Category Archives: Horror

February was a sullen captive in the afternoon mist

March was a strong reading month. Through March and April I’ve been very busy at work so finding time to read was a challenge. The answer was shorter, punchier books – books with an impact beyond the mere weight of pages.

I’ve also been trying to catch up on some backlog reading. Like many heavy readers I tend to buy more than I can read, so I’ve consciously taken the opportunity to browse my own shelves a little. That’s been a big success, so I expect to be doing more of that over the coming weeks.

Anyway, without more ado here’s my March reading.

Slimer, by Harry Adam Knight

I read Harry Adam Knight’s novel The Fungus back in January (short review here), and even though I’m not sure I’d recommend it exactly I did rather like it. So, I thought I’d start March with another ‘80s horror shocker.

The Fungus was fun but flawed. The vision of a weirdly post-apocalyptic London entertained even if some of the violence and the treatment of women distinctly didn’t. Slimer just isn’t as good, and is much nastier.

It’s basically a rerun of SF horror classic Who Goes There?. Horror fans will of course know that as the source novella for the equally classic movie The Thing (the earlier movie version of The Thing isn’t nearly as true to the original novella, though it is very good).

Here four castaways find a secret research station set up on a disused oil rig. At first they think there’s nobody there, then they discover what may be some survivors of whatever happened, then they realise that perhaps the only survivor is a creature able to take the forms of those it absorbs.

It’s not a bad concept, but it’s already been done (and better) and here there’s some really unpleasant sexual violence. Not one I’d recommend.

The Lady and the Little Fox Fur, by Violette Leduc and translated by Derek Coltman

This is one from Penguin’s recent and rather lovely European writers series. It’s my personal favourite of those I’ve read from that range so far.

It’s about a destitute old woman, desperately poor and eking out a threadbare existence with a handful of coins; her sole luxury is a small tin of carefully hoarded and measured out coffee beans.

I say her sole luxury, but that’s not quite true, because there’s also her fox fur. Like her it’s a tattered old thing, discarded by its former owner.

The fur is the woman’s only friend, and yet her desperation is so great that she considers selling it. Does it have any value though to anyone but her? And even when you’re starving are there things still more precious than money?

It sounds bleak, but somehow it isn’t. This is partly as it’s beautifully written, partly as it’s incredibly humane, and partly because Leduc never forgets the humanity of her protagonist.

It’s an intense and impressionistic novel, but short and easily read. Highly recommended. Grant’s more detailed review at 1streading is here.

Fell, by Jenn Ashworth

This is a slightly odd one, as I bought this entirely by mistake. I meant to buy Daisy Johnson’s Fen but at the time couldn’t clearly recall the author’s name. This was back when I used to buy books from Amazon (I don’t any more), so I didn’t browse it to see I’d ordered the wrong book.

To make things worse, I’d heard mixed things of Fell, which had been described to me as weak stuff. It’s a ghost story of sorts, though that’s more a narrative device really. A woman in her forties returns home to the fens after the death of her father and stepmother, her mother having died years before. The family house is nearly in ruins, quite unfit for habitation, but it becomes apparent the woman is slightly disturbed and she becomes obsessed with restoring it.

Her arrival wakes her parents’ spirits, for want of a better word. They can only observe, but their observations can track through time as well as place and so they look back to a long-ago summer when their lives and their daughter’s went off the rails.

Decades past, when the girl was just a child, her mother was dying. On one of their last summer outings they met a young man who appeared to have miraculous gifts, the power to heal. He somehow cured the father’s terrible eyesight, something he’d lived with all his life and which had prevented him serving in World War Two. If he can do that what can’t he do? If he can do that, why shouldn’t he be able to cure the mother’s terminal illness?

What follows is a parallel tracked narrative. The present, with the ill-judged attempts to restore the house and a new friendship with a tree surgeon called in to help; the past with the parents, their family of lodgers brought in to pay the bills, and the young man with a miraculous gift he seems curiously unwilling to use.

What I liked here is that while the ghosts are a narrative device, the healing isn’t. The young man has real power, but no real control over it. The book then becomes partly a study of faith, and partly a sort of grim whydunnit. We know from the present strand that he didn’t heal the mother, but it takes time to understand why.

The book becomes a character study – of the father; the mother to a degree; absolutely of the young man with his unwelcome gift (he dreams of being a tailor, but when you can heal with a touch it’s hard to live that kind of ordinary life). It’s also of course an examination of the damage unwittingly done, in the form of the daughter in the present with her memories of that long past summer stirred up by her return.

For me, Fell was rather an effective piece of literary horror. It’s very much in Andrew Hurley territory (who provides a blurb for it I notice). If you like him there’s every chance you’ll like this.

Finally, I don’t know for certain, but I strongly suspect Jenn Ashworth also wrote Holt House (published under a pseudonym).

The Revolt, by Nina Berberova and translated by Marian Schwartz

I discovered Nina Berberova through Guy Savage’s review here. This was my first by her, but won’t be my last (not least as for some reason I broke my usual rule and bought another by her before reading this one).

