Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Ziska: The Problem of a Wicked Soul, by Marie Corelli

9781934555682
Valancourt, 2009
originally published 1897
184 pp

paperback

"In certain men and women spirit leaps to spirit, -- note responds to note -- and if all the world were to interpose its trumpery bulk, nothing could prevent such tumultuous forces rushing together."




Think what you will, but I love Marie Corelli's novels, at least the few I've read so far, with others waiting for my attention on their shelves.  The critics of her day had little nice to say about her work, but her reading public loved her, from "the eccentrics at society's lower end" to Queen Victoria herself.  One Corelli scholar notes that more than half of her novels were "world-wide best sellers," with more than an estimated 100,000 copies selling annually for several years.  Corelli's  1895 The Sorrows of Satan, according to Annette R. Federico in her book Idol of Suburbia: Marie Corelli and Late-Victorian Literary Culture, had an "initial sale greater than any previous English novel," selling twenty-five thousand copies its first week with and fifty thousand over the next seven weeks (2000, University Press of Virginia, 7).  Curt Herr, in his introduction to this Valancourt edition of Ziska, notes that 1897 also saw the publication of Stoker's Dracula and Richard Marsh's The Beetle, and that Corelli  outsold "Stoker and Marsh by the hundreds of thousands" (xi), which sort of begs the question as to why today she is all but forgotten, which is a true pity.



1897 original edition, from WorthPoint

There is no messing around as the story begins; the prologue puts us in the Egyptian desert of long ago, on a night when  "the air was calm and sultry; and not a human foot disturbed the silence."  A "Voice" breaks the stillness towards midnight,  "as it were like a wind in the desert," crying out for
" 'Araxes! Araxes!' and wailing past, sank with a profound echo into the deep recesses of the vast Egyptian tomb. Moonlight and the Hour wove their own mystery; the mystery of a Shadow and a Shape that flitted out like a thin vapour from the very portals of Death's ancient temple, and drifting forward a few paces resolved itself into the visionary fairness of a Woman's form -- a Woman whose dark hair fell about her heavily, like the black remnants of a long--buried corpse's wrappings; a Woman whose eyes flashed with an unholy fire and waved her ghostly arms upon the air."  
Flash forward to contemporary Cairo, where "full season" is in swing, where the "perspiring horde of Cook's 'cheap trippers' " have flocked for their holidays. We are introduced to one such group of British tourists, some of whom are in the lounge of the Gezireh Palace Hotel discussing  the arrival of the famous French painter Armand Gervase while others are preparing for a costume ball.  Expectations are highest, however, over the attendance at the ball of a certain Princess Ziska, of "extra-ordinary" beauty.  As the festivities begin and Gervase and the Princess meet, he is stunned:
"There was something strangely familiar about her; the faint odours that seemed exhaled from her garments, -- the gleam of the jewel-winged scarabei on her breast, -- the weird light of the emerald-studded serpent in her hair; and more, much more familiar than these trifles was the sound of her voice -- dulcet, penetrating, grave and haunting in its tone."
Ziska captivates this small group of tourists with her dazzling beauty and stories of ancient Egypt, but none more so than Gervase, who begins to believe himself in love with her, and  Denzil Murray, whose sister Helen knows that his obsession with the princess will eventually come to no good.  After confiding her woes to keen observer/researcher Dr. Dean of their party,  he notes that they have been caught up in "a whole network of mischief, " and that the
"...spider, my dear, -- the spider who wove the web in the first instance, -- is the Princess Ziska and she is not in love! ... She is not in love with anybody any more than I am. She's got something else on her mind -- I don't know what it is exactly, but it isn't love."
 As Gervase, as the back-cover blurb states, becomes more and more "haunted by strange and distant memories of her" over the short time in which this story occurs, it will become ever clearer exactly what it is that Ziska has on her mind.

The pulp/supernatural/gothic/occult-fiction reader in me of course positively swooned over Ziska, and if story alone was what it had amounted to I would have been happy enough.  Although I knew eventually what was going to happen here, it didn't matter -- the novel makes for an intense, compelling read.   But of course, there's always more that is not-so hidden under the surface with Corelli, whose beliefs often make their way into her work as debate between characters, and this book is no exception.  She begins right away with a look at the cultural imperialism of her day before tackling upper-class society, love, marriage, gender, and  her stock in trade, the undying soul.  Curt Herr has provided an excellent introduction that discusses all of this and more, including brief comparisons to the two other novels published the same year that I mentioned above.

'tis an old book, but a fine one, and I loved every second of it.  I really can't ask for more.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

in which the angel in the house becomes delightfully devilish: The Strange Transfiguration of Hannah Stubbs, by Florence Marryat

9781241582876
British Library Historical Print Editions, 2011
originally published 1896
339 pp

paperback



"It isn't all jam to have a medium in the house..."



H.G. Wells evidently didn't care for this book, saying that it was  "absurd," and that rather than "transfiguring Spiritualism," as was its intention,  it made Spiritualism to seem a "highly dangerous and idiotic pastime."   
Another reviewer from The Academy (1896) also criticized it, commenting that if "this volume was intended to commend spiritualism to unbelievers," it would more likely, in his opinion, "confirm them in their scepticism."

I settled on this book as an October read because I was looking for a novel with a séance, so when I found this one, I was a happy camper.   I'm a fangirl of Florence Marryat's novels and this book is one of hers that I hadn't yet read. 

Author and scholar Michael Sadleir, as quoted in Sutherland's  The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction (Pearson, 2nd ed, 2009) said about Marryat's  work that it was  "dangerously inflammatory fiction, unsuitable for reading by young ladies..." which was my original invitation to read her works, and I have to say that in this case he was probably correct.  (416)  This is one of the most lurid supernatural Victorian novels I've encountered up to now, and unlike the two contemporary reviewers quoted above who seemed to have missed the point,  I quite liked it.  The Strange Transfiguration of Hannah Stubbs ticks more than just a few of my reader boxes:  it is the story of a vengeful ghost, has the feel of a sensation novel cloaked in spiritualist garb but turned completely on its head, and it simultaneously engages topics and themes of fin-de-siècle New Woman literature.   It's also fun -- what more can I ask?

The story is centered around a natural spirit medium,  young Hannah Stubbs.   It seems that around Hannah, the furniture "dances,"  "shadders" appear, and "woices" haunt her at night.  Her mediumistic powers are so strong that they completely disrupt life in the family  home in Shropshire, providing the reason for "many a beating." They've also come between her and her young man  Joe Brushwood, to whom she had promised that she would try to stop "raising them sperrits." It's a promise she is unable to keep, however, and things get so bad that her mother feels she has no alternative but to find her a position in service with a family friend in London, a Mrs. Battleby.    Poor Hannah wishes for a normal life so she can go back to the country and to Joe,  but she is unable to stop all of the phenomena, no matter how much she wants to.

