There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Reggie Oliver and the Lovecraft Mythos

The Lovecraft Mythos, particularly works produced by the generations that knew not Lovecraft, is my least favorite genre ghetto to visit.

But for Reggie Oliver I'll make an exception.  

The Archbishop's Well (2013)

"The Archbishop's Well" takes the form of a diary of Dr. Charles Vilier. It recalls "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas" at the outset, but its headlong climax is pure The Shadow over Innsmouth. In 1938 an ancient well at Morchester Cathedral is examined by an expert (Vilier) on Medieval history to see if it is worth preserving, or can be removed and replaced with a modern drinking fountain. 

....It is a roughly circular enclosure of irregular stones which have been frequently repaired over the years with ugly slatherings of mortar. The opening is capped with a heavy circular lid of oak, bound with elaborately arabesqued iron bands and attached to the stone surround by heavy iron rings and padlocks.....

Felix Cutbirth heads a local cult bent on defending the well from investigation:

"I warn you, Dean Grice—" he pronounced it grease "—the House of Dagon will suffer wrong no more! The Old Gods are awaking from their long sleep and you would do well not to despise their help in the gathering storm. Soon the rivers of Europe will run with blood. You will bleat for the Nazarene to help you, but he will not come, and the tide of blood will advance till it engulfs even Morchester. I warn you, Grice!"

Vilier begins his research in the cathedral library. 

....When Anselm came to the Benedictine Priory at Morchester he saw the monks in much distress on account of their well. For they had built their cloister around an ancient well which had been there for many centuries and where in time past many foul and blasphemous ceremonies had been enacted to worship the ancient Gods and Demons of the Pagans. For, it was said, in the depths of this ancient well were many caverns and paths beneath the earth which connected with sea caverns on the southern shores. [In the eleventh and twelfth centuries the sea was much closer to Morchester than it is now.] And it was said that these demons came out of the sea and through the caverns to the well where they had been worshipped as gods in former times.

Now certain of the monks, hoping to draw greater quantities of the sweet water to be found in the well, had descended into its depths to dig deeper and uncover new springs. But in so doing they had awakened the demons who had lain dormant in caverns beneath the well for many centuries. They had troubled their unholy sleep and awakened their anger. And these demons had arisen from the well to bring destruction on the monks and the people of Morchester. The monks were tormented by ill dreams and by odours as of fish putrefying. Women of the town began to give birth to all manner of abominations: infants with two heads, and mouths in their fundaments, horns upon their head, many arms but without hands; and one had the face of a great serpent. Such was their consternation that the whole people cried out to Anselm to deliver them from terrors by night and abominations by day….

This is what lead to the sealing of the well-head. 

Vilier has the well-head opened and he and his old school friend Bertie Winship, a canon at the cathedral, descend.

....The whole, including the spiral steps, was an astonishing feat of construction and certainly not, in my view, medieval. Anglo-Saxon, then? Even less likely. Roman? I had never seen Roman work that remotely resembled this.

Soon the top of the well had become a little white disc, no bigger than the moon. I trudged downwards, taking care not to touch the walls if I could avoid it. They were covered with a thin layer of something dark and glistening, sticky to the touch, that left a dark brown stain on the hands, like half-dried blood. My dear old tweed jacket was already ruined.

I had entered a world of silence, and if silence can be said to echo, then it did. I suppose what I am saying is that the slightest scrape of my feet on the stone steps came back to me in echoes a thousand fold. Once I coughed and it was like a fusillade of rifle shots. The scent of something decaying and fishlike was getting stronger....

....I don't know how long we had been going, but the entrance to the well was only a pinpoint of light above us—no more than a distant star on a dark night—when we came across the carvings.

The first of them was a frieze carved into the stone, about a foot and a half in depth that ran the whole of the way around the well, broken only by the run of the staircase. It was a continuous key pattern, or, if you like, a set of interlinked swastikas. Apart from anything else it was astonishing to find workmanship like this at such a depth. What possible purpose could it serve?

I could only conjecture that its presence suggested that an early civilisation, probably of Aryan origin, had been at work here and created the descent for ritual purposes. I began to speculate that it might have been used to commune with spirits of the dead, or some Chthonic deity of the underworld. This structure could be an early monument to a mystery religion, perhaps the earliest in these islands, predating Mithraism by hundreds, even thousands of years….

....It showed a group of figures huddled together, one of which was wearing a kind of crown or diadem and seemed to be dominating the others. The figures were not human, nor recognisably animal. They looked like some strange miscegenation between a sea creature, of an octapoid kind, and a human or ape. By one of them I was rather unpleasantly reminded of the figure engraved on Felix Cutbirth's card.

"By Jove," said Bertie, "I wouldn't like to meet one of those on a dark night.

At the bottom of the well they discover horizontal tunnels which connect the well to the sounding sea.  From there onward, the trevails of Viliers and Winship pick up speed.


"The Black Ship" (2018)

A found-manuscript story.  A professor of Ontography finds a box of previously unknown manuscripts by John Aubrey.  One is an interview with Doctor John Dee's last servant, who witnessed her master's final showdown with Thomas Moreby ("Lord of the Fleas").  The story then moves on to a Puritan's memoirs and a captain's sailing log for the Speedwell which apparently took a very curious route to the new world. And carried some even curiouser passengers.

.....That same evening as we were preparing to settle to our sleep, behind the curtain we had erected, of a sudden the curtains parted and we beheld a face grinning at us. It was only one of the boys—a strange lad of a familie called Curwen, as we discovered—but so filthy and malignant was his aspect that we were much affrighted. He drew the curtains round him so that we saw naught but his head, which continued to grin and leer until my Mercy took her besom and knocked him o'er the mazzard with it.

