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 novel, 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. 

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Little Eyes, by Samanta Schweblin

Oneworld, 2020
originally published as Kentukis, 2018
translated by Megan McDowell
240 pp


Having read Samanta Schweblin's previous books, it was a no-brainer that I was going to read this one, Booker International longlist or no.  Little Eyes not only examines our infatuation with the latest technology that we feel compelled to bring into our lives, but also shines a spotlight on how it is used and by whom.

 At the center of it all is a cuddly, sweet-looking and rather expensive  device called a kentuki.  It comes in different forms, including pandas, crows, bunnies and dragons, looking "similar to a football with one end sliced off," enabling it to "stand upright", with cameras located behind the eyes.  It moves about on wheels, and once the device is charged, the "keeper" (the owner of the kentuki and responsible for keeping it charged), waits until it connects with a "central server," which then links to a "dweller," the person who will be looking out onto the keeper's world through the kentuki's eyes via his or her computer.

Since I don't want to reveal too much, I'll just say that in Little Eyes Schweblin has put together a series of interwoven, related vignettes focusing on keepers and dwellers from different walks of life throughout the world.  As you begin to get hooked on one such story, another intervenes before coming back later with more revelations which in my case I couldn't wait to get to.   And while each has the kentuki at its core, the book turns out to be much more about human nature as she explores the various bonds that form between owner and user,  some of which turn out to be rather sinister, while others have a more poignant side;  here, I am pleased to say,  technology isn't all bad. 

Admittedly, the concept of invasive/voyeuristic technology is not a new one but there is just something different here that makes for worthwhile reading.  As the blurb reveals,
"Trusting strangers can lead to unexpected love, playful encounters, and marvellous adventures,"
but on the flip side, it can also "pave the way for unimaginable terror."   And indeed, most of these tales are tinged with the disturbing weirdness that one expects from this author; there are some moments that made me laugh out loud and then there are elements that were so horrific that I wanted to put the book down.  But I couldn't.

book photo from goodreads

The US release comes out in May from Riverhead, and  although its cover is not nearly as cool as the UK release,  I can definitely recommend it for people who like their fiction a bit more on the darker, weirder side.

Monday, April 6, 2020

and now, for some well-earned (but really good) fluff: Strange Island Stories (ed.) Jonathan E Lewis

Stark House Press, 2018
342 pp


"We have come to the devil's workshop. All the horrors of the inferno are invented here."

The truth of the matter is that sometimes I just need fluff.  Fluff fluff fluff fluffity fluff. And right now, with coronavirus stress alive and well in our home, this book was just what the doctor ordered.  From the very first I was completely sucked in, able to forget about grocery store shortages and face masks for the duration (although I did clean the book with a Lysol wipe before opening).   Reading old horrorish-slash-weird pulp makes me feel good for some reason.  I've never analyzed as to why, but as long as it does the trick, who cares?

As editor Jonathan E. Lewis says in his introduction (which you can read without fear of spoilers),
"The strange island short story form, like the island novel, utilizes island locations to examine human society and human nature.  But it pushes beyond that and and takes the reader on a journey into the weird, the bizarre, the scary, and the unsettling."
All of those categories -- "the weird, the bizarre, the scary, and the unsettling" are well represented here over the course of these twenty stories.   Of course, as it is an anthology, there are some that I didn't care for but that's a matter of personal preference.  On the whole, the editor has done a fine job finding and compiling these strange tales, the majority of which I'd never read before.  The table of contents reads like a who's who of short story creepiness,  featuring stories by such greats as Edward Bulwer Lytton (here simply Edward Bulwer for authenticity's sake), MP Shiel, John Buchan, Frank Norris, Algernon Blackwood and Henry S. Whitehead (and others), and then some names that were not as well known to me including  Henry Toke Munn, Fred M. White, and George G. Toudouze, among others.  Lewis also includes one of his own stories at the end of the book as well as introducing each tale.

