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.  

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Delivery Artefacts, by Jude Golby and Another


Broodcomb, 2021
216 pp

hardcover (#21)

It's been a while since my last visit to the Peninsula,  and I am happy to be back.  I still have one Broodcomb book left to read (The Revenants) and one to anticipate, Therapeutic Tales, which also marks the return of R. Ostermeier.   Another edition of  Therapeutic Tales is also forthcoming from Zagava this summer,  in what looks to be a gorgeous lettered edition limited to twenty-four copies  (my apologies if it's sold out by the time you click on that  link to preorder it).  

Somewhere between Ockmarsh and Petersdock stands a group of old farm buildings that have been converted into a research facility, where a certain Dr. Hoskin and her team are involved in a study into preservation of the mind "beyond the death of the body."   One of the minds under study there belongs to John Moonfield, "the first of the legacy minds," which are those "that are, or were, at the forefront of their fields," and "whose death puts a brake on human progress."   While the body may be dead, these are minds that are still able to "contribute" long after death.   The short explanation of how this happens is that after a particular chemical allows 
"every meat part of the brain, in a global, door-jamb rattling bang, splitting all the hinges when each synapse and connection slammed open," 

the mind's contents are stored in a substance called "chain-fluid" which afterwards are drawn out, and 

"everything in a human brain, the mind, the knowledge, the personality, the memories and the essence... was decanted into a jar entire."  

After that, it could be months of waiting to see if delivery is complete.   Literature teacher Jude Golby has been approached by Hoskin to come to the facility, where his task would to be "test" Moonfield, so that the scientists would be able to gauge whether or not " what has been delivered is -- in his thinking essences, the same man" whom Golby knew while Moonfield was alive.   This is a critical step in Hoskin's work -- in some cases, the process was never completed -- but if Jude can talk to Moonfield (via another process I will leave for the reader to discover)  and verify that it is the same person he'd known, then Moonfield's "reasoning and work" can  be gathered and put into "publishable shape."   Moonfield's mind is not the only one at the facility; some are "partial," some which were complete but have gone silent and another whose memories are recalled to another member of the team.   During one particular conversation with Moonfield, Jude notices that a few words did not come through as speech, and when he asks Hoskin about a particular phrase Moonfield used that could only be heard on the recording of the conversation, he learns that as the minds are delivered, "something else comes through. Artefacts." It happens soon after they return:
" They speak of places they never knew in life as existing structures within their visual understanding. But nothing can be in that chain-fluid that wasn't in their original brains. Nothing should be strange or unrecognised to them. But they speak of distant buildings, and when we drilled down into it, they all see the same structures. And they're drawn to them."
As time passes, the minds "lose focus" as they become more drawn to these structures.  Jude suggests that they send Moonfield to his structure to explore, but the scientists have already done that once with a mind that "never came back."  Jude, however, is determined to "know how they see" and to "know how these otherwheres are the same and how they're different.  He is given three days.  As the dustjacket blurb notes, the "report that unfolds is an unsettling addition to the Broodcomb Press family,"  and trust me on this -- unsettling is a mild word in this case.  

There are all manner of issues explored in Delivery Artefacts; chief among them all is (as also stated on the dustjacket), "what it means to be a human being," but there's also a focus on the ethical questions that science can often raise, the nature of memory and an exploration into the mystery of the human brain. I was also happily surprised to see G.R. Levy's The Gate of Horn mentioned at the end of the book -- one of my university required reads that has made it through every move we've ever made.  

While Delivery Artefacts is very different from the other Broodcomb books I've read, it is still edgy, compelling, deeply philosophical and in my case completely unputdownable.   There is nothing quite like the Broodcomb experience; as someone who has read pretty much everything from this unique publisher, I should know. 

very highly recommended

Friday, April 22, 2022

Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography, by R.B. Russell -- cross post link


Since I use this space to keep track of my weird/strange/horror fiction reads, I decided to post my thoughts on this book at the page I use for nonfiction books.  You can read about this book here.  Let me just say that if you're still on the fence about reading this incredible book, it's well worth every single penny and every single second of your time.  

