Thursday, January 20, 2022

The Death Spancel and Others, by Katharine Tynan

Swan River Press, 2020
221 pp


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

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

what the hell is a spancel?

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

another outstanding book from Broodcomb: The Settlements, by O. Jamie Walsh


Broodcomb Press, 2018
236 pp


The Settlements  is set in an area known as "The Peninsula," which, according to Broodcomb's webpage, "abounds in strange tales." It is  a place where "the settlers have found harmony," providing "tales both eerie and shocking" which also explore the "fantastic/everyday meaning of what it means to be human," and I can't begin to express how very happy I was to  be back there again.  One more thing: while the back-flap blurb notes that this book is "plotless and meandering,"  don't believe it.  

The narrator of this book is an omissioner, whose function is to "offer an ear," to serve as "a valve for the bleeding of grief or worry," in short, to be available for anyone in the Settlements who needs to have someone to talk to.  Each settlement is different, depending on the "world focus" its population espouses, and the omissioner must be able to adapt himself/herself to all of them.   For example, the settlement of Emotion 
"is a place of whiny indulgence, populated by the emotionally incontinent, the adolescent or the theatrical...The inhabitants are interested in how feelings live, how humans live within them and what emotions feel like to be inside"
 while the settlement of Fear (one of two the omissioner dreads visiting),  "focuses on visitors" and  which on entering, 
"the day darkens, which is less accident of mind or weather but achieved by light-inhibiting screens across which shapes can be projected to become shadows in the shape of raptors or devils when they touch the ground."

The narrator moves through the Settlements, going where needed and describing the places as well as the myriad issues faced by those who need him while also offering his observations on other matters both external and internal, including bits of  "mind-chatter."  That alone would make for great reading on its own, but of course, there's much, much more, with plot threads that appear and reappear, ultimately forming connections.  There's a certain Dr. Krab who has spent time exploring various patterns that lead to a startling conclusion, also channeling strange thoughts,  a murder, a strange "fox boy" with orange fur, a book entitled A History of Dice and Counter Games detailing  some of the strangest  (and macabre) games such as the deadly "Six Gates of the City" and "The Uncertain and the The Beguiled,"  as well as a rather sinister and creepy golf game.  And then there's a chapter from a new Judge Dee book, which, as an aside, I found absolutely brilliant since I  love van Gulik's Judge Dee novels. What is the significance of the number 63?   And just who is the strange and sinister woman who, impossibly, hasn't aged in twenty years but seems to be everywhere?   I haven't even mentioned the dead girl preserved in the "huge specimen jar..."  

Plotless and meandering? No way.   The Settlements is carefully and cleverly constructed, falling more on the surreal side than probably any of the Broodcomb novels that have come before, while taking a look at what it means to be human, to feel, and to make connections.     And speaking of those books that have come before, anyone who's read them will quickly notice the intertextual connections made here, especially in the case of The Night of Turns, which, in reality, I'm actually glad I read before this one.  Don't worry -- having knowledge of what happens in any of the other Broodcomb titles isn't a necessity for reading The Settlements.  

As was the case with Night of Turns, I found myself completely caught up in the strangeness and the lives of these people as well as the quirky happenings, and The Settlements also affected me on an emotional level.  I was beyond sad when this book was over, a little choked up, and left in a sort of daze just going over it again in my head once away from it.     Once again readers are warned that "This might not be for you," but by this point I know better.  

Absolutely stunning and superb.  


Monday, December 27, 2021

The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Stories, Volume Five (ed.) Christopher Philippo


Valancourt Books, 2021
257 pp


"The Christmas Party that has just listened to a ghost story would rather go on all night, drinking in fresh horrors, than separate to their cold and gloomy chambers." 

I would happily reinstate this Victorian Christmas tradition if I thought that anyone in my family would love it as much as I do, but I'm quite content to settle for just reading these old ghost stories each year on my own.  After all, as we're told in this book, 

"The telling of ghost-stories, no less than the eating of turkey and plum pudding, is inseparably connected with Christmas in the popular idea!"

