Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Revenants and Maledictions: Ten Tales of the Uncanny, by Peter Bell


"Pulsis hinc phantasmaticis collusionibus ac diabolicis insidiis."

Sarob Press, 2018
123 pp

hardcover (read in October) 

In his Foreword to Revenants and Maledictions,  the author refers to the tales in this book as  "excursions into the uncanny."  He also lists a number of "artistes whose voice and vision echo through these stories," including Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, John Cooper Powys, MR James, Vernon Lee, Robert Aickman and many, many more; Bell also notes that the stories in this volume are presented "in tribute" to these people and all he has learned from them.  "In tribute" they may be, but Bell's voice is original enough that someday, perhaps, his work will in turn inspire an entirely new generation of writers of the strange. 

Bell's stories take place in a number of different locales  which are "largely inspired by real places" where he'd felt "a nuance of, in that inimitable German word,  the Unheimlich."   These include

"A graveyard in the Outer Hebrides. The leafy suburbs of Oxford. The Black Cullin ridge.  A strange museum in Iceland. A Manx fairy glen. A deserted Scottish isle. A Welsh woodland mansion. A haunted cottage on Skye. A pagan site on the Wirral Peninsula. A forbidden estate on Mull" 
 which together would make for a great travel destination in terms of  a "weird stories" sort of tour.  Until someone actually dreams one up, this book is a great substitute.  

 The first story, "Apotheosis," tells of the narrator's "strange experience" during a visit to a small isle in the Hebrides. Hoping to find a particular gravestone that he'd seen previously only in a photograph, he makes his way to the graveyard; it is only later after he returns to normal life that he realizes just how very strange it had been. The less said about this one the better, but it is a great tale to attune yourself to the weirdness that follows; the dustjacket art by Paul Lowe captures it beautifully.  In "The House," which is an absolutely perfect tale, three academics who are attending a conference on the Gothic novel decide to skip  "the evening plenary" and go out on their own.  They have two specific objectives in mind.  First, they plan to visit a certain pub and second,  they're on the trail of a certain "little known writer of supernatural tales" who has been dead for fifty years.  Her book of ghost stories was entitled "The House: Seven Eerie Tales," but enigmatically, there are only six stories within, none of which were called "The House."  When they eventually discover the residence where the writer lived, one of them decides to go and take a peek inside while the others wait at the pub. But when he doesn't come back ... Quite frankly, this story completely creeped me out, largely due to its headscratcher of an ending -- so much so that when the penny dropped, I could actually hear the not-so-quiet gasp coming out of my mouth. Another fine tale follows with "The Executioner."  Having been made to wait because of weather, the day finally arrives for Sara, a guide,  to take her rather impatient (and it seems, unprepared)  client Hans up a mountain in the Black Cuillin.  Let's just say that when the weather begins to change, the headstrong client failed to heed her warnings and things didn't go as planned.  There's much more to it than that of course,  but exactly what I won't say.   Moving on to Iceland, "Many Shades of Red" delves into local mythology and ghost lore as a visitor comes across the Culture House and views a bizarre painting of a doctor with "the head of a black wolf."  As the librarian tells him something about the strange history of the Culture House, she has a story of her own to tell, related to her by her grandmother, involving a red cape and the Ulfjökull region, where it is said that "the last wolf in Iceland was killed."  "The Virgin Mary Well," one of my favorites,  takes place on the Isle of Man, where a man and his young daughter are spending time at a "holiday cottage" at Ballasalla.  On their last day there, dad hopes his somewhat uninterested daughter might be willing to go with him to look for the "secret site" of a particular well dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Luck isn't with them but when they return in October, the daughter by now into things antiquarian, things turn out a bit differently. Only too late does dad learn of the warning, "Pulsis hinc phantasmaticis collusionibus ac diabolicis insidis" and only too late does he learn the strange,dark history of the place.

