Monday, November 28, 2016

if you really want to scare yourself silly, then by all means read this: It Can't Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis

Signet/New American Library/Penguin, 2005
originally published 1935
384 pp

paperback (read earlier)

Given what's going on in American politics right now, this book wins my prize for most frightening read of 2016.

To put the novel in its historical perspective, I turn to an article in the New Yorker written by  Alexander Nazaryan  (October 19th of this year) that says

"Sinclair Lewis published the novel as Adolf Hitler was making Germany great again, violating the Treaty of Versailles by establishing the Wehrmacht. Benito Mussolini invaded Ethopia. Things at home weren't much better: a race riot in Harlem, dust storms in the Midwest. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act, but the promise of the New Deal remained unfulfilled for many. The Times, that November, reported on a meeting of the New Jersey Bankers Association, whose president offered a blunt assessment of the national mood: 'America is tired of adventure and anxious,' the man of industry said. The people wanted 'safety and conservatism again.' "

 I'm not going to go into any detail here,  but the man at the center of American politics in this story  is Berzelius (Buzz) Windrip, a seemingly down-home sort of populist candidate who ran against FDR and won, due to his appeal to potential voters who are in agreement with his rhetoric about financial security and anti-immigrant nativism. Once in office, he begins to usher in
" a fascistic regime of suppression, terror, and totalitarianism -- all draped up in red, white, and blue bunting." (ix)
Standing against Windrip is (dare I say it?) the liberal media, here represented in the character of Doremus Jessup of Fort Beulah, Vermont.  Jessup completely gets what's really going on and feels a deep need to channel his outrage into some sort of action. As things continue to get worse, as institutions designed to safeguard American democracy are shut down one by one, well, you get the drift.

The novel reveals how it can happen here, but much more interesting to me was watching one character in particular, Shad Ledue, Jessup's very unhappy former handyman, "the kind of vindictive peasant who sets fire to barns."  Ledue is part of the working-class poor who feels he's not been given proper respect by his employer, so galvanized by Windrip's rhetoric,  he throws  in his lot with Windrip and the single political party the Corpos, and starts moving up the ladder of power with revenge against Jessup his number one priority.  

Considering the huge number of page tabs I stuck in this book, I obviously I found plenty to think about here, and I could easily talk about this novel for hours.  But I won't. I read this book through a day and an entire night -- no way was I going to put this one down before I finished.  The knots in my stomach got tighter and tighter -- quite frankly, I had a full-blown, serious case of paralyzing fear reading this book, and when the election came and went, well, it all came back to me again, making things even worse.  Even now, nearly a month after I finished it, it still has that same power.  It continues to stay active in the back of my head, making it a book worthy of every second of reading time I put into it. Not many novels can do that, quite frankly.

Someone said to me some time before the election that if things went a certain way, reading this book would be "moot," to which I say pish-posh, you're wrong.  Lewis wrote this novel as satire, and according to the introduction to this novel,  It Can't Happen Here  "gave shape" to a number of "anxieties" people faced during the 1930s, so it's very much a novel reflective of its time.  And as I replied to said person, good literature is never moot. If a book written some eighty years ago can weigh so heavily on the mind because of what's happening in America right now, well, that's one hell of a story, and by no means moot.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

something new in something old... Lonely Haunts, from Coachwhip Publications

Coachwhip Publications, 2014
362 pp


"I always know how to distinguish a true ghost-story from a faked one. The true ghost-story never has any point, and the faked one dare not leave it out." 

                  -- Mrs. H.D. Everett, "Anne's Little Ghost"  (288)

Technically I'm supposed to be reading Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me right now, but this long holiday weekend called for something floaty so I grabbed this book from  my shelves.   Fans of obscure or long-forgotten ghost-story writers will most certainly welcome this collection by Coachwhip, a "one-man publishing venture" with a lot of very cool titles. And damn the man -- the last few pages of this book are cover shots of other Coachwhip publications that I now feel compelled to buy, plus he has some interesting looking old mystery novels I want to pick up.   Aargh!

The only thing that would have made this book better would have been an introduction to the two authors, but I understand why there isn't one, at least in the case of Mrs. H.D. (Huskisson) Everett.   It's difficult to find out much about this woman  (1851-1923), who  between 1896 and 1920 published some twenty-two books under the name of Theo Douglas. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy of Science Fiction reveals that half of her books "had fantasy and supernatural content."  She wrote two Gothic novels for which she is most well known; one of these,  Iras,  is described (in part) at L.W. Currey as a
"Novel of magic and witchcraft and the raising of the dead. Young Egyptian woman is revived in England after seven centuries in a state of suspended animation in a priest's tomb at Luxor." 
 Another one for which she is known is her psychic vampire story Malevola (1914), with the "mysterious Madame Thérèse Despard," who is "able to draw into herself the beauty and vitality of another during the process of massage."  [Wait. I'm having a psychic moment myself here -- oooh weee ooooh --  I see myself curled up in a blanket reading both of these tales in 2017.]

