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.  

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

The Between, by Tananarive Due


Harper Perennial, 1996
276 pp


I'm late to the party that is Tananarive Due's work, and as I often do when I find an author I like, I am absolutely kicking myself for not 
finding her sooner.  This book, The Between, had me on serious pins and needles most of the way through.  

This post will be a bit on the shorter side, since really, it would be very, very wrong to say too much about what goes on here.  However, the first two lines in the book ought to signal right away that this story will be anything but run of the mill:
"Hilton was seven when his grandmother died, and it was a bad time. But it was worse when she died again."  
That second time, Hilton and his Nana had been at the beach at a gathering of family members when Hilton was caught up in a dangerous rip current. His grandmother plunged in to save him, but died in the process, sacrificing his life for hers.    Now a man with his own family, Hilton James feels he owes it to his Nana's memory to help save other people, and he does this through his work running a rehab center in Miami.  He's married to Dede (pronounced Day-day),  a newly-elected circuit-court judge, the "only black woman in Dade with that title," and they have two children, Kaya and Jamil. Everyone is happy, things are great all around.   But that all changes when Dede receives horrible, racist, hate-laden death threats and the sender begins stalking the family.  Aside from needing to protect his family from this monster,  Hilton's own life descends into complete turmoil when he starts having bizarre nightmares that grow increasingly stranger and more frightening.  He's also plagued by a string of strange experiences that he doesn't understand, which to the people in his orbit make him seem as if he's seriously coming unglued.  As Hilton begins to question his own sense of reality,  his internal chaos also begins to pull him away from his family at a time when they need him more than ever.  He knows he should find some sort of help, but, as one of the characters notes, "the systems from the mundane world are not equipped to deal with the metaphysical."  

I really do wish I could say more, but even the slightest hints about what happens here will wreck the experience.  I get that my description sounds a bit tame and doesn't really scream horror novel, but this book disturbed me to no end.  It was a bit like falling into a mind that seems to be unraveling right before your eyes and having no way to escape, with death at the center of it all.  The author also explores grief and loss, mental illness, and the very real horrors of white supremacy and racist hate, which make their presence known throughout the novel in different forms.

 The back-cover blurb says that The Between  "holds readers suspended between the real and the surreal," and that's exactly what happened with me.    It is one of the most hauntingly creepy books I've experienced this year, with Hilton's sense of shifting realities transferring directly from the  book to my head so completely that I was thrown off throughout.  Without any hesitation at all I can strongly recommend this book, but do yourself a huge favor beforehand and stay away from any book review that wants to give away the show.  

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Ghosts, by R.B. Russell


Swan River Press, 2021
189 pp


The other night I grabbed this book on my way up to bed, promising myself to read only three stories before turning off the light and calling it a day.  I should have limited myself to two -- when I finished the third one, "In Hiding,"  my first thought was "did I just read what I thought I read?" so I had to go through it again. By that point I was wide awake, so it was "just one more," and before I knew it I'd gone through all six stories.  Who needs sleep anyway?

The spotlight in this collection shines on its players.  As Mark Valentine in his excellent introduction notes, Russell's people are "often rather gauche, hesitant interlopers in a contemporary world that does not quite work for them."  They are also "already ill at ease with themselves, with others, with the world before any hint of the inexplicable comes on the scene."   This idea makes itself manifest from the very beginning, but I'll go straight to my favorite story first,  the above-mentioned "In Hiding."  Here a disgraced MP, The Right Honourable David Barrett, decides to get away from it all and takes refuge in the small Greek fishing village of Arkos.  It's only day two when he is recognized, by Taylor,  a fellow countryman, who owns and has been living on a small island named Elga,  just off the coast.  He too had left England "under a cloud," and invites Barrett to visit the following day.  Barrett is met early next morning by Simon, who also lives on Elga and who takes Barrett there by boat; it's what happens next that throws everything off kilter, and not just solely for  the reader.   I believe this is one of the finest short stories I've ever read; it was also nominated in 2010 for a World Fantasy Award.  As I said earlier, don't be surprised if you read it and want to right away read it again. 

