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. 

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Haunters at the Hearth: Eerie Tales for Christmas Nights (ed.) Tanya Kirk

British Library, 2022
305 pp


It's been a while since I've been here -- vacation and then a subsequent case of covid have sucked up my time pretty much since Thanksgiving and I'm just now feeling up to posting again.  I couldn't let the year go by without reading at least one volume of Christmas ghost stories, which, ever since Valancourt launched its first book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories  has become a tradition I've followed as the holiday approaches.   Sadly, they haven't published  one in a while, but luckily for me, the British Library Tales of the Weird came up with Haunters at the Hearth: Eerie Tales for Christmas Nights, edited by Tanya Kirk.  These stories are not limited to the Victorian era; in this volume there are actually only two in that particuar category, with the entries spanning a whopping 110- year range from 1864 to 1974.   In my very humble reader's opinion, this is one of the best Christmas anthologies the British Library has to offer.

There are a few stories in this book I'd encountered before -- "The Phantom Coach," by Amelia B. Edwards (1864), "Bone to His Bone," by E.G. Swain (1912)  "The Cheery Soul," by Elizabeth Bowen (1942) and Celia Fremlin's "Don't Tell Cissie" from 1974.   As for the highlights here, the most unexpected story and hands-down winner of my own award for most disturbing comes from American writer Mildred Clingerman (1918-1997), an author whose name I'd not heard before.  "The Wild Wood" (1957),  which I had to read twice because I couldn't believe wtf I'd just read, is worth the entire price of this book and inspired me to buy a collection of this author's work called The Clingerman Files, so be prepared for a post about that one in the near future.   Tanya Kirk notes in the brief introduction to this story that "The domestic horror of a seemingly wholesome 1950s scene can be likened to the work of Clingerman's contemporary, Shirley Jackson," but if you ask me, "The Wild Wood" is creepier than anything Jackson ever wrote in her short stories.   Pardon the overused cliché here, but it is like reading Shirley Jackson on steroids ... jeez! It all begins when Margaret Abbott, a mom of two small children, decided that her young family needed to establish its own Christmas traditions, starting with buying a tree.  By the time the kids had become teens, the tradition of buying the tree at Cravolini's which had started when her daughter was just four had "achieved sancrosanctity" over the years, but it is a family custom that Margaret does not look forward to at all.  While "Wild Wood" begins on the mundane side, once the family walks into Cravolini's the first time, things start to take a strange turn as Margaret gets a serious case of déjà vu, knowing "this has happened before." To say any more would be absolutely criminal, but let me just say that it's been a while since a story has punched me in the gut like this one did.  

from Cincinatti Enquirer

Another story that stands out comes from D.H. Lawrence.  "The Last Laugh," first appearing  in 1925 could be an entry in my entirely mythical complete book of Pan-related stories, even though his appearance is  not specifically stated here.  A bowler-hatted man with a faun-like face and a young, "nymphlike" deaf woman leave a house just as the midnight bell is striking, making their way through the snowy streets of Hampstead.  The man hears someone laughing, "the most extraordinary laughter" he'd ever heard; not long after she sees someone she describes only as "him" in the same holly bushes where the laughter had originated.  Strange, inexplicable occurrences follow. Obviously there's more happening here under the weird bits in this tale, but all signs definitely point to the return of the goat-footed god.   And speaking of weird, Eleanor Smith's story "Whittington's Cat" certainly fits that bill.  A young man named Martin is writing a book called Pantomime Through the Ages, although he knows absolutely nothing about the subject.  His interest was sparked after a visit to a curiosity shop where he'd picked up "a series of spangled prints representing characters from popular pantomimes."  Since then he'd developed  "pantomime mania," spending each and every night watching Dick Whittington (which is evidently still going strong) at the Burford Hippodrome.  Martin's life takes a strange detour after one particular performance when it's his turn to be the victim of Dick Whittington's Cat as it did its regular  thing, climbing up to a stage box where "it was wont to engage one or other of the spectators in badinage, much to the delight of the entire audience."    "Whittington's Cat" appears in Smith's collection of stories Satan's Circus, which I will now be pulling from its shelf after reading this tale, which beyond its weirdness is also laced with more than a bit of humor.   Perhaps the most Christmas-y of all of these stories is "Christmas Honeymoon" by Howard Spring (1939), which follows the strange adventure of a couple who have chosen to hike in Cornwall for their honeymoon.  I really can't say too much about this one without giving away too much, but clearly the term "Christmas miracle" applies.    The rest of these tales are also very good, perfect for Yuletide.  You can find the entire table of contents here

from The Newark Advertiser

There is not a bad story in this anthology, ranging from ghosts, possessions, hauntings and dark humor to  other strangeness, so really, there is something for everyone to be found here.  The book joins my highly-revered, personal collection of British Library Tales of the Weird volumes, to which I've just

today added two more books (well, pre-ordered them anyway).   I can't speak highly enough of Haunters at the Hearth, and once again Tanya Kirk has done a great job selecting terrific stories for the holiday season.  Very highly recommended. 

