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.
The Mark of the Shadow Grove, by Ross Smeltzer
Fantasy Works Publishing
This is a trio of linked novellas about three generations of women in the Schermerhorn family — witches all, whether they realize it or not — and the mysterious forces that they serve. The stories feel heavily influenced by Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, as well as Robert E. Howard’s King in Yellow, with a touch of Mike Mignola. The beings who are the masters and mistresses of the Schermerhorn witches are like Lovecraft’s “Old Ones,” in that they are from “out there”: the cosmos, the farthest reaches of space and time:
Void-born yet conceived by a man’s words and in a man’s dreams.
A plus for me is that Smeltzer also grounds these beings in aspects of various world mythologies, giving the work a more folk horror flavor than Lovecraft’s or Howard’s work tends to have. I like this; I think the “cosmic horror” that this genre of literature tries to evoke is more visceral when it’s grounded in something that the reader can connect with, in some way. That something might be the terrible, almost malicious, indifference of nature, as in some of Algernon Blackwood’s stories. Or it can be mythology, an existing mythology that gives an author a great source of hugely powerful beings to tell his or her stories around, rather than having to create a new mythology whole cloth.
Smeltzer pulls from a variety of mythological sources, and he has fun: there’s one gloriously, awesomely ridiculous theory that one of the characters puts forward, linking the headgear of the Egyptian Pharaohs with the worship of psychotropic mushrooms! I kid you not.
It’s also nice to see Lovecraftian-style horror with prominent female protagonists, particularly in the second story, “Lord of All High and Hidden Places.” The first and third stories do have male narrators, but they play more the roles of pawns than protagonists in the narrative.
Smeltzer has written the stories, all first-person, in voices that echo Lovecraft’s style and language patterns — he even gets the word eldritch into the second paragraph of the book. This voice is either a plus or a minus, depending on your tastes; I’m not a big fan of Lovecraft’s breathless prose. It’s a natural stylistic choice, though, given the subject matter.
There are some passages of striking imagery scattered throughout. I especially liked some of the dream sequences early in the first story, “The Witch of Kinderhook:”
[In my dream] I watched as my hand became affixed to the slit in the tree’s bark. I could not withdraw myself from it, and moments later it was warped into an open mouth—a maw lined with jagged, uneven teeth. I watched myself from above, wholly helpless, as I was swallowed whole by the gulping, hungry hole in the grey tree-skin. I watched myself melting into the mouth, being liquefied in the tree’s fibrous insides like sugar in tea. I awoke, startled and shivering.
A vivid, and nicely horrible image, I think.
The three stories are tightly enough linked that you could call the whole thing a novel, of the short story cycle variety. The book closes with a dramatic, very Lovecraftian scene with a nice momentum as it rushes along to the inevitable conclusion.
If you are looking for new, more folklorically influenced variations of the Lovecraftian genre, then check out The Mark of the Shadow Grove.
Antique Dust: Ghost Stories by Robert Westall
If M.R. James had been an antique dealer instead of an antiquarian, these might be the stories he would have written. Originally published in 1989, Antique Dust is apparently the only book that Children’s/Young Adult author Robert Westall wrote specifically for adults (though any really good children’s or young adult book can be good reading for adults, as well). It is another collection of loosely linked short stories, mostly narrated by antique dealer Geoff Ashden.
Dealers are undertakers of a sort. When a man dies, the undertaker comes for the body, and the dealer comes for the rest. I deal in dead men’s clocks, pipes and swords. Passing through my hands, they give off joy, loneliness, fear… I have known more evil in a set of false teeth than in any so-called haunted house in England.
Ashden also has a knack for stumbling on the supernatural, so he understands better than most what M.R. James called “The Malice of Inanimate Objects” in a brutal little short story of the same name. Not all the haunted objects in these stories are malicious, exactly, although the creepy title object in “The Doll” certainly is — as you would expect from a doll in a ghost story. The clock in “The Devil and Clocky Watson”, and the glasses in “The Woolworth Spectacles” aren’t really malicious, but more just the products of their circumstance. Of those two stories, my favorite is”The Woolworth Spectacles,” which is a sly and funny piece, with a dark twist.
We get some haunted locales as well, including, of course, a church, in the most James-like of the stories, “The Last Days of Miss Dorinda Molyneaux.” This story has some truly horrifying touches — the last scene in the church, especially — some adorable misbehaving young boys, and an interesting police sergeant who I think deserves his own book.”The Ugly House” isn’t exactly haunted — yet… or is it? But it is the home of a cunning-man: a folk healer and magician, what they would call a curandero or mananambal or granny woman in other places. Not a very nice cunning-man, either. “Portland Bill,” on the tip of Portland Island, is haunted, and there may be a strain in Ashden’s marriage that leaves him vulnerable to the ghost.
The collection includes one non-supernatural story, “The Dumbledore,” about love triangles and World War II. It’s also a ghost story, but the ghosts are the metaphorical, lost love, what-might-have-been kind.
Unlike James’ short stories, which are generally centered around an artifact or some particular aspect of folklore that James wanted to evoke (and I love James’ stories), the stories in Antique Dust are about people. People who happen to encounter something strange. Because they are the centers of the story, the characters and their environment are fully fleshed out. My in-laws were antiquers, as was Westall, and the casual familiarity with the finer points of “old things,” the haggling and scheming and competition that are part of the antique trade, all ring true to me. We also get a well drawn portrait of Ashden over the course of the stories: his personality, his weaknesses (he likes the ladies), and his jealousies.
