Filler content in translation – Part 2

And following on from Monday’s post, here’s the second part of the feature on horror in translation that originally appeared in Black Static #61:-

SHOCKING ALL OVER THE WORLD (continued)

Given his name I’d expected Sascha Arango to be either Spanish or Portuguese, but in fact he is German, and the protagonist of his debut novel, THE TRUTH AND OTHER LIES (Simon & Schuster pb, 352pp, £7.99), has an Anglophone name while the never named setting feels distinctly Mediterranean. Henry Hayden has everything going for him – he is a critically acclaimed and bestselling novelist, he has a beautiful wife and a lovely house, more money than Croesus. But Henry has secrets, darker than most, and when the young woman he is having an affair with gets pregnant the applecart of his life looks set to overturn, and Henry will do anything to prevent that happening.

This book is pretty much an open mystery in that Henry’s big secret is revealed early on, though there are some murky events in his past that are the subject of a later revelation, with the book engaging the reader’s interest on the level of wondering how he will get away with what he does, always staying one step ahead of the police. The book’s blurbs raise comparisons to Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley character, and from what I know of that, which isn’t really a lot beyond the Matt Damon film, it’s a fair cop, but at the same time this is the lightweight version of the character. We’re asked to believe that Henry is utterly amoral and ruthless, but all his problems seem to stem from an inability to say no to the pregnant girlfriend, who he doesn’t care for as much as he does his wife. His actions seem more accidental and spur of the moment than intended, criminal acts that he just blunders into, with any planning done in retrospect. Negligent homicide is par for the course as far as this character is concerned (and yes, the same could be said of Tom Ripley for the most part, at least in the Damon interpretation of the character). But, all blurbs aside, at bottom Henry is not some cold, calculating criminal mastermind, but somebody who just seems to be bumbling through.

And there is little consistency to his character either, with Henry pausing to commit acts that would see him in line for the Good Samaritan of the Year Award, such as saving the life of the unofficial biographer who is about to disrupt his own, or surreptitiously paying for repairs to a friend’s fishing vessel. Perhaps the detachment with which he does these things is intended to telegraph his sociopathy, but to me it just felt like the author was making it all up as he went along, with little regard for character consistency. I’m not saying that Arango’s depiction of Henry’s character is inaccurate in psychological terms, but that it doesn’t feel convincing. I never had the sense that there was any real depth to this book, or that events were playing out as they did for any reason other than author whim. It was entertaining in a pass the time sort of way, but Henry Hayden is not in contention to be one of the great villains of fiction, another Ripley or Hannibal Lecter, and I suspect I will have forgotten nearly everything about the book in a few months’ time. Oh, and anyone who takes Henry as a role model for the writing life is way overdue a reality enema.

Scandinavian noir is very much in fashion at the moment. THE CHOSEN (Simon & Schuster pb, 592pp, £7.99) by Kristina Ohlsson is the fifth volume in a series detailing the work of an elite Swedish police unit headed up by Alex Recht and investigative analyst Fredrika Bergman. It opens with a pre-school teacher getting shot in front of a Jewish school in Stockholm and continues with the abduction of two Jewish boys, who later turn up dead with paper bags over their heads on which are drawn silly faces. The case is linked to a Jewish urban legend, that of a supernatural killer called the Paper Boy, a bogeyman figure used by parents to keep their young under control. But because of the Jewish angle and possibility that this is a hate crime, the police have to seek the help of the security services, and Recht’s contact Eden Lundell is holding back information for reasons of her own, while Mossad agent Efraim Kiel wanders in and out of the action at will.

I had some reservations about this. A great deal of the plot hinges on the fact that the parents of the missing boys are holding back information for no good reason, thus forcing the police to pursue various red herrings and allowing a lot of padding to gather. There is an element of plot convenience in that a former colleague of Recht’s finds himself employed by the Jewish community as security head, putting him in the ideal place to drip feed clues to his former boss. And I was rather irritated by the interludes which foreshadow the murder of more children, especially as they were slanted to muddy victim identity issues for the reader, a tactic that in these circumstances felt rather unnecessary and overly contrived (e.g. let’s have two of our female leads out of town, let’s have them both carrying violins).

Against all that, there are engaging characters here, each with their own back stories and personal problems that add depth to the story, the interplay between the two lead investigators a particular delight and entirely credible. There is a twisty and absorbing mystery to be solved, and some satisfyingly convoluted plot developments. We get insider information on the workings of the intelligence community and the police, all of which I’m going to guess is kosher given the author’s background as a political scientist and Counter-Terrorism Officer. The Swedish setting is magnificently realised, with the cold seeping off the page and the icy grandeur of the buildings casting their shadow over the story. Elsewhere we have trips to London and Israel, the latter especially effective in conveying the sense of another land and culture, one where different rules apply. There is a feeling of verisimilitude to the whole enterprise, that this is how the police operate. And at the same time the Paper Boy angle adds a degree of resonance, the idea that actually this could be a whole lot weirder than we, or the characters, believe or expect. Finally, perhaps the thing I liked the most, at the end the police think they have cracked the case, but actually it is only we, the readers, who have the whole story. Overall this was a gripping and enjoyable read, and I’d have no hesitation in picking up other books by Ohlsson.

(TO BE CONTINUED)

 

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Filler content in translation – Part 1

The first part of a feature on horror in translation that originally appeared in Black Static #61:-

SHOCKING ALL OVER THE WORLD

Back in the Case Notes section of #58 I wanted to do an “in-translation” special, but though we covered some titles by authors for whom English isn’t a first language, for various reasons it wasn’t quite on the scale I’d hoped. This issue we’ll review some of the titles that missed out on that occasion.

Mikel Santiago is a Spanish writer but his first novel, THE LAST NIGHT AT TREMORE BEACH (Simon & Schuster hc, 320pp, £12.99), is set in Ireland. Amsterdam based composer Peter Harper finds his life and career in freefall after the break-up of his marriage. He rents an isolated house in Donegal, one of only two on a two mile stretch of coastline known as Tremore Beach, and goes there to lick his wounds and try to get back in touch with his muse. Harper is befriended by neighbours Leo and Marie Kogan, and starts a friends with benefits thing with local girl Judie, who runs a shop and hostel in nearby Clenhburran, but there are ominous signs not all is well. The Kogans seem to be keeping something from him and Judie suffers from terrible nightmares related to a past event she refuses to talk about. After being struck by lightning, Peter starts to suffer from nightmarish visions of his own, all related to the arrival of killers in a van and the slaughter of his children. Is he suffering from a form of mental illness, or has he developed the premonitory ability possessed by his deceased mother? With the arrival of fifteen year old Beatrice and eight year old Jip for a summer vacation, the need for answers to his problems becomes all the more pressing.

