Wednesday, June 28, 2017

crazytown .... The Fourth Monkey, by J.D. Barker

9780544968844
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017
416 pp

arc - sent from the author/publisher, thank you!

I had this debate with myself about where I should make this post -- it is technically a crime novel so it should go on the crime page of my reading journal, but at the same time, what happens in this book, at least in the diary entries from the past, is dementedly dark, so I figured maybe it should go here.

I have to start off here with a disclaimer. I'm not at all a fan of serial-killer novels. I used to be, having read all of what I'd call "the classics,"  but that all changed after I made the mistake of reading Mo Hayder's The Treatment a couple of years back, which was just outrageous in terms of the number of graphic torture scenes one person can cram into a book. Then I started noticing that a lot of newer serial-killer novel blurbs boasted about torture, violence, etc., and I just couldn't do it any more.   Some people like that stuff, to which I say whatever floats your boat, but it's just not me. Luckily, that sort of thing is at a minimum here. Don't get me wrong --   there are some pretty sick things going on in this book ( my first impression was "demented serial killer served with a side of sadism"), but unlike a huge number of other serial-killer novels, the sick stuff is definitely not the book's main raison d'être and frankly, that's what counts for me.

The police have been after a particularly nasty man whom they've dubbed the Four Monkey Killer (4MK) for several years with no success.  The guy has never left a single clue that would help them determine his identity, and he has been clever enough to be able to move throughout Chicago without ever being seen, despite the fact that he's left a couple of victims in public spaces. However, it looks as though their luck has changed as the novel begins, when a man launches himself in front of a bus and does himself in. Detective Sam Porter is called out to the scene,  a situation he wouldn't normally be called out for, but when he gets there, he gets the surprise of his life -- it seems that before the dead guy offed himself, he'd been carrying a "small white box tied up with black string," the only thing ever left behind after 4MK had done his dirty work in the past.  This box is just one more added to the twenty-one boxes Porter and his task force have collected over the years -- seven victims with three boxes per person, containing their ears, eyes and tongues, relating to the old adage of  hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.  4MK isn't 4MK for nothing -- despite the fact that he's a killer, the "4" reflects  "do no evil," as in the representation of the four monkeys shown below.   The "do no evil" message is  always left behind with the dead bodies in some form or another, but that's it. No clues, no evidence, no nothing that would help Porter find this guy. The cops are elated until they realize that the discovery of the box with its contents means that while their killer might be dead, somewhere there's another victim out there.  Oh -- and this time the killer has left behind a huge clue in the form of a diary that just may help the police find a missing teenage girl before it's too late. The killer evidently intended the cops to find the diary, so that Porter could, in the killer's words, "understand what I have done."


the four monkeys, from Wikipedia


So far, so good, and I'm turning and burning pages as fast as I can.  And then, we get to the diary, where quite frankly, all things start pretty normally enough and then BAM -- things get full on insane  in the space of a few entries.  Now, I know that the diary thing is a gimmick that a lot of writers use in your standard serial-killer fare, but I'm here to tell you that you've probably NEVER seen anything quite like this one.  Holy crap! When at the end of the book the author says that this story was "born of 'what if' and an imagination that lost its governor some time ago" he wasn't just filling in space in the acknowledgments section.  What's in that diary is a) definitely reflective of why our killer does what he does in the present, but b) so insane and (as I said earlier) darkly demented that I wasn't sure what the hell I was reading for a while. Talk about a new spin -- sheesh! It's like a Wally-less Leave it to Beaver gone wrong that plays out in a bizarre parallel universe, and god help me, although it is over the top and I was enjoying the investigation itself, I couldn't wait to get back to the diary entries every time they popped back into the story.  I've decided that I'm in need of mental help because of that, but to my credit, I will say that the phrase "there are some sick f***s out there"  kept running through my head so perhaps I'm not so inwardly twisted as I might think.

Now that I've said all of this and have revealed myself to be mentally deranged for being so engrossed in the ongoing saga of MK4's childhood, I will say that I figured out the first major twist before I was a quarter through the book, so loss of points there. Writers of crime novels (standard fare or not) really ought to be aware that long-time mystery/crime readers like myself have become quite  good at predicting twists here and there after years of reading this sort of thing, so for me the lack of originality there was a bit disappointing. Also, the whole serial-killer-playing-a-game-with-the-cops thing is a bit overused, so that was also a bit bothersome.   However, it was the second big twist (which I didn't see coming and which was definitely original - yay),  along with what happens in the diary entries that sort of evens things out, not to mention the fact that although the Four Monkey Killer has done some pretty messed-up things, it becomes very clear that he was in his own way, looking for some measure of justice for those who've been wronged in a very big way.

Read it, and just keep telling yourself that thankfully, it's only fiction.



Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Third Ghost Book (ed.) Lady Cynthia Asquith

03300260617
Pan, 1975
originally published 1955, 1957
253 pp

mass market paperback
(read earlier)

I am a sucker for a good ghost story, and over the years my shelves have started groaning as I continue to add more collections to my library.  I finally discovered the Pan Ghost Books series, the first three of which are edited by Lady Cynthia Asquith, and I'll definitely be revisiting some of these in the future, although others took their turn as editor after Asquith's three.  For more about these books, you can visit Tabula Rasa where Nick Kennett has a nice article (including contents!) about the series.

Twenty-seven stories are included in this little book, some of which  I've read before:  "The Ghost of the Valley", by Lord Dunsany,  Aickman's "Ringing the Changes," "The Tower," by Marghanita Laski, and "Poor Girl," by Elizabeth Taylor. Out of the remaining 23, several authors are familiar, although their stories were not:  Elizabeth Bowen, Mary Fitt, Elizabeth Jenkins, L.P. Hartley, and Lady Cynthia Asquith herself.  That leaves a total of 18 writers whose work I've never read, offering lots of possibilities for further reading (yay!).  The collection as a whole is not the greatest, but as I'm always saying, when you pick up an anthology it's bound to be a mixed bag where there are treasures and there are those stories that are not so hot.  Depending on the reader though, people's choices in each category will be different.

The entire table of contents is as follows, my favorites annotated:

"The Telephone," by Mary Treadgold
* "The Claimant, " by  Elizabeth Bowen,  my favorite story in this book.  A man and his wife inherit a home in the West Country from a relative in Australia who died intestate.  Their happiness is interrupted when someone writes about his intentions to claim the house, which he says has been left to him by his uncle, and then tells the couple that it is his inheritance, and that "no one shall cheat me of it."  Things get very weird after they learn he is flying out from Australia to set things straight.
"Napoleon's Hat," by Evelyn Fabyon
"The Bull," by Rachel Hartfield
"The House That Wouldn't Keep Still," by L.A.G. Strong
* "The Doctor," by Mary Fitt.  Set in the moors of Devon, a woman who loves the moors and long walks finds herself lost in the darkness.  Taking a short cut, she sees another woman coming towards her, who invites her to stay at her home for the night. Of course she's not going to say no, but later, I'm sure she probably wishes she had.
*"On No Account, My Love," by Elizabeth Jenkins, in which a young woman is keen to visit the empty house that once belonged to her great-grandmother, known as an "abominable old tyrant," who used it as a school for girls. Hoping to connect with her past, she "felt sure some contact" with her great-grandmother might be possible.  This one really doesn't hit you until the last sentence. Yikes.
"The Ghost of the Valley," by Lord Dunsany
"The Day of the Funeral," by Margaret Lane
* "Take Your Partners," by Ronald Blythe is both bizarre and creepy, in which a grandfather relates a strange experience to his grandson that took place at his first ball.  As an eighteen year-old, he was miserable being there until he met a young woman who seemed as unhappy as himself.  One of the better stories in the book, for sure.

arrrrrr 

"Someone in the Lift," by L.P. Hartley
*"The Tower, by Marganita Laski -- in an earlier post.
*"Ringing in the Changes," by Robert Aickman -- again, one of his best stories ever, a work of pure genius.
* "I Became Bulwinkle," by Jonathan Curling, is less a ghost story than a tale of terror involving a "third-rate conjurer" who received his "baccalaureate in black magic" while in Sierra Leone before returning home. It's a slow burner, but damn, it's good.
"Mrs. Smiff," by Collin Brooks
"Somebody Calls," by James Laver
*"Harry," by Rosemary Timperley -- I will say that this sort of thing has been done a number of times, but this is one of the best examples of the imaginary friend story I've ever come across.
"The Shades of Sleepe," by Ursula Codrington
"The Woman in Black," by Daniel George
"A Laugh on the Professor," by Shane Leslie
*"Poor Girl," by Elizabeth Taylor.  As I said in another post, this one's just flat out creepy on more than one level. Just thinking about it is giving me the willies.
"The King of Spades," by Nancy Spain
"The Uninvited Face," by Michael Asquith
"Remembering Lee," by Eileen Bigland
"Who is Sylvia," by Cynthia Asquith



While I can't promise that each and every tale will produce goosebumps, there's probably here something for everyone who enjoys these older stories. For  me it's all about discovering those obscure, long-forgotten authors whose work has just sort of faded away, and in that sense, this book was a goldmine.

recommended for strange, nerdiferous people like me who revel in the older stuff.  I know you're out there.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff

9780062292063
HarperCollins, 2016
372 pp

hardcover

"... you think you can forgive, forget, the past. You can't. You cannot.  The past is alive, a living, thing. You own, owe it."

