Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Blood of the Vampire, by Florence Marryat

Valancourt Books, 2009
originally published 1897
227 pp


To say I was mildly surprised and very pleased with this book is an understatement.  Although it came out in the same year that Stoker published his Dracula, the titular vampire in this story doesn't bite anyone in the neck, nor is there any bloodletting or bloodsucking here.  As I generally do with any new author (or at least anyone new to me), I went into this novel with zero expectations and quickly realized that while there are definitely commonalities between the two, Marryat's book is vastly different.  And it's really, really good. I mean REALLY good. Like loved-it good. Like holy crap good. Like stayed-awake-all-night-to-finish good.

I won't divulge much more than what the blurb says to try to keep things spoiler free. The central character is one Harriet Brandt, who has lived in a convent since the age of 11. She's now out in the world, and we first meet this young woman in the seaside city of Heyst (Belgium), eating at the table d'hôte along with the other guests at the Lion d'Or.  She is someone who enjoys her food, and indeed she is noted as "eating like a cormorant," the first of many animal-based references to the women in this novel.   The fact of the matter is that Harriet is a bit of a curiosity -- she's beautiful, naive, and alone, and she catches the eye of everyone with whom she comes into contact.  She has a beautiful singing voice which adds to her charm, but she is starved for friendship and affection.  On the downside, it seems that anyone with whom she comes into close contact begins to feel ill -- as the cover blurb notes, they seem "to sicken or die."  When tragedy ensues and a doctor is brought in to tend  another character's very sick baby, it turns out that he's very familiar with Harriet's family history. It seems our Miss Brandt was the daughter of "a mad scientist" and a "voodoo priestess" from Jamaica (Obeah, actually, as it turns out); dad was so evil that the slaves on his plantation revolted which resulted in the deaths of Harriet's parents. Harriet was left very well off, with more money than she knows what to do with, and it is now hers since she's come of age.    The doctor attributes Harriet's condition to her racial make up -- and to the rumor that her mother had once been bitten by a vampire bat, leaving Harriet's predisposition a matter of tainted blood.

Florence Marryat, borrowed from Victorian Secrets

So far this description seems like a set up for a pretty standard vampire novel, but I can attest that this is far from the case.  It didn't really take long before I figured out that there's w-a-a-a-y more going on here than meets the eye so I slowed my pace and just let the book speak to me. As it turned out,  Blood of the Vampire is definitely a read-between-the-lines sort of novel -- what Marryat has done here, in part, is to reveal the prevailing attitudes during turn-of-the-century  Britain dealing with (among other things) issues of race and "blood", family background, the dangers of independent women of means alone in British society and the threats posed by female sexuality.  She does this very cleverly, making the focus of her story a woman who represents all of the fears held by people "in society," a phrase used time and again throughout this book. She also sets up this book so that Harriet Brandt is one of four women under study here, so that many comparisons and contrasts can be made among them.  Exactly how this happens I'll leave for anyone interested, but I will  say that it's not the sort of thing I'd recommend to someone who wants the standard vampire-horror novel.  Au contraire, it's something I'd definitely recommend to anyone like me who is fascinated by Victorian society and how it is captured in literature, most especially by women of the time.  There are plenty of online reviews & dissections of this novel, but do read it first.

Just a sort of reader beware thingy to say and then that's it. Even though I get that in Britain's imperialist heyday racial slurs and appalling descriptions of colonized subjects were pretty much how it was, there is a lot of racial negativity in this book that might bother some people.

Thanks again, Valancourt!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

same-old, same-old readers need not apply: Experiments at 3 Billion A.M., by Alexander Zelenyj

Eibonvale, 2015 (2nd ed.) 
545 pp

paperback, my copy from the publisher
(thank you!)

I think there has to come a time in most people's reading lives when same-old, same-old just doesn't cut it any more. I'm there right now -- actually, truth be told, I think I've been there a while and just haven't really paid attention to the signs of frustration until just recently. In the reading arena of zombie apocalypses, torturefests, cannibalism (and let's not forget the book where HP Lovecraft, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs take on Cthulhu and Shoggoths - major groan ), where is the originality these days?  Why are people happy to rehash the same old sh*t time and time again?  And why aren't readers complaining? 

Thankfully, there are many small presses out there whose founders are more literary minded and who see beyond the need for publishing the SOS --  and Eibonvale is one of these.  I first made my acquaintance with these visionary publishers with their Rustblind and Silverbright (ed. David Rix),  then came Songs for the Lost, and now there's Experiments at 3 Billion A.M., both written by the extremely-talented Alexander Zelenyj. I don't know the man, have never corresponded with him, but I can tell by his writing that he's very much on the cutting edge of the literary side of dark fiction.  He outdarks dark in some of the tales in this book, which I see as a great mix of the strange, designed  for people who want to push their reading boundaries in a most literary and intelligent way.  At the same time, as far out as they may seem, these are very human stories that manage a great deal of depth, often in the space of only one and a half pages. It takes an imaginative, deep and clever person to make this happen, and it's just one reason why I loved this book and why Zelenyj needs more readers. 

I'm not going to go into each story since even listing the table of contents would take more time than I have right now, but there are many incredible tales in here -- I loved "Blue Love Maria," for example, which has all of the underpinnings of those old, darker urban legends -- the sort that "twists and changes over time, it is the nature of its life." This is one of the shorter, more powerful stories in this collection, but there are longer ones that offer the same sort of gut punch  -- the historically-based  "The Prison Hulk," for example, had me immersed until the last word; the dawning self-awareness of isolation in  "The Stealing Sky" didn't let up, and the growing horror of the city found in "I Humbly Accept This War Stick" are just a few examples of why I loved this anthology of stories.  And then there are "The Laboratory Letters," and "Another Light Called I-47,"  just blew-my-socks-off amazing.  

Surreal, dark, on the edge of nightmare -- I can't think of any words to really describe what resides in this book except maybe for this, from "Captain of a Ship of Flowers" :
"And my sleep is deep. And when I awaken I wish only to return to dreams, where I am alive."
Those two sentences sort of sum up how I felt about this book: after turning the final page, it was difficult to get back into reality  -- I just wanted to return to the dreams.


Sunday, December 13, 2015

Che vuoi? That is the question: The Devil in Love, by Jacques Cazotte

Dedalus European Classics, 2011
originally published 1772 as Le Diable Amoureux
109 pp


After a short bout of food poisoning I'm back with The Devil in Love, by Jacques Cazotte, who (as the story goes), predicted whom among his friends would be meeting Madame Guillotine as the horrors of the French Revolution unfolded; sadly, his prescience didn't include himself.

I was very much looking forward to reading this short book, but when I opened it and saw this illustration,

I knew instantly that  I'd seen these words before ("che vuoi?" -- what do you wish?)  so after some research online,  I went to my library of stuff no one else would ever read but me and dug out my copy of Écrits, by Jacques Lacan (1981) and sure enough, there they were.  It's not like you need to get Lacan's theory to understand The Devil in Love,but Lacan's work offers a clue as to how to approach the story. I'm a lazy person at times, so instead of rereading the whole shebang, I found a link to an online intro on his stuff.  Distilling it down from that page, what's relevant here is the idea of
“man’s desire is Other’s desire”: the subject desires only insofar as it experiences the Other itself as desiring, as the site of an unfathomable desire, as if an opaque desire is emanating from him or her. The other not only addresses me with an enigmatic desire, it also confronts me with the fact that I myself do not know what I really desire, with the enigma of my own desire."
That absolutely put Cazotte's work into perspective for me here, but since someone might want to read this little gem of a book and may not agree with how I see it, I'll leave it there for now.

The Devil in Love is narrated by the main character, Don Alvaro, a Spanish captain in the king's guard at Naples. When his company ran out of money for gambling and chasing women, they would "philosophize in our own quarters," and one evening, the subject of conversation turned to "the Cabbala and cabbalists."  Most of the group agreed it was "a mass of absurdities, a source of knavery, fit to dupe the credulous and to amuse children," but  the men eventually cleared out, except for Don Alvaro  and an older Flemish guy, Soberano, whose talk on the subject interests Don Alvaro enough that they meet up again.  Soberano leads Don Alvaro to believe that he can "give the spirits orders," and the young captain tells his friend that his "dearest wish" is to do the same.  He is told that it will take at least two years for the "necessary preparation", but Don Alvaro eventually gets his way after bragging that if he met the Devil himself, he'd pull "his devilish ears."  He is given the opportunity, told what to do, and sure enough, he summons the devil himself in the form of a camel's head, who on being summoned asks "che vuoi?." Our hero is petrified, but somehow manages to get over his terror enough to start commanding the Devil himself; his first order is that the camel transform into a spaniel.  This is only the beginning of several transformations that occur in this book; the spaniel then transforms into a young page named Biondetto who becomes Don Alvaro's servant.  Biondetto eventually becomes Biondetta, a beautiful blonde who has to the power to thoroughly distract Don Alvaro.  But let's not lose sight of the fact that the title is "The Devil in Love..."

