For this review of Jewels in the Dust by Peter Crowther (Subterranean Press, 2013) I’m going to break my usual convention which is to write brief notes on the stories in the order they are printed. I think it will give you a better understanding of the collection, if I group the comments on the stories together by genre or theme.
“The Bachelor” is an elegant story to read alongside “Old Delicious Burdens”. Both are concerned with the nature of memories that can haunt us, and remind us of times as they used to be. Thematically, we’re not quite into the idea of ghosts as nostalgia. But if our characters are the sum of all the life experiences we can remember, ghosts may revisit when we grow forgetful. Of course, some of the events or sensations we might choose to forget. They are painful and might frighten us if we came across them unexpectedly. Others simply lack the salience to stay fresh in the memory bank. They fade as we age. So an old lonely man might be sustained by the ghosts of happy days past. A warring couple might reconcile if they realised the wealth of happiness they had enjoyed when younger and more innocent. This is not to say either story is sentimental. . . “Things I Didn’t Know My Father Knew” develops the theme by having the ghost of a father dead some twenty-seven years, return to talk with his son. This is a pleasingly atmospheric story that prompts us to ask what it might be important to remember about our childhood and, if we had the chance, what we might say to our parents after so many years. For example, if memory of the nickname cruel “friends” had given us when young, was refreshed, would that change us in any way? Would we feel less angry at our parents for giving us that unfortunate name at birth? Would we want to say we loved our parents, even though that might not be completely true?
“The Fairy Trap” is about the innocence of youth which might induce two boys to suspend disbelief long enough to help an old man in his efforts to trap a fairy. “Dei Gratia” (with Simon Conway) is a fascinating idea story. Let’s say, for a moment, that there’s a natural cycle in operation. We’re born, live here for a while, and then cycle to Heaven or Hell. Modern medicine has been seriously interfering with this for some time. If God had been expecting an influx of souls and suddenly found himself short, what would he do? Continuing in the same vein, we have “Circling the Drain” (with Tracy Knight) which wonders about personal fulfillment. As an individual, would we feel less unhappy at the prospect of dying if we had had children? Here’s a man in late middle age who suddenly only has a month or so to live. If he resists dying, how could he prove to himself and his wife what a good father he would have made? “Breathing in Faces” is a terrific novelette following in the footsteps of The Circus of Dr Lao by Charles G Finney. A petulant girl and her BFF explore the midway. As you might expect, the pushy one will just not be told to leave well enough alone. She will insist on going into the tent. The rest, as they stay, is all about gathering speed as momentum accelerates the reader down the slope. This is a beautifully sustained piece of horror suspense writing. Equally impressive is “Tomorrow Eyes”. The idea is not original but this is a beautifully worked variation on the theme as a compassionate man takes pity on a haunted man to make the right decision. “The Doorway in Stephenson’s Store” is a time travel story that flirts with sentimentality and avoids excess given that it proves to be a kind of moral message. I confess I’m always partial to a little travelling through time and this is particularly ingenious, focusing on the characters of the people involved rather than the mechanics.
“Boxing Day”, “The Musician of Bremen, GA” and the titular “Jewels in the Dust” are straight stories. The first deals with the decision of a not unsuccessful criminal whether to continue in the trade or settle down with his wife to raise cats. The second maps the life of a truly gifted jazz musician who joins a group only to find two of the players are committed to a life of crime. While the third offers positive advice on how to accept the prospect that every new day may be your last. All of which leaves me with the final story in this rather admirable collection. “Thoughtful Breaths” manages to combine everything good about the art of storytelling. It introduces us to the characters and gives us time to get to know and understand them. Then it begins to weave its magic. Now “magic” is a word, for better or worse, that tends to be associated with fantasy. No, wait, I’m confusing the story-telling with the story itself. That will never do. So what exactly is it I want to say about this final piece? I suppose I’m referring to the wish of one character, out of love, to create the appearance of magic for the others. Just as the author, out of love, creates magic for the readers. In a way, the theme of this collection is death. Not necessarily in an unhappy or negative spirit. Rather we’re given the chance to celebrate the phenomenon and appreciate the potential for redemption on the part of some, and rehabilitation for others. As an older reader who’s already had one close brush with death, I find Peter Crowther’s work pleasingly unsentimental and, in a secular sense, quite inspirational. I unhesitating recommend this collection to you.
The jacket artwork from Les Edwards is particularly fine.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
I suppose if you start with the broader genre of horror, the supernatural ghost story is rather like a cousin. In other words there are some shared genes, but with genre walls usually maintained efficiently, the authors are aiming at slightly different emotional responses from the readers. That said, we should not distract ourselves or prejudge as reviewers because of the genre or subgenre label. The essence of any successful creative work is that it’s believable. Which, of course, inevitably leads to scepticism that a ghost story can be believable. The majority of people are sufficiently rational to accept there ain’t no such thing as a ghost. If believability is our criterion, every attempt to conjure a ghost would fail. But this ignores the more subtle truth. As readers, we can believe in the psychology of the protagonist who, for whatever reason, believes he or she’s being haunted. In the real world, we all have issues to deal with. Guilt, for example, can lead to bad dreams. If our protagonist loses enough sleep, he or she may hallucinate or become delusional. In such cases, there’s no knowing what our imaginations might impose on our rational minds.
The Small Hand and Dolly by Susan Hill are two quintessentially British novellas (Vintage Books, 2013). Ah, another Pandora’s Box to open. If I had to distinguish the American from the British approach to the supernatural, it would be in the scale. The transAtlantic ghost story is usually more explicit and showy with more overt mayhem. British stories tend to be understated and more about the sense of terror that comes as we empathise with a protagonist who suddenly finds him or herself cast adrift from secure moorings in reality. If I had to capture the principle underpinning the British more literary style, it would be that less is more, i.e. that the vicarious fear or terror arises more from hints and suggestions than from anything explicit. The template relies on the skill of the author to create an appropriate atmosphere and then leaves it to the reader to anticipate the worst. I suppose the best in ghost stories gives us the option of a rational explanation, e.g. by supplying a family background which includes some degree of mental disorder. Indeed, we might consider the appearance of a ghost as being a defeat for the author’s inventiveness. Then it all comes down to the characterisation and, sometimes, flirting with the device of an unreliable narrator to create the requisite effects. If there are cracks through which the ghost is going to emerge into our world, they will be cracks in the character of the protagonist. So perhaps the protagonist is just imagining the cold breeze on his neck or is having an anxiety attack. In the right mood, we can all abandon the thin veer of rationality and revert to a more primitive state in which we’re afraid of what may be lurking in the dark just out of sight.
