Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories, ed. Tara Moore

Valancourt Books, 2016
291 pp

" ... What is their use; what good ever comes from these departed souls' revisiting the glimpses of the moon, and by sights, signs, or sounds, holding converse with us of the visible world?" 
                                               --  W.W. Fenn, "The Haunted Rock," 200

Fenn poses a very good question here, one that is answered in different ways throughout this collection of Victorian Christmas ghost stories,  a mix of thirteen (of course!) tales. The Valancourt crew has outdone itself with this book, and editor Tara Moore should also be given major pats on the back for her outstanding work here.  Each story begins with a brief introduction to the author, along with a brief note or two as to where his or her story first appeared in print.  And for people like me who are afflicted with full-on geekiness, every now and then there's the added bonus of footnotes providing references for further study. 

According to Tara Moore, author of Victorian Christmas in Print [which you can read about here and which I would seriously kill to own but (and with sincere apologies)  at its current price that just won't be happening] writes in her introduction that 
"The season of Christmas coincides with the shortest days of the year, and for middle-class Victorians, a chance for families to reconnect in story-telling circles. Urban dwellers, disconnected from village legends, simply picked up a magazine specially made to lace children's dreams with terror. The bleak, shadow-filled walk from the story circle to one's dark bedroom presented an uncomfortably eerie space to reflect on the mental images conveyed by those grisly tales."
She also reveals that ghosts were not a product of the Victorian era  -- they had been "a staple of both periodicals and Christmas for a century before the Victorian Christmas publishing boom."  When taxes raised the price of periodicals, "ghosts resorted to starring in oral accounts." It was a tradition shared and enjoyed by the poor as well as the rich.   The 1820s and the 1830s saw the rise in popularity of the Christmas literary annual, and special periodicals began to appear, their publishers either printing "special Christmas numbers or simply tailoring their December and January numbers for Christmas reading, and that meant ghosts."    One more interesting factoid and I'll move along:  women were huge contributors to ghost-story literature, producing "between fifty and seventy percent of all ghost fiction from the nineteenth century."

On with the stories now.  True-blue fans of the Victorian ghost story will recognize the names of most of the authors whose work has found their way into this collection, and there are also four "anonymous" contributions.   While I won't go into any sort of description for any of these tales, the table of contents reads as follows:

1. "The Tapestried Chamber," by Sir Walter Scott
2. "The Old Nurse's Story," by Elizabeth Gaskell 
3. "Horror: A True Tale," by John Berwood Harwick
4. "Bring Me a Light!" by Anonymous
5. "Old Hooker's Ghost," by Anonymous
6. "The Ghost's Summons," by Ada Buisson
7. "Jack Layford's Friend," by Anonymous
8. "How Peter Parley Laid a Ghost," by Anyonymous
9. "A Mysterious Visitor," by Ellen Wood
10. "The Haunted Rock," by W.W. Fenn
11. "The Lady's Walk," by Margaret Oliphant
12. "The Captain of the Pole-Star," by Arthur Conan Doyle

and last, but certainly by no means least,

13. "The Doll's Ghost," by F. Marion Crawford

For avid readers and aficionados of eerie classic tales, this collection is manna from Victorian ghost-story heaven. 

Snuggle up with a cup of your favorite hot brew, wrap up in a cozy blanket, light a fire in the fireplace, and prepare to be transported out of this world and back through time.  This is the ultimate perfect book for Christmas reading, but it's also ideal for any other time of the year. I have the hardcover edition, but it's also available in paperback and there's a Kindle version as well.  It is a lovely book, and most definitely now a treasured part of my own personal collection.  

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Things We Lost in the Fire: Stories, by Mariana Enriquez

Hogarth, 2017 (February)
208 pp

arc -- thanks thanks thanks to LibraryThing and to the publisher for my copy.

I loved this book. Absolutely loved this book. Given my preference for works from the past, that should be a clue that it's beyond excellent. 

A short-story collection from Argentinian author Mariana Enríquez, Things We Lost in the Fire is a tough book to describe, and I can't really go too deeply into any of these stories without giving away too much of the show.  It is a mix of realism and just sheer terror, either in a true-to-life sense, for example, in the horrific actions of the soldiers or the experience of powerlessness from "Spiderweb," or in other stories here which combine the very real horrors of the streets or contemporary inner anxieties with the supernatural to make them doubly terrifying. It doesn't take long for the book to affect you -- you need turn no further than the first story "The Dirty Kid" to see just how chilling these stories are.  While reading that one, the outer world faded once again, and there I was on the dark, frightening streets of the city where just taking a walk at night could feasibly get you killed or worse. And trust me, that was the least of the narrator's worries in this tale.

Things We Lost in the Fire is incredibly disturbing -- I made the mistake of starting "The Invocation of the Big-Eared Runt"  last night just before bedtime and actually had to put the book down or I would been awake all night due to the crushing and downright terror-laden subject matter. In this story, as in a number of stories that follow, reality meets horror and at some point the jolt from the collision hits you like the proverbial ton of bricks. Even reading this book this morning and afternoon in the daylight didn't help to lessen its impact  -- it is one of the most raw, frightening, and gut-punching books I've read this year, and to her credit, there is not a bad story in the entire book. The final story, in fact, "Things We Lost in the Fire," is so damn good, so utterly powerful in what it has to say, but at the same time so very squirmworthy that you just can't look away.

The approach she uses of writing about contemporary society within the framework of  the horror/supernatural fiction genre seems to allow the author a lot of flexibility in discussing a number of different issues, most especially those pertaining to women,  and the best part is that it's so very well done that readers will be able to quickly draw their own conclusions without having to rely on everything being spelled out for them.   Also, while it's not stated so overtly,  in pretty much every story there are echoes of Argentina's past, which is never far away from its present -- I couldn't help noticing the many disappearances in these stories, and then there's this quotation from "No Flesh Over My Bones" :
"We walk all over bones in this city, it's just a question of making holes deep enough to reach the buried dead." 
This book is certainly one of the best contemporary works I've read this year. In this day and age, when so much of what's coming from the big publishing houses seems to be stuck in the mode of same old same old, Things We Lost in the Fire was a huge and very welcome surprise.  It appeals not only because of content, but it's also an intelligent book asking readers to think.  Enríquez brings a fresh new voice and perspective to the realm of dark fiction and does so with purpose.

Sadly, this book will not be out until February of 2017, but the good news is that people have something to look forward to.  Highly, beyond-highly, recommended.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Shadows Gothic and Grotesque: Black Spirits and White, by Ralph Adams Cram; Tales of the Supernatural by James Platt

Coachwhip Publications, 2010
206 pp


I don't know how I keep finding these old books, but find them I do, and I haven't stumbled onto a bad one yet. I'm sure that day will come, but for now, I've been absolutely delighting in this collection of a dozen supernatural tales, first Black Spirits and White, by Ralph Adams Cram, followed by James Platt's Tales of the Supernatural.

Staring with Black Spirits and White, I'll digress from the book itself for a moment to offer up a very brief bio of the author, since I feel it's important to try to have at least some measure of familiarity of all the writers whose work I read.  Ralph Adams Cram (1863-1942) was a renowned architect, who in December of 1926 even made it onto the cover of Time magazine.

from Time website

While there is a ton of information about Cram all over the internet -- all you have to do is google him, Douglas Shand-Tucci has written two biographies of him:  Boston Bohemia 1881-1900 (1996) and then a study of his later years in Ralph Adams Cram: An Architect's Four Quests (2005). [Admittedly, I haven't read either, but I do think I'll try to lay hands on Boston Bohemia after the Christmas holidays.] At LambdaLiterary, writer Jameson Currier notes that in Boston Bohemia Shand-Tucci
"alleged that the architect and his circle were closeted homosexual men who demonstrated their sexuality through their designs. Cram was a well-traveled man fascinated by the supernatural, and it is possible, with many of these stories constructed of 'tales of two men agoing ghost-hunting,' to imbue a hidden sexuality to these tales in the same manner as Cram's architecture is now regarded," 
and I will say that I marked quite a number of places in Cram's book where I'm thinking the same.

