One of my absolute favourite pieces of music.
And you can play it anytime, not just on Saturday nights.
One of my absolute favourite pieces of music.
And you can play it anytime, not just on Saturday nights.
Following on from Monday’s post, the fifth and final part of a feature on ‘recent’ releases from American publisher Fedogan & Bremer that originally appeared in Black Static #55:-
FEDOGAN & BREMER (continued)
Our final title, THE MADNESS OF DR. CALIGARI (F&B hc, 366pp, trade $39.95/limited $125) is due for release on the 31st of October, a date that feels significant to me though I can’t recall why. Harry O. Morris provides the cover, while interior artwork comes courtesy of Nick Gucker and Gahan Wilson. After an introduction by editor Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. this anthology of stories inspired by the 1920 German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari opens with ‘The Words Between’ by Ramsey Campbell. It’s the story of Ross, who is taking a course in film studies and writing an essay on Caligari, but the reality of the film infects his own life, culminating in an act of violence. Reality displacement is used so effectively and insidiously that we can’t really be sure if the film has unhinged Ross or is simply a focus for his own obsession, and so like its subject matter the story blurs the boundaries between reality and our mental states.
Julia starts to sleepwalk in ‘Take a Walk in the Night, My Love’ by Damien Angelica Walters, and this is the start of a readjustment in reality, with her eventual discovery that all the things she believes to be real are an illusion, but with a final caveat that turns the situation around yet again. It’s a clever story, with a subtext that touches on misogyny and the use of women as objects, while at the same time providing a different context, one in which two unhappy people will submit to anything to find a release from their woes. From Rhys Hughes we have ‘Confessions of a Medicated Lurker’, the first person account of a man who claims to be both a doctor and an inmate in an asylum, conjecturing as to the cause of his condition, but while the story is filled with striking imagery and ideas it ultimately doesn’t really seem to go anywhere, just fizzles out. In ‘Conversion’ by Robert Levy a therapist uses a combination of hypnotism, aversion therapy, and positive reinforcement to “cure” a young man of his homosexual tendencies, but in doing so he creates a monster. Painstakingly detailing each step of the process, it’s a powerful story that casts a jaundiced eye over certain psychiatric practices, while reinventing the Caligari material in a thoroughly modern context.
A woman faking catatonia is a patient in an asylum in ‘A Rebellious House’ by Maura McHugh, but the doctors conduct occult experiments on their patients that result in their acquiring new powers and transcending their reality. Compelling and intriguing, this is a story that incorporates Caligari themes into the ancient mystery rites, but in doing so it rises above the source material to become something truly triumphant as the patients gain power over their captors, the ones who would use them. And of course there is an element of ambiguity, the possibility that it is all simply a theatrical drama, as claimed by one of the doctors. If I’m reading it rightly, David Nickle’s ‘The Long Dream’ is told from the viewpoint of psychiatrists who believe that Germany has gone mad with the rise to power of the Nazis. Their patient Conrad is a man who thinks that he lives in another reality and this is the dream, and from the perspective of the narrators civilisation itself is sleepwalking into the abyss. Obliquely told it is a story that requires more than one reading to get the full benefit, with layers upon layers of meaning. ‘Eyes Looking’ by Janice Lee is the tale of a man listing his regrets as the first step in a course of treatment that will see him taken back into society. It’s an exercise in tone of voice and perhaps valid on that level, but personally I didn’t see any real point to it.
There’s an X-Men vibe going on in Richard Gavin’s ‘Breathing Black Angles’ with the world ruled by the Manifest who wish to eliminate all darkness – both the physical absence of light and that darkness which arises in the hearts of (predominantly) women. Caligari runs a state sponsored asylum where certain women are given sanctuary and taught to use their powers. It’s a strange story and perhaps only present in this anthology because of the use of Caligari’s name, but at the same time the prose grips and the hint that something of darkness will always exist, is a necessary precondition of human existence, despite authoritarian attempts to stamp everyone from the same mould, is a powerful message. ‘Somnambule’ is the name of an expensive perfume in S.P. Miskowski’s story (and perhaps in the real world also – these things are outside my experience). A young woman relates to her friend how she acquired a bottle, the account one of abuse and madness, with the suggestion of a hypnotherapist’s intervention. Compulsively readable and with superb characterisation, it’s a tale that underlines the shittiness of so many people’s lives and how we can find pleasure in the smallest of things.
