Tuesday Terror! Cornish Horrors: Tales from the Land’s End edited by Joan Passey

Not a pasty in sight…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Another recent issue in the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series, this anthology contains fifteen vintage horror stories, all set in spooky old Cornwall. Well, actually two or three of them are “true” accounts from memoirs and so on, rather than stories as such, but all including some ghostly or terrifying natural occurrence. There’s the usual mix of very well known authors such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe, along with some names that were completely new to me, like Mary E. Penn and someone going simply by the initials M.H.

This may be the most mixed of all the collections to date for me. There are some great stories in here, several well-known and others I hadn’t come across before, but there are also a considerable number of duds which I felt really weren’t worthy of inclusion. I gave seven of them 5 stars and another two rated as 4. The remaining six were evenly distributed – two apiece to 3, 2 and 1 stars. One of the 1-stars was particularly annoying since it was a story by Mary E. Braddon – Colonel Benyon’s Entanglement – which was shaping up to be excellent and then stopped abruptly what seemed like halfway through. Whether this is a publishing error or whether Braddon never completed the story I don’t know and I haven’t been able to track down an online version to check, but since the intro doesn’t mention that it’s unfinished, I have to assume error.

Some of the 4 and 5 star stories have appeared here on the blog before in the Tuesday Terror! slot: Ligeia by Edgar Allan Poe, The Screaming Skull by F. Marion Crawford and The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot, a wonderfully dark Holmes story from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Here’s a flavour of a few others that I particularly enjoyed:

Ligeia – Arthur Rackham

The Phantom Hare by M.H. – Told by Bessy, a farmer’s daughter, this is the story of Hubert, a rather nasty young man who is pursuing a local heiress when he suddenly finds himself being haunted by a white hare. Local superstition has it that if a man deserts a woman and she dies of it (as you do!) then the woman will return in the form of a white hare when her former lover is about to meet his doom. Bet Hubert wishes he hadn’t deserted Bessy’s old school friend now! Very well told, with excellent characterisation of Bessy and a good local feel to the superstition, it culminates in an ending that may not be surprising but is still satisfying.

In the Mist by Mary E. Penn – Narrated by the local vicar, who tells of two young parishioners, Winnie and Noel, who are deeply in love. But Noel is a jealous type, always accusing Winnie of flirting, and one day in the midst of an argument Winnie breaks off their engagement. Later that night, they meet on the cliff edge and Noel tries to win her back. But Winnie falls over the cliff and disappears, presumably sucked out to sea. Did she fall though or was she pushed? This isn’t really horror – it’s more melodramatic romance, but it’s beautifully done and thoroughly enjoyable.

The Coming of Abel Behenna by Bram Stoker – Two Cornish fishermen, Abel and Eric, had grown up together and were best friends. But both have now fallen in love with the same woman – the frivolous and indecisive Sarah. Since she refuses to choose, the men propose they should toss a coin for her and she agrees! The winner will take the small accumulated wealth of both men and go off on a trading voyage for a year to try to make enough money to marry on. Abel wins, and duly sets off on his travels. But will Eric, mad with love and jealousy, stand by his bet? This is an excellent story, Bram Stoker at his very considerable best. It is a story of passion, guilt and revenge – nothing supernatural, purely humanity and nature combining to chill the reader’s blood, and the ending lingers long after the last page is turned.

The Mask by F. Tennyson Jesse – Another about a woman with two suitors and just as dark as the Stoker story, but otherwise entirely different. Vashti Bath chooses James Glasson, a cold and domineering man destined for success. An accident damages him badly, though, destroying his prospects and forcing him to wear a mask, and he becomes even harsher to Vashti. Soon she turns to her other old suitor, Willie Strick, a weaker man but still passionately in love with her, and they start an affair. But then one night James returns home unexpectedly and finds Willie and Sarah together… Again a story of human passions rather than the supernatural but it gets very tense towards the end and has some real touches of horror.

The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot

So plenty of excellent stuff here, but because the quality ranges so wildly and because several of the best stories are ones that have been collected many times before and may be familiar to horror readers already, I’m a little wary of giving this one a blanket recommendation. If you’re newish to the genre and haven’t read many of the stories I’ve mentioned, then there’s plenty in here to interest and entertain despite the duds. However if you’ve already read several of the stories I’ve named, you might end up disappointed with the rest of the collection. For me, there were enough good stories that I hadn’t read before to make it enjoyable overall.

(Since he was in Cornwall, the porpy
enjoyed a little paddle in the sea…)

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

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Tuesday Terror! The Name-Tree by Mary Webb

Torment among the trees…

Each autumn and winter for the last few years, I’ve been reading a ton of vintage horror short stories and I admit that most of them, while enjoyable at the time, are soon forgotten. But occasionally one lingers, and this is one of those. I read it a year or so ago, in the Weird Woods anthology, and it has haunted me a little ever since…

The Name-Tree
by Mary Webb

Mary Webb

Cherry Orchard was for sale. The impossible thing, the thing that had yet threatened them always out of the misty future, had become fact. She could not believe it.

Laura’s father has become an invalid and their small stock of savings has dwindled. Now her father must sell the orchard which Laura has loved all her young life…

‘I’d as lief,’ she muttered, ‘think of selling myself.’

The father and daughter have a new neighbour who has come to pay them a visit…

Julius Winter was the new owner of Bitterne Hall. He had brought with him a wife almost as rich as himself, a Lady in her own right, and exactly like a pink sweet. Before Julius shone a vista of pleasant days with many smaller pink sweets about him.

Laura’s father tells her to show Julius the orchard and as they pass the great laurel tree outside the house, Laura tells him it is her name-tree…

‘This is my name-tree,’ she said. ‘Do you know the old belief about name-trees? If the tree dies, you die. If you sicken, the tree withers. If you desert it, a curse falls.’

Julius is fascinated by Laura’s deep passion for the orchard and his fascination soon turns to lust and a desire to possess…

He watched her, standing slim and gauche, in her old brown dress, her soul tormented by love for something vague and mysterious, something he could not touch or name, that seemed to lie beneath the earthly beauty that she saw, like a dreaming god. Desire surged over him—the poignant longing that jonquils bring, the longing to touch the silken petals, to gather the brittle, faintly-scented stalks.

Apollo and Daphne by Henrietta Rae
Definite vibes of the Apollo and Daphne myth in this story…

And so he offers her a bargain…

….‘Would you like to keep Cherry Orchard for ever?’
….She looked at him, frowning.
….‘I will buy Cherry Orchard and give it you, if you will give me the keys of Heaven.’
….‘And Heaven is—?’
….‘Your love.’

Laura is silent for a long time, as if communing with her beloved trees. Then she replies:

….‘I have no love to give,’ she said at last, ‘to you or any man.’
….‘Before the fruit falls in your orchard,’ he said, harsh and low, ‘you shall give it to me.’

And Julius, sure of his own power, buys the orchard and Laura’s home…

* * * * *

It’s not just the obvious masculine dominance in the story that makes it disturbing, though that’s important. It’s also Laura’s connection with nature which seems to go well beyond the norm, into a kind of witchy-woman feel – an elemental thing, a sexless dryad made human, female and powerless. The orchard and the trees are given a consciousness and have a kind of symbiotic relationship with Laura, as if she is their guardian and they are hers, but neither with the strength to withstand male destructiveness. Julius is a strong, pitiless man and Laura’s father is weak and selfish, but they both understand the power of money as a means to possess those things they desire. But at what cost?

The trees brooded over them like jewelled birds in some ancient tapestry. They filled him with an ache of longing. He wanted to possess them, as a god might. He would possess them in her. His soul could only reach the outer fringes of hers; his voice strove to win her; his eyes burnt on hers, but she lowered her lashes and was mute. She remained aloof: but through the body he would reach her. She should have nothing of herself left, no corner of her spirit that was not his.

Very well written in a folklorish style and strongly feminist in message, all the darkest parts are left vague and undescribed, and are all the more disturbing for it. I can’t find an online version of the story on its own, but if you would like to read it it’s one of the stories in a collection called Armour Wherein He Trusted, which can be downloaded free at fadedpage.com – here’s the link. Or of course you can read it in Weird Woods.

(The porpy didn’t get scared but he got angry!)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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Future Crimes edited by Mike Ashley

Time travel, telepaths and technology…

:mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

A new anthology in the British Library Science Fiction Classics series, this one brings together ten stories each featuring a crime mystery in a futuristic setting. It is edited as usual by Mike Ashley, who also provides a short introduction to the collection and an individual mini-bio of each of the authors. Most of the stories date from the 1950s and ‘60s – still in the heyday of the science fiction magazines – and there’s a lot of play on time travel, telepathy and advanced technology, with the occasional alien thrown in for good measure. As always, some of the authors are so well known even I, as a dabbler in SF, know of them, such as Isaac Asimov and Anne McCaffrey; some have become familiar to me through their inclusion in earlier anthologies in the series, such as John Brunner and Eric Frank Russell; and a couple are new names to me, such as George Chailey and Miriam Allen deFord. While most of them are SF writers crossing over into crime, crime fans will also be intrigued to see PD James putting in an appearance, crossing in the other direction into SF.

As in any anthology, the quality of the stories, or my enjoyment of them at least, varies quite a lot. Overall, I gave three of them five stars while another three really didn’t work for me, and the rest all rated four stars, so I’d consider this as a solid collection rather than an outstanding one. In tone, they range from fairly light-hearted amusements to rather bleak, almost dystopian tales, verging on noir once or twice.

