Sinister Spring by Agatha Christie

Watching the detectives…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Over the last few years, HarperCollins have been bringing out a series of lovely hardback collections of Agatha Christie short stories. Some have been reprints of existing collections, like The Tuesday Club Murders (aka The Thirteen Problems) or The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, while others are a mix of stories culled from various collections and put together to create a seasonal theme, such as Midsummer Mysteries and Midwinter Murder (which I haven’t read). This is their latest and, as you can tell from the title, it’s perfect for this time of year (unless you’re on the upside down half of the world!). If you’ve read a lot of Christie collections you may well find you’ve come across most of the stories before, but I always enjoy reading them again anyway and there are usually two or three in each collection that are new to me. Because these are taken from various other collections, there’s a real mix of detectives – Poirot and Miss Marple, of course, but also Tommy and Tuppence, Parker Pyne and Harley Quin, plus a couple of stories that don’t star one of her recurring ‘tecs.

There are twelve stories in this one, and since regular Christie readers might want to know whether there are enough unfamiliar stories to tempt them, here’s a list of all twelve with tiny synopses that hopefully will be enough to let you know if it rings bells. My rating is in brackets:

The Market Basing Mystery (4) – Poirot, Hastings and Japp are on a little break in Market Basing when a man is found dead. It looks like he’s shot himself, but the doctor thinks this isn’t possible. A man is arrested and it’s up to our three sleuths to determine whether he is guilty or innocent.

The Case of the Missing Lady (5) – A Tommy and Tuppence story from Partners in Crime. In this one, Tommy is playing Holmes. An adventurer returns from the North Pole to find that his fiancée is missing. Can T&T track her down? Manages to be both tense and humorous – delightful twist!

The Herb of Death (4½) – One from The Tuesday Club Murders, I think. (I’m basing all these references to original sources on my unreliable memory, so forgive errors and omissions!) Mrs Bantry tells of a house party where foxglove got mixed in with the sage. All the guests recovered but one – a young girl called Sylvia. Was it bad luck or deliberate murder, and if so, why? Miss Marple will soon tell us…

How Does Your Garden Grow? (4) – Poirot receives a letter from an old lady requesting his help in an unspecified matter, but before he sees her, she dies. With the help of Miss Lemon, he starts quietly investigating her household to see if her death was suspicious or merely convenient. Rather reminiscent of the plot of one of her novels.

Swan Song (4) – An unexpected death during a performance of Tosca kicks off this dark and well-told revenge tragedy – a standalone with none of the usual ‘tecs.

Miss Marple Tells a Story (5) – From Miss Marple’s Final Cases. A woman is murdered while sleeping in a hotel bedroom. Her husband is accused, and his lawyer turns to his old friend Miss Marple for help. She soon works out why it seems no one noticed the murderer enter the room. An excellent howdunit!

Have You Got Everything You Want? (5) – Parker Pyne is on a train journey to Venice when a fellow passenger asks for his advice. She is travelling to meet her husband, but before she left she saw a message on his blotting pad which has left her fearful that something is planned to happen just before they reach Venice. Well-told and quite humorous, especially the ending!

The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (4) – A howdunit about a woman whose priceless necklace is stolen while she and her husband are dining with Poirot. Another one where the plot is overly familiar to provide much in the way of surprise.

Ingots of Gold (4½) – Another Tuesday Club one, I think, this time told by Miss Marple’s nephew Raymond. It’s quite convoluted for a short story, involving two lots of missing bullion – one from Spanish Armada days, and one from a recent shipwreck. Set in Cornwall, it’s well told and entertaining.

The Soul of the Croupier (5) – The story of an ageing Countess, past lover of many rich men who showered her with jewels. But now her charms are beginning to fade, and she’s desperate for money, having long ago turned all those jewels to paste. While there is a mystery starring Harley Quin, it’s really the oddly sympathetic depiction of the Countess that raises this one above the average.

The Girl in the Train (5) – Light Wodehousian romp as our young hero, George Rowland, gets mixed up in the elopement of a Balkan Princess, plus a spy ring, and falls in love. Silly, but fun!

Greenshaw’s Folly (5) – Greenshaw’s Folly is a house built by a rich man, long dead. His elderly granddaughter now owns the place, and she has been dropping hints to various people that she intends to leave them the house in her will. When the old lady is murdered, Miss Marple becomes involved! An excellent story, taken from The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding.

As you can see, all the stories rated between 4 and 5 for me – it is Christie after all! So unless you’re already familiar with most of the stories, this would be a great way to sample her range of detectives. And the hardback editions all have lovely bright designs which make them an attractive gift idea for the Christie fan in your life!

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

Amazon UK Link

The Virgin of the Seven Daggers by Vernon Lee

Gothic, weird, folk, feminist, psychological horror…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Vernon Lee, real name Violet Paget, wrote prolifically in many fields during her long career which lasted for over half a century between the 1870s and the 1930s, but her output of supernatural tales was small, mostly written in the ‘80s and ‘90s. This collection brings together ten of them, plus an essay from Lee in which she discusses the supernatural in art. It is headed by an introduction from the always interesting Aaron Worth, one of my chief guides into the world of classic horror over the last few years. There are, of course, the usual notes at the end, and I must say I found them indispensable in this case – Lee’s encyclopaedic knowledge of art, history, folklore, mythology, psychology, etc., etc., would have left me floundering without a good guide to light my path.

By nationality British, Lee was quintessentially European. Born in France to British parents, her early years were spent moving from country to country on the continent, and she seems to have continued this rather peripatetic existence throughout her life, with Italy as her most frequent home. This is reflected in the stories, many of which have settings and backgrounds culled from the art and history of various European countries, especially those in Southern Europe. Her themes are just as widely spread, ranging through high Gothic, weird, folk, feminist, psychological horror – I would find her unusually hard to categorise or pigeon-hole. The two standard features of her style are her astounding erudition on a vast number of subjects, and the excellence of her prose whether she is working in the high melodrama of Gothic or the lushness of Decadence or sometimes a plainer, more realist approach. She is said to have been influenced by Henry James, but Worth makes the argument convincingly that she in turn influenced his writing, especially in his later more ambiguous ventures into the supernatural. Certainly some of these stories have that same aspect of The Turn of the Screw of leaving the reader to decide whether events are truly supernatural or arise from the psychological flaws of the protagonists.

I loved them. They are stories to read slowly (with notes!) and to savour the language, and I found that many of them left me mulling them over for quite some time. There is suspense and spine-tingling horror, but these are also thoughtful, with much to say about the concerns of her time, and, while never strident or polemic, I felt that many of them were also strongly feminist in their underlying themes.

“Enough analysis!”, I hear you cry! What about the stories? I gave six of the ten stories five stars, and the rest four, so it’s hard to pick favourites. And little summaries don’t do them justice, since there is so much more in each one than simply the plot. But let me try to whet your interest with a few that might show the variety in the collection…

Amour Dure – the story of a young Polish historian, Spiridion Trepka. who is commissioned to write a history of Urbania in Italy. He reads about a young woman, Medea da Carpi, who died in the early 17th century, and finds himself becoming obsessed by her. She had had a variety of lovers, husbands and infatuated youths, all of whom eventually died for her and possibly at her hand or her command. It is unclear until near the end whether Trepka is really being haunted by the witchy Medea or if his obsession is purely in his mind. Lee gets fabulous tension into the end of this one in a scene that reminded me a little of Dickens’ great horror writing of the murder of Tulkinghorn (Bleak House). Art, literature and history all play their part in this Gothic tale, as they do in nearly every story.

Portrait of Vernon Lee by her friend,
John Singer Sargent

Dionea – the story is narrated by an old man in a series of letters to a Princess, who at his request has sponsored a child who was apparently washed onto the shore of an Italian village, the sole survivor of a shipwreck. Dionea, as she is called, is placed with the nuns in a convent school to be educated and brought up. But she grows up wild, beautiful and pagan, and has an unfortunate effect on the morals of those who encounter her, arousing wild sexual longings in them which lead to passionate affairs, adultery and general decadence. There is wicked humour in the early part of this but it builds to an odd and disturbing ending. Male visions of women as sexual beings, temptresses, underlie the story. It is a typical, though superior, Pan story, full of lush descriptions of nature and lust, but in this case the Pan figure is female. A story that lingers…

The Doll – Our narrator this time is a woman, who collects bric-a-brac. A dealer takes her to a decayed palace in Umbria, where she first sees the Doll. It is a life-size, incredibly lifelike figure of a young woman, and the dealer tells her tale. She was the very young wife of an older Count, who worshipped her excessively, to the point of obsession. When she died in childbirth, he had the Doll made in her image, installed it in her boudoir and spent hours with it every day, raving of his love and grief. The narrator buys the Doll, and comes to believe that in some way the dead woman is trapped within the Doll, just as the living woman was trapped inside her husband’s obsession. This one is strongly feminist, and put me in mind of The Yellow Wallpaper, although the stories are very different. It’s much more plainly written than most of the stories, and I found the ending unexpected and quite disturbing.

Really an excellent collection, filled with stories that I am sure will give more on each re-reading. Lee’s essay, too, is fascinating as she mulls on the effect of literature and art on our imagination of the supernatural. Highly recommended!

(The fretful porpentine and I thought this was a wonderful one to end spooky season with
and now that the evenings are beginning to lighten
the porpy has toddled off to his hibernation box, to sleep, perchance to dream…)

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

Amazon UK Link

The End of the Tether and Other Stories by Joseph Conrad

Behind the façade…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This new collection from Oxford World’s Classics consists of four stories that have appeared in other collections but have never before been brought together. In the introduction, Philip Davis, Emeritus Professor of Literature and Psychology at the University of Liverpool, suggests that each of the stories is about “radical insecurity” – human beings confronted with situations that destroy the foundations on which they have built their sense of themselves, leaving them in a kind of terrifying moral void. Davis suggests that this reflects Conrad’s own fears and insecurities, growing out of his personal experiences and the conflicts within his own nature.

Since there are only four stories, rather than burbling on generally about things you too can read in the far better written and interesting introduction, here’s a brief look at each story individually:

The End of the Tether – Set around the mid-1880s, this tells the tale of Captain Whalley, once famous for finding new routes in the early days of trading in the Malay Straits region of the empire, which left him a wealthy man. Now he is old, his wife dead, and his only daughter, whom he loves, is married to a feckless man and living far away from him in Australia. He has always helped her financially, but now he has lost all his money in a banking crash. So he takes a job as Captain of the Sofala. It is owned by its engineer, Massy, who won money in the Manila lottery and decided to buy his own ship. However the law says he must have a licensed captain in charge of the ship, which he resents bitterly, and he has treated previous captains so badly that now no one wants to work for him. Whalley, however, invests his last few hundred pounds in the ship, on condition that if he leaves he will get his money back, and this prevents Massy from dismissing him and forces him to treat Whalley with at least an outward show of respect. But Whalley has a secret, one which will bring him to the end of his tether…

Wonderfully written, this is a deep character study of a good man driven to behave in a way that his former self would have found unthinkable, and the consequences of that to his sense of himself. The three other main characters are also well-drawn and their motivations are messily flawed and intensely human. Novella length, I found it a little overlong and slow to come to the point, although Conrad’s writing is of such quality that time spent in his company rarely feels wasted. The ending, however, is full of power and emotion, and it’s a tale that has lingered in the few weeks since I read it.

