Saturday, July 25, 2020

Dabbling With Diabelli, by D.F. Lewis

9781908125880
Eibonvale, 2020
277 pp

hardcover

"...human histories and emotions could never be encompassed by one person. You needed different viewpoints ... to obtain as true a picture as possible." 



On page 225 I found the perfect words to describe the content of this book, as these thirty stories take both characters and reader into

"... an alternate world beyond fiction itself into a realm that was even realler than reality..."

with the power to leave the reader shaken, unsettled, thrown off kilter and majorly disturbed. That was my experience anyway -- more than once I found myself having to put this book down before starting it again as I stopped to think about what I'd just read and then to regroup.  Here the space between writer and the reader tends to shrink or fold in on itself, making for a jolting reading experience.  That is a positive thing, as it is becoming ever more rare readingwise in my case these days, and it is what I look for in a well-written collection of weird stories, which Dabbling With Diabelli most certainly is.


Because there are thirty of them, and because of the involvement on the part of the reader, I won't be going through any of these stories in detail, but I will say that throughout this collection, what starts out as ordinary quickly moves into what I can only describe as fringe territory as the weirdness slowly moves in.   A visit to a fair or to a museum, for example,  are normal activities for most people, as is a trip to the seaside or a boat trip down a river,  but it soon becomes apparent that the author has other things in mind.  Unexpected shifting points of view startle and jar any hint of reader complacency.    Dreamers dream other people's dreams.  Time moves in and out of sync in many cases or has no meaning in others.  Unexpected others pop up.  Stories shift gears out of nowhere.  Benign objects become symbols with particular meaning to the observer.   The characters meander through "mental spaces" as they look back, reflect, reminisce, engage in their respective nostalgias,  dream or write of their lives.

In sitting down to read Dabbling With Diabelli, be warned:  the reader becomes a "full-blooded stalker" and "real participant" in this "experiment in the human art of fiction, " and  I found that as such, some mental-rebalancing time was necessary after reading a few stories, or in some cases, after only one.    Having said that however,  my humble reader's gut feeling is that we're meant to be, as the author says in one of these tales,
"cohering the disparate widepread elements into a composite whole; gaining an organic gestalt of plot from the broadcast kaleidoscope of printed appearances,"
 with an eye to examining our own often illogical, absurd and fully human selves and the world in which we live  through this collection of "human histories and emotions."

The stories in this book highlight the author's offbeat (verging on the avant-garde), often-hallucinatory prose style, which invites you in and then often  leaves you scrambling for sanity.  That is not something I say idly -- it's days later and I'm still caught up in the mental wake left behind after reading.   It is a book not to be missed by readers of the weird -- this is my first experience with D.F. Lewis, but I can easily see that the author is a genuine master of this territory.

Close encounters indeed.

***
My many thanks once again to Alice and to David Rix at Eibonvale for my copy.  I loved every second of it. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia



9780525620785
Del Rey, 2020
298 pp

hardcover

"We thought monsters and ghosts were found in books, but they're real, you know?"


 It was actually the blurb that led me to preorder this novel eons ago:

"After receiving a frantic letter from her newlywed cousin, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside, unsure what she will find. Noemí is an unlikely rescuer: She's a glamourous debutante, more suited to cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing. But she's also tough, smart, and not afraid: not of her cousin's new English husband, a stranger who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who seems fascinated by Noemí, and not even of the house itself, which begins to unearth stories of violence and madness ... there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place, as Noemí discovers when she begins to unearth stories of violence and madness," 
and the clincher was the back-cover blurb from author Yangsze Choo which noted that "Readers who love old houses and family secrets will devour this book..."  Oh, that is so me.


Very briefly, because here to tell is to definitely spoil, we're in Mexico in the early 1950s, and when Noemí Taboada's  father receives a letter from his niece Catalina, he becomes alarmed and consults his daughter. He's convinced after reading it that Catalina needs psychiatric help because of her insistence that she is being poisoned, and that "they" will not let her go. She also mentions seeing the "restless dead, these ghosts," and "fleshless things," and begs Noemí to rescue her, "For God's sake," because she cannot save herself.     He wants Noemí to go to Catalina and try to decide whether or not Catalina neeeds to be moved to Mexico City and to convince her husband Virgil that it would be the smart thing to do if that is the case.   In return, he will allow his somewhat "flighty" and spoiled (but hugely intelligent) daughter  to enroll at the National University to study anthropology (which her dad had deemed "waste of time and unsuitable," an offer she couldn't refuse.  At the same time, she wants to succeed in this mission to make a point to her father.

Her arrival at the rather isolated house known as High Place, "an old house atop a hill, with mist and moonlight, like an etching out of a Gothic novel," was not met with the warmest of welcomes by the Doyle family.  People in the house insist on quiet, even at dinner where the rare family meals are generally eaten in complete silence, an atmosphere Noemí likens to "a dress lined with lead."  Her first visit with the once vibrant Catalina, whom she finds somewhat fragile and not herself, is short and controlled by Florence, the niece of the head of the Doyle household, but when they next meet, Catalina reveals that the walls talk to her.  She warns Noemí that there are "ghosts" and that she'll "see them eventually."  It doesn't take long for Catalina's warning to become reality -- first come strange dreams, then visions of a woman "in a dress in yellowed antique lace," which intensify as time goes on, followed by sleepwalking before things get even stranger and become even more grotesque.  Aside from Catalina, her only friend at High Place is Virgil's younger brother Francis, who tells her that "it's the house" that has made Catalina so miserable and that Noemí needs to leave.  She will absolutely not go without her cousin, but once she realizes the secrets that High Place holds, it may be too late.

I made the mistake of starting Mexican Gothic at about 10 p.m. a few nights ago; needless to say I finished it in one sitting which meant another sleepless night.   Nearly every Gothic trope there is can be found here, which made for quick turning of pages.  Regular readers of Gothic novels will pick them up, and will also notice that into the familiar structure the author has woven quite a bit of social commentary, bringing out issues of class, race, inequality, and most especially the vulnerability of many women at this time, who for one reason or another find themselves trapped.   As it happens, women in 1950s Mexico didn't even have the right to vote, and married women were largely under the control of their husbands;  Mexican Gothic reveals the underlying strength that women command when it comes down to survival.

