The Ravine

Usually, I know exactly what I’m going to read after I finish a book. However, back last New Year’s Eve, I thought I needed a break.

A weird western was just the thing.

Review: The Ravine, William Meikle, 2013.

Cover by M. Wayne Miller

While this isn’t my favorite kind of weird western, I think the most inventive ones are science fiction stories that don’t use time travel or aliens, I still found this story gripping and fast moving. 

Meikle starts the action right away with a cavalry squad swept to another dimension where they are recruited in a fight to keep Satan imprisoned. Only one survives, Stevens, who is imbued with the weaponry and power of an angel and returns to our world. 

The second viewpoint character is Joe Clancy. He’s a rancher with his wife Jessie, son Tommy, and hired hand and family friend Paddy Doyle. His ranch is on the brink of being foreclosed on; there is a drought, and he needs the cattle in good shape to make his mortgage payment. Meikle really makes you feel the plight of the Clancys all through this story.

Continue reading “The Ravine”

“The Truth About Pickman”

Originally, I was going to review this story at a much later date since I’m still catching up on reviews. However, after I reading it, I nominated it for discussion at LibraryThing’s Deep Ones group devoted to weird fiction.

I’m not really sure it qualifies despite originally being published in S. T. Joshi’s Black Wings of Cthulhu, but I’ll get to that later.

Review: The Truth about Pickman”, Brian Stableford, 2010.

This is an interesting story, actually a strong piece of science fiction which uses Brian Stableford’s extensive knowledge of biology to rationalize the existence of Richard Pickman from H. P. Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model”. It’s ends on something of a nasty joke.

Spoilers aplenty lie ahead.

This story has an underlying tone of menace almost from the beginning since it narrator, Eliot, makes it clear that he’s concealing information from Professor Alastair Thurber who has come to visit him from America.

Eliot lives in a rather odd house on the Isle of Wight in a chine, a wooded ravine at the edge of the sea, a place formerly used by smugglers.

Eliot lives by himself, and Thurber is a microbiologist who also has an interest in Pickman’s paintings. Both men are descendants of characters in Lovecraft’s story. (You probably should read it before this story.)

Continue reading ““The Truth About Pickman””

“The Fungal Strain”

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

Review: “The Fungal Strain”, W. H. Pugmire, 2006.

Cover by Rafael Tavares

This is an oblique takeoff on H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep” using the “Baudelairean poet Justin Geoffrey” mentioned in passing in that story. 

Pugmire’s prose is lush and filled with vivid incident.

Our narrator is a sometime poet though he claims he’s just interested in the craft of poetry.

The story opens with him seeing, in the fog outside a bookstore, a woman of somewhat bestial face. She comes inside while he looks through a volume of Geoffrey’s works. 

It turns out the woman – whose name we never get — can quote his favorite poet. But the narrator is a loner and somewhat antisocial and isn’t interested in making friends with her. After her opening conversational gambit, she hums an odd song. 

When he leaves the bookstore, the woman follows him, humming a beguiling tune. He begins to “creep” towards her, but she walks into the Kingsport fog.

Continue reading ““The Fungal Strain””

The Watcher by the Threshold, Part 4: England

Low Res Scan: The Watcher by the Threshold, ed. Christopher Roden and Barbara Roden, 2005, 2012.

My multi-part look at this collection of John Buchan’s fantastic fiction continues with his stories set in England.

Off all the stories in the collection the most memorable and, I think, most original – even though Buchan gave it a Latin title – is ”Tendebant Manus(1927). This is a story with a tinge of predestination at its end and centers around World War One. The story is the reminisces at the funeral of one George Souldern recently killed in a motorcycle accident. For most of his life, George was considered to have a first-class brain, to be industrious and clever but not the sort of man who could lead others, a man of no enthusiasm, a man lacking in personality.

But George, in his later years, starkly transformed. The catalyst seems to have been the death of his brother Reggie on the Western Front. Reggie was everything George wasn’t: a natural leader (he served on staff at General HQ), a man of ordinary intellect who used it all.

Continue reading “The Watcher by the Threshold, Part 4: England”

The Watcher by the Threshold, Part 3: Mountains

Low Res Scan: The Watcher by the Threshold, ed. Christopher Roden and Barbara Roden, 2005, 2012.