Hebrides graveyard, from Christopher Cores 

In  "The Island"  a man who has visited every Scottish isle accessible by ferry decides it's time to venture onto the less accessible islands. He's particularly intrigued by a deserted "small and lonely isle" by the name of Eilean Beag.  His request for transport is turned down several times, for various reasons until one lobster fisherman agrees to take him.  Warned to be back at a certain time, the fisherman leaves while the man alone to wander the island.   Unfortunately, the man misses the return time and is forced to find shelter -- and that's when the weirdness begins.  "Wild Wales" comes in the form of an event recounted decades after it happened, as an  agent for the National Trust recalls one visit to a particular home named Plaid, owned by a former star of stage and screen, now a "bit of a recluse."  Picturing  "Norma Desmond" from Sunset Boulevard, he finds himself more than surprised when he finally meets his host.  "Sithean" is the story of a couple who make their way to a cottage in Eabost West for a bit of vacation time. Immediately the narrator senses there's something wrong there, but his feeling of uneasiness is nothing compared to what's in store.  I suppose they were never told that  people should know better than to trespass into the place of the fairies.  I loved this story,  which is filled with Celtic myth and fairy lore, and I'm not talking those sweet little pixie things. In  "Blackberry Time" a man recalls his childhood visits to the home of his aunts, Combe Villa, a happy time when the family would go blackberry picking together.  As the aunts' health takes a turn for the worse, he is left alone to his adventures, and it is then he meets Freda, who is more than happy to accompany him on Thorphinsty Hill and who seems to have an in-depth  knowledge of  the area's history as well as the horrors that may still remain.  And last, but absolutely by no means least,   "The Robing of the Bride" is just downright menacing, turning up the terror to the highest degree.  Commissioned to photograph several locations for a coffee-table book called The Haunted Hebrides, Ari is reluctant at first, but soon gives in to the idea of roaming the Hebrides, "all expenses paid, visiting strange places, photographing curious antiquities."  While her editor has a specific locale in mind, Ari gains permission from the owner of  a different place, Colquhoun, where she'd heard that there were some "remarkable old Italian statues."  Her photos unsuccessful, she returns to try again; all I will reveal is that it was probably a really bad idea on her part.

When a book begins with an epigraph from Arthur Machen,  I just know it's going to be good, and I wasn't wrong here.  I love the gothic tone, the interweaving of Celtic lore and mythology, and, above all, as Ari alludes to in " The Robing of the Bride,"  the "strange interaction between the psyche and the landscape" that the author invokes in each and every one of these stories.   Do what you need to to snag a copy, because this is a book that is just perfect for those readers who love to find themselves falling down the rabbit hole of the weird and the strange.  

very highly recommended

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Keyhole, by Matthew G. Rees

Three Impostors Press, 2019
269 pp


I came across this publisher, this book and this author completely out of the blue, appropriately on Halloween when I opened an email from someone in one of my goodreads groups.  The thread title was "Recommendations," and the poster was talking about this book, saying, in part, that in writing these stories, the author combined "the mundane, the unexpected and the surreal."  Buy button pushed, book in mailbox, book read, and that description that so piqued my interest turned out to be spot on.  

The first clue as to what lies in wait for the reader comes before a single page is turned an epigraph from Arthur Machen's The London Adventure: 
"...the unspoken world is, in truth, about us everywhere, everywhere near to our feet; the thinnest veil separates us from it, the door in the wall of the next street communicates with it." 
  In Keyhole it's not London, but rather Wales where the unsuspecting may just happen to slip through that same "thinnest veil" between this world and the other.  

Rees' choice of opening story is perfect, and clearly sets the tone for the rest of these tales; it is through the eyes of his characters that we get a view of  their respective worlds within the borders of  Wales.   In "Keyhole," the mother of a young girl named Bronte with a "condition that meant she had to be kept from the light" finds a way to brighten her daughter's life by introducing kingfishers into the confined environment of the family home The Fosse, complete with "reeded moat."  They are released "to the light" every other day, young Bronte following their flight out of the conservatory's French windows via an arrangement of doors and keyholes.  Years later, returning home, Clive Theaxton makes straight away for Bronte's home  but finds everything strangely different.  Let's just say we're only one story done at this point,  but dark, disturbing and thoroughly discombobulating, I knew I had a winner of a book here.  I wasn't wrong. 

Given that there are eighteen stories in this book, describing even briefly the remaining seventeen would take a while, so I'll hit my personal favorites.   The setting for "Rain" is a farm named "The Joy" where two children live with their parents, who have decided that they want "nothing to do with the world." They live off the grid, with no modcons; looking back on it all, the son notes that his upbringing and that of his sister had been a bit on the "feral" side.   All is well in this place, their own "small piece of Wales," until the rain stops; when their "problems began."   And indeed, what problems they are.  Yikes!  Moving on,  I'll never hear the tongue-twister "she sells seashells by the seashore" in the same way again after reading "I've Got You," which follows a young widow living with her little son along the coast, her husband having recently died in a most horrific way.  At first she's charmed when her little  boy creates an entire man from seashells (one she names Percy Shelley) followed by a wife, but things start to take a strange turn one day... and that's all I'll say about that one.  One of the great things about this and most of the other stories in this book is that sometimes there seems to be more than just a brief peek into the characters' psyches that adds another entire layer of depth and meaning to the reading, in this case also adding a measure of poignancy that almost made me cry.   I was so disturbed by this story that it was at this point that Keyhole became a daytime rather than nighttime read.  "Bluecoat" is another favorite, in which a young couple leaves their city life for a sheep farm that sits next to an older manor home once requisitioned as a wartime hospital.  Everything seems to be on the idyllic side until winter sets in, but I won't say much about this one (to do so would just be criminal)  except that the boundaries between past and present seem to mean nothing here.  Very nicely done, this one, which also left me feeling like I wanted to cry.    "The Press" is another excellent story, again set on a farm, involving a farmer, a flower press and a strange group of people led by a boy on a piebald horse.  Absolutely gorgeous in the writing, it's the incredibly visual, horrific ending that got to me this time ... oh my god. 

