Langan is an odd but good  story where a man's world changes forever and yet he continues on in his new, bizarre normal. I like Langan's work and this story is an example of why.  Considering that I detest zombie stories (haven't they been done to death???),  Dan Chaon's  "How We Escaped Our Certain Fate," surprised me with its poignancy.  Hats off to the author for making this one at least mature and meaningful.  I've already read Robert Shearman's "That Tiny Flutter of the Heart I Used to Call Love," which is delightfully strange. This time around I paid much more attention and realized that the future might not be so rosy for a new groom. This one is just messed up -- in a good way.  "Shay Corsham Worsted" is a story that is horrific in its implications, but one which is also funny in a strange sort of way. A would-be home invader has no clue of what he's set into motion when he chooses the home of an elderly man as his next target. As serious as things are here, the fun here is in the bureaucratic rigamarole. "The Atlas of Hell," by Nathan Ballingrud is another really good one that I liked much better this time around, but to tell is to spoil so I'll leave it at that.

from Harmonic Concordance

Owing  to personal preference,  a few of the stories in this book get way more into real-life horrors than I care to go in fiction.  These stories are likely better suited for readers who like more edgy horror than I do.  While the writing is not an issue (it's quite good, in fact),  the subject matter and especially the level of violence in these particular stories just make for uncomfortable reading. When it comes to this sort of horror, I'd rather just say no thank you and move along to something more tame.   The following stories were probably the most nightmarish of them all, with the exception of my least favorite in this group, "Dead Sea Fruit" by Kaaron Warren, which just sort flatlined for me. It was more on the silly side than the horror side, and with apologies, it's the only story this book where I thought "why the heck is this one even in here?"   Lisa Tuttle's  "Closet Dreams" is most definitely the stuff of modern nightmare, in which a girl disappears, is held captive, and dreams of escape, only to find worse horrors than she imagined. Simon Bestwick is represented here by his story "Hushabye," where a man in his "thirty-something dread of failure and the dark" goes after a certain sort of predator ... I've read  "Omphalos" by Livia Llewellyn before, and wasn't exactly over the moon about it, but the tale centers on a young girl who desperately needs to find own her place to escape. Caitlin Kiernan's  "Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No. 8)"  is also a nightmare scenario drawn from the real world -- just downright creepy.  And last but by no means least,  "Ambitious Boys Like You" by Richard Kadrey is another one that's just a bit too over the top for my taste, wherein two young men decide to break into a house and get much more than either of them bargained for.

Nightmares is one of those anthologies where there's pretty much something for everyone. The only suggestion I might make for the future is to include more work by authors whose stories don't usually make it into these anthologies. In my very humble reader person's opinion, an anthology should work to showcase the best of what's out there, but when I'm seeing the same authors pop up over and over again in these collections,  it  makes me wonder who else may be out there whose work may be going unrecognized but who may be just as good of a writer as the ones reflected here.

As I'm quite fond of saying, horror is in the eye of the beholder and my favorites may not be to the liking of others.  In short, what I'm trying to say is that everyone brings something different to the reading table so this book isn't necessarily a one-size-fits-all sort of thing, but for me it's most certainly filled with enough quality material that I can easily recommend it to any horror reader.  It's a beyond-good collection on the whole, very satisfying and downright chill producing.

Thanks so much to Tachyon for my copy!

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

hb#5: The Cell and Other Transmorphic Tales, by David Case (ed.) Stephen Jones

Valancourt Books, 2015
258 pp


So now we're on to werewolves, because no Halloween would be complete without them.  While I'm not really a big reader of werewolf fiction, I made an exception with this book since I enjoy and appreciate David Case's writing, what little of it there is. In a pride-swallowing sort of way that acknowledges my prejudice against "monster" stories,  I have to admit that these stories were not only entertaining and frightening, but intelligently written to the point that it's nearly impossible not to miss the subtexts lying beneath the chills.  I always thought that werewolf stories would be same-old same-old, full-moon-turns-poor-victim-into-howling-wolf sort of thing but I have to bow my head here and stand corrected.

