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.  

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Upmorchard, by R. Ostermeier


Broodcomb Press, 2021
83 pp


"...and the devil will appear."

There was absolutely no question about reading this book once I'd finished A Trick of the Shadow -- at this point now I'd read anything written by R. Ostermeier because that first book was so damn good. Upmorchard, while much shorter, has much more of an intense nightmarish quality to it that continued to haunt me long after it was all over.   

As this story opens, Watts Barlik, who goes by Barley, is taking some time off before moving on to his first research post, doing a walking tour of the coast of the Peninsula.  He's not one for a set itinerary; as we learn about Barley, 
"Folk ritual, crow roads and the quiet little places where there is more to be heard than the sea were always going to lead him astray."

After a week he's stopped at a B&B next to train station, and the old steam engine currently sitting on the tracks catches his attention.  With the intention of taking "an evening ride up the coast" he boards the train, which the only other passenger tells him is heading for Linnett. He also learns about a dig on a "spit island" called Gloy Ness, from which a number of artifacts ("the Gloy stones") were removed because of the island's geographical impermanence.  Barley finds a room in Linnett, and then decides to travel the roughly three miles to Upmorchard, "a tiny fishing cove with a natural harbour" where the stones are now housed.  It isn't long until he is invited to view the stones and he meets two academic researchers who are focused on trying to decipher the strange symbols on these "gargantuan stones." As Barley looks at the stones, he is positive that together they made up "an enormous text," which Arthur, one of the researchers, has already figured out.  He also claims to have translated some of the text, and Barley is curious as to how, since neither Arthur nor his colleague Delia have neither a key nor any kind of  Rosetta stone as a guide.  His curiousity and his need to know get the better of him, until he too falls under the stones' spell.   To say more would be absolutely criminal, but I will say that what Barley encounters while trying to solve this textual mystery is well beyond disturbing, moving into the zone of abject horror.

Upmorchard, as the dustjacket blurb notes, "returns to the peninsula's history," with Watts Barlik's story, but it also captures an even more sinister and horrific history that goes back to antiquity.  It may be short in length but do not let that fool you.  It is a gifted, talented writer who can do so much in such a short space and Ostermeier is a master.    Not only is this story atmospheric from the beginning, the sense of place is so well established that it's as if you're right there along with these people, smelling the sea breeze on a dark night.    Suspense and tension grow slowly before the story turns so dark that I had to put this book down more than once to regroup mentally before picking it up again.  Like much of my favorite weird fiction, there are no ready-made answers here; like much of my favorite weird fiction, the story played out over and over again in my head long after the last page was turned.  

While Upmorchard is definitely not meant for the faint of heart or for those readers who must have everything spelled out, it is a book I can more than recommend to other lovers of the strange.  Sadly, I don't see any more of R. Ostermeier's work listed at Broodcomb, but hopefully this author will return with more at some point.  

Friday, October 1, 2021

A Trick of the Shadow, by R. Ostermeier

Broodcomb Press, 2020
193 pp

paperback (#163/200)

Thanks to some of my like-minded goodreads friends, I discovered Broodcomb Press last month, and after seeing the rave ratings for R. Ostermeier's A Trick of the Shadow,  I picked up a copy.  As soon as I'd finished that one, I went back and picked up three more books and just this morning added a fourth.  I'm not generally a bulk buyer like that, but after reading this book and the author's Upmorchard, I knew I had to have more.  All of the stories in A Trick of the Shadow take place at a location known only as "The Peninsula," which in the first tale, "The Tantony Pig," is described as "a place that put the notion of ordinariness in doubt."  As I read through the rest of the tales in this volume, that particular description became somewhat of an understatement, as what goes on in this place often defies any attempt at rational explanation.  As the dustjacket blurb notes, this collection of stories 
"draws predominantly on the region's folklore and history, yet also includes first-hand accounts of contemporary disquiet."

In short, it's my kind of book.  

