Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities

In 2003 there was The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases, in which a group of roughly fifty authors described bizarre, humorous, or downright disturbing illness the mainstream medical community refused to acknowledge. That anthology built on the work of the brilliant, eccentric, and entirely fictional Dr. Thackery T. Lambshead. Now it transpires that the doctor, who died in 2003 at the age of 103, was also a great collector of artifacts, inventions, found objects, and miscellaneous junk, and an even larger group of authors and artists has undertaken to describe the highlights of his collection. The result is a quirky blend of fantasy, science fiction, and horror that ranges from the comical to the creepy and back again.

After an introduction that elaborates the fiction of Dr. Lambshead, perhaps excessively so, the first of several themed sections is "Holy Devices and Infernal Duds: The Broadmore Exhibits," which features four unusual pieces of steampunk tech, from "The Electrical Neurheographiton," an unusual electroshock device invented by Nikola Tesla and described by Minister Faust, to "Dacey's Patent Automatic Nanny," the ultimate in high-tech child-reading as explained by Ted Chiang. An excerpt from the former will suggest the particular note of weirdness much of the book strikes:
On January 12, 1943, Mr. Tesla was claimed to have died, although reports were conflicting. Many in Hollywood conjectured immediately that assassins in the pay of Big Cinema had done in the Serbian genius for selling them "exclusive" rights to a device whose blueprints contained, in tiny print, the phrase "I have omitted an explanation only for the motive unit which makes the entire machine work, in fear that the alchemists of celluloid might enthrall their nation and the world with ludicrous tales of vacuous lives." Others believed that Mr. Tesla's madness finally claimed him, infecting him with a Jovian "brain burst" that produced not Minerva but rather a puddle of bloodied grey matter upon Tesla's hotel room floor. Among the modern-day Fraternal Society of Teslic Scientific Investigators, there remains the belief that Tesla's "corpse" was an electrophantasmic discharge that had merged with organic materials in the hotel room to produce a permanent simulacrum of Tesla, while the "real" man departed from this world to explore the Universe, unhindered by the constraints of mortals.
Next up is "Honoring Lambshead: Stories Inspired by the Cabinet," six fictions based on artifacts from the cabinet. From Garth Nix's "Ambrose and the Ancient Spirits of East and West," about a British government operative with a gift for magic, to Holly Black's "Lot 8: Shadow of My Nephew by Wells, Charlotte," about the fate of a bear raised as a human, all the stories are good, but several lack the peculiar charm of the rest of the cabinet. Only "Relic" by Jeffrey Ford, with its lonely church and surreal parishioners, is as disarmingly funny, strange, and sad as the catalog entries. Tad Williams' "A Short History of Dunkelblau's Meistergarten" is also great, but it's not really a story, and but for a superficial similarity to Chiang's piece, it would be more at home among "The Broadmore Exhibits."

The next two sections are built around artists: four pieces illustrated by Mike Mignola ("The Mignola Exhibits") and two by China Miéville ("The Miéville Anomalies"). As it happens, one of the Mignola illustrations is for Miéville's "Pulvadmonitor: The Dust's Warning," one of the eerier entries. Although it's found, whimsically enough, in the attic of British Dental Association Museum, the Pulvadmonitor is no joke, but an unsettling reflection of the human search for meaning. Lev Grossman's "Sir Ranulph Wykeham Rackham, GBE, a.k.a. Roboticus the All-Knowing" is funnier, but its account of a British nobleman whose fame in artistic circles is enhanced rather than diminished by his prosthetic lower body and head has an edge of pessimistic melancholy that runs throughout the Cabinet of Curiosities, making it more than an extended steampunk gag. Another example: the second Miéville Anomaly, "The Gallows-horse," is at once a satire on contemporary philosophy and academic theory and a series of unpleasantly pessimistic variations on a memorable image.

The final section of exhibits is simply titled "Further Oddities," and lives up to that title. There's "The Thing in the Jar," in which Michael Cisco recounts Dr. Lambshead's seven attempts to explain the origins of "an anthropic creature" that might be an aborted minotaur, an Olmec carving come to life, or the offspring of a man and a volcano. And Caitlín R. Kiernan's "A Key to the Castleblakeney Key," an epistolary horror story about an impossible bog artifact and the terrible dreams it brings, suffused with its author's gift for balancing historical and archaeological erudition and portrayals of the fraying human mind. And Alan Moore's "Objects Discovered in a Novel Under Construction," which uses elements from his unfinished novel Jerusalem, envisioned as an enormous but unfinished building:
Making a considerable contribution to the already unsettling ambiance is the anomalous (and even dangerous) approach to architecture that is evident in the unfinished work: the lowest floor, responsible for bearing the immense load of the weightier passages and chambers overhead, seems to be built entirely of distressed red brick and grey slate roofing tiles with much of it already derelict or in a state of imminent collapse. Resting on this, the massive second tier would seem to be constructed mostly out of wood and has been brightly decorated with painted motifs that would appear to be more suited to a nursery or school environment, contrasted with the bleak and even brutal social realism that's suggested by the weathered brickwork and decrepit terraces immediately below.
Following these oddities are personal accounts of visits to the collection, dating from 1929, when N. K. Jemisin studies Dr. Lambshead's supply of kitchen implements to acquire the awesome power of "The Singular Taffy Puller," to 2003, when, as recounted to Gio Clairval, Dr. Lambshead's housekeeper sealed the collection's fate by trying against orders to clean "The Pea." That might seem an ideal conclusion for the book, but there's one more thing for those who just can't get enough of Lambshead's collection: "A Brief Catalog of Other Items," paragraph-long descriptions of such curiosities as the Bear Gun (it fires bears), the box of Reversed Commas, and St. Blaise's Toad (a miraculous relic).

With a contributor list featuring some of the biggest names in several varieties of imaginative fiction and art (in addition to those mentioned above, there's Aeron Alfrey, J. K. Potter, Michael Moorcock, Holly Black, Brian Evenson... I could go on), The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities is a treasure trove of the weird. The playful metafictional conceit and some of the more tongue-in-cheek items may lead some readers to expect a wearyingly cutesy volume, but there's more than that going on here, and the total effect of the varied items is all the more powerful precisely because they don't adhere to one easily-described style. Beautifully designed and laid out, this is one curio that any reader of non-mimetic fiction should at least flip through, and many will want to own.

Three Creatures and a Castle: Robert Aickman's "The Insufficient Answer"

After much consideration, it seems to me that the best approach to an explanatory analysis of "The Insufficient Answer" is three mini-essays on the story's central characters, each of whom appears to be a supernatural being of one sort or another.

Felicity: The Ghost

That Felicity is a ghost now seems so overwhelmingly obvious that I have no idea how I ever missed it. She has a tomb, for heaven's sake, even if housekeeping standards at the Schloss Marcantonio are so eccentric that it might just be an unusual bed. And Cust considers the possibility that she might be a ghost, which is, in an Aickman story, the equivalent of a large neon sign spelling out "SHE'S A GHOST!" in violent green letters. Her ability to move among the locked rooms of the schloss is another clue. But I didn't quite put it all together when I read the story a few months ago. That's the thing about Aickman; his stories are so rich in detail and implication that they become overwhelming, creating an impression of inscrutability so profound that even obvious connections can be overlooked. For that reason, I'll deal briefly with Felicity's two appearances in the narrative, highlighting the hints of her ghostly nature, some of which may not be noticed even by those who know a ghost when they see one.

Felicity died when, in her desperation to escape the schloss, she threw herself from its only large window, the one Cust finds and wonders about. As a ghost, she relives those moments over and over again. This is why, in her first conversation with Cust, she begins to fade as the sounds from the hall are overheard; the sounds are her, weeping as she runs down the corridor toward the window, and disappearing from the room altogether as she and the fallen iron shutter, which Cust sees at the end of the story, on the ground outside and covered with years' worth of vegetation, strike the ground below, setting up the enormous clattering that is either the source of Mrs Hastings' aversion to noise or an especially ironic mockery of it. That there is, despite the comparatively new glass Cust notices, no sound of its breaking when he sees the figure fall from the window, is another indication that the fall is spectral rather than physical.

A few aspects of Felicity's dialogue, which is, like Beech's at the end of "The Trains," a model of the suggestive yet opaque manner of certain Aickman characters, also allude to her status, of which she seems at least partially aware. (If that's so, there's a chilling pathos to her description of being imprisoned and looked in on and getting out.) The statement that Cust wouldn't believe how long she has been at the schloss implies her death was so long ago that, if she were aging normally, she'd be much older than she appears. The concern about whether women still say "bloody" in London also reflects the passage of time. Her reference to "the goose who lays the golden eggs" is presumably about herself as Mrs Hastings' model, killed like the goose by another's cruel greed. And finally there's the remark that Poppy is always ill "at these times," a sign that she knows there is some unnatural cycle involved in her escapes.

But how did that cycle begin? Why was Felicity imprisoned, and what need of Mrs Hastings' did she fulfill?

Mrs Hastings: The Vampire

Just as "The Trains" brought Aickman's distinctive devices to certain horror tropes, so too does "The Insufficient Answer" seem to be his variation on two great nineteenth-century tales of vampirism: Stoker's Dracula and Le Fanu's "Carmilla." As "Carmilla" was itself an influence on Dracula, the specific source of some of these similarities can't be pinned down. All three works have English characters in Central European castles, with an emphasis on secrecy, locked doors, and emergence late in the day. All three feature mysterious, powerful characters whose effusive and learned conversation is emphasized. Dracula and Mrs Hastings are both unexpectedly robust and both are shown sleeping in chapels deep inside their castles (though for very different reasons); both castles are without mirrors. Even Miss Franklin's delirious mutterings about Whitby may be an allusion to Stoker's novel, in which that city was the site of Dracula's first landing in England. There's also the mention at both the beginning and the end of the story of the Irving statue near which Benson's gallery is located. That would be Henry Irving, whose friend and biographer Bram Stoker used the actor-manager as an inspiration for Dracula. The most salient direct parallel between "The Insufficient Answer" and "Carmilla" is that in both stories the dominant figure and her victim are female.

Given the absence of explicitly monstrous behavior in the Aickman canon, the question these similarities raise is not so much whether Mrs Hastings is a blood-drinking vampire as it is what subtler form her victimization might take. One need not assume any supernatural manifestation at all; it might be that she is simply a cruel, controlling woman whose behavior drives people to despair. One certainly doesn't know what she might have done to cause her husband's plane crash, or exactly what (if anything) happened to Miss Franklin's sister Lilian, whose belongings are for some reason stored in the castle. But in the case of Felicity, we have a little more to go on.

