Friday, October 17, 2014

The Bloody Books of Halloween!

We had so much fun with the Summer of Sleaze series on that author Grady Hendrix and I are joining forces again in a kind of literary countdown to All Hallows' Eve. We've dubbed it The Bloody Books of Halloween! Here's my first post and here is Grady's. Today I have a review of a seasonal classic...

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Ringstones by Sarban (1951): When the Whip Comes Down

"The past is never dead. It's not even past." So goes one of Faulkner's great quotes and it applies to Ringstones completely. First published in 1951, it was written by British diplomat John William Wall (1910-1989), under his pen name Sarban, by which also wrote two other genre novels, The Sound of His Horn and The Dollmaker (all published Stateside by Ballantine Books in the early 1960s). Akin to the literate pagan chillers of Arthur Machen and set in a near-supernatural landscape such as Algernon Blackwood wrote of, Ringstones is an eerie, understated rumination on the ability of history to insinuate itself into the present in terrible ways.

That gloriously evocative paperback cover of the titular objects and the British moorland wilds seemingly aswirl with ghosts and fancies, by the legendary Richard M. Powers, is a tad misleading; only a couple scenes are so tinged with windswept mystery, and I didn't find the story really "mordant" at all, but perhaps if I were a British citizen of the mid-20th century I would have found Ringstones "having or showing a sharp or critical quality; biting" as the dictionary definition goes. But really, that is one helluva cover.

We begin with an unnamed narrator talking about "Daphne Hazel's manuscript," and how the woman was a school friend of the narrator's pal Piers Debourg. Piers has received this item in the post and wants the narrator to read it. It's a perplexing, unsettling document, written longhand in a school notebook. Could it possibly be true? She seemed such a level-headed girl. After a couple pages of this, we get to the tale proper, and we are reading Daphne's story.

Original 1951 hardcover, UK

A student at a girls' school that prizes physical athleticism, Daphne is told of a job by one of the students' favorite teachers, and meets with the man looking for a young woman to help care for children in his charge living on his family estate at Ringstones (again, I'm not a British citizen, so I guess these kinds of prehistoric "ringstones" are common in the countryside--all I know about this I learned from Spinal Tap). The man is Dr. Ravelin, a formal, studious, and elderly man, given to rambling lectures on archaeology, anthropology, and comparative mythology (reminding me of my days of reading Joseph Campbell) and the reader would do well to pay close attention, as sometimes Daphne Hazel does not. His estate sits on grounds of a vanished civilization from prehistory, and he ruminates moodily about it:
"Elves, fairies, giants, magicians--certainly not just ordinary human beings must have raised these circles... a church chooses to sit up a heathen temple. perhaps these ancient stones hold down something far more ancient, something far stranger than the men who placed them understood. Some queer feet have danced here, I feel."
She travels to Ringstones Hall and meets her charges: young teenage boy Nuaman and two girls, Ianthe and Marvan. They're not British, but she is unable to discern, or find out from the children themselves, where they're from or why they're there. The just are. But her time with them is idyllic, frolicking in the gardens or the green fields, splashing in nearby lakes and creeks, playing rambunctious athletic and made-up games: "They were creatures of summer and some country of the sun." The girls hardly speak but Nuaman is precocious, vibrant, secretive, and takes to Daphne with an open and eager manner, almost flirtatious even. It's all fun to read, as Daphne's writing is light but descriptive, insightful but not pedantic (compare to the unnamed narrator's convoluted stylings). Of the children, she writes:
Marvan and Ianthe followed [Nuaman and me] in our comings and goings, always reserved and shy and a little behind. He gave them little orders--or what seemed to orders--in their language, always softly and gaily, and they obeyed promptly, fetching and carrying for him as an English girl might fetch and carry for an adored brother years younger than herself...
(It's that phrase "little orders" that the reader should alight upon.) Also at Ringstones are Armenian caretakers the Sarkissians, a husband and wife. Katia is the young housekeeper, a Polish girl who doesn't seem to be quite all there. Is it simply the language barrier, or is her mental state compromised? Legends of invisible little troll-like people in the forest who kidnap young women frighten her, and she has a frustrating tendency to mispronounce English words and turn them into something more than gibberish; she mispronounces them into sounding like other English words. When she tells Daphne that she is a "displeased parson," it takes a few moments to realize Katia means she is a "displaced person," that is, someone who lost their home due to the war. Later, she will tell Daphne that Nuaman--"Mr. No Man" as she says--"weeps." This boggles Daphne's mind: surely such a self-possessed and authoritative teen boy does not weep.

