Two reviews and the first part of a feature on “insect inspired” horror fiction that originally appeared in Black Static #52:-
Lafcadio Hearn (1850 – 1904) is known to contemporary lovers of weird and supernatural fiction chiefly for his translations of Japanese ghostly stories and folklore. Lovecraft said of his collection Kwaidan that it “crystallizes with matchless skill and delicacy the eerie lore and whispered legends of that richly colourful nation” and spoke of the author’s “wizardry of language”. It seems that Hearn was also a keen entomologist and that same command of language that so beguiled HPL is seen clearly in the twenty essays and stories that go to make up INSECT LITERATURE (Swan River Press hc, 272pp, €30.00).
Literature opens with an introduction by Anne-Sylvie Homassel, giving us an overview of the author’s life in Japan and his interest in insects, also detailing the original 1921` printing of Insect Literature with only ten pieces (this new edition contains ten additional works). The foreword to that volume, by editor Masanobu Otani follows immediately after, while illustrations from the original book appear throughout the text. Regardless of your feelings about Hearn or insects, this is undeniably a beautiful book, an object to be prized for its own sake, as are all the Swan River volumes that I’ve seen, with my one quibble being the practice of placing footnotes at the end of each chapter rather than at the bottom of the page as the term might suggest was appropriate – I prefer to simply glance down rather than have to keep turning pages back and forth to access the relevant information.
The contents of the book range far and wide, with Hearn writing about butterflies, mosquitoes, ants, flies, fireflies, dragonflies, katydids etc. For each subject he gives us a description of each local variety, comparing them to European and American specimens, describing appearance, distinguishing marks, and details of the environment in which they can be found. In addition to the factual material, he adds snippets of folklore, with particular attention paid to any supernatural connections, as you’d expect given the author’s other interests, and numerous examples of poetry for each insect under consideration, with emphasis on the haiku form (the original Japanese verse, plus an English language translation). Further essays look at poetry about insects in the literature of other cultures – Greek, French, English, and American – with Hearn hypothesising as to why, after the attention paid to insects by the Greeks, interest in writing about them subsequently faded away in occidental lands, and he comes to the conclusion that it was the fault of Christianity with its man as the measure of all things philosophy.
In another essay Hearn details the Japanese habit of keeping insects to provide music, telling us how the creatures are caught and their market value, the type of sounds made by those most prized. Various pieces of flash fiction and non-fiction discuss other aspects of insects, such as the political organisation of the ant hill, which Hearn finds borderline communism with his tongue firmly in his cheek, and the enmity between spiders and wasps, with the horrible fate of the latter when overpowered central to the piece. There’s also an account of a man who dreams he is at the court of the emperor and marries his daughter, only to wake and find that possibly he has been living the life of an insect. It is a varied and engaging selection of work, one that is bound to delight the reader who appreciates small and beautiful things. Something for everyone would seem to have been the guiding principle in putting this collection together and it works splendidly well, both as a showcase for Hearn’s writing and by offering us an insight into little known aspects of Japanese culture.
Of course Hearn came to praise insects, not to horrify us. For the kind of shudders we aficionados of the macabre revel in it is necessary to look elsewhere, and fortunately two recent anthologies have taken up the challenge of making insects and other small things a source of chills and thrills.
TEEMING TERRORS (KnightWatch Press pb, 234pp, £9.99) opens with the obligatory introduction by editor Christine Morgan, after which we get down to serious business with ‘An Exercise in White’ by Lee Pletzers. The story starts ordinarily enough, with a man alone in his country desres and beset by spiders, but then changes gear to become a tale of double whammy metamorphosis, with both the appearance of the protagonist and that of the world outside his window changing. It’s intriguing and not quite what I expected, and as far as that goes I rather liked the way in which the story wrong footed the reader leading deftly in to the final, nasty revelation.
I wasn’t at all keen on E. S. Wynn’s ‘The Barking’, a tale set in a post-apocalyptic world where humans struggle to survive, but which having solicited sympathy for their plight then undoes all the good work with the revelation of the risible nature of the menace that has undone mankind’s rule. Possibly the story was intended to be humorous, with the reveal as the punchline, but it felt a little too earnest for me to believe that, and the reveal needed a lot more groundwork to be effective. As was, I didn’t find it at all funny, or even remotely credible. ‘Human Fish-Swarm of Olms’ by Jim Goforth runs with the idea of selfish people smuggling dangerous breeds of fish into the USA, playing out somewhat like Piranha on a budget. I had fun with it up to a point, but there were too many aspects of the plot that gave me pause, such as the easy way in which two police officers are overpowered by an old man, and the fact that eye witnesses standing on top of a cliff can give detailed descriptions of tiny, transparent fish in the water far below. Credibility is in the details along with the devil.