However you choose to read this very short book, it is a delight from beginning to end; the ending itself leaves much pause for thought and actually sent me back to the start for a second read.  The short of it is that questions of gender identity, sexual desire, reality vs. nonreality, and much more  make their way through this tale; however, it's also a book that's just a fun read that I can definitely recommend.

This coming year I plan to spend a LOT of time with Dedalus classics -- this is just the first of many.

Monday, December 7, 2015

just plain fun: Giving Up the Ghosts: Short-Lived Occult Detective Stories by Six Renowned Authors (ed.) Tim Prasil

If it isn't already obvious, I have developed a deep and abiding love of vintage horror/supernatural tales -- the more obscure the better, since a huge part of my enjoyment is in discovering works I've never read before. That is the appeal of this particular collection:  with the exception  of Algernon Blackwood (whose work I just love), the rest of the authors in this book are all new to me. Giving Up the Ghosts focuses on  "short-lived" series featuring occult detectives whose  time span in the public eye was quite brief before sort of fading into obscurity.  

Coachwhip Publications, 2015
300 pp

This collection begins with two stories by Fitz-James O'Brien, a prolific writer whose occult detective Harry Escott first appeared in Harper's New Monthly Magazine November, 1855 in "The Pot of Tulips."  In March, 1859, "What Was It? A Mystery" followed; both take place in houses  with "the reputation of being haunted."

Next up are three stories featuring Enoch Garrish, who was created by Gelet Burgess of "I never saw a purple cow" fame:  "The Levitant", "The Spectre House" and "The Ghost-Extinguisher," all of which have a humorous, rather sarcastic edge.  Gerrish is a member of  the Society for Psychical Research, and has several supernatural encounters which he writes about in reports. The snark factor looms large here; Mr. Gerrish, it seems, is highly eccentric.

Gerrish's rather bizarre experiences are followed by those of Jim Shorthouse, created by Algernon Blackwood: "A Case of Eavesdropping," "The Strange Adventures of a Private Secretary in New York," "The Empty House," and "With Intent to Steal."

Leaving Blackwood, we come to the adventures of Diana Marburg, created by the extremely-prolific  L.T. Meade with Robert Eustace, where we make a slight detour from the world of ghosts to crimes in the physical world, but that's okay. Marburg, it seems, reads palms, and is very popular among the upper classes where her readings are in great demand. She lasted for three stories: "The Dead Hand," "Finger Tips," and "Sir Penn Caryll's Engagement."

A.M. Burrage makes an appearance next, with his hero Derek Scarpe, who appeared in only two stories in Novel Magazine. Scarpe is "not a medium," nor is he "any kind of a mystic." In "The Severed Head," he takes up the case of a client who has seen the apparition of a "head of a middle-aged woman" "Perhaps twenty or thirty" times at home in Dodfield Hall.  He returns in "The House of Treburyan" where the ghost of the client's uncle is driving everyone "mad."

Last, but by no means least is Conrad Richter's Matson Bell, "sometimes called the Spook Cop" who "only survived for two stories."  The brevity of Bell's career is a definite shame, since both of these stories have a mystery-like quality to them and are just plain fun, especially his "Monster of the Dark Places," which follows "The Toad Man Specter."

Kudos to Mr. Prasil for collecting these tales and rescuing them from oblivion. While Blackwood's work  is read widely and is very well known, Jim Shorthouse I knew only from "The Empty House." John Silence, of course,  is the much more popular and more well-known supernatural sleuth, a name much more familiar to readers of this sort of thing.  It's a lovely anthology, perfect for someone like myself who delights in these old stories -- not just in the reading, but also in the discovering.

Two things happened when I finished this book. First, I scoured the internet looking for more supernatural works by these authors since Prasil has definitely piqued my interest; second, I visited Coachwhip's  website and discovered that this press also specializes in obscure crime/mystery novels from the past, many of which were written by women. I see a lot of Coachwhip books in my immediate future.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Jottings From a Far Away Place, by Brendan Connell

Snuggly Books, 2015
148 pp

paperback (my copy from the publisher, thank you!)

I am beyond indebted to Snuggly Books (love the name, by the way!) for sending me a copy, and I loved it so much that after I read the book, I bought a brand-new one.  If you ask me why I loved it so much, I don't really think I could explain it -- I just did.  I'm not even shelving this book -- it sits out on my desk and I still (after having finished it some time ago) flip through its pages randomly from time to time.  There are  certain books which just sort of speak to me, and Jottings From A Far Away Place is definitely one of those.

I'll confess that I've never read anything by Brendan Connell prior to Jottings, but when I posted a brief wow on Goodreads to hold the spot where my thoughts should go, people started giving me advice on this author's must-read titles. Looking into these books, I realized that Jottings is a completely different animal to the ones that were recommended; quite frankly, unless I count the many Chinese-language works I had to translate during my tenure as grad student, it's a completely different animal to pretty much anything I've ever read. It has that same sort of floaty atmosphericness (okay, I know that's not a real word, but it works) as those works, and "jottings" is a great title word here -- it particularly reminds me of a work I read by a Ming Dynasty scholar called "Little notes on the Nature of Things." Then again, it also has a bit of a Buddhist flavor, but this collection is anything but a ripoff of Eastern philosophy.

 The blurb says that in this book you'll encounter (among other things)  "a bloody episode with Countess de Báthory, a recipe for cinnabar sauce, and the story of a man who has been reincarnated as a spoon."  The spoon story, by the way, has one of countless great lines to be found in this book -- so cool that I marked it:
"A man without God or love has little to complain of when he finds himself reincarnated as a piece of fine silverware." 
Please don't ask me why I think that's a great line, because truthfully, I don't know, but somehow, somehow, there's a lot of wisdom in that statement in an offbeat, off-kilter sort of way.  Now, you might laugh or raise an eyebrow wondering if  I'm totally nuts for thinking that or if I happened to read this book while stoned,  but that's exactly what this book did in my case -- it caught me completely off guard over and over again due mainly to its strange randomness and little wordbites that for some weird reason that I can't fathom made complete sense to me.   For example, there's a particular story I liked in here about an Indian (Indian from India) ascetic who just couldn't get over the fact that a particular holy man who had crossed the river with an unclean prostitute continues to be so loved.  It starts, and then the author turns his attention to  other "jottings," and in the middle of a story about a terrible king who imprisons his daughter, the Indian story picks up again.

So, here's what I'll say about this book since I stink at trying to pull things apart and get all literary-intellectual about things: It is so cutting edge cool without trying to be -- and I just loved it. Jottings From a Far Away Place  may not be everyone's cup of tea, but the back-cover blurb on the ARC I received says the following that really fits how I see it:

"A book that is like a collection of bulletins from the world of dreams,"

to which I will add that if you are a reader who appreciates what certain authors do with language and style without trying to be in-your-face clever about it, this book will blow you away.  Don't expect anything and you will be extremely surprised and happy.  

Dear Snuggly Books: I hope it sells thousands and thousands of copies. It's that good. 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

#braincandy: Southern Gods, by John Hornor Jacobs

Night Shade Books, 2011
270 pp


Have you ever been so engrossed in a story only to be disappointed as it  falls apart at the end? That's what happens here in Southern Gods.  Evidently most of the readers of this book didn't notice -- I'm looking at a HUGE number of 4- and 5-star reader reviews  both at GR and at Amazon.  Here's the thing -- it's one thing to create a world where such things are possible, but it's another thing all together to at least try to make you story somewhat believable in the context of that world.

In a very brain-candyish sort of way (which I'll admit, I need every so often to unwind) I was hooked on this book, which my pulp fiction group chose as its November group reading choice.  It starts with a brief but powerful prologue in 1878, then flashes forward to 1951.  There are two main strands of narrative here that will eventually come together -- the first is the story of Bull Ingram, a giant of a man and WWII vet who sees visions; the second that of Sarah (nee Rheinhart), who is fleeing an abusive husband, leaving him for the old family home in Arkansas to take care of her mother who is dying from lupus.  Ingram is a collector for a loan shark type of guy, but he is hired by another man,  a record producer who specializes in "black music,"  to look into the mysterious disappearance of his employee Earle Freeman.  Earle's job was to drive around to the small radio stations "peppering the countryside," deliver 45s & payola to get the music played.  Now he's gone -- the last known sighting of him was in the small Arkansas town of Brinkley, where there are only two cops who were of no help at all.  Finding Earle is only one half of Ingram's job, however -- he is also tasked with discovering the location and owner of a pirate radio station, also in Arkansas. The station plays the music of one Ramblin' John Hastur, a blues artist whose music has terrible effects on anyone who listens to it.

