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.

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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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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.

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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.

Amazon UK Link
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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.

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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.”

* * * * * * *

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.

* * * * * * *

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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The Long Arm of the Law edited by Martin Edwards

‘Allo! ‘Allo! ‘Allo! Wot’s going on ‘ere, then?

😀 😀 😀

Another of the British Library’s collection of vintage detective stories, this one takes us away from the amateur detective beloved of Golden Age authors and gives the downtrodden policeman* his place in the spotlight.

(*Yup, no female police officers, of course, in these older stories, so I’m not going to attempt to be pointlessly politically correct with lots of he/she-ing, etc.)

The book is informatively introduced by Martin Edwards as usual, plus he gives a little introduction to each story telling the reader a little about the author. He points out that although policemen were somewhat overshadowed by their amateur rivals, they were still there throughout the period, and not always as the simple stooge or sidekick.

The stories in these collections always tend to be variable in quality, and that’s the case in this one too, with several of the fifteen stories getting an individual rating of three stars (OK) or below from me. However, I also gave three stories four stars (liked it) while another four achieved the full five stars (loved it). Overall, that makes this one of the weaker collections for me, and I found I was having to plough through quite a lot of mediocre stuff to find the gems. Perhaps I’ve just read too many of these collections too close together, but my enthusiasm certainly wore a little thin halfway through this one.

There are fewer of the usual suspects among the authors, presumably because most of the well known ones who’ve shown up in previous collections concentrated on their gifted amateur ‘tecs. But Edgar Wallace is there, along with Freeman Wills Croft, Nicholas Blake and Christianna Brand, among others. There are several I haven’t come across before and one or two who I felt didn’t succeed quite as well in short form as in their novels (always bearing in mind I’m no expert and am comparing tiny sample sizes – often one story versus one novel) – ECR Lorac, for example, or Gil North.

Here’s a flavour of the stories I liked best:

The Man Who Married Too Often by Roy Vickers – an excellent “inverted” mystery where we know whodunit and the story revolves around how the police prove it. A fortune-hunting woman tricks a man into marriage only to discover he’s a bigamist when his wife shows up. Murder ensues. It turns neatly on a fair-play clue and a quirk of the law, and it’s perfectly possible for the reader to get the solution before it’s revealed. But I didn’t.

The Chief Witness by John Creasey – a story of secrets within families and their sometimes tragic consequences. A child lies in bed listening to his mother and father argue. Murder ensues. The motivation is a bit weak in this one, but the writing is good and it’s very well told, especially the opening with the child discovering his mother’s body. Plus I liked the policeman in this one – he’s one of those ones who cares about the people as much as the puzzle.

Old Mr Martin by Michael Gilbert – Old Mr Martin is a sweet-shop owner, much loved by generations of children to whom he often gives free sweeties. (No, no, it’s not what you’re thinking, I promise!) But even so, murder ensues. When he dies and his premises are sold, a body is found buried in the cellar. The police assume it must have been a previous tenant, because it couldn’t have been nice old Mr Martin. Could it? Again I liked the writing, and this one had an intriguing plot point based on how people sometimes disappeared without trace in the chaos of the wartime bombing of London.

Alastair Sim as Inspector Cockrill in the film version of Green for Danger

After the Event by Christianna Brand – easily the highlight of the collection for me, starring Inspector Cockrill whom I’d met before in Green for Danger. In this story, an old detective is recounting one of his past cases to a group of admiring listeners, but Inspector Cockrill keeps chipping in and stealing his thunder. During rehearsals for a stage production of Othello, murder ensues. Othello’s wife is strangled – that is to say, the wife of the actor playing Othello. The old detective charged someone for the crime but the accused got off. Cockrill then takes over to show where the old detective went wrong and to reveal who actually dunit. Lots of humour in this one, a nice plot with some good clues, and very well told.

So plenty here to interest vintage crime enthusiasts even if it wouldn’t be the first of these collections I would recommend to newcomers. (Capital Crimes, since you ask, or Miraculous Mysteries.)

