posted Sunday 15 July 2012 @ 3:28 pm PST
After the last column’s underwhelming batch of stories, I’m really in the mood for something superior and substantial. Happily, I have at hand publications from two sources that can be counted on to deliver it.
Subterranean, Summer 2012
It seems that I just reviewed the Spring issue of this online zine, but Subterranean Press has redone its website and is now posting the entire contents of the magazine issue at once, instead of installments. There are two substantial novellas, of which the K J Parker in particular quite restores my enthusiasm for stories.
“Let Maps to Others” by K J Parker
The narrator is [arguably] the greatest living authority on legendary Essecuivo, a place he knows but cannot prove to exist. His father, a founder of the East Ocean Company [where the fabled land was supposed to exist] believed it did, based on the writings of Aeneas Peregrinus, which unfortunately had been lost.
My father was a practical man. He wasn’t convinced that Essecuivo would simply fall into our laps like an overripe pear; it would need finding, so someone would have to find it. Ordinarily he’d have done it himself (he was a great believer in if-you-want-something-done-properly) but he was too busy with supervising the cannon-founders and doing deals with foreign princes to find the time, so it seemed logical to keep it in the family and give the job to his spare son (me).
But the Company went under, the narrator’s father went to prison, and the narrator turned scholar, which is where things stand when the manuscript is unexpectedly found. And then they get complicated.
A brilliant and intriguing work, full of hidden documents, maps, codes, and forgery, as well as adventure, voyages mercantile and military, rivalry, politics, and war. There’s a high degree of historical verisimilitude, based on meticulous attention to realistic detail. Surely a person so aptly named as Aeneas Peregrinus ought to have existed! If only the author had taken advantage of the many opportunities for giving us her narrator’s name.
— HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
“To Be Read Upon Your Waking” by Robert Jackson Bennett
An epistolary novella. In 1949, James decamps from London in the wake of financial difficulties and purchases a ruined estate in France, Anperde Abbey. In joyful enthusiasm, he sends for his lover Laurence to join him there.
And it is also quite possible that I have bought us a part of history. And I mean that. History that is as real and as tangible as the land it is carved into. History of great controversy, of great achievements, of great victories and failures. And they are all buried here! I can see them out the window as I write this. Well, part of them, at least. The idea is tantalizing.
He begins enthusiastically to excavate the ruins, while ominous horror-movie music plays in the reader’s mind as James remains determinedly oblivious to the Signs jumping up and down, waving their arms. Such as the fact that the locals say the real name of the ruins is “Année Perdu”.
The author pairs James’ obliviousness about the nature of the place with his denial about the real state of his relationship with Laurence. At one point in the story, a Personage tells James, “You’re not that thick”, but indeed he does seem to be, and that’s the problem here. He’s way too thick in the beginning to be believed; where subtlety is needed, we have instead a brick. It’s too bad, because once James lets go of his self-delusion, we find a lot of mana here, strongly rendered portrayal of ancient powers. The reader too familiar with genre fiction will expect at this point to encounter certain stock figures, but despite a couple of familiar images, Bennett creates something more unusual and original, yet strangely authentic-seeming.
There were men in the boat, hairy and filthy and dripping. They looked up and saw me standing on the bank, and stood up and stared. If I astonished them, they did not show it— they simply looked. Perhaps they had seen many strange things in this region.
If this vision reminds readers of any other created mythos, it would likely be Holdstock’s Rhyope Wood, and that’s not a bad thing at all.
“Tumbling Nancy” by Ian R MacLeod
Ros Godby enters the literary world as an agent’s apprentice in the not-so-swinging 60s and soon catches on to the way the publishing business works. Happily, her agency has a venerable and respectable backlist of mostly-deceased authors. So Ros is alert to the possibilities when Edna Bramley shuffles off the coil, author of a once-well-known series of children’s books called Tumbling Nancy, in which a child shrinks to small size and crawls off to have adventures.