The second thread picks up Sarah's story at the family home (Gethsemane), where she has gone with her small daughter Franny. Her dying mother provides her with the excuse she needs to get away from her PTSD-suffering husband who has become abusive since returning from the war.  Sarah has time on her hands so she begins exploring the family library, and decides it might be fun to translate a book written in Latin, a subject she enjoyed in school.  Unfortunately for Sarah she picks the wrong book -- struggling a bit, she turns to a local priest who, coincidentally, just happened to be in Arkansas after being banished from the Vatican, where he was one of the priests in charge of the occult books in the secret Vatican library.  It also just happens (there's so much coincidence in this book it boggles the mind) that the book Sarah is currently translating was one formerly housed in the Vatican library, and the priest tries to warn her away.  But, of course, this doesn't happen and some very strange things start happening, meriting another visit with the priest who tries to explain it all.

Eventually (as if one couldn't guess), the two main threads come together and all hell literally breaks loose. Sadly, it's at this juncture where things start to royally fall apart.  To be fair, up to this point, I was very much into this story up to chapter 20 and then it was like the author said "what the hell do I now, once I have my two main characters come together?"  The result isn't pretty -- there is the stupidest sex scene, a truly bad deus ex machina episode complete with divine intervention (super ouch), crappy dialogue and super huge plot holes that just made me crazy.  Oy! It was like another author took over and had no clue what to do to bring this book to a decent close.  And as I noted up front, even in the context of the world Jacobs has created here where such things can happen, the ending was just badly done -- to the point where I wanted to toss the book across the room.  For me, even in a book like this that I consider major brain candy, there's really no excuse for that sort of thing -- and it was incredibly frustrating.  Jacobs could have done so much more with this story; as it is, it was disappointing to say the least.

a huge  aarrghhh from me....

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

back to our time with urban horror: Nightscape: Cynopolis, by David W. Edwards

Imperiad Entertainment, 2015
342 pp

paperback (my copy from the author, thank you!)

Nightscape: Cynopolis is book number two in Edwards' Nightscape horror series of books (following The Dreams of Devils)  and looking at the back of the book, a third one is slated for release in October 2016.  I think I might actually have to pick that one up (memo to self) -- it's billed as "Cosmic horror brought home giallo-style..."  and anyone who knows me well knows that I have a major thing for giallo.  But that's next year -- the focus here and  now is on Cynopolis, which was just published in October.

This book is a true hybrid -- here you'll find a mix of horror, science fiction, and some high-powered thriller action on  the streets of Detroit.  Not my usual fare at all, but I thought I'd be brave and give it a try, taking an outing away from my reading comfort zone for a while.  This isn't a book you can breeze through in a day or two -- as someone from Kirkus Reviews notes it is
"replete with associative memories, literary allusion, intellectual discourse, and references to Hegel, Plato, Malcolm X, Amiri Baraka, Sartre and Athanasius Kircher, to name a few."
First pre-read selling point: this guy is no hack writer.  The second is my own pulpy fascination with all things Egyptian that stems from an indoor-kid sort of childhood.

Cynopolis covers three days/nights of sheer terror for the residents of Detroit. As the story opens, a homeless bookseller named Joe Kye  aka Khonsu  whose life had seen better times drops in to visit a friend.  Meet Gaston, aka Mister,  who is suffering from MS and has visions which according to his wife involve "decoder ring nonsense" --
"Sirius -- the star -- ancient Egypt, Anubis, the Dogon people, Hart Plaza, God, aliens..."
Mister is at death's door, but in their respective heydays, both men were part of an activist group in the 1970s called The 19th Brumaire, hoping for a "real revolution" against the system,  specifically in terms of race.  Mister believes now that the movement was too "cautious," that they "should've burned the earth alive," and likens the underclasses of  African-Americans of Detroit today to
"thousands of stray dogs -- scared, disorganized, without a ready means to change things, scraping by." 
While his wife and Khonsu think that Mister's brain is a bit warped, Mister believes he has been visited by a voice from Sirius or Sirius B that he calls Anubis -- some sort of entity that has been trapped in the confines of another dimension and one who is giving him instructions.  The long and short of it is that while everyone thinks Mister has gone off the deep end, with the help of this thing from another dimension,  Mister is able to release his anger and revolutionary zeal  via some sort of thought virus which makes dogs turn on humans and also turns some people into cannibalistic jackal-headed beings that want to destroy everything and everyone in their paths. Three days of sheer terror ensue while these things roam the streets, but they are not the only forces that the survivors have to worry about.

Obviously, this novel is so far off my own beaten path that I'm actually a bit surprised at myself for agreeing to read it, but it turned out to be  a pretty decent book. My description is way oversimplified -- there are human stories among the monsters, for example, the cop whose wife sees the writing on the wall about the dangers of living in Detroit but can't convince her husband that they really need to move, or Khonsu's story about how his life moved him toward homelessness and losing everything of value he ever had (including a family), etc. etc.   Sometimes though, the story seems unnecessarily complicated to me mainly in terms of many of the scifi aspects, getting a little out there for my taste; and as I said earlier, I'm not a big fan of action-packed, kickass thrillers. However, to be fair to the author, put together as a whole, it all actually makes sense in this world of his creation.

When all is said and done, this book actually got under my skin enough that I haven't looked at a dog in the same way since I read it. And despite the parts that I thought were over the top, it has enough of a creep factor to keep the pages turning and enough tension racheting so that you have to see the whole story through to the ending to find out what happens to these people.  While urban horror might not be my particular thing, I'm sure that people who are much more  into it will really enjoy this book.

Monday, November 9, 2015

book #5: Fingers of Fear, by J.U. Nicolson

Valancourt Books, 2015
(originally published 1937)
213 pp


Yes, yes,  I realize it's now way past Halloween, but I did manage to squeeze this in before the 31st of October, so I'm counting it toward  my "road to Halloween" little miniseries of books.

This 1937 title has been brought back recently into print and out of obscurity by Valancourt, whose books are sending me to the poorhouse because I can't resist picking up their latest titles.  I'm smiling all the way there though, because so far I've had incredible luck with the books I've bought -- some I probably would never have even known existed without the Valancourt guys making it possible.  Fingers of Fear continues my run of good luck with this publisher -- here you have an old family home filled to the brim with family secrets, quite possibly an outbreak of lycanthropy, ghosts that stalk secret passages and (this is so cool) a portrait whose evil eyes watch anyone coming within its purview.  While the plot and the action may be a bit convoluted at times and a bit hard to follow in moments, it's a really fun mix of gothic and the supernatural all rolled into one.

Fingers of Fear is set in depression-era America, and young Selden Seaforth is down to his last coins. With no money and no job, life is tough for him; he's also divorced from his wife.  As he's despairing of what to do, bemoaning the fact that he's so poor that even his so-called friends from better days tend to ignore him, fortune smiles out of the blue in the form of Ormond Ormes.  Ormes had been at school with Seaforth -- they meet and Ormes offers Seaforth a job which seems tailor made for him.  It seems that because of some conditions in a relative's will, Ormes must have his rather extensive book collection catalogued and summarized (it's a bit more complicated, but that description will suffice for now).  Seaforth will have room, board, and desperately-needed money.  It all sounds so perfect, but as is usually the case in these sorts of things, it turns out to be a case of "if it sounds too good to be true, it generally is."  Ormes takes him to the family home in the Berkshires, Ormesby, drops him off and returns him to the city; and virtually no time passes before Seaforth has his first supernatural encounter which shakes him to his rational, logical core.  While trying to figure out what's going on at Ormesby and dealing with the inhabitants who keep family secrets tucked away for their own reasons,  the supernatural encounters increase and then the first body is found...

an old family summer home in the Berkshires, from oldhouses.com

As I noted above, the action in this book can be a little convoluted but reading patiently pays off in spades. There are secrets within secrets to be found here, creepy secret passages that lead to an unexpected discovery, and the story is actually quite good. Above all, though, Nicolson had a major talent for atmosphere -- and the minute the reader arrives with Seaforth at Ormesby, he/she will be plunged directly into a veritable den of Gothic terrors served up with a side of the supernatural.   Aside from his wandering plot, the author writes very well. Considering he wasn't a regular author of supernatural/weird tales,  he pulls it off quite nicely.  It is also a book of its time -- Depression-era America is well portrayed in this story in terms of an embedded commentary on  underlying social issues of the 1930s.