My multi-part look at this collection continues with Buchan’s fantastic fiction with a mountaineering connection.

Buchan took up mountain climbing in 1904, and some of his fiction is set in the milieu of climbers, and the stories were often published in specialized magazines. “The Knees of the Gods” (1907) was first published in the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal. As you would expect from a story written for his fellow climbers, Buchan doesn’t explain much of the terminology or geographies of the listed locations. Oddly, it’s a political satire and science fiction albeit with a vision of the future provided in a dream.

We have another twice-told story with the narrator hearing about the dream of a fellow climber, Smith. We are presented with a view of the future where railroads and electric elevators take people to the tops of several mountains. You can walk up on heated carpets to the summits of others. Scotland’s mountains don’t have railroads to their top, but they’re reserved for “tourists and artists and people out of training”. Serious climbers can still go to the untamed Himalayas.

Alcohol is a prescription only item, and only obese Germans smoke cigars.

Continue reading “The Watcher by the Threshold, Part 3: Mountains”

The Watcher by the Threshold, Part 1: Scotland

Low Res Scan: The Watcher by the Threshold, ed. Christpher Roden and Barbara Roden, 2005, 2012.

John Buchan wrote a lot of books including The Law Relating to the Taxation of Foreign Income, histories of the First World War, an acclaimed biography of the Marquis Montrose, and numerous novels, and, of course, the Richard Hannay series. The latter’s first two installments, The Thirty-Nine Steps and Greenmantle, have seen numerous radio, tv, and film adaptations and, along with Erskine Childers The Riddle of the Sands, are the progenitors of the modern espionage novel. A lot of Buchan remains in print today.

But he also wrote a lot of weird and fantastic fiction, even a couple of pieces of science fiction, and was a fan of Edgar Allan Poe. In 1911, when he worked for a publisher putting out an edition of Poe stories, he said Poe showed

all around us the shadowy domain of the back-world, and behind our smug complacency the shrieking horror of the unknown.

That could stand in as a description for some Buchan works of the fantastic. And, writing to a friend early in his literary career, he said the short story was his “real form”.

Continue reading “The Watcher by the Threshold, Part 1: Scotland”

The Midnight Eye Omnibus Volume 2

Low Res Scan: The Midnight Eye Omnibus Volume 2, William Meikle, 2019.midnighteyeomnibus

Derek Adams, the Glasgow private eye who is a magnet for the weird, is a character Meikle returns to again and again. He’s added to the series since I read this book though I have not read the newest installment.

This collection actually has an “Introduction” by J. Kent Holloway, an appreciation of the deep use of mythology in Meikle’s fantasy and horror stories. Holloway also talks about how Meikle was his entrance point to the works of H. P. Lovecraft.

And the influence of Lovecraft is certainly seen in “Eeny Meeny Miney Mi-Go” which, as you would expect from the title, is Meikle’s takeoff on H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness”. Adams is hired by an astronomer, Penderton, to find his son within 48 hours. Of course, it doesn’t turn out to be that simple, and Penderton has a lot of secrets. The story seems to be from early in Adams’ career. He’s already a private eye, but we hear about his friend Dave who shows up in the earliest Adams novels. Derek’s girlfriend Liz is probably the woman whose suicide, while Adams was in the next room, left him guilt ridden.

Call and Response” is not only a call-out to the Cthulhu Mythos as Adams is hired by an ex-New York City policeman to find an unknown professor but also to a bit of Scottish pride in the references to John Logie Baird. He was the inventor of the first tv technology and conducted the first transmission of color on tv. Throw in cosmic cycles, a certain being slumbering in the depths of the Pacific, and a nod to Charles Darwin, and you have a light-hearted story, one of the best in the Adams series. it’s also another case of Meikle attracted to the idea of dance and music – rhythm, in other words – as a way of communicating with the supernatural and extraordinary.

The book contains several other Adams’ tales, and you’ll find my reviews of each linked to their title: Rhythm and Booze, “The Weathered Stone“, “The Inuit Bone“, “A Slim Chance“, “Farside“, Deal or No Deal?, and “Home Is the Sailor“.

