Tuesday, December 27, 2022

The Shrieking Skull & Other Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories (by) James Skipp Borlase, (ed.) Christopher Philippo

"Truly, we little understand the mysteries of that world unseen, yet so near." 

Valancourt Books, 2022
184 pp


 This book marks, I do believe, the first time a Valancourt Christmas edition has featured a single author; here it's a Victorian writer by the name of James Skipp Borlase (1839-1909).    Datewise, the stories in this volume range from 1867 to 1907, part of the "untold number of short stories" he'd written;  Borlase also, according to the editor's informative introduction, wrote "as many as a hundred serialized novels," a seriously major output over a very long career. 

One thing I've discovered while reading this book in particular is that evidently, Victorian readers must have truly enjoyed reading tales based on their own history, as there are a number of stories set in the 17th and 18th centuries.  They seemed to also enjoy stories that hearkened back to old, familiar folklore and legends, and after 1880 Borlase began employing a technique in which he would identify
"short passages regarding ghosts, witches, deals with the devil, and so on from works of local history and folklore, then writing a longer story of his own from that germ of an idea and resetting the events around Christmas."

 Personally, I think that was a good choice on his part, starting with the familiar and then embellishing, and that concept takes shape at the very beginning of this collection, with the first story,  "A Weird Wooing."  It begins on  Christmas Eve in January, 1748 and concerns an ill-fated romance between a young woman and her ardent suitor whose lands had been confiscated because he "drawn his sword, on the losing side, during the Civil War of 1745 and 1746." It  seems that this guy means to make his fortune and win the girl back by going to  Edinburgh where a treasure lies hidden in a house beset by the plague in 1645, sealed up "lest the pestilence should burst forth ..."  It seems that Death guards the place, so we shall wish him well.  The titular story, "The Shrieking Skull,"  set in Lancashire, begins in 1650, the year after Charles I was executed at the hands of Oliver Cromwell.  Once again politics divides a young couple in love.  She, Ruth,  the daughter of a Puritan is being (once again -- a very common theme throughout many of these stories) forced into a marriage to which she refuses to agree, and he, Ralph Osbaldiston, a Cavalier having lost his ancestral lands to her father when they were confiscated by Cromwell.  His family has long been known to have the "second sight," and he puts a curse on her groom-to-be that on the wedding day, he will either die "the death of a wolf" or will live "the life of a tortured fiend in hell."   As the next chapter heading begins, "Enter the Shrieking Skull."  I did not know this, but according to the editor,  a shrieking skull is a "British tradition," and with just a bit of googling, I found a few examples  of this phenomenon.  Actually, there are two different skull stories in the book, but this one is the best.    Yet another story, "The Black Cat or The Witch Branks of Loughborough,"  goes back even further in history, set in Leicestershire in the 1630s in a small town of  Loughborough, where one young woman, Madge Calvert,  covets the admirer of Muriel Fenton and will do absolutely anything to have him for herself.  The idea of just how to obtain her goal begins when Muriel finds a black kitten.  You may likely guess where this might be heading, but there are a few surprises yet to come.   

from Folk Horror Revival, Twitter

A somewhat bizarre tale  that I thought fit quite well in the weird fiction zone is "Tale of Two Christmases," which employs the old "White Lady" legend (which, I might add, is not limited solely to the UK, but is famous on a global scale in different variations) along with a wee bit of fairy lore.  It seems that a "family spectre"  guides two brothers, one a widower still missing his much beloved wife, to a small hill of snow, where they make a surprising discovery of a young girl who likely would have died without their White Lady's help.  The strangest thing about all of this is that this child bears a striking resemblance to the older brother's dead wife, who had promised on her deathbed that she would one day return.   And finally, the story that gets my nomination as most Christmas-y is "The Haunted Silk Mill; or the Ghost-Guarded Treasure," first appearing in 1905.  Set twenty years earlier, the story begins on a "blazing hot day" in Derby when at 6:30  p.m. the local silk mill catches fire. Fast forward five months plus and the heat has given way to the freezing cold and a "most severe winter."  A strike has closed the silk mills and the workers are starving.  Jane Morgan is with her beau, Joe Need and his mother, Joe having been seriously injured in the earlier fire and unable to work.  He tries to convince her to throw him over, since his injury prevents him from any labor, and he won't stand in the way of her marrying someone else who might take better care of her.  Jane refuses to hear it, having loved Joe since childhood, and hits on a plan to better all of their lives.  According to rumor,  there is a treasure hidden in Joe Lombe's silk mill, and she plans to go and get it.  She hands Joe a "scrap of discoloured, mouldy parchment, which smells as though it had recently been taken out of some grave" with the key to gaining the treasure.   The note promises that "no grizzly ghost can do her ill" if she fulfills certain conditions; in fact it's just the opposite.  If all goes well, it says, "... perhaps a ghost may point the way."  

This is probably the most different of all of the Valancourt Christmas volumes, and the stories included in The Shrieking Skull may not be the most frightening ghostly tales ever written,  but more important than leaving modern readers with a case of the heebie-jeebies, I think, is what Philippo says about Borlase's stories here, that 
"... this first collection of so many of his Christmas ghost stories should provide an informative and enjoyable window into the tastes of the Victorian era."
That it definitely does, and really, it's not too difficult to imagine a Victorian dad with his family all cozied up in the dark around the blazing fire in the hearth as he reads a few of these tales (in my head by candlelight),  inducing many a shiver among the wee ones.   My only complaint here is that many of the stories tend to center around romantic rivalries or lost loves that  make for one-note reading at times, and really, it's like a breath of fresh air when something different actually pops up in the story lineup.   On the flip side though, it's very much a plus to have been introduced to the work of James Skipp Borlase, whose name has never before blipped up on my reading radar.  I happen to very much enjoy this sort of thing because I'm a total folklore fanatic and a three-times history major, and I especially enjoyed the way Borlase reworked old history and old legends in his own way to fit the bill for the Christmas holiday season.  

As the editor notes, 
"Victorian readers' concept of 'ghost stories' generally and 'Christmas ghost stories' in particular was broader than the conception of some readers today,"
something I totally understand having read so many of these, and something for other readers to keep in mind as they read through these old tales.  I totally appreciate all of the work Christopher Philippo has put into this book, and for me, it's a welcome addition to my home library,  a book I'd certainly recommend, especially for regular readers of Victorian ghostly tales.   My advice -- be patient, but then again, if you've read a lot of Victorian ghost stories, you already know that you should.


Wednesday, November 30, 2022

A Different Darkness and Other Abominations, by Luigi Musolino


Valancourt Books, 2022
translated by James D. Jenkins
316 pp


I am a passionate advocate of translated fiction and I am loving this latest wave of translated horror collections from Valancourt.  First they wowed me with their two world horror anthologies, and then it was the off-the-charts excellent  The Black Maybe, by Hungarian author Attila Veres.  My latest Valancourt read is from Italy, A Different Darkness, by Luigi Musolino, and it is dark with a capital D.   After having finished both books now,  if this is the direction weird fiction is heading, I'm all for it.  Keep it coming. 

