Thursday, April 30, 2009

Happy Walpurgis Night!

Tonight is May Eve, Walpurgisnacht...or as some call it, "The Other Halloween."

It's a night for pagan wildness, darkness and debauchery, madness and morbidity! So go out there and have some fun! Or just stay home and read a good shuddersome book, or watch an appropriate movie.

May is coming....springtime is here, azaleas are in bloom, pollen is freakin' everywhere, and heat is coming. So let's get ready for another sinister summer!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Montague Summers' THE SUPERNATURAL OMNIBUS, Part One

This will be a multi-part review, because there's so much here to cover...

Montague Summers is one of those rare pieces of work that only come around every hundred years or so. Born in 1880 to affluent parents, he studied to be an Anglican curate, then shifted into teaching and writing, then converted to Catholicism and dubbed himself "Reverend" although sources conflict as to whether he was ever truly ordained. He was most famous for his works on occultism, witchcraft (including the first English translation of the MALLEUS MALEFICARUM) vampires, werewolves, and gothic literature. He was also known for his self-conscious eccentricity, going about in black priest's robes, soft fingers dripping with jeweled rings, clutching a huge black portfolio with "VAMPIRES" etched on the side in huge red letters. He purported to believe in everything he wrote about, and claimed that all witchcraft was evil. Nevertheless, he was rumored to have been friends with Aleister Crowley, to have participated in occult rituals, and to have been gay and/or a pederast. (That photo makes him look like someone's Aunt Gertrude, but never mind.) He's just one of those folks you're never sure what to make of.

Anyway, THE SUPERNATURAL OMNIBUS is his personal selection of significant stories, and they reflect him in many ways. I managed to get hold of a "complete" edition, which included a number of stories that weren't reprinted in American editions for many years.

Summers' introduction is rather interesting; he's simultaneously erudite and smirking, taking a wryly humorous overview of the development of the ghost story in literature, from ancient times to medieval manuscripts to modern times. There are moments when his tongue seems so firmly in cheek that I was left wondering just how genuine all his belief truly was...but I guess we'll never know for sure. He drops lots of tantalizing titles of obscure gothic works that left me drooling, including THE PRIORY OF ST. CLAIR, OR, THE MURDERED NUN and THE SKELETON CLUTCH, OR, THE GOBLET OF GORE. The latter is supposedly by Thomas Preskett Prest, author of the infamous VARNEY THE VAMPYRE, OR, THE FEAST OF BLOOD, which I made all the way through a few years ago and am not particularly inclined to revisit just yet.

I jumped around a bit through the first section, "Stories of Hauntings and Horror," mainly because there were stories there I'd read too many times before, or were things I planned to read later for this blog and review on their own or as part of their author's work. So, here's a few quick mini-reviews...

"Narrative of the Ghost of a Hand," by J. Sheridan le Fanu. An excerpt from his novel THE HOUSE BY THE CHURCHYARD, this is a nifty, atmospheric little tale that strongly resembles modern stories of poltergeist hauntings.

"An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street," also by Le Fanu. Not quite as compact and tidy as the last one, but still an entertaining story of a haunted house that kept making me think of Bram Stoker's "The Judge's House," and led me to wonder if there was an influence there.

"Man-Size in Marble," by E. Nesbit. I skipped this one, having read it too many times before. Then there was the aforementioned "The Judge's House" by Stoker, ditto.

"Thurnley Abbey" by Perceval Landon, has one of the most gruesome ghosts I've ever encountered in literature, a mummified corpse that flops into bed with the narrator. Yuck!

"The Story of the Spaniards, Hammersmith," by Kate and Hesketh Prichard, is something I'm saving for later. Amelia Edwards' "The Phantom Coach" is an old favorite; a man lost in a snowstorm ends up catching a ride on a moldering coach. Not great, but a good story to read in winter, with loads of atmosphere.

"Brickett Bottom," by Amyas Northcote, is a chilling tale of a house that may or may not be there...and what may happen to those who chance to go in. Memorable for its ambiguity.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon's "The Cold Embrace" is a tale of spectral vengeance that I've seen a million times; same with the next tale, Amelia Edwards' "How the Third Floor Knew the Potteries."

Rosa Mulholland's "Not to Be Taken at Bed-Time" is a nasty tale that honestly doesn't belong in this section, as it deals mostly with witchcraft. Old Coll Dhu is a lonesome recluse in Ireland who finally meets the local lord's daughter and falls in love. Naturally, she spurns him, and he commissions a local witch to fashion a love charm, with appalling results.

The next two tales, "To Be Taken with a Grain of Salt," and "The Signal-Man," are by Charles Dickens, a writer I simply do not like, so I skipped them. Yes, I don't like Charles Dickens. I know that's heresy to some. Live with it.

"The Compensation House" by Charles Collins is a sad tale of a man tormented by guilt, and haunted by a friend's ghost; the next tale, Amelia Edwards' "The Engineer," is quite similar. Neither is particularly frightening; Edwards' story is unfortunately rather pious and moralistic even though it's got a better, more modern style.