 For the last five years, at least, it's just not been Christmas anymore without taking my copy of the latest of edition of Valancourt's Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories off of its shelf, and as long as they keep publishing them, I'll keep buying them.   While it's true that I have a deep fondness for ghost stories in general, what I really love about these anthologies is that I always find a few stories by authors previously unknown to me.   This year that list is nice and long -- leaving out the poems, and the one story attributed to Anonymous,  out of the remaining sixteen tales editor Christopher Philippo has selected for inclusion, there are a whopping ten (with one of these having two stories here) who are brand new to me.   That's always a bonus.   

One of those ten is Mabel Collins, whose short bio blurb reveals that she had "learned of Helena Blavatsky's occult Theosophy religion in 1881," meeting her in 1884.  In 1885, she had published a book she'd begun the year before, The Light on the Path, claiming that it had been "dictated to her by some mystic source".  A little digging reveals that this "mystic source" was the Master Hilarion, who had himself "received it from his own teacher, the Great One who among Theosophical students is sometimes called 'The Venetian.' "  Philippo notes that The Light on the Path had been "written in an astral cipher, and can therefore only be deciphered by one who reads astrally."  It's easy to see some of her beliefs embedded in her story included in this volume,  "A Tale of Mystery," in which a young man becomes beyond infatuated with a woman, leaving his friend in despair because he is absolutely certain that this woman wants to lead said young man "to his destruction."  Evidently his "suffering" has been transmitted far and wide across the spiritual plane, as he receives some help with his problem from a strange and completely unexpected source.   Another  story by a previously-unknown-to-me author is "The Siren," by Thomas Grindley, whose pen name for this piece was Magister Monensis.  Subtitled "An Adventure in Manxland," offering the clue that the location for this tale is the Isle of Man.  It seems that just before Christmas, a man who lived with his wife a few miles south of the town of Ramsey had received a telegram causing him to leave home to be with his parents due to an accident suffered by his father.  On the return journey,  along the way he finds himself in a "miserable position" in the middle of a violent storm complete with fog, and is forced to stop in the village of Old Laxley with five or six miles of "exposed road" still to travel in the darkness.  Because of an "overpowering longing to get home,"   he leaves his exhausted horse with an innkeeper and sets off on foot, with only a lantern to light his way.   During a short rest break, his attention is "suddenly arrested" by a faint sound, much like a "woman in deep distress," and he goes in search of its source.   I'll say no more, but thinking the title is a dead giveaway, I thought I'd figured out what would happen next.  I was so wrong.  

Every so often you run across fun little things the editor has unearthed in his research, for example, this article from the December 5th, 1907 edition of The Daily Mirror

informing readers that a "prominent West End real estate agent" has a "list of ancient houses which are claimed to be visited with apparitions" on hand for "many Americans and a few Englishmen" whose "beau ideal" is "spending Christmas in an old house which has the reputation of being haunted"  or 

this recipe for "how to make a Christmas story."  I love this stuff.  

For the sake of brevity, and although I didn't encounter a story I didn't like,  I'll offer just one more example, this time from someone whose work I know -- Barry Pain's "The Undying Thing,"  a story which, as the editor quotes one contemporary reviewer,  "no one should tackle after eating a plum pudding."   This story moves across generations, starting with a murder, a remarriage, a child, and a curse on the family lineage.  The sixth baronet of the Vanquerest family, Sir Edric,  "a fine young fellow and popular in the village," does his best to stop the village gossip about a certain spot called Hal's Planting, "said to be haunted by something that will not die" by sleeping there, but to no avail; evidently an ages-old curse and a legend are hot topics of conversation at the Stag.  One day, while the current Sir Edric is away from home, his friend gets word of a corpse found at Hal's Planting, and even worse, in sorting through some papers he discovers a parchment having to do with "the devil's wolves" and something far worse, far more malevolent.  Shivers.

