Saturday, October 23, 2021

The Night of Turns, by Edita Bikker*


Broodcomb Press, 2021
184 pp


 Another stunning and truly sublime book from Broodcomb, The Night of Turns is unlike anything I've read before.  It's very likely that I'll never read anything like it again, so I feel extremely fortunate to have a copy.  As it stands, Upmorchard (which I read earlier), has sold out completely, so yes indeed I feel lucky that I bought my books when I did.  

The blurb states that 
"The Night of Turns" is a narrative of folk horror, a record of the author's experiences in a land where theatre is used as a weapon, and lives are forfeit in a sinister game of spiritual roulette. "  

And, as the usual Broodcomb warning states, 

"It might not be for you."

Oh, but it most certainly was for me, from page one on as Edita, who narrates this story, crosses "the border" from the settlements into another place altogether via a tunnel.  She encounters a man who asks her the name of her caravan, and discovering she is alone, tells her that she needs "to belong somewhere."  As she makes her way through a number of wagons on the path, she decides to go with the Caravan of Burnt Women, where "no one's turned away." She is welcomed by these travellers, from whom she learns that the number of hours they walk each day is determined by "the game."  It seems that "everyone engages with the game," with the travellers each taking their turn at different intervals, the game never stopping.    The caravans never stop either, traveling a defined circuit with designated resting points along the way.   While each of the caravans is different from the other, they all fall under the aegis of a strange entity called The Beekeeper.

just one of many game boards from the novel

When the caravan comes to the end of its determined hourly travels, if there happens to be another Caravan at the same stopping place, then a "Night of Turns" is called for, in which members of each of the two regales the other with bizarre entertainments.  These are far from relaxing hours of funtime or escape; they are, in fact, deadly serious, nightmarish with purpose.  

As Edita becomes more entrenched with the Caravan of Burnt Women,  she observes, questions and falls into daily life  with other members of this group, but it becomes  clear after a while that her travels with the caravan have ultimately become parts of her own inner journey.   

The above is just an uber-brief synopsis, because a) I could never do full justice to this novel and b) if I say much more it will detract from potential readers' enjoyment of  this book and that would be a crime. It is also difficult to pigeonhole this book --  "folk horror" just isn't enough of a label to categorize it.   In The Night of Turns, the author has created an intense and completely-actualized world that incorporates among other things mythology, esoteric knowledge, magic and the fantastic; at the same time, he keeps the reader drawn into and completely engaged with the story with his strong, realistic  characterization.  There are several places where the author introduces somewhat puzzling utterances and  events that seem to come out of nowhere, only to be taken up later on where the context is more fully understood, creating a richness of depth to the narrative  as it continues to expand.  There is also an ongoing sense of foreboding and downright nightmare as you make your way through this novel, with a sense of unseen horrors and the uncanny always nearby,  leading to much page turning and a tension that takes root in the mind and body and won't let go until the end.  

This is my third foray into the phenomenon that is Broodcomb Press, and jeezus H., if these three books are representative of the future output of this publisher, I'll be one of their best customers as long as they keep producing.    I most strongly recommend this novel -- as I said, it is like nothing that's come before.  And that's a very good thing. 

*and Jamie Walsh

Monday, October 11, 2021

Weird Woods: Tales From the Haunted Forests of Britain (ed.) John Miller


British Library, 2020
238 pp


I've gushed many a time over the books in the British Library Tales of the Weird series over the last few years so I won't do that here -- suffice it to say that I've never been disappointed with any of these books and my current read,  Weird Woods: Tales from the Haunted Forests of Britain, is no exception.  The editor, John Miller, is also responsible for one of my favorites in the series, Tales of the Tattooed.  This time, however, he turns to 
"tales of whispering voices and maddening sights from deep in the Yorkshire Dales to the ancient hills of Gwent and the eerie quiet of the forests of Dartmoor." 

No teddy bears' picnics here; instead there are twelve tales which celebrate "the enduring power of our natural spaces to enthral and terrorise our senses."  

The names listed in the table of contents are familiar to any aficionado of strange or ghostly  tales from yesteryear, here ranging from the 1880s through the 1930s.  Aside from Arthur Machen's "N" which I will gladly read any time, two stories top my list of favorites: E.F. Benson's "The Man Who Went Too Far" and Algernon Blackwood's beyond excellent "Ancient Lights."  The first is set in the New Forest of Hampshire, where one "gets the sense that many presences and companions are near at hand."  The people of the village of St. Faith's know well enough not to "willingly venture" there after dark since
"it seems that a man is not sure in what company he may suddenly find himself..."
 Indeed, it may be the ghost of a young artist, recently deceased, haunting a "certain house, the last of the village, where he lived."  But this is not a haunted house story by any stretch; it seems that the artist, a certain Darcy, has been engaged in "the deliberate and unswerving pursuit of joy,"  but what starts out as an ode to the blissful wonders of the natural world soon takes a darker turn.    Spending years communing with nature, it is his belief that will ultimately become one with it -- and then he hears the "sound of life," aka the pipes of Pan.   At first fearful, he eventually comes around; now, as he tells his friend, there's one more step -- a  "final revelation."   Lots of covert subtext in this story, and it's truly one of the best in the book.  There is also much to discover in Blackwood's "Ancient Lights," which highlights one of the main themes in much of his work -- the insignificance of humans among the towering presence of nature.   A surveyor's clerk looks forward to a "day of high adventure" as he enters a "copse of oak and hornbeam" near Southwater, Sussex, and gets that and more as well.   The owner of that wood has decided to cut this area down for a "better view from the dining-room window," and the clerk is there ahead of the project.   The trees, though,  have other ideas.  

from A Bit About Britain

I came across three stories new to me. First, "An Old Thorn," by WH Hudson, set in the South Wiltshire Downs focuses on a tree described by the editor as "the Satanic double" of the famous Glastonbury thorn.  This particular tree has a very long memory, forgetting absolutely nothing, no matter how much time has passed.   Next is the atmospheric, very nicely told "The White Lady," by Elliott O'Donnell, represented as a true story by the narrator, who as a boy decides to hide in a tree one night to see the infamous White Lady of Rownam Avenue.  He gets much more than he bargains for.  Last but by no means the least of these, in Mary Webb's "The Name-Tree," it is said of the name tree that if it dies,"you die. If you sicken, the tree withers. If you desert it, a curse falls."  After seeing the "real, vital savage passion" young Laura has for her much-beloved cherry orchard, the site of her name tree, the new owner of Bitterne Hall laments that it's all wasted on nature.  It seems that he too has developed quite a passion, not for nature but for Laura.  He offers her a deal as a way to keep the house, the orchard and her name tree, but there will be a cost.  So very good, but oh, so harrowing at the same time. As the editor reveals, this is a story in which "patriarchal authority" is "painfully amplified among trees."  

The remainder of these stories in this volume  I've read before -- Edith Nesbit's "Man-Size in Marble," "The Striding Place," by Gertrude Atherton, "He Made a Woman --," by Marjorie Bowen, "The Tree," by Walter de la Mare, and "A Neighbour's Landmark," by M.R. James -- but no matter, since all are well worth reading again.   

As Miller notes in his introduction,
"Haunted woods are places where narrative and environment are merged, where the imagination and landscape are rooted together,"

and this theme as well as others runs through each and every story in this book.  In some cases the idea of "woods" might seem a bit stretched, but it didn't matter to me.   Just reading these tales brought back many moments I've spent in forests both day and night, remembering all of the creaks and groans of the trees, the crackle of movement by woodland creatures, and the sense of being in an unworldly place where the sky is hard to see through the canopy.  Recommended mainly to those readers who, like me, love these older creepy stories from the past, and to those readers who are fans of the British Library Tales of the Weird series in general.     Don't miss the introduction (but do save it until the end), and be sure to check out the cover art as well.

