Ramskull

Review: Ramskull, William Meikle, 2017.
Ramskull

William Meikle writes heroic horror. That’s not to say good people always win in his stories or even survive to their end. When facing monsters and demons and other “bogles” beyond our ken, his heroes and heroines have their own magic. It’s often not grimoires or special weapons or superscience or sorcery that defeat the horror. It’s the magic of duty, love, and loyalty.

Ramskull is such a story. Continue reading “Ramskull”

A History of the First World War in 100 Objects

Review: A History of the First World War in 100 Objects, John Hughes-Wilson, 2014.History of the First World War in 100 Objects

A remarkably complete history of the war covering every major combat theatre – Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East – from mining operations below ground to air combat and bombing, from under the sea to the Battle of Jutland. It covers weapons and war financing, logistics and espionage, home front politics and war production, mutinies, the soldiers’ life in combat and behind the trenches and on leave, and artists and the war.

The format is simple. Each chapter has a full-page picture of an object, an inset talking about it, and anywhere from one to six pages of text, often with additional, smaller photos, covering the subject the object represents.

The objects are not always what you expect. For instance, a “body density map” is shown for a chapter on Western Front casualties, a fullerphone (a scrambler for voice and Morse signals passed on a wire), Lieutenant Augustus Agar’s boat (used in a raid on the Bolshevik fleet for which he won “the mystery VC”), and a harpoon gun used by interred German sailors at Scapa Flow to supplement their meagre rations with birds. Continue reading “A History of the First World War in 100 Objects”

Green Grow the Rashes and Other Stories

Review: Green Grow the Rashes and Other Stories, William Meikle, 2015.Green Grow the Rashes and Other Stories

This collection succeeds as a sampler of Meikle’s work. There is science fiction-horror, a post-mortem fantasy, humor, magic, and a gothic tale.

My favorite story, partly because of its background of Scottish music, was the title story. It has a burned out folk singer from Scotland, his audience and his voice fading and his wife dead and too much liquor poured down his throat, seeing a shadowy figure in the crowd one night. Somehow, after singing it thousands of time, he finds new life in the Bobbie Burns’ song. A nice tale of rebirth, rededication, and optimism that uses well the lyrics of Burns’ “Green Grow the Rashes”.

Also gentle, if not so hopeful, is “In the Spring”. Its 78 year old heroine is a widow tired by her family fussing over her and complaining about, compared to her earlier life, rather paltry “hardships”. To be honest, this story was a bit too subtle for me. I’m not completely sure what happens at the end to the widow.

Too Many” is a straight up “so now you’re in Hell” story. As an Assistant Deputy Demon goes through Sheila Davidson’s sins with her, he thinks there may be a mistake. Then again, maybe not. Humorous and short enough not to wear the joke out. Continue reading “Green Grow the Rashes and Other Stories”

Tormentor

Review: Tormentor, William Meikle, 2014.

tormentor
Cover by Zach McCain

A surprisingly subtle and gentle haunted house novella from Meikle.

Jim Greenwood, our narrator, tells us he’s a “runner” and what he’s hoping to escape from on the Isle of Skye is the memory of his girlfriend Beth, dead three years ago at the age of 26.

But he’s bought a house (and nearby crofter cottage) with a history — a deep history, and it’s not long before strange soot marks start showing up in the house, garbled emails in his inbox, and he feels the presence of something in the house. Is it the spirit of Beth?

The novelty of this story for me was diminished by Meikle using a concept he’s used in a couple of other stories (“The Larkhill Barrow” and “Rhythm and Booze”) though here he also connects it to the Fairy Flag of the Clan MacLeod and other Scottish lore.

On the other hand, the ending was unexpected. Along the way, I got what I hoped for – a Meikle story set in Scotland with a strong sense of place. His stated affection for the place and its people comes through.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

“Mysterium Tremendum”

This week’s weird fiction selection.

Review: Mysterium Tremendum”, Molly Tanzer, 2013.Mysterium Tremendum

Tanzer’s story isn’t that weird. It’s not even all that Lovecraftian despite its heroine, Marjorie Olenthiste, working for Miskatonic Univerity’.

It is a humorous tale playing off expections created by its Cthulhu Mythos’ references.

The story opens with Marjorie at a tedious garden party put on by her father (despite the late season snow on the ground) in Arkham. Marjorie is a career woman, unmarried, and eager to make her mark in the Francis Morgan Antiquities Collection of Miskatonic U’s library.