The first clue that this is not going to be your average Lovecraftian pastiche or rehash is on the cover -- what some people may see as ghosts or white spaces between tentacles actually bears much more resemblance to the white hoods of the KKK.  In fact, if you're thinking this is going to be Lovecraft redux, you seriously have another thing coming.  While his own particular brand of racism was horrific in itself, anything that Lovecraft produced in his fiction is dwarfed here by  the real-life terror that the characters in this book experience in their daily lives in Jim Crow America of the 1950s, and that little yellow, starry-looking thing on the cover that says "America's DEMONS Exposed" certainly isn't just there to add to the cover art.

    The book begins with an army vet, Atticus Turner,   leaving Jacksonville for Chicago,  driving 450 miles the first day nonstop except for getting gas. With his copy of The Safe Negro Travel Guide in hand, Atticus spent that night in Chattanooga, where the Guide showed that there were "four hotels and a motel, all in the same part of the city." The next day, wanting to "put the South behind him," he has the diner next to his motel fill a basket with food and Cokes so that he wouldn't have to stop in Louisville, Kentucky where again according to the guide, there was a "restaurant that would serve him lunch."  An hour after crossing a "bridge named for a dead slave owner" on the Ohio River, he blew a tire, sending him on foot out to find a garage..  Just his luck -- a Confederate flag hangs over the entrance and, of course, that didn't quite work out.  Pulling out his Safe Negro Travel Guide once more, he discovers that the nearest "Negro-owned garage" was fifty miles away; with no other options, he had to wait seven hours for help to arrive. And this is all just the beginning of worse to come.

So at this point (and I'm only on page four), I'm already creeped out about the necessity of something like a  Safe Negro Travel Guide, and after a little digging, came across the story of The Negro Motorist Green Book, and now I'm really interested to see what else Matt Ruff is going to do here.  I just sort of sat flipping pages as the real horrors of the  lives of the characters unfolded in each of the interconnected stories in this book.

The way Ruff sets up this book is clever -- as he notes in an interview at The Seattle Review of Books,  his idea was to start with "classic story" ideas
"... like, somebody buys a haunted house or somebody finds themselves being chased by an animated doll"
and with that, he asks himself the questions of
"how does this happen to my protagonist and how does having a black protagonist change the nature of the story?"
 Without giving away too much of what happens here, Atticus has returned to Chicago after receiving a letter from his dad Montrose in which he reveals to his son that he's discovered "something about your mother's ... forebears," and that there's some sort of "legacy, a birthright" that's been kept from Atticus, something that "has something to do with the place that Mom's people supposedly came from." Now Montrose has gone missing, and Atticus has only the letter he was sent as a clue to finding him.   From that letter, it turns out that "Mom's people" came from Ardham, Massachusetts, in what Atticus calls "Lovecraft Country."  Atticus, his Uncle George and a friend from childhood named Letitia Dandridge set out for Ardham, and encounter the Braithwhites, who have a strange connection with the Turners through "Mom's people."  The Braithwhites are white,  rich,and powerful; they are also key figures in a strange group known as the Order of the Ancient Dawn. (I have to say that my pulp-loving heart went pitterpat here with this name.)  I won't say why, but what happens during their time with the Braithwhites at this meeting sets up all that follows in this book, during which we come to understand the phrase "Lovecraft Country", as one reader puts it, as having
 "more to do with the rampant racism in that part of the US at the time, rather than the Lovecraftian horror subgenre."  
The way that Mr. Ruff has brought out his story here is very nicely done, and the little "mini-adventures" do, as he also notes in the Seattle Review of Books interview linked above, turn out to be each character's "own weird tale." Some of these are much better than others -- I loved "Horace and the Devil Doll," for instance because it's so on point as far as old-fashioned pulpy horror is concerned -- but really,  each story added to a wider picture of  Jim Crow practices of this time, things that, as anyone sane would realize, were just horrific and inhuman.  At the same time, there's a very real sense of empowerment that comes from the characters in each story in some fashion, as they fight back as best they can, each in his or her own way.   Speaking of pulpy/horrorish tropes here,  Ruff obviously went well beyond Lovecraft in framing his tales -- HG Wells, Ray Bradbury, Robert Louis Stevenson and many more authors find their way into this book as well.

I have to say that on the whole, I liked this book, didn't love it and maybe that's not entirely the author's fault.  Not too far into it, I was reminded in a very big way of what Victor LaValle had done with his excellent  Ballad of Black Tom which uses Lovecraft's own work "The Horror at Red Hook,"  to turn Lovecraft's particularly nasty brand of racism on its own head, so (and I hate that this happens, but I can't help it), there was already a comparison at work in my head. Frankly, when it comes right down to it, LaValle's book, in my opinion, is the better of the two, since  LaValle is hands down, no question,  the better writer.  Having said that though, I don't  mean that readers won't like this one --  there are plenty of reasons to recommend Lovecraft Country to anyone, especially since it seems to be sadly pertinent to our own times.

*****

for more in-depth coverage of this book, I give you

Alex Brown, "Cthulhu Gon' Slay," at tor.com

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Scarlet Boy, by Arthur Calder-Marshall

Rupert Hart-Davis, 1961
222 pp

hardcover

(read earlier this month)

I was doing a bit of reading on the topic of British ghost stories some time ago (I forget where exactly), hoping to find more authors of such tales for my library, and I came across a reference to this book by a writer I'd never heard of.  The fact that he was unknown to me was a definite plus so I decided to take a chance and I bought the book -- and it seems that with only a few reservations, my gamble paid off.

According to George Grantley, the narrator of this tale, the story "undoubtedly" had its start on April 3, 1959.  On that day, he had received a letter from his friend Sir Christopher Everness (aka Kit), who reveals that "after years of wanderlustiness," it's time for the Everness family to settle down.  Kit is married to artist Nieves, who wants to live in Wilchester.  It seems that their eleven year-old daughter Maria hates the boarding school she goes to and so her mom wants a home near a day school.  He's also very specific about the type of house he wants -- it has to be
"the run-down shell of place that we can make over to our own idea of home...with a garden and plenty of room."
Grantley asks around and comes to learn that a certain Anglesey House is on the market. It's a house that Grantley knows well, since he had spent quite a bit of time there as a child playing with young Charles Scarlet. He also adored Charles' mother Helen -- Grantley had always "envied" Charles because Helen was "much more beautiful and gracious" than his own mom had been.  Although they were playmates, George came to realize that Charles was "obscurely vicious," often wanting the two of them to play "Tortures" in Charles' treehouse, becoming a "different person, almost as if he were possessed." Grantley was actually afraid of Charles, "too frightened by this strange creature within Charles not to do what I was told." It isn't too long into the story that we discover that Charles died later in 1916, having fallen and broken his neck; Grantley would often go and visit Helen afterwards, and their friendship lasted for well over thirty years.

