Slaves of the Death Spiders and Other Essays on Fantastic Fiction

This one gets a low-res scan designation because it seems rather pointless to spend a lot of time on some of the pieces in this reprint collection.

Low Res Scan: Slaves of the Death Spiders and Other Essays on Fantastic Fiction, Brian Stableford, 2007.

In “Slaves of the Death Spider: Colin Wilson and Existentialist Science Fiction”, Stableford talks about Wilson’s Spider World series in a way that convinces me there’s probably not much of merit in them. He finds them not that original – specifically derivative of Star Wars and Murray Leinster’s “Mad Planet”. He finds it ironic that Wilson, who once accused science fiction of being fairy tales for adults who have not outgrown fairy tales, has written, inspired by his occult interests, a story that seems to suggest, a la L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics, that mankind’s salvation will come. In short, Stableford says Wilson neither delivers a new plot or anything conceptually satisfying

H. G. Wells and the Discovery of the Future” is a very informative essay on Wells. Stableford points to Wells’ 1901 futurological work Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Human Progress upon Human Life and Thought as marking a change in his career and approach to speculative fiction. From that point on, Wells’ would attempt to forecast the future rather than just deal with possibilities. His classic works – The First Men in the Moon, The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, When the Sleeper Wakes – predate this turn. These, and three short story collections between 1895 and 1901, are realistically, what Wells’ reputation as a vital sf writer rests on – not the turgid utopias he wrote later on. Interestingly, Wells’ The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth (1904) is seen as an example of Wells’ new direction. Begun as a scientific romance, it diverted to a new direction with the giants becoming an example of  what Wells’ thought humanity should be concerned with in the future. The giants are an example of a “new wisdom and new spiritual strength”. Stableford sees Wells’ participating in a general turn, around 1902, by British sf writers to pessimism, most specifically seen in the natural catastrophe and future war story. As the world became more secular, the belief that salvation and ultimate survival was not guaranteed begun to have effects. After World War I, the British scientific romance became fatalistic to the point of nihilism. Hope for civilization was in short supply. Optimism took a peculiar turn in Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men where man goes through various cyclic rises and falls in his civilization. But, says Stableford, Wells’ earlier approach did not go to waste. It was taken up by American sf. Ultimately, Stableford is fairly critical of the later Wells saying his work had a large element of folly. He says that the best of modern sf tries to strike a balance between the two Wells: an energetic, fun, romantic exploration of possibilities tempered with a desire to see and shape the future.

The Adventures of Lord Horror Across the Media Landscape” is a history of a notorious British novel and accompanying multimedia adaptations of it.

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“The Mummy’s Foot”

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

Review: “The Mummy’s Foot”, Théophile Gautier, trans. Lafcaido Hearn, 1908, 1840. 

This is a light, frothy bit of fiction.

A great deal of it is taken up with the narrator’s description of a Parisian antique shop where he comes across what he first takes to be the beautiful foot left over from some statue. He wants something cheap to use as a paperweight. He’s told that the foot is not from a statute. It’s the mummified foot of Princess Hermonthis. 

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“The Prayer of Ninety Cats”

This is the piece of weird fiction being discussed this week over at LibraryThing.

Review: “The Prayer of Ninety Cats”, Caitlín R. Kiernan, 2013.

Cover by Elizabeth Story

Like a lot of Kiernan I’ve read, the plot on this one is rather obscure but the prose lyrical.

It’s more a meditation on movies and the experience of seeing them in the theater, of the compelling nature of light reflected from the silver screen, than about the fictional movie contained within the story. We even are invited to identify with an unnamed movie critic addressed as “you” throughout the story.

We don’t seem to ever get the title of this movie about Elizabeth Bathory von Ecsed, the famed Blood Countess of history. The movie recounts her descent into depravity and her predations on the local women sent to the castle including having one ground into sausage and fed to her unwitting parents.

However, the main part of the story is her relationship to a her lover, a “witch of the woods” named Anna Darvulia.

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“Mrs Midnight”

This was last week’s short story being discussed over at LibraryThing’s Deep Ones group.

Review: “Mrs Midnight”, Reggie Oliver, 2011.

Cover by Reggie Oliver

As seems to often be the case in the few Oliver stories I’ve read, this story is about showbiz.

Our narrator is the host of the tv show I Can Make You A Star, and the story is propelled by a woman, Jill Warburton, whom our narrator, Danny, fancies. He does not find her exceptionally beautiful, but he likes her personality. 

To be close to her, he agrees to help her on a restoration of the Old Essex Music Hall, a dump of a building in London that has a bad reputation and, says Danny, has only survived because “some nutter slapped a preservation order on it.” 

