The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley

Poisoned chocolates??? Blasphemy!!!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Joan Bendix dies of poisoning, it’s quickly clear that the weapon was a box of chocolate liqueurs given to her by her husband. A clear-cut case, it would appear, but on closer examination there are a couple of problems. Firstly, Graham and Joan Bendix were happily married, so what would Graham’s motive have been? Secondly, and more importantly, he had had no chance to poison the chocolates – he had been given them by a man at his club, Sir Eustace Pennefather, that very morning. Sir Eustace himself had received them that morning through the post, so it appears that perhaps the intended victim was Sir Eustace. This would make more sense, since Sir Eustace has a shady reputation regarding money and women. The police find themselves baffled, so turn (as you do) to a bunch of self-styled amateur criminologists for help. Enter Roger Sheringham and the members of his Crimes Circle…

As Martin Edwards explains in his introduction, Berkeley wrote this to show how most detective fiction is carefully contrived so that each piece of evidence can have only one meaning – the meaning brilliantly deduced and revealed by the detective in the last scene. Berkeley does this by sending the six members of the Crimes Circle off to investigate in their own way for a week, after which, on consecutive evenings, one by one they give their solution only to have it destroyed the next evening as the new solution is put forth. It’s brilliantly done and highly entertaining, with a lot of humour in the characterisation of the members.

Of course, I spotted the solution straight away. So did all six criminologists, although each spotted a different one. Unfortunately, when my solution showed up in the very early stages of the book, I, along with the amateur ‘tec who proposed it, had to hang my head in shame as the others neatly demolished it, showing me that each of the clues I had carefully collected couldn’t possibly mean what I thought it meant. After that, I decided to resign as a detective and simply watch the rest at work!

Challenge details:
Book: 22
Subject Heading: The Great Detectives
Publication Year: 1929

They’re an intriguing and mismatched bunch, brought together simply because each has an interest in crime. Roger Sheringham is Berkeley’s recurring amateur detective, but it should not be assumed that that means his solution will necessarily be the right one – Berkeley apparently enjoyed making him get it wrong occasionally. There’s a famous and rather pompous defence barrister, a dramatist of the intellectual variety, a novelist who delves somewhat pretentiously into the psychology of her characters, a detective-mystery writer who thinks rather highly of himself, and a rather insignificant little man who is in perpetual awe of everyone else. Each approaches the problem from a different angle, and since they and the victims and suspects all move in the same social circles, several of them have the advantage of being able to add details from their own knowledge. I admit it – I was totally convinced by every solution they offered, which suggests I must be the detective-mystery writer’s dream reader!

Anthony Berkeley

While the cleverness and originality of the plotting are what make the book unique, it’s also well written and has a good basic mystery at its core. Berkeley might be having a bit of fun at his fellow mystery writers’ expense, and his own, but it’s not at all done with a sense of superiority or sneering. His affection for the conventions comes through clearly even as he subverts them and in the end it is fair play – there’s nothing to stop the armchair detective getting to the real solution except for all the delightful red herrings and blind alleys along the way. But is the real solution really the solution? For a bit of extra fun, the BL have included an alternative solution written later by another mystery novelist, Christianna Brand, and have enticed Martin Edwards to come up with yet another!

A most enjoyable read – light-hearted, amusing and clever, and fully deserves its reputation as a classic of the genre.

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Dickens at Christmas! The Battle of Life

How they did dance!

It’s been a roller-coaster ride so far with Dickens’ Christmas books – The Chimes, while good, was thoroughly depressing, and The Cricket on the Hearth, while delightfully uplifting, forgot to mention Christmas! So what’s in store for us, I wonder, in this week’s…

* * * * *

The Battle of Life
by Charles Dickens

Once upon a time, it matters little when, and in stalwart England, it matters little where, a fierce battle was fought. It was fought upon a long summer day when the waving grass was green. Many a wild flower formed by the Almighty Hand to be a perfumed goblet for the dew, felt its enamelled cup filled high with blood that day, and shrinking dropped. Many an insect deriving its delicate colour from harmless leaves and herbs, was stained anew that day by dying men, and marked its frightened way with an unnatural track.

Well, that’s a jolly start! Still, good to get the depressing bit out of the way early!

The Battle
by Richard Doyle

On the site of this ancient battle now stand pretty villages and prosperous farms, and over the centuries the old horrors have mostly been forgotten. Our story concerns two sisters, Grace and Marion, and when we first meet them, they are in their father’s orchard, dancing for the sheer joy of life and the entertainment of the apple-pickers…

They were very glad to please them, but they danced to please themselves (or at least you would have supposed so); and you could no more help admiring, than they could help dancing. How they did dance!

Frontispiece
by Daniel Maclise

This is Marion’s birthday and coincidentally also the birthday of Alfred, who has been the ward of their father but who today comes of age. He is to go off to study for three years, but it is understood by all that on his return, he and Marion will marry. But Grace, to whose care he entrusts Marion, is not to be forgotten…

“…when I come back and reclaim you, dearest, and the bright prospect of our married life lies stretched before us, it shall be one of our chief pleasures to consult how we can make Grace happy; how we can anticipate her wishes; how we can show our gratitude and love to her; how we can return her something of the debt she will have heaped upon us.”

But the course of true love never does run smooth – fortunately for us, since stories would be incredibly boring if it did. When Alfred returns three years later, it is to find the house in uproar and poor Grace having fainted away…

….‘What is it!’ cried Alfred, grasping his hair with his hands, and looking in an agony from face to face, as he bent upon his knee beside the insensible girl. ‘Will no one look at me? Will no one speak to me? Does no one know me? Is there no voice among you all, to tell me what it is!’
….There was a murmur among them. ‘She is gone.’
….‘Gone!’ he echoed.


Gone!
by Richard Doyle

* * * * *

I enjoyed several things about this, but it is a rather strange tale, not at all festive, and the central story left me totally unconvinced. The two sisters are the sort of drooping, too perfect girls in which Dickens specialises, and Alfred is the male equivalent. The mystery is, why has Marion gone? Has she run off with another man? Or is there some deeply moral and self-sacrificing reason behind her strange actions? Go on, guess!

Fortunately, there are several characters who are much more fun. Clemency Newcome, the maid, and her strange courtship by/of her husband-to-be provide most of the humour and the warmth that the central story lacks. The girls’ father, Doctor Jeddler, believes all human life is farce, though the events of the story will make him a wiser man (but less happy, which seems a pity). There are a couple of lawyers, Snitchey and Craggs, who are a good double-act and allow Dickens to make some pointed remarks about one of his favourite subjects, the law. Their wives, while only having small parts to play, add considerably to the entertainment value of the whole thing by their rivalry with each other. And the mysterious man who may or may not have seduced our sweet little Marion away from her loving family has enough moral ambiguity to make him a significantly more attractive hero than the good but insipid Alfred.

The Secret Interview
by Daniel Maclise

Why is it called The Battle of Life? Why all the battlefield and buried corpse references, some of which are quite revolting…?

