How to Pick Up a Maid in Statue Square by Rea Tarvydas

Empty vessels…

😐 😐

This is a collection of linked short stories set in modern Hong Kong which, the blurb tells us, “collectively capture various versions of the expat life that share the feeling of being between two worlds, that experience of being neither here nor there and trying to find a way to fill that space.” The way the characters mostly fill the space is by having empty, meaningless sex, usually with strangers.

The stories are well written, but terribly repetitive, filled with too much swearing, drink, drugs and the aforesaid empty sex. The overall impression is of a sordid, seedy place, where people go to make money and seem to lose their souls in the process. I suspect that’s the point, and therefore in that sense the author succeeds in her aim. But I certainly didn’t find them an entertaining bunch to spend time with nor, if I’m truthful, did I really buy the whole idea that expat life is quite this vacuous and pointless, except perhaps for people who have no internal resources to fall back on. I also felt that the picture of Hong Kong was extremely narrowly drawn, never letting us see beyond the restricted vision and lack of cultural curiosity of the characters. These expats could have been anywhere.

I don’t want to be too harsh. Many people have a higher tolerance level than me for reading about whiny, foul-mouthed, addicted, entitled, poor little rich kids having sex, and for them I’m sure these stories will seem less tedious.

NB I won this book in a giveaway from the lovely Anne at ivereadthis.com – sorry, Anne! I tried to love it… 😉

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Tuesday Terror! The Breakthrough by Daphne du Maurier

To sleep, perchance to dream…

Now that the days are getting longer and spring can’t be far away (surely), the porpy is about to go into hibernation. So to make sure he has some pleasantly fretful dreams, who better to give him a send-off than the Queen of Eerie herself…

The Breakthrough
by Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier

Our narrator, Stephen Saunders, is an electronics engineer who has been sent to work in an isolated facility in Saxmere on the east coast of England, where the scientist James MacLean is carrying out secret experiments in creating methods of destruction for the military. Saunders isn’t thrilled at the assignment, since MacLean has a dubious reputation as an eccentric. His first sight of the place does little to lift his mood…

The sandy track topped a rise and there below us, stretching into infinity, lay acre upon acre of waste land, marsh and reed, bounded on the left by sand-dunes with the open sea beyond. The marshes were intersected here and there by dykes, beside which stood clumps of forlorn rushes bending to the wind and rain, the dykes in their turn forming themselves into dank pools, one or two of them miniature lakes, ringed about with reeds.

He meets the people who will be his colleagues: MacLean, or Mac as he’s known; young Ken Ryan, who doesn’t seem to do much but is a cheerful presence; Robbie, a medical doctor; and the steward Janus, who does the cooking and housekeeping. Then he makes the first awful discovery…

….‘Coffee or cocoa?’ he asked. ‘Or do you prefer something cool? I can recommend the orange juice with a splash of soda.’
….‘I’d like a Scotch,’ I said.
….He looked distressed. His expression became that of an anxious host whose guest demands fresh strawberries in midwinter.
….‘I’m frightfully sorry,’ he said, ‘we none of us touch alcohol. Mac won’t have it served, it’s one of his things.’

Worse is yet to come! He soon discovers that Mac is carrying out another experiment, secret even from the people who are funding the facility. And this experiment qualifies Mac to join the long line of Mad Scientists who cross the boundaries of ethics in pursuit of knowledge. He plans to harness psychic energy – what he calls Force Six – and he intends to use Janus’ young daughter to help him…

….‘Children, like dogs, are particularly easy to train,’ he said. ‘Or put it this way – their sixth sense, the one that picks up these signals, is highly developed. Niki has her own call-note, just as Cerberus does, and the fact that she suffers from retarded development makes her an excellent subject.’

Saunders is already somewhat chilled, but he doesn’t yet know the worst. His predecessor was so appalled he refused to participate…

….‘He was a Catholic,’ explained MacLean. ‘Believing as he did in the survival of the soul and its sojourn in purgatory, he couldn’t stomach any idea of imprisoning the life force and making it work for us here on earth. Which, as I have told you, is my intention.’

It’s in the Don’t Look Now collection.

* * * * *

Ah, yes, mad science! Where would horror be without it? The life-force can only be captured at the point of death, and Saunders soon realises what young Ken’s function is. Ken is a willing participant though, which is more than can be said for the little girl, Niki. However, Saunders manages to convince himself that the end justifies the means, and so they’re all set. But needless to say, things go horribly wrong!

It’s very well told and at 58 pages has enough room for some character development and for du Maurier to build up a chilling atmosphere of suspense. It is both creepy and quite moving as it reaches its climax, and raises questions about what happens to us after death – does any kind of consciousness remain? Is there an afterlife? Can we still suffer? What happens if we mess with the natural process of death? Du Maurier avoids the temptation to give pat answers, instead leaving everything deliciously ambiguous and consequently creepier.

I thoroughly enjoyed this foray of du Maurier into the realms of science fiction. It’s fairly standard in terms of mad science stories – nothing particularly ground-breaking nor deeply profound – but the quality of her writing and storytelling make it a shivery experience, and it’s thought-provoking enough to give it some weight. The porpy will have plenty to mull over during his long summer snooze…

Night-night, porpy! Sleep tight!
Don’t let the mad scientists bite!

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories edited by Martin Edwards

Yuletide villainy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Another themed collection of mystery shorts from the British Library Crime Classics series, edited and with a foreword by our usual excellent guide to all things vintage, Martin Edwards. This one contains eleven stories, all with a Christmas theme, often of family get-togethers for the holiday. Some of the British Library regulars are here – ECR Lorac, John Bude, Julian Symons, but there are also many who are new to me or whom I’ve only come across as contributors to other anthologies. I often find the stories from these lesser known ones are the best in the collections, and this is the case here. I wonder if this might be because they specialised in the short story form, whereas the bigger names are more comfortable with the full-length novel? But that’s merely speculation.

Here’s a brief idea of some of the stories I enjoyed most, which will give you some idea of the variety in the collection:

By the Sword by Selwyn Jepson – this is told from the murderer’s perspective and a nasty piece of work he is too! He is in lust with his cousin’s wife, plus his cousin, usually willing to help him out financially, has decided to draw the line and refuse him any more “loans” which never seem to get repaid. It’s a tradition in this military family that all the men die “by the sword” and our murderer is happy to go along with this. However, there’s more than one sting in the tail of this rather dark and well written story. And the author is particularly good at creating layers, so that we see through the murderer’s self-obsessed viewpoint but also can guess at things he misses.

Sister Bessie or Your Old Leech by Cyril Hare – a man is being blackmailed and is sure the blackmailer is one of his step-siblings. He’s already caused the death of the one he first suspected, but now he’s received another demand. So he sets out to kill the one he now suspects – sister Bessie. Naturally things don’t go according to plan… another one that’s very well told.

Blind Men’s Hood by Carter Dickson – one of the things I enjoy about these collection is that they often include stories that crossover into mild horror. This is a great little ghost story, brilliantly atmospheric. Our protagonists, a young man and his girlfriend, turn up at a friend’s country house for a Christmas gathering. The house is empty – all the inhabitants have gone off to a church service but for one young woman, who tells them the story of a long-ago murder. It’s beautifully done, with some lovely spooky touches.

‘Twixt the Cup and the Lip by Julian Symons – Symons is rapidly becoming one of my favourites of the authors the BL is reviving, and this rather longer story shows his style well. Our protagonist is a bookseller as far as the world knows, but in secret he is also something of a criminal mastermind. He is putting together a little team to rob a local store of a jewellery collection that forms the centrepiece of its Christmas display. Despite his meticulous planning, things don’t quite work out as he intended. There’s a lovely mixture of light and dark in this story, and the Christmas theme is enhanced by men running about in Santa costumes.

Overall, eight of the eleven stories got either 4 or 5 stars from me and none got less than 3, which makes this one of the strongest of the collections so far. Unfortunately I didn’t get around to reviewing it in time for Christmas just past, but it’s one I highly recommend for the nights leading up to next Christmas, or for the rebellious non-traditionalists among you, it would even be possible to read and enjoy it now…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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Tuesday Terror! Out of the Dark by Robert W Chambers

The spice of life… 

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a collection of 22 stories or extracts which, although the collection is part of a horror range, cross through a variety of genres. My previous experience of Robert W Chambers, amounting to one short collection of four stories, The King in Yellow, had left me rather underwhelmed, so I had fairly low expectations going into this. Yet again, I was proved wrong! The quality and range of the stories here and their general enjoyability made me appreciate why Chambers was a best-selling author of his day.

The book is divided into two parts: Origins (1895-1899) and Diversions (1900-1938). Each section has an introduction by Hugh Lamb, telling us a little about Chambers’ life and more about his development as a writer. The first section is mainly horror and weird fiction and fantasy, including a few of his The King in Yellow stories. Having become successful as a result of these, Chambers began to expand his range so that many of the stories in the second section would be better described as adventures or even romances.

Chambers lived for some years in France and many of his stories are set there or in England, as well as in his native America. There are a few that are only a few pages, but most are around twenty to thirty pages which I always find a good length for a short story, allowing room for some plot and character development. As time passes, the stories begin to include more humour and some pretty over-the-top high romance, and the quality of the writing, especially in his descriptions, is exceptionally high. He developed a couple of series characters: Mr Smith, a zoologist from the Bronx Zoo who goes off on highly entertaining adventures in search of reputedly extinct or fabulous creatures; and Westrel Keen, the Tracer of Lost Persons, a private investigator whose deductive skills would put Sherlock Holmes to shame (though with considerably less credibility to them). The supernatural often appears, as does the mysterious Orient in “Yellow Peril” stories, but the horror of the early stories is rarely repeated in the later ones.

Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most:

A Pleasant Evening – a beautifully written story which, although ghostly, is mostly the story of a tragic love affair. The narrator meets separately two strangers in the Bronx Park, who gradually reveal to him a story of injustice and tragedy. Along the way, Chambers gives some wonderful descriptions of New York, the place and its people, the constant rush and battle in pursuit of gold. This was the story that first made me realise I had seriously underestimated him.

Across the long meadow I could see the roofs of the city faintly looming above the trees. A mist of amethyst, ever deepening, hung low on the horizon, and through it, steeple and dome, roof and tower, and the tall chimneys where thin fillets of smoke curled idly, were transformed into pinnacles of beryl and flaming minarets, swimming in filmy haze. Slowly the enchantment deepened; all that was ugly and shabby and mean had fallen away from the distant city, and now it towered into the evening sky, splendid, gilded, magnificent, purified in the fierce furnace of the setting sun.

