Thursday 30 April 2020

'At the Museum' by Marian Womack - Running Review of Uncertainties IV

In Billion Year Spree, his history of science fiction (later revised and expanded as Trillion Year Spree) Brian W. Aldiss rightly argues that the sf genre stems from the Gothic - Frankenstein, mesmerism, telepathy, and all that jazz.

Marian Womack demonstrates this link in fictional in her remarkable tale set in a distant, starfaring future, but also in a timeless Gothic pseudo-past. The Museum is on another world, one of several that our species has used up in its cosmic odyssey. This sounds like Arthur C. Clarke country, but in fact this is a tale of technology - a kind of virtual reality system - used to recreate a familiar and dark world that existed just before the Space Age.

The story has stories inside it (like many a Gothic novel), but as the 'contemporary' tale unfolds we realise that the Gothic is - as with the Romantic, originally - seen as subversive, dangerous to the status quo, always prone to running out of control. The ending is suitably ironic, as the far-future regime imposes a penalty on the wayward artist/dreamer that combines Edgar Allan Poe with Gene Wolfe.

I was very pleased to see the sci-fi brigade represented her by such a fine story. More from this review within the next few aeons.

Secret Worlds Spirit of Place (1986)

Monday 27 April 2020

'"A Novel (Or Poem) About Fan" or "The Zoo"' by Camilla Grudova - Running Review of Uncertainties IV

This story looks at Victorian paintings from the other side of the canvas. An artist encounters a pretty girl called Jenny on the street and wants to paint her. Twenty years later she has had ten children, of which Fan - red-haired and precocious - is one. The grim uncertainties of life for poorer women in 19th century England is well evoked, in neat unfussy prose. There is humour here, of the dark and strange sort that recalls Angela Carter.
'After the fourth child she started to name her children after things she wanted but could not afford. Piano, Stove, Grand Fern, and the children grew to resemble the objects they stood in for. Piano was a girl with a wide mouth and large orderly teeth.'
Things end tragically because that is how things tended to end in those days. There are several bizarre and disturbing anecdotes along the way, culminating in a variation on the well-known story of Rosetti digging up his mistress to retrieve the poems he had buried with her. We also get hints of Ophelia in the bath and the inevitable pot of basil. This is the Gothic of the chaotic and messy, where fatal illness is only an unwise decision away.

If the story has a message, it's might be that life is enduring and life is short. But I suspect that it is more along the lines that artists then and perhaps now were self-centred bastards, and when you combine that with our old friend the patriarchy nothing good will come of it. 

More from this running review of Uncertainties IV soon, I hope.

'Cold As Night' by Sam Dawson

Sunday 26 April 2020

'I Serve the Lambdon Worm' by John Darnielle - Running Review of Uncertainties IV

Now here's a little cracker, one of those tiny (one page, in fact) stories that evokes an awful lot of imagery and ideas. It's also doubly interesting to me, as I come from Lambton Worm country, i.e. Sunderland. Yes, the name has been changed, but that's the worm/serpent/dragon I sang about at school. It's also the one dear departed Ken Russell channeled via Bram Stoker in Lair of the White Worm.

The story is essentially a character study. Here is a young man who grew up, as I did, in a land with a myth. But in his case it wasn't a jolly folk song that eventually gave its name to a branch of Wetherspoons (yes, I know) but a terror-cum-deity that overshadows everything. We know from the  title what the end of the story is. Gothic fiction is about fate, as much as anything else, and here Darnielle shows us the human face of that terrible truth.

More from this running review very soon, I hope. But if the fates decree otherwise...

Lulu issues

Anyone attempting to buy print-on-demand copies of ST will have noticed that the Lulu site is down for maintenance. I'm hoping all will be well again soon. Believe me, this problem was as big a surprise to me as it was to anyone else. They did not issue any warnings. I have often thought about shifting to another POD site but let's see how this revamp goes.

Saturday 25 April 2020

Grammatical Terror!

