Monday, September 30, 2013

*The Yellow Sign and Other Stories: The Complete Weird Tales of Robert W. Chambers, S.T. Joshi, ed.

Chaosium, 2000
643 pp


The other night I picked up Joseph Pulver's A Season in Carcosa, read the intro and then realized I'd never read The King In Yellow, so I probably needed to hold off for a bit. When I finished The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, I realized that Chambers had borrowed Carcosa from Ambrose Bierce's short story "An Inhabitant of Carcosa" so I guess I have to go grab The Heritage of Hastur to read that one.  Lucky for me,  I own a LOT of  Chaosium volumes.  
This collection is a mixed bag of tales ranging from the best of the weird to eerie to fun and then downright silly.  The first group of stories in this book come from Chambers' The King in Yellow, featuring "The Repairer of Reputations,"  "The Mask," "In the Court of the Dragon" "The Yellow Sign" "The Demoiselle d'Ys" and "The Prophet's Paradise."  For my money, these are the best and the most intensely weird stories in the entire book, and as weird goes, they just don't get better. In fact, these are some of the best weird stories I've ever read, period.   The next stories, "The Maker of Moons" and "A Pleasant Evening,"  come from The Maker of Moons, two more excellent pieces with perhaps a bit less weirdish intensity than the King in Yellow selections, but are still guaranteed to induce a sense of dread.  "The Maker of Moons" wins my vote in this section, although the supernatural tones of  "A Pleasant Evening"  had a shocker of an ending that really grabbed me.  The third group of stories is The Mystery of Choice; one of the best supernatural stories I've ever read is found here in "The Messenger." I also loved the Bretonne setting and the local legends and customs that have much to do with the stories in this section.  In Search of the Unknown features stories focusing on the exploits of a zoologist who is sent here and there to verify discoveries of strange creatures.  While these tales are highly entertaining, they fall less into the weird zone and more into the realm of strange adventure.  Skipping ahead, the same is true for Police!!!, although with the exception of "The Third Eye,"  these little episodes have more of a cheesy-slash-silly edge, especially in "The Immortal," featuring a bunch of cave-dwelling women in the Florida Everglades. The chapters excerpted  from  The Tracer of Lost Persons left me wanting more, especially if the rest of that particular book is as good is what's here.  Egyptian hieroglyphics, a hidden chamber and a body turned to dust all had my complete attention for the duration. Finally, The Tree of Heaven is a decent mix of stories that run a good spectrum ranging from strange to eerie, but not anywhere near the quality of  The King in Yellow or The Maker of Moons. 

While all of these collected tales may not suit everyone, as is generally the case with an anthology, the book is  well worth reading if for nothing else, the chapters from the first three titles The King in Yellow, The Maker of Moons, and The Mystery of Choice.   Even the cheesy stories might produce a laugh now and then, but definitely, if you're at all into weird fiction and you haven't read Chambers' work yet, you really don't want to miss this book.  Now I can go read  A Season in Carcosa and not feel stupid or that I missed anything!

// *** \\
There's another review at SF Site  by Georges T. Dodds  that goes into a little more detail about the stories than I have, you can take a look here .

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All and other stories, by Laird Barron

Night Shade Books, 2013
276 pp


John Langan notes on the back cover of this book that he "can't sum up Laird Barron in a single, pithy sentence," and neither can I. If you've read his work, you already know that he is one of the best horror/weird fiction writers out there; if you haven't, then you seriously don't know what you're missing.  I don't actually remember how I got started reading his stuff, but now I'm hooked. He's an author I prefer to read late at night, when all is quiet, and if I'm really lucky,  when there's a raging thunderstorm outside. I've also come to realize that when horror/weird fiction/the supernatural is done right, it is just as good as any work of "literary" fiction out there -- and Laird Barron definitely does it right. If you're considering this author's work, go find his story "Strappado." I guarantee you'll come back for more.

and now, without further ado...the stories.

