Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The Virgin Vampire, by Etienne-Leon de Lamothe-Langon

9781612270326
Black Coat Press, 2011
translated by Brian Stableford
257 pp

paperback

"Who dared to lift the mysterious veil with which Heaven covers the accomplishment of its terrible will?"

While I'm not a huge fan of vampire fiction, last year I discovered Black Coat Press, and their lineup of novels featuring vampires sort of reinvigorated my interest. And while The Virgin Vampire isn't likely to land in the category of  greatest vampire fiction ever written, it is still historically significant in terms of the history of vampire literature, and offers readers a look at an entirely different sort of vampire altogether.

Originally published in 1825 (or quite possibly 1824),   La Vampire, ou la vierge de Hongrie is not your average vampire tale by any stretch. The story opens in 1815, as  Colonel Edouard Delmont has resigned his army commission, and has informed his dutiful and loving wife Hélène that he wants to move the family to the countryside just out of Toulouse, to an area where he is "unknown" so that they can life a life of "peace and quiet." After the usual strangers-in-the-village uneasiness passes, the family settles  comfortably in their new home where they find happiness for quite a long time; soon,  however,  Delmont is called away for a family matter, leaving  Hélène and their two children  in the hands of his former sergeant and now trusted servant Raoul. During his absence, the two Delmont children, accompanied by Raoul, make the acquaintance of a "foreign woman" along with her strange servant.   While she is new to the area, to his horror, Raoul discovers that she is no stranger, and  immediately writes the Colonel to inform him that Alinska is in the neighborhood, reminding him that he
"will never be happy or tranquil as long as that unfortunate Hungarian woman exists"
or as long as she continues to pursue him.  It isn't too long before some strange events take place in the area, including  the discovery of a dead body drained of all of its blood, leading Raoul to bring up the subject of vampires:
"No blood!...No blood!  O Heaven! The horrors of Hungary are being renewed in France!"
Shortly thereafter Alinska's house burns down, and in doing her Christian and charitable duty Madame Delmont  invites her to come to their chateau to live. Raoul, who has a "peculiar presentiment" that this is probably not a good idea, can't bring himself to tell  Hélène of his misgivings because it would mean that he would have to reveal something involving the Colonel's past, of which his wife is completely ignorant. He promises himself that he will watch over Delmont's family, but not even he can imagine what's about to happen next.

If you're suspecting that you know how the story is going to play out from this point on, well, you're probably wrong. I know I was way off the mark with my own predictions, and that was a definite plus as far as the reading experience.  But it's not just a matter of the book deviating from the usual path taken in vampire fiction as we know it -- as Brian Stableford says in his afterword, Lamothe-Langon's vampire is "not a predator in her own right," but more a "mere instrument of a higher power, more puppet than actor," caught up  in a "plan for vampiric vengeance." This facet of the story is only one way in which The Virgin Vampire differs from the more familiar plots of  vampire lore; another difference  is found in the very nature of this "higher power."  And there are many more deviations to be found here as well if you read carefully.

The Virgin Vampire is a fine bit of dark, supernatural, and gothic fun which can be chilling at times, and while I wouldn't say that Lamonthe-Lagon's  writing is destined to make this book a classic,  Stableford believes that this book is "not without literary merit as an item of dark Romantic fiction." I agree, and  I also think that the story reveals much about the nature of Enlightenment thinking in terms of rational thought vs superstition.

It may be  a bit tame for readers of modern vampire tales, but it does make for a rollicking good yarn;  to be very honest, it was unputdownable fun. Considering that I'm not a rah-rah fan of vampire stories, well, that should say something.

recommended, but mainly for people interested in the history of literary vampires, and for readers who are looking for something entirely different in their vampire fiction.


Monday, October 1, 2018

haunted house, anyone? The Silent Companions, by Laura Purcell


9780143131632
Penguin, 2018
originally published (UK) 2017
304 pp

paperback

The Silent Companions is my real-world book group's pick for our meeting on October 30th.  I racked my brains trying to come up with a book that would be a good Halloween-ish read -- I could have, of course, easily gone and scanned my shelves for a title but the women in my group tend to not share my love of dark dark books, so it was tricky.  I needed to find a novel that would not only fit in with the occasion, but one that was well written with intelligent themes that would hopefully provide for some good discussion.  When I found out about The Silent Companions, I added it to the list.  I will confess that near the midpoint of this novel, I was beginning to regret my choice because the book was moving along at a slow pace, but just after complaining about it on Goodreads, a few pages later I was actually hooked and couldn't put the book down.  It's not great literature, but on the other hand,  it's fun, it's creepy, and once I got in the groove of its gothic weirdness, I couldn't stop turning pages.  Certainly it isn't without its faults, but it is a perfect Halloween read, just filled with that lovely ambiguity that made me wonder if there's more than meets the eye here, right up until the very last page.


This book spans three different timelines, alternating between present and the past.  First, as the novel opens, we find ourselves in main character Elsie Bainbridge's present, which, as we learn pretty quickly,  is during Elsie's time in an asylum  where she is undergoing a psychological assessment.  Before her doctor can pass judgment, though, he begs her to tell the truth about the events that landed her there, but Elsie cannot speak.  Giving her a slate, and then later a pencil and paper, he encourages her to write down all she knows, and we are immediately taken back to the time before Elsie's incarceration when she had first arrived at the Bainbridge family home, The Bridge, in 1865.  Her husband Rupert had gone ahead of her,  leaving Elsie in London while he got the place ready for the two of them and their unborn baby, but his unexpected death while at the house brings Elsie there as a woman in mourning.   Also at The Bridge  are a handful of servants, as well as Rupert's cousin Sarah, who had served as lady's companion and who is now at The Bridge to keep Elsie company.  It doesn't take long until Elsie becomes aware of strange noises that seem to emanate from a room that has always been kept locked, but that's just the beginning of a series of bizarre events that plague the household.   The house itself has a long history and a dark past that continues to keep the villagers away, which is reflected in the third timeline (the 1630s) during the reign of Charles I.  I'm not saying another word about the actual plot here or how the time periods interweave; I was perfectly happy not knowing anything at all about this story until I'd it read it.



from Treasure Hunt


The Silent Companions has it all: hints of witchcraft, gypsies, locked rooms, strange noises, a black cat, eerie happenings, madness and an asylum, but as the title suggests, the centerpiece of this story is "the silent companions."  The photo above is one of these and is the cover image of the Penguin edition of this book; they are also called "dummy boards,"  which as noted by the blogger at Treasure Hunt, were made out of wood, but had a "lifelike quality"  which could "render them a little spooky as you suddenly come upon a solemn little child, a gesturing servant or even a soldier with gun at the ready."   The first of the silent companions is discovered in a locked garret, but soon others begin to appear, heightening the already-existing tensions within the household, making for a creepy and unforgettable tale.

As I said earlier, the book starts out very slowly and sort of trudges along for a while as we get the picture of the house and its environs as well as the people within, but that all changes very quickly just about midway and zooms toward the ending.  Aside from the atmospheric sense of place and time that is built into this story, the best part of this book is the underlying and particularly unsettling sense of ambiguity that not only ratchets up the tension, but makes you want to question everything you've read after finishing. 

Considering that I prefer my horror from yesteryear, the author's done a fine job here and I can certainly recommend this novel.  Do yourself a favor and carve out a few hours -- once the creepiness gets rolling, it doesn't let up.



It's October again,


and that means Halloween reading. I'm so ready. 





Tuesday, September 18, 2018

rats. I should have saved this book for October: The Moons At Your Door, (ed.) David Tibet

97981907222429
Strange Attractor Press, 2016
450 pp
paperback

As I'm sitting here writing this, in the background I'm listening to the eerie music of Current 93's album Faust .  Had I been listening to this  when I read Count Eric Stanislaus Stenbock's tale in this book of the same name,  it would have totally heightened the creep factor that the story produced in my head.   The editor of this collection of strange, hallucinatory tales just happens to be David Tibet, the founder of Current 93, and that particular album was inspired by that particular story. 

