Thursday, September 21, 2023

Strange Epiphanies, by Peter Bell


Swan River Press, 2021 (originally published 2012)
197 pp


I've been more than a bit depressed lately, coping with the recent death of one of my friends, and figured I needed to get off my can and do something other than simply sit and stare into space.  My go-to therapy is cleaning and organizing, and the target this time around was the bookshelves in our bedroom.  While going through each and every book in a "this stays, this goes" sort of mode, I came across quite a few unread volumes (including this one) that I had   haphazardly shelved  behind other books and promptly forgot about. Peter Bell's  Strange Epiphanies was one of these.  Off of its shelf space it came, and grabbing a cup of tea, I settled in to read, not putting it down until sadly and all too soon, it was over.  

From the first page onward (and as is the case with all of the stories I've read by this author so far),  what stands out is the author's stunning evocation of place.   In his introduction to Strange Epiphanies, Brian Showers, the founder of Swan River Press, notes that what Bell does here is to
"scratch beneath the top soil to unearth the true genius loci -- the unsettling spirit of place -- and show its effects on those who tread these exposed surfaces.  Landscapes, that with each turn, Peter skews and rearranges into something resembling nightmare."
Strongly allied with his emphasis on genius loci, Bell's work here also draws on history as well as local/ traditional folklore including (but not limited to) Beltane fire rites in the first story "Resurrection" -- the opening of which reminded me so very much of the beginning of Robert Aickman's "The Trains,"  selkies in "An American Writer's Cottage"  and even vampires in "A Midsummer Ramble in the Carpathians" which I'll discuss later.  Upping the eerieness, his stories are populated with characters with troubled, damaged psyches who, in the isolated settings in which they find themselves, are more than susceptible to the influences and strange pulls the genius loci seems to exert on them.  In this sense, I would argue, the landscape (with the inclusion of its spirit) can be viewed as a character present in each tale.  

Sithean Mor, aka Angels Hill, Iona.  From Strange Outdoors

Each and every story included here is beyond brilliant, but I did have a few favorites which in my mind were all perfect in every sense of the word.   In "The Light of the World"  a man who has spent time since the death of his Rowena in "pursuit of exotic avenues of escape"  has decided it's time to "regain the simple pleaures."  Looking to find peace, he retreats to his "spiritual home" in village of Bleng in the Cumberland Mountains foothills, "beneath the spruce-clad heights of Blengdale Moor."  On this particular day, he is walking an old forest route along the edges of the moor, looking at "the light of the winter solstice," which "seemed to speak of something beyond the veil"  when an early twilight falls.  Already in a "melancholy mood," he knows the return journey will  be risky: a snowstorm threatened, trees were bending because of the wind, and he's unsure about cutting through the forest on an untested route.  Also on his mind is the strange couple he'd seen earlier that no one else recognized, but that he'd encountered years earlier elsewhere, "on the other side of Europe."  That is really about all I can say about this story, except that a) it begins with an epigraph by Arthur Machen which is a huge clue and b) it is one of the most eerie stories in this volume.  Next up is   "A Midsummer Ramble in the Carpathians," in which Julia P. Flint, a modern-day "dealer in antiquarian books and maps, specialist in topography" stumbles upon what the Leyburn book auction catalogue described as "Private journal. Handwritten. Travelogue. Carpathian Mountains. No date. Incomplete..."   Letting it sit for a few weeks, she finally decides to examine it, and can't believe her luck. It seems that she's acquired an unpublished travel account by Amelia Edwards, which turns out to be a "record of a journey through the Southern Carpathians."   As she reads through it, what emerges is an intensely-atmospheric account "that could have been taken from the pages of a Gothic novel..."  as Edwards and her companions make their way through remote "wilderlands,"  a journey Flint will soon replicate herself.  And finally, there's   "M.E.F.," a story narrated by a person grieving for his partner Alida, now gone three years and whom he misses with "a deep consuming passion."  M.E.F. (Marie Emily Fornario) was a woman who believed that she'd lived on the Hebridean island of Iona "in a previous life," and who, in 1929,  came seeking "spiritual calm."  Intending to stay only a few days, she "never left."  She was found dead on a night in November, her body left in a peat hollow.  Rumor had it that a cairn had been erected at the site where her body had been discovered.  There is, of course more to the story of M.E.F. revealed in this story, and our narrator admits to an "obsessive fascination" with her.  He has come to the island, about which he detects "a strange otherness,"  journeying there every November  since Alida's death, "on her anniversary," the two having originally found there way to Iona while exploring "the antiquarian sites of the West."  It was at that time they had originally discovered  M.E.F's grave; since then, our narrator has read more about M.E.F.,  leading him to undertake a search for M.E.F.'s cairn. No more about this story except to say that I read it twice and got a serious case of the shivers both times. There is also an excellent essay about the real M.E.F. at the end of this book, which should not be missed. 

