Sunday, February 28, 2016

A Suite in Four Windows, by David Rix

Snuggly Books (Snuggly Slim no. 1)

With apologies to Anna for once again taking forever to post about this book.  

George Crumb is an avant-garde composer whose work Black Angels serves as the backdrop for this story. Rix's tale revolves around four college friends - Terry, Carrie, Mix, and Kate - who are assigned the task of doing an analysis of Crumb's work for a music course they're in together.  The four also share a London house and on "the hottest night of the year so far," one that promises storms,  they decide that they 'should probably get on with it."  That they do, with some pretty bizarre results. 

Since this little chapbook is only 44 pages long, I'm not going into plot at all other than what I've just said, because it is a story that needs to be felt and experienced individually. But I was looking for some background on "Black Angels," and came across this at the webpage for the Kronos Quartet, who did a recording of Crumb's work:
"About Black Angels, Crumb writes: 'Black Angels was conceived as a kind of parable on our troubled contemporary world. The work portrays a voyage of the soul. The three stages of this voyage are Departure (fall from grace), Absence (spiritual annihilation) and Return (redemption)."
The first time through this little gem I thought "okay, music is supposed to speak to the soul, and that seems to be what's happening here."  The second time through, I noticed an added dimension -- that of  movement -- from a hellish underground tavern that one of the characters often refers to as "Satan's Vagina," where the story begins, back to the "haunted house" where they live. There, in small chapters that refer to five different "images" from Crumb's work, the story begins in the basement and moves upward, culminating in the attic. I happen to be a closet Jungian, but make of it what you will -- however anyone chooses to read it, it is positively eerie, as is Crumb's music, which I listened to while reading this story.

It is a shame that David Rix is not more well known.  His work gives me a perfect jolt every time I read it, and it is so effective in throwing me off-kilter that it takes a while to get my brain back to my normal.  Here he manages to do so in only 44 short pages, which is a great feat in itself.  Some modern novelists can write hundreds of pages and still not do he what is capable of doing in short form -- he outdoes himself here.  I will read everything this man's ever written because it's that good.  Once again, I've stumbled onto something right up my alley -- a work that stretches the brain and forces a reader out of his or her reading comfort zone into something out of the box and wholly mysterious. There is nothing more I can ask for -- and he certainly delivers.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Fengriffen & Other Gothic Tales, by David Case, (ed.) Stephen Jones

Valancourt Books, 2015
247 pp


The front cover photo reminds me so much of the incredibly cool pulp cover art of long ago: buxom woman with clothes in tatters mid-scream, backed onto a graveyard monument, looking like she's about to meet a terrible end.    That face says it all -- something is very wrong here; something just horrific is about to happen.  This cover is like the appetizer that comes before the main dish --  the dessert came after I finished the book, when I did a mental ahhhhhhh at the satisfaction and pleasure that came from these stories.  

Valancourt's edition of Fengriffen & Other Gothic Tales consists of four stories.  The two longest stories, "Fengriffen" and "The Dead End"  that bookend the shorter ones "Anachrona" and "The Foreign Bride,"  are the best in the collection, although all of them are spectacular, each in their own way.  He really picks up the Gothic tone here, so much so that in the title story at least, there is that lovely sense of  ambiguity that characterizes Gothic literature  -- is what's happening here truly supernatural, or is there something going on in the main character's mind? Or is it both? 

Another thing I noticed in this book is that with the exception of "The Foreign Bride," science of some sort plays a role; when Case mixes science with the supernatural, the strange, or even the sexual, anything can and does happen.  In "Fengriffen," for example (without giving anything at all away, since people should really experience these stories themselves), the narrator is a sort of proto-psychoanalyst, a "practitioner of an infant science"  probing the "secrets of the mind" long before there was a Freud.  "Anachrona," which reminded me immediately of Hoffman,  includes scholars who "knew of Huygens and Newton, of pendulums and gravity," and "The Dead End," well, suffice it say that science has a major role to play in that one.    "The Foreign Bride," on the other hand, is a dark, slow burner of a tale that delves deeply into the evils that exist in human nature; the story feeds off of superstition.   

If I seem vague, it's because this is a book where if I spill what's going on in the contents, much of the shock produced by these stories might be somewhat lessened for a potential reader, and I wouldn't want to be held responsible. In describing this book, I'll repeat what Stephen Jones wrote in his introduction:
"David's meticulous attention to detail has always set his writing apart from much of the literature labeled as 'horror,' which can only be applauded in a genre that all too often sacrifices both substance and style for cheap effect." 
That is certainly true in this collection. Case writes very, very well and his work managed to get deeply under my skin, especially in "Fengriffen," "The Foreign Bride" and "The Dead End," all of which produced multiple spine tingles and neck hackles without once getting gross or resorting to splatter. It can be done and as Case shows here,  it can be done well.

