Saturday, July 25, 2020

Dabbling With Diabelli, by D.F. Lewis

Eibonvale, 2020
277 pp


"...human histories and emotions could never be encompassed by one person. You needed different viewpoints ... to obtain as true a picture as possible." 

On page 225 I found the perfect words to describe the content of this book, as these thirty stories take both characters and reader into

"... an alternate world beyond fiction itself into a realm that was even realler than reality..."

with the power to leave the reader shaken, unsettled, thrown off kilter and majorly disturbed. That was my experience anyway -- more than once I found myself having to put this book down before starting it again as I stopped to think about what I'd just read and then to regroup.  Here the space between writer and the reader tends to shrink or fold in on itself, making for a jolting reading experience.  That is a positive thing, as it is becoming ever more rare readingwise in my case these days, and it is what I look for in a well-written collection of weird stories, which Dabbling With Diabelli most certainly is.

Because there are thirty of them, and because of the involvement on the part of the reader, I won't be going through any of these stories in detail, but I will say that throughout this collection, what starts out as ordinary quickly moves into what I can only describe as fringe territory as the weirdness slowly moves in.   A visit to a fair or to a museum, for example,  are normal activities for most people, as is a trip to the seaside or a boat trip down a river,  but it soon becomes apparent that the author has other things in mind.  Unexpected shifting points of view startle and jar any hint of reader complacency.    Dreamers dream other people's dreams.  Time moves in and out of sync in many cases or has no meaning in others.  Unexpected others pop up.  Stories shift gears out of nowhere.  Benign objects become symbols with particular meaning to the observer.   The characters meander through "mental spaces" as they look back, reflect, reminisce, engage in their respective nostalgias,  dream or write of their lives.

In sitting down to read Dabbling With Diabelli, be warned:  the reader becomes a "full-blooded stalker" and "real participant" in this "experiment in the human art of fiction, " and  I found that as such, some mental-rebalancing time was necessary after reading a few stories, or in some cases, after only one.    Having said that however,  my humble reader's gut feeling is that we're meant to be, as the author says in one of these tales,
"cohering the disparate widepread elements into a composite whole; gaining an organic gestalt of plot from the broadcast kaleidoscope of printed appearances,"
 with an eye to examining our own often illogical, absurd and fully human selves and the world in which we live  through this collection of "human histories and emotions."

The stories in this book highlight the author's offbeat (verging on the avant-garde), often-hallucinatory prose style, which invites you in and then often  leaves you scrambling for sanity.  That is not something I say idly -- it's days later and I'm still caught up in the mental wake left behind after reading.   It is a book not to be missed by readers of the weird -- this is my first experience with D.F. Lewis, but I can easily see that the author is a genuine master of this territory.

Close encounters indeed.

My many thanks once again to Alice and to David Rix at Eibonvale for my copy.  I loved every second of it. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Del Rey, 2020
298 pp


"We thought monsters and ghosts were found in books, but they're real, you know?"

 It was actually the blurb that led me to preorder this novel eons ago:

"After receiving a frantic letter from her newlywed cousin, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside, unsure what she will find. Noemí is an unlikely rescuer: She's a glamourous debutante, more suited to cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing. But she's also tough, smart, and not afraid: not of her cousin's new English husband, a stranger who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who seems fascinated by Noemí, and not even of the house itself, which begins to unearth stories of violence and madness ... there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place, as Noemí discovers when she begins to unearth stories of violence and madness," 
and the clincher was the back-cover blurb from author Yangsze Choo which noted that "Readers who love old houses and family secrets will devour this book..."  Oh, that is so me.

