“The Waters of Death”

This week’s subject of future discussion at the Deep Ones group over at LibraryThing.

Review: “The Waters of Death” aka “The Crab Spider”, Emile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian. 

This story strikes me as being from an era where speculations derived from science and exploration was common grist for rationalized weird menaces, a period I would say extended from 1880 to 1905.

It’s a chatty and discursive story because it is a tale told by one of the principals, the young boy (at the time of the story) Frantz. 

The year is 1801, and the place is Spinbronn, a place renowned in Germany for its mineral waters. The ill, especially those with gout, like to go there. But, in 1801, the spring rains are heavy, and, out of the cavern from which the mineral waters flow, they disgorged a human skeleton. That drives most of the crowd away. 

But the discharge continues with slime and rubbish and the bones of many different kinds of animals. The human skeleton is thought to be a girl who disappeared and was murdered a hundred years ago. The local doctor even issues a pamphlet stating the skeleton was so dry that it was probably centuries old. He even puts forth the theory that the bones date back to the biblical flood. 

One guest doesn’t go away, the gouty and overweight Englishman Sir Thomas Hawerburch, a commodore.

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The Spectre Bridegroom”

While the review series on H. Beam Piper continues, I’m still be doing the usual postings on weird fiction being discusssed over at LibraryThing each week.

Except this, despite the title, isn’t really a piece of weird fiction. Sometimes the nominations work out that way, and, since I’m the one who nominated this one for discussion, I have to take the blame.

Still, it’s worth a look on its own merits.

Review: “The Spectre Bridegroom”, Washington Irving, 1848.

This witty story seems to be Irving’s takeoff on the weird romantic tales of E. T. A. Hoffman.

The story is pretty simple.

It opens with a portrait of desolation: the abandoned castle of the Baron Von Landshort.

The baron doesn’t live there anymore. He’s a “dry branch of the great family of Katzenellenbogen”, and he lives in a far more affordable house in the valley. He has a lot of relatives who mooch off him at feast time and special occasions.

He has one daughter, very beautiful. In the first of many humorous asides, she’s even educated – at least enough to write her name without misspelling it. She is watched over by two aunts, “great flirts and coquettes in their younger days” but

vigilant guardians and strict censors of the conduct of their niece; for there is no duenna so rigidly prudent and inexorably decorous as a superannuated coquette.

We are told, apropos of what will happen later, that the Baron is a

marvellous and a firm believer in all those supernatural tales with which every mountain and valley in Germany abounds. The faith of his guests exceeded even his own: they listened to every tale of wonder with open eyes and mouth, and never failed to be astonished, even though repeated for the hundredth time.

A marriage is arranged for the daughter and the young Count Von Altenburg, and a wedding feast prepared for the future couple at the Baron’s home. It will be their first meeting.

Travelling with Altenburg to the wedding is his friend, a noted chivalric figure named Herman Von Starkenfaust. However, traveling through the forest of Odenwald, they are attacked by bandits, and the Count is mortally wounded.

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“The New Rays”

This week’s weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing is a tale of weird science, alienation, and medical humilation.

Review: “The New Rays”, M. John Harrison, 1982.

London seems to be our setting with the offices of Dr. Alexandre in Camden Town. The time? Well, that’s not so simple to establish. Since we hear of wounded soldiers about in the streets, maybe it’s the First World War. Maybe the Second. It could be either since there is really no mention of automobiles, only of trains.

And it’s a train that our narrator takes from the Midlands with her husband or, perhaps, just a lover, designated only as W.B. 

She is ill. With what, we don’t immediately know. It was her idea to visit Alexandre at his clinic on Agar Grove Street. The treatments are free, but she initially balks at knocking on its door though it was her idea to come. W.B is, not for the last time, impatient.

From the beginning, Dr. Alexandre seems a weird, unsettling character. The narrator, at the clinic, meets a “beautiful crippled girl” whom Alexandra claims he can cure, but the narrator doubts it. She’s Alexandre’s interpreter. The doctor emphasizes that the narrator can’t bother the other patients and that her treatment depends on her full confidence in it. 

Washing his hands of her, W.B. leaves the narrator to stay at a hotel, and he returns home leaving the first of many notes indicating his and the narrator’s estrangement. It urges her to “have some thought for other people”. People calling the narrator selfish is a recurring motif in the story. 

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“The Horror on the 33”

This week’s piece of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing is from Michael Shea.

Review: “The Horror on the 33”, Michael Shea, 1982.

Cover by Max Shevchenko

Like Shea’s “Tsathoggua”, this story takes place in the demimonde of the homeless underclass.

Our entre to this world is the unusually epistolary Knavle who sends letters to his friend, the non wino McSpittle, our narrator. That lends a certain old-fashioned flavor to this story. But it’s 1982. Knavle can’t phone or text it in.

