Monday, January 16, 2017

Two from the Library

My holiday reading was pretty shuddersome, as usual. I scrounged in the interlibrary loan database and found Hugh Lamb's first anthology of Victorian reprints, and dived in.

It runs the gamut of Victorian style. M. P. Shiel's "Xelucha" and de Maupassant's "The Mother of Monsters" are both on the Decadent side, while Elizabeth Braddon't "The Mystery at Fernwood" and Mrs. Molesworth's "The Shadow in the Moonlight" are rather sentimental. There's "My Favorite Murder" by Ambrose Bierce, always in a class by himself, and the same goes for Le Fanu's "Madam Crowl's Ghost."

It's a good anthology, although now a couple of the stories, namely "Madam Crowl's Ghost" and Grant Allen's "Wolverden Tower", are now familiar staples. Some are ghostly, like "The Black Lady of Brin Tor" by Guy Boothby, "The Dead Man of Varley Grange" by an unknown author.

To run them down quickly: "Xelucha," by M. P. Shiel, is a story of Decadent fascination and a femme fatale who may or may not be supernatural in nature. Charles Dickens' "The Black Veil" is a tale of madness and obsession. Braddon's "The Mystery at Fernwood" is a gothic story of madness and family secrets. Boothby's "The Black Lady of Brin Tor" is a ghost story with a tragic twist.

"The Mother of Monsters" by de Maupassant is fairly nasty and cruel, but also amazingly good. "The Murderer's Violin" by Erckmann-Chatrian has a visit by a ghost but is mostly about madness and inspiration. Richard Marsh's "The Mask" has a man stalked by an insane murderer who is a master of disguise. The anonymous "The Dead Man of Varley Grange" is a supernatural tale of ghosts and curses. Bierce's "My Favorite Murder" is a sardonic tale of murder and cruelty.

"The Shadow in the Moonlight" by Mrs. Molesworth is a nice little tale of a haunting. Mrs. Riddell's "The Last of Squire Ennismore" is a tale of hauntings and a visitation by Old Nick. "The Red Warder of the Reef" by J. A. Barry is a conte cruel of an escaped murderer getting his just punishment. "Wolverden Tower" by Grant Allen is a chilling gothic ghost story, as is Le Fanu's "Madam Crowl's Ghost," which also deserves notice as a dialect tale that's actually readable. (I normally LOATHE dialect tales.) And last comes Dick Donovan's "The Cave of Blood," a tale of supernatural revenge and really quite lurid.

This is a fun collection and worth hunting down, as is any anthology edited by Lamb, in my opinion.

For something of a more recent vintage, I dived into Kim Newman's The Man from the Diogenes Club.

In Kim Newman's universe, the Diogenes Club (introduced in the Sherlock Holmes tale "The Greek Interpreter") is actually a super-secret arm of the British Intelligence services, focused on investigating the weird and outre. The stories in this book center on a 70s agent Richard Jeperson, and his assistants, the sexy Vanessa and former cop Fred Regent.

Jeperson is gaudy, flashy dresser and is obviously a nod to the BBC program Jason King, which featured Peter Wyngarde as a novelist turned sleuth who was also quite the 70s dandy. The Diogenes Club employs people with "Talents", e.g. psychic powers, or those able to cope with dealing with the supernatural or abnormal.

The first story, "The End of the Pier Show," introduces Fred Regent as an undercover cop infiltrating a skinhead gang, who gets caught up in supernatural hijinx at a seaside resort. He's called in to join Jeperson and Vanessa as they investigate a weird bit of time slippage, and it turns out to be some people trying to drag Britain back in time to the 1940s...and there's a nice speech about how yeah, it was good in some ways, but very bad in others.

"You Don't Have to Be Mad...." involves a series of bizarre deaths connected to a mental hospital/corporate retreat that turns out to be a recruiting ground for psychotic assassins. This story introduces a character named only "Mrs. Empty," a woman devoid of compassion or feeling, and her identity comes clear in a later story. "Tomorrow Town" is a rather straightforward murder mystery story in an outre setting, a futuristic utopian community that's not quite working out. Both these stories have big weirdness going on but are essentially mundane, lacking any supernatural content.

But it comes back in "Egyptian Avenue," when some hauntings in a picturesque cemetery turn out to be a warning of present danger. In "Soho Golem" a series of murders in London's red-light district seem to be connected to the activities of an anti-smut crusader. "The Serial Murder" has the sleuths moving forward into 1980 and investigating a weird set of deaths that happen simultaneously with depictions of similar deaths on a TV soap opera. Jeperson, Regent, and Vanessa all turn the tables on the killer, who is using supernatural forces and setting up an occult murder-for-hire racket.

"The Man Who Got Off the Ghost Train" is a flashback to Jeperson's first real adventure in the 1950s, as he sets off with some fellow agents to investigate a supposedly haunted express train to Scotland. Not only does he battle an unearthly menace, but it also chronicles his first encounter with Vanessa, and give a humorous glimpse into early Cold War politics.

The last story (and longest) is "Swellhead", set in roughly the early days of the 21st century, as a retired Jeperson is called on to join a team investigating some odd goings-on connected to a remote island near the Faeroes. Joining them is a mysterious man who has weird mental powers, and the island hides a bizarre retro-hi-tech installation that resembles something from one of the more flamboyant James Bond movies. The story is actually quite thought-provoking and hearkens back to some of my adolescent imaginings...and ends with the promise of Jeperson returning for more in the modern world.

So this is a definite go-and-read. It's tons of fun. Sadly, it's out of print, but used copies and library copies are out there, and one can only hope that an ebook edition will come along sometime...

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