In the first place, there is something off about Felicity's willingness to travel halfway across Europe to stay at a ruined castle with an older woman she's only just met.  It's perhaps not insignificant that one of the subtexts of "Carmilla," and many other female vampire stories, is lesbianism. The reference to unspecified "talk" about Mrs Hastings could support such a reading (or any number of others, of course), and even the mention of "just a phase" could be so interpreted if one wished. Most interesting in this context is Miss Franklin's explanation of why Mrs Hastings came to Slovenia: "I should say it was simply to get away from the world of men." This, like several of her explanations, appears to be consciously disingenuous, trading on the difference between "men" as a species and "men" as a gender; it is at the very least suggestive. But in any case a sexual reading is hardly necessary, as the strongest intimations of strangeness around Mrs Hastings are not about love but about art.

If Felicity is to be believed, Mrs Hastings imprisons her simply to use her as a model. That could be motivation enough; she has great hopes for the work she does with Felicity's image, and it is, in Cust's judgment, "curious" and "astonishing;" he "had never seen anything like it." The tomb sculpture in her shape is "brilliantly suggestive" and a "masterpiece." More is involved than beauty, though; in one of the story's more bizarre moments, Mrs Hastings' statement that she is learning to paint in the dark "seemed perceptibly to shake the previously assured Miss Franklin." Is there something dangerous about her talent? A now-obscure allusion may be significant here.

When studying Mrs Hastings' library, Cust pulls out a book at random, Chris Massie's Corridor with Mirrors. This is a real novel, published in 1941 and therefore fairly recent at the 1951 publication of We Are for the Dark, but both it and its author are so poorly-known today as to have left little mark on the Internet. Any readers of this essay who are familiar with the book or the author are encouraged to leave a comment, but in the interim I must rely on this summary of a 1948 film version. If it's at all representative of the novel's plot, Aickman's allusion to the story of a woman shaped by an eccentric figure into the ideal female of his imagination may be a hint of how intense, ominous, and possibly supernatural is Mrs Hastings' interest in Felicity. Or it might just be that the title of that novel allows Aickman to bring up the absence of mirrors in the schloss.

Whatever her precise nature, Mrs Hastings is certainly a powerful personality. But by the end of the story one suspects she is not the most powerful woman in the castle. That dubious honor must go to the third member of the story's peculiar triad.

Miss Franklin: The Witch

I've suggested that Miss Franklin's answers to Cust's questions are sometimes dishonest. Three times she pauses before replying to him: when asked about the loud noise, when asked about Mrs Hastings' reason for leaving England, and when asked if she has any control over Felicity's appearances.  In the first instance, her answer is a lie with a hint of the truth; in the second, it's so ambiguous as to be meaningless. I would argue that the third answer is also dishonest: that Miss Franklin is in fact the source of the apparition of Felicity, and since that apparition is (savor the irony of her name) the reason the older women "must absent ourselves from that felicity [of leaving the schloss] a while," she has therefore imprisoned Mrs Hastings as thoroughly as Mrs Hastings once imprisoned Felicity. Cust himself, remembering Felicity's "fear and hatred" and "constant references to her rather than the sculptress," is on the verge of a similar conclusion, and back aways from it only out of fear.

Before going over the evidence for this proposition, it's worth looking at the relationship between the two older women. Felicity says, "They hate each other, of course," and Mrs Hastings' indifference to Miss Franklin's potentially fatal illness ("It's very tiresome of her and quite unnecessary") backs up that contention on one side. On the other, Miss Franklin shows no sign of warmth toward or about anything or anyone. It's unlikely such enmity was there from the beginning; Miss Franklin would hardly have taken so solitary a job with a woman she despised. One might speculate, then, that the mutual hatred began when Miss Franklin saw what Mrs Hastings was capable of, what she did to Felicity, to her husband, or to Miss Franklin's sister Lilian. Possessed of that knowledge, Miss Franklin apparently armed herself against becoming the next victim. As she says to Cust, after inexplicably unlocking her door without a key, "I have no intention of being trapped."

There are a few signs that she is linked to Felicity's appearances. It's Felicity herself who observes that Miss Franklin is always ill at these times, and Miss Franklin is said to have woken suddenly in the middle of the night, presumably around the time Felicity appeared or disappeared. But the largest clue is her amusement when Cust suggests a mundane cause for her illness, and the exchange that follows.
"Pneumonia?" Cust might have said rabies.

"I recollected your cold when we last met."

"Oh yes. That." Miss Franklin laughed. "I followed my sister Lilian's remedy."

"Your sister Lilian?"

"Two heaping tablespoonsfull of salt in a tumbler of water piping hot and drink it down."

"I see. It certainly seems to work like a charm."

"Well, it works, Mr Cust. Charms often don't and when they do you oftener wish they hadn't." She still looked extraordinarily ill and her hair was a disorganized heap; but she was fully dressed in an ugly brick-coloured frock.

"You know about charms?" inquired Cust lightly but, all recent events considered, fearing for the answer.

"I've been asleep for goodness knows how long. That's something I'm not used to at all. I think there must have been magic in the air." The sentimental cliche sounded ludicrously sinister.
Magic indeed. In this light, Miss Franklin's unflappable calm (I think especially of her "neat ladylike figure" and amused laughter during Mrs Hastings' fitful response to Felicity's appearance), and the statement that she loves her job, make a grim sense, as does her fear of Mrs Hastings' ability to paint in the dark: if the two women are in some way dueling forces, an unexpected advance on the part of one might endanger the other. And their relationship is psychologically rich as well; one hardly need invoke the supernatural to imagine dangerous power games, driven by secrets, in the dynamic between a servant and her mistress. Possible sexual interpretations of Mrs Hastings' behavior become interesting again here: Miss Franklin as abandoned lover, Miss Franklin as willing or unwilling procuress.

But whether one prefers a reading that involves sex or one that emphasizes other deep, mysterious drives, the psychological element is a constant. It's often true of Aickman that even when the narrative details of a story remain obscure, the philosophical and psychological weight is clear. Whatever the specific connections and secrets that were involved, all three of the story's female characters are trapped in the Schloss Marcantonio by networks of mutual need and loathing, and each is, despite evident flaws, tragic or pathetic in her own way. There is, as Miss Franklin suggests, no end in sight to their suffering, and Cust, who only spends a week with them, loses his job as a result of the contact. Not all Robert Aickman's stories are bleak, but the world of this one does seem to be an inescapable and permanent hell.

Open Questions

1. As mentioned above: how similar is Massie's novel to that film version? What further connections might be made by one who had read the book?

2. Names are important in Aickman. "Cust" is probably related to constancy and perseverance, which is rather funny in the circumstances, and the irony of "Felicity" has already been mentioned, but what about Lola Hastings and Poppy Franklin? Is there anything there? And why is it called the Schloss Marcantonio? A reference to the engraver? The composer? Someone else? My guess would be the first, but what would be the reason? Is there a specific work of his that might be relevant?

3. Is something particular meant by that bit about painting in the dark?

As ever, comments on these or any other aspects of the story are welcome.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Secret Books of Paradys

This four-book series is linked by the milieu of Paradys, a city that's not so much a fictional analogue of Paris as a distillation of the Decadent, Gothic, and romantic aspects of its image. Populated by vain noblemen with decaying mansions, unappreciated poets drinking in darkened taverns, and lunatics locked into cruel asylums, Paradys is a perfect setting for the brand of lush, ornate horror that is, I think, the most distinctive of the many modes in which Tanith Lee writes. In both style and substance writing of this type can seem exaggerated, ludicrous, but for those on the right wavelength it captures something of the glittering intensity of obsession, a state of mind in which the exaggerated and the ludicrous seem natural, are in fact the only way to express one's heightened awareness.
Darkness closed on Paradys. But the night City was no worse, no more impenetrable, than a night in the country. This too had its own strange sounds, its own pitfalls, and generally the City gave more light than the forests, hills and fields, which were lit only by fire-flies, fungus, stars and moon. The City moon was made of dull plate, but lower down other luminosities shone out. High round windows in various towers of a college where the students pored late over huge books and parchments, dim bars of light behind iron grills and panes of sheep-skin. Sometimes, at the gates of a fine house, or along the river and its bridges, torches flashed on poles. But on the lower bank the hovels crowded to each other in sympathy, darkling, though here and there an occasional fire bloomed on stones in the street.
The Book of the Damned is made up of two short novels and a novella, unlinked in narrative terms but sharing recurrent motifs of duality, mutable gender, and romantic obsession. In "Stained with Crimson," the poet Andre St. Jean becomes infatuated with a mysterious noblewoman, but as you might expect the consummation of his desire comes at a terrible price, trapping Andre in a cycle of lust, violence, and revenge from which escape may take a very long time. In "Empires of Azure," Louis de Jenier, who makes a living and finds an obscure satisfaction in imitating women on the stage, rents a house in Paradys that proves already occupied, by a ghostly female presence to which he is fatally drawn.

These are fine stories, but the highlight of the first volume is "Malice in Saffron," an especially dark and disturbing meditation on such ambiguous distinctions as male/female and good/evil. Jehanine escapes a physically and sexually abusive stepfather to join her half-brother Pierre, the only remotely good person in her life, in Paradys. But her reception is not what she expects, and Jehanine soon carries out a cruel revenge whose consequences will come to haunt her. With nowhere else to go, she finds a bifurcated life in Paradys: by day the female Jhane, novice of the convent called the Nunnery of the Angel, and by night the male Jehan, leader of a band of thieves that terrorizes the city. Her existence has the febrile quality of a dream or a delusion, as pregnant with meaning as an allegory yet more potent in its fearsome strangeness than flatly symbolic fiction. Plague, satanic mysticism, festival, and a horrifying sacrifice are some of the components of this harrowing short novel.
He had of course lost himself on emerging from his apartment. There were no lights anywhere, only the worm-runs of windowless corridors on which the occasional door obtruded. Now and then, from perversity, he had tried these doors. Three gave access to barren chambers, empty of nearly anything. One had a shuttered window, another a candle-branch standing on the floor. (The branch was of iron, worth little. The candle-stubs had long ago been devoured by vermin.) A few other doors resisted his impulse. He fancied they were stuck rather than locked. Presently he reached an ascending stair he was certain he had not seen on entry with the hag. He paused in irritated perplexity, wondering if it would be worthwhile to climb. Just then a woman appeared and went across the stair-top, evidently negotiating the corridor which ran parallel to that below.
 She did not carry a candle, and that he saw her at all was due to his own light, and the pallor of her hair and skin which caught it. Her gown was of some sombre stuff, high-waisted as was now not always the fashion, and she held her hands joined under her breast. A stiff silver net contained her hair; it glittered sharply once as she glided by. That was all. She was gone literally in that flash. Her face he did not really see, yet her slightness, something about her, made him think her girlish.
Come to Paradys to pursue his education, Raoulin finds himself more interested in this woman-- this ghost, as he suspects-- of the ancient, decrepit house where he has taken a room. A disturbing experience with a local prostitute only increases his certainty that there is a story to be discovered, and eventually, he finds the woman and encourages her to tell it. Once she was Helise la Valle, daughter of one noble house and promised to marry into another, the d'Uscarets. Ignorant of what will come on her wedding night and overhearing whispers of some terrible rumor about her new husband's family, Helise waits in fear. But what happens after the ceremony, and what she does to stop it, are not quite the Gothic cliche one might be expecting.