Nathan Carson’s ‘The Projection Booth’ is the story of asylum inmate Cecil, the failed love affair, psychedelic trip and act of murder that led him to be there. It’s an immersive story, one in which we feel sympathy for the character and can empathise with what happens to him, right up to the final, shocking denouement when we are forced to re-evaluate everything we have learned. More science fiction than horror, ‘The Mayor of Ephemera’ by Jeffrey Thomas has the inhabitants of that city abandoning their bodies to become immortal dreamers, with only Dr. Phemorus remaining awake and using his condition to usher in the disaster he foretold. The story cleverly reverses the usual dichotomy of Caligari, with all the characters dreamers and somnambulists, except for the one who is the killer. There’s an equally novel twist in Nadia Bulkin’s ‘Et Spiritus Sancti’ with the story reinvented as political drama, with all the main characters from the film given different roles in a power struggle for the throne. There’s a lot going on here – differences of perception, the idea of love as control mechanism, and, perhaps more controversially, the concept of benevolent despotism as a plot desiderata. We are adrift in morally ambiguous waters.
In ‘Blackstone: A Hollywood Gothic’ by Orrin Grey we find Caligari and his somnambulist assisting on the set of a 1940s horror movie, and preying on members of the production to prolong his unnatural lifespan. An archetypal horror story, it is rich in period detail, with the bonus of being told from the perspective of a black, female, scriptwriter, and builds up tension admirably before delivering a delicious end twist. Reggie Oliver’s story has a promising young composer who is employed by a famous choreographer to write ‘The Ballet of Dr. Caligari’, but Sir Daniel has plans that reach far beyond any dance performance in this gloriously sinister tale. Rich in suggestion and with a wealth of touches of incidental detail, plus intriguing characters and an understated ending, this is typical Oliver and one of the strongest stories in the anthology.
From Cody Goodfellow we have ‘Bellmer’s Bride or, The Game of the Doll’ which pitches the madness of the Third Reich in its final days against an older form of insanity, one where reality itself is up for grabs. As a Nazi officer desperately casts round for a way out he encounters the hypnotist Caligari, whose experiments might be responsible for the Reich itself, and with lessons learned from the artist Hans Bellmer the madman has infected a nation. In your face from the very start, it’s a story that keeps on throwing lurid imagery and acts of outrage at the page in a welter of steadily escalating madness. A doctor uses experimental methods to cure ‘The Insomniac Who Slept Forever’ in Michael Griffin’s story, but it all read a little too obliquely for my liking, with the lines between sleep and wakefulness, dream and reality blurred past recognition and a feeling that the author isn’t quite sure where to go with this story. Written in the form of three separate text strands tumbling down the page, Paul Tremblay gives us ‘Further Questions for the Somnambulist’ encapsulating the concerns of a woman, a man, and a child. What emerges from all of this is that while our questions are differently phrased the underlying concerns are pretty much the same: a need for reassurance that life will go on, that those who claim to love us are telling the truth, that there is some point to it all, and finally with the somnambulist’s answer all of it seems to get swept away.
Michael Cisco’s ‘The Righteousness of Conical Men’ is perhaps the most challenging piece in the anthology. Wilson is assigned to investigate the death of Councillor Hensig, who worked as a hypnotherapist and whose eyes, hands, and larynx have subsequently been taken from the body. So far, so straightforward, but the story is set in a milieu where “everyone was a doctor, everyone was named Wilson, everyone was rushing somewhere on official business, everyone wore a high-crowned conical hat, everyone had on their ‘cool sunglasses,’ everyone was conducting an important investigation, everyone was a patient” as if to underline the fact that this is fiction, artifice, and through the prose contortions capture something of the angularity of the original film sets. The net result is a fascinating and bravura performance, but one where I’m not entirely sure that substance is on a level footing with style. Ah, but what a wonderful style it is.