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

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The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth by William Boyd

Light entertainment…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

William Boyd is one of my long-time favourite authors. Although I’ve always found him a bit hit or miss, when he’s on form he’s one of the best. As a novelist he tends to write long books, full of layers and depth and detail, and with wonderful characterisation. But I’ve never come across any short stories by him before, so was intrigued to see how his style would work in that form.

The stories in this collection are largely unconnected, though many of them have a common theme of artists who have experienced some form of failure in their professional or personal lives. To some degree, they’re mainly character studies, though each has a plot. They vary in length from quite short up to novella length and, for me, the longer they were, the better they were, so I guess that answers my question about his style suiting the format. There’s a lot of humour in them, some of it mildly black, and truthfully, not much depth. I found them enjoyable enough to read but rather disappointingly light – although I’m sure my disappointment is mainly a result of my expectations of him based on his novels.

However, the characterisation is great. Even in the shorter ones, he creates fully formed individuals, with enough background for each to explain why they are as they are. He also shows a lot of originality in both subject matter and structure – everything from a UN soldier in the Congo to an out-of-work actor carrying a mysterious substance on a trip to Scotland, and from a love story told backwards to a series of unsent letters. Here’s a flavour of some that I enjoyed most…

The Road Not Taken – the story of a love affair that begins with how it ends. It then jumps back through time, giving snapshots of the relationship at various points, and ends on the day the lovers met. The ending felt a little too much like a neat ‘twist’, perhaps, but otherwise I found this one very well told and quite moving.

Humiliation – One to frighten all of us reviewers, professional or amateur! A novelist’s career has foundered after a prominent reviewer trashed his second book. Having run off to France to lick his wounds, the novelist is at first horrified to find the reviewer is staying in the same place. But then he begins to see the possibility of taking a little revenge… Lots of humour in this one, and a feeling that Boyd might be taking a tongue-in-cheek pop at some reviewers who’ve been less than enthusiastic about some of his books…

The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth – the title story is novella length and tells of a young woman who is determined to do something creative in her life, but she’s not sure what. We follow her as she tries but fails to write a book, to act, to become a professional photographer, and so on. Again I didn’t feel there was much depth to it, and it just faded away at the end with no real resolution. But again humorous, and great characterisation – Boyd is one of the few male authors who I think creates really convincing women.

The Vanishing Game – an out-of-work actor is offered £1000 to take a jar of holy water to a church on the west coast of Scotland. But he quickly discovers he’s being followed, and begins to wonder what’s really in the jar. By far my favourite story, this is an old-fashioned adventure in the style of The 39 Steps – indeed, there are similarities as the hero takes to the wilds of Scotland in a bid to throw off his pursuers.

William Boyd

So in conclusion, for me, the collection doesn’t have the depth that makes his novels stand out from the crowd, but there’s still plenty to enjoy overall. A lighter read than I expected, very well written, of course, with the emphasis on humour for the most part and with some excellent characterisation, so despite my slight disappointment, I’d still recommend it for those times when one just wants to be entertained.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Books UK.

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The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories by Arthur Machen

Weird and wonderful…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a collection of those stories of Arthur Machen that fit into what would now be thought of as ‘weird’ tales. Normally when a book is titled after one story with the rest lumped under “and other”, my expectation would be that the title story would be the best of them. And indeed, I loved The Great God Pan, as you’ll know if you read my Tuesday Terror! post about it. But I was thrilled to find that many of the other stories in this book are at least as good, and some are even better. I’ve discovered a new favourite horror writer!

The book is edited by Aaron Worth, Associate Professor of Rhetoric at Boston University. He provides an informative introduction, which gives a brief biography of Machen’s literary life along with a discussion of his influences and themes, and of his own influence on later generations of writers. Worth also provides copious notes to explain any unfamiliar terms, or allusions within the text to other works, to mythologies, or to the preoccupations of Machen’s society. All of this richly enhanced my reading experience, reminding me once again that, great though it is to be able to download so many old stories, a well-edited volume is still a major pleasure.