Two lovers part on the eve of the German invasion of Paris. One, Olga, stays behind to take care of her uncle who is a famous man of letters. The other, Einar, flees speaking of how much he wishes he could stay or take Olga with him.

Years pass. Berberova captures the war in a handful of pages and in four key visits to Olga’s uncle from the German authorities. After the war and her uncle’s death she travels to Sweden, where she once again runs into Einar and discovers why he never responded to all those letters she wrote…

This is a fantastic novella. It’s an examination of second chances and old loves rediscovered, and of the dangers of trying to rekindle old flames and lost dreams. I’ve said very little of what happens or why, because you should read this for yourself to find out. Very, very highly recommended and likely on my end of year list.

The Waitress was new, by Dominique Fabre and translated by Jordan Stump

Another of Guy’s reviews, here, put me on to this one. It’s the story of Pierre, a middle aged Paris barman whose quietly ordered life is put into mild disarray when the owner of the bar where Pierre works has a mid-life crisis.

That doesn’t sound very dramatic, and to be honest it isn’t. We follow Pierre for a few days as he tries to deal with the fallout of the owner’s absence – keeping the bar going with the help of the cook, the owner’s wife and a new waitress. They manage fairly well.

Meanwhile, Pierre reflects on his customers, on the barman’s trade, and on his own life. It’s incredibly small, quiet stuff. I loved it.

The old woman in The Little Fox Fur is in fact only sixty, hardly old at all by modern standards but her life is essentially spent. Pierre is fifty-six, which now is just middle aged. Still, he’s not in as good position to bounce back as he once was, and he hadn’t planned for having to make a new future if the bar fails.

Guy refers to this as a melancholy and introspective novel, and I can’t better that. I said above that it isn’t dramatic, but in another sense it is. Our lives rarely involve uncovering conspiracies, solving murders, or sudden devastating family revelations. But loneliness, aging, fear of an uncertain future, doing the best you can regardless – these are intensely human concerns. It’s fair to say this is another strong candidate for the end of year list.

Jacqui of Jacqui Wine’s Journal also wrote a (typically excellent) review of this here.

After Supper Ghost Stories, by Jerome K. Jerome

Kaggsy reviewed this here, and liked it a lot more than I did. The after-supper ghost stories are only a small part of the overall book. They are very funny – a series of frankly improbable ghost tales with an even funnier framing device.

After that though, the bulk of the book is a series of comic essays many of which are rather rambling and few of which are funny. It’s like reading a series of humorous newspaper columns, but concerned with issues of another century.

I felt a bit had by this one. The title of the book and the back blurb didn’t really suggest that the main part of it wasn’t actually comic ghost stories at all, which was what I bought it for. I’d suggest seeing if you can find another edition with just the ghost stories themselves – there’s probably a free version on kindle.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, by Anita Loos

Oh I wanted to like this. I love the film, and it came highly regarded by Jacqui of JacquiWine (here). Sadly, I didn’t.

The novel is written as the diary of Lorelei, a not-so-dumb blonde who travels to Europe with her seemingly sharper brunette friend Dorothy. Lorelei likes to think of herself as civilised, cultured, and of Dorothy as a bit of a savage.

They’re sent to Paris by Lorelei’s patron and admirer Mr Eisman, the Button King. The idea is to give them a little education, but Lorelei isn’t for educating and judges everywhere and everyone unfavourably in comparison to the US and to US gentlemen.

I loved the depiction of England, where a series of impoverished aristocrats constantly try to sell the rich Americans whatever they have nearest to hand. Europe is full of wolves looking to prey on the unescorted sheep they see the girls to be, but what they don’t reckon on is that Lorelei is the biggest wolf of all.

Lorelei cares about jewels and she cares about shopping. She cares about men to the extent they provide those things – Dorothy by contrast actually gets fond of some of them. They work well together, and their adventures are by and large pretty funny.

What didn’t work so well for me were Lorelei’s accidental misspellings and misunderstandings, many of which read to me as a highly literate journalist writing how they thought a less educated person might write. I simply didn’t believe that Lorelei would think she was travelling on “an oriental express”, rather than the rather famous Orient Express the name of which would be plastered everywhere around her.

Similarly, I didn’t buy her thinking she was in a country called The Central of Europe, or at least not for any prolonged period. Too many of her errors felt affected to me, like Loos was laughing at her rather than us laughing with her.

The book does come with delightful illustrations (I’m a sucker for a nice drawing in a comic novel), and the characters are nicely observed. It was just Lorelei’s voice that didn’t quite gel for me and that’s a shame. Still love the movie though.

The Cowboy Bible, by Carlos Velasquez and translated by Achy Obejas

I learned about this one from Grant at 1streading, here. It sounded raucous and unruly and full of barely contained energy, and it is all those things. Unfortunately, for me it also contained a lot of fairly showy writing that looked good on the page, but fell apart after a moment’s thought.

Essentially, this is a collection of very loosely linked short stories set in a fictional Mexican province. The Cowboy Bible is the linking element, but a protean one that changes from story to story. Sometimes it’s a book, sometimes a person, later some shoes. Like much in the collection it’s really just some words, without anything particularly underpinning them.

