Wednesday, December 17, 2014

sit back, relax, and have fun with this little Valancourt gem: Our Lady of Pain, by John Blackburn

There's a blurb in the back of  this book by Michael Dirda of the Washington Post that says the following:
"Valancourt Books champions neglected but important works of fantastic, occult, decadent and gay literature. The press's Web site not only lists scores of titles but also explains why these often obscure books are still worth reading...So if you're a real reader, one who looks beyond the bestseller list and the touted books of the moment, Valancourt's publications may be just what you're searching for."
I read that little paragraph and recognized myself in the part where he says "if you're a real reader, one who looks beyond the bestseller list and the touted books of the moment," thinking OMG that's me in a nutshell.  I also related to the "often obscure books" that "are still worth reading," thinking yes! That's me too! I love finding new old books, because there's something very satisfying and worthwhile in discovering and reading  off-the-beaten-path books from the past.

One of these old gems is John Blackburn's Our Lady of Pain, now back in print thanks to Valancourt Books:

It's really hard to pigeonhole this novel.  While there is an entire subgenre of "paranormal mystery,"  that's not really an  apt description of this book, nor is it the feel I got while reading it -- I've read enough of them to know the difference. There are definitely some weird elements involved, but Our Lady of Pain is more of a hybrid of mystery and pulp with a helping of horror and supernatural strangeness to keep things lively and entertaining.  It reminds me of a lot of old books I read when I was a kid that incorporated the same three elements and held me completely spellbound for hours.

Our Lady of Pain begins when Daily Globe reporter Harry Clay (who writes "the kind of pretentious tosh our readers love; bless their empty little bird brains")  is sent by his boss to review a production of Shaw's Saint Joan. Lead actress Susan Vallance is widely hated by the public and has a reputation for bullying her co-workers, and Harry's boss thinks that if she happens to flop on opening night, the Globe's readers will be elated since they're "always regaled by the fall of unpopular figures." Harry isn't overly enthused with the idea, and before the curtain rises, he slips out for some air after seeing a doctor whose life story he'd written two years earlier ("a completely evil human being," he believes)  for the paper leaving the stage door.  Harry smells a story and neglects the play in favor of following the doctor.  Once he's home, he writes a glowing review and turns the story just before the paper is put to bed. Unfortunately for Harry, the evening's performance was beyond terrible, bad enough that his review will make the Globe a laughingstock while its  "rivals will have headlines crucifying Susan Vallance."  He wasn't fired, but moved to another paper, The Advertiser, where his life was "now devoted to bishops and mayors opening schools, mayoresses gushing at flower-shows, and aldermen pontificating about the rates."  Harry just knows that if the right story comes along, he can get back in the Globe's good graces -- and he finds it in a conversation  he just happens to overhear at a pub, a conversation that refers to a woman named Naureen in hospital and a "job" done by three people.  One of the speakers mentions a curse and "creatures," which really whets Harry's appetite, especially when he realizes just who it is that is speaking. Following his nose, Harry resorts to some pretty lowlife antics to get the story -- and the trail leads right back to the theater, this time for a production of "Our Lady of Pain," starring Susan Vallance as the countess Elizabeth Bathory.  Harry's attempts at following the path of this cryptic conversation constitutes a large part of this book and leads him on a crazy ride, but even he knows that there's much, much more to this story than quite literally meets the eye.

Blackburn gets very clever in this novel.  Not only does he bring in and add his own versions of the old legends of Elizabeth Bathory, but he also contributes into the mix a unique form of  punishment (perhaps even   justice) suffered by the criminals.  One by one, they become residents of their own personal hells, which are referred to here as "Room 101" reflecting Orwell's  1984. In Orwell's work, it is a place where people are forced to confront their worst fears as a sort of torture designed to completely break down one's spirit, and the same symbolically applies here. He adds another layer to this story by placing it in the context of a house haunted by a strange family tradition starting in 1643, one that only the male heir is made party to on his seventh birthday. When all is said and done, the novel is  particularly creepy and even a little campy sometimes, but more than that, it is immensely entertaining up to the very end, which is definitely one of the more chilling endings I've read in a long while.

I tend to say this a lot, but it's true:  nowadays I think people prefer gorefests, torture and splatter in their horror reading, which is truly a shame because there's so much more out there quality wise in terms of modern horror/dark literature and past works of the genre.  I constantly see bad reviews given to what I consider works of worthwhile writing both past and present because they're "too tame," while stellar reviews are awarded for the instant gratification brought through gore & splatter and the grossest, most dehumanizing  things anyone can imagine.  If that's your schtick, then whatever, but to me it's just plain sad that this sort of thing seems to be so  de rigeur nowadays when I know there is better work out there.  While Our Lady of Pain may not be the epitome of great horror reading,  it is still a fine, forgotten book that deserves to be read, campiness and all.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Stephen King's Revival

Scribner, 2014
403 pp


" may be strange, but it is true, and the ancients knew what lifting the veil means."
My quotation is not from Revival, but rather from Arthur Machen's "The Great God Pan," * a story that seems to have been an influence on King in the writing of this book.  It also influenced HP Lovecraft, whose influence comes shining through here in no small way.

Let me just get this out of the way. Revival is not going to appear on my personal favorites list for the year. It's a very s--l--o--w  buildup of a story to an ending that well, frankly, has been done before. The scenario is very different, but I think having read so much of Lovecraft (and the authors he's influenced over the years) sort of spoiled it for me, so in a way, it's not the author's fault that I didn't like this one as much as I might have.    It's kind of like seeing a movie then going back to read the book -- you already know what's going to happen so there's less of an impact when the ending comes around.

Jamie Morton,  a man in his early sixties, recounts his life story in this book, one that first took a strange turn when he met the Reverend Charles Jacobs at the age of six in 1962.   Jacobs, as Morton notes, is his "fifth business,"  "the joker who pops out of the deck at odd intervals over the years, often during a moment of crisis."  Jacobs has an odd hobby, working with electricity, and his "youth talks" with the kids of the Methodist Youth Fellowship often involved lessons where he used electricity or couched his lectures in electro-speak to illustrate the points he was trying to make.  He was very well liked among the congregation, swelling its numbers to peak levels, and really made an impression when he used an electrical device to help bring back the voice of Jamie's brother Con after an accident that left him mute. All is well until the fateful day that the reverend's wife and little boy went out in their car and were killed.  Afterwards, in his grief,  Jacobs goes to the pulpit where he began  "edging into blasphemy" by renouncing doctrine on the afterlife and by renouncing religion in general as the
"theological equivalent of a quick-buck insurance scam, where you pay in your premium year after year, and then, when you need the benefits you paid for so --pardon the pun--so religiously, you discover the company that took your money does not, in fact, exist." 
The reverend is fired, of course, and leaves town, but it's not the last time Jamie sees him.  Over the next several years, he will cross and recross paths  with Jacobs, and a connection is made that will ultimately change Jamie's life and his understanding of all that he has come to know as reality.

There is a veritable slew of literary influence to be found woven throughout this book -- Machen and Lovecraft are the big ones  I've mentioned, but you'll also find in Jacobs a bit of Captain Ahab going after his white whale.  Mary  Shelley is definitely represented here (in more ways than one), as is M.R. James, Ray Bradbury, and I'm sure there are a few others that I've missed.   There are also, as in many books by this author, bits and pieces of King's own life (and other work) to be found here. As usual, he starts out in small-town America, where the people in the community are your neighbors in the true sense of the word, making everything seem so normal and easygoing that you just can't wait to see what's going to provide the catalyst that changes everything. He also continues his theme of innocence lost, here with a major twist.  When King is writing on religion and the whole spectacle of  the religious-healing-tent-revival he is amazing, making the reader feel like he/she is right there in the crowd,  and he sort of captures my own ideas on the topic. And there's one  more thing:  in one sense, you could try to understand this novel as a reflection on curiosity regarding what might lie on the other side -- and the perils of trying to comprehend forces beyond our understanding.  But on the flip side --  it's so slow -- by page 299 I was thinking that ""maybe, just maybe, we're starting to get somewhere in this book. One can always hope."  And frankly, I just didn't feel like the payoff was worth wading through Jamie Morton's entire life story.  I see so many ways that this book could have been better, but oh well. 

Perusing the normal book-related websites, it seems that people just can't get enough of this book, and the ratings are definitely high.  I wouldn't be surprised to see Revival jetting  into the top ranks of the NYT bestseller list soon, but for me, I'm doing that hand thing that means iffy.

 *from Machen in S.T. Joshi (ed) The Three Impostors and Other Stories: Vol. I of the Best Weird Tales of Arthur Machen (Chaosium, 2000).

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Master of the Macabre, by Russell Thorndike

Valancourt  Books, 2013
(originally published 1947)
213 pp


It's impossible to pigeonhole this book into a particular category, so I'm not even going to try, square pegs and round holes and all that.  There's a lot going on in this little book -- it's a different take on the usual haunted house story, it's a ghost story, it's pulpy, and there are a number of spots where it's also funny.  While it's not particularly frightening (or at least it wasn't to me), The Master of the Macabre is still a little gem of a book and makes for fine pre-Halloween (or any time for that matter) reading.

