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.