Barn Owl with Playing Card

R.B. Russell collection

I've long been a fan of the Tartarus Press, and although it was over a decade ago I still remember how delighted I was to receive my first ever TP book, the purple and almost impossibly beautiful hardback of the Collected Macabre Stories of L.P. Hartley. So I've been following the subsequent writing careers of both the editors, R.B. Russell and Rosalie Parker, with some interest. TP have been doing more paperbacks recently (a move I applaud!) and they've recently put out a "Why Take Two Books Into The Shower?" compilation of Russell's first two collections of short stories, Putting The Pieces in Place and Literary Remains. (apologies for the Abebooks link - the TP website doesn't seem to exist anymore so I couldn't link to that.)

Putting The Pieces in Place, which originally came out in 2009, contains only five stories, but they are quite long. The title story, about a music collector who seeks to recreate a youthful encounter with a gifted violinist, gets things off to a weak start - an excessive amount of background information is conveyed in the dialogue, which feels stilted and unrealistic as a result. Fortunately things pick up immediately with 'There's Nothing That I Wouldn't Do', about an architecture student whose study visit to Eastern Europe includes an awkward affair with a local boy, ending in further alienation and horror. This is one of the best stories in the collection, with a nice John Howard Mittel-Europa vibe, psychological realism and a light touch that makes the ending even more impactful. 'In Hiding' is another good one, somewhat reminiscent of John Fowle's The Magus with its sunny Greek island setting, preoccupation with identity and disorienting plot twist - but more economical in style! The remaining two stories are okay - 'Eleanor' is a fairly light-hearted, modern riff on the familiar theme of a writer haunted by one of his characters. 'Dispossessed' is darker and deals with a woman whose precarious living conditions are involved in the warping of her perception of the world, with sinister and surreal consequences.

Literary Remains only came out a year later, but there are definite signs of Russell developing as a writer. The type of quiet, slightly dreamlike tale that forms his stock-in-trade is well-represented here. The title story is good, and again deals with writers and old cultural artifacts, since it's about two literary types going over the flat of a deceased author. This is certainly not a typical antiquarian ghost story though: the malaise is augmented by sexual anxiety and it has a very close, personal feel. The dance between the haunters and the haunted as they negotiate the past-choked apartment is impressively well-done. I also liked 'An Artist's Model', especially for the insight it gives into life as an art student. I don't know if Russell himself has any artistic training - though the excellent black-and-white illustrations that used to grace the old Tartarus Press books all seem to be credited to him - but he certainly seems to know what he's talking about.

Similarly, 'Asphodel' is an interesting look at the world of vanity publishing, told from the point of view of an editor who works in such a company. It would've been easy to make such a person into a hate figure, but Russell eschews the obvious here. Other good stories in this collection include 'Loup Garou', which makes deft use of the fascination of old film to convey a tale of rustic romance and tragedy, 'Llanfihangel' (an original and convincing haunted-house number) and 'A Revelation' (a shorter, darkly humorous tale about the weird stuff that goes on within the walls of other peoples' houses.) Aickman is an obvious influence, though in general it's the softer, more gently mournful and romantic type of of Aickman story, rather than the more overt horror of stories like 'Ringing The Changes'. The subject matter is often quite reminiscent of Oliver Onions too, with all that art and literature and clinging, nebulous influences.

The collection as a whole does suffer from a certain sameness of tone, and some of the longer stories have a muffled quality which began to pall after a while. Many of the characters seem to be living in a constant state of flattened affect, which is almost certainly deliberate, but the way they tend to drift through their stories makes you want to give them a good shake occasionally. That said, I don't think this would be half so much of a problem if one were encountering these stories in an anthology with other authors. Overall this is a highbrow collection of gentle, elegant writing that avoids anything lurid or coarse, and when the tales are successful they do have the sort of lingering effect on the mind that many authors strive to achieve.
Barn Owl with Playing Card

Female Lovecraftiana Anthology

HP Lovecraft has cast a long shadow over weird fiction. Although he was a racist, woman-ignoring creature, his themes of cosmic horror and transformation have proven very palatable to modern writers of progressive weird fiction and the last ten years have seen some really first-rate anthologies of Lovecraft-inspired stories, such as Ellen Datlow's "Lovecraft's..." series or Stephen Jones' "Shadows Over Innsmouth" anthologies. Now, Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles have teamed up on an anthology of female-only Lovecraftian horror, She Walks In Shadows.

Oh yes, it's ladies' nightCollapse )

The book is also pretty (though you'll be disappointed if you're hoping to see any of those non-white characters on the cover, lol) well laid-out and not too expensive, with a profusion of black-and-white pictures inside by women artists. Ultimately, it doesn't stand up to the Datlow and Jones books I mentioned above (those are the gold standard in the industry, for my money), but if it doesn't get an 'A' it definitely deserves a 'B'. I wouldn't feel ashamed to hand it to someone who'd never read any Lovecraft, which I think is the acid test for any anthology of this kind.

New John Langan Collection

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!
Mouth staple time! That means you!

'From The Depths'

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.
Barn Owl with Playing Card

Tanya Kirk anthology

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.

Tawny Owlowl

Eleanor Scott anthology

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.

New Undertow Anthology

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 )