Knowing Katia's mixing of vowel sounds, I said her words out loud in that order: weep. Wap? Wep? Wip? Wop? Wup? Nonsense. Wait. Wip. Nuaman wip... Got it! Nuaman whips. Oh. Shit. That doesn't sound good...

There are two major scenes that are perfectly composed: first, when Daphne gets lost on the boggy, almost hostile moors--as if the road hid itself, she notes--and second, a dream sequence Freud would have killed to analyze. Then, at the end of her narrative, Daphne wakes one night, walks out into the moonlight, and seems to find herself in Roman times, in that era Dr. Ravelin was fascinated by. Sarkissian appears, rough-edged and darkly-natured, and attaches to her bracelet a dog lead, and talks dirty to her in a coded, archaic country tongue: "You've a fancy to be yoked out, eh? Well, no man never drove a prettier pair. No, you're going to be put to school, Miss." Yikes! He will lead Daphne to Nuaman, to the mystery lurking in her dream, one that reaches out to the present day. The climax chills even as it confounds; we both understand and are mystified by Sarban's intimations.

I didn't read the back cover copy so as not to spoil my reading whatsoever; however that left me totally blind as to what was going on, even while it was going on! The more I thought about it, though, Sarban's shaggy-dog story rather came together. Now his other titles are definitely on my to-own-and-read list, and Ringstones is easy to recommend to readers who like their Machen and their Blackwood--although perhaps not to those who like their horror fiction loud and bloody. Me, I found the hints of ancient gods and mythical creatures, chthonic powers and illicit desires hidden in unspoiled nature just behind this veil of (oh-so-British) modernity, quite bewitching.

"I want to keep you here forever," Nuaman said, still gripping my hand hard.
"Ah well, you can't do that, you know. Everything has to end. Except a circle."
"A circle!" he exclaimed. "But Ringstones is a circle. And, look! We've made a complete circle now, and as we've made this we begin another. You never can come to the end of Ringstones." 
"Can't we?" said I.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Ballantine's World of H.P. Lovecraft Boxed Set (1971): The Way Madness Lies

Another rare paperback four-volume box set of Lovecraft tales. The covers, by Spanish fantasy artist Gervasio Gallardo, are elaborate landscapes of surreal nightmare: perfect for illustrating HPL's "Dream Cycle" stories. Gallardo painted many of the covers for the Ballantine Adult Fantasy line which began in the late '60s and featured the genre's giants: Lord Dunsay, James Branch Cabell, George MacDonald, Clark Ashton Smith, William Hope Hodgson, and Arthur Machen.

A collector could find most of the titles in this line for sale on eBay and Amazon, but I myself never see these HPL Ballantine books on used bookstore shelves. I think that an obsessive would be able to, after some hard and dedicated work, amass every Ballantine Adult Fantasy volume, perhaps even in mint condition, but that way madness lies...

