Creepily insistent

© C A Lovegrove

‘The Dunwich Horror’ by H P Lovecraft,
in The Dunwich Horror and Other Stories.
Arcturus Books, 2022 (1929).

Published in 1929 when the author was nearly 40, this 1928 novella represents Lovecraft in his fully-fledged antiquarian horror mode, set in one of his preferred New England locales and in the university town of Arkham, Massachusetts. Sparsely settled as parts of Essex County were in the early 20th century, folks there kept pretty much to themselves, leading to some families becoming inbred. And then there’s this one branch of the Whateleys, consisting of the decidedly strange and reclusive Lavinia, her eccentric father known as Wizard Whateley, and her very strange infant Wilbur, father unknown.

The nearby settlement of Dunwich is spooked by odd lights and disturbing rumblings in and around Sentinel Hill, and by the strange foetid smells that emanate from the Whateley homestead. Still, Wizard Whateley pays out good gold for the succession of cattle that are led to the farm though, curiously, the herd never gets any larger.

But when building works at the farm change the house’s internal layout it rouses more than their mild interest, as does the rapid growth and precocious behaviour of young Wilbur, who shares his grandfather’s predilection for ancient arcane knowledge. That predilection leads Wilbur to consult old tomes in centres of academic excellence – including Arkham – but unfortunately his last visit to Arkham triggers a series of incidents soon known as the Dunwich Horror.

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Treasure in her belly

Great Orme’s Head in the 19th century

Ormeshadow
by Priya Sharma.
Tom Doherty Associates / Tor.com, 2019.

“You must be sad to be here alone.” Gideon was about to say, But I’m not alone, but then he understood.

130-1

A headland jutting out into the Irish Sea. A tramway for tourists leading up and back down to Llandudno. Kashmiri goats roaming the headland and invading the town. Bronze Age copper mines worked for nigh on four millennia.

This is the Great Orme, named by the Vikings for the worm or sea serpent they imagined the promontory resembling. For the visitor such as myself the essence of natural beauty, its breath the stuff of history, mystery and legend.

Then, not to be confused with Great Orme, there’s Priya Sharma’s Orme, a sea-girt headland with the feel of being a part of northwest England; no goats, just sheep; a farm called Ormesleep; and a close-knit community of dispersed settlements set in a landscape saturated with legends of dragons and a hidden hoard of treasure. All is set for a tale of Gothic sensibilities and self-imposed solitude, set in what feels like the Regency period (though we’re never explicitly told so).

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Everyday supernatural

Illustration by Daphne Lee

Orang Minyak; and Pontianak,
by Daphne Lee.
One-story zines privately published by the author, nd.

‘[He] could leap high. And he floated, like a shadow, on walls and on ceilings. And then when it was safe he would float down softly and he would creep, silently, like a black cat, and no one would know.’

Orang Minyak

Sex and death: the only certainties where life is concerned. When the two are bound up in our imaginations with thoughts of the supernatural they can give rise to all-pervading obsessions – such as incubi and succubi, and vampires corporeal and psychic. How powerfully such obsessions are able to magnify both our fascination and our fears!

That’s where these two short stories score. Both were first published as one-story zines and later revised, appearing in the author’s collection entitled Bright Landscapes (Laras99, 2019 and Langsuyar Press, 2021). Related in a very matter-of-fact fashion and including ordinary conversations, both nevertheless hint at things beyond the everyday.

When whispers of old beliefs impinge on modern life can they really be accounted as beyond the bounds of possibility when they’re allied with persuasive rumours, odd coincidences and personal experiences? Do they then suggest that the supernatural too is somehow also an everyday thing?

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Night music

© C A Lovegrove

The Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes & Nocturnes
by Neil Gaiman,
illustrated by Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones III,
cover art by Dave McKean.
Introduction by Patrick Rothfuss, foreword (1995) by Karen Berger.
30th anniversary edition, DC Vertigo 2018 (1988-9).

In his 1991 Afterword to this volume the author describes how he proposed reviving “an almost forgotten DC character […] and doing a story set almost entirely in dreams.” Editor Karen Berger suggested that the Sandman be created as a new character, “Someone no one’s seen before.”