And, as you might guess from the narrator’s name, there is some humor in this story which is  Lovecraftian flavored but not of the Cthulhu Mythos.

McSpittle starts out by telling us that Knvale’s decision to become a wino was quite deliberate.

Even I, his closest confidant, had been so unsupportive as to call his choice of lifestyle a “downward path.” He had mildly replied that his was no smooth downhill way; that it was far easier, in fact, to be a short-order cook (for example) or a bank president, than to be a wino; that, moreover, in being an object of compassion, he was performing a vital moral service for those more fortunate than himself who would otherwise, lacking such flagrant specimens of misery, pity only themselves.

Knavle’s been a wino for about a year by the time the story begins. We get a brief account of the small and wiry Knavle’s (all the better to find an unobtrusive place to sleep it off) early life on the streets.

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The Age of Decayed Futurity

Cover by Kevin Slaughter

Low Res Scan: The Age of Decayed Futurity: The Best of Mark Samuels, ed. Mark Samuels, 2020.

I could tell you what decayed futurity means: an attack on linear time, the tyranny of repetition, the entropic static of the future rolling into our world. Or, as Michael Dirda’s “Introduction” tells you:

Samuels’s favorite tropes include dreams, derelict or labyrinthine buildings, run-down European cities, subtle infection and contamination, mandalas, the dead alive, a pervasive sense of alienation, and the quiet desperation of the corporate world.

We’re both right, but grocery lists of dressed up nouns tell you nothing of what the stories are like. Most buildings have doors, but the experience of entering them is very different. The places Samuels takes us to, the stories he tells may have certain similarities, certain repetition of imagery and plot, but the impression they leave is often different – though, it must be admitted, doom usually awaits.

I wondered if it were the case that some dim intimation had come to him during his architect days as to the final destiny of his project: to house his own personal nightmare, to create a zone where human beings could not live.

So ponders our narrator, an amnesiac architect, in “Mannequins in Aspects of Terror” after he’s invited to an art installation by Golmi.

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“Where the Summer Ends”

The menace is something unique in this week’s weird story being discussed over at LibraryThing.

Review: “Where the Summer Ends”, Karl Edward Wagner, 1980.

The setting is Wagner’s hometown, Knoxville, Tennessee. Wagner gives us the South in its hot, humid summer days. In particular, he vividly and verdantly recreates the portion of town around the local univerisity with its rundown buildings, student apartment made out of converted Victorian and Edwardian, and, particularly the many vacant, kudzu-covered vacant lots around Grand Avenue which have not even been rebuilt after the buildings have disappeared from them.

Protagonist Mercer, part-time art student and part-time construction worker, wants a mahogeny mantle from junk and antiques dealer Gradie. Gradie lives on Grand Avenue, an old time resident after all the other buildings were abandoned. 

In fact, Gradie made money on the decline of the neighborhood. He would make a deal with the city for salvage rights for anything in the abandoned buildings and his partner Morny would do the actual demolition. Often, a fire would mysteriously burn down the structure before its demolition was complete. The city seemed to tacitly go along with this arson by Gradie and Morny. 

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“Home Is the Hunter”

This week’s story being discussed over at the Deep Ones group, devoted to weird fiction, isn’t weird at all. But we cast our net wide in nominations and sometimes that happens.

It is a story from one of science fiction’s great power teams: Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore. Both writers were acclaimed for their solo efforts. After their June 7, 1940 marriage, Moore said that all their works thereafter were collaborations.

Review: “Home Is the Hunter”, Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, 1953. 

Cover by Richard Powers

This story is mostly told by Honest Roger Bellamy in sort of an interior monologue with the part of him that has regrets or questions his path in life. It’s not a dialogue of conscience even though Bellamy is a noted killer, an acclaimed killer.

He’s a Head-Hunter, a practioner of consensual and legal homocide in this 21st Century New York City. They are this society’s  most revered and respected men. They kill each other in Central Park then take the loser’s head back to their trophy halls in their lavish homes with many wives and children in what’s called a Triumph. The best will have a plastic statue in Central Park. 

In his interior monologue, we learn something of Bellamy’s life. He knew a mother’s love until age six when he was taken away to be a Hunter, shown not much love by his father or mother afterwards. He was trained in machete, gun, and judo. His older brother was killed in a judo training “accident” actually secretly engineered by Bellamy. Then he became heir to his father’s role as Hunter.

Having recently read Tom Holland’s Rubicon and Dynasty, I suspect this story was Kuttner’s and Moore’s taken on the status obsession of Ancient Rome. The victorious Hunters have Triumphs. When a Hunter is killed, he gets all his victim’s trophy heads and the victim’s wives and children are turned out to become “populari” which was the Roman term of those not from patrician families.

