Another Budget of Book Reviews

Reading

October has always been a busy month for me, which is why I’ve been not so vigilant about blogging — I’ll get back to my Hummingbird Folklore series, promise! But I’ve still been reading. In time for Halloween (and rolling into Winter Tales season), here’s my take on three excellent short story anthologies that I finished recently. Continue reading

Aura and Constancia: Ghost Stories from Carlos Fuentes

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I’m on a Carlos Fuentes kick right now. A Latin American kick, really, but Fuentes seemed like a good place to start, if for no other reason than I’ve been meaning to read The Crystal Frontier for a while, and because I recently read an excerpt from Terra Nostra that blew me away (and another one that, unfortunately, really didn’t). Of course, being me, I didn’t actually start with The Crystal Frontier, but with the 1962 short novel Aura, relatively unknown to English-language readers, but arguably Fuentes’ most popular work among the Spanish-language reading public, and one that a Mexican blogger once wrote me was his favorite of Fuentes’ “horror stories.” Oh, and look: there on my bookshelf, patient and forgotten, is the collection Constancia, and other stories for virgins (1989) — I don’t go down my to-be-read pile in the order of purchase, and, well, sometimes things fall through the cracks. Or off my bedside table, as the case may be.

So, Aura first, Constancia next. This was a fortuitous ordering, because the novella Constancia (the first novella from the collection) is in many ways Aura revisited….

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Reading Pariah Missouri

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Pariah, Missouri – Book 1: Answering the Call
Decade Brothers Studios
Created and Written by Andres Salazar
Pencils by Jose Pescador
Finishes, Coloring, and Letters by Andres Salazar

Writer Andres Salazar contacted me not too long ago, about his new series Pariah, Missouri (Book 1: Answering the Call is due to hit comic book stores this Wednesday, August 28). I don’t normally do on-request reviews, but his supernatural western series sounded fun, and I had a little spare time, so here goes…

First off: this is a beautiful book. Artist Jose Pescador’s detailed yet uncluttered pencils and Salazar’s understated ink washes produce an old-timey, moody, almost noirish feel to the art that matches the story’s era and occult narrative quite well. I like the full-page splash of Marshal Kane, shown above, quite a lot — it’s almost like a woodcut. The use of isolated areas of contrasting colors in otherwise monochromatic panels (Kane’s yellow badge; the boys’ rust-colored trousers) is very effective.

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The narrative setup is fun, too: Pariah is a boom-town along the Missouri River run by a mysterious triad of “founders.” Hiram Buchanan is a young East-coast dandy and grifter who wanders into town, for no apparent reason. Why is he there? Are the sudden disappearances of the town’s Marshal and of two young boys related to a mysterious Punch & Judy show that arrives in town? Buchanan investigates, with the help of the fallen-on-hard-times orphaned daughter of one of the town’s late founders, and several loners with special magical talents…

It’s a good premise, and an interesting, suspenseful story. I like the cast of characters, there’s a lot of juicy drama simmering in the town, and the traveling Punch & Judy show was a nice creepy touch. My one complaint is that it all happens a bit too fast. I wouldn’t have minded if the story had been half again as long to give us more time getting to know the different characters and the town (and the monsters); there’s certainly enough meat here to justify that. For instance, there’s a lot of promise in the Kane character — and yet beyond the (kickass) scene where the splash page above comes from, we hardly see him at all, and he doesn’t really contribute to this episode’s denouement. Hopefully we get more of him in the next book.

And yes, there is a next book: the creators are running a Kickstarter campaign to fund Book 2 ; I’ve contributed, and I’m looking forward to the next chapter.

If you like westerns, supernatural horror, or occult detectives (or better yet, all of the above) — visit your local comic book store (and the Pariah, Missouri Kickstarter campaign) and check it out.

Friday Video: The Wailing Well

It’s the cusp of the long Memorial Day weekend here in the U.S.: the beginning of summer. For most parts of the country, it’s the beginning of cook-out and camping season, too (as Mark Twain noted, summer is the season of fog and mists here in San Francisco). A campfire horror tale seems suitable….

