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.