On this ground where we now sit, where I saw my two girls dance this morning, where the fruit has just been gathered for our eating from these trees, the roots of which are struck in Men, not earth…

No idea! Possibly just so Dickens could make a point about war being a Bad Thing.

Yet not a hundred people in that battle knew for what they fought, or why; not a hundred of the inconsiderate rejoicers in the victory, why they rejoiced. Not half a hundred people were the better for the gain or loss. Not half-a-dozen men agree to this hour on the cause or merits; and nobody, in short, ever knew anything distinct about it, but the mourners of the slain.

But I really couldn’t see the relevance of this to the actual story. Oh well, not to worry – I enjoyed it anyway, and of course it has a happy ending! But I am hoping next week’s might have something to do with Christmas…

The Sisters
by Daniel Maclise

Festive Joy Rating:      🎅 🎅

Overall Story Rating:  😀 😀 😀 😀

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Dickens at Christmas! The Cricket on the Hearth

But where’s Christmas??

After last week’s surprisingly dark and unfestive The Chimes, I didn’t know what to expect from the next of Dickens’ Christmas books. But I was hoping for something a bit more cheerful for this week’s…

* * * * *

The Cricket on the Hearth
by Charles Dickens

The kettle began it! Don’t tell me what Mrs. Peerybingle said. I know better. Mrs. Peerybingle may leave it on record to the end of time that she couldn’t say which of them began it; but I say the kettle did. I ought to know, I hope? The kettle began it, full five minutes by the little waxy-faced Dutch clock in the corner, before the Cricket uttered a chirp.

Title page
by Daniel Maclise

We meet little Mrs. Peerybingle, Dot as she is known affectionately to her husband John, as she waits for said husband to return home from his work as a carrier. Dot is a young thing, very young indeed, and John is well into middle-age, but despite this disparity they seem an idyllically happy couple, especially now they have their own little Baby to make their lives complete. It is a scene of saccharin-sweet domestic bliss…

It was pleasant to see Dot, with her little figure and her baby in her arms: a very doll of a baby: glancing with a coquettish thoughtfulness at the fire, and inclining her delicate little head just enough on one side to let it rest in an odd, half-natural, half-affected, wholly nestling and agreeable manner, on the great rugged figure of the Carrier. It was pleasant to see him, with his tender awkwardness, endeavouring to adapt his rude support to her slight need, and make his burly middle age a leaning-staff not inappropriate to her blooming youth.

Domestic Bliss
by John Leech

The little house is blessed by having a resident Cricket which lives on the hearth and chirps merrily when all is well.

“The first time I heard its cheerful little note, John, was on that night when you brought me home—when you brought me to my new home here; its little mistress. Nearly a year ago. You recollect, John?”

Oh, yes! John remembered. I should think so!

“Its chirp was such a welcome to me! It seemed so full of promise and encouragement. It seemed to say, you would be kind and gentle with me, and would not expect (I had a fear of that, John, then) to find an old head on the shoulders of your foolish little wife.”

Caleb and Blind Bertha
by John Leech

But this contented little household is about to be shaken to its core. A stranger arrives who seems to disturb Dot’s usually cheerful state of mind.

It was a loud cry from the Carrier’s wife: a loud, sharp, sudden cry, that made the room ring like a glass vessel. She had risen from her seat, and stood like one transfixed by terror and surprise. The Stranger had advanced towards the fire to warm himself, and stood within a short stride of her chair. But quite still.

The stranger’s arrival disrupts the happy home and the lives not only of John and Dot but of several of their friends and neighbours. Will the Household Spirit in the form of the Cricket on the Hearth be able to restore harmony and joy to all?

* * * * *

First off, Christmas doesn’t feature at all in this one! Instead the day of celebration we’re heading towards is the first anniversary of the wedding of John and Dot, and the story focuses on marriages between older men and young girls. John loves Dot with all his heart and has done ever since she was a child. (I know, creepy, but it seems to have been relatively normal back in those times – look at Knightley and Emma.) The question that John belatedly is forced to consider is, can little Dot possibly love him in the same way, or has he been unintentionally cruel in persuading her to devote her youth to him? It has never before occurred to him that her heart may have prompted her towards a man nearer her own age. The stranger is the catalyst for this dark night of the soul for poor, kind, honest John, but to take the point further and show another side to it, Dickens includes another couple about to be wed where the age difference is even greater and the bride is being more or less forced into the marriage by her mother because the bridegroom is wealthy.

Boxer
by Edwin Landseer
(Rubbish illustration, Landseer! Boxer is a sweetie-pie,
not a reincarnation of the Hound of the Baskervilles!)

The story takes an age to start. It’s about three pages before that kettle mentioned in the first paragraph finally comes to the boil, and then we have to fight through pages of sugar-sweet descriptions of the happy little home before things take off. But once it gets going, it has all Dickens usual mix of humour and pathos, and some typically quirky and enjoyable Dickensian characters. John is lovely, and Dot grew on me after a shaky start. Mr Tackleton is the villain of the piece – the older man who is about to marry a young girl he knows doesn’t care for him in the least, he’s also the mean and nasty employer of the other two main characters, dear old Caleb the toymaker and his blind daughter Bertha. Plus there’s a lovely dog called Boxer who’s a great character in his own right, adding much fun to the proceedings!

He had business elsewhere; going down all the turnings, looking into all the wells, bolting in and out of all the cottages, dashing into the midst of all the Dame Schools, fluttering all the pigeons, magnifying the tails of all the cats, and trotting into the public-houses like a regular customer. Wherever he went, somebody or other might have been heard to cry, “Halloa! here’s Boxer!”

It’s novella length, with plenty of room for jealousy, self-doubt, sorrow, generosity of spirit, joy and, of course, redemption. I enjoyed it very much and was left feeling pleasantly uplifted. So despite it not mentioning Christmas, I reckon it still counts as appropriately seasonal, being full of goodwill and joy to all men (and women) (and dogs).

Happy ending
by John Leech

Festive Joy Rating:      🎅 🎅 🎅 🎅

Overall Story Rating:  😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

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Murder by Matchlight by ECR Lorac

Maybe it’s because they are Londoners…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s a cold winter in London during World War 2, with the blackout in full force and the population living with the constant spectre of bombing raids. One night, young Bruce Mallaig is sitting on a bench in Regent’s Park thinking romantic thoughts of the girl he loves, when he sees – or mostly hears due to the pitch darkness – two men near the little footbridge, one on the bridge, the other standing below it. While he ponders what they might be up to, the man on the bridge lights a match and Mallaig catches a glimpse of a face looming behind him. The match goes out and there’s a thud as of someone falling. By the time Mallaig fumbles his torch alight, the man on the bridge is dead…

Of course, this is the story he tells the police, but is it true? There was another witness too, the man under the bridge, whose story sounds less likely but possible. Inspector MacDonald of the Yard will have to decide if either of these witness could have done the deed, or had a fourth person been there in the darkness, unseen except for that brief glimpse Mallaig caught in the matchlight? But first MacDonald will have to identify the victim before he can try to discover the motive for the crime.

