Sunday, October 15, 2017

Double feature: The Magician, by Somerset Maugham and Trilby, by George Du Maurier

Before October rolled around, I had hoped that one of my online groups would choose Somerset Maugham's The Magician as its group read choice, but alas, it was not to be, so I read it anyway.    After finishing it, I read the intro and discovered that Maugham had said that the book "wouldn't have been written"
"except for the great regard I had for Joris-Karl Huysmans who was then at the height of his vogue." (ix)
The reference to Huysmans was to his Là-Bas,  but Robert Calder also notes in the introduction that there were other works with which Maugham would have been familiar, including George du Maurier's Trilby. So geek person that I am, I decided to read not only The Magician, but Là-Bas and Trilby as well. I will be writing on Huysmans' book a bit later, probably after October, so right now it's all about Maugham and Du Maurier.  The Magician, of course, was my favorite of the two, but they're both fun.

Penguin, 2007
originally published 1908
203 pp

 I'm not going to go into that whole Aleister-Crowley-as-model-for-Oliver-Haddo thing -- that's so well known that just mentioning this book will bring up that conversation quickly (which has happened more than once since I read it), nor am I going to get as deep as I could here due to time constraints.

The Magician is certainly worthy of being counted as Halloween reading material; it has so many of those elements that send my little heart racing, among them pulpy mysterious melodrama, a bit of decadence,  and of course the dark forces of the occult and the supernatural.    Recently arrived in Paris, Dr. Arthur Burdon has come to see his fiancée, Margaret Dauncey. While at a dinner party at the Chien Noir, the couple and their group run  into Oliver Haddo, who had the "look of a very wicked sensual priest."  Margaret took an instant, "uncontrollable dislike" to the man, but he seems to be part of the crowd where ever they go, and Margaret's friend Susie Boyd finds it "a privilege" to encounter "a man in the twentieth century who honestly believes in the occult." Arthur, the ever-rational "scientific man" is an unbeliever, and Margaret's guardian, Dr. Porhoët can't tell if Haddo is "an impostor or a madman."     Nonetheless, Haddo is invited to tea at Miss Dauncey's flat for the following Wednesday.  It is there that an event occurs that leads to Burdon physically attacking Haddo, and although Haddo makes no move to defend himself and actually apologizes, the small group of friends will discover that he has clearly not forgotten the perceived wrong to his person.  The incident sparks a most sinister, evil, two-fold plan of revenge, in which Margaret stands at the center.

Paul Wegener as Oliver Haddo, from the film. Borrowed from {feuilleton}

I was hooked from the beginning, and later, as I realized where Maugham was taking this tale, it got even more interesting since it wasn't at all what I expected when I started it. Actually, I spent much of the time wondering like Dr.Porhoët whether or not Haddo was a true magician or just a fast-talking fake, and I think this ambiguity worked well all through the novel.  By the time I reached the ending, well, let's just say that pages were being turned very quickly.  There's much more going on here that I won't get into because of time, but pay close attention not only to the relationship between Margaret and Haddo as he focuses his hypnotic powers on her, but also to Margaret herself in relation to Burdon.   And do see the old silent film (1926)  if you can find a copy (I got mine on Amazon) -- while there are definitely some scenes played for laughs here in between the main action, and while the script deviates from the novel quite a bit, it's still well worth watching.  Paul Wegener (who would later play the title role in the original Svengali movie in 1927) makes a very creepy Haddo who sent chills up my spine just looking at him.


On to George du Maurier's novel Trilby now.  While his character Svengali may not have had an interest in alchemy or the occult like Maugham's Oliver Haddo,  it's easy to see how Du Maurier's portrayal of this character may have influenced Maugham in the writing of his own villain.  To be honest,  The Magician is definitely the better of the two books, but Trilby is also quite good in its own way.

Oxford University Press, 1998
originally published 1894
339 pp

"I will tell you a secret. There were two Trilbys." 

Paris is once again the setting for the story of Trilby O'Ferrall, the young artist's model who enchants not only  the three artists of this story, but also the musician Svengali.  While Svengali is not the first fictional hypnotist (Dumas' Joseph Balsamo from fifty years earlier immediately comes to mind), his name even now conjures up
"The image of a sinister hypnotist, lurking behind the scenes, ambiguously responsible for breaking and remaking another weaker character..." (Daniel Pick, Svengali's Web, 1).
 We first meet him as he comes to visit the  three artists Little Billee, Taffy, and the Laird. Du Maurier describes Svengali as  "a tall bony individual between thirty and forty-five, of Jewish aspect, well featured but sinister," with "bold, brilliant black eyes."  This scene is also the first meeting between Trilby and Svengali -- where he plays Schubert for her and then Trilby gives them all her tone-deaf rendition of "Ben Bolt." Svengali believes he can teach her to sing; some time later, he even offers to give her singing lessons, flattering her with "lovely language" about her voice, all while curing her migraine.  He tells her that the next time she has another headache that she should come to him again, and that she
"shall see nothing, hear nothing, thing of nothing but Svengali, Svengali, Svengali!"
While Billee wants to marry young Trilby, his mother steps in to do what she can to prevent the marriage from happening.   Trilby, thinking of Little Billee's future, does the noble thing and disappears from his life, only to resurface later.   It does take a bit of needle threading (and often a great deal of patience)  to find ourselves back to  the story of Trilby and Svengali, because around it, Du Maurier has placed us in the milieu of the Bohemian artists of the Latin Quarter of Paris, and he spends a lot of time giving us his own version, a "mixing of reality and fantasy" (xii) based on his own experiences.  Then, when the story moves to London, we are made privy to the world of the British upper classes, where Little Billee is now William Bagot, successful artist.  While you may wonder what's going on with Trilby all this time, well, eventually we do get back there.

My Oxford World Classics edition features Du Maurier's wonderful illustrations that I spent quite a lot of time looking at; there is so much going on in this novel underneath its surface, and Trilby is one of those books that has sparked quite a bit of academic interest in several fields.   Do as I did -- relax  and take it slowly.

The 1954 film Svengali skips pretty much everything else in Du Maurier's novel to focus on the story of Trilby, Little Billee and Svengali, making it more of a sort of love triangle kind of thing.  The tagline for this one is great: "She was a slave to his will," although it does take a while for the movie to get to that point.  I didn't like Hildegarde Neff's Trilby; I found her rather flat compared to Trilby of the novel, but hey -- it wasn't exactly a waste of time to watch the film. 

I can recommend both novels, although The Magician, as I said, is much better; it's also way easier to read as compared to the more sloggy sections of Trilby.  

Thursday, October 5, 2017

HR #3: One Thousand and One Ghosts, by Alexandre Dumas

Hesperus Press, 2004
originally published as Les mille et un fantômes, 1849
translated by Andrew Brown
160 pp


I actually killed two birds with one stone reading this book, since I discovered that it's the same book as The Horror at Fontenay, which I bought because it appeared in Wheatly's Library of the Occult.  The cover of Fontenay is a bit more reflective of what goes on inside this book than that of the Hesperus edition, although to be sure, not everyone in it ends up minus a head.

from Picssr

 Departing from his host's hunting party, the narrator of this book takes it upon himself to  "beat a retreat," setting out on a path that would take him to the village of Fontenay-aux-Roses.  As he's strolling along, he can't help but notice a man with a "fixed and lifeless" stare, "clothes in disarray and his hands spattered with blood."  Our narrator is intrigued enough to follow him as he presents himself at the home of the mayor, Monsieur Ledru, proclaiming that he's just killed his wife and he wants to give himself up. The mayor, the police superintendent, and the doctor insist he return with them to the scene of the crime, but the man is beyond reluctant -- it seems that after he'd killed his wife by chopping off her head, not only did the head  speak to him, but it also proceeded to bite his hand.  Later that day, a small party gathers at the home of M. Ledru, where the events of the day are still on everyone's mind.  A discussion begins around the question of whether or not a severed head continues to have "consciousness of feeling," moving on to "the persistence of life" after death.  Ledru reveals that earlier in his life, he'd become "obsessed" with the belief that the severed heads of the aristocrats who'd met their fate at the hands of the executioner were in fact, still alive, and proceeds to tell his guests about his own experience, launching into the story of "Solange." 