 In the translator's note, James Jenkins (co-founder of Valancourt) says that he and Musolino jointly selected the stories to appear in A Different Darkness.  Some of these are from  Musolino's two-volume collection Oscure Regioni (Dark Regions), which we're told number twenty stories, "one from each of Italy's regions, each inspired by local folklore from that region."  A few were also selected from some of the author's other works as well, and together these tales were chosen "to represent the best of his work over his career, which so far spans about ten years."  They did a great job in the choosing  -- the horrors begin immediately and do not let up, keeping the reader in a squirmworthy state throughout.  Musolino is a master of the existential dread and the gloom that pervades all of these stories,  many involving  strange creatures that make themselves known now and then, but at the heart of it all, human nature is also scrutinized in these tales as the author zeroes in on human psyches that have somehow become (as he describes in the titular story of this collection)  "derailed from the tracks of normality." 

Since this is another book that a reader will experience,  I will very briefly list only a few of my favorites without going into any sort of detail so as not to spoil things for potential readers.  In order of appearance  "Black Hills of Torment" comes first on the favorites list, in which it is clear from the outset that something has gone horribly wrong in the small town of Orlasco. Money "doesn't matter one damn bit any more," a certain song plays over and over"  as a "neverending dirge" and has done so for a year, people are out of food and living on mice, leaving town is impossible and everyone finds themselves living in a "nonsensical seclusion."  As the narrator notes, "We have become a town of shadows. A non-place."   I won't say how things have come down to this point but it makes sense that Brian Evenson  likens this one  in his intro to a certain story by Jerome Bixby. In this case however, there are twists that makes it even darker.  This tale is bleakness and sheer hopelessness personified.      "Pupils" is outstanding, and in its own unsettling way,  revisits the Pied Piper legend.  In Italian it's  Il Pifferaio Magico, but here it's actually The Lord of Dust, who had "always lived in Idrasca, since before the town existed or had a name." He is  a "specter of the lost future," and took up residence in the book storeroom of the local elementary school. His task, as he sees it, is to "open their eyes, to make them become like him, to share what he knows" to stave off his loneliness.  Children love fairy tales, right?  The Lord of Dust decides that he will write his own ("fairy tales, as everyone knows, are terrible"), and after a year he finishes his book, invites the children to come to him "one by one" at some point in their day, and begins reading "to open their eyes."   Let the horrors commence.  Good god. This is probably the most pessimistic story in this book, but in its own way the bottom line is beyond realistic, which is pretty damn scary.    Finally, the spectacular titular story "A Different Darkness" is an utter mind bender, beginning with a visit to an empty apartment by the police.  At first it was a child who went missing, but police are now wondering where her missing parents have gone.  What they do find is an apartment filled with bizarre paintings that were "abstract, focused on a single subject,"  representing "an obsession, a disease, the product of a mind derailed from the tracks of normality."  

It seems that in these stories  Musolino has discovered a number of cracks hidden in the mundane world into which, often without notice, his characters fall, slowly making their way into a completely different and certainly unexpected darker reality if not directly into the abyss.    I will be honest and say that there were a couple of stories that were just too dark or gross for my taste that I didn't care for,  but it is most certainly a book that no reader of  intelligent horror fiction or weird tales should miss.  

 Brian Evenson hits the nail on the head about this book, when he says in his introduction that 
"Musolino is expert at making us feel the void yawning below us, waiting to swallow both us and his characters up ..."
which is a perfect description that encompasses each and every story in this volume from page one on.

Very highly recommended.  

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Strange Relics: Stories of Archaeology and the Supernatural, 1895-1954 (eds.) Amara Thornton and Katy Soar


"We do not know what queer intricate effects the human soul may have on inanimate things. A physical environment may be charged with psychical stuff as a battery is charged with electricity, and, when the right conductor appears there may be the deuce to pay."
      -- John Buchan from "Ho! The Merry Masons"

Handheld Press, 2022
227 pp

Strange Relics is another fine anthology of strange tales from Handheld Press,  this time linking archaeology to the supernatural.    As the editors reveal in the introduction to this volume, "all but one of the authors ...  called Britain home,"  where remains of the past were "being researched, mapped and excavated,"  spawning not only  historical and archaeological societies but also awakening different writers to the link between the uncanny and the remnants of the past.  Margaret Murray acknowledged that connection in her autobiography noting that "due to the nature of their work, archaeologists were essentially assumed to have supernatural encounters."  And then, of course, there's the fact that many of these stories were written during a time of great interest in "psychical research, spiritualism and the occult," involving intellectuals across a range of different disciplines. The  stories in Strange Relics, as the editors explain, move well beyond the "discovery-led trope in which a naive (white male) scholar/excavator brings to light that-which-should-be-left-buried," instead focusing on capturing  " 'fantastic' ; one might say magical, encounters with the material remains of the past..."  and it is through these encounters that "the barrier between the present and the past becomes thin, and strange happenings result." 

Strange happenings indeed!   I'm sure the people in these stories would never have been the same after experiencing the weird phenomena that crops up throughout the book via "horrible" relics

 "from a Neolithic rite to ancient Egyptian religion to Roman battle remains to medieval masonry to some uncanny ceramic tiles in a perfectly ordinary American sun lounge..."

 and much, much more.  

Readers who are well into weird fiction will recognize pretty much all of the authors whose work appears here; I only found one whose work I'd not read before,  Alan JB Wace,  and it's likely because he was an archaeologist, not a writer of weird tales, whose wife had put together a book called Greece Untrodden after his death containing stories that he and his field colleagues would tell each other after their evening meals.    I've previously enjoyed seven of the twelve stories found here, but rereading them in Strange Relics was  a pleasure:  "The Shining Pyramid" by Arthur Machen, "Through The Veil" by Arthur Conan Doyle,  "View From a Hill" by MR James, "Curse of the Stillborn," by Margery Lawrence (which I must say is a great tale in which someone truly gets what they deserve) as part of her Number Seven Queer Street,  "The Cure" by Eleanor Scott (from her Randall's Round) and  "Cracks of Time" by Dorothy Quick, which I first encountered in The Horned God: Weird Tales of the Great God Pan,  edited by Michael Wheatley and published by the British Library just this year and finally, "The Ape," by EF Benson.   

from Tea and Rosemanry

Speaking of Pan, he is well represented here.    HD Everett's "The Next Heir"  concerns a young man, Richard Quinton, who answers an advertisement proclaiming that he may hear something to his advantage if he meets with a solicitor representing another Mr. Quinton, a relative in England.   It seems that the elder Mr. Quinton is looking for an heir to whom he might pass on his estate, but as young Richard will come to learn, there are certain conditions that must be met for this to happen.  In this story, the author approaches the great god Pan differently than in any other story I've read about him; I won't say how but it is certainly unique as well as thought provoking. "Roman Remains" by Algernon Blackwood also contains a Pan figure, and we are clued in to this right away as we're told that "Queer things seem to go on in a little glen called Goat Valley" and that the "superstitious" locals avoid it in the daytime.    Enough said about this one except that it is truly a gem among Blackwood's tales.  