Santiago lived in Ireland for over a decade, and so he knows the setting for his novel well, and part of the appeal of the book is the way in which he brings the wild Donegal coastline to life on the page. His descriptions of rocky outcrops and wind blasted beaches, of the eternal battle between land and sea, with dark clouds glowering overhead, are vivid enough to make the reader want to book a flight straight away. Added to that he gets the feel of small town life pinned down with an almost surgical precision, the idea of living in a place where everybody knows everybody else and their business, where the people aren’t so much inhabitants of the place as characters in its story. Each has their own individual characteristics and charm, so that we can believe in and feel an attraction to such as busybody Laura, while not wanting to be trapped for any length of time in her company. Santiago is equally adept at the characterisation of his main protagonist and his close circle. Peter Harper is a tormented genius, blocked in his work, fearful of turning into his lachrymose and misanthropic father, fearful of losing his children, and, towards the end of the book, fearful of losing his sanity as hellish visions invade his life. Similarly engaging are the precocious Beatrice and Jip, who grasp much more than their father is willing to concede, and his lover Judie who, with her own heavy emotional baggage and back story, is an ideal companion for our hero. Similarly the Kogans make ideal neighbours, bluff Leo who used to be in hotel security and the seemingly ageless Maria with her artistic talent, but just like Judie they have secrets in their past, something that Peter senses but never manages to pin them down on. Even the bad guys are well drawn, with the four assassins who come to town each given their own characteristics and distinguishing traits, as with the vicious Manon, fat Tom, misogynistic Randy, and the borderline competent Frank. They have depth enough to feel credible and yet at the same time enough of the monstrous to make them dangerous.

At bottom this is a crime thriller book, with paranormal trappings courtesy of Peter’s visions, rather similar in method and intent to films like The Eyes of Laura Mars and Solace. Santiago goes to great lengths to make those visions credible, with Peter consulting a specialist in sleep and dreaming, and the unloading of detail about lucid dreaming and the like, so that like Peter we are inevitably drawn to the conclusion that he is either insane or actually having visions. The nature of those visions introduce the most unsettling elements of the novel, with horrific images of death and torment, and for Peter accompanying feelings of despair and hopelessness, but at the same time the realisation that he has been given a chance to change the course of events. The visions do however bring on the one contradiction in the text, with some that seem to literally reflect events that are going to occur and others that appear metaphorical in nature, and while I guess that isn’t something that’s impossible it struck me as strange that Peter himself doesn’t comment on the discrepancy. No matter, as this was first and above all else, a thriller, written with a genuine feel for the characters and setting, fast paced and never less than entertaining, with echoes of John Connolly’s Parker in the tormented figure of Peter Harper.

Gustav Meyrink (1868 – 1932) was an Austrian writer, but the work for which he is probably best known today, 1914 novel THE GOLEM (Dedalus pb, 280pp, £8.99), is set in Prague where the writer lived for twenty years. Its central character is the jeweller and art restorer Athanius Pernath, who lives in the Jewish ghetto and who, in his efforts to help the beautiful Angelina, is drawn into the feud between embittered student Innocence Charousek and the junk dealer Wassertrum. At the same time, Pernath falls under the influence of the saintly Hillel and is attracted to his idealistic daughter Miriam. And lurking in the background is the myth of the golem, a creature brought to life by a rabbi to protect the ghetto’s inhabitants from their enemies according to some, and a manifestation of their collective psyche according to others.

This is a strange and elliptical book, with a convoluted plot in which nothing is what it at first seems, combining themes of mysticism and gutter crime, horror and personal identity. Pernath is a far from reliable narrator – early on we learn that he may have suffered some form of psychotic break, so that his memories of the past are blocked, while a further framing device reveals that he is not at all who he claims to be and the whole story could simply be an act of memory on the part of another. And though it gives the book its title, the golem is a bit player in this production, a monstrous figure that stalks the city streets every thirty years, causing fear wherever it is seen, and between visitations stands alone in an upstairs room to which there is no entrance. To this quasi-metaphysical backdrop Meyrink adds a wealth of detail, primarily to do with the city of Prague itself, which is recreated on the page in real depth – its ghetto, home to the poor; the houses of the elite and the gaols where the innocent and guilty alike linger; the clubs and bars in which decadence and desperation vie for elbow room; the ruins from which we get blurry impressions of past grandeur; the city’s dramatis personae of plotters and adulterers, convicts and lovers, wise men and fools. Guided by others, including his larger than life friends with their stories of forgotten glories, Pernath wanders through it all like a character in a dream, seemingly indifferent to whether he resides in a mansion or a gaol, and ultimately all that he experiences may turn out to be a dream, which is part of Meyrink’s genius. Not everyone will enjoy this book, if I’m allowed a banal observation, but it is an important work of speculative fiction, one that addresses themes and uses methods that still enthral us today. To appreciate where we are going, you need to look back at where we have been, and should you look over your shoulder, Meyrink is one of the figures who dominate the skyline.

(TO BE CONTINUED)

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Filler content with pictures

Reviews of three graphic adaptations that originally appeared in Black Static #61:-

WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS, MORE OR LESS

Meet Hap Collins and Leonard Pine. Hap is an East Texas white boy with a weakness for women who did gaol time as a conscientious objector, while Leonard is a gay, black Vietnam vet with some serious anger management issues. The two are best friends and occasional partners in mayhem; they don’t look for trouble but it has a habit of finding them. The pair recently graduated from the pages of fiction to their own TV series on the Sundance channel, so I guess the time felt right for HAP AND LEONARD: SAVAGE SEASON (Short, Scary Tales Publications hc, 140pp, £39.95), a graphic novel adaptation of the 1990 novel in which writer Joe R. Lansdale introduced the pair to the world.

Trouble this time enters stage left courtesy of Trudy, the long lost love of Hap’s life who wants his help in recovering a lost stash of bank robber’s loot. Trudy and her friends are still chasing the ideals of the sixties, only they’ve swapped flower power for firepower and need the money to buy guns. Hap has long given up on changing the world and will settle for a share of the cash, so agrees to help with Leonard as part of the deal. Which is when things get awfully complicated.

Adapted from its source material by Finnish artist and graphic designer Jussi Piironen, this is a rip roaring adventure tale with pulp antecedents. The plot is full of the expected cross and double cross dealings, and some that are not expected at all, while underlying this is a feeling of sadness at the lost idealism of the hippie era, the way in which only violence seems to change the world, not the power of love. Hap has grown up, but Trudy and her friends are still seeking simple solutions; only their methods have changed, from love and peace to shock and awe. The characterisation is spot on for this kind of work. Trudy is the quintessential femme fatale, a combination of smouldering sex appeal and Machiavellian duplicity, with the rest of her cadre divided between the hopelessly naïve and ruthless killers who are larger than life and twice as nasty. The heart of the book lies in the interplay between Hap and Leonard, two men who respect each other’s differences, but not to the point where they won’t take the piss out of each other, with their no holds barred banter perhaps the greatest of the many delights on offer. They are perfectly matched sparring partners, the concept of bromance taken to another level. Piironen’s artwork captures the feel of the story with a muted palette, predominantly of muddy browns and septic greys that convey mood and detail with equal aplomb. He has done Lansdale proud, and overall this is a mighty fine package, as Joe himself might say.

