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Archive for September, 2009

Finally a change from the seductive evil woman theme. This story is about a woman who was forced into marriage as a child to a boy who grew into a creepy, bad husband (and alchemist). The story is told by a guy who met the woman once when they were both children, and was enchanted by her otherworldly grace.

They meet again as adults and fall in love, the creepy husband is, understandably, unhappy, and predictably, tragedy ensues. The ending is unusually graphic and sad. No ghosts or anything, just a creepy husband.

Oh, and a creepy tongueless eunuch.

It’s not a bad story,  but it’s not my kind of thing.

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This story features a man, in love with a pure, sweet, normal girl, who finds himself tempted by an aggressive, evil, seductively beautiful, witty, worldly woman.

Just like The Stone Dragon.

And The Crimson Weaver.

Yes, this Gilchrist seems to have had something of a fixation. Was he surrounded by femme fatales who kept flinging themselves at him? It wasn’t like he was an international spy or anything like that; his main passion in life was topography.

The story itself is quite nice; it’s very short and doesn’t waste any time. It takes place in the early 18th century, and the main characters are a betrothed couple. The girl asks her fiance to undergo an ordeal to prove his love for her. He agrees, and she then orders him to spend a night in a house that is rumored to be haunted.

As you might expect, it turns out to be more than just a rumor.

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Notice: Don’t get your hopes up over the title, the eponymous stone dragon is a piece of garden decor. It probably is symbolic of something.

This story was, thankfully, much more readable than The Crimson Weaver. It takes place in the real world, so Gilchrist reins in the florid language, although he still manages to sound like an early Victorian despite writing at the turn of the century.

In the story, a wealthy Frenchwoman, living on a creepy, gothic, remote estate with two daughters, tries to bully her brother-in-law into arranging a marriage between his son and one of her daughters. The father refuses, and forbids his son from having any contact with the aunt. He goes against his father’s orders, though, and meets his two cousins; one anemic, passive and sweet, and the other active, independent, clever, brazen, and possessed of an aggressive beauty.

Luckily our hero chooses the right one for a wife; that is, the dull, lifeless one with no discernible personality.

The ending is sorta interesting. It’s a decent gothicky story. There is no supernatural element.

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OKAY, that was weird.

This was one of those fantasy-world type ones you run across every so often, a sort of Kubla Khan opium-dream-type fairy tale.

Oh how I hate them.

Lovecraft was stricken with occasional fits of them, like The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, which makes me roll my eyes like a teenager every time I skim through it (it’s aggressively unreadable). Just look at a random sample:

At length, sick with longing for those glittering sunset streets and cryptical hill lanes among ancient tiled roofs, nor able sleeping or waking to drive them from his mind, Carter resolved to go with bold entreaty whither no man had gone before, and dare the icy deserts through the dark to where unknown Kadath, veiled in cloud and crowned with unimagined stars, holds secret and nocturnal the onyx castle of the Great Ones.

The entire novella is like that! Doesn’t it make thine cryptical eyeballs roll back in thine unimagined skull?

Actually some people genuinely like this stuff. Novels have been based on this world that Kadath takes place in (it’s called the Dream Cycle). I should say that I like Lovecraft but only when he’s sticking (as close as he can) to the reserved, dry, Jamesean style instead of being a Dunsany fanboy. Naturally, I think his best story is The Shadow Over Innsmouth.

Anyway, before I got indignant about Kadath, I was talking about The Crimson Weaver. It’s basically just like this Lovecraft/Dunsany nonsense. Some dude and his mentor wander through some nightmarish fantasy world and preciously ponder eternal questions, and then they meet up with this evil beautiful vampire woman who wants to suck their souls out of them or something. And there’s some stuff about TRUE LOVE.

Yeah.

But if you are into all that Dream Cycle stuff, by all means, check it out. With bold entreaty.

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So we’re finished with the Marjorie Bowen collection, and I was pleased to find two very good stories and two pretty good ones. As these things go, that’s an excellent rate of success.