And so it turned out: Gaiman had an image in his mind of a man, “young, pale and naked, imprisoned in a tiny cell […] deathly thin, with long dark hair, and strange eyes; Dream. That was what he was. That was who he was.”

It’s extraordinary how that initial image survived as the opening chapter of Preludes & Nocturnes, and how the scenario of an imprisoned Lord of Dreams was arrived at and then resolved. What’s even more extraordinary is how the series developed into The Sandman Library, with its thirteen volumes all going on to achieve cult status and, more than three decades later, to morph into an adaptation for a streaming service. But for someone like me coming completely new to it is it, was it, worth the hype?

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The missing hat

New York City 1926

The Glass Key
by Dashiell Hammett.
Orion Books, 2012 (1931).

For a classic noir thriller with laconic dialogue, dangerous secrets, and violence both threatened and actual, it’s interesting that what struck me more than the realistic and often visceral details in the story were two separate accounts of what I think are meant to be significant dreams. Whether the reader prefers Freudian or Jungian interpretations, the fact is both dreams reveal more clearly than actions or words the psyches of two of the protagonists.

One is of a fish caught by one character and taken and released by another, and the second concerns the release of a swarm of snakes from behind a locked door. Fish, snakes, a glass key – what in heaven’s name do they signify? It may take the diligent reader till the last pages of this 1930s thriller to get an inkling but I think it’ll prove worth it.

Of course the plot initially involves a murder. Ostensibly the mystery seems to invite the question of who did it, but with a few names in the frame the follow-up questions will also involve the how, the why and the when – means, motivation and opportunity – all with the ambivalent Ned Beaumont our psychopomp, albeit one with a compromised conscience.

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Messenger with a sealed letter

WordPress Free Photo Library

The Ghost-Seer.
Der Geisterseher: Aus den Papieren des Grafen von O** und andere Erzählungen
by Friedrich Schiller.
Translation, introduction and notes by Andrew Brown. (2003)
Alma Classics 2018 (1789)

“I am like a messenger who is carrying a sealed letter to the place of its destination. What it contains might well be matter of indifference to the messenger — he is simply out to earn payment for delivery.”

Book Two

Venice, La Serenissima, is the setting for this curious novel by the poet Schiller, but in this work its serene surface conceals a cauldron seething with plots and intrigues, secrets and lies, subterfuge and mysteries. The protagonist is a German prinz who has no prospect of advancing to secular power and so is enjoying a sojourn on the Adriatic, away from his Baltic homeland with its chill climate and cold Protestant theology.

He is accompanied by a Count, the Graf von O***,  who narrates the first half of the story, and then Baron von F***, who a year later writes letters to the now absent Count to appraise him of how matters stand with the Prince. The pair attempt to advise and support the lord as the sojourn proves to be anything but convivial and relaxed.

Beginning during the Venetian carnival the trajectory followed by the initially incognito Prince over a year or so proceeds in unexpected ways, only to be resolved abruptly when, as commenters suggest, the author grew bored with this particular narrative. It’s those unexpected twists and turns that ultimately sustain our interest in Schiller’s novel until the final denouement leaves us with quite a few unanswered questions.

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Big Thinks

Illustration for Comus by Arthur Rackham, 1921

The Island of Doctor Moreau
by H G Wells.
Introduction by Adam Roberts (2009).
SF Masterworks.
Gollancz 2017 (1896).

These creatures you have seen are animals carven and wrought into new shapes.

Chapter 14: ‘Doctor Moreau explains’

After a collision at sea Edward Prendick survives by being picked up by a ship delivering supplies to Noble’s Island in the South Pacific. But the vicissitudes he has already suffered are as nothing to those he encounters after being reluctantly landed on the domain of a certain Dr Moreau: as in Shakespeare’s The Tempest “the island is full of noises” and Prendick is unprepared for the creatures that produce them.

Francisco Goya captioned his famous aquatint The Dream of Reason Produces Monsters with “Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and source of their wonders.” In The Island of Doctor Moreau Wells only just reins in the novella’s impossible monsters with a veneer of rationality, and even then the impossible monsters strain our credulity, reinforcing our sense of a nightmare scenario: the reader will wonder what fresh hell awaits them as they turn each page.

