Tuesday Terror! August Heat by WF Harvey

Carved in stone…

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

August Heat
by WF Harvey

WF Harvey

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

Our narrator is James Clarence Withencroft…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Withencroft is silent for a long moment, then…

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

And the date just happens to be August 20th…

* * * * *

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

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

The porpy found this one enjoyably shivery…

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀

Deep Waters edited by Martin Edwards

Not waving, but drowning…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This new collection of vintage crime shorts from the British Library contains sixteen stories, all connected in some way to water – rivers, lakes, swimming pools, oceans. Martin Edwards suggests in his usual informative introduction that perhaps Britain’s view of itself as a maritime nation makes us particularly drawn to watery fiction of all kinds, so it’s not surprising that mystery writers got in on the act.

These collections are always variable, both in quality and in the reader’s reaction to the theme being used. This reader found this one particularly variable, partly because I felt some of the stories only made the cut because of their connection to water, but partly because I’m not a sailor and some of the stories use a fair amount of sailing terminology which always makes me lose interest. Sailors will, I’m sure, feel differently about these. Only a couple of the solutions rely on sailing specifics, though – the majority give us the usual range of motives, clues and styles of detection. And, as always, the contributors range from the very well known writers, like Conan Doyle or Michael Innes, through newer favourites recently getting a revival via the BL and other publishers, like Edmund Crispin or Christopher St. John Sprigg, to writers new to me although they may be well known to vintage crime aficionados, such as James Pattinson and Andrew Garve.

In total, I gave eight of the stories either four or five stars, while the other eight ranged between 2½ and 3½. So no complete duds, but quite a few that were relatively weak, I felt. However, when they were good, they were very, very good, meaning that I found plenty to enjoy. Here are a few of the ones that stood out most for me, and you’ll see from these examples that this collection has a lot of stories that don’t stick rigidly to the traditional detective story format, which gives them a feeling of originality and allows for some great storytelling, including occasional touches of spookiness or horror…

The Echo of a Mutiny by R. Austin Freeman – An inverted mystery (one where we know who the murderer is before we see how the detective solves it) starring Freeman’s regular scientific detective, Dr Thorndyke, this is a longer story at 40 pages or so. A new lighthouse keeper is sent to a rock lighthouse in a rowing boat, but never arrives. The local authorities assume he simply had an accident and drowned, but since Thorndyke happens to be in the neighbourhood they ask him what he thinks, and he finds that murder has been done. The backstory of the murder is very well done, and the solution relies on a nice clue and a neat bit of detection.

Four Friends and Death by Christopher St. John Sprigg – Four men on a boat drink a toast in cognac, and one of them falls dead of cyanide poisoning. The boat is in a Spanish port and of course good Englishmen don’t trust foreign police forces, so the three survivors decide to solve the mystery themselves before reporting the death. Was it a dramatic suicide? Or is one of the three hiding a secret? This is well written, beautifully tense, and ingeniously plotted and revealed. A short one, but excellent.

The Turning of the Tide by CS Forester – in this one, we’re inside the murderer-to-be’s head as he bumps off a fellow solicitor who is about to reveal that the murderer has been defrauding his clients. The story revolves around the disposal of the body – the murderer knows that without a body the police’s chances of solving the crime are much lower, so he resolves to dump it in the sea. Needless to say, it doesn’t go quite as planned, and it turns into a superbly effective horror story, very well told. Spine-tingling!

A Question of Timing by Phyllis Bentley – this is a quirky and intriguing story of a detective writer who accidentally gets caught up in a crime while walking along the river thinking through his latest plot. It’s a story about how serendipity and chance mess with the best laid plans, and has a nice touch of romance in the background. Very well told again – an enjoyable lighter story.

The Queer Fish by Kem Bennett – Our unlikely hero is a poacher who, after an evening drinking in the pub, is stopped on his way home by two men who force him at gunpoint to take them in his boat to France. This is a kind of adventure story but with a mystery element – it’s only later we discover why the men are trying to escape. It has a couple of fun twists towards the end. Well written and highly entertaining!

So a mixed collection, but with plenty of good stuff in it that’s a little out of the ordinary run of mystery stories. I enjoyed the ones I enjoyed so much that they more than compensated for the ones I didn’t. I do love these anthologies…

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

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

Tales of unease…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

Mary Elizabeth Braddon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Walking Wounded by William McIlvanney

Our national mirror…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

McIlvanney takes to the short story form to create a collection of character studies of the inhabitants of his recurring setting of Graithnock, which is a lightly fictionalised version of Kilmarnock, an industrial town in Ayrshire in the West of Scotland. The stories take place just as the ‘70s were giving way to the ‘80s – a time when hope seemed to be turning to despair in light of the Thatcherite policies that would rip the industrial heart out of Scotland over the next decade. McIlvanney rarely addresses politics directly in his work but it infuses everything he writes and, as a result, his books catch the national psyche at a given moment in time. His characters’ stories grow out of their social and cultural circumstances.

The stories here often overlap and share commonalities – many of the characters know each other, drink in the same pub, share the same histories. So they gradually build together to give a full picture of the town and to show how, in any society, the actions of the individual arise from and add to the prevailing culture. With his usual wonderfully insightful prose, McIlvanney makes us care about these people – we laugh with them and cry with them, celebrate their victories, sorrow over their disappointments and mourn their griefs. And we (certainly the Scots among us) recognise ourselves in at least some of them, as we recognise our friends and neighbours in the others.

Margaret and John Hislop had one of those marriages where there wasn’t room to swing an ego. All was mutual justice and consideration and fairness. He only golfed between the hours of two and six on a Sunday because that was when she visited her mother. Her night-class was always on a Tuesday, regardless of what was available then, for that was when he worked late. Both watched television programmes which were neither’s favourite. They didn’t have arguments, they had discussions. It was a marriage made by committee and each day passed like a stifled yawn. It was as if the family crypt had been ordered early and they were living in it.

