Friday, December 25, 2020

ghosts at Christmas, part three: The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Stories, Volume Four

Valancourt Books, 2020
231 pp


You need look no further than the announcement of "the Best Ghost Story" contest (reproduced on p. 74)  as advertised in New York's  Evening World, December 23, 1889 issue to see that ghost stories,  "in Keeping with the Christmas Holidays," were alive and well in America.    In this book, rather than drawing on the Victorian British tradition of telling ghostly tales at yuletide,  editor Christopher Philippo makes the case throughout that the Christmas ghost story tradition was also going strong in America during the same time. 

Volume four is a fine mix of stories, ghostly and otherwise, set at Christmas time along with a few poems, Christmas-themed advertisements and holiday-based newspaper articles of the period.  As with the best anthologies, it starts out with a bang, whetting the appetite for what follows.   Joseph Holt Ingraham's "The Green Huntsman; or The Haunted Villa," a "Christmas Legend" hailing from Louisiana was originally published in 1841, then later got "an English stamp of approval" in 1858 with its appearance in the Huddersfield Chronicle and West Yorkshire Advertiser of December 24.   Set during a "Christmas festival" at a villa in the "upper faubourg" of New Orleans,  a new bride and bridegroom are also celebrating their nuptials and the "bridal night" is about to begin. Everyone is happy until things become weird at the neighboring "ruined mansion" known as the Haunted Villa, which "to every mind supernatural terror was associated," and with good reason.  

My favorite story in this book is Julian Hawthorne's "The Devil's Christmas" which would be fully at home in any anthology of the weird.  It seems that the narrator of this tale has been invited to a Christmas party at the home of a well known socialite, at which the highlight of the affair is to "meet the Prince." It will be a Christmas he will most likely never forget.  

Others receiving my vote of honorable mention are the anonymously-written  "Worse Than a Ghost Story"  in which a dying "spiritualist with the reputation of being a superior 'medium'" gives a warning to her disbelieving husband, followed by  Frank Ibberson Jervis' "The Frozen Husband," the story of a beautiful young woman who falls for and marries a stranger known only as "the brown man." This one was delightfully creepy and thoroughly chilling.  F.H. Brunell's "The Ghostly Christmas Gift" also makes this list in a story of events in the gold fields of South America that turns utterly eerie as a man receives a bizarre Christmas gift each year in payment for the treachery that made him wealthy.   "The Blizzard" by Luke Sharp (pen name of Robert Barr, Jr.)  has more than a touch of irony that made me laugh when all was said and done, while  Henry Beaugrand's "The Werwolves" has the feel of a mini-epic involving native Americans who disappear "by enchantment" and who may actually be "a band of loups-garous."  Add to the mix a spurned and vengeful lover, and you have one hell of a fun story    Supernatural indeed, with an added feel of delicious pulp goodness.  

While I'm not really a major poetry person, there are two that I feel are beyond noteworthy: first, Paul Lawrence Dunbar's poem "The Haunted Oak," about which the editor says "the voices and silences" therein "seem as raw and necessary as ever" (to which I wholeheartedly agree),  and on a much lighter note,  HC Dodge's shape poem, "Poor Jack," the musings of a somewhat "demonic" jack-in-the-box.  Quite honestly, I've never seen anything like it, and I was so fascinated that I posted a photo of it on my facebook page:

 I may be wrong since I haven't read every anthology of Christmas ghost stories ever published, but at least in my experience this is the first time someone has taken the time to put together a volume such as this one.   Given that I've never come across anything  like it before, it is a most welcome addition to my home library as well as a book I'm recommending to everyone.   Do not skip Mr. Philippo's informative and  excellent introduction, and above all, do not feel badly if you miss out on this book at Christmas time because it makes for great entertainment any time of the year.  Nicely done!

Monday, December 21, 2020

ghosts at Christmas, part two: Chill Tidings: Dark Tales of the Christmas Season (ed.) Tanya Kirk


British Library Publishing, 2020
212 pp


"Oh, it is a stirring night in Ghostland, the night of December the twenty-fourth!!"
                -- Jerome K. Jerome, Told After Supper

In Chill Tidings I have a double bonus -- a first-class collection of specially-chosen ghostly Christmas stories and another installment of the excellent British Library Tales of the Weird series. I originally bought this book to read on Kindle since Amazon said it was not due to be published in hard copy until August 2021 (??)  but  I was so completely nettled  over not having a physical book to hold in my hands that I went directly to British Library publishing for my copy.  I was so happy to have been notified about this book by one of my like-minded goodreads friends (Thank you, David!) because I'd already read and loved Ms. Kirk's Spirits of the Season (2018), also part of the Tales of the Weird series.  This volume presents thirteen stories that the editor says she wished she could have "fitted into the first book," chronologically arranged from 1868 to 1955 with one exception -- Jerome K. Jerome's "novelette" Told After Supper from 1891, placed at the end of this anthology.   

Between these covers one can look forward to (according to the editor's introduction)  "traditional Victorian spookiness,"  as well as "a weird pagan vision," a "sentimental tale of redemption," and then 
"spooky monks, a Vampire lady, a fatal duel, a gruesome Father Christmas and festive gifts from beyond the grave."

How could anyone possibly say no to all that?  Each and every story is set at Christmas time, with not a bad story to be found anywhere.  

For "Traditional Victorian spookiness" you can't go wrong with Irish writer Charlotte Riddell.  Her "A Strange Christmas Game" finds a brother and sister who after years of grinding poverty inherit a house called Martingdale, and in doing so, discover the cause of their kinsman's strange disappearance on Christmas Eve forty years earlier.  As the narrator says, "you pooh-pooh the existence of ghosts, and 'only wish you could find a haunted house in which to spend the night ...' but wait until you are left in a dreary, desolate old country mansion .." well,  you get the drift.  Not to steal thunder from the British Library, but Leonaur has an excellent collection of Riddell's Complete Supernatural and Weird Fiction available for readers who may be interested.   Creepiness continues with Hume Nesbit's "The Old Portrait," about which the editor notes that "it's a powerful story of the Fin-de-Siècle period, and is akin to Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and Bram Stoker's Dracula, the latter of which it predates."  Once you've read it, you'll immediately see why this is so.  In the meantime, not even one baby hint.  Next up from Louisa Baldwin (1895) is "The Real and the Counterfeit."  In this story, the Christmas holidays bring  "three young fellows"  to "kick it up alone" at the Musgrave family home, Stonecroft.  As one of the three notes, "an old house is not complete unless it is haunted," and to his surprise, he learns that the family has its own ghost, not seen since Grandfather Musgrave's time.  Young Musgrave's lifetime desire to "become personally acquainted" with the family ghost just may happen, if his friend Armitage has anything to say about it.  As a brief aside, for some reason, I was very much reminded of Montague Summers' "The Man on the Stairs" while reading this one.    Described as "sweet rather than scary," and a story that "features a very Victorian idealised Christmas,"   Frank Richard Stockton's "Old Applejoy's Ghost" takes it very personally when his elderly grandson, "the old curmudgeon,"  makes absolutely no moves toward celebrating Christmas in the old family home. 