Enter Mrs. Battleby's lodger, Professor Ricardo, formerly the Marquis of Sorrento before exile and the relinquishment of his title.  While Mrs. Battleby  is constantly on the verge of turning Hannah out because of the disruptions in her home,  the Professor is fascinated.  As it happens, the death of his wife Leonora has left him wishing he could speak to her again (for reasons I won't mention here), and he has turned to an intense study of "the Art of Magic" to make it happen.  He  has also constructed a "séance room" in a part of his lodgings, and it is there that he shuts himself in to "burn the differing incenses recommended in the books of Magic," waiting to commune with spirits.  After he witnesses firsthand the phenomena that follows Hannah, he tells Mrs.  Battleby that Hannah is a "victim to what we call hysteria," and that if Hannah agrees, he will "undertake to cure her."   Eventually he also convinces Hannah that under his guidance, and that of his friend Dr. Steinberg,  she would be "quite cured of the annoyance she objected to."   Thus begins a series of "experiments," designed to heighten Hannah's powers while she sleeps (shades of Trilby!) to take them even further, with the aim of bringing forth the spirit of Leonora at his beck and call.  However,  a misunderstanding on the landlady's part gets both Hannah and the Professor tossed out of Mrs. Battleby's home; neither her mother nor Joe will have her back, so Ricardo decides that it would be beneficial to both if he and Hannah marry.




original title page (obviously I took this, as it's blurry)

At this point is where this story really begins, and we follow Hannah as she is molded and shaped by both men to suit and to exploit their own needs and desires.   What neither men realize, however, is that once they've opened the door, there is no going back; they will be left to  deal with the "transfiguration" fallout and neither are prepared for what comes next.  As both will discover, "it isn't all jam to have a medium in the house."

I think I might agree that on the face of it the plot, as Wells so eloquently put it, may seem "absurd," but there is method to Marryat's madness here, as there is in many of her later novels.  There is so much at work here under the surface that I could never  cover it in a short post; suffice it to say that this could easily be included in a study of Victorian women's  fin-de-siècle literature.  The novel is delightfully subversive,  it makes for fun supernatural reading, and I can't help it -- I am a huge fangirl  of  novels in which there are séances.  I got way,way more than I bargained for here.

Recommended, certainly, especially for aficionados of more obscure Victorian supernatural tales. 




October again




...my favorite part of the reading year. 












from Pinterest

Monday, September 23, 2019

Neon Empire, by Drew Minh

9781947856769
California Coldblood/Rare Bird Books, 2019
270 pp

arc



In a rare outing away from my reading diet of the supernatural and weird, I stray into the realm of science fiction-ish, dystopian-ish, cyberpunk-ish here with the recently-released Neon Empire, which although set in the future, builds a world that resonates with our modern times in terms of social media, corruption, and corporate greed. 

Set not so far off from our present, social media and social currency is the basis of everything and everybody in this novel, which is set in the fictional desert city of Eutopia, a sort of glitzy conglomerate of replica cities pieced together on a piece of land belonging to the Navajos.  It is referred to as an "integrated city," where tourists can get "Europe's greatest hits without having to go there."  That is a necessity at the moment in time that this novel is set, since worries about political unrest on the European continent leave a lot of people unwilling to travel.  So how does a celebrity or social media star keep his or her public abreast of his or her vacation doings? Take a trip to Eutopia where everything and anything does happen.   More than a theme park, it is a place where people can "live-broadcast their lives" and are "incentivized" to do so; in Eutopia, "everybody has the chance to be a star."  Giant screens exist everywhere on which ads run almost constantly, and between them there is "never a dull moment" -- car chases, scandals, crimes and people looking for stardom and social cache all find their way up onto the big screen.  Eutopia also exists as entertainment for the young up-and-comers of the world; they can find and do anything there.    On the streets, as main character Cedric Travers reveals,
"It was almost as if everybody was in a trance-like state, monitoring their social channels, connecting to billboards, transacting with each other." 
The only thing that is lacking seems to be reality; behind the scenes and unaware to the public,  every movement in the city has been calculated and planned, trends are thoroughly analyzed, and decisions are made based on revenue and profit. 

Cedric is a has-been film director and  has come to Eutopia where two months earlier his wife Mila (who had been in on the creation of the city) had disappeared. His idea is that he'll stay long enough  to pack up her belongings so he can start to try to put things behind him.   Rumor has it that she was involved in a possible terrorist-linked bombing there, but there is no real information about her whereabouts.    As he wonders what could have possibly drawn and kept her there, he becomes involved with two city mainstays: A'rore, the biggest, most popular social media influencer who has  a great desire to keep herself at the top,  and the rather shady police captain Monteiro who knows when to look away when certain crimes are committed.  There is also a journalist, Sacha Villanova, who may be able to help him with his questions about his wife.  Like Mila, though, it isn't long until Cedric also becomes drawn more deeply into Eutopia's "inner realm."  Unfortunately for all concerned, it also isn't long until reality disrupts the fantasy ...

The world building is just terrific here, dynamic and strange all at the same time, offering a sense that yes, this could actually be a future reality, and I couldn't wait to see what the author was going to add to Eutopia itself as the story went along.  The author, Drew Minh, also knows what he's talking about here -- his background is in digital advertising, so his knowledge of data analytics (which is a major part of this story) shines through. 

  The thing is  that I couldn't quite find a narrative thread to latch on to. The blurb calls it a thriller, but I'm not quite sure I got that overall vibe here, and for me it was because of too many different elements in this story that didn't really mesh too well.   I had thought, given the beginning of this novel and certain occurrences throughout the story that perhaps it was going to be about Cedric's search for what happened to Mila, but the way the novel ends (somewhat unfairly, if you ask me) makes it seem like that will likely be picked up in a sequel.   Then there's an ongoing mystery that begins with the death of a man Cedric had only recently met,  a strand that brings in  both the police and Sacha's investigative skills.   To me the weak link here is with the A'rore POV narrative; it tends to seriously  detract attention from what otherwise might have been a good mystery set in a future landscape. I am a voracious crime and mystery reader, and what I've discovered over my many years is that sometimes it is true that less is more.  That's definitely the case here.

I thank the publishers for my copy.   Neon Empire is enjoying some very positive reader response, so it's probably just me being my picky reader self once more. 







Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Intimations of Death, by Felix Timmermans

9781948405409
Valancourt Books, 2019
originally published as Schemerigen van den Dood, 1910
translated by Paul Vincent
150 pp

paperback



"Are you frightened of Death and the dead?" 

I don't think I've ever read a book of stories that was so completely morbid as this one.  Not that I didn't have a clue from the title that death was going to be on the agenda here, but jeez Louise.  Normally I think of the word "intimation" in terms of a hint or an indication, but that's definitely not the case here.

The blurb on the back cover of this book reveals that Felix Timmermans (1886-1947) wrote the stories in this collection "after a near-death experience with a serious illness."   It also notes that he
" reveals a more morbid side and delivers a collection of psychological horror tales worthy of Edgar Allan Poe."  
  The comparison to Poe is beyond apt, not just because of the macabre themes and episodes depicted throughout these stories, but also due to Timmermans'  use of landscape and various settings designed to echo the characters' inner torments and mental states.  And tormented these people are, from the first story to the last, with no exceptions.

