Sunday, June 23, 2024

Ringstones and Other Curious Tales, by Sarban


Tartarus Press, 2024 (first Tartarus edition 2000)
originally published 1951
289 pp


I hadn't actually planned on reading this book this summer, but I had recently finished reading Circles of Stone: Weird Tales of Pagan Sites and Ancient Rites (ed. Katy Soar) as part of my ongoing reading of the British Library Tales of the Weird series and as it happens, that book began with an extract from Ringstones.   I realized that unlike the other authors whose stories were included there, I'd never read anything by Sarban, so I bought this volume from Tartarus Press and immediately on finishing it, wondered out loud how the hell I had not read him before.   I had already purchased the Tartarus edition of The Doll Maker and Other Tales of the Uncanny (2022) but once again, meeting the same fate as many books I buy, it had arrived, was shelved and other books came along that left it just sitting there -- as it turns out, a hugely serious, serious mistake.  Let me just say that after finishing Ringstones, the very first thing I did was to pick up The Doll Maker and devour it, after which I immediately ordered Sarban's The Sound of His Horn and Other Stories, which arrived earlier this week. 

First edition, 1951.  From ABAA

I won't offer much in the way of author biography of here -- that is best discovered by reading Mark Valentine's excellent Time a Falconer: A Study of Sarban  which I also bought directly after finishing Ringstones. It was originally  published by Tartarus in 2010, although I picked up the paperback issue from 2023.    John William Wall spent his working life in the British diplomatic service, and it was early in 1948 on a visit to England when he gave his future wife Eleanor two stories he'd written earlier in 1947 while working in Casablanca,   "A Christmas Story" and "Ringstones." She found a publisher, Peter Davies, and to make a long story short, eventually Wall added three more stories, "Capra," "The Khan," and "Calmahain," and his first book was published in March of 1951 under the name Sarban.  According to Mark Valentine, Sarban wrote to Mike Ashley that he had "had a liking" when he was young "for stories of fantasy and the supernatural -- H.G. Wells, and Walter de la Mare, for example," which had "prompted" him to "choose that vein" when attempting "something of my own (57)".  Trust me here, he succeeded. 

The best way to describe this book and its contents is to quote a small portion of the dustjacket blurb, which originally came from one of the book's "original reviewers" who said that these stories 
"have a curiously-imparted quality of strangeness; the feeling of having strayed over the border of experience into a world where other dimensions operate." 

 Like the very best examples of the weird tale, Sarban's work tends to begin in normal circumstances while slowly but surely taking the reader across that border into unexpected and disturbing territory.  