I'm now psyched for a cool day and a hike through the woods -- and for whatever I may encounter there.  

Monday, October 4, 2021

The Villa and the Vortex: Supernatural Stories, 1916-1924 by Elinor Mordaunt (ed.) Melissa Edmundson


Handheld Press, 2021
306 pp


Melissa Edmundson is the editor of two volumes of weird stories of yesteryear written by women, Women's Weird: Strange Stories by Women, 1890-1940 and Women's Weird 2: More Strange Stories by Women, 1891-1937.  I have both of those books (and I'll be reading at least the first volume this month),  so when I first heard about this one, I made a quick hit on the preorder button.  I was not at all disappointed; in fact, reading The Villa and The Vortex gave me hours of pleasure.  

From the editor's introduction:

"Elinor Mordaunt is responsible for an eclectic and wide-ranging output of supernatural fiction that rivals the best writing by her contemporaries.  Yet in the decades following her death in 1942, Mordaunt was neglected and largely forgotten as an author, her work omitted from the subsequent anthologies that helped to ensure the reputations of fellow writers."  She continues, saying that "This major voice within the supernatural genre has been neglected for far too long, and it is time that her work returned to a wider audience."  As the editor also notes, "Mordaunt's short stories showcase a variety of otherworldly, supernatural entities as she drew inspiration from folklore, myth, legend, and history."   Most definitely my kind of book and my kind of writer. 

While  I won't be going through every story here, I will shine a light on my favorites, beginning with  "The Weakening Point"  from 1916, which opens this collection.    While birthdays are normally occasions for celebrations, it seems that for Bond Challice, they are met with a most particularly horrific and recurring nightmare. The situation has been ongoing since his first birthday, and every year since then, the approach of the day causes him abject fear, which in turn leads to outright paralysis.  It's more than crippling: his terror  prevents him from living life to its fullest and leads to changes to his personality.  His parents are in complete despair, having watched him suffer; as his father says at one point, "A Challice -- the last of all the Challices -- to go to hell for a dream!"  Tension builds slowly in this one, and by the time Bond decides it's time to face his fear, well, I don't mind saying that I was on the edge of my chair.  Jeez, I wish I could say more about this one, but all I will reveal is that the ending tipped this story into the weird zone for sure.    My vote for most frightening story in this volume is "Luz," from 1922, which is set in London and begins with a young woman with a strange dislike and fear of a particular blind man who passes by her flat at a regular time each night.  Normally, she says, she has always felt "acute sympathy" for "all who are maimed and defrauded; above all for the blind," but there's something in the "tap-tap of his stick" that sets her on edge and makes her run for home to ensure that she's inside before he walks by her flat each evening.   She's never seen the man, but she is curious about where he goes each time, for some reason convinced that he  
" reached the scene of his day's labours -- pleasure, solicitation, whatever it might be -- by some altogether uncanny means; that his every action, his whole life, indeed, was nefarious."

 One February night she finds herself coming home from a tea party, "enveloped by a thick yellow fog," and becomes turned around, completely lost, when a stranger she can't see offers help; it's then that she hears the familiar "tap-tap" next to her.   Let me just say that I thought I knew what was going to happen here, but as it turns out, I was not only wrong but I would never have guessed it in a million years.  The bizarre, disorienting travels through foggy London streets add even more of a chill to this story, which would be a superb addition to any collection of weird tales.   

from photosample, by Kalin Kalpachev (if you go there, buy him a coffee)

Two haunted house stories made my favorites list as well:  "Four Wallpapers," from 1924, is set in Tenerife, where a couple who had bought a house sight unseen are discouraged by the lack of progress the local workers have made by the time they arrive,  even though they'd been sending regular payments for the work.  Mrs. Erskine decides that she'll have to buckle down and get things done herself; for Mr. Erskine it's all too much so he spends most of his time in the local hotel.  He particularly hates the wallpaper, but his wife promises him it will all be gone shortly.  But even as she's starting to strip it away, she becomes utterly fascinated as the house begins to spill its secrets, layer by layer.    "The Fountain" (1922) features a house that becomes haunted over the course of the story, but what elevates this one is the author's incorporation of ancient nature beliefs into the story.  "The Villa," the final story,  is also not your typical haunted house -- here, as Edmundson notes in her introduction, Mordaunt describes this villa in Croatia as a "sentient being: hating, revenging, waiting."  The original owner of a beautiful house in Croatia falls victim to a death wish, so that another owner might take possession of it.  The house, however, isn't happy about the change in ownership and takes its revenge over the next few generations. 

Although I've only offered a very brief sketch, all of the stories in this volume run psychologically deep and often hit at the very souls of her characters.    The ones I didn't mention in this volume are also quite good, and I'm not at all surprised that Mordaunt's stories, as the editor notes, were "favourably compared" to those written by Algernon Blackwood and HG Wells.  What is surprising is that Mordaunt is so underappreciated with her work rarely appearing in anthologies, because her stories lend themselves so  nicely to any number of different facets of the supernatural and the weird.  Save the excellent introduction for last but do not pass it by -- I'm always amazed at the depth and breadth of Edmundson's research and knowledge.  From haunted houses to haunted people, Mordaunt's work is very well done, highly intelligent, and I'll go so far as to say a definitely must-read for readers of older supernatural tales, especially those written by women whose work has long been "very much underacknowledged."  Highly recommended.  

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Upmorchard, by R. Ostermeier


Broodcomb Press, 2021
83 pp


"...and the devil will appear."

There was absolutely no question about reading this book once I'd finished A Trick of the Shadow -- at this point now I'd read anything written by R. Ostermeier because that first book was so damn good. Upmorchard, while much shorter, has much more of an intense nightmarish quality to it that continued to haunt me long after it was all over.   

As this story opens, Watts Barlik, who goes by Barley, is taking some time off before moving on to his first research post, doing a walking tour of the coast of the Peninsula.  He's not one for a set itinerary; as we learn about Barley, 
"Folk ritual, crow roads and the quiet little places where there is more to be heard than the sea were always going to lead him astray."

After a week he's stopped at a B&B next to train station, and the old steam engine currently sitting on the tracks catches his attention.  With the intention of taking "an evening ride up the coast" he boards the train, which the only other passenger tells him is heading for Linnett. He also learns about a dig on a "spit island" called Gloy Ness, from which a number of artifacts ("the Gloy stones") were removed because of the island's geographical impermanence.  Barley finds a room in Linnett, and then decides to travel the roughly three miles to Upmorchard, "a tiny fishing cove with a natural harbour" where the stones are now housed.  It isn't long until he is invited to view the stones and he meets two academic researchers who are focused on trying to decipher the strange symbols on these "gargantuan stones." As Barley looks at the stones, he is positive that together they made up "an enormous text," which Arthur, one of the researchers, has already figured out.  He also claims to have translated some of the text, and Barley is curious as to how, since neither Arthur nor his colleague Delia have neither a key nor any kind of  Rosetta stone as a guide.  His curiousity and his need to know get the better of him, until he too falls under the stones' spell.   To say more would be absolutely criminal, but I will say that what Barley encounters while trying to solve this textual mystery is well beyond disturbing, moving into the zone of abject horror.

