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

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

Friday, September 8, 2017

Jewels in the crown: The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories: Volume Two






The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories
Volume Two
surpasses the achievement of Volume One in collecting significant works of horror by well-respected writers which have not been over-anthologized. It has an energizing effect on the reader, and whets the appetite.

I have collected many horror anthologies in the last thirty years, and the repeated appearance of a few well-known classics in this kind of book can have a stultifying effect. I'm not sure how many times one can reread "The Damned Thing" or "Lost Hearts" before they grow stale.

I read Volume Two cover-to-cover in five days, savoring every page. The selection of stories is well-balanced between tones of mirth, pathos, and utter strangeness. The editorial introductions to each tale are constructive and provide necessary context.

"Samhain" by Bernard Taylor is a funny biter-bit story which cries out for inclusion in an Amicus portmanteau film.

"The Bell" by Beverley Nichols recalls poignant stories of regret by L.P. Hartley and E.F. Benson. An old man, emotional slave to his valet for forty years, tries to exert his independence. Nichols is a fine stylist, and this is a particularly well-executed story, notable for its brevity.

"The Elemental" by R. Chetwynd-Hayes is a stem-winder about possession. Its psychic expert, Madame Orloff (Clairvoyant Extraordinary), is a droll invention, a  fat British lady who probably went to Girton and is as indominable as Bertie's Aunt Agatha: she brooks no nonsense from the evil spirit, and it's a literal wrestling match. Madame Orloff is a refreshing change from the typically stuffy occult experts like Silence and Carnacki.

"Herself" by M. E. Braddon is enthralling, and motivates me to seek out more Braddon stories. It is one of the best poisonous mirror stories I have read, because it invests its heroine with real authority.

I was concerned at first that "The Creatures in the House" by Robert Westall would be a sappy and bathetic cat story. My worries were unfounded: it is robust, suspenseful, and filled with well-dramatized action.

"November the Thirteenth" by Russell Thorndike is folk horror from before the term was invented. Farmers, gravediggers, a hangman, a community lynching, equine homicide and a spectral curse enacted next to a despoiled churchyard are all packed into the story, and the result ticks-over beautifully. This is not a Disneyfied Thorndike.

There is no bloodier story in the book than "Halley's Passing". But since the story is written by Michael McDowell, there is more to the splatter than just psychpathology. The roving human monster story is tartly subverted, and the result is sublime.

"The Nice Boys" by Isabel Colegate is a harrowing drama meshing death-in-Venice and so-long-at-the-fair elements. It features two young British men scarier than most sociopaths dreamed up by Patricia Highsmith.

"The Watcher by the Threshold" by John Buchan is a quietly ambiguous story evoking the uncanny Scottish moorland landscape. The climax, striking a novel note, features our narrator in full and frantic retreat.

Nevil Shute is one of my favorite writers. "Tudor Windows" has never been published before, and I think it will be adopted as a favorite of readers who prize both antiquarian and strange stories. It is a fine example of the secret room subgenre.

Connoisseurs of Robert Aickman and Ramsey Campbell will be challenged by John Metcalfe's story "No Sin." The story's action comes perilously close to being rationally understood, but each time the reader gets close, a fact is withheld or an inexplicably arbitrary turn is taken by events. The setting and characters are nicely weird.  As always, Metcalfe has his cake and eats it, too.

"The Dice" by Thomas De Quincey, from the era of Poe and LeFanu, is a demonic family legacy story. All the stops have been pulled out as De Quincey's characters devolve in cowardice, greed, rage, sexual degradation, and child neglect.

"Camera Obscura" by Basil Copper is the weakest and most predictable story in the book. A sorcerer transports a greedy money-lender into an alternate world of half-familiar streets filled with damned souls. The story suffers by comparison with those that preceded it.

"The Boys Who Wouldn't Wake Up" by Stephen Gregory is a fine new ghost story for Christmas. I'm sure it will be snapped-up by Mr. Jones and the Datlow for their yearly collections. It is a story with real power, and worth the price of the book.

My reading notes on the stories, with some excerpts that particularly struck home, are below.

Jay
8 September 2017

***

The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories
Volume Two
​Edited by James D. Jenkins and Ryan Cagle
2017.


