Thursday, 15 March 2018

The Snail on the Slope by Arkady and Boris Strugatky (1980)



This novel has been very hard to find in the US due, apparently, to most of the original edition being destroyed by the Publisher due to the blurb about the authors garnering the displeasure of the Soviet Authorities.

This novel is, in effect, two novels.

The first is a kafkaesque story about a young man named Pepper being inable to escape the bureacratic organisation that keeps him in place, nor be able to go into the mysterious forest, which was the reason he had signed up with the Directorate to begin with.

The other deals with the strange, mysterious forest, among confused natives who love to speak in long, run on sentences and change their mind at least three or four times in the same sentence, focusing on Kandid, who crashlanded in the forest several years ago and had been trying to get to the Directorate ever since.

And this is sadly the novel's biggest problem. Both stories work on their own, and each switch is jarring and forcing one to re-acquaint themselves with the setting. The plots go on and on, bringing up things like sentient machines that no one is allowed to see and thus must look for blindfolded, an invisible Director whom Pepper can never manage to be able to talk to, entire forest villages absorbed by mushrooms, we never get a solution to any of it. Perhaps in Pepper's story, leaving us without an explanation would be thematically fitting, but Kandid's story was constantly building up new inexplicable occurrences happening in the forest, only for them to never be explained. Worst, despite Pepper wanting to desperately get into the forest and Kandid being in the forest and trying to get back to the biostation, the same one Pepper goes to get paid at at one point, the two plotlines never converge and the two never meet.

These two faults make me a bit unsatisfied with the conclusion to this otherwise very fascinating book.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

This Creeping Evil (1950/1963) by Geoffrey Bennett



Now, it doesn't matter how I start now, there's no better introduction to this review than that cover.

Geoffrey Bennett was a British seaman and author, chiefly remembered for his naval histories, such as his The Battle of Jutland or Charlie B: a Biography of Admiral Lord Beresford of Metemmeh and Curraghmore, G.C.B., G.C.V.O., Ll.D., D.C.L the latter of which I give in full specifically because of that being it's actual full title. He wrote some fiction on the side, under the pen name of 'Sea Lion', almost all seemingly drawing on his own experiences at sea and thus having something to do with ships (even two of his three Desmond Drake novels about a British Intelligence agent deal with ships in some capacity, be it blowing them up or finding them when they get lost) and This Creeping Evil is the only one of his books I can find with a supernatural/superscientific element.

The story details how a giant big blob comes out of nowhere and starts demolishing various British cities via steamrolling through them, all the while the author, one Thomas Delaney of (at the time of publication still) His Majesty's Navy, seems to have the terrible habbit of running into it quite a lot by accident.

The first time Delaney comes across it is when it shows up at the Port in Portsmouth where Delaney is to land his ship, but a huge gelatinous blob coming out of Dartmoor to flatten everything will probably get in the way of shore leave, as so often is the case. Now, Delaney loses his whole ship while attacking the Thing and is the only survivor, thanks to a rather far reaching coincidence. Then, never caring to really mourn any of the men he captained for two years and just acting like said disaster was a nuissance or an embarassment at best, he carries on talking about the Thing a whole lot. He finds people who are oddly thrilled by having seen it kill thousands of people due to it being so 'exciting', and then he's nearly crushed to death when the Thing crashes a football game between the Angles and the Welsh at Wembley, the final result of said unfinished game surely being the focus of much pub-side speculation and the occasional dust up. Of course Delaney is seemingly the only person to survive, and he is rescued by his wife and a chance acquaitance of his whom she randomly meets in the street.

Now, considering how much of an Odyssey the acquisition of this book was for me (this consisting of a crooked used book seller at a certain website trippling the price on me or getting overbid by 50 cents a second before the end of an Ebay auction at 4 AM) I find it painful to state that it doesn't get any better than that. If anything, well.....

The narrator basically just sits around, talks about the Thing a lot, and describes it's seemingly erratic and never explained movements from one city to another. I was hoping there would be some explanation offered for that, but instead the author invokes the "supernatural therefore I don't have to explain anything" clause, making me want to bite something.