The book is available in a “Signed & Numbered Oversized Deluxe Limited Hardcover” edition of 270 copies worldwide, and hopefully it won’t be the last of Hap and Leonard’s adventures that we see in this format. For full details check out the publisher’s website at sstpublications.co.uk

I. N. J. Culbard is probably most familiar to genre readers for his award winning adaptations of stories by H. P. Lovecraft, but now he turns his talents in the direction of a lesser known writer, but one of importance to weird fiction and highly praised by Lovecraft himself. In his lifetime Robert W. Chambers (1865 – 1933) was primarily known as a writer of romantic fiction, but to posterity he is chiefly remembered for the highly influential short story collection THE KING IN YELLOW (SelfMadeHero pb, 144pp, £14.99) containing several weird tales linked by a play with the same title that is credited with driving people mad. Culbard adapts four of these stories.

Leading off is ‘The Repairer of Reputations’ set in a (then) future USA and told from the viewpoint of unreliable narrator Hildred Castaigne, who believes that one of his acquaintances is the organiser of a vast conspiracy that will usher in The Imperial Dynasty of America with Hildred as King. It is a story rich in mystery and madness, with the perverse psychology of both Castaigne and society itself under the microscope and an elusive plotline that tantalises with the possibilities contained within its warp and weft. Next up we have ‘The Mask’, an uplifting tale of love and transformation with a twist in the tale, while in ‘The Yellow Sign’ an artist is pursued by the night watchman of a local church, a nightmarish figure who is something other than human. The cycle ends with ‘In the Court of the Dragon’, whose protagonist is stalked by a preternaturally pale and thin church organist, culminating in a visionary and cosmic finale.

The stories are far more complex than my summations might suggest, with a wealth of incidental detail and visual treats. Culbard deftly weaves clues and story links into the work, with the minatory play and its signifiers implicit in the text, while his artwork perfectly evokes the feel of the monstrous rubbing against the everyday, the sense that our happiness is never solid and assured, but always something that exists at the whim of forces we cannot understand and are undone by should we ever perceive them. This is a book that will be appreciated by those familiar with the source material, while at the same time sure to win new converts to Chambers’ oeuvre through the force and clarity of its vision.

Also from SelfMadeHero we have GHOST STORIES OF AN ANTIQUARY, VOLUME 1 (SelfMadeHero pb, 64pp, £9.99) adapting four stories from M. R. James’ seminal volume of ghost stories. The book opens with an introduction by Ramsey Campbell, who succinctly sums up the importance of James (1862 – 1936) to the field of supernatural fiction, followed by four stories adapted by Leah Moore and John Reppion, with a different illustrator in charge of each text.

‘Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook’ is the tale of an Englishman abroad who stumbles across a cursed manuscript, the story beautifully illustrated by Aneke, whose vibrant art put me very much in mind of the glossy comics of my youth, and strips such as Dan Dare and The Trigan Empire. There’s a much darker tone to Kit Buss’ illustrations for ‘Lost Hearts’, the story of an orphan boy whose benefactor has sinister motives at back of his charity, with superb use of shadow and a growing sense of unease engendered on the page. ‘The Mezzotint’ is illustrated by Fouad Mezher, mostly in shades of brown that mimic the muted tones of the mezzotint technique, a clever conceit that brings to life this gripping tale of a curious illustration which changes overnight to the bafflement of its owner. Finally we have ‘The Ash-tree’ with its account of a witch’s curse superbly realised on the page by Alisdair Wood, who renders the eerie feel of the material with consummate skill and conveys the underlying sense of wrongness.

The book serves James well, Moore and Reppion illuminating what was essential in the original works and, in combination with the artists, presenting the reader with evocations of the classic ghost stories that remain faithful to their source but at the same time add an extra frisson of fear and shivery delight that is all their own work. I should also add that Ghost Stories of An Antiquary, Volume 2 was released in October, with four more stories given the graphic treatment – ‘Number 13’, ‘Count Magnus’, ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’, and ‘The Treasure of Abbott Thomas’ – and four more artists given the opportunity to strut their stuff. I’ve not seen the book personally, but the publisher has done a sterling job with Volume 1 and there’s no reason to think they’ll drop the ball for this follow up. And for those who believe ghost stories and Christmas are a match made in Heaven or thereabouts, or have friends on their gift list who feel that way, the timing of this release would seem highly fortuitous.

 

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Filler content with nightjars

A feature on Nightjar Press that originally appeared in Black Static #61:-

QUOTH THE NIGHTJAR

While they remain part of many publishers’ bill of fare, in theory if not in practice, as far as I’m aware within the speculative field Manchester based Nightjar Press is the only publisher to specialise in chapbooks, releasing new volumes at the steady rate of two every six months. And over the past year and a half they have produced six (you probably figured that out for yourself).

Central to JACKDAWS (Nightjar Press chapbook, 11pp, £3.75) by Neil Campbell is the first person narration describing a rural setting where heavy snow and floodwater have completely transformed the landscape, giving it both a magical and minatory feel. Campbell is superb at capturing this vision of a washed out world, the beauty of nature and also the ways in which it can threaten human life, with vivid descriptive writing that brings it to life on the page. And over it all hangs the shadow of the jackdaws, silent observers of all that takes place, knowing far more than we do, if only they could tell. Woven into this text, by means of throwaway remarks and casual asides by the narrator, is the gist of the story, references to the death of a young girl, who may have drowned or perhaps met a more terrible fate.

There are scenes here that ring true from our nightly news feeds, pictures of floral tributes laid by the bereaved and the intrusive presence of the press, police divers going about their work, all of which the narrator observes with a keen eye, but never giving them too much importance. We suspect, but can never really be sure, that we are inside the mind of a killer, and how mundane it is, almost matter of fact or indifferent to the terrible thing that has been done, as if the character were no more invested in what is happening than the floodwaters or the jackdaws. And it is this monstrous indifference that cuts deepest in a remarkable depiction of outsider psychology.

Christopher Burns’ tale THE NUMBERS (Nightjar Press chapbook, 16pp, £3.75) opens with Danny arriving at the farm worked by his brother Martin and wife Sarah, and it is immediately obvious that his presence is not welcome. Danny is not good with numbers and has squandered the proceeds from his share of the family business. Now unable to get a job of any kind, he looks to his family for support, but they also find him to be of no use, more a hindrance than help, and in the past he has blotted his copy book too many times and in too many ways. Slowly Danny’s feelings of self-pity and being the recipient of an injustice mount, and the stage is set for horror.

Burns shows how Danny’s fragile mental state unravels, the feelings of worthlessness that contribute to the inevitable outcome, though there is no hint of any sympathy for the character; Danny’s ills are entirely of his own making and exacerbated by his unwillingness to take responsibility for his actions. The transformation of a peaceful rural setting into a scene of violence is handled with panache, the shift from family visit to terror taking place almost in an instant and as horrific as it is unexpected. Danny is not good with numbers, but in the end, even though he doesn’t count his victims, it seems that people are only numbers to him, their lives to be ended with a chilling casualness. Like ‘Lexicon’, Burns’ previous Nightjar offering, this chapbook is the story of a killer, but here one who has no real reason for what he does beyond self-pity, and as with ‘Jackdaws’ above given an immediacy and relevance by the things we see on the news and read about in the papers. Burns seems to be saying that everywhere is a killing ground and everyone potentially a murderer.