   Moving back to table-of-contents order, the collection opens with "Putting the Pieces in Place."  When he was about fourteen, out taking a walk in the summer sun,  Neil Porter hears "yearning, longing music" floating in the air, and looking for its source, comes across a party of people "like in Le Grand Meaulnes" just in time to hear the music stop. As he watches, he sees a young woman in a "white flowing dress" pick up her violin and began playing again. It was a moment in time he'll always remember, and since then he has become obsessed, hoping to recreate that moment somehow by collecting her music, her instruments, and even her house, but there's one thing of Emily Butler he doesn't yet have.  He does, however, know a way to get it.   Mark Valentine notes about this story that it is a "subtle meditation on our tendency to enshrine the past instead of engaging with the present."  In  many ways, this story also sets the tone for the rest of what follows.   Moving on, "There's Nothing I Wouldn't Do" follows a young PhD student in Odessa where she had decided to study the work of a famous architect there.  International travels on her own are nothing new for this woman, and she has taken her time learning about and working in her chosen profession before moving on for the doctorate.    After leaving Ukraine and returning home for Christmas, she reveals to a friend that she was somewhat nervous about going back; her story as given  begins  when she meets another student studying English who falls in love with her.  She, however, toys with him, leading to a very one-sided  affair that will, when all is said and done, have major (and completely unexpected)  consequences.   Trust me when I say that this story is a serious jaw-dropper.  

Moving on to story number four, "Eleanor" is the name of a character in a book created by David Planer twenty years earlier; since then she's gone through a few iterations ever since via television, graphic novels and computer games in the hands of people who had "explored sides of her personality" the author had "not even dreamed of."   The original Eleanor was never meant to be a science fiction character, but now at the sci-fi convention where David is speaking,  it's not so out of place to see someone dressed as Eleanor.  David, however, believes that this is his Eleanor, a belief that persists despite his assistant's assurances otherwise.   A truly gorgeous and most poignant story, it captures, as Valentine notes, the mind's "pride in its one creation," that the creator clings to until the end.   I realize that this trope in some form has been done many times, but certainly not as it is written here.   On the more depressingly sad side of things is "Disposessed," in which a young woman's rather empty life has been a series of things going very wrong, punctuated each time by the idea that "It had happened again."  But one  more thing finally materializes when she becomes trapped in an untenable situation, and that's all I will say, except that the ending of this one is a shocker.  

"Bloody Baudelaire," which closes this collection,  is novella length and I swear, there came a point at which I couldn't help but think of The Picture of Dorian Gray while reading it.  Lucian Miller and his girlfriend Elizabeth come to Cliffe House as a getaway before they both go on to University, invited to stay by Lucian's school friend Adrian. Lucian loves the atmosphere of the house, its "decay and grandeur."   The house actually belongs to Miranda, Adrian's sister, and her partner Gerald, a painter with a beyond-pretentious attitude who has an annoying habit of quoting "bloody Baudelaire," which ticks off Miranda to no end.  As this very long and rather boozy night goes on, Lucian becomes involved in a bizarre card game with Gerald; an argument ensues between his hosts, and the next day Elizabeth leaves before Lucian wakes up and Gerald has disappeared altogether, leaving Lucian and Miranda alone.  What happens next borders on the dark stuff of nightmares, and I won't go there.  A brilliant story, one of my favorites in this book.

The description of this book in part says that the stories in Ghosts make for a "disquieting journey through twilight regions of love, loss, memory and ghosts."  This collection of strange tales  is my introduction to the shorter fiction of Ray Russell, and I have to say that I am absolutely in awe of the talent this man displays here, not just in the writing (which is excellent)  but also in the depths he reaches in his characters, allowing their often-troubled souls to surface.  As the blurb notes,  "you are likely to come away with the feeling that there has been a subtle and unsettling shift in your understanding of the way things are," a promise made and kept.  

very highly recommended.  Many thanks to Brian at Swan River Press as well. 

Saturday, October 23, 2021

The Night of Turns, by Edita Bikker*


Broodcomb Press, 2021
184 pp


 Another stunning and truly sublime book from Broodcomb, The Night of Turns is unlike anything I've read before.  It's very likely that I'll never read anything like it again, so I feel extremely fortunate to have a copy.  As it stands, Upmorchard (which I read earlier), has sold out completely, so yes indeed I feel lucky that I bought my books when I did.  