Going back to this book's introduction, Brian Showers says that the stories in Strange Epiphanies are "stories of revelation," which may bring to mind "mystical enlightment or awe," but he warns readers that "we must always remember that not all revelations are welcome ones."  There is just something in the way that the author captures the sadness, loneliness and isolation of his characters throughout this book that truly speaks to me, especially now in my own life;  combining those very human traits with the resonances that in these stories seem to emanate from the landscape itself is a stroke of genius on his part.   Bell's work here is truly one of the best works to come from Swan River Press, and it is a story collection I know I will read again in the future.  

So very highly recommended -- I can't even begin to express how very much I loved this book.  

Monday, August 28, 2023

Holy Ghosts: Classic Tales of the Ecclesiastical Uncanny (ed.) Fiona Snailham


"The past seems so close here..."

British Library, 2023
279 pp


I have a serious addiction to the British Library Tales of the Weird series, so much so that I tend to preorder the books often months ahead of  their scheduled release.  I actually just got one in yesterday's mail, The Uncanny Gastronomic (ed. Zara-Louise Stubbs),  which I will likely set aside to read in October when I do a month of spooky reads.   The other book I'm looking forward to landing at my doorstep soon  is The Lure of Atlantis (ed. Michael Wheatley) which sounds like good, pulpy fun and which will likely also be saved for October.   December brings Circles of Stone: Weird Tales of Pagan Sites and Ancient Rituals (ed.) Kathryn Soar. As long as the British Library continues to publish these books, I will continue to buy them. * 

Today's post  is about Holy Ghosts: Classic Tales of the Ecclesiastical Uncanny, edited by Fiona Snailham, which I finished a couple of weeks ago or so.  The title alone should offer enough of a clue about what you're about to read, but to clarify, the editor spells it out in her introduction, saying that this book

"presents a collection of stories published between 1851 and 1935. The tales offer accounts of holy places filled with horror and believers tormented by terrifying ghosts."  

 The introduction, course, reveals other considerations and various themes to take into account while reading these stories, but I will leave these for prospective readers to discover.  

I've had the pleasure to have previously read six of the eleven tales presented in this book.  Even before opening this anthology and perusing the contents, I just knew M.R. James would be among the authors and I was correct.  The James selection was "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral," a perfect pick for this volume, and a story that never fails to chill me to my bones.  By the way, back in 1971, this story was dramatized as "The Stalls of Barchester,"  the first of the BBC's A Ghost Story for Christmas annual series, and, of course, I had to watch it again. Cue serious spine hackles.  I have it on dvd, but it is available on youtube as well.    "The Poor Clare" by Elizabeth Gaskell and E. Nesbit's "Man-Size in Marble" are also found among the previous-reads.  Nesbit's story has been anthologized so often that although I love it, it's just a bit on the disappointing side to see it here yet again, while "The Poor Clare" runs to novella length at 70 pages,  sort of interrupting the flow of the book as a whole.  Rounding out the remaining three are Le Fanu's "The Sexton's Adventure," an awesome little tale which is one of his Chapelizod stories, "The Face of the Monk," by Robert Hichens [sidebar:  I read this story first in The Zinzolin Book of Occult Fiction (Snuggly Books, 2022;  ed. Brendan Connell) and I really need to read it again] and "The Duchess at Prayer" by Edith Wharton, which is quite good but sadly, I saw the ending of this one coming. 