I love McIlvanney. Having come late to his work as his long career drew to a close, I am reading his books with a retrospective eye and a feeling of profound familiarity – the twentieth century Scottish world he recorded is the one that I too lived. His culture and language and humour are mine too, his people are people I knew, his view of Scotland and the world aligns largely with my own. My only hesitation about him, and I wonder if this is the reason that despite his huge talent he’s still not as widely known as he should be, is that perhaps his books are so deeply embedded in our small society that possibly they don’t have the same resonance for people not so familiar with it. The humanity of his characters is undoubtedly universal, but perhaps a Scottish reader’s instinctive understanding of their cultural hinterland is why he’s so much more revered in Scotland than outside it.

Book 7 of 25

The first story in the book is an example of what I mean. It tells of a young lad asking his boss for a large loan and three months off work. The boss not unnaturally wants to know the reason, and the lad tells him he wants to go to Argentina to see Scotland play in the World Cup. The boss first tries to talk him out of this ridiculous dream, then realises that the boy is a younger version of himself – that he once dared to dream big too – and reflects on how his life has narrowed into a staid middle-aged routine. Standard short story fare, as I summarise it, although wonderfully written, but oh! If you’d been young in Scotland in 1978 when we qualified for the World Cup! If you’d experienced the ecstatic excitement, the national pride, the Mohammed Ali-like hubris of the team manager, Ally MacLeod, the half-believed dream that we might, like Jack, kill the giants and bring home the cup! If you’d stood in the national stadium with thousands upon thousands of others in Ally’s Tartan Army to cheer and sing the team on their way! And if, three games later, you’d wept bitter tears of heartbreak when they slunk home – out in the first round – beaten on goal difference – humiliated! Then you’d understand! This isn’t just a story of two men – it’s a story of Scotland’s crushed dreams!

Ally’s Tartan Army send off – that’s me in the crowd!
Life lesson: Never hold your victory parade before the tournament…

Few of the stories are based around such a specific event, but many of them make use of aspects of working class Scottish culture of the time, especially from the male perspective – football, pubs and getting drunk, dog racing, gambling. What they’re about, however, is men and women trying to survive the things life throws at them – love, marriage, divorce, jobs and unemployment, bereavement, petty crime, violence, prison. Makes it sound much gloomier than it is – while some of the stories made me cry, just as many made me laugh, and a couple made me do both at the same time. McIlvanney’s characters are mostly resilient – the walking wounded of the title. Life may knock them down but they crawl back up, often with a pawky quip at fate’s expense, and ready themselves to face tomorrow.

William McIlvanney

McIlvanney hailed from the same area as our national bard, Robert Burns, and I suspect that Benny’s thoughts in the following quote may be McIlvanney’s own…

Benny loved Robert Burns, not just the poetry, which he could quote at great and sometimes pub-emptying length, but the man, the hard life, the democratic stance of him, the sense he gave of effortlessly incarnating Scottishness, the fact that he, like Benny, was an Ayrshireman. Scottishness was very important to Benny. He wasn’t sure what it was but, whatever it was, it bit like lockjaw and the fever of it was in his blood. When he read Burns, he looked in a national mirror that told him who he was and forbade him to be diminished by what other people had. He was enough in himself.

I wish very much that I could have told him that, what Burns meant to Benny, McIlvanney has come to mean to me. Our bard of the twentieth century – our national mirror.

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Bodies from the Library 2 edited by Tony Medawar

A case of the finest vintage…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

I’ve read lots of collections of vintage short mystery stories over the last few years, as publishers have responded to what seems to be a growing appetite for the style of the Golden Age authors. I’m always struck by how many of the major novelists of the period excelled in this format too, while it would appear that there were many other authors who more or less specialised in short stories. This collection of fifteen stories includes some of the biggest names of all, like Sayers and Christie, some of the authors who are currently being resurrected for a modern audience, like ECR Lorac and John Rhode, and some whose names were unfamiliar to me, though they’re probably well known to real vintage crime aficionados, like Helen Simpson or C.A. Alington.

Described as ‘forgotten’, the stories are previously uncollected and in several cases unpublished, so even those who have read quite widely in this genre will find some real treats here. There are two novellas – a previously unpublished one from Edmund Crispin starring Gervase Fen, and one from a writing duo I hadn’t come across before, who styled themselves Q. Patrick. Dorothy L. Sayers fans will be thrilled by the inclusion of a never-before-published Lord Peter Wimsey story, and Margery Allingham fans will enjoy her script for a radio play. Tony Medawar provides brief but informative literary bios of each of the authors, which throw up some interesting factlets, such as that “Peter Antony” was actually an alias used by the famous play- and screen-writing brothers, Peter and Anthony Shaffer.

This is one of the best mixed anthologies I’ve come across. There is the usual variation in quality, of course, but I gave 11 of the stories either four or five stars and found only a couple of them disappointing. And the five which got the full five stars are all great – they alone make the book a real treat. Here’s a flavour of them:

No Face by Christianna Brand – A psychic claims to be receiving messages from a bloody serial killer, known only as No Face. Is the psychic a fake? But if so, how does he seem to know where the murderer will strike next? This is excellent – it has a real atmosphere of creepy dread that is as much horror as crime, The characterisation of the psychic is very well done and there’s a delicious twist in the tail.

Exit Before Midnight by Q. Patrick – A group of eight people are trapped on the fortieth floor of an office building on New Year’s Eve as a murderer picks them off one by one. Carol is the central character and to add to her woes two of the men are vying for her attention. But could one of them be the murderer? Oh, and did I forget to mention? The lights have fused and they only have a limited supply of matches…This is novella length, with great plotting and real tension, while Carol’s dilemma adds a light element of romance to lift the tone. Loved it, and will be hoping to find more from this duo.