Now, which author shall I review next? I have six books from the Wordsworth collection to choose from. I decided that the next author should be male, but oddly enough, out of the seven books that I have, six were written by women. Women did indeed write a lot of ghost stories in this period, but I don’t like most of them. I find that women tended to write sentimental, romantic stories through which wispy, beautiful, forlorn ghosts drift. MR James and I strongly disapprove of this kind of thing.

There are, of course, female authors who wrote good ghost stories. Bowen, for example, did not shy away from horror, and wrote some pretty grim stuff. Edith Nesbit, better known for her children’s fiction, wrote some great stories; a collection of hers is one of the upcoming six books. Violet Paget, under the pen name Vernon Lee, wrote her share of soppy stuff, but also a nearly perfect Jamesean piece, which I will write about at more length in the future.

At any rate, we’re going to be reading a lot of stories written by women over the next few months; I am sure that we will come across more than a few excellent ones.

That said, for the next book, I’ve selected the only one written by a man. A Night on the Moor & Other Tales of Dread by R. Murray Gilchrist (the R stands for Robert).

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In the Edwardian and late Victorian era there was a popular craze for mysticism. Mediums held seances for a fashionable clientele, and everyone was talking about Madame Blavatsky and mesmerism and auras and spirit rappings. So there was a huge market for mystical, undead-type literature, and you’d think that this would have resulted in unprecedented numbers of excellent ghost stories. Sadly, this wasn’t really the case.

I learned long ago in my ghost story reading career that a story that features any kind of parapsychological pseudoscience has a 90% chance of being sucky. The only non-awful ones I can think of right now are the Carnacki the Ghost-Finder stories by William Hope Hodgson; some of those are quite decent. Not terribly memorable, but good creepy fun.

Stories about seances always end up being soppy, melodramatic and tedious. And stories that take a pseudoscientific approach to phenomena? It should stand to reason that when you try to give an occurence a scientific reason, it stops being scary. I mean, come on, if you write a story in which the main character discovers that ghosts are merely recordings being endlessly played back, you destroy any potential for mystery or menace. You’re just writing bad science fiction now.

What makes MR James so very very good is that you never really have any idea about what is going on on the other side. There is just a vague and horrible impression of an occult, malevolent world that sometimes touches ours. There is no attempt at explanation. There are strange powers prowling the world like ravenous lions; don’t interfere with them. Lock your doors and close your curtains at night and don’t read that curious manuscript. That’s all you need (or want) to know.

EF Benson and Algernon Blackwood, both legendary writers of excellent ghost stories, also wrote stories about spiritualism and parapsychology. Those stories were abysmal. If EF Benson and Algernon Blackwood can’t do it, it really oughtn’t to be attempted.

But this was supposed to be a review of Ann Mellor’s Lover. It’s about clarevoyance. This is going to be terribly anticlimactic; after all that I’ve said, I really ought to condemn it as irredeemable tripe,  but… it’s not that bad. It’s kinda silly, but it’s readable and held my interest. It’s about a guy who discovers a sketch of a girl, and immediately, through clarevoyance, realizes that he was linked to her in a past life; he then undertakes an investigation. It sucks as a ghost story, but as middlebrow short fiction, it’s passable.

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Kecksy: a kind of weed.

Kecksies is a pretty unremarkable story about the dead coming back to life in order to do something they intended to do while alive.
It takes place in the 17 or 18th century, and features a couple of rich scapegraces meeting unexpectedly with the corpse of an enemy. The two behave badly and stupidly, and I had no sympathy at all for them. I wonder why Bowen so often writes such despicable characters. Perhaps her intent was to soften the shock to the reader when such a character inevitably meets with a gruesome fate.
It is certainly true that you don’t want a ghost story with a main character who is charming and lovable and ends up getting his brains sucked out by the creature at the end of the story. That would be depressing. I think, though, that Bowen’s extreme vilification of her characters is even worse; when the characters aren’t believable as people, and are really just caricatures of vice, you can’t empathize with them at all and so the story is always held at arm’s length.
MR James’ characters are perfect in this regard; they are inoffensive but not endearing. Just regular, boring people. So unremarkable, in fact, that they’re almost placeholders. It’s easy for the reader to replace the character with himself, thus heightening the sense of dread.

Anyway; Kecksies: dull. Hopefully the next (and last) story in this anthology will make up for it.

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