Monday, April 6, 2020

and now, for some well-earned (but really good) fluff: Strange Island Stories (ed.) Jonathan E Lewis

9781944520434
Stark House Press, 2018
342 pp

paperback



"We have come to the devil's workshop. All the horrors of the inferno are invented here."

The truth of the matter is that sometimes I just need fluff.  Fluff fluff fluff fluffity fluff. And right now, with coronavirus stress alive and well in our home, this book was just what the doctor ordered.  From the very first I was completely sucked in, able to forget about grocery store shortages and face masks for the duration (although I did clean the book with a Lysol wipe before opening).   Reading old horrorish-slash-weird pulp makes me feel good for some reason.  I've never analyzed as to why, but as long as it does the trick, who cares?

As editor Jonathan E. Lewis says in his introduction (which you can read without fear of spoilers),
"The strange island short story form, like the island novel, utilizes island locations to examine human society and human nature.  But it pushes beyond that and and takes the reader on a journey into the weird, the bizarre, the scary, and the unsettling."
All of those categories -- "the weird, the bizarre, the scary, and the unsettling" are well represented here over the course of these twenty stories.   Of course, as it is an anthology, there are some that I didn't care for but that's a matter of personal preference.  On the whole, the editor has done a fine job finding and compiling these strange tales, the majority of which I'd never read before.  The table of contents reads like a who's who of short story creepiness,  featuring stories by such greats as Edward Bulwer Lytton (here simply Edward Bulwer for authenticity's sake), MP Shiel, John Buchan, Frank Norris, Algernon Blackwood and Henry S. Whitehead (and others), and then some names that were not as well known to me including  Henry Toke Munn, Fred M. White, and George G. Toudouze, among others.  Lewis also includes one of his own stories at the end of the book as well as introducing each tale. 

Of the twenty stories in this book, I've previously read four: "Monos and Daimonos," by Edward Bulwer,  "Hugenin's Wife," by MP Shiel, "The Camp of the Dog," by Algernon Blackwood, and Lovecraft's "Dagon."   Of the remaining sixteen, I'll  list only my favorites, presented in reading order.   First up is McTeague author Frank Norris' "The Ship That Saw a Ghost,"  in which a group of men sail away to complete a secret venture guaranteed to bring riches.  Their destination:
"...that region of the Great Seas where no ship goes, the silent sea of Coleridge and the Ancient One, the unplumbed, untracked, uncharted Dreadfulness, primordial, hushed,"
where they were "alone as a grain of star-dust whirling in the empty space beyond Uranus and the ken of the greater telescopes."   Of course, there's a hitch -- and serious repercussions.    "Island of Ghosts" by Julian Hawthorne, son of Nathaniel, is next, and it is indeed a truly creepy story of a young woman who decides to go and spend some time on an island reputed to be haunted.  Hawthorne delivers a tension-ratcheting tale here with an ending I did not see coming.  When I started reading "Spirit Island" by Henry Toke Munn I was hit with a wave of "I've read this before," but I really hadn't.  The more I thought about it the more I realized that it had some of the same vibe as Dan Simmons' The Terror, at least for a while.  This was my favorite story, and it takes the form of a narrative of a man's complete and utterly terrifying adventure in the Arctic which he expects that no one will believe. However, if anyone ever does and decides to send someone to check it out in the future, he notes, don't bother asking him to go along.  All I will divulge is that when your Eskimo companions tell you that a particular island is taboo, and you go anyway, well, that's on you.  "The Purple Terror" by Fred M. White is another good one, making its debut in The Strand in September 1899.  Set in the Caribbean during the Spanish-American War, Lieutenant Will Scarlett is given a mission to carry a letter from his captain to an Admiral waiting for it across the isthmus.  The trek will involve covering some "fifty miles through practically unexplored country,"  and the trouble begins when Scarlett and his men stop for the night and decide to "join the giddy throng" of people at a bar and Scarlett just happens to notice the "purple band of flowers," the likes of which he'd never seen before, twined around a dancer's shoulders.   He also notices that they have the "perfume of a corpse."  I shall say no more except that had I seen a movie based on this story  on one of those tv shows I used to watch as a kid where they ran back to back science fiction/horror movies, I would have been beyond delighted. 


