Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Glimpses of the Unknown: Lost Ghost Stories (ed.) Mike Ashley

9780712352666
British Library, 2018
331 pp
paperback



"It's a terrible thing to meddle with the Powers of Darkness..."
                   from "The House of the Black Evil," 285.


The British Library has once again thrown temptation in my path, and I was completely unable to resist.  We're talking not just one book, but five that I've picked up (or preordered) in a new series of books, British Library Tales of the Weird.   I passed on one, Haunted Houses: Two Novels by Charlotte Riddell, only because I think I already have most of her supernatural writings as collected and published by Leonaur.    The other books in this series (that I know of) aside from this one are

From the Depths and Other Strange Tales of the Sea (ed.) Mike Ashley 
Mortal Depths: Encounters With the End  (ed.) Greg Buzwell 

Doorway to Dilemma: Bewildering Tales of Dark Fantasy (ed.) Mike Ashley

The Platform Edge: Uncanny Tales of the Railways (ed.) Mike Ashley

and judging by what I've found here in this volume, hopefully there will be more forthcoming.    


What really makes Glimpses of the Unknown most readworthy is the fact that the stories in this book have not previously been reprinted so they're here in all their obscure glory.  They range over time from the 1890s to 1929, and while Ashley admits that "not all of them evoke horror or fear," he also says that 
"...a ghost story can work on several levels ranging from the unnerving tingle of the unknown, to that hauntingly evocative atmosphere of something strange or uncertain."
which is absolutely the case, at least for me.   There are eighteen stories to be found here that include, as the editor also states, "the whole spectrum of the supernatural."  As with most anthologies, enjoyment (and creepiness) is found in the eye of the beholder, but it is worthy of attention from even the most seasoned readers of ghost stories.    My personal favorite, which stands on its own in its greatness is "The House of the Black Evil" written by a most obscure author by the name of Eric Purves.  Ashley notes in his brief introduction to this story,
"When John Reed Wade, the editor of Pearson's Magazine, ran the following story in the May 1929 issue, he announced it as 'One of the most original mystery stories ever written."
Wade was so taken with it, in fact, that the opening scene from "House of the Black Evil" was captured by Kenneth Inns as that issue's cover:


from an online "checklist" of Pearson's magazine


depicting the "horror-stricken" postman looking into the mail slot in the door of "that dismal and forbidding house."   From there (don't worry, no spoilers here), he summons help from the person who will turn out to be the narrator, who lives on the opposite side of the square.  What they discover is the meat and bones of this story,  so exquisitely unraveled little by little so that the full force of the horror is delivered only toward the end.  Purves may have been unknown, but this story deserves to be in the hands of supernatural readers everywhere.  

The complete table of contents (briefly annotated, no spoilers, but skip if you don't want to know): 

1. "On the Embankment" by Hugh Esterel Wright,  1919: A perfect opener for this collection which begins with the description of a certain "peculiarity" of a certain seat: "no matter at what time of night you pass it, no matter how crowded with dilapidated humanity the seats next to it may be, that seat is always empty."   Why is that, you might ask, but far be it from me to answer.

2. "The Mystery of the Gables" by Elsie Norris, 1908:  Once again we find grown men wagering that one of them wouldn't have the courage to stay overnight in a haunted house, and of course, one does. 

3. "The Missing Word" by Austin Philips, 1907:  It is a dark and stormy night and a dozen "telegraphists" are waiting to spread word of the news of the dying Prime Minister's actual death. To pass the time, they regale each other with "tales of crime and horror." As it turns out, one of them has a real tale of terror to tell.    The end of this one is a sort of letdown after all of the buildup and a bit predictable.   By the way, Philips was the son-in-law of writer Edith Nesbit, who had encouraged him to sell his stories to The Strand.  Memo to self -- find his crime novels. 

4. "Phantom Death" by Huan Mee, 1900:  another good one, which begins with the viewing of a certain painting that "must be viewed in solitude and amid funereal environment." In the dark room ("death-like chamber") of the Mecklenburg Gallery which houses the painting, one man finds his  solitude interrupted by another, setting off a truly weird sequence of events.  

5. "The Wraith of the Rapier"  by Firth Scott, 1911:  an antiques dealer sells an old Spanish rapier to a collector for a mere pittance -- its new owner discovers why once he takes possession.   This one is downright creepy. 