In fact, I decided, the Tumbling Nancy books were so spectacularly bad that, if there wasn’t something marketable here, my name wasn’t Ros Godby. Not the kind of books you’d sell to kids these days—not unless you counted glue-sniffing horror fans. But there would definitely be a kind of fission in rediscovering just how terrible Tumbling Nancy really was for the adult market which grew up with them.
Ros rushes off to secure the rights and makes a nasty discovery.
In fact, nasty is quite the word for this one. Ros herself is a piece of work, but what the author is really intent on evoking here is the dreary, squalid world of pre-and post-war Britain, the milieu in which books like Tumbling Nancy were spawned.
“The Puce Whale: A Lucifer Jones Story” by Mike Resnick
Continuing the reprehensible adventures of the unreverend reprobate. Kicked off another ship for cheating at cards, he finds himself on the Peapod, a whaler whose captain calls himself Ahab, “on a holy mission of hate and vengeance.” By which signs, readers will realize that this episode will be more farcical than usual.
Postscripts 28/29: Exotic Gothic 4, ed Danel Olson
A sizeable anthology [over 400 pp] of 25 Neo-Gothic stories, which the editor aptly characterizes as “that genre of things wrongly hungered for and things wrongly alive.” The emphasis rests on the wrongness – this collection emphatically rejects the romanticizing, the domestication of the traditional tropes, which of course makes me regard it favorably. Overall, what we have here is very dark stuff, although the range of settings and styles is very wide, to the point that I wonder how it could all be considered Gothic, in any meaningful sense. But that isn’t really a problem, because there’s some good dark fantasy here, whatever the label.
The stories are divided not thematically but geographically, apparently on the basis of the setting. There is a definite theme linking many of them: colonialism and the resistance of indigenous peoples. Each piece is followed by an author’s note disclosing something about the story’s origin. Readers should note that while this is the fourth in a series, it’s the first from this publisher.
“Blooding the Bride” by Margo Lanagan
Loriane falls in love with Lucas and they marry. But what follows seems to be a dream, quite disconnected from the grounded life that led her to the wedding with Lucas. She finds herself alone in an unused house haunted by the ghosts of former brides, her mouth tasting of poison.
In the middle of the room a person, suspended in an excess of white cloth, swung slightly, cold in the coldness. Two white ribbons dangled from the woman’s waist to the floor, brushing, pausing, brushing the other way.
There is no sign of Lucas or any other living person, any mortal person. She is, in the dream, meant to be a sacrifice.
A frustrating story to review. Positioned to headline the anthology, it ought to be the star attraction. The prose is so outstanding – the descriptions of the dusty house, the grasses and dunes surrounding it. We have the classic setup of Gothic romance: the heroine who finds herself in the attic of the crumbling mansion, faced with some hideous mystery. But the hideous mystery, in the Gothic, is to some extent human; readers might have expected blood, might have expected nightmares and ghosts, all quite credible in such a setting. I’m reading with admiration and interest when I fall flat on my face, tripping over the line: “Why are you not opened to me, virgin?” It’s like watching an art film and seeing the monster appear in a rubber suit, obliterating credibility with the ludicrous. Because it is not, apparently, a dream. We are meant to take this scene literally, and that’s too hard to do.
In the meantime, readers have to be wondering, Where is Lucas? Did he willingly and knowingly send her to this house of sacrifice? These questions, this void, gnaws so persistently that I begin to think the real story is not really Loriane’s, but Lucas’s, going on somewhere out of the reader’s sight. In what we do see, Lucas recedes from reality, becoming less real than the demonic figures in the not-dream. Did he ever exist? Upon consideration, we realize the only evidence we have for Lucas is in Loriane’s mind. The dream is compelling; it draws us back. Loriane is still asleep, and when the story is over she will wake with Lucas in her real wedding bed. The scenes here are all so well done, the prose so first-rate. I’m loving the last image. If only it had remained a dream.
“Pig Thing” Adam L G Nevill
There’s something outside in the bush. The kids have called it the pig thing. Jack’s father, recent immigrant from England, where things are different, didn’t believe it at first.
When their dog, Schnapps, disappeared, he said they were all ‘soft’ and still needed to ‘acclimatise’ to the new country. And even when all the chickens vanished one night and only a few feathers and a single yellow foot were left behind in the morning, he still didn’t believe them. But now he did, because he had seen it too. Tonight, the whole family had seen it, together.