I wish I had time to talk about each and every story in this book, but suffice it to say I had a great time reading all of them.  Once again Christopher Philippo has done an excellent job not only finding the material but also in writing his brief introductions to each and every story.  I will also say that while it's a fun book to read over the holidays, it would be a fine read at any time of the year for those people who, like me, love these older ghostly tales.  

Now I'm already looking forward to volume six ... 

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Sunless Solstice: Strange Christmas Tales for the Longest Nights (eds.) Lucy Evans and Tanya Kirk

British Library, 2021
288 pp


"Night, and especially Christmas night, is the best time to listen to a ghost story.  Throw on the logs! Draw the curtains! Move your chairs nearer the fire and hearken!"  

For me it's more a case of brewing some cardamom chai tea (with milk, of course), grabbing my favorite blanket, curling up in a cozy chair and opening a book, but I'd say the Victorians (in this case Frederick Manley) had it right:  who wouldn't love to sit in the darkness with only a roaring fire for light and listen to a ghostly tale or two?   

While there are only three stories from Victorian times in this anthology, they are three really good ones.  Frederick Manley's  "The Ghost at the Crossroads: An Irish Christmas Night Story" (1893)  kicks off this anthology, finding a Christmas party in full swing at the "snug home" of the Sweenys in Derry Goland as the winds are howling outside.  Just as it's time for the dancing to begin, with "the fun ... at its height," the revelry is interrupted by "the banshee's cry."  It's not really a banshee, of course, but a young man with a story about a strange card game with a "thing in black."  Definitely the  perfect opener for what's to come, and the weirdness doesn't end there.  Continuing on with the Victorians,  there's Lettice Galbraith's "The Blue Room" (1897) which I've read elsewhere but still love,  and last but not least, a story by American writer Elia Wilkinson Peattie,  "On the Northern Ice" from 1898.   Ralph Hagadorn is on his way to stand as groomsman to his best friend, getting a late start due to a delay caused by business.  Skating across the Sault Ste. Marie region in the dead of night where "in those latitudes men see curious things when the hoar frost is on the earth," he suddenly realizes that not only is he not alone, but that the mysterious "white skater" is leading him away from his intended path.  More than hints of the strange in this story, and we're not just talking about ghosts. 

Of the next two stories, written in the 1920s,  E. Temple Thurston's "Ganthony's Wife" (1926) is completely new to me, while I'd previously read WJ Wintle's  "The Black Cat" from its original source, Ghost Gleams: Tales of the Uncanny (1921), republished by Sundial Press in 2019.     Thurston's story, while beginning with the lament that "The custom of telling stories round the fire on Christmas is dying out," focuses on a ghost story told sitting "round a blazing wood fire" at a house party.  The teller of the tale swears it's true, and that it's definitely not for children.  Trust me, it isn't.  

The 1930s are represented here with Hugh Walpole's 1933 story from The Strand, "Mr. Huffam" which quite honestly I didn't care for and Margery Lawrence's "The Man Who Came Back" from 1935, which I very much enjoyed.   I'm a true fangirl of any story with a séance at its heart; add in a medium's warning, a reluctant spirit guide and some "decidedly non-festive revelations," and well, you have a topnotch story here.  I love Lawrence's work; in her lifetime she was, as the editors reveal, a "committed spiritualist" and member of The Ghost Club;  sadly she's somewhat underappreciated today, which is a true shame. 

