Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Robert Hichens -- three of three -- The Folly of Eustace and Other Satires and Stories


Stark House Press, 2024
224 pp


I've finally come to the last of the three volumes of Hichens stories I'd set out to read,  and to my very great surprise there isn't one supernatural or even supernatural-ish tale in the bunch. As ST Joshi notes in his introduction, the stories here "exhibit the broad range" of Hichens' writing "outside the realm of weird fiction." While it doesn't quite fit with the general intention of this section of my reading journal,  I've decided to go on and post about this book here anyway, since I had intended these latest three volumes as a unit.  All of these stories are centered around women and the men in their respective orbits. 

The title story definitely sets the tone for what is to come.   At the young age of sixteen, Eustace Lane had chosen which mask he would wear in life.  As the author notes, 
"Some men deliberately don a character in early youth as others don a mask before going to an opera ball.  They select it not without some care, being guided in their choice by the opinion they have formed of the world's mind and manner of proceeding." 
His idea was that he would take on the world as a buffoon, to be worn in the "great masquerade." He had overheard a master at Eton describe him as seeing "the peculiar side of everything with a curious acuteness," with life presenting itself to him "in cariacture."  From the moment he made his choice, he began a "pilgrim's progress toards the pages of Vanity Fair," believing that the men featured in that magazine were "celebrated because they were preposterous."  He begins to act the part, and becomes the talk of London. Unfortunately, he doesn't quite understand that most masquerades eventually end. Irony of all ironies to be found here.  My favorite story is incredibly short but says all that it needs to.  In  "A Boudoir Boy," twenty-something, self-proclaimed decadent Claude Melville remarks to his friend that is "impossible to be young," noting that he was "middle-aged at ten," and now he's done everything he "ought not to have done."  His friend has just the ticket -- his sixty-four year old aunt would be perfect for teaching him "the art of being young."   Off to the countryside in Northamptonshire he goes, where he'll spend the week, and to his surprise, the aunt decides that she would like to learn to be decadent.  And so, the lessons begin ...  "The Lift" is downright ghastly, and sort of underscores the majority of the stories here.  In Naples, the narrator becomes acquainted with a man he calls "The Potentate," who was "a Brazilian, a doctor, a publicist, journalist, politician, millionaire."  He was also a "friend of presidents," and had "been instrumental in overthrowing governments and placing his nominees in positions of autocratic power."  On the narrator's first sight of this man, he barely noticed the Potentate's wife, since his "strong personality" had "practically effaced her," along the lines of a "small plant" being effaced by a "mighty rock" ... "meekly sproutiing in its shadow."  The Potentate refers to her as a "package" which has ruined his life and which he has to drag all over the world, complaining loudly about her lack of understanding any language except Portuguese. He also threatens to kill her, which the narrator finds appalling.  But the true horror of the situation is impressed on the narrator only while he and Mrs. Potentate are stuck in an elevator together.  

While the book is different from those I've read by this author so far, as always, the stories, including the ones I haven't mentioned here, are fascinating, not simply for a look at the times, but also because, as Joshi so appropriately notes, "Human character never changes very much from century to century."  And even though Hichens does not use the vehicle of the weird/strange tale to do so here, the stories in this book continue his work in examining human nature and the troubled souls that fill a society.  Pay careful attention to the women in this volume -- what they actually communicate speaks volumes, even if, as in (as just one example) "The Lift," the male of the species can't always seem to understand them.  While the stories are short, there is some bit of patience required by the reader because of  style, but as I'm so fond of saying, getting to the heart of the story is well worth the time.  

My many thanks, once again, to the fabulous people at Stark House. 

Saturday, February 3, 2024

Robert Hichens -- two of three -- How Love Came to Professor Guildea and Other Uncanny Tales


Stark House Press, 2023
241 pp


Back again with the second entry in my three volumes of tales by Robert Hichens published by Stark House.  This time, as S.T. Joshi notes in his introduction, these stories seem to hinge on a "crucial, life-altering decision" made by certain characters and the responses of the people in their immediate orbits.   As was the case in the first volume, The Black Spaniel and Other Strange Stories , this book is filled with a number of very troubled psyches, more than a couple of supernatural happenings and several people in crisis. 

