Sunday, December 22, 2019

time to gather 'round the yuletide fire ... Spirits of the Season: Christmas Hauntings (ed.) Tanya Kirk

9780712352529
British Library, 2019
318 pp

paperback

Not to steal thunder from either this book or the British Library, but ever since Valancourt came out with their first Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories, I've sort of made it my yearly mission to read this type of thing around Christmas time, in a very small way carrying on a tradition which, as the editor of this volume notes, began orally, changing to print in the early 1820s.   (Speaking of Valancourt, Dr. Tara Moore, who edited the above-mentioned book,  also offers her thoughts on the matter in a 2018 podcast, which you can find here.)

As you will notice from the cover photo, this is yet another volume included in the British Library Tales of the Weird series, of which I have become a huge fangirl.  Believe it or not,  I've actually had this book in my possession since August, but through sheer willpower I somehow managed to put off reading it until now, not an easy task.  The good news is that it was completely worth the wait.  Many hours of pure reading pleasure are to be found here, and I'm not exaggerating.  The stories in Spirits of the Season are all somehow connected to events that occur around Christmas time,  and of the fourteen stories in this book, I had previously read only five: "The Four-Fifteen Express," by Amelia B. Edwards (1867), "Number Ninety," by B.M. Croker (1895), E. Nesbit's "The Shadow" from 1905,  "The Kit-Bag," by Algernon Blackwood (1908), and "Smee," by A.M. Burrage (1929), leaving nine new-to-me tales to discover, which is always a good thing.

One thing I suppose I ought to mention is that not all of these tales are ghost stories per se; as the title suggests, they are "Christmas hauntings," with more than just the shadow of the supernatural hanging over them.    Another thing I should say is that it seems as if not all of these stories were written with a mind to scaring the pants off the reader, as evidenced by "The Curse of the Catafalques," by F. Anstey (1882), Frank Stockton's "The Christmas Shadrach" (1891), and most especially "The Demon King," by J.B. Priestly (1931), in which one particular scene had me absolutely giggling out loud.  I think it's perfectly fine when good, supernaturally-tinged stories don't always end up on the scarier side;  I also think that it's a pity that people often dismiss them simply because they didn't get the fright they expected, often missing the underlying points of the story.  But enough of that.




from The Telegraph

My candidate for best story in this volume is M.R. James' "The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance" from 1913.  From what I gather while researching this one, it isn't among the most popular of James' stories -- more's the pity since it's quite the shocker.  As the story begins,  W.R., the narrator of this tale, writes to his brother Robert that he is unable to join him for the Christmas holidays because it seems that their uncle the Rector has disappeared, and that he has been called to join in the search for the missing curate.  After a few days with no results and the police having left town,  W.R. begins to accept the inevitable.  In writing to his brother on Christmas day,  he tells of a "bagman" he encountered who shares his thoughts on a "capital Punch and Judy Show" that W.R. must not miss "if it comes" ... which, in a way, it does all too soon, just not in the way one would expect.  No antiquaries here.   Read this one slowly, savor it,  read it again, resavor.



The full table of contents is as follows, with starred titles new to me:

"The Four-Fifteen Express," by Amelia B. Edwards -- anthologized many times, but well worth the time once again

* "The Curse of the Catafalques," by F. Anstey -- snerk

* "Christmas Eve on a Haunted Hulk," by Frank Cowper, in which a man gets lost while duck hunting and lives through a horrific night

* "The Christmas Shadrach," by Frank R. Stockton.  Light, a bit silly, but edging on the strange side with purpose. Beware of what you might find in a curio shop...

"Number Ninety" by B.M. Croker, one of my favorite ghost story writers; here the action takes place in a house no one will rent no matter how low the cost

"The Shadow," by E. Nesbit, another sad tale by this author

"The Kit-Bag," by Algernon Blackwood -- after a long court case involving a killer with a "dreadful face," the private secretary of the legal firm involved decides it's time for a vacation.  Whether or not he'll get his kit-bag packed beforehand is another story. 

* "The Story of a Disappearance and An Appearance," by M.R. James

* "Boxing Night" by EF Benson, in which dreams play the major role -- another example of the underlying story here being worth much more than the potential scare

* "The Prescription," by Marjorie Bowen -- although a wee bit predictable, still very much worth the read

* "The Snow," by Hugh Walpole, in which a wife learns the hard way that she should have listened to someone else's advice.    

"Smee," by A.M. Burrage, a favorite of the Christmas ghost story circuit, with very good reason. 

* "The Demon King," by J.B. Priestley -- the "stolid Bruddersford crowd" definitely gets its money's worth  and more during a pantomime and the Happy Yorkshire Lasses make their debut dance appearance 

* "Lucky's Grove," by H.R. Wakefield.   This story came in second in my personal favorites lineup.  The Braxtons'  land agent finds and cuts down the perfect tree for their family Christmas celebration; unfortunately, no one bothered to tell him that he shouldn't have taken it from Lucky's Grove.  A fine story this one, so much so that I'm actually considering buying a copy of the old Arkham House edition of The Clock Strikes Twelve to read more of Wakefield's work. 



from the Library of Congress


 Spirits of the Season makes for great Yuletide reading, but if you missed it this holiday season, not to worry.  It can be enjoyed just as much any time of the year, and for true fans of these old stories -- the famous and the "unjustly obscure" -- it is a definite no-miss.  Editor Tanya Kirk has certainly made some excellent choices for inclusion here, and they are very much appreciated by this reader.


Just one more thing: for those who may not know, Ms.  Kirk also has another volume of stories called The Haunted Library, which picks up many stories that have never been anthologized.  Buy button clicked.  Expect more on that book to come later.


Sunday, December 15, 2019

Tales of the Tattooed: An Anthology of Ink (ed.) John Miller

9780712353304
British Library, 2019
317 pp

paperback

Each time I take one of these books off the shelf, I know I'm in for a few hours of reading pleasure.   I bought my copy at Book Depository since the American publication isn't scheduled until July of 2020 (as if I could wait that long);  should anyone decide to pick up a copy there, it also says that the publication date is July 2020 but it shows as being available, with copies sent out within two business days. 

Admittedly, the majority of tales in this book trend less toward what I'd personally consider as weird and more toward pulpy crime fiction (albeit some with a strange edge); given the focal point of tattoos I would have thought there would be plenty more to be found on the weirder side.  Having said that, the stories themselves are entertaining enough; they also, as Miller states in his introduction, "emerge from an intriguing window in tattooing's history."   How that works I'll leave to the reader to discover, but I have to say I was surprised more than once. 

