Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Happy Halloween!

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Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The 7th Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories


This is the penultimate Aickman-edited volume, and here he contributes an introduction and a story, repeating his theme that “scientific advance and naked horror are rapidly becoming hard to differentiate” and that ghost stories provide a “world elsewhere” in which we can be free.  The 7th Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories contains:

“Levitation”, by Joseph Payne Brennan.  Set in the always unsavory world of the carnival, this very short story is quickly read, enjoyed, and forgotten.

“Dearth’s Farm”, by Gerald Bullett.  The protagonist visits a country cousin whose husband has a close relationship with his horse.  Aickman talks this story up in his introduction, and it is unusual, but pretty flat.

“Esmeralda”, by John Keir Cross.  This story of a middle-aged tobacconist with an unhappy marriage is vividly written and unexpectedly savage.  A highlight of the collection.

“The Dead Valley,” by Ralph Adams Cram.  Cram was known more for architecture than fiction, but this story of, well, a dead valley, is certainly memorable.  Aickman says it “describes the border landscape between the outer vision and the inner.”

“The Visit to the Museum”, by Vladimir Nabokov.  A man’s trip to a provincial museum becomes increasingly surreal, and he may never exit, at least not to a destination he desires.

“Gone Away”, by A.E. Coppard.  Aickman (perhaps not much of a traveler?) claims that anyone crossing the English Channel will have, at times, the feeling expressed in this story of three tourists encountering inexplicable events as they drive through France.  Coppard skillfully portrays a quickly burgeoning panic here.

“Governor Manco and the Soldier,” by Washington Irving.  Irving is far from New York in this enjoyable Spanish tale.

“The Cicerones,” by Robert Aickman.  For me, at least, this is one of Aickman’s more opaque tales (which is saying something).  Trent tours a Flemish cathedral with some unexpected guides.  “The Cicerones” is full of religious allusions and sustained menace.

“Old Mrs. Jones,” by Mrs. Riddell.  In this Victorian novella, a new family rents an old house in London, only to learn that the ghost of Mrs. Jones is said to roam about at night.  The Joneses mysteriously disappeared (“The Kilkenny cats left their tails behind them, but the doctor and his wife took away every bit of their bodies”), hence the availability and affordability of the house.  “Solid literary craftsmanship” here, as Aickman puts it.

“Over an Absinthe Bottle,” by W.C. Morrow.  Down on his luck, Kimberlin plays dice with a stranger in a San Francisco restaurant.

“Where the Woodbine Twineth,” by Davis Grubb.  Grubb, best known for Night of the Hunter, lays on the Southern flavor in this concise tale of New World fairies. 

Monday, September 3, 2018

The 6th Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories



The 5th Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories is unreasonably priced on Amazon, but for whatever reason the sixth volume is less valued.  Although the stories in this volume are “selected by Robert Aickman”, he didn’t contribute either an introduction or a story of his own.  His selection includes:

“Clarimonde (La Morte Amoureuse)” by Théophile Gautier.  “My story is a strange and terrible one,” says the elderly priest Romauld as he recounts how at the very moment of his ordination, his eye falls upon an enticing stranger who tempts him to renounce his vows.  It is the titular Clarimonde, a lovely and debauched courtesan.  Summoned to her deathbed (“With her, death seemed but a last coquetry”), he is told that “the tombstone of Clarimonde should be sealed down with a triple seal, for, if report be true, it is not the first time she has died.”  Romauld learns that his love of the flesh may be stronger than his love of God, and the fact that Gautier (in Lafcadio Hearn’s silky translation) is ambiguous about which is the preferred choice makes this excellent story all the better.  “Clarimonde” was published in 1836, and it seems highly likely that the story was a big influence on Bram Stoker.  I hadn’t heard of Gautier before this, but based on “Clarimonde” I will be seeking out his other works.

“The Grey Ones” by J.B. Priestley.  From priests to Priestley.  Mr. Patson consults a psychiatrist about his worry that an “Evil Principle” seeks to “turn us into automatic creatures, mass beings without individuality, soulless machines of flesh and blood… to wipe from the face of this earth all wonder, joy, deep feeling, the desire to create, to praise life.”  Today, don’t we call this the internet?  