Now both of their parents have gone outside to get the car, and the boys are left alone with their little sister, waiting.
A twist comes at the end of this macabre horror story, altering the tone significantly. I think I can faintly hear Alfred Hitchcock’s voice, reciting one of his epilogues.
“The Lighthouse Keeper’s Club” by Kaaron Warren
Peter is spending two weeks up at the lighthouse, as many of the town’s young men do. It’s a rite of passage, of sorts, and the town profits greatly from it. Because the lighthouse isn’t really a lighthouse, it’s a prison for a very particular class of prisoners.
They’re not a happy bunch. They were given the choice, life imprisonment or eternal life. They choose eternal life. But were they shown the results? Did they see our own Billy Barton? Did they talk to a man who’s been given the treatment, see what he thought of it?
Like Tithonos, they are imprisoned in their eternally-withering bodies. But this is not their story, it is the story of the men like Peter who keep them in the lighthouse, who watch over them without pity and reject their smallest, most plaintive requests for relief.
Strong stuff. A very disturbing story. The author’s note says she had in mind the condition of patients in dementia wards, and I do see that here. But more, I see a community like Tamms, Illinois, where the supermax prison is supported because it supplies jobs for its citizens, while the inmates suffer in isolation. I see the military detention centers where jailors torture prisoners because those are their orders, or where bored troops amuse themselves with gratuitous torment, just because they can. This is a psychological study of persons who are given total power over helpless others, and the ways in which they justify to themselves what they do when no one is watching.
But while the piece has strong emotional force, it’s full of seeming inconsistencies that bother me. The prisoners aren’t supposed to move, yet apparently they [slowly] roam the lighthouse. They are supposed to feel no pain when tormented, yet Peter remarks that they are in constant pain. It’s not clear whether this is his rationalization or actual contradictions in the text, but they’re a distraction and weaken the story’s impact.
“The Look” by Reggie Oliver
The nameless narrator, as a young man, goes off to postcolonial Nairobi, where the British characters are all carrying on as if the sun still stood over the Empire. He is befriended by an old war buddy of his father’s, who invites him to visit his country estate. There in the night he is disturbed by the apparition of a beautiful young woman.
The features were well-chiseled, the lips sensuously curved, the eyes heavy lidded, but it was the look that held me. Tilted downwards it seemed to stare at something that would have been at its feet if it had had them. The look itself was very particular, but hard to describe: a kind of hungry fascination, I suppose you might call it, with a slight smile on the lips as if pleasure were being taken from something that pleasure should not be taken from.
This turns out to be the look on the face of his host’s wife, a woman who had not “behaved well”, as the narrator’s father has always put it. He now finds himself draw into the aftermath of the old scandal.
A well-done, old fashioned ghost/murder story. Strongest aspect is the setting. Events seem to be taking place sometime in the 1970s, although the narrative style wouldn’t be out of place in an even earlier era. I could totally see it dramatized in some elegant setting on the BBC.
“Nikishi” by Lucy Taylor
Thomas Blacksburg is shipwrecked off the African coast. Having stolen his employer’s diamonds and thrown him overboard, he comes to shore near a ghost diamond-mining town in the Namib Desert, where hyenas roam. An old man he meets there thinks he is an evil shapeshifting spirit, such as those who are believed to haunt the region and often take the form of hyenas. The old man’s niece explains,
Years ago, my uncle was here collecting driftwood after a storm when he was attacked by what he thought was a nikishi. He claims it called his name, and when he answered, it bit his fingers off and ate them while he begged for mercy. His mind hasn’t been right since.
A nice use of legend, but it deserves a longer, drawn-out rising of tension than it receives here. The setting also suggests the monstrousness surrounding the African blood diamond trade.
“The Fourth Horse” by Simon Kurt Unsworth
No good deed goes unpunished. Atkins stops a Land Rover hauling a horsebox, to tell the drivers their vehicle is breaking down. He owns a boarding stable where they can keep the horse while repairs are made. But the strangers are involved in a white-supremacist plot and threaten to pull him into it, when all Atkins has ever wanted was to be left alone with his horses in the Africa he loves.