Here’s a brief look at some of the ones I enjoyed most:

Mirror Image by Isaac Asimov (1972) – This brings together Asimov’s famous detective duo who appear in several novels together – Elijah Bailey, an Earth police officer, and R. Daneel Olivaw, a humanoid robot built by the Spacer community. Daneel is on a space-ship, where two famous mathematicians are also partners. They each claim to have had a brilliant mathematical idea and consulted the other, and now accuse the other of having stolen the idea from them. Each has a robot servant, and each of these robots, programmed not to lie, is backing its own master’s version of events. Daneel persuades the ship’s captain to consult his friend, Elijah. While Elijah uses the Three Laws of Robotics in working out the solution, it’s really his knowledge of human nature that gives him the clue he needs. Very well told, ingenious plot, and it’s always a pleasure to meet with this duo.

Murder, 1986 by PD James (1970) – A disease brought to Earth from space has ravaged humanity. Most of the remaining population are carriers – Ipdics (Interplanetary Disease Infection Carriers) – and are subject to severe restrictions by the relatively few unaffected humans. Ipdics are not allowed to marry or breed, or have close contact with the unaffected. So when Sergeant Dolby discovers the body of a murdered young woman, the general feeling is that it’s unimportant since she was only an Ipdic, and one less Ipdic is a good thing for humanity. But Dolby can’t see it that way, and decides to carry out his own investigation. This is a bleak story, but very well told. Although only thirty pages or so long, James finds room to show the cruelty with which the Ipdics are treated, driven by the strength of the human survival instinct. As you might expect, this is one of the strongest stories in terms of the mystery plotting, fair play and an excellent, if depressing, denouement.

The Absolutely Perfect Murder by Miriam Allen deFord (1965) – This is a light-hearted bit of fun – a nice contrast to some of the grimmer stories in the book. Our anti-hero Mervyn is tired, very tired, of his nagging, over-bearing wife. For the last couple of years he’s been trying to think of a foolproof way to murder her (because despite this being in the far future, apparently divorce laws haven’t moved on from the mid-twentieth century). Now he learns that time travel has been made commercial, and decides to pop back into the past and do the deed there. While the twist in the tail might be a little obvious, it’s entertaining.

Elsewhen by Anthony Boucher (1943) – Mr Partridge invents a time machine that can only go back a maximum of two hours into the past. Needing money to develop it and to win the love of his life, Mr Partridge decides to use the time machine to commit a murder that will result in him inheriting his rich great-uncle’s wealth. But private detective Fergus O’Breen gets involved in the murder investigation and he’s not a man to let a little thing like time travel baffle him! This is a great twist on a standard locked room mystery and on a novel way to create a perfect alibi. While the time-travelling paradox aspect befuddled my mind (as it usually does), the mystery plotting aspect is excellent. It’s well written and very entertaining, and probably my favourite story in the collection.

So plenty of good stuff here, and it’s fun to see how the authors try to stick to the conventions of mystery writing while incorporating the more imaginative SF stuff. Recommended to SF fans, but also to mystery fans who dare to step a little out of their comfort zone.

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

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Tuesday ’Tec! The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim by Agatha Christie

Never bet against Poirot…

I seem to be reading as many mystery short stories this autumn as horror, so it’s time to let one of the greatest detectives of all time take over the Tuesday slot for a change! The story will have been collected many times, I imagine, but I read it in the new collection from HarperCollins, Midsummer Mysteries, which I’ll review fully soon…

Tuesday Tec2

The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim
by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie

.….Poirot and I were expecting our old friend Inspector Japp of Scotland Yard to tea. We were sitting round the tea-table awaiting his arrival. Poirot had just finished carefully straightening the cups and saucers which our landlady was in the habit of throwing, rather than placing, on the table.

If I were Hastings, I’d find the temptation to unstraighten the cups and saucers again irresistible! Anyway, Japp arrives…

….“Hope I’m not late,” he said as he greeted us. “To tell the truth, I was yarning with Miller, the man who’s in charge of the Davenheim case.”

Poirot and Hastings are immediately intrigued, having seen the story in the papers…

….For the last three days the papers had been full of the strange disappearance of Mr. Davenheim, senior partner of Davenheim and Salmon, the well-known bankers and financiers. On Saturday last he had walked out of his house, and had never been seen since.

On Hastings remarking that in these days of technology it ought to be impossible for someone to successfully disappear, Poirot demurs…

….“Mon ami,” said Poirot, “you make one error. You do not allow for the fact that a man who had decided to make away with another man—or with himself in a figurative sense—might be that rare machine, a man of method. He might bring intelligence, talent, a careful calculation of detail to the task; and then I do not see why he should not be successful in baffling the police force.”

Japp then slyly suggests that of course Poirot would not be baffled…

….Poirot endeavoured, with a marked lack of success, to look modest. “Me, also! Why not? It is true that I approach such problems with an exact science, a mathematical precision, which seems, alas, only too rare in the new generation of detectives!”

Japp says confidently that the detective in charge of the case is excellent at spotting clues, but Poirot is unimpressed. He feels that in a case like this, merely collecting clues will not be enough – one must exercise the little grey cells. Grinning, Japp suggests a wager…

….“You don’t mean to say, Monsieur Poirot, that you would undertake to solve a case without moving from your chair, do you?”
….“That is exactly what I do mean—granted the facts were placed before me. I regard myself as a consulting specialist.”

….Japp slapped his knee. “Hanged if I don’t take you at your word. Bet you a fiver that you can’t lay your hand—or rather tell me where to lay my hand—on Mr. Davenheim, dead or alive, before a week is out.”

And so the race is on…

* * * * *

Considering how short a story this is, there’s a good plot, plenty of clues and it is essentially fair play. It’s also a light-hearted tale, with lots of humour in the banter between our three favourites, Poirot, Hastings and Japp. In these very early Christie stories – this one is from 1923 – it’s often easy to see the influence of Christie’s love for the Holmes and Watson stories, not just in the relationship between Poirot and Hastings, but sometimes also because she picks up on elements from the stories and uses them, not in a plagiarising way but as jumping off points for her own originality. This one takes a couple of points from one of the Holmes stories – which I’m not going to name since it would be a spoiler for anyone who knows those stories – and builds an entirely new set of characters and motives around them. I have to admit that once I recognised the influence, I was able to quite quickly work out the mystery, but if anything that added to my enjoyment rather than diminishing it. I love sharing my own Holmes geekery with Ms Christie!

If you’d like to read it for yourself, here’s a link.

* * * * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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Tuesday Terror! Good Lady Ducayne by Mary E Braddon

Pack the mosquito repellent…

Not all horror has to be horrifying to be entertaining. This story is distinctly lacking in fear factor and has no supernatural elements in it at all. But it has a lovely touch of human wickedness, a heroine I defy you not to fall in love with, some beautiful Italian settings, and a swoonworthy romantic hero…

Good Lady Ducayne
by Mary E Braddon

Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Bella Rolleston had made up her mind that her only chance of earning her bread and helping her mother to an occasional crust was by going out into the great unknown world as companion to a lady.

Bella’s mother, having been deserted by her wastrel husband, now ekes out a precarious living as a seamstress. She and Bella may want for material things, but they each have a naturally happy nature and are friends as much as mother and daughter. So to Bella the idea of going off as a companion is in the nature of an adventure as much as a matter of necessity. She signs on with an employment agency where she is interviewed by a Superior Person…

The Person was of uncertain age, tightly laced in a black silk gown. She had a powdery complexion and a handsome clump of somebody else’s hair on the top of her head.

The Person is unimpressed by poor Bella’s lack of accomplishments but is happy to take her fee. Bella is no shrinking violet to be intimidated by Superior Persons, however, and after she has visited the agency a couple more times to remind the Person of her existence, the Person introduces her to a lady looking for a companion…

Never had she seen anyone as old as the old lady sitting by the Person’s fire: a little old figure, wrapped from chin to feet in an ermine mantle; a withered, old face under a plumed bonnet–a face so wasted by age that it seemed only a pair of eyes and a peaked chin. . . Claw-like fingers, flashing with jewels, lifted a double eyeglass to Lady Ducayne’s shining black eyes, and through the glasses Bella saw those unnaturally bright eyes magnified to a gigantic size, and glaring at her awfully.

Despite her appearance, Lady Ducayne seems kind and generous enough, and seems less concerned with Bella’s lack of accomplishments than she is to be assured that Bella is healthy and strong…

….‘I want a strong young woman whose health will give me no trouble.’
….‘You have been so unfortunate in that respect,’ cooed the Person, whose voice and manner were subdued to a melting sweetness by the old woman’s presence.
….‘Yes, I’ve been rather unlucky,’ grunted Lady Ducayne.

Very unlucky, as Bella later discovers! Lady Ducayne’s two previous companions, both also young girls who seemed healthy, had both soon faded and died of unspecified disease. Bella, however, is thrilled to be offered the job, and even more thrilled when Lady Ducayne asks her…

….‘You don’t mind spending the winter in Italy, I suppose?’
….In Italy! The very word was magical. Bella’s fair young face flushed crimson.
….‘It has been the dream of my life to see Italy,’ she gasped.

And at first the dream is dreamy indeed – beautiful scenery, luxurious hotel and Bella is given plenty of time to herself. She quickly makes friends with another visitor, Lotta Stafford, who is staying in the hotel with her handsome brother who has just passed his medical exams and is about to embark on a career as a doctor. Bella writes all about them to her mother back home…

….Her brother won’t allow her to read a novel, French or English, that he has not read and approved.
….‘”He treats me like a child,” she told me, “but I don’t mind, for it’s nice to know somebody loves me, and cares about what I do, and even about my thoughts.”‘
….Perhaps this is what makes some girls so eager to marry–the want of someone strong and brave and honest and true to care for them and order them about.

Well… hmm… perhaps!

Sadly, it’s not long before Bella’s health begins to fade, and she is troubled by bad dreams and frequent wounds on her arms which Lady Ducayne’s doctor assures her are caused by mosquitoes…

‘And to think that such tiny creatures can bite like this,’ said Bella; ‘my arm looks as if it had been cut by a knife.’