from abebooks 

Bypassing the 1940s,  "The Third Shadow" by H. Russell Wakefield was  first published in Weird Tales in November 1950.  To digress a moment, to my great delight because I'm a huge fan of the goat-footed god, the cover of that edition (above) features a Pan-like figure  playing his pipe and cavorting in a forest, cloven hooves and all, with what looks to be a mountain range in the background.  That would make sense as "The Third Shadow" is a tale centered around amateur mountain climbers.  Told to an anonymous narrator by Sir Andrew Poursuivant as they sail to New York on the Queen Elizabeth, it is the story of a man named Brown, "a master in all departments, finished cragsman and just as expert on snow and ice."  It seems that Brown, in one of his reckless streaks, proposed to and married a woman named Hecate, who "made his life hell,"  and who was "a good deal heavier" than her husband.  Two years after their marriage, Brown took Hecate to the Mer de Glâce glacier for a morning of training, during which her rope broke, sending her falling into a crevasse.  Although he swears he'll never climb again,  Sir Andrew reluctantly talks Brown into a trip up the Dent du Géant,  "a needle, some thirteen thousand feet high."  It is a climb Sir Andrew says he will never make again because of what happened that June day.   Following Wakefield is Daphne Du Maurier's "The Apple Tree" (1952) which I've read more than a few times, and then there's a bizarre and rather creepy story by Muriel Spark called "The Leaf-Sweeper" (1956) about a young man who wants to abolish Christmas and whose anti-Yule rantings land him in a mental asylum.   But wait. There's more -- but I will say nothing about what happens next.  Great story, actually, and a personal favorite. 

Robert Aickman's "The Visiting Star" first published in 1966 (in Powers of Darkness: Macabre Stories) tops my list of favorites here.  It  is not the weirdest story I've ever read by this author (whose often-cryptic work I absolutely love) but strange it is all the same, employing here, as he often does, bits of the mythological, the psychological and just plain weirdness to tell the story of Arabella Rokeby, an actress who is set to make a return to the stage in a play she'd starred in years earlier in London, now being produced in an "unused and forgotten" theatre in some out of the way town.  When "the great actress" arrives accompanied by her strange companion named Myrrha, Colvin (an expert on lead and plumbago mining),  expecting an aging woman, is somewhat surprised by her youthful looks, but that's not the only strangeness to be found in this most excellent tale, a truly great choice by the editors for inclusion.  

The closing story in Sunless Solstice is from 1974 by James Turner, from his collection of stories called Staircase to the Sea : Fourteen Ghost Stories. I've looked for this book everywhere and sadly, I can't find a copy anywhere. In  "A Fall of Snow" Nicky, a boy from Cornwall, is staying at his uncle's farm in East Anglia  over the Christmas holidays while his parents are in New York; the arrival of snow both awes and terrifies him.  Why this is so I will not say, but a toboggan ride with his cousin heralds the unexpected and the strange.  

 As is the case with the other books in the British Library Tales of the Weird series, it's a true delight reading the work of past masters of the strange.  The editors of Sunless Solstice  have certainly done their research in putting together this book, leaving their readers with enough scary chills and weirdness to take them through the Christmas holidays, but as always, you don't need to limit yourself to the season to find joy in the reading.    Very nicely done, and of course, definitely recommended.    

Friday, December 17, 2021

arachnophobes beware (part 3): The Gypsy Spiders and Other Tales of Italian Horror, by Nicola Lombardi

Tartarus Press, 2021
240 pp
translated by J. Weintraub


Last year I read the first volume of The Valancourt Book of World Horror, and in their introduction the editors posed the following question to their readers:

"What if there were a whole world of great horror fiction out there you didn't know anything about, written by authors in distant lands and in foreign languages, outstanding horror stories you had no access to, written in languages you couldn't read..."?

It's a very good question; as those editors also stated, "... there's a much larger body of world horror fiction out there than any of us would suspect."    At the end of my post about that book, I noted that it is a true pity that "so much great writing is out there that remains unavailable to an English-language readership."   Valancourt, of course, has a second volume of world horror on the horizon, but I'm beyond delighted that  Tartarus has also opened the window onto that "whole great world of great horror fiction" with its publication this year of Nicola Lombardi's The Gypsy Spiders and Other Italian Horrors.  To Tartarus and to translator J. Weintraub, a huge round of applause for making this book happen.   