Not a Pan-related story, in "The Golden Ring" by Alan J.B. Wace a man is gifted a golden ring on a string of yarn by three women and given orders not to lose, sell or cut it.   He finds the whole thing "rather silly" but trust me, there is nothing at allsilly about what happens next.  This story delves not only into mythology, but academic debate as well.  

The Stone Tape from Freedonia

 I positively loved John Buchan's "Ho! The Merry Masons." Edward Leithen (now with the Thursday Club, the successor to the Runagates Club) relates a bizarre incident that happened to him on a visit to his friend Barnes Lacey ("with an antiquarian conscience") at his house named Scaip.  While on a walk to see a nearby church with "several Lacey tombs" at Fanways,  Leithen finds the village with its "string of ancient homesteads, each sending up its drift of smoke from its stone chimneys"  to be "snug and comfortable," but this description does not extend to the church.  His host finds it "A noble house of God," but swears that "the Devil had a good deal to do with the building of it."  Turns out that the medieval masons may have been "under the special protection of the Church," so as to secure a heavenly afterlife, but it wasn't exactly Christianity that served as their inspiration as much as "Pagan miscreants."  What does one do, exactly, when the associated rites of these masons find themselves embedded into the "very framework" of one's medieval-era home, "built out of the heart of darkness," the mortar "wet with tears and blood, and death had plied the mallets."     Think Stone Tape  -- I first encountered this term earlier this month while reading Will Maclean's novel The Apparition Phase then watched the film/teleplay written by Nigel Kneale and was seriously blown away.  That was 1972; evidently Buchan had figured it out in 1933, and the concept goes back even further -- apparently in 1911 (according to the introduction), as one of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research had recognized that "those now living" who may be "endowed with some psychic sensitiveness" might pick up on echoes or phantoms in places where "some kind of imprint on material structures" has been left.  

My vote for most disturbing story in this anthology goes to Rose Macaulay's "Whitewash."  While vacationing in the Mediterranean on the Isle of Capri, a woman reading The Story of San Michele expresses to her aunt  that "it's nice to know what an excellent man Tiberius actually was, after all one was brought up to think of him."  Evidently, Suetonius was all wrong about him -- as she notes, "Tiberius has been cleared" and he was in truth a "saintly" emperor.  But after what was supposed to have been a refreshing swim in one of the caves ...   Super shivers from this one, and even better, the aunt's take on whitewashing is more than relevant to our present.

Editors Amara Thornton and Katy Soar have selected some great stories for inclusion in this volume; I can only imagine the huge amount of time and effort they've put into making their choices.  I have to say that  Handheld Press is fast becoming one of my favorite small indie presses, and each of their  "Handheld Weirds" that I've had the pleasure to have read have turned out to be absolutely awesome.  I have discovered many new-to-me authors from the past and  many stories I'd not previously encountered, which is of course something I always look forward to in my reading.   Strange Relics is a must read for anyone who enjoys weird tales or strange fiction; in this book the added angle of archaeology takes these stories to another level indeed.  

definitely recommended.  

Monday, November 7, 2022

These Long Teeth of the Night: The Best Short Stories 1999-2019 by Alexander Zelenyj


Fourth Horseman Press, 2022
421 pp


A few weeks back when I found an email from this author in my inbox asking if I might like to read this book & post my thoughts about it,  there was absolutely no way I was going to say no.  I have loved Alexander Zelenyj's work from my first encounter with it because there is just some inexplicable something in his writing that really touches me.  His stories here and in his other books are a mix of horror, fantasy on the darker side, speculative fiction, science fiction, the weird and the strange, so that any attempt to strictly pigeonhole his work is just plain folly.    As to the stories he offers here, as he says in his introduction, his "strange fiction babies" can be 
... rotten little bastards, merciless and feral and long-toothed, who won't hesitate going for your jugular"
while at the same time, there are others who are "gentler companions and provide good safehouses along a dangerous route."  There are more who fall between the two, "just plain oddball kids, a little deformed, a little peculiar (occasionally with uncanny abilities), but sometimes with a whole lot of heart."   Now that I'm thinking about it, maybe it's that "whole lot of heart" combined with compassion for those who have suffered that gets under my skin when I read Zelenyj's stories.  At the same time though,  most  of these stories seriously disturbed  the hell out of me, causing me at times to put the book down and go do something else while thinking about what I'd just read.   If I'm spending time rolling a particular tale around in my head, that's a good thing -- here there are no tidy answers, which is just the way I like it.  

Since there are twenty-eight stories in this collection, I'll just pick a few of my favorites to highlight here.  Ever since I was introduced to the work of Alexander Zelenyj I've been absolutely fascinated with his stories of the Deathray Bradburys, an underground band (and much more)  described on the back-cover blurb of his Ballads to the Burning Twins (Eibonvale 2014) as I noted in a post about his Animals of the Exodus , as "the most infamous cult band in the history of rock and roll."  In  "On Tour With the Deathray Bradburys" in this volume, their songs are described as having "an obsessive focus revolving around themes of escape from a decadent, increasingly violent and racist world to a paradisiacal place of salvation."  The "chosen" to accompany the band in a "mass exodus" scheduled for the end of August 2000 have a "deep spiritual need to escape their own personal woes," as well as "the misery inherent in life on Earth."   And by the way, they have more than a slight connection to Sirius "the dog star," which reappears in another story in this volume called "Elopers to Sirius," describing what will come to be known later as the Magahatti Massacre as witnessed by a freelance reporter who ultimately published a book about it.   "The Prison Hulk" is related by a man arrested for stealing a loaf of bread for his children and a snuff box for his wife.  The "gaols and bridewells" are "filled to brimming" so the powers that be decided to repurpose old ships into "floating dungeons" to accommodate prisoners. Existing in the most godawful conditions, the narrator soon comes to realize the truth of a "Pirate Prophet"  that "Apocalypse will save you..."  I have to say that this story completely unnerved me because of the images that went through my mind  while reading.  

Sirius, from Farmers' Almanac

  One of the most haunting stories is "Highway of Lost Women" which starts out with four women on a road trip.  As the author notes in his brief introduction to this tale, "each of their lives has met with insurmountable obstacles as a result of their gender," with the trip designed for "reclaiming their friendship, which has fragmented over the years."  The weirdness begins immediately, with the car coming to a screeching halt on a deserted highway, the way blocked by a line of fifteen naked women seemingly having come out of nowhere.  As the friends are trying to figure out exactly WTF is going on, they look back in the direction they came from, only to see another line of women behind them.  Flashback time ... and then?   Also thoroughly unnerving is "Gladiators in the Sepulchre of Abominations" about which I will say very little except for the fact that the author goes full-on monster in this one but the question really is one of which species is more monstrous?   

Broken worlds, broken people, trauma, promises of escape and salvation and here and there a glimmer of hope fill these pages, and unless you're  completely void of feeling, these stories hit the reader with a huge emotional impact. As the dustjacket blurb notes, his stories "confront the most abhorrent of monsters, embrace the truth and the wonder of the human condition, and pose questions without answer."  It's like Zelenyj has his finger on the pulse of human nature,  brilliantly investigated here,  which is one reason why his stories reach incredible depths and resonate so long after they're done.   Once again, he's produced a winner with These Long Teeth of Night, and I very highly recommend it.  

