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

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.

Zan Zig performing with rabbit and roses magician poster 1899 2

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

Carlos and Julio (and Monty)

The good news: it was a beautiful weekend to celebrate Non Stop Bhangra‘s ten year anniversary. The bad news: I danced so hard I think I broke my toe. This at least gave me an excuse to sit around all Sunday, finishing up Julio Cortázar’s Blow-Up and other stories.

Foot

Owwwww.

I couldn’t help comparing him (well, this collection) to my recent bout of Carlos Fuentes. Fuentes (or what I’ve read of him, this time around) has a distinct set of preoccupations that permeate all his work. The primary one is the intrusion of the past into the present, or the revisiting of the past in the present. This often expresses itself in his work as reincarnation, ghosts, doubles, history repeating itself. Memory and history are recurrent themes as well, closely related to the first, and also rife with ghost story possibilities. Oh, and there’s sex and erotic longing. The second usually leads to the first, of course — but not always.

If Cortázar has an obsession, then it’s transmigration. Not just in the sense of reincarnation, but more generally in the sense of the transference of essence, of souls. It might be across species (“Axolotl”), across centuries (“The Night, Face Up”, “The Idol of the Cyclades”),  or between people (“The Distances”, “Secret Weapons”, “A Yellow Flower”). One also senses in many of these stories the fear of losing control (“House Taken Over”; the just-released “Headache“, translated into English for the first time by Michael Cisco). There’s a fair bit of longing in his stories, too – the unrequited kind. Perhaps it’s for the best friend’s wife, or even a blood relative (a commenter on The Weird Fiction Review‘s profile of Cortázar mentions the author’s “complicated feelings towards his own sister” — this is the first and only thing I’ve heard about it, but it is true that “House Taken Over” and “Bestiary” both have a weird vibe).

Continue reading

Aura and Constancia: Ghost Stories from Carlos Fuentes

2563738494 1725dc78df z

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….

Continue reading

Chac Mool

I’ve been awash in translations of Spanish-language literature lately (more on that in a future article); it’s been fascinating reading. One of the things I’ve learned in my reading is that Carlos Fuentes wrote quite a few short stories. In fact, his first book was a collection of fantastic fiction called Los Dias Enmascarados (The Masked Days), which, to my knowledge, was never translated into English. Given the general preference of the reading public for novels over short stories, I’m not surprised, and such early writing would probably be considered only a minor work of his — not the optimal candidate for the effort of translation. But hope springs eternal, and so I had to look around….

Sure enough, a little digging uncovered an English rendering of the short story “Chac Mool“, translated by Jonah Katz, currently a professor of phonetics and linguistics at West Virginia University. “Chac Mool” was first published in Los Dias Enmascarados in 1954, then again in the 1973 collection Chac Mool y otros cuentos (Chac Mool and other stories — also never translated).

NewImage

A chacmool is a particular form of Mesoamerican sculpture: a figure of a man reclining on his back, upper body supported by his elbows and knees bent. His hands are on his abdomen, holding a dish or a bowl for accepting ritual offerings. His head is facing to the side. Chacmools have been found throughout central Mexico and the Yucatan, down into Central America. Chacmools are often associated with the Aztec rain god Tlaloc or with the similar Mayan rain god Chac (or Chaac). Both these rain gods are associated with human sacrifice (the bowl the chacmool holds is often a cuauhxicalli: a bowl to receive human hearts).

In Fuentes’ story, the protagonist, Filbert (Filiberto in the original), buys a chacmool (or as the story puts it, a replica of the Chac Mool, used as a proper noun) from some little junk shop, and brings it home. After the Chac Mool arrives, the water pipes mysteriously burst and the roof springs leaks in the rain. Filiberto discovers that in all this moisture, the stone idol seems to be turning into flesh — a rain god coming to life. Slowly, the Chac Mool turns Filiberto into his slave….

Continue reading

Reading Red Spectres: Russian Gothic Tales

As Chris Baldick pointed out in his introduction to The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, gothic fiction arose (and still thrives) as a reaction to “the tyranny of the past” — historically, the tyranny of the Catholic Church; but in more modern times, the tyranny of repressive societal mores or dysfunctional family histories. So if I wanted to be a cranky person, I could argue that the stories collected in Red Spectres: Russian Gothic Tales from the Twentieth Century are not strictly gothic, because they evoke nostalgia for the past as a reaction to the tyranny of the present: to be specific, the tyranny of the newly emerging Communist state.

