Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories, Volume Two (ed.) Allen Grove

Valancourt Books, 2017
230 pp


"For our own part, we believe in ghosts."
                       -- from "A Real Country Ghost Story," by Albert Smith

On December 22nd, I baked scones, brewed tea, snuggled up in my leather wingback chair and started reading. I'd had this book in my possession for a while, but I'd saved it, having made a plan to finish  the last few stories on December 24th, so that I could try to catch at least a tiny measure of the Christmas Eve ghost story feel. As it turns out, I did finish late on Christmas Eve, and the only thing that could have made my experience any better than it was would have a been a roaring fire with the sound of wood crackling and embers popping as it burns.

part of my British Reading Room (aka the former living room)

All of that was just ambiance though; it's fun to close your eyes and imagine, as editor Allen Grove says in his introduction (quoting from Henry James' The Turn of the Screw),
"a group of men and women sitting 'round the fire, sufficiently breathless' as they share strange tales in an old house on Christmas Eve."
The stories in this book are an excellent sampling of ghostly tales appearing in Victorian periodicals, ranging from some with darkly-comic edges to full-on hauntings to vengeful spirits.  I counted ten separate publications from which these fifteen stories were taken, including Bentley's Miscellany, The London Society Christmas Number, and Belgravia's Christmas Annual, to name only three.  And while that's all part of what makes this book special, the truth is that it can be read and enjoyed any time of the year by anyone who has a deep and abiding fondness for these old tales.  As Grove reveals,
"Ghost stories are meant to surprise and scare us, but at the same time their conventions bring a certain level of pleasure in their familiarity.  The stories here don't disappoint on this front,"
citing "vacant old houses" with cheap rents, "secret rooms and hidden staircases,"...and many other pleasurable chills and thrills.  And for me, there's the added attraction of discovering new stories "by little known or anonymous authors," whose work resonates in  "echoes"  found in  more "popular and influential writers of dark and disturbing tales."  (12,13) 

from The Life Adjunct

The fifteen stories are as follows:

"A Real Country Ghost Story," by Albert Smith
"The Ghost of the Treasure-Chamber," by Emily Arnold
 "Number Two, Melrose Square," by Theo Gift
"The Weird Violin," Anonymous
"Walsham Grange," by E. Morant Cox
"Haunted!" by Coulson Kernahan
"The Steel Mirror," by W.W. Fenn
"White Satin" Anonymous
"Nicodemus," by Alfred Crowquill
"Wolverden Tower," by Grant Allen
"Christmas Eve in Beach House," by Eliza Lynn Linton
"The Necromancer," by Isabella F. Romer
"The Veiled Portrait," by James Grant
"The Ghost Chamber," by Anonymous
"A Terrible Retribution; or, Squire Orton's Ghost," by A.S.

I loved each and every story, and there is not a bad one to be found in the entire book.  As far as personal favorites go, it's very tough to choose. In my top three are ""Wolverden Tower," for several reasons aside from the chills it produced,  "The Ghost of the Treasure-Chamber,"  its "doggerel" verse included (I love clue-like "doggerel" verses in stories), and  "Number Two, Melrose Square,"  which is referred to in the pre-story blurb as "one of the most accomplished and effective tales in this volume."  It is exactly that, and just plain creepy to boot.  Coulson Kernahan's  "Haunted" has that lovely ambiguity I crave, while  "Christmas Eve in Beach House" takes us to a "threatening Christmas Eve on that wild Cornish coast."  But as I said, I loved them all.  

This second volume of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories is a true treasure, and I just want to say to the Valancourt team how very much I appreciate all of the time and thought that went into the selections found within.  I know that the purpose of publishing books is to sell them, but James and Ryan go well beyond the commercial to bring into our homes books that they love, which is why I'll keep buying them.  Once again, they have outdone themselves.  Highly, highly, highly recommended.  

Thursday, December 21, 2017

and now, one of THE greatest ghost story writers ever -- The Dead of Night: The Ghost Stories of Oliver Onions

Wordsworth Editions, 2010
657 pp


I feel absolutely  monotonal by reading and posting about all manner of ghost stories, and I'm sorry about that,  but I just can't help myself.  They're like the comfort food of reading for me, and I say the more the merrier (and the older the better).   I finished this collection back at the beginning of the month after starting it towards the first of November, and it actually did take me the entire month to get through it, reading it only late at night.  To be honest, some stories took longer to get through than others because they were just plain tedious, but the joy came in finding the really, really good ones that I'll probably never forget.

Onions is probably best known for his excellent "The Beckoning Fair One," which will live in my head as one of the greatest ghost stories of all time, one that explores the tenuous connection between, as editor David Stuart Davies says in his introduction, "creativity and insanity."    That one I've read several times and I'd read it several times again because it's so good.  It's his lesser-known stories that captured my attention here, and there are twenty-four of them in this collection:

Hey - it's easier than typing them all. Sorry about the blur --
While several of these tales follow on in the same thematic mode as "The Beckoning Fair One," there are many that branch out in other directions, including (but not limited to) more traditional ghostly fare, time slips, reincarnation, murder,  ghosts who enter the present via objects from the past, and strangely enough lycanthropy and a bizarre Kali-like cult.   All are a beautiful blending of the supernatural and the psychological, which is actually why I'm drawn to this author in particular.  Even though I read this sort of thing for fun, I also read in order to extract what I can about different aspects of human nature, and Oliver Onions has this uncanny knack of moving deep into the psyche.

So, let's see... favorites...hmm:
aside from "The Beckoning Fair One," there's "Benlian," "The Honey in the Wall," "The Rosewood Door," which is just bloody creepy when you give pause for thought,  "The Painted Face," "Hic Jacet," which is probably my second favorite after "Beckoning Fair One," and one that  all would-be authors should read, as  it comes down to the question of writing for love or money.  "The Rope in the Rafters" is another one that chilled, as was "The Woman in the Way" and "The Master of the House."  That last one was just downright creepy and considering that I'm not big on the subject matter involved as a general rule,  well, that says a lot.

While the stories are not all what I'd call perfect, The Dead of Night  is a must-have collection worth owning for the home library and definitely a no-miss collection for the avid ghost story reader.  I love Oliver Onions' work, and he should certainly be read by anyone aspiring to write horror.  Not that I fit that bill, but he has a lot to offer anyone who does. 