I'd just read "Solange" in The Dedalus Book of French Horror, but I had no idea that it originally came from this book. Shame on me for not having done my usual homework.  So now, I'm really intrigued, thinking that  if this collection starts with that story, then I'm in for a really good time here. I was not disappointed.

Ledru's tale sparks the question of whether his experience was real or hallucinatory; it also begins a series of stories told by everyone present except the narrator, who turns out to be Dumas himself. Each time a story is told, one of the group presents his or her own strange experience, prompting another round of theoretical discussion before the next one until each has had his or her say.   After "Solange" we have "The Cat, the Bailiff and the Skeleton," which hinges on the question of a real vs. imagined haunting; "The Tombs of Saint-Denis" an incredibly creepy tale that starts in 1793 and is based on a real-life event which occurred during The Terror, followed by  "L'Artifaille," inspired by the priest's belief that
"We live between two invisible worlds, one of them inhabited by the spirits of hell, the other by the spirits of heaven." 
 Up next is "The Bracelet of Hair," but mum's the word on this one; finally we have the story that for me was the proverbial jewel in the crown here, "The Carpathian Mountains."  Long before Stoker brought his Dracula into the world, Dumas gave us this story which has much more of an old-world flavor, a tale of two brothers vying for the attentions of a young woman, in as Wheatly says in his introduction to The Horror at Fontenay, "a castle deep in the forests of Central Europe."  This one is so atmospheric that every time their mother said "Kostaki loves Hedwige," I felt a shiver go up my spine -- with good reason.

While I can't really divulge much about the contents in this book, I will say that stories here speak to translator Andrew Brown's question of whether the dead are "really dead."  They all examine to some degree the idea of consciousness continuing to live on after death, continuing the debate which began back in the 1790s when death by guillotine was in its heyday.  There's much, much more going on here, of course, and I could talk about this book for hours -- that's how good it is.

sidebar:  [Aside from the article linked in that paragraph, there's another good one of particular interest here.]

One Thousand and One Ghosts really is the perfect stormy-night read, and to those readers who disliked it because it wasn't "swashbuckling" or anything like The Count of Monte Cristo,  well, it obviously wasn't meant to be.

One goodreads reader says about this book that
"It might have been sort of freaky for the time it was written, but with mass media we are so inundated with macabre stories, this book almost seems like a bedtime story by comparison..."
which I think is a truly sad commentary on older supernatural fiction in general.  Don't be fooled -- Dumas has written something great here.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

HR#2 -- Pharos The Egyptian, by Guy Boothby

Dover, 2016
serialized in Windsor Magazine, 1898
first published 1899
376 pp


"...he is as cruel and as remorseless as Satan himself."

Some time ago I read  Richard Marsh's The Beetle, which I loved and at the time designated as the literary equivalent of comfort food. Pharos is another I'd put in that category. It also reminds me of some of the movies I'd watch as a kid -- on Saturdays I'd turn on the TV, stretch out on the sofa and watch a show called Creature Feature that ran old horror movies.Woe be to he who interrupted those few hours back then, and woe be to he who interrupts my pulpy reading time now.  Actually, I think my horror-fiction reading career began back then, and it all started with this sort of delicious pulpy goodness.

It's not by chance that I mention Marsh's The Beetle here, because there is quite a bit of similarity between the two books. While the stories are different,  read closely, both Pharos and Marsh's novel reflect the same sort of anxieties centering around the perceived threats to western (read British) civilization and values by an outside/alien/Other.  In both books, that threat stems from Egypt, which is not surprising given the context of British imperialism at the time (it's very complicated, and I won't go into it here, but feel free to explore  the web if you really want to understand what lies beneath a LOT of late Victorian pulp/horror fiction, including Bram Stoker's Dracula.)  The similarities between The Beetle and Pharos don't end there, though -- both are tales of revenge and retribution, but here Boothby gives us a worst-case scenario. It's a page turner, to be sure -- not the best of literature, but who cares?

Sir William Betford of Bampton Street, St. Mary, Dorsetshire receives a strange letter from his friend artist Cyril Forrester.  It is, as he says, "one of the saddest, and at the same time one of the most inexplicable cases ever yet recorded on paper."  Along with the letter is a manuscript which Forrester wants Betford and his friend George Trevelyan to have published, and it is the contents of this manuscript which make up the story of Pharos. 

Forrester has long had a special attraction to Egypt, which he believes he inherited from his father, "one of the greatest authorities upon the subject the world has ever known."   The story begins on a dark night as Forrester is walking toward Cleopatra's Needle, where he hears a man calling out for help.  Rushing to save the person from certain death by drowning, he realizes that there's someone else there who could have helped the man but made no effort.  In the now moonlit sky, Forrester accosts the "brute and monster" who let the man drown, but as his eyes made contact, he experienced an "indescribable feeling of nausea" like he'd never felt before.  In describing him, he notes 
"his eyes, the shape of face, the multitudinous wrinkles that lined it, and above all the extraordinary colour of his skin, that rendered his appearance so repulsive. ... you must think first of old ivory, and then endeavour to realize what the complexion of a corpse would be like after lying in an hermetically sealed tomb for many years." (28)
This was his first encounter with the person he would later come to know as Pharos the Egyptian. 

They would meet again many times, and Forrester makes the acquaintance of his young ward Valerie, a gifted musician and one of the most beautiful women Forrester has ever encountered.  After a musical evening in which Valerie gives a recital at the home of one of Forrester's acquaintances, Pharos appears at Forrester's home offering to buy a certain mummy that Forrester had inherited from his father.  The mummy, that of the magician Ptahmes, was one of Forrester's most prized possessions, and he refuses to sell.  Pharos is not happy, and the next morning, Forrester awakes to find that the mummy has been stolen. Worse yet, the police are at his door asking him questions about a murdered antiquities dealer.   When he tries to get to Pharos, he discovers he's left England for Naples along with Valerie, and thus begins a tale that will find this odd trio making their way through Egypt and then back to the continent, as a truly diabolical, evil, and nefarious plan is set into motion. 

The Dover edition I have contains the illustrations by John H. Bacon, which are exquisite; the book itself is hours of just pure, pulpy horror fun. As I said, it's not great literature -- in fact, there are some internal eyeroll causing moments, but as far as I'm concerned, it's one that really ought to be in the collection of  both horror and pulp aficionados.   Pharos is one of the most evil,vile, inhuman, conscienceless villains to make his way into a book; he is someone who will stop at nothing to ensure the success of his horrific plan.   He is "as cruel and as remorseless as Satan himself," and god help anyone in his path. 

While the mummy aspect won't remind anyone of Karloff here, the book is well worth reading and above all fun, delicious pulpy goodness.  It is also a bona fide page turner that I couldn't put down, and a sheer aahhhh read that should not be missed.

Monday, October 2, 2017

HR#1 -- The Dedalus Book of French Horror" The 19th Century (ed.) Terry Hale

"...when the devil mixes himself up with our affairs, he is not easily shaken off."
-- from "The Invisible Eye," by Erckmann-Chatrian

Dedalus, 1998
translated by Terry Hale and Liz Heron
361 pp

The first of the Halloween reads. 

