Filler content from the late nineteenth century

Three reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #36:-

LATE NINETEENTH CENTURY NOVELLAS

Chris Butler’s work will be familiar to readers of Black Static’s sister magazine Interzone, whose pages he’s been gracing since 2003, and because of that connection we’ll give him a free pass into the horror wing at TTA Towers.

THE FLIGHT OF THE RAVENS (Immersion Press hb, 96pp, £10) is a book that should appeal to horror aficionados every bit as much as it will to the fantasy demographic I suspect the author had in mind when writing. It’s one of those books that slips nicely through the gaps.

The story opens in Amsterdam in1889, as Elizabeth enters an abandoned house with her brother Bernard, where she sees what appears to be a man consume him with flames, and also the vision of a raven. The scholar Huginn, a friend of her parents, is particularly interested in what has happened, returning ten years later when Elizabeth has grown up and works as a teacher. At first attracted to him, Elizabeth is later made uneasy by Lukas Nostrand, a wealthy business man who intends to enrol his son at her school. Nostrand is linked both to the house where Bernard perished and to Huginn, who is not all he seems (though for those up on their Nordic mythology the character’s name is a dead give-away). Lurking at the back of all this is an even darker menace, one with the potential to wreak great destruction if our heroine, who has developed psychic powers, including the ability to view the past, makes the wrong decision.

Butler has crafted a complex story, one that initially seems like a variation on the vampire myth, with the early scenes bringing to mind Murnau’s Nosferatu, but by grafting elements of Norse mythology onto the concept of the psychic vampire who feeds on the life force of others, he creates something more original. At the heart of the narrative is the concept of sacrifice, embodied in the figure of its ostensible villain, but while Nostrand does terrible things, we are shown that he commits these acts for a good reason, to save others from an even worse fate, and this moral quandary, a question of ends justifying means, elevates The Flight of the Ravens above much similar fare.

I have quibbles. Some of the characters stretch credibility, as with Huginn whose allegiance to pagan gods never seems to give anyone pause, while sub-plots involving his mad wife and the woman he has a one night stand with don’t add much to the overall story arc, and in the latter case seemed rather contrived. Elizabeth however is an admirable creation, somebody who has been touched by the supernatural and grown thanks to the experience, a fully rounded woman of her time, making her own way in the world. Butler is equally adept with his descriptive writing, with the scenes of fiery destruction so vividly realised that the heat almost seems to rise from the page as the city burns, while Nostrand’s despair at the death of his loved ones, the pivotal event that set his course, is achingly rendered, Butler’s compassion for his villain’s suffering overriding all else.

This is a strong story, with far more to commend it than not, a gripping account of personal tragedy and the greater good, convincingly rooted in its milieu, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

UNHALLOWED GROUND (DarkFuse eBook, 197pp, $2.99) by Daniel Mills is set in 1891 and opens with Henry Feathering on a train journey to stay with his uncle Edward at Bittersweet Lodge in Berwick. He meets brother and sister Justice and Clemency, and is attracted to her through a shared love of Gothic literature, Poe in particular. The siblings are invited to visit at Bittersweet and Henry subsequently proposes to Clemency, but Edward warns him against bringing her to live at Bittersweet, which he is to inherit on his uncle’s death. Edward believes that the Lodge is haunted by the vengeful spirit of Lily Stark, who killed herself and is buried in the grounds, and who he holds responsible for the early death of his own young bride. Though Justice is opposed to the match, the marriage takes place and the happy couple move into Bittersweet, but tragedy ensues.