  • Blackwood’s Baby” -- I've already read this story in The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Four (Ellen Datlow, ed.)earlier this year, and it was just as creepy this time around. Set in Washington state, the story begins as hunter Luke Honey has been invited to join a hunting party at the Black Ram Lodge in the forest of Ransom Hollow. As owner Liam Welloc explains, there are "plenty of deer and boar on this preserve," but the real prize is the "great stag known as Blackwood's Baby."  It is not only "the equal of any beast" that any of those present have ever hunted, but also the subject of  darkest legend in these parts.  Deliciously creepy -- 
  •  “The Redfield Girls” --  For the past ten years, a group of friends, all teachers from the same school,  have all come together for a road trip "along the hinterlands of the Pacific Northwest."  It's a girls' weekend away, where they spend time playing cribbage, drinking wine, reading -- anything to unwind before school starts up again.  This year the women are off to a cabin at Lake Crescent, located on the Olympic Peninsula,  complete with legendary past: it is rumored to be "full of demons"  who would drag trespassers down to the bottom.    Just before the trip is set to get underway, one of the women (Bernice)  receives a surprise visit from her niece, who ends up being number eleven on the trip. Her arrival coincides with a number of strange dreams Bernice has been having, but Bernice passes off the timing as "bizarre" and "too eerie for coincidence."  Off they go, and during a stormy night, the lake's freaky history becomes a topic of conversation to pass the time.  Later on, after a hike, the women decide to test the waters, so to speak -- and the reader is left to wonder if  the supernatural is at work here of if it's just, as Lemony Snicket would say, a series of unfortunate incidents.   Excellent story -- worth it just for the atmosphere alone! 
  •  “Hand of Glory” -- The narrator of this story, Johnny Cope,  tells his tale in hardboiled mode, which is not strange since he has become a hitman for a local tough-guy gangster. Things start going south when a couple of men try to kill him, and he finds a name, Conrad Paxton,  written on the back of a card in a wallet belonging to one of the gunmen.  His boss pays for him to take a "vacation," and sends a couple of guys to take care of him.  As he's about to set on the trail of who was responsible for sending the two killers, he gets a call from someone purporting to be an old friend of his father's, who gives him the name of the man who killed his father.   Never one to sit idly, he makes his way toward his father's killer, and unable to control his destructive urges, steps into something way over his head.   The hardboiled tone in this story blends perfectly with eerie black magic, some freakishly strange sisters,  and a maker of bizarre films to create a flawless, frightening tale.
  • "The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven” takes place in Poger Rock, pop. 190, in yet another cabin in the woods.  The remoteness of the location is by choice, since a woman, Lorna,  who has been a constant victim of abuse by her husband,  takes up shelter there.  Her lover, Miranda, was able to get the cabin, and it is the perfect spot to hide, waiting for Lorna's "soon to be ex" to be put in jail.  The combination of local lore about the cabin and its original owner, a chance discovery, and Lorna's growing paranoia all bleed together to ratchet up the uneasiness in this tale, as the women soon discover that perhaps those old legends may have some merit. 
  • The Siphon” --  The NSA sets the proverbial "honey trap" for a man named Lancaster,  a normally coolly-detached sociopath, and forces him into service spying for them.  He has another job, where it seems a few of his colleagues also provide "eyes everywhere the US needed them."  After six months of not being needed at the NSA, he gets a call to provide some intelligence about a certain Dr. Christou, who is hosting a foreign national who just happens to have business with Lancaster's company. It is a job Lancaster feels is "menial" and "mindless,"  but things start getting out of hand when the good doctor becomes the focus of a strange couple who are part of a gathering the company has put together.
  • The Jaws of Saturn” -- The Broadsword Hotel, which I first came across in Barron's collection Occultation, is the venue once again for yet another hitman story, one with a surreal, horrific twist.  The magician from "Hand of Glory" reappears, this time years later under his real name, as a hypnotist who is helping the hitman's girlfriend Carol,  who is trying to quit smoking. She's gone down to half a pack, but suffers from terrible dreams.  Franco, the hitman, doesn't understand the strange changes taking place in Carol, so decides to pay the hypnotist a visit, to have a little chat with him. He is refused an audience, so has to force his way in, and in return, is made to watch the hypnotist's session with Carol. It is, as Franco will later say, an "apocalyptic visit."
  •  “Vastation” is quite different than Barron's usual fare, but takes as its subject the "only human being on the planet", who made himself and then broke the mold, with the other "carbon-based sapient life forms" existing as merely props, "grist for the mill." This entire story is a monologue, featuring someone who's evolved into a kind of superbeing who has mastered a third of the layers of space and time, with the power to make and remake his own existence, only to discover that he's bored with himself and his life. As he notes, "the Universe stretches to a smear and cycles like a slinky reversing through its own spine. No matter what I do, stuff keeps happening in an uninterruptible stream."  The title "Vastation"  is appropriate not just in terms of this story, but in terms of the number of ideas contained within these few pages, with the futility of it all as a centerpiece.
  • The Men From Porlock”-- Back in the past once again (1923), back deep in the woods of Washington State, an ex-Marine named Miller now works at the Slango Logging Camp. The superintendent's foreman tags Miller and other men to go into the woods and snag a couple of good-sized bucks for the upcoming visit of a photographer.  Sitting around the fire the loggers start telling stories "bout these parts," one of them punctuating his tales with a strange map  taken out of one of his grandpappy's books. The map is of Mystery Mountain and  the stories tell of ghosts, evil spirits and demons living in holes in the ground and in trees and rocks.  All is well until "at the very edge of perception," Miller begins to hear some very strange music...
  • Last, but definitely not least comes “More Dark” --  within which is the source of the novel's title, where  an author with a suicide bent attends an event where the main attraction is a reclusive horror writer who, on stage, shows up like death dressed in red and lets a puppet do his speaking for him. There are a wide variety of horror writers mentioned in this little meta piece, but I'm not sure if this one is written for horror fans or for other writers of the genre. Either way, it's quite good and it's funny.  
 As a whole, The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All managed to bring on a stomach-knotting sense of unease in nearly every story. It is a nice mix of weird, Lovecraft-style cosmic horror and more supernatural type fright, both of which work blended well in my mind and kept me at a high tension level throughout the book. There is a lot going thematically and psychologically here, and there is also a lot of interweaving of past stories into this collection as well -- for example, the map of Mystery Mountain in  "The Men From Porlock" came into play in Barron's "Mysterium Tremendum," the Broadsword Hotel has also made previous appearances, and The Black Ram Lodge has appeared more than once I love how he does this -- it's like being back on familiar ground, yet different.  Once again, Laird Barron has woven his magic, making me a very happy reader. 