One huge benefit of swimming out of the mainstream in my choice of books is that I occasionally come across collections like this one.  There are twenty-four stories included in this volume, nineteen of which, according to editor Terry Hale, are making their English translation debut here;  the other five by authors whose names may be more familiar are represented by somewhat lesser-known material.  The book is divided into three sections, encompassing "Frenetic Tales," "Contes Cruels," and "Contes Fantastiqes," and Hale notes that this book is "intended to demonstrate the breadth and range of French writing in relation to the strange and macabre."  He also notes that while "the French horror story of the nineteenth century may have freely requisitioned ideas gleaned from British, German and American authors,"  the writers here (and many others with works not found in this book, I'm sure) had been putting their own spin on them from the Romantics on through the writers of the fin-de-siècle:  
"Born in the aftermath of the French Revolution, the Romantic writers of the 1820s and 30s brought to the genre narrative sophistication and their own set of macabre fears and anxieties concerning such matters as the death penalty, anatomical research, the cholera epidemic, infanticide, and man's inhumanity to man; the rise of spiritualism in the mid-century presented a fresh collection of moral problematics; finally, the end of the century, especially under the pioneering work in the discipline later to become known as psychology, witnessed a renewed fascination in diabolicism and morbid sexuality."  (35)
 So if you're looking for the standard horror fare, that's not what you're going to get here. That doesn't mean these stories aren't frightening, because they are, but in very different ways than one might expect. In some cases, all that's required is a bit of thought before the true, underlying horror actually hits you.

Now to the book, and while there will be no spoilers whatsoever, anyone who doesn't want even the briefest of descriptions ought to go read something else at this point.

Hale notes that "the first clearly recognisable development in the history of the French horror story" dates back to the 1820s, and this volume opens with six tales from the "école frénétique" a termed coined by Charles Nodier in 1821.   For me there are three standouts in this section: "A True Account of of the Travels of Claude Belissan, Clerk to the Public Prosecutor" by Eugène Sue,  "Solange," by Alexandre Dumas, and Xavier Forneret's "One Eye Between Two."  Sue's tale follows the exploits of a disgruntled man who feels the need to chuck civilization, return to his natural state, and raise himself to a "state of savagery."   This one is really good, with a great satirical and ironic ending that I never expected.  Dumas' entry occurs during the Reign of Terror, where "they guillotined thirty or forty persons a day," and is related by a loyal citizen who does what he can to protect the woman he knows only as Solange.  This one takes a weird, weird turn at the end when things  go horribly awry.  Forneret's very weird story is a tale of love, vengeance and revenge that takes place in Spain, with one of the most bizarre endings ever.  Yikes. The other tales here are   Frédéric Soulié's tale of revenge,  "The Lamp of Saint Juste;"   "Monsieur d'Argentière, Public Prosecutor," where the sting comes at the end, and  "The Covetous Clerk" by Alphonse Royer that has a delicious, ironic twist to look forward to.

French burial vault, from Pinterest
In the next section, "Contes cruels," the stories get a bit weirder. Considering that  Hale tells us that the "original impetus" for these sorts of tales was the "psychological insight" of Poe, I'm not surprised. Some though, seem to me to carry more of deSade's influence; sadly I can't explain since to tell is to ruin.   They're all very good, but I particularly enjoyed Edmund Haraucourt's "The Prisoner of His Own Masterpiece," and Catulle Mendès' "The Penitent." The Haraucourt story is probably the most Poe-like of all of the stories in this book,  revealed from the point of view of a man who knows and doesn't "disguise" the fact that  he's a "violent fellow." We soon discover though that he's  really freakishly weird and beyond perverse as well.  Mendès gives us the tale of a "little baroness" who goes to church and makes a confession that the priest may never forget.  I love Mendès'  fiction, and this is one of his best stories. He wrote a great scene in here with just one sentence:
"A sudden ray of sunshine bursting through a stained-glass window brought the face of the devil to life; and it would have been easy to believe that Christ's tempter paid the baroness the compliment of a smile."
In this story, enough said.   This section opens with "Dorci, or the Vagaries of Chance," written by The Marquis de Sade. Very tame considering it's deSade,  it is the tale of two brothers who couldn't be more different; for one of them "kindness will get the better of him." Charles Beaudelaire is up next with his "Mademoiselle Scalpel" which finds a man in the hands of a woman with a grotesque fantasy.  "The Astonishing Moutonnet Couple" by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam follows, in which we learn the secrets of happiness for  couple who were "a model of conjugal existence." It's not at all what you'd think -- ick. The next five stories all share a keen sense of irony as well, falling under the heading of black humor.   Jean Richepin's "Constant Guignard" is a twisty tale in which a Good Samaritan suffers through an early life of "unfortunate events" and then things just get worse, followed by a similar sort of story by Charles Cros called "The Hanged Man."  Jules Lermina gives us his "Monsieur Mathias" about which I can say absolutely nothing, while Leon Bloy's "A Burnt Offering" should leave you cringing and squirming by the time you reach the end. Then, the story I giggled my way through, Huysmans' "A Family Treat" which is pure Huysmans. I know that remark says basically nothing, but if you've read his work, you'll get it. Satire at its finest.

Guy de Maupassant, 1892, from Nice-Matin

To round out this anthology, we finish the book with the "Contes fantastiques."  According to Hale, it was E.T.A. Hoffman who was the "literary lion" here, introducing a "range of themes, ideas and narrative techniques" which "served to renew" the contes fantastique, which would continue to "remain in vogue" over the next seven decades. (31)  Frankly, the stories in this section aren't quite up to par with the ones preceding them, but there are still some really good ones to be found here.

Hands down the weirdest tale in this section is Guy de Maupassant's "Head of Hair," followed by Henri Rivière's "The Reincarnation of Doctor Roger."  Maupassant's story is not only disturbing, it's completely unsettling as we watch a man whose "madness, his obsession, was there in his head, relentlessly devouring him." The subject of this tale led a relatively "quiet existence" until he was thirty two, when his life changed in an instant with the purchase made in an antique shop. But wait until you get to the ending.   Rivière's contribution here centers around a man who feels that he must right a wrong from his past, but of course, it's not that simple.  This one can go one of two ways, and that's up to the reader.  As for the rest of the tales, we open with "Jacques Cazotte's Prophecy," as reported by La Harpe, in which Cazotte reveals not only that he is "able to foretell the future" but then goes about telling everyone their respective fates. It's okay, not earth-shattering. Charles Nodier's "The Story of Hélène Gillet" takes the reader back in time to the seventeenth century where a young woman is to be executed for a crime she may or may not have committed. The subtext is very loud here so it sort of lessens the impact of the supernatural aspect. de Nerval makes an appearance with "The Green Monster" which really isn't one of his best, but still worth reading. It all starts with a police sergeant's desire to win the girl of his dreams, which he does, but to the very strange detriment of both.  The next story is from the pens of the duo Erckmann-Chatrian, "The Invisible Eye," in which suicides lead a man to discover the truth of what actually happens in a certain green chamber of a particular inn.  This one's just plain fun. "Mademoiselle Dafné" by Théophile Gautier follows, very gothic in tone, complete with secret underground passages and nefarious plots.  There's much more to this story, though, and it's always a pleasure to read Gautier because his writing is magnificent and he has quite a bit to say. Last but not least is Jean Lorrain's "One Possessed" which I think might have been an earlier, much shorter  version of his Monsieur de Phocas, since the stories are nearly identical.  Now that's a book that should not be missed for sure.

If you read this anthology with the idea in the back of your head that, as Hale says here, "horror fiction is a vehicle for exploring forbidden themes," then this collection completely adheres and is quite successful.  As I said, it's not your run-of-the-mill sort of horror story anthology and while not every story worked for me, it certainly gives an insight into the sort of anxieties that dominated over several decades of  nineteenth-century France, and in that sense, it also works well as a coherent collection.  I'll also say that I have not been disappointed in any Dedalus publication so far, and this is yet another to hold a special place in my home library.  Highly, highly recommended, but beware: reading this book increased my tbr pile as I added works by different authors represented here.

Once again, it's October. And once again, that means creepy. Oh yes.

I could probably read creep-inspiring, perfect-for-Halloween books all year, but I'm afraid I'd likely become even more unhinged than I already am.  October is always set aside for the darker, more delectable reads that (hopefully) satisfy my need for the disturbing, weird, ominous, and hair-raising;  then, of course, there's that  sinister pulp fiction that I love so much, the stuff that I call the literary equivalent of comfort food. 

follow me ...

