Category Archives: Horror

‘I’ll devote the washing up to God.’

The Loney, by Andrew Michael Hurley

[I previously posted an incomplete version of this review – I accidentally deleted the majority of the text while making some fairly minor edits and didn’t realise until about a month later. The result didn’t make much sense. This is the review as it should have read.]

The Loney (and yes, that is the correct spelling) is a pretty much ideal winter read. I read it on kindle, where it comes rather pushily subtitled ‘The Book of the Year 2016’. I don’t know if I’d go quite that far, but it is intelligent, thoughtful and highly atmospheric and I can definitely see why it won a couple of first novel awards when it came out.

loney

The Loney is a desolate piece of liminal landscape in the North West of England. The narrator’s family and church group used to go there on pilgrimage every year, back in the 1970s. Holidays were fewer back then and it’s clear that the trip was the highlight of their year.

In the first couple of pages or so we learn that the narrator’s brother, Hanny, is now a successful media friendly priest with a number of well-selling books to his name. It wasn’t always so. Back when they used to visit the Loney he suffered from a profound learning disability and each trip ended with a visit to a local shrine in the hope its waters would heal him.

In the present the narrator and his brother are semi-estranged, everyone talks to Hanny but him. When they were children it was very different:

He watched me as I undid the buttons for him and hung it on the peg on the back of the door. It weighed a ton with all the things he kept in the pockets to communicate with me. A rabbit’s tooth meant he was hungry. A jar of nails was one of his headaches. He apologised with a plastic dinosaur and put on a rubber gorilla mask when he was frightened. He used combinations of these things sometimes and although Mummer and Farther pretended they knew what it all meant, only I really understood him.

That discrepancy hangs over the book with its so very different present and past Hannys. The Loney doesn’t feel like a place where prayers will be answered, so what happened? The question lingered at the back of my mind as I read, creating a constant sense of foreboding. The framing device disappears for most of the novel leaving the reader aware that something will happen but as ignorant as those 1970s pilgrims of what it might be.

In previous years the church group had always visited with Father Wilfred, a severe priest marked by early poverty but with a clear devotion to his flock. For this trip he’s been replaced by the easy going Father McGill from Belfast. There’s a sense that they’re both in their ways good priests (this is actually a fairly priest-friendly novel), but those ways are very different.

The driving force for the group is the brothers’ mother. The narrator calls her “Mummer”, both giving a sense of regional dialect and hinting that she might not be entirely what she seems. She’s a deeply religious woman who wants everything just so. There’s a sense that under her strict demeanour she’s barely hanging on and that any deviation from how Father Wilfred did things could cause her to crumble.

In a lesser novel she and Father McGill would become enemies, sniping at each other in minor disagreements. Certainly it starts that way as she constantly corrects Father McGill telling him that Father Wilfred took grace this way, made himself available at these times, took confession in this fashion and so on. Father McGill is a better priest than she realises, sees her brittle fragility and patiently bends to accommodate her ideas of how things should be done while gently trying to tend to the needs of the others in the group also.

Behind this foreground of quiet despair and struggle lies the desolate Loney itself:

A sudden mist, a mumble of thunder over the sea, the wind scurrying along the beach with its crop of old bones and litter, was sometimes all it took to make you feel as though something was about to happen. Though quite what, I didn’t know. I often thought there was too much time there. That the place was sick with it. Haunted by it. Time didn’t leak away as it should. There was nowhere for it to go and no modernity to hurry it along. It collected as the black water did on the marshes and remained and stagnated in the same way.

There’s no sense this is a holy place. It’s been a few years since the last pilgrimage and on this visit the locals seem clannish and curiously unwelcoming. It soon becomes apparent that some are positively antagonistic, leaving a blasphemous effigy in the woods where the group will find it. Farther finds a walled-up room in the old house the group have always stayed in. It seems to have held children, long years past, and he finds in it an old artefact suggestive of past folk beliefs having survived longer than one might wish.

Tensions rise. Mummer can’t abide anything going amiss because if it does God may not heal Hanny. She means well, but it manifests as cruelty. Here Hanny doesn’t understand they’re supposed to be fasting in preparation for his cure:

Hanny started to lick his fingers, and Mummer gasped and grabbed him by the arm and marched him over to the back door. She opened it to the hiss of rain and pushed Hanny’s fingers further into his mouth until he emptied his stomach on the steps.

It’s little surprise that the narrator and Hanny get out whenever they can and wander the Loney’s windswept beach and the causeway which leads to another nearish (nowhere is that near) house. Usually there’s nobody there, but this year there’s a family staying and among them a heavily pregnant young teenage girl. It’s when they encounter her that things start to get really strange:

The injured gull had stopped shrieking and was hopping tentatively over to her outstretched hand. When it was close to her, it angled its head and nipped at the weed she was holding, its damaged wing open like a fan. It came again for another feed and stayed this time. The girl stroked its neck and touched its feathers. The bird regarded her for a moment and then lifted off silently, rising, joining the others turning in a wheel under the clouds.

It’s a miraculous healing, but there’s no sign of God. The Loney has a definite gothic atmosphere and has elements which seem plainly supernatural, though of an older order of faith than that which the Christians bring to the place. It’s not a neat tale and much is left unexplained (rightly so as explanations would have moved the book from a mood piece to fantasy). For the first half I just enjoyed it as an atmospheric spooky tale. The sort of thing that might have made a TV play back in the 1970s: The Stone Tapes; Children of the Stones; The Murrain; Quatermass; the play Baby from Nigel Kneale’s Beasts’ series. Folk horror.

The book remains throughout a highly effective folk horror tale (folk horror is rarely that scary, but often very disquieting). However, the supernatural elements do more than just spook the reader. They introduce proof.

The group worry that near the end of his life Father Wilfred lost his faith. Doubt seems to have corroded him. Doubt can of course be an enemy of faith, but it’s an enemy people of faith tend to know pretty well. The other great potential enemy of faith is proof, for with proof you have no need of faith. With the loss of Father Wilfred the group are hungry for proof, and when you’re that determined you can be sure you’ll find it:

After all, signs and wonders were everywhere.

Father Wilfred’s faith was a slab carved from the rock of doctrine and orthodoxy. Father McGill’s faith is softer, warmer, more malleable and so perhaps less vulnerable. The whole group could stand upon the solidity of Father Wilfred’s faith, but a single crack could destroy it. Father McGill’s faith is quieter and less inspiring, but perhaps a little more human. Father Wilfred died falling down church stairs – a literal fall to accompany his spiritual one.  (This is a book that echoes with meaning, just as the Loney is a landscape that echoes with the absence of it.) Father McGill doesn’t try to carry the world alone. He just helps others carry their little bit of it.

Hurley leavens all this faith and desolation with a nice trace of humour, clearly understanding that 360+ pages of faith and gloom and doubt and barren landscapes would prove a bit indigestible. I particularly enjoyed the subtle competition between reigning queen of the group Mummer and the younger and more modern Miss Bunce who perhaps seeks to take her place:

Mummer was too engrossed in a contest with Miss Bunce as to who could be the most moved by the ceremony.

I really enjoyed the Loney. I’m not remotely religious myself, but faith in some ways is another word for meaning and we all struggle in our different ways to find that in the world. I thought Hurley pulled off the tensions of the book’s more intellectual explorations with the horror elements which are essential to avoid it becoming too dry.

This is a slow book and from the reviews it’s clearly a bit too slow for a fair number of people, but I found it deeply satisfying. Ideally you’d read it by a fireplace on a cold and windy night, glad as with all such stories that when it ends you can close the covers and head off to the comforts of a hot cup of tea and then a nice warm bed.

Other reviews

Caroline reviewed this at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, here, which sparked a sleeping interest I already had in it. Tony reviewed it here at Tony’s Book World, and is absolutely right about that cake. Eric at The Lonesome Reader also reviewed it here and is very good on the symbolism (this is a book with a lot of symbolism).

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Filed under Horror, Hurley, Andrew Michael

‘I’ll devote the washing up to God.’

The Loney, by Andrew Michael Hurley

[I accidentally posted this review with the majority of the text deleted following an editing error on my part. What follows doesn’t therefore make much sense. The correct review can be found here.]

The Loney (and yes, that is the correct spelling) is a pretty much ideal winter read. I read it on kindle, where it comes rather pushily subtitled ‘The Book of the Year 2016’. I don’t know if I’d go quite that far, but it is intelligent, thoughtful and highly atmospheric and I can definitely see why it won a couple of first novel awards when it came out.

It’s a miraculous healing, but there’s no sign of God. The Loney has a definite gothic atmosphere and has elements which seem plainly supernatural, though of an older order of faith than that which the Christians bring to the place. It’s not a neat tale and much is left unexplained (rightly so as explanations would have moved the book from a mood piece to fantasy). For the first half I just enjoyed it as an atmospheric spooky tale. The sort of thing that might have made a TV play back in the 1970s: The Stone Tapes; Children of the Stones; The Murrain; Quatermass; the play Baby from Nigel Kneale’s Beasts’ series. Folk horror.

The book remains throughout a highly effective folk horror tale (folk horror is rarely that scary, but often very disquieting). However, the supernatural elements do more than just spook the reader. They introduce proof.