One of my favourite pieces, ‘That Nature Which Peers Out in Sleep’ by Molly Tanzer is a warm, delightful story that tells of a DVD store clerk whose sexuality has taken the form of a fetish focused on the 1920 film of Caligari and how that plays out in the real world. Unrestrained and non-judgemental, it’s a witty and totally convincing account of an unusual fetish, and the people who make such things work for themselves. Written in an impressionistic style, ‘A Sleeping Life’ by Daniel Mills tells of the life of a somnambulist and how he is taken advantage of by others, along the way presenting a picture of pre-WWI Germany and state corruption. It’s intriguing and vivid, but probably needs more than the one reading to get the full sense out of it.
John Langan’s ‘To See, To Be Seen’ is another highlight of the collection, told from the perspective of a man involved in emptying old houses that have been repossessed by the banks. In one such they discover the coffin of the somnambulist Cesare, a movie prop that because of its chequered history has acquired potent occult power and is subsequently used in a dangerous ritual. The matter of fact style of telling is what counts here, with a wealth of tiny details that help to bring the story to life and confer authenticity on what is happening, so that we believe in and care for the character, and at the end there is a truly unsettling monster let loose, one that will stick in the reader’s memory. ‘Caligarism’ by Gemma Files comes at things from a more oblique angle, with Winn trying to write an essay on the subject of Caligari but her efforts constantly undermined by the interruptions of flatmate Claire and a therapist who is there to treat one of them, but we’re never quite sure which. Constantly wrong footing the reader it’s a story that asks questions about the nature of reality, about the roles of the people in our lives, and finally seems to pose the answer that everything is cinema, is performance. It was an unusual end to an unusual collection, one in which not quite everything worked for me, but the best stories were all rather splendid, even if on occasion they did seem to take liberties with the professed theme of the anthology.
Idris Elba is Roland.
Following on from last Friday’s post, the fourth part of a feature on ‘recent’ releases from American publisher Fedogan & Bremer that originally appeared in Black Static #55:-
FEDOGAN & BREMER (continued)
John Pelan’s collection DARKNESS, MY OLD FRIEND (F&B hc, 232pp, trade $34.95/limited $100) opens with an introduction by Ramsey Campbell in which he identifies Pelan’s pulp antecedents and comments briefly on the stories that follow. Many of these stories are set in a pub called The Smoking Leg, with our writer protagonist regaled with tall stories from either barman Ian or one of the regulars. Such is the provenance of opening story ‘The Sailor Home from the Sea’ with Arne telling of his time on a fishing boat, the sadomasochistic relationship between skipper Eric and the woman Tanya and what came of it, the terrible revenant that stalks him and other members of that crew. It’s a fairly predictable outing, with the sexual aspects the one element that doesn’t seem entirely clichéd, but done with a real zest and some vivid, unsettling images that elevate it above the familiar material.
‘An Antique Vintage’ takes another familiar template, with a wealthy man purchasing an old house with a chequered history and finding that the reality is so much worse than the stories hint, telling his truth in a document that will be found by those who come after. Again, it’s all rather splendidly done, with the reader’s interest piqued by the way in which Pelan deftly dispenses compelling details and the lurid imagery with which they are sometimes accompanied, a barrage of effects that mounts assuredly to a climax, and underlying all that the possibility that it might simply be a case of an unreliable (insane) narrator. It was a heady and entertaining brew. We’re in Machen territory with ‘Old Songs Waken’, the account of an encounter with the numinous in the wilds of Wales, both the setting and the train of events never less than convincing, and the strong suggestion that the old ways are always there, waiting for their moment to push through into our world. ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’ has a millionaire buy a house that appears to be haunted by the ghost of a nymphomaniac mental patient who killed herself when it was a halfway house for disturbed teenagers, and finding that regardless of the threat to those near him, he rather likes being the love object of this entity. Fascinating as all that is, Pelan rings extra changes on the material by offering us his character’s genius loci explanation for hauntings, and adds a modicum of humour through use of a mynah bird.