I loved it. And more. 

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Cursed Bunny, by Bora Chung


Honford Star, 2021
translated by Anton Hur
247 pp


I will just get this out of the way up front: I loved this book from the first story on down through the last, at which point I was so sorry that it was over.    I hadn't read any reviews of Cursed Bunny before reading it, so I had absolutely no idea what to expect when I bought the book last year.  Just a short while ago the nominees for the Booker International longlist were announced, and when I saw Cursed Bunny on that list, I grabbed it off my shelf, read it and fell in love.  It is the kind of book that once read stays with you for the longest time.    And let me say this up front as well -- Anton Hur did an incredible job translating Chung's work.  Not that I read Korean,  but I do know a great translation when I see one.  

The cover blurb reveals that the author 
"uses elements of the fantastic and surreal to address the very real horrors and cruelties of patriarchy and capitalism in modern society,"

which is true, but these stories also take a look at the close connection between power, abuse and subjugation in many forms.  

Cursed Bunny, as also noted on the blurb, moves through and incorporates a range of different genres, "blurring the lines between magical realism, horror, and science fiction."  There is also more than a touch of dark humor at work here as well.   After a while, it starts to dawn on you that the characters in all of these stories seem to accept the strangeness or the absurdities of events happening in their respective, various worlds as just part of ordinary life, a factor that makes each and every story work and work well.   For example, in the first story, "The Head," there seems to be nothing at all remarkable about "a thing that looked vaguely like a head" speaking to a woman from inside of her toilet bowl, responding to her questions, with the rest of her family telling her to "just leave it alone" since "it's not like it's laying eggs or anything."   Then there's "The Embodiment," in which a young woman discovers she's six weeks pregnant from taking birth control pills longer than the doctor had prescribed.  One major theme of this story jumps right out at you from the start, when the doctor ask her about the baby's father and learns there is no one, and then tells her that she'd better "hurry up and find a man" who's willing to step into the role, or else the consequences will be dire.    In  "Cursed Bunny," a grandfather relates "the same story he's already told me time and time again" about his friend who had  "lost everything" after another brewery owner started a vicious "slander  campaign"  to eliminate his competition.  Grandfather was incensed, saying that 
"... for the alleged crimes of not being connected to powerful people, for not having the capital to make such connections, an entire family was smashed to pieces and its remains scattered to the winds... How can such things be allowed?"

But Grandfather has a plan to get even, and it's a good one, putting to good use his skill in the family's "line of work: the creation of cursed fetishes."   These first three stories not only set the tone for what's about to come next, but also impart to the reader a very physical sense of uneasiness and downright unstoppable dread that lingers through the last page.  

I won't go through each and every story because (as I'm so fond of saying), Cursed Bunny  is a book that really needs to be experienced firsthand and to give too much away would be a crime.  To mention just a few of my favorites,  "Snare" is an incredibly clever  take on the story of the goose that laid the golden eggs, moving well past the obvious theme of greed into family trauma. "Scars" has an almost  mythological feel to it, mingled with pure horror.  It starts with a young boy being  "dragged" into a dark  mountain cave  by men he didn't know while out "roaming the fields" one day and chained up.  He's not always alone --  once a month he is visited by "It," which "pierced his bones, and sucked at his marrow."  Years later, the boy manages to escape but because of the scars on his body, is treated like the monster he's fled from.   The worst though is yet to come, when he discovers the truth about why he was left there in the first place.   "Reunion," is one of the saddest, most poignant stories in this book,  and starts out by telling us that it is a "love story for you."  A young woman in Poland doing academic research meets a stranger one day in a plaza who tells her in his own language that he has been waiting for her and that he knew she would come.  It turns out they share something in common. Years later, she returns and meets him again, this time going with him to his apartment where he asks her to do him a certain favor before telling her about his life.  It is a beautiful story, the perfect ending for this book; I would also argue that it puts what came before into much clearer perspective.  As the woman realizes after listening to him,
 "once you experience a terrible trauma and understand the world from an extreme perspective, it is difficult to overcome this perspective. Because your very survival depends on it." 
Without saying any more about it, "Reunion" is one of the best modern-day ghost stories I've ever read, for a number of reasons.  

