Wednesday, August 19, 2015

from the vault: Burn Witch Burn, by Abraham Merritt

Tom Stacey, Ltd. (reprint), 1971
originally published 1932
275 pp


The old horror classic "Burn, Witch, Burn" was recently released on blu-ray, so I figured that I'd read the book before watching the film.  Zee joke, eet was on me -- I started watching it and maybe five minutes in started wondering why the first scene was filled with people playing bridge at a home in England somewhere. So I look at the DVD cover and discover to my horror that the movie was actually based on Fritz Leiber's Conjure Wife, and not on the book by Abraham Merritt.  There's nothing like feeling like a dunce for not doing my homework.  So expect to see a post about Conjure Wife here shortly, since I couldn't settle down until I'd bought a copy.

Merritt's Burn Witch Burn does have a similarity to the movie that stole its title (except for the addition of commas) -- at the heart of the matter is a man who is forced to reassess his beliefs in the certainties of science when he runs head first into the supernatural. We first meet Doctor Lowell, "a medical man specializing in neurology and diseases of the brain," when he is called on by a "notorious underworld chieftain" Julian Ricori, "one of the finished products of the Prohibition Law."  One of Ricori's crew is stricken with some very bizarre ailment, manifesting itself with strange symptoms:
"The man's eyes were wide open. He was neither dead nor unconscious. But upon his face was the most extraordinary expression of terror I had ever seen in a long experience with sane, insane and borderland cases."
The man, seemingly paralyzed, eventually dies, but not before letting loose a maniacal laugh.  On examination, the doctor finds nothing that could have killed him, but the case is so odd that he immediately reaches out to other doctors to see if any of their patients have manifested the same symptoms.  When answers start coming in, Lowell is startled to see that a number of people have been in the same boat. After compiling a list of these patients, he (along with Ricori)  starts his quest to track down the source of this horrific illness hoping to find even one factor they all had in common.  Just as they're starting to make some progress the illness strikes again, this time hitting very close to home.

I won't divulge the meat of the story here, but let me just say that what happens in this book makes the Twilight Zone's Talky Tina  look like a rank amateur.  There's a lot of creepy stuff going on here -- looking at it from today's perspective, it's mild, even tame, but my guess is it had readers squirming in their armchairs back in the 1930s.  It's a strange blending of mystery, pulp, and horror, and while I didn't care too much for it at first, as things progressed, I ended with up with an odd sort of appreciation for this book.  First of all, looking past the silly horror parts, there are two main themes that develop out of this novel. One is the question of what it is that constitutes a human's soul; the second, as I've mentioned earlier, is what happens when science butts up against the supernatural.  As Dr. Lowell notes,
"To admit that what had occurred was witchcraft, sorcery, supernatural -- was to surrender to superstition. Nothing can be supernatural. If anything exists, it must exist in obedience to natural laws.  Material bodies must obey material laws.  We may not know those laws -- but they exist nevertheless."
 Second, since there are a number of mysteries that need to be solved here,  the novel appeals to the part of me that loves these old books and just can't get enough.

But speaking of mysteries, we're left with one huge hole, and that is the motivation behind the work of the character Madame Mandilip (a name that cracks me up because she's described as having a visible mustache).  We get a smidgen of her history, but we never fully quite understand why she does what she does here, and that's annoying.  Seriously annoying.

Merritt is much better known for his "lost-race" novels and short stories which are just plain awful; at the same time one of my biggest guilty pleasures in life is my love for really crappy, really old pulp.  Burn WitchBurn is much better than some of  Merritt's other work so if you're at all interested, you might want to give it a try.  I'd say try not to judge it by modern standards if at all possible; just sit back, relax and try to enjoy.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Monstrous, (ed.) Ellen Datlow

Tachyon, 2015
370 pp

paperback (arc from the publisher, thanks so much!!!)