Amy Foster – A man is cast ashore on a land foreign to him, the sole survivor of a shipwreck. This is a bleak and tragic tale, showing the alien feeling of those displaced from their home, trying to make a life in a society with a different language and culture, and being the object of constant mistrust. While this unintentional immigrant is more effectively cut off from home than anyone could be with today’s technology, it still feels very relevant in these days of refugees seeking acceptance in societies that don’t welcome them. As Davis points out, Conrad himself was an immigrant – effectively a refugee – and while he made a success of it, Davis suggests that feeling of alienation never left him completely. It’s quite short (for Conrad!) and, while I can’t say I enjoyed it exactly, I found it was more profound about the “immigrant experience” than many a full-length novel I’ve forced my way through.

Joseph Conrad

The Return – This is a superficially simple story of a man whose wife of five years leaves him a letter to say she’s gone off with another man. Before he has time to begin processing this, she returns, having changed her mind. The story is told in third person but entirely from the perspective of the husband, Alvan Hervey. It shows the bourgeois placidity of a marriage arranged without real love, mainly to assuage the man’s sexual needs and to provide both with a secure social environment from which to pursue their conventional lives. The shock of the letter followed by his wife’s return force Hervey to find a way to react to a situation that has overturned everything he thought he knew about his wife, but also about himself. The story is powerful, insightful, cruel in its dissection of both of these empty people, and wonderfully written.

The Duel – Set during Napoleon’s wars, the story begins when one officer takes offence over an action of a fellow officer and challenges him to a duel. The incident is trivial, and the challenger, Feraud, is clearly in the wrong. But it is a point of honour that a challenge between officers of equal rank cannot be refused, and so D’Hubert agrees to fight. The outcome is bloody but not fatal, and in Feraud’s eyes doesn’t settle the matter. Over the next 16 years, he will challenge D’Hubert again and again, whenever the ongoing wars allow, and D’Hubert can never see a way to refuse without losing his reputation. It begins to define his life, and Feraud’s. No one knows what the initial offence was except for the two men and the reader, and they gradually become a legend throughout the army, where it is assumed that the secret must be a terrible one indeed to have brought about this life-long feud. This is much lighter than the other three stories and in fact there’s a lot of humour in it – and that’s not something I ever expected to say about Conrad, based on my limited reading of him so far! Again, he gets great depth in the characterisation, particularly of D’Hubert as a man caught in a web from which he can find no escape with honour.

The Duel and The Return were my favourites while reading, though I must say The End of the Tether is the one that has lingered most in my mind and which I feel would most repay a second read. The introduction is interesting and I find with Conrad that good notes are essential! Overall I loved this collection, and thought the selection did indeed achieve the editor’s aim – although very different, the stories work together very well as examinations of people forced by circumstance to confront themselves when the façade behind which they have hidden crumbles.

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

Amazon UK Link

Final Acts edited by Martin Edwards

Behind the curtain…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The latest of the British Library’s vintage crime anthologies, Final Acts contains fourteen stories all connected in some way to the theatre. There are on-stage murders, back-stage murders, off-stage murders! Lots of potential for disguises and make-up to fool the onlookers, and lots of dramatic reactions to events. And we all know about the loose morals of these actor types, so plenty of affairs, jealousies and betrayals to drive them all to become murderer or victim! I love the theatre as a setting for mysteries because the setting and characters are especially well suited to concealment and misdirection, and drama! What the audience sees is very different to the reality hidden behind the curtain.

There’s the usual mix of authors, some very well known, like Dorothy L Sayers and Ngaio Marsh, some who have become regulars in these anthologies, such as AEW Mason and Julian Symons, and a sprinkling of ones who are new to me. Of the fourteen stories, I rated twelve as good or excellent, and the other two weren’t complete duds either. That makes this one of my mostly highly rated of these anthologies to date. There’s the usual introduction from Martin Edwards, and little bios of the various authors preceding each story (I always read these after I read the story, because very occasionally they can be a bit spoilery).

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

The Affair at the Semiramis Hotel by AEW Mason – A struggling young singer is tempted to steal a string of pearls, but when she sneaks into the hotel room of the lady who owns them, she finds men already there, burgling the room. They are dressed for the masked ball that is taking place in the hotel that night, so she is unable to describe them clearly. Inspector Hanaud of the French police is in London visiting his friend Ricardo, and becomes unofficially involved in the investigation which will take him into the world of opera. This is a fairly substantial story at around 50 pages, and I grow fonder of Hanaud and Ricardo each time I meet them. Neither of them is particularly likeable – Hanaud is one of these insufferable know-it-alls who is very mean to poor, pompous Ricardo. But there’s usually a lot of humour in the stories, the writing is very good, and this one is particularly well told, I think.

Blood Sacrifice by Dorothy L Sayers – Garrick Drury is an actor-manager, a great romantic lead with his finger on the pulse of what the public wants. John Scales’ first play is a dark and brooding tale of the degrading impact of war on his protagonist’s character. He’s thrilled when Drury contracts to produce and perform in the play, knowing this will bring him instant success. But the contract gives Drury the right to make alterations, and he turns the play into a romantic sob-fest with a happy ending. Scales grows to hate him… I’m not a fan of Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey books, but I must say her short stories are excellent. This one is a great story with strong characterisation and motivation, and her description of Garrick Drury made me laugh – “Mr. Drury (forty-two in the daylight, thirty-five in the lamplight and twenty-five or what you will in a blond wig and the spotlight) was well fitted by nature to acquire girls…”

The Blind Spot by Barry Perowne – Annixter, a playwright, is in a club getting drunk because a woman dumped him. It’s when he’s drunk that his best ideas for plays come to him, and tonight it happens – a wonderful idea for a locked room murder mystery. He tells a man in the club all about it, in the way drunks do, then walks outside and gets hit by a taxi. When he comes to, he remembers everything about his plot except the solution to how the locked room element was done. He begins to hunt for the stranger from the club, but the man seems reluctant to be found… I thought this was a fantastic story, one of the best short mystery stories I’ve ever read. It starts out full of humour, then gradually the tension mounts and the denouement is beautifully paced so that the reader gets there just before Annixter does. I’ve only read two stories by Perowne and loved them both – must seek out more!

The Thirteenth Knife by Bernard J Farmer – Simone is a knife-thrower and each night she performs in a club, throwing her thirteen knives at Jean, the waiter to whom she’s engaged. But she has attracted the unwanted attentions of another man – a rich man, who’s used to getting what he wants. This is a very short story, so that’s as much as I can say without spoilers, but it’s very effective and manages to create real tension in such a short space. And a nice little twist in the tail!

So lots of variety, and loads of enjoyable stories – highly recommended!

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

Amazon UK Link

The Horned God edited by Michael Wheatley

When the pipes play…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The last of the British Library Tales of the Weird anthologies that the porpy and I have read for this year’s spooky season, this one contains 11 stories and 6 short poems all on the theme of Pan. As I’ve said before, the poems in these anthologies never really interest me and I tend to skim over them, so to be fair I don’t include them when deciding how to rate the book. The eleven stories, though, are very good. I’ve always liked Pan from way back when first introduced to him in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, and indeed the relevant chapter of that book, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, is included here and works very well as a standalone story, showing Pan in his demigod role as friend and protector of animals.

Most of the stories here, though, are more interested in Pan as everything from a champion of free sex, to a corrupter of the innocent, to a campaigner against the deadliness of some of the more joyless types of Christianity. Pan, when he’s being presented as a positive force, encourages people to find freedom from the strict conventionalities of Victorian/Edwardian society, that being the era of most of these stories. But just as often he’s presented as bad or, rather, amoral, corrupting people and destroying them either morally or physically or both. Seems to very much depend on the outlook of the author!

The blurb suggests the stories share a theme of “queer awakenings” which surprised me when I looked at the index and saw that Ratty and Mole were about to appear, along with Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan which I had also already read and loved, and which for me had themes of degeneracy and degradation rather than any kind of awakening, queer or otherwise! As I suspected, this claim is little more than a marketing ploy to tie in with the current obsession with all things queer in contemporary culture – while it could feasibly be claimed for a couple of the stories, most of the sex, actual or implied, in the stories is of the heterosexual kind (with occasional mild hints of bestiality!), and often not presented positively at all. Being of that earlier era, it is also never described graphically, though there are enough hints for the reader to be able to imagine what’s going on in those forest glades at midnight…

The Great God Pan
Illustration by
mgkellermeyer via

This is another collection that got consistently high ratings from me, excluding the poems. Of the eleven stories, I gave seven the full five stars, and none of the stories rated as poor. Here’s a flavour of a few of the ones I enjoyed most:

The Moon-Slave by Barry Pain – a story of a young girl who loves to dance! I highlighted this one in a previous Tuesday Terror! post.

The Story of a Panic by EM Forster – Young Eustace, a “repellent” 14-year-old (is there any other kind?), is staying in an Italian hotel with two aunts and a group of dully conventional and mostly middle-aged English and American people. During a picnic, everyone suddenly feels a great fear and they all run off… except Eustace. Whatever happened to him on that hill, (and there’s a reason the word “panic” has Pan in it), Eustace is changed forever, and no matter how hard they try, the other guests are unable to “cure” him. This is one on which the “queer awakenings” claim is based, and it can certainly easily be read that way, though it can equally be read as simply a breaking away from society’s conventions. It’s very well told, with some humour but also with some depth.

The Devil’s Martyr by Signe Toksvig – (If you’re wondering, yes, she was the great-aunt of Sandi Toksvig.) An orphaned young boy has been left in the guardianship of a bishop, who has handed him over to monks to train him up for a life in the Church – a particularly harsh version of the Church, where all is sin and the monks enjoy nothing more than a good bit of self-flagellation of an evening. However, a friend of the boy’s father shows up and gets the bishop to agree to allow the boy to go away with him for a month. During that month, he introduces the boy to wine, women and song, and shows him there is another god to worship – Pan, who in this story is not unlike the Devil. This is a dark story which is certainly about sexual awakening, but also about the evils that can result when religion is taken to extremes.