For me, Fingers of Fear was a fine, fun read in an old-school horror/gothic sort of way. It may not capture the minds and hearts of modern readers who must have something incredibly gross, violent or downright demeaning in some cases to get their horror jollies,  but if like me you are finding your way back to a time before all of those elements  were somehow necessary for a good chill, this might just be a good one to pick up. This book is a very welcome addition to my ever-growing dark fiction/horror/weird/supernatural library where the Valancourt editions are slowly taking over the shelves.  

Monday, October 19, 2015

You can help China Mieville's "Familiar" come to life

Inside this book by China Mieville  there is a story called "Familiar," which Strange Horizons calls "a lushly written monster story about a witch's insatiable familiar." Now an enterprising group of filmmakers at Mythos films is hoping to put together a film based on this story, and they need help getting their project off the ground. The story description sounds awesome:
 "Using parts of his own body, a man summons a creature from beyond: The Familiar. But it is not what he expects. It is an abomination. Sickened and unable to destroy it, he casts it into a canal in the midst of the city.  But all is not finished for the creature. Freeing itself, it learns from the machines, animals and people that it encounters, growing both in flesh and by adding pieces of hardware it finds in the alleys and abandoned buildings it explores. It adapts, evolving in both lethality and its ability to comprehend. Soon however, it realizes it is not alone..there are others of its kind and they are territorial. More, its creator comes searching for it, in desperate need to finish a contract that could cost him his very soul..."
I don't usually do this sort of thing here since this is really just my reading journal, but I loved Mieville's Perdido Street Station and his Kraken so I agreed to help get the news out about the kickstarter campaign to make this film a reality.   You can read all about it, actually see a movie clip (which looks genuinely creepy, I might add) and if you are so inclined, make a contribution  here.  The group putting together the film does not want to use special effects, so this could be really, really cool and really really different.

Jump on over to the website where contributions are being taken through November 15th  -- and I wish Josh and the other people at Mythos best of  luck on their project.  

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

book #3: Dreams of Shadow and Smoke: Stories for J.S. Le Fanu, (eds.) Jim Rockhill and Brian J. Showers

Swan River Press, 2014
194 pp


In 2014, had he lived,  J.S. Le Fanu would have been two hundred years old, and Dreams of Shadow and Smoke is an anthology in celebration of that anniversary.  It is dedicated to Le Fanu

"and those who have read his work with fondness."

That's me -- one of those who have read and loved Le Fanu's work, so when I discovered the existence of this book, I knew I had to have it.  It  has made me want to go back and reread Le Fanu -- so it works on two levels. If you haven't read this genius author's work, reading this collection will certainly arouse a desire to do so; it will also most definitely appeal to those who've already enjoyed his writing.  It is a huge win-win, even more so because these stories never devolve down to a pastiche level -- the modern writers who fill these pages use their space to offer their own more modern takes on Le Fanu's already well-established themes.  That's bookspeak -- in reader-ese, I was simply blown away at how brilliant this collection is, and I have no qualms at all about telling anyone and everyone to read this book.

Without going into detail -- there are definitely writeups of this book out there already done by real reviewers -- there are ten stories in this book written by ten wonderful writers.  Two of them, Sarah LeFanu (note the spelling difference) and Emma Darwin have some sort of family connection; several are from people whose work I've read previously and I've discovered new ones to seek out.  Here's the Table of Contents:

"Seaweed Tea," by Mark Valentine
"Let the Words Take You," by Angela Slatter
"Some Houses -- A Rumination," by Brian J. Showers
"Echoes," by Martin Hayes
"Alicia Harker's Story," by Sarah LeFanu
"Three Tales from a Townland," by Derek John
"The Corner Lot," by Lynda Rucker
"Rite of Possession," by Gavin Selerie
"A Cold Vehicle for the Marvellous," by Emma Darwin
"Princess of the Highway," by Peter Bell

All of these tales are delightfully dark and done with such a degree of finesse that makes the book sheer joy to lose yourself in.   There are also "story notes" at the end of the book, where each author talks about his or her work in this volume and how Le Fanu has influenced them in their own writings. 

For me what sealed the deal with this book was not just the stories themselves, but the focus on the combination of landscape & history and how it melds with the already somewhat-disturbed psyche. This concept is played out time and again -- in Peter Bell's "Princess of the Highway" for example  the view from a holiday cottage in the remote Irish countryside ventures
"across the rain-drenched moorland, the peat-hags, the black bogs and the solitary lough, beneath the louring clouds which, down here in the depression, seemed to suffocate, eloquently earning the land's repute as the most haunted region of Ireland." 
It is an "eerie landscape... eloquent of darker legends, and a history as bloody as it was bleak".  But Ireland isn't the only setting.  Angela Slatter uses her native Australia "because it taps into that idea of hills and fairy mounds, yet it's part of a wild landscape that's very different to Ireland." And in "Seaweed Tea," the coast of England reveals a spot where "the sea seemed to obey different rules," where "black stones ... hold the secret ... of the other tide, the dark tide... invisible to us..."

The concept is just brilliant, the stories are very well written,  and as one reviewer from "Totally Dublin" sees  it,
"It's a relief to see no fear of what drier shites call 'floweriness.' The long sentences are lithely living, with nocturne's mist hanging on every comma."
And when he also says that
"...this literary parlour game in Sheridan's honour yields happy fruits -- his shade would smile."
I  have to say that I couldn't think of higher praise for this entire book.  If I was as eloquent, I would say the very same thing.  


book #2: The Witch and the Priest, by Hilda Lewis

Valancourt Books, 2013
(originally published 1956)
276 pp

The "witchcraft" entry for this year's Halloween reading lineup, The Witch and the Priest by Hilda Lewis,  just may be one of the most intelligent witchcraft novels I've read on the topic. Based on the very real case of the Witches of Belvoir of the 17th century, Lewis has fashioned a very well-crafted story about what really lies beneath the persecution of these women.  It is also a story about justice, compassion and mercy and the often dual-sided nature of both good and evil. 
from bewitchment-at-belvoir-flowers-revenge.html
The foreword to this book offers readers a starting point in terms of just who these witches were.  In a 1619 pamphlet that details the trial of these women (illustrated above), Margaret and Philip (Philippa) Flower, were executed after being "specially arraigned and condemned" by the assize judges after confessing not only to the "destruction of Henry lord Rosse"  by means of their "damnable practices against others." Their mother Joan was also arrested for witchcraft, but died along the way to Lincoln, missing the hangman's noose altogether.  It is Joan whose story drives the narrative in this novel; the entire book is an ongoing conversation between Joan and the Reverend Samuel Fleming, one of the examining judges in the original case. Fleming, it seems, has been carrying a heavy burden for a "twelvemonth," wondering if these three women were really witches or whether the
"poor hanged creatures were nothing but desperately unhappy; a little crazy, maybe with their miseries? Or -- how if they were poor, merely; and ugly and ignorant and uncouth? That -- and nothing more?" 
He also wonders whether or not he was a "righteous judge or a credulous old man," and though his sister feels that he shouldn't worry so much since he didn't actually sentence them to be hanged,  his "own heart" would never "acquit" him.  Indeed, he worries so much that in a moment of agony he calls out to the now-dead Joan Flower, asking the question that had been tormenting him for over a year:
"Did we wrong you bitterly, you and your two daughters? Or were you rightly judged?" 
bringing Joan to him, "as he had seen her last..."

 As she notes,
"Since I died denying my Master, the gates of Hell are shut against me; since I died unshriven, the gates of Heaven are shut against me also. I come because you will not let me rest. While I was yet alive you did not with a full heart wrestle for my soul. But because you grieve for my sake, one more chance is given you to win my soul for your god. If you fail, your soul in is peril also, because you failed to do that which your god set you to do."
Once Fleming agrees to listen, she begins her long story, explaining how and why she became a witch and how she got her daughters involved with her Master.   In fact, the entire novel is a long conversation between Fleming and Joan Flower that not only focuses on the Flower family and their deeds, but on Fleming himself, justice, the nature of good and evil, and above all, compassion.

I think I'll leave it there, but I will say that this novel has it all. You have your Sabbats, esbats and frenzied orgies; there are drugs that offer the feeling of flying, witches' familiars, curses, etc. At the same time Lewis patiently applies astute reasoning to why women (in this case anyway) were often branded as witches. She gets into the socioeconomic reasons, the class/caste differences between the regular folk and the nobility -- the mutual mistrust between the two groups,  the double standard benefiting the latter among other things --  and even more relevant in today's world, the failure to take into consideration that some people are just not as mentally acute as others, calling for a justice tempered with mercy and compassion in their cases.

The Witch and the Priest is definitely what I'd call a page turner, but it is also well written and intelligent, making this a novel very much worth reading.  No "Charmed" BS here -- just a great book.  