Our protagonist narrates how, despite his biological training, nothing has prepared him for the devastating year he will experience on this slumbering sea-girt volcano. For here in this isolated dystopia he meets horrors he could never have imagined: a House of Pain, a sociopathic autocrat, a drunken assistant with his “man Friday,” M’ling, and other perversions of Creation.

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Two-faced

Blood-red moon: WordPress Free Photo Library

Double Indemnity
by James M Cain.
Foreword by James Lee Burke.
Orion Books 2005 (1936).

The moon.

The final words we’re left with in this classic thriller gives us the image of Earth’s satellite. As a metaphor it is particularly apt: the lunar body is two-faced, always presenting the same side to us, and Cain’s novella deliberately gives us a one-sided account of what is happening.

But what we’re told, however dark it is, is not as dark as the side we don’t see. The narrator thinks he has all the facts, holds all the cards, is the prime mover in what transpires, and we go along with that. But the far side of the moon has its own secrets; and when at one point its disc seems to rise in the west over the Pacific Ocean we are alerted to the fact that not all is as it seems.

In the US insurance companies sometimes provide double indemnity, in other words they may pay double the face value of an insurance policy in certain circumstances such as when accidental death can be proved. Double indemnity is what the main protagonists are counting on when they plan the perfect murder; but will their plot be bedevilled by two-timing and double-cross?

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The queen and her coven

Black Maria
(Aunt Maria in the USA)
by Diana Wynne Jones,
illustrated by Paul Hess.
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2000 (1991)

But it’s no good thinking happy endings just happen. — Chapter 11

Mig Laker, her brother Chris and her mother have been persuaded to spend a spring break with her father’s Aunt Maria in Cranbury-on-Sea. But pretty soon they find themselves skivvying for the old lady, whose helpless, defenceless appearance belies her ability to get her own way, and it looks as though they mayn’t be able to leave.

And there are mysteries: Mig’s estranged father is missing, believed drowned in his car, but Mig and Chris think they have spotted the vehicle in the town. And why are the town’s inhabitants so weird? Aunt Maria’s cloying coterie of female friends (the several “Mrs Urs” is the collective term Mig gives them) seem to be forever spying on the trio; the men seem very distant, almost zombie-like, and keep to themselves, while the children Mig sees she finds chillingly clone-like.

This may be one of Diana Wynne Jones’s creepiest novels but, leavened with her mischievous humour, it also raises important questions about gender roles, the respect one owes to one’s elders, and the nature of invidious control.

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Mysterious and mesmeric

Photo image © C A Lovegrove

After Me Comes the Flood
by Sarah Perry.
Serpent’s Tale 2017 (2014)

Sarah Perry’s debut novel is a mesmeric tour de force, mysterious but detailed, mythic but realistic, filled with distinctive characters who we nevertheless view as though through fingers. Set near the coast somewhere in East Anglia, perhaps in Thetford Forest on the divide between Suffolk and Norfolk, we could imagine ourselves in the long dry July of 2013 when the temperature averaged around 30°C.

And in this kind of sustained heat, when it’s hard to think, John Coles decides to shut up his London bookshop and head to the Norfolk coast and his brother’s family. When his car breaks down in the depths of a pine forest he comes across a dwelling, and in true fairytale style he is welcomed as a long-awaited visitor, though he knows no-one. Although he wants to correct their mistaken impression his overheated condition continually delays him, drawing him into the mystery of who they think he is, who the residents are, and what they are all doing there.

The novel’s dreamlike structure and atmospheric writing create the illusion of magic realism, heightened by underlying themes drawn from Anglo-Saxon literature, classical myth and the Old Testament, to which is added a sense that almost everything encountered is symbolic. The reader who’s unalert to these undercurrents may well be bamboozled by what they’re presented with and therefore liable to dismiss the novel as incomprehensible; but that would be a mistake.

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Witching hour

We’re just over a week away from All Saints or All Hallows Eve, in case it had somehow slipped your mind in our modern commercialised world.

In the pagan Celtic period it was the start of Samhain in Ireland and Scotland, and in Wales Hallowe’en is Noson Galan Gaeaf, ‘the eve of the first day of winter’. When the start of winter was christianised in the 8th century the feast of All Saints was transferred here from the Pentecost period; no doubt this was due to ancestor worship traditionally being marked on the cusp of winter — with guising and offerings of food and drink at the graveside by the descendants of the deceased to appease their spirits — and therefore an apt time to honour all the saints and other souls who had gone before.