One of the more commonly used devices is the abandoned or rundown country house as an extension to gothic romanticism which enhances its more melodramatic aspirations by placing the action in mediaeval piles. Even Dickens got in on the act with settings such as Satis House in Great Expectations, albeit not with supernatural overtones. So in The Small Hand, our bookseller “hero” is lost and, in the hope of finding someone to ask for directions, enters the overgrown gardens of what proves a derelict Edwardian house. This is a beautifully sustained moment as everything suddenly stills. Not even a cricket would have dared break the silence. Imagine how you would react in this moment of relaxation and peace if you felt the small hand of a child sneak into yours — as if you were suddenly trusted to be a friend. Yet when you looked down, you were alone. So begins a journey. Our bookseller has people to see and books to find. He travels around. Most of the time he feels safe, but then come disturbing episodes. Perhaps he’s no longer alone or maybe he’s following in his brother’s footsteps and developing an anxiety disorder. Is he merely succumbing to panic attacks? This is a supremely assured and elegant novella in which certainty and peace of mind are suddenly put under pressure. When you begin to doubt yourself, how do you tell what’s real?
Dolly takes us into the fens, to a hamlet called Iyot Lock where, appropriately enough, you find Iyot House. After a gap of forty years, Edward Cayley, our first-person narrator, returns to the house. As he approaches the house through the churchyard, he finds himself attracted to three graves near the wall. Perhaps he hears a rustling. . . there’s something just at the edge of his memory, something he can’t quite remember. As a slightly frail eight-year-old boy, he’d never been afraid of the house. Surely this is not the time for fear to come? Now his Aunt is dead, there’s the question of inheritance. And that’s why his cousin Leonora van Vorst comes back into his life. In the backstory, Kestrel Dickinson was one of three sisters who disliked each other. She and Mrs Mullen, the housekeeper, do their best to make the two cousins welcome. They reopen the attics which had largely been ignored since the tradition of having maids had died. Orphaned Edward proves persistently polite about staying there during his school holiday. Like her selfish mother, Lenora is spoiled and aggressive. She hates everything about being sent there as a companion for Edward. There are only two things they share — a love of thunderstorms and an absence of parental love in their lives. And then comes the incident with the doll. Of course, at the age of eight, they are not completely responsible for their actions, but that doesn’t prevent those around them from feeling resentful. Perhaps even wanting to take some measure of revenge when the children have grown old enough to understand. Except, Edward’s motives and actions were more human, maybe even honourable. If there were to be consequences, he would be forgiven. Ah, if only life could be so fair. After all, what happens is just bad luck. There ain’t no such thing as ghosts.
These two novellas represent a tremendous achievement, flirting with the borderline between the pain and hardships of real life, and the unlikely possibility of supernatural interventions as one of the causes. The Small Hand and Dolly are destined to be ranked highly in the all-time list of classic ghost stories.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Reading Wrayth by Philippa Ballantine (Ace, 2012) A Books of the Order 3, sees me breaking another of my house rules. I usually reject the chance to read any book in the middle of a series. My strong preference is to start at the beginning. That way, the reader can watch the plot develop and, assuming the characters are sufficiently interesting, follow them on their journey to the end. In this case, I’m coming in at book three with book four already announced for next year. My only defence is that, so far, my reading of Philippa Ballantine has produced enjoyment so. . . Anyway, this fantasy all seems to have started in Geist and continued in Spectyr, the two titles giving away the central conceit. Here we have a world in which the spirits of the undead can physically pass through the barrier separating the Otherside — not surprisingly supposed to protect the living — and cause not a little death and destruction. This requires the world to establish a defensive force calling itself the Order of the Eye and Fist — from the name you will understand this is not a religious organisation. There are two branches to the order. The Sensitives identify the incoming nasties and the Actives kill them (which is a neat trick given their undead status). Our heroine is Sorcha Faris. She’s an enigma with a broken past no-one can read and a future no-one wants to tell her about. The other key characters are Merrick Chambers, her partner, and Raed Syndar Rossin, the pretender to the throne. In this book, we’re also concerned with Zofiya, the Emperor’s sister.
What seems slightly odd about this set-up is that, although the defensive force uses words like “deacon” and “abbey”, there doesn’t seem to be an organised religion. In all real-world cultures there’s no evidence of any existence after death, but this world comes with clear proof of “life” after death. No need for faith! This subverts the usual systems based on the worship of ancestors. In Eastern religions, the living can burn paper money to buy goodies for those who went into the afterlife before them and hope this will buy them protection for their interests on Earth. In Western systems, God became human so that, after death, he could be an ancestor for all to worship. However, this is all hypothetical — a quid pro quo without any evidence you will see a return on the real money you spent on the paper replicas of Ferraris to be burned or for the prayers you offer up. If we stay with the Eastern models for evaluating these books, I suppose, we would tend not to respect our grandfather if his geist had just returned from the Otherside and was proposing to eat one of us as a light snack before lunch.
As is always the way when holding positions in society means acquiring status and power, the Order has proved corruptible. Some members have seen the geists as the means to acquire real-world power, looking to partner with the spirits rather than destroy them. They are the Order of the Circle of Stars, the old Native Order. Ah well, some things never change. Putting the usual temptations behind us for the moment, this book starts off with Sorcha trapped by her body which refuses to move. This is not a little frustrating because her mind works perfectly. If there’s an upside to this situation, it’s that the body is invulnerable. No assassins or other people bent on mischief can do her harm. Magic can be very convenient when you’re lying flat on your back defenceless. To start us off, people kidnap Sorcha, Merrick is tasked with investigating one of the newly arrived nobles, and Raed continues his problems with his in-house geistlord while investigating the castle of the Shin and the Wrayth. Why take Sorcha? Because she can lead “them” to Raed. Put her in an airship and she can act like a compass. So how will Merrick react to this enforced separation? The young man is no longer so callow. He should strike out on his own to discover why his righteous Order seems so alarmed. But at an early stage he runs into one of the corrupted Order. This represents a real danger and, according to the oath he swore, he’s supposed to deal with that rather than chase after his kidnapped parter. Ah such are the dilemmas authors come up with for their characters. And once the Shin notice Raed is crawling around the tunnels inside their castle, they are not a little upset. Or they are rather delighted because they are running a breeding program and it would be good to see what would come out of his genes. It’s fortuitous the cavalry is flying on its way to rescue him (and his sister).