Thursday, December 14, 2017

from well-known to truly obscure, The Haunters and the Haunted: Ghost Stories and Tales of the Supernatural, (eds) Ernest Rhys and M. Larigot

Crow Press, 2015 
originally published 1921

The cover of my edition of this book shows the author as "unknown," but a little digging reveals that it was writer (and editor) Ernest Rhys who was responsible for bringing us this volume of ghostly and supernatural tales.  Rhys (1859-1946) according to an article in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB, 24 May 2007) began his writing career in 1886, where in London, he established his "base as the British Museum Room," and became a "familiar figure in literary London."  He had a "passion for eastern mysticism,"  was a friend to Yeats and Madame Blavatsky, and was part of the founding group of the Rhymers' Club.   However, Rhys' claim to fame was not so much his poetry, but more because of his role as editor of Everyman's Library.  The idea had been conceived by Rhys and J.M. Dent with the vision of, as Rhys puts it,
"a large collection of the great books of the world, in a handsome edition that would be affordable by the common man." 
By the time Rhys died, the ODNB article reveals that there were over 983 volumes that had been published for Everyman's Library, and so those of us who have their works in our home libraries now know how it all began.   As far as this book goes, Rhys writes in the introduction that he intended to "widen the area of research, and relate the ghost-story anew to the whole literature of wonder and imagination."    He notes that
"One can take the book as a text-book of the supernatural, or as a story-book of that middle world which has given us the ghosts that Homer and Shakespeared conjured up."
What's interesting here is that the book seems to consist completely of works collected by a M. Larigot, "himself a writer of supernatural tales," as Rhys explains, but I haven't been able to find anything about Larigot anywhere.  Maybe as I get more into French tales I'll come across him, but doing a search brings me back around to this book and Rhys' introduction.  Rhys says that "In this Ghost book," Larigot has "collected a remarkable batch of documents, fictive or real, describing the one human experience that is hardest to make good."  He calls Larigot's collection "varied and artfully chosen," but that's about it except to mention that Larigot had
"in the course of his investigations, during many years, arrived at the conclusion that there is an Art of the Supernatural, apart from the difficult science of psychical research, worth cultivating for its own sake.  So he has gone to Glanvil and Arise Evans and the credulous old books -- to Edgar Poe and Lord Lytton and the modern writers who tell supernatural tales.  He gives us their material insight without positing its unquestionable effect as police-court evidence..."
which, one could take to mean that not only is Larigot an author in his own right, but a researcher into tales of the supernatural, which seems a good guess, since not only does this book present some already well-known stories, but also stories gleaned from Scottish castle lore, Irish legends, various diaries and accounts, as well as stories that go back to Plutarch and Homer.

The Haunters and the Haunted is divided into three distinct sections:  "Ghost Stories From Literary Sources," "Ghost Stories from Local Records, Folk Lore, and Legend," and finally "Omens and Phantasms."    The table of contents can be found here at Project Gutenberg, which contains the footnotes that my edition is missing.   Just an FYI though -- "The Old Nurse's Story" that's mentioned is written by George MacDonald and NOT Elizabeth Gaskell, so don't pass it by thinking you've read it before.  I have quite a few favorites in this section, especially "Teig O'Kane and the Corpse," translated from the Irish by Dr. Douglas Hyde, which is one I hadn't read before.  This story is truly one of the best in the entire book, and focuses on a young man who won't heed his father regarding a marriage, preferring instead to "follow on at his old tricks -- drinking, sporting, and playing cards."  That all changes one night when he meets up with a "band of little people coming toward him, ... carrying something big and heavy with them."  What happens next well and truly makes for great ghostly reading.   In second place is "The Seven Lights," from John Mackay Wilson's Tales of the Borders, which is just eerily and creepily delightful but very sad at the same time.   "The Lianhan Shee" by Will Carleton follows in my list of favorites here, in which a wife realizes that showing charity is good thing, but only to a point.   This one has a most unexpected outcome with a nice twist as well.  One more thing about this section -- Bulwer-Lytton's "The Haunted and the Haunters" appears here, and it's the unabridged version, which tends to become a bit tedious after a while but is still quite good.

from Decoded Past

After finishing the tales in "Ghost Stories from Local Records, Folk Lore and Legends," I decided that it would have been fun to sleep in an old haunted Scottish castle for even one night.  Glamis and Powys castles are represented here, as are various British homes (halls, if you will), and then comes a strange but good one called "Croglin Grange," which isn't at all a ghost story but I won't say what it is exactly so as not to spoil it.  I ended up spending a lot of time researching this particular tale for my interest in the legend itself and how it's been handed down over time.  Don't go looking it up though until you've read the story because you'll wreck it for yourself, and you really, really don't want to do that.

Under "Omens and Phantasms," there's what I would consider a rather obscure ghostly tale called "The Vision of Charles XL of Sweden," which, interestingly enough, (supposedly) comes from an historical document.  This one was just great and the imagery amazing.  There's also a very different version of "The Pied Piper," that sent me looking at all of the various retellings of this one,  a no-miss story called "Anne Walker," with a plot that's been used many times but is still well worth the reading, as is  "The Hand of Glory." My favorite, though is "The Bloody Footstep," another one where giving away the plot would just not be a good idea.

On the whole, this collection is probably most geared toward readers like me who have not only an interest in older ghostly tales, but who also are into the history behind them.  Some of these stories are very short, a paragraph in length, and if you don't read French you'll want to skip the small piece about Joan of Arc, which was left untranslated.  I will say that the best way to read this book is probably the Project Gutenberg version, since my edition has omitted the footnotes which to me are absolutely critical. Then again, I'm a nerd and enjoy knowing where things come from so I can go look them up.   There will be something for everyone here, especially anyone looking for something way, way off the beaten path.

It was a great book to curl up with during late nights of zero sleep, and one I'd recommend but more to nerdish people like myself.

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Twenty Days of Turin, by Giorgio de Maria

W.W. Norton, 2017
originally published as Le venti giornate del Torino, 1977
translated by Ramon Glazov
187 pp


"The dark forces that seek to hold us back are far from vanquished."  -- 53

"Take heed! ... The Twenty Days of Turin were the final warning of the LORD!"  --57,58

By the time I'd put this book down, I was actually shaking.  Not so much for the horror elements here, but more because of the feeling that this book, while written in the late 1970s, has a certain timeliness about it that terrifies me, one that is more frightening than the contents of any horror novel.

Our guide through this book of strange events in the city of Turin both past and present is an unnamed man who has decided to write a book about the "Twenty Days of Turin
...neither a war nor a revolution, but as it's claimed, 'a phenomenon of collective psychosis' - with much of that definition implying an epidemic
and actually, the word "epidemic"  seems an appropriate description for what follows as the twenty days are recounted through interviews and other media uncovered by our narrator. It was a time of drought, a time when men and women struggled with a strange insomnia that prompted them to "shamble" through the streets and plazas of Turin during the night.  Some witnesses reported strange smells in the air; others were disturbed by unworldly noises, screams that seemed to relay "some kind of message," with "always something gray and metallic deep behind it," ... conveying the "intonation of war cries...virulent and hostile." And then, of course, there were the strange murders that took place during this time, and witnesses who "made certain they didn't see anything."   It was as if the city was in the grip of unknown dark forces unleashed by the cosmos itself, blanketing Turin's citizens in terror to the point where, as our narrator discovers, people are still reluctant to discuss their experiences some ten years later.  And it is to get "behind that silence" that the narrator seeks to understand exactly who it is that is "hiding the mystery of the Twenty Days."

