Reviewer: Emera
Date read:December 2017
Book from: Personal collection

Reviews of Best Ghost Stories of J. S. LeFanu, pt. I: Green Tea, Squire Toby’s Will, The White Cat of Drumgunniol

Many of J. S. LeFanu’s human ghosts share a moral type – grasping, corrupt old men of power – and a countenance: “sensual, malignant, and unwholesome” in “Ghost Stories of the Tiled House,” “[wearing] a smile so sensual, so unspeakably dreadful that my senses were nearly overpowered” in “An Account of Some Strange Disturbances on Aungier Street.” Both of these are brief, emininently rereadable traditional haunted-house stories, more reliably delivering a pleasurable chill (in my opinion) than many of his weirder, more wandering tales of guilt and spirits. (The second section of “Tiled House” has also been published or anthologized as “The Ghost of a Hand,” notably in Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories.)

“Mr. Justice Harbottle” is another of that spirit-type: “an elder man, stout, and blotched with scurvy, and whose features, fixed as a corpse’s, were stamped with dreadful force with a character of sensuality and villainy.” His story is a Jacobite-era ghost story; I’ve tended to enjoy that setting ever since reading Peter Beagle’s Tamsin; and M. R. James of course has several Jacobite tales. But I confess to finding most of “Harbottle” slow and predictably moralizing – except for the spectacular nightmare-journey midway through, featuring a “gigantic gallows” with capering hangman, a hell-court, and other demonic delights. I want to say that the story reminded me a bit of Washington Irving thanks to its combination of delirious horror and dark satire, but I’m still not quite sure that Irving is the comparison I really have in mind…

The prominence of evil judges did make me wonder about the impact of LeFanu’s courtroom experience on his moral landscape – but a quick Wiki search reminded me that while he studied law at Trinity College, he never actually practiced. Perhaps LeFanu encountered Harbottle’s original during his work as a journalist, instead? It’s hard not to indulge in this kind of biographical speculation when the type recurs with such exactness.

“An Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House,” as its name suggests, is another traditional haunted-house story. Nothing spectacular, but very satisfactorily eerie:

“This figure was seen always in the act of retreating, its back turned, generally getting round the corner of the passage into the area, in a stealthy and hurried way, and, when closely followed, imperfectly seen again entering one of the coal-vaults, and when pursued into it, nowhere to be found.”

And there’s also something pleasantly eerie, just unresolved-enough, about the way LeFanu’s narrator ends the story with a bit of speculation about who the specters are and what they might be about. I think it’s the only one of LeFanu’s stories where I liked how he enacted his tendency to over-explanation.

On the subject of less-gripping guilt ‘n’ spirits: “The Familiar” I thought overlong and repetitive. It shares the narrative device used in “Green Tea” of increasingly close confrontations with a persistent specter, but feels punishingly plodding at over 30 pages. As suggested above, I was also very disappointed by the way LeFanu diffuses its main mystery – why an upright naval officer should be haunted by a menacing figure – with a blatant explanation at the end. The title was intriguing to me, though: LeFanu diverges from the more, well, familiar sense of a witch’s companion spirit, and uses “familiar” in a sense a bit closer to a doppelganger. This, together with the prominence of seamen, gave the story a slight Poe-ish aura to me.

Finally, “The Dead Sexton” I enjoyed well enough while reading, but had trouble recalling afterwards. Set in LeFanu’s fictional, idyllic-yet-haunted town of Golden Friars, Northumbria, it’s all a bit cute about the earnest, bustly village types, and the petty villainy of the title character. The dark visitation who leads to the story’s final climax is charismatically drawn, but as with “Harbottle,” the narrative’s predictable morality undercuts the impact of its spookier bits.

Go to:
Tales of Horror and the Supernatural, by Arthur Machen (1948): review by Emera
The Haunted Dolls’ House and Other Ghost Stories, by M. R. James (1919, 1925): review by Emera

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 4.21.2018 (reread)
Book from: Personal collection (you can read an excerpt online at Tor.com)

The word for this Lovecraftian novella is not exactly luscious, but somehow that’s always what comes to mind when I think about it. Kiernan just does something exceptional with style and tone here: the prose is implacably menacing, cuttingly witty, and both those tones run together with a free-floating, sinuous, sometimes psychedelically inflected quality that is what I want to call luscious. This is also the work that made me realize that while I tend to think of Kiernan as a Gothic writer, she’s also tremendous at noir.