I might have guessed from the title alone that these stories would center on transformation -- going to a random dictionary site online to look up the word "transmorphic" brings up "the evolution of one thing from another, the transformation of one thing into another."    Each and every story in this collection carries that idea forward, while remaining unique in its own way.   For example, the title story in this collection, "The Cell," which is also my favorite here, is the story of a man who has his wife lock him up once a month in a cell in the basement.  Why? Well, that is the crux of the story, isn't it, which I'm not going to divulge.   He claims that he has a "disease" that "must be carried in the blood, or more likely, in the genes," one that makes him "become something different, something dangerous."   "Strange Roots," on the other hand, finds Anton, a "brilliant scientist" working on an "investigation into the effects of chemical and glandular imbalance in mental disorders." His theory is that  this "glandular malfunction" causes "symptoms of virilism and lycorexia" which appear simultaneously, which in turn gave rise to the "werewolf legend."  He does a series of experiments on dogs to try to isolate whatever it is that produces this condition, with terrifying results.  But once again, Case gets to the heart of the concept of "transformation" here when he lets us in on one of Anton's dreams, which makes the ending of this story even more chilling. "Among the Wolves" is mystery story, in which a series of bizarre murders lead to a startling conclusion, the answer revealed through an odd tale in which two men find themselves out in the wild, facing a pack of wolves.  Next  in this collection is "A Cross to Bear," where one missionary who understands his flock completely is replaced by another who does not, with terrible consequences. Finally, we come to "The Hunter" which is a work of art in itself. A series of baffling killings in rural England comes to the attention of John Wetherby, a retired hunter who is asked by the police to help him find the person responsible. Understanding that he sort of owes it to his past to help them out, he agrees.  They're looking for "Something that walks on two legs and runs on four," and while the press speculates about werewolves stalking the moors, the trail leads Wetherby and the police to an area near the home of another hunter, Byron, an old acquaintance of Wetherby's. The hunt is on, but it's not what you'd expect.

Michael Dirda briefly touches on this book in a Washington Post article of October 2015, and he sort of sums up the lot perfectly when he says that
"Case injects more overt psychosexual frissons into tales that deliberately confuse the humanly horrific -- serial murder, rape, -- with incursions of the supernatural." 
I'll add that aside from the transformation theme that runs through this book, there's also the age-old concept of man's beastly nature -- the beast within, so to speak --  that makes itself evident.  When there is an attempt to suppress this nature on the human side, it's as if the beast nature rebels, at which point the human part is put aside, allowing for the beast nature to take over.  In each of the stories in this book, we learn what it is that brings out this beast, what it is that triggers this transformation. In this sense, I'm reminded of Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber, which delves deeply and delightfully  into the same sort of idea.

The Cell and Other Transmorphic Tales is not only a fun read  perfect for getting a reader into the Halloween spirit, but it's also worthwhile for Case's examination of the darker side of human nature. In short, it ticks my buttons both on the horror side of things and on the side of my own inquisitive nature that wants answers to the question of what it is that makes people do what they do. Personally I think horror fiction (or dark fiction) is a perfect vehicle for discovering the answers. The trick is in finding authors who share that fascination, and this book is a good place to start.

As an added bonus, Kim Newman muses on the movie Scream of the Wolf in an afterword section in this book.  It's an old movie from 1974, featured on the ABC Movie of the Week.  Directed by Dan Curtis, the script was written by Richard Matheson.  Newman says that
"We took films like Scream of the Wolf for granted when they were regularly airing on late-night TV, because they're tamer than the theatrically-released horrors of the era ... but they now have a concise, creepy appeal which shouldn't be overlooked."
Well, I don't know about that, but I will say that after I'd finished the book, I realized that the movie title was familiar but I didn't remember seeing the film. So I went through my dvd collection and discovered that I owned a 10-movie collection called Vault of Horror  (feel free to check it out -- it goes to Amazon but I get nada if you click the link), and sure enough, Scream of the Wolf was there.  So I watched it.  I didn't think it was at all frightening and while there are threads that carry from page to screen, the movie doesn't do its predecessor the justice it deserves.  In fact, I was actually thinking while watching this film that it would have been perfect for an MST3K riff.  Stick to the story -- it's so much better.

