Monday, January 18, 2016

one of the most bizarre (but really, really good) anthologies ever: With a Voice that is Often Still Confused But is Becoming Ever Louder and Clearer (breath), by J.R. Hamantaschen

copyright J.R. Hamantaschen, 2015
298 pp


In the intro to this book, the author says the following:

"If you happen to visit the New York City metropolitan area and want to grab coffee, feel free to shoot me an e-mail. Assuming you are not an asshole, of course."  I may take him up on his offer if I'm ever in NYC, just to pick his brain as to how in the hell he came up with this material. Oh my god.    And I can't resist the urge to meet someone whose pen name is the same as my husband's favorite childhood cookies (made by his granny, of course).

There are nine stories in this bizarre but really, really good anthology, and from the moment it opens with a big bang in his "Vernichtungsschmerz"  until the final page of "It's Not Feelings of Anxiety; It's One Constant Feeling: Anxiety," the book is simply unputdownable.  Actually, if he'd given the name of the last story to this collection, it wouldn't be far off the mark -- this book is just loaded with anxieties of all sorts, and while not quite as dark, there's a general feel (at least to me) of some of Ligotti's work running underneath these stories. Then again, the story about the goodreads reviewer "Soon Enough This Will Essentially Be a True Story" had enough of a funny, snarky, sarcastic edge that just made me laugh. I'm not one to generally think serial killer stories are laughable, but the main character reminds me of so many people on goodreads and on other social media as well who produce an out and out eye roll when I see their posts --  and the author caught that vibe spot on.  Well, that and the book titles ...

I'm not going to go into each and every story here -- many people writing online have done that, but this book is most definitely something readers should experience for themselves. I will say that the beauty of this collection is in the author's ability to take mundane, normal situations and twist them so that by the time I was not even midway through each one, I started getting those stomach knots that for  me tend to signal some sort of impending doom on the horizon.

The contents are as follows:

"Vernichtungsschmerz" -- in which the promise of "painless escape" rears its head but ...
"A Related Corollary" -- another depressing story about depression
"The Gulf of Responsibility" -- which I might add, is downright creepy and one of my very favorites of the collection along with its sort of sequel "Oh Abel, Oh Absalom"
"Big With the Past, Pregnant with the Future" -- affirmative action and elitism turned on their heads in a very, very big way
"Soon Enough This Will Essentially Be a True Story" -- trust me, anyone reading this book knows or at least is familiar with the main character of this one
"I'm A Good Person, I Mean Well and I Deserve Better" -- made me squirm in my chair many, many times (after laughing at the beginning, it wasn't funny any more)
"Cthulhu, Zombies, Ninjas and Robots!; or, a Special Snowflake in an Endless Scorching Universe" -- think William Shatner telling trekkies to get a life; oh my god. I know someone who would absolutely love this story.
"Oh Abel, Oh Absalom"
"It's Not Feelings of Anxiety; It's One Constant Feeling: Anxiety" -- another omg moment reading this story -- sheesh!

I defy anyone to come away from this book without even a slight frisson of horror or creepiness  running up his or her spine; like the very best modern dark fiction/horror/weird fiction authors out there, Hamantaschen has a way of commenting on our societal anxieties and fears without having to spell it out or get in one's face about it.  The thing is, a reader won't  clue into just how uneasy this author makes him/her feel until that twisty but personal moment in every story that resonates with having been there, seen that -- and that's seriously how it should be.

Oh yeah. I'm certainly passing my recommendation on to anyone who will listen.

Now, about that coffee.....

Friday, January 15, 2016

catching up again ... The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral, by Robert Westall

Valancourt Books, 2015
originally published 1991
129 pp


"...I think that if there is a God, he must have lost interest and pushed off to mend some different universe."

I buy and read so many Valancourt novels that if I was someone else reading this part of my reading journal, I'd be wondering if perhaps I'm pimping this publisher, or at best, serving as  spokesperson for these guys.   Not so, she says. Frankly, their work speaks to me in a way that appeals. While I try to keep my feet in both worlds, modern and old, they have this knack of putting out books from the past that I can't resist. Well, there's that and the fact that  most of my favorite books over the last few years have come from small, indie publishers that most people seem to eschew in favor of the bigger houses without knowing what they're missing.

I actually read this back in December during a stormy day, wrapped up in a blanket with a cup of hot, spicy chai in hand -- it was, as I mentioned somewhere, a perfectly ahhhh sort of Saturday experience.  There are two eerie tales in one volume here: the title story, "The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral," and a story that has never before seen  the light of day in the US, "Brangwyn Gardens." My personal favorite is the latter, but both are quite good, and I have absolutely no qualms in recommending this little book.

Sadly, to tell is to ruin so I'm not going to be giving away much in the way of plot, most especially for "Brangwyn Gardens."  In "The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral," we have a first-person narrative going on via a steeplejack named Joe Clarke, whose company has been offered a job fixing the southwest tower of the titular cathedral.  It's not the sort of job Joe's company is regularly asked to do -- as he notes, "Cathedrals were for the big boys," --  but the company that is usually commissioned seems to be busy elsewhere for the entire summer; the other company is not available because one of their men has a back injury.  The first clue we have that something just ain't right here is Joe's remark about "lying sods," and about the "big boys" knowing something he didn't. Alarm bells started ringing in my head about then (and that's just on page two), so I knew this was going to be good. How right I was -- the rest of this story begins once Joe is high up on the Cathedral's tower, as he senses some creepiness emanating from of all things, one of the gargoyles found there.   Joe, though, is the consummate professional, extremely proud of his work and the family tradition of steeplejacking, so he sort of shakes it off until one night when his young son goes sleepwalking and is found at the tower...

from bbc radio 4
That's all I'll reveal about the story now, except for the fact that once Joe goes delving into the tower's history, he discovers something horrific from its past that has made its way into the present.

While normally this sort of thing isn't my typical reading material, I loved this story, which proceeded to put knots in my stomach the more I got into it.

"Brangwyn Gardens" is set in 1955 London, beginning when a young student (Harry Shaftoe) with a sort of cavalier attitude about life takes a room in an attic in a house in Brangwyn Gardens.  This tale is a story about obsession that grows from his discovery of a wartime diary kept by a young woman, Catherine Winslow.  As he reads through the diary, he comes to realize that this girl had a secret longing for a "dark and dangerous man" whom she eventually finds. As he is drawn more deeply into her story, he begins to notice signs that perhaps the past lives on at number eleven Brangwyn Gardens, and his obsession begins to take hold, drawing him back in time...

This story is much more in my reading line -- a very poignant and downright haunting story that for some reason made me think of Virginia Woolf's "A Haunted House" even though the two are very, very  different. I can't say why exactly this tale made me go there in my head, but it did. I absolutely loved "Brangwyn Gardens." In reading over reader reactions to this story, I discovered that many people felt a bit let down at its ending, but not me --  a) I love stories like this one where the past tends to collide with the present and b) without sounding mushy here, it was a sad story that touched me on a very human, emotional level. I won't say more, because it is something a person must experience, but I will say that I thought about "Brangwyn Gardens" for days after I'd finished it.

I'd never read Westall before because I thought he wrote mainly for children, but there is nothing at all childish about either of these two stories, which although vastly different from each other, are connected with their focus on the past and how it lingers on into the present.  Recommended, although perhaps more for people like me who seem to appreciate old-school sort of horror and supernatural stories.