Thursday, 18 September 2014

The Metanatural Adventures of Dr. Black

Gentle reader, a quick test of reading preferences.

Vladimir Nabokov
James Joyce
T.S. Eliot
Ezra Pound
Flann O'Brien
Alasdair Gray

If you don't really like any or all of the above, this is not the review for you. Move along now, nothing to see, etcetera. If, on the other hand, you like all that playful modernist stuff, you may enjoy this new collection from Brendan Connell, an author new to me. He sent me a pdf of TMAoDB, and I read and enjoyed it. I didn't understand all of it, but for me that's part of the pleasure.

In his introduction, Jeff VanderMeer rightly observes that Connell is playful and witty, and that he offers his reader great chunks of erudition. To some, this is a repellent trait in an author, perhaps because they feel the writer is holding forth like a prize bore at the dinner table. I feel differently - given the amount of clich├ęd tripe out there, something a bit out of the ordinary is very welcome.

All very well, but what's it about? Well, Dr. Black is, we are told, 'taller than a midget' (something he and I have in common) at 4 feet 11 inches. He has an impressive bearded countenance, a mighty brain, a splendid torso, and thin legs. He seems to be reasonably wealthy as well as highly erudite, and dedicates much of his time to the pursuit of arcane knowledge. But, like most of us, he can fall victim to animal passions - especially when it comes to the not-unrelated areas of food and lust.

Thus the first story, 'A Season with Dr. Black', finds out meta-hero at home with his domestic retainers, enjoying tomato soup and generally living the good life. A destabilising factor arrives n the form of a young woman called Tandy, whose car breaks down outside the Black residence. The course of true(?) love does not run smooth. This sort of thing seldom bodes well:
“Place your foot upon me, your slave,” she whispered, and let the sound dissipate in the still air, while the quivering of her lips by no means cut short the rose that blossomed within her, a dark maroon, with glistening thorns.
Some might find this prose overdone, too arch, a style that is self-consciously stylish. But it's not as if Connell is asking the reader to accept something new - modernism is a centenarian, at the very least. And it makes a refreshing change from the sub-Hemingway 'realism' that has long been the default setting for most writers.

On matters of content, things are more complicated. Some of the stories here don't qualify as supernatural fiction, but at least one does. The last tale, 'Dr. Black and the Red Demon Temple', contains a Japanese ghost story that recalls Lafcadio Hearn's reworking of classic folk tales, and is very good by any standard. But the traditionally eerie is a small part of the banquet of oddness on offer here.

Thus in one story we find a supposedly authentic account by Archimedes, no less, of his creation of a female android, It's a brilliant example of genre-spanning fiction, merging as it does the legends of Talos (the metal giant created by Daedalus) and Pygmalion to create a kind of classical Frankenstein. In another tale we enter something approaching William Burroughs country, as Dr. Black ventures into a Latin American republic on the verge of revolution, a process in which native hallucinogens and a mysterious cave system play a significant role. There are also odd interludes in which (among other things) the good doctor goes undercover at a convent, a comic touch that reminded me of 'Sister Josephine' by Jake Thackray.

Then there are what some clever folk call the paratextual elements - references, footnotes, the general paraphernalia of old-fashioned scholarship, mostly fake and often amusing. Flann O'Brien's 'great de Selby' was not so well served. There's also a questionnaire which asks (along with 'How much will you say under interrogation?') how satisfied the reader is with the book. Overall, I would plump for Very Satisfied.

Ghost Story Readings - Essex Police Museum

Among the readers of classic ghost stories with a legal/criminal flavour is Roger Johnson, who is always worth hearing and indeed chatting with. According to Roger, the stories are 'by M R James, Charles Dickens and Ex-Private X (i.e. A.M. Burrage)'.

Find out more here.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Dreams of Shadow and Smoke: Stories for J.S. Le Fanu

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu was born just over 200 years ago, and occupies a unique position in the twilight realm of ghostly fiction. Le Fanu was a very successful Victorian novelist, an equally accomplished short story writer, and produced poetry and drama for good measure. He is arguably the central figure in what we call Gothic fiction, as he wrote after the genre had matured but died well before the modern horror story begins to emerge in the Edwardian era.

Le Fanu was man of contradictions - these writer chappies often are. A famous recluse in his later years, he was rather well-travelled. He was an Irish literary giant, but agreed to set his novels in England to reach a wider audience. Two of his best-loved stories, 'Carmilla' and 'Schalken the Painter', are set on the continent. Elsewhere he focuses on Irish folklore and the native culture of the Catholic peasantry he knew well, but stood apart from as a Protestant of Huguenot descent.

