|I'm number 199|
Wednesday, October 28, 2020
Witch-Cult Abbey, by Mark Samuels
Friday, October 23, 2020
back to the British Library: Queens of the Abyss: Lost Stories From the Women of the Weird (ed.) Mike Ashley
"continued to experiment and develop the weird tale from its gothic beginnings and its thriving Victorian heyday into the twentieth century"
and these stories span a range in time from 1888 to 1952.
The first three, "A Revelation," by Mary E. Braddon, "The Sculptor's Angel" by Marie Corelli and Edith Nesbit's "From the Dead," are all ghostly tales, as is Marie Belloc Lowndes' "The Haunted Flat." Between the last two comes Frances Hodgson Burnett's "The Christmas in the Fog" which has one of the best and most eerie visions of being caught in a thick fog I've ever encountered, but really, that's about all that impressed me there. It's not until I got to Alicia Ramsey's "A Modern Circe" that this book picked up speed and I found myself completely engaged until turning the last page. Ramsey's tale is truly weird, featuring a "handsome rogue" of a man who has the misfortune of encountering "The Mad Virgin of the Hills," because he and the entire Italian village know that "Those whom she calls never return." May Sinclair, whose work I absolutely love, is next with "The Nature of the Evidence," also on the ghostly side but with one of the finest and most unexpected twists ever. You don't have to read between the lines to figure out what happens here. "The Bishop of Hell" by Marjorie Bowen follows with the story of a "ruined" woman and the truly evil, debauched man responsible for her downfall. I love Bowen's stories and this one is just example why.
And then we come to my favorite section of this book, with a few stories written by, as Ashley notes, "less well known" women writers who "dared enter the male stronghold of the pulp magazine and established their own reputation for the modern weird tale. " These topped my list of favorites. Three strong examples can be found in Margaret St. Clair's "Island of the Hands" (1952), Greye La Spina's "The Antimacassar" (1949), and "White Lady," by Sophie Wenzel Ellis (1933) St. Clair's story finds a man plagued not only with grief after his wife's death, but also with a recurring dream in which he sees her standing there, begging for him to come to her. Her plane had crashed "in perfect weather" even as he was speaking to her by radio, and while a search was mounted, no trace of her was ever found. He knows logically that she's dead, but the feeling is so strong that after three months of dreams and a decision to "abandon rationality," he decides he has to go look for her, and his search takes him to a strange island where everything is perhaps not what it seems. "The Antimacassar" appeals to the part of my reading self that appreciates a good mix of mystery and pulp horror, as it is a blending of both. When Cora Kent, Lucy Butterfield's "immediate superior," fails to return from her vacation, Lucy decides to use part of her own time off to try to find out what had happened to her. With a little luck, her search takes her to a farm owned by a Mrs. Renner, who denies ever knowing Cora. Lucy believes otherwise, and decides to stay for a week to do a little "self-imposed detective work" when not learning weaving from Mrs. R. She soon discovers that finding Cora Kent is probably the least of her problems at present. "White Lady" just might be the strangest story in the entire book; certainly one of the most fun to read and definitely the most deliciously exotic. Set on a remote island in the Caribbean, Brynhild is spending time with her fiancé André, a scientist who "experimented fantastically with tropical plant life." As he shares with her his "supreme achievement," a flower he calls White Lady, she begins to believe that not only he has gone well beyond the point of obsession with this thing, but that this "bête blanche" is much more than a mere plant.
|Strange Tales, January 1933 issue. From Howard Works|
In "The Laughing Thing," by GG Pendarves, a sick man who is cheated out of money on a land deal vows to return after his death to make the other party pay. He promises that it will be "a payment that will not reduce your bank account," which only makes his nemesis laugh. As the saying goes, he who laughs last laughs best, but there is nothing funny at all in what happens next. "Candlelight" by Lady Eleanor Smith finds five people together at a weekend party (two couples and an unmarried man) which is interrupted when they discover they're being watched by a gypsy girl. For kicks, the hostess invites her to tell their fortunes, but the fun ends when the girl actually does. Jessie Douglas Kerruish provides "The Wonderful Tune," which turns out not to be so wonderful after all once it's played. I saw where this one was headed not to far into the story but it's still fun. "The Unwanted" by Mary Elizabeth Counselman (of whom I am a huge fangirl) is truly on the weird side as a census worker in the hills of Alabama encounters a poor farmer and his wife. All is well until she inquires about the number of children they have ... Last but not at all least is Leonora Carrington's "The Seventh Horse" which may at first seem nonsensically bizarre, but there is method in her surrealistic madness.
