Monday, September 19, 2016

Strange Medicine, by Mike Russell

Strange Books, 2016
141 pp


Huge and head-down, tail-between-legs apologies to the author for not getting to this book sooner.  The truth is that it somehow got wedged in between two other books on this year's must-read shelf and sort of got covered up.  Oh well. At my house books go missing all the time and it could be months before I find them.

The back cover says that these are "weird and wonderful stories for all that ails you," and not only are they weird, they're downright odd, offbeat, and strange, making them just what the doctor ordered at this particular moment in time.

Sometimes I find myself craving stuff like this -- short, almost koan-like stories that make me stop and think after each one before moving on. Even though there are just 141 pages in this collection, you really have to take your time with each tale because author Mike Russell seems to enjoy writing in riddlespeak, which I actually happen to like when I'm wanting something different and off the beaten path.  At the same time, each story also has a point, which in some cases took longer than others to figure out, but then there's that aha moment when the lightbulb goes on.

My favorite story in this collection of eight tales is "Seventy-Two Bricks," a sad, poignant tale in which we discover what it takes to break down walls; "Mr. Dennis and the Universe" is also quite good, in which a man hates the whole universe for reasons I won't divulge, and I also really enjoyed "Brain," in which a professor opens an Institute for the Propagation of Rational Thought.  Actually, I liked them all, but these three stood out for me.  Also included here are a story about man who goes to work each day and follows a routine even though he has no job, a lighthearted tale about a series of telephone conversations, another about a spate of mime suicides, a very short one "The Spy" which made Paul Auster's New York Trilogy momentarily flash in my head, and finally, a strange tale about a girl with a fish growing out of her shoulder.  Looking through them, these stories may seem sort of nonsensical, but they're good for people who enjoy thinking through what they read rather than having everything laid out for them.

I always look forward to Mike Russell's work -- he's so out there that it's refreshing.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

"a story of real horror" : Eltonsbrody, by Edgar Mittelholzer

Secker & Warburg, 1960
191 pp 


"Wouldn't you say that a quiet old house like Eltonsbrody is the right setting for mysterious happenings? For gruesome, blood-curdling goings-on?" 
                                                                                -- 118

Mittelholzer throws out a warning to potential readers of this book on the very first page, saying that the tale we are about to read is a
 "shocking story -- a story of real horror  -- and anyone who feels that he can't stomach real horror had better go no further than here."
After reading that introduction, in my head I figured things could go one of two ways here: either I'm going to be happily surprised with what's coming next, or I'm going to be really disappointed and never trust Mittelholzer (or at least Woodsley, his narrator) again.  Well, I'm happy to report that Eltonsbrody turned out to be just as the author had promised:  "a story of real horror".  Unlike the other Mittelholzer novel in which I first met Woodsley, My Bones and My Flute, Eltonsbrody is not an outright tale of the supernatural, but it is extremely frightening exploring the horrors that dwell within the human mind.

Set in Barbados, this book begins with the arrival of our narrator Woodsley (a commercial artist), arriving at Eltonsbrody, the old house owned by the eccentric Mrs. Scaife.  Woodsley had been "stranded" in the area after travelling from Bridgetown, and the bus driver had suggested he try the old house, since according to him, Mrs. Scaife is "a koindly lady," who would be "sure to help you out for the night."   He has been invited to stay on, an invitation he accepts, since he's decided that the house will become the subject of his next painting.  So the one night turns into a few more, and over the course of his time there, Woodsley becomes witness to several bizarre and horrific events. But really, nothing is stranger than Mrs. Scaife herself, who has a particular affinity with those people upon whom she sees the mark of death; woe be unto he or she who comes to Eltonsbrody without it.

from Loop Barbados

The wind moans and howls throughout this novel, which like most books I end up absolutely loving, is immersed in atmosphere, and as in My Bones and My Flute and his Shadows Move Among Them, the Caribbean landscape also figures importantly here.  Furthermore, as in both of these books, there is much here regarding race and class integrated into the story as well as art.    But I'm posting it here because as Woodsley notes,  it is a sort of horror story, albeit one that doesn't rely on standard horror/supernatural tropes in favor of the horrors at work in a dark, twisted and downright warped psyche. To me, that makes this novel all the more frightening, and even scarier is the question of how someone's insanity can seem so normal in the mind of the person who is afflicted. As Mrs. Scaife says,
"There are many strange people in this world, you know. Some are laughed at, and some are treated as mental cases -- simply because the normal run of people don't understand their strangeness." 
Trust me --  by the time the last page is turned, the "strangeness" in this book will have left its mark.

