“Feeders and Eaters”

This week’s piece of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing:

Review: “Feeders and Eaters”, Neil Gaiman, 2002.

This is not quite what Darrell Schweitzer would call an old-school-chum story, but it does feature an anonymous man meeting a work acquaintance from years ago. It seems to be implied he may be a celebrity who has fallen on hard times and then made it back but doesn’t want all the details of this incident made public. 

The story seems set in some anonymous city in the UK (or, at least, a Commonwealth country given we have a Prince Regent Street) given some of the terms and the importance of passenger trains.

The narrator goes into a dive one night to get some toast and “greasy tea” until the next train comes that night. 

He is suddenly accosted by someone he knew ten years ago when they worked together on a construction site, Eddie Barrow. 

The years have not been kind to Barrow. Once large and handsome, a ladies’ man, Barrow is now thin and hunched over and has definitely aged. His right arm hangs limply by his side.

He starts to tell the narrator a story – and the narrator doesn’t encourage this thinking it’s going to be another tale of drink or drugs or disease bringing a man low – and that he’s going to be asked for money and he has just enough for a train ticket. 

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Dynasty

Having found Tom Holland’s Rubicon a worthwhile book, I picked up this one.

Review: Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar, Tom Holland, 2015.

In the follow up to his Rubicon, Holland takes up the story of the legendary Julio-Claudian emperors. With 419 pages of text, he covers all the stories of treachery, torture, matricide, fratricide, sexual depravity, assassinations, mutinies, and excess you’ve heard. To that, he explains how Roman sexual mores, religious festivals, family relations, and the plebians’ continued fascination with the dynasty that started with Julius Caesar played a part in everything.

And Holland, particularly in the chapter on Tiberius, “The Last Roman”, approaches his emperors in an empathetic if not sympathetic way.

The prose is stylish with Holland sometimes using very modern terms to give us the flavor of the strange and also familiar Roman imperial culture. He deftly shows how Rome’s own myths reveal something of their character. Specifically, Romans held their race started with a rape, and its resulting issue was suckled by wolves.

In the book’s pages, you find an emperor who tearfully and theatrically threw himself on the mercy of the Roman public (Augusta), an emperor who never wanted the job and descended into an old age of watching aristocratic children recruit mythological sex scenes (Tiberius), an emperor always ready for a very malicious and deadly joke on an aristocrat (Caligula), an emperor incestuously besotted with his niece (Claudius), and an emperor under the domineering thumb of his mother (Nero). But Holland doesn’t skimp on covering the other power players at this time, particularly the eventually divine wife of Augusta, Livia. She may have been married to Augustus, but her primary interest was always furthering the glory of her own family, the Claudians.

But Holland isn’t just writing an update of Suetonius’ salacious Twelve Caesars. He shows the change in Roman politics, how the Roman people and Senate were tamed, first by smooth talk, legal legerdemain, flattery and then open terror into accepting what they long despised – a king. It is a story dependent on the magical place the dynasty of Caesar had in the mind of the Roman public and “the exhaustion of cruelty” after decades of civil war.

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“Lost Sorceress of the Silent Citadel”

This week’s piece of fiction being discussed by the Deep Ones over at LibraryThing isn’t really weird, but we cast our net wide. And the story is definitely worth reading.

Review: “Lost Sorceress of the Silent Citadel”, Michael Moorcock, 2002.

This one is a homage to Leigh Brackett, her hero Eric John Stark, and the lovely, romantic – but no longer fashionable – idea of a dying Mars and its aborigines.

In the introduction to the story in The Space Opera Renaissance, Moorcock talks about his admiration of Brackett and her influence on him and other prominent science fiction authors.

The story’s main strength is not its plot, but the back story of MacShard, Moorcock’s literary allusions, and the descriptions of this Mars.

MacShard is a loner, a survivor, an outlaw. Born of a human man and a Martian woman with the blood of kings in her veins, he was orphaned on Mercury and survived. There his name was Tan-Arz. He – along with Northwest Smith, Dumarest, and Eric John Stark – are the only four men who can wield the legendary Banning Weapon.

On Mars, a merchant prince named Morricone needs MacShard to rescue his daughter, kidnapped by the Thennet, degenerate humans descended from a ship of crashed politicians, who like to torment and then kill their victims. “The longer the torment, the sweater the meat.”

To do that, he will have to cross the Paradise zone of killer plants and venture into the hills of Mars.