The Speedwell's log:

....October 5th. The mist clears a little, the sea staying calm and almost glassy, when shortly after two in the afternoon, Bates, one of my seamen, spies land from the crow's nest in the main mast. Master Moreby takes out a length of leather like a staff and puts it to his eye in the direction to which Bates pointed. I, greatly wondering, asked him what this signifyed, and he passed me the object and bade me look through it. At first I could make nothing of it, then I saw. This must be the new spying glass of which I heard tell in Holland last summer.

It was land of a sort that I saw, and, I guessed, an island, yet a very strange land indeed the like of which I had never yet beheld. It stood up out of the sea in great rocks and pillars of a green stone, yet with scarce any vegetation upon it, and all at angles as if shaped by a giant, or Cyclops. It mounted in steps and causeways up to a great summit, level at the top yet with one black stone upon it. It seemed to me—fanciful though it may sound—that I beheld not so much an island as the topmost excrescences of some great palace or monument, much of which must be sunk in the depths of the sea. The sight of it filled me with much amazement and terrour, but Moreby told me to steer towards it. There, he sayd, we would find sweet water and a safe haven in which to repair our battered vessell. I could scarce gainsay him for we were sorely in need of both, yet I had great misgivings….

The misgivings, it turns out, are fully justified. 

.....October 8th. As the sun rose over the Island, we left our anchorage. It was a bright day with a fair wind and, as we came out into the open sea, I heard again those sounds that the Island gave out, like unto a mournful hollowing from its depths.

Then a most strange and astounding event happened. We were about a league from the Island when I looked back upon it and it appeared to me to be smaller than was just. I kept my eye upon it and saw that the whole Island was sinking beneath the waves. The beach where we had feasted but one day previous was gone completely under the waves, but this was no mere tide, for the isle was sinking fast. The sea began to close over cliffs and crags whither but yesterday we had climbed with much labour. As the land sank a mist was borne upwards, like a steam from the clefts in the rocks, and it was coloured grey and green. Presently, we could see only the topmost spire of that mysterious congery of rocks; then with a final exhalation of green smoke and what sounded like a melancholy sigh, the whole sank beneath the waves, which bubbled a while and then were still. All that was left of it was a wreath of greenish fog which hung, like some foul garland, above the place where the Island had been, before it was dissolved by the winds.

So astonished was I at this spectacle that for a full hour I could not speak, and issued commands to my men by gesture only. Yet I dared not ask Master Moreby what manner of place it was we had visited. I read once in an old book that there be certain mouths of Hell on this Earth such as at Hecla in Iceland, where the ghosts of dead men are familiarly seen, and sometimes talk with the living, and where lamentable screeches and howlings are continually heard, which strike a terror to the auditors; moreover, fiery chariots are commonly seen to bring in the souls of men in the likeness of crows, and devills ordinarily go in and out. This I truly believe was such a place. Yet, more like, it was not a mouth of Hell, but Hell itself that we had visited….

Reggie Oliver brings a unique and audacious skill to the normally fustian and second-rate world of the mythos.


20 November 2019

Monday, November 18, 2019

Two stories by Steve Duffy

"The Lion's Den" by Steve Duffy

From: The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Two edited by Ellen Datlow (2010 by Night Shade Books) 

....Inevitably, you see, a zoo will attract certain types of people, over and above its core visitor group. These range from the mostly harmless—the lonely and inadequate, the homeless, the community-care brigade—through to the more problematic types, the obsessives, the neurotics, and in extreme instances the dangerously, even suicidally unhinged. With the former, our job consists mostly of moving them on at closing time, rousing them if they try to sleep in the dark musty tunnels of the nocturama or the vivarium, making sure they don't present a nuisance to the staff or to other zoo users. With the latter, it can be very different....

"The Lion's Den" begins as a story about a UK zoo crisis: a teenage boy enters the lion enclosure, strips off his clothes, and begins to harangue the big cats in an unknown language. This opening set-piece is well-executed. Duffy's audacity and skill are much in evidence. Then events take a very strange turn, and then another; as weeks go by the crisis becomes generalized throughout the facility. 

"....Over the last three months, our animals here have demonstrated profound behavioural alterations, across all species, across all hierarchical relationships. Now, we either assume this change is a non-volitional response to external stimuli—that is, they used to behave this way, and now they behave that way, because there's something in the water, or they all had the same sort of brainstorm, or whatever—or else . . . "

     "Or else?"

     Manoj looked as if he was chewing a wasp. "Or else what we're seeing here is a volitional behaviour shift."

      "You mean—they decided to do it?"

      "They chose, yes. That would be the other alternative." I could see Manoj liked this option even less. "According to that scenario, what we're seeing here would be interpreted as possibly the first recorded instance of altruistic co-operation across species towards a common, mutually desirable goal—though what that might be, I have no idea. How could I? Now that sort of conceptualisation would require a level of self-awareness . . . " He broke off, lost in his own thoughts.

"The Lions Den" is robustly speculative. It gives us a setting and a team of characters we rarely see. And its implications are terrifying.


"The Ice Beneath Us" by Steve Duffy

From: The Best Horror of the Year Volume Nine by Ellen Datlow

( 2017: Night Shade Books) 

"The Ice Beneath Us" is one of Duffy's Americana tales: horror stories richly imbued with echoes of historic traumas braided into U.S. history. (Other stories in the sequence: "The Clay Party," "The Oram County Whoosit," "The Vanishing Hitchhiker").

Bob and Claude, retired from Boeing, are ice fishing on Bent Iron Lake, near the Snoqualmie National Forest. They share a secret flowing from an encounter they had the year before. When a Native American named Jimbo paid them a visit.

....Maybe when the wolf put on Grandmamma's clothes as a disguise to trick Red Riding Hood, they kind of had the same look about them.

     "I been hunting," he said, and his smile was like an axe split in his face. "Messy work, you know?"

     "What do you hunt up here?" I asked him.

      He laughed. It was not a pleasant sound. "Can't you guess?" he asked. "Your buddy there, I think he knows. Why don't you ask him?"

The raw coldness of the setting is beautifully married to the tale's folk content.