 "The Mourner" makes for the perfect opener to this collection, beginning in an isolated house with barred windows on a "dark beech avenue" where it seems that death is no stranger.  Not only had the narrator "helped carry three dead souls -- a brother and two sisters" out of  the house to the cemetery, but the house, described as being  "the color of congealed blood," is enclosed by a "deep black moat, covered in green scum" into which a tramp had once fallen and drowned.  The narrator (who is telling this story at a much later time), reveals that the house had been in the family for generations, at least back to the time of his great-grandfather; as he puts it, "it was in our blood to live there."
"But those who had lived there had never been aware of the mysterious air weighing on the soul, which had pressed down in the house and across the plain; but my heart was like a gate open to the unknown, and I always had the clear consciousness of another life around me."
He had felt "the soul of things" and although he lived in solitude with his family there, he had a sense of "not being alone," which made him afraid and made "life sad;" he describes it as the "face of the unknown that was watching our hands."   He also sees signs in everything around him, which makes what happens as he waits with his mother and father, nearly unbearable.  Every noise is detailed, silence is weighed,  his senses are on ultra-high alert as he takes in every sound, every flash of lightning.  And then, when someone rings the bell in the midst of it all ...



reproduction of one the illustrations used in the original

In the final story, "The Unknown," a couple whose families are against their marriage decide to end it all together so that they might at least be happy and together forever in death.  Things go awry when she dies and he is rescued; at first he is happy to be alive, but he feels himself invaded by an "unknown thing" that takes over his life in more ways than one.

In between these two stories, as the back-cover blurb reveals,
"A scholar of the occult finds his marriage threatened by horrifying and otherworldly noises emanating from the cellar -- During a plague outbreak a gravedigger accidentally prepares one too many graves and becomes obsessed with the thought that the final grave will be his own.  -- A haunted man, seeking refuge in a monastery, is convinced that Death itself stalks him in the building's lonely halls..." 
 With the exception of "The White Vase,"  these strange, gothic tales are related via a certain distance; as John Howard puts it in his excellent introduction, "as if they were seen by the reader made to gaze through the wrong end of a telescope."  However, it is also true, as he says, that we are "taken in from the start and carried off by Timmermans' intense, tortured narratives."    Author Paul Di Filippo in his review of this book at Locus says about these stories that
"they all prefigure the deep and subtle psychological horror stories that were to populate the twentieth century and become almost the dominant mode in the twenty-first," 
which in my case, aside from the obscurity of this book and author,  is the attraction.

 Many many thanks to Valancourt for publishing such a fine book and bringing it back into the public eye; kudos to the translator Paul Vincent who didn't seem to miss a single nuance, and also to John Howard for his informative and excellent introduction.   Readers of modern horror may find it a bit tame, but as a lover of the old and especially of the obscure, I loved every dark second of it, and found it to be the perfect  book for late-night, book-light-only reading. All that was missing (and pardon the cliché but it works) was the raging thunderstorm outside.

Reader beware -- space yourself between stories and do not read them all at once.  Di Filippo refers to Timmermans at the time he wrote these tales as a "kind of Thomas Ligotti," and trust me, there's a reason for the comparison.



Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Bending to Earth: Strange Stories by Irish Women, eds. Maria Giakaniki and Brian Showers

9781783800254
Swan River Press, 2019
205 pp

hardcover

I must confess that I read this book some time ago, but am just now getting to posting about it after giving it a second read.

At the end of their introduction to this volume, the editors Maria Giakaniki and Brian Showers wave a beckoning hand in my direction:
"...we hope Bending to Earth stands as an invitation to the curious; that these strange stories of ghosts and witches, of cryptids and madmen, will serve as a lighted candle for those who wish to further illuminate the darker corners of Irish literature."
"... the curious" -- check -- that's me.   "...those who wish to further illuminate the darker corners of Irish literature" -- check again. Boxes ticked.

If you read the subtitle of this book, it tells you all you need to know about what you'll find inside.  The dozen stories in this excellent collection definitely fall on the strange side, and in their selection, the editors have brought together a mix of tales written by women who, as they tell us, were not
 "considered during their lifetimes to be chiefly writers of fantastical fiction. Yet they each at some point in their careers wandered into more speculative realms -- some only briefly, others for more lengthier stays."  
 What matters here is not how long their wanderings "into more speculative realms" lasted, but rather that these women left behind these stories, most of them now fallen into the void of obscurity,  to be enjoyed well over a century later.

Bending to Earth is a mix of superb, uncanny tales featuring (among other things) wandering spirits, tortured souls of  both the earthly and ethereal sort, dream-like visions,  and Irish ghost lore I can imagine listening to while seated beside a fire in an otherwise darkened and quiet room while outside a storm is raging and the wind is howling like the proverbial banshee.   There is one story, "The Blanket Fiend," set in the wilds of New Guinea that stands apart from the others, moving away from what's come before and what comes after. It is different enough that it was a bit of a jolt,  actually reading  more along the lines of early pulp fiction,  but the editors address this issue in their most excellent and informative introduction (which you should most certainly save for last if you want no hints at all as to what's to come in any of these tales).  There is also, in the back of the book and on the website for Swan River Press  a brief biographical portrait of author Beatrice Grimshaw (and the other writers) which helps to understand her inspiration for this story.

The twelve stories in this book are as follows:


"The Dark Lady", by Anna Maria Hall
"The Child's Dream," by Lady Jane Wilde (yes, that Wilde -- mother to Oscar)
"The Unquiet Dead," by Lady Augusta Gregory
"The Woman With the Hood," by LT Meade
 "The Wee Gray Woman," by Ethna Carbery
"The Blanket Fiend," by Beatrice Grimshaw
"The First Wife," by Katherine Tynan
"Transmigration," by Dora Sigerson Shorter
"Not to Be Taken at Bed-Time," by Rosa Mulholland
"The Red Woolen Necktie," by B.M. Croker,
"The De Grabooke Monument," by Charlotte Riddell,  

and last, but certainly by no means least, 


"A Vanished Hand," by Clothilde Graves



As someone who has developed a passion not only for ghost stories and strange tales of yesteryear, but for ghost stories and strange tales of yesteryear written by women whose work has been largely forgotten or neglected, Bending to Earth is a much-treasured volume in my home library, and I am once again the cheer squad for the small presses that put out such gems, here represented by Swan River Press.

Maria Giakaniki and Brian Showers note that
"These twelve strange stories by Irish women are our choices, and represent only a small selection from a much broader range of possibilities." 
Hopefully (please!!),  they have enough strange stories left over after what they've chosen to include in this volume to fill another.  I'll be buying that one too.







Tuesday, June 25, 2019

A Book of the Sea: Being a collection of weird new writings (ed.) Mark Beech

The sea transforms everything. Nothing that has been touched by it can ever be the same again.
 --from "The Figurehead of the Cailleach," by Stephen J. Clark 






9780993527883
Egaeus Press, 2018
309 pp
hardcover


While my last post covered a book of "strange tales from the sea," they were all tales recovered from yesteryear.  A Book of the Sea is also a volume of strange tales, and while there is often more than just a bit of an aura of the traditional about and within these stories,  the authors who have contributed to this anthology are some of the best weird fiction writers of the present day.  This book is an excellent showcase of their  extraordinary talent, not simply as storytellers but also as the perceptive artists these people are.



The description of this book reveals that it is a
"A collection  of strange or uncategorizable pieces for which the sea provides the great mystery; stories and poems which explore its pull on the human heart, its alienness, its treachery, its unfathomable vastness, and more than anything, what it makes humans do, be, become." 
Given human nature, what humans "do, be, become" can cover a very wide range.


Ships on the Stormy Seaby Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovksy, as found on the endpapers of this volume



In his story "The Figurehead of the Cailleach"  Stephen J. Clark hits the nail on the head as to the heart and soul of this book when he writes that
"The sea transforms everything. Nothing that has touched by it can ever be the same again."
It is this phrase that kept repeating in my mind as I read -- in his or her own way, each author offers a story of  lives that have been transformed in some fashion through their respective connections to the sea. 

