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.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Lore of Proserpine (1913) by Maurice Hewlett

Maurice Hewlett, Author, poet and potential son-in-law to Posseidon

Maurice Hewlett was a British novelist who, when not publishing historical novels, took to seriously claiming that not only do Fairies exist, but that he met them personally numerous times, and even had somewhat of a long winded affair with a daughter of Posseidon.

Lore of Proserpine is a very odd book. The title character, the Roman Springtime Goddess Proserpina, though claimed to be somewhat of a Goddess ruling over all the fairies, only features in the final chapter of the book in passing. The beginning of the book itself talks about a tennant no one ever sees, who had his windows replaced with a mysterious glass that alters perception, but that's rather spoiled by being nothing more than an allegory.

The next two "stories" if they may be called that, are steeped deep with personal anecdotes of Hewlett's history, and the actual "encounters" as he describes them make one think that at the very least Hewlett himself may have believed them to be genuine if by nothing else than from the way they just end abruptly without any sort of payoff. A writer trying to weave a story would, and should have, used the image of a pale elven boy with gleaming, dark, pupil-less eyes torturing a rabbit or a story of seeing two lesbian fairies on Parliament Hill as a preface to further, fantastic adventurings. But Hewlett doesn't, all the while repeating to us how everything he says happened and how he saw it.

Later he does slip into the mode of a conventional storyteller, giving "other people's" accounts of fairy child-nappings or of wooing the spirit of a tree during a storm, and these as full stories with a beginning, middle and end. Sometimes he puts himself into the story too, and indeed what can one say to the supposed authenticity of a crowd of Londoners gathering, by some supernatural foresight, in a park at night to accost a messenger boy because he's probably the God Hermes and can fulfill fortunes, good or bad, via the telegram he delivers, with Hewlett himself seeing a lady he knows help a friend make her petition ? Or his claim, coming suddenly at the tail end of a different narrative, that he was present in a house where a woman gave birth to a fairy child fathered by the spirit of a rose and then said child disappeared ?

The parts of this book which aspire towards the analytical while preaching the existence of fairies are the dullest part of the whole affair, apart from those parts where Hewlett unironically asserts that the Greek Gods do exist in some tangible fashion, and after all, if he had fooled around with one of them it would probably be bad form to tell her her daddy's just a figment of her imagination and then again so is she.

Upon completion one has to pause and wonder about Hewlett. On one hand the inclusion of "borrowed" stories he had no part in, beyond claiming to have seen or met the personage in question, or someone known to them years later, and the rather shocking claim that there were in 1913 a quarter million fairy wives in England, plucked out of Sea or Meadow (and thus, without documentation, one should add) leads one to lean on the side of a bet or an intentional bid of ribaldry. On the other, the earlier parts of the book have that shakey quality, lacking in propper setup and delivery, seen so often in the works of Theosophists and other spiritualists who claim the non corporeal is real, which makes things rather uncertain.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

The Little People by John Christopher (1966)

Okay so. Imagine youself browsing and then randomly seeing this.

Now, who wouldn't immediately try to find out/get their hands on it ? Because I would, always.

The idea is that an Englishwoman inherits an Irish Castle in the middle of bugger all and she tries to turn it into a hotel, but then they find out that theres actual Little People living in the old tower. We learn they were created via some evil Nazi experiments, and then they suddenly start using their psychics powers to psychologically torture the people at the Hotel before just suddenly getting kicked a few times and crawling away.

Sadly, Christopher spends a third of the book focusing on the Hotel guests before he finally springs the Little people at us, and they only are focused on, beyond everyone's partially self centered disputations about their future and welfare and whether or not to make them a brand, for a handful of pages. Despite Christopher setting up them being savage, sociopathic bastards who use whips and can screw with people's minds, and even has one of them, apparently their leader (since that never becomes a real thing in the book) be built up as this dazzlingly beautiful, Ayesha type figure, but nothing ever comes of it and she disappears from any focus after the time when she almost jerks one of the humans off without him intending her to.