Cursed Bunny is definitely not for the squeamish, and won't be for everyone since there is plenty of horror and plenty of trauma to be experienced here, but  I have to say that while I found myself squirming any number of times, neither the violence nor the horror in this book can be labeled as gratuitous in any fashion.  This is an example of quality work that doesn't let up, and sometimes some of the worst anxieties or experiences that people must endure lend themselves to using horror/dark fiction as the perfect vehicles for relating them to others.   In writing her stories this way,  the author also forces the reader sit up and take notice of what's going on around them.  As noted in an article in The Korean Times, the "inexplicably frightening and bizarre elements" she uses "remind the audience of the very real horror and cruelty that exists in the world."  These stories are enigmatic and most certainly require concentration from the reader, but I'm used to that element being part and parcel of reading weird fiction so there was no problem there.  Cursed Bunny is also beautifully and intelligently written, its pull so intense that I didn't ever want to put it down.   

Highly recommended times infinity -- it's insanely good


If you would like a very brief rundown on all of the stories in Cursed Bunny, you can find them here in translator  Anton Hur's "cover letter" to PEN/Heim which contains  the "outline and significance" for this book; or you can skip it until after you're read Cursed Bunny, which is what I did. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Songs of the Northern Seas, by Mark Beech (ed.)


Egaeus Press, 2021
203 pp


"this ice entombed wilderness has been driving people to the edge of madness for hundreds of years."
       from "In Orbis Alius", by Colin Fisher

I happen to be a huge, huge fan of fiction set in the earth's polar regions, largely because I happen to be a huge, huge fan of nonfiction about polar exploration.  That's been the case since like fourth grade, and unlike other interests that have come and gone in the meantime, that one is still going strong.  Naturally,  once I saw that Egaeus was publishing this book of strange tales set in the Arctic, it was a no-brainer -- this book had my name on it.  Not only did I get my fill of  Arctic weirdness, but the drawings inside that illustrate this anthology are also awesome.   I am one of those strange people who will pore over a drawing like this one for a long time, trying to take in all of the detail. 

from page 202

Opening the book just past the table of contents there first thing you see is a brief note:

"Herein are thirteen tales cast up in northern latitudes, hooked on the cardinal points of traitorous compasses. They are dark, strange, uncategorisable pieces, diverse in tone and theme, though each uniquely shaped by similarly restless Arctic tides, cold winds, and ancient ice-flows,"
 and then it's on to the strangeness.

