Sunday, April 17, 2016

brain break, redux: Terror Tales of the Seaside, Paul Finch (ed.)

Grey Friar Press, 2013
257 pp


"It's strange how our perceptions of places, events, even people can be totally different from the reality. You convince yourself that something was one way and when you go back to check, it really wasn't."
                                    -- Joseph Freeman, "A Prayer for the Morning"

Trying to get the last couple of weeks of  disturbing images from my reading choices out of my head, I went rifling through my horror shelves for something lighter before moving back into full dark.   I had quite forgotten that I even owned this book, so it was sort of like Christmas when I found it. That happens a lot in this house: buy, shelve, forget, only to be delighted when I come across something I didn't realize I had.

The quotation with which I opened this post really gives a feel for exactly what's going on in this collection of short stories.  Add that to the seaside locations where these authors set their eerie tales, and that's why this book appeals. The back-cover blurb is also enticing,  letting us know that the places we're getting ready to read about have a colorful past:
"The British Seaside -- golden sands, toffee rock, amusement arcades. But also the ghosts of better days: phantom performers who if they can't get laughs will get screams; derelict fun-parks where maniacs lurk: hideous things washed in on bitter tides..."
Editor Paul Finch also gives his readers a bonus: beyond the stories found in this collection:  he has also seen fit to throw in some interesting, often arcane lore between stories. For example, in the short piece about "The Eerie Events at Castel Mare," he tells of a house built during the Victorian period where strange phenomena have been reported, giving it a reputation for being haunted. I won't say more about Castel Mare, but there are thirteen (!) of these little inserts that sent me searching online for more about each.  As interesting as these are, though, there are also fourteen short stories in this book, some of which gave me an outright case of the willies and all of which made for fun reading alone during a thunderstorm.

 I'll list the contents here shortly, but first I want to say that of the fourteen tales,  Ramsey Campbell's "The Entertainment" and Simon Kurt Unsworth's "The Poor Weather Crossings Company" are not only creepy but very, very well written, and they are my favorite stories in this collection by far. Very much out of the box and making both time and money spent on this book well worth it,  these two for me are the best of the bunch.  Campbell's story adds a tinge of undisguised anguish at the end which I wasn't expecting, but this tale as a whole should resonate with anyone who reads it.  The beginning of this story reminded me a bit of Priestly's Benighted, in which a traveler finds himself stuck in a storm that is so bad that drivers are being advised to stay off the roads.  Tom Shone is only half an hour from the motorway but at the edge of the town of Westingsea, when he decides he can't go on and needs to find a place to stay. Everything is full, but he lucks out and finds a sign leading to an old "three-storey house." There the similarity with Priestly ends, but Shone has definitely been "benighted" in the strictest sense of the word. When the door is opened after he rings the bell, an elderly woman asks him a rather bizarre question: "Are you the entertainment?"  What follows is downright weird and scary, and in my opinion, somewhat of  a tipping o' the hat  to Robert Aickman's "The Hospice."    Unsworth's story takes the reader to Morecambe, where an advert is posted for a "once in a lifetime opportunity" to "See the Bay as it Should be Seen!"  Taking the little pull-off strip with the telephone number, a man named Sykes decides it would be "something new to do, after all."  He's done the bay walk before, in a tour headed by "the Queen's guide to the sands," but this time around, the walk takes place at night, and the tour guide seems a bit eccentric.  Here the genius lies in Mr. Unsworth's ability to ever so slowly drop his readers into an ominous, off-kilter and eerie atmosphere from the start, and keeping them there, all the while ratcheting up reader tension by turning that screw just a little tighter until ...

Aside from these two beyond satisfying and delightful neck-hackling terror tales, the rest of the stories are as follows (with the little folklore/arcane knowledge/legends etc in italic):

"Holiday from Hell," by Reggie Oliver another good one that is a mix of horror and ha-ha-ha after I figured out the gimmick here.
The Eerie Events at Castel Mare - Torquay
 "The Causeway," by Stephen Laws - such a disturbing mix here as crime and horror blend together into a weird, eerie tale.
The Kraken Wakes - Guernsey
 "The Magician Kelso Dennett," by Steven Volk.  If you don't ask "how did he do that?" at the end, there's something really wrong with you.
Forces of Evil - Pittenweem, north of the Firth of Forth
"A Prayer for the Morning," by Joseph Freeman, another favorite because of the frightening  implications of the ending. Wow.
The Ghost of Goodwin Sands - Kent
 "The Jealous Sea" by Sam Stone.  Seriously, the writing is good, but variations of this sort of story have  been told many times by different authors.
The Horse and the Hag - Minster-in-Sheppey, Kent