The table of contents reads as follows; the starred titles are my favorites:

"Two Delicate Cases," by James Payn (1882)
"The Green Phial," by TW Speight (1887) *
"A Marked Man," by WW Jacobs (1901) 
"The Tattoo," by Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews (1909)
"The Tattooer," by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki (1910)**  
"The Background," by Saki (1911)
"The Tattooed Leg," by John Chilton (1919)*
"Branded," by Albert Payson Terhune (1919)
"The Tattooed Eye," by Arthur P. Hankins (1920)
"The Starfish Tattoo," by Arthur Tuckerman (1921)
"The Secret Tattoo," by Frederick Ames Coates (1927)
"The Tattooed Card," by William E. Barrett (1937)
"Skin," by Roald Dahl (1957)*


While not exactly on my favorites list, the opening story gave me my first jolt in the form of a woman who comes to a doctor to have a tattoo removed.  I've read a lot of Victorian fiction, but this is the first time I've read about an obviously well-to-do woman of position who opts to have a tattoo inscribed upon her skin.  I was away and unplugged from the world at the time I read this book, but on the basis of this part of the story alone, as soon as I got home I had to buy one of the sources listed at the end of Miller's introduction, Bodies of Subversion: A  Secret History of Women and Tattoo by Margot Mifflin.  Yes, I am that geeky.    "The Green Phial" is an eerie blend of weird and murder mystery, beginning with a "singular and very vivid dream."  The dreamer, Langholme, is convinced that the tattooed man he encountered in his dream had a similar dream in which he played a role in Langholme's.  When by chance (?) Langholme and his friend run into this tattooed man, Langholme seeks proof that such is the case.  "The Tattooed Leg" is one of the more macabre stories in this book, in which a man whose leg had been lost in a wreck discovers that the tattooed leg under his cast  belonged to another and has been grafted on to his body.  Although he gains assurances from the surgeon that he's going to be "good as new," it isn't long until after being released from hospital that he realizes that something has gone horribly wrong.  Science gone awry is the matter at hand here, with this story making for a fun yet bizarre read.  "Skin" by Roald Dahl has a sort of commonality with Saki's "The Background," but Dahl's story has much more of a finely-honed,  implicitly-horrific edge to it that gave me a true case of the willies.  An older man, down on his luck, finds himself on the Rue de Rivoli where he sees a painting by a Paul Tichine displayed in the window of a gallery.  His discovery takes him back in his mind to a time when he knew the artist; his wife had been Tichine's model back before Tichine was Tichine and before his art was so highly prized.  Entering the gallery, where he is immediately asked to leave, he makes the mistake of revealing that he has a picture given to him years before by the artist.  Not a good move, really.  While "Skin" was downright creepy, Tanizaki's "The Tattooer" works on a completely different level uniting beauty, eroticism, ecstasy, and pain, beginning with an Edo-era tattoo artist with a sadistic edge: 
"His pleasure lay in the agony men felt as he drove his needles into them, torturing their swollen, blood-red flesh; and the louder they groaned, the keener was Seikichi's strange delight. Shading and vermilioning - these are said to be especially painful -- were the techniques he most enjoyed."
 However, his true desire was to "create a masterpiece on the skin of a beautiful woman."  He'd been searching for the perfect subject for four years without success, but all of that changes when he just happens to notice a most exquisite young woman's foot sticking out beneath a palanquin's curtain.  He continues his search, this time for that one woman; little does he realize what will happen when he finds her.   I love Tanizaki's novels, but sadly I seem to have neglected his short stories, something I'll certainly be rectifying in the near future.


from Business Mirror

While I've only briefly hinted at my favorite stories above, the rest are also quite nicely done, although in my opinion, the weirdness is a bit tamped down in those.  Overall, Tales of the Tattooed is another fine entry in the Tales of the Weird series, and I haven't found a bad book in the bunch.  I have been highly impressed with the wide range of stories presented in these volumes, and whoever dreamed up the concept in the first place ought to be congratulated. 



Saturday, December 14, 2019

Animals of the Exodus, by Alexander Zelenyj


9781908125828
Eibonvale Press, 2019
Eibonvale Chapbook Line #12
hardcover
cover art by David Rix 


(read earlier this year)


"When your Earth-mud walls are scaled at last, 
strike out: your home waits in the vault
None of it was your fault

We belong somewhere, too."




The cover blurb of this book describes Animals of the Exodus as "A 70-page festival for the world-broken. Because there are paths..."  a concept that I first came across in Alexander Zelenyj's Songs for the Lost, a most brilliant collection of stories which  I've been recommending to everyone and anyone who will listen.   It was there also that I first encountered the Deathray Bradburys,  "the most infamous cult band in the history of rock and roll" as noted on the back cover of this author's Ballads to the Burning Twins (Eibonvale, 2014).   The quotation above is from one of their songs, "Migration of the Ancient Children" which is found at the end of this book.  The Deathray Bradburys themselves are legendary, when at the end of August, 2000, they 
"along with 225 of their fanatical followers, disappeared from the face of the Earth as part of the fulfillment of a self-prescribed cosmic prophecy."
As explained in Animals of the Exodus, their quest was to
"fulfill a cosmic destiny of finding those who've suffered irreparable trauma, and taking them away from the place of their suffering to a distant Paradise: the binary star, Sirius."
 And indeed, in keeping thematically with past works by Zelenyj,  the world in these 70 or so pages of interlinked stories is indeed one filled with "irreparable trauma," and the paths taken by those who suffer who seek to find, again quoting from Ballads to the Burning Twins, "a place, far beyond all of this despair..."




The book begins with "Taking Karen Away," which unfolds under the "twin stars of Sirius"  with a horrendous act, the reverberations of which will later resurface in another story as one of the two people here will soon find herself hoping to find "a paradise among the stars."  "Celeste Had to Go Away" occurs ten years after the "initial disappearance" of the Deathray Bradburys, with the actual story beginning much earlier during "72 hours like lifetimes endured in Hell."  In "Some Saw the Fire Exodus," a boy watches as his sister and her boyfriend come to the culmination of their own particular path, knowing that one day he'll see her again.  Finally, in what is certainly the best of the four and most exquisitely written, "The Mayflies Want to Fly," a boy and his "goddess" teacher take a roadtrip toward "That bright pair" of stars in the east, "in case they're good places."  My advice: read each story slowly and carefully -- the links will emerge without having to look for them --  and consider the book as a whole even though it is divided into short stories. 

Anyone who has had the pleasure to have read anything by this author will feel the same emotional gutpunch as before; here he offers such an incredible depth of not just feeling but the very real sense of a broken world  in the very short span of less than 70 pages. Some authors take forever to build that sort of reality in their fictional universes; that is not the case here at all.   Also, like most of the best books I read, there is absolutely no denying that Animals of the Exodus is beyond relevant to our own times.   As I've said before, Mr. Zelenyj really gets it; he's such a brilliant writer that I'd read absolutely anything he writes in the future. 

I loved this book; it will not be for everyone but it cannot fail to touch more sensitive souls like myself. 


*****
My very special thanks once again to the most excellent people at Eibonvale.  It was such a great, smile-producing surprise to have discovered it a few months back in my mail.  And please,  more of the Deathray Bradburys!! 

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Starve Acre, by Andrew Michael Hurley


9781529387261
John Murray, 2019
243 pp

hardcover


"That is a quiet place --
That house in the trees with the shady lawn."
If, child, you knew what there goes on
You would not call it a quiet place.
Why, a phantom abides there, the last of its race,
And a brain spins there till dawn."

-- Thomas Hardy, "The House of Silence"
epigraph



(read earlier this month)

I don't read a lot of contemporary horror novels, but there are a few authors whose books I will preorder once I know they're on the horizon for publication.  Andrew Michael Hurley is one of these people -- I absolutely loved his The Loney (in my opinion the best book he's written),   quite enjoyed his Devil's Day,  and now he's back with another fine novel,  Starve Acre.  This time around Hurley  is much more straightforward in terms of horror than the previous two, but don't be fooled: what happens here, as in the case of his earlier books,  plays out on many different levels other than simply gut-reaction horror.  It is truly one of the most disturbing contemporary novels on the darker side I've read in a while, in a good way, of course. 