As Weintraub notes in the introduction to this volume, Lombardi grew up in an area of Italy the author once described in an interview as "a stewpot boiling over with folkloristic legend and dark tales of crime, filling the imagination with nightmares. "  It was also a place where "so very many ghosts" wandered "between fogs and immense desolate spaces, between woods and abandoned farmhouses." A fan of writers such as Lovecraft, Poe, Blackwood,  Bradbury, Fritz Leiber and Dino Buzzati (one of my favorite Italian authors) in his younger days, influenced as well by the stories told to him by his grandparents," Lombardi started publishing his own work in the late 80s.  

 In 2013 The Gypsy Spiders won "one of Italy's most prestigious awards for horror fiction," the Premio Polidori.  Originally published in 2010, this story (which is actually novel length) begins in  late summer of 1943, the year that an armistice with the Allies had been declared by the Italian government, a move which turned their former German allies into their enemy.  Michele, an Italian soldier now in a hospital in Albania after being wounded, decides it's time to leave the front and go home to his family.   On his return he discovers that his younger brother Marco has completely vanished, his family left suffering from the loss.  As we're told,
"He had lived next to death for months, side-by-side with it, and now that he had managed to escape and find shelter in, for him, the safest and most beloved place on earth, he realised that the horror had only preceded him there, to welcome him home."

But what he hasn't realized is that the true horror is only beginning.  

 In "Alina's Ring,"  a wounded soldier wakes up to discover himself in a farmhouse, being taken care of by a young woman named Alina.  He notices that "there was something not quite right" in her eyes; and that she "was determined to unburden herself of the thoughts that were cascading through her mind."  As they talk, he's looking for a "way out" -- and about this story I will say no more.   "Sand Castles" finds an elderly man returning to his beloved Villa Dora which he'd been away from since 1945, at age nine.    As Italy was "being rebuilt," his family took him to Bologna, where he'd rebuilt his own life right on through to retirement.  Now in his mind, it is time to go back to the Villa Dora, to give "destiny the chance to complete the plan designed for him."  When he finally arrives, he hears his old childhood pals "calling out his name..."   Weintraub notes that in these stories, it's "the actuality of the war and its aftermath that lead to madness, obsession, and significant 'collateral damage'," and in these three stories, all of  these elements scream loudly from the page.  

Six incredibly dark stories remain in this volume, nearly all of which are gut-level disturbing and much darker than I normally tend to go in the realm horror fiction, but god help me nothing short of a bomb blast in my living room would have made me put the book down while reading them.    I'll mention two here.  First, "Professor Aligi's Puppets," in which a young boy's fascination with puppet theatre takes a turn into nightmare territory, and "Striges," my favorite story in the book, which thoroughly chilled me to my bones.  In that one, a man looks  back in time to recall something he'd witnessed in his childhood that left a "kind of knotting" in his stomach (a similar reaction to my own with each step of this story, by the way) when he thought about his friend Francesco,  the "prisoner of a situation so horrible its true nature could hardly be fully understood."  As kids, Francesco and his friends were fascinated with spiritualism, flying saucers, divination and "on and on," fueling their imaginations with comic books, television, horror novels,  movies etc.  The trouble begins when Francesco reveals to his buddies that his mom is writing a "study on witches," and would be going on a trip throughout Europe.  As the narrator recalls, the boys got a bit of a charge over that, knowing that "whatever she might bring home would launch us further off the face of the earth," before offering his observations in hindsight that "she would be bringing us the burial, once and for all, of our childhood, and much worse." 

These are stories which demand more than just a quick read through, and which also need to be pondered on many levels.  While they are extremely disturbing, these stories reveal a major depth of insight into human nature on the author's part, as through his writing he makes very clear that, as noted in the introduction,  the source of evil can often be seen to stem from the "individual and collective hearts of men and women."  He doesn't have to resort to old, well-worn and tired tropes for cheap thrills here that quite honestly turn me off --  Lombardi offers his readers an eerie but sophisticated blending of the "uncanny and otherworldly" that slowly seeps not only into the lives of his characters, but under the skin of his readers at the same time. 