The unnamed protagonist of FURY (Nightjar Press chapbook, 15pp, £3.75) by D. B. Waters is a crime scene investigator called late at night to a house where a family of four have been killed. From the very start, with his supervisor sitting outside the house and unable to function effectively, he realises that this is not going to be an ordinary case, and what awaits him beyond the splintered front door confirms this premonition. As the investigation continues the man’s sense of dread mounts, with further evidence that demonstrates something outré has taken place, not least the way in which the parents and their children have been killed.

In the early stages of this story we have the conflict between routine procedures, established ways of doing things, and the reality of the house which defies all logic and rationality, showing that this is an occasion in which those methods, tried and true though they are, simply won’t work. As the protagonist moves deeper into the house we see increasing signs that nothing here is abiding by the laws of cause and effect that we know and understand, and the sense of dread mounts as Waters deftly lays on his details, so that we too wonder what has so traumatised supervisor Lynn and fear what we will learn as the final pages approach. It is a bravura performance and one in which Waters doesn’t set a foot wrong, but the resolution he provides, with its hint of the protagonist’s complicity in his own undoing, feels weak and tacked on, rather than throwing any real light on what has gone before. Great journey, but not so good on the destination.

In ROUNDS (Nightjar Press chapbook, 12pp, £3.75) by Wyl Menmuir, Alice Hooper is moving into a new flat, even though she is scared of leaving the bosom of her family. As the story progresses we learn that she suffers from panic attacks and is seeing a counsellor. Her emotions become focused on a young girl on a bicycle who she sees making her rounds down the street, and in her imagination she envisages terrible things happening to the girl. The description of the girl’s smile as “satiated ferocity” has about it a hint of vengeance or the demonic even, though this could just be Alice Hooper’s interpretation.

Rounds is a strange and enigmatic tale, with Alice’s anxiety made very real to the reader and the hint of something terrible in her past as its root cause. We cannot say whether the girl is somebody real on whom Alice has fixated, a figment of her imagination, or possibly a ghost. The suggestion implicit in the material is that in some way, shape or form, a girl just like this has appeared in Alice’s past and was the instrument of her undoing, or perhaps she represents the freedom for which Alice longs but can never achieve, having not learnt to ride a bike. The title of the story and the end line suggest a cyclical quality to the events described, that what goes around comes around to quote the old cliché. The power of the work lies in this ambiguity, the sense of a bigger picture, one that the reader and Alice can only suspect is lurking outside in the wild wood seen from Alice’s window.

PAYMON’S TRIO (Nightjar Press chapbook, 16pp, £3.75) begins with aesthete Greville purchasing an occult book from an antiquarian shop, only to find hidden inside the lining of this Infernal Dictionary a musical composition that is dedicated to Paymon, accompanied by a drawing of an extraordinarily ugly man mounted on a dromedary. With two friends who are also musically inclined, he attempts to play the piece with unfortunate consequences for all concerned.

Published more than sixty years after it was written and the only work of author Colette de Curzon, this is a story of supernatural horror, the kind of thing that Reggie Oliver does so well. De Curzon isn’t quite on a par with Oliver, but the story is well told with some nice touches of detail, striking characterisation, and a growing mood of menace, while the payoff is gratifying if not entirely unexpected. It passes the time in an entertaining enough way and I am glad that it finally saw publication, though it feels very much of its time, and I suspect the moment when such a piece might have made a real splash in genre circles has long gone.

Finally we have THE AUTOMATON (Nightjar Press chapbook, 19pp, £3.75) by David Wheldon. Ostensibly a manuscript found among the effects of a British infantryman who fell in the Third Battle of Aisne, this story is set in 1905 and told from the viewpoint of a young man, the son of the caretaker at the Comedy theatre. To raise funds a chess playing machine fashioned in the form of a beautiful woman is introduced into the theatre, and our protagonist becomes fascinated with her. But eventually the regularity with which the automaton wins its matches means that the stream of gamblers dries up, and so the impresario who owns the machine intends to handicap it.

Inevitably this piece will lead to thoughts of the story ‘Moxon’s Master’ by Bierce and Poe’s exposure of ‘Maelzel’s Chess Player’, but Wheldon is his own man and has produced a many layered story in which the nature of the automaton is almost a side issue. The boy’s relationship with the machine is one of fascination and almost love, with his awareness and growing appreciation of its uniqueness and abilities, while to the impresario it means nothing more than a means to riches. The question of machine intelligence is slightly touched on, but always of secondary concern to the motives of human beings. And overlying everything is a sense of sadness and doom impending, with the suggestion that human beings are every bit as programmed and conditioned in the ways they act as any machine, and so we are inevitably marching towards the horrors of World War One and all that has come since. There is very much a feel of the end of things as we know them; that machines will change the world in ways we can only imagine; that our sense of wonder and ideas of value are on their deathbed; that the old class order and everything it entails is slowly passing away, ready to be reduced to its essentials in the fiery furnace of universal war. Ultimately this is a sad story, a fin de siècle piece, powerful for what is implied as much if not more than for what is actually said. I loved it.

Price shown includes postage within the UK and each chapbook is produced in a signed, limited edition of 200 copies. For more details check out the publisher’s website at nightjarpress.weebly.com

 

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Filler content with short story collections – Part 3

The third part of a feature on short story collections that originally appeared in Black Static #61:-

SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS (continued)

From Australia we have THE ABANDONMENT OF GRACE AND EVERYTHING AFTER (Brimstone Press hc, 288pp, AU$16.99) collecting together thirteen stories by Shane Jiraiya Cummings, three of which are original to this collection. In addition we have some forty odd end pages, with samples from Cummings’ other works, and Cummings provides explanatory afterwords to each individual story.

After an introduction by Stephen M. Irwin, we get into things proper with title story ‘The Abandonment of Grace and Everything After’ which has about it something of the film Prophecy as a demon and a fallen angel confront each other and discuss the End of Days. It’s an intriguing piece, Cummings giving an original spin to such matters as the Fall and the coming of the apocalypse, in a story where sparkling dialogue vies for attention with moments of visceral horror. Len is drawn to ‘The Song of Prague’ only to find himself enlisted in an epic conflict on the outcome of which the fate of reality may depend, the story starting slow and thoughtful and then moving to a crescendo of sorts, just like a symphony itself. There’s an old school horror feel to ‘The Garden Shed Pact’ which details a man’s relationship with a fearsome spider, with more than a suggestion of Dahl in the mix. Ultimately it is a slight piece, but nonetheless eminently entertaining.

In hospital and rendered deaf, Blaine finds that he can hear things nobody else can or should have to in ‘Hear No Evil’. The idea is an interesting one, that being deprived of a vital sense can open up our perception in other ways, but Cummings doesn’t really explore the implications so much as use the concept to empower a schlock horror outing that is satisfying but not really convincing in how it plays out with mad doctors committing carnage in the hospital basement. ‘Dark Heart Alley (An Urban Fable)’ contains a powerful evocation of a blighted urban landscape, one in which a remorseless killer stalks his victims, inflicting horrible death. Cummings extrapolates the slasher trope into stranger territory, taking it to a place where creatures from other dimensions fight for a foothold in our world and the desuetude on every side is symptomatic of some spiritual/metaphysical decline. Beautifully written and with striking imagery, engaging characters and novel concepts, this story is one of the highlights of the collection, giving us an original and striking monster and offering food for thought along with the expected thrills and chills.