Tibet's music isn't solely limited to Stenbock as inspiration though;  it reflects at least one way in which the stories and authors in this book (and beyond) have "crept, crept, crept" into his work; in the introduction to this book he lists other music which has been inspired by Ligotti, Machen,  M.R. James and others, whose "names and phrases and worlds and dreams" he has "channeled" into what he's done.  And if Faust is any indication of how he's managed this, I need to listen to more.

Getting to the book now, it's one thing reading an anthology of strange, supernatural tales and it's quite another to read a book that serves as part of a roadmap of stories that have not only made a huge influence on someone's life, but continue to "enthral, and terrify" that person. All of these stories, he says,
"...spell how close is the darkness, how subtly and slyly it may seep into our lives and change them utterly." 
"Enthral, and terrify" they did in my case, and seep into my life is an understatement in the case of some of these stories.  For example,  Stenbock's "Faust" I had to put down in the middle and continue the next day because it was so utterly terrifying;  "The Tower of Moab" by L.A. Lewis and  "The Testament of Magdalen Blair" by Aleister Crowley  took me out the comfort of my reading chair, out of my living room, and into another place entirely.  Those last two are probably imprinted on my brain forever now, and along with the two stories and two poems by Stenbock in this book, have raised the bar for what I'll be expecting from my strange/dark fiction reading from this point on.  Some of these twenty-eight stories I've read before, but I didn't care -- I got a  sense that they belonged here for some reason so I reread them with absolute pleasure.


I'll post the contents here, but I will not be going into any detail about any of them. That should be a pleasure best left to anyone reading this post.

"The Moons at My Door" by David Tibet

*"Faust," "The True Story of a Vampire," "Vol d'Amor," and "Requiem"  by Count Eric Stanislaus Stenbock 

"Casting the Runes," "A School Story," and "O, Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad" by MR James

*"He Cometh and He Passeth By" and "Look Up There!" by HR Wakefield

"The Horla" by Guy de Maupassant

"The White People," by Arthur Machen

* "The Testament of Magdalen Blair," by Aleister Crowley

"The Frolic" and "Les Fleurs," by Thomas Ligotti

"The Monkey's Paw," by WW Jacobs

 * "Ravissante," by Robert Aickman

"Smee," by A.M. Burrage

"Sredni Vashtar," by Saki

"Bluebeard," by Charles Perrault

"The Touch of Pan," by Algernon Blackwood

From "The King in Yellow," by R.W. Chambers

 *"Young Tambling," traditional (as sung by Anne Briggs)

* "The Hobyahs," traditional

 *"Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrows," by Thomas de Quincey

 *From "The Thunder: Perfect Mind"

From The Epic of Gilgameš

 *"Couching at the Door," by DK Broster

"The Old Nurse's Tale," by Elizabeth Gaskell

Rounding out the rest of this book are "Biographical and Story Notes," by Mark Valentine and "Lunar Tunes," by David Tibet. 

The asterisks by a few of the story titles mark those I hadn't previously read; I'll just briefly mention a few of those here.  Some time ago I preordered (and am now anxiously awaiting) Strange Attractor's  edition of Of Kings and Things: Strange Tales and Decadent Poems by Count Eric Stanislaus Stenbockalso edited by David Tibet. Not to steal Strange Attractor's thunder, but if anyone's interested, Snuggly Books has recently published a collection of Stenbock's work called Studies of Death.   If the Stenbock entries in The Moons at Your Door are any hint of what's to come, I'll be freaked out, utterly terrified, and delighted all at the same time. HR Wakefield's two entries reminded me of MR James, perhaps not with as much depth, but both had eerie twists; Aleister Crowley's "The Testament of Magdalen Blair" chilled me to my bones with its implications.   Aickman's "Ravissante" actually woke me up one morning at 4:30 with an "aha" moment; evidently it was strange and powerful enough to have lingered on in my sleeping subconscious after reading it twice.  "Young Tambling" sent me to youtube to listen to the haunting voice of Anne Briggs;  "Couching at the Door" seems mild and even a bit silly at first but don't let it fool you: it hides a darkness that completely crept under my skin and has stayed there. 

I'm now deep into a second round of Current 93's Faust and thinking how sad I am that this book is over, but fortunately all is not lost.  I have Tibet's newest collection, There is a Graveyard That Dwells in Man (also preordered) to look forward to.  I'm just sorry I didn't save The Moons At Your Door for October reading -- it would have been great to include it in the heading-to-Halloween lineup.

One more thing: yes, you may have many of these stories in various anthologies shelved in your library, but the ones you probably don't are well worth the cost of this book.  The Moons At Your Door should be a mainstay in the home libraries of any serious reader of strange/dark/supernatural fiction.




Tuesday, September 11, 2018

two beautiful books from John Gale: Saraband of Sable; A Damask of the Dead

"For do not we all wait for something that we know nothing of, something that has not arrived, and possibly never will."  -- from "Vigil," A Damask of the Dead 



A few months ago for reasons I still can't put my finger on, I picked up a copy of his Saraband of Sable from Egaeus Press (the third book in the Egaeus Press Keynote Edition series), never having read anything by John Gale before that time.  Now I would read anything this man writes.




9780993527890
Egaeus Press, 2018
illustrated by Alfredo Guido
185 pp; hardcover

With absolutely no idea what to expect from this author on opening the book,  it didn't take me long at all to realize that I had something exquisite in my hands. By the time I'd finished it, I was telling everyone and anyone who reads dark/strange/weird fiction that they need to buy a copy of this short but sophisticated, highly-satisfying collection of tales, not just because the stories are so good, but also because of the unique quality of the writing.  I'm actually lost for words in trying to describe it, so perhaps I should refer to the description at Egaeus (from the link above) which says that
"Saraband of Sable presents eight of Gale's sumptuous strange tales; dreamlike at times, dense in their imagery yet delicate as dimming perfume."
It also noted there that the author's "previous collections" ... "garnered praise for their sophisticated and decadent prose styling," and I'd only add that I found a sort of ethereal quality to his work, but it really goes much deeper than any description that my non-writer's head can produce.  The most surprising quality of these stories, though, is that while basking in the sheer beauty of the writing, it's like the clouds lift and there at the heart of each story is the darkness that's been peeking through all along, finally emerging with gut-punching force. And while it seems that we're in the middle of long ago and far away, the essentially-human traits that are represented here are tragic, real and timeless. One more thing -- the incorporation of the natural world flows beautifully through each and every story, as in this description of a city's necropolis:
"... a few do venture here, to tarry for a while amidst the cypress and the ebony poplars, basking in the light which falls here like tarnished copper during the diurnal hours; they are the dreamers that revere the lank and elegant grasses that grow between the monuments of obsidian and chrysoberyl, the grasses that turn from jade to gold during autumn; and they love the jackdaws who inhabit the sable green of the elder yews and who often speak in the voices of the dead through eating the fruits of the trees that look like crimson pearls, the trees whose roots bind tight the ivory bones of the long departed."  (from "Lord of the Porphyry Nenuphar"). 
The truth is that even before finishing Saraband of Sable, I was so enchanted that I absolutely had to have more, so I tracked down a copy of the now out-of-print A Damask of the Dead published by Tartarus.