Personal note to AZ:  thank you and Fourth Horseman so much for my copy!  I loved it.  'Nuff said. 

Friday, October 28, 2022

Spectral Sounds: Unquiet Tales of Acoustic Weird (ed.) Manon Burz-Labrande


British Library, 2022
308 pp


In this anthology, as the editor of this volume says in her introduction,  "unexplained noises take centre stage."  I would think that at least once in someone's life, he/she/they would have experienced strange aural phenomena -- I know I have.  When I was about seven, we had a heater in our house that made strange noises now and then which reminded me of footsteps and I would just lay there at night in bed frozen to my core from fear.  I've been awakened at night more than once by someone distinctly calling my name,  bolting straight up in bed, only to find my sweet spouse still snoring away.  I could list others, but let  me just say that compared with what happens in these stories, my experiences are minor.  

Burz-Labrande divides this book into four thematic sections.  The first is  " 'I Heard a Noise, Sure Enough' : Living with Audible Presences"  and you  have to love an editor who starts her book with a selection from Florence Marryat (1833-1899), whose short stories, novellas and novels have given me hours of entertainment, especially her bizarre The Strange Transformation of Hannah Stubbs (1896) and The Blood of the Vampire (1897),  republished in 2009 by Valancourt.  I love her weird stuff so much that I bought the two-volume set of work from Leonaur, The Collected Supernatural and Weird Fiction of Florence Marryat, and I always rejoice when I find a collection of ghostly tales and find one of her stories in the contents.  Getting back to Spectral Sounds,  the Marryat piece included here is  "The Invisible Tenants of Rushmere" which made its debut in her The Ghost of Charlotte Cray and Other Stories published in 1883.  A London doctor who believes he's on the edge of a breakdown and is looking for a few months of "complete quiet," finds a house "on the banks of the Wye, Monmouthshire" that promises "excellent fishing," rounds," and a nominal rent.  It is, he thinks, "the very thing we want," and the family soon takes up residence in the place.  It is a bit on the isolated side, and this worries his wife, but as time goes on there are more pressing matters to deal with as the family begins to experience some strange but unseen phenomena.  In conversation with the landlord of a nearby pub, the doctor learns that  "No one who lives at Rushmere lives there alone," but the doctor refuses to listen to "any such folly."  As always, he probably should have taken the word of someone who knows.  It is a fine opener, the perfect haunted house story to read at night by booklight during a noisy thunderstorm, which is how I did it.   Also included in this section is B.M. Croker's "The First Comer"   and The Day of My Death" by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, which unlike the previous two, takes place in America. 

from Sublime Horror

The second section, " 'I Had Heard The Words With Painful Distinctness': Perceiving Ghostly Voices"  begins with  "The Spirit's Whisper," by an unknown author but often attributed to Le Fanu.  You can be the judge as to whether or not it reads like a Le Fanu story.   My favorite in this section is "A Case of Eavesdropping" by Algernon Blackwood, which first appeared in his The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories from 1906.  Shorthouse,  down on his luck, left high and dry "in an American city" talks his way into a week's trial writing for a newspaper.   Forced by circumstance to live in a rooming house, he keeps irregular hours, thereby never meeting the "old gent" on the same floor.  Although "it seemed a very quiet house," well.... The remaining stories in this section are "A Speakin' Ghost" by Annie Trumbull Slosson, "The Whispering Wall" by H.D. Everett and "No Living Voice," by Thomas Street Millington. 

from Wikipedia

The work of four very well known authors makes up section three, " 'I Jumped Awake to the Furious Ringing of My Bell' : Sonorous Objects and Haunting Technology."  Edith Wharton's "The Lady Maid Bell" is first up before  Barry Pain's very short "The Case of Vincent Pyrwhit;"  Rosa Mulholland follows  with one of my all-time favorite tales "The Haunted Organist of Hurly Burly" and H.D. Everett's "Over The Wires" rounds out this part.   "The Lady Maid Bell" (1902) wins for most atmospheric, as a young woman who's come to the end of her money after a bout of typhoid takes a job  at a country house on the Hudson.  She is warned before taking the job that it is "not a cheerful place,"  with the mistress of the house alone for most of the time after losing her two children and having a husband who is rarely there. When he is there, she is told, "you've only to keep out of his way."  Although the job suits her, even as isolated as she is there, she does wonder why her employer, Mrs. Brympton, doesn't use the bell to summon her but sends a maid to fetch her instead.  Let's just say she will definitely find out why in the course of things, but not before she is witness to some rather extraordinary phenomena.  

from Litbug

And last, but by no means least, two stories bring us to the end of this volume in the final section, "Sounds and Silence: Acoustic Weird Beyond the Ghostly."  The first is a tale by Edgar Allen Poe, "Siope"  which I have to admit that I'd never read before; the book ends with  "The House of Sounds," by M,P. Shiel, which the editor refers to as "a masterpiece of the acoustic weird."  I wholeheartedly concur.   On an isolated island off the Norwegian coast, the narrator of this story has been called to the home of his friend.  The noise of the waves is not only constant, but along with the fierce howling of the gales tends to drown out other sounds so that the conversation between the two has to be conducted largely via written notes.  While I won't go into any detail here (if ever a story needed experiencing this is it)  think family curse, a strange machine, altered states of consciousness and time ticking down toward a very palpable doom.  The editor mentions its comparison to Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher," but this story goes well beyond Poe into something entirely its own.  It is truly one of those tales that once read, will never be forgotten. 

I love these spooky tales from yesteryear and I really enjoy the British Library Tales of the Weird Series, offering readers the opportunity to find authors and their works which they may not know, as well as incorporating more famous (and often anthologized) strange tales into the mix.  Not all of these stories floated my boat but the ones that did provided several hours of enjoyment, chills up the spine and often left me thinking about them well into the night.  I definitely recommend this volume as well as the complete series of books from the British Library.   And since it's October, these stories are more than perfect for Halloween, but they can be enjoyed any time of year.  I am truly in my element here, happy as a clam and wanting the show to go on long after the book is finished and the booklight goes off. 

Thursday, October 20, 2022

The Horned God: Weird Tales of the Great God Pan (ed.) Michael Wheatley


British Library, 2022
312 pp


Some time ago I read Paul Robichaud's nonfiction work called Pan: The Great God's Modern Return and at the time I noted that someone would really be doing a favor for readers like me if they'd collect and compile every known story written about the great god Pan and then publish them in book form.  Well, it's like someone heard my plea; although there are only seventeen "Pan-centric" stories/poems in this book, it's a great start.  The best news is that outside of Machen's original Pan story included here (which is frankly one of the creepiest tales ever), I hadn't come across any of the others except for E.M. Forster's excellent "The Story of a Panic" which more than epitomizes the theme that so clearly runs throughout the book.  As the editor notes in his introduction, the stories in this book focus "on the representation of Pan during the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century," ranging from 1860 to 1949.  Wheatley's selections include not only the "sinister Pan," but cover interpretations from the Plutarchian, the Renaissance, and the Romantic.  And as Pan serves as the "guardian of the natural world," these stories, again quoting the editor, "suggest a way to return to a primeval state of being, as embodied by Pan and his wilds."  

