“The Man in the Woods,” by Shirley Jackson (2014) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 4.18.2019
Read from: The New Yorker

I didn’t realize that Shirley Jackson’s children were still discovering unpublished stories of hers; the New Yorker has published two in recent years, “The Man in the Woods” and “Paranoia.”

“The Man in the Woods” is a delightful choice for a stand-alone publication. Tense, elegant, and cryptic, its dense mythological and folkloric allusions beg for toying and unpicking – even if its determined evasiveness means that it is not sharply compelling as a work of psychological fiction. If it were presented in a collection, it would likely sink into the shadow of any of Jackson’s more spectacularly psychological stories. But even taking it simply as a sort of playful, appreciative remix of a handful of dark folkloric tropes, it stands out as being pretty much perfect on a line-by-line level: economical, vivid, and singing with tension.

The cat had joined him shortly after he entered the forest, emerging from between the trees in a quick, shadowy movement that surprised Christopher at first and then, oddly, comforted him, and the cat had stayed beside him, moving closer to Christopher as the trees pressed insistently closer to them both, trotting along in the casual acceptance of human company that cats exhibit when they are frightened.

The two stories that immediately popped into my head when reading this: Angela Carter’s “The Erl-King” (a previous, brief appreciation here) with its likewise claustrophobic trees and its building towards the inevitability of kingly sacrifice; and Hansel and Gretel. In fact, with regard to Hansel, I was sure at first that this was going to be “just” a witch-story, and that the two otherworldly women whom Christopher meets in the stone cottage in the woods would be joined by a third – Hecate. So it was a strange little thrill when the third in the house turned out rather to be a Mr. Oakes: a green-man, and a sacrificial priest-king straight out of Frazer’s The Golden Bough.

Fans of Elizabeth Marie Pope’s Tam Lin retelling, The Perilous Gard, will be well familiar with the reading of “Christopher” as “Christ-bearer” specifically in the context of pagan sacrifice. Her Christopher, like Jackson’s, is a youth who offers up to pagan captors the temptation of a double sacrifice – an intermingling of two different sacred powers – through the symbolic weight of his name.

Though Jackson’s protagonist Christopher offers this tantalizing symbolism (“‘Christopher,’ [Mr. Oakes] said softly, as though estimating the name”), he’s otherwise strangely devoid of anything resembling narrative or, let’s call it, a symbolic system. He carries the modernish signifier of having been at “college,” and allows that that loosely qualifies him to be deemed a “scholar” by Mr. Oakes. But he doesn’t know why he left college and started wandering, and he doesn’t know what to name a cat other than “kitty.” So far as personality is concerned, he is careful, courteous, and expresses glints of humor and curiosity, including a faint appetite for the younger woman, Phyllis. But it’s all diffused through a screen of something like mild dissociation, or at least ennui. He seems like a refugee from the modern world, stripped of meaning and motivation.

His encounter with the household in the wood seems destined to force him into meaning, just as his unnamed cat attains the witchy title of “Grimalkin” by displacing the household’s original cat. In the end, Christopher follows along with a sort of tranced acquiescence.

But even assuming that his challenge of Mr. Oakes will be successful, it’s unclear whether this new (ancient) system of meaning will be any more compelling than whatever he left behind in his old life. Phyllis, Circe, and Oakes seem listless and weary. (Only Circe, appropriately, shows a trace of defiance: “Circe I was born and Circe I will have for my name till I die.”) Oakes, despite his name, doesn’t seem any more fond of the woods than Christopher is; he plants roses as a challenge to their oppressiveness. Civilization, it seems, erects various defenses against the void, but over time they all grow, as Hamlet put it, flat, weary, stale, and unprofitable. They become oppressions of their own.

Final note: they were totally eating the previous challengers –

“…Phyllis, sent to fetch a special utensil from an alcove in the corner of the kitchen, came back to report that it had been mislaid “since the last time” and could not be found…”

“…Aunt Cissy disappeared into the kitchen alcove again and came back carrying the trussed carcass of what seemed to Christopher to be a wild pig.”