The book suddenly shifts to prattling about how England needs a Leader from amongst the Church, how this Thing is clearly the Devil or something of that sort, bringing up a "Prophecy" from the Bible about how this is totally the "Serpent" let loose after a thousand years because, etc. etc. Then when the Thing finally does something different and starts to slowly squeeze London to death with it's tentacles, we get told that England totally deserved this because unlike the "Heathen of China or the Congo" they've been taught the Christian way and ignored it. Apparently not working on Saturday and having a luke warm approach to active worship is apparently just the worst and most evilestest thing ever, and was deserving of God letting loose his wrath upon Britain. Bear in mind this was published in 1950, a mere five years after the War and yet apparently no one thinks it's strange that human experimentation and mass ethnic genocide and slaughter of millions of people is apparently considered not as bad in comparison, since God never thought it'd be a good idea to let his giant goop monster loose on Nazi Germany.

Then someone says how God let loose the Thing because people lack faith in him and my first reaction was "Of course, and here I was thinking that the best way for God to revive Faith in himself was to manifest himself publically in such a way as to deny any possible denial or skepticism but silly me, the answer was clearly to let loose a giant slimey blob to randomly bulldoze through England, killing old people, women and children alike, with no apparent link or direct connection to God or Christianity, in the hope that people just kind of piece that one together. Brilliant !"

This is in keeping with the same logic that basically pretends that only Christians live in the entirety of Britain and there aren't any Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists or any other denominations about in the heartland of the then British Empire.

And so, in keeping with this sudden turn, a new character is introduced twenty pages before the end (the book has a real problem of basically having no one but Delaney stay around long, every character that gets introduced only showing up for a chapter or two before dying or leaving for the rest of the book) who gathers up people inside Saint Paul's Cathedral and gives them a sermon, and tells them how the only way to save themselves from the Thing which not even an Atom Bomb could really put a dent in is to pray. Not, you know, getting airlifted out of there which the authorities tried a whole one time and then since the plane got demolished by a crowed never tried to do again, apparently. Not tunneling beneath the enclosing claw, which they totally have time for because the damn Thing takes literal days if not weeks to close in in any significant fashion.

No no, clearly the real solution is to march out towards the Thing singing hymns and then praying in front of It and hoping God just does a Miracle.

And yeah, the climax of the book is that a bunch of people kneel in front of the Thing, there's a lightning flash and it's just gone.

....Now the question is why Arrow Books decided to dust this one off thirteen years later. The Thing saw publication only a few years before the start of the Giant Monster movie craze in the mid 50's and early 60's, as testified by the appearance in rapid succession of such films as The Giant Claw, The Giant Gila Monster, Gorgo or Reptilicus just to stick to US releases. I believe the people at Arrow saw this book as a quick way to cash in on the trend, and even got some bloke to make this utterly amazing cover for it. Sadly it's probably the best thing about the whole production.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Wulfheim (1950) by Sax Rohmer



Sax Rohmer aka Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward is remembered today primarily for his Fu Manchu novels, and even those are brought up mostly to cringe at the Yellow Peril aspect of the franchise. Yet he also penned outright genre fiction, including the phenomenal masterpiece of the form that was Brood of the Witch-Queen.

Wulfheim was published towards the end of Rohmer's life, under yet another pseudonym, this time as Michael Furey. To my knowledge this is the only time Rohmer used this name and I'm not quite sure why. Perhaps he wanted the work to not be tinged with expectations his name may provide, as it probably is a completely different book from what his readers would expect ?

Either way, this is a work of his that has, quite frankly, garnered very little attention. I do not, however, believe that to be justified, as Wulfheim is a fine work indeed.

Set in an unspecified period of time not quite modern but no longer renaissance or Medieval either, it follows the Monk Hilarius, formerly Otto of Wulfheim, who ran off to a monastery for very personal and very troubling reasons. He returns home to tell his father the Count of Wulfheim why he did so, especially given that this way the Wulfheim name passes and the Domain falls to the Church on Otto's death. When he arrives in the Domain where he is virtually a stranger, he meets not only his father and sister Fragia, but also Fragia's best friend Loe, her parents, Loe's almost-fiancé and the resident no-bullshit-taker, Dr. Oberon. Along the way he finds that people in the Domain shun him, he feels an evil presence about, discovers the ruins of an Abbey that burned to the ground as well as discovering two rogues digging up the heart of Caesar Wulfheim, the last Abbot who had been burned at the stake for devil worship.

