Thursday, April 27, 2017

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

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


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

Persephone Books, 1999
originally published 1953
99 pp


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

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

Dover, 1966 ed.
originally published 1864
436 pp


"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.

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

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

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

Valancourt Books, 2015
218 pp


"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
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

Valancourt Books, 2017
originally published 1896
171 pp


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

Snuggly Books, 2017
108 pp


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

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.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Those Who Haunt Ghosts: A Century of Ghost Hunter Fiction, (ed.) Tim Prasil

Coachwhip Publications
459 pp
(read in January)

paperback - from the author, thanks!!!

"And you, my dear sir, ...would also do well not to play with things, the dark and terrible nature of which you are far from being aware of." -- 45

"It's grown rather dark now, and I've got the keys to the haunted house right here. Allow me to admit you. I hope that you enjoy your night -- and that, come morning, you'll be of sound mind and body. Alive, at the very least."   And with that word of warning at the end of the introduction to this book, we're off and running. I could almost hear that evil "bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha" laughter in my head as Prasil throws down that  challenge, and it definitely sets the tone for what's to come. 

 Editor Tim Prasil has spent what I'd say were likely countless hours "digging through nineteenth- and early twentieth-century supernatural literature" to find these tales and the ones that appeared earlier in his lovely collection Giving Up the Ghosts: Short-lived Occult Detective Stories.   In the introduction he reveals what he means by a "true ghost hunter," saying that it is 
"that brave soul who learns of a haunting across town or in a wing of a castle they're visiting, and who then very purposely investigates it."  (10)  
And that is most certainly the case with the stories in this volume, where the ghost hunters are either brave souls motivated by "curiosity" or "skepticism," or those who've been hired to investigate, then, of course,  there are tales of brave people, both men and women, who spend the night in a haunted location on a bet.

The opening story by an anonymous author "The Haunted Chamber" stems from 1823, while the final story is HP Lovecraft's  "The Shunned House," from 1928. These two bookend other works by a few more anonymous writers along with those who are much more well known among readers of old ghostly tales.  Just as a tiny sampler,  Edward Bulwer-Lytton has an entry here from 1859, Henry James makes an appearance with "The Ghostly Rental" from 1876 (excellent story, by the way),  and Prasil has included Ambrose Bierce's "A Fruitless Appearance" from 1888.  And anyone who's read Coachwhip's Shadows Gothic and Grotesque will recognize the name of Ralph Adams Cram, whose wonderful "No. 252 Rue M. Le Prince" (1895) also is included here.  To see the  full table of contents, you can follow this link to Tim Prasil's blog, The Merry Ghost Hunter; as I said earlier, there are 28 stories in this book, and I won't be giving away anything about any of them here.

from Pinterest

There are too many stories that I loved in this book to cull out a single favorite -- I'm such a sucker for this sort of thing, especially those ghostly yarns that take place in an old house or in a reputedly-haunted castle that I was very happy with all of them. And while one might think that an entire volume of tales that take place in various haunted locations would soon enough become same-old same-old, that doesn't happen here at all.  To his credit, Mr. Prasil has chosen a wide variety of stories in terms of place, hauntings, and the ghost hunters themselves;  there are a also number of tales here with surprise endings that I never saw coming.

I can't wait to see what's coming from Coachwhip next -- every time I pick up one of this publisher's books I'm off into my own little world and loving every second of being there.  Ghost- and haunted-house story aficionados do NOT want to miss this one at all.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Green Face, by Gustav Meyrink

Dedalus Books, 2004
originally published 1916
translated by Mike Mitchell
224 pp


This is one trippy book, and that's putting it mildly.  It is certainly classic Meyrink, though, and anyone who's read his The Golem would have to agree that the two books were definitely the work of the same person.  Once again turning to legend as a basis for his book, this time Meyrink uses the story of the Wandering Jew, and as in The Golem, he also incorporates several different sorts of esoteric and occult elements within the text.