Related reading:
We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson (1962): review by Emera
Angela Carter’s “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon”
A very happy October to all
“Where is Rowan Morrison?”

The Moonlit Road & others by Ambrose Bierce (1909-12) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 3.27.2019
Book from: Personal collection, but Bierce’s work is in the public domain & can be found online for free; see ambrosebierce.org, for example.

The Moonlit Road and Other Ghost & Horror Stories is a collection of twelve of Ambrose Bierce’s stories (selected from 1909 and 1912 collections of his work), published by Dover.

Contents, with my favorites starred: The Eyes of the Panther*, The Moonlit Road, The Boarded Window, The Man and the Snake*, The Secret of Macarger’s Gulch, The Middle Toe of the Right Foot*, A Psychological Shipwreck*, A Holy Terror*, John Bartine’s Watch, Beyond the Wall, A Watcher by the Dead, Moxon’s Master

Sampler o’ themes: Ambiguity of state (dead/alive, woman/animal, natural/supernatural, real/imagined), close intimacy with the dead, fear overcoming men’s rational defenses, the grief and shame of men who have failed to protect the women who loved them

These stories are very smart, very darkly witty, and often wonderfully atmospheric, but for my taste far too reliant on twist endings that can variously come off as silly, obvious, excessively neat, etc. In the worse stories, there’s a tangible sense of self-satisfaction with his own wit – like Bierce is constantly waggling his eyebrows at you while you try to focus on reading.

The best have a deeper sense of elemental weirdness, a real conviction of darkness and not just a desire to titillate and dazzle. In this collection, “The Eyes of the Panther” and “The Man and the Snake” by far maximize this quality of weird darkness, “The Man and the Snake” especially so. While “The Eyes of the Panther” can be fitted into the context of “animal bride” fairy tales (as well as the fact that mountain lion screams sound unnervingly like those of a human woman), “The Man and the Snake” is wonderfully its own thing. It’s deeply idiosyncratic, darkly funny (“A snake in the bedroom of a modern city dwelling of the better sort is, happily, not so common a phenomenon as to make explanation altogether unnecessary”), and simultaneously so vivid and so ambiguous that it’s borderline surreal:

“The snake’s malignant head was still thrust forth from the inner coil as before, the neck level. It had not moved, but its eyes were now electric sparks, radiating an infinity of luminous needles.”

“A Psychological Shipwreck” is also quite compellingly weird; call it a psychic romantic tragedy. In most of these stories I was annoyed/bored by the extent to which Bierce’s female characters serve as blank slates upon which men write their tragic obsessions; the stories, like “Shipwreck,” where the women seem to emanate some supernatural force of their own are commensurately more interesting to me. Hence also my enjoyment of the darkly vital “The Eyes of the Panther.”

Among the more traditional stories, I appreciated “The Middle Toe of the Right Foot” first of all for its hilarious and intriguing title, secondly for introducing me to the folkloric anecdote of Jim Bowie having fought and won a barefoot knife fight in a dark room, and ultimately simply as a grimly satisfying tale of revenge wrought by the occupants of a haunted house. The quick shifts of time and perspective that Bierce often uses felt particularly witty here, almost caper-esque, and there’s also just some delightful haunted-house descriptions.

Finally, “A Holy Terror,” while close to annoyingly twisty, has some fantastically flavorful writing about an abandoned western mining town, which was a much-appreciated complement to my recent reading of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. I’ll conclude with my favorite paragraph – peak Bierce:

It is necessary to explain that one of the adjuncts to Hurdy-Gurdy—one to which that metropolis became afterward itself an adjunct—was a cemetery. In the first week of the camp’s existence this had been thoughtfully laid out by a committee of citizens. The day after had been signalized by a debate between two members of the committee, with reference to a more eligible site, and on the third day the necropolis was inaugurated by a double funeral. As the camp had waned the cemetery had waxed; and long before the ultimate inhabitant, victorious alike over the insidious malaria and the forthright revolver, had turned the tail of his pack-ass upon Injun Creek the outlying settlement had become a populous if not popular suburb. And now, when the town was fallen into the sere and yellow leaf of an unlovely senility, the graveyard—though somewhat marred by time and circumstance, and not altogether exempt from innovations in grammar and experiments in orthography, to say nothing of the devastating coyote—answered the humble needs of its denizens with reasonable completeness. It comprised a generous two acres of ground, which with commendable thrift but needless care had been selected for its mineral unworth, contained two or three skeleton trees (one of which had a stout lateral branch from which a weather-wasted rope still significantly dangled), half a hundred gravelly mounds, a score of rude headboards displaying the literary peculiarities above mentioned and a struggling colony of prickly pears. Altogether, God’s Location, as with characteristic reverence it had been called, could justly boast of an indubitably superior quality of desolation. It was in the most thickly settled part of this interesting demesne that Mr. Jefferson Doman staked off his claim. If in the prosecution of his design he should deem it expedient to remove any of the dead they would have the right to be suitably reinterred.

Related reading:
The Haunted Dolls’ House and Other Ghost Stories, by M. R. James (1919, 1925): review by Emera
Best Ghost Stories of J. S. LeFanu (1861-1923): review by Emera
LeFanu II: Haunted houses, gouty judges, over-familiars
Seven Gothic Tales, by Isak Dinesen (1935): review by Emera

Seven Gothic Tales, by Isak Dinesen (1935) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 11.25.2018
Book from: Personal collection

On a rainy night in the winter of 1874, on an avenue in Paris, a drunken young girl came up and spoke to me. I was then, as you will understand, quite a young man. I was very upset and unhappy, and was sitting bareheaded in the rain on a seat along the avenue becaues I had just parted from a lady whom, as we said then, I did adore, and who had within this last hour tried to posion me.

This, though it has nothing to do with what I was going to tell you, was in itself a curious story…

from “The Old Chevalier”

I’m so, so very glad that I finally read this, almost 10 years after picking it up in a used bookstore. Dinesen’s gothic tales are very elegant and very strange, in a way that’s difficult to communicate. But their strangeness has to do, I think, with their extreme subtlety (if such a thing can exist), the way that the narrator always seems to be smiling very gently as she delicately manipulates the pieces of the story into a more pleasing – yet curious – configuration. The surprises are frequent and witty yet so quiet that I often ended up laughing not so much at the surprise itself, as at the fact that it almost flowed by me unremarked.

Many of her stories do have a puzzle-box construction, where the pieces gradually become available, and a “solution” is eventually possible, revealing a full picture, a completed tableau. (References to marionette theater are frequent, and the clearest moral and artistic ethic that Dinesen offers is an ideal of humanity as actors arranged through the action of the divine.) Such solutions, if directly addressed by the characters, tend to be declared only in a handful of half-obscured phrases, which leaves one with a sense of a kind of twilight elegance and, again strangeness – frail, fey silhouettes glimpsed from a distance against a sunset sky.

Dinesen loves liminally gendered characters (and so I love her!): cross-dressing women, gay or bisexual men, women of all ages who are obsessed with defending their virginity – but especially old maids, whom Dinesen writes frequently and with fascinating psychological sharpness; they project their unrealized hopes or distorted convictions onto the young around them with such ferocity that they cannot be merely tragic figures.

Continue reading Seven Gothic Tales, by Isak Dinesen (1935) E

LeFanu II: Haunted houses, gouty judges, over-familiars

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

“The Hill and the Hole,” by Fritz Leiber (1942) E

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

Best Ghost Stories of J. S. LeFanu (1861-1923) E

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

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

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 7.2.2016
Book from: Personal collection

Thanks to Kakaner for reminding me that I had a serviceable, if brief, draft of a Machen review lying around –

(I find this cover so upsetting)

Collection contents, with favorites in bold: 

The Great God PanThe White People, The Inmost Light, The Shining Pyramid, The Great Return, The Novel of the Black Seal, The Novel of the White Powder, The Bowmen, The Happy Children, The Bright BoyOut of the Earth, N, Children of the Pool, The Terror

I find Machen simultaneously infuriating, and delightful and unforgettable. The first because his stories are so goddamn long, pedantic, and fussy – even for my easily delighted-by-Britishness tastes – and his prose, though cultivated, is basically conventional and uninteresting to me on the sentence level. Lots of things are described as “emerald,” for example.