Set in 1940s England, author Tayler Kent has been under a bit of stress over a four-week period,  perhaps due to the "mental strain" of working on finishing a "complicated biography" he's been working on, but he doesn't think so. He's been having strange dreams of shadowy figures with vivid eyes -- a pleading woman and a "commanding and servile" man, "compelling" him to "obey them."  Rather than seek medical help, he decides to take a trip to his cottage on Romney Marsh, where he hopes to find some much needed peace and quiet.  He makes a brief stop at his club, where he is handed a package left for him by his friend Carnaby.  Kent is to deliver the package to the Old Palace of Wrotham, the residence of "The Master of the Macabre." There is no other name given, and Kent shrugs it off as a joke, wondering what Carnaby's up to this time. As he's heading out, the weather is terrible and turns into a terrible snowstorm; on the road, where can barely see and loses control of both brakes and steering, he skids and is enveloped by a "gigantic snow-slide."  While trying to escape being buried in the snow, he injures his leg. Despite the pain, he makes his way to a "fine old place."  It seems that Kent is expected  -- and preparations have already been made for his stay there.  The elderly gentleman who greets him is Hoadley, general factotum to the home's owner, Charles Hogarth, who is also known as (you guessed it) "The Master of the Macabre."  Things start taking a strange turn the very first night of Kent's stay, and while he's laid up, Hogarth shows him a collection of strange relics that he's collected over the years, each with some sort of bizarre story attached to it, and shares his belief that  "every so-called inanimate object in this world...has a being" of its own, which also extends to the house and the objects found within. This theme recurs throughout the book, and is especially highlighted when Hogarth realizes that someone else has laid a claim for one of his valued possessions.   Hogarth is a collector of "the material of odd happenings," --  both his own and others --  and has spent time setting them down into manuscripts "for the few."  These stories, the mystery of the house itself, and the secret behind Kent's sleepless nights slowly unfold as the book progresses.

As Hoadley so eloquently reveals, "this house is very susceptible... to susceptible minds."  It also has "influences," and no one who comes to work there will ever stay there after dark.  Hogarth also reveals that the house is "alive," that it's "just like a human being with moods" that need to be humored; it's a house with a mind that needs to be understood.  The house also has  "powerful and insidious" properties, with some rooms much more alive than others, and are more often than not, places where history repeats itself again and again.   However, this book goes well beyond the standard haunted house story filled with ghosts or other terrors.  Hogarth himself is a strange figure, a sort of detective who ferrets out the strange, and as Mark Valentine notes in his introduction (which should definitely be saved until after you've read the last page), his creator finds himself in "good company" among other authors who have written books with a "major plot and conspiracy, augmented by piquant minor side-adventures," none the least of whom are Arthur Machen and Robert Louis Stevenson.  The introduction itself is enlightening, with a very brief history of the rise of the "investigator of the uncanny" and the occult detective.

While the language may be a little overbearing for a modern reader, I had no problem with it, but then again, I love classic tales and have also spent many an hour with my nose buried in the work of golden-age writers of detective fiction who also tend toward the sort of verbosity found here in places.  Some of the stories are delightfully pulpy, while some are just, well, there's no better word than "macabre" to describe them. There were times I couldn't help but chuckle (the story entitled "Concerning a Mad Sexton, A Drunk Hangman and a Pretty Girl" actually brought out a belly laugh) even as dark deeds were being done. Also, don't let the "investigator of the uncanny" thing  turn you away from this little book -- while it may not provide readers with in-your-face horror that many modern readers crave, it's still a fun little book that needs to be looked at  in its entirety rather than just in story-by-story mode.  It's definitely a book to be appreciated, and I give kudos to Valancourt Books for bringing it into the present.

Monday, October 6, 2014

On the path to Halloween, book #2: Don't Look Now, by Daphne Du Maurier, selected by Patrick McGrath

New York Review of Books, 2008
346 pp


"I have a theory that each man's life is like a pack of cards, and those we meet and sometimes love are shuffled with us. We find ourselves in the same suit, held by the hand of Fate. The game is played, we are discarded, and pass on."  (309)
In his introduction, Patrick McGrath notes that although Daphne Du Maurier's work has had great popular success,  "during her lifetime she received comparatively little critical esteem."  Du Maurier herself was "pained deeply" about being "dismissed with a sneer as a bestseller" rather than as a serious writer. If her popularity, her status as a "bestseller," or her reputation as a Romance novelist keeps people from reading her work in this collection, well, that's a shame.  If you're  tired of same old same old in your reading life, and you want a bit of shaking up, I can't think of a better book to recommend than this one a fine selection of stories that should not go unread. The choice of stories in this book might be a little uneven, but for the most part, they're worth every second of time you spend not only reading them, but thinking about them long after you've turned that last page.  This book might also provide a different perspective from which to examine Du Maurier as much more than simply the woman who wrote Rebecca.  

As a whole, this is a fascinating collection of stories.  Thematically you'll find the author covers a wide range:   isolation, love, loss, grief, dislocation, revenge, obsession, fate  -- all very human attributes that here take on a different sort of significance in the lives of her characters. The beauty in these tales is that her people are just going about their every day lives -- at least at first.  For example,  In "Don't Look Now,"  a husband and wife are in Venice on holiday to help them to deal with their grief over their dead child.  In "Split Second," a widow with a young daughter away at school steps out to take a walk and returns home.  "The Blue Lenses" is expressed from the point of view of a woman who is recovering from eye surgery.  All of these things are very normal, very mundane, and described very well by the author.  But soon it begins to dawn on you that something is just off -- that things are moving ever so slightly away from ordinary, heading into the realm of extraordinary. By that time, you're so caught up in the lives of these people that you have to see them through to the end.    The joke is on the reader, though -- in some cases the endings do not necessarily resolve things, but instead, point toward another possible chapter in the characters' futures. While the author doesn't do this in every story, when she does, it's highly effective and leaves you very unsettled and in my case,  filled with a sense of unease thinking about what's going to happen to these people next. As one character notes, "Nothing's been the same since. Nor ever will be," and that's the feeling I walked away with in several of these stories.

While I enjoyed each and every story (and I'm not going to go through them all here -- they're best experienced rather than read about) there are some that I felt are much better than others.  I was frankly floored by "The Birds," mainly due to the dawning realization on the part of Nat Hocken about the reality of his family's situation -- and that of England and quite possibly the rest of the world as well.  This was for me, the most frightening story in the book, one that made me put the book down for a while before returning to it.  And if you don't want to read the story because you've seen the Hitchcock movie, trust me -- there is very little similarity between the two. The title story, "Don't Look Now," is equally as chilling but in an entirely different way - I had, however, read it previously and I'd seen the movie, which sort of killed it as a reread.  The movie sticks very closely to the story, so do yourself a favor, and read it first.  You'll be happy you did. "Blue Lenses" is another excellent entry in this collection, about a woman whose bandages are removed after eye surgery where she's fitted with temporary blue lenses. It's only after the bandages are off that she makes a horrifying discovery -- and then she has to go home. The ending of this one actually made me shiver.   Then, in a strange turn of events, another one of my favorite stories, "Monte Verità," starts at the end of the story.   "Monte Verità" is longer in length than the others here, but that actually works in its favor. This one is just eerie -- otherworldly is also an adjective I'd use to describe it.   The rest of the collection is good as well, but to me, these were the standouts -- the ones that messed with my head (in a good way) the most.   

There are a number of good reviews of this book that go more in depth than what I've written here, but  don't read them until after you've finished reading the book. I didn't read any of them until just now, after having finished writing my own thoughts down, and I noticed that there are also some that tend to give away the show. Also, you'd be doing yourself a big favor if you save the intro for last.  This is a little gem of a collection that I'll be holding onto forever.  NYRB classics has really done readers a great service by bringing these stories together -- my advice: if you're interested in trying out  Du Maurier's short stories, this edition would be the perfect starting place.  It's good any time of year, but it does make for  great pre-Halloween reading.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

the first ghost story on my path to Halloween: The Woman in Black, by Susan Hill

David R. Godine, Publisher, 1986
original UK publication date, 1983, Hamish Hamilton
138 pp


There is absolutely no better way to start the month of October than by reading a good ghost story.  Actually, I wasn't planning to read The Woman in Black again since I have so many books sitting here unread, but I pulled it out late a couple of nights ago after watching the 2012 movie  with Daniel Radcliffe.  There's another movie version, one done in 1989 which I'd love to see, but I'm not willing to shell out three figures for the privilege. As I was watching the film, the phrase "that wasn't in the book" kept going through my head, so I had to go check it out for myself.