Samhain by Bernard Taylor 1991
....she had chosen the thirty-first – that was the day when the spells would be at their most potent. Strange, really, she thought, most people today had no idea what the day really meant – and what it had meant since early times. Samhain – that was the real meaning of the thirty-first of October. Samhain, one of the two great witches’ festivals of the year – a celebration of fire and the dead and the powers of darkness. In the modern world the thirty-first was generally recognized only as All Hallows’ Eve, and celebrated only by children with turnip lanterns, silly masks, games and dressing up. Still, it could be worse, she supposed; in America they made even more nonsense out of the whole thing with their ridiculous trick-or-treating. Huh – if any children came to her door carrying bags of flour or whatever and begging for sweets, they’d get something they weren’t prepared for, the little monsters. Mind you, that’s what came from too much civilization. Thank Satan England hadn’t gone that far – yet. Though it probably would in time. They did say that what America had one day England got the next.


The Bell by Beverley Nichols 1946
....‘Hugh, dear, before I go, do try not to take it so badly.’

‘I can’t help it. Frank was with me for forty years. And I feel as if I’d killed him.’

‘That’s morbid, Hugh, and you know it.’

‘He was going to the village on an errand for me when that car ran over him.’

‘What has that got to do with it? The car skidded. It was no more your fault than it was mine. It was an act of God.’

‘God moves in a mysterious way.’ He frowned. And then . . . ‘Of course, if I had wished him to die, nothing could have been more convenient, could it?’

‘Wished Frank to die? Frank, of all people? But he was the perfect servant!’

‘He was too perfect. He never let me do anything for myself.’

‘But, my dear, you never showed the least desire to.’

‘Didn’t I?’ He shifted impatiently on the pillow. ‘Didn’t I?’ he repeated. And then, as though he were speaking to himself. ‘Maybe not, in the last fifteen or twenty years. You see, by then, he’d got me.’

‘“Got” you?’

‘Where he wanted. And that was there.’ He pressed his thumb on the counterpane; she noticed that his hand was trembling. ‘He knew I couldn’t move an inch without him. It was like a sort of slavery.’

‘Hugh . . . You sound as if you hated him.’

‘Do I?’ he laughed, but there was little mirth in his voice. ‘Perhaps he made me hate myself. If life hadn’t been so easy, if I’d had to fend for myself, to do my own thinking, even to do my own packing . . .’

‘Well?’

‘Things might have been different. I might have had adventures. I might have met people.’

‘Do you mean women?’

‘Perhaps. Frank was jealous of everyone, you know. He was even jealous of you.’ He shrugged his shoulders. ‘Anyway, it’s all too late now.’


The Elemental by R. Chetwynd-Hayes 1974
....It sucks – yes, that’s the word – sucks the juices of the soul.
....That damned Underground is packed with them during the rush hour. I once saw a bank clerk with six of ’em clinging to him like limpets, and he picked up two more between Charing Cross and Leicester Square. Wouldn’t listen to me, of course.

Herself by M. E. Braddon 1894
....it is a great rambling house, ever so much too large for you or any sensible young lady.’

‘For the sensible young lady, no doubt,’ said Lota, nodding impertinently at me. ‘She likes a first floor in Regency Square, Brighton, with a little room under the tiles for her maid. I am not sensible, and I like lots of rooms; rooms to roam about in, to furnish and unfurnish, and arrange and rearrange; rooms to see ghosts in. And now, dearest Mr Dean, I am going to pluck out the heart of your mystery. What kind of ghost is it that haunts the Orange Grove? I know there is a ghost.’

‘Who told you so?’

‘You. You have been telling me so for the last half-hour. It is because of the ghost you don’t want me to go to the Orange Grove. You might just as well be candid and tell me the whole story. I am not afraid of ghosts. In fact, I rather like the idea of having a ghost on my property. Wouldn’t you, Helen, if you had property?’

‘No,’ I answered, decisively. ‘I hate ghosts. They are always associated with damp houses and bad drainage. I don’t believe you would find a ghost in Brighton, not even if you advertised for one.’

‘Tell me all about the ghost,’ urged Lota.

‘There is nothing to tell. Neither the people in the neighbourhood nor the servants of the house went so far as to say the Orange Grove was haunted. The utmost assertion was that time out of mind the master or the mistress of that house had been miserable.’