Victorian Christmas card from Ripley's Weird News

 From 1913, Algernon Blackwell's "Transition" is the story of "an ordinary man" who finds himself caught up in an extraordinary situation on his way home to deliver Christmas presents to his family, and that's all I will say.   A.M. Burrage, whose name you may recognize from his story "Smee,"  is up next with "The Fourth Wall" from 1915,  one of my favorite stories in this volume, and so very different from the others.  Solicitor Jack Forran is told he must take time off work to recuperate from severe headaches; he, his wife, her brother, her sister and her sister's boyfriend all share a cottage "just outside the region of the fens."   It's an ideally-secluded, "ripping old place"  for these "normal, hard-headed people," until one of them begins to feel that the room they're in seems "stagey."  Let the weirdness begin.  Frankly, I am a bit sad that Burrage's work is not as well known as it should be -- he is one heck of a neglected but great teller of supernatural tales.   I was sort of wondering why HP Lovecraft's "The Festival" would show up here, but as it turns out, the poor narrator in this story had absolutely no clue just how terrible his Christmas was about to get -- it's likely he will never, ever forget the strange Yule-rite.  Creepsville. Seriously.  In "The Crown Derby Plate"  Marjorie Bowen has written  one of the most effective ghost stories ever.  It all begins when Miss Martha Pym hears of a nearby recluse who collects china and begins to wonder if perhaps she might just have a Crown Derby Plate to finish off her set which is one plate short.  Going to see her at Hartleys just might provide Martha a double pleasure --  finding the plate and seeing the ghost in that house which is supposedly haunted. After all, as she says,  she would very much like to, "particularly at Christmas for you can laugh as you like, that is the correct time to see a ghost." 

more Christmas card fun from Ripley's Weird News

Elizabeth Bowen's excellent "Green Holly" from 1944 follows, with seven housemates "Experts -- in what the Censor would not permit me to say" living and working in an old country house called Mopsam Grange while  obviously engaged in some sort of covert work for the government.  They aren't alone -- it's Christmas Eve, a special anniversary for the ethereal inhabitant, who falls for one of the earthly ones.  There is so much to this little story that goes well beyond the supernatural and miles beyond ghostly entertainment -- I've read it three times now and it's just as powerful every time.  I could talk about this one for days, but you know.   I LOVE her work, supernatural or not.  Next comes Andrew Caldecott's "Christmas Re-union" which is, as Ms. Kirk reveals, based on an idea of M.R. James as described in an essay he wrote called "Stories I Have Tried to Write." Not only is this story à la James, but his name is even mentioned within the story.   What was supposed to have been a joyful family Christmas party at the Dreyton home turns out to include a guest described by Mr. Dreyton as "a busted balloon" or a "wet blanket" that no one is happy to have there.  When Father Christmas arrives as scheduled for the children, well, let's just say that I'll never again view Santa in the usual light.  Rosemary Timperley's short  "A Christmas Meeting" from 1952 falls squarely into the weird zone, as a woman spends Christmas alone for the first time, thinking over her "so many Christmases over the years."  Her thoughts are interrupted with the arrival of a young man, a writer who didn't go with his family for the holiday, staying behind instead to work. The two strike up a conversation, and on the verge of coffee and plum cake, he disappears.  This one's a bit of a mindbender, when all is said and done, and another I read more than once.   Very nicely done.  L.P. Hartley's "Someone in the Lift" is a rather gruesome tale I'd read elsewhere, about a boy who sees a "shadowy passenger" in a hotel elevator when his father's not with him.  Let's just say that dad shouldn't have told him his thoughts on who it must be.  Memo to self: must find a good, used copy of Tartarus' The Collected Macabre Stories . Finally, last but by no means least, is Jerome K. Jerome's delightful Told After Supper, which made me laugh out loud, receiving strange looks from the spouse all the while. 

This volume is truly a fine anthology, and I don't know how Ms. Kirk will top her two Christmas anthologies for the Tales of the Weird series, both of which are excellent.  If she does go on to do a third, I'll be waiting eagerly.  Of course, it's not necessary to wait until the Christmas season to read either, but I'm sort of into this whole ghostly Christmas reading tradition now and quite enjoying it. 

very, very highly recommended 

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Ghosts at Christmas, part one: The First and Second Leonaur Christmas Book of Great Stories (ed.) Eunice Hetherington


Leonaur/Oakpast, 2017
367 pp


Ever since Valancourt started issuing their annual Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories, I've found myself fascinated with the idea of the tradition of reading ghostly tales at Christmas.   As Jerome K. Jerome stated in his Told After Supper (not included in this book but in the subject of the second part of this post, Tanya Kirk's Chill Tidings: Dark Tales of the Christmas Season)
"Whenever five or six English-speaking people meet round a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories. Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about spectres. It is a genial, festive season, and we love to muse upon graves, and dead bodies, and murders and blood."  

Not that I don't enjoy reading that sort of thing at any time, but I do make an effort to find different collections of Christmas ghost stories every year.  To my great delight, I discovered that Leonaur Books has published not one, but two volumes of Christmas Book of Great Ghost Stories.  

Leonaur/Oakpast, 2017
paperback - 353 pp

Out of the twenty stories in the first book I'd read only eight:

"Man-Size in Marble," by E. Nesbit 
"An Eddy on the Floor," by Bernard Capes
"The Haunted Organist of Hurly Burly," by Rosa Mulholland
"The Open Door," by Mrs. Oliphant (one of all-time favorites)
"The Upper Berth," by F. Marion Crawford,
"To Let," by B.M. Croker (which happens to be my favorite of the entire bunch)
"The Withered Arm," by Thomas Hardy,  and
"Thurnley Abbey," by Perceval Landon.

Of the remaining twelve, the anonymously-written "The Story of Clifford House" is worth a mention, while  Grant Allen's "My New Year's Eve Among the Mummies" was, I think, somewhat misplaced, having a better home in Andrew Smith's (ed.) collection Lost in a Pyramid and Other Classic Mummy Stories (which I'll be reading at some point in 2021 when I feel the need for pulpy fun).   