It's true, though, that a curse haunts the d'Uscaret line, a curse the novel eventually traces back to Roman times, when the city was known as Par Dis, and a soldier called Vusca received a strange gift. Following the story of The Book of the Beast back in time has its fascinations, even though the core of it, once revealed, is not terribly complicated. Vusca's story is especially evocative. When the narrative returns to the present for its resolution, the thread of interest is lost, but the luxuriant, slightly antiquated flow of Lee's language carries it through to a satisfying conclusion.
Paradys too has its cemeteries, its little graveyards tucked out of sight, its greater yards of death that hug the churches, the cathedral that is called a Temple. It has its places of graves, between the houses in sudden alleys. Between the paving stones, here and there you may look down and see a name that paves the way, a date of beginning and the other of surcease. Even under the house floors now and then they will raise a carpet and a board and point you a grave: Sylvie sleeps here, or Marcelin. Paradys is a city of the dead as she is a city of the live, the half-live, the undead, and perhaps the deathless.
The Book of the Dead is a short story collection, its tales of the city linked by the cemetery in which the characters have been laid to rest. Generally I'm a great fan of Lee's short fiction, so it was a surprise to find this the weakest of the four Paradys books. None of the stories are bad, but without the elaborate structure of the longer works set in the city, they aren't particularly atmospheric, and too often the resolutions are disappointingly simple. "The Weasel Bride" carefully builds up a mystery about the tragic events of a wedding night, but its solution is a familiar, and rather crude, piece of folk mythology. "The Nightmare's Tale" is nicely written, but the Haitian voodoo on which it builds is too lodged in the popular imagination to become truly threatening.

Despite their limitations, a few of the stories make for pleasant minor reading. "Beautiful Lady" offers a nice, if ultimately irrelevant, twist on a basic concept, and the interplay between the eccentric, unsettling siblings who explain the history of "Morcara's Room" is far more interesting than the history itself. Perhaps the ultimate failing of the collection is that it doesn't consistently capture the particular mixture of eroticism, fantasy, and horror that makes Paradys a fascinating place to read about.
It was early afternoon, but as ever the daytime City was enveloped in gray mist. The sun had been invisible for years. The architecture of the City itself-- decayed, ruinous, romantic, and depressing by turns-- was visible in shifting patches, or regularly to a distance of seven meters. So that, as Felion climbed the long stair of a hundred steps, his world sank away into a sea of fog from which a few ghostly towers poked. And above, the Terrace of Birds began to form around a single dot of light-- which would be Smara's lamp. That is, he doubted anyone else would have climbed up here. The unhinged citizens of Paradise were also sluggish and indifferent, obsessed with rituals and trivia.
Felion and Smara are residents of a city called Paradise. But their inheritance from their late uncle includes a house with an icy labyrinth that leads to another city, called Paradis. That city, in turn, is ambiguously connected to Paradys itself. Is it one place at three different times, or three parallel realities? Who can say? What matters is that the distance between them is not insurmountable. In Paradise, Felion and Smara are as mad as any of the city's residents, but in a different way, and they hunger for something new. A second inheritance awaits them in Paradis, if they can handle the "cousin" who holds it for them. But Leocadia has troubles of her own.

Framed, as she sees it, for the murder of a lover, she is held in Paradis' asylum, given every luxury but certain that those luxuries are a ruse to cover poisons that will make her as mad as they claim she already is. Her art may be the only thing that can save her, but how will it be affected by what she discovers in the ruins of a former asylum, whose warders were killed and whose prisoners disappeared in a mysterious event many years ago? Meanwhile, in Paradys, a lovestruck young woman initiates a sequence of events that will lead to her imprisonment in a medieval madhouse, far harsher than the one in Paradis. Only the kindness of some of her fellow inmates might save her from the stupidity of the guards and the indifference of the sole doctor.

Subtle interactions among these storylines emphasize their parallels, but for the most part they function separately as stories of the tragic dignity of insanity. The interlocking structure gives a sense of great scope to a comparatively short novel whose stories are, taken individually, not all that complicated, and the sympathetic treatment of madness provides an appropriately moving conclusion to a series that has dealt with overwhelming emotion in all its wonderful and terrible forms. Paradys is as much a state of mind as a city, and we all go there from time to time. The Secret Books of Paradys is an excellent dark fantasy series, and an example of Tanith Lee's most striking and passionate work.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Blood and Iron: Robert Aickman's "The Trains"

This is the first in what will, I hope, be a series of in-depth essays on individual stories by Aickman, in the hope of diminishing the unwarranted air of utter impenetrability that surrounds them. Disagreements, amplifications, alternate theories, and other additions are strongly encouraged. Use the comment form at the bottom of the post.

Robert Aickman's career as a writer of what he called "strange stories" began in 1951 with the joint collection We Are for the Dark, containing three stories by Aickman and three by his then-lover Elizabeth Jane Howard. Coming second in the table of contents, Aickman's "The Trains" was his first story in that collection, and therefore (though we cannot to my knowledge ascertain the order of composition) in some sense his first published work. (It was eventually reprinted as the penultimate story in his final, posthumous collection Night Voices, and thus comes close to bookending his career.) Perhaps fittingly for a writer whose stories would often be seen as constituting a modern variation on the classical ghost story, "The Trains" combines narrative elements from traditional horror stories with the psychological focus, fear of modernity, and surreal opacity that are common to Aickman's fiction.

An Old House With a New Twist

Certain aspects of the plot of "The Trains" would not be out of place in a campfire yarn. The travelers, the sudden storm, the isolated house, the eccentric inhabitants, the dimly-seen figure on the stairs, and Margaret's final vision of the hanged Miss Roper, described in terms that are for Aickman unusually explicit (and I think chilling, though less so outside the context of the story):
Then Margaret became aware of something very horrible indeed: it began with the upturned dead face of an old woman, colourless with the exact colourlessness of the colourless light; and it ended with the old woman's crumpled shape occultly made visible hanging above the trap-door in the corner of Margaret's compartment-shaped room. Up in the attic old Miss Roper had hanged herself, her gray hair so twisted and meshed as itself to suggest the suffocating agent.
Such similarity to the popular idea of the ghost story is uncommon though not unique in the Aickman canon. But for all that "The Trains" is recognizable as a ghost story in the way that something like "Into the Wood" or "The Hospice" is not, it has features that are, from the perspective of tradition, baffling. The ambiguity over whether Margaret's vision of Miss Roper is "real" or internal is the least of these.

The description in the above passage of Margaret's room as "compartment-shaped" is part of a pattern in which the old house Margaret and her traveling companion Mimi take shelter at is described not in terms of an "old dark house" in the Gothic sense but of a train or some other feature of the railways. This begins with the doorbell.  "'It's a curious bell,' said Margaret, examining the mechanism and valiant to the soaking, shivering end. 'It's like the handles you see in signal boxes.'" (Signal boxes are, as some readers may not know, the points along a rail system by which the movements of trains are controlled. The handles would shift the rails and other equipment so that trains moved in the correct direction.) Later railway-influenced descriptions of the house introduce a note not only of oddness but also of distaste. The first floor of the house (in British usage; the second floor to Americans) has "several large doors, such as admit to the bedrooms of a railway hotel, but no furniture... nor were the staircase or either landing carpeted," an unappealing sparseness. The comparison to a "railway hotel door" is later repeated.

Images of railroads as well as railroad-influenced design begin to appear. The dining room contains engravings of the railway construction done by the house's builder, and a clock that "clicked like a revolving turnstile," though the association of turnstiles with mass transit may be too recent for Aickman to have meant this as a railway allusion. The drawing room, which is like the dining room described as "bleak," has more railway items, including "scale models of long-extinct locomotives" and "a vast print of a railway accident, freely coloured by hand." Margaret later realizes something about her room, whose barred windows had disturbed her: "the room suddenly struck Margaret as having the proportions of a railway compartment, a resemblance much increased by the odd arrangement of the windows, one at each end. Old-fashioned railway carriage windows were commonly barred, Margaret was just old enough to have noticed." At dinner Margaret comments on these "railways influences about the house," and eventually, finally invited into a room she regards as normal and inviting, Margaret thinks that "the railway blight" is totally absent.

Of course, it is not simply that the house happens to invite various railway associations; it is located directly next to the tracks of the railway the house's builder constructed, and on which he died in what may have been an odd accident or a suicide. The passage of trains is a constant, disconcerting undercurrent during events in the house: when first noticed it is "a sudden rumbling crescendo, which made the massive floorboards vibrate and the light bed leap up and down upon them. Even the big black stones of the walls seemed slightly to jostle." It punctuates the meal-- "At intervals through dinner, passing trains rattled the heavy table and heavy objects upon it"-- and continues late into the night. It is little surprise that Wendley Roper, grandson of the builder, once worked in the railway business like the rest of the family, and even having gotten free continues to research and publish books on the history of railways, under an ironic pseudonym, Howard Bullhead, that is itself a railway reference. (For the curious, "bullhead" refers to a particular type of rail design, based on its cross-sectional shape, and fishplates, the subject of Roper's book, are the pieces of metal that link the rails at either end.) His conversation with Mimi as they drink coffee in the drawing room uses trains as an existential metaphor: a branch line, a dead end, getting off the rails. It is little wonder that he should say, "I can't get it altogether out of my blood... The family motto might be the same as Bismarck's: Blood and Iron."