Daniel McCarthy in his review of Shand-Tucci's later book at The University Bookman states that the author is on the money when he places
 "Cram's sexual, aesthetic, and religious sensibilities on the same map as those of Oscar Wilde, J-K Huysmans, and Frederick Rolfe ('Baron Corvo') ..."
Anyway, now to the book, which is a collection of six short ghostly tales, and I loved every damn one of them. Published in 1895, the original text has a postscript that reads (in part)
"There seem to be certain well-defined roots existing in all countries, from which spring the current legends of the supernatural; and therefore for the germs of the stories in this book the Author claims no originality."
The "germs" may not be original, but Cram's own take on them is very well done.  While  researching Cram after having finished this collection, I came across someone's little blurb about this book which said that setting aside "The Dead Valley," the remainder of the book consists of (and I quote) the "some-guys-stay-overnight-in-a-haunted-mansion-sing-tally-ho kind of stories," and I can tell you here and now it's much, much, much more than that. Reading carefully, one discovers that setting, landscape, and history are all very important in many of these tales, as is architecture,  which is carefully and artfully described in pretty much every single story except for "The Dead Valley," reflecting Cram's life work.

Flipflopping, I'll start with the last story, "The Dead Valley," since is likely Cram's most famous, since it's appeared in several horror/weird fiction anthologies.  It is a stand-out story in this book, noticeably different from its predecessors, and follows the "tale-within-a-tale" format, related by a man whose friend, a Swedish immigrant, underwent a horror he will never forget as long as he lives, and who came to the US in order to escape the horrific things he'd experienced. I am not going to go any further than that as far as any sort of plot description, but it is certainly an uncomfortable, squirmworthy, and haunting tale.  The rest of the stories (in order, and going undescribed here in this post)  in this volume are "No. 252 Rue M. Le Prince," where I discovered the ultimate perfect name for a reputedly-haunted house, "La Bouche d'Enfer; "In Kropfsberg Keep," which is one of the creepiest tales in this book; "The White Villa," which I also enjoyed but not nearly as much as "Sister Maddelena," which appealed due to its old, secluded convent setting and a couple of pretty evil nuns and because it turns out to be a sort of detective story; and then there is "Notre Dame des Eaux," set in Breton, another one I absolutely loved.

 And now we come to the second group of stories, Tales of the Supernatural (1894) written by James Platt (1861-1910).  The full title of this book is actually Tales of the Supernatural: Six Romantic Stories, and sadly, I am just not able to find much about the author, except that he was a contributor to the OED in the area of word etymologies, specializing in obscure words.

This book has a very old-world feel about it that resonates with some other books I've read, like Cazotte's The Devil in Love or even works by Meyrink that bring to the fore the hidden, occult underbelly of Europe, and I don't know about anyone else, but that kind of stuff just grabs me and doesn't let go.   Once again, I won't be describing the contents in any sort of detail, but in the first two stories alone, "The Seven Sigils" and "The Hand of Glory" I discovered he'd included sorcery, an alraune made from a mandrake, a golem, and a werewolf among other things, before moving onto "The Rabbi Lion," "The Evil Eye," "The Witches Sabbath", which isn't what one might think but  way better, and finally, "The Devil's Debt." There are several common threads connecting each story in this book, one very huge one being rivalries between men in love with the same woman.  Where he takes that basic idea is different in each case; suffice it to say that sometimes deals might just be needed to be made with the "fallen angel" in Hell once in a while. If I was a kid back in the 1890s reading this stuff, I'd probably have had the wits scared out of me --  Platt doesn't hold back in horror/creep factor at any point.

Potential readers should be aware that his writing style is definitely not for the faint of heart, but once into the groove, it's easy to pick up the rhythms of the writing.  The language can be downright archaic, but anyone who is truly an aficionado of older Victorian works won't have any issues.  However, it is so worth the time and energy because these are absolutely great stories.

Overall, Shadows Gothic and Grotesque is a no-miss book for people like myself who are constantly on the lookout for new-to-me obscure writers of what I'd consider quality supernatural/horror/ghostly fiction from the past. Reading happiness is right here folks, and once again it's from Coachwhip.  For me it's yet another ahhhh read where I just let myself get sucked right in and never wanted to leave.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Cast a Cold Eye, by Alan Ryan

Valancourt Books, 2016
originally published 1984
243 pp


"There's no denying the blood, Jack. No denying the blood." 

Someone should yell at the Kirkus reviewer of this novel who said it's  "A sluggish, unevocative ghost-chaser involving sanguinary rites in old Ireland...with lots of pleasant Irish ambience -- but the story doesn't add up."  Boo hiss!!  So wrong on so many levels.  Then again, a couple of weeks ago I read a Publishers' Weekly review of another book that got the details completely wrong (even calling a narrator "unnamed" when her name was everywhere throughout the book), so my faith in these mega-reviewing websites is quickly starting to decline.

Looking around online to find info about the author, Alan Ryan, I was taken with just how many fans this guy has.  The favorite among so many people seems to be his Dead White, which Grady Hendrix at Tor's website said in a 2014 post was "about Killer Clowns on a Circus Train of Death attacking a snowbound community."  Frankly, that's enough of a description to make me never want to read that book, but it is certainly the most mentioned when someone's talking about this author.

Thankfully no clowns at all make an appearance in Cast a Cold Eye, which is set in the small village of Doolin, Ireland, about one and a half hours south of Galway on the coast. It is an area steeped in history; as is the entire country. As the author tells us:
"Here, in a land as ancient as Ireland, history was only yesterday, and the distant past breathed fresh and sharp and painful in living memory." 
There are two stories at work here that will, given time and above all circumstance, ultimately converge.  The novel begins with a scene that launches the first of these, as four men are waiting in a shabeen trying to keep warm while awaiting a funeral procession before going on to an ancient graveyard to perform some strange rites. As good writers will, Ryan gives us no explanations, so the question of what's going on here and why is planted in the reader's head from the outset and stays in the back of the mind throughout the novel until all is revealed.  Great way to start a horror novel, if you ask me.  The second storyline belongs to Jack Quinlan, who has come to Ireland, home of his ancestors,  to do some research on a novel he's writing about the Famine. More specifically, his book is about
"a family and its struggles to survive through the Famine of 1846 and 1847, and about the horrible thing ... that happened to three members of his family in particular."
Jack takes a house in the rather isolated village of Doolin, planning to stay for three months, and it isn't too long before he sets up a nice routine of research, writing, and sometimes hanging out at the local pubs, where traditional music is played of an evening.  He's met a girl, Grainne, to whom he's very much attracted, and all seems to be well with him right up until the moment when he starts to see and hear some very disturbing things which seem to follow him whenever he's out and about. And then one night, while he's out, he witnesses something he knows is real, but has no explanation for.  The only person he can talk to about it is the local priest Father Henning, the local seanachie who loves telling eerie stories, yet is reluctant at best to talk with Jack about his experiences. The question becomes whether or not Jack's actually experiencing these horrific things -- is the research he's doing getting to him, or is it the remoteness and isolation of the place that's affecting him?  And if it is true that Jack is not going off his rocker but is really seeing what he thinks he's seeing, why him?

In this novel, the central imagery is blood. Blood here implies one's heritage, the Eucharistic rites, and above all, the suffering of the people caught up in the horrific Famine years.  As Thomas Gallagher in his wonderful book Paddy's Lament, Ireland 1846-1847: Prelude to Hatred tells it, perhaps the most horrific thing is that
"during the first winter of famine, 1846-47, as perhaps 400,000 Irish peasants starved, landlords exported 17 million pounds sterling worth of grain, cattle, pigs, flour, eggs, and poultry -- food that could have prevented those deaths." 
And, as the back cover blurb states, as Jack continues to look for answers, he comes to discover that
"the ghosts of the past linger on into the present, and they cry out for blood..."
and this is definitely true, but perhaps not at all in the way that one would expect from a 1980s horror story.

