Tuesday, July 18, 2017

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

9780957296251
Shadow Publishing, 2017
409 pp



paperback

"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! 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Big Machine, by Victor LaValle


9780385527989
Spiegel and Grau, 2009
366 pp

hardcover

"To be an American is to be a believer!...But y'all don't even understand what you believe in."  


Trying to make a concerted effort to read the books that have been sitting on my shelves forever, I decided to read this one, Big Machine, by Victor LaValle.  I've read his The Ecstatic, The Devil in Silver and The Ballad of Black Tom, and I have his newest offering, The Changeling, in a book bag reserved for vacation reading in August.  He has become one of my very favorite contemporary writers -- his work is original for sure, something I very much appreciate these days; he's funny, and he tackles important issues through his fiction.   Another thing about him that I like is that, at least in this book and in Devil in Silver, is that he has great stories to tell and frames them using horror-story tropes -- I recently read an interview where he had just published Devil in Silver and he called it his "haunted house story." I'm sorry -- I just don't remember where I read it. The point is that Victor LaValle is no ordinary writer, as anyone who's read his work will recognize.

In chapter three of this book, there is a bus passenger who is "three-quarters bum" standing in the aisle yelling at his fellow passengers, telling them that there's a fight going on in the country -- a fight about "faith, people. Faith and belief."  Before he gets booted off this bus, he has one final thing to say which is this:  "To be an American is to be a believer!...But y'all don't even understand what you believe in."  This one line sets up one of the most offbeat but finest novels I've read this year.  

The main character in this novel is Ricky Rice, a janitor at Union Station in Utica New York.  The receipt of a strange note one day during his shift sends him off to an even stranger place deep in the northern Vermont woods. He ends up at a place called the Washburn Library, which "doesn't care who you were, only who you want to be." Like Ricky, the people he meets there have had problems in their pasts; they are also all "descendants of America's greatest losers. Black folks. The only population that came to America to be enslaved."  As he meets his fellow "Unlikely Scholars" for the first time, his first thought is this:
"Seven black people in the Northeast Kingdom. Sounds like the start of a gruesome old folktale."
 And at this point, I knew this was not going to be any ordinary book, and it's only page 29.  As it turns out, I was right.

The Dean of the Washburn Library reveals at the first meeting that
"There is a voice whispering in the darkness. I have heard it. Everything it says is true. It's been talking to us, to all of us, but the world is so noisy we can't make out the message. Not unless we go off somewhere, someplace, remote and undisturbed and quiet..."
The job of the Unlikely Scholars? To listen.

It seems that the Washburn Library holds a vast "inventory" of "impossible events, documented, recorded, and even photographed until they seem to be more than just hearsay."   The Dean  reveals to Ricky the story of Judah Washburn, the original founder who had been a slave who "escaped bondage" in 1775.  Judah, it seems, had made his way to Northern California where he'd eventually "wandered off into the marshlands." It was there he first heard a voice coming from under ground, where the Voice once again spoke to him.  After some time, and after Judah had been struck blind, he was directed back above ground where he found a fortune in Spanish gold coins. Making his way to Vermont, over the next twenty-six years, he attended séances, and "knocked on the door of every 'haunted house,'" waiting for the Voice to speak to him again. But it never did.    As time passed, his daughter became an alcoholic, and he decided that she should take his place in the field, perhaps hoping that she'd feel a sense of purpose and that "a mission would defeat an addiction."  As she sent reports back home, he read everything, hoping that the Voice had hidden its "next commandment" within her reports.  This was the beginning of the Washburn Library.

The Dean also reveals to Ricky that he has a special mission for him -- it seems that the Washburn Library is "under threat" from one of its own who believes the Library is "corrupted," and that his job is to start all over.   It is Ricky's chance to "be brave" -- to find and take out the rogue "traitor" Solomon Clay.  Off he goes to California with another Unlikely Scholar named Adele, and it's here where our story actually begins, as they discover that Clay has taken on the role of "Father of the Despised," a modern-day prophet planning to organize the homeless into action.   Or maybe I should say that this is where our story takes off like a rocket.

What starts out sounding like a sort of Dan Brownish kind of thing quickly moves into, as one of the  book cover blurbs says,  a "mind-rattling mystery about doubt, faith, and the monsters we carry within us," and this story with its somewhat crazy premise gets serious really quickly. Reading through, there is a LOT  going on here as among other things, LaValle looks at race, religion and the institutions that often fail those who depend on them the most.  It is a very human story, and as one reader put it,
"...it's a book that makes outcasts its heroes, and reminds us how powerful it can be to get a helping hand." 
I think that maybe the author is also saying that doubt isn't always a bad thing -- while it may be the "Big Machine" that "grinds up the delusions of men and women," it can also serve as an antidote to our penchant for blindly placing our faith in something  without questioning, rather than believing in ourselves or reaching out to others.

Big Machine, despite its rather strange but on the other hand optimistic ending, is a gorgeous novel and the bottom line is I loved it.  It may not be for everyone, and that's okay, but there was something about this book that really tugged at my insides, making it perfect for me.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Other Side, by Alfred Kubin -- prepare to be disturbed


9781910213032
Dedalus, 2014
originally published 1909 as Die andere Seite
translated by Mike Mitchell
248 pp

paperback (read earlier)

"...it all had a touch of the madhouse." 