Once again, Hurley sets his story in a remote, rural locale, more specifically in the Yorkshire Dales.  It is here where Richard Willoughby  and his wife  Juliette have come to live in his family home, Starve Acre, handed down to Richard after the death of his mother.  Juliette was convinced that it would be better to start and raise their family in the Dales rather than the city in which they live, and eventually their son Ewan was born.  As the novel begins,  it is clear however that this is a couple in the depths of grief, as their only child has died.  Juliette spirals into deep depression and despondency to the point of spending each night on a mattress in Ewan's room, where she hopes to "pick up the faintest traces of Ewan," still remaining there by filling the space with mirrors and making recordings every night, hoping for "moments of contact."  Richard, who is on a sort of enforced sabbatical from teaching History at university, copes by staying busy with some sort of work, organizing his father's library and after discovering old woodcuts there, seeking the location of and hoping to excavate the roots of the old Stythwaite Oak, which, as legend has it served as the local gallows tree.  His friend Gordon tries to warn Richard away from continuing his search, but disregarding his advice,  Richard continues on, finding nothing but a skeleton of a hare which he brings into his home to study it.   In the meantime, Gordon, hoping to offer help to Juliette in some measure, introduces her to a strange group of mystics called The Beacons who organize a sort of seance in the Willoughby home.  The story truly launches from this point, and we are taken back in time to Ewan's childhood and life at Starve Acre up to the time of his death.   A few somewhat cryptic hints by the author clue us in that perhaps not all was well there, but   little by little we get a more complete picture as to why.



the April 2020 paperback cover, from Amazon 

Anyone who has read Starve Acre will recognize key hallmarks of Hurley's writing, and I'll offer only two here.    For one thing, upon entering this story, you will find yourself caught in an overwhelming atmosphere of isolation.  He sets this up so very nicely, not only in terms of Starve Acre's remote location outside of the village, but  as events transpire, the growing distance between the Willoughbys and the local villagers becomes palpable, as Richard and Juliette slowly become outsiders and "outcasts" among them.  It also strikes me that he portrays the world of the Willoughbys as becoming ever more enclosed and slowly shrinking, as the majority of what happens in this story happens within the space of the Willoughby home and its immediate environs.  Further isolating this family, both before and after Ewan's death,  there is also much that occurs solely within the space of this couple's respective minds, into which neither wants to intrude.   But perhaps the key feature so well done in Hurley's novels is his trademark use of the landscape.  Aside from the physical bleakness of Starve Acre, the rooks that fly everywhere, and other features described throughout the story,  much of the sadness evoked here turns on this piece of land which had first captured Juliette's imagination as being the perfect place to raise children.  While she saw it as a "natural physical playground" that would grow as "they grew," the reality is that the Willoughby land lingers under a curse that leaves it doomed to having "not an inch of soil that's still alive."  And as young as he is, even little Ewan realizes a particularly close connection not just to the land, but to the very spirit of the place, which as this family will discover, is by no means benign.   This is a landscape upon which the past has been inscribed; it may well seem a "quiet place," but it is one which hides secrets that perhaps were better left undisturbed. 

I have to say that this is the sort of contemporary horror story I actually enjoy reading, very rare in my repertoire these days.    Starve Acre is a novel about what is left behind after the loss of a child, with much of the story focusing on the landscape of grief itself.  The supernatural elements are subtle and nicely layered,  secrets are unfolded little by little, and there is that lovely sense of ambiguity that kept this book in my mind for a long time while thinking about it.  While it may seem to move a bit slowly, that's actually a plus in this case since it culminates in one of the most unexpected, horrific endings I've encountered in a very long time.   My single complaint centers around Richard and the hare,  to which the author provides a not-so satisfying explanation toward the end of the novel which I didn't buy at all.    Since I don't want to spoil things I can't go into detail, but astute readers will figure it out. Despite that particular flaw, I can without hesitation recommend Starve Acre   --  Hurley is so very talented, his work is refreshingly original, and I've become a true fangirl.


Wednesday, November 20, 2019

"... ideal for that lonely train journey" -- The Platform Edge: Uncanny Tales of the Railways (ed.) Mike Ashley

97807122352031
British Library, 2019
300 pp

paperback




So far there are thirteen books in the British Library Tales of the Weird series, making me wonder if we've come to the end because of the supernatural association with the number thirteen.  I hope not, since the editors of these books have put together stories I've never seen before, ranging from Victorian times through I'd say mainly mid-20th century, and so far, these books have brought me many hours of pleasure.    The blurb at the back of the book where the other titles are given says that
"British Library Tales of the Weird collects a thrilling array of uncanny storytelling from the realms of gothic, supernatural, and horror fiction..." 
and

 "revives long-lost material from the Library's vaults  to thrill again alongside beloved classics of the weird fiction genre."  While not all of the stories I've read so far in this series have necessarily been   "thrilling," they are beyond fun to read and for me at least, have served as a stepping stone into the work of   authors whose work I've never read.  In my case,  it's not just the stories themselves but more importantly, the discovery of these previously-unknown-to-me writers that has been the draw.  This time around there were only six, but that's okay -- it's six more than I knew of before.

The stories in this volume range from 1878 to 1985, thus covering over a century of railway-related weird/ghostly/supernatural and other types of tales.  In his short but informative introduction, Mike Ashley explains the rise of stories about "haunted stations and phantom trains" that hearken back to the early nineteenth century.  By 1860, as he writes, there had been "over thirteen hundred accidents in the UK alone," and that there is "little surprise" that with the mounting death toll, these sorts of tales "started to circulate." The earliest story in this volume in fact, the anonymously-written "Desperate Run,"  not only reflects the sort of anxieties felt about the trains at the time, or as Ashley puts it, the contradictory idea of the train as "sinister as it is remarkable," but also the dedication of those whose duty it is to see that all runs smoothly, two themes that carry strongly through a number of these tales in different variations.   As we move forward in time here, it's not surprising to see a number of stories in this book reflecting many of these same concerns about the subway.   

 The complete table of contents for this volume can be seen here; I'm not going to go through them in any major way in this post.


Illustration by Paul Orban for AJ Deutsch's "A Subway Named Möbius," December 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction (Vol. 46, No. 4).   From Worlds Envisioned

The stories in the first section of this book, "Departures in the Light" are of the weird/supernatural variety, with one exception: "The Tragedy in the Train" by Huan Mee, which is more a locked-room sort of mystery story.  Ashley included it because "it is such a convoluted and seemingly impossible crime" that he couldn't "let it go."  While they're all fun, honorable mention needs to go to L.G. Moberly's "A Strange Night," which starts out along the lines of the beginning of Aickman's "The Trains" before it goes elsewhere altogether, still more than managing to satisfy my appetite for the eerie.   Strangely enough and so very unlike me, my favorite story in the book was written in 1950; even stranger is the fact that it came from Astounding Science Fiction since I'm not heavy into the genre.   Even now I can't explain why this one grabbed me as it did, but AJ Deutsch's "A Subway Named Möbius" in the section entitled "Approaches in the Dark" captured my imagination so thoroughly that I read it twice in one sitting.  Maybe it was because of the idea that nobody noticed a missing Boston subway train at first, or perhaps it was the chilling ending; I just know I still haven't forgotten it and it's been some time since I first read it.  I remember thinking while reading it how very weird it would have been for someone riding on the subway at the time and first encountering this story.  While that one is an American story, the British subway system isn't at all ignored in this book:  there's Rosemary Timperley's  "The Underground People,"   T.G. Jackson's "A Romance of the Piccadilly Tube,"  "In the Tube" by EF Benson, "The Underground," by R. Chetwynd-Hayes, and my favorite of all of the British subway stories, "The Last Train" by Michael Vincent, which is the shortest but definitely the one I found weirdest, in a good way.



from Pinterest

While there are only two stories in the final section, "Return to the Light," they're both very nicely done.  I wasn't at all surprised by the pleasure gained from the slow-growing creepiness of Ramsey Campbell's "The Companion," but I was completely taken aback by  "A Short Trip Home" written by of all people F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I had no idea he wrote this sort of thing, but I was not at all disappointed.