the Barchester Stall cat carving, from Cathode Ray Tube

From  Mrs. Henry Wood comes my first unread story, "The Parson's Oath" (1855), a tale that involves two young people in the village of Littleford.  Vicar  John Lewis and school teacher  Regina Winter discover they have feelings for each other.  The problem is a certain Brassy Brown, who has designs on Regina and has "sworn" to marry her, and will keep his promise "by fair means or foul."   She wants nothing to do with him and just knows that "he will kill me, some of these days," and jokingly makes the vicar swear an oath to give her a "Christian burial" if that should happen. The vicar believes it's a joke, at least at first ...  I knew where this was headed as well,  and the same happened with "A Story Told in a Church," by Ada Buisson.  This story was first published in 1867 in Mary E. Braddon's  Belgravia Annual for Christmas, and would be a good choice for modern anthologies of Victorian Christmas Stories.   It's Christmas Eve and it seems that a governess, Miss Montem,  and a few young girls in her care have been the victim of "dreadful boys" who have locked them inside of a church while they'd been "decking" the place "with holly-wreaths and shining laurel."  Night is on its way, and while rescue is certainly at hand, Miss Montem is "deadly pale" and  ill at ease.  When prompted to tell a story, she takes the girls back ten years to when she and her fellow schoolgirls were "obliged" to remain at school over Christmas.  The schoolmistress, not wishing for anyone to feel disappointed, arranges a small party with a few local village families.   Miss Montem remembers that that  Christmas Eve began "joyously," and she'd "never since" laughed "with such freehearted joy."  The night takes a very dark turn, however, with the arrival of the fiancé of one of two cousins, who decides to invite himself to the party and proceeds to be less attentive to his betrothed than to her cousin.   "In the Confessional," by Amelia B. Edwards (1871) is a much stronger story, which begins as a man who prefers to amble in less tourist-oriented places finds himself in Rheinfelden, an "old walled town" where the inhabitants are preparing for a fair.  Trying to find an inn, he comes to a "little solitary church" where he stops for a while.  It is near the altar that he sees a plaque commemorating a certain priest by the name of Chessez and finds himself captivated by its final line --  "He lived a saint; he died a martyr."   On the way out of the church, he decides to take a look at the confessional, opening the door.  To his surprise he encounters a priest within with "fixed attitude and stony face," with "terrible" glaring eyes, saying absolutely nothing.  The encounter disturbs our narrator to the point where he decides he must discover something of this man's life.  What he finds is murder, madness and of course, a ghost. 

from Wikipedia

Rounding out the final two, sadly I actually didn't care for "An Evicted Spirit" by Marguerite Merington, but choosing to save John Wyndham's (yes, that John Wyndham) "The Cathedral Crypt" to finish off Holy Ghosts was brilliant;  at only seven-and-a-half pages, it packs a powerful punch that really highlights the notion that (as expressed in the introduction) "holy settings" are not always places of sanctuary.  Married for only three weeks, Clarissa and Raymond are in Spain and come upon a medieval cathedral.  Clarissa finds it frightening, unlike Raymond, who wants to go inside and take a look around.  Putting aside her fears, she accompanies her husband inside but still has "an overwhelming desire to get back to the familiarities of noises and people."  Unfortunately, by the time it's time to leave, they find themselves stuck inside with no way out. That is all I'll say, except for this: Clarissa is sadly on the money when she notes that "the past seems so close here ... Somehow it hasn't been allowed to fade into dead history."

I love the concept behind this book, as well as the majority of the editor's choices for inclusion.  There is something here for everyone in the range of uncanny tales presented, including the weird, the strange and the ghostly.  Do not miss the introduction; I didn't go into it as much in this post as I would have liked to for time reasons, but really, it's best discovered on one's own.  The first story definitely whets the appetite for more and sets the tone of what's coming next, and the book as a whole was certainly most difficult to put down.   I've sung the praises of this series so often that all I have left to say is that this volume is a no-miss, especially for regular fans of these books published by the British Library and for  aficionados of older ghost stories.  It's an anthology I can most certainly and without hesitation highly recommend.  


*If you're in the US and you want paper copies of these books but don't want to wait for them to be published here, Blackwell's is a good place to pick them up.  Like the now defunct  😢 Book Depository, shipping to the US is free.  

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Caged Ocean Dub, by Dare Segun Falowo


Tartarus Press, 2023
240 pp



  When I began reading Caged Ocean Dub in the first section of the book labeled "Hungers," I got through  "Akara Oyinbo,"  thinking  "wow, that's pretty macabre," then it was  "Busola Orange Juice," which was strange but awesome at the same time.  Next up was the hallucinatory "Oases," which moved  into dark and haunting territory, but it was when I got to "Eating Kaolin" that Falowo's writing just exploded and took my mind along with it.   I didn't realize it at the time, but I can say now  that it was that particular story that tuned me into the author's "extraordinary imagination" (as noted in the dustjacket blurb) and provided the first insights into the sheer genius in storytelling Falowo has to offer throughout the remainder of Caged Ocean Dub.  I won't go into particulars about that one,  but it is so vibrantly and brilliantly alive with movement and color, shifting with ease between worlds, honoring the strength of women and the power of the land while also tackling the ugliness and horrors of colonization.   The final story in that section of the book is "October in Eran Riro," which is straight-up dark horror with a powerful  occult vibe, building the unease right up to the last few words.  