 I am a sucker for stories that take place in old, isolated houses, especially those near the sea, and I was not at all disappointed with this one.  It does take a while for the scary stuff to get rolling, but once it starts, it just doesn't let up until the novel is over, and I guarantee that things will play out in your head as you search for a rational explanation.   Each new creepy occurrence  is more tense than the last until finally, all is made known at the end.  I will say that for some modern readers, the things that happen in this novel may seem a little tame, perhaps a bit laughable, but for me, it was a page turner.  I just love this old stuff, and I'm also starting to really appreciate Mitteholzer's writing and storytelling abilities.

Recommended, mainly for those who've read Mittelholzer in the past and for people who enjoy older books with lots and lots of atmosphere.

Thanks, Ryan!

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

All Souls' Night: Stories by Hugh Walpole

I absolutely had to chuckle at one reader's two-star review of this book -- "charming, but surprisingly old fashioned."  Well, hello --  this collection was published in 1933, so go figure.   He's right on one point, though  -- the book is definitely charming, and once you're into the eerie, strange tales, positively hackle raising.  Let's put it this way: I enjoyed the supernatural stories enough to invest a chunk of change in a "used, like new" copy of the Tartarus edition of Walpole's Tarnhelm, the Best Supernatural Stories of Hugh Walpole, but I also appreciated the not-so-eerie tales enough to want to look into more of Walpole's work.

Strangely enough, it wasn't a story with a supernatural bent that won the day for me in this book, but rather "The Silver Mask," which is probably the darkest tale in this book.  When I find a story like this, my overactive sense of empathy kicks into high gear, making the main character's plight just plain horrific to read, and I'm sure I stopped breathing for a bit as things continued to slide downhill out of control for this person.  I refuse to give up any details, but in this case, calling this entry a "horror" story is beyond appropriate, even without any supernatural elements.

So, let's take a peek at the book as a whole. The introduction to this book (which I saved for last as should anyone planning to read this collection) notes that Walpole's tales
"are transactions with the transitory, with something glimpsed, with the inward and spiritual its counterpoint with the outward and solidly physical." 
That is precisely how I would describe it if I had the same writing talent as John Howard who wrote the intro, and to continue, I'd also agree with his statement that
"Walpole tries to comprehend the living as much as the dead and their revenants," 
since it really shows here in each and every story.

Speaking of stories, there are sixteen, given here with absolutely NO spoilers (*denotes the eerie):

"The Whistle," positively spot-on for people who love dogs;
"The Silver Mask", about which I will say nothing, not even the slightest hint
"The Staircase," another one where to tell is to spoil, but I will say that it's rather unique *
"A Carnation for an Old Man," I've seen this sort of thing done before but Walpole does a fine job here *
"Tarnhelm," which is just plain creepy no matter how you slice it. I don't generally like this sort of thing --"the classic werewolf story" as they call it on the back-cover blurb, but this one had me spooked. *
"Mr. Oddy" -- a story for book lovers and one that reminds me of modern readers who don't bother to read anything older than what's currently in vogue.
"Seashore Macabre" made me wonder if this was based on something strange that happened to Walpole as a child.
"Lilac" -- although not so eerie, definitely has some supernatural overtones *
"The Oldest Talland" -- an absolutely delightful tale of an old woman who has tyrannized her family over the years, until one day ... -- not scary, but very well done. It's one where I couldn't help but laugh.

Land's End, Cornwall, 1930s from 

"The Little Ghost" -- worthy of inclusion in a volume of the best British ghost stories. Mum's the word on this one, but oh, that ending!! Yow!! *
"Mrs. Lunt"  --   Whoa. Need I say more? *
"Sentimental But True" -- could be viewed as scenes from a marriage.  This one really gets into its main characters' heads, and it's also  lovely, if brief, look at Cornwall.
"Portrait in Shadow"  -- you'll never look at a wall portrait the same way again.  This one, like "A Carnation for an Old Man," takes place in Spain.
"The Snow" if revenge from the grave is your thing (not a spoiler, on the back cover)  -- look no further. Very nicely done. *
"The Ruby Glass" is another that could possibly reflect incidents from Walpole's childhood; the intro notes that the characters appear in other works he's written, so highly likely.  This one I think is a mismatch to all of the rest of the stories here, and doesn't really seem to belong, but that's just my opinion.
"Spanish Dusk," like two others I've mentioned here, is set in Spain, where unrequited love can be a real bitch.

Unlike some of the characters in "Mr. Oddy,"  who read only what's trendy and modern because    "everything that's old is out of favour with our set,"  I have this deep and abiding love for these older tales, and I was not at all disappointed with All Souls' Night.  As is the case with every single anthology I've ever read, some are great, some are good, and some are just so-so, but which ones fall into these categories are really a matter for the reader to sort out. I liked all of these stories, some more than others, and there really is a wide range here.  However,  if you're in it for just the creepies, well, they're definitely worth the cost of the entire book.

