Thursday, February 18, 2021

Of One Blood, Or The Hidden Self by Pauline Hopkins


 9781464215063
Poisoned Pen Press, 2021
196 pp

paperback



"...the wonders of a material world cannot approach those of the undiscovered country within ourselves -- the hidden self lying quiescent in every human soul." 


Of One Blood made its first appearance serialized in The Colored American Magazine in 1902 and 1903.  The magazine, as stated on the cover, was an

"Ilustrated monthly devoted to literature, science, music, art, religion, facts, fiction and traditions of the Negro race." 

from coloredamerica.org




Author Nisi Shawl notes in her introduction that not only did Pauline Hopkins write for this magazine, she also edited it.  About the author Shawl says that Hopkins 

"is in some ways the foremother of Octavia E. Butler, and Tanarive Due, and many of today's leading science fiction, fantasy, and horror authors -- primarily because she's another African-descended woman using a popular genre to write speculatively about hard philosophical questions, surprising truths, and the wonders of the occult."

At the beginning of this novel Reuel Briggs is contemplating "the riddle of  whence and whither," which not too much later he will say the solving of which is his life; it is "that alone" that he lives for.  I marked this passage and after finishing this book, came back to it, finding it beyond appropriate given what happens in this story.  

Briggs is a poor Harvard medical student, a black man who keeps his heritage hidden because of the "infernal prejudice" that "closes the door of hope."   An authority on "brain diseases," and a believer in "supernatural phenomena or mysticism,"  he often contributed articles to scientific magazines on the topic to help pay the rent.  While we are privy early on to a few of his visions, it isn't until he is called to the hospital after a train wreck to help out a woman  whom the doctors have pronounced dead that we discover that Reuel also has certain powers.  His diagnosis is that no, the woman isn't dead but rather in a state of "suspended animation," and has also been "long and persistently subjected to mesmeric influences. " Knowing this, he is able to reanimate her, although her memory has been affected; he also discovers that he is in love with her.   Eventually he decides he wants to marry this woman, Dianthe Lusk, and they become engaged, but as a poor student, he can in no way afford to offer her a decent life.  Unfortunately, his attempts at finding a medical job are thwarted, and at this very low point, Reuel's  closest friend, a certain Aubrey Livingston, has great news for him: he can make quite a bit of money as a "medical man" for an expedition going from England to "the site of ancient Ethiopian cities" to "unearth buried cities and treasure which the shiftng sands of the Sahara have buried for centuries."  Livingston has the connections to make this happen, but the catch is that there is a two-year commitment.  Although at first he doesn't want to be away from Dianthe,  but being practical about the whole thing, he decides he'll take the job.  They marry, and leaving her in the care Livingston's fiancée, off he goes, dreaming of  "the possibility of unearthing gems and gold from the mines of Ancient Meroe and the pyramids of Ethiopia."  And while in Africa, as the back-cover blurb describes, as Briggs faces "unexpected danger" before making some startling discoveries about himself in the hidden city of Telassar, he has no clue that life for Dianthe back home has also taken a rather sinister turn.  It seems that Livingston's help in getting Briggs the job on the expedition was not given out of love for his best friend, but rather for that of Dianthe.   Before this story is over,  there will be further twists that build up to a number of beyond-surprising revelations, and what Briggs finds in Ethiopia will be a treasure far more valuable than any he may have imagined.  

I don't think this is a novel that you read so much for plot -- keeping in mind that this story was written in 1902, it must have been positively mind-boggling at the time, perhaps holding out some measure of hope and redemption to its readers.  It is a truly visionary novel that in the long run transcends plot, and in that sense it remains an important work still relevant today.    Of One Blood moves well beyond the combination (as Shawl notes in the introduction) of Victorian society novel and lost-world  narrative to explore "contemporary racial issues" through a variety of lenses, ultimately positing a hidden truth or two that upends everything and has, as she says "cosmologically expansive implications."  I don't wish to divulge how this comes about, but if you really want to know, you can go to Tor's website where she has written pretty much the same material that appears in her introduction to this book.  I will caution that it gives away the show so that reader awe may be diminished, and the same goes if you have this particular edition of the novel and you read the introduction before launching into the story.  

I'll also note that my edition is part of the Horror Writers Association series of Haunted Library of Horror Classics and that across the top of the front cover it says that the book is from "the first great female horror writer of color."   I'd call it more speculative fiction myself, but the recognition of Pauline Hopkins and her work is well deserved and very long overdue.  

Sunday, February 7, 2021

arachnaphobes beware (part two): The Sign of the Spider, by Bertram Mitford

 

9781934555460
Valancourt Books, 2008
originally published 1898
247 pp

paperback

"Every conventionality violated, every rule of morality, each set aside, had brought him nothing but good..."

The back-cover blurb describes The Sign of the Spider as a "thrilling mixture of adventure, romance, and horror." It was the combination of "adventure" and "horror" that was the draw for me, and while I'm not a huge reader of monster-type horror fiction, in this book it works.  

A most unhappy, dissatisfied Laurence Stanninghame who is "just touching middle age,"  has decided that he's had enough of his "awful life," and has booked passage to Johannesburg to try his luck in the "boom."  Some of his acquaintances had done the same and had "made their pile," so why shouldn't he have a shot at the same? He has also become a bit tired of the "warfare" with his wife, a woman who had many fine qualities, but who was also his equal in will.   Once "eager, sanguine, warm-hearted..." he has become as this story begins, "indifferent, sceptical, with a heart of stone of the chronic sneer of a cynic."   Perhaps this change has come about because Laurence is one of those people for whom "everything he touched seemed to go wrong," but now he's decided that it's time to "cast in the net for the final effort."

