Thursday, July 22, 2021

Bluebeard's First Wife, by Ha Seong-Nan



9781948830171
Open Letter Books, 2020
(originally published 2002)
translated by Janet Hong
229 pp

paperback

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

 



9780712353199
British Library, 2021
317 pp

paperback

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

 


9781948405874
Valancourt Books, 2021
223 pp

hardcover


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




9781912681693
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

 


9780593134078
Hogarth, 2021
originally published as Los Peligros de fumar en la cama (2017)
translated by Megan McDowell
187 pp

hardcover

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. 




9781908274281
Sundial Press, 2015
originally published 1928
191 pp

hardcover


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. 




Sunday, February 28, 2021

The Collected Connoisseur, by Mark Valentine and John Howard

 

"What we seek, and what we also half-fear, is all around us, always, had we the necessary calm intentness to discern it. "

 



9781905784202
Tartarus Press, 2010
308 pp

paperback

Over the years I've read my fair share of stories featuring supernatural detectives, and prior to starting this book, that's what I thought I had here. What I discovered was not at all what I was expecting, but something unique instead: an "aesthetical detective extraordinaire" in the form of the Connoisseur.   He is described as a
"connoisseur of the curious, of those glimpses of another domain which are vouchsafed to certain individuals and in certain places." 

The Connoisseur is a nickname given to this man by Valentine, who with the Connoisseur's consent, "dependent on anonymity and all necessary discretion," recounts "some of his encounters with this realm. "  The narrator notes that while the Connoisseur  is far from wealthy, he "supplements a decent inheritance" with "administrative work," he "shuns many of the contrivances of modern living," and is therefore able to indulge in a "keen pleasure in all the art forms."   He is a seeker of knowledge and a walking encyclopedia of the arcane; if there's something he does not know, he knows any number of people to whom he can turn for answers.  The mysteries he encounters are often  built around some sort of cultural artifact either in his possession or brought to his attention, for example, in the first story "The Effigies," the narrator is looking at a "dark earthenware jug of quite perfect form" on the Connoisseur's mantel, sparking a story about his friend's visit to its creator, Austin Blake,  renowned maker of "amphorae and delicate vessels" who had suddenly stopped producing at the height of his fame.   There are also a few occasions in which Valentine accompanies the Connoisseur and witnesses events firsthand.   

It is not difficult at all to recognize the influence in these stories of those writers Valentine notes in his introduction as "lifelong companions," and "household gods":  Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany, Walter de la Mare and William Hope Hodgson.  "The Hesperian Dragon," for example, is easily recognized as a delightful sort of play on Machen's "Three Impostors."  Blackwood's finely-tuned sensitivity to the hidden awe of the natural world is reflected in "The Last Archipelago," and as in the case of our narrator throughout The Collected Connoisseur,  Hodgson's Dodgson serves as chronicler of the adventures of Carnacki.    Beyond the recognition of Valentine's "household gods", however, lies something even deeper where these authors are concerned -- in the introduction, in discussing a few other writers of the 1890s he'd read, including M.P. Shiel,  Valentine notes that 
"These then, the wondrous, the spectral and the aesthetical, were the airs floating around me when I began to think whether I could go one step further than reading, and try writing, the sort of fiction I enjoyed."

It is this sense of the "wondrous, the spectral and the aesthetical" that he and in the last few stories, John Howard capture here in a style that reflects the writing of those previously-mentioned authors who came before, but still manages to remain quite original.    Not everyone can carry off the voice of times past in his or her writing, but here it is pitch perfect.  The last six of these stories were collaborations between the two authors, and anyone who's read the work of John Howard will recognize his style immediately.  These tales are also a bit more fleshed out, with a bit more action involved, and provide a great ending to this collection.  

I loved these stories, all of which on the whole offered days of fascinating reading,   but of course and as always there were a few that stood out.   "In Violet Veils" is probably my favorite of the collection, in which an experiment in the "revived art of the tableau vivant" results in a warning by the Connoisseur that 

"such curious re-enactments were not to be essayed without some peril of affecting, in unforeseen ways, those involved: who could tell what might result from such a hearkening back to the original power of the mythological image portrayed?"

