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.