Two more insight-type things and I'll call it a day. First, careful reading will reveal that the author was very much aware of Irish history, and little bits tend to crop up here and there that signal his sympathies. Second, I'm in awe of how the rugged Irish landscape becomes so deftly interwoven into this tale, reminding me in a remote way of the work of Le Fanu, whose work also included the landscape in his stories so that history, landscape and story all mingle together as one inseparable unit. The same is true here as well.

Reading Cast a Cold Eye is to find yourself in the middle of an eerie mystery that grows darker and creepier along the way, one that is not solved up until the last minute.  A lot of readers have noted, like the Kirkus reviewer, that the story "doesn't add up," that there are too many loose ends, yada yada yada, but it all made perfectly good sense to me.  I won't say why, since I'm sure many people will want to read this novel, but the answers really are all there. My regular habit is to finish a novel and then go back and reread the first chapter, and in this case, it's a hugely eye-opening moment, stunningly circular in nature. It may not scare the bejeebies out of modern horror readers, but for those of us who aren't looking for chainsaw-wielding killer clowns or the like, it's a delightful tale of ghostly horrors that will stay in your head for a long time after turning that last page.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Clark, by Brendan Connell

Snuggly Books, 2016
355 pp

paperback - my copy from Snuggly Books, so major thank yous, hugs, etc.,  I send to Anna for keeping me posted about what's new and upcoming.

"But great art is like this. It sleeps until people remember it again. Until wise men see that not only the beautiful is beautiful and that sublime things are done in relative obscurity, simply because this is the will and the play of the universe and people in all parts and occupations try all they can to be something other and distract themselves from nature..."

I just love reading Brendan Connell's books, which I'd say are tough to classify under any sort of mainstream pigeonholing system. His latest, Clark,  is a mix of funny, witty, strange and disturbing; put together with his rather unique writing style, the book appeals to my love of the offbeat.  Who else could possibly write a novel about a guy from Paraguay who finds himself taken over by a "legendary spirit" and goes on to become a sought-after actor in, as the back cover notes, "sword and sandal epics, spaghetti westerns and gialli" and pull it off so well?

I first realized that Clark and I were destined for each other when I started laughing out loud not too far into the novel.  Eric Clark, "one of the best actors of his generation," started life as José Fernando del Torres.  His dad sold transistor radios in a small shop in Asunción, Paraguay, mom was "an expert at cooking puchero and river fish," who liked to remind him that his grandfather was eaten by caimans. As a boy Clark was into radio dramas, most especially Aventuras de Tiburcio Vasquez, a "Californio bandit" whom grown-up Clark would "later claim himself to be a reincarnation of."

-- See what I mean by offbeat? This warped craziness has my name written all over it. --

He was a born actor. As a child, little José's mom enrolled him a small little theater troupe, which put on plays in which he played Herod, a "Bad Soul," and Satan.  He was fifteen during the Paraguayan Civil War in 1947, sympathizing with the rebels.  After it was all over, "revolution was still firmly planted in the consciousness of the young," and our young friend started reading Marx and Max Stirner just before his dad sent him to America to get an education. Then in 1955, his life changed when after a night watching a double feature of The Treasure of Bengal and Khyber Patrol he was visited by a man he recognizes  who was holding "something in his hand" which he pressed into José's chest -- talent. From that day he realized that
"He had something inside himself that he needed to express, to let cry out -- so many voices, vipers and it was as if there were suddenly vast spaces open before him, a previously unfelt liberty and the characters around him, the people in the street, seemed to be laid bare, the mechanisms that made them who they were -- the strange psychosis that each individual carried within them .."
leading him to join the Actors' Studio and to go on to make a number of films. But Clark is a person who has a destiny to fulfill... and with that, I will say no more.  I know I say this to the point where it's becoming cliché even to me, but Clark is a novel a person really has to experience on his/her own without someone giving away the entire show.

The book, as I said, mixes humor, satire, history, and beautiful little gems of wisdom, and I love the central focus on cinema and especially acting as a vehicle through which the author makes some really excellent, spot-on observations, which again, I will leave for others to discover.  Word to the wise: some time back I read a post by someone reading House of Leaves in which this person had decided to forego the footnotes, which made me sort of inner scream/cringe/eyeroll since Danielewski didn't just throw those in to be clever or pretentious.I mean, come on --   they're part of the text of that excellent novel and are there for a reason. I mention this because Clark has a lot of footnotes which need to be treated as text so do NOT skip them. Seriously -- why would you only read part of a book?  Another thing -- Connell is a master of mixing things up textually and stylistically, so if you're looking for straight narrative, forget it.  There is nothing average or mainstream going on here, and quite frankly, for me that's a definite plus.

Some day soon, a real reviewer is going to come along and put everything in perspective about this novel.  That's not me -- I'm a reader, not a writer, and I've never pretended otherwise.  At the same time,  I know when I've found something refreshingly unique that ticks a lot of my inner boxes,  and this book is definitely it.  Why settle for same old same old when you can lose yourself in something this good?

Monday, November 28, 2016

if you really want to scare yourself silly, then by all means read this: It Can't Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis

Signet/New American Library/Penguin, 2005
originally published 1935
384 pp

paperback (read earlier)

Given what's going on in American politics right now, this book wins my prize for most frightening read of 2016.

To put the novel in its historical perspective, I turn to an article in the New Yorker written by  Alexander Nazaryan  (October 19th of this year) that says

"Sinclair Lewis published the novel as Adolf Hitler was making Germany great again, violating the Treaty of Versailles by establishing the Wehrmacht. Benito Mussolini invaded Ethopia. Things at home weren't much better: a race riot in Harlem, dust storms in the Midwest. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act, but the promise of the New Deal remained unfulfilled for many. The Times, that November, reported on a meeting of the New Jersey Bankers Association, whose president offered a blunt assessment of the national mood: 'America is tired of adventure and anxious,' the man of industry said. The people wanted 'safety and conservatism again.' "

 I'm not going to go into any detail here,  but the man at the center of American politics in this story  is Berzelius (Buzz) Windrip, a seemingly down-home sort of populist candidate who ran against FDR and won, due to his appeal to potential voters who are in agreement with his rhetoric about financial security and anti-immigrant nativism. Once in office, he begins to usher in
" a fascistic regime of suppression, terror, and totalitarianism -- all draped up in red, white, and blue bunting." (ix)
Standing against Windrip is (dare I say it?) the liberal media, here represented in the character of Doremus Jessup of Fort Beulah, Vermont.  Jessup completely gets what's really going on and feels a deep need to channel his outrage into some sort of action. As things continue to get worse, as institutions designed to safeguard American democracy are shut down one by one, well, you get the drift.

The novel reveals how it can happen here, but much more interesting to me was watching one character in particular, Shad Ledue, Jessup's very unhappy former handyman, "the kind of vindictive peasant who sets fire to barns."  Ledue is part of the working-class poor who feels he's not been given proper respect by his employer, so galvanized by Windrip's rhetoric,  he throws  in his lot with Windrip and the single political party the Corpos, and starts moving up the ladder of power with revenge against Jessup his number one priority.  

Considering the huge number of page tabs I stuck in this book, I obviously I found plenty to think about here, and I could easily talk about this novel for hours.  But I won't. I read this book through a day and an entire night -- no way was I going to put this one down before I finished.  The knots in my stomach got tighter and tighter -- quite frankly, I had a full-blown, serious case of paralyzing fear reading this book, and when the election came and went, well, it all came back to me again, making things even worse.  Even now, nearly a month after I finished it, it still has that same power.  It continues to stay active in the back of my head, making it a book worthy of every second of reading time I put into it. Not many novels can do that, quite frankly.