Summoned to a hotel room in which a young woman has hung herself, Detective Taylor finds evidence of an occult ceremony, but ‘A Picture of Death’ reveals the true and alarming state of affairs. Expertly crafted, this story has the ring of verisimilitude about its depiction of police procedures, such contrastingly mundane matters playing counterpoint to the occult aspects in a piece where only the reader is privy to the whole story. ‘Blood on the Indian Pacific’ combines the romance of a long train journey with the threat of vampirism in a fast paced and gripping story that is superficially entertaining but doesn’t have much to offer in the way of originality other than the setting. As with a long train journey, we enjoy the trip but are slightly disappointed to find ourselves at a place that is really no different from the one we departed. The nadir of the collection for me is reached with ‘Ian’ whose premise might have made a decent flash fiction at two pages but stretches credibility and reader patience at six. Actually credibility was never really an issue, but in this case the attempt at ambiguity didn’t really come off. It might have been better simply to have the story’s protagonist unaware of how strange their situation is and leave the reader to fill in the blanks.

Rising television starlet Danica is abducted in ‘Razor Blade Anthropology (Guerdon for the Beautiful People)’, but the nature and motivations of her captors have about them more than touch of poetic justice. At heart this is a punchline story, initially appearing to give us a depiction of an afterlife of sorts, then snatching the carpet out from under the reader’s feet to reveal something far more intriguing, albeit it does fizzle out somewhat with the slice of black comedy at the end while seeming to promise so much more. ‘The Black Door’ reads like a metaphysical or weird version of Saw with Dr. Innes both threatened and cajoled to step over its threshold. Psychological horror entwines with the supernatural and hints of murder in a story that felt like it had more substance than was actually there, with the final cut feeling like a melange of special effects rather than a journey with any end in mind. Egyptian mythology features in ‘Sobek’s Tears’ as a soldier makes a pact with a god to wreak vengeance on Moses and the Hebrews who have overthrown all that he holds dear. This was a clever story, one in which humans are used by beings that are older and more powerful, and yet who also depend on our worship for their continued existence, in the process suggesting an explanation for the way in which the Jewish people have suffered at the hands of history in the many centuries since their flight from Egypt.

Also included are ‘The Cutting Room’ and post-apocalyptic novella ‘Phoenix and the Darkness of Wolves’, both of which I have reviewed previously. As with the Oliver above, I’ll post details of those reviews to the Case Notes blogCase Notes blog for the benefit of completists.

And last, but certainly not least, we have ZOOPRAXIS (Gauntlet Press hc, 220pp, $60/$150), the new collection from the word processor of Richard Christian Matheson containing twenty two stories, twelve of them previously unpublished. There are forewords by John Shirley and Chet Williamson, and an afterword by the author, who also provides pithy, informative introductions to each story. There’s also an afterword of sorts from artist Harry O. Morris detailing how he first met Matheson, and in addition to this Morris provides a number of his distinctive black and white illustrations as interior artwork as well as the cover image, all of which makes for a very attractive package. The book is produced in a signed numbered edition limited to 500 copies and costing $60, while for those looking for something that truly bit special (and collectible) there’s a 52 copy signed traycased lettered edition retailing at $150.

Opening story ‘How to Edit’ starts off calmly enough, with a professional writer giving advice on how to write better, but as the story progresses the tone changes, with hints of insanity creeping in and the reader left to discover how far our narrator will take his worship of minimalism. Given Matheson’s own reputation for word economy it could also be taken as a case of the writer poking gentle fun at his own methods. ‘133’ uses an idea that I’ve previously seen used by Orson Scott Card, but Matheson’s take is shorter, smarter, more cutting, as a serial killer gets his deserved comeuppance in spades. The longest story in the book at a mere seventeen pages, ‘Transfiguration’ presents us with a snapshot of madness in the form of a long haul trucker driving through the Alaskan landscape, the bleakness and inhumanity of the setting a reflection of the character’s fractured psyche, with the reader left to fill in the gaps and figure out for him or herself how much of this is real.

‘Infomercial!!!’ is another short, sharp shocker, with the nature of the product being peddled enough to traumatise the most hardened devotees of the shopping channels, and a subtext that satirises our love of consumerism by wondering if there is anything we won’t buy. ‘Making Cabinets’ is a subtle examination of the effects of serial murder on the innocent, unsuspecting relatives of the killer, the guilt engendered and mixed with inevitable feelings of horror. A man develops the ability to ‘Listen’ to the point where he is almost psychic, in tune with all of creation, but too much information proves more curse than blessing, the story delivered in staccato bursts of communication, with the layout at times suggesting lines of poetry spewed across the page. ‘Dead to Me’ is a deal with the Devil story without the Devil, Julie cursing her ex and the joy of the story resting in the delicious twist in the tale that Matheson serves up. Communicating with your pet dog turns out to be something of a double-edged blade in ‘New Tricks’ as Mike learns more than he bargained for from a pooch with attitude.

Next up we have a different spin on the subject of ‘Bulimia’, with a woman attempting to expel her personal demons, the story striking for the originality of the conceit and the feeling of toxicity conveyed by the stream of words. We get a form of survivor guilt in ‘Venturi’ with a man who has lived through a fire that burnt down his neighbourhood finding that he is now hyper-alert for the roar of flame, his whole life poisoned, the story giving us a vivid picture of what it means to be haunted by a premonition of personal doom. The shortest piece in the book, ‘Demise’ is a bitter and heartfelt threnody on the theme of imminent death, and that theme carries over into the next story, the harrowing ‘Sea of Atlas’ in which Matheson addresses a very personal fear, the words cutting like razor blades and nesting their imagery deep beneath the reader’s skin, so that we can never look at things the same way again, never feel so blasé about a simple, everyday aspect of our global village. It reads like an hour and half long disaster movie condensed into a mere two minutes, and is all the harder hitting for the brevity.

In ‘Kriss Kross Applesauce’ we peer into the psyche of a mental patient, a woman driven insane by the enforced bonhomie of the festive season, the effect rather like having Michael Myers reinvented as a suburban housewife. Abandoned lovers find a consolation of sorts courtesy of ‘The Embalming Machine’, the story a metaphor for the ways in which we try to preserve the past, the best of days, underlining how hollow and sterile such endeavours are, a way to side-track our lives. We’re back with bizarre mental states in ‘Pronoia’ with its tongue in cheek depiction of a man who puts a positive spin on everything. ‘Slaves of Nowhere’ concerns JoJo, who finds herself cursed by the expectations of others, words blistering on the page, evoking feelings of both compassion and dread.

