Tuesday Terror! The Judge’s House by Bram Stoker

Asking for trouble…

The fretful porpentine and I were full of good intentions to read an Irish horror story every week during March as part of Cathy’s Reading Ireland Month. But then we were attacked by plagueophobia and you know what they say about the best laid plans! However, here we are, sneaking one in on the very last day of the event, and just as the porpy goes off into hibernation for the summer…

The Judge’s House
by Bram Stoker

Bram Stoker

Student Malcolm Malcolmson is looking for somewhere where he can study in peace without the distraction of friends or family, so he heads randomly for the little town of Benchurch. Putting up for the night at the only inn, the next day he looks around for a house that he can rent for a few weeks…

There was only one place which took his fancy, and it certainly satisfied his wildest ideas regarding quiet; in fact, quiet was not the proper word to apply to it – desolation was the only term conveying any suitable idea of its isolation.

Oh dear! When will people learn that isolated houses are never a good idea? You’d think the words of the house agent would have warned Malcolm…

“To tell you the truth,” said he, “I should be only too happy, on behalf of the owners, to let anyone have the house rent free for a term of years if only to accustom the people here to see it inhabited. It has been so long empty that some kind of absurd prejudice has grown up about it, and this can be best put down by its occupation – if only,” he added with a sly glance at Malcolmson, “by a scholar like yourself, who wants its quiet for a time.”

The good landlady of the inn seems to share that “absurd prejudice”…

“Not in the Judge’s House!” she said, and grew pale as she spoke.

This would be quite enough for normal people, but Malcolm pressed for more information…

She told him that it was so called locally because it had been many years before – how long she could not say, as she was herself from another part of the country, but she thought it must have been a hundred years or more – the abode of a judge who was held in great terror on account of his harsh sentences and his hostility to prisoners at Assizes. As to what there was against the house, itself she could not tell. She had often asked, but no one could inform her; but there was a general feeling that there was something, and for her own part she would not take all the money in Drinkwater’s Bank and stay in the house an hour by herself.

Naturally, this decides Malcolm, and paying the rent for three months in advance, he prepares to move in, reassuring the landlady he’ll be fine…

“… my dear Mrs. Witham, indeed you need not be concerned about me! A man who is reading for the Mathematical Tripos has too much to think of to be disturbed by any of these mysterious ‘somethings,’ and his work is of too exact and prosaic a kind to allow of his having any corner in his mind for mysteries of any kind.”

Yeah. Well. We’ll see.

Malcolm hires Mrs Dempster to “do” for him and she’s of a more prosaic turn of mind about the horrors of the house…

“I’ll tell you what it is, sir,” she said; “bogies is all kinds and sorts of things – except bogies! Rats and mice, and beetles, and creaky doors, and loose slates, and broken panes, and stiff drawer handles, that stay out when you pull them and then fall down in the middle of the night. Look at the wainscot of the room! It is old – hundreds of years old! Do you think there’s no rats and beetles there! And do you imagine, sir, that you won’t see none of them? Rats is bogies, I tell you, and bogies is rats; and don’t you get to think anything else!”

Hmm, personally I’m not sure Malcolm wouldn’t be better off with bogies than rats and beetles! Especially when it’s late at night and he’s all alone in the dark, and suddenly all the noise of scampering rats behind the wainscot ceases and in the sudden silence he looks up from his books…

There on the great high-backed carved oak chair by the right side of the fireplace sat an enormous rat, steadily glaring at him with baleful eyes. He made a motion to it as though to hunt it away, but it did not stir. Then he made the motion of throwing something. Still it did not stir, but showed its great white teeth angrily, and its cruel eyes shone in the lamplight with an added vindictiveness.

Ooh, I say! But is the rat simply a rat? Or is it something more malevolent, something to do with the picture of the old judge hanging on the wall? And why does the rat always run up the rope that hangs down from the alarm bell in the roof?

“It is,” said the doctor slowly, “the very rope which the hangman used for all the victims of the Judge’s judicial rancour!”

And yet still our brave but foolish hero is determined to stay in the house…

* * * * *

Goodness, this is a good one! The porpy and I were proper scared, both by the rats and by the… other stuff! It has touches of humour in the early stages but it gradually descends into something very dark indeed. A warning to us all not to rent a house that’s full of rats… or the ghosts of hanging judges…

If you’re brave enough to want to read it, here’s a link…

NB The two great illustrations are by Walt Sturrock.

It’s a fretful porpentine!

Fretful porpentine rating:   😱 😱 😱 😱 😱

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Tuesday Terror! The Invisible Eye by Erckmann-Chatrian

A varied collection…

Erckmann-Chatrian was the name used by Émile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian, a French writing duo of the 19th century who were very well known at the time for their tales of supernatural horror and are apparently still well respected in their region. The lack of availability in English language publications for decades means they are rather less well known over here now, and this new anthology, edited and introduced by Hugh Lamb, intends to put that right. There are sixteen stories in the collection, some ghost stories, some of more natural horrors, and some showing the horrors of purely human evil. Overall they often have a folk tale feel to them, which perhaps isn’t too surprising since they came from the Lorraine region and set many of their stories across the border in the German Black Forest region, with its strong tradition of folk tales. They feel almost like a bridge between those older tales and the newer horror that would develop towards the later decades of the 19th and early 20th century, and Lamb tells us that many writers, such as MR James and HP Lovecraft, paid tribute to their influence.

As always with collections, I found the standard of the stories, or perhaps my reaction to them, variable, and in this one unfortunately I found the later stories weaker than the earlier ones which meant that my enthusiasm for the collection lessened towards the end. However looking back at my individual ratings, I see I gave five of the stories 5 stars, while another four got 4 stars, and the rest all came in at three, including most of the last half dozen or so. I suspect this is partly due to the stories being less good, but also partly that I had simply got a bit bored with their style. This is probably a collection that is better to dip in and out of rather than reading all at once. They also vary in length from quite short to novella-length, and with one exception I felt the longer stories worked less well – often the conclusion was fairly obvious and it seemed to take a long time to get there.

The good stories are very good, however, and make the collection well worth reading. Sometimes quite dark and chilling, there are others that are mostly done for humour and these often worked best for me. I also enjoyed the more fairy-tale ones – legends of curses, full of woodcutters, witches and wolves and all the traditional stalwarts of early horror. Here’s a flavour of a few of the ones I enjoyed most:

The Burgomaster in Bottle – done as a previous Tuesday Terror! post, part horror, part humour, and a deliciously wicked warning to consider where the grapes came from that went into the wine you’re drinking…

The Crab Spider – very well told, a tale of the horrors that nature sometimes gives us. Unfortunately this has an outdated and disparaging portrayal of a black woman which makes it less enjoyable for a modern reader, but if you can overlook that, then it’s delightfully scary, especially for arachnophobes.

The Child-Stealer – this is a very dark and disturbing story, with the clue in the title. Full of gore and no happy ending, this is human evil at its worst with no supernatural element to it. But it’s excellently told and very effective.

The Wild Huntsman – this is novella-length and perhaps a little longer than it needs to be, but it’s an excellent example of the duo at their most folk-tale-ish. It tells of a young painter who begs lodgings from an old man, gamekeeper on the local estate, who has a lovely young granddaughter. But when the young girl falls into a coma, the old man tells the tale of the curse that has haunted his family since the days when a robber baron spread terror throughout the land, helped by the old man’s ancestor, the wild huntsman of the title. Great descriptive writing of the forest and mountains, and while it has many familiar aspects from older folktales it also manages to feel fresh and original.

Emile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian

So plenty to enjoy and hopefully those examples will have given a hint of the variety in the content of the stories. Despite my lower rating of the later stories, I enjoyed the collection overall both for itself and for the interest of reading stories from authors outside the usual British/American bubble in which I live in terms of horror. Recommended.

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

This is the porpy’s French cousin.
Did you know that the French for porcupine
is porc-épic? So sweet…

Fretful porpentine rating:  😮 😮 😮  

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀

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The Mystery of Cloomber by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Those mysterious Orientals…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a new neighbour moves into the long vacant Cloomber Hall, our narrator John Hunter West and his father and sister are keen to make their acquaintance, since their estate in Wigtownshire, in Scotland’s southwestern corner, doesn’t afford much in the way of society. But they soon discover that the new tenant, Major Heatherstone, has an almost morbid aversion to company, preferring to keep himself and his family safely behind the new fences and gates he has installed all round the property. Youth finds ways to overcome these problems, however, and John and his sister, Esther, are soon romantically involved with the Major’s daughter, Gabriel, and son, Mordaunt, respectively. John soon learns that the Major’s reclusive habits are because he lives in constant fear, but of what he won’t reveal. However, his children tell the Wests that the Major’s fears intensify every year on October 5th, and then lessen once that date is safely past. This year, however, just a few days before the 5th, a terrible storm blows up and a ship is wrecked off the coast. The survivors include three mysterious men from the East – Buddhist mystics – and when Major Heatherstone hears of this, his fears reach new heights…

The narrator is writing this as a kind of statement to explain the events that follow, and includes various accounts given in the words of witnesses. This gives Conan Doyle the chance to use some Scottish dialect and he does it very well, making it sound very authentic while keeping it clear enough for non-Scots to understand. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing him in Scots mode, since mostly, like most Scots authors, he wrote in standard English to please the much larger English reading public. Most of this is in standard English too, but the dialect and locations give it a Scottish appeal.

In structure, it’s reminiscent of some of the longer Sherlock Holmes stories, in that it tells firstly of what happens in the present and then takes us back to the past to explain the reasons behind the events. It’s pretty clear from early on that the Major’s fears relate to something that he did when he was a serving officer in the Army. Conan Doyle was writing for a contemporary audience who would have been familiar with the campaigns the Major was involved in, but I must admit it took me a bit of time to work out where exactly he was. The Buddhists and the references to Sanskrit scholarship convinced me we were in India, as did the fact that the Major was leading troops including Sepoy soldiers. But there are references to Afghanistan too and John West tells us that the earlier events took place during the first Afghan War. It appears that they took place just over the border, where it was geographically Afghanistan but culturally still very similar to India, and the Indian troops were serving as part of the British Army in that war.

