Friday, May 29, 2020

Terror Tales of Cornwall (ed.) Paul Finch

Telos, 2017
274 pp


Last week I was completely down with a fever that wouldn't quit. I grabbed a random handful of books off the shelves, grabbed a hot cup of  tea and went to bed.  Not feeling in the mood to prioritize,  Terror Tales of Cornwall was on the top of the stack so it was also the first read.

I'm no stranger to Finch's Terror Tales anthologies and have almost all of them on my shelves.  They all share the insertion of brief snippets of local lore, history, people etc. between each story, while the stories themselves are geographically centered within a particular region.  This time around it's all about Cornwall,
"which would not be Cornwall without its multiplicity of spooky tales, its thousands of ghost stories, its legends of monsters, faeries, demons, witches, smugglers and mermaids" 
 and to that list I'll add Daphne du Maurier, whose life and work does get a few mentions here.

There is a good mix here of horror, weird, and the strange.  Six of these stories I loved, as they are each brilliant examples of weird fiction,  two made me laugh almost out loud, two reflect current social anxieties, and the remainder I'll file  under NPT -- not particularly terrifying, but okay.

The standouts for me (and this in order of appearance)  begin with "In the Light of St Ives," by Ray Cluley.   There is something quite special about the quality of light in St. Ives, which was ideal for Claire the artist, until she tried to burn down her house and paint herself black after noticing the colors that "seep into everything."  This one absolutely chilled, and the ambiguity here keeps the tension high as the story itself merges into surreal territory.   Very nicely done.  In "Trouble at Botathan," by Reggie Oliver,  one character notes, "... all this has happened before," and in this place, indeed it has.  "Botathan Place" is the home of the Bligh family.  The last of the line, a mathematics Don at St. Saviours, died in 1973 and left the remote house to his college. Now at "The Place" a hand-picked group of young men,  a college Dean and the chaplain of St. Saviour's are having a sort of summer retreat when one student has a strange experience in the wood that turns him in into "a different person."   Sad but strange, and oh so good.  Mark Valentine's "The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things" reveals that "here there are secrets" as a museum curator and his artist friend are allowed a glimpse just over the thin boundary between the "Sancreed we see" and the "Sancreed Beyond."  "His Fire Was Kindled" by Kate Farrell is yet another fine piece of  unsettling weirdness, as commercialism and the spiritual butt heads  in Penharrack.  A representative of  luxury housing developers seriously underestimates the staying power of a local vicar who doesn't care if a new development is a done deal -- the church has been there since the thirteenth century and the vicar aims to keep it there.    "Four Windows and a Doorby DP Watt is quite possibly the most eerie and chilling story in this collection, in which a glimpse at a strange house during a boat ride begins a terrible odyssey for a family vacationing in Cornwall.  Read it twice -- the impact is staggering.  Last but by no means least comes Mark Samuels' "Moon Blood-Red, Tide Turning."  which unsettled me to my core.  A man travels to an amphitheatre carved into a cliff to watch his friend perform in a play that is "all very ritualistic. But definitely cutting-edge and experimental." As it just so happens, the play runs during a lunar eclipse, after which the viewer leaves while the play goes on.   Twenty years later it seems that although the venue's changed, the show goes on.  I have to confess that I had to look up "Dr. Prozess," resulting in the purchase of a used copy of The Prozess Manifestations. If this story (which is in that book) is any judge, I'll soon be immersed in intense weirdness. 

Botathen House, from Haunted Britain

Both "Mebyon versus Suna" by John Whitbourn and "The Old Traditions Are Best" by editor Paul Finch combine a bit of horror with a comic touch.  In the first, a dyed-in-the-wool Cornishman whose wife refuses  to share his "born-again nationalism" just can't shut up about it when his wife gets a promotion and he finds himself living in Exeter.  His neighbor is tolerant as can be until one day when he's not.   Finch's entry is steeped in Padstow local traditions but young Scott, a  tough guy from Manchester whose probation officer  had brought him down on holiday, openly scoffs at them, much to his detriment.

Although they come at the end of this volume, there are two tales which reflect current social concerns and speak mainly in metaphor: "The Memory of Stone," by Sarah Singleton, and "Losing Its Identity" by Thana Niveau.   Singleton's story is focused on Michael, whose obsession with one woman decimates his family. Alone in an old cottage on the Cornish shore, he receives strange nightly visits from a group of children who leave messages in the form of white stones until one day when they arrive in person.   Niveau exams senility and climate change in her story, set in a future where Cornwall is on the verge of being swallowed by the sea. A sad and poignant tale, to be sure.