This is the third of ECR Lorac’s books that the British Library has re-issued and she’s now become one of my firm favourites. MacDonald is a likeable detective – a moral man but with the ability to make allowances for the moral weaknesses of others. He’s thoughtful and kind, Oxford-educated but doesn’t live in an ivory tower. He’s as likely to go to see the latest variety show at the music-hall as to attend the newest production of Shakespeare, and this stands him in good stead in this investigation, since it soon turns out the victim lived in a boarding-house full of variety performers.

The plot is very good, with plenty of motives to provide red herrings, and an investigation that relies on MacDonald getting to the truth the old-fashioned way – by interviewing the various suspects both formally and informally, while his team carry out the painstaking work of checking alibis and tracking people’s movements. That’s one of the things I like most about these books – Lorac makes it clear that policing is a team sport. While MacDonald has the intuition and insight to make assumptions about who might be lying or telling the truth, he relies on his hard-working and competent subordinates to get the evidence to support or negate his theories.

One of Lorac’s chief skills is in developing her settings with a great feeling of authenticity. This one takes us to the heart of the capital city during the bombings, and gives a wonderful depiction of the dogged Londoners picking themselves up and carrying on, with the kind of defiant resilience that was the hallmark of London’s (and Britain’s) war-time attitude. But she doesn’t shy away from showing that this spirit wasn’t universal – many people were scared, while some took advantage of the confusion caused by the destruction in less than legal ways. In fact, Lorac uses this confusion as part of her plot and gives a real picture of the bombed out areas of the city and the disruption which that caused, with people dispersed from their old communities so that suddenly neighbours no longer knew neighbours in the way they had before the war, allowing the unscrupulous to “disappear” into new lives, even new identities.

I also love her characterisation. The most vivid characters here are the variety performers, and as you would expect they can be a bit larger than life, and their quirky skills again play a part in the plotting. She doesn’t overdo it, though, so they still feel credible. But it’s the “ordinary” people she does so well – the old caretaker who looks after the boarding-house and does a bit of cleaning on the side, Mallaig, MacDonald’s subordinates. This is back in the period when authors used to assume that people who weren’t the baddies were good, and this is emphasised more here because, published in 1945, consciously or unconsciously it plays into the story Londoners told themselves to keep their chins up in the face of adversity: a story of plucky cheerfulness, neighbourliness and acts of heroism – a story they told so convincingly it became their reality. A heinous crime has been committed, with a motivation that might feel somewhat out-dated now, but would have resonated strongly at the time. But, despite the crime and the bombs, all will be well because London and Londoners will never allow Hitler the satisfaction of thinking he can give more than they can take. And with men like MacDonald in charge, London is in safe hands.

London 1944 – fighting Hitler one cuppa tea at a time…

Strong plot, good characterisation, plenty of mild humour to lift the tone – all-in-all, an excellent read that gives a real insight into the war on the Home Front, and the patriotic spirit that carried London through. Great stuff!

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

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The Moving Toyshop (Gervase Fen 3) by Edmund Crispin

Murder Stalks The University!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Poet Richard Cadogan decides he needs a break from routine so heads to Oxford. As he walks along a street at night looking at the window displays of the closed shops, he notices the door of a toyshop is open. His curiosity gets the better of him so he enters, but is shocked to find the corpse of a woman lying on the floor. Before he has the chance to leave the shop to report what looks like a murder, he is hit on the head and falls unconscious. When he comes round some time later he finds himself locked in a cupboard, but manages to make his escape and go to the police. However when they return with him to the spot, not only has the corpse disappeared but the whole shop has gone, and in its place is a grocer’s shop! Not unnaturally, the police have difficulty believing his story after this, so he turns to his old friend, the amateur sleuth and university professor, Gervase Fen…

This is one of those crime novels that goes way beyond the credibility line, but makes up for its general silliness by being a whole lot of fun. Due to an unfortunate mistake, Cadogan is soon wanted by the police for stealing from the grocer’s shop, so all the time he and Fen are racing round Oxford pursuing their investigations, the local police are racing around too, pursuing Cadogan! Fen tries to get his old friend the Chief Constable to call them off, but the Chief Constable is far more interested in discussing the themes of Measure for Measure – well, it is Oxford after all, where even the truck drivers read DH Lawrence…

He felt about him and produced a greasy edition of Sons and Lovers for general inspection, then he put it away again. “We’ve lorst touch,’ he continued, ‘with sex – the grand primeval energy; the dark, mysterious source of life. Not,’ he added confidentially, ‘that I’ve ever exactly felt that – beggin’ your pardon – when I’ve been in bed with the old woman. But that’s because industrial civilisation ‘as got me in its clutches.’

Challenge details:
Book: 49
Subject Heading: Making Fun of Murder
Publication Year: 1946

Fen is somewhat eccentric to say the least, and does his detection through a series of brilliant deductions well beyond the scope of us mere mortals, aided by large dollops of luck and coincidence. In fact, I can’t say I ever had much of an idea why exactly the villains had gone to such elaborate lengths to complicate a murder that should really have been pretty easy, but given their efforts to baffle and confuse, it’s just as well Fen is on hand to jump to the correct conclusions! He gradually involves his students as a kind of informal mob of enforcers, which might have worked out better if there weren’t quite so many bars in Oxford. Their ham-fisted efforts to help catch the bad guys add a lot to the farcical feel of the thing.

It’s very well written and full of humour. Cadogan and Fen make a great duo as they bicker their way through the investigation, filling in any lulls by playing literary games with each other, such as naming the most unreadable books of all time. (I was pleased to see Ulysses made the list, but was shocked that Moby-Dick didn’t get a mention!) It occasionally takes on a surreal quality when Fen makes it clear he knows he’s a character in a book…

‘Murder Stalks the University,’ said Fen. ‘The Blood on the Mortarboard. Fen Strikes Back.’
‘What’s that you’re saying?’ Cadogan asked in a faint, rather gurgling voice.
‘My dear fellow, are you all right? I was making up titles for Crispin.’

Edmund Crispin

As a little added bonus, I was thrilled to read the part of the book that inspired the brilliant fairground scene in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train – one of my favourite films, largely because of that finale.

A thoroughly entertaining read, and I look forward to improving my acquaintance with Crispin and Fen in the future. Highly recommended.