The book I'd recommend in a heartbeat.  Once again, it may not appeal so much to readers who like everything spelled out for them so they don't need to think about what they've just read, but if you're on on the flip side of that crowd, trying to figure out what's going on in each story makes for great thought time.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Tarantulas' Parlor and Other Unkind Tales, by Léon Bloy

Snuggly Books, 2016
originally published as Histoires desobligeantes,
translated by Brian Stableford
218 pp


"There is always someone who is not, or might not be, the person one supposes."
                                                                                          -- 163

First, before I say anything else, I have to offer a huge thanks to Anna for my copy and for keeping me in Snuggly's book-release email loop. 

Simply put, this book is beyond excellent.  I'm still a relative newbie in the world of French, fin-de-siècle, and decadent literature, and a name that has kept popping up is Léon Bloy.  So I was over the moon when Anna asked me if I wanted to read this book, a collection of 32 short stories which, in the words of Brian Stableford in the introduction to this volume,  reflect Bloy's 
"search for a particular naturalism of his own -- a naturalism which, not in spite of but because of its cruelty and its infusion with religious conviction, was markedly different in stripe from the Naturalism of Émile Zola."  (xxiii)
Erik Morse, writing  in The Paris Review also reveals that Bloy was not alone in seeking something different:  evidently by the 1870s, he
"had intimately acquainted himself with Beaudelaire, Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, Huysmans, and Barbey d'Aurevilly, in whose writings he discovered a kindred nostalgia for an aristocratic medievalism, which opposed the bourgeois materialism of the modern zeitgeist. These so-called decadents, accompanied by artists like Félicien Rops and Odilon Redon, transmuted the urban pessimism of Zola's naturalism into a preternatural landscape of demons and saints engaged in an eschatological battle for the soul of humanity." 
Let me just say that if it's realism he was striving for, it shows in these tales, not only in his choice of earthy language, but also his interest in the more marginalized elements of society.  The Tarantulas' Parlor and Other Unkind Tales is a delightful blend of dark fiction, dark humor, savage storytelling and outrageous observations;  a majority of these little gems turns on the idea of exposing, as the quotation with which I started this post says "someone who is not, or might not be, the person one supposes," an  idea which is carried throughout the book I will also say that some of these stories are wicked funny, subtle,  laugh-out-loud worthy, and actually bringing forth a belly laugh in one case,  "The Tarantula's Parlor."  I also appreciate the way Stableford translated these tales -- there are a few instances where he'll leave a phrase or a word that doesn't fully translate well from its French context into English, and in footnotes he explains why.  Personally, I find that a very smart way to handle translation issues that arise, and I do wish more translators would take the same sort of care in their work. And as an added bonus, each little tale begins with a dedication from Bloy to someone in his personal orbit, and Stableford gives the reader footnotes containing a brief background on the connection between the author and the person to whom the story is dedicated.  It is a superb collection that serious readers do not want to miss.

Feel free not to read on if you don't want even the slightest hint of the stories in this book, which is all I can put together in a timely manner here.  Let me just say that each story is quite worthy of lengthy discussion, but this is neither the time nor the place. Favorites are marked with *.

