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


" 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.