Tuesday Terror! Out of the Dark by Robert W Chambers

The spice of life… 

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The porpentine was fairly relaxed throughout, but thoroughly entertained…

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

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

Oh, brother…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No wonder the porpentine’s praying!

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

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