Sunday, October 22, 2023

The Secret Life of Insects, by Bernardo Esquinca


Valancourt, 2023
translated by James D. Jenkins 
illustrations by Luis Perez Ochando
198 pp


I initally came across the work of Bernardo Esquinca in the first installment of this publisher's Valancourt Book of World Horror Stories.   His story  "Señor Ligotti" was a standout in that book, so when Valancourt announced the publication of an entire volume of this author's work, I was elated. 

This book ticks every box I have as a reader of the weird and the strange.  There  are no cut-and-dried solutions to the mysteries the author offers, leaving the stories on the open-ended side of things and allowing the reader's imagination to kick in and ponder the implications of what he or she has just read.    Many times, for me anyway, that's when the actual horror of the sitution creeps in, continuing to linger with me long after turning that last page.  In Esquinca's words, as quoted in the introduction by Mariana Enriquez,  ..." the best stories are like abandoned houses that nobody wants to stay in, but which you can't stop thinking about after spending a night in them."   That is exactly what you get here.  

All of the stories included here are terrific, but as usual, I have favorites.  At the top of my list  is "Pan's Noontide," which seamlessly blends together crime fiction, horror, mythology, modern environmental concerns and greed-based corruption to create an unforgettable tale.    Maya, a  woman with a failing marriage, has strange dreams, which she knows the psychiatrist she's seeing completely misinterprets.   At some point in the therapy, she realizes that the dreams are no longer nightmares but rather "a call."   In the meantime, her husband, a specialist in "classical mythology and ancient folklore" at the local university, has been called by an officer in the Homicide Division to assist him with what he believes is a "ritual killing"  of a forest ranger.    He needs Arturo's help to discern from photographs he has whether there might be "some symbolism" that might offer a lead or whether the police are simply "dealing with a psycho who thinks he's a conceptual artist."  Right away Arturo realizes that the pictures reflect a "clear reference to the god Pan," but he doesn't understand why the forest ranger was a target since Pan was a "protector of nature."   He also realizes that he's seen something like this before, and had just brushed it off.   This time around, he's definitely interested.   There are times when the author writes with a sort of Russian doll effect, with a story nestled inside of another story that in this case, can take you somewhere else altogether.  "Dream of Me" is a perfect example of this type of construction, highlighting another theme that is prevalent throughout this book, echoes of the past that find their way into the present.   The story revolves around a doll named Greta, sent by someone unknown and handed to the narrator by a detective who had been tasked to deliver it.  Evidently this was highly unusual, since finding his dolls was something done personally by the narrator, complete with "verifiable story behind it."  The detective knows only that he had received an anonymous phone call with instructions to track down the recipient, Daniel Moncada, who notes that it "is the first time a doll has come to me without my having to track it down."  He offers the detective double his fee to find the anonymous caller.  In and around the mystery of Greta's origins,  we get a peek inside of what appears to be Moncada's doll files.  It's not so much the dolls that are the focus of these stories, though, but rather the broken people who had owned them.   I have to say I tend to run from creepy doll tales because I just don't like them but in this case, Esquinca strays away from the obvious and makes this one such a very human story that I couldn't help but be affected on a gut level.    I also run from zombie-ish type things but "Tlatelolco Confidential" also defies stereotypes and injects the past into the present.   After the 1968 student massacre at Mexico City's  La Plaza de las Tres Culturas,  la "convergencia de tres etapas importantes en la historia de México: la prehispánica, la colonial y la conteporánea,"  a small group of soldiers waiting for the bodies to be taken away experience something incredible -- thirteen of the dead students rise up, "bleeding from their mouths and baring their teeth" with the intention of attacking the soldiers.  Firing on them again, the soliders succeeded in "re-killing" the students.  Even stranger, when the crew came to take the bodies away, they counted twelve, not thirteen bodies, something one of them would later "swear on his mother" was true before noting that "if one of them was able to get back up and escape, there's a goddamn walking corpse loose in the city."   Given the history of this location,  perhaps something hungry may have been awakened by the blood flowing in the plaza that day.  And finally, from my list of favorites is "Where I'm Going It's Always Night."   Everardo, who is driving along the highway in a van,  sees a guy with a backpack walking along the side the road, evidently not interested in hitchhiking, but he offers him a lift anyway.  In exchanging the usual conversation,  Jacobo, the passenger,  tells the driver that he is a spelunker and a bounty hunter, retrieving bodies of cave explorers who'd for some reason or other had died during their caving experience, unable to get out.   He's on his way now to do just that, heading to the mountains.  Or at least, that's what he claims.  