"Bighthelmstone," by R.B. Russell, is way more of a true-life sort of terror than anything supernatural. 
The Devil Dog of Peel - Isle of Man
 "Men With False Faces," by Robert Spalding.  Dear God.  I hate clowns, and this tale is filled to the brim with them, but the story itself is quite good, and well written. 
The Ghouls of Bannane Head - the Ayrshire Coast of Scotland. Sawney Bean ring a bell?
"GG Luvs PA, " by Gary Fry -- you'll never look at words written in sand the same way twice after reading this one. Okay, good, not great. 
This Beautiful, Terrible Place - Beachy Head 
"The Incident at North Shore," by Paul Finch.  There's something about escaped mental patients and defunct amusement parks that I normally can't resist.  I wasn't really in love with the story, but walking around the old fun park with the main character was eerily awesome.   
In the Deep, Dark Winter - Morecambe 
"Shells," by Paul Kane.  Okay -- this one is bizarre but very cool; has a sort of slow-burn horror feel to it right up through the end. It also, strangely enough, brought to mind a certain old sci-fi flick starring Dana Wynter and Kevin McCarthy. Guess which one. 
The Walking Dead - Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumbria
"The Sands are Magic," by Kate Farrell,  is just utterly tragic and beyond terrifying in a real-world sort of way.
Hellmouth - Brighton 
"Broken Summer" by Christopher Harman rounds out this collection in this story of a man who is either suffering from drug-induced hallucinations or is actually living a nightmare.
Wild Men of the Sea - Suffolk 

I understand that there is an entire series of these "terror tales" -- with this book, there are nine, I think, ranging from the Lake District up to the Scottish Highlands,  even going out into the ocean!  I'm so there, if this book is any indicator.  As I'm fond of saying, with every anthology of short stories, I can expect some that are excellent, some that are good, and some I don't think are so hot, but as a whole, Terror Tales of the Seaside is entertaining, definitely creepy, and one I can recommend. I'm also very happy to find new authors to read!  This one is really for fans who like their horror more in the cerebral zone; probably not something to read if you can't do without guts and gore.  Must buy more!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

*a head-spinning, beyond-disturbing experience, and I loved it: The Tenant, by Roland Topor

Millipede Press, 2006
originally published as La loquetaire chemérique (1964)
translated by Francis K. Price
216 pp


Just in case there's anyone left that doesn't know, The Tenant was made into a film by Roman Polanski.  The movie is freaky but the book is truly beyond disturbing.  Read the book and then see the film; things make so much more sense in that order.

I have looked at a few readers' takes on this book, and see the same thing written again and again: "a vicious satire on conformity."  This phrase, as I discovered, is from Wikipedia, and while it is appropriate, it doesn't even begin to cover what's happening here.  Nor does it give a reader the slightest clue as to just how very dark this book actually is -- Topor's novel burrowed into my head and still hasn't left; I finished it some time ago.  The words "tyranny of conformity" came to mind when describing this book to someone, but it even goes well beyond that.

There is a rare opening in the apartment building on the Rue des Pyrénées, and Trelkovsky, who is facing the prospect of shortly being homeless, decides to jump on it.  When the former tenant, Simone Choule, dies, Trelkovsky moves in. The place is even furnished, since Simone's family doesn't want her stuff; there are reminders of her everywhere.   He's lucky to have the place -- there is a scarcity of available apartments, and he considers himself fortunate. He puts down his money, and at the initial  interview with the landlord, he is told by Monsieur Zy that
"You can see that no one has any trouble getting along with me, so long as he behaves properly, and pays the rent regularly."
Trelkovsky is so eager to get into the apartment that he accepts the conditions. Later, there is a "sort of housewarming" with friends at his place not long afterward, and this is when things begin to change.  The noise made by Trelkovsky's guests brings his upstairs neighbor to the door to complain.  Trelkovsky apologizes; afterwards, back in the apartment, Trelkovsky does his best to quiet his friends, eventually throwing them out. His happiness is now replaced by shame; he even starts to think of himself as an "odious person." As he muses,
"That indescribable din of his revelry had waked up everyone in the building! Could it be that he had no respect for others? That he was incapable of living in a normal, civilized society?"
And here, only some 29 pages in, is where my brain goes click whir, big broad pink highlighter on the phrase as written in my notebook --  now I know what to look for, based on his  mention of his fellow tenants as "normal, civilized society."