There is, however, one hitch -- Anglesey House, as Grantley becomes aware, is rumored to be haunted.  While he tries to warn his friend, Kit is having none of it.  But as things turn out, perhaps he should have heeded George's advice.

the author, courtesy of Great War Fiction


While The Scarlet Boy is an unsettling, creepy ghost story and a good haunted house tale, there's a lot more going on here than just a simple haunting. Family relationships are put in the spotlight,  as is the age-old debate between faith and reason, with the narrator of this tale often changing his own ideas and beliefs as he sifts through the past to find answers.  Considering the author's background, this isn't so surprising.  According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (I'll add the link, but it's a subscription-only website), Calder-Marshall leaned left in his thinking during the 1930s, but later edged toward a belief in Christianity, a move that was "underpinned by unchanging ethical concerns."

Sometimes it gets a little boggy, interrupting the flow,  but overall, it's a good read.  While I wouldn't say it's in my top ten of haunted house novels, it definitely kept me turning pages, making it one I'd recommend.   This is another book that will probably be appreciated mainly by niche readers, but I'm quite happy that it crossed my path.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century Ghost Stories (ed.) Michael Cox

0192142607
Oxford University Press, 1996
425 pp

hardcover

"I could tell you lots of things you wouldn't believe..."
                         -- Joanna Russ, "The Little Dirty Girl" - 346

As I write this post, we are on vacation in Cancun -- well, not exactly Cancun, but more like an hour south on the lovely Riveria Maya in Playa del Carmen.  Nothing but sun, balcony, bebidas,  and lots of great food (my downfall, sadly) all of which  translates into much reading time.

There are a whopping thirty-three stories to be found in this anthology, ordered chronologically from 1910 to 1994.  Two most excellent tales bookend the entire collection -- E. Nesbit's "In the Dark" is the opener, while the grand finale is Jane Gardam's "The Meeting House," completing an entire book short but memorable tales. Like most anthologies, there will be something for everyone here, and also like most anthologies, it's a mixed bag of good, great, excellent, and oh my god yes. And while for me there really is nothing better than the old, classic ghost stories, some of these modern ones should be taken just as seriously.

Since there are thirty-three stories here, I'll just give the barest of barebones outline on what someone might expect to find within. I was quite delighted to discover some of my favorite writers on display here, for example Angela Carter, May Sinclair, Elizabeth Jane Howard, and Robert Aickman are here, along with other writers whose names are legend in the realm of ghost-story writing and some whose appearance is a nice surprise.  Let's begin, shall we?

** indicates my favorite stories

1. "In the Dark," by E. Nesbit -- when a story begins with "It may have been a form of madness. Or it may be that he really was what is called haunted," well, it's sure to be a good one. And it was. A man decides he's going to kill himself, and wants someone to know why ...

2. "Rooum," by Oliver Onions -- in which echoes abound, and like most stories by this author, it's a seriously and delightfully slow-burning, creepy tale.

3.** "The Shadowy Third," by Ellen Glasgow.  I read this previously in a collection edited by Alan Ryan called Haunting Women, and it's still disturbing now.

4. "The Diary of Mr. Poynter," by M.R. James. What ghost-story collection would be complete without M.R. James?  After reading this one, though, my first thought was "I've finally found an M.R. James story I don't really like." Here, a decision to decorate a room with curtains using a certain pattern causes havoc at Redcomb Manor.

5. ** "Miss Porter and Miss Allen," by Hugh Walpole -- this is a good one. Two women live together in a "conspiracy of silence," that probably should have been broken much, much earlier.

6. ** "The Nature of the Evidence," by May Sinclair. Seriously one of the most downright creepy stories in this entire book, in which a widower's new wife gets much more than she bargained for in the marriage.  I love May Sinclair's writing, and this story is just reason why.

7. "Night-Fears," by L.P. Hartley, the story of a man who's happy to have taken on a new job but then has second thoughts after running into a stranger.

8. **Bewitched," by Edith Wharton.  Holy crap. This one is just flat-out terrifying and not just in a supernatural sort of way, as a man admits to having an affair with a young woman and is accused of being "bewitched." There's definitely a reason why in this case.  Edith Wharton truly was a master of terror.

9. Next up is "A Short Trip Home," by of all people F. Scott Fitzgerald.  It's okay -- not brilliant, but read between the lines on this one.

10.** "Blind Man's Buff", by H. Russell Wakefield is truly panic inspiring, taking place in a house where "none of us chaps" ventures "after sundown."

11. "The Blackmailers," by Algernon Blackwood, follows, and while it's not his best, it's still quite squirmworthy especially at the end when that particular 'aha' moment hits.

read this book!


12. Next comes "Yesterday Street," by Thomas Burke -- I've seen several variations on this theme in my ghost-story reading, but this one is really quite sad. It burns slowly, but is well worth the payoff.

13. Fritz Leiber makes an appearance with his "Smoke Ghost," in which a man whom "you might call a sensory prodigy" meets his match in something that seems to follow where ever he goes.  Very nicely done.

14. "The Cheery Soul," by Elizabeth Bowen -- again, not her best work, but still immensely creepy. A young woman accepts an invitation to stay as guest in a lovely home, but is puzzled by what she discovers there, interrupting her "disreputable psychic pleasure." Oh -- if she only knew!

15. Wow! Graham Greene has a nice little tale here with his  "All But Empty" from 1947,  which has a great surprise ending I never saw coming.

16. ** And now, my favorite story of the entire book, Elizabeth Jane Howard's "Three Miles Up," which is also one of my lifetime favorites because it is so frightening. While I won't give away the show, I could only imagine the horror facing the people in this story as their situation finally dawns on them.  The story begins "There was absolutely nothing like it," and that's definitely the case here.

17. "Close Behind Him," by John Wyndham comes next, another tale in which two criminals have no idea what they're about to get themselves into, with serious results. Pleasantly terrifying.

18. Walter de la Mare's "The Quincunx" is also quite good, a tale in which an inheritance from a dead aunt proves to be the main character's downfall.

19. ** To my great surprise, an author I've recently discovered, Marghanita Laski, makes an appearance here with her "The Tower." Italy is the setting for this story which centers on a young wife who decides to visit the Tower of Sacrifice built in 1535, which was the only thing that survived the destruction of an entire village in 1549. Another slow burner, but terrifying.

20. ** Elizabeth Taylor's "Poor Girl" demands two readings -- once for the supernatural element, which is in no way typical, and the second for what is really going on underneath the horror.  Very well done.

21. Robert Bloch's "I Kiss Your Shadow" is nothing if not entertaining, and definitely vintage Bloch.  A mixture of the supernatural and mystery/pulp gives it a kind of easy-read, fun sort of feel but there's a lot going on here once you get into it.

22. "A Woman Seldom Found," by William Sansom finds a mysterious veiled woman the object of attraction of a young man on his first visit to Rome.  He probably should have stayed home. Yow. The last line of this one...

Elizabeth Jane Howard (from The Telegraph)


23.** "The Portobello Road," by Muriel Spark is also a good one in which secrets have a way of coming back to haunt those who harbor them, not just in this life, but beyond.

24. ** A true virtuoso performance is up next in Robert Aickman's "Ringing the Changes," which is one of most truly-terrifying stories he's ever written.

25. "On Terms" by Christine Brook-Rose - well, let's just say it wasn't on my top ten or top twenty lists of stories in this book, but that's just me. A very strange tale related as a body lies slowly decomposing...

26. William Trevor has an entry here, "The Only Story," in which one man slowly deteriorates over time to the detriment of everyone around him, but mostly himself.  Talk about psychological insight ... whoa.

27. **"The Loves of Lady Purple" is a mind-blowing story by another of my very favorite writers, Angela Carter.
"She, the sole perpetrator of desire, proliferated malign fantasies all around her and used her lovers as the canvas on which she executed boudoir masterpieces of destruction. Skins melted in the electricity she generated."
Greatness in print. Enough said.

28.  **Penelope Lively's "Revenant as Typewriter," is also wonderful as a woman tries to exert herself and her will over the home she recently bought. Note I said "tries."

29. "The Little Dirty Girl," by Joanna Russ I've read before (I can't remember where) -- the second time through made it better than the first, but again, not in my top ten.

30. "Watching Me, Watching You," is by Fay Weldon, and reflects what a justice-loving ghost sees as the years roll by.

31. "The July Ghost" by A.S. Byatt -- good but not up to (in my opinion) Byatt's usual literary greatness.