As long as Meikle keeps writing Adams, I’ll keep reading about Derek’s adventures in the mean, weird streets of Glasgow.

Carnacki: The Watcher at the Gate and Other Stories

Low Res Scan: Carnacki: The Watcher at the Gate and Other Stories, William Meikle, 2016.

Watcher at the Gate
Cover by M. Wayne Miller

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. I like Meikle’s Carnacki better than William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki.

There are two reasons for that.

First, Meikle will often work in odd bits of history or folklore into his stories, and Hodgson didn’t do that. (Of course, Hodgson presented his stories as contemporary. Their setting is now over a 100 years old.)

Second, Meikle’s Carnacki doesn’t go on at length about his photographic methods or how he checks a dwelling out. His Carnacki will simply say something like, “You all know my methods by now.”

Meikle’s Carnacki stories are presented roughly in chronological order. This is, currently, the second of Meikle’s Carnacki anthologies. Don’t worry, though, you won’t be lost if you jump around in the publication order of them.

The Banshee” does allude to some of the menaces Carnacki has faced in the past and how be vanquished them. Here an old friend in Scotland has heard the banshee’s cry which means, according to family lore, he will die if he hears it seven times. So, naturally,  Carnacki sets out to help him. Unusually, Carnacki tells most of the story to his friend – and series regular – Dodgson by letter. Continue reading “Carnacki: The Watcher at the Gate and Other Stories”

The Weird Western Adventures of Haakon Jones

(This first appeared in Innsmouth Free Press  on July 4, 2013.)

Review; The Weird Western Adventures of Haakon Jones, Aaron B. Larson, 1999.

]n 1874, 17-year-old Haakon Jones leaves Minnesota, his mother dead, his older brother set to inherit the farm. Trading in his prized violin for a Colt Army revolver, which is going to see a whole lot of use in the next 32 years, he wanders the American West and beyond, ending up in San Francisco just in time to be involved with its 1906 earthquake. You could think of him as sort of a Western version of haakonjones-w622-h350Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane. Indeed, the book is dedicated to Howard, except the ideals his Unitarian pastor back home admonishes him to remain true to are less fervently Christian than Kane’s Puritanism.

That’s all very nice, I hear you say, but why are you covering a 14-year-old book – and a Weird Western, at that? Innsmouth Free Press’s own J. Keith Haney, in his Retronomicon column, already does that quite ably. Why? Because this book deserves to be more widely known.

There are new additions to the Weird Western subgenre all the time in games, fiction, comics, and movies. I’ve been interested in it for decades, starting with old Twilight Zone comic books and the Clint Eastwood movies High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider. The trouble is that, while I haven’t looked at every single example of the subgenre, I have sampled quite a few and most have been disappointing. For me, that disappointment comes in three areas: annoying and unrealistic depictions of the West, conceptually lazy plots that simply throw werewolves or vampires or aliens into a western setting, and a failure to evoke a sense of place. The latter is important because, after all, place, a particular geographical setting and historical time, defines the “western” half of the “Weird Western.”

Now, there are werewolves and space aliens and vampires in this book, but there’s also a whole lot of other weirdness, a true smorgasbord of it. There is a golem, giant critters, weaponized vampire bats, lake monsters, Sasquatch, witches, trolls, a Mayan mummy, zombies, flying saucers, ghosts, Wendigo, Nazis, a mad scientist, and, yes, some Lovecraftian monsters, too. (Besides Howard, Lovecraft is another of the pulp authors the book is dedicated too.) There are more conventional menaces, as well: a pedophile, a gang of gunmen, and, in what I suspect is an homage to Howard’s boxing stories, a heavyweight champion of Mexico.

Larson can cram all this into less than three hundred pages because this fix-up novel is told through 35 chronologically arranged stories, most having first been published in Classic Pulp Fiction Stories in the 1990s. If you’re bored with one sort of monster, it’s not long until the next one will show up. Jones’ narration is often wry, sometimes poetic. It’s the speech of a drifter with a yen to learn life’s secrets. He frequently stops at libraries when he comes across them. It’s not the tall-tale, laconic, over-the-top drawl of Joe Lansdale’s Jonah Hex, which I never liked.