Here’s the scene: It’s Thursday evening, and the Signalman sits smoking and nursing a flat Diet Dr Pepper, allowing himself to breathe a stingy sigh of relief as twilight finally, mercifully comes crashing down on the desert. The heavens above West Second Street are blazing like it’s 1945 all over again and the Manhattan Project has mistakenly triggered the Trinity blast one state over from the White Sands Proving Ground. Or, he thinks, like this is the moment fifty thousand years ago when a huge nickel-iron meteorite vaporized herds of mastodons, horses, and giant ground sloths just sixteen miles southwest of this shitty little diner and its cracked Naugahyde seats and flyblown windows. Either simile works just fine by the Signalman; either way, the sky’s falling. Either way is entirely apropos. He checks his wristwatch again, sees that it’s been only seven minutes since the last time, then goes back to staring out the plate glass as shadows and fire vie for control of the dingy, sunbaked soul of Winslow, Arizona. His unkind face stares at him from the glass, easily ten years older than the date on his birth certificate. He curses, stubs out his cigarette, and lights another.

That’s the first paragraph; it makes me want to read the whole thing all over again. The sense of place throughout Agents of Dreamland is extraordinary: a smoked-out, hard-baked, rusty-blood-stained West, even featuring the Salton Sea, which I’ve been fascinated by for a while. (Inland seas = automatically uncanny?) There’s also a lot of Lovecraftian and UFO-theory allusion that I think pulls together into a compellingly sticky web (this universe of UFO-intercepting spooks feels real, and worn), even if one happens to be foggy on the particular referents. Namely, I had no idea that Dreamland and Paradise Ranch were nicknames for Area 51, and I had forgotten that Lovecraft’s Mi-Go were fungoid in nature – a feature that makes logical the nature of the extraterrestrial pathogen with which the Signalman comes face-to-face.

Darkly lovely also are the jangly, free-associating chapters from the point of view of the wonderfully/sadly named Chloe Stringfellow, a heroin addict turned Lovecraftian cult victim. (If some of her cult leader’s apocalyptic babble sounds a bit silly, callow, I think that that makes sense, in the same way that, say, Beat Poets sound silly once one starts to feel external to the experience of disillusioned adolescence.) I especially appreciated Kiernan’s evocation of Chloe’s longing for belonging – simultaneously diffuse and fire-hot – because right after my first read of Agents of Dreamland, I read John Darnielle‘s Universal Harvester (one of my top three reads of 2017), in which a ragtag Western cult also ends up playing a major role – but we never get to see it from the inside. I always find it strangely moving when accidental echoes run between books I’m reading.

Oddly, even though the future that Agents of Dreamland looks forward to is Grim with a capital G, the novella leaves me in a dreamy, appreciative mood, and one that approaches humorous. There’s a sense that our fates are ruled by a cosmic wink-and-shrug, that we’ve come near to disaster a hundred-hundred times, but chance (or human nature, in Chloe’s case) conspires to deflect us away at the last moment. The Signalman sets the tone here: he tempers fear and resignation with a very hard-bitten humanism, and with a sardonicism that feels beautifully human in direct proportion to the magnitude of horror that he faces.

Related reading:

“Houses Under the Sea,” by Caitlín R. Kiernan (2003)

Alabaster, by Caitlín R. Kiernan (2006)

The Red Tree, by Caitlín R. Kiernan (2009)

The Drowning Girl, by Caitlín R. Kiernan (2012)

 


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I watched Sarah Adina Smith’s The Midnight Swim (2015) late last fall. It’s a strange, quiet psychological horror movie, with the soft-yet-tense quality that I love about a lot of domestic thrillers that focus on female experience. (The Virgin Suicides, for example, or the first act of mother!.)