It's difficult to describe what I look for while reading the weird or while reading strange/supernatural tales in general, but I know it when I find it,  and I think appreciation of this sort of thing reflects more of a personal, internal aesthetic.  Most readers (if you can go by the few ratings/reader reviews on Goodreads) seemed to enjoy this book, minus the one reader who referred to it as "pedestrian," an opinion I don't happen to share, but to each his or her own.   Overall, I have to say that my investment of time and money in the British Library Tales of the Weird series has paid off handsomely; the same is true of this book. While there were a few I didn't particularly bond with as is common in most anthologies, the majority of the stories here will delight any true-blue fan of older supernatural or weird tales.   It certainly delighted me.


Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Six Ghost Stories, by Montague Summers

978164520074
Snuggly Books, 2019
214 pp

paperback


"Gare à qui nous touche"



There is nothing quite like a good ghost story.  I read them all the time, and am beyond happy when I come across spectral tales previously unknown to me.  When Snuggly published this volume of ghost stories by Montague Summers, the add-to-your-cart button couldn't be pushed quickly enough.  It wasn't just that these were six more ghostly tales to be added to my reading repertoire, but the sad truth is that I don't believe I've ever read anything by Summers before.   I have a copy of  The Supernatural Omnibus which he edited (no Summers stories included), and of course his translation of The Malleus Maleficarum of Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, but that's about it. Mistake rectified now, with Six Ghost Stories, which sadly, as stated in the introduction written by Daniel Corrick, doesn't cover "the entirety" of Summers' "ghost oeuvre," but I will take what I can get.

In the author's preface to these six ghostly tales, he writes the following:
"When like Owen Glendower we 'call Spirts from the vasty deep,' let us be sure that the Spirits are no kindly commonplace apparitions but veritable powers of darkness, grisly evil things of terror and dread and doom, able to send a cold shiver through the reader who sits alone at eleven o'clock on a winter night, and perhaps even to make him hesitate a moment before he switches out the light in bed."
He goes on to say that
"unless the stage is well set and the situation made intensely real, ground-work which save in very exceptional cases entails fairly ordinary and not too romantic surroundings with everyday characters, the ghost story goes for naught."
I mention these bits of Summers' preface since they make clear what will be going on between these covers.  There will be no "beneficent" ghosts to be found here, and most of the haunting that goes on takes place in rather ordinary circumstances, happening to rather ordinary people.




Toy Theatre, from V&A


The winner of this collection is  "A Toy Theatre," because of which I will never think of Shakepeare's Othello in the same way again.  The story begins as Sir Gilbert Richie makes a promised visit over the Easter holiday to the country house of his friend Tom Hunstanton.  Life follows a somewhat strict pattern there (Sundays being described as "at Northanger"), so on the day before he is about to leave, he is happy to step out and heads to the old nearby town to go to the post office.  He has some time afterward to  meander through the "quaint streets" of the old town, where he takes a look in the window of one of the "shabbier and dustier" old shops.  Having been an avid collector since boyhood of "tinsel actors, toy theatres, and colored sheets of characters," he is attracted by a "maple-framed tinsel picture of some absurd actor at Astley's of the Grecian Salon in the role of Aureato, the Golden Knight." Having ascertained that this picture and another like it had belonged to the now-deceased husband of the snuff-pinching proprietor, Sir Gilbert makes the mistake of asking if perhaps she has more of his belongings she'd like to sell.  "A Toy Theatre" sent a chill right through my bones, making me identify with the aforementioned "reader who sits alone at eleven o'clock on a winter night," hesitating just a moment before turning out my reading light.

The  five other stories in this book are also highly satisfying and quite delicious.   "The House Agent" finds a London couple married less than a year finding a perhaps too-perfect cottage for their weekend getaways in a small village.  "The Governess" begins as a tale told by an aunt to her nephew about a certain Miss Howard, the new governess at 27 Harley Crescent, St. John's Wood NW.  It seems that some strange phenomena began to follow her arrival there in 1890, which the inhabitants of the house could deal with, but for Miss Howard it was a different story altogether. "Romeo and Juliet" begins as a story told with curtains drawn, two people sitting in the firelight, providing the perfect atmosphere for recounting the tale of a young girl honoring her father's dying wish  that she "remain on the operatic stage for at least three years."  Looking forward to the end of that time, she has a feeling that "something is going to happen... ," which, of course, it does.  Along with "The Toy Theatre," another of my favorites from this volume is  "The Grimoire," a most outstanding story about a "collector of books on alchemy, witchcraft and the occult sciences" who lays hands on a rare volume he's previously never seen just prior to a visit to a Canon friend of his who shares his interests in old books.  The final story, "The Man on the Stairsis also quite brilliant, providing a bizarre take on the stereotypical haunted house story.  The owner of Cherton Manor is upset when a friend refuses to visit him because of his home's reputation, and is so upset with "this spook business" that he makes an offer another man finds hard to refuse.




Montague Summers, from Goodreads


There are two things potential readers may wish to know before plunging into this book.  First, Summers seems to take his time in more than a few of these stories  setting the scene prior to the actual appearance of the "veritable powers of darkness."  While this is a necessary step, he tends to be a bit long winded at times, especially in terms of dialogue.    Second, I found that there were a couple of instances in which I found the outcomes predictable, but I chalk that up to having read a large number of ghost stories in my time.  While they're valid concerns, these minor flaws did not at all detract from my enjoyment of this book since these are definitely NOT your average ghost stories, and I have to applaud Snuggly for publishing this volume which may otherwise have never actually been put into print.

recommended, most certainly.



Thursday, November 7, 2019

cross posting: Suicide Woods, by Benjamin Percy

97816444450062
Graywolf Press, 2019
193 pp

paperback

I've recently read Suicide Woods by Benjamin Percy, a collection of nine short stories and one extremely creepy novella-length tale at the end.  I never believe blurbs, but this time things are different: Luis Alberto Urrea's short take on the book, direct from the front cover, notes that Suicide Woods
"deals in a shivery fear, a dreamlike unease, a sense of eldritch hallucinations creeping toward us."
Never a truer word spoken.

From the first page onward, the stories speak to the idea that any attempts to alter or conquer nature, both human and otherwise, turn into the stuff of nightmares. 

If you are so inclined, you can read about it here; although I didn't think the book was perfect, it did burrow into my head enough to where I'm still  thinking about it days after reading it.


Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Ziska: The Problem of a Wicked Soul, by Marie Corelli

9781934555682
Valancourt, 2009
originally published 1897
184 pp

paperback

"In certain men and women spirit leaps to spirit, -- note responds to note -- and if all the world were to interpose its trumpery bulk, nothing could prevent such tumultuous forces rushing together."




Think what you will, but I love Marie Corelli's novels, at least the few I've read so far, with others waiting for my attention on their shelves.  The critics of her day had little nice to say about her work, but her reading public loved her, from "the eccentrics at society's lower end" to Queen Victoria herself.  One Corelli scholar notes that more than half of her novels were "world-wide best sellers," with more than an estimated 100,000 copies selling annually for several years.  Corelli's  1895 The Sorrows of Satan, according to Annette R. Federico in her book Idol of Suburbia: Marie Corelli and Late-Victorian Literary Culture, had an "initial sale greater than any previous English novel," selling twenty-five thousand copies its first week with and fifty thousand over the next seven weeks (2000, University Press of Virginia, 7).  Curt Herr, in his introduction to this Valancourt edition of Ziska, notes that 1897 also saw the publication of Stoker's Dracula and Richard Marsh's The Beetle, and that Corelli  outsold "Stoker and Marsh by the hundreds of thousands" (xi), which sort of begs the question as to why today she is all but forgotten, which is a true pity.