from Culture Trip

The final story I count among the chilling standouts in this volume is "Three Skeleton Key" by French writer George G. Toudouze.  Although in this day and age elements of this story might come across as old hat, but published in 1937, it had to have been horrific in its day.  The action takes place in a lighthouse on a rock island out in the ocean, where a group of three men are completely happy with their isolated life there,  until one day when they see a ship heading straight toward them.  The ship, it seems, has no crew, but that does not mean that there are not passengers aboard. "Three Skeleton Key" was later adapted for radio,  with the broadcast starring none other than Vincent Price.  You can listen to one of these shows here at Journey Into, but I will warn you that the story is abridged, changed quite a bit, and doesn't quite convey the horror of the situation.  On the other hand, back before television, it must have caused quite a stir sitting in the living room at night listening.

Honorable mention to Jack London's "Good-by, Jack" a rather poignant story disguising the horror that doesn't hit until the very end, at which point I was in shock.

With the exception of "The Fiend of the Cooperage" by Conan Doyle (I just thought it was strange but I wasn't enthralled)  all of the rest of the stories (listed below)  are quite good.  Two exceptions come in the form of futuristic, scifi-ish pulpy tales, "Friend Islandand "In the Land of Tomorrow," simply because I am not particularly fond of this sort of thing as a general rule, although I'm sure they will delight true pulp fans who are.


"The Gray Wolf," by George MacDonald 
"The Isle of Voices," by Robert Louis Stevenson (this one made me laugh in parts, actually)
"Dagon" by HP Lovecraft 
"The People of Pan," by Henry S. Whitehead 
"The Sixth Gargoyle," by David Eynon (mystery writers take note: great plot possibilities here)
"The Isle of Doom" by James Francis Dwyer

and 

"An Adriatic Awakening," by Jonathan E Lewis -- a bit jarring because of moving into modern times, but still a pleasure.


Stark House is one of my very favorite indie presses and I love their crime novels; this is my first foray into the other genres they cover.  Strange Island Stories is delightful and should be a no-miss for readers who love old pulp horror or pulp weird tales;  Lewis has done a terrific job putting it together.  


Friday, April 3, 2020

The Child Cephalina, by Rebecca Lloyd

9781912586202
Tartarus Press, 2019
260 pp

hardcover


"One mistake begats another in those folk who are blinded by their own desires." 

Mid-century Victorian London is the setting for this thoroughly disquieting but captivating novel which will not release you from its grip until you've read the very last word.  Even then it may take some time; it is so cleverly done and so unsettling that in my case, it was impossible to stop thinking about it long after I'd finished.

Narrator Robert Groves is a bachelor living in a house near Russell Square.  With the help of his housekeeper Tetty Brandling and a young boy by the name of Martin Ebast, he's spent the last three years interviewing "children of the streets" as part of his research for his forthcoming book Wretched London, The Story of the City's Invisible Children.   Every Sunday Martin rounds up and brings a small group of these children to Groves' house on Judd Street; it is on one of these days that young Cephalina first appears.  It is apparent to everyone that she isn't a part of that day's group of "nippers;" the first things Tetty and Martin notice are her clean, recently-washed and plaited hair as well as the "slender and white" hands that are "delicately formed" and obviously unused to street dirt or hard work.  Groves is more than fascinated, Tetty is suspicious, and Cephalina offers little information about herself except that she lives in Hackney with her guardians the Clutchers, for whom she does some sort of work and that she has a twin she calls "E." When she returns to Judd Street a second time, she adds a bit more to (and changes part of)  her story; further visits with Robert reveal a bit more about her life with the Clutchers and a strange bond develops between the two.  In the meantime, Tetty has enough on her plate dealing with the stress caused by an embarrassing lack of funds required to run the household, and the tension between Tetty and Robert escalates as Tetty tries to warn Robert about the "sordid child," who has "too much knowing about her" and  he refuses to listen.  He  credits  her fear to her "superstitious nature," failing to notice just how deeply afraid she is of Cephalina.  Ignoring Tetty and her warnings, his obsession with and devotion to the young "waif"  grows ever stronger, as does his desire to help her, which in his own words, leads him to a "sorry mess indeed."   That is seriously all I'm going to say about the plot -- it's better to go into this book knowing as little as possible.