The film focuses on three half-sisters who reunite at the family home on Spirit Lake – a cold, deep lake in Washington State – after the disappearance of their mother while diving. The movie is finely textured by the various strands of affection, loyalty, resentment, and mistrust that run between the sisters, who are perfectly cast: almost uncomfortably plausible as sisters, interesting to watch even when little is obviously happening. Eventually, those strands of connection run back to their mother, whom they resurrect through videos and playacting, revealing her as both absurd and terrifying, as mothers so often are: hippie-dippie eco-goddess; domestic tyrant.

The women’s relationships are cradled by the deep quiet and chill of the surrounding wilderness, and the spiritually luminous yet ominous expanse of the lake. I love water, so the lake imagery, the evocation of its magnetic depthlessness, was particularly sensually effective for me.

Certain narrative elements felt expected, generic in both senses of the word: the appearance of dead birds around the house by night, the increasingly strange behavior of one sister, who refuses to get out from behind her handheld video camera. Still, the movie is effective in using prolonged quiet and unexpected little tweaks to keep ratcheting up the tension. There’s a pervasive sense of not-quite-nameable wrongness: what exactly is going on here?

The ending of the movie I found pleasantly baffling: deeply gentle, perhaps even hopeful, but also terrifying in its strangeness. It strikes me as audaciously weird, and merciful.

Related reading:

I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House (2016)

The Drowning Girl, by Caitlín R. Kiernan (2012): review by Emera

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 3.13.2018
Read from: Reproduction posted by The Sanguine Wood; also available here on unz.org

Tom Digby swabbed his face against the rolled-up sleeve of his drill shirt, and good-naturedly damned the whole practice of measuring altitudes by barometric instruments…

This Leiber tale has a rock-solid Weird premise: a geological surveyor’s instruments tell him that the hill he is looking at is, in fact, a hole. Well, which is it? The premise taps into the same what’s in there unease as fairy mounds, without directly drawing on that body of folklore, and adds a Lovecraftish space/geometry-warping flavor.

Execution is just okay – the prose and pacing have a slightly thick, ungainly feeling, as if Leiber is laboring to maneuver the expected narrative accoutrements into position – the creepy blue-eyed little girl to provide cryptic warnings, the surveyor’s internal protestations in favor of rationality: “If there was anything he detested, it was admitting the possibility of supernatural agencies, even in jest.” We all know how that will go. (Also, how ridiculous is it that the surveyor is named Digby?)

But this is the sort of thing that – like urban legends – lives on in the imagination regardless of execution, helped along by Leiber’s evocation of suffocating summer heat and dust. Yum.

Related reading:

Lovecraft the terrible, the ridiculous, the great

Tales of Horror and the Supernatural, by Arthur Machen (1948) E

Are you listening closely

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Reviewer: Kakaner

Date read: 12.31.2017

Book from: Bookstore browse session

An Obedient Father is a harrowing story of a rather run-of-the-mill moneyman Ram, a middle rung manager within a governmental structure, corrupt and unambitious, who repeatedly molested and raped his daughter when she was pre-pubescent, and now finds circumstances forcing her and his granddaughter to live with him again.

Generally, I thought this was a rather successful first novel– the premise and backstory felt kind of contrived and heavy-handed but the emotional exploration was well done. However, I hesitate to ever label any story of sexual wrongdoing as heavy-handed or unrealistic because I only have reason to believe that fiction has happened many times over, and reality is worse than fiction. I feel it is my duty to consider these kinds of stories seriously.

I was immediately overcome with the horror of seeing the emotional journey of a family ripped apart by this kind of tragedy from the perpetrator’s perspective. Ram is very much simply a product of his culture and context, and I think one takeaway from the novel is that it’s very hard to engineer and live by your own moral compass when there is no external impetus for doing so. Of course, a lot of this lack of impetus is entrenched in the darker aspects of Indian culture and the patriarchy. I was struck by the helplessness of both sides of the act– the daughter Anita and the father Ram, but especially how weak Ram was, fixating on his inability to control himself despite hating himself for what he was doing. Sharma manages to immediately elicit sympathy for Ram without ever being apologetic for him, a tricky act to pull off. The whole journey was just this incredibly strange crumbling and dismantling of the health of a family while the distributions of love, privilege, progressiveness, greed, and justice shifted within the family. Finally, it’s a painful, cautionary highlighting of the belief that no one is going to look out for you, that stigma and society can be thicker than blood.