Conan Doyle was always interested in the mystical side of life even before he became so heavily involved in spiritualism, and this book is a real example of the then prevalent opinion of Eastern peoples as having mystical powers unknown to us in the West. There are lots of racial stereotypes and some unfortunate terminology, including use of the n-word, but if you can see past this, in fact Conan Doyle is expressing an admiration for a culture which he portrays as far more spiritually advanced than our own. He doesn’t overtly criticise the behaviour of the Brits in general, but he does show that the imperial belief in our racial superiority led some to commit acts that he in his time, like we in ours, would see as atrocities. His portrayal of the Buddhists is an intriguing insight into the mixture of fascination and fear that the mysterious people of the Orient held for Victorian Britain.

There’s mystery here, but there’s also a generous dollop of horror and very effective it is too! The start is a little slow, but once it gets going it becomes a real page-turner, full of tension as we see the Major haunted by his fears, and then drama as we reach the climax. The concluding section where we learn of the earlier events has its own different kind of horror, as we read the Major’s own diary account of what happened in Afghanistan. Great stuff, up there with the level of the Holmes’ long stories, and I’m at a loss as to why it’s not better known. Perhaps the outdated racial terms have made it fall out of favour, but I do think it’s worth making the effort to see them in their context and look more deeply at the underlying criticism of British imperialist attitudes implied in the story. Another example of wonderful storytelling from the master – highly recommended!

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Tuesday Terror! The Weird Tales of William Hope Hodgson

“…always be ready before the dark comes.”

I came across William Hope Hodgson for the first time last year when I read one of his stories, The Derelict, in another anthology and thought it was wonderfully weird and truly horrific. So I was thrilled when the British Library brought out this collection of ten of his stories, giving me an opportunity to get to know him better. I’m happy to report that he has lived up to my hopes – I thoroughly enjoyed every story in the collection, with the majority getting the full five stars.

I’m still fairly new to weird fiction, so certainly no expert. But the authors of whom I’ve read most seem each to develop a kind of overarching mythology in which they set most of their tales. The most famous of these is HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, full of ancient forces, Elder Gods and sometimes alien beings. It seems to me that Hodgson, writing a decade or two earlier, must have had some influence on Lovecraft, and the usual informative introduction, this time by Xavier Aldana Reyes, tells us that Lovecraft described him as ‘second only to Algernon Blackwood in his serious treatment of unreality’. I haven’t read enough Blackwood to confirm or argue with that, but my limited reading would put Hodgson third in the ranks of the weird greats, not far behind Lovecraft himself and Arthur Machen. Hodgson’s use of language isn’t nearly as lavishly spectacular as Lovecraft’s, but he does have one advantage as far as I’m concerned, in that he’s mastered the art of being succinct!

The stories collected here fall into two main categories. Many of them are set on the sea, making full use of the forces of nature, the isolation of the wide expanses of the oceans, and man’s ignorance, especially over a century ago, of what may be lurking in the deeps. Some of these use ‘natural’ horrors, such as monstrous squids or sea-serpents, while others have a supernatural element of the ghostly apparition variety, and yet others cross over into definite ‘weird’ territory. (Reyes defines ‘weird’ fiction as ‘a subgenre of speculative fiction concerned with the limits of human experience and the unknowability of the natural world that brings together elements of the horror, science fiction and fantasy literary traditions’.)

Hodgson’s own ‘mythos’ seems to be of forces beyond the understanding of puny humanity (puny humanity is a definite feature of weird fiction) which can channel themselves into inanimate matter, making it animate. He develops this more clearly in his second category of stories: those about Carnacki, a psychic investigator, who tackles all kinds of strange occurrences using the knowledge he has gained from the study of ancient texts (another recurring feature of weird). Carnacki talks of the ‘Outer Monstrosities’, psychic forces held in gases circling the planet far away which sometimes come to Earth to generally wreak havoc. The Carnacki stories take the form of him recounting his adventures to a group of friends as a kind of after-dinner entertainment. There’s quite a lot of repetition in how Carnacki goes about his work – lots of gadgets and harnessing of the powers of pentagrams and stuff – but there is a lot of originality in the horrors he faces, from a haunting by a horse, to an evil hog-like creature, to a mysteriously terrifying whistling room.

I often look at other reviews on Goodreads, and it seems as if I’m more enthusiastic about Hodgson than many of the other reviewers. Reading more closely, this often seems to be because the reviewer is comparing him unfavourably to Lovecraft, the undoubted master of the genre. I have mixed feelings about Lovecraft’s weirdest stuff, sometimes loving it but sometimes finding it too long and repetitive, and getting totally annoyed with his repeated assertion that the horrors his characters face are ‘indescribable’. Happily for me, Hodgson describes his horrors, perhaps with fewer adjectives but certainly with more clarity. So as always, it’s all subjective. Subjectively, here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most:

The Gateway of the Monster – I reviewed this in a previous Tuesday Terror! post.

The Horse of the Invisible – a Carnacki story. An old family legend has it that the first-born daughter will be haunted by a horse on announcing her betrothal. Carnacki is called in when it seems to be coming true for the current daughter of the house, A nice blend of human wickedness and supernatural evil in this one.

The Derelict – blown off course by a wild storm, the narrator’s ship comes across an ancient derelict ship and he and a couple of others go aboard her just out of interest. Bad move! This one is an introduction to Hodgson’s theme that there is a life force that can give inanimate objects a kind of intelligence. Some fantastic horror imagery, and I liked that the hero turns out to be the uneducated Captain, using his skills and experience when the brains and nerves of his ‘intellectual superiors’ fail.

The Riven Night – another sea story, this time of a strange light that appears in the starless darkness of night and draws the ship towards it. There’s a kind of mystical, almost religious edge to this one, as each man sees something different in the light according to his own experiences. Again, excellent imagery, and perhaps more thought-provoking than some of the other stories.

The Whistling Room – another Carnacki tale. A man buys an old Irish castle, not believing the rumours that one of the rooms is haunted by a mysterious whistling. Bad move! This is a kind of mash-up between a straight haunting and Hodgson’s running weird theme, and works very well. It also has an explanation for the haunting which many of the stories don’t – an intriguing tale of revenge. Very well told, despite the rather mystical babble in which Carnacki sometimes indulges.

Great stuff! I do hope the BL continues to do for ‘forgotten’ horror what they’ve done so well for vintage crime.

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

* * * * * * * * *

The porpy found some of these stories pretty scary!

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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Tuesday Terror! Late Victorian Gothic Tales edited by Roger Luckhurst

Stories from the top tier…

This is a collection of twelve stories from some of the greatest writers of Gothic, all first published in the 1890s. Many of them are very well known – indeed, several of them have already been highlighted in my Tuesday Terror! slot – and I suspect that most or all of them are probably available to read online. But the joy of an anthology like this one is the expert guidance provided by the editor, first in selecting and organising the stories in a way that allows the reader to see how the genre connects and flows, and then in providing an informative introduction and notes.

The editor of this one is Roger Luckhurst, whom I first encountered as the editor of a Lovecraft collection a few years ago, sparking my interest in Lovecraft in particular and weird fiction in general. I was later happy to encounter him again as the editor of HG Wells’ The Time Machine, when his introduction put that book into its literary and historical context for me, adding a great deal to my understanding and enjoyment of it. So I knew I’d be in safe hands with this collection.

Luckhurst tells us that there have been three main waves of Gothic writing, in the 18th century, then again in the late Victorian period, and now, with the likes of Stephen King reviving the genre. Each wave made it anew, though, influenced by contemporary concerns as well as by other styles and movements in the literary world of their time. He talks about the crossover in the late Victorian era between the styles of Gothic and Decadence, and about the influence on the genre of anxieties over colonialism, the growth of science and pseudo-sciences, spiritualism and psychic research, and so on. All of this means that the stories in a sense stop being merely individual entertainments and instead become part of something larger: part of the contemporary literature that casts light on its society and in turn influences it. As always, I found his introduction both informative and enjoyable, happily free of the academic jargon that can sometimes infest these things and therefore accessible to any interested reader.

But what of the stories, I hear you ask? I gave five of them five stars, another five got four stars, and the remaining two got 3½ each, so a very high standard overall. As it should be, given that most of them are from top tier writers. There’s Henry James and Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Machen and Oscar Wilde, and two from my old friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Then there are several names that were new to me, though I gather from the intro that they would be familiar to real aficionados – Vernon Lee, BM Croker, Grant Allen and MP Shiels. A further two from Jean Lorrain take us over to France and into the heart of the Decadent style. Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most – the titles link through to my earlier TT posts, where applicable:

The Case of Lady Sannox

Lot No. 249 by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – A story about a mummy brought back to life, with lots of Gothic features and some genuinely creepy moments, and of course ACD’s wonderfully easy writing style. Did you know he was the first person to create a story about a mummy being brought back to life for evil purposes? No, neither did I…

The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen – Mad science, that great love of Victorian horror and science fiction writers, mingled with paganism and a good deal of hinting at immoral and quite possibly unnatural sexual shenanigans, there’s also plenty of typically Victorian, fine descriptive writing, both of nature in the countryside and of the dark and gloomy streets of London at night. A kind of bridging link between traditional Gothic and the later weird horror of the likes of Lovecraft.

The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor by BM Croker – a fairly standard ghost story, but given added interest by its setting in colonial India and two delightfully refreshing heroines in Nellie and Julia. No swooning damsels these – they enjoy their lives, they don’t fear this vast, strange land, assuming that their British superiority will protect them from all dangers, and they’re ripe for adventure. But they’re not expecting ghostly visions in the middle of the night – that’s a little too much even for them!