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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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Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit by PG Wodehouse

Brouhaha at Brinkley…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Jeeves returns to the old homestead after a short holiday, imagine his horror on discovering that in his absence Bertie has taken the opportunity to grow a moustache! Not everyone shares his distaste for the facial hair, though. Florence Craye, for one, thinks it’s simply marvellous. In fact, so enthusiastic is she that her fiancé, the beefy Stilton Cheesewright, develops a strong desire to break Bertie’s spine in four, or perhaps, five places. Only the thought that he has drawn Bertie in the Drones Club darts tournament and stands to win a hefty sum should Bertie triumph stays Stilton’s wrath. Bertie thinks it might be expedient however to retreat to Brinkley Court, Aunt Dahlia’s place, till the heat dies down, little knowing that he will soon find the place teeming with Florences, Stiltons, lovelorn playwrights, Liverpudlian newspaper magnates and Lord Sidcup, once known to all and sundry as the would-be dictator Roderick Spode. Will Jeeves overcome the coolness that has arisen over the matter of the moustache and rally round the young master in his hour of need? Or will Bertie find himself at last facing the long walk down the aisle into the dreaded state of matrimony…?

Wodehouse is on top form in this one, and I enjoyed meeting up with Florence Craye again – always one of my favourite Wooster girlfriends. She’s less drippy than Madeleine Bassett, less haughty than Honoria Glossop and less troublesome than Stiffy Byng. Were it not for the fact that she writes highbrow literary novels, I feel she would be a good match for our Bertie, but the poor man really prefers to curl up with The Mystery of the Pink Crayfish or suchlike.

I like B. Wooster the way he is. Lay off him, I say. Don’t try to change him, or you may lose the flavour. Even when we were merely affianced, I recalled, this woman had dashed the mystery thriller from my hand, instructing me to read instead a perfectly frightful thing by a bird called Tolstoy. At the thought of what horrors might ensue after the clergyman had done his stuff and she had a legal right to bring my grey hairs in sorrow to the grave, the imagination boggled.

Stilton’s jealousy gets a proper workout since, not only does he fear that Florence still has feelings for her ex-fiancé Bertie, but Percy Gorringe, a playwright who is converting Florence’s novel for the stage, seems to be mooning around after her rather a lot too.

PG Wodehouse

Meantime, Aunt Dahlia is trying to offload her magazine Milady’s Boudoir to a Liverpudlian newspaper magnate, Mr Trotter, so he and his social-climbing wife are in residence too as she hopes the wonders of Anatole’s cooking will soften him up and get her a good price. But when Uncle Tom invites Spode to Brinkley specifically to check out the pearl necklace he recently purchased for her, Aunt Dahlia is aghast. She has pawned the necklace to keep the magazine afloat till she sells it, and the pearls she is wearing are a paste imitation. Only Jeeves can save the day!

“…the core of the cultured imitation can be discerned, as a rule merely by holding the cultured pearl up before a strong light. This is what I did in the matter of Mrs Travers’ necklace. I had no need of the endoscope.”
“The what?”
“Endoscope, sir. An instrument which enables one to peer into the cultured pearl’s interior and discern the core.”
I was conscious of a passing pang for the oyster world, feeling – and I think correctly – that life for these unfortunate bivalves must be one damn thing after another…

Jonathan Cecil

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Jonathan Cecil who does his usual marvellous job of creating distinct and appropriate voices for each character – in this one he had extra fun with the Liverpudlian accents. His Bertie is perfect, and I love his Aunt Dahlia – one hears the baying hounds and distant view-halloo of the Quorn and Pytchley Hunts ringing in her tones each time she speaks.

Great fun – there’s nothing quite like spending a few hours in the company of these old friends to bring the sunshine into the gloomiest autumn day.

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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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The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

“Hell is empty!”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Clare Cassidy is writing a biography of the writer RM Holland, who was best known for his terrifying ghost story, The Stranger. So she’s happy to be teaching at Talgarth Academy, a school in Sussex which was once Holland’s home and where his study is still intact, giving Clare access to his papers. Clare uses The Stranger as part of her lessons, both for her school pupils and for the adults who attend her creative writing classes in school holidays. But when one of her colleagues is brutally murdered, Clare is shocked to learn that a piece of paper was found by her body containing a line from Holland’s story. And soon, as the plot thickens, it becomes clear that somehow the story holds the clue to the case…

Elly Griffiths is brilliant, and so is this! I’m tempted to leave the review at that, since the real joy of the book is going into it completely cold and watching Griffiths gradually build up some great characterisations and a truly spooky atmosphere. So, if you’re going to read it soon, my advice would be to stop reading this and avoid other reviews just in case.

* * * * *

Still here? OK, then! The book is told to us from three points of view – Clare, her daughter Georgie, and DS Harbinder Kaur, the detective in charge of the case. I found each of them a little off-putting at first for different reasons, but as Griffiths gradually developed them more fully, I grew to like them all – though not necessarily to trust them! In fact, as the saying goes, I trusted no-one – Griffiths left me happily in doubt all the way through as to everyone’s guilt, innocence, reliability as narrators, motives.

The pleasure of this one is not so much the destination as the journey. The three voices are distinct, and each is fun in her own way. Through Clare we learn a lot about the background to RM Holland’s story and the rumours that the school is haunted by the ghost of his wife. We also learn about her friendship with Ella, the victim, often through extracts from Clare’s diary. Georgie is a bright, intelligent teenager and her narrative shows her manipulating the adults around her by playing on their expectations of what a teenager should be like. Harbinder gradually becomes the star, however. Indian, gay and still living at home with her parents in her thirties, her sections are increasingly full of humour as the reader realises that her abrasiveness and sarcasm are really a kind of defence mechanism.

I loved the way Griffiths gradually fed us the story of The Stranger, which in itself is a pretty good pastiche of a real Victorian ghost story. But the spookiness doesn’t stop with it – the main story has some seriously goose-pimply moments, and at least two where I gasped out loud! Lovely Gothic stuff, with the old house and all the diary-writing and mysterious messages and other things I’ll leave you to discover for yourself. Even the investigation has a rather old-fashioned feel to it, with the emphasis on suspects, motives and clues rather than on forensics.

Elly Griffiths
Photo: Jerry Bauer

A great read, especially for this time of year. Griffiths is undoubtedly one of the most talented (and prolific) writers out there at the moment, and she shows here that she can step beyond the usual police procedural. I’ve seen a few reviewers say they hope Harbinder will get a series of her own. Much though I enjoyed her character, I vote no! I’m hoping Griffiths will continue to break free from the predictability of series and give us more standalones, complete in themselves, instead. Highly recommended!

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

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Maigret’s Revolver (Maigret 40) by Georges Simenon

Drinking like a fish out of water…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Madame Maigret is upset when a young man who had called to see Inspector Maigret steals the revolver Maigret had been given as a keepsake by the American police. Mme Maigret had taken a liking to the youth and is fearful that he may intend to take his own life. Maigret fears the gun may be used for different, more criminal purposes. Either way, he feels it necessary to try to track the young man down. But first he’ll have to find out who the boy is…

This is an enjoyable entry in the long-running Maigret series. The plot is rather light, though it does eventually involve a corpse in a trunk, but the characterisation is particularly strong, I felt. We see Maigret interacting with his wife more than in some of the others I’ve read, getting a good impression of how strong their marriage is, even if Maigret isn’t the most demonstrative of husbands. We also see them in the company of friends and this gives a more rounded picture of him as someone who has a life outside work. There is a femme fatale-ish female character, with the associated sexism of the day in the descriptions of her (and any other female character who happens along). There’s a rather pathetic character, who might be bad or might be mad or might just be terrified – I’m saying no more for fear of spoilers – but I thought he was very well depicted, and also gave an opportunity for Maigret to show his humanity.