Machen’s stories are set mainly in two locations, both of which he evokes brilliantly. His native Monmouthshire, in Wales, is depicted as a place with connections to its deep past, where ancient beliefs and rituals are hidden just under the surface of civilised life. His London is a place of dark alleys and hidden evils, with a kind of degenerate race living side by side with the respectable people, and often stretching out a corrupting hand towards them. Worth tells us that Machen was sometimes considered to be connected to the Decadent movement – Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, et al – although Machen himself disputed this. But there is a definite air of decadence with a small ‘d’ about the stories. Many have strong sexual undercurrents (never overtly spelled out – it’s the Victorian era) and paganism is a recurring feature. There’s also a frequent suggestion that the morally deficient are most likely to succumb to the forces of evil, and will often pay a horrible price for their weakness.

The Great God Pan
All the fabulous illustrations on the post are by mgkellermeyer via DeviantArt.com.

The quality of the writing is excellent – stylistically it compares to the likes of Conan Doyle or HG Wells. There’s a good deal of humour in it alongside some effective and occasionally gruesome horror and he’s a great storyteller. His descriptive writing is also very good. I particularly liked how he used London pollution effectively to give a strangeness to the city – his skies are purple, grey, dark, red, and the street lamps have to fight to shed their light through the dirty air. His Wales is equally good in what feels like a deliberately contrasting way. There, the air is clear but there are hidden things behind ancient rock formations – old symbols, and sometimes new symbols placed by ancient races.

The Welsh parts have a very similar feel to Lovecraft’s ruins – Lovecraft acknowledged his influence – but where Lovecraft opted for ancient malign aliens, Machen’s evil is all of earth, earthly. Worth reminds us that this was at a time when Victorian society was having to get used to the ideas that man had evolved from the beast and that the world was far, far more ancient than had previously been thought. Where Wells takes evolution far into the future in The Time Machine, Machen instead suggests that some of the ancient things of earth are still here, unevolved and unchanging. And that sometimes they might even live within us…

The stories range in length from a couple of pages to well over a hundred. I gave every one individually either 4 or 5 stars – I think that’s a first for me in any collection. Some of the very short ones are a little fragmentary, but each either tells a tale on its own or adds depth to the world Machen has created. Some are outright horror, some more an evocation of a kind of witchy paganism, some based more in reality. Marvellous stuff! Hard to pick favourites, but here are just a few of the ones I enjoyed most:-

The Shining Pyramid

The Inmost Light – this one features Dyson, who along with his friend Phillips, appears in a few of the stories, almost as a kind of Holmes and Watson of the occult. Dyson sees a horribly frightening face in a window and some time later discovers the woman of the house has died. The doctor at the inquest declares that her brain was inhuman, and Dyson investigates. This has some great London scenes and a decidedly demonic theme – Machen apparently subsidised his meagre earnings as an author at one point by taking on the job of cataloguing a library of occult publications, and used the knowledge he gained from that throughout his work. Excellently told and a very effective horror ending.

The Three Impostors – this is the longest in the book and in fact reads like a mini-collection of stories all linked by one major underlying one. It has a great mixture of humour and horror within the separate episodes, and again stars Dyson and Phillips. The main story is of an evil cult which sucks people in through exploiting their greed or weakness, and then either forces them to join or uses them as victims. But it’s really the minor stories that make this one special. My favourite of all, I think.

The White People – a story told by one man to another as an illustration that evil is an elemental force. It tells of a girl who from an early age has seen things invisible to others. She is introduced to old stories and pagan rituals by her nurse. This displays another common theme of the stories – female sexuality and its links to witchery, paganism and even Satanism. It’s brilliantly told and one can see its influence on both weird and witch fiction, and Machen’s siting of evil within humans rather than as an external force is particularly effective.

The White People

I could go on, and on, but I won’t. I’ll just say if, like me, you’ve managed to miss out on Machen up till now, I strongly recommend you make his acquaintance – a great collection.

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

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Tuesday Terror! The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen

Paganism and Victorian shenanigans…

First published in 1890, this is the title story in the new Oxford World’s Classics collection, The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories. It’s considered to be a classic of the genre, influential on later writers from HP Lovecraft to Stephen King. So I prodded the porpentine awake, and we sat down ready to be horrified, in this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2The Great God Pan
by Arthur Machen

Arthur Machen

‘I have heard myself called quack, and charlatan and impostor, but all the while I knew I was on the right path. Five years ago I reached the goal, and since then every day has been a preparation for what we shall do tonight.’