There’s a double whammy of plot twists in the tale of a man who collects ‘Last Words’, offering us a meditation on the nature of suffering and death, and at the end the reader feeling just a slight twinge of sympathy for the monster who was made rather than born. Another two pager, ‘Ground Zero’ is a study of revenge gone awry, soliciting understanding from the reader and horror at how badly it all comes undone. The next story is as close to light-hearted as Matheson gets, in ‘Evil Twins, Temporary Blindness, Bikers, and Amnesia’ inviting us to wonder about the relationship between a writer and the characters he creates and how deep run the waters of imagination and the life of the mind. ‘Bedtime Story’ puts a novel twist on the idea of night terrors, the hag who comes and sits on your chest as you sleep and steals your breath (but Matheson’s iteration is nothing like that). More a joke than story, ‘Interrogation’ made me chuckle, though I won’t argue that it isn’t the weakest story here.

Finally we have ‘The Talking Man’ in which various experts try to make sense of the life experience of Jasper Quillar, who never stopped talking, his whole life one unending and unpunctuated monologue. It’s a Fortean tale and, taken in conjunction with first story ‘How to Edit’, a fitting way to bookend this collection from a writer for whom brevity seems to be not only the essence of wit but the heart and soul of horror. A true original, one of those rare few whose work is remarkable not just for its subject matter but also for the highly distinctive way in which he writes, Matheson is at the cutting edge of the genre and this state of the art collection is a demonstration of what horror is capable of in skilled hands and when illuminated by intelligence and a penetrating insight into the human condition. I loved this book.

 

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Filler content with short story collections – Part 2

The second part of a feature on short story collections that originally appeared in Black Static #61:-

SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS (continued)

Another beautifully produced book from Ireland’s Swan River, THE SATYR & OTHER TALES (The Swan River Press hc, 240pp, €30.00) brings together title novella ‘The Satyr’ from 2010 and three stories previously published in 2011. As author Stephen J. Clark explains in his introduction much has been reworked, and Clark also provides some beautiful black and white illustrations to accompany the text. The book is produced in a limited edition of 350 copies.

The figure of artist and occultist Austin Osman Spare (1886 – 1956) is central to novella ‘The Satyr’. Among the ruins of London during the Blitz, the fugitive Hughes and a girl who has taken the name Marlene, after the film star Dietrich, wander in search of Spare, who she regards as her artistic mentor. They are pursued by Doctor Charnock, the overseer of an institution in which Marlene was once a patient. With snatches of poetry and song lyrics, plus excerpts from Charnock’s reports on Marlene, and the girl’s own attempts to create a mythology of Spare, the story has a surreal feel to it, a sense of decadence and end of days hanging over everything. It is a rite of passage of sorts, with vivid writing and descriptions that burn into the mind, while overall there is the hint of some truth hovering just out of reach, so that you suspect it is a story that will reward further reading.

While not as ambitious in scope, the three stories grouped under the title ‘The Bestiary of Communion’ that take up the second part of the book are perhaps more accessible, Clark taking on familiar themes and tropes of the genre and giving them his own unique spin. In ‘The Horned Tongue’ bookseller Metternich is mourning the loss of his wife, but in trying to discover the secrets of her last days he stumbles into the clutches of Professor Woland, who assigns him a task and may well be the Devil in disguise. A fusion of the deal with the Devil trope and the occult text device, this was a thoroughly engaging and unique foray into the world of witchcraft, as if Daryl Van Horne had wandered onto the set of Suspiria. In ‘The Lost Reaches’ Jan and Marek are smuggling fugitives across the border, but deep in the forest they stumble across a mysterious house that appears to be a projection of the subconscious of the artist Bruno Schultz. Again there is an almost hallucinatory feel to this story, as manifestations of the artist’s ego take concrete form, or perhaps all the characters are dead and this palace of memory is simply an attempt by their dying psyches to make sense of what has happened to them and preserve something of the past. Finally in ‘The Feast of the Sphinx’ we travel to Prague in 1939 where a Czech policeman is assigned an impossible case, knowing that failure will bring him to the attention of the Gestapo. Guided by the artist Nemec he feels close to discovering something of the numinous, secrets that date back to the reign of Rudolf II and are rooted in alchemical practice. Again it is a fascinating and hallucinatory journey, one in which the threat of Nazi brutality rubs shoulders with the idea of something greater than the life which we know. I’m not sure how much I understood of any of these stories and all of them would reward a second or third reading, but Clark’s subtle prose, vivid and disturbing imagery, and the concepts he weaves into his stories make them irresistible to those whose senses have been jaded by more common fare.

Michael Reynier introduced us to Horthólary in his previous collection of novellas from Tartarus, Five Degrees of Latitude, in which the scholar had to deal with ‘Le Loup-Garou’, and now he gets his own book, HORTHÓLARY: TALES FROM MONTAGASCONY (Tartarus Press hc, 350pp, £35), produced in a limited edition of 300 copies. It contains four novellas chronicling Horthólary’s adventures in fabled Montagascony, a region of eighteenth century France that lies somewhere to the west or east of Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne and is every bit as unique.

After an introduction in which the author does his best to convince the reader that his protagonist was a genuine historical figure by means of mock erudition and scholarship, we get into things proper with ‘The Angel of Pessane’, in which a university town appears to have been gifted an angelic visitation and at about the same time an outsider’s corpse is discarded in the woods bordering the town. Charged with investigating by his old friend the Sénéchal, Horthólary is soon unravelling a tale of miracles and metal with strange properties, while at the same time the two friends must outwit Bishop Rapin’s plans to use the death as a pretext to attack the local gypsies. The second story ‘Dii Nixi’ takes us back to Horthólary’s childhood when he and his young friends must confront an infestation from the stars in a story which reads like a conflation of Alien and Lovecraft’s ‘The Colour Out of Space’. ‘The Nephilim’ is set in his student days, when Horthólary and another prize pupil are sent to Montagascony to investigate reports of giant bones being unearthed, stumbling into something far more fantastical and outré than they could ever have imagined. Finally old age arrives for Horthólary and in ‘Nemestrinus’ the plans of his lifelong rival Rapin (now an Archbishop) come to fruition with the capture of a reputed wizard and the leader of the Palbanite sect.

These four novellas are far more complex than my “bones of” summations might suggest, with a greater story arc playing out over the course of the book, deepening our understanding of the various characters and their motivations. Horthólary reads like a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael. Like the great detective he has a brilliant mind and can be annoying to those such as the Sénéchal who simply can’t keep up with his mental processes, but he also has something of the Holy Man’s humility and compassion, is a person who always seems to have had an old head on his young shoulders. In a book that has many pleasures perhaps the most delightful is Reynier’s exposition heavy manner of storytelling, with elaborate and sometimes rambling asides that flesh out the material, so that we can’t be introduced to a character, no matter how minor, without a potted history, or visit a place without getting a description that would put National Ordnance to shame with its detail. In less skilled hands such methods could be alienating to the reader, but Reynier writes with such luminosity and obvious relish in what he is conveying that the reader can’t help but be drawn in. It is the art of a natural raconteur, bringing the characters and locations to vivid life, but never patronising the reader. Woven into the text are matters metaphysical and gnostic, so that at times it feels like Reynier is creating a mythos of his own, one in which the miraculous is central but at the same time propped up by a scientific knowledge just beyond our own. Central to it all is the Montagascony itself, an area that is fertile for the imagination and rich in folklore and legends of magical beings and witchcraft, a wild place, a locale where the borders have worn thin and monsters like the Egregore are constantly pressing up against the barriers. There are echoes of Lovecraft, but Reynier is his own man and his creation is as original as it is vivid and entertaining, with issues such as misogyny and xenophobia deftly woven into the text to give the stories extra relevance for modern day readers. Be sure to put Montagascony on your travel itinerary in the near future. You will not be disappointed.