What really made this one stand out for me, though, is that the story takes Maigret to London. Though he stays mostly in one location in the city, I thought Simenon did a good job of contrasting London and Londoners with Paris and Parisians, all with a touch of humour that lightened the tone and let us see Maigret feeling suddenly less secure in an environment of which he wasn’t as much the master as usual. He’s horrified by the strict licensing laws which prevent him from getting a drink in the mornings or afternoons, but happily this doesn’t stop him from putting away enough to sink a ship in the course of the day or so that he spends there.

When he finally does find the youth and the reason behind the theft of the gun, we again see the mix in his character of equal drives towards justice and sympathy – he is not prepared to overlook crimes but he is willing to listen to and understand the reasons, and to do what he can to help those he considers worth helping. But for those whom he considers truly wicked, then he has the patience to spin a spider-like web and wait for them to trap themselves.

Georges Simenon

Good fun. I’ve been reading these randomly – they work perfectly as standalones – and have only read a few to date. Although this isn’t the most exciting plot, I think it’s the one I’ve enjoyed most so far because I got a real feel for Maigret’s character, more than in my other choices, and as a result found I liked him more as a person.

I listened to the audiobook version narrated by Gareth Armstrong, who again does a fine job. He’s very good at giving different voices to each character, each with an accent suited to their class and position, and avoids the temptation to go overboard, especially with the female characters. Overall, an enjoyable book enjoyably narrated.

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A Voice Like Velvet by Donald Henderson

Whatever happened to cat-burglars?

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Ernest Bisham is a radio announcer, with the velvet voice of the title making him beloved by the many listeners who, back in 1944, get all their news from the BBC. His picture regularly appearing in the Radio Times (the BBC’s listings magazine) means that he is also recognised by the Great British Public wherever he goes. Which makes his second career as a cat-burglar even more risky! We follow along as he takes ever greater risks and comes ever closer to having his identity uncovered…

This is a crime novel in the sense that Bisham is a criminal, but there’s no mystery to solve and, although there are some tense episodes, it doesn’t sit comfortably in the thriller category either. According to the informative introduction by Martin Edwards, Henderson’s original publishers put it out as “a novel” under the name The Announcer, and it failed to attract much of an audience. It was his American publishers who changed the title and marketed it as crime fiction, cashing in on the success of Henderson’s earlier crime novel, Mr Bowling Buys a Newspaper (note to self: acquire!). I understand where both sets of publishers were coming from because, despite the obvious crime element, this is really much more of a character study of Bisham, and a rather humorous look at the oddities of life in the BBC at the time when it was Britain’s sole broadcaster and still finding its feet in a rapidly changing world. But it’s undoubtedly Bisham’s cat-burgling that gives the book its major elements of fun and suspense.

In general, I’ve never been much of a fan of the gentleman thief or indeed of books where the criminal is the hero. But I make an exception for Bisham – he’s an extraordinarily likeable chap and I enjoyed his company very much. He steals for the excitement rather than for monetary gain and has strict rules about only taking from those who can afford the loss and making sure he doesn’t take things of great sentimental value. He’s a bit like one of those birds who steal shiny things just to jazz up their nest a bit. The risk is everything and one gets the impression that for a long time he’s felt his life was so empty he wasn’t risking much.

But recently he has married again – a rather placid middle-aged marriage between two people each of whom were burned in their disastrous first marriages and are somewhat cautious about love as a result. A large part of the story is about this new marriage and whether he and Marjorie, his wife, will grow together or apart as they get to know each other better. It’s beautifully done, I must say – I was rooting for both of them all the way, even while I was laughing indulgently at their inner thoughts. And this marriage is making Ernest rethink his criminal activities, realising that now he wouldn’t be the only one who suffered if he is caught. But he finds it very hard to fight the temptation to do just one more job… or maybe two… and meantime the police are patiently waiting for the man whom the newspapers call the Man In The Mask to make a mistake…

I found this thoroughly enjoyable – one of those books you read with a smile on your face. It’s not at all certain how it will end, so that there is a steady build-up of tension especially once the police become involved. By that stage I was fully on Ernest’s side, and even more so on Marjorie’s – but I was kinda also on the side of the police, because basically I’m a law-abiding sort and the police detective was a nice chap too! Would Henderson be able to get me out of the moral dilemma he’d created for me? Well, you’ll have to read it to find out…

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

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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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Sleeping with the Lights On by Darryl Jones

Just when you thought it was safe…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Since I started reading more classic horror and revisiting some classic science fiction, I’ve come across Darryl Jones many times, as the editor of various anthologies and as the writer of entertaining and informative introductions for some of the Oxford World’s Classics series. So when I discovered he had written a book on the history of horror, I felt there could be no better guide to a genre in which I’ve dabbled but still don’t know well. Jones is Professor of English Literature and Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Trinity College Dublin.

The book is deceptively small, but it’s packed full of concentrated juicy goodness and, as I always find with Jones, written in an engaging and accessible style that avoids the tendency towards lit-crit jargonese so beloved of so many academic authors (and so hated by me).

It begins with a great introductory chapter that discusses how horror has been around since at least the beginning of written records. Jones then gives manageable definitions for all the terms used in describing horror literature – horror, terror, Gothic, uncanny, weird, etc., (a true boon for the struggling amateur reviewer!). He talks about how horror in popular culture reflects the anxieties of its time: fear of invasion, nuclear armageddon, climate change, etc. Along the way he cites zillions of examples from both books and film, and what I really loved about it is that the ones he cites are the popular and familiar ones, rather than obscure ones known only to specialists and hardcore fans. This meant that I had the pleasure of knowing enough of them to enhance my understanding of what he was saying, while at the same time adding loads more to my must-read/watch list. He gives a clear idea of where they fall on the spectrum, so that I found it easy to decide which ones would be too gruesome or graphic for my moderate tastes.

The following chapters are themed, again each packed full of examples. Starting with monsters, he discusses the origins of vampires and how they changed over time from aggrieved peasants into the aristocratic version of today, narcissistic, sexualised and romantic. Zombies originated as a response to plague fears, were later used as a commentary on slavery, and now, Jones suggests, as a response to extreme capitalism, especially after the crash.

Next up, he discusses the supernatural – ghosts and the Devil. I found this chapter particularly interesting as he discusses the modern (i.e. 19th century and on) rise of the ghost story as a response to the shock to the Victorian psyche brought about by Darwin’s evolutionary theories – a theme I’ve become aware of in so much writing of that era. Likewise, the modern surge in stories starring the Devil and his worshippers, he suggests, may have risen out of Catholic attempts to redefine evil for a modern age and of Protestant beliefs in impending apocalypse.