The remainder fit more along the edge of traditional horror, and in most cases reflect the idea that the legendary, mythical creatures of Cornwall may be more real than one might believe.   "We Who Sing Beneath the Ground" by Mark Morris which opens the collection,  begins when a rather shy child brings something strange to show and tell day at school.  The next day he doesn't return, and his teacher goes to find out why.  In "The Unseen" by Paul Edwards, an unemployed man watches a dvd from a local shop and becomes fascinated.  Going online to see if anyone else has seen it, wondering if there's an uncut version, he is told that there is a more complete version, and also learns that it's the film itself which will seek out "worthy" watchers.  In Jacqueline Simpson's "Dragon Path" a young man skilled in Druidic arts learns the hard way that  power does not equate to wisdom.  A dirty, dated and hardly-thriving amusement arcade filled with "nightmarish nostalgia" is the location for Steve Jordan's "Claws."  It's also a place where very strange things are happening and the boss thinks the employees are out to get him, but boy is he wrong. Adrian Cole's "A Beast By Any Other Name" begins as a murder mystery, morphing slowly into something not completely of this world.   It's also the most original within this group of stories, and if you ask me, very nicely done. Finally, "Shelter from the Storm," by Ian Hunter finds three friends on a routine "practice walk" before tackling a bigger, 150-mile hike.  Hoping to find their way to Port Isaac, their walk becomes anything but routine when they discover they're lost and the weather turns terrible.  They find what one of them believes is "salvation" when they come across the ruins of an old church, yet fail to heed the warning left there and, as kids often do in these sorts of things,  start messing around with things that are best left alone.

Depending on personal tastes, of course, mileage may vary, not uncommon in any anthology. I trend much more toward the weird, and my selection of favorite stories here reflect my preference, but really there's something here for everyone.  I have enjoyed the series so far, and look forward to reading more in the future.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

The Architect, by Brendan Connell

Eibonvale, 2020
151 pp


"And so it is that the more desperate men become, the more wild are their dreams. Shunning the world around them, ignoring the blue skies and singing streams, they look for beauty in some great beyond, their diseased minds crippled by stupidity, their senses perverted by occult mechanisms."

When asked by Jeff VanderMeer in in a May 2011 interview what the term "weird" meant to him, author Brendan Connell replied that
" 'the weird' means something different. Not necessarily some creature dug up in the back yard with sunflower seeds for teeth, but rather a perception that is different from normal.  It is like seeing the world reflected on the back of a spoon or hearing a conversation through a thick wall."
The last sentence there pretty much sums up my feelings about  weird fiction.  I know I'm going to be delving into someone's vision of a distorted or dislocated segment of reality, and I look forward to it.   The catch is that it takes a really good writer to  pull it off in a truly satisfying way, and there are a handful of contemporary writers I trust to do it right.  Brendan Connell is definitely one of those authors, with a top tier placement in my imaginary hierarchy of writers of the weird and the strange for some time now.   And while in 2012, the year of its original publication, I'd probably never even heard of The Architect, much less Brendan Connell (I'm a late bloomer -- what can I say?)  Eibonvale has now published its own edition of this book, and I just couldn't resist.  The original blurb for this book refers to it as a "Greek tragedy on hallucinogens."  I couldn't wait to read it and discover for myself whether or not that description was accurate, and by golly, it was.  I normally don't believe blurbers, but yes indeedy, whoever cobbled that phrase together was absolutely on the money.

To more fully understand events of this book, we have to go back in time a bit, to a certain Dr. Maxwell Körn (1849-1924), who had during his lifetime, among other things,  received "certain occult initiations pertaining to the Order of the Hermetic Brotherhood,"  "lunched with swamis and drank tea with Taoist sages,"  and had "entered a secret society of adepts where he studied the anatomy of the soul."   But it was on the third of April, 1894 at 6:30 p.m,  an hour after eating a plate of roast beef and while sitting at platform number 3 of the Lehrter Bahnhof in Berlin that within twenty minutes he'd become "spontaneously enlightened,"  coming to the understanding  "of the entire workings of the entire universe, from its creation to its future destruction and saw both the purpose of mankind and the purpose of its life, the celestial scheme of things." Two years later he decided to form "a Universal Brotherhood of Mankind". He gave lectures throughout Europe,  astro-traveled to "other planets and planes" where among other accomplishments he "met with other beings, familiars looking for and archangels, the souls of great thinkers."  In short, he was a "visionary, spiritual scientist" honored by the modern-day, Switzerland-based Körn society, whose board members as the story opens, are examining plans submitted by various architects for a Meeting Place.  None of the designs meet their approval -- they want a building that reflects the idea of Körn himself, who said in 1914 that
"great architecture transforms the world of material objects into a direct and immutable projection of the spirit."
Unforunately, the plans they've seen to this point have been on the mundane side, not a place worthy of Körn's followers.  Frustrated after having been looking at these things for months and finding nothing worthwhile, a nephew of one of the board members comes in with a book of drawings by a certain Alexius Nachtman, and shortly thereafter he is invited to submit a proposal to the board.   He offers them not only
"the greatest structure built in the post-Atlantean age... a symbol of the liberated spirit, of mankind's final dominance, not only over nature, but over physicality itself"
 but speedy delivery.  It takes the Society only thirty minutes to give the go-ahead, and they also offer  Nachtman all the money he will need to complete the project. All he must do is to join the Körn Society, the dues deducted from his otherwise generous salary.