Clarke has been asked by his friend Dr Raymond to witness an experiment in his laboratory in far away Wales (Machen’s native land), the culmination of the work of years. He proposes to carry out a brain operation on his young ward, Mary, which, he claims, will allow her to look into the spiritual world closed off to our normal brains – to see the Great God Pan, as he puts it. Clarke isn’t so sure the whole thing is a good idea…

“Consider the matter well, Raymond. It’s a great responsibility. Something might go wrong; you would be a miserable man for the rest of your days.”
“No, I think not, even if the worst happened. As you know, I rescued Mary from the gutter, and from almost certain starvation, when she was a child; I think her life is mine, to use as I see fit.”

Crikey! I’m betting Mary’s thinking pretty nostalgically about that gutter round about now! Anyway, needless to say, it all goes horribly wrong…

…suddenly her eyes opened. Clarke quailed before them. They shone with an awful light, looking far away, and a great wonder fell upon her face, and her hands stretched out as if to touch what was invisible; but in an instant the wonder faded, and gave place to the most awful terror.

Le Faune by Carlos Schwabe.
Musées d’art et d’histoire in Geneva.

Poor Mary collapses, shrieking. When Clarke sees her next, three days later, she is lying in her bed, grinning vacantly. Fortunately, Dr Raymond manages to be quite philosophical about the whole thing…

“Yes,” said the doctor, still quite cool, “it is a great pity; she is a hopeless idiot. However, it could not be helped; and, after all, she has seen the Great God Pan.”

Oh, well, that’s all right then! This is all in the nature of a prologue. The story then jumps forward some twenty years or so and the scene shifts to London. Clarke has remained interested in the occult and makes a habit of gathering strange stories. These stories are relayed to the reader as a series of snippets or brief sketches with a variety of narrators. To the people involved these incidents seem entirely random at first. But after a while, Clarke begins to see a pattern emerging. His subsequent investigations take him into the dark belly of London’s seamy underworld, on the trail of a mysterious woman who has been connected to some of the strange and horrible events…

“I should be wrong in saying that she found her level in going to this particular quarter, or associating with these people, for from what I was told, I should think the worst den in London far too good for her. The person from whom I got my information, as you may suppose, no great Puritan, shuddered and grew sick in telling me of the nameless infamies which were laid to her charge…”

Fabulous illustration by sandpaperdaisy at deviantart.com

* * * * * * *

While the porpy and I weren’t exactly terrified, we thought this was a jolly good story. Mad science, that great love of Victorian horror and science fiction writers, mingled with paganism and a good deal of hinting at immoral and quite possibly unnatural sexual shenanigans, there’s also plenty of typically Victorian, fine descriptive writing, both of nature in the countryside and of the dark and gloomy streets of London at night. The Great God Pan is no cuddly pipe-playing faun in this one – he’s satanic, possibly in fact Satan, and we all know what happens to innocent young girls who fall in the path of that old cloven-hoofed goat. Being Victorian, we are spared the details, but Machen manages to get his meaning across. Of course, the woman is the one who succumbs to the dark pagan powers – but then the men succumb to the equally dark force of female sexuality. (They’re called Victorian attitudes for a reason…)

Combine that with Clarke’s familiarity with the seamy side of London life, where he cheerfully admits, with no attempt at concealment, “I have always been fond of diving into Queer Street for my amusement, and I found my knowledge of that locality and its inhabitants very useful.” Even worse, that he is there on the trail of a society lady who also likes to head to the lower levels to take her pleasure. No wonder it was considered pretty shocking at the time! (So disgusted were the morally upstanding Victorians, in fact, that it apparently shot to the top of the best-sellers list…)

Guillermo del Toro acknowledges the influence of the story on his film, Pan’s Labyrinth

It might be a little less shocking now, but it’s well told and one can easily see its place in the chain that links horror writers of different generations. It’s almost like a bridging link from the older ones, – the Gothic style of Poe, for example – through his contemporaries – his dark London having much of the feel of Stevenson’s Jekyll & Hyde – and onto those who followed, like Lovecraft, who acknowledged his debt to Machen. Great stuff, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the collection…