Fortunatus Hauberrisser finds himself in Amsterdam.  Meyrink's Amsterdam is now "flooded with people of all nations," since the war was now over and people are there either hoping for "permanent refuge in the Netherlands," or they've made it a stopover while they consider where to go next.  Hauberriser finds himself going into a shop called Chidher Green's Hall of Riddles.  While waiting for the assistant to finish her phone call, he falls into "a deep sleep," after which he awakens and is spoken to by the old Jewish man who owns the shop. The old man had a face "like nothing he had ever seen before," with "eyes like dark chasms," and skin "a greenish olive colour." The face continues to haunt him long after he leaves the shop -- and  Hauberisser doesn't know it, but his sighting of this face will launch Hauberriser on a quest, not just to find the old man again as he wanders through Amsterdam, but also for the truth.  And, since it's Meyrink writing here, we know that his search will involve initiating Hauberriser and the other characters that he encounters into the journey to a higher plane of existence and spiritual knowledge.  However, there are major obstacles that Hauberriser and his fellow seekers will have to overcome before they can achieve their goals, none the least of which  is a Zulu bent on murder and destruction.

I'm sorry to keep comparing this book to The Golem, but it's really hard not to.  In both, elements of alchemy, Kabbalah, Buddhism, mysticism, and other esoteric beliefs find their way onto the pages; secret knowledge is given and the recurring idea is the way to transcendence of the physical self, and indeed of the physical world, while keeping one foot in both.  Here, though, a new element creeps into the story, a dark ending that is clearly a reflection of the anxieties of the time -- I mean, it is 1916; World War I is still going -- and the end, which many readers have noted as "apocalyptic" ... but I think I'll leave it there for now.

Meyrink's commentary on civilization is excellent here -- there's a scene that takes place in a "mixture of music-hall and restaurant" on Amsterdam's Nes that has Hauberriser shaking his head once the audience changes to "the same cosmopolitan would-be society" who have come to watch the most bizarre show.  Hauberisser is dumbfounded at what he witnesses both on stage and in the audience, noting that
"...a mask had been cast aside that had never concealed anything but intentional or unintentional hypocrisy, lack of vitality positing as virtue or ascetic monstrosities conceived in the mind of a monk!" 
He goes on to say that "a diseased organism" had been "taken for culture; now it had collapsed, laying bare the decay within."  And also, as one might expect at this time in history, Meyrink  tackles nationalism, demagoguery, and racism (although strangely, he does use a racial slur more than once to describe the Zulu so you've been warned).

Frankly, The Green Face isn't quite as good as The Golem, but I'd certainly rate it much higher than his The Angel at the West Window.  It's another novel that is NFE (not for everyone), but it's one I certainly recommend to anyone who is already of fan of Meyrink who may not have read this book yet.  It's another out-of-the-box read for people who enjoy pondering what they've just read, tailor made for someone like me.

for an awesome perspective on this novel, check out this blog post at Zen Throwdown. 

Monday, January 23, 2017

and now, once again from the realms of obscurity, I give you The Stuff of Dreams: The Weird Stories of Edward Lucas White

Dover Publications, 2016
213 pp


This may be a first for me --  a book completely composed of a number of the author's dreams, then put into written form "to get them out of his system."  Not all translate very well from the mind to the page, but for the most part, The Stuff of Dreams is a fun, compact collection of ten tales and two poems; it's a nice blending of the supernatural with a bit of the old, adventure-type pulp that I just love.  Ghosts, ghouls, and sorcerers (among other things) all make an appearance here, and it's not by chance that the word "weird" happens to be in the title.

Edward Lucas White (1866-1934) started writing in his teens, prior to becoming a student at Johns Hopkins University.  He left school for a year for medical reasons, then, upon returning in 1886, finished out his time there with a BA in Romance Languages in 1888.  He'd wanted to continue on with his studies through the PhD, but his father didn't have the money to fund his education.  In 1892, he got a job teaching Latin to Dartmouth freshmen; from there he went on to teach high school in Baltimore, retiring in 1934.  Most of his writing happened between 1905 and 1909, never really gaining commercial success for his short fiction or his poetry, but his very popular historical novels were "well received by critics and readers." Seven years after the death of his wife in 1927, White was constantly plagued with financial difficulties and he ended up committing suicide in 1934.  He's an author whose work is new to me, and I am quite happy to have discovered this collection of his work.

from Slattery's Horror Weblog
So now we get to the stories, which I just can't describe in any sort of depth without wrecking things.