Moving on to book two, nine of these stories were familiar:  

"The Old Nurse's Story," by Elizabeth Gaskell
"Bewitched," by Edith Wharton (a perennial favorite)
"At Crighton Abbey," by M.E. Braddon
"An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street," by J. Sheridan Le Fanu
"The Botathen Ghost," by R.S Hawker
"The Doll's Ghost," by F. Marion Crawford
"The Ghost at the Rath," by Rosa Mulholland (my favorite of this volume)
"The Tapestried Chamber, or The Lady in the Square," by Sir Walter Scott and 
"The Tell-Tale Heart," by E.A. Poe

Honorable mention here  to Henry James' "The Romance of Certain Old Clothes,"  "John Charrington's Wedding" by Edith Nesbit, and Charlotte Riddell's "The Open Door" (which has absolutely nothing in common with the story of the same name by Margaret Oliphant).   The story by Poe could have been left out and wouldn't have been missed -- again, a bit of a misplacement on the editor's part, in my opinion.  

Either taken individually or as a set, these Leonaur editions are pretty good, with ghost stories of all sorts included.  While there are a few in  both books that sort of meander and made me want to skip ahead (I didn't, but almost...),  for the most part there will be something for every reader of ghostly tales.  I was somewhat disappointed though, since the table of contents lists only titles with no authors, no story provenance,  and worst of all is that there is no introduction in which to explain the rationale behind the inclusion of the stories that have been anthologized here.  I also think the contents list could have been a bit more pared down.    Still, I would recommend both volumes to avid ghost-story readers like myself and I've discovered new authors to track down for other works they may have written like the ones included here.  

Part two of my Ghosts at Christmas posts is for the above-mentioned Chill Tidings: Dark Tales of the Christmas Season (ed. Tanya Kirk), while part three is for (you guessed it) The Valancourt Book of  Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories, Volume Four which I've just started.  


an interim "oh dear" -- aka YIKES!


found at Pinterest

Somehow the comments that people have been making for a couple of  years have been stockpiled with no notification from Blogger, and had not one of my goodreads friends notified me about making a comment here, I never would have seen all of the others.   My settings included getting an email whenever there was a comment made, but for some reason that hasn't been happening. I just figured no one was commenting.  So to all who have, my apologies, and I'll be sure to check from now on.   

I feel so stupid...

Saturday, December 5, 2020

hopefully, the first of many: The Valancourt Book of World Horror Stories, Vol. 1 (ed.) James D. Jenkins and Ryan Cagle

"there's something universal about the telling and reading of a good, creepy tale."

Here's the question asked by the editors:

"What if there were a whole world of great horror fiction out there you didn't know anything about, written by authors by distant lands and in foreign languages, outstanding horror stories you had no access to, written in languages you couldn't read? For an avid horror fan, what could be more horrifying than that?"

Luckily for readers like me who have experienced this dilemma, there's Valancourt's new Valancourt Book of World Horror Stories.  This book is like a key that unlocks a door to a room which once opened, yields a library of previously-unknown treasures gathered from around the globe.  

Valancourt Books, 2020
432 pp, hardcover (#163)

As the editors note in their introduction, 
"if one takes the trouble to look hard enough, there's a much larger body of world horror fiction out there than any of us would suspect ... it often involves deep digging and venturing into uncharted waters."

The "deep digging and venturing into uncharted waters" is what the people at Valancourt do best, no matter what they publish, so I knew before I even ordered this book that I would not be disappointed.  I wasn't.  

Before you even get to the main event, Valancourt has included an aerial view of sorts with a look at which countries are represented and a little blurb about each story (not that this photo is particularly legible but you get the drift):

Of course, as in any anthology, it's impossible not to latch on to favorites even though all of the stories found in this volume are topnotch.  These are mine, in order of appearance.   "Uironda" by Luigi Musolino (from Turin) opens this book, in which a truck driver, as the brief description on the world map above states, takes an "exit to terror on the highway to Hell," and his "umpteenth work trip" assumes "the features of a nightmare." From Hungary comes "The Time Remaining" by Attila Veres.  The narrator of this story needs to "recount everything ... up to the point when I lost control."  It all begins when a plush toy named Vili begins to be sick, with a prognosis of death looming.  I swear that when I first started reading this one I nearly passed it by but it just kept getting better (and creepier) with every paragraph.  It was poignant, until the turn to  absolutely frightening.     "The Angle of Horror," by Spanish writer Cristina Cubas Fernández is another of my top picks, one of the most eerie tales in this book.  Some time ago, after reading her collection of stories called Nona's Room, I entered her name into my imaginary top tier of writers of the weird and the strange, so I was beyond happy to see her represented here. The editors quote Terrence Rafferty from his New York Times review of Nona's Room as saying about her that she is "most interested in the ambiguities and the periodic disturbances that plague the imagination," and that in her work, "The threat of madness is never too far away, a dark cloud hovering."   In "Angle of Horror," a young man returns home from being abroad and locks himself away in his room.  The explanation of why that he gives to his sister seems unbelievable to her, until it isn't.  As much as I loved that one, my very favorite story comes from Bernardo Esquinca (Mexico) called "Señor Ligotti," an eerie, menacing tale in which Esteban, a writer of thriller novels who is also about to become a father,  accepts a strange but intriguing proposition from an elderly man, Señor Ligotti.  The señor offers to sell him his beautiful home for whatever money he has on hand;  Esteban's wife isn't sure about the deal, telling her husband that the old man might be "the tip of the iceberg of something we can't even imagine."  Of course he fails to heed her advice, and soon comes to regret the deal.  I enjoyed this one so much that I've preordered Esquinca's El libro de los dioses, the book  from which this story comes.   "Si non oscillas, noli tintinnare..."  I dreaded each mention of those words, getting the shivers even now as I wrote them.    From the Netherlands it's "The Bones in Her Eyes" by Christien Boomsma which moves well beyond the point of disturbing to downright horrific as a young woman feels terrible about hitting a cat with her car, returns the cat to its elderly owner,  then goes to check on it the next day.  It's the ending of this one that will leave you with nightmares... I couldn't stop thinking about it for a long, long time.  

Really, there isn't a bad story to be found in this book, and the beauty of this volume is in the diversity of points of view and storytelling, while encompassing ideas and themes that everyone everywhere will recognize.   The full table of contents can be found at Valancourt Books' website, where there is also a blurb from Ann VanderMeer which explains one of the many reasons this particular volume is so important, so groundbreaking and so incredibly meaningful.  As she notes, 
"While the language of horror is universal, its means of expression necessarily varies from culture to culture... "

and the stories in this book come from "voices and perspectives we have lived too long without." 

 I agree wholeheartedly, and it's a shame that more of the work of these authors has yet to be translated into English.   The editors ask and answer the question of why this is so in their introduction,  but at the same time it is just a bit frustrating to know that so much great writing is out there that remains unavailable to an English-language readership.  Hopefully some day this will change, but for now at least we have this first volume as an introduction.