As he proceeds with his investigation, he begins to understand that there are forces at work who do not want him to succeed. The first warning comes after a visit to the remnants of the mysterious  Library, which, according to the narrator, must be part of any picture being painted about "Turin in the time of the Twenty Days."  It had been started with the idea of "encouraging people to be more open with one another," in which people could  collaborate in submitting "documents reflecting the real spirit of the people." They weren't looking for people to contribute works of literature ("there's too much artifice in literature"), but rather "a diary, a memoir, a confession of some problem that really worries you," with the promise that there would be someone who would be interested enough to read what you had to say, and then for a small fee, could get your address and be able to contact you.  Back in the present though, our narrator continues to be plagued by strange occurrences, including a murder, all part of an attempt to get him to back off.

 I see this book in part as an allegory of the fear and upheaval that resulted from Italy's tumultuous "Years of Lead" a time when, as the translator notes in an interview at Weird Fiction Review
"People were scared of being killed as soon as they stepped out of their houses and also scared that the government wouldn't be on their side,"
which also became a "taboo-ish topic to speculate about too loudly."  On the other hand,  I can't get out of my head that since the narrator's real quest is, as he stated,  to discover who (or what)  it is that is "hiding the mystery of the Twenty Days,"  it seems to me that a very big part of this book reveals that those strange dark forces responsible for that dark time haven't disappeared, but are still there, lurking and hiding in the shadows, unseen and unknown, but still in control.

 De Maria used the stuff and the language of horror fiction to tell an horrific story here, and it works, especially upon reaching the ending which seriously chilled me to the bone. One more thing -- there's been a lot said about this novel's prescience in De Maria's early vision of social media, and it is a big part of this story but don't let that be the only thing you get out of it.   There's much, more here -- as just one example, people turning to spirituality (including strange cults) as a sort of bulwark against the darkness,  and the translator in his introduction spends a great amount of time helping the reader to understand how the novel can be viewed as an artistic expression of the turmoil of an Italy in its years of great upheaval.  But skip the intro  until you've finished the novel, so you can experience the chills without any hints first.

 I can see why this book is considered a cult classic, and while it may not be for everyone, I thought it was brilliant.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, by Pu Songling

It has been a while since I've been here and much has happened in the meantime but life is settling down once again which is a good thing. Whew!

To give this book its due would pretty much need an explanation of its place in classical Chinese literature,  the history of its literary predecessors which hail from from the Six Dynasties period and the Tang Dynasty, along with at least an intro to Chinese religious/superstitious thought, the Imperial examination system, the Imperial bureaucratic/government system and well, the list goes on.   If you're at all interested in an excellent, in-depth study of not only Pu Songling but of Liaozhi tales themselves,  there's a wonderful book by Judith T. Zeitlin called Historian of the Strange: Pu Songling and the Classical Chinese Tale available in paperback that should not be missed.

It is from Zeitlin's translation of Pu Songling's own Preface that we get an inkling of how the author put these tales together:
"I am but the dim flame of the autumn firefly, with which goblins jockeyed for light; a cloud of swirling dust, jeered at by mountain ogres. Though I lack the talent of Gan Bao, I too am fond of  'seeking the spirits'; in disposition I resemble Su Shi, who enjoyed people telling ghost stories.  What I have heard, I committed to paper, and so this collection came about. After some time, like-minded men from the four directions dispatched stories to my by post, and because 'things accrue to those who love them,' what I had amassed grew even more plentiful.  Indeed, within the civilized world, things may be more wondrous than in 'the country of those who crop their hair' before our very eyes are things stranger than in 'the land of flying heads.' " (44)

Pu Songling (1640-1715), according to John Minford (whose translation of some of these strange tales is found in the Penguin edition of Strange Tales from A Chinese Studio), was on his way to "a distinguished career as an official," but sadly, after having passed his first series of exams with flying colors, couldn't quite make it beyond his first degree.  Minford says that from age nineteen to age 72 he was a "perpetual student, locked into the 'examination hell' of the Chinese civil service recruitment system," and served as tutor or private secretary to support his family.  His failure left him with a lot of time on his hands, allowing him to write, (xi-xii)  and so we have this wonderful collection of tales that comprise (again turning to Minford)
"longer stories with complex plots, often involving relationships between men, fox-spirits and ghosts, sometimes interweaving the events of several incarnations. Then there are a large number of medium-length tales dealing with a variety of themes: the foibles of spiritual or alchemical pretension, both Buddhist and Taoist; the workings of illusion and enlightenment; and the ways of human vanity and corruption in general.  These are interspersed with brief accounts of strange phenomena (earthquakes, hail-storms, mirages), of unusual skills (rare sorts of kungfu, mediumistic skills -- genuine or otherwise -- strange performances with animals, obsessions with snakes; descriptions of unusual varieties of bird, fish, turtle and alligator, of magical stones, bags and swords; and tantalizing evocations of the transience of life, of strange tenants and abandoned halls." (xiii-xiv)
I might also add that it also quickly becomes apparent while reading that those involved in the examination system are a central focus in many of these stories, since many of his examiners are not beyond taking bribes, corrupt, and some are downright criminal; most of his "heroes" are plain, ordinary, and very poor scholars who most likely serve as the author's alter ego, if you will.   And since what happens below mirrors what happens above, you find the same sort of thing among the officials who govern hell, which is the location of many of the stories found in this book.

from the Penguin translation, p 7, "An Otherworldly Examination," (my photo).

I did sort of flit between the Penguin and the Tuttle editions while reading this book -- as grateful as I am to Herbert A. Giles for his outstanding scholarship (and for also giving me a great start in trying to understand classical Chinese well over a decade ago), his version of Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio has much less to offer than Minford's.  Minford breathes life into the stories he's translated  while Giles' version ends to be a bit on the dry side;  there are also some big differences in the translations themselves.  I found myself going back to the original Chinese more than once to try to sort things between the two English versions and decided I preferred Minford when all is said and done.  I will also mention that in Zeitlin's book, she takes the reader through a number of these stories, so that you get the feel for what to look for as you read.

I love Chinese classical works and this one with its focus on "strange tales" made me a seriously happy person while reading.  It's not a book you can read in one sitting, and it's certainly not one to speed read because there is so much at work here within each story that needs time and thought to try to suss out what's really happening. 

I leave you with some excellent advice from nineteenth-century commentator Feng Zhenluan who says the following (as quoted in Minford) about reading Strange Tales From A Chinese Studio which I found helpful:

"Read these tales properly, and they will make you strong and brave; read them in the wrong way and they will possess you.  Cling to the details, and they will possess you; grasp the spirit, and you will be strong."

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Alabaster Hand, by A.N.L. Munby

Sundial Press, 2013
185 pp


If I lived in the UK I would be the most loyal customer Sundial Press ever had, especially where their Sundial Supernatural collection is concerned.  Not only that, but I would be able to get my hands on a copy of their publication of Mist and Other Stories by Richmal Crompton, which is only available for purchase in the UK.   Now that's a book I'd give my eye teeth to own, but alas, it is not to be, unless I want to cough up over one hundred dollars for it used and well, ahem. No.