Room to Let by Margery Allingham – This is a radio script, so is given to us purely as dialogue with a few stage directions. It’s a first-class mash-up of a The Lodger-type story and a locked room mystery. Following a fire at a private asylum, a mysterious stranger rents a room from Mrs Musgrave, a crippled lady in a wheelchair. The stranger gradually gains control over her, her daughter, Molly, and their faithful maid, Alice. But… could he possibly be Jack the Ripper?? It culminates with a corpse in a locked room. The framing device is of the story being told years later at a dinner of detectives, whose spirit of competitiveness to solve the mystery gives a humorous edge to the start and end. Well plotted and highly entertaining.

The Adventure of the Dorset Squire by C.A. Alington – This short short story is a sort of country house farce and very funny. There’s no real crime but lots of screaming and confusion – great fun!

The Locked Room by Dorothy L. Sayers – Previously unpublished, it dates to the period before Harriet Vane began to infest the Lord Peter Wimsey books, allowing Peter the freedom for a nice bit of flirtation with a fellow guest at a country house party, Betty Carlyle. When the host apparently kills himself, Betty is unconvinced – she suspects the host’s wife murdered him. This becomes a problem some months later, when the wife decides to marry Betty’s cousin. So she appeals to Lord Peter to uncover the truth. Well plotted, the writing is up to her usual high standard, and the flirtation gives it a lot of fun. Yes, even although I’m normally an un-fan of Sayers, this one got under my guard!

If you’re already a vintage crime fan, then this is one to grab; and if you’re new to the genre, then you’ll find this a very enjoyable way to introduce yourself to some of the greats. Highly recommended!

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

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Transwarp Tuesday! Menace of the Machine edited by Mike Ashley

Where’s the off-switch?

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

Menace of the Machine
edited by Mike Ashley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How to Pick Up a Maid in Statue Square by Rea Tarvydas

Empty vessels…

😐 😐

This is a collection of linked short stories set in modern Hong Kong which, the blurb tells us, “collectively capture various versions of the expat life that share the feeling of being between two worlds, that experience of being neither here nor there and trying to find a way to fill that space.” The way the characters mostly fill the space is by having empty, meaningless sex, usually with strangers.

The stories are well written, but terribly repetitive, filled with too much swearing, drink, drugs and the aforesaid empty sex. The overall impression is of a sordid, seedy place, where people go to make money and seem to lose their souls in the process. I suspect that’s the point, and therefore in that sense the author succeeds in her aim. But I certainly didn’t find them an entertaining bunch to spend time with nor, if I’m truthful, did I really buy the whole idea that expat life is quite this vacuous and pointless, except perhaps for people who have no internal resources to fall back on. I also felt that the picture of Hong Kong was extremely narrowly drawn, never letting us see beyond the restricted vision and lack of cultural curiosity of the characters. These expats could have been anywhere.

I don’t want to be too harsh. Many people have a higher tolerance level than me for reading about whiny, foul-mouthed, addicted, entitled, poor little rich kids having sex, and for them I’m sure these stories will seem less tedious.

NB I won this book in a giveaway from the lovely Anne at ivereadthis.com – sorry, Anne! I tried to love it… 😉

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The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories edited by Martin Edwards

Yuletide villainy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Another themed collection of mystery shorts from the British Library Crime Classics series, edited and with a foreword by our usual excellent guide to all things vintage, Martin Edwards. This one contains eleven stories, all with a Christmas theme, often of family get-togethers for the holiday. Some of the British Library regulars are here – ECR Lorac, John Bude, Julian Symons, but there are also many who are new to me or whom I’ve only come across as contributors to other anthologies. I often find the stories from these lesser known ones are the best in the collections, and this is the case here. I wonder if this might be because they specialised in the short story form, whereas the bigger names are more comfortable with the full-length novel? But that’s merely speculation.

Here’s a brief idea of some of the stories I enjoyed most, which will give you some idea of the variety in the collection:

By the Sword by Selwyn Jepson – this is told from the murderer’s perspective and a nasty piece of work he is too! He is in lust with his cousin’s wife, plus his cousin, usually willing to help him out financially, has decided to draw the line and refuse him any more “loans” which never seem to get repaid. It’s a tradition in this military family that all the men die “by the sword” and our murderer is happy to go along with this. However, there’s more than one sting in the tail of this rather dark and well written story. And the author is particularly good at creating layers, so that we see through the murderer’s self-obsessed viewpoint but also can guess at things he misses.

Sister Bessie or Your Old Leech by Cyril Hare – a man is being blackmailed and is sure the blackmailer is one of his step-siblings. He’s already caused the death of the one he first suspected, but now he’s received another demand. So he sets out to kill the one he now suspects – sister Bessie. Naturally things don’t go according to plan… another one that’s very well told.

Blind Men’s Hood by Carter Dickson – one of the things I enjoy about these collection is that they often include stories that crossover into mild horror. This is a great little ghost story, brilliantly atmospheric. Our protagonists, a young man and his girlfriend, turn up at a friend’s country house for a Christmas gathering. The house is empty – all the inhabitants have gone off to a church service but for one young woman, who tells them the story of a long-ago murder. It’s beautifully done, with some lovely spooky touches.

‘Twixt the Cup and the Lip by Julian Symons – Symons is rapidly becoming one of my favourites of the authors the BL is reviving, and this rather longer story shows his style well. Our protagonist is a bookseller as far as the world knows, but in secret he is also something of a criminal mastermind. He is putting together a little team to rob a local store of a jewellery collection that forms the centrepiece of its Christmas display. Despite his meticulous planning, things don’t quite work out as he intended. There’s a lovely mixture of light and dark in this story, and the Christmas theme is enhanced by men running about in Santa costumes.