Friday, September 6, 2013

5 is my lucky number, but not so much this time. The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Five, Ellen Datlow (ed.)

Night Shade Books, 2013
406 pp


"We all of us have a chapter like that. A black chapter. Sometimes you write it yourself. Sometimes some bastard writes it for you."
-- Conrad Williams, The Pike 

I'll just be blunt here. There were very few stories in this collection that stopped time for me, drew me in so that nothing else existed outside of the book, or god forbid, actually scared me or gave me any sense of the willies whatsoever -- you know, the things that tell me that I've just read an insanely good book of horror tales.  I know that everyone has different ideas about what good horror should be, and I've seen that  a couple of  goodreads readers have given this book 5-star reviews.  But taking this collection as a whole, I  think  it's a lot more "weird" than frightening. When I read horror, I want chills creeping up along my spine; I want to feel the "shivering dread" noted on the back cover blurb. Sorry, but I just didn't get a lot of that here.  Of course, as China Miéville notes in his "afterweird" of The Weird (VanderMeer and VanderMeer eds),

"We don't fray the world quite the same..."

so this is a book in which you should judge the horror factor for yourself.

Now, let's explore, shall we? After all, I did find a few that were nice and squirmworthy (*).

1. "Nikishi,"  by Lucy Taylor:  A good, unsettling choice for a first story, in which a shipwrecked thief finds refuge, a young girl, and nasty hyenas  in a deserted African village, but it slid into predictability after a while. 
2. “Little America” by Dan Chaon:  Some time in the near and dystopic future, a man is a traveling to Salt Lake City with a young boy who he ties up when they stay at motels.  Turns out he's not a kidnapper, but a man on a special mission.  I'd label this one more "weird" than I would "horror". 