32. "The Highboy, " by Alison Lurie -- this one's also good with a sort of sarcastic, funny edge to it as well as a great ending.

33. ** Jane Gardam's "The Meeting House" centers on the struggle for quiet in a Quaker meeting house. The Quakers eventually find it, but not in the way they'd expected.


I am just delighted to see so many women writers represented in this collection, and it's definitely a book serious readers of ghostly tales should include in their home libraries. It's certainly one I'd recommend.





Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Book of Monelle, by Marcel Schwob -- beautiful and brilliant.


978098411587
Wakefield Press, 2012
originally published 1894
translated by Kit Schluter
115 p

paperback

With only a couple of minor exceptions, it's been an outstanding reading year so far, and it just got better with The Book of Monelle, by Marcel Schwob. It's such a great feeling when I lose myself in something this good not just once, but twice.  

The story behind The Book of Monelle is a sad one, yet it's  vital to the contents of this little book.  In the translator's afterword, Kit Schluter writes about Schwob meeting Louise, a "young, working-class girl" who may have been a prostitute, who was quite ill with tuberculosis.  The two of them grew very close, and according to Schwob himself, "without her affection, he would have lost his taste for life," 
"She taught him to see again the levity of existence, to find joy in fairy tales and little toys made for children. Perhaps without ever saying it, she taught him that the falsehoods we believe as children are not detrimental or misleading, but joyous and fruitful, that the certainty of adulthood is a sorrowful and wasteful thing." 
They were together for a couple of years, during which time he wrote stories for her, and as her condition deteriorated,  a "fictional girl named Monelle began to appear everywhere" in his little tales, and he began to use the voice of an "adult narrator" who related them "with desperation."   Schluter notes that the name conveys the meaning of something along the lines of  "My-her" (mon elle), which is, if you think about it, just beautiful.   On her death, Schwob was so grief stricken that he couldn't write for a full six months, and then came The Book of Monelle, as Schluter notes in an interview with Paris Review
"an assemblage of fairy tales, nihilist philosophy, and aphorisms tightly woven into a tapestry of deep emotional suffering."
That suffering is writ large here and I felt every second of it.

While I won't go into detail -- it's another book that is genuinely felt by the reader -- the book is structured as a sort of triptych.  The first part is called "The Words of Monelle," which begins poignantly with Monelle finding the narrator "in the plain where I was wandering." Here it's easy to imagine the narrator (think Schwob himself) as being lost and unsettled, wandering in grief. She goes on to speak about prostitutes, who "leave the crowds of the night for an act of kindness," who
"heave a cry of compassion to all of you and stroke your hands with their bony hands. They only understand you if you are extremely unfortunate; they cry with you and console you."
More importantly, for the next section, Monelle says
"And I shall lead you among my sisters who are myself and similar to witless prostitutes.
And you shall see them tormented by selfishness and desire and pride and patience and pity, not yet having found themselves at all. And you shall see them set out in search of themselves in the distance..."
However, before arriving at the next section, "The Sisters of Monelle," there is a burst of things that Monelle "shall speak to you of," including destruction, formation, the gods, etc which reminded me of  manifesto-like sutras, or as the translator puts it, "commands."

Once we're in "The Sisters of Monelle" though, the tone changes.  There are a number of short stories in fairy tale/parable form here, parts of which have been mined from already-existing tales, but which are clearly original and incredibly sad. Personally, for me, "The Fated" is the best story of them all, because it really highlights what Schwob is saying here, as does "The Dreamer," but read carefully, it's easy to see that they all reflect what Schwob had written in "The Words of Monelle."

 Part three is entitled "Monelle," which for me was the most gutwrenching part of this entire book, but strangely enough (and most gratefully, I have to say), it does end on a very brief note of hope.  "Of Her Emergence" nearly had me in tears, and I was even worse off by the time I got to "Of Her Patience," where the narrator finds Monelle after having lost her only to be told that he cannot stay with her.  "Of Her Emergence"  begins with the narrator once again lost, in the dark, not knowing how he came to be where he is. It is there where he finds the "dim weak lights of the little lamp girl," who cannot sell her lamps to anyone except children.  As she says,
"...the little lamps I sell don't last forever. Their flames wane, as if burdened by the dark rain. And when my little lamps go out, the children no longer see the glow in the mirror, and they despair. For they fear they won't be able to foresee the moment when they will start to grow up."
That's sad enough, but when the little lamp girl and the narrator look into a mirror by the light of her lamp, he sees "well-known stories play out:"
"But the little lamp lied, lied, lied. I saw the feather rise up from Cordelia's lips; and she was smiling and convalescing; and she was living in an enormous cage like a bird with her old father, and she kissed his white beard. I saw Ophelia playing on the glassy surface of the pond, and wrapping her wet arms, garlanded with violets, around Hamlet's neck. I saw Desdemona, awoken, wandering beneath the willow trees. I saw the princess Maleine take her two hands off the eyes the eyes of the old king, and laugh, and dance. I saw Mélisande, freed, admiring herself in the fountain.
And I cried: 'Lying little lamp...' "
I almost lost it right there, trying to fathom just how much pain this man must have been in while writing this book. The translator notes that as Louise was dying, he
 "spoke to none of his friends of her, but retreated instead into a world of symbol and metaphor, at the center of which was Monelle."
And really,  I've never read such a personal, grief-filled book, but it makes sense that he wrote it. I've read tons of books about people trying to come to terms with loss, but there's something unique about this one. He also, I think, succeeded in keeping Louise alive here, making her immortal through Monelle, and she continues to live with every person who now reads this book.  Jeez -- just read it.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Victorian Chaise-Longue, by Marghanita Laski

0953478041
Persephone Books, 1999
originally published 1953
99 pp

paperback

At the end of this novel, I was actually very relieved to be out of it -- not because it's not good (it's excellent, as a matter of fact) -- but rather because while I was in it,  I felt as trapped and as powerless as the narrator of this story.  In fact, those two words -- trapped and powerless -- are actually good concepts to use here in thinking about the novel as a whole.

I'm not really going to do much of  that here though, since The Victorian Chaise-Longue is one of those novels that a reader actually feels and so to give away too much just plain wrecks the experience.

We meet first a rather over-indulged, somewhat spoiled Melanie Langdon who has just recently had a baby boy.  She had been diagnosed with tuberculosis early on in the pregnancy, but her two doctors had allowed her to carry her baby to term.   Now, it seems, the doctor has given her a bit of happy news: as long as she continues to rest, to treat herself as if she were "a piece of Dresden china," and have three good TB tests in a row, she'll be able to play with the baby every so often. Not only that, she'll be able to leave the bedroom, the scene of her long confinement, for a "change of view."  The drawing room seems the right place, and Melanie has decided that she could rest on the old Victorian chaise-longue that she'd bought just after she discovered she was pregnant.

She'd found it in an antique shop where she was looking for a cradle, and knew she had to have it -- as she notes, she had a "profound want of this Victorian sofa."  It had the "singular startling quality of berlin-wool cross-stitch embroidery that sprawled in bright gigantic roses from the top of the head-rest to the very end of the seat".  It also had a "brownish stain on the seat," which Melanie didn't care about.  As she looked at it,
"she tried to envisage the frail young mother in the floating clouds of negligée, the tender faces of solicitous admiring friends, but the picture remained in unfelt words, and instead of it there was only her body's need to lie on the Victorian chaise-longue, that, and an overwhelming assurance, or was it a memory, of another body that painfully crushed hers into the berlin-wool."
From then on, it had been an unused fixture in the drawing room of Melanie's house;  back in the present, happy to be away from the bedroom, Melanie lays down on the chaise-longue for the first time:
"And as she lay there, so nearly, so very nearly asleep, she was unthinkingly aware of the sky and the flowers and the music, of the sun-warmed air on her body that was at last sure of happiness to come. Time died away, the solitary burden of human life was transformed in glory, and Melanie, withdrawn in ecstasy, fell asleep." 
She awakes in a "darkness charged with a faint foul smell," and finds herself in the middle of what can only be described as a nightmare that just keeps getting worse as time goes on. The first thing she hears is someone asking her if she's "ready to wake up now," but the question is addressed to "Milly," rather than "Melly," -- and at some point she realizes that she's no longer in her own home or her own time, but in the year 1864.  And that's just the beginning of Melanie's nightmare.