Just in time for Halloween (out October 15th), The Monstrous is a collection of twenty stories that, as editor Ellen Datlow notes are "Not your usual monster kills/destroys everything" tales, but rather stories that tend to focus on "how the humans react to the monstrosities they encounter."  Great approach, if you ask me, and there are a number of stories that are quite good in this collection.  As is also pointed out in the introduction, "monstrosity is in the eye of the beholder," a very pertinent little piece of wisdom.  Since this is an anthology of stories, a mixed bag, so to speak, not every story is going to appeal to every reader, and the concept of "monstrous" is also going to be different depending on whose brain it's being filtered through. Mine, for example, latches on to the "monstrous" in human beings -- I think that the monstrosities people are capable of are far scarier than anything a creepy tentacled thing could ever come up with. So I'll be up front and say that a lot of what you get out of this book depends heavily on what you consider to be "monstrous."  My idea may be totally different from anyone else's. Just keep that in mind.

Let me just say that for me there were some standout stories; there are four that would make your monetary investment in this book very worth it.   Two others are well worth calling to attention; there were only a couple or three I didn't really care for (again, based on my own approach to horror), and then there's the group in the middle, the ones I liked but I didn't feel were as good as the standouts or ones I marked as deserving honorable mention.

 - and now, first my best - 

First, the standouts: Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois have contributed an absolute stunner with their "Down Among the Dead Men", which thematically reminded me of Primo Levi's The Grey Zone. The action takes place inside of a Nazi concentration camp, begging the questions of  a) what it is that constitutes evil and b) what would anyone do to ensure his or her survival in a place designed for death.  One of the best stories in the entire book -- even if you end up thumbing your nose at the other entries (which you won't), this one is worth the price of the book on its own. Oh my god.

Another standout entry in this book  is Carole Johnstone's "Catching Flies," another one from Fearful Symmetries but one that I never got to ( I lost my copy which is not at all unusual around my house -- it's probably hidden among the multitude of other books in the shelves somewhere).   A young girl and her infant brother have been taken from their home after a particularly horrific event. To spare her, authorities don't want to talk to her about what happened, but little do they know that she already knows, and with good reason.  This one was a gut wrencher, although I won't explain why.  It is my absolute favorite story in the entire book.

Then there's "Jenny Come to Play" by Terry Dowling, which gets positively eerie as you're making your way to the end.  It begins with a woman who says she has to get away and hide from her sister, so she has voluntarily committed herself to a mental hospital.  Her doctor doesn't believe any of her story, thinking the woman is delusional at best.  But when the sister actually does come to find her, the story starts to verge into American Horror Story territory with a beyond-bizarre twist.

I'm going to also include Peter Straub's "Ashputtle" here, a tale about a  kindergarten teacher who believes that "to be lived truly, life must be apprehended with an adventurous state of mind." In keeping with the Cinderella aspect of this short story, Mrs. Asch sees herself as having been damaged by her wicked stepmother and the "figments" that materialize after her mother's death,  but also sees herself in much the same role with her small charges. As she rambles on through her story, she lets out that a little girl is missing, having "partaken of the great adventure."  Very creepy indeed; as I said earlier, it's the human monsters you really have to worry about; this one is particularly unreliable as a narrator. Loved it.

Two honorable mentions here: first,  "Miss Ill Kept Runt," by Glen Hirshberg, because I didn't get it until after a second reading. It's a masterful play on a familiar tale; here, a family is heading out of town on vacation at the same time as the little daughter's birthday.  From the back of the station family station wagon, this little girl begins to realize that something is very, very off -- and as events play out, she discovers that she's not imagining things.  I only picked up the cleverness after the second read.  The second one that deserves calling out is Christopher Fowler's "Piano Man,"  a kind of mishmash of horror and noirish elements that come together nicely in this creepy little tale.   I love Christopher Fowler's work, and he's done a fine job here in his story of a freelance reporter sent to New Orleans to write about the city's secret side.  Entering a bar called Stormy's, he discovers the story he really wants to write.  This one is just beyond cool. Then again, I love noir stories so I can't help myself.