Very well done, and very highly recommended. Now awaiting a Volume Two. 

Friday, November 20, 2020

"a different domain: " The Nightfarers, by Mark Valentine


Tartarus Press, 2020
219 pp


In the story "The Axeholm Toll," I marked a particular sentence which perfectly describes my experience with reading the stories in this book:
"We enter them, and a sense steals over us of being in a different domain."

The best writers, in my humble reader opinion, somehow manage to deliver stories that shut out the sensory realm altogether and deliver me fully into the world(s) that they've created.   That's certainly how it is in the case of The Nightfarers, in which the author's elegant, atmospheric and often ethereal writing takes you into (again quoting from "The Axholme Toll")

"...places which have their story stored already, and want to tell us this, through whatever powers they can..." 

with the people in these stories best personifying those spoken of in the epigraph by Angelus Silesius who  "would see The Light that is beyond all light," by "faring forth Into the darkness of the Night."  It is only there where they may stumble upon what "each place" will "reach out to us, to tell us, tell us what it holds." 

My very favorite stories in The Nightfarers are those relating to books, literature, or browsing in bookstores. No surprise there -- I'm very much like the narrator of  "The Axeholm Toll" who notes that 
"I am by nature solitary and prefer nothing better than quietness and my own company, with a good fire and a good book." 

I did have to laugh when I started reading The Nightfarers, a timely coincidence since when I started it I  was eagerly awaiting news of the winners of both the National Book Prize and The Booker Prize. The first story, "The 1909 Prosperine Prize," begins with several judges who have come together to decide who will win that award.  The shortlist for this literary award comes down to seven entries (Algernon Blackwood, Marjorie Bowen, William Hope Hodgson, Bram Stoker, 'Sabazeus', and MP Shiel), but it seems the judges cannot make up their mind. The secretary's plan to push through the indecision is nothing short of genius.  Major book love going on not just here, but in several of the other stories in this volume.    "White Pages," for example, finds a lover of "obscure old books" actually finding a sought-for,  "very scarce" book called Invisible Friends, so-named for a reason, while in "Undergrowth," a man who wants to be left alone while browsing bookstores without any help from the proprietor finds himself eventually roaming through books on his own in a rather unique way.  I had to read this one twice just to make sure that what I thought was happening was happening.  This story is a little gem, but there may be something in the advice given in "The White Pages" in terms of riffling the pages of any book you might read before starting it.  The rather ethereal  "The Inner Sentinel" is a story in which the narrator finds himself piecing together "some hints of a vast history" in his dreams which become more than a feeling that he's "lived another life" in the space of sleep.  This one is absolutely beautiful, transporting me into the narrator's visions as life outside  of myself faded to nothing; it is also as the author notes in the "About the Stories" section of this book, "a tribute to William Hope Hodgson's The Night Land.   "The Bookshop in Novy Svet" was another story that made me do a double take at the end, another absolutely brilliant work featuring an actuary, a bookstore owner, an artist and dying poets, all the while reminding me for some reason of Meyrink. Hmm. I think it's pretty obvious by now  that I absolutely loved "The Axeholme Toll," which begins with a mention of Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Merry Men" leading to talk of "enclaves within the solid land of the country, which are islands in a different sense."  

  Of the remainder of the stories, the eerie "The White Sea Company" also falls into the favorites category, as does "The Dawn at Tzern"   and "The Seer of Trieste."  The others I haven't mentioned due to time considerations,  "Their Dark and Starry Mirrors,"  "A Walled Garden on the Bosphorus" and "The Mascarons of the Late Empire" are all atmospheric pleasures which carry the feel of the fantastical, while "The Box of Idols" is a short but fun  little supernatural detective story. 

While it's a hard book to pin down as to category (and I don't think it needs to be)  The Nightfarers is an exquisite collection of stories from a writer of incredible genius and talent.  These stories should appeal to those readers who enjoy tales about what lies hidden underneath or alongside the material world that only a few rare people will ever experience, as well as to those readers who prefer being caught up in atmosphere rather than simply focusing on plot.  I can't recommend this one highly enough. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

and finally, it's just not Halloween without The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories, Volume 4

 (read October 30/31)  

I read this book over the last two days of October, because it is just not Halloween without The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories.  I have looked forward to these anthologies each year since Valancourt started publishing them in 2016, and I have never been disappointed.  Not that I expect to -- because of the wide variety of stories presented in each volume, I have found some of the best yet lesser-known gems of my reading life.

Valancourt, 2020
260 pp


What is unique about this series is that all of the authors included in these volumes have been included in some Valancourt book or another.  This series also "reflects to a certain degree,"  as editors James D. Jenkins and Ryan Cagle say in their introduction,  what's in the works at Valancourt.  In this fourth volume, as they note, "represented in the present book" are authors from their Paperbacks From Hell,  Valancourt International, and  Monster, She Wrote series, including their first two international authors, Hubert Lampo and Felix Timmermans.  There are three stories which are "original contributions" to this volume, and as the intro also states, 
"it wouldn't be a Valancourt Book of Horror Stories if it didn't include a selection of rare tales from the 19th and 20th centuries..."
and there are definitely plenty of those.  

I made a list of the five that gave me the most reading pleasure. The  first three listed here are from 2020, which is most unusual for me, but in this case, it's all about the writing.   Elizabeth Engstrom's "Vivid Dreamscenters on an elderly patient in a nursing home who suffers from chronic pain and receives new medication to help her sleep. She is warned that there may be side effects, but I don't think she was quite prepared for what actually happens to her.  Sad and rather tragic, "Conversations With the Departed" by Steve Rasnic Tem follows a man by the name of John who has been asked to speak at his best friend's funeral. This would be easy to do if he didn't hear voices in his head, including that of the dead.   "The Poet Lewis Bowden Has Died," by Stephen Gregory is an absolutely gorgeous, sad, and melancholy tale related by a young English teacher at a boarding school who has had his first book of  poems published, and whose troubles began when he went off to Paris during a school holiday a year earlier  "to do all the things a young poet would do."  Another story makes the list, this time from 1924.    Michael Arlen's "The Gentleman From America" had me laughing here and there, but things turn to tragedy all too soon.  Two friends have a 500-pound wager  with Mr. Puce, the titular gentleman from America, that he would not be able to get through the night in a supposedly-haunted house. He gets one candle, no matches, a gun and to top off the evening, a book called Tales of Terror for Tiny Tots has been left as reading material.  Here part of the joy is in reading the story within the story and imagining yourself in Mr. Puce's practical, non-superstitious shoes.  A story from the 19th century completes my top five,  Eliza Lynn Linton's "The Family at Fenhouse" (1860).  A woman of unfortunate circumstance who wants to become a governess faces a number of hurdles, none the least of which is her "inheritance of disease and insanity."  Against all odds, she actually does manage to find a position as companion, but before long she will regret that she ever set foot in the house. Two things: her employer in this story is about as evil as it gets, and to use the word bleak to describe this tale is just not strong enough.  It is, however, a great story, and I have to say that as much reading I do from this particular time period, I haven't run across it until now. A double bonus.  

the series, so far...