He knows whereof he speaks, having experienced firsthand an eventful, bizarre tableau vivant in the past.   "In Violet Veils" has the feel of the decadent/symbolist literature I love to read, with more than a touch of the weird that gives it an extra edge of eerieness.  In "The Craft of Arioch"  the Connoisseur relates to Valentine his strange experience during  a "walking holiday" in Sussex with his cousin Rebecca. Having left "the high roads and the dormitory towns" and traveling the "winding roads and nestling villages," they eventually find themselves at a barn where they expect to find hand-crafted rocking horses.  Let's just say after a ride on a "cross between a horse and a white dragon," and "a winged cat with preternaturally pointed ears and peridot eyes," they return from "unknown regions" and "a plane of experience different to anything we may find in this world."  "Sea Citadels," "The Mist on the Mere," "The White Solander" and "The Descent of the Fire" round out the list.   

At the beginning of "The Secret Stars" The Connoisseur in conversation with Valentine notes the following:

"What we seek, and what we also half-fear, is all around us, always, had we the necessary calm intentness to discern it."

 The Connoisseur's "rare glimpses" are the very heart and soul of this book.



The Collected Connoisseur is one to read curled up in your favorite reading space, hot cup of something or other in hand.  Like the Connoisseur, I am quite partial to Qimen/Keemun tea; I  am also one of those people described on the back cover blurb -- "the lover of esoteric mystery and adventure fiction. " More to the point,  I am also in complete awe of Valentine and Howard's visionary writing here and elsewhere.    Every reader of the weird, the fantastical, and of the occult  should have The Collected Connoisseur sitting on his or her shelves.  No collection would be complete without it. 



Thursday, February 18, 2021

Of One Blood, Or The Hidden Self by Pauline Hopkins


 9781464215063
Poisoned Pen Press, 2021
196 pp

paperback



"...the wonders of a material world cannot approach those of the undiscovered country within ourselves -- the hidden self lying quiescent in every human soul." 


Of One Blood made its first appearance serialized in The Colored American Magazine in 1902 and 1903.  The magazine, as stated on the cover, was an

"Ilustrated monthly devoted to literature, science, music, art, religion, facts, fiction and traditions of the Negro race." 

from coloredamerica.org




Author Nisi Shawl notes in her introduction that not only did Pauline Hopkins write for this magazine, she also edited it.  About the author Shawl says that Hopkins 

"is in some ways the foremother of Octavia E. Butler, and Tanarive Due, and many of today's leading science fiction, fantasy, and horror authors -- primarily because she's another African-descended woman using a popular genre to write speculatively about hard philosophical questions, surprising truths, and the wonders of the occult."

At the beginning of this novel Reuel Briggs is contemplating "the riddle of  whence and whither," which not too much later he will say the solving of which is his life; it is "that alone" that he lives for.  I marked this passage and after finishing this book, came back to it, finding it beyond appropriate given what happens in this story.  

Briggs is a poor Harvard medical student, a black man who keeps his heritage hidden because of the "infernal prejudice" that "closes the door of hope."   An authority on "brain diseases," and a believer in "supernatural phenomena or mysticism,"  he often contributed articles to scientific magazines on the topic to help pay the rent.  While we are privy early on to a few of his visions, it isn't until he is called to the hospital after a train wreck to help out a woman  whom the doctors have pronounced dead that we discover that Reuel also has certain powers.  His diagnosis is that no, the woman isn't dead but rather in a state of "suspended animation," and has also been "long and persistently subjected to mesmeric influences. " Knowing this, he is able to reanimate her, although her memory has been affected; he also discovers that he is in love with her.   Eventually he decides he wants to marry this woman, Dianthe Lusk, and they become engaged, but as a poor student, he can in no way afford to offer her a decent life.  Unfortunately, his attempts at finding a medical job are thwarted, and at this very low point, Reuel's  closest friend, a certain Aubrey Livingston, has great news for him: he can make quite a bit of money as a "medical man" for an expedition going from England to "the site of ancient Ethiopian cities" to "unearth buried cities and treasure which the shiftng sands of the Sahara have buried for centuries."  Livingston has the connections to make this happen, but the catch is that there is a two-year commitment.  Although at first he doesn't want to be away from Dianthe,  but being practical about the whole thing, he decides he'll take the job.  They marry, and leaving her in the care Livingston's fiancée, off he goes, dreaming of  "the possibility of unearthing gems and gold from the mines of Ancient Meroe and the pyramids of Ethiopia."  And while in Africa, as the back-cover blurb describes, as Briggs faces "unexpected danger" before making some startling discoveries about himself in the hidden city of Telassar, he has no clue that life for Dianthe back home has also taken a rather sinister turn.  It seems that Livingston's help in getting Briggs the job on the expedition was not given out of love for his best friend, but rather for that of Dianthe.   Before this story is over,  there will be further twists that build up to a number of beyond-surprising revelations, and what Briggs finds in Ethiopia will be a treasure far more valuable than any he may have imagined.  