 " A Tantony Pig" dives right into weirdsville with a story that Ostermeier notes was inspired by Machen's short story "The Ritual,"  which the author says was "filtered through watching the version in Julian Butler and Mark Goodall's Holy Terrors."  [As an aside,  I immediately looked for and found a copy of Holy Terrors on ebay and am eagerly awaiting its arrival in just four days if all goes well.]  The narrator of this story had been to the Peninsula earlier while "researching the links between psychogeography and conversion disorders in closed communities;" he's back now after his supervisor, a certain Professor Barlik became concerned for his student's mental health.  [As another aside, Barlik ("Barley")  will feature prominently in Ostermeier's next book, Upmorchard, but more on that in my next post.]  Barlik tells him of a "coven of boys" in the small coastal village of Annesdock who at "certain times of the year" play a game at dusk "for occult reasons" and then "disperse," vanishing "into the mist" if anyone comes near.  As the narrator will later say, this village "spooked" him, having experienced "an event ordinary and known" which turned sinister when the shadows lengthened."  Debt to Machen acknowledged, "A Tantony Pig" is the perfect appetite whetter for the rest of the stories in this collection.  It also spooked me to no end.  In "Finery" a "seller-of-woven things"  who is also a fortune-teller and a clothes maker has a following of women who buy her dresses.  Instead of choosing a dress, "the dress found you."  How this is so I will not say.  " Object" is another excursion into creepytown as a young man is given an opportunity to review "amateur or touring theatre" for the local newspaper.  One particular play, A Circus Mirror,"  performed by an out-of-town troupe at the local theatre, stays on his mind well after the performance, and comes back to haunt him after he receives a strange gift as a thank you.   "The Bearing" has much more of a folk-horror feel, centering on a ritual to celebrate the founding of the village of Tinton.  There are two stories about that: the first, the official version in which the owners of the tin mines in the area brought in the money to build the cottages to house the workers that came looking for work, and second, the local folklore which tells of the first cottages having been built after "seven coffins were dragged during the night over the moor by seven mysterious black goats." At dawn the goats laid down between the "two sunken tors," six dying and the seventh killed for its meat.   At present the ritual is carried out by selected townspeople rather than goats.  And that's all I will say about this story, except that this one chilled me to the bone.  

from Pinterest

I've skipped around here as far as the actual table of contents goes, because there are three particular eerie stories that are linked to one particular location near Cubton, the Mosk House, so named because of the scientist who had once lived there, a Doctor Ernst Moskovitch, whose "work with minds and the reputedly brutal operations he used to perform: operations denounced as occult." Each occurs during a different time period; the first of these is "The Chair." When a family (Paul, Mari and eleven year-old daughter Ingrit) buys this house that had "once belonged to a scientist," Paul discovers that a chair, "a creature of metal, leather, with brass lengths like gilt bones strengthening the arms," he had seen when they'd first viewed the house is still there.  He is fascinated by the chair, which as he discovers serves as the mechanism for opening a secret room, small enough that only a child might access it, furnished only with a bed, with walls filled with strange writings.  Trying to figure out what the room was used for becomes sort of an obsession with Paul, and Ingrit is more than happy to help him.  In "The Intruder" Wolfgang Eck wants to do something about all of the extra fat he's put on, and opts for the "less dangerous version" of bariatric surgery, the gastric band. Before he can do so, however, he must attend a series of ten counseling sessions which explored other options such as nutrition and "healthy eating."   At some point he overhears a conversation about "the organic method," but is told that it's still in "trial phase so access is limited." Eventually he is accepted for the surgery, but given what happens afterward, he probably should have opted for the healthy eating.   The last story set in Mosk House is the novella-length "Bird-hags," which the author warns "might not be for you."  Looking back in time, as a child Owain Ockmarsh suffered through terrible night terrors, and was fortunate enough to obtain a temporary place at Mosk House where he was under the care of Doctor Moskovitch himself.  If he was found "suitable," Owain would have an operation that would permanently cure him of his sleep disorder; first though, his sleep would be monitored and recorded; hypnosis would allow his dreams to "breathe."  And again, not another word on this one except that while it was truly beyond disturbing, it was most definitely for me. 