A lot of the story is Danny’s asides on various characters and his own life rising from humble beginnings. It opens with Danny going, for the first time, to the Old Essex with Crispin de Hartong and Jill. Danny does not like Crispin because he’s clearly putting the moves on Jill even though he admits Crispin is much closer to Jill’s age. Crispin is an architectural expert and hosts a minor house hunting show called Premises, Premises . . . .

The Old Essex is on Alie Street in the Whitechapel district. It was partly destroyed in a fire after the last Ripper murder in the area and has been a hangout for junkies and bikers for years. It’s a much larger building than Danny expects. 

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In Darkness, Delight: Masters of Midnight

Review: In Darkness, Delight: Masters of Midnight, eds. Andrew Lennon and Evans Light, 2019.

Cover by Mikio Murakami

I don’t know if it was accidental or deliberate, but the predominant theme of this anthology is grief.

Grief is a peculiar thing, not really horror but painful. But, in some sense, it’s often a sign you were lucky – lucky enough to know something or someone enough to grieve their passing. But, of course, grief can be the start of a more interesting story.

I bought this story for William Meikle’s “Refuge”, one of his Sigil and Totem stories, a series entirely built on grief and loss. Here, Meikle works another variation on that series’ central idea. The narrator is an Arab refuge living in London. He works at a pub where he catches the bad attentions of Wilkins whom he insults. Yes, this is yet another story centered on the modern obsession about racism and discrimination. Meikle conveniently does not make our protagonist a devout Moslem, so he retains our sympathy. There is a bit of invade-the-world, invite-the-world theme here when the narrator replies, to Wilkins’ insult, that he’s in London “Because ignorant fascists just like you blew my family out of their shoes.” The story will take both Wilkins and the protagonist to a Sigils and Totems house where the dead can, in some form, live again. I suppose Meikle is saying we are all bound together by grief, but, frankly, I’m always going to sympathize with the Crusader over the Saracen.

Angel Wings” from Paul Michaels, is another story dealing with grief. The horror is nothing supernatural just loneliness and isolation. Our 11-year old protagonist, Bobby Granger, has lost his mother. His father is distant and contemptuous of the notion, which his wife held, that people have souls. Bobby is a “soft atheist” warring with the need for belief. He comes across what is purported to be angel wings on a school trip to a museum of religious artifacts. He becomes rather obsessed with them with, of course, bad consequences.

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“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.)

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“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.

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The Other Passenger

Impressed by his story in Scottish Stories of Fantasy and Horror, I picked up this collection by John Keir Cross.

Low Res Scan: The Other Passenger, John Kier Cross, 1944, 2017.

Cover by Henry Petrides

This collection is not entirely horror or weird stories. Many of them deal with people in the arts, particularly music, and they are often written by a narrator claiming to be untutored in the art of writing an account of their experiences. The stories often seemingly digress and move back and forth in time, but Cross always ends his stories by satisfyingly tying everything together.

The collection has a quite deliberate order of stories, and there are links between some of them, so I’ll be looking at them in order. All of these stories first appeared in this volume.

J. F. Norris’ “Introduction” to the Valancourt Books edition is useful. This was not Cross’ first book, but his previous ones were children’s books under the name Stephen MacFarlane – the man “now dead” that Cross dedicated the collection to. Cross was an influential figure. Arthur C. Clarke said Cross was the first professional writer he knew. Ramsey Campbell credits Cross’ Best Horror Stories anthology as shaping his view of the genre. After this book was published, Cross was a scriptwriter for the BBC and adapted many other author’s stories to acclaim.

I’ve already looked at “The Glass Eye”.

Petronella Pan” is a creepy story about a vain woman that, to remain the center of attention, has chemically kept her daughter in the physical (though not mental) state of an infant for 30 years via chemical means. Like many Cross stories, it’s a twice-told story, and the narrator, who doesn’t like babies and goes on a riff about how innocent seeming babies grow up to become grotesque moral or physical monsters, gets the story from his sentimental German-Scottish friend Konrad who has been judging baby contests for thirty years. There is a nice bit with the baby seemingly reading Proust in her baby carriage. The mother’s former husband was a brilliant chemist, and she learned enough of his job to make the necessary formula.  Cross wrings some horror out of Christ’s line “unless you become as children” line by Christ.

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The Watcher at the Threshold, Part 5: Amazon and Aegean

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

My multi-part look at this John Buchan collection concludes.

Buchan took a cruise to the Aegean in 1910 and that’s the setting of “Basilissa”. This 1914 story is my least favorite in the collection. It mixes precognitive dreams with a standard damsel-in-distress romantic plot.

Every April since boyhood Vernon has had a dream where he enters a house with many rooms and senses a danger. On each repetition of the dream, the danger draws closer.

In Greece, Vernon will later rescue a beautiful woman from a local warlord.

Once again, the issue of racial heritage comes up. Vernon, you see, is not of pure English blood. He’s part Greek through his grandmother and that made him susceptible to those dreams and their terrors.

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