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.