18 November 2019


Reading "In the Absence of Murdock" by Terry Lamsley

"In the Absence of Murdock" by Terry Lamsley

From THE BEST HORROR OF THE YEAR VOLUME FOUR Edited by Ellen Datlow (2012, Night Shade Books).

Matt Cowan of Horror Delve has praised "In the Absence of Murdock," so I had to take a look. I've read the story twice in the last few weeks; it is a compelling story, skilfully told.

Franz seeks out Murdock, his brother-in-law's writing partner, who seems to have vanished into thin air. Murdock does not respond to phone calls and is not home. But what is disturbs Franz.

....At the rear of the bungalow Franz became confused because someone, Murdock presumably, though he didn't seem a likely candidate to be a master of DIY, had fitted neat partitions into two rooms to divide them up into a number of smaller spaces. Finding his way round them in the semi-darkness kept Franz fully occupied for some time and he was relieved when he came upon a wooden door which he took to be at the back of the house. He tried the handle, found it wasn't locked, and hurried through it, only to find himself in a large, windowless room lit only by some slight luminescence originating in what at first he took to be some indoor plants. He stopped to get a better look at them and saw that in fact they were what appeared to be the upper—in fact the topmost—branches of a large tree and, looking down, he realised that they continued down into a space below the bungalow.

     Bemused, he ventured forward a couple of steps and peered into what he thought might be a cellar and saw that the space below was too wide and deep to be anything of the kind. He could see a very long way down—so much so that he felt himself reeling. His fear of heights made him almost topple forward and it was with some effort that he managed to scramble back some distance towards the door. He held his right hand up to his brow as his head had for some reason begun to ache and glared again at the branches that protruded through the floor.

     He noticed that some of them were beginning to move and sway a little where they were closest together, at the back, and thought he could see a clump of something in amongst them, like a platform, or maybe it was—could it be—a nest? It appeared to be a good four feet across and three or more feet deep.

     Yes, he knew then that that was what it had to be, some kind of nest made of branches and the tattered remains of what appeared to be curtains, bed sheets and various scraps of clothing. And the reason that the branches were swaying and bending was because something, some creature, had been aroused by his presence, and was coming out of its nest to investigate the cause of its disturbance....

From there a dream-like menace develops. It only increases for Franz when he learns from his sister that Murdock has reappeared.


18 November 2019

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Reading ‘The Vanishing Hitchhiker’ by Steve Duffy (2001)

Supernatural Tales 1 (2014) 

With superb stories like "The Clay Party," "The Oram County Whoosit," and "The Vanishing Hitchhiker," Steve Duffy is slowly accumulating the secret history of the United States: the rationalizations and negative capabilities of those caught in the

carnage in the epoch of imperialist decay.

In "The Vanishing Hitchhiker," Duffy gives is Heward Durling, middle aged, in a wrecked marriage, with a son drafted and fighting in Vietnam.

....Heward H. Durling, Goodman-Brown Real Estate, N.Y.C., wife (1), child (1), mortgage (1), life (1), born into these sober-sided salesman's shoes, accustomed to somehow muddling along, one blunder to the next, gee-whizz, aw-heck, golly-gosh-amighty, honey.  It's pure cartoonery, it really is, the stuff Hew gets up to: or perhaps it's the way we try to mask our bitterness, our fears, our sheer confusion, sometimes, behind what's more culturally acceptable – endearing, even.

     You know that legendary half-assedness of the sitcom dad, all sloppy-joe and flopsy?  Protective coloration; camouflage, for a generation of the beleaguered and bewildered, bears baited in a brash and shiny circus.  Like Hew here: good-natured klutz, that's the stereotype behind which he hides – tripping over Rover and spilling his drink on the Boss come round for dinner, locked outside the hotel room with his pants still on the inside, catching a curve-ball slap in the puss when he throws a little backyard pickle with ol' Junior.  That's Hew's cue. Just the sort of fella to screw up on something simple, like reading a map or following a road-sign: just the sort of guy to look around and all of a sudden find he's lost.

Duffy has the skill and audacity to out-write J. Updike and S. King.

Heward Durling,  behind the sitcom dad facade, is multiply orphaned, can never find a home in this world. From childhood his memories are of endless days and nights in cars, and it is only in his car that he can tell his story, talking freely with a hippie hitchhiker as they go along the dark back roads of the Catskills, lost but seeking.

....We populate these roadsides with our ghosts, make up monsters for the boondocks: it's the way we feel about the absent, massive reach of the land, the vacancy, the space that nobody owns. We'll never get the range, not completely. We fly it in airplanes and trace its tiny prickling lights, we talk across it most nights on the telephone; we send letters and postcards, but we don't often stop there. We know we ought to be back home, before it gets too late, and that's why these stories can still hold us, why we're scared to look behind us, scared of what we'll find...

....the light it hurts our eyes to look into, that shows us what we've become.


17 November 2019

You never beat the devil: Reading “The Moon Will Look Strange” by Lynda E. Rucker and "Tragic Life Stories" by Steve Duffy




I've never read Rucker. This is a satisfactory place to start. A man participates in a ritual with a mage, thinking he will bring back his dead six year old daughter. Thinking he will beat the monkey's-paw pet-semetary logic of horror story iron necessity. 

...."I only wanted to bring her back to us," he pleaded. "Yarrow and me, we were doing some—magick," the k at the end of the word like an unfamiliar aftertaste. Yarrow always called it that: magick. Colin was sure that once Ann understood that she wouldn't be mad any longer. "You're sick." That was all she would say. That, and "Yarrow's sick too. I hate you both." She was frightened but wouldn't let him touch her. Later, of course, he realized she'd been right. It always went wrong in stories, after all, like that one, about the monkey's paw. He went to see Yarrow, to tell him to stop the experiments, that he'd changed his mind. The experiments had increasingly frightened him, anyway, even as they'd seem to embolden Yarrow. What had begun as a way out of his madness had come to seem like a harrowing path into something deeper. The last thing they'd done, the thing with the live rats that left the mess in the tub, had left him feeling sick and shaken for days.