 I normally shy away from modern writers' work set in Victorian England, because I'm a huge reader of Victorian fiction and some of these people just do not get things right.  That is not true in this case --  Rebecca Lloyd has done great things here. Her depiction of Victorian London is striking, not just in her descriptions of the "dirty, grit-filled fog," the "stench of the Thames" or the "incessant din" that could drive a person mad, but she also captures the current mood of the city, for example, in the excitement over the new Crystal Palace, or the "giant wave of spiritualism" which had found its way into London over the past three years, along with its adherents, practitioners and critics.  Her characters are substantial and realistic as individuals, but it's in the various relationships she's created between them where they thrive and give this novel meaning.   But by far the author's greatest achievement is in her ability to keep the reader on edge  as she cleverly puts together a story in which she has interwoven a number of things left unsaid, things kept hidden,  misperceptions,  misjudgments, and above all, the mystery of the enigma that is Cephalina.  From the beginning she leaves the reader with the feeling that there is something a bit off about this strange girl, and continues to heighten our interest in her by revealing her story slowly and only in small bits at a time.  The same is true in the slight scattering of clues that she leaves for the reader to follow to the chilling and shocking end.

I'm just a reader (and a casual one at that),  not a critic, but I know when I've found something of quality  and this is definitely it, a book that tells me that the author is indeed a master of her craft.   The Child Cephalina at times feels like an old serial cliffhanger, and inevitably I read it into the wee hours of the morning, unable to put it down.  It kept me guessing, very much on edge, and when that last page was turned at 4 a.m. I just sat there unable to even think of sleeping.

Very, very highly recommended.  You will want to read this book.  Trust me.  It's unlike anything I've read before.




Monday, March 30, 2020

Wisteria Cottage, by Robert M. Coates


9781948405607
Valancourt Books, 2020
originally published 1948
189 pp

paperback



"I knew there was some way that they could be saved." 


It was the second day of Richard Baurie's three-day walking trip in the Long Island Sound area when he first came upon Wisteria Cottage, set among the dunes overlooking the beach below.  It was that moment when,  according to the small bit of the Psychiatrist's Report which opens this novel, "even though faintly," a  "criminal intention" first entered his brain.  There is no clue as to what his "criminal intention" may have been, nor as to why Richard even merits a psychiatrist's report, but it should be apparent at once that we're not dealing with someone psychologically sound here. I have to say up front that Wisteria Cottage is disturbing with a capital D, because from the very beginning the author places his readers into the mind of this young man whose sense of reality is seriously distorted, and keeps us there as Richard's  mind begins to slowly but steadily unravel and deteriorate over the course of the summer spent at Wisteria Cottage.

Richard, who writes poetry and has a part-time job at a bookstore in New York City, has inveigled his way into the lives of  Florence Hackett and her adult daughters Louisa and Elinor.  He'd met Florence at a grocery store, and it didn't take long until he'd "come to have the run of the apartment."   It was on the night before his three-day trip that Florence had happened to mention to Richard that while he was away he might look for  a "nice place" for them to rent for a month or so, offering Richard the opportunity to spend summer weekends with them.   Having discovered Wisteria Cottage, Richard feels that now
"all he wanted in the world, at this moment, was to have them rent the place for the summer, and for him to spend the summer there with them.  It was the right thing, the perfect thing; more than that it was the just thing for them to do."
Being with the Hacketts at the cottage, he believes, would "straighten them out, quell the evil forces that were working among them."