Overall, eight of the eleven stories got either 4 or 5 stars from me and none got less than 3, which makes this one of the strongest of the collections so far. Unfortunately I didn’t get around to reviewing it in time for Christmas just past, but it’s one I highly recommend for the nights leading up to next Christmas, or for the rebellious non-traditionalists among you, it would even be possible to read and enjoy it now…

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

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

Oh, brother…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No wonder the porpentine’s praying!

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

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The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre

Bodysnatchers, cholera, curses and ghosts…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

This is a collection of fourteen stories that were first published in magazines between 1819 and 1838. The majority are from London’s New Monthly but there are a few from other London and Dublin magazines. This was a time when magazines were flourishing, providing information and sensation to a readership hungry for entertainment. The foreword tells me that this book deliberately omits the famous Edinburgh-based Blackwood magazine, because Oxford World’s Classics had already published a separate collection of them. The title story, The Vampyre by John Polidori, arose out of the same evening of ghost story-telling that inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and was the first literary portrayal of what would become the modern vampire, hence its star billing. (I’ve already talked about it at more length in a Tuesday Terror! post.)

I found this an intriguing collection, different in tone to the usual horror anthology. Although some of the stories have a ghostly or otherwise supernatural element, many of them are strictly about human horrors and they’re often related in some way to events of the time. For example, James Hogg’s contribution, Some Terrible Letters from Scotland, arises from the cholera epidemic which killed thousands of Scots in 1831-2, while William Carleton’s Confessions of a Reformed Ribbonman is based on a real-life lynching – the Ribbonmen were a secret organisation of Irish nationalists. More than one of the stories has been influenced by the true-life story of Burke and Hare, who robbed graves and murdered people to supply bodies for anatomy students. And there’s a good sprinkling of Scottish and Irish stories, which pleased my Celtic heart.

Macabre is undoubtedly the right word for the collection – some of the stories are fairly gruesome, with a proliferation of corpses and anatomists popping up more than once, and the ones based on real events have an added grimness for knowing that. Madness, when it appears, is not always of the Poe-esque high Gothic variety, but more of the realistic murderer type, and is therefore more chilling than scary, perhaps. A couple of them were too macabre for my squeamish taste, but they were more than compensated for by touches of humour or genuine spookiness in other stories. Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most:-

The Vampyre – Illustration by Anne Yvonne Gilbert

Monos and Daimonos by Edward Bulwer – a story of a man’s desperate search for solitude and what happens when he can’t find it. Another one which I used for Tuesday Terror!

Sir Guy Eveling’s Dream by Horace Smith – this is written in the form of an old historical document, so the author has a lot of fun with old-fashioned language. Basically a warning to wastrels everywhere, this tells of a man who spends his life drinking and womanising, till one day he comes across a beautiful but mysterious lady, who is not quite what she appears. Quite naughty, this one, I thought, in a mild way – Victorian morality must not have kicked in yet. I wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be funny, but it did make me laugh!

Some Terrible Letters from Scotland by James Hogg – this is presented as three letters supposedly written by people caught up, as I mentioned above, in the cholera epidemic. The first tells of a man who is pronounced dead and prepared for burial, but his mind is still conscious. Apparently this was a real fear during the epidemic, at a time when medicine was still a pretty primitive profession. The next letter gives a picture of how easily the disease could be spread, and how that led to fear of strangers. The last one takes us more into supernatural territory as a woman insists on nursing the sick over the protests of her fearful children. Together, they’re a great mix of history and horror with touches of black humour.

The Curse by Anonymous – a man is returning from India, having made his fortune there, to claim the hand of the girl he loves. But on the way home, he meets an old man who tells him that God has placed a curse on his family in revenge for murders committed by an ancestor. Needless to say, when he gets home, the curse is waiting for him! This is a more traditional story which touches on that never-ending Scottish obsession with sectarianism and hellfire religion, and it’s very well told.

Life in Death by Anonymous – a man invents an elixir which, when rubbed on a newly deceased body, will bring the dead back to life. But it all goes horribly wrong! Some deliciously shivery moments of pure horror in this one – sometimes death isn’t the worst thing that can happen…

* * * * *

There’s an interesting introduction by Robert Morrison, Professor of English Literature at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, and Chris Baldick, professor of English at Goldsmith’s College, University of London, in which they tell the story behind The Vampyre and discuss the history of the magazines and the part they played in the literature of the day. The notes are great, with each story put into its historical context. Needless to say, most of the information I’ve included above has been taken from the introduction or notes.

In total I gave nine of the tales either four or five stars individually, so despite there being a few I wasn’t so keen on, overall I enjoyed the collection very much, and recommend it as a good mix of stories that are a little different from the norm.

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

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Tuesday Terror! Berenice by Edgar Allan Poe

Don’t forget to floss…

When discussing classic horror stories, it’s not possible to omit Edgar Allan Poe. Plus his stories are always great. Aren’t they? Time to find out in this week’s…

Berenice
by Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

 

Misery is manifold. The wretchedness of earth is multiform. Overreaching the wide horizon like the rainbow, its hues are as various as the hues of that arch, as distinct too, yet as intimately blended. Overreaching the wide horizon like the rainbow! How is it that from Beauty I have derived a type of unloveliness? — from the covenant of Peace a simile of sorrow? But thus is it. And as, in ethics, Evil is a consequence of Good, so, in fact, out of Joy is sorrow born.