     Yarrow laughed, yellow teeth clacking behind thin lips, and said, "Too late, brother. It was always too late."



Duffy delights me each time. I wrote about The Night Comes On here. He has also written the Lovecraftian "The Oram County Whoosit" and that sublime Americana frontier tale "The Clay Party," which trumps any U.S. horror writer's treatment of the matter of North America.

...his hallucinations were clearly no longer confined to the visual, or indeed the tactile. Pouring himself a drink, Dan collapsed on to the sofa and tried to sort out what was going so spectacularly awry in his head. He was way too freaked to even consider writing—not tonight, not even to see if his Prospero grasp on his characters was holding under the strain.

     You read about cases like this, he knew. At one time, soon after discovering his particular eidetic gift, he'd been quite interested in the topic. (Privately, he'd always worried that there was something not quite right about it—and, by extension, about him). He was aware that some of these threshhold experiences could tip over into out-and-out hallucinations. Stress, they said, could do it—it didn't have to be anything more organic than that. So, hey, stress? Bleakly and without enthusiasm Dan picked over the succession of wrecks and forced reverses in his life over the last few months. First Angie, then the house, then the book deal, gone, gone, gone: where did you want to start?


17 November 2019

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Supernatural Tales 41: Autumn 2019

Supernatural Tales 41: Autumn 2019 

I've seen announcements for the journal Supernatural Tales for several years. But issue 41 is the first I have purchased and opened. (I am usually wary of contemporary genre writing, but that's another story). Issue 41 has two stories by writers I esteem very highly: James Machin and Steve Duffy.

Machin is the author of the superb study Weird Fiction in Britain 1880–1939 (Palgrave, 2018), whose virtues I sang this summer. 

His story, "The Sea Man," is a nesting-doll of a story, framed by a scholar's morose anecdotes, but at the heart a 14th century letter from a titled lady in one of the Kent Cinque ports, to her husband, travelling in Canterbury. 

The story she tells, weird and beautifully unresolvable, details the collision of locals with a "man from the sea."

Naturally, he is held captive. 

....His bindings at the wrists still allowed him movement, and he lifted his hands, his palms towards his face, and extended all his fingers, moving them like worms, or eels, like no man should. He extended his arms towards the sea, and fingers still moving like eels, right strange, he drew his hands slowly towards himself. He then looked at us, a smile on his face that seemed most wicked. I could not prevent the bailie from striking him across the face, but felt no pity since I too beheld only insolence and mocking spite in the sea man's countenance. The bailie peaced but sayeth to the sea man ye are no Christian. The sea man seemed not to feel the blow, for he recovered at once. He then, with some effort, began pushing the sand upon which he sat, into a small pile next to him. He made gesture at the pile, then up at the cliff, upon which St Mary's stands, smiling all the while. He then, with an awful fury, beat down with his bound hands upon the pile of sand until it was wrecked utterly, and he was dragged crazed and howling back to the barn....


"No Passage Landward" by Steve Duffy

Phoebe, spending a free day aimlessly sightseeing on a Welsh headland, oversleeps and fails to exit the area by the 5pm closing time; she finds the toll gate padlocked shut.

....Hunching into the folds of her thick woollen cardy, Phoebe walked down to the shingle beach on the north side of the headland.  Her sandals were too thin for the pebbles, though, and so she made her way around to the rocky foreshore that lay below the three houses, taking care not to slip on the strands of dark slimy laver.  Across the mouth of the strait, she could see the headlights of cars on the A55. It was the most curious feeling, to see the modern world within touching distance, almost, and yet to be trapped here on the strand.  Was it reassuring, or would it get on one's nerves after a while?

She enters one of the houses on the isolated headland. The house is occupied by a woman.

"Isn't there any way of getting in touch with outside?  Somebody must be in charge of that barrier?" 

"Someone will be along," the woman said.  "But not now."

There's lots more of that kind of cross-purpose dialogue, which is for me a pleasure of the classical UK horror genre. The woman also says, "I've been here time and time again."


16 November 2019

A certain gusto: Herald of the Hidden and Other Stories by Mark Valentine

…. However placid woodland may look in the sunlight of day, it is always transformed by night. A deeper stillness seems to descend, and there are brittle, echoing sounds that strike at atavistic emotions inside us. That chill sliver of a cry may be no more than a nocturnal bird out hunting: the rustle in the undergrowth will be a woodland creature seeking shelter; things drop from trees in the daylight too; and yet as we stood in a grove at the end of a rough bridlepath, all these were given a keen edge, were intensified so as to play upon our wariness, our sense of trepidation.

            -- "Herald of the Hidden"


Herald of the Hidden and Other Stories

by Mark Valentine

Tartarus Press 2013

Ralph Tyler, Valentine's sleuth, is not an "occult detective" as much as a mender-of-destinies.  No vampires are staked, no werewolves bludgeoned with silver-topped walking sticks, no demons exorcised. (The story "Herald of the Hidden" features recitation of a binding spell, but the note struck is oddly unconvincing. Tyler seems the kind of man who would be perfectly happy to let the ancient beasts of Britain roam an area of outstanding natural beauty and tourists be-damned). 

Ralph is concerned with understanding the strange phenomena his clients confront, so there is a lot of archival research.  In the end, he expects the experiencer to rise to the occasion of their involvement. If they cannot be reconciled to it, or at least accommodate it as a new part of their lives, it's not his problem to solve.  

Not the way a Duke De Richleau approached things, but the stories are better for it.   


…. the tales do have a certain gusto, almost a fierceness. There's a real sense of a younger author trying to put a lot of intensity into their work.