1872621635
Tartarus Press, 2002
100 pp, hardcover (#136)

The dustjacket blurb really tells you all you need to know about this book:
"The perfumes of the East suffuse these tales, of poets, lovers and kings who, despite the luxury and beauty of their surroundings, desire something beyond."
Immediately we find ourselves standing at the gates of  "Death's City", with "palaces with colonnades flooded with darkness, stretching away into infinity," moving later onto "a castle of many turrets that reared up from a cliff of dark rock," complete with "black tourmaline crypts," at some point reaching an "onyx-domed city."  The fourteen stories in this book transport the reader completely out of this world and into others where sorcery is a natural part of life, where poets can really fall in love with the moon, or where the ghost of a king appears one night to give advice to his son and heir, and more.

Fantastical these stories may be, but they are not breezy tales with rewards at the end; as with Saraband of Sable, there is only tragedy, unhappiness, and darkness to be found within.

On the dustjacket blurb of A Damask of the Dead, Mark Valentine has this to say:
"As Machen has observed, literature consists in the art of telling a wonderful story in a wonderful manner. Few writers today acknowledge the need for either element. John Gale is someone who has mastered both."
I couldn't agree more, and that goes for Saraband of Sable as well.  John Gale is a rare find indeed.

So highly recommended that no scale exists for how highly I recommend these books.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Marvelous Story of Claire D'Amour, by Maurice Magre, adapted by Brian Stableford

9781612276526
Black Coat Press, 2017
254 pp

paperback

"They were all dreamers, and they were there because they had dreamed of the ideal on earth, and were suffering bitterly..." -- 175

After spending the summer exploring other areas of reading interest, I'm back here again with this book, which is the first of twelve in a series exploring the work of Maurice Magre, a French writer, who as Brian Stableford reveals in this book's introduction, was "one of the most far-ranging and extravagant writers of fantastic fiction active in France in the first half of the 20th century," and  "perhaps the finest of them."   The fourteen stories in this book are examples of "contes merveilleux," or "tales of enchantment," but as Stableford notes (and which quickly became obvious once I started reading), some of these are actually quite nihilistic, trending more along of the lines of tales of "disenchantment."  As I also discovered not too far into these tales, he's also on the money when he says that "in Magre's work the tragic component usually outweighs the comedic component, and sometimes swamps it entirely." [For a more complete take on Magre's work, I can point you to Stableford's articles in The New York  Review of Science Fiction  (NYRSF) vols. 341, 342, and 343; the last article is available for free online; the other two you can pick up as pdfs for $3.00 each.]

Before launching into just brief sketches of each story, I'll add here that while not true for every tale, there's no missing the message (as Stableford tells us)  that "amour, although irresistible is invariably fatal because it is blinded by illusion" (NYRSF, 341, 7), which may reflect on events in Magre's own life and how they influenced his fiction.  In the introduction, for example, we learn about the author's breakup with "the first woman with whom he became infatuated as soon as he discovered that she had slept with someone -- someone he found particularly loathsome," and that this same motif also runs "incessantly" through Magre's stories. It may be that the author "changed his philosophy of amorous relationships abruptly in 1903", and if so, it is probably
" not a coincidence that Maurice, in "Histoire merveilleuse de Claire d'Amour" is blinded by illusion, and thus immunized against jealousy. Such, so far as it can be determined, is the personal context of Magre's early fiction, insofar as it deals with claire d'amour -- i.e., the bright light of amour in the broad sense."
Whether or not this background is of interest to anyone else or not, the bottom line is that I fell in love with this book while reading it, and as brutal as it can be sometimes, it is absolutely delightful.

In this collection of tales, it is "amour," "the flower of youth," the power of illusion, and "the ideal" that takes center stage, beginning with "Marcelle."  Unlike the stories that follow it, there are no elements of the fantastic to be found anywhere, just a man whose lover deceives him with other men. He breaks it off in anger, later bemoaning that he'd killed "amour...by virtue of stupidity and pride."  "Doctor Faust's First Love" follows a young student named Fritz in love with the daughter of the local burgomaster, Elsbeth. Sadly, Elsbeth has a "mediocre soul" under her outer beauty and accepts her father's choice of husband, a "rich and aged lord." Fritz, believing that "science and labor might perhaps bring a remedy to his woes," goes to visit local sage Dr. Faust and arrives at just the wrong time. "Marinette and Old Water-Sprite" is a delightful tale about a sad young girl and those who love her, including a water sprite, a simple young man "full of gaiety and charm, and a "very rich lord," born under the sign of Saturn. The centerpiece of the book, and the titular story is next, "The Marvellous Story of Claire D'Amour. "  One would think that when one has Jesus Christ and the Holy Virgin as godparents, life would be great for young Maurice.  It may have been except for the "gift of illusion" bestowed upon him by the Sandman that will permit Maurice "never to see life as it is." When he meets and falls in love with the poor, amoral but beautiful Claire, that extra gift will cost him.   Beyond excellent, it is my favorite story in the book and while this one is definitely on the nihilistic side, it is a joy to read.


Maurice Magre, from Black Coat Press

"The Toy Merchant" is the story of Lubin and Colette, who vow as children to love each other forever.  It starts out sweetly enough and then BAM!, end of that.  How I won't say, but it's another good one.  Next up is "The Story of Lili-Des-Roses and the Black Prince," in which Lili, "the glory of the country" scorns the simple pastor Jean-des-Bois and his "limitless love for her" in favor of the black prince"because he is rich."   This one is followed by "The Poor Musician and the Little Genie," which also touches on amour but also something a bit different -- the love and dedication of an artist for his art.  "The Flower of Youth" comes next, a true quest story in which young Joël must find the flower of youth in order to marry Princess Raphaële, who has sworn to love only the "King of France, the Devil," or the man who brings her this treasure.  She is, of course, taking advantage of his "naivety" and being cruel, but he doesn't know this, and off he goes, abandoning everything previously dear to him in his search.  A very twisty ending has this one, catching me completely by surprise.  In "The Story of an Unlucky Grenadier," a young man who has, since childhood, had the worst luck ever, desperately wants to impress the parents of the woman he loves after they refuse to consent to the marriage.  All I'll say about this story is that maybe he should have rethought that idea.  "The Doll" is its own way a poignant story, focusing on a man whose attraction to a beautiful actress causes him to rethink his career choices in order to get her attention while he wonders what he can do to make her love him.   "The Goatherd King" has a lovely touch of irony, beginning with a prophecy made to young Eloi by a witch who reveals that he is destined to be a king; this is followed by "The Last Siren" who is discovered by a man in the Seine after deciding to end it all.  Finally, the end of this book offers  "Jeannett's Three Professions," reminding me a bit of a rather twisted "Parable of the Talents."

I can't begin to say how very much I enjoyed this book and how I looked forward to coming back to it every time I had to put it down.  I've been stockpiling books from this series for a while, and now that I've had my first taste of Magre, I don't doubt that I'll be reading as many of them as I can.

yes, yes, yes, highly recommended. 