3. “A Natural History of Autumn” by Jeffrey Ford:  This one I loved -- extremely squirmworthy.  Set in Japan, a bar hostess meets a guy who promises her a "field trip" to a private onsen (hot springs) "out in the woods on a mountainside, hidden and very old-fashioned, no frills."  He keeps his promise, and gets more than he'd ever bargained for.    One of my favorites in the entire book. *

4. “Mantis Wives” by Kij Johnson -- I don't get why this is considered horror at all, except for the opening line by John Wyndham: "As for the insects, their lives are sustained only by intricate processes of fantastic horror."  If you're interested in knowing how many ways a "mantis woman" can kill her husband, then you'll like it. I didn't.

5. “Tender as Teeth” by Stephanie Crawford and Duane Swierczynski:  A woman who became infected with a zombie virus is now cured, but some people are not so forgiving of what the "Zombie chick" did before.  I'm not a zombie person, but maybe others will like this story. 

6. “The Callers” by Ramsey Campbell:  Here, the tension and uneasiness slowly builds, as good horror should.  A young boy staying with his grandparents decides to go to a movie, but can't get in. Neither can the other two teens standing in line, and they take it very personally.  The boy runs to his grandmother's bingo game, and well, let's just say that if you're a regular bingo player, you may never want to play again after reading this story.  Another good one.  *

7. “Two poems for Hill House” by Kevin McCann:  Hmmm. The second of the two is better. That's all I will say.

8 “Mariner’s Round” by Terry Dowling: There's an old saying about how revenge is a dish best served cold.  That's definitely the case here, where three boys get into a scuffle that leaves a scar on one of them who never forgets. I liked this one until the ending, which was kind of silly, killing the edginess.

9. “Nanny Grey” by Gemma Files If you have sex with a stranger, don't rifle through the stuff in her house afterwards. Especially if she has a demonic governess watching over her. This one was just bizarre, but not in a good way.

10. “The Magician’s Apprentice” by Tamsyn Muir: This one could have been good -- a young girl (13) starts her very difficult magician's training under a master, who insists that she also continue her school studies as well. Let's just say they both end up with perverse appetites.  It wasn't so bad, except for the whole pedophilia thing á la Lolita going on here. Ick.

11. “Kill All Monsters” by Gary McMahon: I probably wouldn't have called this one "horror" either -- it's more of a story about a guy who sees monsters in everyone everywhere.  Well written, definitely weird due to the man's psychosis, but not creepy, scary horror.  

12. “The House on Ashley Avenue” by Ian Rogers: Okay, I liked this one -- I am a total sucker for a good haunted house story.  Here,  a couple buy a house they shouldn't have bought, and die the next day. When two psychic investigators come in, they find out why.*

13. “Dead Song” by Jay Wilburn:  More zombies. I hate zombies, although I have to admit that I actually liked this tale, because of the good writing and slow unraveling of the story within the story. 

14. “Sleeping, I Was Beauty” by Sandi Leibowitz: Another poem. 

15. “Bajazzle” by Margo LanaganThe main character in this one is going through some sort of midlife crisis -- his wife has decided to become fit and trim, and he liked her old body better.  Not only that, but she's decided that she's not buying into his problems any more.  At a party he runs into an attractive woman -- and the rest is just plain weird. Pages filled with nothing but strange sex -- no.  Another I think more weird than frightening.

16. “The Pike” by Conrad Williams  -- Here's another one that didn't really inspire the creepies, but it's a very well-written story about how one's past can leave scars, mental and physical.  

17. “The Crying Child” by Bruce McAllister:  O mio dio! This story sucked me in and held me until the end. There's something appealing to me about horror stories where kids get caught up in situations well beyond their control or understanding, and this was a good one. Set in Italy during the cold war years, a village filled with people who paint hammers and sickles on their doors is well avoided by the locals because they think they're communists.  A group of boys, however, decide to take a closer look at the doors when they hear the ongoing cries of a single baby -- and one of them returns in the dead of night. *

18. “This Circus the World” by Amber Sparks: mercifully short, and that's all I'm going to say. No horror to see here, move along.