"The Tisane" - in which a young man overhears his mother's bizarre confession
" The Old Man of the House," where a prodigal father returns to his daughter with some startling consequences
"Monsieur Pleur's Religion," the story of a miser but even more so about the people who despise him
* "The Tarantula's Parlor," which is  an incredibly funny tale about an evening spent with a certain poet
"Plan for a Funeral Oration," the short tale of a literary figure to whom "literary genius had been given to him as a bonus, but that was the trifle of his torture."
"The Captives of Longjumeau" -- A married couple suffering from their own distractions are always on the edge of great adventures but ...
* "A Bad Idea" is the story of a young woman who discovers she has married not one, but four men at the same time.  One of my favorite lines also appears here:
"To have but one soul and one brain divided within four epidermises -- which is to say, in the final analysis, to renounce one's personality, to become a number, a quantity, a package, fractions of a collective being. What a conception of genius!" 
"Two Phantoms" explores the friendship of "two incorrigible virgins," and has a great, funny twist.
* "The Terrible Punishment of a Dentist" -- is an Oh Dear God, dark sort of story in which "a happiness so dearly conquered" becomes "poisoned by the memory of death." Then it gets even worse.
* "Alain Chartier's Reawakening" is another story that, when all is said and done, made me laugh out loud. I can't really say anything about this one or I'll give away the show.
"The Obliging Stroker" A man finds his "Ideal" who doesn't want him, but he doesn't seem to get the message. Another laughworthy entry, for sure.
"The Monsieur's Past," takes us back into the sad,serious zone and into the life of a young "heroine," who wants to marry a "mediocrity among mediocrities."

Leon Bloy, from Paris Review
"Whatever You Want!" Not a peep from me about this one, but the end is a bit of a surprise.
* "The Last Firing" Now here is a good one that also works well for horror readers -- about a "whitener of sepulchers (sic) and his son. It's actually shiver producing.
* "The End of Don Juan" -- Admittedly, this one required a second reading and a lot of online reading in mythology to get to the heart of what's happening here, but once the "aha" lightbulb went on, it was like getting the punchline of a joke and it made me laugh. I can't spill this one either...the fun is in figuring it out.
"The Martyr" is not at all funny, but is a sadly tragic tale of misguided vengeance on the part of a woman known for her "sublime piety." Right.
"Suspicion" uncovers the story of a man "devoured" by unfounded jealousy and suspicion.
"Calypso's Telephone" is next, in which a divorcée makes an amazing discovery about the truth of marriage.
"Worn Out" -- a man beyond the point of down on his luck makes a new acquaintance who makes him an offer he can't really refuse.
* "A Failed Sacrilege" finds a woman used to having the world handed to her on a plate about to meet her match.
"There's Trouble Brewing!" A group of men described as "the canons of Infinity, the protonotories of the Absolute, the medical executioners of every probable opinion and every respected commonplace" meet together and swap strange tales to prove that "it's within the power of any audacious individual to transform himself into a thunderbolt and to circulate like the Gorgon in the midst of honorable crowds." But at the end...
"The Silver Mote" follows a man who "had the misfortune to be afflicted by clairvoyance in which a large number of honest men had died."

from AZ Quotes

"A Well-Nourished Man" comes next, in which the narrator reveals that he never misses an "opportunity to promote the value of my contemporaries, and that it is a need for me to spread over suffering hearts the balm of my adjectives." In this case, his subject is an illuminator, one of the "best-nourished men ever observed beneath the mountains of the moon."
* "The Bean" concerns a cheesemaker who finds out a lot about his wife once she's dead.  This one is dark and twisted, but with a darkly-humorous edge.
"Digestive Proposals"  --  Another darkly funny story taking place among a group aspiring "to the supreme Athenianism" where Apemantus the Cynic is a prized guest. Tonight's topic: putting an end to the poor.
"A Cry From the Depths" finds the young daughter of a whore who has resisted following in her mother's footsteps at the pinnacle of suffering.
"The Reading Room" follows next, in which an entire household must share one reading room, to the detriment of young Orthodoxie.
"No One's Perfect" is about a man who "felt like an apostle," desired "the happiness of the human species," and  "killed in order to live, because it was not a stupid trade."
In "Let's Be Reasonable" a pillar of society and "precious example of professional integrity"  "whose eloquence could have disentangled the very filaments of chaos and petrified the darkness"  refuses to explain to his daughter why he hasn't eaten for two days.
* "Jocasta on the Sidewalk" is another one where the contents will have to be left unspoken.
"Cain's Lucky Find" finds a group of friends together over dinner, talking about what sorts of things they'd discovered on the public highway.  One story wins hands down -- with a chilling ending.
"The Animal-Lover" rounds out this collection, and tells the story of a penitent who sees the gaze of someone he killed long ago on a bronze image of the Lamenting Virgin.