Considering I had absolutely no idea that either this book or this publisher even existed, I feel incredibly lucky to have discovered both.  A Trick of the Shadow is for me the new standard of "weird," meaning that with this book the bar has certainly been raised in terms of any modern weird fiction I will read in the future.   I would read a story and then just sit and think about it for a very long time; I had to switch from reading this in late-night quiet to brightest day because all of the thinking was keeping me awake.  It just wouldn't let go.   The influences of other writers can certainly be felt in this volume,  but this is truly an original collection that once read, will never be forgotten.  An amazing effort, and a book I more than highly recommend.   I loved it. 

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Cornish Horrors: Tales from the Land's End (ed.) Joan Passey


British Library, 2021
365 pp


"Why not tell them of the Cornish horror ..."

Cornwall, editor Joan Passey reminds her readers in her introduction to this volume, is "not a fantasy land," but rather "real, and close, alternately viewed as the end of the land and its beginning," and her hope is that in reading this anthology, "thinking of Cornwall's rich lore, stories, and creative legacy" will  "serve to illuminate its realities than obscure them."  The history of Cornwall looms large throughout this book,  spectral and real, so that one cannot help but to encounter the past even in the present, as so many Victorian tourists evidently discovered.   As the back-cover blurb notes, the stories in this volume explore "the rich folklore and traditions of the regions in a journey through local mythology, mines, shipwrecks, the emergence of the railway and the rise of tourism."  The editor also takes a moment to introduce each story, explaining how these factors play out in the context of what the reader is about to encounter.  It is a unique way to look at what otherwise might be to some just some entertaining Gothic or ghostly tales, revealing that there is more to the story than what lies on the surface.  

My previous encounters with the stories in this book are limited to four out of the fifteen:  "Ligeia," by Edgar Allan Poe, "The Roll-Call of the Reef," by Arthur Quiller-Couch, "The Screaming Skull," by F. Marion Crawford (and by the way, don't bother to watch the 1958 film supposedly based on this story -- Crawford's version is great, but the movie absolutely stinks), and "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot," by Arthur Conan Doyle.  Moving on to those unread,   "My Father's Secret" written anonymously and published in All the Year Round in 1861, represents a "cultural exchange" between Brittany and Cornwall in the form of the story of the bisclavet, "the tale of the knight who, owing to some fearful but unexplained fatality, was compelled at certain times to assume the shape and nature of a wolf."  No knights here, but this story seems to have its roots in the idea of Cornwall as a "land of barbarous people and uncivilized behavior," as the author notes in the introduction, as well as its perceived isolation.  It's also beyond suspenseful.  Next up is "Cruel Coppinger," by Robert Stephen Hawker from 1866;   Hawker also wrote  "The Botathen Ghost," a popular and atmospheric ghost story set in the Cornish moors.  The action here focuses on a particular "legend of renown," Cruel Coppinger, who arrived during "a terrific hurricane," surviving an ensuing shipwreck after which he  took up a life as captain of "an organised band of desperadoes, smugglers, wreckers, and poachers."  Larger than life he is, indeed.  Of the next story, Mary E. Braddon's "Colonel Benyon's Entanglement", the author notes that it is "less on the villainous side" than another one of Braddon's stories set in Cornwall;  I found it to be the most tame of all the stories in this volume.  Here past and present collide in a not so pleasant way, as the Colonel finds himself staying in the home of an absent old friend whose wife has behaved so very badly.  The "false wife" is also gone, but the Colonel can't help feeling that she'd left an "evil influence upon the scene of her iniquity."  "The Phantom Hare" penned by an author known only as M.H. (1873) thankfully is not tame at all, offering the story of a white hare which bodes "no good when seen."  Any man who finds one passing over his feet should absolutely beware.  "Christmas Eve at a Cornish Manor House" by Clara Venn (1878) is a ghostly story within a story as "heard from an eye-witness," or perhaps rather an "ear-witness. "  

from Kernow Coasteering

When thinking of Cornwall, one of the most popular images that comes to mind is that of the caves hidden along the coastline, often used for smuggling.  This feature plays a role in Mary L. Penn's  "In the Mist" (1881), as a lovers' quarrel at the top of a cliff takes a terrible turn.  "The Baronet's Craze," by Mrs. H.L. Cox (1889) centers on a young man who rushes to Cornwall to find the woman he loves, only to come upon a scene that shakes him to his core.  The port of Pencastle is the scene of Bram Stoker's "The Coming of Abel Behenna" (1893) in which two friends fall in love with the same woman.  The rivalry intensifies until (it seems) the only way of settling the issue is a coin toss. There is a twist: whoever wins also gets the money of both men and use it for trade, thus returning richer after the period of one year.  It sounds like a good idea, but oh, so much can go so very wrong in this scenario. And it does.  

