Thursday, July 22, 2021

Bluebeard's First Wife, by Ha Seong-Nan



9781948830171
Open Letter Books, 2020
(originally published 2002)
translated by Janet Hong
229 pp

paperback

On the back cover there is a blurb from writer Brian Evenson who notes that Ha Seong-Nan  is "A master of the strange story," and as I discovered while reading this book,  he is not exaggerating.  It's also not an exaggeration to say that Bluebeard's First Wife is one of those rare books that can take me out of the here and now so thoroughly --it is a collection of stories  which often start out offering a picture of normal, every day life before slowly taking that turn that moves the reader to a point where it becomes obvious that not only has something gone very, very wrong, but also by then that it's too late. Each and every story in this collection took me by surprise and left me feeling completely off-kilter and disoriented, and I found myself  having to give my head a shake or two while reading to let go of the feeling of uneasiness each story provided. 

I loved them all but I won't be divulging story contents here, with the exception of  "The Star-Shaped Stain," which as an appetite-whetter opening tale serves as a signpost as to the strangeness found in this book.  It begins as a mother sifts through photos of her child in a pile on the floor trying to find the best one.  Each of the pictures doesn't fully capture her face, and as she notes, she herself is having trouble remembering her daughter's face.  Immediately the reader wonders why, but mom goes on to pick out a photo from last year.  It is framed, put in the mom's bag, and along with several other people, mom and her husband make their way to the site of the camp for a memorial service where their children died in a fire a year earlier.  A stop along the way throws all into chaos, as a shopkeeper reveals that there may have been one survivor, as he'd seen a "wee littlle thing in yellow" walking by "crying all by itself,"  just before the fire broke out;  he'd also noticed that on the shirt was a star-shaped pin.   The true horror here though is yet to come.    One goodreads reviewer  noted that this story was based "around a fictionalised version of a real-life incident ... in 1999 when a fire broke out at a summer camp at the Sealand Youth Training Centre," (you can read about it here)  which made me wonder if perhaps Ha had used any other true events in her work.  I found one in "Flies" (which in my mind is tied for most disturbing and unsettling story in this book along with "On That Green, Green Grass").  I discovered via translator Janet Hong's Twitter  feed of June of last year that with "Flies," Ha wrote this story, "imagining the circumstances leading up to Korea's deadliest mass murder to date."  Toward the beginning of this dark tale one particular image stood out enough that I knew that this was going to be horrific: twelve fish put out to dry hanging on a clothesline and teeming with maggots.    Added to the ranks of most disturbing is  "A Quiet Night," and the eerie, excellent  "Daisy Fleabane" which finishes the book.  

A large part of Bluebeard's Wife is concerned with the constraints on women or the expectations placed on them by family and society; sins, secrets, deception, despair and guilt are found throughout. There is a definite feel of detachment in the telling of these "paranoia-inducing, heart quickening stories," and there is also the sense all along that  something is just not right, making for unsettling reading.  There are no easy conclusions or resolutions to be found, leaving the reader with the feeling that what happens is inevitable, or that things are just how they are, which may just be the most frightening element of all.   Susan Choi's front-cover blurb says that these stories "unfurl with the surreal illogic of dreams," and that is really everything you need to know in a nutshell.  My kind of book, most certainly.  

I loved this book.  Absolutely. 


*****
I ran across an interesting take on Bluebeard's First Wife at Ploughshares , in which Marta Balcewicz examines this book through the lens of the fairy tale, given the book's title.   As she says about these stories, 
"This is a place where at your most vulnerable, you will encounter no fairy godmother, no knight will rush in on a horse."

I couldn't agree more. 

Monday, June 28, 2021

Minor Hauntings: Chilling Tales of Spectral Youth (ed.) Jen Baker

 



9780712353199
British Library, 2021
317 pp

paperback

On to yet another fine volume in the British Library Tales of the Weird Series, and it's somewhat unique in that the stories all center around the spirits or spectral imprints of dead children.  