Where he wins me over is

1) that same lengthiness… which sneakily builds and builds atmosphere and suspense, even while I was superficially chafing at his repetition and persnicketing, so that afterwards I was left quite a bit more uncomfortable and spooked than I had realized –

and 2) the ideas. Machen is famous for being a mystic, and I was rather dazzled watching him elaborate, in a dozen different configurations, the same basis of horror.

Machen’s is an ontological horror, where evil, sin, and wrongness arise from violation of categories and hierarchies: human and animal, human and proto-human, human and supernatural. The essential pagan in me is somewhat baffled by his strict definition of the primitive supernatural (Pan, fairies) as evil, baleful and actively malign (in contrast with Lovecraft’s other beings, which are rather colossally indifferent to humanity). This point remains emotionally and conceptually obtuse to me, but I find dreadfully fun his execution thereof. I’m particularly entertained by just how graphic and pulpy he gets at times, which seems at odds with his stodgy scholarliness.

More beautiful and transfixing, though, are the stories where the details of death are more obscure and metaphysical. “The White People” stands out in this respect, in addition to being of a narrative type that I love – cryptic young women’s diaries, which document a slow seduction or transformation into the magical. (See also Robert Aickman’s self-evidently titled “Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal.”)

The psychogeographic stuff is fun too, but I’ll have to leave it to a future reread to write about that. Also, so much Wales!

Related reading:

Lovecraft the terrible, the ridiculous, the great
The Haunted Dolls’ House and Other Ghost Stories, by M. R. James (1919, 1925) E

Haunted Legends, ed. by Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas (2010) E

Haunted Legends is a 2010 anthology of supernatural horror stories/weird tales/whatever, edited by Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas. I picked it up when Kakaner and I went to Readercon in 2010, and have read it 2+ times since. The table of contents is stacked with major names: Catherynne Valente, Caitlin Kiernan, Laird Barron, Ramsey Campbell, et al.

The anthology is themed around local legends, and the presiding tone is chilly, regretful, and uneasy – there are only a few stories that read as more straightforward horror, like Joe R. Lansdale’s lurid creature feature, “The Folding Man,” which closes the volume with a punch and a leer (and won the 2010 Stoker Award for short fiction).

Since most of the authors are North American, most of the stories draw from those legends. Of those that are set abroad, several are objectionably maudlin and touristy, like Kit Reed’s “Akbar” (India) and Carolyn Turgeon’s “La Llorona” (Mexico). Others engage sharply with tourism or imperialism (Catherynne Valente’s tremendous “Fifteen Panels Depicting the Sadness of the Baku and the Jotai” [Japan], Kaaron Warren’s “That Girl” [India]), and/or draw upon authors’ immigrant backgrounds (Ekaterina Sedia’s “Tin Cans” [Russia], Lily Hoang’s vicious “The Foxes” [Vietnam]).

There are also three hitchhiking/roadside phantoms total.

For me, the standouts are Richard Bowes’ “Knickerbocker Holiday” (which I’ll talk about below), and the stories by Caitlin Kiernan, Carrie Laben (a new name for me), Ekaterina Sedia, Catherynne Valente, and M. K. Hobson (all of which hopefully I’ll write about later). Those hit my sweet spot so far as emotional complexity, prose, freshness of concept/execution, and pervasive unease are concerned. Laird Barron and Jeffrey Ford’s stories, which I think share a kind of darkly musing/amusing quality, also made me go “hmm” in a pleasant way.

—–

Richard Bowes‘ “Knickerbocker Holiday” opens the collection, and immediately made me wonder why I hadn’t read Bowes before, and where I could find more of him.

Last Sunday night the Dutchman flew, the Headless Horseman rolled in from Sleepy Hollow. It happened when I paid a visit that was in part nostalgia, but in larger part morbid curiosity, to a corner of my degenerate youth. I even kissed the fingertips of a very bad old habit of mine and told myself it was for memory’s sake.