The blurb states that 
"The Night of Turns" is a narrative of folk horror, a record of the author's experiences in a land where theatre is used as a weapon, and lives are forfeit in a sinister game of spiritual roulette. "  

And, as the usual Broodcomb warning states, 

"It might not be for you."

Oh, but it most certainly was for me, from page one on as Edita, who narrates this story, crosses "the border" from the settlements into another place altogether via a tunnel.  She encounters a man who asks her the name of her caravan, and discovering she is alone, tells her that she needs "to belong somewhere."  As she makes her way through a number of wagons on the path, she decides to go with the Caravan of Burnt Women, where "no one's turned away." She is welcomed by these travellers, from whom she learns that the number of hours they walk each day is determined by "the game."  It seems that "everyone engages with the game," with the travellers each taking their turn at different intervals, the game never stopping.    The caravans never stop either, traveling a defined circuit with designated resting points along the way.   While each of the caravans is different from the other, they all fall under the aegis of a strange entity called The Beekeeper.

just one of many game boards from the novel

When the caravan comes to the end of its determined hourly travels, if there happens to be another Caravan at the same stopping place, then a "Night of Turns" is called for, in which members of each of the two regales the other with bizarre entertainments.  These are far from relaxing hours of funtime or escape; they are, in fact, deadly serious, nightmarish with purpose.  

As Edita becomes more entrenched with the Caravan of Burnt Women,  she observes, questions and falls into daily life  with other members of this group, but it becomes  clear after a while that her travels with the caravan have ultimately become parts of her own inner journey.   

The above is just an uber-brief synopsis, because a) I could never do full justice to this novel and b) if I say much more it will detract from potential readers' enjoyment of  this book and that would be a crime. It is also difficult to pigeonhole this book --  "folk horror" just isn't enough of a label to categorize it.   In The Night of Turns, the author has created an intense and completely-actualized world that incorporates among other things mythology, esoteric knowledge, magic and the fantastic; at the same time, he keeps the reader drawn into and completely engaged with the story with his strong, realistic  characterization.  There are several places where the author introduces somewhat puzzling utterances and  events that seem to come out of nowhere, only to be taken up later on where the context is more fully understood, creating a richness of depth to the narrative  as it continues to expand.  There is also an ongoing sense of foreboding and downright nightmare as you make your way through this novel, with a sense of unseen horrors and the uncanny always nearby,  leading to much page turning and a tension that takes root in the mind and body and won't let go until the end.  

This is my third foray into the phenomenon that is Broodcomb Press, and jeezus H., if these three books are representative of the future output of this publisher, I'll be one of their best customers as long as they keep producing.    I most strongly recommend this novel -- as I said, it is like nothing that's come before.  And that's a very good thing. 

*and Jamie Walsh

Monday, October 11, 2021

Weird Woods: Tales From the Haunted Forests of Britain (ed.) John Miller


British Library, 2020
238 pp


I've gushed many a time over the books in the British Library Tales of the Weird series over the last few years so I won't do that here -- suffice it to say that I've never been disappointed with any of these books and my current read,  Weird Woods: Tales from the Haunted Forests of Britain, is no exception.  The editor, John Miller, is also responsible for one of my favorites in the series, Tales of the Tattooed.  This time, however, he turns to 
"tales of whispering voices and maddening sights from deep in the Yorkshire Dales to the ancient hills of Gwent and the eerie quiet of the forests of Dartmoor." 

No teddy bears' picnics here; instead there are twelve tales which celebrate "the enduring power of our natural spaces to enthral and terrorise our senses."  