Divided into four parts, appropriately and respectively entitled "Lingan," "Flotsam," "Jetsam" and "Derelict," each section begins with an illustration and  poem that perfectly sets the tone for what's to come.  The cover of this book invites the reader to take a look through the keyhole at a ship sailing placidly on the ocean, but don't be fooled -- what lies ahead once you open the cover is anything but tranquility.

In "The Figurehead of the Calleach," for example,  a noted art restorer comes to an unmapped cove on the Isle of Scarba where he has been commissioned to restore an old figurehead known as "the Cailleach."  Also known as "the veiled one"  or the Hag of Winter, the myth of the Cailleach originates with the whirlpool just off the coast known as the Cauldron.   As he settles into his work, becomes aware of certain eccentricities of his employer, and discovers more about local legends, he finds himself drawn ever closer to the Cauldron, and not only in his dreams.  It is a beautifully-layered tale incorporating landscape, mythology, belief and history; here the ocean is much more than just a vast body of water but rather something that leaves us "yearning to return."

Karim Ghawagi's "The Sorrow of Satan's Book" is also a multi-layered tale set in 1932, which begins  as 35-year old film scholar Martin Nexsø who had lost his wife in a boating accident  makes his way to the town of Skagen on the northern coast of Jutland. He is there to talk to screenwriter Nikolai Brauer about a fifth, unknown chapter that been "excised" from Dreyer's 1920 film Leaves From Satan's Book, based loosely on Marie Corelli's The Sorrows of Satan, a novel which Nexsø knows all too well.  He arrives not only as preparations are being made on the beach for the Midsummer Solstice, but also as Brauer's home has been declared a crime scene because Brauer has been murdered in his own studio.  This is no simple murder mystery, however; things go beyond the weird and eerie beginning in the studio and then with a strange meeting with a group of Midsummer celebrants on the beach, becoming downright hallucinatory. 

"Breakwater Lodge" by Michael R. Colangelo is a somewhat cryptic story which follows a famous detective by the name of Cederno who cannot resist a challenging  puzzle and has been attracted by the lure of yet another that takes him to a village on the Spanish coast. There he meets a strange woman who becomes his companion in the last leg of his search for his elusive target.   It seems that Cederno is attracted by a lure that has been "set by the ocean, "  but what he doesn't realize is that all too often, the point of the lure is "To catch men instead of fish."   Here past and present mingle beautifully and hauntingly.

All of the stories in this book are unsettling, haunting and for the most part downright brilliant, but my top-tier favorites include the three mentioned above and a few more: Jonathan Wood's  "From whence we came," Colin Insole's "Dancing Boy"   Albert Power's dark gothic tale "The Final Flight of Fidelia" and "The Woman From Malta" by George Berguño round out my list.

 While there is more than a hint of the supernatural to be found here, as  Charles Schneider says in his "The Damnations of Captain M'Quhae,"
"If you hope for the appearance of klautermann, mermaids, aquatic goats, pirate-spirits, seaweed-clad sirens, conch-fairies or even brine-tigers, look elsewhere." 
Thank god for small presses like Egaeus who put out books like this one; it is absolutely gorgeous both inside and out and one I would recommend to any reader of weird/dark fiction.



Thursday, May 16, 2019

From The Depths and Other Strange Tales of the Sea (ed.) Mike Ashley

"...the sea is another world and one of which we should be wary."

When I'm on vacation, books that require a lot of thought are off the menu.  When I'm laying under a seaside palapa, listening to the sound of the waves while sipping a foo-foo umbrella drink, the last thing on my mind is wanting to think, so I pack accordingly.  Among the others that ended up in my suitcase, I brought this book, From the Depths and Other Strange Tales of the Sea, my second foray into the British Library Tales of the Weird. It is my favorite kind of ahhh-time compilation, a mix of horror, ghostly tales, the supernatural, and pure unadulterated pulp, with stories ranging from 1891 to 1932.  There are a few entries here written by authors already known to me:  William Hope Hodgson, F. Austin Britten, Elinor Mordaunt, Morgan Robertson, but for the most part, it seems that Ashley has put together the work of a number of  writers I'd never heard of.   Such is my joy in reading these tales -- not only are they fun, dark, and in some cases, actually frightening, but they've been rescued from the depths of obscurity to be enjoyed all over again.


9780712352369
British Library Publishing, 2018
310 pp
paperback

Not wasting any time at all in setting the tone for what's to follow, Ashley presents us first with Albert R. Wetjen's  "The Ship of Silence" from 1932.  The narrator of this story doesn't waste time either, giving us a hint about what's coming as he sits with a group of friends aboard a ship in a Brazilian harbor  "drinking long, cold gin tonicas and talking of the sea in general and of ships that had vanished into its mysterious immensity."  But it's his own experience after coming upon an abandoned ship out of San Francisco that makes for the best and most chilling yarn of them all.  As he relates, "It is a curious thing -- but I swear I had had gooseflesh all over from the first moment I put foot on the Robert Sutter's main deck."  I had gooseflesh just reading this one,  so I knew right away I was going to be in for a great time.



doomed ships after having been stuck in the dense weeds of the Sargasso Sea, from globalsecurity 


Wetjen's  is only the first of fifteen stories, and I have to say that out of these there were only two which if you'll pardon the expression, didn't really float my boat. There is a wide range of tales being told here covering everything from encounters with bizarre sea creatures, the sheer horror of being stuck in the thick weeds of the Sargasso Sea and being unable to move on,  shipboard and other hauntings, clairvoyance, revenge (human and otherwise), and then some that  can only be put in the category of strange weirdness.  

The table of contents is as follows:
"The Ship of Silence," by Albert R. Wetjen, 1932
"From the Darkness and The Depths," by Morgan Robertson, who also wrote The Wreck of the Titan, or Futility (1898)  which supposedly prefigured the sinking of the Titanic. That one I have on my shelf, but haven't read it yet.
"Sargasso," by Ward Muir (1908), one of my favorites and certainly one of the most atmospheric of all of the stories in this volume.
"Held by the Sargasso Sea," by Frank Shaw (1908) another favorite that just creeped me to the bone
"The Floating Forest" by Herman Scheffauer (1909), in which a ship's captain and his wife get more than they bargained for in a shady deal
"Tracked: A Mystery of the Sea" by C.N. Barnam (1891), which reveals the British fascination with spiritualism
"The Mystery of the Water-Logged Ship" by William Hope Hodgson (1911).  Ashley notes of this one that he could have selected from a number of  stories by Hodgson that take place on the sea, but ultimately he chose this "little-known story."  It had me going for a long, long time. 



from culture trip



"From the Depths," by F. Austen Britten (1920).  After having read Britten's "Treasure of the Tombs" in Ashley's Glimpses of the Unknown, I picked up a copy of his volume of strange tales On the Borderland (1922) which contains this story. Creepy doesn't begin to describe this one, which like "The Murdered Ships" by James Francis Dwyer (1918), takes place after just shortly after World War I.  
"The Ship That Died" by John Gilbert (1917) is the account of "the last chapters of a strange story," that haunted me long after I'd finished it.  
"Devereaux's Last Smoke" by Izola Forrester (1907) is another hair-raising tale, this time set on a cruise ship.  
In "The Black Bell Buoy" (1907) Rupert Chesterton explains exactly what is it about this bell-buoy that made it become such  an "emblem of bad luck" that even though a reward is offered to bring it in, "most of the skippers ... would as soon have thought of hooking on to it as of taking Davy Jones for a messmate."  