The story focuses on the interactions between the people in the oppressive atmosphere of Wulfheim Castle that is, in the truest sense of the word, Gothic, without having any of the usual pretensions that happen when an author tries to do this idea straight in modern-ish times. The people at the Castle are slowly revealed to be suffering various stages of depravity and erotic mania. Loe's father the General can't help but try and make the light-as-a-feather Castle Maid and her mother is purposefully blocking Loe's engagement simply because Loe's chosen husband refused to sleep with said mother. Meanwhile the true nature of Otto's mania is revealed to us, and it is perhaps only slightly less interesting because the novel very bluntly hints that the half-sister he can't but think of isn't actually his sister. I will, however, commend Rohmer on having this revelation only come after it's too late for it to mean anything beyond making Otto feel better about himself.

In the background of all this is the creeping aura of some ancient evil, culminating in the post-mortem possession of Fragia's body by another, long departed soul. And while the few reviewers out there seemed to suggest the story up until this point was gearing up for literal lycanthropy, what we get and how we get there isn't bad at all, especially since the atmosphere is quite strong throughout.

Now, the most sure-fire way to drag a book down and make it tedious is to have a character who likes to wax philosophical. In Visiak's Medusa, whenever Huxtable got into his habbit of speaking in saccharine analogies and long winded spiritual diatribes, it made the already floundering book flounder even more vehemently. This book, however, is the rare exception to the rule. The character of Dr. Oberon is by far the most engaging member of the book's cast. He is snarky, he likes to say seemingly irreverent or intentionally provocative things, likes to be sarcastic to the point where one imagines him rolling his eyes visibly, and does, as a rule, not take anyone's crap and just gets right on to the point that they are either not seeing or trying not to see. This, along with the narrator's own tone, hovering between sarcasm and sardonics, makes for an interesting reading, and generally does not spare anyone.

If I am to lay any criticism against this book, it is that the possession itself is of rather brief duration, cut short by the dramatic and very ironic denoument. Other than that, this is a fine work that I fully believe is worthy of the Rohmer name.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Medusa (1929) by E. H. Visiak



Edward Harold Physick, pacifist, author and life long admirer of Milton is better known under his pseudonym of E. H. Visiak. However, one assumes that most people know Visiak not from any perusal of his work per se, but from reading about other people talking about how they perused his work.

For, despite being an oft cited and oft repeated name in various biographies, essays and studies of the Weird and Fantastic in fiction, Visiak shares the fate of H. R. Wakefield, in that his actual books are no easily accessible to the public, beyond maybe a snippet that gets released in anthologies ad nauseam. Visiak, who apparently only wrote the few occasional scattered tales that never even found an anthology to this day, does not even have that luxury.

Medusa is often cited as a masterpiece of the form. Indeed, Wagner puts it on his list of 33 best Horror novels, though given the man put something as flawed and mishandled as The Cadaver of Gideon Wyck on the same list means that is in and of itself no great honour. Indeed, if one is to compare Medusa to anything, it should be Visiak's own The Haunted Island (1910), his first novel.

That story, while occasionally containing anecdotes that distract from the tale, is also a tale of a youth who escapes England on board a ship following his own entanglement with the law. But where in Island Visiak manages to keep the theme going strong and only bungles the ending (by having the 17th century mad scientist bent on blowing up England just sort of give up on his evil schemes, because), Medusa is sadly an instance where an impressive near-mid end or culmination of the story is bogged down by a dronning middle.

The beginning of the novel is fine, with the main character going through many unfortunate events and tragedies in his young life that, spaced as they are during a period of many years, allow one to experience their atmosphere in quick succession, giving one false hope that the entire novel would be written in this fashion. Sadly, the middle part, where Will, the main character, joins Huxtables sea expedition to find his son, is the longest and most drawn out. Visiak finds it necessary to encumber his readers with many unnecessary details about the various stops the ship makes along the way and of the mundane sights and sounds one gets to see in the harbour. When the novel starts with Wil killing his grandfather and then beating a bully to death, one can't help but hope for something more exciting than spending several pages talking about a port town and how the shipyard has a crane.

The worst part of this section are the occasional moments where Will's benefactor Mr. Huxtable attempts to imprint some bogus philosophical claptrap onto his protegé. These are dull and tedious and simply stretch out the book until something mildly interesting happens again.