"When I Was Dead" by Vincent O'Sullivan is a minor classic, a first-person narrative of a man who, well...the title says it all. He's presented with an unusual situation and refuses to accept the reality of it. Short, but it sticks with you.

"The Story of Yand Manor House" by Kate and Hesketh Prichard is something I'm saving for later. Following that was another Vincent O'Sullivan piece, "The Business of Madame Jahn," which I didn't like; for some reason, I read it twice and both times forgot almost immediately that I had read it. Either it's totally unmemorable or so hideous and traumatic that my brain is wiping out the memory automatically. My bet is on the former but you never know.

Two by Vernon Lee, "Amour Dure" and "Oke of Okehurst," are being saved for later. Braddon's "Eveline's Visitant," a tale of spectral revenge with hints of marital infidelity, is another overly familiar tale; same is true of "John Charrington's Wedding" by E. Nesbit, which is quite good, but anthologized often.

Roger Pater's "De Profundis" is an interesting tale, told from the viewpoint of a Catholic priest with clairaudient abilities, who I'm told was the star of a series of stories. It's not that brilliant a tale (the ghost of a nun accidentally reveals some unorthodox practices in a convent), but the milieu is interesting, and I may see if there's a reprint out there somewhere.

Winding up the first section is Wilkie Collins' "The Dream Woman," one of those classic tales of fate foretold by a prophetic dream. Hardly anything new, but Collins could tell a tale.

OK...I'll be starting the second part, "Diabolism, Witchcraft, and Evil Lore," which has a lot of tales I've never heard of, so I'm looking forward to it. Oh, but it has le Fanu's "Carmilla," another one that's been anthologized to death, but hopefully I'll be able to examine it by itself some day.

So that's all for the moment...stay tuned for Part Two!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A WATERY GRAVE by Joan Druett

OK, yeah, I know, it's been a while. I had reviews to write for magazines (namely Scarlet and Van Helsing's Journal) and I still have a book to review for Amazon, plus I've been dealing with allergies (tree pollen is my bugaboo), coping with a bug, floored by Natasha Richardson's passing, driven nearly mad by work issues, coping with a temperamental car, etc. And I've been dealing with a dreadful crisis that struck on Easter weekend....I ran out of absinthe. And trying to find a source for it around here is a pain.

(Note on the Amazon kerfuffle...if you haven't heard about it, consider yourself lucky. Personally, I think it's a tempest in a teapot, and I find the "glitch" explanation totally plausible, considering some of the things I have to deal with at work. I have every intention of doing business with them in the future. I encourage cool heads and rational, skeptical thinking in situations like this, and refraining from witch-hunts and hopping on the outrage haywagon simply because it's fashionable.)

This book was a random selection at the library, but it turned out to be fun. Joan Druett is known as a nautical historian, and some refer to her as a "distaff Patrick O'Brien." This is the first in a mystery series (so far, four books), featuring linguist Wiki Coffin.

Now, what makes this series interesting is the milieu. Wiki is half-Caucasian, half-Maori, and has traveled over a lot of the 19th-century world. And in this novel, he's setting off with the (real-life) United States Exploring Expedition, which left Virginia in 1838 to explore and map as much as they could. In addition the usual naval crew, there were artists, naturalists, botanists, astronomers, taxidermists, a mineralogist, and a philologist. Six ships set out, but only one returned four years later (one was sent back because it was too slow, one shipwrecked, one was sold into the opium trade, and two vanished with all hands). The specimens collected on the expedition formed the backbone of the Smithsonian Institution (something near and dear to the hearts of us Washingtonians).

Anyway, Druett's series adds a seventh ship, and a few fictional characters, including linguist Wiki Coffin. As A WATERY GRAVE opens, Coffin is in Virginia, and witnesses a bizarre event as a boat is shot at on a river. Turns out the boat had a corpse in it, and Coffin is initially accused of the crime. He's cleared, but the local law enforcement is convinced the real criminal is part of the Coffin is deputized to find out who's responsible.

Now, I have to admit...the mystery's kinda creaky. I saw a lot of things coming that Wiki Coffin took for freakin' ever to figure out. And the final solution was not much of a surprise to me. But...the setting is just fascinating, and Druett's studies in nautical history make it all ring true. And all the scientific and cultural stuff just makes it all the more interesting for me. I just love the concept of the "citizen-scientist," research-minded regular joes who participate in various studies and track blooming flowers or bird appearances or meteors or whatever. (I had a great time a couple weekends ago at the Naval Observatory's open house here in DC, where I actually saw Saturn's rings through an amateur 'scope, and am seriously considering getting my own.) The historic setting, scientific discussions, and overall realism more than make up for the plot weaknesses.

So, if you enjoy a good historical and like to immerse yourself in a new setting, give Druett's work a try. I've already picked up a couple of her other books (thanks to ultra-cheap library book sales) and am looking forward to more adventures...

Coming up: Montague Summers, Sherlock Holmes, Poe, Poe, and more Poe!