The Woman in Black begins, strangely enough, on Christmas Eve at a country home called Monk's Piece. The weather is "wretched," which normally makes owner Arthur Kipp susceptible to "gloom and lethargy, unable to enjoy the flavour of life" as he would have liked. Luckily, it's Christmas time, and Esmé, his wife of fourteen years, has put a lot of effort into the holiday.  Now on Christmas Eve, Esmé's older children are at Monk's Piece, along with three little grandchildren who are asleep upstairs.  Arthur has gone out for a bit o' the night air, contemplating the happiness of partaking in his "pipe and a glass of good malt whisky beside the crackling fire, in the happy company" of his family.  As he returns to the group, he has obviously interrupted a conversation, and after the eldest boy turns off all of the lights, leaving only the firelight, Esmé clues Arthur in as to what's going on. It seems that the three boys want to revive an "ancient tradition" of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve.  Each trying to outdo the other, the stories were a mix of
"dripping stone walls in uninhabited castles and of ivy-clad monastery ruins by moonlight, of locked inner rooms and secret dungeons, dank charnel houses and overgrown graveyards, of footsteps creaking upon staircases and fingers tapping at casements, of howlings and shrinkings..."
 and much more, each story getting more "lurid, wilder and sillier." At first Arthur is entertained, but as they went on, he "began to feel set apart from them all, an outsider to their circle."  Soon enough, the boys demand a story from Arthur, but he adamantly and most firmly tells them he has "no story to tell."  What they do not know, of course, is that he really does have a story -- but not one that makes for good entertainment at the holidays.   His story is one of an experience that, as he muses, has become "woven into my very fibres," one that he had always hoped he'd never have to live through again. Having managed to bury it within himself to the point where "of late, it had been like the outermost ripple on a pool, merely the faint memory of a memory," the evening's entertainment has brought it all come rushing back.  Arthur has now decided that he should set it down on paper in hopes of  being "free of it for whatever life remained for me to enjoy. "  But, as he notes,  it's not an easy task, even after all the years that have passed:
"I have sat here at my desk, day after day, night after night, a blank sheet of paper before me, unable to lift my pen, trembling and weeping too."
Obviously, whatever the story is still haunts him all these years later.

The remainder of the novel is Arthur's story of events that occurred shortly after he'd  turned twenty three, when he was a "youthful and priggish" young man sent to Chythin Gifford to represent the legal firm he works for at the funeral of a client, Mrs. Drablow,  and then to spend time at her home gathering her papers to return to the office. Two simple tasks, but of course, the reader knows that something is going to go terribly wrong, something that will bring rational, level-headed Arthur to the point of  "trembling and weeping" even after so much time has passed. 

from the

Not only is The Woman in Black a fine ghostly tale, but Arthur is an excellent story teller, although lately I've been considering the idea that he just might fall into the category of unreliable narrator.

 The first chapter contains a number of elements that prepare the reader for what's to come, and as the story progresses, we take this journey with Arthur step by step, unaware of what lies ahead, so that his discoveries become ours and his growing sense of uneasiness and dread are planted in our brains and under our skins.  I could talk about this book forever because there's so much here, but I can't so I'll just point out a couple of things.  There's an ongoing theme of isolation, not just in terms of landscape, but also in terms of experiences that cause someone to feel set apart from others.   It's also filled with revenge and loss. My thinking though is that  the story centers on Arthur's own search for a rational answers where there may be none  -- and not just concerning the woman in black --   tied to Arthur's own transformation, which for me  lies at the heart of this entire book.

It goes without saying that I really had a great time with this book. It was all things a good ghost story should be, with bonuses.   There was one point where I had to chuckle, though -- I turned to my edition's page 105, and the chapter heading was "Whistle and I'll Come to You," a shortened title of M.R. James' "Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad."  How perfect!  This is, however, not a fast-paced book, but one to be savored slowly.  Readers who are looking for thrill after thrill may be a bit disappointed, or readers who are solely driven by plot action might find this one a bit tame or even, as some have noted, flat out boring.  Another thing: if you're expecting a work along the lines of classic ghost-story writers, you're bound to be disappointed. My advice - have no expectations going in, sit back, relax and enjoy it for what it is.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

as close to perfect as an anthology ought to be: Rustblind and Silverbright: A Slipstream Anthology of Railway Stories, ed. David Rix

Eibonvale Press, 2013
365 pp


"The rhythm of the rails is like a lullaby, comforting as the movement of our mother's bodies while we were still inside the womb. The destination is never quite known. The glimpses we get of backyards and gardens and lanes: voyeuristic, placing no obligation upon us to interact or judge. They seem to embody a hundred thousand alternatives to our own lives, threads not yet grasped, other ways to brighter futures." 
-- Douglas Thompson,  "Sunday Relatives."

"And mind the gap of course."
--Daniella Geary, "Death Trains of Durdensk." 

Until someone recently recommended it to me, I'd never heard of Rustblind and Silverbright, an anthology of slipstream stories joined together by their focus on trains and the railways.  I have to say, this is not only one of the best anthologies I've read this year, if not the best, but one of the most cohesive from a thematic standpoint.  The editor, David Rix, has done an excellent job here, putting together a number of pieces that frankly, I couldn't tear myself away from without a lot of resentment toward whatever it was that made me put the book down. 

Twenty-four stories make up this collection, each one of them simultaneously strange and fascinating. As the editor notes in his introduction, each of these tales, like railways everywhere, visit
"Worlds that can only be glimpsed from blurred windows or from the far end of the platform. Hidden places. Private places. Places where the ordinary and the secret meet."
These short stories take twists and turns as they branch into places that may seem familiar for a while before branching off again into altogether different territory.  Structured into three "acts," they're occasionally broken up by the editor who inserts little bits of history or other fascinating sidelines along with his thoughts.

The stories in this collection (with those little inserts by the editor denoted by "--") are:

act 1
"Tetsudo Fan", by Andrew Hook
--"Animal Station Masters"
 "On the Level, by Allen Ashley:
"The Wandering Scent," by Aliya Whiteley
--"Die Breitspurbahn"
"To the Anhalt Station," by  John Howard
"Death Trains of Durdensk," by Daniella Geary
"Vivian Guppy and the Brighton Belle," by Nina Allan
--"UK Ghost Trains"
"The Last Train," by Joel Lane
"Writer's Block," by SJ Fowler
act 2
-- "Northern Line Tube Announcement, by Anon" 
"The Path of Garden Forks," by Rhys Hughes
--"London Underground Mosquito"
"District to Upminster," by Marion Pitman
"Wi-Fi Enabled Bakerloo Sunset," by R.D Hodkinson
--"The DLR Shuffle"
"Stratford International," by David McGroarty
"The Cuts," by Danny Rhodes
"Sleepers," by Christopher Harman
--"The Dumb Network"
"Escape on a Train," by Steve Rasnic Tem
"Choice," by Charles Wilkinson
act 3
"Embankmen," by Gavin Salisbury
"Sunday Relatives," by Douglas Thompson
--"The Necropolis Railway that Was and the Sewage Railway that Wasn't"
"The Engineered Soul," by Jet McDonald
"Didcotts," by John Greenwood
--"The Little Carriage to North Korea"
"The Keeper," by Andrew Coulthard
"Not All Trains Crash," by Steven Pirie
"The Turning Track," by Rosanne Rabinowitz and Matt Joiner

followed by author biographies.  

 Truth be told, I loved most all of these  tales, but I did have a few personal favorites:

 Danny Rhodes' "The Cuts" was a most perfect story.  A briefcase-toting civil servant, an arrogant, pompous "characterless bureaucrat" working for the government, travels by train to Wales in November, 1963.  He is sent there to "show some some willingness to listen" after the protests about  the Beeching railroad cuts outlined earlier that year, but he knows that it's a done deal ("he had the figures in his logbook") and his journey is purely for show.  When he stops at Rhosgoch, he is surprised that he finds no protestors there to greet him -- but what he does find is the stuff of nightmares.  Not only is this story beyond good and highly atmospheric, it has the best and most fitting ending I've come across in a very long time.  

Nina Allan's "Vivian Guppy and the Brighton Belle" is another favorite in this collection - taking the action from real to model trains.  A woman whose career in model trains stems from childhood is hired by a man named Vivian Guppy to find a particular model  that he'd sold and now wants to buy back. When she finds out why, things start taking some pretty strange turns. This story is written as if the author is telling the story in person rather than on the page, but at the same time, she also pays so much attention to detail that in describing every bit of a model dining car, for example,  you feel like you're actually peeking through the windows into an entirely different world.  Luckily, it's longer than a typical short story, almost novella length, so it's not over too quickly, but left me beyond unsettled. That's a good thing.

" Tetsudo Fan":  one of my gauges for any anthology is the appeal of first story and author Andrew Hook didn't let me down here. I was so taken aback at this tale of two Japanese tetsudō (railway) enthusiasts who come together - one helping the other to take his hobby another step further into an entirely different world -  truly setting the tone for what's to come. After reading this one, I knew this entire book was going to be just up my alley. The story succeeds on so many levels of weirdness, but mostly because it's so grounded in reality.

Rounding out my other favorites are  "Sleepers," by Christopher Harman;  moving on into Kafka territory there's  "Didcotts" by John Greenwood, and finally,  "Not All Trains Crash," by Steven Pirie. 

I also have to say that now when I hear that lonesome whistle blow in the distance, a little chill crawls up my spine.  It's one of those books that once you've turned the last page becomes embedded in your brain and never leaves.