Magic Lantern by Jean Lorrain – a fin-de-siècle Decadent story from France. This is a satire on society, quite funny and very well done. Two men at the opera – one accusing the other, a scientist, of removing all the fantasy from the world, including Gothic horror. The scientist then tells the first man tales of the audience members around them, showing that humanity can be as horrific as anything in the supernatural…

Sir Edmund Orme by Henry James – Our narrator becomes fascinated by a mother and daughter, Mrs Marden and Charlotte, because of what he feels is their peculiarly strong concern for each other. Then, as he finds himself falling in love with Charlotte, the narrator begins to see a strange man, who never speaks, and his appearances seem to coincide with Mrs Marden’s “episodes”. A strange and unsettling story, and I found aspects of it rather cruel, but it’s certainly effective.

Others I’ve previously included as Tuesday Terror! posts are The Case of Lady Sannox and The Mark of the Beast.

An excellent collection, especially for a relative newcomer to the genre since it includes some of the very best, but the introduction and notes make it a great choice too for people who may already know some of the stories but would like to know more about their context. Highly recommended.

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

Fretful porpentine rating:  😮 😮 😮 😮 😮 

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s a fretful porpentine!

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It Walks By Night by John Dickson Carr

Deliciously decadent…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Young Jeff Marle has been summoned to Paris by an old friend of his father: the legendary detective Henri Bencolin, director of the Paris police. Bencolin has a peculiar case on his hands and feels Jeff may be interested in observing his methods. So Jeff becomes our “Watson”, and it’s through his eyes that we see the great detective at work. The case involves a madman – perhaps these days we would say psychopath – Alexandre Laurent, who was locked up after trying to kill his young and beautiful wife, Louise. That wife, her first marriage annulled, is now about to get married again, to the famous all-round sporting legend, Raoul de Saligny. But Laurent has escaped and rumour has it that he may have visited a plastic surgeon to change his appearance. He has sent a letter warning Raoul not to marry Louise and Bencolin fears that he will turn up in Paris, bent on killing Raoul and possibly Louise too. On the night of their wedding day, Raoul, Louise and the wedding party go to a fashionable gambling house, and Bencolin has his men there in force to guard them. But Laurent has the true cunning intelligence of the madman…

This is Carr’s first mystery novel, and my first introduction to his work. I thought it was totally marvellous! There are a couple of plots weaknesses, some moments where you have to take a deep breath and just let your suspension of disbelief have full rein, and it occasionally goes over the top into high melodrama. But the writing is great, and Carr creates a wonderfully creepy, almost hallucinatory atmosphere of horror and tension. In fact, it seemed to me draw as much, if not more, on the tradition of the Decadent horror writing of the fin de siècle period as on the mystery conventions of the Golden Age.

Published in 1930 and set in Paris, it offers a darker take on the “lost generation” of that time – of those living after one devastating war and seeing the approaching inevitability of another on the horizon. There is a great sense of amorality, of sensuous egoism, of a kind of cruelty of empty friendships and brutal infidelities. Drugs and drink play their part in the glittering hopelessness of the characters’ lives, and even in Jeff’s observations. One scene, where he has dinner with a young woman caught up in the case, is a masterpiece of fear heightened by the befuddling effects of alcohol – Poe-like in its creation of an atmosphere of impending horror. Grand Guignol was in my mind for much of it, since there’s no holding back in the gruesome bloodiness of the crimes, nor the pointless cruelty of them.

John Dickson Carr

As a mystery, I do think it’s just about fair play, although one has to be willing to let one’s imagination run riot a bit. There’s a locked room aspect to it, and as usual I failed to get that at all and frankly felt the solution to that part of the mystery was a bit too contrived. But in terms of the whodunit aspects – in this case, the who-is-Laurent aspect – I spotted several of the clues without realising that that’s what they were; in fact, I had sort of thought they were accidental inconsistencies rather than clues until all was explained at the end. But when the solution comes it’s wonderfully twisted, carrying the atmosphere of decadent horror right through to the end.

I’m aware that part of the reason I loved it so much is because of the horror aspects and that this may not appeal to all Golden Age mystery fans as much as it does to me. But the mystery aspect is good too and while Bencolin can be a bit too full of himself, as many of the great detectives are, Jeff is a wonderfully original creation as Watsons go, becoming deeply involved not just in the investigation but in the characters’ lives and the playing out of the plot. Wonderful stuff, and I can’t wait now to read more Carr – no wonder he’s considered one of the greats.

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

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Tuesday Terror! Ghost Stories, Vol. 1 by MR James narrated by Derek Jacobi

Five spooky tales…

This shortish audiobook (2 hours 37 minutes) contains five ghost stories from the pen of MR James, narrated by the always wonderful Derek Jacobi. I do admire James’ writing style and usually find his stories enjoyable even although I rarely find them scary. I think it’s because he often tells them at a remove – a narrator tells us of something that once happened rather than us being put there while it’s actually happening, which prevents them from building any kind of atmosphere of tension. Quite often, in fact, we are told the end before we’re given the story. I’ve still read relatively few of his stories, though, so maybe I just haven’t come across the really spooky ones yet.

Since there are only five stories in this volume, here’s a brief idea of each:

The View from the Hill – an antiquary, Mr Fanshawe, visits his friend Squire Richards in the country. Fanshawe borrows a set of binoculars from his friend, but when he looks through them, he sees things that aren’t there, such as church spires that once existed but are long gone. Richards acquired the binoculars when he bought up some of the possessions of a man named Baxter after his death. It culminates with Richards’ old servant telling the two friends the story of Baxter and the experiments he carried out. It’s well told, but knowing in advance that Baxter died kinda spoils the tension, and nothing terribly bad happens in the present. I gave this one four stars.

Rats – A story that, oddly, isn’t about rats. A man is staying as the only guest at an inn. Out of nosiness, one day when the landlord is out, he decides to take a look into the other empty rooms on his floor. One is locked, but he finds a key that will open it. Inside, he sees something that scares him and swiftly retreats. But his curiosity is too strong – on his last day, he goes to the room again, and this time he sees… well, of course I’m not going to tell you! This one is lighter in tone and quite fun, but again not scary. Another 4 star read.

MR James

A School Story – two men are discussing the tradition of ghost story telling in public (i.e. posh) schools, and then one tells the other a real ghost story which happened when he was a schoolboy. The haunting concerns a teacher, Mr Sampson, who begins to receive odd messages in Latin, either via the boys or in notes. The messages seem to imply that if he won’t go to the sender, then the sender will come to him. And then one day the teacher disappears… Again, well told, but there is our narrator, safe and sound and old, so we know whatever happened he clearly wasn’t harmed by it. Four stars again.

The Ash Tree – ah, this was much spookier! Starting back in the late 17th century, Mrs Mothersole is condemned as a witch and swears revenge on the man who gave evidence against her, Sir Matthew Fell. He later dies mysteriously, as if from some kind of poison. For years, the room in which he died lies empty out of superstition. But now his grandson decides to sleep in the room, even although the window is shaded by an ash tree growing just outside, and despite being warned that folklore says that sleeping near an ash tree is unwise… I think the reason this works better is because it’s told in the third person and therefore there’s no foreknowledge as to what happens to the grandson. There’s also lots of nicely scary imagery and old superstitions and stuff. This one got the full five stars!

Artwork: Jowita Kaminska

The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance – Told as a series of letters from a man to his brother and set at Christmastime. The letter-writer’s uncle, a rector, has disappeared and our narrator has gone to his uncle’s town to try to find out what has happened to him. I must say that I really had no idea what was going on in this one. It’s full of really quite effective stuff about a Punch and Judy show – a form of entertainment I’ve always found quite scary in itself – but if there’s a coherent story in there, I missed it. This is possibly because I was listening rather than reading – sometimes I don’t seem to concentrate as well in that format. I thought the imagery was excellent and there was a definite sense of dread and oddness about the whole thing, but I found it too unexplained to be satisfying. Jacobi’s performance was great though – he really shines best when the stories get darker. Five stars for him, but just three for the story, though I may read a print version one day.

* * * * *

Overall, this is an enjoyable listen – not harrowing, and the inclusion of what is apparently James’ only story set at Christmastime makes it perfect for this time of year. The shortest story is about 15 minutes and the longest around 45, so it can be easily split over several short sessions or binge-listened in one evening. MR James is undoubtedly the ideal choice for people who like their horror to be of the mildest variety, and Jacobi as narrator is always a treat. Recommended.

The porpentine was fairly relaxed during this one…

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😮 😮

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Tuesday Terror! The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

Frets on the marshes…

Young solicitor Arthur Kipps is sent to the small town of Crythin Gifford to attend the funeral of a client of his firm, the elderly Mrs Drablow of Eel Marsh House. The town is set on the edge of salt marshes which have encroached over the years, leaving Eel Marsh House on a kind of islet, accessible only by crossing a causeway when the tide is out. The marshes are vast and lonely, and Arthur soon picks up from the reaction of the locals that Mrs Drablow lived an isolated life, in a house surrounded by superstition and dread. Sensible young Arthur doesn’t believe in ghosts, though, so after the funeral he sets off quite happily to sort through Mrs Drablow’s papers. It won’t be long before he begins to wonder if the old tales are true…

A man may be accused of cowardice for fleeing away from all manner of physical dangers but when things supernatural, insubstantial and inexplicable threaten not only his safety and well-being but his sanity, his innermost soul, then retreat is not a sign of weakness but the most prudent course.

I’ve only read one of Hill’s ghost stories before, Printer’s Devil Court, and was rather unimpressed by it, so I went into this with fairly low expectations despite its reputation as a modern classic of the ghost story. I’m delighted to say I was wrong – this is a deliciously chilling story with plenty of spookiness and tension, and a narrator who is easy to care about.

It’s written in the style of classic ghost stories of the likes of MR James, and indeed Hill nods to one or two of the greats along the way. There’s nothing terribly original about it, but I’d say that’s true of many ghost stories – the effectiveness all comes from the story-telling. It’s set in the early part of the twentieth century, just as pony traps were giving way to cars, and Hill captures the period well, with Arthur having a modern outlook appropriate to the time and his age, but the history of the house and the origin of the haunting dating back into the darker days of the Victorian era. She also makes excellent use of her settings with some fine descriptive writing, first of the London fogs and then of the empty marshes, where sudden “frets” – sea mists – come rolling in, cutting off visibility and access to the mainland, and creating the perfect conditions for all kinds of vague eerieness to occur.