The names listed in the table of contents are familiar to any aficionado of strange or ghostly  tales from yesteryear, here ranging from the 1880s through the 1930s.  Aside from Arthur Machen's "N" which I will gladly read any time, two stories top my list of favorites: E.F. Benson's "The Man Who Went Too Far" and Algernon Blackwood's beyond excellent "Ancient Lights."  The first is set in the New Forest of Hampshire, where one "gets the sense that many presences and companions are near at hand."  The people of the village of St. Faith's know well enough not to "willingly venture" there after dark since
"it seems that a man is not sure in what company he may suddenly find himself..."
 Indeed, it may be the ghost of a young artist, recently deceased, haunting a "certain house, the last of the village, where he lived."  But this is not a haunted house story by any stretch; it seems that the artist, a certain Darcy, has been engaged in "the deliberate and unswerving pursuit of joy,"  but what starts out as an ode to the blissful wonders of the natural world soon takes a darker turn.    Spending years communing with nature, it is his belief that will ultimately become one with it -- and then he hears the "sound of life," aka the pipes of Pan.   At first fearful, he eventually comes around; now, as he tells his friend, there's one more step -- a  "final revelation."   Lots of covert subtext in this story, and it's truly one of the best in the book.  There is also much to discover in Blackwood's "Ancient Lights," which highlights one of the main themes in much of his work -- the insignificance of humans among the towering presence of nature.   A surveyor's clerk looks forward to a "day of high adventure" as he enters a "copse of oak and hornbeam" near Southwater, Sussex, and gets that and more as well.   The owner of that wood has decided to cut this area down for a "better view from the dining-room window," and the clerk is there ahead of the project.   The trees, though,  have other ideas.  

from A Bit About Britain

I came across three stories new to me. First, "An Old Thorn," by WH Hudson, set in the South Wiltshire Downs focuses on a tree described by the editor as "the Satanic double" of the famous Glastonbury thorn.  This particular tree has a very long memory, forgetting absolutely nothing, no matter how much time has passed.   Next is the atmospheric, very nicely told "The White Lady," by Elliott O'Donnell, represented as a true story by the narrator, who as a boy decides to hide in a tree one night to see the infamous White Lady of Rownam Avenue.  He gets much more than he bargains for.  Last but by no means the least of these, in Mary Webb's "The Name-Tree," it is said of the name tree that if it dies,"you die. If you sicken, the tree withers. If you desert it, a curse falls."  After seeing the "real, vital savage passion" young Laura has for her much-beloved cherry orchard, the site of her name tree, the new owner of Bitterne Hall laments that it's all wasted on nature.  It seems that he too has developed quite a passion, not for nature but for Laura.  He offers her a deal as a way to keep the house, the orchard and her name tree, but there will be a cost.  So very good, but oh, so harrowing at the same time. As the editor reveals, this is a story in which "patriarchal authority" is "painfully amplified among trees."  

The remainder of these stories in this volume  I've read before -- Edith Nesbit's "Man-Size in Marble," "The Striding Place," by Gertrude Atherton, "He Made a Woman --," by Marjorie Bowen, "The Tree," by Walter de la Mare, and "A Neighbour's Landmark," by M.R. James -- but no matter, since all are well worth reading again.   

As Miller notes in his introduction,
"Haunted woods are places where narrative and environment are merged, where the imagination and landscape are rooted together,"

and this theme as well as others runs through each and every story in this book.  In some cases the idea of "woods" might seem a bit stretched, but it didn't matter to me.   Just reading these tales brought back many moments I've spent in forests both day and night, remembering all of the creaks and groans of the trees, the crackle of movement by woodland creatures, and the sense of being in an unworldly place where the sky is hard to see through the canopy.  Recommended mainly to those readers who, like me, love these older creepy stories from the past, and to those readers who are fans of the British Library Tales of the Weird series in general.     Don't miss the introduction (but do save it until the end), and be sure to check out the cover art as well.

I'm now psyched for a cool day and a hike through the woods -- and for whatever I may encounter there.  

Monday, October 4, 2021

The Villa and the Vortex: Supernatural Stories, 1916-1924 by Elinor Mordaunt (ed.) Melissa Edmundson


Handheld Press, 2021
306 pp


Melissa Edmundson is the editor of two volumes of weird stories of yesteryear written by women, Women's Weird: Strange Stories by Women, 1890-1940 and Women's Weird 2: More Strange Stories by Women, 1891-1937.  I have both of those books (and I'll be reading at least the first volume this month),  so when I first heard about this one, I made a quick hit on the preorder button.  I was not at all disappointed; in fact, reading The Villa and The Vortex gave me hours of pleasure.  

From the editor's introduction:

"Elinor Mordaunt is responsible for an eclectic and wide-ranging output of supernatural fiction that rivals the best writing by her contemporaries.  Yet in the decades following her death in 1942, Mordaunt was neglected and largely forgotten as an author, her work omitted from the subsequent anthologies that helped to ensure the reputations of fellow writers."  She continues, saying that "This major voice within the supernatural genre has been neglected for far too long, and it is time that her work returned to a wider audience."  As the editor also notes, "Mordaunt's short stories showcase a variety of otherworldly, supernatural entities as she drew inspiration from folklore, myth, legend, and history."   Most definitely my kind of book and my kind of writer. 

