Friday, October 28, 2022

Spectral Sounds: Unquiet Tales of Acoustic Weird (ed.) Manon Burz-Labrande


British Library, 2022
308 pp


In this anthology, as the editor of this volume says in her introduction,  "unexplained noises take centre stage."  I would think that at least once in someone's life, he/she/they would have experienced strange aural phenomena -- I know I have.  When I was about seven, we had a heater in our house that made strange noises now and then which reminded me of footsteps and I would just lay there at night in bed frozen to my core from fear.  I've been awakened at night more than once by someone distinctly calling my name,  bolting straight up in bed, only to find my sweet spouse still snoring away.  I could list others, but let  me just say that compared with what happens in these stories, my experiences are minor.  

Burz-Labrande divides this book into four thematic sections.  The first is  " 'I Heard a Noise, Sure Enough' : Living with Audible Presences"  and you  have to love an editor who starts her book with a selection from Florence Marryat (1833-1899), whose short stories, novellas and novels have given me hours of entertainment, especially her bizarre The Strange Transformation of Hannah Stubbs (1896) and The Blood of the Vampire (1897),  republished in 2009 by Valancourt.  I love her weird stuff so much that I bought the two-volume set of work from Leonaur, The Collected Supernatural and Weird Fiction of Florence Marryat, and I always rejoice when I find a collection of ghostly tales and find one of her stories in the contents.  Getting back to Spectral Sounds,  the Marryat piece included here is  "The Invisible Tenants of Rushmere" which made its debut in her The Ghost of Charlotte Cray and Other Stories published in 1883.  A London doctor who believes he's on the edge of a breakdown and is looking for a few months of "complete quiet," finds a house "on the banks of the Wye, Monmouthshire" that promises "excellent fishing," rounds," and a nominal rent.  It is, he thinks, "the very thing we want," and the family soon takes up residence in the place.  It is a bit on the isolated side, and this worries his wife, but as time goes on there are more pressing matters to deal with as the family begins to experience some strange but unseen phenomena.  In conversation with the landlord of a nearby pub, the doctor learns that  "No one who lives at Rushmere lives there alone," but the doctor refuses to listen to "any such folly."  As always, he probably should have taken the word of someone who knows.  It is a fine opener, the perfect haunted house story to read at night by booklight during a noisy thunderstorm, which is how I did it.   Also included in this section is B.M. Croker's "The First Comer"   and The Day of My Death" by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, which unlike the previous two, takes place in America. 

from Sublime Horror

The second section, " 'I Had Heard The Words With Painful Distinctness': Perceiving Ghostly Voices"  begins with  "The Spirit's Whisper," by an unknown author but often attributed to Le Fanu.  You can be the judge as to whether or not it reads like a Le Fanu story.   My favorite in this section is "A Case of Eavesdropping" by Algernon Blackwood, which first appeared in his The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories from 1906.  Shorthouse,  down on his luck, left high and dry "in an American city" talks his way into a week's trial writing for a newspaper.   Forced by circumstance to live in a rooming house, he keeps irregular hours, thereby never meeting the "old gent" on the same floor.  Although "it seemed a very quiet house," well.... The remaining stories in this section are "A Speakin' Ghost" by Annie Trumbull Slosson, "The Whispering Wall" by H.D. Everett and "No Living Voice," by Thomas Street Millington. 

from Wikipedia

The work of four very well known authors makes up section three, " 'I Jumped Awake to the Furious Ringing of My Bell' : Sonorous Objects and Haunting Technology."  Edith Wharton's "The Lady Maid Bell" is first up before  Barry Pain's very short "The Case of Vincent Pyrwhit;"  Rosa Mulholland follows  with one of my all-time favorite tales "The Haunted Organist of Hurly Burly" and H.D. Everett's "Over The Wires" rounds out this part.   "The Lady Maid Bell" (1902) wins for most atmospheric, as a young woman who's come to the end of her money after a bout of typhoid takes a job  at a country house on the Hudson.  She is warned before taking the job that it is "not a cheerful place,"  with the mistress of the house alone for most of the time after losing her two children and having a husband who is rarely there. When he is there, she is told, "you've only to keep out of his way."  Although the job suits her, even as isolated as she is there, she does wonder why her employer, Mrs. Brympton, doesn't use the bell to summon her but sends a maid to fetch her instead.  Let's just say she will definitely find out why in the course of things, but not before she is witness to some rather extraordinary phenomena.  