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View Recipe: Through the Woods Tart

Emera first shared Emily Carroll’s horror webcomic “His Face All Red” with me several years ago. It’s an unsettling, inconclusive tale of two brothers who set out to kill a wolf that has been terrorizing their village, but nothing is what it seems. The story is a swirl of fearful trips to the forest, sloshing cheers in taverns, village gossip, paranoid insomnia, feral intentions, and inexplicably spilt blood. I wanted to create a confection that would evoke the comic’s vivid color palette and capture the flavors of bravado, fear, and death.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: Vars. in November and December 2017
Book from: Personal collection

The Dover collection of Best Ghost Stories of J. S. LeFanu (originally issued in 1964, with a rapturous introduction by an E. F. Bleiler, “an editor, bibliographer, and scholar of science fiction, detective fiction, and fantasy literature” according to Wiki) contains the following stories:

Squire Toby’s Will, Schalken the Painter, Madam Crowl’s Ghost, The Haunted Baronet, Green Tea, The Familiar, Mr. Justice Harbottle, Carmilla, The Fortunes of Sir Robert Ardagh, An Account of Some Strange Disturbances on Aungier Street, The Dead Sexton, Ghost Stories of the Tiled House, An Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House, Sir Dominick’s Bargain, Ultor de Lacey

…of which I’ve currently read all but “The Dead Sexton,” “Sir Dominick,” and “Ultor de Lacy” (which is what I’d like to name an S&M lingerie shop). (Note that LeFanu’s work is available online for free, being in the public domain.) Presently I’m in the middle of re-reading “Carmilla,” one of the only two stories I’d read before.Thoughts on some of the rest…

—–

I was a bit disappointed and perplexed by “Green Tea,” having heard that it was LeFanu’s most renowned story after “Carmilla,” and having been intrigued for quite some time by the seductively mysterious title. The central specter (which is not tea) is devilishly uncomfortable, and there’s a powerful sense of dark magnetism dictating the specter’s encounters with the narrator. (M. R. James’ unstoppable horrors later echo the same narrative rhythm.)

But I feel the story’s integrity is spoiled by the preening narration of Dr. Hesselius, LeFanu’s proto-Van-Helsing, who prides himself on his ability to counteract supernatural influences through rational medical practice. His flippant, self-congratulatory closing pontifications pretty well ruined the story for me, even if his final sentence is tasty:

“Thus we find strange bed-fellows, and the mortal and immortal prematurely make acquaintance.”

Talking-head Hesselius makes this story the most explicit enumeration of LeFanu’s supernatural principle, which would go on to inspire Lovecraft – that we are at all times surrounded by terrible sights and malign beings, but only certain states of physiological or psychological disturbance make us vulnerable to influences. This principle shows up explicitly in almost all of the stories claimed to have been drawn from Hesselius’ files, and I think one or two others as well. Personally I find it notable as a literary feature, but not interesting; it’s discussed too fussily to evoke a sense of dread.

—–

“Squire Toby’s Will” suffers from what I think is LeFanu’s most frequent narrative weakness: poor pacing. The opening scenes feel leaden and ungainly, and the feuding between the rival brothers at the plot’s center reads as failed comedy. But the story does draw atmospheric power (1.21 English Gothic gigawatts!) from its rainy, moldering setting and crabbed, ill-tempered characters. And as in “Green Tea,” the central specter is memorably uncomfortable:

The head of the brute looked so large, its body long and thin, and its joints so ungainly and dislocated, that the Squire, with old Cooper beside him, looked on with a feeling of disgust and astonishment, which, in a moment or two more, brought the Squire’s stick down upon him with a couple of heavy thumps. The beast awakened from his ecstasy, sprang to the head of the grave, and there on a sudden, thick and bandy as before, confronted the Squire, who stood at its foot, with a terrible grin, and eyes with the peculiar green of canine fury.