Don't miss the Afterword of this book, where Kim Newman discusses the film made from "Fengriffen," And Now the Screaming Starts (1973). I watched this movie over the weekend, and while the basic story with a few not-so-minor changes is basically there, the good people at Amicus decided it needed some more punch and added in some special effects (including to my surprise, a crawling hand left over from another Amicus film).  And they didn't call it And Now the Screaming Starts for no reason -- we were actually laughing wondering if there had been scream auditions ever held for the part of Catherine (played by Stephanie Beacham).  It's not the best movie ever, but it's a good way to pass a lazy Saturday afternoon.  But do read the book first -- it's so much better. 

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Welsh Rarebit Tales, by Harle Oren Cummins -- now this is DEFINITELY obscure.

Ramble House/Surinam Turtle Press, 2011
originally published 1902
150 pp


I do tend to read strange books, and my preference is for those that are off  the beaten path or obscure -- and this book is definitely both.

Quite frankly, I'd never even heard of this little collection before, and I discovered it quite by accident.  In one of my online groups we were discussing a short story by F. Marion Crawford, "The Upper Berth," and at some point the main character wonders if he was experiencing some pretty creepy stuff because he had eaten Welsh Rarebit for dinner the previous night.  That wasn't the case, but it seems that there's a special sort of quality connected to Welsh Rarebit -- it is supposed to induce some crazy dreams or even hallucinations after eating it.  So for some weird reason I got caught up in the strangeness of Welsh Rarebit and doing a little digging, came up with Welsh Rarebit Tales, by an incredibly obscure author named Harle Oren Cummins.   Cummins was born in Vermont in 1877 and attended MIT, graduating in 1902 with a degree in mining and mechanical engineering.  That same year he published Welsh Rarebit Tales; little else is known about him except that he died and was buried in California in  1937. As far as I can tell, this was his one and only book.

There are fifteen very short stories in this little book; the gimmicky part of the collection is discovered in the preface.  The author notes that he was a member of a "certain literary club" that held meetings every now and then, where each member would read his newest work since the previous get together. The others would comment, creating "much mutual benefit" to all.   At one such meeting, it seems that the members had "run short of first-class plots" so they decided to engage in an experiment, and sat down to a dinner of

"1 Large Portion Welsh Rarebit,
1 Broiled Live Lobster,
1 Piece Home Made Mince Pie,
1 Portion Cucumber Salad."

The following meeting of the club had to be postponed "on account of illness of fourteen of the members," but at the next, "the accompanying tales were related."  He notes also that 
"By unanimous sentence of the other fourteen members, and as a punishment for having been the originator of the scheme, mine was chosen as the unlucky name under which the Tales should appear."
Now, I don't know about anyone else, but I thought that was just the coolest buildup to a book of short stories that I've ever read.   What a great way to bind all of these tales together, since in large part, they're very different. They are a mix of science fiction, horror, dark crime and all reveal something about the nature of the characters. Some are sad, some are downright pathetic and some I could take or leave, but for the most part, in combination they make for fun reading.

A brief peek at the contents is in order:
  1. "The Man Who Made a Man" -- a story obviously based on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, with a twist.
  2. "In the Lower Passage " -- a little more of the "white ape" mythology  (not on my favorites list) 
  3. "The Fool and His Joke"  -- in which a joke seriously backfires with tragic consequences
  4. "The Man and the Beast" -- sad story about a man in the Royal Roman Hippodrome and Three-Ring Circus who doubles as "Bobo, The Wild Man of Borneo."  The old so-called "freak shows" are of great interest to me insofar as understanding the people underneath the attraction. 
  5. "At the End of the Road" -- another sad one, this time about a man who has strange traveling companions.
  6. "The Space Annihilator" -- this is a science fiction story about a man who has put together the 1902 equivalent of a cell phone. That's not so strange, but what happens to him is downright tragic. 
  7. "A Question of Honor" -- in which a man makes a deal that out of honor he feels compelled to keep despite ...
  8. "The Wine of Pantanelli" -- the power of suggestion has deadly results in this tale of revenge
  9. "The Strangest Freak" -- revisiting the Royal Roman Hippodrome and Three-Ring Circus, this time with Bosko the human snake eater.  This one reminded me so much of Gresham's Nightmare Alley, but what really killed me here was all about what some people will do to make a buck. Jeez Louise, this one was just downright horrific. 
  10. "The False Prophet" -- the main character here is an habitual "absintheur" once famous for his predictions.  
  11. "A Study in Psychology" -- hypnosis and death -- an "electrifying" tale
  12. "The Painted Lady and the Boy" -- another sad tragedy in this story about a young man's past coming back to revisit him in the present.
  13. "The Palace of Sin" -- looks at a cruise which is taken by "five hundred men and three hundred women...whose only object in life for one month will be to commit acts which on shore would be punished by fines and imprisonment."  Yow.
  14. "The Man Who Was Not Afraid" -- a bet results in a graveyard visit with both positive and negative results
  15. "The Story the Doctor Told" -- a young Bohemian gets his act together and his doctor watches it all fall apart in the most horrific way. 
The caution is, of course, that in 1902 our modern sensibilities about race were not in place, so there are a few times when racism raises its head throughout this book. Luckily, there aren't many but I felt I should add the caveat emptor. 