Most importantly for this story, the board members also meet his demand for "full undiluted authority concerning both the architectural and engineering aspects of the project. "  Nachtman has been known to be an eccentric, but with "full undiluted authority,"  his true personality is revealed.  He is the ultimate narcissist, the epitome of unchecked ego, a master manipulator, a man driven by his own obsession and lacking a conscience, but he is also the object of what can only be described as a cult of personality, supported by members of a Society which somewhere along the way "seems to have lost its bearings."  I think in this case,  the author takes the idea of the cult of personality that forms around him to its extreme, yet here logical  conclusion with this tale, which is not at all pretty, but one which doesn't seem to bother anyone except a couple of people who see through what's going on.  Connell  once said that "There are enough monsters and demons in the real world without needing to look elsewhere,"  and in this story it's a toss up as to whether it's the titular architect or his most ardent supporters who reflect this idea to its fullest.  There is, of course, much more, but the joy is in the reading so I will say no more about plot.  The irony will not be lost on any reader.

 As dark as it is, there is a streak of black humor that runs through The Architect, making me laugh out loud for more than a beat or two past a split second.  That's not unusual for this author -- some time ago I read and loved his The Translation of Father Torturo and as pitch dark as that one was, god help me, there were times when I absolutely couldn't stop a giggle or two from bubbling out.  At the same time, The Architect left me with a growing sense of uneasiness that I couldn't shake even after it was all over. 

 Connell's books take on a unique logic which appeals and which works, and frankly, I just love how he writes.  He deserves the honor bestowed on him by author Rhys Hughes, who wrote on the back-cover blurb of  Connell's Unpleasant Tales that
"Every generation throws up few genuine Masters of the Weird. There is simply no hyperbole in the statement that Brendan Connell is a member of this elite group right now, perhaps the most accomplished of them all."
I knew this already, but anyone who reads The Architect could not help but to agree.  A fine novel, certainly recommended to readers of the weird, especially those who have not yet had the great fortune to have made the acquaintance of this author's work.  You will become an instant fan.


My many, many thanks to Alice at Eibonvale for offering me a list of books to read out of which with no hesitation I chose this one, and to David Rix, "a writer, artist and reader who loves books" and who also happens to be the guy who runs Eibonvale.  

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

The Double Star and Other Occult Fantasies, by Jane de la Vaudère

Snuggly Books, 2018
translated by Brian Stableford
242 pp


"Those who dream by day have knowledge of a host of things that will remain forever unknown to those who only dream by night. Visions are strewn with fulgurant lightning flashes that, at times, unveil eternity for us and permit us to regain a few scraps of the terrible mystery." 

What would we do without Brian Stableford? The man is a lean, mean translating machine, and he has an uncanny knack for uncovering the best work by heretofore unknown authors.  I actually read The Double Star and Other Occult Fantasies some time ago, but recently when someone I know online said he was currently reading it, I decided that I would give it a second read.  I'm so glad I did. It was time.

In his introduction, Brian Stableford shares what little there is to know about Jane de La Vaudère, suggesting that  owing to her family's social status, when as a child she lost both of her parents she was sent to a convent along with her sister to be raised and educated until she could later be married off.   Born Jeanne Scrive, after leaving the convent, she married a military surgeon named Camille Gaston Crapez, who inherited  the Chateau de la Vaudère in Sarthe and began calling himself Crapez de La Vaudère [If anyone is at all interested, there is an interesting (French) blog post in which the author, looking for genealogical information, discovers Jane de la Vaudère quite by accident while researching the Crapez family in Parigné-l'Ėveque].  Before her death in 1908, she had worked as an artist, a poet, a playwright, a novelist, and writer of short stories.  As Stableford also notes,
"a Poesque fascination with what the American writer called 'The Imp of the Perverse' seems to have been a constant feature in the artistry of La Vaudere's literary endeavour, and perhaps her life as well, if what seem to be echoes of her own sentiments in her work really are revealing.  That element of her work made her a significant writer in the development of modern horror fiction, although she is not mentioned in any reference book on the subject." 
Let me repeat:   "a significant writer in the development of modern horror fiction,"   yet her work remains relatively unknown.  I say, read this book and you'll want to read everything she's ever written.

my photo, back-cover image
 In these tales,  as quoted from "The Dream of Myses," the final story in this collection,

 "The passions ... all flow from amour, the fundamental law of the world." 

They do not, however, necessarily remain earthbound or cease at death; the obsessive desire for a love which continues beyond this earthly realm (and the consequences thereof)  is the essence of this book.  These stories encompass reincarnation,  reanimation, astral projection, hypnotism, chimeras, mysticism, dreams and more, with all but the opening story, "Emmanuel's Centenary," entrenched in elements of the erotic and the sexual. 

I'm not going to go into any detail at all about any of the nine stories in this volume; they are truly best discovered by the reader with no knowledge ahead of time.    To say that the stories in this book are excellent does not quite do them the justice they deserve.  They are  delicious, sublimely written,  decadent and dark, and offer a look at "the scraps of the terrible mystery" as they "unveil eternity." I seriously cannot praise this book enough.  Patience may be required but you will certainly be rewarded for your effort many times over.