For a long time, I did not move from the dark, wood-panelled hall. I wanted company, and I had none, lights and warmth and a strong drink inside me, I needed reassurance. But, more than anything else, I needed an explanation. It is remarkable how powerful a force simple curiosity can be. I had never realized that before now. In spite of my intense fear and sense of shock, I was consumed with the desire to find out exactly who it was that I had seen, and how, I could not rest until I had settled the business, for all that, while out there, I had not dared to stay and make any investigations.

The main eerieness is, of course, the appearance of the mysterious woman in black, but she’s only part of the story – the scariest bits involve dark happenings out on the marshes, which I won’t reveal more about. The style means the scares all come from spookiness and dread – it’s happily gore-free and works much better because of it. It’s not terrifying, but it has a couple of excellent heart-in-the-mouth moments, and creates a nicely spine-tingling atmosphere of approaching doom.

Following his first scary night in the house, a kindly acquaintance from the town lends Arthur a dog to stay with him, and Spider quickly becomes an important character in her own right, providing warmth to the story as she provides comfort and companionship to Arthur. She also adds a further layer of tension, since now the reader has to worry about Spider as much as about Arthur (or, in my case, more…).

It was true that the ghastly sounds I had heard through the fog had greatly upset me but far worse was what emanated from and surrounded these things and arose to unsteady me, an atmosphere, a force – I do not exactly know what to call it – of evil and uncleanness, of terror and suffering, of malevolence and bitter anger.

The pacing is very good – it starts off slow and then builds, never becoming frantic but never dragging. And while the end is foreshadowed to a degree, it’s still done well enough to surprise and shock. Novella-length, it can be read in two or three hours, so perfect for a long winter evening, when the wind is howling around the house, and the cats are making strange noises in the room above, and somewhere outside is the sound of… is it a fox barking? Or is it a child, crying out through the fog…?

Not so scary as to give the reader nightmares, but definitely one that will tingle the spine and chill the blood. Highly recommended!

The porpy enjoyed the marsh setting too!

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! August Heat by WF Harvey

Carved in stone…

It’s been varying between ridiculously rainy and flippin’ freezin’ here for the last couple of weeks, so it seems like a good idea to get away from it all back to some summer sunshine. Though this little story is quite likely to leave you feeling as chilled as an ice-lolly at the North Pole…

August Heat
by WF Harvey

WF Harvey

I have had what I believe to be the most remarkable day in my life, and while the events are still fresh in my mind, I wish to put them down on paper as clearly as possible.

Our narrator is James Clarence Withencroft…

By profession I am an artist, not a very successful one, but I earn enough money by my black-and-white work to satisfy my necessary wants.

On this day, the heat is oppressive and Withencroft is thinking about going for a swim when he is suddenly struck by an idea for a picture, so he sits down and gets to work…

The final result, for a hurried sketch, was, I felt sure, the best thing I had done. It showed a criminal in the dock immediately after the judge had pronounced sentence. The man was fat – enormously fat. The flesh hung in rolls about his chin; it creased his huge, stumpy neck. He was clean shaven (perhaps I should say a few days before he must have been clean shaven) and almost bald. He stood in the dock, his short, clumsy fingers clasping the rail, looking straight in front of him. The feeling that his expression conveyed was not so much one of horror as of utter, absolute collapse.

Satisfied, he decides to go for a walk, wandering the streets randomly till he loses track of where he is. Evening is beginning to fall when…

I found myself standing before a gate that led into a yard bordered by a strip of thirsty earth, where there were flowers, purple stock and scarlet geranium. Above the entrance was a board with the inscription –

On an impulse, Withencroft enters the yard, and comes across the mason working on a piece of marble. When the man turns, Withencroft is startled…

It was the man I had been drawing, whose portrait lay in my pocket. He sat there, huge and elephantine, the sweat pouring from his scalp, which he wiped with a red silk handkerchief. But though the face was the same, the expression was absolutely different.

The mason is friendly and invites Withencroft to take a seat and have a cooling drink. Withencroft complies, and asks Athinson what he’s working on. Atkinson tells him this particular stone isn’t strong enough to be a real headstone so he’s using it as a sample for an exhibition. He stands back to let Withencroft see the inscription…

SACRED TO THE MEMORY
OF
JAMES CLARENCE WITHENCROFT.
BORN JAN. 18TH, 1860.
HE PASSED AWAY VERY SUDDENLY
ON AUGUST 20TH, 190—
“In the midst of life we are in death.”

Withencroft is silent for a long moment, then…

…a cold shudder ran down my spine. I asked him where he had seen the name.
“Oh, I didn’t see it anywhere,” replied Mr. Atkinson. “I wanted some name, and I put down the first that came into my head. Why do you want to know?”
“It’s a strange coincidence, but it happens to be mine.”

And the date just happens to be August 20th…

* * * * *

This is a miniature gem of a story! No ghost nor obvious supernatural happenings, but that these two men who had never met before should have each drawn or named the other, and then come together as if by coincidence… spooky! Tombstones always add that special touch of creepiness. And the end is deliciously twisted and chilling. It’s excellently done and very short – well worth reading! And totally suitable for scaredy-cats…

I read it in the Oxford World’s Classic anthology, Horror Stories, but if you’d like to read it online, here’s a link…

The porpy found this one enjoyably shivery…

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀

Tuesday Terror! The Case of Lady Sannox by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Never betray Sir Arthur…

I don’t usually use two stories from the same author so close together, but firstly, it’s my beloved ACD, and secondly, I feel this is almost a companion piece to last week’s story, The Retirement of Signor Lambert. Another adulterous affair, another revenge but this time against the erring wife and so, so much more horrific than last week’s. Not for the faint-hearted – you have been warned!

The Case of Lady Sannox
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The relations between Douglas Stone and the notorious Lady Sannox were very well known both among the fashionable circles of which she was a brilliant member, and the scientific bodies which numbered him among their most illustrious confreres. There was naturally, therefore, a very widespread interest when it was announced one morning that the lady had absolutely and for ever taken the veil, and that the world would see her no more. When, at the very tail of this rumour, there came the assurance that the celebrated operating surgeon, the man of steel nerves, had been found in the morning by his valet, seated on one side of his bed, smiling pleasantly upon the universe, with both legs jammed into one side of his breeches and his great brain about as valuable as a cap full of porridge, the matter was strong enough to give quite a little thrill of interest to folk who had never hoped that their jaded nerves were capable of such a sensation.

Douglas Stone had expensive tastes and liked the best of everything. And when he met Lady Sannox, he knew he had to have her. Not a terribly difficult task…

She had a liking for new experiences, and was gracious to most men who wooed her. It may have been cause or it may have been effect that Lord Sannox looked fifty, though he was but six-and-thirty.

The Lovers

Poor old Lord Sannox! Don’t feel too sorry for him, though! People had never been sure whether he was unaware of his wife’s indiscretions or whether he simply chose to ignore them. But when Douglas Stone became the new favourite, even Lord Sannox couldn’t fail to notice…

There was no subterfuge about Stone. In his high-handed, impetuous fashion, he set all caution and discretion at defiance. The scandal became notorious.

The Husband

One night, Stone was due to visit his Lady but as he was about to leave home a man arrived, asking for his medical assistance for his wife…

A few moments later the butler swung open the door and ushered in a small and decrepit man, who walked with a bent back and with the forward push of the face and blink of the eyes which goes with extreme short sight. His face was swarthy, and his hair and beard of the deepest black. In one hand he held a turban of white muslin striped with red, in the other a small chamois-leather bag.

He tells Stone that his wife has met with an accident and has been poisoned by an obscure Oriental poison. She must have an operation immediately if she is to be saved! Stone is rather unmoved by this, but the promise of a huge fee sways him, and they set off to the man’s house…

It was a mean-looking house in a narrow and sordid street. The surgeon, who knew his London well, cast a swift glance into the shadows, but there was nothing distinctive—no shop, no movement, nothing but a double line of dull, flat-faced houses, a double stretch of wet flagstones which gleamed in the lamplight, and a double rush of water in the gutters which swirled and gurgled towards the sewer gratings.

Inside, the man takes Stone to the patient…

A single small lamp stood upon a bracket on the wall. Douglas Stone took it down, and picking his way among the lumber, walked over to a couch in the corner, on which lay a woman dressed in the Turkish fashion, with yashmak and veil.

And then…

The Climax

* * * * *

No, if you want to know the rest you must read it for yourself! It’s one of the stories in Late Victorian Gothic Tales (and many other anthologies), but if you’d like to read it online, here’s a link

I warn you, this one actually horrifies me and the porpy has now taken a lifelong vow of celibacy and retired to a monastery. It reminds us that ACD is not nearly as cuddly as Dr Watson and that he was a medical man before he was a writer. But it is brilliantly written, and completely unforgettable – though you might wish it wasn’t! It also reminds us that humans are much more to be feared than ghosties, ghoulies or even things that go bump in the night!

The porpy’s at the back. But fear not! I’m sure I’ll be able to tempt him
out again once the initial horror begins to fade!

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😮 😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Tuesday Terror! The Retirement of Signor Lambert by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A cautionary tale…

If you have been a visitor to my blog for any length of time, you will know that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has his very own pedestal in my bookish hall of fame. Adventure, crime, historical fiction – he was a master of so many genres. Not least, horror! Here’s a deliciously horrid little story for this week’s…

The Retirement of Signor Lambert
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir William Sparter was a man who had raised himself in the course of a quarter of a century from earning four-and-twenty shillings a week as a fitter in Portsmouth Dockyard to being the owner of a yard and a fleet of his own. . . now, at the age of fifty, he owned a mansion in Leinster Gardens, a country house at Taplow and a shooting in Argyleshire, with the best stable, the choicest cellars and the prettiest wife in town.

Life is pretty good for Sir William, but for one thing.

