Women Writers of Folklore and the Fantastic: Zen Cho

Another contemporary addition to my Women Writers of Folklore and Fantasy series: England-based Malaysian-born author Zen Cho. She writes science fiction and fantasy, and as she puts it herself, “stories positing that what the ordinary Malaysian believes about the world is true. This can sometimes lapse into the supernatural.” What a great quote!

Zen Cho, photo by Jim C. Hines
Zen Cho
Photo by Jim C. Hines

I had been planning (and still am) to pick up Cho’s latest work, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, which sounds awesome, but then I discovered an ebook copy of her 2014 short story collection Spirits Abroad in my virtual To Read pile, so I started with that. I loved it! Why did it take me so long to get to it?

I saw Ms. Cho refer to this collection on Twitter as being “10 out of 10 on the Malaysian scale” (when compared to her other writings), and it certainly feels like a collection of stories aimed at Malaysian readers. The characters speak Manglish (Malaysian-English), and generally the Malaysian vocabulary and references to clothing or food go unexplained. I personally prefer this (as I’ve written before); the meanings and connotations are clear from context, and if you are really curious about some particular article of clothing or whatnot, well there’s always the internet.

Spirits Abroad, by Zen Cho

What drew me to the collection is that the stories in Spirits Abroad are full of the creatures of Malaysian folklore (or its “lower mythology,” as Filipino folklorist Maximo D. Ramos called it), as well as figures from Chinese mythology: hantu, pontianaks, orang bunian, hungry ghosts, and so on. I didn’t recognize all the creatures, at least not under their Malaysian names, but Filipino lower mythology is sufficiently similar to Malaysian lower mythology that several of the creatures and their habits felt familiar. And of course some aspects of Malaysian culture and food and so on feel a bit “Filipino-adjacent” as well, which was nice.

I really like the humor in Cho’s writing, as her characters confront the ordinary travails of life — family relationships, friendships, love and dating, school — all complicated by various, often unwelcome supernatural twists. The dialogue crackles naturalistically, the characters are quirky, well-drawn and endearing (when they’re supposed to be), the relationships feel authentic. In fact, I was surprised how familiar the families in the stories felt to me, especially the feisty aunties and grandmas.

The ebook version of Spirits Abroad contains additional stories and other bonus material not included in the print version, so I recommend you get that. I enjoyed all the stories, but here are a few that stood out for me:

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Women Writers of Folklore and the Fantastic: Theo Douglas

Today’s authoress of the fantastic is Henrietta Dorothy Everett (1851-1923), who wrote under the name Theo Douglas. Though mostly forgotten today, she wrote some 22 novels, at least half of which were fantastical or supernatural. There isn’t a lot known about her life, but from the descriptions in both the Encyclopedia of Fantasy and Wikipedia, her novels look worth digging up, if you are into quirky pulpish stuff [1].

The Death Mask book cover
Book cover for the first edition of The Death Mask (1920). Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Today, however, I’ll talk about Everett’s ghost stories, mostly collected in The Death Mask and Other Ghosts (1920), published under her real name. The Death Mask drew notice from both M. R. James (“of a rather quieter tone on the whole, but with some excellently conceived stories”[2]) and H. P. Lovecraft (“though adhering to very old and conventional models, [she] occasionally reaches singular heights of spiritual terror”[3]).

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Library Police: A Novel Crime Fiction Genre

Reading two different takes on libraries, crime, and the 1970s.

I tripped over an interesting collection while browsing the Wildside Press website: The Library Fuzz Megapack, James Holding’s series of short stories about Hal Johnson, the “Library Fuzz.” That’s right, he’s library police for the Grandhaven Public Library, in a smallish city that seems to be modeled on Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.[1] His job is to track down stolen and overdue books, and collect fines.