Very briefly, because here to tell is to definitely spoil, we're in Mexico in the early 1950s, and when Noemí Taboada's  father receives a letter from his niece Catalina, he becomes alarmed and consults his daughter. He's convinced after reading it that Catalina needs psychiatric help because of her insistence that she is being poisoned, and that "they" will not let her go. She also mentions seeing the "restless dead, these ghosts," and "fleshless things," and begs Noemí to rescue her, "For God's sake," because she cannot save herself.     He wants Noemí to go to Catalina and try to decide whether or not Catalina neeeds to be moved to Mexico City and to convince her husband Virgil that it would be the smart thing to do if that is the case.   In return, he will allow his somewhat "flighty" and spoiled (but hugely intelligent) daughter  to enroll at the National University to study anthropology (which her dad had deemed "waste of time and unsuitable," an offer she couldn't refuse.  At the same time, she wants to succeed in this mission to make a point to her father.

Her arrival at the rather isolated house known as High Place, "an old house atop a hill, with mist and moonlight, like an etching out of a Gothic novel," was not met with the warmest of welcomes by the Doyle family.  People in the house insist on quiet, even at dinner where the rare family meals are generally eaten in complete silence, an atmosphere Noemí likens to "a dress lined with lead."  Her first visit with the once vibrant Catalina, whom she finds somewhat fragile and not herself, is short and controlled by Florence, the niece of the head of the Doyle household, but when they next meet, Catalina reveals that the walls talk to her.  She warns Noemí that there are "ghosts" and that she'll "see them eventually."  It doesn't take long for Catalina's warning to become reality -- first come strange dreams, then visions of a woman "in a dress in yellowed antique lace," which intensify as time goes on, followed by sleepwalking before things get even stranger and become even more grotesque.  Aside from Catalina, her only friend at High Place is Virgil's younger brother Francis, who tells her that "it's the house" that has made Catalina so miserable and that Noemí needs to leave.  She will absolutely not go without her cousin, but once she realizes the secrets that High Place holds, it may be too late.

I made the mistake of starting Mexican Gothic at about 10 p.m. a few nights ago; needless to say I finished it in one sitting which meant another sleepless night.   Nearly every Gothic trope there is can be found here, which made for quick turning of pages.  Regular readers of Gothic novels will pick them up, and will also notice that into the familiar structure the author has woven quite a bit of social commentary, bringing out issues of class, race, inequality, and most especially the vulnerability of many women at this time, who for one reason or another find themselves trapped.   As it happens, women in 1950s Mexico didn't even have the right to vote, and married women were largely under the control of their husbands;  Mexican Gothic reveals the underlying strength that women command when it comes down to survival.

The combination of ever-mounting suspense, the creepy, gloomy atmosphere, the sheer villainy and the concern for the main characters that made me want to go to the end at one point to make sure things came out okay (I didn't) that kept me flipping pages should have made me love this book, but I had some issues.  The day after finishing the novel, I read a review at Kirkus that kind of summed it up:
"Fans of gothic classics like Rebecca will be enthralled as long as they don't mind a heaping dose of all-out horror." 
While I love weird fiction and ghost stories, "a heaping dose of all-out horror" isn't quite my thing, which is what this story turned out to be.  Even then,  I might have been willing to overlook it had it not also been for the fact that long before we got to the horror elements I had figured out the main elements of the central plot around which this novel is built. (And just as an aside here, Mexican Gothic is not at all Du Maurier's Rebecca -- don't go there.)  The basic meat and bones of what was to come were sort of telegraphed very, very early on; I even marked the spot and wrote my ideas on a post-it I'd put on the page where I guessed what was going to happen.  Obviously, I couldn't have known everything, but I was so close to the mark that I ended up being somewhat disappointed.  I run into this phenomenon sometimes (usually in a mystery/crime novel),  and then all I can do is let the  story unfold, knowing what's going to happen and waiting for things to play out, and it does not make me a happy reader.

In this case, it was more that I loved the messages delivered here but wasn't a huge fan of the delivery.  I liked it, didn't love it, preferring the sort of puzzling strange stories that tend to leave me off-kilter, jittery and pondering rather than the "heaping dose of all-out horror" mentioned above.  However, everyone is LOVING this novel, so once again it's probably me.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Unholy Tales, by Tod Robbins

Tartarus Press, 2020
291 pp


I don't know what inspired the powers that be at Tartarus Press to put out this volume featuring stories written by Tod Robbins, but it was more than a great idea.  Megacheers to you.