Absolutely brilliant and very, very highly recommended.  And Tartarus people: please consider more translated works in the future ... they would be very much appreciated.  

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Revenants and Maledictions: Ten Tales of the Uncanny, by Peter Bell


"Pulsis hinc phantasmaticis collusionibus ac diabolicis insidiis."

Sarob Press, 2018
123 pp

hardcover (read in October) 

In his Foreword to Revenants and Maledictions,  the author refers to the tales in this book as  "excursions into the uncanny."  He also lists a number of "artistes whose voice and vision echo through these stories," including Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, John Cooper Powys, MR James, Vernon Lee, Robert Aickman and many, many more; Bell also notes that the stories in this volume are presented "in tribute" to these people and all he has learned from them.  "In tribute" they may be, but Bell's voice is original enough that someday, perhaps, his work will in turn inspire an entirely new generation of writers of the strange. 

Bell's stories take place in a number of different locales  which are "largely inspired by real places" where he'd felt "a nuance of, in that inimitable German word,  the Unheimlich."   These include

"A graveyard in the Outer Hebrides. The leafy suburbs of Oxford. The Black Cullin ridge.  A strange museum in Iceland. A Manx fairy glen. A deserted Scottish isle. A Welsh woodland mansion. A haunted cottage on Skye. A pagan site on the Wirral Peninsula. A forbidden estate on Mull" 
 which together would make for a great travel destination in terms of  a "weird stories" sort of tour.  Until someone actually dreams one up, this book is a great substitute.  

 The first story, "Apotheosis," tells of the narrator's "strange experience" during a visit to a small isle in the Hebrides. Hoping to find a particular gravestone that he'd seen previously only in a photograph, he makes his way to the graveyard; it is only later after he returns to normal life that he realizes just how very strange it had been. The less said about this one the better, but it is a great tale to attune yourself to the weirdness that follows; the dustjacket art by Paul Lowe captures it beautifully.  In "The House," which is an absolutely perfect tale, three academics who are attending a conference on the Gothic novel decide to skip  "the evening plenary" and go out on their own.  They have two specific objectives in mind.  First, they plan to visit a certain pub and second,  they're on the trail of a certain "little known writer of supernatural tales" who has been dead for fifty years.  Her book of ghost stories was entitled "The House: Seven Eerie Tales," but enigmatically, there are only six stories within, none of which were called "The House."  When they eventually discover the residence where the writer lived, one of them decides to go and take a peek inside while the others wait at the pub. But when he doesn't come back ... Quite frankly, this story completely creeped me out, largely due to its headscratcher of an ending -- so much so that when the penny dropped, I could actually hear the not-so-quiet gasp coming out of my mouth. Another fine tale follows with "The Executioner."  Having been made to wait because of weather, the day finally arrives for Sara, a guide,  to take her rather impatient (and it seems, unprepared)  client Hans up a mountain in the Black Cuillin.  Let's just say that when the weather begins to change, the headstrong client failed to heed her warnings and things didn't go as planned.  There's much more to it than that of course,  but exactly what I won't say.   Moving on to Iceland, "Many Shades of Red" delves into local mythology and ghost lore as a visitor comes across the Culture House and views a bizarre painting of a doctor with "the head of a black wolf."  As the librarian tells him something about the strange history of the Culture House, she has a story of her own to tell, related to her by her grandmother, involving a red cape and the Ulfjökull region, where it is said that "the last wolf in Iceland was killed."  "The Virgin Mary Well," one of my favorites,  takes place on the Isle of Man, where a man and his young daughter are spending time at a "holiday cottage" at Ballasalla.  On their last day there, dad hopes his somewhat uninterested daughter might be willing to go with him to look for the "secret site" of a particular well dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Luck isn't with them but when they return in October, the daughter by now into things antiquarian, things turn out a bit differently. Only too late does dad learn of the warning, "Pulsis hinc phantasmaticis collusionibus ac diabolicis insidis" and only too late does he learn the strange,dark history of the place.

