Review: Samurai and Other Stories, William Meikle, 2018.
If you’re curious about the William Meikle’s work and don’t mind short fiction, this is a proper introduction to it. You’ll find him operating in his usual modes and some new ones I hadn’t seen before.
Meikle the Cthulhu Mythos writer has a couple of works that are some of the best in the book.
“The Havenhome” was probably the first Meikle I read when it appeared in High Seas Cthulhu, and it was good enough for me to remember his name. On re-reading it, I was struck by how there are no explicit references to the Mythos in it. In the year 1605, the Havenhome travels to the New World to find a European settlement wiped out, the bodies mysteriously frozen. Staying for the night, they realize something malevolent is at work and not just freak weather. I suppose you could see this as a takeoff on Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Coming of the White Worm” or August Derleth’s Ithaqua. Meikle often ends his stories with violent action which sometimes breaks up the mood he’s established, but here he definitely gets the balance right.
I’d also read “Inquisitor” before in Historical Lovecraft put out by Innsmouth Free Press. In it, a Dominican inquisitor interrogates a shoggoth brought back by Spanish sailors in 1535. But he isn’t prepared for the answers he gets. I was happy to revisit this one which I also remembered favorably from before.
Meikle makes no secret of his love for B-movie monsters, and “Rickman’s Plasma” is kind of a Mythos tale by way of a B movie. It seems like a story treatment of a never-shot movie which was probably the point since it debuted in the anthology Creature Features. But it’s a lot of plot and no interesting characters and feels like a condensed novel.
Meikle the ghost story writer gives us quite a lot of stories here, almost all well done, and some with macabre endings. None of the stories sound likes M. R. James. These are stories that sound like what a normal person would tell you about how the eerie looked, sounded, and felt like.
Being interested in Celtic music, I was pleased to see two stories incorporating it. “The Scotsman’s Fiddle” is one of those strange carnival stories mixed with revenge and ghosts. In 1889, such a show, headed by a Scots fiddler, comes to an Appalachian town. But mine owner Malone is not real pleased at what a fiddle tune does to his workers. A collector of folk music goes from Scotland to an Appalachian town to track down the historical truth behind “The Shoogling Jenny“, a tale of murder in a mine.
“Dancers” is a poignant story set in modern times and told by an old man who wants to unburden his conscience while watching a ghost in a graveyard. “The Yule Log” is another tender ghost story about a lonely man at Christmas.
“Samurai” is a rather common sort of supernatural tale about what happens when you disrespect the local taboos. Some shipwrecked Scottish sailors enter a deserted Japanese temple guarded by the spirit of a samurai. The main story didn’t do that much for me, but I did like the samurai’s Zen meditations.
I’m not entirely sure if “The Haunting of Esther Cox” is a ghost story or a story of demonic possession, and I’m not sure what its ending means, but I liked it. Set in 1878, it combines murder, spiritualism, exorcism, and, of course, a haunting. The story is told through diaries of the unfortunate Esther Cox and her brother-in-law and has a striking image at the end as well as an interesting skeptic sent to investigate Esther.
Meikle the sword-and-sorcery writer gives us two stories.
I’m often up for horror mixed with history and I’m interested in the Crusades, so I liked “The Brotherhood of the Thorn”. It has a group of desperate Crusaders deciding not to flee to Acre after the fall of Jerusalem but to look for a holy relic in the desert. What they find is a troubling cult that put me in mind of a similar one at the beginnings of Christianity in Meikle’s Watchers trilogy.
The gladiatorial hero of “The Toughest Mile” has won 100 fights in the arena, and the law says he now has a chance at freedom … if he can survive a 10 mile chase through a tunnel pursued by the Witch Queens’s bitches. But does he really want freedom if it means leaving the bed of the Witch Queen?
And, yes, Meikle’s favorite character, Derek Adams, is here, twice as a matter of fact.