Thursday, October 8, 2015

the road to Halloween: book one -- Dark Forest, ed. Robert Dunbar

Uninvited Books, 2014
445 pp


"Perhaps, since the poisons in the air and water, even in the earth itself, are killing other life, perhaps nature has made room for something else, something that's been pushed aside."
                                                               -- Robert Dunbar, "Wood", 413

Dark Forest is the creation of writer Robert Dunbar, and it is the first of his books I've read. He's written several others; his latest offering is The Streets, which is part three of his Pines trilogy (The Pines, The Shore, The Streets).   Dark Forest brings together a number of stories from writers who should already be household names among the ranks of serious readers of  horror, including such literary luminaries as  Algernon Blackwood, Ambrose Bierce, and Arthur Machen.  Moving into the modern world, Dunbar's novella "Wood" caps off this collection.  In this book nature itself is a sentient force, and has had enough of encroaching interlopers and humans who are screwing it up; yet, as Dunbar notes in his own contribution, there may be hope on the horizon.  I'm actually blown away at the short-story selections in this anthology -- as usual, some are much better than others, but the main theme that binds this collection together is very well represented throughout the book:  the "connection between the natural world and ...something other."   As noted in the introduction,
"Something deadly lurks among the shadows, and the trees themselves seethe with menace. No one is safe." 
The table of contents is as follows:

Part One: The Soul of a Place
"The Willows," by Algernon Blackwood
"A Vine on a House," by Ambrose Bierce

Part Two: Green Hell
"The Terror," by Arthur Machen
"The Orchid Horror," by John Blunt
"The Pavilion," by E. Nesbit

Part Three: Shadowed Corners
"The Man-Eating Tree," by Phil Robertson
"Professor Jonah's Cannibal Plant," by H.R. Garis
"The Flowering of the Strange Orchid," by H.G. Wells

Part Four: The Final Embrace
"The Man Whom the Trees Loved," by Algernon Blackwood
Wood, by Robert Dunbar

Each story opens with an "Introductory Note" by various authors (including Ramsey Campbell!) that gives the reader a feel for what's coming, and every now and then the editor interjects brief footnotes which add food for thought.

As Dunbar writes in his introduction, "There are places in this world where it is safer not to venture," and you'll definitely find them in this well-crafted anthology.  Super book.

hats (and heads) off to Halloween

from Atlasobscura 
Not that I don't read creepy stuff all year long, but there's just something about the coming of Halloween that makes me want to read more of it.  Old school is my preference, but now and then something modern comes along that does the trick and gives me a treat at the same time. This month's lineup is beyond good, a mix of old and new that I'm sure will give me a solid case of the willies or at the very least, will have me hearing every noise in the house at night when the lights are off.   Stay tuned.

Friday, September 25, 2015

thus confirming my infatuation with Richard Marsh: The Seen and the Unseen (Valancourt Books)

Valancourt Books, 2007
[originally published 1900]
235 pp


"...do you wish me to infer that about the matter there is something supernatural...?"

The Seen and the Unseen is my second foray into the mind of Richard Marsh, and needing more, as soon as I turned the last page I hurried on over to Amazon and picked up Valancourt editions of  Curios The Joss: A Reversion,  Both Sides of the Veil and The Datchet Diamonds.  I  also picked up Leonaur's The Collected Supernatural and Weird Fiction of Richard Marsh Volumes two through five. I'd say that qualifies me as being somewhat infatuated with Marsh's work  -- it's the kind of stuff you can lose yourself in on a rainy day, curled up in your favorite chair with a cup of spicy chai tea in hand, my favorite type of reading.   The Seen and Unseen is so good that it will keep anyone entertained for hours on end. 

This book proves that in terms of storytelling ability, Marsh was not a one-note kind of guy.  Inside The Seen and the Unseen is an eclectic mix of a dozen stories encompassing the supernatural, the mysterious, and good old-fashioned crime as well as a wide range of characters.   I enjoyed them all (maybe not equally),  but my favorites are "A Psychological Experiment," in which a strange man carries about his person a bizarre collection of "pretty things;" "The Photographs," which takes place in a prison and centers around "rather a curious thing" going on after a prisoner gets his picture taken; "A Double Minded Gentleman" (which I can't say anything about without giving things away),  and "The Houseboat," which has the greatest line ever on page 206:
"I might possess an unsuspected capacity for undergoing strange experiences, but I drew the line at sleeping with a ghost." 
and is just downright haunting and eerie.

The other stories are all quite good, although I will say that I wasn't so enamored of "The Assassin," which seems sort of out of place in this volume.   The saddest story in the collection has to be "The Violin," which begins with an uncle and nephew being serenaded  during dinner, while the funniest is most definitely "A Pack of Cards," where an innocent game of cards among strangers on a train turns into a bit of a nightmare for one of the players.  That one was actually laugh-out-loud funny and a story that made me feel like the joke was on me when all was said and done.

I absolutely cannot get enough of Richard Marsh -- name your favorite comfort food and his work is its literary equivalent.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

a new author for me: Lee Thomas -- Like Light for Flies

Lethe Press, 2013
247 pp


Here's another author I discovered via Ellen Datlow.  In her The Best Horror of the Year Volume 7 (which I haven't yet read -- it's going on vacation with me here shortly) Ms. Datlow  begins with notable books and other publications from the year, something she does in each of the Best Horror of the Year anthologies.  My normal practice is to sit with this huge list, go through each title one by one on the internet, and then make a list of authors I may explore in the future.  So, when I got to Butcher's Road (which grabbed me because of the synopsis), I thought I'd possibly give that one a go, but I decided I'd first try some of the author's short fiction discovered while researching the novel. To my surprise and delight,  Like Light for Flies turned out to be a nearly-perfect collection of short stories, both in terms of the stories themselves, and in the lives reflected within which are just not pretty.  There is a bleak mix of pain, loneliness and suffering embedded within these tales; as Sarah Langan most astutely notes in her introduction,
"Thomas' characters aren't refreshingly happy gay men. They don't share fancy condos and egg/sperm donors. We're not invited to witness their normalcy, and the kids are definitely not all right. No, these guys are veterans of a hate war.  They're haunted; afflicted by their place in society, as represented by monstrous machines and devils at the door. What's worse, in Thomas' world, we're all fucked up. The heteros, the kids, the little old ladies, and even the family pet. We're flawed creatures, molded from a flawed God."
How very right she is -- and Thomas sublimely captures this point of view through his writing.

Twelve stories make up this collection (** denotes my favorites):

  • "Comfortable in Her Skin" -- not one of my favorites, but it did thoroughly whet my appetite for more
  • "The Butcher's Block" **
  • "Testify"  **
  • "The Dodd Contrivance"
  • "Flicker"
  • "Inside Where It's Warm" **  [sidebar]-- I hate zombie-ish stories but I loved this one. Absolutely. 
  • "Nothing Forgiven" ** 
  • "Fine in the Fire" ** -- After starting this incredibly sad story, I realized that I'd read it before; it's even better and more intensely disturbing the second time through. 
  • "The House in the Park" **
  • "Turtle" ** -- for me, one of the best in the book
  • "Landfall '35: A Prequel to Parish Damned " ** 
  • "Tuesday"
 Langan also mentions the darkness in "the world beneath this one," and that is exactly what the author reveals here.  She also notes a "duality" present in Thomas' writing, saying
"...he wants to corrupt us, but also wants us to become richer people for it. He's a soul preacher."
If Like Light for Flies is representative of his longer work, I'll soon be making space for more books by Lee Thomas on my shelves.  It is just superbly stunning.  He can preach to me any time.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

and he does it again -- No One Gets Out Alive, by Adam Nevill

St. Martin's Press, 2015 (US edition)
629 pp


It's nighttime and it's very quiet. I'm sitting at the table in the breakfast room and all I can hear is the tick tick tick of my neon pink pig barbeque clock (don't ask) coming from the pantry room off my kitchen. I'm in the middle of page 400 something of this book and suddenly the phone rings and I actually felt myself jump out of my chair. I'd say that's a pretty good indicator of the book's intensity -- it grabbed hold of me and just wouldn't let me go.

82 Edgehill Road, London is an older Victorian home where a young woman named Stephanie has taken a room. The rent is dirt cheap, which is good, since Stephanie works temping when the agency actually has any jobs for her.  Stephanie lost her mom at an early age, and that was bad enough, but her father remarried and stepmom turned out to be something of a lunatic who has it in for Stephanie for no good reason.  After Stephanie's father dies, she stays with her stepmother, but things got so bad that she had to leave.  Now she's on her own, having left her boyfriend, and finds herself at the point of poverty.  The price of the room is unbelievably low, so 82 Edgehill Road becomes her new home.  Right away she notices something is wrong -- from under the bed she hears the sound of plastic crinkling, she hears women crying, a voice coming through the fireplace, and when someone unseen joins her in her bed, she decides she can't spend another day in the house.  Sadly, she's forked over what little money she has for the room and the landlord refuses to refund her deposit; soon we discover that he's doing everything he can to keep her from leaving. She tries to get help from friends, but everyone's been hit hard economically and no one has enough cash to help her out.  Her situation gets increasingly worse, but when she meets the landlord's disgusting psychopath of a cousin, living in the house turns into something akin to a nightmare.   So Stephanie is stuck while the strange occurrences continue and escalate, and as time passes the situation gets beyond bad to the point where for Stephanie, death just might be preferable.