Redspectres

But they feel gothic. If you didn’t know anything about the socio-political milieu in which these stories were written (especially the earlier ones), you would unhesitatingly class them as such. And now that the Soviet Union is downstream of us in history, maybe these stories can indeed be considered true examples of the genre.

Continue reading

Friday Video: Ombilda

Today, another selection from Late Night Work Club’s Ghost Stories film anthology. Ombilda is a gorgeous piece, done in deep velvety shades of gray, with a subtle and effective sound design, too. I love the fog and mists that permeate the entire film.

“Lovecraftian” isn’t the right word for this piece, but its theme of mysterious and terrible (and possibly alien) forces of nature does remind me of an early twentieth century weird tale. It’s a little surreal, too. Luigi Ugolini’s 1917 “Vegetable Man” is what came immediately to mind, though I’m sure there are other stories too, that I’m not recalling now.

Length: 4 minutes, 19 seconds

Enjoy.

The Venus of Ille

IMG 1195

This is from the opening of “The Coffin Man” by Mike Mignola, art by Fabio Moon. The story is included in the Hellboy 20th Anniversary Sampler being given away for free at my local comic book store (It’s fun! Go find it!). The piece is set during Hellboy’s “Mexico period” some time in the 1950s; the anecdote that Hellboy is telling in these panels is just a tale he’s telling in a bar, and has nothing to do with the rest of the story.

But it smells like something out of 19th century weird fiction, don’t you think? Perhaps it’s a story that’s already been told somewhere in the last two decades of the Hellboy series, but if so, I don’t remember it. I got curious and tried to look for it, but some casual web searching hasn’t turned up anything yet. Do any of you know where this might be from?

Fortunately for this blog, the four panels above reminded me of another great example of 19th century weirdness: Prosper Merimee’s “The Venus of Ille” (1837).

Continue reading

Tales of the Weird, Old and Not-so-Old

Shoes

I sprained my ankle badly on New Year’s Eve (lesson learned: no more dancing in four-inch heels), so I had to take a nearly month-long break from dance rehearsals and performances. It’s been driving me a little crazy, but on the plus side, I’ve had a lot of extra time in the evenings for reading (and for B-grade TV science fiction). The result is a couple of interesting and very different anthologies to share today.

Macabre

The Macabre Megapack, Duane Parsons, editor.

This is a collection of weird tales from the early-to-middle nineteenth century, published by Wildside Press. (It was also released as a paperback under the title The Night Season: Lost Tales from the Golden Age of Macabre). The theme of the anthology is “great weird short stories by otherwise mediocre authors” — a counterpoint to the idea that not everything produced by a great author is necessarily great (or even good) literature. The stories were culled from British and American literary journals and annuals of the period; I’ve googled a few of the authors. In their time, some of them were quite well known, even lauded; many were colleagues (or enemies) of Edgar Allen Poe. Now they’ve mostly fallen into obscurity, and possibly for good reason.

You have to like nineteenth century weird fiction to enjoy this book, and even then, not everything will be to your taste. The stories tend to be far more leisurely than modern fiction: the language is more embellished, and every so often an author will wander off in the middle of the story to lecture the reader on their personal philosophy about spiritualism, the occult, or some other pet topic. There’s also a lot of what I once heard a writing teacher refer to as “throat-clearing”: a few opening paragraphs of mostly irrelevant warm-up before plunging into the narrative. But hey, for ninety-nine cents, even if you find only one story that you adore, it’s a good deal. I found it well worth having.

Some stand-outs for me: “Carl Bluven and the Strange Mariner,” by Henry David Inglis (1833) was a folkloric, fairy-tale-like, deal-with-the-devil story. “The Three Souls,” by Alexander Chatrian and Emile Erckmann (1859) reminded me a little of Poe (“Cask of Amontillado” Poe, not “Fall of the House of Usher” Poe — to me, there’s a difference). “Lieutenant Castenac,” also by Erckmann and Chatrian (1866) would be right at home in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (more on Ellery Queen later in the post). There’s also a strange, non-Japanese short story by Lafcadio Hearn: “The Black Cupid” (1880), set in Mexico. I don’t consider Hearn either mediocre or obscure, but I guess Mr. Parsons disagreed.

According to the Introduction, Parsons collected five boxes of candidate material for this anthology. I would definitely buy a Volume Two. Wildside did release a follow up volume (called — surprise — The Second Macabre Megapack), but that volume is based mostly on pieces collected by the late Mark Owings from The Southern Literary Messenger, which is mostly famous because Poe was once its editor. Still, at ninety-nine cents… .