Robbins' work may not be familiar to everyone (it certainly wasn't to me before reading Unholy Tales) but the 1932 film Freaks directed by Tod Browning, based on Robbins' short story "Spurs," is  a movie which is regarded "as a classic, or at least a cult favorite."   And speaking of movies, another Robbins story in this volume, The Unholy Three was made into two different film versions:  a silent (also directed by Browning) in 1925 and a 1930 remake which was, as Jeff Stafford notes at TCMLon Chaney's "talking picture debut, and ironically, what would prove to be his final film." 

After the in-depth, not-to-be-missed introduction "Tod Robbins: An Unholy Biography" by a very knowledgeable Jonny Mains,  Unholy Tales brings together  the above-mentioned "Spurs," as well as three of four stories from Robbins' 1920 collection Silent, White and Beautiful: "Silent, White and Beautiful," "Who Wants a Green Bottle?," and "Wild Wullie, The Waster."

original edition, from LW Currey

 Rounding it all off, pretty much the last half of this book is given over to The Unholy Three, published in 1917.

original 1917 edition, from

The Unholy Three is definitely the jewel in this crown.  It is an extraordinary piece of pulpy crime fiction with a supernatural-ish vibe.  I use the term "extraordinary," as I am huge fan of crime fiction from this era and have read (and continue to read) a wide variety of books filled with what I call sweet  pulpy goodness, but never have I come across anything like this story, which sets a new bar for me in that zone.  As with "Spurs,"  Robbins begins The Unholy Three at a circus,  where Tweedledee (in the movie described as "Twenty inches! Twenty years! Twenty pounds!") sits contemplating the day "Men would fear him! and he would read this fear in their eyes." It's his small body,
"this caricature that made him a laughing-stock for the mob to jibber at, that turned his solemnity of soul into a titbit of jest for others, his anger into merriment, his very violence into the mimicry of violence"
that keeps him from being "taken seriously."   But deep within his soul burns an "insatiable fire" that produces "scenes of violence" and visions of a "new transformed self" in which he would be feared, with an audience that would "tremble at his villainy." Along with his fellow circus friends Echo the ventriloquist and Hercules the strong man, he grabs his chance to turn his visions into a reality.  A word of advice: don't watch the movie and think you've read the book.  As much as I enjoyed both versions, neither holds a candle to the original text.

Harry Earles, from Freaks.  Earles also played Tweedledee in both versions of The Unholy Three. From IMDb.

Moving on ever so briefly (so as not to spoil)  to the short stories,  "Spurs" reminds me so much of the French contes cruels that I love.  As in Freaks, a circus love triangle is at the center of this story of revenge.  M. Jacques Courbé, a man of twenty-eight inches,  had fallen in love with Mlle. Jeanne Marie the bareback rider the first time he'd seen her act.  She, however, has eyes for the "Romeo in tights" Simon Lafleur, her partner, and views Courbé's attentions and utterances of love as a "colossal, corset-creaking joke. "  The wheels in her head begin to turn when  Jacques just happens to mention that he has been left a large estate and that he has plans to turn her into a "fine lady" if she will marry him.  Trust me on this one, she should have most definitely said no.   Not quite as grotesque as the fate of Venus in the film, but still beyond bone-chillingly horrific.   "Silent, White and Beautiful" also falls into the realm of the horrific, as an artist returns to France after a depressing attempt at a career in America, where his art fails to sell.  On his return he hits on a solution as to how to make his work as life-like as possible.  After a nonstop reading session of these two stories which open the book, I was very much ready for a wee bit of humor in  "Who Wants a Green Bottle?,"  which examines what happens to the soul of the Lockleavens after they've left this world.  I must say, this is one of the most ingenious and original wee folk stories I've ever read.  Last but definitely not least is "Wild Wullie, The Waster," which is also a story of death and the afterlife but with a twist (or two) I'd not encountered in other ghost stories.