from Sputnik News

"The High Seas" by Elinor Mordaunt (1918) is the story of two brothers, one of who has murder on his mind, but must wait for the right moment ...
Ashley says that he believes "The Soul-Saver" by  Morgan Burke (1926) is "the most unusual story in this volume," and I have to agree.  This may just be my favorite story in the entire collection, but sadly to say anything about his one would be to spoil so I'm staying quiet.  
Last but in no way least is Lady Eleanor Smith's "No Ships Pass" (1932)  in which a shipwrecked sailor finds himself washed up on a lush, tropical island, but there's a catch.  I was so impressed with this story (and its horrors) that I bought a used copy of Smith's Satan's Circus (Ashtree, 2004) so I could read more of her work.

From the Depths is great fun and perfect for vacation reading,  but also perfect for anyone who loves old pulp, the supernatural, and in some cases, straight-up horror stories.  I am so grateful to Mike Ashley for putting this volume together and bringing these tales to light.  In his introduction, he says that this book is probably not the best thing to read on a cruise, but I can see myself at night, tucked up safely in bed somewhere in the mid-Atlantic,  reading it in the dark with only a book light and letting my imagination run completely wild.  Recommended.  If the rest of the British Library Tales of the Weird series is as good as this one and Glimpses of the Unknown, I will be a very happy camper when they finally arrive, and probably even happier once I've read them.    

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Strange with purpose: The Last Day, by Jaroslavas Melnikas

9780995560048
Noir Press, 2018
originally published as Rojalio kambarys
translated by Marija Marcinkute
175 pp

paperback


"I had thought that I understood the essence of fate: it chooses forms of happiness and unhappiness for you. It's terrible and at the same time very simple." 

My reading year for the most part has been amazing, and often it has been sheer chance that has helped make it so.   Around the end of March I was ordering a book at Book Depository, and while I've forgotten which book it was that I originally ordered, as soon as I hit the buy button, one of those "people who bought this also bought" things popped up with a gallery of cover photos.  The Last Day was the first of these, and after reading the blurb I hit its buy button as well.  It really was like buying the proverbial pig in a poke, as my Southern grandmother would have said, but there was just something about the descriptions on the back cover that intrigued:

"Jura finds that the favourite rooms in his house, each designed to reflect an aspect of his personality, are disappearing one by one.  He remembers perfectly well playing the piano in 'The Grand Piano Room.' However, the other members of his family deny the room existed." 

Okay...I'm interested, but this was the clincher:
"In 'The Last Day' a family discovers a book that tells them on which day one of them will die."
I ask you: how could anyone resist?





the author, from Deep Baltic 

As the author says in an interview with Panel Magazine,  "in every situation, however concrete, that humans are involved in,"  he  sees "the commonality, archetypes."  His  stories work around the idea that "every moment in a person's life is powered by its particular logic," and he traces that logic "to its extreme," adding that "often it will pierce the limits of reality."    This is a fascinating concept, and throughout the eight stories in this book,  there are people who find themselves having to cope with some of the most bizarre situations, and then navigating their way into finding some sort of meaning or significance in what is happening.  The narrator in "The Grand Piano Room" offers an insight when he says that he is
"... not one of those people who only believe in reality to an extent: not totally, as it were. Though nobody could say that I wasn't a rational thinker. However, my reaction to the inexplicable becoming reality is not fast and is never hysterical.  I look at something like that primarily as a phenomenon; though it's not clear to me what has happened, it must have some inherent meaning."
These situations occur, as Vilnius Review (as quoted on the author's website) states, in "predictable spaces," but there is nothing at all predictable about them.  In  "On the Road" for instance, a man finds himself driving from place to place after one morning when an unknown "somebody" calls him telling him to go down "this street and that street to a particular spot."  When he gets there, there will be somebody else to tell him where he will be going next.   Up until that day, he says, his life had been his own, but now believes he is doing something "important;" his worry being that at some point his life "on the road" would end, leaving him alone in the world and having to start "living again."   Moving on to another truly great story, a series of decisions to be made faces the narrator of "A.A.A.," who ten years earlier had received a letter telling him that it was time for some "positive changes" in his life by making "a choice between fortunate and unfortunate events."   In the final story, "It Never Ends," life goes on in a movie theater, where "one's understanding of normal changed." 

The Last Day reads like a photo album filled with existentialist moments caught and recorded for all time, related via allegory and metaphor.  And while the situations explored in these stories seem outlandish and extraordinary,  it's easy to empathize with many of the characters once you move into the frame of the logic at work in each tale.    It's a mind-bending, offbeat experience, to be sure, as well as one of the best short story collections I've read so far this year.  You probably won't come out of it the same as before you went into it.   It probably won't be for everyone, but if you are an outside-the-box reader, you will appreciate this one.   It is strange with purpose, the best kind.

definitely recommended for readers of the strange who want something well above and beyond the norm.






Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Glimpses of the Unknown: Lost Ghost Stories (ed.) Mike Ashley

9780712352666
British Library, 2018
331 pp
paperback



"It's a terrible thing to meddle with the Powers of Darkness..."
                   from "The House of the Black Evil," 285.


The British Library has once again thrown temptation in my path, and I was completely unable to resist.  We're talking not just one book, but five that I've picked up (or preordered) in a new series of books, British Library Tales of the Weird.   I passed on one, Haunted Houses: Two Novels by Charlotte Riddell, only because I think I already have most of her supernatural writings as collected and published by Leonaur.    The other books in this series (that I know of) aside from this one are

From the Depths and Other Strange Tales of the Sea (ed.) Mike Ashley 
Mortal Depths: Encounters With the End  (ed.) Greg Buzwell 

Doorway to Dilemma: Bewildering Tales of Dark Fantasy (ed.) Mike Ashley

The Platform Edge: Uncanny Tales of the Railways (ed.) Mike Ashley

and judging by what I've found here in this volume, hopefully there will be more forthcoming.    


What really makes Glimpses of the Unknown most readworthy is the fact that the stories in this book have not previously been reprinted so they're here in all their obscure glory.  They range over time from the 1890s to 1929, and while Ashley admits that "not all of them evoke horror or fear," he also says that 
"...a ghost story can work on several levels ranging from the unnerving tingle of the unknown, to that hauntingly evocative atmosphere of something strange or uncertain."
which is absolutely the case, at least for me.   There are eighteen stories to be found here that include, as the editor also states, "the whole spectrum of the supernatural."  As with most anthologies, enjoyment (and creepiness) is found in the eye of the beholder, but it is worthy of attention from even the most seasoned readers of ghost stories.    My personal favorite, which stands on its own in its greatness is "The House of the Black Evil" written by a most obscure author by the name of Eric Purves.  Ashley notes in his brief introduction to this story,
"When John Reed Wade, the editor of Pearson's Magazine, ran the following story in the May 1929 issue, he announced it as 'One of the most original mystery stories ever written."
Wade was so taken with it, in fact, that the opening scene from "House of the Black Evil" was captured by Kenneth Inns as that issue's cover:


from an online "checklist" of Pearson's magazine


depicting the "horror-stricken" postman looking into the mail slot in the door of "that dismal and forbidding house."   From there (don't worry, no spoilers here), he summons help from the person who will turn out to be the narrator, who lives on the opposite side of the square.  What they discover is the meat and bones of this story,  so exquisitely unraveled little by little so that the full force of the horror is delivered only toward the end.  Purves may have been unknown, but this story deserves to be in the hands of supernatural readers everywhere.  