My first excursion into the mind of Leon Bloy, and certainly not my last, The Tarantulas' Parlor and Other Unkind Tales is a book I can certainly and without any reservations whatsoever recommend to readers who find great joy in exploring this period in the history of literature, or to readers who, like myself, are absolutely fascinated by what moves people to do what they do.  It is absolutely, hands down an exquisite collection of stories.

hb#4: The Graveyard Apartment, by Mariko Koike

Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, 2016
originally published 1988
translated by Deborah Boliver Boehm
325 pp


".... something isn't quite right about this idyllic tableau..."

Halloween just wouldn't be Halloween without a graveyard somewhere, and this one just happens to be in Tokyo.  And in the middle of this graveyard sits the Central Plaza Mansion, home to the Kanos, who have an apartment on the eighth floor.  It's a luxury space with everything a family could possibly want, including a storage space in the basement.  The one drawback is the view, the only thing that Misao Kano doesn't like:
"...nobody in their right mind would intentionally invest in a property surrounded on three sides by a cemetery, a temple where funerals were held, and a busy crematorium." 
However, since Misao had felt compelled to give up her job due to an unfortunate incident involving husband Teppei's first wife, the price was too perfect to pass up.

The Kano family's first day in the apartment is somewhat marred by the odd death of daughter Tamao's bird, who, the little girl claims,  comes back to talk to her at night to tell her that where he's at now is a place "full of bad monsters with big scary faces..." and that "when those monsters speak, a big wind starts to blow and everyone gets sucked into a giant hole."

Life goes on as the Kanos meet the few neighbors in their building, enroll Tamao at school, and Misao begins working from home.  Every so often they notice some peculiar things, for example,  Misao starts seeing feathers from the dead bird they'd buried, one day TV had  a "humanoid shadow" on a particular channel, and a drunken neighbor tells Teppei that she hates the "horrible hellhole" of the building's basement.  Misao isn't a big fan either, especially after little Tamao meets with an inexplicable accident down there and for some reason they can't access the basement to reach her until a neighbor who just happens to be a spirit medium is able to make the elevator work again.   But the clincher comes as one by one, the residents of Central Plaza Mansion begin to move out of the building until  ....

So far, this brief synopsis sounds like something right up my horror-reading alley, and it had potential to become a definite spine chiller had I not felt like I was reading a twisted Japanese version of the movie Poltergeist.  Not only was this book a "been there, done that" sort of thing for me, but it moved at a snail's pace -- while some weird things happened, they did so sort of piecemeal, with a lot of space in between which for me only deadened any sort of creep factor I was looking for. Acknowledging that it did have its moments, these were not enough to make the sense of horror at all sustainable over the course of the novel.   By the time the "last thirty pages" came along, which were supposed to have readers "holding your breath" according to the back cover blurb, I was just ready to be done and to leave the Kanos to their fate.  I'll also say that there was a major opportunity to make this a stronger horror novel that was missed and if anyone wants to talk about it after reading, let me know. It has to do with the so-called "dark secret" alluded to on the dustjacket blurb (which actually, everyone except the Kanos' neighbors knew about already so it wasn't actually a secret at all - who writes this stuff?) and a certain memorial tablet and shrine that somehow forgot to be taken care of...

Once again, I'm the little red fish swimming against the tide of blue, since this book seems to be making horror readers everywhere happy people.  I really, really wanted to like it, but the truth is that it just didn't wow me.  I had decided to read a more modern horror story to prove to myself that I wasn't a one-trick pony taking pleasure only in vintage chills, but it just wasn't the right one for me.  That doesn't mean it might not be someone else's cup of cha,  but in this case, it just wasn't mine.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

hb#3: The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories, eds. James D. Jenkins and Ryan Cagle

Valancourt Books, 2016
277 pp


"Still, the feeling remained -- a feeling of uneasiness, of dread, almost as if something was menacing them -- something unseen watching -- and waiting."   