The question that opens this book is this:
"How does an author fêted as equal in genius to Edgar Allan Poe disappear into relative obscurity?"
Unfortunately, that seems to be  very much the case with a number of writers of yesteryear whose work I admire.   Where Tod Robbins is concerned, though,  I've taken the first step onto  that "path to becoming a fervent worshipper of a deliciously twisted writer who knew how to keep his readers more than entertained" mentioned at the end of  Mains' introduction.  Two more books of Robbins work arrived yesterday, I bought and made time to watch all three films I mentioned above, and I am certainly recommending Unholy Tales to anyone who will listen.   Deliciously twisted writer indeed, and I can't get enough.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Terror Tales of Cornwall (ed.) Paul Finch

Telos, 2017
274 pp


Last week I was completely down with a fever that wouldn't quit. I grabbed a random handful of books off the shelves, grabbed a hot cup of  tea and went to bed.  Not feeling in the mood to prioritize,  Terror Tales of Cornwall was on the top of the stack so it was also the first read.

I'm no stranger to Finch's Terror Tales anthologies and have almost all of them on my shelves.  They all share the insertion of brief snippets of local lore, history, people etc. between each story, while the stories themselves are geographically centered within a particular region.  This time around it's all about Cornwall,
"which would not be Cornwall without its multiplicity of spooky tales, its thousands of ghost stories, its legends of monsters, faeries, demons, witches, smugglers and mermaids" 
 and to that list I'll add Daphne du Maurier, whose life and work does get a few mentions here.

There is a good mix here of horror, weird, and the strange.  Six of these stories I loved, as they are each brilliant examples of weird fiction,  two made me laugh almost out loud, two reflect current social anxieties, and the remainder I'll file  under NPT -- not particularly terrifying, but okay.

The standouts for me (and this in order of appearance)  begin with "In the Light of St Ives," by Ray Cluley.   There is something quite special about the quality of light in St. Ives, which was ideal for Claire the artist, until she tried to burn down her house and paint herself black after noticing the colors that "seep into everything."  This one absolutely chilled, and the ambiguity here keeps the tension high as the story itself merges into surreal territory.   Very nicely done.  In "Trouble at Botathan," by Reggie Oliver,  one character notes, "... all this has happened before," and in this place, indeed it has.  "Botathan Place" is the home of the Bligh family.  The last of the line, a mathematics Don at St. Saviours, died in 1973 and left the remote house to his college. Now at "The Place" a hand-picked group of young men,  a college Dean and the chaplain of St. Saviour's are having a sort of summer retreat when one student has a strange experience in the wood that turns him in into "a different person."   Sad but strange, and oh so good.  Mark Valentine's "The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things" reveals that "here there are secrets" as a museum curator and his artist friend are allowed a glimpse just over the thin boundary between the "Sancreed we see" and the "Sancreed Beyond."  "His Fire Was Kindled" by Kate Farrell is yet another fine piece of  unsettling weirdness, as commercialism and the spiritual butt heads  in Penharrack.  A representative of  luxury housing developers seriously underestimates the staying power of a local vicar who doesn't care if a new development is a done deal -- the church has been there since the thirteenth century and the vicar aims to keep it there.    "Four Windows and a Doorby DP Watt is quite possibly the most eerie and chilling story in this collection, in which a glimpse at a strange house during a boat ride begins a terrible odyssey for a family vacationing in Cornwall.  Read it twice -- the impact is staggering.  Last but by no means least comes Mark Samuels' "Moon Blood-Red, Tide Turning."  which unsettled me to my core.  A man travels to an amphitheatre carved into a cliff to watch his friend perform in a play that is "all very ritualistic. But definitely cutting-edge and experimental." As it just so happens, the play runs during a lunar eclipse, after which the viewer leaves while the play goes on.   Twenty years later it seems that although the venue's changed, the show goes on.  I have to confess that I had to look up "Dr. Prozess," resulting in the purchase of a used copy of The Prozess Manifestations. If this story (which is in that book) is any judge, I'll soon be immersed in intense weirdness. 