Looking back at the window, he saw himself reflected in the glass and was uncomfortably aware of the fact that anyone out in the darkness would be able to see him clearly. He thought about the money on his table, and the soldiers who had heard him tell M’Buzu about customers and payment, about greed and violence.
The stories in the African section all deal in one way or another with colonialism and race relations; this one more than the rest. Atkins is trapped between two horrors, one overtly fantastic, the other human – warlords who need no reason to turn on an elderly white man with no one to protect him. A strongly sympathetic character at the heart of this tale.
“The Fall” by Stephen Dedman
For some time, Wilson has been working on his webcomic with Kyoko and Yoshi, and he has now come to Tokyo to meet with them and an anime producer, but Yoshi has retreated to his room in his mother’s house and won’t emerge.
‘I can’t be in a room where there are other people talking; it confuses me. It’s not so bad when I read, but I can’t even stand music any more; I can’t always tell what other people are singing or saying and what I’m only thinking. I don’t think I can go,’ he said, shaking slightly. ‘Not yet. I have to study for my exams. I failed last time. I failed badly. I don’t want to fail again.’
The text can’t settle on a point of view, switching to Yoshi’s near the end, but without letting readers in on his thoughts and feelings. Doesn’t work very well, and the quotations from Poe telegraph the ending.
“In the Village of Setang” by Tunku Halim
During the Japanese occupation of Malaysia, Yan comes to work as a servant in the compound of the territorial chief. Right away, her aunt warns her never to go outside after bedtime, which, of course, Yan does, and sees what she shouldn’t have seen.
I knelt behind the moon-washed stone work and then, abruptly, a figure stepped from the shadows. He was tall, muscular but slightly hunched. As he turned to climb up the steps, moonlight gleamed upon the long white hair that fell upon his broad shoulders. Even at this distance, I could make out his dark and angular features.
The chief is a were-tiger, which disturbs Yan because her father was killed by a tiger. But the chief has no son to carry on his shapeshifting line.
Based on Malay legend and history, deeply infused with its setting. Would have been stronger if we’d seen more of Yan’s relationship with her father, before his murder.
“Carving” by David Punter
In 1997 Hong Kong, the narrator pretends to study English because he has nothing better to do but obsess about sex, about his female teacher and his young cousin who is being prostituted by her brother.
Now, she says as she stands, still wearing her school skirt, but having smoothed it down into place, now I can begin. Something hot and red rises before my eyes as I see what Yu-mei is planning to become, as I see the queues of other men waiting beside this bed, the money in their hands, their jaded eyes . . . .
There are suggestions here that the general decadence that infects the narrator is connected to colonialism, but in essence what we have is a seething landscape of moral corruption, from which the narrator doesn’t much stand out except in the particular form his penchant for violence takes. The very pointlessness makes it so disturbing.
“Water Lover” by Genni Gunn
Marissa feels liberated following her mother’s accidental death in Mexico, ready to clear away her old, smothered life and begin anew.
She would join a health club, sell the car, buy a second-hand bike, cycle to work on dry days, and board busses on rainy wet ones. She would get a dog and walk along the beach, throw balls and Frisbees, and chat with other dog owners. She would make friends now that her mother was gone.
But there is a ghostly dripping somewhere in the house that arouses old memories, old phobias, and old, doomed loves.
In essence a ghost story, the story of a wounded soul that has never been allowed to heal. Readers have to wait through a succession of false trails for the revelation of Marissa’s real trauma.
“Escena de un Asesinato” by Robert Hood
Morley Turrand is a photographer who is shooting in Mexico when the ghost of a dead revolutionary approaches him with a fetish of El Roto, originally the name of a famous Zapatista bandit, sometimes adopted by his followers. She tells Morley that he, too, is El Roto and insists he must photograph the scene where one man called El Roto was shot.
‘Take the doll. It is a gift. Take it back with you when you go home, to remind you that not all find peace.’