Hebrides graveyard, from Christopher Cores 

In  "The Island"  a man who has visited every Scottish isle accessible by ferry decides it's time to venture onto the less accessible islands. He's particularly intrigued by a deserted "small and lonely isle" by the name of Eilean Beag.  His request for transport is turned down several times, for various reasons until one lobster fisherman agrees to take him.  Warned to be back at a certain time, the fisherman leaves while the man alone to wander the island.   Unfortunately, the man misses the return time and is forced to find shelter -- and that's when the weirdness begins.  "Wild Wales" comes in the form of an event recounted decades after it happened, as an  agent for the National Trust recalls one visit to a particular home named Plaid, owned by a former star of stage and screen, now a "bit of a recluse."  Picturing  "Norma Desmond" from Sunset Boulevard, he finds himself more than surprised when he finally meets his host.  "Sithean" is the story of a couple who make their way to a cottage in Eabost West for a bit of vacation time. Immediately the narrator senses there's something wrong there, but his feeling of uneasiness is nothing compared to what's in store.  I suppose they were never told that  people should know better than to trespass into the place of the fairies.  I loved this story,  which is filled with Celtic myth and fairy lore, and I'm not talking those sweet little pixie things. In  "Blackberry Time" a man recalls his childhood visits to the home of his aunts, Combe Villa, a happy time when the family would go blackberry picking together.  As the aunts' health takes a turn for the worse, he is left alone to his adventures, and it is then he meets Freda, who is more than happy to accompany him on Thorphinsty Hill and who seems to have an in-depth  knowledge of  the area's history as well as the horrors that may still remain.  And last, but absolutely by no means least,   "The Robing of the Bride" is just downright menacing, turning up the terror to the highest degree.  Commissioned to photograph several locations for a coffee-table book called The Haunted Hebrides, Ari is reluctant at first, but soon gives in to the idea of roaming the Hebrides, "all expenses paid, visiting strange places, photographing curious antiquities."  While her editor has a specific locale in mind, Ari gains permission from the owner of  a different place, Colquhoun, where she'd heard that there were some "remarkable old Italian statues."  Her photos unsuccessful, she returns to try again; all I will reveal is that it was probably a really bad idea on her part.

When a book begins with an epigraph from Arthur Machen,  I just know it's going to be good, and I wasn't wrong here.  I love the gothic tone, the interweaving of Celtic lore and mythology, and, above all, as Ari alludes to in " The Robing of the Bride,"  the "strange interaction between the psyche and the landscape" that the author invokes in each and every one of these stories.   Do what you need to to snag a copy, because this is a book that is just perfect for those readers who love to find themselves falling down the rabbit hole of the weird and the strange.  

very highly recommended

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Keyhole, by Matthew G. Rees

Three Impostors Press, 2019
269 pp


I came across this publisher, this book and this author completely out of the blue, appropriately on Halloween when I opened an email from someone in one of my goodreads groups.  The thread title was "Recommendations," and the poster was talking about this book, saying, in part, that in writing these stories, the author combined "the mundane, the unexpected and the surreal."  Buy button pushed, book in mailbox, book read, and that description that so piqued my interest turned out to be spot on.  

The first clue as to what lies in wait for the reader comes before a single page is turned an epigraph from Arthur Machen's The London Adventure: 
"...the unspoken world is, in truth, about us everywhere, everywhere near to our feet; the thinnest veil separates us from it, the door in the wall of the next street communicates with it." 
  In Keyhole it's not London, but rather Wales where the unsuspecting may just happen to slip through that same "thinnest veil" between this world and the other.  