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Clive Barker born today, 1952

Best birthday wishes to the one and only Clive Barker, pictured here from the cover art of the wonderful 1991 nonfiction book Shadows in Eden, edited by Stephen Jones. It's an essential piece of Barkerania, and one day I'll get a review of it posted here. Promise!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Beagle Books' Lovecraft Boxed Set (1971): The Polished Black Jewel of Ultimate Horror

Here's an item I've never seen till now when it's being sold online: the 1971 Ballantine/Beagle/Boxer Books boxed set of five Lovecraft titles, The Arkham Edition of H.P. Lovecraft. I own a few of the Beagle/Boxer imprint editions, the various Cthulhu mythos works from August Derleth. Now I know that in the 1980s scholar S.T. Joshi began correcting all of those Arkham House editions of Lovecraft, restoring and editing them according to the Gentleman from Providence's original intent and manuscripts as much as possible. These Ballantine paperbacks are what have been replaced, as apparently they were riddled with editorial inconsistencies and whatnots. Still, they'd look great on my shelves!

I can't even begin to describe the feelings that these book covers evoke in me: starry nights of reading late with a small desk lamp for illumination, their black cover art glinting darkly hinting at the untold horrors hidden within, the spice and dust in the books' moldy scent that spoke of ages immemorial, of  secrets known but to a few brave, mad souls willing to go to strange, far places.

And I don't even like a lot of these covers! I mean, this one for At the Mountains of Madness? Ludicrous, silly, absurd. The others have their charms--Charles Dexter Ward is probably best--but it wasn't until the surreal Michael Whelan covers beginning in 1982 that readers really had a paperbacks of HPL where cover and content aligned.

Still, I dig the crazy creepy weirdo early-'70s vibe of these editions, hearkening back to the day when only the most devoted of horror and fantasy fans knew of ol' E'ch-Pi-El, trembled before dread Cthulhu, marveled at the many-columned city of Y'ha-nthlei, and pondered while deep in shag carpet the bubbling blasphemous mindlessness of Azathoth at the center of infinity...

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

She Can Take the Dark Out of the Nighttime

Can't quite make out that artist's signature; anybody?

Never mind, it's Ken Barr! He also illustrated this cover, obviously inspired by "American Gothic" by Grant Wood.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Shadows 2, edited by Charles L. Grant (1979): Darkness at the Break of Noon

A step back into the slowly gathering Shadows; this the second volume in Charles L. Grant's famous horror series of short fiction. I own the complete set, thanks to some very impressive library book sales I was lucky enough to attend, but I haven't been reading them in order (see my previous reviews for vols. one and three). The hardcover from Doubleday was published in 1979 (cover below); I own the 1984 Berkley paperback reprint adorned by a Halloween skull that appears nowhere in the stories (is that Bogart on the hardcover? He shows up in one, though).

Anyway, Shadows 2 is more, and even more so less, of the same: whisper-quiet short horror fiction of traditional chills and shivers, mostly filler and mostly too tame and polite to offer any real horror. The paucity of imagination is unsettling in itself: two stories feature the same style of twist ending; one features the hero dispatching a witch by dumping a bucket of water on her; while others simply disappear the moment you turn the page, wispy and insubstantial, either too obscure or too dull to elicit much reaction.

None of the stories are outright bad, and even the more staid, traditional ones are at least pretty well-written and engaging. More than once I was reminded of TV shows like "Night Gallery" or "Tales from the Darkside," so take that as you will. Let me however concentrate on the good: "The Chair" by novelization master Alan Dean Foster (seen below in 1980) and a Jane Cozart, about a couple out antiquing who find the titular object in a closed-off portion of a shop, the owner of which has eyes "green as a young kitten's." Should've left that chair there! The taut climax benefits from a surprise image that's funny and unnerving at once.

Another good entry is "Dead End" by Richard Christian Matheson, known for his stripped-down prose and short-short fiction. Here he uses the time-honored rite of a married couple arguing in the car as they get more and more lost, in every way possible, looking with no success for their destination. Matheson's writing is mature and ably carries the obvious metaphor all the way to its foregone conclusion. 