Much reading happiness here; Queens of the Abyss is one of the best volumes of the series so far, and the British Library Tales of the Weird series overall is a definite no-miss for lovers of the truly strange. My reader hat is tipped to editor Mike Ashley, who has been one of the best and most prolific finders and curators of these long-forgotten stories over a long career. Definitely and highly recommended.
Wednesday, October 14, 2020
Slade House, by David Mitchell
"the residents of Slade House extend an invitation to someone who's different or lonely..."
and the true question to be answered here is this: "But what really goes on inside?"
The house itself is located off an alley, and one must go through a "small black iron door" set in a brick wall to enter the grounds. In a nutshell (because to tell is definitely to spoil), over the thirty-six year period during which this novel takes place, a number of different people find the mysterious door, make their way through and are never seen again. While they are inside, each person finds himself/herself in the midst of something unique and caught up in an experience specifically tailored for each indivual -- the teenager, Nathan Bishop, for example, has been invited to come along with his mom Rita who has been invited to Slade House by a certain Lady Grayer to attend a musical soirée along with other guests including Yehudi Menuhin. Then there's the cop who after nine years comes to investigate the Bishops' last known location and meets up with the present owner of the place. Or as just one more example, Sally Timms, who accompanies a small group of fellow Paranormal Society friends who had planned to investigate the house but find themselves invited to a crazy party going on inside. Each character provides his or her own firsthand narrative of his or her own experiences, allowing for more of a sense of immediacy to the novel, which heightens the chills and the creep factor all the way through. Giving the book even more of an eerie edge are the ties between past and present that link together everyone who has entered Slade House. Characters reappear in others' experiences, playing a role in some way or another, and with each successive visitor, we also get closer to what exactly is going on at the heart of it all.
inside of Slade House, from the cover inset. Blurry, so it's obviously my photo.
Some readers have found the continual firsthand narratives to be "tedious" after a while, what I call a sort of lather-rinse-repeat format, but I didn't at all -- with each chapter I braced myself for what could possibly come next, and there was even one that fooled me completely, prompting a huge out-loud gasp and a "holy s**t" when I tumbled to what was going on. Each character has a distinct life, a distinct background and his or her own voice; in reading their stories, it was easy to see that the author spent quite a lot of time on the people in this book, getting into their somewhat damaged psyches and fleshing them out with the most human of qualities, and as time moved on, so did worldly concerns outside of Slade House. My only complaint about the book is that there seemed to be bits of expository overload here and there when I just wanted to move on with things , and that's really just a minor niggle in the face of what is a most delightfully-absorbing, sinister, haunting and mysterious story. Any writer who can toss in a trove of old tropes into one novel, blend them together and make them come out as a rollicking good read and not same old same old tired certainly gets my vote.
A heads up to potential readers: while not particularly necessary, it might be a good idea to have read Mitchell's The Bone Clocks prior to reading Slade House. I didn't, but having just read a synopsis of The Bone Clocks earlier (knowing that this book was somehow related), the last chapter made much more sense; I also just discovered that this book is just one more in the "vast shared universe" in his other works. The bottom line is that it probably won't really matter too much here -- curl up, grab your favorite tea, and just have fun with it.
Friday, October 9, 2020
Into the London Fog: Eerie Tales From the Weird City (ed.) Elizabeth Dearnley
The British Library Tales of the Weird series is back again with several new titles (yay!). I love these books, so I'm always excited when one lands at my door.
In her introduction, editor Elizabeth Dearnley notes that in the years following the Clean Air Act of 1956, "true London fog" had disappeared. The stories and essays in this book range from 1868 to 1957, "all written within the decades when London was at its foggiest..." She also presents a unique method of ordering her lineup, arranging the stories as a sort of literary tour of London, inviting readers to "take a closer look at some the more uncanny corners of the city." The first story is set in Temple, with the final entry taking us to Peckham. It's quite clever, actually, although not being a Londoner myself, I had to have a map of the city to refer to while going from story to story.
my photo, my book, published by Anchor Books, 2006
"the city becomes an ethereal, haunted place, unhuman, otherworldly, where people move about in a fevered, dreamlike state."