Botathen House, from Haunted Britain

Both "Mebyon versus Suna" by John Whitbourn and "The Old Traditions Are Best" by editor Paul Finch combine a bit of horror with a comic touch.  In the first, a dyed-in-the-wool Cornishman whose wife refuses  to share his "born-again nationalism" just can't shut up about it when his wife gets a promotion and he finds himself living in Exeter.  His neighbor is tolerant as can be until one day when he's not.   Finch's entry is steeped in Padstow local traditions but young Scott, a  tough guy from Manchester whose probation officer  had brought him down on holiday, openly scoffs at them, much to his detriment.

Although they come at the end of this volume, there are two tales which reflect current social concerns and speak mainly in metaphor: "The Memory of Stone," by Sarah Singleton, and "Losing Its Identity" by Thana Niveau.   Singleton's story is focused on Michael, whose obsession with one woman decimates his family. Alone in an old cottage on the Cornish shore, he receives strange nightly visits from a group of children who leave messages in the form of white stones until one day when they arrive in person.   Niveau exams senility and climate change in her story, set in a future where Cornwall is on the verge of being swallowed by the sea. A sad and poignant tale, to be sure.

The remainder fit more along the edge of traditional horror, and in most cases reflect the idea that the legendary, mythical creatures of Cornwall may be more real than one might believe.   "We Who Sing Beneath the Ground" by Mark Morris which opens the collection,  begins when a rather shy child brings something strange to show and tell day at school.  The next day he doesn't return, and his teacher goes to find out why.  In "The Unseen" by Paul Edwards, an unemployed man watches a dvd from a local shop and becomes fascinated.  Going online to see if anyone else has seen it, wondering if there's an uncut version, he is told that there is a more complete version, and also learns that it's the film itself which will seek out "worthy" watchers.  In Jacqueline Simpson's "Dragon Path" a young man skilled in Druidic arts learns the hard way that  power does not equate to wisdom.  A dirty, dated and hardly-thriving amusement arcade filled with "nightmarish nostalgia" is the location for Steve Jordan's "Claws."  It's also a place where very strange things are happening and the boss thinks the employees are out to get him, but boy is he wrong. Adrian Cole's "A Beast By Any Other Name" begins as a murder mystery, morphing slowly into something not completely of this world.   It's also the most original within this group of stories, and if you ask me, very nicely done. Finally, "Shelter from the Storm," by Ian Hunter finds three friends on a routine "practice walk" before tackling a bigger, 150-mile hike.  Hoping to find their way to Port Isaac, their walk becomes anything but routine when they discover they're lost and the weather turns terrible.  They find what one of them believes is "salvation" when they come across the ruins of an old church, yet fail to heed the warning left there and, as kids often do in these sorts of things,  start messing around with things that are best left alone.

Depending on personal tastes, of course, mileage may vary, not uncommon in any anthology. I trend much more toward the weird, and my selection of favorite stories here reflect my preference, but really there's something here for everyone.  I have enjoyed the series so far, and look forward to reading more in the future.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

The Architect, by Brendan Connell

Eibonvale, 2020
151 pp


"And so it is that the more desperate men become, the more wild are their dreams. Shunning the world around them, ignoring the blue skies and singing streams, they look for beauty in some great beyond, their diseased minds crippled by stupidity, their senses perverted by occult mechanisms."