The stories vary hugely, and are often surrealistic. Many are intentionally offensive (international competitive pubic hair carving competitions for example). There’s an intentional shock factor.

That’s not really the problem – it’s a fallacy to criticise a book for doing what it sets out to do, even if you don’t particularly like what it does. What is a problem is that when anything can happen it doesn’t much matter what does.

In the opening story the protagonist is a luchador. Here though luchadors compete not just through wrestling, but also through musical battles (a bit like rap battles). Velasquez slips fluidly in his descriptions from one to the other, with the result that I could read all the words but could form no mental image at all of what was actually happening much of the time.

Worse for me was a tendency to use phrases that sounded great at first reading, but on reflection didn’t really mean anything. “The Cowboy Bible came down from the platform sad and lonely, as if she’d just swallowed some matches.” What? There’s a lot like that – Velasquez loves the little twist at the end of the sentence but while it surprises it doesn’t really do anything more than surprise.

So, it’s not my book, but interesting if you want a dive into a sort of punk/rock-and-roll version of contemporary Mexican culture. Besides, if you like everything you read you’re probably not challenging yourself enough to try new things…

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Filed under Ashworth, Jenn, Berberova, Nina, Fabre, Dominique, French, Horror, Jerome, Jerome K., Leduc, Violette, Loos, Anita, Mexican fiction, Novellas, Russian

January roundup (slightly belatedly)

I’d hoped to do my January roundup straight after January ended, but I had an intense period at work and then flu which was fairly brutal. However, I am now pretty much recovered and I thought I’d share some of my recent reading.

January opened with a bit of Christmas SF and post-Christmas pulp, then got fairly literary. Overall it was a really strong reading month. February I didn’t get to read very much at all, but what it lacked in quantity it distinctly made up for in quality. My February post should be up next week.

So, introductions aside, here’s January:

Semiosis, by Sue Burke

This was my Christmas SF read. It’s an interesting one – a group of idealists settle humanity’s first off-world colony and the novel follows multiple generations as they adapt to their new environment and build a new society.

The complicating factor is that their new world an older ecosystem than ours, and intelligence is much more widespread. More to the point, intelligence here has evolved in plants and popular sentiment aside plants are not cuddly – they battle each other for resources and can’t afford to give quarter because they can’t move if things don’t go their way.

After a fairly dry start I thought this was excellent. There’s a lovely examination of how a society designed to be free of religion, money, politics and all those old Earth conflicts quickly comes to develop its own schisms and fault-lines and a real sense to the precarity of the colony. There’s an original first contact scenario (two in fact, as there’s also the remnants of a previous alien colony to deal with) and a strong political thread as the colonists slowly work out how to live.

Overall I really liked this. It isn’t one for non-SF fans – the concerns are firmly SFnal – but for those who do like SF it’s worth checking out.

The Fungus, by Harry Adam Knight

I always seem to fall ill after Christmas – probably something to do with allowing myself to relax or possibly just my habit of seasonal excess. That means I usually read a light New Year read. This year I chose some pulp horror.

Harry Adam Knight’s books (actually a duo, it’s a pseudonym) date back to the 1980s and are firmly in that James Herbert/Shaun Hutson/Guy N. Smith vein of horror. Books with titles like Rats, or Crabs, or Slugs. You get the idea.

The template tends to involve scenes of quite egregious gore and often distinctly gratuitous sex. I loved them as a teenager, which is probably the best age for them. As an adult the gender politics of these novels tends to stick out a bit more obviously and they can be a bit ugly in that regard (excepting Herbert, who I think deserves better recognition in the horror canon).

Here Knight posits a fungal apocalypse, as some chemical agent causes otherwise ordinary fungi to bloom at extraordinary rates and infect humans. It leads to some actually pretty good scenes of a phantasmagorical London remade by giant mutant fungal blooms and populated by half-mad infected survivors. It’s gleeful schlock, fun if you like this sort of novel but if you’re not now and never were a 14-year old boy it might not be for you.

The Last Children of Tokyo, by Yoko Tawada and translated by Margaret Mitsutani

This has already been very widely written about, not that I seem to have preserved any of the links to the many excellent reviews of it I’ve read (which I do normally try to do). I dug out though Grant’s review from 1streadingblog here as it was the review which pushed me over the edge into trying this.

It’s set in a future Tokyo in a blighted Japan, where the elderly are living lives of indefinite duration but the young are sickly and infirm. It’s a mirror of course of the real challenge Japan faces of an aging population where people are dying faster than they’re being born.

Although this is clearly an SF novel, this is one I’d happily recommend to those with no interest in that form. There’s no interest here in the causes of whatever slow apocalypse is engulfing Japan, nor much in how the rest of the world is faring. Instead it’s more an examination of generational failure and guilt.

In the real world today we have children skipping school to protest about environmental collapse. Parents naturally want to leave a better world for their children than the one that was handed to them, but we have new generations growing up who’re poorer than their parents and have no real prospect of ever catching up. In the longer term, many of us I think expect to be judged harshly by those who come after us for the environmental legacy we leave behind us.