Beginning with the longer, novella-sized tales, once again it's the title story that pops in this volume.  Professor Frederic Guildea is a "hardworking, eminently successful man of big brain and bold heart," but he has "neither time nor inclination for sentimentality" and a "poor opinion of most things, but especially of women."  His friend Father Murchison is the opposite, with a "special sentiment for all, whether he knew them or not."  In conversation with Guildea, Murchison points out that "those who do not want things often get them, while those who seek them vehemently are disappointed in their search,"  to which the professor answers that he "ought to have affection poured upon me," because he hates it.  And that's exactly what happens, but with a catch: he can't see who it is that has invaded his home and loves him so desperately, or perhaps what it is.   To offer more about this story would just be wrong, except to say that given certain clues offered throughout the narrative, I have to disagree with ST Joshi's interpretation in his introduction that it is "the ghost of a woman" whose love so irritates and haunts the Professor.   "A Tribute of Souls"  plays on the Faustian theme, appearing as a narrative written by the young Laird of Carlounie and  "found among his papers," an account written by a young man living under a "brooding darkness that fell latterly upon his mind."  The villagers thought one thing about the "flaming deed that he consummated" and "its appalling outcome," but perhaps the truth is actually stranger than anyone could have even begun to surmise.  The   Laird of Carlounie felt he had been "pursued by a malady of incompetence," "bruised and beaten by Providence," and hated everyone around him.  One day, while "engrossed" in Goethe's Faust by the burn on his estate, a voice came out of the water saying "If it was so then, it might be so now," followed later by the appearance of a mysterious "grey traveller" who tells that he must pay a "tribute of souls to the Caesar of Hell" -- three to be exact.  In return, he will reap the reward he seeks, in short, to become a very different, stronger man.   A fine story, for sure; if it actually happened as he recorded it, well, that's for the reader to discern.    The third longish story which comes at the end is "The Lost Faith," which I'm sorry to say I didn't care for all that much.  Had the reward been greater, I might possibly excuse how long it took to get to that point, but it was a bit on the anti-climatic side when all is said and done; I suppose all of the years I've spent reading crime helped me to figure things out well before the end came.  A young woman by the name of Olivia Traill realizes early on that she has some sort of strange power without being able to define it until the age of seventeen, when she is able to cure a classmate, Lily, of her affliction.  If Lily would just believe that Olivia can cure her, putting her faith in Olivia's abilities, then it will be so.  And it was, resulting in a lot of attention for Olivia and her "peculiar gift."   As she often said to those who came to her,
"I believe that I can cure you, and you must believe it too. Then we shall work together, and all must go well,"

implying a sort of "reciprocal faith" between the two parties.  She moved into the big time with her cure of a young man by the name of Fernol West, "the only child of one of the greatest financiers in America," whose horse had bolted, leaving him with a head wound. His physical injuries had healed, but he was left with no "zest for life," living in utter misery.  As this story opens, Olivia has come to England, followed by West, her greatest supporter.   She faces her truest test, however, after healing a certain Miss Burnington, who is plagued by horrific headaches, when Miss Burnington's brother, Sir Hector, is stricken with a mysterious illness.  Faith vs. science is one aspect of this tale,  but suffice it to say there is a very real psychic disturbance at play here.   

The young Laird of Carlounie from Internet Archive

The shorter stories in this volume were actually quite good, with only one venturing into the realm of the supernatural, "The Lady and the Beggar." The story opens on a note of complete bafflement as to why the extremely heartless and uncharitable Mrs. Errington, who had an extreme "hatred of the poor," has suddenly bequeathed her substantial fortune to "the destitute of London."   Her son is the only one who knows and it's highly likely he will never tell.   Two of the remaining three, "The Collaborators" and  "The Man Who Intervened" capture troubled souls at their most raw,  while "The Spinster" seems a bit mismatched with the other tales in this book, but is still edgy and intruiging.  

Once again, the stories in this volume may read on the long-winded side and can be bit overblown on the prose, which, given the time in which they were written should not be surprising, but as I said to someone just yesterday, the reward is in honing in on the story itself.  I happen to enjoy these older tales so very much that doing that is not too difficult, although I must admit that of the two of these volumes I've read so far, my preference is still The Black Spaniel and Other Strange Stories.  Not to worry though;  How Love Came to Professor Guildea and Other Uncanny Tales is close on its tail, and I can certainly recommend it to like-minded readers of the weird and the strange.   My many thanks to Stark House for reviving these tales and putting them into book form.  Now on to book three, The Folly of Eustace and Other Satires and Stories.  

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Robert Hichens -- one of three -- The Black Spaniel and Other Strange Stories

"These occult things can't always be told of, even when they are known." 

Stark House Press, 2023
245 pp


Not too long ago the very good people at Stark House Press sent me an ARC of a forthcoming collection of stories by Robert Hichens (1864-1959) entitled  The Folly of Eustace and Other Satires and Stories.  [As a quick sidebar, his name may also be found under the name of Robert Smythe-Hichens, changed to distance himself from the  quartermaster who was at the helm of the ill-fated Titanic.]   I first got a bee in my bonnet about Hichens after reading his "The Face of the Monk" (1897; included in this volume) some time ago, so when I saw that Stark House had published two volumes of this author's short stories, I had to have them, so that ARC is beyond appreciated.    Although he might be a bit purply in the prose department and long in the writing, the man could definitely spin a fine yarn.   He also excels in troubled souls -- this book is riddled with them.  