19. “Some Pictures in An Album” by Gary McMahon: Another story just filled with creeping dread that really did hold me until the finish, and then afterwards.  An album of old photos is the centerpiece in this tale where a man looks back through strange pictures of his childhood after the death of his father.*

20. “Wild Acre” by Nathan Ballingrud.  I liked this one too, although it's more of a picture of a man's complete deterioration in the aftermath of  a terrible event renders him powerless and unable to help his friends.  This one is much more psychological, but very well done.  

21. “Final Exam” by Megan Arkenberg:  Yawn. Sorry to be so blunt, but well, there it is.

22. “None So Blind” by Stephen Bacon -- Another very nicely-written tale, again not so much horror oriented as psychological.  Two people meet in a coffee shop after the man has been watching the blind woman for a while to get to know her habits, and strike up a conversation about how she came to be in her current predicament. The man already knows, but he asks anyway.  Absolutely stunning tale. 

23. “The Ballad of Boomtown” by Priya Sharma: Bad spirits abound in this one but it's kind of all over the map and not one of my favorite stories. 

24. “Pig Thing” by Adam Nevill: Another deliciously creepy story, but then again Adam Nevill is one of my favorite horror writers ever. A family transplanted to New Zealand from England and living in the middle of an  preserve in the middle of nowhere have nowhere to turn when strange things start happening at their home.  The horror of this one crept up ever so slowly and hung there until the end.*

25. “The Word-Made Flesh” by Richard Gavin :  Loss and its ensuing grief make people do the strangest things, but probably not as strange as what happens to the narrator's good friend in this story after he loses his wife and child.  A tarot card out of nowhere starts his nightmare, which leads him to an old, abandoned silo where he used to play as a child. *

26. “Into the Penny Arcade” by Claire Massey:  A girl trying to escape a fight is offered safety by a truck driver, who takes her into the trailer where he has some arcade machines from yesteryear that he insists she try out.  Awesome story, it reminded very much of Ray Bradbury's writing.*

27. “Magdala Amygdala” by Lucy Snyder.  Yes, this story got rave reviews, but it's not my cuppa. Recommended for people who like the combination of  viruses, sex and brain devouring, with a mention of the old gods in "their thrones in the dark spaces between the stars"  thrown in at the end. Hmm.
28. “Frontier Death Song” by Laird Barron.  In my top tier of weird fiction/horror writers, Laird Barron offers a story here based on the myth of the Wild Hunt.  As the main character is racing in the Iditarod, he comes into the path of the Hunt and disturbs the Huntsman, even tries to kill it.  Not a good idea.  He then becomes the prey, and races toward what he hopes is safety.  This story is good and disturbing, but the end is sort of silly which takes away its edge. 

In summary: out of 28 stories, there are eight  total that I'd consider creepy horror:

"A Natural History of Autumn," by Jeffrey Ford
"The Callers," by Ramsey Campbell
"The House on Ashley Avenue," by Ian Rogers
"The Crying Child," by Bruce McAllister 
“Some Pictures in An Album” by Gary McMahon
" Pig Thing” by Adam Nevill
"The Word Made Flesh," by Richard Gavin
" Into the Penny Arcade," by Claire Massey

of the 19 that are left,  a few deserve honorable mention: they weren't terribly scary, but they were very well written. They were also incredibly weird (on the good side):

" Kill All Monsters” by Gary McMahon
"Dead Song," by Jay Wilburn
"The Pike," by Conrad Williams
"Wild Acre," by Nathan Ballingrud
"None So Blind," by Stephen Bacon

and finally, even though the endings fizzled, kudos for weirdness to

Terry Dowling, for "Mariners' Round"
Laird Barron for "Frontier Death Song"

I will say that for the most part, I had a lot of fun with this collection, and that the very nature of anthologies is taking the good along with the not so hot.  I read them to discover new authors, and in that sense, this book is a success.  This installment # 5 of Datlow's Best Horror of the Year is one you have to judge for yourself in terms of what you consider horror or not.