After this cheery start, we learn that our narrator is Egaeus, the last of his line (thankfully), who grows up in the family mansion with his cousin, Berenice. He suffers from a mental condition, monomania he calls it though the opium might have something to do with it, that causes him to focus excessively on whatever grabs his attention to the exclusion of all else. She, once beautiful and agile, now suffers from an unnamed illness that causes her to waste away whilst having epileptic-style fits that leave her in a kind of trance. So they decide to get married. It’s a true romance…

During the brightest days of her unparalleled beauty, most surely I had never loved her. In the strange anomaly of my existence, feelings with me, had never been of the heart, and my passions always were of the mind. . . And now—now I shuddered in her presence, and grew pale at her approach; yet, bitterly lamenting her fallen and desolate condition, I called to mind that she had loved me long, and, in an evil moment, I spoke to her of marriage.

However, Berenice does have one feature which takes our dashing hero’s fancy…

The eyes were lifeless, and lustreless, and seemingly pupilless, and I shrank involuntarily from their glassy stare to he contemplation of the thin and shrunken lips. They parted; and in a smile of peculiar meaning, the teeth of the changed Berenice disclosed themselves slowly to my view. Would to God that I had never beheld them, or that, having done so, I had died!


Unfortunately, he does not die. The same cannot be said for poor Berenice, who having smiled her ghastly smile, quietly goes off and becomes deceased. But a little matter like death isn’t enough to undo the effect of her toothiness on our lovely narrator. He carries out a horrific deed, and then, like so many before and since, pleads amnesia…

Yet its memory was replete with horror—horror more horrible from being vague, and terror more terrible from ambiguity. It was a fearful page in the record of my existence, written all over with dim, and hideous, and unintelligible recollections. . . I had done a deed—what was it? I asked myself the question aloud, and the whispering echoes of the chamber answered me,—“what was it?”

Harry Clarke illustration

* * * * * * *

Well, if you want to know what it was, here’s a link – but take my advice and don’t! Ugh! I reckon Poe must have been having a bad day when he wrote this one! I can’t say it scared me exactly, more disgusted me. Apparently it also disgusted the first readers too, and even Poe himself later said “I allow that it approaches the very verge of bad taste…” Approaches?? It walks right up and punches it on the nose!

Combine that with his constant insertion of bits of untranslated French and Latin…

Of Mademoiselle Salle it has been well said, “Que tous ses pas etaient des sentiments,” and of Berenice I more seriously believed que toutes ses dents etaient des idees.

Quite so!

The words were the singular but simple ones of the poet Ebn Zaiat:—”Dicebant mihi sodales si sepulchrum amicae visitarem, curas meas aliquantulum fore levatas.” Why then, as I perused them, did the hairs of my head erect themselves on end, and the blood of my body become congealed within my veins?

Why indeed?

On the upside, there’s lots of traditionally Gothic stuff about the gloomy old mansion and the library filled with ancient, unspeakable tomes and so on. But I’m afraid this won’t figure in my list of top Poe stories. His narrator was opium-sozzled throughout and by the end of this I was kinda wishing I was too…

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😱 😱

Overall story rating:           😐 😐

The porpy’s teeth are nearly as lovely as Berenice’s…

NB I read this in the anthology Horror Stories, which was provided for review by Oxford World’s Classics.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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Tuesday Terror! The Vampyre by John Polidori

Invidious comparisons…

One summer evening in 1816, a group of friends got to discussing tales of the supernatural, and challenged each other to write their own story. Two defaulted, Lord Byron wrote a “fragment” entitled Augustus Darvell, Mary Godwin, later Shelley, wrote Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, and Byron’s doctor, John Polidori, wrote this story…

The Vampyre
by John Polidori

Portrait of John Polidori
by FG Gainsford c. 1816

…there appeared at the various parties of the leaders of the ton a nobleman, more remarkable for his singularities, than his rank. He gazed upon the mirth around him, as if he could not participate therein. Apparently, the light laughter of the fair only attracted his attention, that he might by a look quell it, and throw fear into those breasts where thoughtlessness reigned.

A young gentleman by the name of Aubrey becomes fascinated by a rather older nobleman, Lord Ruthven, because he finds Ruthven’s character impossible to guess at. Ruthven is attractive but his eyes are strangely inexpressive, giving no clue to his feelings. The susceptible, inexperienced Aubrey…

…allowing his imagination to picture every thing that flattered its propensity to extravagant ideas, he soon formed this object into the hero of a romance, and determined to observe the offspring of his fancy, rather than the person before him.

Illustration by Anne Yvonne Gilbert

Discovering that Ruthven intends to travel abroad, Aubrey arranges to go too, and soon the men become travelling companions. But over time, Aubrey begins to realise that his friend is not necessarily a very nice man…

Aubrey could not avoid remarking, that it was not upon the virtuous, reduced to indigence by the misfortunes attendant even upon virtue, that he bestowed his alms;—these were sent from the door with hardly suppressed sneers; but when the profligate came to ask something, not to relieve his wants, but to allow him to wallow in his lust, or to sink him still deeper in his iniquity, he was sent away with rich charity.

Aubrey tries to give him the benefit of the doubt, even though he can see that Ruthven preys on young women, (in rather unspecified ways), leaving them and their families ruined and disgraced. Then Aubrey’s guardians warn him that Ruthven is a bad lot, and Aubrey decides to leave and travel alone to Greece. But here, tragedy strikes – and soon Aubrey will become convinced that his one-time friend is hiding a terrible secret…

There was no colour upon her cheek, not even upon her lip; yet there was a stillness about her face that seemed almost as attaching as the life that once dwelt there:—upon her neck and breast was blood, and upon her throat were the marks of teeth having opened the vein:—to this the men pointed, crying, simultaneously struck with horror, “A Vampyre! a Vampyre!”