The Maker of Moons – a fantastic story that is a mash-up of weird, horror and adventure with more than a dash of Yellow Peril thrown in. I described this one more fully in a previous Tuesday Terror! post.

The Messenger – the longest of the stories, this tells of the finding of a mass grave in Brittany and a family curse. There’s some deliberate vagueness around the narrator and the history of the place which adds to a well-developed feeling of dread and some genuinely scary moments. It has some wonderful imagery and an excellent denouement that is both horrifying and haunting.

The Third Eye – I thoroughly enjoyed all three of the included stories about Mr Smith of the Bronx Zoo and would happily seek out more of them. This one tells of his search to confirm an old Seminole legend of a tribe of men with a third eye, somewhere in the Black Bayou region. This is written for laughs and gets them in abundance. Mr Smith is a great narrator – he manages to reveal things to the reader that his own obtuseness prevents him recognising for himself. And he’s always on the look-out for love, usually with consequences that are sad for him but fun for the reader.

The moon was magnificent; and I think the pretty waitress must have been a little tired, for her head dropped and nodded at moments, even while I was talking to her about a specimen of Euplectilla speciosa on which I had written a monograph. So she must have been really tired, for the subject was interesting.

The Bridal Pair – a ghostly romance about a young man who, when a child, loved a little girl called Rosamund but forgot her as they grew up. Now, as a man, he suddenly starts seeing a woman everywhere… this is pure romantic slush of the soppiest sort, but very well done, and I freely admit it made me cry!

There were some I didn’t like so well, mainly the early King in Yellow ones and the three extracts Lamb has included from Chambers’ most famous novel, The Slayer of Souls, which I didn’t feel worked as standalone stories. But the majority got either four or five stars and several of them are stories I will undoubtedly read again. Maybe he’s better known than I think, but personally I had never heard of him till recently. I wondered if perhaps his sheer variety of styles means that he’s difficult to pigeon-hole and so gets overlooked, but on the basis of these stories I feel he certainly deserves to be remembered and read. Highly recommended!

The porpentine was fairly relaxed throughout, but thoroughly entertained…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Chillers.

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Tuesday Terror! Ghosts in the House by AC Benson and RH Benson

Oh, brother…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a collection of nineteen stories, nine by AC Benson and ten from his brother RH Benson, plus a short essay on haunted houses by RH. These two are also brothers of the more famous EF Benson, and all three dabbled in ghost story writing to a greater or lesser degree. There’s an informative introduction by Hugh Lamb giving some biographical detail of each of the brothers and discussing the background to the stories.

I seem to be overusing the term “mixed bag” recently, but this is another one for me. Mostly I enjoyed AC’s stories and loved a few of them. RH, on the other hand, did nothing for me, so I’ll get him out of the way first.

On the basis of the stories collected here, many of which come from a series of tales about priests telling of supernatural occurrences they have experienced, RH seems to be firstly, obsessed by religion, specifically Catholicism; and secondly, intent on examining the question of whether hauntings are actually spirits returned from the dead, or psychological, produced by the expectations of the observer, or physical manifestations of echoes of tragic events. Almost every one of his stories includes these two aspects, so that they are repetitive and, to me, entirely uninteresting. They feel like fragments, and I hoped that they might eventually pull together into some climax, but they certainly didn’t in the ones selected here. I fear RH never achieved more than a three star rating from me and often dipped to two, or even one more than once.

AC, on the other hand, consistently achieved four stars and several fives. His stories also have strong religious themes and I admit this did begin to bore me by the end. But he uses much more imaginative ways to examine the themes than his brother. Some of his stories are standard hauntings but with original twists, such as Basil Netherby, where the haunting comes out through the music composed by the haunted man. Other of his stories read like fables, with adventuring protagonists participating in what are fundamentally battles between good and evil, but which are done so well they don’t feel stale and repetitive like poor old RH’s. Both brothers write well technically, but AC lifts his tales with the use of some great imagery. His stories also feel complete in themselves, whether a few pages or close to novella length.

Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most – all from AC:

Basil Netherby – a great story, which I’ve already highlighted as a Tuesday Terror! post.

Out of the Sea – the story takes place in a small, poor seaside village. There’s a shipwreck and two sailors are found dead on the shore. Later, a family, the Grimstons, approach the local priest to seek his help – they are being haunted by a ghostly shadow that smells of the sea and corruption. This, like so many of the stories, is a tale of atonement for an evil deed, with a rather heavy-handed religious message at the end, but it’s very well told, dark and effective.

The Snake, The Leper and the Grey Frost – A fable of a boy who has heard of a treasure and wants to go on a quest to find it, so asks the village wise man for advice. The wise man sets him on the path and tells him to beware the snake, the leper and the grey frost. But each is hidden in some way so the boy has a series of narrow escapes, until eventually he is caught in the grey frost. This is a tale of the power of faith, but it’s not explicit. It’s beautifully written and has some great imagery, especially of what the boy sees in the frost. I found this one surprisingly moving.

The Grey Cat – Young Roderick strays to a pool which has an evil reputation. There he meets a cat which befriends him but refuses to follow him home, so that Roderick, becoming oddly obsessed by the creature, finds himself returning to the pool again and again. The reader quickly knows the cat is clearly demonic in origin and so does the local priest, who enters into a battle to save young Roderick’s soul. Fable-like in style again and with some fantastic imagery, especially of… nope, spoiler! You’ll have to read it. I loved this one, although again its overtly religious message is a little heavy-handed.

The Uttermost Farthing – this is almost novella length and again is very well written with some great horror imagery and an effective ghostly atmosphere. Biblical scholars will of course recognise the reference in the title. (I googled it.) The narrator visits the house of a friend, to find that it’s haunted by the previous tenant, a man who had carried out experiments into how to use evil thoughts as a weapon against his enemies. The two men, together with the inevitable local priest, must find the papers left by the evil-doer and destroy them, but the ghost is determined to stop them…

Overall, for me it would have been a stronger collection had RH been left out of it altogether. But full marks to AC, whose fable-like stories in particular stand out for their imaginativeness and imagery, and the quality of his stories in general makes me very glad to have read the collection.

No wonder the porpentine’s praying!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Chillers.

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Tuesday Terror! Horror Stories edited by Darryl Jones

Something for everyone…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

This anthology consists of twenty-nine horror stories from the long 19th century: that is, roughly, up to the beginning of WW1. It comes with an interesting and informative introduction written by the editor, Darryl Jones, Professor of English Literature and Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Trinity College Dublin. I recently read and reviewed Jones’ own history of horror, Sleeping with the Lights On, and while obviously that book goes into considerably more detail, this introduction covers similar territory, discussing the various sub-genres, and how horror reflects and to some extent addresses the anxieties of its times. The stories in the collection are selected to give a feel for the broad range of horror writing in the Victorian era, so there’s everything here from mild and humorous to too strong for my moderate tastes, from a few pages to near novella length, from household names to people of whom I’d never heard. Jones also discusses the importance of periodicals in that era, and tells us that around two-thirds of these stories first appeared in those.

There are plenty of lesser known stories in here to make it an enjoyable read even for people who’ve read a fair amount of Victorian horror already, but I felt that, because it also includes several major classics, it would be an ideal collection for someone relatively new to the genre who wanted to get a feel for the style of some of the better known authors too. Robert Louis Stevenson is here, with The Body-Snatcher; Dickens’ The Signal-Man; Kipling’s The Mark of the Beast; Gilman’s The Yellow Wall Paper; Jacob’s The Monkey’s Paw; and Blackwood’s The Wendigo. There are also examples of horror writing from authors who are probably better known (to me, at least) for their other works: Balzac, Melville, Zola. And a couple of my newer favourites, found since I started this little detour into the delights of terror, appear too: Arthur Machen and Robert W Chambers. There are ghosties and ghoulies and lang-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night, and mad scientists, of course, and family curses, and vampires, and insane narrators, and Gothic houses galore.

Since I’ve featured several of the more familiar stories already in Tuesday Terror!, here are a few of the rest that I most enjoyed. I hadn’t heard of these ones before, but they may be well-known to better-read horror fans…

Chickamauga by Ambrose Bierce – a little boy is fighting imaginary battles with his toy sword and strays so far that he becomes lost in the woods. He falls asleep, and when he awakes the ground is covered in dreadful crawling things. I don’t want to say much more because the impact of the story is in discovering what it is the boy sees and what has happened. But it’s a commentary on how we pass the drive to war down from generation to generation – powerful and horrifying.

August Heat by WF Harvey – Our protagonist draws a picture of a man standing in the dock after being condemned to death. It’s come entirely from his imagination, so imagine his surprise when he meets that very man later that day. Turns out the man is a stone-mason and is busy carving a name on a gravestone… this is a deliciously spine-tingling little horror story, with a delightfully scary ending. Camp-fire material!

The Derelict by William Hope Hodgson – To demonstrate his theory that, given the right conditions, life will come into being spontaneously, an old doctor tells the tale of when he was once on a ship blown off course by a storm. When the storm abated, they discovered they were next to another ship, long abandoned. They went to investigate… (For goodness sake, never investigate abandoned anythings! It never turns out well…) There’s some brilliant horror imagery in this and heart-pounding peril! Great!

The Adventure of Lady Wishaw’s Hand by Richard Marsh – Our narrator, Pugh, is sent a strange and unexpected legacy on the death of his acquaintance, Colin Wishaw – a woman’s hand! It looks remarkably alive, and it’s not long before we become aware that it can move on its own. A delightful tale of a family curse – light horror, lots of humour (that hand can be very naughty!) and a narrator who deserves all he gets. Lovely stuff!

Because of the wide range of content and styles, unsurprisingly my reactions to them varied wildly too. Seventeen got either four or five stars, which is a pretty high proportion of the total. But several got two stars and one, a hideous story from Bram Stoker that starts with the killing of a kitten, was abandoned before I finished the first page! However, different readers will bring their own tastes to the stories and may well find that they enjoy the ones I disliked – I knew as I was rating them that often my reaction was based on how the stories made me feel rather than their intrinsic quality. The same may apply to my five stars, of course – stories moderate enough for me may be too mild for those who prefer harder hitting stuff. In short, there will be something here for everyone and inevitably everyone will be less keen on some too. That’s why I think it’s such a good sampler, which I happily recommend to the seasoned reader or the horror newbie alike.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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The Turn of the Screw and Other Stories by Henry James

Mostly about the Other Stories…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This collection is made up of four stories – the novella length title story and three shorter ones. The Turn of the Screw is, of course, a classic of the horror genre, and since I’ve already had my say about it in a Tuesday Terror! post, here’s a brief summary of the others…

Sir Edmund Orme – Our narrator becomes fascinated by a mother and daughter, Mrs Marden and Charlotte, because of what he feels is their peculiarly strong concern for each other. Then, as he finds himself falling in love with Charlotte, the narrator begins to see a strange man, who never speaks, and his appearances seem to coincide with Mrs Marden’s “episodes”. Eventually, she takes him into her confidence and tells him the story of her one-time lover, Sir Edmund Orme.