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Nightcharmer and Other Tales of Claude Seignolle (ed) Eric Hollingsworth Deudon

Texas A& M University Press, 1983
115 pp


How odd that I should choose to read this book at this particular time, since 2017 marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the author's birth. Claude Seignolle was born in Périgueux, and then at the age of 12 moved with his family to Paris. Eventually he crossed paths with archaeologist  Henri (aka l'Abbe) Brueil, who stirred his interest in the past, and later he met Arnold van Gennep, an ethnologist and folklorist who would motivate both Seignolle and his brother Jacques to start collecting rural legends. His childhood had been spent listening to his grandmother recount folk tales and legends in Occitan, so it's no surprise that Seignolle chose this path. He crisscrossed the French countryside, picking up old tales wherever he went, resulting in, as Lawrence Durrell notes in his foreword,  several "huge compilations" (the titles of which, if you're interested, can be found here).   He wrote his first novel in 1945, Le Rond des sorciers, and his first short story in 1958, "Le bahut noir."  Editor Eric Deudon  tells us that Seignolle's stories contain "a whole retinue of creatures of the night," but he 
"does not portray them merely as frightening characters, for the totality of these themes represents a direct transposition from his research on folklore into the literary domain."
And finally, Deudon reveals that
"Seignolle does not write gothic tales simply to intrigue, or even to terrorize, the reader. Above all, he writes in order to revive at the literary level a popular oral tradition in danger of becoming extinct."
And to me, aside from the fact that his stories are very different from standard gothic/weird/dark/horror fare, the fact that this "popular oral tradition" is on the edge of extinction should merit more publisher/English-reader interest in this man's work.  Someone should publish his books and introduce him into the world of dark fiction readers.  I know that Ex Occidente Press put out a limited edition of his The Black Cupboard, but sheesh -- a decent copy starts at $200 and I saw one on Amazon for over $800.  It's time to put this man's work into print at a price people can actually afford.

from Epistol'Arts

On to the book now, which was an absolute delight from beginning to end. It's once again a collection of tales that works more beneath the surface than on it, although it is also quite readable for readers who just want to be entertained by the stories. One thing I discovered here is that Seignolle is a master of irony, which adds much more dimension to his tales in a very  human sort of way and in more than one case, actually provides room for a bit of very black humor.   I can't really explain what I mean without giving things away, but trust me, you'll recognize it when you see it.


At this point, anyone contemplating reading this book who doesn't want to know anything at all about it should take the opportunity to bail. I'm going to list the stories, with minor annotations, but I will be giving neither spoilers nor great detail here, so just in case ...


The collection begins, of course, with "The Nightcharmer," from Seignolle's Les cheveaux de la nuit at autres récits cruels (1967).   Here, a man visits the home of an "eccentric zoologist" whose collection of various species of "dusty and docile fauna" takes up twenty rooms in an old manor house.  Not only is his home filled but he enjoys sharing his knowledge and memories about all things, including "the mythical creatures that the people of Brenne, dreadfully superstitious, grant to the nights there." One such legend he shares is that of the Nightcharmer.  As our visitor is about to discover, there is actually something the zoologist doesn't know.    Next comes "A Dog Story," played out in the trenches in October, 1939. As the "Khaki foxes" face "an invisible lumbering pack of green wolves" (I love the animal imagery here, and it will come back later in this book as well), back in the field kitchen, a mangy dog comes to visit the narrator and his friend.  As a dog lover myself, I'd advise a strong stomach for this one, since this is no ordinary canine. One more thing: look deep under the surface in this one and the story seriously intensifies.  From Comtes de Sologne, 1969, comes "The Healer," in which a man who takes three gold coins for each cure he provides finally meets his match in a most horrific way, as he discovers that he's "accepted a satanic proposition."  The next story, which has one of the most ironic twists I've encountered in a long while, is "Starfish," taken from "Contes Fantastiques de Bretagne" 1969.  An obviously-wealthy woman takes refuge in old villa in a "small village by the sea" that had been "deserted and abandoned." While the caretaker gets her settled, regaling her with stories from the villa's past, she's mentally elsewhere and could care less. All she can focus on is one thing... No more from me on this one, but oh, that ending!

okay, it's from a commercial, but it works. 

 That short tale is followed by the longest story in the book, "The Outlander," running about forty pages long, from Un Corbeau de toutes coleurs, 1962.  A stranger shows up at the local inn, pockets filled with gold, and in making smalltalk, the innkeeper manages to discover that the man is a blacksmith by trade, and that he's ready to settle down.  The innkeeper tells him that the town already has a blacksmith and that he won't get any business because everyone goes to Christophe.  As if on cue, a crowd of people burst in to inform the innkeeper and his wife that Christophe is dead.  With the widow ready to sell, the new guy sets up shop, and that is where this story really begins.  Let's just say that the original title was called "Le Diable in Sabots" and leave it at that.   From Contes Sorciers (1974), the next story is one of my favorites, precisely because of that irony I mentioned earlier.  In "The Last Rites," a cuckolded husband prays earnestly to Hubertine, the local saint of "hapless victims of unrequited love," and gets way more than he'd bargained for. Oh my gosh -- this was a good one!    Another tale that is laced with irony is "Hitching a Ride," where looking back to a time where he actually saw death,  a man remembers the day he was in a rut and decided to pick up a hitchhiker. . He lives to tell the tale, but the question here is why and how.   I couldn't help laughing out loud after reading this one; the same was true for "The Last Rites," gruesome as it was.  "Night Horses" finishes off this lovely collection, in which a traveler learns the hard way that "The night does not belong to the living" at a small inn in Brittany.  His curiosity, as well as his desire to get to his fiancée as quickly as possible,  makes him fail to heed the warning, at a huge cost.  No humor here, for sure, just good old-fashioned dark storytelling with suspense plus major jolt  at the end.

I'd love to really get deeper into this book here and dive underneath,  but as I always say, to tell is to spoil, so you're on your own.  As I said, Seignolle is well deserving of a large audience, and after finishing this book, I bought an old copy of a two-story collection of his work entitled The Accursed. The Nightcharmer and Other Tales is unique, very nicely done and is a beyond-welcome addition to my home library which seems to be taking a French turn here lately.  I can recommend it without any qualms whatsoever, although I'm sure for the splatterfest crowd this would be way too mild.  It is absolutely perfect for me though, and for those who enjoy their dark fiction more on the cerebral side, it is not to be missed.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Horror on the Links: The Complete Tales of Jules de Grandin, Volume One by Seabury Quinn (ed.) George A Vanderburgh

Night Shade Books, 2017
494 pp


I find myself in complete agreement with George A. Vanderburgh and Robert Weinberg who say that the tales in this book "might not be great literature, but they don't pretend to be." They also remark that the stories found here are "good fun" which is absolutely the case.   The Horror on the Links is the first book in a proposed five-volume set, and if the remaining four installments are even half as much fun as this one, then I'm in for a seriously good time.  Let's just say that I enjoyed this series opener so much that I already have volume two, and I've pre-ordered volume three which is supposed to be out in March.  I love good old pulp fiction, I love occult-detective stories, and I love weird tales, so I'm absolutely in my element here.  Ahhhhhhh.

Vanderburg and Weinberg refer to Jules de Grandin as "the occult Hercule Poirot," and it's really difficult not to make the comparison while reading. They also say that he shares "more than a passing resemblance" to Sherlock Holmes, with a "Dr. Watson-like sidekick, Dr. Trowbridge.  As a detective who sees himself as "a scientist; no more", Grandin is not at all quick to dismiss the possibility that there may be more going on than science can explain.  As he notes in "The Poltergeist,"
"There is nothing in the world, or out of it, which is supernatural, my friend; the wisest man today can not say where the powers and possibilities of nature begin or end. We say 'Thus and so is beyond the bounds of our experience' but does that therefore but it beyond the bounds of nature? I think not. Myself, I have seen such things as no man can hear me relate without calling me a liar..."
And indeed, in the scope of the twenty-three stories included here ranging (in order of publication in Weird Tales) from 1925 to 1928, some of the answers to these puzzling tales are definitely of this world while some are to be found in the darker realm of the occult.  The real-world solutions are actually far more frightening than the supernatural ones, for example, after "The White Lady of the Orphanage" (September 1927), I had to put the book down for a while, and I posted somewhere that this was one of the most gruesome stories I'd ever encountered.  Eek and Ick.