And yet he had failed in one thing, and that the most important of all. He had never succeeded in gaining the affection of his wife.

Oh, he had tried! His pretty wife had married him not for love, but because of his wealth and power. Sir William had hoped to win her love in time…

But the very qualities which had helped him in his public life had made him unbearable in private. He was tactless, unsympathetic, overbearing, almost brutal sometimes, and utterly unable to think out those small attentions in word and deed which women value far more than the larger material benefits.

Well, I’m not so sure in this case. She did marry him for his large “material benefits” after all. Anyway, then Sir William makes a terrible discovery…

…when a letter of his wife’s came, through the treachery of a servant, into his hands, and he realized that if she was cold to him she had passion enough for another.

Sir William was not a man who would forgive such a betrayal…

His firm, his ironclads, his patents, everything was dropped, and he turned his huge energies to the undoing of the man.

He confronts his wife, and insists she write a letter to her lover…

“William, you are plotting some revenge. Oh, William, if I have wronged you, I am so sorry—”
“Copy that letter!”
“But what is it that you wish to do? Why should you desire him to come at that hour?”
“Copy that letter!”
“How can you be so harsh, William? You know very well—”
“Copy that letter!”
“I begin to hate you, William. I believe that it is a fiend, not a man, that I have married.”
“Copy that letter!”
Gradually the inflexible will and the unfaltering purpose began to prevail over the creature of nerves and moods. Reluctantly, mutinously, she took the pen in her hand.

The letter written, Sir William sends his wife to bed. Then he takes out two things and begins to read. The first is a paper…

…a recent number of the “Musical Record,” and it contained a biography and picture of the famous Signor Lambert, whose wonderful tenor voice had been the delight of the public and the despair of his rivals. The picture was that of a good-natured, self-satisfied creature, young and handsome, with a full eye, a curling moustache and a bull neck.

The lover!

The second thing is a medical book on the organs of speech and voice-production…

There were numerous coloured illustrations, to which he paid particular attention. Most of them were of the internal anatomy of the larynx, with the silvery vocal cords shining from under the pink arytenoid cartilage. Far into the night Sir William Sparter, with those great virile eyebrows still bunched together, pored over these irrelevant pictures, and read and reread the text in which they were explained.

* * * * *

Woo! Am I glad I never had an affair with Sir Arthur’s wife! This little story shows Conan Doyle at his most twisted. Sir William’s method of revenge is cruel and carried out with a cold-blooded competence that chills the blood. While it’s hard to sympathise with Signor Lambert, his punishment is harsh indeed. Jacqueline, the wife, doesn’t gain much sympathy either – having married Sir William for his money and then having betrayed him, she seems to think that he should simply forgive. But nothing in Sir William’s personality could have led her to think that he was the forgiving kind…

He could frighten his wife, he could dominate her, he could make her admire his strength and respect his consistency, he could mould her to his will in every other direction, but, do what he would, he could not make her love him.

We aren’t given many details of the aftermath for the characters after the act of revenge – I shiver when I think of poor Jacqueline’s reaction and the fear she must have felt, compelled as she would have been to remain married to a man whose potential for pitiless brutality she now fully understood.

Once read, never forgotten! I read it in Gothic Tales of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but if you’d like to read it online, here’s a link. I think of Signor Lambert often – a cautionary tale for all you adulterers out there…

The porpy reckons this story has made him immune
to female charms for a while…

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Face in the Glass: The Gothic Tales of Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Tales of unease…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This new collection from the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series contains fourteen short horror stories from the pen of a woman probably best-known for her sensation novels, Mary Elizabeth Braddon. It comes with a brief but informative introduction from Greg Buzwell, who tells a little about Braddon’s unconventional personal life and discusses the writers who may have influenced her.

I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of her writing. In my ignorance and literary snobbishness, I was expecting these to be at the pulpy end of horror, probably full of high melodrama and swooning maidens, but they’re not at all. There’s a wide variety of styles, from the standard hauntings to tales of revenge, but also some with a more reflective edge, about wasted lives and possible afterlives. Most of them involve the supernatural in one way or another, but human evil is also there in many of them. Some have a touch of romance and there’s some gentle humour in the observations of the society in which the stories are set.

However, the stories often contain a great deal of sadness and unfairness and somehow this stopped me from being able to love them all wholeheartedly. I often say that the joy of vintage crime is that authors knew to kill people that everyone disliked, so the reader doesn’t have to be grief-stricken. The same tends to apply to vintage horror – the people to whom bad things happen usually either deserve it or aren’t developed well enough for the reader to care, while the hero or heroine, or the narrator/observer, usually survives. In these stories, I found Braddon was very talented at creating characters that I grew to care about quickly, and then at the end they would often die, leaving me feeling sad rather than pleasantly chilled. And her women in particular seem to suffer unfairly at the hands of both human and supernatural evil. This is simply a matter of preference, however – it doesn’t make the stories any less good but for me it did make them a little less enjoyable.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Despite this, I rated ten of the fourteen stories as either four or five stars, and none of them got less than three, so it’s fair to say I was very impressed by her storytelling skill. Several of the ones that got four would have been fives too, had it not been for the fact that I was upset by the unhappiness of the endings. Braddon is expert at creating an air of unease, or of taking things off in an unexpected direction. These aren’t stories to make you jump at sudden horror, but they tend to linger in the mind after the last page is turned. There are strong women in them, but they are operating in social conventions that restrict them and leave them vulnerable to all kinds of dangers and cruelties. Very few of them swoon, though, and some of them have their revenge…

Here is a flavour of a few of the ones I enjoyed most:-

Eveline’s Visitant – I reviewed this previously in a Tuesday Terror! Post.

My Wife’s Promise – a man was a polar explorer until he married, after which he intended to stay home. However, when their first and only child dies, he finds himself tempted to join an expedition, and his selfless wife agrees that he should go. This is a rather tragic story, but it’s very well told with lots of excellent stuff about polar voyages.

Three Times – a strange story about a lion tamer who becomes fixated on a man who begins to turn up in his audience from time to time. Each time he appears, the lion tamer loses control of his beasts and becomes increasingly convinced that somehow the man in the audience is a kind of portent of doom. It’s never fully explained, but that is what gives it its wonderful air of unease – is something supernatural happening or not? Or is it all in the lion tamer’s mind? Nicely creepy.

The Ghost’s Name – this seems as if it’s a traditional haunted house story, but there’s more to it than that. Lady Halverdene’s husband is a drunken brute, and she and her sister choose to stay away from the gaze of society in his country home. There’s a room there which used to be a nursery, and tales are told of children who have slept there dying young. This isn’t scary in a supernatural way, but there’s plenty of drama in it, and some great observations of characters and society. And a rather fun little twist at the end!

Good Lady Ducayne – young Bella takes a job as paid companion to the extremely old Lady Ducayne. Bella knows that Lady Ducayne’s previous companions have sickened and died, but she is young, healthy and in need of money to keep her mother and herself out of dire poverty. Lady Ducayne takes her off to Italy and it’s not long before her health begins to decline. Fortunately for her, she has already won the admiration and love of a young gentleman who happens also to be a doctor. I loved this one – it’s a great mix of vague spookiness and human evil, and Bella is a delightful heroine whom we get to know through her letters home to her beloved mother. And for once, I came out of this one smiling.

So a very good collection overall with plenty of variety, and if you can put up with some rather sad endings then I highly recommend it. I’m now keen to read Lady Audley’s Secret to see how her style translates to novel length.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! The Moon-Bog by HP Lovecraft

Wraiths and frogs…

HP Lovecraft has become an annual fixture on Tuesday Terror! ever since I first came across him and mocked his overblown style a few years back. Somehow his “weird” imagery wormed itself into my brain and, while I still occasionally mock him, I’ve come to admire his work and to realise how influential it has been on horror and weird fiction right up to the present day. The porpy and I first read this story last year and still remember some of the imagery distinctly, so it seems a perfect choice for this week’s…

The Moon-Bog
by HP Lovecraft

HP Lovecraft

Somewhere, to what remote and fearsome region I know not, Denys Barry has gone. I was with him the last night he lived among men, and heard his screams when the thing came to him; but all the peasants and police in County Meath could never find him, or the others, though they searched long and far. And now I shudder when I hear the frogs piping in swamps, or see the moon in lonely places.

Ah, frogs! Deliciously Lovecraftian! Having made his money in America, Denys Barry has purchased the decayed ancestral castle of his family in Ireland and has spent the last few years restoring it to its former glory, much to the joy of the local peasantry who benefited from the work and money he provided.

But in time there came troubles, and the peasants ceased to bless him, and fled away instead as from a doom. And then he sent a letter and asked me to visit him, for he was lonely in the castle with no one to speak to save the new servants and labourers he had brought from the north.

Artist unknown

Our narrator hastens to be by his friend’s side…

I had reached Kilderry in the summer sunset, as the gold of the sky lighted the green of the hills and groves and the blue of the bog, where on a far islet a strange olden ruin glistened spectrally. That sunset was very beautiful, but the peasants at Ballylough had warned me against it and said that Kilderry had become accursed, so that I almost shuddered to see the high turrets of the castle gilded with fire.

That evening, Denys tells him of the trouble…

The peasants had gone from Kilderry because Denys Barry was to drain the great bog. For all his love of Ireland, America had not left him untouched, and he hated the beautiful wasted space where peat might be cut and land opened up. The legends and superstitions of Kilderry did not move him, and he laughed when the peasants first refused to help, and then cursed him and went away to Ballylough with their few belongings as they saw his determination.

Art by bealinn via deviantart.com

Our narrator laughs too. Oh, how they laugh! Superstitious peasants! What rational man would pay attention to their absurd fears?

They had to do with some preposterous legend of the bog, and of a grim guardian spirit that dwelt in the strange olden ruin on the far islet I had seen in the sunset. There were tales of dancing lights in the dark of the moon, and of chill winds when the night was warm; of wraiths in white hovering over the waters, and of an imagined city of stone deep down below the swampy surface. But foremost among the weird fancies, and alone in its absolute unanimity, was that of the curse awaiting him who should dare to touch or drain the vast reddish morass.