At the party, she finds out that one of her father’s acquaintances, the wealthy Mrs. Quildring, is looking to sell off her late husband’s mummy collection.

She starts negotiating with Quildring to get some mummified cats and come around to see the rest of Quildring’s collections. The latter even mentions the prize bit of the collection is a mummified cat “said to have been the personal pet of Nehesy, also called the Black Pharahoh” (an addition made to the Cthulhu Mythos by Robert Bloch).

The party chills – literally – and the lights go out. When they come back on, two men are standing in front of Marjorie and Quildring. One is Edgar, the unattractive and drunk nephew of Quildring, and the other is Maestro Petar Zupan, a famous stage magician. Edgar, an amateur magician, is hangs out with his much more famous friend.

Marjorie thinks back to the stories she’s heard about the aftermaths of Zupan’s performances: a man screaming and speaking in tongues, a woman going home to decapitate her dog and calling on her neighbors to worship the head as a “true god”.

Marjorie eventually finds herself maneuvered by Quilding into going on a date with her nephew to see a show of Zupan’s. She hopes this will ingratiate her with Quildring and lead to a reduced price on the mummies.

At the show, Edgar admits he can’t ever remember actually seeing a Zupan show even though they’ve known each other for a number of years.

Zupan’s show has him doing many things and eventually showing up on stage atop a small pyramid and scantily dressed as an pharaoh. He asks for a volunteer – specifically Marjorie – who has a knowledge of Egyptian rituals.

On stage, Zupan seems to remove her lungs, stomach, and large intestines and heart in accordance with Egyptian mummification rituals.

After Zupan telling her that she kept your heart for “judgement”, she passes out and awakens in her dressing room. She feels fine, “really good like the time her grandmother had given her Bayer Heroin for a toothache”.

Edgar is jealous of Zupan picking Marjorie to be his assistant. Words are exchanged. Edgar calls Marjorie “dumpy and boring” and just there to get access to his aunt’s mummies. Marjorie reciprocates and says Edgar isn’t good company either. Edgar then turns on Zupan, accusing him of spoiling his plan to impress Marjorie with a trip backstage after the show. That’s out of the question since she participated in the act, and Edgar leaves in a huff.

Marjorie realizes, especially after spending some time on stage with the near naked Zupan, that she rather likes him:

very handsome; something about him was electric, magnetic, even when he wasn’t actively performing miracles.

He suggests they go to Quilding’s house and check out that mummified cat.

In front of the house, Zupan asks Marjorie if she believes his powers are genuine. Marjorie is unsure. Zupan tells her she should just trust him.

It isn’t magic that gets the two into the house but a lock pick. Marjorie begins to find Zupan rather irresistible, and they go look at the cat, handily labeled “Mummified Cat, Allegedly Belonging to The Black Pharaoh”.

Marjorie finds it lovely.

Then Zupan begins to reminisce about the cat, Mau-Mau, his old pet put in his tomb 27 centuries ago. Edgar discovered that tomb. Zupan says he’s “another Black Pharaoh entirely” and not Nehesy. Even Edgar figured that out.

In fact, Edgar burned Zupan’s corpse in an attempt to destroy him. However, because Zupan was “mummified with . . . mouth and eyes closed” so his soul would not be reunited with his body in the afterlife, he survived. With his body burned, his soul found a new body.

But he still wants Mau-Mau, the mummified cat, back. She was the only creature never afraid of him.

Then Zupan magically compels Marjories to help in a ritual to resurrect Mau-Mau.

Zupa then thanks Marjorie for her help. And he tells her that he’s sure that she’ll come up with some explanation for the police about

why such a promising young acquisitions librarian would sneak into a home and destroy a priceless Egyptian artifact.

Maybe they’ll blame her attendance on his show “that’s a popular one these days.”

And then he disappears leaving Marjorie to offer Quildring and Edgar some explanation as to why she has a hammer in her hand and where the cat mummy went

It’s a humorous takeoff on the Mythos, here magic used for a relatively petty purpose. The heroine is not left dead or insane, just a fall gal. Zupan is rather like Nyarlathotep, a traveling magician of disturbing power.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

Obscure Poe: “The Philosophy of Composition”

Obscure Poe: “The Philosophy of Composition”, Edgar Allan Poe, 1846.