While the novel most certainly reads like a horror novel (and it is most certainly horrific, trust me on that one),  it is impossible to miss what Laski is saying here about women and their lives. By the 1950s, it seems that in some ways, not much had changed from a century earlier -- I used the words "powerless" and "trapped" at the beginning of this post, and  these words epitomize the plights of both women. The idea plays out over and over throughout this story; I'll leave it to others to figure out how.

So - after finishing, a reader's first thought just may be -- "what the heck is going on here," because there are a number of ways the story might be interpreted.  For example, is there something mentally off with Melanie? Or is this book just one long dream that we've stumbled into? Or is it something else entirely?  One thing I noticed was the use of the word "ecstasy" in several places here, so geekperson that I am, I googled "Marghanita Laski and ecstasy" and  I discovered that she had actually written a book in 1961 called Ecstasy: A Study of Some Secular and Religious Experiences.  According to one scholar, in that book, she discusses "the numinous," examining
 "accounts of ecstasy and aesthetic states from average people and from classical mystical experience"  (18)
in order to seek out commonalities.  What follows briefly in that paragraph opened my eyes a bit and offered food for thought relevant to Laski's novel.  It made me wonder if Melanie herself had been somehow caught up in some sort of numinous moment or numinous space (which then required me to go back and reread the novel)  but as I said -- there are different possibilities to explore in this book, which is why I'm adding it to my real-world book group's reading list for October. It is just perfect for an in-depth group discussion, with so much to talk about and to mull over.

To say I was locked into this book is an understatement .  It is just so powerful and when I say that it didn't let me go, it's not cliché --  I really mean it.  I was so eager for the book to end, not because I didn't like it (I loved it), but because I was actually starting to become claustrophobic and panicked while reading it.  I swear -- a book that can mirror the feel of what's happening in the text in the mind of the reader is just too good not to read. It won't be for everyone, since there are no easy answers here, but for those who like an intellectual challenge and who like to put their brains to work, it's beyond excellent.

Very highly recommended.





Friday, April 14, 2017

Requiem at Rogano, by Stephen Knight - in which I had great fun and did a serious double take


9781943910663
Valancourt Books, 2017
originally published 1979
301 pp

Another fine release from Valancourt, Requiem at Rogano is a novel that you may think you've read before as you get further into it, but trust me, that just isn't the case.  While a number of authors in the 1970s produced something similar along these lines (I won't say but you'll know what I mean after reading it), this one stands on its own as something unique. As mentioned on the back-cover blurb, the reviewer from The Financial Times wrote about this novel that he can "recommend this to all who enjoy literate crime fiction," a sentiment I share. I'll also add that not only is it literate, but it is twisty to the point where every time I thought I had it all figured out, something happened that nixed my solution and sent me off in another direction entirely. The light bulb only went on in my head during the final moments of the story, just before the reveal.   Now, I don't know about anyone else, but when a writer comes up with a mystery story that I can't solve, well, to me he or she has done his or her job, and has done it well.  These days it takes a lot to find such a writer of mysteries since I've been reading them since I was just a wee girl -- usually I pick up on what's going on and have to settle for waiting not so patiently while the crimesolver person catches up.  It's frustrating, but happily, that's not an issue here. Thank goodness. 

It's 1902, and we are in London. The newspaper headlines are filled with reports of a strange series of murders done by a figure the police have dubbed "The Deptford Strangler," that are leaving police baffled. In the meantime, because of the police regulations requiring an officer to retire at age sixty, Reginald Arthur Brough has been made to take a retirement he's not quite ready for. He'd "tried to make the best of it," but so far, it's not been a happy time.  Things begin to look up when his nephew, Nicholas Calvin, writes to inquire whether or not he'd like to help him with a History of Murder that he's writing. He also notes that he has "stumbled on one case the like of which you've never seen," one that has brought him to Italy.  Brough doesn't take long deciding yes or no -- it is a way out of the "mental stagnation" of retirement, which he sees as a "slow march to death."  However, when he meets Nicholas later, Brough is disappointed in learning that Nicholas wants to "abandon" the project.  In its place he wants to "write a book on one single crime and its aftermath," and relates to his uncle the bizarre story of a series of murders that took place in the Italian town of Rogano in the fifteenth century, complete with strange figures in black clothing, an abbey built on sheer cliffs of solid granite, and the Inquisition.  So at this point I'm hooked like a fish and it's only page 15. After that, it just gets better, as it slowly dawns on the reader that, à la back-cover blurb, the pattern of the 1454 Rogano murders is "identical" to that of the string of murders happening in the present day.  The question of how this is possible sets Brough and Nicholas on the path of a bizarre journey that only gets stranger as time goes on.

There is a LOT more, which I'm not going to reveal here, because as I said a few days ago when talking about  Uncle Silas, the less prospective readers know about this book going into it the better.  While there are several reviews scattered here and there in the cyberworld, my advice would be to restrain yourselves from reading them until you've turned the last page. It is a mega-twisty book with a number of big surprises on the way to the ending, and trust me -- you don't want to know too much about it beforehand other than what you can glean from the back-cover blurb, which is pretty much all I've said about it here. Read spoilers at your peril -- I didn't and I'm very happy I didn't know anything beforehand to ruin the fun I had with this book. 

What I will say is that when I got to the end, I had to completely re-evaluate all that I'd just read.  The conclusion was a downright shocker and so I went racing back through the novel a second time, at which point I discovered exactly how truly ingenious a book Requiem at Rogano really is and how well the author plied his craft here.  And, just in case anyone's wondering why  I'm posting about this book here and not on the crime page of my reading journal, well, there is a definite reason, but I'm not going to give away anything except to say trust me, it definitely belongs here. Plus, if it's read as just a crime thriller, well, that's just wrong. 

James - you picked a good one. Thanks!!!! 


Monday, April 10, 2017

one of my favorite Gothic novels of all time: Uncle Silas, by J.S. Le Fanu

0486217159
Dover, 1966 ed.
originally published 1864
436 pp

paperback

"Fly the fangs of Belisarius!"

There are certain books in my library with which I've fallen in love -- the books I've been dragging around with me from move to move that I would never let out of my sight, and this one is pretty much in the top tier of those.  I decided to reread it a few weeks ago when someone online was asking about a Victorian mystery and this one popped into my head.  Well, there's that, plus the fact that many months ago, I'd bought a dvd of the old BBC adaptation of Uncle Silas called "The Dark Angel"  and really wanted to watch it, but I wanted to wait until I'd reread the book.  I have two different editions:  Penguin  ( ISBN 9780140437461)  and this one from Dover, but I had just finished a Dover reprint of another book from 1827 and decided to continue the Dover run.

Since I'd already read this novel, I didn't skip the intro this time, and there was a particular paragraph that caught my eye, so much so that I'm putting it in bold print here:
"Well, you now have Uncle Silas in your hands. If you've not read it before, I envy you. You are about to have a first-time reading experience which, I suspect, you will never forget."
That is certainly the truth -- I remember the very first time I read it, sending pages flip flip flipping in my desire to make sure that my beloved, sweet Maud Ruthyn was going to be okay at the end, pounding heart, knotted stomach, and the feeling that everything else could just go to hell for a little while until I finished the book.  This time through, since enough years had passed since I'd first read it, I can say that the flip flip flipping, the pounding heart, knotted stomach, and the feeling that everything else could just go to hell for a little while until I finished the book happened all over again.  What's changed is that this time, unlike the last time x number of years ago,  I got much more of a sense of what lies beneath, and of just how near-perfectly  this book was written. It was this novel that started me on Le Fanu's  fiction, and afterwards,  I bought and devoured all of his gothic-ish novels (that have also moved with me from place to place), then started collecting his ghostly and other supernatural tales. I haven't read them all yet, but it's comforting to know that should I have a desire to do so, they're there, waiting for me.