What he views as these "evil forces working among them" I won't divulge and nor will I say anything more about the plot.  I will only add that in his self-appointed quest to "save" these women,  the "summer of pleasant companionship and fun" the Hacketts are expecting will turn out to be anything but as "their relaxing summer holiday will soon turn into a terrifying nightmare."




from Buckingham Books

In her informative introduction which should not be missed but read after finishing this book, Professor Mathilde Roza states that the most "memorable aspect" of Wisteria Cottage is the "approach" taken by the author:  "never hysterical but always low-key," and quotes Commonweal's remark that in this book
"No tiled asylums, no mental bedlams are employed to wring the reader's emotions"
 and once I'd read the intro,  I realized that yes, this sentence describes to a tee why I found this book so disturbing.   I've read plenty of fiction that hones in on the disintegration of an individual's psyche, but Richard Baurie's case so unnerved me to the point that I had to make this a daytime-only read.    Professor Roza  also explains how the novel reflects concerns extant in post-World War II America, including "popular culture's deepening interest in psychiatry and psychoanalysis," which is very much apparent throughout the story.

  Very highly recommended, but beware -- it took everything I had and several days after reading Wisteria Cottage to get it out from under my skin.  As I said -- disturbing with a capital D.

******



from Film Noir of the Week


I also watched the film based on this novel, Edge of Fury (1958), and whoever chose Michael Higgens to play the role of Richard totally nailed it.    It's available on youtube.  

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

WB Yeats: Stories of Red Hanrahan, The Secret Rose, and Rosa Alchemica

"O Divine Rose of Intellectual Flame, let the Gates of thy peace be opened to me at last!
                       "Out of the Rose," from The Secret Rose



Never having been much of a poetry person, I was a bit taken aback when I discovered that WB Yeats also wrote some pretty strange fiction.   The truth is that he wouldn't have even come up on my reading radar had it not been for the essays about him I read in  The Library of the Lost: In Search of Forgotten Authors  by Roger Dobson (ed. Mark Valentine), where I learned about his work The Secret Rose. 

9780486493817
Dover, 2013
originally published by Macmillan, 1914
119 pp
paperback


I picked up the Dover edition containing The Secret Rose and Rosa Alchemica, but never one to read just part of a book, I began with Yeats'  Stories of Red Hanrahan, which starts like this:
"Hanrahan, the hedge schoolmaster, a tall, strong, red-haired young man, came into the barn where some of the men of the village were sitting on Samhain Eve."
I knew with just that opening sentence that something supernatural or at least strange was about to happen -- it's Samhain Eve after all.

 I wasn't wrong: after a card game with some of the fellows and an "old mountainy man" who owns the deck, Hanrahan is told to follow the "great hunt" that ensues when a hare leaps out of the cards, quickly followed by a dog and then an entire pack of hounds.  Hanrahan leaves the barn, but in the darkness quickly loses the hounds.  What he does find, however, as he sits in the heather "in the heart of Slieve Echtge," is a door with a light behind it.  Judging by what happens next, it seems that this itinerant schoolmaster has discovered an entrance to the Otherworld (here in the form of "big shining house"); on entering within, he notices a woman, "the most beautiful the world ever saw," with "the tired look of one that had been waiting."  Unbeknownst to Hanrahan, on entering this doorway he has entered into the realm of immortals --  the beautiful woman is "Echtge, the Daughter of the Silver Hand;" aka daughter of  Nuada, one-time king of the Tuatha dé Danann and therefore a goddess. Four old women appear, and with each appearance he is presented with a sort of test which he promptly fails. He is found "weak," and wanting, but even worse, his failure causes this goddess to remain asleep. His failure also has personal consequences;   Hanrahan must somehow make up for his fault;  throughout his wanderings,  he is bound to never know "content for any length of time..."   This first tale is key to what follows, a series of short tales that contain a blending of traditional, political, and mystical elements that weave their way through an entire Hanrahan story cycle.  It also seems to have elements of the traditional Romantic quest, albeit one that is interior and suffused throughout with the occult. 


from Ask About Ireland

The Secret Rose is described by the author himself as having "but one subject, the war of spiritual with natural order." In his dedication of this group of stories to A.E., aka George William Russell, Yeats notes that
"If a writer wishes to interest a certain people among whom he has grown up, or fancies he has a duty towards them, he may choose for the symbols of his art their legends, their history, their beliefs, their opinions.."
and goes on to say that "as this book is visionary, it is Irish for Ireland, which is still predominantly Celtic" and that it preserves "a gift of vision, which has died out among more hurried and more successful nations."