Ralph Tyler Stories:

St Michael & All Angels

….'I am sorry,' returned Ralph, 'I may sound like an outsider interfering. I realise the Trust must be careful to preserve the sanctity of the church and is anxious not to compromise its own credibility. But I do not believe vandals have been anywhere near this church in the manner which has been suggested. This means either that your contractors are less than competent and have caused the damage themselves, or . . .' Ralph paused significantly. 'Or is there another explanation?'

The Folly

    'So the old Folly was a game hut then?' asked Ralph, quietly.

She looked puzzled. 'Why, yes. Ever since anyone knew, it was that.'

We took our leave shortly after, with profuse thanks and civilities, and made our way back to the Hall, taking a short cut through a wicket gate at one extremity of its grounds.

'Well?' I asked, as we strolled across the pastures.

'Interesting,' returned Ralph. 'You will not be surprised to hear that I intend to spend a further night in the Folly—your attendance is optional of course.'

Madberry Hill

'I come to you, Mr Tyler, because your activities have been talked about, and I believe I can rely upon you to advise me with discretion upon a most perplexing experience. There is no appropriate official body who would have responsibility for such a problem—perhaps there should be. No matter. I am a retired civil engineer, and I am a practical man, and I do not wish to fritter away my maturer years without aim: so, amongst other public duties, I have involved myself with the Civic Society. In fact, I am its Chairman. We have been concerned of late to draw more popular attention to the town and its great history. We are a backwater, Mr Tyler: Other places of considerably less significance are treated as shrines, whilst we are totally ignored. And yet parliaments were held here, crucial treaties negotiated here, and kings and barons and archbishops have all known our ancient streets. . . . But I digress. Amongst several schemes for developing this potential, the one which has achieved most acclaim, to speak without false modesty, since the idea is mine, is the erection of a viewing tower on Madberry Hill….

The Ash Track

….'As I peered, hesitating, I caught sight of a flicker of flesh in the dim distance, as if a face had appeared briefly, then been hidden again. I took a few more faltering steps. And then the same image, only greatly multiplied, splashes of face as it were, emerging, hovering, disappearing all along the lane ahead, like masks hung on the bushes. Well, then I must have been rooted to the spot in morbid fascination. Telling it to you now, I can see normally I'd have run like hell. Something held me there, I suppose it was sheer fright.

The Grave of Anir

'It was pretty clear to me from the start that Morrison had chosen his retirement cottage with a purpose in mind. The village is insignificant and has few amenities, so you'd hardly go there at random. Anyway, the name of his home gave it away—Chrysalis Cottage indeed: obviously he intended to turn out some new work which would emerge from the cocoon of his obscure home. The vicar told us as much.

William Sorrell Requests

'You'd think,' I pointed out, 'that in a closed-off sort of community like that, a funeral of one of their number might be a major event. They'd all put on their sombre suits and have a jolly good day of it. Instead of which . . . nothing.'

Ralph shrugged. 'Well, perhaps they thought a funeral was inappropriate.'

The Hermit's House

'This thing, whatever it was, looming out of the mist: it walked as we do; but it seemed as if it had horns.'

Herald of the Hidden

'No. I've put these together from clues scattered across the centuries. From the beginning of the first clandestine presses in the early seventeenth century, to now. They all describe different things, according to how the people of the time interpreted them. Just after the Civil War, they thought the end of the world was just around the corner. So omens and prodigies were much in the air. There's a bare record, in a list of these, that a fiery serpent had been glimpsed in Solsey. Or, take this incident in Edwardian times: some picknickers say they've seen fairy lanterns hovering above a glade in the forest: they think there's some sort of fête going on, but when they try to make their way to it, there's nothing. But they do report a feeling of being observed, and say they did not like to linger there. In our day, as you see, it's flying saucers that are thought to be the cause. But if you look at the reports carefully, they are all in essence saying the same thing. There are lights, often a couple together, at night in the forest.'

Heritage of Fire

'Anyway, we're both very busy, so I'll give you your brief. What I want is the story behind this. I don't mind telling you it won't worry me unduly if the place is haunted. Adds to the atmosphere a lot. It can all go in the brochure. But firstly, of course, I need to be sure it's not going to turn into anything unpleasant—if that were possible. Don't want to frighten people away. And secondly there ought to be a good yarn behind it all. It's too vague at the moment. So, see what you can turn up. I'm not asking you to invent, of course, Ralph, but naturally you'll have to hypothesise a bit. Whatever fits the facts. I see you have plenty of other genuine cases to draw on. . . .'

The Almanac

'In his house, he had all the days thoroughly docketed, organised, described. But here was a suggestion that there was a day that had eluded him—the "other" day. Of course, it's just a turn of speech, and your author meant his whimsical idea facetiously: but I suggest that wasn't how it seemed in this house. And indeed, there are faint myths about the idea of a hidden day, where the most extraordinary things can happen. It's mentioned, for example, in a de Quincey essay, and hinted at in a George MacDonald fable. And I know Amroth has copies of both those, and had probably quite recently consulted them.

Other Early Stories:

The Guardians of the Guest Room

His partner was the Giver, the affable, munificent treasurer whose coffers seemed ever open, who spoke disparagingly of tedious paperwork, and asked for his victim's signatures casually, just as an afterthought, 'to make things legal, you know'. And he—he was the Taker. He it was who pounced when the time was ripe, waving the papers that had seemed so innocuous, making demands that could not be met, speaking with badly disguised relish of 'resorting to the courts', of ruin and disgrace.

Go to the West

The vulgar called it the Philosopher's Stone, and imagined it a treasure-trove talisman that could transmute base metals to precious. Such a property it certainly possessed, and that was in itself no doubt rather useful; but that, too, was a trick, a sparkling bauble to distract, a trap for the viciously greedy. No, Bacon knew the Stone's real essence was of far greater worth: it could bestow blissful immortality.

Tree Worship

Bursting out from a hideaway to a slight clearing, two of the children halted abruptly to see an alien in their midst. Seated on the fallen trunk of an old tree, there was a rather old man, and he was unlike any adult they had ever seen before—scruffy, smelly, with very funny clothes and uncombed hair. He grinned at them. The youngsters looked at each other, then back at the stranger, warily.

