Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories, ed. Tara Moore

Valancourt Books, 2016
291 pp

" ... What is their use; what good ever comes from these departed souls' revisiting the glimpses of the moon, and by sights, signs, or sounds, holding converse with us of the visible world?" 
                                               --  W.W. Fenn, "The Haunted Rock," 200

Fenn poses a very good question here, one that is answered in different ways throughout this collection of Victorian Christmas ghost stories,  a mix of thirteen (of course!) tales. The Valancourt crew has outdone itself with this book, and editor Tara Moore should also be given major pats on the back for her outstanding work here.  Each story begins with a brief introduction to the author, along with a brief note or two as to where his or her story first appeared in print.  And for people like me who are afflicted with full-on geekiness, every now and then there's the added bonus of footnotes providing references for further study. 

According to Tara Moore, author of Victorian Christmas in Print [which you can read about here and which I would seriously kill to own but (and with sincere apologies)  at its current price that just won't be happening] writes in her introduction that 
"The season of Christmas coincides with the shortest days of the year, and for middle-class Victorians, a chance for families to reconnect in story-telling circles. Urban dwellers, disconnected from village legends, simply picked up a magazine specially made to lace children's dreams with terror. The bleak, shadow-filled walk from the story circle to one's dark bedroom presented an uncomfortably eerie space to reflect on the mental images conveyed by those grisly tales."
She also reveals that ghosts were not a product of the Victorian era  -- they had been "a staple of both periodicals and Christmas for a century before the Victorian Christmas publishing boom."  When taxes raised the price of periodicals, "ghosts resorted to starring in oral accounts." It was a tradition shared and enjoyed by the poor as well as the rich.   The 1820s and the 1830s saw the rise in popularity of the Christmas literary annual, and special periodicals began to appear, their publishers either printing "special Christmas numbers or simply tailoring their December and January numbers for Christmas reading, and that meant ghosts."    One more interesting factoid and I'll move along:  women were huge contributors to ghost-story literature, producing "between fifty and seventy percent of all ghost fiction from the nineteenth century."

On with the stories now.  True-blue fans of the Victorian ghost story will recognize the names of most of the authors whose work has found their way into this collection, and there are also four "anonymous" contributions.   While I won't go into any sort of description for any of these tales, the table of contents reads as follows:

1. "The Tapestried Chamber," by Sir Walter Scott
2. "The Old Nurse's Story," by Elizabeth Gaskell 
3. "Horror: A True Tale," by John Berwood Harwick
4. "Bring Me a Light!" by Anonymous
5. "Old Hooker's Ghost," by Anonymous
6. "The Ghost's Summons," by Ada Buisson
7. "Jack Layford's Friend," by Anonymous
8. "How Peter Parley Laid a Ghost," by Anyonymous
9. "A Mysterious Visitor," by Ellen Wood
10. "The Haunted Rock," by W.W. Fenn
11. "The Lady's Walk," by Margaret Oliphant
12. "The Captain of the Pole-Star," by Arthur Conan Doyle

and last, but certainly by no means least,

13. "The Doll's Ghost," by F. Marion Crawford

For avid readers and aficionados of eerie classic tales, this collection is manna from Victorian ghost-story heaven. 

Snuggle up with a cup of your favorite hot brew, wrap up in a cozy blanket, light a fire in the fireplace, and prepare to be transported out of this world and back through time.  This is the ultimate perfect book for Christmas reading, but it's also ideal for any other time of the year. I have the hardcover edition, but it's also available in paperback and there's a Kindle version as well.  It is a lovely book, and most definitely now a treasured part of my own personal collection.  

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Things We Lost in the Fire: Stories, by Mariana Enriquez

Hogarth, 2017 (February)
208 pp

arc -- thanks thanks thanks to LibraryThing and to the publisher for my copy.

I loved this book. Absolutely loved this book. Given my preference for works from the past, that should be a clue that it's beyond excellent. 