There’s a slightly slow start as you might expect with the heroine unable to move or speak, and Merrick quickly following her into inactivity as he’s arrested and thrown into an underground jail. But, once the scene is set, we get into some nicely constructed action sequences. There’s a natural flair for adventure on display here. In the best possible sense of the word, the writing is graphic, i.e. you can picture the scene as a character is chased or has to fight to stay free. There’s also a pleasing revelation about Sorcha’s backstory which is elegantly set up as Raed goes exploring. This leaves me with the sense that Wrayth is good but not outstanding. I’m relieved there’s a darker edge to the fantasy. Too often those who write fantasy make their worlds not too unpleasant places in which to live. Philippa Ballantine has this population lined up as food, as hosts in forced breeding programmes, and so on. But some individual aspects of the plot are less than satisfactory. Raed’s transformations, for example, parallel the Hulk (except this guy loses all his clothing) without any hint of where the extra body mass comes from or, in another form, goes to. I live with the idea of werewolves because, for the most part, what we get is a redistribution of the original body’s mass plus hair. I suppose this geistlord is pulling additional matter from, or dumping surplus matter into, the Otherside. Perhaps the explanation is in an earlier book and that points clearly to the problem. I might have enjoyed it more if I had read the first two. I’m coming in as major revelations are being made and the Empire is about to fall. Missing the build-up devalues the experience.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
I have the sense ParaNorman (2012) went wrong when the powers-that-be sat down to discuss what kind of animated film they wanted to make. Scripts are just words written on pieces of paper if you’re lucky or otherwise displayed on screens of various sizes. When it comes to animation, you can take a simple sentence and make it scary for kids or horror for adults, rotfl for smsers or laugh-out-loud for adults. How you show characters saying the words can be adjusted to whatever audience you’re aiming at. So when the powers-that-be sat down, I think they failed to decide what their intended audience was going to be. The result is something that, at times, may be too scary for young children but is never scary at all to those with any intelligence, with a sense of humour that ranges from the juvenile fixation with what goes on in the toilet stall to distinctly adult sensibilities. I think the rule is you either make an animated film for children with just enough to keep parents from passing out with boredom, or you make an adult film and, if parents are daft enough to take their slightly older children, they can do all the explaining afterwards.
So what do we actually get in this package? Let’s start with the stop-motion animation which is stunningly good. Although there’s some CGI in there, all the main action revolves around the use of physical puppets on actual sets using real props. The loving care invested shines through the screen and produces a visual delight. Now come the characters. Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) himself is one of life’s natural victims. His hair stands up and his ears stand out. As if this was not enough to make him the focus of attention for every bully in the world — in this case led by Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) — not only does he see ghosts, but he insists on telling everyone about it. So, not surprisingly, he goes into school and is greeted by the word “freak” written on his locker. The only one even remotely in as much trouble is the inevitable fat boy, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi). Together, they make a good pair. However, there’s a major discontinuity between the first fifteen minutes and the rest of the film. We start off with Norman watching a creature feature on television with his grandmother (Elaine Stritch). It seems she died some years ago but is sticking around to keep an eye on our boy in case he gets himself into trouble. Then we see him walking off to school, first without his world view and then watching him react to all the ghosts around him. He’s hardly able to walk in a straight line, ducking and weaving through the crowds around him. But, once he passes through the school gates, we never see him fail to walk or ride his bicycle in a straight line. There’s never another hint he’s reacting to anything except two ghosts. His grandmother and his uncle who has the temerity to die before he can tell Norman how to deal with the “curse”.
The rest of the family is mother Sandra (Leslie Mann), father Perry (Jeff Garlin) and older sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick). In all films where the hero is a boy on the cusp of teenager status, older sisters exist in a parallel dimension, aware of their brothers in a vague way but never inclined to involve themselves in anything affecting them. The parents view their offspring as at a dangerous stage and fear for them (or maybe, as in this case, they’re afraid of them). The school has one of these over-the-top women as a drama teacher, the town has a sheriff and dim deputy, and there are the usual assortment of locals from the hillbilly yokel to well-heeled middle class citizens.
The plot is struggling to fill time allotted. In the distant past, seven Puritans conspired to kill a talented girl as a witch. Naturally, she was upset and cursed them. Once a year, on the anniversary of her burning, the seven undead return unless the witch is persuaded to go back to sleep. This task is passed down from one generation to the next except Norman fails to get the message in time. He therefore has to wing it, reacting to circumstances as best he can. Some of the early set pieces are wonderfully amusing but, in humour terms, the film shoots its bolt early. Thereafter, we’re left with a mixture of adventure and some preachy sequences when the film-makers thought they’d better give the kids an ear-bending on the need to look for the good in people, not to bully the vulnerable and not to judge people by appearances. All the pace evaporates and plot logic is sacrificed. For example, seven undead would be ripped to pieces and trampled to dust in five minutes by this marauding bunch of townsfolk. The failure to actually burn down the town hall is inexplicable. And so on.
So we should be thankful ParaNorman (2012) rejects the Disney animation approach which is to make all the humans and animals cute. You couldn’t hope to find a more dysfunctional town of people than this unhappy bunch. But the film fails to follow its own logic and so produce something satirical or frightening. Yes, there are some very funny moments, but they grow increasingly rare as the film progresses to what should be the major confrontation at the end. Sadly, there’s no real sense of menace or tension. Once the true character of the witch is revealed in a flashback midway through, even a five-year-old could predict how it will all end. So this is not a Coraline (2009) or Corpse Bride (2005). Rather it’s a film that couldn’t decide what it wanted to be and, in trying to be all things to all people, failed to keep enough of the people happy for long enough, leaving us with an empty spectacle — beautiful to behold but lacking in substance.