from Litbug

And last, but by no means least, two stories bring us to the end of this volume in the final section, "Sounds and Silence: Acoustic Weird Beyond the Ghostly."  The first is a tale by Edgar Allen Poe, "Siope"  which I have to admit that I'd never read before; the book ends with  "The House of Sounds," by M,P. Shiel, which the editor refers to as "a masterpiece of the acoustic weird."  I wholeheartedly concur.   On an isolated island off the Norwegian coast, the narrator of this story has been called to the home of his friend.  The noise of the waves is not only constant, but along with the fierce howling of the gales tends to drown out other sounds so that the conversation between the two has to be conducted largely via written notes.  While I won't go into any detail here (if ever a story needed experiencing this is it)  think family curse, a strange machine, altered states of consciousness and time ticking down toward a very palpable doom.  The editor mentions its comparison to Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher," but this story goes well beyond Poe into something entirely its own.  It is truly one of those tales that once read, will never be forgotten. 

I love these spooky tales from yesteryear and I really enjoy the British Library Tales of the Weird Series, offering readers the opportunity to find authors and their works which they may not know, as well as incorporating more famous (and often anthologized) strange tales into the mix.  Not all of these stories floated my boat but the ones that did provided several hours of enjoyment, chills up the spine and often left me thinking about them well into the night.  I definitely recommend this volume as well as the complete series of books from the British Library.   And since it's October, these stories are more than perfect for Halloween, but they can be enjoyed any time of year.  I am truly in my element here, happy as a clam and wanting the show to go on long after the book is finished and the booklight goes off. 

Thursday, October 20, 2022

The Horned God: Weird Tales of the Great God Pan (ed.) Michael Wheatley


British Library, 2022
312 pp


Some time ago I read Paul Robichaud's nonfiction work called Pan: The Great God's Modern Return and at the time I noted that someone would really be doing a favor for readers like me if they'd collect and compile every known story written about the great god Pan and then publish them in book form.  Well, it's like someone heard my plea; although there are only seventeen "Pan-centric" stories/poems in this book, it's a great start.  The best news is that outside of Machen's original Pan story included here (which is frankly one of the creepiest tales ever), I hadn't come across any of the others except for E.M. Forster's excellent "The Story of a Panic" which more than epitomizes the theme that so clearly runs throughout the book.  As the editor notes in his introduction, the stories in this book focus "on the representation of Pan during the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century," ranging from 1860 to 1949.  Wheatley's selections include not only the "sinister Pan," but cover interpretations from the Plutarchian, the Renaissance, and the Romantic.  And as Pan serves as the "guardian of the natural world," these stories, again quoting the editor, "suggest a way to return to a primeval state of being, as embodied by Pan and his wilds."  

After  the book's opener,  Oscar Wilde's  "Pan: A Double Villanelle,"   in which Wilde beseeches the goat-footed god to "leave the hills of Arcady" because England in his grey, contemporary world "has need of thee,"   this anthology starts storywise with Machen's superb novella "The Great God Pan,"  a true masterwork which I never tire of reading.   The first story new to me here is George Egerton's "Pan" (1897) set in the Basque country.  Young Tienette  has been troubled ever since a wedding held at Easter time when she heard a fiddler play for the first time. His music, it seems, "must have held witchery in its cadence," and "her senses had quivered and tickled strangely" playing "upon the lute strings of her soul all through the months."   She felt that it had 
"a strange call in it, like a fervid love-whisper in the dusk, and a power like the grip of a master-hand forcing one's head back to find one's mouth. It held man's need of woman, and woman's yearning for man, the primal first causes of humanity; and it had struck upon the most sensory fibres of her being ..." 

