A Budget of Book Reviews

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I’ve been a bit behind on the blogging, it’s true; but I’ve still been reading. Here’s some notes on a few of the books I’ve been reading these past few months. I received a free review copy of The Mark of the Shadow Grove; the other three books I bought and read on my own.

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Buildings and Dreams

Bancroft Hotel

I was flipping through my notebooks not too long ago, in search of material for a blog post, when I stumbled upon a couple of old fiction pieces that I had been wrestling with, then put aside. They were partially influenced by a motif one finds frequently in ghost stories written when “scientific” explanations of apparitions were de rigueur: ghosts as the “psychic recordings” of violent events or emotions. The idea, I believe, still circulates in ghost-hunting circles. Listen to the discussion/definition at about 2:55 or so of this YouTube video about the “10 Types of Ghosts”:

To me a ghost is an apparition… sort of a replay of an event that happened a long time ago because of an imprint or place memory…

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The Baby in the Boot

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In the region near the Cleveland Hills of Yorkshire, around the twelfth century or so, there was a man named Richard Rowntree. He got it into his head to walk the the Camino de Santiago, to the tomb of St. James of Compostela, in Spain, some 900 miles away as the crow flies — and Richard Rowntree was no crow. Why he wanted to make this pilgrimage I don’t know, but off he went, leaving behind his pregnant wife.

The Way of St. James was a popular one with pilgrims — so popular that some said the Milky Way was formed from the dust raised by pilgrims’ feet. But it was also a dangerous road, beset by robbers who preyed on the pious. So Richard wisely kept company with a group of fellow pilgrims, and when they stopped for the night, they would take turns keeping watch as the others slept. And so they traveled, following the Camino Real, which led them through a deep forest.

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The Test

A new installment in my occasional and hopefully ongoing series of active heroines: lesser-known fairy tales featuring women who do more than wait around to get rescued. This one is from Lafcadio Hearn, and was told to him by his gardener Kinjuro. I give it here, verbatim. The story features the “marriage test” motif, where a hero must pass a test in order to win the fair maiden. In most cases, the fair maiden’s father imposes the test. In some cases — like this one — the fair maiden herself sets the conditions.

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A long time ago, in the days when Fox-women and goblins haunted this land, there came to the capital with her parents a samurai girl, so beautiful that all men who saw her fell enamoured of her. And hundreds of young samurai desired and hoped to marry her, and made their desire known to her parents. For it has ever been the custom in Japan that marriages should be arranged by parents. But there are exceptions to all customs, and the case of this maiden was such an exception. Her parents declared that they intended to allow their daughter to choose her own husband, and that all who wished to win her would be free to woo her.

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The Berbalangs: A Legend of Filipino Ghouls

640px KEPPEL 1853 pg112 FRESH WATER LAKE CAGAYAN SOOLOO

Buried in the pages of the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal for 1896 is a dry-sounding article called “Cagayan Sulu, its Customs, Legends, and Superstitions,” by one Ethelbert Forbes Skertchly. It starts out as a typical amateur (for I assume Mr. Skertchly was an amateur) anthropologist’s paper of the time would, with a physical description of Cagayan Sulu — now known as Mapun — an island in the southern Philippines, about eighty miles from Borneo, closer to Malaysia than to most of the rest of the Philippines. The paper meanders on, through descriptions of the flora and of the fauna, of the people, their dress, their customs, their industry. Mr. Skertchly gives us a couple of short folktales, including a charming one about a crocodile spirit covered in diamonds. I imagine a typical Asiatic Society member of the time perusing the paper after dinner, the journal in one hand, a brandy or perhaps a pipe in the other, perfectly relaxed. Nothing new here.

But then Mr. Skertchly veers off into a first-person narrative that would be right at home in a collection of classic English ghost stories: the tale of the Berbalangs of Cagayan Sulu.

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Imani’s Venture: A Punjabi Folktale

This is the first section of a story called “Kupti and Imani” from Andrew Lang’s Olive Fairy Book (1907). The story was collected in the Punjab by a “Major Campbell,” probably in Firozpur. There’s more to it than what I’ve retold, but the first half is the part I like best. I like to find fairy tales where the heroine is an active protagonist, and not just someone waiting to be rescued by a handsome prince.

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Once upon a time there lived a king with two beloved daughters, Kupti and Imani, whom he loved very much. He spent many hours of the day talking to them. One day he asked his older daughter Kupti:

“Are you content to leave your life and fortune in my hands?”

“Of course,” said Kupti. “Who else would I leave them to?”

But when he asked his younger daughter, Imani, she said:

“Oh no! I’d rather go out and make my own fortune!”