A short-story collection from Argentinian author Mariana Enríquez, Things We Lost in the Fire is a tough book to describe, and I can't really go too deeply into any of these stories without giving away too much of the show.  It is a mix of realism and just sheer terror, either in a true-to-life sense, for example, in the horrific actions of the soldiers or the experience of powerlessness from "Spiderweb," or in other stories here which combine the very real horrors of the streets or contemporary inner anxieties with the supernatural to make them doubly terrifying. It doesn't take long for the book to affect you -- you need turn no further than the first story "The Dirty Kid" to see just how chilling these stories are.  While reading that one, the outer world faded once again, and there I was on the dark, frightening streets of the city where just taking a walk at night could feasibly get you killed or worse. And trust me, that was the least of the narrator's worries in this tale.

Things We Lost in the Fire is incredibly disturbing -- I made the mistake of starting "The Invocation of the Big-Eared Runt"  last night just before bedtime and actually had to put the book down or I would been awake all night due to the crushing and downright terror-laden subject matter. In this story, as in a number of stories that follow, reality meets horror and at some point the jolt from the collision hits you like the proverbial ton of bricks. Even reading this book this morning and afternoon in the daylight didn't help to lessen its impact  -- it is one of the most raw, frightening, and gut-punching books I've read this year, and to her credit, there is not a bad story in the entire book. The final story, in fact, "Things We Lost in the Fire," is so damn good, so utterly powerful in what it has to say, but at the same time so very squirmworthy that you just can't look away.

The approach she uses of writing about contemporary society within the framework of  the horror/supernatural fiction genre seems to allow the author a lot of flexibility in discussing a number of different issues, most especially those pertaining to women,  and the best part is that it's so very well done that readers will be able to quickly draw their own conclusions without having to rely on everything being spelled out for them.   Also, while it's not stated so overtly,  in pretty much every story there are echoes of Argentina's past, which is never far away from its present -- I couldn't help noticing the many disappearances in these stories, and then there's this quotation from "No Flesh Over My Bones" :
"We walk all over bones in this city, it's just a question of making holes deep enough to reach the buried dead." 
This book is certainly one of the best contemporary works I've read this year. In this day and age, when so much of what's coming from the big publishing houses seems to be stuck in the mode of same old same old, Things We Lost in the Fire was a huge and very welcome surprise.  It appeals not only because of content, but it's also an intelligent book asking readers to think.  Enríquez brings a fresh new voice and perspective to the realm of dark fiction and does so with purpose.

Sadly, this book will not be out until February of 2017, but the good news is that people have something to look forward to.  Highly, beyond-highly, recommended.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Shadows Gothic and Grotesque: Black Spirits and White, by Ralph Adams Cram; Tales of the Supernatural by James Platt

Coachwhip Publications, 2010
206 pp


I don't know how I keep finding these old books, but find them I do, and I haven't stumbled onto a bad one yet. I'm sure that day will come, but for now, I've been absolutely delighting in this collection of a dozen supernatural tales, first Black Spirits and White, by Ralph Adams Cram, followed by James Platt's Tales of the Supernatural.

Staring with Black Spirits and White, I'll digress from the book itself for a moment to offer up a very brief bio of the author, since I feel it's important to try to have at least some measure of familiarity of all the writers whose work I read.  Ralph Adams Cram (1863-1942) was a renowned architect, who in December of 1926 even made it onto the cover of Time magazine.

from Time website

While there is a ton of information about Cram all over the internet -- all you have to do is google him, Douglas Shand-Tucci has written two biographies of him:  Boston Bohemia 1881-1900 (1996) and then a study of his later years in Ralph Adams Cram: An Architect's Four Quests (2005). [Admittedly, I haven't read either, but I do think I'll try to lay hands on Boston Bohemia after the Christmas holidays.] At LambdaLiterary, writer Jameson Currier notes that in Boston Bohemia Shand-Tucci
"alleged that the architect and his circle were closeted homosexual men who demonstrated their sexuality through their designs. Cram was a well-traveled man fascinated by the supernatural, and it is possible, with many of these stories constructed of 'tales of two men agoing ghost-hunting,' to imbue a hidden sexuality to these tales in the same manner as Cram's architecture is now regarded," 
and I will say that I marked quite a number of places in Cram's book where I'm thinking the same.

