Category: Short Stories

Review – An Emporium of Automata

D.P. Watt

automataEach year here at Speculative Fiction Junkie ends with a Top 5 Reads post.  Many of the books that make these lists have been reviewed here during the previous twelve months, but occasionally a book is included on the list that has no accompanying review. This was the case with D.P. Watt’s stunningly excellent collection An Emporium of Automata, which was initially printed in a very limited print run by Ex Occidente Press. It beat out some serious competition to make it onto my Top 5 Reads of 2010 list, so when I learned that Eibonvale Press would be reprinting an expanded edition of the collection, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to give this collection the review it deserves.

This edition of Emporium collects most of D.P. Watt’s short stories that have been published to date and includes three stories that were published after the collection’s initial Ex Occidente Press run. While there are a few that do not leave much of an impression, a majority of them are outstanding works of weird fiction.

“Of Those Who Follow Emile Bilonche” has been a favorite of mine since I first read it a few years ago. It is an engrossing tale of one man’s descent into madness as a result of his obsession with the elusive works of one Emile Bilonche. Irrational obsessions are a frequent subject of weird fiction, but this tale is especially effective because of the slow revelation that despite the protagonist’s high praise for Bilonche, he actually knows almost nothing about him.

Another excellent story is “Room 89.” On the surface, it is a horror story involving a haughty academic vacationing on the Isle of Wight. But beneath the surface, something far more interesting is going on. A closer reading reveals the protagonist to be unwittingly ambling through  a carnival fun house hall of mirrors bursting with disorienting reflections, only some of which are accurate. In this respect, the “Room 89” is a perfect example of the way in which Mr. Watt’s fiction can work on multiple levels.

A final favorite is the first story by Mr. Watt I ever read, “Dr. Dapertutto’s Saturnalia.” This tale opens with a Soviet Inspector being outraged when he receives a package containing a roll of film from Dr. Dapertutto, self-described “Direktor, Entertainer, Reveller, Charlatan and Misanthrope.” To the Inspector, this is the most “blatant and insolent manifestation of bourgeois decadence” he has ever encountered. When a subordinate sent to arrest Dr. Dapertutto returns and reports that the theater had been destroyed the previous November for staging  “theatre of a form unfit for the education and betterment of the Soviet State,” the Inspector decides that he must watch the film and seek out the Direktor himself. The theatrically violent scene that plays out on the film contrasts sharply with the regimented worldview of the Inspector, but the thing that makes this story so effective is the brutally stark way in which the Direktor, rather than the Inspector, is revealed to be the true master of the story’s world.

These stories make clear that Mr. Watt is a master storyteller in every sense of the word, but–as you should expect by now–there is actually more going on here than simple storytelling. Consider a story like “They Dwell in Ystumtuen.”  It begins with a bored and distracted historian trying to recall the details of a public hanging that took place in 19th century Britain. But this image is then juxtaposed with the heart-wrenchingly tragic and brutally violent story of what actually happened to the person who was hanged. The contrast couldn’t be clearer and Mr. Watt states it plainly:

Imagine, if you can, dear reader (mindful, kind or otherwise) the infinite neglect of history by the historian. Imagine the millions of lives heaping up, untold, forgotten, yet undead in the graveyard of memory; begging, or praying, with skeletal hands to be brought back to mind, if only for an instant.

This is as concise and as beautifully written a statement as one can find of a theme that seems to be a near obsession of Mr. Watt’s, which is the overwhelming weight of the absent mass of humanity that has been lost over the ages. This same concern is seen in “The Condition,” when a character exclaims that “There is nothing remaining that has not had its song darkened by this century’s deeds. The world will have to begin art again. And from what it has lost it will realise the value of everything.” Another beautiful illustration of this theme can be found in “Beware the Dust!” from The Ten Dictates of Alfred Tesseller (review here) and indeed this is a theme intricately woven throughout much of Mr. Watt’s work.

This preoccupation with not just the humanity before us but with all of the individual humans who are absent is, I believe, at the root of several of the other strengths of Mr. Watt’s work, including the extreme beauty of his prose and the way that his narrators directly address the reader. While these traits obviously owe a debt to the author’s roots in the theater, their real impetus is the urgency that results from the dizzying work of confronting such a terrible vision.

An Emporium of Automata is a truly landmark collection and is as rich a treasure as literature is capable of producing.

The True First

An Emporium of Automata was first published by Ex Occidente Press in 2010 in a limited edition of 150 copies. Thankfully, Eibonvale Press has done the world the service of republishing the book as both a hardcover and a paperback, with an electronic copy to follow shortly. I purchased a hardcover copy and was very impressed with the physical quality of the book, my first from Eibonvale.

[This review was not based on a review copy]

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Review – The Tainted Earth

George Berguño

thetaintedearthIn this golden age of the small press, new independent presses seem to blink into existence on a near weekly basis. One of the best to have appeared in the past year is undoubtedly Egaeus Press. In its brief existence, Egaeus has established itself as a top tier publisher in terms of both the physical quality of the books it is publishing and the caliber of authors it secures.