If you are a fan of M.R. James and the classic English ghost stories, then I’d definitely recommend Antique Dust.
All Soul’s Night: Stories by Hugh Walpole
Hugh Walpole, though he is little known today, was apparently the Stephen King of the 1920s and 1930s. Not necessarily in subject matter: he wrote in many genres, including the macabre. But he was, like King, an immensely popular novelist. And he wrote a lot: between 1909 and 1941 he wrote thirty-six novels, five volumes of short stories, two original plays and three volumes of memoir. And (perhaps like King?) the critics disdained his work, at least toward the end of his life. All Soul’s Night is a collection of sixteen of his macabre (but not always supernatural) tales.
I have to confess: I haven’t finished the collection yet, and I’m not sure when, or whether, I will.
It’s not because the storytelling or the writing is bad. His style is a bit precious for my taste in places, but I don’t dislike it so much that it stops me from reading. It’s more the mood that his stories (the ones that I’ve read so far) put me in.
I remember telling a friend how much I liked Annie Proulx’s several collections of her Wyoming Stories (of which “Brokeback Mountain” is the most famous). My friend just shook her head.
“I can’t read her,” she said. “I know when I read her stories that they’re good — that the writing is good. But there’s never a happy ending. Everything she writes is just so… depressing.”
I see her point, though I find Proulx’s tales melancholy and beautiful, rather than depressing. But Walpole’s stories, so far, strike me the way Proulx’s writing strikes my friend. His sad endings, and even the one happy ending that I’ve read so far: they’re all so, so, bleak.
But they are powerful. “The Silver Mask,” one of the non-supernatural stories, was disturbing and, yes, frightening, in its depiction of an older woman, alone in the world, who is liked by everyone but loved by no one. Her own loneliness and innate generosity lead her into a situation where she’s exploited and trapped in her own home, and none of her “friends” notice her absence. No one really misses her, or cares enough to check up on her. That’s true horror, and it hits a nerve. The story reminds me of Truman Capote’s “Miriam”, a story with a similar plot that is terrifying for all the same reasons. “Miriam” is disturbing, but somehow doesn’t leave me as unpleasantly unsettled as “The Silver Mask” does.
“The Snow” seems at first like a classic, almost clichéd ghost story: the ghost of devoted First Wife punishes emotionally abusive Second Wife for making Beloved Husband so miserable. Except it’s strongly implied that the jealous First Wife is also the cause, somehow, of Second Wife’s unreasonable behavior. Second Wife can’t control her actions and emotions, though she tries. And she fails. And is punished for her failure. It’s really messed up.
I don’t insist that ghosts always be agents of Karma. I’m okay in principle with stories of people who come to supernatural bad ends through no malice on their part — M.R. James wrote a few of those, as did many others. But the ending of “The Snow” tasted sour to me, and left me deeply dissatisfied.
Then there’s “The Ruby Glass,” which should have been a cute little (non-supernatural) story of a boy and his dog. It technically has a happy ending, but also left me with a sense of injustice at the way things get resolved. I was left with this same feeling with some of the other stories as well, but you get the idea. I know real life isn’t always fair, but when you read so many stories in a row that make you feel this way….
On the other hand, if the purpose of art is to disturb, to unsettle, then these stories are successful. Too successful? Or maybe exactly the right amount.
I’ll probably dip into this collection again someday, but for now, I’m leaving it alone.
A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales by Chris Woodyard
I’ve been following Chris Woodyard’s various social media personas (on Twitter, Mrs Daffodil on Facebook, Mrs Daffodil Digresses blog, Killer Budgie blog) for a while, but I only picked up this collection recently, on a whim. Such fun! Woodyard, who lives in Ohio and writes the Haunted Ohio and Ghosts of the Past book series, grew up reading M.R. James, Saki, Conan Doyle and other writers of the “Golden Age” of English ghost stories. These four stories are set in that time and place: Victorian/Edwardian England.
“Property of a Lady,” my favorite, concerns one Arthur Simms, mousey bachelor and expert on ancient sculpture, particularly from Asia. He is also, in some circles, “a well-respected collector of smut.” Antiquarian smut, of course. One day Mr. Simms acquires a certain interesting, ancient, erotic device. And a mysterious lady badly wants it back. “Property of a Lady” isn’t a scary story at all, but it’s sweet and spicy and funny and just all-around delightful.
“Stitches” and “Crape” come from Ms. Woodyard’s interest in Victorian costume, and are both good, solid ghost stories in the classic tradition.
The title story isn’t supernatural; it’s about Mrs. Daffodil, a hyper-efficient housekeeper in a “great house” who will stop at nothing — and I mean nothing — to protect The Family. The story is also a lot of fun, very black comedy, though at some point all the murderous high-jinks got to be too much of a good thing. I did like the little reference to “A Warning to the Curious” that the author slipped in.
The collection ends with a teaser for Woodyard’s next collection, with the start of a story called “Suction,” which is apparently about a possessed vacuum cleaner. That collection never came out, but I just discovered the completed “Suction” on Mrs. Daffodil’s blog. Given my housekeeping (non)skills, this is a story just for me. Off to read it now!
A Spot of Bother — a lot of fun. Recommended.
Top image: A Woman Reading, Claude Monet (1872) Source: WikiArt.