Lovecraft is most definitely central to Brian Lumley’s EARTH, AIR, FIRE & WATER (Fedogan & Bremer hc, 336pp, $34.95). With a stunning full colour wraparound cover by Bob Eggleton and striking interior black and white illustrations by Jim Pitts, this assemblage of four novellas by one of the foremost writers in the Lovecraft tradition is undeniably a thing of beauty. Each novella is based on one of the four elements of classic Greek philosophy and science.

We kick off with Earth and ‘Lord of the Worms’, which originally appeared in 1983 and recounts an early event in the life of Lumley’s psychic sleuth Titus Crow. It’s 1945 and a newly demobbed Crow (though his contribution to the war effort was somewhat more esoteric than that of most) seeks gainful employment by cataloguing the library of wealthy occultist Julian Carstairs, but naturally Carstairs has other plans for our hero, plans that intend Crow harm. There are echoes here of Dennis Wheatley’s black magic adventures and his class obsessions, though put to much subtler use, while providing a solid foundation for the story is an attempt at injecting verisimilitude by the introduction of fabled occult texts, numerology, and magical practices, so that the whole has a feeling about it of somebody in the know sharing arcane knowledge. The duel of magic, of bluff and counter bluff, move and evasion, between Crow and the evil Carstairs (echoes of M. R. James’ Karswell), is fascinating to follow, culminating in a moment of pure pulpish undoing. It’s a grand curtain raiser, for both what follows in this volume and the career of Titus Crow.

We go back further still, to 1975 for the Air story, which is aptly titled ‘Born of the Winds’. Set in a snow girt area of Canada, the story makes strong use of local legends, such as that of the Wendigo. Meteorologist David Lawton agrees to help Lucille Bridgeman search the frozen wastes for her son Kirby. Bridgeman’s deceased husband Sam was an anthropologist who held some strange theories, such as belief in an entity known as Lord Ithaqua, the Wind-Walker (a creation of August Derleth). You can probably guess the rest, but as with the Earth offering the lack of any real plot twists or surprises doesn’t in any way detract from the pleasure of reading a story with an engaging narrative voice, a finely tuned plot, and a satisfyingly enigmatic resolution. Lumley introduces a plethora of incidental details, accumulating fake scholarly treatises and subverting actual facts to give his monster a solid grounding in our world, and his evocation of the snow covered landscape in which the bulk of the story takes place is powerful and foreboding.

‘The Gathering’ is the longest story in the collection and the only one that hasn’t been previously published. Set in Lovecraft’s New England, it is the tale of Andrew Gilman who returns to The Hamlet after the death of his father. The whole community seems to be focused on preparing for an event known as The Gathering, and it’s up to Gilman to piece together family history and the strange occurrences that are taking place in an attempt to make sense of it all and find his own place in the greater scheme. Given the setting and the presence of inbred locals, this story brings to mind HPL’s Innsmouth, though here pitched as a Fire story rather than one of amphibian outsiders. I have some reservations, particularly regading the ease with which Andrew takes up with his father’s mistress, but overall it is a well-paced and intriguing tale, one in which the monsters are given a fair shake of the tentacle and shown to be simply different, rather than objects of fear (albeit some of their actions and outer appearances are certainly shudder inducing). Gilman is given a moral dilemma, whether to reject or embrace his heritage, and as a backdrop there is a strong sense of the numinous and cosmic vision.

Innsmouth is referenced in Lumley’s introduction to the Water novella, 2012’s ‘The Changeling’. The story’s unnamed protagonist encounters a stranger on a deserted beach in Greece and hears out his tale, which offers up a very different conception of how life functions and the identity of the dominant species, one that has implications for the narrator. It is the shortest story here and the least, but still powerful stuff with its depiction of bodily transformation and the way in which it touches on our horror of the outsider, while Lumley underpins it with historical and mythological details that create a sense of verity. It is a fitting end to a very strong collection of novellas, one that will be every bit as entertaining for latecomers to Lovecraft’s work as to those steeped in mythos fiction.

(TO BE CONTINUED)

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Filler content with short story collections – Part 1

The first part of a feature on short story collections that originally appeared in Black Static #61:-

SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS

Ramsey Campbell has referred to Reggie Oliver as “quite possibly our finest modern writer of spectral tales” and there is no doubt that, when it comes to tales of ghosts and related matters, Oliver is one of the masters of the form, with a distinctive and eminently readable prose voice, one that radiates elegance and affability in contrast to the terrors his work contains. A professional playwright, actor, and theatre director since 1975, Oliver’s background is part of his appeal, adding the feel of authenticity to the tales rooted in theatrical life and underlying his vivid creations of time and place.

With a striking cover illustration courtesy of Santiago Caruso, THE SEA OF BLOOD (Dark Renaissance Books pb, 408pp, $27.95) is a retrospective collection of Oliver’s work containing twenty three stories ranging in time from 2001 through to 2015. It opens with a fascinating introduction by the author in which he details how he came to start writing and identifies his major concern as “the strangeness of existence and the unsettling interaction between the physical and the metaphysical”, a theme he returns to over and over again in the stories that follow.

Of the stories on offer, I’ve reviewed eleven of them on previous occasions – ‘Beside the Shrill Sea’, ‘The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini’, ‘The Blue Room’, ‘Bloody Bill’, ‘The Skins’, ‘The Time of Blood’, ‘The Constant Rake’, ‘Mrs. Midnight’, Flowers of the Sea’, ‘Come into My Parlour’, and ‘The Druid’s Rest’ – and see no point going over old ground here, though I will post details of those reviews to the Case Notes blog at ttapress.com for the convenience of those who missed them first time around.

The first ‘new to me’ story is the fifth in the ToC running, ‘Among the Tombs’ in which a group of ecclesiastics consider the argument for sainthood in the case of hospice worker Meriel Deane, one of them recounting his personal experiences of the woman and what became of her, raising the possibility of demonic possession. It’s an engrossing story, and in the matter of fact telling and the muted details of what took place it has the stamp of credibility and conviction. ‘Lapland Nights’ has a woman giving a holiday home/respite care to an elderly couple who turn out to be something other than what she bargained for. It’s a disturbing story in which details mount up, with unsettling and macabre moments, all hinting at some other form of life preying on human beings, but at the same time allowing that our heroine might have found her own solution to the problem of an invalid mother, and that is even more sinister.

A distinguished actor who calls his girlfriends ‘Puss-Cat’ ends up in trouble when his philandering results in the suicide of a young woman, and trouble takes the form of a monstrous black cat that haunts him. Once again the theatrical world, in this case the luvvy end of the spectrum, is created convincingly on the page, primarily as backdrop to a lively ghost story, one of spectral revenge. ‘Mr. Poo Poo’ is a sinister children’s entertainer and religious fanatic who exercises a malign influence over a young woman in this story told from the viewpoint of the couple who employed them both at one point and so get drawn into the attendant drama. There’s disturbing imagery here, and a subdued portrait of madness, an obsession that pulls everyone and everything else into its orbit.