‘Time out of mind. Why, I thought gran’pa built the house twenty years ago.’

‘He only added the front which you see in the photograph. The back part of the house, the larger part, is three hundred years old. The place was a monkish hospital, the infirmary belonging to a Benedictine monastery in the neighbourhood, and to which the sick from other Benedictine houses were sent.’

‘Oh, that was ages and ages ago. You don’t suppose that the ghosts of all the sick monks, who were so inconsiderate as to die in my house, haunt the rooms at the back?’

‘I say again, Miss Hammond, nobody has ever to my knowledge asserted that the house was haunted.’

‘Then it can’t be haunted. If it were the servants would have seen something. They are champion ghost-seers.’

‘I am not a believer in ghosts, Miss Hammond,’ said the friendly old lawyer, ‘but I own to a grain of superstition on one point. I can’t help thinking there is such a thing as “luck.” I have seen such marked distinctions between the lucky and unlucky people I have met in my professional career. Now, the Orange Grove has been an unlucky house for the last hundred years. Its bad luck is as old as its history. And why, in the name of all that’s reasonable, should a beautiful young lady with all the world to choose from insist upon living at the Orange Grove?’

‘First, because it is my own house; next, because I conceived a passion for it the moment I saw this photograph; and thirdly, perhaps because your opposition has given a zest to the whole thing. I shall establish myself there next December, and you must come out to me after Christmas, Helen. Your beloved Brighton is odious in February and March.’

‘Brighton is always delightful,’ answered I, ‘but of course I shall be charmed to go to you.’


The Creatures in the House by Robert Westall 1980
....the cats rose, one by one. Nudged and nosed each other, stretched, began to mill around.

It reminded her of something she’d once seen; on telly somewhere.

Lionesses, setting off to hunt. That was it. Lionesses setting off to hunt.

But, for God’s sake, they’d had their breakfast . . .

Boss went to the door and miaowed. Not the kitchen door; the door that led to the nightmare staircase. Mother joined him. And Ginger. And the black-and-white cat she’d christened Chequers.

When she did not open that door, they all turned and stared at her. Friendly; but expectant. Compelling.

My God, she thought. They’re going hunting whatever is upstairs. And inviting me to join in . . .

They were the only friends she had. She went; but she picked up Boss before she opened the door. He didn’t seem to mind; he settled himself comfortably in her arms, pricking his ears and looking ahead. His body was vibrating. Purr or growl deep in his throat. She could not tell.

The she-cats padded ahead, looked at the doors of the downstairs rooms, then leapt up the stairs. They nosed into everything, talking to each other in their prooky spooky language. They moved as if they were tied to each other and to her with invisible strands of elastic; passing each other, weaving from side to side like a cat’s cradle, but never getting too far ahead, or too far apart.

They went from upstairs room to upstairs room, politely standing aside as she opened each door. Leaping on to dust-sheeted beds, sniffing in long-empty chamber-pots.

Each of the rooms was empty; dreary, dusty, but totally empty. Sally wasn’t afraid. If anything, little tingling excitements ran through her.

The cats turned to the staircase that led to the boxroom in the roof. They were closer together now, their chirrups louder, more urgent.

They went straight to the door of the narrow room, with the yellow stained-glass window that was always sunshine.

Waited. Braced. Ears back close to the skull.

Sally took a deep breath and flung open the door.

Immediately the cold came, the clammy winding-sheet cold of the night before. The corridor, the stairs twisted and fell together like collapsing stage scenery.

She would have run; but Boss’s claws, deep and sharp in her arm, were realler than the cold and the twisting, like an anchor in a storm. She stood. So did the cats, though they crouched close to the floor, huddled together.

Slowly, the cold and twisting faded.

The cats rose and shook themselves, as after a shower of rain, and stalked one by one into the boxroom.

Trembling, Sally followed.


November the Thirteenth by Russell Thorndike 1934
....‘You’ll be glad to hear, Quested, that we have started carrying out the improvements you suggested re the churchyard at our last Council Meeting. Our worthy Sexton has been digging up the bones from behind the old wall above the Bier-Walk. Such a pile.’ He turned to the doctor. ‘As a man of science, I should like you to look them over. Your judgment must sort the Christian from the heathen. I think they’re all heathen, buried there long before the Church came, and if so they need not harbour up consecrated ground when we’re so short of space.’