Given that Banville's description of Bowen's wartime London aligns so closely with Dearnley's vision for this collection, I'm not surprised that "The Demon Lover" is included in this book. What's great about this story is that it works on different levels; if, however, you only give it a supernatural meaning, you miss something even darker underneath. Mrs. Drover's "first scream" has haunted me for years. This is not just a good story -- it is a great story.
Now to the one story I hadn't read, Rhoda Broughton's "The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth." This one is her first ghost story, written in 1868 as a series of letters between two women friends, Elizabeth and Cecilia. Elizabeth has found a London house for Cecilia and her family in Mayfair after an exhausting search, with the price an absolute steal. It's not until a few weeks later that Cecilia learns something about the house and informs her husband, but as a typical male knowing better than his wife, he "pooh-poohed the whole story," and "derided" her "babyish fears." Little does he know. I have to say that I loved the male humbling in this story, in which the actual terror comes only at the very end, while in the meantime, Broughton does a fine job of escalating the tension.
The other stories in this book are as follows:
As part of Into the London Fog, the editor has chosen to add in five pieces from various authors who have both experienced and written about the foggy city, another factor making this volume a bit different from the norm of this series. At first, I was sort of like "what the ... ?" because "eerie" must be in the eye in the beholder and I didn't particularly find any of the four to be so; they were nonfiction, which completely threw me, and finally here I am, having made my way through four ghostly tales and then I run into Thomas Burke's "War" extracted from London In My Time, followed by thirty pages of Virginia Woolf and Claude McKay, completely distrupting the reading flow until returning to the supernatural with Machen's "N" and the psychologically creepy "The Lodger. " Then it's back to Sam Selvon and more nonfiction before three more other-worldly tales, and by the time I'd reached the article written about "Spring-Heeled Jack," my reading rhythm was just completely off.
Don't get me wrong: these little glimpses that offer "further constructions of the city and how it was experienced, showing the potential for strangeness in the most mundane urban encounters"
were fine in their own right, informative, and very well written -- my complaint is that having them tossed into the midst of the fictional stories threw me off balance readingwise. Perhaps a better way to introduce them would have been to have them all grouped together at the end of the fictional tales; I know I would have enjoyed the book a lot more had that been the case.
Tuesday, October 6, 2020
And My Head Exploded: Tales of Desire, Delirium and Decadence from Fin-de-Siecle Prague (ed.) Michael Tate
I've always felt that the opening story in any anthology or collection should not only whet the appetite for what will follow, but also offer the reader an idea of what to expect thematically. The first story, Julius Zeyer's "Inultus: A Prague Legend" (1892) meets both of those criteria. This story is a blending of art, aestheticism, myth, death and a femme fatale sort of figure, along with an added religious/nationalistic dimension that enhances this tale of "bloodthirsty madness." It begins with a chance meeting between a poor poet and a sculptress who is trying to create a sculpture of Christ; eventually and reluctantly he agrees to serve as her model. His face, though "beautiful and melancholy" isn't quite enough for her as she desires something more. Zeyer also has another story in this book, "El Cristo de la Luz: A Toledo Legend" the story of a zealous, would-be murderer who has a rather unexpected mystical union with Christ. After reading these two, which are part of a tryptich called Tři legendy o krucifixu (1895), I decided I would really like to read more of Zeyer but there seems to be little of his work published in English, and a book I would like to have about him, Julius Zeyer: The Path To Decadence by Robert Pynsent, is long out of print with used copies selling in the three figures. Yikes.