The group worry that near the end of his life Father Wilfred lost his faith. Doubt seems to have corroded him. Doubt can of course be an enemy of faith, but it’s an enemy people of faith tend to know pretty well. The other great potential enemy of faith is proof, for with proof you have no need of faith. With the loss of Father Wilfred the group are hungry for proof, and when you’re that determined you can be sure you’ll find it:

After all, signs and wonders were everywhere.

Father Wilfred’s faith was a slab carved from the rock of doctrine and orthodoxy. Father McGill’s faith is softer, warmer, more malleable and so perhaps less vulnerable. The whole group could stand upon the solidity of Father Wilfred’s faith, but a single crack could destroy it. Father McGill’s faith is quieter and less inspiring, but perhaps a little more human. Father Wilfred died falling down church stairs – a literal fall to accompany his spiritual one.  (This is a book that echoes with meaning, just as the Loney is a landscape that echoes with the absence of it.) Father McGill doesn’t try to carry the world alone. He just helps others carry their little bit of it.

Hurley leavens all this faith and desolation with a nice trace of humour, clearly understanding that 360+ pages of faith and gloom and doubt and barren landscapes would prove a bit indigestible. I particularly enjoyed the subtle competition between reigning queen of the group Mummer and the younger and more modern Miss Bunce who perhaps seeks to take her place:

Mummer was too engrossed in a contest with Miss Bunce as to who could be the most moved by the ceremony.

I really enjoyed the Loney. I’m not remotely religious myself, but faith in some ways is another word for meaning and we all struggle in our different ways to find that in the world. I thought Hurley pulled off the tensions of the book’s more intellectual explorations with the horror elements which are essential to avoid it becoming too dry.

This is a slow book and from the reviews it’s clearly a bit too slow for a fair number of people, but I found it deeply satisfying. Ideally you’d read it by a fireplace on a cold and windy night, glad as with all such stories that when it ends you can close the covers and head off to the comforts of a hot cup of tea and then a nice warm bed.

Other reviews

Caroline reviewed this at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, here, which sparked a sleeping interest I already had in it. Tony reviewed it here at Tony’s Book World, and is absolutely right about that cake. Eric at The Lonesome Reader also reviewed it here and is very good on the symbolism (this is a book with a lot of symbolism).

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Filed under Horror

‘No, no!’ The Canon’s voice was sharp with impatience. ‘This is a case for the use of occult weapons;’

To the Devil – a Daughter, by Dennis Wheatley

Back in 2014 I revisited an author I’d rather liked as a teenager: Dennis Wheatley. Returning to old favourites is always a bit high risk but Wheatley stood up pretty well and I thoroughly enjoyed his classic The Devil Rides Out. There’s good reason Wheatley sold bucketloads in his day.

Daughter isn’t quite in the same league, but it’s still a lot of fun if you can get past the reactionary politics and archaic gender attitudes (and if you can’t Wheatley’s probably not the author for you). Satanists, Black Magic, damsels in direst distress, a plucky young hero and an experienced but still game older one, the terrible threat of international Communism and its links to devil-worship… What’s not to love?

deviladaughter-196x300

Daughter opens with successful thriller writer Molly Fountain working away at her home on the French Riviera. Like Wheatley himself Molly spent the war years in Intelligence, and after her husband’s death used her practical knowledge and skill at writing reports to learn her trade as a moderately successful novelist. Interestingly Wheatley uses Molly to make a fair few observations on the writing trade, and I’ll excerpt a few choice quotes after the main piece as they’re not relevant to the story but are fascinating as an insight into Wheatley’s method.

Despite her best efforts to focus on her next book Molly becomes distracted by the curious question of her next door neighbour, a young woman named Christina Mordant who receives no visitors and never seems to go out, save occasionally after dark when she ventures forth by moonlight to who knows where. When Molly visits she discovers that Christina is in hiding, placed there by her father to protect her from some threat he didn’t explain.

Naturally concerned, Molly recruits her visiting son John to look after Christina, though not before John delivers a completely story-irrelevant diatribe on the then Labour government and how its policies are beggaring Britain. You have to accept that sort of thing with Wheatley, his characters have a habit of occasionally sermonising from a very right-wing perspective though thankfully in his better books it doesn’t happen too much.

The mystery is why and from whom is Christina (which it turns out isn’t even her real name) being hidden? She’s an odd girl, innocent and charming by day but at night wild and sensual (she even kisses a man she’s barely met!). Dogs recoil from her (“‘animals always take a dislike to me on sight'”) and churches repel her so violently that she can’t even look inside one without wanting to vomit. Troubling stuff, but it’s when John takes Christina on a night out to a Monte Carlo casino that the true danger starts to reveal itself. Christina is recognised.

At the casino is her father’s friend Canon Copley-Syle, a non-practising clergyman. All Christina’s childhood he’d taken an interest in her, though despite being her godfather that interest never extended to any religious tuition. The encounter seems to be pure chance, but what worries Molly is that the Canon was at the casino with the Marquis de Grasse, “one of the most evil men in France”.

Soon the Marquis’ son, Count Jules de Grasse, is courting Christina and making her part of his fast set. Molly and John believe she’s in the gravest danger, that Jules’ interest is at his father’s urging and that Canon Copley-Syle may be part of whatever Christina’s father was hiding her from. The difficulty is keeping Christina from them, because as Molly reveals after unexpectedly throwing a crucifix to Christina and observing her cry of pain when it touches her:

‘Every night when darkness falls, you become possessed by the Devil.’

Molly is (mostly) a likable heroine, so it’s something of a shame that as soon as the action heats up she takes a back seat. She calls in her old friend from her secret service days Colonel Verney and he and John set out to rescue Christina from the clutches of the villainous De Grasse’s and the malevolent Canon Copely-Syle.

Daughter has some great set-pieces. At one point John has to sneak on to Jules’ yacht unobserved to try to rescue Christina, knocks a man out when discovered and then is faced both the with difficulties of the rescue and escape and the fear that he may have killed a man. Verney is a likable older character providing the wisdom John lacks and the two make a good team. I’d rather Molly had been more a part of that team, but for Wheatley she’s more of a back-room sort.

The plot explores the links between Satanism and Communism, the latter being here a tool of the former. Christina is vital to some nefarious plot of high-ranking Satanists, a plot that must be stopped if she is to be saved and if the West is to prevail against a Godless Russia.

You must have read at some time that in the old days the Devil was often referred to as the Lord of Misrule. The object of these high-up Satanists is to deliver the world up to him, and the only way they can do that is to cause the breakdown of good rule so that misrule may take its place. With that as their goal they do everything they can to foment wars, class-hatred, strikes and famine; and to foster perversions, moral laxity and the taking of drugs. There is even reason to believe that they have been behind many of the political assassinations that have robbed the world of good rulers and honest statesmen, and naturally Communism has now become their most potent weapon.

Wheatley’s villains particularly shine here. The de Grasse family are motivated more by money and general foreign untrustworthiness than anything more malefic but are fun all the same. Canon Copely-Syle by contrast is a black magician of the highest caliber and his scheme is dizzying in its ambition (and ludicrous, but let’s not dwell on that). In another great scene Verney pretends to Copely-Syle that he’s also an accomplished sorcerer and gets Copely-Syle to reveal his monstrous plan while Verney struggles to conceal his loathing. Wheatley takes this as an opportunity to tie his books together with Copely-Syle’s commenting on his fellow sorcerer Mocata, the villain in The Devil Rides Out: “‘Poor Mocata; he too fell by the wayside through attempting too much.”

Alas, hubris is ever the failing of arrogant maltheist warlocks. I suppose it would be.

As with The Devil Rides Out, Wheatley persuades in large part through meticulous attention to detail, as in this description of a strange redoubt our heroes discover late in the book:

Of these, the thing that first sprang to the eye was a great five-pointed star. It was formed of long glass tubes, all connected together in the same manner as strip-lighting designed to show the name over a shop; and through their whole length glowed electric wires that gave off the cold blue light. Five tall white candles were placed in the points of the star; but these were unlit, so evidently there only against an emergency failure of the electric current. Behind them were placed five bright, brand-new horseshoes. In the valleys of the star were five little silver cups half full of water and some bunches of herbs. More faintly seen were two thick circles that had been drawn in chalk on the floor. The inner, which was about seven feet across, connected the valleys of the star; the outer, which was very much bigger, connected its points. Between the two were chalked a number of Cabalistic formulae and the signs of the Zodiac.

Daughter was good spooky entertainment. It has its flaws: John’s political asides are tiresome and Molly becomes bizarrely and casually bloodthirsty near the end, keen at one point to kill some cultists just so she can see how some of the weapons she’s collected over the years while researching books work in practice (call me a pinko liberal, but I do think wanting to shoot someone just to see how a gun handles is a tad off). The flaws though aren’t so terrible that I won’t read the sequel also featuring Molly and the Colonel even if I did miss the Duc de Richlea and his chums (the heroes from Rides Out).

I’ll end with one final quote, on the challenges and opportunities faced by sorcerers when it comes to purchasing real estate:

‘It is extremely difficult to acquire a comfortable house which has adjacent to it an altar that was consecrated for many centuries; … As it was the abode of quite a number of elementals, I got it for a song.’