Mills’ excellent novella is rich in period detail and redolent of the Gothic narratives that are referenced throughout. And yet, bleak and minatory as the atmosphere of Bittersweet is, the real threat comes from the human heart. Psychology rather than the supernatural is at play, with the characters doomed by what they cannot confide to each other even as they talk of ghostly matters with no reticence whatever. This is a story where the true nature of what is happening is evident only to the reader, the characters wearing the blinkers of custom and propriety, though Mills is canny enough not to commit completely to this schemata, leaving elbow room for belief in a spectral cause. Further enriching the narrative is Mills’ deft touch at characterisation, with the obsessive Edward, lost in a world of ancient warfare, and his manservant Asaph who acts as an equal at times, while the humour of the original introduction of the siblings undercuts the menace that will later become apparent. Also wonderfully drawn are the cousins Phyllis and Edith, two spinsters who seem more at peace with themselves than any of the other characters, so that for a cynic the moral of the story could very well be that to attain happiness/contentment you need to leave all this horror stuff and romance equally well alone, that such things will just screw you up.

Of course, some of us like being screwed up.

And lastly we have THE DEMETER (Printers Blood pb, 144pp, £7), written by Martin Jones and lovingly illustrated by Derek Gray, produced in a limited edition of 40 numbered copies, and for the collector demographic there’s a special ‘deluxe’ edition of 10 copies (not seen), with signatures, slipcase, four track complementary CD and probably a genuine bloodstain from a genuine Transylvanian Count, though they don’t mention it in the marketing, all for the bargain price of £13.

At 144 pages I’m not sure if this is a short novel or a novella, but given the number of blank pages I suspect the latter. It’s prefaced by a quotation from Poe’s ‘M. S. Found in a Bottle’, but is basically the story of Dracula’s shipboard transport to Whitby, set in 1893 by Stoker but here transplanted to the present day and told by means of the journal entries written by the Demeter’s captain. Captain Nikolai agrees to a request from English archaeologist Dr Gregory to transport four sealed boxes of earth and pottery to Whitby, and initially all goes well, with the journal referencing gossip among the crew – first mate Anton, cook Leon, old hand Boris, new guys Peter and Petrofsky (who may be gay lovers). For Nikolai the challenge is to maintain discipline and soothe tensions among the crew, but as the voyage continues a strange mood of fatalism sets in, with unnatural weather conditions, reports of a stowaway hiding on board and members of the crew disappearing, all of which sets us up for the final, shocking revelation.

I have mixed feelings about this. Jones tells the story well, with the change in mood aboard the ship and Nikolai’s eventual madness captured perfectly on the page. Handled particularly well is the dawning realisation that the ship is travelling under its own steam and the men aboard are there only as sustenance for the vampire in the hold. The other characters, and the interplay between them, are painted with conviction so that we never have reason to doubt the credibility of what is taking place. On the down side, the plot doesn’t really hold any surprises as we already know the vampire is in the hold even if the crew don’t, and some aspects of the story don’t quite hold water, such as an archaeologist with budget problems hiring a ship to transport four boxes of earth, and the ship’s captain not looking for other goods to maximise the profits of his journey.

Reflecting on this book, I’m forced to wonder what the point of it all was, and the comparison that springs to mind is Borges story ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’, though the analogy isn’t a precise one, given that Martin Jones’ work is a contemporary retelling of an episode from Stoker’s Dracula, rather than a direct copy. We can, via such things as the smuggling of contraband material, the gay crew members, the sense of loneliness and isolation that infect the narrative, ground the book in the present day, even unfurl its bat wings to embrace the war on (t)error and exploitation of workers, but roughly similar allusions are already present in the source material, waiting to be discovered and interpreted by each generation of new readers. Jones brings little originality to the mix, just shifts the calendar, so perhaps not Pierre Menard at all, but the equivalent of a Hollywood remake of a classic with a cast of C-listers.  Of course, I’m being unduly harsh in these comparisons. I wouldn’t dismiss it as insubstantial or without merit, and enjoyed the book more than not, but all the same I feel The Demeter will appeal more to collectors than the general reader, and on the basis of production values and rarity it’s a real bargain at the asking price, with going deluxe probably the investment choice of preference for those who are serious about diversifying their portfolio.

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