The combination of ever-mounting suspense, the creepy, gloomy atmosphere, the sheer villainy and the concern for the main characters that made me want to go to the end at one point to make sure things came out okay (I didn't) that kept me flipping pages should have made me love this book, but I had some issues.  The day after finishing the novel, I read a review at Kirkus that kind of summed it up:
"Fans of gothic classics like Rebecca will be enthralled as long as they don't mind a heaping dose of all-out horror." 
While I love weird fiction and ghost stories, "a heaping dose of all-out horror" isn't quite my thing, which is what this story turned out to be.  Even then,  I might have been willing to overlook it had it not also been for the fact that long before we got to the horror elements I had figured out the main elements of the central plot around which this novel is built. (And just as an aside here, Mexican Gothic is not at all Du Maurier's Rebecca -- don't go there.)  The basic meat and bones of what was to come were sort of telegraphed very, very early on; I even marked the spot and wrote my ideas on a post-it I'd put on the page where I guessed what was going to happen.  Obviously, I couldn't have known everything, but I was so close to the mark that I ended up being somewhat disappointed.  I run into this phenomenon sometimes (usually in a mystery/crime novel),  and then all I can do is let the  story unfold, knowing what's going to happen and waiting for things to play out, and it does not make me a happy reader.

In this case, it was more that I loved the messages delivered here but wasn't a huge fan of the delivery.  I liked it, didn't love it, preferring the sort of puzzling strange stories that tend to leave me off-kilter, jittery and pondering rather than the "heaping dose of all-out horror" mentioned above.  However, everyone is LOVING this novel, so once again it's probably me.



Thursday, July 2, 2020

Unholy Tales, by Tod Robbins

9781912586189
Tartarus Press, 2020
291 pp

hardcover

I don't know what inspired the powers that be at Tartarus Press to put out this volume featuring stories written by Tod Robbins, but it was more than a great idea.  Megacheers to you.

Robbins' work may not be familiar to everyone (it certainly wasn't to me before reading Unholy Tales) but the 1932 film Freaks directed by Tod Browning, based on Robbins' short story "Spurs," is  a movie which is regarded "as a classic, or at least a cult favorite."   And speaking of movies, another Robbins story in this volume, The Unholy Three was made into two different film versions:  a silent (also directed by Browning) in 1925 and a 1930 remake which was, as Jeff Stafford notes at TCMLon Chaney's "talking picture debut, and ironically, what would prove to be his final film." 

After the in-depth, not-to-be-missed introduction "Tod Robbins: An Unholy Biography" by a very knowledgeable Jonny Mains,  Unholy Tales brings together  the above-mentioned "Spurs," as well as three of four stories from Robbins' 1920 collection Silent, White and Beautiful: "Silent, White and Beautiful," "Who Wants a Green Bottle?," and "Wild Wullie, The Waster."


original edition, from LW Currey

 Rounding it all off, pretty much the last half of this book is given over to The Unholy Three, published in 1917.




original 1917 edition, from Biblio.com

The Unholy Three is definitely the jewel in this crown.  It is an extraordinary piece of pulpy crime fiction with a supernatural-ish vibe.  I use the term "extraordinary," as I am huge fan of crime fiction from this era and have read (and continue to read) a wide variety of books filled with what I call sweet  pulpy goodness, but never have I come across anything like this story, which sets a new bar for me in that zone.  As with "Spurs,"  Robbins begins The Unholy Three at a circus,  where Tweedledee (in the movie described as "Twenty inches! Twenty years! Twenty pounds!") sits contemplating the day "Men would fear him! and he would read this fear in their eyes." It's his small body,
"this caricature that made him a laughing-stock for the mob to jibber at, that turned his solemnity of soul into a titbit of jest for others, his anger into merriment, his very violence into the mimicry of violence"
that keeps him from being "taken seriously."   But deep within his soul burns an "insatiable fire" that produces "scenes of violence" and visions of a "new transformed self" in which he would be feared, with an audience that would "tremble at his villainy." Along with his fellow circus friends Echo the ventriloquist and Hercules the strong man, he grabs his chance to turn his visions into a reality.  A word of advice: don't watch the movie and think you've read the book.  As much as I enjoyed both versions, neither holds a candle to the original text.



Harry Earles, from Freaks.  Earles also played Tweedledee in both versions of The Unholy Three. From IMDb.

Moving on ever so briefly (so as not to spoil)  to the short stories,  "Spurs" reminds me so much of the French contes cruels that I love.  As in Freaks, a circus love triangle is at the center of this story of revenge.  M. Jacques Courbé, a man of twenty-eight inches,  had fallen in love with Mlle. Jeanne Marie the bareback rider the first time he'd seen her act.  She, however, has eyes for the "Romeo in tights" Simon Lafleur, her partner, and views Courbé's attentions and utterances of love as a "colossal, corset-creaking joke. "  The wheels in her head begin to turn when  Jacques just happens to mention that he has been left a large estate and that he has plans to turn her into a "fine lady" if she will marry him.  Trust me on this one, she should have most definitely said no.   Not quite as grotesque as the fate of Venus in the film, but still beyond bone-chillingly horrific.   "Silent, White and Beautiful" also falls into the realm of the horrific, as an artist returns to France after a depressing attempt at a career in America, where his art fails to sell.  On his return he hits on a solution as to how to make his work as life-like as possible.  After a nonstop reading session of these two stories which open the book, I was very much ready for a wee bit of humor in  "Who Wants a Green Bottle?,"  which examines what happens to the soul of the Lockleavens after they've left this world.  I must say, this is one of the most ingenious and original wee folk stories I've ever read.  Last but definitely not least is "Wild Wullie, The Waster," which is also a story of death and the afterlife but with a twist (or two) I'd not encountered in other ghost stories.

The question that opens this book is this:
"How does an author fêted as equal in genius to Edgar Allan Poe disappear into relative obscurity?"
Unfortunately, that seems to be  very much the case with a number of writers of yesteryear whose work I admire.   Where Tod Robbins is concerned, though,  I've taken the first step onto  that "path to becoming a fervent worshipper of a deliciously twisted writer who knew how to keep his readers more than entertained" mentioned at the end of  Mains' introduction.  Two more books of Robbins work arrived yesterday, I bought and made time to watch all three films I mentioned above, and I am certainly recommending Unholy Tales to anyone who will listen.   Deliciously twisted writer indeed, and I can't get enough.



Friday, May 29, 2020

Terror Tales of Cornwall (ed.) Paul Finch

9781845831219
Telos, 2017
274 pp

paperback

Last week I was completely down with a fever that wouldn't quit. I grabbed a random handful of books off the shelves, grabbed a hot cup of  tea and went to bed.  Not feeling in the mood to prioritize,  Terror Tales of Cornwall was on the top of the stack so it was also the first read.

I'm no stranger to Finch's Terror Tales anthologies and have almost all of them on my shelves.  They all share the insertion of brief snippets of local lore, history, people etc. between each story, while the stories themselves are geographically centered within a particular region.  This time around it's all about Cornwall,
"which would not be Cornwall without its multiplicity of spooky tales, its thousands of ghost stories, its legends of monsters, faeries, demons, witches, smugglers and mermaids" 
 and to that list I'll add Daphne du Maurier, whose life and work does get a few mentions here.