The winner of the award for most disturbing tale goes to  John Peyton Cooke's "Let's Make a Face," which is set in the future when people are ranked in terms of their beauty, with their number determining their lot in life.    Some of the not-so-beautiful people, like the woman in this story, will do anything for a chance to advance themselves.    It's not often that a Valancourt-published story comes with a warning label, but this one does and rightly so.  As the editors write in their introduction to Cooke's tale,  
"Brace yourself; you will have a strong reaction to this story."

Trust me, that's putting it mildly.  On one hand, the way the story is set up I knew that there was going to be something beyond weird that was going to happen; on the other,  let's just say that I was in no way prepared for how monstrously hideous things turned out.    Let's also just say that I wish I had a photo of my face after finishing it. 

paperback edition, Volume 3 (2018). Even with the hardcover, I had to have this one because of the awesome tiki cover.  

Without going into any detail about the remaining stories, excluding my top five and my choice for most disturbing,  there are nine more.  These tales span nearly a century, from Felix Timmerman's "The Coffin Procession" to "Rain," by Garrett Boatman, published in 2020.  

"Rain and Gaslight,"  by Hubert Lampo 
"Happy Birthday, Dear Alex," by John Keir Cross 
"Rain, " by Garrett Boatman 
"The Coffin Procession,"by Felix Timmermans 
"Time-Fuse," by John Metcalfe  
"A Scent of Mimosa," by Francis King 
"Remember Your Grammar," by Simon Raven
"The Other Room,"by Lisa Tuttle 
"The Fury," by Robert M. Coates 

 I am so sorry to say this, but of this group, Garrett Boatman's "Rain" just didn't do it for me -- while it was definitely engaging in parts, it came across as a sort of mix of  Lovecraft's  "The Music of Erich Zann" and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" transplanted to the Texas Gulf coast during a hurricane.  The others, however, are quite good, with honorable mention going to "Happy Birthday, Dear Alex," and "The Other Room," both especially fine tales and beyond poignant. The Belgian entries are fun as well, with "Rain and Gaslight" leaving me with that sense of things being off-kilter that I enjoy so much.  

The stories included here range from the suspenseful to the strange, from the horrific to the harrowing, from yesteryear to today, and as is the case with every other Valancourt anthology, there is something for everyone to enjoy.  They also make for fun reading, and I can only imagine what a great time James and Ryan must have had while putting this volume together. It's largely because of this series and the Christmas anthologies  that my home library of older ghostly, gothic, horror, weird, and strange stories has grown immensely over the years --  all it took was a good story or two to start me on the road to my favorite type of reading, those long-forgotten, obscure, and in many cases, sadly-neglected stories from the past.   Here's to many more in the future. 

Definitely recommended with no hesitation. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Witch-Cult Abbey, by Mark Samuels

Zagava, 2020
186 pp, hardcover

I bought this book because it seemed perfect for October reading and because it takes place in an Abbey in a remote, rural area of England, a setting I'm completely drawn to.    After finishing Witch-Cult Abbey, I can say without hesitation that if ever a book was meant to be read as Halloween approaches it is this one.  When the first chapter opens with a quotation from Poe, know it's right.  

The war is raging in the skies over Britain when a cataloguer of antiquarian books gets the offer of a much-needed job.  The owner of the shop where he worked off Hampstead High Street had died and the business was sold, so Mr. Prior decides to follow up on the opportunity.  The letter from a certain Lady Caroline Degabaston takes him to Thool Abbey, Gallows Langley in Hertford, hopefully to gain employment cataloguing the Abbey's library.  

Prior doesn't even make it into the building when he begins to feel an "acute sensation of nausea and loathing." He is taken to the library where he is left alone for some time; on going to look for someone, he notices that his watch has stopped.  Finally word comes that her Ladyship will not be able to meet him after all that day, and  a room is made ready for him in the attic, and there he finds some dubious-looking food as well as some articles of clothing. Settling in for the night, he is plagued with bizarre dreams.  When the next day arrives and there is still no sign of Lady Degabaston, Prior decides that it's time to leave.   The inhabitants of the Abbey, however, don't see things that way, and he is brought back to the Library where both he and his chair are chained to prevent any further attempts at leaving. 

Let the strangeness begin.

As he starts his cataloguing work, Prior's efforts are stymied as books allow only brief glimpses into their contents before the covers are somehow sealed "into an apparently single block," or in one case, the pages wrapped around his hand.  The exception is a set of thirty-seven books by Thomas Ariel, Kruptos, "that magnum opus of the bizarre."   Prior's life is lived in the candle-lit library and then locked in his attic room, his sense of reality shaken as he endures days of "hopelessness and drugged lassitude," as well as discovering that the abbey's structure seems to be constantly shifting.  When an expected visitor, the Reverend Alphonsus Winters (which I'm guessing may be a disguised Montague Summers-like figure)  arrives on a mission, Prior learns about the history of the Degabaston family, as well as  the "demonic infestation" within Thool Abbey which 

"radiates tentacles of spiritual contagion across most of Europe."

 From there utter madness reigns; since the story is narrated by Prior, the terror becomes ever more palpable and immediate as we live through his growing sense of dread and through the horrors he soon begins to encounter.  The "surrealistic, non-linear pattern of derangement"  Prior experiences as he narrates his experiences extends far beyond the realm of chilling, falling into bleak, nightmarish territory. 

I'm number 199

 Mark Samuels' excellent writing here kept me on tenterhooks the entire time as my ongoing question of  how much worse things could possibly get was constantly asked and answered.   Witch-Cult Abbey is one of those books that grows darker and more sinister at every turn as you wait for some sort of relief that never comes.  I can't count the number of times I was sorely tempted to turn to the ending, only to discover once I got there that it wouldn't have helped relieve the ever-tightening knots in my stomach.   It is also the kind of horror novel I enjoy reading -- it is intelligent and atmospheric, there is no descent made into utter gratuitous grossness,  and it hearkens back to the days of classic gothic/horror storytelling while remaining thoroughly modern weird in the telling.   The book itself -- absolutely old-style beautiful with fine illustrations marking the beginning of each chapter, and I am in awe of the work of Joseph Dawson here.    I sense more Zagava offerings coming my way.  

Very, very highly recommended.  I'm shivering again just thinking about it.   