McDougall Portrait of Poe
Miniature of Poe by John A. McDougall, ca. 1846 from The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe by Michael J. Deas

A questionable choice, perhaps, for this series since you may know at least one phrase in this essay:

 . . . the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.

This is nothing less than Edgar Allan Poe explaining how, in a cold, analytical, and logical fashion he wrote his most popular work: “The Raven”.

It’s not just that poem. Poe claims his essay describes the “modus operandi by which some of my own works was put together [sic]”.

The Poe steps of composition for the poem follow.

Pick your length. Poe felt the poems lost their effect after a certain length. He aimed for 100 lines. “The Raven” is a 108 lines long.

Next decide on the impression you want to leave. Poe wanted something “universally appreciable”. For Poe, “Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem”. But beauty, for Poe, is not a quality but the “intense and pure elevation of soul”. “Truth” and “Passion” are better addressed in prose. The precision to depict Truth and the “homeliness” needed for depicting Passion are “antagonistic” to creating a sense of beauty. Continue reading “Obscure Poe: “The Philosophy of Composition””

The Wanting Seed

This novel first came to my attention on the MPorcius Fiction Log and, recently, it was the subject of a discussion by Kevin Michael Grace on the Luke Ford YouTube channel.

Could two such sources be wrong in telling me it was worth a look? No.

So, before I dropped in on the Luke Ford discussion, I thought I’d read it.

I’ve been going back and forth about not reviewing everything I read, but there were some things I wanted to say on this one.

But I’d have to do at least a plot synopsis and explicate some of the major themes.

And then I realized I could just leech off MPorcius work.

Thus was born a new category of post: the parasite review.

Which means, in this case, you need to read MPorcuis’ post first.

Wanting SeedParasite Review: The Wanting Seed, Anthony Burgess, 1962.

In 1959, Anthony Burgess was wrongly diagnosed with brain cancer and given a year to live. Not wishing to leave an impoverished widow, he wrote five novels in the next year. One of them was this novel.

That may explain some of its faults and, for me, a somewhat inconclusive ending. Burgess himself said, “it needed to be longer in the oven … but I needed money”.

Like MPorcius, I think this a satire and not a serious effort at extrapolative prediction.

According to the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, it stands near the beginning of science fiction novels about overpopulation. My favorite overpopulation novel is Harry Harrison’s extrapolatively dishonest Make Room! Make Room!. Oddly, Burgess accused Harrison of lifting the cannibalism theme of The Wanting Seed for the film adaptation of Soylent Green. In fact, according to Harry Harrison’s essay “A Cannibalized Novel becomes Soylent Green” in Omni’s Screen Flights, Screen Fantasies, says cannibalism was put in the script by the film’s producers and his contract forbid him having any input with it.

So what is Burgess satirizing? Continue reading “The Wanting Seed”

“Countess Otho”

This week’s weird fiction selection.

Review: “Countess Otho”, Reggie Oliver, 2009.Countess Otho

This is another ghost story from Oliver and one drawing on his theatre background. Like most Oliver stories I’ve read, it can, from a certain perspective, be seen as a ghost story, but it’s also more than that.

There are menaces from the past and a play that may drive people mad and secrets to be pieced together from old letters and theatrical memorabilia.

The story starts on December 1, 1987 and is narrated in the first person. Continue reading ““Countess Otho””

Obscure Poe: “Letter to B—“

Obscure Poe is a series I’ll be running from time to time.

When I say “obscure”, I mean Poe’s essays, reviews, and letters

I’ve read some of those at the Edgar Poe Society of Baltimore’s website, but I picked up a Library of America volume of Poe’s non-fiction, so I’m going to briefly post on some of the pieces there as I read them. Honestly, though, I suspect I’ll have nothing to say on most of them. Poe, the first American who tried to live by the pen alone, had to write a lot of stuff of no interest now.

“Letter to B — “, Edgar Allan Poe, Southern Literary Messenger, July 1936.

McKee Portrait of Poe 1842
Thomas J. Mckee Daguerreotype, dated to 1842 by Michael J. Deas in The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe

This essay was first published in 1831 as the preface to Poe’s Poems under a different title.

Who “B” was is uncertain.

Poe firmly argues that only poets are fit to judge the worth of other poets. The fool may know Shakespeare is great, but it’s received wisdom from his neighbor who “is a step higher on the Andes of the mind”. The neighbor, in turn, got his opinion from someone else. It’s not that Poe disagrees with the valuation of Shakespeare, he just thinks the non-poet is giving an opinion, an opinion he got from somebody else, while the poet gives an informed judgement. Poe likens the opinion of the common man to a book he bought. He owns the book, but he didn’t create it.