As part of its "horror month" offerings,  that dynamic duo which is Valancourt has now given us Volume One of The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories, which, as the dustjacket blurb says, is a "new collection of tales spanning two centuries of horror," and is a mix of stories that range from "frightening to horrific to weird to darkly funny."  It is exactly as described, and given how much fun I had with this book,  I can just imagine the great time James and Ryan must have had in choosing the stories that went into it.

The table of contents is as follows:

  • "Aunty Green," by John Blackburn -- booyah! What a great way to open this collection. Every time I'd read the phrase "He must be wicked to deserve such pain," I cringed. 
  • "Miss Mack," by Michael McDowell -- anything he writes is just gold, and this story is no exception.  This one has one of the creepiest and most unexpected endings ever.
  • "School Crossing," by Francis King -- this one belongs to that category of stories where you know you're about to witness a train wreck but you can't tear your eyes away.  
  • Richard Marsh's "A Psychological Experiment" I'd read before, but it still managed to bring a chill to my spine this time around. I love Richard Marsh's work, and I am ecstatic that he's featured in here. 
  • Anyone who reads the next one, "The Progress of John Arthur Crabbe,"  doesn't even have to look at the author's name to know that it was written by Stephen Gregory.  Oh my god. Short, but so very good. 
  • "The Frozen Man" is one of my favorite stories in this book, written by John Travena, aka Ernest G. Henham, author of The Feast of Bacchus (which I just loved) and Tenebrae, both Valancourt publications.  This story is making its first appearance since 1912 here, and it is definitely one of the highlights of the collection.  I saw a review that mentioned that it was "very Lovecraftian (Mountains of Madness)," but in my opinion, it has much more of an Algernon Blackwood feel to it.  Two men from the Hudson's Bay Company are sent out into the cold, isolated north to find some fur trappers who have been shooting animals in the Hudson's Bay Company's territory, and they are forced to take with them an unwanted companion.  All goes well until the "devil's lights" appear, and then ... Whoa. 
  • Michael Blumlein's "California Burning" is, in a word, strange. This one is dark humor at its finest, beginning with a man's attempt to get his father's body cremated, only to discover that there's something strange going on with his father's bones which "don't want to burn." Another really good entry. 
  • "Let Loose," by Mary Cholmondeley is also excellent, in which a young architect finds himself in a crypt studying a fresco. No one has been allowed in there for years, for good reason as our architect will soon realize. Yes yes yes. I loved this one. 
  • Bernard Taylor is up next, with another darkly comical story called "Out of Sorts," which first appeared in Charles L. Grant's 1983 anthology Gallery of Horror. It took me a minute to get the punchline when it was all over, but this one made me laugh out loud.   It is funny, but it's not, all at the same time.
  • And now for the strangest and most seriously horrifying story in the entire book, I give you Christopher Priest's "The Head and the Hand."  As grotesque as it is, no amount of money would have made me walk away from it while reading.  I think the word 'shocking' is right but a bit too light for this story. 
  • Another personal favorite is "The Ghost of Charlotte Cray" by Florence Marryat, whose book (also published by Valancourt) The Blood of the Vampire was on my favorites list for 2015.  I was so impressed by "The Ghost of Charlotte Cray"  that I immediately bought Volume I of  her A Moment of Madness (1883) because now I have a craving for more of her work.  Here, when the man whom Charlotte Cray loves marries another woman, she refuses to leave him alone until she meets his wife.  Considering the title, well...
  • We next have a prose poem by M.G. Lewis called "The Grim White Woman."  M.G. Lewis, of course, is Matthew Gregory Lewis, who wrote The Monk, and this poem (which so reminds me of the old ballads) is pretty horrific, with a terrible story at its heart. I'm not at all a huge fan of poetry (with a few exceptions), but I loved this one.  One stanza:

    "Her arms, and her feet, and her bosom were bare;
    A shroud wrapp'd her limbs, and a snake bound her hair.
    This spectre, the Grim White Woman was she,
    And the Grim White Woman was fearful to see!"
  • Charles Birkin's "The Terror on Tobit" is another one that chilled me to the bone; if I could find more monster stories like this one, I might actually start reading them. Outstanding creepy tale if ever there was one. 
  • As I was reading "Furnished Apartments" by Forrest Reid, I kept reminding myself that the guy was still alive to tell the tale, which was the only thing that kept the level of anxiety I was feeling at bay. Hint: "Houses are like sponges. They absorb."  
  • "Something Happened," by Hugh Fleetwood is sort of a sad story, but one very much up my reading alley. Uncertainty looms in this tale as the reader must decide if the strange story is made up by a man "tipped permanently over the edge" or if what he witnessed actually occurred. 
  • Next it's Hugh Walpole with "The Tarn," a story about what lengths someone will go to to get rid of an unwanted guest. Absolutely delightful. 
  • "The Gentleman All in Black" by Gerald Kersh brings this wonderful book to a close with a different take on the Faust legend where we discover that time is indeed money. 
There is an added bonus as well --  at the beginning of each chapter, there are informative notes about each story, the author, and what Valancourt has published by each writer making an appearance in this book.  

This book is tailor made for someone like me who thrives on vintage chills. While I get that not everyone appreciates or shares my old-fashioned horror-reading sensibilities, and that horror is indeed in the eye of the beholder, for me this collection was just about perfect.  I'm a VERY picky reader, so that says a lot. 

Please bring out a Volume Two! I loved this book!!!!!!

Monday, October 10, 2016

an earlier read, but Halloweenworthy for sure: The Dark Domain, by Stefan Grabinski

Stefan Grabinski

Since Stefan Grabinski (1887-1936)  isn't exactly a household name, I think a brief bit of  background is relevant here.   While you can get some info about him from Wikipedia and from The Stefan Grabinski Website, thanks to a post at Writers No One ReadsI discovered a bit more from Gilbert Alter-Gilbert, who wrote a piece about Grabinski and The Dark Domain in the Asylum Annual of 1995 (Asylum Arts Publishing):
"While a child, he contracted tuberculosis. His health remained fragile throughout his life, and this condition no doubt played a part in the formation of his personality, which was gloomy and introspective.  By the time he had finished his education and embarked on a career as a teacher, observers describe him as already pale and gaunt, always dressed in black, a man apart in his own inner realm, and regarding his surroundings obliquely. 
His literary aspirations announced themselves early, and from the first his work was marked by metaphysical speculation and a concern with the mystery of existence. By 1909, Grabinski had self-published a slim volume of stories, all trace of which has disappeared, but with which his course was set; these first macabre compositions already demonstrating his preoccupation with issues of philosophical conjecture." (143)
Grabinski went on to write On the Hill of Roses (1918) - which I own but haven't read yet; later The Motion Demon came out in 1919 followed by 1920's  The Deranged Pilgrim, The Book of Fire and An Uncanny Tale in 1922. By 1926, his writing turned more toward novels and plays rather than just short stories.  He apparently "idolized" Poe, was a recluse, and was, as is very articulately revealed in his stories,
"thoroughly absorbed with what he perceived as the dark, hidden forces which permeate and propel human life and seem to deny the implied orderliness of our hyper-rationalistic, overly-explained, neatly categorized and patly-understood world."  (142)
 Grabinski was "opposed to any notion of mechanism or pre-determined order at work in the universe," and, according to Alter-Gilbert, his "fiction is a swirling cauldron of fetishes and obsessions, a heady brew of mania, hysteria, and dementia."  In short, he writes exactly the sort of stuff I've become addicted to reading, and I've become a total fangirl now.