Esquinca's stories are set in his native Mexico, and he incorporates his country's history, landscape and mythologies into his work, and bravo to James Jenkins for his excellent translation.   At the same time, his subjects are definitely human, sharing much of the same anxieties and apprehensions as the author's readers outside the borders of his homeland.    His work reaches depths that move well beneath the world we live in and uncovers hidden, unseen layers we don't see, as well as  the small cracks in the universe that his characters don't know exist until they tumble into them.   Even more so, he joins the ranks of my favorite writers whose work leaves me with the sense  that the old ground has somehow shifted along with my understanding of how things actually are.  The stories are fun with more than a hint of seriousness in what the author's trying to accomplish with them; they also acknowledge the influence of writers who came before him, as noted in the introduction, which you should definitely not miss.  

All in all, a fine collection of stories by an extremely talented writer, and a book I most highly recommend, especially to people who, like me, love quality translated fiction that makes you think.  It's downright creepy as well, aided by the excellent illustrations, so it's a book that will definitely appeal to readers of horror on the intelligent end of the spectrum.  

Sunday, October 15, 2023

Nocebo, by R. Ostermeier


Broodcomb, 2023
281 pp


First things first:  a mega thank you to Jamie Walsh -- you know why. 

I had actually started this post Tuesday of this past week, and I had meant to finish it long before today,  but I've had a weird week of waking up at 4:30 in the morning and have subsequently been  living in a haze from the lack of sleep.  Today's the first day of clarity since.  

 The latest volume published by the phenomenon that is Broodcomb Books is Nocebo, a collection of stories that I've been raving about to anyone who will listen.  Once again we find ourself back at the Peninsula, not surprising since Broodcomb Press is, as noted on its website, the "House publisher " for the region.  First time visitors should know that the Peninsula,  according to a quote from the author's Therapeutic Tales is  a place that is "welcoming to the unusual."  

Three new stories grace this book along with a fourth, "Upmorchard," which was published in 2021 as a limited-run hardcover  book.  The publisher made it very clear at the time that Upmorchard was "never to be reprinted as a standalone volume," so anyone who missed it at the time has a second chance now. I urge you to take it.   You can read my post about it if you'd like, but the bottom line is that it was such a disturbing story that I had to stop reading for a couple of days after finishing it because I needed a mental reset.  It still bothered me this time around with the second reading, especially in the context of what comes before it. 

photo from Ancient Yew Group

In "Winn's Clock," which opens this volume, there is a particular moment in which the narrator finds himself in conversation with a green-eyed girl, and wonders if  his participation in that discussion, "having grown up on the peninsula, with its long history of strange tales..."  might " close a door" between the fields he knew and the fields he "knew not -- vanishing behind me so I'd never be able to return."   I tabbed this particular passage when I'd gone back to reread this story after finishing the book because it hit me at the time that in its own way,  it characterizes what happens throughout all of the stories in Nocebo. 