My personal favorite is "The Isle of Missing Ships," which is a straight-up pulp fiction story with no foot in the occult world; it is also the only one that does not follow the formula/pattern by which a solution is discovered which is found in all of the other entries in this volume; and then there's "The Chapel of Mystic Horror," because who in their right mind can pass up a story about an old abbey transported from Europe to America, former home of the Knights Templar?  

"The Tenants of Broussac" as cover art, Weird Tales December 1925. From Tellers of Weird Tales
I'll reveal the table of contents below, without annotation -- to tell is to spoil and I don't want to do that. My advice: sit back, relax, and enjoy these wonderful weird tales of yesteryear  and appreciate them for what they are -- delicious pulpy goodness.  My hat is off to the team of Vanderburgh and Weinberg for making these old stories available once again -- I had the time of my life reading this book, and I can't wait to get to Volume two!

Table of Contents

"The Horror on the Links"
"The Tenants of Broussac"
"The Isle of Missing Ships"
"The Vengeance of India"
"The Dead Hand"
"The House of Horror"
"Ancient Fires"
"The Great God Pan"
"The Grinning Mummy"
"The Man Who Cast No Shadow"
"The Blood-Flower"
"The Veiled Prophetess"
"The Curse of Everard Maundy"
"Creeping Shadows"
"The White Lady of the Orphanage"
"The Poltergeist"
"The Gods of East and West"
"Mephistopheles and Company, Ltd."
"The Jewel of Seven Stones"
"The Serpent Woman"
"Body and Soul"
"The Chapel of Mystic Horror"

Thursday, August 31, 2017

in my humble reader's opinion, this book is a masterpiece: 'Twixt Dog and Wolf, by C.F. Keary (ed.) James Machin

Valancourt Books, 2017
originally published 1901
110 pp


"I am the spirit of the place."
                                    -- 72

Honest to god, 2017 has been one of my best reading years ever, and I am pretty sure it's because I've started to become much more selective in my reading as I start to zero in on what really hits my buttons as a reader.  Admittedly, some books I read just for relaxation and fun or for  when my brain is exploding after having been through several literary choices in a row; others are repeat works by favorite authors, some are great for when I'm in the mood for chills up the spine, but the true, inner joy for me has become finding works that are different, exquisitely written, way off the beaten path, out of the mainstream books in which plot is but a handrail for making my way through what's really going on.

To add to my delight,  Valancourt  has published what I consider their best release in their history,  'Twixt Dog and Wolf, by C.F. Keary, reinforcing my belief that Valancourt has somehow managed to tap into my reading wavelength.  It's positively eerie when I stop to  think about it.

As we're told by James Machin in his excellent introduction to this book, the title 'Twixt Dog and Wolf  "comes from the French expression for twilight,"
"... 'Entre chien et loup' which conveys so poetically the eerie crepuscular shift from the prosaic and familiar to the baleful and unknown."*
He goes on to say that this book
"collects work that ... expertly evokes an oneiric, vesperal realm of disconcerting shadows and dark forces moving unseen, yet tangible, in tandem with our own" (vi)
and in that brief description, he's perfectly captured the feel of each of the stories in this book, but wait, there's more: Mr. Machin has also so kindly added the contemporary opinion of writer John Buchan (who also wrote his fair share of strange tales) which offers readers just a bit more insight into what they're about to read.  Buchan found in Keary's work
"...stories of diablerie of the strange sights and sounds which follow on the twilight, between the dog barking and the appearance of the grey wolf." (vii)
I'm not going to give any major details about any the stories in this book, but there are three long ones that fall under the title "As Breath into Wind."  The first is  "The Message from the God," in which the reeds whisper a terrible truth and bring word of an "unspeakable terror;" followed by "Elizabeth" a magnificent piece of writing set in Medieval Germany, where a woman comes to understand her true destiny.  This story was superb, a story which demands more than one reading since, as Machin reveals, it is laden with "alchemical allegory and symbolism." Personally, whether the reader truly gets into understanding those details or not, it is a beautiful, absolutely gorgeous piece of writing that prompted the immediate purchase of several works by German Romanticists. But for me (and please pardon the use of clichés here but I can't help it),  the true pièce de résistance, the jewel in the crown, the masterpiece of the entire collection here is "The Four Students" which is one of the best stories I've ever read set in this time period.  Oh my god -- if the whole book had just been this one tale it still would have been worth the price.  Set mainly during the Terror following the French Revolution, here a man hears and heeds the call of "the spirit of the place" with absolutely horrifying results. I can't say more, and anyone who decides to read this book will understand why.   Speaking of "the spirit of the place," I think readers who move beyond plot will discover that this is a prominent theme that is woven deftly into the fabric of all three of these stories -- how this is so I won't reveal but look for it.  Finally, the last section of this book is composed of ten short "Phantasies" that pretty much speak for themselves, with a level of macabre depth that belies their brevity.

As I said in the title of this post, in my humble reader's opinion, 'Twixt Dog and Wolf is a masterpiece, one of those collections that come along only once in a blue moon, and one that any serious reader of dark fiction absolutely must have in his or her home library so that he/she can return to it often.  As Machin notes at the end of his introduction,
"Keary's accomplishment is such that these stories and sketches delight and entertain, even as they contemplate some vague and dismal abyss." (ix)
For me, it is perfection between two covers.

* "Entre Chien et Loup"

"A dog is howling at the court-yard door;
Within, the horses drag their halter chains;
Behold! the world is full of misty rains;
And the old Shepherd knows the twilight frore.
The sea of Night will soon the Vale engulf,
With waves of dimness washing to the height;
And now from a near pinewood into sight
Steals one grey wolf." 

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Under a Watchful Eye, by Adam Nevill

Macmillan, 2017
400 pp


Just recently I said to someone that I don't believe Adam Nevill could ever write a bad book, and with the publication of Under A Watchful Eye, he has proven me right once again.  There are a number of surprises awaiting the reader of this novel, so anyone thinking maybe they'd like to read it is in line for a definitely bizarre but highly-satisfying experience.  As in most of the books of Nevill's that I've read, while there is definitely a horror story here, the threats also come from within. The author really excels in his ability to focus on a few characters and pull out what's deeply embedded; he is also a master of atmosphere that immediately grabs hold and never lets go until well after the final page is turned.

No long synopsis here since I will wreck someone's enjoyment of the novel by actually providing one. What I will say is that the novel centers around Seb Logan, a writer who has sacrificed much and worked hard to become successful.  Things are going quite well for him -- he's living a quiet, orderly and idyllic life, one he's definitely earned over the years -- until he begins to see a "dark figure"  watching him where ever he goes. But it's not just the figure that bothers him -- soon the sightings, some of which seem physically impossible,  are accompanied by the feeling that whoever it is knows his name, and he starts becoming paranoid, wondering why this is happening to him. Enter an old acquaintance whose presence once again in his life throws his very being into not just disarray,  but utter chaos, putting at risk everything Seb's worked for and achieved.  Because of their past connection he takes this person in, and that's when everything starts to hit the fan and come unglued.  What follows is a record of a spiral into the deepest levels of darkness -- and as Seb begins to discover, it is a darkness from which there may be no chance of escape.

As always, the author has written a novel that completely jangles the nerves as the story,  the dark atmosphere and the people all insinuated their way into and under my skin the entire time I was reading.  I could smell, see, hear and feel along with Seb -- that's how good of a writer Nevill is.  Add to that his uncanny ability to ratchet not just the tension but the sheer malevolence as the story progresses, and it's no wonder that I couldn't put this book down until I'd finished it, reading in the car as a passenger and  long into the night in a Miami hotel before we started our week of vacation. The outside world just completely vanished for hours, which to me says that I was completely and deeply enveloped in the novel.    I will say that although my favorite book is his Last Days, which I don't believe can be topped, this one comes very close to that same level of excellence.  Then again, as I said earlier, I don't think he's capable of writing a bad book at all.  