Those of us living in London in 2016 would I think be happy to put up with any number of elementals to get any house for a song, whether it had a handy adjacent altar or not.

Other reviews

Two online I thought interesting. This one from the Pretty Sinister blog makes the good point that the heroes here are humanly flawed and the villains are smart and don’t make stupid mistakes and I think that’s right on both counts. This review from Skulls in the Stars is much more critical. I actually agree with every point Skulls makes, I just enjoyed the book even so but the issues Skulls raises are completely well founded. My review of The Devil Rides Out is here.

Comments on writing

I thought I’d include at the end here three quotes from the book about being a writer, simply as they seemed so likely to reflect Wheatley’s own views and practice:

As a professional of some years’ standing she knew that work must be done at set hours and in suitable surroundings. Kind friends at home had often suggested that in the summer she should come to stay and could write on the beach or in their gardens; but that would have meant frequent interruptions, distractions by buzzing insects, and gusts of wind blowing away her papers.

Very soon she found that her war-time experiences had immensely improved her abilities as a writer. Thousands of hours spent typing staff papers had imbued her with a sense of how best to present a series of factors logically, clearly and with the utmost brevity. Moreover, in her job she had learned how the secret services really operated; so, without giving away any official secrets, she could give her stories an atmosphere of plausibility which no amount of imagination could quite achieve. These assets, grafted on to a good general education and a lively romantic mind, had enabled her agent to place her first novel without difficulty. She had since followed it up with two a year and had now made quite a name for herself as a competent and reliable author.

‘That’s a popular illusion that the public have about all authors,’ Molly smiled. ‘Except for a handful of best-sellers, writing is one of the worst-paid jobs in the world;

Decades later, that last quote remains all too true.

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Filed under Horror, Wheatley, Dennis

Desolation tries to colonize you.

Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer

I grew up on horror. My early loves were (of course) HP Lovecraft; the now underappreciated James Herbert; Stephen King; Peter Straub; Brian Lumley; William Hope Hodgson; M. R. James; Robert R. McCammon; Guy N. Smith with his series of novels about giant man-eating crabs invading Britain; the magnificent Ramsey Campbell. There were many others, now largely lost to me.

The contemporary horror authors shared some characteristics. Their stories were generally set in locations familiar to their readers. They contained healthy dollops of sex and lovingly detailed acts of appalling violence.

The threats were rarely personal to an individual but more often involved entire towns or countries facing madness or atrocity. Particularly with the British authors body counts tended to be high.

Hodgson and James offered more classically supernatural ghost stories (though Hodgson’s The Night Land was a much more curious beast). Enjoyable, but lacking the visceral thrills offered by the contemporaries. Both had a nice sense of how fear could come from the mere presence of the uncanny.

Lovecraft though, and to an extent Campbell, they were different; their horrors stranger. Instead of conjuring fear with ghosts or hostile creatures or scenes of pain and death they instead went existential. The terror here was that the world no longer made sense; that it never had.

Annihilation

Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation is the first of a trilogy, published in full during 2014. It’s not a long novel, but it is a resonant one. It’s very, very good.

The biologist is part of a team of four sent into Area X, together with the anthropologist, the surveyor and the psychologist. The linguist didn’t make it through processing. They’re all women, the thought being that perhaps that will somehow help in Area X. They’re not the first expedition.

What is Area X? That’s not quite clear. It’s a zone where the world isn’t as it should be. There were previous expeditions, the last one including the biologist’s husband. People who enter either don’t come back at all or come back changed. Whatever is in Area X is alien and dangerous.

Names are left behind. Crossing over to Area X involves passing through some kind of boundary and the effects are psychologically devastating, so the expedition members pass through under hypnosis waking on the other side armed with post-hypnotic commands and considerable uncertainty as to their own mission.

Almost immediately they discover something the biologist names a tower and the others a tunnel. It’s a large disc with steps penetrating deep into the earth. It’s not on their maps. Within they find cryptic and ominous writing growing in fungal form from the walls, written by who knows what. It’s so close to their camp that it must have been known about, so why wasn’t it mentioned?

The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats. Beyond the marsh flats and the natural canals lies the ocean and, a little farther down the coast, a derelict lighthouse. All of this part of the country had been abandoned for decades, for reasons that are not easy to relate. Our expedition was the first to enter Area X for more than two years, and much of our predecessors’ equipment had rusted, their tents and sheds little more than husks. Looking out over that untroubled landscape, I do not believe any of us could yet see the threat.

The expedition begins to break down. The biologist finds she’s become immune to the psychologist’s post-hypnotic suggestions after inhaling some spores, but does that mean that her experiences are more real than the others or less? Is she escaping programming or hallucinating?

This is a strange and slippery novel. The reader is rapidly as unmoored as the biologist and the other expedition members. The characters here have lost their names, can no longer be certain of their past, can’t even agree on what they’re seeing and hearing. The psychologist tries to control them with her hypnotic trigger-phrases, but there’s no control to be had either for her or the reader.

As the biologist realises she can’t trust her team-mates or, after inhaling those spores, herself she comes to realise that she also can’t trust the people who sent them in. The expedition’s goals don’t make sense given what must have been known about the tower, and the hypnosis seems to have left none of them with any clear idea of how they’re supposed to leave once they’re done.

The map had been the first form of misdirection, for what was a map but a way of emphasizing some things and making other things invisible?

Perhaps the best thing to say about Annihilation is that I genuinely don’t know how to describe it. It’s an insidious and disquieting novel. It evokes a sense of dread, but of what isn’t always entirely clear. As the biologist delves deeper into Area X she encounters signs of what may have happened to those who went before, but the uncertainty is the true horror here.

At times VanderMeer does seem to be making quite deliberate homage to other works. The whole concept is clearly in part at least inspired by Roadside Picnic, though you could easily read this without having read that. Similarly, the following passage where the biologist visits an abandoned village contains imagery strongly (and I suspect intentionally) reminiscent of William Hope Hodgson‘s famous horror short The Voice in the Night:

But in what had been kitchens or living rooms or bedrooms, I also saw a few peculiar eruptions of moss or lichen, rising four, five, feet tall, misshapen, the vegetative matter forming an approximation of limbs and heads and torsos. As if there had been runoff from the material, too heavy for gravity, that had congregated at the foot of these objects. Or perhaps I imagined this effect.

One particular tableau struck me in an almost emotional way. Four such eruptions, one “standing” and three decomposed to the point of “sitting” in what once must have been a living room with a coffee table and a couch—all facing some point at the far end of the room where lay only the crumbling soft brick remains of a fireplace and chimney. The smell of lime and mint unexpectedly arose, cutting through the must, the loam.

If you’ve read the Hodgson it resonates with that, but if you haven’t it still works and in any event it’s certainly not mere pastiche. VanderMeer is master of the disconcerting detail – here that smell of lime and mint which in a way is more horrifying than just the suggestion that something terrible happened here and to the people in these houses.

In the end it becomes evident that horror isn’t intrinsic to Area X and nor is it restricted to it. The world is worse than inimical, it’s unknowable. As the biologist concludes:

Our instruments are useless, our methodology broken, our motivations selfish.

Annihilation is a rare example of genre fiction that I’d potentially recommend to non-genre readers. It’s well written and its effects linger uncomfortably long after you’ve closed the final page. I’m looking forward to reading the second and third in the trilogy.

Other reviews

None in the blogs I normally follow that I’m aware of, but please feel free to alert me to any in the comments.

Edit: Kaggsy alerted me in the comments to a very good review by Annabel Gaskella which is here. Lee also alerted me to this review by Trevor, which I thought I’d read and commented on but looking back I think I may have missed entirely.

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Filed under Horror, SF, VanderMeer, Jeff

Connant nodded bitterly. “I’m human. Hurry that test. Your eyes—Lord, I wish you could see your eyes staring—”

Who Goes There?, by John W. Campbell Jr.

Who Goes There? is one of those books now famous(ish) because of the film that was made from it, or films I should say – in this case the 1951 science fiction horror classic The Thing from Another World!, and John Carpenter’s equally strong 1981 remake The Thing.

Most of the people who read my blog don’t care much about either science fiction or horror, which is fair enough. If you ever make exceptions though, this might be one to make, because this is something of a small masterpiece.

who goes there

Love those old pulp covers.

An Antarctic research station find a crashed alien spaceship, ancient and entombed in ice. They accidentally destroy the ship, but they do at least recover a corpse from the ice nearby.

What follows is actually rather refreshing. The scientists at the base have an intelligent debate about whether it’s safe to thaw it out, some worried that even after 20 million years it may still harbour dangerous bacteria or viruses, the biologist Blair pointing out in return that since humans can’t catch diseases from snakes they’re hardly likely to do so from something that didn’t even evolve on our planet. Some are concerned by less tangible fears, the thing’s expression seems insane, hate-filled, and the mere sight of it causes men to recoil in revulsion. That and those who brought it back had disturbing dreams, but then who wouldn’t seeing such a thing?

Of course they decide to thaw it out, they haven’t really a choice as they know they can’t safely ship it back without it thawing mid-transit, destroying any samples they might later wish to take. They take sensible precautions though. Connant, a cosmic rays specialist, stays up with it overnight since he’ll be up monitoring equipment anyway. It’s not that anything’s expected to happen, they just want to make sure nothing goes wrong. It’s fair to say, things go wrong.