Following Zeyer are two stories by Bozena Benešová, another writer who is woefully untranslated as well as the sole woman writer represented here. The "Biographical Notes" section describes her prose as
"anti-sentimental and psychological, dealing with women's issues, typically from the point of view of a marginalized female protagonist"
all of which are reflected in her "Tale for All Souls' Day" (1902) and "In the Twilight" (1900). The first takes place over five days in October and is related through the point of view of a woman in mourning. She has four months left to go until the end of her "imprisonment" so that she can go "out into the world, for the sun, for life, for love." After all, social convention requires that the "year of mourning must run up to its last minutes." It is from this story that the book's title is derived, as she recounts the crumbling of her brain, her steps toward regrowing , and the moment when, as she says, "straight away my head exploded." More overtly critical in nature, her second story finds a woman "wholly overcome with pain and sorrow ... so long suppressed" finding herself letting it all "burst out in full force."
Judith in the Tent of Holofernes, by Johann Liss. From The National Gallery
My hands-down favorite in this volume is "Cortigiana" by Miloš Marten. Here, as in Zeyer's work, art and death come together in the story of Isotta, a beautiful scholar of Plotinus from childhood and now a courtesan in plague-ridden Florence. She has discovered a way of "taking her revenge from life for its fradulence," and after one such moment, decides to "pursue the caustic fire that was penetrating her," taking her cue from the story of Sardanapalus in one final, fatal act of revelry. I couldn't help but think of Poe as reading this one, but there's more than a touch of the vampiric as well.
The Death of Sardanapalus from Wikipedia
Thursday, October 1, 2020
There is a Graveyard That Dwells in Man (ed.) David Tibet
Strange Attractor Press, 2020
This book is described at Strange Attractor's website as offering an "unnerving, serpentine tributary to the canon of supernatural literature," and I can attest that "unnerving" in some cases is a mild descriptor. Of those stories I hadn't read until now, L.A Lewis' "Last Keep," Thomas Ligotti's "The Small People," and Nugent Barker's "One, Two, Buckle My Shoe" so creeped me out that a) I woke up in a sweat one night after dreaming about Ligotti's story, b) I had to put the book down for some time after sitting and thinking about "Last Keep" which is absolutely evil, and c) at midday I had scared myself absolutely silly after finishing the Barker story. All three of these tales were not only unnerving but downright chilling once I pondered the ramifications, but they also satiated my hunger for the off-kilter, uneasy feeling that I crave as I read. They all go way beyond the boundary of simply a good scare to becoming so unforgettable to the point of swirling around in the brain long after finishing them.
from Tim Hill, Pixabay
Also falling into the strange zone are "Paymon's Trio" by Colette de Curzon and "Liszt's Concerto Pathétique" by Edna W. Underwood, both of which share a musical theme, but couldn't be more different. The first is somewhat subdued initially before it becomes a dark tale involving the call of the forbidden, while the second explores the question of
"what vague but mentally potent beings dwell on the border line separating the real from the unreal, floating up perhaps from unthinkable depths of time and space, there to await the propitious moment for tapping some nerve of consciousness in us and establishing telegraphic communication with the soul?"
Underwood's tale is short, frightening and so beautifully written. In "Padolo," set on a small, uninhabited island near Venice, author LP Hartley may economize on words, but even though left somewhat unspoken, not on terror. "Brickett Bottom" by Amyas Northcote and "A Black Solitude" by H.R. Wakefield move into more ghostly territory, while Wakefield's "Present at the End" finds a man ridding himself of the demons that plague him. There's also a dark poem by John Gower, "Slep Hath His Haus," which I had great fun reading out loud (it's in Old English), and a story by Richard Middleton, "The Bird in the Garden," in which a veil hangs about a child "which served to make all things dim and unreal," with the true horror coming when that veil is lifted. Oh. Gutwrenching.
In my reading, there were two different times I found quotations that I thought so nicely expressed what I saw in all of these stories. First from A.C. Benson's "The Slype House" comes the idea that
"Oh, it is as appears; he hath been where he ought not, and he hath seen somewhat he doth not like"
followed later by the words of Arthur Machen in "The Inmost Light" in which says
"...when men say that there are strange things in the world, they little know the awe and the terror that dwell always with them and about them."
I was so sorry to see this book end -- the choices of stories that David Tibet made to fill this volume are outstanding. Do not miss his opening piece "A Rainbow Rag to an Astral Bull," where he explains his idea of "the Graveyard," and be sure to read author Mark Valentine's "Biographical Notes" that close this volume.
So very, very highly recommended, for lovers of the supernatural, the weird, and the forgotten.