Saturday, June 2, 2018

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

NYRB Classics, 2018
341 pp


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

Word Horde, 2015
225 pp


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

Valancourt Books, 2017
originally published 1944
261 pp


"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

Underland Press, 2018
226 pp


"...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


"...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: 

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

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 -- ", 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

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


"... 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

Gray Friar Press, 2014
240 pp


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

University of Chicago Press, 1995
326 pp


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. 

Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, by Jan Potocki

Penguin, 1996
originally published 1814
translated by Ian Maclean
631 pp


Believe it or not, the moment I turned the last page I wanted to read this book again.  Given its 600-plus pages, that says a lot, and I ended up not rereading it, but I very easily could have.    I loved this book and I loved the people in it, but I spent most of the time in awe of the author's imagination.

I will say right up front that this book will not be for everyone. It can be  incredibly challenging because of the way it is written as a set of stories within stories within stories, which are often stopped and picked up again later rather than just finished at once, which in a couple of cases may require some backtracking. Reader expectations also play a role here.  For example, I was reading Amazon reviews and came across one from a very disappointed reader who said that he was upset because he'd started this book with the expectation of a "fantasy work" but instead ended up with literary fiction.  No comment on that one, but my point is that it's best to just go into it without any preconceived notions, because really, there's so much going on between these covers and so many different literary styles used here that to give it any sort of label would just flat out be folly. As the back cover blurb says, it's "entertainment on an epic scale," and really, that's how I'd approach it.  In short, relax and go with the flow and you will be rewarded.

The novel begins with the discovery of a set of several handwritten notebooks, all written in Spanish. The French army officer who is in Saragossa at the time of its capitulation in 1809 found them, and held on to them. Later, after leaving Saragossa, he is taken prisoner by the Spanish, and stripped of all possessions.  He begs to be able to keep these notebooks, and is given permission by the captain to do so once the captain realizes that this manuscript "contained the history of his ancestors."  The prisoner did much of his time at the captain's home, where the captain translated the work into French, while the prisoner took down every word.  The manuscript, as it turns out, is the story of young Alphonse van Worden, an officer in the Walloon Guards who has been ordered to Madrid.   In trying to find the shortest route, he ends up in the Sierra Morena between Andalusia and La Mancha. It is an area known for brigands, gypsies, smugglers and other bad types, but Alphonse has no fear, and takes no heed.  As he makes his way through the area, he comes across the deserted inn known as the Venta Quemada, and it's here that this tale really begins.  Eventually he will find himself in the company of several others, where they all share their stories.  It is Alphonse's journey through the Sierra Morena and these shared experiences that make up this novel; to say more would just be wrong.

The back-cover blurb reveals that these tales consist partly of "characters transformed through disguise, magic and illusion," and that idea, more than any other, plays out over and over again throughout this book.  One such story made me laugh out loud, but there are spots of humor everywhere. Also found here are stories that date back to the days of Cleopatra, stories filled with arcane and esoteric lore, lots of erotic moments, political intrigue based on historical fact; there are demons, ghosts, and the Holy Inquisition; there isn't a dull moment anywhere.  It truly is "entertainment on an epic scale."  At the same time, I can see a sort of method in this author's madness in the way he tells this story, which I won't discuss here because it would involve spoilers.

It's hard to describe this book in a succinct, general one-size-fits-all kind of way since it is different things to different people.  For example,  as some have said, it can be "an encyclopedia of the dark side of the European Enlightenment," a gothic tale, an "absurd, through-the-looking glass version of Spain under the Inquisition," as one scholar noted (do NOT go to that link until after finishing the book), a kabbalistic text (don't go there either), or a play on Tales From the Thousand and One Nights.  It's very easy to see all of those ideas combined in this book, especially in hindsight, but there are places in my notebook where I've marked instances of all of these and more while reading.

I loved it -- others may not share my experience, but it's one of those rare books that left me with a sense of loss after finishing it, knowing I'd come to the end.  Each and every second with this book was just pure reading bliss.

Monday, January 29, 2018

The Invention of Morel, by Adolfo Bioy Casares -- a genius novel if ever there was one.

NYRB Classics, 2003
originally published 1940, as La invención de Morel
translated by Suzanne Jill Levine
103 pp

paperback (read earlier this month)

"The habits of our lives make us presume that things will happen in a certain foreseeable way, that there will be a vague coherence in the world."  -- 65

At 103 pages, one would think this book would be a very easy read, but that just isn't the case. It demands a second read (which I did) and probably a third (which I didn't do); its brevity belies the great  depth that the author has brought to this story.