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Compulsory Games, by Robert Aickman (ed.) Victoria Nelson


9781681371894
NYRB Classics, 2018
341 pp

paperback

Just recently I told someone who'd never read an Aickman story  that while reading this author's work,  don't go looking for the weird, the strange, or the horror in his work, because it will pop out at you when you're least expecting it.  So imagine my surprise when my own thoughts were somewhat mirrored in one of the stories in this book,  "The Fully-Conducted Tour,"in which Aickman says that
"... strange things happen all the time to many of us, if once we can get our minds off our own little concerns.  One point is that the strangeness usually takes an unexpected form, it is no good looking looking for something strange.  It only happens when you're not looking." 
 And when you finally catch on,  when the strangeness finally makes its way onto your radar, you find yourself, as the narrator in "The Strangers" describes, at
 "...the moment one yells, and with luck, wakes up, during a long nightmare: its nature, can never be quite examined, quite elucidated, or quite extinguished."
Or, to put it in another way, as the editor notes in her introduction to this book, the "kinds of questions" that are left in the wake of any Aickman story,
 "lay eggs under your skin. No satisfactory answers are available, either in the stories themselves or in the readers's head.  More precisely, any answer that might be proffered will be (to echo an Aickman title) insufficient."
Personally, I think Aickman was a genius writer and an artist in every sense of the word.   His writing is unique -- reading him  really is like being caught up in someone's bizarre nightmares that straddle the real world and a different sort of space in which time, nature, and human oddities all merge into the surreal or the strange. In Compulsory Games, there are numerous examples of his work that begin with ordinary people in ordinary situations on ordinary days, creeping slowly into the realm of the strange before it hits you that ordinary has left the building.     In "Hand in Glove," for example, two young women decide to go on a picnic in the countryside after one of them ends a bad relationship.  Things start out benignly enough, and then everything completely changes -- at first in subtle ways, and then before you know it, this picnic takes on a most menacing, surreal tone. And even then, it's not quite over.  Or take "Residents Only," which on one hand obviously highlights some of the complete absurdities of a town's council bureaucracy and then turns into something much, much darker.  With Aickman, the simplest things can take on terrifying significance, for example, a herd of cows, an airplane, or a house on a riverbank.  He builds dread and the feeling of doom ever so slightly, and he has the ability to horrify without overtly doing so.  In this book, as is true in most of his work, half the fun of reading is in trying to discern exactly what is going  on; sometimes the situation seems pretty straightforward but then, after reading the same story a second time, lends itself to an entirely different way of thinking as you pick up on things missed the first time around. 

Out of fifteen, I didn't particularly care for two ("A Disciple of Plato" and "Raising the Wind); as for the remainder, each had its own moments of brilliance. I loved "Hand in Glove," my personal favorite, which is one of the creepiest and the best stories in this collection once you stop to consider what's going on here; "The Strangers" is another favorite, taking on a theme familiar to horror readers but with added twists and a deeper darkness,  and "No Time is Passing" takes us into that zone so familiar to Aickman readers where time, space, and nature go awry in a most surreal way.  The rest I will leave to others to discover, but with the exception of the two I mentioned that I didn't care for, they are a mix of creepy, strange, just plain weird, or slow-burning horror tales told only as Robert Aickman can tell them. 


 The stories he writes are, for the most part brilliant, capturing the nuances that make people human or some recognizable, realistic situation that  shortly begins to morph into something beyond weird before all is said and done.  His work is definitely not geared toward readers who need closure ... his stories are, again borrowing from the introduction, like a "door left confoundingly ajar."  One more thing -- I've seen several reviews by readers who say that this should not be your first experience with Aickman, but I have to disagree.  The stories in Compulsory Games are not nearly as complicated as most of his work in other collections, so this book offers a learning experience in  how to read/approach Aickman.   I also know that the Aickman-newbie friend with whom I read this book was so wowed by it that he immediately ordered another book of  Aickman stories as soon as he'd finished this one. 

Take your time with it, and be aware that you might feel lost or groping around in the dark while reading, but trust me, the experience is well worth every second.  Very highly recommended. 


for a professional review, read "Burial Plots" by Anwen Crawford at The New Yorker. 

Friday, May 18, 2018

"What's your favorite shade of yellow?" Giallo Fantastique (ed.) Ross E. Lockhart

9781939905062
Word Horde, 2015
225 pp

paperback

Now here's something you don't run across every day: a book filled with stories blending giallo and the fantastique, as interpreted by the twelve authors contributing to this volume.  In his introduction Ross Lockhart says that what we're about to read is
"a paranoiac descent into a dark world of literary Grand Guignol like no other ... on the one hand grim and fantastic, on the other pure (if grotesque) cinematic fun" 
and he isn't joking.  Fun, for sure; grotesque, definitely; and grim is an understatement.

Rather than just doing my usual, I'll focus on my favorite three stories here, in order of appearance.

Lockhart made a wise move in using Michael Kazepis' "Minerva" as the gateway to the rest of this collection; as I've often noted, for me the first story should whet the reader's appetite for what's to come,  and it most certainly did that.   While I could feel giallo happening here,  this story is also incredibly weird, as in good weird, as in brain-boggling weird.  It centers around a young woman who comes to Greece after the death of her estranged brother.   She starts out with the idea of making "an attempt to know something about him as the man he'd become," and gets way more exposure to him than she'd bargained for. I love the out-of-the-box, strange way this writer thinks, most especially during a scene in a most bizarre theater.   Like the main character  who says at one point "I never want this to end," -- well, neither did I.    Anya Martin's "Sensoria" also gets my vote in the category of great, mixing music, the artist's inner gaze, and the psychedelic/psychotropic to create a story I can only describe as surreal.   I may have just discovered what it might be like to enter into someone else's hallucination.    Nods to giallo in this one, but to me it moves much more along the fantastique line; it's a story you live rather than simply read.     "Sensoria" is one of the most truly original stories ever;  the ending on this one will send you right back to its beginning to read it again.  And then maybe a third time.   And even then you'll still be thinking about it.  And finally, we have Orrin Grey's  "The Red Church."   Sick of writing "fluff pieces," when Yvonne is assigned to interview eccentric artist Wade Gorman, "a brilliant underground artist" who hasn't produced anything in the last six years, she's excited.  Hoping for an "exclusive" on possibly new projects, she makes her way to Gorman's studio.  Let's just say the experience will change her forever.  I made the  mistake of reading this one just before I turned off the book light and closed my eyes; I kept seeing it play out in my head, unable to turn off the completely unnerving feelings it caused.  What these three stories have in common goes far, far beyond the thematic elements of this book; these are some of the most literary, most well-written  pieces of horror that I've encountered in some time.  If more of today's horror writers would learn to write like these three people, I might be tempted to read more contemporary work.    Outside of these three, I have to give major applause to Garrett Cook for his "Hello Handsome," a not-for-the-squeamish murder tale which is told from a different, most unsettling, and original perspective. 



Bava's "The Girl Who Knew Too Much" from Kultguy's Keep


Pointing out these stories specifically as personal favorites doesn't mean I didn't like the other ones, because there is some really good, quality writing going on here.  Quite honestly, the only one that I really didn't care for was the last story written by Brian Keene, "Exit Strategies. "  Here we find a serial killer on a mission, but for me it read like the author just wanted to throw in a bunch of killings, violence, and gore for scare effect.   Yes, there's a bit of plot, but it's nowhere near as nicely composed as the more literary offerings in this book, and I'm still kind of wondering how it fits with the rest of the stories here.

The other authors in this book are Adam Cesare, Nikki Guerlain, MP Johnson, Cameron Pierce, Ennis Drake, E Catherine Tobler, and John Langan, most of whom are new to me and all of whom bring a unique take on that space where, as the editor reveals, "crime and supernatural horrors" intersect.     You can find the full table of contents here at SF Signal.   This one I'd certainly recommend.




Saturday, May 12, 2018

The Other Passenger, by John Keir Cross


9781943910977
Valancourt Books, 2017
originally published 1944
261 pp

hardcover

"We go, you see; and with us goes always Another Passenger. He is beside us in every deepest action and speaks through us in every fateful announcement. There is no escaping him or his influence. His voice whispers suddenly in the night, his presence intangibly lingers at our shoulder when we feel ourselves most alone...  We go; and he -- the Other Passenger -- is always at our side."