But young Dr Stafford is not convinced by the mosquito story – he has a very different theory of what is happening to Bella…

* * * * *

Lots of fun in this one! Herbert Stafford reminds me very much of Henry Tilney from Northanger Abbey, another handsome young hero I’m sure I would have found insufferable in real life but is perfectly suited to his heroine. Bella is charming and Lady Ducayne is wonderfully drawn as an old, old woman clinging desperately to life…

…he had never seen a face that impressed him so painfully as this withered countenance, with its indescribable horror of death outlived, a face that should have been hidden under a coffin-lid years and years ago.

Ouch! Must remember to keep using the wrinkle cream!

If you’d like to read this one, here’s a link. It’s a bit longer than many of the stories I’ve chosen, so save it for when you have a good half-hour or so to spare – it’s worth it though! Or you can find it in The Face in the Glass, a collection of Braddon’s stories, most of which, I should warn you, are much darker and sadder than this one.

(The porpy was fairly relaxed during this one…)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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Tuesday Terror! The Wonderful Tune by Jessie Douglas Kerruish

Shall we dance?

Most of the best known writers of horror and weird tales are men, but in the collection Queens of the Abyss, Mike Ashley sets out to show that many women were writing in these genres too around the late 19th/early 20th century period. This one is deliciously horrid, from the pen of a Manx writer entirely unknown to me…

The Wonderful Tune
by Jessie Douglas Kerruish

“What is the Huldra King’s Tune?” asked Iris.
“It is the crowning piece of Huldra music; and there is a spell attached to it,” said Larssen.

Our narrator, Cyril Lambton, is a young man escorting his new fiancée, Iris, and her mother across the Rhaetic Alps, when an accident causes the three to seek refuge in a Swiss inn. Cyril has been hurt and the people in the inn help Iris to treat his wounded arm and shoulder. When he comes to, he is introduced to one of his fellow guests…

“And my name – I have no card on my person – is Einar Larssen.”
We three started in unison – “The violinist?” exclaimed Iris, and he bowed and pushed back a straggling lock self-consciously.

The inn is a welcoming place but there is a hidden horror. When the women go off to check out the accommodation, the innkeeper and Larssen tell Cyril what is concealed behind the closed door off the parlour…

“Three corpses.”

Cyril is not unnaturally a little discombobulated by this information. The innkeeper tells him the three men were lost in an avalanche some weeks earlier, and earlier that day their remains had been found…

“Caspar Ragotli is entire,’’ said mine host, with a nod at the door; “Melchoir Fischer—” He told us, detailedly, how this Melchoir was in pieces, most of them there, while of the third, Hans Buol, only one hand had been discovered, “But we know it for Buol’s, by the open knife grasped in it,’’ our entertainer proceeded, gloatingly. “A fine new knife from your Sheffield, Monsieur Lambton.”

The three men agree that the women should not be told about the corpses, since their delicate minds obviously couldn’t cope with the thought. So they all have a merry supper, and afterwards Madame Larssen persuades her husband to play his violin. He begins to play some folk tunes…

“You will not hear these at a paid-for concert—God forbid! ” he observed, his dreamy voice filling a pause between two melodies. “You are hearing, my friends, what few but children of Norway ever hear, scraps of the Huldrasleet. The melodies of the Elf-Kind—the Huldra Folk we name them— no less. Snatches that bygone musicians overheard on chancey nights out in the loneliness of fiords and fells, and passed on down the ages.”

Hulderfolk by August Schneider 1842-1873
Spot the tails peeping out from below the women’s skirts

Then he tells them of how he himself once heard the Huldra, one snowy night much like this night. He tells how their music made him dance…

“It got into my fingers and toes; I began to dance to it. There in the snow I danced, and my senses flowed out of my body in sheer ecstasy, while my emptied heart and head were filled with the tune.”

He plays a little snatch of the tune, and his wife cries out…

“Einar, can it be you heard the Huldra King’s Tune? Then thank Heaven you cannot play it!”

Larssen tells them the legend of the tune, that when it is played all who hear it must dance whether they will or no, and the player must repeat the tune again and again…

“He can only stop if—let me consider—yes, if he plays it backward or, failing that, if the strings of his violin are cut for him.”

The other guests laugh, of course, and beg him to play the tune. Before he begins, he relates one last piece of the legend…

“There was one more detail,” he went on. “Ah, it is that if the tune is played often enough, inanimate things must dance, too.”

What could possibly go wrong?

* * * * *

This seems to be based on an old Irish folk tale about a wonderful tune that makes all who hear it dance, but Kerruish has taken that basic idea, mixed it in with Scandinavian folklore, and added more than a touch of the macabre to create a horridly chilling little tale. It’s very well told, starting off slow and building to a crescendo as the guests all begin to dance… and then as the tune continues find they cannot stop… and then we remember what is in the other room behind the closed door…

As with so much horror writing of times gone by, it’s all in the art of understatement. Most of the horrors are in the mind of the reader. Kerruish gives us just enough hints so that our imagination is filled with dread – so much more effective than laying out every detail on the page.

If you’d like to find out what happens, here’s a link. I’m afraid it’s not very well formatted but it’s the only online version I can find – you need to scroll down to page 157 to find the beginning of this story. Otherwise, you can of course find it in Queens of the Abyss – I’ve only read a couple of the stories so far, but it’s shaping up to be an interesting collection.

(The porpy is exhausted from all that dancing…)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀

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Tuesday Terror! Ligeia by Edgar Allan Poe

Nor unto death utterly…

In the first story in the British Library’s new anthology of vintage horror stories, Cornish Horrors, Poe takes us to Cornwall for another delightful tale of a probably mad narrator, and definitely dead wives. Or are they??

Ligeia
by Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

I cannot, for my soul, remember how, when, or even precisely where, I first became acquainted with the lady Ligeia. Long years have since elapsed, and my memory is feeble through much suffering.

Yeah, see, I’m already thinking he’s probably mad. Who doesn’t remember where they first met the love of their life? But I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt until he told me…

…a recollection flashes upon me that I have never known the paternal name of her who was my friend and my betrothed, and who became the partner of my studies, and finally the wife of my bosom.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

Highly unlikely, if you ask me! Wasn’t he listening during the wedding vows? Didn’t they get a licence? Anyway, whether he’s mad or not, he’s obsessively in love…

In beauty of face no maiden ever equalled her. It was the radiance of an opium-dream—an airy and spirit-lifting vision more wildly divine than the phantasies which hovered about the slumbering souls of the daughters of Delos.

Aha! Opium! That explains a lot! Kids, if you’re listening, just say no!

After raving about every facial feature for a bit, nose, cheeks, chin, teeth (the man’s got a thing about teeth, seriously), he then takes several paragraphs to describe the one feature that sets Ligeia apart from all other women… her eyes!

They were, I must believe, far larger than the ordinary eyes of our own race. They were even fuller than the fullest of the gazelle eyes of the tribe of the valley of Nourjahad.

Perhaps he met her in a zoo?

Illustration by Byam Shaw

But it’s not just physically that she outshines her sex, the girl has brains too…

I said her knowledge was such as I have never known in woman—but where breathes the man who has traversed, and successfully, all the wide areas of moral, physical, and mathematical science? I saw not then what I now clearly perceive, that the acquisitions of Ligeia were gigantic, were astounding…

Don’t know about you, girls, but I kinda hate her already. So it came as something of a relief to me to learn that she was not long for this world…

Ligeia grew ill. The wild eyes blazed with a too—too glorious effulgence; the pale fingers became of the transparent waxen hue of the grave; and the blue veins upon the lofty forehead swelled and sank impetuously with the tides of the gentle emotion. I saw that she must die…

But Ligeia isn’t going to give up so easily. Can her superior, gigantic, astounding will not somehow allow her to cheat death? She cries out…

“O God! O Divine Father!—shall these things be undeviatingly so?—shall this Conqueror be not once conquered? Are we not part and parcel in Thee? Who—who knoweth the mysteries of the will with its vigor? Man doth not yield him to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.”

… and dies.

Or does she?

Illustration by Harry Clarke

* * * * *

This is so Poe-ish, it’s almost like a parody of Poe! It has all his favourite things – unreliable, possibly deranged narrator, Gothic setting in spooky old Cornwall, high melodrama, exalted passion, Classical references and quotes from philosophers, and not one but two beautiful dead women! (Or are they??) And I wasn’t at all sure that Ligeia was real – she seems almost as if she has been created in one of those opium dreams that Poe is so fond of, a figment of the narrator’s deranged imagination. Poe is so full of horror tropes it’s easy to forget he invented most of them. I thoroughly enjoyed it, although I must admit I felt it ended on a kind of cliff-hanger… I was desperate to know what happened next! But in a way that was even more chilling because it left it up to my imagination…

If you’d like to terrify your own imagination, here’s a link

(The porpy reckons that if this sets the standard for this year,
he’s not so sure he wants to come out of hibernation after all…)

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 story rating is for the story’s quality.

Tuesday ‘Tec! The Return of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Holmes is alive!

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Return of Sherlock HolmesThis is the third volume of Holmes short stories, and in my opinion the weakest overall, although it still has several good stories in it. Forced by popular sentiment and commercial realities to resuscitate Holmes after the unfortunate drowning incident at the Reichenbach Falls, I always have the feeling that Conan Doyle’s heart wasn’t really in it at this stage – some of these are a bit bland in terms of plot. In the later volumes I feel he got back into his stride and came up with more imaginative and dramatic scenarios – some so imaginative, admittedly, that they test credibility to the breaking point, but more exciting on the whole.

That rather negative introduction shouldn’t put new readers off though – even the weaker Holmes stories are always well worth reading, simply for ACD’s easy, flowing writing style which makes anything he writes a pleasure to read. And the relationship between Holmes and his admiring friend Watson is always a joy.