There's not much I can say here without giving away the twist in this book, so this post will be a short one.  Casares has combined a number of different elements here that together don't really allow for The Invention of Morel to be pigeonholed into a single genre -- there are elements of suspense, sci-fi,  metaphysics, philosophy and even romance, so to try to give it a label is foolhardy at best. It is also dark, weird and great all rolled together.

A fugitive escaping from Venezuela with "a life so unbearable" has made his way to an island somewhere in the Pacific. It is a place where Chinese pirates will not go, nor will it ever be visited by "the white ship of the Rockefeller Institute" because it is "known to be the focal point of a mysterious disease."  A group of people had landed there in 1924 and then left it, after having built a museum, a chapel, and a swimming pool. The narrator is completely alone, isolated from the rest of humanity.  But then, everything changes, as he discovers that there are other people on this island.  He takes to watching them as they interact, taking a "certain fascination" in doing so since it had been a very long time since he'd seen anyone at all; he is also worried that they might discover him and deliver him to the authorities.  After a time, the fugitive begins to take the most notice of one of their number, a woman, Faustine, who "watches the sunset every afternoon."  Watching her changes his attitude from one of "nothing to hope for" to its opposite; he decides to make contact with her, risking his freedom in doing so.  It is, as he says, a move that could easily send him back to his past, but he's willing to do it because, as he says, "anything would be preferable to the utter purgatory" he lives in now.  Everything takes off from the point at which he actually works up the courage to speak to her but finds himself ignored, as if he doesn't exist.

original illustration, from the novel -- Faustine

To go any further plotwise would involve key spoilers, and if I say any more there wouldn't be a point in anyone reading this book so we'll stop here. Casares poses a multitude of metaphysical questions in this very short work, which, with apologies I also won't disclose for fear of ruining things;  he also makes some interesting social and political observations vis a vis the narrator's interest in Malthusian theory.  Let's just say that it is one of the best and certainly one of the most surreal stories I've ever read, and to say that it was unputdownable would be an understatement.  ARRGGHHH!  It's SO frustrating not to be able to talk about this book because it's THAT good and I want to spill my guts because it is THAT good.  But my hands are tied and my lips are sealed.

oh well. Just read it and you'll see exactly what I mean.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Thus Were Their Faces, by Silvina Ocampo

NYRB, 2015
stories originally published between 1937 and 1988
translated by Daniel Balderston
354 pp


"The people we hate the most are the ones we have entrusted with all of our secrets. When we are in their presence we can't change our soul. They are always there to remind us what we were like."
                   -- from "Cornelia Before the Mirror,"  342

Just after the introduction to this book by author Helen Oyeyemi, the editors of this volume have  included a brief preface by Jorge Luis Borges in which he reveals that Silvina Ocampo had a "strange taste for a certain kind of innocent and oblique cruelty."  He also says that she has the "virtue" of "clairvoyance," and that she "sees us as if we were made of glass, sees and forgives us"  and perhaps that is a part of why I found this book to be so unsettling, but I think that one of the creepiest things about this book is that quite often, we find ourselves looking at the world from a child's point of view which is surprisingly not quite as innocent as one would think.

Thus Were Their Faces is a compilation of short stories taken from seven of Ocampo's books  published between 1937 and 1988.  It doesn't take long at all to realize that you have landed in a different territory, beginning with my favorite story of this collection, "The Impostor."  While it has a certain gothic flavor, this story of a young student sent for a few weeks to live with a family friend completely draws the reader deeper and deeper into a much darker zone -- that of the human psyche. In truth, a sort of very quiet hum of madness runs through many of these stories, one that isn't quite apparent on the outside but which  slowly makes itself heard the more into each tale you wander.   I'm not going to go into any sort of in-depth descriptions about any of these stories, but in this book, anything can and does happen.  She doesn't spare the cruelty:  murder and death abound in many different and bizarre forms, long-term resentments turn into breaking points that materialize in different guises, and the stories that focus on memory, prophecy, and dreams are not without their deeper, darker edges.  Most are set among venues that in and of themselves are rather mundane and harmless; the challenge presented here is for the reader to occupy the minds of the people who inhabit those spaces, since in the long run, what we see from our outsider-looking-in perspective is completely different from what they see. While we may view what's happening with these characters as strange and bizarre, they want and need us to believe otherwise.  It takes a while to come to this realization, and once you're there, it becomes a rather disorienting reading experience that in my case left me with the feeling of being off kilter during most of my time spent between the covers of this book.