One of the best stories in section two, "Ghosts," is "Ngozi Ugegbe Nwa," in which a "strikingly beautiful" woman and model buys a mirror from a street vendor.  It is "the most perfect mirror Ngozi had ever set eyes on,"  and while I just knew that something strange was going to happen, never in a million years would I have expected the direction taken by the author here.  I also loved "Kikelomo Ultrasheen," where a young girl, Kikelomo, discovers her destiny at age sixteen in a black moon that hums.  When she reveals this phenomenon to her mother, she is warned that she has "been seen" and that, according to her mom, "Tales of those 'seen' by irunmole or orisha never end well."  Evidently she's been noticed by Onidiri, "some of the very first people to touch understand and weave hair on this our land,"  who had discovered "true power in the craft"  and had the ability to "shape the workings of the mind by simply touching the head."   

from Intercontinental News

The final section of this book is "Heralds," and these stories are given over to an entirely different style, moving into the realm of science fiction, largely futuristic in nature.   "What Not to Do When Spelunking in Ananmbra" left me with goosebumps and cold chills crawling up my spine.  A "rogue speleogist" discovers a "new cave system" that tells the future in "terrifying etchings that glowed as if alive," also offering "ancient impressions of alien life" that will have "an impact on our futures."  And that they do, just not in the way originally he predicted.  As this story winds down, the realities of the future become outright frightening.  Also frightening but absolutely gorgeous in the telling is the novella-length  "Convergence in Chorus Architecture", a sort of Nigerian weird combined with speculative fiction approach complete with world building which truly begins with a lightning strike.  When "slow lightning touch[es] the heads of Akanbi and Gbemisola" with "small bright hands" while they are in the water, they are brought back to their village where it is determined that they are "dreaming vivid," having been "called on to see."  A particular potion is brewed that allows the rest of the community to follow the lightning victims into their "shared dream."  What happens afterward I won't say, but the story as a whole incorporates shamanistic elements along with strong mythological ties, magic  and the power of dreams that culminate in a spectacular and breathtaking finish.  

In an interview I found after finishing this collection, the author notes that "over a foundation of mundane realism" they "like to play with multi-tonality and tropes, to blend and blur."  What they do not say specifically but is readily discoverable in Caged Ocean Dub from the get-go is that that "mundane realism"  includes a relationship with what we might consider  "supernatural" forces/beings who share the human world -- all a matter of course for the people in these stories.  Another  item worth mentioning is that each and every story incorporates human issues that are very much locally based, yet surprisingly universal at the same time.   The dustjacket blurb quotes Falowo as saying about these tales that they
"were mostly inspired by real events and/or emotional states, and were also fuelled by my love of indigenous cosmologies and pop culture symbolism. They were written in various caged spaces, where the pulse and ambient sounds of the world outside became, after a while, like arrhythmic waves crashing on the shores of my listening."
Tartarus has simply outdone itself with this collection and I'm just over the moon that they've chosen to highlight the work of this Nigerian author, which is, simply stated, superlative.  Falowo's writing meshes together surrealism, the speculative, the weird and the strange as well as folklore, mythology and tradition, all of which put together mark something new and exciting on the literary weird scene, although to try to pigeonhole this book into the "weird" category simply doesn't do it justice.  It is Falowo's stunning writing that impressed me the most,  pushing his work  so deeply  into the literary zone to the point where readers who wouldn't normally dabble in the weird or in darkness in general would soon be rejoicing at the beauty and power found in the artistry of the author's prose.

Very times infinity highly recommended.  

Monday, July 3, 2023

The Sea Change & Other Stories, by Helen Grant

Swan River Press, 2013
144 pp


We've just returned from a three-day early start to the  4th of July weekend,  staying in a place with neither internet nor television, which equates to many happy long and guilt-free reading hours.  I really haven't felt like reading much this year because it seems like in my house, when it rains it pours, and it's been doing so since the end of January with the latest event  the loss of my sweet little dog of thirteen years.  With The Sea Change & Other Stories, I couldn't have chosen a better book to get myself back into my reading groove.  I picked it up and did not put it down until the very last page.  