I don't think this is a novel that you read so much for plot -- keeping in mind that this story was written in 1902, it must have been positively mind-boggling at the time, perhaps holding out some measure of hope and redemption to its readers.  It is a truly visionary novel that in the long run transcends plot, and in that sense it remains an important work still relevant today.    Of One Blood moves well beyond the combination (as Shawl notes in the introduction) of Victorian society novel and lost-world  narrative to explore "contemporary racial issues" through a variety of lenses, ultimately positing a hidden truth or two that upends everything and has, as she says "cosmologically expansive implications."  I don't wish to divulge how this comes about, but if you really want to know, you can go to Tor's website where she has written pretty much the same material that appears in her introduction to this book.  I will caution that it gives away the show so that reader awe may be diminished, and the same goes if you have this particular edition of the novel and you read the introduction before launching into the story.  

I'll also note that my edition is part of the Horror Writers Association series of Haunted Library of Horror Classics and that across the top of the front cover it says that the book is from "the first great female horror writer of color."   I'd call it more speculative fiction myself, but the recognition of Pauline Hopkins and her work is well deserved and very long overdue.  

Sunday, February 7, 2021

arachnaphobes beware (part two): The Sign of the Spider, by Bertram Mitford

 

9781934555460
Valancourt Books, 2008
originally published 1898
247 pp

paperback

"Every conventionality violated, every rule of morality, each set aside, had brought him nothing but good..."

The back-cover blurb describes The Sign of the Spider as a "thrilling mixture of adventure, romance, and horror." It was the combination of "adventure" and "horror" that was the draw for me, and while I'm not a huge reader of monster-type horror fiction, in this book it works.  

A most unhappy, dissatisfied Laurence Stanninghame who is "just touching middle age,"  has decided that he's had enough of his "awful life," and has booked passage to Johannesburg to try his luck in the "boom."  Some of his acquaintances had done the same and had "made their pile," so why shouldn't he have a shot at the same? He has also become a bit tired of the "warfare" with his wife, a woman who had many fine qualities, but who was also his equal in will.   Once "eager, sanguine, warm-hearted..." he has become as this story begins, "indifferent, sceptical, with a heart of stone of the chronic sneer of a cynic."   Perhaps this change has come about because Laurence is one of those people for whom "everything he touched seemed to go wrong," but now he's decided that it's time to "cast in the net for the final effort."

Once in Johannesburg, however, it seems that he has arrived a "day too late," in the midst of a speculation market (and a colonial economy in general)  facing setbacks.   At first things were "rosy" but as time went on and Stanninghame had taken the route of "all or nothing," he loses everything:
"He had come to this place to make one final effort to retrieve his fortunes. That effort had failed. He had put what little remained to him into various companies -- awaiting the boom -- and no boom had ensued...He was ruined."

 Things look so bleak for him that he picks up his gun, contemplating suicide, but in his room the face of Lilith Ormskirk, a young, independent woman whom he'd met on the passage from Southampton, comes to him and saves him at the last moment.  But what to do now?  As far as Stanninghame is concerned, he would sell his soul "to the devil himself."   Not too long afterwards,  a certain Hazon offers him the opportunity to go up country and "come back a fairly rich man."   As rumor has it, Hazon has taken men up country before,  but "not one of them has ever returned."  Laurence, however, views the opportunity as "the suggestion of adventure "on a magnificent scale, and with magnificent results, if successful." As the back-cover blurb reveals, Hazon is a slave trader, but as Laurence says at one point, 

"The one thing to make life worth living is wealth. I will stick at nothing to obtain it -- nothing! Without it life is a hell; with it -- well, life is at one's feet. There is nothing one cannot do with it -- nothing!"

And indeed, he seems to have few qualms about what he does, feeling as though he is complying with the "iron immutable law of life" of "Preyer or preyed upon."  As he sheds the trappings of "that damned respectability" while traveling deeper into the interior with Hazon over the next few years, he is captured and taken into the hidden realm of the so-named "People of the Spider." There he is somewhat hesitantly accepted among the tribespeople, but in time Stanninghamme finds himself, as the back-cover blurb reveals, "marked out as a sacrifice to the monstrous spider-god."  