Jen Baker, the editor who put all of these terrific stories together here in one book,  reveals in her introduction that most of the tales included here 
"ask whether children who do not have a good and peaceful death will definitely go to heaven; what the consequences might be if no glory awaits to compensate the child's suffering"

while also asking "what if the child is angry or even vengeful for their treatment in life and the fate to which they have been consigned?"  These stories, as Baker also explains, 

"revive, appropriate, and often merge domestic folkloric and literary traditions where the spirit of a wronged child would passively wander and bewail its fate with the darker traditions of non-Anglophone cultures, in which such spirits would terrorise and sometimes kill those who wronged them or even passers-by."

In between each story there are brief "snippets" of other literary works in various forms that "illustrate the sense of historical and cultural debt," all of which may send you on a quest to read the original source material once you've finished reading this book.  At least that happened with me -- I am easily sent down that kind of tangential rabbit hole where I'm happy to linger a while. 

I have previously read roughly half of the stories in this book, but even so, revisiting them was not at all a waste of my time.   Two of these are  beyond famous: Elizabeth Gaskell's "The Old Nurse's Story," which I think anyone who is a true ghost-story lover has read more than once as it has been widely anthologized, and M.R. James'  "Lost Hearts," which made its way to the tv screen more than once, first in 1966 and later in 1973 when Robin Chapman adapted it as part of the BBC's "Ghosts at Christmas" series.  I'd read the story long ago, and recently read it again, but I'd only heard about the 1973 adaptation after reading Edward Parnell's excellent Ghostland: In Search of a Haunted Country.   



"Lonely Hearts" 1973; photo from sandra's first rule of filmclub


Others falling into my previously-read category are Charlotte Riddell's "Walnut-Tree House, Amelia B. Edwards' "Was it an Illusion? A Parson's Story,F. Marion Crawford's  "The Doll's Ghost," "The Lost Ghost" by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman and "The Shadowy Third," by Ellen Glasgow.   Of these, I'm most particularly fond of "The Doll's Ghost," which is sad but creepy enough that it easily could have been made into an episode of the old The Twilight Zone series. 

Starting with "The Dead Daughter: A Tale" by Henry Glassford Bell, I struck out into new territory. 
According to Baker,  this story influenced Poe's story "Morella;"  Poe scholar T.O. Mabbott  went a bit further saying that the plot of Morella "comes almost entirely" from Bell's story.  "The Dead Daughter" is one of the most morbid and gloomy tales found in this book, and without going into plot, on one hand the surface story centers around rebirth of the soul, but on the other, and more deeply embedded, there is just something darkly off about the relationship between father and daughter that gave me chills more than the main story.    "The Dead Daughter"  can be found in Bell's collection My Old Portfolio; or Tales and Sketches, available via Gutenberg or Google Books, which I've  just picked up.   Moving on, "Kentucky's Ghost," by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps  is a ghostly adventure that takes place on the high seas, beginning with the discovery of a young stowaway.  This boy is in for a terrible experience; as the narrator notes, he'd 
"as lief see a son of mine in a Carolina slave-gang as to see him lead the life of a stow-away.  What with the officers from feeling that they've been taken in, and the men, who catch their cue from their superiors, and the spite of the lawful boy who hired in the proper way, he don't have what you may call a tender time."

The boy's treatment is so harsh that one of the crew remarks that "Dead or alive," he will be the one to bring to his tormentor a "summons" to hell.  Mark his words.   "The Ghost of Little Jacques" by Ann M. Hoyt is also rooted in a strange household, but here the story unfolds almost like a whodunit, as a child is murdered and makes his way back to the household to point the finger at his killer.   Unfortunately, the narrator to whom he first appears doesn't understand until much later,  jeopardizing her own future.  Again, much more at work here than an average ghost story but I'll leave that for others to discover.  





my photo, from the book's frontispiece, from "Walnut-Tree House," by Charlotte Riddell in Illustrated London News, 28 December 1878. 