Someone said to me some time before the election that if things went a certain way, reading this book would be "moot," to which I say pish-posh, you're wrong.  Lewis wrote this novel as satire, and according to the introduction to this novel,  It Can't Happen Here  "gave shape" to a number of "anxieties" people faced during the 1930s, so it's very much a novel reflective of its time.  And as I replied to said person, good literature is never moot. If a book written some eighty years ago can weigh so heavily on the mind because of what's happening in America right now, well, that's one hell of a story, and by no means moot.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

something new in something old... Lonely Haunts, from Coachwhip Publications

Coachwhip Publications, 2014
362 pp


"I always know how to distinguish a true ghost-story from a faked one. The true ghost-story never has any point, and the faked one dare not leave it out." 

                  -- Mrs. H.D. Everett, "Anne's Little Ghost"  (288)

Technically I'm supposed to be reading Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me right now, but this long holiday weekend called for something floaty so I grabbed this book from  my shelves.   Fans of obscure or long-forgotten ghost-story writers will most certainly welcome this collection by Coachwhip, a "one-man publishing venture" with a lot of very cool titles. And damn the man -- the last few pages of this book are cover shots of other Coachwhip publications that I now feel compelled to buy, plus he has some interesting looking old mystery novels I want to pick up.   Aargh!

The only thing that would have made this book better would have been an introduction to the two authors, but I understand why there isn't one, at least in the case of Mrs. H.D. (Huskisson) Everett.   It's difficult to find out much about this woman  (1851-1923), who  between 1896 and 1920 published some twenty-two books under the name of Theo Douglas. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy of Science Fiction reveals that half of her books "had fantasy and supernatural content."  She wrote two Gothic novels for which she is most well known; one of these,  Iras,  is described (in part) at L.W. Currey as a
"Novel of magic and witchcraft and the raising of the dead. Young Egyptian woman is revived in England after seven centuries in a state of suspended animation in a priest's tomb at Luxor." 
 Another one for which she is known is her psychic vampire story Malevola (1914), with the "mysterious Madame Thérèse Despard," who is "able to draw into herself the beauty and vitality of another during the process of massage."  [Wait. I'm having a psychic moment myself here -- oooh weee ooooh --  I see myself curled up in a blanket reading both of these tales in 2017.]

On to Sir Thomas Graham Jackson (1835-1924), who is much more well known as a great architect. The blurb about Jackson in the Ash-Tree Press edition of his Six Ghost Stories (long out of print -- another reason to pick up this Coachwhip edition!) notes that he was
"celebrated in his day, as one of the foremost architects in England. His many commissions and restorations included extensive work at Oxford, Cambridge, and many English public schools, while his work at Winchester Cathedral between 1905 and 1912 almost certainly ensured that great church's survival to the present day." 
He was also a "keen traveller and antiquarian, whose journeys took him throughout Britain and Europe," and later he would use his experiences in writing "several ghost stories for the amusement of family and friends... collected together in book form in 1919."  His biography can be found in several places online, so we'll leave off there.

On to the book now, which is perfect for someone like me always on the lookout for obscure, forgotten writers and their works. First up,  Jackson's stories "were written in idle hours for the amusement of the home circle," as he says in the preface to his collection; he also notes that M.R. James (noted here as "the author of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary") lays down two conditions for a good story of the kind."  The first is that the "setting of the scene must be in ordinary life...so that one may say "This might happen now, and to me," and the second is "that the ghost must be malevolent," a rule that Jackson decided to "violate" in two of his stories.  I'll leave it to potential readers to discover which stories those are.  There are, of course, six tales here, the last four of which concern themselves with guilt, and  thus making for great ghostly reading

"The Lady of Rosemount," in which a houseguest ("a born antiquary") has a strange encounter in a an old chapel that replays in his dreams;
"The Ring" finds "la vecchia religione"  striking out for revenge when someone removes property from an old tomb;
"A Romance of the Picadilly Tube" is a tale of two brothers whose father's death and inheritance leads one down a path of temptation, with ghostly results;
"The Eve of St. John" is  a sort of mystery story from the past that finds its unknown ending played out in the present, and is my favorite story of the six;
"Pepina" finds a man in love facing disapproval by the brother of his beloved up until the day the brother dies and his troubles really begin; and finally
"The Red House," in which a murderer discovers that he's being haunted by a ghostly companion.

Obviously there's much more to those six tales but hey - if I say everything there is to say about them, well, then there's no point in anyone reading this book. And that would be a shame.

Onto the next part of this book, which is

courtesy of Internet Archive

There are so many well-crafted, creepifying tales here by Mrs. H.D. Everett that it's tough to pick a favorite. As the back-cover blurb notes, her tales are a mix of "...ghost stories, with family haunts, communication from the other side, malevolent curses, and more."  This is certainly true -- there is a good and varied selection of tales here that keep the reading fun without becoming too repetitious, which is always an issue in any ghost-story collection by a single author.  Some tend to follow along the same lines, but even so, they are definitely original in the telling.

Now that I'm thinking about it, three stories float to the top right away.   The title story, "The Death Mask," is just so flat out, unbelievably good that I could feel my eyes getting bigger while reading it, and I'm experiencing it nearly one hundred years after it was written. No spoilers or even the least bit of anything about this story here.  I also really enjoyed "The Next Heir," which finds Richard Quinton receiving news that he just might possibly be the heir to his second cousin's fortune and his estate.  As excited as he is about the whole thing, it's the conditions his second cousin places on the inheritance that are troubling.  This story is almost novella length, but the horror is sustained throughout. Another good one is "Nevill Nugent's Legacy," which is also the first of Everett's stories in this book to examine the changes and the trauma brought about by World War I, most notably from a female point of view.  Here Kenneth Campbell has returned from the war, which his wife notes had "made a great change in our circumstances," and if that wasn't bad enough, he'd come back "ill and broken." So when he is left a substantial legacy that can change their lives, the two are overjoyed ... until strange things begin to happen once they decide to visit their new property. It's a solid story of a gruesome haunting, sending those welcome frissons of horror up the spine.    The other stories are as follows:

"Parson Clench," a tale that takes place in a small, "deeply rural parish" where they say the people there "just begin to realise they are born when it is time for them to die, and that it takes at least as long to convince them they are dead."  And trust me, not everyone gets the hint that they've passed on in this story.   "The Wind of Dunowe" is set in an old Scottish castle, home to the MacIvors, who have a foolproof way of protecting what's theirs, as one guest will soon discover. "The Crimson Blind," also set in the Scottish highlands, starts out with two brothers deciding to pull a fast one over their cousin Robert in a house that is said to be haunted.  Years later  after acting as best man at his friend's wedding, Robert finds himself back at the house yet again, now the property of said friend. This time there's no suggestion of practical jokes when he starts having some weird visions.  Next up is "Fingers of a Hand," which is one of those stories I can't talk about so as not to wreck things, as is the case in "Anne's Little Ghost," another one which examines personal trauma and begs  the question of whether or not "some houses have a psychical atmosphere which can be variously moulded and used..."  These two little gems are followed by "Over the Wires," where a man seeking a family of Belgian refugees finally receives a call from their niece, who is also his fiancée. The problem is, however, that ... (!!!) The next one is "A Water Witch," where an overbearing sister is called on to help her brother who leaves his wife alone while he goes off on a shooting trip, and discovers why his wife was absolutely terrified at the thought of being alone.  It is sort of the same sort of tale as "Fingers of a Hand," so I will say no more, as is "A Girl in White."   "The Lonely Road" follows a man and his strange companion over eight miles as he walks a road at night where of late there have been a number of assaults and robberies.  "A Perplexing Case" is rather a unique tale that stands apart from all of the rest.  While it also has very much to do with postwar trauma, the story takes a bizarre turn that really is more science fictionish than ghostly, but certainly well worth the read. Finally, in "Beyond the Pale," we move to the American frontier where after some property is stolen, a woman decides to take back what is rightfully hers with some horrific consequences.

Overall, Lonely Haunts is a lovely, haunting, and seriously page-flipping collection, and even better, it's my introduction to  two more obscure writers, which is a major  big deal for me.  Not all of the stories reach greatness, but I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't creeped out most of the time and highly entertained by the entire book.  Anyone can read what's current or read tales from the past that are already very well known, but for me there's much more pleasure to be had in discovering forgotten writers and their stories that I never knew existed.