Why, from a literary perspective, all this focus on trains? To answer that question fully we must step back and look at the opening section of the story, before Wendley Roper and his railway-blighted house have even appeared.

"It's Not Nice Country"

Before the storm that traps them at Roper's house, Margaret and Mimi pass from pleasant countryside into a bare, deserted valley. "They noticed no traffic on the road, which, when reached, proved to be surfaced with hard, irregular granite chips, somewhat in need of re-laying and the attentions of a steam-roller. 'Pretty grim,' said Mimi." The first building they visit is an abandoned wreck, the second a barely used and unlicensed Guest House. "'Not much traffic,' said Margaret... 'They all go by train' [said Mimi]." Met in the Guest House with taciturn service, Margaret learns from a local man that the area is called the Quiet Valley and that indeed "the locals don't come here... They all take the railroad. They scuttle through shut up like steers in a wagon."

After leaving the Guest House, Margaret and Mimi have a close encounter with one of those trains.
As they stood uncertain, the sound of an ascending train reached them against the wind, which, blowing strongly from the opposite direction, kept the smoke within the walls of the cutting. So high was the adverse gale that it was only about a minute between their first hearing the slowly climbing train and its coming level with them. Steam roared from the exhaust. The fireman was stoking demoniacally.  As the engine passed to windward of the two women far above, and the noises from the exhaust crashed upon their senses, the driver suddenly looked up and waved with an apparent gaiety inappropriate to the horrible weather. Then he reached for the whistle lever and, as the train entered the tunnel, for forty seconds doubled the already unbearable uproar. It was a long tunnel... A nimbus of oily warm air enveloped [Margaret], almost immediately to be blown away, leaving her again shivering.
And later, as Margaret is in bed in Roper's house attempting to sleep:
Immediately she had groped into the pitch-dark bed, a train which seemed of an entirely new construction went past. This time there was no blasting of steam and thundering or grinding of wheels: only a single sustained rather high-pitched rattling; metallic, inhuman, hollow. The new train appeared to be ascending the bank, but Margaret for the first time could not be sure. The sound frightened Margaret badly. "It's a hospital train," her mother had said to her long ago on occasion of which Margaret had forgotten all details except that they were horrible. "It's full of wounded soldiers."
Out of all this one could construct a theory that for Aickman trains are an unpleasant and malevolent force. As he says in "An Essay," his remarks on winning the World Fantasy Award in 1976 for the short story "Pages from a Young Girl's Journal," Aickman believed that humanity had taken a "wrong turning" around the time of the Industrial Revolution, pursuing rationalism, science, and technology at the expense of our sense of the inexplicable, supernatural, and numinous. Trains, stark, loud, and polluting, seem an ideal symbol of that error, and the notion of a countryside deserted because people are taking trains past it rather than traveling through it-- a countryside where Miss Roper's frantic waving for help is ignored or misconstrued, and only the sight of blood has any hope of drawing attention from the mechanical passersby-- has obvious implications as a metaphor for indifference and isolation in a technological society. Up to a point such a reading is useful, but there are stumbling blocks.

In the first place, Aickman plainly did not dislike trains. He was (for a time) a close friend of railway enthusiast L. T. C. Rolt; both were founding members of the Inland Waterways Association, and Aickman apparently appreciated Rolt's ghost stories, some of which have railway settings and are not noticeably down on railways. And within the story itself there are signs that Aickman's point of view is not as crudely anti-industrial as a shallow interpretation of his philosophy might lead one to believe. As the story opens, Margaret and Mimi have just departed an industrial city, which Margaret has not at all disliked but Mimi has hated.
The city Margaret had found new, interesting, unexpectedly beautiful and romantic: its well-proportioned stone mills and volcanic chimneys appeared perfectly to consort with the high free mountains always in the background. To Mimi the place was all that she went on holiday to avoid. If you had to have towns, she would choose the blurred amalgam of the Midlands and South, where town does not contrast with country but merges into it, neither town nor country being at any time so distinct as in the North. To Margaret this, to her, new way of life (of which she saw only the very topmost surface), seemed considerably less dreadful than she had expected. Mimi, to whom also it was new, saw it as the existence from which very probably her great-grandfather had fought and climbed, a degradation she was appalled to find still in existence and able to devour her. If there had to be industry, let the facts be swaddled in suburbs.
Given that Margaret is the point-of-view character and generally seems to be more perceptive and stronger than Mimi (she notices earlier that there is something disturbing about Roper, and is the one to devise a solution to their predicament, a point to which we'll return; even the name "Mimi" suggests a trivial flightiness as compared to the solidity of "Margaret"), I would suggest that the perspective of the story is closer to Margaret's than to Mimi's: that the industrial, however regrettable its existence, is not incapable of beauty. In this context we might wish to consider a single sentence from Margaret and Mimi's encounter with the train that I tactically withheld via ellipses:
It was a long tunnel. The train was not of a kind Margaret was used to (she knew little of railways); it was composed neither of passenger coaches nor of small clattering trucks, but of long windowless vans, giving no hint of their contents. A nimbus of oily warm air enveloped [Margaret], almost immediately to be blown away, leaving her again shivering. (emphasis added)
Contrast this with the train Margaret hears (or imagines she hears) while in bed, which is "of an entirely new construction," and one begins to see that what Aickman finds sinister are not the trains of the early 20th century (with which he very probably grew up; those opposed to modernity do tend to give a pass to their own childhood associations) but the trains of the future, computerized, metallic, and impersonal and without the rustic (if polluting) charm of steam and the thundering of wheels.

But why, you might ask, is the house of the Ropers so grim and dangerous, if it is only the trains of the future that are such dark portents? One answer would focus on the fact that Margaret and Mimi are, as noted, largely ignorant of the industrial world; trains may have a certain charm from a distance, but living literally in their shadow is another matter. A second, somewhat richer answer provides a window into Aickman's aesthetics and the psychological aspects of the story.

Not on Solid Ground

In Aickman's worldview, as expressed in both stories and essays, strange and supernatural events are always impinging on the rationalist perception of normality, and it takes a concerted effort of mental will (of which a great many moderns are capable) to ignore this fact, to maintain the sense of order that defines a resolutely natural universe. Recall that the passing trains rattle the heavy dinner table and the heavy plates upon it, even seeming to jostle the walls themselves. What better metaphor for the effect of the paranormal upon staid sensibilities? Then there is the exchange between Margaret and Roper on the late-night movement of trains, of which Margaret had been ignorant.
"I see you're not used to living by a railway," said Roper. "Many classes of traffic are kept off the tracks during ordinary travelling hours. What you hear going by now are the loads you don't see when the stations are open. A railway is like an iceberg, you know: very little of its working is visible to the casual onlooker."...

"But surely only the passenger trains have time tables?"

"My dear Margaret, every single train is in a time-table. Every local goods, every light engine movement. Only not, of course, in the timetable you buy for sixpence at the Enquiry Office. Only a small fraction of all the train movements are in that. Even the man behind the counter knows virtually nothing of the rest."

"Only Wendley knows the whole works," said Mimi from the sofa.
There are more trains in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Trains, then, are like many mystical things in that they bring greater knowledge, but also greater danger, as suggested by the fates of Joseph Roper, Miss Roper, and Beech, by the probable fate of the insane Wendley Roper, and by the narrowly averted fates of Margaret and Mimi. This is a common theme in Aickman's stories, where characters often receive disturbing yet life-altering revelations.

It is in this light that Margaret's psychological development in the story is best examined. She is, as the story begins, a novice at hiking, deferring to Mimi's wisdom much of the time. Their rather uncertain friendship, tracked in seemingly innocuous exchanges with Aickman's usual subtlety and acuity, is particularly strained by Mimi's flirtation with Wendley Roper. Margaret's frustration leads to an epiphany:
Suddenly, looking at Mimi sprawling in her trousers and tight high-necked sweater, Margaret saw the point, clearer than in any book: Mimi was physically attractive; she herself in all probability was not. And nothing else in all life, in all the world, really counted. Nothing, nothing. Being cleverer; on the whole (as she thought) kinder; being more refined; the daughter of a Lord: such things were the dust beneath Mimi's chariot wheels, items in the list of life's innumerable unwantable impedimenta.
Taken by itself, this could be critiqued as rather patronizing male sympathy for an unattractive woman, with more than a hint of class condescension worked in. But as the story evolves, it becomes obvious that there are in fact things beyond attractiveness that "really count." Mimi's attractiveness has brought down on her the baleful attentions of Wendley Roper, and also of the man in the Guest House, with whom Roper is linked by the "inverted echo" of his words, itself explicitly paralleled to the verbal echo by which Margaret begins to realize that Beech is a woman. Recall also Margaret's observation that the man in the Guest House is "one of the many men who classify women into those you talk to and those with whom words merely impede the way."  Mimi's lack of cleverness has also left her unable to see that Roper is quite dangerous. Margaret's cleverness, on the other hand, allows her to recall the existence of Mimi's knife and use it to save herself from Beech, which in turn helps her protect Mimi from Roper's attentions, though not before Mimi has had whatever disturbing experience the train tickets shoved into her pockets are meant to suggest.

The conclusion of the story, with the tickets, the revelation of Beech's cross-dressing, and the abrupt ending so common in Aickman, has a mysterious and surreal quality that is equally common in Aickman, but each of these elements has its logic. The tickets, whatever one thinks of them aesthetically-- personally I find them too absurd to be unsettling, if to unsettle was the intention-- are an extension of "the railway blight," its invasion of the person of the visitor. It may be trite to point out that pockets are yonic, but with Aickman one never feels that the sexual is very far away. Beech's cross-dressing is a consequence of the love that has also trapped her with Wendley Roper. I can't work out whether she is supposed to have been in love with Miss Roper, in which case her cross-dressing, undertaken only after Miss Roper's death, would have an added pathetic irony, or with Wendley; I'm inclined to assume the former. Either way, the perils of attraction and attractiveness are once again involved, as they are in many of Aickman's stories about women. (His stories about men, on the other hand, tend to glamorize and mystify female attractiveness. These are not incompatible approaches, but I'll withhold further discussion of the point for a more appropriate essay.) And the ending, in which Margaret uses Beech's bloodstained blouse to wave to the train, represents the triumph of Margaret's cleverness over Mimi's sex appeal, Mimi having given up and been reduced to near-catatonia. There is also the potency of the approaching train, previously an image of mystery, power, and danger, becoming a symbol of hoped-for rescue.