Friday, October 23, 2020

back to the British Library: Queens of the Abyss: Lost Stories From the Women of the Weird (ed.) Mike Ashley


British Library Publishing, 2020
350 pp

The often-unknown works of women from yesteryear who dabbled in the weird, the strange and the dark is one of my reading passions.  I've got several of these anthologies in my home library, along with several single-author collections from small, indie publishers.  I've been at this for a few years now, and it is, as I've said many a time, a true pleasure at finding stories that have not been anthologized on a regular basis.   In this installment of the British Library Tales of the Weird series editor Mike Ashley has done it -- not only are there stories I'd not previously read, but there are writers I've never heard of until now.  A win-win for me and for anyone who has the same sort of reading love.    Here the work of both familiar and,  more importantly to me, not-so-familiar women writers whom Mike Ashley dubs the "Queens of the Abyss"  graces the pages of this book.    His choices are, as he says in his introduction,  representative of women writers who
"continued to experiment and develop the weird tale from its gothic beginnings and its thriving Victorian heyday into the twentieth century"

and these stories span a range in time from 1888 to 1952.  

The first three, "A Revelation," by Mary E. Braddon, "The Sculptor's Angel" by Marie Corelli and Edith Nesbit's "From the Dead," are all ghostly tales, as is Marie Belloc Lowndes' "The Haunted Flat."  Between the last two comes Frances Hodgson Burnett's "The Christmas in the Fog" which has one of the best and most eerie visions of being caught in a thick fog I've ever encountered, but really, that's about all that impressed me there.  It's not until I got to Alicia Ramsey's "A Modern Circe" that this book picked up speed and I found myself completely engaged until turning the last page.  Ramsey's tale is truly weird, featuring a "handsome rogue" of a man who has the misfortune of encountering "The Mad Virgin of the Hills,"  because he and the entire Italian village know that "Those whom she calls never return."    May Sinclair, whose work I absolutely love, is next with "The Nature of the Evidence," also on the ghostly side but with one of the finest and most unexpected twists ever.  You don't have to read between the lines to figure out what happens here.  "The Bishop of Hell" by Marjorie Bowen follows with the story of a "ruined" woman and the truly evil, debauched man responsible for her downfall.  I love Bowen's stories and this one is just example why.   

And then we come to my favorite section of this book, with a few stories written by, as Ashley notes,  "less well known" women writers who "dared enter the male stronghold of the pulp magazine and established their own reputation for the modern weird tale. " These topped my list of favorites.   Three strong examples can be found in Margaret St. Clair's "Island of the Hands"  (1952), Greye La Spina's "The Antimacassar" (1949),  and "White Lady," by Sophie Wenzel Ellis (1933)  St. Clair's story finds a man plagued not only with grief after his wife's death, but also with a recurring dream in which he sees her standing there, begging for him to come to her.  Her plane had crashed  "in perfect weather" even as he was speaking to her by radio, and while a search was mounted, no trace of her was ever found.  He knows logically that she's dead,  but the feeling is so strong that after three months of dreams and a decision to "abandon rationality," he decides he has to go look for her, and his search takes him to a strange island where everything is perhaps not what it seems.   "The Antimacassar" appeals to  the part of my reading self that appreciates a good mix of  mystery and pulp horror, as it is a blending of both.   When Cora Kent, Lucy Butterfield's "immediate superior,"  fails to return from her vacation, Lucy decides to use part of her own time off to try to find out what had happened to her.  With a little luck,  her search takes her to a farm owned by a Mrs. Renner, who denies ever knowing Cora.  Lucy believes otherwise, and decides to stay for a week to do a little "self-imposed detective work" when not learning weaving from Mrs. R.  She soon discovers that finding Cora Kent is probably the least of her problems at present.   "White Lady" just might be the strangest story in the entire book; certainly one of the most fun to read and definitely the most deliciously exotic.  Set on a remote island in the Caribbean, Brynhild is spending time with her fiancé André, a scientist who "experimented fantastically with tropical plant life."  As he shares with her his "supreme achievement," a flower he calls White Lady, she begins to believe that not only he has gone well beyond the point of obsession with this thing, but that this "bête blanche" is much more than a mere plant. 

Strange Tales, January 1933 issue. From Howard Works

In "The Laughing Thing," by GG Pendarves, a sick man who is cheated out of money on a land deal vows to return after his death to make the other party pay.  He promises that it will be "a payment that will not reduce your bank account," which only makes his nemesis laugh.  As the saying goes, he who laughs last laughs best, but there is nothing funny at all in what happens next.  "Candlelight" by Lady Eleanor Smith finds five people together at a weekend party (two couples and an unmarried man) which is interrupted when they discover they're being watched by a gypsy girl.  For kicks, the hostess invites her to tell their fortunes, but the fun ends when the girl actually does.  Jessie Douglas Kerruish provides "The Wonderful Tune," which turns out not to be so wonderful after all once it's played.  I saw where this one was headed not to far into the story but it's still fun.  "The Unwanted" by Mary Elizabeth Counselman (of whom I am a huge fangirl)  is truly on the weird side as a census worker in the hills of Alabama encounters a poor farmer and his wife. All is well until she inquires about the number of children they have ...  Last but not at all least is Leonora Carrington's "The Seventh Horse" which may at first seem nonsensically bizarre, but there is method in her surrealistic madness. 

Much reading happiness here; Queens of the Abyss is one of the best volumes of the series so far, and the British Library Tales of the Weird series overall is a definite no-miss for lovers of the truly strange.  My reader hat is tipped to editor Mike Ashley, who has been one of the best and most prolific finders and curators of these long-forgotten stories over a long career.    Definitely and highly recommended.  

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Slade House, by David Mitchell


Random House, 2015
238 pp


"Proper X-File, this is..."

I had absolutely no idea what I would be letting myself in for with this novel, nor had I even planned to throw it into the October mix.  Someone in one of my goodreads groups had just finished the book and really liked it, describing it as a haunted house novel, so I decided I'd dust it off and read it.   My bad for letting sit on my shelves gathering dust for five years, because I really had great fun with it.  

Slade House started out as a Twitter story entitled The Right Sort in 2014, and according to the author it "asked more questions than it answered," so he "re-translated it out of Twitterese and into English."  The basic premise of this story, as the back-cover blurb notes, is that every nine years, 
"the residents of Slade House extend an invitation to someone who's different or lonely..."

 and the true question to be answered here is this: "But what really goes on inside?"