Pan in The Wind in the Willows

The Golden Bough by David H Keller – Two newlyweds are honeymooning, when the rather fey young wife tells her husband that she has dreamt of a house and wants them to live in it. The husband, who is wealthy and loving to a fault, agrees to drive around till they find the house, which they eventually do. It turns out to be a castle, isolated from all other people, in the middle of a forest. The husband isn’t wildly keen but decides to stay there for a while in the hopes his young wife will tire of the loneliness. But there’s a mysterious man in the forest, who plays a mysterious pipe, and the wife becomes enthralled by him. Very dark, with elements of fairy stories and some great horror imagery at the end.

I seem to have picked out some of the darker stories, but there are lighter stories too. However, the overall lesson is that Pan is not a god to treat lightly! If you hear those pipes when you’re walking in the forest, run! An excellent collection that is interesting for showing the variety of ways in which Pan has been portrayed.

(The porpy admitted that he and his chums often sneak off
to worship their demigod Pan in the forest at midnight…)

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

Amazon UK Link

Tuesday Terror! The Moon-Slave by Barry Pain

That’s how you know…

This week’s story is taken from The Horned God, a British Library Tales of the Weird anthology focusing on stories starring the Great God Pan. They are a warning to us all to live in crowded cities, preferably with our doors and windows sealed to keep out the horrors and temptations of the natural world! Our little heroine in this story paid no heed to this advice, as she danced ‘neath the light of an enchanted moon…

The Moon-Slave
by Barry Pain

Barry Pain

The Princess Viola had, even in her childhood, an inevitable submission to the dance; a rhythmical madness in her blood answered hotly to the dance music, swaying her, as the wind sways trees, to movements of perfect sympathy and grace.

Like many of us girlies, she has found dancing with (most) men something of a disappointment…

‘They are all right,’ she said to herself as she thought of the men she had left, ‘but they cannot dance. Mechanically they are all right; they have learned it and don’t make childish mistakes; but they are only one-two-three machines. They haven’t the inspiration of dancing. It is so different when I dance alone.’

Even her Prince, the handsome Hugo, to whom she has become betrothed, doesn’t set her blood tingling when they dance…

With others the betrothal was merely a question of state. With her it was merely a question of obedience to the wishes of authority; it had been arranged; Hugo was comme ci, comme ça—no god in her eyes; it did not matter. But with Hugo it was quite different—he loved her.

Perhaps if she had loved him it would have been different – love is the secret ingredient that turns (most) men into good dancers, after all. The betrothal party is in full swing, but Viola, bored with the dance, slips off into the palace grounds and finds herself at the entrance to the old overgrown maze…

Many years ago the clue to the maze had been lost; it was but rarely now that anyone entered it. Its gravel paths were green with weeds, and in some places the hedges, spreading beyond their borders, had made the way almost impassable.

Viola enters the maze anyway with the idea of reaching the space at the centre, but gradually is lulled by the darkness…

She soon forgot her purpose, and wandered about quite aimlessly, sometimes forcing her way where the brambles had flung a laced barrier across her path, and a dragging mass of convolvulus struck wet and cool upon her cheek.

By chance… or is it?… she finds herself in the centre…

Here the ground was carpeted with sand, fine and, as it seemed, beaten hard. From the summer night sky immediately above, the moonlight, unobstructed here, streamed straight down upon the scene. Viola began to think about dancing.

And that’s when she makes her mistake…

‘Sweet moon,’ she said in a kind of mock prayer, ‘make your white light come down in music into my dancing-room here, and I will dance most deliciously for you to see.’ She flung her head backward and let her hands fall; her eyes were half closed, and her mouth was a kissing mouth. ‘Ah! sweet moon,’ she whispered, ‘do this for me, and I will be your slave; I will be what you will.’

Oh dear!

Quite suddenly the air was filled with the sound of a grand invisible orchestra. Viola did not stop to wonder. To the music of a slow saraband she swayed and postured. In the music there was the regular beat of small drums and a perpetual drone. The air seemed to be filled with the perfume of some bitter spice. Viola could fancy almost that she saw a smouldering camp-fire and heard far off the roar of some desolate wild beast. She let her long hair fall, raising the heavy strands of it in either hand as she moved slowly to the laden music. Slowly her body swayed with drowsy grace, slowly her satin shoes slid over the silver sand.

Le Faune by Carlos Schwabe.
Musées d’art et d’histoire in Geneva.

* * * * *

Things we have learned today:

1. Never wander off alone at night.

2. Never go into old forgotten mazes.

3. Never make pacts with powers you don’t understand!

4. If given a choice between a Prince and a desolate wild beast, pick the Prince!!

This is a short story, beautifully written and full of the kind of lush descriptions of the natural world that normally signal the arrival of Pan. It’s very clear where it’s heading but it’s done so well that it still manages to create an atmosphere of tension. In the style of those happy bygone days it’s packed full of sensuality and repressed desire without ever resorting to spelling everything out in graphic detail, and that subtlety and allusion works so much better than the hit-you-over-the-head-with-a-hammer approach of too much modern writing. The porpy and I both loved this one!

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

(The porpy apologises for the unseasonal story
and wishes you a Merry Christmas!)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link

Our Haunted Shores edited by Emily Alder, Jimmy Packham and Joan Passey

Get out of the water!

🙂 🙂 😐

Another anthology from the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series, this one has twenty entries, all with settings around the shores of Britain. I say entries rather than stories because several of these are not stories, and often not at all what I would describe as horror or weird. There are poems, which I freely admit are not my thing and none of them made me want to change my mind. There are recountings of folk myths, which are interesting but not developed as stories. And there are pieces which recount natural disasters, such as drownings and tragedies at sea, which are done more as faux reportage than, again, being developed as horror stories. Of the twenty, I’d call fifteen of them stories, but there are only eleven that I’d classify as in any way weird, even by the most generous definition of that genre.

Unfortunately, even among those fifteen I found the quality of the selections pretty disappointing. While there are some stand-out stories, most are rather unimpressive and a few are frankly poor, feeling to me as if they’re included only because of their connection to the overarching theme rather than for any intrinsic quality in the stories. I said recently that these anthologies work best when the editor and the reader are in tune. While I don’t know Emily Alder or Jimmy Packham, I have found in the past that Joan Passey and I are not in tune – she is far more interested in the little poems and folk myths she includes than I am, and we clearly don’t share a definition of what ‘weird’ or even ‘horror’ means. So as always my reaction to the collection is subjective, and other readers may find themselves more in synch with the selections than I.

As usual, here’s a flavour of the ones I enjoyed most – a rather restricted list this time, since I gave only 4 of the entries five stars:

The Sea-Fit by Algernon Blackwood – a deliciously scary story of ancient sea gods and those who worship them. I highlighted this one in a previous Tuesday Terror! post.

Crooken Sands by Bram Stoker – another that I’ve included as a Tuesday Terror! post, this is a surprisingly humorous tale of a visitor to Scotland who insists on wearing full Highland rig despite the warnings of the local seer.

On the Isle of Blue Men by Robert W Sneddon – A manuscript is found after the death of a madman who had appeared on the Portuguese shore one day and lived out his remaining life there. The manuscript tells of how the narrator and his wife, Alice, sailed out to an island inhabited only by three lighthouse keepers, all Highland men. One of them Jamieson, is reputed to be a seer. He is horrified that a woman is on the island, especially a red-haired one. He warns that it will bring on them the curse of the Blue Men! And indeed it does! An excellent story, based on a Scottish myth, with some terrifying octopus-like creatures that would certainly deter me from taking a job on a lonely island!

Image: Warriors of Myth via The Scotsman

A Ghost of the Sea by Francis Prevost – The narrator is on a walking holiday in Cornwall and Devon when he meets an old acquaintance who had withdrawn from the world some time back. He explains to the narrator that he behaved badly towards a woman who subsequently drowned, and now he sees her dead body in the sea. Bad enough, but now he has come to see other dead people in the sea too. The writing in this one is great with some powerful imagery, and there’s a real sense of unease. The narrator wishes to be a cynic, but he gradually becomes less certain. Quite an unsettling story that reminds us of the many lives lost around our shores and the many bodies never recovered.

So a few goodies, but one of the less successful of these anthologies overall.

(The porpy says he’ll stick to puddles for a while…)

Fretful Porpentine Rating: 😮 😮

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

Amazon UK Link

Tuesday Terror! Crooken Sands by Bram Stoker

Arthur, Where’s Yer Troosers?

The porpy and I are always happy when Bram Stoker pops up in one of our anthologies. His stories can sometimes be a bit grim for our tastes, but they’re always well written and imaginative. This one is in Our Haunted Shores, one of the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series…

Crooken Sands
by Bram Stoker

Bram Stoker

Mr. Arthur Fernlee Markam, who took what was known as the Red House above the Mains of Crooken, was a London merchant, and being essentially a cockney, thought it necessary when he went for the summer holidays to Scotland to provide an entire rig-out as a Highland chieftain, as manifested in chromolithographs and on the music-hall stage.

It has long been a joke in Scotland that if you see someone wandering around in tartan you can be sure they’ll be a tourist. Mr Markham based his knowledge of Scottish culture on a totally reliable source…

He had once seen in the Empire the Great Prince – “The Bounder King” – bring down the house by appearing as “The MacSlogan of that Ilk,” and singing the celebrated Scotch song. “There’s naething like haggis to mak a mon dry!”

(The kilt is not always flattering…)

Very true! Crooken Bay is a beautiful spot, situated between Aberdeen and Peterhead…

…at either end of the bay is a rocky promontory, and when the dawn or the sunset falls on the rocks of red syenite the effect is very lovely.

There is just one spot in the bay that presents danger to the unwary…

Between the rocks, which are apart about some fifty feet, is a small quicksand, which, like the Goodwins, is dangerous only with the incoming tide. It extends outwards till it is lost in the sea, and inwards till it fades away in the hard sand of the upper beach.

It is just above here that the Red House is situated. Mr Markam hadn’t told his family about his holiday outfit, and had had it made in secret…

He had taken some pains to insure the completeness of the Highland costume. For the purpose he had paid many visits to “The Scotch All-Wool Tartan Clothing Mart” which had been lately established in Copthall-court by the Messrs. MacCallum More and Roderick MacDhu.

These gentlemen had pointed out the possible embarrassment of wearing a clan tartan to which Mr Markam was not entitled, so Mr Markam had ordered them to design a unique tartan for him…

It was based on the Royal Stuart, but contained suggestions as to simplicity of pattern from the Macalister and Ogilvie clans, and as to neutrality of colour from the clans of Buchanan, Macbeth, Chief of Macintosh and Macleod. When the specimen had been shown to Markam he had feared somewhat lest it should strike the eye of his domestic circle as gaudy…

(…but sometimes it is…)

However, he was delighted with it and gave the makers his permission to use the design for others if they wished. He didn’t want to go completely overboard though…

“I shall not, of course, take the claymore and the pistols with me on ordinary occasions,”

He changed into the Highland outfit as the boat drew into Aberdeen, and burst upon his family in his full glory. His son was the first to react…

“Here’s a guy! Great Scott! It’s the governor!” And the boy fled forthwith and tried to bury his laughter under a cushion in the saloon.

