Tag Archives: Horror – General

Mysterious and Horrific Stories

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Mysterious and Horrific Stories [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu.

Le Fanu Mysterious and Horrific Stories

This book collects more than a dozen stories by the 19th-century Irish writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. None of the individual stories are published here for the first time, and I suspect that most or even all of them are available for free online. The apparatus of this edition is limited to a table of contents, an appended single-paragraph “Note About the Author” and a similarly short self-promotional “Note from the Publisher.” Just two of the stories have leading editorial notes (227, 255) with a modicum of bibliographic information, but these notes are unsigned and the collection credits no editor. Publisher Mint Editions instead credits a “Project Manager.” The book is a glue-bound hardcover, comfortable in the hand, not ugly, fabricated through a print-on-demand process. I certainly found it more pleasant to read than I would have to scroll through the stories on a screen.

The stories are good. More than half of them are set in Ireland, and nearly all of them involve the supernatural. Although the note to “Stories of Lough Guir” says, “It differs from the other stories in this volume in being apparently a record of stories actually told to Le Fanu and not invented by him” (255), many of the other stories have a very strong aroma of the folkloric, especially the ones about menacing fairies and those ghost stories that lack a moralizing agenda. Even the many vivid Gothic fictional tropes concerning old houses and cursed families are typically hedged about with documentary conceits, including imputed sources and variant tellings.

Le Fanu’s strong influence on writers like Bram Stoker and M. R. James makes many of his techniques seem familiar to readers of older horror fiction, but he was doing this work earlier and every bit as well. This collection does not include the tales for which he is most famous, but they are a solid assortment nonetheless.

If This Book Exists, You’re in the Wrong Universe

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews If This Book Exists, You’re in the Wrong Universe [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Jason Pargin, “A John, Dave, and Amy Novel”, part 4 of the John Dies at the End series.

Pargin If This Book Exists Youre in the Wrong Universe

This book is the fourth in a series with a label that has been expanding in a failed effort to keep pace with its central cast of characters. The original volume was John Dies at the End. Later books/editions were called “John and Dave” books, adding the name of principal narrator David Wong–an in-story pseudonym and also the pen name later abandoned by author Jason Pargin. If This Book Exists… is tagged a “John, Dave and Amy” book, including a character who has been central for previous volumes, but there is a fourth who earns poster placement rights in this installment.

Anyhow, the series consists of supernatural horror with a little science fiction, a lot of lowbrow humor, and a fair amount of unsubtle but essentially humane social commentary. I felt like this book had the most conventional plot arc of the four, despite overt courting of time travel paradoxes and multiple denouements. It didn’t make me laugh out loud as often as the earlier ones, but I experienced more odd synchronicities while reading it, which was a definite point in its favor.

There’s an evil cult to thwart in the course of the novel, and the very end (before the author’s afterword) supplies the key commandments that Dave and his pals add to the cult’s scriptures to keep them from becoming a pernicious world religion. These few pages really could stand the frank consideration of earnest “seekers,” even out of context.

Ghost Story

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Ghost Story [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Peter Straub.

Straub Ghost Story

Ghost Story was Peter Straub’s breakout novel in 1979, and I remember seeing it in the “new” section of my local public library at the time. The publisher flogged it as a supernatural horror book with literary merit, and it was a fair boast. Straub was an admirable prose stylist, and his monsters have come a long way from their folklore and pulp origins. I found precursor comparanda in some of Seabury Quinn’s semi-traditional creatures and most especially Jack Williamson’s Darker Than You Think. Straub, who would eventually edit the two-volume American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny for Library of America, consciously adverts to his more literary antecedents Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James, even going so far as to name two central characters Ricky Hawthorne and Sears James.

It’s a big book, with the storytelling heft of, say, a full season of the Stranger Things television horror drama. Like that show, it is multigenerational in scope, although Straub’s key ensemble is geriatric rather than adolescent. And Straub’s imagined town of Milburn, New York provides the Hawthorne-to-HPL New England sense of a lost frontier buried deep in the unconscious, rather than the vulnerable bucolic Midwestern sensibility of Hawkins, Indiana. All sorts of characters are powerfully drawn, with relationship tensions extending in every direction.

The body of the book provides several layers of background for the frame story focused on the horror novelist Don Wanderly. There is naturally some metafictional positioning that results, both from Wanderly’s metier and from the ghost-storytelling preoccupation of the Chowder Society, the clique of old friends around whom most of the novel is constructed. The climax takes place in late December, thus attaching the book to the English tradition of the Christmas ghost story, for which those of M.R. James are paragons. While there was less metafictional meat here than in Straub’s later book The Hellfire Club (i.e. Wanderly’s The Nightwatcher is neither so well-developed nor so pivotal to the story as Hugo Driver’s Night Journey), it still put a shine on the writing.

I have not yet seen the 1981 movie which was “loosely based” on the novel, but the book itself gives more than a little attention to cinema. Attorney Ricky Hawthorne is a movie aficionado given to describing people in terms of old screen icons, and he is friends with the proprietor of the local picture show. A key background character Eva Galli was a film actress, having appeared in a single silent film China Pearl (1925), and there is also important business involving a more recent actress Ann-Veronica Moore. The film of Ghost Story turned out to be the final screen appearance of Fred Astaire (in the role of Ricky Hawthorne), and Astaire is actually name-checked in the novel: “… Clark Gable in a bush jacket turning into Dan Duryea in a gangster’s nipped-in-suit turning into graceful, winning Fred Astaire in a Chowder Society tuxedo” (465).