Here’s a tip for anyone thinking of moving to a new neighbourhood: always listen to the fears of the local peasants! Denys proceeds with his plans, bringing in labourers from outside since the locals have left. Meantime our narrator’s nights are disturbed by dreams of wild music and mysterious figures on the bog. And then on the night before the bog is due to be drained, he is woken by the sound of shrill piping and a strange light…

Terrible and piercing was the shaft of ruddy refulgence that streamed through the Gothic window, and the whole chamber was brilliant with a splendour intense and unearthly.

Finally plucking up his courage, he looks out of his tower room window at the bog below…

Half gliding, half floating in the air, the white-clad bog-wraiths were slowly retreating toward the still waters and the island ruin in fantastic formations suggesting some ancient and solemn ceremonial dance. Their waving translucent arms, guided by the detestable piping of those unseen flutes, beckoned in uncanny rhythm to a throng of lurching labourers who followed dog-like with blind, brainless, floundering steps as if dragged by a clumsy but resistless daemon-will. As the naiads neared the bog, without altering their course, a new line of stumbling stragglers zigzagged drunkenly out of the castle from some door far below my window, groped sightlessly across the courtyard and through the intervening bit of village, and joined the floundering column of labourers on the plain.

And then the shrieking begins…

Art by Stephen Fabian

* * * * *

I think this is my favourite of all the Lovecraft stories I’ve read. A wonderful mix of Gothic horror and weird fiction, the frogs are not to be missed, and the whole thing is full of Lovecraft’s amazing imagery. I read it in the gorgeous British Library hardback, The Gothic Tales of HP Lovecraft – a book that I highly recommend both for the quality of the stories and for the tactile beauty of the book. However if you’d like to read this story online, here’s a link.  I warn you, though, if you ever let Lovecraft inside your head, you may never be able to rid yourself of him…

The porpy is refusing to come out of the tree till
he’s sure there are no frogs around…

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😮 😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! De Profundis by Coutts Brisbane

F. Horribilis!

Ghosties and ghoulies are terrifying of course, but some people simply refuse to believe in them. However, there are other terrors lurking in the hidden places of the world which can’t be so easily dismissed. Time to meet some of them in this week’s…

De Profundis
by Coutts Brisbane

It all begins with our narrator on a camping holiday in Cornwall. He drifts off to sleep next to a field where a horse is happily grazing. Next morning, he starts off to get the train back to London…

My direct route lay through the field in front and, climbing on the gate, I stood at gaze, seeing that close beside the walled shaft-mouth lay something which, I was absolutely certain, had not been there overnight – a large skeleton. I noticed, too, that my friendly horse was nowhere in view, though the boundaries of the field were all in sight and, exceedingly puzzled, approached the bones. They were fresh, raw, though not a particle of meat adhered to them, and unmistakably equine.

Unable to work out what has happened, he heads off to his home, where he is carrying out experiments on different types of petroleum to try to find a cheaper, more efficient fuel. His friend, Mayence, turns up with a barrel-full of paraffin for him to test. Mayence tells him of the strange fate that has befallen a policeman down in Surrey…

“Devilish rummy! Found the poor beggar behind a hedge, uniform on—helmet, too. Beastly! And I may have spoken to him – been held up thereabouts more than once. Poor chap!”
“What are you gibbering about? Was he murdered?” I demanded irritably.
Mayence shivered.
“Ghastly, I tell you! Nothing but his clothes, only bones left inside ’em. Ugh!”

Our narrator tells Mayence about the horse, and at that moment they hear a disturbance from outside…

Right opposite, building operations were in progress, and a great hole had been dug in the earth, from which, as we looked, the workmen came crowding and jostling, howling gigantically, in a frenzied hurry to reach the narrow door in the hoarding along the street front.
“Lord!” ejaculated Mayence. “What in thunder’s up! Look at that chap!”

Then they see, coming from the excavation…

A cloud of dust flew up and hid everything for an instant; then something which looked exactly like a wave of treacle – a brownish-black, shiny, wet-looking, lapping tide – flooded up over the edge of the hole, and flowed out towards the men jammed in the doorway.

As they wonder what it can be, suddenly another friend of the narrator, Vidal, bursts into the room in a panic…

“They’re coming up!” he screamed. “Shut that window! We’re done for! I saw ’em once before, but nothing like this!”
Mayence grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him roughly.
“What?” he shouted. “What the blazes is it?”
“Ants!” quavered Vidal. “Millions of trillions! They’re stinging everyone to death; keep ’em out!”

Suddenly the people of London are fleeing in all directions as ants pour from various excavations sites all over the city in what seems to be a co-ordinated attack. Quick-thinking Mayence realises that paraffin will keep them off, so the three men cover themselves in the contents of the barrel he’d brought, and start out to make their escape from the city, seeing innumerable horrors on their way…

We trudged on towards the river without a word; pity, horror, terror, all capacity for emotion seemed numbed to exhaustion, and we moved mechanically. Blackfriars Bridge was choked by another dreadful barricade, the approaches to the stations were impassable. The river was dotted with people swimming or clinging to lifebuoys or fragments of wood, the barges anchored on the further side were hidden by men clustering like swarming bees, the outermost continually dragged down by others who struggled up from the water…

* * * * *

Well, this one scared me alright! I hate ants with a passion – even the tiny little ones we get give me the creeps, much less ones that are an inch and a half long and out to annihilate humankind! Brisbane manages to develop the three characters quickly, making them likeable and injecting a touch of humour into the story in their interactions, which lightens the tone a little but without detracting from the drama or scariness. It’s very well written with a lot of action packed into a short space, and there’s a deliciously chilling little climax at the end.

I’ve never heard of this author before, but the author bio in the anthology tells me he is an Australian of Scottish descent, real name Robert Coutts Armour, and that he was a prolific contributor of short stories to sci-fi and adventure magazines in the first half of the twentieth century. I’d happily read more of his stuff, though it doesn’t seem to be easy to get hold of. This one is available online, though, at the rather wonderful Project Gutenberg Australia. If you’d like to read it, here’s a link…

It’s a fretful porpentine!

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😮 😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

NB I read this one in the anthology Menace of the Monster, provided for review by the British Library.

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Tuesday Terror! The Murderer’s Violin by Erckmann-Chatrian

The Devilish Diet!

Last year, the porpy and I were put off the demon drink by this duo’s humorously macabre little story, The Burgomaster in Bottle. This year, it appears they’re now trying to put us off food too! Let’s see if they succeed in this week’s…

The Murderer’s Violin
by Erckmann-Chatrian

Emile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian

Karl Hâfitz had spent six years in mastering counterpoint. He had studied Haydn, Glück, Mozart, Beethoven, and Rossini; he enjoyed capital health, and was possessed of ample means which permitted him to indulge his artistic tastes – in a word, he possessed all that goes to make up the grand and beautiful in music, except that insignificant but very necessary thing – inspiration!

I know exactly how he feels! I possess everything except inspiration, talent and ability; otherwise I’m a brilliant musician! Anyway… every time Karl tries to write a piece of music, his instructor points out that it’s copied from one of the greats…

Karl cried with rage, he got very angry, and disputed the point; but the old master quietly opened one of his numerous music-books, and putting his finger on the passage, said ‘Look there, my boy.’

Karl is convinced, while his instructor is equally sure that Karl isn’t doing this deliberately. He has a theory as to why Karl has no original inspiration…

“. . . you are growing too fat decidedly; you drink too generous a wine, and, above all, too much beer. That is what is shutting up the avenues of your intellect. You must get thinner!”
“Get thinner!”
“Yes, or give up music. You do not lack science, but ideas, and it is very simple; if you pass your whole life covering the strings of your violin with a coat of grease how can they vibrate?”

Poor Karl! But he is heroic in the face of this terrible decree…

“I will not shrink from any sacrifice. Since matter oppresses the mind I will starve myself.”

He sets off on a long walking journey and, after several weeks of strenuous exercise and little food and drink, is considerably thinner but still uninspired. One evening, after a long day of walking, he is tired and night is falling…

Just then he perceived by the light of the moon an old ruined inn half-hidden in trees on the opposite side of the way; the door was off its hinges, the small-window panes were broken, the chimney was in ruins.

Karl is philosophical, murmuring to himself…

“. . . it is rather ill-looking indeed, but we must not judge by appearances.”

Eh? Why not? Yes, we must, Karl! Don’t go in!! Tchah! They never listen, do they? Still, once he gets past the thuggish axe-carrying innkeeper and his mad chicken-hugging daughter into the badly-lit half-bare room with only a small fire, things begin to look up…

“You have no cheese, then?”
“No.”
“No butter, nor bread, nor milk?”
“No.”
“Well, good heavens! What have you got?”
“We can roast some potatoes in the embers.”

In a sudden burst of enthusiasm, Karl realises this is the perfect place for him…

“I shall remain here three months – six months – any time that may be necessary to make me as thin as a fakir.”

However, later that night, in the loft that is his bedroom, he is awoken suddenly by the sound of a deep sob. He sees a man, a skeleton almost, lifting a violin and beginning to play…

There was in this ghostly music something of the cadence with which the earth falls upon the coffin of a dearly-loved friend . . .

* * * * *

Another lovely mix of humour and mild horror in this one! It feels a bit slapdash, to be sure – the story of the haunting is all kind of shoved in without enough explanation, but it doesn’t matter because it’s clearly only supposed to be an amusing entertainment rather than a meaningful psychological study. And on that level it works very well. Some of the stories in the collection are much darker and longer than the two I’ve highlighted so far, but they’re all well written and full of some great descriptive imagery. This one is a fairly standard ghost story, but Karl is a likeable hero. There’s almost a folk-tale feel to his quest and one can’t help hoping that somehow he will find his inspiration.

Good fun! The porpy and I were only a little scared – mostly we were entertained and amused.

Unfortunately I can’t find an online version, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be recommending the collection when I finish it, assuming the rest of the stories are as good as the ones I’ve read so far.