Fanning myself! The rest of the story sustains this singular, dreamy, morbid flippancy; I couldn’t get enough of it. The narrator is one of a coterie of aging, not terribly glamorous fashion writers who gather to remember dead colleagues, from their youth working together in New York’s old Garment District. Unlikely connections to Sleepy Hollow emerge, laced with bad deaths and sexual unease.

I love the story in large part for its fragmentary yet rich evocation of ’70’s New York. That richness of sense of time and place seems especially appropriate given how lovingly Washington Irving worked to record his Dutch New York in all of his stories. Not much love here, though – instead of autumnal lushness, there’s only an autumnal falling-away, a sense of twist and rot.

Then there’s the painterly way in which Bowes handles the nightmare-like elements of this story. Painterly is the best word I can think of to describe it, and I find the effect utterly arresting – the few, silent, almost stately visions of the supernatural that he presents, simple scenes touched with an inexplicable threat. Like a Magritte painting, is what I’m thinking: simple shapes, arranged wrongly; a few lighted windows invested with unknown meaning.

I very much look forward to investigating more of Bowes’ short fiction.

“The Love of Beauty,” by K. J. Bishop (1999/2012) E

“The Love of Beauty” is collected in Bishop’s That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote, and you can read the story free online at the Weird Fiction Review.

Near the middle of the night, Seaming dithered in front of the brick arch – formerly a minor gate in the old city wall and now a decoration in a lane. If there existed a main entrance to the Ravels, it was that arch. It stood only half a furlong from the glitz of Cake Street, but the short distance marked a change of register from the demimonde to the underworld proper. Behind the gaudy theatres and beer halls the streets became dark, the buildings closely pressed, the walls bare of signs, posters, paint – of everything except light-absorbing soot.

Seaming smoked a cigarette, a last procrastination, while a polka spinning down from a loft somewhere invited him to head back, spend the rest of the night with friends, and let that be that.

Act as if you belong, she had told him, and you’ll be safe enough.

“The Love of Beauty” is one of the ur-Etched City stories in Bishop’s collection. Though none of The Etched City‘s characters appear here (unlike the Gwynn-centric “The Art of Dying”), Bishop, in playing out an alternative ending to Beauty and the Beast, here stages some of the central questions and themes that are later enacted between the artist Beth and her duellist-muse Gwynn: the exercise of power and choice by traditionally passive female archetypes; and the ability of art to remake reality, especially through alchemical modes like transmutation, refinement, and, conversely, the generation of hybrid forms. There are also echoes of Gwynn and the Rev’s amiable debates over the baseness (or not) of humanity’s desires and capabilities: the Decadent hypothesis advanced by several of the characters in “Beauty” is that art simply represents an opportunity for humans to indulge to the maximum their sensual desires, under the guise of exercising “their highest and holiest faculties.”

I read this past summer a biography of John Singer Sargent, and couldn’t help thinking of him on this reread of “Beauty” – self-effacing, determinedly apolitical, fiendishly talented but only timidly experimental, ultimately a bourgeois sensualist, he rhymes rather well with the character of Seaming. Seaming is a traditionalist and idealist, a wan foil to the morbid recklessness of ideas brandished by the rest of the cast. It’s his idealism that invests his art with alchemical potency, but leaves him defenseless against the revelation of a world activated by animal desires. Seaming’s moral universe is incompatible with the notion that the animal might be sublime.

Continue reading “The Love of Beauty,” by K. J. Bishop (1999/2012) E

Two novellas of the Old Kingdom

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: Jan. 2017

“Nicholas Sayre and the Creature in the Case” appears in Garth Nix’s 2005 collection Across the Wall, and “To Hold the Bridge” appears in his 2010 collection of the same name; both novellas flirt with the notion of everyday life in Ancelstierre (1920’s England/Australia parallel) and the Old Kingdom (magical) respectively, but of course work up into suspenseful adventures.