I know that in no sense of the word is this a "literary" review, since I am not particularly talented in that arena,  but they do exist: here's one at The Short Review, and one real-time ongoing one from Dreamcatcher Review of Fiction Books.  My thanks to Seregil of Rhiminee for pointing me in this book's direction. His review can be found here, at Rising Shadow.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Searchers After Horror, ed. S.T. Joshi -- a big meh

Fedogan & Bremer, 2014
352 pp


"There are hidden pockets on this globe, sinister and uninhabited. How one thrills to find them, to listen to their sinister secrets whispered to one's imagination." 
     --- W.H. Pugmire, "An Element of Nightmare

According to Joshi's introduction to this book, once a reader picks up this book, he or she can look forward to discovering the "weirdness of landscape," "the careful etching of the complexities of human character," and the "evocation of terror in a multiplicity of themes, motifs and images" that run through this story collection.  He also states that "readers will find themselves inexorably becoming the denizens of bizarre realms of fantasy and terror beyond anything they could have envisioned."  The "weirdness of landscape" is well represented here, for the most part; as for the rest, well,  not so much. Out of the twenty-one stories in this volume, I really struggled to find more than a handful that evoked the promised terror beyond anything I could have envisioned.  I truly do not like being a negative nellie, but it's unavoidable here.  

Here's the post-introduction table of contents:

"Iced In" by Melanie Tem
"At Home with Azathoth"  by John Shirley
"The Girl Between the Slats" by Michael Aronovitz
"The Patter of Tiny Feet" by Richard Gavin
"At Lorn Hall" by Ramsey Campbell
"Blind Fish" by Caitlín R. Kiernan
"An Element of Nightmare" by W. H. Pugmire
"The Reeds" by Gary Fry
"Crawldaddies" by Steve Rasnic Tem
"Three Dreams of Ys" by Jonathan Thomas
"Willie the Protector"  by Lois H. Gresh
"Miranda’s Tree"  by Hannes Bok
"The Beautiful Fog Ascending"  by Simon Strantzas
" Exit Through the Gift Shop"  by Nick Mamatas
"Going to Ground"  by Darrell Schweitzer
"Dark Equinox" by Ann K. Schwader
"Et in Arcadia Ego" by Brian Stableford
"The Shadow of Heaven" by Jason V. Brock
"Flesh and Bones" by Nancy Kilpatrick
"The Sculptures in the House" by John D. Haefele
"Ice Fishing" by Donald Tyson

I won't go through every story here but instead just make a few observations.  First and foremost, my feeling is that when an editor compiles a horror anthology, he/she should make sure that the terror is laid on thick right out of the gate, and that's just not the case here.   If I'm not even mildly creeped after the first story, it's sort of a signal of what lies ahead. Second: if he/she is going to bring in Lovecraftian-type stories, do it right and leave out the pastiches.  Third: when description takes over the story, it's not scary - it's skimworthy.  

With  my biggest complaints out of the way, there are a few stories that I actually liked in this book: Richard Gavin's "The Patter of Tiny Feet" delivers on not only the landscape end, but also the horror side. "Blind Fish" by Caitlin Kiernan, set in the future, was incredibly disquieting the entire way through.  "The Beautiful Fog Ascending" wasn't so horrifying in a creep-filled way, but it was positively eerie considering what's happening here. Another one that had a nice twist at the end was Darrell Schweitzer's "Going to Ground." It wasn't all that frightening, but that twist made me gasp out loud.  I  liked Ann K. Schwader's "Dark Equinox" very much -- it is positively dark, is very much reflective of the "weird landscape theme," and it made me want to  read more of her work. She does slow horror buildup very nicely. 

So, that's five, with two honorable mentions: first Campbell's "At Lorn Hall" for constant racheting of my curiosity level, but in the end I just didn't find it all that frightening. Second,  "The Shadow of Heaven" by Jason V. Brock also managed to give me a chill, even though I read something sort of similar earlier.  Sadly, the stomach knots really began at the end of the story with (trust me, this is no spoiler here) a ship captain's realization of the horrors that are about to be unleashed on the world. 

 I always expect to find a mix of good and not-so-good stories in an anthology, but with this one, I remember thinking "when is something frightening going to happen?" If readers are promised that they will be sucked into "terror beyond anything they could have envisioned," the editor should absolutely deliver. And that just didn't happen. 

Friday, July 4, 2014

AAAAIIIIEEEEE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Michael McDowell's The Elementals

Valancourt Books, 2014
218 pp

Over the last few nights as I've been reading The Elementals, nature has provided the perfect backdrop -- hard rain, thunder, and lightning so bright it flashed through the closed blinds.   And while this is the ultimate perfect atmosphere for reading a horror novel (or short stories for that matter),  as it turns out, in this case it was totally unnecessary: the eerie atmosphere that McDowell infuses into The Elementals holds its own without any help.

The novel focuses on two Alabama families, the Savages and the McCrays. They're linked together through marriage and the fact that both families have for years spent their summers at Beldame, "a long spit of land, no more than fifty yards wide," where there are three tall gray Victorian homes,  "large, eccentric old houses such as appeared in coffee table books on outré American architecture."  Back now at Beldame after the strange funeral of Marian Savage is her son Dauphin, who is married to Leigh McCray and  has inherited the family fortune; Leigh's brother Luker and his too-wise-for-her-years thirteen-year-old daughter India McCray from New York City; Big Barbara McCray, Leigh and Luker's mother, married to Lawton McCray, a candidate for US congressional representative, and the faithful Odessa, who's worked with the Savages for as long as anyone can remember.  

One one side of this narrow piece of land is St. Elmo's Lagoon; on the other is the Gulf of Mexico.  At high tide, Beldame is cut off, becoming a virtual island when the Gulf flows into the lagoon.  The McCrays have a house on the gulf side; just opposite their house on the lagoon side is the house belonging to the Savages.  The third house nobody lives in. No one can: the sand dune at the end of the spit has been encroaching on that house so much so that,  as India  notices on first seeing it, it "did not merely encroach upon the house, it had actually begin to swallow it." The third house holds its secrets, as do the McCrays and the Savages regarding their own childhood experiences with the third house.  All anyone will tell India is that she should stay away from it, but India has a mind of her own, and off she goes exploring. And then ..., well, to say more would be to wreck the experience for someone else.

There are so many excellent things about The Elementals -- the characters, the quiet beginning moving slowly toward an ever-growing anticipation of dread and then headlong into the horrors --  but one of the best features of this novel is  the author's ability to capture and evoke the sense of place in his writing. There are various schools of thought either yea or nay on  place as a character in a novel,  but here that's just how it is. The isolation of Beldame, the third house with the sand covering it both inside and out, the beautiful waters of the Gulf, St. Elmo's Lagoon, the channel, the sand, and above all, the paralyzing heat and humidity of a southern summer that sucks the energy right out of a person --  the way he brings all of this place to life allows it to act not only on the characters directly, but also on the reader.   He's captured the Southern summer heat with its god-awful humidity so perfectly that I could totally feel it while reading about it.  

Even better, by the last sections of the book, McDowell has perfectly combined those rising temperatures with the increasingly-growing horror, producing a kind of claustrophobic atmosphere that remains nearly up until the last moment of the story.

I loved this novel. If you're considering reading it, do not look at any reviews where they give away the whole shebang -- if I had known what was going to happen I wouldn't have enjoyed this book nearly as much. And speaking of that,  read this book very carefully if you are at all interested in trying to figure out the main mystery surrounding Beldame and the third house -- it's never overtly stated (which I thought was a good thing), but I think you'll find that there are answers there to dig out.  The one thing I didn't like about this book was that the pacing seemed kind of off at the very end -- much more rushed than I think it should have been given the tone of the rest of the novel. But what the heck.  It's one of the best supernatural horror stories I've read in a very long time.  Maybe modern readers of hack/slash gorefests will find it somewhat tame, but I certainly didn't.  Kudos to Valancourt Books for making this out-of-print book widely available and very affordable.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Here's an obscure one: Beyond the Pole and Other Weird Fantasies, by Philip Fisher

Black Dog Books, 2013
324 pp


"Damn peculiar -- cursed if it ain't!"

There are eleven very weird stories by Philip M. Fisher (1891-1973) in this book. I had never heard of Fisher before I stumbled across this title (and I still don't remember how I came to it), but now I think I'll have to find more of his work.