(The porpentine felt in the need of a feast after this…)

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😮 😮

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀

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

Amazon UK Link
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Tuesday Terror! The Gateway of the Monster by William Hope Hodgson

Ghost hunting…

So far this season all my spooky tales have involved women – one swooning victim and two rather more sassy heroines, so it’s about time to see how the men do when up against the supernatural. And who should be better able to cope than a ghost hunter? Here we will meet Carnacki the ghost finder, in this week’s…

The Gateway of the Monster
by William Hope Hodgson

William Hope Hodgson

Five men gather for dinner at the home of Carnacki, self-styled ghost-finder. As is a ritual on these evenings, after dinner Carnacki begins to tell the tale of his latest adventure. He had been contacted by a man named Anderson to investigate a haunted room in Anderson’s ancestral home…

Two days later, I drove to the house late in the afternoon. I found it a very old place, standing quite alone in its own grounds. Anderson had left a letter with the butler, I found, pleading excuses for his absence, and leaving the whole house at my disposal for my investigations.

Hmm! Well, Anderson is not showing the male of the species in a very brave light! However, the old butler, Peter, was able to give Carnacki some details of the haunting…

From him I learned more particulars regarding two things that Anderson had mentioned in but a casual manner. The first was that the door of the Grey Room would be heard in the dead of night to open, and slam heavily, and this even though the butler knew it was locked, and the key on the bunch in his pantry. The second was that the bedclothes would always be found torn off the bed, and hurled in a heap into a corner.

Anderson had already given Carnacki the horrible history of the Grey Room…

Three people had been strangled in it—an ancestor of his and his wife and child. This is authentic, as I had taken very great pains to discover; so that you can imagine it was with a feeling I had a striking case to investigate that I went upstairs after dinner to have a look at the Grey Room.

Examination of the room by daylight reveals nothing out of the ordinary, but during the night Carnacki, in his bedroom further down the corridor, is awakened by the banging of a door and, stopping only to light his candle, rushes out into the corridor…

Then a queer thing happened. I could not go a step toward the Grey Room. You all know I am not really a cowardly chap. I’ve gone into too many cases connected with ghostly things, to be accused of that; but I tell you I funked it; simply funked it, just like any blessed kid. There was something precious unholy in the air that night.

More male cowardice!

Old Peter begs Carnacki not to enter the Grey Room after darkness, but Carnacki is determined to find out what evil is hidden there, and determines to spend the night in the room. However, as an experienced ghost hunter, he takes precautions…

I returned then to the centre of the room, and measured out a space twenty-one feet in diameter, which I swept with a ‘broom of hyssop.’ About this, I drew a circle of chalk, taking care never to step over the circle. Beyond this I smudged, with a bunch of garlic, a broad belt right around the chalked circle…

There’s much more of this, including pentagrams and holy water and so on, and finally Carnacki settles himself in the centre of his circle and waits…

* * * * *

Well! This is nicely scary! There’s a lot more that happens in the lead-up to the night in the room than I’ve given above, and the actual events in the room are dramatic and tense. I must mention that there is a cat in the story which has (very) bad things happen to it, but it’s not shown graphically and isn’t dwelt on, so I didn’t find it as upsetting as I usually do when an animal is involved. The evil presence is done well, and we eventually learn why it’s coming to that particular room and what happened that led to the original stranglings. It’s not a traditional haunting – it has aspects of the “weird”; that is, of things and powers in nature or the cosmos that we puny humans cannot understand.

(All the illustrations I’ve used are from the original publication in The Idler, by Florence Briscoe)

Since it has everything you need to scare – haunted room, evil monstrous presence, dark night, arcane rituals – I was a bit puzzled as to why it didn’t terrify me and the porpy totally to the point of shrieking. And I realised it’s the first person narrative being given by the ghost hunter after the event. Knowing he obviously survives with body and mind intact rather reduces the tension. That small reservation aside, though, we raced through this and enjoyed it very much. I believe there are other Carnacki stories in this new collection of Hodgson’s weird tales from the British Library and we’re looking forward to them. And to be fair, Carnacki turned out to be very brave after all, even though he’s a man…

If you’d like to read this one online, here’s a link…

Enough to give the porpy a bad hair day…

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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Tuesday Terror! The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor by B.M. Croker

Colonial spookiness...

After last week’s terror, the porpy and I fled to India to escape from all these English haunted houses. But alas! We forgot that Victorian India was full of British Imperialists, and it seems they had taken their ghosts with them! So here’s a chilling little tale of the fate that may await the unwary traveller, for this week’s…

The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor
by B.M. Croker

Bithia Mary Croker
Winner of the FF Award
for
Best Hat in an Author Pic

(The helpful notes in my OWC copy tell me that dâk bungalows were a kind of hostel for travellers placed at staging posts on mail delivery routes.)

“And so you two young women are going off on a three days’ journey, all by yourselves, in a bullock tonga, to spend Christmas with your husbands in the jungle?”

Indeed they are – our narrator, Nellie Loyd, and her friend, Julia Goodchild, are young and romantic enough to find the prospect exciting. Their older friend, Mrs Duff, is wiser, and perhaps has been married long enough to find she can bear her husband’s absence at Christmas with fortitude. She asks the two young women if they know their route, and Julia replies that her husband has sent them a plan…

….“We go straight along the trunk road for two days, stopping at Korai bungalow the first night and Kular the second, you see; then we turn off to the left on the Old Jubbulpore Road and make a march of twenty-five miles, halting at a place called Chanda. Frank and Mr. Loyd will meet us there on Christmas Day.”
….“Chanda — Chanda,” repeated Mrs. Duff, with her hand to her head. “Isn’t there some queer story about a bungalow near there — that is unhealthy — or haunted — or something?”

Haunted! How the two secretly laugh at their friend! Haunted, indeed!

Mrs. Duff had set her face against our expedition all along; she wanted us to remain in the station and spend Christmas with her, instead of going this wild-goose chase into a part of the district we had never been in before. She assured us that we would be short of bullocks, and would probably have to walk miles; she had harangued us on the subject of fever and cholera and bad water, had warned us solemnly against dacoits, and now she was hinting at ghosts.

The first day’s trek goes well and, as pre-arranged, there are fresh bullocks ready at each stop to take them on the next stage. But on the second day, they find themselves in rougher territory, and Mrs Duff’s predictions begin to seem less silly. Finally they arrive at a stop where there are no fresh bullocks to be had so, leaving their servant Abdul behind to follow when he can get some, the women walk on ahead. After a few miles they arrive at a village…

There were the usual little mud hovels, shops displaying, say, two bunches of plantains and a few handfuls of grain, the usual collection of gaunt red pariah dogs, naked children, and unearthly-looking cats and poultry.

When Abdul finally arrives it is only to tell them that he can’t find fresh bullocks, so they must stay in this place overnight while the tired ones rest. But happily, he informs them, there is a dâk bungalow in the village, and so, although the villagers seem to be warning them not to, they make their way there,…

There was a forlorn, desolate, dismal appearance about the place; it looked as if it had not been visited for years . . . At length an old man in dirty ragged clothes, and with a villainous expression of countenance, appeared from some back cook house, and seemed anything but pleased to see us.

It’s worse inside, all cobwebby and mouldy and full of bats and smelling of earth. Thank goodness the women have some natives they can order to clean up and cook for them! And soon the place is all cosy and they retire to bed (while the natives sleep outside on the verandah). But, in the darkest part of the night, Nellie starts awake and, to her astonishment, sees…

There was a man in the room, apparently another traveller, who appeared to be totally unaware of our vicinity, and to have made himself completely at home . . . I leant up on my elbow and gazed at the intruder in profound amazement. He did not notice me, no more than if I had no existence…

Things are about to get spooky!

* * * * *

This is an enjoyable little tale, with a great mix of mild horror and light humour. The ghost story is pretty standard fare, but the setting gives it added interest, especially since the author pokes a little fun at the colonial arrogance of our heroines. Apparently Croker herself was the wife of a British official out in India, so her descriptions of Anglo-Indian attitudes feel authentic. Nellie and Julia are great fun – they enjoy their lives, they don’t fear this vast, strange land, assuming that their British superiority will protect them from all dangers, and they’re ripe for adventure. But they’re not expecting ghostly visions in the middle of the night – that’s a little too much even for them! However, they pretty much solve the mystery of the bungalow before their husbands turn up, and after a diet of woman-as-swooning-victim in my recent horror reads, these two made very refreshing companions. I’ve never come across Croker before but I would be happy to meet her again – though hopefully in daylight…

I read this in Late Victorian Gothic Tales, kindly provided for review by Oxford World’s Classics. So far I’ve only dipped into it but will review it fully later. But if you’d like to read this story online, here’s a link…

The porpentine’s Indian cousin is less used to ghosts, so more easily scared…

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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Tuesday Terror! Eveline’s Visitant by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Revenge is sweet…

Wakey, wakey, Porpy! The evening are lengthening, the ghouls are returning from their summer vacations having noticeably failed to acquire a healthy tan, the people out there have been lulled into a false sense of security. This little story should remind us all of the terrors that await us in the long, dreadful months of darkness ahead…

Eveline’s Visitant
by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Mary Elizabeth Braddon

It was at a masked ball at the Palais Royal that my fatal quarrel with my first cousin André de Brissac began. The quarrel was about a woman. The women who followed the footsteps of Philip of Orleans were the causes of many such disputes; and there was scarcely one fair head in all that glittering throng which, to a man versed in social histories and mysteries, might not have seemed bedabbled with blood.

Yeah, blame the woman! Our narrator, Hector, is quite annoyed when his cousin, André, proves to be more attractive to the woman of his choice than he. So he strikes his cousin across his face…

…and the welt raised by my open hand was crimson upon his fair womanish face as he stood opposite to me. The eastern sun shone on the face presently, and dyed the cruel mark with a deeper red; but the sting of my own wrongs was fresh, and I had not yet learned to despise myself for that brutal outrage.

André wasn’t in a forgiving mood either, and so the two men settled it in the gentlemanly fashion, by attempting to kill each other in a duel.

