Tag Archives: short stories

The Adventures of Jules de Grandin

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Adventures of Jules de Grandin [Amazon, Local Library] by Seabury Quinn, introduction by Lin Carter. (See instead: The Complete Tales of Jules de Grandin series.)

Quinn Carter The Adventures of Jules de Grandin

This first volume of the 1970s paperback series reprints seven out of the ninety-three Jules de Grandin stories by Seabury Quinn, including several of the earliest. These began in the 1920s and quickly became a staple of Weird Tales, where they appeared nearly every other month. They were not a serial, however. There is no overarching plot nor development over time of the central characters, who are stock types of an occult investigator and his medical doctor amanuensis. In general, the stories rely on broadly-drawn characters and stereotypes in order to maintain a high tempo and to create a quotidian background for shocking crimes and supernatural menaces.

The sleuth de Grandin himself is an amusingly exaggerated, sword-cane-wielding, mustachioed, gallic scientist of diminutive stature. Most of his adventures take place in the hometown of his host and colleague Doctor Trowbridge, Harrisonville, New Jersey. Being a European in America allows de Grandin to make amusing asides castigating Prohibition, religious bigotry, and other forms of American provincialism. “Today your American courts convict high school-teachers for heresy far less grave than that charged against our Jeanne [d’Arc]. We may yet see the bones of your so estimable Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin exhumed from their graves and publicly burned by your heretic-baiters of this today” (53, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!).

The narrator Trowbridge maintains a naïve skepticism in the face of exotic events that grows less believable with each passing tale. One of the strengths of the stories is their use of menaces drawn from folk traditions and popular culture (vampires and werewolves, for instance) while allowing that the common lore may be inaccurate in its details. Thus the reader can see where de Grandin’s hypotheses are leading him–while Trowbridge refuses even to consider such fanciful notions–but the tension of the unknown is maintained, along with a sense of the “scientific.”

In those points where de Grandin explains or employs occultism as such, the details tend to be fairly flawed. For example, Trowbridge describes a hexagram (and the book even supplies a diagram) but de Grandin calls it a “pentagram” (182). In another adventure, de Grandin calls elemental spirits “Neutrarians,” a term I hadn’t previously encountered, but which appears to have been coined by Elliot O’Donnell in his Twenty Years Experiences as a Ghost Hunter.

These stories are not great works of literature, and it doesn’t seem that anyone has ever mistaken them for such. They are pulp paragons, and one of their attractions is their great variety, from the piracy-and-cannibalism yarn of “The Isle of Missing Ships” to the parapsychological crime mystery of “The Dead Hand.” Quinn’s de Grandin stories frequently served as the basis for the cover illustrations of the numbers of Weird Tales in which they appeared. Even reading them in this mass market paperback reprint, it is easy to spot the moments in the stories that would be chosen for this honor. They usually featured a naked woman in peril. “The Tenants of Broussac” (scene on page 67) and “The Man Who Cast No Shadow” (153-4) are the two stories in this collection that were realized as cover art in their magazine appearances, and it is easy to note Quinn offering similarly “graphic” climaxes in every tale.

The Best Ghost Stories of H Russell Wakefield

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Best Ghost Stories of H. Russell Wakefield [Amazon, Local Library] by H Russell Wakefield, ed Richard Dalby.

Wakefield The Best Ghost Stories

This collection of Wakefield’s stories is very good. Although there is a slightly larger range of supernatural horror than might be suggested by the title’s category of “ghost stories,” most are in fact about spectral hauntings and the effects of genii locorum — always malign. “The Red Lodge” and “Blind Man’s Buff” are, for example, almost painfully traditional haunted house tales in terms of plot, but told with great skill and effect. Wakefield’s curses and ghosts are never exorcised; at best (and that rarely), the living characters manage to flee and escape their further influence.

A couple of the stories are concerned with sport. “The Seventeenth Hole at Duncaster” drew on the author’s own long-term enjoyment of golf, and is in many ways a solid example of his work in the ghost story genre. As usual, the origin and nature of the spirits are much murkier than their effects. “Professor Pownall’s Oversight” is a chessghost story, and not only a good one, but perhaps the best chess ghost story possible.

Another notable feature is in the two stories featuring characters modeled on the magus Aleister Crowley. In “He cometh and he passeth by …” Crowley is made over into the homicidal sorcerer Oscar Clinton, while in “A Black Solitude” Apuleius Charlton is based on an older and more benign Beast: “He was sixty odd at this time and very well preserved in spite of his hard boozing, addiction to drugs and sexual fervour, for it was alleged that joy-maidens or temple-slaves were well represented in his mystic entourage. (If I were a Merlin, they would be in mine!)” (128)

The stories are a rough mix between those in which evildoers meet some justified comeuppance, and others where the supernatural afflicts characters merely mediocre or already cursed with unusual talent. In several cases, there are both, or it is left to the reader to judge which of these categories applies. Wakefield’s work had the admiration of M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft alike, and it is easy to see why.

