Six Degrees of Separation – From McEwan to…

Chain links…

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly meme hosted by Books Are My Favourite and Best. The idea is to start with the book that Kate gives us and then create a chain of six books, each suggested by the one before…

I’ve gone off Ian McEwan in recent years, but I loved some of his earlier stuff, including Atonement. My memory of it now is heavily coloured by the film, but one day I’d like to re-read the book which I seem to remember being considerably more ambiguous. The blurb says…

On a hot summer day in 1934, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis witnesses a moment’s flirtation between her older sister, Cecilia, and Robbie Turner, the son of a servant and Cecilia’s childhood friend. But Briony’s incomplete grasp of adult motives—together with her precocious literary gifts—brings about a crime that will change all their lives.

Keira Knightley starred in the film of Atonement and I believe she’ll also be starring in the movie of my next pick…

The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell. It’s Prohibition Era in America and the police in Brooklyn have been tasked with closing down the speakeasies that have sprung up around the district. To help with the extra workload a new typist is hired, the charming and beautiful Odalie. At first, Rose, the narrator, is a little jealous of the attention Odalie receives from all quarters, but when Odalie decides to befriend her, Rose quickly falls under her spell. Even as she realises that Odalie might have some dark secrets, Rose can’t resist the new and exciting lifestyle to which Odalie has introduced her. This excellent début shot Suzanne Rindell straight onto my must-read list and she continues to improve with each book.

Keira Knightley. I think she’ll make a great Odalie…or maybe Rose!

Another début that I loved recently is…

That Summer in Puglia by Valeria Vescina. When a PI tracks Tommaso down in London to give him the news that he has been left a large legacy, Tommaso tells him he doesn’t want it and pleads that his whereabouts should not be revealed. To make the PI understand why his anonymity is so important to him, Tommaso agrees to tell him the story of why he left Italy – the story of his last summer in Puglia. That was the summer, long ago when Tommaso was young, that he met and fell in love with Anna…

The trail snaked through the vegetation, skirting tufts of ammofila – ‘sand lover’, or, more prosaically, marram grass – and shrubs. Now and then, the track ushered us into small clearings where we struggled to make out its continuation. L’albero magico – our magic tree, as we later called it – materialised before us. It was a squat oak – not of the kind familiar in Britain, but a distant cousin rooted in arid earth – whose branches arched downwards, forming a dark-green canopy over a bed of fine sand. It called to mind an apparition out of one of those fairy tales in which nature shields hero and heroine from the villains in pursuit, throwing obstacles – from brambles to boulders – in their way, while offering sanctuary and sustenance to the fugitives.

Puglia is one of the spots on the Main Journey of my Around the World Challenge. San Francisco is another and it’s where my next pick is set…

The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett. When Edgar Leggett’s home is broken into and some not particularly valuable diamonds go missing, his insurance company send along their operative to investigate – enter the Continental Op, the only name we are given for the first-person narrator. The CO soon decides that there’s been some kind of inside job, and that there’s more to the case than a simple burglary. Oddly, despite the fact that the plot is nonsensical, episodic, and barely hangs together, I still found the book entertaining.

“Are you – who make your living snooping – sneering at my curiosity about people and my attempts to satisfy it?”
“We’re different,” I said. “I do mine with the object of putting people in jail, and I get paid for it, though not as much as I should.”
“That’s not different,” he said. “I do mine with the object of putting people in books, and I get paid for it, though not as much as I should.”
“Yeah, but what good does that do?”
“God knows. What good does putting them in jail do?”
“Relieves congestion,” I said. “Put enough people in jail, and cities wouldn’t have traffic problems.”

There’s a wonderful piece of horror writing in the middle of the book, and Hammett references the author of my next pick, which made me think Hammett was acknowledging his influence…

The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories by Arthur Machen. This is a collection of those stories of Arthur Machen that fit into what would now be thought of as ‘weird’ tales. Machen’s stories are set mainly in two locations, both of which he evokes brilliantly. His native Monmouthshire, in Wales, is depicted as a place with connections to its deep past, where ancient beliefs and rituals are hidden just under the surface of civilised life. His London is a place of dark alleys and hidden evils, with a kind of degenerate race living side by side with the respectable people, and often stretching out a corrupting hand towards them.

The Great God Pan
By mgkellermeyer via DeviantArt.com.

Machen was an influence on many later writers of horror and weird fiction, including the author of my next choice…

The Classic Horror Stories by HP Lovecraft. I have a kind of love/hate relationship with Lovecraft but there’s no doubting his influence on weird and horror fiction writing. This collection was my introduction to him a few years ago and since then he’s become a bit of a fixture in my semi-regular Tuesday Terror! feature. The editor of this collection credits HPL with being one of the main writers who moved horror away from the human-centric gothic tale, with its vampires, crucifixes and garlic, to a universe where man is an insignificant and helpless part of a greater whole. Not to mention his creation of the famous fish-frog aliens of Innsmouth…

“The people of Innsmouth are not very friendly to outsiders,” by David Gassaway, 2011.