In the introduction to The Other Passenger, writer and blogger J.F. Norris from Pretty Sinister Books (which has been responsible many times over for titles added to my out-of-control tbr pile) says that
"John Keir Cross is a master at capturing and evoking the indescribable, of exposing the forbidden desires and the criminal impulses, of showing us the people who fall in love with the macabre.  The Other Passenger will take you on whirlwind tour from dizzying heights of delirium and whimsy to the chasms where lie tortured souls forever lost."
 I couldn't agree more.  It is one of those rare books which from the very beginning pushed me to an edge where I don't normally find myself while reading and then kept me there until it was all over.  I knew this book and I were meant for each other after reading the first story, "The Glass Eye," which for a while there gave me an eerie sense of déjà vu before I remembered I'd seen it played out on TV somewhere -- a quick bit of research and I discovered that it was an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I pulled out my  DVD of Season 3 and  watched it again, and yes, there's Jessica Tandy as Julia, at the theater to catch Max Collodi's show.  Back to the book for another read and from


from Shatner's Toupee

that point on, I knew I was in good hands so I just surrendered and let John Keir Cross take me where ever he was going to go.

Since J.F. Norris has completely captured the essence of this book in the paragraph I quoted above, there's really not much left to say here, except that each and every story has some sort of gut punch, sometimes quiet, sometimes full force.  While every story in this book is beyond excellent, my favorite is "Miss Thing and the Surrealist."  Like many of the other tales in this collection, the true horror in that one sneaks up on you only at the end as you brace yourself from the start, knowing that something's going to happen, but you just don't know what that something's going to be.  You might think you know, but then everything changes in an instant.  The stories here all feature some sort of  tragic figure, adding a touch of poignancy to their situations,  but then things begin to turn toward the horrific as you come to realize the sense of doom that engulfs them.  It's like Cross has looked into a variety of human souls and has brought forth the darkest or most tragic among them. The eerieness of this book is so finely crafted that, as I said earlier, it will keep you on the edge and on edge until that final page has been turned.

Once again, my thanks to Valancourt for bringing this book back into print.









Monday, May 7, 2018

back to the present with The Garden of Blue Roses, by Michael Barsa

9781630230616
Underland Press, 2018
226 pp

paperback


"...he was both a fiction and real somehow." 

It took me some time to readjust to the real world after reading this book, which threw me completely off kilter during my time in the head of the main character, not always a comfortable place to be.  There are a number of unsettling things about this story, not so much because of what happens here, but rather because it left me somewhat disoriented throughout, trying to discern what exactly was real and what was not. In a mind that's filled with fragments of memory, strange dreams and living in a house filled with shadows and "strange echoes," it can get tricky sometimes. To his great credit, the author immerses us in atmosphere from page one and doesn't let up, ratcheting up the tension until it actually becomes a relief to finally make it to the end and breathe again.

 Briefly, because this is yet again another novel that needs to be experienced,  Milo Crane and his older sister Klara live together in the family home after the death of their parents in a car accident.  It is a quiet life for both of them, and Milo wouldn't have it any other way.  Given his dysfunctional childhood and his failed attempt at college, home suits him just fine. As we're told, thanks to their parents, neither Milo nor Klara were "suited for the modern world," so they share the house, Milo busy  constructing models while imagining himself as part of the world his figures inhabited. Life changes though when Klara decides to make big changes in the landscaping and brings in Henri Blanc, the gardener who will be doing the work.  Is it, as he wonders, only Milo's imagination that makes him so "wary" of this man?  Or is there something more at play here?  The dilemma here is that we're not quite certain what's real and what is a fiction.  Fictions, according to Milo's father, live "in the mind. Of the reader," and Milo has come to the point where he needs to, as he says,
"find a way out of this novel I was trapped in -- out of the entire mental architecture I'd built up and only now realized was a cage..."
But at some point, the fictions and the reality will merge, and then...

I know it's incredibly cliché to say this, but this book really does work in layers, and they are beyond-skillfully crafted here in this author's debut novel. Secrets abound, memories come to light, and even then we're still not sure that we're dealing in reality.  While there is a LOT happening here that will jump out at you, it is, in a very big way, a book that deals with the question of perception, to the point where everything has to be questioned.   The first time through was unsettling; the second time through I gained much more of an appreciation for what he's done here. Not only has he produced a rather chilling tale, but if you look at (and are familiar with) the literary references the author mentions,  you can definitely see how these have helped to shape his own narrative in terms of both style and story; at the same time, this is clearly an original work.  And without going into any sort of detail,  I'll just say that my favorite references scattered throughout this novel are those relating to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein -- to me they were the most appropriate of all, but I won't say why because I don't want to wreck anything.

Don't expect a quick thrill here, because that's not what's going in in this book.  It is a story that both intelligent readers and literary-minded authors can enjoy.  And if this is his first offering, I'll be the first one in line for the next.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

book #3 in my British Library run, a serious case of happy camperville: Dreamland and Ghostland: An Original Collection of Tales and Warnings from the Borderland of Substance and Shadow, Etc. , Author Unknown

ASIN: B003MGK022
originally published by George Redway, 1887
330 pp

paperback

"...what happened to me last night was no dream to me, it was a reality..."

This book just might win the prize for longest title ever:

Dreamland and Ghostland: An Original Collection of Tales and Warnings From the Borderland of Substance and Shadow: 
Embracing

Remarkable Dreams, Presentiments, and Coincidences: Records of Singular Personal Experience by Various Writers; Startling Stories from Individual and Family History; Mysterious Incidents from the Life of Living Narrators; and Some Psychological Studies, Grave and Gay.

There are another two volumes following this one: Dream Warnings and Mysteries:  Strange Stories of Coincidence and Ghostly Adventure and Ghost Stories and Presentiments.  I'll probably get to those at some point -- if they're anything like this one, they'll be completely worth it.  Volume I is an experience in itself. I don't know if it was done purposefully, but there are thirteen stories here, a mix of dream tales and ghostly encounters, all collected by "The Editor" who has, over the years,
"come across some extremely curious and interesting narratives,"
some of which "now the see the light for the first time."    While the collection is supposedly compiled from works of anonymous writers, the Editor reveals in the preface that he wasn't really "at liberty" to "give specific names attached to certain facts" that came to his notice "through personal acquaintance with the narrators," so that he could then try to "point out" which were actually real experiences and which were "a germ of reality expanded and coloured in the hands of a practised writer."  He also reveals that some of the writers whose work is represented here did not want publicity "either for personal or family reasons."  I can say that these were all stories I've never read, so it was a serious case of happy camperville for me.  In case no one's noticed yet, I live to find original old tales like these to add to my mental database. 

Many of the dream-based stories are of the type where a dream one day foretells the future of the dreamer; more than one of these involves bilocation of some sort, and these are not limited to sleep-based dreams, either.  As just one example of many, in "Mab: The Woman of the Dream," a young girl staying in a country home goes off one afternoon into a sort of trancelike state in which she "looked more like an automaton than a woman."  During the time she's not in the active world, she is drawing a portrait of a man she's never seen; surprises ensue.   The dream tales don't all run in this particular vein,  but that one begins the collection and it drew me in, immediately whetting my appetite for more.  The best dream story in this book has to be "A Double Event; Or, 200 to 1" in which a poverty-stricken man places his bets on a horse he'd dreamed about, wins, and becomes a slave to the bookies from then on.  Now, years later, he has a chance to redeem himself on a horse that came to him via the same medium and he just knows it's a surefire deal.  But of course, there's a twist here that I never saw coming.  Coincidentally, this one happens to be one of my favorite stories in the book.

While the book is dominated mainly by the dream tales, there are a few ghostly tales here that are top notch.  "Cousin Geoffrey's Chamber" is one of these, a good, old-fashioned spooky story that not only takes place in a big English country house, but also provides a chill when the ethereal encounter leads to the unexpected for the unlucky human involved.  In "The Brand of Cain, Or, What Could it Be?," we find another fine bit o' the creep factor at play as a strange woman  takes up residence in a newly-built home.  A friendship costs this woman plenty, but that's all I will say.

There is much more strangeness to be had in this little book, which will most likely be more of interest to people like me who are very much into the discovery of older tales, most especially as the Editor wrote, those which are now seeing "the light for the first time."  I haven't looked to see if this book is online but if it is, and you don't want to shell out the price for the paperback, it might be one to put in your e-reader's reading queue.  I get that dream stories are pretty old hat now, but hey -- these are definitely worth the read.