from Nation Cymru

The remainder of these stories are also quite good, quite unlike anything I've read, and are set in what seem to be normal locales to the outsider.  The closer you get, however, the stranger things become -- for example, a pub that appears and disappears, a mine complete with its own set of ghostly horses, an old wartime submarine discovered under the sands, crew and all, ready for their mission... on and on goes the weirdness. 

As the back-cover blurb notes, "Keyhole is a dark world where extraordinary stories gleam."  In an interview with the author , he notes that in this book, 
"Wales is not seen in a literal way, as if captured by a camera. Instead, it is quite often viewed at a slant ... presented askew."
True as that statement might be, the visions offered of Wales here capture the seasons, the weather, the people and the landscape; it is a place where time gone by bleeds into the present and quite often magic presents itself in many different forms.    In that same interview, the author says that his intention is that the reader "always keep one foot in our own recognisable world,"  while "tentatively stepping into another, adjoining world."  No disappointments here at all.   As with any other collection of stories, there are some that range from the great zone and move on down, but there is not one in the bunch that I didn't like; among the darkest of these you will also find some that will bring on a bit of a chuckle.   An absolutely wonderful collection of stories that I enjoyed so much that I bought another book by the same author just a few stories into this one.  

With only a few minor exceptions, I've had a fantastic weird reading year, and Keyhole just made it better.  Considering I'd never heard of this author before Halloween, well, that tells you what you need to know.  

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

The Between, by Tananarive Due


Harper Perennial, 1996
276 pp


I'm late to the party that is Tananarive Due's work, and as I often do when I find an author I like, I am absolutely kicking myself for not 
finding her sooner.  This book, The Between, had me on serious pins and needles most of the way through.  

This post will be a bit on the shorter side, since really, it would be very, very wrong to say too much about what goes on here.  However, the first two lines in the book ought to signal right away that this story will be anything but run of the mill:
"Hilton was seven when his grandmother died, and it was a bad time. But it was worse when she died again."  
That second time, Hilton and his Nana had been at the beach at a gathering of family members when Hilton was caught up in a dangerous rip current. His grandmother plunged in to save him, but died in the process, sacrificing his life for hers.    Now a man with his own family, Hilton James feels he owes it to his Nana's memory to help save other people, and he does this through his work running a rehab center in Miami.  He's married to Dede (pronounced Day-day),  a newly-elected circuit-court judge, the "only black woman in Dade with that title," and they have two children, Kaya and Jamil. Everyone is happy, things are great all around.   But that all changes when Dede receives horrible, racist, hate-laden death threats and the sender begins stalking the family.  Aside from needing to protect his family from this monster,  Hilton's own life descends into complete turmoil when he starts having bizarre nightmares that grow increasingly stranger and more frightening.  He's also plagued by a string of strange experiences that he doesn't understand, which to the people in his orbit make him seem as if he's seriously coming unglued.  As Hilton begins to question his own sense of reality,  his internal chaos also begins to pull him away from his family at a time when they need him more than ever.  He knows he should find some sort of help, but, as one of the characters notes, "the systems from the mundane world are not equipped to deal with the metaphysical."  

I really do wish I could say more, but even the slightest hints about what happens here will wreck the experience.  I get that my description sounds a bit tame and doesn't really scream horror novel, but this book disturbed me to no end.  It was a bit like falling into a mind that seems to be unraveling right before your eyes and having no way to escape, with death at the center of it all.  The author also explores grief and loss, mental illness, and the very real horrors of white supremacy and racist hate, which make their presence known throughout the novel in different forms.

 The back-cover blurb says that The Between  "holds readers suspended between the real and the surreal," and that's exactly what happened with me.    It is one of the most hauntingly creepy books I've experienced this year, with Hilton's sense of shifting realities transferring directly from the  book to my head so completely that I was thrown off throughout.  Without any hesitation at all I can strongly recommend this book, but do yourself a huge favor beforehand and stay away from any book review that wants to give away the show.