Rees' choice of opening story is perfect, and clearly sets the tone for the rest of these tales; it is through the eyes of his characters that we get a view of  their respective worlds within the borders of  Wales.   In "Keyhole," the mother of a young girl named Bronte with a "condition that meant she had to be kept from the light" finds a way to brighten her daughter's life by introducing kingfishers into the confined environment of the family home The Fosse, complete with "reeded moat."  They are released "to the light" every other day, young Bronte following their flight out of the conservatory's French windows via an arrangement of doors and keyholes.  Years later, returning home, Clive Theaxton makes straight away for Bronte's home  but finds everything strangely different.  Let's just say we're only one story done at this point,  but dark, disturbing and thoroughly discombobulating, I knew I had a winner of a book here.  I wasn't wrong. 

Given that there are eighteen stories in this book, describing even briefly the remaining seventeen would take a while, so I'll hit my personal favorites.   The setting for "Rain" is a farm named "The Joy" where two children live with their parents, who have decided that they want "nothing to do with the world." They live off the grid, with no modcons; looking back on it all, the son notes that his upbringing and that of his sister had been a bit on the "feral" side.   All is well in this place, their own "small piece of Wales," until the rain stops; when their "problems began."   And indeed, what problems they are.  Yikes!  Moving on,  I'll never hear the tongue-twister "she sells seashells by the seashore" in the same way again after reading "I've Got You," which follows a young widow living with her little son along the coast, her husband having recently died in a most horrific way.  At first she's charmed when her little  boy creates an entire man from seashells (one she names Percy Shelley) followed by a wife, but things start to take a strange turn one day... and that's all I'll say about that one.  One of the great things about this and most of the other stories in this book is that sometimes there seems to be more than just a brief peek into the characters' psyches that adds another entire layer of depth and meaning to the reading, in this case also adding a measure of poignancy that almost made me cry.   I was so disturbed by this story that it was at this point that Keyhole became a daytime rather than nighttime read.  "Bluecoat" is another favorite, in which a young couple leaves their city life for a sheep farm that sits next to an older manor home once requisitioned as a wartime hospital.  Everything seems to be on the idyllic side until winter sets in, but I won't say much about this one (to do so would just be criminal)  except that the boundaries between past and present seem to mean nothing here.  Very nicely done, this one, which also left me feeling like I wanted to cry.    "The Press" is another excellent story, again set on a farm, involving a farmer, a flower press and a strange group of people led by a boy on a piebald horse.  Absolutely gorgeous in the writing, it's the incredibly visual, horrific ending that got to me this time ... oh my god. 

from Nation Cymru

The remainder of these stories are also quite good, quite unlike anything I've read, and are set in what seem to be normal locales to the outsider.  The closer you get, however, the stranger things become -- for example, a pub that appears and disappears, a mine complete with its own set of ghostly horses, an old wartime submarine discovered under the sands, crew and all, ready for their mission... on and on goes the weirdness. 

As the back-cover blurb notes, "Keyhole is a dark world where extraordinary stories gleam."  In an interview with the author , he notes that in this book, 
"Wales is not seen in a literal way, as if captured by a camera. Instead, it is quite often viewed at a slant ... presented askew."
True as that statement might be, the visions offered of Wales here capture the seasons, the weather, the people and the landscape; it is a place where time gone by bleeds into the present and quite often magic presents itself in many different forms.    In that same interview, the author says that his intention is that the reader "always keep one foot in our own recognisable world,"  while "tentatively stepping into another, adjoining world."  No disappointments here at all.   As with any other collection of stories, there are some that range from the great zone and move on down, but there is not one in the bunch that I didn't like; among the darkest of these you will also find some that will bring on a bit of a chuckle.   An absolutely wonderful collection of stories that I enjoyed so much that I bought another book by the same author just a few stories into this one.  

With only a few minor exceptions, I've had a fantastic weird reading year, and Keyhole just made it better.  Considering I'd never heard of this author before Halloween, well, that tells you what you need to know.