William Hjortsberg: now there’s a name to conjure with. Even David Copperfield has finally abandoned abracadabra and shazam. When top magicians walk on stage, waving their arms impressively over their assistant’s hypnotised body, intoning Hjortsberg as the pendulum begins to swing would always get an audience expecting some heavy duty magic — assuming you knew how to pronounce it, of course. Checking back in my records, yes I am that obsessive, I see I read Gray Matters when it first came out but, honestly, I’ve no recollection of it. That’s neither good nor bad. In my defence, I’ve read thousands of books and can’t possibly remember all of them. Alternatively, it must be Alzheimer’s. So Nevermore (first published in 1994 and now reissued as an e-book by Open Road Media) is one of the most appropriate books for someone like me to read. Although I’m not quite old enough to have been around when the action is set, I misspent most of my youth demolishing American fiction, both pulp and mainstream from this era.
William Hjortsberg is playing the same type of game as Peter Lovesey in Keystone which examines what Fatty Arbuckle might have done in the real-world film studios of 1916. William Hjortsberg has Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle investigate murders committed in the style of Edgar Allan Poe in the New York of 1923. Better still, it’s written in a pitch-perfect prose style of the day which makes it great fun to read. William Hjortsberg is blessed with a sure ear and is obviously enjoying himself with the more pulpy vocabulary and syntax of the 1920s. Ironically, in the cast of characters, we meet Damon Runyon whose style is adjacent to this. Given the chance, he could have written much of this book — with a little prompting from our William to introduce the more supernatural and macabre elements.
Before looking at the plot, we must celebrate the appearance of Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle as investigators. This use of real people is growing more common as historical fiction is popularised through mashups and steampunk. Today, all manner of real and fictional characters parade through the pages of novels for our entertainment. Arthur Conan Doyle, for example, appears alongside Oscar Wilde in the mystery series by Giles Brandreth and in one of the Murdoch Mysteries based on the characters created by Maureen Jennings, as well as having his own short television series called Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes. The nice thing about this book is that, historically, we see the relationship between Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini portrayed with some degree of accuracy. It starts us off at the fragile stage before the rather public “falling out”. As an irrelevant note, I see I’ve almost managed to publish this review on Houdini’s birthday — such is the spooky power of coincidence pretending to be a supernatural event.
So into action with spirits, ghosts, mediums and Halloween to the fore. As befits anyone who so fervently believes in spiritualism, Arthur Conan Doyle is visited by Edgar Allan Poe except it’s presented as real-time conversations, Poe characterising Doyle as “. . .a traveler from the future. . .” or a ghost emitting a spectral light. Harry Houdini gets to talk with his mother and engage in a little extramarital excitement. For once, both our heroes are on the same page (pun intended) on the reality of spiritual experiences, although not on whether the spirits are real. As the master of illusion should know, not everything you experience is real. So there are a series of deaths that recreate some of the scenes from Poe’s short stories. Arthur Conan Doyle’s initial impression is that these are random, probably the work of a madman. He opines it will be impossible to track down the killer. Except Harry Houdini slowly comes to see a link between the victims and, when he shares it with Arthur Conan Doyle, they conclude everyone in Harry Houdini’s circle may be at risk. The problem, as always in these situations, is how to guard against the unknown attacker.
Put all this together and what do we have? It’s probably fair to classify this as a pure mystery. For all there are possible supernatural elements and some references to Poe’s work suggesting a veneer of horror, Nevermore is actually a wonderful piece of literary flim-flam which, for these purposes, I will define as wit skating over the thin ice of parody and emerging with a triple lutz (one of those miraculous jumps Olympic skaters make look effortless). I was hooked from the first page and found myself irresistibly propelled to the end. Based on this, I should go back and reread Gray Matters to see what I’ve forgotten. Fortunately, this is now possible, courtesy of Open Road Media which, in addition to Nevermore, is republishing Gray Matters, Falling Angel and Symbiography as e-books. Yet more spooky coincidences.
A copy of this e-book was sent to me for review.
Well, with Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers (William Morrow, 2012), we’re back in alternate history territory with a cast of well-known characters encountering the supernatural. In this case, we’re deep into Victorian times and embedded into the world of the poets from the Prologue in 1845 to the Epilogue in 1882. In that it has the Rossetti family as central characters and involves the Nephilim, it may properly be considered a form of sequel to The Stress of Her Regard, a novel published in 1989 and much celebrated. But, before we actually set off with the review of this most recent addition to the Tim Powers canon, we need to spend a little while thinking about the creative process.
Both in what are now called steampunk and mashup novels, there are emerging clichés with anachronistic technology and various supernatural beasties arbitrarily released into eras approximating the Georgian, Victorian or Edwardian. In many cases, there’s no particular purpose to be served except to produce a different backdrop against which to slaughter vampires, zombies and assorted other creatures. The formula is the same no matter whether the genre label is steampunk or contemporary urban fantasy. A hero(ine) is confronted by dangerous thingies selected from the supernatural/horror back-catalogue and, at the end of the book, he or she has won the day, or the night depending on the beasties. The level of collateral damage among the humans also increases of decreases in line with the intended readership. Mashup novels are more pretentious because they ape the writing style of classic authors like Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Louisa May Alcott, et al. A part of the supposed interest is the incongruity of supposedly dainty figures like Fanny in Mansfield Park confronting Egyptian mummies, whereas the identity of the heroic figure is largely irrelevant to the readers who only want blood spilled in the most graphic way possible. Indeed, apart from the initial inspiration to deliberately introduce anachronisms and supernatural creatures, I see little creativity in any of these books.
Alternate history, however, is a far more exciting, not to say, respectable subgenre, particularly when it plays the game of a secret history. The idea is simple, but the execution is challenging. You take real-world events and, by introducing previously unknown facts, suggest a different interpretation. For example, F Paul Wilson runs a complete secret history behind his Adversary Cycle, even explaining in Ground Zero, what really happened on 9/11. For the most part, these extensive revisionist fictionalisations are interesting, but not technically demanding. In other words, once the author formulates the fictional “secrets”, the actual events are rewritten to fit the backstory. The better work is done by authors like Tim Powers who take the historical record and fit the fiction around it. This involves genuine research to find the cracks in the historical record through which new “information” could leak.