“The Creature in the Case” follows an escapade of Nick’s, who’s recovering back in Ancelstierre following the events of the final book of the Old Kingdom trilogy. Higher-ups in Ancelstierre are keen on learning more about his experiences with Old Kingdom magic, so he’s dispatched to what’s nominally a country houseparty in order to be covertly questioned by officers there. As the title implies, a cross between P. G. Wodehouse and creature feature ensues.

I disliked this novella the first time I read it; I remember finding it clunky and unfunny. (My antipathy towards Nick as the trilogy’s resident magic-disbeliever couldn’t have helped, but thankfully my no-longer-teenage brain doesn’t see that sort of thing as excruciating heresy anymore.) 180 this time: though the usual Nix weaknesses make themselves known (generic villains, mediocre prose undermining psychology), I found the story zippy, darkly picturesque, and full of moments of quiet wit and thoughtfulness. Nix’s experience as a National Guard and keenness on military history always makes the military elements in his stories particularly sharp and intriguing, so the payoff in a story set partially in a secret government facility is tremendous. So many striking little glimpses like this one, as Nick is being led through the compound:

“…they came to a double-width steel door with two spy holes. Lackridge knocked, and after a brief inspection they were admitted to a guardroom inhabited by five policeman types. Four were sitting around a linoleum-topped table under a single suspended lightbulb, drinking tea and eating doorstop-size sandwiches.”

I admit Nick as a protagonist is still a puzzle to me since I find it hard to overcome the sense that the only reason I have to like him is because the narrative really, really wants me to (and because he’s so forcefully put forward as a romantic match for Lirael, sigh). This prop-ishness means that his numerous moments of heroic resolve feel contrived in comparison to the other protagonists’; they move the plot on, but don’t add up to a unified sense of a character for me. I suspect he’ll reappear in Goldenhand, though, so I do look forward to furthering our acquaintance.

—–

“To Hold the Bridge” is set I’m-not-sure-when in the Old Kingdom. (The Bridge is finished in Goldenhand, so decades prior at the least.) It follows Morghan, a young man from rough circumstances who’s seeking to join the Greenwash Bridge Company, the Old Kingdom’s equivalent of the East India Trading Company – a daring commercial venture with a lucrative royally-issued monopoly. The Bridge Company has invested decades in building a bridge across the vast Greenwash River north of the Kingdom’s capital, in order to open up trade with the northern steppes and mountains; at the time of the story, the bridge is still incomplete, and held by select guards of the Bridge Company.

All of this means that the story is porn for those who enjoy pseudo-historical logistical detail [me]. There is a great deal of touching detail about Morghan’s difficult childhood with pathologically selfish and drug-using parents, and how he survived to become (of course) a quiet, strategic, and resolute young man, talented but nonetheless on the brink of poverty due to his lack of formal training and connections.

But even more detail is lavished on the Company’s operations, training, and recruitment; as always, I find Nix’s observant eye for a sense of practical living in an an invented world very rewarding. There’s a lively, brisk sense of the Bridge Company as colorful and bustling yet shaped by the expectation of danger, and the way the story’s grounded in the experience of a more vulnerable member of society is refreshing compared to the focus of all the other Old Kingdom stories on elites.

I think, though, that the pacing of the novella is a mess; I was forced to admit by the end that that abundance of practical detail ended up being a narrative liability. The vast majority of the story is dedicated to Morghan’s first day trying out at the company, such that the climactic action sequence at the end feels disproportionate (disproportionately small, that is) and unearned. Here again the weakness of Nix’s villains is a factor: we know in advance that the Bridge Company is wary, but there isn’t a concrete sense of what exactly they’re defending against, so that the climactic attack feels arbitrary.

Altogether, I was ready to love this novella, but came away with the sense that it was fragmentary and rushed – the last third feels like Nix was either running out of time or lost interest in developing the narrative, having already established the worldbuilding elements that were most to his satisfaction. Still, I’d recommend it for fans of the series as being, again, a less usual perspective on life in the Old Kingdom, and as usual populated with tough, likable characters with hints of intriguing backstory.

Go to:
Clariel, by Garth Nix (2014): review by Emera
Undercover: Clariel