Monday, April 16, 2018

Ghostly Tales, by Wilhelmina Fitzclarence

9781241226855
British Library, 2011
originally published 1896, Hutchinson
370 pp

paperback (read earlier)

I'm very grateful to whomever it is at the British Library that makes decisions on which of these old, rather obscure books to reprint and make available to the reading public; what I paid for this book pales in comparison to the selling price of the original, which you can pick up for a mere $1,750 at L.W. Currey, where, incidentally, the photo below came from.  The British Library covers may be dull and unimaginative, but hey ... I don't know about anyone else, but if I had $1,750 to casually spend, it wouldn't be for a single book.

original 1896 edition, courtesy of L.W. Currey
Looking closely at this picture of the original, note that it gives authorship as the Countess of Munster.  According to her page at Author Information of the Victorian Circulating Library, Wilhelmina FitzClarence, Countess of Munster, was born in 1830 in Scotland.  Her mother, Lady Augusta FitzClarence, was the "illegitimate daughter of William IV," and was "a great favorite of the king."  In 1855 she married the second Earl of Munster (her cousin), and went on to have nine children.  She wrote two novels; this book appeared when she was 66.  Much more about her life is recalled here.   The Countess of Munster's stories were allowed to drift into obscurity; it's only been somewhat recently that her work has been rediscovered and anthologized, and now this book is also available in e-reader format and online.

There are eleven stories to be found here, along with original illustrations. And while overall I'm very happy to have found this book and to have it in my library,  let's just say it doesn't fall into the category of ghost-story favorites. 

Ghostly Tales opens with "A Double," about which the author says the names are "fictitious," but everything else is true.  Here, a woman and her daughter Ella are expecting a visitor who is most eager to speak to Ella about her two-year stay in America.  At the time she is expected to receive their guest, a Mrs. Jacks, Ella is supposed to be in London for an appointment. Promising to come back as soon as possible, off she goes, and gets the surprise of a lifetime.  In the next story, "The Ghost of My Dead Friend," also purported to be true, a friendship of "intense affection" carries over "beyond the grave." Then we start getting into more meaty stuff with three ghost stories in a row beginning with "The Tyburn Ghost," in which summertime visitors to London find lodging in a house near Marble Arch, Hyde Park at No. 5 Dash Street. After a dinner of pickled salmon and Welsh rarebit, Mrs. Dale awakens in terror proclaiming that she's just had an encounter with a "horrid putrid-looking face."  Daughter Minny shrugs it off as a case of  mom being "over-tired and nervous," until it happens again -- to her.   Next up is "The Bruges Ghost," which has a most shivery sort of ending but to tell would be to spoil, and at the end of this series of three ghostly tales is "The Page-Boy's Ghost," which plays out in a house in Granville Crescent.  Any of the latter three would be great in an anthology of haunted house stories, and spooky enough for inclusion in any ghost story collection. 



from "The Bruges Ghost," my photo. 
The next story, "Aunt Jean's Story" is very different from what came before, in the sense that it takes on more of a religious tone rather than providing ghostly chills.  It recounts the adventures of a young girl who grows up unwanted and neglected in Auld-Castle in Scotland, her other siblings having all left home as soon as possible and who "never troubled their parents with their presence, unless obliged." She falls in love, but her parents have other plans for her, resulting in tragedy.  The story itself is okay, a bit of an adventure,  but I'm not too keen on the religious aspects that are clearly spelled out here.  "Only a Cat" I didn't even really see a purpose for.  "The Leather Box" makes for great sensation fiction with a touch of exotic flair and lots of weirdness, but definitely NOT ghostly fare.  Considering that this is the longest story in this collection, I find that a bit odd.  Moving on, "Saved" is also a fun tale, gothic in tone, complete with a strange Russian countess who is stepmother to a young and sickly prince, which is followed by a story in which madness, a lunatic asylum and a strange lodge in the forest all combine to make up "A Mauvais Quart d'Heure," in which a young woman finds herself making the decision of a lifetime, one that leaves her haunted for some time afterwards. Finally we come to the end with "A Mysterious Visitor," and I'm saying nothing.

All in all, the actual "ghostly tales" are few, which leads me to wonder exactly why Wilhelmina Fitzclarence settled on the title of her collection, which is misleading at best.  It is a very mixed bag of stories, to be sure.  The joy for me isn't so much the book as a whole, but rather the discovery of yet another obscure Victorian author of strange tales.   Anyone considering this book based on this title may be a bit disappointed, but it has some great moments to be savored.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Stone Dragon and Other Tragic Romances, by Robert Murray Gilchrist

"It has ever been my belief that love, nay, life itself, should terminate at the moment of excess bliss."  -- from "The Noble Courtesan," 108

When the gloves made of human skin first made their appearance in the titular story, "The Stone Dragon," I knew I was going to love this book. And I did. A lot.


Robert Murray Gilchrist (1867-1917 -- you can read about his life here) first appeared on my radar after I read Prince Zaleski, by MP Shiel.  I picked up this book after doing a bit of reading in Brian Stableford's most excellent study Glorious Perversity, and discovered that Stableford added The Stone Dragon and Other Tragic Romances into the mix of his  "most intensely lurid products of English Decadence" between 1893 and 1896, along with Studies of Death, by Count Eric Steinbock, the aforementioned Prince Zaleski, Shapes in the Fire (also by Shiel), and  Machen's The Great God Pan and the Inmost Light (119).   [As an aside,  two months ago I  preordered Of Kings and Things: Strange Tales and Decadent Poems by Count Eric Stanislaus Stenbock, supposedly published in July of this year.  That will be a drop-everything book, for sure.]

the original 1894 cover of this book, from ifsdb 
As the article in Derbyshire Life and Countryside I linked to above states, this book was "initially scantly-praised," but "interest in Gilchrist has revived," with The Stone Dragons and Other Tragic Romances becoming a modern favorite.   That article referred to this book as including "ghost stories, Gothic horror and 'weird tales'"; it also, in my opinion, has a nice Beaudelaire sort of feel (from Les Fleurs du Mal), an eeriness that reminds me of Poe, and in some stories, it reminded me of the French contes cruels that I love so much, since Gilchrist doesn't resort to contrived happy or expected endings.  Au contraire -- his stories, for the most part, reflect the quotation with which I started this post -- "...love, nay, life itself, should terminate at the moment of excess bliss."  This sort of theme is played out time and time again, along with another idea that permeates this book, stated most clearly in the story "Althea Swarthmoor."  He lets us know (in case we haven't figured this out by the time we get to that tale) that we are going to be talking about

"...Passion and of Death, and how they oft walk hand in hand together..."

Considering what happens repeatedly throughout this book, it turns out to be one of the most morbid set of tales I've ever encountered, and the moment I finished I seriously wanted to read it all again.  I didn't, but I really wanted to. 

Here's what's in the book (with just the vaguest of hints but absolutely nothing more):
"The Stone Dragon," in which a domineering aunt reaches out from beyond the grave to continue her control over her nephew via a strange passage in her will.  This story is followed by "The Manuscript of Francis Shackerley," an absolutely stunning and disturbing tale of a husband's revenge.  Next up is "Midsummer Madness," another bizarre tale where a bridegroom learns that "it is well to be mad..." and then there's "The Lost Mistress," a beyond-tragic tale of a man who was "grotesque, even to ugliness" and the woman who once loved him. 

the author, 1903,  from Wikipedia

About "Witch In-Grain" I will say nothing;  "The Noble Courtesan" follows the story of two brothers who had the unfortunate pleasure of the company of the strange woman in the green veil.  Check it out, French contes cruels lovers -- one of the brothers here is named Villiers -- a nod, perhaps, to Villiers L'Isle Adam??  "Althea Swarthmoor" has one of the most hypocritical characters ever in this story, told largely via letters; at this point we turn to a creepy tale whose ending should make anyone gasp, "The Return." That one is followed by another frighteningly weird story called "The Basilisk" about a woman who talks of seeing something in her childhood that turned her to stone. The meaning of that rather curious remark will be made clear later in this tale.  Yet another creepy tale is next, "Dame Inowslad," a perfect late-night read. No details here -- this one you must experience.