Street people find a safe place in Seattle, but the protection offered by the murderous Longcoat in ‘Lord of the Jungle’ comes with a high price. Pelan is excellent at capturing the desperation of broken lives, the things that these people will accept to feel safe, if only for a moment, and there is in his story an element of condemnation of an uncaring society, with hints in the theme of Ellison’s Deathbird Stories, the appeal to some of new and bloodier gods. In ‘Twins’ a maker of customised dolls suspects that one of his customers is abusing her daughter, this sinister little tale moving along neatly to a chilling end twist, one that the reader will have seen coming but which is no less effective because of that. ‘TV Eye’ is a tale of mounting madness, the first person account of a man who believes that aliens walk among us and are recording our actions by means of concealed cameras. Told in a matter of fact and entirely reasonable manner, once again this is a story whose chilling end reveal elevates the material above the familiar and formulaic elements inherent in its use of genre tropes. A psychiatrist releases repressed memories of childhood satanic abuse in his patient in ‘Memories Are Made of This’, but again the story comes with a neat twist after a deft and convincing build up.
Spectral vengeance is involved in ‘Armies of the Night’ when a man’s obsession with creating military dioramas alienates his wife and leads to murder. Of course Pelan leaves room for a psychological explanation, with guilt as a motive behind what happens, while underlying it all is a skilfully wrought portrait of an unhealthy obsession. In ‘For Art’s Sake’ a selection of spoiled and soiled aesthetes are invited to a private viewing of the latest work by transgressive artist Stonebraker, with disturbing results when they see the most horrid thing of all. I wasn’t convinced at all by the final revelation here, with its echoes of Dorian Gray, but Pelan is excellent at portraying the art world, with its love of controversy, and the kind of people who are attracted to extreme material (and perhaps as an aside there is an invitation to self-examination for horror fans implicit in the material). A man returns to the isolated community in which he was born and raised in ‘Homecoming’, bringing back bad memories of the past and revelations about the nature of rural magic in a story that holds the interest, but doesn’t quite seem to achieve whatever effect it was aiming for.
In ‘Spider’ a man is haunted by the illusion that a spider tattoo is moving up his arm, with the reader left to discover the back and end story. It’s competently done, with a love of the material obvious, even if the story turns out to be entirely predictable, especially in the end twist. An academic is recruited by the military to investigate a strange phenomenon in Afghanistan, but comes to the realisation that he is ‘An Outsider’ and charged with protecting gateways between the worlds. This is the most far reaching of these stories, one that attempts to recreate the doomed cosmic outlook of Lovecraft, albeit in a story that feels rather artificial and more like something Burroughs would have manufactured in his Barsoom days than the eeriness that was needed. The desired sense of cosmic awe felt very muted to me. Sherlock Holmes investigates ‘The Mystery of the Worm’, getting drawn into a plot by Dr Nikola to achieve immortality through summoning ancient entities from beyond the stars, the story a delightful conflation of various literary oeuvres, never less than fun to read and with deft touches of detail for the cognoscenti to pick up on.
Written in the form of a letter, ‘Blind Chivvy, Green Door’ tells of two poets on a glorified pub crawl and how they learned that the age of poetry is past. It’s a fascinating concept, with the rivalry between Greek gods culminating in the binding of Apollo and the ascendancy of warlike spirits, so that the story is an elegy for the passing of better times and grim foreboding of what our future holds. Gangsters from Chicago head ‘Out West’ in search of new territory to exploit, but find that a small town holds terrors they couldn’t comprehend. It’s an engaging read with a neat end allusion to Innsmouth, but overall doesn’t really have much substance to it and the characters felt very clichéd. A librarian’s interest in a homeless man who comes to spend the day in his library leads him to take a bus to the ‘Last Stop’ in a story whose plot could be seen as a metaphor for xenophobia. Fear of the other is at the heart of this tale, with those who are different to be suspected, and in this case those suspicions are entirely justified, though equally it is Schumann’s low level nastiness that leads him to his fate.