This was nothing, though, to the reaction of the Aberdonians when the family disembarked…

The boys and loafers, and women with babies, who waited at the landing shed, followed en masse as the Markam party took their way to the railway station; even the porters with their old-fashioned knots and their new-fashioned barrows, who await the traveller at the foot of the gang-plank, followed in wondering delight.

News ran ahead of them to Crooken, and the villagers had gathered to welcome them…

When the party arrived at the gate of the Red House there awaited them a crowd of Crooken inhabitants, hatless and respectfully silent; the remainder of the population was painfully toiling up the hill. The silence was broken by only one sound, that of a man with a deep voice.

“Man! but he’s forgotten the pipes!”

* * * * *

You may well be wondering exactly where the horror is in this story, and I assure you there is some, but I couldn’t resist the humour in the beginning. I’ve never really associated Bram Stoker with humour somehow! Anyway, Mr Markam insists on continuing to wear his rig regardless, despite the warning of the village seer that…

Mon! mon! Thy vanity is as the quicksand which swallows up all which comes within its spell. Beware vanity! Beware the quicksand, which yawneth for thee, and which will swallow thee up! See thyself! Learn thine own vanity! Meet thyself face to face, and then in that moment thou shalt learn the fatal force of thy vanity. Learn it, know it, and repent ere the quicksand swallow thee!”

And one day, on the quicksand, Mr Markam sees himself…

I’ll leave it at that! If you’d like to read the story, here’s a link. The porpy and I found it very well told with lots of humour, and a great, unexpected ending!

(The porpy and I were both put in mind
of the late, great Andy Stewart…

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link

Dalziel and Pascoe Hunt the Christmas Killer by Reginald Hill

Christmas comes early…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a collection of eleven short mysteries from the pen of the supremely talented Reginald Hill, none of which have ever appeared in a collection before. HarperCollins and the Reginald Hill Estate got together to produce it, and Tony Medawar did what he does so well in the Bodies from the Library series – tracked down stories that had appeared over the years in newspapers and magazines, and had then to all intents and purposes disappeared from print. The book is foreworded by Val McDermid who admits to her lifelong admiration for Reginald Hill, and to being inspired by him. She writes knowledgeably, warmly and affectionately, and summarises the book as “the best Christmas present any reader could ask for”. I heartily concur!

The book begins and ends with Christmas mysteries, each starring Dalziel and Pascoe and the team, and both are a festive delight. These most famous of Hill’s characters appear in another couple of stories too, while the rest of the stories are non-series tales, showing off Hill’s imagination, plotting skills and range. McDermid considers him a master of the short story form, a thing I’d never really considered before since I know him best for his two major series, Dalziel and Pascoe and the Joe Sixsmith series, and his standalone thrillers. But again, on the basis of the stories presented here, I fully agree. Every one of these stories is a delight, whether Hill is indulging his humorous side or showing the darker aspects of crime. I restricted myself to reading one an evening, and my excited anticipation each time was fully rewarded.

In such a box of delights, it’s hard to pick favourites, but here’s a flavour of a few that hopefully will give an idea of the variety in the collection:

Market Forces – George has murdered his wife by putting a hatchet through her head. Now he has to consider the task of disposing of the body. Rather unoriginally, he decides to bury her beneath the floor of the cellar. But when he digs down, his spade hits a slab which turn out to be, well, burial size. He exerts his strength and manages to lift it, inadvertently releasing the demon who had been trapped there for many years. The demon can’t be truly free though, until it has granted its saviour one wish. But demons are tricky things, and this one isn’t perhaps the most intelligent demon in the underworld… This is full of humour with an absolutely delicious twist that made me laugh out loud. Great fun!

The Thaw – Carpenter is in his cottage in the Yorkshire Dales, waiting for a thaw. Snow had fallen at Christmas and continued on through the winter so that the ground has remained covered for months. Now, in March, it looks as though finally the weather is getting milder. While he waits, we learn why he’s waiting, and the reason is grim. I don’t want to give spoilers so shall say no more, but this is a bleak story, full of human weakness, guilt and duplicity, and the harshness of the snowbound setting makes it darkly atmospheric.

Reginald Hill 1936-2012

Brass Monkey – A Christmas Dalziel and Pascoe story involving the theft of a Cellini monkey, this is light-hearted fun with a rather emotive edge, in that it reprises the story of the 1914 Christmas truce, when British and German soldiers briefly laid down their arms, sang carols together and played impromptu football matches. All the team is there for this one – Wieldy, Novello, even Hector, and Dalziel is on his best form!

Proxime Accessit – which roughly translated means “nearly made it”. Dennis Platt is a school teacher, greatly respected in his hometown of Dunchester. But Dennis feels he is living the wrong life. His childhood friend, Tom Trotter, always beat him at everything, and now Tom is a famous actor, married to a woman Dennis loved first. He feels Tom has stolen the life that should have been his. When the town council decide to present Dennis with an award, they ask Tom to do the presentation and he, being Dennis’ friend, readily agrees. But Dennis knows that this means all the attention will be on Tom, even on this day which should be Dennis’ day. And so he decides that Tom must be prevented from making the speech. Again this is very well done, and with some humour, but there’s a sad undertone to it in Dennis’ dissatisfaction with a life that, to outward appearances, seems to have been quite successful in its own right.

When the Snow Lay Dinted – another Christmas outing for Dalziel and Pascoe, this time very definitely played for laughs. Peter, Ellie and Rosie are going to a hotel for Christmas and in a moment of weakness, Peter invites Andy along. Partly because he’ll be alone otherwise, with no one to cook for him, and partly because he sees that wine and spirits are included in the price, Andy goes. There is a theft from the hotel and Andy sets out on the trail of footprints, while all the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even. Peter, of course, follows – in his master’s step he trod, where the snow lay dinted. Well, you get the picture! Lots of fun, and it ends with a lovely interchange between young Rosie and her Uncle Andy which sheds a sweet light on their friendship – sweet, but not saccharin!

Ever since Hill died, I’ve wished there could be just one more book, somehow, sometime. Not one “finished” by someone else, but one written entirely by the master. My wish has been granted! (And I didn’t even have to release a demon…) A wonderful collection!

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

Amazon UK Link

The Night Wire edited by Aaron Worth

Technological ghosties…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Another anthology from the great British Library Tales of the Weird series, the theme of this one is how horror writers played with all the new communications technology coming into use in the early part of the twentieth century, examining society’s anxieties about how these would change the world as they knew it. From photographs to movies, from telephones to the telegraph, from phonographs to radio to TV – all technologies we take for granted today but which were revolutionary when they were introduced. And the horror writers of the day used them with great imagination, showing how the ghosties and ghoulies of the time mastered these technologies as tools to boost their scariness to the poor victims of their hauntings!

There are seventeen stories in the book, and the mix of authors is interesting. There are perhaps fewer than usual of the biggest names, though Lovecraft is there; some that are better known, to me at least, in other genres, such as Bernard Capes and Rudyard Kipling; and lots I’ve never come across before. The more I read of these anthologies, the more I realise that their success or failure is largely dependent on the compatibility of the editor and the reader, and is therefore quite subjective. There are a few editors I look forward to eagerly, and Aaron Worth is high on that list. I find his choice of stories always works particularly well for me, and I always enjoy his informative introductions even in the shortened form the format of this series dictates. So, in short, I thoroughly enjoyed this collection! Only three of the stories didn’t work for me – the other fourteen all rated as good, very good or excellent, with eight of them getting the full five stars.

I’ve already highlighted a couple of the stories in previous Tuesday Terror! posts – The Statement of Randolph Carter by HP Lovecraft and They Found My Grave by Marjorie Bowen. Here’s a flavour of a few of the others I most enjoyed:

Poor Lucy Rivers by Bernard Capes – Our narrator is a doctor, One day he’s in a typewriter shop when a young woman comes in to request that the shop exchange a second-hand typewriter she’d bought there a week or so ago. She explains there’s nothing wrong with the machine but she simply wants a different one. The shop owner pretends to give her a different machine but in fact cheats her into taking the same one again. The doctor is intrigued, gets the woman’s name from the shop and learns she does typing jobs to earn just enough to keep body and soul together. So he decides to give her a job, as a means of prying into why she has an issue with that particular typewriter. It transpires the problem may be the person who owned the typewriter before – poor Lucy Rivers! Very effective, and it gives a good picture of how typing gave women a means to earn an independent living. Though thankfully not all typewriters are haunted!

Benlian by Oliver Onions – The narrator, Pudgie, makes his living painting miniatures, using photographs as his models. Across the yard from him is Benlian’s studio – he’s a sculptor, and Pudgie doesn’t know him. But one day, Benlian appears and asks Pudgie to photograph him. Pudgie obliges, but the photos turn out fogged and unclear. Pudgie puts this down to the materials he used in the processing and offers to take new photos, and so begins a routine of him photographing Benlian every few days. But over time the photos become odder, and Pudgie gradually learns just exactly what Benlian is trying to do with the sculpture he’s working on. This is an unnerving one, with a chilling ending that is left deliberately ambiguous as we begin to wonder how reliable Pudgie is as a narrator…

Uncle Phil on TV by JB Priestley – When Uncle Phil dies, the Fleming family inherit £150 insurance money. They decide to buy a TV – a new-fangled invention and horrendously expensive, and with only one channel broadcasting a few hours each evening. Mrs Fleming is the first to spot something rather odd – in the background of the programme she’s watching, she spots someone who looks just like Uncle Phil! Gradually the rest of the family admit that they too keep seeing Uncle Phil, and soon he’s not just in the background – he starts talking to them from the screen or talking to other on-screen characters about them. But why? This is great fun – a little bit of spookiness and lots of humour, and a kind of well-deserved ghostly revenge!

So lots of variety despite the single theme, and everything from light-hearted fun to dark, unsettling and sometimes sad. I also enjoyed the look at very early versions of the various technologies and how they changed the way people lived, creating new opportunities and new forms of entertainment but also adding to the speed and rush of life, and the anxieties that come with that. Another excellent anthology in what is turning out to be a bumper year!

(The porpy is sure if he watches long
enough he’ll see Uncle Phil…)

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😮 😮 😮 😮

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

Amazon UK Link

Tuesday Terror! The Sea-Fit by Algernon Blackwood

To his death singing…

Although the British Library call their series of vintage horror stories Tales of the Weird, the stories often don’t strictly fall into the nebulous definition of “weird fiction”. (Xavier Aldana Reyes defines weird fiction as ‘a subgenre of speculative fiction concerned with the limits of human experience and the unknowability of the natural world that brings together elements of the horror, science fiction and fantasy literary traditions’.) This week’s definitely does, however! I haven’t read much Algernon Blackwood yet, but he’s already left lingering horrors imprinted on my mind from his wonderful weird story The Willows. This one is less well known, but in my opinion just as unsettling. I’ve taken it from the BL’s anthology, Our Haunted Shores…

The Sea-Fit
by Algernon Blackwood

Algernon Blackwood

The sea that night sang rather than chanted; all along the far-running shore a rising tide dropped thick foam, and the waves, white-crested, came steadily in with the swing of a deliberate purpose.