There is, though, a darker reading of the story's final image. Miss Roper, after all, had been signalling from the same window several times a day for years, and all anyone ever did was wave back. Although the blood on Beech's blouse might be expected to garner more attention, there is no guarantee that Aickman meant to suggest Margaret and Mimi would achieve rescue; one cannot rule out the possibility that they are trapped.  But that would be atypical, as Aickman's stories with female protagonists generally end, if not optimistically, than at least with the sense that their lives have opened out rather than being curtailed: "Bind Your Hair," "The School Friend," "Into the Wood," "The Real Road to the Church," "Growing Boys," "The Next Glade." ("The Inner Room" is an exception, though, to the extent that its protagonist's gender is significant, and "Hand in Glove" is a more pertinent one.) It is that sense of opening out with which "The Trains" begins:
On the moors, as early as this, the air no longer clung about her, impeding her movements, absorbing her energies. Now a warm breeze seemed to lift her up and bear her on: the absorption process was reversed; her blood stream drew impulsion from the zephyrs. Her thoughts raced from her in all directions, unproductive but joyful.
Such "lifting up" is the result of supernatural experience in many of Aickman's tales, whether they end well or ill; even the fatal carries with it certain revelations. "The Trains" is thus the first of many explorations of what one will find if one wanders (forgive the slight muddling of metaphors) off the beaten track.

Out of Oz

In 1995 Gregory Maguire published his first novel for adults, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, which reconceived L. Frank Baum's Oz as a country with a realistic history, culture, and geography, using the iconic villain to consider the process by which outsiders, neither good nor bad in any easily defined sense, become thought of as the embodiment of evil. (The novel was, of course the basis for the 2003 musical Wicked.) Then in 2005 came a sequel, Son of a Witch, following the Witch's son Liir as he sought identity, stability, and purpose in an Oz thrown into chaos by the Matter of Dorothy. 2008 saw A Lion Among Men, which examined the lives of the Cowardly Lion and the Maguire-invented character Yackle. It was with that book, which though it told a complete story felt less substantial and more part of an ongoing narrative, that the notion of a series, called The Wicked Years, first appeared. And now we have Out of Oz, the sprawling final volume of that series. With a large cast centering on "Wicked Witch" Elphaba's granddaughter Rain, the new novel explores the consequences of trying to maintain human relationships, especially those between parents and children, in the deprivation and disorder of war. Maguire's wry humor and deeply-felt humanism make for a nuanced and moving conclusion to his saga of a magical society in the midst of political turmoil.

Over the first three books in the series Maguire has built up quite a variety of characters and settings, and in Out of Oz he brings virtually all of them back at least briefly, giving the book at times the feeling of a leisurely farewell tour. (Some of the returns ought to be kept secret, but one at least is mentioned on the cover copy and can be discussed here. Dorothy, unintentional killer of Elphaba and her sister Nessarose, is back from Kansas, and with a more substantial role than in any previous book. I'd be hard-pressed to come up with a coherent narrative reason for Dorothy to be in Out of Oz, but like many of Maguire's characters she has such delightful comic eccentricities that I don't feel like complaining.) There's a war on between Loyal Oz and the Free State of Munchkinland, but by and large Maguire's characters are concerned with staying out of it, so they spend large chunks of the book traveling incognito across Oz or in hiding in particular locations. This material is not very eventful, and plot developments mostly arrive in the form of exposition from visiting characters; multiple explanations, both of new storylines and events from previous books, in implausible dialogue are the major downside of the novel. But the witty exchanges that punctuate this exposition make it less of a chore than it might be, and the long interludes allow the characters' relationship to develop. One of the most potent themes in Out of Oz is the cost of protecting oneself and one's loved ones from war. Liir and his wife Candle have separated themselves from their daughter Rain to protect her, but when the time for a reunion comes, will they ever feel like a family again?

Other aspects of life during wartime are also considered. Maguire's Glinda, simultaneously daffy and canny as ever ("I'm not much for correspondence. I could never choose the right stationery, rainbows or butterflies."), is under house arrest as a possible traitor to Loyal Oz, and her mansion is being used by General Cherrystone as a base for some move against Munchkinland. Can she discover and circumvent his plans while protecting herself and her few remaining servants? Oz under Elphaba's brother, the allegedly divine Emperor Shell, is a dangerous place to live, but Munchkinland is no better. The witch Mombey holds power there, and as a comical yet deadly show trial demonstrates, is prepared to be as ruthless as her enemies. The book of magic known as the Grimmerie could bring the conflict to a decisive end, but it's far from clear that either side deserves to win, or that there's any good result on the horizon for the ordinary people of Oz.

These situations evolve in a slow but satisfying manner, leading up to an ending (one aspect of which readers of Baum's other Oz books will see coming) that strikes the right balance between resolution and ambiguity. Tongue-in-cheek references to the original Oz, both book and movie, and other children's classics complement the tart dialogue. ("Sister Apothecaire. As I live and breathe. I thought you'd taken a vow of chastity?" "I accidentally left it behind in the mauntery when you carried me off in that cart six months ago. Oh well. Whoever finds it can keep it; I'm through with it. Anyway, mind your own beeswax.") But it's the characters who make Out of Oz enjoyable: Liir, goodhearted but possibly not strong and wise enough; Brrr, the Cowardly Lion, less cowardly than aware of past mistakes and eager to protect those he loves; Little Daffy, formerly Sister Apothecaire, and her irascible husband, the dwarf in charge of the Clock of the Time Dragon; and of course Rain, a solitary and tough-minded child interested in the natural world but uncertain of the worth of human trust and love. Military pursuit, kidnapping, and death enforce terrible separations and give the bonds of loyalty a pain equal to their pleasure, but Rain and the others learn how to live in a world where nothing is certain, a world very like our own. For readers who have come to love his strange but recognizable milieu and its flawed, ambiguous characters, Maguire's Out of Oz is a delightful lingering farewell.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Madder Mysteries

Why should I review this book? I write reviews for two reasons: to clarify my opinions to myself by putting them in written form, and to offer those opinions to others who might find them helpful in making their own purchasing decisions. In the case of Madder Mysteries, neither reason quite applies. I've read most of the content of this book before, and my opinions on it are reasonably well-established. And the book currently sells for $250 and up in the supernatural fiction market; paying that much money for a book that is no more elaborately designed than many mass-market hardcovers is more a collector's than a reader's decision. Opinions on the content are almost irrelevant. Nonetheless, I'll give mine anyway, on the off chance I'll say something that might be helpful or at least interesting to a future reader.

From the perspective of an admirer of Oliver's fiction who does care more about the content than the collecting, Madder Mysteries is easily his least significant collection. It contains only eight stories, four of which also appear in Centipdede Press' omnibus Dramas from the Depths, which, though expensive, offers better value for money than any other method of assembling Oliver's early fiction, and is (at the moment, anyway) significantly less expensive than Madder Mysteries itself, to say nothing of the three earlier collections the omnibus reprints in their entirety. Of the four stories not included in Dramas from the Depths, "The Game of Bear" (an accomplished completion of an M. R. James fragment) can be found in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 21, and "The Head" in The Fourth Black Book of Horror. Two remaining pieces have never been printed anywhere else, but "The Wig: A Monologue for an Actor" is a modified version of the story "The Copper Wig," which appeared in the collection The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini and therefore also in Dramas from the Depths. The version in Madder Mysteries has, as you might expect, been reworked as a monologue and includes a few notable changes but is not, in my estimation, worth the expense to those who've already read "The Copper Wig." Which leaves us with one purely exclusive story, "Tawny."

The publisher's website describes "Tawny," an all-dialogue story, as a tour de force, but while the limitation to dialogue is well-handled, the story's compressed quality makes its outcome all too obvious; the hints of something unpleasant, which Oliver usually handles with masterful subtlety, inevitably come off rather heavy-handedly when worked into party conversation, and the characters' failure to be even slightly alarmed by what they see makes them seem even stupider than the story intends, to the point of cheap parody. I don't mean to disparage "Tawny" too much-- it's a capable minor story-- only to suggest that, as a reason to buy the collection, it doesn't have much to offer. The final lines, suggestive of a decline into madness, are rather nice, though.

Unsurprisingly given the collection's title, that threat of madness is a recurring theme, and Oliver writes the varieties of insanity, from gentle rambling eccentricity to overpowering delusion to disturbing associative babble, very well and very eerily. But it's not only the characters that are madder here, but the stories themselves. Oliver's early work was very much in the mode of the classic English ghost story, with familiar settings, characters, and devices given new force by Oliver's erudition and eye for detail. As his work evolved, however, new and bizarre elements began creeping in. So in Madder Mysteries we find stories like "Baskerville's Midgets," which is very much a traditional, subtle ghost story in structural terms, but in which the eccentric personalities of the title characters and the theatrical landlady they haunt contribute to a sense of absurdity that is more menacing than comical, making the story something akin to surrealism or the strange stories of Robert Aickman. "The Head" is another case in point. I suppose it too is a ghost story, but the ghost's deranged utterances are hardly what one expects from a specter.

But other stories are more quietly unsettling. "The Game of Bear" makes excellent use of the disturbing qualities of improving children's fiction in the early 20th century, and is an excellent pastiche of James. The highlight of the collection, and one of Oliver's finest works to date, is the novelette "The Devil's Funeral." Composed of letters and diary excerpts from 1882 and concerned with clergymen in an English cathedral city, it may sound like an antiquarian ghost story, but although there are terrifying dreams and visions suggesting a supernatural presence, the darkness that haunts Morchester is all too human. Once understood, the signs and portents that the characters have failed to understand provide a sly, unhappy satisfaction as well as a powerful sense of the numinous. And the story is so rich in subtle psychological and moral insights about, among other things, institutional politics and the perils of unrequited desire, that though I've now read it three or four times I'm still discovering nuances that I've missed in the past.