This post is a huge departure from my norm, since I won't give up a single detail here, nor will I provide even the slightest hints, because first-time readers should stay away from anything about Uncle Silas  that will reveal its contents  either before or during your reading of this novel. Do so at your own peril: knowing what happens ahead of time will completely lessen the impact that the book will have on you and the fun is in the building of suspense and in getting caught up in its atmosphere as it gets darker and darker and darker,  until in its final moments when you can finally let out all of the tension you've been holding inside.  If you're not knotted with tension as you read this book, there is seriously something wrong with you. Seriously.

It is and will remain one of my favorite books ever, and I can absolutely recommend it. Unlike my usual practice, I won't go into what lies underneath its surface, but just so you know, there is a LOT happening that careful readers will be able to discern. Honestly, it's killing me to keep quiet about it, but as I said, not a word.   Just a couple of things: 1) do not gloss over the role of the Swedenborgian religion here -- it's very, very important, and 2) don't skim through either the descriptions of the landscape or the main houses in this story -- Le Fanu is an absolute master of weaving such details into his work and they only serve to augment what he's trying to do.  Other than that, my only advice is to let the book carry you away from the real world and to have tons of fun with it.


*********

Now - let's talk adaptations for a moment, neither of which should be viewed until you've finished the book.   As I noted earlier, I recently bought a screen adaptation of this novel called "The Dark Angel,"






which stars Peter O'Toole as Uncle Silas, and he's pretty damn creepy in his role. This adaptation tends to overdo it with the more nightmarish/surrealistic effects which were probably great at the time (1988)  but which now seem kind of silly and tend to lessen the suspense a bit here and there, but at least it adheres to the novel quite nicely with only a few changes here and there.  The second adaptation (1947)  is called "Uncle Silas,"  which quite frustratingly changes the story almost completely.  However, what both adaptations do well is choosing the right person to play the role of my favorite, most horrific character in this book --  Maud's governess Madame de la Rougierre.   While the actress does a great job in the 1947 version,  Jane Lapotaire does an even more freakish portrayal than her counterpart in the earlier film.


from myreviewer.com
Honestly, I didn't think that could be possible.

Both have their merits, but my money's on "The Dark Angel."












Tuesday, April 4, 2017

as we venture into the realm of the fays: Bluebirds, by Catulle Mendès

9781943813254
Snuggly Books, 2017
originally published as Les oiseaux bleus, 1888
translated from the French by Brian Stableford
163 pp



"...who would assume the task of writing fairy tales if he did not have the right to transform, in the course of his tales, the most hideous individuals into young ladies dazzling with beauty and adornments?" -- 110



I just loved this collection of French tales  -- it's one of those "sorry, I'm out of the real world right now so please leave a message" kind of books that I look forward to finding and only every so often do.

In describing this book to others, I've said that it's a collection of "fairy" tales for adults, but that description isn't quite accurate as I embarrassingly discovered after finishing the book while reading the introduction that talks about the evolution of the French conte.  For our purposes (beware of what's coming next  - I love reading about the history of literature so it will be a moment before I actually get to the book),  in the seventeenth century, a new "fad" was created when
"collections of reconfigured folktales and imitations thereof began to appear in several European nations," 
and became a hit with the "literary salons associated with some of the leading ladies of Louis XIV."  Authors of this sort of  "salon literature"
"deliberately employed and exaggerated the elements of the merveilleux in such traditional tales, in calculated flagrant defiance of the dawning 'Age of Enlightenment' that ruled such material superstitious, obsolete and unworthy of credence."
One particular "promoter of salon literature" of the time was the Baroness d'Aulnoy, who, in the same year that Charles Perrault published his Contes de ma mère l'Oye (Tales of Mother Goose),  put together a collection of tales called Les Contes de fées.   This little factoid is noteworthy since (and I swear I'm getting around to my point about wrongly labeling this book a collection of fairy tales in case you've wondered where the hell I'm going with all of this)  as Stableford goes on to say that
"The nearest equivalent to the French word féerie is "enchantment," and fées are, strictly speaking, enchantresses (as in the enchantress of Arthurian legend known in English as Morgan le Fay), but the title of Madame d' Aulnoy's first collection was translated into English as 'fairy tales,' thus foisting that label on an entire genre of subsequent English fiction, most of whose included stories do not, in fact, feature 'fairies' as prevously defined and deployed by such influential domestic writers as William Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser." 
He also notes that while Mendès' stories often feature "individuals very similar to the fairies of previous English literature and art," the "genre defined by Madame d'Aulnoy," became adapted for children's literature. The truth is though that "the production of such tales in the French salons was intended for the use of adults."  Finally getting down to where I said I'd be going, the stories in this book are less "fairy" tale than as Stableford puts it, "fakeloristic contes" and a "specialized collection of pastiche folktales"  which happen to involve "fays" in most cases, and trust me, there are several here that are certainly not meant to be bedtime reading for children.

Because there are twenty-seven of these little contes to be found here, there is no way to quickly go through each one, and I probably wouldn't anyway since the joy is in the reading and I wouldn't want to mess that up for anyone considering this book.   There are quite a few that made me laugh -- offering just two examples here, "The Dreaming Beauty,"  a sort of riff on "Sleeping Beauty," carries the traditional tale to a new level as a prince gets his comeuppance after waking the sleeping princess; "The Bonnet Collector" gave me a serious case of the giggles after reading Stableford's footnote about the French usage of the term "flinging (or throwing) one's cap or bonnet over the windmill," which was likely not taken from Don Quixote.  Then there are the darker ones in which I could clearly see elements of later Decadent fiction, including "The Lucky Find," in which Amour and Beauty step into a property shop to find something they've lost.  And, while they're all wonderful little tales, to add to the few mentioned above, I did have my favorites  -- "The Beauty of the World" (in which the author makes a great point), "The Maladroit Wish," in the vein of "be careful what you wish for...", and "Isoline-Isolin," the nature of which which I won't even hint at, and "The Three Good Fays," another one with a beyond-true ironic ending.

There is great wisdom to be discovered in the sheer irony of these tales, so even though they're short, they're also quite complex, deserving of a slow, careful read.  I just love when I find works like this, and this time, it's left me wanting more of the same.  Hint hint, Snuggly.

Highly, highly recommended, it's absolutely beautiful. My copy came from Snuggly, so a huge  merci bien, mes amis to the great people there.


Monday, April 3, 2017

indie author spotlight: In which "being dead is just full of surprises": Down Solo, by Earl Javorsky


9781611881769
Story Plant, 2014
202 pp
kindle version 

I feel so badly right now -- I had read this novel at the beginning of March and meant to post about it, but completely spaced.  Normally after I finish a book, it goes into a designated basket  next to my desk and then as I have time, I grab a book from the top and write a post about it. Since this one was on my Ipad that I couldn't just throw in the basket, well, out of sight, out of mind, another reason I don't particularly care for e-books. So, to author Earl Javorsky, mea culpa, my many many many huge gigantor apologies. 

Down Solo is a crossbreed -- it's  hardboiled crime mixed with pulp mixed with the supernatural.  At the beginning of this book, PI Charlie Miner thinks he "must have blacked out for a bit" after a bullet had entered his skull, but to his surprise, he wakes up "naked on a gurney" in the morgue.  It's not a mistake -- Charlie is quite dead, having been killed,  then tagged as an "unidentified male."  He discovers that he can not only "disengage" from his body and roam around, but that by returning, he is able to reanimate himself.  So he does what any normal naked dead guy would do -- steals the clothes from his dead skinhead morgue companion and walks out. First things first -- he wants to discover why he was killed and who did it.  Thinking he'll find the answers by looking through the files of the five current cases he was working on before someone put a bullet in his brain, file number four suddenly "sings a tune" in his head -- and we're off on an incredibly strange but fast-paced adventure that begins with a gorgeous woman and ends with a very big bang. 

Never a dull moment in this book -- drugs, pursuits, sex and a lot of bullets --  all of the standard fare of an fast-paced hardboiled thriller find their way into this novel.  While it's a story of retribution, which Charlie learns "is allowed," at the same time it's a story of redemption and unlike a lot of authors who play with what I call "woo-woo" elements in a crime novel, the author does a great job with the story and especially with his main character. For a dead man, Charlie turns out to be quite human, especially when it comes to his daughter, who obviously doesn't know he's no longer among the living.  There is a lot of "if only" thinking on Charlie's part, and also a lot of pain, but these sad moments are offset by the snarky humor thrown in here. There is a very funny scene, for example, where he tries to convince a priest that he's dead, and messes with the poor man's head to prove it.  In general, the story is very well done and while I'm not usually a big fan of action-packed thrillers, adding the character of dead Charlie into the mix kept me reading.  This one I'd certainly recommend -- it's just plain fun. 




Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Night Things, by Michael Talbot

9781941147610
Valancourt Books, 2015
218 pp

paperback

"They say Lake House draws evil like a magnet." 

I just can't help myself -- I can't resist a good haunted house story. I have no clue why, it just is what it is.  Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House is at the top of my list, followed by  Nazareth Hill by Ramsey Campbell, these books, and many, many more. It's all about the atmosphere and the surprises that people discover inside, both of which are part and parcel of Night Things, with the added bonus of an eerie mystery at its very core.

The action begins when Lauren Montgomery, her young 11 year-old son Garrett, and Lauren's new rock star husband Stephen Ransom rent a house in the Adirondacks for the summer. It's not just any house, either -- Lake House was built in the 1890s by Sarah Balfram, who, as the story goes, lived there in complete isolation after being jilted by her fiancé. With 160 rooms, it sits on two hundred acres of land, complete with lake -- very much cut off from everything and everyone for miles.  As Stephen tells Lauren as soon as they enter the place for the first time, it's not a "normal house"; evidently Sarah was a wee bit eccentric and  had
"strange things built into the house -- stairways that go nowhere, hallways that end at blank walls,"
reminiscent of California's Winchester Mystery House.  This place, though, is no  tourist destination -- it's been the scene of several violent murders in the past, something Lauren doesn't know at the time of their arrival, but will soon discover.  Garrett, a naturally-curious child with a fascination for science combined with

Winchester Mystery House, CA (thanks to prairieghosts.com)
a belief in UFOs, ETs, and all things strange, is fascinated about the "unknown vastnesses and further architectural oddities" the house may be hiding, "so evocative of old horror movies that he fancied just about anything might be hidden in its innumerable closets and passageways."  While exploring the place on his own, he discovers that "the layout of the house had a curious rhyme and reason" -- evidently it had been "designed to prevent anyone from venturing too deeply into its inner recesses." This starts him wondering why Sarah Balfram may have had the house built this way, as he sees it, meant to "control and influence the route a person took through her house. " He also begins to question what would happen if somehow he could "travel deeper into its interior."  As Garrett and Lauren soon discover, the house itself is, as the back-cover blurb notes, a "labyrinthine puzzle," complete with rooms that are filled with strange oddities, but also  cause disorientation and dizziness.  The two take their own tour through the place, and after a while Lauren comes to believe that the stronger the effects caused by the rooms, the closer she was getting to "whatever it was that Sarah Balfram had gone to such great lengths to conceal."

The mystery is slowly revealed around the story of the dynamic of a strained family relationship, as Lauren finds herself caught in the middle between her new husband and her son.  It's a good book and it had me going right up until the last section when this family tension causes Stephen to take off,  leaving Lauren and Garrett behind.  With no car and the two stuck in the middle of nowhere, Talbot had a great opportunity here but in my opinion sort of missed it with how he ends the novel, which I won't disclose. Let's just say that I get it and the mystery of the house is solved to my great satisfaction,  but  I felt that rather than making the final reveal a bit more in keeping with the creepy atmosphere and the ratcheting suspense up to this point, Talbot's  final section was more of a standard '80s horror fare ending.  And before you say "well duh - it was written in the '80s," what I'm trying to say here  is that having read his Delicate Dependency I think Talbot was capable of much more than he gave me here.  Still, I can't complain,  since in any book it's all about the journey for me, and it was a really good one all along the way and I had a LOT of fun with it.   I'd certainly recommend it to other fans of haunted house stories and to people who enjoy their horror on the tamer side.

Monday, March 6, 2017

in which you, dear reader, must judge for yourself: The Statement of Stella Maberly, by F. Anstey

9781943910618
Valancourt Books, 2017
originally published 1896
171 pp

paperback

I am just in awe of the old, often forgotten books that Jay and Ryan, aka the Valancourt guys,  have decided to reintroduce into the modern reading world.  I haven't yet met a Valancourt book I didn't like, but this new release,  The Statement of Stella Maberly, is a book I absolutely loved, and I'm not exaggerating at all.  It has that wonderful ambiguity that I love in a novel, and I can honestly say that I can't remember reading anything quite like it.

When this book was first published back in 1896, the publisher, T. Fisher Unwin, decided to print it without crediting Anstey as the author. Instead, as Peter Merchant reveals  in his excellent introduction, it was released as The Statement of Stella Maberly, "written by herself," with different reviewers saying it should be read as a  "madness memoir," "a curious portrayal of the neurotic temperament," or an account of "a madwoman, who takes it into her head that an evil spirit is occupying her friend's body."  That all changed about six months later when Anstey was identified as the real author, at which point it could then be seen as "a carefully crafted thriller about demonic possession" or "based on a strong storyline idea suggested by the spirit world."

From somewhere in "a place of permanent confinement," Stella Maberly has "determined to make a full statement" of "circumstances" that led to her committing what she calls "an act that, in itself, would seem a crime deserving of nothing but condemnation."  Her memory has become "confused," so while she's lucid, she needs to get it all down, not just for herself but for those of us reading her statement.  Perhaps, she says, we will discover that once we know the facts, we might judge her to be "more to be pitied than blamed."  This is the setup for what turns out to be a most bizarre story, which as she also reveals, begins in Stella's childhood.

What follows is a strange, sometimes shocking account, and whether Stella should be "pitied" or "blamed" comes down to reader perspective.  The cover blurb reveals that Stella Maberly has been "forced" to make her own way in the world after her father's fortune is all but lost.  Stella writes an acquaintance about the possibility of acquiring a position as a governess, and to her surprise, she discovers that one of her old school friends, the lovely Evelyn Heseltine, has need of a companion. Evelyn, who suffers from a weak heart, hasn't been in the best of health, and has been abroad for a while. Now she's back, and  Stella takes the job.  For a while, everything is going quite nicely between the two young women, and Stella is beyond happy. But things change owing to circumstances which I won't reveal here, and one morning, eager to sit beside Evelyn and "wait until she awoke," Stella enters Evelyn's room, opens the curtains to "let in the light," and gets the first shock of the day:  when she sees Evelyn's face, she realizes that
"Nothing would wake her any more, no words of love and sorrow would ever reach her. She was dead."
The night before, she'd loaned Evelyn's aunt some chloral to help Evelyn sleep, and now Stella is wracked with guilt since chloral is not to be used for people with weak hearts, going so far as to  beseech God to "give me back my dead."  However, before she can "rouse the house," to let others know of Evelyn's death, she gets another shock --  Evelyn has come back to life. The surprises aren't quite over though, with the biggest one yet to come in the days that follow. It slowly begins to dawn on Stella that it is not
"...Evelyn's stainless soul that was gazing at me now through her eyes, but some evil, mocking spirit that my rash and blasphemous prayer had called to animate the form she had left."
The  events that follow set up the question asked on the cover blurb,
"Is Stella insane, or has a dark spirit actually taken possession of Evelyn's body?"
The Statement of Stella Maberly  is cleverly written, and as Mr. Merchant notes in the introduction, the book is nicely balanced, with the potential of becoming
"as much a Gothic encounter with embodied evil as a curious portrayal of the neurotic (or neurasthenic) temperament."
As I noted in my post title, it's really up to the reader to decide what's going on. While I have my own opinion as to what  the real story is here, I am not going to share, but instead let readers enjoy this excellent novel for themselves and make up their own minds.  I went through this book two times to explore these "competing possibilities," and the second time through, the story became a completely different experience. The devil, as they say, is in the details, and that is definitely the case here.  Reading it twice is something I would definitely recommend to anyone who decides to give it a try.

This short novel will certainly appeal to readers interested in Victorian fiction, to people who read "madness memoirs," and to lighter-fare horror readers interested in demonic possession. It may also appeal to some crime fiction readers as well.  Do not miss the texts that follow the story, and while the introduction is worth its weight in gold, it may be best to leave it until after finishing the book.

This book just may be my favorite Valancourt release yet, and considering how many I've read, well, that should speak volumes. Hats off!!!!