There is a good mix here of horror, weird, and the strange.  Six of these stories I loved, as they are each brilliant examples of weird fiction,  two made me laugh almost out loud, two reflect current social anxieties, and the remainder I'll file  under NPT -- not particularly terrifying, but okay.


The standouts for me (and this in order of appearance)  begin with "In the Light of St Ives," by Ray Cluley.   There is something quite special about the quality of light in St. Ives, which was ideal for Claire the artist, until she tried to burn down her house and paint herself black after noticing the colors that "seep into everything."  This one absolutely chilled, and the ambiguity here keeps the tension high as the story itself merges into surreal territory.   Very nicely done.  In "Trouble at Botathan," by Reggie Oliver,  one character notes, "... all this has happened before," and in this place, indeed it has.  "Botathan Place" is the home of the Bligh family.  The last of the line, a mathematics Don at St. Saviours, died in 1973 and left the remote house to his college. Now at "The Place" a hand-picked group of young men,  a college Dean and the chaplain of St. Saviour's are having a sort of summer retreat when one student has a strange experience in the wood that turns him in into "a different person."   Sad but strange, and oh so good.  Mark Valentine's "The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things" reveals that "here there are secrets" as a museum curator and his artist friend are allowed a glimpse just over the thin boundary between the "Sancreed we see" and the "Sancreed Beyond."  "His Fire Was Kindled" by Kate Farrell is yet another fine piece of  unsettling weirdness, as commercialism and the spiritual butt heads  in Penharrack.  A representative of  luxury housing developers seriously underestimates the staying power of a local vicar who doesn't care if a new development is a done deal -- the church has been there since the thirteenth century and the vicar aims to keep it there.    "Four Windows and a Doorby DP Watt is quite possibly the most eerie and chilling story in this collection, in which a glimpse at a strange house during a boat ride begins a terrible odyssey for a family vacationing in Cornwall.  Read it twice -- the impact is staggering.  Last but by no means least comes Mark Samuels' "Moon Blood-Red, Tide Turning."  which unsettled me to my core.  A man travels to an amphitheatre carved into a cliff to watch his friend perform in a play that is "all very ritualistic. But definitely cutting-edge and experimental." As it just so happens, the play runs during a lunar eclipse, after which the viewer leaves while the play goes on.   Twenty years later it seems that although the venue's changed, the show goes on.  I have to confess that I had to look up "Dr. Prozess," resulting in the purchase of a used copy of The Prozess Manifestations. If this story (which is in that book) is any judge, I'll soon be immersed in intense weirdness. 



Botathen House, from Haunted Britain

Both "Mebyon versus Suna" by John Whitbourn and "The Old Traditions Are Best" by editor Paul Finch combine a bit of horror with a comic touch.  In the first, a dyed-in-the-wool Cornishman whose wife refuses  to share his "born-again nationalism" just can't shut up about it when his wife gets a promotion and he finds himself living in Exeter.  His neighbor is tolerant as can be until one day when he's not.   Finch's entry is steeped in Padstow local traditions but young Scott, a  tough guy from Manchester whose probation officer  had brought him down on holiday, openly scoffs at them, much to his detriment.

Although they come at the end of this volume, there are two tales which reflect current social concerns and speak mainly in metaphor: "The Memory of Stone," by Sarah Singleton, and "Losing Its Identity" by Thana Niveau.   Singleton's story is focused on Michael, whose obsession with one woman decimates his family. Alone in an old cottage on the Cornish shore, he receives strange nightly visits from a group of children who leave messages in the form of white stones until one day when they arrive in person.   Niveau exams senility and climate change in her story, set in a future where Cornwall is on the verge of being swallowed by the sea. A sad and poignant tale, to be sure.

The remainder fit more along the edge of traditional horror, and in most cases reflect the idea that the legendary, mythical creatures of Cornwall may be more real than one might believe.   "We Who Sing Beneath the Ground" by Mark Morris which opens the collection,  begins when a rather shy child brings something strange to show and tell day at school.  The next day he doesn't return, and his teacher goes to find out why.  In "The Unseen" by Paul Edwards, an unemployed man watches a dvd from a local shop and becomes fascinated.  Going online to see if anyone else has seen it, wondering if there's an uncut version, he is told that there is a more complete version, and also learns that it's the film itself which will seek out "worthy" watchers.  In Jacqueline Simpson's "Dragon Path" a young man skilled in Druidic arts learns the hard way that  power does not equate to wisdom.  A dirty, dated and hardly-thriving amusement arcade filled with "nightmarish nostalgia" is the location for Steve Jordan's "Claws."  It's also a place where very strange things are happening and the boss thinks the employees are out to get him, but boy is he wrong. Adrian Cole's "A Beast By Any Other Name" begins as a murder mystery, morphing slowly into something not completely of this world.   It's also the most original within this group of stories, and if you ask me, very nicely done. Finally, "Shelter from the Storm," by Ian Hunter finds three friends on a routine "practice walk" before tackling a bigger, 150-mile hike.  Hoping to find their way to Port Isaac, their walk becomes anything but routine when they discover they're lost and the weather turns terrible.  They find what one of them believes is "salvation" when they come across the ruins of an old church, yet fail to heed the warning left there and, as kids often do in these sorts of things,  start messing around with things that are best left alone.

Depending on personal tastes, of course, mileage may vary, not uncommon in any anthology. I trend much more toward the weird, and my selection of favorite stories here reflect my preference, but really there's something here for everyone.  I have enjoyed the series so far, and look forward to reading more in the future.



Sunday, May 24, 2020

The Architect, by Brendan Connell

9781908125095
Eibonvale, 2020
151 pp

paperback

"And so it is that the more desperate men become, the more wild are their dreams. Shunning the world around them, ignoring the blue skies and singing streams, they look for beauty in some great beyond, their diseased minds crippled by stupidity, their senses perverted by occult mechanisms."


When asked by Jeff VanderMeer in in a May 2011 interview what the term "weird" meant to him, author Brendan Connell replied that
" 'the weird' means something different. Not necessarily some creature dug up in the back yard with sunflower seeds for teeth, but rather a perception that is different from normal.  It is like seeing the world reflected on the back of a spoon or hearing a conversation through a thick wall."
The last sentence there pretty much sums up my feelings about  weird fiction.  I know I'm going to be delving into someone's vision of a distorted or dislocated segment of reality, and I look forward to it.   The catch is that it takes a really good writer to  pull it off in a truly satisfying way, and there are a handful of contemporary writers I trust to do it right.  Brendan Connell is definitely one of those authors, with a top tier placement in my imaginary hierarchy of writers of the weird and the strange for some time now.   And while in 2012, the year of its original publication, I'd probably never even heard of The Architect, much less Brendan Connell (I'm a late bloomer -- what can I say?)  Eibonvale has now published its own edition of this book, and I just couldn't resist.  The original blurb for this book refers to it as a "Greek tragedy on hallucinogens."  I couldn't wait to read it and discover for myself whether or not that description was accurate, and by golly, it was.  I normally don't believe blurbers, but yes indeedy, whoever cobbled that phrase together was absolutely on the money.

