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Tuesday, November 5th, 2019
10:22 am - New John Langan Collection

joysilence
I've been a fan of John Langan for a long time - I particularly like his Mr Gaunt collection and his novel House of Windows - so I received his new short story collection Sefira and Other Betrayals with much excitement. But is it up to his usual extremely high standard?

Don't Bor Urus, Get To The Chorus!Collapse )

On the whole Sefira... is a worthy addition to modern weird fiction, with plenty of variety in setting and tone despite the common theme of betrayal. Don't be put off if you don't like the opening novella, as you'd be missing out on a high-quality collection!

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Friday, October 4th, 2019
1:43 am - 'From The Depths'

joysilence
Here's another review of a British Library Tales of the Weird number: 'From the Depths and Other Strange Tales of the Sea', edited by the venerable Mike Ashley.

There's been a lot of new horror fiction lately about the sea, much of it informed by the environmental crisis, but some of it obviously fuelled by the sea's transformative power and its apparently infinite store of weird creatures. Gemma Files, Cat Valente and Stephen Duffy have been just a few of the newer authors plumbing the vasty deep to good effect recently, but this anthology is a reminder that this literary fascination is nothing new.

It's an impressive selection too. Although many of these tales go back to the late Victorian/Edwardian era, this is not a line-up of usual suspects. Out of fifteen stories I'd only read one, Lady Eleanor Smith's 'No Ships Pass', and Smith's stylish tale of a magic island peopled by a cast of amoral, shipwrecked eccentrics is such an insanely good story that you'd have to be nuts NOT to include it in a collection like this. Apparently the story was also an inspiration for the TV series 'Lost', but 'Lost' would have to get up jolly early to be this good.

Not only are the stories all obscure, even the authors themselves tend towards the forgotten. The exception is sea horror supremo William Hope Hodgson. 'The Mystery of the Water-Logged Ship' is not quite up to the standard of his best tales, but it's an amusing enough exercise in proving how the natural can be even weirder than the supernatural (something Hodgson went in for a lot, though he did it better in 'The Stone Ship' for my money.)

Apart from that we're dealing with a bunch of writers who have fallen badly from favour since their heyday (mainly the first half of the 20th century). Many of the stories are good enough for this fate to feel really unfair - and most of the writers are men, so you can't even chalk their lowly status down to Patriarchy! One thing that really struck me was how modern many of the stories feel - they have a sort of emotional brutality and a sharpness of imagery not normally associated with the Golden Age of the Ghost Story. Perhaps this is partly thanks to many of the authors being former seafaring men and soldiers, who knows.

And there's some grim fare on offer: make it past the psychotic parrot of Albert R. Wetjen's 'The Ship of Silence' and the vicious clinging Sargasso Sea in Ward Muir's incredibly doomy 'Sargasso', and you've still got a smorgasbord of shipwrecks, death by drowning, death by starvation, death by sea monsters, and plenty of murdered innocents to look forward to.

Personally, I like sea monsters too much to really enjoy it when the humans win, so I'm pleased to report that there isn't too much of this in the collection. Humans are usually the foulest species out there, as exemplified in Elinor Mordaunt's epic yarn about savagely feuding brother sailors, 'The High Seas', F. Britten Austin's guilt-fest 'From The Depths' and the very odd afterlife story 'The Soul Saver' by Morgan Burke. And don't expect women and children to be cut any slack either. In the circumstances Frank H. Shaw's 'Held By The Sargasso Sea' comes as a relief - it actually has a quite moving happy ending!

 I think my favourite story was Herman Scheffauer's 'The Floating Forest', which outdoes Hodgson in terms of the sense of wonder it conjures from natural phenomena (though his description of jungle life may be stretching the truth a bit..). Scheffauer writes in elegant, vivid prose and has a smashing way with imagery, so I hope this collection will go some way to restoring his reputation. 'From the Darkness and the Depths' is also particularly interesting from a historical standpoint as it speculates about creatures living on the sea bed which are invisible because they don't need to reflect or refract daylight - all very intriguing in the light of recent discoveries of transparent sea-beasts.

