Filler Content with Gothic wine

Here’s a review from The Third Alternative #39, minus any editorial corrections etc:-


Aardwolf Press pb, 218pp, $14.95

This first collection of sixteen stories by an American author currently resident in Germany, has about it the feel of older work by writers such as Blackwood and Aickman, though Speegle’s prose touch is far lighter. For Speegle, as for those other writers, Europe is a place of mystery, with the outward veneer of culture, as typified by such things as a love of fine wine, only the cloth thrown over some far darker reality, a hidden world into which his characters unwittingly stumble to their cost.

This take on the genre of supernatural horror is seen in the opening story, ‘Chasing Fuseli’, in which images from a painting by the Gothic artist invade a man’s life and expose him to a different level of reality, cleverly obscuring the borders between our own world and some dream dimension, leaving the reader with the desire but not permission to dismiss it all as a vivid nightmare, froth on the surface of a disturbed mind. In ‘Red View’ an American abroad is fascinated by a prostitute he meets and the experience of that chance encounter colours his whole world, while ‘Frail is the Cord’ has a man’s relationship with a woman undermined by her two strange children, a story that effectively unsettles the reader with its persistent hints of something terrible taking place in the background, evident and yet never truly seen. Phil Cranston, the protagonist of ‘Valley of Silence’, goes to spend a last vacation with his estranged sister, now dying of cancer, and the shadows of the past come back to haunt him, memories of things thought but never spoken, making this perhaps the most sensitive and finely characterised story in the collection, with the horror a part of our own wounded psyches. In ‘Porta Niagra’ the cursed spirit of a long dead archbishop roams the streets of an ancient city in search of human flesh, while in the marvellous ‘Buoyancy’ an American divorcé in Europe looking for adventure meets a man who is determined to float away, a story in which madness and the outré overlap and destroy all boundary lines. Another American abroad buys a ticket to the ‘End of the Line’, a story strongly reminiscent of Blackwood’s ‘Ancient Sorceries’, and washes up in an isolated German town where the locals all seems to be suffering from mass hallucination, manifested in strange behaviour into which he himself is sucked. ‘The Wholesome Scent of Cedar’, one of the most macabre and chilling stories in the collection, tells of a serial killer who dresses his victims as priests

Not everything is of the first quality. ‘A Train Named Happenstance’ has a brief encounter end with an insurance investigator becoming part of the rail accident he is looking into, and is almost wholly predictable and informed with a sense that we have been here many times before, while ‘Farewell, Summer’ contains little that Bradbury didn’t do far better at least better forty years earlier in ‘Touched with Fire’. But there are bound to be disappointments with almost any collection of short stories and Gothic Wine contains gratifyingly few such incidents. Last story in the book is the remarkable ‘Textures’, a ghost tale with a difference, as a man comes to realise that the person with whom he is romantically involved is the woman his delusional ex-wife accused him of cheating with, a case of déjà vu as haunting, and what a wonderful idea. It’s a fitting end to a collection that shows there’s plenty of life left in the short form and comes highly recommended.

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