The complete table of contents (briefly annotated, no spoilers, but skip if you don't want to know): 

1. "On the Embankment" by Hugh Esterel Wright,  1919: A perfect opener for this collection which begins with the description of a certain "peculiarity" of a certain seat: "no matter at what time of night you pass it, no matter how crowded with dilapidated humanity the seats next to it may be, that seat is always empty."   Why is that, you might ask, but far be it from me to answer.

2. "The Mystery of the Gables" by Elsie Norris, 1908:  Once again we find grown men wagering that one of them wouldn't have the courage to stay overnight in a haunted house, and of course, one does. 

3. "The Missing Word" by Austin Philips, 1907:  It is a dark and stormy night and a dozen "telegraphists" are waiting to spread word of the news of the dying Prime Minister's actual death. To pass the time, they regale each other with "tales of crime and horror." As it turns out, one of them has a real tale of terror to tell.    The end of this one is a sort of letdown after all of the buildup and a bit predictable.   By the way, Philips was the son-in-law of writer Edith Nesbit, who had encouraged him to sell his stories to The Strand.  Memo to self -- find his crime novels. 

4. "Phantom Death" by Huan Mee, 1900:  another good one, which begins with the viewing of a certain painting that "must be viewed in solitude and amid funereal environment." In the dark room ("death-like chamber") of the Mecklenburg Gallery which houses the painting, one man finds his  solitude interrupted by another, setting off a truly weird sequence of events.  

5. "The Wraith of the Rapier"  by Firth Scott, 1911:  an antiques dealer sells an old Spanish rapier to a collector for a mere pittance -- its new owner discovers why once he takes possession.   This one is downright creepy. 

6. "The Soul of Maddalina Tonelli," by James Barr, 1909:  Belissima Another fine story discovered by Ashley,  featuring a violinist who, while playing in a concert, notices a beautiful woman in the audience giving him special attention.  It seems that no one else can see her but it doesn't matter: she has a message for this man and for him alone.   If you can get past the more melodramatic elements, it's a lovely but eerie story.  

7.  "Haunted," by Jack Edwards, 1910.  Another one of my personal favorites, centering around an artist whose initial description is given as having " the face of a man who had begun to be afraid."  As it turns out he has good reason, eventually reaching the point where he seeks company from another because he is too frightened to be alone in his own home.  So very, very well done.  

8. "Our Strange Traveller" by Percy James Brebner, 1911:  Another good one, this one set in the North of France.  A walking tour taken by two friends turns into something completely unexpected and wholly terrifying. 

9. "A Regent of Love Rhymes," by Guy Thorne, 1905:  Not so hot on this one, exactly -- pretty standard ghostly fare about a writer whose major writing is on the edge of being finished when calamity strikes.  




frontispiece:  my photo (and yes, the woman is blurry; it's not me as usual)

10. "Amid the Trees," by Francis Xavier, 1911:  Portugal is the setting for this one as a traveler on holiday with a desire to "simply and tranquilly ...thoroughly enjoy the country and the day" encounters a "strange, moving fragrance" in the air during a long walk.  He finds himself succumbing to its spell, and begins thinking of how much he wants a woman, believing that amid the trees is the perfect place to find one.  Actually, this one is more sad; a wee bit overwritten but still pretty good. 

11.  "The River's Edge" by Mary Schultze, 1912:  the less said about this one the better -- to describe it is to give it away completely, although I will say that it was more than a bit predictable.

12.  "A Futile Ghost," by Mary Reynolds,  1899:  A strange story, to say the least, in which the spectre of a veiled woman makes itself known to two sisters (one married, one engaged)  living in the same home.  The force of this particular story doesn't quite make itself known until the very end, which I had to read twice to understand.  

13. "Ghosts," by Lumley Deakin, 1914:  Quite honestly, and with apologies, I have no idea why this story was even included here.  a) it wasn't that good and b) I'm still wondering if it's actually a ghost story or if there was some jiggery-pokery going on in terms of a setup of some sort between two of the characters.  Read it and decide for yourself.  

14. "Kearney," by Elizabeth Jordan, 1917:  The aftermath of a terrible accident makes an army officer wonder if his companion has actually been laid to rest after his death.  A wee bit sappy and sentimental for my taste; on the other hand, there's a certain obsessional ambiguity to it that kept me compelled.

15. "When Spirits Steal" by Philippa Forest, 1920:  After finishing this one, my first thought was to wonder why nobody has collected her stories featuring Peter Carwell and his companion Wilton.  Granted there are only four of them, this one included, but "When Spirits Steal" was such a fun and different type of ghostly tale that I wanted more.  Another one where even a slight bit of information is too much, but thoroughly enjoyable. 

16. "The House of the Black Evil" mentioned earlier, but I'll add that in my opinion, the sheer originality of this story, "the tale itself was weird beyond imagining," offset the entire cost of the book.  

17. "The Woman in the Veil," by E.F. Benson, 1928:  Certainly not one of Benson's best, but still worth the read.  

18. "The Treasure of the Tombs," by F. Britten Austin, 1921:  Ashley describes this story as seeming "ideally suited to Indiana Jones."  Yes and no.  What caught my eye and what drew me to this story was its sweet blend of supernatural force meets pure unadulterated pulp, which okay, does sound a bit like Indiana Jones, but there's much more to it, including veiled warnings against sheer greed.  This one was just plain fun; a delightful inclusion that made my pulp-loving heart go pitter-pat. 


Obviously, it's a mixed bag and I have my own internal thing going where ghost stories are concerned so it's one that readers will want to try for themselves.  However, the joy is in the discovery of these previously unread stories, so Mike Ashley and the British Library have made me a very happy reader.   Definitely recommended for serious lovers and readers of ghost stories.  


Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Leonora Carrington: The Complete Complete Stories and The Hearing Trumpet

This morning I pulled up my normal news feed and to my great pleasure, there was a link to an article at Literary Hub entitled "Your Surrealist Literature Starter Kit," where your eye first lands on Leonora Carrington's  "Self-Portrait."   As it happens, that particular painting serves as cover art for the Dorothy Project's book of her collected stories, one of the three books by Carrington I read in March, along with her The Hearing Trumpet and Down Below which isn't fiction so won't be covered here.   She does have another novel I haven't read, The Stone Door,  which is described as "an inspired, phantasmagoric journey into a wildly surreal world," evidently "built in layers like a Chinese  puzzle." Of course, that could describe all of her fiction, but the blurb goes on to say that it is a
 "tale of two people, of love and the Zodiac and the Cabbalah, of Transylvania and Mesopotamia converging at the Caucusus, of a mad Hungarian King...and of a woman's discovery of an initiatory code that leads to a Cyclopean obstacle, to love, self and awareness..."
 A crappy used acceptable copy is pricy enough to keep it out of my hands, but someone really ought to do a reprint version. With interest in Carrington's work starting to revive, it would be a worthy and most likely welcome endeavor.