Three friends have gathered in a little bungalow nestling in the sand dunes.

Foregathered for Easter, they spent the day fishing and sailing, and at night told yarns of the days when life was younger.

The owner of the bungalow is Captain Erricson…

‘Big Erricson’, Norwegian by extraction, student by adoption, wanderer by blood, a Viking reincarnated if ever there was one, belonged to that type of primitive man in whom burns an inborn love and passion for the sea that amounts to positive worship—devouring tide, a lust and fever in the soul.

His friends are half-brothers, Major Reese and Doctor Reese, so both men of learning and experience, surely not subject to superstitious fancies. The last occupant of the bungalow is ‘Sinbad’, Erricson’s servant…

‘Sinbad,’ sailor of big seas, and a man who had shared on many a ship all the lust of strange adventure that distinguished his great blonde-haired owner—an ideal servant and dog-faithful, divining his master’s moods almost before they were born.

Yes, well, it was the times! However nauseating that description, Sinbad is more than faithful – he knows that his master holds some strange views and is affected sometimes by the moon and the tides, and he tries to protect him when the sea-fit comes on him. As it does this night…

Erricson had one of his queer sea-fits on—the Doctor was responsible for the term—and was in the thick of it, plunging like a straining boat at anchor, talking in a way that made them both feel vaguely uncomfortable and distressed.

The tumbledown bungalow and the sound of the tide don’t help…

The loneliness of the sandspit and that melancholy singing of the sea before their very door may have had something to do with it, seeing that both were landsmen; for Imagination is ever Lord of the Lonely Places, and adventurous men remain children to the last.

And nor does Sinbad’s muttered warning to the doctor…

Sinbad had tugged his sleeve on entering and whispered in his ear significantly: ‘Full moon, sir, please, and he’s better without too much! These high spring tides get him all caught off his feet sometimes—clean sea-crazy’; and the man had contrived to let the doctor see the hilt of a small pistol he carried in his hip-pocket.

As the room grows cold and a strange sea-mist creeps over the bungalow, Erricson talks ever more wildly of the old sea gods, and his belief that they still exist for those who are willing to believe…

‘And I like the old idea,’ he had been saying, speaking of these departed pagan deities, ‘that sacrifice and ritual feed their great beings, and that death is only the final sacrifice by which the worshipper becomes absorbed into them. The devout worshipper’—and there was a singular drive and power behind the words—‘should go to his death singing, as to a wedding—the wedding of his soul with the particular deity he has loved and served all his life.’

And the sea-mist creeps through the cracks in the window-frames and the cold pours through the badly-fitting doors and the tide continues to sing as it brings the sea ever closer and Erricson plunges deeper with each passing moment into the sea-fit…

The man’s inner soul was on fire now. He was talking at a fearful pace, his eyes alight, his voice turned somehow into a kind of sing-song that chimed well, singularly well, with the booming of waves outside, and from time to time he turned to the window to stare at the sea and the moon-blanched sands. And then a look of triumph would come into his face—that giant face framed by slow-moving wreaths of pipe smoke.

Illustration by mgkellermeyer

* * * * *

Well! I shall be considerably less enthusiastic about going paddling in the sea after this one, I can tell you! It’s fabulously written, and although it’s clear where it’s heading somehow Blackwood still manages to build an atmosphere of real tension, and the climax is worthy of the story. There’s something about the way he describes nature that makes it utterly terrifying – there’s no romantic beauty in it, all is power and malevolence, all is ruled by beings too great for our puny minds to comprehend and so ancient we foolishly believe they must no longer exist…

‘And I like, too, the way they manage to keep their names before us . . . There’s old Hu, the Druid god of justice, still alive in “Hue and Cry”; there’s Typhon hammering his way against us in the typhoon; there’s the mighty Hurakar, serpent god of the winds, you know, shouting to us in hurricane and ouragan…’

If you’d like to find out what happens, here’s a link.

(The porpy was so scared by this one
he’s refusing to come out of hiding…

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link

Tuesday Terror! Ghosts from the Library edited by Tony Medawar

Criminally spooky…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

There has always been a strong crossover between the genres of crime and horror, and many authors have tried their hand at both. This collection brings together ghostly offerings from fifteen authors better known as mystery writers, mostly from the Golden Age or shortly after. There’s an extra story from MR James, helpfully included because Dorothy L Sayers uses it as a jumping off point for her story. All the entries bar one are stories – GK Chesterton’s is a short essay in which he advises writers how to do ghosts in fiction (oddly, since that’s hardly what he’s known for, but it gives him an opportunity to sound supercilious towards writers whose reputations have long surpassed his own). And as with the Bodies from the Library series to which this is a companion, all the stories have never been collected before (except the MR James) and in one or two cases are being published here for the first time

The overall standard is very high, with only two of the stories getting low ratings from me. All the rest were fairly evenly divided between good, very good and excellent, so a very enjoyable collection in total. What I would say, though, is, that with a couple of notable exceptions, the writers have tended to write what felt to me like crime or mystery stories with a ghostly element rather than the more traditional spooky story of, say, MR James himself and his ilk. This worked great for me since I’m a fan of both genres and actually prefer even my ghost stories to have a proper plot. But I suspect it might mean they wouldn’t work quite so well for people looking for traditional ghost stories and spooky scares – this, I’m guessing, may be why it’s getting pretty mixed ratings on Goodreads so far.

There are loads of well-known names – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Josephine Tey, Daphne du Maurier, Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, et al – and, because of the format, no well known stories, so even enthusiastic anthology readers like myself will find all these stories new to them. Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most:

The Green Dress by Anthony Berkeley – a painter is helped by a ghostly model, but what does she want? I highlighted this one in a recent Tuesday Terror! post.

The Witch by Christianna Brand – A longer story this one, novelette length, it tells of a woman, Laura, alone in the world but with a small inheritance. She has a whirlwind romance with Gereth, and marries him despite barely knowing him. Then she finds a letter in his pocket from his first love, Dorion, talking about murder. Beautiful Dorion seems to have the ability to make men and animals bend to her will and is known locally as a witch. But is Gereth plotting with her to get Laura’s inheritance? A great story, full of suspense and Gothic horror. Is Dorion really a witch? I’ll leave you to find out for yourself!

The Red Balloon by Q. Patrick – This one is really more of a science fiction story, but with some great horror aspects. The narrator is a journalist, sent to report on a terrible incident when two children are killed when they run after a mysterious red balloon. The children’s bodies are kind of dried out, sort of mummified. The journalist’s uncle is a famous but eccentric scientist, and he has a theory that the red balloon comes from an invisible planet which approaches Earth every 28 years. As we will discover, the reason the balloon is red is quite gruesome! Despite the dead children motif, this story is humorous, and references HG Wells quite strongly and openly. Light-hearted, well written and shivery fun.

Run, Pooh! Run!!

Death in a Dream by Laurence Meynell – After being hit on the head during a bombing raid, our narrator begins having dreams in which he time-slips, sometimes to the past, sometimes the future – he doesn’t always know himself. One night he dreams of a nurse murdering her patient, a middle-aged woman. But has it already happened or is it still to come? Very short and more ironically humorous than scary, but very well done!

St Bartholomew’s Day by Edmund Crispin – A dilettante historical researcher is investigating Raoul de Savigny, a man who was killed in the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre. He learns that de Savigny’s papers were buried with him, in his casket in the mausoleum in the grounds of his château. The historian breaks in, rather foolishly on St Bartholomew’s Day, and finds more in the mausoleum than he was expecting! This has a great mix of humour and horror and is very well told. Probably one of the most traditionally “ghost story” style tales in the collection.

So loads of variety – lots of great authors having some fun and inviting the reader along to share in it. And this reader certainly appreciated the invitation! I’d probably recommend it more to vintage mystery fans than horror fans – half the fun comes from seeing the authors try something a bit different to what we normally expect from them, most of them very successfully. Another one that would make a great Christmas stocking gift!

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

Amazon UK Link

Tuesday Terror! They Found My Grave by Marjorie Bowen

Is there anybody there?

This week’s story is another from The Night Wire, a British Library Tales of the Weird anthology that takes as its theme the new technologies at the turn of the last century that were inspiring both science fiction and horror writers of the day. The technology here is the gramophone, complete with horn, which is used by a medium to provide a conduit from the spirit world…

They Found My Grave
by Marjorie Bowen

Marjorie Bowen

Ada Trimble was bored with the sittings. She had been persuaded to attend against her better judgment, and the large dingy Bloomsbury house depressed and disgusted her; the atmosphere did not seem to her in the least spiritual and was always tainted with the smell of stale frying.

Miss Trimble has been persuaded by her friend, Helen Trent, to come with her to visit a fashionable medium…

The medium named herself Astra Destiny. She was a big, loose woman with a massive face expressing power and cunning. Her garments were made of upholstery material and round her cropped yellowish curls she wore a tinsel belt. Her fat feet bulged through the straps of cheap gilt shoes.

Both women claim to be cynics, but Ada suspects Helen is getting sucked in to what she believes is a fraud…

….‘I haven’t seen anything yet I can’t explain, the woman is a charlatan, making money out of fools. She suspects us and might get unpleasant, I think.’
….But Helen Trent insisted: ‘Well, if you’d been going as often as I have, and noticing carefully, like I’ve been noticing…’

So despite her own boredom, Ada continues to go along…

Ada Trimble respected her friend’s judgment; they were both intelligent, middle-aged, cheerful and independent in the sense that they had unearned incomes. Miss Trimble enjoyed every moment of her life and therefore grudged those spent in going from her Knightsbridge flat to the grubby Bloomsbury Temple. Not even Helen’s persistency could induce Ada to continue the private sittings that wasted money as well as time. Besides, Miss Trimble really disliked being shut up in the stuffy, ugly room while Madame Destiny sat in a trance and the control, a Red Indian called Purple Stream babbled in her voice and in pidgin English about the New Atlantis, the brotherhood of man and a few catch phrases that could have been taken from any cheap handbook on philosophy or the religions of the world.

The spirits that turn up at these sessions are often easily traceable through historical records, which the gullible think proves them to be real, but Ada thinks is more likely to be proof of fraud…

….‘I can’t think why you are interested,’ said Ada Trimble to Helen Trent as they drove home together. ‘It is such an easy fraud. Clever, of course, but she has only to keep all the stuff in her head.’
….‘You mean that she looks up the references first?”
….‘Of course.’ Ada Trimble was a little surprised that Helen should ask so simple a question.