We fought, and I wounded him mortally. Life had been very sweet for him; and I think that a frenzy of despair took possession of him when he felt the life-blood ebbing away.

Well, it would, wouldn’t it? The wounded André beckons Hector to come close, and with his dying breath, utters these words…

“Listen to me, Hector de Brissac,” he said. “I am not one who believes that a man has done with earth because his eyes glaze and his jaw stiffens. . . They will bury me, and sing masses for my soul; but you and I have not finished our affair yet, my cousin. I will be with you when you least look to see me,– I, with this ugly scar upon the face that women have praised and loved. I will come to you when your life seems brightest. I will come between you and all that you hold fairest and dearest. My ghostly hand shall drop a poison in your cup of joy. My shadowy form shall shut the sunlight from your life. Men with such iron will as mine can do what they please, Hector de Brissac. It is my will to haunt you when I am dead.”

Good curse, eh? However, Hector has killed men before in battle, and feels that his cousin deserved all he got, so he doesn’t worry. Men shun him for what he has done, and so he retreats to the castle which once belonged to André and is now his. A few years later he falls in love with sweet Eveline…

She loved me. The richest blessings of our lives are often those which cost us least. I wasted the best years of my youth in the worship of a wicked woman, who jilted and cheated me at last. I gave this meek angel but a few courteous words – a little fraternal tenderness – and lo, she loved me.

Isn’t that nice? He didn’t think to mention to Eveline that he was cursed, of course. For a few short months they lived a life of idyllic happiness. It wasn’t to last…

In her walks about the park and woods during the last month, she had met a man who, by his dress and bearing, was obviously of noble rank . . . I was at a loss to imagine who this stranger could be…

Now, who do we all think the stranger might be…?

* * * * *

Well, I was willing to feel a bit sorry for André over being killed for a bit of flirting with a woman who sounds as if she was no better than she ought to be, but really? Haunting your murderer’s wife seems a bit misogynistic, if you ask me! Was it Eveline’s fault, I ask you? I think not! But, ah me! It’s always the woman who suffers! Men! Tchah!

I’ve never read anything by Mary Elizabeth Braddon before, but know her name as one of the leading Victorian sensation novelists. Though I’m no expert, I suspect suffering women are a pretty big feature of sensation fiction, and that seems to be borne out in the three stories I’ve read so far in this new anthology of her Gothic tales. I like her style a lot – it has that Victorian feeling of heightened emotion without tipping over into pulpy melodrama.

This one isn’t too scary – it’s more a tale of revenge and repentance. But it’s very well told, and the revenge goes a little deeper than Eveline simply being haunted by a vision – the ending has a touch of eroticism which, although extremely mild, still surprised me a bit in a story from this era.

“His image haunted me perpetually; I strove in vain to shut his face out of my mind. Then followed an interval in which I did not see him; and, to my shame and anguish, I found that life seemed dreary and desolate without him.”

I’m looking forward to reading more of Braddon’s stories… I think I could become a fan…

The porpy is relaxed and ready for more…

If you’d like to read this one online, here’s a link

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😯 😯

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

* * * * *

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

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

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

Transwarp Tuesday! Menace of the Machine edited by Mike Ashley

Where’s the off-switch?

Whenever anyone mentions driverless vehicles, a shiver of horror runs down my spine. Apart from the inescapable fact that computers notoriously break down at the most awkward moments, there is the social issue of man building himself out of jobs, and the added threat that artificial intelligence may one day be greater than our own – in some cases, I suspect it already is! This collection of fourteen classic science fiction stories examines the impact of the machine and warns of the various forms of dystopian nightmare we might bring down upon ourselves…

Menace of the Machine
edited by Mike Ashley

And a lot of fun is it too! As much horror as science fiction, we have machines that murder, intelligent machines that decide they know what’s best for humanity, onlife life taken to extremes, automatons who follow instructions a little too literally, and robots who rebel against the ‘slavery’ imposed on them by their human masters. There’s an introduction by Mike Ashley, giving the history of the machine in fiction from the earliest times and showing how the stories in the anthology reflect the development of the machine, both in reality and in the imaginations of writers.

The authors include many of the greats, from Ambrose Bierce to Arthur C Clarke, via Isaac Asimov, EM Forster, Brian W Aldiss, et al, and with many others who were new to me. A few take a humorous approach while others go for outright horror, but many are more thoughtful, considering how the drive towards mechanisation might affect our society in the future. Since these are older stories, some of the predictions can be judged against our contemporary reality, and several are chillingly prescient. Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most:-

Ely’s Automatic Housemaid by Elizabeth Bellamy. The narrator’s old friend from university is a mechanical genius. He invents a domestic automaton and, to support him, the narrator buys two, and sets them loose in his house to free up his wife from the domestic drudgery of cooking and cleaning. Written strictly for laughs, this is a farce about the dangers of machines when they don’t operate as planned.

Automata by S Fowler Wright. Man has created machines so advanced they can now look after themselves and make more machines as required. At first this gives humanity freedom from labour, but gradually mankind becomes redundant. Chilling and still relevant as we move towards some of the things the author envisaged, such as self-driving vehicles, the story asks the question – without the purpose provided by the need to labour, what is man for?

The Machine Stops by EM Forster. Man has created a Machine to fulfil all his wants, and has now handed over control of life to the Machine. People sit in their individual rooms, never physically meeting other humans. All their needs are catered for at the touch of a button, and they communicate constantly with their thousands of friends through the Machine in short bursts, increasingly irritated by the interruptions of people contacting them, but still responding to those interruptions. But what would happen if the Machine stopped? The writing is wonderful, not to mention the imagination that, in 1909, envisaged a world that takes its trajectory straight through today and on to an all too believable future. A warning from the past to us in the present of where we may easily end up if we continue on the road we’re travelling. (I previously discussed this story at more length in a Transwarp Tuesday! post.)

But Who Can Replace a Man? by Brian W Aldiss. Far into the future, there are machines for every purpose, with various levels of intelligence. One day, they receive no orders from their human masters. The high intelligence machines conclude that man has finally died out, as a result of diet deficiency caused by soil exhaustion. With no-one to serve, the robots must decide how to organise themselves. Lots of humour in this, but also a chilling edge as we see the basic lack of humanity in how the machines behave when left to their own devices.

Overall, a very good collection with lots of variety – entertaining, scary and thought-provoking. Recommended to science fiction and horror fans alike, and always remember… you may not know how Alexa works, but she knows exactly how you do…

Little Green Men Rating: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

Medieval demons and Edwardian doom…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Young Maud Stearne is a lonely child, growing up in an old house in the midst of the Suffolk fens in the early 20th century. Her strict and domineering father doesn’t have much love or time for any of his children, especially his daughter, and her mother is almost permanently pregnant, though most of those pregnancies don’t come to term. Edmund Stearne, her father, is searching for a book rumoured to have been written by a medieval mystic, the Book of Alice Pyett. But during the renovation of the local church, Edmund finds a medieval painting of the Last Judgement – the Wenhaston Doom – whitewashed over during the Reformation; and he becomes obsessed with the demons portrayed on it.

The book starts in the ‘60s, when an elderly Maud is being pestered by a journalist to tell the story of the murder her father committed when she was young. One day he ran out of the house carrying a sharpened ice-pick and killed the first person he saw, and then went mad. No-one except Maud has ever known why he did it, and she has never spoken about it. Edmund spent many years in an asylum, painting demons, and has now died. Maud has lived an isolated existence in her childhood home since the tragedy and still doesn’t want to talk about it. But when for financial reasons she finally decides to open up, she chooses another recipient for the story – a young academic called Robin Hunter who has been researching Edmund’s paintings. The story Maud tells is one of Gothic horror, with at its heart the question – was Edmund driven mad by supernatural evil or are the evil things that happened a result of his existing madness?

I didn’t find this book nearly as scary as Paver’s earlier ventures into the supernatural – Dark Matter, the best modern horror story I’ve read, and Thin Air. However, it still has plenty to recommend it. It’s a slow burn in the beginning as we learn about Maud’s restricted life and her vague misunderstandings about what she calls her mother’s “groanings” – the miscarriages and stillbirths that happen all too often. But once Maud becomes a little older – her midteens – her father begins to involve her in his work, not out of affection but to save himself the annoyance of having a secretary in the house. As she types up his research notes, she also begins to understand what kind of man he is – cold, bullying, selfish, misogynistic. And increasingly obsessed by the feeling that he is in danger from the forces of evil.

The story is told as a third person narrative for the most part, but includes many extracts from Edmund’s journal and some from the Book of Alice Pyett. Gradually we learn how his researches are feeding Edmund’s obsession and, along with Maud, we become aware that there is a mystery in Edmund’s past.

The characterisation of both Maud and her father is excellent. Neither is likeable, though one’s sympathies are all for Maud. As she becomes aware that her mother’s frequent pregnancies are a result of her father’s refusal to practice any form of self-restraint, her desire to win his affection changes into a form of hatred. Isolated and unloved, she must work her own way through the difficult years of adolescence, and the position of women is such that she has no hope of escaping her father’s control. She is strong, but is she strong enough to face the atmosphere of dread that is slowly descending over the household?

Michelle Paver

Strip the horror element out completely, and it’s still a deeply disturbing picture of life under a tyrannical father at a time when children had no independent rights, and even adult women were entirely under the control of their husbands. Alice Pyett’s story is based on the famous medieval Book of Margery Kempe (which I haven’t read) and is of another woman whose life was blighted by excessive childbirth. Whatever demons are after Edmund – supernatural or self-inflicted – I felt he deserved all he got. But like most tyrants, even as he suffered, he made sure those around him suffered too.

After the relatively slow start, I found myself totally absorbed in the second half. It’s very well written and full of interesting stuff about medieval beliefs and superstitions along with lots of Suffolk folklore. I didn’t buy into the supernatural aspect, but it didn’t matter – the ambiguity means that it works just as well, perhaps even better, as a fully human story of madness and cruelty. People can be far more frightening than demons…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Head of Zeus.

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