Campbell has a lovely sense of place. Here’s the opening paragraph:

THE PLACE STANK. A queer, mingled stench that only the ice-buried cabins of an Antarctic camp know, compounded of reeking human sweat, and the heavy, fish-oil stench of melted seal blubber. An overtone of liniment combated the musty smell of sweat-and-snow-drenched furs. The acrid odor of burned cooking-fat, and the animal, not-unpleasant smell of dogs, diluted by time, hung in the air.

There’s plenty of examples as good. You can feel the cold here, smell the stale sweat. Campbell establishes swiftly quite how hostile the environment is, how easy it is to get lost in a whiteout, how quickly you can freeze to death. There’s only one place here life can cling on, inside the base itself. There’s only men, dogs, and the thing which even after twenty million years is very far from dead.

The 1951 movie makes the thing a humanoid plant that feeds on blood. Hokey, but it works in the film. In the book though it’s quite different, much worse. The thing adapts, and how it adapts is by imitation. It can absorb creatures, replicate them at the cellular level, effectively become them. It doesn’t just absorb their bodies either, it takes their thoughts, their instincts –  it’s telepathic, making it the perfect mimic.

What that means is that anything it can reach it can infect, take over. Dog, gull, seal, whale, it doesn’t matter. Anything it can reach it can become. Anything it becomes ceases to be what it was, is now a vessel for the thing, and it remembers every form it’s ever taken. If it gets out it’s literally the end of the world. It gets to the dogs, it starts to become a dog, but the barking of the rest of the pack alerts the men of the base and they find it mid-transformation, kill it with electrical cables. They consider what they’ve seen:

“… It can imitate anything – that is, become anything. If it had reached the Antarctic sea, it would have become a seal, maybe two seals. They might have attacked a killer whale, and become either killers, or a herd of seals. Or maybe it would have caught an albatross, or a skua gull, and flown to South America.”

It’s dead though, they think. Dr. Copper starts to reflect how lucky they were, though Blair quickly corrects him:

“Then we can only give thanks that this is Antarctica, where there is not one, single, solitary, living thing for it to imitate, except these animals in camp.” “Us,” Blair giggled. “It can imitate us. Dogs can’t make four hundred miles to the sea; there’s no food. There aren’t any skua gulls to imitate at this season. There aren’t any penguins this far inland. There’s nothing that can reach the sea from this point—except us. We’ve got brains. We can do it. Don’t you see—it’s got to imitate us—it’s got to be one of us—that’s the only way it can fly an airplane——fly a plane for two hours, and rule—be—all Earth’s inhabitants. A world for the taking—if it imitates us!

That’s where the real horror starts. They killed it, yes, but what if they killed it too late? What if it’s already infected one of them? Assumed a man’s form, copied his mind, is waiting among them for the snows to lift and for them all to be taken home, where it can spread and colonise?  Connant spent the whole night with the thing, is he still Connant? Who else might it have got to? It could be anyone, it could be several of them, all they know is that it can’t be most of them since if it were it wouldn’t bother hiding any more.

What follows is probably the most chillingly paranoiac novel I’ve yet read. There were times I had to close it just because the claustrophobia was too strong, the sense of dread and isolation. The radio’s quickly smashed so as to stop the thing calling for an emergency airlift out, but time’s passing and with it the season. Eventually the relief crews will come, birds will start to pass overhead again, all it has to do is wait, pretending to be one of them, pretending to be just as afraid as everyone else.

I won’t say much more about what happens, I don’t really need to – you can probably imagine. They develop a test to distinguish between someone who’s still human and someone who just seems human, but who do you trust to administer it? If a man refuses to let the person with the test near them does that mean they’re a monster, or that they’re human and don’t know if the person doing the testing is a monster? Every man is trapped in his own solipsistic hell, except of course that’s not true because some of them aren’t men anymore.

There’s not a lot else to say other than that this really is a quite brilliant little novella. Obviously if you’ve no patience for pulp tales of alien horrors from beyond the stars it’s not for you, but if you can swallow that part what follows is intensely evocative, so much so that I was glad it was short and I could come out of it blinking in the summer sunlight, if still feeling slightly cold. I don’t know if it’ll make my end of year list yet, but it’s a definite candidate. A wonderfully chilling little tale, and golden age science fiction at its best.

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‘You are stubborn,’ said Roger Nowell. ‘I am not tame,’ said Alice Nutter.

The Daylight Gate, by Jeanette Winterson

 THE NORTH IS the dark place.

Hammer Films used to be a British institution. From the late 1950s through to the 1970s it produced a wide range of independent British horror cinema, much of it very good. These films were made quickly and generally on a very low budget. Many were utterly forgettable, but some were absolute classics fondly remembered to this day.

Recently Hammer has had something of a revival. The brand was bought out back in 2007 and the new owners are putting out fresh horror cinema under that label (including the excellent low key British horror movie Wake Wood, which is in the best traditions of Hammer). They’ve also launched a publishing arm, which has put out horror titles by existing horror writers and in some cases by more literary writers spreading their (presumably dark) wings.

I’m a Hammer horror fan and a Jeanette Winterson fan, so when Hammer published her The Daylight Gate they pretty much had me in mind. Applying literary fiction techniques to genre though can easily come unstuck. Some writers (and readers) assume that genre is a lesser form of writing than literary fiction, the beetle-browed Neanderthal to literary fiction’s elegant Cro-Magnon. The truth of course is that genre is simply writing within a particular tradition with particular goals. Even so, if you don’t understand the tradition, or worse yet talk down to it, you can easily write a book which literary fans will dislike because it has genre elements and which genre fans will dislike because those genre elements aren’t very good.

Jeanette Winterson though isn’t a writer who has much truck with the concept of genre, or literary categories generally. As she said in the context of her Stone Gods: “I can’t see the point of labelling a book like a pre-packed supermarket meal. There are books worth reading and books not worth reading. That’s all.” So, is The Daylight Gate worth reading?

Yes, it is (I can’t be bothered with cliffhangers within a blog, they seem so self-important).

Daylight Gate

 THE PEDLAR JOHN Law was taking a short cut through that nick of Pendle Forest they call Boggart’s Hole. The afternoon was too warm for the time of year and he was hot in his winter clothes. He had to hurry. Already the light was thinning. Soon it would be dusk; the liminal hour – the Daylight Gate. He did not want to step through the light into whatever lay beyond the light.

John Law runs into some women of the Demdike clan on his journey. One asks him for some pins, and when he refuses shouts curses at him. he flees, collapses in a nearby inn where he promptly has a stroke uttering but one word, “Demdike”.

That incident, some mocking women and the collapse of an unhealthy man unwisely running through the dusk, leads to one of the most famous witch-trials in English history. The year is 1612 and the King, James 1st of England, is famously obsessed with witches. The book is fiction, but what it’s based on is real. There was a peddler by name John Law. Two women of the Demdike family did ask him for pins, he did collapse and they were later blamed. It ended in ten executions, nine women and one man. It was a pointless act of judicial barbarity, now part of England’s tourist trail.

The characters then in this novel are fictional, but not entirely so. There was a magistrate by name Roger Nowell who acted as prosecutor. There was a court clerk named Thomas Potts who wrote a detailed account of the trial that did wonders for his later career. There was an accused known commonly as mould-heels, and there was an Alice Nutter.

Alice Nutter was unusual among the accused. Where most of the supposed witches were uneducated and desperately poor, Alice Nutter was a wealthy widow. Her links to the other accused were slight, although there’s some evidence that she may have been a crypto-Catholic. Looking back all these centuries later she stands out as an oddity. It’s Alice Nutter therefore that Winterson chooses as the protagonist of her version of these terrible events.

Here Alice Nutter is that most dangerous of things, much more perilous than a witch, she’s a woman independent of the need for men. She has her own fortune made from a royal warrant granted to her by Queen Elizabeth for a magenta dye so deep and rich that none can understand how she makes it. She studied under John Dee, and her appearance belies her years for she perpetuates her youth with a lotion of Dee’s devising.

Is then Alice Nutter a witch? It’s hard to say. Her dye is a question of clever chemistry. Dee is part of the historical record so his presence proves nothing. The lotion could just be an early form of moisturiser, an unusually effective one now lost.

Alice herself is ambiguous in her beliefs about witchcraft. For her the other accused are immiserated, and so desperate for any form of power or control in their lives that they’ll take it even from a Dark Man who may or may not exist. The real crime here isn’t witchcraft, it’s oppression.

“‘Popery witchery, witchery popery'” cries Thomas Potts, “a proud little cockerel of a man; all feathers and no fight.” As the machinery of justice cranks into life it pulls in a wider circle of people. The desperate settle debts through accusations, hoping to help themselves by hurting others or at least to settle a few scores on their way down:

‘I will testify against them all.’ Constable Hargreaves refilled the tankards. ‘And what of Mistress Nutter?’ Jem took his beer and drained it off. ‘I will say to Magistrate Nowell that she promised to lead us and to blow up the gaol at Lancaster and free Old Demdike.’ He started to laugh – high, hysterical. They were laughing with him. He wasn’t alone and outside any more. Not cold or hungry or afraid. He would be safe now.