Despite having a ghost in it, the story really isn’t scary or spooky. It’s strange, however, and a little unsettling, mainly because the narrator comes over as something of a predator who coldly uses Mrs Marden’s fear and Charlotte’s love for her mother to achieve his own ends. It’s superficially entertaining, but left me feeling rather as if I’d been made an accessory to something rather cruel.

Owen Wingrave – the title character is a young man from a military family who is being crammed for the entrance exam to get into Sandhurst, the army’s elite officer training college. However, Owen has different views – he despises war, and believes that politicians who lead their nations into war should be hanged, drawn and quartered. When he drops out of training, his family and friends put pressure on him to think again, and when the girl he loves implies that he is a coward, to prove her wrong he agrees to spend a night in the haunted room of his family castle…

The ghostly factor of this one is well-nigh non-existent, but it’s a good story for all that. It’s a rather poignant look at how military tradition forces young men to seek glory rather than choosing a more peaceful path in life.

The Friends of the Friends – another I’ve written about previously in a Tuesday Terror! post. This tells the story of two people, a man and a woman, who share the distinction of each having seen a ghost. This coincidence makes their mutual friends want to bring them together, but circumstances always seem to prevent them meeting. Eventually it seems they will meet, but it isn’t to be – one of them dies before the meeting takes place. The other one, however, as we know, can see ghosts…

Again unsettling rather than scary, this starts out quite jollily with a lot of jibes about society and so on, but gradually darkens into a story about jealousy taken perhaps to the point of madness.

* * * * *

While for the most part I found the writing good and certainly effective at conjuring up an atmosphere, I several times came across sentences so badly constructed that they required me to go back and read them again to catch the meaning, and sometimes they were still obscure after that. Perhaps sometimes James was doing this for effect, to add to the vagueness and ambiguity. But truthfully, I mostly felt it was simply clumsy, lazy writing that he hadn’t bothered to revise properly before publication, and as a result I’ve entirely lost the desire to read any of his novels.

Aside from that criticism, each of the four stories is well-structured, and the sense of vagueness that surrounds the narrative intention has the effect of leaving them open to interpretation. I found this tended to make them linger in my mind for longer than most spooky stories, as I mulled over what was beneath the surface. And generally speaking, I concluded that what was there was rather unpleasant – hints of child sexual abuse in The Turn of the Screw, a controlling lover in Sir Edmund Orme, family pressure taken to extremes in Owen Wingrave and extreme jealousy in The Friends of the Friends. Horror stories always tend to be based on unpleasant things, of course, but here it somehow left me feeling more uncomfortable than usual and I’m not sure I know why. Perhaps because the horror aspects are mostly low-key and so the underlying story stands out more than usual, or perhaps because James uses ambiguity to force the reader to, in a sense, fill in the blanks, making it feel as if the unpleasantness comes from inside her own mind. Whatever the reason, it meant that though I quite enjoyed them while reading I found they left a slightly nasty aftertaste – especially The Turn of the Screw. I wonder if that was James’ intention? I suspect it may have been.

Henry James

You can probably tell that I feel quite ambivalent about this collection. I rated each of the three shorter stories as four stars and The Turn of the Screw as five, but that’s mostly due to my appreciation of their impact rather than an indication of my enjoyment.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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Tuesday Terror! The Maker of Moons by Robert W Chambers

Across the seven oceans…

I wasn’t too thrilled with Robert W Chambers’ best-known collection, The King in Yellow, finding the quality hugely variable from story to story, so time to see if he can impress me more with this week’s…

The Maker of Moons
by Robert W Chambers

Robert W Chambers

We first meet our narrator, Roy, when he is visiting a jeweller’s, where his friend Godfrey who works there is showing him a fantastic carving of a serpent made of what appears to be pure gold. Godfrey explains that he got it from an old man who lives in the Cardinal Woods. But suddenly Roy’s attention is distracted…

But I was not looking at the serpent. Something was moving – crawling out of Godfrey’s coat pocket – the pocket nearest to me – something soft and yellow with crab-like legs all covered with coarse yellow hair.

Godfrey tells him this hideous little creature came clinging to the box containing the gold serpent. Roy asks what it is but Godfrey doesn’t know…

“It is, I believe, the connecting link between a sea-urchin, a spider, and the devil. It looks venomous but I can’t find either fangs or mouth. Is it blind? These things may be eyes but they look as if they were painted. A Japanese sculptor might have produced such an impossible beast, but it is hard to believe that God did. It looks unfinished too. I have a mad idea that this creature is only one of the parts of some larger and more grotesque organism – it looks so lonely, so hopelessly dependent, so cursedly unfinished.”

Coincidentally Roy is going off to the Cardinal Woods on the following day, for a bit of shooting with a couple of friends, Pierpoint, an amiable but rather useless rich young man, and Barris, a Secret Service agent. Soon Barris reveals he has an ulterior motive – someone in the woods appears to be making gold, threatening the collapse of the whole capitalist system!

“Don’t ask me how it’s made,” said Barris, quietly; “I don’t know. But I do know that somewhere in the region of the Cardinal Woods there is a gang of people who do know how gold is made, and who make it. You understand the danger this is to every civilized nation. It’s got to be stopped of course. Drummond and I have decided that I am the man to stop it. Wherever and whoever these people are – these gold-makers – they must be caught, every one of them – caught or shot.”

While Pierpoint accompanies Barris to track down these villains, Roy makes off into the forest to kill things. But he comes across a beautiful glade complete with a pool of water and a beautiful, mysterious lady with whom he promptly and soppily falls deeply in love.

….“Listen,” sighed the voice of the wind, and “listen” echoed the swaying trees with every little leaf a-quiver. I listened.
….Where the long grasses trembled with the cricket’s cadence I heard her name, Ysonde; I heard it in the rustling woodbine where grey moths hovered; I heard it in the drip, drip, drip of the dew from the porch. The silent meadow brook whispered her name, the rippling woodland streams repeated it, Ysonde, Ysonde, until all earth and sky were filled with the soft thrill, Ysonde, Ysonde, Ysonde.

You’ll have gathered that her name is Ysonde.

But where does she come from, this mysterious lady? And what is her connection to the equally mysterious but deeply sinister Chinaman who seems to be lurking in the woods? And where does the gold come in? And what about those creatures?? Barris has some notion of what’s going on…

“The Kuen-Yuin are sorcerers,” he said, pausing before the hammock where Pierpont lay watching him; “I mean exactly what I say – sorcerers. I’ve seen them – I’ve seen them at their devilish business, and I repeat to you solemnly, that as there are angels above, there is a race of devils on earth, and they are sorcerers . . . Do you know what goes on in the interior of China? Does Europe know – could any human being conceive of the condition of that gigantic hell-pit? . . . I tell you that when the fires from this pit of hell have eaten through the continent to the coast, the explosion will inundate half a world – and God help the other half.”

* * * * *

This is a rather wonderful story that is a kind of mash-up of genres – fantasy, weird, adventure, horror and with a large dollop of Yellow Peril thrown in for good measure. But the Kuen-Yuin are so mystical and magical that they seem more like aliens than humans, which means the inherent racism of Yellow Peril stories feels diluted – the horror is of their supernatural evil, rather than any perceived inferiority of race. The writing is great, all the way from high romance to creeping terror, with some fantastic imagery along the way.

Parts are humorous, such as the interactions between the three friends, but other parts are frightening, and still others dreamlike, almost hallucinogenic in feel, especially when they speak of Yian, the city of the Kuen-Yuin, which lies “across the seven oceans and the river which is longer than from the earth to the moon”.

“I have seen it,” said Barris dreamily. “I have seen the dead plains of Black Cathay and I have crossed the mountains of Death, whose summits are above the atmosphere. I have seen the shadow of Xangi cast across Abaddon. Better to die a million miles from Yezd and Ater Quedah than to have seen the white water-lotus close in the shadow of Xangi! I have slept among the ruins of Xaindu where the winds never cease and the Wulwulleh is wailed by the dead.”

The porpy and I loved it, and neither of us will soon forget those horrible crab-like yellow creatures…

Enough to give the porpy a bad hair day…

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😱 😱 😱 😱

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

* * * * *

The fabulous top and bottom illustrations are by the super-talented mgkellermeyer at deviantart.com. The middle one is the original frontispiece by Lancelot Speed via Wikipedia.

* * * * *

It’s quite long, but if you’d like to read it online, here’s a link. I read it in the collection Out of the Dark, provided for review courtesy of Collins Chillers.

Amazon UK Link
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Tuesday Terror! Basil Netherby by AC Benson

If music be the food of evil…

Apparently the famous EF Benson had two ghost-story-writing brothers – AC and RH (their parents were clearly big on initials). This collection includes stories from both of them, turn and turn about. So in a future post I’ll highlight one of RH’s, but AC takes the stage for this week’s…

Basil Netherby
by AC Benson

AC Benson

“…for God’s sake, dear Leonard, if you would help a friend who is on the edge (I dare not say of what), come to me tomorrow, UNINVITED. You will think this very strange, but do not mind that – only come – unannounced, do you see…”

This forms the postscript to a letter our narrator, Leonard Ward, receives from his old friend, Basil Netherby. They had studied music together, and since then Netherby has been travelling from place to place working on his compositions. Now he is lodging in an old house called Treheale, in Cornwall. The main body of the letter gives a glowing account of the work Netherby is doing there – only the postscript worries Ward…

My first thought was that Basil was mad; my next thought that he had drifted into some awkward situation, fallen under some unfortunate influence – was perhaps being blackmailed – and I knew his sensitive character well enough to feel sure that whatever the trouble was it would be exaggerated ten times over by his lively and apprehensive mind.

Netherby has also enclosed a sample of the music he had been writing, and this worries Ward even more…

…what music it was! It was like nothing of which I’d ever even dreamed. There was a wild, intemperate voluptuousness about it, a kind of evil relish of beauty which gave me a painful thrill.

