Saturday, September 22, 2012

The 3rd Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories

After a slight dip in quality in the second volume, the Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories is back with a “Boo”!  Even Robert Aickman’s introduction has more zest.  Aickman writes that “As an antidote to daily living in a compulsorily egalitarian society, a good ghost story… can bring real joy.”  He attempts to define a good ghost story as one that opens a door and leaves it ajar at the end of the story, perhaps referring to his own open-ended tales.

E.F. Benson, celibate son of an Archbishop of Canterbury, leads off the collection with Negotium Perambulans, in which a similarly celibate narrator returns to the idyllic Cornish town of his youth to encounter an ambiguous creature which, though not very pleasant itself, preys on the wicked.  Benson wrote many excellent supernatural stories, and this is among them.
“There he lay a-dying,” said the last of my informants, “and him that had been a great burly man was withered to a bag o’ skin, for the critter had drained all the blood from him.  His last breath was a scream…”
The End of the Flight, by Somerset Maugham, involves a man pursued around Malaysia by another bent on revenge.  Supernatural elements are hardly even suggested, but the story does leave the door ajar at the end. 

The next 71 pages are deservedly taken up by Oliver Onions’ The Beckoning Fair One.  It is one of the best ghost stories.  Aickman says it best in his introduction:  “An almost perfect story, its perfection is the more impressive by reason of the unusual but indispensable length to which it is sustained.”

The Dream, by A.J. Alan, is a simple story, but it’s told in such a straightforward, avuncular way that it is impossible to dislike.  Alan’s conversational style served him well, as he broadcast his stories on the BBC from 1924-1940.  My guess is that this one may also have begun as a radio broadcast. 

I didn’t care for The Stranger, by Hugh MacDiarmid (known more for his poetry).  It’s the tale of a possibly-unearthly stranger in a pub, which like Alan’s story preceding it could be summed up in a few sentences.  Here, however, MacDiarmid doesn’t create the atmosphere needed for such simplicity to work.

The Case of Mr. Lucraft, by Sir Walter Besant and James Rice, who wrote together from 1871-1882, is highly enjoyable.  I appreciate the fact that in these Fontana anthologies Aickman selected some completely unique premises, and this is one of them.  The unfortunate Mr. Lucraft, narrating from advanced years, takes us through his early life when he bargained away his appetite to the sinister Mr. Grumbelow:

“You will dip the pen,” said the old gentleman, “in the blood.  It is a mere form.  A mere form, because we have no ink handy.”

Another unique story is The Seventh Man, by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, which could have been a prototype for Arctic (and Antarctic) horror to come:      

“There, before him, on the frozen coat of snow, was a footprint... many footprints.  Prints of a naked human foot: right foot, left foot, both naked, and blood in each print – a little smear.” 

No Ships Pass, by Lady Eleanor Smith, is one of the few in this anthology I’ve read before.  Maybe this is why it seemed on a second reading a bit too lengthy for what it is; enjoyable, though, as a castaway washes up onto an island and finds himself in a tropical version of No Exit.  

The Man Who Came Back, by William Gerhardi, might have benefitted from a less descriptive title, but is a nicely written example of a concise and traditional ghost story.

Aickman finishes the collection with The Visiting Star, in which an ageless actress comes to perform in a dull mining town in the middle of winter.  I greatly enjoy Aickman, and hadn’t come across this story before.  As is often the case with his works, The Visiting Star is understated, somewhat rambling, and leaves much open to interpretation.  

So, Aickman has selected a wide range of atmospheric supernatural stories here; some are frequently anthologized, some rarely seen, but almost all are highly entertaining. 

Sunday, September 2, 2012

"Isopod" is coming... maybe not to a theater near you.

After filming in 2010 in Georgetown, South Carolina, and dropping off the radar for quite some time, Barry Levinson's "ecological horror" film "Isopod" (or "The Bay", whichever it is) is finally being released on November 2nd, following showings at the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival.  However, the film, which doubtless had its genesis when a screenwriter read a news story about parasitic marine isopods, is now being distributed by Roadside Attractions, not Lionsgate, and is expected to see a limited release.

I like the picture Fangoria posted.  It looks like another typical day at Georgetown Hospital. 

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Robert W. Chambers, The King in Yellow, and H.P. Lovecraft

If Robert William Chambers is known at all, he’s known to Lovecraft aficionados. 

Chambers, born in 1865 to a wealthy Brooklyn family, set out to be a painter, studying in Paris from 1886 to 1893.  He soon turned to writing; his first novel, a romance set in the Latin Quarter of Paris, was published in 1894.  However, the 1895 collection The King in Yellow contained the weird stories that Lovecraft enjoyed.

Many of the stories in The King in Yellow involve, sometimes in a minor way, a mysterious play of the same name; those who read it are driven mad by “words in which the essence of purest poison lurk(s).”  The play is linked to the Yellow Sign, “a curious symbol or letter... It was neither Arabic nor Chinese, nor… did it belong to any human script”.  In reference to the play, Chambers uses names from several stories in Ambrose Bierce’s 1893 collection Can Such Things Be?  While there are some fairly mundane stories in The King in Yellow, the supernatural ones are written with delicacy and pervaded by a gloomy melancholy; doomed love, suicide, and insanity are common themes.  They are all told in the first person, usually by a young and sensitive artist.
“The Yellow Sign” involves a resurrected corpse, a repetitive question ("Have you found the Yellow Sign?"), and doomed love.  

“The Repairer of Reputations” lacks a supernatural element, but contains a paranoid narrator and the title character, Mr. Wilde, who has savage battles with his cat:

“Howling and foaming, they rolled over and over on the floor, scratching and clawing, until the cat screamed and fled under the cabinet, and Mr. Wilde turned over on his back, his limbs contracting and curling up like the legs of a dying spider. He was eccentric.”

Other noteworthy stories in the collection include the delicate love triangle of “The Mask”, the grim “In the Court of the Dragon”, and the sad prose poem “The Street of the Four Winds”.

Eventually, Chambers became a popular author, publishing over 70 historical and romantic novels before his 1933 death.  By all accounts, they haven’t stood the test of time, and the only one I’ve read (Who Goes There!, 1915), certainly hasn’t.  He revisited supernatural themes only a few times.

Still, Chambers’ early works impressed Lovecraft. In “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1927), Lovecraft praises Chambers: “The King in Yellow really achieves notable heights of cosmic fear in spite of uneven interest and a somewhat trivial and affected cultivation of the Gallic studio atmosphere…”  Chambers’ influence is most apparent in “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1931), which includes direct references to things Carcosan.  Then there are the Deep Ones.  Chambers wrote a series of humorous, or purportedly humorous, stories about a Bronx zookeeper and his cryptozoological expeditions.  In one of the stories, “The Harbor-Master”, the zookeeper comes across a sinister gilled humanoid lurking in New England waters.  It also seems likely that Lovecraft’s penchant for vague supernatural name-dropping and forbidden books that drive men mad may owe a debt to Chambers.    

So, although Chambers made his living off his popular novels, his early weird tales, imaginative, melancholy, and idiosyncratic, are all that he’s remembered for.