The next chapter looks at the use of the human body in horror, from werewolves and other forms of metamorphoses, through to pain, sadism and torture porn. Although this is the aspect of horror that appeals least to me – not at all, in fact – I still found the discussion interesting and was happy not to add too many new items to my to-be-read list.

Horror and the mind is much more my kind of thing again, and Jones takes us into a world of madness and asylums, with Poe’s succession of insane narrators leading the way. He discusses perceptions of madness and how they have changed over time – is madness a symptom of evil, or is it a social and political construct? He mentions the prevalence of highly-qualified fictional madmen and muses as to whether madness is seen as a symptom of intelligence or over-education. He talks about the double – for example, Jekyll and Hyde – and how this has been used to portray a fracturing of the individual. And he leads us on to the serial killer, perhaps a response to the terrors of the anonymity of suburbia and of fractured communities, leaving people vulnerable to victimhood.

No history of horror could be complete without the mad scientist. Jones takes us on a jaunt through the impact of Darwinism – Frankenstein, Dr Moreau, etc – and onto more modern iterations – the fear of nuclear holocaust, then evil machines, out-of-control androids and, most recently, the perils of artificial intelligence and the online age.

In his afterword, Jones looks at how horror is faring in the new millennium. Though he is critical of the tendency towards remakes of old classics, he gives many examples in both book and film of original horror arising from today’s concerns – the economic crash, the environment, the continuing racial divide in America, etc. He discusses the rise in popularity in the West of horror from Asia, particularly Japan and Korea, and hints that this is perhaps an indication of the beginning of the decline of American cultural domination. He finishes with a brief look at horror moving online, into podcasts and memes and creepypasta*– a word I had never before heard but am now determined to use at every opportunity.

(*Urbandictionary.com tells me that creepypasta are “essentially internet horror stories or a myth passed around other sites, to frighten readers and viewers”. The above image is The Slenderman, a creepypasta star.)

Overall, an excellent read – short enough to be approachable but with plenty of breadth and depth in the discussions. And with five million (approximately) titles for me to follow up on… isn’t that a truly horrifying thought??

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

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Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

A rose by any other name…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When John Durbeyfield is told by a local antiquarian that he is the last of the ancient family of D’Urberville, sadly decayed, Durbeyfield immediately puts on airs, much to the amusement of his fellow villagers. For John is balanced precariously on the line that divides subsistence from poverty and his all too frequent drunkenness ensures he will soon fall. But it is his daughter Tess who makes the mistake that will finally edge the family into destitution, so, from a sense of guilt, she reluctantly agrees to her mother’s suggestion that she should visit the D’Urbervilles, a rich family in a neighbouring town, and claim kinship. There she will meet the son of the family, Alec D’Urberville, and make another mistake that will affect the rest of her life…

On original publication, the book was subtitled A Pure Woman, signalling Hardy’s defence of his heroine against a society that judged the morality of a woman by her chastity. Did Tess succumb willingly to the seductive Alec, or was she raped? The question is left unanswered in the book, perhaps because society wouldn’t have differentiated – an unmarried girl who was no longer virginal had lost her worth, however it happened. Had Tess been less pure of nature, she may have been able to conceal her transgression and create a second chance for herself with the besotted Angel Clare, and we see her struggle with the temptation to do this. This reader willed her to do it, her mother advised her to do it, but Tess, pure to the point of idiocy, believed in a world of fairness, where men and women would be judged by the same standards – if she could forgive, surely she could be forgiven? Poor Tess!

….He conducted her about the lawns, and flower-beds, and conservatories; and thence to the fruit-garden and greenhouses, where he asked her if she liked strawberries.
….“Yes,” said Tess, “when they come.”
….“They are already here.” D’Urberville began gathering specimens of the fruit for her, handing them back to her as he stooped; and, presently, selecting a specially fine product of the “British Queen” variety, he stood up and held it by the stem to her mouth.
….“No – no!” she said quickly, putting her fingers between his hand and her lips. “I would rather take it in my own hand.”
….“Nonsense!” he insisted; and in a slight distress she parted her lips and took it in.

Written in 1891, the sexual theme of the book and the moral questions it poses seem daring for the time, and result in a rather odd combination of a feminist demand for women to be judged equally to their male counterparts, with a heroine described in such sexualised terms that it’s hard to see her as anything other than the embodiment of sex itself. Hardy condemns men for seeing women purely as sexual beings, while seeming to do the same himself. Tess’s lips, eyes, arms, figure, skin are all lusciously described, again and again, so that we are never allowed to think for one moment that any of the men she encounters are attracted to her mind. And yet Hardy shows he is aware of the effect on women of being viewed in this way when he has Tess wrap herself in bulky clothes to disguise her figure and cover her face with a shawl so that men will leave her alone.

Tess’s class plays as much of a role in her story as her gender. Hardy uses the device of her distant distinguished ancestry to show the deep hypocrisy at the heart of the British class system. First, we learn Alec is not really a D’Urberville – his family have bought the name and family crest to disguise their sordid background in trade. Then later, Angel feels that Tess’s claim to the D’Urberville name will somehow make acceptable what he sees, even in his passion, as an unsuitable alliance with a girl way beneath him on the social scale. Tess alone cares nothing for her ancestry – she is who she is and hopes to be loved for that alone. Poor Tess!

Nastassja Kinski as Tess in Roman Polanski’s 1979 film.

Hardy also shows the changes that are taking place in the agrarian society with increased mechanisation leading to fewer jobs and replacing the rural idyll (did it ever really exist?) with more brutal, distinctly unnatural methods of farming. Hardy’s depiction of rural life is wonderful in both its beauty and its brutality, in the wholesomeness of a life in tune with natural rhythms and the increasing soullessness of farming maximised for profit. First we see Tess as one of a group of happy milkmaids, forming deep natural connections with the cows they milk day by day, the cows giving more milk to the touch of the maid they prefer, and the maids singing the songs they know will lull the cows into placidity and greater yields. This is contrasted with a brilliant depiction of Tess – a child of nature if ever there was one – in a later job, battling with the giant threshing machine, racing to feed its insatiable maw, and being shaken to the point of illness by its vibrations as it belches its smoke over the field, giving true meaning to the phrase hell on earth.

….“Did you say the stars were worlds, Tess?”
….“Yes.”
….“All like ours?”
….“I don’t know, but I think so. They sometimes seem to be like the apples on our stubbard-tree. Most of them splendid and sound – a few blighted.”
….“Which do we live on – a splendid one or a blighted one?”
….“A blighted one.”