After  the book's opener,  Oscar Wilde's  "Pan: A Double Villanelle,"   in which Wilde beseeches the goat-footed god to "leave the hills of Arcady" because England in his grey, contemporary world "has need of thee,"   this anthology starts storywise with Machen's superb novella "The Great God Pan,"  a true masterwork which I never tire of reading.   The first story new to me here is George Egerton's "Pan" (1897) set in the Basque country.  Young Tienette  has been troubled ever since a wedding held at Easter time when she heard a fiddler play for the first time. His music, it seems, "must have held witchery in its cadence," and "her senses had quivered and tickled strangely" playing "upon the lute strings of her soul all through the months."   She felt that it had 
"a strange call in it, like a fervid love-whisper in the dusk, and a power like the grip of a master-hand forcing one's head back to find one's mouth. It held man's need of woman, and woman's yearning for man, the primal first causes of humanity; and it had struck upon the most sensory fibres of her being ..." 

Unfortunately, the feelings conjured up by the strange music weakens her resistance to a brutish suitor, with tragic results.  Barry Pain's solidly creepy "Moon-Slave" (1901) centers around  a young, newly-betrothed princess who doesn't feel alive unless she is dancing.  Wandering around, she discovers the entrance to a maze, and heads right to its center where the moon is shining brightly and she calls for music so that she can dance; she is mysteriously obliged.   One night, when the moon "called her," she grabs her dancing shoes and heads to her new secret dancing space, where suddenly a shadow passes over the moon during an eclipse; much to her detriment, she "heeded it not."  Her solo dancing is interrupted when suddenly she realizes she is no longer alone.  The last sentence in this story gave me a case of the serious shivers.   Another really, REALLY good one is Saki's "The Music on the Hill" (1911), in which a young woman who is determined to get her way with her new husband Mortimer convinces him that they should leave town life behind and live at his country house.  The land there has a wildness to it, so much so that Sylvia remarks that "one could almost think that in such a place of worship of Pan had never quite died out."  Mortimer tells her that it hasn't died out at all, and that he is not "such a fool as not to believe in Pan when I'm down here," and cautions her not to disbelieve "too boastfully" while she's in "his country."   Oh, Sylvia... if you had only listened...

from Internet Archive

The stories just get better from there, especially the gothic "The Devil's Martyr" (1928) which is just downright weird (a good thing) which is more than likely why it appeared in Weird Tales.  Its author is Signe Toksvig, who is the great aunt of Sandi Toksvig, the host of one of my favorite British quiz shows, QI.  That is neither here nor there, of course, but worth mentioning just as matter of personal interest.   The young Erik, Count of Visby, was made a ward of the Bishop upon his parents' death and taken in by an order of monks, where Father Sebastian (who is really into self-flagellation) has been preparing him for the novitiate.  His plans are upset when a stranger by the name of Michael of Lynas comes along, having gained permission from the bishop to take Erik away to his castle for a month.  Erik is more than ready to go, while Father Sebastian views Lynas as "Prince of the Air, robed in the red of eternal fire," about to carry off a soul with whom he'd been entrusted.  It doesn't take long until Lynas begins initiating the young Count into the worship of a deity immortalized as the statue of a "tall, young, beautiful, smiling god with his head turned and his chin tilted a little, as if he were following the echoes of the air he had been playing on the reed flute in his right hand," complete with horns.  In the introduction, the editor notes that here, Pan has been aligned with "his satanic sibling, Baphomet." One can only imagine what the good monks will have to say about young Erik's new calling.  

You can find the remainder of the stories listed here; and while in the US for some reason the publication date shows March of 2023,  you can purchase a Kindle copy now.   I originally did that, but before I had time to start reading, I found my paper copy at Book Depository, available now.  As always, I offer major praise for the British Library Tales of the Weird series as a whole, and praise for this volume, which more than satisfies my strange addiction to tales of the goat-footed god.   Do not miss Michael Wheatley's introduction, which is excellent and provides a lot of insight into what you are about to read.  

Very highly recommended.  

Thursday, October 13, 2022

The Black Maybe: Liminal Stories, by Attila Veres


Valancourt Books, 2022
translated by Luca Karafiáth
301 pp


Yikes! I haven't posted anything here since July, but summer is the time of the Booker Prize longlist and that's kept me busy.  This year's candidates for the prize have been amazing so far, and two of them would have been right at home as posts here at OWF:  Percival Everett's The Trees brings back the dead in a quest for justice, while Shehan Karunatilaka offers a story that begins and then spends a lot of time in the afterlife in his The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida Both were fantastic reads, my two favorites on the shortlist.    But on with this show, with The Black Maybe by Hungarian author Attila Veres, whose name you may recognize if you've read the first volume of Valancourt's World Book of Horror which includes his story "The Time Remaining."  

The ten stories that are found in The Black Maybe are truly some of the weirdest and darkest tales I've had the pleasure to encounter in a long while.  Like the very best weird tales, these start in a very recognizable world before ever so slowly making that turn that lets the reader know that we're definitely not in Kansas anymore,  as the characters who populate these stories have, consciously or unconsciously, crossed some sort of threshold taking them into the realm of nightmares.     In this case, of course, Veres' stories take place in contemporary Hungary, in both rural and urban areas, touching on very human anxieties and fears that exist no matter where his characters live.  In his introduction to this volume, Steve Rasnic Tem notes that the urban stories "feature protagonists whose obsessions intensify until a nightmarish climax is reached," and often contain a "background of rock or heavy metal."  The rural tales, he says, are "inspired by the realities of farming and keeping and slaughtering livestock," and they also create "weird cosmologies which at times resemble folk horror, but which push far beyond."   Whatever the location, I think the idea of "push[ing] far beyond" can be applied to each and every story in this book, all of which are beyond dark, fresh, original, and utterly squirmworthy.  In short, my kind of read. 

I won't be going into much story detail here, but the weirdness begins immediately in the first entry "To Bite a Dog,"  a great indicator of the strangeness yet to come in this collection.   And as much as I loved each and every story here, I couldn't help but find a few beyond-disturbing standouts that quickly became favorites.   The first of these is  "Fogtown."  While writing a book about the "underground music scene"  in his city which "would have been about the growing-up of a generation," Balázs Peterfy  becomes obsessed with an elusive band called Fogtown.  He'd heard stories about Fogtown but rarely from anyone who was actually there when they played, and he soon became "driven" to discover if the group really existed, hearing stories about people who went to one of their concerts who "were not the same afterwards."    Intending to add Peterfy's unfinished work as part of their own book, The Unpublished Books of Hungary, one of its two authors later regrets taking it on, since it started her partner "down a path that led to his end."  Thoroughly eerie and related via various forms of text, this is a good one. Seriously good.  Another particular favorite is "In the Snow, Sleeping,"  an utterly surreal (a word I don't bandy about needlessly) story that involves a couple taking a short vacation at a wellness spa. For Luca, it starts when she discovers an engagement ring in the pockets of her boyfriend Robi's jeans, which makes her a bit uneasy, but for some reason she can't put her finger on she is anxious and afraid about the vacation itself.  All I will say is that they hadn't quite arrived at the spa when things start to turn weird, but once they get there, the weirdness only escalates.  She wants to go home, but the boyfriend refuses to budge, until ...  Yet another story that kept me awake at night is "The Amber Complex."  This one is set in a town in Eastern Hungary, where "most people who are born here move away ..." and "miracles rarely happen."  Gabor is one of those people living there, and has always known that "the town is a trap," and that there was no escape. He tried to make a life elsewhere but ended up coming back, and by the time he was thirty had decided that he would become an alcoholic.  After witnessing a murder, he knows his time is limited when the murderer suggests they go to a pub on the outskirts of town, but a car pulls up in the nick of time, knocking the killer to the ground.  Gabor is invited along with the car's occupants to Zanó's wine cellar, where he and the others are to partake of a special tasting of something called a "complex." There are seven of these, ordered by color,  but they must be tasted in a particular order.  The final one to be poured is the Amber complex, but very few people have ever gone that far. There are very good reasons why this is so, but I will say no more.  