Tuesday Tec2

The first story, and the worst of all the Holmes stories for me, is The Adventure of The Empty House in which Holmes returns from the grave, startling Watson into a fainting fit. It’s full of plot holes and the explanation for why Holmes has left his old friend grieving for him for several years makes Holmes seem even colder and more heartless than usual. During this period Watson lost his beloved wife, Mary, and Holmes, having sent no word of comfort at the time, barely bothers to condole with him even now. But the real weakness is that the reason for Holmes’ long absence makes no sense. Supposedly staying presumed dead so that he can work quietly to destroy the remnants of Moriarty’s organisation, we quickly discover that Moriarty’s number two, Colonel Moran, saw Holmes escape from the Reichenbach incident. So everyone – Moriarty’s people and the police – all knew Holmes was alive, but he still didn’t tell dear old Watson. If I’d been Watson, I’d have punched him! Watson, being much sweeter than I, instead welcomes him back with open arms and an open heart. I love Watson…

dr watsonThe Dr Watson

Anyway, after that frankly disappointing start, the collection reverts to the usual format of individual cases often brought to Holmes by the baffled police. Lestrade (my favourite bumbling policeman) appears in several, as does Stanley Hopkins, of whom for some reason Holmes thinks highly, although he always seems just as befuddled as poor Lestrade to me! There are missing rugby players, mysterious ciphers, blackmailers, abusive husbands, imperilled women, Russian nihilists, stolen government plans, etc., etc., and we also have Holmes saving the world from war (as he does a few times over his career) in the final story, The Adventure of the Second Stain.

blood-spatter

Here’s a flavour of a few of my favourites:

The Adventure of the Dancing Men – Hilton Cubitt approaches Holmes because he is finding little drawings of dancing men around his property and they seem to be terrifying his wife. Actually this is one of Holmes’ major failures in that he fails to solve the dancing men cipher in time to prevent the tragedy that the messages foretell, but I love those dancing men! Sadly I’ve read it so often now I know what the messages mean, but the first time(s) I read it I had great fun trying and failing to crack the code.

Elementary, my dear Watson!

(bonus points if you crack the code – clue: the first letter is E)

The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist – A woman in peril story, as Miss Violet Smith becomes the target of evil men for nefarious reasons that only become clear at the end. I enjoy Miss Smith’s feisty independence and courage, even if she does have a (justifiable) fit of the vapours at the climax of the story. And there’s something very creepy about the way ACD describes her being followed as she cycles along deserted country roads. This is another it’s important not to analyse too deeply because frankly the climax ignores minor details like how the law works in the England of the time, but it’s fun anyway.

The Solitary Cyclist

The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton – Milverton is a notorious blackmailer who preys on society ladies who have been indiscreet. Holmes is asked for help by one such lady, and both he and Watson are at their chivalrous best, even going so far as to break the law in an attempt to get back the lady’s letters. This one tootles along at a steady pace and then suddenly blows up into a spectacular climax! A real “I did not see that coming!” moment, and brilliantly done!

Charles Augustus Milverton (2)

The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez – Inspector Stanley Hopkins asks for Holmes’ help in a puzzling case involving the murder of the secretary of Professor Coram at Yoxley Old Place. I love this for three major reasons: I love the name Yoxley Old Place – it sounds so deliciously Gothic; this is where I first heard of pince-nez and the idea of them tickled young FF’s fancy; and mostly, I love the brilliant way Holmes uses cigarettes to solve the case, much to Watson’s baffled disgust!

Golden Pince Nez

The second-best Holmes

So, much to enjoy even in this relatively weaker collection. I listened to Derek Jacobi narrating them, and he really is the perfect Watson, as well as creating a full range of voices and personalities for all the other many characters who cross the pages.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Tuesday Terror! Green Tea and Other Weird Stories by Sheridan Le Fanu

Read after dark…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In terms of horror writing, it could be said that Sheridan Le Fanu needs no introduction, but in fact the introduction in this new collection of his work adds a lot of interesting insight into his life and work. Aaron Worth, Associate Professor of Rhetoric at Boston University, discusses whether Le Fanu was really the originator of weird fiction, as a term as well as a sub-genre, as is sometimes claimed. This, of course, depends very much on how the term ‘weird fiction’ is defined, and Worth shows how it has changed over time, from something implying “a coherent, ordered cosmic system” to its currently popular meaning of “cosmic meaningless”. He also discusses the influence on Le Fanu’s work of his position as an Anglo-Irish Protestant of Huguenot descent living as part of a ruling class over a largely Catholic country.

J Sheridan Le Fanu

Personally I think of Le Fanu as Gothic rather than weird, but all these definitions are a bit vague round the edges and tend to meld into one another. However he is classified, there’s no doubt he wrote some great stories and influenced many of the writers who came after him. This collection contains twelve stories, three of them novella length, and an exceptionally fine bunch they are, including some of his best known such as Green Tea, Schalken the Painter and my own favourite vampire story, the wonderful Carmilla. Individually I gave six of them the full five stars, and the other six got either four or four and a half, so this ranks as one of the most highly rated horror collections I’ve reviewed. In most cases where more than one version of the story exists, Worth has gone back to the original and that seemed to me to work very well – there were a few of the stories I’d read before that I enjoyed more here, either because later changes had been stripped out or because the excellent notes provided extra information that enhanced my reading. I’ve said it before, but this is another example of how a well curated collection can become greater than the sum of its parts.

When so many of the stories are good, it’s hard to pick just a few to highlight, but these are ones I particularly enjoyed:

Borrhomeo the Astrologer – Set in Milan in 1630, a plague year. Borrhomeo is an alchemist, seeking the elixir of life and the potion that will turn lead into gold. The devil, disguised as a young man, turns up and tempts him by giving him enough of the elixir to allow him to live for a thousand years. But in return he must go out and spread the pestilence to all the churches and holy houses in the city. The moral of the story is – never trust the devil offering gifts! Borrhomeo’s fate may be well deserved but I’m not sure what the Court of Human Rights would have to say about it… 😱

Green Tea – The story of a clergyman who, through drinking too much green tea, begins to hallucinate – or is it real? – a monkey that goes everywhere with him. This is bad enough, but when the monkey begins to speak, cursing foully and blasphemously, the clergyman finds he can no longer pray. He contacts Dr Hesselius, a specialist in such matters of the mind, but will Hesselius be able to find a cure for his problem before it’s too late? There’s lots in this about Swedenborg – a Swedish theologian and philosopher whose rather strange ideas, Worth tells us, Le Fanu used more than once as an influence for his stories.

The Haunted House in Westminster – This story is probably better known as Mr Justice Harbottle from Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly collection, but here Worth has given us the original, and for me it works better in this format. The corrupt and cruel hanging judge deliberately hangs a man whose wife he has taken to be his housekeeper – a euphemism for mistress, of course. But the judge then receives a letter warning him he will be tried for this crime in a “Court of Appeals”. This is no ordinary part of the justice system though – one night the judge falls asleep and finds himself in a very strange and frightening court, waiting for judgement to be handed down… 😱

Carmilla – not the first vampire story, but one of the best and certainly one of the most influential on the vampire genre. This is novella length, which allows room for character development, but keeps it tighter and more focused than a full length novel would be (looking at you, Dracula!). When a young girl falls ill close to Laura’s isolated Gothic Austrian home, Laura’s father takes her in. Laura feels immediately drawn to her, having dreamt about her in childhood. But Carmilla has a secret… and sharp teeth! Full of mild lesbian eroticism and a wonderful mix of the Gothic and folklore traditions, this has some great horror imagery, such as the coffin half-filled with blood in which the vampire sleeps. Much better than Dracula’s dirt!

I have also previously highlighted two of the stories in Tuesday Terror! posts – Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter and Madam Crowl’s Ghost.

Wonderful stuff! Enough horror to satisfy those who like to shiver, but also great writing and lots to analyse for those who prefer to dig a little deeper, guided by an expert. Highly recommended!

After that the porpy has decided he’s going into hibernation! He thanks you for your company and will be back in autumn, rested and ready to quiver again!

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

Amazon UK Link
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Tuesday ‘Tec! Bodies from the Library 3 edited by Tony Medawar

Mixed bag…

🙂 🙂 🙂

As with the previous books in the series, this is a collection of stories that have rarely or never been included in a collection before. There are twelve stories, plus a fun collection of very short shorts where several writers were challenged to come up with a story all using the same object – an orange. There’s the usual mix of well known authors like Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, alongside some that have recently come back to prominence during the current revival, like Christopher St John Sprigg and Josephine Bell, and a few from authors entirely unfamiliar to me.

The problem with these “never before collected” collections is that there is bound to be a finite number of great stories that fall into that category. I read and loved the second book in the series, and was surprised at the high quality of the stories in it. I’m afraid this one feels rather like the leftovers – the ones that weren’t good enough to be included in the earlier books. Only one achieved a five-star rating from me – The Hampstead Murder by Christopher Bush, which I highlighted in a previous Tuesday ‘Tec! post. A handful got four stars, but I found the rest disappointing and not really worth the bother of collecting. I feel the series has probably run its course, in this format at least.

Here’s a flavour of a few of the better stories:

The Incident of the Dog’s Ball by Agatha Christie – although this story was only discovered many years after Christie’s death, it has certainly been collected before since I had already read it! A woman writes to Poirot for advice, but the letter doesn’t arrive till some months later. Poirot discovers the woman died just after she had written the letter, a death put down to accident. But the letter makes Poirot think that there may have been a darker cause, so he sets out to investigate. This story forms the nucleus of the plot of what would become the novel, Dumb Witness.