 The opening tale in this collection, "A Christmas Story,carries more than a tinge of melancholy,  but signals to the reader that he or she is about to delve into the realm of the strange.  It begins on a "hot, damp Christmas Eve" in Jeddah as a group of British diplomats dress up and make the customary "round of calls" which includes a stop at the home of Alexander Adreievitch Masseyev, a Russian exile who now works for the Arabian Air Force.  A bottle of Zubrovka labeled with a picture of the "European bison which seems to be the trade mark" sparks Masseyev's bizarre story about an experience he had in 1917 while a sea-plane pilot aboard a ship heading to Archangel. He and his friend were assigned the task of flying the plane to drop a message to a station where the ship was supposed to have made a call and could not due to dangerous ice conditions.  Of course, things go awry, the plane goes down, and the two decide to walk through the marshes of the "immense, sad taiga" to civilization, no easy feat as winter is closing in.   Luckily, they come upon a group of Samoyed hunters whom they believe will lead to them "to the nearest Christian men," but they encounter something entirely unexpected.  As Masseyev notes, "Yes, there are rare things in Russia," and of all people, he ought to know.   About "Capra" which I also quite enjoyed, it's best to say as little as possible, except perhaps that it's not too far a distance from the modern world of the 1920s to the realm of the old gods, especially when one is in Greece.  Set in England during World War II, in "Calmahain" two young teenaged children of the Maple family, Martin and Ruth,  whose lives are tightly restricted by the adults in their home and who are told repeatedly to stay in their own garden find a refuge in a game they play called "Journeys."  It means leaving their yard, but as neither is likely to tell on the other, the game is on.  They set a time limit that takes advantage of Mrs. Maple's "elastic after-breakfast hour with a detective novel," and each goes his/her own way.  The idea is that when they next meet, they will describe the fantastical journey each has made, and the journey becomes a fantasy tale to share with the other in great detail.  At the end of this particular adventure, Martin relates his travels but it's Ruth's story that takes center stage here, with Martin praising hers as "the best you've ever told."  He adds that he doesn't know how she made it all up, and her reply is that she didn't "make it all up."  Absolutely excellent story, one you may want to read a second time once you've finished it.   Correction -- you should read it again.   Of all of the stories in this book, it is "Ringstones" that clearly wins the prize for most disconcerting, and it happens to also be my favorite. Steeped in antiquity, in mythology and an added darker layer of subjugation and dominance (which seems to be part of Sarban's repertoire, as I noticed in The Doll Maker, but more on that book another time)  it  most strongly continues the thread of straying "over the border of experience" into another world altogether. Two friends, Piers and the narrator, have a conversation about Piers' good school friend Daphne Hazel, who has taken a summer job as a tutor/au pair taking care of "some foreign kids," specifically a teenaged boy and two younger girls.   Their discussion includes commentary on Daphne's sanity, with Piers mentioning the fact that she wouldn't be likely to "have come under influences that would encourage the germination of elvish fancies and eerie illusions" at the school she is attending, and that  he would be "much more likely to spin fairy tales for the fun of them than she is; and yet."   Piers asks his friend to read the contents of an exercise book that Daphne had written and sent to him, and it's only the next morning when the two friends talk about it that the significance of the state Daphne's mental health becomes clear.   At first it begins as a relatively benign story detailing her arrival at Ringstones Hall in Northumberland,  meeting the children Nuaman, Marvan and Ianthe and well as some of the outdoor games they play while her employer spends time on his research.  Soon, however, what sounds almost idyllic slowly turns dark and menacing as Daphne discovers that there's much more to this boy than she could possibly realize, and that she may "never come to the end of Ringstones." I'm being purposely vague here because you really must read this story to feel its full impact, and nothing I say can even come close. 

While I enjoyed some of the stories in this volume more than others,  what travels through all of them is the author's imagination and striking prose style that slowly and unexpectedly moves the reader into darker realms.  He raises the storytelling bar as he adds in elements of mythologies and the natural world that complement each other as well as the characters who populate his stories, all the while building in layers of the mysterious and the strange to create different worlds where, as he notes in "Ringstones," "some queer feet have danced."  This creative blending that marks his work as truly something of his own makes for compelling, unforgettable and unputdownable reading that stuck with me long after the last page had been turned.  

Beyond highly recommended -- truly a collection I will never forget.  

Sunday, June 9, 2024

The Haunting of Low Fennel/Tales of Secret Egypt, by Sax Rohmer


Stark House Press, 2024
292 pp


(read earlier in May)

I have to confess that I have never read a book by Sax Rohmer before although I own a copy of his Tales of Secret Egypt, one of the two books included in this double-feature edition from Stark House.  I remember buying that one along with a bunch of books after reading Riccardo Stephens' 1912 novel The Mummy, reprinted byValancourt in 2016, but it evidently got shelved and forgotten about, the fate of way too many books at my house.   Once again, like many Stark House books,  this one contains two different short-story collections.  The Haunting of Low Fennel was published in 1918, with Tales of Secret Egypt following in 1920.  

Sax Rohmer came into the world as Arthur Henry Ward in 1883.  Born in Birmingham, he came from an Irish family; his mother (née Furey, another name he would use in his writing) had often told her son that she was descended from a seventeenth-century general and the first Lord Lucan by the name of Patrick Sarsfield, and later after her death in 1901, he changed his middle name to Sarsfield.  His first story, "The Mysterious Mummy" was published under the name A. Sarsfield Ward in 1903 in that year's Christmas edition of Pearson's Weekly, followed by "The Leopard Couch" in January of 1904, appearing in Chambers's Journal. According to the introduction by Mike Ashley, the name Sax (according to Rohmer himself) came from "the Anglo-Saxon word for a knife or blade, and 'roamer' (with an 'a' which he changed to 'h') as the idea of a mercentary, or 'freelance' blade-for-hire."  The first appearance of the name was actually on a piece of sheet music in May of 1908, with a song called "Bang Went the Chance of a Lifetime."  But his wife Elizabeth, according to Ashley, later recalled that when the two first met in 1905, he had introduced himself as Sax Rohmer at that time.  There is much more information on the name "Sax Rohmer" here for anyone who might be interested.  Rohmer and his wife first went to Egypt in 1913 for the honeymoon they never had, and he fell in love with the place, as Ashley says, "soaking up the atmosphere, the history, the culture and the deeper mysteries," resulting in his novel The Brood of the Witch Queen, serialized beginning in 1914. The stories in this volume also reflect how "the power of Egyptian magic" inspired Rohmer.  