9780997366648
Dorothy, 2017
213 pp
paperback


  When talking about The Complete Stories in the above mentioned Literary Hub  post, author Emily Temple says the following:
"These stories are weird and jagged and enchanting, fragmented and strikingly visual, barely stories at all sometimes, but oddly compulsive.  How else to describe a collection that includes a woman winning the corpse of Joseph Stalin in the lottery and using it to cure whooping cough and syphillis?"
 The bit about Joseph Stalin's corpse being used to treat diseases sounds off the wall and cryptic, but once you read the story ("How to Start a Pharmaceuticals Business"), it turns out to make a lot of sense. And this is just one part of the multi-faceted genius of Leonora Carrington's short stories -- they are put together with a logic that works in the worlds she creates, so much so that when a  hostess of a party in "The House of Fear" wears a dress made of "live bats sewn together by their wings" and there is a group of horses playing a game where they
"simultaneously beat time to the tune of the 'Volga Boatmen' with your left foreleg, 'The Marseillaise' with your right foreleg, and 'Where have You Gone, My Last Rose of Summer' with your two back legs"
it doesn't seem weird at all.  These stories are more than fable, more than just weird tales, and as Kathryn Davis says about them,  "Nothing is what it seems to be."   The collection is beyond outstanding; I will say that I spent a lot of time reading about Carrington's life before reading her fiction, and it definitely provided some measure of insight into her work.


9781878972194
Exact Change, 1996
originally published 1974
199 pp
softcover
Book number two is The Hearing Trumpet, my favorite of the three. In a 1977 interview that appears as a foonote on the first page of the introduction of this edition, Carrington notes that in this book she "wanted to appear as an old lady so that I could poke fun at sinister things."   Marian Leatherby is ninety-two and lives with her son Galahad, his wife Muriel, and one of their five children who still lives at home. Her best friend is Carmella, who "writes letters all over the world to people she has never met and signs them with all sorts of romantic names, never her own."  On one of Marian's regular visits to Carmella, her friend gives her a hearing trumpet, which she says will change Marian's life:
"Not only will you be able to sit and listen to beautiful music and intelligent conversation but you will also have the privilege of being able to spy on what your whole family are saying about you, and that ought to be very amusing." 
What Marian hears is her family's plan to put her in an institution in Santa Brigada, which is run by the Well of Light Brotherhood and financed by "a prominent American cereal company."   Once there, it doesn't take Marian too long to figure out that the place is a front for a strange cult, and among other things, she begins to have weird dreams and becomes obsessed with a strange portrait of a winking nun. And while all of this seems patently absurd, once again, there's a certain logic to it all, none the least of which is that in leaving the mundane world, Marian has crossed over into another.   It is a great story, laugh-out-loud funny at times while deadly serious; it is cloaked in mythology and  alchemical lore, and offers the story of a woman whose life begins to take on purpose at a ripe old age as she becomes initiated into a special world of secrets. It's so much more, but it is difficult to describe the indescribable, so we'll leave it there. I loved this book and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Both books are absolutely delightful to read -- as a writer, Carrington is out there but her work is not only gorgeous, it's positively genius.

*****

I will say that the more potential readers know about her life before going into her fiction, the more you'll see it in these stories.  I also want to mention a particularly excellent book on Carrington by Susan L. Aberth called Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art; another good source is Whitney Chadwick's Farewell to the Muse: Love, War and the Women of Surrealism.  Her cousin Joanna Moorhead wrote a biography entitled The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington -- this one is okay for facts but Moorhead sort of misses the boat in a lot of places otherwise. Still, it's a start.


Thursday, March 28, 2019

Resonance and Revolt, by Roseanne Rabinowitz. I love this book. I seriously love it.




9781908125514
Eibonvale, 2018
374 pp


"I will always raise my  voice and write things down so people will know about them. I will never be like a bell without a tongue."



There is just something about this collection of stories that makes me want to buy a gazillion copies of it, then hand it out to people and tell them "you really need to read this."

 The tales offered in this book by Rosanne Rabinowitz, as noted by Lynda Rucker in her introduction,
"weave a cyclical sense of the ebb and flow of power and tyranny and resistance ..."
which you might expect from a book with this title, but that is really just the beginning.  At some point as you're reading, it dawns on you that while you've started out in some recognizable reality, suddenly  you find yourself "between the boundaries of the known places"  and have arrived at "other places, special ones," as her stories make a nearly-imperceptible shift into the periphery of the strange. What makes this collection of stories so unique and so different is that they work sublimely across time and space, past, present, and future, ultimately revealing that  "time and history exists in layers all around us" and that we are  "living with echoes of and surrounded by the past." 

Here's part of the actual blurb:
"A secret sect of medieval heretics stumbles upon the secrets of quantum entanglement, a centuries-old wanderer thrives on rebellion as well as blood in the ruins of post WWI-Munich. Anti-austerity demonstrations lead to haunting connections with past and parallel events, while quantum computing meets 'welfare reform' in our near-future.  Meanwhile, persecuted Jews in early 20th century Russia must decide whether extraterrestrials are allies or the schnorrers out of space."
When I read that little bit o' the blurb before I'd even started reading Resonance and Revolt, I knew then that this book and I were going to be soulmates. I'd also read something (and I can't remember where, sorry), that showed the author describing this book as a "melancholic merging of social realism and the strange," and that is an absolutely spot-on description. 

As just two examples of what you'll find here (although you really have to experience this book firsthand to really appreciate it), the first story "In the Pines,"  is  a sort of triptych of tales that occur in different points in time, where the centerpiece is a particular song that puts the main characters "in synch with signals and waves elsewhere," and reveals a concept that the author calls "dissonant symmetry." It begins with a woman in the past who's lost someone, and as she's trying to deal with her loneliness, the future offers its own echoes to her. Things move forward in time, carrying with them not only that song but adding to it a  deep resonance of loneliness.    In another story, "Return of the Pikart Posse," a young woman with her job on the line and a not-so-satisfying relationship travels to the Czech Republic to learn more about her subject of  her Ph.D. research.   Evelyn  is focused on a particular member of the fifteenth-century "heretic"  Pikart/Adamites, a group who broke away from the Hussite orthodoxy and thus became a target for violent repression. She takes as a sort of mantra a line from the book Lipstick Traces that "Unfulfilled desires transmit themselves across the years in unfathomable ways," and has "set out to decipher all those unfilled desires as they hurtled across the centuries."  She gets her wish, in more ways than she thought possible, as she "entwines" with the past.  This will not be the last story which works on these opening ideas, as they continue to  float throughout this entire collection.   And really, part of the genius of this book is that  the final story, "The Turning Track" (written with Mat Joiner and one I've read before in the excellent Rustblind and Silver Bright ed. David Rix) brings us back 'round to the first in a most brilliant and beautiful way.

Lynda E. Rucker sums up my feelings about this book in the first line of her introduction:
"There's something very special about finding a writer whose work speaks to you in a particular way."  
Author Roseanne Rabinowitz definitely speaks to me --  I've always believed that "history exists in layers all around us," and not solely in terms of events.  The book is a beautiful blending of the historical, the mystical, the surreal, and the strange, but even more than that, it is a book that is absolutely relevant to right now in her rendering of  many recognizable contemporary issues.    The stories do not easily yield answers, but the more you read the more in tune you become, as her writing not only crawls under your skin, but deep into your pores, your veins and your entire being.  And do not miss the excellent and most insightful introduction, but leave it until last.