At this juncture I'm bypassing  one story to get to the final two, "Anne's Little Ghost" by H.D. Everett and Margery Lawrence's "Curse of the Stillborn."    I have to say that evidently I've already read the first but had completely forgotten it, so I'm counting it as (sort of) new.    Narrated by the husband, a  young married couple rent a "half-house" in the country where he is looking forward to fishing time after recuperating in the hospital.   In a strange twist, the ghost of a little girl, coincidentally the same age their daughter would have been had she lived more than "a brief space of only weeks,"  makes her presence known.  Enough said.   Working as both a bit of  exotica and a piece that takes an anti-colonial stance,  "Curse of the Stillborn" takes place in a small settlement in Egypt, where a young Egyptian girl who had come there with her mother gives birth to a stillborn child.  Mrs. Bond, a "well-meaning" missionary and wife of the chaplain who had been there for three years, will not rest until the child is given a proper Christian burial, but the girls's mother will not allow it.  Another man, an Egyptologist named Frith, warns Mrs. Bond to let the women observe their own rites -- he knows exactly what will happen when a "puny might" is pitted "against a great and ancient Force ... thwarted of its right."  And neither last nor least, my favorite story which is beyond horrific:  "Two Little Red Shoes," by a rather obscure writer, Bessie Kyffin-Taylor.  On my shelves here at home is her single collection of supernatural writing, published by Leonaur under the title of The Collected Supernatural and Weird Fiction of Bessie Kyffin-Taylor: From Out of the Silencewhich I'll definitely be reading before the end of summer.  As a brief aside, Leonaur is a great publisher for readers of older, obscure works; and they also publish more well-known authors of yesteryear as well. The narrator of  "Two Little Red Shoes"  is a woman who loves to visit and dally in "tenantless houses," who one day finds herself in a place she hadn't yet been to.   While there, she decides she must get inside of the house and  the first room she enters utterly  delights her.  The same can't be said of the next room, but in the third room, full of children's toys, she finds a pair of little red shoes that she can't resist picking up to "imagine the wee soft pink feet that they had covered."  Promising herself to return the shoes to the house the next day, she makes her exit.  It is then that she hears "the whimpering cry and the soft-tapping of tiny baby fingers" on a window pane, the first of many experiences she will have at this house before she discovers what everything means.  Not only did her experiences chill me to the bone, but when all is revealed, it turns out that there is a greater horror than what she had been through.  As  Baker notes, this tale is one where  "visible and audible imprints on the landscape"  as well as the "ghostly visions" replay a terrible tragedy. 

Once again I find myself a happy reader; I knew the British Library Tales of the Weird series was going to be great after the first book I read and I have yet to be disappointed; Minor Hauntings continues that streak.Very highly recommended.    


Friday, May 28, 2021

Creatures of Another Age: Classic Visions of Prehistoric Monsters (ed.) Richard Fallon

 


9781948405874
Valancourt Books, 2021
223 pp

hardcover


I have to be honest here and say that when I first heard about this book, I was a wee bit iffy as to whether I'd be reading it, since a) my interest in paleontology has generally been limited to the nonfictional side of things and b) I'm not much of a creature-involved story kind of reader.  But because it is from Valancourt and they haven't yet steered me wrong,  I took a chance and it paid off. Even before finishing, I was so impressed that I started looking online everywhere for more of this sort of thing, resulting in a few novels written in the general time frame as the selections here in Creatures of Another Age, noted in the introduction as being
"between the 1830s, when the popularity of geology and paleontology skyrocketed, up to the end of the First World War, when cinema began to offer its own primordial prospects." 
The authors included in this collection, as the editor also states, "took geoscientific research to original and creative places,"  resulting in "necromantic fantasies, time-travel narratives, political poetry, weird ffin-de-siècle short stories, and even pseudo-Elizabethan verse drama."  Not only does this book make for hours of fun reading, but it also opens a window or two into scientific and social concerns of the time, both in the UK and here in the US.   