Advertising poster showing Byron as the author

* * * * * * *

I can’t help imagining the two friends, Mary Shelley and John Polidori, getting together again a couple of years later…

Mary: So, did you write a story?
John (proudly): Yes, I did! Here it is! Did you?
Mary (taking the few sheets from John’s hand): Umm… well, yes, I did. (She holds out a massive manuscript.)
John: Oh! (pauses) So… what’s it about?
Mary: Oh, you know, the usual stuff. Mad science, ethics, perceptions of difference, man usurping God as creator, existential questions of loneliness and belonging, the essence of humanity… what’s yours about?
John: Umm… well, it’s about… umm… well, a man who’s actually a vampire.
Mary: Ah! I see! (She riffles through the tiny sheaf of pages.) That should be… fun!
John: I feel a bit embarrassed now.
Mary (kindly): Oh, don’t be! At least you wrote a story. Byron only managed a “fragment”…

Mary Shelley
by Samuel John Stump 1831

Mary was right – this is… fun! Not terribly well written fun, it has to be said, and not very vampirish either, to modern eyes. However, apparently it started the whole fictional vampire obsession, so it deserves praise for that. The introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition tells me that originally it was published under Byron’s name by an unscrupulous publisher looking to cash in on his notoriety, and I wonder if it would have had the same impact without that. I doubt it. I did find it amusing that some people said it was Byron’s best work – bet they felt a bit foolish when it came out he hadn’t written it! Polidori nicked the basic idea from Byron’s “fragment” (which is included in the book and is much better written) and expanded it into a full short story. He was apparently also taking a bit of a swipe at Byron himself – Ruthven being the name Byron’s cast-off mistress Caroline Lamb had given him in her own fictional portrayal in her novel, Glenarvon.

Lord Byron
by Thomas Phillips 1813

In truth, I found the story of the story more interesting than the story. Neither the porpy nor I found it scary, and while the porpy didn’t laugh at some of the clunky, over-dramatic sentences, I did. Clearly the porpy has a sweeter nature than I…

John: Mary, your book is wonderful! It’s destined to be a great classic! I predict it will become one of the foundation stones of modern literature! I shuddered, I cried, I got angry, I shivered in fear! Your creature will fire imaginations through the centuries! Bravissima!
Mary: Thanks, John! Er… your story’s quite good too!

If you’d like to read it online, here’s a link. I read it in The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre, which I’ll review fully at a later date.

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

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😱 😱

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀

Not a quill was raised…

* * * * * * *

Tuesday Terror! The Music of Erich Zann by HP Lovecraft

The Devil has all the best tunes…

This story appears in the collection, The Gothic Tales of HP Lovecraft. Lovecraft is known for his long, verbose, weird fiction but he could do short, Gothic and scary with the best of them when he tried. This little story seems perfect to wake the fretful porpentine from hibernation…

The Music of Erich Zann
by HP Lovecraft

HP Lovecraft

I have examined maps of the city with the greatest care, yet have never again found the Rue d’Auseil.

Our unnamed narrator was a student at the time of which he tells, in a city which is probably Paris although it isn’t named. His straitened finances force him to take a room in a ramshackle house in the Rue d’Auseil. Most of the other rooms are empty, but on his first night in the house, he hears strange music being played in the garret room above his own. On enquiring from the landlord, he learns the tenant of that room is Erich Zann, a strange, old, dumb viol-player.

Thereafter I heard Zann every night, and although he kept me awake, I was haunted by the weirdness of his music. Knowing little of the art myself, I was yet certain that none of his harmonies had any relation to music I had heard before; and concluded that he was a composer of highly original genius.

Resolving to make Zann’s acquaintance, the student stops him in the corridor and asks if he may listen while Zann plays. Grudgingly the old man agrees and takes the student to this room.

Its size was very great, and seemed the greater because of its extraordinary bareness and neglect. Of furniture there was only a narrow iron bedstead, a dingy washstand, a small table, a large bookcase, an iron music-rack, and three old-fashioned chairs. Sheets of music were piled in disorder about the floor. The walls were of bare boards, and had probably never known plaster; whilst the abundance of dust and cobwebs made the place seem more deserted than inhabited. Evidently Erich Zann’s world of beauty lay in some far cosmos of the imagination.

Illustration by Andrew Brosnatch, drawn for the reprint of the story in the May 1925 issue of Weird Tales.

But as time passes, the student comes to realise that there’s something very strange about Zann’s playing. When the student is in the room with him, he plays well but conventionally. However, when he’s alone and the student is hearing him from outside the room, the music becomes wild, with weird harmonies such as the student has never before imagined…

There in the narrow hall, outside the bolted door with the covered keyhole, I often heard sounds which filled me with an indefinable dread—the dread of vague wonder and brooding mystery. It was not that the sounds were hideous, for they were not; but that they held vibrations suggesting nothing on this globe of earth, and that at certain intervals they assumed a symphonic quality which I could hardly conceive as produced by one player.

Then one night, the music grows so wild that the student is drawn to the old man’s door…

I heard the shrieking viol swell into a chaotic babel of sound; a pandemonium which would have led me to doubt my own shaking sanity had there not come from behind that barred portal a piteous proof that the horror was real—the awful, inarticulate cry which only a mute can utter, and which rises only in moments of the most terrible fear or anguish.

He finds the old man unconscious, and when he comes to, he agrees to tell the student the secret of the music. He sits at the table to write out his story, when suddenly the student becomes aware of music, but it’s coming from outside the window!

Zann leaps to his feet, grabs his viol and starts playing for all he’s worth…

It would be useless to describe the playing of Erich Zann on that dreadful night. It was more horrible than anything I had ever overheard, because I could now see the expression of his face, and could realise that this time the motive was stark fear…

* * * * * * *

Gosh! This woke the porpentine with a shriek! It has touches of Lovecraft’s famed weird tales, but mostly it’s a fairly traditional Gothic-style horror story. It’s brilliantly told, with the descriptive writing gradually bringing it up to a pitch of perfect terror. The old viol-player being dumb adds to the tension since he can’t quickly explain what’s going on, and the narrator’s inability to ever find the Rue d’Auseil again leaves the reader wondering if it was all his imagination; or is the street somehow part of another world hidden within this one into which the narrator had somehow strayed? As it reaches its crescendo, I swear to you that I actually gasped out loud!