So here we are with the Polidori family. We should all know John Polidori because, in 1819, he wrote The Vampyre and this gives him the credit as the inventor of the blood-sucking trope that survives into modern times. He died in 1821. His sister, Frances, married Gabriele Rossetti, their children being Maria Francesca (author), Dante Gabriel (poet, painter and founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood), William Michael (writer and critic) and Christina (poet). Also involved in this book are Edward John Trelawny, a novelist and adventurer who was a member of different political and artistic groups including Byron, Swinburne and Shelley; a veterinarian, John Crawford who’s the son of Michael Crawford from The Stress of Her Regard, and Adelaide McKee, a reformed prostitute. This could have been a routine mashup in which our cast of famous poets take on and defeat John Polidori who, ironically, has become a vampire — a kind of literary infighting in a salon of the day. Except we’re cast into a fascinating alternate version of London in which ghosts, including a powerful revenant of Queen Boadicea, and now vampire-like creatures, are abroad. There are some beautiful ideas on display as ghosts infest the Thames and walk the waves of the North Sea. Birds are recruited into the fight, the Mud Larks stand by and over the Thames and, in the catacombs, the Hail Mary people find ways to keep the people of London as safe as possible. Yet, if John Polidori and the Queen can come together in the right way, the Queen may finally realise her dream of destroying London.
In all forms of art, there’s a mythology surrounding muses — often depicted as supernatural creatures who inspire the best work in the creative. Tim Powers produces an ironic difficulty for this artistic group to confront. It seems they also produce their best work when under the influence of these “vampires”. To fight and destroy these “muses” may also mean the writing and painting returns to a mediocre level — a neat intellectual and emotional trap for these people who live for the respect of their peers and the adulation of their readers. Indeed, poets might steal these muses, despite the known risks. Anyway, the two key events to set the ball rolling are that Christina is tempted into inviting her dead uncle John Polidori into the family home. And seven years before the main action begins, John Crawford and Adelaide McKee conceive a daughter, Johanna, who has disappeared from Adelaide’s care and is thought dead. Now the couple are drawn together again by the news their daughter did not die. Rather she’s being used by the Nephilim. In such circumstances, all interested parties must combine to see what can be done to save all the children who prove at risk. As in The Stress of Her Regard, we also have the link between statues and what they represent. For Trelawny, this is rather more personal, making him a literal bridge. It sticks in the craw to say it, but the Polidori link may have been buried.
Hide Me Among the Graves is a completely fascinating historical novel set in a beautifully realised alternate London where supernatural forces are threatening the lives of both the talented and the ordinary folk in cataclysmic destruction. Although I think it’s slightly longer than necessary, Tim Powers holds interest through the inventiveness of the developing plot and produces an entirely satisfactory outcome that is entirely consistent with the historical facts as we know them. In an alternate history novel, you can’t ask for a better result.
For a review of another book by Tim Powers, see Salvage and Demolition.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
One of the most interesting features of information available to us is how quickly it enters the left ear and leaves by the right with almost nothing to show it ever spent time in-between. Yet, every now and again, one phrase or, in some extraordinary cases, an entire sentence will magically lodge itself in long-term memory. It’s as if we always knew this new thing yet never recognised it before. For example, in V for Vendetta, we discover that, “Beneath this mask there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea, Mr. Creedy, and ideas are bulletproof.” We always knew you can’t kill an idea with bullets, but this scene somehow personalises it. We also know the same thing can happen to faith. The major religions of the world and their antithesis atheism seem to have weathered various attempts to eradicate them. Sometimes, the harder you push against a belief system, the harder it pushes back.
One of the times when the battle between faith and its enemies was drawn in more epic terms was during the Enlightenment. Not only were rationalism in general and science in particular threatening to displace ideas thought divinely defined, but religion itself was experiencing the Protestant reaction against the Catholic Church started by Martin Luther. This produced a period of intense conflict both physical and political as the emerging secular governments began to assert their right to rule without interference from the pulpits. At this point, let’s consider one simple proposition. In the opera houses throughout Italy, the emotion of life was expressed in newly permitted romanticism. Through the music, audiences could soar to new heights of passion and understanding. In the churches, sung masses were also developing into major musical events where massed voices were raised in celebration of the divine. When both secular and religious music was performed, there was always the possibility of “faith healing”. People in churches might be able to throw away crutches and walk again. People might leave an opera house with a depression lifted. In modern medicine, we talk learnedly of the placebo effect. In those times, such occurrences were considered miraculous or in need of scientific exploration to determine the cause.
So, in The Black Opera by Mary Gentle (Night Shade Books, 2012) let’s assume an alternate world, not unlike our own, in which a third party group emerges to represent the interests of the Prince of Darkness. Now we come to the problem of coincidence. Suppose this group believes in the power of music to change the world in the literal sense. They try an experiment and, while singing a Black Opera to their version of Krakatoa, it explodes and shrouds the world in volcanic ash. Not worrying whether there’s actual cause and effect, this group now plans a second performance. This time, they will sing to Mount Etna or Stromboli or both. Should the local Kings get wind of this plan, they would obviously commission a countervailing opera. We’re in Sicily and the King must find someone he can trust to produce it. At first, he gets the best in Italy to come to Sicily, but all their efforts are frustrated by illnesses and accidents — i.e. subtle sabotage. The project is abandoned as cursed. So he turns to an atheist librettist to pull something out of the fire. I forgot to mention this poet has only six weeks to bring the finished performance to the stage. Fortunately his cross-dressing sister thinks she’s a composer and a top-class violinist so she can also conduct. Now let’s be clear. There’s no need for anyone to believe Mount Etna will actually erupt, but it’s the idea that it might. . . Once it enters the heads of the King and his confidants, it’s not something that can be ignored. The idea has become bulletproof.