Of the twenty stories in this book, I've previously read four: "Monos and Daimonos," by Edward Bulwer,  "Hugenin's Wife," by MP Shiel, "The Camp of the Dog," by Algernon Blackwood, and Lovecraft's "Dagon."   Of the remaining sixteen, I'll  list only my favorites, presented in reading order.   First up is McTeague author Frank Norris' "The Ship That Saw a Ghost,"  in which a group of men sail away to complete a secret venture guaranteed to bring riches.  Their destination:
"...that region of the Great Seas where no ship goes, the silent sea of Coleridge and the Ancient One, the unplumbed, untracked, uncharted Dreadfulness, primordial, hushed,"
where they were "alone as a grain of star-dust whirling in the empty space beyond Uranus and the ken of the greater telescopes."   Of course, there's a hitch -- and serious repercussions.    "Island of Ghosts" by Julian Hawthorne, son of Nathaniel, is next, and it is indeed a truly creepy story of a young woman who decides to go and spend some time on an island reputed to be haunted.  Hawthorne delivers a tension-ratcheting tale here with an ending I did not see coming.  When I started reading "Spirit Island" by Henry Toke Munn I was hit with a wave of "I've read this before," but I really hadn't.  The more I thought about it the more I realized that it had some of the same vibe as Dan Simmons' The Terror, at least for a while.  This was my favorite story, and it takes the form of a narrative of a man's complete and utterly terrifying adventure in the Arctic which he expects that no one will believe. However, if anyone ever does and decides to send someone to check it out in the future, he notes, don't bother asking him to go along.  All I will divulge is that when your Eskimo companions tell you that a particular island is taboo, and you go anyway, well, that's on you.  "The Purple Terror" by Fred M. White is another good one, making its debut in The Strand in September 1899.  Set in the Caribbean during the Spanish-American War, Lieutenant Will Scarlett is given a mission to carry a letter from his captain to an Admiral waiting for it across the isthmus.  The trek will involve covering some "fifty miles through practically unexplored country,"  and the trouble begins when Scarlett and his men stop for the night and decide to "join the giddy throng" of people at a bar and Scarlett just happens to notice the "purple band of flowers," the likes of which he'd never seen before, twined around a dancer's shoulders.   He also notices that they have the "perfume of a corpse."  I shall say no more except that had I seen a movie based on this story  on one of those tv shows I used to watch as a kid where they ran back to back science fiction/horror movies, I would have been beyond delighted.

from Culture Trip

The final story I count among the chilling standouts in this volume is "Three Skeleton Key" by French writer George G. Toudouze.  Although in this day and age elements of this story might come across as old hat, but published in 1937, it had to have been horrific in its day.  The action takes place in a lighthouse on a rock island out in the ocean, where a group of three men are completely happy with their isolated life there,  until one day when they see a ship heading straight toward them.  The ship, it seems, has no crew, but that does not mean that there are not passengers aboard. "Three Skeleton Key" was later adapted for radio,  with the broadcast starring none other than Vincent Price.  You can listen to one of these shows here at Journey Into, but I will warn you that the story is abridged, changed quite a bit, and doesn't quite convey the horror of the situation.  On the other hand, back before television, it must have caused quite a stir sitting in the living room at night listening.

Honorable mention to Jack London's "Good-by, Jack" a rather poignant story disguising the horror that doesn't hit until the very end, at which point I was in shock.

With the exception of "The Fiend of the Cooperage" by Conan Doyle (I just thought it was strange but I wasn't enthralled)  all of the rest of the stories (listed below)  are quite good.  Two exceptions come in the form of futuristic, scifi-ish pulpy tales, "Friend Islandand "In the Land of Tomorrow," simply because I am not particularly fond of this sort of thing as a general rule, although I'm sure they will delight true pulp fans who are.

"The Gray Wolf," by George MacDonald 
"The Isle of Voices," by Robert Louis Stevenson (this one made me laugh in parts, actually)
"Dagon" by HP Lovecraft 
"The People of Pan," by Henry S. Whitehead 
"The Sixth Gargoyle," by David Eynon (mystery writers take note: great plot possibilities here)
"The Isle of Doom" by James Francis Dwyer


"An Adriatic Awakening," by Jonathan E Lewis -- a bit jarring because of moving into modern times, but still a pleasure.

Stark House is one of my very favorite indie presses and I love their crime novels; this is my first foray into the other genres they cover.  Strange Island Stories is delightful and should be a no-miss for readers who love old pulp horror or pulp weird tales;  Lewis has done a terrific job putting it together.