We return to the Smoking Leg for our last offering, this time told by the barroom drunk who, in ‘Curly’s Story’, explains why he is afraid of spiders, telling of a hunting expedition and encounter with a giant arachnid. Despite all the horror, it’s a light-hearted and fun end to a showcase collection that is never less than entertaining, with author Pelan putting a brand new shine on old tropes and familiar plotlines, along the way dropping literary references that genre aficionados will have no end of fun picking up on. Complementing the text are some striking black and white (but heavy on the black) and evocative images courtesy of artist Allen Koszowski.
TO BE CONTINUED
This is absolutely marvellous.
Following on from Monday’s post, the third part of a feature on ‘recent’ releases from American publisher Fedogan & Bremer that originally appeared in Black Static #55:-
FEDOGAN & BREMER (continued)
Moving on, Joshi provides an introduction to the collection AWAITING STRANGE GODS (F&B hc, 278pp, trade $39.95/limited $125) in which he lauds author Darrell Schweitzer as “a Renaissance man” in the realm of imaginative fiction. Artist Tim Kirk provides the cover and interior illustrations for this collection of ‘Weird and Lovecraftian Fictions’. Opening proceedings is the evocatively titled ‘Envy, the Gardens of Ynath, and the Sin of Cain’. It’s the story of Opie, who in his youth becomes a willing disciple of the visionary Justin, whose family trade in secret knowledge, but when the promise of elevation is reneged on Opie strikes out on a course of his own. At heart the story is one of abuse and betrayal, of wanting to find the ineffable and being consumed by the quest, but by way of counterpoint to each other we have competing visions of the marvellous and the happiness of an ordinary life, showing how easily the one can turn sour and give sustenance to our hope for the other.
‘Hanged Man and Ghost’ is the name of a game played by children in the isolated community of Chorazin, but the heart of the tale has to do with their strange religious practices and how these effect outsider Miss White, the schoolteacher who really doesn’t have a clue what she has got herself into. It’s a tale that works through the power of suggestion, with more revealed as the narrative progresses and innocent things assuming ominous qualities, culminating in a tongue in cheek ending. Caroline, the young protagonist of ‘Sometimes You Have to Shout about It’, finds herself in a household where witchcraft holds sway, but uses her own special ability to redress the balance of power in her favour in a subtle, clever story, one where the bad people get just what they deserve.
The threat of Nyarlathotep’s return along with the other Elder Gods is behind the story of ‘Stragglers from Carrhae’, two Roman legionaries who, having survived the massacre, must deal with the realisation that our universe is not as neatly ordered as they had previously believed. It is a story in which horror is piled upon horror, with the atrocities of war seen as only the tip of some terrible iceberg. A troop of knights returning home from the Crusades stumble across a castle inhabited by ‘The Eater of Hours’ in a hallucinatory story where their own sins leave the men vulnerable, and while the surface adventure is gripping enough the story has complexities that hint at the true nature of reality, and call into question exactly who is relating the tale.
When his parents are killed in a shipwreck Jimmy becomes the ward of Lord Blessingleigh but ‘The Runners Beyond the Wall’ warn him of what his benefactor intends and show Jimmy the way to cheat his destiny. It is a story which reminded me strongly of MRJ’s ‘Lost Hearts’, cleverly done and with the victim turning the tables on his malefactor in the most impressive way. ‘On the Eastbound Train’ wasn’t entirely to my liking. The tale of an academic who discovers rather more than he is prepared to accept when he delves into the truth behind an ancient text, the story is subtle and full of dark hints of the unknown, but to my mind suffered from an overuse of ambiguity and suggestion, a failure to pin things down, and so was vaguely dissatisfying. There’s a similar feel of just missing the target to ‘Howling in the Dark’, which is filled with dramatic effects and hints of something cosmic and dreadful, none of which ever become greater than the sum of their parts. It’s saved though by an interesting subtext on the idea of a man who cannot become sufficiently detached from the human side of his nature to be accepted by the elder beings who promise him so much more than mortal life has to offer.
