A Budget of Book Reviews, February 2017

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Time for another budget of (mostly ebook this time) reviews, featuring ghosts and scholars, mythological creatures and occult detectives. Really, the only thematic commonality here is that I’ve read all these books (and one magazine) recently.

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The Houseboat

One last ghost story to end this winter tale season: a haunted houseboat tale by Richard Marsh, best known as the author of The Beetle, and grandfather of Robert Aickman.

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“The Houseboat” isn’t really a winter tale, but it is a good companion piece to my previous post, Christmas Eve an a Haunted Hulk. As in Cowper’s story, this is a mostly auditory haunting.

Eric and Violet Millen have rented a houseboat, the Water Lily, for a month’s vacation. Their dinner guest, Mr. Inglis, recognizes the Water Lily from its previous incarnation as the Sylph:

“Two years ago there was a houseboat on the river called the Sylph. It belonged to a man named Hambro. He lent it to a lady and a gentleman. She was rather a pretty woman, with a lot of fluffy, golden hair. He was a quiet unassuming-looking man, who looked as though he had something to do with horses. I made their acquaintance on the river. One evening he asked me on board to dine. I sat, as I believe, on this very chair, at this very table. Three days afterwards they disappeared.”

Well, the gentleman disappeared at any rate. They found the lady’s body — on the Sylph.

I particularly like this story for Violet Millen: plucky and courageous and a natural occult detective. She handles this unusual situation almost eagerly, and much better than her husband Eric, who is a bit priggish and mostly wants to believe that the whole affair is a bad case of indigestion. A fun, suspenseful story.

You can read “The Houseboat” here.

Enjoy.


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

Image courtesy of Pearson Scott Foresman. Source: Wikimedia.

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.

Reading Help for the Haunted

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EDIT 8/31/17: The Emby press edition of Help for the Haunted has unfortunately gone out of print. So Tim will be printing all 13 stories from the collection, one a month in chronological order, at his blog, starting 9/1/17.


When I realized who the ghost was in the first story of Tim Prasil’s new collection Help for the Haunted, I knew I was in for a good time.

The rest of the volume didn’t disappoint. Help for the Haunted is a fun collection of linked short stories, based around a creative theory as to why ghosts are able to return to the plane of the living, and a cute way of detecting these crossovers. Within that framework fall all manner of ghosts and manifestations; every story offers a different kind.

The tales are tightly enough coupled and have enough progression that I’m tempted to categorize the book as a “short story cycle” style novel. The narrator is Tim’s great-grandaunt Lida Prasilova, writing about her adventures with early twentieth century muckraker journalist and occult detective Vera Van Slyke. I love the rapport between Vera and Lida. They’re like a beer-drinking, ghost-hunting Holmes and Watson, if Holmes and Watson were American women.

Like Holmes, Vera’s mind is dedicated wholly to the information she needs for her job. She’s not much for literature (classical or popular), and she’s hilariously bad with names. She doesn’t have much to do with the opposite sex, mostly I think because they can’t handle her. Lida was a fraudulent medium, whom Vera unmasked. She agrees to help Vera with her exposé of the Spiritualism industry, Spirits Shouldn’t Sneeze (what a great title), and eventually becomes Vera’s assistant — and dearest friend.

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Trese: A Filipina Occult Detective Comics Series

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When the sun sets in the city of Manila, don’t you dare make a wrong turn and end up in that dimly-lit side of the metro, where aswang run the most-wanted kidnapping rings, where kapre are the kingpins of crime, and engkantos slip through the cracks and steal your most precious possessions.

When crime takes a turn for the weird, the police call Alexandra Trese.

One of the things I did over the long Memorial Day weekend was read all the Trese comic books I could get my hands on (since I’m in the U.S., that isn’t very many). Alexandra Trese is a mysterious woman who owns a nightclub called The Diabolical and investigates supernatural crime in Manila. Budjette Tan has been writing the series since (I believe) 2005. It’s tremendously popular, and I can see why.

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The Searcher of the End House

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William Hope Hodgson is possibly best known for the disturbing-on-so-many-levels novel The House on the Borderland (1908). He was a prolific writer of early weird fantasy and horror, and admired by many of his contemporaries, including H.P. Lovecraft.

What I know him best for, in addition to The House on the Borderland, are his short stories about the occult detective Thomas Carnacki. The Carnacki stories are notable among occult detective series, in that the alleged haunting that Carnacki is investigating will sometimes have a non-supernatural cause. It’s a bit like Scooby Doo meets Dr. Hesselius.

And like Dr. Hesselius, Carnacki takes a scientific approach to occult investigation. I like the Carnacki series, but I must confess that I’m not a big fan of Hodgson’s pseudo-scientific jargon. Carnacki’s chief reference is the fictional Sigsand Manuscript, which he quotes from in faux-Early English. There are numerous obscure references to the Saaamaaa Ritual, and passing, unexplained mentions Saiitii-type manifestations, and Aeiirii-type ones… rereading a few of the stories recently, I came across a scene where Carnacki recognizes an utterance of the “Unknown Last Line of the Saaamaaa Ritual” (but, but — how can he recognize it if it’s unknown??). I had to laugh.

The story I’ve picked for tonight’s winter tale is “The Searcher of the End House”, which takes place early in Carnacki’s career and is low on the technical jargon, but rich in good old-fashioned investigation. The Carnacki stories are narrated after the fact by Carnacki to a group of his friends, as they sit in Carnacki’s library after dinner. The “ghost story in the library” device is a classic format for the traditional winter tale (though of course, it needn’t be a library).

And then that night again my mother’s door was slammed once more just after midnight. I caught up the lamp, and when I reached her door, I found it shut. I opened it quickly, and went in, to find my mother lying with her eyes open, and rather nervous; having been waked by the bang of the door. But what upset me more than anything, was the fact that there was a disgusting smell in the passage and in her room.

Enjoy.


The 1913 edition of Hodgson’s collection Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder is available on Project Gutenberg. The 1947 edition included three additional stories.

The painting above is Moonlight, the Old House (1906), by Childe Hassam. Sourced from WikiPaintings.