Although the book focuses almost exclusively on Tess, in many ways she’s a passive heroine, with that passivity forced on her by a society which gives women of her class only two options in life – motherhood or physical labouring – each attended by the constant fear of poverty and homelessness. For Tess, her beauty and the little bit of education she has gained at the new National School (run by the church for children of the poor) seem to give her a third option – to attract a man of a higher class and economic status. But that would depend on her finding a man who could see past her class, past her beauty, past her error, to the purity of her natural essence. Poor Tess.

Book 35 of 90

A wonderful book that asks many questions that are still relevant in today’s world. I enjoyed it even more on this long overdue re-read and am now fired up to re-read more of his books as soon as I can.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics. It includes an excellent introduction by Penny Boumelha, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, which of course casts considerably more insight on the themes of the novel than I’ve touched on here.

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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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Tombland by CJ Sansom

An England ripe for rebellion…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s the summer of 1549, and young King Edward VI is on the throne following the death of Henry VIII two years earlier. Since Edward is still a child, the guardians appointed by Henry have in turn appointed a Protector to rule in his stead, his uncle Edward Seymour. There is great poverty in the towns and cities while, in the farming lands of the north and west, landlords are enclosing common land for their own sheep, fermenting unrest amongst the smallholders and tenant farmers who relied on that land to eke out their own precarious living. Throw in the usual religious turmoil – the new Book of Common Prayer has just been foisted on a population tired of constant change and with newly developed religious opinions of their own – and an unpopular and unwinnable war against those pesky Scots, and the time is ripe for rebellion. It’s at this moment that Shardlake is summoned by his new patron, Princess Elizabeth, to investigate a murder of which one of her distant Boleyn relatives stands accused. And so he must head for Norwich, a city that will soon be at the heart of the East Anglian rebellion, led by the charismatic Robert Kett…

Generally speaking, when I see that a book has 800 pages I groan and run in the opposite direction. But with Sansom, I sigh and wish it was a few hundred pages longer. His ability to create an entirely immersive and believable Tudor world is second to none, partly because his own background as a historian means that the history is accurate. Sure, he manipulates it a little for literary purposes and he uses his imagination to fill in historical blanks, but he never strays far from actual events; and his characters are equally well and credibly depicted, whether they are real or fictional. Matthew Shardlake, as fans know, is a decent man with real empathy for the poor and disadvantaged, so it’s no surprise that this is a sympathetic portrayal of Kett’s Rebellion, showing him and his followers in a light that may be a little more idealistic than was really likely. But I bow to Sansom’s greater knowledge – maybe they did behave as well as he suggests – and I bow even more deeply to his skill in story-telling, because I was happy to buy into the idea of Kett as a principled leader and his followers as mostly disciplined and fair-minded men and women.

The bulk of the book is spent with the rebels, as Shardlake and his young assistant Nicholas get caught up in events. Nicholas is a son of a landowner, so has a different opinion from Shardlake initially, although his viewpoint is shaken as he is forced to witness some of the cruelties the poor are forced to suffer at the hands of the ruling class. Sansom uses him, though, to give the other side – to make the case for the landowners. Jack Barak is back, too, coping well after the events of the previous book. Being from lower stock himself, he is naturally drawn to the rebels, so with all three of the companions standing at different heights on the social ladder, it’s unclear whether their friendship will be enough to hold them together when the fighting begins.

Robert Kett at the Oak of Reformation
by Samuel Wale (c.1746)

The murder plot is how the book begins and ends, and it rumbles on as a background to the rebellion plot in the lengthy mid-section, but Sansom never allows it to be lost sight of entirely. John Boleyn, a landowner and distant cousin of Anne Boleyn, stands accused of murdering his first wife, Edith. Edith had left him and disappeared some years earlier, and he had eventually had her declared dead and married again. But now Edith’s newly murdered body has been found, displayed in a sordid fashion near John’s estate. Shardlake must find out where she’s been for the last nine years, and who, other than John and his second wife, might have wanted her dead.

The personal lives of the recurring characters are brought up to date, too. Jack’s relationship with his wife Tamasin is rocky, partly because she’s never forgiven Shardlake for the events in the last book (avoiding spoilers, apologies for vagueness). Young Nicholas is of an age to consider marrying and Matthew is concerned that he seems to have set his heart on a woman Matthew thinks is shallow and unworthy of him. Guy is old now and ill, and Matthew fears he may soon lose the man he considers his closest friend. And Matthew himself is feeling rather lonely. The old Queen, Catherine Parr, is dead and Matthew misses her more than a commoner should miss a queen. But he also misses his old servants, many of whom he had taken in as waifs and strays, and who have now grown up and left for lives of their own. So one of the things he wants to do in Norwich is look up his old maidservant Josephine, now married and living in the city. The last time she wrote to him, she was expecting her first child and he’s worried that it’s been some months and he’s heard no more.

CJ Sansom

This is another completely satisfying addition to the series, confirming again my belief that Sansom is the best historical fiction writer certainly today and perhaps ever. He tells his story in a straightforward linear way, without stylistic quirks or “creative” writing, relying instead on creating a great historical setting founded on in-depth research, a strong plot, and a group of brilliantly depicted characters who have all the complexity of real, flawed humanity. Shardlake himself continues to be one of the most appealing characters in fiction – irascible, often lonely, occasionally a little self-pitying, but intelligent, determined, dedicated, charitable and wholeheartedly loyal to those he takes into his generous heart. If I ever stand accused of murder, I hope I have a Shardlake to depend on. A great book in a brilliant series – my highest recommendation!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Mantle, an imprint of Pan MacMillan.

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The Gothic Tales of H. P. Lovecraft edited by Xavier Aldana Reyes

Fear, frogs and fungoids…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

“Shrieking, slithering, torrential shadows of red viscous madness chasing one another through endless, ensanguined corridors of purple fulgurous sky…”

I have an ongoing love/hate relationship with Lovecraft. When he manages to restrain his worst excesses, he’s the equal of any horror writer I’ve read and far superior to most, but when he gets into full “weird” mode, he seems to lose control and goes wandering off through chapters as long and tortuous as the ancient tunnels and buildings he describes. So the idea of some of his shorter, more Gothic tales collected in one volume appealed to me greatly. I’m happy to say I loved this collection – every story got either a four or five star rating individually, a rare occurrence that has happened to me only once before, as far as I remember.

There are thirteen tales in the collection, ranging in length from eight pages to forty or so. They are simply presented, without illustrations or notes. However there is a short but informative introduction by Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes, Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Film at Manchester Metropolitan University and a member of the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies. Reyes discusses how Lovecraft’s reputation as a major influence in weird fiction has led to his more traditionally Gothic work being somewhat overlooked. But Reyes points out that even in his weird fiction, Lovecraft often used Gothic concerns. Having read the stories, I’d say the reverse is also true – that his Gothic tales often include elements of his major weird works, particularly in the settings, the hint of unknown fears from something more cosmic than ghostly, and the idea of the degeneration of humanity, which recurs frequently not only in Lovecraft’s work but in that of many of his near contemporaries.