Larson also conveys a sense of the real American West and its people, though not every story is set there. Lakota mythology shows up with Hin-Han, the owl spirit that becomes a regular warning of the eerie about to show up in Jones’ life. His friend, and occasional partner in adventure, is Small Jumper, a Lakota he meets while both serve as scouts in Colonel Custer’s Seventh Cavalry.

One story involves a Dakota Territory community of what my parents would have called “Black Russians,” German immigrants from the Black Sea area. Cameo appearances of historical and fictional characters of the time abound: Buffalo Bill Cody; characters from the TV westerns, The Wild, Wild West and Have Gun, Will Travel; and the man associated with the most significant work of fantasy to come out of South Dakota, Frank L. Baum of Oz fame. In the zone between history and fiction, Larson also works in the legend of El Dorado, the disappearance of the Anasazi, and Vikings in America.

Larson also does a fine job of evoking place. Now, I have to admit my perceptions may be colored by my own unique perspective. I’ve either lived or been to the places mentioned in his Minnesota and Dakota Territory stories. (Indeed, the first place I ever saw this book mentioned was South Dakota Magazine.) On the other, hand S. P. Somtow wrote a long novel, Moon Dance, set at the same time and in many of the same areas, and didn’t bring the place to life. And, while I’ve never been to Seattle, I thought the story “In Seattle the Rain Comes for You!” did a nice job describing the city. That story, incidentally, seems both a nod to and argument with Lovecraft’s somewhat notorious “The Horror at Red Hook.” Both involve dastardly cults conducting underground rites in sleazy port cities, but Jones is helped in his fight against evil by a black preacher.

And, yes, there are quite-specific Lovecraftian elements here. Captain Lawton, Jones’ superior in the Army, is a reoccurring character with an interest in blasphemous books. They include Larson’s addition to that library, Olag Tryggvesson’s Dagbok av en Vanvittig Djevel av-en Utenfor Natt, which seems to translate as “Diary of a Mad Devil of Outside Night.” There’s also the little detour to an uncharted island in the Pacific in “Surf City, Here I Come” and the monster lurking in New Mexico in “The Door in the Desert.”

Now, this is not a perfect book and some of the flaws were more obvious on my second reading. Obviously, you’re not going to get a whole lot of character development in such short stories. Sometimes past subjects of Jones’ romantic attraction are too conveniently mentioned in only one story. Larson maintains his continuity pretty well, but one villain, seemingly killed in one story, pops up later in others. Perhaps, as the foreword says, we need to “forgive an old man’s memory.”

The reaction to a character’s death in the actually rather poignant and powerful “Can You Hear a Ghost Dance …,” based on the conflict between Small Jumper, who rejects the promises of the Ghost Dance, and his son, who joins the movement, weakens the story’s emotional effect. I was somewhat disappointed to see the supernatural menace of two of the stories set in and around the Black Hills of South Dakota, my old stomping grounds, to be somewhat vague in their manifestations and resolutions, though most of the stories set in that locale pleased me. And, of particular sorrow to a Lovecraft fan, I have to state that the problems brought up by some of the characters’ names in “Action on Arkham’s Boot Hill” almost completely ruined the story for me.

Still, though, Jones remains the high point of my travels in Weird Western territory, and I suspect many of you Innsmouth folk will cotton to something in it.

 

 

“Robert H. Barlow’s ‘A Memory’ in William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land”

Review: “Robert H. Barlow’s ‘A Memory’ in William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land”, Marcos Legaria, 2014.

Voices from the Borderland
Cover by Daniele Serra

R. H. Barlow critic Massimo Berruti thought Barlow’s “A Memory”, a far future tale, greatly resembled The Night Land. (I have not read it.) This article tracks the passing around of Hodgson’s novels from the 50-year-old Herman C. Koenig, a book collector and a key figure in keeping interest in Hodgson alive, to various members of the Lovecraft Circle: Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, and R. H. Barlow.

Barlow seems to have written his story around September 1934. We just can’t determine from extant letters when, if ever, Barlow got a hold of a copy of The Night Land though we know approximately when he saw Hodgson’s other novels.