Anyway, our librettist is short of inspiration so, naturally, he resists the temptation to bounce ideas off the ghost of his father. He’s sworn an oath of secrecy and can’t trust his father not to talk out of turn. Perhaps someone ought to exorcise the father. Then the King selects a noble-born Count to write the music. He’s a poser who thinks he’s a composer with the librettist’s ex-lover as his wife, except she’s dead — this first zombie is only included because she’s a Countess and blessed with the most beautiful voice opera has ever heard. That’s always going to be a social challenge to add to the shortness of time to get words and music together. Then there’s the problem of the librettist’s dead father’s debts. Surprising, really, how quickly these distractions are piling up. Then the rehearsal theatre burns down. As you will gather, this is a fantasy with a sense of humour. Perhaps all this should become the libretto. It has all the drama. Surely no-one would miss hearing about an Aztec Princess anyway?
While he’s waiting for the music to catch up to his words, our librettist is sent off on a secret mission. The Satanic Cult is planning to destabilise the King of Sicily and something has to be done. After a successful outcome, it’s into the catacombs to continue the rehearsals while rumblings in Etna suggest the Black Opera is also in rehearsal. And then comes a revelation that changes everything! And here’s something to chew on while you read the book. If there was an eruption, there would be a lot of dead people. . .
I can’t remember reading a fantasy with such sensibilities before. It’s a magnificent blend of our history and a radically different alternate history in which religion and rationalism clash in a completely unexpected way. I was entranced by the possibility of our atheist librettist being able to debate theology with the dead. Anyway, putting this speculation to one side, I’m reminded of Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche. In both our history and this fantasy world, humanity might give meaning to life through a belief in a God. Indeed, the absence of such a belief would be likely to produce a dangerously unstable nihilism. So if an Übermensch was to emerge, it would create a new set of values affirming the value of continued existence without having to rely on Platonic idealism. In such a case, the Übermensch would not be an individual. It would probably take the form of a Volksgeist, a spirit collectively representing the human race, or at least a substantial part of it.
At this point, I apologise to my readers. I’ve allowed myself to be distracted by philosophical issues that are not directly relevant to The Black Opera. Mary Gentle is playing with some heavyweight themes, but you don’t need to be interested in such background issues to enjoy this book. So here comes the headline. I was entranced, but I acknowledge that I’m a sucker for big idea books. It’s a wonderful story capturing the detail of how to write and stage an opera in six weeks, hoping it will somehow prevent a volcanic eruption. If that’s all you want, you will enjoy this book. If you want more, you only have to look beneath the surface of what happens when the curtain finally goes up.
And will you just look at the fabulous cover artwork from Sam Burley! Everyone who likes spectacular art should take a moment to look at his site.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
House of Fear edited by Jonathan Oliver is predominantly a British anthology, filled to the rafters with the best of the current crop of our writers even if one is a renegade American now living in Scotland and another is a renegade Englishman now living in Amsterdam. Only two actual Americans have made the cut. This is not to suggest the haunted house is, or should be, a British speciality and others will trespass at their peril. But rather to reflect the taste preferences of the editor. This is his second anthology for Solaris Books — for the record, Jonathan Oliver is the Editor-in-Chief for both Abaddon Books and Solaris Books.
“Objects In Dreams May Be Closer Than They Appear” by Lisa Tuttle is a beautifully told variation on a traditional scenario. The realisation of the woman is perfect in pitch as she finds herself once again in a car looking for that dream house. “Pied-à-terre” by Stephen Volk is another story where the characters of those involved are instantly recognisable. The two marriages are captured in a relatively few words. Having lived for a time in a house not unlike the one described, the type of home strikes a resonance in my memory. The only element of uncertainty is the author’s decision to make the ghost a real person. It’s not that I disapprove. Indeed, the story hangs on the issue of identity. But I’m not sure it’s entirely fair on the reader because it changes the nature of the experience from straight fiction to a kind of parable in which a message about how to find happiness (or avoid further pain) is passed from “beyond the grave”. In Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen offers us a fantasy in which a hack screenwriter is given the chance to hang out with Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, et al. This strikes me as legitimate magic realism because we’re asked to see the characters as they were in life. Stephen Volk seems to be inviting us to see this ghost as a kind of catalyst to encourage women to re-evaluate their lives. I don’t know, off-hand, whether this person was a counsellor or interested in supporting battered wives but the ghost is apparently appearing to a “type”. It’s not a notorious fact about this individual’s life. So I’m inclined to think Stephen Volk is imposing this motive on to the ghost and thereby converting a good story into something gratuitously exploitative.
“In the Absence of Murdoch” is a completely entrancing contribution from Terry Lamsley. He’s been a consistent performer for some years now (shame no-one has ever been able to persuade him to write a novel) and this displays a slightly weird sense of humour at work as birds of different types leave the nest and/or crash on landing. This should be a contender for an award for best short story of the year. “Florrie” by Adam L G Nevill takes us down the well-trodden path of possession as the new owner of a home finds himself increasingly identifying with the interests and prejudices of the older generation. This is elegantly done. “Driving the Milky Way” by Weston Ochse is another wonderful story, this time dealing with the innocence of youth. That it bends the editorial brief by selecting an RV rather than a house is neither here nor there. There’s great sadness here and, although the survivor’s response is not terribly rational, his obsession is credible. I hope he can join his friends on their journey.
“The Windmill” by Rebecca Levene nicely diverts the reader’s attention and produces a slightly vicious story of revenge. Imagine a man slowly losing the things he holds most dear, starting with this car. It might tip him over the edge. “Moretta” by Garry Kilworth is somewhat less successful in that it’s traditional with people dying in an old house. In these days of fictionalised CSI technicians to pore over all potential sources of evidence from the scene of unexplained deaths, including all the furniture in the rom and the bedding, it seems inconceivable the house could have remained in the state as described in this story. Personally, I would have cleaned and tied up the place, changing the bedding before sleeping in the bed. Perhaps I’m more fastidious than our heroes. This is not to deny the creation of good atmosphere, but to recognise a falling off from the more general high standard of stories to date.
“Hortus Conclusus” by Chaz Brenchley restores us to a more inventive approach with the sad truth that the dead may be jealous of our continued life. Why should they be the ones to die? Why couldn’t it have been us? Moving along: as an atheist, I can only say, if I was going to have a God, “The Dark Space in the House. . .” by Robert Shearman gives me the picture of the kind of guy I would want, even though He does seem somewhat hung-up on negative psychology. This is great fun. “The Muse of Copenhagen” by Nina Allan is a most pleasing story of a succubus from Scandinavia finding a home in England.