So Ward rushes off to Cornwall. But, to his surprise, when he gets there, Netherby is looking fine – more than fine, in fact. He has a vigour and glow he never before possessed and seems in high spirits. But Ward worries that this change in his friend is a sign of something troubling and he begins to connect it with the house. This feeling grows stronger when, while walking around the wooded grounds, he comes across a path that takes him to a strange-looking little door at a corner of the house…

I do not know what was the obsession that fell on me at the sight of this place. A cold dismay seemed to spring from the dark and clutch me; there are places which seem so soaked, as it were, in malign memories that they give out a kind of spiritual aroma of evil. I have seen in my life things which might naturally seem to produce in the mind associations of terror and gloom. I have seen men die; I have seen a man writhe in pain on the ground from a mortal injury; but I never experienced anything like the thrill of horror which passed through my shuddering mind at the sight of the little door with its dark eye-holes.

* * * * *

I’ve only read a few of the stories from each of the two brothers so far, but AC is winning hands down, not least because of this excellent tale. There’s no great mystery to it – Ward is soon told that the malign influence Netherby is suffering under is the ghost of the house’s previous owner, a dissolute man who had spent his life corrupting the youth of the village and seems intent on continuing after death.

The writing is great and soon creates a real atmosphere of evil and dread. AC uses the idea of Netherby’s music very effectively, showing it both as having resulted from corruption and of being, in itself, corrupting. As Ward says…

Heard upon the piano, the accent of subtle evil that ran through the music became even more obvious. I seemed to struggle between two feelings – an over-powering admiration, and a sense of shame at my own capacity for admiring it.

There’s a distinct but distinctly Edwardian suggestion that the corruption is of a sensual nature, turning these decent young men’s thoughts to something slightly more earthy than a well-turned ankle, and thus leading them from the path of righteousness into temptation. (All the stories so far have had a religious element underpinning them; sometimes broadly, especially in RH’s; sometimes, as in this one, rather more subtly.) The question is whether Ward will be able to save his friend and get him away from the house before it’s too late, but the ghost doesn’t take too kindly to that idea. As the story reaches its crescendo it becomes tense indeed! Good stuff!

(The porpentine became obsessed with the music…)

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😱 😱 😱 😱

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

NB The collection Ghosts in the House was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Chillers.

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Tuesday Terror! The Burgomaster in Bottle by Erckmann-Chatrian

The Demon Drink!

The medical experts seem to give us conflicting advice about the benefits or dangers of tippling red wine on an almost weekly basis. This little tale should help to settle the matter once and for all…

The Burgomaster in Bottle
by Erckmann-Chatrian

Emile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian

I have always professed the highest esteem, and even a sort of veneration for the Rhine’s noble wine; it sparkles like champagne, it warms one like Burgundy, it soothes the throat like Bordeaux, it fires the imagination like the juice of the Spanish grape, it makes us tender and kind like lachryma-christi; and last, but not least, it helps us to dream – it unfolds the extensive field of fancy before our eyes.

Our narrator Ludwig is travelling through the vineyards of the Rheingau region, sampling the various wines produced there, when he meets up with an old friend, Hippel, who is doing the same. Feeling that companionship will add to their enjoyment, they join up and travel on together. One night, they stop at an inn and, finding it closed, peer through the window, where they see an old woman, asleep…

….“Hallo!” cried my comrade; “open the door, mother!”
….The old woman started, got up and came to the window, and pressed her shrunken face against the panes. You would have taken it for one of those old Flemish portraits in which ochre and bistre predominate.

Rheingau region

The woman welcomes them and produces a fine supper, including several bottles of local wine. First she offers them red…

We tasted it; it was a strong rough wine. I cannot describe the peculiar flavour it possessed – a mixture of vervain and cypress leaves! I drank a few drops, and my soul became profoundly sad. But Hippel, on the contrary, smacked his lips with an air of satisfaction.

Ludwig sticks to the white wine, but Hippel drinks deeply of the red. Finally, at one in the morning, they make their way to bed, Hippel staggering slightly. Ludwig finds himself wakeful but Hippel falls asleep immediately and begins to dream…

His face was red, his mouth half-open, I could see the blood pulsating in his temples, and his lips moved as if he wanted to speak. I stood for some time motionless by his side; I tried to see into the depths of his soul, but sleep is an impenetrable mystery; like death, it keeps its secrets.

Gradually Hippel becomes more disturbed and seems terrified, so Ludwig wakes him, and Hippel tells his dream. He had dreamt that he was a local burgomaster – a mean and miserly man, the opposite of Hippel’s gregarious and generous self. In the dream, the burgomaster died but Hippel dreamt that his soul stayed near the body, and that Hippel himself was that soul. He dreamt the villagers found the body…

….“Upon my word,” said the clerk. “between ourselves, he is no great loss to the parish. He was a miser and an ass, and he knew nothing whatever.”
….“Yes,” added the magistrate, “and yet he found fault with everything.”
….“Not very surprising either,” said another, “fools always think themselves clever.”

They take the body off to bury it, the soul/Hippel following sadly behind…

As a dream, this was bad enough, but the next day as Hippel and Ludwig travel on, suddenly Hippel begins to recognise the scenery as that of his dream. They find themselves in the village he saw and indeed, the burgomaster there had died a few years before just as Hippel dreamt! Still Hippel is haunted by the terror and sadness of the dream, and seems to believe that in some way he truly is the burgomaster’s soul. Ludwig suggests they must visit the grave to free him from the impressions he has been left with…

“No!” he exclaimed – “no, never! Do you want to see me in Satan’s clutches? I stand upon my own tombstone! It is against every law in nature. Ludwig, you cannot mean it?”

But Ludwig insists…

* * * * *

I’ve only read a few of the stories in this collection so far, but am thoroughly enjoying them. They don’t stick to one particular aspect of horror – there are touches of Gothic in some, hints of mad science in others, but there are also fairly light-hearted traditional hauntings like this one and darker, more Satanic tales. They are very well written, although sometimes the rather archaic style can take a bit of concentration. So far, none have involved anything too gory or gruesome for my moderate tastes.

This one is an excellent little story with a great mixture of mild horror and humour. The ending has a touch of the macabre but counterbalanced by an amusing and, in my experience, entirely original way of trying to rid oneself of a ghostly possession! The moral of the story isn’t so much to avoid the perils of wine-bibbing, but rather to be aware of where the grapes might have come from…

(The porpentine had a little too much wine…)

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😱 😱 😱

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

NB The collection The Invisible Eye was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Chillers.

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The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre

Bodysnatchers, cholera, curses and ghosts…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

This is a collection of fourteen stories that were first published in magazines between 1819 and 1838. The majority are from London’s New Monthly but there are a few from other London and Dublin magazines. This was a time when magazines were flourishing, providing information and sensation to a readership hungry for entertainment. The foreword tells me that this book deliberately omits the famous Edinburgh-based Blackwood magazine, because Oxford World’s Classics had already published a separate collection of them. The title story, The Vampyre by John Polidori, arose out of the same evening of ghost story-telling that inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and was the first literary portrayal of what would become the modern vampire, hence its star billing. (I’ve already talked about it at more length in a Tuesday Terror! post.)

I found this an intriguing collection, different in tone to the usual horror anthology. Although some of the stories have a ghostly or otherwise supernatural element, many of them are strictly about human horrors and they’re often related in some way to events of the time. For example, James Hogg’s contribution, Some Terrible Letters from Scotland, arises from the cholera epidemic which killed thousands of Scots in 1831-2, while William Carleton’s Confessions of a Reformed Ribbonman is based on a real-life lynching – the Ribbonmen were a secret organisation of Irish nationalists. More than one of the stories has been influenced by the true-life story of Burke and Hare, who robbed graves and murdered people to supply bodies for anatomy students. And there’s a good sprinkling of Scottish and Irish stories, which pleased my Celtic heart.

Macabre is undoubtedly the right word for the collection – some of the stories are fairly gruesome, with a proliferation of corpses and anatomists popping up more than once, and the ones based on real events have an added grimness for knowing that. Madness, when it appears, is not always of the Poe-esque high Gothic variety, but more of the realistic murderer type, and is therefore more chilling than scary, perhaps. A couple of them were too macabre for my squeamish taste, but they were more than compensated for by touches of humour or genuine spookiness in other stories. Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most:-

The Vampyre – Illustration by Anne Yvonne Gilbert

Monos and Daimonos by Edward Bulwer – a story of a man’s desperate search for solitude and what happens when he can’t find it. Another one which I used for Tuesday Terror!

Sir Guy Eveling’s Dream by Horace Smith – this is written in the form of an old historical document, so the author has a lot of fun with old-fashioned language. Basically a warning to wastrels everywhere, this tells of a man who spends his life drinking and womanising, till one day he comes across a beautiful but mysterious lady, who is not quite what she appears. Quite naughty, this one, I thought, in a mild way – Victorian morality must not have kicked in yet. I wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be funny, but it did make me laugh!

Some Terrible Letters from Scotland by James Hogg – this is presented as three letters supposedly written by people caught up, as I mentioned above, in the cholera epidemic. The first tells of a man who is pronounced dead and prepared for burial, but his mind is still conscious. Apparently this was a real fear during the epidemic, at a time when medicine was still a pretty primitive profession. The next letter gives a picture of how easily the disease could be spread, and how that led to fear of strangers. The last one takes us more into supernatural territory as a woman insists on nursing the sick over the protests of her fearful children. Together, they’re a great mix of history and horror with touches of black humour.

The Curse by Anonymous – a man is returning from India, having made his fortune there, to claim the hand of the girl he loves. But on the way home, he meets an old man who tells him that God has placed a curse on his family in revenge for murders committed by an ancestor. Needless to say, when he gets home, the curse is waiting for him! This is a more traditional story which touches on that never-ending Scottish obsession with sectarianism and hellfire religion, and it’s very well told.

Life in Death by Anonymous – a man invents an elixir which, when rubbed on a newly deceased body, will bring the dead back to life. But it all goes horribly wrong! Some deliciously shivery moments of pure horror in this one – sometimes death isn’t the worst thing that can happen…

* * * * *

There’s an interesting introduction by Robert Morrison, Professor of English Literature at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, and Chris Baldick, professor of English at Goldsmith’s College, University of London, in which they tell the story behind The Vampyre and discuss the history of the magazines and the part they played in the literature of the day. The notes are great, with each story put into its historical context. Needless to say, most of the information I’ve included above has been taken from the introduction or notes.