However, I did manage to get a copy from them of ANL Munby's The Alabaster Hand, a collection of fourteen supernatural tales that were, according to the author (as quoted in the introduction by António Monteiro)
"written ... between 1943 and 1945 in a prison-camp just outside the ancient walled town of Eichstätt in Upper Franconia..."
and three of them first appeared in print in "a camp magazine titled Touchstone."  (viii)

For a more in-depth look at the life and career of A.N.L. Munby, you can click here to get to the excellent blog Jot 101, where the blogger has posted a most amazing discovery, that of a "scarce pamphlet" dedicated to Munby himself.

Monteiro also reveals in his introduction that Munby was a fan of the work of M.R. James, referring to him as "a matchless creator of stories of the genre," and while Munby's stories "obey the canons of Jamesian ghost-story writing," there are definitely "clear differences" found in their work.  Monteiro writes that
"The typical features of Jamesian stories are thus relatively easy to bring together and the differences between worthy homages or tributes and mere pastiches depends solely on the artistry and talent of each writer. In that respect, there can be little doubt that the fourteen tales included in A.N.L. Munby's collection The Alabaster Hand belong to the former category."
 Definitely no pastiches here -- there are things in these stories I've not seen before, making them original and extremely readworthy for ghost-story aficionados.  Not just that, but they're all very good, nicely written, and there are a number that were actually chill producing, starting with the opening tale called "Herodes Redivivus."   Just as an aside, I've started to become very picky when it comes to opening gambits in a short-story collection or anthology -- if the first story doesn't quite set the tone and sort of clue me in for what's coming next, well, the editor hasn't really done his or her job in my opinion.  That's not the case here, in this tale of a man who happens upon a rare book that he's seen before, now owned by a fellow club member, Auckland, of "nodding" acquaintance.  As our narrator begins his story, we go back to his schoolboy days in Bristol, where he chanced upon a book shop in a "little court approached through a narrow passage" where he saw the book for the first time under most extraordinary circumstances.  While I won't reveal the contents of this story, let's just say that it was quite the shocker, quite the spine chiller, and well, let's just say that I couldn't wait to get to the rest of them.

While I enjoyed them all, along with "Herodes Redivivus,"  there were a few other standouts that had me on edge, including "The Tudor Chimney," where a project to "restore a derelict house" takes a strange turn; "A Christmas Game," in which a visitor at the holidays provides a strange ending to the family Christmas celebrations; "The White Sack" which is likely based on a Scottish legend of the Sac Bàn , noted in The Transactions of the Gaelic Society of  Inverness, 1897.  A man with a "passion for mountains" who "loves scrambling among large hills"  reveals why even though "mountains exercise strange fascination" within him, they also frighten him.  It all happens in the Black Cuillin, and that's enough of this tale.   [As an aside, this story caused me to immediately go and buy a book called The Lore of Scotland: A Guide to Scottish Legends by Jennifer Westwood and Sophia Kingshill. ]  "The Tregannet Book of Hours" is also excellent, revolving around a curse connected to a certain family and a certain church.

The full table of contents is as follows:

"Herodes Redivivus"
"The Inscription"
"The Alabaster Hand"
"The Topley Place Sale"
"A Tudor Chimney"
"A Christmas Game"
"The White Sack"
"The Four-Poster"
"The Negro's Head"
"The Tregannet Book of Hours"
"An Encounter in the Mist"
"The Lectern"
"Number Seventy-Nine" 
"The Devil's Autograph"

The Black Cuillin in Winter

While there are a number of elements in these tales that readers familiar with the work of M.R. James will certainly recognize, the stories in The Alabaster Hand are not hack copycats in any way shape or form.  These are original works that should be read by anyone who has a deep and abiding passion for older ghostly/supernatural tales, and above all, this book should not be missed by people like myself who absolutely revel in delight at discovering the work of yet another long-forgotten author.

By the way, is there anyone at all in the UK who would take a check to cover the cost of buying and sending me a copy of Sundial's Richmal Crompton collection?????


Monday, October 23, 2017

HR #6 & 7: two haunted house stories from the 80s: Haunted, by James Herbert and The Well, by Jack Cady

Trying to decide which horror novels from the 1980s to read is like trying to make your way around a buffet table that's loaded down with all kinds of food you'd like to eat, but the small plate in your hand sort of makes it impossible to try everything at once.  My library is chock full of these little gems,  but since 'tis the season, I pulled out two: Haunted, by James Herbert, the old beat up mass market paperback that I've had forever, and The Well, by Jack Cady, which is a newer addition to my library but one I hadn't read.  They are as different as night and day but they're both stories that take place in haunted houses, and after all, what's Halloween without being stuck inside of a haunted house or two?

Jove, 1990
originally published 1988
354 pp

Back when I initially read Haunted (which was probably in the 90s),  for some reason I thought it was one of the best haunted house stories I'd ever read; now I think that it had its moments, it was fun, but in the end, it's really only the ending that saved this story from being just another ho-hum haunting.  Before anyone starts mentally pelting me with rotten tomatoes, consider the fact that eons and a growing taste for more sophisticated haunted house stories now stand between this reading and the first.  What I did notice most prominently about it this time around, and what I really enjoy about it  is that it's really quite twisted in a hugely-ironic way, and what the author's done here turns his story into something wholly unexpected.

David Ash is what I suppose we'd now call a psychic/paranormal investigator with the Psychical Research Institute, and has an
"impressive record for exposing phonies and for explaining hauntings or certain psychic phenomena in perfectly rational, materialistic terms."
He's exposed several fake mediums while investigating seances, and has made no secret of his "total rejection of the spirit's existence after death."  As this story begins,  he's been given the opportunity to investigate some strange supernatural activity at Edbrook,  the family home of the Mariells, and he arrives armed with not only the latest gadgetry, but his own conviction that the house itself is not actually haunted, and that there are likely other more natural, rational explanations behind what the family is experiencing.  In short, he believes that the Mariells are "mistaken."    He flat out tells them that while most people think of ghosts as "spirits of the dead," he sees them as
" a thought process, from someone now in another place, or an impression they've left behind."
 Ash also believes that the Mariells might be experiencing
"Apparitions, telepathic visions, electromagnetic images. You might even call them vibrations of the atmosphere,"
but he stubbornly holds on to his steadfast refusal to believe despite the bizarre things he starts to experience at Edbrook.   Oh David...

What makes this book work for me is the sheer irony of it all which isn't revealed until the very end, and rightly so. In that sense, Herbert's done a fine job here, giving the average haunted-house story a major jolt and upending it to the point that it becomes something very different than the norm.  The sad thing is that up to that point, and I'm really sorry major Herbert fans (shields self from flying tomatoes),  what happens along the way may have been earth shattering in the 80s but well, kind of old hat by now.  That's not saying I didn't like it, but it really is a book that depends on its final few pages for the major shock.