1897 original edition, from WorthPoint

There is no messing around as the story begins; the prologue puts us in the Egyptian desert of long ago, on a night when  "the air was calm and sultry; and not a human foot disturbed the silence."  A "Voice" breaks the stillness towards midnight,  "as it were like a wind in the desert," crying out for
" 'Araxes! Araxes!' and wailing past, sank with a profound echo into the deep recesses of the vast Egyptian tomb. Moonlight and the Hour wove their own mystery; the mystery of a Shadow and a Shape that flitted out like a thin vapour from the very portals of Death's ancient temple, and drifting forward a few paces resolved itself into the visionary fairness of a Woman's form -- a Woman whose dark hair fell about her heavily, like the black remnants of a long--buried corpse's wrappings; a Woman whose eyes flashed with an unholy fire and waved her ghostly arms upon the air."  
Flash forward to contemporary Cairo, where "full season" is in swing, where the "perspiring horde of Cook's 'cheap trippers' " have flocked for their holidays. We are introduced to one such group of British tourists, some of whom are in the lounge of the Gezireh Palace Hotel discussing  the arrival of the famous French painter Armand Gervase while others are preparing for a costume ball.  Expectations are highest, however, over the attendance at the ball of a certain Princess Ziska, of "extra-ordinary" beauty.  As the festivities begin and Gervase and the Princess meet, he is stunned:
"There was something strangely familiar about her; the faint odours that seemed exhaled from her garments, -- the gleam of the jewel-winged scarabei on her breast, -- the weird light of the emerald-studded serpent in her hair; and more, much more familiar than these trifles was the sound of her voice -- dulcet, penetrating, grave and haunting in its tone."
Ziska captivates this small group of tourists with her dazzling beauty and stories of ancient Egypt, but none more so than Gervase, who begins to believe himself in love with her, and  Denzil Murray, whose sister Helen knows that his obsession with the princess will eventually come to no good.  After confiding her woes to keen observer/researcher Dr. Dean of their party,  he notes that they have been caught up in "a whole network of mischief, " and that the
"...spider, my dear, -- the spider who wove the web in the first instance, -- is the Princess Ziska and she is not in love! ... She is not in love with anybody any more than I am. She's got something else on her mind -- I don't know what it is exactly, but it isn't love."
 As Gervase, as the back-cover blurb states, becomes more and more "haunted by strange and distant memories of her" over the short time in which this story occurs, it will become ever clearer exactly what it is that Ziska has on her mind.

The pulp/supernatural/gothic/occult-fiction reader in me of course positively swooned over Ziska, and if story alone was what it had amounted to I would have been happy enough.  Although I knew eventually what was going to happen here, it didn't matter -- the novel makes for an intense, compelling read.   But of course, there's always more that is not-so hidden under the surface with Corelli, whose beliefs often make their way into her work as debate between characters, and this book is no exception.  She begins right away with a look at the cultural imperialism of her day before tackling upper-class society, love, marriage, gender, and  her stock in trade, the undying soul.  Curt Herr has provided an excellent introduction that discusses all of this and more, including brief comparisons to the two other novels published the same year that I mentioned above.

'tis an old book, but a fine one, and I loved every second of it.  I really can't ask for more.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

in which the angel in the house becomes delightfully devilish: The Strange Transfiguration of Hannah Stubbs, by Florence Marryat

9781241582876
British Library Historical Print Editions, 2011
originally published 1896
339 pp

paperback



"It isn't all jam to have a medium in the house..."



H.G. Wells evidently didn't care for this book, saying that it was  "absurd," and that rather than "transfiguring Spiritualism," as was its intention,  it made Spiritualism to seem a "highly dangerous and idiotic pastime."   
Another reviewer from The Academy (1896) also criticized it, commenting that if "this volume was intended to commend spiritualism to unbelievers," it would more likely, in his opinion, "confirm them in their scepticism."

I settled on this book as an October read because I was looking for a novel with a séance, so when I found this one, I was a happy camper.   I'm a fangirl of Florence Marryat's novels and this book is one of hers that I hadn't yet read. 

Author and scholar Michael Sadleir, as quoted in Sutherland's  The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction (Pearson, 2nd ed, 2009) said about Marryat's  work that it was  "dangerously inflammatory fiction, unsuitable for reading by young ladies..." which was my original invitation to read her works, and I have to say that in this case he was probably correct.  (416)  This is one of the most lurid supernatural Victorian novels I've encountered up to now, and unlike the two contemporary reviewers quoted above who seemed to have missed the point,  I quite liked it.  The Strange Transfiguration of Hannah Stubbs ticks more than just a few of my reader boxes:  it is the story of a vengeful ghost, has the feel of a sensation novel cloaked in spiritualist garb but turned completely on its head, and it simultaneously engages topics and themes of fin-de-siècle New Woman literature.   It's also fun -- what more can I ask?

The story is centered around a natural spirit medium,  young Hannah Stubbs.   It seems that around Hannah, the furniture "dances,"  "shadders" appear, and "woices" haunt her at night.  Her mediumistic powers are so strong that they completely disrupt life in the family  home in Shropshire, providing the reason for "many a beating." They've also come between her and her young man  Joe Brushwood, to whom she had promised that she would try to stop "raising them sperrits." It's a promise she is unable to keep, however, and things get so bad that her mother feels she has no alternative but to find her a position in service with a family friend in London, a Mrs. Battleby.    Poor Hannah wishes for a normal life so she can go back to the country and to Joe,  but she is unable to stop all of the phenomena, no matter how much she wants to.

Enter Mrs. Battleby's lodger, Professor Ricardo, formerly the Marquis of Sorrento before exile and the relinquishment of his title.  While Mrs. Battleby  is constantly on the verge of turning Hannah out because of the disruptions in her home,  the Professor is fascinated.  As it happens, the death of his wife Leonora has left him wishing he could speak to her again (for reasons I won't mention here), and he has turned to an intense study of "the Art of Magic" to make it happen.  He  has also constructed a "séance room" in a part of his lodgings, and it is there that he shuts himself in to "burn the differing incenses recommended in the books of Magic," waiting to commune with spirits.  After he witnesses firsthand the phenomena that follows Hannah, he tells Mrs.  Battleby that Hannah is a "victim to what we call hysteria," and that if Hannah agrees, he will "undertake to cure her."   Eventually he also convinces Hannah that under his guidance, and that of his friend Dr. Steinberg,  she would be "quite cured of the annoyance she objected to."   Thus begins a series of "experiments," designed to heighten Hannah's powers while she sleeps (shades of Trilby!) to take them even further, with the aim of bringing forth the spirit of Leonora at his beck and call.  However,  a misunderstanding on the landlady's part gets both Hannah and the Professor tossed out of Mrs. Battleby's home; neither her mother nor Joe will have her back, so Ricardo decides that it would be beneficial to both if he and Hannah marry.




original title page (obviously I took this, as it's blurry)

At this point is where this story really begins, and we follow Hannah as she is molded and shaped by both men to suit and to exploit their own needs and desires.   What neither men realize, however, is that once they've opened the door, there is no going back; they will be left to  deal with the "transfiguration" fallout and neither are prepared for what comes next.  As both will discover, "it isn't all jam to have a medium in the house."