“The Door in the Wall” by H.G. Wells.  This is Wells’ well-anthologized poignant tale of the lost things of childhood.  It is miles away from his science fiction stories.

“Priscilla and Emily Lofft” by George Moore.  These two sisters were, at least superficially, “as alike as two casts come out of the same mold”, but now Priscilla has died, and Emily has time to reflect.  “The dead are never really dead, Emily said, until we cease to think of them.”  I must confess I missed the point of this story, or the reason for inclusion in this collection.

“Sorworth Place”, by Russell Kirk.  Former soldier Ralph Bain comes to Scotland and the town of Sorworth, finding that the “dirty and dreary little town” holds “a big ancient house, wraithlike against the heather and gorse and bracken.” Intrigued by the lovely proprietress of Sorworth Place, Bain wrangles an invitation.  As they draw closer, she tells him:
“Don’t you understand? I’m afraid of my husband.”
Bain stared at her. “Your husband? I understood – I thought he’s dead.”
“Quite,” said Ann Lurlin.
“Sorworth Place” is cozily ominous and eminently entertaining.  It was adapted, probably horribly, for Rod Serling’s Night Gallery.

“Where Their Fire Is Not Quenched”, by May Sinclair.  This is a bleak, sad, and savage tale of adultery and eternity.  Most of Sinclair’s work did not involve the supernatural, but based on this story any of her writings would be worth seeking out.

“Oke of Okehurst”, by Vernon Lee.  This novella is the basis for the cover illustration of the unfortunate Elizabethan gent in the ditch.  It takes up over a quarter of The 6th Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories, space which might have been used more wisely.  It is the story of an artist hired for a portrait of Mrs. Oke (of Okehurst), who greatly resembles a 16th century ancestor.  Lee (pen name of Violet Paget) takes a long time to get where she is going, and provides only mild enjoyment along the way.

“The Lips”, by Henry S. Whitehead.  Whitehead was a frequent contributor to Weird Tales and other pulps, and a good friend of H.P. Lovecraft.  He was best known for his West Indian-flavored stories.  “The Lips” is the simple story of a slave trader who gets a nasty comeuppance, although the racist language is the most unpleasant part.  It bears a strong resemblance to Edward Lucas White’s “Lukundoo”, which was published a few years before “The Lips”.

Monday, August 27, 2018

100 Favorite Horror Stories

NPR recently asked listeners to nominate their favorite horror reading.  There is a lot of familiar territory on the list, from Mary Shelley to Shirley Jackson, but there are also a number of intriguing lesser-knowns.  It's worth a look.  Here are some of the most interesting:

Saturday, August 18, 2018

The Body Snatcher (1945)



Val Lewton was a master of horror.  Not the gory, gross kind of horror, but a very controlled, haunting, beautiful kind.  The Body Snatcher is an excellent example of his mastery.  Here, Robert Wise directed and Lewton produced, but he also rewrote Philip MacDonald’s script, taking a pseudonymous credit as Carlos Keith. 

The Body Snatcher is loosely based on the Robert Louis Stevenson short story, referencing the Burke and Hare resurrectionist murders.  Boris Karloff is the body snatcher Gray, chief supplier for the arrogant Dr. MacFarlane, played by Henry Daniell.  Daniell, in perhaps his largest role, is adequate but nothing more.  His character, coldly willing to sacrifice morals for the sake of scientific progress, tormented by Gray and by his own self-doubt, is a good one, but his performance is less than masterful.

Karloff, in the first of his three roles with Lewton, gives a memorable performance.  He portrays a man eaten by moral rot yet full of evil vitality; full of strong passions but pitiless.  He shows he can be monstrous without monster makeup, although in this case he is frighteningly human as well, brimming with bitterness and jealousy.  Karloff is very sinister here, but his portrayal is not without humanity and sympathy.  The mutual hatred between Gray and MacFarlane is sometimes muted in Daniell’s performance, but always strongly portrayed by Karloff.  Karloff said Lewton was “the man who rescued me from the living dead and restored my soul”, and here Lewton (and Wise) make him shine.