Valancourt Books, 2014
originally published 1980
199 pp
On the other hand, there is nothing at all old hat about The Well, by Jack Cady, which is a book that is so rich in atmosphere that a serious case of the creepies grabbed me from the very beginning.  This may just be one of the most original haunted house novels I've ever encountered, and the story, like the house itself, takes several eerie twists and turns along the way as we weave our way through its darkness.

I realized this one was going to be something completely different even before I'd finished reading the first few lines:
"There are Things that do not love the sun. They weep and curse their own creation. Sometimes on earth a cruel shift takes place. Time splits. Corpses possessed at the moment of their death rise from tombs. The dark ages of history flow mindless from stagnant wells and lime-dripping cellars. The corpses, those creatures of possession, walk through ancient halls and rooms...  "Through endless halls are dusks gathering like the memory of screams. There is a concatenation. Presences drift toward combination. Darkness rises and takes shape behind the sound of footsteps." 
 The house at the center of things,  "begun by Johan Traker, father of Theophilus Tracker, grandfather of Justin Tracker, and great-grandfather of John Tracker," may just be seeing its last days on Earth. The old Tracker house is in the way of a new freeway, and the last of the family line, John Tracker, is ready for it to come down. The old place has
 "more than two hundred and fifty rooms, not counting the towers, not counting the darkened plain of the cellar nor the subcellar, which he considered a a true nether-region," 
and John has spent most of his life away from the house trying hard to forget it.   He knows that it was not "just a house," but in actuality,
 "more a trap, a disaster visited on Trackers for over a century. Man after man, and woman after woman, they added their share: predestined, it seemed, to pour into the monster the best of each individual genius."
 However, what he does regret is that he doesn't know as much as he'd like to about his family. So by page twelve, we already get that this story is not only going to incorporate the house itself but its past inhabitants as well.  The blending of these two elements moves the story along, as does knowing that the Tracker house was built as a "trap to capture the Devil," a "theme" which had continued since the original builder, worrying for his soul, laid down its foundations. The traps come in various forms, not the least of which are time shifts. Yow.    And now, John Tracker has come to see the place for the last time, bringing along his secretary and friend Amy.  While they'd planned just a quick visit, they find themselves trapped there during a horrendous storm; and it's during this time that John Tracker realizes that the house just may have a mind of its own.

I have to say that there are spots in this book where the writing just grates, but overall, it's one of the creepiest, darkest, haunted house stories I've ever read, certainly on the list of most original.   Sheesh!  I read this one twice and even in the middle of the second read I was still freaked out enough that I had to put the book down and go do something else.  It's not only the horrors that stand out though, since it is also a story about the people who'd lived in the house from its beginnings, so there's also plenty of insight into human nature. I won't say more, but seriously, there's a reason that this house is described as a "well of depravity."

This one I wholeheartedly recommend, and of the two books here, it is hands down the winner.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

HR #5: The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories, Volume Two, (eds.) James D. Jenkins and Ryan Cagle

Valancourt Books, 2017
290 pp


This will be my 28th post about a book from Valancourt Books, and there is a reason why so much of my reading material comes from this small press.  Michael Moorcock says it so perfectly:

"They have made it their business, with considerable taste and integrity, to put back into print a considerable amount of work which has been in serious need of republication.  Their list has been compiled by editors who know their stuff, bringing back into the light a raft of books, I, for one, have been waiting years to read! If you ever felt there were gaps in your reading experience or are simply frustrated that you can't find enough good, substantial fiction in the shops or even online, then this is the publisher for you!" 

They know I love and appreciate their work, so without further gushing on my part, on with The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories, Volume Two. 

The fourteen stories in this book are some of the most unsettling, disturbing, and chilling tales from yesteryear that I've ever read, and I don't know whether it was done purposefully or not, but it seemed to me that with each story there came an increase in the level of intensity.  The first story, Bernard Taylor's "Samhain," for example, has quite a bit of the dark-humor vibe, and actually made me laugh, but by the time I reached the end of the last story "The Boys Who Wouldn't Wake Up, " by Stephen Gregory, I was on the edge of tears.  I can't really explain it very well, but it feels like the Valancourt guys upped the horror ante with each tale as it appeared in this collection. 

The stories are as follows:

"Samhain," by Bernard Taylor
"The Bell," by Beverley Nichols
"The Elemental," by R. Chetwynd-Hayes
"Herself," by M.E. Braddon
"The Creatures in the House," by Robert Westall
"November the Thirteenth," by Russell Thorndike
"Halley's Passing," by Michael McDowell
"The Nice Boys," by Isabel Colegate
"The Watcher by the Threshold," by John Buchan
"Tudor Windows," by Nevil Shute
"No Sin," by John Metcalfe
"The Dice," by Thomas De Quincey
"Camera Obscura," by Basil Copper
"The Boys Who Wouldn't Wake Up," by Stephen Gregory

Normally in a collection such as this one, I would expect even one story that is not so great, but that just isn't the case here.  Each and every tale is top notch, so when you put them all together, you end up with a symphony of absolute reading perfection.   And while I won't go through each and every one here, there are a few stories that really stood out for me.  First, "Herself," by M.E. Braddon, in which a young woman's lovely inherited villa with the name of The Orange Grove seems the perfect place for her to rest and recuperate from her illness, despite the warnings she gets from those in her close circle.  While it's not haunted, exactly, it does have a certain reputation...  The one that actually made me stop reading for an entire day is Michael McDowell's "Halley's Passing," which is frightening enough as the story progresses, but its true horror doesn't hit you until the last two paragraphs. McDowell is a genius writer as it is, but he gives us something very different here, something completely unexpected.  It's one I'm happy I read during the daylight hours, let's just put it that way.   My favorite story in this book is Basil Copper's "Camera Obscura."  In their brief blurb about the author that prefaces the story, the editors say that it "is perhaps one of the most outright chilling tales in this volume," and I certainly won't disagree with them.  A moneylender who has gone to collect what he is owed from a rather eccentric gentleman gets way more than he ever expected in return.  When I stopped to think about the implications of this story it became so disturbing that I had to put the book down once again.  This is one of Copper's earliest stories, first appearing in the Sixth Pan Book of Horror Stories, and it was adapted for television as a 1971 episode of Night Gallery.   "The Boys Who Wouldn't Wake Up," by Stephen Gregory is simultaneously eerie and poignant, a beautifully-written tale of a young boy who is left only with his school's headmaster for company during the Christmas holidays.   As I said earlier, this one had me on the edge of tears, and it is hands down the most haunting story in this book, in the truest sense of the word.

from Genre Snaps

It's not all that often that I truly fall in love with a book, but I certainly did here.  Valancourt just keeps getting better year after year, and as I said to the guys in my goodreads post, they have completely outdone themselves with this one.   Bravo, Jay and Ryan -- this is the most stunning collection you have ever published.