Upmorchard, as the dustjacket blurb notes, "returns to the peninsula's history," with Watts Barlik's story, but it also captures an even more sinister and horrific history that goes back to antiquity.  It may be short in length but do not let that fool you.  It is a gifted, talented writer who can do so much in such a short space and Ostermeier is a master.    Not only is this story atmospheric from the beginning, the sense of place is so well established that it's as if you're right there along with these people, smelling the sea breeze on a dark night.    Suspense and tension grow slowly before the story turns so dark that I had to put this book down more than once to regroup mentally before picking it up again.  Like much of my favorite weird fiction, there are no ready-made answers here; like much of my favorite weird fiction, the story played out over and over again in my head long after the last page was turned.  

While Upmorchard is definitely not meant for the faint of heart or for those readers who must have everything spelled out, it is a book I can more than recommend to other lovers of the strange.  Sadly, I don't see any more of R. Ostermeier's work listed at Broodcomb, but hopefully this author will return with more at some point.  

Friday, October 1, 2021

A Trick of the Shadow, by R. Ostermeier

Broodcomb Press, 2020
193 pp

paperback (#163/200)

Thanks to some of my like-minded goodreads friends, I discovered Broodcomb Press last month, and after seeing the rave ratings for R. Ostermeier's A Trick of the Shadow,  I picked up a copy.  As soon as I'd finished that one, I went back and picked up three more books and just this morning added a fourth.  I'm not generally a bulk buyer like that, but after reading this book and the author's Upmorchard, I knew I had to have more.  All of the stories in A Trick of the Shadow take place at a location known only as "The Peninsula," which in the first tale, "The Tantony Pig," is described as "a place that put the notion of ordinariness in doubt."  As I read through the rest of the tales in this volume, that particular description became somewhat of an understatement, as what goes on in this place often defies any attempt at rational explanation.  As the dustjacket blurb notes, this collection of stories 
"draws predominantly on the region's folklore and history, yet also includes first-hand accounts of contemporary disquiet."

In short, it's my kind of book.  

 " A Tantony Pig" dives right into weirdsville with a story that Ostermeier notes was inspired by Machen's short story "The Ritual,"  which the author says was "filtered through watching the version in Julian Butler and Mark Goodall's Holy Terrors."  [As an aside,  I immediately looked for and found a copy of Holy Terrors on ebay and am eagerly awaiting its arrival in just four days if all goes well.]  The narrator of this story had been to the Peninsula earlier while "researching the links between psychogeography and conversion disorders in closed communities;" he's back now after his supervisor, a certain Professor Barlik became concerned for his student's mental health.  [As another aside, Barlik ("Barley")  will feature prominently in Ostermeier's next book, Upmorchard, but more on that in my next post.]  Barlik tells him of a "coven of boys" in the small coastal village of Annesdock who at "certain times of the year" play a game at dusk "for occult reasons" and then "disperse," vanishing "into the mist" if anyone comes near.  As the narrator will later say, this village "spooked" him, having experienced "an event ordinary and known" which turned sinister when the shadows lengthened."  Debt to Machen acknowledged, "A Tantony Pig" is the perfect appetite whetter for the rest of the stories in this collection.  It also spooked me to no end.  In "Finery" a "seller-of-woven things"  who is also a fortune-teller and a clothes maker has a following of women who buy her dresses.  Instead of choosing a dress, "the dress found you."  How this is so I will not say.  " Object" is another excursion into creepytown as a young man is given an opportunity to review "amateur or touring theatre" for the local newspaper.  One particular play, A Circus Mirror,"  performed by an out-of-town troupe at the local theatre, stays on his mind well after the performance, and comes back to haunt him after he receives a strange gift as a thank you.   "The Bearing" has much more of a folk-horror feel, centering on a ritual to celebrate the founding of the village of Tinton.  There are two stories about that: the first, the official version in which the owners of the tin mines in the area brought in the money to build the cottages to house the workers that came looking for work, and second, the local folklore which tells of the first cottages having been built after "seven coffins were dragged during the night over the moor by seven mysterious black goats." At dawn the goats laid down between the "two sunken tors," six dying and the seventh killed for its meat.   At present the ritual is carried out by selected townspeople rather than goats.  And that's all I will say about this story, except that this one chilled me to the bone.  

from Pinterest

I've skipped around here as far as the actual table of contents goes, because there are three particular eerie stories that are linked to one particular location near Cubton, the Mosk House, so named because of the scientist who had once lived there, a Doctor Ernst Moskovitch, whose "work with minds and the reputedly brutal operations he used to perform: operations denounced as occult." Each occurs during a different time period; the first of these is "The Chair." When a family (Paul, Mari and eleven year-old daughter Ingrit) buys this house that had "once belonged to a scientist," Paul discovers that a chair, "a creature of metal, leather, with brass lengths like gilt bones strengthening the arms," he had seen when they'd first viewed the house is still there.  He is fascinated by the chair, which as he discovers serves as the mechanism for opening a secret room, small enough that only a child might access it, furnished only with a bed, with walls filled with strange writings.  Trying to figure out what the room was used for becomes sort of an obsession with Paul, and Ingrit is more than happy to help him.  In "The Intruder" Wolfgang Eck wants to do something about all of the extra fat he's put on, and opts for the "less dangerous version" of bariatric surgery, the gastric band. Before he can do so, however, he must attend a series of ten counseling sessions which explored other options such as nutrition and "healthy eating."   At some point he overhears a conversation about "the organic method," but is told that it's still in "trial phase so access is limited." Eventually he is accepted for the surgery, but given what happens afterward, he probably should have opted for the healthy eating.   The last story set in Mosk House is the novella-length "Bird-hags," which the author warns "might not be for you."  Looking back in time, as a child Owain Ockmarsh suffered through terrible night terrors, and was fortunate enough to obtain a temporary place at Mosk House where he was under the care of Doctor Moskovitch himself.  If he was found "suitable," Owain would have an operation that would permanently cure him of his sleep disorder; first though, his sleep would be monitored and recorded; hypnosis would allow his dreams to "breathe."  And again, not another word on this one except that while it was truly beyond disturbing, it was most definitely for me. 

Considering I had absolutely no idea that either this book or this publisher even existed, I feel incredibly lucky to have discovered both.  A Trick of the Shadow is for me the new standard of "weird," meaning that with this book the bar has certainly been raised in terms of any modern weird fiction I will read in the future.   I would read a story and then just sit and think about it for a very long time; I had to switch from reading this in late-night quiet to brightest day because all of the thinking was keeping me awake.  It just wouldn't let go.   The influences of other writers can certainly be felt in this volume,  but this is truly an original collection that once read, will never be forgotten.  An amazing effort, and a book I more than highly recommend.   I loved it. 

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Cornish Horrors: Tales from the Land's End (ed.) Joan Passey


British Library, 2021
365 pp


"Why not tell them of the Cornish horror ..."

Cornwall, editor Joan Passey reminds her readers in her introduction to this volume, is "not a fantasy land," but rather "real, and close, alternately viewed as the end of the land and its beginning," and her hope is that in reading this anthology, "thinking of Cornwall's rich lore, stories, and creative legacy" will  "serve to illuminate its realities than obscure them."  The history of Cornwall looms large throughout this book,  spectral and real, so that one cannot help but to encounter the past even in the present, as so many Victorian tourists evidently discovered.   As the back-cover blurb notes, the stories in this volume explore "the rich folklore and traditions of the regions in a journey through local mythology, mines, shipwrecks, the emergence of the railway and the rise of tourism."  The editor also takes a moment to introduce each story, explaining how these factors play out in the context of what the reader is about to encounter.  It is a unique way to look at what otherwise might be to some just some entertaining Gothic or ghostly tales, revealing that there is more to the story than what lies on the surface.  