Coachwhip guy -- keep up the good work! I've read two Coachwhip collections now and have been blown away by both.  Highly recommended for that reader who wants something new in old ghostly fiction.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

campfire reading, part two of two: Devil in the Darkness, by Archie Roy

Valancourt Books, 2016
originally published 1978
158 pp


Book two of the campfire reads and oh, it's a good one! Then again, I'm a huge huge fan of haunted house stories; add in the "benighted" aspect and there's no holding me back.  Devil in the Darkness made me crazy happy -- sometimes I'm just in it for story and this book did not at all disappoint.

The author of this book is no fly-by-night dude who decided one day to write a book about a haunted house.  Archie Roy was a celebrated scientist, and in his introduction to this novel, Greg Gbur notes that
"what we have in Archie Roy's Devil in the Darkness is a truly unique novel: a haunted house tale written by a man who was simultaneously a professional physical scientist, a professional author, and a professional paranormal investigator." 
 While that's interesting to note, the real draw is the story itself -- it's one I couldn't put down until I'd finished the entire book.  I'm all about reading ambience, and with nature at night in the background -- owls calling, scuffling noises in the dried leaves on the ground, and the crackle of an open campfire in an otherwise silent darkness, I found the perfect setting for reading this book.

Set in Scotland, a newlywed couple on the way to their honeymoon destination find themselves lost and caught up in a horrific snowstorm. As the road begins to deteriorate, as the windshield wipers fail, and as the couple is unable to turn around to make it back to safety, Paul and Carol Wilson decide that it's time to take shelter anywhere they can find it. In the darkness they see a light, leading them to Ardvreck House.  The man who answers the door informs him that he and Carol are welcome to stay, and that all of the people currently in the house are "strangers."  Other than that bit of information, no one tells the newlyweds who are they are, where they're from, or why they're there in the house, but since the Wilsons plan on leaving in the morning, it doesn't seem too important at the time.  The newlyweds are given a room, where they bed down for the night. At about 2:20 a.m., Paul is awakened by strange sounds from the room above theirs, goes up to investigate, and finds nothing. The next day, they depart, but return to the house when they discover that the road ahead is no good, and they're stuck for the duration.  It is then when their housemates reveal what they're doing at Ardvreck House, and it is not long at all before the Wilsons become witnesses to strange events taking place there.  Discovering what lies at the heart of these dark doings becomes a quest for everyone in the house, but whatever it is that shares the house with these people isn't going to make things easy for them.

Greg Gbur in his introduction goes on to say that the revelation behind what's going on in this house "clearly draws upon Roy's own investigations and theories about hauntings," which makes the story even more fun to read, knowing that it comes from the mind of someone who's spent a lot of time in reputedly-haunted houses.  While it may not be the best haunted house story I've ever read (the honor there goes hands down to The Haunting of Hill House), it's definitely fun with a good, solid mystery at its core.  And when all is said and done, it's also highly satisfying and just oozes atmosphere.

With no gore and no guts spilling out anywhere, Devil in the Darkness reminds us that blood doesn't need to be splashed all over a horror novel's pages for it to provide good, solid entertainment and a story that will keep its reader turning pages.  I had a lot of fun with this book and once again, a salute to the Valancourt guys for liking it enough to re-introduce it into the reading world. I liked it enough to immediately buy two other books by Archie Roy, so that should say something right there.

campfire reading, part one of two: Muladona, by Eric Stener Carlson

Tartarus, 2016
290 pp


Trying to get myself mentally put back together after a few upsets over the last week or two, Larry and I just spent three days far  from the madding crowd in a cabin in the woods. No television, no people, nothing but silence and the smell of oak trees -- an environment beyond conducive to mental health repair and reading, so read I did, perfectly relaxed while laying out by a roaring campfire.   First book, this one, by Eric Stener Carlson, who is the author of one of my all-time favorite novels, The Saint Perpetuus Club of Buenos Aires (2009).  This time he's given his readers the tale of Muladona, "a doomed soul transformed into the devil's mule," based in part on an old Catalan legend.

This story belongs to Vergil Erasmus Strömberg (Verge),  who tells us at the beginning that years ago he'd promised never to reveal the story of what happened in 1918, but it seems that "recent events" have made it necessary to go back on his word.  His tale takes place in Texas, 1918, as the influenza epidemic rages through the small town of Incarnation.  He's a "sickly boy" whose world is pretty much confined to his house and his books, and those have to be smuggled in by a friend since Verge's father, a coldhearted and narrow-minded Scandinavian Protestant pastor, believes that "anything written after Dante's Inferno" is "pure debauchery."  Verge's brother Sebastian also has an interest of which his father wouldn't approve -- he is fascinated with mythology, anthropology, and mysticism; he also has a keen interest in "magical transformations into animals," and keeps his forbidden collection of books under the floorboards of his room.  When they were younger, they were also transfixed by others who would feed them creepy tales, and one of these centered on the legend of the muladona: 
"...when a woman commits an impure act, she becomes the devil-mule at night. She chooses her victims just like the first one ... the liars, the gossipers, the bad, li'l kids. And you'll hear her comin' for ya at night, by the way she clanks the chains of hell." 
As the flu wreaks death and devastation throughout Incarnation, Verge, now 13, finds himself alone in the family home.  His mother has been gone since he was seven, his father receives a telegram that takes him away from Incarnation to tend another pastor's flock, and Sebastian has run away from home with the idea of traveling "from reservation to reservation" across Texas to "record the stories of the elders before they disappear," as a volunteer doing ethnological surveys for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  The woman looking after him also has to leave to take care of her sister, so Verge is left on his own.  It isn't too long before he receives a strange telegram from his brother that at first Verge thinks is a joke, but in reality it is a warning that muladona is coming for him at midnight and an admonition to be prepared.  And when the visit takes place, this strange creature from hell tells Verge  that over the next seven nights,
"I will vi-isit you. Each night, I'll tell you a be-ed time story. Wrapped within the sto-ories are clues to the identity of the person who takes the form of this mi-ighty creature you see before you. A-any time you like, you can throw back the sheets and tell me who you think I am. If you're sma-art enough, Poof! I disappear, and you never have to see me again."
If he fails to guess the creature's name correctly, the muladona promises, Verge will be dragged down to hell. And so the stories begin, as does Verge's torment while he tries to make sense of what he's hearing.

If I try to explain further, I'll wreck things for potential readers, but there is a LOT going on in this book, starting with the intolerance of the good Christian folk who stopped in Incarnation and made it theirs, relegating the "descendents of the natives" who formerly lived in the town's "grand old mansions" to the status of menial servants. As the dustjacket blurb notes, the story takes the reader "through the dark history of Incarnation, from the murder of the Indians by the Spanish settlers..." so beware -- it is not at all pretty.   It's not too difficult to understand the subtext here, but the most interesting parts for me were the stories told by the muladona each night.  Oh my god -- I already knew that this author is one hell of a writer, but I was completely sucked into each story, each one pointing to some horrific realities not just for Verge but also in their repeating themes that I'll leave for others to discover.

I will say that I am not a big fan of monster stories, but sheesh -- this one had me tied up in knots as I waited for young Verge to figure things out.  And what's more, when I got to a part toward the end where Verge warns someone  of the muladona's  impending visit, it dawned on me that Mr. Carlson had set up a world here in which no one thinks our young lad is crazy, but one in which the existence of such a creature is just another part of the landscape.

Muladona is original, fresh, and above all, it is a thinking person's horror novel, which I genuinely appreciate.  It's not some slapdash book that's been thrown together -- au contraire -- it is very nicely constructed, well thought out and intelligently written.  I would expect no less from the author, whose The Saint Perpetuus Club of Buenos Aires is truly a work of genius. He continues that genius here.  Don't miss this one -- mine is the hardcover copy, but there is an e-book available as well. Highly, highly recommended for readers who enjoy the work of excellent writers and for people who like their horror novels more on the cerebral side.  This is a good one, folks.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Outcast Spirit and Other Stories, by Lady Dilke

Snuggly Books, 2016
150 pp

paperback - my copy from the publisher, so my many, many thanks to Anna.