To more fully understand events of this book, we have to go back in time a bit, to a certain Dr. Maxwell Körn (1849-1924), who had during his lifetime, among other things,  received "certain occult initiations pertaining to the Order of the Hermetic Brotherhood,"  "lunched with swamis and drank tea with Taoist sages,"  and had "entered a secret society of adepts where he studied the anatomy of the soul."   But it was on the third of April, 1894 at 6:30 p.m,  an hour after eating a plate of roast beef and while sitting at platform number 3 of the Lehrter Bahnhof in Berlin that within twenty minutes he'd become "spontaneously enlightened,"  coming to the understanding  "of the entire workings of the entire universe, from its creation to its future destruction and saw both the purpose of mankind and the purpose of its life, the celestial scheme of things." Two years later he decided to form "a Universal Brotherhood of Mankind". He gave lectures throughout Europe,  astro-traveled to "other planets and planes" where among other accomplishments he "met with other beings, familiars looking for and archangels, the souls of great thinkers."  In short, he was a "visionary, spiritual scientist" honored by the modern-day, Switzerland-based Körn society, whose board members as the story opens, are examining plans submitted by various architects for a Meeting Place.  None of the designs meet their approval -- they want a building that reflects the idea of Körn himself, who said in 1914 that
"great architecture transforms the world of material objects into a direct and immutable projection of the spirit."
Unforunately, the plans they've seen to this point have been on the mundane side, not a place worthy of Körn's followers.  Frustrated after having been looking at these things for months and finding nothing worthwhile, a nephew of one of the board members comes in with a book of drawings by a certain Alexius Nachtman, and shortly thereafter he is invited to submit a proposal to the board.   He offers them not only
"the greatest structure built in the post-Atlantean age... a symbol of the liberated spirit, of mankind's final dominance, not only over nature, but over physicality itself"
 but speedy delivery.  It takes the Society only thirty minutes to give the go-ahead, and they also offer  Nachtman all the money he will need to complete the project. All he must do is to join the Körn Society, the dues deducted from his otherwise generous salary.

Most importantly for this story, the board members also meet his demand for "full undiluted authority concerning both the architectural and engineering aspects of the project. "  Nachtman has been known to be an eccentric, but with "full undiluted authority,"  his true personality is revealed.  He is the ultimate narcissist, the epitome of unchecked ego, a master manipulator, a man driven by his own obsession and lacking a conscience, but he is also the object of what can only be described as a cult of personality, supported by members of a Society which somewhere along the way "seems to have lost its bearings."  I think in this case,  the author takes the idea of the cult of personality that forms around him to its extreme, yet here logical  conclusion with this tale, which is not at all pretty, but one which doesn't seem to bother anyone except a couple of people who see through what's going on.  Connell  once said that "There are enough monsters and demons in the real world without needing to look elsewhere,"  and in this story it's a toss up as to whether it's the titular architect or his most ardent supporters who reflect this idea to its fullest.  There is, of course, much more, but the joy is in the reading so I will say no more about plot.  The irony will not be lost on any reader.

 As dark as it is, there is a streak of black humor that runs through The Architect, making me laugh out loud for more than a beat or two past a split second.  That's not unusual for this author -- some time ago I read and loved his The Translation of Father Torturo and as pitch dark as that one was, god help me, there were times when I absolutely couldn't stop a giggle or two from bubbling out.  At the same time, The Architect left me with a growing sense of uneasiness that I couldn't shake even after it was all over. 

 Connell's books take on a unique logic which appeals and which works, and frankly, I just love how he writes.  He deserves the honor bestowed on him by author Rhys Hughes, who wrote on the back-cover blurb of  Connell's Unpleasant Tales that
"Every generation throws up few genuine Masters of the Weird. There is simply no hyperbole in the statement that Brendan Connell is a member of this elite group right now, perhaps the most accomplished of them all."
I knew this already, but anyone who reads The Architect could not help but to agree.  A fine novel, certainly recommended to readers of the weird, especially those who have not yet had the great fortune to have made the acquaintance of this author's work.  You will become an instant fan.

*****

My many, many thanks to Alice at Eibonvale for offering me a list of books to read out of which with no hesitation I chose this one, and to David Rix, "a writer, artist and reader who loves books" and who also happens to be the guy who runs Eibonvale.  

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

The Double Star and Other Occult Fantasies, by Jane de la Vaudère


9781943813643
Snuggly Books, 2018
translated by Brian Stableford
242 pp

paperback

"Those who dream by day have knowledge of a host of things that will remain forever unknown to those who only dream by night. Visions are strewn with fulgurant lightning flashes that, at times, unveil eternity for us and permit us to regain a few scraps of the terrible mystery." 



What would we do without Brian Stableford? The man is a lean, mean translating machine, and he has an uncanny knack for uncovering the best work by heretofore unknown authors.  I actually read The Double Star and Other Occult Fantasies some time ago, but recently when someone I know online said he was currently reading it, I decided that I would give it a second read.  I'm so glad I did. It was time.

In his introduction, Brian Stableford shares what little there is to know about Jane de La Vaudère, suggesting that  owing to her family's social status, when as a child she lost both of her parents she was sent to a convent along with her sister to be raised and educated until she could later be married off.   Born Jeanne Scrive, after leaving the convent, she married a military surgeon named Camille Gaston Crapez, who inherited  the Chateau de la Vaudère in Sarthe and began calling himself Crapez de La Vaudère [If anyone is at all interested, there is an interesting (French) blog post in which the author, looking for genealogical information, discovers Jane de la Vaudère quite by accident while researching the Crapez family in Parigné-l'Ėveque].  Before her death in 1908, she had worked as an artist, a poet, a playwright, a novelist, and writer of short stories.  As Stableford also notes,
"a Poesque fascination with what the American writer called 'The Imp of the Perverse' seems to have been a constant feature in the artistry of La Vaudere's literary endeavour, and perhaps her life as well, if what seem to be echoes of her own sentiments in her work really are revealing.  That element of her work made her a significant writer in the development of modern horror fiction, although she is not mentioned in any reference book on the subject." 
Let me repeat:   "a significant writer in the development of modern horror fiction,"   yet her work remains relatively unknown.  I say, read this book and you'll want to read everything she's ever written.



my photo, back-cover image
 In these tales,  as quoted from "The Dream of Myses," the final story in this collection,

 "The passions ... all flow from amour, the fundamental law of the world." 