In total I gave nine of the tales either four or five stars individually, so despite there being a few I wasn’t so keen on, overall I enjoyed the collection very much, and recommend it as a good mix of stories that are a little different from the norm.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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Tuesday Terror! The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Dreadful dreadfulness…

I’ve seen about a million adaptations and derivations of this classic tale, but have never before read the original. Time to rectify that in this week’s…

The Turn of the Screw
by Henry James

Henry James
by John Singer Sargent

A house party has spent a happy evening swapping ghost stories, when one man, Douglas, tells them that he has a tale given to him by a woman he once knew…

….“Nobody but me, till now, has ever heard. It’s quite too horrible.” This, naturally, was declared by several voices to give the thing the utmost price, and our friend, with quiet art, prepared his triumph by turning his eyes over the rest of us and going on: “It’s beyond everything. Nothing at all that I know touches it.”
….“For sheer terror?” I remember asking.
….He seemed to say it was not so simple as that; to be really at a loss how to qualify it. He passed his hand over his eyes, made a little wincing grimace. “For dreadful—dreadfulness!”

The story is of a young governess who is engaged to look after two children, the orphaned niece and nephew of her employer. He makes it clear he sees the children as a nuisance and tells her…

“…that she should never trouble him—but never, never: neither appeal nor complain nor write about anything; only meet all questions herself, receive all moneys from his solicitor, take the whole thing over and let him alone. She promised to do this, and she mentioned to me that when, for a moment, disburdened, delighted, he held her hand, thanking her for the sacrifice, she already felt rewarded.

ENO open-air production of Britten’s opera – If the ghosts don’t make you scream, the singing might…

This gives the reader an early indication that she’s certifiably nuts, something that becomes ever clearer as the tale progresses. Luckily, this means she’ll fit well in at the house in Bly where she will be living, since all the inmates could do with some urgent psychiatric intervention. But first, we must meet her young charges…

The little girl who accompanied Mrs. Grose appeared to me on the spot a creature so charming as to make it a great fortune to have to do with her. She was the most beautiful child I had ever seen, and I afterward wondered that my employer had not told me more of her.

Possibly her employer had sussed that a child of such unnatural beauty and charm must be the spawn of Satan… but I anticipate! The brother is equally uncanny…

…I felt, as he stood wistfully looking out for me before the door of the inn at which the coach had put him down, that I had seen him, on the instant, without and within, in the great glow of freshness, the same positive fragrance of purity, in which I had, from the first moment, seen his little sister. He was incredibly beautiful…

Michelle Dockery in a BBC adaptation from 2009

Our governess soon learns of the strange unexplained deaths of the two people who had previously cared for these unnatural monstrosities, but even that doesn’t make her hand in her notice and seek alternative employment. Not even the appearance of dead people around the old homestead is enough to make this woman run for the hills…

I was there to protect and defend the little creatures in the world the most bereaved and the most lovable, the appeal of whose helplessness had suddenly become only too explicit, a deep, constant ache of one’s own committed heart. We were cut off, really, together; we were united in our danger. They had nothing but me, and I—well, I had THEM.

Jodhi May in a TV adaptation from 1999.
Good heavens! Is that?… can it be??… the ghost of Darcy behind her???

* * * * *

Well, my goodness! This didn’t terrify the porpy and me exactly, but it chilled us to the bone. Its ambiguity is its major feature, with nothing clear or explained and with deliberate gaps in time and explanations that leave the reader to make her own interpretations. The great introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition tells me that debate has raged ever since publication over whether the ghosts are real or a figment of the governess’ disordered imagination. I’m in the middle – I could argue for or against the reality of the ghosts. However, I’m decidedly of the opinion that, either way, the governess is crazy and disturbingly obsessed by the beauty of the children. Maybe it’s a symptom of today’s world, but every time the story hinted at corruption or evil I saw it as a euphemism for sexual abuse, and wondered whether the original readers would have thought that or if they’d have seen the evil as a more satanic thing. Had the children been abused by their former guardians? I suspected so. Was the governess sexually abusive? Hmm, perhaps not, but her overwhelming need for the love of the children and her constant physical hugging and kissing of them felt smothering and extreme. Had the children, as victims of abuse sometimes do, become abusers in turn? I don’t want to stray too far into spoiler territory but we are left to wonder why young Miles had been expelled from school…

Deborah Kerr in a movie adaptation, titled The Innocents, from 1961.

I can’t say I wholeheartedly enjoyed the story – it stank too deeply of corruption and vice to be entertaining, especially with the involvement of such young children, and I searched in vain for someone I could trust. Of course this is clearly the intended effect, so full marks to James for creating something so disturbing. There are references to some of the Gothic classics and particularly echoes of Jane Eyre, but in this case I had to feel that it was the governess who should have been locked in the attic. Generally speaking, I shrug off written horror as soon as I close the book, but I found myself thinking of this story when I woke in the dark reaches of the night, and I had troubled dreams…

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😱 😱 😱 😱

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The porpy was chilled to the bone by this one…

NB I read this in The Turn of the Screw and Other Stories, provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics. I’ll review the full book later.

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Tuesday Terror! Monos and Daimonos by Edward Bulwer

I vant to be alone…

I love solitude. Next to chocolate and cake, it’s my favourite thing. Give me a desert island with a nice house (with a library) on it and regular food drops from the local supermarket and I’d be a happy bunny! (I’d take the cats, of course, but only if they promised not to disturb me while I was reading.) But after reading this week’s tale, I may have to rethink my position…

Monos and Daimonos
by Edward Bulwer

Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Our narrator was taken as a child by his father to live in solitude in a rocky wasteland…

…the whole country round seemed nothing but rock! – wastes, bleak, blank, dreary; trees stunted, herbage blasted; caverns through which some black and wild stream (that never knew star or sunlight, but through rare and hidden chasms of the huge stones above it) went dashing and howling on its blessed course…

When his father dies, he is sent to live with relatives, but he finds he doesn’t really like people and they don’t much like him. So on reaching his majority, he demands control of his money and leaves, to the mutual satisfaction of all…

So I took my leave of them all, cousin and aunt – and when I came to my old uncle, who had liked me less than any, I grasped his hand with so friendly a gripe, that, well I ween, the dainty and nice member was but little inclined to its ordinary functions in future.

For many years, he travels in the wild and lonely places of the world, far from humanity…

I commenced my pilgrimage – I pierced the burning sands – I traversed the vast deserts – I came into the enormous woods of Africa, where human step never trod, nor human voice never started the thrilling and intense solemnity that broods over the great solitudes, as it brooded over chaos before the world was!

But at last he decides to return to civilisation. He sets off on a sea voyage to return to his native land, soon discovering that he dislikes humanity just as much as ever. However, one other passenger befriends him against his will…

He was an idle and curious being, full of the frivolities, and egotisms, and importance of them to whom towns are homes, and talk has become a mental aliment. He was one pervading, irritating, offensive tissue of little and low thoughts.

Happily for our narrator the ship strikes a rock, and he swims to a deserted island, thrilled at the thought that his new friend has doubtless drowned. His happiness turns out to be premature, when the offensive tissue suddenly appears again, all cheery and smiley…

He came up with his hideous grin, and his twinkling eye; and he flung his arms round me, – I would sooner have felt the slimy fold of the serpent – and said, with his grating and harsh voice, “Ha! ha! my friend, we shall be together still!”… And my lip trembled, and my hand clenched of its own accord.

* * * * *

This is a great little tale! To our misanthropic narrator, his tale is one of unjust misery and woe, but to the reader there’s a vein of humour running through it. How often have we all tried to get away from that irritating person who for some reason won’t realise that they’re annoying us? While Bulwer (later Bulwer-Lytton) exaggerates massively, the premise is familiar enough to induce recognition and even some sympathy for his constantly thwarted desire for solitude. But there’s also, of course, horror in the story as our narrator reaches the end of his tether and then is forced to suffer the consequences…

While I was reading it, I kept being reminded of my favourite Poe story, Silence: A Fable. That one has no humour and is much more mysterious and unsettling in tone, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on why this one felt so reminiscent of it, other than that they both involve solitude and a rocky wasteland. Fortunately the notes in The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre explain. Apparently Poe was a great admirer of Bulwer-Lytton’s work and praised this story highly. “Poe’s Silence – A Fable (1838) is heavily indebted to ‘Monos and Daimonos’, to the point where, as Mabbot points out, some sentences are taken ‘almost verbatim’.” Aha! That explains why I kept feeling a mild sense of déjà vu, particularly over phrases like “illimitable deserts”!

And mine eyes fell upon the countenance of the man, and his countenance was wan with terror. And, hurriedly, he raised his head from his hand, and stood forth upon the rock and listened. But there was no voice throughout the vast illimitable desert, and the characters upon the rock were SILENCE.

However, the tales are certainly different enough that I don’t feel Poe has in any way stolen from this tale – he has merely used it as an inspirational jumping off point to create something unique and wonderful in itself. (I was rather thrilled, I admit, to discover that finally I’ve read enough horror to make the odd connection and spot the odd reference for myself. *preens smugly*)

I can only find a link to a rather messy scanned version this week, but here it is. I do recommend The Vampyre collection though – only about halfway through it, but so far I’ve thoroughly enjoyed most of the stories I’ve read. I’ll review it fully later.

The porpy and I loved this one, even though we were more amused than terrified by it. Now we’re off out to find a party and be sociable – sometimes solitude can be taken too far…

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😱 😱

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Porpy Party!
A Prickle of Porpentines

NB The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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Tuesday Terror! Berenice by Edgar Allan Poe

Don’t forget to floss…

When discussing classic horror stories, it’s not possible to omit Edgar Allan Poe. Plus his stories are always great. Aren’t they? Time to find out in this week’s…

Berenice
by Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

 

Misery is manifold. The wretchedness of earth is multiform. Overreaching the wide horizon like the rainbow, its hues are as various as the hues of that arch, as distinct too, yet as intimately blended. Overreaching the wide horizon like the rainbow! How is it that from Beauty I have derived a type of unloveliness? — from the covenant of Peace a simile of sorrow? But thus is it. And as, in ethics, Evil is a consequence of Good, so, in fact, out of Joy is sorrow born.