As with other books written during this time period, The Sign of the Spider is incredibly difficult to read today because of its racism and subject matter,  but when all is said and done it is a story of one man's journey as he discovers "the consistent and unswerving irony of life as he had known it."   He explains that 
"Every conventionality violated, every rule of morality, each set aside, had brought him nothing but good to him and his,"

but  for me, the question here centers on the price he has paid and will continue to pay in the long run.  I have to say that I thought I'd be reading a sort of rugged pulp adventure story complete with a cryptid arachnid thrown into the bargain, but what I got instead was a story that has a depth I was not at all expecting.  

Save the excellent introduction for last, but most certainly do not skip it, as it adds even more to the reading of this novel.  

With the acknowledgment that it's tough going subjectwise, I can certainly recommend this novel, and I'm looking forward to reading the other book by this author now sitting on my shelves, The Weird of Deadly Hollow.  

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

arachnaphobes beware: Tenebrae, by Ernest G. Henham





9781934555293
Valancourt Books, 2014 (reprint)
213 pp

paperback

Just about a quarter of the way through this novel, I remarked on Goodreads that Tenebrae is a book so filled with gloom that even when the characters are out in the garden it's hard to imagine sunlight.  Mind you, I had no idea that it was about to get even darker before all was said and done, but considering that the Latin word tenebrae translates to "darkness," I should have at least had an inkling.   Originally published in 1898, Tenebrae  is the story of two brothers, with "extraordinary affection for each other," right up until the time a woman came between them.  

The two brothers (names are not used here)  "formed the last representatives of an ancient family, proud of its history and its name," although the house itself has been left in a state of "gradual decay." The family home sits near a cliff above the sea, with the property also containing a "desolate moor." Some of its windows had been "closed up" by "forgotten ancestors,"  now 
"peered blankly through the clinging ivy, striking into the spectator's mind a latent suggestion of guarded horrors lying concealed behind..."

all of which, it seems, was pleasing to the elder brother's "naturally morbid imagination."  As just a brief aside, let me say that those three words struck a chord, keeping me on guard through the remainder of the novel.  We also learn that aside from the two brothers, this family also consisted of an uncle, who had once been a "nameless adventurer and wanderer"  now a "human derelict" whose mind had been affected by a long history of drug use of every kind, as well as an old nurse who in her own way continues to look after the two siblings.  

I won't say much in the way of plot -- I could talk about it all day but in the long run, it's better to go into this book knowing little more than what's revealed on the back cover blurb.  I will say that it is quite clear that there is something not right from the outset.  As the elder brother begins writing this account of events, he reveals that he is "curiously liable to ... fits" when thinking of the younger, now dead, to the point of  the ink turning "red upon the paper," the pen "dripping with blood," and "the horror" surging before his eyes.  This is quite strange, given that he goes on to describe their past relationship as one of "great unspoken love," sharing "the same heart, the same mind, equal portions of the same soul," and the fact that they "understood each other so well that speech was often unnecessary."  Something has obviously changed, and throughout the first part of this book, so aptly entitled "The Foreshadowing," we discover what that is as we follow the course of events involving two men who loved the same woman driving the elder to, as the back-cover blurb notes,  a "murderous jealousy" that will change the lives of all three involved.  The second and darkest part of Tenebrae, "The Under-Shadow," becomes a dizzying amalgamation of madness, mania, guilt and vengeance, all coming together in the form of a giant spider, "the most hideous of gaolers." 

This isn't a book I read in fits and starts -- it's actually impossible to stop reading once begun.  It is a novel that moves well beyond disturbing, owing to Henham's most excellent and atmospheric writing that has produced some of the most nightmarish imagery I've encountered over the course of my reading.   Do not bypass the excellent introduction by Gerald Monsman, but I would suggest leaving it until the last.  

Very highly recommended, especially to readers who like myself, love this older stuff -- it may be well over one hundred years old, but the horror it carries hasn't faded over the years. Not one iota. 



Saturday, January 2, 2021

Snuggly Tales of Hashish and Opium (ed.) Brian Stableford

 "The fay of opium is a mistress who refuses herself at first, but soon lavishes her lovers with the most intoxicating caresses."
--- Jane de La Vaudère, "Parisian Orgies"




9781645250401
Snuggly Books, 2020
291 pp

paperback
read in December

Prior to buying this book, it was the back-cover blurb that sold me, promising a "hallucinogenic sampling of psychotropic fashionability and fin-de-siècle exoticism."  Couple that with the star-studded table of contents and the fact that it was edited by Brian Stableford, it was a no-brainer -- I had to read it.   