‘Very foolish to have built a churchyard on the side of a hill,’ laughed the doctor. ‘Naturally the bones work their way through the cracks in the old wall. Many’s the mischievous limb I’ve prevented from tumbling out upon the Bier-Walk.’

‘Yes, it’s quite uncanny the way they work themselves out,’ agreed the Vicar. ‘I suppose it’s something to do with the wet soaking through to the lower level. It carries them along.’

‘It’s not the wet,’ contradicted the Sexton, still flicking bits of dirt into the fire. ‘If you wants to know what it is, I’ll tell you. It’s the worms.’

They all laughed at this, which annoyed the old man. ‘I tells you they finishes what the Sexton begins. When I buries you there,’ and he struck the floor with his spade, ‘I don’t flatter myself you’ll stop there. They’ll come and scatter you, and never leave you till they’ve got you where they wants you. They’re always on the march manoeuvring the dead.’

‘Horrible thought,’ laughed the Vicar.


Halley's Passing by Michael McDowell 1987
....He held his briefcase up protectively before him. Mr Rachman shut the door quietly behind him. Room 419 was a much nicer room than his own, though he didn’t care for the painting above the bed. Mr Rachman smiled, though, for the businessman was alone and that was always easier. Mr Rachman pushed the businessman down on the bed and grabbed the briefcase away from him. The businessman reached for the telephone. The red light was blinking on the telephone telling the businessman he had a message at the desk. Mr Rachman held the briefcase high above his head and then brought it down hard, giving a little twist to his wrist just at the last so that a corner of the rugged leather case smashed against the bridge of the businessman’s nose, breaking it. The businessman gaped, and fell sideways on the bed.
....His only fear was that there was a pattern in the carpet he wove which was invisible to him, but perfectly apparent to anyone who looked at it from a certain angle.

The Nice Boys by Isabel Colegate 1965
....I hate those boys. They shouted again last night, something about the king. I think they have orgies up there night after night. There’s something suspicious about the way they are always so clean. Only guilty people wash as much as they do.

Also they are morbid. They came in this morning as I was drinking coffee in the dreary little sitting-room, and sat down beside me. They were carrying newspapers.

‘Haven’t caught him yet, I see,’ said Sig.

‘Caught who?’ I asked.

‘This murderer.’

‘Oh.’

‘Aren’t you interested then?’ asked Poney.

‘Not particularly,’ I said.

‘Don’t you think there’s something about it though?’ said Poney encouragingly. ‘I mean these people lying there safe in their snug little beds in their snug little house, and suddenly bash, bash, they’re all in pieces?’ He gave his rather charming boyish smile. ‘Not interesting?’

I smiled feebly, too tired to talk to them.

Sig laughed his nasty laugh and Poney’s smile widened.

‘That’ll teach them, won’t it?’ he said.

‘Teach them what?’ I said.

‘Teach them who’s master,’ said Poney quietly.

‘He who wields the axe,’ said Sig.

‘Ah,’ said Poney. ‘He must have been a great man all right, that killer, don’t you think so?’


The Watcher by the Threshold by John Buchan 1900
....I have no nerves and am little susceptible to vague sentiment. It was sheer physical dislike of the rich deep soil, the woody and antique smells, the melancholy roads and trees, and the flavor of old mystery. I am aggressively healthy and wholly Philistine. I love clear outlines and strong colours, and More with its half tints and hazy distances depressed me miserably. Even when the road crept uphill and the trees ended, I found nothing to hearten me in the moorland which succeeded. It was genuine moorland, close on eight hundred feet above the sea, and through it ran this old grass-grown coach road. Low hills rose to the left, and to the right, after some miles of peat, flared the chimneys of pits and oil works. Straight in front the moor ran out into the horizon, and there in the centre was the last dying spark of the sun. The place was as still as the grave save for the crunch of our wheels on the grassy road, but the flaring lights to the north seemed to endow it with life. I have rarely had so keenly the feeling of movement in the inanimate world. It was an unquiet place, and I shivered nervously. Little gleams of loch came from the hollows, the burns were brown with peat, and every now and then there rose in the moor jags of sickening red stone. I remembered that Ladlaw had talked about the place as the old Manann, the holy land of the ancient races. I had paid little attention at the time, but now it struck me that the old peoples had been wise in their choice. There was something uncanny in this soil and air. Framed in dank mysterious woods and a country of coal and ironstone, at no great distance from the capital city, it was a sullen relic of a lost barbarism. Over the low hills lay a green pastoral country with bright streams and valleys, but here, in this peaty desert, there were few sheep and little cultivation. The House of More was the only dwelling, and, save for the ragged village, the wilderness was given over to the wild things of the hills. The shooting was good, but the best shooting on earth would not persuade me to make my abode in such a place. Ladlaw was ill; well, I did not wonder. You can have uplands without air, moors that are not health-giving, and a country life which is more arduous than a townsman’s. I shivered again, for I seemed to have passed in a few hours from the open noon to a kind of dank twilight.