Daniel McCarthy in his review of Shand-Tucci's later book at The University Bookman states that the author is on the money when he places
 "Cram's sexual, aesthetic, and religious sensibilities on the same map as those of Oscar Wilde, J-K Huysmans, and Frederick Rolfe ('Baron Corvo') ..."
Anyway, now to the book, which is a collection of six short ghostly tales, and I loved every damn one of them. Published in 1895, the original text has a postscript that reads (in part)
"There seem to be certain well-defined roots existing in all countries, from which spring the current legends of the supernatural; and therefore for the germs of the stories in this book the Author claims no originality."
The "germs" may not be original, but Cram's own take on them is very well done.  While  researching Cram after having finished this collection, I came across someone's little blurb about this book which said that setting aside "The Dead Valley," the remainder of the book consists of (and I quote) the "some-guys-stay-overnight-in-a-haunted-mansion-sing-tally-ho kind of stories," and I can tell you here and now it's much, much, much more than that. Reading carefully, one discovers that setting, landscape, and history are all very important in many of these tales, as is architecture,  which is carefully and artfully described in pretty much every single story except for "The Dead Valley," reflecting Cram's life work.

Flipflopping, I'll start with the last story, "The Dead Valley," since is likely Cram's most famous, since it's appeared in several horror/weird fiction anthologies.  It is a stand-out story in this book, noticeably different from its predecessors, and follows the "tale-within-a-tale" format, related by a man whose friend, a Swedish immigrant, underwent a horror he will never forget as long as he lives, and who came to the US in order to escape the horrific things he'd experienced. I am not going to go any further than that as far as any sort of plot description, but it is certainly an uncomfortable, squirmworthy, and haunting tale.  The rest of the stories (in order, and going undescribed here in this post)  in this volume are "No. 252 Rue M. Le Prince," where I discovered the ultimate perfect name for a reputedly-haunted house, "La Bouche d'Enfer; "In Kropfsberg Keep," which is one of the creepiest tales in this book; "The White Villa," which I also enjoyed but not nearly as much as "Sister Maddelena," which appealed due to its old, secluded convent setting and a couple of pretty evil nuns and because it turns out to be a sort of detective story; and then there is "Notre Dame des Eaux," set in Breton, another one I absolutely loved.

 And now we come to the second group of stories, Tales of the Supernatural (1894) written by James Platt (1861-1910).  The full title of this book is actually Tales of the Supernatural: Six Romantic Stories, and sadly, I am just not able to find much about the author, except that he was a contributor to the OED in the area of word etymologies, specializing in obscure words.

This book has a very old-world feel about it that resonates with some other books I've read, like Cazotte's The Devil in Love or even works by Meyrink that bring to the fore the hidden, occult underbelly of Europe, and I don't know about anyone else, but that kind of stuff just grabs me and doesn't let go.   Once again, I won't be describing the contents in any sort of detail, but in the first two stories alone, "The Seven Sigils" and "The Hand of Glory" I discovered he'd included sorcery, an alraune made from a mandrake, a golem, and a werewolf among other things, before moving onto "The Rabbi Lion," "The Evil Eye," "The Witches Sabbath", which isn't what one might think but  way better, and finally, "The Devil's Debt." There are several common threads connecting each story in this book, one very huge one being rivalries between men in love with the same woman.  Where he takes that basic idea is different in each case; suffice it to say that sometimes deals might just be needed to be made with the "fallen angel" in Hell once in a while. If I was a kid back in the 1890s reading this stuff, I'd probably have had the wits scared out of me --  Platt doesn't hold back in horror/creep factor at any point.

Potential readers should be aware that his writing style is definitely not for the faint of heart, but once into the groove, it's easy to pick up the rhythms of the writing.  The language can be downright archaic, but anyone who is truly an aficionado of older Victorian works won't have any issues.  However, it is so worth the time and energy because these are absolutely great stories.

Overall, Shadows Gothic and Grotesque is a no-miss book for people like myself who are constantly on the lookout for new-to-me obscure writers of what I'd consider quality supernatural/horror/ghostly fiction from the past. Reading happiness is right here folks, and once again it's from Coachwhip.  For me it's yet another ahhhh read where I just let myself get sucked right in and never wanted to leave.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Cast a Cold Eye, by Alan Ryan

Valancourt Books, 2016
originally published 1984
243 pp


"There's no denying the blood, Jack. No denying the blood." 