Cracking use of the word 'whom' here.

h/t Steve Duffy

'Hand Out' by Anna Tambour - Running Review of Uncertainties IV

How are we supposed to be good in a fallen world like this one? A big question for a short story, but Anna Tambour tackles it in her contribution to this fine anthology. Her protagonist in 'Hand Out' is a charity worker who encounters history, in the person of an elderly woman who may be a 'bag lady'. History is 'part of a recent invasion you can't ignore.'

What impressed me most about this story is the way the convention of the unreliable narrator is used to convey the truth about a chaotic and morally deranged society. And if that sounds serious, it is. But Tambour's sprightly and warm prose manages to avoid over-preachiness.

Gradually her narrator's proximity to history wears her down, sends her barmy, but she does not lose her essential humanity. And if this is a horror story, it is not one that offers the conventional holiday from morality (to use Angela Carter's term) but reminds us that we are always living in the Gothic.

Another winner, then, and kudos to both the author and editor Timothy J. Jarvis. Check out the book here. NB I received a review copy from publisher Swan River Press.

Tuesday 21 April 2020

'We Pass Under' by Gary Budden (from Uncertainties IV)

After the previous story from this Swan River anthology, which was a vignette of three pages (see below) we move on to a longer and more 'realistic' offering in Uncertainties IV. Realistic in the sense of narrative and characterisation - we have a coherent story that can be pieced together and a fairly reliable narrator. That said, this Gothic tale has enough strangeness about it to make the cut, and carries considerable political freight.

Yes, political - one of those 'modern' stories, complete with the urban 'miserabilism' of ghosts inhabiting the far from pleasant environs of London's river Brent. Some might reject the idea of the ghost story as a medium for serious social commentary. They are wrong, I'm glad to say. A good story can be about anything. In this case, it's about victims of toxic masculinity, women killed by men in various ways - domestic violence, so-called 'honour killing', and so forth. 

This might sound sound bleak, and it is, but Budden's prose is restrained, intelligent, and evokes a sense of resigned weariness. It is an oddly beautiful story, in fact, as our ghost recalls her mundane life on the perfume counter at Brent Cross shopping center, the moments of love and beauty she found before her life was snatched away. I doubt that it will appeal much to the trad/pastiche fans, or the visceral horror brigade, but it's not supposed to. It's supposed to work as short fiction, and it does. And there is even an original (to me) entity, the Commare who recruits the lost women to the subterranean world.

So far so good. More from Uncertainties IV soon, I hope. 

Discovering Sarban

Monday 20 April 2020

'The Pit' by Kristine Ong Muslim

'For the third time, I told the dispatcher over the phone that I'd buried my father's body right under the spot where I'd put the barbecue grill, and that I thought it was time they took it out of the ground, gave it proper burial.'

So begins a tale of American small town horror in Uncertainties IV. Stephen King would make it a novella, in all likelihood, but here we have a very short, punchy tale with a (possibly) unreliable narrator who has certainly Done Something Terrible. But why? Here there are at least two possibilities, very well evoked in just three pages. 

Kristine Ong Muslim makes the short-short story into a work of dark art, here. More opinions from me about this excellent anthology soon.

The Dracula Parrot

Sunday 19 April 2020

'Myling Kommer' by Brian Evenson

The next story in Uncertainties IV continues the theme of dysfunctional families. This is interesting in itself, as the traditional ghost story often concerns dubious shenanigans between relatives. One thinks of M.R. James' 'Lost Hearts', or 'The Tractate Middoth'. But here there is a greater sense of intimacy, as in Brian Evenson's innocent but haunted boy who becomes obsessed with his late great-grandmother.

The old lady said a few things in her native tongue that haunted the narrator, who eventually teases out the truth - or versions of it - concerning a dead child. There are some nice foreshadowings, as when the old lady uses a pencil to communicate as she can't speak. This hints at spirit writing by mediums. The central idea of the myling - a kind of half-ghost of an unwanted child - is arresting, and the ending is sufficiently ambiguous to allow a rational get out. But only just.

This is another excellent story, and all credit for Timothy J. Jarvis for choosing it. More from this running review soon, I hope.