While everyone's mileage will of course vary, I did have more than a few favorites in this volume,  beginning with  "The Ghosts of the Great Northern Sea,"  by  Leena Likitalo.  As should happen in any anthology, this first story sets the tone for the rest of what's to come.  A young woman named Soila finds herself strangely drawn to a stranger who has just arrived in her small village having traveled some two hundred miles on skates across the ice.  She's not sure why until she learns about the provenance of the sweater he's wearing; wanting to settle certain questions in her mind, she decides she'll go back with him when he leaves.  As they make their way across the ice, what happens on their journey will later become a "tale, and then a tall tale repeated around the fires when the wind howled outside," involving ghosts, murder, and above all, an unearthly justice.  This story is so well done that I could completely picture it in my head.  The next story, which is just as creepy as the first, is relayed via two sets of  journal entries from 1926.  In "The Tupilaq," by Stephen J. Clark, missionaries have arrived at Coral Harbour in Nunavut to "save these people from their primitive ways," and more importantly, "to make every conceivable effort" to convert the shaman, which would help in convincing the local population to "abandon their superstitions and embrace Christ as their saviour."   However, the shaman, Iksivalaq,  has been warned by the spirits that his rival  Kulaserk knows of this plan, and that there are dire consequences in store should the missionaries succeed.  All I will say about this one is that perhaps the missionaries shouldn't have been so quick to write off "pagan superstition."   Number three is  "In Orbis Alius" by Colin Fisher, in which Robson, an archaeologist working Viking settlements in southern Greenland, hears of the incredible discovery of an intact Viking ship on the northwest coast.  By the time he actually arrives at Qaanaaaq station (formerly known as Thule) he discovers that two anthropologists Martin and Angela O'Brien,  had been investigating, making three trips to the ship before Angela, for some inexplicable reason, "destroyed the site and the ship with it."   Martin is nowhere to be found.  When Robson begins listening to Angela tell her story, he believes she's become "unbalanced," especially when she starts talking about "Orbius Alius," which can mean "other Earth," "different place" or in Celtic lore, "Otherworld."   While she won't really talk about what happened to her at the ship site, she has kept a record which Robson reads, a thoroughly fantastical but also thoroughly frightening account.  In the meantime, strange things have started happening at the station that can't be written off as simple "mass hallucinations;" nor is it the case of being there in "this ice entombed wilderness" which has been "driving people to the edge of madness for hundreds of years."  

another fine drawing  ... 

After the tension of the first eight stories,  it was great to read Rhys Hughes' "Ice Flows in Eden," which not only brought my  pulse down but also made me laugh out loud.  It all begins when an iceberg finds its way into the waters off Goa, and the two people who first spot it decide they need to take it back to the Arctic Circle where it belongs.  Too much more would spoil the story, but it's a delightfully good one, perfectly placed in this book, allowing for breathing room after what had come before. The last two tales on  my favorites list begin with Jonathan Wood's "The Salon in the Woods," a tale of the "meeting of literary and spiritual minds" of two people (later joined by a third), who have isolated themselves from the rest of humanity in Russia looking to "write and compose and to unveil the Mysteries," to "construct that which will emerge out of nature..."  I would absolutely love to read more by this author, whose prose is absolutely gorgeous.  And finally, there's  Alison Littlewood's "The Light You Can Hear,"  in which a couple arrive at the Icehotel in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden, a  Sámi word for "meeting place by the river."  The couple are there "to escape, to be somewhere else, something else, if only for a time."    They are given room 215, the plaque outside of which reveals its name:  "The Light You Can Hear."  Inside there's a sort of "static crackle" as part of the ambience of "sounds from the Arctic landscape," which gives way to a 
"soft, whistling, not quite like music, and something else: an almost unnoticeable breathy undercurrent, reminiscent of a voice." 

It is the sound of the Northern Lights, according to the Sámi people, "the light you can hear;" they also believe that the Northern Lights are souls" that "bring the dead closer to us."  But it's a trip to the nearby river that changes everything for this couple.  This story may be short, but the writing is absolutely beautiful, capturing not only the place but also a keen and intense sense of loss. 

I absolutely love the way in which these authors and some of those I didn't mention due to time considerations have  incorporated local, indigenous lore and belief (real or imagined, I can't say for sure) into their work; as just two examples, Chris Kelso in his story "Blood-Sea"  and  the authors of "Oil," Sean and Rachel Qitsualik-Tinsley,  do a great job in that regard.   On the collection as a whole, well,  you can't love all of them, but that doesn't mean that the stories I didn't mention weren't also worth reading.    The Arctic has always seemed to me a mystical, eerie place, and each and every author in this book in his, her, or their own way somehow managed to capture that sense of otherworldliness in their work, as well as the effects of this place on the human psyche.  


Friday, February 25, 2022

Waiting For the End of the World, by R.B. Russell


PS Publishing, 2020
279 pp


"It did for those with the eyes to see..."