Reading strictly for plot is kind of beyond the point here, so readers who have to have every single thing explained are probably going to be lost and will probably not like this book.  It is yet another work that is a mind-stretching experience for people who want to move beyond the norm and who are looking for something that demands quite a bit more out of themselves as readers -- challenging, yes, but the payoff comes from immersing yourself in some of the best writing ever.  On the back cover of my book there's a brief statement from Borges in which he says that "Silvina Ocampo is one of our best writers. Her stories have no equal in our literature," and he's absolutely correct. While he was referring to writers from Latin America, I think what he says about her stories having "no equal" is absolutely spot on.  It is a beautifully-written collection that will linger on in my mind for a very, very long time.

Monday, January 22, 2018

You really have to love this guy: The Unfortunate Fursey, and The Return of Fursey, by Mervyn Wall

Say hello to Fursey, who really is one of the most unfortunate yet lovable characters one can possibly come across in a novel, or in this case, a pair of novels written by Irish author Mervyn Wall. Set in Ireland near the end of the tenth century, it all begins here in The Unfortunate Fursey, in which the monastery at Clonmacnoise is beset by demons

Valancourt Books, 2017
originally published 1946
paperback, 215 pp

after its "defences had been breached" one day.  The Abbot warns the community that "the Evil One" has made his way into their midst, and indeed, as the brethren are besieged for fifteen days of terror, they are finally able to expel the forces of darkness  with exorcisms, "the smell of incense, the splashing of holy water and the sound of the Latin language."   The demons are unable to remain anywhere in the monastery with the exception of  the cell of Brother Fursey, whose speech impediment rendered him unable to say the right words to get rid of them.  His cell thus becomes their sanctuary; to save the monastery it is decided that Fursey must be expelled.  After asking the Devil for advice, Fursey sets off for the "fine big city" of Cashel, where the first of his many adventures begins.  Sadly, for our hero, he finds himself constantly caught between the world of sorcery and the Church, and truthfully, the question here is which of the two is the most evil?  

 Jacket illustration of The Unfortunate Fursey from the Swan River Press edition, by Jesse Campbell-Brown.  From Behance

This picaresque saga is continued in the second book, The Return of Fursey

Valancourt Books, 2017
originally published 1948
paperback, 204 pp

which finds Fursey in exile in England where his quiet, cozy life as a grocer has been interrupted; he is now being sought for extradition back to Ireland.  He doesn't want to be forcefully brought back, but he does have a reason for wanting to return to his native land (which I can't reveal without giving away the show) so with the help of a crazy and bloodthirsty band of Vikings, he eventually gets there.  However, it is a very different Fursey this time around, and while the humor is still very much alive and kicking, his story takes a much darker turn in this volume.   Fursey once again finds himself "ensnared" on all sides; how he deals with the several forces contending for his soul is the meat and bones of this tale.  I think it would also be safe to say that both books reveal a man trying to come to terms with discovering his true nature, which is tested often and in many different ways.  

It's so hard to try to describe these two books without taking the spoiler route, and really, to reveal anything would be to ruin the joy for anyone who may want to read these books for the first time.  Underneath all of the humor there runs a dark streak involving the Catholic Church; aside from religion Wall also has plenty to say about politics and human nature itself.   In short, there is method to the author's madness, making for a great (and often laugh-out-loud) reading experience for people who want something well beyond today's standard fantasy fare.   One more thing: I'd advise saving Michael Dirda's excellent introduction until after finishing these novels. 

I fell in love with Fursey from the outset because he's sort of a hapless kind of guy, but as Wall brings his saga to a close in The Return of Fursey, I realized I'd grown so attached to Fursey that I was sad to see it all come to an end.  Both books are awesome silliness on one level; on another they contain a very serious tale that really got underneath my skin and will stay there for some time.  I can't recommend these two books highly enough.   To say I loved them would be an understatement. 

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Soul of Countess Adrian, by Rosa Campbell Praed

CreateSpace, 2017
originally published 1891
152 pp


"Soul somehow was the last attribute one would associate with Countess Adrian."   -- 23

This book was meant to be part of my "brain break" after a very full 2017 reading year, but the "brain break" idea sort of backfired.  Not that it isn't fun, and not that it isn't an easy read, but as I discovered, there's plenty of food for thought in this short novel  that takes place among the "upper Bohemia" set in London.  If you google the title, you may find the word "vampire" used more than once, but don't get your hopes up for the blood-sucking variety -- that's not exactly where Praed takes this story.  It is, as my edition's back-cover blurb states, "A tale where love and the occult collide;" the "vampire kiss" is only a part of a much larger picture.