To avoid becoming homeless, Trelkovsky no longer invites his friends over; he starts spending quiet nights at home as an insurance policy against a time when he might accidentally make noise.   When there is a robbery and some personal items are stolen, he is urged by the landlord not to go to the police.  He is also told that the previous tenant wore slippers after 10 p.m. Things start to spiral out of control as he comes to realize that with the robbery, he has also lost his past and remnants of his identity; leading him to question exactly what constitutes a self. Unfortunately, as he comes to realize, who he is is no longer his to decide; that decision rests with the rest of the people in the building.    As the neighbors continue to browbeat and persecute him, the outsider/other in this "civilized society,"  into acquiescing, he begins to become paranoid, and finds himself slowly sliding into madness.

That's the nutshell version; to say more would be to ruin it for others completely.

Very early on in this story, the reader understands that  Trelkovsky is an easy target: he  tries very hard to conform to others' expectations,  in real life, hiding his true nature by doing what's expected of him around others. For example, when he goes to the mass for Simone Choule after her death, we learn that he is not religious, but he imitates the movements and attitudes of others. When the thoughts of death are too much for him, he tries to leave but  the door won't open, and he is worried about the "disapproving glances"  of the others there.  When he goes to a movie with Simone's best friend Stella, she hits on him, rubbing her leg against his so he starts touching her, even though he's probably gay.  He even begins to drink hot chocolate in the cafe by his building because the waiter assumes that he wants it because Simone always had it; same thing with her brand of cigarettes.

To me, this novel speaks to alienation within the context of a repressive society; the attempts at imposed conformity and the persecution of the outsider -- extremely disturbing, but in the reading world, I love this stuff. Combine that with an eventual loss of self/identity under the auspices of those who want to define exactly who and what a person should become, and it makes for darkness very readable. Here, we get an example of exactly what it is when I look for while reading -- when does someone reach their breaking point, and what factors combine to bring someone to the edge of that abyss?   It is just so very sad that this novel is out of print and that copies are so bloody expensive -- The Tenant would make a great book to read with a group.  Hell, if I had unlimited funds, I'd buy several copies and start a group just for the purpose of reading it!

Polanski's film based on this book is also disturbing and really does capture the essence of the novel.  Of course, most of the book takes place within the confines of Trelkovsky's head, so there will naturally be some omissions, but the movie is one of the better screen adaptations I've seen this year. I was alone when I watched it, so I chose to do it late afternoon, but it was so eerie that I had it in my head the rest of the night. Read the novel first though -- I was so happy I did it in that order.

Book and movie -- both very, very highly recommended.  Just be warned. Neither is liable to leave your head for some time.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle

Tor, 2016
149 pp

(read in March)

"You're a monster, then..."
"I was made one." 

The Ballad of Black Tom is a book that takes H.P. Lovecraft's story "The Horror at Red Hook" and stands it on its head.  

LaValle says in an interview that he started reading Lovecraft around age 11, and found himself "hooked."  He says that while he liked Lovecraft's monsters, he "loved the ideas even more, the scale of his imagination. Cosmic as fuck." This all changed when he turned sixteen, when, as he notes,
"I lost youthful innocence, I guess. Or I began to see things I'd once missed. Or ignored. Things that should've been obvious, but hasn't been."
After going through a short list of what "should've been obvious," he mentions that perhaps one of these is that he started to realize that his "beloved Howard Phillips Lovecraft was one hell of a racist."  Not only that, but he also mentions that his writing was pretty bad. Still, he continues to have a certain admiration for HP Lovecraft, and he wondered what would happen if he "reimagined" "Horror at Red Hook" and brought the story forth from the points of view of the people "playing the background."  It's a ballsy move, in my opinion, and it works.

I won't go much into the plot here, but a little appetite whetting might be in order.  Tommy Tester, who lives in Harlem in a small apartment with his father, is a musician. He is playing on the streets one day when he's noticed by Robert Suydam,  a wealthy white man who wants him to play for him at his home. The man offers Tommy a lot of money for a gig, and Tommy takes him up on it since the money would keep him and his father in groceries for a long while.   It isn't long, though, until Tommy realizes that his new employer is no ordinary guy -- that he is fixated on a bizarre being he calls The Sleeping King.  After the first night, Tommy is terrified and decides not to return.  However, when the cops do something horrific that completely changes his life, Tommy realizes that "a fear of cosmic indifference suddenly seemed comical, or downright naive," and goes back to Red Hook and Suydam.  After all, he says, after what's happened to him, "Indifference would be such a relief."

The real crux of this book for me is reflected in something that Tommy says to Malone (remember him? The detective who survived "the horror at Redhook" in the original).  The two are having a discussion about Suydam, and Malone asks him why he got involved with him.  Tommy's answer is just genius and speaks volumes:
"I bear a hell within me...and finding myself unsympathized with, wished to tear up the trees, spread havoc and destruction around me, and then to have sat down and enjoyed the ruin." 
Now that's a story.  And it's one that LaValle does very well.