Thursday, March 31, 2016

November Night Tales: Stories of the Supernatural, by Henry Chapman Mercer

Valancourt Books, 2015
197 pp

"How often must we account for the origin of human responsibility in nothing more definite than shifts of chance?"


The back cover blurb of this book says that Mercer
"channeled his antiquarian interests and his love of Gothic literature into November Night Tales (1928), a volume of highly imaginative weird tales in the mode of M.R. James."
I went into the book as I normally do, without expectations, but it wasn't too long into the first story, "Castle Valley," when I started thinking "I've read something like this before." Sorting through all of the clutter in my head, I realized that in its own way, "Castle Valley"  sort of reminded me of James' "View From a Hill."  In James' story, an archaeologist gets a view of the past with the help of some rather sinister binoculars; here, a painter and his friend discover a scrying stone that does much the same.   But this doesn't mean that November Night Tales is a James ripoff -- au contraire -- it is quite an original collection of stories that should be read and appreciated on its own merit.  This book gathers together many facets of Mercer's personal interests, including  the natural landscape, local legends, mythology, and above all, castles.  As the introduction notes,
"Indeed, to Mercer, the very presence of a castle suggested an almost infinite number of possibilities. 'Castles, Castles, Castles -- Where do their stories begin or end?"
As happens often with James (especially in his Antiquary stories), Mercer's  characters tend to find themselves in the position of coming across something they probably shouldn't be messing with, but are all the same compelled to explore further in hopes of some sort of satisfactory, rational answer.  In the process, these people end up discovering that there are often things that exist well beyond their understanding, but they also tend to realize something about themselves as well.

The table of contents is as follows (I won't go into each story here, since it's best to discover Mercer on one's own):

"Castle Valley"
"The North Ferry Bridge"
"The Blackbirds"
"The Wolf Book" 
"The Dolls' Castle"
"The Sunken City"
"The Well of Monte Corbo"

I will say that while I thought all of the stories in this book were quite good, I found three I enjoyed just a bit more than the others. There's  "The Dolls' Castle," a great gothic haunted-house sort of story that was just downright creepy, as was "The Wolf Book," which starts in an old monastery in the Carpathians.  I don't know about anyone else, but the combination of old text, monastery and the Carpathians is a definite draw for me,  a scenario I can't resist; there were other very cool historical bits in this story as well as a look at how local legends and myths can transform a community.    "The North Ferry Bridge" was also quite fun, with a little dark, pulpy creeposity  in the telling  which was a definite plus for me; added to that aspect, I also got the horrific tale of an escaped madman, another story type that I can't not read.  While these three elevated my heart rate for a while, all of the stories in November Night Tales were definitely "highly imaginative" and "weird," as promised.  Then, of course, comes the added bonus of finding a previously-unknown (to me) author and reading his work ...

While the stories may not exactly scare the pants off of readers, they are highly intelligent, well written and they set the brain into high gear while reading them.  These are dark tales for thinking people who don't need everything spelled out for them and frankly, they're just plain fun.

As always Valancourt, thanks for bringing the obscure back into the light.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

brain break: The People of the Pit and Other Early Horrors from the Munsey Pulps, (ed). Gene Christie

Black Dog Books, 2010
202 pp


If you're reading this book on an airplane, prepare to be stared at as people go down the aisle and check out what you're reading.   The scantily-dressed women (and the two naked babes in the background) certainly drew attention from passers-by, and I felt a bit squirmy when I'd meet people's eyes.  How do you explain a cover like that?  On the other hand, I love love love these old covers  --they're an art form unto themselves and should be appreciated as such.

The first thing that caught my eye was the foreword by Robert Weinberg. In it he notes that the old pulps were written with "a modicum of "good taste" as contrasted to some of today's modern horror, most notably splatterpunk, which "murders good taste."  I agree -- when writers write mainly for effect, to see how much "blood and guts and brains and gore" they can get on a page, well, to me that's just tasteless. Try writing.  Not that these old pulps are great literature, but like good horror, in most of these tales, the horror is implied. That's another point Weinberg makes -- that
"The pulp horror stories require that the the reader possesses some smatterings of intelligence. The tale assumes that you can follow a plot and don't need to be force fed every clue or every twist and turn of the story."
Oh, Robert Weinberg, your entire foreword is singing my song.  

There are fifteen stories in this little book, some of which I've read before:
-- "The People of the Pit," by A. Merritt,
 -- "The Orchid Horror," by John Blunt (which I read in Robert Dunbar's wonderful anthology Dark Forest)
--  "The Ship of Silent Men," by a most obscure pulp writer Philip M. Fisher, whose collection of tales can be found in Beyond the Pole and Other Weird Fantasies (also published by Black Dog)

and beyond those little gems, the rest are new to me:
 -- "Behind the Curtain," by Francis Stevens:   Mummy pulp
-- "Number Thirteen" (excerpt), by Edgar Rice Burroughs, which I must say I did not care for at all, but I can't win them all.
-- "The Tenth Question," by George Allan England:  a tale of revenge where a man's life depends on getting the right answer to question number 10.   Delightfully strange.
--"Disappointment," by Achmed Abdullah: More atmospheric than anything, but still quite pleasing.
--"The Pretty Woman," by Owen Oliver:  I love a good madness tale, and this is one of the best.
-- "The Living Portrait," by Tod Robbins:  Exactly as the title implies.
--"An Offer of Two to One," by Talbot Mundy:  auto-suggestion at work -- great story.
--"Beyond the Violet," by J.U. Geisy: the war leaves a man able to see well beyond the normal spectrum, and you just wouldn't believe what's out there.
--"The Elixir of Life," by C. Langton Clarke -- another absolute stunner.  
-- "The Mystery of the Shriveled Hand," by Sax Rohmer -- set in Cairo, another cool tale of justifiable revenge.
-- Damon Runyon's very well-known "Fear", in which a police chief gets his comeuppance.  Very Damon Runyon.