Tudor Windows by Nevil Shute n.d. 1930s?
‘You are right. I have known this place all my life. I have known since I was twenty years old that this house was haunted – haunted with the remains of some old happiness.’

He broke off. ‘I am seventy years old,’ he muttered. ‘I wish to God that I had come here as a young man.’


No Sin by John Metcalfe 1931
....For the first time since his wife’s death he had got out of the fine black cashmere suit that irked his limbs and into the shabby old jacket and trousers that he loved. He had, too, an idea that the change of clothes might help him to forget, but he was wrong. Incessantly, with the minute agility of an ant, his mind would still be running back and forth within the limits of the single week that had included, first, the whispered preparations for Charlotte’s imminent demise, then the unexpected rallying and emergence from the trance-like coma of two years, next the astounding scene by the bedside, followed immediately by her relapse into the old stupor, and finally her quiet passing and her burial.

After all, what had been the words with which that dark-browed woman had broken her long silence? As Protopart moved softly about the turret room, shifting chairs and table and rolling back the carpet from the inner, or windowless, wall, he repeated to himself for the thousandth time the few short sentences he knew so well.

‘Flora,’ she had said, ‘Flora had better go over to the Vicarage for a time. The Cowans would be glad, and you could hardly wish her to remain, as things will be. She can spend her time here when she wants to, but all her things had better be taken out of the turret room. You will understand why when you open the first of the two letters. Give her my love . . . And remember, Jasper, closely as you have watched me for the last two years, I have watched you as closely. I shall go on watching you after I have gone . . .’

The queer phrasing of those final sentences had struck upon him strangely. When his half-blind ward, Flora, had asked him what Charlotte had said he had even thought it wise to make a slight alteration. For ‘watching’ he had substituted ‘watching over’ – ‘shall go on watching over you after I have gone.’ That was so much better. It must have been what she had meant to say.


The Dice by Thomas De Quincey 1823
....Rudolph pressed his father’s offered hand with a filial warmth; and the latter went on to say, ‘I purpose now to communicate to you by word of mouth the contents of the book which I have destroyed. I will do this with good faith and without reserve, unless you yourself can be persuaded to forego your own right to such a communication.’

Elias paused, flattering himself as it seemed that his son would forego his right. But in this he was mistaken; Rudolph was far too eager for the disclosure, and earnestly pressed his father to proceed.

Again Elias hesitated, and threw a glance of profound love and pity upon his son, – a glance that conjured him to think better, and to waive his claim, but this being at length obviously hopeless, he spoke as follows: ‘The book relates chiefly to yourself; it points to you as to the last of our race. You turn pale. Surely, Rudolph, it would have been better that you had resolved to trouble yourself no further about it?’

‘No,’ said Rudolph, recovering his self-possession. ‘No; for it still remains a question whether this prophecy be true.’

‘It does so; it does, no doubt.’

‘And is this all that the book says in regard to me?’

‘No, it is not all; there is something more. But possibly you will only laugh when you hear it; for at this day nobody believes in such strange stories. However, be that as it may, the book goes on to say plainly and positively, that the Evil One (Heaven protect us!) will make you an offer tending greatly to your worldly advantage.’

Rudolph laughed outright, and replied, that, judging by the grave exterior of the book, he had looked to hear of more serious contents.

