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.
Close Your Eyes is a hallucinatory space opera, well, a nominal space opera at least. It reprints the 2009 novella Open Your Eyes and adds a continuation on to it as the misfit salvage crew find themselves in an alien world.
In this book language is a virus, but you likely heard that one before. What might be news is love is a virus too. It consumes and destroys as efficiently as any microbe-borne fever could.
A woman impregnated by a supernova, a man obsessed with an imaginary woman, a woman held captive by her love for her abuser, and another woman trying to resurrect her dead lover. These individuals compose the ship’s love-doomed crew as they scavenge across the stars and ultimately encounter an apocalyptic brain-melting alien language virus.
Things happen. Events spiral into chaos. Dooms are averted or not to catastrophic results.
One trope of space opera is that there are galaxy spanning hegemonies or polities, Federations, Empires, Cultures, and what not. In Close Your Eyes there’s none of that. There’s no there there. The galaxy is so big and the populations so distant that it’s like no one lives there at all. The technology too is at once familiar and incomprehensible. Characters walk the ship’s eiga armed with betadurs while their patueks back-up their brains in case of emergencies. None of these get described, but a lever on the wall does.
It’s jarring, but it also might be the point.
When setting is more atmosphere and mood than concrete details, the reader’s invited to take an active part in the story’s creation and fill in the gaps. But this also means the reader might make some leaps the author wouldn’t intend. The world depicted in Close Your Eyes is a world where predation abounds. The big fish always eats the little fish. And this applies to AI computer systems, alien language viruses, as well as simple interpersonal relationships.
And while all this is recognizable as space opera, the latter portions of Close Your Mouth are straight from Lewis Carroll. Just when you think you’ve figured out the rules, the novel pulls the rug out from under you and changes the rules, and we the reader emerge from one hallucinatory setting to another with suddenly different rules and different relationships. Where before you were on an awful space ship now you’re in a malevolent wonderland where the predation continues but events remain just as incomprehensible.
Is that a problem? I don’t know. Maybe for some, but others might find the weird, jarring imagistic stuff refreshing. I did. You might too.
Close Your Eyes is available from Apex Books and your usual monolithic internet retailers.
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.
A couple of recent additions to Project Gutenberg that look like they might be worth a further look simply on account of their illustrations alone.
“In every manor there was held annually the assize of bread and ale, the two staple articles of diet which it was essential should be pure and of good quality. “Bread, the staff of life, and beer life itself,” not unknown as a motto on the signboards, is a saying that[Pg 97] has come down to us from a prehistoric period. And modern science, as it seems, is inclined to endorse the maxim. Good old-fashioned wheaten and rye bread, made from the whole flour from which only the coarser brans had been sifted, built up the stamina of our forefathers. Their chief drink was ale brewed from barley or oaten malt. The small proportion of alcohol served as a vehicle for the organic phosphates necessary for the sustenance of strong nerves, while the ferment of the malt helped to digest the starch granules in the bread. Bread and ale are still the main diet of our labouring classes—but alas! stale, finely-sifted flour contains a very poor allowance of gluten, and chemically produced saccharine is destitute of phosphates. O, that our modern legislators would revive the assize of bread and ale!”
And from The History of Mourning:
“The Italians, and especially the Venetians, spent enormous sums upon their funeral services, which were exceedingly picturesque; but as the members of the brotherhoods who walked in the procession wore pointed hoods and masks, so that, by the glare of the torches, only their eyes could be seen glittering, and as it was the custom, also, for the funeral to take place at night, the body being exposed upon an open bier, in full dress, the scene was sufficiently weird to attract the attention of travellers.”