Although I can't really reveal too much about this or any other story here since these tales (as are all written by this author)  are experienced, rather than just read,  I can offer a slight peek into the three that are new as of this reading.   "Winn's Clock" is  a prized possession in the narrator's otherwise poor household, belonging to his grandfather Winn, who had "been largely itinerant for much of his life, spending time on the seas and for long periods travelling with the caravans."  People used to say about Winn that "He wanders" which as the narrator notes, "had a financial effect on us."  It was only the occasional "windfall" that would save the family, but like the clock, the origin of the money was a mystery to the boy until he was later enlightened by his uncle.   The clock itself was a unique piece, with "no winder or hole where a winding key might be inserted," and with steel "seemingly without join or access" that was always "bright as if new-worked." The only problem with the clock was in the wood, which "suffered from woodworm," yet was never destroyed.  Winn worked at the problem but could never fully solve it, as new tunnels would appear in different parts of the wood after one part had been fixed.  An offhand remark from the boy's mother leads to an act of love and kindness on his part that will change everything for this family, with long-lasting effects.     "Moving the Yew" is my favorite, actually remaining in my head for a full two days after reading it and preventing me for the duration from  moving on to the third story.  Members of The Yew Society, "whose remit was the preservation of yews on the peninsula," have taken on the project of moving a certain yew tree near Buddyn, due to a change in the course of the river.   The narrator, R. Ostermeier, on a break from his counseling duties, is asked to join his friend and the others in the group as they move the tree "the old way," with the only modern equipment a backhoe.  Doing it this way was the idea of the project manager, Rebecca Birdwhistell, as "she was insistent on traditional methods." The project gets underway and the yew is uprooted, but something is left behind in the earth, "right in the centre of the tree."  As the narrator notes, "Only then did the implications come clear. Birdwhistell had said the yew might be over a thousand years old, perhaps older still."  But there is much more to come for these people, and the implications will be become even clearer as the object is opened and its contents revealed.  The story takes  place over several days as the tree is moved; in time even small things will come to take on the greatest significance for a few members of the group, as "the whole area of land came to life. Or took hold of people."   Even more significant is the epigraph by Rainer Maria Rilke that precedes this story:
"... Life that is not concerned with us celebrates its festivals without seeing us, and we look on with a certain embarrassment, like chance guests who speak another language."
 Trust me here, it's absolutely killing me to say nothing about this incredible story, which like "Winn's Clock," has deep connections to history, nature and ritual.  The final story is "Mommick," about which writer and real-time reviewer Des Lewis says "... we have a dark masterpiece on our hands."  I have to wholeheartedly agree (and in a Facebook-post conversation with him I did agree)  with his assessment -- I have never nor do I believe I will ever again read something quite like this one.  If the first two stories left me feeling especially unsettled and uneasy, "Mommick" took me completely over the edge, making me feel that there must be some way beyond ordinary verbiage to express what this story did to me.  This story outdarks both of its predecessors, and as deeply as "Upmorchard" affected me, "Mommick" is even more frightening in its implications.  At this juncture I will offer readers the same warning that comes with all of the Broodcomb books  -- "it might not be for you." The narrator of this story is Bartoš Gerard, named after his grandfather, a photographer who had a love for "single subject focus."  His work found its way into books he'd put together, one of which, Murder Ballads, was a favorite of the narrator's as a boy.  In this book, he set models, dressed in "ordinary street clothes," into tableaux depicting various murder scenes, "some unwisely or unfortunately close to notorious crimes of the  time."  His grandfather's book, Scarecrows, on the other hand,  "terrified" him, filled with photos of "a succession of sinister figures in stark black-and-white, few what might be called regular."  As he notes, "To a child, those photographs were dream poison."   While in his twenties, a small publisher put together a bibliography of his grandfather's books, and the narrator discovered a book he'd known nothing about, a volume called 6:20.   It kept with his grandfather's "single subject focus" approach, but the photos were not his work, and he was the subject -- "naked and grotesque."   He has no idea where the photos originated, he doesn't remember having the photos taken, and they were not the object of blackmail.  His friend had collected each one as they arrived in the mail.   Starting with the photos themselves, his grandson decides that he needs to find out what he can about this "episode" that had changed his grandfather's life, setting off on a quest to discover what he can.  This is where it all turns very weird, and that is all I'm going to say about this one.   