The Library Fuzz Megapack, by James Holding

As someone who more than once has put a hold on a checked-out book at my local library, only to eventually discover that said book has disappeared, this concept resonates with me. I’m lucky; I can afford to buy books that I can’t get from the library, but not everyone can. And often the book I asked for is older, out of print, and relatively obscure, so even money doesn’t help; the book can’t be easily purchased, and information has simply been lost. So, while I appreciate that it isn’t a good look these days for cops to go door to door, demanding the return of overdue books and collecting late fees (which is what Hal Johnson does–politely), I have to admit that I like the idea of libraries having their own police to recover stolen books. I suspect more than a few librarians feel the same.

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Agatha Christie’s Supernatural(ish) Writings

Covering two supernatural-inflected Agatha Christie collections, The Last Seance and The Mysterious Mr. Quin.

Long before I was into ghost stories, I was into detective and crime fiction. I grew up reading old paperback anthologies from Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock, and I read a lot of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers: everything my local library had. But it’s been years since I’ve read anything by either Christie or Sayers, or that style of “body in the library” detective fiction, in general.

The Last Seance - Agatha Christie

Christie and Sayers began their writing careers in the period between the two World Wars, a period when the English ghost story also proliferated. It’s not surprising that both authors tried their hand at supernatural tales. While I’d come across a few of Christie’s ghost stories amongst her short story collections, it was before I was as widely read in the supernatural literature of the period as I am now. So it was interesting to read the recent Christie collection, The Last Seance: Tales of the Supernatural, now that I’m more familiar with the landscape of ghost stories written about the same time.

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Reading Guilt is a Ghost

Full disclosure: Tim kindly sent me a review copy of this book.

The executive summary: Guilt is a Ghost is a fine second offering in the adventures of ghost hunter Vera Van Slyke and her assistant Lucille Parsell (nee Ludmila Prasilova).

Guilt is a ghost cover 1

The operative phrase is second offering: I’m honestly not sure what a reader’s reaction would be if this were the first Vera Van Slyke book they read. (Tim Prasil apparently disagrees with me). Having read Help for the Haunted first (my review here), I came into Guilt is a Ghost familiar with the two main characters, and already quite fond of them. And that’s good, because I feel there is less characterization of Vera and her friendship with Lucille in this book than there was in the previous one.

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The Boris Karloff Horror Anthology

Covering the third of Boris Karloff’s three anthologies of dark tales.

The Boris Karloff Horror Anthology, first published in 1965, is rather different from Karloff’s previous two anthologies. Tales of Terror and And the Darkness Falls were both collaborations with Karloff’s friend, the editor Edmund Speare. Both those anthologies highlighted stories that, while macabre, could mostly be considered “mainstream” or “literary” tales from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Boris Karloff Horror Anthology, on the other hand, has more of a pulp magazine feel, and features almost all stories from the mid-twentieth century (nothing earlier than 1936; Table of Contents here). The one exception is Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” which is included because John Jake’s story “The Opener of the Crypt” is a sequel to Poe’s classic tale.

Boris Karloff, Date unknown
Source: Dr. Macro’s High Quality Movie Scans

This difference raises a number of possibilities about the editorship of the anthologies:

  1. Speare had more to do with the editing of the first two anthologies than one might think.
  2. Karloff had less to do with the editing of the third anthology than one might think.
  3. Karloff’s tastes, and his thoughts on the definition of terror, had evolved in the intervening two decades.
  4. Some combination of the above.

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Karloff’s And the Darkness Falls

Covering the second of Boris Karloff’s three anthologies of dark tales.

And the Darkness Falls is the second anthology of “terror tales” edited by Boris Karloff (with Edmund Speare’s assistance). It was published in 1946 by World Publishing, apparently to coincide with the release of the film Bedlam, Karloff’s third and final collaboration with producer Val Lewton (Cat People). While Tales of Terror is an anthology of mostly ghost stories, about half the stories in And the Darkness Falls have no supernatural element, but are naturalistic tales of the macabre. Reading it reminded me a little of an old Alfred Hitchcock anthology. This is not a bad thing; the Alfred Hitchcock paperbacks put out by Dell in the ’60s and ’70s were a staple at my local library when I was growing up, and I adored them.