Thursday, November 16, 2023

The Sanctuary, by Gustavo Abrevaya


"Nobody asks questions, and it goes on."


 Schaffner Press, 2023
 originally published in 2003 as El Criadero
  translated by Andrea G. Labinger
   177 pp


As I am never shy about saying, I love fiction in translation and so when something new comes along, I take notice.  This book, The Sanctuary by Argentinian author Gustavo Eduardo Abrevaya, is the latest to have caught my attention.  I bought it for October reading based on the blurb that promises a mix of "crime thriller, detective story and horror novel," but what I actually got with this novel was completely unexpected.    

from Buscalibre

Álvaro and his partner Alicia are driving though the desert when their car breaks down, leaving them stranded.   Álvaro takes the opportunity to pick up his ever-present camera and describe their situation cinematically via his gaze through the lens,  à la John Ford or Peckinpah.  As he notes, "it looks like the end of the world, but it's just a road where twenty percent of cars have some kind of breakdown," with no gas stations and no other road traffic anywhere.  Álvaro's not too worried -- his keen sense of hearing asssures him that eventually whoever was driving whatever it was that he'd heard in the distance would soon be along to offer a helping hand.   He's right -- help soon arrives, and their rescuer  offers to call the mechanic in the nearby village of Los Huemules, aka Las Casas, named for the deer that used to roam there.   The problem is that they most likely won't be on their way to their destination until the next day, but, as the man tells them, there's a hotel where they can stay.  Eventually they arrive in Las Casas on foot and head to the Seagull, a "hot-sheet hotel" where the clerk warns them to be sure to be in before dark, but doesn't really offer an explanation as to why.  Despite their day, Álvaro and Alicia have a fun night together,   all caught on video, of course, but when he wakes up the next day, Alicia is not there.  Nor is she at the bar where breakfast is served, but the waiter does tell Álvaro that she had been there just an hour before, and had left with the town mechanic to see about the car.  Figuring she's likely back at the room by then, he goes back, and that's when he  notices that she'd gone without her bag, and that the previously-closed window was now open. Hitting the streets once again  in search of Alicia, he hears different accounts of sightings and several assurances that "nobody gets lost in Las Casas,"  but she is nowhere to be found, and he is told repeatedly to contact the authorities.  No luck there -- the lazy, corpulent mayor, the corrupt police chief and the head priest of the town who follows a bizarre, medieval dogma all tell him he should just go home, and the small handful of people who might be helpful have their hands tied because of fear of what those same authorities might do to them if they break their silence.   As the back cover blurb notes, Álvaro's quest to find Alicia becomes "increasingly desperate," and while following what few clues he has, he stumbles onto one dark secret after another that these people would much rather remain hidden.  Aside from the question of what happened to Alicia, he also wonders just what the hell is going on in this town. 

I really, REALLY wish I could say more, but I just can't.  

 Abrevaya skillfully blends tropes from crime fiction and horror in this story, and the sinister atmosphere grows incrementally throughout the novel, as does the tension surrounding both the case of the missing Alicia and the revelation of this town's secrets.  The opening scene and the subsequent benighting of this couple in a small town in the middle of nowheresville seemed all too familiar, reminding me of the plot of any number of horror movies or books featuring the same elements,  but it didn't take too long to realize that The Sanctuary moved well beyond  the standard setup into different territory altogether -- straight into the realm of allegory.   After a while, because of the clues offered by the author and the way in which this book was written, I couldn't help but connect Álvaro's search for the missing Alicia to that of a relative of one of Argentina's disappeared during the period of the military dictatorship (1976-1983), on a quest to get answers and only getting stonewalled or threatened.   That period left an indelible mark and lingering trauma on the minds of those who survived it and continued to do so to those who came after, and that reality, as mentioned in a recent Guardian article,  translates quite well to horror writing.   The way in which the author structured this novel is also actually quite ingenious.  In line with the epigraph from the Requiem Mass that opens the book, his chapter headings continue with parts of the liturgical structure of the Mass.  Going back to that epigraph, it reads as follows:

"Lacrimosa dies illa,
qua resurget ex favila
iudicandus homo reus,"

which according to this blog, translates to something along the lines of 

"Tearful that day,
on which will rise from ashes
the guilty man for judgment."

I won't say why, but the minute I finished this novel, I mentally saluted the author's highly appropriate choice.  

The Sanctuary is not for the faint of heart, it is absolutely gutwrenching at times, and it can be pretty out there as well.   However,  it is  intelligent horror fiction written with a clear vision and clear purpose, it is more than relevant to our own times,  and it is a novel that continues to stick in my mind and under my skin.   I started this book one night at bedtime and absolutely could not put it down for one minute until I had finished every page.  

Very, VERY highly and seriously recommended.  

Sunday, October 22, 2023

The Secret Life of Insects, by Bernardo Esquinca


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


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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 15, 2023

Nocebo, by R. Ostermeier


Broodcomb, 2023
281 pp


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

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

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

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

photo from Ancient Yew Group

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

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

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

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