Included in this particular volume are (* denotes a favorite):

Introduction by Stefan Dziemianowicz
"The Recent Demise of Professor Manried" (1917)
  -- A well-loved friend of the late scientist Professor Manried feels he needs to speak out and tell the truth about the real cause of Manried's death, because the papers are labeling it a suicide and he knows that is not really how things went down.
"Queer" (1918) *
-- A former Indy 500 driver, now in the Army, is called upon to transport an Army captain to Croy in the middle of a German shelling attack.  He's crossed the road fifty times "and never a scratch." He's not about to break his record.  This one is positively eerie.
"The Strange Case of Lemuel Jenkins" (1919)
--Another science-based story. Here a group of friends decides to play a cruel joke on one of their number, with tragic consequences.
"The Ship of Silent Men" (1920) * 
-- One of my personal favorites in this volume. A cargo ship named the Lanoa finds itself in the middle of a strange atmospheric phenomenon. While they're busy trying to figure things out, another ship, the Karnak, sends out an SOS. Since the Lanoa is the closest ship in the region, they attempt to make rescue. When they arrive, they quickly discover the crew hard at work as if nothing had happened.  A closer look, however, reveals that all is not exactly well. 
"The Master of Black" (1920)
-- Of all of the stories in this book, this is probably the least satisfying for modern readers.  The basic concept is good, about a man who, through his work in science, is able to plunge the world into total darkness that absolutely no light can penetrate.  The telling is long and wordy, although the basic story is pretty good.
"The Man Who Put Himself Into His Work" (1920) [originally titled "Into His Work"]
-- A typing teacher really wants to give his all to his students -- and eventually succeeds.  This one is weird enough, but not really very satisfying.
"Worlds Within Worlds" (1922)
-- An overworked, overtired scientist has a sort of breakdown and his doctors want to try a very risky cure using potent drug cocktail combinations.  He wakes up refreshed, but things are very different when he does.   Actually, this is a very cool story with a great  premise, but  it's just so overwordy with a lot of exposition that made my interest wane.  The underlying concept is awesome -- it's the delivery that doesn't exactly translate to the 21st century.
"Lights" (1922)
-- Lt. junior grade Warren Carey is being court-martialed for his role in the wreck of his captain's ship on the Yangtze River. Is he guilty as charged, or is it, like he says, that maybe he was "befogged in vibrations of a different plane?" 
"The Devil of the Western Sea" (1922) *
-- Among my favorites in this book, "The Devil of the Western Sea" sort of  read like a cross between those   old 1980s movies "The Final Countdown" and "The Philadelphia Experiment." New technology is going live on a Navy ship and it looks like it's working just fine. Then, when the inventor steps in, something goes just a little awry.  I really liked this one, in spite all of the scientific jargon.


"Fungus Isle" (1923) *
-- As I was researching this author and his writing, I came across a website devoted to William Hope Hodgson  that pretty much says that Fisher's story "clearly owes so much to Hodgson as to come close to intellectual property theft." The blog author also writes that "Fungus Isle" is "a mash-up of “The Voice in the Night” and The Boats of the Glen Carrig” here to a degree that is virtually impossible to ignore."  I haven't read much Hodgson (but will now), so I can't say.  All I know is that this is one very weird tale that made me want to go take a shower.  After mining for fire opals that they hope will bring them riches, one group within the party sneaks away by boat. Going after them, the others encounter a fierce typhoon, landing them on a strange island the likes of which they've never seen before. Trying not to starve or die of thirst, they explore and run into a nightmare. Whether it's lifted from Hodgson or no, it's still a fine tale.

"Beyond the Pole"(1924), 
-- A secret government expedition aboard a repurposed enemy Zeppelin that actually never launched finds a crew heading for the North Pole. The brother of the skipper is left behind because of a broken leg and is extremely disappointed not to be going on this momentous expedition.  The ship sails away, and it doesn't take long before all contact is lost.  When the brother discovers why, his disappointment turns to utter horror.  Here's another one where the government is warned against sending help or repeating the experiment, yet fails to listen. How typical, I guess, even in 1924. 

These eleven tales are by no means the sum total of Fisher's works. On another website I found while researching Fisher, I discovered another twelve titles which, along with some of the work in this book, seem to have been anthologized in a volume called Strange Ocean Vistas of Philip M. Fisher -- Lost Treasures From the Pulps #12. I wrote the author about the book ( it doesn't seem to have been published) so I'll see what happens. Anyway, back to Beyond the Pole.

  There are some very distinct ideas running through these stories. First, with the exception of "Queer," "Lights," and "Fungus Isle,"  his tales run more on the science fiction side of weird, focusing mainly on different forms and uses of physics. The author seems to be fascinated by the effects of "vibrations"  and electricity.  Secondly,  a lot of his tales have to do with the sea (as Dziemianowicz states in his introduction), likely based on the author's time in the Navy. Dziemianowicz notes that "these stories present the sea as a vast and alien world, where marvels and horrors await the vulnerable humans who sail upon it."  He includes "Beyond the Pole" in this particular set of stories -- even though it takes place in a dirigible, it's still a voyage.  

Beyond the Pole is basically a better-than-good, not great collection of strange tales. Some you have to use a mental machete to hack through the scientific jargon, making them a bit difficult and tedious in the reading, but even those are underpinned by cool storylines.  It seems like the author wanted to make sure that his readers understood the science, so he added long sections of exposition to make everything clear. When authors do that sort of thing, though, it has the opposite effect on me -- I just get bored. And that's my biggest critique of this book -- the author's style. It's not like that in all of the stories, just most of the ones that deal with the science behind whatever's going on at the moment. Some people may like that -- I am not a science person so it became monotonous after a while. Other than that, I'm very happy to have found this guy -- I love weird, I love pulp, science fiction is okay and when you throw all of that in the mix, that's what you get in this volume.

Friday, May 30, 2014

back to the anthology reading with The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Six, ed. Ellen Datlow

Night Shade Books, 2014
397 pp


Twenty-four stories make up this anthology, some from authors I know (meaning that I've read their stuff in the past), and some that are new to me.  As usual, it's a mixed bag, but I do have to say it's better than many of Ms. Datlow's previous Best Horror of the Year anthologies, and there were a few entries that actually sent shivers running up my spine. So -- without further ado, I give you

The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Six

First up is "Apports," by Stephen Bacon, proving that old adage that there is indeed no rest for the wicked.   In 2006, Mark Fisk's wife divorced him and got custody of their little son.  After the ex-Mrs. Fisk started seeing another man, Fisk tried to do himself in, jumping off of the top of a tower along with his little boy. The boy died, Fisk survived.  Not long after Fisk was sentenced to time in a mental institution, the ex-Mrs. Fisk commits suicide. Now a guy known as Cowan is looking for Fisk, for "Old times sake and all that."  I have to say that using "Apports" to start the collection was a great idea -- it's an awesome story.  I wasn't nearly as fond of the second story, Dale Bailey's "Mr. Splitfoot," as narrated by Maggie Fox, one of the infamous Fox sisters who became known far and wide for the rapping noises they produced with their joints and for ushering in the age of Modern Spiritualism here in the US. Now on her deathbed, she has a conversation with her dead sister Kate remembering a spirit named Mr. Splitfoot and all of the bad things it made her do. What happens in the story is creepy enough, but for some reason Maggie's persona just didn't do it for me. Moving on, Nathan Ballingrud's story "The Good Husband" was nice and weird, in which  a husband stops another of his wife's suicide attempts when he probably should have let her get on with it. Ewww.  Nina Allan wrote "The Tiger," another very different kind of horror story.  A photographer named Croft  serves ten years in prison for the sexual assault and murder of a child until a new witness comes forward and clears him. Unfortunately, he can't remember much about that time so he's not sure if he's really innocent or if he actually did it.  Now he's out, and meets up with Symes, who goes out of his way to help him, even handing him a new camera.  Hmmm.  Up next is a deliciously weird tale that would be a great film if someone could do it right. It's "The House on Cobb Street," by Lynda E. Rucker, and  my favorite story  in this collection. Vivian and Chris Crane buy a fixer-upper in Athens, Georgia. It isn't long until things start happening in their home, and after a while things start happening to the two of them. But that's not the worst of  what's going on in this house, Athens' own urban legend. If I spill what's in this story, it will totally kill it for anyone who wants to read it, so that's all I'll say except that  this is one ferociously creepy and nightmarish tale, kind of surreal and way out there. It's also probably the most well-written story in the book. I loved it.

KJ Kabza's "The Soul in the Bell Jar" seems to be set in an alternate world somewhere. Lindsome Glass, a young girl, comes to stay with her great-uncle Dr. Dandridge at his home while her parents are vacationing around the world. Dandridge is a scientist and a "stitchman," so called because of his work with bodies with reanimated souls, or "vivifieds."  She is put under the charge of Dandridge's assistant Chaswick, who clearly specifies where Lindsome may and may not go.  Of course, that doesn't stop her from wandering around, stumbling upon things she probably shouldn't see, and getting Chaswick mad at her.  Unfortunately for all of them, her curiosity gets the better of her.  Aside from the weird science that seems normal in this story, it reads like a tale from the Victorian era; it was just okay.  Much, much better is "Call Out," by Steve Toase, another favorite. A country vet in Yorkshire is called out late at night to tend to a farmer's cow and newborn calf. According to the farmer, the cow had been "cooked"  from the inside out after giving birth to her calf, and the "birth waters" had "scorched the floor stone-white clean." Let's just put it this way -- the vet  probably should have stayed home. It's another that is wrecked in the telling, so I'll just mention after I read this story  I had to put some time and space between myself and this book, especially since I read this story around 2 a.m. all alone in the house. Moving back into less horror, more weird territory, next up is Robert Shearman's "That Tiny Flutter of the Heart I Used to Call Love." This one was just plain bizarre, but in a really twisted kind of way, I liked it.  Two children grow up in a home where the dad shows little, if any affection for the boy.  The brother is ignored while the sister is doted on, getting dolls from her father after he returned from traveling all over the world.  Together they participate in a strange ritual of sorts, but first he makes sure she's come to really love her new doll.  Freaky. 