Christopher Fowler inverts expectations in “The Injustice” by speculating on what people should do with the evidence they obtain when searching for the supernatural. To whom do they owe a duty of care? Put another way, if the ghost-hunters fail to act on what they find, should they be liable for any injustice this causes? Perhaps I should not be surprised to find stories of real emotional intensity in a book blending the supernatural with horror but “The Room Upstairs” by Sarah Pinborough adds a rather unexpected dimension. Other stories in this anthology have dealt with varying shades of emotion in a fairly narrow range. This represents a provocation into more honest feelings. What we have lost can never really be recovered. All we can hope to do is replace the missing with something new that helps take away the pain. Even then there’s no guarantee of lasting happiness, only the hope of better times to come. “Villanova” by Paul Meloy plays in the same sandbox as the seminal The Stone Tape by Nigel Kneale. Sometimes places record past events and, given the right trigger, these recordings can be replayed. So it is when a family go on a holiday break to a French campsite out-of-season. They find themselves caught up in a replay of what has gone before.
“In Widow’s Weeds”, Christopher Priest has come up with an interesting way of giving tuition. Although the learning outcomes appear significant, there may be downsides to explore before marketing this method for more general use. “The Doll’s House” by Jonathan Green is a classic story as postpartum depression may have been triggered by the arrival of the titular toy and its housekeeper. “Inside/Out” by Nicholas Royle is intriguing both as a commentary on our station in life (in a more general version of the u and non-u sense) and as a story about a man who finally reconnects with a memory of a tender moment only to recognise this internalised memory may be a trap. “The House” by Eric Brown is an elegant variation on the “house” theme, nicely trapping our older hero in the clutches of his dead wife’s curse. Let’s hope the moonlight ending is real and not a “ghostly chicken coming home to roost”. “Trick of the Light” by Tim Lebbon takes us down another well-trodden path but does so with some style. Finally, “What Happened To Me?” by Joe R Lansdale produces the ultimate grandstand finish. It captures the simple trusting love a young girl may have for another girl met in the woods. She brings the girl home and they grow up together but, as is always the way with families, there comes a time when these friends must part, leaving the girl from the woods behind. She grows bitter and angry with anyone who comes to occupy the house. It’s a riveting, page-turning read leading to a genuinely satisfying note on which to end the anthology. If hauntings are evidence of bitterness and anger, let’s hope there can always be a chance for reconciliation and healing.
Without exception, these stories most powerfully create a sense of the places and the people who inhabit them. Rather than merely plot-driven, they show us the humanity of those who may find themselves exposed to the supernatural. Weak or strong, everyone does their best to move on with their lives, although not always with complete success. This is a singularly impressive anthology. The fact I have spent rather longer than usual discussing these stories should indicate how much I have been provoked into thought (in a good way, of course). House of Fear should be read by everyone with an interest in high-quality ghost and horror stories.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
For the record, House of Fear has been shortlisted in the Best Anthology category by the British Fantasy Society, with “Florie” by Adam Nevill shortlisted in the Short Fiction category.
It’s always a challenge to put together a themed anthology. Too many stories feeling the same can leave the reader with a jaded palate. In Blood and other cravings, we’re offered vampires, except Ellen Datlow challenged her authors to avoid the traditional while still providing something that would feed upon others.
It all begins beautifully with “All You Can Do is Breathe” by Kaaron Warren. The question, of course, is what else a predator might want to take from its victim? This is a desperately sad story of what the trauma of being trapped underground for days can do to people. When first rescued, they can seem bouncy and glad to be alive. Later, depression overwhelms them. They seem empty, as empty as if something had sucked all the life out of them. “Needles” by Elizabeth Bear is somewhat more traditional with a couple of creatures moving from town to town, each finding relief and sustenance in their own ways. The nice thing about it is the essential tedium of the lifestyle. They run from and to each satisfying release only to have to do it all over again the next day and night. “Baskerville’s Midgets” by Reggie Oliver is the first of two reprints. It’s a beautifully judged atmospheric tale of seven midgets who come back for their Snow White. Who would have thought a game of hide-and-seek could make the bond so strong. “Blood Yesterday, Blood Tomorrow” by Richard Boyd asserts there’s a cycle in fashions. Sometimes it’s in to be a vampire. The other times, you have to go cold turkey which has little blood and is unsatisfying. Once you’ve kicked the habit, the years may pass, but not the nostalgia for the excitement of it all. What would it be like if it could start all over again?
As an irrelevant note, it’s always fun when an author locates a story in a place you know. “X For Demetrious” by Steve Duffy picks on Penkull which really does have a vampire history. I should know. I used to drink in The Wellington just round the corner from The Villas. Based on the facts, this is a beautifully told story of a life-long obsession and torment. Sometimes people never can break out of the mould they are forced into at birth and by their upbringing. “Keeping Corky” by Melanie Tem is a fascinating and daring exercise in point of view with a mother struggling to remember her child and then finding she has lost him. This is an affecting and tragic story in which, despite the effort of those who believe they know better, the love and hope of reunion is never sucked out of her. “Shelf-life” by Lisa Tuttle is another highly inventive way of bending the vampire trope. The sense of family is particularly powerful as mothers intervene to protect their daughters. Who can say whether the potential danger can ever really be neutralised. “Cauis” by Bill Pronzini and Barry N Malzberg plays with the notion of emotional and ideological vampirism, suggesting a different form of manipulation and extraction routinely available in our everyday lives, if it’s to our taste, of course. “Sweet Sorrow” by Barbara Roden develops the theme of emotions as food in a stand-out story of loss and despair, first by parents and the neighbourhood, later by just one incautious individual who should have known better.
