On receiving my copy I must admit I hastened to the Machen story first - Samuels is a keen Machenite and I was eager to see how Machen's world would appear when distorted by the Samuel lens. At first glance, Machen,with his nature writing and tales of pagan terror, and Samuels, with his chronicles of urban malaise and mental disintegration, seem to have little in common as writers. But in fact Machen felt a sort of appalled fascination for London, and many of his stories contain passages describing the horrors of various parts of London (the then-suburbs of Acton and Shepherd's Bush seem to have particularly upset him, if The Hill of Dreams is anything to go by.) And where mental disorders are concerned, well, Machen seems to see madness as Pan's calling-card, inevitable result of straying too far 'beyond the veil'. As it happens, Samuels does a great job of fusing his world with Machen's in a seamless manner. This is due in part to his writing style, which deliberately mimics Machen's own without sacrificing modernity. There have been quite a few attempts by modern authors to use Machen's ideas, but this is the best I've read since Michael Chislett's 'Off the Map'.
Other stories in the collection visit familiar Samuels terrain: 'THYXXOLQ', and the Borges-influenced 'A Contaminated Text' explore the not-always-beneficial power of language and the written word, while 'Gluckman the Bibliophile' examines a world where society's attitude to books has undergone a radical change. There are lots of thought-provoking ideas in these stories, where voids are plumbed and new worlds encountered every few pages, it seems! I particularly enjoyed 'A Contaminated Text', which deals with a cursed book and as a bonus offers a disturbing solution to the riddle of Ambrose Bierce's mysterious disappearance in the Mexican desert. Samuels is often compared to Ligotti due to certain common themes - evil corporations controlling peoples' behaviour, warps and cracks in reality, contagion of various kinds - but I personally prefer Samuels' style which I find less stuffy and strangulated (I'm not one of those people who find Ligotti's pedantically precise, mannered and repetitive style adds to the thrill of his stories, although I have enjoyed quite a few of them.)
But my favourite tale in this collection is definitely 'Xapalpa', which is set in a Mexican mountain town. Samuels' South American stories are usually good and in this one he does a fine job of describing the evil atmosphere of a small town with a big, and very unpleasant secret. Another strong story is 'The Age of Decayed Futurity', which weaves a critique of the modern media and the cult of celebrity into a narrative about a writer who discovers a terrifying threat to humanity.
Like Ramsey Campbell, Samuels' heroes are a pretty luckless lot, which, although it is conducive to a consistent atmosphere of doom, can be detrimental to the element of suspense and surprise in a story - much of the fun is spoiled if you are virtually certain the hero is going to cark it by the end of the story! However, The Man Who Collected Machen does contain a few rays of hope. Sometimes the horrific can turn into an escape route from the often nightmarish world of today; 'The Tower' and the title story suggest that redemption and continued existence may be possible if you are willing to jettison the mental baggage of conventional 'reality'. I find this attitude more interesting than the unrelenting pessimism of many modern authors.
There are are couple of tales I didn't get on with - I found the dark sci-fi piece 'The Black Mould' a bit depressing and I think I'm just too conventional to really enjoy a story that doesn't have any human characters in it! And I found the Victorian stylings of 'Nor Unto Death Utterly by Edmund Bertrand' a bit hard-going, even if the overwrought style is deliberate. But all in all I would say The Man Who Collected Machen is a successful collection. Don't be put off by the book's apparent slimness - this reflects Samuels' concise, no-nonsense writing style rather than any absence of content. When writing this review I actually felt a superstitious reluctance to even type the word 'THYXXOLQ', lest it contaminate me, which I think is a testament to the effectiveness of the collection!
I do wish I'd bought the book earlier though - the typewritten sheet of paper on the cover actually contains a cryptic message, which readers were invited to solve a few months ago. I love that sort of thing, but the competition has ended now, having doubtless been won by my arch-nemesis, Some Bastard...