If your only connection with R.B. Russell is the truly great work he does along with his partner Rosalie Parker in publishing books at  Tartarus Press, you should also be aware that he is also an author and a pretty damn good one.   The last book I read by R.B. Russell was his short-story collection Ghosts, and when I finished that book one of my first thoughts was that I need to read more by this man.  Off to the online realm I went for more, and I picked up two Russell books, Death Makes Strangers of Us All and this one, Waiting for the End of the World.  After reading this book, I enjoyed it so much that this morning I bought his The Stones are Singing.  I mean, I knew after Ghosts that he could do great short stories, but maintaining cohesion and  tension well enough to last the length of  a  novel is another thing altogether.  Some writers just aren't able to bring it, but that's certainly not the case here.  

I will not go too much at all into detail about what happens here, and that is because this is the sort of book where you don't realize until toward the very end that you've been given signs along the way as to what's actually going on.  Even so, I didn't actually understand that until this morning when going through all of the pages I'd tabbed; suddenly all of my synapses were on fire as I made connection after connection.  At that point it became not just a good read, but an eye-opening, crazy good read.  

It all begins as our narrator Elliot Barton is sitting in a train in October of 2006, reflecting on things, including his partner Lana, the joy of sharing life with her at their house on Sapphire Street and his job. On that first page life seems great, and then comes the first clue that there may be some trouble in this paradise.  As he says,
"Above all, I can't believe that what I did so long ago has yet to catch up with me. What I have not told Lana is I live each day as though it is my last of freedom. When the post arrives, the telephone rings, or if there is a knock at the door, I am expecting the worst, even after ... I do the calculation ... eighteen years."

 In what he describes as an "unusually fatalistic mood," he thinks about the "few words" of a  phone message he'd heard after work  and how because of it "the first stone has been loosened from the foundations of our house on Sapphire Street."   Once home, and after a night of strange dreams, the next day Lana's off to her job and Elliot plays the remainder of the message, erasing it afterwards.  It seems that a friend from his school days, Vince Reynolds, wants to talk to him about something that happened in their past.  He continues to avoid Vince on the phone, but eventually speaks to him and learns that Vince is thinking of going to the police to confess and that he would like to get together to talk.  Vince has found religion and wishes to "atone" for his "sin," to "face any punishment;" strangely though, his version of events of that day are quite different than Elliot's.   Elliot, who now has had to tell Lana what it was all about, believes it's the beginning of the end of everything; he doesn't want Vince to do anything and travels to St. Michael's  retreat where Vince and his fellow members of the Children of the Cross are now living, along with none other than a man whom the Children of the Cross believe is Jesus Christ, who has come again "to shepherd his flock."  Elliot's aim: not to have Vince reconsider his plan, but to have him "change his mind and disappear from my life once again."   What Elliot doesn't realize is that his visit to St. Michael's will change everything in ways he could not possibly expect. 

While it may sound like the plot of a crime novel, Waiting for the End of the World is anything but.  Shortly after the beginning of the present timeline, the story begins to move back and forth through  time (and knowing what I know now I'm absolutely fighting with myself to not say anything more about that).  At each move there are added elements of context, suspense and tension that kept me turning pages, yet, as I said in my initial thoughts at goodreads, while reading I kept wondering to myself what all of this was leading to.  Let me just say that there came an OMG moment toward the end where I not only realized what was happening, but also when I realized that everything that had come before has suddenly taken on momentous significance. 

Among other fascinating topics, within Waiting for the End of the World  the reader will encounter themes of religious belief through history, cults and what it is about the need for a Messiah that drives people to  gather around a particular individual to take them through an apocalypse,  the importance of dreams and the idea that one particular event can unknowingly and unwittingly change the course of things.  It's an amazing book, and the writing is utterly fantastic, drawing you in slowly until there comes that above-mentioned moment when everything just explodes.  On top of everything else, I've also made note of all of the book titles that the author included in this one, and I was so pleased to see Machen's Hill of Dreams listed among them; I'm sure that its inclusion as well as that of Rolfe's Hadrian the Seventh (and others) were not simply random choices.   