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by PD James

Festive felons…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

PD James was one of my favourite crime writers for many years, so much so that for a couple of decades she was one of my elite group of “must read on publication day” authors even back when this meant paying expensive hardback prices rather than waiting for up to a year for the paperback to come out. It’s been a long time though since I revisited her, so I was keen to see if her magic would still work for me in this collection. There are four stories in the audiobook, each quite substantial in terms of length. They were originally written as special short stories for Christmas editions of magazines and newspapers and cover a wide time period from the late ’60s to the mid-’90s. As one would expect, the quality is variable, but only within the range of good to excellent.

I listened to the audiobook version, with two stories each narrated by Jenny Agutter and Daniel Weyman, both of whom give excellent performances. There is also a short introduction, narrated by Agutter, in which James considers the differences between writing in short and long form, and discusses the place of the short story in the history of crime fiction. (I believe there’s a further introduction from Val McDermid in the paper book, but that’s not included in the audio version.)

The Mistletoe Murder narrated by Jenny Agutter, first published in 1995

A country house mystery with the traditional body in the library! This is told from the perspective of a first-person narrator, a war widow who is visiting her grandmother over Christmas while WW2 is still underway. An unexpected and unpleasant guest arrives and is promptly murdered. The narrator uses her status as a family member to uncover the secrets that led to his death. While very well written, I found this a rather uneasy mix of traditional golden age style with a storyline that felt too modern in its concerns to quite fit that approach. It’s also very dark and somewhat depressing for a Christmas story, I felt. Murder is always fun, but the war aspect and the bleakness of the motivation in this aren’t. I admired this story more than I enjoyed it.

* * *

A Very Commonplace Murder narrated by Jenny Agutter, first published in 1969

This is James at her best. Gabriel, a respectable middle-aged lawyer’s clerk, witnesses something that would be vitally important evidence in a murder trial. But since he was doing something he shouldn’t have been at the time, he finds himself reluctant to come forward. This is a deliciously wicked tale where we see Gabriel twist his conscience into knots to justify his actions – a beautifully constructed psychological study of a weak and not very nice man. James maybe goes a little far at the end, but I found this added the touch of melodrama the story needed to make it into a shivery chiller – perfect seasonal entertainment!

* * *

The Twelve Clues of Christmas narrated by Daniel Weyman, first published in 1996

The first of two stories featuring James’ long-running detective, Adam Dalgleish. In this one, Dalgleish is still a young copper with his name to make. He is driving through the snow to spend Christmas at his aunt’s Suffolk house when he is stopped by a man who asks for his help. The man’s uncle, the curmudgeonly old owner of Harkerville Hall, has apparently committed suicide, but Dalgleish soon finds clues that suggest it may have been murder. Again, James is trying to reproduce golden age style here and openly nods to Agatha Christie, as she also did in The Mistletoe Murder. This one works better in that the motivation is more appropriate to the golden age era, and it’s certainly entertaining, but for me it doesn’t have the depth that James achieves when she sticks more to her own style.

* * *

The Boxdale Inheritance narrated by Daniel Weyman, first published in 1979

Dalgleish is asked to look into an old murder by his elderly godfather, Canon Hubert Boxdale. The Canon’s grandfather died of arsenic poisoning many decades ago. His young second wife was tried for the crime but found not guilty. Now she has left the Canon some money in her will, but his conscience won’t let him accept unless he is sure she didn’t acquire it by murder. Again a much more traditionally James-ian story in this one, concentrating more on the psychology of the characters than on clues and tricks, though there’s some of that too. In the short space available, James hasn’t much time to develop a cast of suspects, so Dalgleish’s detection seems a bit too slick. But this is well outweighed by the storytelling and characterisation. Another excellent one to end on.