My previous encounters with the stories in this book are limited to four out of the fifteen:  "Ligeia," by Edgar Allan Poe, "The Roll-Call of the Reef," by Arthur Quiller-Couch, "The Screaming Skull," by F. Marion Crawford (and by the way, don't bother to watch the 1958 film supposedly based on this story -- Crawford's version is great, but the movie absolutely stinks), and "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot," by Arthur Conan Doyle.  Moving on to those unread,   "My Father's Secret" written anonymously and published in All the Year Round in 1861, represents a "cultural exchange" between Brittany and Cornwall in the form of the story of the bisclavet, "the tale of the knight who, owing to some fearful but unexplained fatality, was compelled at certain times to assume the shape and nature of a wolf."  No knights here, but this story seems to have its roots in the idea of Cornwall as a "land of barbarous people and uncivilized behavior," as the author notes in the introduction, as well as its perceived isolation.  It's also beyond suspenseful.  Next up is "Cruel Coppinger," by Robert Stephen Hawker from 1866;   Hawker also wrote  "The Botathen Ghost," a popular and atmospheric ghost story set in the Cornish moors.  The action here focuses on a particular "legend of renown," Cruel Coppinger, who arrived during "a terrific hurricane," surviving an ensuing shipwreck after which he  took up a life as captain of "an organised band of desperadoes, smugglers, wreckers, and poachers."  Larger than life he is, indeed.  Of the next story, Mary E. Braddon's "Colonel Benyon's Entanglement", the author notes that it is "less on the villainous side" than another one of Braddon's stories set in Cornwall;  I found it to be the most tame of all the stories in this volume.  Here past and present collide in a not so pleasant way, as the Colonel finds himself staying in the home of an absent old friend whose wife has behaved so very badly.  The "false wife" is also gone, but the Colonel can't help feeling that she'd left an "evil influence upon the scene of her iniquity."  "The Phantom Hare" penned by an author known only as M.H. (1873) thankfully is not tame at all, offering the story of a white hare which bodes "no good when seen."  Any man who finds one passing over his feet should absolutely beware.  "Christmas Eve at a Cornish Manor House" by Clara Venn (1878) is a ghostly story within a story as "heard from an eye-witness," or perhaps rather an "ear-witness. "  

from Kernow Coasteering

When thinking of Cornwall, one of the most popular images that comes to mind is that of the caves hidden along the coastline, often used for smuggling.  This feature plays a role in Mary L. Penn's  "In the Mist" (1881), as a lovers' quarrel at the top of a cliff takes a terrible turn.  "The Baronet's Craze," by Mrs. H.L. Cox (1889) centers on a young man who rushes to Cornwall to find the woman he loves, only to come upon a scene that shakes him to his core.  The port of Pencastle is the scene of Bram Stoker's "The Coming of Abel Behenna" (1893) in which two friends fall in love with the same woman.  The rivalry intensifies until (it seems) the only way of settling the issue is a coin toss. There is a twist: whoever wins also gets the money of both men and use it for trade, thus returning richer after the period of one year.  It sounds like a good idea, but oh, so much can go so very wrong in this scenario. And it does.  

the Cornish Coast, from The Book Trail

My favorite story, which also wins my award for most disturbing, is Elliott O'Donnell's "The Haunted Spinney" from 1903.   It is one of those stories where I read it once, did a WTF? double take and immediately read it again.   On a country road  in the Cornish moors, a man takes a walk in the rain and encounters a "woman in a dark cloak" and decides to follow her.  In so doing, he comes across a "poor, common man" who he writes off as just a "stupid, sturdy son of toil" who believed in "Cornish bogies," but there's more to come, including a murder.  Anyone deciding to read Cornish Horrors should leave off reading the editor's introduction to this story until after finishing this eerie tale so as to be completely taken by surprise.  The next story, "A Ghostly Visitation," by E.M. Bray (1907) finds a woman traveling alone stopping at a private hotel.  Of the two rooms available, one is "a miserable little room" and one is "very spacious and better furnished," and it's the latter the landlady wants her to take.  That night we discover why the landlady is so antsy about the woman's choice of the smaller.  Passey notes that this is a story that "builds upon an existing tradition of Gothic tourist fiction set in Cornwall;" it seems that travellers even then enjoyed "seeking out frightening places."   The last of the previously unread is by F. Tennyson Jesse, whose A Pin to See the Peepshow helped to inspire Sarah Waters' novel The Paying Guests.  On offer here is Jesse's "The Mask" from 1912, also quite disturbing and once read, unforgettable.  The woman at the center of things is Vashti Glasson, who is unhappily married but finds solace in another man who has become completely "enslaved" by her.  At the last of their secret meetings things go horribly wrong and all hell breaks loose, but this is not the end of the story, by far.  

For people who think of Cornwall in literature and immediately conjure up Daphne du Maurier, this book reveals that long before she made her way into the literary scene, the Victorians were already capturing readers' attention with their tales of the land's end.  The majority of the stories included in Cornish Horrors stem from that era, and it seems that Victorian Cornwall was indeed fruitful ground for the Gothic imagination for several reasons that the editor covers in her overall introduction to this collection.   Very nicely done; it is a fantastic book, and I have to say that while I've never considered Cornwall as a "fantasy land," it has for some time now been in my reading mind a place rich in history, folklore and adventure, and my shelves are filled with novels and story collections with Cornwall as their home base.  

Very highly recommended, especially to others who have been enjoying the entire series over the last few years. 

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

A Maze for the Minotaur and Other Strange Stories, by Reggie Oliver


Tartarus Press, 2021
340 pp

hardcover (#47)

Tartarus continues to delight with this newest volume, A Maze For the Minotaur and Other Strange Stories, by Reggie Oliver.    The first time I encountered this most prolific writer was some time back with his The Dracula Papers, Book I: The Scholar's Tale  (Chomu Press, 2011), after which I  began collecting his books as well as several anthologies containing this author's short stories.  He is yet another writer whose tales tip my world ever so slightly askew while reading. That's a good thing.  The publication by Tartarus of this the eighth volume of stories by this author is a milestone: it "marks the fact that they have published over one hundred of his tales."  Here's to one hundred more.  

The title story, "A Maze for the Minotaur," is probably one of the strangest in the book and an absolute stunner.  Before moving to a Victorian brothel where a client nicknamed "the Minotaur" by the women there gets his strange jollies, we learn from a newpaper article of December 15, 1897 about the strange disappearance of a certain Mr. Frederick Cooper, a "local philanthropist" and "man of some eccentric habits." Last seen by his groom as he got out of his carriage, walked to his front door and went inside, Mr. Cooper was never to be seen again.  Exactly what happened to Cooper may remain a mystery to the outside world, but the truth is known by a certain young woman by the name of Mabel who "had learned to disguise her passions well," but once these became aroused, "would doggedly pursue them until they were satisfied."   Nothing I can say here will prepare anyone for what happens in Mrs. Belling's drawing room at Number 2 Boscobel Place, nor would I wish to ruin anything by giving away the show.    "A Maze for the Minotaur" first made its debut in Soot and Steel: Dark Tales of London, edited by Ian Whates (Newcon Press, 2019), another sadly still-unread book on my shelves.    