The dustjacket notes that "Winn's Clock" and "Mommick" draw from deep wells of rural disquiet," and that's an understatement, especially with "Mommick."  The ending of "Winn's Clock" left my jaw on the floor, I'm sure, and with "Mommick," despite the darkness, it is on many levels a most poignant and very human story. It completely scared the holy bejeezus out of me while simultaneously hitting me very hard on a gut, psychological level.   "Moving the Yew" hit some deep level of resonance within, largely due to my own interests in myth, folklore and ritual, as well the author's focus on the connections between humans and the natural landscape through time.   When I closed the book after finishing it, I said to my husband that this may be the best Broodcomb book yet, but as he replied back,  "you say that about each one."   This time I'm positive.  Beyond positive.  Well beyond positive.  

So highly recommended that it's off the charts highly recommended, and anyone who has become a fan of Broodcomb and the Peninsula should definitely not miss Nocebo.  It will also appeal to readers of the strange and the weird, and quite honestly, I don't know how the author continues to produce such great, intelligent work but please, keep it coming.  

Friday, October 6, 2023

Polar Horrors: Strange Tales from the World's Ends (ed.) John Miller

British Library, 2022
340 pp


It's time for another book in the British Library Tales of the Weird series.   This time we're off to the remoteness of the Arctic and the Antarctic with Polar Horrors: Strange Tales From the World's Ends.  My geek self has a particular fascination with the history of polar exploration, which after a while led to a particular fascination with fiction set in these locations as well, so this book is tailor made.   With the exception of one story from 2019 that editor John Miller has chosen to include here, the remainder of the stories range from the 1830s through the 1940s, with the earliest in the section entitled  "North," reflecting, as Miller notes in his introduction, the "earlier arrival of the Arctic than the Antarctic into European and American writing."  

 Surprisingly, there were only two stories that I'd read before, leaving nine here that are new to me.  The first of these is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's well-known "Captain of the Pole Star," followed by Harriet Prescott Spofford's "The Moonstone Mass," in which a young man decides to attempt the Northwest Passage.  About that one, all I will say is that anyone should think twice before setting sail on a ship named Albatross, especially when heading into unknown territory.  My favorite stories (in order of appearance) begin with  "Skule Skerry" by John Buchan (1928), from his The Runagates Club, which I own but haven't yet read.   An island at  "61° latitude in the west of the Orkneys" is where this story is situated.  The narrator of this story is an ornithologist, Anthony Hurrell,  one of a group of men at a gentlemen's club in London who regale each other with their stories.   He had gone to the Norland Islands one year for the spring migration of certain birds, but unlike other people who "do the same," he had in mind something quite different.  Taking his cue from prior research he'd done and using the Icelandic Saga of Earl Skuli as a guide, he'd  found  a reference to a certain "Isle of the Birds," which was located "near Halsmarness ... on the west side of the Island of Una."  Further research nets a mention of "Insula Avivum... quae est ultima insula et proximao, Abysso," by a "chronicler of the place."  Intrigued, he made his way to Una, and finds exactly the place that had "been selected for attention by the saga-man," Skule Skerry.  He is told that it has an "ill name" --  that "Naebody gangs there," and that "the place wasna canny." While highly atmospheric, it's really all about the journey in this one.  Next on the list and deserving of top honors is the incredibly unsettling "The Third Interne" by Idwal Jones (1938), which appeared in Weird Tales in January of that year, listed as "A brief tale of a surgical horror in the Asiatic wastes of northern Russia."   As Miller notes about this tale, the setting "outside the established limits of civilisation" is perfect for the secretly- unfolding of "darker enterprises." In this story, a group of three science "internes" who had studied under Pavlov set their sights on working with "a far greater scientific man than he,"  a certain Dr. Melchior Pashev, "a brilliant worker in neurology."  Dr. Pashev, as "the third interne" relates, had once cut off a dog's head and managed to keep it alive for three years. It had "functioned beautifully," barking, drinking water, blinking its eyes "in affection," just like a normal dog despite the lack of a body. The three worked hard and saved the money they made in their jobs and finally borrowed enough to get them to Yarmolinsk, where Pashev was busy with his work.  Welcomed warmly, after a while their devotion grows to the point where it knows no bounds.  And that's about all I will say about this one, except that the ending turns things back on the reader, where he or she must judge between two alternatives.   This is one of the strangest and most eerie mad scientist stories I've ever encountered, and not only gave me the shivers but made me feel queasy.   Also deserving of high marks is  John Martin Leahy's "In Amundsen's Tent" from 1928, a story of an horrific series of events left behind in an account "set down" by Robert Drumgold, a member of the Sutherland expedition aiming to be the first to the south pole at the same time that Scott and Amundsen were vying for the same honor.  It begins with a question that asks
"What was it, that thing (if thing it was) which came to him, the sole survivor of the party which had reached the Southerrn Pole, thrust itself into the tent, and issuing, left but the severed head of Drumgold there?" 
Having discovered and read the journal left behind by Drumgold, the narrator of this story and his comrades had decided to suppress the parts that dealt with "the horror in Amundsen's tent," so as not to "cast doubt upon the real achievements of the Sutherland expedition."   But he's decided that it is now time to release it to the world, and thus his story of horror begins.  Don't be surprised if you find something familiar in this one.  