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“The Book”

This week’s weird fiction discussed over at LibraryThing is something fairly unique.

Review: “The Book”, Margie Irwin, 1930.

This story mixes a lot of things together. Part ghost story, part tale of demonic possession, and definitely a contaminated text story though of a different sort than Mark Samuels’ “A Contaminated Text” or Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “Ex Libris”.

The story opens one November night with protagonist Corbett looking for something to read after stopping his reading of an unsatisfactory detective novel. In the dining-room bookcase are some books, mostly “dull and obscure old theological books” inherited from his late uncle’s library. They are mixed in with cheap novels bought at railway stalls by Corbett’s wife and “respectable nineteenth century works of culture” that Corbett bought in his Oxford days, and children’s books. The uncle’s books have an “air of scorn that belongs to a private and concealed knowledge”. 

A fancy takes Corbett (in his “vaporous and fog-ridden” Kensington living room?) that a “dank and poisonous breath” is exhaled by some of the volumes. He grabs a Dickens’ work then goes back for a Walter Pater book. He notices a gap left by the Dickens The Old Curiosity Shop which seems too large. That seems strange. Corbett hurriedly leaves to return to his bedroom. He almost feels like his house is haunted. 

But the old pleasures of Dickens aren’t there this time. It seems sentimental, to take pleasure in cruelty and suffering. The humorous is now diabolic. The peculiar thought comes to him that there is “something evil in the austere worship of beauty for its own sake”. 

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“A Touch of Pan”

This week’s work of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing has another appearance by Pan.

It’s not surprising, with his mystical interests and reverence for nature, that Blackwood’s Pan story is the closest of any I’ve looked at so far in returning to Pan’s pagan origins. It uses Pan as a metaphor for the joyless, hypocritical nature of the English upper class and contrasts it with pure love and sex and nature. One suspects it expresses something of Blackwood’s views on such matters. 

Review: “A Touch of Pan”, Algernon Blackwood, 1917.

The story starts with our protagonist, Herber, remembering the difference between an idiot and a lunatic. The idiot acts on instinct not reason. The lunatic is “out of relation with his environment”. He contemplates that he has fallen in love with an idiot, one possessed of “a kind of sheer natural joy”. Herber was born into “an artificial social clique”, but he loves nature and not fancy houses. 

His family probably wouldn’t say his love was an idiot, but they probably think “she is not all there”. Heber has only seen the woman in question twice and never spoken to her, but the air of joy she radiates evokes a “sense of awe” in him. The values of civilization are not hers. Her awareness of other people is like that a dog or bird – some people are kind, some aren’t. Heber’s values match hers. Her family, given her oddity, are ashamed of her, make excuses for her, and neglect her. She dresses like she’s 16, but she’s probably 19. Her sister has married well, but her family considers the girl’s marriage prospects doubtful. Mere chorus-girls have a better chance to get married than her given her demeanor and dress.

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The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales

It was July 4th, and I wasn’t going to go through boxes of packed books on my day off to find something to read. So, I went through books on the Kindle and decided two Mark Samuels titles, Christmas gifts, seemed like just the thing.

Review: The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales, Mark Samuels, 2011.

The stories of Mark Samuels are filled with perilous literary scholarship, sinister cartels, and encroaching decay of body and intellect – a mold of modernity. Yet, sometimes, hope is to be found in the alleys and wrecks of cities.

Some of the stories are homages or pastiches to dead writers of horror and the weird fiction: Poe, Stefan Grabinski, Karl Edward Wagner, Ambrose Bierce, and, of course, Arthur Machen. Bibliophilia, book collecting, and literary scholarship lead to strange places in Samuels’ fictions. Sometimes mere casual epigraphs from dead writers are surprisingly revelatory.

The first story, “Losenof Express”, is a fine example. Alcoholic horror writer Eddie Charles Knox hoists a shot of Jack Daniels to Poe as he drinks by himself in the obscure Eastern European capital of Strasgol. A well-paying career writing “the pulp adventures of Mungo the Barbarian and the sexual shenanigans of Mother Superior Lucia Vulva” seems like a waste of his talent, a betrayal of his one-time reputation as the “Berserker of Horror”. And when another man in the café seems to mirror Knox’s self-loathing, he becomes enraged and follows the man, eventually killing him. But things become strange when he hops the train out of town to flee arrest.  

There are probably some allusions I missed and elements I don’t appreciate in “The Man Who Collected Machen” since I don’t collect Machen and have only read half of his fiction. But I have read enough Machen, know enough of his life, to appreciate this story as a well-done pastiche and tribute. Machen enthusiasts will see elements of “N”, The Three Impostors, The Secret Glory, and “The Lost Club”.

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