M. R. James wrote the “Wailing Well” for the Eton Boy Scouts in 1927. He read it to the boys around a campfire at their summer camp at Worbarrow Bay in Dorset — strongly implying that the events of the story happened nearby.

David Lilley and Stephen Gray have done a good, spooky adaptation of The Wailing Well (you may remember Stephen Gray’s The Door in the Wall, which I featured on a previous Friday video).

Length: 13 minutes, 6 seconds.

Produced and directed by David Lilley, written by David Lilley and Kevin Norcross. Visual direction by Stephen Gray.

The original story is full of black humor (I love the passage about the life-saving competition) and in-jokes — all the Masters and other adults referred to by name are real people, known to the boys who heard the story. Lilley and Gray’s version is more straight-ahead scares. The film gives more of an explanation of the creatures who haunt the well than the original story, which may or may not be an improvement, depending on your taste for unexplained horrors; I thought it was effective. It also changes the way too perfect, and in my opinion superfluous, character of Arthur Wilcox to the less perfect — and less irritating — but still “good boy” character of Arthur Goode. That was definitely an improvement.

Enjoy.

Marjorie Bowen’s The Bishop of Hell

This is the second of two reviews of Wordsworth collections by women horror writers I’d never read before. The first review, of D.K. Broster, is here.

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Marjorie Bowen is a guilty pleasure.

Walled-in women, “ruined” women, poisoning, strangulation, stabbing, crimes of passion and revenge, even a strange fish monster. The tales in The Bishop of Hell and Other Stories are sensational, pulpy, almost lurid, and occasionally melodramatic. They are very much in the spirit of late 18th and early 19th century gothic fiction. I’d call them over-the-top, but having read actual early gothic literature, I’d have to say that Bowen’s stories are restrained, compared to the real thing.

And I rather like them.

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D.K. Broster’s Couching at the Door

This was one of two collections I found while browsing Borderlands Books a few weeks back, by women horror writers that I’d never read before. How could I resist?

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Dorothy Kathleen Broster is best known for her romantic adventure style historical novels. The Jacobite Trilogy, set in mid-18th century Scotland, are apparently the most famous; according to Belinda Copson, they were quite popular as young adult novels even through the 1990s. The stories in Couching at the Door, all set in contemporary times (that is, some time in the first four decades of the twentieth century) are another thing altogether. They’re rather like Edith Wharton ghost stories: most of them start quietly and ordinarily enough, with hints of the strangeness creeping in slowly; suspenseful, rather than outright scary. I liked them.

The nine stories in the collection are all quite different. Six are supernatural, one (“Juggernaut”) is possibly supernatural, depending on how you interpret it — I prefer a non-supernatural interpretation. Two (possibly three) are what the back cover of the book calls “psychological” stories, about the lengths a person will go for what they love.

The title story tells of a Decadent poet, Augustine Marchant, who has quite a bit of first-hand knowledge of the hedonistic (and occult) topics that he writes about. At first I thought the story was going to be an M.R. James type “icky spider demon” tale: the story opens with a mysterious piece of fluff chasing him around his library and summer-house. But no. All the coy hints, without explicit descriptions, of Marchant’s transgressions — his occult dabblings, his quest for sensation, his “transcendence of morality” — make the story feel like it really was written in 1898 (it was written in the ’30s, I think). Also the titles of Marchant’s works are delicious. The Pomegranates of Sin, anyone? As the story goes on, though, it’s clear that behind the slightly silly references to all this Aleister Crowley business lurks something very dark, from a morality point of view, not just the occult. What Marchant does to exorcise the thing that haunts him is darker yet. Though I do have to admit the ending was just a little (unintentionally) silly, too.