Imagine this: one very ordinary day, you're sitting at home and suddenly a man appears at your door with a proposal that, should you accept, will change your life completely.   That's exactly how this very disturbing novel begins.  How it ends I won't say, but imagine any  dream you've ever had that starts out being sort of quirky and then rapidly devolves into a nightmare from which you struggle to awaken, and that describes this novel in a nutshell.  Sort of.

Alfred Kubin is famous for his art, which in illustration form has also graced the pages of many writers' works, including Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Poe, and Nerval. While there are a number of places anyone can turn to to look at his work, it's obvious that Kubin was no ordinary artist.  As author Jeff VanderMeer has stated, Kubin "allowed his subconscious to lead his creative expression," and  Karen Rosenberg wrote in a 2008 article in the New York Times that "Kubin's drawings map the shadowy corners of the unconscious,"  and I can say that the same is definitely true regarding The Other Side. This is no ordinary book by any stretch of the imagination.

In Kubin's 1917 autobiography (with the great title Alfred Kubin's Autobiography)  he says the following:
"The scraps of memory -- that is all they are -- that stay with us after a dream seem illogical only to superficial observers, on whom the splendid power and beauty of this kingdom are lost." (xli)
This quotation works perfectly as an introduction to his novel The Other Side, in which the unnamed narrator of this tale finds himself living in a strange place known as "The Dream Realm."  Indeed, those who are accepted into the Dream Realm are "predestined to do so, either by birth or later experiences," and there is a "strict selection process for people who are invited to take part in our community."   The inhabitants have "abnormally sharp sense perceptions," which allow them to experience "relationships in the outside world which do not exist for the average person;" and it is these "non-existent things" which "form the unfathomable foundation of the world which the Dream people never forget for one moment."

The Dream Realm is the creation of the narrator's old school friend  Claus Patera, who he hasn't seen in sixy years or so.  They had been "wild hooligans" together, but eventually they'd lost touch. Now, after a marriage and a career as an "artist and illustrator," the narrator is handed a note from Patera's agent inviting him to come and live in Patera's country.  Patera, it seems, had been fortunate enough to have come into "possession of what is probably the largest fortune in the world," with access to "fairly inexhaustible resources," which allowed to him to realize an idea he'd had to "found a dream realm," the present population of which was 65,000 people.  It is
"... shut off from the rest of the world by a surrounding wall and protected against any attack by strong fortifications. There is a single gate for entry and exit, facilitating strict control of people and goods. The Dream Realm is a sanctuary for all those who are unhappy with modern civilisation and contains everything necessary to cater for their bodily needs."
Patera's agent goes on to say that it hadn't been Patera's intention to "create a utopia, a kind of model state for of the future." Instead, it is a place, as the narrator and readers will discover, where the idea of progress is completely rejected.    Our narrator's first thought is that he's been confronted by a madman, but eventually he accepts Patera's invitation and he and his wife make their way to the Dream Realm, which lies hidden somewhere in Asia. The final step of the journey to the city of Pearl finds them entering a tunnel, in which the narrator was suddenly
"...assailed by a sensation of horror such as had never felt before"
 and indeed,  what starts out as  an "adventure story," as the author refers to this book in his autobiography,  quickly turns into the stuff of nightmares.

 While it takes them some time to get used to their new home and its quirks and the strange occurrences there, our narrator begins to gradually become  "so accustomed to the improbable that nothing seemed out of the ordinary."  What he also notices though is that while the eye of Patera (read the bureaucracy) is everywhere, he himself remains hidden and inapproachable, much like K. in Kafka's The Castle.  [As a sidebar, according to a 2014 article in The New York Review of Books, Christopher Benfey notes that Kubin's book is "widely assumed (though on scant evidence)" to have influenced Kafka's work.]

the author, from the blog Alfred Kubin 

Kubin  wrote The Other Side during a period in which he was unable to draw, a time which he says "filled me with alarm," and "in order to do something, no matter what, to unburden myself," he decided to write.  He finished this book in twelve weeks; within another four weeks he'd also illustrated it.  As he notes,
"During its composition I achieved the mature realization that it is not only in the bizarre, exalted, or comic moments of our existence that the highest values lie, but that the painful, the indifferent, and the incidental-commonplace contain these same mysteries,"
and that this is "the principle meaning of this book."  This idea plays out time and time again throughout the story, although I'll leave it to others to discover how.

I loved this book. It is so very different, so far out of the realm of normal; it is the very stuff I crave and go out of my way to look for.   It is extremely rare that I read a book that affects me like this one did,  but it did me in. When I find something out of the ordinary like The Other Side, I tend to get sucked in completely and have trouble getting out until the very last page. I wasn't too far in before the Moleskine notebook and the pens came out;  two notebooks later it was over. The first time through this novel I was shaken, my nerves were working overtime, and  I couldn't think straight for a while after having finished it. Being inside Kubin's head is a dangerous and very scary place to find oneself, even if it's only for the duration of the book.

Jeff VanderMeer (from the link above) says that this novel has a "cult status," and I can see why.  Reading it also validates my theory that there is most definitely greatness and wisdom to be found in a lot of what's old. Granted, this one is a tough and demanding read on several levels, but thinking people who really want to be stretched in their reading will most certainly appreciate this book, disturbing though it may be.

***

Ad Blankestijn has an excellent blog called Splendid Labyrinths, where there is a great discussion about how to possibly approach/read this book.