On to Sir Thomas Graham Jackson (1835-1924), who is much more well known as a great architect. The blurb about Jackson in the Ash-Tree Press edition of his Six Ghost Stories (long out of print -- another reason to pick up this Coachwhip edition!) notes that he was
"celebrated in his day, as one of the foremost architects in England. His many commissions and restorations included extensive work at Oxford, Cambridge, and many English public schools, while his work at Winchester Cathedral between 1905 and 1912 almost certainly ensured that great church's survival to the present day." 
He was also a "keen traveller and antiquarian, whose journeys took him throughout Britain and Europe," and later he would use his experiences in writing "several ghost stories for the amusement of family and friends... collected together in book form in 1919."  His biography can be found in several places online, so we'll leave off there.

On to the book now, which is perfect for someone like me always on the lookout for obscure, forgotten writers and their works. First up,  Jackson's stories "were written in idle hours for the amusement of the home circle," as he says in the preface to his collection; he also notes that M.R. James (noted here as "the author of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary") lays down two conditions for a good story of the kind."  The first is that the "setting of the scene must be in ordinary that one may say "This might happen now, and to me," and the second is "that the ghost must be malevolent," a rule that Jackson decided to "violate" in two of his stories.  I'll leave it to potential readers to discover which stories those are.  There are, of course, six tales here, the last four of which concern themselves with guilt, and  thus making for great ghostly reading

"The Lady of Rosemount," in which a houseguest ("a born antiquary") has a strange encounter in a an old chapel that replays in his dreams;
"The Ring" finds "la vecchia religione"  striking out for revenge when someone removes property from an old tomb;
"A Romance of the Picadilly Tube" is a tale of two brothers whose father's death and inheritance leads one down a path of temptation, with ghostly results;
"The Eve of St. John" is  a sort of mystery story from the past that finds its unknown ending played out in the present, and is my favorite story of the six;
"Pepina" finds a man in love facing disapproval by the brother of his beloved up until the day the brother dies and his troubles really begin; and finally
"The Red House," in which a murderer discovers that he's being haunted by a ghostly companion.

Obviously there's much more to those six tales but hey - if I say everything there is to say about them, well, then there's no point in anyone reading this book. And that would be a shame.

Onto the next part of this book, which is

courtesy of Internet Archive

There are so many well-crafted, creepifying tales here by Mrs. H.D. Everett that it's tough to pick a favorite. As the back-cover blurb notes, her tales are a mix of "...ghost stories, with family haunts, communication from the other side, malevolent curses, and more."  This is certainly true -- there is a good and varied selection of tales here that keep the reading fun without becoming too repetitious, which is always an issue in any ghost-story collection by a single author.  Some tend to follow along the same lines, but even so, they are definitely original in the telling.

Now that I'm thinking about it, three stories float to the top right away.   The title story, "The Death Mask," is just so flat out, unbelievably good that I could feel my eyes getting bigger while reading it, and I'm experiencing it nearly one hundred years after it was written. No spoilers or even the least bit of anything about this story here.  I also really enjoyed "The Next Heir," which finds Richard Quinton receiving news that he just might possibly be the heir to his second cousin's fortune and his estate.  As excited as he is about the whole thing, it's the conditions his second cousin places on the inheritance that are troubling.  This story is almost novella length, but the horror is sustained throughout. Another good one is "Nevill Nugent's Legacy," which is also the first of Everett's stories in this book to examine the changes and the trauma brought about by World War I, most notably from a female point of view.  Here Kenneth Campbell has returned from the war, which his wife notes had "made a great change in our circumstances," and if that wasn't bad enough, he'd come back "ill and broken." So when he is left a substantial legacy that can change their lives, the two are overjoyed ... until strange things begin to happen once they decide to visit their new property. It's a solid story of a gruesome haunting, sending those welcome frissons of horror up the spine.    The other stories are as follows:

"Parson Clench," a tale that takes place in a small, "deeply rural parish" where they say the people there "just begin to realise they are born when it is time for them to die, and that it takes at least as long to convince them they are dead."  And trust me, not everyone gets the hint that they've passed on in this story.   "The Wind of Dunowe" is set in an old Scottish castle, home to the MacIvors, who have a foolproof way of protecting what's theirs, as one guest will soon discover. "The Crimson Blind," also set in the Scottish highlands, starts out with two brothers deciding to pull a fast one over their cousin Robert in a house that is said to be haunted.  Years later  after acting as best man at his friend's wedding, Robert finds himself back at the house yet again, now the property of said friend. This time there's no suggestion of practical jokes when he starts having some weird visions.  Next up is "Fingers of a Hand," which is one of those stories I can't talk about so as not to wreck things, as is the case in "Anne's Little Ghost," another one which examines personal trauma and begs  the question of whether or not "some houses have a psychical atmosphere which can be variously moulded and used..."  These two little gems are followed by "Over the Wires," where a man seeking a family of Belgian refugees finally receives a call from their niece, who is also his fiancée. The problem is, however, that ... (!!!) The next one is "A Water Witch," where an overbearing sister is called on to help her brother who leaves his wife alone while he goes off on a shooting trip, and discovers why his wife was absolutely terrified at the thought of being alone.  It is sort of the same sort of tale as "Fingers of a Hand," so I will say no more, as is "A Girl in White."   "The Lonely Road" follows a man and his strange companion over eight miles as he walks a road at night where of late there have been a number of assaults and robberies.  "A Perplexing Case" is rather a unique tale that stands apart from all of the rest.  While it also has very much to do with postwar trauma, the story takes a bizarre turn that really is more science fictionish than ghostly, but certainly well worth the read. Finally, in "Beyond the Pale," we move to the American frontier where after some property is stolen, a woman decides to take back what is rightfully hers with some horrific consequences.

Overall, Lonely Haunts is a lovely, haunting, and seriously page-flipping collection, and even better, it's my introduction to  two more obscure writers, which is a major  big deal for me.  Not all of the stories reach greatness, but I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't creeped out most of the time and highly entertained by the entire book.  Anyone can read what's current or read tales from the past that are already very well known, but for me there's much more pleasure to be had in discovering forgotten writers and their stories that I never knew existed.

Coachwhip guy -- keep up the good work! I've read two Coachwhip collections now and have been blown away by both.  Highly recommended for that reader who wants something new in old ghostly fiction.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

campfire reading, part two of two: Devil in the Darkness, by Archie Roy

Valancourt Books, 2016
originally published 1978
158 pp


Book two of the campfire reads and oh, it's a good one! Then again, I'm a huge huge fan of haunted house stories; add in the "benighted" aspect and there's no holding me back.  Devil in the Darkness made me crazy happy -- sometimes I'm just in it for story and this book did not at all disappoint.

The author of this book is no fly-by-night dude who decided one day to write a book about a haunted house.  Archie Roy was a celebrated scientist, and in his introduction to this novel, Greg Gbur notes that
"what we have in Archie Roy's Devil in the Darkness is a truly unique novel: a haunted house tale written by a man who was simultaneously a professional physical scientist, a professional author, and a professional paranormal investigator." 
 While that's interesting to note, the real draw is the story itself -- it's one I couldn't put down until I'd finished the entire book.  I'm all about reading ambience, and with nature at night in the background -- owls calling, scuffling noises in the dried leaves on the ground, and the crackle of an open campfire in an otherwise silent darkness, I found the perfect setting for reading this book.

Set in Scotland, a newlywed couple on the way to their honeymoon destination find themselves lost and caught up in a horrific snowstorm. As the road begins to deteriorate, as the windshield wipers fail, and as the couple is unable to turn around to make it back to safety, Paul and Carol Wilson decide that it's time to take shelter anywhere they can find it. In the darkness they see a light, leading them to Ardvreck House.  The man who answers the door informs him that he and Carol are welcome to stay, and that all of the people currently in the house are "strangers."  Other than that bit of information, no one tells the newlyweds who are they are, where they're from, or why they're there in the house, but since the Wilsons plan on leaving in the morning, it doesn't seem too important at the time.  The newlyweds are given a room, where they bed down for the night. At about 2:20 a.m., Paul is awakened by strange sounds from the room above theirs, goes up to investigate, and finds nothing. The next day, they depart, but return to the house when they discover that the road ahead is no good, and they're stuck for the duration.  It is then when their housemates reveal what they're doing at Ardvreck House, and it is not long at all before the Wilsons become witnesses to strange events taking place there.  Discovering what lies at the heart of these dark doings becomes a quest for everyone in the house, but whatever it is that shares the house with these people isn't going to make things easy for them.