--now all the rest--

The Monstrous opens with Jeffrey Ford's contribution, "A Natural History of Autumn" which I've read before, and which I like. If you've ever read weird tales from Japan, Ford sort of captures that same feel here in his story about a couple who go off to an onsen,  a sort of guest house built around natural hot springs. The scene is set for love and romance, but well, this is a horror story, so think again.   Dale Bailey's "Giants in the Earth" comes next. "The Lord is with us," says one member of a coal-mining crew while trying to blow open another coal seam deep beneath the ground, and he doesn't know how right he is.  While trying to see what's holding things up in the process, one of the crew makes an astounding discovery that he absolutely cannot believe he's seeing. But it's holding up progress, so it has to be gotten rid of.  Caitlin R. Kiernan splits her story "The Beginning of the Year Without a Summer,"  between a cemetery in Providence and a strange party at a home in Federal Hill.  A transplanted southern woman now teaching at Brown, birds and an odd book  feature in both parts. This one I'll probably have to read again since I have several question marks floating in my head, but the writing is so damn good.   The next one, "A Wish From a Bone" written by Gemma Files  is another one I've read in another Datlow collection, Fearful Symmetries.  It's kind of a modern pulpy don't-open-that-tomb kind of thing, where a TV film crew shooting a show segment somewhere in the middle east discover why they shouldn't have once they've done it.  Oops.  To be beyond honest, I didn't at all care for Livia Llewellyn's "The Last, Clean, Bright Summer" -- this one is truly monstrous and not in a good way at all.

Adam Troy-Castro writes an interesting story about a monster (yes, a true-blue monster) who knows only killing.  "The Totals" takes place in a diner where a group of joke-cracking monsters is hanging out along with a man in "Coke-bottle eyeglasses". In  many ways it's humorous, but ultimately even monsters need release at some point.  This one was so offbeat I couldn't help but like it. Connecticut is the setting for Kim Newman's contribution, "The Chill Clutch of the Unseen," another true-blue monster story in which an old retired cop with family history going back generations meets up with the last monster, who, like the rest of the monsters that have passed through, "came to town to make a last stand."  Brian Hodge returns to a Datlow collection with his "Our Turn Too Will One Day Come," which involves longstanding family secrets that the narrator has never been privy to.  It is only after a call for help from his sister that he discovers exactly what those secrets entail.  And, as he also discovers, his family is much like others out there, but in their own way.   I love the idea of a lineage of women holding family secrets. The next two were just gross, a quality I don't find fun in horror of any sort.   "Grindstone" by Stephen Graham Jones opens with a dying Derle wondering if the sheep that's about to give birth will produce a litter that will take after their old man, and sadly, as much as I loved the two novels I've read by author Adam Nevill, I just wasn't taken with his story "Doll Hands," which was just too much for me. I'm probably the only one on the planet who doesn't care for gross of any sort in my horror stories, but well, it's what it is.

Sofia Samatar is up next with her "How I Met the Ghoul."  In the fifth century, poet Ta'abbata Sharran had the dubious pleasure of meeting a ghoul;  later in the 21st century, a reporter meets her over a meal at an airport.  I read this story as a commentary on the "ghoul's dream" of  modern development laying civilization to waste. Not very horrific in terms of skin crawl, but it does make some very good points.  Skipping ahead to "Chasing Sunset," by A.C. Wise,  we encounter the son of a familiar figure whose father is dying and calling him home. Not a particular fan of this one.  Moving on, I've already read Steve Rasnic Tem's "The Monster Makers," appreciating it a bit more this time around than the last. It's the story of a family which "for ages" has been shunned, "thought to be witches, demons, and worse." While the modern-day son wants to live a normal life with his wife and children, the grandfather wants to ensure his children know and understand their heritage.  The two butt heads, but not before some nasty mayhem ensues.

 Last, but not least, is John Langan's "Corpsemouth,"  in which a young man, his mom, and his sister return to Scotland, the home of his parents prior to emigrating to America thirty years earlier.  He is beset by strange dreams, but even stranger is the story of "Corpsemouth" told by his uncle.  His cousin tells him it's malarkey, but is it really?  

So there you have it.  Would I recommend The Monstrous? The answer is certainly yes, but I'll repeat what Datlow says in her introduction:  ""monstrosity is in the eye of the beholder."  And that is definitely true.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

a bit late to this party, but playing catch-up again: Aickman's Heirs (ed.) Simon Strantzas

Undertow Publications, 2015
263 pp


I read this book back when it first came out -- in fact, I'd preordered a signed copy directly from Undertow,  but then Aickman's Heirs showed up on Amazon and impatient soul that I am, I bought a copy to tide me over until the signed one arrived.  I am a HUGE Aickman fan, although a relative newbie to his work. So when I started this book, I didn't want  pastiche or copycat, and thankfully, I got neither, although  Nina Allan’s “Change of Scene” revisits one of Aickman's most head-scratching tales ever, "Ringing the Changes."   As far as the book as a whole, it's a collection that absolutely should not be missed, and I'm here to tell you that I am incredibly picky when it comes to strange fiction. 