When asked by Jeff VanderMeer in in a May 2011 interview what the term "weird" meant to him, author Brendan Connell replied that
" 'the weird' means something different. Not necessarily some creature dug up in the back yard with sunflower seeds for teeth, but rather a perception that is different from normal.  It is like seeing the world reflected on the back of a spoon or hearing a conversation through a thick wall."
The last sentence there pretty much sums up my feelings about  weird fiction.  I know I'm going to be delving into someone's vision of a distorted or dislocated segment of reality, and I look forward to it.   The catch is that it takes a really good writer to  pull it off in a truly satisfying way, and there are a handful of contemporary writers I trust to do it right.  Brendan Connell is definitely one of those authors, with a top tier placement in my imaginary hierarchy of writers of the weird and the strange for some time now.   And while in 2012, the year of its original publication, I'd probably never even heard of The Architect, much less Brendan Connell (I'm a late bloomer -- what can I say?)  Eibonvale has now published its own edition of this book, and I just couldn't resist.  The original blurb for this book refers to it as a "Greek tragedy on hallucinogens."  I couldn't wait to read it and discover for myself whether or not that description was accurate, and by golly, it was.  I normally don't believe blurbers, but yes indeedy, whoever cobbled that phrase together was absolutely on the money.

To more fully understand events of this book, we have to go back in time a bit, to a certain Dr. Maxwell Körn (1849-1924), who had during his lifetime, among other things,  received "certain occult initiations pertaining to the Order of the Hermetic Brotherhood,"  "lunched with swamis and drank tea with Taoist sages,"  and had "entered a secret society of adepts where he studied the anatomy of the soul."   But it was on the third of April, 1894 at 6:30 p.m,  an hour after eating a plate of roast beef and while sitting at platform number 3 of the Lehrter Bahnhof in Berlin that within twenty minutes he'd become "spontaneously enlightened,"  coming to the understanding  "of the entire workings of the entire universe, from its creation to its future destruction and saw both the purpose of mankind and the purpose of its life, the celestial scheme of things." Two years later he decided to form "a Universal Brotherhood of Mankind". He gave lectures throughout Europe,  astro-traveled to "other planets and planes" where among other accomplishments he "met with other beings, familiars looking for and archangels, the souls of great thinkers."  In short, he was a "visionary, spiritual scientist" honored by the modern-day, Switzerland-based Körn society, whose board members as the story opens, are examining plans submitted by various architects for a Meeting Place.  None of the designs meet their approval -- they want a building that reflects the idea of Körn himself, who said in 1914 that
"great architecture transforms the world of material objects into a direct and immutable projection of the spirit."
Unforunately, the plans they've seen to this point have been on the mundane side, not a place worthy of Körn's followers.  Frustrated after having been looking at these things for months and finding nothing worthwhile, a nephew of one of the board members comes in with a book of drawings by a certain Alexius Nachtman, and shortly thereafter he is invited to submit a proposal to the board.   He offers them not only
"the greatest structure built in the post-Atlantean age... a symbol of the liberated spirit, of mankind's final dominance, not only over nature, but over physicality itself"
 but speedy delivery.  It takes the Society only thirty minutes to give the go-ahead, and they also offer  Nachtman all the money he will need to complete the project. All he must do is to join the Körn Society, the dues deducted from his otherwise generous salary.

Most importantly for this story, the board members also meet his demand for "full undiluted authority concerning both the architectural and engineering aspects of the project. "  Nachtman has been known to be an eccentric, but with "full undiluted authority,"  his true personality is revealed.  He is the ultimate narcissist, the epitome of unchecked ego, a master manipulator, a man driven by his own obsession and lacking a conscience, but he is also the object of what can only be described as a cult of personality, supported by members of a Society which somewhere along the way "seems to have lost its bearings."  I think in this case,  the author takes the idea of the cult of personality that forms around him to its extreme, yet here logical  conclusion with this tale, which is not at all pretty, but one which doesn't seem to bother anyone except a couple of people who see through what's going on.  Connell  once said that "There are enough monsters and demons in the real world without needing to look elsewhere,"  and in this story it's a toss up as to whether it's the titular architect or his most ardent supporters who reflect this idea to its fullest.  There is, of course, much more, but the joy is in the reading so I will say no more about plot.  The irony will not be lost on any reader.