Out of the seven phenomenal stories in this collection, there are two that I found to be absolutely striking:  "Alberic de Mauléon" and my bottom-line favorite,  "The Calvary at Banská Bystrica."    The first, as the author says in the "Story Notes" section of the book, was her entry for a story competition in M.R. James Ghosts and Scholars Newsletter.  The challenge was to "write a prequel or sequel to an MRJ story." I unfortunately don't have a copy of the first volume of The Ghosts and Scholars Book of Shadows (Sarob, 2012) where this story was published along with those of the eleven other contest winners, but you can find a list of them here.  By the way, and I mean this quite seriously, if anyone has a copy of that volume to sell, please let me know. I've been looking for a while.  "Alberic de Mauléon" is on the prequel side of the fence, in this case, to James'  "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book."  Highly original and very nicely done,  I won't say more about it, except to say that the creep factor from the original is definitely here as well.    Two friends talking together begins "The Calvary at Banská Bystrica," as the narrator details his search for his missing brother last seen in Slovakia.   The brother, Robert Montague , had been "travelling around the Continent" until any word from him just stopped.   The last time the narrator had heard from him was in the spring via "some letters and a card" from Banská Bystrica.  Although they were not very close, the narrator reveals that his brother had written to tell him he was going to be married to a girl who had "some sort of job relating to tourism in the town."   That was pretty much it for communications between the two, but when no one else had heard from him by that summer,  the narrator decides that he needs to go look for him at the last place he'd mentioned.  I will keep mum on the action here, but the rest of the story is a stunning and absolutely chilling account of what happens as he begins his search. 

the Calvary at Banska Bystrica from The Slovak Spectator

As for the five remaining stories in The Sea Change, there is another tale based on a story by M.R. James, one that he had left unfinished -- "The Game of Bear."  Without moving into the pastiche arena, the author does a great job with her completed version of that story, which starts out over the Christmas holidays with the elderly narrator explaining why the game of Bear the children in the house are playing at the time sets his nerves on edge.   I won't go into details here, but "The Game of Bear"  has all of the elements one expects to find in an M.R. James story, most especially a foray into the dark arts and something unseen that has entered into a house.    Moving on,  it came as no surprise to me that Lovecraft popped right into my head while reading the title story, "The Sea Change."  Two divers' discovery of a previously-unknown shipwreck turns to a consuming obsession for one of them and outright horror for the other.   They both go down to explore, and while one of the two men immediately senses something not right about it, the other is fascinated. Somehow he manages to stretch out his dive times to clearly-impossible intervals, and there will be a cost.   While there are no clear answers to the "why" and the "how" of it all, there is certainly plenty of horror in terms of what is left unseen and unknown.    "Grauer Hans" opens this collection, reminding readers that old folk beliefs exist for good reason, here serving as a sort of shield against something that lures young children to be let into the house at night.  God forbid the old wisdom is forgotten ...  "Self Catering" adds a needed touch of comic relief to this book.   A man by the name of Larkin whose colleague Watson has a personality that rubs him completely the wrong way finds himself backed "into a corner" about booking a weekend holiday.  He searches for something different, and after some unsatisfying offers, happens upon a travel agency run by a certain Cornelius von Teufel, who offers him an incredible experience.  With that name, Larkin should have been clued in a bit more.  Finally, in "Nathair Dhubh, "on a bright, clear day two young men decide to tackle the difficult and challenging peak of Nathair Dhubh (which translates to black snake)  in Scotland.  While roped together, a mist arises that separates the two, "a real pea-souper" that causes one of them to lose sight of the other.  Now in his eighties and looking back on the incident, one of the pair reveals why that was his last attempt. 

from Sea Museum

  Without the story notes (which you should definitely save until the end) and the acknowledgments, the reader is left with 136 pages in which the author delivers these seven brilliant and uncanny stories, no small feat in such a short amount of space.  It is a gifted writer who can pull this off, but there's more.  As the author writes at the Scottish Book Trust website, she often includes "elements of folklore, snippets of real history and atmospheric real life locations" in her work. She's done this in The Sea Change & Other Stories to great effect, imbuing her tales with a sense of place that amplifies the eerie  atmosphere and growing sense of dread she builds slowly in each story.  