One of my favorite stories in this group of tales that illuminates all of this  is  "The Wisdom of the King," which begins with the "High-Queen of Ireland" having died in childbirth.  Her son was given in the care of a woman who lived in the woods, and  who one night was visited by a "grey-clad woman, of great age.." who had grey feathers on her head instead of hair.   Calling herself a "crone of the grey hawk," she places herself at the head of the baby's cradle.  The hut soon fills with a number of these women, and they proceed to mix their grey blood, a drop at a time, with the baby's; he is now imbued with their knowledge, their wisdom.   As he gets older, his head begins to sport grey hawk feathers; when he is old enough to rule in the place of his now-dead father, "the poets and the men of law" decreed that everyone (even visitors outside the realm who come to seek his wisdom)  "upon pain of death" had to weave into his or hair the feathers of the grey hawk.  Furthermore, anyone who told the boy the truth was to be "flung from a cliff into the sea."  You can only imagine what happens when he learns of the deception.

 These nine stories are like taking a mythical/mystical spin through history and tradition and they speak to an older wisdom, the knowledge of which only few are gifted and thus live a rather isolated life; sacrifices are made, and individuals take part in their own spiritual or mystical quests for the ideal. They were also my favorite part of this book. 

After finishing The Secret Rose, I started researching what to look forward to in Rosa Alchemica, and realized that this Dover edition did not include either "The Tables of the Law" or "The Adoration of the Magi," so I picked up Mythologies, which does. 

9780684826219
Simon and Schuster, 1998
originally published 1959
368 pp
paperback

It also contains Celtic Twilight and the mind-bending (and patience-expending) Per Amica Silentia Lunae, but I won't comment on either here.

 With  these last three stories, we delve deep into the realm of the alchemical, the mystical, and the apocalyptic.   The narrator of "Rosa Alchemica", who reminds me a bit of Huysmans' Des Esseintes because of his need to "fashion" his life according to his desire,  is sitting in quiet reverie in his Dublin home when he is interrupted by a knock at the door.  His visitor is a certain Michael Robartes, who is there to ask him yet again if he would join Robartes' Order of the Alchemical Rose.  He had declined earlier in Paris, and now asks Robartes why he would say yes when he'd already refused him? But become an initiate he does, or at least he's on the way to doing so at a temple on the coast when it seems as though all hell breaks loose. It's the inner workings of the ceremonies at the Temple of the Alchemical Rose which are fascinating here, but the ending speaks volumes as well.

 The same narrator appears again in  "The Tables of the Law" and "The Adoration of the Magi."  In the first story, rather than Robartes, it is Owen Aherne who appears to introduce his own mystical/spiritual philosophy.  Based on the writings of Joachim of Flora, an abbot of the twelfth century, his proposed system picks up Joachim's more heretical beliefs (from a secret book) that will displace "the commandments of the Son by the commandments of the Holy Spirit," and usher in a new age. Things, of course, go terribly wrong.  In the second, our narrator is once again in the company of visitors, three elderly brothers who tell him that they were there to reveal "important things."  Their strange story begins as one of the brothers fell asleep while  reading Virgil and a "strange voice spoke through him," bidding them to
set out for Paris, where a dying woman would give them secret names and thereby so transform the world that another Leda would open her knees to the swan, another Achilles beleaguer Troy."
Their travels take them to a brothel where a prostitute has just given birth; it seems that now "the Immortals are beginning to awake."  Or at least one that can "take many forms."

I have to say that this has been my first Yeats experience, and I do not claim to understand all of it, but I do have a newly-found reverence for Yeats scholars who do.  Still, it was absolutely a trip to read, and this book was definitely an experience most fascinating and one I'll never forget. It took me a long time to go through this one, stopping to check on various references here and there, but even with my limited understanding it is a book that I can certainly recommend.