The supernatural terrors of this novel are creepy enough, but Nevill adds in some very real-life horrors that intensify Stephanie's experiences.  The media (and some social media-ites as well)  and its relentless attacks on her character point to the tabloid-ish tendencies to blame the victim:
"It was the media that had driven her into what two doctors had called 'emotional breakdowns', not the house... Her best defence had been the screaming of her own story straight into the maelstrom of competing voices; the opinionated and ill-informed voices that always knew better..  But she would never forgive the world for what it had done, nor trust it again. Because of how it had interpreted her without restraint or remorse, for the purposes of its own entertainment."  
There were times in the first half of the novel where I found myself wondering whether  this house was actually haunted or whether Stephanie's own mental state brought on her terrors; it's to Nevill's credit  that he can keep his readers guessing at every turn. What I really loved about this novel is that this story is just downright scary in a very "old-school" kind of way, while staying very much grounded in modern times.  So if you need splatter, gore and sick pornography to get your horror jollies, you just won't get it here.  Part one was definitely the best of the book, although obviously it remains creepy enough for me to jump out of my chair while reading part two.

Super super super book -- any novel that can make me jump from the ringing of a telephone is one well worth reading.  Huzzah.  Keep them coming!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Beetle, by Richard Marsh

Valancourt Books, 2008
originally published 1897
371 pp


It seems that no matter where I turn to find a literary review of this novel, everyone wants to compare it to Bram Stoker's Dracula.  The two books were published in the same year, both stories are related through the use of journal entries from the principal players, both imagine an evil force coming into England from outside for its own wicked and abominable purposes, and in both books, the vile alien threat has to be neutralized to keep England from peril. Yet,  while I see that between the two, in terms of "literary" value, most people prefer Stoker's book, to me Dracula wasn't nearly as entertaining.  The Beetle is a lovely, unputdownable mix of supernatural horror, revenge tale, creepy gothic fiction and mystery all rolled into one, and it's just plain fun.

There are four narrators in this novel; the first is Robert Holt whose bizarre story throws us right into the midst of the strange.  Entering a deserted house to escape the rain after having been denied lodging at the modern equivalent of a homeless shelter, he is set upon by a "creature" that reminds him of a spider (the "Beetle" of the title).   As he tries to make his escape back out the window, suddenly a light comes on in the house and Holt finds himself face to face with a deformed man whose eyes were his most "marked" feature.  As Holt notes,
"Escape them I could not, while, as I endeavored to meet them, it was as if I shrivelled into nothingness.  They held me enchained, helpless, spell-bound. I felt that the could do with me as they would; and they did."
Holt discovers that he has no choice but to do what he is commanded by this horrific figure and he is ordered to break into the home of Paul Lessingham,  member of Parliament.  While carrying out his task, he is confronted by Lessingham who is stopped in his tracks when Holt screams out "THE BEETLE!"  Holt's narrative sets the tone for the remainder of the story, which is revealed in turns from the points of view of Sydney Atherton, an inventor of weapons who just happens to be in love with Lessingham's love Marjorie Lindon, Miss Lindon herself, and the Honorable Augustus Champnell, Confidential Agent.  It is during this last section that we discover exactly why this threat has appeared in England and why it is targeting Lessingham (and through him, Miss Lindon) specifically.

Barebones outline, for sure, but there's a LOT churning around in this novel.  Under its surface, though, as Minna Vuohelainen explains in the introduction, Marsh also explores "constant, traumautic shifting of class, social, gendered, sexual, ethnic and national identities."  How all of these thematic elements are manifested becomes pretty self evident without having to seek them out, especially in terms of sexuality.  I would imagine that this was a pretty daring tale back in 1897 -- for one thing, we don't even leave the first section before Holt in his hypnotized state is set upon sexually by the Beetle in masculine form, although this creature can also manifest itself as a woman.   For another, Lessingham's account given to Champnell refers to a strange cult that kidnaps English victims, both male and female, holding them for prolonged periods to be used in strange rituals involving torture and sexual depravity.  I suppose one could also read the novel as a story that plays on the fear of invasion by foreign elements or fear of those outsiders already living among the English, obviously with sinister intentions toward  England's men and women.

The Beetle may not be the greatest in terms of literary value, but I will say that it is a hell of a lot of fun to read. To me it is the literary equivalent of comfort food, and its Egyptian flavor along with all of its over-the-top moments remind me a lot of the old pulpy horror/gothic books I devoured as a nerdy kid on rainy days.

Recommended, without any hesitation whatsoever.  Even if it's a little silly sometimes, it is truly a delight. Once again, my thanks to Valancourt Books for publishing some of the finest old books ever.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

from the vault: Burn Witch Burn, by Abraham Merritt

Tom Stacey, Ltd. (reprint), 1971
originally published 1932
275 pp


The old horror classic "Burn, Witch, Burn" was recently released on blu-ray, so I figured that I'd read the book before watching the film.  Zee joke, eet was on me -- I started watching it and maybe five minutes in started wondering why the first scene was filled with people playing bridge at a home in England somewhere. So I look at the DVD cover and discover to my horror that the movie was actually based on Fritz Leiber's Conjure Wife, and not on the book by Abraham Merritt.  There's nothing like feeling like a dunce for not doing my homework.  So expect to see a post about Conjure Wife here shortly, since I couldn't settle down until I'd bought a copy.

Merritt's Burn Witch Burn does have a similarity to the movie that stole its title (except for the addition of commas) -- at the heart of the matter is a man who is forced to reassess his beliefs in the certainties of science when he runs head first into the supernatural. We first meet Doctor Lowell, "a medical man specializing in neurology and diseases of the brain," when he is called on by a "notorious underworld chieftain" Julian Ricori, "one of the finished products of the Prohibition Law."  One of Ricori's crew is stricken with some very bizarre ailment, manifesting itself with strange symptoms:
"The man's eyes were wide open. He was neither dead nor unconscious. But upon his face was the most extraordinary expression of terror I had ever seen in a long experience with sane, insane and borderland cases."
The man, seemingly paralyzed, eventually dies, but not before letting loose a maniacal laugh.  On examination, the doctor finds nothing that could have killed him, but the case is so odd that he immediately reaches out to other doctors to see if any of their patients have manifested the same symptoms.  When answers start coming in, Lowell is startled to see that a number of people have been in the same boat. After compiling a list of these patients, he (along with Ricori)  starts his quest to track down the source of this horrific illness hoping to find even one factor they all had in common.  Just as they're starting to make some progress the illness strikes again, this time hitting very close to home.

I won't divulge the meat of the story here, but let me just say that what happens in this book makes the Twilight Zone's Talky Tina  look like a rank amateur.  There's a lot of creepy stuff going on here -- looking at it from today's perspective, it's mild, even tame, but my guess is it had readers squirming in their armchairs back in the 1930s.  It's a strange blending of mystery, pulp, and horror, and while I didn't care too much for it at first, as things progressed, I ended with up with an odd sort of appreciation for this book.  First of all, looking past the silly horror parts, there are two main themes that develop out of this novel. One is the question of what it is that constitutes a human's soul; the second, as I've mentioned earlier, is what happens when science butts up against the supernatural.  As Dr. Lowell notes,
"To admit that what had occurred was witchcraft, sorcery, supernatural -- was to surrender to superstition. Nothing can be supernatural. If anything exists, it must exist in obedience to natural laws.  Material bodies must obey material laws.  We may not know those laws -- but they exist nevertheless."
 Second, since there are a number of mysteries that need to be solved here,  the novel appeals to the part of me that loves these old books and just can't get enough.

But speaking of mysteries, we're left with one huge hole, and that is the motivation behind the work of the character Madame Mandilip (a name that cracks me up because she's described as having a visible mustache).  We get a smidgen of her history, but we never fully quite understand why she does what she does here, and that's annoying.  Seriously annoying.

Merritt is much better known for his "lost-race" novels and short stories which are just plain awful; at the same time one of my biggest guilty pleasures in life is my love for really crappy, really old pulp.  Burn WitchBurn is much better than some of  Merritt's other work so if you're at all interested, you might want to give it a try.  I'd say try not to judge it by modern standards if at all possible; just sit back, relax and try to enjoy.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Monstrous, (ed.) Ellen Datlow

Tachyon, 2015
370 pp

paperback (arc from the publisher, thanks so much!!!)