Information about Rosa Campbell-Praed's life can be found here at the website for the National Library of Australia.  In terms of her interest in the supernatural, the article reveals that after she'd married, she and her husband were living on an "almost uninhabited"  Curtis Island, off the coast of Queensland where he owned a cattle station.  Often feeling isolated and lonely, we are told in this article that
"At her lowest and loneliest moments on Curtis Island, Rosa turned to her dead mother for help. The message of hope she received, she recorded in automatic writing ... This was the first step in what was to become, in later life, an almost overwhelming interest in the supernatural in its many forms, from the messages of mediums, the predictions of astrologers, spiritualism, occultism, theosophy, reincarnation, as well as the Catholic religion."
 She may be most familiar to readers as the author of the short story "The Bunyip," which has been anthologized several times.

Rosa Campbell Praed from from Amazon

Our story, as I said, is set in the milieu of "upper Bohemia," where
"...mummers, novelists, poets, artists, dilettanti members of parliament, and sensation-hunting visitants from a more aristocratic sphere, made a brave show in the spacious drawing rooms."
It is a place of "at-homes," and it is at one of these gatherings that we first encounter Countess Adrian.  The new girl in town, also at the same gathering is young Beatrice Brett, an American woman and aspiring actress, to whom we are first introduced as she makes the crossing from New York to Southampton.  It is there that she encounters the painter Bernard Lendon, who is taken with her immediately.  These three characters comprise the "He, She, and Another -- the triangle of the human drama!" at the center of this novel.

I don't really want to give away too much of what happens in this book but while it's a fun novel of the occult on its surface, populated with a number of strange characters, in this story it's really about what's happening underneath.   Beatrice (aka Beaty)  is a vulnerable, innocent young woman, with whom the upper Bohemian set is quite taken.  She is a medium as well as an actress with the ability to channel spirits which provide her with "inspiration" for her unscripted performances, during which  Beatrice becomes "unconscious of herself, unconscious of her surroundings."  Beaty's mother evidently shared the same gift, but the "influences" that inspire Beaty drove her mother insane.  As Beaty's uncle reveals, she was an "idle woman," but Beaty's safeguard is acting:  "As long as she keeps real grip on her work she has nothing to be afraid of."  As her uncle also reveals, Beaty has a certain form of  "genius,"
"... the unconscious power of access to the highest influences of the past - a power as rare as are the Talmas and the Siddons themselves. It's the open door through which these bodiless beings from the other side can enter into our world again - the body by which they can vent their unsatisfied cravings and pent-up aspirations." (29)
Beaty at one point reveals to Lendon that she often feels as though she has no soul of her own; that when she is inspired while doing a part, it is
"the soul of someone else which has come in to the help of mine, or has driven mine out for the moment," 
She also knows that any power that she might have as "great actress" would lie in the power of these spirits, "ghosts" as she calls them,  a situation which Lendon compares with the legend of Paganini's violin:
"...Paganini had contrived, by some unearthly arts, to conjure the soul of his dying sweetheart into his violin, and that marvellous (sic) music which the instrument gave out ever after was the wail of the soul eternally imprisoned within it."  
Beatrice lives for her art; love is not in the cards for her immediate future and she has no "room for any slighter affection," since she is sure that any man "would be jealous of my Art," and that there would "hardly be space enough" in her life for both.

   In contrast to the vulnerable Beatrice stands Countess Adrian. Born in Jamaica, she is the exotic "other" in this case,  a woman whose obvious sexuality, passion and very presence reveal a strength capable of mesmerizing those with whom she comes into contact, and I don't use the word "mesmerizing" lightly. She has a checkered past that keeps her as a hot topic of gossip in the drawing rooms of upper Bohemia; she also has a strange yet personal interest in Theophile Gautier's Avatar, the "vampire spirits" of "Sheridan Le Fanu's story," and the teachings of the occultist Maddox Challis, a friend of Beatrice's family.   In the first encounter between the two women, the Countess, who is  watching Beatrice perform one of her improvisations for the first time, interrupts the spirit flow in a most unusual way, as if she were "quenching the girl's inspiration and forcing her soul back to the commonplace." When the connection is broken, Beatrice suffers a minor breakdown.   Beatrice understands completely that this woman has some strange power over her and asks Lendon to be there for her to stand between herself and the Countess; Lendon humors her and speaks to the Countess, but what Lendon views as "fancy," is for Beatrice a true life-threatening situation.