These may not be the greatest stories ever told, but they do reveal a LOT about human nature, which is why I read in the first place, so in that sense, it's a successful little collection. Plus, it's really obscure, which is an added bonus. I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to read something very different, relatively unknown, and to anyone who is at all interested in early 20th-century strange fiction.  

Friday, February 5, 2016

diving into decadence -- Monsieur de Phocas, by Jean Lorrain

Dedalus/Hippocrene, 1994
originally published 1901
translated by Francis Amery
270 pp


Monsieur de Phocas took me about ten days to read, a) because it is my  introduction to fin-de-siècle decadent literature and I wanted to get a feel for literature of the period (I'd read Huysmans' Lá-Bas, but that was some time ago) and b) because it is chock full of references to literature, to paintings, to sculpture, etc., that I'd never encountered before, so I felt compelled to look them all up. To be very honest, Monsieur de Phocas probably isn't where I should have started with literature of this period, because while doing a bit of digging about this novel, I discovered that in the opinions of some people, Lorrain's novel is somewhat "derivative" of the work of Huysmans' A Rebours, which will be my next choice of fin-de-siècle literature.  I suppose it doesn't really matter in the long run, since I loved this book -- if I don't know what I'm missing yet, well, that's okay. It certainly whet my appetite for more, and I've been buying books left and right to try to increase my knowledge of this type of literature.

The beginning of this story is related by an unnamed narrator, a writer who had written a tribute to an "engraver and his artistry," and who is visited one day by the Duc de Fréneuse.  After introducing himself  he reveals to the narrator that he is tortured and haunted by a "Demon" within him, haunting and torturing him ever since his adolescence and that
"Even though I may seem to you to be deluded, monsieur, I have suffered for many years the effects of a certain blue and green something." 
He also reveals that it is a certain "gaze" that he seeks --
"the gaze of Dahgut, the daughter of the king of Ys. It is also the gaze of Salomé. Above all, it is the limpid green clarity of the gaze of Astarté: that Astarté who is the demon of Lust and also the Demon of the Sea." 
The duc informs him that  he is about to leave for a "long absence," a last journey in which he is "exiling" himself from France; at the same  time he also tells him that "The Duc de Fréneuse is dead; that there is no longer anyone but Monsieur de Phocas."  Finally we become aware of exactly what has brought Phocas there: he wants to leave with him his manuscript to which he has consigned
"the first impressions of my illness: the unconscious temptations of a man of today, sunk in occultism and neurosis."
Phocas desires to go to Asia, where he hopes he might be able to find a cure for his obsessions -- he has a need "to cry out to someone" the "pangs" of his anguish:
"I need to know that here in Europe there is someone who pities me, and would rejoice in my recovery if ever Heaven should grant it to me."
The unnamed narrator agrees, and the rest of this book is comprised of  Phocas' manuscript, free of narrator interjections, related in chronological order. The narrative goes on to tell of his repulsion of Paris society, for example, after a performance at the Olympia, he recounts the "marionettes" in the audience, including "the banal figures of the males" and "the artificial elephantiasis of wives, sculpted in jet." Taking up the theme of artificiality, he notes that he has a fascination with masks and masquerades, to the point of wondering if he'll be haunted by masks since he seems to see them everywhere, from his own peers in society down into the lower ranks of the population.   However, he discovers that he is not alone -- that there is another man, an English painter named Claudius Ethal, who also sees the masks and is haunted by them; he also "sees through the mask of every human face," and it is here that this book starts really taking off.    Ethal promises a "cure" but things begin to change when a second person, Sir Thomas Welcome, comes into the picture.  And where things go from there, well...