‘Well, well, my son,’ said the old man, ‘I know not that I myself am disposed to place much confidence in these tales of contracts with the devil. But, true or not, we ought not to laugh at them. Enough for me that under any circumstances I am satisfied you have so much natural piety, that you would reject all worldly good fortune that could meet you upon unhallowed paths.’

Here Elias would have broken off, but Rudolph said, ‘One thing more I wish to know: what is to be the nature of the good fortune offered to me? and did the book say whether I should accept it or not?’


Camera Obscura by Basil Copper 1965
....suddenly, as Mr Gingold moved his hand upon the lever, the room was flooded with light of a blinding clarity and the moneylender saw why gloom was a necessity in this chamber. Presumably, a shutter over the camera obscura slid away upon the rooftop and almost at the same moment, a panel in the ceiling opened to admit a shaft of light directed upon the table before them.

In a second of God-like vision, Mr Sharsted saw a panorama of part of the old town spread out before him in superbly natural colour. Here were the quaint, cobbled streets dropping to the valley, with the blue hills beyond; factory chimneys smoked in the early evening air; people went about their business in half a hundred roads; distant traffic went noiselessly on its way; once, even, a great white bird soared across the field of vision, so apparently close that Mr Sharsted started back from the table.

Mr Gingold gave a dry chuckle and moved a brass wheel at his elbow. The viewpoint abruptly shifted and Mr Sharsted saw with another gasp, a sparkling vista of the estuary with a big coaling ship moving slowly out to sea. Gulls soared in the foreground and the sullen wash of the tide ringed the shore. Mr Sharsted, his errand quite forgotten, was fascinated. Half an hour must have passed, each view more enchanting than the last; from this height, the squalor of the town was quite transformed.


The Boys Who Wouldn't Wake Up by Stephen Gregory 2017
....Mr Hoddesdon woke him and hurried him downstairs, where they sat together and ate the breakfast that the headmaster had cooked. The long refectory tables were empty and bare; the panelled hall was gloomy and chill. Mr Hoddesdon was gruff. Brutus sat beside him, lolling a huge, pink tongue, and was eventually rewarded with bacon rind and crusts of buttered toast.

‘Coat!’ the man said. ‘Football socks inside your boots! Gloves! Hurry up and get ready, Stott – five minutes and we’re off walking!’

They stepped into crisp, cold, glorious sunshine: Ian in gloves and scarf and Wellington boots; the headmaster with stick and pipe and binoculars and a curious little rucksack slung on his back; Brutus shambling beside him.

At the overgrown ha-ha, Mr Hoddesdon told Ian to leap down into the dilapidated bandstand and find owl-pellets in the dead nettles and the skeletons of willowherb; while the owl itself, blinking and bobbing like a demonic gnome, stared from the rafters at the man and the boy and the big, black dog. The headmaster broke the pellets in the palm of his hand and showed Ian the bones of mouse and shrew and the gleaming remains of beetles that the owl had eaten.

They walked slowly into the woodland. They saw a sparrow hawk, dashing between the trees with a thrush in its claws. They heard jays, shrieking like banshees. They saw deer and hare. The man smelled fox, and the boy sniffed it too, sharp and rank on the cold, dry leaves.

They pushed deep into the undergrowth, to the mounded earthworks of a Roman camp buried in brambles and bracken; and there, where the sunlight was warm, Mr Hoddesdon sat down and opened the mysterious rucksack: a picnic of pies and cakes and ginger beer – a pie for Brutus as well. Later, while the man smoked his pipe, Ian and the dog went burrowing in tunnels of thorn, exploring the ancient, long-lost site.

They walked back in the afternoon. The day grew quickly cold and dark. A grey mist drifted in the woods like smoke. Dusk fell. The forest was silent. Alarmed by the footfalls of man and boy, startled by the scent of dog, deer fled through the plantation and rabbits flashed their scuts. An owl hooted in the freezing twilight. As they broke from the trees, the headmaster and the boy saw the house in the distance, square and black like a huge gravestone.

‘Chin up, Stott,’ the old man said, seeing how despondent the boy had become. ‘We’ve had a good day out, haven’t we? We’ll soon get warmed up when we get in. Ever been to the tower? Of course you haven’t. No one has, except me and Brutus. Well, we’re on our own this Christmas, the two of us. Got to make the best of things. Come on, before we catch our death.’









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