The king was a bit displeased to hear this, but he said, “Well, if that is what you want, that’s what you’ll get.”

And so he sent for the poorest man in his kingdom, a lame, elderly fakir, and he said,

“As you are so old, and can’t move around much, you could do with someone to help take care of you. My youngest daughter wants to earn her living, so she can do that with you.”

Personally, if I had been the fakir, I’d be a bit worried about this setup. But never fear — all goes well. You can read the story at my post on the Dholrhythms Dance Company blog.

In the second half of the story, Imani even rescues a handsome king! But since the antagonist in that section is Kupti (Imani’s sister), I can’t quite love it as much.  If you want to read the whole story anyway, you can find it here.

Enjoy,

The Half-Haunted

Christmas is past, the days are getting longer again, but winter is still here! Today, a winter tale set on New Year’s Eve: “The Half-Haunted” by Manly Wade Wellman (1903-1986), writing as Gans T. Field. And some literary gossip, too.

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Manly Wade Wellman wrote science-fiction, fantasy, mystery, young adult adventure stories, and history, mostly of the South and the Civil War. He was fond of the occult detective genre, and is perhaps best known for his three occult detectives: Silver John (or John the Balladeer), Judge Pursuivant, and John Thunstone. Silver John is my favorite of the three.

Wellman is also notorious for having beat out William Faulkner for the first Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine award in 1946, with a tale featuring one of the earliest fictional Native American detectives, David Return. The story was called “Star for a Warrior.” Faulkner, already a highly-regarded literary author (He won the Nobel Prize for Literature just three years later, in 1949) was not too pleased at taking second place in a “manufactured mystery story contest” behind a mere pulp writer. However Faulkner’s story, “An Error in Chemistry,” had been turned down nine times before he submitted it to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and EQMM would only take it after Faulkner cleared up a plot point. So perhaps it wasn’t his best work. I’ve read it, it’s quite good, though the ending feels a trifle contrived — but then again, so does the ending of “Star for a Warrior.”

Anyway, back to our winter tale. “The Half-Haunted” was originally published in the September 1941 issue of Weird Tales. It is the last of the Judge Pursuivant stories.

For six months Judge Pursuivant had intended to visit that old dwelling with the strange history but Judge Pursuivant often has trouble finding time to do what he most wants. The fall passed, the winter came. He spent Christmas, not very joyfully, helping the widow of a friend repossess some property at Salem. New Year’s Eve found him at Harrisonville, where de Graudin and Towbridge wanted his word on translating certain old Dutch documents better left untranslated. Heading west and south toward his home, he passed Scott’s Meadows. And, though it was nearly dark and snowy, he could not resist the opportunity to visit Criley’s Mill then and there.

The site of a Revolutionary War era murder still holds its memories — and more.

This story is more action-packed than spooky; the tagline in Weird Tales was “Judge Pursuivant Routs a Murderous, Hunchbacked Hulk of a Phantom!” Yes, with exclamation point. But it’s fun.

And did you notice? The pair “de Graudin and Towbridge” sound awfully like Jules de Grandin and Dr. Trowbridge, the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson of occult detectives, created by Seabury Quinn. An almost cross-over! I wonder if Quinn ever reciprocated.

You can read The Half-Haunted at Wikisource, here.

Enjoy, and Happy New Year.


A list (with links) of the winter tales I’ve shared in previous years is on my Winter Tales page.

You can read some of my previous posts about Wellman’s Silver John stories here and here.

The illustration is by Hannes Bok (Wayne Francis Woodard), from the original Weird Tales publication. Image sourced from Wikisource.

You can read Wellman’s “Star for a Warrior” here. The only link I could find for Faulkner’s “An Error in Chemistry” looked a bit sketchy, but the story was reprinted in both The Oxford Book of American Detective Stories and The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century. Tony Hillerman edited both of those collections, and neither one contains “Star for a Warrior,” so obviously Mr. Hillerman did not agree with the judges of that first Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine award.

You can read an account of the great Wellman versus Faulkner showdown at The Passing Tramp blog here and with further details here. The second link is the only version I can find online to the Oregon Literary Review article that The Passing Tramp references.

The third finalist for the EQMM prize that year was T.S. Stribling, who wrote mystery and adventure for the pulp magazines, and serious novels about the American South. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1933 for his novel The Store. His story was called “Count Jalacki goes Fishing,” from the September 1946 issue of EQMM.

The Magic Shop

One last winter tales post before Christmas Day! The tradition calls for ghost stories on Christmas Eve, and I’ve given you a few, but I can’t resist posting something a little more upbeat just before the big day. And don’t worry, there will be more spooky stories after Christmas Day, all the way up until Epiphany.