The aforesaid editor, Roger Luckhurst, also edited my last selection…

The Time Machine by HG Wells. In Victorian England, our narrator has invented a time machine and has been on a trip to the far distant future. There, he has seen the result of millennia of evolution, with mankind breaking into two distinct sub-species – the peaceful, childlike, vegetarian Eloi and the cruel and evil Morlocks. The Eloi live above ground in the sunshine, spending their days in idle playfulness, but when night falls they huddle together for safety. The Morlocks live underground and can’t bear daylight, but at night they emerge from their tunnels… A fabulous book with so much to say about Victorians concerns with science and society, but first and foremost it’s a great adventure story.

And I have by me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers – shriveled now, and brown and flat and brittle – to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of men.

* * * * *

So McEwan to Wells, via Keira Knightley, débuts, Around the World, horror writing, influences and editors!

Hope you enjoyed the journey. 😀

The Classic Horror Stories by HP Lovecraft

Beneath the bloated, fungoid moon…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

classic horror stories lovecraft“As the ghastly light shone hideously down from the bloated, fungoid moon, the alien and unnameable creature from another aeon revealed itself as so loathsome, blasphemous and hellish that it would drive me to the uttermost edge of madness if I were to describe it…”

OK, I made that sentence up, but I bet anybody who’s read HP Lovecraft was fooled for a moment. 😉

This book brings together some of HPL’s stories published from about 1926 onwards. Each story is extensively and interestingly annotated to tell when it was written, where published and how it fits in not just to HPL’s own “Cthulhu Mythos” but also the wider landscape of “weird tales”. There is also an excellent introductory essay by Roger Luckhurst which tells us about HPL’s life and puts his work into the context of the period in which he was writing. Luckhurst’s argument in part is that, love him or hate him, HPL has remained an influence on writers of weird fiction up to the present day. He credits HPL with being one of the main writers who moved horror away from the human-centric gothic tale, with its vampires, crucifixes and garlic, to a universe where man is an insignificant and helpless part of a greater whole.

HP Lovecraft(source: Wikipedia)
HP Lovecraft
(source: Wikipedia)
I admit it – I thought the stories ranged from loathsomely mediocre to hellishly poor myself, (even though I’ve always been partial to mushrooms). Luckhurst quotes Edmund Wilson on the subject of HPL’s tendency never to use one overblown adjective when four would do… “Surely one of the primary rules for writing an effective tale of horror is never to use any of these words – especially if you are going, at the end, to produce an invisible whistling octopus.” My feelings precisely!

However, whether a fan of HPL’s style or not, the introductory essay and annotations provide interesting insights into a genre that has had considerable influence over the years and those alone make the book a worthwhile read, hence my four star rating.

The stories are: –

The Horror at Red Hook – based on HPL’s experiences in New York, a story of demon-worship and with a lot of racist undertones. Luckhurst’s introduction makes clear that a belief in racial superiority was part of what made HPL tick and this is the story where that comes through most clearly.

The Call of Cthulhu – Hellish, blasphemous aliens from space and the story that started the “Cthulhu Mythos”, which most of the rest of the stories build on. One of the better stories.

The Colour Out of Space – A meteor crash brings loathsome aliens to a village in New England. (Poor New England – all the aliens seem to end up there – if you live there, just one word of advice…RUN!!!) This is quite a good story but meanders on for way too long, which seemed to become a recurring feature of HPL’s work. This has the first example in the book of one of my favourite HPL techniques – to describe a horror as ‘indescribable’ – well, that helps!

The Dunwich Horror – one of my favourites. Alien child born to village woman – he is loathsome, blasphemous AND hellish! There are a couple of effective plot mechanisms in this that I liked – the use of ‘party lines’ where people can hear over the phone as horrors happen to their neighbours, and the legend of whippoorwills waiting to take the souls of the dead.

Cthulhu sketch by HPL(source: Wikimedia)
Cthulhu sketch by HPL
(source: Wikimedia)
The Whisperer in the Dark – another goodie! (Relatively speaking, that is.) Aliens followed by a cult of humans closing in on the one man standing against them – unusually, this one has a neat and effective ending. The notes to this one are also particularly interesting, showing the crossover between the imaginary worlds of fellow weird tales’ writers and also showing how traditional folk tales have been altered to tie in with more modern beliefs, such as space, time travel etc.

At the Mountains of Madness – ancient aliens in Antarctica. Incredibly long and very, very dull. Page after page of wandering around ancient ruins. This one was rejected by Weird Tales and only published in a cut version in Astounding Stories and it’s very easy to see why.

The Dreams in the Witchhouse – short and pretty good! Missing children, haunted dreams, a rat with the face of a human. Much more of a traditional, almost Gothic, story.

The Shadow over Innsmouth – what can I say? Hideous, blasphemous, fishfrog aliens (don’t giggle – they were almost quite scary!) in a devilish pact with the townsfolk of Innsmouth in New England. This one would have been quite good if it had been about half as long, but instead of ancient ruins this time we wander for hours round a half-empty town.

The Shadow Out of Time – a man haunted by dreams of a loathsome alien culture and terrifying fungoid monsters. A lot of wandering around ancient ruins again in this hugely overlong tale, not to mention a bloated, fungoid moon – I kid you not!

Enjoy!

Just as an addition to this review, any Lovecraft fans should check out the trackback link below – a great kickstarter project to produce an Art Zine based on Lovecraft’s hellish, loathsome and truly blasphemous creations. It looks as if it’s going to be fantastic! Many thanks to The Grinning Skull for the heads up.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link