I'm so incredibly impressed with the people who write for Eibonvale --  as far as I'm concerned, the authors I've read have all made it to the very peak of  my imaginary tier of writers of the strange.

I also have to once again thank the lovely Alice for sending me my copy of Resonance and Revolt. She made me a very happy person for introducing me to the work of  Roseanne Rabinowitz.  I love her work.




Friday, March 1, 2019

Kaiki: Uncanny Tales From Japan (ed.) Higashi Masao, Volumes 1, 2, and 3.





9784902075083
Kurodahan Press, 2009
paperback - 271 pp



Back in 2015, I bought the first volume of these three books of kaiki, Tales of Old Edo,  promptly shelved it, and as with so many other books that I own, left it sitting there unread all of this time.   So when I was prowling through my translated fiction shelves a while ago, I'd forgotten I had it, and a) it was like Christmas finding it again, and b) I decided I needed to give it a go.  It didn't take too long to find myself absolutely loving this book, and I hadn't even finished the first one before buying the other two, which did not disappoint.  

The term "kaiki shōsetsu," as explained by the editor in the introduction to this volume is used to describe "uncanny/strange/fantastic fiction," and traces back to the mid-seventeenth century.  Just briefly, because the introduction is quite lengthy (but well worth taking time to read), Masao Higashi reveals that until the second world war, the more familiar term "kaidan" was used to reference "strange tales or ghost stories" that was applied to not just fiction but also folklore and storytelling.  Afterwards, as he writes, new "genre names" began to take hold -- 
"kai'i shōsetsu (tales of the strange,) kyōfu shōsetsu (horror stories), kaiki shōsetsu (uncanny fiction) and gensō to kaiki (the fantastic and the strange) also appeared as its equivalent, and in the mid-eighties, horā (horror) came to represent the entire field." 
[As a brief aside, the little macron over the vowels means that you hold that sound for an extra tick when speaking or reading.]   There's much more to the history of Japanese strange fiction, of course, but for now this tiny little bit should suffice to explain the title.  Just one more thing: one important "characteristic" of kaiki is a "blurring of the boundary between fiction and nonfiction," which among other sources, may have its "foundation" in the "Skin-Thin Falsehood and Truth" theory of Chikamatsu Monzaemon, which said that "art abides in a realm that is neither truth nor fiction."

9784902075090
2011, 286 pp, paperback
Volume one encompasses stories that are set in or are connected in some way to "Old Edo," hence the title and begins with the well-known story "In a Cup of Tea" written by Lafcadio Hearn, aka Koizumi Yakumo.  Interesting factoid: this story is part of a bookend, because another more modern take (1981) on this tale finishes out the three volumes.   Here there are a mix of old and new with stories ranging from 1776 ("The Chrysanthemum Pledge" by Ueda Akinari -- whose Tales of Moonlight and Rain is a definite must read) to 2005 ("Three Old Tales of Terror" by Kyōgoku Natsuhiko), whose bizarre novel  Summer of the Ubume is also one of my favorites.    Miyabe Miyuki's  delightfully creepy "The Futon Room" makes an appearance, and as another brief aside, I recently read her collection, Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo (2013) which I liked but didn't love.   But by a huge margin, my favorite story in this volume is "The Inō Residence," by Inagaki Taruho (1972),  novella length in size and a tale that takes place over a thirty-day span of time. 

Volume Two takes us into the realm of "Country Delights,"  getting us out of the city and its neighborhoods into more rural and especially more isolated spaces, where anything can and does happen.  Once again, it's the longer story here that I absolutely loved, "Midnight Encounters," by Hirai Tei'ichi , written in 1960  It has all the creepiness of fine gothic blended with slowly-darkening subtle horror and strangeness, and I won't say why but it also reminded me of the legends of Pan in a different form.  There was only one story I didn't really care for, "Reunion," by Takahashi Katsuhiko (1993) because it was just too weird for me, but I can honestly say that this volume was even better than the first.  Another highlight of this book is the story called "Sea Daemons," by Izumi Kyōka (1906), another excellent  mix of horror and gothic that plays out on a cliff overhanging the sea during a raging storm and also offers a huge dose of supernatural terror on the seas.     Now that I'm thinking about these stories again, I can honestly say that with the exception of "Reunion" (which quite a few readers raved about so it's probably me),  I quite enjoyed them all and have nothing negative to say about any of them.

Now to Volume Three, Tales of the Metropolis, where the action moves back into the city streets.   In his introductory chapter, Higashi Masao notes that the stories found here are set in the "Tokyo Megalopolis,"  which sits at the juncture of the North American, Eurasian, Pacific and Phillipine tectonic plates." It is a city that has been through a number of disasters over its four hundred year history,  "earthquakes, fires, and air raids during World War II."  It is a city that has been "reduced to rubble," only to be "reborn like the phoenix," and these catastrophic events, he says, have "influenced the evolution of modern weird tales and ghost stories."  And while this idea comes across clearly in some of these stories, there's much more to be found here.



9784902075106
302 pp
paperback



In Yamakawa Masao's "The Talisman" (1960) for example, you clearly sense the existential angst of the young company man who fears that he's lost himself and decides to do something about it, while in "Ghosts of the Metropolis," by Toyoshima Yoshio (1924), the throngs who populate the  crowded city streets  provide the perfect prey for those who came before.  One of my favorite stories in this book was by Tanizaki Jun'ichirō, "The Face," which was written in 1918 and contains a certain trope that by now seems sort of old hat especially in Japanese horror, but I do believe this may be the earliest use of it that I'm aware of.  The added bonus to this story, that of the face itself, is delightfully eerie. I had a sense of déjà vu  reading "Doctor Mera's Mysterious Crimes," by Edogawa Rampo (1932), which I swear I've read before but in a more updated and quite possibly in a European setting.  They're all very, very good, and like writers of horror or weird/strange fiction worth their salt, these writers explore anxieties of all types which are writ large here. 

 In Endō Shusaku's terrifying tale "Spider" (1959, Volume 3) the main character feels obligated by his uncle to go to a meeting where a group of people have gathered to tell ghost stories.   He doesn't really want to be there, and he's so bored at one point that inside his head he's thinking
"Country hotel room -- the middle of the night -- the ghost of an old woman who'd hanged herself in the same room appears.  Heard it before."
That is definitely not the case across these three lovely volumes of kaiki.  There is so much variety here of the highest quality, and the editor has done a great job creating frameworks that help to put these stories into appropriate context as well as providing a detailed history of kaiki and other forms of strange fiction throughout Japan's literary and storytelling tradition.   I will say that if you go into these books solely with the expectations of a good scare, you might want to think again.  Many of these tales are open ended and demand participation and thought from the reader, so it is by no means an average horror collection.  At the same time, these books both individually and taken together will provide hours and hours of entertainment for the interested reader who wants something altogether different from same old same old.  

I leave you with a photo from Tales of Old Edo, page 23, showing pages from the 1809 edition of The Image of Asama Ravine by Ryūtei Tanahiko.  Seriously, someone needs to translate more of these works of kaiki and bring them to English-speaking readers to be savored and loved.