Unfortunately, the feelings conjured up by the strange music weakens her resistance to a brutish suitor, with tragic results.  Barry Pain's solidly creepy "Moon-Slave" (1901) centers around  a young, newly-betrothed princess who doesn't feel alive unless she is dancing.  Wandering around, she discovers the entrance to a maze, and heads right to its center where the moon is shining brightly and she calls for music so that she can dance; she is mysteriously obliged.   One night, when the moon "called her," she grabs her dancing shoes and heads to her new secret dancing space, where suddenly a shadow passes over the moon during an eclipse; much to her detriment, she "heeded it not."  Her solo dancing is interrupted when suddenly she realizes she is no longer alone.  The last sentence in this story gave me a case of the serious shivers.   Another really, REALLY good one is Saki's "The Music on the Hill" (1911), in which a young woman who is determined to get her way with her new husband Mortimer convinces him that they should leave town life behind and live at his country house.  The land there has a wildness to it, so much so that Sylvia remarks that "one could almost think that in such a place of worship of Pan had never quite died out."  Mortimer tells her that it hasn't died out at all, and that he is not "such a fool as not to believe in Pan when I'm down here," and cautions her not to disbelieve "too boastfully" while she's in "his country."   Oh, Sylvia... if you had only listened...

from Internet Archive

The stories just get better from there, especially the gothic "The Devil's Martyr" (1928) which is just downright weird (a good thing) which is more than likely why it appeared in Weird Tales.  Its author is Signe Toksvig, who is the great aunt of Sandi Toksvig, the host of one of my favorite British quiz shows, QI.  That is neither here nor there, of course, but worth mentioning just as matter of personal interest.   The young Erik, Count of Visby, was made a ward of the Bishop upon his parents' death and taken in by an order of monks, where Father Sebastian (who is really into self-flagellation) has been preparing him for the novitiate.  His plans are upset when a stranger by the name of Michael of Lynas comes along, having gained permission from the bishop to take Erik away to his castle for a month.  Erik is more than ready to go, while Father Sebastian views Lynas as "Prince of the Air, robed in the red of eternal fire," about to carry off a soul with whom he'd been entrusted.  It doesn't take long until Lynas begins initiating the young Count into the worship of a deity immortalized as the statue of a "tall, young, beautiful, smiling god with his head turned and his chin tilted a little, as if he were following the echoes of the air he had been playing on the reed flute in his right hand," complete with horns.  In the introduction, the editor notes that here, Pan has been aligned with "his satanic sibling, Baphomet." One can only imagine what the good monks will have to say about young Erik's new calling.  

You can find the remainder of the stories listed here; and while in the US for some reason the publication date shows March of 2023,  you can purchase a Kindle copy now.   I originally did that, but before I had time to start reading, I found my paper copy at Book Depository, available now.  As always, I offer major praise for the British Library Tales of the Weird series as a whole, and praise for this volume, which more than satisfies my strange addiction to tales of the goat-footed god.   Do not miss Michael Wheatley's introduction, which is excellent and provides a lot of insight into what you are about to read.  

Very highly recommended.  

Thursday, October 13, 2022

The Black Maybe: Liminal Stories, by Attila Veres


Valancourt Books, 2022
translated by Luca Karafiáth
301 pp


Yikes! I haven't posted anything here since July, but summer is the time of the Booker Prize longlist and that's kept me busy.  This year's candidates for the prize have been amazing so far, and two of them would have been right at home as posts here at OWF:  Percival Everett's The Trees brings back the dead in a quest for justice, while Shehan Karunatilaka offers a story that begins and then spends a lot of time in the afterlife in his The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida Both were fantastic reads, my two favorites on the shortlist.    But on with this show, with The Black Maybe by Hungarian author Attila Veres, whose name you may recognize if you've read the first volume of Valancourt's World Book of Horror which includes his story "The Time Remaining."  