The two stories unique to this book are "The Wet Woman," and "Via Mortis," both of which touch on the entertainment world in very different ways.   Anyone who's read Oliver's stories knows that this is a world very much familiar to the author  and that show business in its many forms is often a key feature of his work.   In the first story, a "fairly successful actor" now "out of condition," has been "more or less ordered" by his agent to spend a month in a detox center in Suffolk.  His wife has left him, he's become too fond of a "particular tipple," and he needs to get himself together before the filming of his next movie.  Luckily for him, he meets two fellow inmates with whom he gets along famously, but the fun really begins when the three come across another acquaintance whom the three decide needs to be "shaken from his pedestal." Opportunity arises in the form of Halloween hijinks, but perhaps the three may have taken things a bit too far.   The action moves to the Edinburgh Fringe in "Via Mortis," beginning with a chance meeting of two former colleagues, one of whom went on to become a well-known director, and the other finding less success as an actor.  Talk eventually turns to "recollections of past times," when the two worked together in a small group called the Ruffian Theatre Company and a play called "The Last Man In" which ran for two weeks at an old chapel.  The director remarks that it was "all a complete blur,"  but the shock on his face says otherwise.  I have to admit to a deep fondness for the sort of creepy atmosphere that can only be found in an old church, especially when the lights go out and someone is left behind with no way out.  

"The Wet Woman" (p. 49), illustration by Reggie Oliver. 

The full content of this book can be found at the website of Tartarus Press; among other things, in these stories one can find ghosts in the Dordogne,  dream visions, an avian guide (which may or may not be an old friend),  a crime and a haunted house.   One story that was just lovely and particularly poignant is "Collectable," about an elderly performer of times past who "in life had become a ghost," unable to remember her life while waiting out her days in a "Theatrical Old Folks Home."  This one reminds me that horror comes in many different forms, and then there is "Monkey's" one of the most brilliant stories in this entire volume, which I nominate for most disturbing of them all, set on a small, private island in the Thames.  I actually had to put the book down after reading this one, go outside for fresh air and sunlight before I could start reading again and even then the images this story produced never quite left my head.    Off the beaten path somewhat is "A Cabinet of Curiosities," a collection of five short tales, my favorite of which was "Temporary Disappearance of a School," but all are absolutely delightful, a perfect antidote to the darkness that came before.  That leaves me with the one novella-length story that to me didn't quite fit here, "The Armies of the Night," which admittedly had its moments and also  reminded me of the old Delta Green novels I used to devour in my Lovecraft phase, in which the FBI finds itself involved with the stuff of Lovecraftian nightmares become real before moving into the pulp territory of gangsters, J. Edgar Hoover and other stuff. This one appeared in volume two of an anthology called The Lovecraft Squad , edited by Stephen Jones.  And finally, I didn't mention the illustrations, but they are outstanding, serving as signposts to whatever weirdness the reader is about to encounter.

The dustjacket blurb notes that 
"Oliver's work is notable for its style, wit humour and depth of characterisation, and also for its profound excursions into the disturbingly bizarre and uncanny" 

and I have to tip my hat to this man who's given me so many hours of reading pleasure over the last few years, and to Tartarus as well for bringing forth this eighth volume of Oliver's stories.  It is definitely one not to miss whether you are a regular fan of Oliver's stories, or a reader drawn to the realm of the strange or the weird.  Don't be surprised if you find yourself feeling a bit off kilter after reading this book -- it's part and parcel of the Oliver experience.  

most highly recommended.  

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Bluebeard's First Wife, by Ha Seong-Nan

Open Letter Books, 2020
(originally published 2002)
translated by Janet Hong
229 pp


On the back cover there is a blurb from writer Brian Evenson who notes that Ha Seong-Nan  is "A master of the strange story," and as I discovered while reading this book,  he is not exaggerating.  It's also not an exaggeration to say that Bluebeard's First Wife is one of those rare books that can take me out of the here and now so thoroughly --it is a collection of stories  which often start out offering a picture of normal, every day life before slowly taking that turn that moves the reader to a point where it becomes obvious that not only has something gone very, very wrong, but also by then that it's too late. Each and every story in this collection took me by surprise and left me feeling completely off-kilter and disoriented, and I found myself  having to give my head a shake or two while reading to let go of the feeling of uneasiness each story provided. 

I loved them all but I won't be divulging story contents here, with the exception of  "The Star-Shaped Stain," which as an appetite-whetter opening tale serves as a signpost as to the strangeness found in this book.  It begins as a mother sifts through photos of her child in a pile on the floor trying to find the best one.  Each of the pictures doesn't fully capture her face, and as she notes, she herself is having trouble remembering her daughter's face.  Immediately the reader wonders why, but mom goes on to pick out a photo from last year.  It is framed, put in the mom's bag, and along with several other people, mom and her husband make their way to the site of the camp for a memorial service where their children died in a fire a year earlier.  A stop along the way throws all into chaos, as a shopkeeper reveals that there may have been one survivor, as he'd seen a "wee littlle thing in yellow" walking by "crying all by itself,"  just before the fire broke out;  he'd also noticed that on the shirt was a star-shaped pin.   The true horror here though is yet to come.    One goodreads reviewer  noted that this story was based "around a fictionalised version of a real-life incident ... in 1999 when a fire broke out at a summer camp at the Sealand Youth Training Centre," (you can read about it here)  which made me wonder if perhaps Ha had used any other true events in her work.  I found one in "Flies" (which in my mind is tied for most disturbing and unsettling story in this book along with "On That Green, Green Grass").  I discovered via translator Janet Hong's Twitter  feed of June of last year that with "Flies," Ha wrote this story, "imagining the circumstances leading up to Korea's deadliest mass murder to date."  Toward the beginning of this dark tale one particular image stood out enough that I knew that this was going to be horrific: twelve fish put out to dry hanging on a clothesline and teeming with maggots.    Added to the ranks of most disturbing is  "A Quiet Night," and the eerie, excellent  "Daisy Fleabane" which finishes the book.  

A large part of Bluebeard's Wife is concerned with the constraints on women or the expectations placed on them by family and society; sins, secrets, deception, despair and guilt are found throughout. There is a definite feel of detachment in the telling of these "paranoia-inducing, heart quickening stories," and there is also the sense all along that  something is just not right, making for unsettling reading.  There are no easy conclusions or resolutions to be found, leaving the reader with the feeling that what happens is inevitable, or that things are just how they are, which may just be the most frightening element of all.   Susan Choi's front-cover blurb says that these stories "unfurl with the surreal illogic of dreams," and that is really everything you need to know in a nutshell.  My kind of book, most certainly.  

I loved this book.  Absolutely. 

I ran across an interesting take on Bluebeard's First Wife at Ploughshares , in which Marta Balcewicz examines this book through the lens of the fairy tale, given the book's title.   As she says about these stories, 
"This is a place where at your most vulnerable, you will encounter no fairy godmother, no knight will rush in on a horse."

I couldn't agree more. 

Monday, June 28, 2021

Minor Hauntings: Chilling Tales of Spectral Youth (ed.) Jen Baker


British Library, 2021
317 pp


On to yet another fine volume in the British Library Tales of the Weird Series, and it's somewhat unique in that the stories all center around the spirits or spectral imprints of dead children.  

Jen Baker, the editor who put all of these terrific stories together here in one book,  reveals in her introduction that most of the tales included here 
"ask whether children who do not have a good and peaceful death will definitely go to heaven; what the consequences might be if no glory awaits to compensate the child's suffering"

while also asking "what if the child is angry or even vengeful for their treatment in life and the fate to which they have been consigned?"  These stories, as Baker also explains, 

"revive, appropriate, and often merge domestic folkloric and literary traditions where the spirit of a wronged child would passively wander and bewail its fate with the darker traditions of non-Anglophone cultures, in which such spirits would terrorise and sometimes kill those who wronged them or even passers-by."

In between each story there are brief "snippets" of other literary works in various forms that "illustrate the sense of historical and cultural debt," all of which may send you on a quest to read the original source material once you've finished reading this book.  At least that happened with me -- I am easily sent down that kind of tangential rabbit hole where I'm happy to linger a while. 