Rounding out the remainder of the stories here are "Witherton's Journal," an artist's story and that's all I'll give away;  'My Friend," which is different enough to merit a second read -- here, instead of passion between a man and a woman, we find a "friendship" between two men.  The narrator of the tale reveals that "farther and farther" he had "ventured down the heretical abyss," and given the time frame, well ...  It is an excellent story with some surprises in store.  The last story is "The Pageant of Ghosts," yet another one about which to tell is to spoil.

It's not so much the content of the stories in this book that did it for me, but rather the way in which they are related.  It's hard to convey in words the aesthetic beauty I discovered in the author's writing, since it's sort of a gut thing, but when I'd put the book down it continued to call to me, kind of like a disembodied hand in a floaty sort of darkness waving me back to it each time.  The atmosphere is intense, dark, and eerie to the point where once inside the book I didn't want to leave.  Honestly, it's still haunting me, and it's rare for me to encounter a book that will just not leave my head.  Now here's the caveat -- it's definitely Victorian, meaning that it is not an easy read in terms of prose style.  Another thing: anyone deciding to read this book strictly for its weirdness or hoping for shocking horror may be a bit disappointed.  There are stories that are supernatural in nature, there is a lot of weirdness going on, but for the most part we're looking, as the author tells us in no uncertain terms, for that mingling of "Passion and Death."  Going into it solely with the expectation of a few supernatural thrills is not the reason for picking up this book.  It's well beyond that, and to label it as simply "weird" or "horror" doesn't begin to touch what's in here.

For readers who want more in their reading of the strange, and don't mind having to be patient with the prose, the payoff is immeasurable.

by the way, my copy is the British Library reprint edition (2010), but Valancourt also published The Stone Dragon and Other Tragic Romances as an e-book for those who don't do print any more.



Thursday, March 8, 2018

War With the Newts, by Karel Čapek

0810114682
Northwestern University Press
European Classics, 1999
originally published as Valka s mloky, 1936
translated by M & .R. Weatherall
370 pp

paperback

"... we are all responsible for it."

Anyone who has not yet read this book should run, not walk, to find a copy.  I don't particularly care for apocalyptic fiction but this book is absolutely brilliant.  I'll also argue that although written in the 1930s, it's still highly relevant today in many ways; it's one that can go on the list of "timeless" books, making it a true classic.   It's also the epitome of offbeat, quirky, satirical and sardonic, which puts it squarely in my wheelhouse.  And even as humankind makes its journey toward the end of civilization as we know it, as it continues to sow the seeds of its own destruction,  god help me, I couldn't help but laugh through a huge part of this book.  I'm sitting here giggling with embarrassment  right now thinking how callous that makes me sound, but you really have to read it to understand.

The book chronicles the journey to the "War with the newts" in a sort of documentary style, beginning at the island of Tana Masah "right on the equator, a bit to the west of Sumatra..."  It is there that Captain J. van Toch has sailed, hoping to find a new source of pearl-bearing oysters.  He's told that there is a "strip of coast" where no one will go into the water because of "Sharks, and all the rest," along with "sea devils" which the natives refer to as "Tapa." Eventually he gets one poor guy to get in the water at Devil's Bay, where he comes back not only with oysters but also with reports of "thousands of devils."  These devils are actually salamanders, some "as big as seals."   van Toch gets the idea that if he can "make those lizards tame, and train them, ...they'll bring me the pearl-shells."  He also gets the idea that to fight the shark problem, he'll arm these tapa-boys  with knives.   The captain sees endless possibilities here, and later, back on land, explains to a potential investor that  that if only he had the right kind of ship he could transport these lizards anywhere he liked.  If he could take them and drop them in the ocean here and there...

... and thus it begins.


The author uses a number of different narrative styles to relate the history of the newts and the "steps of civilization"  -- there are personal accounts, scientific (and pseudoscientific) reports, letters, meeting minutes, newspaper cuttings, etc.etc., all in an effort to (as revealed in the introduction) "make his science fiction more lifelike." There are pictures of business cards, handwritten notes, and several changes in typeface that help to achieve that goal.  Čapek

"patterned his narrative on the events of the time, the catchwords, the diplomatic maneuvers, and the advertising slogans, and he made allusions to living people in their work. " (xviii)
It's a great strategy, and it works.  As this sort of documentarized history proceeds, though, it's what's under all of this that really draws our attention -- rampant capitalism on an epic scale.  With the newts, who require very little cost outlay other than food, the world has an unlimited supply of cheap labor:
"They have learned to use machines and numbers... They have omitted from human civilization everything that was without purpose, diverting, fantastic, or ancient; in this way they have left out all that is human, and have taken over only the portion that is practical, technical, and utilitarian."
 The question is at what cost, but I'll leave that for other readers to discover.

It's impossible not to notice parallels with  history up to the time this book was written -- slavery, exploitation, reform movements, immigration, and at the end, you'll get a shocking jolt as you realize what is behind the actual "war with the newts." Careful readers will notice the ongoing foreshadowing of what's to come, so read this book slowly.   At the same time, because of the parallels to our own time, it's also impossible not to realize that this could could have been published in the last decade or so -- hell, it could have been published last week!

Yes, while a book about a war with newts might seem, as one of my friends calls it, "preposterous," there is definitely a method in the author's madness, as well as a lesson to be heeded.  Do yourself a favor and as I said, run, do not walk, to find a copy.



Saturday, March 3, 2018

Terror Tales of Wales (ed.) Paul Finch

9781906331450
Gray Friar Press, 2014
240 pp

paperback


My introduction to this so-far great series of British regional horror tales edited by Paul Finch was the excellent Terror Tales of the Seaside.  Like that one, Terror Tales of Wales is a collection of stories by modern writers of horror with 13(!) brief interludes in between which bring to the table a number of short bits of Welsh/Celtic history, folklore, myths, and legends.
The back-cover blurb tells us that Wales is 
"the cradle of poetry, song and mythic rural splendour. But also a scene of oppression and tragedy, where angry spirits stalk castle and coal mine alike, death-knells sound amid fogbound peaks, and dragons stir in bottomless pools..."
and indeed, many of the stories found in this collection are tied to the Welsh landscape, either on terra firma, in freshwater lakes, or related to the sea.  And, as  in my favorite horror stories, there are a number of  all too-human anxieties that are laid bare here; when those are combined with the mythological, the supernatural,  and the natural elements, the result is a group of stories that move well beyond the standard fare into something much more elevated and well worth reading.

While there are a number of really good stories here, I did have a few favorites, including Reggie Oliver's "Druid's Rest."  I wasn't too far into it before I realized that it read much like Aickman's "The Trains," and then...  If Aickmanesque is any descriptor, this story of two young women seeking shelter from a storm in a closed hotel definitely falls under that heading.   Thana Niveau's "The Face, was also great, a tale in which a photographer whose "favorite place of all to photograph" is the waterfall called Pistyll Rheaedr.    While going through her photos and tagging friends Owain and Gareth at the falls, she is asked by the photo software "who is this?" noting a spot at the top.  She sees no one at all, but the computer insists that there's someone there. When she looks at it in a different way, it's then she sees what might be a face, but might be only a trick of the eye since "nature's full of weird things." She'll get a chance for an up close and personal view when she accompanies Gareth to photograph him climbing the falls when they freeze over.   "Matilda of the Night" by Stephen Volk is another standout, in which a folklorist named Rees gets wind of an elderly woman in a nursing home who swears the Gwrach-y-Rhibyn, whose appearance portends death, has paid a visit, and sure enough, death followed in its wake.  Rees makes a deal with the woman that if he stays with her until she dies, she'll tell him all she knows, but it's deal that will cost him. 



