Here’s a contender for favorite read of the year.
Katie‘s a delightfully dark pastiche of penny dreadfuls and Victorian sensation novels, like Wilkie Collins by way of the grislier Hammer horror flicks. It’s set in the north eastern USA during the 1870s with a good-hearted heroine, Philo Drax, pitted against the evil Slape family, and in particular their hammer-wielding, utterly bonkers, clairvoyant daughter, Katie.
If any of that even seems slightly cool, don’t walk, but run to read this. It’s just brilliant page-turning entertainment, gory, wry, and more literate than it has any right to be.
Healed up, regeared, and after getting a brief earful of archaeological palaver from the local expert, they left Logodav station and made for the asteroid. Inside they found the sky tomb in much better condition than the previous one they explored. For one thing, no pirates had drawn dicks all over everything.
The party set about exploring, Zhukov in the lead, Felipe and Jonah in the middle, Rana Bai bringing up the rear. They quickly encountered a strange garden of flowering (and edible) plants, large organic insectile pods at odds with the interior construction, and bas-reliefs sculptures depicting the tree-aliens, the Ushan, worshiping the sun.
They encountered a group of large scarab-wasp-like aliens. Felipe attempted to communicate with them by using an Ushan greeting, but only succeeded in provoking an attack. The firefight ended. The party was victorious. Explorations continued. Rana Bai cautioned the party against tampering with anything in the tomb since it might be an environmental control. They found some more wasp-beetles, and Zhukov thought he had the drop on them. But all he ended up having the drop on was his fumbled grenade. The wasp-scarabs retaliated while the party was confused and did some damage before getting wiped out.
The party rested and discovered several dead wasp-scarabs lying on platforms. They also found the scarab hatchery when they opened a door and had a rain of live baby scarab-wasps fall on them. The room inside contained four casket-like structures. The first two contained recently dead Ushan, their bodies hollowed out. The other two contained live Ushans.
Both of them were in debilitated conditions and terrified of the party. However, Rana Bai was able to forge a psychic connection with them and communicate. She learned that the wasp-scarabs used the Ushan as a food source and hosts for their offspring. Even now other Ushan were alive in the tomb and locked in conflict with the Chittick, the wasp-scarab aliens. The Ushan wished to go back to their fellows and the party escorted them there without incident. The party communicated with these new Ushan, learned where the Chittick were holed up, and said they’d help the Ushan get revenge. But first they wanted to check out this room the Ushan seemed to be in awe of.
This turned out to be a meditation chamber constructed by an ancient Ushan high priest where he went to atone for his failure to save his people. The room was guarded by a large chittick that knocked out Jonah and Felipe before getting splattered by a shotgun. Deeper in the chambers amid strange holographic projections the party discovered the Sun Tower, a powerful Ushan artifact.
After a bit more exploring (and resting to at least get Felipe back up on his feet – no one could repair Jonah and the Ushan carried him for the rest of the adventure) they reached the main chittick nest for the boss battle. Felipe was knocked out, Zhukov managed to remember the correct way to throw a grenade, and even one of the Ushan managed to get some payback for a millennia of enslavement. At which time we were all tired and decided it was time to go home.
So the party returned to the space station, not much richer, but having to settle for single-handedly rediscovering a lost race of aliens and freeing them from enslavement. Before finishing, one of the Ushan (the psychic one) approached Rana Bai with a message.
“Your sister waits for you,” he said. “Beware the Still Lady.”
None of which made any sense to anyone.
Here are twelve weird books to get you through the year until next Halloween. They’re not all horror, but they’re all certainly weird. And if they’re not enough for you, you can always dip into the weird world of old whaling ship logs to hold you over.
This surreal fantasy novel tells the story of an unnamed heroine trapped by her uncle, a magician who rules over a magical island. It features all the opaque density of Peake’s Gormenghast at a 10th of the length. Definitely not for all tastes, as what exists as plot or character owes more to medieval alchemical texts than to formal story-telling structure, but the vignettes are rich and beautiful in their strangeness.
Eiseley writes like Thoreau filtered through Weird Tales. One essay in here “How Natural is “Natural”?” could have been written by Lovecraft in how it explores evolution and eternity.
“I too am aware of the trunk that stretches loathsomely back of me along the floor. I too am a many-visaged thing that has climbed upward out of the dark of endless leaf falls, and has slunk, furred, through the glitter of blue glacial nights. I, the professor, trembling absurdly on the platform with my book and spectacles, am the single philosophical animal. I am the unfolding worm, and mud fish, the weird tree of Igdrasil shaping itself endlessly out of darkness toward the light.