 As Andrew McCann notes in his excellent book Popular Literature, Authorship and The Occult in Late Victorian Britain,  Praed's story can be viewed in part as
"an account of the aesthetic as a background for opposed sensibilities, each a form of possession," (126)
and there's much,  much more going on as well for those who want to explore underneath its surface.  I had  great fun with it both times through. But most intriguing is this: there is a very short line I missed in the first reading,   in one scene where Lendon and the Countess are talking, where she says that she and "this Agnes Adrian had "gone through a good deal together."  It begs the question of not only who or what is this Countess Adrian, but also, if indeed, she ever had a soul.

Readers of gothic, supernatural and Victorian sensation novels will enjoy this book; I definitely recommend it.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

and another by Andrew Michael Hurley, Devil's Day

John Murray, 2017
295 pp

"Like salt boiled out of water, these things remain. Everything else has evaporated."

read in December

Andrew Michael Hurley is a gifted author; there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that I will be reading every book this man writes.  He has this uncanny ability to bring nature and landscape to life to the point where they are inextricably bound to plot and characters.  The Loney  is a perfect example of how he does this, and he's managed it once again here, in Devil's Day, set in a remote farming village in Northern Lancashire.

The book starts out with a bang.  As the back cover blurb reveals, "All stories in the valley have to begin with the Devil,"  and this one is no exception:
"One late October day, just over a century ago, the farmers of the Endlands went to gather their sheep from the woods as they did every autumn. Only this year, while the shepherds were pulling a pair of wayward lambs from a peat bog, the Devil killed one of the ewes and tore off her fleece to hide himself among the flock." 
According to the legend, the Devil moved down among "the heathen folk of the Endlands," to become "the maggot in the eye of the good dog, the cancer that rotted the ram's gonads, the blood in the baby's milk."  There are hundreds of stories that can be told about this place, but as our narrator, John Pentecost, reveals,
"The problem is that in the Endlands one story begs the telling of another and another and in all of them the Devil plays his part."
Things pick up from this point, beginning with the return of John to his family home for the funeral of his grandfather that everyone called "The Gaffer."  He has brought his pregnant wife Kat with him; they plan to stay on for the traditional "Devil's Day" celebration, which is built on more rural myth about the "Owd Feller" being driven away for another year, and return to their normal lives once everything is over.  However, a number of strange things begin to happen during their stay there that defy explanation, leading the reader to ponder whether they're of this world, or whether the Owd Feller has put on his fleece once again and taken his place among these people.

from Bibleblenders

At the very core of this story, which completely envelops the reader in the Endlands, its mythologies, and its history, is John's return home.  Watching his father trying to manage the family farm under adverse conditions  after the death of the Gaffer tugs at something within him that had been trying to surface since John and Kat's wedding.   And while this book definitely has all of the trappings of a horror or supernatural tale, it comes down to a question of family ties and tradition, memory, and the legacy of one's ancestors. As in The Loney, the author once again does his beautiful thing with opposites, to explore tradition and change, insiders and those who don't belong, as well as a number of other issues that crop up throughout the story.  He also sets up the narrative to move between present and past as he explores the secrets held in this place.

I can't really explain in writer or reviewer terms (because I'm neither -- just an average reader person) the depth that this man can reach in his writing but his ability to get there is, for me, what sets him apart from a number of writers at work these days.  When I said above that he "envelops the reader," I meant exactly that.  I'm there in the Endlands and I'm just as steeped in rural mythology/tradition as the locals. I felt the cold during the big snowstorm.  On and on.   Now, having said that, I felt that the pace of this novel was just plain dragging in parts -- it starts out so well and is so lovely, and then it slows to where a snail could have traveled the distance of the Endlands before things picked up again.  And then there's the constant telegraphing of  John and Kat's future (no surprise there) and as I'd waited for an explanation of how all that came about, I was rather disappointed that it was all tied up in a few paragraphs.  To add to my disappointment, the story of John's boyhood was rather obvious in how things were all going to turn out -- it was almost to the point where I'm just like "get it over already, since I know what's going to happen."  On the other hand, the big secret that lies at the bottom of what happens in this book was well done, and completely unexpected, and added a new dimension to several questions I had while reading.

So I'm sort of torn -- I love the writing, I love the central focus of this book, I love the landscape.  I wasn't exactly enamored of parts of this story, which I thought could have been handled better. What can I say? I'm a picky audience.  However, yes to recommending this book, because this man is an author to keep an eye on, and no one should bypass the first two novels or any that he plans to write in the future. I don't often find novelists I admire this much, and even though I had issues with Devil's Day, in the long run it's all about the writing for me.