Very nicely done, and my advice for readers who at some point feel like you're wondering where this story  is headed is to just be patient and enjoy the ride,  but to be sure to pay attention along the way. In this book, things have a habit of turning up again when least expected.   This one I can certainly and very highly recommend.  Like all of my favorite books,  I can honestly and without reservation say that I've never read anything quite like it. 

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Whisper, by Chang Yu-Ko


Honford Star, 2021
originally published 2018
translated by Roddy Flagg
287 pp


  I ran across Whisper while browsing through World Literature Today, one of my go-to spots for discovering translated books. Reading through the review by Sean Guynes (where that link will take you), the words  "literary horror fiction," "spooky stuff" and "ghost" were what caught my eye,  and I read no further than the second paragraph because I just knew I had to have this book and I didn't want to know what happened.  

When I started reading it, I couldn't stop, finally finishing at two in the morning but remaining completely wired from what I'd just experienced.  Sleep -- not happening. 

Taxi driver Wu Shih-sheng and his wife Kuo Hsiang-ying used to be happy, but after Wu was laid off from his job working for an electronics importer, their lives started taking a downward path.  To make matters worse, when he'd first started the taxi driving, he'd run over someone and the victim's family took him to court where as compensation he was ordered to pay over four million dollars.  Between that and the legal fees, they had to sell their apartment; although Hsiang-ying works more than one job, their reduced circumstances had landed them in a cockroach-infested iron shack;  their daughter left home and they haven't seen her since.   And now, as the novel opens, it seems their situation just might be getting even worse: after getting yelled at by her boss at work one day,  Hsiang-ying ran into a woman in the food court causing the customer's  "bubbling tofu hotpot" to fly, scalding the woman and disfiguring her face.   Hsiang-yang blacked out and was sent to the hospital by her boss, where she could think only about the compensation the other woman's family would demand and the loss of her job.  But as things turn out, these would be the least of her problems. Back home again,  Hsiang-ying hears "an ear-splitting burst of static" just before she hears someone saying something about "a great forest of bamboo" and the name Minako.  She then experiences something completely bizarre before a fall from a window sends her back to the hospital.  

Meanwhile,  Shih-sheng decides to take a break and parks his taxi in a local cabbies' spot.  Next to his car he notices a cab that has been "clearly long closed," and decides to take a look inside.  He discovers a cassette recorder in the glove box and presses play, hearing a man's voice "interrupted by regular crackling sounds" as well as the word Minako.  When he's called to the hospital after Hsiang-ying's fall, she begs him for help -- she's sure that Minako is going to kill her and their daughter.  Surprised at hearing that name, he brushes her off, saying she's mad,  but hearing her say the name Minako takes him by surprise.   Is there some kind of coincidence at work? Later at home as he begins to think about his wife, he begins to realize that "something wasn't right," bringing his thoughts back to the abandoned cab, the cassette tape and Minako.    By now, Hsiang-ying has been moved to the psychiatric ward where her conviction that she's going to be killed grows stronger, to the point where she's "screaming hysterically" and the doctors have to put her in restraints and  sedate her.  But there is no safety for Hsiang-ying here, and her roommate watches in sheer panic as Hsiang-ying fights whatever horrors are assailing her.    

Shih-sheng comes to believe that had he only listened to his wife then things would have been different, so he decides to get to the bottom of things.  Independently, so too does a social worker, Jui-yi who is working with Hsiang-ying's by now terrorized roommate who while in a deep state of shock begins calling out strange words, talking  about ghosts, and making references to a place named Mount Jade.   Indeed, it seems that all roads lead to this place, as by now Shih-sheng has also made a connection to Mount Jade and is determined to destroy the evil that he is sure has its origins there despite a warning to stay away since "the mountain is the gateway of the ghosts."  