HP Lovecraft

Reyes also mentions Lovecraft’s well-known racist views. The stories collected here have been selected to avoid the worst of these. I’m not sure whether that’s the right decision – to get a real flavour of the man, unfortunately one has to be made aware of his views, since they underlie so many of his recurring themes. However, there’s no doubt in my mind that the less overtly racist stories are considerably more fun to read.

I cannot even hint what it was like, for it was a compound of all that is unclean, uncanny, unwelcome, abnormal, and detestable. It was the ghoulish shade of decay, antiquity, and desolation; the putrid, dripping eidolon of unwholesome revelation; the awful baring of that which the merciful earth should always hide.

But enough of the analysis! It’s all about the stories, of course! Here’s a flavour of a few of the ones I enjoyed most…

The Music of Erich Zann – I used this for a Tuesday Terror! post. Great stuff!

The Music of Erich Zann

The Alchemist – a young man is brought up in the castle of his ancestors by an old servitor. On his 21st birthday he is given papers revealing the family curse – each head of the family will die around the age of 32. Naturally, this thought obsesses the young man, so he sets out to find the reason for the curse and to reverse it if he can. Lots of Gothic in this one – the ancient castle with ruined wings, decayed aristocratic family, bats, cobwebs, darkness, curses and so on. And a nicely shocking moment when… nah! I’m not telling! And only ten pages… well done, HP!

The Moon-Bog – the narrator’s friend returns to his ancestral home in Ireland. At first all is well… until he decides to drain the bog for peat. This is also heavily Gothic but has touches of his trademark weird – the frogs especially are a delightfully Lovecraftian touch, but I shall say no more about them… It’s excellently written with some wonderfully atmospheric descriptions of the bog before and during the draining.

The Moon-Bog
by bealinn via deviantart.com

The Shunned House – an empty house, a nameless horror, and no Lovecraft collection would be complete without phosphorescent fungoids! This is straight horror, well-paced, and full of great imagery even though it’s written in plainer, more restrained language than usual.

The Strange High House in the Mist – this, I felt, was more clearly heading into weird territory though still with Gothic aspects.

In the morning mist comes up from the sea by the cliffs beyond Kingsport. White and feathery it comes from the deep to its brothers the clouds, full of dreams of dank pastures and caves of leviathan. And later, in still summer rains on the steep roofs of poets, the clouds scatter bits of those dreams, that men shall not live without rumour of old, strange secrets, and wonders that planets tell planets alone in the night.

It tells of a house in Kingsport, a fictional town in Massachusetts, and one of Lovecraft’s regular settings. It’s set high on an inaccessible cliff where the sea mists meet the clouds, providing a conduit through which pass things unknown to puny humanity. Until one man decides to ascend the cliff…

The Strange High House in the Mist
by tikirussy via deviantart.com

The book itself is gorgeous. The cover illustrations on back and front are embossed in what looks like silver, but seems to have different tones in it so that it takes on different colours in some lights. The print is clear and the paper is high quality, with a lovely thickness and weight to it. Given the Gothic theme, it would be perfect as a gift not just for existing Lovecraft fans but for anyone who enjoys Poe or MR James and hasn’t yet sampled the delights of weird fiction – a good introduction that clearly shows the crossovers between the genres. Of course, if you’re anything like me, you might prefer to keep the gift for yourself…

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

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Tuesday Terror! Monos and Daimonos by Edward Bulwer

I vant to be alone…

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

Monos and Daimonos
by Edward Bulwer

Edward Bulwer-Lytton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😱 😱

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Porpy Party!
A Prickle of Porpentines

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

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The Bravo of London (Max Carrados) by Ernest Bramah

Fun!

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

A criminal gang, led by the evil and monstrous Julian Joolby, have a plan to flood the money markets with forged banknotes. For Comrade Bronsky of Soviet Russia, this is designed to bring the financial systems of the corrupt capitalist West crashing to its knees. For Joolby and his pals, though, being, one suspects, corruptly capitalist, they just want to get rich. But before they can put their plan into action, they need to get the right paper for their banknotes from the sole paper-mill that supplies the Bank of England. They have a plan to get past the super-tight security, but they haven’t factored in Max Carrados, blind amateur detective extraordinaire, and his delightfully interfering niece, Nora.

The book starts by introducing us to Joolby and some of his gang, and I really wasn’t sure whether I’d stick with it. Joolby is evil indeed, but he also has some kind of physical disability that leads to his body being misshapen – a huge bloated upper half, perched on small weak legs. In tune with the time of writing – the book was published in 1934 – Bramah has no hesitation in mocking his physical appearance, describing him as so repulsive that people are repelled and disgusted by him. To add to this, Joolby has a Chinese assistant whose appearance and difficulties with English are also the subject of much light-hearted humour. My initial reluctance was lessened, though, once I realised that much of this was being done tongue-in-cheek, Bramah almost mocking his own mockery and stereotyping. In fact, he does later on suggest that Joolby’s wickedness may have developed in part as a response to the unkind treatment he has received from “normal” people, and Bramah redeems himself in other ways later on too, though I can’t be more specific without spoilers.

So I found the first fifty pages or so a bit of a struggle, with my own political correctness getting in the way of my sense of humour somewhat. But then the scene moves to Tapsfield, the small town which is home to the paper-mill, and the book becomes much more standard Golden Age fare – middle-class people, country cottages, tea on the lawn, a touch of romance. Max Carrados himself is too good to be true, so a hefty suspension of disbelief is required. His blindness has made all of his other senses more acute, so that he can pick up on all kinds of clues that sighted people miss. I believe he had a usual sidekick in the short stories he normally appeared in, but in this, the only novel about him, the sidekick role is taken on by his niece, Nora, feisty but feminine – a lioness when her young man is threatened.

The plot is silly but fun. In fact, fun is the most important feature of the book. I’m aware that my review hasn’t made it sound overly appealing, but that’s because I haven’t mentioned the humour. In Joolby’s world, Won Chou is the main source of comedy, and though at first it feels a bit cruel, as if we’re laughing at him, gradually it begins to feel as if actually we’re laughing with him at the other characters. Comrade Bronsky is delightfully amusing too – Bramah has a lot of fun with him at the expense of the still new communism of Russia. In Tapsfield, the maid Ophelia is comic gold – yes, I know it’s such a cliché to laugh at the lower orders, but again it’s affectionately done and she really is one of the stars of the show. And frankly, Bramah is just as wickedly funny about Ophelia’s employer, Miss Tilehurst, and her susceptibility to all things romantic.

Ernest Bramah

By about a third of the way through, I’d settled into Bramah’s style and from there on thoroughly enjoyed this romp. It’s very well written, with lots of great descriptions of the alleys and backstreets of the less salubrious areas of London contrasting with the idyllic rural scenery around Tapsfield. The baddies are bad and the goodies are good and there are one or two in between who provide a nice touch of moral ambiguity to add a little variety. If you can put aside your modern sensibilities and get into the spirit, then this is highly entertaining. After a rocky start, I ended up loving it!

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

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