Remember, there are always other menaces

'The Birds of Nagasaki' by Lucy McKnight Hardy

The second story in Uncertainties IV is, like the first, set in a timeless England where kids are still deprived of their phones and video games. This is quite traditional, in a way. Wasn't it M.R. James who said that a good ghost story should have a 'slight haze of distance'? The story concerns siblings who - typically enough - have a rivalry that leads to unpleasant bullying, and finally to tragedy and (perhaps) madness.

It's a beautifully written story. The title refers to the origami birds that the children's father brings back from Japan, along with presents for the narrator and her old brother. These gifts spark a final, terrible incident that seems grimly inevitable, springing naturally from the spare setup and efficient characterisation. The imagery is especially effective, evoking the beauty of snowflakes, paper birds, a silk kimono. It's always a pleasure to discover writer new to oneself who is this good. I'll certainly be keeping an eye out for work by Lucy McKnight Hardy in future.

More from this running review very soon, I hope!

Saturday 18 April 2020

'What I Found in the Shed' from ST 31

Here's author Tom Johnstone, plus hat, telling his own story. He also informs me it's to appear in Ellen Datlow's forthcoming anthology Body Shocks - congrats, Tom!

Friday 17 April 2020

'I Seen Her' by Rebecca Lloyd

In his introduction to Uncertainties IV (see below) Timothy J. Jarvis makes the point that 'ghost stories' are often about things other than ghosts in the conventional sense.

This is certainly true of the first story, in which a small, remote English community ponders a haunting. This haunting - or whatever it is - involves two local boys who begin as best friends but are later bitterly estranged. The 'Her' of the  title may be a ghost, or something worse. There are hints - one of boys' parents, before they died, had certain powers, it seems, and may have conjured Her up.

In a conventional ghost story there would be a neat explanation for it all, and a denouement. Here there is a more realistic fumbling for truth while two young people fail to provide it, even to themselves. They don't have the words for anything beyond the commonplace, yet are clearly the focus of something extraordinary. Lloyd evokes the strangeness of closed communities and the way in which the odd becomes almost commonplace in a story with a timeless but essentially historical setting - this is a world where kids don't spend half their gazing at their phones.

This is a fine story, and it reminded me of the poetic, evasive tales of A.E. Coppard (1878-1957), a rural poet who also used the supernatural as a component in a story rather than an end in itself. So, a good start. The running review will continue shortly!

Thursday 16 April 2020

The Remarkable Case of Davidson's Eyes by H G Wells

Running Review - Uncertainties IV

I'm sorry I've not been doing reviews for a while. It's been hard for me to focus on new books for some reason. You'd think it'd be easier, but no. However, I have finally started this anthology from the Swan River Press, so brace yourself for my 'insights' in the coming days, or weeks.

Uncertainties IV is edited by Timothy J. Jarvis, whose introduction is excellent. It combines intellectual insights (Todorov, anyone?) with a personal anecdote about a church in rural England that makes for a neat little ghost story in itself.

The cover art by B. Catling is intriguing, just unconventional enough for a Gothic anthology. There is a hint here of a lonely house, of a sunset, perhaps a beach. I like it.

Jarvis' selection of authors is intriguing. Obviously, an editor always goes for the story not the name. But here I find a  large percentage of writers who are new to me. In fact, there are only four I can be sure I have read before -  Rebecca  Lloyd, Brian Evenson, Charles Wilkinson, and D.P.  Watt.

So, I anticipate at least as many surprises as usual when I begin a book of tales by many hands. My review of the first story will be along shortly.

Tuesday 14 April 2020

Latest Issue Reminder!

Supernatural Tales 43

You can buy the print-on-demand copy here. There are delays with postage but sfaik they are still being delivered. Check your region/country to be sure, though.

There's also a UK Kindle edition.

And a US Kindle edition.

Saturday 4 April 2020

'Dickon the Devil' by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

A reading by yours truly. See how many parallels you can spot to later (and better) stories by M.R. James. I would say 'The Ash Tree', 'Oh Whistle...', arguably 'A Neighbour's Landmark' and possibly a couple of others.

ATARASHII GAKKO! - HANAKO (Official Music Video)

'Hanako of the Toilet' is a famous Japanese urban myth of a girl ghost that haunts... well, you can work it out for yourself.  (I th...