They do not, however, necessarily remain earthbound or cease at death; the obsessive desire for a love which continues beyond this earthly realm (and the consequences thereof)  is the essence of this book.  These stories encompass reincarnation,  reanimation, astral projection, hypnotism, chimeras, mysticism, dreams and more, with all but the opening story, "Emmanuel's Centenary," entrenched in elements of the erotic and the sexual. 

I'm not going to go into any detail at all about any of the nine stories in this volume; they are truly best discovered by the reader with no knowledge ahead of time.    To say that the stories in this book are excellent does not quite do them the justice they deserve.  They are  delicious, sublimely written,  decadent and dark, and offer a look at "the scraps of the terrible mystery" as they "unveil eternity." I seriously cannot praise this book enough.  Patience may be required but you will certainly be rewarded for your effort many times over. 


Friday, April 24, 2020

Mortal Echoes: Encounters With the End (ed.) Greg Buzwell




"So here it is at last, the distinguished thing..."
 -- Henry James





9780712352819
British Library, 2018
277 pp
paperback


To date I've read five books in the British Library Tales of the Weird series, leaving two unread on my shelves and anticipating  the four I've preordered which are coming in September and November.  They are not only engaging and highly entertaining,  but also include stories by a number of more obscure authors whose work I've never read.   It's a win-win.

The stories in Mortal Echoes: Encounters With the Dead  all feature someone who has had a brush with death -- perhaps but not necessarily his or her own -- as well as (quoting editor Greg Buzwell from his excellent introduction), "a particular fear associated with mortality."  Buzwell categorizes these tales as follows: the  "inevitability" of death,  stories from the afterlife,  the "reluctant" dead who are unwilling to stay in their graves,  tales of death with a humorous edge, and those which are "plain macabre."   The table of contents (in story order below) reads like a who's who of ghost/strange/weird fiction writers,  but there are also a few surprises.

The first five stories need absolutely no introduction to readers of  this genre, but don't be tempted to buzz past these -- rereads are always good.  Le Fanu's "Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter" opens this volume, followed by Poe's (sadly timely read)  "The Masque of the Red Death,"   "Rappacini's Daughter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne, "The Signal-Man" by Charles Dickens and the excellent "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce. 

New to me this time around is "The King is Dead, Long Live the King"  by poet Mary Elizabeth Coleridge , in which  a newly-dead king is given one hour to find "three that desire thy life," at which point he will be brought back to the realm of the living.  He's not worried: it seems like a sure bet,  as he is positive that he "could find three thousand as easily as three."  The irony will be lost on no one reading this story as that hour ticks down.   Another I hadn't read is HG Wells' somewhat visionary "Under the Knife," in which a man is absolutely convinced that he's going to die during an operation despite the doctor's assurance that his heart is "sound as a bell."  Then again, anything can happen under the influence of chloroform.   "Laura" is one of my favorite stories by H.H. Munro aka Saki, simultaneously weird and giggleworthy, which in this book is a bit of a relief, given the overall topic. 



from Amazon UK


My favorite previously-unread story here is May Sinclair's "Where Their Fire is Not Quenched," which disturbed me to no end while reading the first time through and left me beyond unsettled after a second read.  I will say nothing about this one except that I completely agree with editor Greg Buzwell who says that "it offers one of the most disturbing depictions of eternal hell imaginable."    Another good, thoroughly disquieting and for its time (1923) probably quite shocking tale is Marjorie Bowen's "Kecksies."   Looking for refuge from a storm, the drunken lord of the Manor and his friend come upon the cottage of Goody Boyle, "a foul place," where people swear they've seen "the devil's own fize" looking out of the window.  They are given shelter, but they discover they're not the only guest in the cottage, he being quite dead.  Sir Nicholas decides 'twould be good fun to play a practical joke on those coming to pay their respects.  Very bad mistake.   The next three stories, although very different, touch on the thin line between sanity and madness: Graham Greene's "A Little Place off Edgware Road," Robert Aickman's "Your Tiny Hand is Frozen,"  and Daphne du Maurier's "Kiss Me Again, Stranger."   If you're looking for life affirmation in the midst of all of this death,  you'll find it in Donald Barthelme's "The School,"  and the book ends with a rather comical story called "Death by Scrabble," by Charlie Fish.  You'll never look at the game in the same way going forward; just be careful who you're playing against.

As always, another fine volume from the British Library Tales of the Weird series; as always, a mixed bag with some stories stronger than others depending on personal tastes.  And as usual, more authors for me to explore, which is why I read these anthologies.  Certainly recommended. 


Thursday, April 16, 2020

Little Eyes, by Samanta Schweblin


9781786077929
Oneworld, 2020
originally published as Kentukis, 2018
translated by Megan McDowell
240 pp

hardcover

Having read Samanta Schweblin's previous books, it was a no-brainer that I was going to read this one, Booker International longlist or no.  Little Eyes not only examines our infatuation with the latest technology that we feel compelled to bring into our lives, but also shines a spotlight on how it is used and by whom.

 At the center of it all is a cuddly, sweet-looking and rather expensive  device called a kentuki.  It comes in different forms, including pandas, crows, bunnies and dragons, looking "similar to a football with one end sliced off," enabling it to "stand upright", with cameras located behind the eyes.  It moves about on wheels, and once the device is charged, the "keeper" (the owner of the kentuki and responsible for keeping it charged), waits until it connects with a "central server," which then links to a "dweller," the person who will be looking out onto the keeper's world through the kentuki's eyes via his or her computer.

Since I don't want to reveal too much, I'll just say that in Little Eyes Schweblin has put together a series of interwoven, related vignettes focusing on keepers and dwellers from different walks of life throughout the world.  As you begin to get hooked on one such story, another intervenes before coming back later with more revelations which in my case I couldn't wait to get to.   And while each has the kentuki at its core, the book turns out to be much more about human nature as she explores the various bonds that form between owner and user,  some of which turn out to be rather sinister, while others have a more poignant side;  here, I am pleased to say,  technology isn't all bad. 

Admittedly, the concept of invasive/voyeuristic technology is not a new one but there is just something different here that makes for worthwhile reading.  As the blurb reveals,
"Trusting strangers can lead to unexpected love, playful encounters, and marvellous adventures,"
but on the flip side, it can also "pave the way for unimaginable terror."   And indeed, most of these tales are tinged with the disturbing weirdness that one expects from this author; there are some moments that made me laugh out loud and then there are elements that were so horrific that I wanted to put the book down.  But I couldn't.





book photo from goodreads


The US release comes out in May from Riverhead, and  although its cover is not nearly as cool as the UK release,  I can definitely recommend it for people who like their fiction a bit more on the darker, weirder side.