Not uncommon for me, my favorite stories were those written by authors I knew absolutely nothing about and whose work I didn't even know existed.    Hands down the strangest, most off-the-charts different (and in my mind for those reasons the best) of these is the work of an obscure writer by the name of Wardon Allan Curtis, whose "The Monster of Lake LaMetrie" reveals much about evolutionary anxieties (and so much more) of the time. I am not at all going into any detail here,  and I'm even offering a caveat  to anyone interested in reading this story against reading anything about it at all beforehand.  Set in the state of Wyoming,  it  first appeared in Pearsons Magazine, September 1899, and Fallon reveals in his brief introduction that in this tale the author "melds Wyoming's prehistoric associations" with the hollow-earth theory proposed by John Cleves Symmes in 1818.  What I will divulge is that it has awesome shock value in a weird/sci-fi sort of way, and it gave me a serious case of the willies once I considered the implications.      Another top-notch offering is "The Dragon of St. Paul's, by Reginald Bacchus and Cyril Ranger Gull (1899).  Fleming, the editor of a daily newspaper in London, holds the presses after hearing an incredible story so that journalist Tom Trant can write an article for a "special"  that should boost sales into the hundreds of thousands.  Back at home,  Tom relates a story that to him,  his fiancée and her brother seems to be "gaudy nonsense," "simply laughable" and "absurd"  about a strange discovery solidly encased in ice found on the return voyage of a two-year Arctic scientific expedition headed by the now-deceased Professor Glazebrook. Just hours before reaching the Channel, everything was going as planned up until the moment the professor decided to melt the ice containing his spectacular find, which turns out to have been a rash decision indeed.  As has been repeatedly revealed in old sci-films, sometimes what's been stuck in polar ice for eons should probably just be left alone.   "The Last of the Vampires," published in 1893 and penned by another unknown-to-me writer, Phil Robinson  (1847-1902),  is also on my list of favorites.   As with the previous two stories I've mentioned here, it involves humans pitted against "eerie creatures previously thought extinct," as Richard Fallon notes, so familiar to readers of popular periodicals during the Victorian fin-de-siècle.  This story is more atmospheric than the previous two, and starts out with a legend familiar to the Zaporo Indians of Peru.  As the legend goes, "Very long ago ...
there were many vampires in Peru, but they were swallowed up in the year of the Great Earthquake when the Andes were lifted up, and there was left behind only one 'Arinchi' who lived where the Amazon joins the Marañnon, and he would not eat dead bodies, only live ones, from which the blood would flow."

Local superstition also said that when a sacrificial victim was offered to "the Vampire," he would be "bound in a canoe," and after some time on the river,  the canoe would stop in "banks of slimy mud" to a creek  through which a "very slow current flowed," taking anything in the water there to a cave. Into this milieu comes a University professor and "mighty hunter of beetles" from Germany who decides to explore the cave for himself, his fate recorded in journal entries over the ensuing months.

Worthy of honorable mention is "Our Phantom Ship on An Antediluvian Cruise," by Henry Morley, part of a series making its appearance in Household Words in which the phantom ship took the periodical's readers  on "informative trips around the world."  In this installment the ship leaves London to go back "into the depths of time." 

Another fine Valancourt publication, Creatures of Another Age is neither limited to short stories nor obscure writers.  There are poems, essays, and even a short play, as well as selections by more familiar authors such as George Sand, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle and Thomas Hardy. While not all of the entries included here worked for me personally (as is always the case),  in putting this collection together editor Richard Fallon hopes that readers will "see the distant past in a strange new light," and that's exactly what happened to me here.   Very much recommended.   What a great idea for a book!! 




Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Cormorant, by Stephen Gregory




9781912681693
Parthian Books, 2021
originally published 1986
160 pp

paperback (my e-copy sent by the publisher, to whom I owe my many and grateful  thanks)

Recently reissued by Welsh publisher  Parthian Books just last month, Stephen Gregory's The Cormorant (1986) is exactly the sort of dark fiction I look forward to reading, in which the weird makes its way into regular life making it difficult to decide whether there is something supernatural at play here or if it's something else altogether.  I first read this book seven years ago when it was published by Valancourt,  and that was the question I was left with at the time;  after finishing this time around, the ambiguity remains.  Added to the uncertainty is the fact that we have only the narrator's word to rely on for what happens here.  My kind of book indeed.  