That promise was definitely kept, and my god, I reveled in this book from first page to last. First, the selection of stories is  excellent, and second, Stableford's extensive scholarship and knowledge is beyond compare.  This isn't the first book  he's edited which  I've read pen in hand, iPad at the ready, and I always find something either in his introductions or notes that sends me scuttling through the internet.  

There is no bad story at all to be found here, and the "sampling" includes not only Hashish and Opium, but also those who engage in other hallucinogens of choice.  My personal favorites begin with two stories by Theophile Gautier, "The Club of Hashishins" and "The Opium Pipe," which open this anthology.  The first, as is explained in the introduction, borrows  "extensively from Hoffman" and presents 
"within the context of a hallucination a brief tribute to the extravagant fringe of the French literary and visual imagination."

I couldn't help myself -- Gautier's drug-induced encounters and dreams made me laugh out loud, as did Charles Newill's "The Club of Hilarants," in which a man gets his comeuppance after rejecting a suitor's offer for his niece's hand in marriage.  The mood changes from humorous after X.B. Saintine's "The Doctor's Hallucinations: A Moving Terrain. The Danae Delusions" with Marcel Schwob's "The Portals of Opium," in which curiosity (and opium) lead a man with "a desire for strange experience" to become "lost -- as wretched as Job."  Speaking of exoticism, you can't do better than   "Opium and Smara"  by Jean Lorrain which I'd read before (although it was a great, decadent pleasure to read them again),  but Jane de La Vaudère's "Parisian Orgies," my favorite tale in this book, exemplifies it.   The description of the "great hall of the Moulin Bleu," for example, stopped me in my tracks with some of the most descriptive prose to be found in this anthology:

"There were Hindu Pyres there, surrounded by byaderes with gauze langoutis, tragic mourners and Brahmin sacrificers. Egyptian houses, boats of flowers, gallant guinguettes, Byzantine Palaces and prehistoric grottoes offered women of all colors, all sellers of lust. The Moloch of Salammbo reared up in a corner, gigantic and terrifying, and the faint sounds of kisses departed from niches where cardboard gods raised their murderous arms. The priestesses of amour, always ready for sweet sacrifices, only had to disturb their jewels to offer their flesh to caresses..."

but that is nothing compared to her descriptions of what  follows at the "rendezvous of the Ladybird" cabaret.  According to the editor, this story "first appeared as three chapters in the novel Les Androgynes, roman passionel," in 1903, later appearing in Snuggly's The Demi-Sexes and the Androgynes, which after reading this story, I immediately pulled from my shelves onto the physical tbr pile.    The last story I'll mention is also delightfully decadent and bizarre, "The Night of Hashish and Opium" by Maurice Magre, which begins with a woman in India encountering three bad omens before undertaking a strange encounter at the Pagoda of Chillambaram.  

The remainder of these excellent stories are as follows:

"The Double Room" by Charles Beaudelaire
"The Opium Smoker's Dream," by Pompon
"The Malay," by Jean Richepin
"The Green God," by Gabriel de Lautrec
"The Phantom of Opium," by Louis Latourette
"Telepathy," by Theo Varlet
"The Opium Den," by Louy de Lluc
"The Initiation," by Frederic Boutet
"Dropping in on Anika," by Victor Margueritte

The only downside of reading this book, is that it is yet another  that needs to come with a warning label, as it caused me to pick up five more books even before I'd finished it.  Of these, four were from Black Coat Press and were edited or adapted by Brian Stableford: 

The Second Life, by X.B. Saintine 
 The Crazy Corner, by Jean Richepin 
Weird Fiction in France: A Showcase Anthology of its Origins and Development 
 The Sacred Fire, by Gabriel de Lautrec 

while number five, Claude Farrere's  Black Opium: Ecstasy of the Forbidden (1904) is a reprint of the 1974 edition, from Ronin Publishing (2016).   The toll on my wallet would have been much worse except for the fact that I already own several books mentioned in this one, a number from Snuggly books, some from Black Coat Press, and a couple from Dedalus.  

I get that French decadence is not for everyone, but it certainly is something I love, and this book is no exception.  Truth be told, I could read this book over and over for days on end -- it's that good, an experience of sheer reading bliss.