Three more stories of note,  presented here in no particular order,  deserve a mention.    Although modern (2019),  Aviaq Johnson's  " Iwsinaqtutalik Pictuc: The Haunted Blizzard" is a reminder that there is more than a measure of truth in indigenous legends, which in this case, have seemed to have been forgotten by all except children and elders, with disastrous consequences. I am always  happy to see indigenous literature in any volume, so cheers to the editor.   "A Secret of the South Pole" by Hamilton Drummond (1901) begins with a visit to a former sea captain during a downpour.  The captain loved to tell stories, and on this day, what he's about to say has to do with a strange artifact he calls "the gem of my whole kit."  If any one could tell him what it is, he has offered to give that person "the whole shanty." All he knows about it is that it's "a bit o' the South Pole" and launches into a story about how it came to be in his possession. Once upon a time he  and two fellow sailors were stuck out in the ocean  in an open boat, when they encountered a derelict ship and decided to go on board.  As he tells his attentive audience, "what came after was queer, mighty queer, that I'll admit."  No Flying Dutchman lore here, just weirdness.   Mordred Weir's "Bride of the Antarctic" (1939) centers on an "ill-fated expedition" headed by "Mad Bill Howell," who had forced his wife against her will to go with him to the coast of Victoria Land.  Legend has it that Howell was a cruel man, and during his expedition all perished during the long Antarctic night except Howell and the cook, who were both saved when the ship came to pick them up.  Now another expedition has come to the same place, where strange happenings begin just as the winter darkness falls.  

And now the difficult part, where I'm left with three stories that I just did not care for, but your mileage may, of course, vary.   To be fair, they all certainly fit the bill of "Strange Tales," they are set at one of the "World's Ends," and the main characters of these stories did technically experience some sort of polar horror, each in his or her own way.  Therefore, the editor did his job.  But  as a reader of the weird and the strange, these three just left me cold and unfazed.   In my way of thinking, the opening story of an anthology should set the tone for what's to come, making  me excited about getting to the rest.  Unfortunately, that didn't happen here.  "The Surpassing Adventures of Allan Gordon" by James Hogg started out well, but its novella length and a polar bear with the name of Nancy saving the main character's skin time after time just didn't do it for me.  Quite honestly, this isn't the story I would have led with.    "Creatures of the Night" by Sophie Wenzel Ellis and Malcolm M. Ferguson's "The Polar Vortex" are, like "The Third Interne," tales which concern themselves with rather outré science for the time, but while Jones' story had the power to seriously disturb, these two were lacking in that department.   

from my own designated British reading room

That's the thing about anthologies, though -- they truly are a mixed bag so you don't know what you're going to get.  The eight stories I did enjoy were still well worth the price of the book, so I can't complain too much.   And then there's this:  I've read and loved two other anthologies in this series edited by John Miller (Tales of the Tatttoed: An Anthology of Ink and Weird Woods: Tales From the Haunted Forests of Britain)  so if I wasn't exactly enamored with three stories  in this book, he's still provided me with hours and hours of solid reading entertainment, as has the series as a whole.