first edition, from Abebooks

The Haunting of Low Fennel opens with the titular story in which our narrator, a certain Mr. Addison, has arrived at the house called Low Fennel belonging to Major Dale and his wife Marjorie. After tea in a "delightful little drawing-room," he and the Major retire to the Major's study, where they begin talking about the "real business afoot."  It seems that due to some financial misdealings, Major Dale had to sell the family home, Fennel Hall,  "where a Dale has been since the time of Elizabeth!"  The buyer of the Hall had leased Low Fennel, part of the original estate, to the Dales, who have spent time and money on renovating the place. The story goes that prior to Dale selling the hall, a strange and unexplained death had left no one wanting to occupy Low Fennel, except for the head gardener at the hall.  He and his wife eventually moved out though after his wife had seen "a horrible-looking man with a contorted face" looking at her through the bedroom window.  Since then, the place had become "unlettable," and old stories about the place resurfaced. People were so frightened of Low Fennel that they'd actually go "two miles out of their way" so as not pass by the place at night.  Now, after about two months of living in the place,  it seems that the strangeness is starting up again, with the housekeeper encountering "an almost naked man" ... on the stairs, with "the face of a demon, a contorted devilish face, the eyes crossed and glaring like the eyes of a mad dog!"   As Dale says to Addison, "I've always been a sceptic.... but if Low Fennel is not haunted, I'm a Dutchman, by the Lord Harry!"  So far he's been able to keep it all from his wife, and has called in Addison, a psychic researcher, to figure out what's going on. It doesn't take Addison too long to become embroiled in the otherworldly events that are happening there, which proceed to take their toll on everyone at Low Fennel.  As fun as that story was, for me the gem of this particular collection is "In the Valley of the Just: A Story of the Shan Hills."  Moreen Fayne is on a hell of a "dreadful march" in a caravan organized by her husband, Major Fayne.  Hers was a terrible marriage -- she'd become disillusioned after realizing that the Major had been hiding "the dark, saturnine" side of his character prior to their marriage; her husband hadn't spoken to her in six months except in public, and he'd been "drinking heavily." After he accuses her of having cheated on him, in the middle of the night she is forced by her husband to begin this horrific trek.  The Burmese heat is unbearable and "deathly," she is barely able to keep herself upright in her horse and in immense pain. This march had been going on for days, and as the story begins,  as the group stops to camp, Moreen realized that "collapse was imment," but she refused to show any "sign of weakness" in front of her husband.   When the march stops the next day, the Major takes off leaving the others behind, and as darkness falls, one of her father's trusted servants on this expedition tells her that the men refused to stay in this place because "a spell lies upon all of this valley," and that "no man would come here after dark."  Why that is I'll leave for others to discover, but this is a hell of a good story.  The remainder of the stories in this book are also good -- "The Blue Monkey" is just plain creepy and weird, while in "The Riddle of Ragstaff" a riddle holds the key to a strange mystery, and a "ghoul in human shape" holds the destiny of a young woman in his hands in "The Master of Hollow Grange." The final two stories, "The Curse of a Thousand Kisses" and "The Turquoise Necklace" move the action from British shores to Egypt, where the first of these begins with a man who is given a parchment written by another man who had seemingly disappeared from the face of the earth one night in Cairo.  The second opens with an act of kindness which leads to the kidnapping of a woman and the subsequent, impossible search for her across the "four hundred miles of sand" across the desert. 