In addition to the eight stories, Madder Mysteries also includes five essays (one fictional) and ten ironic pastiches of late Victorian and Edwardian magazine articles. All the essays and half the pastiches also appear in Dramas from the Depths. The essays, on the supernatural fiction of Stella Gibbons, Montague Summers, M. R. James, and Henry James, are thoughtful and succinct (in an aside, Oliver aptly summarizes Frankenstein as "that ill-written work of genius") but rather on the rudimentary side; they work better as a capstone to Dramas from the Depths than as a substantial portion of Madder Mysteries. Nonetheless, admirers of Oliver will be interested in his insights into these writers, and what they reveal about his own artistic principles. The fictional essay, on the life and work of the non-existent Decadent writer Jules Charnier, and the newspaper pastiches (two titles, "A Cautionary Tale Concerning Beards" and "A Boiled Egg Called Lowestoft," will give a flavor of them) are amusing, though despite their brevity they wear a bit thin.

The range of content in Madder Mysteries speaks to the range and depth of its author's knowledge and interests: he can write convincingly about Victorian clergymen, ancient Greek religion, Casanova, Henry James, contemporary stage actors, and old newspapers. If Madder Mysteries were available at something close to its cover price, it would be easy to recommend. But it isn't, and the irony of the Dramas from the Depths omnibus is that the one then-available collection it doesn't include in full is the one least worth owning separately. Oliver's most devoted readers will want to have it anyway (which is why I do), but less passionate fans can feel safe in waiting and hoping for a less expensive reprint of some or all the exclusive content.

Great Ghost Stories

At the risk of sounding like one of those bloggers for whom every review is a fragment of autobiography, I think I should say that I bought Great Ghost Stories only because there happened to be a cheap secondhand copy that would use up the balance of an eBay gift certificate. A few days after it arrived, my mother happened to see it on my shelf, and I had so little interest in it that I immediately lent it to her. As with Haunts, also a ghost story anthology by Stephen Jones, she was roundly impressed with it and I, when I finally got around to reading it, felt rather less so. But, considering that I barely wanted the anthology in the first place, really it delivered more than I had anticipated.

Great Ghost Stories draws on the twelve volumes of The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories edited by R. Chetwynd-Hayes between 1973 and 1984. In addition to older stories, Chetwynd-Hayes also published recent or original work by contemporary writers, including himself. (In this he was to some extent following the precedent set by the editor of the first eight Fontana Book volumes, Robert Aickman, who included his own stories in several of those volumes. This does suggest a healthy ego, but at least history has justified Aickman's judgment.) As I'm not, with a few exceptions, much of a fan of the pre-20th century ghost story, I had expected to find the contemporary stories more involving. But the opposite was true. Although a few of the earlier stories are more technically interesting than frightening, most can still bring on a shiver, and they've stood the test of time better than the newer pieces, which are solid but far from great ghost stories.

I had high hopes for the opening story, "The Four-Fifteen Express," as its author, Amelia B. Edwards, is one of the few ghost story writers prior to M. R. James whose work I've enjoyed. But this story is short on eerieness and long on the gradual working-out of things that an alert modern reader will already have guessed. The narrative structure is by now so commonplace that it would take a more developed atmosphere than Edwards provides to overcome the sense of familiarity. That's even more true of Sir Walter Scott's "The Tapestried Chamber," an oft-reprinted story whose outline-- the houseguest, the disused chamber, the terrible experience, the corroborating discovery-- is by now so well-worn that the only way to find any interest in it is to foist onto it a psychosexual interpretation. A few other stories likewise roll along capably but without much interest.

But the older stories that fail to inspire are outweighed by those that offer at least a flash of the real thing. Richard Middleton's "On the Brighton Road" is another frequently-reprinted tale, but it has enough concentrated creepiness and contemporary relevance to overcome the curse of familiarity. "The Whittakers Ghost" by one G.B.S. manages to turn the lack of explanation common to a "true" ghost story into a virtue rather than a vice, creating an air of mysterious doom around what is really a standard haunting. Mystery also drives Guy de Maupassant's "An Apparition." One cannot say why that ghost should want what it does, and that makes the already disturbing request even more urgently terrifying. F. Marion Crawford's "The Dead Smile" is really more a Gothic tale than a ghost story, but it's a good one, with Gothic flourishes that are milder than usual, and all the more creepy for that. Two comic ghost stories, by John Kendrick Bangs and Jerome K. Jerome, balance the horrors nicely.

The 20th-century stories tend to feel disposable by comparison. Ramsey Campbell's "The Ferries," while perhaps a trifle overlong, is pretty spooky, but the rest lack both the pure chill of classic stories and the psychological or philosophical complexity of the best modern work. As Stephen Jones notes in his foreword, Stephen King's "The Reaper's Image" was, as a story by the bestselling author not previously published in Britain, quite a coup at the time of its Fontana Book appearance. But a few decades on, and after its republication in King's collection Skeleton Crew, "The Reaper's Image" is more a curiosity than anything else. Considering the author's youth (he was twenty-one at the time), its by-and-large competent crafting is impressive, but that doesn't make it a great ghost story, or even a particularly good one. Brian Lumley's "Aunt Hester," more Lovecraftian than ghostly, proceeds gamely towards its obvious conclusion, which it describes with an overdose of italics and exclamation points!  Sydney J. Bounds' "The Night Walkers" is so rudimentary in its concept and execution that I can barely understand why it was chosen for the original Fontana Book, let alone for this later culling.

Other stories are engaging, quite successful as products of their time, but lack the heft that would make them memorable. Those who (as I do) admire Steve Rasnic Tem's psychologically intense horror fiction will appreciate "Housewarming," but it's not one of his more powerful or surreal stories. Tina Rath's "The Fetch" involves a macabre scheme and a final twist that wouldn't be out of place on The Twilight Zone, but its cleverness replaces rather than complements anything truly frightening. Chetwynd-Hayes' own "She Walks on Dry Land" features a less-than-fully-successful pastiche of Regency style that nonetheless brings a cruelly ironic charm to another thoroughly traditional haunting.

In the end, I think Great Ghost Stories falls short of its title. Only a few of its stories can really be called great. But greatness in the ghost story is, after all, a rare commodity. Robert Aickman's contention that there were only a few dozen examples in the English language was too pessimistic, but not by much, and many of the best examples have been so endlessly reprinted as to lose much of their effect. And as a sample of ghost stories, especially pre-modern ones, that exist just below the level of greatness (as so many fine stories must), this anthology is well worth reading.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Tartarus Press updates

Reggie Oliver's Mrs Midnight and Other Stories, which was already out of print when I reviewed it a few days after publication, will be reprinted and made available in an e-book edition. It's not clear whether the reprint will be a second hardcover edition or a trade paperback, though most of Tartarus' reprints of its contemporary titles have been the latter. [Later update: Oliver himself has apparently confirmed that the reprint will be a paperback.] The e-book, if priced in the same range as Tartarus' other e-releases, will mark the first time a collection of Oliver's fiction has been available at a cost likely to appeal to the casual, non-limited-edition reader. The other piece Mrs Midnight news is that the book has received a prestigious starred review from Publishers Weekly.

Also praised by Publishers Weekly was Michael Reynier's Five Degrees of Latitude, which Tartarus recently made available as an e-book, both direct from the publisher and at and One of the benefits of e-publication, aside from affordability and availability to a new audience, is the inclusion on Amazon of a sample of the title, allowing readers to get a taste of the author's style and decide whether they're interested enough to buy the e-book, or even the print edition. I don't often read e-books myself, but I've been known to make an exception when it's by far the cheapest way to read something, and I'm currently debating whether to buy the e-edition of Five Degrees of Latitude so I can use it to decide whether I want the hardcover. Although its stock-in-trade has always been and will continue to be its handsome print books, Tartarus is to be commended for taking steps into the realm of electronic publishing, which can be a rewarding one for both publishers and readers.

To follow Tartarus updates for yourself, keep an eye on their news page.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Halloween II

I'm not a big fan of Halloween (mass-produced scary doesn't do it for me, and I eat too much candy year-round anyway), but this year, rather than repeat last year's scrabble for something appropriate to read or watch, I decided to make up a reading and viewing list ahead of time. It seemed like a good opportunity to reread some stories by favorite authors that I'd been thinking about for a while, but hadn't gotten around to because there was also something new to read. I spent a while looking at the catalog of my books on LibraryThing, made a list of authors I admired, and found stories by some of them that I wanted to reread. There was quite a bit of adding and subtracting, but after a while I ended up with a vaguely-appropriate count of thirteen stories, which I read more or less in order of their original publication.

1. H. P. Lovecraft, "The Festival"

I have an odd relationship with Lovecraft these days. Much as I hate to sound like the purveyors of mainstream disdain for his work, more and more I find the style distracting, not because it's baroque or febrile or whatever you want to call it, but because the constant stream of negative superlatives detracts from the intricacy of the narrative structure, at which Lovecraft was a genius. You can't gradually build an atmosphere of weirdness if each individual element is ghastly beyond belief. Sometime in the not-terribly-near future I hope to reread all of Lovecraft and see how true this impression holds. For now, I mostly reread his earlier work, which, even with these qualms, I find satisfying and disturbing in a way the more famous stories aren't. My favorite of these at the moment is "The Music of Erich Zann," but I reread that one pretty recently and it's not, for all its decadent charm, of such substance that I'm eager to go back to it. So I went for "The Festival" instead.
Then beyond the hill’s crest I saw Kingsport outspread frostily in the gloaming; snowy Kingsport with its ancient vanes and steeples, ridgepoles and chimney-pots, wharves and small bridges, willow-trees and graveyards; endless labyrinths of steep, narrow, crooked streets, and dizzy church-crowned central peak that time durst not touch; ceaseless mazes of colonial houses piled and scattered at all angles and levels like a child’s disordered blocks; antiquity hovering on grey wings over winter-whitened gables and gambrel roofs; fanlights and small-paned windows one by one gleaming out in the cold dusk to join Orion and the archaic stars. And against the rotting wharves the sea pounded; the secretive, immemorial sea out of which the people had come in the elder time.
"The Festival" opens strongly with this evocation of a village out of time and its tilted, twisting architecture, images that have always appealed strongly to me as symbols of the weird and the pessimistic. (One finds similar motifs throughout Lovecraft and in later writers like Ligotti, whose "The Sect of the Idiot" is, I think, an under-appreciated modern classic of the Lovecraftian.) The protagonist, called to his ancient hometown for a ritual observed once a century, finds something more monstrous than he had expected. Well, of course he does; he's a Lovecraft narrator. To be honest, it's not the ritual itself that draws me to this story; that section, though admirably structured, is I think too emphatically about the physically noisome, which doesn't impress me much. What I like is the opening: the description of the village, of the house at which the narrator rests before the ritual begins, and of its elderly inhabitants. I suppose that in many ways what I like about the story is what is least genuinely Lovecraftian about it, a Gothic horror of more nineteenth-century vintage, but I think Lovecraft's prose lends it a sharp, sickening intensity that traditional Gothic language could never convey.