the Cornish Coast, from The Book Trail

My favorite story, which also wins my award for most disturbing, is Elliott O'Donnell's "The Haunted Spinney" from 1903.   It is one of those stories where I read it once, did a WTF? double take and immediately read it again.   On a country road  in the Cornish moors, a man takes a walk in the rain and encounters a "woman in a dark cloak" and decides to follow her.  In so doing, he comes across a "poor, common man" who he writes off as just a "stupid, sturdy son of toil" who believed in "Cornish bogies," but there's more to come, including a murder.  Anyone deciding to read Cornish Horrors should leave off reading the editor's introduction to this story until after finishing this eerie tale so as to be completely taken by surprise.  The next story, "A Ghostly Visitation," by E.M. Bray (1907) finds a woman traveling alone stopping at a private hotel.  Of the two rooms available, one is "a miserable little room" and one is "very spacious and better furnished," and it's the latter the landlady wants her to take.  That night we discover why the landlady is so antsy about the woman's choice of the smaller.  Passey notes that this is a story that "builds upon an existing tradition of Gothic tourist fiction set in Cornwall;" it seems that travellers even then enjoyed "seeking out frightening places."   The last of the previously unread is by F. Tennyson Jesse, whose A Pin to See the Peepshow helped to inspire Sarah Waters' novel The Paying Guests.  On offer here is Jesse's "The Mask" from 1912, also quite disturbing and once read, unforgettable.  The woman at the center of things is Vashti Glasson, who is unhappily married but finds solace in another man who has become completely "enslaved" by her.  At the last of their secret meetings things go horribly wrong and all hell breaks loose, but this is not the end of the story, by far.  

For people who think of Cornwall in literature and immediately conjure up Daphne du Maurier, this book reveals that long before she made her way into the literary scene, the Victorians were already capturing readers' attention with their tales of the land's end.  The majority of the stories included in Cornish Horrors stem from that era, and it seems that Victorian Cornwall was indeed fruitful ground for the Gothic imagination for several reasons that the editor covers in her overall introduction to this collection.   Very nicely done; it is a fantastic book, and I have to say that while I've never considered Cornwall as a "fantasy land," it has for some time now been in my reading mind a place rich in history, folklore and adventure, and my shelves are filled with novels and story collections with Cornwall as their home base.  

Very highly recommended, especially to others who have been enjoying the entire series over the last few years. 

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

A Maze for the Minotaur and Other Strange Stories, by Reggie Oliver


Tartarus Press, 2021
340 pp

hardcover (#47)

Tartarus continues to delight with this newest volume, A Maze For the Minotaur and Other Strange Stories, by Reggie Oliver.    The first time I encountered this most prolific writer was some time back with his The Dracula Papers, Book I: The Scholar's Tale  (Chomu Press, 2011), after which I  began collecting his books as well as several anthologies containing this author's short stories.  He is yet another writer whose tales tip my world ever so slightly askew while reading. That's a good thing.  The publication by Tartarus of this the eighth volume of stories by this author is a milestone: it "marks the fact that they have published over one hundred of his tales."  Here's to one hundred more.  