I have previously read roughly half of the stories in this book, but even so, revisiting them was not at all a waste of my time.   Two of these are  beyond famous: Elizabeth Gaskell's "The Old Nurse's Story," which I think anyone who is a true ghost-story lover has read more than once as it has been widely anthologized, and M.R. James'  "Lost Hearts," which made its way to the tv screen more than once, first in 1966 and later in 1973 when Robin Chapman adapted it as part of the BBC's "Ghosts at Christmas" series.  I'd read the story long ago, and recently read it again, but I'd only heard about the 1973 adaptation after reading Edward Parnell's excellent Ghostland: In Search of a Haunted Country.   

"Lonely Hearts" 1973; photo from sandra's first rule of filmclub

Others falling into my previously-read category are Charlotte Riddell's "Walnut-Tree House, Amelia B. Edwards' "Was it an Illusion? A Parson's Story,F. Marion Crawford's  "The Doll's Ghost," "The Lost Ghost" by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman and "The Shadowy Third," by Ellen Glasgow.   Of these, I'm most particularly fond of "The Doll's Ghost," which is sad but creepy enough that it easily could have been made into an episode of the old The Twilight Zone series. 

Starting with "The Dead Daughter: A Tale" by Henry Glassford Bell, I struck out into new territory. 
According to Baker,  this story influenced Poe's story "Morella;"  Poe scholar T.O. Mabbott  went a bit further saying that the plot of Morella "comes almost entirely" from Bell's story.  "The Dead Daughter" is one of the most morbid and gloomy tales found in this book, and without going into plot, on one hand the surface story centers around rebirth of the soul, but on the other, and more deeply embedded, there is just something darkly off about the relationship between father and daughter that gave me chills more than the main story.    "The Dead Daughter"  can be found in Bell's collection My Old Portfolio; or Tales and Sketches, available via Gutenberg or Google Books, which I've  just picked up.   Moving on, "Kentucky's Ghost," by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps  is a ghostly adventure that takes place on the high seas, beginning with the discovery of a young stowaway.  This boy is in for a terrible experience; as the narrator notes, he'd 
"as lief see a son of mine in a Carolina slave-gang as to see him lead the life of a stow-away.  What with the officers from feeling that they've been taken in, and the men, who catch their cue from their superiors, and the spite of the lawful boy who hired in the proper way, he don't have what you may call a tender time."

The boy's treatment is so harsh that one of the crew remarks that "Dead or alive," he will be the one to bring to his tormentor a "summons" to hell.  Mark his words.   "The Ghost of Little Jacques" by Ann M. Hoyt is also rooted in a strange household, but here the story unfolds almost like a whodunit, as a child is murdered and makes his way back to the household to point the finger at his killer.   Unfortunately, the narrator to whom he first appears doesn't understand until much later,  jeopardizing her own future.  Again, much more at work here than an average ghost story but I'll leave that for others to discover.  

my photo, from the book's frontispiece, from "Walnut-Tree House," by Charlotte Riddell in Illustrated London News, 28 December 1878. 

At this juncture I'm bypassing  one story to get to the final two, "Anne's Little Ghost" by H.D. Everett and Margery Lawrence's "Curse of the Stillborn."    I have to say that evidently I've already read the first but had completely forgotten it, so I'm counting it as (sort of) new.    Narrated by the husband, a  young married couple rent a "half-house" in the country where he is looking forward to fishing time after recuperating in the hospital.   In a strange twist, the ghost of a little girl, coincidentally the same age their daughter would have been had she lived more than "a brief space of only weeks,"  makes her presence known.  Enough said.   Working as both a bit of  exotica and a piece that takes an anti-colonial stance,  "Curse of the Stillborn" takes place in a small settlement in Egypt, where a young Egyptian girl who had come there with her mother gives birth to a stillborn child.  Mrs. Bond, a "well-meaning" missionary and wife of the chaplain who had been there for three years, will not rest until the child is given a proper Christian burial, but the girls's mother will not allow it.  Another man, an Egyptologist named Frith, warns Mrs. Bond to let the women observe their own rites -- he knows exactly what will happen when a "puny might" is pitted "against a great and ancient Force ... thwarted of its right."  And neither last nor least, my favorite story which is beyond horrific:  "Two Little Red Shoes," by a rather obscure writer, Bessie Kyffin-Taylor.  On my shelves here at home is her single collection of supernatural writing, published by Leonaur under the title of The Collected Supernatural and Weird Fiction of Bessie Kyffin-Taylor: From Out of the Silencewhich I'll definitely be reading before the end of summer.  As a brief aside, Leonaur is a great publisher for readers of older, obscure works; and they also publish more well-known authors of yesteryear as well. The narrator of  "Two Little Red Shoes"  is a woman who loves to visit and dally in "tenantless houses," who one day finds herself in a place she hadn't yet been to.   While there, she decides she must get inside of the house and  the first room she enters utterly  delights her.  The same can't be said of the next room, but in the third room, full of children's toys, she finds a pair of little red shoes that she can't resist picking up to "imagine the wee soft pink feet that they had covered."  Promising herself to return the shoes to the house the next day, she makes her exit.  It is then that she hears "the whimpering cry and the soft-tapping of tiny baby fingers" on a window pane, the first of many experiences she will have at this house before she discovers what everything means.  Not only did her experiences chill me to the bone, but when all is revealed, it turns out that there is a greater horror than what she had been through.  As  Baker notes, this tale is one where  "visible and audible imprints on the landscape"  as well as the "ghostly visions" replay a terrible tragedy. 

Once again I find myself a happy reader; I knew the British Library Tales of the Weird series was going to be great after the first book I read and I have yet to be disappointed; Minor Hauntings continues that streak.Very highly recommended.    

Friday, May 28, 2021

Creatures of Another Age: Classic Visions of Prehistoric Monsters (ed.) Richard Fallon


Valancourt Books, 2021
223 pp


I have to be honest here and say that when I first heard about this book, I was a wee bit iffy as to whether I'd be reading it, since a) my interest in paleontology has generally been limited to the nonfictional side of things and b) I'm not much of a creature-involved story kind of reader.  But because it is from Valancourt and they haven't yet steered me wrong,  I took a chance and it paid off. Even before finishing, I was so impressed that I started looking online everywhere for more of this sort of thing, resulting in a few novels written in the general time frame as the selections here in Creatures of Another Age, noted in the introduction as being
"between the 1830s, when the popularity of geology and paleontology skyrocketed, up to the end of the First World War, when cinema began to offer its own primordial prospects." 
The authors included in this collection, as the editor also states, "took geoscientific research to original and creative places,"  resulting in "necromantic fantasies, time-travel narratives, political poetry, weird ffin-de-siècle short stories, and even pseudo-Elizabethan verse drama."  Not only does this book make for hours of fun reading, but it also opens a window or two into scientific and social concerns of the time, both in the UK and here in the US.   