The photograph turns out to be haunted by the bandit’s image, which appears only to certain people who are marked for death.
There is more than a ghost here. The spirits haunting Morley twist time and causation to keep him trapped, unable to find peace. Strongly disquieting.
“The Old Man Beset by Demons” by Steve Rasnic Tem
Ever since his wife Hannah died, Josiah’s demons have had free rein to afflict him. They have always been with him. His mother used to say, “I swear you have a jumbey in you boy.” They make him do things he really never meant to do. Now they are all he has left.
Very depressing. Makes you agree with Josiah’s mother, when she warns him, “Don’t be gettin old.”
“Atacama” by David Wellington
The driest desert on Earth. A perfect place for mummies.
Sheltered from the sun, huddled out of the wind, a line of the dead sat with their backs against the red rock, their feet in the dust. There were a hundred and seven of them, more mummies than had ever been found in the Atacama in situ. At one end of the line, the dead had the decency to look like corpses—shriveled, screaming faces framed by long black hair that still shone. As you walked farther up the line, though, the bodies changed. Someone had taken the time to paint them black from head to toe, to cut them open and disembowel, then sew them shut again with thick leather thread. Even farther up the line were the worst of them. These had been painted red everywhere except their faces, which were obscured behind black masks of clay. Those bothered Fermin the most for their veiled eyes.
Fermin has driven Dr Whitman to the site to study this latest mummy discovery, but what he really wants is to sell one of them to a rich collector he knows. Only Whitman won’t cooperate. So Fermin conceives a plan to make him cooperate.
Classic horror in a deadly setting. The Chinchorro mummies are real, although Whitman’s interpretation is only speculation. Dying of thirst in that desert is bad enough, but the author raises the bar.
“Metro Winds” by Isobelle Carmody
A young adolescent girl is sent to live with her aunt.
She who had lived on the remote coast of Australia in a solitary yellow timber house listening to the chilly grey sea that ran straight up from the Antarctic to the shore beside her bedroom window, was to be sent to the distant crowded city in Europe where her mother had spent her childhood.
In the confined space of the city, she is attracted to the wind that blows out of the Metro tunnels, that seems to smell like the sea – although her aunt denies this. But the tunnels lead to the underworld, where she discovers herself.
An odd narrative, where no one is given a name. The girl, it is clear, is a person who has always been waiting to become what she will be, with a passive manner that repels people like her mother and aunt, who want a normal child. The girl is more than a normal child, she is clearly an avatar of Persephone, who was often know as Kore, “the girl.” This is above all a coming-of-age tale, run through the dark side of myth and legend. We expect blood, but it comes in an unexpected form. It raises the question, would her miraculous transformation have ever taken place if she hadn’t been transplanted to alien ground? What it is not, however, is Gothic. While what happens is shocking and horrific, it is not meant to be wrong but necessary and right.
“Mariners’ Round” by Terry Dowling
When he was a fourteen year old boy, David Renford wanted the blue glass jewel in the harness of the carousel horse; his cousin Frank pried it loose for him, and then their friend Riley stole it.
There was something about its dark gaze, the arch of the neck, the way the splendid creature lunged forward to seize the night, Davey couldn’t explain exactly. Stallion or mare, it didn’t matter. This was his horse, his jewel, something to mark the time.
Twenty-five years later they are brought back together, not by fate but the design of Riley, who has learned the mystery of the jewel, that it came from a carousel carved from the timbers of old ships and meant to be part of an intricate magical spell.
A tale of revenge, a complex and elaborate plot. Also elaborate the story’s plot, a bit too much so, with at least one link of too many. The heart of the tale, however, is quite sound – the magical circle of the carousel, the heart’s desire as the prize for whoever can seize the golden ring.
“Oschaert” by Paul Finch
After the Somme offensive, Lieutenant Cavendish must give the coup de grace to a soldier accused of cowardice.
Just before Cavendish dropped his handkerchief, the howling began. It was the eeriest thing—a low, mournful ululation, the sound a dog might make in the extremes of sorrow, and yet somehow ‘false’, as if it wasn’t a dog that was making it.