Some time back, when I first started looking at Aickman 's work, and as I was trying to get more of a feel for him and for his work, I came across and bookmarked an article at The Millions called "The Art of Terror: Robert Aickman's Strange Tales."  Here, the author of the piece wrote the following:
"Aickman's readers are a bit like the narrator of "The Inner Room," who never gains access to her forlorn dollhouse's hidden sanctum where all mystery is laid bare.  What one remembers most from Aickman's stories are not the ghosts, vampires, psychopaths, goddesses, or lake monsters, but rather a feeling of dread and a lingering doubt over the precise nature of the epiphany, or atrocity, that seems to have occurred.  After reading an  Aickman tale, one feels as if one's vision is occluded by the very "self-renewing, perennial" debris that covers every surface of the mansion in "The Unsettled Dust," a story in which the prying narrator is curtly told: "The key of your room doesn't open every door." And perhaps that's for the best; some locked doors should remain unopened."
My feeling about Aickman's Heirs is that the majority of these stories leave that "lingering doubt over the precise nature of the epiphany, or atrocity, that seems to have occurred," and that there are most definitely stories in this collection that represent the feel of  "locked doors" that "should remain unopened."  Nearly all of these tales left me with that uneasy feeling that something is just so very wrong here, so very off-kilter, but yet explanations as to the underlying whys often proved elusive and left me scratching my head and putting on the proverbial thinking cap. In other words, in my own non-literary-person sort of way, and as a reader of strange tales,  Aickman's Heirs works very well both conceptually and on an individual-author basis.  And frankly, a handful of these stories just knocked my socks off. 

This is going to be a lengthy post as it is, and because of time/space considerations,  I'm not going to even attempt to offer interpretations of these stories here (hopefully you can find them elsewhere on the internet), so now, without further ado, I give you my casual reader's  look at Aickman's Heirs: 

This collection opens with "Seaside Town," by Brian Evenson, and it is good enough to have whetted my appetite for what's about to come next.    A man named Hovell  with clear-cut life boundaries finally goes off on a vacation even though it's not his idea but rather that of Miss Pickaver, whose arrival "had changed a lot of things" in his life. After she'd "swept into his life and into his bed," she takes him to a seaside town in where he doesn't even understand the language.  She goes off on her own four-day adventure leaving him to himself; when she returns, expecting the "Same old James," she's in for a big surprise.  It is followed by Richard Gavin's  "Neithernor" which turned out to be  one of my favorite stories in this book, taking on the form of a waking nightmare.  Our narrator here discovers quite by accident that his distant cousin Vera is responsible for a  very different, bizarre and "highly unique" form of art; he also discovers that she's also "become swallowed up in a life" he "can only describe as leprous," and needed rescuing.  God. I read this one three times and it got creepier (and more headscratching) every time. This is probably the most nightmare-oriented, atmospheric story in the entire collection. John Howard's fantastic contribution, "Least Light, Most Night," centers on two men who work at the same place and who had "occupied adjacent desks for several years" without even knowing each other's first names. That's about to change when Mr. Bentley extends an invitation to Mr. Thomas to come to his house, where he brings up his "little society" that celebrates winter solstice, the day of "least light, most night."  It's a very clever story that will literally chill you to the bone,  no pun intended, largely because of its implications.  "Camp," by David Nickle follows two newly-married men who've decided to do some lake kayaking in northern Ontario for their honeymoon.  An older couple in their seventies catches up to them at a small-town grocery store, congratulating them on their marriage.  As the newlyweds return to their  car after buying supplies, the older couple is gone, but they've left an invite for the two men to join them, along with a map to their lakeside home. The rest...well, I'll just say that it's one of those stories where the ending may be up for grabs, depending on reader perception.   "Camp" also reminded me a bit of Algernon Blackwood -- and that's a good thing.  Another story in this collection that didn't remind me so much of Aickman but of another novel I've recently read is "A Delicate Craft" by D.P. Watt.  A Polish laborer who came to the UK for work now finds that good jobs are hard to come by.  A chance encounter leads him to an elderly woman from a family of lace makers, who invites him to come round and look at her work, and she also offers to show him how to do it. During his visit, he is introduced to her craft and invited to try it himself; eventually he becomes quite skilled at lace making.  What starts out as a poignant story takes a strange turn, a twist I never saw coming. Strangely enough, however, in many ways, the ending sort of reminded me a bit of what happens at the end of  Bernard Taylor's novel, The Moorstone Sickness.  Go figure that one, but I flashed on it immediately.