Not uncommon for me, my favorite stories were those written by authors I knew absolutely nothing about and whose work I didn't even know existed.    Hands down the strangest, most off-the-charts different (and in my mind for those reasons the best) of these is the work of an obscure writer by the name of Wardon Allan Curtis, whose "The Monster of Lake LaMetrie" reveals much about evolutionary anxieties (and so much more) of the time. I am not at all going into any detail here,  and I'm even offering a caveat  to anyone interested in reading this story against reading anything about it at all beforehand.  Set in the state of Wyoming,  it  first appeared in Pearsons Magazine, September 1899, and Fallon reveals in his brief introduction that in this tale the author "melds Wyoming's prehistoric associations" with the hollow-earth theory proposed by John Cleves Symmes in 1818.  What I will divulge is that it has awesome shock value in a weird/sci-fi sort of way, and it gave me a serious case of the willies once I considered the implications.      Another top-notch offering is "The Dragon of St. Paul's, by Reginald Bacchus and Cyril Ranger Gull (1899).  Fleming, the editor of a daily newspaper in London, holds the presses after hearing an incredible story so that journalist Tom Trant can write an article for a "special"  that should boost sales into the hundreds of thousands.  Back at home,  Tom relates a story that to him,  his fiancée and her brother seems to be "gaudy nonsense," "simply laughable" and "absurd"  about a strange discovery solidly encased in ice found on the return voyage of a two-year Arctic scientific expedition headed by the now-deceased Professor Glazebrook. Just hours before reaching the Channel, everything was going as planned up until the moment the professor decided to melt the ice containing his spectacular find, which turns out to have been a rash decision indeed.  As has been repeatedly revealed in old sci-films, sometimes what's been stuck in polar ice for eons should probably just be left alone.   "The Last of the Vampires," published in 1893 and penned by another unknown-to-me writer, Phil Robinson  (1847-1902),  is also on my list of favorites.   As with the previous two stories I've mentioned here, it involves humans pitted against "eerie creatures previously thought extinct," as Richard Fallon notes, so familiar to readers of popular periodicals during the Victorian fin-de-siècle.  This story is more atmospheric than the previous two, and starts out with a legend familiar to the Zaporo Indians of Peru.  As the legend goes, "Very long ago ...
there were many vampires in Peru, but they were swallowed up in the year of the Great Earthquake when the Andes were lifted up, and there was left behind only one 'Arinchi' who lived where the Amazon joins the Marañnon, and he would not eat dead bodies, only live ones, from which the blood would flow."

Local superstition also said that when a sacrificial victim was offered to "the Vampire," he would be "bound in a canoe," and after some time on the river,  the canoe would stop in "banks of slimy mud" to a creek  through which a "very slow current flowed," taking anything in the water there to a cave. Into this milieu comes a University professor and "mighty hunter of beetles" from Germany who decides to explore the cave for himself, his fate recorded in journal entries over the ensuing months.

Worthy of honorable mention is "Our Phantom Ship on An Antediluvian Cruise," by Henry Morley, part of a series making its appearance in Household Words in which the phantom ship took the periodical's readers  on "informative trips around the world."  In this installment the ship leaves London to go back "into the depths of time." 

Another fine Valancourt publication, Creatures of Another Age is neither limited to short stories nor obscure writers.  There are poems, essays, and even a short play, as well as selections by more familiar authors such as George Sand, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle and Thomas Hardy. While not all of the entries included here worked for me personally (as is always the case),  in putting this collection together editor Richard Fallon hopes that readers will "see the distant past in a strange new light," and that's exactly what happened to me here.   Very much recommended.   What a great idea for a book!! 

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Cormorant, by Stephen Gregory

Parthian Books, 2021
originally published 1986
160 pp

paperback (my e-copy sent by the publisher, to whom I owe my many and grateful  thanks)

Recently reissued by Welsh publisher  Parthian Books just last month, Stephen Gregory's The Cormorant (1986) is exactly the sort of dark fiction I look forward to reading, in which the weird makes its way into regular life making it difficult to decide whether there is something supernatural at play here or if it's something else altogether.  I first read this book seven years ago when it was published by Valancourt,  and that was the question I was left with at the time;  after finishing this time around, the ambiguity remains.  Added to the uncertainty is the fact that we have only the narrator's word to rely on for what happens here.  My kind of book indeed.  

Winter in Northern Wales provides the natural backdrop to this story that begins when a man is bequeathed a cottage in a Welsh village "nestled under the cloud-covered summit of Snowdon, on the road between Caernafon and Beddgelert."  He  and his wife Ann were able to quit their teaching jobs in the Midlands, affording him the opportunity to devote time to the history textbook he is writing. She has a job at a local pub and he tends to their eleven-month old child Harry while she works.   The cottage had belonged to his Uncle Ian whom the (unnamed) narrator had not known very well, and it comes with the "binding condition" that the cottage was theirs as long as they took care of the cormorant Uncle Ian had rescued some time earlier.   To the narrator, the bequest is a "thunderbolt of good fortune,"  and he wasn't too worried about taking care of the cormorant, but when the bird arrives and its crate is opened, the "some kind of placid, domestic fowl" they'd been expecting turned out to be anything but.   In the middle of a quiet, lovely, warm domestic sort of perfection, as he notes, 
"it came from its box as ugly and as poisonous as a vampire bat" 
spewing feces and urine everywhere and causing destruction to their otherwise cozy environs.  

Ann, who "shuddered at the sight of the cormorant's demonic arrogance," sees the bird (which the narrator calls Archie)  as menacing, while baby Harry seems to be enthralled with the thing.  The narrator works to exert dominance and control over the bird, mentioning more than once Archie's dependence on him for its survival; at the same time it's obvious that while he's completely obsessed with it,  he has a sort of love-hate relationship with this cormorant,  referring to it once as a "Heathcliff, a Rasputin, a Dracula."  In the meantime, Ann becomes further unsettled because of her husband's increasingly strange behavior and Harry's growing fascination with Archie.  Then there's the matter of the narrator's brief (hallucinatory?) encounters with someone who leaves behind cigar smoke -- is this some sort of haunting, some sort of possession, or is there more to it,  perhaps grounded in more earthly concerns?  

The flaws in the characters begin to appear early on, but then again, we're watching this story unravel from the point of view of the narrator, whose choices throughout the narrative are just mind boggling.  One of the highlights of this novel is Gregory's purposeful, highly-controlled and taut writing style which allows for him to  adeptly turn  up the volume little by little on the slow-building horror that fills this book,   and in my case at least, setting forth an eerie atmosphere from the moment the bird's crate is opened in the cozy living room, offering its entrance as a harbinger of dread and doom. 

I won't deny that there are some extremely disturbing scenes in this book (including one especially beyond-squirmworthy event that takes place in a bathtub which is mentioned in pretty much everyone's review of this novel and got a serious and out-loud WTF from me as well), but in a sick way they accord with the narrator's increasingly-disturbed state of mind, which is in my opinion is at the heart of this novel. 

I cannot for the life of me say why, but as disturbing and horrific as this book is, I absolutely loved it. I found, as the author says in the introduction to this novel, that  
"Like the bird, the book is beautiful and ugly, intriguing and upsetting, appealing and appalling, in its different, changing moods."

 The Cormorant is not only effective as a horror story, but as literary fiction with a weird bent as well. The ambiguity here left me thinking about it long after I'd finished, going through evidence in my head for both the psychological and supernatural.  Writing it down now, I'm still thinking about it.  I cannot recommend this novel highly enough, although on many levels it is a difficult read, so beware.  

Once again my many thanks to the very good people at Parthian.  

Saturday, May 8, 2021

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, by Mariana Enriquez


Hogarth, 2021
originally published as Los Peligros de fumar en la cama (2017)
translated by Megan McDowell
187 pp


I had picked up this book this past January, long before it was longlisted (and then shortlisted) for this year's International Booker Prize.  There was never a question of not buying it;  I had read and loved this author's Things We Lost in the Fire some time ago.  That book was excellent, with a slight edge over this one, but after finishing The Dangers of Smoking in Bed I was not only impressed, but my first reaction to this book echoes exactly what Lauren Groff says about it on its back cover:

"After you've lived in Mariana Enriquez's marvelous brain for the time it takes to read The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, the known world feels ratcheted a few degrees off-center."

It didn't take until the end of the book for that "off-center" feeling to take hold -- after the first story alone I had to stop, think, and sort of shake my head back into the real world before moving on.  