Greg Gbur in his introduction goes on to say that the revelation behind what's going on in this house "clearly draws upon Roy's own investigations and theories about hauntings," which makes the story even more fun to read, knowing that it comes from the mind of someone who's spent a lot of time in reputedly-haunted houses.  While it may not be the best haunted house story I've ever read (the honor there goes hands down to The Haunting of Hill House), it's definitely fun with a good, solid mystery at its core.  And when all is said and done, it's also highly satisfying and just oozes atmosphere.

With no gore and no guts spilling out anywhere, Devil in the Darkness reminds us that blood doesn't need to be splashed all over a horror novel's pages for it to provide good, solid entertainment and a story that will keep its reader turning pages.  I had a lot of fun with this book and once again, a salute to the Valancourt guys for liking it enough to re-introduce it into the reading world. I liked it enough to immediately buy two other books by Archie Roy, so that should say something right there.

campfire reading, part one of two: Muladona, by Eric Stener Carlson

Tartarus, 2016
290 pp


Trying to get myself mentally put back together after a few upsets over the last week or two, Larry and I just spent three days far  from the madding crowd in a cabin in the woods. No television, no people, nothing but silence and the smell of oak trees -- an environment beyond conducive to mental health repair and reading, so read I did, perfectly relaxed while laying out by a roaring campfire.   First book, this one, by Eric Stener Carlson, who is the author of one of my all-time favorite novels, The Saint Perpetuus Club of Buenos Aires (2009).  This time he's given his readers the tale of Muladona, "a doomed soul transformed into the devil's mule," based in part on an old Catalan legend.

This story belongs to Vergil Erasmus Strömberg (Verge),  who tells us at the beginning that years ago he'd promised never to reveal the story of what happened in 1918, but it seems that "recent events" have made it necessary to go back on his word.  His tale takes place in Texas, 1918, as the influenza epidemic rages through the small town of Incarnation.  He's a "sickly boy" whose world is pretty much confined to his house and his books, and those have to be smuggled in by a friend since Verge's father, a coldhearted and narrow-minded Scandinavian Protestant pastor, believes that "anything written after Dante's Inferno" is "pure debauchery."  Verge's brother Sebastian also has an interest of which his father wouldn't approve -- he is fascinated with mythology, anthropology, and mysticism; he also has a keen interest in "magical transformations into animals," and keeps his forbidden collection of books under the floorboards of his room.  When they were younger, they were also transfixed by others who would feed them creepy tales, and one of these centered on the legend of the muladona: 
"...when a woman commits an impure act, she becomes the devil-mule at night. She chooses her victims just like the first one ... the liars, the gossipers, the bad, li'l kids. And you'll hear her comin' for ya at night, by the way she clanks the chains of hell." 
As the flu wreaks death and devastation throughout Incarnation, Verge, now 13, finds himself alone in the family home.  His mother has been gone since he was seven, his father receives a telegram that takes him away from Incarnation to tend another pastor's flock, and Sebastian has run away from home with the idea of traveling "from reservation to reservation" across Texas to "record the stories of the elders before they disappear," as a volunteer doing ethnological surveys for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  The woman looking after him also has to leave to take care of her sister, so Verge is left on his own.  It isn't too long before he receives a strange telegram from his brother that at first Verge thinks is a joke, but in reality it is a warning that muladona is coming for him at midnight and an admonition to be prepared.  And when the visit takes place, this strange creature from hell tells Verge  that over the next seven nights,
"I will vi-isit you. Each night, I'll tell you a be-ed time story. Wrapped within the sto-ories are clues to the identity of the person who takes the form of this mi-ighty creature you see before you. A-any time you like, you can throw back the sheets and tell me who you think I am. If you're sma-art enough, Poof! I disappear, and you never have to see me again."
If he fails to guess the creature's name correctly, the muladona promises, Verge will be dragged down to hell. And so the stories begin, as does Verge's torment while he tries to make sense of what he's hearing.

If I try to explain further, I'll wreck things for potential readers, but there is a LOT going on in this book, starting with the intolerance of the good Christian folk who stopped in Incarnation and made it theirs, relegating the "descendents of the natives" who formerly lived in the town's "grand old mansions" to the status of menial servants. As the dustjacket blurb notes, the story takes the reader "through the dark history of Incarnation, from the murder of the Indians by the Spanish settlers..." so beware -- it is not at all pretty.   It's not too difficult to understand the subtext here, but the most interesting parts for me were the stories told by the muladona each night.  Oh my god -- I already knew that this author is one hell of a writer, but I was completely sucked into each story, each one pointing to some horrific realities not just for Verge but also in their repeating themes that I'll leave for others to discover.