2. M. R. James, "A Vignette"

An odd choice from the James canon, perhaps, as it's one of the minor stories he wrote near the end of his life, in fact the very last; it was published a few months after his death. But I've always been fond of it. It was the final story in the first James collection I read, the oversize hardcover, with appropriately subtle pencil illustrations by Rosalind Caldecott, that appeared under the imaginative title The Ghost Stories of M. R. James. At that time I was very impressed by the story, and though I can no longer see why, it still interests me as something that is evidently autobiographical.  (I recently acquired a tatty but solid copy of the story in that first magazine appearance, and it's become one of the more cherished items in my supernatural fiction collection.) The very lack of complexity and satisfying explanation that make it a minor piece of fiction render it fascinating when considered as a "true ghost story," one that, perhaps, partially explains a devout, hardworking, widely-liked academic's lifelong devotion to frightening fiction.
Do not press me with questions as to how I bore myself when it became necessary to face my family again. That I was upset by something I had seen must have been pretty clear, but I am very sure that I fought off all attempts to describe it. Why I make a lame effort to do it now I cannot very well explain: it undoubtedly has had some formidable power of clinging through many years to my imagination. I feel that even now I should be circumspect in passing that Plantation gate; and every now and again the query haunts me: Are there here and there sequestered places which some curious creatures still frequent, whom once on a time anybody could see and speak to as they went about on their daily occasions, whereas now only at rare intervals in a series of years does one cross their paths and become aware of them; and perhaps that is just as well for the peace of mind of simple people.
Admirers of Lovecraft have sometimes dismissed James by claiming that, while the former wrote deeply philosophical stories that confronted the nature of the universe, the latter wrote cozy entertainments that weren't about anything. James himself perhaps contributed to this impression, by writing about his stories in a dismissive way that is easy to take at face value, but should perhaps be read instead as polite self-deprecation. Shane Leslie reports that M. R. James did believe in ghosts, replying when asked, "Depend upon it! Some of these things are so, but we do not know the rules!" Nor do James' characters know the rules, and they are punished, sometimes fatally, for minor transgressions. If one takes these stories seriously, not as literal outlines for things in which James believed, but as fictional elaborations of the sort of capricious forces he understood to exist, then they become genuinely dark in a way that even Lovecraft is not. Cthulhu may be a metaphor for the cosmic, but Count Magnus is both a metaphor and a dangerous sort of thing in and of itself. My point here is not that James is "better" than Lovecraft, only that there is a way of understanding the endurance of James' fiction that goes beyond the notion (however satisfying it may be in and of itself) of "a pleasing terror." In "A Vignette," his last fiction, James may be reaching back to the root of that body of work, describing with hints of the style that had made him famous-- the light social comedy, the simple and elegant evocation of nature, the barely-sensed apparitions-- something that generated in him a far from pleasing terror.

3. T. E. D. Klein, "Petey"

Widely praised yet frustratingly unprolific, Klein has, over the course of a nearly four-decade career, published only a single novel, five novellas (one later incorporated into the novel) and a scattering of brief short stories. His "Children of the Kingdom," which mixes Lovecraftian creatures with the racial tensions of 1980s New York City, is one of my favorite horror novellas, but this year I went instead for "Petey," a novella that has more to do with M. R. James. Set at a housewarming party and rich in dialogue that reflects the affluent materialism and catty envy of the partygoers, it gradually hints at the secret the house's former owner, now bound and gagged in an insane asylum, is desperately trying to reveal to one of his attendants. The slow tightening of the noose, as the wandering guests come across clues that the reader can synthesize but they cannot, is ingenious, and the social anxieties of such an event are conveyed with such ease that the infinitely readable novella barely seems to have a style at all.  The story ends at a point where a writer more concerned with visceral shocks would begin, but there's a delicate terror all the same, one helped along by a device that was, if I recall correctly, a conscious homage to one from James. This time around I found myself analyzing the story more than enjoying it, but either way I recommend the experience.

4. Ramsey Campbell, "The Voice of the Beach"

This Lovecraftian novelette is often described as a high point in its distinguished author's career of high points, and though on rereading it I found the narrator's interjections of nervous foreshadowing intrusive rather than atmospheric, the eventual vision of dissolution that awaits a horror writer who has retreated to a beachside bungalow in the wake of illness does capture the true essence of Lovecraftian terror: the sense of something so impossibly different that it cannot be understood, that it might destroy all of humanity without malevolence simply because we exist on an utterly distinct level of reality. Campbell's talent for writing about psychological instability also makes the depth of the narrator's paranoia, and of his friend's enthusiastic embrace of the presence on the beach, unsettling in a way that the awestruck tone of Lovecraft's own narrators rarely achieved.
A hint of a grimace twitched his cheek; my comment might have been an annoying fly-- certainly as trivial. "You can read the pattern out there if you try," he mumbled. "It takes all day. You begin to get a sense of what might be there. It's alive, though nothing like life as we recognize it."

I could only say whatever came into my head, to detain him until the doctor arrived. "Then how do you?"

He avoided the question, but only to betray the depths of his obsession. "Would an insect recognize us as a kind of life?"
5. Thomas Ligotti, "Conversations in a Dead Language"

Up to this point I hadn't been getting as much out of my evening's reading as I'd hoped; all the stories had had their strong moments, but I wasn't feeling the shiver down the spine I'd been looking forward to. That changed with this Thomas Ligotti story, by coincidence one of two on my reading list actually set at Halloween. Ligotti is, I hardly need to tell most readers of this blog, known for stories that lay out a pessimistic worldview with images of decay, instability, and disorder, the nightmare collapse of things that seemed solid. Though his work is therefore intensely psychological, its psychology is usually of a kind that runs parallel to those concerns; his characters are attuned to problems deeper than run of the mill human misery. "Conversations in a Dead Language" is a little different. Its protagonist's mind still opens onto the abyss, but that mind's workings are twisted in a way more reminiscent of what is typically called "psychological horror." The local mailman enjoys passing out candy on Halloween, but his pleasure in the experience seems less than wholesome. We begin with a description of a common ritual, carefully calculated to emphasize its strangeness:
After changing out of his uniform, he went downstairs to search the kitchen drawers, rattling his way through cutlery and cooking utensils. Finally he found what he wanted. A carving knife, a holiday knife, the traditional blade he'd used over the years. Knifey-wifey.

First he carved out an eye, spearing the triangle with the point of his knife and neatly drawing the pulpy thing from its socket. Pinching the blade, he slid his two fingers along the blunt edge, pushing the eye onto the newspaper he'd carefully placed next to the sink. Another eye, a nose, a howling oval mouth. Done. Except for manually scooping out the seedy and stringy entrails and supplanting them with a squat little candle of the vigil type. Guide them, holy lantern, through darkness and disaster. To me. To meezy-weezy.
There's an intermittent element of stream of (uneasy) consciousness here and throughout that is, alongside language closer to Ligotti's usually style, disquietingly suggestive of the protagonist's bifurcated mental state. The nature and sources of that bifurcation, also horrific in a way less common in Ligotti, I leave for those new to the story to discover.

6. Glen Hirshberg, "Struwwelpeter"

At first I felt I ought to read Hirshberg's "Mr. Dark's Carnival," a story set at Halloween. But it was another one I'd reread pretty recently, so I decided on "Struwwelpeter" instead, and quickly realized that it too was a Halloween story. One of the nice things about rereading is that, knowing the plot in advance, you can focus on other aspects of the story, without being distracted by the question of what's going to happen next. "Struwwelpeter" haunts the first-time reader with a deserted house and a bell that's rumored to raise the dead, but its true genius is the milieu, a lonely, decaying fishing village in the Pacific Northwest, and the title character, a gifted young man, by turns cruel and kind, indifferent and hungry for approval. Like much of Hirshberg's fiction, the story is suffused with tragic melancholy, a sense of impotence that's all the more powerful because it's reflected in the small actions and inactions of the characters rather than projected as a philosophical topic. Rich in classical spookiness and enhanced by an unexpected twist of very modern and human horror, "Struwwelpeter" is one of the finest stories by perhaps the single finest contemporary writer of American ghost stories.
Back then, we still gathered after-school afternoons at the Anderszs' house, because it was close to the locks. If it wasn't raining, we'd drop our books and grab Ho Hos out of the tin Mr. Andersz always left on the table for us and head immediately toward the water. Gulls spun in the sunlight overhead, their cries urgent, taunting, telling us, you're missing it, you're missing it. We'd sprint between the rows of low stone duplexes, the sad little gardens with their flowers battered by the rain until the petals looked bent and forgotten like discarded training wheels, the splintery, sagging blue walls of the Black Anchor Restaurant where Mr. Paars used to hunker alone and murmuring over his plates of reeking lutefisk when he wasn't stalking Market Street, knocking pigeons and homeless people out of the way with his dog-head cane. Finally, we'd burst into the park, pour down the avenue of fir trees like a mudslide, scattering people, bugs, and birds before us until we hit the water.
7. Mark Samuels, "The Impasse"

This story comes from Samuels' collection The White Hands and Other Weird Tales, which I was ambivalent about, but "The Impasse" is, as I said in that review, unquestionably a very fine piece, in the manner of Thomas Ligotti's corporate horror stories but not a mere stylistic pastiche. Its effect is a simple yet potent one, of ordinary corporate eccentricity tilted just a little, then a little further, then further still, until the full insanity is revealed.
For his interview a week previously he had traveled on a deserted mid-morning train. At first he had been alarmed by the state of the Organization's headquarters, with its air of impending abandonment. It did not look to him as though they would be able to offer him a position with any future. But the interview seemed to have gone well and he was promised a better salary than he had expected. The two interviews had been somewhat vague figures, and neither had asked him any particularly probing or awkward questions. He could remember little of them except that they sat in the shadows at the back of the room. They had not elaborated on the exact nature of his duties, but had intimated that they would be concerned with an area with which he was familiar, intellectual property rights, although he was not told in which particular sphere he would be required to operate. Despite being au fait with various publishing and broadcast media in which such rights are usually exploited, Cohen had not heard of the Ulymas Organization. When, before his interview, he had undertaken background research he had been unable to find the company listed in any trade publication.
8. China Miéville, "Reports of Certain Events in London"

Miéville's novels blend horror, fantasy, and science fiction in inventive ways, and the stories in his collection Looking for Jake show a similar range. I suppose you could call "Reports" a fantasy, but to my mind it's reminiscent in an unusual way of Lovecraftian horror. It's concerned with incursions into our reality by large, mysterious forces that come and go as though time has no meaning, forces humans investigate at our great peril. The narrative structure, doling out revelations by means of a carefully-arranged series of evidently disordered pieces of information, is also similar to Lovecraft, though Miéville uses a device Lovecraft didn't: the epistolary format.
On the 27th of November 2000, a package was delivered to my house. This happens all the time-- since becoming a professional writer the amount of mail I get has increased enormously. The flap of the envelope had been torn open a strip, allowing someone to look inside. This also isn't unusual; because, I think, of my political life (I am a varyingly active member of a left-wing group, and once stood in an election for the Socialist Alliance), I regularly find, to my continuing outrage, that my mail has been peered into.