“The Window” and “The Pestering” are straightforward ghost stories, both fun. “The Promised Land” and “The Pavement” are non-supernatural examinations of women without much in their lives, and that little about to be spoiled. “The Pavement” was particularly poignant; “The Promised Land” would have been at home in a golden age issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

“From the Abyss” was an interesting weird tale about a different kind of split personality. Someone in blogland (I can’t remember whom) pointed out the similarity between “From the Abyss” and the movie Carnival of Souls. The resemblance didn’t occur to me when I read the story, but now that’s it’s been pointed out, I can see why someone could think Broster’s story might have influenced Herk Harvey — though it seems unlikely he would have read it. There’s a mention of conflict in the relationship between the narrator and his fiancee. She was (maybe unconsciously) ambivalent about the engagement, but bowed to his pressure, and society’s. Broster wasn’t a feminist writer; her historical novels apparently focused mostly on conflicted friendships between men. But she never married, living many decades with another woman friend, and she was apparently estranged from her family. I can’t help wondering if “From the Abyss” was at least in part her way of dealing with the frustrations of a woman’s position in society at that time.

“Clairvoyance” starts slowly and then bursts into breathless, bloody violence. Its structure reminded me of Saki’s “The Easter Egg“, which also just ambles along and then allofasuddenPOW! Saki’s story is better, but “Clairvoyance” is pretty good, too. It also had some detailed technical discussions (which sounded correct to me, though I’m no expert) about samurai swords; I wonder if Ms. Broster had been researching a planned novel set in Japan? Anyway, I liked the story a lot.

“Juggernaut”, as I mentioned above, can be interpreted either as a ghost story or a psychological tale. It features a respectable late-middle-aged maiden lady who writes pulpy potboilers under a male nom de plume, along with nice dose of writer’s humor. I would totally read Death Swamp or Tiger or Dagger.

Couching at the Door was Broster’s only collection of macabre tales. It was published in 1942, during British wartime paper shortages, and never reprinted. There were also a few macabre stories in Broster’s 1932 short story collection A Fire of Driftwood. Ash Tree Press published twelve of her short stories in hardback, in 2001; I don’t think it’s still in print (and it’s pricey, if it is). I’m hoping that they release it in ebook form, as they have with some of their other titles.

The Wordsworth edition is quite reasonably priced though. Look out for it, and give it a try.

Next up: Marjorie Bowen.


If you are interested in Ms. Broster’s other work, Belinda Copson’s Appreciation at the Collecting Books and Magazines site is a good survey, though a bit old (it was written in 2000).

Friday Video: The Visitor

A short video to enjoy on lunch or coffee break, or after your workday is done:

This is from a series of youtube videos called “Ghost Stories from Japan”. They appear to be short segments from an old TV show; I’m guessing it was done in the ’90s, from the clothing and hair.

I’ve watched several of them; they’re all pretty good, but this one has always scared me the most. Don’t watch it in the dark!

Length: 5 min, 3 sec. Use the CC icon at the bottom of the video if you don’t get the subtitles.

If anyone can tell me what the series is called, please drop a comment below. Enjoy!

Reading The Times Anthology of Ghost Stories

I re-discovered this book in a box in my garage a few weeks ago. I didn’t remember much about it, other than feeling underwhelmed the first time I read it (hence, banishment to the garage). On impulse, I fished the book out of the box and brought it back inside with me. I’m glad I did.

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The book is a collection of thirteen stories selected from several thousand that were submitted to the first Times of London ghost story competition, held in 1975. The competition’s judges included Kingsley Amis, Patricia Highsmith, and actor Christopher Lee. The competition awarded four prizes: a First and Second prize, and two consolation prizes. I don’t know if the judges also selected the additional nine stories that were included in this collection, but whoever did had a good eye. There are two eventually-to-become-notable literary names, neither of whom had published before this contest: Penelope Fitzgerald and Julian Barnes.

The book improved for me on this second reading. I suspect that when I read the book the first time around, my idea of “ghost story” was fairly narrow, colored mostly by pulp fiction, a la the classic Weird Tales magazine. The stories in this collection, for the most part, are not like that: there are fewer twist endings, and relatively little classic horror. Since then, my ghost story reading has expanded, especially after I discovered the editor Ellen Datlow and her anthologies. I’m in a better position now to properly appreciate the Times anthology. Also, this time around, I found myself making connections with other “real life” phenomena that maybe influenced the stories, which added to the fun.

It looks like The Times still runs that competition, but a casual google search didn’t turn up subsequent anthologies. If you can find this collection, and you’re also an Ellen Datlow fan, I definitely think you should give it a try. Here a few stories that caught my eye, in no particular order.