“First Breath” by Nicole J LeBeouf is one of those rather pleasing stories that blends the supernatural and the physical together. It’s entirely possible there are predatory spirits waiting to take possession of our bodies. The pertinent question is where they originate. “Toujours” by Kathe Koja is another of these beautifully judged stories in which a slight variation on the role of Éminence grise brings us the inside story on the power behind the throne: first buy the throne, then find someone to sit on it, and not be afraid if someone appears to take the “king” away — repeat as necessary. “Miri” by Steve Rasnic Tem is a story of mental disintegration as an artist finds his world losing its colour and slipping into an increasingly dislocated black and white. What is it, exactly, that encourages a man to give up on himself, his job and his family? Perhaps remembering someone he once knew could be a trigger. “Mrs Jones” by Carol Emshwiller, an old but delightfully weird story from 1993, sees one sister take her chance for a little affection when something obviously male appears in their orchard, albeit the other bits might give cause for concern. In “Bread and Water”, Michael Cisco teaches us that diseases may come in many different forms. If you are unlucky and catch one, you may surrender yourself to death only to find the end does not come as easily as you were expecting. Indeed, more startlingly, what if you began to recover although not quite as you were before?
“Mulberry Boys” by Margo Lanagan is a powerful story about the exploitation of a people thought inferior. It’s perhaps appropriate for this to be an Australian story given that the urbanised immigrants of that distant island continue to discriminate against and abuse the aborigines. This story matches others in which “people” are treated as a natural resource and either harvested directly or farmed for what natural product they produce inside their bodies. This is particularly creepy and makes us root for the possibility of them throwing off the yoke of oppression. “The Third Always Beside You” by John Langan is almost an old-fashioned story in which the nature of the supernatural occurrence may seem rather less threatening except, of course, the actual effect on the couple is plainly horrific in psychological terms assuming, of course, they are both aware of it. Perhaps it’s our uncertainty as to whether they are wholly aware of it that’s so unsettling. Finally, in “The Siphon” by Laird Barron we get to ask whether psychopaths are merely human or have connections to creatures living in the cracks between the worlds. In this case, a man with secrets is eventually recruited by the NSA and finds himself at the centre of an operation to track a spy who might want to “come in from the cold”. Unfortunately, this spy is also of interest to other people of power which leads to some tension between the different groups and the sense our hero’s secrets may no longer be safe.
Taken overall, Blood and other cravings shows Ellen Datlow at her best. Although the theme is set, the diversity of responses from the authors is remarkable. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that, if you picked up the book without the jacket (which is more slasher than vampire) and failed to read the introduction, you might not realise this was a themed anthology — which is the highest praise you can ever give the commissioning editor.
For reviews of other anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow, see:
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume One
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Two
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Three
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Four
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Five
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
For the record, the Stoker Awards have been announced. The anthology was shortlisted for Superior Achievement in an Anthology, while “All You Can Do is Breathe” by Kaaron Warren was shortlisted for a Stoker for Superior Achievement in Short Fiction. Blood is also nominated as Best Edited Anthology in the 2011 Shirley Jackson Awards.
Suppose you were going to plan the writing of a ghost story set in a “haunted” house, there are an almost inexhaustible supply of possible details you could include. It would all start with the house itself. It would have to be in a fairly isolated location. Perhaps the physical approach should be limited, say by having to pass over a narrow foot bridge. Ah, then there could be a racing, not to say roaring, river running through a narrow gorge. There could be forbidding cliffs. The whole atmosphere would have to be filtered through a lot of rain. Even when the rain ceases, there would have to be an air of dampness contributing to a general lack of a welcome as you enter the house. It will feel chilly. The lights will not work reliably. There will be a cellar door that’s found open even though the occupants are careful to ensure they always lock it. In the cellar, there will be a well that drops down to the river below. Perhaps there will also be an old mangle and other things that look strange in the dark — not including the generator that’s supposed to kick in when the lights fail, of course. There may be odd small pools of water on the floor of the main room in the hall and climbing the stairs, suggestive of footprints. Noises will disturb the quiet of the house. A swing in the garden may seem to be occupied, perhaps by a child. Animals will shun the place. No-one will stay there long. Even the ladies who come in once a month to keep the place reasonably clean prefer to work in pairs. Perhaps a local will tell the newcomers something of the history of the house. A local psychic may be persuaded to offer advice as a general sense of menace begins to affect the newcomers.
And that’s us just getting our imaginations warmed up. When we want to make it all really spooky, there can be so many ways in which we can hint more than show. The more vague the descriptions the better. It allows the readers’ imaginations to fill in the gaps.
I confess to starting off The Secret of Crickley Hall thinking it was overly ambitious of James Herbert to believe he could sustain such a story for more than 600 pages. Indeed, it’s all meticulously catalogued as the point of view shifts from one member of the family to another and then to include the psychic and others. There’s such a lot of detail and, in a sense, a relentless pursuit of the next hint or event as the days slowly pass. Yet, for all my misgivings, I ended up hooked. Yes, James Herbert is somewhat ticking the boxes of all the standard elements in a classic ghost story but, for all there’s a certain lack of originality, there’s some remarkable craftsmanship on show. The devil, they say, is in the details and by their accumulated weight and effective deployment, they slowly build tension as it becomes obvious what’s happening. It may not be the devil, but it certainly proves very dangerous.
So this is a book nicely balancing the supernatural with a horror element. The background story of the children evacuees during WWII is not overdone and there’s an interesting subtext of bigotry and racism added in. Set against this, the modern family who move into the house are struggling with their own tragedy. In a way, this creates a theme of guilt. One year before the story starts, the mother’s failure to stay alert allowed the disappearance of her son. In the 1940s, locals in the village near the Hall failed to protect the children when they were at risk. Even today, some in the village want the past covered up. One old man overlaps in time. He was young when the children arrived and was attracted to a young woman who later came as a teacher. He’s older when the two children in the new family arrive. Fortunately, he likes dogs. There are other survivors from earlier times who will contribute to unravelling the “secret”. It’s a rather clever secret, particularly as it applies to the eleventh child, adding quite an adult theme to the underlying relationships. As always in books like The Secret of Crickley Hall, James Herbert milks the climax. Personally, I think it takes slightly too long for the husband to get back from London but, if we are to get all the secret out in the open, everyone must be allowed their say.
Overall, this is a fine example of a ghost story morphing into a modern horror story set largely in a haunted house. It’s well worth reading in a macabre, fun kinda way.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.