After this cheery start, we learn that our narrator is Egaeus, the last of his line (thankfully), who grows up in the family mansion with his cousin, Berenice. He suffers from a mental condition, monomania he calls it though the opium might have something to do with it, that causes him to focus excessively on whatever grabs his attention to the exclusion of all else. She, once beautiful and agile, now suffers from an unnamed illness that causes her to waste away whilst having epileptic-style fits that leave her in a kind of trance. So they decide to get married. It’s a true romance…

During the brightest days of her unparalleled beauty, most surely I had never loved her. In the strange anomaly of my existence, feelings with me, had never been of the heart, and my passions always were of the mind. . . And now—now I shuddered in her presence, and grew pale at her approach; yet, bitterly lamenting her fallen and desolate condition, I called to mind that she had loved me long, and, in an evil moment, I spoke to her of marriage.

However, Berenice does have one feature which takes our dashing hero’s fancy…

The eyes were lifeless, and lustreless, and seemingly pupilless, and I shrank involuntarily from their glassy stare to he contemplation of the thin and shrunken lips. They parted; and in a smile of peculiar meaning, the teeth of the changed Berenice disclosed themselves slowly to my view. Would to God that I had never beheld them, or that, having done so, I had died!


Unfortunately, he does not die. The same cannot be said for poor Berenice, who having smiled her ghastly smile, quietly goes off and becomes deceased. But a little matter like death isn’t enough to undo the effect of her toothiness on our lovely narrator. He carries out a horrific deed, and then, like so many before and since, pleads amnesia…

Yet its memory was replete with horror—horror more horrible from being vague, and terror more terrible from ambiguity. It was a fearful page in the record of my existence, written all over with dim, and hideous, and unintelligible recollections. . . I had done a deed—what was it? I asked myself the question aloud, and the whispering echoes of the chamber answered me,—“what was it?”

Harry Clarke illustration

* * * * * * *

Well, if you want to know what it was, here’s a link – but take my advice and don’t! Ugh! I reckon Poe must have been having a bad day when he wrote this one! I can’t say it scared me exactly, more disgusted me. Apparently it also disgusted the first readers too, and even Poe himself later said “I allow that it approaches the very verge of bad taste…” Approaches?? It walks right up and punches it on the nose!

Combine that with his constant insertion of bits of untranslated French and Latin…

Of Mademoiselle Salle it has been well said, “Que tous ses pas etaient des sentiments,” and of Berenice I more seriously believed que toutes ses dents etaient des idees.

Quite so!

The words were the singular but simple ones of the poet Ebn Zaiat:—”Dicebant mihi sodales si sepulchrum amicae visitarem, curas meas aliquantulum fore levatas.” Why then, as I perused them, did the hairs of my head erect themselves on end, and the blood of my body become congealed within my veins?

Why indeed?

On the upside, there’s lots of traditionally Gothic stuff about the gloomy old mansion and the library filled with ancient, unspeakable tomes and so on. But I’m afraid this won’t figure in my list of top Poe stories. His narrator was opium-sozzled throughout and by the end of this I was kinda wishing I was too…

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😱 😱

Overall story rating:           😐 😐

The porpy’s teeth are nearly as lovely as Berenice’s…

NB I read this in the anthology Horror Stories, which was provided for review by Oxford World’s Classics.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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Tuesday Terror! The Vampyre by John Polidori

Invidious comparisons…

One summer evening in 1816, a group of friends got to discussing tales of the supernatural, and challenged each other to write their own story. Two defaulted, Lord Byron wrote a “fragment” entitled Augustus Darvell, Mary Godwin, later Shelley, wrote Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, and Byron’s doctor, John Polidori, wrote this story…

The Vampyre
by John Polidori

Portrait of John Polidori
by FG Gainsford c. 1816

…there appeared at the various parties of the leaders of the ton a nobleman, more remarkable for his singularities, than his rank. He gazed upon the mirth around him, as if he could not participate therein. Apparently, the light laughter of the fair only attracted his attention, that he might by a look quell it, and throw fear into those breasts where thoughtlessness reigned.

A young gentleman by the name of Aubrey becomes fascinated by a rather older nobleman, Lord Ruthven, because he finds Ruthven’s character impossible to guess at. Ruthven is attractive but his eyes are strangely inexpressive, giving no clue to his feelings. The susceptible, inexperienced Aubrey…

…allowing his imagination to picture every thing that flattered its propensity to extravagant ideas, he soon formed this object into the hero of a romance, and determined to observe the offspring of his fancy, rather than the person before him.

Illustration by Anne Yvonne Gilbert

Discovering that Ruthven intends to travel abroad, Aubrey arranges to go too, and soon the men become travelling companions. But over time, Aubrey begins to realise that his friend is not necessarily a very nice man…

Aubrey could not avoid remarking, that it was not upon the virtuous, reduced to indigence by the misfortunes attendant even upon virtue, that he bestowed his alms;—these were sent from the door with hardly suppressed sneers; but when the profligate came to ask something, not to relieve his wants, but to allow him to wallow in his lust, or to sink him still deeper in his iniquity, he was sent away with rich charity.

Aubrey tries to give him the benefit of the doubt, even though he can see that Ruthven preys on young women, (in rather unspecified ways), leaving them and their families ruined and disgraced. Then Aubrey’s guardians warn him that Ruthven is a bad lot, and Aubrey decides to leave and travel alone to Greece. But here, tragedy strikes – and soon Aubrey will become convinced that his one-time friend is hiding a terrible secret…

There was no colour upon her cheek, not even upon her lip; yet there was a stillness about her face that seemed almost as attaching as the life that once dwelt there:—upon her neck and breast was blood, and upon her throat were the marks of teeth having opened the vein:—to this the men pointed, crying, simultaneously struck with horror, “A Vampyre! a Vampyre!”

Advertising poster showing Byron as the author

* * * * * * *

I can’t help imagining the two friends, Mary Shelley and John Polidori, getting together again a couple of years later…

Mary: So, did you write a story?
John (proudly): Yes, I did! Here it is! Did you?
Mary (taking the few sheets from John’s hand): Umm… well, yes, I did. (She holds out a massive manuscript.)
John: Oh! (pauses) So… what’s it about?
Mary: Oh, you know, the usual stuff. Mad science, ethics, perceptions of difference, man usurping God as creator, existential questions of loneliness and belonging, the essence of humanity… what’s yours about?
John: Umm… well, it’s about… umm… well, a man who’s actually a vampire.
Mary: Ah! I see! (She riffles through the tiny sheaf of pages.) That should be… fun!
John: I feel a bit embarrassed now.
Mary (kindly): Oh, don’t be! At least you wrote a story. Byron only managed a “fragment”…

Mary Shelley
by Samuel John Stump 1831

Mary was right – this is… fun! Not terribly well written fun, it has to be said, and not very vampirish either, to modern eyes. However, apparently it started the whole fictional vampire obsession, so it deserves praise for that. The introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition tells me that originally it was published under Byron’s name by an unscrupulous publisher looking to cash in on his notoriety, and I wonder if it would have had the same impact without that. I doubt it. I did find it amusing that some people said it was Byron’s best work – bet they felt a bit foolish when it came out he hadn’t written it! Polidori nicked the basic idea from Byron’s “fragment” (which is included in the book and is much better written) and expanded it into a full short story. He was apparently also taking a bit of a swipe at Byron himself – Ruthven being the name Byron’s cast-off mistress Caroline Lamb had given him in her own fictional portrayal in her novel, Glenarvon.

Lord Byron
by Thomas Phillips 1813

In truth, I found the story of the story more interesting than the story. Neither the porpy nor I found it scary, and while the porpy didn’t laugh at some of the clunky, over-dramatic sentences, I did. Clearly the porpy has a sweeter nature than I…

John: Mary, your book is wonderful! It’s destined to be a great classic! I predict it will become one of the foundation stones of modern literature! I shuddered, I cried, I got angry, I shivered in fear! Your creature will fire imaginations through the centuries! Bravissima!
Mary: Thanks, John! Er… your story’s quite good too!

If you’d like to read it online, here’s a link. I read it in The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre, which I’ll review fully at a later date.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😱 😱

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀

Not a quill was raised…

* * * * * * *

Tuesday Terror! The Music of Erich Zann by HP Lovecraft

The Devil has all the best tunes…

This story appears in the collection, The Gothic Tales of HP Lovecraft. Lovecraft is known for his long, verbose, weird fiction but he could do short, Gothic and scary with the best of them when he tried. This little story seems perfect to wake the fretful porpentine from hibernation…

The Music of Erich Zann
by HP Lovecraft

HP Lovecraft

I have examined maps of the city with the greatest care, yet have never again found the Rue d’Auseil.

Our unnamed narrator was a student at the time of which he tells, in a city which is probably Paris although it isn’t named. His straitened finances force him to take a room in a ramshackle house in the Rue d’Auseil. Most of the other rooms are empty, but on his first night in the house, he hears strange music being played in the garret room above his own. On enquiring from the landlord, he learns the tenant of that room is Erich Zann, a strange, old, dumb viol-player.

Thereafter I heard Zann every night, and although he kept me awake, I was haunted by the weirdness of his music. Knowing little of the art myself, I was yet certain that none of his harmonies had any relation to music I had heard before; and concluded that he was a composer of highly original genius.

Resolving to make Zann’s acquaintance, the student stops him in the corridor and asks if he may listen while Zann plays. Grudgingly the old man agrees and takes the student to this room.

Its size was very great, and seemed the greater because of its extraordinary bareness and neglect. Of furniture there was only a narrow iron bedstead, a dingy washstand, a small table, a large bookcase, an iron music-rack, and three old-fashioned chairs. Sheets of music were piled in disorder about the floor. The walls were of bare boards, and had probably never known plaster; whilst the abundance of dust and cobwebs made the place seem more deserted than inhabited. Evidently Erich Zann’s world of beauty lay in some far cosmos of the imagination.

Illustration by Andrew Brosnatch, drawn for the reprint of the story in the May 1925 issue of Weird Tales.

But as time passes, the student comes to realise that there’s something very strange about Zann’s playing. When the student is in the room with him, he plays well but conventionally. However, when he’s alone and the student is hearing him from outside the room, the music becomes wild, with weird harmonies such as the student has never before imagined…

There in the narrow hall, outside the bolted door with the covered keyhole, I often heard sounds which filled me with an indefinable dread—the dread of vague wonder and brooding mystery. It was not that the sounds were hideous, for they were not; but that they held vibrations suggesting nothing on this globe of earth, and that at certain intervals they assumed a symphonic quality which I could hardly conceive as produced by one player.

Then one night, the music grows so wild that the student is drawn to the old man’s door…

I heard the shrieking viol swell into a chaotic babel of sound; a pandemonium which would have led me to doubt my own shaking sanity had there not come from behind that barred portal a piteous proof that the horror was real—the awful, inarticulate cry which only a mute can utter, and which rises only in moments of the most terrible fear or anguish.

