Friday, April 24, 2020

Mortal Echoes: Encounters With the End (ed.) Greg Buzwell

"So here it is at last, the distinguished thing..."
 -- Henry James

British Library, 2018
277 pp

To date I've read five books in the British Library Tales of the Weird series, leaving two unread on my shelves and anticipating  the four I've preordered which are coming in September and November.  They are not only engaging and highly entertaining,  but also include stories by a number of more obscure authors whose work I've never read.   It's a win-win.

The stories in Mortal Echoes: Encounters With the Dead  all feature someone who has had a brush with death -- perhaps but not necessarily his or her own -- as well as (quoting editor Greg Buzwell from his excellent introduction), "a particular fear associated with mortality."  Buzwell categorizes these tales as follows: the  "inevitability" of death,  stories from the afterlife,  the "reluctant" dead who are unwilling to stay in their graves,  tales of death with a humorous edge, and those which are "plain macabre."   The table of contents (in story order below) reads like a who's who of ghost/strange/weird fiction writers,  but there are also a few surprises.

The first five stories need absolutely no introduction to readers of  this genre, but don't be tempted to buzz past these -- rereads are always good.  Le Fanu's "Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter" opens this volume, followed by Poe's (sadly timely read)  "The Masque of the Red Death,"   "Rappacini's Daughter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne, "The Signal-Man" by Charles Dickens and the excellent "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce. 

New to me this time around is "The King is Dead, Long Live the King"  by poet Mary Elizabeth Coleridge , in which  a newly-dead king is given one hour to find "three that desire thy life," at which point he will be brought back to the realm of the living.  He's not worried: it seems like a sure bet,  as he is positive that he "could find three thousand as easily as three."  The irony will be lost on no one reading this story as that hour ticks down.   Another I hadn't read is HG Wells' somewhat visionary "Under the Knife," in which a man is absolutely convinced that he's going to die during an operation despite the doctor's assurance that his heart is "sound as a bell."  Then again, anything can happen under the influence of chloroform.   "Laura" is one of my favorite stories by H.H. Munro aka Saki, simultaneously weird and giggleworthy, which in this book is a bit of a relief, given the overall topic. 

from Amazon UK

My favorite previously-unread story here is May Sinclair's "Where Their Fire is Not Quenched," which disturbed me to no end while reading the first time through and left me beyond unsettled after a second read.  I will say nothing about this one except that I completely agree with editor Greg Buzwell who says that "it offers one of the most disturbing depictions of eternal hell imaginable."    Another good, thoroughly disquieting and for its time (1923) probably quite shocking tale is Marjorie Bowen's "Kecksies."   Looking for refuge from a storm, the drunken lord of the Manor and his friend come upon the cottage of Goody Boyle, "a foul place," where people swear they've seen "the devil's own fize" looking out of the window.  They are given shelter, but they discover they're not the only guest in the cottage, he being quite dead.  Sir Nicholas decides 'twould be good fun to play a practical joke on those coming to pay their respects.  Very bad mistake.   The next three stories, although very different, touch on the thin line between sanity and madness: Graham Greene's "A Little Place off Edgware Road," Robert Aickman's "Your Tiny Hand is Frozen,"  and Daphne du Maurier's "Kiss Me Again, Stranger."   If you're looking for life affirmation in the midst of all of this death,  you'll find it in Donald Barthelme's "The School,"  and the book ends with a rather comical story called "Death by Scrabble," by Charlie Fish.  You'll never look at the game in the same way going forward; just be careful who you're playing against.

As always, another fine volume from the British Library Tales of the Weird series; as always, a mixed bag with some stories stronger than others depending on personal tastes.  And as usual, more authors for me to explore, which is why I read these anthologies.  Certainly recommended. 

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Little Eyes, by Samanta Schweblin

Oneworld, 2020
originally published as Kentukis, 2018
translated by Megan McDowell
240 pp


Having read Samanta Schweblin's previous books, it was a no-brainer that I was going to read this one, Booker International longlist or no.  Little Eyes not only examines our infatuation with the latest technology that we feel compelled to bring into our lives, but also shines a spotlight on how it is used and by whom.

 At the center of it all is a cuddly, sweet-looking and rather expensive  device called a kentuki.  It comes in different forms, including pandas, crows, bunnies and dragons, looking "similar to a football with one end sliced off," enabling it to "stand upright", with cameras located behind the eyes.  It moves about on wheels, and once the device is charged, the "keeper" (the owner of the kentuki and responsible for keeping it charged), waits until it connects with a "central server," which then links to a "dweller," the person who will be looking out onto the keeper's world through the kentuki's eyes via his or her computer.

Since I don't want to reveal too much, I'll just say that in Little Eyes Schweblin has put together a series of interwoven, related vignettes focusing on keepers and dwellers from different walks of life throughout the world.  As you begin to get hooked on one such story, another intervenes before coming back later with more revelations which in my case I couldn't wait to get to.   And while each has the kentuki at its core, the book turns out to be much more about human nature as she explores the various bonds that form between owner and user,  some of which turn out to be rather sinister, while others have a more poignant side;  here, I am pleased to say,  technology isn't all bad. 

Admittedly, the concept of invasive/voyeuristic technology is not a new one but there is just something different here that makes for worthwhile reading.  As the blurb reveals,
"Trusting strangers can lead to unexpected love, playful encounters, and marvellous adventures,"
but on the flip side, it can also "pave the way for unimaginable terror."   And indeed, most of these tales are tinged with the disturbing weirdness that one expects from this author; there are some moments that made me laugh out loud and then there are elements that were so horrific that I wanted to put the book down.  But I couldn't.

book photo from goodreads

The US release comes out in May from Riverhead, and  although its cover is not nearly as cool as the UK release,  I can definitely recommend it for people who like their fiction a bit more on the darker, weirder side.

Monday, April 6, 2020

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

Stark House Press, 2018
342 pp


"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


"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

Tartarus Press, 2019
260 pp


"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.