Monday, April 6, 2020

and now, for some well-earned (but really good) fluff: Strange Island Stories (ed.) Jonathan E Lewis

9781944520434
Stark House Press, 2018
342 pp

paperback



"We have come to the devil's workshop. All the horrors of the inferno are invented here."

The truth of the matter is that sometimes I just need fluff.  Fluff fluff fluff fluffity fluff. And right now, with coronavirus stress alive and well in our home, this book was just what the doctor ordered.  From the very first I was completely sucked in, able to forget about grocery store shortages and face masks for the duration (although I did clean the book with a Lysol wipe before opening).   Reading old horrorish-slash-weird pulp makes me feel good for some reason.  I've never analyzed as to why, but as long as it does the trick, who cares?

As editor Jonathan E. Lewis says in his introduction (which you can read without fear of spoilers),
"The strange island short story form, like the island novel, utilizes island locations to examine human society and human nature.  But it pushes beyond that and and takes the reader on a journey into the weird, the bizarre, the scary, and the unsettling."
All of those categories -- "the weird, the bizarre, the scary, and the unsettling" are well represented here over the course of these twenty stories.   Of course, as it is an anthology, there are some that I didn't care for but that's a matter of personal preference.  On the whole, the editor has done a fine job finding and compiling these strange tales, the majority of which I'd never read before.  The table of contents reads like a who's who of short story creepiness,  featuring stories by such greats as Edward Bulwer Lytton (here simply Edward Bulwer for authenticity's sake), MP Shiel, John Buchan, Frank Norris, Algernon Blackwood and Henry S. Whitehead (and others), and then some names that were not as well known to me including  Henry Toke Munn, Fred M. White, and George G. Toudouze, among others.  Lewis also includes one of his own stories at the end of the book as well as introducing each tale.

Of the twenty stories in this book, I've previously read four: "Monos and Daimonos," by Edward Bulwer,  "Hugenin's Wife," by MP Shiel, "The Camp of the Dog," by Algernon Blackwood, and Lovecraft's "Dagon."   Of the remaining sixteen, I'll  list only my favorites, presented in reading order.   First up is McTeague author Frank Norris' "The Ship That Saw a Ghost,"  in which a group of men sail away to complete a secret venture guaranteed to bring riches.  Their destination:
"...that region of the Great Seas where no ship goes, the silent sea of Coleridge and the Ancient One, the unplumbed, untracked, uncharted Dreadfulness, primordial, hushed,"
where they were "alone as a grain of star-dust whirling in the empty space beyond Uranus and the ken of the greater telescopes."   Of course, there's a hitch -- and serious repercussions.    "Island of Ghosts" by Julian Hawthorne, son of Nathaniel, is next, and it is indeed a truly creepy story of a young woman who decides to go and spend some time on an island reputed to be haunted.  Hawthorne delivers a tension-ratcheting tale here with an ending I did not see coming.  When I started reading "Spirit Island" by Henry Toke Munn I was hit with a wave of "I've read this before," but I really hadn't.  The more I thought about it the more I realized that it had some of the same vibe as Dan Simmons' The Terror, at least for a while.  This was my favorite story, and it takes the form of a narrative of a man's complete and utterly terrifying adventure in the Arctic which he expects that no one will believe. However, if anyone ever does and decides to send someone to check it out in the future, he notes, don't bother asking him to go along.  All I will divulge is that when your Eskimo companions tell you that a particular island is taboo, and you go anyway, well, that's on you.  "The Purple Terror" by Fred M. White is another good one, making its debut in The Strand in September 1899.  Set in the Caribbean during the Spanish-American War, Lieutenant Will Scarlett is given a mission to carry a letter from his captain to an Admiral waiting for it across the isthmus.  The trek will involve covering some "fifty miles through practically unexplored country,"  and the trouble begins when Scarlett and his men stop for the night and decide to "join the giddy throng" of people at a bar and Scarlett just happens to notice the "purple band of flowers," the likes of which he'd never seen before, twined around a dancer's shoulders.   He also notices that they have the "perfume of a corpse."  I shall say no more except that had I seen a movie based on this story  on one of those tv shows I used to watch as a kid where they ran back to back science fiction/horror movies, I would have been beyond delighted.




from Culture Trip



The final story I count among the chilling standouts in this volume is "Three Skeleton Key" by French writer George G. Toudouze.  Although in this day and age elements of this story might come across as old hat, but published in 1937, it had to have been horrific in its day.  The action takes place in a lighthouse on a rock island out in the ocean, where a group of three men are completely happy with their isolated life there,  until one day when they see a ship heading straight toward them.  The ship, it seems, has no crew, but that does not mean that there are not passengers aboard. "Three Skeleton Key" was later adapted for radio,  with the broadcast starring none other than Vincent Price.  You can listen to one of these shows here at Journey Into, but I will warn you that the story is abridged, changed quite a bit, and doesn't quite convey the horror of the situation.  On the other hand, back before television, it must have caused quite a stir sitting in the living room at night listening.

Honorable mention to Jack London's "Good-by, Jack" a rather poignant story disguising the horror that doesn't hit until the very end, at which point I was in shock.

With the exception of "The Fiend of the Cooperage" by Conan Doyle (I just thought it was strange but I wasn't enthralled)  all of the rest of the stories (listed below)  are quite good.  Two exceptions come in the form of futuristic, scifi-ish pulpy tales, "Friend Islandand "In the Land of Tomorrow," simply because I am not particularly fond of this sort of thing as a general rule, although I'm sure they will delight true pulp fans who are.


"The Gray Wolf," by George MacDonald 
"The Isle of Voices," by Robert Louis Stevenson (this one made me laugh in parts, actually)
"Dagon" by HP Lovecraft 
"The People of Pan," by Henry S. Whitehead 
"The Sixth Gargoyle," by David Eynon (mystery writers take note: great plot possibilities here)
"The Isle of Doom" by James Francis Dwyer

and 

"An Adriatic Awakening," by Jonathan E Lewis -- a bit jarring because of moving into modern times, but still a pleasure.


Stark House is one of my very favorite indie presses and I love their crime novels; this is my first foray into the other genres they cover.  Strange Island Stories is delightful and should be a no-miss for readers who love old pulp horror or pulp weird tales;  Lewis has done a terrific job putting it together.  


Friday, April 3, 2020

The Child Cephalina, by Rebecca Lloyd

9781912586202
Tartarus Press, 2019
260 pp

hardcover


"One mistake begats another in those folk who are blinded by their own desires." 

Mid-century Victorian London is the setting for this thoroughly disquieting but captivating novel which will not release you from its grip until you've read the very last word.  Even then it may take some time; it is so cleverly done and so unsettling that in my case, it was impossible to stop thinking about it long after I'd finished.