But one day while Ada is feeling particularly bored and disgusted by the proceedings, something rather odd occurs. Madame Destiny had been going through the usual nonsense with the gramophone when…

….Suddenly a deep masculine voice said:
….‘Beautus qui intelligit super egenum et pauperem.’
….Ada was utterly startled; she felt as if another personality was in the room, she sat forward and looked around; she felt Helen’s cold fingers clutch hers; she had not more than half understood the Latin; nor, it seemed, had anyone else.

This personality gradually becomes a regular visitor. He calls himself Gabriel Letourneau, and is boastful and arrogant, and, unlike the others, there’s no trace of him in obvious records despite his claims that he was a prominent citizen in France in his day. Ada is the only one of the regulars who speaks French, so the personality always chooses to speak to her in that language. Can it be fraud? Can Madame Destiny really be fluent in French?

Ada Trimble detested this pompous, insistent personality; she felt odd, a little dazed, a little confused; the orange glow of the gas fire, the red glow of the lamp, the metallic gleams on the horn fused into a fiery pattern before her eyes. She felt as if she were being drawn into a void in which nothing existed but the voice.

Ada’s cynicism is not proof against this voice, this personality she slowly grows to hate…

He hated her, too. When she spoke to him he told her in his rapid French that Helen could not follow, his scornful opinion of her; he called her an ‘ageing woman’; he said she was pretension, facile, a silly little atheist while ‘I am in Heaven’. He made acid comments on her carefully chosen clothes, on her charmingly arranged hair, her little armoury of wit and culture, on her delicate illusions and vague, romantic hopes. She felt stripped and defaced after one of these dialogues in which she could not hold her own.

But the one thing the personality will not reveal is the location of his grave. So Ada determines to find it…

* * * * *

The porpy and I thought this was a really excellent story, which works both as a ghost story and as a commentary on the vulnerability to charlatans and fraudsters of lonely, single women with money. The writing is great, and the personality’s cruel taunting of Ada feels like an exposé of the rather worthless lives of ladies of leisure, desperately seeking ways to fill their empty days. And yet all our sympathy is with Ada – she is sucked in through her good intentions of looking out for her friend. If you’d like to know what happens, here’s a link. The porpy and I didn’t think it was super scary, but we found it odd, effective and quite sad…

(The porpy felt the need for his snuggle rug after this one…)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link

Marple: Twelve New Stories

From treat to travesty…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

There are some great crime writers in this collection of twelve new Miss Marple stories, many of whom are clearly dedicated fans with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the originals. As expected, some catch the style and tone of the originals better than others, meaning that some of the stories are treats, while a couple are total travesties. For some of the authors, Miss Marple has stayed in her own time with her own attitudes, while some have decided to have her as “woke”, pontificating on anti-Semitism, racial injustice, etc. Needless to say the woke ones and the travesties have a considerable overlap! While the good ones are very good and gave me much pleasure, the bad ones left me in my usual state of wondering why on earth Christie’s estate keep allowing people to mess with her legacy in this way. They surely cannot need the money, and this kind of thing does nothing, I’m sure, to attract new readers to the originals.

The collection starts off with a bang, with several good stories one after the other. Lucy Foley gives us Evil in Small Places, where Miss Marple gets caught up in an investigation while staying with a friend. Foley gets the tone brilliantly – the village setting, plotting, murder method and denouement all feeling authentic. And she delightfully references many of Christie’s book titles along the way. Val McDermid’s The Second Murder at the Vicarage takes place in St Mary Mead, with many of the characters from the original book – the vicar, Griselda, the maid Mary, and so on – and she reprises all this entertainingly and well. The plotting is a little weak, but it’s still a fun story. Next up is a new-to-me author, Alyssa Cole. Like many of the authors, Cole has used the trope of Miss Marple’s nephew Raymond providing her with little holidays to vary the location – here Miss Marple Takes Manhattan. While the story is decidedly un-Marple-esque and involves her being terribly progressive about race and communism (the latter being even more unlikely than the former) there’s a lot of humour to keep it entertaining, and I enjoyed the way Cole played on references to Miss Marple’s stay At Bertram’s Hotel.

Natalie Haynes’ The Unravelling is well written and amusing, but the plotting is weak and for some reason she has Miss Marple living in a village that is not St Mary Mead. Did she move? Why? Still, I felt she handled the generic village setting well, and I enjoyed the story. Ruth Ware’s story, Miss Marple’s Christmas, is the star of the collection for me. A Christmas party at the Bantrys, a mysterious theft, and a very Marple-esque plot, Ware’s love for the character shines through. She also references Agatha Christie’s own description of her youthful family Christmases as given in the intro to one of her collections, I think The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, which is a lovely touch. We discover that Miss Marple likes to read detective fiction, and is fond of the work of Dorothy L Sayers who also gets more than a passing nod here. A great story, very authentic and made me smile.

It all begins to go downhill after that, sadly. In The Open Mind, Naomi Alderman fails to catch the style completely – wrong setting (an Oxford college), wrong type of crime, and Miss Marple is given a bunch of modern social attitudes she would not have had, including a relaxed attitude to drug abuse. Jean Kwok’s The Jade Empress sees Miss Marple on a boat to Hong Kong to visit Raymond, waltzing with Chinamen, in a plot all about racial injustice. It’s well enough written, but has little to do with the real Miss Marple. Dreda Say Mitchell achieved the distinction of the only one-star rating for her story A Deadly Wedding Day, where she gets out her usual axe of white colonial oppression and grinds it mercilessly. More about Mitchell’s Caribbean heritage and black victimhood (as usual – her sole subject) than about Miss Marple, and one wonders why she bothered.

Elly Griffiths lifts the quality again in Murder at the Villa Rose, though Miss Marple plays a distinctly secondary role here and the story is not Christie-esque. It is about a crime writer who is bored with his main character and is thinking of killing him off. I felt it may have given some insight into why Griffiths herself tends to start a new series with entirely new characters every few years! In The Murdering Sort, Karen McManus takes a very elderly Miss Marple to Cape Cod in the 1980s, where she is staying in a cottage provided by Raymond for the summer. Raymond’s teenage daughter, Nicola, appears in this one. It’s rather full of plot holes, but is quite fun. I enjoyed The Mystery of the Acid Soil by Kate Mosse, which has a plot that rests on Miss Marple’s knowledge of gardening. She doesn’t quite catch the tone, but she tries, and while I feel authors should be careful not to give away the major clue in the title(!), the story is enjoyable.

Lastly, Leigh Bardugo’s The Disappearance takes us back to St Mary Mead in a story involving Mrs Bantry. Bardugo does a good job with the tone, barring one or two Americanisms that the editor should have picked up. But the ending – which of course I won’t reveal – is a complete travesty, totally out of tune with the originals and leaving a rather bad taste. A terrible way to end the book, sadly.

So a very mixed bag, although overall I enjoyed the good stories enough to make it worthwhile and was glad that many of the authors at least tried to recapture the original Miss Marple, some of them quite successfully. But the travesties left me feeling as I usually do – that authors should stick to their own creations rather than messing with other people’s.

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

Amazon UK Link

Tuesday Terror! The Green Dress by Anthony Berkeley

Karma’s a killer…

As a companion to their great Bodies from the Library series, Collins Crime Club and Tony Medawar have this year given us an anthology of ghost stories written by the mystery writers of the Golden Age – Ghosts from the Library – from which I’ve taken this week’s delicious little story of betrayal and revenge…

The Green Dress
by Anthony Berkeley

Anthony Berkeley

….Miles Carrington gazed round the comfortable studio with appreciation. “I say, old man,” he said sincerely, “this really is most awfully good of you.”
….Fletcher smiled complacently. “Not a bit! Well, as I was saying, the rent here is paid for a year, and I’ve stored all my private things away in that cupboard. Everything else is open to you. You can move in tomorrow if you like.”

Both men are artists, but Fletcher has found himself a rich widow to marry, and intends to give up his art and live in luxury instead. So he is lending his studio to Miles – a dedicated artist, but so far unknown, who is currently supplementing the little he earns from his painting by drawing illustrations for newspaper advertisements…

Fletcher had not been wrong when he called Miles Carrington a sticker. It takes a sticker to subsist for five years in a tiny attic in Battersea and devote his attention to the portrayal of cheerful gentleman in their underclothes and elderly ladies distressed by violent pains in the back in order to scrape together a bare living, when his soul is yearning after nymphs and dryads and green trees and such more fitting subjects for his brush.

Fletcher points out an old chest, which he tells Miles is full of costumes and props he may find useful. Once Fletcher has gone, Miles opens the chest and begins to lift out its contents…

….Suddenly he paused. The last armful taken out had left uncovered some material of a most delicate shade of green. Miles lifted it out almost tenderly and examined it.
….It was a little dress of stiff green silk of early Victorian, very simple and, in some curious way that Miles could not define, extraordinarily appealing.

Miles immediately begins to imagine the picture he could create with the dress – the woman who would wear it…

…her charm, her dainty beauty, just the way she would smile. The thing fascinated him.

The Green Gown
by Thomas Edwin Mostyn

He hires a model for a couple of sessions, all he can afford, and gets to work, and soon enough the dress is painted. Having run out of money, he now puts the dress on a dummy model, intending to finish the picture from his imagination. But the face of the wearer eludes him. Try as he might he can’t catch the image that seems so clear in his mind’s eye. After a long day of fruitless attempts, each one painted out as unsuitable, the gathering twilight begins to obscure his vision. Then…

Glancing across in the dim light towards where the green dress shimmered mistily upon the model’s throne, he saw a girl’s head above it and the very face of which he had dreamed.

And now each evening when the light fades, the girl appears, never speaking or moving from the throne, but taking the pose he requires for his portrait. Frantically he paints, and now his work is inspired, better than he has ever done. However, the roguish smile he dreamed of is no longer there…

Yes, that smile of hers. That was the only point upon which Miles had been wrong in his mental picture. She might have smiled roguishly once; But not now. Now there was nothing but a terrible wistfulness, a hopeless sadness in her face that made Miles ache with pity for her even as he strove to transfer it to his canvas. She seemed a symbol of dead hopes and wishes unfulfilled.

Source: wikisource
Artist unknown

The painting finished, it is promptly accepted by the Academy and makes Miles’ name. But then Fletcher returns from his extended honeymoon abroad, and turns up at the studio. He has heard about the picture and demands to see it. Miles pulls back the cloth covering it…

He heard a gasp behind him and wheeled quickly about. Fletcher was staring at the picture with wide, horrified eyes; his face was dead white and little drops of moisture were gathering on his brow.

Miles asks him what is the matter but Fletcher is muttering to himself and doesn’t reply. Then he cries out…

“I knew it would be – I knew it would be! Oh, my God, what does she want with me? What does she want?” His gaze was torn from the picture and his starting eyes fell upon Miles. “What does she want, Carrington?” he shrieked.