* * *

PD James

I found it interesting that I enjoyed the two early stories considerably more than the ones from the ’90s. This chimes with my feelings about James’ novels – that she lost her spark towards the end of her career and began to get too involved in ‘issues’ or general ‘cleverness’ at the expense of her real strength – excellent psychological studies. Her ‘gentleman detective’ also started to feel rather out of place among the more realistic police officers of modern crime fiction, and her later books felt somewhat anachronistic – almost out-dated. But she retained her story-telling skills throughout, and this shows through in the later stories from this collection too. Of course, even when she may have gone off the boil a little, a writer of the stature and skill of PD James was still head and shoulders above most of the competition. A thoroughly enjoyable set of stories overall, then, that would work just as well for newcomers as established fans.

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Foreign Bodies edited by Martin Edwards

Crime in translation…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Another collection of vintage short stories from the great partnership of the British Library and Martin Edwards, this one is different in that these are all translated. Many are from European countries but there are some that range further afield – Russia, India, Mexico, Japan. As always the book begins with a highly informative and entertaining foreword from Edwards who always manages to get the tricky balance between not enough and too much information just about perfect. Each story also has its own little introduction, where Edwards gives some information about the author and in this collection also about the translation. Some of the stories were translated earlier and have appeared in magazines or other collections, but some have been translated specifically for this collection and are appearing in English for the first time.

There are fifteen stories in all, and as always the quality is variable. There are “impossible” crimes, Holmes pastiches with a foreign slant, little stories that are just a bit of fun, dark stories that linger in the mind, stories that verge on gothic horror. For me, the collection got off to a pretty poor start – I wasn’t impressed by the first two or three and began to think I’d made a mistake with this one. But as it goes on, the stories get better and better, and some of the later stories are very good indeed. One of them in particular rates as one of the best crime short stories I’ve ever read. In the end, I rated 6 of the stories as 5 stars and another 5 as 4 stars, and there were only two that I thought were complete duds that didn’t really deserve inclusion on the basis of their quality, although I could see why Edwards had picked them – one for the author’s name (Chekhov), and the other because it plays on a classic of the genre. So despite the iffy start, this ended up being one of my favourites of these collections overall.

Here are a few of the stories that stood out for me:-

The Spider by Koga Saburo translated by Ho-Ling Wong. Japanese. Part crime/part horror and definitely not one for arachnophobes! A scientist built a tower where he keeps vast numbers of spiders for study. But one day a visitor to the tower comes to a sticky end. Our narrator is looking into events after the later death of the scientist himself. This is almost Poe-ish in style in that we learn what happened mostly from the diaries of the scientist – a tale told by a man driven mad. Those spiders have haunted me for weeks now!

The Venom of the Tarantula by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay translated by Sreejata Guha. Indian. Very much a Holmes pastiche and excellently done. The detective Byomkesh Bakshi and his Watson, Ajit, apparently appeared in many stories and I’d happily read more of them. In this one, an old man is driving his long-suffering family crazy – he takes a drug that makes him impossible to deal with and they don’t know how he’s getting hold of it. The solution is very Holmesian even if it’s a little obvious, and the story is highly entertaining.

Poster from the 2015 film based on the stories

The Kennel by Maurice Level translated by Alys Eyre Macklin. French. There is a crime here, a fairly horrific one too, but mostly this is a great little gothic horror story. A man suspects his wife of having an affair, especially when he finds another man in her room. She claims it’s all very innocent but things are about to take a very nasty turn. It has a darkly twisted ending that made me gasp aloud (and then laugh). The author apparently wrote for the Grand Guignol and this story is of that type – melodramatic, gruesome and lots of fun!

The Cold Night’s Clearing by Keikichi Osaka translated by Ho-Ling Wong. Japanese again – there’s something about the Japanese approach to crime fiction that always draws me in, and this is the story I referred to above as being one of the best crime shorts I’ve ever read. It’s also by far the darkest story in the book. A teacher is called out in the middle of the night to his friend’s house, where he finds his friend’s wife and cousin dead, Christmas toys and sweets strewn around the floor, and the couple’s young son missing. Beautifully written and translated, the author uses the winter snow, the dark night and the frozen countryside to create a great atmosphere of uncanny dread, and there’s an excellent puzzle to be solved too. I was blown away by this story – a little piece of dark perfection.

So some great stories in there that well outweigh the less good ones, and make this for me one of the best of these collections… so far! Highly recommended and I hope Edwards and the BL keep ’em coming!

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

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