 As dark as it is, there is a streak of black humor that runs through The Architect, making me laugh out loud for more than a beat or two past a split second.  That's not unusual for this author -- some time ago I read and loved his The Translation of Father Torturo and as pitch dark as that one was, god help me, there were times when I absolutely couldn't stop a giggle or two from bubbling out.  At the same time, The Architect left me with a growing sense of uneasiness that I couldn't shake even after it was all over. 

 Connell's books take on a unique logic which appeals and which works, and frankly, I just love how he writes.  He deserves the honor bestowed on him by author Rhys Hughes, who wrote on the back-cover blurb of  Connell's Unpleasant Tales that
"Every generation throws up few genuine Masters of the Weird. There is simply no hyperbole in the statement that Brendan Connell is a member of this elite group right now, perhaps the most accomplished of them all."
I knew this already, but anyone who reads The Architect could not help but to agree.  A fine novel, certainly recommended to readers of the weird, especially those who have not yet had the great fortune to have made the acquaintance of this author's work.  You will become an instant fan.


My many, many thanks to Alice at Eibonvale for offering me a list of books to read out of which with no hesitation I chose this one, and to David Rix, "a writer, artist and reader who loves books" and who also happens to be the guy who runs Eibonvale.  

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

The Double Star and Other Occult Fantasies, by Jane de la Vaudère

Snuggly Books, 2018
translated by Brian Stableford
242 pp


"Those who dream by day have knowledge of a host of things that will remain forever unknown to those who only dream by night. Visions are strewn with fulgurant lightning flashes that, at times, unveil eternity for us and permit us to regain a few scraps of the terrible mystery." 

What would we do without Brian Stableford? The man is a lean, mean translating machine, and he has an uncanny knack for uncovering the best work by heretofore unknown authors.  I actually read The Double Star and Other Occult Fantasies some time ago, but recently when someone I know online said he was currently reading it, I decided that I would give it a second read.  I'm so glad I did. It was time.

In his introduction, Brian Stableford shares what little there is to know about Jane de La Vaudère, suggesting that  owing to her family's social status, when as a child she lost both of her parents she was sent to a convent along with her sister to be raised and educated until she could later be married off.   Born Jeanne Scrive, after leaving the convent, she married a military surgeon named Camille Gaston Crapez, who inherited  the Chateau de la Vaudère in Sarthe and began calling himself Crapez de La Vaudère [If anyone is at all interested, there is an interesting (French) blog post in which the author, looking for genealogical information, discovers Jane de la Vaudère quite by accident while researching the Crapez family in Parigné-l'Ėveque].  Before her death in 1908, she had worked as an artist, a poet, a playwright, a novelist, and writer of short stories.  As Stableford also notes,
"a Poesque fascination with what the American writer called 'The Imp of the Perverse' seems to have been a constant feature in the artistry of La Vaudere's literary endeavour, and perhaps her life as well, if what seem to be echoes of her own sentiments in her work really are revealing.  That element of her work made her a significant writer in the development of modern horror fiction, although she is not mentioned in any reference book on the subject." 
Let me repeat:   "a significant writer in the development of modern horror fiction,"   yet her work remains relatively unknown.  I say, read this book and you'll want to read everything she's ever written.

my photo, back-cover image
 In these tales,  as quoted from "The Dream of Myses," the final story in this collection,

 "The passions ... all flow from amour, the fundamental law of the world." 

They do not, however, necessarily remain earthbound or cease at death; the obsessive desire for a love which continues beyond this earthly realm (and the consequences thereof)  is the essence of this book.  These stories encompass reincarnation,  reanimation, astral projection, hypnotism, chimeras, mysticism, dreams and more, with all but the opening story, "Emmanuel's Centenary," entrenched in elements of the erotic and the sexual. 