The Case of the Unlucky Airman by Christopher St John Sprigg – it’s sad that Sprigg died so young, since the little I’ve read of his stuff suggests he had a lot of talent. This one involves an airman who lands to get an oil leak fixed. He taxies into an empty hangar, there is the sound of a shot and he is found dead. An intriguing take on a “locked room” mystery – well told and quite fun.

The Riddle of the Black Spade by Stuart Palmer – a man is killed on a golf course, apparently by a ball with a black spade trademark. At first, his son is suspected, until it turns out the ball was one of the victim’s own. The police captain investigating the death is “assisted” by a spinster lady, Hildegard Withers, who apparently was the star of a series of novels and stories, and popular in her day. This story is light-hearted and entertaining, with some surprises and a clearly explained howdunit solution.

Grand Guignol by John Dickson Carr – written while he was at University, this story formed the basis of his early novel It Walks By Night. I felt a bit smug about that, since in my review of It Walks By Night, I mentioned that the book made me think of the traditions of Grand Guignol! The basic plot and solution are the same but it’s done differently, and the dénouement here is all a bit silly and unbelievable. But it’s an interesting look at the beginnings of the style he would later develop into the decadent horror feel of the Bencolin novels.

So a few enjoyable stories, though often as much for seeing how these famous authors started out than as polished articles in their own right. I’m sure real vintage crime fans will find enough of interest to make reading the collection worthwhile, as I did, but for newcomers or more casual fans I’d recommend the earlier book, Bodies from the Library 2, as a more entertaining collection overall. I haven’t mentioned the first book in the series because I haven’t yet read it.

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

Amazon UK Link
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Transwarp Tuesday! Born of the Sun edited by Mike Ashley

Touring the Solar System…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This collection of ten vintage science fiction stories takes us on a tour of our Solar System. “Ten?” I hear you ask. Yes, there are six of the seven actual planets in the system (excluding Earth). Saturn’s moon Titan is included instead of the planet itself. (Well, obviously one couldn’t live on Saturn, silly!) Pluto is included because it was considered a planet until Neil De Grasse Tyson viciously demoted it to lump of rock or some such. The Asteroid Belt gets its own entry since there have been lots of stories about it. And there’s a mysterious planet, Vulcan – never seen but once postulated to exist by scientists trying to explain the oddness of Mercury’s orbit before Einstein’s theories provided a better explanation; and exercising a considerable magnetic pull on the imaginations of SF writers of the time.

The editor, Mike Ashley (who is wonderful at these anthologies, by the way), has chosen most of the stories from the ‘40s and ‘50s, with just a couple of earlier ones and a couple from the ‘60s. He explains that this is because he wanted to “select stories that took at least some notice of the scientific understanding of the day”. Before each story there is an introduction to the planet, giving its dual history – the advances in scientific understanding of its physical properties over the decades, along with a potted history of how it was viewed and used over time by SF writers. These intros are fantastic – pitched at absolutely the right level for the interested non-scientist and packed full of examples of authors and specific stories to investigate further. (Would make the basis for a great challenge, and I may be unable to resist!) Each story is also prefaced with fabulous pictures of the relevant planetscape, mostly as envisioned by Lucien Rudaux, a French artist and astronomer of the early 20th century. I must say that, much though I enjoyed most of the stories, it was the intros in this one that made it extra special – of all the great anthologies the BL has produced this year, this one is my favourite by miles… or I should probably say, by light-years!

On to the actual stories! Of the ten, I gave six either 4 or 5 stars, and only a couple were duds for me, one which went on too long and another which I simply didn’t understand, so it may work fine for the more science-minded reader. Here’s a flavour of a few of those I most enjoyed:

Foundling on Venus by John and Dorothy De Courcy. A story of the various races and species all living in New Reno, a frontier town on Venus, with all the violence and vice that usually comes with that. The story tells of a child found in the street by a young woman, and we gradually learn how he, and she, came to be there. I used this one for a Transwarp Tuesday! Post.

The Lonely Path by John Ashcroft. Mars! The first manned flight has landed on Mars, sent to examine a strange tower standing hugely high in the desolate landscape. The astronauts gradually discover the purpose of the tower and what happened to its builder. It’s an excellent, novelette-length story, well-told, interesting and thoughtful.

Mars as seen from its moon Deimos
by Lucien Rudaux

Garden in the Void by Poul Anderson. Set in the Asteroid Belt, this tells of two prospectors, hoping to strike it rich so they can return to earth. One day they spot a green asteroid and land to investigate. They find it is covered in vegetation and has its very own gardener – a human who was stranded there many years before and has developed a kind of symbiotic relationship with the plants. I found this quite a creepy story, very well told, with lots of science that mostly went right over my head, but I was still able to follow the story easily.

Wait It Out by Larry Niven. This is “hard” SF – i.e., based on real science, but explained well enough that there’s no need to be an astrophysicist to understand the story! Our narrator is one of the two men aboard the first ship to land on Pluto. But they land on ice, and their nuclear powered engine temporarily melts it. As soon as they switch their engine off, the ice refreezes and their ship is trapped. This is a bleak story but very well told, and I found the ideas in it left me feeling a bit discombobulated.

So some excellent stories in here, enhanced by the fantastic introductions. If you’re interested in science fiction in even the mildest way, then I heartily recommend this anthology to you. Great stuff!

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

Amazon UK Link
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Tuesday Terror! Weird Woods edited by John Miller

If you go down to the woods today…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Set amidst the ancient woods and forests of Britain, these twelve tales take us into the realms of folklore and the supernatural. The book starts with a short introduction from the editor in which he discusses how woods have been seen as the home to all kinds of weirdness – hauntings, druids, evil things surviving from the ancient past. He suggests that modern people have become physically separated from the forest, and this has led to them learning to fear it.

The stories come from the usual mix of well-known and less familiar writers, and the occasional one who is perhaps better remembered for a different genre. EF Benson, Algernon Blackwood and MR James appear, along with Edith Nesbit, Marjorie Bowen and Walter de la Mare, and several others whose names weren’t familiar to me. I gave the bulk of the stories – seven of them – four stars, while two achieved the full five, and the rest were all threes. So not many real stand-outs, but no complete duds either. Overall, a solid collection.

As usual, here’s a flavour of some of the ones I most enjoyed:

The Man Who Went Too Far by EF Benson – probably the most “weird” story in the book, this is a tale of narcissism, the search for joy and the god of nature, Pan. I highlighted this in a previous Tuesday Terror! post.

The White Lady by Elliot O’Donnell – presented as a true story. When the narrator was a boy, he was fascinated by tales of a White Lady who was said to haunt a tree-lined avenue in the local laird’s estate. So one night he sneaks out and hides inside the bole of a tree. He does indeed see the White Lady but he also sees something more… This is a short story, but well-told.

The Name-Tree by Mary Webb – Laura has a deep passionate love of the cherry orchard owned by her father, especially of one tree, her name-tree. Her father has fallen on hard times, though, and sells the orchard, although the new owner allows them to stay on as tenants. But he develops a passion for Laura, and when she will not willingly give herself to him, he threatens that he will throw them out of their home and part her from her beloved cherry orchard for ever. But if she consents, the orchard will be hers forever. The intro tells us that Webb was a feminist writer, and the story certainly has strong feminist themes. Dark, disturbing and excellent.

The Tree by Walter de la Mare – this is a very weird story of a man who has become obsessed by a wondrous tree of a kind never before seen. For years, he draws and paints it again and again, and eventually his drawings begin to appear on the art market, until one day his long-estranged brother sees one. Thinking that now his brother must be making money from his art, he decides to visit him, but what he finds is not what he expects! No idea what this one was about, exactly, but it’s quite unsettling and very well written.

So plenty of variety and some new names for me to look out for in the future. Personally I’m more inclined to find that spookiness lies in alleyways and foggy days and Gothic buildings and the haunts of men, but I enjoyed my tramp though the woods, and I suspect the stories in this collection would have an even stronger appeal to people more in tune with nature and the world of folklore.

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

Amazon UK Link
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Tuesday Terror! Madam Crowl’s Ghost by Sheridan Le Fanu

Deathly dialect…

Taken from the collection Green Tea and Other Weird Stories, this is one of several stories Le Fanu wrote in a Northumbrian dialect. I have no idea how authentic it is, but I love it – there’s a kind of softness and lilt to the words and phrasing that seems made for relating ghostly tales by the light of the fire. So here we go for this week’s…

Madam Crowl’s Ghost
by Sheridan Le Fanu

J Sheridan Le Fanu

I’m an ald woman now, and I was but thirteen, my last birthday, the night I came to Applewale House. My aunt was the housekeeper there…

Already anxious and homesick, the girl’s fears are increased by the teasing of two fellow passengers on the coach, on hearing where she was headed…

“Ho, then,” says one of them, “you’ll not be long there!”

And I looked at him as much as to say “Why not?” for I had spoken out when I told them where I was goin’, as if ’twas something clever I hed to say.

“Because,” says he, “and don’t you for your life tell no one, only watch her and see—she’s possessed by the devil, and more an half a ghost.”

The sight of the old house does nothing to cheer her up…

A great white-and-black house it is, wi’ great black beams across and right up it, and gables lookin’ out, as white as a sheet, to the moon, and the shadows o’ the trees, two or three up and down in front, you could count the leaves on them, and all the little diamond-shaped winda-panes, glimmering on the great hall winda, and great shutters, in the old fashion, hinged on the wall outside, boulted across all the rest o’ the windas in front…

The girl’s aunt and another woman share the task of looking after old Madam Crowl, whose mind is beginning to fail and she sometimes has periods of a kind of insanity. It’s a while before the girl gets to see the old lady, but one day her aunt has gone off to have a cup of tea while Madam Crowl is asleep, and tells the girl to listen out for any signs of her wakening. The girl can’t resist the temptation to take a quick peep at her ancient mistress on her bed…

There she was, dressed out. You never sid the like in they days. Satin and silk, and scarlet and green, and gold and pint lace; by Jen! ’twas a sight! A big powdered wig, half as high as herself, was a-top o’ her head, and, wow!—was ever such wrinkles?—and her old baggy throat all powdered white, and her cheeks rouged, and mouse-skin eyebrows, that Mrs. Wyvern used to stick on, and there she lay proud and stark, wi’ a pair o’ clocked silk hose on, and heels to her shoon as tall as nine-pins. Lawk! . . . Her wrinkled little hands was stretched down by her sides, and such long nails, all cut into points, I never sid in my days. Could it ever a bin the fashion for grit fowk to wear their fingernails so?