Altogether this is an unmissable collection for any serious fan of ghost stories, as long as you're committed to the marine theme. Ashley should give himself a pat on the back for unearthing all these lost gems.

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Monday, September 30th, 2019
12:33 am - Tanya Kirk anthology

joysilence

Sorry for not posting for such a long time! I've been spending all my free time writing a book myself, so if it ever gets published everyone whose work I've spent the past decade slagging off will have a chance to return the favour. I've finished it now though, and spending all your leisure time importuning literary agents would drive anyone mad, so I'm making some time to catch up with some books I keep meaning to review.

I'll start off with Spirits of the Season - Christmas Hauntings edited by Tanya Kirk, an anthology of old ghost stories from the promising new British Library Tales of the Weird series - cheap, mainstream paperbacks with decent production values - nice fonts and paper, good editing, and even pictures!

This particular book doesn't contain much unusual material, but at least it doesn't have any stories by Charles Dickens. I think 'Smee' by A.M. Burrage is the only real chestnut, and the tale of a hide-and-seek game gone nightmarishingly wrong is admittedly a very good chestnut. I would imagine a lot of people will also have read 'The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance' by M. R. James, but again, the quality of the story is absolutely top-notch. As one of the many people who've always hated and feared Punch and Judy shows, I found this story almost unbearably scary when I first read it, and it's dream imagery and oblique narrative give it an astonishingly modern feel. It's certainly not the most frequently-anthologized story by Old Monty either, so it's good to see it getting an airing here.

Other members of the 'James Gang' appear within these pages, with H Russell Wakefield's rarish long story 'Lucky's Grove' rounding off the collection in style. It's not the best ever Wakefield story (I think that accolade goes to 'Old Man's Beard' or 'The Red Lodge'), but it's certainly festive and there are some lovely bits of nature writing involving a sacred grove of trees (needless to say, some dum-dum thinks its a good idea to borrow one for a Xmas tree, and it doesn't end well.) There is also an obscure story by E.F. Benson, a piece of largely psychological horror called 'Boxing Night', but it's not one of his best.

I definitely felt that the strongest stories here were the ones from the early 20th century. In addition to the James and Wakefield there is a fine story by the overlooked Edith Nesbit, 'The Shadow', in which Nesbit proves once again that she can show us fear in a handful of whatever she jolly well wants. 'The Kit-Bag' by Algernon Blackwood is not a stalwart of Xmas anthologies, but it's excellent, so I was glad to see it here. Hugh Walpole's 'The Snow' is a really quite vicious little tale, given the author's reputation for churning out hack romances, and it hasn't aged badly at all.

Where the Victorians are concerned it's really left to Amelia B. Edwards to hold the fort, with her classic story 'The Four-Fifteen Express', an early attempt at supernatural crime fiction. It's not what you would call scary but it's well-written and historically interesting.

All the stories I hadn't read before were actually light-hearted material. 'The Curse of the Catafalques' by F. Anstey is a daft caper involving an amoral male gold-digger's attempts to get his hands on the fortune of a cursed family by marrying the eldest daughter, and its slightly silly humour has held up pretty well over the centuries. 'The Christmas Shadrach' by Frank R. Stockton is less well-known, and features a haunted lump of mining material (!) that plays havoc with the romantic plans of a cluster of young people. It was readable enough, though if you're looking for scares you won't find them pouring from the pen of Mr. Stockton.

All in all this is a very sound lot of golden-age ghost stories. I suspect anyone new to the genre would be really impressed by it, and I certainly enjoyed reuniting with some old favourites.