—–

Sticking with the theme of “critters,” “The White Cat of Drumgunniol” is a cross between a fairy tale and a vengeful-ghost story:

“There is a famous story of a white cat, with which we all become acquainted in the nursery. I am going to tell a story of a white cat very different from the amiable and enchanted princess who took that disguise for a season.”

The story opens with a lakeside scene witnessed by the narrator by a boy, and which I think is goddamn amazing – tense, eerie, calm, unbearably strange. (It reminds me of the climactic vision in I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House.)

The story decrescendoes from there, sustaining some of the tension and the chilly sense of otherworldly hostility, but terminating wistfully and weakly. The ending suits when the narrative is taken as the verbal account it’s purported to be, but, for a literary story, is disappointingly stingless.

Related reading:

Tales of Horror and the Supernatural, by Arthur Machen (1948): review by Emera

The Haunted Dolls’ House and Other Ghost Stories, by M. R. James (1919, 1925): review by Emera

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 7.23.2017
Book from: Personal collection

A scintillating and sensual novel about a young woman’s ingress into a fantastically strange family.

The hand of the young woman in question has been promised to the scion of a noble family. She is to make her preparations for marriage at the family’s villa, whose inhabitants have a fear of the night, books, sadness, and anything that smacks of disorder. There the unnamed young bride will be initiated into the art of seduction and will learn, one by one, each of the family secrets.

In this erotically charged and magical novel, Alessandro Baricco portrays a cast of mysterious characters who exist outside of the rules of causation as he tells a story, an adult fable, about fate, sex, family, love and the difficult job of being together.

This short novel is exquisite but arguably vacuous, depending on your tolerance/appetite for flighty, languid aristocratic types afflicted by mysterious ailments of the heart. Said type, plus dreamy surrealism, plus etc. is normally so much my thiiiing in fiction that Kakaner laughed at me, deservedly, when I picked this up at the bookstore and showed her the cover-flap copy. If you like Anaïs Nin, if you like Rikki Ducornet, this book has a seaside villa near their work. Also, actually, Wes Anderson, in the dwelling on rich people’s [over]subtle troubles and the interest in simultaneously lavish and fussy ritual.

But gawd, this book tried even my patience for featherily virtuosic writing and languorous sorrows. The glowy feeling of mystery is appealing – including that drifting obscuringly around the novel’s metafictional narrator, a nameless writer who is diverting him/herself with the work of writing this novel, while ruminating on the aftermath of some kind of immense (we’re told) sorrow and being snippy at a psychoanalyst. The Young Bride – plucky, down on her luck, a quiet survivor – is a likable-by-default protagonist, sharp and genuine enough to provide ballast for the rest of the cast, about whom one must ask repeatedly, “Are any of your problems even real?”

What ultimately tipped me over from mild skepticism into outright objection was the baffling pose that the book adopts towards women and prostitution. I tried for a while not to judge it purely along that axis, in the hopes that Baricco was going to do something more nuanced with it, but in the end I did find just stupid and piggish his narrative device of delivering nearly all of his female characters into prostitution (or discovering them there to begin with) as a sort of ultimate formative experience. Excuse me, but fuck that.

I would read this again just for the luxuriant sensations of the prose, and for the writing about writing, but the narrative content is a big ??? for me.

On the plus side, here’s my favorite passage from the narrator-writer:

I’ve noticed that, more than in the past, I like letting [my book] glide off the main road, roll down unexpected slopes. Naturally I never lose sight of it, but, whereas working on other stories I prohibited any evasion of this type, because my intention was to construct perfect clocks, and the closer I could get them to an absolute purity the more satisfied I was, now I like to let what I write sag in the current, with an apparent effect of drifting that the Doctor, in his wise ignorance, wouldn’t hesitate to connect to the uncontrolled collapse of my personal life, by means of a deduction whose boundless stupidity would be painful for me to listen to. I could never explain to him that it’s an exquisitely technical matter, or at most aesthetic… It’s a question of mastering a movement similar to that of the tides: if you know them well you can happily let the boat run aground and go barefoot along the beach picking up mollusks or otherwise invisible creatures. You just have to know enough not to be surprised by the return of the tide, to get back on board and simply let the sea gently raise the keel, carrying it out to sea again. With the same ease, I, having lingered collecting all those verses of Baretti’s and other mollusks of that type, feel the return, for example, of an old man and a girl, and I see them become an old man standing stiffly in front of a row of herbs, with a young Bride facing him, while she tries to understand what is so grave about simply knocking on the Mother’s door. I distinctly feel the water raising the keel of my book and I see everything setting sail again in the voice of the old man, who says…

– E

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 6.16.2017
Book from: Gift from K. (<3)

Flesh and Blood is Julia Gfrörer’s first published comic, and my second-favorite of the three I’ve read, after Black is the Color. Grim, wry, blood-and-hemlock-flavored, this is highly recommended for lovers of Robert Eggers’ film The Witch.

This is so narratively satisfying, all the symmetry and the sinewy Machiavellian strength of the witch’s plotting. She’s a dark free agent, pulling snare-cords neat and tight around convenient prey. She’s not quite so dispassionate a predator as the mermaids in Black is the Color, though. Displaced romantic and erotic desire teases the otherwise calm, chilly surface of her calculations. This culminates in an uncomfortably powerful erotic scene involving a mandrake. Period.

The displacement of desire and passion – longing for what’s not close to hand, fulfillment through proxies – creates a weird kind of momentum throughout Flesh and Bone. I imagine water continually spilling from unstable vessel to vessel, never at rest, and shared between vessels only in passing.

Like all of Gfrörer’s other work that I’ve read, the comic is also an inhabitation of the experience of grief – grief that is more than sorrow, grief that wrings to the bone. This grief that strains the limits of human capability – and the teasing touches of hopeful sweetness, as expressed through longing and eroticism – all that mixed together, in one brief comic, it’s exquisite, and sublime.

Gfrörer’s work is an uncommonly raw expression of the intensity of existence. It goes deep, deep, deep, like almost nothing I’ve read or seen before, except (as I said before) Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. There is nothing precious, or half-way, or untrue about her work. I think she’s a visionary not in the sense of seeing something beyond – I think she looks at human existence and sees in.

Related reading:

Laid Waste, by Julia Gfrörer (2016): review by Emera


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Reviewer: Kakaner

Date read: 1.26.2017

Book from: Personal collection, recommended by Marbiru (thanks!)

Weaving back in forth in time, moving from character to character, the author tells the story of Indonesia from its Dutch colonial days, through the Japanese occupation during World War II, and into independence as a modern state. Kurniawan’s characters are broadly drawn, but they aren’t one-dimensional. Dewi Ayu, the most sought-after prostitute in the seaside city of Halimunda, is a shrewd, fearless, and resourceful woman but an ambivalent mother. Her lover, Maman Gendeng, is a romantic thug. The soldier Sodancho is both an illustrious revolutionary and a self-serving racketeer; he’s also a rapist. 

Reading this novel was like eating ice cream, or cake, or your favorite food, and just shoveling every bite in before you finished chewing (much less swallowing) your last bite. Every sentence, every paragraph, every story swelled and crescendoed and flowered and blossomed it seemed until impossible infinity. Just a rich luscious reading experience overall.

Maybe it’s obvious from the title and blurb, but the motifs are women drawing power from their physical beauty and wiles and men drawing power from brute force and violence. The novel is composed of intertwining stories featuring a constant interplay of beauty vs strength, one force always trying to subdue the other and the actors being driven mad trying to achieve dominance. It’s a cautionary and desperate tale of the futility of drawing upon beauty for true strength, especially if for ill-intentioned ends, and that the lust for and reliance on beauty ultimately devastates. At the same time, so many of the characters are unable to comprehend why anyone would love an ugly being, and that confusion and cognitive dissonance becomes a fixation towards the end. Even though this sounds heavy handedly black and white, it works because it is commentary that is delivered in this unabashedly absurd and dreamlike way.

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