(Mouse-skin eyebrows?!?!? Aargh!!!)

Suddenly the old woman wakes…

And in an instant she opens her eyes and up she sits, and spins herself round, and down wi’ her, wi’ a clack on her two tall heels on the floor, facin’ me, ogglin’ in my face wi’ her two great glassy eyes, and a wicked simper wi’ her wrinkled lips, and lang fause teeth… Says she:

“Ye little limb! what for did ye say I killed the boy? I’ll tickle ye till ye’re stiff!”

(Illustration by Charles William Stewart
for the Folio Society)

Terrified, the girl flees to her aunt, who seems to find a disturbing meaning in the old woman’s words. But Madam Crowl’s remaining time is short, and soon she is in the throes of her last, uneasy illness…

She pined, and windered, and went off, torflin’, torflin’, quiet enough, till a day or two before her flittin’, and then she took to rabblin’, and sometimes skirlin’ in the bed, ye’d think a robber had a knife to her throat, and she used to work out o’ the bed, and not being strong enough, then, to walk or stand, she’d fall on the flure, wi’ her ald wizened hands stretched before her face, and skirlin’ still for mercy.

* * * * *

The version I’m linking to is slightly different to the one in the book but not significantly. The book doesn’t have the short introduction, so the narrator isn’t named. Although there are some unfamiliar words sprinkled throughout, it’s not hard to guess their meaning from the context, and of course the notes in the Oxford World’s Classics edition I was reading explain any that might be a bit too obscure.

The story is dark – a mix of human evil and supernatural horror, made scarier by being seen through the eyes of such a young narrator. The porpy quivered quite a bit at points, while I loved the language and the perfectly paced build up to a satisfyingly ghoulish conclusion.

It’s reasonably short – I think it only took me twenty minutes or so to read. If you’d like to read it, here’s a link.

(The porpy is becoming a big Le Fanu fan…)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
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A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

Truth v emotional truth…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a short collection of six stories, some of them autobiographical, others fictional. A couple of them are set at Christmas, while Thanksgiving and birthdays make appearances in others. For me, the collection was divided strictly down the middle. The three autobiographical ones were overly sentimental, veering perilously close to mawkishness, and full of preachy moral lessons the young Capote learned from his wise but childlike elderly cousin. The three fictional ones, however, were excellent – emotional, certainly, but with an underlying feeling of truthfulness that I found sadly lacking in the autobiographical ones. Since it’s a short collection, here’s a brief idea of each story:

A Christmas Memory – here we meet young Buddy, as the child Capote was known, as he and his cousin prepare for Christmas. There is much baking of cakes and collecting of boughs to decorate the house, and so on. The impression is of a rather lonely child, living with elderly relatives because of some family problem. The elderly cousin, here unnamed, is dismissed by her siblings as somewhat simple, but to Buddy she has retained her childlike innocence and sense of joy in life. It’s beautifully written, but too sentimentalised to ring wholly true.

A Thanksgiving Visitor – now we learn that the elderly cousin is called Miss Sook, and that the family problem is the separation and divorce of young Buddy’s parents, each of whom has gone off to live his or her own life leaving Buddy in the care of relatives. In this one, Buddy is being bullied by a boy at school, and Miss Sook sets out to deal with the issue by inviting the boy to Thanksgiving dinner, much to Buddy’s horror. Buddy behaves badly, and is taught a moral lesson that will stand him in good stead for life. My contemporaneous note about this one contained the words “self-pitying” and “trite”.

One Christmas – in this last of the autobiographical stories, Buddy’s father decides the boy should spend Christmas with him in New Orleans. Buddy barely knows his father, and has to travel hundreds of miles all alone to stay with this stranger. We learn more about his parents in this one, and if true (and I have no reason to doubt it) they were a pretty appalling pair. Buddy behaves rather badly, and when he gets home Miss Sook teaches him a moral lesson, blah, blah, blah. This one tipped right over into mawkishness, leaving me feeling as if I’d seriously over-indulged in Christmas cake. I was glad to move on to the fictional stories!

Master Misery – this is a strange, sad and rather haunting story of a young woman who leaves her small town to come to New York, full of dreams of how wonderful life will be there. But of course it isn’t, and she finds herself in a dreary job with no spare money for fun. So when she hears of a man who will pay to have other people’s dreams related to him, she goes to see him. There’s a mystical edge to this, although it never quite tips over into the supernatural. It’s a kind of allegory on the difficulty of keeping dreams alive when faced with the harshness of reality. Beautifully written, emotional in a good way, and thought-provoking.

Children on Their Birthdays – the story of Miss Bobbit, a little girl who comes to stay in town. She dresses oddly and behaves like an imperious grown-up lady, and two of the boys in the neighbourhood are so smitten with her that their lifelong friendship is broken by their mutual jealousy. That’s where the story starts, not where it ends. The ending, in fact, is told to us at the beginning – Miss Bobbit dies, run over by a bus. However, the real emotion of the story is in the boys’ friendship rather than their feelings for the girl. It’s a wonderful depiction of the hormonal angst of teenage boys discovering girls for the first time.

Jug of Silver – this is probably the least overtly emotional story in the collection and a rather more cheerful one to end on. As a publicity stunt, the owner of the local drug store fills a jug with coins and promises to give it on Christmas Eve to the customer who guesses nearest to the total in the jug. A poor little boy called Appleseed is determined to win, but first he has to find the money to buy something in the store to qualify for a guess. He comes every day to stare at the jug, and says he’s counting the coins. The story itself is enjoyable, but the real interest is in the depiction of small town life, with some lovely descriptions of the preparations for Christmas.

Truman Capote

The whole thing reminded me rather of the Avonlea-based short stories of LM Montgomery: warm, full of moral lessons and with a love of small town life, and walking that dangerous tightrope between emotionalism and mawkishness. For me, Montgomery manages the balance better, and her insertion of humour lifts the overall tone. There’s not a lot of humour in this collection and a good deal too much self-pity. I feel harsh saying that, because if “Buddy’s” depiction of his parents is authentic, then he had some reason to feel sorry for his younger self, though it would seem he lived a pretty pampered life in material terms in comparison to the poverty of many of those around him. But he milks it too much for my taste, I fear. Overall, I gave each of the three fictional stories five stars, but the autobiographical ones only managed to scrape a generous three apiece.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Classics via NetGalley.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link – sorry, can’t find this edition on Amazon US

A Surprise for Christmas edited by Martin Edwards

Ho! Ho! Aargh!

😀 😀 😀 😀

What better time to be thinking about murder than when getting together with your loved ones for some festive cheer! (Only 350 shopping days left – better hurry!) This is another collection of vintage crime stories from Martin Edwards and the British Library, each with a Christmas theme. There are twelve in the book, as always with a mix of very famous authors like Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and GK Chesterton, along with some that are less well known, to me at least.

And, as always, the quality is somewhat mixed, although there are no real duds and a few standout stories among them. I gave six of them four stars, while three got the full five, so I’d say this was a pretty solid collection overall. The stories I ranked highest all came at the end, which left me feeling much more impressed than I was, perhaps, halfway through. I felt it was a bit of cheat to include a Julian Symons story that had turned up in the Christmas collection just a couple of years ago, though, giving it a different title this time. But that will only matter to geeks like me who read all of the crime anthologies the BL produces, and it is a good story!

As usual, here’s a flavour of a few of the ones I most enjoyed…

Dead Man’s Hand by ER Punshon. A servant and his wife plan to murder and rob their employer. This is a very short and quite slight story, but it uses the heavy snowfall in an intriguing way to provide cover for the murderer, and gives a nicely dark picture of evil and guilt.

On Christmas Day in the Morning by Margery Allingham. On Christmas morning, a postman is run down by a car and killed. The police think they know who the men were who were in the car, but it seems they couldn’t have done it since the postman was in a different place when they drove drunkenly through the village. It’s up to Campion to work out if they are the guilty ones, and if so, how it happened. This is quite an interesting take on breaking an unbreakable alibi, but what lifts it is the insightful and somewhat sad picture of how lonely Christmas can be for those without families around them.

Give me a Ring by Anthony Gilbert (aka Anne Meredith). On Christmas Eve, Gillian Hynde loses her way in a sudden London fog and steps into a shop to ask for directions. Unknowingly, she has walked into danger, and finds herself kidnapped and held captive. The story is mostly about her fiancé’s desperate attempts to find her, with the assistance of Arthur Crook, lawyer and scourge of the criminal classes – and apparently a successful series detective back in the day. This is a nearly novella-length thriller, very well written, fast-moving and high on suspense, especially since both Gillian and Richard, the fiancé, are likeable protagonists.

The Turn-Again Bell by Barry Perowne. An elderly rector is waiting for his son to come home on Christmas leave from the navy. The plan is that the son will marry his childhood sweetheart on Boxing Day, in the Rector’s ancient Norman church. But there is a legend that each Rector will at some time hear the church bell toll just once on Christmas Eve and this is a portent that he will not live to see the following Christmas. This is a beautifully written, perfect little story, admittedly with no actual crime in it but with all the right messages for Christmas, and it left me with a tear or two in my cynical eye, and a warm fuzzy feeling of goodwill to all mankind. Can’t be bad, eh?