Alice Nutter believes herself above all this, protected by her wealth and position, and of course by her relative innocence. That’s unwise. She’s bisexual, tending towards a preference for women (this is a Winterson novel after all). She engages with men as equals, enjoys conversation with Roger Nowell who likes her but is all too aware that if he doesn’t comply with her prosecution his own reluctance could land him in the dock right next to her.

So, an intelligent woman able to see the contradictions of the society around her and unable to hide her own separation from it. Put that way it could be a description of Winterson’s first novel, Oranges are not the Only Fruit. It’s easy to see why Winterson found this story interesting, why she thought there was a book inside it. This isn’t though a historical novel (Winterson doesn’t write those), it’s a horror novel.

The horror here isn’t simply supernatural. This book includes graphic scenes of child abuse, rape, torture and relentless human degradation. This is a novel where two of the accused are slightly better off than the others because they’re young enough for their jailor to want to rape them, and so to let them out of the communal cell for a little while and to wash before he sets to. That’s horror, perhaps too much so. The horror genre is generally a comforting one because it’s terrors aren’t real, but there’s nothing reassuring in unjust imprisonment, brutality and sexual exploitation.

There are scenes too of witchcraft – because most of the accused here believe themselves to be witches, whether they really are or not. One particularly grisly sequence involves an attempt to animate a skull by sewing a dismembered tongue into it so as to summon imagined supernatural aid. In the main there’s no evidence it works, but Alice Nutter is again an exception. It’s not clear cut, but there’s some suggestion that during her time with Dee she may have been involved with matters beyond this world, and that this may be part of her present undoing.

‘Elizabeth has betrayed you. She sold her Soul to enjoy her wealth and power for a fixed time. Now, unless there is a substitute for her Soul, she will lose everything. You are the substitute.’ ‘I do not believe in those things.’ ‘It does not matter what you believe. Believe what is.’

If ever there were a writer comfortable with ambiguity it’s Winterson. Here the real and the unreal meet, but the unreal is a manifestation of the real. Some of the witchcraft is plainly superstition, but it’s uncertain if it all is. If magic exists though its expression is merely a reflection of wider social forces. Witchcraft is attractive because women born without power have few other options. Alice is dangerous not because she doesn’t grow old as other women do but because she thinks for herself. For once the old cliche is true, it doesn’t matter whether what the characters believe is real, all that matters is that they believe it’s real.

The book’s not without problems. There are inherent tensions in depicting real life horror and the supernatural in the same work, and as noted above it’s hard to care about the machinations of the Black Man when you’ve been reading about a serial child abuser a few pages previously. Possible horror, well written, makes it hard to care about impossible horror.

Winterson also overdoes some motifs, particularly the phrase “the daylight gate” which is frankly overused and so becomes rather tedious and the meanings of which are exhaustively spelled out for the reader. There’s a sense too that Winterson just plain crowds too much in, with John Dee entering the tale, and an encounter with Shakespeare, plus a wandering emasculated Jesuit priest (it’s telling that Alice Nutter’s only male romantic interest doesn’t have a penis). For a fairly short novel it’s dense to the point of overflowing, and it’s not as if the trial itself hasn’t already got a rich cast of characters and incident. The book doesn’t need to feel as if everyone of any note in Jacobean Britain is wandering through its pages.

It’s not then an unqualified success. Winterson is combining two forms that don’t easily sit together, and the results don’t always gel. She avoids though the main traps of this sort of exercise, she doesn’t patronise the genre, she doesn’t give the impression she thinks she’s slumming it, the concerns she explores here are concerns she’s explored before in other works and that genuinely interest her.

Ultimately it’s what it says on the cover – a Jeanette Winterson novel. It’s not her best and it’s probably not for those of her fans who don’t also like the odd slice of the macabre, but if like me you’re the target audience for a Jeanette Winterson Hammer horror novel then that’s precisely what this is. Like the Hammer classics of the 1970s it sometimes doesn’t quite convince, and sometimes you can see how the effects work, but for all that it’s still well made and a lot of fun.

Recent evidence by the way points to the Neanderthals being as intelligent and sophisticated as we are, which makes the analogy I used early on in this piece very unfair to Neanderthals. Sorry Neanderthals, and sorry about that whole driving you extinct thing too. Mistakes were made. As a final aside also I can’t write this review and not mention the (utterly unconnected save for subject matter) album 1612 Underture by the Eccentronic Research Council with Maxine Peake – easily the best electronic music feminist satire on the treatment of the Pendle witches out there.

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Filed under Horror, Winterson, Jeanette

‘You fool,’ he thundered. ‘I’d rather see you dead than monkeying with Black Magic.’

The Devil Rides out, by Denis Wheatley

After Don Quixote I wanted a bit of readable nonsense. Something light and easy to dip into that wouldn’t require meta-anaylsis and constant attention, much as I enjoyed all that with Quixote.

Dennis Wheatley is one of those authors who were once household names and are now barely remembered. He wrote a mixture of spy/action thrillers and books about strange Satanic cults threatening the UK. Often he used the same characters in both. He’s perhaps best remembered now for the classic Hammer House of Horror movie that was made based on this novel.

As a teenager one of my relatives was a Wheatley fan, and I read quite a few of them. He seemed sinister and worldly, not least because of the famous Author’s Note in this particular book. There he talks about the pains he’s taken to ensure the accuracy of the magical practices he describes, and then goes on to say:

All the characters and the situations in this book are entirely imaginary, but, in the inquiry necessary to writing of it, I found ample evidence that Black Magic is still practised in London, and other cities, at the present day.

Should any of my readers incline to a serious study of the subject, and thus come into contact with a man or woman of Power, I feel that it is only right to urge them, most strongly, to refrain from being drawn into the practise of the Secret Art in any way. My own observations have led me to an absolute conviction that to do so would bring them into dangers of a very real and concrete nature.

Now that’s an author’s foreword! Did he believe any of it? Who knows? But if we assume as I think we should that anything written by an author between the pages of their book is part of the book, what’s happening here is Wheatley hooking his readers before they even get to the first page proper of his story. He was a bestselling writer for a reason.

devilridesoutfront

What follows is a highly entertaining mix of the sinister and the prosaic, all written in that rather portentous style used in the foreword with its capitalisations and emphasis on how evil lurks under the surface of the everyday.

Simon Aron, a “frail, narrow-shouldered Englishman” misses a reunion with his old friends American adventurer Rex Van Ryn and “elderly French exile” Duke de Richleau. Rex and the Duke have had adventures together before (in previous books) fighting the Russians, but now they’re worried that something may be wrong much closer to home.

They drive to Simon’s house, where they discover him hosting a curious party with a strangely international guest list. When they arrive they’re taken by most of the other guests as having been invited, but that puzzles some for with Rex and Duke there are now fifteen people present, two surplus to requirements…

All this is beyond Rex, but not the Duke and he soon realises that what menaces Simon is far worse than communism, it’s Satanism (though in other books Wheatley, deeply right wing, directly linked the two). Wasting no time they knock out Simon and flee with him, but not before they encounter a beautiful young woman named Lilith who catches Rex’s eye and a “fleshy, moon-faced man” with “unsmiling eyes” named Mocata who appears to be leader of this curious band.

What’s wonderful in all this is the incredible snobbery which pervades the book. This next quote comes just after all I’ve just described and more – Rex has found himself near in love-at-first-sight with Lilith, has discovered that one of his oldest friends is trafficking in some bizarre black magic cult and has just fought a mute manservant and eluded vicious satanists. He’s now back at the Duke’s with Simon:

As Rex laid Simon upon the wide sofa he glanced round him with an interest unappeased by a hundred visits, at the walls lined shoulder high with beautifully bound books, and at the lovely old colour prints, interspersed with priceless historical documents and maps, which hung above them.

I’m as much a sucker for a well-bound book as the next man, but in those circumstances I have to admit it wouldn’t be the first thing I’d be thinking about. The whole book’s like that. Later when Rex and the Duke slip back into Simon’s now empty home to look for clues they take the time to note his preferred brands of champagne and foie gras before finding themselves attacked by a malevolent spirit lying in wait for them.

Writing that I realised I’d seen that odd combination of danger and high-end living once before, in Ian Fleming’s Bond novels. Perhaps it’s a genre thing. The adventure genre is fairly vicarious by nature, and Wheatley wrote more Bond-esque fiction (much of it starring the Duke) than he did black magic tales.

I’m probably making it sound terrible. The thing is though, it isn’t. It’s oddly effective. Wheatley litters the text with asides from the Duke on his knowledge of black magic and it all sounds so matter of fact that it becomes strangely credible. The Duke knows there won’t be a dog at the house, because ‘Dogs are simple, friendly creatures but highly psychic. The vibrations in a place where Black Magic was practised would cause any dog to bolt for a certainty.’

What follows is a duel between good and evil. On one side is the Duke and Rex, fighting with white magic, prayer, fast cars, a good right hook. On the other is Mocata with his curious powers of mind control, telepathy and summoning baleful spirits. Simon is the prize. If he can be made to sign his name in the Devil’s book on May Day Eve his soul will be lost forever, and he lacks the strength to resist Mocata’s influence on his own.