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Searchers after Horror

It’s not often that I personally get sold a book, but that’s what happened with this one. I was in Dreamhaven Books contemplating whether I should buy this shrink wrapped title or not because it had a Brian Stableford story in it. Dwayne H. Olson, shareholder in its publisher Fedogan & Bremer (and supplier of the Hannes Bok story in the anthology) talked me into it.

Low Res Scan: Searchers after Horror: New Tales of the Weird and Fantastic, ed. S. T. Joshi, 2014.

Cover by Richard Corben

After finishing this book, I contemplated writing an essay on just the bad stories in it. But, after actually making notes on the stories, I realized there actually weren’t that many bad ones. But I’ll be getting to them later and the matter of unsatisfying endings in weird fiction.

I’ve already reviewed “Et in Arcadia Ego” by Brian Stableford and “Exit Through the Gift Shop” from Nick Mamatas. I don’t think my original interpretation of the latter is correct, but it’s not a story I’m spending more time on.

First story in the book is Melanie Tem’s “Iced In”. I’ve known, professionally and personally, women like the one in this story. Poor, a hoarder, chronically and dangerously indecisive, she finds herself trapped in her house after an ice storm. Told with empathy and memorable, it’s well done.

In the town I’ve recently moved to, a frequent question is “Do you ice fish?”, so I have a fondness for Donald Tyson’s “Ice Fishing”. In it, two Camp Breton Island ice fishermen, Gump and Mickey D, going out fishing one night. There is idle talk about the disappearance of an acquaintance a couple of weeks back and puzzlement why the local Indians aren’t fishing as usual. Tyson continues to impress me with his versatility, and this one has some humor too.

While it’s not a Cassie Barrett story, I was pleased to Ann K. Schwader’s “Dark Equinox”. It’s another tale of archaeological horror, here once removed because we’re dealing with strange photomontages of archaeological artifacts. Why did the photographer lock herself up in her studio one night and torch everything? And, more importantly, why do the photos seem to change over time?

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“Et in Arcadia Ego”

Review: “Et in Arcadia Ego”, Brian Stableford, 2014.

Cover by Richard Corben

The tone of this intellectual horror story is elegiac because it is about the passing of Arcadia and all it symbolizes and the beginning of the modern age. The combination of Lovecraftian elements and Ancient Greece is something, I believe, Lovecraft himself would have appreciated.

At the start we are told the Great God Pan is dead and history is in gestation meaning the documents that will produce history are in gestation but haven’t been collected yet. The chronology we call history has “not yet settled into a mathematical pattern”. 

Our protagonist is a poet who has come across a dryad’s body. He has seen the shadowy forms of dryad before but never one in broad daylight. Her body is pierced with an iron spike which he tries to pull out of her. The spirit folk are being hunted down and exterminated as “incompatible with the quest of civilization” and agriculture. It’s a shameful matter and killing the spirit folk is not talked about. The poet himself is ambivalent in his loyalty to civilization.

While trying to pull the spike out of the dryad, the poet is attacked by a faun and almost strangled to death except that one of the oldest of the fauns, a satyr, pulls the younger faun away. These mythical creatures speak Pelasgoi, a dying language spoken only by people like the poet’s household servant as Greek civilization spreads into Arcadia. The creatures are surprised the poet speaks it well.

The satyr says the dryad won’t live, but she’ll have a better death if they can get her to a cave.

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“Replacements”

This week’s subject of weird fiction discussion over at LibraryThing.

Review: “Replacements”, Lisa Tuttle, 1992.

This is one of those stories that isn’t cosmic horror, doesn’t use a conventional monster, and introduces a disturbing element into our world which doesn’t – at least immediately – threaten it.

Our protagonist is Stuart Holder, an editor at a London publishing firm. He’s walking through the littered streets of London one morning on the way to the train station. Normally, he’d get a ride from his wife Jenny whose career in publishing has been more successful than Stuart’s. But there was an argument that morning, and Stuart decides to walk.

He comes across a disgusting, unknown creature half dead in the gutter.

It was about the size of a cat, naked-looking, with leathery, hairless skin and thin, spiky limbs that seemed too frail to support the bulbous, ill-proportioned body. The face, with tiny bright eyes and a wet slit of a mouth, was like an evil monkey’s.

He instinctively loathes it and crushes it under foot. The act’s violence surprises him since he’s not given to killing much of anything except insects. The creature isn’t dead, and he stomps on it again, almost screaming, and is disturbed when he sees a “smart business suit” looking at him doing this with “a sick fascination on her face’. That, of course, brings to mind the nicely dressed woman at the beginning of the story. We’re not told it’s the same woman, but maybe it is. Maybe she liked what she saw dying in the gutter that day and somehow got her own.