The book as a whole takes the reader on an unnerving, disturbing, and more often than not, a hallucinatory journey into terrifying spaces that exist somewhere on the outskirts of the mundane. These stories are experienced rather than just read, and a writer who can make that happen is definitely one to watch.   I loved The Black Maybe; it rises miles above the norm into its own space of brilliance.  It is definitely a no-miss for readers of the strange or the weird, and dark enough to satisfy any readers of horror fiction.  
Very, very highly recommended, and my appreciation also goes to Valancourt for making The Black Maybe available in English.  

Friday, July 22, 2022

From the Abyss: Weird Fiction, 1907-1945 by D.K. Broster (ed.) Melissa Edmundson


"C'est le Grand Abîme, voyez-vous -- fini!"

Handheld Press, 2022
296 pp


Handheld Press is back with yet another collection of eerie tales  by a woman writer from yesteryear.  From the Abyss focuses on the work of author D.K. Broster (1877-1950),  whose stories in her 1932 collection A Fire of Driftwood caught the eye of critic HC Harwood who said (as quoted in Melissa Edmundson's introduction) that 
"In Miss Broster's short stories there is ... a lot of kick. I refer more particularly to 'Clairvoyance' and 'The Promised Land;' either of which should have established the author as a really first-rate horrifier; a petticoated Poe."
Both of those stories are found in this book, and yes indeedy, there most certainly is a "lot of kick,"  so let's just start there.  As in the best weird stories, these two tales (and for that matter all of the tales included here) tend to start out in the realm of the ordinary and the mundane, but Broster inches the reader ever so slowly to  that point where ordinary takes a strange detour.  

  In "Clairvoyance"  an Australian man and his wife have moved to England, where they are in the process of house hunting.  Mr. Pickering can't believe that the house they're looking at as the story begins has remained unoccupied for five years -- it is completely furnished and chock full of beautiful antiques, complete with a lake view.  The estate agent tells the couple that there's been plenty of interest, but there was "always a something" that turned prospective buyers or tenants away.  Mr. Pickering is all for taking the place, but Mrs. Pickering senses that not all is right there, and reminds her husband of the frightened look they got from a girl when they'd asked for directions to the place, asking him if it's "supposed to be haunted."  Pickering laughs it off, at least at first, until Mrs. P notices a strange stain underneath a rug and asks about it.  Her reaction is so strong that she begs Mr. P to get her out of there, and to have nothing "to do with the house" as "something dreadful has happened in this room."   Mr. P, noting that "she was not by nature an hysterical or fanciful woman," then becomes frightened himself, and away they go.  Evidently the Pickerings had never heard of the "Strode Manor Tragedy," which all started with that "business ... what the devil is called? -- clairvoyance."   By now I've read countless haunted house stories, but this one, well, expected the completely unexpected.  "Kick"? For sure.    "The Promised Land" starts out innocuously enough with a small group of people ("specimens of the truly cultivated traveller")  admiring the famous "Swoon of Saint Catherine" in the Church of San Domenico in Siena, interrupted by the arrival of two "middle-aged ladies," one of whom chases the group away by quoting out loud from her Baedeker.  Talking about it shortly afterwards, one of the three notices that the second woman "didn't look as though she were enjoying Siena much."  Quite observant on her part, actually, because Ellen (the woman about whom she was talking), was not having a good time at all, a surprise since going to Italy, for her "The Promised Land,"  had always been her dream.  For years she'd waited, and her opportunity had finally arrived.  Unfortunately for Ellen, her dream had become a nightmare in the company of her domineering, smothering and browbeating cousin  Caroline Murchinson, who had taken  it upon herself to accompany Ellen on her travels.   For Ellen the trip to Italy 
"should have been the one shining oasis in the sand of a dull life, and instead it been but a bitter mirage"

because "Everything that Caroline touched lost its charm, its beauty, its freshness." From Siena the plan is to travel to Florence, which is "to Ellen's expectation the crown of all their seeing," but she knows instinctively that Caroline will ruin the experience.  That night, sleeping under a mosquito net, she realizes that she must have some breathing space  and listens to the mosquito that begins to talk to her all through night.  While this one has nothing of the supernatural about it, it's still one of the most powerful stories in the book, since sometimes the earthly horrors we face are far, far worse than their unearthly counterparts.   


the author, Dorothy Kathleen Broster

While there isn't a single story in this collection that I did not like, my favorite is the titular "From the Abyss," largely because it's so visible in my head from the first page onward and also because it is so out there, a definite plus.   Four friends come together for dinner and conversation at the flat of one Stephen Ellison, where the topic on the table is "dissociated personality."  The talk is obviously making Ellison uncomfortable, and when two of the friends leave without the third, he goes on to explain why.  It seems that some three years earlier, his fianceé Daphne Lawrence, had decided to go on vacation at the French Riviera with her friend Mary.  They had stopped in Nice, not as a destination per se but because it was central to any number of expeditions they might choose to undertake.  Daphne had told Ellison not to expect much in the way of writing from her end, as she and Mary planned to stay busy doing all manner of things, helped out by a young American guy with his own car, "which he more or less put at their disposal."   The next week he was shocked to see her face on a newspaper under headlines that told of an "English girl in fatal Riviera motor smash" in which the driver and the car had gone down into a "bottomless ravine."  Mary, it seems, had been thrown clear after the driver had collided with a motorcoach, and according to her father, was now on her way home after the accident.  Daphne gets home fine, but Stephen notices that she's changed, and not for the better.  Some time goes by with Stephen still trying to figure out what's up with Daphne (who now doesn't even want to marry him), when Daphne's father comes to visit with some strange news from a friend near Nice.  It seems that a young woman with a British accent  swears that she had gone down with the driver into the ravine, and yet had managed to climb up a nearly sheer precipice deemed "quite unscaleable." She can't remember much else due to memory loss.     About the time that Stephen decides he'll travel to France to investigate, Daphne tells him of her strange dreams in which she sees "a girl like me -- only she is not me --"  For me, this one just screams weird, and I seriously had to think about that ending for a while. 