"Bones of Crow," by Ray Cluley, starts out rather tame then quickly moves  into the  bizzaro world. Maggie lives in a high block of flats, and whenever she can take a break from her chronically ill father with COPD, she sneaks up to the roof to sneak a smoke. On one such visit, she tosses a lit cigarette and then worries that it might have hit litter, so goes to investigate. She does find litter, but she finds something else on the roof -- four giant eggs.  I can't even begin to explain what happens afterwards. It wasn't up there on my top story list, but it was definitely well written.  There's a poem next, "Introduction to the Body in Fairy Tales," by Jeannine Hall Gailey, but I'm not a poetry person so I'll move on to another good one, "The Tin House," by Simon Clark.  The owner of this house, so named because it's completely "clad in corrugated tin sheets," went missing six months earlier. Not a clue turned up as to his location, so the case is going into the cold files.  A detective is assigned to go to the house and take photos of every room before handing over the keys to the owner's nephew.  The author takes his time getting to the meat of this story before we find out what happens next, but it's well worth it.  "The Fox" by Conrad Williams also gave me a nice case of spine tingles, as he tells the story of a family's camping vacation. This is another one I can't divulge much about, but it's bone-chillingly good.  I almost skipped the next story "Stemming the Tide," because of the word "zombies" in the first sentence (I cannot stand zombie stories whatsoever), but I read on.  A man takes his significant other to visit the Hopewell Rocks, a place where people can walk on the ocean floor when the tide goes out. The place is filled with people, which the man hates.  Before the tide comes back in, the lifeguard shoos everyone out and locks the gates. His girlfriend isn't sure what to expect, but he knows. Very strange, but also pretty good. 

the Hopewell Rocks, taken from Canadian Roadstories

Priya Sharma's story "The Anatomist's Mnemonic" about a man who has an obsession with hands, starts out fine, but to be really blunt, I figured out what was going to happen well before I got to the ending.  I don't like when this happens. Meh.  I also didn't particularly love Steve Rasnic Tem's contribution, "The Monster Makers," about a "special" family where the kids learn more than they should from their grandfather.  And while I have an on-again/off-again relationship with Kim Newman's work, his "The Only Ending We Have," featuring a Janet Leigh stand in for  "Psycho" who gets entangled with a real-life mother-son combo, just didn't do it for me.  Three not so hots in a row didn't bother me though...the next story picked up the weird thread quite nicely: Derek Künksken's story, "The Dog's Paw" about a new guy in the diplomatic service in Africa learning how things work and how to get along there  is beyond eerie.  "Fine in the Fire," by Lee Thomas, is a rather poignant and ultimately sad story, in which a young boy is left in the dark about his older brother's predilections until he stumbles in on a family secret. Oh my gosh -- the terrible implications left me very unsettled.  Moving on,  I wasn't overly keen on Jane Jakeman's "Majorlena," either, about an army Major who shows up out of nowhere in Iraq and leaves the same way.  "The Withering" by Tim Casson is much better fare. Set in 1891, a reporter named Cresswell teams up with a Miss Appleby in Wales to try to save a poor young man named Tobias from the gallows.  He is accused of murdering the woman he loved; it is a relationship Dad wasn't happy about because of the class difference. Let's just say Miss Appleby has a very unique talent for getting to the truth. Aside from the satisfying eeriness of this tale, the author keeps it nicely grounded in time and place. In Neil Gaiman's very short piece, "Down to a Sunless Sea," a mother learns the fate of her son who ran away from home to be a sailor at the age of 12. Short, but truly horrific.

welsh graveyard, 1867, from 123RF

Now entering the final stretch, the last three stories in this book are all pretty darn good.    Laird Barron also has a nice story here, "The Jaws of Saturn," which I came across in his The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All  Barron is a modern master of weird, and this is one of the stories that showcases why I believe so.   With his infamous Broadsword Hotel as the setting for this piece, Barron's story concerns a hitman who doesn't like the aftereffects of the hypnosis his girlfriend is undergoing for quitting smoking and decides to confront the hypnotist. Very bad mistake. As I'm fond of saying, Laird Barron could write copy for cereal boxes and it would be good.   Linda Nagata's entry "Halfway Home"  is one I'm glad I didn't read while I was on my long airplane flights over the ocean earlier this month.  An American passenger on a overseas flight to LAX meets the passenger next to her from the Philippines, who seems to be faring poorly, but says it's just an allergy to nickel. Their topic of conversation turns to exit strategies  and the safety card in the seat pocket, a strange topic of discussion indeed. No one can be prepared for what happens next, though.  I have to say that this story turned out to be not at all what I thought it was going to be -- kudos. And last, but not least, a very Lovecraftian piece comes from Brian Hodge with "The Same Deep Water as You."  In a bizarre but very different take on the normal Innsmouth-based  story, the Department of Homeland Security hires an "animal whisperer" for a very special purpose at a detainment center where the inmates have been housed since 1928. For people like me who like all things Innsmouth, it's a good one.

I will repeat what I said at the outset ... this installment of Best Horror of the Year is probably the best one so far. I know that horror is in the eye of the beholder, but a majority of the stories in this collection worked well to satisfy my hunger for growing creepiness.  In previous installments, that definitely was not the case.  This time around Ms. Datlow's anthology is one I can definitely recommend to readers of horror -- most especially those who enjoy more cerebral frights than the kind that are in your face and splattered across pages in an ongoing gore fest.  I quite enjoyed this one!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Pulpy goodness with a big touch of weird! The Complete John Thunstone, by Manly Wade Wellman

Haffner Press, 2012
646 pp


"Sic pereant omnes inimici tui"

John Thunstone describes himself as a "truth teller and a truth seeker" whose life's work has been to "seek the nature of reality."  Sometimes "that nature seems to be beyond nature, beyond the nature we know and recognize."  He's also been known as an "explorer of strange occurrences," strange being the operative word.  He is never without his cane, complete with silver blade that was supposedly forged by St. Dunstan and comes in very handy.  His story most fully comes out in What Dreams May Come, a novel included in this collection, and there are clues throughout as to who John Thunstone really is and what he really does.

Here, in The Complete John Thunstone, all of Wellman's John Thunstone's stories have been collected in one volume, and while they're not all spine-tingling extravaganzas, the book is amazing, providing me with hours of pure weird and pulpy pleasure.  First in this book comes all of the short stories, in some of which Thunstone takes on his arch-nemesis Rowley  Thorne, who Ramsey Campbell says in his introduction "Manly Remembered"  is Thunstone's Moriarty. In Wellman's introduction to the 1981 Carcosa Press put out Lone Vigils, a collection of Thunstone stories through 1951,  the author writes that
"In several of the Thunstone stories appears a wizard named Rowley Thorne, and I was seriously warned that I might be sued for libel by a certain actual diabolist, Aleister Crowley"
upon whom Rowley Thorne seems to be loosely based, and who is shown in this photo:

 Thorne also returns in Wellman's novel-length story "The School of Darkness," at the end of this volume.  Thunstone's love interest appears in these stories as well: Sharon, Countess Monteseco, although Thunstone does everything he can to prevent himself from getting deeply involved with her because of the threat to her from Rowley.

 Aside from Thorne, Thunstone finds himself doing battle with the Shonokins, who claim to have existed long before "the Indians," who "took this country from creatures too imagine, even though they are dead and leave only their fossil bones." According to one of them, the Shonokins "allowed the Indians to come," and retained only a few limited domains.  When people trespass into these "limited domains," they meet with trouble -- and Thunstone is not far behind.  The Shonokins have a ring finger longer than all of the fingers on their hands; they also can't tolerate being in the presence of their own dead.

Thunstone meets up with strange magic and powers not just with the Shonokins or Rowley Thorne, but comes across an Eskimo wizard, a woman who won't stay dead and buried,  and regular people who somehow find themselves entangled in bad juju, usually because of their own greed.

After the short stories is Wellman's novel What Dreams May Come (not to be confused with the movie or Matheson's novel), where Thunstone, already in England, hears about a strange ritual in the village of Claines and decides to go and witness it for himself. The town is mainly owned and run by the local squire, whom, after discerning that Thunstone is not with the English equivalent of the IRS, welcomes him into his home, where Thunstone discovers that the man is fascinated with the past.   Back at his home in the local B&B, Thunstone turns out the light in his room and suddenly finds himself cast back thousands of years, where he witnesses some very strange phenomena. Intrigued, he decides to repeat the experiment, and comes back with proof of his journey.  The maid at the B&B, Connie Bailey, a self-proclaimed white witch, also has these bizarre experiences, but the people to whom she confides them brush them off as dreams. Not Thunstone, of course, who knows firsthand.

