OR: Delicate Toxins

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #26:-

Those in the market for something collectable, but wanting a bit more meat for their money, should cast an eye in the direction of the anthology DELICATE TOXINS (Side Real Press hardback, 339pp, £30UK/£35RoW) edited by John Hirschhorn-Smith. Produced in a limited edition of 350 copies and subtitled ‘A Collection of Strange Tales’, this book celebrates the work of German writer Hanns Heinz Ewers (1872 – 1943), with modern writers producing work inspired by his oeuvre and set during his lifetime. Ewers was a contemporary of James, but in literary terms the men were poles apart, the former’s work far more sensuous and decadently inclined than that of the English ghost story maestro. This is, as with the previous Side Real volume I reviewed (Ewers’ Alraune), a beautiful book, the sort of volume that more than justifies its asking price simply as an aesthetic object, and never mind any literary merit. That merit is considerable, but I regret to report that it’s let down by poor proofreading. Most of the stories have at least one error, and the longest in the book, Michael Chislett’s ‘Endor’, is the proverbial train wreck, with dubious punctuation, a hit and miss relationship with the possessive apostrophe, words misspelled (‘wail’ for ‘wall’, ‘form’ for ‘from’) or unnecessary (‘these events a the day after’, ‘grow to be be a terrible thing’), and on one occasion a ‘stepdaughter’ is referred to as ‘sister’.

Richard Gavin leads off with ‘A Pallid Devil, Bearing Cypress’, the story of a man who longs for a meeting with the Devil, and believes that the flowers he sees are a sign of that Satanic Majesty’s presence nearby. It strikes the right note of decadence, with its early picture of an aesthete who scorns the possibility of death and is willing to sacrifice others to gratify his whim, while at the same time Gavin conveys the idea that his character’s predisposition to evil is little more than an affectation, setting us up nicely for the revelation of the true villain of the piece.

‘Salmacis’ by Stephen J. Clark continues the good work with an account of a strange cult, which the story’s protagonist investigates to his dismay, and the discovery of the woman who may have caused the death of its members. This one reads like Ewers’ Alraune filtered through a Blair Witch sensibility, the different viewpoints adding to it a quality of reportage.

R. B. Russell gives us a forbidden love affair in ‘Mathilde’, with the hapless Bernard sacrificing everything for the eponymous femme fatale, only nothing is quite what it seems in this obliquely written romance and death itself has a role to play. Russell touches on the hopelessness of desire when transmuted into obsession, and how our expectations keep us chained in place, the narrator having become as spellbound as Bernard prompting a spectral intervention at the height of the story. Bestial transformations feature in the savage ‘Dogs’ by rj krijnen-kemp, with a street waif given a glimpse of unparalleled luxury, only his benefactor has an agenda that doesn’t bode well for the boy, the story shot through with touches of violence and nothing quite what it at first seems to be, giving rise to a mounting unease in the reader and fear of what might happen to this lost child.

‘Tlaloc’ by Angela Caperton is set against the backdrop of Mexico, with a wealthy man booked into a mysterious clinic that offers longevity treatment, while his personal assistant becomes involved with the ladies of the establishment. With moments of high drama and bloodshed, it offers us insight into the amorality of the wealthy and a side view on the growing power of the Nazis. Katherine Haynes’ suave and assured tale ‘Magicians and Moonlight’ tells of a self-obsessed magician who tries to use his power to create the perfect woman, but is thwarted by his recently dead rival, the story oozing with subtlety and sophistication, as it brings to life a compelling picture of high society and magic rituals. Ewers himself appears to feature in ‘Lotte of The Black Piglet’ by Colin Insole, one of a group of intellectuals who frequent the tavern of the title and take the eponymous Lotte, a talented street musician, under their wing. The story offers a study of how genius can be perverted, Insole deftly laying the groundwork before unveiling a blood chilling denouement in which it is revealed how aptly Lotte has dealt with her money grubbing family (the story put me in mind of a version of Les Miserables in which Cosette gleefully guts the Thenardiers)

Last issue I was very impressed with Daniel Mills’ novel Revenants, and that good feeling is confirmed by his story here, ‘The Naked Goddess’, with a man telling how, in his youth, he travelled into the wilds of Vermont and stumbled across a village of blind people with an agenda that isn’t especially kind on travellers who’ve strayed off the beaten track. Initially the story brings to mind Jonathan Harker’s journey at the beginning of Dracula, with Vermont portrayed as every bit as wild and ridden with superstition as any ‘land beyond the forest’, but Mills is his own man, effortlessly engaging us in the desperate plight of his character, with a mad preacher and hints of the metaphysical, all of which paves the way for a bloody resolution that echoes Harvest Home. It’s a splendid story that deserves to reach a wider audience. I hope Stephen Jones and Ellen Datlow are on Side Real’s mailing list.

‘Singing Blood’ is not one of Reggie Oliver’s finest, though still an engaging piece, with three elderly men recounting their experience of evil, one of them a priest who tells of his encounter with a killer who showed no remorse and looked forward to his execution, and the twist of fate that brought him to tears. The story is wonderfully told, but there is little substance to it beyond a clever end twist. Another traveller runs into trouble in Peter Bell’s ‘The Rites of Pentecost’, a rare book dealer travelling round Europe in search of bargains. He stumbles across an isolated household with an occult library to die for, only the residents of the house are not who he believes them to be, and the truth of their condition ties into events from the protagonist’s own past, the story evocative and well written, managing to rise above its unpromising material to deliver something that is entertaining, without really being surprising. And so to Michael Chislett’s ‘Endor’, the story of an academic who uses a young woman as a host for the spirit of an ancient necromancer in exchange for promises of forbidden knowledge. There is huge potential here, with a subtext about repressed sexuality, compelling accounts of a séance, commentary on the growing threat of fascism, and it could easily have been the high point of this anthology, but errors in the text were so pervasive that my growing irritation eclipsed any hope of the story’s hitting home.

Mark Samuels is in fine form with ‘Masks: Three Vignettes Inspired by Hanns Heinz Ewers’, each episode infused with mental agility and wit, showcasing the author’s invention and command of language to splendid effect. There’s a manic quality to Thana Niveau’s ‘White Roses, Bloody Silk’, with an English country house weekend upset by the presence of a German guest and his disturbing maid servant, the story revelling in its madness and unbridled sexuality, with a subtext that begs the question as to who really is repressed in this scenario. For an idea of what it’s like imagine, if you will, a P. G. Wodehouse story filtered through the lens of Hammer Horror. ‘The Filature’ by Adam S. Cantwell plays out like a mix of Kafka’s Metamorphosis and the film Silk, with a German entrepreneur at the silk factory of a Chinese magnate witnessing the transformation of a young woman, the story starting out naturalistically enough and then drifting into uncharted waters of the imagination, along the way taking in social commentary and the dangers of a too literal reading of religious symbolism.

Last story in the book, ‘Holzwege’ by D. P. Watt, has an almost detached style of narration, giving us the gratifying story of how three Nazi thugs strayed well and truly off the path and became the victims of an ancient evil. It was a good note on which to end a very strong collection, one that also contains stories by Mark Howard Jones, Mark Valentine and Orrin Grey. I just wish that they hadn’t outsourced the proofreading to whatever the publishing world’s equivalent of an Indian call centre is.

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