So a good mix of style and tone, with everything from high octane thrills to more thoughtful festive fare. And proves it’s not always necessary to murder someone to enjoy yourself at Christmas…

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! The Curse of the Catafalques by F. Anstey

Repent at leisure…

Sometimes victims of ghostly hauntings and demonic curses must be pitied, but frankly at other times the victim really deserves all he gets. Our young hero in this Christmas tale of horror, from the Spirits of the Season collection, is one of the latter…

The Curse of the Catafalques
by F. Anstey

F Anstey

in the “Curse of the Catafalques” I was confronted with a horror so weird and so altogether unusual, that I doubt whether I shall ever succeed in wholly forgetting it – and I know that I have never felt really well since.

It all begins when our narrator sets off on a sea voyage to return to England from Melbourne, to where he has been banished by his uncle for being a bit of a feckless wastrel.

I resolved to return home and convince him of his error, and give him one more opportunity of repairing it; he had failed to discover the best means of utilizing my undoubted ability, yet I would not reproach him (nor do I reproach him even now), for I too have felt the difficulty.

On boarding the ship, he meets the stranger who is to share his cabin…

He was a tall cadaverous young man of about my own age, and my first view of him was not encouraging, for when I came in, I found him rolling restlessly on the cabin floor, and uttering hollow groans.

Not sea-sickness, as our hero first thinks. The stranger, Augustus McFadden, is regretting his agreement to go to England to woo and marry the girl, unfortunately named Chlorine Catafalque, to whom his rich aunt has left her fortune. An attractive baronet’s daughter with a fortune – what’s not to like? But there seems to be a catch, as Augustus soon reveals…

“The very day after I had despatched my fatal letter [agreeing to the marriage], my aunt’s explanatory packet arrived. I tell you that when I read the hideous revelations it contained, and knew to what horrors I had innocently pledged myself, my hair stood on end, and I believe it has remained on end ever since. But it was too late. Here I am, engaged to carry out a task from which my inmost soul recoils. Ah, if I dared but retract!”

Encouraged by our narrator, Augustus decides he can’t go through with it, and stays in Melbourne, while our hero promises to go to the baronet and explain that Augustus died on the voyage. But when he thinks the matter over later, he has an inspiration…

But it struck me that, under judiciously sympathetic treatment, the lady might prove not inconsolable, and that I myself might be able to heal the wound I was about to inflict.

It would be even easier to console the heiress, he thinks, if he were simply to take on the identity of Augustus, whose face or photograph Chlorine has never seen…

What harm would this innocent deception do to anyone? McFadden, even if he ever knew, would have no right to complain – he had given up all pretensions himself – and if he was merely anxious to preserve his reputation, his wishes would be more than carried out, for I flattered myself that whatever ideal Chlorine might have formed of her destined suitor, I should come much nearer to it than poor McFadden could ever have done.

Of course, unlike Augustus, our hero doesn’t know the details of the family curse. But he will soon learn, as his soon-to be father-in-law reveals that all suitors to the hand of a Catafalque maiden must undergo a terrifying pre-nuptial ordeal…

….“In 1770, it is true, one solitary suitor was emboldened by love and daring to face the ordeal. He went calmly and resolutely to the chamber where the Curse was then lodged, and the next morning they found him outside the door – a gibbering maniac!”
….I writhed on my chair. “Augustus!” cried Chlorine wildly, “promise me you will not permit the Curse to turn you into a gibbering maniac. I think if I saw you gibber I should die!”
….I was on the verge of gibbering then; I dared not trust myself to speak.

* * * * *

This is played strictly for laughs and gets them in plenty. Our ne’er-do-well hero is oddly loveable and makes no attempt to hide his moral weaknesses from the reader. The big dénouement comes at midnight on Christmas Eve, so it’s perfect festive fare, and the horror aspect is so mild that even the biggest scaredy-cat out there won’t have to hide under the bed. In fact, the porpy chuckled all the way through! If you’d like to read the whole thing, here’s a link. It took me about forty minutes to read, I think. 

And the moral of the story? Always read the small print…

(The porpy wishes you all a Merry Little Christmas, with cake…)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 

Overall story rating:           🎅 🎅 🎅 🎅 🎅

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link – sorry, can’t find this collection listed on Amazon US.

Tuesday ’Tec! The Hampstead Murder by Christopher Bush

The perils of research…

Bit of a misnomer here, since this lovely little crime story doesn’t actually have a detective in it, but, since I can’t find an online copy, you’ll either have to get hold of the anthology it comes from, Bodies from the Library 3, or else you’ll have to detect the ending yourself! So don your deerstalker cap, light your pipe, and join me for this week’s…

Tuesday Tec2

The Hampstead Murder
by Christopher Bush

.

Christopher Bush

A man in Scotland wrote a letter to The Times and, by chance, The Times found it interesting enough to print. Because of that letter, which had nothing whatever to do with murder, a woman was strangled in a London suburb.

This excursion into how badly the most innocent action can go wrong starts with the ending – a woman found dead with a noose around her neck…

Then there was the woman, in a charming afternoon frock, with a face like a surprised Madonna and hair like an aureola . . . There was no blood, no signs of a struggle. No vulgarity, but everything quiet and restrained, except for that deadly circle around her neck.

There is however someone else in the room – the murderer himself…

… a quiet man, writing peacefully at a Queen Anne bureau.

We are then taken back to the beginning of the story, where we meet a man with the delightful if unlikely name of Lutley Prentisse…

In front of his swivel chair were table and typewriter but he sat there with the tip of his fingers together and his brow wrinkled in thought. You would have needed no particular shrewdness to have guessed that he was a writer.

He is married to Dorothy, a glittering beauty keen on sports and with a competitive streak – an unlikely partner for the more intellectually-minded Lutley. He loves her even although her energy makes him feel tired, but her feelings are harder to read…

In public a softly murmured “Darling!” and a playful tap are no particular signs, especially when the other hand holds a liqueur glass drained for the eighth time.

Lutley has written three novels, with some critical and even commercial success. Now he has taken a flat to finish his new book while Dorothy is away looking after her seriously ill sister. Just as he is feeling quite happy with his work, he notices a letter in The Times which rather upsets him.

A policeman had written rather indignantly on the treatment of his profession by writers of detective novels, The police, he affirmed, were treated like buffoons and authors rarely troubled to make themselves familiar with the real workings of either Scotland Yard or the C.I.D. departments of provincial forces.

This bothers Lutley, because his new novel contains a section relating to a private detective agency, and he realises he has never in fact had any experience of a real one. So he decides to put this right by visiting an agency, pretending to be a client. Once in the detective’s office, he realises that of course he needs to give him something to investigate. On the spur of the moment he thinks of his friend Peter Claire and, smiling to himself at the thought of telling Peter all about it later, asks the detective to follow him…

“Just a report in confidence, by Monday, of what he does from now until then. You can manage that?”

* * * * *

So now you should be able to guess who was murdered, who murdered her, and why…

This is a lot of fun – not too difficult to see what the outcome is, I think, but written with a lot of sly humour about the perils of being a novelist. Despite the corpse in the room, the ending made me laugh – a very neat little twist. The moral of the story, I suspect, is that too much research can be as problematic as too little, and I’m sure most of my writing pals would probably agree with that! Christopher Bush is one of the vintage authors who’s enjoying a revival at the moment, though I haven’t read any of his novels yet – I hope to rectify that soon. His story is one of the highlights from this anthology, which I’ll review in full at a later date.

* * * * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓ ❓

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

(Poirot worked it out easily, of course – did you?)

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! The Man Who Went Too Far by EF Benson

If you go down to the woods today…

Having been cooped up inside for so long, the porpy and I thought it would be nice to go for a little walk in the woods. This week’s story comes from Weird Woods, edited by John Miller, a new anthology in the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series…

The Man Who Went Too Far
by EF Benson

EF Benson

The little village of St. Faith’s nestles in a hollow of wooded hill up on the north bank of the river Fawn in the country of Hampshire, huddling close round its grey Norman church as if for spiritual protection against the fays and fairies, the trolls and “little people,” who might be supposed still to linger in the vast empty spaces of the New Forest, and to come after dusk and do their doubtful businesses.

At the end of the village is a little house, where an artist, Frank, has come to live in isolation, communing with nature. Today, however, he is awaiting the arrival of an old friend, Darcy, whom he has not seen for several years. But when Darcy sees him, he is astonished at his appearance…

“Frank!” he exclaimed.
“Yes, that is my name,” he said, laughing; “what is the matter?”
Darcy took his hand.
“What have you done to yourself?” he asked. “You are a boy again.”

It’s not simply Frank’s physical appearance that has changed, though. He seems to have become all mystical, and has developed an uncanny intimacy with nature and all her offspring…

He paused on the margin of the stream and whistled softly. Next moment a moor-hen made its splashing flight across the river, and ran up the bank. Frank took it very gently in his hands and stroked its head, as the creature lay against his shirt.
“And is the house among the reeds still secure?” he half-crooned to it. “And is the missus quite well, and are the neighbours flourishing? There, dear, home with you,” and he flung it into the air.

Later, they talk, and Frank explains that…

“…when I left London, abandoned my career, such as it was, I did so because I intended to devote my life to the cultivation of joy, and, by continuous and unsparing effort, to be happy.”

He had found humanity to be too Puritan, too downright dismal, to enable him to find joy among them.

“So I took one step backwards or forwards, as you may choose to put it, and went straight to Nature, to trees, birds, animals, to all those things which quite clearly pursue one aim only, which blindly follow the great native instinct to be happy without any care at all for morality, or human law or divine law.”