Someone should yell at the Kirkus reviewer of this novel who said it's  "A sluggish, unevocative ghost-chaser involving sanguinary rites in old Ireland...with lots of pleasant Irish ambience -- but the story doesn't add up."  Boo hiss!!  So wrong on so many levels.  Then again, a couple of weeks ago I read a Publishers' Weekly review of another book that got the details completely wrong (even calling a narrator "unnamed" when her name was everywhere throughout the book), so my faith in these mega-reviewing websites is quickly starting to decline.

Looking around online to find info about the author, Alan Ryan, I was taken with just how many fans this guy has.  The favorite among so many people seems to be his Dead White, which Grady Hendrix at Tor's website said in a 2014 post was "about Killer Clowns on a Circus Train of Death attacking a snowbound community."  Frankly, that's enough of a description to make me never want to read that book, but it is certainly the most mentioned when someone's talking about this author.

Thankfully no clowns at all make an appearance in Cast a Cold Eye, which is set in the small village of Doolin, Ireland, about one and a half hours south of Galway on the coast. It is an area steeped in history; as is the entire country. As the author tells us:
"Here, in a land as ancient as Ireland, history was only yesterday, and the distant past breathed fresh and sharp and painful in living memory." 
There are two stories at work here that will, given time and above all circumstance, ultimately converge.  The novel begins with a scene that launches the first of these, as four men are waiting in a shabeen trying to keep warm while awaiting a funeral procession before going on to an ancient graveyard to perform some strange rites. As good writers will, Ryan gives us no explanations, so the question of what's going on here and why is planted in the reader's head from the outset and stays in the back of the mind throughout the novel until all is revealed.  Great way to start a horror novel, if you ask me.  The second storyline belongs to Jack Quinlan, who has come to Ireland, home of his ancestors,  to do some research on a novel he's writing about the Famine. More specifically, his book is about
"a family and its struggles to survive through the Famine of 1846 and 1847, and about the horrible thing ... that happened to three members of his family in particular."
Jack takes a house in the rather isolated village of Doolin, planning to stay for three months, and it isn't too long before he sets up a nice routine of research, writing, and sometimes hanging out at the local pubs, where traditional music is played of an evening.  He's met a girl, Grainne, to whom he's very much attracted, and all seems to be well with him right up until the moment when he starts to see and hear some very disturbing things which seem to follow him whenever he's out and about. And then one night, while he's out, he witnesses something he knows is real, but has no explanation for.  The only person he can talk to about it is the local priest Father Henning, the local seanachie who loves telling eerie stories, yet is reluctant at best to talk with Jack about his experiences. The question becomes whether or not Jack's actually experiencing these horrific things -- is the research he's doing getting to him, or is it the remoteness and isolation of the place that's affecting him?  And if it is true that Jack is not going off his rocker but is really seeing what he thinks he's seeing, why him?

In this novel, the central imagery is blood. Blood here implies one's heritage, the Eucharistic rites, and above all, the suffering of the people caught up in the horrific Famine years.  As Thomas Gallagher in his wonderful book Paddy's Lament, Ireland 1846-1847: Prelude to Hatred tells it, perhaps the most horrific thing is that
"during the first winter of famine, 1846-47, as perhaps 400,000 Irish peasants starved, landlords exported 17 million pounds sterling worth of grain, cattle, pigs, flour, eggs, and poultry -- food that could have prevented those deaths." 
And, as the back cover blurb states, as Jack continues to look for answers, he comes to discover that
"the ghosts of the past linger on into the present, and they cry out for blood..."
and this is definitely true, but perhaps not at all in the way that one would expect from a 1980s horror story.

Two more insight-type things and I'll call it a day. First, careful reading will reveal that the author was very much aware of Irish history, and little bits tend to crop up here and there that signal his sympathies. Second, I'm in awe of how the rugged Irish landscape becomes so deftly interwoven into this tale, reminding me in a remote way of the work of Le Fanu, whose work also included the landscape in his stories so that history, landscape and story all mingle together as one inseparable unit. The same is true here as well.