Dublin-based Swan River Press has produced a volume of stories to mark Le Fanu's bicentenary, jointly edited by Jim Rockhill and Brian J. Showers. These are not sequels/prequels to Le Fanu tales, but works  that examine some of the themes and ideas the author tackled. As such, Dreams of Shadows and Smoke is a fine collection in its own right, as well as a solid tribute to the 'invisible prince' of Irish fiction.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Temperance Lloyd, Mary Trembles, and Susannah Edwards

An odd title for a post, but those names belonged to three witches executed in Devon 322 years ago. They were the last people hanged for witchcraft in England. Now modern witches (some in pointy hats, it must be said) are demanding a posthumous pardon for the women. They were of course convicted of witchcraft because neighbours said bad things about them, they were poor... and that's about it. The Wikipedia entry on the case seems to have been sourced from Sabine Baring-Gould.

A plaque at Exeter’s Rougemont Castle commemorates the 1682 Bideford witch trial

The inclusion of Alice Molland is debatable, but it at least possible that she was the last person to be hanged for witchcraft. The problem is that primary source material seems to be lacking.

There is always a debate about whether pardons long after an injustice mean anything. But it doesn't hurt to draw attention to a stain on our history. 

Wherever people believe in witchcraft, witches will be found. Admittedly, sometimes they make it easy.

Today's witches look like an amiable crowd. I wish them well. It's a pity that this latest gathering didn't beat the all-time record for the largest number of witches in any one place. That was set two years ago at Warwick castle; 765 witches. There is no information on the number of cats. Probably quite a few.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Assorted Carmillas

I was going to include these in the little post on Le Fanu I wrote on Thursday morning, but there are so many variations on Carmilla that they deserve their own piece. Spend a few minutes Googling her and you will be left in no doubt that she's the only genuinely popular character Le Fanu created, leaving poor old Silas and company in the dust. First, book covers and illustrations.

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Thursday, 28 August 2014

Burnt Black Suns

Simon Strantzas is one of an abundant crop of Canadian horror writers who emerged over the last ten to fifteen years. Burnt Black Suns falls squarely into the modern horror genre (if I'm any judge, which I may not be). The overall tone is somewhat grim, but there are a few touches of humour - and indeed absurdity. Indeed, at times I was genuinely unsure whether Strantzas is offering 'straight' contemporary horror or a satirical commentary upon it. But perhaps that's the point?

'Thistle's Find', for instance, is a grisly little story in which the narrator - a typical pulp fiction low-life seeking sanctuary - discovers that the eponymous mad scientist has build a strange portal. Something has come through this trans-dimensional door, and without giving too much away it sums up why a lot of horror fiction puts me off. It manages to be wholly incredible as a story, and at the same time rather unpleasant.

'Emotional Dues' is a more sophisticated take on the body horror theme, with an artist unwisely trying to cut out the middle man and sell his paintings directly to a shadowy collector.The collector, it transpires, does more than simply gloat over his purchases... A problem I had with this one is that it feels as if two very different stories have been bolted together. One is a pulpy tale of a strange, grotesque entity and its bizarre needs, the other concerns the source of an artist's creativity. Arguably, one idea informs the other, but for me they merely seemed to get tangled to no good purpose.

Several stories show Lovecraft's influence. 'On Ice' is an almost straight Mythos tale, in which a scientific expedition to an Arctic island find more than they bargained for. There are some powerful passages, but it is somewhat undermined by the impression that these are Hollywood movie scientists and nothing like the real thing. A similar problem besets 'One Last Bloom', in which a deep sea expedition finds alien life. All good fun for the Arkham academics.

Altogether different is 'By Invisible Hands'. It has a whiff of Ligottian fantasy about it, with its tale of a puppet maker recruited to perform one last job. It works as horror because the nightmare situation is dramatised rather than explained, leaving the reader unsure as to how much of it is real and how much the product of a mind that has forgotten what humanity is like.

'Strong as a Rock' also recalls he author's earlier fiction. Here two brothers embark upon an ill-advised climb, and one is injured. The reasons for the climb - a way of bonding and overcoming grief over bereavement - become interwoven with the strange events at the hospital where they seek help. There is a genuine sense of disorientation, here - the horror of a world that we can pretend makes sense, but which falls apart under stress, as do we.

'Burnt Black Suns', a novella that closes the collection, is also powerful. A man sets out (long-suffering, pregnant girlfriend in tow) to find his ex-wife, who absconded with their son. The quest takes them to a Mexican town where the locals follow a strange hybrid of the Aztec and Christian faiths. The atmosphere is well-evoked, as is the protagonist's selfish, blinkered obsession with his son. The grand finale is suitably overwhelming, and bizarre enough to be a genuine religious experience - something few horror writers can manage.

I preferred the earlier collections Cold to the Touch and Beneath the Surface - get them if you can. But Burnt Black Suns has plenty to offer, and I suspect that its sheer diversity means that most readers will find something to satisfy them.