Friday, October 20, 2017

HR #4: Hasty for the Dark: Selected Horrors, by Adam Nevill

Ritual Limited, 2017
my copy from the author, to whom I say a huge thank you!!!

It is absolutely no secret that I'm a huge fangirl where Adam Nevill's books are concerned.  He is hands down one of the best authors of modern horror writing today.  There are several reasons why this is so, but I've narrowed it down to three big ones:

1.  While reading his books, the real world just dissolves so that there's absolutely nothing between me and what's happening in what I'm reading at the time. I think I mentioned some time ago that while reading his No One Gets Out Alive I was so into that story that a mundane thing like the phone ringing  made me jump completely out of my skin; I honestly believe that it's his ability to not only transport me so completely  into the world inhabited by his characters but to keep me there for so long  that makes up part of his horror-writing genius.

2.   Another part of the equation is that he is so very good at transforming inner anxieties into the most horrific and threatening situations.

3.  Nevill is a master of atmosphere who can turn an ordinary sense of dread into a feeling of downright stomach-churning horror where you just know that something terrible is coming, but by then it's too late, and you're locked in for the duration. On the other side of that coin is his ability to sustain that dread (and continuously ratchet up the gut-twisting tension)  throughout an entire novel, a feat that is extremely rare nowadays.

   Now in Hasty for the Dark, he's upped his game, combining all three of these elements that make him a great modern horror writer with his own form of "tribute" to various writers, who, as he says, have inspired his own writing.  The result is one hell of a collection of nightmares that I'm glad I read in the daytime, since had I read it at night I probably wouldn't have slept.  

After a debate in my head as to whether or not I should give a brief preview of what's in this book, I decided to do my normal no-spoiler annotations on these stories, so if you want to leave without knowing anything at all, now is the time.  

"On All London Underground Lines" opens this book, and is a story which conjures up the horrors of a broken lifeline upon which so many people are dependent. And then, of course,  there are fellow travelers and the crowd to take into account... "Angels of London" is in a word, unsettling, and really gets to the heart of the question of exactly what people with very limited options will put up with and rationalize as "normal" when they absolutely have to. Here one man makes a stand and decides to make a change or two in the system.  "Always in Our Hearts" finds a taxi driver who after a series of strange fares,  eventually learns not only that "Life is full of repetition" and that the "same bad things keep happening,"  but in the end, a payment must always be made...  Next up comes one of my favorite tales in this book, "Eumenides (The Benevolent Ones)." It is one of the most complex stories of the collection, highly enigmatic, and disturbing as well.  After a man moves to Sullet-upon-Trent, which makes him think of himself as 
"a caged ape, a primate dressed in a cheap suit, one abandoned in a narrow and littered cement enclosure, forever bereft of visitors..."
he meets a woman at work, asks her on a date, and she decides they should meet an old, abandoned zoo.   While I was reading this one I wrote down "Aickmanish," so you can imagine my joy when reading at the end of the book that the author had written this story "in homage to Robert Aickman."   Seriously one of the best stories here, especially because of the introduction of the Sisters of the White Cross.

from The Mirror
"The Days of Our Lives" follows next, another truly disconcerting tale that follows a couple who meet completely by accident. This one is beyond dark, and to give it the label of surreal is not a stretch by any means.  Oh my god -- it was one of those stories where I wanted out quickly, but discovered I was stuck, come what may.  It also introduces a bizarre, grotesque cult called The Movement, much to my great delight. Oh, please write a book about them, please!!    Next comes the story that made me push aside the breakfast I was eating while reading it, "Hippocampus," which is unique since there are absolutely no people involved.  An abandoned ship is the setting here, and it just may be the most frightening tale in the entire book. Of this one Nevill writes that it shows
"the reader a form of found footage: footage of a place where something terrible has happened."
He's not joking when he uses the word "terrible," so consider yourself warned. After the horror of that one, it was time to move on to a story that takes on highly-recognizable Lovecraftian tones in a mix of horror and science fiction, "Call the Name." The unease is not just due to the horrific future envisioned here, but also because reality just may be somewhat skewed in this case.  Next up is one that reminded me of the work of Thomas Ligotti, but which is actually an homage to the work of Mark Samuels, "White Light, White Heat."   Shame on me -- I've had his The White Hands and Other Weird Tales on my Kindle for over a year now and still haven't read it. Memo to self.   This story takes place in a publishing house, where the workers live in fear of the dreaded "white envelope."  As the author notes, anyone who's been an employee at a large company will completely understand where he's coming from here, but just to whet your appetite,  his main character says at one point that "Sadists and sociopaths had completely enslaved us and removed any chance of inner or spiritual life." Now imagine that idea with a Nevill touch and you've got an incredible story here.    Last but by no means least is his homage to Ramsey Campbell, "Little Black Lamb," which also ties to an earlier story in this book -- I'll leave it to you to figure out how.   A man is bombarded with memories which "repeated like radio commercials" but yet can't actually recall anything of the kind actually happening to him, and when he mentions it to his wife, her response is "That is so strange...Me too."  What follows is absolutely bizarre, moving quickly and deeply into the realm of horror before getting even worse.

By the time I'd finished the last story in this book, I was simultaneously  a) relieved that I could breathe again and b) sad that it was all over. 

As I will remind people once again, I'm  not a reviewer at all, just a plain-old reader person, so I'll let the real reviewers discuss prose, style, and all that jazz.  I'll just say that Hasty for the Dark is the creepiest, best book of modern horror fiction that I've read all year, and you need to trust me here since I am an extremely picky reader in this genre and I do not give out superlatives lightly.  How he will top this one I have no clue -- it's that good.

I'm very grateful to Adam Nevill for my copy of this book which I would have bought anyway, but thank you all the same.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Double feature: The Magician, by Somerset Maugham and Trilby, by George Du Maurier

Before October rolled around, I had hoped that one of my online groups would choose Somerset Maugham's The Magician as its group read choice, but alas, it was not to be, so I read it anyway.    After finishing it, I read the intro and discovered that Maugham had said that the book "wouldn't have been written"
"except for the great regard I had for Joris-Karl Huysmans who was then at the height of his vogue." (ix)
The reference to Huysmans was to his Là-Bas,  but Robert Calder also notes in the introduction that there were other works with which Maugham would have been familiar, including George du Maurier's Trilby. So geek person that I am, I decided to read not only The Magician, but Là-Bas and Trilby as well. I will be writing on Huysmans' book a bit later, probably after October, so right now it's all about Maugham and Du Maurier.  The Magician, of course, was my favorite of the two, but they're both fun.

Penguin, 2007
originally published 1908
203 pp

 I'm not going to go into that whole Aleister-Crowley-as-model-for-Oliver-Haddo thing -- that's so well known that just mentioning this book will bring up that conversation quickly (which has happened more than once since I read it), nor am I going to get as deep as I could here due to time constraints.