I won’t spoil the plot, though if you’ve seen the movie you already know it. I will say though that it contains at least two great set piece passages, one where the Duke and Rex interrupt a grand sabbat at which Satanists from across the UK and beyond are gathered, and another where they find themselves besieged by spirits in a lengthy night during which Mocata exercises the full force of his power against them. It’s a fun read that does precisely what it promises to – Wheatley was never a great writer but he was a very reliable one.

Part of Wheatley’s appeal back in the 1970s when this stuff was huge was that he had supposedly researched all this in minuscule detail. Wheatley created an image of himself as a man who knew much about dark things most were unaware of, and perhaps he did. There are after all plenty who do believe in black magic and all that, and it’s entirely possible Wheatley did research them.

It’s that sense of veracity which makes this work. The characters aren’t exactly subtle, the plot hardly complex. Wheatley’s prose is often stilted in tone and there’s an awful lot of exposition. For all that, Mocata and his cult seem convincing. There seems to be some form of underlying logic to their powers, a sense of a greater cosmology underpinning it all. Wheatley’s vision of evil forces lurking just under the surface of (then) contemporary British life seems all too persuasive.

In the end it’s the detail, the exposition I just cited as a potential fault, that pulls it all together. Take the following rather dry passage where the Duke erects some magical defences:

Then, taking five long white tapering candles, such as are offered by devotees to the Saints in Catholic Churches, he lit them from an old-fashioned tinder-box and set them upright, one at each apex of the five-pointed star. In their rear he placed the five brand new horseshoes which Richard had secured from the village with their horns pointing outward, and beyond each vase of holy water he set a dried mandrake, four females and one male, the male being in the valley to the north.

There’s no real drama to any of that. It’s a mix of dry explanation and Wheatley making sure that his research is visible on the page. I’m back to that sense of veracity again though. He renders the extraordinary, ordinary and in doing so makes it very easy to imagine. In that sense he’s very cinematic.

All this ordinariness makes it all the more chilling when something truly macabre does occur,  such as when someone observes of Mocata that “‘He is walking in the sunshine–but he has no shadow!’”. Most of the book is conversation, preparation, more conversation. Then there’s an action sequence, or a shadowless man on a sunny day.

Is The Devil Rides Out a good book, whatever that means? Ultimately, yes, because you have to take books on their own terms. This isn’t literary fiction. It’s not intended to be beautiful or to challenge. It’s an entertainment, a piece of thrilling nonsense designed to while away a dull afternoon or train ride. It does that very well.

It’s dated, both in terms of style and certainly in terms of attitudes, but so’s Ian Fleming and that doesn’t stop people reading him. In his heyday Wheatley’s main output was his pure spy stories, but his black magic tales are the interesting ones because nobody else wrote this stuff quite like he did. As if it were all real. He’s now being rereleased on Kindle, which is how I came across this title, and I think he deserves a place in the British horror canon.

The ultimate test of any author is whether, having read them, you plan to read more by them. I’ve already bought Wheatley’s To the Devil a Daughter. I don’t expect it to be well written, I don’t expect it to be remotely credible, but I do expect it to seem credible just for the time I’m reading it – that’s Wheatley’s secret.

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a singular air of reluctance or compulsion

Three Ghost Stories, by Charles Dickens

I’ve always had a rather mixed view of Charles Dickens. He can create memorable characters, make a story rattle along, bring scenes to vivid life, but he’s also frequently maudlin and I’ve read more than one book by him that could have used a severe editorial pruning. When I reviewed Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger I described it as Dickensian, that wasn’t wholly a compliment.

A little while back though Sarah at A Rat in the Book Pile reviewed Dickens’ short story The Signal Man. It’s a story I already knew from a BBC Christmas adaptation, but Sarah made a good case for the original and I’m a sucker for a good ghost story. And after all, was there ever a better time and place for spooks than Victorian England?

One of the advantages of owning a kindle is easy access to classic fiction. I downloaded Three Ghost Stories, and recently wanting a lighter read thought it the perfect time to indulge in these frock-coated frights.

There are (as the title rather suggests) three stories in this collection. The Signal Man, The Haunted House and finally The Trial for Murder. Sarah was right. The Signal Man is a great short story.

The Signal Man draws on a classic piece of folklore, the premonitory haunting: a spirit which brings forewarning of death or calamity. A retired traveller comes across a railway cutting, “as solitary and dismal a place as ever I saw”, and shouts a greeting to the signal man working down below. The signal man starts in fear, but eventually calls his visitor down to join him where he explains what it was that made him so frightened by a cheery greeting.

Here the visitor descends almost literally into the underworld:

On either side a dripping wet wall of jagged stone, excluding all view but a strip of sky: the perspective one way only a crooked prolongation of this great dungeon; the shorter perspective in the other direction terminating in a gloomy red light, and the gloomier entrance to a black tunnel, in which massive architecture there was a barbarous, depressing, and forbidding air. So little sunlight ever found its way to this spot, that it had an earthy, deadly smell; and so much cold wind rushed through it, that it struck chill to me, as if I had left the natural world.

I won’t give too much away. The signal man thinks himself haunted by a figure that appears to him presaging disaster on his line – a rail crash, a terrible accident. Only he can see this figure, and so only he receives these dire and useless portents. What can you do with the knowledge that something awful will happen, but no knowledge of what exactly it will be?

Dickens leaves open the possibility of psychological explanation, but for me this worked best in a more literal fashion. Premonitory apparitions are a big feature of the folklore of the British isles. One example that springs to mind are washer women seen by travellers, who on greeting are discovered to be washing blood out of clothes and the sighting of whom foretells a death in the traveller’s own family. The signal man is cursed with valueless prophecy.

Of course the figure reappears. What disaster is it foretelling this time? For that you’ll need to read the story, and it’s worth reading because it’s an absolute gem and I agree with Sarah entirely that it shows none of the faults of Dickens’ longer works.

Where The Signal Man showed all Dickens’ strengths and none of his weaknesses, The Haunted House balanced the books by showing him at his worst. It starts promisingly enough, with a narrator whose “health required a temporary residence in the country” – doesn’t it always in these tales? There’s a nice bit of satire as the narrator travels by train to the house where the mystery will unfold and while travelling meets a spiritualist who boasts of his high connections in the unseen world:

There are seventeen thousand four hundred and seventy-nine spirits here, but you cannot see them. Pythagoras is here. He is not at liberty to mention it, but hopes you like travelling.” Galileo likewise had dropped in, with this scientific intelligence. “I am glad to see you, amico. Come sta? Water will freeze when it is cold enough. Addio!” In the course of the night, also, the following phenomena had occurred. Bishop Butler had insisted on spelling his name, “Bubler,” for which offence against orthography and good manners he had been dismissed as out of temper. John Milton (suspected of wilful mystification) had repudiated the authorship of Paradise Lost, and had introduced, as joint authors of that poem, two Unknown gentlemen, respectively named Grungers and Scadgingtone. And Prince Arthur, nephew of King John of England, had described himself as tolerably comfortable in the seventh circle, where he was learning to paint on velvet, under the direction of Mrs. Trimmer and Mary Queen of Scots.

When the story gets to the actual haunted house though it wanders off in endless and very laboured comic digressions, ultimately sputtering out in a dismally sentimental conclusion. One of the other advantages of the kindle is you can make notes directly against the text. At the end of this one I wrote “flabby and dull”, after deleting my initial comment which was a lot ruder.

Finally comes The Murder Trial, which is a predictable and uninteresting story of how a jury foreman finds himself the only man at a trial who can see the murder victim’s ghost, attending and influencing events. I don’t have any quotes from this one, the whole thing was too dull for any to stand out.

So, three ghost stories. The second story is terrible, the third just utterly mediocre, but the first wouldn’t be out of place in an MR James collection and when it comes to supernatural short stories there simply isn’t higher praise.

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The situation seems to be deterioriating…

The Fuller Memorandum, by Charles Stross

The Fuller Memorandum is the first novel I have read entirely on a mobile phone.

Amazon UK recently launched the new wave of Kindles. I placed an order for one, which should arrive next week. In the meantime, I thought I’d check out the Kindle software and the range of books on offer. To do so I put the Kindle app on my iPhone and then used that to download some book samples.

The Kindle app is surprisingly easy to use. Good resolution, easy page turns, power hungry though. Anyway, I found I could read on it easier than I expected. I got curious about how it would cope with a full work, and decided to order something light and not-too-serious to test it out with.

At the same time of course I’ve been reading Patrick Hamilton’s Slaves of Solitude. It turns out though that there are many situations where one can read on a mobile but where reading a novel is impractical. The result is I’ve finished a whole novel on my phone while I’m still only half way through the (excellent) Hamilton.

I’ll say a few more words about the phone reading experience and its wider implications, then I’ll talk about The Fuller Memorandum itself. For the curious, it’s a very geeky comedy-horror novel and most of the folk who read this blog probably won’t be interested in it. I’ll flag when I start talking about that so if it’s not your thing you can skip that part of this blog entry.

Also, I still think Kindle is the ugliest name for an ereader I’ve encountered. Seriously Amazon, you named your ereader by reference to bookburning? Extraordinary.