In Last Children, spry Centenarian Yoshiro tries his best to care for his great-grandson Mumei, but comes increasingly to realise that there’s nothing much he can do for him. Yoshiro’s generation already broke the world – in that context what lessons does he have that Mumei could usefully learn from?

It’s a quietly bleak novel, though often gently witty with it. It’s beautifully written and translated and powerful in its effect. Like much of the best SF it isn’t of course about the future at all. It’s about now. Highly recommended.

Three Horses, by Eri de Luca and translated by Michael Moore

Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat wrote about this here, and Emma of Bookaroundthecorner here. I can see why both loved it, but it wasn’t my book.

Essentially, this is the tale of a 50 year-old gardener living a peaceful life in his native Italy. He falls in love with a local woman and befriends an African migrant worker. He reads novels, eats at the local tavern and lives quietly and as far as he can harmoniously.

We soon learn that his life wasn’t always so calm. He spent years in Argentina, got involved in the vicious civil war there, lost someone he loved to violence and became part of the violence in turn.

This isn’t really a naturalistic novel. The language is deeply lyrical – Emma refers to the prose as “luminous and poetic” and she’s absolutely right. The characters all seem to have a certain poetic wisdom and are prone to speaking meaningful truths to each other and as a result they all sounded kind of alike to me – a bit like they were all highly regarded Italian literary authors.

It’s a misreading though in my view to think that these are intended to be wholly realistic characters. De Luca is using highly polished language to explore themes of violence, retribution and how to live well in a compromised world and judged on the basis of what he sets out to do he absolutely succeeds.

Tentacle, by Rita Indiana and translated by Achy Obejas

Grant wrote this up at 1stReading Blog here. He loved it and so did I. I fully expect it to make my end of year list.

Tentacle is published by Andotherstories, and I have a subscription with them which is how I ended up with this. I didn’t buy it and if I’d seen first the description which involves a time travelling transgender street kid fighting an environmental apocalypse with secret magical powers obtained from a psychic anemone, well, I wouldn’t have gone near it.

That would have been my loss, because it is quite simply brilliant. It’s muscular, strange, has a persuasive internal logic (though not always an easy to follow one) and is just bursting with energy and life. Again, highly recommended.

Rustication, by Charles Palliser

Charles Palliser is best known for his magnificent novel The Quincunx, a large and extraordinary tightly constructed Victorian sort of gothic-mystery which I regard very highly indeed. He also wrote The Unburied, a much shorter exercise in Victorian Gothic which kept me up until 3am turning pages as it was simply so well crafted.

After those came a long silence, then The Rustication. It’s an unreliable narrator piece again in a Victorian gothic vein, but whereas The Quincunx and The Unburied both carried that off with style here it didn’t come together for me. I found the narrator a little too dense in not noticing some pretty obvious clues around him as to what was going on, the plot a bit too unlikely, and the whole thing just not as good as its predecessors.

So it goes, and hopefully it will find readers better attuned to it than me, but I thought this one a miss. The Quincunx and The Unburied are both excellent though and worth looking into if you don’t know them.

Fen, by Daisy Johnson

How to write about this? It’s a first short story collection from a young English writer. It’s set in her native East Anglia, and draws on local folklore and the power of a landscape in which nothing seems fixed – the fens themselves an uncanny blend of sea and earth.

In the opening story a teenage girl starves herself, cleverly disguising it from her parents (though not from her sister). It’s of course a story of anorexia, save that as she grows thinner she slowly starts to turn into a giant eel, transforming her old body to one of her own devising. In another story a girl’s dead brother may or may not come back in the form of a fox. Little here is certain, except that’s not true as Johnson cleverly roots her tales in the prosaic.

Young women may lure men to their lair in order to devour them, but they find their victims in the local pub. The towns and houses these characters inhabit feel ordinary, dull even. Johnson uses folklore to bring out a sense of the strangeness of these places, and also to bring out the essence of their experiences. We of course do not transform into eels or foxes or face the untrustworthy magic that runs through these stories, but the emotions the characters feel at these events are our emotions. Johnson takes the ordinary, makes it extraordinary, and through that shows how it was extraordinary all along. That, of course, is what myth has always done.

There’s a tremendous physicality to these stories, and a blunt sexuality. It’s an impressive and unusual collection and since Johnson’s first novel is now out I hope to read that before too long also.

For those curious to know more, reviews here from the Guardian and here from Tony’s Book World.

That’s it for now. February’s books (far fewer) will hopefully be up soon.

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Filed under Burke, Sue, de Luca, Eri, Horror, Indiana, Rita, Italian fiction, Japanese fiction, Johnson, Daisy, SF, Tawada, Yoko

Time played its usual trick in the presence of Holt House.

June roundup

June was a pretty solid reading month, despite a bit of a weak start. Here’s my now regular round-up (and a lovely illustration to kick things off with).

