Monday, 8 September 2014

Dreams of Shadow and Smoke: Stories for J.S. Le Fanu

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu was born just over 200 years ago, and occupies a unique position in the twilight realm of ghostly fiction. Le Fanu was a very successful Victorian novelist, an equally accomplished short story writer, and produced poetry and drama for good measure. He is arguably the central figure in what we call Gothic fiction, as he wrote after the genre had matured but died well before the modern horror story begins to emerge in the Edwardian era.

Le Fanu was man of contradictions - these writer chappies often are. A famous recluse in his later years, he was rather well-travelled. He was an Irish literary giant, but agreed to set his novels in England to reach a wider audience. Two of his best-loved stories, 'Carmilla' and 'Schalken the Painter', are set on the continent. Elsewhere he focuses on Irish folklore and the native culture of the Catholic peasantry he knew well, but stood apart from as a Protestant of Huguenot descent.

Dublin-based Swan River Press has produced a volume of stories to mark Le Fanu's bicentenary, jointly edited by Jim Rockhill and Brian J. Showers. These are not sequels/prequels to Le Fanu tales, but works  that examine some of the themes and ideas the author tackled. As such, Dreams of Shadows and Smoke is a fine collection in its own right, as well as a solid tribute to the 'invisible prince' of Irish fiction.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Temperance Lloyd, Mary Trembles, and Susannah Edwards

An odd title for a post, but those names belonged to three witches executed in Devon 322 years ago. They were the last people hanged for witchcraft in England. Now modern witches (some in pointy hats, it must be said) are demanding a posthumous pardon for the women. They were of course convicted of witchcraft because neighbours said bad things about them, they were poor... and that's about it. The Wikipedia entry on the case seems to have been sourced from Sabine Baring-Gould.

A plaque at Exeter’s Rougemont Castle commemorates the 1682 Bideford witch trial

The inclusion of Alice Molland is debatable, but it at least possible that she was the last person to be hanged for witchcraft. The problem is that primary source material seems to be lacking.

There is always a debate about whether pardons long after an injustice mean anything. But it doesn't hurt to draw attention to a stain on our history. 

Wherever people believe in witchcraft, witches will be found. Admittedly, sometimes they make it easy.

Today's witches look like an amiable crowd. I wish them well. It's a pity that this latest gathering didn't beat the all-time record for the largest number of witches in any one place. That was set two years ago at Warwick castle; 765 witches. There is no information on the number of cats. Probably quite a few.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Assorted Carmillas

I was going to include these in the little post on Le Fanu I wrote on Thursday morning, but there are so many variations on Carmilla that they deserve their own piece. Spend a few minutes Googling her and you will be left in no doubt that she's the only genuinely popular character Le Fanu created, leaving poor old Silas and company in the dust. First, book covers and illustrations.

width: 100%

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Burnt Black Suns

Simon Strantzas is one of an abundant crop of Canadian horror writers who emerged over the last ten to fifteen years. Burnt Black Suns falls squarely into the modern horror genre (if I'm any judge, which I may not be). The overall tone is somewhat grim, but there are a few touches of humour - and indeed absurdity. Indeed, at times I was genuinely unsure whether Strantzas is offering 'straight' contemporary horror or a satirical commentary upon it. But perhaps that's the point?

'Thistle's Find', for instance, is a grisly little story in which the narrator - a typical pulp fiction low-life seeking sanctuary - discovers that the eponymous mad scientist has build a strange portal. Something has come through this trans-dimensional door, and without giving too much away it sums up why a lot of horror fiction puts me off. It manages to be wholly incredible as a story, and at the same time rather unpleasant.

'Emotional Dues' is a more sophisticated take on the body horror theme, with an artist unwisely trying to cut out the middle man and sell his paintings directly to a shadowy collector.The collector, it transpires, does more than simply gloat over his purchases... A problem I had with this one is that it feels as if two very different stories have been bolted together. One is a pulpy tale of a strange, grotesque entity and its bizarre needs, the other concerns the source of an artist's creativity. Arguably, one idea informs the other, but for me they merely seemed to get tangled to no good purpose.