Also present is Bela Lugosi, but as MacFarlane’s servant Joseph he is underutilized. He is only there for his name on the credits, and in fact the theatrical trailer was designed to suggest that his part would be much larger.  Suffering from stomach ulcers and perhaps already a morphine addict, Lugosi looks quite ill, as if even this small part is an effort for him.  This was the last Karloff/Lugosi teaming.

As usual, Lewton manages to do a lot with a little: the shadowy world of 1830’s Edinburgh is competently evoked through a few simple sets; Gray’s horse and cab clop down narrow, cobbled lanes.  An angelic-voiced street singer lightens the darkness with her voice in many scenes.  This is psychological horror; despite the theme, there aren’t many shots of bodies or their parts.  It suggests rather than shows:  shadows on a wall of a vicious struggle while Gray’s cat watches on, a victim murdered off-screen in a dark tunnel, grave robbing on a dark and stormy night.  The ending sequence is perfect, a horror classic that burns into memory.

Here as in all of his films, Lewton put a great deal of effort into all aspects of the production, elevating it above the horror film standard.  In the wrong hands, The Body Snatcher could have been excruciatingly boring, just another B movie, but with Lewton’s attention to detail and artistry, and Karloff’s great performance, it really shines- a minor classic.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Spooky Ukiyo-e

Hitsune sees the skull beneath the skin (and everywhere else)
I recently came across this article in the Japan Times about an exhibit of ukiyo-e horror art, with lurid, grotesque illustrations from ghost stories and folklore.  Pictured above is a triptych from "The Dream of Hitsune", a kabuki drama, in which the villain is prevented from further mischief by a vision of the bones of his previous victims.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

"Weird... alarming... occult": The 4th Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories

Robert Aickman begins his introduction to Fontana #4 with a dour rant against science and the familiar prophecy that science will, if not kill us all, at least "close in the world around us, shutter by shutter..."  He continues with "truth can be found only through the imagination" before getting on with it:  "Ghost stories inquire and hint, waver and dissemble, startle and astonish.  They are a last refuge from the universal affirmative shout."

The 4th Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories contains ten stories, starting with The Accident, by Ann Bridge, the pen name of an author not know for ghost stories, who based most of her work, including this story, on her travels.  The Accident takes place at a Swiss resort and involves mountain climbers menaced, without much of a motive, by the spirits of deceased mountain climbers.

Not on the Passenger List, by Barry Pain, is one of the more satisfying stories in the collection.  On an ocean liner crossing the Atlantic, a jealous shade pursues a widow on her way to remarry.  Pain's tale is congenial and concise, sunny yet chilly, and makes me want to read more of his horror stories and other fiction.

To call Oscar Wilde's The Sphinx without a Secret a ghost story is to use an already loose term even more loosely.

Vincent O'Sullivan's When I was Dead quickly veers in an unexpected direction as the narrator mentions his belief that "if you place some drops of human blood near you, and then concentrate, you will after a while see a man or a woman who will stay with you during long hours of the night..."

The Queen of Spades by Pushkin, is the story of an elderly countess in possession of a surefire way to win at cards and the avaricious soldier who wants the knowledge at any price.  Needless to say, things end badly for him.  Tchaikovsky loosely based an opera on this story.

The ghostly strangulation depicted on the cover of this volume comes from Hugh Walpole's The Snow, in which a temperamental second wife fails to heed the warnings of the protective first wife's ghost.

Along with Not on the Passenger List, Carleton's Father, by Eric Ambrose, is one of the highlights of this collection.  The plot involves a room insulated from time, and the writing has a classic pulp magazine tone.

What can be said about A School Story, by M.R. James?  James is frequently, and deservedly, anthologized and this classic might be his most frequently printed story.  I've read it so many times in different places that I have it almost memorized.  "He was beastly thin, and he looked as if he was wet all over, and... I'm not at all sure he was alive."  James specialized in concise chills.

In The Wolves of Cernogratz, by Saki, wolves appear and howl when members of the aristocratic von Cernogratz family die in their castle.

Mad Monkton, by Wilkie Collins, involves hereditary madness in 60 gothic pages, over one third of the total word count in The 4th Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories.  It's enjoyable, but a few more shorter stories would have been preferable instead.  There's no contribution from Aickman in this collection; his writing (The Swords) returns in the next volume.