I've never been disappointed with an offering from Swan River Press, and this book is no exception.  I definitely and very highly recommend it to readers of the strange and the weird.  

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Our Share of Night, by Mariana Enriquez


"You have something of mine, I passed on something of me to you, and hopefully it isn't cursed. I don't know if I can leave you something that isn't dirty, that isn't dark, our share of night."

Hogarth, 2022
originally published as Nuestra Parte de Noche
translated by Megan McDowell 
588 pp.


My introduction to author Mariana Enriquez was her short-story collection Things We Lost in the Fire, which I loved so much that I moved on directly to her The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, also exceptional.  I was super excited for the release of this novel, Our Share of Night and I have to say that I was not at all disappointed.  

It's a hot day in Buenos Aires Argentina as 1981 begins.  Juan has everything ready for the long trip he is about to make with his young son Gaspar to the home of his in-laws.  It's just the two of them, as Gaspar's mother Rosario had died some three months earlier, but Juan has decided that he needs the time with just his son.    Juan knows he must be careful as "the repressive forces were unpredictable," and that he needed to "avoid any incidents" -- after all,  Argentina was in the midst of the dictatorship period (aka the Dirty War) and the police and the army "kept a brutal watch over the highways."   On reaching the hotel where they will spend the first night, Juan, who suffers from a serious heart condition, has also taken precautions so that if he fails to wake up, Gaspar knows what to do and who to call.   It is also there that  Juan comes to realize that Gaspar can plainly see a strange woman in the hallway, not a living one, but an "echo," part of  "the restless dead" (i.e.  "discarnates," ghosts of the disappeared),   "moving quickly," because they wanted to be seen.  Juan sees them all of the time and has learned how to banish these visions;  it's something he'll have to teach Gaspar, but of concern at the moment is that he's realized that his son has inherited his own ability to see into "the floating world."   This is not the best news; Rosario's wealthy and very powerful family is part of  a longstanding "secret society" known as the Order,  and they have their own plans for the boy, beginning with a test to ascertain whether or not he is a medium like his father.   

While I won't give too much away plotwise, members of the Order, as the dustjacket blurb notes, seek "eternal life" or more to the point, the preservation of one's consciousness after death.  Juan's role as medium allows them contact with an entity called the Darkness which Juan refers to as "demented... a savage god, a mad god,"  and there are steep, atrocious and even inhuman costs to be paid in doing so.  It is not a role he relishes -- Juan feels trapped, and even worse,  he knows that he likely won't live long enough to protect Gaspar from the Order as much as he needs to.  He makes plans that he hope will safeguard his son long after he's gone, but the question here, as noted on the dustjacket, is whether or not Gaspar can actually escape what has been foreordained to be his destiny.  

The book moves back and forth through time and events before, during and after the dictatorship, following Juan's efforts to protect Gaspar, while simultaneously examining the horrific violence and human wreckage caused by the Order, a way to reckon with colonialism as well as the corruption and evil bred from wealth and power.  Horror is the perfect vehicle to tell these stories -- as the author states in an interview at Literary Hub (2018), 
"There's something about the scale of the cruelty in political violence from the estate that always seems like the blackest magic to me. Like they have to satisfy some ravenous and ancient god that demands not only bodies but needs to be fed their suffering as well" 
and in a 2018 article for the Freeman's Channel at Literary Hub Enriquez writes that she had asked herself
 "what were the first written texts, the first horror texts that I had ever read? They were the testimonies of the dictatorship.  Bodies disappeared. Common everyday houses which served as concentration camps in neighborhoods. The secrecy of it all, the negation of reality. Children in this time taken from their parents and given another name. It was phantasmagoric."
In Our Share of Night, she brings this "blackest magic" to vivid, horrific life; as with her other books, Things We Lost in the Fire and The Dangers of Smoking in Bed,  this one also reminds readers that the traumatic past has the power to linger and to haunt the present. While the dictatorship may have ended, there are still the scars and shadows to be reckoned with. You need not look any further than the recurring image of the child who disappeared inside of a house and completely vanished, never to be seen again, her disappearance affecting her friends and family for years to come. 

While not everyone seems to share my feeling about it, I loved this book. While I've kept any spoilers out of this post, trust me, there are more than enough horrors filling these 588 pages to satisfy any reader of the genre; there is also more than enough historical base and cultural lore to satisfy someone like me.  I do think perhaps it could have used some editing here and there, but all and all, it's likely going to be a novel I will never forget, one that made such a strong impression that I've had it on my mind since finishing it.  Very, very highly recommended.  