Admittedly, those stories are on my top tier of favorites, but there are still eight more to enjoy; out of these the only one I'd read previously is "Couching at the Door"  but its inclusion here didn't dampen my enthusiasm for another read.  Three weeks after Decadent poet Augustine Marchand returns from Prague, he finds himself being stalked by what looks like at first a "piece of brown fluff" that eventually grows into something like a fur boa.  Now that might sound a bit silly, but there's nothing at all silly about what happens when Lawrence Storey, an illustrator, goes off to discover "les choses cachées" that Marchand reveals will "liberate" his "immense artistic gifts from the shackles which still bind them."  Seriously awesome story with an even more awesome ending.   And then there's "The Taste of Pomegranates" which wins my vote for most disturbing, in which two sisters vacationing in the Dordogne make a date with a French archaeologist to visit his current project, a cave by the name of the grotte de la Palombière. On the appointed day, the two women show up, along with a writer doing research in the area for his book on the Hundred Years War, but there's no sign of the archaeologist.  After a while the writer goes off to look for him, leaving the sisters behind. Rain forces them to take cover, and while they wait, one of the sisters decides she wants to explore the cave.  Absolutely not a good idea, as it happens, but of this one I will say no more.  

I seem to have joyfully landed  in my reading element here with this book, with its blending of the supernatural, the weird, obsession, history, art and social commentary but more to the point, with the discovery of an author from long ago whose work is new to me.  My many thanks to Handheld Press for my e-copy; while their website offers August 9th as the release date, I found a hard copy at Amazon which now sits with the other books I've bought from this publisher.  Some day I would love to just sit and chat with Melissa Edmundson, who somehow manages to find the best authors from bygone days, bringing them to the attention of modern readers.   From the Abyss is truly a gem of a collection that should absolutely not be missed by readers of the weird and the strange; it is also a book I can certainly and highly recommend.  

Thursday, June 23, 2022

They: A Sequence of Unease by Kay Dick


McNally Editions, 2022
first published in 1971
112 pp


Since finishing this book a couple of weeks back, I've been reading everything I can find on both book and author, and I found a great article in The New Yorker about how this book came back into being after a long period of obscurity.  Bear with me here because it's a great story and I love reading about this sort of thing, otherwise, skip this first couple of  paragraphs and just scroll on down.   It seems that a British literary agent by the name of Becky Brown had gone to stay with her parents in Bath during the pandemic, and "with nothing better to do" made her way to an Oxfam shop there in August, 2020.   Her work involves the representation of "dead authors," and so she had developed the knack of  quickly scanning bookshelves in places like thrift stores or used bookstores, "looking for particular colors, colophons, publishers' logos."  During one such scan, she came across a Penguin paperback, orange, with cracked spine which  she bought for fifty pence -- this book, as it happened.     

Penguin, 1977 edition.  from Amazon

About a week later, Ms. Brown received an email from a friend of hers, Lucy Scholes, a contributor to The Paris Review about found old books and the senior editor at McNally Editions, had come across the author's obituary in The GuardianShe had never heard of Kay Dick but decided she'd look into the author's work, most of which she'd found "particularly unexciting," until she came upon this book.  She wrote about it for Paris Review, and following that article, because of newly-arisen interest in publishing this book, she emailed Brown for help in tracking down the author's estate.  Noting the "strangest timing,"  Brown revealed that she'd just read They.   Scholes was surprised, asking her how she had even found a copy, which as Sam Knight notes in The New Yorker article, was "virtually impossible" to find at the time.   Brown was "stunned" at just "how thoroughly the book had disappeared," saying that "It's incredibly unusual to find a book this good that has been this profoundly forgotten."  

I'd never even heard of this book nor its author, and I stumbled onto both accidentally when an email came to me from McNally Editions, advertising their book bundle that included They.  (By the way, it's also available from Faber, published in March of this year with an introduction by Carmen Maria Machado.)   I bought said bundle and put the books aside for later, but then I got another email from a reader friend who was blown away by They and  highly recommended it.  I took that as a sign that maybe I should read it sooner rather than later.   Much like Becky Brown's experience, reading They "just punched me in the face."   

I suppose for some people it may be a stretch to call this book a novel; it is a series of nine short stories which are linked by the recurrence of an unnamed, ungendered narrator, the "I" who travels around the "rolling hills and sandy shingle beaches of coastal Sussex"  with a dog visiting  pockets of artist/intellectual friends during a time when mobs are roaming throughout England bent on the destruction of the arts (including literature), working to stifle creative freedom  and to impose their own version of conformity.  "They"  are "over a million, nearer two,"  but how this situation developed is not explained; the author, I think, is less interested in the hows and whys than the idea of what it may be like to live in a world (to quote the book blurb) "hostile to beauty, emotion, and the individual."    At the same time, perhaps the not knowing makes it all the more horrific, heightening the sense of menace and paranoia that grows with each chapter.  

 Things are already ominous enough as this book opens -- in a seaside village the narrator learns that the mob has destroyed "the books at Oxford," and from a friend nearby finds out that the National Gallery had been "cleared." But it's not just cities that are affected -- in the countryside the narrator's friends cluster together in "pockets of quietude" for support and to go on with their work as much as possible; communal living  is a also a means of survival, as They fear "solitary living" --  those who live alone "are a menace to them."  The mobs watch all the time, ready to mete out punishment to those who stand out from the norm or who offer resistance.   As time and the book moves on, the situation grows worse as They take over more of the countryside, imposing more stringent measures against individual freedoms, tightening their control.   People are forcibly moved to newly-built houses,  young children often having to go "with or without parents."  Gunshots are commonly heard, signaling that "intractability is a punishable offense," and "senseless violence" becomes usual.  "Retreats" are built, constructed with no doors or windows, part of an effort to cure the offenders "of identity."  Lobotomies are a form of punishment.   Grief becomes an unforgivable offence, resulting in removal to a specialized grief tower where memory purges are performed.   And yet, through it all, the narrator who "allowed myself the luxury of going utterly to pieces for forty-eight hours" continues on, "greeting another day." 

In her afterword Lucy Scholes notes that this "strong allegory" can be read in numerous ways, 
" -- as a straightforward satire, a sequence of vividly-drawn nightmares, even a metaphor for artistic struggle -- but above all it's perhaps best understood as a plea for individual freedoms made by an artist who refused to live by many of society's rules"

and writer Eli Cugini in an article at XTRA*  discusses how They "deserves reappraisal,"  written by this "bisexual writer and editor who was ahead of her time," examining how  the "queer sensibility" remains evident throughout the book.   It can also be read as a straight-up look at the encroachment of fascism, and I have to say that I'm absolutely floored  by how the author managed to convey such menace, paranoia  and unease in such a short amount of space, but more importantly, by how what she wrote still resonates nearly fifty years later.  The lack of backstory in this book didn't bother me as it did some readers, nor did the fact that the chapters were so brief so that the characters were never really explored; for me it's more about the bigger picture here -- quite honestly, when I think about the last administration's lack of respect for the arts, labeling funding for institutions like PBS, the NEA, the NEH and the Institute of Museum and Library Services a waste of money, the current wave of book bannings,  it makes me angry and afraid.  And of course, considering the concept of "the mob"  in our own contemporary context, well, it's pretty damn scary.   Definitely a book that should not be missed, and this is coming from someone who rarely reads dystopian novels.  