borrowed from AZ quotes

"Seven Minutes in Heaven" is by Nadia Bulkin, and the title refers to "the length of time it takes for a soul to fly to God." Much more interestingly, though, it is the story of a woman looking back on her life in a small town "full of the walking dead." I won't say more about this one but in some ways, it sort of reminded me of Aickman's "The Same Dog."  Michael Cisco, who writes some of the most bizarre weird/strange/dark fiction I've ever read in my life joins the party with his "Infestations."  It begins with a woman's (Miriam) return to New York after a ten-year absence to pack up the apartment of another Miriam, for whom young Miriam was named, now dead. She's there to "scrub away Miriam's traces, so that Miriam's possessions could also be buried and the spell of home could be broken." As she also notes, "Her parents and the family's satellites were always pairing the two of them, even now that the elder Miriam was dead this was still happening."  Take that idea, and run with it, and it becomes downright inexplicable and creepy.  "The Dying Season," by Lynda E. Rucker.  My favorite line in this story is this: "You must not look at goblin men, you must not buy their fruit."  It is explained like this: " aren't supposed to eat fairy food or you'll be trapped with them forever." Ah.  It all starts in the off season, when Sylvia and John spend time at a leisure resort that John used to go to as a child. Things are not well between the two, but the situation gets weirder when they meet another couple staying at the same place. There is something off-kilter here, or then again, maybe there's  not. You be the judge.  Turning now to "A Discreet Music," Michael Wehunt weaves mythology into his story about an older man who has recently lost his wife and who, on reflecting on things and wondering if he can recapture a meaningful moment from his past, begins his own sort of strange transformation. 

 Next up,  John Langan's "Underground Economy"  centers around two strippers (one with a unique tattoo) who ply their craft at a club called The Cusp. A chance visit (?) to the club by a group of very tall men who reminded the narrator of "stone heads on Easter Island" leads one of them on a very different path.  I'm still not sure about this one, a definite headscratcher, but then again, a lot of Langan's stories are like that ... requiring multiple readings in order to peel back the layers.  This one is just odd -- but in a great way.   With apologies to Helen Marshall, "The Vault of Heaven," admittedly wasn't in my list of favorites for this book, but well, that's how anthologies go sometimes, isn't it? In this story, set just prior to the launch of Sputnik, an idealistic British scholar in Greece with the ability to "behold in my mind the shape of a thing as it was once, its true form" learns exactly what beauty is and isn't. On the other hand,  two coming-of-age stories, "Two Brothers," by Malcolm Devlin and "The Lake" by Daniel Mills (whose novel Revenant  gave me a nice case of the willies)  kept replaying themselves in my head after I'd read them.  Devlin's given us a  rather sad but eerie (and I do mean eerie) coming-of-age story in which a young boy eagerly  awaits the return of his older brother from boarding school, while Mills' offering finds three boys whose adult lives have definite ties to their childhood pasts.     

The first of the last two stories of this collection is Nina Allan's nicely-done "Change of Scene," which revisits the small seaside town that served as the setting for Aickman's exquisite "Ringing the Changes." I'll just say that I needn't have worried about pastiche -- her delightfully fresh take on the original is well worth exploring.  And last, but certainly not least, is Lisa Tuttle's story "The Book That Finds You." As a fanatical book lover and as someone always looking  for volumes of old, strange tales, I truly appreciated this tale of a young woman who comes across a very limited edition of a book by an author who just may be familiar (although in disguise) to anyone reading Aickman's Heirs.  Lisa Tuttle has long been a personal favorite and she doesn't disappoint here.  

You can certainly read Aickman's Heirs without having read Aickman, but I would highly recommend reading at least a few of Aickman's strange tales before you pick up this one.  Overall, this book is a wonderful collection of stories that will wreak a bit of havoc with your brain before you turn the last page. You certainly couldn't ask for more than that.