Narrator Robert Groves is a bachelor living in a house near Russell Square.  With the help of his housekeeper Tetty Brandling and a young boy by the name of Martin Ebast, he's spent the last three years interviewing "children of the streets" as part of his research for his forthcoming book Wretched London, The Story of the City's Invisible Children.   Every Sunday Martin rounds up and brings a small group of these children to Groves' house on Judd Street; it is on one of these days that young Cephalina first appears.  It is apparent to everyone that she isn't a part of that day's group of "nippers;" the first things Tetty and Martin notice are her clean, recently-washed and plaited hair as well as the "slender and white" hands that are "delicately formed" and obviously unused to street dirt or hard work.  Groves is more than fascinated, Tetty is suspicious, and Cephalina offers little information about herself except that she lives in Hackney with her guardians the Clutchers, for whom she does some sort of work and that she has a twin she calls "E." When she returns to Judd Street a second time, she adds a bit more to (and changes part of)  her story; further visits with Robert reveal a bit more about her life with the Clutchers and a strange bond develops between the two.  In the meantime, Tetty has enough on her plate dealing with the stress caused by an embarrassing lack of funds required to run the household, and the tension between Tetty and Robert escalates as Tetty tries to warn Robert about the "sordid child," who has "too much knowing about her" and  he refuses to listen.  He  credits  her fear to her "superstitious nature," failing to notice just how deeply afraid she is of Cephalina.  Ignoring Tetty and her warnings, his obsession with and devotion to the young "waif"  grows ever stronger, as does his desire to help her, which in his own words, leads him to a "sorry mess indeed."   That is seriously all I'm going to say about the plot -- it's better to go into this book knowing as little as possible.

 I normally shy away from modern writers' work set in Victorian England, because I'm a huge reader of Victorian fiction and some of these people just do not get things right.  That is not true in this case --  Rebecca Lloyd has done great things here. Her depiction of Victorian London is striking, not just in her descriptions of the "dirty, grit-filled fog," the "stench of the Thames" or the "incessant din" that could drive a person mad, but she also captures the current mood of the city, for example, in the excitement over the new Crystal Palace, or the "giant wave of spiritualism" which had found its way into London over the past three years, along with its adherents, practitioners and critics.  Her characters are substantial and realistic as individuals, but it's in the various relationships she's created between them where they thrive and give this novel meaning.   But by far the author's greatest achievement is in her ability to keep the reader on edge  as she cleverly puts together a story in which she has interwoven a number of things left unsaid, things kept hidden,  misperceptions,  misjudgments, and above all, the mystery of the enigma that is Cephalina.  From the beginning she leaves the reader with the feeling that there is something a bit off about this strange girl, and continues to heighten our interest in her by revealing her story slowly and only in small bits at a time.  The same is true in the slight scattering of clues that she leaves for the reader to follow to the chilling and shocking end.

I'm just a reader (and a casual one at that),  not a critic, but I know when I've found something of quality  and this is definitely it, a book that tells me that the author is indeed a master of her craft.   The Child Cephalina at times feels like an old serial cliffhanger, and inevitably I read it into the wee hours of the morning, unable to put it down.  It kept me guessing, very much on edge, and when that last page was turned at 4 a.m. I just sat there unable to even think of sleeping.

Very, very highly recommended.  You will want to read this book.  Trust me.  It's unlike anything I've read before.




Monday, March 30, 2020

Wisteria Cottage, by Robert M. Coates


9781948405607
Valancourt Books, 2020
originally published 1948
189 pp

paperback



"I knew there was some way that they could be saved." 


It was the second day of Richard Baurie's three-day walking trip in the Long Island Sound area when he first came upon Wisteria Cottage, set among the dunes overlooking the beach below.  It was that moment when,  according to the small bit of the Psychiatrist's Report which opens this novel, "even though faintly," a  "criminal intention" first entered his brain.  There is no clue as to what his "criminal intention" may have been, nor as to why Richard even merits a psychiatrist's report, but it should be apparent at once that we're not dealing with someone psychologically sound here. I have to say up front that Wisteria Cottage is disturbing with a capital D, because from the very beginning the author places his readers into the mind of this young man whose sense of reality is seriously distorted, and keeps us there as Richard's  mind begins to slowly but steadily unravel and deteriorate over the course of the summer spent at Wisteria Cottage.

Richard, who writes poetry and has a part-time job at a bookstore in New York City, has inveigled his way into the lives of  Florence Hackett and her adult daughters Louisa and Elinor.  He'd met Florence at a grocery store, and it didn't take long until he'd "come to have the run of the apartment."   It was on the night before his three-day trip that Florence had happened to mention to Richard that while he was away he might look for  a "nice place" for them to rent for a month or so, offering Richard the opportunity to spend summer weekends with them.   Having discovered Wisteria Cottage, Richard feels that now
"all he wanted in the world, at this moment, was to have them rent the place for the summer, and for him to spend the summer there with them.  It was the right thing, the perfect thing; more than that it was the just thing for them to do."
Being with the Hacketts at the cottage, he believes, would "straighten them out, quell the evil forces that were working among them."

What he views as these "evil forces working among them" I won't divulge and nor will I say anything more about the plot.  I will only add that in his self-appointed quest to "save" these women,  the "summer of pleasant companionship and fun" the Hacketts are expecting will turn out to be anything but as "their relaxing summer holiday will soon turn into a terrifying nightmare."




from Buckingham Books

In her informative introduction which should not be missed but read after finishing this book, Professor Mathilde Roza states that the most "memorable aspect" of Wisteria Cottage is the "approach" taken by the author:  "never hysterical but always low-key," and quotes Commonweal's remark that in this book
"No tiled asylums, no mental bedlams are employed to wring the reader's emotions"
 and once I'd read the intro,  I realized that yes, this sentence describes to a tee why I found this book so disturbing.   I've read plenty of fiction that hones in on the disintegration of an individual's psyche, but Richard Baurie's case so unnerved me to the point that I had to make this a daytime-only read.    Professor Roza  also explains how the novel reflects concerns extant in post-World War II America, including "popular culture's deepening interest in psychiatry and psychoanalysis," which is very much apparent throughout the story.

  Very highly recommended, but beware -- it took everything I had and several days after reading Wisteria Cottage to get it out from under my skin.  As I said -- disturbing with a capital D.

******



from Film Noir of the Week


I also watched the film based on this novel, Edge of Fury (1958), and whoever chose Michael Higgens to play the role of Richard totally nailed it.    It's available on youtube.  