Poe goes on to gripe about how the American writer has to work against the “combined and established wit of the world’ for a public that has traded the antiquarian’s love of age for a love of distance. The works of foreign authors are revered automatically because they are foreign.

He then goes on to further develop his idea that only poets can judge poetry and that includes the worth of his own.

Even then, a poet can assert what he does not believe. He thinks Milton’s Paradise Regained is the equal of Paradise Lost no matter what the poet said. The real reason people hold that opinion and Milton accepted is that “men do not like epics, whatever they may say to the contrary”. Milton’s readers were “too much wearied with the first to derive any pleasure from the second”.  (Poe did not like epic poetry thinking it too long to preserve a unity of effect.)

Poe spends most of this short essay attacking the idea of metaphysical poetry designed to instruct, and he cites Wordsworth as the big offender. For Poe, the end of poetry is happiness, of course, since happiness should be the “end of every separate part of our existence is happiness”. Instruction of the kind Wordsworth offers is just an end to that happiness. Why not skip the intermediate step?:

… he who pleases, is of more importance to his fellow men than he who instructs, since utility is happiness.

Then the 25-year old Poe criticizes Coleridge and Wordsworth since he doesn’t think learning has much to do with imagination or age with poetic skill.

Both poets, for Poe, think great truths are found beneath life’s surface.

Wordsworth, in particular, is disappointing to Poe. His youthful work had “extreme delicacy” but his best work is behind him. He talent was squandered in philosophizing.

If you have to explain why your poetry is great, you’re in trouble. Poe says of Wordsworth

The long wordy discussion by which he tries to reason us into admiration of his poetry, speak very little in his favor …

Poe is much more an admirer of Coleridge of whom “I cannot speak but with reverence”. But Poe thinks Coleridge buried his talent in his metaphysical pursuits.

Poe concludes with his definition of poetry. (If it sounds familiar, Orson Welles intoned something similar on the second side of the Poe inspired 1976 album Tales of Mystery and Imagination from the Alan Parsons Project.)

A poem, in my opinion, is opposed to a work of science by having, for its immediate object, pleasure, not truth; to romance, by having its object an indefinite instead of a definite pleasure, being a poem only so far as this object is attained; romance presenting perceptible images with definite, poetry with indefinite sensations, to which end music is an essential, since the comprehension of sweet sound is our most indefinite conception. Music, when combined with a pleasurable idea, is poetry; music without the idea is simply music; the idea without the music is prose from its very definitiveness.

It stands as Poe’s complete definition of what he thought poetry should be and some of his own work attained. I think it’s a reasonable definition though I’m not sure good poetry can’t have a “definite pleasure”.

And, in case his opinion of the metaphysical poets wasn’t clear, he concludes by saying he holds them in “sovereign contempt”.

How Poe reconciled his disdain for metaphysical poetry with his Eureka — A Prose Poem, a very metaphysical work presented in 1848, I don’t know.

 

More reviews of Poe related work are indexed on the Poe page.

Home From the Sea

I think I got this one free in a giveaway from Meikle’s newsletter.

It’s way cheaper than Meikle’s novels on kindle which, I suppose, means my preference for short stories over novels is not shared. It serves as a good sample of a major strain in his work.

Review: Home From the Sea, William Meikle, 2017.Home From the Sea

Unlike Meikle’s collection Samurai and Other Stories, this story has only one type of story: entities and creatures that don’t know their place. There’s boundary breeching, lockpicking, and mangled spacetime membranes. Things are roused that shouldn’t be and invade our earth from the ether, the briny depths, and the spaces between atoms.

Surprisingly, for such a tightly focused collection, none of it was stale or boring when reading it straight through. There was only one story I had a very minor gripe about.

The Doom That Came to Dunfeld” is the one original tale here and quite an effective horror story. Its narrator tells us what happens when the British government tries to repeat the legendary Philadelphia Experiment off the coast of Newfoundland post-WWII. They want to make a warship invisible. What they get is a dissolving warship and a killer fog.

Meikle has a real knack for the sea horror story and shows it even better with “Home From the Sea” which has a group of Irish men on a rescue mission to take men off a whaler floundering off shore. But they’re already dead, and their killer still on board. Continue reading “Home From the Sea”