The narrator’s writer aunt is drawn into the circle of a medium in ‘The Old Silence’, a powerhouse of a story in which so much is taking place, with a terrifying evocation of the numinous at its heart and playing counterpoint to that the presence of a sinister young woman who trades sexual favours for influence, the whole a dazzling and inventive concoction. In ‘A Donkey at the Mysteries’ a student travelling in Greece discovers rather more than he needs to know about the history of an isolated archaeological site. Oliver excels here in his creation of place, with the setting brought to compelling life on the page, and there is the trademark accumulation of details that slowly reveal something momentous and macabre lurking in the background of the narrative.

We learn of the rivalry between theatrical dwarves and midgets in ‘Baskerville’s Midgets’, a story of unsettling and larger than life characters, and the way in which they seem to suck the spirit and life out of a theatrical landlady. ‘Minos or Rhadamanthus’ are the names given to his canes by a head teacher with an unhealthy addiction to corporal punishment, and in this story one boy discovers his terrible secret. And underlying all this is a ghost story that has two men meeting as equals for the first time, and the one wreaking a kind of justice on the other.

In ‘Holiday from Hell’ a seaside guest house plays host to a group of old people from a town in Norfolk, but the implication, laid forth with an enviable subtlety on the part of the author, is that the seven guests and their place of origin are somewhat other than what we are initially led to believe. There are lovely touches of detail here, suggestive prose used to put an outré cast on events that might otherwise be merely mundane, with some nightmarish imagery at the story’s climax, and as a lifelong resident of Norfolk I can vouch for the fact that you get some strange folk in certain parts of this county. In ‘Absalom’ a scholar uncovers the terrible truth behind the death of a debauched student back in the seventeenth century, the story almost a textbook example of how to tell a Jamesian ghost story, replete with accumulating details, old documents, and the hint that in some ways the evil may linger into the present day, with some things that only the reader can truly grasp.

Oddball characters inhabit a guest house where ‘The Rooms Are High’ and the story’s protagonist ends up finding out that not all is as it seems. With some wonderful touches of characterisation and an unhealthy sexuality underlying the narrative this is another superbly sinister outing from Oliver. Finally we have ‘Trouble At Botathan’ with a student on an academic retreat learning about the inglorious past of the house at which he is staying and its former owner through the means of lost documents and visions of a drowned girl. At the heart of the story is past attitudes to mental illness and the shame that families felt when one of its members went astray, this in turn leading to a kind of abuse and much worse. Intercut with all this, as in so many of these stories, is a sense that there is far more to reality than we know or dream of, that though these things manifest in a minatory manner they also prove the potential for the miraculous and other dimensions to our existence. This was a brilliant collection, one that will undoubtedly be cherished by every lover of traditional ghost stories told with a modern panache and sensibility.

Oliver provides the introduction to WRITTEN IN DARKNESS (Egaeus Press hc, 128pp, SOLD OUT) in which he lauds author Mark Samuels for his “passionate intensity and integrity”. The book was produced in a limited edition of 275 copies and is now SOLD OUT according to the publisher’s website, though you may still be able to find copies via dealers or online, and for those with a budget Chômu Press released a paperback edition in May of this year and followed up with an electronic version in July. Of the nine stories the book contains, four are previously published.

The fiction begins with ‘A Call to Greatness’ in which Egremont has an encounter with a mysterious stranger who gives him some papers detailing the exploits of Baron Maximilian, who tried to turn back the tide of communism after the Russian Revolution of 1917, the story underlain by a time slip element or projection of madness, you choose. Maximilian acts rather like the Marlon Brando character in Apocalypse Now transposed to a more northern setting; there is the same sense of ruthlessness about him in the pursuit of his goals, a fanaticism fuelled by religious conviction and absolute self-belief. It is an intriguing tale, touching on the moral and spiritual decay of the west, though Samuels doesn’t really make the case for this and his Baron’s solution seemed very much like a poisoned chalice, which may in part be the point of the story. Egremont is little more than sounding board, a latte sipping Brexiteer (probably) who is vaguely dissatisfied with the way things are but doesn’t really have any solutions to offer. ‘The Other Tenant’ is the story of Zachary, who embraces a whole shitload of high ideals (among them atheistical communism), but nevertheless is alienated from people by his lack of any compassion, with their suffering and joys simply parts of a social justice equation to him. Eventually he falls victim to the void in his own soul in a text that seems to want to be a ghost story but is held back by political point scoring, though at the same time Samuels’ apparent view that some people care more for the party line than each other carries weight. Drax in ‘An Hourglass of the Soul’ is sent to Mongolia charged with jump starting the super computer that has been built by the company he has worked for the last three days. There are concepts here that are reminiscent of the work of Ligotti, but Samuels is his own man and ultimately the story hints at the vacuity of life, that all is just endless repetition in the forlorn hope of achieving something spectacular, but with no reason at all for even that.

In the dystopian future of ‘The Ruins of Reality’ the only hope seems to be offered by the N Factory, but in fact the story’s protagonist comes to believe that this building is the source of all the world’s ills, the nightmare factory (another Ligotti concept), the text offering up a picture of mankind’s self-empowered fall from grace. ‘Alistair’ gives us a variation on the changeling theme in a story that is packed with genre tropes such as the old house next to the cemetery, the strange grandparents, and a child with tastes that are not within the usual parameters, but Samuels deftly turns it all on its head to produce something that is both striking and sinister. ‘My World Has No Memories’ starts with a man alone on a ship and no idea how he got there, then segues into a tale of transformation and the end of the world, culminating in a vision of what’s to come that is both uplifting and undermining at the same time.

There are echoes of J-Horror film Kairo in ‘Outside Interference’, with the remaining staff at an abandoned office building trapped and finding out that reality is nothing at all like they previously thought. The story works well as an account of human beings in extremis, fighting to survive against an inexplicable foe, and underlying all of that is an effective subtext about the dehumanising aspects of our IT powered society and its redefining of the world of work. The protagonist of ‘My Heretical Existence’ wanders far from the familiar parts of the city in search of a woman he is attracted to, but finds far more than he bargained for in a story of transformation and peeling back the veil to see reality as it actually is. ‘In Eternity Two Lines Intersect’ tells of a man whose spirit communes with that of the previous tenant of his rooms, an occultist in search of the Holy Grail. A sombre piece, it seems vaguely minatory, before culminating in a moment of epiphanic release and transformation.

My feeling is that Samuels is, in most of these stories, critiquing modern life and finding it bereft of spirituality and the belief that gives meaning to existence. I suspect reader response will be mediated by how much in tune you are with the belief systems that the author appears to be espousing. While they certainly can be appreciated without taking on board his perspective in full the end result is something of a mixed blessing, one where effects perhaps outweigh the philosophy behind them, though that in and of itself is not undeserving of consideration. At least that’s how it played out for me, with the most successful stories those, such as ‘Alistair’, with the least ideological baggage.

(TO BE CONTINUED)

 

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