After the Passchendaele offensive, when he is the sole survivor of his company, Cavendish is hospitalized for shell shock; he has repeatedly been stalked by the spectre he calls the “dog-thing,” but which the local Belgians identify as a legendary Black Dog monster that pursues the guilty.
An ambiguous horror, as we are not sure whether the spectre is real or the product of Cavendish’s trauma. What is very unambiguous is the fact that the real perpetrators of the horror are the officers of the general staffs who forced their men to endure the unendurable, who scoffed at their trauma as cowardice or malingering. The author makes this clear very effectively.
“Helena” by Ekaterina Sedia
Ivan Sechenov is a 19th century neurophysiologist frustrated by the limitation of studying frogs. He obtains a brain stem tumor from a cadaver and becomes fascinated with the behavior of the cells.
It gave rise to a lattice of cells, translucent and pink like the inside of a child’s ear. They shimmered in their solution and mounded up, like no cell had ever done in his experience, and even spread up the walls of their glass flasks, as if searching for escape. When Sechenov added the dissected frog’s nerves, H.L.’s cells overtook them, wrapping them in soft fleshy cocoons until the frog tissue disappeared, consumed.
It isn’t long before Helena is consuming more than frogs.
Classic mad scientist tale. The author has taken several liberties – one being the name of an actual cell line, which I find quite acceptable, the other with the name of the historical neurophysiologist Ivan Sechenov, which I don’t. Since the character in this story is a product of imagination, he should have had a name from the same source.
“Rusalka” by Anna Taborska
The narrator is traveling through rural Poland in search of his grandmother’s village when he takes part in a Midsummer Night festival and is compelled to follow the apparition of an alluring girl.
The girl’s hair was so pale that it glowed blue in the moon’s rays, and her lips were the colour of coral. I tried, but I couldn’t see her eyes. She smiled at me and waved, beckoning me to join her on the other side of the river.
By which point, every reader who has seen the title already knows what sort of creature she is. I get pretty impatient with complaints about “spoilers” in reviews, but I can’t see why an author would decide to spoiler her own story right upfront in the title. The epigraph attempts to connect this Slavic legend to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but the link is tenuous. And as I do far too often, I have to ask myself, How is this nameless narrator writing this account?
“Candy” by Rick Antosca
Marty – a narrator with a name! – comes back from college to find that everyone in the suburb has installed a swimming pool. His parents are behaving strangely. He goes swimming with a couple of girls who are into each other and not him. They all begin to behave strangely, and John has the most alluring hallucinations.
The evening hums enchantingly. I close my eyes and see a vision: the suburbs at night, bejeweled with swimming pools. They speckle the dream landscape like unwrapped candy, glistening rectangles, Jolly Ranchers.
This one is science fiction horror, but the hallucinations give it a surreal tone. And despite all the SFnal jargonry, these events are much more sur than real.
“Down in the Valley” by Joseph Bruchac
John Sundown survived incarceration in the Carlisle Indian Industrial School and survived the first World War, where he heard a voice telling him to come home and heal the people, just as his grandmother had. A friend asks him to come to a valley where there seems to be no life, only the bones of Bill Mink and his two sons. Now, deep in the woods, John Sundown is hearing a lot of voices.
He heard it. Below the imagined sound of human speech. A hunger, cold and wet. Deep as dark water, full of its own greedy cleverness, its guile that of the stickiness of a spider’s web spun across the paths of insects blundering into that fatal trap.
Neat twist on a traditional legendary monster, with a very satisfying last line. John Sundown is a particularly strong and capable protagonist, a quite believable one.
“Wanishin” by Cherie Dimaline
The narrator is haunted by the phantom of a dead fetus that appeared in a dream, along with a warning from her grandmother:
I was running; my hair was being used as reins and it pulled and tore as the spirit bounced and swayed. I batted at it furiously, my hands uselessly hitting my back, never connecting with the weight that dug in, all the more determined.
Someone is trying to tell her something. The message being sent is clear: Come home. The medium – extremely striking images, highly disquieting, but it’s unclear exactly why they took this precise form. I had the impression her body was trying to warn her about a growing breast cancer, but that doesn’t seem to be correct.