Continue reading

Two Werewolf Stories

On a shelf of smooth stone overhanging a deep pool in the hollow of an oak coppice a boy of about sixteen lay asprawl, drying his wet brown limbs luxuriously in the sun. His wet hair, parted by a recent dive, lay close to his head, and his light-brown eyes, so light that there was an almost tigerish gleam in them, were turned towards Van Cheele with a certain lazy watchfulness. It was an unexpected apparition, and Van Cheele found himself engaged in the novel process of thinking before he spoke. Where on earth could this wild-looking boy hail from?

That’s from “Gabriel-Ernst,” a 1909 short story by Saki. It’s in the style of Saki that I like best: dry, slightly sarcastic humor, sinister undertones. And perhaps, just a touch erotic.

The boy turned like a flash, plunged into the pool, and in a moment had flung his wet and glistening body half-way up the bank where Van Cheele was standing. In an otter the movement would not have been remarkable; in a boy Van Cheele found it sufficiently startling. His foot slipped as he made an involuntarily backward movement, and he found himself almost prostrate on the slippery weed-grown bank, with those tigerish yellow eyes not very far from his own. Almost instinctively he half raised his hand to his throat. …

A strange, naked boy on the protagonist’s property, who talks about feeding on flesh. I wonder what that means? The narrative’s suspense doesn’t come from wondering what’s going to happen; just how. The story’s end is harsh and unsentimental (Saki endings usually are), but it feels exactly right.

NewImageImage: Wikipedia

Perhaps the erotic touch is mostly in my imagination, partially from knowing Saki’s history, and partially because I read “Gabriel-Ernst” after having read another humorous and sexy werewolf story, “The Refugee,” by Jane Rice.

Two brown hands pushed aside the foliage to allow a pair of broad, brown shoulders to come through.

Milli gave an infinitesimal gasp. A man was in her garden! A man who, judging from the visible portion of his excellent anatomy, had—literally—lost his shirt.

Instinctively, she opened her mouth to make some sort of an outcry. Whether she meant to call for aid, or to scare the interloper away, or merely to give vent to a belated exclamation of surprise, will forever be debatable for the object of her scrutiny chose that moment to turn his extraordinarily well-shaped head and his glance fixed itself on Milli. Milli’s outcry died a-borning.

To begin with, it wasn’t a man. It was a youth. And to end with, there was something about him, some queer, indefinable quality, that was absolutely fascinating.

He was, Milli thought, rather like a young panther, or a half-awakened leopard. He was, Milli admitted, entranced, beautiful. Perfectly beautiful. As an animal is beautiful and, automatically, she raised her chin so that the almost unnoticeable pouch under it became one with the line of her throat.

The youth was unabashed. If the discovery of his presence in a private garden left him in a difficult position, he effectively concealed his embarrassment. He regarded Milli steadfastly, and unwaveringly, and admiringly, and Milli, like a mesmerized bird, watched the rippling play of his muscles beneath his skin as he shoved the hedge apart still farther to obtain a better view of his erstwhile hostess.

Confusedly, Milli thought that it was lucky the windows were locked and, in the same mental breath, what a pity that they were.

I really, really like Jane Rice, but it’s next to impossible to find her work. She’s rather like Shirley Jackson: her prose is literary, and her topics run to the weird and fantastic. She published primarily in pulp magazines. “The Refugee” was published in Unknown (also known as Unknown Worlds) in 1943 — the very last issue, as it happens. If you can get your hands on the 2003 collection The Idol of the Flies (probably in a library; it was published as a 500 copy hardcover run right before Ms. Rice died, and as far as I know, never reissued) — do so. It’s great.

“The Refugee” has a terrific start. It’s a sharp little sketch of the heroine, Milli, an American expatriate stuck in Paris during the German occupation, and it gives a flavor of Paris during that time (at least for people of Milli’s class). The twist ending is cute, but vaguely unsatisfying. I think it’s because the pace of the story up until the end is leisurely, rich, descriptive. The ending, like many twist endings, is abrupt. Rhythmically, it doesn’t quite fit.

It’s a pleasure to read, though. I wonder if Ms. Rice ever read “Gabriel-Ernst.” Not that it matters, and even if she did, she took the plot to a different place. It’s fun to read them back-to-back (as I just did) and compare.

Both stories recommended. Enjoy.