The Magician is certainly worthy of being counted as Halloween reading material; it has so many of those elements that send my little heart racing, among them pulpy mysterious melodrama, a bit of decadence,  and of course the dark forces of the occult and the supernatural.    Recently arrived in Paris, Dr. Arthur Burdon has come to see his fiancée, Margaret Dauncey. While at a dinner party at the Chien Noir, the couple and their group run  into Oliver Haddo, who had the "look of a very wicked sensual priest."  Margaret took an instant, "uncontrollable dislike" to the man, but he seems to be part of the crowd where ever they go, and Margaret's friend Susie Boyd finds it "a privilege" to encounter "a man in the twentieth century who honestly believes in the occult." Arthur, the ever-rational "scientific man" is an unbeliever, and Margaret's guardian, Dr. Porhoët can't tell if Haddo is "an impostor or a madman."     Nonetheless, Haddo is invited to tea at Miss Dauncey's flat for the following Wednesday.  It is there that an event occurs that leads to Burdon physically attacking Haddo, and although Haddo makes no move to defend himself and actually apologizes, the small group of friends will discover that he has clearly not forgotten the perceived wrong to his person.  The incident sparks a most sinister, evil, two-fold plan of revenge, in which Margaret stands at the center.

Paul Wegener as Oliver Haddo, from the film. Borrowed from {feuilleton}

I was hooked from the beginning, and later, as I realized where Maugham was taking this tale, it got even more interesting since it wasn't at all what I expected when I started it. Actually, I spent much of the time wondering like Dr.Porhoët whether or not Haddo was a true magician or just a fast-talking fake, and I think this ambiguity worked well all through the novel.  By the time I reached the ending, well, let's just say that pages were being turned very quickly.  There's much more going on here that I won't get into because of time, but pay close attention not only to the relationship between Margaret and Haddo as he focuses his hypnotic powers on her, but also to Margaret herself in relation to Burdon.   And do see the old silent film (1926)  if you can find a copy (I got mine on Amazon) -- while there are definitely some scenes played for laughs here in between the main action, and while the script deviates from the novel quite a bit, it's still well worth watching.  Paul Wegener (who would later play the title role in the original Svengali movie in 1927) makes a very creepy Haddo who sent chills up my spine just looking at him.


On to George du Maurier's novel Trilby now.  While his character Svengali may not have had an interest in alchemy or the occult like Maugham's Oliver Haddo,  it's easy to see how Du Maurier's portrayal of this character may have influenced Maugham in the writing of his own villain.  To be honest,  The Magician is definitely the better of the two books, but Trilby is also quite good in its own way.

Oxford University Press, 1998
originally published 1894
339 pp

"I will tell you a secret. There were two Trilbys." 

Paris is once again the setting for the story of Trilby O'Ferrall, the young artist's model who enchants not only  the three artists of this story, but also the musician Svengali.  While Svengali is not the first fictional hypnotist (Dumas' Joseph Balsamo from fifty years earlier immediately comes to mind), his name even now conjures up
"The image of a sinister hypnotist, lurking behind the scenes, ambiguously responsible for breaking and remaking another weaker character..." (Daniel Pick, Svengali's Web, 1).
 We first meet him as he comes to visit the  three artists Little Billee, Taffy, and the Laird. Du Maurier describes Svengali as  "a tall bony individual between thirty and forty-five, of Jewish aspect, well featured but sinister," with "bold, brilliant black eyes."  This scene is also the first meeting between Trilby and Svengali -- where he plays Schubert for her and then Trilby gives them all her tone-deaf rendition of "Ben Bolt." Svengali believes he can teach her to sing; some time later, he even offers to give her singing lessons, flattering her with "lovely language" about her voice, all while curing her migraine.  He tells her that the next time she has another headache that she should come to him again, and that she
"shall see nothing, hear nothing, thing of nothing but Svengali, Svengali, Svengali!"
While Billee wants to marry young Trilby, his mother steps in to do what she can to prevent the marriage from happening.   Trilby, thinking of Little Billee's future, does the noble thing and disappears from his life, only to resurface later.   It does take a bit of needle threading (and often a great deal of patience)  to find ourselves back to  the story of Trilby and Svengali, because around it, Du Maurier has placed us in the milieu of the Bohemian artists of the Latin Quarter of Paris, and he spends a lot of time giving us his own version, a "mixing of reality and fantasy" (xii) based on his own experiences.  Then, when the story moves to London, we are made privy to the world of the British upper classes, where Little Billee is now William Bagot, successful artist.  While you may wonder what's going on with Trilby all this time, well, eventually we do get back there.

My Oxford World Classics edition features Du Maurier's wonderful illustrations that I spent quite a lot of time looking at; there is so much going on in this novel underneath its surface, and Trilby is one of those books that has sparked quite a bit of academic interest in several fields.   Do as I did -- relax  and take it slowly.

The 1954 film Svengali skips pretty much everything else in Du Maurier's novel to focus on the story of Trilby, Little Billee and Svengali, making it more of a sort of love triangle kind of thing.  The tagline for this one is great: "She was a slave to his will," although it does take a while for the movie to get to that point.  I didn't like Hildegarde Neff's Trilby; I found her rather flat compared to Trilby of the novel, but hey -- it wasn't exactly a waste of time to watch the film. 

I can recommend both novels, although The Magician, as I said, is much better; it's also way easier to read as compared to the more sloggy sections of Trilby.  

Thursday, October 5, 2017

HR #3: One Thousand and One Ghosts, by Alexandre Dumas

Hesperus Press, 2004
originally published as Les mille et un fantômes, 1849
translated by Andrew Brown
160 pp


I actually killed two birds with one stone reading this book, since I discovered that it's the same book as The Horror at Fontenay, which I bought because it appeared in Wheatly's Library of the Occult.  The cover of Fontenay is a bit more reflective of what goes on inside this book than that of the Hesperus edition, although to be sure, not everyone in it ends up minus a head.

from Picssr

 Departing from his host's hunting party, the narrator of this book takes it upon himself to  "beat a retreat," setting out on a path that would take him to the village of Fontenay-aux-Roses.  As he's strolling along, he can't help but notice a man with a "fixed and lifeless" stare, "clothes in disarray and his hands spattered with blood."  Our narrator is intrigued enough to follow him as he presents himself at the home of the mayor, Monsieur Ledru, proclaiming that he's just killed his wife and he wants to give himself up. The mayor, the police superintendent, and the doctor insist he return with them to the scene of the crime, but the man is beyond reluctant -- it seems that after he'd killed his wife by chopping off her head, not only did the head  speak to him, but it also proceeded to bite his hand.  Later that day, a small party gathers at the home of M. Ledru, where the events of the day are still on everyone's mind.  A discussion begins around the question of whether or not a severed head continues to have "consciousness of feeling," moving on to "the persistence of life" after death.  Ledru reveals that earlier in his life, he'd become "obsessed" with the belief that the severed heads of the aristocrats who'd met their fate at the hands of the executioner were in fact, still alive, and proceeds to tell his guests about his own experience, launching into the story of "Solange." 