Reading Cast a Cold Eye is to find yourself in the middle of an eerie mystery that grows darker and creepier along the way, one that is not solved up until the last minute.  A lot of readers have noted, like the Kirkus reviewer, that the story "doesn't add up," that there are too many loose ends, yada yada yada, but it all made perfectly good sense to me.  I won't say why, since I'm sure many people will want to read this novel, but the answers really are all there. My regular habit is to finish a novel and then go back and reread the first chapter, and in this case, it's a hugely eye-opening moment, stunningly circular in nature. It may not scare the bejeebies out of modern horror readers, but for those of us who aren't looking for chainsaw-wielding killer clowns or the like, it's a delightful tale of ghostly horrors that will stay in your head for a long time after turning that last page.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Clark, by Brendan Connell

Snuggly Books, 2016
355 pp

paperback - my copy from Snuggly Books, so major thank yous, hugs, etc.,  I send to Anna for keeping me posted about what's new and upcoming.

"But great art is like this. It sleeps until people remember it again. Until wise men see that not only the beautiful is beautiful and that sublime things are done in relative obscurity, simply because this is the will and the play of the universe and people in all parts and occupations try all they can to be something other and distract themselves from nature..."

I just love reading Brendan Connell's books, which I'd say are tough to classify under any sort of mainstream pigeonholing system. His latest, Clark,  is a mix of funny, witty, strange and disturbing; put together with his rather unique writing style, the book appeals to my love of the offbeat.  Who else could possibly write a novel about a guy from Paraguay who finds himself taken over by a "legendary spirit" and goes on to become a sought-after actor in, as the back cover notes, "sword and sandal epics, spaghetti westerns and gialli" and pull it off so well?

I first realized that Clark and I were destined for each other when I started laughing out loud not too far into the novel.  Eric Clark, "one of the best actors of his generation," started life as José Fernando del Torres.  His dad sold transistor radios in a small shop in Asunción, Paraguay, mom was "an expert at cooking puchero and river fish," who liked to remind him that his grandfather was eaten by caimans. As a boy Clark was into radio dramas, most especially Aventuras de Tiburcio Vasquez, a "Californio bandit" whom grown-up Clark would "later claim himself to be a reincarnation of."

-- See what I mean by offbeat? This warped craziness has my name written all over it. --

He was a born actor. As a child, little José's mom enrolled him a small little theater troupe, which put on plays in which he played Herod, a "Bad Soul," and Satan.  He was fifteen during the Paraguayan Civil War in 1947, sympathizing with the rebels.  After it was all over, "revolution was still firmly planted in the consciousness of the young," and our young friend started reading Marx and Max Stirner just before his dad sent him to America to get an education. Then in 1955, his life changed when after a night watching a double feature of The Treasure of Bengal and Khyber Patrol he was visited by a man he recognizes  who was holding "something in his hand" which he pressed into José's chest -- talent. From that day he realized that
"He had something inside himself that he needed to express, to let cry out -- so many voices, vipers and it was as if there were suddenly vast spaces open before him, a previously unfelt liberty and the characters around him, the people in the street, seemed to be laid bare, the mechanisms that made them who they were -- the strange psychosis that each individual carried within them .."
leading him to join the Actors' Studio and to go on to make a number of films. But Clark is a person who has a destiny to fulfill... and with that, I will say no more.  I know I say this to the point where it's becoming cliché even to me, but Clark is a novel a person really has to experience on his/her own without someone giving away the entire show.

The book, as I said, mixes humor, satire, history, and beautiful little gems of wisdom, and I love the central focus on cinema and especially acting as a vehicle through which the author makes some really excellent, spot-on observations, which again, I will leave for others to discover.  Word to the wise: some time back I read a post by someone reading House of Leaves in which this person had decided to forego the footnotes, which made me sort of inner scream/cringe/eyeroll since Danielewski didn't just throw those in to be clever or pretentious.I mean, come on --   they're part of the text of that excellent novel and are there for a reason. I mention this because Clark has a lot of footnotes which need to be treated as text so do NOT skip them. Seriously -- why would you only read part of a book?  Another thing -- Connell is a master of mixing things up textually and stylistically, so if you're looking for straight narrative, forget it.  There is nothing average or mainstream going on here, and quite frankly, for me that's a definite plus.

Some day soon, a real reviewer is going to come along and put everything in perspective about this novel.  That's not me -- I'm a reader, not a writer, and I've never pretended otherwise.  At the same time,  I know when I've found something refreshingly unique that ticks a lot of my inner boxes,  and this book is definitely it.  Why settle for same old same old when you can lose yourself in something this good?