The title story, "A Maze for the Minotaur," is probably one of the strangest in the book and an absolute stunner.  Before moving to a Victorian brothel where a client nicknamed "the Minotaur" by the women there gets his strange jollies, we learn from a newpaper article of December 15, 1897 about the strange disappearance of a certain Mr. Frederick Cooper, a "local philanthropist" and "man of some eccentric habits." Last seen by his groom as he got out of his carriage, walked to his front door and went inside, Mr. Cooper was never to be seen again.  Exactly what happened to Cooper may remain a mystery to the outside world, but the truth is known by a certain young woman by the name of Mabel who "had learned to disguise her passions well," but once these became aroused, "would doggedly pursue them until they were satisfied."   Nothing I can say here will prepare anyone for what happens in Mrs. Belling's drawing room at Number 2 Boscobel Place, nor would I wish to ruin anything by giving away the show.    "A Maze for the Minotaur" first made its debut in Soot and Steel: Dark Tales of London, edited by Ian Whates (Newcon Press, 2019), another sadly still-unread book on my shelves.    

The two stories unique to this book are "The Wet Woman," and "Via Mortis," both of which touch on the entertainment world in very different ways.   Anyone who's read Oliver's stories knows that this is a world very much familiar to the author  and that show business in its many forms is often a key feature of his work.   In the first story, a "fairly successful actor" now "out of condition," has been "more or less ordered" by his agent to spend a month in a detox center in Suffolk.  His wife has left him, he's become too fond of a "particular tipple," and he needs to get himself together before the filming of his next movie.  Luckily for him, he meets two fellow inmates with whom he gets along famously, but the fun really begins when the three come across another acquaintance whom the three decide needs to be "shaken from his pedestal." Opportunity arises in the form of Halloween hijinks, but perhaps the three may have taken things a bit too far.   The action moves to the Edinburgh Fringe in "Via Mortis," beginning with a chance meeting of two former colleagues, one of whom went on to become a well-known director, and the other finding less success as an actor.  Talk eventually turns to "recollections of past times," when the two worked together in a small group called the Ruffian Theatre Company and a play called "The Last Man In" which ran for two weeks at an old chapel.  The director remarks that it was "all a complete blur,"  but the shock on his face says otherwise.  I have to admit to a deep fondness for the sort of creepy atmosphere that can only be found in an old church, especially when the lights go out and someone is left behind with no way out.  

"The Wet Woman" (p. 49), illustration by Reggie Oliver. 

The full content of this book can be found at the website of Tartarus Press; among other things, in these stories one can find ghosts in the Dordogne,  dream visions, an avian guide (which may or may not be an old friend),  a crime and a haunted house.   One story that was just lovely and particularly poignant is "Collectable," about an elderly performer of times past who "in life had become a ghost," unable to remember her life while waiting out her days in a "Theatrical Old Folks Home."  This one reminds me that horror comes in many different forms, and then there is "Monkey's" one of the most brilliant stories in this entire volume, which I nominate for most disturbing of them all, set on a small, private island in the Thames.  I actually had to put the book down after reading this one, go outside for fresh air and sunlight before I could start reading again and even then the images this story produced never quite left my head.    Off the beaten path somewhat is "A Cabinet of Curiosities," a collection of five short tales, my favorite of which was "Temporary Disappearance of a School," but all are absolutely delightful, a perfect antidote to the darkness that came before.  That leaves me with the one novella-length story that to me didn't quite fit here, "The Armies of the Night," which admittedly had its moments and also  reminded me of the old Delta Green novels I used to devour in my Lovecraft phase, in which the FBI finds itself involved with the stuff of Lovecraftian nightmares become real before moving into the pulp territory of gangsters, J. Edgar Hoover and other stuff. This one appeared in volume two of an anthology called The Lovecraft Squad , edited by Stephen Jones.  And finally, I didn't mention the illustrations, but they are outstanding, serving as signposts to whatever weirdness the reader is about to encounter.

The dustjacket blurb notes that 
"Oliver's work is notable for its style, wit humour and depth of characterisation, and also for its profound excursions into the disturbingly bizarre and uncanny" 

and I have to tip my hat to this man who's given me so many hours of reading pleasure over the last few years, and to Tartarus as well for bringing forth this eighth volume of Oliver's stories.  It is definitely one not to miss whether you are a regular fan of Oliver's stories, or a reader drawn to the realm of the strange or the weird.  Don't be surprised if you find yourself feeling a bit off kilter after reading this book -- it's part and parcel of the Oliver experience.  

most highly recommended.