Darcy is a bit cynical about all this, but he looks at Frank’s youthful, joyous face and wonders. Frank continues…

“I looked at happy things, zealously avoided the sight of anything unhappy, and by degrees a little trickle of the happiness of this blissful world began to filter into me. The trickle grew more abundant, and now, my dear fellow, if I could for a moment divert from me into you one half of the torrent of joy that pours through me day and night, you would throw the world, art, everything aside, and just live, exist.”

Eventually, one day, as he lay in a deep state of contemplation of joyfulness, he heard the sound of music, from some flute-like instrument.

“It came from the reeds and from the sky and from the trees. It was everywhere, it was the sound of life. It was, my dear Darcy, as the Greeks would have said, it was Pan playing on his pipes, the voice of Nature. It was the life-melody, the world-melody.”

And now Frank hopes that soon he will be allowed into the presence of Pan and through him learn the true meaning of life.

“Then having gained that, ah, my dear Darcy, I shall preach such a gospel of joy, showing myself as the living proof of the truth, that Puritanism, the dismal religion of sour faces, shall vanish like a breath of smoke, and be dispersed and disappear in the sunlit air.”

* * * * *

Pan seems to be a mysterious god: sometimes, as Frank thinks, a kind of pagan offshoot of the Christian religion (as he also appears a few years later in The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame); sometimes a force of ancient Satanic evil, to be avoided at all costs (as he appears earlier in The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen). Since the prologue hints at the ending, it comes as little surprise to the reader to find which version of Pan appears here! It’s the ancient forces of paganism that carry this story out of straight horror into “weird” territory.

The beginning is full of gorgeously lush descriptions of the natural world – so lush I felt Benson was overdoing it until I realised he’s deliberately showing it as an enchanted, almost fairy-tale place. But the story gradually darkens, and we see that Frank’s anti-Puritanism stance barely conceals a hedonistic, narcissistic view of life. So there’s a feeling of this being a morality tale of a kind – a dark kind. It made me briefly feel quite pro-Puritan!

The story is a little longer than usual. It took me around forty minutes to read, I think, but it was time very well spent. Here’s a link if you’d like to read it, and I found this audio version of it too online. I’ve only listened to the first minute or so, but the narrator sounds good.

(The porpy will be fine just as soon as I coax him out of hiding…)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth by Daniel Mason

A triumph of homage…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A collection of short stories linked by subject matter and style rather than through the characters, this is a wonderful homage to the science fiction of the late 19th/early 20th century. There are nine stories in all, and I gave six of them five stars, two got four, and only the last story in the book, which I freely admit I didn’t understand, let it down a little for me at the end. But not enough to spoil my overall enjoyment – some of these stories are brilliant and the quality of the writing is superb.

As regulars will know, I love early science fiction, books from the colonial era, and stories set in fog-bound, sooty old London, and Mason manages to tick all those boxes in this slim collection, so I think it’s fair to say I was destined to love it. It could all have gone horribly wrong though if he’d got the style wrong or dragged in accidental anachronisms. Fortunately, he does an amazing job at catching just the right tone, and I could imagine HG Wells and the lads nodding enthusiastically over his shoulder while he was writing. That’s not to say the stories feel old-fashioned or dated, though. Mason looks at the subjects he chooses with a modern eye, but includes those observations so subtly it becomes part of the style. So the anachronisms that are there are quite intentional and disguised so beautifully that they’re barely noticeable, except in the way that they make the subject matter resonate with a modern reader. In short, what I’m attempting – badly – to say is that there’s no need to have read any early science fiction to enjoy the stories – they work twice, as a homage as I’ve said, but as a fully relevant modern collection too.

Here’s a flavour of a few of the stories I loved most:

The Ecstasy of Alfred Russell Wallace – Wallace is a collector of bugs and birds and animals, which he sends home for the many scientists studying such things. During a fever, he has an epiphany and realises that living things evolve to survive. He writes to a scientist he knows vaguely – Charles Darwin – and waits for a reply. And waits. And waits. And gradually he begins to doubt himself, and to doubt the scientific community, fearing they will take his idea for their own since he isn’t one of them and doesn’t deserve recognition. This reads so much like a true story I looked it up, and Wallace did indeed exist, although his real story seems to be rather different than the story Mason gives us. It’s truly excellent, full of insight into how the scientific world worked in that era.

On Growing Ferns and Other Plants in Glass Cases in the Midst of the Smoke of London (Phew! He likes his long titles!) – This is the story of an asthmatic child and his anxious mother, and the lengths to which she will go to save his life. Mason gives a superb depiction of nineteenth century sooty London, industrialized and choking. Also of medicine, at a time when the treatment was often worse than the disease. It has a wonderful science fiction element to it which I won’t explain for fear of spoilers, but it’s a fabulous story that brought the tears to my eyes at the end.

The Line Agent Pascal – a story set in colonial Brazil. Pascal is one of the agents who live along the communications line that crosses the country, each many, many miles from the next along. Every morning, a signal is sent from head office and each agent confirms in turn that the line is working. But one day, one of the agents doesn’t respond. This is a great character study of Pascal, a man who struggles to fit in with other people, so his solitary posting suits him perfectly despite the dangers lurking in the forest around his station. But he has grown to think of the other men along the line as some kind of friends despite never having met them. The colonial setting is great, with the feeling of loneliness and constant danger from nature or the displaced indigenous people. Worthy of Conrad, and in fact reminded me not a little of the setting in his story, An Outpost of Progress, though the story (and the continent!) is entirely different.

On the Cause of Winds and Waves, &c. – The story of a female aéronaute – a balloonist – whose exploits have made her famous. But when one day she sees an odd rift in the sky she discovers that her gender and class mean that the scientific community not only don’t take her seriously but actually ridicule and humiliate her. So she sets out to prove her story true, taking along a witness. Another science fiction one, but with a delightful quirk that takes it into the realms of metafiction. (I swore I’d never use any word beginning with meta- on the blog, but I really can’t think of another way to describe it. 😉)

So plenty of variety linked, as I said at the beginning, by style, subject matter and wonderful writing. A great collection – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Mantle at Pan Macmillan.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! The Demon Lover by Elizabeth Bowen

Remembrance…

This week’s story comes from a new anthology of eerie stories from the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series, this one with the theme of settings in the various districts of London – Into the London Fog. The tale of terror I’ve selected is set in Kensington, during the Blitz, and comes from the pen of an author I’ve seen mentioned a lot around the blogosphere but have never previously read…

The Demon Lover
by Elizabeth Bowen

Elizabeth Bowen

Mrs Drover is in London for the day, and visits her deserted home to pick up some things she’d left there when she and her family fled to the country to avoid the Blitz. She finds herself feeling a strange sense of dislocation…

In her once familiar street, as in any unused channel, an unfamiliar queerness had silted up; a cat wove itself in and out of railings, but no human eye watched Mrs. Drover’s return. Shifting some parcels under her arm, she slowly forced round her latchkey in an unwilling lock, then gave the door, which had warped, a push with her knee. Dead air came out to meet her as she went in.

Everything is cold, and the empty rooms show the things usually unnoticed in a full house…

…the yellow smoke stain up the white marble mantelpiece, the ring left by a vase on the top of the escritoire; the bruise in the wallpaper where, on the door being thrown open widely, the china handle had always hit the wall.

She passes through the hall to go upstairs…

A shaft of refracted daylight now lay across the hall. She stopped dead and stared at the hall table—on this lay a letter addressed to her.

How could a letter be there? Who could have put it on the table? Mrs Drover hurries up to her bedroom, and opens the letter…

Dear Kathleen: You will not have forgotten that today is our anniversary, and the day we said. The years have gone by at once slowly and fast. In view of the fact that nothing has changed, I shall rely upon you to keep your promise. I was sorry to see you leave London, but was satisfied that you would be back in time. You may expect me, therefore, at the hour arranged. Until then…

K.

She remembers. She remembers the day her soldier fiancé left in 1916 to return to the war in France. She remembers their last meeting in the evening gloom of the garden, and the promise he forced from her before he left. She remembers his unkindness and her relief that he would soon be gone.

Turning away and looking back up the lawn she saw, through branches of trees, the drawing-room window alight: She caught a breath for the moment when she could go running back there into the safe arms of her mother and sister, and cry: “What shall I do, what shall I do? He has gone.”

She remembers being informed that he was “missing, presumed killed”. But she does not remember the appointed hour for the fulfilment of her promise. And she does not remember his face…

* * * * *

Well, this is a little cracker – right up there with The Turn of a Screw in terms of ambiguity! It’s only a few short pages, but Bowen builds a tremendous atmosphere of apprehension and the dislocation of war. We think of WW1 and WW2 as two separate events, but Bowen shows them as a continuum – the second war reviving traumas barely healed from the first.

Mrs Drover is outwardly a passive character. Her first lover seemed to rather want to possess her than love her, and her reaction seems to have been entirely submissive. Left single after the end of the war, she is grateful to attract another man and strives to be a good wife and mother. But there are subtle indications that there may be more going on beneath her calm surface…

Since the birth of the third of her little boys, attended by a quite serious illness, she had had an intermittent muscular flicker to the left of her mouth…

This wonderfully ambiguous character portrait leaves the reader unsure whether anything is true. It’s told in the third person, but if the narrator is omniscient she chooses carefully which parts of her knowledge she will reveal. Is it the repeated trauma of war – the loss of a lover in the first, the loss of a home in the second – that has driven Mrs Drover over the edge? Or is her lover really about to return – living or dead? The ending manages the difficult feat of being both almost entirely unexplained and yet fully satisfying.

Is it a ghost story? Or a story of revenge for a promise forgotten? Or a story of mental breakdown brought on by trauma? I still haven’t decided – you’ll need to read it and make up your own mind! Here’s a link. Whatever it is, the porpy and I think it’s great!

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link