In an interview after the publication of Things We Lost in the Fire, the author noted that her stories
"are quite rooted in realistic urban and suburban settings and the horror just emanates from these places,"

and in The Dangers of Smoking in Bed the author examines the darkness and the terrors that co-exist in "these places" side by side with every-day life --  as one character says so eloquently in "Rambla Triste" (one of my favorites in this book), "the incarnations of the city's madness."  Most of her characters are women from adolescence upward,  their daily concerns are normal, including appearance, sex, relationships, family, drugs, and so on.  It isn't too long into any of these stories however before it dawns on you that you've made your way into a situation where normal has taken a bizarre turn.  In "Our Lady of the Quarry," for example, a group of girls all hanker after the same guy who doesn't seem to notice them in the way they would like; they are jealous of their "grown-up" friend Silvia ("out of high school for two years") whom Diego does notice. A typical scenario, to be sure, but what one girl does in trying out  "an infallible way to snag your beloved" provides the spark for what comes next as the story moves into the realm of the eerie.  Elsewhere, a girl digging in a garden unearths bones that turn out not to be those of an animal as her father had told her; a young girl who looks in a well at the home of a "witch" becomes stricken with paralyzing agoraphobia; a homeless man who is turned out of a neighborhood leaves behind a terrible curse; gentrification leaves homeless ghosts walking the streets of Barcelona; two teenaged groupies take the words of their favorite singer to heart ... and more. 

Nothing is out of bounds here -- fetishes, voyeurism and cannibalism included -- but as the dustjacket blurb says, the stories are written with "resounding tenderness toward those in pain, in fear, and in limbo."  They  also reveal a concern with economic and social inequality as well as Argentina's inescapable past.  Two chilling stories in particular (which also happen to be my top two favorites) also highlight the anxieties of the period of the Dictatorship (1976 - 1983):  "Kids Who Come Back," in which a woman who maintains the archive of lost and disappeared children begins to notice an unsettling trend in Buenos Aires, "this city full of ghosts," and "Back When We Talked to the Dead"  centering on a group of five girls who spend time with their Ouija board as a way of asking the spirits about their relatives who had been disappeared.  Violence and ghosts go hand in hand in this book. 

I read a lot of supernatural and weird fiction but not a lot of what I'd call  horror, but if more writers in the genre did it like Mariana Enriquez, I could easily go that route as well.  Here the terrors leave in their wake a "city of ghosts" and women doing what they must to find stability in their unstable, even haunted surroundings.  With the exception of "Kids Who Come Back," the stories are relatively short which, in my opinion, gives them an incredible measure of power.  Whereas some readers have noted that the stories felt underdeveloped, I disagree.  I don't need everything explained to me -- each story made an impact as is.   Enriquez's work is original, fresh, modern and above all powerful, and while not all of these tales were to my personal taste, overall this is a stunning collection that should not be missed, except perhaps, by the squeamish.  

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Mist and Other Ghost Stories, by Richmal Compton

 Good grief. The last time I posted was in February; since then it has literally been one thing after another with what seems like very little breathing space in between. That doesn't mean I haven't been reading -- au contraire, I've actually read a lot as a sanity-saving measure.  Mist and Other Stories is just the latest in a lineup of some pretty awesome books, so I'll begin with this collection of supernatural/ghostly tales, which, while perhaps not the most hair-raising stories I've ever encountered, are certainly compelling enough that I  read them all in one sitting.  Here you'll find ghosts, as promised, along with haunted houses, haunted people, and more. For those readers of the dark who love older supernatural tales, it is  no-miss read;  for me there's also the added bonus of discovering a new author in the genre. 

Sundial Press, 2015
originally published 1928
191 pp


As if to signal that this will be no ordinary book of ghost stories,  the first two entries, to my great delight, are inspired by the figure of the Great God Pan.   In the opener,  "The Bronze Statuette, a "modern" but somewhat shallow sort of young woman ("she had become engaged to Harold Menzies simply because his dancing step and his game at tennis suited hers") at a house party undergoes an unexpected and extraordinary change after the host's father brings out a small bronze statue, "a thing of extraordinary grace and beauty."  Following that one is  "Strange," which also takes place during a house party, where one of the guests, "a chap called Strange," enchants the others with his presence as well as his syrinx.   

No ghost story collection would be complete without a haunted house or two, and what Crompton has on offer here strays a bit off the beaten path in that area. For example in "Marlowes," a woman who, along with her husband has left her home and is staying in a hotel while repairs are being made, confides to another guest that they love their Sussex house, but for a while there it didn't love them back.  Of course, "there's a story about that."  A full tank of petrol would have prevented the happenings at "The House Behind the Wood,"a personal favorite,  in which a threesome find themselves stuck in the cold night "six miles from anywhere."  Frank, married to the "fragile and delicate" Monica decides that sleeping in the car would likely bring on a case of pneumonia, but luckily for the couple and Frank's childhood friend Harold, there is a house nearby with a light shining in the window.  The caretaker has no petrol, but he does offer them a place to stay out of the cold. Let's just say that Frank blames what happens next on a nightmare, but oh Frank, it's not the drains that are causing it.   "The Haunting of Greenways" is another favorite in which the actual spectral visitation begins about ten pages in, but the events leading to that point are really the main show, centering on a young woman who is incapable of true happiness and  "had that gift for self-torture that belongs to the mentally unbalanced."  The title  story in this book is the last but by no means the least; I thought it was one of the best in the collection.  "Mist" finds a hiker who has lost his way in the "bleakest part of the moor" and luckily finds his way to a small inn for the night.  Surrounding and stranding him is the mist, "like something sinister and malevolent."  After boredom and cabin fever set in toward tea time, he decides it might be good to get out and go for a walk. But wait -- what's that "dull light flickering in the fog?"    

Of the remainder, three are well worth honorable mention: "Rosalind," "Harry Lorrimer, and "The Oak Tree,"  the first two of which are excellent and the third entertaining.    In the first, a young artist is haunted by his passion after he dumps the woman he loves for someone more suitable for marriage; the first vows that she will never let the second have him.  In the second, two old school friends, Gregson and Harry Lorrimer, meet by chance, and after a visit to the home of Harry Lorrimer, his friend makes a chilling discovery.  Gregson feels uneasy about Harry, but the uneasiness soon turns to sheer horror when he learns what's really happening with his old schoolmate.   Finally, "The Old Oak Tree" is the last of its kind, sitting in the yard of Bletchleys on "prehistoric land" where Druidic worship may have once been carried out.  Indeed, an old flat stone lies at its base;  Mr. Fellowes informs his wife that it was likely used for human sacrifices, but  Mrs. Fellowes  feels sorry that no one worships it now, and promises it a garland a day.  Sure enough, she keeps her word and the oak tree begins to take on a "new lease of life," which Mr. Fellowes doesn't necessarily like.  

Original 1928 edition cover, from Sundial Press 

 Crompton's characters range from wronged women to people haunted by their pasts, including ghosts who aren't quite ready to give up the pleasures they had in life; her stories occur mainly within the framework of upper middle-class existence  where strange events have the potential to disrupt an otherwise comfortable life. Her real focus here though (for the most part) seems to be on the people themselves, taking her time to develop her characters just enough so that what leads up to the supernatural happenings is well understood by the time you actually get there.   Above all though, she excels in atmosphere -- not simply in natural world phenomena (which is itself so well done that in the last story, for example, you can actually see and feel the clammy fingers of mist in the forest) but also in the way she ever so slightly ratchets the tension experienced by her characters in the midst of uncanny events.   

Mist and Other Ghost Stories is a fine example of ghostly tales done in an original fashion and done well.  While not every story is perfect, it is still a collection that I would most wholeheartedly recommend.