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“The Gorgon”

This week’s piece of weird fiction being discussed at LibraryThing.

Review: “The Gorgon”, Tanith Lee, 1982.

The narrator – at least at the beginning of the story – is vacationing and writing on the Greek island of Daphaeu. He becomes intrigued by another, unusually verdant, island just a quarter of a mile offshore. He would like to visit it and learn more about it, but none of the islanders will answer his questions or take him over, not even for a great sum of money. 

Finally, one, miming the mythical face, tells him a gorgon lives on the island. 

The narrator swims over. 

He comes across a European style house, a faun statue (though only from the 1920s), and beautiful carvings in a green marble that shines at dusk. There is also a satyr like figure (actually, just an old man), and a woman. 

The narrator is intrigued by her, her surroundings, her clothes (an inheritance from her mother since she says she has no money), and, of course, the plastic mask she wears. He asks to stay and talk with her. She is blonde, somewhat imperious, and notes his Greek is good, but she knows English and ten other languages. 

He is served a lunch with wine, falls asleep, and then wakes up and dines with the woman.

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Black Wings of Cthulhu 6

Low Res Scan: Black Wings of Cthulhu 6: Twenty-One New Tales of Loveraftian Horror, ed. S. T. Joshi, 2017, 2018

Cover by Gregory Nemec

It was perhaps for the best that this is the last of this series.

My initial negative opinions were mitigated after going back through the stories and making notes. Its weakness isn’t from one thing but a combination of “woke”, predictable, or non-weird stories.

No sorting by theme or literary aesthetic this time. I’m just going to sift the literary wheat from the chaff.

Darrell Schweitzer’s “The Girl in the Attic” was an unexpected disappointment. It’s a sequel to his earlier “The Red Witch of Chorazin” and part of a larger series centering around the very weird town of Chorazin, Pennsylvania. I wasn’t all that enthused by most of the earlier series’ installments. This one seems to involve a time loop involving the Red Witch.

The egregious designation goes to Lynne Jamneck’s “Oude Goden”, It’s a first person tale of a young lesbian in the Washington of the 1920s, and we hit all the expected cliches: violence against homosexuals, references to the Ku Klux Klan, a nonhuman entity being “intersex”, and, worst of all, the ending in which the narrator proclaims she can understand how the homosexuals of the area may have thought the world would be better under the Old Ones.

I know Joshi was very fond of the recently deceased William F. Nolan (whom I met once), but I’ve had mixed experiences to what little of his I’ve read. “Carnivorous” is well done but doesn’t go anywhere you don’t expect. A married couple takes a job tending the plants of an absent woman.  It comes with various bizarre instructions like singing to them on a schedule. There is an admonition to never go into a greenhouse. But the woman doesn’t return, supplies run low, and the husband goes in. I like sinister plant stories, but there’s nothing special here.

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“Children of the Kingdom”

This week’s weird fiction novella being discussed over at LibraryThing.

Review: “Children of the Kingdom”, T. E. D. Klein, 1980.

I suspect this story couldn’t be published as is today.

The word “nigger” is used twice without any coddling elisions or tetragrammatonish substitutions.

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“The Mystery of the Cursed Cottage”

With this, I think I’ve reviewed all of David Hambling’s fiction.

Review: “The Mystery of the Cursed Cottage”, David Hambling, 2017.

Cover by Gregory Nemec

In the introduction to Black Wings of Cthulhu 6, editor S. T. Joshi notes this is a rarity: a locked-room mystery in the Cthulhu Mythos. That’s not quite true, this story draws more from traditional folklore and notions of witchcraft than the Mythos. However, it is part of Hambling’s Norwood Cycle, Mythos stories set in that South London suburb.

Our narrator and protagonist is William Blake, the narrator of other tales in the cycle, “The Dulwich Horror of 1927” and “The Monsters in the Park” and a character in “Shadows Of the Witch House” and mentioned in War of the God Queen

It’s 1928, and, after helping officials with the strange case of the Dulwich Horror, Blake is asked to help the police in another strange case. One Mr. Potter, a real estate developer, has disappeared.

Also dragged along for any contributions is Miss Belhaven of the Norwood Theosophist Circle.

The cottage Potter disappeared from in a wooded Norwood area is old and of wattle-and-daub construction. There’s only one door, locked from the inside when it was opened. There is no sign of forced entry.

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