Intriguing and oddly affecting, "The Closing of Old Doors" by Peter D. Pautz has its protagonist rising from the grave--a story that idly imagines the unlikeliest of zombie apocalypses, long before that scenario became a cliche:
A multitude so great that, given the mere ability to move, to walk uninhibited, could stroll their way to power. With time at their leisure, and bodies stayed from decay by their need, their pent-up frustration, such an ungodly throng could rise to ascendancy by their presence alone, by sheer numbers. An election here, a lobby there. Referendum, plebiscite; even their own candidates. All secretly. No reason to invite physical resistance. Use democracy, the will of the people.
"Seasons of Belief" by Michael Bishop I could've sworn I'd read elsewhere but turns out I was wrong. Cute one about parents scaring their children with a story about the "grither," a creature who lives in the wreck of an ancient ship in the ice floes of the Arctic Circle (cool!). Fun suspense as the parents tease their offspring; ending of course you can guess. And finally, ironically, two stories included here are top works from major writers: "Mackintosh Willy" from Ramsey Campbell (pic below) and "Petey" from T.E.D. Klein. I'd read both of these before and on this reread found them just as excellent as the first.

Campbell (above) won the 1980 World Fantasy award for "Mackintosh Willy," and it's apparent from its opening lines that this work is leagues beyond the other entries. In full control of his horrors, he even denies the piece's very title:
To start with, he wasn't called Mackintosh Willy. I never knew who gave him that name... One has to call one's fears something, if only to gain the illusion of control. Still, sometimes I wonder how much of his monstrousness we created. Wondering helps me not to ponder my responsibility for what happened at the end.
A group of children taunt a tramp who "haunts" a local park lake, and then one day the narrator finds him dead on a bench. Of course that's not all, not by a long shot, and in his distinctive style, Campbell casts everything in a distorted, greasy film:  
He had turned his radio louder; a misshapen Elvis Presley blundered out of the static, then sank back into incoherence as a neighboring wave band seeped into his voice... I could see only the dimming sky, trees on the far side of the lake diluted by haze, the gleam of bottle caps like eyes atop a floating mound of litter...
I enjoyed the very subtle, very subtext conflation of sex and death and the implication that the narrator looks back now on this horrific event from his childhood and understands all too well his "responsibility." Classic Campbell. The cozy-drunk dinner-party setting in a ramshackle farmhouse in rural Connecticut of Klein's "Petey" appealed to me greatly. The long tale unfolds at a leisurely pace, two storylines woven together: one, a suicidal madman in a straitjacket and the cranky orderly caring for him; the other, two dozen middle-aged people exploring the impressive farmhouse recently renovated by owners and party hosts George and Phyllis. Lots of talking and kidding by old friends, while George experiences a fit of IBS--"he never knew the things his mind contained until his stomach told him"-- then explores the attic, where he finds bottles of rotting animal fetuses, each labeled "PD#13, PD#14," and so on. Factor in French folktales and Tarot cards, so that when the two stories coalesce, each piece forms a horrifying picture...

Sad to say, but without the Campbell and Klein stories, Shadows 2 is a decidedly minor anthology, and you can get those two stories in Dark Companions and Dark Gods respectively. I know Grant hated how the splatterpunks rose up a few years later, and that horror in general became more graphically violent, but that's simply how the genre evolved; it couldn't sustain itself on the mostly meek and mild stories herein. There is no use in trying to deny it: Shadows 2 is for horror fiction completists only; everyone else can step into the light.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Charles Birkin Born Today, 1907

Charles Birkin was a long-time editor and author of horror tales, putting together the popular Creeps Library anthology series in England throughout the 1930s. In the 1960s he began publishing collections of his own short stories, many which were published in the States. The most famous of these seems to be The Smell of Evil (Award Books/1969). This summer I was able to buy a copy and read the title story--it was cruel, macabre, delicious! For a bibliography of his many books, refer to the Vault of Evil. For a new trade paperback edition of Smell of Evil, buy it at Valancourt Books. Birkin died in 1985.