So far I’ve read about half the tales in this collection and each one has been superb. I wish HPL had stuck to Gothic rather than creating his weird Cthulhu Mythos – for my taste, these short tales of sheer horror have far more impact. If you’d like to read this one online, here’s a link. But I think it’s safe to say already that I’ll be recommending the whole collection when I finish it.

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😱 😱 😱 😱 😱

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s a fretful porpentine!

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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

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

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

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Gothic Tales by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The master storyteller sets out to scare…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Although best known today for his Sherlock Holmes stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote prolifically across a whole range of genres in his lifetime. This collection brings together thirty-four of his tales which have been categorised as “gothic”, although some of them are more gothic than others. Some are well known as classic horror stories and a couple have already put in an appearance on my semi-regular horror slot, Tuesday Terror!The Horror of the Heights and Lot No. 249. None of the Holmes stories are included, although several of them would certainly count as gothic and have a strong element of horror – The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax, for example, is one of his most Poe-like gothic horrors, I think.

The level of horror is variable from mild and even humorous to really quite scary. But the real joy of the collection, as always with Conan Doyle, is the sheer quality of his story-telling skills. Whether relating an Arctic adventure complete with ghostly apparition, or telling a tale of vengeance set in the wild frontier of old America, or forcing the reader to spend a night in a museum full of not completely dead Egyptian mummies, or taking us into the dark heart of the British Empire, his powers of description and ability to create atmosphere and tension are surely second to none. And his total command of a wonderful vocabulary and seemingly effortless writing style make the stories pure pleasure to read.

The range of stories is incredible, making it quite hard to single any out as representative of the collection. Some have a supernatural element while others concentrate on the horrors men and women perpetrate on each other, and yet others take their horror from the dangers of the natural world. We even get a couple culled from Conan Doyle’s life as a physician, including one about a young man with hereditary syphilis – I was astonished that such a subject was handled so openly in a story at this early date. I’m spoiled for choice, but here’s a brief look at some of the ones I enjoyed most…

J Habakuk Jephson’s Statement – based on the story of the Marie Celeste, ACD gives his version of what might have happened. A “quadroon” kills everyone and takes the ship to Africa. Although there’s some fairly strong racial stuff here that sits uneasily with the modern reader, Jephson is an abolitionist and the motive is revenge against white people for the cruelties they have perpetrated through slavery and colonialism. Powerfully told, it reminded me of Conrad’s stories in its reaction to colonialism.

The Beetle Hunter – the narrator is a newly-qualified doctor and beetle collector who answers an advert for the same. His new employer takes him to the home of a famous beetle expert, where the beetles will not be the scariest thing he has to face! Very well told and quite creepy in parts, especially if you’re squeamish about beetles… ugh!

The Retirement of Signor Lambert – a cuckolded husband takes revenge on the opera singer who seduced his wife. That’s all, but it’s told in a kind of understated deadpan that makes it deliciously horrible.

The Pot of Caviare – a group of Westerners trapped following the Boxer Rebellion await relief. But they have heard terrible stories of how the Chinese treat their captives, especially women, and so have a contingency plan should the relieving force not turn up in time. This is a dark and rather disturbing story, expertly told for maximum effect. The notes point out that it’s part of the Edwardian “Yellow Peril” genre, but it’s far more realistic and chilling than any of the silly Fu Manchu type of stuff I’ve read.

The Captain of the Polestar – an Arctic expedition to hunt whales comes to a stop when the ship is caught in the ice. Scary enough, but even scarier when the ghostly figure of a woman begins to appear and the Captain seems to recognise her. This is narrated via the journal of a young ship’s medic, a role ACD himself had undertaken in his youth. Very atmospheric, great descriptions and some first-rate Scottish dialect!

As always in the Oxford World’s Classics editions, there is an informative introduction and extensive notes, this time written by Darryl Jones, Professor in English at Trinity College Dublin. He gives a kind of biography of Conan Doyle’s thought development over the course of his life. He talks about these stories and Conan Doyle’s wider writings in the context of the various phases of his changing beliefs – his pro-Imperialism, his anxiety over the question of Irish Home Rule culminating in him changing from anti- to pro- after seeing the worst of colonialism in the Belgian Congo; and of course his loss of religion and the growth of his belief in spiritualism – Jones shows that he always had an interest in the subject but “came out” as a believer after witnessing the huge losses in the Great War. An interesting and informative essay, happily written without any lit-crit jargon, making it both accessible and enjoyable for the general reader. (Though I do wish he wouldn’t refer to him as Doyle – after he added Conan to his name (in tribute to his godfather) he was always known as Conan Doyle, he published under that name, his son refers to him that way in his biographical writings about his father, and his wife took the double surname Conan Doyle, so I don’t understand why some modern commentators have taken on themselves the right to change his name back.)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I loved this collection. Admittedly Conan Doyle can do no wrong in my eyes, so I’m not the most unbiased reviewer, but nearly all of these stories are good and many are excellent – masterclasses in the form. Perfect for dipping – one to keep on the bedside table in perpetuity, since stories of this quality will stand up to frequent re-reading.

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

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Heart of Darkness and Other Tales by Joseph Conrad

The other tales…

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(I’ve been putting off writing a review of this for ages because I couldn’t see how to keep it down to anything approaching a reasonable length, since, although Heart of Darkness is by far the most famous of the four stories in the collection and is the one on my Classics Club list, the other three deserve more than a passing mention too. So I’ve decided in the end to review those briefly in this post and then to review Heart of Darkness itself more fully in a later post.)