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Saturday, August 1st, 2015
11:41 am - Eleanor Scott anthology

joysilence
M.R.James needs no introduction here or anywhere else even remotely concerned with weird fiction, and many of his contemporaries and direct successors such as H Russell Wakefield or A.N.L. Munby are also still in print today. On the other hand, it is not every day that you get the chance to discover a new Jamesian ghost story writer from the old days! That's why I was excited by Oleander Press' paperback edition of Randall's Round, originally published in 1929 and until now only available for eye-watering sums of money in the original edition or the pricey Ash Tree Press reprint. Scott enjoyed some success in her day for novels and stories on a variety of topics, but is now best remembered for this collection of unabashedly Jamesian tales of terror with antiquarian and folklore themes.

Great Scott?Collapse )


You can also find out more about Scott here at The Haunted Library.

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Monday, June 1st, 2015
4:35 am - New Undertow Anthology

joysilence
I never got round to reading any issues of the new weird fiction magazine, Shadows and Tall Trees - I didn't have much money when it came out and, to be honest, I prefer my fiction in books rather than magazines. So I was pleased to see that the regular magazine has now morphed into a yearly anthology of the same name, edited by Michael Kelly. There is an arty, high-faluting vibe about the whole endeavour, with the cover blurb making the bold claim that Shadows and Tall Trees is "an anthology of exceptional literary merit". But is this so much puff or do we really have a great new contender in the world of weird fiction/horror anthologies?

It's in the trees! It's comingCollapse )

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Wednesday, May 20th, 2015
1:19 am - The Amber Witch

dfordoom
The Amber Witch is a German novel of witchcraft which became far better known in England than in Germany. The story behind the book is in some ways more intriguing than the book itself.

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Saturday, May 2nd, 2015
11:41 pm - The Ghost of Guir House

dfordoom
Charles Willing Beale’s 1897 short novel The Ghost of Guir House is a ghost story but it also belongs to the category of esoteric occult fiction that was so popular in the late 19th century and in fact until well into the 20th century.

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Friday, April 10th, 2015
3:27 pm - The Uninhabited House

dfordoom
The Uninhabited House was originally published in Routledge’s Christmas Annual in 1875 and thereafter remained fairly obscure until it turned up in the 1971 E. F. Bleiler-edited anthology Five Victorian Ghost Novels (published by Dover Books).

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Saturday, February 14th, 2015
12:20 pm - New Quentin Crisp anthology

joysilence
Well it has been a long time since I last posted here! Work, illness and other dismaying concerns have kept me very busy lately, but things are easing off a bit now so I thought I would break the surface to review Quentin S. Crisp's latest anthology Defeated Dogs from Eibon Vale Press.

I say "latest", but in fact many of these stories are quite old. I believe the collection is a sort of retrospective of those Crisp stories that have failed to appear in any of his previous books, the "non-album singles" if you like. Six of the ten stories have previously appeared in books by Tartarus Press, PS Publishing and the like, and there are also four previously unpublished tales.

Big in JapanCollapse )

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Sunday, January 11th, 2015
5:45 am - my favourite horror short story reads of 2014

dfordoom
These are the horror/weird fiction short stories I enjoyed most in 2014:

M. Burrage, The Soldier
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Captain of the Pole-Star
Dion Fortune, The Scented Poppies (1926)
Seabury Quinn, The Dust of Egypt (1930)
R. Wakefield, The Red Lodge

These were all stories that were new to me. I’d hesitate to recommend Dion Fortune - her stories are wildly uneven and often extremely bad but occasionally she really hit the target. I’d read a couple of Burrage’s stories before. He’s also a bit uneven but often very good indeed. Seabury Quinn is delightfully trashy and pulpy but his best stories are rather effective. Wakefield is an author I need to explore further. Conan Doyle is of course an old favourite of mine and I consider his horror fiction to be underrated.