Monday, June 13, 2022

The Valancourt Book of World Horror Stories, Volume 2 (eds.) James D. Jenkins and Ryan Cagle


Valancourt, 2022
336 pp

hardcover, #19
(read in April)

There is a review of this book by Sean Guynes in the  March 2022 issue of World Literature Today  where he writes that this 
"... anticipated second volume is the after-party everyone wanted and more ..." 
 I'm including myself in that "everyone" because I hadn't even finished Volume One before hoping that Valancourt would do a second book, just like now I'm hoping that they will do a third. If that's not a recommendation, well, I don't know what is.  

When the stories are as good as they are here, it's just plain difficult to single out a favorite, or even a group of favorites, but I'll try.  Bora Chung's story "The Mask," a dark tale of obsession, addiction and the undoing of a man and his family and translated by Anton Hur (who also translated her fantastic  Cursed Bunny) is in my top two, along with "The War" written by Wochiech Gunia from Poland.  "The Mask" begins "with a noise" that seems to be coming from the ceiling of a couple's apartment, but above them is only the roof.  On inspection though, the roof's steel door is not only locked but has a chain wrapped around its handles.  The husband eventually gets up there with help from a boy he thinks has been sent by maintenance,  and just before going back down sees a woman just standing there five stories up.  She comes to him, and just as he reaches out his hand to her, she's no longer there.  The roof noises stop but the wife later notices a dark stain that "had spread widely" on the wall in the master bedroom, accompanied by another noise that eventually she just tunes out.  Her husband, who works nights and sleeps days, also encounters the stain -- and his life and that of his family will never be the same.   "The War," translated by Anthony Scicsione is truly a masterpiece and I do not use that word lightly.  This one I won't discuss here because it's one that absolutely needs to be experienced, but after reading in the editors'  introduction to this tale that two of the author's "major literary influences" were Kafka and Ligotti, let's just say I was not at all surprised.   I read this one twice, and it doesn't get any easier the second time.  Another one that particularly stood out for me was Yasumi Tsuhara's "The Old Wound and the Sun," translated by Toshiya Kamei, which has more than just a touch of the surreal about it, concerning "a couple who died at the same time."  A woman falls hard for a "twenty-something kid" from Ishigakijima, and rents a vacation house on the island where the two meet on weekends.  Once things start rolling in the relationship, she finds not only that he's not all she thought he would be but also that he is haunted by the past.  It seems he'd been in a fight at some point, leaving him with an old wound "from his navel across his abdomen to his side under his ribs."  One night she wakes up to discover that even though there are no lights on, the room is "dimly lit;" on further discovery she realizes that the light is coming from his now-open wound.  What follows is, as the narrator of this tale reveals,  "bizarre, otherworldly and disturbing."  The less said the better on this one.   James D. Jenkins himself translated "Lucky Night," by Gary Victor from Haiti,  which comes from a collection called Treize nouvelles vaudou  (Thirteen Voodoo Tales, 2007), which is at this moment on a shelf in my house just waiting to be read.  I can guarantee it won't be a long wait after having read this story.   "Lucky Night" is the story of Kerou,  who has climbed "the ladder from the lowly post of assistant mayor in a remote Haitian village," making his way into the Chamber of Deputies and now running for a seat in the senate.  Throughout his political career, he has relied on the help of a certain Ti Pat, a "sorcerer" who tells him now that there is only one way to get the attention of "the forces" that would help him get there "without a fight."   He must look for "a beggar in the vicinity of a cemetery on the night of a dark moon," and from there he has to "sleep with the beggar" or else his career is over.  That is not an option for our senate hopeful who knows that once in office, his votes traded for cash would allow him and his family to "be free from want in this fucking country that he couldn't care less about." 

  In their introduction, the authors note that 
"American horror writers have been using Haitian themes in their work for decades, from curses to voodoo dolls to zombies.   But what would a voodoo-themed story look like if written by a Haitian author?"

Well, hats off to Gary Victor for letting us see firsthand.    Rounding out my top five is  writer Brazilian author Roberto Causo's "Train of Consequences"  another story translated by James D. Jenkins.  Sergio Lopes is journeying by train on the proverbial dark and stormy night, when he notices something weird.  Although he thought he was in the last car, looking out the window he sees another behind him, and makes his way there to check it out.  In a seat on the back wall he sees a man "who looked like a high-contrast drawing done in black and red" and that the car is filled with people smoking, "producing strongly scented crimson clouds.  That's not the strangest thing -- it seems that the man and the passengers in that car know not only who he is, but also that he'd been part of a crackdown on guerillas in Araguaia during the period of Brazil's military dictatorship that he'd been involved in torture and "summary executions" and more.  As he's told, they know "everything" about him, including the fact that Lopes is plagued by memories that he "can't get rid of."  Expecting that "someone connected with his victims" would catch up with him some day, he's sure that blackmail looms, but he's assured that it's not blackmail but rather "more like a business deal" he's being offered -- a Faustian sort of exchange that will allow him to forget.   The question is, what is his end of the deal to be?  As the editors state, this is a story that is "as timely as ever," given Brazil's political situation.  

 The remainder of stories included here are also very well done, and my vote for most disturbing goes to two stories which were dark, gut-stabbing ohmygod tales. Don't get me wrong: the writing was great, but these two tales went well beyond my horror-reading comfort zone. These two, "The Bell" by Steinar Bragi from Iceland and  "The Nature of Love" by Luciano Lamberti from Argentina,  were the reading equivalent of putting my hands over my eyes during a truly discomforting horror film scene.  These  you can read without any hint from me -- first, you wouldn't believe me anyway, and second, I don't think I have the stomach to go back and reread either one.  

With something for every horror reader, because after all, mileage does vary,  Volume 2 showcases the work of twenty-one authors from twenty countries (Brazil is represented twice) which, according to the Editors' Foreword, were originally published in sixteen different languages.   And M.S. Corley's illustrations are gorgeous, capturing in drawings some of the horrors found in this book.   As much as I loved reading this anthology and its predecessor, in the bigger picture, the best thing  is that these two volumes of horror fiction in translation even exist.  I am a huge, huge  advocate of works in translation, especially in the horror/weird genres which, unlike the books that make their way each year onto longlists for awards honoring translated literary fiction,  seem to be extremely underrepresented.  I would like to think things are slowly changing in this arena:  last year I was over the moon happy when Tartarus published Nicola Lombardi's excellent The Gypsy Spiders and Other Tales, then came Bora Chung's positively mind-blowing Cursed Bunny published by Honford Star, which ended up on not only the longlist for this year's International Booker Prize, but the shortlist as well.   So once again my grateful thanks to Valancourt for both volumes of World Horror Stories.  Anyone who has read Volume 1 will definitely want to make this after-party; as I said on my initial reaction at goodreads, Valancourt has once again knocked it out of the park.   

 Very highly recommended -- and I will be among the first to order Volume 3. Hint hint. 

ps/ Valancourt's international works can be found at their website here.