In "The House of the Nightmare," a traveler finds himself stranded after a car wreck and forced to stay in an old, rundown house before being able to seek help.  This one has a bit of a twisted ending that I can honestly say I didn't see coming. It is followed by "The Flambeau Bracket," which has a macabre twist at the end.  Things start to pick up in the way of creep factor with "Amina," set in the inhospitable desert of Persia, where absolutely nothing is as it seems.  This is a good one.  The next tale is that of "The Message on the Slate," one of the jewels in this collection, which begins with a visit by a well-respected woman to a clairvoyant who is reluctant to take her on as a client, for very good reason, as it turns out.  "Lukundoo" is also quite good, a cautionary tale in which a smug, self-righteous explorer gets his comeuppance in an horrific sort of way.  That story is followed by "The Pig-Skin Belt," about a wealthy man whose paranoia no one really understands.   Another good one here is "The Song of the Sirens."  Another personal favorite, this not-so-brief story concerns the fates of a ship's crew, one not shared by the deaf mate, who lives to tell the tale, but ... 

the author's Lukundoo and OtherStories, 1927
"The Picture Puzzle" is up next and it's a doozie.  A lost child's absence from the home has destroyed her parents, who have never given up hope that she'd be found one day.  Trying to stay busy, to do anything at all to keep their minds off of their sadness, jigsaw puzzles become the parents' "salvation," especially one puzzle in particular. Not only is this one strange, but it's also quite poignant.  In "The Snout," some would-be home invaders after a fortune in diamonds find much more than they'd originally  bargained for.  The final story before the two poems "Azrael" and "The Ghoula" is "Sorcery Island," in which a man flying his airplane is confused by hallucinations and is forced to crash land on a private island, where he learns that the rich even have the power to buy men's souls. 

While I enjoyed reading this book, there is one big reader-beware thing I need to point out.  There is enough racial stereotyping and ethnic slurring going on here to make sensitive readers uncomfortable in our current times, but on the other hand, considering that White died in 1934, it's not at all surprising. 

Overall, it's a fun little volume and it's always a good day when I read work by an author of whom I've been previously unaware.  While it's not perfect, I do love the mix of strange/pulpy and strange/supernatural, and it certainly meets my need for discovering the obscure.  Recommended with the caveat mentioned above. 

when science goes completely mad: The Cadaver of Gideon Wyck, by Alexander Laing

Valancourt Books, 2016
originally published 1934
316 pp


William Hjortsberg's little back-cover blurb describes The Cadaver of Gideon Wyck as 
"part mystery novel, part Gothic mad scientist tale, part grotesque horror story..."
and the combination of all three of these descriptors was just too much for me to pass up.  What he doesn't tell you there is that it's also a crazy ride with a number of what I call WTF-did-I-just-read moments, some of which came back to haunt me one night while riding out a very high fever.  You haven't lived until you're already a bit delirious and little harnesses hanging from the shower find their way into your fever dreams along with a "series of monster babies," the repeated images of which I could have lived without.  Then again, none of that surprises me since the novel sort of crawled under my skin in a weird (but good) way.  

There's some pretty bizarre stuff going on at the Maine State College of Surgery, all of it capped off by the discovery of the dead Dr. Gideon Wyck, who had only recently gone missing.  Medical student David Saunders decides to investigate for himself in order to discover who in the small community may have wanted Wyck dead.  By the time we arrive at the discovery of Wyck's body, the number of people who have motive to kill the good doctor include a group of women who have recently given birth to severely deformed babies,  his own daughter, disgruntled medical students, a man whose arm Wyck amputated for no apparent reason and who now has gone over the mental edge,  and any number of others whose lives have been affected by Dr. Gideon Wyck. Saunders, who also works as secretary to the school's director,  has been keeping a diary of a number of strange occurrences , and finds himself in the unenviable position of being unable to trust anyone because he himself is also implicated in Wyck's death.

frontispiece, by Lynd Ward

While this all may sound like the description of a typical crime novel, The Cadaver of Gideon Wyck is actually anything but -- at its core is scientific experimentation, the very nature of which places this book firmly in the strange tales camp.  It appears on Karl Edward Wagner's list of favorite horror works under "Thirteen Best Science Fiction Horror Novels," which is a good way to describe this book, but there are other adjectives that also come to mind about it as well.   "Demented" is a word I've used more than once in trying to explain this story to people;  "out there" is also a good way to describe it, as is "crazytown."   It's also a book where bad science meets mad science, but since I have no intention of revealing any more about this story than I absolutely have to, I think that's about all that I should say about it except that it is truly one of the weirdest novels I've read in a very long while, which is not at all a bad thing.  Recommended -- not only is it bizarre, but it's also fun. Just don't read it while you have a fever.