The back cover blurb of this book says that "there is nothing quite like the short stories of Lady Dilke in the annals of English literature," and although I can't rightly say that I'm familiar with the entire  "annals of English literature," I can say that the stories inside this short book are delightfully different than anything I've ever read.  This is one of the very best story collections I've ever experienced, heightened by the sort of dreamlike quality hovering around each and every tale.  Don't let the fact that it's only a short 150 pages fool you -- this book is filled with some of the most complex tales I've ever encountered.

the author, 1887, from the National Portrait Gallery

Brian Stableford's introduction to this book offers a brief biography of this author, and there are several places online where you can find  biographical information about her as well, so I'll just offer a few interesting factoids:  she was a well-known figure in her day, with friends such as John Ruskin and George Eliot.   A brief blurb from the UK's  National Portrait Gallery reveals that she was a "scholar of French art and culture," going on to become The Academy's art editor as well as  a rather prolific writer of well-known "volumes on painters, sculptors, engravers, architects and draughtsmen in eighteenth-century France (1899-1902)."  An early biographer notes that  Lady Dilke was also "absorbed by zeal for social reform," and, according to Stableford, she "tirelessly" campaigned for women's rights more than ten years before "the explosion of the suffragette movement."

At this point someone's reading this and saying yeah, well, that's all very interesting, but what about the book?  Worth mentioning here is that one of the most unique aspects of Lady Dilke's fiction writing is that from a young age, according to Stableford, she'd "suffered from 'hallucinations'," of which she started keeping a record, trying to "anchor" them "scientifically and philosophically," but also with the idea of "developing them in future in a methodical literary fashion." Trust me -- this little factoid becomes very apparent while reading her stories. He also notes that despite the fact that Lady Dilke seemed satisfied in life, some of these stories seem to "embody feelings that the author had about aspects of her own life," an idea supported in the memoir of his wife written by her second husband as part of her The Book of the Spiritual Life, in which he states that she "wrote her stories to lay ghosts."  Just what ghosts these might be I will leave to the reader to discover, since  these stories are highly allegorical, and  most are downright disturbing when you stop to consider what you've just read.   Some you'd swear were written during medieval times, and most all of them are filled with some sort of supernatural elements at play which differ from story to story.

Bypassing my usual pattern with short-story collections,  I'm not going to go into each story here because to disclose anything at all about these tales would be doing a serious disservice to potential readers. While I enjoyed each and every one of these stories,  I especially loved "The Hangman's Daughter," a shiver-producing little story, followed by "The Triumph of the Cross," both of which fit together nicely because of their historical aspects, but the one that really wowed me was "The Serpent's Head."  I won't say why so as not to spoil things, but this story is just downright chilling to the point where I had to put the book down, walk away, and wait for a while before returning to it.  I will say that her somewhat archaic language  is not always easy to get through, and that if you think you can breeze through this book's short 150 pages in an hour or two and get the most out of it,  you'd probably be wrong.  It is, as I like to say, a thinking-person's book, one where I felt compelled to stop and consider what I'd just read after each story.  And while I'm neither a true book reviewer nor even talented enough to come up with any sort of  meaningful overall analysis of this collection, my casual-reader self knows exquisite work when I find it.

I think the best way I can describe this book as a whole is to say that it reads like a mix of fables and otherworldly tales. There's also an ethereal quality at work here that sort of blankets the reader in a hazy atmosphere of unreality; the reward is in trying to discern the actual  reality that is hidden beneath the surface.  Very highly recommended -- I live to find books like this one.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

hb#8, and the last of the designated Halloween reads, The Case Against Satan, by Ray Russell

Penguin Classics, 2015
140 pp


I've been perusing reader reviews of this novel, and for the most part, I'm finding a lot of posts that downplay this book because it's "outdated" and some that say that readers might better be served by reading something more along the lines of Blatty's The Exorcist or Tremblay's A Head Full of Ghosts.  

Well, everyone to his or her own of course, but at the very beginning of this book we are specifically told  that  "a priest of the Roman Catholic Church was put on trial one harrowing weekend in the second half of the twentieth century."  Why and how he's "put on trial" is the focal point of this novel,  and yet somehow, the draw for a lot of readers seems to be only the expectations of the exorcism that takes place here.  And that's a shame, really, since there is a lot going on here otherwise. 

In a nutshell, without going into too much detail and spoiling things for future readers, the novel begins with an outgoing priest, Father Halloran, confiding in his replacement, Father Gregory Sargent, about some of the people in the parish, mentioning a particular family he's worried about. This is the Garth family, young sixteen year-old Susan and her father.  According to Halloran, Susan is motherless, is "very disturbed," and she has "fits."  He's counseled her father to take Susan to see a psychiatrist, and as Gregory finds out in his own discussion with Mr. Garth about her problem behaviors,  dad has refused to do so.  Susan, it seems, has been wanting to see a shrink, but Garth continues to insist that she's "not crazy."  It's obvious that Susan is starting to trust Gregory but things take a strange turn when she is questioned privately by Gregory's superior, Bishop Crimmings, and reacts in an unexpected way.  

Forward-thinking Gregory believes that Susan's behavior may be based on "an unpleasant childhood experience connected in her mind with the church, or something she has done that makes her feel unclean, unworthy...," in short, a psychological explanation; Crimmings, on the other hand, makes no bones about the fact that the girl is possessed, "literally and actually."  And thus ensues a struggle between science-based reason and superstition-based faith, as Crimmings insists that Gregory perform an exorcism, while Gregory questions why he should "Drive out a medieval Devil" he has "trouble believing in." The Bishop believes he must do it, because it is the "only thing" that can save him -- it seems that Gregory's faith is to be tried, since by admitting he doesn't believe in the Devil, he could be seen as a heretic, because 
"If God existed, logically his Adversary existed." 

As I said earlier, there's way more in this novel than just the exorcism itself -- I found several things of interest here, among them the similarities between sexual and religious ecstasy, the nature of trauma, and hysteria spread by and grounded in ignorance.  There's also a wonderful scene here where Gregory is dreaming and finds himself in the last scene of Macbeth, and Beaudelaire's lovely story "The Generous Gambler" even finds its way to relevance here, since one of the main questions brought up here is the existence of the devil.  Beaudelaire's comment in his tale, if you haven't read it, is yes, but perhaps not quite in the way we imagine.  And of course, the decision as to whether Susan is possessed is left purposefully ambiguous, so that readers are able to make up their own minds as to what's actually going on here.

The last chapter of the book just put me off completely, but despite its ending, I thought this book was very well done.  And my suggestion would be to look past the expectations of a head-spinning, pea-soup launching exorcism, since there's much more here than meets the eye, and in my opinion, continues to have relevance. If you're looking for something with grossout power, this isn't the book you want. However,   I would certainly recommend it to readers who are looking to discover exactly what sort of evil exists in the course of ordinary human lives.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Monsieur de Bougrelon, by Jean Lorrain

Spurl Editions, 2016
172 pp
translated by Eva Richter
originally published 1897

paperback -- I am beyond indebted to Spurl Editions for sending me a copy of this wonderful book. Thank you!

"Me, I am at home here. A Boudoir of the Dead, truly, but of the Living Dead, for I know the words that give bodies to these tatters, I know the words of love and tenderness that reawaken smiles and glances here; for these Dead return, yes Messieurs, these Dead return because I love them, and they obey me because they know: only love resurrects the dead." 

I am still very much a newbie to the world of fin-de-siècle literature, which for some reason that I don't quite yet understand has a strong appeal and an even stronger pull that's leading me to begin stocking my bookshelves with work from this period. I am also a relative newbie to the work of Jean Lorrain, whose books Nightmares of an Ether-Drinker and Monsieur de Phocas I've found to be absolutely brilliant.  That brilliance continues now in his Monsieur de Bougrelon, a stunning novel which anyone even remotely interested in this author needs to read.