If anything, this would have been so much better had Christopher, if he did not intend to make the book any longer, to cut down his focus on the guests and increase the time spent on exploring and showcasing the Little people, maybe even have them actually kill some of the guests like it seemed they were going to do.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

The Image of a Drawn Sword (1950) by Jocelyn Brooke

It seems King Penguin had decided to adorn their reprints of Brooke's works by illustrations depicting him in some fashion, though for what reason I do not know, beyond perhaps them striking onto the autobiographical nature of his works and running with it as a theme

When one starts off a description of something by calling it Kafkaesque, one is bound to shoot oneself in the foot if not carefull. Jocelyn Brooke's The Image of a Drawn Sword has been described thus by the press, and even the publishing company King Penguin couldn't restrain from cojuring up images of the old but un ageing Prague Jew. And yet I find this description not quite fitting.

Kafka certainly did not invent the fantastic creeping into one's life unawares and without explanation, nor the sense of disassociation and general 'wrongness' that can apply to a situation, and by extension to one's whole life. Brooke contradicted himself on whether or not he had read Kafka by the time when he wrote Sword, but I should  come to the man's defence, after having read his book, and say that the situations presented do not warrant the accusation, as it were.

The story, if anything, feels a bit anemic on that front, at any case. The title character, Reynard, finds himself experiencing odd moments where his lethargy seeps over into the slow unravelling of his personality and consciousness. Perhaps this is the clue for later events, but whatever may occur, it seems Reynard finds himself suddenly in situations which, contrary to all his personal experiences, seem very much distanced in time from occasions which, to him, seem a couple of weeks distant at first.

Yet there is never a jolt where Reynard finds himself unsure where he is or how he had gotten there. Indeed, he passes along through the novel quite smoothly, it is only the time of the place he arrives at that seems at odds with his own internal clock.

One regrets then that Brooke did not make the novel any longer or expand at all upon this theme. While the idea is interesting, and the events in the latter section of the novel are gripping enough, the concept as a whole could be utilised a bit better, and the alterations and sudden, unaccountable leaps in his consciousness could furnish a bit more meat to the story. A quick read, and an enjoyable one at that, yes, though if one wishes to experience this idea done in a more fantastic sort of way, I'd say Ruthven Tod's The Lost Traveller might satisfy due to it's superior length. If anyone wants a story of this type with answers well, it seems I don't know what to tell them.

Most interestingly, the novel is not without connection to other work written by Brooke. Anthony Powell, King Penguin's court Biographer on Brooke, completely fails to mention the fictional Dog Inn, located in the untraceable, fictional region of Clambercrown, is the title subject of Brooke's semi autobiographical novel, The Dog at Clambercrown (1955).

Having nothing more to say, I will end my review as suddenly as Brooke ended his book.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

The Magic of Malaya by Cuthbert Woodville Harrison (1910)

Of the personage of Cuthbert Woodville Harrison I could find no concrete information, beyond his having authored books relating to Malaya (before a series of political and colonial reorganisations eventually lead to it becoming modern Malaysia), being the author of an oft-cited refference work, An illustrated guide to the Federated Malay States, and this, together with his name appearing on such works as Some notes on the government services in British Malaya and Council minutes, Perak, 1877-1879 leads one to believe Harrison was a colonial official within the Federation/Protectorate.

His The Magic of Malaya seems to be his only time turning to writing fiction, or at least partly fiction, and on the whole it is a more successfull attempt than those of many writers acquainted with the dull world of nonfiction stepping out uncertainly into the wilds of the romantic market.

The collection contains stories of life in Malaya, usually with a Colonial official holding at least three different posts fumbling about the grass somewhere. There are vignetes that, as they are written in the first person, seem likely to have been at least partly been inspired by real events, or at least had been made from the fabric of real events re-arranged differently. There is nothing that suggests anything out of the ordinary or unreal in tales such as Ah Heng, where a chinese settler takes a woman from a pleasure house to be his wife and very incrimentally increases the size of his land without having to pay extra for it. There is a tale of the inspection of the innards of a dead crocodile after it is suspected of having killed someone, a description (rather than a story, as it lacks any actual plot) of the transport of patients suffering from beri-beri to a remote hospital, and even a lengthy description of the journey undertaken by a Colonial official holding the customary three different offices of Chairman of the Sanitary Board, Collector of Land Revenue and District Officer on his route and the complaints, petitions and explanations given him along the way. None of these, excluding the last one, is very long, and there isn't much incident to relate. The Sinking of the Schooner has a former pirate recount his ambush on a well laden schooner, but that too is brief and cuts away just as the ship is shot for the first time.