Several stories show Lovecraft's influence. 'On Ice' is an almost straight Mythos tale, in which a scientific expedition to an Arctic island find more than they bargained for. There are some powerful passages, but it is somewhat undermined by the impression that these are Hollywood movie scientists and nothing like the real thing. A similar problem besets 'One Last Bloom', in which a deep sea expedition finds alien life. All good fun for the Arkham academics.

Altogether different is 'By Invisible Hands'. It has a whiff of Ligottian fantasy about it, with its tale of a puppet maker recruited to perform one last job. It works as horror because the nightmare situation is dramatised rather than explained, leaving the reader unsure as to how much of it is real and how much the product of a mind that has forgotten what humanity is like.

'Strong as a Rock' also recalls he author's earlier fiction. Here two brothers embark upon an ill-advised climb, and one is injured. The reasons for the climb - a way of bonding and overcoming grief over bereavement - become interwoven with the strange events at the hospital where they seek help. There is a genuine sense of disorientation, here - the horror of a world that we can pretend makes sense, but which falls apart under stress, as do we.

'Burnt Black Suns', a novella that closes the collection, is also powerful. A man sets out (long-suffering, pregnant girlfriend in tow) to find his ex-wife, who absconded with their son. The quest takes them to a Mexican town where the locals follow a strange hybrid of the Aztec and Christian faiths. The atmosphere is well-evoked, as is the protagonist's selfish, blinkered obsession with his son. The grand finale is suitably overwhelming, and bizarre enough to be a genuine religious experience - something few horror writers can manage.

I preferred the earlier collections Cold to the Touch and Beneath the Surface - get them if you can. But Burnt Black Suns has plenty to offer, and I suspect that its sheer diversity means that most readers will find something to satisfy them.

Le Fanu

Born 200 years ago today, J. Sheridan Le Fanu is one of a handful of authors of Victorian Gothic fiction to register on the radar of the modern horror fan. Unlike Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley, Le Fanu wrote more than one classic tale - 'The Familiar', 'Green Tea', 'Schalken the Painter' and 'Carmilla' are all much-anthologised, and at least one of his novels, Uncle Silas, has never been out of print.

That said, 'Carmilla' has made most of the running when it comes to film and other adaptations. Without Le Fanu the history of vampire fiction would have been different, and the British horror film of the late Sixties/early Seventies would have been stuck for ideas.

So, here is my little tribute page for an author whose work I've always enjoyed and often find myself re-reading. Let's begin seriously, with an article at the Time Higher Educational Supplement that places Le Fanu the writer and the man within the sweep of Irish (and British) history. There is also an appreciation at The Irish Times. The latter ends with the following from V.S. Pritchett.
“Le Fanu’s ghosts are the most disquieting of all ghosts ... The secret doubt, the private shame, the unholy love scratch away with malignant patience in the guarded mind. It is we who are the ghosts. Let illness, late nights and green tea [the title of one of the In a Glass Darkly stories] weaken the catch we normally keep clamped so firmly down, and out slink one by one all the hags and animals of moral or Freudian symbolism.”
Over at Project Gutenberg, we find Le Fanu's books ranged by order of popularity. 'Carmilla' is number one, followed by Uncle Silas, then a collection of 'Ghostly Tales'. Not at all surprising.

Here is a fairly recent BBC dramatisation of 'Carmilla'.

And here are some covers of Le Fanu books from around the literary world.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Joel Lane stories online

The death of Joel Lane last November was a considerable shock to many lovers of horror/weird fiction. He was only fifty years old. Spectral Press has an online archive and it will soon include several of his stories. One is already up. You can read Joel's story 'Black Country' here.

Joel Lane was very encouraging in the early days of ST when I wondered if the game was worth the candle. He even contributed stories and a memorable essay ('This Spectacular Darkness'), for which I was very grateful. I have nothing brilliant or insightful to say about him, except that he left us all a legacy of fine, intelligent writing.