Twilight at Little Brydon Cricket Club

….None of them had heard his exhortations, or even, for that matter, observed his presence. Of course, they could have been entranced by the course of the game, but it seemed odd that the words which had so stirred us out at the wicket, had not also been discerned on the pavilion boundary. We tackled our team captain on the matter.

Woken by Candlelight

….He approached the wooden chest where the candles towered like bizarre beacons guarding a land of dreams. He was very contented with this uncharacteristic acquisition. Craning forward towards one, he blew gently at the little peak of flame. It swayed, but it did not go out. He puffed with more vigour. It flickered, but it still burnt on. He tried a sustained blast from his pale, puckered lips. It writhed—but it righted itself again. He became irritated, and turned his attention to the companion piece. Exactly the same process occurred. It was very frustrating. With an impatient sigh, he dampened the tips of his thumb and forefinger and pinched the wick of each one, first fleetingly, then with sustained pressure, so that his flesh was singed and sore. The flames gleamed undaunted. Several further attempts to suppress the leaves of fire were equally ineffectual.

Their Special Glee

….it is hard to tell these apart from the natural erosions made by the encroachments of lichen or sockets of rain-water, or the wind-scourings of years. But to the expert the ancient and artificial signs are sufficiently distinguishable. I am not such an expert, but I have read the books of those who are, and also their theories about what they were for and how they were made. None of these struck me as entirely satisfactory.


16 November 2019

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

An aesthetic investigator: The Collected Connoisseur by Mark Valentine and John Howard.

The Collected Connoisseur by Mark Valentine and John Howard 

[Tartarus Press, 2010]              

The Collected Connoisseur is a series of stories in which the main character, the Connoisseur, explores mysteries involving strange events, places, books, and objects affecting people in uncanny ways. Not quite an occult detective, more an aesthetic problem solver?

Some tales are poignant in their simplicity and emotional eloquence (,The Paravine Cries"). Others brush against diabolism ("The Lost Moon," "The Serpent, Unfallen"). "The Hesperian Dragon" is a wonderful 'New Arabian Nights' comedy of manners. Several stories achieve a cosmic glamour ("Sea Citadel," "The Last Archipelago," and "The Descent of the Fire"). All are brief and mercifully free of the mugging and humbug of the occult detective subgenre.


....From my earliest reading, I remember two books that made a strong impression on me: a collection of wonder stories called Tales of Long Ago; and a stout, silver-grey volume of supposedly true hauntings, Elliott O'Donnell's Casebook of Ghosts. So when I started to form my own taste, I was naturally led towards similar books. I got the idea that there were five great writers in these fields: Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany, Walter de la Mare and William Hope Hodgson; and I searched out and read their books with zest and delight. They have been lifelong companions. Others have joined these household gods, of course: but  never quite ascend to the high pantheon of the original quintarchy.

....All these stories should be regarded as votive candles at the shrines of those literary gods I first revered so long ago. And whatever there is in them of curious light is a glimmer from these great idols: and whatever there is of restless darkness is cast by their long shadows.

The Effigies

....' "We would do wrong if we did not admit that some of our sacred wells seem to have acquired repute even before they became associated with the saints . . . it is idle to deny that some were the shrines of an older faith. Indeed, it is likely some never received sanctification. What, for example, are we to make of the Cursing Well at Oakyard, with its timeworn horned head spout: and how can we account for the insistence of parishioners at March Bagot that a woodland pool in the vicinity is the abode of elves? Such remembrances seem wholly unhallowed."

After the Darkness

'I suggested to Lucy that she dress again in the guise of Columbine, for it might be that only thus could she be recognised by the apparition. I offered to follow her as she wandered about the gardens, but she supposed this might deter the frail phantom. My notion that it must be her costume which inspired the Pierrot's appearance did indeed seem to provide the key, for they met again, so she later recounted, by the old boathouse of the little sedgy lake. He was perched upon the upturned hull of a narrow skiff, long decayed. The faintest of smiles passed over the samite mask of his face, as she approached. He placed a finger upon his lips, then reached for her hand. She said his nearness reminded her of the exhilarating sharp luminosity of fresh-fallen snow—and her fingers tingled with icy pleasure...."

The Paravine Cries

'And when Lawrence Paravine returned to Arram House, he at once set out to restore the wing which had once been occupied by his brother to its former glory—which was when, of course, the rescued treasures were given back. And then one day Lawrence came to see me, greeted me quietly as was his way, subsided into your chair, gazed at me beneath his tawny fringe and asked, diffidently enough, how deeply Flavian had delved into Celtic legends and whether he had perhaps tried some unwise experiments. "For," he said, "I think there is a banshee abroad in the grounds."

Pale Roses

    ....'From my knowledge of the period, I knew that in the 1880s and 1890s there toured the country a claimant to the Three Thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland, who said he was the last scion of a line stemming from a concealed marriage contracted by Charles Edward Stuart (called by some The Young Pretender) in the days after the '45 when all seemed lost for the Stuart cause. This youth's origins were otherwise obscure, but he did bear a striking resemblance to the sons of that ill-starred dynasty: and there was something, too, about his demeanour which made others treat him with deference, so that he soon gathered about him a select band of adherents—romantics, Celtic revivalists, ritualists and even radicals; and at the height of all this, he was feted by many simply because it was the fashion.

    'What was now clear—and subsequently I confirmed it from some contemporary journals—was that Charles Rupert Stuart, or Charles IV as he was properly styled, had stayed in this house for a time during his wanderings. And it seems to me that it does not greatly matter what credence we give to his claims, though there were indeed some who were convinced by them. No: what is significant is that he was given homage and adoration, and that for a season this respectable place became the scene of conspiracy and ceremonial. Something of that ardour has surely been sustained within its walls and on 30th January, the anniversary of the death of Charles I, King and Martyr, it was at its most potent.