He finds the old man unconscious, and when he comes to, he agrees to tell the student the secret of the music. He sits at the table to write out his story, when suddenly the student becomes aware of music, but it’s coming from outside the window!

Zann leaps to his feet, grabs his viol and starts playing for all he’s worth…

It would be useless to describe the playing of Erich Zann on that dreadful night. It was more horrible than anything I had ever overheard, because I could now see the expression of his face, and could realise that this time the motive was stark fear…

* * * * * * *

Gosh! This woke the porpentine with a shriek! It has touches of Lovecraft’s famed weird tales, but mostly it’s a fairly traditional Gothic-style horror story. It’s brilliantly told, with the descriptive writing gradually bringing it up to a pitch of perfect terror. The old viol-player being dumb adds to the tension since he can’t quickly explain what’s going on, and the narrator’s inability to ever find the Rue d’Auseil again leaves the reader wondering if it was all his imagination; or is the street somehow part of another world hidden within this one into which the narrator had somehow strayed? As it reaches its crescendo, I swear to you that I actually gasped out loud!

So far I’ve read about half the tales in this collection and each one has been superb. I wish HPL had stuck to Gothic rather than creating his weird Cthulhu Mythos – for my taste, these short tales of sheer horror have far more impact. If you’d like to read this one online, here’s a link. But I think it’s safe to say already that I’ll be recommending the whole collection when I finish it.

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😱 😱 😱 😱 😱

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s a fretful porpentine!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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NB For the benefit of new readers since it’s the porpy’s first appearance for the season, the fretful porpentine reference comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine

So the Fretful Porpentine rating is for the scariness factor, whereas the Overall Rating is for the story’s quality.

* * * * * * *

Gothic Tales by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The master storyteller sets out to scare…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Although best known today for his Sherlock Holmes stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote prolifically across a whole range of genres in his lifetime. This collection brings together thirty-four of his tales which have been categorised as “gothic”, although some of them are more gothic than others. Some are well known as classic horror stories and a couple have already put in an appearance on my semi-regular horror slot, Tuesday Terror!The Horror of the Heights and Lot No. 249. None of the Holmes stories are included, although several of them would certainly count as gothic and have a strong element of horror – The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax, for example, is one of his most Poe-like gothic horrors, I think.

The level of horror is variable from mild and even humorous to really quite scary. But the real joy of the collection, as always with Conan Doyle, is the sheer quality of his story-telling skills. Whether relating an Arctic adventure complete with ghostly apparition, or telling a tale of vengeance set in the wild frontier of old America, or forcing the reader to spend a night in a museum full of not completely dead Egyptian mummies, or taking us into the dark heart of the British Empire, his powers of description and ability to create atmosphere and tension are surely second to none. And his total command of a wonderful vocabulary and seemingly effortless writing style make the stories pure pleasure to read.

The range of stories is incredible, making it quite hard to single any out as representative of the collection. Some have a supernatural element while others concentrate on the horrors men and women perpetrate on each other, and yet others take their horror from the dangers of the natural world. We even get a couple culled from Conan Doyle’s life as a physician, including one about a young man with hereditary syphilis – I was astonished that such a subject was handled so openly in a story at this early date. I’m spoiled for choice, but here’s a brief look at some of the ones I enjoyed most…

J Habakuk Jephson’s Statement – based on the story of the Marie Celeste, ACD gives his version of what might have happened. A “quadroon” kills everyone and takes the ship to Africa. Although there’s some fairly strong racial stuff here that sits uneasily with the modern reader, Jephson is an abolitionist and the motive is revenge against white people for the cruelties they have perpetrated through slavery and colonialism. Powerfully told, it reminded me of Conrad’s stories in its reaction to colonialism.

The Beetle Hunter – the narrator is a newly-qualified doctor and beetle collector who answers an advert for the same. His new employer takes him to the home of a famous beetle expert, where the beetles will not be the scariest thing he has to face! Very well told and quite creepy in parts, especially if you’re squeamish about beetles… ugh!

The Retirement of Signor Lambert – a cuckolded husband takes revenge on the opera singer who seduced his wife. That’s all, but it’s told in a kind of understated deadpan that makes it deliciously horrible.

The Pot of Caviare – a group of Westerners trapped following the Boxer Rebellion await relief. But they have heard terrible stories of how the Chinese treat their captives, especially women, and so have a contingency plan should the relieving force not turn up in time. This is a dark and rather disturbing story, expertly told for maximum effect. The notes point out that it’s part of the Edwardian “Yellow Peril” genre, but it’s far more realistic and chilling than any of the silly Fu Manchu type of stuff I’ve read.

The Captain of the Polestar – an Arctic expedition to hunt whales comes to a stop when the ship is caught in the ice. Scary enough, but even scarier when the ghostly figure of a woman begins to appear and the Captain seems to recognise her. This is narrated via the journal of a young ship’s medic, a role ACD himself had undertaken in his youth. Very atmospheric, great descriptions and some first-rate Scottish dialect!

As always in the Oxford World’s Classics editions, there is an informative introduction and extensive notes, this time written by Darryl Jones, Professor in English at Trinity College Dublin. He gives a kind of biography of Conan Doyle’s thought development over the course of his life. He talks about these stories and Conan Doyle’s wider writings in the context of the various phases of his changing beliefs – his pro-Imperialism, his anxiety over the question of Irish Home Rule culminating in him changing from anti- to pro- after seeing the worst of colonialism in the Belgian Congo; and of course his loss of religion and the growth of his belief in spiritualism – Jones shows that he always had an interest in the subject but “came out” as a believer after witnessing the huge losses in the Great War. An interesting and informative essay, happily written without any lit-crit jargon, making it both accessible and enjoyable for the general reader. (Though I do wish he wouldn’t refer to him as Doyle – after he added Conan to his name (in tribute to his godfather) he was always known as Conan Doyle, he published under that name, his son refers to him that way in his biographical writings about his father, and his wife took the double surname Conan Doyle, so I don’t understand why some modern commentators have taken on themselves the right to change his name back.)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I loved this collection. Admittedly Conan Doyle can do no wrong in my eyes, so I’m not the most unbiased reviewer, but nearly all of these stories are good and many are excellent – masterclasses in the form. Perfect for dipping – one to keep on the bedside table in perpetuity, since stories of this quality will stand up to frequent re-reading.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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Heart of Darkness and Other Tales by Joseph Conrad

The other tales…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

(I’ve been putting off writing a review of this for ages because I couldn’t see how to keep it down to anything approaching a reasonable length, since, although Heart of Darkness is by far the most famous of the four stories in the collection and is the one on my Classics Club list, the other three deserve more than a passing mention too. So I’ve decided in the end to review those briefly in this post and then to review Heart of Darkness itself more fully in a later post.)

This collection from Oxford World’s Classics includes four of Conrad’s stories, each of which deals with the subject of empire and colonialism in one way or another. It also has an introduction and notes by Cedric Watts, Professor of English at the University of Sussex – a Conrad expert. While the notes are very useful, unfortunately, unlike in the other OWC books I’ve read, the introduction is written in the kind of academic jargonese that I hate – the kind that for non-academics needs another introduction to explain the introduction…

An important political aspect of this theme is displayed by the tale’s demonstration that there is an imperialism of discourse which both licenses and conceals the excesses of economic exploitation.

Hmm! So I abandoned the introduction and hurried swiftly on…

Fortunately, the stories are not nearly as intimidating or difficult to understand as the introduction had led me to fear. I’m sure there’s loads of nuance I’ve missed (I missed the bit about the “imperialism of discourse”, for sure), but my own view is that all stories should stand or fall on their own merit as stories, and should not rely on a reader catching all the references or undertones, though they may be enhanced by it. These stories more than stand on their own – in fact, three of the four are up there amongst the best I’ve ever read.

An Outpost of Progress – Two men, Kayerts and Carlier, are dropped off to run a Company trading post in the Belgian Congo. They are basically incompetent, relying on their black agent and workers to do the work of trading for the precious ivory for which they are there. However, events spiral out of their control and they are left running low on resources and increasingly scared of the, to them, incomprehensible and savage people in this wild land. And then the boat that was due to relieve them is delayed…

This starts off with a good deal of humour, full of irony and sarcasm as Conrad turns the prevailing ideas about the superiority of the white man on their head. We see how quickly the veneer of “civilisation” falls away when men are isolated in a vastly different culture they don’t understand. Gradually the story darkens, until it reaches a powerfully dark and dramatic ending of true horror. The writing is wonderful, full of lush descriptions that create an ominously threatening environment, with enough vagueness so that we, like the characters, fear what may be lurking just outside. And his depiction of the downward spiral of his characters into moral weakness and eventual terror is done brilliantly. A great story.

Youth: A Narrative – This tells of Marlow, who will appear again in Heart of Darkness, as a twenty-year-old in his first voyage as second mate on an ill-fated sea trip in the rickety old ship Judea. A series of disasters leads to the ship constantly having to return to port for repairs, and things don’t improve once they finally get off on their journey. It’s quite funny and is apparently a fairly accurate record of Conrad’s own voyage as a young man aboard the equally doomed Palestine. It’s about the vigour and optimism of youth – how even disasters can seem like exciting adventures before age and experience make us jaded and fearful. It’s enjoyable, but a little too long for its content, and with nothing like the depth of the other stories in the collection.

Karain: A Memory – The narrator is one of three adventurers, smuggling arms into the Malay Archipelago. They come to know Karain, the headman of a small land which he and his followers have invaded and occupied. Karain is a haunted man, perhaps literally, perhaps superstitiously. He turns to his white friends for protection…

From the deck of our schooner, anchored in the middle of the bay, he indicated by a theatrical sweep of his arm along the jagged outline of the hills the whole of his domain; and the ample movement seemed to drive back its limits, augmenting it suddenly into something so immense and vague that for a moment it appeared to be bounded only by the sky. And really, looking at that place, landlocked from the sea and shut off from the land by the precipitous slopes of mountains, it was difficult to believe in the existence of any neighbourhood. It was still, complete, unknown, and full of a life that went on stealthily with a troubling effect of solitude; of a life that seemed unaccountably empty of anything that would stir the thought, touch the heart, give a hint of the ominous sequence of days. It appeared to us a land without memories, regrets, and hopes; a land where nothing could survive the coming of the night, and where each sunrise, like a dazzling act of special creation, was disconnected from the eve and the morrow.