Winter in Northern Wales provides the natural backdrop to this story that begins when a man is bequeathed a cottage in a Welsh village "nestled under the cloud-covered summit of Snowdon, on the road between Caernafon and Beddgelert."  He  and his wife Ann were able to quit their teaching jobs in the Midlands, affording him the opportunity to devote time to the history textbook he is writing. She has a job at a local pub and he tends to their eleven-month old child Harry while she works.   The cottage had belonged to his Uncle Ian whom the (unnamed) narrator had not known very well, and it comes with the "binding condition" that the cottage was theirs as long as they took care of the cormorant Uncle Ian had rescued some time earlier.   To the narrator, the bequest is a "thunderbolt of good fortune,"  and he wasn't too worried about taking care of the cormorant, but when the bird arrives and its crate is opened, the "some kind of placid, domestic fowl" they'd been expecting turned out to be anything but.   In the middle of a quiet, lovely, warm domestic sort of perfection, as he notes, 
"it came from its box as ugly and as poisonous as a vampire bat" 
spewing feces and urine everywhere and causing destruction to their otherwise cozy environs.  

Ann, who "shuddered at the sight of the cormorant's demonic arrogance," sees the bird (which the narrator calls Archie)  as menacing, while baby Harry seems to be enthralled with the thing.  The narrator works to exert dominance and control over the bird, mentioning more than once Archie's dependence on him for its survival; at the same time it's obvious that while he's completely obsessed with it,  he has a sort of love-hate relationship with this cormorant,  referring to it once as a "Heathcliff, a Rasputin, a Dracula."  In the meantime, Ann becomes further unsettled because of her husband's increasingly strange behavior and Harry's growing fascination with Archie.  Then there's the matter of the narrator's brief (hallucinatory?) encounters with someone who leaves behind cigar smoke -- is this some sort of haunting, some sort of possession, or is there more to it,  perhaps grounded in more earthly concerns?  

The flaws in the characters begin to appear early on, but then again, we're watching this story unravel from the point of view of the narrator, whose choices throughout the narrative are just mind boggling.  One of the highlights of this novel is Gregory's purposeful, highly-controlled and taut writing style which allows for him to  adeptly turn  up the volume little by little on the slow-building horror that fills this book,   and in my case at least, setting forth an eerie atmosphere from the moment the bird's crate is opened in the cozy living room, offering its entrance as a harbinger of dread and doom. 

I won't deny that there are some extremely disturbing scenes in this book (including one especially beyond-squirmworthy event that takes place in a bathtub which is mentioned in pretty much everyone's review of this novel and got a serious and out-loud WTF from me as well), but in a sick way they accord with the narrator's increasingly-disturbed state of mind, which is in my opinion is at the heart of this novel. 

I cannot for the life of me say why, but as disturbing and horrific as this book is, I absolutely loved it. I found, as the author says in the introduction to this novel, that  
"Like the bird, the book is beautiful and ugly, intriguing and upsetting, appealing and appalling, in its different, changing moods."

 The Cormorant is not only effective as a horror story, but as literary fiction with a weird bent as well. The ambiguity here left me thinking about it long after I'd finished, going through evidence in my head for both the psychological and supernatural.  Writing it down now, I'm still thinking about it.  I cannot recommend this novel highly enough, although on many levels it is a difficult read, so beware.  

Once again my many thanks to the very good people at Parthian.  





Saturday, May 8, 2021

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, by Mariana Enriquez

 


9780593134078
Hogarth, 2021
originally published as Los Peligros de fumar en la cama (2017)
translated by Megan McDowell
187 pp

hardcover

I had picked up this book this past January, long before it was longlisted (and then shortlisted) for this year's International Booker Prize.  There was never a question of not buying it;  I had read and loved this author's Things We Lost in the Fire some time ago.  That book was excellent, with a slight edge over this one, but after finishing The Dangers of Smoking in Bed I was not only impressed, but my first reaction to this book echoes exactly what Lauren Groff says about it on its back cover:

"After you've lived in Mariana Enriquez's marvelous brain for the time it takes to read The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, the known world feels ratcheted a few degrees off-center."

It didn't take until the end of the book for that "off-center" feeling to take hold -- after the first story alone I had to stop, think, and sort of shake my head back into the real world before moving on.  