from Abebooks

Moving on to the second section of this book, Part I consists of Tales of Secret Egypt as narrated by the somewhat unscrupulous Neville Kernaby, an English man who is just as at home at Shepherd's as he is in native attire in the souks of Cairo. Kernaby acts as representative of "Messrs. Moses, Murphy & Co. of Birmingham" in Cairo, a company that deals in fake antiquities of various sorts, and Kernaby is always on the lookout for interesting items either for his company or, in some cases, for himself.   All of these stories feature the mysterious Imám Abû Tabâh, who is sort of a combination of magician, enforcer of laws and an upholder of righteousness, and sometimes secret agent of the Egyptian government.    Let me just say that while it's true that I found several stereotypical references to Egyptians and Arabic-speaking peoples from a white colonizer/imperialist point of view,  it is  actually Abû Tabâh who is the hero of these tales,  saving Kernaby's bacon more than once when Kernaby gets in too deep during his adventures.    The "Tales of Abû Tabâh" are "The Yashmak of Pearls," "The Death-Ring of Snerefu," "The Lady of the Lattice," "Omar of Ispahan," "Breath of Allah," which I might add is laugh-out-loud funny toward the end, and "The Whispering Mummy.  Part II is simply entitled "Other Tales," and I have to say that the first of these, "Lord of the Jackals," is beyond cringeworthy, with a passionate love affair between a young man and a twelve year-old girl.  I don't care how Rohmer spun that one, it's just plain upsetting.  My favorite in this section is "In The Valley of the Sorceress," which not only edges the supernatural but crosses the line right into the thick of it.   The narrator of this tale has an archaeologist friend by the name of Condor who is working on a dig hoping to find the mummy of Queen Hatasu, who during her time, was believed to have practiced "black magic."  Her statues had all been "dishonored," and any mention of her name on monuments had all been erased.  Condor's  troubles, as he describes in a letter to the narrator, began with the arrival of a young woman "claiming protection."  A month later, his entire crew has simply deserted the excavation and were nowhere to be found. Eventually word is received that Condor was taken to hospital, "bitten by a cat" and "died the night of his arrival, raving mad..."  The narrator then decides to take up Condor's work, and not too long after he gets to the site, he is visited by a young woman, asking for his protection.  Who is this "siren of the wilderness," and what does she want?  There are four other tales rounding out this section, "Lure of Souls,"The Secret of Ismail,"  "Harun Pasha," and "Pomegranate Flower," but none (in my opinion) have the creep factor of "In the Valley of the Sorceress," which was just outstanding. 

This is not at all great literature, but it's good fun pulp that ranges from mystery to the supernatural and makes for many hours of laid-back reading.  As I said earlier, you can definitely expect some racial  stereotypes in these stories, but just be mindful that they're there and try to move along to the heart of these tales.  I mean, acknowledge it and don't ignore it, but don't let it be the only thing you see in here because there's so much more.    I've had a thing for mysterious/supernatural/mystical stories set in Egypt since I was a kid, and I'm not sure why I've not read any of Rohmer's work before now.   I still think I'll give Fu-Manchu a big pass, but I have ordered two more volumes of Rohmer's Egypt-based tales from Stark House now that I've discovered him.  My many thanks for my copy along with my apologies for taking me nearly a month to get my thoughts down.  Definitely recommended for serious readers of old pulp. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Through the Night Like a Snake: Latin American Horror Stories

Two Lines Press / Calico
215 pp


I think I'm finally back from my long hiatus caused by the when-it-rains-it-pours syndrome that seems to plague my house every so often and just knocks me mentally on my can.  I've declared June a drama-free,  stress-free month here so it may actually last a while.  

I don't remember where I first heard about this book but I was so excited for its release that I preordered it back in December of 2023.   Through the Night Like a Snake is volume of ten dark and beyond-edgy stories written by "an ensemble cast of contemporary Latin American writers,"  with each translator's name featured prominently at the beginning of each new tale.  It is also the ninth in the  Calico series of books published by Two Lines Press, which as posted at the blog at the Center for Translation, is 
"dedicated to capturing vanguard works of translated literature -- curated around a particular theme, region, language, historical moment or style ..." 
As also stated on that blog post, the series is an opportunity to learn from translators "what's being left unread by English readers," which is the bottom-line draw for me.  