More Walpole in my immediate future, thanks once again to Valancourt.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Night-Pieces: Eighteen Tales by Thomas Burke

Valancourt Books, 2016
originally published 1935
166 p


Returning to short-story form once again, last night I finished Night-Pieces, a lovely little book of eighteen tales by Thomas Burke.  Burke is quite well known for his Limehouse Nights, but Night-Pieces is my introduction to this author. It comes at a good time in my reading life -- I've been reading different books on this year's Booker Prize longlist and my brain is completely befuddled. What better way to unwind than by picking up a Valancourt book?   And this one was definitely aaahh inspiring -- it's a mix of stories that include crime and the supernatural -- I mean, really. What more could I ask for? 

I was drawn in right off the bat with the first story, "Miracle in Suburbia," where a young man is commissioned to retrieve a certain object.  Reluctant to do so, even for the huge amount of money he's being paid, the younger man is convinced when the older man offers him his full protection.  This is a story with a great twist, and really set the tone for the good things that were about to come my way. 

And come my way they did.  One thing really sticks out here -- in every single story that's in this book, somehow landscape, be it urban or rural, has some sort of role to play either actively or passively, with  most of these stories taking place on London streets. It's very clear that Burke has some sort of affinity with and love for this city; a brief look at other books by this author reveals titles that include The Streets of London, Rambles in Remote London, Nights in London, etc.  And as I read through each and every story that played out on these streets, I found myself visualizing them, which is a sign of a good writer.  A second and very important thing is that Burke seems to know the darker side of human nature quite well, and this becomes very obvious in pretty much every story in this book. 

From "Miracle in Suburbia" the book moves through seventeen other little tales -- presented here without any spoilers,  just appetite whetters: 

"Yesterday Street," in which a man roams through the streets of his childhood with unexpected results, followed by "Funspot," where the name of a particular street holds enough fascination for a money collector that he conjures up a story built around it -- a tragedy, "Something out of the inkwell of Beaudelaire or Poe, or De Nerval."  "Uncle Ezekiel's Long Sight" is another good one. Let's just say that if you wait until your elderly uncle dozes off, life might just get better all around for everyone. Another nice quirky twist is found in "The Horrible God" where a man who "isn't easily scared" is frightened out of his wits by the feeling he's being followed and that a strange, disembodied voice is talking to him. "Father and Son" finds a son at odds with his dad and desperate after dad cuts off his pocket money.   One very much in keeping with themes I look for in my reading is "Johnson Looked Back"  -- a truly creepy story that takes the reader into the alleyways of the city that "hold fear more firmly than open streets" as a man makes his way toward an abandoned house.  "Two Gentlemen"  plays on the idea of honor and obligation between friends that Young Fred finds useful. And then we come to one of my very favorite stories at the midpoint of this collection, "The Black Courtyard," where a man finds himself fleeing from "fear of a courtyard thick with darkness, deaf to noise, and alive only with the eyes of blind houses" that serve as witness.  To what I won't say, but yikes. This is a really, really good one. 

Continuing on, "The Gracious Ghosts" may help you if your house happens to be haunted; then, with "Jack Wapping" we get an interesting little story of a day in a working-class man's life.  This one to me fits within its historical time frame quite nicely -- a bit more on the political side but still well done. Back to crime once more with "One Hundred Pounds," where Granpa should have really placed his faith elsewhere.  And then we come to another story I just loved, "The Man Who Lost His Head."  The moral of this story is be careful what you wish for because you just might get it.  This one was outstanding. Once again moving into the crime zone we come to "Murder Under the Crooked Spire," followed by my favorite story of the entire book, "The Lonely Inn." To me, this one steals the entire show with its delightful eerieness that creeps up ever so slowly until BOOM - gotcha. I happened to be reading this one during a huge thunderstorm which only amplified the creep factor.    "The Watcher" is up next, and really, it's just one of the saddest little stories in this book, although very dark and atmospheric. I can't say anything about this one without giving it away, so I'll just move on to "Events at Wayless-Wagtail," another one that won't allow even the briefest brief. And last, but by no means not least, "The Hollow Man" closes the book on a high note of creep factor when one old friend seeks out another and finds himself unable to leave. 

All in all, Night-Pieces is a fantastic collection that any lover of old British tales should read.  While it's definitely a mixed bag where genre is concerned, it ends up not mattering one whit since they all seem to blend nicely together here because of Burke's atmospheric writing style.  Then, of course,  there's the added bonus that with only one exception, all of these stories center around the streets of London and as noted on the back cover, "that immense city's dark back alleys, shadowy courts, and mysterious houses."   

I hadn't read a Valancourt book for some time now, and this one I chose at random from my shelves  while looking for something I knew would be good. I wasn't wrong. Once again, Valancourt delivers. I ought to throw roses at their feet or something for the books they publish.  Kudos and keep up the great work.