Boris Karloff

And the Darkness Falls is a more ambitious and eclectic anthology than Tales of Terror: a whopping 69 stories and poems (Table of Contents here), each with a brief introduction by Karloff that gives biographical information about the author, and often a short rationale for the story’s selection, or its thematic connections with other stories in the book. The main criterion for inclusion in the anthology seems to be that the story be in some way dark. Karloff and Speare interpret the idea of dark broadly, leading to an interesting and diverse selection of tales. Karloff also wrote a short introduction to the entire anthology.

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Boris Karloff, Terror Tale Anthologist

Covering the first of Boris Karloff’s three anthologies of dark tales.

Some time in the early 1940s, Boris Karloff was approached by his friend Dr. Edmund Speare, editor for Pocket Books and Knopf, as well as the author of several books of literary criticism and editor of World’s Great Short Stories; Masterpieces of American, English and Continental Literature (World Publishing, 1942). Speare pitched to Karloff the idea of “a collection of bogey stories selected by a professional bogey man” — Karloff. The deal was for Speare to gather the first round of candidate stories, and for Karloff to winnow them down for the final selection, as well as to write the introduction to the anthology. The result was Tales of Terror, released by World Publishing in 1943 with Karloff credited as editor.

Boris Karloff, House of Frankenstein (1944)
Boris Karloff, Publicity shot for House of Frankenstein, 1944. Source: IMDB

Tales of Terror collects fourteen tales, most of them quite well known by aficionados of the genre today, though perhaps they were less well known at the time (Table of Contents here). The collection is still a fine introduction to some classics of the genre for newcomers, but the real delight is Karloff’s introduction. Reading it (I like to imagine Karloff’s deep distinctive voice while doing so), we learn of Karloff’s distinction between terror and horror. To Karloff, horror carries a connotation of revulsion; the gory, the grisly, the Grand Guignol: that’s horror. The basis of terror, on the other hand, is simply fear: “fear of the unknown and the unknowable.” I’ve read elsewhere that Karloff preferred to call his own films “terror films” rather than “horror films” for this same reason.

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Reading The Ghosts of Birds

I confess: I picked this up in the bookstore because it had “ghosts” in the title. But I didn’t put it down when I saw that it was a book of essays, and I’m glad I didn’t. I wasn’t familiar with Eliot Weinberger before this, and I’m a better person for having discovered him.

Weinberger ghosts of birds

Eliot Weinberger is an essayist, political commentator, editor, and translator of Latin American and Chinese literature. This particular volume has two parts. The first part “continues his linked serial-essay An Elemental Thing” (note to self: pick up the first part of the serial-essay), and the second part collects various book reviews and essays originally written as introductions to other people’s works. The first part is wondrous. The second part is quite enjoyable, too.

Reading “The Story of Adam and Eve” was a revelation for me. In it, Weinberger reconstructs the story of what happened to Adam and Eve (and later, to Cain) after they were expelled from the Garden, based on several extant versions of the story (Greek, Latin, Slavonic, Georgian, Armenian). Not only is in an interesting tale in itself, but I felt like I had just discovered the ideal that I’ve been striving for in the retellings of folktale and myth that I attempt from time to time on this blog. It’s an ideal that I’ll likely never achieve, but now I have a conscious image in my head of what I’m trying to reach.

And then it gets even better; I have more literary goals to strive for.

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Reading Glimpses of the Unknown

A collection of Golden Age ghost stories that will be all brand-new to most readers.

I had been planning to post one more winter tale, but I just finished this anthology from the British Library Tales of the Weird series, and I enjoyed it so much that I decided to write about it instead.

glimpses of the unknown

In Glimpses of the Unknown: Lost Ghost Stories, editor Mike Ashley has compiled eighteen previously unrepublished supernatural tales from British periodicals and magazines of the period between the 1890s to the end of the 1920s. Some of the stories are from writers who were well-known during the period but forgotten now; some are from writers who were relatively obscure (and possibly pseudonymous) even at the time. The jewel of the collection is a previously uncollected ghost story by E. F. Benson, written for the London Evening News in 1928. It’s a pleasant surprise, and quite a coup for the editor.

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