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.

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