The house itself is located off an alley, and one must go through a "small black iron door" set in a brick wall to enter the grounds.  In a nutshell (because to tell is definitely to spoil), over the thirty-six year period during which this novel takes place, a number of different people find the mysterious door, make their way through and are never seen again.  While they are inside, each person finds himself/herself  in the midst of something unique and caught up in an experience specifically tailored for each indivual  -- the teenager, Nathan Bishop, for example, has been invited to come along with his mom Rita who has been invited to Slade House by a certain Lady Grayer  to attend a  musical soirée along with other guests including Yehudi Menuhin.  Then there's the cop who after nine years comes to investigate the Bishops' last known location and meets up with the present owner of the place. Or as just one more example,  Sally Timms, who accompanies a small group of fellow Paranormal Society friends who had planned to investigate the  house but  find themselves invited to a crazy party going on inside.  Each character provides his or her own firsthand narrative of his or her own experiences, allowing for more of a sense of immediacy to the novel, which heightens the chills and the creep factor all the way through.  Giving the book even more of an eerie edge are the ties between past and present that link together everyone who has entered Slade House.  Characters reappear in others' experiences, playing a role in some way or another, and with each successive visitor, we also get closer to what exactly is going on at the heart of it all.  

inside of Slade House, from the cover inset. Blurry, so it's obviously my photo. 

Some readers have found the continual firsthand narratives to be "tedious" after a while, what I call a sort of lather-rinse-repeat format,  but I didn't at all -- with each chapter I braced myself for what could possibly come next, and there was even one that fooled me completely, prompting a huge out-loud gasp and a "holy s**t"  when I tumbled to what was going on.  Each character has a distinct life, a distinct background and his or her own voice; in reading their stories, it was easy to see that the author spent quite a lot of time on the people in this book, getting into their somewhat damaged psyches and fleshing them out with the most human of qualities, and as time moved on, so did worldly concerns outside of Slade House.   My only complaint about the book is that there seemed to be bits of expository overload here and there when I just wanted to move on with things , and that's really just a minor niggle in the face of what is a most delightfully-absorbing, sinister, haunting and mysterious story. Any writer who can toss in a trove of old tropes  into one novel, blend them together and make them come out as a rollicking good read and not same old same old tired certainly gets my vote. 

A  heads up to potential readers:  while  not particularly necessary, it might be a good idea to have read Mitchell's The Bone Clocks prior to reading Slade House.  I didn't, but having just read a synopsis of The Bone Clocks earlier (knowing that this book was somehow related), the last chapter made much more sense; I also just discovered  that this book is just one more in the "vast shared universe"  in his other works.   The bottom line is that it probably won't really matter too much here -- curl up, grab your favorite tea, and just have fun with it. 

Friday, October 9, 2020

Into the London Fog: Eerie Tales From the Weird City (ed.) Elizabeth Dearnley


British Library Publishing, 2020
319 pp


The British Library Tales of the Weird series is back again with several new titles (yay!).  I love these books,  so I'm always excited when one lands at my door.  

In her introduction,  editor Elizabeth Dearnley  notes that in the years following the  Clean Air Act of 1956, "true London fog" had disappeared.  The stories and essays in this book range from 1868 to 1957, "all written within the decades when London was at its foggiest..."  She also presents a unique method of ordering her lineup, arranging the stories as a sort of literary tour  of London,  inviting readers to "take a closer look at some the more uncanny corners of the city."  The first story is set in Temple, with the final entry taking us to Peckham.   It's quite clever, actually, although not being a Londoner myself, I had to have a map of the city to refer to while going from story to story. 

An unusual, and now that I think about it,  unsurprising  thing happened to me with this book -- aside from the five nonfiction entries, I found that I had read all but one of the stories included here, Rhoda Broughton's "The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth" (1868).  I knew that would happen at some point, as I tend to spend quite a bit of time reading ghostly/supernatural tales from yesteryear, especially those written by women.  Out of the nine fictional tales in this anthology, seven of these stories are from female authors; of those seven,  four are Victorian-era writers whose collected works are a large part of my home library.  It's okay though,  because aside from missing that feeling of joy derived from finding someone new to explore, the editor chose some of my personal favorites, Victorian and later.  The two male writers, EF Benson and especially Arthur Machen,   have also provided me with hours and hours of great reading in the past.

my photo, my book, published by Anchor Books, 2006

Speaking of favorites, Elizabeth Bowen's "The Demon Lover" (1945) gets my vote in this book.  John Banville wrote of her wartime stories that 
"the city becomes an ethereal, haunted place, unhuman, otherworldly, where people move about in a fevered, dreamlike state." 

Given that Banville's description  of  Bowen's wartime London aligns so closely  with Dearnley's vision for this collection,  I'm not surprised that "The Demon Lover" is included in this book.  What's great about this story  is that it works on different levels; if, however, you only give it a supernatural meaning, you miss something even darker underneath.  Mrs. Drover's "first scream" has haunted me for years.  This is not just a good story -- it is a great story.  

Now to the one story I hadn't read,  Rhoda Broughton's "The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth."   This one is her first ghost story, written in 1868 as a series of letters between two women friends, Elizabeth and Cecilia. Elizabeth has found a London house for Cecilia and her family in Mayfair after an exhausting search, with the price an absolute steal. It's not until a few weeks later that Cecilia learns something about the house and informs her husband, but as a typical male knowing better than his wife, he "pooh-poohed the whole story," and "derided" her "babyish fears." Little does he know.  I have to say that I loved the male humbling in this story, in which the actual terror comes only at the very end, while in the meantime, Broughton does a fine job of escalating the tension.  

The other stories in this book are as follows: 

-- "The Telegram," by Violet Hunt (1911)
-- "The Seance Room," by Lettice Galbraith (1893)
-- "N," by Arthur Machen (1934)
--"The Lodger," by Marie Belloc Lowndes (not the novel but the short story first appearing in McClure's, 1911)
-- "The Mystery of the Semi-Detached," by Edith Nesbit (1893)"
--"The Old House in Vauxhall Walk," by Charlotte Riddell (1882) 
-- "The Chippendale Mirror," by EF Benson (1915)

As part of  Into the London Fog, the editor has chosen to add in five pieces from various authors who have both experienced and written about the foggy city, another factor making this volume a bit different from the norm of this series.  At first, I was sort of  like "what the ... ?" because "eerie" must be in the eye in the beholder and I didn't particularly find any of the four to be so;  they were nonfiction, which completely threw me, and finally here I am, having made my way through four ghostly tales and then I run into Thomas Burke's "War" extracted from London In My Time, followed by thirty pages of Virginia Woolf and Claude McKay, completely distrupting the reading flow  until returning to the supernatural with Machen's "N" and the psychologically creepy "The Lodger. " Then it's back to Sam Selvon and more nonfiction before three more other-worldly tales, and by the time I'd  reached the article written about "Spring-Heeled Jack," my reading rhythm was just completely off. 