Someone reading this post might wonder about how much I've potentially given away here, but don't worry -- we're only up to page 83 by this time and there is much, more that has already happened and which will happen before all is said and done.  The author has created a  truly eerie ghost story that weaves together Taiwanese legend and folklore, the severity of the problems faced by Taiwan's indigenous people, the troubled era of the Japanese occupation, and history that goes back to 1930s Manchuria and the Chinese mainland.   Taken together, all of these elements reveal how, as the dustjacket blurb so accurately states, "a past can still kill."   It also shows how the spirit world is alive,  surviving beneath the trappings of the physical world and that  it is definitely not a force to be messed with, and there is no doubt that he has captured the anxieties of a modern society.  There is much to be said about the author's skill here in using horror and the supernatural to reflect on the modern world -- this is no average ghost story but rather a strong departure into the literary zone. 

 I will say that I wasn't wild about the subplot involving Hsiang-ying's sister and her revenge on her cheating husband.  While it did make for some truly creepy horror moments and shows how natural it might be for people to turn to the occult for assistance, it could have actually been left out and I wouldn't have minded, because for me it was just too much as well as a major distraction in the reading flow and I became impatient to get back to the main story. And quite honestly, I didn't care.     I also thought the ending a bit off, but I won't go into any detail here to explain why -- it should be apparent to anyone who reads this novel.    However, I loved and was completely absorbed in the ghost story itself, as well as in how the past not only reverberates in but also shapes the present in so many unseen ways.  What a mind this author must have, and I will certainly look forward to reading anything more he writes in the future.  My manythanks to the translator, Roddy Flagg, and to Honford Star for making this work available to English-speaking readers.  

recommended, for sure.  

Thursday, January 20, 2022

The Death Spancel and Others, by Katharine Tynan

Swan River Press, 2020
221 pp


 "There's few could look on the boorwaugh washa, the death spancel, without terror."  

For me there is no greater comfort than to make a pot of tea, grab my favorite blanket and crawl into my favorite comfy chair with a book of older ghost stories in hand.   Let's just say that it is much more comforting than even my favorite comfort food (a grilled cheese sandwich with some fresh homemade tomato soup  - a childhood holdover), and that the pleasure is augmented when what I'm reading is written by an author whose work I have not previously read.  Imagine my pleasure in finding this book (thanks to one of my like-minded goodreads friends)  -- but I did have to ask myself the following question:  

what the hell is a spancel?

As anyone might do, I googled it and discovered that it's something that "hobbles" or "tethers," with the original usage having to do with cattle.  It's definitely not put to bovine use here though, as I discovered, in not one, but two stories: first, the titular story "The Death Spancel"  and a bit later in the book,  "The Spancel of Death."  In simplest form, it is  skin cut from a corpse from head to heel in one swoop, much like one might do with an apple.  From the second story we learn that the cutting of the skin is done with "ceremonies so awful that it would make this story too ghastly reading to detail them."  In his introduction, Peter Bell notes that it is a "grim artifact of Irish lore;"  William Gregory Wood-martin goes a step further in his description in volume one of his Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland: A Handbook of Irish pre-Christian Traditions, calling it a "love charm of most gruesome character."  (Just as an FYI, that link goes to Google Books where you can download the book for free; mine is a paperback copy from Alpha Editions.) In the first story, it "dangles" from the "dusty rafters of Aughagree Chapel," a "devil's charm" of "such power that no man born of woman can resist it, save by the power of the Cross."   This story, which begins with remembrances of a priest fighting "with the demons" over the soul of Mauryheen Holion, has a most gothic atmosphere to it, as evidenced by passages like this one:
"...the servants in Rossatorc Castle said that as the priest lay exhausted from his vain supplications, and the rattle was in Dark Mauryeen's throat, there were cries of mocking laughter in the air above the castle, and a strange screaming and flapping of great wings, like to, but incomparably greater than, the screaming and flapping of the eagle over Slieve League."