The appearance of a strange merman-like creature on board is not given enough attention and is treated more like a curiosity, and the only way Visiak thought to be able to introduce the lore that is given as explanation behind everything going on is delivered in a droning tone going on about extra sensory drivel that honestly doesn't rise above random, hackneyed digressions on such themes from writers who have no business holding a pen. The climax itself is startling, yes, but it's not quite enough to balance out the tedious journey there, especially given how short it is.

The ending itself is abrupt and feels like a concluding statement is missing, the story simply stopping. It's sad that the novels best parts are so weighed down by the travelogue portion of the story, so tedious the author finds it necessary to excuse himself for his own sluggishness at points. If that were cut down, maybe this novel could be an actual living classic and not only called such by essayists who feel it is their moral obligation to follow the Authorities. Maybe then one could obtain the English language edition of the book for less than 65 Pounds, which, had I paid as much and not simply gotten the dirt cheap German translation, I would definitely not feel a worthwhile price.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

The Life of Polycrates and Other Stories for Antiquated Children (2011) by Brendan Connell

Yikes, a book published this century ? Yes indeed, a title I started on the strength of a promising review online, and probably the most recent thing I have read in years.

Of the 11 stories present in this volume, only about 2 of them I'd say are really good, with one that is almost there but stumbles. That leaves a lot of things that sadly left me in a bit of a sour mood.

To get the bad out of the way first, both The Dancing Billionaire and Maledict Michela are utterly pointless. One has a character almost grow as a person but then deciding not to and the other has a German who likes feet marry a woman and make eyes at the cleaning lady. I find no real lasting appeal in either of these.

The Slug, while fitting the theme of degradation, seems to be largely without any reason behind it's central conceit, and so it feels more like a philosophical excercise than a story.

Peter Payne, while technically a story, doesn't have much to it, and it doesn't seem to fit with the theme the book sometimes tries to convey, and honestly it is the least interesting piece in the collection if one discounts the two damp squibs mentioned above.

Collapsing Claude does go with the overall theme of degradation, but it isn't the most interesting of premises, with a man being forced as a third, degraded wheel in a three way relationship with a horribly ugly woman.

Molten Rage is basically a slow description of the collapse and destitution of a worker and of the hypocrisy of his intellectual friend, the so called champion of worker's rights. It is servicable for what is it but like thw previous two stories fails to really grab you or present something more novel.

The Life of Captain Gareth Caernarvon is something that tries very hard to ape the title story in presentation and in execution and I argue it would have been sucessful and worthy of being included as one of the genuinely good and fitting stories of this collection, provided the ending cut, as it, despite conjuring up a single specific potent image, I definitely can say tries way too hard and thus spoils the whole broth.

The Chymical Wedding of Des Esseintes is another story that could be genuinely good, but isn't. All the pieces are there for it to be genuinely an interesting, metaphysical read, but Connell stumbles over himself and ends things before anything truly happens. Both the setting in 19th-early 20th Century Prague Ghetto and the mystical rituals invoked remind one very strongly of Meyrink and one is to wonder what he could have done with the concept. Not helping Connell any is that his characters walk by a magician who it's apparently not good to associate with, but then that's dropped and most of the story is taken up with people drinking beer.

Brother of the Holy Ghost, the story that more than any of the previous ones is close to being good, and perhaps can even be said to be so, but not to the fullest degree possible. Showcasing the life and incompetent reign of Pope Celestine V, as well as showcasing some dark secrets from his past, should do well to make it stand alongside the title story, but unfortunately the stream-of-consciousness writing that Connell likes to sometimes engage in does this story some disservice, which is topped off with it's rather short length and lack of any great detail afforded to the events and incidents alluded to.

The Search for Savino is one of the two really good pieces in this collection, and it is slightly annoying that this is the only story not solely authored by Connell, being co-writen by Forrest Aguirre. In essence it is the examination of the life and works of a fictional painter, as well as the rather bizzare art he creates in secret and leaves behind as a monument. The story, more than anything else, reminded me very strongly of Borges.

And finally, The Life of Polycrates, is the story of the life, reign, tyranny and cruelty of Polycrates, Tyrant of Samos, detailing his beneficial and monstrous deeds in equal measure, and using various excerpts and letters as well as snippets of narrative to paint out the life of this most amusing rogue. it is by far the best story in the collection, and even the notes attached to it contain many short and intriquing episodes and anecdotes. One only wishes the whole book was of this nature and quality.