Just in time for Halloween (out October 15th), The Monstrous is a collection of twenty stories that, as editor Ellen Datlow notes are "Not your usual monster kills/destroys everything" tales, but rather stories that tend to focus on "how the humans react to the monstrosities they encounter."  Great approach, if you ask me, and there are a number of stories that are quite good in this collection.  As is also pointed out in the introduction, "monstrosity is in the eye of the beholder," a very pertinent little piece of wisdom.  Since this is an anthology of stories, a mixed bag, so to speak, not every story is going to appeal to every reader, and the concept of "monstrous" is also going to be different depending on whose brain it's being filtered through. Mine, for example, latches on to the "monstrous" in human beings -- I think that the monstrosities people are capable of are far scarier than anything a creepy tentacled thing could ever come up with. So I'll be up front and say that a lot of what you get out of this book depends heavily on what you consider to be "monstrous."  My idea may be totally different from anyone else's. Just keep that in mind.

Let me just say that for me there were some standout stories; there are four that would make your monetary investment in this book very worth it.   Two others are well worth calling to attention; there were only a couple or three I didn't really care for (again, based on my own approach to horror), and then there's the group in the middle, the ones I liked but I didn't feel were as good as the standouts or ones I marked as deserving honorable mention.

 - and now, first my best - 

First, the standouts: Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois have contributed an absolute stunner with their "Down Among the Dead Men", which thematically reminded me of Primo Levi's The Grey Zone. The action takes place inside of a Nazi concentration camp, begging the questions of  a) what it is that constitutes evil and b) what would anyone do to ensure his or her survival in a place designed for death.  One of the best stories in the entire book -- even if you end up thumbing your nose at the other entries (which you won't), this one is worth the price of the book on its own. Oh my god.

Another standout entry in this book  is Carole Johnstone's "Catching Flies," another one from Fearful Symmetries but one that I never got to ( I lost my copy which is not at all unusual around my house -- it's probably hidden among the multitude of other books in the shelves somewhere).   A young girl and her infant brother have been taken from their home after a particularly horrific event. To spare her, authorities don't want to talk to her about what happened, but little do they know that she already knows, and with good reason.  This one was a gut wrencher, although I won't explain why.  It is my absolute favorite story in the entire book.

Then there's "Jenny Come to Play" by Terry Dowling, which gets positively eerie as you're making your way to the end.  It begins with a woman who says she has to get away and hide from her sister, so she has voluntarily committed herself to a mental hospital.  Her doctor doesn't believe any of her story, thinking the woman is delusional at best.  But when the sister actually does come to find her, the story starts to verge into American Horror Story territory with a beyond-bizarre twist.

I'm going to also include Peter Straub's "Ashputtle" here, a tale about a  kindergarten teacher who believes that "to be lived truly, life must be apprehended with an adventurous state of mind." In keeping with the Cinderella aspect of this short story, Mrs. Asch sees herself as having been damaged by her wicked stepmother and the "figments" that materialize after her mother's death,  but also sees herself in much the same role with her small charges. As she rambles on through her story, she lets out that a little girl is missing, having "partaken of the great adventure."  Very creepy indeed; as I said earlier, it's the human monsters you really have to worry about; this one is particularly unreliable as a narrator. Loved it.

Two honorable mentions here: first,  "Miss Ill Kept Runt," by Glen Hirshberg, because I didn't get it until after a second reading. It's a masterful play on a familiar tale; here, a family is heading out of town on vacation at the same time as the little daughter's birthday.  From the back of the station family station wagon, this little girl begins to realize that something is very, very off -- and as events play out, she discovers that she's not imagining things.  I only picked up the cleverness after the second read.  The second one that deserves calling out is Christopher Fowler's "Piano Man,"  a kind of mishmash of horror and noirish elements that come together nicely in this creepy little tale.   I love Christopher Fowler's work, and he's done a fine job here in his story of a freelance reporter sent to New Orleans to write about the city's secret side.  Entering a bar called Stormy's, he discovers the story he really wants to write.  This one is just beyond cool. Then again, I love noir stories so I can't help myself.

--now all the rest--

The Monstrous opens with Jeffrey Ford's contribution, "A Natural History of Autumn" which I've read before, and which I like. If you've ever read weird tales from Japan, Ford sort of captures that same feel here in his story about a couple who go off to an onsen,  a sort of guest house built around natural hot springs. The scene is set for love and romance, but well, this is a horror story, so think again.   Dale Bailey's "Giants in the Earth" comes next. "The Lord is with us," says one member of a coal-mining crew while trying to blow open another coal seam deep beneath the ground, and he doesn't know how right he is.  While trying to see what's holding things up in the process, one of the crew makes an astounding discovery that he absolutely cannot believe he's seeing. But it's holding up progress, so it has to be gotten rid of.  Caitlin R. Kiernan splits her story "The Beginning of the Year Without a Summer,"  between a cemetery in Providence and a strange party at a home in Federal Hill.  A transplanted southern woman now teaching at Brown, birds and an odd book  feature in both parts. This one I'll probably have to read again since I have several question marks floating in my head, but the writing is so damn good.   The next one, "A Wish From a Bone" written by Gemma Files  is another one I've read in another Datlow collection, Fearful Symmetries.  It's kind of a modern pulpy don't-open-that-tomb kind of thing, where a TV film crew shooting a show segment somewhere in the middle east discover why they shouldn't have once they've done it.  Oops.  To be beyond honest, I didn't at all care for Livia Llewellyn's "The Last, Clean, Bright Summer" -- this one is truly monstrous and not in a good way at all.

Adam Troy-Castro writes an interesting story about a monster (yes, a true-blue monster) who knows only killing.  "The Totals" takes place in a diner where a group of joke-cracking monsters is hanging out along with a man in "Coke-bottle eyeglasses". In  many ways it's humorous, but ultimately even monsters need release at some point.  This one was so offbeat I couldn't help but like it. Connecticut is the setting for Kim Newman's contribution, "The Chill Clutch of the Unseen," another true-blue monster story in which an old retired cop with family history going back generations meets up with the last monster, who, like the rest of the monsters that have passed through, "came to town to make a last stand."  Brian Hodge returns to a Datlow collection with his "Our Turn Too Will One Day Come," which involves longstanding family secrets that the narrator has never been privy to.  It is only after a call for help from his sister that he discovers exactly what those secrets entail.  And, as he also discovers, his family is much like others out there, but in their own way.   I love the idea of a lineage of women holding family secrets. The next two were just gross, a quality I don't find fun in horror of any sort.   "Grindstone" by Stephen Graham Jones opens with a dying Derle wondering if the sheep that's about to give birth will produce a litter that will take after their old man, and sadly, as much as I loved the two novels I've read by author Adam Nevill, I just wasn't taken with his story "Doll Hands," which was just too much for me. I'm probably the only one on the planet who doesn't care for gross of any sort in my horror stories, but well, it's what it is.

Sofia Samatar is up next with her "How I Met the Ghoul."  In the fifth century, poet Ta'abbata Sharran had the dubious pleasure of meeting a ghoul;  later in the 21st century, a reporter meets her over a meal at an airport.  I read this story as a commentary on the "ghoul's dream" of  modern development laying civilization to waste. Not very horrific in terms of skin crawl, but it does make some very good points.  Skipping ahead to "Chasing Sunset," by A.C. Wise,  we encounter the son of a familiar figure whose father is dying and calling him home. Not a particular fan of this one.  Moving on, I've already read Steve Rasnic Tem's "The Monster Makers," appreciating it a bit more this time around than the last. It's the story of a family which "for ages" has been shunned, "thought to be witches, demons, and worse." While the modern-day son wants to live a normal life with his wife and children, the grandfather wants to ensure his children know and understand their heritage.  The two butt heads, but not before some nasty mayhem ensues.

 Last, but not least, is John Langan's "Corpsemouth,"  in which a young man, his mom, and his sister return to Scotland, the home of his parents prior to emigrating to America thirty years earlier.  He is beset by strange dreams, but even stranger is the story of "Corpsemouth" told by his uncle.  His cousin tells him it's malarkey, but is it really?  