Beyond these there are also several diversions which disperse with any trappings of fiction, such as a monologue on the ideal Malay servant, on the psychology of bullock cart drivers, or a summary of the various sieges and conquests within Malacca.

But then you have a short list of tales that actually not only count as fiction, but which are to be classed as supernatural. Pawang Helai, the first of these and the first tale of the collection is the best, dealing with the murder of a chinese peddlar at the hand of a native Sakai wizard who seemingly can change shape and call upon the help of other animals.

The Hallucinations of Mat Palembang follows the title character as he himself follows his dead father up a tree to eat with all his dead relatives, and is also rather impressive in it's description.

Finally, the oddest of the bunch is The Room of the Captain. It doesn't concern Malayans or Malaya, is the only story taking place onboard a ship, and has a MacKenzie, an old, presumabely British sailor as the protagonist. Now he gets promoted to the position of captain after many years of anticipation in a most unusual way: the old Captain simply vanishes without a trace. This sets the crew a-talking and there is some uneasiness about the ship. But MacKenzie keeps getting startled by an inexplicable puddle forming next to the former captain's bed and every night he feels more and more of a tight hold on his shoulder and can more and more clearly hear someone talking to him at night. But no one is ever there and his nerves are always unsettled, until he is forced to clean up the wet stains himself so the crew won't notice, anticipating that each night the situation will get worse after he hears the old Captain ordering him to do something, until.....

And that's where the whole build-up of the story is jettisoned, as Harrison has MacKenzie retire to his old quarters, refuse the Captainship and has the new Captain never run into any perril. The reason for the dead Captain's disdain for MacKenzie's leadership is never explained, nor what actually happened to the former Captain.

If anything, that is probably the biggest disappointment of the book, one can feel that in more capable hands the story would continue onwards and perhaps leave off with a more unpleasant end for the stand-in Captain and his shipmates, but alas.

Now Harrison's writing does include some arrogant gibes at Chinese and Malays alike, written from a colonial perspective and that may irritate the modern reader, though there are a few interesting bits and pieces scattered about the book that may be worth the time.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Na prost!: phantastischer Königsroman by Paul Scheerbart (1898)

Paul Scheerbart is a forgotten German writter who promoted glass architecture, apparently drank excessively and, according to some, may have starved himself to death in protest against World War I.

This isn't his first novel, however it seems to not be one of his more "famous" ones, at least as far as his works go when translated into English for a devoted cult audience.

The novel, sadly, is unpopular for a good reason. It starts out quite good.....but then becomes very bad. One seldom sees such a plunge from the heights of quality to the depths of irrelevance. The story starts out with three learned professors being hurled into space in a giant bottle after the Earth is vaporised when colliding with a meteor. This part is the strongest, and one is reminded of Leonid Andreyev, or Walter Owen. But then the book turns into a long and tiresome tirade of the professors reading out and then commenting on short essays and philosophical allegories and trying to discover the meaning of the universe in a grain of sand, and identify every character and event in the story with some deep and obscure allegorical meaning. Sometimes the stories begin somewhat promisingly, like the story of the gigantic seven headed dragon that flies through space devouring everything.....but like all the rest, the story ends almost immediately, with the dragon turning into a woman.

All the stories are like that, but some are a lot less interesting even in concept, like the fantastic adventure of a fly that sits on a lump of sugar in grandma's tea.

Very, very occasionally the recital of these trivial philosophising inanities is interrupted by a resurgence of the gloomy, post apocalyptical atmosphere, but these moments are sadly rare. Also a few times the professors show a comic misunderstanding of the social and political establishment in 20th century Europe, being from some far distant future that is never propperly expanded upon, such as the belief subway tunnels were used primarily to allow armed Police units to perform military maneuvers when suppressing the masses.

Having read Scheerbart's various short pieces taking place in the ancient Near East, in Assyria, Babylon or Palmyra (the last one having the mischeviously amusing title of "Of People who Lost their Heads, or a Palmyrian Torch-dance novela" that can only be thought up by a rogueish German), I know he can write well, even when dealing with vignettes that only really showcase a moment in the lives of people and places, but this one was rather a dissapointment.