A Different Sea, by Claudio Magris and translated by MS Spurr

I’ve already done a pretty thorough write-up of this one, here, and it’s fair to say I respected it more than I enjoyed it. It’s an extremely well written examination of a life lived according to philosophical ideals and without attachment, and how in fact that life becomes an exercise in selfishness and futility.

Magris is most famous for his non-fiction, and he has a lovely prose style so I don’t rule out returning to him. Probably not for a little while though.

He names his boat Maia, a small ten-footer, just big enough to venture out to sea with its white sail – the veil of Maia. The haze shimmering in air and on water on certain afternoons is either the final veil drawn over the pure present of things, or is already perhaps in itself, pure present. The sail glides over the sea, slips through a cleft in the horizon, and falls into a milky blue bound by no shore. Summers open out and solidify. Time rounds out like blown glass in water.

Super Extra Grande, by Yoss and translated by David Frye

I was so looking forward to this. It’s a Cuban science-fiction novel about a vet specialising in enormous alien animals. As the book opens he’s literally waist deep inside the intestines of some vast sea-creature that has unknowingly swallowed a valuable bracelet. He lives in a sprawling galaxy where humanity is just one of  several intelligent races and there’s a sense of exuberant fun to the whole thing.

Stylistically it’s interesting as the humans of the future speak Spanglish, leading to sentences like:

“Boss Sangan, please mira, check. Ves now. Si the damn bracelet of the gobernador’s spoiled wife be there, us probablemente leave.”

And then:

“Agua here smell muy strange después del morpheorol y el laxative. Hoy not be buen dia for el tsunami bowel cleanse.”

All of which I loved for its sheer inventiveness (though it helps I have some Spanish).

The trouble is the style also consists of lots of short sentences.
Punchy phrases.
Frequent comic asides.

Which I find wearying as it gets repetitive fairly quickly. There also seems to be a strong strand of adolescent wish fulfilment here. The protagonist has to work with two former assistants, both extraordinarily beautiful women who are still in love with him. One is an alien with “six splendid breasts”. The other is a Maasai with filed teeth, his “black panther”. They’re more pin-ups than people.

Shortly after they’re introduced we get asides from the first person narrator opining on women. Women, apparently, “are like cats … When you call them they don’t come, and when you don’t call them, there’s no way to get rid of them.” “I guess there’s some strange part of the female psychology that simply can’t stand being ignored by a male…” and predictably “the two … females were starting to act jealous of each other”.

As the saying goes, I can’t even. I bailed at about fifty pages in. I loved the Spanglish, but I just don’t have the lifespan to sit while someone (real or fictional) lectures me on what women are like. Particularly in staccato phrasing.

The Great Fortune, by Olivia Manning

So far it hadn’t been a great June. This was the turning point. I wrote a full piece about it here but in short this is a marvellously evocative account of a new marriage against the backdrop of a city, country and continent on the eve of war.

It’s well written and has some distinctly memorable characters (well balanced against a larger number of less interesting ones). It also has that rather wonderful gossipy quality of much mid-twentieth Century English fiction where it feels like you’ve become part of a social set with everyone’s dramas being acted out in front of you (see also, Anthony Powell).

It’s the first of a multi volume sequence (see also, again, Anthony Powell…) and should keep me fairly busy for much of the rest of the year.

A Certain Smile, by Françoise Sagan and translated by Irene Ash

Not a million miles away from Bonjour Tristesse in style and substance I admit, but then why should it be? I’ll be doing a full write-up of this one so this will be brief. In the meantime Jacqui Wine’s piece on it is here.

Essentially, a young woman embarks on an affair with an older married man. She hopes to keep things uncomplicated and fun, without unduly hurting her boyfriend or his kind and likable wife. Of course, things won’t be quite so simple.

“… there was something in me that seemed destined to follow the well-shaved neck of a young man …”

It’s sleek and stylish and cynical and if novels smoked it would smoke Gauloises, outdoors while sipping coffee but not eating anything. I loved it.

The Magician, by W. Somerset Maugham

Apparently the rule is that one shouldn’t read any pre-Of Human Bondage Maugham. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but this is the one immediately preceding Bondage and while it’s not bad, it’s not great either.

Maugham met Aleister Crowley briefly in real life and decided to use him as inspiration for a novel, here in the form of the sinister Oliver Haddo. The main characters, all of whose names now escape me, consist of a beautiful young woman, her serious fiancé who is a skilled and increasingly eminent surgeon, the woman’s plainer friend and an older doctor who happens to be knowledgeable for reasons of plot in occult matters.

Anyway, Haddo falls in with them, he offends the young woman by kicking her dog, the doctor beats him up and Haddo exacts a terrible vengeance for the slight. If you picture Charles Gray from The Devil Rides Out as Haddo you wouldn’t be going too far wrong (they don’t look alike but the manner is pretty much spot on).

It’s clearly well researched and it’s reasonably well written with some effective scenes, but ultimately there just doesn’t seem much point to it. Dennis Wheatley wrote the same sort of thing and with a much worse style, but much more fun.