So there you have it.  Would I recommend The Monstrous? The answer is certainly yes, but I'll repeat what Datlow says in her introduction:  ""monstrosity is in the eye of the beholder."  And that is definitely true.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

a bit late to this party, but playing catch-up again: Aickman's Heirs (ed.) Simon Strantzas

Undertow Publications, 2015
263 pp


I read this book back when it first came out -- in fact, I'd preordered a signed copy directly from Undertow,  but then Aickman's Heirs showed up on Amazon and impatient soul that I am, I bought a copy to tide me over until the signed one arrived.  I am a HUGE Aickman fan, although a relative newbie to his work. So when I started this book, I didn't want  pastiche or copycat, and thankfully, I got neither, although  Nina Allan’s “Change of Scene” revisits one of Aickman's most head-scratching tales ever, "Ringing the Changes."   As far as the book as a whole, it's a collection that absolutely should not be missed, and I'm here to tell you that I am incredibly picky when it comes to strange fiction. 

Some time back, when I first started looking at Aickman 's work, and as I was trying to get more of a feel for him and for his work, I came across and bookmarked an article at The Millions called "The Art of Terror: Robert Aickman's Strange Tales."  Here, the author of the piece wrote the following:
"Aickman's readers are a bit like the narrator of "The Inner Room," who never gains access to her forlorn dollhouse's hidden sanctum where all mystery is laid bare.  What one remembers most from Aickman's stories are not the ghosts, vampires, psychopaths, goddesses, or lake monsters, but rather a feeling of dread and a lingering doubt over the precise nature of the epiphany, or atrocity, that seems to have occurred.  After reading an  Aickman tale, one feels as if one's vision is occluded by the very "self-renewing, perennial" debris that covers every surface of the mansion in "The Unsettled Dust," a story in which the prying narrator is curtly told: "The key of your room doesn't open every door." And perhaps that's for the best; some locked doors should remain unopened."
My feeling about Aickman's Heirs is that the majority of these stories leave that "lingering doubt over the precise nature of the epiphany, or atrocity, that seems to have occurred," and that there are most definitely stories in this collection that represent the feel of  "locked doors" that "should remain unopened."  Nearly all of these tales left me with that uneasy feeling that something is just so very wrong here, so very off-kilter, but yet explanations as to the underlying whys often proved elusive and left me scratching my head and putting on the proverbial thinking cap. In other words, in my own non-literary-person sort of way, and as a reader of strange tales,  Aickman's Heirs works very well both conceptually and on an individual-author basis.  And frankly, a handful of these stories just knocked my socks off. 

This is going to be a lengthy post as it is, and because of time/space considerations,  I'm not going to even attempt to offer interpretations of these stories here (hopefully you can find them elsewhere on the internet), so now, without further ado, I give you my casual reader's  look at Aickman's Heirs: 

This collection opens with "Seaside Town," by Brian Evenson, and it is good enough to have whetted my appetite for what's about to come next.    A man named Hovell  with clear-cut life boundaries finally goes off on a vacation even though it's not his idea but rather that of Miss Pickaver, whose arrival "had changed a lot of things" in his life. After she'd "swept into his life and into his bed," she takes him to a seaside town in where he doesn't even understand the language.  She goes off on her own four-day adventure leaving him to himself; when she returns, expecting the "Same old James," she's in for a big surprise.  It is followed by Richard Gavin's  "Neithernor" which turned out to be  one of my favorite stories in this book, taking on the form of a waking nightmare.  Our narrator here discovers quite by accident that his distant cousin Vera is responsible for a  very different, bizarre and "highly unique" form of art; he also discovers that she's also "become swallowed up in a life" he "can only describe as leprous," and needed rescuing.  God. I read this one three times and it got creepier (and more headscratching) every time. This is probably the most nightmare-oriented, atmospheric story in the entire collection. John Howard's fantastic contribution, "Least Light, Most Night," centers on two men who work at the same place and who had "occupied adjacent desks for several years" without even knowing each other's first names. That's about to change when Mr. Bentley extends an invitation to Mr. Thomas to come to his house, where he brings up his "little society" that celebrates winter solstice, the day of "least light, most night."  It's a very clever story that will literally chill you to the bone,  no pun intended, largely because of its implications.  "Camp," by David Nickle follows two newly-married men who've decided to do some lake kayaking in northern Ontario for their honeymoon.  An older couple in their seventies catches up to them at a small-town grocery store, congratulating them on their marriage.  As the newlyweds return to their  car after buying supplies, the older couple is gone, but they've left an invite for the two men to join them, along with a map to their lakeside home. The rest...well, I'll just say that it's one of those stories where the ending may be up for grabs, depending on reader perception.   "Camp" also reminded me a bit of Algernon Blackwood -- and that's a good thing.  Another story in this collection that didn't remind me so much of Aickman but of another novel I've recently read is "A Delicate Craft" by D.P. Watt.  A Polish laborer who came to the UK for work now finds that good jobs are hard to come by.  A chance encounter leads him to an elderly woman from a family of lace makers, who invites him to come round and look at her work, and she also offers to show him how to do it. During his visit, he is introduced to her craft and invited to try it himself; eventually he becomes quite skilled at lace making.  What starts out as a poignant story takes a strange turn, a twist I never saw coming. Strangely enough, however, in many ways, the ending sort of reminded me a bit of what happens at the end of  Bernard Taylor's novel, The Moorstone Sickness.  Go figure that one, but I flashed on it immediately.

borrowed from AZ quotes

"Seven Minutes in Heaven" is by Nadia Bulkin, and the title refers to "the length of time it takes for a soul to fly to God." Much more interestingly, though, it is the story of a woman looking back on her life in a small town "full of the walking dead." I won't say more about this one but in some ways, it sort of reminded me of Aickman's "The Same Dog."  Michael Cisco, who writes some of the most bizarre weird/strange/dark fiction I've ever read in my life joins the party with his "Infestations."  It begins with a woman's (Miriam) return to New York after a ten-year absence to pack up the apartment of another Miriam, for whom young Miriam was named, now dead. She's there to "scrub away Miriam's traces, so that Miriam's possessions could also be buried and the spell of home could be broken." As she also notes, "Her parents and the family's satellites were always pairing the two of them, even now that the elder Miriam was dead this was still happening."  Take that idea, and run with it, and it becomes downright inexplicable and creepy.  "The Dying Season," by Lynda E. Rucker.  My favorite line in this story is this: "You must not look at goblin men, you must not buy their fruit."  It is explained like this: "...you aren't supposed to eat fairy food or you'll be trapped with them forever." Ah.  It all starts in the off season, when Sylvia and John spend time at a leisure resort that John used to go to as a child. Things are not well between the two, but the situation gets weirder when they meet another couple staying at the same place. There is something off-kilter here, or then again, maybe there's  not. You be the judge.  Turning now to "A Discreet Music," Michael Wehunt weaves mythology into his story about an older man who has recently lost his wife and who, on reflecting on things and wondering if he can recapture a meaningful moment from his past, begins his own sort of strange transformation. 

 Next up,  John Langan's "Underground Economy"  centers around two strippers (one with a unique tattoo) who ply their craft at a club called The Cusp. A chance visit (?) to the club by a group of very tall men who reminded the narrator of "stone heads on Easter Island" leads one of them on a very different path.  I'm still not sure about this one, a definite headscratcher, but then again, a lot of Langan's stories are like that ... requiring multiple readings in order to peel back the layers.  This one is just odd -- but in a great way.   With apologies to Helen Marshall, "The Vault of Heaven," admittedly wasn't in my list of favorites for this book, but well, that's how anthologies go sometimes, isn't it? In this story, set just prior to the launch of Sputnik, an idealistic British scholar in Greece with the ability to "behold in my mind the shape of a thing as it was once, its true form" learns exactly what beauty is and isn't. On the other hand,  two coming-of-age stories, "Two Brothers," by Malcolm Devlin and "The Lake" by Daniel Mills (whose novel Revenant  gave me a nice case of the willies)  kept replaying themselves in my head after I'd read them.  Devlin's given us a  rather sad but eerie (and I do mean eerie) coming-of-age story in which a young boy eagerly  awaits the return of his older brother from boarding school, while Mills' offering finds three boys whose adult lives have definite ties to their childhood pasts.     

The first of the last two stories of this collection is Nina Allan's nicely-done "Change of Scene," which revisits the small seaside town that served as the setting for Aickman's exquisite "Ringing the Changes." I'll just say that I needn't have worried about pastiche -- her delightfully fresh take on the original is well worth exploring.  And last, but certainly not least, is Lisa Tuttle's story "The Book That Finds You." As a fanatical book lover and as someone always looking  for volumes of old, strange tales, I truly appreciated this tale of a young woman who comes across a very limited edition of a book by an author who just may be familiar (although in disguise) to anyone reading Aickman's Heirs.  Lisa Tuttle has long been a personal favorite and she doesn't disappoint here.  

You can certainly read Aickman's Heirs without having read Aickman, but I would highly recommend reading at least a few of Aickman's strange tales before you pick up this one.  Overall, this book is a wonderful collection of stories that will wreak a bit of havoc with your brain before you turn the last page. You certainly couldn't ask for more than that.