Salomé and the Head of John 

The real problem I'm having with trying to collect my thoughts about this novel is that there's so much here to think about; so much here I want to talk about, so much I really would love to share.  I didn't go and check, but there's enough in this one volume to feed several PhD dissertations so trying to come up with a focus here is really tough. Masks, narcissism, misogyny, eyes and the "gaze," instincts/nature, death and beauty, Paris itself, an underlying but to me obvious subtext of homosexuality  -- there's just a LOT going on here, so I'll leave it to readers to discover how these all help to shape this novel and how they play out thematically from beginning to end.  I would caution anyone who wants to read this book not to gloss over the art, the mythology or the literary references here -- there are reasons they are there and in my opinion, their importance culminates in a visit made by Phocas to the Musée Gustave Moreau, suggested, strangely enough, separately by both Ethal and by Welcome.

There is just so very much to say about this dark, dark novel that like Ethal's bizarre hold on Phocas, will certainly cast a spell on its reader.  It is one of those books that refuses to let go, one that gets down deep into the psyche, making me wonder at several points where this story was taking me and sort of being afraid to move on because it was getting very deep into Phocas' head, which trust me, is a very scary place to be.   Once again I fail to do this book justice -- it is another one that absolutely must be experienced on one's own. And I loved it. Very much recommended, but certainly not for everyone -- it is not an easy read on many levels.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Nothing is Strange, by Mike Russell: Out there in a good way

Strange Books, 2014
144 pp

(my copy from the publisher - thank you!)

"We all already occupy the same space...It is just our centres that are at different points."

Small presses are a godsend to someone like me who seriously craves something beyond the ordinary, and I definitely got that in Mike Russell's Nothing is Strange.  While I was reading this little gem of a collection, for some reason René Magritte (whose work I absolutely love)  popped into my brain, but I could only remember part of a quotation of his, something to do with things being hidden and having an interest in wanting to see them.  It bugged me most of the evening, until finally I was so exasperated with my memory that I had to go look it up and voilà:
"Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.  There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us."
If I had to concisely summarize these little stories, I seriously couldn't think of a better way to do it than via Magritte's words.

There are twenty stories in this small book, obviously very short but definitely powerful.  What I discovered is that while reading, I could actually visualize his bizarre characters and settings in my head and it was sort of like walking through a gallery of surrealist paintings.  That's the best way I can describe it -- I wasn't  blessed with the gift of eloquence in my writing (as I'm so fond of saying, I'm a reader, not a writer and I'm a reader, not a reviewer),  so that image will just have to do.

As just one example - one of my favorite stories in this book is his "Extraordinary Elsie,"  a very short tale but one that speaks volumes. It begins like this:
"The words 'Extraordinary Elsie' are written in yellow light-bulbs on the front of the theatre... Yesterday, when the audience read about Extraordinary Elsie on the poster pasted to the front door of the theatre, they could hardly believe it, but believe it they did."
Inside, the theatre is filled with people who have come to see her, "a small, disheveled elderly woman" who steps inside a wooden crate on the stage. The crate is locked, and at the theater owner's nod, a young boy "begins a drum roll," which over time "continues...and continues...and continues..." but the crate stays locked.  Time goes by -- first, three minutes, then three hours, at which point "the drum roll has slowed to an occasional, exhausted tap," yet all the while, the audience "remains as positive and excited as they were when Elsie first appeared."  More time goes by -- three days, three years, nine years, and still the audience waits.  And then we're told that (without giving much away):
"Nine years ago, Elsie entered the theater through the back door. She had been on her way home from the supermarket when she had noticed the words written in yellow light-bulbs on the back of the theatre. The words read 'The Extraordinary Audience.' When Elsie read about the audience on the poster pasted to the back door of the theatre, she could hardly believe it, but believe it she did." 
I won't reveal what happens to either Elsie or the audience, but suffice it to say that images were just flying around in my head while reading this story and I was totally caught up in how extraordinary it is.
The thing is, most of the stories in this little book have this strange power that allows a reader to fully visualize what's happening, which helps bring about that aha moment when the brain cogs whir and meaning materializes.

Not everyone is going to love this book -- it probably won't appeal to a lot of readers who have to have things spelled out, explained, etc., since that doesn't really happen here. This is a book for people who enjoy a good think,  and who "... want to see what is hidden by what we see."  Its elegance lies in its simplicity, and its simplicity belies its complexity.

It is dark, definitely designed for people who want something different in their reading; it's also one of those books I appreciate for its ability to go outside the box and push my own reading boundaries outside of the norm. It is beyond cool, well beyond ordinary, and just so what I needed right now.