Once in Johannesburg, however, it seems that he has arrived a "day too late," in the midst of a speculation market (and a colonial economy in general)  facing setbacks.   At first things were "rosy" but as time went on and Stanninghame had taken the route of "all or nothing," he loses everything:
"He had come to this place to make one final effort to retrieve his fortunes. That effort had failed. He had put what little remained to him into various companies -- awaiting the boom -- and no boom had ensued...He was ruined."

 Things look so bleak for him that he picks up his gun, contemplating suicide, but in his room the face of Lilith Ormskirk, a young, independent woman whom he'd met on the passage from Southampton, comes to him and saves him at the last moment.  But what to do now?  As far as Stanninghame is concerned, he would sell his soul "to the devil himself."   Not too long afterwards,  a certain Hazon offers him the opportunity to go up country and "come back a fairly rich man."   As rumor has it, Hazon has taken men up country before,  but "not one of them has ever returned."  Laurence, however, views the opportunity as "the suggestion of adventure "on a magnificent scale, and with magnificent results, if successful." As the back-cover blurb reveals, Hazon is a slave trader, but as Laurence says at one point, 

"The one thing to make life worth living is wealth. I will stick at nothing to obtain it -- nothing! Without it life is a hell; with it -- well, life is at one's feet. There is nothing one cannot do with it -- nothing!"

And indeed, he seems to have few qualms about what he does, feeling as though he is complying with the "iron immutable law of life" of "Preyer or preyed upon."  As he sheds the trappings of "that damned respectability" while traveling deeper into the interior with Hazon over the next few years, he is captured and taken into the hidden realm of the so-named "People of the Spider." There he is somewhat hesitantly accepted among the tribespeople, but in time Stanninghamme finds himself, as the back-cover blurb reveals, "marked out as a sacrifice to the monstrous spider-god."  

As with other books written during this time period, The Sign of the Spider is incredibly difficult to read today because of its racism and subject matter,  but when all is said and done it is a story of one man's journey as he discovers "the consistent and unswerving irony of life as he had known it."   He explains that 
"Every conventionality violated, every rule of morality, each set aside, had brought him nothing but good to him and his,"

but  for me, the question here centers on the price he has paid and will continue to pay in the long run.  I have to say that I thought I'd be reading a sort of rugged pulp adventure story complete with a cryptid arachnid thrown into the bargain, but what I got instead was a story that has a depth I was not at all expecting.  

Save the excellent introduction for last, but most certainly do not skip it, as it adds even more to the reading of this novel.  

With the acknowledgment that it's tough going subjectwise, I can certainly recommend this novel, and I'm looking forward to reading the other book by this author now sitting on my shelves, The Weird of Deadly Hollow.  

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

arachnaphobes beware: Tenebrae, by Ernest G. Henham





9781934555293
Valancourt Books, 2014 (reprint)
213 pp

paperback

Just about a quarter of the way through this novel, I remarked on Goodreads that Tenebrae is a book so filled with gloom that even when the characters are out in the garden it's hard to imagine sunlight.  Mind you, I had no idea that it was about to get even darker before all was said and done, but considering that the Latin word tenebrae translates to "darkness," I should have at least had an inkling.   Originally published in 1898, Tenebrae  is the story of two brothers, with "extraordinary affection for each other," right up until the time a woman came between them.  

The two brothers (names are not used here)  "formed the last representatives of an ancient family, proud of its history and its name," although the house itself has been left in a state of "gradual decay." The family home sits near a cliff above the sea, with the property also containing a "desolate moor." Some of its windows had been "closed up" by "forgotten ancestors,"  now 
"peered blankly through the clinging ivy, striking into the spectator's mind a latent suggestion of guarded horrors lying concealed behind..."

all of which, it seems, was pleasing to the elder brother's "naturally morbid imagination."  As just a brief aside, let me say that those three words struck a chord, keeping me on guard through the remainder of the novel.  We also learn that aside from the two brothers, this family also consisted of an uncle, who had once been a "nameless adventurer and wanderer"  now a "human derelict" whose mind had been affected by a long history of drug use of every kind, as well as an old nurse who in her own way continues to look after the two siblings.  

I won't say much in the way of plot -- I could talk about it all day but in the long run, it's better to go into this book knowing little more than what's revealed on the back cover blurb.  I will say that it is quite clear that there is something not right from the outset.  As the elder brother begins writing this account of events, he reveals that he is "curiously liable to ... fits" when thinking of the younger, now dead, to the point of  the ink turning "red upon the paper," the pen "dripping with blood," and "the horror" surging before his eyes.  This is quite strange, given that he goes on to describe their past relationship as one of "great unspoken love," sharing "the same heart, the same mind, equal portions of the same soul," and the fact that they "understood each other so well that speech was often unnecessary."  Something has obviously changed, and throughout the first part of this book, so aptly entitled "The Foreshadowing," we discover what that is as we follow the course of events involving two men who loved the same woman driving the elder to, as the back-cover blurb notes,  a "murderous jealousy" that will change the lives of all three involved.  The second and darkest part of Tenebrae, "The Under-Shadow," becomes a dizzying amalgamation of madness, mania, guilt and vengeance, all coming together in the form of a giant spider, "the most hideous of gaolers." 

This isn't a book I read in fits and starts -- it's actually impossible to stop reading once begun.  It is a novel that moves well beyond disturbing, owing to Henham's most excellent and atmospheric writing that has produced some of the most nightmarish imagery I've encountered over the course of my reading.   Do not bypass the excellent introduction by Gerald Monsman, but I would suggest leaving it until the last.  

Very highly recommended, especially to readers who like myself, love this older stuff -- it may be well over one hundred years old, but the horror it carries hasn't faded over the years. Not one iota.