I’d read “A Slim Chance” before, but this time either brain chemistry or circumstances made me react better to it. I appreciated Adams behaving honorably and seeing a job through even when his client is already dead and has already paid his bill. And I liked Adams’ bit of rough justice for a miscreant at story’s end. Of all things, the story centers around a dieting competition gone very wrong. “Home Is the Sailor” is morbidly funny but also kind of tender story about a rundown seaside hotel where the dead aren’t resting. Derek’s friend Doug puts in a cameo in this one.
Meikle does things I haven’t seem him do before in three stories.
“Turn Again” partakes of some of the same mystical notions in the Watchers trilogy and, while interesting, was a bit too elliptical for my tastes.
“Living the Dream” is a very violent and horrific story about a man with disturbing dreams and sexually obsessed with a co-worker. Murder, kidnapping, rape, torture, and voyeurism are here – and maybe other players besides a man and woman. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention, but this one seems to have several different meanings in the end.
In “The Young Lochinvar“, Meikle takes John Keel’s Mothman and audaciously transplants him to Scotland and adds a plot about a young English woman and the boor her father says she has to marry.
Nothing in this collection is boring, a few of the stories are memorable, and Meikle shows he writes even more kinds of stories than I thought.
Additional Thoughts and Clarifications (with Spoilers)
I’ve been reading a lot of Meikle lately, and I have three other books of his waiting to review already.
Not surprisingly, for a prolific author trying to support himself by writing for small presses, I’ve noticed some repetition. Most authors, if you read a bunch of their work at once (which is usually a reason not to), repeat themes, character types, concepts, and settings. (And that’s not counting the inherent repetition of a series.)
Meikle tends to repeat some jokes, action sequences, and dialogue from book to book as well as settings. Again, though, it hasn’t put me off him. Philip K. Dick and Robert Silverberg early in their career repeated themselves in their own ways. (Silverberg, when he was writing soft core porn novels, repeated sex scenes word for word to spare himself extra typing.) And, of course, an author has to engage a reader in the work at hand and not be worried about what other of their stories that reader has seen before. While I’m reading Meikle, I’m engaged with the story.
The dreams of John Thorne in “Living the Dream” feature a “Watcher” committing all sorts of atrocities on a woman he’s kidnapped. The object of Thorne’s sexual obsession is co-worker Carruthers. At one point at work, in what we first think is just a rebuff of his obvious sexual interest, she says “We all have our dreams, Mr. Thorne … But that’s all it can be – a dream. You do see that don’t you?”. He follows her about at night, peering in her window, pleasuring himself to thoughts of her. His dreams continue to escalate. In them, he kidnaps a woman, rapes her, starves her to death, and kills her eventually. When we hear that he’s kidnapped a woman and seems to be living those dreams, we assume it’s Carruthers he’s snatched. But, after the woman is dead, Carruthers shows up and kills Thorne in a matter similar to the opening dream. Was Carruthers somehow in psychic contact with Thorne, the “Watcher” in his dreams? Was her thrill watching Thorne torture and kill? She’s not a vigilante. She could have stopped Thorne from killing. Or was the woman Carruthers and her ghost appearing at the end?
“The Haunting of Esther Cox” starts with Esther frequently telling us she’s not a “bad girl”. She resists the sexual advances and rape of Bob MacNeal. However, at the end of the story, she says “I am a bad girl. And I am free.” Has she become possessed or was badness what she needed to finally end her haunting?
However, I wonder if I’m a bit dense about getting some of Meikle’s endings. They are usually clear, so I’m assuming Meikle intended the multiple readings. On the other hand, sometimes my ambiguity detector just works badly, and I’m not picking up the author’s intentions or paying close enough attention.
As Keel’s Mothman is linked to a real bridge collapse at Point Pleasant, West Virginia, Meikle’s “The Young Lochinvar” (which originally appeared in an anthology called The Mothman Files) links its strange critter to an actual historical event: the collapse of the Tay Bridge in Scotland on December 28, 1879.