Pistill Rheaedr, from Wikipedia

The remaining stories are also quite good, although I'm still not sure about "Dialedd" by Bryn Fortey, which came off as a piece of dark humor that didn't seem to fit the whole "Terror Tales" connection (in my opinion):


"Under the Windings of the Sea" by Ray Cluley
"Old as the Hills," by Steve Duffy
"Swallowing a Dirty Seed," by Simon Clark
"Don't Leave Me Down Here," by Steve Lockley
"The Sound of the Sea," by Paul Lewis
"The Flow," by Tim Lebbon
"The Offspring," by Steve Jordan
"The Rising Tide" by Priya Sharma
"Apple of their Eyes," by Gary Fry
"Learning the Language", by John Llewellyn Probert


I have three unread "Terror Tales" books on my shelves and am slowly picking up the rest until I have the complete set.  They're worth whatever I'll pay since not only are these deliciously nightmarish, but they're also a great example of the work of modern horror writers who definitely know how to ply their craft.  The idea of grounding an entire body of work in regional horror is just brilliant.




Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Demons of the Night: Tales of the Fantastic, Madness, and the Supernatural from Nineteenth-Century France (ed.) Joan Kessler

0226432084
University of Chicago Press, 1995
326 pp

paperback

And it's back to France once again with this stunning collection of tales, nine of which are newly translated by the book's editor, Joan Kessler.

A few days ago I was asked by someone about the similarity between the "scare elements" of French tales like these and those I'd find in an American collection from the same time period.  Well, for one thing, I'm not overly familiar with American stories of the same period, but for another thing, I have to admit being thrown off by this question, so I borrowed from Terry Hale in his introduction to  The Dedalus Book of French Horror: The 19th-Century, trying to explain that it depends on who you read and when they wrote as to what you're going to find in their work:
"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)
I also noted that Hale  suggested that it was "the psychological insight of Poe" that stood as the "original impetus" for "contes cruels" while, as he stated, the "contes fantastiques" of the sort that are in this collection, were inspired by E.T.A. Hoffman, "the literary lion" who "introduced a range of themes, ideas and narrative techniques" that helped to "renew" these sorts of tales, which would "remain in vogue" over seven decades. (31) 

There are many other factors that go into the making of these tales, much too lengthy to list and to explain in a nutshell;  I hope  my short answer was  understandable.  What I didn't say is that I don't really approach any of these stories to be hit with the "scare element" -- that's not at all why I read them.  If the frisson of terror climbs up my spine now and then, hooray, but I look at my reading of the works of these authors as a way of discovering how they each engaged with past and contemporary anxieties as well as themselves.

Ms. Kessler says of these authors in her introduction that
"Their works repeatedly probe the subject of the unconscious, often through the metaphor of the divided self or the landscape of dream and madness.  As they gravitate toward those areas of experience inaccessible to rational understanding, they actually lead us to a more complete notion of our own minds, with their web of tangled, contradictory motivations and impulses."

Briefly and with no more than short annotations from me here, there are thirteen fantastic tales in Demons of the Night, appropriately led by Charles Nodier's "Smarra, or Demons of the Night" (1821).  I had read a Dedalus book some time back called Smarra and Trilby, two tales written by this author and neglected to post because of time; his Infernaliana is waiting to be read on my Kindle.   "Smarra" takes the reader immediately into the realm of dreams, but wait -- there are dreams within dreams, with the only real anchors to be found in this multi-layered story at the beginning and end, and even then there is a big question that needs asking.   In this case it isn't necessary, but it would be very helpful to be familiar with The Golden Ass by Apuleius; I had to give it a read before I could finish my first go round with this story.   Next up comes Balzac's "The Red Inn" which is absolutely great.  The overall meaning of the tale will become clear as you read it, but the getting there involves one man whose thoughts about committing a particularly heinous crime become a reality -- but when the deed is done, he can't remember doing it.  Obviously there's more, but you won't hear it from me. Balzac is followed by "The Venus of Ille" by Prosper Mérimée,  which starts out with a sort of MR James vibe before it gets positively dark and deliciously creepy, with an ending I swear I'll never forget.   This story is followed by two absolutely delightful tales by Théophile Gautier, "The Dead in Love" (aka "Clarimonde) and "Arria Marcella."  In the first, which I can only describe as a story of a man with a divided self, a priest finds himself mesmerized by a beautiful woman at the exact moment he is to take holy orders; in the second, a trip to a museum to view artifacts of Pompeii leads one man to the woman of his dreams.   "The Dead in Love" will hold you spellbound until the last word -- it's also one that requires a lot of thought in the long run for more under-the-surface readers.




from La Plume et Le Rouleau

Continuing on we find Alexandre Dumas with his "The Slap of Charlotte Corday," which I'd already read in One Thousand and One GhostsThis piece reiterates the absolutely riveting story of Solange so don't miss it.   Next up is my favorite piece of writing in the entire book, de Nerval's rather poignant "Aurélia, or Dream and Life"This story, which was written during several stints in different asylums, has been studied left, right, and upside down, and because of the depth and the richness of what's in this story, a number of different interpretations have emerged.  I'll just give a little teaser from the Introduction, in which the editor notes that "The narrator-protagonist's plunge into madness is depicted as a journey into the self..." and here, I'll add that it's a story that touches on the connection between his own madness and his mythologized dream life, without saying anything else.  Sadly, shortly after he'd written this story, de Nerval committed suicide.   Following de Nerval is Jules Verne's "Master Zacharius" that reminded me in a big way of the work of Hoffman.  It follows the story of a master clockmaker whose clocks begin to slow down and stop working; he will, before all is said and done,  become engaged in a struggle for very his soul.  I can't remember where I read it, but someone writing about this story referred to it as an examination of the "power-hungry" side of science, and that's about right. Considering much of Verne's other work, well, no surprise there. 



Coming into the home stretch, we start with two stories from an author whose work I love, Villiers de l'Isle Adam, "The Sign," which takes us into the zone of uncanny coincidence, and "Véra," a story of a "love-obsessed" husband continuing on with his life after the death of his wife.   This one is very well done, pushing the envelope between reality and illusion to the very last word.  Supernatural? You be the judge.    Two tales of madness follow from another favorite author, Guy de Maupassant: his most well-known story, "The Horla," and his "Who Knows?"  I'm not going to discuss either of these but I will say that for me the joy in reading this author's work is that I find myself thinking "it could be this" or "it could be that," and realizing that my head is potentially getting as messed up as de Maupassant's protagonists who strive for rational explanations of strange phenomena.  By the time I'd finished these two stories, I felt so off-kilter that I had to seriously put this book down.   Personally, I think this man was a genius writer whose work ought to be read by everyone with an interest in the darker side of the human psyche.  Last, but by no means least, we have Marcel Schwob with his strange tale "The Veiled Man," which takes place entirely in a small train compartment.  I'll just say that it is quite possible that beneath the story he gives us there is an entirely different version.

Overall, this has proved to be another favorite book, one that I can absolutely without any hesitation recommend to all.  I get that French literature of the 19th century isn't everybody's thing, and also, if you're looking for something solely to scare the bejeezus out of you, this just may not be it.  These stories are things of beauty, not something you read simply in the hope of getting a few chills up your spine, although it happens quite a bit here.   Beyond great, really; I live to find collections like this one.