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Dark Arts, by Eric Stener Carlson


Tartarus Press,
243 pp


The end of our January and the entire month of February was just terrible after a death in our family, and although I managed to actually finish reading this book midway through February,  it's really only now that I have the mindspace to talk about it.  

When I first found out about the release of Carlson's new Tartarus Press publication of Dark Arts, I didn't hesitate to add it to my library immediately,  having loved both of  his novels The Saint Perpetuus Club of  Buenos Aires and  Muladona.  On my nightstand (sadly unread as of right now) also sits his two-volume chapbook The Story of Anja Sigmundsdottir, published by Zagava, which I moved off the tbr shelves directly after reading this book and which I will be taking with me on our sorely-needed vacation in April.   In short, I'm a huge fan of this man's work.  

In his introduction, the author writes that 

 "Art is illuminating, but there's also something dark about it -- something menacing, magical, obscure ... a conjuring of sorts, a reaching beyond the circle of the campfire, a groping of sorts, a reaching beyond the circle of the campfire, a grouping for dangerous things hidden in the faintly-perceived undergrowth."

 As the dustjacket blurb notes, art is also a "spirit board" that allows his people to "contact shades from the past, or to discover danger in the shadows."  

While I could certainly write great things about each and every story in this book, I'll have to settle for just a few of my favorites in the interest of time and space.  In  "Golden Book," the collection's opener, a woman makes contact and finds connection with a young girl in a library in Thailand while introducing her to a completely different understanding of the afterlife.  Up next is "Bradycardia,"   a reality-bending (and pardon the phrase from the psychedelic 60s), utterly mind-blowing stunner of a tale which you will want to reread straight away before even thinking about going on.  The subject of this story is a successful editor whose work has allowed him to "shout into the void" a number of "new voices," but who is also plagued by a debilitating series of nightmares of being on the editorial board of a company that has published some really crap hack material. Reality is interwoven with vivid dreamscape here as well as the "contradictory images" that keep floating through the editor's mind, and just when you start to wonder what the heck might happen next, Carlson provides a most shocking, unexpected and horrific ending to it all.  "Salt" is a redacted transcript of the interrogation of a professor who enjoys witty rebus puzzles and who, like the character Campbell in Vonnegut's Mother Night (mentioned more than once here and throughout Dark Arts) believes in his own form of a "Kingdom of Two"  -- "a closed circuit" where he and his wife are deeply in love, and 

"thought for each other, lived for each other. We would finish each other's sentences, were probably thinking each other's thoughts..."

and, as he says, came to develop other distinct ways to communicate with each other so as to "avoid detection" -- a "triple layer of communications" -- when she first drew him into the world of espionage. As he lays out their life together including the birth and death of their son (with whom he can still  supposedly communicate afterward) his interrogator drops a bombshell that very likely changes this man's life completely, and yet, because "all those messages have to count for something ... some greater meaning," the show must go on.  

from Circady

Eric Stener Carlson is an incredibly gifted writer who never fails to offer a deep, enriching and soulful quality in his work which illuminates the humanity of the author's characters no matter where they exist in the world.  Like the best of the best weird tales, the stories in Dark Arts reach that certain point where people in the mundane world find themselves at some point having crossed a threshhold into a completely different reality; like the best authors, Carlson's skill is in illuminating the challenges of his characters who must make their way through what he describes as the "dark spaces" that are "intertwined with life and death and art."  At the same time, it seems to me that one major idea that he never loses sight of throughout this book is that even in the darkness there will continue to be love and hope that may help to offset the horrors found there, so very much the case in our current world.  Dark Arts is a truly excellent collection, both beautiful and terrifying, written by a skilled master of his own art.   Beyond highly recommended, I cannot praise this book enough.  

Thursday, January 5, 2023

Fox Tales, by Tomihiko Morimi

"On short summer nights, in between the rice paddies, the foxes scatter."  

Yen On, 2022
published as Kitsune no Hanashi, 2006
translated by Winifred Bird
228 pp


I don't remember where I first came across this title, but I do remember looking at the description and thinking that this book is so me:
"A collection of four spooky tales for the modern era, all tied to a certain Kyoto curio shop."
These stories play out in the streets of the city, and as the dustjacket blurb goes on to say, over the course of the book the author "offers an eerie glimpse into the beguiling and mysterious darkness of the old capital."   Eerie, most definitely.  Mysterious, an understatement. 