In an interview after the publication of Things We Lost in the Fire, the author noted that her stories
"are quite rooted in realistic urban and suburban settings and the horror just emanates from these places,"

and in The Dangers of Smoking in Bed the author examines the darkness and the terrors that co-exist in "these places" side by side with every-day life --  as one character says so eloquently in "Rambla Triste" (one of my favorites in this book), "the incarnations of the city's madness."  Most of her characters are women from adolescence upward,  their daily concerns are normal, including appearance, sex, relationships, family, drugs, and so on.  It isn't too long into any of these stories however before it dawns on you that you've made your way into a situation where normal has taken a bizarre turn.  In "Our Lady of the Quarry," for example, a group of girls all hanker after the same guy who doesn't seem to notice them in the way they would like; they are jealous of their "grown-up" friend Silvia ("out of high school for two years") whom Diego does notice. A typical scenario, to be sure, but what one girl does in trying out  "an infallible way to snag your beloved" provides the spark for what comes next as the story moves into the realm of the eerie.  Elsewhere, a girl digging in a garden unearths bones that turn out not to be those of an animal as her father had told her; a young girl who looks in a well at the home of a "witch" becomes stricken with paralyzing agoraphobia; a homeless man who is turned out of a neighborhood leaves behind a terrible curse; gentrification leaves homeless ghosts walking the streets of Barcelona; two teenaged groupies take the words of their favorite singer to heart ... and more. 

Nothing is out of bounds here -- fetishes, voyeurism and cannibalism included -- but as the dustjacket blurb says, the stories are written with "resounding tenderness toward those in pain, in fear, and in limbo."  They  also reveal a concern with economic and social inequality as well as Argentina's inescapable past.  Two chilling stories in particular (which also happen to be my top two favorites) also highlight the anxieties of the period of the Dictatorship (1976 - 1983):  "Kids Who Come Back," in which a woman who maintains the archive of lost and disappeared children begins to notice an unsettling trend in Buenos Aires, "this city full of ghosts," and "Back When We Talked to the Dead"  centering on a group of five girls who spend time with their Ouija board as a way of asking the spirits about their relatives who had been disappeared.  Violence and ghosts go hand in hand in this book. 

I read a lot of supernatural and weird fiction but not a lot of what I'd call  horror, but if more writers in the genre did it like Mariana Enriquez, I could easily go that route as well.  Here the terrors leave in their wake a "city of ghosts" and women doing what they must to find stability in their unstable, even haunted surroundings.  With the exception of "Kids Who Come Back," the stories are relatively short which, in my opinion, gives them an incredible measure of power.  Whereas some readers have noted that the stories felt underdeveloped, I disagree.  I don't need everything explained to me -- each story made an impact as is.   Enriquez's work is original, fresh, modern and above all powerful, and while not all of these tales were to my personal taste, overall this is a stunning collection that should not be missed, except perhaps, by the squeamish.  



Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Mist and Other Ghost Stories, by Richmal Compton

 Good grief. The last time I posted was in February; since then it has literally been one thing after another with what seems like very little breathing space in between. That doesn't mean I haven't been reading -- au contraire, I've actually read a lot as a sanity-saving measure.  Mist and Other Stories is just the latest in a lineup of some pretty awesome books, so I'll begin with this collection of supernatural/ghostly tales, which, while perhaps not the most hair-raising stories I've ever encountered, are certainly compelling enough that I  read them all in one sitting.  Here you'll find ghosts, as promised, along with haunted houses, haunted people, and more. For those readers of the dark who love older supernatural tales, it is  no-miss read;  for me there's also the added bonus of discovering a new author in the genre. 




9781908274281
Sundial Press, 2015
originally published 1928
191 pp

hardcover


As if to signal that this will be no ordinary book of ghost stories,  the first two entries, to my great delight, are inspired by the figure of the Great God Pan.   In the opener,  "The Bronze Statuette, a "modern" but somewhat shallow sort of young woman ("she had become engaged to Harold Menzies simply because his dancing step and his game at tennis suited hers") at a house party undergoes an unexpected and extraordinary change after the host's father brings out a small bronze statue, "a thing of extraordinary grace and beauty."  Following that one is  "Strange," which also takes place during a house party, where one of the guests, "a chap called Strange," enchants the others with his presence as well as his syrinx.   