In 1896, Lorrain and his friend Octave Uzanne traveled together to Amsterdam, a trip which evidently bored them to tears, and evidently inspired this novel.  The story begins with two Frenchmen (obviously stand-ins for Lorrain and Uzanne) touring Amsterdam, "always water and houses painted black and white" which the narrator tells us can become "eventually a bit monotonous." As the pair continue their tour of this "uniform" city, they come to the conclusion that the major attractions, "Nes, Zeedjik, the Dam, did not speak to us anymore."  It is then that they walk into the Cafe Manchester, a brothel where the whores are not at all tempting, and where they first encounter Monsieur de Bougrelon:
His redingote was green, and what a threadbare green! His pants, attached by boot straps, twisted screw-like into his heeled boots, which were thin and polished, though ripped open at the toe; his muffler of red wool, so very long around his neck, was a darned and patched-together rag full of holes; but inasmuch as this tatterdamalion was a great nobleman -- with his face of an old Capitano, made up and powdered white, his bloodshot eyes blackened with charcoal, and his mouth toothless beneath the double-comma of his waxed mustache -- this puppet personified a race, his mask a soul." (17)

The next day, since "Amsterdam awaits," M. de Bougrelon begins his role as tour guide, taking the two travelers on a tour of the city as only he can deliver.   In this city which is "all windows ... but there are no doors," the Amsterdam that they are about to enter is can be described as a world separate from reality, filled with "phantoms," which come across as  "specters" from Monsieur de Bougrelon's memories. Showing up each day dressed even more outrageously than the day before, in each place he takes them, in every story he recounts, these memories are revisited -- outlandish, frequently changed, mixed up with stories from different writers, embellished, or perhaps outright made up, but they are all filled with "imaginary pleasures, ... as only this cloudy country's atmosphere of dreams and fog can produce."   And even though they have cause to think at one point that their guide  had "gone too far" and that they were "dealing with a madman," the first time he doesn't show up our travelers actually missed him.  Amsterdam was not Amsterdam anymore without Monsieur de Bougrelon," the narrator muses, and he comes to understand that
"it was through his heroic visions that we had loved the monotony of its streets and the genuinely hostile ugliness of its inhabitants." 
But I think that there is method in this madman's madness here. In a big way, this book can also be read as a sort of love story, or at least a way of preserving memories of a past love, keeping them alive or resurrecting them, if you will.   One of the first things that the vacationing Frenchmen had learned about their guide is that he has been in Holland for nearly thirty years, having moved there after he had "exiled" himself "for a man," Monsieur de Mortimer, traveling with him to The Hague after leaving Paris. Monsieur de Mortimer features prominently in each and every place Monsieur de Bougrelon takes these two gentlemen, in each and every tale spun by their guide.  On the day they are to return to France, he offers them thanks for allowing him to relive "the Amsterdam of Monsieur de Mortimer," and that for him, Mortimer's ghost
"still fills this city. He is beside me when I walk along these canals; he speaks quietly to me as I slowly roam around at night, at twilight, in our dear museum." The portraits that we once loved together smile at me, gesture to me, look at me with our former bond."
It is very easy to envision Monsieur de Bougrelon as someone who is not simply a madman or a man of "heroic visions" (absurd as they can be in some cases), but also as someone who takes great delight in showing disdain for the world he lives in by reliving a past filled with "imaginary pleasures,"  largely, it seems, created for his own enjoyment. As he says early on,
"As backward as this country is, it has moved on, but me, I stayed in place. I am an idea in an era that has no more of them," 
and later, he refers to himself as  "an outcast, an old madman cloistered in a vision that I do not want to touch," preferring to remain in an Amsterdam that is "crowded with my cherished phantoms."  

There is so much more, of course, that time doesn't allow for, but Monsieur de Bougrelon continues to explore some of Lorrain's favorite themes, including art, puppets, masks, and homosexuality; he also has occasion here to revisit "the gaze" so prominent in his Monsieur de Phocas, as well as his comparisons of women to Salomé.  It is outlandish, darkly funny, definitely incorporating elements of decadence, and yet it is strangely poignant as one heads toward the end of the novel.  It is a beautiful book and I am so grateful that yet another translation of Lorrain's writing has made its way into my reading orbit.

Thanks so much, people at Spurl, for making it happen.

Monday, October 24, 2016

hb #7 -- The Delicate Dependency: A Novel of the Vampire Life, by Michael Talbot

Valancourt Books, 2016
originally published 1982
373 pp


Oh, what wonderful things this author would probably have accomplished had he not unfortunately died so early. This guy was only 29 -- 29,  mind you!  -- when he wrote this book, and his death followed only ten years later.  The Delicate Dependency is my first venture into Michael Talbot's work, although not too far in I decided he was worth reading again, so I bought a copy of his Night Things.  Now I'm looking at his very short bibliography and  I see I will need to also pick up his The Bog, both of which, like The Delicate Dependency, are fortunately available through Valancourt Books.

There are just some books that make me feel like I've been wrapped up in a cocoon of perfect happiness while reading them, and this novel is one of those.  Not only is it a fun story with a number of unexpected twists and turns,  it also has that Victorian-style pulpy aesthetic that I love so much.  Once I started reading it, I was beyond happy that it turned out not to be your average vampire novel, but something that moved well beyond the same old same old and into the realm of just pure reading pleasure.

The story actually begins in 1856 when our narrator, John Gladstone, who is only seven years old at the time, sees what he believes is an angel.  Thinking about why the face is familiar to him,  he realizes that the young man looked exactly like the angel in the Madonna of the Rocks, da Vinci's famous painting that John had seen recently at the National Gallery.  It was a face that Gladstone never wanted to forget.

Flashing forward to Gladstone's adult years when this story really begins, he finishes medical school, marries, becomes a doctor to the socially prominent, and has two daughters, Ursula and Camille.  His wife, Camille had meant everything to him before her untimely death, and when he begins to specialize in research as a virologist, he studies the influenza virus that had killed her, Haemophilus influenzae.   He has even named a certain strain of the virus after her, Camillus influenzae, and has written a number of papers which have "caused quite a stir in the medical world." In short, he's an up and comer who is quite focused on his work.  One night in April, his carriage driver hits someone on the street who had "just stepped out of the shadows" and as Gladstone goes to check out the poor guy, he has a major shock -- the man who's just been knocked down happens to be none other than his childhood angel.

In the hospital, the patient, whose name is Niccolo Calavanti,  makes everyone else uneasy and because of his particular quirks like never eating,  a rival of Gladstone's decides to take over the case.  Gladstone decides to take the patient home where he learns that Niccolo is in reality, a vampire, and where he also learns a bit about Niccolo's history.  When Gladstone's daughters return from being away, Ursula becomes fascinated with Niccolo,  but it's little Camille who draws his real attention -- she is an idiot savant who has the ability to hear a piece of music once, and reproduce it perfectly on the piano no matter the complexity.  But it isn't long before Niccolo leaves the Gladstone residence, taking little Camille with him, vanishing off the face of the earth, so it seems, without a trace.  Enter Lady Hespeth Dunaway, with an eerily similar story about the disappearance of her son, also an idiot savant, after Lady Dunaway had made Niccolo's acquaintance.  They decide to team up when they get a lead that Niccolo just might be in Paris, and thus begins the adventure of a lifetime.  In and around the main thrust of the story, other things are happening that have a lot of bearing on their quest, but those I'll leave other readers to discover, and even giving away the subtexts running throughout the story will give away the show, so I'll leave those as well.

What's lovely about this novel is that there are so many twists and turns here that as soon as I thought I had it figured out, everything changes, and then once I thought I had it sorted "this time", I was happily and completely wrong.  And as I said earlier, the novel has that amazing Victorian ambience combined with pulpy aesthetic that I just love -- an old dark house with lots of secrets,  a very well-sequenced set of pursuit-and-evade scenes that I think I held my breath through, and much, much more, all leading to a stunning conclusion.