Anyway. The Kindle app is quite interesting. You can change font size, which for me means you I tend to have about two paragraphs per screen. You can bookmark “pages” (screens) and you can highlight words to check them in the dictionary (online and immediately) or to enter notes against them. That meant as I went through I was able to input notes directly against the text. A small number appears against the word you make the note against, and a menu option shows you all notes and bookmarks and lets you go straight to any of them.

Pageturning is very fast, which meant that although each individual page was a small fraction of a real page in practice reading was still fluid. Contrast is good, and the lit screen didn’t weary my eyes as computer screens do (I don’t know why not). That lit screen though meant it was a battery life hog, which isn’t ideal.

Overall, I was able to read the novel easily and without the interface getting in the way. Because it was on a mobile phone I was able to read it at odd moments in the day, with the result that I read it far faster than I had expected. All of this has implications. What it implies for me is that the killer ereader device the industry is waiting for isn’t a dedicated reader at all. Nor is it the iPad (for me a firmly transitional device). The killer ereader is the mobile phone.

With better battery life/energy usage, there’s no reason one couldn’t read multiple novels in this format. Obviously I prefer physical books, and when my actual Kindle arrives I imagine I’ll prefer that too due to screen size issues. But this was a much better experience than I had expected. I’m still not sure I’d read a serious novel in this format (I have a sample of Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling on it, from NYRB, but I’d rather read that on the full device or in traditional book form) but for light entertainment it’s arguably better than the traditional form.

For existing heavy readers, indeed for any heavy readers, the phone is unlikely to be anything more than a supplemental device (if even that). For new demographics though who have grown up accessing news through smartphones, reading the internet on them, using them for chat functions and gaming and as a general purpose tool I think this is much more viable. The fact the same software allows me to read a book on my phone or on my full Kindle (and the software reconciles the versions on each device so that each knows where your bookmarks are and what page you’re up to) means that a book can be purchased electronically but read on a number of devices – potentially here iPhone, iPad and Kindle.

Again, I don’t think that will be much of a draw for existing heavy readers. Going forward though, I think it will be irresistible for many casual and new readers.

Speaking personally, there are books I buy that I expect to keep. I make an attempt to seriously engage with them, I hope for greatness. Those books I suspect I’ll still tend to want hardcopies of because I’m sentimental that way. Some publishers, Pushkin, Peirene, produce books which are attractive physical objects in their own right. That will still appeal to me.

For me though there are also books I buy as light entertainment. That’s not knocking them, good light entertainment is tricky stuff. But I don’t want to seriously engage with them, I want to be amused and to have a little fun. For those, having a copy after I’ve finished isn’t particularly useful. I probably won’t reread them. They’re not treasured physical objects as a Pushkin might be. They’re just mass market paperbacks. Or, now, a file held remotely on a server somewhere which I can access on the off chance I ever want to read it again.

I’m hopeful the full Kindle device will be useful and will work for me. Even if not though, going forward I suspect I’ll be reading books like The Fuller Memorandum more often on my phone than in a physical edition. In time, I think I’ll be far from alone in that.

And while the literary market won’t be affected nearly as much as the market for lighter books, lighter books outsell literary ones by a vast order of magnitude.

Interesting times. I’m glad I’m not in publishing.

So, over to The Fuller Memorandum itself. If you’re not interested in comedy-horror-SF with heavy Lovecraftian elements and an ocean of geek references then you can probably afford to tune out now.

Charles Stross is one of the best SF writers around today. He’s part of the UK’s renaissance of good hard SF writing, and he’s responsible for such landmark novels as Accellerando (great ideas and vision, lousy characterisation, hard sf in a nutshell really that description).

Stross doesn’t just write hard SF though. He’s also written some cross-reality semi-fantasy novels that I’ve not read (so even that basic description may not be wholly accurate) and some Lovecraft pastiche novels known as the Laundry novels.

The Fuller Memorandum is the third of the Laundry novels. The conceit of each is that the protagonist, Bob Howard, is an operative for an ultra-secret arm of British Intelligence which deals with occult threats to the UK (nicknamed The Laundry). The occult threats in question aren’t the usual ones of ghosts, vampires and so on but rather are entities out of the cosmic horror tales of HP Lovecraft. Aliens beyond our space and time that, when they intrude upon our reality, bring with them madness and death.

We human beings live at the bottom of a thin puddle of oxygen-nitrogen vapor adhering to the surface of a medium-sized rocky planet that orbits a not terribly remarkable star in a cosmos which is one of many. We are not alone. There are other beings in other universes, other cosmologies, that think, and travel, and explore. And there are aliens in the abyssal depths of the oceans, and dwellers in the red-hot blackness and pressure of the upper mantle, that are stranger than your most florid hallucinations. They’re terrifyingly powerful, the inheritors of millennia of technological civilisation; they were building starships and opening timegates back when your ancestors and mine were clubbing each other over the head with rocks to settle the eternal primate diagreement over who had the bigger dick.

The first Laundry novel is a crossover pastiche. It takes the monsters from Lovecraft, and then injects them into a story based on Len Deighton’s spy novels. The result works surprisingly well. It’s funny, makes a bizarre sort of internal sense and the whole thing hangs together better than it has the slightest right to.

The second Laundry novel is in a similar vein, but instead of Deighton this time Ian Fleming is emulated. This worked much less well for me, possibly reflecting the fact the idea wasn’t as fresh or possibly reflecting the fact I rate Len Deighton and I don’t rate Ian Fleming.

The Fuller Memorandum may be based on another spy writer, but if it is I couldn’t tell who.

The comedy of the novels comes from the contrast between the horror and spy elements, and the drabness of British civil service life. As Bob Howard reflects in The Fuller Memorandum while contemplating a super-high-tech-jet-fighter at an air base he’s sent to:

Life would be so much simpler if our adversaries could be dealt with by supersonic death on the wing – but alas, human resources aren’t so easily defeated.

As The Fuller Memorandum opens, the arrival of Case Nightmare Green (the code-name for the moment when the stars come right and the elder horrors flow through to our world en masse bringing the apocalypse with them) looks like it could be mere months away rather than years as was expected. The end of the world may well be nigh, and that’s bringing out of the woodwork crazed cultists and possible former cold-war adversaries.

Bob Howard has a new line manager, but his duties now are almost entirely for the strange and menacing figure of Angleton. Angleton is a major player within The Laundry, and an accomplished sorceror. Howard is a computer programmer by background, and since magic is really a form of higher mathematics the journey from mathematician to sorceror (or inadvertent sorceror, a usually fatal condition) is a short one. Howard is also, following the last two books, a highly experienced field agent.

After an accident in the field, Howard is put on compulsory leave, but not before Angleton asks him to look into certain files in the Laundry’s archives. Meanwhile, cultists seem to be targeting Howard’s girlfriend and fellow-operative Mo, and it starts to appear as if the Laundry may itself have a mole passing secrets on to those cultists (suggesting a Le Carre inspiration here, though I understand Stross doesn’t like Le Carre’s writing and if that is an inspiration it’s not one worn heavily).

The plot has a few twists and turns, but while it drives the action it’s not a novel one reads for that plot. What’s interesting here is Stross’s take on the Lovecraftian mythos and his contrasting of the frustrations of living in London with its malfunctioning tube system and muggy summers with the cosmic horrors that lurk in its shadows.

I had a sense in this book of Stross hitting his stride with this series. As I said above, the second wasn’t wholly successful for me and I thought the Bond elements too large for the comedy which was about the smallness of much British life. The first novel worked better, but is essentially a short story and a novella bolted together to form a longer work that isn’t greater than the sum of its parts. Here the novel is just that, a properly integrated novel, and the scale is better judged.

The Fuller Memorandum is packed with in-jokes. So many that I very much doubt I caught them all. Many are gaming references. When Bob buys an iPhone his girlfriend mocks him saying “‘Bob loses saving throw vs. shiny with a penalty of -5. Bob takes 2d8 damage to the credit card…'” Later, when captured by cultists, Bob worries they might be vampire larpers and reflects “the prospect of falling into the clutches of the Brotherhood of the Black Pharoah is quite bad enough without accidentally crossing the streams with a bunch of live-action Vampire: The Masquerade fans”.

I noticed a reference to an undead horde at one point forming an “abhuman pyramid” with their bodies, a clear reference to William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki stories (which I’ve covered here in case you’re reading this and hadn’t seen that entry) and there’s plenty of other in-jokes. Essentially, if you’re not steeped in geek culture then you’ll miss a lot of this (and you probably won’t enjoy much the bits you do get).

If, however, you are steeped in geek culture then this is a lot of fun. Stross’s take on Lovecraft seems to owe a lot more to the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game than it does HPL’s actual stories (though apparently Stross hadn’t read Delta Green when he wrote the first novel so those particular similarities are just coincidence), but I grew up with Call of Cthulhu so that’s fine with me.

The computer, sf and horror jokes generally work well. The characters are straightforward (to be nice) and the writing not Stross’s best by a long way (there’s a surprising amount of repetition and some overly heavy handed foreshadowing, plus sometimes the gags get too obvious and get in the way of the story) but this is a 21st Century pulp novel – an electronic penny dreadful – and in that vein it works very well.