“Grottor” by Brian Evenson
When Bernt’s parents are lost, he has nowhere to go but to his grandmother, whom his mother always called “not-just-right”, and the neighbors warned of, “Best stay away.” Her place is far out in the country, she is definitely not right, and there is a very strange boy there who calls himself Grottor, whom he is supposed to obey. But it is worse than Bernt had supposed.
There was Grottor, stepping out of his grandmother’s skin, like it was a suit of liver-spotted clothing. And there was Grottor, staring back at the door, staring right at the keyhole, a smile frozen on his lips.
Horror, really creepy stuff. We never learn exactly what has been going on in the caves, from which Grottor presumably emerged, only the consequences. Best stay away, indeed. I don’t really suppose, however, that any kind of social service agency would have sent any child to such a relative as the grandmother, sight unseen.
“Such a Man I Would Have Become” by E Michael Lewis
“A man who killed himself, but lived to tell the tale.” Framed as a story told to the novelist Henry James by a narrator known as the Prospector, a name given him by his friend Nathaniel Gray, the subject of the story. Known to all as a man of wealth and respectability, Gray in his youth was a reprobate and a drinker who was once injured in a tavern brawl. From that moment, he resolved to reform, gave up alcohol, and lived a virtuous life. But something remained of the part of himself he repudiated, and it has now sought him out to work his ruin.
Such a man I would have become had I stayed in California, poor and deformed and full of drink. I would have not given a second thought to uprooting himself and betting everything I owned on such a gamble. That part of me was a scoundrel and a damnable cheat, and in drunkenness capable of any unrestricted violence.
This Jekyll/Hyde piece is set in the time of the Klondike gold rush and rings quite true to its period. As such, it has its own interest, but this is greatly increased by the framing, at which readers might initially wonder. In contrast with the exquisite cosmopolitanism of James, the Prospector’s tale is robustly American, the very spirit of doing from which James turned away. The characters are vigorous and enterprising, engaged in the business from which a nation is built: mines, timber, mills, shipbuilding. They get their hands dirty, in contrast to the impeccably idle protagonists of James. Even the villain is armed with that archetypical American weapon, the Bowie knife. The woman who could be called the heroine goes off to make her own fortune in the Alaskan gold fields, and all admire her for it. Henry James, hearing this provincial tale, muses that such a man he might have become, had he remained an American. As such, it is not only a ghost story but an embryonic alternate history.
“The Unfinished Book” by Scott Thomas
Sometime in the 18th century, the narrator as a child is taken from sleep to the cellar of his house, where a skeletal corpse lies in a corner, holding a book that the child is ordered to read, a skill he has not yet acquired.
The book opened, exhaled dust, revealed its inky patterns. The letters that comprised the words, seen in meager and shifting luminosity, were as ants that had evaded the prehistoric entombment of amber and now squirmed on pages of a like color. But the pages, unlike the covers of the book, were not in fact stone. They were brittle and thin and smelled of graves and autumn showers. But as I stared the ants became letters and the letters became words and their meaning became known to me.
But the book is not complete, and eventually it falls to the possession of the narrator, to carry on the task.
There’s a shadowy lyricism here, set in Gothically darkened houses and isolated lives. It comes to a cyclical ending highly fitting yet entirely unexpected.
“Celebrity Frankenstein” by Stephen Volk
The narrator has been surgically assembled from a host of parts.
I looked at Moritz’s face as the reflection looked back. Long, lean, pale— not un-handsome, but not Moritz either. Finbar’s lips, fat and engorged, maybe enhanced a little cosmetically while we were all under, gave him a sensuality the real Moritz lacked. Moritz, who lay somewhere backstage with his face removed, waiting for a donor. Next to armless Vince and armless Anthony, a fond tear in their eyes no doubt to see a part of them taken away and made famous.
Fame is the point. Celebrity. Ratings. Hits. A cutting sendup of popular culture sliding down the chute of the lowest common denominator. I hope it doesn’t give some TV producer ideas.