 In the editor's introduction to this volume (not included in the finished product but so generously provided by Kelsey at Two Lines Press via PDF),  Sarah Coolidge refers to a subgenre called  "narrativa de lo inusual," a phrase coined by literature professor Carmen Alemany Bay. I'd come across this term last year while reading Mariana Enriquez's Our Share of Night, while looking up different articles about the author.   Alemany Bay is quoted by Benjamin Russell in his 2022 article in the New York Times entitled "Women, Horror and Fantasy Capture Everyday Struggle," saying that  the "depictions of normal life" offered by these writers  "aren't intended to heighten the effect of the fantastic or supernatural; instead the unreal is used to sharpen readers' view of what's true." The style reminds me somewhat of reading  Bora Chung's Cursed Bunny, where she also used the strange to bring real-world horrors more clearly into focus.  

 I'll offer just a few examples of what's in this book, beginning with the first story.  I've always believed that an anthology should start with an offering that points to what a reader can expect from the rest, and if the idea here is to examine modern anxieties of the realities of life in different parts of Latin America, then  "Bone Animals" by Tomas Downey (translated by Sarah Moses) definitely succeeds.  After reading that one, I couldn't wait to get on with the rest.  In this story, a family has been "moving from village to village" over several months, "unable to find shelter or work," and they've just been asked to leave the school where they've been sleeping. Luckily, they are told about a shack that doesn't belong to anyone -- a "single room, just a roof over our heads, really."   They survive by living off the nearby land, and soon discover  a "small, carved animal, almost hidden ..." at first a bobcat, then a piranha, which "could have only been carved by an impossibly skilled hand."   They are cleaned, collected and displayed in a corner, and soon multiply with more discoveries.  However, as the collection begins to grow, things begin to take a dark, thoroughly unexpected and frightening turn.  "The House of Compassion" by Camila Sosa Villada, translated by Kit Maude, also starts on a normal note, but then takes off in a direction that I guarantee nobody will expect.    I was so in awe of this the author's writing that I immediately bought two of her books, I'm a Fool to Want You and Bad Girls, also translated by Kit Maude.     Flor de Ceibo (named after the national flower of Argentina) is a travesti sex worker in a rural area on the Córdoba Pampas, where the highway is plagued by a large number of car crashes; as we're told, "the side of the road is littered in crosses." After getting caught robbing her clients one day, they come after her, and during a chase through a cornfield, she collapses.  The next thing she knows, she is waking up at the convent of the Sisters of Compassion, where the nuns are taking care of her  and also a number of dogs -- evidently the convent doubles as a sort of dog sanctuary.  When she's feeling better and is ready to leave, the  dog Nené has asked the nuns to keep her there is not allowed to go.  Believe it or not, it gets weirder and more mystical/horrific from there.   I had to read this story twice and it still kept me awake after finishing it, and it turned out to be my favorite.    "Rabbits" by Anotonio Diaz Oliva (ADO -- translated by Lisa Dillman) is another fine tale, set in a commune/cult in Chile during the time of the Pinochet government.  A former member looks back to his experiences there,  a place of "old fogeys willing to sacrifice anything, even their families, to avoid confronting what was happening on the outside ..."  while slowly revealing the truth of what happened on the inside.   A story by Mariana Enriquez is also included here with her "That Summer in the Dark," translated by Megan McDowell.   In this story, as in Our Share of Night, Argentina's past is part of the contemporary moment.    It is the summer of 1989 in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Las Torres, a time of rolling blackouts due to a lack of funding. As the narrator notes, it was also a time of "energy crisis, hyperinflation, carry trade, due obedience, pink plague ... and there was no future."   It was during that hot summer that she and her friend "got obsessed with serial killers" bemoaning the fact that Argentina hasn't had any.  It's only when a murder hits close to home that she feels things shift, with "the crime" that "did us all good."   

Considering that there are only ten stories in this book, these authors manage to cover a wide scope of issues that range from the political to the personal, engaging with issues that are not only relevant within geographical boundaries, but which also, in some cases, take on universal importance, especially for women. At the same time, the actual horror content is solid enough to please readers of more sophisticated work in the genre, so it's a win-win all around.  

Most definitely and very highly recommended.  I loved it.