While other readers may want to go into detail about what happens here, my advice is to not let yourself know ahead of time what's going to happen. Earlier I noted that there are a lot of surprises to be found here, but even more than being taken aback at just how very clever this novel is, the deliciousness is in letting everything unfold slowly.     I know when I've got something fresh, original, and just downright frightening in my hands when I have to resist the temptation to flip to the end, and I had to restrain myself from doing so many times.

Modern horror writers are many, but great modern horror writers are few and Nevill belongs in the latter camp. Read the book.

The Virago Book of Ghost Stories (ed.) Richard Dalby

Virago Press, 2008
496 pp


"...there's awful strange things in this world."
                     --  from "The Open Door, by Margaret Oliphant.

The Virago Book of Ghost Stories combines two of my reading passions.  First, of course, there are the ghost stories themselves, and these are, as Richard Dalby states in his preface, "arranged in chronological order,"  making for a great way to watch the development of the "form of the ghost story" over the last 150 years.  Yes -- that's correct -- 150 years.  The second thing I'm impressed with is that here, each and every story is written by a woman, some familiar and some more obscure writers whose work I've just read for the first time.   It is a superb collection and a definite must-have for the serious ghost-story aficionado, complete with little bio blurbs about each woman at the end of the book.   The only downside is that I've made a list of books to hunt down based on said bio blurbs, so there goes the wallet again.

There are thirty-one stories in this book and while some are good, there are others that are downright great and for me there wasn't one bad one in the bunch.  I suppose it's all about what people enjoy in a ghost story so I get that not everyone will share my enthusiasm, but I read them all of the time and I think it's one of the better collections I've read.

--break --

From here on I list the stories with only teensy bits about what's in them, so feel free not to read from here on, although I swear there are no spoilers whatsoever.

--back to our program --

The book opens with a short tale by Charlotte Bronte, "Napoleon and the Spectre", which is a bit comical and sort of reminded me in a way of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," but was quite different when all is said and done.  This one is followed by one of my all-time favorites, "The Old Nurses's Story," by Elizabeth Gaskell, one which is quite well known and which I've read many, many times but still manages to provide a spine chill each time.  That's greatness right there.  Amelia B. Edwards' "The Story of Salome" set in Venice also gave me a nice case of the willies as did "Reality or Delusion" by Mrs. Henry Wood of East Lynne fame.  Next up is a short story by one of my favorite ghost-story writers of yesteryear, Charlotte Riddell, "The Old House in Vauxhall Walk," which has a twisty ending I wasn't expecting, as do most of her stories.  Margaret Oliphant is next with her "The Open Door," set in Scotland, a true page-flipper from beginning to end as a man races to save his son from what's haunting him.

 "The Old Nurse's Story," from Fiction Fan's Book Reviews
New to me is the writer Ella D'Arcy, whose "The Villa Lucienne" takes on a somewhat ethereal tone as a small group takes an "expedition" to a villa on the Riviera and gets much more than they'd expected.  That one is followed by "The Vacant Lot," by Mary E. Wilkins, an American tale in which a family decides to move when they get the bargain of a lifetime on a wonderful house -- but then come to realize that maybe it wasn't such a great deal after all.  E. Nesbit's "The Violet Car" also managed to produce hackles, as a woman comes to take on a job as nurse to a mentally ill patient, but realizes she can't tell which of the two people she's living with is actually the one needing her services.  It's a sad story, but done very, very nicely.  "The Eyes" by Edith Wharton is next, another one I've read before but still worth reading since Wharton's stories go right to the heart of human nature, as do those by May Sinclair, whose "The Token" is one of my favorites of the entire collection, focusing on a sadly-neglected wife who only wants to know if her husband still loves her.  Oh my gosh -- May Sinclair is one of my favorite authors and this story is one of her best.  That one is followed by another author who is new to me, Richmal Crompton.  Her story "Rosalind" is also a favorite and, like Sinclair's work, works on different levels requiring a second read for what's really going on here. This one is not only deliciously spooky, but very telling as well.

from Exemplore

Margery Lawrence makes an appearance next with her "The Haunted Saucepan" which seemed a bit silly for a while until I realized exactly what was going on here, at which point it wasn't at all funny.  Margaret Irwin's "The Book" is a great story, one I've read before and one which has been redone a few times by modern writers.   Oh my god -- I was on pins and needles with this one even after having already read it and that speaks volumes.  Another equally good one with more than a tinge of sadness is "Miss De Mannering of Asham," by another author I've never read, F.M. Mayor.  Another page turner,  this story is one of the most haunting tales in the entire collection about a young woman whose life is lived in solitude until that one moment when ... Yikes! Great ghostly fare here, for sure, and I absolutely must find more by this author.  That sad tale is followed by a different sort of ghost story by yet another unknown writer, Ann Bridge, "The Station Road," in which a doctor's wife going to meet a family friend at the station is herself met by one of the strangest occurrences imaginable, and that's just the beginning.  Moving on, I will say that while the next story, "Roaring Tower," by Stella Gibbons isn't the best in the book, it's yet another one that is more than meets the eye at first glance.  It's set in Cornwall (perfect place for a supernatural tale!) and finds a woman looking back on her self-absorbed adolescence to a time when strange things found their way into her life.  I'm not a huge Stella Gibbons fan in the first place, but there's a definite undercurrent to be unearthed here.  Following this one we get back into the ethereal zone with Elizabeth Bowen's "The Happy Autumn Fields," about which I can say nothing except it deserves a double reading and is quite good.

from The Daily Mail

Dalby's included a story by another favorite writer here, "The Mistress in Black," by Rosemary Timperley, which takes place in a small school where a young teacher was fortunate enough to find a position last minute, then comes to learn why.  Very nicely done, but then again, Timperley is a fine, albeit sadly-neglected author.  Next up is Celia Fremin's "Don't Tell Cissie" in which two women looking at retirement plan a weekend ghost hunt but don't want their friend to find out what they're up to.  This one is somewhat humorous when all is said and done.  That one is followed by a story by Antonia Fraser, "Who's Been Sitting in My Car?" another that needs attention between the lines but is just downright creepy.  Ruth Rendell is next with her "The Haunting of Shawley Rectory," which centers on a house in a small village that is only haunted some of the time, as the two people who stay there soon discover.  And you thought she only wrote mystery novels. Oy.  This is a good one, for sure. A.S. Byatt's entry, "The July Ghost" may be the saddest story in this book, one that offers a variant meaning of "haunted."   Next up is "The Dream of Fair Women," by A.L. Barker, the ending of which brings everything back full circle to its beginning, and that's all I'll say because to tell here would definitely be to spoil.

Borley Rectory, from The Harry Price Website

Coming to the end of the book, we find Penelope Lively's "Black Dog," which is by no means an average ghostly/supernatural tale; like many of the tales in this volume, there's much more going on under the surface than on it. I will say no more.   Following that one comes Rosemary Pardoe's "The Chauffeur," in which a woman discovers that her friends' home has its very own ghost and goes out seeking answers.  This one is okay, not great but still worthy.  Next up is a story with more of a Caribbean feel, "Diamond Jim," by Lisa St. Aubin de Teran, and it is truly an old-fashioned ghost story -- you know, the kind that should be read at night during a loud thunderstorm with rain and lightning while you're safely wrapped in a blanket. "Ashputtle: Or, the Mother's Ghost" by Angela Carter follows that one, and it is one of Carter's best short stories. Again, to tell is to spoil, so ... Elizabeth Fancett's "The Ghosts of Calagou" is another old-fashioned, shuddersome tale set in the "haunted hills of Calagou," where there are legends of dead men "jealously guarding their treasure." One man is about to check it out for himself.  Joan Aiken's "The Traitor" joins the ranks of the other sad, poignant tales, related by a a middle-aged "lady librarian" turned lady's companion who finds herself back in the home of her childhood quite by circumstance.  Last, but absolutely by no means least, is "Redundant," by Dorothy K. Haynes, about a man who "had always taken jobs that nobody else wanted" and the one he has here is likely the most surprising of them all.  Great ending on this one.