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A Silent Film Frankenstein

Just a quick one today. The Durmoose Movie Musings blog is running a 31 Days of Halloween mini-blog-film-fest, which I plan to follow as much as I have time to (luckily, it looks like he’s going mostly for shorts). Since his second offering was The Golem (which I recently posted about), obviously he’s got good taste….

His first offering was the 100 year old silent version of Frankenstein, produced by Edison Studios. Those of us who are familiar with Frankenstein mostly through film or television versions tend to define the monster by Boris Karloff’s flat-headed, stitched-together interpretation. And we think of the monster’s creation in terms of James Whale’s Tesla (and Der Golem) inspired electric lab. So it’s interesting to see the Edison version, where Dr. Frankenstein creates the monster by mixing together a bunch of herbs (well, probably chemicals, but I like to think that they’re herbs) and tossing them into a cauldron that I assume holds the body to be animated, and then letting it simmer. It’s like Macbeth’s witches.

The “come-to-life” scene is pretty cool, and there are some cute 1910-era special effects at the end involving mirrors. Mirrors are a big motif in this movie. And best of all — for the busy — it’s only fifteen minutes long.

So enjoy.

If perchance you’d like to enjoy this on your own device, rather than youtube, the movie is public domain and available at archive.org. Also, if you have more than fifteen minutes, please do also enjoy James Whale’s definitive 1931 version of movie Frankenstein. There’s a version (with Spanish subtitles), on Vimeo.

The Hands of Orlac

Inspired by the comments section from my last post, I’m continuing the “murderous hands” theme with Robert Wiene’s 1924 silent film, The Hands of Orlac, the story of a concert pianist whose hands are destroyed in a terrible train accident. He receives the transplanted hands of an executed murderer as replacements, but rather than play the piano, these hands apparently want to continue the bad habits of their previous owner… .

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I liked it — a lot. I liked it even better than Wiene’s more famous film, the 1920 Expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (which I also watched the same evening that I watched Orlac).

Caligari, in addition to its Expressionist credentials, is considered by many to be the first horror movie. Orlac, despite its plot, is not a horror movie, but proto-noir. The German Expressionist filmmakers had a big influence on the style of what became film noir (and also on the content of noir, with movies like M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse); you can really see this in Orlac‘s play of light and shadow.

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Expressionist film (the Expressionist movement in general) focused on subjective, emotional reality rather than physical reality; to convey this inner reality, Expressionist filmmakers and actors borrowed technique from dance, theater, and the visual arts. Caligari, for instance, is famous for its weird, surreal sets, with their crooked perspectives and their painted-on splashes of light and shadow, as well as for its fantastical costuming and makeup. Orlac relied more on lighting, on artful scene arrangements and framing, and on sets that were more theatrical than naturalistic (though not surreal).  It reminded me of Akira Kurosawa.

Kurosawa played with techniques from Noh and Kabuki theater, most famously in his stylized 1957 version of Macbeth, Throne of Blood, but also in his early (1945) film The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail, which is based on the Kabuki play Kanjinchō, which is in turn based on the Noh play Ataka, about the twelfth century warrior Minamoto no Yoshitsune. In Tiger’s Tail you can already see the hallmarks of the Kurosawa style: the posed tableaus and geometrical arrangements of actors, as well as the digressions into folk or classical song and dance so common in his Samurai pictures. The sets in those two movies were fairly theatrical, too — probably for budget reasons, with Tiger’s Tail. Think, also, of the bare white sands of the courtyard where witnesses gave testimony in Rashomon (I think he used that same courtyard for the penultimate scene of Hidden Fortress, too), and the Gondos’ wide, clean living room in High and Low.

AsajiLady Macbeth, I mean Asaji, tries to wash the blood off her hands, in Throne of Blood. “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!”
Note actress Isuzu Yamada’s facial expression and exaggerated makeup, which together are meant to suggest a classic Noh mask.
You can watch the entire clip here; it’s tremendous.

But maybe I’m only reminded of  Kurosawa because I watch so much of him. Anyway. Back to Orlac. Continue reading