6. "The Soul of Maddalina Tonelli," by James Barr, 1909:  Belissima Another fine story discovered by Ashley,  featuring a violinist who, while playing in a concert, notices a beautiful woman in the audience giving him special attention.  It seems that no one else can see her but it doesn't matter: she has a message for this man and for him alone.   If you can get past the more melodramatic elements, it's a lovely but eerie story.  

7.  "Haunted," by Jack Edwards, 1910.  Another one of my personal favorites, centering around an artist whose initial description is given as having " the face of a man who had begun to be afraid."  As it turns out he has good reason, eventually reaching the point where he seeks company from another because he is too frightened to be alone in his own home.  So very, very well done.  

8. "Our Strange Traveller" by Percy James Brebner, 1911:  Another good one, this one set in the North of France.  A walking tour taken by two friends turns into something completely unexpected and wholly terrifying. 

9. "A Regent of Love Rhymes," by Guy Thorne, 1905:  Not so hot on this one, exactly -- pretty standard ghostly fare about a writer whose major writing is on the edge of being finished when calamity strikes.  




frontispiece:  my photo (and yes, the woman is blurry; it's not me as usual)

10. "Amid the Trees," by Francis Xavier, 1911:  Portugal is the setting for this one as a traveler on holiday with a desire to "simply and tranquilly ...thoroughly enjoy the country and the day" encounters a "strange, moving fragrance" in the air during a long walk.  He finds himself succumbing to its spell, and begins thinking of how much he wants a woman, believing that amid the trees is the perfect place to find one.  Actually, this one is more sad; a wee bit overwritten but still pretty good. 

11.  "The River's Edge" by Mary Schultze, 1912:  the less said about this one the better -- to describe it is to give it away completely, although I will say that it was more than a bit predictable.

12.  "A Futile Ghost," by Mary Reynolds,  1899:  A strange story, to say the least, in which the spectre of a veiled woman makes itself known to two sisters (one married, one engaged)  living in the same home.  The force of this particular story doesn't quite make itself known until the very end, which I had to read twice to understand.  

13. "Ghosts," by Lumley Deakin, 1914:  Quite honestly, and with apologies, I have no idea why this story was even included here.  a) it wasn't that good and b) I'm still wondering if it's actually a ghost story or if there was some jiggery-pokery going on in terms of a setup of some sort between two of the characters.  Read it and decide for yourself.  

14. "Kearney," by Elizabeth Jordan, 1917:  The aftermath of a terrible accident makes an army officer wonder if his companion has actually been laid to rest after his death.  A wee bit sappy and sentimental for my taste; on the other hand, there's a certain obsessional ambiguity to it that kept me compelled.

15. "When Spirits Steal" by Philippa Forest, 1920:  After finishing this one, my first thought was to wonder why nobody has collected her stories featuring Peter Carwell and his companion Wilton.  Granted there are only four of them, this one included, but "When Spirits Steal" was such a fun and different type of ghostly tale that I wanted more.  Another one where even a slight bit of information is too much, but thoroughly enjoyable. 

16. "The House of the Black Evil" mentioned earlier, but I'll add that in my opinion, the sheer originality of this story, "the tale itself was weird beyond imagining," offset the entire cost of the book.  

17. "The Woman in the Veil," by E.F. Benson, 1928:  Certainly not one of Benson's best, but still worth the read.  

18. "The Treasure of the Tombs," by F. Britten Austin, 1921:  Ashley describes this story as seeming "ideally suited to Indiana Jones."  Yes and no.  What caught my eye and what drew me to this story was its sweet blend of supernatural force meets pure unadulterated pulp, which okay, does sound a bit like Indiana Jones, but there's much more to it, including veiled warnings against sheer greed.  This one was just plain fun; a delightful inclusion that made my pulp-loving heart go pitter-pat. 


Obviously, it's a mixed bag and I have my own internal thing going where ghost stories are concerned so it's one that readers will want to try for themselves.  However, the joy is in the discovery of these previously unread stories, so Mike Ashley and the British Library have made me a very happy reader.   Definitely recommended for serious lovers and readers of ghost stories.  


Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Leonora Carrington: The Complete Complete Stories and The Hearing Trumpet

This morning I pulled up my normal news feed and to my great pleasure, there was a link to an article at Literary Hub entitled "Your Surrealist Literature Starter Kit," where your eye first lands on Leonora Carrington's  "Self-Portrait."   As it happens, that particular painting serves as cover art for the Dorothy Project's book of her collected stories, one of the three books by Carrington I read in March, along with her The Hearing Trumpet and Down Below which isn't fiction so won't be covered here.   She does have another novel I haven't read, The Stone Door,  which is described as "an inspired, phantasmagoric journey into a wildly surreal world," evidently "built in layers like a Chinese  puzzle." Of course, that could describe all of her fiction, but the blurb goes on to say that it is a
 "tale of two people, of love and the Zodiac and the Cabbalah, of Transylvania and Mesopotamia converging at the Caucusus, of a mad Hungarian King...and of a woman's discovery of an initiatory code that leads to a Cyclopean obstacle, to love, self and awareness..."
 A crappy used acceptable copy is pricy enough to keep it out of my hands, but someone really ought to do a reprint version. With interest in Carrington's work starting to revive, it would be a worthy and most likely welcome endeavor.



9780997366648
Dorothy, 2017
213 pp
paperback


  When talking about The Complete Stories in the above mentioned Literary Hub  post, author Emily Temple says the following:
"These stories are weird and jagged and enchanting, fragmented and strikingly visual, barely stories at all sometimes, but oddly compulsive.  How else to describe a collection that includes a woman winning the corpse of Joseph Stalin in the lottery and using it to cure whooping cough and syphillis?"
 The bit about Joseph Stalin's corpse being used to treat diseases sounds off the wall and cryptic, but once you read the story ("How to Start a Pharmaceuticals Business"), it turns out to make a lot of sense. And this is just one part of the multi-faceted genius of Leonora Carrington's short stories -- they are put together with a logic that works in the worlds she creates, so much so that when a  hostess of a party in "The House of Fear" wears a dress made of "live bats sewn together by their wings" and there is a group of horses playing a game where they
"simultaneously beat time to the tune of the 'Volga Boatmen' with your left foreleg, 'The Marseillaise' with your right foreleg, and 'Where have You Gone, My Last Rose of Summer' with your two back legs"
it doesn't seem weird at all.  These stories are more than fable, more than just weird tales, and as Kathryn Davis says about them,  "Nothing is what it seems to be."   The collection is beyond outstanding; I will say that I spent a lot of time reading about Carrington's life before reading her fiction, and it definitely provided some measure of insight into her work.


9781878972194
Exact Change, 1996
originally published 1974
199 pp
softcover
Book number two is The Hearing Trumpet, my favorite of the three. In a 1977 interview that appears as a foonote on the first page of the introduction of this edition, Carrington notes that in this book she "wanted to appear as an old lady so that I could poke fun at sinister things."   Marian Leatherby is ninety-two and lives with her son Galahad, his wife Muriel, and one of their five children who still lives at home. Her best friend is Carmella, who "writes letters all over the world to people she has never met and signs them with all sorts of romantic names, never her own."  On one of Marian's regular visits to Carmella, her friend gives her a hearing trumpet, which she says will change Marian's life:
"Not only will you be able to sit and listen to beautiful music and intelligent conversation but you will also have the privilege of being able to spy on what your whole family are saying about you, and that ought to be very amusing." 
What Marian hears is her family's plan to put her in an institution in Santa Brigada, which is run by the Well of Light Brotherhood and financed by "a prominent American cereal company."   Once there, it doesn't take Marian too long to figure out that the place is a front for a strange cult, and among other things, she begins to have weird dreams and becomes obsessed with a strange portrait of a winking nun. And while all of this seems patently absurd, once again, there's a certain logic to it all, none the least of which is that in leaving the mundane world, Marian has crossed over into another.   It is a great story, laugh-out-loud funny at times while deadly serious; it is cloaked in mythology and  alchemical lore, and offers the story of a woman whose life begins to take on purpose at a ripe old age as she becomes initiated into a special world of secrets. It's so much more, but it is difficult to describe the indescribable, so we'll leave it there. I loved this book and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Both books are absolutely delightful to read -- as a writer, Carrington is out there but her work is not only gorgeous, it's positively genius.

*****

I will say that the more potential readers know about her life before going into her fiction, the more you'll see it in these stories.  I also want to mention a particularly excellent book on Carrington by Susan L. Aberth called Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art; another good source is Whitney Chadwick's Farewell to the Muse: Love, War and the Women of Surrealism.  Her cousin Joanna Moorhead wrote a biography entitled The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington -- this one is okay for facts but Moorhead sort of misses the boat in a lot of places otherwise. Still, it's a start.