* * * * *

The bad news is that I can’t find an online version, so if you want to know what she wants, you’ll have to get hold of the anthology! I will tell you that she succeeds in getting what she wants though, and once all is revealed, one feels karma has done its job well!

This is an excellent story, though as with many in the collection the real emphasis is on human wickedness rather than outright spookiness – I guess that’s the way mystery writers’ minds work! But this one has a delightfully chilling, ghostly ending that gave the porpy and me a pleasurable frisson along the spinal column.

Full review of the anthology to follow, but the short verdict is it’s a definite gift idea for Christmas, though possibly more for vintage crime fans than for true horror aficionados.

(The porpy point-blank refused to wear a green dress
for this week’s photo-shoot…)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link

Bodies from the Library 5 edited by Tony Medawar

The mystery of the missing stories…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

This series of “forgotten stories of mystery and suspense” has now become an annual event, and one I look forward to. The stories are all ones that haven’t been collected before, or occasionally have never been published. Every year I feel the well must run dry but each year Tony Medawar proves me wrong. He ranges widely to find his treasures – through old magazines and newspapers, into the BBC archives for radio scripts, digging out stories written originally to boost a charity or good cause, and so on. There are sixteen stories in this collection, ranging from a few pages up to novella-length, and lots of familiar names show up, some very well known – John Dickson Carr, Dorothy L Sayers, Ellis Peters, etc. – and others who are becoming well known to those of us who are reading a lot of the vintage crime currently being re-issued by various publishers – Michael Gilbert, Anthony Berkeley, John Bude, et al. The quality is more consistent than it sometimes is in anthologies – I gave most of the stories a solid four-star rating, with just a couple that didn’t work for me, and a sprinkling that gained themselves the full galaxy of five stars.

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

The Ginger King by AEW Mason – Inspector Hanaud of the French police is in London, visiting his “Watson”, Ricardo. Because of his expertise, an insurance company asks him to look into a fire at a shop owned by a Syrian furrier. (Yes, there are some unfortunate out-dated racist attitudes – it’s a hazard of the era.) I particularly enjoyed this one because a cat plays a major role – the ginger king of the title. Happily the cat survives unscathed! Lots of humour in this one and a good, imaginative criminal method. Hanaud is more fun when he’s being a foreigner in England than when he’s in France, in my limited experience, especially since he mangles English idioms for our amusement.

Benefit of the Doubt by Anthony Berkeley – This is told as if it were a ‘true’ story, related by an elderly medical man about an incident that happened to him when he was a young, inexperienced doctor. One night he is called out by a worried young wife to see her older husband. However the man appears fine and jokingly assures the doctor his wife just likes to worry, so the doctor leaves it at that. But the next day the man is dead. The wife doesn’t blame the doctor, and since she doesn’t want an inquest and the doctor fears the possibility of being found to have been negligent, he signs the death certificate. That’s not the end of the story, though… A really good picture of a generally moral man doing the easy thing rather than the right thing, and how he himself perceives his own actions at the other end of his career.

The Magnifying Glass by Cyril Hare. A very short story, this one, and not a mystery. It involves two men fighting over some forged banknotes. One murders the other, and then tries to break into the murdered man’s safe. It’s a scorching hot day with a dazzling sun, and Hare uses the heat and the murderer’s awareness that someone may arrive at any time to build up a great atmosphere of tension. Can’t say more since it’s very short, but there’s a lovely twist in the tail.

The ‘What’s My Line’ Murder by Julian Symons. During a live recording, one of the panellists dies – poisoned – and another panellist, Gilbert Harding, investigates. Even my great age isn’t great enough to have a clear recollection of What’s My Line – a long-long-ago TV panel game, where the regular panellists had to guess the profession of mystery guests by asking them questions. However, the story stands even if you don’t remember the show. Symons includes some of the actual panellists – Gilbert Harding was one of them – and I did have a vague memory of one or two of them so that added to the fun, though I felt fairly confident that while he could make one of them be the detective he couldn’t make a real person be the murderer! A good mystery, entertainingly written.

So another great addition to this series – I hope Collins Crime Club continue to bring these out for several more years to come, so long as that well doesn’t dry up!

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

Amazon UK Link

The Ghost Slayers edited by Mike Ashley

Who ya gonna call?

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Another anthology in the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series, this one has the theme of psychic detectives – ghost-hunters who investigate hauntings and sometimes set out to lay the ghosts. There are nine stories, some by well-known authors like Algernon Blackwood and William Hope Hodgson, and an array of lesser-known ones, to me at least. Many of the ghost-hunters appeared regularly in their authors’ output, but each of the stories stands on its own. One or two of the psychic detectives’ names seemed familiar to me, although I think that’s because I’ve seen them referenced in other books and stories, suggesting that some at least of them were very well known in their own time – in the way a modern crime novelist would feel secure in mentioning Rebus or Morse, for example. The only one familiar to me from having read some of his own stories is William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki, who has appeared before in Tuesday Terror!

The overall quality of the stories is high – no duds, all rating at either four or five stars. Most of them are not terrifying, focussing more on the ghost-hunt than the scares, and they occasionally have a rather anticlimactic ending as the psychic detective “solves” the haunting. But some have plenty of thrills despite the format, and I found one or two quite chilling, even disturbing. It’s not my favourite kind of ghost story – I tend to find the psychic detective can be a bit of an insufferable know-it-all and I really prefer stories where the victims of hauntings are unsuspecting innocents or guilty people being subjected to ghostly revenge. That’s a subjective issue, of course, but perhaps meant that I appreciated these stories more than I enjoyed them overall. However, it was interesting to learn that there was a thriving sub-genre of fictional psychic detectives, and Mike Ashley’s introduction indicates how this arose out of the real-life interest in spiritualism and the psychical researchers who were developing scientific approaches to investigating reports of spiritualist events.

Here are a few of the stories the porpy and I most enjoyed:

The Valley of the Veils of Death by Bertram Atkey – terror in the Australian desert. I highlighted this one in a recent Tuesday Terror! post.

The Searcher of the End House by William Hope Hodgson – Carnacki tells his friends of an incident that happened when he was a young man, with little experience of psychic events. Staying in a cottage with his mother, he becomes aware of strange knocks and doors opening and slamming closed. But the most disturbing thing is the dreadful smell, as of something rotting, that follows these disturbances. He packs his mother off to safety and sets out to investigate. Hodgson has become one of my favourite horror writers in the last few years, and the Carnacki stories tend to be very imaginative even though Carnacki himself is a bit annoying. This one has elements of humour but is also genuinely scary and I found it a little disturbing.

The Fear by Claude and Alice Askew – The psychic detective here is Aylmer Vance, which is one of those names I mentioned as feeling familiar although I hadn’t read any of their stories before. Mr Balliston, a self-made millionaire, has taken out a lease on Camplin Castle, but has now had to leave it because he, his family and servants have all experienced sensations of overwhelming Fear. Vance and his sidekick agree to stay in the castle, and it’s not long before they too feel the Fear! They investigate, which basically involves talking to elderly villagers about the history of the castle. The ending is rather flat, but the story is dark and interesting and the descriptions of the effects of the Fear are great – really effectively scary!

Forgotten Harbour by Gordon Hillman – my favourite story of the collection! The psychic detective this time is Cranshawe, an expert in poltergeists, and the story is told by his “Watson”, who is unnamed. The narrator is visiting Forgotten Harbour in Newhaven, where there’s a lighthouse known to the locals as Dead Man’s Light, ever since two lighthouse keepers mysteriously disappeared a year ago. Now, just as happened before they disappeared, the local telephone exchange is receiving strange calls from the lighthouse, although the current lighthouse keepers deny making them. Cranshawe investigates, and the story he uncovers is one of treachery, murder and revenge! It’s very well told, and again effectively scary. What makes it even spookier is that Mike Ashley tells us in the mini-bio that the author apparently murdered his mother in real life!

So some excellent stories here, and by chance I seem to have highlighted the scariest ones. But always remember I’m a wimp – what is scary to me is still always at the mild end of horror for real aficionados…

(Though it has to be said the porpy found
a couple of these quite dark too…)

Fretful Porpentine Rating 😮 😮 😮

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

Amazon UK Link

Tuesday Terror! The Statement of Randolph Carter by HP Lovecraft

Dancing beneath an accursed waning moon…

In the porpy’s opinion, no spooky season would be complete without at least one story from the Master of the Adjective, HP Lovecraft, so he was delighted when this one turned up in The Night Wire. This is another anthology in the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series, and the theme is the various new technologies that were coming into use in the first half of the twentieth century, and how horror writers used them to chilling effect. In this story, the technology is the field telephone, which was portable and so could be taken to all kinds of places… like ancient cemeteries, for instance…

The Statement of Randolph Carter
by HP Lovecraft

HP Lovecraft

I repeat to you, gentlemen, that your inquisition is fruitless. Detain me here forever if you will; confine or execute me if you must have a victim to propitiate the illusion you call justice; but I can say no more than I have said already.

Oh well, if you refuse to say any more, then I guess it really is a short story! Oh wait… looks like you changed your mind…

Again I say, I do not know what has become of Harley Warren; though I think—almost hope—that he is in peaceful oblivion, if there be anywhere so blessed a thing.

Hmm, but that seems a bit mean. Unless the alternative was worse? Look, start at the beginning!

As I have said before, the weird studies of Harley Warren were well known to me, and to some extent shared by me. Of his vast collection of strange, rare books on forbidden subjects I have read all that are written in the languages of which I am master; but these are few as compared with those in languages I cannot understand.

Oh, those forbidden books again! Since it seems everyone in New England has access to them the whole forbidding process clearly needs an overhaul!

Warren always dominated me, and sometimes I feared him. I remember how I shuddered at his facial expression on the night before the awful happening, when he talked so incessantly of his theory, why certain corpses never decay, but rest firm and fat in their tombs for a thousand years.

Oh, yeah? Tell that to the Time Team! Were you and he trying to prove it?

Once more I say that I have no clear idea of our object on that night. Certainly, it had much to do with something in the book which Warren carried with him—that ancient book in undecipherable characters which had come to him from India a month before—but I swear I do not know what it was that we expected to find.

Okay, okay, just get on, would you? Where did you go?

The place was an ancient cemetery; so ancient that I trembled at the manifold signs of immemorial years. It was in a deep, damp hollow, overgrown with rank grass, moss, and curious creeping weeds, and filled with a vague stench which my idle fancy associated absurdly with rotting stone.

Sounds lovely! Presumably it was a nice, sunny afternoon?

Over the valley’s rim a wan, waning crescent moon peered through the noisome vapours that seemed to emanate from unheard-of catacombs, and by its feeble, wavering beams I could distinguish a repellent array of antique slabs, urns, cenotaphs, and mausolean facades; all crumbling, moss-grown, and moisture-stained, and partly concealed by the gross luxuriance of the unhealthy vegetation.