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Today’s tale is “The Magic Shop” by the great science fiction writer H.G. Wells (1866-1946). It’s a story that manages to be simultaneously sweet and unsettling, and so it feels like the perfect blend of Christmas cheer and winter tale spookiness.

The narrator and his son happen upon a wonderful magic shop — one that the narrator hadn’t remembered as being quite in that place.

“Our larger tricks, and our daily provisions and all the other things we want, we get out of that hat. . . And you know, sir, if you’ll excuse my saying it, there isn’t a wholesale shop, not for Genuine Magic goods, sir. I don’t know if you noticed our inscription–the Genuine Magic shop.” He drew a business-card from his cheek and handed it to me. “Genuine,” he said, with his finger on the word, and added, “There is absolutely no deception, sir.”

Genuine Magic? Of course not. Is it? A lovely little tale, with just a hint of darkness at the end.

You can read The Magic Shop here.

And for a bonus (since it’s two evenings until Christmas morning), I’ll repeat another little fable that I shared the year I first started sharing winter tales: “A Kidnapped Santa Claus” by Frank L. Baum (1856-1919), author of The Wizard of Oz.

Santa Claus lives in the Laughing Valley, where stands the big, rambling castle in which his toys are manufactured. His workmen, selected from the ryls, knooks, pixies and fairies, live with him, and every one is as busy as can be from one year’s end to another.

It is called the Laughing Valley because everything there is happy and gay. The brook chuckles to itself as it leaps rollicking between its green banks; the wind whistles merrily in the trees; the sunbeams dance lightly over the soft grass, and the violets and wild flowers look smilingly up from their green nests. To laugh one needs to be happy; to be happy one needs to be content. And throughout the Laughing Valley of Santa Claus contentment reigns supreme.

But near the Laughing Valley lie the Caves of the Daemons, and the Daemons are jealous of Christmas cheer. So they plot to kidnap Santa before he can deliver his toys on Christmas Eve.

You can read A Kidnapped Santa Claus here.

Enjoy.

A Merry Christmas to all of you who celebrate it, and a beautiful day to all of you who don’t. I’ll be back with more winter tales to end the year, soon.


A list (with links) of the winter tales I’ve shared in previous years is on my Winter Tales page.

Image: Advertising poster for magician Zan Zig, 1899. Source: Wikipedia

The Kit-Bag

Today’s winter tale comes from English ghost story writer Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951): “The Kit-Bag.”

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What happened afterwards that night happened, of course, to a man already excited by fear, and was perceived by a mind that had not the full and proper control, therefore, of the senses. Outwardly, Johnson remained calm and master of himself to the end, pretending to the very last that everything he witnessed had a natural explanation, or was merely delusions of his tired nerves.

Blackwood is perhaps best known for his short stories “The Wendigo” and “The Willows,” two examples of what you might call “nature-horror” (and they are also quite close to folk horror). Many of Blackwood’s stories are about the tension between the splendor of Nature and its capacity — even willingness — to harm. This idea of Nature as implacable and terrifying is very much like Lovecraft’s “cosmic horror,” in that it suggests the the awful things that lurk just beyond our known human world. To me, Blackwood’s treatment of this theme is even more effective than Lovecraft’s. Blackwood also wrote a series of short stories about the occult investigator Dr. John Silence, which I very much like.

“The Kit-Bag,” though, is a classic ghost story, in the M. R. James or E. F. Benson vein. Johnson works for a law firm that has just won the acquittal (by insanity) of an especially vicious murderer. Worn out by the case, and obsessed by the killer’s evil face, Johnson plans to recover by spending his Christmas holiday in the Alps. Assuming he manages to finish packing for his trip.

You can read The Kit-Bag here.

The kit-bag referred to in this story is a sack-shaped heavy canvas bag that opens at the top. It often has brass rings along the open end to thread a drawstring, or a bar for carrying the bag. It was commonly used by the military, for sports, or for rugged outdoor travel in the early twentieth century. It holds a lot, but it looks rather awkward to transport. I’ll take a backpack over a kit-bag, any day.

239px The four millionth British soldier to be demobilised Rifleman John Neale of the King s Royal Rifles leaves his unit in Brussels 9 February 1946 BU12271

Enjoy.


A list (with links) of the winter tales I’ve shared in previous years is on my Winter Tales page.

Bottom photo: Rifleman John Neale of the King’s Royal Rifles, leaves his unit in Brussels, 9 February 1946. Source: Wikipedia