Friday, June 30, 2017

The Somnabulist's Dreams, by Lars Boye Jerlach

Angry Owl, 2016
181 pp

"and the stars look very different today..."

paperback, and a big thanks to the author for my copy

When I first heard about this book, I knew I had to read it. I am fascinated with the use of lighthouses in literature, since they have a sort of ambiguous symbolism to them.  In some books, lighthouses imply safety, while in others they convey a deep sense of isolation.  While I won't say which camp this book falls into,  the back-cover blurb, which barely even hints at what's in store for readers of this book, describes  a New England lighthouse keeper who comes across a collection of "seemingly deranged" writings left behind by his predecessor.

It seems that what Enoch Soule has actually left behind is a collection of his dreams, as he puts it, "the fantasies of my mind, over which I have no control."   And what dreams they are indeed.  It took me no time to discover that not only is this book something very much out of the ordinary, but also that there is nothing straightforward here until the somewhat jaw-dropping ending which puts everything into perspective. In the meantime, as soon as we find ourselves peering into Enoch's dreams, it becomes obvious, once again referring to the back-cover blurb, that we have found ourselves in a "narrative that ... defies time and space."  I won't say how, but trust me, this concept continually manifests itself as the book progresses, and as the dreams of Enoch Soule's become darker and stranger, they start taking on an ethereal quality that is difficult to describe.

this isn't how I pictured the lighthouse keeper of this book,  but it's a cool drawing nonetheless. From the website of the Australian National Maritime Museum

I hate being so vague about this book, but I'm doing it purposely since to give away anything is definitely a crime and would spoil the reading for the next person.   The minor niggle here is word usage ... I had to look up certain words such as "fuliginous," "caliginous," and "sudoriferous" and while I've now enhanced my knowledge of vocabulary, sometimes for me just sticking to what one means in a clearer way is best. Other than that minor issue, though, I was pretty much awed by this book, most especially in terms of the author's  literary and philosophical knowledge which he's put to great use here.

This isn't a book to speed read through.  The author has obviously spent a long time putting it together, combining elements of literature, mythology, pop culture and philosophy here to help shape the narrative, and I found myself feeling elated whenever I'd recognize a reference, since in my head, each served as a clue in my own effort to piece together what is actually going on here.  I will say I got a vague sense of what the ending reveals long before I got there (some of these "clues" are pretty self explanatory),  but I'll also admit that certain recurring/changing symbols got the better of me, causing me to take time to go over them again and again, throwing out some ideas, keeping others.  And then, of course, the element of time is a definite conundrum, one that kept me on my toes trying to puzzle out what the author was doing here.  The point I'm trying to make is that it is a challenging read and a book for serious readers who enjoy thinking.  I was in hog heaven here.

personal note to Lars:
I took down my copy of Conrad's Nostromo thanks to you -- on the summer list it goes.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

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

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017
416 pp

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

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

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

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

the four monkeys, from Wikipedia

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Third Ghost Book (ed.) Lady Cynthia Asquith

Pan, 1975
originally published 1955, 1957
253 pp

mass market paperback
(read earlier)

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff

HarperCollins, 2016
372 pp


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Alex Brown, "Cthulhu Gon' Slay," at