My copy of this book is the first edition, which has a feature of interest extirpated from later re-issues. The chapter “Alma” (181-221) details Wanderly’s previous marital engagement during a brief university gig in Berkeley, California. By way of making the Alma character mysterious and creepy, Straub associated her with something presented as more dreadful than “California lunacy at its worst,” to wit: “O.T.O. … Ordo Templi Orientis … raw material for nightmares” (194-5). Some incidental details demonstrate that Straub’s awareness of O.T.O. was almost certainly based on press coverage of the Solar Lodge pretender organization. In any case, he never presents any specific characters or activities as being part of O.T.O., he just uses the allusion for nebulous menace. Since the actual O.T.O. was operating in Berkeley in 1979, they felt a bit slandered and reached out to Straub, who graciously apologized and made an edit for later printings to change the name to an occult order of his own invention: Xala Xalior Xiati.

The rich character development in this book is the feature that makes it most effective as supernatural horror, in my opinion. You can’t be very afraid for people you don’t care about. On the other hand, there are doubtless adrenaline junkies for whom the pace of this novel with its nested retrospection is just too slow to keep them engaged. (I’ve certainly read complaints to that effect online.) It continues to find a place in “best of” horror indices, and it deserves one.

Kalle was burdened with an intense pain located about a hand’s breadth below his right collar bone. No, there was no tumor or anything of the sort there, he had had it checked, but it was exactly there that it started to hurt whenever life got to him. A black heart pumping despair into his body.

John Ajvide Lindqvist, trans. Ebba Segerberg, Let the Old Dreams Die: Stories [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic-quote Lindqvist Let the Old Dreams Die burdened intense pain no tumor exactly started hurt whenever life got him black heart pumping despair into body

Haiti was the only place in the world with a widespread belief in zombies. And what the dead need when they return to the world of the living is sea water. In all mythology there is some kernel of truth, otherwise it would not survive. So therefore…

John Ajvide Lindqvist, Handling the Undead [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Lindqvist Handling the Undead haiti only place world widespread belief zombies dead need when return living sea water all mythology kernel truth otherwise survive therefore

The Innsmouth Cycle

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Innsmouth Cycle: The Taint of the Deep Ones in 13 Tales [Amazon, Bookshop, Local Library] selected and introduced by Robert M Price, part of the Call of Cthulhu Fiction series.

Price The Innsmouth Cycle

The Chaosium-published “Cycle” books, as edited by Robert M. Price, generally take a Cthulhu Mythos “entity” and supply a full range of literature for it: the key Lovecraft stories, likely prior influences, and later derivations. In this case, center stage is given to the Deep Ones of “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” I almost skipped re-reading the Lovecraft story itself, since it is the longest in the book, and I always have other things to read. But I’m glad I didn’t: it’s one of my favorites, and it really held up to the repeat reading, which was further enhanced by some of Price’s remarks in the general introduction, where he discusses the initiatory dimension of the tale. Given the fondness that I have for “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” I thought the other stories might have a hard time measuring up. But I found this collection very strong on the whole. 

With the exception of the three poems placed at the end, the contents are arranged roughly chronologically by date of first publication. Price has identified three predecessor stories. The first and least relevant is the brief Dunsany Pegana piece “Of Yoharneth Lahai.” It may be the source of the name Y’ha-nthlei as Price contends, but it contributed no substance to Lovecraft’s Atlantic citadel of the Deep Ones. “The Harbor-Master” was the first Robert W. Chambers story I had read that wasn’t in The King in Yellow, and it was quite good; in fact it may goad me to read the remainder of In Search of the Unknown, the site of its original publication. “Fishhead” by Irvin S. Cobb is an effective little tale also. But in both the Chambers and Cobb stories, the ichthyoid men are isolated freaks of nature, whereas the terribleness of the Lovecraftian Deep Ones has a great deal to do with the extent of their society, or even conspiracy.

That element is played up well in a number of the latter-day tales, most especially “Innsmouth Gold” (Vester), “Custos Sanctorum” (Johnson), “Rapture in Black” (Rainey), “Live Bait” (Sargent), and “Devil Reef” (Glasby). I preferred these 1980s and 90s pieces to the 1960s and 70s work of James Wade and Franklyn Searight, although the Wade stories in particular can be seen as predecessor tales themselves to Alan Moore’s splendid Neonomicon. The majority of the newer stories have very explicit links to the original Lovecraft story, usually mentioning Innsmouth by name and often setting their principal events in the same mythical New England town. Geographic outliers include Big Sur (“The Deep Ones”), Chicago (“Rapture in Black”), and Essex, England (“Custos Sanctorum”). 

The high level of inter-textual continuity is surprising, in that none of these stories are mere pastiches. I was profoundly charmed by the mystical “Transition of Zadok Allen” which concludes the prose section of the book. The trio of poems at the end are of mixed value, and they are sequenced by increasing length and greater conformity to the contents of “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” The whole collection is quite worthwhile, and I would recommend it to fans of weird horror generally, beyond addicts of Lovecraftiana.