The "devil-may-care" Sir Robert Molyneux and the lovely Lady Eva are to be wed in just two weeks' time, but it seems he can't help himself when it comes to the women "of a class below his own."  Even though "the germ of good in him" knows that this is wrong, and even though he  promises himself that he'll never do it again, from the moment he catches "sight of a girl's dark handsome face on the staircase" his fate is sealed. In the other story using this device, "The Spancel of Death," the girl doing the binding is an "Eastern beauty in the wilds of Mayo," Sabina Doheny,  who was once a "lonely, fierce, haunted child" and "pagan at heart" but now  "protegée"  and maid of the daughter of the local Marquis.  Lady Kathaleen's fiancé is Sir Harry Massey, and once again, as in the case of  Sir Robert Molyneux, once Sabina's eyes lit upon his face, her "heart had awakened with a madness and a violence beyond expressing."  Given that Sabina had once lived in a hut with Mag Holon, the local witch, she knows exactly where to go and what to ask for.  Be warned, old Mag reminds her,  "There's few could look on the boorwaugh washa, the death spancel, without terror."  

While those two stories alone were well worth the price of this book, there are plenty of other topnotch tales included here.  I have to say that I have read more than a few volumes of ghostly/strange tales, some of which are so predictable that they're hardly worth reading, but that is not the case here. Take for example   "A Sentence of Death," which I thought was going to be a sort of rehash of Benson's "The Bus Conductor" from 1906, when something similar happens and a driver offers the main character "Room for one more, madame." But I was pleasantly surprised with what Tynan did with this story, since (as described in the introduction, which should be left until last), the focus was much more on the poor woman as she undergoes a great internal turmoil. It seems that while "Life at the Manor House flowed by in its old, delightful way," Marion Desborough finds no joy either in her upcoming wedding, nor in life itself, as her memory of an event takes a toll on her mental health and she waits for her death which she believes has been sent by portent.  Her loved ones try to convince her it was all a dream, but, well, Marion seems to know better.  And then there's "The Dream House," in which Reggie Champneys is cut off without a penny because of his marriage to a dancehall girl and even worse, Champneys, the family home he loves,  goes to another relative.  His wife, Kitty, is told about the "Champneys ghost," but this is no ordinary haunted house story whatsoever.  

Two stories sort of jumped out in the "most disturbing" category,  "A Night in a Cathedral" and "The Picture on the Wall."  In the first a young officer becomes "obsessed" with a young woman who lives with her father near his regiment's barracks to the point that he follows her every evening as she enters a "gothic" cathedral for Evensong. He does this for months on end, hiding in the shadows to prevent being observed.  One night, not feeling well while "inhaling one knew not what foul vapours" he faints, only to find himself completely alone, locked inside the the cathedral, and realizes he must stay there until the morning, in the dark with no light. It's then that he notices the waters rising over the floors ...  "The Picture on the Wall" begins as a young woman refuses to give the man who loves her a specific wedding date, for reasons she will not reveal.  Eventually though she takes him home to meet her father, who not only seems hostile towards him but also puts him in a certain room of the house for his stay.  This is another one where I thought I could guess the ending, but I was (happy to be) very, very mistaken.    

There are still another half dozen or so stories remaining in this volume , along with a number of poems; the final section of the book includes other short writings, including a "weird tale," by the author, a "chat" with Tynan, and a brief anecdote about fantasy author Lord Dunsany.  All in all it's a fine and engrossing collection; and while not unexpectedly some stories worked better for me than others, it was still a great pleasure to read and to lose myself in this author's strange tales.  Leave it until the end, but do not miss the great introduction by Peter Bell.  I'll happily recommend this book to others who enjoy finding new (old) authors, women writers whose work has sadly sank into obscurity,  and to those readers who are fans of older Irish fiction and folklore as well. And it's from Swan River Press, which has provided me with hours and hours of great reading time over the last few years, so you know it's going to be good.