Picnic at Hanging Rock, by Joan Lindsay (2020) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 7.17.2020
Book from: Library

It was a cloudless summer day in the year 1900. Everyone at Appleyard College for Young Ladies agreed it was just right for a picnic at Hanging Rock. After lunch, a group of three girls climbed into the blaze of the afternoon sun, pressing on through the scrub into the shadows of the secluded volcanic outcropping. Farther, higher, until at last they disappeared. They never returned… Mysterious and subtly erotic, Picnic at Hanging Rock inspired the iconic 1975 film of the same name by Peter Weir. A beguiling landmark of Australian literature, it stands with Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides as a masterpiece of intrigue.

As expected, this was a delicious summer treat – though it didn’t go down without some misgivings. On the whole, Picnic at Hanging Rock is satirical, dreamy, sensuous, and occasionally quite sinister and chilling—mainly in how Lindsay refers to the dark, inscrutable mass of the Hanging Rock brooding in the metaphysical distance behind or beyond the characters ever after the girls’ disappearance, the source of some kind of alien causality.

The book is also quite, quite gay. I was astonished by how Sapphic the movie is when I saw it back in undergrad, but the book is far more explicit than the movie’s languid, soft-focus erotic glow. The novel opens with five pages of the students and the prettiest teacher fluttering over their Valentine’s Day cards and take turns thinking about how much pleasure they derive from gazing at each other’s curls and bosoms and OH MY. Check it—this is from the perspective of Mademoiselle, the French teacher:

The girl’s voluptuous little breasts, her dimples, full red lips, naughty black eyes, and glossy black ringlets, were a continual source of aesthetic pleasure.

It’s also immensely “interesting” that the book’s only two male characters effectively end up riding into the sunset together. It may be that Lindsay largely intends the spiritual bachelorhood of young, wealthy Michael Fitzhubert as tragic: he’s positioned in a love quadrangle with the vanished Miranda (his true love, seen once and never recovered); Irma, the one returned girl (who regards Michael as her true love, but is spurned); and his best mate, the rough horseman Albert (who, finally, is in love with Irma). I found this love-quadrangulation silly as a romantic device, mainly because I found it hard to take any of the characters seriously – a point to which I’ll return later. I think what’s interesting about it is its alienating, distancing effect, the way that these four young people are strangely offset from one another, incapable of moving in the same space. This heightens, of course, the book’s central element of feminine-as-mystery. At one point, Michael even wonders to himself what “feminine secrets” were shared among the girls before they disappeared. Estranged from these unattainable, sometimes uncanny nymphs, Michael and Albert (hairy, tattooed, streetwise, occasionally lounging naked in Michael’s presence…) ride off into the optimism of undefined masculine adventures together.

Let’s return to the problem of how Lindsay handles her characters, generally. I think one of the book’s biggest weaknesses is that Lindsay treats the characters so archly that it comes off as self-satisfaction with her own satirical wit. Any dignity or intelligence the characters might have is often diminished by her heavy-handed descriptions. It doesn’t help that Michael, who is crushingly boring except for how he plays off of Albert, gets to occupy the middle third of the book with an immensely slow, inchoately mopey convalescence sequence. No, thanks. Luckily, Lindsay recovers from there with one of the book’s most climactically disturbing scenes, Irma’s final return to Appleyard College.

Continue reading Picnic at Hanging Rock, by Joan Lindsay (2020) E

‘Salem’s Lot, by Stephen King (1975) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 12.7.2019
Book from: Library

‘Salem’s Lot was originally published in 1975. I read the 2005 special edition, which includes the prequel story “Jerusalem’s Lot,” the sequel story “One for the Road,” and deleted scenes.

Jerusalem’s Lot is a small, blue-collar town in Maine, rife with gossip and the petty drama of adultery, alcoholism, greed, and thwarted desires. Widowed young writer Ben Mears returns to the town – briefly his childhood home – to work on a new book triggered by a disturbing childhood memory. As October begins, children begin dying and disappearing, and Ben and a small circle of allies must confront the encroachment of a latter-day Dracula who preys on the residents of ‘Salem’s Lot with increasingly terrifying speed and cruelty.