Cthulhu meets the counterculture in the delightful and amusing tale of ‘The Head Shop in Arkham’, with reality filtered through the medium of a comic book written by a madman, or something like that. Name dropping as it goes, this story was a delicious concoction, capturing the flavour of Lovecraft and R. Crumb, effortlessly witty and at the same time slightly minatory, one of my very favourites in the collection. There’s a rite of passage feel to ‘Innsmouth Idyll’ as a teenager falls in love with a girl and learns of his true heritage, but at the same time it has a loss of innocence quality to the text, with the realisation for the protagonist that after this everything will be changed. ‘Class Reunion’ presents us with the anti-Hogwarts, with the class of 65 returning to their alma mater for a bloody reunion, their memories of the past restored but too late to do them any good. It’s an intriguing idea, though one whose execution felt a little too rough round the edges for my liking.
We return to Chorazin in ‘Why We Do It’ with Howard luring a young woman back to be the sacrifice in their ritual, the story short and one where everyone knows what is really going on except the victim, with a dash of humour to carry things to their appointed end. Inspired by ‘Pickman’s Model’, ‘The Warm’ examines the relationship between an artist and the ghoul who poses for him, each taking on attributes and qualities of the other, so that the dividing line between the two wears thin. A bookshop owner is fascinated by the tales of a famous writer who befriends him, finally coming to realise that his friend really can travel through dimensions courtesy of what he refers to as “lines of touch” or ‘Spiderwebs in the Dark’, but there are also spiders, or a curious form of vermin that infects the life of both. It is a fascinating story, one rich in ideas and playing deftly with clichés of the genre, such as having the protagonist relate his story from the confines of a madhouse, here done with such verve that there is a certain freshness to them. ‘The Corpse Detective’ reads like a Sam Spade story if Hammett had been a surrealist, and while I found it fascinating I couldn’t make much sense of what was taking place on the page, though I felt I should be able to. Chalk one up to reader failure. ‘Jimmy Bunny’ and his friend Annabel pillage abandoned houses, but when they enter a certain building for Jimmy it brings back to him the terrible days of his childhood and the nightmare figure of his father. In ways the house acts as a palace of memory, with Jimmy unable to escape the monsters of his past, the story subtle and disturbing.
There’s a touch of Clark Ashton Smith about the next two stories. The young poet Adamphos seeks arcane knowledge to defeat his rival and win the heart of a princess in ‘The Last of the Black Wine’, but all his plans are brought to nothing by the passage of time until he is left only with the ultimate nullity of existence, coming to see that as a mercy. It is a dazzling display, one which captures perfectly the flavour of its inspiration, with lush language and vivid imagery throughout. Dreams and visions blur into each other ‘In Old Commoriom’, the story’s protagonist offered sights of such beauty and terror that he is blinded to his own fate in a tale with more than a touch of irony about it. The familiar trope of a madman recounting some greater truth recurs in ‘The Clockwork King, the Queen of Glass, and the Man with a Hundred Knives’, done with a startling vibrancy and offering us a colourful and haunting vision of the reality that underlies our own.
The next two stories are co-written with Jason Van Hollander. Artist Jodie encounters ‘The Scroll of the Worm’ and has her understanding of reality and concept of self undermined in a macabre, hallucinogenic trip into the twilight zone, one filled with disturbing imagery and undercut by knowledge of the art world that adds verisimilitude to the narrative. ‘Those of the Air’ reads like an updating of ‘The Dunwich Horror’, with Jerry returning to the family home to aid in the final transformation of his horribly deformed brother Jeffrey. In a way it’s a sad story, one of brotherly love and how you can’t run away from your obligations, and in the final twist something akin to the ugly duckling transformed into a beautiful swan, though the authors are not indifferent to the horror of what is happening either, with blood sacrifice required as part of the ritual of change.
Finally, Schweitzer flies solo again for ‘Ghost Dancing’ in which the Elder Gods have returned and the world is in a perilous state, which is the background for Eric performing the good deed he failed to do when a young man. It’s a bittersweet tale, one that marks the nullity of human action, but at the same time hints at the possibility of personal redemption. It marks a fitting end to a strong collection, one in which the author plays with familiar tropes and ideas, most of the time ringing new changes and making them his own.
TO BE CONTINUED
The Horror genre’s answer to Toy Story takes a turn for the worse/better (delete as appropriate).