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

WB Yeats: Stories of Red Hanrahan, The Secret Rose, and Rosa Alchemica

"O Divine Rose of Intellectual Flame, let the Gates of thy peace be opened to me at last!
                       "Out of the Rose," from The Secret Rose



Never having been much of a poetry person, I was a bit taken aback when I discovered that WB Yeats also wrote some pretty strange fiction.   The truth is that he wouldn't have even come up on my reading radar had it not been for the essays about him I read in  The Library of the Lost: In Search of Forgotten Authors  by Roger Dobson (ed. Mark Valentine), where I learned about his work The Secret Rose. 

9780486493817
Dover, 2013
originally published by Macmillan, 1914
119 pp
paperback


I picked up the Dover edition containing The Secret Rose and Rosa Alchemica, but never one to read just part of a book, I began with Yeats'  Stories of Red Hanrahan, which starts like this:
"Hanrahan, the hedge schoolmaster, a tall, strong, red-haired young man, came into the barn where some of the men of the village were sitting on Samhain Eve."
I knew with just that opening sentence that something supernatural or at least strange was about to happen -- it's Samhain Eve after all.

 I wasn't wrong: after a card game with some of the fellows and an "old mountainy man" who owns the deck, Hanrahan is told to follow the "great hunt" that ensues when a hare leaps out of the cards, quickly followed by a dog and then an entire pack of hounds.  Hanrahan leaves the barn, but in the darkness quickly loses the hounds.  What he does find, however, as he sits in the heather "in the heart of Slieve Echtge," is a door with a light behind it.  Judging by what happens next, it seems that this itinerant schoolmaster has discovered an entrance to the Otherworld (here in the form of "big shining house"); on entering within, he notices a woman, "the most beautiful the world ever saw," with "the tired look of one that had been waiting."  Unbeknownst to Hanrahan, on entering this doorway he has entered into the realm of immortals --  the beautiful woman is "Echtge, the Daughter of the Silver Hand;" aka daughter of  Nuada, one-time king of the Tuatha dé Danann and therefore a goddess. Four old women appear, and with each appearance he is presented with a sort of test which he promptly fails. He is found "weak," and wanting, but even worse, his failure causes this goddess to remain asleep. His failure also has personal consequences;   Hanrahan must somehow make up for his fault;  throughout his wanderings,  he is bound to never know "content for any length of time..."   This first tale is key to what follows, a series of short tales that contain a blending of traditional, political, and mystical elements that weave their way through an entire Hanrahan story cycle.  It also seems to have elements of the traditional Romantic quest, albeit one that is interior and suffused throughout with the occult. 


from Ask About Ireland

The Secret Rose is described by the author himself as having "but one subject, the war of spiritual with natural order." In his dedication of this group of stories to A.E., aka George William Russell, Yeats notes that
"If a writer wishes to interest a certain people among whom he has grown up, or fancies he has a duty towards them, he may choose for the symbols of his art their legends, their history, their beliefs, their opinions.."
and goes on to say that "as this book is visionary, it is Irish for Ireland, which is still predominantly Celtic" and that it preserves "a gift of vision, which has died out among more hurried and more successful nations."

One of my favorite stories in this group of tales that illuminates all of this  is  "The Wisdom of the King," which begins with the "High-Queen of Ireland" having died in childbirth.  Her son was given in the care of a woman who lived in the woods, and  who one night was visited by a "grey-clad woman, of great age.." who had grey feathers on her head instead of hair.   Calling herself a "crone of the grey hawk," she places herself at the head of the baby's cradle.  The hut soon fills with a number of these women, and they proceed to mix their grey blood, a drop at a time, with the baby's; he is now imbued with their knowledge, their wisdom.   As he gets older, his head begins to sport grey hawk feathers; when he is old enough to rule in the place of his now-dead father, "the poets and the men of law" decreed that everyone (even visitors outside the realm who come to seek his wisdom)  "upon pain of death" had to weave into his or hair the feathers of the grey hawk.  Furthermore, anyone who told the boy the truth was to be "flung from a cliff into the sea."  You can only imagine what happens when he learns of the deception.

 These nine stories are like taking a mythical/mystical spin through history and tradition and they speak to an older wisdom, the knowledge of which only few are gifted and thus live a rather isolated life; sacrifices are made, and individuals take part in their own spiritual or mystical quests for the ideal. They were also my favorite part of this book. 

After finishing The Secret Rose, I started researching what to look forward to in Rosa Alchemica, and realized that this Dover edition did not include either "The Tables of the Law" or "The Adoration of the Magi," so I picked up Mythologies, which does. 

9780684826219
Simon and Schuster, 1998
originally published 1959
368 pp
paperback

It also contains Celtic Twilight and the mind-bending (and patience-expending) Per Amica Silentia Lunae, but I won't comment on either here.

 With  these last three stories, we delve deep into the realm of the alchemical, the mystical, and the apocalyptic.   The narrator of "Rosa Alchemica", who reminds me a bit of Huysmans' Des Esseintes because of his need to "fashion" his life according to his desire,  is sitting in quiet reverie in his Dublin home when he is interrupted by a knock at the door.  His visitor is a certain Michael Robartes, who is there to ask him yet again if he would join Robartes' Order of the Alchemical Rose.  He had declined earlier in Paris, and now asks Robartes why he would say yes when he'd already refused him? But become an initiate he does, or at least he's on the way to doing so at a temple on the coast when it seems as though all hell breaks loose. It's the inner workings of the ceremonies at the Temple of the Alchemical Rose which are fascinating here, but the ending speaks volumes as well.

 The same narrator appears again in  "The Tables of the Law" and "The Adoration of the Magi."  In the first story, rather than Robartes, it is Owen Aherne who appears to introduce his own mystical/spiritual philosophy.  Based on the writings of Joachim of Flora, an abbot of the twelfth century, his proposed system picks up Joachim's more heretical beliefs (from a secret book) that will displace "the commandments of the Son by the commandments of the Holy Spirit," and usher in a new age. Things, of course, go terribly wrong.  In the second, our narrator is once again in the company of visitors, three elderly brothers who tell him that they were there to reveal "important things."  Their strange story begins as one of the brothers fell asleep while  reading Virgil and a "strange voice spoke through him," bidding them to
set out for Paris, where a dying woman would give them secret names and thereby so transform the world that another Leda would open her knees to the swan, another Achilles beleaguer Troy."
Their travels take them to a brothel where a prostitute has just given birth; it seems that now "the Immortals are beginning to awake."  Or at least one that can "take many forms."

I have to say that this has been my first Yeats experience, and I do not claim to understand all of it, but I do have a newly-found reverence for Yeats scholars who do.  Still, it was absolutely a trip to read, and this book was definitely an experience most fascinating and one I'll never forget. It took me a long time to go through this one, stopping to check on various references here and there, but even with my limited understanding it is a book that I can certainly recommend.