Welcome back to the Black Water Book Club. Today we’ll enjoy a very short one and a somewhat longer one.
IA Ireland’s “Climax For a Ghost Story” is an example of what would today be called flash fiction. It’s very much the kind of story places like Daily Science Fiction publishes regularly. That’s not a quality critique on flash fiction (I quite enjoy writing it myself!), Daily Science Fiction (who do what they do very well), or the story itself, just that its brevity no longer makes an intriguing curiosity but places it in a stylistic tradition. Read it for yourself:
“How eerie!” said the girl, advancing cautiously. “—And what a heavy door!” She touched it as she spoke, and it suddenly swung to with a click.
“Good Lord!” said the man. “I don’t think there’s a handle inside. Why, you’ve locked us both in.”
“Not both of us. Only one of us,” said the girl, and before his eyes she passed straight through the door, and vanished.
What actually makes this story notable is not the story itself but the likelihood that its author never existed and the whole thing’s a fabrication. The story’s said to come from Ireland’s 1919 book Visitations, which there seems to be no record of. Nor is there any record of the existence of Ireland’s 1899 book A Brief History of Nightmares. What is mentioned is that Ireland claims descent from William Henry Ireland, an infamous eighteenth-century forger who tried to pass his plays off as lost works by William Shakespeare. So for now, I’ll believe I.A. Ireland’s a hoax until some librarian tells me otherwise.
On to the next story, a tale of remembrance and loss. . . and getting a hand-job from your dead lover’s ghost until you die. The story’s called “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio”, and it’s written by Tennessee Williams. And here we are going straight into Ick Country of the sort you’ll find in Samuel R. Delany’s writings on New York City’s Times Square.
But first, up front, I’ll just admit that I really, really liked this story. It’s all atmosphere. Yes, squalid, dilapidated, and sordid atmosphere, but that’s a feature not a bug. It’s also kind of a tender love story.
Pablo Gonzales is an aging watch repairman in Texas who is so much surrounded by time as to have become indifferent to its passage, and one day he decides to go to the movies. That’s the story, except more so.
Mr. Gonzales inherited his watch repair business from his long dead lover, Emiel Kroger. That this story is set in 1950s USA means their relationship does not at all look healthy. Kroger’s described as a grotesque (“very fat, very strange”) who picks up a teen-age (possibly underage) Gonzalez for sex one night. That Gonzalez returns Kroger’s affection, surprises the older man, and the two form a relationship that’s both master and apprentice and romantic partner. In time Kroger dies leaving everything he owns to Gonzalez. Meanwhile the local movie palace the Joy Rio descends into decrepitude, becoming the center of an illicit world of sexual practices on its upper floors. Mr. Gonzales is a regular visitor to the upper floors. That this is 1950s USA means all these assignations have to be done subtly or one risks bringing the wrath of society at large down on oneself, no matter how ugly and sordid that greater society might be. There’s a nice anxious paranoia in this story as Mr. Gonzalez navigates the risks and rules of the sorts of seductions carried on in the Joy Rio. When a misstep throws his life in sudden danger, it’s too the upper floors Mr. Gonzalez flees and where the ghost of Emiel Kroger waits.
There’s a companion piece to this story called “Hard Candy” that I hope to read some day, and the Ick Factor here is definitely drawn from Williams’s own life. There’s tenderness within the grotesque on display, and both serve to make this a very unsettling story, perfect for the sort of book the Black Water Anthology hoped to be.
Next week … faint hand-writing and Venetian masks!
Welcome back to the Back Water Book Club or the BWBC as I’m going to call it from now on. This week we hit the stories!
To start off is Julio Cortazar’s “House Taken Over”.
It’s a ghost story. Sort of.
It’s more a metaphor story, but for what I don’t know. This story has ambiguity dripping all over it. A middle-aged brother and sister living in an old house find themselves at odds with a nameless unseen “they” that shows up one they and starts taking over their home. At first it’s only part of the house, and the brother and sister flee behind a sturdy oak door into another part of the house, but before long the unseen “they” take over even this part, and the brother and sister are forced to flee the house entirely.
But who are “they”? It’s uncertain. They simply appear and instead of confronting them, the brother and sister let them take over the house. Is it scary? Are the brother and sister actually ghosts haunting their ancestral home? Is the haunting actually an indictment of the brother and sister, as the intruders appear to have much more life than either of the pair? The story offers no answers. My reading’s that the “they” are metaphorical, a symbol of the unseen majority that will push the marginalized into the streets unless confronted.
Scary? No. Strange? Kinda. Ambiguous? Oh yeah.
Following that, we have a more traditional story in Robert S. Hichens’s “How Love Came to Professor Guildea”. This one features the recognizable Victorian trope of two old educated bachelors of opposing personalties who manage to be great friends despite their differences. Instead of Holmes and Watson, it’s a Father Murchison and a Professor Guildea. Murchison’s the sentimental idealist, while Guildea’s the man of pure intellect and reason. The two meet and get into debates about the human condition. Then Professor Guildea finds himself haunted.