No ghost story collection would be complete without a haunted house or two, and what Crompton has on offer here strays a bit off the beaten path in that area. For example in "Marlowes," a woman who, along with her husband has left her home and is staying in a hotel while repairs are being made, confides to another guest that they love their Sussex house, but for a while there it didn't love them back.  Of course, "there's a story about that."  A full tank of petrol would have prevented the happenings at "The House Behind the Wood,"a personal favorite,  in which a threesome find themselves stuck in the cold night "six miles from anywhere."  Frank, married to the "fragile and delicate" Monica decides that sleeping in the car would likely bring on a case of pneumonia, but luckily for the couple and Frank's childhood friend Harold, there is a house nearby with a light shining in the window.  The caretaker has no petrol, but he does offer them a place to stay out of the cold. Let's just say that Frank blames what happens next on a nightmare, but oh Frank, it's not the drains that are causing it.   "The Haunting of Greenways" is another favorite in which the actual spectral visitation begins about ten pages in, but the events leading to that point are really the main show, centering on a young woman who is incapable of true happiness and  "had that gift for self-torture that belongs to the mentally unbalanced."  The title  story in this book is the last but by no means the least; I thought it was one of the best in the collection.  "Mist" finds a hiker who has lost his way in the "bleakest part of the moor" and luckily finds his way to a small inn for the night.  Surrounding and stranding him is the mist, "like something sinister and malevolent."  After boredom and cabin fever set in toward tea time, he decides it might be good to get out and go for a walk. But wait -- what's that "dull light flickering in the fog?"    

Of the remainder, three are well worth honorable mention: "Rosalind," "Harry Lorrimer, and "The Oak Tree,"  the first two of which are excellent and the third entertaining.    In the first, a young artist is haunted by his passion after he dumps the woman he loves for someone more suitable for marriage; the first vows that she will never let the second have him.  In the second, two old school friends, Gregson and Harry Lorrimer, meet by chance, and after a visit to the home of Harry Lorrimer, his friend makes a chilling discovery.  Gregson feels uneasy about Harry, but the uneasiness soon turns to sheer horror when he learns what's really happening with his old schoolmate.   Finally, "The Old Oak Tree" is the last of its kind, sitting in the yard of Bletchleys on "prehistoric land" where Druidic worship may have once been carried out.  Indeed, an old flat stone lies at its base;  Mr. Fellowes informs his wife that it was likely used for human sacrifices, but  Mrs. Fellowes  feels sorry that no one worships it now, and promises it a garland a day.  Sure enough, she keeps her word and the oak tree begins to take on a "new lease of life," which Mr. Fellowes doesn't necessarily like.  



Original 1928 edition cover, from Sundial Press 


 Crompton's characters range from wronged women to people haunted by their pasts, including ghosts who aren't quite ready to give up the pleasures they had in life; her stories occur mainly within the framework of upper middle-class existence  where strange events have the potential to disrupt an otherwise comfortable life. Her real focus here though (for the most part) seems to be on the people themselves, taking her time to develop her characters just enough so that what leads up to the supernatural happenings is well understood by the time you actually get there.   Above all though, she excels in atmosphere -- not simply in natural world phenomena (which is itself so well done that in the last story, for example, you can actually see and feel the clammy fingers of mist in the forest) but also in the way she ever so slightly ratchets the tension experienced by her characters in the midst of uncanny events.   

Mist and Other Ghost Stories is a fine example of ghostly tales done in an original fashion and done well.  While not every story is perfect, it is still a collection that I would most wholeheartedly recommend. 




Sunday, February 28, 2021

The Collected Connoisseur, by Mark Valentine and John Howard

 

"What we seek, and what we also half-fear, is all around us, always, had we the necessary calm intentness to discern it. "

 



9781905784202
Tartarus Press, 2010
308 pp

paperback

Over the years I've read my fair share of stories featuring supernatural detectives, and prior to starting this book, that's what I thought I had here. What I discovered was not at all what I was expecting, but something unique instead: an "aesthetical detective extraordinaire" in the form of the Connoisseur.   He is described as a
"connoisseur of the curious, of those glimpses of another domain which are vouchsafed to certain individuals and in certain places." 