The collection ends with "The School of Darkness," which wasn't nearly as good as What Dreams May Come, but still fun.  Thunstone and three others participate in a symposium where they are to talk about their research and experiences, but of course, they get sidetracked with the return of who else? Rowley Thorne. The college where they are speaking has a long history involving witchcraft and diabolism, and Thorne becomes involved with the local coven whose leader and members have their own agenda for the future. Thunstone and his fellow participants have to combine their strengths to fight off a powerful enemy, whose tricks involve murder.  I liked this one, but parts read like a group of superheroes who come together, put their respective rings together that go "bzzzzt" and voila, their powers are strengthened. Here they all smoke a pipe filled with magically-protective materials rather than wear rings to touch together, but still.

There are also some very cool illustrations done by George Evans throughout the short-story sections, like this one,

that accurately portray what's going on in the story.

I'm very pressed for time today, so there's no time for me to delve further, but I have to say that The Complete John Thunstone has moved into the ranks of favorite books in my library, and I can most definitely recommend this work of pulpy goodness with just the right touch of weird. There are a couple of Lovecraft mentions as well as a reference to the Necronomicon included, the stories are good, old-fashioned cool pulpy delight, and when it comes down to it, this entire book is 600+ pages of fun.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Mysteries of the Worm, by Robert Bloch, ed. Robert M. Price

Chaosium (Call of Cthulhu Fiction), 1993
263 pp

"This world is but a tiny island in the dark sea of Infinity, and there are horrors swirling all around us. Around us? Rather let us say amongst us. I know for I have seen then in my dreams, and there are more things in this world than sanity can ever see."  --The Soul of Chaos, Edgar Henquist Gordon

When I was a kid, aside from any and all mystery books I could get my hands on,  I  pretty much eschewed the standard kid-reading fare and spent hours in the library devouring the pulpy and the strange.  The more far out there it was, the better for me. Mysteries of the Worm made me think back to a lot of the strange Egyptian stories I read and loved -- mummies returning for vengeance, strange curses that fell on people who opened tombs, etc. Not that this sort of thing encompasses all of Bloch's writing in this book, but what is there, even though maybe not the best examples of his work, left me with inner squeals of delight, as did the rest of the book.  Robert Bloch was not just the author of Psycho, the book most people would associate with him, but early on in his career, he joined the ranks of the "Lovecraft Circle," which as Lin Carter notes was a
"band of aspiring or season writers scattered across the country whose common links were their enthusiasm for macabre fiction in general and Weird Tales in particular, and their friendship with Lovecraft." 
Judging by what I've just finished reading, and by books I've already read, there is  no doubt that he made sufficient contributions to the "tales that define the mythos," as the cover blurb notes about this entire series of books.  While perhaps they're not the most bone-chilling of stories as a whole, a) they're fun and b) it's really interesting to watch the development of Bloch's writing over time in this volume from being a producer of Lovecraftian pastiche to coming more into his own both in terms of story and style.  A big thumbs up on this book.

Exploring the table of contents, there are sixteen short stories that make up this volume, as well as an introduction by Robert M. Price, an afterword, and a short piece by Lin Carter, "Demon-Dreaded Lore."  Here we go:

"The Secret in the Tomb" finds the eldest son of the current generation of a family of "sorcerers and wizards" from the olden days in the "nitrous-fungus bearded portals of the family vault." He is determined to be the one who finally thwarts the curse of the long line of eldest sons, by meeting whatever is behind the iron tomb door.  Here, that "pinnacle of literary madness, Ludvig Prinn's Mysteries of the Worm makes its first appearance.  Next up is "The Suicide in the Study," the story of  James Allington, whose library consists in part of such tomes as the Necronomicon, the Mysteries of the Worm, "the Black Rites of mad Luveh-Keraph, priest of Bast," and the Cultes des Goules, by the Comte d'Erlette.  Allington undertakes the "greatest experiment man has ever known," trying to manifest his dual personality in physical form.  Not one of Bloch's best, but still fun.  In tale number three, The Shambler from the Stars," a writer of weird fiction wants to write a "real work of art" with "new subject matter, truly unusual plot material." He settles on Prinn's "Mysteries of the Worm" as inspiration, and decides to test it out on a friend in Providence.  Bad idea.  There's a fun bit of info about the back-and-forth that this story created between Bloch and Lovecraft.  "The Faceless God" is the first of Bloch's Egyptian stories in this volume,  which when all is said and done is great fun.  Here, an unscrupulous smuggler of antiques stops at nothing to discover the location of a statue buried in the sands of the Egyptian desert. Sadly for him, the native crew he hires to help him find it and bring it home knows that the idol of the "Old God" Nyarlathotep is bad business -- and he is left to suffer the consequences.  Memo to self: when the natives try to convince you of something, you should probably listen. Moving on, "The Grinning Ghoul" finds a helpful psychiatrist trying to help a college professor whose dreams not only were the cause of "uncontrollable melancholia," but were also interfering with his work. After some time, the patient finds the physical locale upon which his dreams are based, and the shrink, thinking of the monograph he'll write afterwards, follows him into a cemetery and into a mausoleum. What he finds there will explain why he's writing this tale from a sanatorium for mental cases.  "The Dark Demon" also deals in dreams, this time those of  an author whose writing is based on them. Things start to get weird when he tells a friend  that he has been designated as a Messiah for the Dark One  who dictates what's in the books through his dreams; they get even weirder on May-Eve when the friend finds Edgar Henquist Gordon dreaming on his couch.  

"The Mannikin" is one creepy story, albeit with a familiarish ending,  in which a teacher bumps into a former student named Simon Maglore while vacationing in a small rustic village on a lake.   Simon had left school some time back when his parents died, coming back to the small village to live in the family home. The teacher discovers that the villagers have very little to do with Simon, or indeed his entire family, who were all born with a  "physical malformation" of some sort and associated with the foulest evil.  Wanting Simon to leave the place because of its "unhealthful atmosphere," he pays him a call along with a doctor, but let's just say this isn't a case that medical science can help.  Next up is "The Brood of Bubastis," one of my favorites in this book.  This one is downright ghoulish and produced a little spine tingle or two while I read it. A man who has developed an abnormal feliphobia and taken himself away from everyone relates this tale of events during a visit to his college friend Malcolm Kent in Cornwall, in "a region of mystic mountains, cloud-haunted hilltops, and purple peaks that towered over wild forest glens and green-grottoed swamplands."  It seems that after reading Prinn's weighty tome and checking what he found there against other archaeological texts, he's discovered that the Egyptians had once colonized Cornwall.  But he's made another discovery that he wants to share with the narrator, one that can be found by entering a "sinister slit in the ageless rock."  This story is downright weird in a bizarre sense of the word. I loved it.  Moving from the Cornish countryside to Arkham, Massachusetts, "The Creeper in the Crypt" finds a handful of gangsters who unbeknownst to them, are trespassers in a beyond-haunted house with an iron door in the cellar. The spookiness here is in the house's story rather than in the tale. Next up is "The Secret of Sebek," another personal favorite that takes place during Mardi Gras in New Orleans. A writer working on a "series of Egyptian stories" during the day strolls through the partying crowds at night. On a quieter street, a man named Henricus Vanning dressed in an Egyptian priest costume stops him for a light and recognizes him.  Vanning, who professes an interest in the occult and in Egyptian lore, invites him back to his house where he is giving a costume ball which immediately reminds the narrator of Poe's Masque of the Red Death.  Stranger things are about to happen though, once Vanning takes him to meet his small, like-minded coterie of friends who call themselves The Coffin Club, who have something strange to show him. Aieee! This little tale really grabbed me, but "Fane of the Black Pharoah" was even better.  Retired Captain Carteret who served in Egypt during wartime is fascinated with secret lore, especially with the legend of Nephren-Ka, the Black Pharoah, who through Nyarlathotep, had been granted the gift of divination.  One night opportunity knocks on his door in the form of Arab holding the Seal of Nephren-Ka, and  the captain is given the chance to visit the Black Pharoah's secret crypt -- and watch his destiny unfold.  

"The Sorcerer's Jewel" finds a photographer looking to do something different in his work and his friend providing him with just the ticket in the form of a strange jewel.  This story was okay; as in "The Mannikin," the core of this tale has been done before.  Things take a slight turn toward the different with "The Unspeakable Betrothal," in which a young girl living with an aunt and uncle is drawn toward an open window resulting in what seems to be a mental breakdown. The relatives have it boarded up, and the girl is taken away for a rest cure.  As an adult, she returns to her childhood home, where she is watched over by her fiance. But the window is calling to her again, or rather, what's outside of it.  I liked this one -- very atmospheric with a very strange, bizarre ending.  Next up is "The Shadow from the Steeple," one of Bloch's better pieces, which as the intro to this tale notes, is a sequel to HPL's "The Haunter of the Dark" , which is in turn a sequel to Block's "Shambler from the Stars." The death of close friend Robert Blake (his fictional alter-ego created by HPL) prompts a 15-year arduous investigation by his friend Edmund Fiske, who was not satisfied with Lovecraft's explanation of events in his story and is determined to get to the truth. "Notebook Found in a Deserted House" reminded me a lot of Lovecraft's "Whisperer in Darkness," in a story set way out in the woods where a young boy grows up listening to his grandma's stories about "them ones" who hide in the swamps and make sacrifices.  Excellent creep factor in this piece. This is followed by "Terror in Cut-Throat Cove," set in the Caribbean. A treasure seeker anchors off the island of Santa Rita looking to locate and plunder an old Spanish ship that had sunk there hundreds of years earlier. The beauty of the man's girlfriend is enough to entice the local expat American to become part of the expedition, but they find much more than they bargain for. There's enough suspense and eeriness to this tale to make it work well, but the ending is simply outstanding. 

