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.