I will say that I am not a big fan of monster stories, but sheesh -- this one had me tied up in knots as I waited for young Verge to figure things out.  And what's more, when I got to a part toward the end where Verge warns someone  of the muladona's  impending visit, it dawned on me that Mr. Carlson had set up a world here in which no one thinks our young lad is crazy, but one in which the existence of such a creature is just another part of the landscape.

Muladona is original, fresh, and above all, it is a thinking person's horror novel, which I genuinely appreciate.  It's not some slapdash book that's been thrown together -- au contraire -- it is very nicely constructed, well thought out and intelligently written.  I would expect no less from the author, whose The Saint Perpetuus Club of Buenos Aires is truly a work of genius. He continues that genius here.  Don't miss this one -- mine is the hardcover copy, but there is an e-book available as well. Highly, highly recommended for readers who enjoy the work of excellent writers and for people who like their horror novels more on the cerebral side.  This is a good one, folks.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Outcast Spirit and Other Stories, by Lady Dilke

Snuggly Books, 2016
150 pp

paperback - my copy from the publisher, so my many, many thanks to Anna.

The back cover blurb of this book says that "there is nothing quite like the short stories of Lady Dilke in the annals of English literature," and although I can't rightly say that I'm familiar with the entire  "annals of English literature," I can say that the stories inside this short book are delightfully different than anything I've ever read.  This is one of the very best story collections I've ever experienced, heightened by the sort of dreamlike quality hovering around each and every tale.  Don't let the fact that it's only a short 150 pages fool you -- this book is filled with some of the most complex tales I've ever encountered.

the author, 1887, from the National Portrait Gallery

Brian Stableford's introduction to this book offers a brief biography of this author, and there are several places online where you can find  biographical information about her as well, so I'll just offer a few interesting factoids:  she was a well-known figure in her day, with friends such as John Ruskin and George Eliot.   A brief blurb from the UK's  National Portrait Gallery reveals that she was a "scholar of French art and culture," going on to become The Academy's art editor as well as  a rather prolific writer of well-known "volumes on painters, sculptors, engravers, architects and draughtsmen in eighteenth-century France (1899-1902)."  An early biographer notes that  Lady Dilke was also "absorbed by zeal for social reform," and, according to Stableford, she "tirelessly" campaigned for women's rights more than ten years before "the explosion of the suffragette movement."

At this point someone's reading this and saying yeah, well, that's all very interesting, but what about the book?  Worth mentioning here is that one of the most unique aspects of Lady Dilke's fiction writing is that from a young age, according to Stableford, she'd "suffered from 'hallucinations'," of which she started keeping a record, trying to "anchor" them "scientifically and philosophically," but also with the idea of "developing them in future in a methodical literary fashion." Trust me -- this little factoid becomes very apparent while reading her stories. He also notes that despite the fact that Lady Dilke seemed satisfied in life, some of these stories seem to "embody feelings that the author had about aspects of her own life," an idea supported in the memoir of his wife written by her second husband as part of her The Book of the Spiritual Life, in which he states that she "wrote her stories to lay ghosts."  Just what ghosts these might be I will leave to the reader to discover, since  these stories are highly allegorical, and  most are downright disturbing when you stop to consider what you've just read.   Some you'd swear were written during medieval times, and most all of them are filled with some sort of supernatural elements at play which differ from story to story.

Bypassing my usual pattern with short-story collections,  I'm not going to go into each story here because to disclose anything at all about these tales would be doing a serious disservice to potential readers. While I enjoyed each and every one of these stories,  I especially loved "The Hangman's Daughter," a shiver-producing little story, followed by "The Triumph of the Cross," both of which fit together nicely because of their historical aspects, but the one that really wowed me was "The Serpent's Head."  I won't say why so as not to spoil things, but this story is just downright chilling to the point where I had to put the book down, walk away, and wait for a while before returning to it.  I will say that her somewhat archaic language  is not always easy to get through, and that if you think you can breeze through this book's short 150 pages in an hour or two and get the most out of it,  you'd probably be wrong.  It is, as I like to say, a thinking-person's book, one where I felt compelled to stop and consider what I'd just read after each story.  And while I'm neither a true book reviewer nor even talented enough to come up with any sort of  meaningful overall analysis of this collection, my casual-reader self knows exquisite work when I find it.

I think the best way I can describe this book as a whole is to say that it reads like a mix of fables and otherworldly tales. There's also an ethereal quality at work here that sort of blankets the reader in a hazy atmosphere of unreality; the reward is in trying to discern the actual  reality that is hidden beneath the surface.  Very highly recommended -- I live to find books like this one.