And it’s here where we encounter the “ick factor” I talked about back in the introduction, because whatever the entity is that attaches itself to the Professor, its main characteristic is that it’s mentally disabled and the chill of the story comes from that fact. The entity that haunts the Professor is described as an imbecile (and not so flattering as such), and this makes both men shudder. While the entity seems to mean no harm, the very affection that it shows the Professor is deemed unnatural and a thing to be feared. And so the men set out to rid themselves of the thing with mixed results.
So, is this scary? Sort of. From the entity’s initial appearance as a ragged form on a park bench to the Professor’s slow discovery of its nature, and the dawning realization of what it wants, the story manages to get under one’s skin and linger. But that it relies on ableism to do so can’t be denied.
Next week… a possible hoax and some more ick factor from Tennessee Williams!
Hello, folks. Welcome to the Black Water Book Club.
Today we’re taking a quick look at the book’s forward before next week when we’ll start looking at the stories proper. Fortunately, the forward’s brief and it gets to the point quickly. Manguel gives a good working definition of what he thinks fantastic literature is:
“Unlike tales of fantasy (those chronicles of mundane life in mythical surroundings such as Narnia or Middle Earth) fantastic literature can best be defined as the impossible seeping into the possible, what Wallace Stevens calls “black water breaking into reality”. Fantastic literature never really explains everything.”
He then outlines the main themes common to all the stories selected for the anthology:
– Time warps
– Unreal creatures, transformations
– Mimesis (seemingly unrelated acts which secretly dramatize each other)
– Dealings with God and the Devil
“The truly good fantastic story will echo that which escapes explanation in life; it will prove _in fact_ that life is fantastic. It will point to that which lies beyond our dreams and fears and delights; it will deal with the invisible, with the unspoken, it will not shirk from the uncanny, the absurd, the impossible; in short, it has the courage of total freedom.”
One thing I’ll note is that while no story has been steeped in the complete bigotry of, say, an HP Lovecraft story, a few so far have relied on certain prejudices to achieve their impact. That this would be the case in stories that rely on dreams, fears, the absurd, and the uncanny should surprise no one. But this “ick factor” when it occurs can leave a bad taste behind it. The fantastic as Manguel approaches it is not to be mistaken for a clean place at all.
If you want to read more about Alberto Manguel, here’s the link to his wikipedia page. His Dictionary of Imaginary Places is a fun book to spend a few hours with.
Alberto Manguel’s Black Water: The Book of the Fantastic is an anthology of world literature from 1983 that’s considered a pioneering book for the weird genre. It’s cited as influential by others, in particular Ann and Jeff VanderMeer who put together their own anthology of weird literature. While Black Water‘s still leans Eurocentric, Manguel succeeded in pulling heavily from outside the English language, paying particular attention to the South American writers who formed his own background. At close to a thousand pages long Black Water does an admirable job at providing an overview of the fantastic as written around the world. Certainly its seventy-two stories excel in scope beyond other omnibus anthologies of weird stories from earlier eras. Used copies go for around ten dollars on Amazon, but I found my copy for half that back in 2017 at a used bookstore in Provincetown, Massachusetts. I bring all this up because one project I will work on this 2020 is a read through of the book over the course of the entire year, writing capsule reviews of the stories here at a rate of six stories per month.
I hope you’ll join me, or at least follow along.
Not writing an October post nagged me all November, but I was traveling and that’s my excuse and I’m sticking with it.
Here are the books I liked from the last two months.
The Compleat Guth Bandar by Matthew Hughes: Set during Earth’s penultimate age, Guth Bandar is a noonaut who voyages into humanity’s collective unconscious while traveling around the galaxy. Boyish and wry like Jack Vance, which it nods at heavily, but it lacks Vance’s cynicism and cruelty. Also spelling “complete” as “compleat”? That’s hot!
Headlopper Vol. 2 by Andrew Maclean and Jordie Bellaire: I didn’t like this one as much as Volume 1, but I liked it more than Volume 3. Heads get lopped as do limbs.
The Birthgrave by Tanith Lee: The book cover that needs to be airbrushed on the side of a van. I wrote about this one on the Patreon. For 1USD you can read about it and a bunch of other old weird books. This one is a cringy mess of 1970s fantasy tropes, but if you’re susceptible to that Conan itch like I am, and enjoy Tanith Lee, this is a must-read.
The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole: Another one from the Patreon. And for 1USD yadda yadda… This one lays out the template for the Gothic novel but isn’t nearly as bat-shit loopy as The Monk. Although, that’s not to say it isn’t bat-shit loopy in its own special way.