I'd just read "Solange" in The Dedalus Book of French Horror, but I had no idea that it originally came from this book. Shame on me for not having done my usual homework.  So now, I'm really intrigued, thinking that  if this collection starts with that story, then I'm in for a really good time here. I was not disappointed.

Ledru's tale sparks the question of whether his experience was real or hallucinatory; it also begins a series of stories told by everyone present except the narrator, who turns out to be Dumas himself. Each time a story is told, one of the group presents his or her own strange experience, prompting another round of theoretical discussion before the next one until each has had his or her say.   After "Solange" we have "The Cat, the Bailiff and the Skeleton," which hinges on the question of a real vs. imagined haunting; "The Tombs of Saint-Denis" an incredibly creepy tale that starts in 1793 and is based on a real-life event which occurred during The Terror, followed by  "L'Artifaille," inspired by the priest's belief that
"We live between two invisible worlds, one of them inhabited by the spirits of hell, the other by the spirits of heaven." 
 Up next is "The Bracelet of Hair," but mum's the word on this one; finally we have the story that for me was the proverbial jewel in the crown here, "The Carpathian Mountains."  Long before Stoker brought his Dracula into the world, Dumas gave us this story which has much more of an old-world flavor, a tale of two brothers vying for the attentions of a young woman, in as Wheatly says in his introduction to The Horror at Fontenay, "a castle deep in the forests of Central Europe."  This one is so atmospheric that every time their mother said "Kostaki loves Hedwige," I felt a shiver go up my spine -- with good reason.

While I can't really divulge much about the contents in this book, I will say that stories here speak to translator Andrew Brown's question of whether the dead are "really dead."  They all examine to some degree the idea of consciousness continuing to live on after death, continuing the debate which began back in the 1790s when death by guillotine was in its heyday.  There's much, much more going on here, of course, and I could talk about this book for hours -- that's how good it is.

sidebar:  [Aside from the article linked in that paragraph, there's another good one of particular interest here.]

One Thousand and One Ghosts really is the perfect stormy-night read, and to those readers who disliked it because it wasn't "swashbuckling" or anything like The Count of Monte Cristo,  well, it obviously wasn't meant to be.

One goodreads reader says about this book that
"It might have been sort of freaky for the time it was written, but with mass media we are so inundated with macabre stories, this book almost seems like a bedtime story by comparison..."
which I think is a truly sad commentary on older supernatural fiction in general.  Don't be fooled -- Dumas has written something great here.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

HR#2 -- Pharos The Egyptian, by Guy Boothby

Dover, 2016
serialized in Windsor Magazine, 1898
first published 1899
376 pp


"...he is as cruel and as remorseless as Satan himself."

Some time ago I read  Richard Marsh's The Beetle, which I loved and at the time designated as the literary equivalent of comfort food. Pharos is another I'd put in that category. It also reminds me of some of the movies I'd watch as a kid -- on Saturdays I'd turn on the TV, stretch out on the sofa and watch a show called Creature Feature that ran old horror movies.Woe be to he who interrupted those few hours back then, and woe be to he who interrupts my pulpy reading time now.  Actually, I think my horror-fiction reading career began back then, and it all started with this sort of delicious pulpy goodness.

It's not by chance that I mention Marsh's The Beetle here, because there is quite a bit of similarity between the two books. While the stories are different,  read closely, both Pharos and Marsh's novel reflect the same sort of anxieties centering around the perceived threats to western (read British) civilization and values by an outside/alien/Other.  In both books, that threat stems from Egypt, which is not surprising given the context of British imperialism at the time (it's very complicated, and I won't go into it here, but feel free to explore  the web if you really want to understand what lies beneath a LOT of late Victorian pulp/horror fiction, including Bram Stoker's Dracula.)  The similarities between The Beetle and Pharos don't end there, though -- both are tales of revenge and retribution, but here Boothby gives us a worst-case scenario. It's a page turner, to be sure -- not the best of literature, but who cares?

Sir William Betford of Bampton Street, St. Mary, Dorsetshire receives a strange letter from his friend artist Cyril Forrester.  It is, as he says, "one of the saddest, and at the same time one of the most inexplicable cases ever yet recorded on paper."  Along with the letter is a manuscript which Forrester wants Betford and his friend George Trevelyan to have published, and it is the contents of this manuscript which make up the story of Pharos. 

Forrester has long had a special attraction to Egypt, which he believes he inherited from his father, "one of the greatest authorities upon the subject the world has ever known."   The story begins on a dark night as Forrester is walking toward Cleopatra's Needle, where he hears a man calling out for help.  Rushing to save the person from certain death by drowning, he realizes that there's someone else there who could have helped the man but made no effort.  In the now moonlit sky, Forrester accosts the "brute and monster" who let the man drown, but as his eyes made contact, he experienced an "indescribable feeling of nausea" like he'd never felt before.  In describing him, he notes 
"his eyes, the shape of face, the multitudinous wrinkles that lined it, and above all the extraordinary colour of his skin, that rendered his appearance so repulsive. ... you must think first of old ivory, and then endeavour to realize what the complexion of a corpse would be like after lying in an hermetically sealed tomb for many years." (28)
This was his first encounter with the person he would later come to know as Pharos the Egyptian. 

They would meet again many times, and Forrester makes the acquaintance of his young ward Valerie, a gifted musician and one of the most beautiful women Forrester has ever encountered.  After a musical evening in which Valerie gives a recital at the home of one of Forrester's acquaintances, Pharos appears at Forrester's home offering to buy a certain mummy that Forrester had inherited from his father.  The mummy, that of the magician Ptahmes, was one of Forrester's most prized possessions, and he refuses to sell.  Pharos is not happy, and the next morning, Forrester awakes to find that the mummy has been stolen. Worse yet, the police are at his door asking him questions about a murdered antiquities dealer.   When he tries to get to Pharos, he discovers he's left England for Naples along with Valerie, and thus begins a tale that will find this odd trio making their way through Egypt and then back to the continent, as a truly diabolical, evil, and nefarious plan is set into motion. 

The Dover edition I have contains the illustrations by John H. Bacon, which are exquisite; the book itself is hours of just pure, pulpy horror fun. As I said, it's not great literature -- in fact, there are some internal eyeroll causing moments, but as far as I'm concerned, it's one that really ought to be in the collection of  both horror and pulp aficionados.   Pharos is one of the most evil,vile, inhuman, conscienceless villains to make his way into a book; he is someone who will stop at nothing to ensure the success of his horrific plan.   He is "as cruel and as remorseless as Satan himself," and god help anyone in his path. 

While the mummy aspect won't remind anyone of Karloff here, the book is well worth reading and above all fun, delicious pulpy goodness.  It is also a bona fide page turner that I couldn't put down, and a sheer aahhhh read that should not be missed.