Aleister Crowley later reviewed it and didn’t take to it at all, perhaps unsurprisingly. Maugham went on to write better. One for Maugham completists or for horror fans who may well enjoy its gothic atmosphere (though who may also, like me, spot where it’s going far too early).

Holt House, by L.G. Vey

Continuing with the horror theme this is the first release from the Eden Book Society. Ostensibly a reprint of a lost novel from 1972, it’s actually one of a series from a pool of authors each of whom writes under a pseudonym, but without the reader knowing which author has which pseudonym.

The authors involved are an impressive bunch, including Andrew Hurley and Aliya Whiteley and several others whose names I recognise even though I haven’t read them yet. Naturally I’ve no idea which of them is channelling the spirit of L.G. Vey…

Holt House itself is a chilling novella about a man haunted by something he once saw in a house which doesn’t seem to have changed at all in the intervening decades. What is the horror though? Is it the house? Is it the kindly Mrs Latch who lives there? Is it the man himself? The answers shift and never entirely settle.

Oddly enough, I’ve watched a fair bit of 1970s TV horror over the past couple of years. For some reason there were a lot of TV plays back then many of which were firmly in the horror genre. Two elements stand out to me from those old shows: firstly, they were usually exceptionally bleak by modern standards; and secondly they were much more concerned with social issues than one might expect.

Some addressed ethical treatment of animals. I saw one recently that critiqued the complacency of people living well in rich countries while those in poor ones starved. Feminism and the role of women was often explored. Horror in this period was often used as a vehicle for social criticism.

Holt House continues that, dealing here with male violence among other things and that concern felt to me both current but also of the period. There’s also a lovely little bit of SF that creeps in at one point which feels very 1970s. All that and the whole thing is deliciously creepy and atmospheric. Accomplished stuff.

One final word. Eden do both ebook and physical subscriptions. If you jump on board get the physical (or get both). The book fits nicely in the hand and is a very comfortable read. Oh, and a post-final word, David Hebblethwaite also reviewed this here.

A Field Guide to Reality, by Joanna Kavenna

This is going to be hard to describe. Essentially the narrator, a waitress in Oxford who has just recently lost her father, was friends with an Oxford don who now also dies but who leaves behind a box with her name on it and supposedly inside his master work – his “Field Guide to Reality”. The box is empty.

Urged on by his surviving academics, she goes on a sort of vision quest through a motley array of Oxford eccentrics trying to discover this great lost work, this summation of reality itself. It’s a descent into Oxford as underworld.

The quest is of course impossible. However, along the way Kavenna explores the history of theories of the nature of light, from medieval theoretician Robert Grosseteste through Newton all the way up to modern quantum physics!

It’s heady stuff! Unfortunately, I was already reasonably familiar with the subject matter which meant that when there was a three page digression on fifth Century Greek philosopher and scientist Hypatia I was thoroughly bored as I already had a pretty good idea of who she was and of her life.

Now, it’s fair to say that Kavenna knows more of Hypatia and I suspect of everything else in the book than I ever will! Mercifully, she doesn’t put in all she knows. Less happily that meant that often what she did put in I did know. Kavenna also brilliantly describes Oxford, which I didn’t go to so much of that was a bit lost on me. If you did go to Oxford I suspect you’d love this book.

Imagine for a moment a contemporary Alice in Wonderland, but with Alice a grown woman and the mad inhabitants of the world through the looking glass replaced by Oxford dons and theoreticians. Then you’re starting to get there.

The book comes with absolutely wonderful illustrations. Physically it’s really quite beautiful! It also comes with an unfortunate predilection to overusing exclamation marks. It’s been exceptionally well reviewed so if it sounds at all interesting you might want to at least look at a copy in a shop to see what you think. It’s larger than I have words here to describe. In the meantime, here’s an interesting interview with the author in the Guardian. And here’s another of the illustrations (the first is at the head of this post):

Cove, by Cyan Jones

I finished the month with Cynan Jones’ leanly muscular novel Cove, about a man lost at sea after surviving a lightning strike. Grant reviewed it well at 1streading here and I don’t have much to add to his piece. As with Jones’ The Dig it’s ruthlessly pared back both in terms of prose and story. It’s my second by Jones and I expect to read more by him. In fact, I expect to read everything by him.

So that’s my June. I read eight books, four of which I really liked, one of which I abandoned and three of which weren’t for me but might be for someone else. I’m pretty happy with that. The Kavenna was an unexpected misfire for me, but I don’t regret reading it. It tried something new, and while it didn’t work for me on this occasion I’d far rather that than read the same thing every time.

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Filed under Eden Book Society, Horror, Jones, Cynan, Kavenna, Joanna, Magris, Claudio, Manning, Olivia, Maugham, W Somerset, Sagan, Françoise, SF

Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from here at once.

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

I already briefly wrote about The Haunting of Hill House in my recent March roundup, here. I decided to revisit it though because its first paragraph is just such a brilliant piece of work.

Here’s that first paragraph:

NO LIVE organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

For a piece of gothic fiction I think that’s about as good an opener as one could hope for. Hill House, not insane but instead “not sane”, is of course not a living thing at all and yet immediately we have a sense that in some strange fashion perhaps it is a “live organism”. Alive but undreaming, not sane, patient and implacable.