    'I think it was my lord Corvo who once wrote that to give a true Englishman a red rose is an insult: for the Baron was a staunch Jacobite, and revered the White Rose as the symbol of the Stuarts. There was even—may even still be—a League of the White Rose, which numbered amongst its chevaliers many poets and artists of the day. Now you see, I think, some of the meaning beneath the wonder which was worked upon the red roses in Rebecca's room: and I think if you consider again the day upon which it transpired, you will perceive perhaps some poignancy too.

    'Charles Rupert's reign as a society darling was not long, for fashion is ever fickle, and many followers soon turned to other fascinations. His court circle, as it were, soon dwindled to a devoted handful, scattered around the country. Poverty and poor health, and the desire to avoid becoming a figure of scorn, forced him to abandon his crusade: he crossed to Ireland and was never heard of again.

In Violet Veils

'As you may have begun to understand,' The Connoisseur continued, after briefly reflecting upon this well-remembered scene, 'Ivo's work was a masque of the Mysteries, a reconstruction of scenes from some of the surmised initiation rites of that most ancient and most secret of sacred transformations. He had chosen potent images believed to have been used in preparing the votaries for the final revelations of the cult: and he had succeeded in invoking the very state of spiritual adoration and contemplation of these images which was one key practice among several in the journey towards the last veils.'

The Lost Moon

....Now, after the failure of the Fifteen, the sense of despair and of a world put out of its proper order, was keenly felt by the Jacobites: and so I wondered whether the Earl might have had an orrery made in which the spheres do not follow their fated path, in which all is out of true with what it should be: thus the emblem most closely associated with him, the art to which he had given his name, could be used as a memento mori to the lost cause, a constant reminder of the ruin of all. 

Café Lucifer

....She tended to wear plain dark clothing, such as a simple black tunic and trousers, again unconventionally for the time: and she always occupied the corner seat in one of the café's obscurer angles, directly beneath Zaska's tall pillar with its "touchstone". He noticed that she always deftly avoided much contact with the others who frequented the café, and so for a time he maintained his respectful distance. He asked the counter assistant about her, who vaguely recalled the girl, but could only surmise that she must be foreign, perhaps a friend of Zaska's, because she spoke English very quietly and sparingly, with a strange inflection.

The Craft of Arioch

....'Arioch Woodley settled us down and stared at us for a few moments from eyes the colour of pebbles in a stream. He stroked a dark beard peppered with grey. He asked us, cautiously at first, what we thought of his work: and then how well the pieces had ridden, eyeing us more keenly. There was for a moment a constraint upon us, an uncertainty. But his gaze was so frank, and his interest so keen, that we soon found ourselves trying to explain, as I have done for you, what had passed as we "rode" his strange creations.

The Secret Stars

....'I have read somewhere that those secret stars have names, such as Mesomede, Aravoth, Chigir, Kolo and Sapphacelo: and sometimes I am moved to call them by these names as I stare at the spaces in the sky where they must be; but I do not know if these are merely man-made names, and whether they might have true names that we would not understand.

The Hesperian Dragon

....Either I misunderstood the directions entirely, or I had been comprehensively misled by the young man with the hat-box. For I never did find Corvel House. What I did find was that the route took me back to within a few hundred yards from the edge of the village, and that I had been sent in a wide circle. Yet there is one thing more. As I trudged wearily down the long slope of the firm road from the stone bridge, I glanced back at intervals just to see that I was not accompanied. As I did so, on the last long bend in the road before high hedges obscured my view, the half-moon emerged again and cast a wan radiance over a knoll of moorland that rose at the edge of the wood, which clustered around it like a ragged silvery mane. Upon this bare tor I could swear I saw, briefly delineated in the glimmering light, a high, dark, upright figure, which ended with a sharp-jawed beast's head. After staring, wonder-struck, for a few moments, you may be sure I did not stay much longer, but pounded on towards the friendly amber street-lamps that I could begin to make out before me.'

The Lighting of the Vial

....'The late afternoon warmth and the quiet of the garden stole over me and I felt a sense of luxuriant blessedness enter my bones. A lime tree flickered its limbs in the slight breeze and I saw on the paving before me the faint shadow of its leaves. The moss on the upturned urns had a dizzying density of green which absorbed my attention for many moments. The empty square pediment where Kerwyn would habitually lean, since it afforded a sort of focus for the garden, and would become rapt in attention to the passing images before him, was now riven by clinging vines. Resting back on the bench, my eyes half-closed, a drifting fragrance insidiously pervading my awareness, I at length sensed, perhaps from some slight stirring in the air, some momentary movement in the light, the presence of another.

The Nephoseum

....he had dedicated himself to what I suppose we should term nephosophy, knowledge of the clouds, though he gave it no such grand term: he always referred simply to his "studies". He shared with me, however, in half-mockingly naming his upper room as his "nephoseum" and indeed it was a library, observatory, gallery and temple of the clouds all in one for him.

Sea Citadel

     ....'I have been to quite a few of his "enactments", as he likes to call them, and there is no mistaking their originality. One of the most noted was, I suppose, his At The Crested Griffin. He For a moment I could not quite place the measure and the slightly stilted punctuation that he had adopted: then I realised it was a sonorous imitation of that diurnal wireless bulletin, with its comforting, authoritative crispness, the Shipping Forecast.

     'Yet instead of the familiar names and terms, Shepherd was reciting a completely different set of formulæ. Cromarty, Forties, Fastnet, Malin were gone: there was no mention of "Northwesterly Five to Seven, decreasing, becoming variable for a time", nor "Cyclonic, perhaps Gale Seven later".

The Prince of Barlocco

....'After a swift look at the rather tumbledown white bothy (or "Post Office" as he called it), where on a rough table I saw evidence of the artist's continued work on striking monochrome sea and island scenes, Edward took me on a roam around the whole island, which was, I should say, not more than a mile and a half in circumference. First we skirted the shoreline, shoving through gorse, heather and fern, and chatting all the while of our news. Then, as we came to a rocky gully, Edward halted and pointed upwards with his walking stick, saying that this was the best route to the crest of the hill, the top of the island.