The ten stories that are found in The Black Maybe are truly some of the weirdest and darkest tales I've had the pleasure to encounter in a long while.  Like the very best weird tales, these start in a very recognizable world before ever so slowly making that turn that lets the reader know that we're definitely not in Kansas anymore,  as the characters who populate these stories have, consciously or unconsciously, crossed some sort of threshold taking them into the realm of nightmares.     In this case, of course, Veres' stories take place in contemporary Hungary, in both rural and urban areas, touching on very human anxieties and fears that exist no matter where his characters live.  In his introduction to this volume, Steve Rasnic Tem notes that the urban stories "feature protagonists whose obsessions intensify until a nightmarish climax is reached," and often contain a "background of rock or heavy metal."  The rural tales, he says, are "inspired by the realities of farming and keeping and slaughtering livestock," and they also create "weird cosmologies which at times resemble folk horror, but which push far beyond."   Whatever the location, I think the idea of "push[ing] far beyond" can be applied to each and every story in this book, all of which are beyond dark, fresh, original, and utterly squirmworthy.  In short, my kind of read. 

I won't be going into much story detail here, but the weirdness begins immediately in the first entry "To Bite a Dog,"  a great indicator of the strangeness yet to come in this collection.   And as much as I loved each and every story here, I couldn't help but find a few beyond-disturbing standouts that quickly became favorites.   The first of these is  "Fogtown."  While writing a book about the "underground music scene"  in his city which "would have been about the growing-up of a generation," Balázs Peterfy  becomes obsessed with an elusive band called Fogtown.  He'd heard stories about Fogtown but rarely from anyone who was actually there when they played, and he soon became "driven" to discover if the group really existed, hearing stories about people who went to one of their concerts who "were not the same afterwards."    Intending to add Peterfy's unfinished work as part of their own book, The Unpublished Books of Hungary, one of its two authors later regrets taking it on, since it started her partner "down a path that led to his end."  Thoroughly eerie and related via various forms of text, this is a good one. Seriously good.  Another particular favorite is "In the Snow, Sleeping,"  an utterly surreal (a word I don't bandy about needlessly) story that involves a couple taking a short vacation at a wellness spa. For Luca, it starts when she discovers an engagement ring in the pockets of her boyfriend Robi's jeans, which makes her a bit uneasy, but for some reason she can't put her finger on she is anxious and afraid about the vacation itself.  All I will say is that they hadn't quite arrived at the spa when things start to turn weird, but once they get there, the weirdness only escalates.  She wants to go home, but the boyfriend refuses to budge, until ...  Yet another story that kept me awake at night is "The Amber Complex."  This one is set in a town in Eastern Hungary, where "most people who are born here move away ..." and "miracles rarely happen."  Gabor is one of those people living there, and has always known that "the town is a trap," and that there was no escape. He tried to make a life elsewhere but ended up coming back, and by the time he was thirty had decided that he would become an alcoholic.  After witnessing a murder, he knows his time is limited when the murderer suggests they go to a pub on the outskirts of town, but a car pulls up in the nick of time, knocking the killer to the ground.  Gabor is invited along with the car's occupants to Zanó's wine cellar, where he and the others are to partake of a special tasting of something called a "complex." There are seven of these, ordered by color,  but they must be tasted in a particular order.  The final one to be poured is the Amber complex, but very few people have ever gone that far. There are very good reasons why this is so, but I will say no more.  

The book as a whole takes the reader on an unnerving, disturbing, and more often than not, a hallucinatory journey into terrifying spaces that exist somewhere on the outskirts of the mundane. These stories are experienced rather than just read, and a writer who can make that happen is definitely one to watch.   I loved The Black Maybe; it rises miles above the norm into its own space of brilliance.  It is definitely a no-miss for readers of the strange or the weird, and dark enough to satisfy any readers of horror fiction.  
Very, very highly recommended, and my appreciation also goes to Valancourt for making The Black Maybe available in English.