Much of what’s described here if you give it a moment’s thought is actually pretty prosaic. What do we actually know? Hill House is a detached property set in hills, it’s stood for eighty years and is solidly constructed and well maintained. It is quiet, as you’d hope for an unoccupied rural property.

Put like that it sounds quite a tempting purchase. But then we have that comment that it’s “not sane”, and that wonderful final line: “whatever walked there, walked alone”. For that line alone I’m knocking $50k off my offer price.

Later we have this additional bit of description:

It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope. Exorcism cannot alter the countenance of a house; Hill House would stay as it was until it was destroyed.

How can a house be kind? And yet, I do know what Jackson means. It is an unforgiving place and while exorcism might work with spirits it can’t fix a house built without regard for comfort or humanity. Is then Hill House actually haunted? Or does it just reflect the cold nature of the man who built it?

It’s into that house that Eleanor Vance comes, one of a group gathered together in an attempt to plumb the house’s secrets. Here’s how Eleanor is introduced:

Eleanor Vance was thirty-two years old when she came to Hill House. The only person in the world she genuinely hated, now that her mother was dead, was her sister. She disliked her brother-in-law and her five-year-old niece, and she had no friends.

Does that sound to you like anyone who should be let anywhere near Hill House? The order of the facts in the paragraph is interesting.  We learn first who Eleanor hates, “now that her mother was dead”, which is a distinctly chilling caveat. Then we learn who she dislikes. Then finally that she has no friends.

There’s nothing healthy here. When we actually get to see more of Eleanor she’s quite likable, and yet that opening paragraph is full of hate and dislike. This is not somebody who should be in a place which isn’t fit “for love or for hope”.

Jackson has a tremendous gift for the foreboding. This is a book in which relatively little actually happens. One room has an inexplicable cold spot, but it’s an old house. Doors shut themselves, but it appears they may be balanced to do so besides which the housekeeper seems prone to shutting them even when they’re left blocked open. There are other incidents, noises and writing on walls, but some could be imagination and others plain old human mischief.

What’s truly chilling about Hill House is the atmosphere, and Jackson creates that not through what happens but simply through her choice of language. Jackson says “silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House”, but of course it would. What else would silence do? Still, the effect works.

Too much of this would get silly, and Jackson recognises this too and undercuts herself with humour. In an early exchange the housekeeper Mrs Dudley issues Eleanor with a darkly melodramatic warning:

“I don’t stay after I set out dinner,” Mrs. Dudley went on. “Not after it begins to get dark. I leave before dark comes.”
“I know,” Eleanor said.
“We live over in the town, six miles away.” “Yes,” Eleanor said, remembering Hillsdale.
“So there won’t be anyone around if you need help.”
“I understand.”
“We couldn’t even hear you, in the night.”
“I don’t suppose—”
“No one could. No one lives any nearer than the town. No one else will come any nearer than that.”
“I know,” Eleanor said tiredly.
“In the night,” Mrs. Dudley said, and smiled outright. “In the dark,” she said, and closed the door behind her.

Sinister stuff. However, later Eleanor’s fellow guest Theodora arrives and rather bizarrely Mrs. Dudley repeats the entire speech. Although Eleanor has been fairly thoroughly spooked by this point Mrs. Dudley’s warnings do rather lose something with repetition:


“I leave before dark comes,” Mrs. Dudley went on.
“No one can hear you if you scream in the night,” Eleanor told Theodora. She realized that she was clutching at the doorknob and, under Theodora’s quizzical eye, unclenched her fingers and walked steadily across the room. “We’ll have to find some way of opening these windows,” she said.
“So there won’t be anyone around if you need help,” Mrs. Dudley said. “We couldn’t hear you, even in the night. No one could”
“All right now?” Theodora asked, and Eleanor nodded.
“No one lives any nearer than the town. No one else will come any nearer than that.”
“You’re probably just hungry,” Theodora said. “And I’m starved myself”. She set her suitcase on the bed and slipped off her shoes. “Nothing,” she said, “upsets me more than being hungry, I snarl and snap and burst into tears.” She lifted a pair of softly tailored slacks out of the suitcase.
“In the night,” Mrs. Dudley said. She smiled. “In the dark,” she said, and closed the door behind her.

Jackson takes her stock gothic character, the sinister housekeeper, and uses her effectively in the absolutely traditional fashion as an issuer of dire warnings. Then, audaciously, Jackson has her return but now as comic relief.

What Jackson realises is what many of the best horror movie directors realise – you can’t just indefinitely wind up the tension. It gets too much and the reader/viewer can’t take it. Instead they ratchet up the tension slowly, sometimes releasing it back a bit with a humorous interlude or something mundane, before inexorably tightening the screws once more.

In the final quarter of Haunting Jackson introduces two new characters in the form of a self-professed medium and her doughty companion. They’re absolutely convinced they know what’s going on before investigating anything and manage both to miss the actually odd while constructing their own detailed theories from nothing but their own prejudices and assumptions. It’s a move that didn’t quite work for me – a bit too much humour too late in the book, but in some ways it does make the book all the more disturbing.