While  I won't be going through every story here, I will shine a light on my favorites, beginning with  "The Weakening Point"  from 1916, which opens this collection.    While birthdays are normally occasions for celebrations, it seems that for Bond Challice, they are met with a most particularly horrific and recurring nightmare. The situation has been ongoing since his first birthday, and every year since then, the approach of the day causes him abject fear, which in turn leads to outright paralysis.  It's more than crippling: his terror  prevents him from living life to its fullest and leads to changes to his personality.  His parents are in complete despair, having watched him suffer; as his father says at one point, "A Challice -- the last of all the Challices -- to go to hell for a dream!"  Tension builds slowly in this one, and by the time Bond decides it's time to face his fear, well, I don't mind saying that I was on the edge of my chair.  Jeez, I wish I could say more about this one, but all I will reveal is that the ending tipped this story into the weird zone for sure.    My vote for most frightening story in this volume is "Luz," from 1922, which is set in London and begins with a young woman with a strange dislike and fear of a particular blind man who passes by her flat at a regular time each night.  Normally, she says, she has always felt "acute sympathy" for "all who are maimed and defrauded; above all for the blind," but there's something in the "tap-tap of his stick" that sets her on edge and makes her run for home to ensure that she's inside before he walks by her flat each evening.   She's never seen the man, but she is curious about where he goes each time, for some reason convinced that he  
" reached the scene of his day's labours -- pleasure, solicitation, whatever it might be -- by some altogether uncanny means; that his every action, his whole life, indeed, was nefarious."

 One February night she finds herself coming home from a tea party, "enveloped by a thick yellow fog," and becomes turned around, completely lost, when a stranger she can't see offers help; it's then that she hears the familiar "tap-tap" next to her.   Let me just say that I thought I knew what was going to happen here, but as it turns out, I was not only wrong but I would never have guessed it in a million years.  The bizarre, disorienting travels through foggy London streets add even more of a chill to this story, which would be a superb addition to any collection of weird tales.   

from photosample, by Kalin Kalpachev (if you go there, buy him a coffee)

Two haunted house stories made my favorites list as well:  "Four Wallpapers," from 1924, is set in Tenerife, where a couple who had bought a house sight unseen are discouraged by the lack of progress the local workers have made by the time they arrive,  even though they'd been sending regular payments for the work.  Mrs. Erskine decides that she'll have to buckle down and get things done herself; for Mr. Erskine it's all too much so he spends most of his time in the local hotel.  He particularly hates the wallpaper, but his wife promises him it will all be gone shortly.  But even as she's starting to strip it away, she becomes utterly fascinated as the house begins to spill its secrets, layer by layer.    "The Fountain" (1922) features a house that becomes haunted over the course of the story, but what elevates this one is the author's incorporation of ancient nature beliefs into the story.  "The Villa," the final story,  is also not your typical haunted house -- here, as Edmundson notes in her introduction, Mordaunt describes this villa in Croatia as a "sentient being: hating, revenging, waiting."  The original owner of a beautiful house in Croatia falls victim to a death wish, so that another owner might take possession of it.  The house, however, isn't happy about the change in ownership and takes its revenge over the next few generations. 

Although I've only offered a very brief sketch, all of the stories in this volume run psychologically deep and often hit at the very souls of her characters.    The ones I didn't mention in this volume are also quite good, and I'm not at all surprised that Mordaunt's stories, as the editor notes, were "favourably compared" to those written by Algernon Blackwood and HG Wells.  What is surprising is that Mordaunt is so underappreciated with her work rarely appearing in anthologies, because her stories lend themselves so  nicely to any number of different facets of the supernatural and the weird.  Save the excellent introduction for last but do not pass it by -- I'm always amazed at the depth and breadth of Edmundson's research and knowledge.  From haunted houses to haunted people, Mordaunt's work is very well done, highly intelligent, and I'll go so far as to say a definitely must-read for readers of older supernatural tales, especially those written by women whose work has long been "very much underacknowledged."  Highly recommended.