Monday, 8 January 2018

Zorastro, a Romance by "Creswick J. Thomson"/Charles John Samuel Thompson (1899)



Charles J. S. Thompson was a British physician notable for his many books on poisons and being an agent of high class British medical hoarder Henry Wellcome. His book The History and Evolution of Surgical Instruments is nearly the only remnant of the vast collection of medical instruments acquired under his headship of Wellcome's library, the collection being destroyed by those dastardly Germans during World War II.

Though his complete bibliography is not easy to trace, but he wrote books about the history and "romance" of not only subjects that would be related to his profession, like of the lot and trade of the Apothecary or a history of Quackerdom (not to be confused with Quakers) in the old city of London, but also on subjects like Astrology or Perfume. One of his more readily available and yet also easily digestible is the slim little volume Poison romance and poison mysteries (1904), wherein he details , for example, how a Franciscan offered the Venetians a diverse array of poisons and listed exact figures for the poisoning of the crowned and annointed heads of Europe and beyond. And assuredly his Holiness the Bishop of Rome Paul III would surely not find it pleasing to find his life valued as one fifth to that of the Ottoman Sultan.

The book in question today seems, after some digging, the only article of fiction written by Thompson, at least the only one that I know of. Unlike many non fiction authors trying their hand at the weaving of fictions for the first time however, this tale shows not a little competence.

A tale of Karl, a foundling orphan and his foster sister turned love interest, taking place in 16th century Germany, primarily in the city of Nuremberg and it's environs, the chief point of interest lies with the titular Zorastro, a brillinat physician and alchemist who had discovered Karl in a basket on the river and left him to an old apothecary to raise, and who has since travelled in many countries and learned medical secrets from Tatars and other such peoples. Renowned as a wonder worker, he returns to Nuremberg to make Karl his assistant right around the time when Dulcie, his beloved, becomes singled out by the son of the Duke of Bavaria as an unwilling potential mistress. The incidents of the first half of the novel, following quickly after each other, are the best, as they display action without making it too unbelievable.

The second half is a bit less neat, though there be a pleasant enough sprinkling in of seemingly genuine and non-rationalised supernatural and alchemical occurrences, sadly becomes a bit muddled as characters run into each other and onto many startling coincidences and sudden, unexpected revelations of life-long mysteries all in the span of a few days, with little enough to suggest that all this did not fall into place by pure chance.

Still, it be a fine historical piece with enough going on to keep one satisfied and a few mysterious and inexplicable glimpses of the unreal to be basically beyond serious reproach.

One is confused by the author's chosing a pseudonym basically consistent of his initials and surname for this book, when the book at the same time boasts of his nonfiction books, which were published under his real name.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

The Cadaver of Gideon Wyck by Alexander Laing (1934)

Alexander Laing, writer, seaman and poet, is today remembered at all for having edited The Haunted Omnibus in 1937 and for his few books which, while having some fantastical elements, seem to have these as window dressing more than anything. His most famous novel is probably today's piece.

When one comes into this book with the idea of reading about demons and unnecessary amputations and deformed children born out of horrenouds scientific experiments, one would not think these plot points should serve such a minor role in the story as they do. Instead, the originator of all this, the titular Gideon Wyck, MD, is soon murdered and it falls to the plucky medical student and writing assistant David Sanders to go about and do some amateur sleuthing because all the sherif can think of is following people around so he can take everyone's fingerprints by hook or by crook.

Sanders gets the help of his love interest and phone operator Daisy and together they try to sleuthe something out. They find the bunker where the experiments took place and trail Wyck's bastard epileptic son all the way to Nantucket and New York where he murders a former nurse and accomplice, but soon everyone forgets that Wyck was disfiguring developing fetuses to transform them into inhuman mangled merepeople/seal humanoids and instead Sanders just goes on about the possibility of being framed while we go through court processions and questionings and coroner's inquests and jury deliberation etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. The inhuman experiments stop being a focus entirely maybe two thirds in, and they never come up again and we have to wade through page after page of talk about embalming and examinations of clothing and weird mushy prints on a lightbulb.

That Karl Edward Wagner would put this on his legendary list of best horror novels under the Thirteen Best Science Fiction Horror Novels category utterly baffles me. Perhaps he read the second edition trimmed down of about 100 pages courtesy of Laing going in with a pair of scissors, but even if the sleuthing is severly cut down, it wouldn't make the fantastical material present in the book any better due to it's scarcity and sheer neglect towards the end.