I have said this is not an illusion. It is when one sees in this manner, or a sense of strangeness halts one on a busy street to verify the appearance of one’s fellows, that one knows a terrible new sense has opened a faint crack in the absolute. It is in this way alone that one comes to grip with a great mystery, that life and time bear some curious relationship to each other that is not shared by inanimate things.”
This short novel is a bit like one of those VH1 behind the music specials penned as a ghost story by Arthur Machen. In the early 1970s members of a British acid rock band hole up in mysterious Wylding Hall to record what will turn out to be their greatest album. However while recording their lead singer will disappear into the hall and never be seen or heard from again. Years later the musicians, their friends, and associates meet with a documentary filmmaker to try and solve the mystery.
Hand clearly evokes the late 60s early 70s music scene, and I’ll admit that half way through the book I went on youtube to see if I could listen to any of the fictitious band’s music.
A Gothic fantasy novel from 1908 by noted expressionist illustrator Alfred Kubin that dissolves into decadent surrealism at its end. It’s a book you’re either going to love or hate. I loved it, but I enjoy long slow train rides to oblivion. It’s easy to see that this book influenced both Kafka and Peake, as well as provided a satire of all reactionary, idealistic utopias where one wealthy genius (or man of ego), heaves off to some isolated spot with his followers and impresses his will completely upon them until disaster results.
This collection knocked my socks off largely because it was an impulse buy, I liked the cover, and being the ignoramus I am I’d never heard of the author. What I expected was some quaint “English” ghost stories. What I got was startlingly different.
Lee was the pseudonym for Violet Paget a Victorian writer in the circle of Henry James and Walter Pater. She wrote poetry and travel essays, but she’s now mostly known for her supernatural stories like those collected here. Favorites include the titular “Virgin of the Seven Daggers”, “Amour Dure”, and “Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady”. If you happen to see this on the remainder table definitely grab a copy.
McDowell’s probably best known as the screenwriter for Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas. He was also one of the highlights of the 70s/80s paperback horror boom and an advocate for taking delight in all aspects of trash culture.
The Elementals reads like a weird cocktail mixing Capote, Salinger, and Stephen King at his goriest as two Alabama families decide to spend the summer at their isolated beach houses, doing their best to forget the empty third house nearby that’s slowly being swallowed by a mountain of sand. Unfortunately, things in the third house won’t forget about them.
Both trashy and creepy, and hats off to Valancourt Books for bringing McDowell back into print again.
Eleven horror stories by seven authors written in the early decades of Soviet Russia, a time of civil war, strife, and untold hardship. None of these stories have been printed before and with the exception of Bulgakov (and maybe Krzhizhanovsky) I suspect most people don’t even know the authors, but damn… these stories are great, Chayanov’s and Krzhizhanovsky’s being my favorites with doubles, duels, and medical specimens run amok. Definitely a collection worth tracking down.
The year is 1689. The place is Cold Marsh, a village on the border of civilization fourteen years after King Philip’s War ended when the village men slaughtered the inhabitants of a nearby native village. Now a series of disappearances have occurred and the men set out once more into the wilderness to confront whatever evil they can find. This novel captures that awe that exists close beside our fear of the unknown.
What makes these stories stand out is how firmly they’re grounded in the world of the marketplace and the ties between masters, servants, craftspeople, and… ghosts. Taken as a whole you get this sense of the supernatural sharing mundane qualities with the everyday world. If you’ve ever had a temp job where you stepped into a place and instantly your skin crawled and you thought “some bad shit’s going on that I can’t see here”, then you’ll enjoy this book.
So imagine Dead Poets Society at an all women’s college circa 1975, except swap out Robin William and replace him with Charles Manson. That’s this book.
A student falls under the spell of her charismatic English professor and his wife. Moral degradation, debauchery, and revulsion ensue. It’s a Gothic horror novella without any supernatural elements in it. I recommend it, but it’s a f’d up book. Not for everyone.
Near the end of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House there’s a chapter or two where the haunted house takes over the protagonist and warps all her perceptions. This entire book is like those chapters as a young woman with an eating disorder slowly gets taken over by the ghosts of her mother and grandmother lurking in the house. Meanwhile her brother may be making the whole story up and a refugee crisis is brewing. So if you ever wanted to read a stylish, but weird, haunted house story from multiple POVs this is your book.
This is a twofer as it collects both of Sloane’s mystery-horror novels from the 1930s, To Walk the Night and The Edge of Running Water. I’d wanted to read them since seeing the old Boris Karloff movie The Devil Commands, which was based on Edge of Running Water and gives you sights like this one.
By far Edge is my favorite of the two novels collected here, but both are curious in that they suggest an alternate horror genre that never quite emerged. If mad scientists, unsolvable murders, and explorations beyond space and time float your boat, then track this down and give it a shot.