So now without any more information that probably no one but me cares about, we come to

The Dark Domain

Dedalus, 2013
originally published 1918
translated and edited by Miroslaw Lipinski
153 pp


"And if, indeed, there is nothing beyond the corner? Who can affirm if beyond so-called 'reality' anything exists at all?"

There are eleven stories in this book, along with an introduction by the editor & translator Miroslaw Lipinski as well as an afterword by Madeleine Johnson. In a word, it is excellent; there is not one bad story in this entire book.  In Grabinski, I've found another writer whose work is just plain genius.  

Perhaps the best way to describe what's in this book is by quoting Brian Stableford, who in his News of the Black Feast and Other Reviews notes that Grabinski's
"... characters are prone to haunting themselves, unwittingly dislodging fragments of themselves that become independently incarnate." (79-80)
While that's not exactly the case in every story here, it's still an observation that absolutely hits the nail on the head.  

It would a shame to spoil anyone's first-time enjoyment of these stories, so as usual, I'm not going to reveal much about any of them, so here's the usual stripped-down version. The truth is though that I could spend hours and hours talking about this book. 

"Fumes" begins this collection,  with a young engineer who is lost in the middle of a blinding snowstorm, having been separated from his colleagues. He comes to an old inn, where he shares a space with the innkeeper, his daughter, and an old woman who, strangely enough,  tend to make separate appearances but aren't seen together at the same time  ... Yow. This one is amazing. Someone could write a thesis on this story alone.    "The Motion Demon" appears in both The Dark Domain and Grabinski's book of the same title. Here a man makes several train trips,  "unusual journeys under the influence of cosmic and elemental forces," meeting up with a strange train conductor.  "The Area" is one of my favorite stories in the book, about a writer who has lost his ability to write over the last twelve years, and so "removes himself from the public eye." As he has found, he needs "greater artistic material" with which to express himself since "Already the written word was not enough for him."  Isolated in a "solitary residence," he starts paying attention to the abandoned villa across the street for hours at a time, when one day someone starts paying attention to him. Oh my god. What a great story. And I do mean great. 

Coming up to "A Tale of the Gravedigger," we move more firmly into the horror zone. The story begins with the discovery that there may be something very wrong with the grave monuments created by Giovanni Tossati of Foscara, who also doubles as gravedigger and wears a gypsum mask which "adhered so hermetically to his face, that it wasn't noticed it all"-- until it was. "Szamota's Mistress," about which I'm not saying a thing, since the ending is a bit of a shocker when you actually stop and consider what's going on here. It's also one of the most eerie stories in the book, even creepier after a second read.  Next up is "The Wandering Train."  Railwaymen have a "strange and puzzling" problem involving a train, "an intruder without patent or sanction," that turns up everywhere out of nowhere.  It's been a secret kept from the public until one day ...  

 "Strabismus" captures the plight of a man who is locked in a strange battle with his "living antithesis," while "Vengeance of the Elementals" finds a fire chief whose "long-term study of fires and their circumstances" gives way to a "more personal" battle with a "spiteful destructive essence that had to be reckoned with."  Up next is another excellent story, "In the Compartment," where a "timid dreamer" changes into someone "unrecognizable" the minute he steps into a train, as his newlywed traveling companions will soon discover. 

"Saturnin Sektor" finds the author of a manuscript that he's never shown another living soul being dogged by someone who "knows it by heart, inside and out," while the last story, "The Glance,"finds  a doctor who comes to the conclusion that  "everything he looked at and perceived was a creation of his mind."  But is it a case of "hallucination caused by overwork," or does everything he thinks about actually become a physical reality?  

While I latched on to Grabinski purely by accident, from now on any new translations of his work are going to find a permanent home on my shelves.  He's that good.  Anyone who is serious about dark fiction, literary horror and keen insight into human nature and the darkness of the human mind should not miss this book.  Again, I wonder how many other books by authors like this are out there, just waiting for me to find them.