The title story (and my personal favorite of this bunch) is  "The Black Spaniel" (1905), a novella-length, dark and atmospheric tale that begins as our narrator (Luttrell) introduces two of his friends, Vernon Kersteven and Dr. Peter Deeming,  to each other while on holiday in Italy. Within a short space of time,  the three men become engaged over dinner in a conversation about a particular book written by a woman who also happens to be at the restaurant that evening.  Deeming finds it "wrongheaded and sentimental," noting that the author "appears to wish to elevate the animals above humanity, to take them out of their proper place."  Kersteven, on the other hand, has a great love for animals and cannot abide animal cruelty, saying that he has "known the longing to turn one whom I have been seen being cruel to a pet animal into that animal, and to be his master for a little while."   Deeming reveals that he has a black spaniel; Kersteven reveals that his dog, also a black spaniel,  had been stolen and sold to a place in London that "kept on hand" animals which eventually ended up under the vivisectionist's knife. Later he reveals his belief to Luttrell that intuition tells him that Deeming is cruel, and that he is sure that Deeming's own dog is suffering at the doctor's hands; he wants to actually see the dog for himself.  When he comes to London for that very purpose, things not only make a shift to the strange, but venture completely off into the deep end of weirdness.  I can't divulge too much about this particular story; let me just say that it was well beyond creepy.  Although the ending might be a bit on the foreshadowed side, had this been the only story in this volume, it still would have been worth what I paid for the book.     The second longish tale is  "The Hindu" from 1919.  The opening paragraph reveals that this story was related to the narrator by a London doctor who was a  "famous specialist in nervous diseases," who often tells "stories of the people who consult him," leaving out their real names.  The narrator  has collected some of these "cases" in a book; he is the one who gave the story its title.   After a "great pother about psychical research," a professor "launched an attack" on an investigator for the Psychical Research Society in the paper owned by one of these consultees, the owner, Mr. Latimer, decides to look into "psychic matters" for himself. His wife is a devotee of such things, so without her knowledge, and along with one of his investigators, Latimer attends a sitting with a psychic.  At first the "messages" he received were, as he phrased it, "sheer bunkum," until he got one about his wife.  That's when his troubles begin.  Although he tells the investigator that he didn't believe a word the medium had said, he decides to look into things.  According to what was heard at the sitting via a spirit named Minnie Hartfield, his wife had fallen out of love with him for some time, and she had "come under the influence of an Indian, a Hindu" by the name of Nischaya Varman.  It seems that Minnie had become Varman's mistress, but he'd dumped her when he'd met Mrs. Latimer, but Latimer does not want to bring any of this up with his wife.   It also happens that Varman (known throughout this tale as "The Hindu") had died three months earlier and at the next sitting with the psychic, comes through to speak to him for just a few moments.  Since that time, no matter where he goes or what he does, "The Hindu" is never far behind, but strangely, nobody else can see him.   In the final story in this volume, "Sea Change" (1900),  Sir Graham Hamilton, "a great sea painter," has left London to stay for a bit on a "little isle set lonely in a harsh and dangerous northern sea." It is the home of the Rev. Peter Uniacke, who had come to the island hoping to forget about a certain woman who had "disappeared" from his life.  Inviting Hamilton to stay with him, little by little Uniacke draws out the story of why Hamilton seems so haunted, and why he is "curiously persecuted by remorse." The reverend realizes that Hamilton will find exactly what he seeks on the island, and takes steps to ensure that he doesn't.  This one is an awesome ghost story, more poignant than frightening but still creepy enough to chill the blood.

The shorter stories are also well done, all with more than just a tinge of the supernatural.  As mentioned, "The Face of the Monk" is here, as are "The Silent Guardian" which would have been right at home in Henry Bartholomew's recent (and excellent)  anthology The Living Stone: Stories of Uncanny Sculpture (Handheld Press, 2023),  "Demetriaidi's Dream" from 1929 in which an elderly man dreams of horrible happenings in each and every room of the hotel where he's staying and "The Lighted Candles" from 1919, a dark tale of revenge and of course, ghostly happenings.

 Major applause to Stark House for putting these stories back into print.  I can most certainly recommend it very highly.   At the moment I am just on the edge of finishing a second Stark House volume of Hichens' tales, How Love Came to Professor Guildea and Other Uncanny Tales, which is also fantastic.  The Black Spaniel and Other Strange Stories is a delight for fans of older darkness (especially the title story),  and while the writing is definitely best left to the most patient readers and true-blue admirers of strange,  the stories themselves are created such that the horror contained within them slowly escalates, drawing the reader in deeper and deeper by the moment. They also delve deeply into the inner realm of the human psyche, which may be just as frightening.    It does take some time to get fully into these stories before the weirdness begins, but I didn't mind at all --  the wait was well worth it.   

I will be posting about How Love Came to Professor Guildea next week -- so far I'm loving it.