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Sunday, October 19th, 2014
4:37 am - The Skeleton Closet of Jules de Grandin

dfordoom
The American pulp writer Seabury Quinn (1889-1969) is best known for his stories chronicling the adventures of occult detective Jules de Grandin, described on the back cover of The Skeleton Closet of Jules de Grandin as “the occult Hercule Poirot” - a reasonably apt description. The Skeleton Closet of Jules de Grandin comprises six of the Jules de Grandin stories, all originally published by Weird Tales in 1929 and 1930.

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Skeleton Closet of Jules de Grandin

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Saturday, September 20th, 2014
1:22 am - They Used Dark Forces

dfordoom
Dennis Wheatley (1897-1977) is best remembered today for what he termed his Black Magic novels. In fact they made up only a small part of his total literary output. Most of his books are non-supernatural thrillers including quite a few historical thrillers. To describe the majority of his books as straightforward thrillers would however be misleading since there is nothing straightforward about them. Wheatley’s defining characteristic is the outrageousness of his plots.

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They Used Dark Forces1

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Monday, August 25th, 2014
5:16 pm - The Occult Files Of Francis Chard

dfordoom
Yet more occult detective tales! I do seem to be a bit obsessed by this odd genre. The slim volume The Occult Files Of Francis Chard includes ten such stories by A. M. Burrage (1889-1956).

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Occult Files Of Francis Chard

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Tuesday, August 5th, 2014
1:25 am - revisiting Lovecraft - The Shadow Over Innsmouth

dfordoom
Re-reading At the Mountains of Madness recently has inspired me to revisit other H. P. Lovecraft stories, in particular his novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth (written in 1931 and published in 1936).

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Shadow Over Innsmouth_(dust_jacket_-_first_edition)

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Monday, August 4th, 2014
2:52 am - The Secrets of Dr Taverner

dfordoom
Violet Mary Firth (1890-1946) was a British occultist who wrote under the name Dion Fortune. She wrote both fiction and non-fiction. Her fiction includes a collection of short stories, The Secrets of Dr Taverner, about an occult detective and healer. It was published in 1926.

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Secrets of Dr Taverner2

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Tuesday, July 8th, 2014
3:57 am - The Complete Cabalistic Cases of Semi Dual

dfordoom
The Complete Cabalistic Cases of Semi Dual contains the first three adventures of occult detective Semi Dual, originally published in the pulp magazine The Cavalier Magazine in 1912. All three are novella-length, and all three will provide a good deal of enjoyment to pulp fiction fans.

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semi dual

x-posted to swordandsorcery

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Thursday, May 8th, 2014
1:48 am - At the Mountains of Madness

dfordoom
At the Mountains of Madness was one of H. P. Lovecraft’s few long stories. Some regard it as a novella while others consider it a short novel. Structurally it’s probably best considered a longish novella. Either way it’s the most ambitious entry in his Cthulhu Mythos cycle.
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At the Mountains of Madness1

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Saturday, March 29th, 2014
7:21 pm - Louisa May Alcott as horror writer

dfordoom
So who knew that Louisa May Alcott (author of Little Women) wrote horror fiction? Apparently she wrote at least one ghost story, The Abbot’s Ghost; or, Maurice Treherne’s Temptation (published in 1867) and in 1869 she even wrote a mummy story, Lost in a Pyramid; or, The Mummy’s Curse.

Both stories are mentioned on Tim Prasil’s blog here.

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Monday, February 17th, 2014
12:54 am - Herbert Asbury’s The Devil of Pei Ling

dfordoom
Published in 1927 and with a title like The Devil of Pei Ling you might expect this novel to be a Fu Manchu imitation. That is perhaps partly true. It does have some Yellow Peril tinges but mostly it’s a fairly straight if very pulpy occult thriller.

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Devil of Pei Ling

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Thursday, January 16th, 2014
9:46 pm - The Exorcist

dfordoom
The enormous success of William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel The Exorcist triggered a boom in supernatural horror fiction. The film version that followed about a year later (scripted by Blatty) triggered off an equivalent boom in mainstream big-budget supernatural horror movies.

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Exorcist1

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