I think I might agree that on the face of it the plot, as Wells so eloquently put it, may seem "absurd," but there is method to Marryat's madness here, as there is in many of her later novels.  There is so much at work here under the surface that I could never  cover it in a short post; suffice it to say that this could easily be included in a study of Victorian women's  fin-de-siècle literature.  The novel is delightfully subversive,  it makes for fun supernatural reading, and I can't help it -- I am a huge fangirl  of  novels in which there are séances.  I got way,way more than I bargained for here.

Recommended, certainly, especially for aficionados of more obscure Victorian supernatural tales. 




October again




...my favorite part of the reading year. 












from Pinterest

Monday, September 23, 2019

Neon Empire, by Drew Minh

9781947856769
California Coldblood/Rare Bird Books, 2019
270 pp

arc



In a rare outing away from my reading diet of the supernatural and weird, I stray into the realm of science fiction-ish, dystopian-ish, cyberpunk-ish here with the recently-released Neon Empire, which although set in the future, builds a world that resonates with our modern times in terms of social media, corruption, and corporate greed. 

Set not so far off from our present, social media and social currency is the basis of everything and everybody in this novel, which is set in the fictional desert city of Eutopia, a sort of glitzy conglomerate of replica cities pieced together on a piece of land belonging to the Navajos.  It is referred to as an "integrated city," where tourists can get "Europe's greatest hits without having to go there."  That is a necessity at the moment in time that this novel is set, since worries about political unrest on the European continent leave a lot of people unwilling to travel.  So how does a celebrity or social media star keep his or her public abreast of his or her vacation doings? Take a trip to Eutopia where everything and anything does happen.   More than a theme park, it is a place where people can "live-broadcast their lives" and are "incentivized" to do so; in Eutopia, "everybody has the chance to be a star."  Giant screens exist everywhere on which ads run almost constantly, and between them there is "never a dull moment" -- car chases, scandals, crimes and people looking for stardom and social cache all find their way up onto the big screen.  Eutopia also exists as entertainment for the young up-and-comers of the world; they can find and do anything there.    On the streets, as main character Cedric Travers reveals,
"It was almost as if everybody was in a trance-like state, monitoring their social channels, connecting to billboards, transacting with each other." 
The only thing that is lacking seems to be reality; behind the scenes and unaware to the public,  every movement in the city has been calculated and planned, trends are thoroughly analyzed, and decisions are made based on revenue and profit. 

Cedric is a has-been film director and  has come to Eutopia where two months earlier his wife Mila (who had been in on the creation of the city) had disappeared. His idea is that he'll stay long enough  to pack up her belongings so he can start to try to put things behind him.   Rumor has it that she was involved in a possible terrorist-linked bombing there, but there is no real information about her whereabouts.    As he wonders what could have possibly drawn and kept her there, he becomes involved with two city mainstays: A'rore, the biggest, most popular social media influencer who has  a great desire to keep herself at the top,  and the rather shady police captain Monteiro who knows when to look away when certain crimes are committed.  There is also a journalist, Sacha Villanova, who may be able to help him with his questions about his wife.  Like Mila, though, it isn't long until Cedric also becomes drawn more deeply into Eutopia's "inner realm."  Unfortunately for all concerned, it also isn't long until reality disrupts the fantasy ...

The world building is just terrific here, dynamic and strange all at the same time, offering a sense that yes, this could actually be a future reality, and I couldn't wait to see what the author was going to add to Eutopia itself as the story went along.  The author, Drew Minh, also knows what he's talking about here -- his background is in digital advertising, so his knowledge of data analytics (which is a major part of this story) shines through. 

  The thing is  that I couldn't quite find a narrative thread to latch on to. The blurb calls it a thriller, but I'm not quite sure I got that overall vibe here, and for me it was because of too many different elements in this story that didn't really mesh too well.   I had thought, given the beginning of this novel and certain occurrences throughout the story that perhaps it was going to be about Cedric's search for what happened to Mila, but the way the novel ends (somewhat unfairly, if you ask me) makes it seem like that will likely be picked up in a sequel.   Then there's an ongoing mystery that begins with the death of a man Cedric had only recently met,  a strand that brings in  both the police and Sacha's investigative skills.   To me the weak link here is with the A'rore POV narrative; it tends to seriously  detract attention from what otherwise might have been a good mystery set in a future landscape. I am a voracious crime and mystery reader, and what I've discovered over my many years is that sometimes it is true that less is more.  That's definitely the case here.

I thank the publishers for my copy.   Neon Empire is enjoying some very positive reader response, so it's probably just me being my picky reader self once more. 







Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Intimations of Death, by Felix Timmermans

9781948405409
Valancourt Books, 2019
originally published as Schemerigen van den Dood, 1910
translated by Paul Vincent
150 pp

paperback



"Are you frightened of Death and the dead?" 

I don't think I've ever read a book of stories that was so completely morbid as this one.  Not that I didn't have a clue from the title that death was going to be on the agenda here, but jeez Louise.  Normally I think of the word "intimation" in terms of a hint or an indication, but that's definitely not the case here.

The blurb on the back cover of this book reveals that Felix Timmermans (1886-1947) wrote the stories in this collection "after a near-death experience with a serious illness."   It also notes that he
" reveals a more morbid side and delivers a collection of psychological horror tales worthy of Edgar Allan Poe."  
  The comparison to Poe is beyond apt, not just because of the macabre themes and episodes depicted throughout these stories, but also due to Timmermans'  use of landscape and various settings designed to echo the characters' inner torments and mental states.  And tormented these people are, from the first story to the last, with no exceptions.

 "The Mourner" makes for the perfect opener to this collection, beginning in an isolated house with barred windows on a "dark beech avenue" where it seems that death is no stranger.  Not only had the narrator "helped carry three dead souls -- a brother and two sisters" out of  the house to the cemetery, but the house, described as being  "the color of congealed blood," is enclosed by a "deep black moat, covered in green scum" into which a tramp had once fallen and drowned.  The narrator (who is telling this story at a much later time), reveals that the house had been in the family for generations, at least back to the time of his great-grandfather; as he puts it, "it was in our blood to live there."
"But those who had lived there had never been aware of the mysterious air weighing on the soul, which had pressed down in the house and across the plain; but my heart was like a gate open to the unknown, and I always had the clear consciousness of another life around me."
He had felt "the soul of things" and although he lived in solitude with his family there, he had a sense of "not being alone," which made him afraid and made "life sad;" he describes it as the "face of the unknown that was watching our hands."   He also sees signs in everything around him, which makes what happens as he waits with his mother and father, nearly unbearable.  Every noise is detailed, silence is weighed,  his senses are on ultra-high alert as he takes in every sound, every flash of lightning.  And then, when someone rings the bell in the midst of it all ...



reproduction of one the illustrations used in the original

In the final story, "The Unknown," a couple whose families are against their marriage decide to end it all together so that they might at least be happy and together forever in death.  Things go awry when she dies and he is rescued; at first he is happy to be alive, but he feels himself invaded by an "unknown thing" that takes over his life in more ways than one.