So that's it -- I cannot recommend this book highly enough, and as I said, it's a definite must-have for people like me who have a passion for ghost stories over the centuries, especially those written by women.  Absolutely delightful it is indeed, and now it's time to hunt down the other Virago volumes of ghost stories.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Just published and well worth every damn second: The Grip of It, by Jac Jemc

FSG Originals 2017
288 pp

paperback/arc -- my thanks to the good people at Powell's.

"It's like a closed circuit."
Jac Jemc certainly gets major points for ingenuity here in her newest novel, The Grip of It, and coming from me, Ms. picky-pants, that says a lot.  The official blurb calls it "a literary horror novel about a young couple haunted by their newly purchased home," which is definitely the case, but it is not at all your standard haunted house fare.

The Grip of It is related via alternating viewpoints between Julie and James, the couple who have bought the old Victorian house at the end of Stillwater. They'd left the city to take James away from his "old haunts" because his wife felt they'd needed a change after he'd gambled away all of the money in his bank account. His gambling problem had put him into therapy, but she thinks that it's time for a "fresh start".  They buy a house that's been on the market for quite some time, and it isn't too long after they've moved in that they discover a number of things that need fixing. There's also something very off kilter here, and weirdness sets in almost from the moment they begin unpacking to start their new life.  Because creepy moments need to be experienced on one's own, I'm not going to go into detail as to what's going on, but things quickly begin to spiral out of control for this young couple to the point where it becomes difficult to separate what is and isn't real.

The ingenuity here is not so much in the haunted house horror story per se -- when all is said and done, the tropes that the author uses here have most certainly been done elsewhere, and the truth is that there are some things that are left unanswered.    What is original here, and what is in my opinion the thing that makes this book very much worth reading, is in the way the author mirrors the couple's search to try to get to the root of what's ailing this house (what's actually haunting it) with what's actually ailing/haunting this couple -- complete with "undercurrents," gaps, walls, and as James reveals, the "buried, fetid stories" which have "bubbled to the surface."  As Julie notes at one point,
"This house is sapping us, pulling out our cores"
and as the novel progresses, the reader comes to understand that the "grip" the house has come to have on this couple is far more menacing than either one of them could have ever realized.

There are so many things going on in this book that make it worthwhile. As just one example, there are several scenes that bring out the idea of   "alternative versions" of ourselves that we reveal to everyone, even those closest to us, and the idea of others'  unacceptability of "the wilderness of the mind," where people "will always wonder what to believe," since they "expect the mind's voice to unstitch only when alone."  The Grip of It  is also another fine example of a writer using the horror genre in a most original way well beyond the norm as a vehicle for exploration into the human psyche.

Readers who go into this novel expecting the standard haunted house fare may be somewhat disappointed, since, as I said, this story, when all is said and done, actually moves further beyond, well into the literary zone where the focus is more on people.   My only real issue is that sometimes what the author has her characters thinking is more authorial than real-world speak, which for me came across a bit overblown at times, but hey -- that's a minor thing compared with what she's done here.  I hope this book does well and that people will come to realize that horror can convey so much more than the content of  much-overdone tales of zombie apocalypses or vampire plagues and that when done right, it can move into the realm of the literary.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Kzradock the Onion Man and the Spring-Fresh Methuselah: From the Notes of Dr. Renard de Montpensier, by Louis Levy

Wakefield Press, 2017
originally published as Menneskeløget Kzradock, den vaarfriske Methusalem: Af Dr. Renard Montpensiers Optegneiser, 1910
translated by W.C. Bamberger
137 pp


"What is the truth, and what are the lies in this damned business?" --95

Well, that certainly is the question at the heart of this book, which our narrator tells us is a
"dreadful and bloody mystery, one that is still not entirely understood by the author."  
The word "mystery" here is certainly in line with the back-cover blurb which calls this book "a fevered pulp novel," but really, it is anything but.  There are certainly a number of pulp elements found here that make for fun reading; on the other hand, the true mystery it presents is deadly serious.

When Dr. Renard de Montpensier first took on Kzradock's case, he soon realized that Kzradock was not "really insane," but that he'd "been made insane" because he holds the solution to a heinous crime, one which had been "encased" inside his psyche by a certain Lady Florence. As the novel opens, we are made privy to what the good doctor calls a "séance" -- in truth a session of hypnosis -- where he's attempting to unlock the dark secrets that are the source of Kzradock's  ongoing torment. The only way to help him, thinks de Montpensier, is to "investigate the crimes forming the basis of Kzradock's state," and using his own "science," he hopes to "send him back into society."    Okay -- so far so good, sounds right up my alley, but then, after a crazy night out at a theater where the crime itself is the movie,  and a wild scene that greets him on his return to the Paris asylum where Kzradock is a patient, everything shifts as the doctor finds himself  "At the edge of the abyss between madness and reason."  From this point on, things become surreal (and I don't use the term lightly) as de Montpensier tries to get to the root of the secrets buried deeply in Kzradock's soul.

The back-cover blurb says that this book combines "elements of the serial film" (check), "detective story" (check), and "gothic horror novel" (check), but what it doesn't say is that ultimately it is a nightmarish journey into "the sufferings of a sick soul."   Reading this book felt like standing in  constantly shifting sands where I was trying to gain some sort of foothold on solid ground but couldn't. As quickly as some sort of rational explanation for it all would come to mind, things would change so I just gave up trying to go the rational route and let the book speak for itself, which is a good way to approach this story.   This book is not your usual narrative sort of thing but rather a gigantic puzzle that doesn't yield up its secrets until the very end, and to say that I was gobsmacked is an understatement.  It is the epitome of cryptic, and obviously this post doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of this novel, but there's a good reason for that which is all explained at the book's conclusion.

Wakefield is publishing some incredible books, and I certainly loved this one and enjoyed the journey although there were times I had to walk away because it was so intense.  I mean, there is horror, and then there is horror, and to me the most horrific things often have their roots in the human psyche.  As de Montpensier says at one point,
"... a strained soul creates an entire world within the skin that surrounds it..." 
and truer words have never been spoken.

fiction from Denmark

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Spirit of the Place and Other Strange Tales: The Complete Short Stories of Elizabeth Walter (ed.) Dave Brzeski

Shadow Publishing, 2017
409 pp


"You've got to be careful when dealing with spirits."

The work of Elizabeth Walter, whose name I didn't know before buying this book this past spring, has found its way into many an anthology, including several volumes of The Fontana Book of Great Horror Stories, New Tales of Unease (ed. John Burke), The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories, and The Virago Book of Ghost Stories. (Sadly, as I was looking up the last book just now, the little red guy with the pitchfork on my right shoulder made me hit the buy button, so I expect I'll be talking about that one here after my vacation in August). Considering how little there is about her to be found (and believe me, I tried), I think Brzeski has done a great job here in compiling so much information about Elizabeth Walter.

So now on to the book, which all told comprises a whopping thirty-one stories, each listed under the titles of Walter's original books in which they first appeared. In this book, those forces lying outside the realm of nature are not of the beneficent sort, but have a rather cruel, malevolent streak to them. To her credit, and with only minor exceptions, Walters manages to sustain this idea throughout most of the stories in this book; when all is said and one, however, it's the human reaction to these forces that matters in this volume.  As she is quoted in the introduction,
"The thing I like most about the supernatural is that it enables you to play God, to dispense justice -- only you dispense it from beyond the grave." (3)
I can guarantee that this happens here, in spades.  Like any other anthology, it's not perfect -- the writing can be uneven, the later stories are not as good as the earlier ones, but as a whole, The Spirit of the Place and Other Strange Tales is well worth reading. The big plus for me was the stories with Welsh settings -- it's amazing how old superstitions still abide in some places.  

Just FYI: not only is this probably going to be a lengthy post, but I am briefly annotating here so opting out at this point would be a good option for those people who want to go into this book knowing absolutely nothing. For those brave enough to read on, don't worry -- there is no leakage of critical detail. I've organized the stories into their original collections.