 If you're not familiar with Japanese mythology, in a nutshell, kitsune or foxes (according to The Collector) "possess many powerful magical and spiritual abilities, including shapeshifting, far-seeing, high intelligence and longer lifespans." They are also viewed as tricksters, and can be benign or benevolent.   There are any number of websites you can turn to such as Ancient Pages, or anywhere you can get to by looking up Japanese mythology or folklore. 

The title story, "Fox Tales" introduces the reader to Hourendou (and I do wish I could see the Kanji for this word to try to glean some sort of meaning),  a curio shop "the size of maybe six tatami mats."  The narrator, a university student, first met Natsume,  the proprietor of the shop, when he worked delivering bento lunches.  A year later, he was working at Hourendou, his job to watch the shop and make deliveries.  The story opens as he is delivering something to a strange man by the name of Amagi, who lived in an old mansion near the Saginomori Shrine.   Natsume reveals to the narrator that she should have gone there herself, but she doesn't like going to Amagi's house.  He, in turn, decides that it was his duty to take on the Amagi deliveries himself to "ensure that Natsume never went there again."  Things begin to happen when the narrator drops a particular plate in the shop and  is sent to Amagi for a replacement.   Natsume warns him that Amagi might "jokingly" request something, but "under no circumstances should you agree" and that he must not "promise him anything, no matter how insignificant."  Unfortunately he fails to heed that advice, and after the first trade he makes with Amagi, he soon finds himself involved in a trade involving a fox mask.  It's really at the this point that things take that turn to the strange and the weird, and all the while the narrator tries to understand how Amagi had "managed to sink his claws so deeply into my soul. "  Pay attention: this one lays many a foundation for what follows. 

"Kitsunebi" (foxfire) from

  In "The Dragon in the Fruit," a university student spends a great deal of time with a rather isolated and lonely senior student, listening to his numerous stories.  The senior has many --  as he tells the other, in the five years he'd been in Kyoto,  "some mysterious things have happened," and he proceeds to relate a few of his bizarre experiences in the city.  His tales encompass a woman in a fox mask, unique magic lanterns, the strange appearance of a "lightning beast",  a very real serpentlike creature with a face like a crocodile supposedly captured in the Meiji era,  and a netsuke of a dragon "coiled inside a piece of fruit," any of which he feels he might run into as he walks through the city.  

As the senior says about the people of Kyoto, 
"Most them are strangers, but I know they're connected by mysterious threads I can't even imagine.  And when I have the chance to touch one of those threads, it makes a strange sound under my fingers. I think that if I could trace them all to their source, they would lead to a mysterious, shadowy place at the very core of the city."

Holding that thought, the weirdness continues in "Phantom,"  in which a guy who enjoys "exploring the tangled backstreets" and alleys takes a job as tutor to a somewhat "laconic high school student" and becomes caught up in a hunt for a "phantom ..."  also described as "something like a spirit" in the area. Surprises are in store in this one, and the ending is not only eerie, but sinister and foreboding.    "The Water God" rounds out the collection, with a family which has gathered on the death of an elderly relative telling stories and sharing memories and family history that go back in time as they wait for a "family heirloom" to be delivered from Hourendou.  All I can say is 神聖なたわごと ...  this was my favorite story, as well the absolute weirdest tale in the entire book and one of the creepiest I've ever encountered.  

 Fox Tales just sucked me right in, with the combination of the author's skill in creating a dark, almost suffocating at times atmosphere as well as his awesome storytelling abilities.  This is the type of book I look forward to reading, where the mystery of it all pulls me in further and further until there is no outside world for the duration. And as I mentioned in an earlier post, I love folklore of any kind, and  I actually got a bit more from this book than I bargained for in a good way, with Japanese mythology and folklore interwoven into each and every story.  Along with the strange connections to the curio shop advertised on the dustjacket, it is this element, I believe, that ties everything together and gives this collection its heft.  This book may not be for everyone, especially those readers who need explanations to make their reading complete, which leads my to my only criticism:  it might have been helpful to have added some sort of introduction for non-Japanese readers who may not have much familiarity with Japanese folklore.   

For me, this book was a great way to end the 2022 reading year,  and it's one I can recommend highly.