The Deadly Sky by Doris Piserchia: This one is set on a far future Earth where a young scientist becomes obsessed with the sudden appearance of a hole in the sky. This was Piserchia’s last published book and it falls a bit flat at the end, leading me to think it was rushed to publication. Piserchia can be a ton of fun, but if you’ve never read her I don’t recommend you start here. Instead check out Star Rider.
Galactic Sibyl Sue Blue by Rosel George Brown: A very 1960s SF novel about a hip, swinging space detective named Sibyl Sue Blue. She’s a mom, a cigar smoker, and always down for a good time. Not only do we have warp drives by the year 1990, but women regularly rouge their knees to keep up with fashion.
The Delicate Dependency: A Story of the Vampire Life by Michael Talbot: Of all the books here this is the one to read NOW! Even if you don’t like vampire books, this one is a great ride full of twists and turns. When Dr. Gladstone’s carriage strikes down a hauntingly beautiful young man on the streets of London, the event sparks an obsession in the doctor that brings him and his entire family into contact with a shadow world beneath the everyday one he believes he knows.
Here are my favorite reads for September.
Not included are my non-favorite reads like the “hard” science fiction novel that kept using “North American” as a stand-in for White. In my defense, or to further incriminate myself, its cover looked like it could have been an old Traveler module.
On to the books I greatly enjoyed!
The Border Keeper by Kerstin Hall. This cover does not do nearly enough to sell the Planescape meets El Topo vibe of this book. A stranger with a shady past comes to seek the guardian-god at the border between worlds. If you like New Weird fantasy where people hop between 999 worlds each overseen by a unique ruthless monarch from a court full of strange creatures, then yeah you should be buying this book now. It’s fun.
Red As Blood by Tanith Lee. A short story collection of reworked fairy tales that sits comfortably somewhere between Angela Carter and Fritz Leiber. Favorites were the Red Riding Hood, Frog Prince, and Rapunzel retellings. Part of the fun was seeing how far and in what direction Lee would twist the material. The rampant Satanism might be a bit much for some as might the sexualization of teens, but there you go. That’s Tanith Lee for you or the 1970s or something.
I, Juan de Pareja by Elizabeth Beston de Trevino. Juan de Pareja was a Spanish painter who served first as Velzaquez’s slave then later assistant after Velazquez granted him his freedom. His portrait by Velazquez hangs in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. This book is a historical YA novel from the 1960s and while it hasn’t aged that well, it’s still a fascinating read. The friendship between the two men comes across clearly as does their slow journey towards trusting each other. My main complaint is that de Pareja comes off as a bit too innocent and naive. Still, it’s an enjoyable read.
A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers. A novel about the friendship between a gifted engineer named Pepper and a “young” AI trying to adapt to living in a synthetic body, both of whom are trying to process their own maladaptive tendencies. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Chambers is my go to comfort read. It’s mac & cheese, but it’s near perfect mac & cheese. It’s also another book in that cozy aesthetic like the one I read back in June, Kate Diamond’s The Cloudship Trader. There’s drama and tension, but there’s a kindness too, since you have two damaged people trying their best to understand each other. Give it or one of her other books a try!
Here I am.
I have insomnia.
Let’s talk about books.
Embers by Sandor Marai: A Hungarian novel from 1942 that’s a rediscovered masterpiece yadda yadda yadda. This book’s about two old guys who haven’t seen each other for forty years. One’s a general, and the other was once his best friend. One day they and the general’s wife went out hunting. THEN EVERYTHING CHANGED. Now the two guys meet again and sit down for a long dinner. The book’s pretty much the general making a long speech that boils down to “Did you fuck my wife?” While that makes it all sound trite, I got hooked by Marai’s exquisitely lean prose that evoked a lost world.
Gateway by Frederik Pohl: 1970s sci-fi that hits the right spot of being smart and entertaining, without having aged too badly. Humanity’s finds a trove of alien spacecrafts on an asteroid near Venus. We have no idea how to operate or control them, but we know they work, and so we send people out blindly in them to travel around the galaxy in the hopes that they make discoveries. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t, a lot of times they die trying. The story’s told via flashbacks as Robinette Broadhead goes into therapy after making an astounding discovery.
The Foot-Path Way: An Anthology For Walkers, edited by Hilaire Belloc: This one was a Patreon read. I suggest you avoid it.
Lucian’s True Story: This was another Patreon read. It’s better than the Belloc book. I absolutely recommend it. It’s a hoot!
How to Make Friends With Demons by Graham Joyce: I read this ten years ago and it stuck with me. Rereading it now I still found myself caught up in it. Joyce has written some of my favorite books. He’s also written a book that I hate. Both that book I hate and this one revolve around a guy who has fucked his way into a nervous breakdown, but I feel like here Joyce makes the most of that concept by really putting the screws to his character. On a technical level, I feel like it’s a masterclass of not so much plotting as laying on so many complications that they start interacting with each other and moving the story on their own. Also, it’s about an art forger, and what’s not to love about that?