Book one is Snowfall and Other Chilling Events, from 1965, containing five stories. "Snowfall" takes on the benighted traveler, who this time finds himself stuck in a horrific storm with only a few miles to go until the next town. He's fortunate that someone just happens to be walking around and takes him in, or is he? "The New House," well, when you live in a home that is built in an area once known as Gibbet Hill, you might expect some creepiness to crop up. Let me just say that while the trope's been used before, the ending just about made me jump out of my chair. The best way to describe the next tale, "The Tibetan Box," is grotesque. A little carved box with a strange history finds its way into a home via a jumble sale, and gives its new owners more than they'd bargained for. Yikes. And now, just four stories in, we've come to "The Island of Regrets," my favorite story in this entire volume. Set in Kéroualhac, a small town in Brittany,  from "the hill above the village," one can see a small island in the Channel, "Like a child's toy left floating by the beach." On their way to St. Malo, Dora Matthews and her fiance Peter Quint (ring any bells, Henry James readers?) stop in this little town for the night, and learn about the superstitions surrounding this island, which the locals call the Ile des Regrets. "The island is a magic place," they are told, one that
"grants the first wish you make when you first set foot there, but grants it in such a way that you will wish it had not been granted." 
Even though they're also warned that "the island is an unlucky place," Dora drags a passive Peter along with her to visit it. Wild horses couldn't drag the rest of the story out of me -- this one is beyond chilling, and needs to go in a hall-of-fame sort of collection of best supernatural/weird tales ever told. The final story in this group is "The Drum," which, while it does highlight Walter's concept of justice meted from beyond the grave, I wasn't so keen on since I've read this same kind of thing before more than once. 

from Weavers of Tradition

The next block of six tales is from Walter's The Sin-Eater and Other Scientific Impossibilities (1967), which I'll say is a mixed bag of stories ranging from good to okay to whatever. This group begins with "The Sin-Eater," which when all is said and done is rather eerie, involving a hiker who accidentally finds himself caught up in a bizarre ritual that will come back to haunt him later. "Dearest Clarissa," which is set in a sanitarium, starts out well enough, but I figured it all out long before the narrator was able to. I really hate when that happens. Moving right along, "A Scientific Impossibility" was less creep-inspiring than laughworthy, especially because it takes place among a group of arguing academics, and then we come to "A Question of Time," which builds ever so slowly but ends up with a gutpunch. Discussion among friends about the subject of a certain centuries-old painting turns very strange in a big way. Up next is a story that Brzeski says was turned into a segment of the old Night Gallery show called "A Fear of Spiders," which I'll admit I've never seen, but I'm kind of inspired to see if I can find it now. Walter's tale is called simply "The Spider," and ultimately it's a tale of revenge served cold with a rather hair-raising twist. To say more would be to wreck it but I ended up pitying that poor fool, even if he is a jerk. Closing out this batch is another one I didn't care for very much, although its title, "Exorcism" will probably arouse some readers. Here the victim of a murderer appears shroud and all, to exact vengeance, but the murderer's wife is having no part in the dead guy's scheme. I think this one was supposed to be humorous, but the comedy escaped me for the most part.

Image from "A Fear of Spiders," from Night Gallery, via Genre Snaps 
The next bunch are included in her Davy Jones's Tale and Other Supernatural Stories (1971), and it's here that I discovered my second favorite story, which is coincidentally, "Davy Jones's Tale." It begins with the story of a shipwreck  a century earlier "with the loss of all hands," without which, as the narrator tells us, "nothing in this tale makes sense." Set in Wales, the modern-day story goes along and builds to a conclusion where the reader has to make his/her own choice about what actually happens here, and I have to say, it's not an easy one to make. The draw here is most definitely the ambiguity; this one demands more than a casual read. The next one is a kind of weirdo Cold War spy story that absolutely didn't do it for me called "The Hare." Seriously, had I never read it, I wouldn't have missed a thing. It may float someone's boat, but not mine. Following that one there comes another one that was less than satisfying and less original than most of the stories in this book, "In the Mist." All I would have to do is give the storyline, and I guarantee that someone reading this would go "oh yeah...I know that one."  Enough said. We enter into the zone of completely weird with the next story, "The Lift," in which a man in trouble seeking help finds himself in a building where strangeness follows. Not a fan of this one either. In "The Street of the Jews," while there is a supernatural element, it's the history here that rattles. "Hushabye, Baby" is a tough one to talk about without giving anything away, so I won't, but it's a good one. Really good. 

from The Telegraph

1973's Come and Get Me & Other Uncanny Invitations begins (obviously) with "Come and Get Me," set deep in the Elan Valley of Wales. A house that was put on the market and remains vacant years later is the setting for this one, which begins with military maneuvers interrupted by a "terrible shrill ha-ha-ha that was human but maniac." Here past aligns with present; in the end, it was just okay. Luckily, the next one is pretty good, "The Concrete Captain," where a newcomer learns the hard way that "You've got to be careful when dealing with spirits," followed by "The Thing," another one I just didn't care for. It starts out very nicely, has a lot of potential for weirdness, but frankly, this one just sort of fizzles into meh. "The Travelling Companion" is yet another I figured out way earlier than I should have since it's another been there, read that, bought the t-shirt kind of ghostly tale, as is "The Spirit of the Place," set in Italy. Next is "Prendergast," which is somewhat of a departure from the other stories in this book. A string of killings of young girls prompts concerned citizens to form a group that patrols the streets between 6 pm and midnight. The narrator of the story gets the cemetery beat, and it doesn't take long until the strangeness begins. This one really relies on its ending, although admittedly it was suspenseful on the path to getting there and I quite enjoyed it. "The Grandfather Clock" is quite fun though, as a young woman wants no part of family tradition and it comes back to haunt her. Sort of.

from Ambient-Mixer

Two years later  Dead Woman & Other Haunting Experiences was published,  and the "Dead Woman" in this case is a hill in Wales with a tainted history. Another personal favorite, this story underscores the idea that superstitious beliefs are alive and well in this part of the country, and have everything to do with what happens to a newcomer to a village where "everyone was polite but no one was friendly." Great story. The next one, "The Hollies and the Ivy" could have benefited from fleshing out the story a bit more fully. Like "The Thing," it had the potential to be terrifying but fell somewhat short, in my opinion. A couple sinks everything they have into their new home The Hollies, bought to be renovated. If only they could get rid of that damn ivy that covers everything. I liked everything about the next story "A Monstrous Tale" except the last couple of pages where what could have been majorly creepifying just fell flat. A vacation turns into a nightmare for one couple when they decide to take a ride on a small boat to accompany a yacht across the Bodensee; luckily for the wife she had a tantrum and decided not to go with her husband, who didn't fare so well. "The Little House" is very well done although somewhat predictable, but still very nicely written. Once again, like so many of Walter's stories, past deeds come back to haunt the present when the owners of a newly-bought home clear out their garden and discover a Wendy house. That's when the weirdness begins. In "Dual Control" two people on their way to a party are sniping at each other and in the midst of their argument, they happen to bring up the girl they've just run down and left to die. The driver, Eric, refuses to go back to take a look, but the story is far, far from over. Oy! In "Telling the Bees" a gardener's superstitions regarding his bees turns out to be not just another old wives' tale when a young woman who's convinced her husband has been trying to kill her takes steps to do something about it. This one took two reads, but I ended up liking it. And last but not least in this volume comes "Christmas Night," which takes place at an inn with the name The Hanged Man, so I just felt in my bones that something weird was going to happen there. My bones were right.

This is a book I would certainly recommend to anyone who has an interest in the supernatural or in older weird tales in general, although obviously these are pretty tame in comparison to modern horror tales so maybe a less jaded audience without a need for gore or the severely grotesque would more likely appreciate these stories. Collectively, they make for a great time, and kudos to the editor for bringing the work of Elizabeth Walters into the public eye once again.  

one last thing: readers thinking about this book may well want to read it on Kindle or another e-reader, since this book is huge dimension-wise. As I said to someone recently, it's not one you can take to the vet's office to read while you're waiting, and if I had it do over again, I would have foregone the print copy for the electronic. Either way, though, read the book!