Myself, I don’t go for the partying or the trick-or-treating or the churchgoing, but I’m happy to mark the occasion online by offering a few words about Hallowmas on this post.

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A dangerous bunch

Bookshop interior

The Left-handed Booksellers of London
by Garth Nix,
Gollancz 2020

At one point in Garth Nix’s novel — Chapter Six in fact — we join two of the protagonists as they enter The New Bookshop premises somewhere off London’s Curzon Street. (Despite its name it only sells old books.) Susan spots Shakespeare, Scott, Austen, Brontë, Blake and T E Lawrence among the titles, then some childhood favourites:

“There was John Masefield’s The Box of Delights; and the C S Lewis Narnia books; and Patricia Lynch’s The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey; The Winter of Enchantment by Victoria Walker; Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken…”

And so it goes on, with books published before 1983 by Rosemary Sutcliff, Diana Wynne Jones, Alan Garner, and Edith Nesbit. As a roll call of her childhood reading it’s impressive; as books they’re indicative of the undercurrents swirling around in this enchanting thriller, and when I say enchanting I mean full-on fizzing and popping magic.

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Wouldst thou read riddles?

Gormenghast Castle (image: Mark Robertson)

Titus Groan
by Mervyn Peake
(illustrated by the author).
Introduction by Anthony Burgess 1968.
Mandarin 1989 (1946)

So many insightful words have been uttered, printed, and shared about Titus Groan — and indeed about the trilogy as a whole — that it does seem pretentious to add any analysis and critique to what is simultaneously another entry in the long roll call of Gothick novels and a piece of baroque writing so individual it almost feels sui generis.

It is easy enough to attempt timelines, construct genealogies, discuss names or seek parallels with Gormenghast Castle in real-life edifices which the author may have himself experienced — in fact I have already done so — but much harder to do full justice to Peake’s vision of a crumbling structure peopled by inadequate and grotesque individuals who, nevertheless, deserve some sympathy, and to measure the beauty of the language he uses to describe it all.

I shall therefore restrict myself to giving random impressions of the work especially, as having left some time lapse after completing the work — to marinate, I tell myself — I’m finding the clear-cut outlines of the narrative blurring and fading.

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Picturesque prosody

Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

A Sicilian Romance
by Ann Radcliffe,
edited with an introduction and notes by Alison Milbank.
Oxford World’s Classics 1998 (1790, 1821 edition)

The commission of one crime often requires the perpetration of another. When once we enter on the labyrinth of vice, we can seldom return, but are led on, through correspondent mazes, to destruction. — Chapter XV

Ruinous castles, subterranean passages, tempest-tossed shipwrecks, bloodthirsty bandits, damsels in distress, villainous rulers, picturesque scenery, murder most foul — if anything defines the Gothick novel it is a selection of these features. And A Sicilian Romance, one of the early examples of this genre, has these in bucket loads.

In addition, setting her story in the island of Sicily allowed Ann Radcliffe full rein to indulge in the frissons of horror and bewilderment that her readership expected, gleaned from travellers’ tales and from the dramatic pictorial landscapes that proliferated during the 17th and 18th centuries.

In this, her second ever novel — this text is that of the 1821 edition — the author produced a fine novel in the Gothick tradition which, despite a few infelicities in factual detail and unlikely coincidences, still thrills the reader with its account of moral retribution.

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In the lion’s den

Anne Fine: The Devil Walks
Corgi 2012 (2011)

A spiral has but one path to the centre, and like a whirlpool it may seem to suck you into its depths. A maze, however, gives you options, a chance to follow a different way should you so choose.

Anne Fine’s Gothick novel, aimed at young adults but no less engaging for more senior readers, offers its protagonist Daniel similar chances to escape the spiralling path of his life, one which seems to have consigned him to the life of a recluse in a sick room, fated to a permanent limbo of existence.

Until a Doctor Marlow comes calling, and releases him into the world. But at what a cost, one that will mean pain and death for some, and pangs of misery for our Daniel: will he have been freed from one lion’s den only to find himself in another?

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