While other readers may be busy reading modern vampire novels like these, which are what's current in the market, I was happy as a little clam curling up with my succession of chai lattes and The Delicate Dependency,  which is so very different and actually more satisfying than any other vampire novel I've read in a very long time.  Readers who are looking for the sinking of fangs into the neck may not find this one to their particular tastes, nor will readers looking for yet another vampire romance likely find satisfaction here.  It is a very intelligent book, but most of all, it's just plain fun. Caution: do NOT, I repeat, do NOT read the introduction first, and above all, do NOT read any review that gives away anything else. The fun is definitely in the unfolding here.

I know I tend to get overly enthusiastic about these old books, a feeling I know is not shared by everyone and I apologize about babbling so, but seriously, I can't help it.  I know when I've got my hands on something good, and well, this one definitely is among the cream of the crop.

hb#6: what would Halloween be without nightmares? Well, we can't let that happen: Nightmares: A New Decade of Modern Horror (ed.) Ellen Datlow

Tachyon, 2016 (November 1)
432 pp

advance reader copy from the publisher - thank you!!

Looking at the bigger picture, the choice of title for this collection is absolutely spot on, for indeed, the majority of these stories are truly the stuff of modern nightmares.

 Squirmworthy might also have been an appropriate title, since some of these stories were disturbing enough to the point where I had to put the book down, do something else, and then pick it up again.  There's no way I could have read this book in one sitting -- I'm sure that if I had, I'd have ended up with my own collection of nightmares and they still wouldn't have been as disturbing as what's between the covers in this book. It's definitely not for the faint of heart, and my guess is that for readers of modern horror, that's  a good thing. While personally I'd much rather curl up with a book of Victorian ghost stories or long-forgotten or neglected horror tales on the tamer side, I have to say that some of the stories in this book grabbed me  by the throat and just wouldn't let go.

My pick for best story here is one I've already read, but it is so horrific that I've never forgotten it.  "Little Pig" by Anna Taborska is the gut-wrenching tale of a mother who must protect her children and ends up paying a terrible price for their safety.  Oh my god.  Mark Samuels'  "Shallaballah" is another really good one, in which needing to get his face out there again, a famous soap opera star is taken to a strange clinic after a car accident disfigures his face. But is a comeback even possible? Admittedly I had to read this one twice, but the horror was all the better the second time.  Also requiring a second read was "Spectral Evidence," by Gemma Files.  The uniqueness in this author's storytelling method is to be applauded; it's one that owing to how it's written, must definitely be read between the lines.  A series of bizarre, randomly shuffled photos , helped by the "scribbles" on the backs of each  "appears to 'tell a story,' " of the deaths of two psychic investigators. One I've read before is Nicholas Royle's "Very Low-Flying Aircraft," the details of which I won't reveal.   It's a slow burn sort of horror story right up until the last minute when the lightbulb above my head goes off  -- my favorite type of creepy tale. And then we come to Laird Barron's "Strappado," which I have to say after reading it a number of times, still manages to scare the bejeezus out of me.  It's so good that whenever someone mentions Laird Barron, the first thing out of my mouth is "have you read 'Strappado'?"   Moving right along, I can't even begin to explain why I loved this story,  but "Was She Wicked? Was She Good" by M. Rickert had some particularly messed-up quality that appealed to me.  Here a little girl who is indulged by her mother has a terrible way of having a good time until her father decides he's had enough.

from slightlywarped.com

And now, for the rest of the stories. 

In "Sob in the Silence," by Gene Wolfe, a horror writer invites his old roommate and his family to his home, which has a rather sordid and cruel history. I will say no more. Brian Hodge's "Our Turn Too Will One Day Come" is another one I've read previously, a creepy tale about a horrific family legacy. Very nicely done, the horror builds slowly until we're all in on the secret.   "The Goosle" by Margo Lanagan puts a new, sad, and downright creepy spin on an old familiar tale, while Steve Duffy's "The Clay Party" does the same with a group of Donner Party-like travelers who put too much trust in their guide. The only negative here is that the author gives away the show very early on so I knew what was coming down the pike and just had to wait for it.  "Lonegan's Luck" by Stephen Graham Jones is different -- the next time a snake-oil salesman shows up in your town, run.  This one has an appropriate twist that brought forth a chuckle.

  "Mr. Pigsny" by Reggie Oliver details what happens when a man craves immortality and gets his wish. I've read better stories than this one by Oliver, but it's still disturbing.   Ray Cluley has an interesting tale here called "At Night, When the Demons Come By," a post-apocalyptic tale which, even though I'm not a fan of this sort of thing, was very much worth the read for two reasons: one, because of the demons themselves (one in particular),  and two (and more interesting),  it reveals how far people will go to ensure their own survival.  "The Shallows" by John Langan is an odd but good  story where a man's world changes forever and yet he continues on in his new, bizarre normal. I like Langan's work and this story is an example of why.  Considering that I detest zombie stories (haven't they been done to death???),  Dan Chaon's  "How We Escaped Our Certain Fate," surprised me with its poignancy.  Hats off to the author for making this one at least mature and meaningful.  I've already read Robert Shearman's "That Tiny Flutter of the Heart I Used to Call Love," which is delightfully strange. This time around I paid much more attention and realized that the future might not be so rosy for a new groom. This one is just messed up -- in a good way.  "Shay Corsham Worsted" is a story that is horrific in its implications, but one which is also funny in a strange sort of way. A would-be home invader has no clue of what he's set into motion when he chooses the home of an elderly man as his next target. As serious as things are here, the fun here is in the bureaucratic rigamarole. "The Atlas of Hell," by Nathan Ballingrud is another really good one that I liked much better this time around, but to tell is to spoil so I'll leave it at that.

from Harmonic Concordance

Owing  to personal preference,  a few of the stories in this book get way more into real-life horrors than I care to go in fiction.  These stories are likely better suited for readers who like more edgy horror than I do.  While the writing is not an issue (it's quite good, in fact),  the subject matter and especially the level of violence in these particular stories just make for uncomfortable reading. When it comes to this sort of horror, I'd rather just say no thank you and move along to something more tame.   The following stories were probably the most nightmarish of them all, with the exception of my least favorite in this group, "Dead Sea Fruit" by Kaaron Warren, which just sort flatlined for me. It was more on the silly side than the horror side, and with apologies, it's the only story this book where I thought "why the heck is this one even in here?"   Lisa Tuttle's  "Closet Dreams" is most definitely the stuff of modern nightmare, in which a girl disappears, is held captive, and dreams of escape, only to find worse horrors than she imagined. Simon Bestwick is represented here by his story "Hushabye," where a man in his "thirty-something dread of failure and the dark" goes after a certain sort of predator ... I've read  "Omphalos" by Livia Llewellyn before, and wasn't exactly over the moon about it, but the tale centers on a young girl who desperately needs to find own her place to escape. Caitlin Kiernan's  "Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No. 8)"  is also a nightmare scenario drawn from the real world -- just downright creepy.  And last but by no means least,  "Ambitious Boys Like You" by Richard Kadrey is another one that's just a bit too over the top for my taste, wherein two young men decide to break into a house and get much more than either of them bargained for.

Nightmares is one of those anthologies where there's pretty much something for everyone. The only suggestion I might make for the future is to include more work by authors whose stories don't usually make it into these anthologies. In my very humble reader person's opinion, an anthology should work to showcase the best of what's out there, but when I'm seeing the same authors pop up over and over again in these collections,  it  makes me wonder who else may be out there whose work may be going unrecognized but who may be just as good of a writer as the ones reflected here.

As I'm quite fond of saying, horror is in the eye of the beholder and my favorites may not be to the liking of others.  In short, what I'm trying to say is that everyone brings something different to the reading table so this book isn't necessarily a one-size-fits-all sort of thing, but for me it's most certainly filled with enough quality material that I can easily recommend it to any horror reader.  It's a beyond-good collection on the whole, very satisfying and downright chill producing.

Thanks so much to Tachyon for my copy!