Yes, of course you went at night-time. What was I thinking? So, to get to the point, the two of you cleared the ground, discovered some mysterious slabs which Warren seemed to be expecting to find, prised one up, and revealed a sort of spooky entrance leading underground, eh? Or as you would put it…

…a black aperture, from which rushed an effluence of miasmal gases so nauseous that we started back in horror.

But of course you decided to go down into it, didn’t you? Ah, I see – you wanted to, but Warren wouldn’t let you…

“I’m sorry to have to ask you to stay on the surface,” he said, “but it would be a crime to let anyone with your frail nerves go down there. You can’t imagine, even from what you have read and from what I’ve told you, the things I shall have to see and do. . . But I promise to keep you informed over the telephone of every move—you see I’ve enough wire here to reach to the centre of the earth and back!”

Well, it’s always nice to get a call from a friend… isn’t it?

….“God! If you could see what I am seeing!”
….I could not answer. Speechless, I could only wait. Then came the frenzied tones again:
….“Carter, it’s terrible—monstrous—unbelievable!”
….This time my voice did not fail me, and I poured into the transmitter a flood of excited questions. Terrified, I continued to repeat, “Warren, what is it? What is it?”
….Once more came the voice of my friend, still hoarse with fear, and now apparently tinged with despair:
….“I can’t tell you, Carter! It’s too utterly beyond thought—I dare not tell you—no man could know it and live—Great God! I never dreamed of THIS!”

* * * * *

The porpy and I loved this, but then we love Lovecraft’s overblown language, high drama and surfeit of adjectives! It has all the usual stuff – the forbidden books, the ancient beings which may be of this world or another, the shrieking terror, the indescribable horror! You’d think a man with a vocabulary like his could find a way to describe things, but I think we can make a guess that it’s pretty bad… after all, it came from…

…the innermost depths of that damnable open sepulchre as I watched amorphous, necrophagous shadows dance beneath an accursed waning moon.

Quite. If you’d like to read it for yourself, here’s a link.  It’s pretty short so will only take a few minutes to read, and it’s great fun! Or horribly, abysmally, blasphemously, fungoidally terrifying, depending on your tolerance level…

(The porpy is staying well away from underground spaces
for a while…)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link

Tuesday Terror! White Lady by Sophie Wenzel Ellis

Vegans Beware!

I came across this week’s story in Queens of the Abyss, an anthology showcasing some of the women who contributed to the weird and horror genres in the early days. There seems to be a kind of sub-genre of horror arising from the natural world, or often man’s attempts to interfere with nature. This story tells of a plant that has characteristics that make it appear almost human – the white lady…

White Lady
by Sophie Wenzel Ellis

Brynhild knew that something had waked her, something pleasant and exhilarating, which was to be expected on this strange island in the most remote corner of the warm Caribbean sea, where André Fournier, her fiancé, experimented fantastically with tropical plant life.

Brynhild, I’ve read a lot of stories about men experimenting with plants and, trust me, it never ends well. And beautiful, eerie music is never a good sign. Dump him and run! Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you then…

Presently she heard it again, music so wild and delicate that she felt its rapturous vibrations in her nerves, rather than heard them.

Of course she can’t resist going to look for the source of the mysterious music. Silly woman!

….Nature, in her most whimsical mood, had not been permitted to rule here; everywhere, among frond and spray and giant runner, bloomed hybrid blossoms whose weird forms and colours suggested André’s tampering with Nature.
….Brynhild heard the music clearer now, long notes that had an eerie, half-human sound, like the tuneless music of a demented savage. It baffled her, teased her into wilder plunges through the flower thickets, all jewelled with liquid beads.

Silly, silly woman!

When she mounted a hillock and saw, just beyond, a tiny cage built of copper screen, she knew that she had reached her goal. The music seemed to come from this little bower, which was puzzling, for the sole occupant was a blooming plant.

Uh-huh, a musical plant. That should be a warning even to the dumbest of Brynhilds, surely…

But no, she goes nearer…

….From a mass of thick frondage, white and fleshy as her own bare arms, reared a flower whose round, pallid petals formed a face like the caricature of a woman. Draped around this eldritch flower-face and flowing down to meet the colourless foliage, was a mass of gauzy matter that had the startling appearance of a bridal veil.
….But what brought a cry from Brynhild was not the human look of this fantastic plant, but what it was doing. Just below the head, almost as large as her own, protruded two slender, dagger-pointed white spines, set in sockets in such a manner that they could be moved like arms. These two spines, rubbing together, produced the music that had captivated her.

The plant doesn’t seem to like Brynhild, but it lo-o-o-ves André…

….André was coming. Like a tall young pagan priest he came forward, arms and shoulders naked, sunshine splashing his bronze curls. He had a beautiful, poetic face and a luminous smile that was now turned on the strange plant.
….Instantly the flower music commenced again, louder and more seductive than ever, the queer blossom reeling on its stem as though animal excitement quivered through its pallid flesh.
….André called out in his soft French: “Bonjour, White Lady. Are you happy this morning, eh?”
….The woman-face swayed toward him; the dagger arms caressed each other rapturously.

And quite frankly it appears André loves it right back…

“Ah, ma petite!” André whispered. “My own White Lady! If I could but bridge the gap!”

And still Brynhild doesn’t dump him! Men! Tchah! Even when there’s only one woman on an island, they still find a way to be unfaithful! But perhaps Brynhild isn’t as much of a doormat as she seems…

* * * * *

This kind of over-the-top love-conquers-all stuff isn’t exclusive to women writers, of course, but they do it so well! And while often male writers see the woman as either temptress or victim, sometimes female writers rise above the conventions of the time and let the woman be the stronger, purer one. This one actually falls somewhere in the middle – Brynhild is the heroine, ably assisted by another woman, André’s mother, but even André redeems himself a little in the end. I found it as unintentionally humorous as scary, to be honest, but it’s very well written, has a great dramatic climax and the plant truly is the stuff of nightmares – a story that should be required reading for any scientists about to genetically alter nature!

If you’d like to know how it turns out, here’s an online link.

(The porpy is showing a marked reluctance to
venture into the garden at the moment…)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link

Tuesday Terror! The Valley of the Veils of Death by Bertram Atkey

Evil under the sun…

Much though the porpy and I love a good old London fog or a mirky moor, we equally enjoy being transported to foreign climes, where even the blinding sun over the Australian desert can’t bleach out the evil men leave behind them. This story is taken from The Ghost Slayers – a British Library collection themed around psychic investigators, edited by Mike Ashley. The investigator in this one is Mesmer Milann, a man who calls himself a “mediator” between this world and the unseen…

The Valley of the Veils of Death
by Bertram Atkey

Save for the deep purple curtains which were hung round the room so that they shrouded the walls and windows completely, the number and odd placing of the electric bulbs – only one of which was burning – and a huge centaur, savagely sculptured in shining, slate-hued marble, there was nothing in the room to suggest that this was a temple of the occult.

Hmm, well, sounds pretty occultish to me! This is the office of Mesmer Milann, to whom the famous explorer Mr George Tarronhall has come seeking advice about a strange adventure that befell him while he was crossing the Australian desert…

“I had camped early in the afternoon by an unexpected water hole. There were ten people, all but Rivers, the scientist of the expedition, and myself being blacks.”

(The few mentions of the indigenous Australians are stereotyped but not derogatory, and are typical of the colonial time – the story dates from 1914.)

(Some stereotypes are more fun…)

Rivers and Tarronhall wander off to explore the surrounding area and come to a valley, which looks like any other valley of the region, all sand and rocky outcrops…

“…and yet of all the strange places I have passed through, of all the odd corners of the world I have seen, that little insignificant valley is the one place that remains, and will remain always, in my mind… It was haunted – if ever any place in the world is haunted.”

The two men come across a sinister sight…

“There were two of them at the foot of the miniature cliff on which we stood. I leaned over to see them better, and found that they were skeletons, lying on their sides, with the skulls half turned upwards, so that we looked down straight into the empty eye sockets. It may have been my fancy – probably it was – but it seemed to me that there was a queer craning look about the poise of the skulls, exactly as though they were watching us.”

Near the skeletons the men find a small canvas bag and, despite the air of menace in the valley, they open it…

“I heard Rivers say, to himself rather than to me, ‘I could have sworn the thing moved.’ And he was looking at one of the skeletons behind him.
….“I affected not to hear, and turned up the bag, pouring out on the sand such a collection of precious stones as Australia, or any other country, has never before produced. Sapphires, emeralds and rubies, for the most part, with a slab of wonderful opal, dirty and uncut, of course, but magnificent.”

Naturally they take the stones – who wouldn’t? But that night, as they lie asleep in their tent, something enters…

“And, if you can imagine it, the darkness became charged as it were with warning – most horrible. Warning; it poured down on me, into me, like an electric current, enveloped me like water, paralysed me momentarily. I was frightened too – terror-stricken.”

When the feeling passes, the men discover the jewels have gone. Next morning they go back to the valley and find the bag lying again next to the skeletons. Now Tarronhall wants Milann to explain the experience but also to advise whether it would be safe to try again to take the jewels. Milann agrees to take on the case, and Tarronhall asks how he will proceed. Milann says he will visit the valley that night…

“But I shall not need my body. I shall go in the spirit!”

And he invites Tarronhall to accompany him…

“You and your fellow explorers have exhausted the globe; soon enough, now, the arc-lights of civilization will illuminate the darkest corners of this world. Come with me tonight to another – to the Sub-World. There are sights to test the courage of the bolder spirit. I will free you from the gross flesh, and we will traverse together the dim Tracts of the Elementals, enter the Red Fogs of the Tentacle-Spirits, pass over the Place of the Were-Wolves, look upon the Craters of the Unicorns, the Plains of the Centaurs, the Morass of Minotaurs!” His eyes glittered and flamed like jewels, and his voice rolled like distant thunder. “We will adventure through the Haunts of the Vampires together—”

Gosh, I wonder how many stars that little holiday would get on Trip Advisor!

* * * * *

Perhaps the actual trip they take back to the valley doesn’t have minotaurs, centaurs nor even, to my great disappointment, tentacle-spirits, but it’s still an enjoyable adventure with some lovely scary elements to it. Overall I found this very well written in that slightly high melodramatic style that works perfectly for horror, and I share Mike Ashley’s puzzlement, mentioned in his introduction to the story, as to why Atkey’s Mesmer Milann stories have been allowed to sink into obscurity. I’d happily read more, if anyone from BL-world is listening! Unfortunately its obscurity means I can’t find an online version to link to, but the anthology is well worth acquiring – full review soon! The porpy and I, meantime, have decided to remove the Australian desert from our travel bucket-list…

(After all that Australian sun, the porpy has decided that
haunted Gothic castles aren’t so bad after all!)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link

* * * * *

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

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

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