Wednesday, February 22, 2017

something to look forward to in April: An Ossuary of the North Lagoon and Other Stories, by Frederick Rolfe Baron Corvo


9781943813278
Snuggly Books, 2017
108 pp

paperback



I'd heard of Frederick Rolfe (aka Baron Corvo) before reading this book, but until Anna sent me a copy of An Ossuary of the North Lagoon and Other Stories (thanks!), I'd never actually read anything he'd written.  After reading this one, though, I'm now hooked -- I picked up his Stories Toto Told Me and  I already have his Hadrian VII. 

Jason Rolfe, who introduces this collection of Corvo's short stories, notes that his work "foreshadowed the Modernist movement that would eventually define 20th Century literature," and yet while serving as a precursor,
"his writing held to its deeply rooted Decadent themes, blending 19th Century aestheticism with 20th Century introspection in unique and highly intelligent ways."
After two times through Ossuary of the North Lagoon, I'd have to say that I completely concur with this assessment -- and, aside from my happiness in finding another writer of this period,  the book itself  is a genuine pleasure to read.  There was more than one story that gave me a case of the giggles;  Corvo's personality and sexuality is writ large on these pages and the innuendo is often hot and heavy.  And then of course, there's the writing -- pointed barbs at his enemies (to which I will return momentarily), a knack for settling the reader into the time and place in which his stories are set, and beautiful description, especially when we're taken along the canals of Venice by barcheta.   Mostly though, from what I've read about him, this book is filled with stories that reveal quite a lot about Corvo himself and his rather odd worldview.

The three tales from Venice  (1913): "An Ossuary of the North Lagoon," "On Cascading into the Canal" and "Venetian Courtesy" open the book, followed by what has to be an experimental piece, "The Tattooed Wedding Ring" from 1897.  To be honest, it was a bit difficult to simultaneously keep up on the patterns in the writing and focus on the story itself.  The second time through it was much easier, but prepare to spend a bit of time on this one.  It's a good story -- just a tad difficult to read.  Next up comes "The Armed Hands" from "Circa" 1906 -- this one is a mind blower as the author once again puts himself into his tale not just as the narrator, but also as an object of the narrator's interest.. Another bit of honesty  -- I didn't catch on the first time through to what Corvo was doing in this story, but before coming back to it the second time, I read through  AJA Symons' The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography,  (NYRB, 2001), and without even discussing the story itself, Symons' recounting of a particular piece of jewelry that Corvo always wore set off the light bulb over my head when I picked up Ossuary of the NorthLagoon the second time.  Following that one, there are two stories that close the book, "The Princess's Shirts," which plays off an image of the boyish St. Sebastian (look here to get an idea in one of Corvo's photographs)   and "Deinon to Thely" which likely reflects Corvo's own, as one writer put it,  "defiant impiety against Catholic Church officialdom."

from Withnail Books, October 2013

From what I understand, the pointed barbs I mentioned earlier show up in a lot of Corvo's work.  The chance to strike out at those whom Corvo felt had wronged him evidently became a regular part of his writing.   As just one example, he had become friends with Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson, an author  who was one of Corvo's benefactors for a while.  After some time Benson had decided not to deal professionally with Corvo any longer, and had left a less than sterling depiction of Corvo in his novel The Sentimentalists. For his trouble, he shows up as "The Reverend Bobugo Bonsen" in one of Corvo's novels.  In Ossuary of the North Lagoon, another real-life benefactor he labels as "The Professor of Greek" is pilloried. This seems to have been Rolfe's pattern -- the writer at the blog Short Story Review  notes that almost all of Rolfe's benefactors would be "rewarded with deranged suspicion and histrionic abuse." He also notes that
"The twist to Rolfe's character, and the riddle for us is this: he seemed plausibly a brilliant writer, which persuaded many wealthy benefactors to give their money to a maniac, but deep beneath his mania he was implausibly a brilliant writer."
And from what I've experienced while reading this book, I'd have to concur.

Frederick Rolfe/Baron Corvo is a writer I'll be revisiting, and I have to applaud Snuggly for putting this collection into print. My only suggestion would be that it's worthwhile reading something about Rolfe's life before settling down with this book -- so many things in this book are made clearer once you have a little knowledge about this most fascinatingly-strange man under your belt. I can honestly say I've never read anything like this.  And frankly, I loved it.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Haunting Women: Chilling Stories of Horror by Fourteen Acclaimed Women Writers, (ed.) Alan Ryan

0380898810
Avon Books, 1988
210 pp

mass market paperback

another January read that I'm just getting to, but whatever. There are fourteen stories in this book, and while most are definitely "chilling," here it's also all about the writing.

The editor's introduction, which gives nothing away as far as content is well worth reading before launching into the book itself.  Here, Ryan posits an interesting question:  given the fact that these stories are all written by women, he wonders if these stories are "different from the horror stories written by men."  His answer -- yes, "in some ways," they are.  How so, one might ask, and his answer would be that for one thing,
"For years in the past ... magazines were filled with 'wife-killer' stories written by men. The other side of the picture is represented here by three stories from earlier in the century, those by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, May Sinclair, and Ellen Glasgow.  Rosemary Timperley's story brings a more contemporary  view to the subject."
His observation is spot on -- May Sinclair's "The Villa Desirée," for example, written in 1926, is the story of a young woman who has become engaged to a man who is, on the outside anyway, absolutely perfect and just too damn good to be true.  But we know better and eventually so does the heroine of this story, just in the nick of time.

Another thing Ryan notes is that
"... many of these stories reflect a very strong concern for the sanctity of the home and the safety of children,"
again, spot on. Take Shirley Jackson's entry here, "The Renegade," which may not be as horrific as many of her other short stories,  but "The Renegade" reflects her recurring themes of isolation and paranoia once a family leaves its safe, familiar environment and as Ryan says, it's the woman here who is "trying to keep her sanity amid swirling domestic horrors."

The fourteen stories are, in order, with no spoilers:

1. "The Renegade," by Shirley Jackson
2. "The Villa Desirée," by May Sinclair
3. "The House of the Famous Poet," by Muriel Spark -- what I will say about this one is that aspiring authors really might appreciate this one
4. "Loopy," by Ruth Rendell, which is my absolute favorite story in this entire collection and is just downright chilling, but not for any scenario ever imagined by a horror writer.  Nope, this one is frightening without the author having to pull any supernatural punches. More than frightening, it's beyond disturbing.
5. "The Yellow Wallpaper," by Charlotte Perkins Gilman -- which still kicks me in the gut even after I don't know how many readings because of the nature of its subject matter
6. "The Foghorn," by Gertrude Atherton.  Another one to send a frisson of horror up the spine, but not until the very end when it all clicks.
7. "The Ghost," by Mrs. Henry Wood -- oh! This is a good one! Sad, but well done.
8. "Simon's Wife," by Tanith Lee is also amazing in a very human sort of way;  another gutpuncher when all is said and done.
9. "Hell on Both Sides of the Gate," by Rosemary Timperley, which is seriously just plain disturbing on any level anyone can possibly imagine.
10. "The Shadowy Third," by Ellen Glasgow -- another startling entry here, oh dear god. If I were going to offer a course in the creepiest stories written by women, this one would definitely make my list. It's the psychology in this one that really matters.
11. Jean Rhys is represented nicely here with her "The Sound of the River," which is, as The Cambridge Introduction To Jean Rhys notes, based on the death of her second husband (95). If you know anything at all about the author, you know she's written some very powerful work and this one is no exception.
12. "Robbie" by Mary Danby is so well known that it's been reprinted in several anthologies. It still, for me, has the power to shock.
13. "Heartburn," by Hortense Calisher, is beyond weird, and like the other stories in this collection, what is has to say about human nature will stick with its reader for a long, long time. Shivers.
14. "The Cloak," by Inek Dinesen just plain knocked my socks off.  Holy crap.

I will say that by modern standards most of these tales may seem a bit tame, but really, they're anything but.  "Chilling" is less the adjective at play here than "disturbing," and that's on a very human level even though there are certainly supernatural overtones involved in many of these stories.  This one I highly recommend -- another really good one for wrapping oneself up in a blanket with cup of tea in hand.