In between these two stories, as the back-cover blurb reveals,
"A scholar of the occult finds his marriage threatened by horrifying and otherworldly noises emanating from the cellar -- During a plague outbreak a gravedigger accidentally prepares one too many graves and becomes obsessed with the thought that the final grave will be his own.  -- A haunted man, seeking refuge in a monastery, is convinced that Death itself stalks him in the building's lonely halls..." 
 With the exception of "The White Vase,"  these strange, gothic tales are related via a certain distance; as John Howard puts it in his excellent introduction, "as if they were seen by the reader made to gaze through the wrong end of a telescope."  However, it is also true, as he says, that we are "taken in from the start and carried off by Timmermans' intense, tortured narratives."    Author Paul Di Filippo in his review of this book at Locus says about these stories that
"they all prefigure the deep and subtle psychological horror stories that were to populate the twentieth century and become almost the dominant mode in the twenty-first," 
which in my case, aside from the obscurity of this book and author,  is the attraction.

 Many many thanks to Valancourt for publishing such a fine book and bringing it back into the public eye; kudos to the translator Paul Vincent who didn't seem to miss a single nuance, and also to John Howard for his informative and excellent introduction.   Readers of modern horror may find it a bit tame, but as a lover of the old and especially of the obscure, I loved every dark second of it, and found it to be the perfect  book for late-night, book-light-only reading. All that was missing (and pardon the cliché but it works) was the raging thunderstorm outside.

Reader beware -- space yourself between stories and do not read them all at once.  Di Filippo refers to Timmermans at the time he wrote these tales as a "kind of Thomas Ligotti," and trust me, there's a reason for the comparison.



Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Bending to Earth: Strange Stories by Irish Women, eds. Maria Giakaniki and Brian Showers

9781783800254
Swan River Press, 2019
205 pp

hardcover

I must confess that I read this book some time ago, but am just now getting to posting about it after giving it a second read.

At the end of their introduction to this volume, the editors Maria Giakaniki and Brian Showers wave a beckoning hand in my direction:
"...we hope Bending to Earth stands as an invitation to the curious; that these strange stories of ghosts and witches, of cryptids and madmen, will serve as a lighted candle for those who wish to further illuminate the darker corners of Irish literature."
"... the curious" -- check -- that's me.   "...those who wish to further illuminate the darker corners of Irish literature" -- check again. Boxes ticked.

If you read the subtitle of this book, it tells you all you need to know about what you'll find inside.  The dozen stories in this excellent collection definitely fall on the strange side, and in their selection, the editors have brought together a mix of tales written by women who, as they tell us, were not
 "considered during their lifetimes to be chiefly writers of fantastical fiction. Yet they each at some point in their careers wandered into more speculative realms -- some only briefly, others for more lengthier stays."  
 What matters here is not how long their wanderings "into more speculative realms" lasted, but rather that these women left behind these stories, most of them now fallen into the void of obscurity,  to be enjoyed well over a century later.

Bending to Earth is a mix of superb, uncanny tales featuring (among other things) wandering spirits, tortured souls of  both the earthly and ethereal sort, dream-like visions,  and Irish ghost lore I can imagine listening to while seated beside a fire in an otherwise darkened and quiet room while outside a storm is raging and the wind is howling like the proverbial banshee.   There is one story, "The Blanket Fiend," set in the wilds of New Guinea that stands apart from the others, moving away from what's come before and what comes after. It is different enough that it was a bit of a jolt,  actually reading  more along the lines of early pulp fiction,  but the editors address this issue in their most excellent and informative introduction (which you should most certainly save for last if you want no hints at all as to what's to come in any of these tales).  There is also, in the back of the book and on the website for Swan River Press  a brief biographical portrait of author Beatrice Grimshaw (and the other writers) which helps to understand her inspiration for this story.

The twelve stories in this book are as follows:


"The Dark Lady", by Anna Maria Hall
"The Child's Dream," by Lady Jane Wilde (yes, that Wilde -- mother to Oscar)
"The Unquiet Dead," by Lady Augusta Gregory
"The Woman With the Hood," by LT Meade
 "The Wee Gray Woman," by Ethna Carbery
"The Blanket Fiend," by Beatrice Grimshaw
"The First Wife," by Katherine Tynan
"Transmigration," by Dora Sigerson Shorter
"Not to Be Taken at Bed-Time," by Rosa Mulholland
"The Red Woolen Necktie," by B.M. Croker,
"The De Grabooke Monument," by Charlotte Riddell,  

and last, but certainly by no means least, 


"A Vanished Hand," by Clothilde Graves



As someone who has developed a passion not only for ghost stories and strange tales of yesteryear, but for ghost stories and strange tales of yesteryear written by women whose work has been largely forgotten or neglected, Bending to Earth is a much-treasured volume in my home library, and I am once again the cheer squad for the small presses that put out such gems, here represented by Swan River Press.

Maria Giakaniki and Brian Showers note that
"These twelve strange stories by Irish women are our choices, and represent only a small selection from a much broader range of possibilities." 
Hopefully (please!!),  they have enough strange stories left over after what they've chosen to include in this volume to fill another.  I'll be buying that one too.







Tuesday, June 25, 2019

A Book of the Sea: Being a collection of weird new writings (ed.) Mark Beech

The sea transforms everything. Nothing that has been touched by it can ever be the same again.
 --from "The Figurehead of the Cailleach," by Stephen J. Clark 






9780993527883
Egaeus Press, 2018
309 pp
hardcover


While my last post covered a book of "strange tales from the sea," they were all tales recovered from yesteryear.  A Book of the Sea is also a volume of strange tales, and while there is often more than just a bit of an aura of the traditional about and within these stories,  the authors who have contributed to this anthology are some of the best weird fiction writers of the present day.  This book is an excellent showcase of their  extraordinary talent, not simply as storytellers but also as the perceptive artists these people are.



The description of this book reveals that it is a
"A collection  of strange or uncategorizable pieces for which the sea provides the great mystery; stories and poems which explore its pull on the human heart, its alienness, its treachery, its unfathomable vastness, and more than anything, what it makes humans do, be, become." 
Given human nature, what humans "do, be, become" can cover a very wide range.


Ships on the Stormy Seaby Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovksy, as found on the endpapers of this volume



In his story "The Figurehead of the Cailleach"  Stephen J. Clark hits the nail on the head as to the heart and soul of this book when he writes that
"The sea transforms everything. Nothing that has touched by it can ever be the same again."
It is this phrase that kept repeating in my mind as I read -- in his or her own way, each author offers a story of  lives that have been transformed in some fashion through their respective connections to the sea. 

Divided into four parts, appropriately and respectively entitled "Lingan," "Flotsam," "Jetsam" and "Derelict," each section begins with an illustration and  poem that perfectly sets the tone for what's to come.  The cover of this book invites the reader to take a look through the keyhole at a ship sailing placidly on the ocean, but don't be fooled -- what lies ahead once you open the cover is anything but tranquility.

In "The Figurehead of the Calleach," for example,  a noted art restorer comes to an unmapped cove on the Isle of Scarba where he has been commissioned to restore an old figurehead known as "the Cailleach."  Also known as "the veiled one"  or the Hag of Winter, the myth of the Cailleach originates with the whirlpool just off the coast known as the Cauldron.   As he settles into his work, becomes aware of certain eccentricities of his employer, and discovers more about local legends, he finds himself drawn ever closer to the Cauldron, and not only in his dreams.  It is a beautifully-layered tale incorporating landscape, mythology, belief and history; here the ocean is much more than just a vast body of water but rather something that leaves us "yearning to return."