I'm not going to go into any detail at all about any of the nine stories in this volume; they are truly best discovered by the reader with no knowledge ahead of time.    To say that the stories in this book are excellent does not quite do them the justice they deserve.  They are  delicious, sublimely written,  decadent and dark, and offer a look at "the scraps of the terrible mystery" as they "unveil eternity." I seriously cannot praise this book enough.  Patience may be required but you will certainly be rewarded for your effort many times over. 

Friday, April 24, 2020

Mortal Echoes: Encounters With the End (ed.) Greg Buzwell

"So here it is at last, the distinguished thing..."
 -- Henry James

British Library, 2018
277 pp

To date I've read five books in the British Library Tales of the Weird series, leaving two unread on my shelves and anticipating  the four I've preordered which are coming in September and November.  They are not only engaging and highly entertaining,  but also include stories by a number of more obscure authors whose work I've never read.   It's a win-win.

The stories in Mortal Echoes: Encounters With the Dead  all feature someone who has had a brush with death -- perhaps but not necessarily his or her own -- as well as (quoting editor Greg Buzwell from his excellent introduction), "a particular fear associated with mortality."  Buzwell categorizes these tales as follows: the  "inevitability" of death,  stories from the afterlife,  the "reluctant" dead who are unwilling to stay in their graves,  tales of death with a humorous edge, and those which are "plain macabre."   The table of contents (in story order below) reads like a who's who of ghost/strange/weird fiction writers,  but there are also a few surprises.

The first five stories need absolutely no introduction to readers of  this genre, but don't be tempted to buzz past these -- rereads are always good.  Le Fanu's "Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter" opens this volume, followed by Poe's (sadly timely read)  "The Masque of the Red Death,"   "Rappacini's Daughter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne, "The Signal-Man" by Charles Dickens and the excellent "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce. 

New to me this time around is "The King is Dead, Long Live the King"  by poet Mary Elizabeth Coleridge , in which  a newly-dead king is given one hour to find "three that desire thy life," at which point he will be brought back to the realm of the living.  He's not worried: it seems like a sure bet,  as he is positive that he "could find three thousand as easily as three."  The irony will be lost on no one reading this story as that hour ticks down.   Another I hadn't read is HG Wells' somewhat visionary "Under the Knife," in which a man is absolutely convinced that he's going to die during an operation despite the doctor's assurance that his heart is "sound as a bell."  Then again, anything can happen under the influence of chloroform.   "Laura" is one of my favorite stories by H.H. Munro aka Saki, simultaneously weird and giggleworthy, which in this book is a bit of a relief, given the overall topic. 

from Amazon UK

My favorite previously-unread story here is May Sinclair's "Where Their Fire is Not Quenched," which disturbed me to no end while reading the first time through and left me beyond unsettled after a second read.  I will say nothing about this one except that I completely agree with editor Greg Buzwell who says that "it offers one of the most disturbing depictions of eternal hell imaginable."    Another good, thoroughly disquieting and for its time (1923) probably quite shocking tale is Marjorie Bowen's "Kecksies."   Looking for refuge from a storm, the drunken lord of the Manor and his friend come upon the cottage of Goody Boyle, "a foul place," where people swear they've seen "the devil's own fize" looking out of the window.  They are given shelter, but they discover they're not the only guest in the cottage, he being quite dead.  Sir Nicholas decides 'twould be good fun to play a practical joke on those coming to pay their respects.  Very bad mistake.   The next three stories, although very different, touch on the thin line between sanity and madness: Graham Greene's "A Little Place off Edgware Road," Robert Aickman's "Your Tiny Hand is Frozen,"  and Daphne du Maurier's "Kiss Me Again, Stranger."   If you're looking for life affirmation in the midst of all of this death,  you'll find it in Donald Barthelme's "The School,"  and the book ends with a rather comical story called "Death by Scrabble," by Charlie Fish.  You'll never look at the game in the same way going forward; just be careful who you're playing against.

As always, another fine volume from the British Library Tales of the Weird series; as always, a mixed bag with some stories stronger than others depending on personal tastes.  And as usual, more authors for me to explore, which is why I read these anthologies.  Certainly recommended.