The Black Eros

.....' "When I heard from my countrymen here," said Nuria, "Of the performance you would give, I thought it could do no harm to hear again the music of my past. I could not expect you would play the 'Clandestino'. And then, I told myself, ah but you will not play it as he played it. . . . But when I heard it rising and rising I had to cry out and put an end to it: for I knew that he would not stop."

Mad Lutanist

....' "This dial is an instrument with thirty-two points on it and each of those points is marked by a combination of only four different characters. I'd say it's a compass, marking every point from North through East-North-North-East to North-North-East or whatever: orienteering is not quite my thing. But why the characters are variations on a zig-zag rather than just N, E, S, W, and why they also have their own individual signifier, I do not know."

     ' "Hmph. Well, I can add to that. It's also an indoor weather vane."

The Mist on the Mere

....I may be wrong but I think you may have an unusual example of an English crannog, that is to say, a lake building made on an artificial islet, perhaps in the Late Bronze or Early Iron Age. There are hundreds of them in Scotland and Ireland, though mostly poorly chronicled; but hardly any down here.

     Like many there, it is quite submerged, though there are some possible residues just below the water: at least I thought I could see some debris. It would be of great interest in the archaeological field. You will have to decide whether to let them come and look at it.'

     .....two other things set me thinking too. The first was the odd custom of paying a fare to go out to the middle of the mere. Why could this be? Well, surely, I reasoned, because once there was occasion only to go that far: there was a stopping-off point there. It might be some hundreds of years ago, for the ferry could be quite ancient, as crossings by water often are. What, then, could have been the particular point there to pause at? The second clue was in your description of the light hovering in zig-zags. For it was a trick of lake-dwellers to make a causeway from their islet to the shore, but slightly beneath the surface, so it would not be seen by any marauders. And in case attackers did discover it and set their foot upon it, they did not make it straight, as outsiders might suppose, but in darting angles, so that the attackers were likely to become confused and miss their footing and so plunge into the lake. Only those who knew could use it with sureness, just as those who know the way in marshland can outwit those who do not. Again, in my experiments this afternoon, which you must have thought so erratic, I think I have found signs of just such a causeway.'

The White Solander

....'He told me that this box and its contents had once belonged to a Panoramica, which had been opened as a novel diversion for the jaded bourgeoisie of Bucharest in the 1930s, using magic lantern tricks, dioramas and multiple vistas to provide sweeping views of great cities, or historic scenes, or bright mandalas: but the arrival of the cinema soon saw it off. He was now trying to find the original projector used in the Panoramica: I thought it rather a forlorn hope and, at the time, also somewhat futile....'

The Last Archipelago

....This notebook, left to that library by Hazleton himself, allows us to speculate as to why. It suggests that Conway's Spitsbergen survey was the first—though perhaps not the only—British expeditionary team where one of the members was deliberately chosen because of his sensitivity to the unseen. This journal tells us something of what resulted from that experiment.'

The Rite of Trebizond

....'Then the gorgeous colours of the banners of my vision briefly returned, and I must have cried out, as the floor fell away—then, silently, to either side, Dr Considine and the boy, kneeling to help me up, took hold of my arms, and guided me back to my room. I slept in dizzyingly clamorous dreams, all fury and chase and brilliant, bursting colours, and I awoke unrefreshed. For I knew what I had witnessed. It was the great lost mass from the inner heart of imperial Byzantium, from its last, diminished outpost: it was the Rite of Trebizond. For seekers after lost liturgies it was the true Grail, for only fragments had survived, and it was maimed and incomplete....

The Serpent, Unfallen

         ....The Connoisseur insisted upon hearing my research first.

     Ascherson was most informative about Saltway Abbey,' I began, 'It was a quiet day at the ruins, so I engaged him in conversation, and ended up at his little cottage on the edge of the grounds, because he wanted to chase up a reference. He said it was once one of the most visited pilgrim places in England, next only to Canterbury and Walsingham. It was founded by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, who was crowned King of the Romans with the silver crown of Germany at Aachen, but never (though he intrigued for it) made Holy Roman Emperor. He is buried, the exact site of his grave now unknown, at the abbey. His son Edmund endowed it with a phial of Christ's own blood, a gift from the Cathedral at Aachen. And this was then much reverenced through the centuries: and Edmund too is buried at the abbey. When the wrath of Henry VIII was visited upon the monasteries and they were closed down and plundered, the phial was seized and declared to be not blood, but just honey tinted with saffron and rhubarb. It was destroyed, it was said, along with all the abbey's other relics.'

The Temple of Time's all very obscure, but the main point is that its rituals and ceremonies were concerned with influencing the distant future. They were convinced that, by employing the right ceremonial with the prescribed rite, and at a specific time, they could change the outcome of the future. It all seems rather modern in tone in some ways, now. In effect, they threw a stone into the stream of time, which sent its ripples outward and along it, thus changing the future. There were many reasons evinced for why their actions did not, or could not, also flow back down the time-stream, and thus also influence the past. For whatever reason, they believed that the ripples introduced into the time-stream could only travel in the direction of the future. Maybe Nature had a way of ensuring that paradoxes could not happen, ironing them out as it were, as speculated in the works of many writers of science-fiction.

The Descent of the Fire their curious finial, I met with silence, resistance or evasion. Now, you see, that is far from my usual experience. Even in the grimmest, most suspicious of areas, I generally find admittance. But here, in the café, a young woman left in charge said such things as, oh, it was very dangerous up there, never used; they didn't have access, but only leased the lower floor; and she was just looking after the place and didn't feel she could give permission; and so on. Of course, I have met such responses before, and quite naturally too. But there was something rather determined about this reaction that made me feel odd about it.


12 November 2019