The Connoisseur is a nickname given to this man by Valentine, who with the Connoisseur's consent, "dependent on anonymity and all necessary discretion," recounts "some of his encounters with this realm. "  The narrator notes that while the Connoisseur  is far from wealthy, he "supplements a decent inheritance" with "administrative work," he "shuns many of the contrivances of modern living," and is therefore able to indulge in a "keen pleasure in all the art forms."   He is a seeker of knowledge and a walking encyclopedia of the arcane; if there's something he does not know, he knows any number of people to whom he can turn for answers.  The mysteries he encounters are often  built around some sort of cultural artifact either in his possession or brought to his attention, for example, in the first story "The Effigies," the narrator is looking at a "dark earthenware jug of quite perfect form" on the Connoisseur's mantel, sparking a story about his friend's visit to its creator, Austin Blake,  renowned maker of "amphorae and delicate vessels" who had suddenly stopped producing at the height of his fame.   There are also a few occasions in which Valentine accompanies the Connoisseur and witnesses events firsthand.   

It is not difficult at all to recognize the influence in these stories of those writers Valentine notes in his introduction as "lifelong companions," and "household gods":  Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany, Walter de la Mare and William Hope Hodgson.  "The Hesperian Dragon," for example, is easily recognized as a delightful sort of play on Machen's "Three Impostors."  Blackwood's finely-tuned sensitivity to the hidden awe of the natural world is reflected in "The Last Archipelago," and as in the case of our narrator throughout The Collected Connoisseur,  Hodgson's Dodgson serves as chronicler of the adventures of Carnacki.    Beyond the recognition of Valentine's "household gods", however, lies something even deeper where these authors are concerned -- in the introduction, in discussing a few other writers of the 1890s he'd read, including M.P. Shiel,  Valentine notes that 
"These then, the wondrous, the spectral and the aesthetical, were the airs floating around me when I began to think whether I could go one step further than reading, and try writing, the sort of fiction I enjoyed."

It is this sense of the "wondrous, the spectral and the aesthetical" that he and in the last few stories, John Howard capture here in a style that reflects the writing of those previously-mentioned authors who came before, but still manages to remain quite original.    Not everyone can carry off the voice of times past in his or her writing, but here it is pitch perfect.  The last six of these stories were collaborations between the two authors, and anyone who's read the work of John Howard will recognize his style immediately.  These tales are also a bit more fleshed out, with a bit more action involved, and provide a great ending to this collection.  

I loved these stories, all of which on the whole offered days of fascinating reading,   but of course and as always there were a few that stood out.   "In Violet Veils" is probably my favorite of the collection, in which an experiment in the "revived art of the tableau vivant" results in a warning by the Connoisseur that 

"such curious re-enactments were not to be essayed without some peril of affecting, in unforeseen ways, those involved: who could tell what might result from such a hearkening back to the original power of the mythological image portrayed?"

He knows whereof he speaks, having experienced firsthand an eventful, bizarre tableau vivant in the past.   "In Violet Veils" has the feel of the decadent/symbolist literature I love to read, with more than a touch of the weird that gives it an extra edge of eerieness.  In "The Craft of Arioch"  the Connoisseur relates to Valentine his strange experience during  a "walking holiday" in Sussex with his cousin Rebecca. Having left "the high roads and the dormitory towns" and traveling the "winding roads and nestling villages," they eventually find themselves at a barn where they expect to find hand-crafted rocking horses.  Let's just say after a ride on a "cross between a horse and a white dragon," and "a winged cat with preternaturally pointed ears and peridot eyes," they return from "unknown regions" and "a plane of experience different to anything we may find in this world."  "Sea Citadels," "The Mist on the Mere," "The White Solander" and "The Descent of the Fire" round out the list.   

At the beginning of "The Secret Stars" The Connoisseur in conversation with Valentine notes the following:

"What we seek, and what we also half-fear, is all around us, always, had we the necessary calm intentness to discern it."

 The Connoisseur's "rare glimpses" are the very heart and soul of this book.



The Collected Connoisseur is one to read curled up in your favorite reading space, hot cup of something or other in hand.  Like the Connoisseur, I am quite partial to Qimen/Keemun tea; I  am also one of those people described on the back cover blurb -- "the lover of esoteric mystery and adventure fiction. " More to the point,  I am also in complete awe of Valentine and Howard's visionary writing here and elsewhere.    Every reader of the weird, the fantastical, and of the occult  should have The Collected Connoisseur sitting on his or her shelves.  No collection would be complete without it.