Once again, Chaosium has come through with an anthology of stories where the good tales far outweigh the not so great ones.  Definitely a no-miss not only for weird-fiction readers, but also for anyone who enjoys Bloch's writing in general.  What a great group of tales!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Hastur Cycle, ed. Robert M. Price

Chaosium (Call of Cthulhu Fiction #1), 1993
303 pp


"Close contact with the utterly bizarre is often more terrifying than inspiring..." --- HP Lovecraft in "The Whisperer in Darkness" (193) 

Some time ago, long before HBO's True Detective was even in the works, I read  S.T. Joshi's Chaosium collection of Robert W. Chambers'  The Yellow Sign and Other StoriesIt  was my  introduction to  King in Yellow, and I was so entranced that I had to have more.  Then I remembered that I had a copy of  The Hastur Cycle (and A Season in Carcosa, which I'll discuss after this book) somewhere among the jumble of books in my horror/weird fiction shelves. Score!

Robert M. Price notes about this collection that 
"The Hastur Cycle ... may be seen as a literary genealogy, a family tree in which Lovecraft's 'The Whisperer in Darkness' is a single branch, with other branches stemming from it and going in their own directions" 
and  that "the family tree begins with Ambrose Bierce."  With "The Whisperer in Darkness" at the center of this collection, the book focuses on the antecedents of this story (Bierce, Chambers, Wagner, Blish, Machen);  then, after Lovecraft's piece,   moves on to the works of writers inspired by HPL. But as I've discovered, Lovecraft only mentions Hastur as one among many terrible names, and moves his story into the realm of outer space and crustacean-like fungal creatures (Mi-Go), a theme which runs for a while before another author makes Hastur a participant in a battle of bad monsters, so  I don't think I quite got the connection.   If someone wants explain it to me, I would be grateful. I thought about this long and hard, believe me. 

 Just a note --I have the original version of The Hastur Cycle rather than the revised edition of 2006 so I'm missing "The Feaster from Afar," by Joseph Payne Brennan. Otherwise, it seems to be the same, although I don't know if Price's commentary has changed in the newer version. Another note: ignore the introductions to each story until the end -- I discovered after reading the intro to "An Inhabitant of Carcosa" that the editor needed to provide spoiler alerts, so I waited to read the introductions until after I'd read each story.

The table of contents is as follows:

Ambrose Bierce: 
---  "Haita the Shepherd," and "An Inhabitant of Carcosa," both stories that  have no mention of a King in Yellow, but do mention Hali, Hastur and Carcosa. The first story is about a shepherd who worships a god named Hastur;  the second tells of a man who has awakened from an illness and makes a surprising discovery.

Robert W. Chambers:
--- Now we get into the really good stuff, first with "The Repairer of Reputations," which is one of my absolute favorite King in Yellow stories ever and then "The Yellow Sign," also excellent.  

Karl Edward Wagner:
--- "The River of Night's Dreaming" absolutely blew me away. Perfectly placed after the 2 pieces by Chambers, this story follows a passenger on a prison bus who sees her chance for escape and takes it.  This one story is so well written and so good that out of all of the stories in this collection it's the one I will never, ever forget.

James Blish:
--- "More Light" wherein a version of the play "The King in Yellow" is found. The story is revealed in the first person by a narrator who is invited to the home of one William Atheling, a literary critic.   It strikes me as a rather tongue-in-cheek kind of story (except for the play), since as I discovered after having finished this book, William Atheling Jr. is also a pen name of James Blish.  Atheling has a copy of the actual play "The King in Yellow," purported to be written by Chambers himself, but has received it from HP Lovecraft after a bit of badgering. Now he wants the narrator of the story to read it.  The play, of course, was never written by Chambers, only alluded to in his stories. Also a very good story, "More Light" allows the reader to judge for him/herself just how terrifying it might be, perhaps proving the point that by skirting around the play itself in his work, Chambers makes the play much more frightening in his readers' heads than it seems to be on paper.

Arthur Machen:
--- Machen is one of my favorite "weird" writers, although now I think I want to read the Best Weird Tales 3-volume set published by Chaosium again just to reconnect.  His contribution to this volume is the most excellent "The Novel of the Black Seal," the story of  Professor Gregg, an antiquarian whose research leads him to the discovery of a strange black rock on which are inscribed characters at least four thousand years old.  His curiosity also leads to the revelation of  the thin line that exists between the world we know and the darker reality that lies beneath.  The Professor says it best when he looks at a bridge, seeing in it "a mystical allegory of the passage from one world to another."

H.P. Lovecraft
--- The only Lovecraft entry in this book is "The Whisperer in Darkness," which comes together as a kind of horror meets sci-fi sort of thing, as   Price suggests that this story was not only inspired by Machen's "The Novel of the Black Seal," but that in many ways, it is a  recasting of Machen's work moved from Wales to the "wild-domed hills of Vermont".  Professor Albert Wilmarth's story begins with something horrible he hasn't actually witnessed that causes him to experience a severe mental shock which causes him to flee.  A series of floods in 1927 leads to some pretty wild speculation about strange things floating in the rivers of Vermont as well as sightings of strange creatures. Wilmarth, who is an instructor of literature at Miskatonic University, relates the present sightings to old local myths and writes a series of letters to the local newspapers  supporting  his skepticism against the "romanticists who insisted on trying to transfer to real life the fantastic lore of lurking 'little people' made popular by the magnificent horror-fiction of Arthur Machen."   But Henry Akeley, also a scholar now living in a secluded farmhouse in these remote hills, begs to differ, and has firsthand evidence he would like Wilmarth to see that will ultimately lead to a challenge to Wilmarth's skepticism and will also challenge his rational mind as well.  Very enjoyable story.

Richard Lupoff
 --- picks up the Akeley story again in "Documents in the Case of Elizabeth Akeley," moving it forward into 1979.  Henry Akeley's great-granddaugter Elizabeth is the leader of the Spiritual Light Brotherhood, where she is known as the Radiant Mother. She holds regular sessions where she communes with the dead on behalf of her congregants. One day she picks up a "spirit" transmission from a voice with "the twang of a rural New Englander," who asks about Wilmarth.  I enjoyed the satire in this story and I liked it right up until the very end, when I think it got kind of silly and left me just a wee bit disappointed.

Next up is Ramsey Campbell with his "The Mine on Yuggoth," the tale of a young man who was into very "less orthodox practices," who got it into his head to see for himself the source of the "obscure process" of immortality practiced on "Tond, Yoggoth, and occasionally on Earth." Using the Revelations of Glaaki and the Necronomicon as his guide, he gets much more than he bargains for. I liked it, but not as much as the other stories in this book.

James Wade  also uses Yoggoth as the locale for his very short story, "Planetfall on Yuggoth."  Technology has advanced to the point where it is feasible to make a very short trip to Pluto, and an expedition is organized to make "planetfall."  As it turns out, this might not have been such a good idea, and worse, scientists don't seem to learn from their mistakes. This one was short, and okay.

We leave the lobster fungi and get back to the aptly-named "The Return of Hastur" (since Price seems to have gone a little Mi-Go happy for a while) , written by  August Derleth.  I read the story first, thinking that the ending sort of reminded me of a Japanese B-movie monster flick of the 1960s mixed with a familiar horror trope. It seems that the nephew of the dead Amos Tuttle (of Innsmouth)  not only failed to heed his uncle's warning and last request that the uncle's home be destroyed, but accidentally opened the way for Hastur, "He Who is not to be Named," and also a being as bad as Cthulhu, by playing around with forbidden books.  Then I read the introduction, and had to laugh, because Clark Ashton-Smith had given Derleth some advice he really should have taken.   

My edition  of this book ends with Lin Carter's "Tatters of the King," in three parts. First, "Litany to Hastur," a poem that re-situates Hastur in Carcosa and causes the narrator to warn others not "to seek to learn nor ever ask What horror hides behind ... The Pallid Mask!".  Next is "Carcosa Story About Hali," which finds a priest of the Elder Gods seeking the necromancer Hali the Wise who knows what dwells in the depths of the Black Lake. Finally, there's Lin Carter's version ("after James Blish") of the King in Yellow Play.

All in all, I liked the majority of these stories, but I'm still a little puzzled about the connection between the Hastur mythology of the pre-Lovecraft sections of the book and the Mi-Go portions of this collection.  I tried to keep notes but honestly, it probably went over my head along the way.  Either that, or Price didn't bring it out in his commentary.  In the long run, though, if you consider the authors represented here and the stories they have to tell, it's a pretty darn good book for readers of weird fiction.  Definitely recommended.