I pegged ‘Salem’s Lot as my Halloween read this year, but felt sadly lukewarm about the whole thing. The Shining remains the scariest reading experience I can remember, so how could I go wrong with Stephen King + New England vampires?! In short, this is at best highly competent, tends to be hammy rather than spectacular, and lacks compelling characters. (It is impressive considering that King was 23 when he wrote it, though, and I do adore that his ambition was to craft the “Moby Dick of vampire novels.”)

King spends the first third of the book building up the ensemble small-town cast, but the tone is so heavy-handedly, even campily satirical that few of the side characters inspire more than mild amusement or wistfulness. (I admit I was a sucker for the melancholy of the late-in-life almost-romance between boardinghouse-keeper Eva Miller and town drunk Weasel Craig.) The heroic characters, meanwhile, are drawn with a kind of strained virtuousness that comes off as either bland (Ben) or, again, hammy (especially the precociously serious 10-year-old Mark, bleh). The action in the second half is intense and well-paced, but I still felt like I was just following along and waiting to see how things resolved themselves.

A big part of the issue is that I don’t find vampires frightening anymore – though some of the most fun moments of the book are when evil Count Barlow goes off on florid megalomaniacal monologues. (These are more engaging by far than the various ponderous speeches made about the nature of evil, all of which are written in the same voice – for bonus tedium – despite being delivered by different protagonists.) The last chapter is also grimly satisfying, harnessing as it does the hard-bitten mystique of the veteran vampire hunter.

One final point in the book’s favor, as a detailed portrait of small-town darkness: the parallels now to the opiate crisis are chilling.

Predictably, though, I was much more into the Lovecraftian prequel story “Jerusalem’s Lot,” set near the Lot in 1850. Rats in the mansion walls, a profaned church, and an accursed tome If you’re gonna be campy, just give me the Gothic, please.

Worst line in the novel: “He saw that his hands were glowing, as if wreathed in ghost gloves.”

A favorite line from the novel: “Tourists and through-travelers still passed by on Route 12, seeing nothing of the Lot but an Elks billboard and a thirty-five mile-an-hour speed sign. Outside of town they went back up to sixty and perhaps dismissed it with a single thought: Christ, what a dead little place.

Related reading:
Dracula: A Symphony in Moonlight & Nightmares, by Jon J. Muth (1993) – review by Emera
100 Vicious Little Vampire Stories, ed. Robert Weinberg (1995): review by Emera
Vampire Stories by Women: Venus, Outfangthief, So Runs the World… : review by Emera

 


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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

The Lodgers (2017)

INCEST, the answer is incest.

If you’re marketing anything in the line of gothic horror, it takes a minimum of three words to establish that the big reveal is incest: “twins” and “no outsiders.” 

2017 Irish horror film The Lodgers is lusciously beautiful, slightly underbaked, and very much undercut in the suspense department if you happen to take the above deductive shortcut. The Gothic is one of the preeminent genres where obviousness doesn’t necessarily undercut efficacy – in fact, can easily be an asset, a piece of set dressing that evokes delicious foreboding. The Lodgers, though, suffers from a general sense of unrealized intensity and suspense: lukewarm chemistry among the actors, ghosts that are scary-ish at best, etc. This makes the hand-wringing over what ails those reclusive twins, and all the film’s other emotional stakes, all seem a bit empty or tedious, sometimes comically so.

That said, the film is atmospherically beautiful enough to be enjoyed purely on the basis of looks and sound. On those counts, it has the deeply satisfying sensory and emotional coherence of a fairy-tale pocket universe – the psychogeographic trinity of the haunted mansion, the deep woods, and the huddled village. I’ve also mentioned before my affinity for water-based imagery, and The Lodgers overfloweth with mists, depths, drowning phantoms, and surreal, gravity-defying drips.

Anglo-Irish twins Rachel and and Edward live in a decaying country mansion, governed by a set of nursery-rhyme rules (be in bed by midnight; no outsiders), surrounded by phantoms, and feared/scorned by the nearby villagers. The film opens on their 18th birthday, the brink of rupture: Edward is both traumatized by and deeply loyal to the legacy of their house and its rules, while Rachel is restless, defiant, and drawn to a young villager, Sean, who has recently returned from World War I.

Continue reading The Lodgers (2017)

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

Agents of Dreamland, by Caitlín R. Kiernan (2017) E

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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The Midnight Swim (2015, dir. by Sarah Adina Smith)

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

“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

Booklish #7: Through the Woods Tart

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.

Continue reading Booklish #7: Through the Woods Tart

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