Hill House contains madness and tragedy: either lying intent but dormant within it waiting to be discovered by the unwary;  or brought to it by people looking for a stage on which to act out their own dramas. The former possibility is horror in the traditional sense. The latter is actually the more horrifying. What walks in Hill House may just be us. Compared to that ghosts are positively comforting.

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Filed under Horror, Jackson, Shirley

“Forget all your fears now. Have a fling this night”

March roundup

This is my March roundup. Again, a pretty solid reading month. I may do a similar post for April and then try to start doing individual posts again (it’s a bit daunting when you have a multi-book backlog to go back and start writing them all up individually – better to start afresh with a new month).

White Hunger, by Aki Ollikainen

 

This one’s had a lot of reviews across the blogosphere. It’s a Finnish novel about a famine, told from the viewpoint of those reduced to starving refugees and those sitting comfortably in the capital talking about how awful it all is.

It’s a bleak tale featuring desperation and terrible suffering. It’s also very powerful and worth reading even if the description here makes it sound a bit grim. Jacqui of JacquiWine’s Journal did a good review here and Grant of 1stReading’s Blog here.

The Apocalypse Codex, by Charles Stross

 

Book four in the Laundry Files series by Charles Stross – basically comic novels which combine spy fiction, Lovecraftian horror and British government bureaucracy to form a particularly unholy mixture.

For some reason Stross never seems to assume you’ve read previous novels in the sequence (but who starts at number four?). That makes for a bit of repetition and he does sometimes reuse the same jokes and references even within the same book, but even so these are light and fun reads. Beach and transport books to borrow Emma’s rather marvellous category.

The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle

 

This is a horror novel which again draws on Lovecraft, but here more by way of a mixture of homage and critique rather than simply by reference. LaValle takes the famous Lovecraft short story The Horror at Red Hook and retells it from the perspective of a new character not mentioned in the original.

Red Hook is one of HPL’s more racially iffy stories and while LaValle is clearly a fan he’s aware of the issues in HPL’s work. Here he uses an African-American protagonist to contrast real world brutalities with HPL’s more fantastical ones.

I thought this clever and affectionately respectful of the original while doing something new with the material. If you’re not already an HPL fan though you’ll miss a lot of what’s going on.

Transmission, by Hari Kunzru

 

I’ve yet to read a Kunzru I didn’t love. This is his second novel and tells the story of a young Indian programmer brought to the US on promises of a chance to make his fortune, but who discovers instead that the American dream is often built on cheap third world labour.

At the same time it’s also the story of a computer virus that sweeps the world and the lives caught in its wake, one of them an up-and-coming Bollywood star. All that and above all else it’s a novel about the difficulties of human contact and how our personal signals can get lost in the noise around us.

If I get a chance (but I probably won’t), it deserves a full write-up. It has a shot at my end of year list.

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

Great cover for this one. It’s a lovely little gothic tale of a psychic researcher who brings a motley group to a famously haunted house, among them a very troubled young woman who shouldn’t be anywhere near the place.

It has a bit of an odd tonal shift three quarters of the way through, but otherwise it’s well done and justifiably famous. I’m already planning to read more Jackson.

Glittering City, by Cyprian Ekwensi

This was one of Penguin’s recent Penguin Modern short releases. It’s a short story/novella about Fussy Joe, a Lagos charmer and waster who likes to hang out at the station picking up young women fresh in from the country who don’t yet know to avoid men like him.

It’s a quick read and Ekwensi manages the balancing act of making Fussy Joe likeable while at the same time making it quite clear why he deserves to get his comeuppance. It does exactly what Penguin hope for from this series – introduces you (me anyway) to a new writer and gives a sense of their style.

From ancient Rome, to ‘60s Lagos to modern Rio or Tokyo the place and time may change but wherever you go there’s a Fussy Joe and there’s fresh innocents to be fleeced, or at least there are as long as Fussy Joe can keep ahead of all the people he’s borrowed money from or taken advantage of… Lots of fun.

Ghachar Ghochar, by Vivek Shanbhag

This was a good book to finish the month on. It’s an Indian novel told from the point of view of a rich young man who is notionally heir to a successful business but who spends his days sitting in a café as he’s a bit lazy and doesn’t have any actually useful skills.

As the story unpacks you get a sense of the underlying family dynamics, their route from poverty to their current wealth and the compromises they all made along the way. What starts as a fairly gentle comedy becomes a moral enquiry, an examination of the culpability of those willing to turn a blind eye for a comfortable life.

There’s lots of reviews of this one including from Stu here and this one from Grant at 1stReading’s Blog which pushed me over the line to giving this a try.

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Filed under Ekwensi, Cyprian, Horror, Indian fiction, Jackson, Shirley, Kunzru, Hari, Lovecraft, H.P., Nigerian fiction, SF, Stross, Charles

‘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).

14 Comments

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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Filed under Campbell Jr., John W., Horror, Novellas, SF