I mention this to explain why it was that I opened something not addressed to me. I, China Miéville, live on ---ley Road. This package was addressed to a Charles Melville, of the same house number ---ford Road. No postcode was given, and it had found its way, slowly, to me. Seeing a large packet torn half-open by some cavalier spy, I simply assumed it was mine and opened it.
What this fictional Miéville finds is a baffling, frustratingly incomplete collection of documents related to an organization studying a rare and inexplicable phenomenon. What that phenomenon is I would not dream of saying, not least because outside the context of the story it might seem laughable. But as revealed in these reports there's nothing funny about it, and by the time "Miéville" himself is caught up in the paranoia and secrecy surrounding the "VF," the eerie sense of a war occurring mostly, but not entirely, outside our perception makes for weird fiction at its absolute best.

9. Reggie Oliver, "The Babe of the Abyss"
 He owned a chalet, high in the mountains of the Haute Savoie to which, in the long summer vacations, he would invite groups of undergraduates on "reading parties." That is to say, the undergraduates would come with their books which during the morning they studied by themselves, either indoors or out on the lawn in front of the chalet with its transcendent views of forest and mountain. In the afternoon they would go for long walks through idyllic Alpine landscapes. The food was plentiful but plain, the beds on the hard side, the only hot water available had to be boiled in kettle or copper; yet many remember their chalet days as a little glimpse of Eden when it was bliss to be alive, and "to be young was very heaven." I went once, in the year 1920, the last year that Panter held one of his chalet reading parties. It was as a result of certain events which occurred during this reading party that Panter was forced to leave the college in ignominy.
I haven't written about "The Babe of the Abyss" before, but much of what I said about the way Oliver's latest collection combines the pleasures of the English ghost story with a keen moral and psychological insight is true of this story as well. Its setting is the early 20th-century academic world of M. R. James, and its supernatural creature has a chilling subtlety and an origin that smack of the antiquarian "warning to the curious." But the novelette is also a reflection on psychological theories of violence and repression, on human nature, and on the bloodiness of the society that produced the two great wars. The unexpressed desires that drive it would have horrified James, although he may not have been as immune to them as his placid exterior has lead many scholars to believe. In many ways "The Babe of the Abyss" is unlike "Struwwelpeter," but both are ghost stories concerned with the nature of human frailty, reminders that that form, when approached in the right spirit, is one of the profoundest tools for the expression of tragedy.

10. R. B. Russell, "Llanfihangel"

I wrote about this story on reviewing Russell's collection Literary Remains a few months ago, and to what I wrote then I can only add that the story's maintenance of its ambiguity is perfect, from an opening conversation that might reflect either the fallibility of memory or the skillful manipulation of a con artist, to a deserted house that might be haunted or might be empty of everything save the protagonist and his guilt, to a final revelation that, in piling yet another possibility onto the multiplicity of readings these events might be given, causes reality to teeter with something verging on nausea. This is one of those stories where I can't quote a tantalizing passage because the story's power is purely cumulative. The protagonist's thoroughly human petty jealousies and fears round out what is not, given the brevity and narrative complexity of the story, a deep character in other senses, and enhance both the reader's sympathy and the sense of psychological precariousness.

11. Stephen King, "N."

Like "The Voice of the Beach," this novella heightens the focus on the protagonist's obsessive psychology; like "Reports of Certain Events in London," it uses the epistolary format. But where those stories were comparable primarily to Lovecraft, "N." is traced by its author to Arthur Machen, specifically "The Great God Pan." I've read woefully little Machen, but I think his influence can be seen in the dual nature-- the beauty and terror-- of the story's central landscape.
The day was fading. The sun was a ball of red gas, flattened at the top and bottom, sitting above the western horizon. The river was a long, bloody snake in its reflected glow, eight or ten miles distant, but the sound of it carrying to me on the still evening air. Blue-gray woods rose behind it in a series of ridges to the far horizon. I couldn't see a single house or road. Not a bird sang. It was as if I'd been tumbled back four hundred years in time. Or four million. The first white streamers of groundmist were rising out of the hay-- which was high. Nobody had been in there to cut it, although that was a big field, and good graze. The mist came out of the darkening green like breath. As if the earth itself was alive.
I think I staggered a little. It wasn't the beauty, although it was beautiful; it was how everything that lay before me seemed thin, almost to the point of hallucination. And then I saw those damned rocks rising out of the uncut hay.
Those damned rocks-- are there seven of them? or eight?-- are the source of the obsession, the obligation or delusion, that drives "N." The title character becomes convinced that something is waiting in Ackerman's Field, a monstrous presence that twists our reality to make a door for itself and, once noticed and granted access, can only be held at bay by a ritual confirmation of the solidity of this world. This terrible knowledge preys on the mind as it often did on Lovecraft's protagonists, but with a new angle: the instability takes the form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. After a middle section in which the sense of incursion is described in fine classical style, the climax, in which the compulsion claims a new victim, shifts to a series of journal entries in which the mental decline is foremost. King's gift for lunatic, paranoid prose, in which spelling, grammar, and continuity are disconcertingly shredded, serves him particularly well here, and the result is a story that, like so much else I read on Halloween, pays homage to tradition while respecting the power of the modern.

12. Caitlín R. Kiernan, "Pickman's Other Model (1929)"
I have never been much for the movies, preferring, instead, to take my entertainment in the theater, always favoring living actors over those flickering, garish ghosts magnified and splashed across the walls of dark and smoky rooms at twenty-four frames per second. I've never seemed able to get past the knowledge that the apparent motion is merely an optical illusion, a clever procession of still images streaming past my eye at such a rate of speed that I only perceive motion where none actually exists. But in the months before I finally met Vera Endecott, I found myself drawn with increasing regularity to the Boston movie houses, despite this longstanding reservation.
Endecott, Pickman's other model, has a shadowy past in one of those decayed New England towns so beloved of Lovecraft, but her future lies in Hollywood, and this story extends the forbidden art motif of "Pickman's Model" to the world of early film. As in much of Kiernan's fiction one finds dreams, meditations on art and reality, and Fortean collection of data, but there's much more going on here than I can describe without making this essay far longer than it already is. The lingering impression, however, is of the mercifully unexplained, from the lost film of which only a tantalizing fragment remains, to the scandalous, fatal party that destroyed Endecott's career, to the ultimate fate of a woman the briefest glimpse of whom suggests an extraordinary presence. Kiernan combines many Lovecraftian themes and motifs in a story that is at once a fine sequel and homage, and something distinctive and original.

13. Quentin S. Crisp, "Ynys-Y-Plag"

Another story I first read pretty recently, but I've been wanting to get back to it ever since I called it "a contemporary masterpiece of long weird fiction." By the time I started this very long story it was 1:00 AM, and exhaustion kept threatening to make me put the book aside. But whenever it did, I'd come to a striking or spine-chilling passage and read on, excited and terrified all over again. There were times when I felt that rarity of rarities: a fiction-induced fear that was so profound it went beyond the pleasing, and became genuinely upsetting. After finishing, even though I was still bone-tired, I had to put on a sitcom rerun so I wouldn't be alone with the silence, and with thoughts of the bwg, which sends a little shiver up my spine even twenty-four hours later.

Yes, this account of a photographer's experiences in a remote Welsh village frightens me in a way that not many stories can. But what makes it a new classic is that it also deals with many of Crisp's recurring themes: isolation, victimization, social awkwardness, and the numinous quality of certain places and times. Not a million miles removed, despite major difference in superficial style and genre, from Crisp's novel "Remember You're A One-Ball!", "Ynys-Y-Plag" deserves every single one of my (rather limited) stock of superlatives, but instead of unloading them I'll express my fervent hope that this novella will one day be reprinted somewhere a larger audience can experience and appreciate its scope and brilliance.


In addition to all that reading, I also did a little viewing. This isn't really a TV or film blog, but I can make the occasional exception, I suppose. As I did last year, I watched the Dr. Seuss animated special Halloween is Grinch Night, of which I've always been fond. There's something inherently spooky about a lot of Seuss' images (as a child I was thoroughly terrified of the pants with no one inside them from "What Was I Sacred Of?"), and the bizarre architecture and creatures of this special, while not remotely frightening to an adult, have a Gothic charm. And the opening song is irreparably lodged in my mind.

Then I watched the 1978 Halloween. By coincidence I'd watched the original Friday the 13th a few days before, and it's thoroughly obvious how much the latter film attempts to copy the success of the original, only without the directorial skill, sense of subtlety, and acting talent. (They both have great music, though.) I don't want to overstate the differences-- they're both low-budget horror, they both feature some terrible acting (Annie and Lynda in Halloween, virtually everybody in Friday the 13th), but Halloween, however rough-hewn, has some ambition, where Friday the 13th is plainly a machine for providing audiences with a certain number of dead teenagers. Nothing wrong with that, if it's what you're in the mood for, but most of the time I'd rather watch a movie that can do more.


So that, plus a little time spent checking on the bowl of candy I'd put on the porch for trick-or-treaters, was my Halloween. And with this post, I mark a year since the start of this blog, which began on November 2, 2010 with an introductory post and a discussion of last year's Halloween. A year is hardly a long time in blogging terms, but it's the longest I've maintained a blog that wasn't a whining-about-school, here-are-pictures-of-my-cat deal, and in the past year I've gotten about 20,000 pageviews, so I'm definitely satisfied. Thanks to all of you out there in the readerly ether for making it possible.