Declare

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Declare [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Tim Powers

Powers Declare

I came to Tim Powers’ Declare on the strength of a friend’s recommendation, and also Charles Stross’ comparison to his own work in The Atrocity Archives. Although the subject matter of espionage plus supernatural elements was certainly similar to Stross’ “Laundry” novels, I was surprised to find myself comparing Declare to a very different, and altogether more popular book: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. Both are bulky, character-oriented novels rooted in the socio-political frames of particular periods; both are self-consciously English; both have emotional depth; both mix in some real historical persons as characters; both introduce their central supernatural elements in a gradual manner; and in both cases those elements are anchored in archaic intelligences and their complex relations with humanity. I would even compare the narrative role that Powers assigns to T.E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”) to that occupied by the Raven King in Clarke’s book. And both Powers and Clarke are performing a comparable sort of transcendent pastiche: adding magic to the LeCarre spy thriller on the one hand and to the Austen saga of realist satire on the other. Powers gets more points for fidelity to history, Clarke for verisimilitude of magic.

Comparisons aside, I did very much enjoy Declare. It was not a flawless book. There was a certain attribution of supernatural efficacy to Christian piety and sacraments that was never properly justified, and I occasionally found a sentence in laughable need of easy repair. (An example of both from p. 486: “He opened his mouth to speak the first words of the Our Father, but realized that he had forgotten them.”) But there is a healthy and profitable use of dramatic irony — attentive readers can stay a half-step ahead of the central characters — and Powers manages to instill a real numinosity into the higher orders of espionage that he invents for World War II and the Cold War. The psychology of double-agency is a long-standing interest of mine, and Powers makes it central to his novel in a way that I appreciated. The recruitment and induction of spies (“agent-runners”) is presented through an explicitly initiatory framework that should be accessible and engaging to those who share those interests with me as well.

The Past is Red

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Past is Red [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Catherynne M Valente.

Valente The Past is Red

This book reprints the story “The Future Is Blue” from the Drowned Worlds anthology, and follows it with a further novella “The Past Is Red.” The latter was written about four years later for the author Catherynne M. Valente (in late 2020) and ten years later for her protagonist Tetley Abednego (sometime after 2133).

Tetley is an irrepressible survivor and an unreliable narrator who hails from Garbagetown on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, evidently one of the largest of remaining human communities in the 22nd century. The first story accounts for her becoming a hated outcast by age 19, and the second gives the saga by which she matures into a “trash Plato” (138) in her third decade.

The Garbagetowners have an ambivalently hostile envy for their antediluvian ancestors (i.e. us), to whom they consistently refer as “Fuckwits.” In light of the current situation in US society, it’s not hard to read this sentiment as the Millennial/GenX view of Boomers writ large.

Valente herself compares Tetley to Voltaire’s Candide (148), and there’s a little of de Sade’s Justine there as well. But the tone here is not so satirical, and the concerns of the parable are remote from those of the philosophes. The afterword and the acknowledgements claim an independence for Tetley, whom her author has gradually come to know, and the character does have an engaging voice to draw the reader into and through her world, which is enchanting to her, and ultimately, only differently horrible than ours.

The whole book is wonderfully weird but sadly feasible cli-fi that I read in about three sittings: a speedy read and a satisfying one.

More personal than any article of clothing. More private than any diary. Every page stained with a sorcerer’s hidden character, their private demons, their wildest ambitions. Some magicians produce collections, others produce only a single book, but nearly all of them produce something before they die.

Scott Lynch, In the Stacks [Amazon, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Lynch In the Stacks more personal more private sorcerers hidden character demons wildest ambitions magicians produce collections single book something before they die

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.

Cosmogramma

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Cosmogramma: Short Stories [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Courttia Newland.

Newland Cosmogramma

The “speculative fiction” of this collection is not hard sf by any stretch; it is not even very scientifically competent. Page 21 in the first story “Percipi” says that rebels living on the dark side of the moon “had survived five years of constant darkness.” This howler left me dubious when later stories offered wormhole-based propulsion and other technological leaps. These are also not generally stories with “big ideas” that are breaking conceptual new ground. There are an android uprising, zombie apocalypse (with an Invasion of the Body Snatchers inflection), a cyborg circus, robots tending a generation starship, and other well-worn themes that will be familiar to science fiction readers.

The jacket copy says that the book “envisages an alternate future as lived by the African diaspora.” But the individual stories aren’t clearly part of any sort of integral future history, and it wasn’t until the fifth story “Buck” that there was any clear indication of a principal character’s race. There’s no question that some of these stories do leverage author Courttia Newland’s perspective as a Black Englishman, and two of them use the Nommo spirits of the African Dogon people to characterize what seem to be extraterrestrials. Still, the science fiction element is definitely more consistent through the various stories than racial concerns are.

The title story “Cosmogramma” was all right, but it–like many of these–was little more than a vignette. In any case, I preferred the descriptive snapshot pieces like this one to the chronicle style evident in “Percipi.” Since the stories are typically quite short, there are a lot of them, and some of them really are notably strange and interesting. I best enjoyed the ones that incorporated significant elements of weird horror and/or were set closest to our contemporary situation, such as “Dark Matters” and “Link” that have city-dwelling youth encountering some sort of alien intelligence.

I really wanted to like this book, but I found it altogether a mixed bag, and it wasn’t one I returned to eagerly story after story.

Daphne and Sylvester want to prove that their love is real. They want to prove that their love is real to the whole world. That is why they are currently having sexual intercourse in the middle of their local shopping centre on a Saturday afternoon.

Mike Russell, Nothing Is Strange [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Russell Nothing is Strange prove love real whole world currently sexual intercourse middle shopping centre