The story in this one, although good, is somewhat secondary to the wonderfully descriptive and insightful writing. The prose in the first two or three pages is sublime, as Conrad swiftly creates a place, a country, a man and a people, all with a level of lyricism and mysticism that places the reader there, already unsettled before the tale begins. Conrad shows how colonialism disrupts and corrupts long-held traditions and ways of life, but how old beliefs nonetheless endure. And lest the reader should wish to mock the superstitions of the natives, Conrad forestalls this by reminding us with brutal irony that many of our own cherished traditions and beliefs arise out of superstition too. He also shows that, when white and black meet not as master and slave but in a kind of equality, the possibility for friendship exists, even when their cultures are so different. I loved this story.

Joseph Conrad

Conrad gets a bad rap in some quarters these days for what some see as racist portrayals of other cultures, and there’s no doubt that the stories include a lot of words we would now consider derogatory, along with depictions of native customs – god worship, cannibalism, human sacrifice – that our current rewriting of the past to suit political correctness makes problematic. But, of course, these things did happen so is it really racist to write about them? And the language he uses is of its time. Plus, in moral terms, he’s far more derogatory about the white men and the evils of empire. I give him a pass – since he was so clearly writing from an anti-colonialist stance, I feel to hang him for use of the n-word is to trivialise the importance of what he was saying.

Reading these three stories first gave me an appreciation for Conrad’s style and view of colonialism, which I’m sure eased and enhanced my reading of Heart of Darkness itself. I thoroughly enjoyed the collection and, despite my disappointment with the style of the introduction, there’s no doubt the notes aided my understanding and gave some interesting background information, making it an accessible entry-point to new readers of Conrad’s work.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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Pearls on a Branch edited by Najla Jraissaty Khoury

It happened, or maybe it didn’t…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This collection of Lebanese and Syrian folk tales begins with an introduction from the author explaining how she came to record them. During the Lebanese civil war, Khoury travelled with a theatre group that put on shows for those dispossessed or marginalised by the conflict. As she travelled, she began to ask local women to tell her the stories they were told as children so that she could adapt them for the theatre company. She speaks very interestingly of how she went about the task of collecting the stories, sometimes from individuals, more often from groups of women, and sometimes having to find a time when their children were otherwise occupied to allow the women to relate the more bawdy tales! As with most oral traditions, she found the stories varied from telling to telling, with regional differences and also different emphases on humour and darkness. Then she discusses how she decided which stories to include, firstly in the collection of a hundred stories originally published in Arabic, and then for the thirty stories in this English translation.

This is followed by a second introduction, equally interesting, from the translator, herself a folklorist. Inea Bushnaq explains the storytelling conventions of the region, pointing out the similarities and differences to our own. She talks about the patriarchal society that has only recently begun to change. These stories are ones told by women to their daughters or amongst themselves, so they’re often about girls outsmarting men, but they also show clearly the restrictions under which women lived. Bushnaq also explains the “farsheh” – a kind of nonsense rhyme or humorous story, often involving word play, that the storyteller would use to introduce herself and get the attention of her audience before beginning the telling of the main story. Where we would begin a story “once upon a time”, the Arab convention is to begin with the less definite “there was, or maybe there was not” or “it happened, or maybe it didn’t”…

Najla Jraissaty Khoury

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of folk tales, so I expected to find this interesting rather than enjoyable. But I’m delighted to say I was wrong! I loved these – they’re fun, or moving, or occasionally horrifying, they’re very well written, the translation is excellent, and there’s a wide range so that they don’t begin to feel repetitive. Also, they shed a huge amount of light on a society and way of life that is so different from my own, and which is slowly passing; so that there’s an importance and even urgency to the act of gathering and recording these oral traditions before they are lost. Some are fables, like the story of the fox who turns vegetarian and goes on the Hajj, while many are stories of love and marriage, two things not always connected in a world where girls have no say over who they marry.

There are loads that got five stars from me, so here’s just a brief flavour to tempt you…

The Farsheh – in traditional fashion, the book kicks off with a farsheh, on this occasion part rhyme part prose. A deliciously wicked story about a young man who falls in love with a beautiful girl and decides he must have her for his own. But the girl isn’t quite as docile as he perhaps hoped. A great little starter, very well told with good language and rhythm and lots of humour.

A House Without Worries – a rather horrifying story (to western eyes) about a woman whose husband beats her every night for no good reason. (Not that I’m suggesting there’s ever a good reason!) But as with so many of these stories, the man gets his comeuppance in the end and the woman escapes to a better life. While these stories are quite uplifting with the happy-ever-after endings, they really show the grimmer side of a life where women have no rights. I loved the idea, though, of the kind of subversiveness of women sharing these stories as a form of mutual support.

Lady Tanaqueesh and the Eggs of the Tawawees – tawawees being peacock eggs, the eating of which makes you pregnant apparently! (There are lots of stories where women get pregnant through strange means – I’m sure there was an underlying meaning to this that I couldn’t quite grasp…) In this one, Lady Tanaqueesh has two jealous sisters who trick her into eating the eggs and the resulting pregnancy leads her father to expel her. There’s lots of rather nasty stuff in this one, including the brutal revenge Lady T considers for her sisters. But it’s very well done, with lots of rhyming and repetition – a real feat of translation, I think.

The Fly – a little kind of repetitive question and answer thing that reminded me of the style of “Who Killed Cock Robin”. The fly lands on a series of creatures, praising each, but each replies to the effect that yes, but I can be hurt by another creature or thing, so the fly then goes off to that creature or thing, praises it, etc., until eventually… well, that would be a spoiler, but I love the end of this – quite dark.

O Palace Beautiful! O Fancy Friend! – First off, what a great title! I’ve included this one because it has many elements of Snow White in it, which made me realise how much crossover there is in traditional tales – it made me feel closer to the culture than some of the other tales. Plus, it has Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves in it! Jealous mother, beautiful girl, poisoned apple – what’s not to love?

Oh, I want to tell you about the woman who farts in front of the cow, and the chiffchaff who wants to be Queen of the Birds, and the donkey who ate the wheat, and… but I’ve run out of room! So loads of variety, lots of interest and hugely enjoyable. Great stuff – highly recommended, and not just to folk tale fans!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Archipelago.

Amazon UK Link
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Tuesday Terror! The King in Yellow by Robert W Chambers

Indescribable horror…

This is a short collection of four horror stories, all linked by a play called The King in Yellow which, we are told, reveals truths so awful that anyone who reads it will be driven to madness and despair. Sounds perfect for this week’s…

 

Tuesday Terror 2The King in Yellow
by Robert W Chambers

 

It could not be judged by any known standard, yet, although it was acknowledged that the supreme note of art had been struck in The King in Yellow, all felt that human nature could not bear the strain, nor thrive on words in which the essence of purest poison lurked. The very banality and innocence of the first act only allowed the blow to fall afterward with more awful effect.

The first thing to say is that it appears that Chambers’ The King in Yellow collection usually includes ten stories. For this new edition, Pushkin Press have extracted the four that are linked and omitted the other six, which reviews tell me are mostly of a different style.

Each story is very short, so the entire volume isn’t much more than novella length. In truth, I found it a rather disappointing collection, with only one story that stood out for me. The awful truths contained in the play of The King in Yellow are not revealed to the reader, so fortunately at least I was spared from being driven insane. But this technique of telling the reader that there is something so awful it can’t be described – a technique used frequently in weird fiction, particularly by my old friend Lovecraft – strikes me as a major cop-out.

…it set me thinking of what my architect’s books say about the custom in early times to consecrate the choir as soon as it was built, and that the nave, being finished sometimes half a century later, often did not get any blessing at all: I wondered idly if that had been the case at St. Barnabé, and whether something not usually supposed to be at home in a Christian church might have entered undetected and taken possession of the west gallery.

* * * * * * *

Here’s a brief idea of each of the four stories:

The Repairer of Reputations – a story told by a madman, driven mad obviously by having been foolish enough to read The King in Yellow. He is convinced he is entitled to become a King which involves him having to bump off the man he believes stands in his way. All very weird, but not really in a good way. I gave this one a generous 2½ stars.

The Mask – a sculptor, Boris, has discovered a solution that turns living things into the purest marble (including sweet little bunny rabbits – you have been warned, animal lovers!). Meantime Boris’s friend, the narrator, is in love with Genevieve, Boris’s wife. There’s lots of gothic drama, high, exalted love, madness and despair, mixed together with some nice horror and just a touch of weirdness. Good stuff! I gave this one 5 stars.

….Although I knew nothing of chemistry, I listened fascinated. He picked up an Easter lily which Geneviève had brought that morning from Notre Dame, and dropped it into the basin. Instantly the liquid lost its crystalline clearness. For a second the lily was enveloped in a milk-white foam, which disappeared, leaving the fluid opalescent. Changing tints of orange and crimson played over the surface, and then what seemed to be a ray of pure sunlight struck through from the bottom where the lily was resting. At the same instant he plunged his hand into the basin and drew out the flower. “There is no danger,” he explained, “if you choose the right moment. That golden ray is the signal.”
….He held the lily toward me, and I took it in my hand. It had turned to stone, to the purest marble.
….“You see,” he said, “it is without a flaw. What sculptor could reproduce it?”
….The marble was white as snow, but in its depths the veins of the lily were tinged with palest azure, and a faint flush lingered deep in its heart.

In the Court of the Dragon – a man goes to church just after reading The King in Yellow. He becomes obsessed by the organist – a dark figure who keeps appearing wherever he goes. Is he paranoid, driven to madness by the play? Or is there a more sinister reason behind the organist’s appearances? Hmm – I found this OK-ish, but nothing special, and gave it just 3 stars.

The Yellow Sign – An artist and his model seem to be sharing a common nightmare about the artist being in a coffin in a hearse. Needless to say, they’ve both read The King in Yellow, thus allowing evil and madness into their lives. This one has some quite good horror aspects, though, and a nice sense of creepiness to it. I gave it 3½ stars.

“Do you think I could forget that face?” she murmured. “Three times I saw the hearse pass below my window, and every time the driver turned and looked up at me. Oh, his face was so white and – and soft? It looked dead – it looked as if it had been dead a long time.”

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So a mixed bag. The question is – would I recommend it? In truth, not for the quality of the stories themselves on the whole, but I’m led to believe these are considered to have been influential on Lovecraft and others, and are often referenced by later writers, so I guess I’d recommend them to people who are interested in the development of weird fiction.

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Fretful Porpentine rating:  😱 😱 😱

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀

The porpy doesn’t understand why people would find yellow scary…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

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