This collection from Oxford World’s Classics includes four of Conrad’s stories, each of which deals with the subject of empire and colonialism in one way or another. It also has an introduction and notes by Cedric Watts, Professor of English at the University of Sussex – a Conrad expert. While the notes are very useful, unfortunately, unlike in the other OWC books I’ve read, the introduction is written in the kind of academic jargonese that I hate – the kind that for non-academics needs another introduction to explain the introduction…

An important political aspect of this theme is displayed by the tale’s demonstration that there is an imperialism of discourse which both licenses and conceals the excesses of economic exploitation.

Hmm! So I abandoned the introduction and hurried swiftly on…

Fortunately, the stories are not nearly as intimidating or difficult to understand as the introduction had led me to fear. I’m sure there’s loads of nuance I’ve missed (I missed the bit about the “imperialism of discourse”, for sure), but my own view is that all stories should stand or fall on their own merit as stories, and should not rely on a reader catching all the references or undertones, though they may be enhanced by it. These stories more than stand on their own – in fact, three of the four are up there amongst the best I’ve ever read.

An Outpost of Progress – Two men, Kayerts and Carlier, are dropped off to run a Company trading post in the Belgian Congo. They are basically incompetent, relying on their black agent and workers to do the work of trading for the precious ivory for which they are there. However, events spiral out of their control and they are left running low on resources and increasingly scared of the, to them, incomprehensible and savage people in this wild land. And then the boat that was due to relieve them is delayed…

This starts off with a good deal of humour, full of irony and sarcasm as Conrad turns the prevailing ideas about the superiority of the white man on their head. We see how quickly the veneer of “civilisation” falls away when men are isolated in a vastly different culture they don’t understand. Gradually the story darkens, until it reaches a powerfully dark and dramatic ending of true horror. The writing is wonderful, full of lush descriptions that create an ominously threatening environment, with enough vagueness so that we, like the characters, fear what may be lurking just outside. And his depiction of the downward spiral of his characters into moral weakness and eventual terror is done brilliantly. A great story.

Youth: A Narrative – This tells of Marlow, who will appear again in Heart of Darkness, as a twenty-year-old in his first voyage as second mate on an ill-fated sea trip in the rickety old ship Judea. A series of disasters leads to the ship constantly having to return to port for repairs, and things don’t improve once they finally get off on their journey. It’s quite funny and is apparently a fairly accurate record of Conrad’s own voyage as a young man aboard the equally doomed Palestine. It’s about the vigour and optimism of youth – how even disasters can seem like exciting adventures before age and experience make us jaded and fearful. It’s enjoyable, but a little too long for its content, and with nothing like the depth of the other stories in the collection.

Karain: A Memory – The narrator is one of three adventurers, smuggling arms into the Malay Archipelago. They come to know Karain, the headman of a small land which he and his followers have invaded and occupied. Karain is a haunted man, perhaps literally, perhaps superstitiously. He turns to his white friends for protection…

From the deck of our schooner, anchored in the middle of the bay, he indicated by a theatrical sweep of his arm along the jagged outline of the hills the whole of his domain; and the ample movement seemed to drive back its limits, augmenting it suddenly into something so immense and vague that for a moment it appeared to be bounded only by the sky. And really, looking at that place, landlocked from the sea and shut off from the land by the precipitous slopes of mountains, it was difficult to believe in the existence of any neighbourhood. It was still, complete, unknown, and full of a life that went on stealthily with a troubling effect of solitude; of a life that seemed unaccountably empty of anything that would stir the thought, touch the heart, give a hint of the ominous sequence of days. It appeared to us a land without memories, regrets, and hopes; a land where nothing could survive the coming of the night, and where each sunrise, like a dazzling act of special creation, was disconnected from the eve and the morrow.

The story in this one, although good, is somewhat secondary to the wonderfully descriptive and insightful writing. The prose in the first two or three pages is sublime, as Conrad swiftly creates a place, a country, a man and a people, all with a level of lyricism and mysticism that places the reader there, already unsettled before the tale begins. Conrad shows how colonialism disrupts and corrupts long-held traditions and ways of life, but how old beliefs nonetheless endure. And lest the reader should wish to mock the superstitions of the natives, Conrad forestalls this by reminding us with brutal irony that many of our own cherished traditions and beliefs arise out of superstition too. He also shows that, when white and black meet not as master and slave but in a kind of equality, the possibility for friendship exists, even when their cultures are so different. I loved this story.

Joseph Conrad

Conrad gets a bad rap in some quarters these days for what some see as racist portrayals of other cultures, and there’s no doubt that the stories include a lot of words we would now consider derogatory, along with depictions of native customs – god worship, cannibalism, human sacrifice – that our current rewriting of the past to suit political correctness makes problematic. But, of course, these things did happen so is it really racist to write about them? And the language he uses is of its time. Plus, in moral terms, he’s far more derogatory about the white men and the evils of empire. I give him a pass – since he was so clearly writing from an anti-colonialist stance, I feel to hang him for use of the n-word is to trivialise the importance of what he was saying.

Reading these three stories first gave me an appreciation for Conrad’s style and view of colonialism, which I’m sure eased and enhanced my reading of Heart of Darkness itself. I thoroughly enjoyed the collection and, despite my disappointment with the style of the introduction, there’s no doubt the notes aided my understanding and gave some interesting background information, making it an accessible entry-point to new readers of Conrad’s work.

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

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The Long Arm of the Law edited by Martin Edwards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth by William Boyd

Light entertainment…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

William Boyd

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

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

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The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories by Arthur Machen

Weird and wonderful…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Shining Pyramid

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

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

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

The White People

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

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

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The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by PD James

Festive felons…

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

PD James

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

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Foreign Bodies edited by Martin Edwards

Crime in translation…

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

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

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

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

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

Poster from the 2015 film based on the stories

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

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

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

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

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