and last, but by no means least,

--"Monsieur de Guise," by Perley Poore Sheehan (whose name just screams "I write pulp fiction"), which takes place down in the swamp. The atmosphere on this one alone makes it very much worth the read.

For just pure entertainment, this book is worth its weight in gold, and having the names of several new and (to me) obscure authors to look up is a side benefit. Many of the stories here are seeing their first time in reprint since the days of the old pulp mags; some are definitely what I would consider horror; some others are more of a mystery-ish bent, but all (with the exception of the entry by Edgar Rice Burroughs) are just plain fun.  It's an ahhh read, comfort food between two covers, and for fans, a very, very nice collection.  Just put a brown cover over it or something out in public.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Man Who Sees Ghosts, by Friedrich Schiller

Pushkin, 2003
156 pp


Despite its title, The Man Who Sees Ghosts isn't actually a novel of the supernatural.  There are a number of supernatural elements in this unfinished story, but they're all there for a specific purpose having to do with the main character, the Prince von **.  These asterisks, by the way, are not a signal to read something at the end of this post -- Schiller just doesn't hand out full names to his characters.  There are many reasons why any serious fan of dark fiction should read this little gem, but one of the biggest is that according to several sources, it is the book that gave rise to a particular subset of popular gothic literature, at least in Germany,  "works intended to expose the machinations of secret societies," * (okay, that asterisk means look at the end of this post) called lodge novels. In fact, since The Man Who Sees Ghosts was left unfinished, a number of people used it as a basis to write their own completed versions, starting as early as 1796.**

Schiller sets his novel in Venice, which at the time was a political powerhouse.  The book revolves around the unnamed, asterisked Prince, who hails from a German state but currently in Venice, waiting for money from home so he can return. There he lives a very unambitious and quiet life, going around incognito, avoiding all forms of extravagance.  His life takes a major turn when one day, he notices he is being followed by a man in the mask of an Armenian, who eventually sits down with him in the Piazza San Marco and delivers a cryptic and ultimately prophetic message.  The Prince shakes it off, but when the situation in the Prince's family come to a crisis, he is forced to take stock of this strange, masked character.  One night while in a gaming establishment, the Prince gets into it with an unknown-to-him very powerful man, which sparks a visit to the State Inquisition, where he watches the same man quite literally lose his head.  The Prince is still sort of stuck in Venice and can't leave, so he and his retinue take a trip where they become involved in a bizarre seance with an odd man known as "The Sicilian", who, according to several accounts I've read, was modeled after the furtive true-life alchemist and occultist Caliogostro, (aka Joseph Balsamo).  When fate steps in and the Prince is allowed to question this strange man, what he discovers  will turn his world on its head, and the consequences will ultimately have tremendous implications for the Prince, his closest advisors, and had the story continued, most likely for the balance of power in Europe.

Just a word about the secret society mentioned above.  In  this book it is the Bucentauro, which Schiller describes as appearing to be for the "high-minded" and those of "rational freedom of spirit," but which in reality is a haven for a number of highly-placed libertines, including high-ranking members of the Catholic church.  This just might bring to mind that very well-known group "The Illuminati," which has found its way into several works of conspiracy fiction, and here as Bucentauro, represents the power of the Catholics behind social and political upheaval in Europe at the time.   On the other hand, Schiller makes it very clear just exactly how Protestant the Prince's German kingdom was, so it makes for great conflict.  And as far as politics goes, the Catholics weren't the only big names in the secret society biz -- nerdy me has just been reading about Frederick William II of Prussia, who fell in with two powerful Rosicrucians who became his advisors and pretty much ruled Frederick (and thus Prussia)  between them. So I guess my point is that if anyone thinks that it's no big deal that Schiller spends a lot of time on religious conspiracies, I say think again.

The Man Who Sees Ghosts is a delightful read, and should not be missed by anyone who is into Gothic literature,  secret societies,  and political intrigue.  Up to where it comes to a rather abrupt end, I was having such a wonderful time with this little tale, and then I heard myself quite loudly saying "no, no, no!" because of the loose ends that hadn't quite been tied up.  Although the mix of religion and politics, as well as the combination of  religion and conspiracy are topics that surround our modern lives so much so that we just accept them as a given any more, this was quite a big deal back then.  There is also much in this short book about religion and mysticism during the Enlightenment, and if I'm reading this correctly, it seems that Schiller may have also borrowed a bit from Cazotte's The Devil in Love --what's real vs. what's not real are huge issues in The Man Who Sees Ghosts, and will definitely keep any reader glued.   

*from Lure of the Arcane, The Literature of Cult and Conspiracy, by Theodore Ziolkowski
** from The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction, (ed.) Jerrold E. Hogle