Don't get me wrong: these little glimpses that offer "further constructions of the city and how it was experienced, showing the potential for strangeness in the most mundane urban encounters"

"War, an extract from London In My Time"  by Thomas Burke
"Street Haunting" by Virginia Woolf
"Pugilist vs. Poet, an extract from A Long Way From Home," by Claude McKay
"My Girl and the City," by Sam Selvon

were fine in their own right, informative, and very well written -- my complaint is that having them tossed into the midst of the fictional stories threw me off balance readingwise.  Perhaps a better way to introduce them would have been to have them all grouped together at the end of the fictional tales; I know I would have enjoyed the book a lot more had that been the case.  

Overall, though, it is a good anthology, perhaps not the best in the series, but  another fine volume of the British Library's Tales of the Weird to add to the growing number of these books on my shelves.  

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

And My Head Exploded: Tales of Desire, Delirium and Decadence from Fin-de-Siecle Prague (ed.) Michael Tate


Jantar Publishing, 2018
translated by Geoffrey Chew
204 pp


"... liberation is to be found solely when reality is abandoned and when everything that has constricted us hitherto is left behind." 
                     -- Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic,  "The Legend of Simon Magus." 

Some time back I read and loved Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic's A Gothic Soul (Twisted Spoon Press, 2016; originally published in 1900) and searching for more of his work online, I came across And My Head Exploded, which contains one story by this author.   Buy button clicked. 

The truth is that I know little to nothing about Czech decadence or Czech fiction in general.  The introduction by Professor Peter Zusi  helped a bit, as he explained that  "the international reputation of Czech literature stands under the shadow" of "the best known and most influential work of Czech modernist literature," The Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk (1923) by Jaroslav Hašek, as well as the work produced by writers of " 'dissidence' against the Communist regime in the second half of the twentieth century."   The stories in  And My Head Exploded  are representative of "another" Czech literature which has been "remarkably absent from the consciousness of English-language readers of Central European literature" ranging in date from 1892 to 1917.   He refers to it as ambiguous, unsettling, and "at times ... more grotesque," descriptors that are very much reflective of the work found in this volume, which is imbued with shades of gothic, horror, and the weird as well.  

I've always felt that the opening story in any anthology or collection should not only whet the appetite for what will follow, but also offer the reader an idea of what to expect thematically. The first story,  Julius Zeyer's "Inultus: A Prague Legend" (1892) meets both of those criteria.  This story  is a blending of art, aestheticism, myth, death and a femme fatale sort of figure, along with an added religious/nationalistic dimension that enhances this tale of "bloodthirsty madness."  It begins with a chance meeting between a poor poet and a sculptress who is trying to create a sculpture of Christ; eventually and reluctantly he agrees to serve as  her model.  His face, though "beautiful and melancholy" isn't quite enough for her as she desires something more.   Zeyer also has another story in this book, "El Cristo de la Luz: A Toledo Legend" the story of  a zealous, would-be murderer who has a rather unexpected mystical union with Christ. After reading these two, which are part of a tryptich called Tři legendy o krucifixu (1895),  I decided I would really like to read more of Zeyer but there seems to be little of his work published in English, and a book I would like to have about him, Julius Zeyer: The Path To Decadence by Robert Pynsent,  is long out of print with used copies selling in the three figures.  Yikes. 

Following Zeyer are two stories by Bozena Benešová, another writer who is woefully untranslated as well as the sole woman writer represented here.   The "Biographical Notes" section  describes her prose as 

"anti-sentimental and psychological, dealing with women's issues, typically from the point of view of a marginalized female protagonist"

all of which are reflected in her "Tale for All Souls' Day" (1902) and "In the Twilight" (1900).  The first  takes place over five days in October and is related through the point of view of a woman in mourning.  She has four months left to go until the end of her "imprisonment"  so that she can go "out into the world, for the sun, for life, for love."  After all, social convention requires that the "year of mourning must run up to its last minutes."  It is from this story that the book's title is derived, as she recounts the crumbling of her brain, her  steps toward regrowing , and the moment when, as she says, "straight away my head exploded."  More overtly  critical in nature, her second story finds a woman "wholly overcome with pain and sorrow ... so long suppressed" finding herself letting it all "burst out in full force."  

Judith in the Tent of Holofernes,
by Johann Liss.  From The National Gallery

My hands-down favorite in this volume is "Cortigiana" by Miloš Marten.  Here, as in Zeyer's work, art and death come together in the story of Isotta, a beautiful scholar of Plotinus from childhood and now a courtesan in plague-ridden Florence.  She has discovered a way of "taking her revenge from life for its fradulence," and after one such moment, decides to "pursue the caustic fire that was penetrating her," taking her cue from the story of Sardanapalus in one final, fatal act of revelry. I couldn't help but think of Poe as reading this one, but there's more than a touch of the vampiric as well.  

The Death of Sardanapalus
from Wikipedia 

Two stories by Arthur Breisky are up next, "Prose Poem, After Felicien Rops, Mors Syphilitica," and "Confession of a Graphomaniac" (1909).  Translator Geoffrey Chew notes that Breisky "appended" both of these tales to his translation of The Suicide Club by Robert Louis Stevenson, adding a fake "translator's note" to the first.  In "Prose Poem" the Knight of Death pays a visit to a man stricken with syphillis in order to propose a deal.  The second story  is far darker, involving a narcissistic narrator relating a tale of incest, love, madness, betrayal and a mother who could be a stand in for Salome. I'll admit to having a good laugh at the end of   Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic's "The Legend of Simon Magus" (1911), about which I'll say nothing here.  

The two stories closing out this anthology, "My Travelling Companion" (1912) by František Gellner and Richard Weiner's 1917 story "The Empty Chair: An Analysis of an Unwritten Tale" are very different in tone from those that have come before.  The first involves a man with a passion for travelling who takes on a companion "renowned for his ill-bred behaviour"  as he makes his way to Bavaria and the "Alpine countries." I had to give some extra thought to Weiner's masterful and very well-crafted tale, in which a writer has come up with a title for his work, "The Empty Chair," but the "story has never actually been written."  He plans to lay out the circumstances for why this is so, but something happens as he explains what he considers to be his failure. Watch carefully what happens as he does this.   I'd love to share more, but that would ruin an otherwise excellent story. 

For someone like me unable to read the works of these writers in their native language, the publication of And My Head Exploded is a hugely-welcome addition to my reading repertoire. There's just something exciting  about knowing that there are all of these yet untapped, untranslated works out there waiting to be read and appreciated, especially  more Czech fiction in the vein of  Professor Zusi's  "another literature," and I'm sure this book represented only a small sampling.  I will say that as I looked up these authors online, it started to become important to me to know more about the times in which these stories were written  to provide some sort of context (for example, women's writing/women's issues  of the time) which is omitted here, but that's about the only complaint I can muster.  

Very highly recommended and oh, what a pleasure to read!