Randy Carroll-Bradd’s ‘A Thousand Little Deaths’ is an emotive and detailed description of an old lady and the circumstances in which she loses her life, made all the more poignant by the fact that it was inspired by a real story. Yes, there are teeming terrors in the mix, but the real villain of the piece is dementia and societal indifference, the myriad ways in which the vulnerable are simply forgotten. In Becca Morgan’s story a group of students set out to party in the seaside town of ‘La Juno Pier’ whose chief claim to fame is its crabs, only to discover that the crustaceans have developed a murderous agenda of their own. It’s a fun creature feature, with well-drawn characters, the odd touch of black comedy and some grizzly wet work, all of which entertains even if it fails to rise above the warning about tampering with nature antecedents that underlie the story. ‘Hive Mind’ by Phil Sloman is the story of ambitious scientist Barrows, who goes to a remote jungle in search of Everington’s Bane, a mammal that is unknown to science, but while he finds his quarry things are not quite as he anticipated in this nasty little shocker with an end twist worthy of the great Roald Dahl.
J. Mehentee’s ‘Love in the Time of Geckos’ is told in the novel form of emails and text messages sent by a man to the woman he loves, the correspondence set against the backdrop of persistent rain and a plague of genetically modified geckos, and it’s an engaging read, though I had the feeling that there should have been something more to it than this straightforward account, and perhaps there is with a hint that the protagonist is not being entirely forthcoming with his lady love and that he might be part of the problem. Possibly my favourite story in the anthology, ‘Dyeing Inside’ by Ken Shinn serves up some glorious just desserts to a celebrity chef who is far too up himself, and yes, there is something satisfying about seeing a celebrity come to a bad end courtesy of insects (an antidote to all those bush tucker trials in I’m a Celeb). The characterisation is deftly drawn, with the protagonist’s love of food and cooking coming over well (I’m loathe to admit it, but the victim du jour does have some redeeming features), and the end result is a nice slice of the poetic justice pie.
Things turn a little far-fetched again in ‘Blades’ by Kerry G. S. Lipp, though I can’t say why without going into spoiler territory. The idea powering the plot is a nice thought and doesn’t outstay its welcome (borderline flash fiction), but at the same time it isn’t quite made credible, while the viewpoint entity sounds entirely human for such an alien being. E. A. Black’s story ‘Infection’ begins with gardener Mr. Jones getting bitten, and then steadily escalates until it seems like the whole world is under threat from an unlikely source. With Mr. Jones bursting out all over in hospital, we get to follow Mrs. Jones in her attempt to survive the oncoming apocalypse, and yes, again the plot driver stretches belief, but thankfully this time round it’s done with such aplomb and panache that credibility never really becomes an issue. Author Doug Blakeslee seems to be going for a 50s SF feel in ‘Attack of the GRONKlings’, with a town under siege by the creations of a mad scientist. It’s fun because it doesn’t take itself seriously and the creatures in this creature feature are rather like the duck world’s equivalent of tribbles. The straight faced telling only adds to the humour.
In Stanley Webb’s story ‘The Day of the Deerflies’ a hiker is attacked by these humble creatures, but they have developed the ability to paralyse their prey, and so this is the opening salvo in a war with humanity. It’s an intense story, one that looks at what people will do to survive and strikes a cautionary note regarding the lowly creatures with whom we share space and who we dismiss as harmless at our peril. I enjoyed it, though possibly that’s not the right word. And finally we have ‘Feathered Frenzy’ by Nick Walters, a variation on Daphne du Maurier’s story ‘The Birds’, which brings the anthology to a splendid close with its gripping and harrowing account of a war between sea gulls and pigeons. It’s a conflict in which human beings are simply collateral damage or bystanders, but with dire implications for our future as the victors look round for new prey, the narrative underlining the mystery of nature and our inability to ever comprehend it fully. And that is perhaps the greatest horror of all.
(TO BE CONTINUED)