Karim Ghawagi's "The Sorrow of Satan's Book" is also a multi-layered tale set in 1932, which begins  as 35-year old film scholar Martin Nexsø who had lost his wife in a boating accident  makes his way to the town of Skagen on the northern coast of Jutland. He is there to talk to screenwriter Nikolai Brauer about a fifth, unknown chapter that been "excised" from Dreyer's 1920 film Leaves From Satan's Book, based loosely on Marie Corelli's The Sorrows of Satan, a novel which Nexsø knows all too well.  He arrives not only as preparations are being made on the beach for the Midsummer Solstice, but also as Brauer's home has been declared a crime scene because Brauer has been murdered in his own studio.  This is no simple murder mystery, however; things go beyond the weird and eerie beginning in the studio and then with a strange meeting with a group of Midsummer celebrants on the beach, becoming downright hallucinatory. 

"Breakwater Lodge" by Michael R. Colangelo is a somewhat cryptic story which follows a famous detective by the name of Cederno who cannot resist a challenging  puzzle and has been attracted by the lure of yet another that takes him to a village on the Spanish coast. There he meets a strange woman who becomes his companion in the last leg of his search for his elusive target.   It seems that Cederno is attracted by a lure that has been "set by the ocean, "  but what he doesn't realize is that all too often, the point of the lure is "To catch men instead of fish."   Here past and present mingle beautifully and hauntingly.

All of the stories in this book are unsettling, haunting and for the most part downright brilliant, but my top-tier favorites include the three mentioned above and a few more: Jonathan Wood's  "From whence we came," Colin Insole's "Dancing Boy"   Albert Power's dark gothic tale "The Final Flight of Fidelia" and "The Woman From Malta" by George Berguño round out my list.

 While there is more than a hint of the supernatural to be found here, as  Charles Schneider says in his "The Damnations of Captain M'Quhae,"
"If you hope for the appearance of klautermann, mermaids, aquatic goats, pirate-spirits, seaweed-clad sirens, conch-fairies or even brine-tigers, look elsewhere." 
Thank god for small presses like Egaeus who put out books like this one; it is absolutely gorgeous both inside and out and one I would recommend to any reader of weird/dark fiction.



Thursday, May 16, 2019

From The Depths and Other Strange Tales of the Sea (ed.) Mike Ashley

"...the sea is another world and one of which we should be wary."

When I'm on vacation, books that require a lot of thought are off the menu.  When I'm laying under a seaside palapa, listening to the sound of the waves while sipping a foo-foo umbrella drink, the last thing on my mind is wanting to think, so I pack accordingly.  Among the others that ended up in my suitcase, I brought this book, From the Depths and Other Strange Tales of the Sea, my second foray into the British Library Tales of the Weird. It is my favorite kind of ahhh-time compilation, a mix of horror, ghostly tales, the supernatural, and pure unadulterated pulp, with stories ranging from 1891 to 1932.  There are a few entries here written by authors already known to me:  William Hope Hodgson, F. Austin Britten, Elinor Mordaunt, Morgan Robertson, but for the most part, it seems that Ashley has put together the work of a number of  writers I'd never heard of.   Such is my joy in reading these tales -- not only are they fun, dark, and in some cases, actually frightening, but they've been rescued from the depths of obscurity to be enjoyed all over again.


9780712352369
British Library Publishing, 2018
310 pp
paperback

Not wasting any time at all in setting the tone for what's to follow, Ashley presents us first with Albert R. Wetjen's  "The Ship of Silence" from 1932.  The narrator of this story doesn't waste time either, giving us a hint about what's coming as he sits with a group of friends aboard a ship in a Brazilian harbor  "drinking long, cold gin tonicas and talking of the sea in general and of ships that had vanished into its mysterious immensity."  But it's his own experience after coming upon an abandoned ship out of San Francisco that makes for the best and most chilling yarn of them all.  As he relates, "It is a curious thing -- but I swear I had had gooseflesh all over from the first moment I put foot on the Robert Sutter's main deck."  I had gooseflesh just reading this one,  so I knew right away I was going to be in for a great time.



doomed ships after having been stuck in the dense weeds of the Sargasso Sea, from globalsecurity 


Wetjen's  is only the first of fifteen stories, and I have to say that out of these there were only two which if you'll pardon the expression, didn't really float my boat. There is a wide range of tales being told here covering everything from encounters with bizarre sea creatures, the sheer horror of being stuck in the thick weeds of the Sargasso Sea and being unable to move on,  shipboard and other hauntings, clairvoyance, revenge (human and otherwise), and then some that  can only be put in the category of strange weirdness.  

The table of contents is as follows:
"The Ship of Silence," by Albert R. Wetjen, 1932
"From the Darkness and The Depths," by Morgan Robertson, who also wrote The Wreck of the Titan, or Futility (1898)  which supposedly prefigured the sinking of the Titanic. That one I have on my shelf, but haven't read it yet.
"Sargasso," by Ward Muir (1908), one of my favorites and certainly one of the most atmospheric of all of the stories in this volume.
"Held by the Sargasso Sea," by Frank Shaw (1908) another favorite that just creeped me to the bone
"The Floating Forest" by Herman Scheffauer (1909), in which a ship's captain and his wife get more than they bargained for in a shady deal
"Tracked: A Mystery of the Sea" by C.N. Barnam (1891), which reveals the British fascination with spiritualism
"The Mystery of the Water-Logged Ship" by William Hope Hodgson (1911).  Ashley notes of this one that he could have selected from a number of  stories by Hodgson that take place on the sea, but ultimately he chose this "little-known story."  It had me going for a long, long time. 



from culture trip



"From the Depths," by F. Austen Britten (1920).  After having read Britten's "Treasure of the Tombs" in Ashley's Glimpses of the Unknown, I picked up a copy of his volume of strange tales On the Borderland (1922) which contains this story. Creepy doesn't begin to describe this one, which like "The Murdered Ships" by James Francis Dwyer (1918), takes place after just shortly after World War I.  
"The Ship That Died" by John Gilbert (1917) is the account of "the last chapters of a strange story," that haunted me long after I'd finished it.  
"Devereaux's Last Smoke" by Izola Forrester (1907) is another hair-raising tale, this time set on a cruise ship.  
In "The Black Bell Buoy" (1907) Rupert Chesterton explains exactly what is it about this bell-buoy that made it become such  an "emblem of bad luck" that even though a reward is offered to bring it in, "most of the skippers ... would as soon have thought of hooking on to it as of taking Davy Jones for a messmate."  



from Sputnik News

"The High Seas" by Elinor Mordaunt (1918) is the story of two brothers, one of who has murder on his mind, but must wait for the right moment ...
Ashley says that he believes "The Soul-Saver" by  Morgan Burke (1926) is "the most unusual story in this volume," and I have to agree.  This may just be my favorite story in the entire collection, but sadly to say anything about his one would be to spoil so I'm staying quiet.  
Last but in no way least is Lady Eleanor Smith's "No Ships Pass" (1932)  in which a shipwrecked sailor finds himself washed up on a lush, tropical island, but there's a catch.  I was so impressed with this story (and its horrors) that I bought a used copy of Smith's Satan's Circus (Ashtree, 2004) so I could read more of her work.

From the Depths is great fun and perfect for vacation reading,  but also perfect for anyone who loves old pulp, the supernatural, and in some cases, straight-up horror stories.  I am so grateful to Mike Ashley for putting this volume together and bringing these tales to light.  In his introduction, he says that this book is probably not the best thing to read on a cruise, but I can see myself at night, tucked up safely in bed somewhere in the mid-Atlantic,  reading it in the dark with only a book light and letting my imagination run completely wild.  Recommended.  If the rest of the British Library Tales of the Weird series is as good as this one and Glimpses of the Unknown, I will be a very happy camper when they finally arrive, and probably even happier once I've read them.