Stross’s best work for me is his hard sf. That said, his Laundry stories are a lot of fun, for the ultra-geeky audience they’re aimed at. If you’re going to read a novel on your mobile phone, frankly I can think of few more apposite.

All the more so since The Fuller Memorandum features a lengthy skit on the iPhone and it’s peculiar power to charm people into buying it even though it’s not remotely clear to them what they’ll use it for. It’s an irony Bob Howard would appreciate.

While writing this, I found two Laundry short stories online, here and here. The Kindle version which I read is available here.

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Filed under Horror, Publishing, SF, Stross, Charles

…to what extent materialisation of an ab-natural creature is possible…

The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder, by William Hope Hodgson

William Hope Hodgson was a sailor, a bodybuilder and physical trainer, a writer of nautical and supernatural fiction and from 1914 a volunteer in the Great War. He was discharged in 1916 after an injury, but once recovered he reenlisted and was killed at Ypres in April 1918. He was forty years old.

Despite his brief writing career (he was only first published in 1905) he produced a reasonable body of short stories, novels and poems. He’s not a well known writer today, but he’s well regarded by those who do know him. He’s best remembered for his weird fiction and supernatural detective fiction, and the interesting thing about that is that neither genre really still exists today. I’ll talk a bit about how genres come into existence and are forgotten in a follow-up post.

Among Hodgson’s various short story collections is one about a supernatural investigator named Thomas Carnacki. Six Carnacki tales were published in Hodgson’s lifetime, and in 1913 those six tales were collected together and released under the title Carnacki the Ghost Finder. Three other tales were written but not then published, I don’t know why not, and in 1947 another edition was released with those three included. The original 1913 version is available on Project Gutenberg. The full nine are available in a Wordsworth Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural print edition with an excellent forword by David Stuart Davies.

I read the original six stories on my iphone, but decided to hold off on talking about what they were like until I’d read the final three. Having done so, I now find myself wondering if the reason those final three weren’t published was that they weren’t as good as the six in the 1913 version.

Generally the Carnacki stories aren’t Hodgson’s best work. I said recently on this blog that I sometimes preferred them to MR James, but having finished the whole set I went too far. MR James at his best created masterpieces of chilling tension in a handful of pages. There’s a reason he’s the touchstone for the ghost story. James took that form and developed it as far as it would go in its traditional form. I won’t say he can’t ever be bettered in that vein, but I will say I personally doubt he ever will be.

The Thomas Carnacki character was born of a different tradition to that James drew on – Carnacki’s literary ancestor is Conan Doyle’s spectacularly successful Sherlock Holmes’ stories. Holmes was a huge success, and naturally he had a lot of imitators and competitors (I rather like the now quite obscure Glasgow Detective stories for example). Some of those competitors were pretty much direct copies of Holmes, but a lot of them came with a twist. Thomas Carnacki’s twist (not unique to him by any means) is that he is a consulting detective who specialises in investigating hauntings.

The framing device for each story is of Carnacki inviting friends round to hear of his latest adventure. One of those friends writes the stories, a Watson to Carnacki’s Holmes (save that he’s only a scribe, he never actually accompanies Carnacki). Carnacki makes plain to his guests that the stories he tells them are just one hundredth of his investigations. That’s because in ninety-nine out of each hundred he discovers a mundane explanation and nothing of any real interest, but the hundredth on the other hand…

Even with that one per cent. caveat, not all the tales in the collection actually involve the supernatural. In some of them it’s a case of pure fakery with what’s really going on being interesting enough to merit a tale but really being a story of human greed and duplicity. In others there is a supernatural element, but enhanced by trickery with someone taking advantage of the haunting for their own ends and exaggerating it. And then in a few it really is the genuine article. An intrusion from beyond. From the “outer spheres”.

The consequence of all that is that when you start a tale as a reader you’ve no way of knowing what you’re getting into. Will there be something supernatural? If so, is that the whole story? Is there perhaps just some crime being committed under a supernatural disguise? Carnacki doesn’t know, and nor do you.

What’s also wonderful about that is that Carnacki frequently spends nights alone in atmospheres of dread and gloom without knowing how much of his terror is supernatural influence and how much his own imagination. In some tales he feels a dreadful presence and a malignant intelligence at work yet later learns that there never actually anything there.

The other interesting thing with Carnacki is that he’s a very scientific investigator (Holmes’ influence again). Here he prepares to investigate a room reputed to be haunted by a mysterious force that slams the room door and pulls sheets from the bed during the night. The night before this scene, he’d strung ribbons at ankle height throughout the room to detect signs of anyone moving through it in secret:

‘First, I cleared away all the ribbons across the floor; then I carried the cat – still fastened in its basket – over towards the far wall, and left it. I returned then to the centre of the room, and measured out a space twenty-one feet in diameter, which I swept with a “broom of Hyssop”. About this, I drew a circle of chalk, taking care never to step over the circle. Beyond this I smudged, with a bunch of garlic, a broad belt right around the chalk circle, and when this was complete, I took from among my stores in the centre a small jar of a certain water. I broke away the parchment, and withdrew the stopper. Then, dipping my left forefinger in the little jar, I went round the circle again, making upon the floor, just within the line of chalk, the Second Sign of the Saaamaaa Ritual, and joining each Sign most carefully with the left-handed crescent. I can tell you, I felt easier when this was done, and the “water circle” complete. Then, I unpacked some more of the stuff that I had brought, and placed a lighted candle in the “valley” of each Crescent. After that, I drew a Pentacle, so that each of the five points of the defensive star touched the chalk circle. In the five points of the star I placed five portions of the bread, each wrapped in linen, and in the five “vales”, five opened jars of the water I had used to make the “water circle”. And now I had my first protective barrier complete.

‘I turned now to fit the Electric Pentacle, setting it so that each of its “points” and “vales” coincided exactly with the “points” and “vales” of the drawn pentagram upon the floor. Then I connected up the battery, and the next instant the pale blue glare from the intertwining vacuum tubes shone out.

Yes, an electric pentacle. Carnacki is nothing if not modern.

One of the strengths of the stories (save the last one, not in the original six) is an implication of some wider logic to everything that occurs. Carnacki refers in his tales to other incidents not described (“but you all remember the Black Veil case, in which I believe my life was saved with a very similar form of protection, whilst Aster, who sneered at it, and would not come inside, died.”). He categorises the entities he encounters and speculates about the rules of the realms they emerge from. He draws on ancient magical practices, but tries to systematise them and work out the principles. Above all that though is a sense that every supernatural (ab-natural as he says) phenomenon he investigates forms part of a pattern, a (super)natural order, that we can’t perceive but which is present all the same.

Two of the final three stories fail for me in part because they depart from that approach. One is an investigation into an entirely mundane crime with no supernatural element at all, turning Carnacki into a second-rate Holmes. The other contains something definitely supernatural but also pages of exposition explaining how Hodgson’s cosmology works. An implied cosmology creates a sense of a greater reality than that we read, an explained cosmology is dull and worse a bit silly.

The problem with the Carnacki’ stories’ modernity is that it now makes them a little bit dated. Characters exclaim things like “by Jove!” which to a contemporary ear is comic rather than dramatic. That said, there is still a charm to the combination of bruised garlic, ancient rituals and electric pentacles that Carnacki employs. The hauntings that are real are interesting in being manifestations of powers wholly inhuman in origin rather than simply ghosts. Above all, although the framing device of a friend retelling Carnacki’s post dinner conversation is slightly creaky Hodgson is good at building mood and suspense. Here Carnacki sits in a chapel haunted by an apparently knife throwing spirit, clad in a suit of antique plate mail in case it attacks:

‘And so you must picture me sitting there in the dark; clumsy with armour, and with my revolver in one hand, and nursing my lantern, ready, with the other. And then it was, after this little time of partial relief from intense nervousness, that there came a fresh strain on me; for somewhere in the utter quiet of the Chapel, I thought I heard something. I listened, tense and rigid, my heart booming just a little in my ears for a moment; then I thought I heard it again. I felt sure that something had moved at the top of the aisle. I strained in the darkness, to hark; and my eyes showed me blackness within blackness, wherever I glanced, so that I took no heed of what they told me; for even if I looked at the dim loom of the stained window at the top of the chancel, my sight gave me the shapes of vague shadows passing noiseless and ghostly across, constantly. There was a time of almost peculiar silence, horrible to me, as I felt just then. And suddenly I seemed to hear a sound, nearer to me, and repeated, infinitely stealthy. It was as if a vast, soft tread were coming slowly down the aisle.

For whatever reason, the tales of MR James are often enjoyed by those who do not otherwise enjoy genre fiction. I’m not sure that would be true for Hodgson. The elements I like best in these stories are where he draws on the weird fiction tradition rather than the ghost story, and weird fiction has never really achieved wide appeal. As I often mention, I love the pulps and Hodgson is pretty pulpy. If you don’t share that love, you might find this collection less enjoyable. If you only read one, The Gateway of the Monster is probably as good as any to see if he’s to your taste.

The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder. As I said, the foreword is good but the extra three tales don’t add much. Here‘s a link to the Project Gutenberg version of the original six tales.

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Filed under Hodgson, William Hope, Horror, Short stories