The third offering from Egaeus is a new collection of strange tales from George Berguño, whose first two collections were published by Ex Occidente Press and are now unobtainable except at very high prices. I enjoyed Mr. Berguño’s first collection, The Sons of Ishmael, but confess that none of its stories  lingered in my mind for more than a few days. The same cannot be said for The Tainted Earth, which contains some very memorable tales. While I have not read Mr. Berguño’s second collection and so cannot say so definitively, I would be surprised if  The Tainted Earth isn’t his best collection yet.

The stories contained in The Tainted Earth are varied in their subject matter and setting. My favorite in the collection is probably “The Ballad of El Pichón,” a tale of an elderly man who sits by Valparaiso Bay selling sparrows painted as canaries to unsuspecting sailors. One day, a young girl stumbles across the man and becomes so intrigued by him that from that point forward she constantly seeks him out, against the stern instructions of her mother. The girl’s actions eventually lead to a horrifying, if poetically satisfying, conclusion and the reader is left with a feeling that Valparaiso is a magical place, even if its magic has a decidedly sinister aspect. I hope that this relatively short story eventually leads to a more lengthy treatment of the city by Mr. Berguño.

“Mouse and the Falconer” is a close second favorite. It is the story of a young man who tracks down an artist hailed by some as a great photographer. The young man agrees to look after the artist’s apartment while the latter is away. Years pass and the young man passes up opportunity after opportunity to immerse himself in life. Eventually, the artist returns and confronts the young man with the sad facts of his life in a direct and powerful way. There is nothing particularly subtle about this story, but it is very effective nonetheless.

Another wonderful story is “The Rune Stone at Odenslunda,” in which a man is writing a tale inspired by an Scandinavian Saga which in turn was recounted on a rune stone that had since been destroyed. The story contains two threads: the Scandinavian saga being retold and the story of how the writer learned about the tale he is recounting. While the interwoven story format is interesting, it is the Scandinavian saga thread that steals the show. It is about a minor king who sends his son to find him a new wife after the boy’s mother dies. The boy returns to his father with the daughter of a witch who eventually takes an interest in the younger man. When the latter spurns her advances, the results are not pleasant.

Towards the back of the collection is a section called “About The Stories” that contains a few remarks from the author about each of its tales. Some authors of weird fiction routinely decline to explain their creations or to speculate on the inspiration behind them, but Mr. Berguño does not hesitate in this regard. While his remarks are interesting, they seemed to bear almost no relation to how I felt about a particular story. For example, in the notes that accompany “The Rune Stone at Odenslunda,” the author states that “[w]hat I wanted to achieve, above all, was to transform an ancient text that praises heroic male deeds into an existential meditation on the futility of heroic action, and the communicative gap between men and women.” I did not read this story in this way at all, although I confess that I can see that this is what the author was doing in hindsight.

The truth, though, is that Mr. Berguño’s stories are memorable and effective on their face without resort to their underlying purpose or meaning. While some strange tales are effective because of the quality of their prose and others because of the strength of their vision, Mr. Berguño’s stories are powerful because they draw from the same deep well that folk tales do. Authors who can draw on this oldest and most powerful of literary veins as well as Mr. Berguño does are rare, to say the least.

The True First

The Tainted Earth was first published in 2012 by Egaeus Press in a print run of 300.

[This review was based on a review copy]

Review – Leave Your Sleep

R.B. Russell

I may be mistaken but I am fairly certain that I have read all of R.B. Russell’s published stories, even when I’ve had to go far out of my way to track them down. I enjoy the subtle unease and tension that characterize most of his work. Unfortunately, I think his latest collection, Leave Your Sleep, is probably my least favorite collection of Mr. Russell’s work to date.

Make no mistake about it: there are some great stories in Leave Your Sleep. “The Restaurant Saint Martin” was first published in This Hermetic Legislature: A Homage to Bruno Schulz from Ex Occidente Press. It didn’t make much of an impression on me the first time I read it (I didn’t even mention it in my review of that collection), but it really struck me the second time.  It is the story of Ernesto Galman, owner of his family’s jam and preserves company, who routinely stops to enjoy a drink and dessert at the Restaurant Saint Martin at the end of his monthly sales trip to Mendoza.  For him, this secret stop at the perennially unchanging restaurant provides a few moments of respite from the demands of life. On this particular trip, however, he finds someone sitting at his favorite table. The chain of events that unfolds is a supreme piece of Schulzian magic, as this particular month’s respite quickly becomes deadly serious but then is ultimately revealed to be only one possible resolution to what is seemingly an eternally recurring story.

“Leave Your Sleep” is another excellent story. In it, a man reflects on a brief period in his youth when he stayed with his grandparents. While his grandparents routinely made him go to bed early, he quickly noticed a group of children playing within earshot of his bedroom each night. Soon they noticed him and beckoned him to join them in their games. During the early pages of this story, I couldn’t help but think of The Twilight Zone episode called “The Bewitchin’ Pool” out of my mind, but Mr. Russell’s tale is thankfully much better than that deplorable episode (I love The Twilight Zone, but that episode is just awful). Ultimately, “Leave Your Sleep” is about the poorly grasped loss of innocence that often accompanies growing up. The dreamlike quality that Mr. Russell sustains throughout really enhances this story’s power.

“A False Impression” was really a surprise in that I don’t believe Mr. Russell has written a story of this kind before. In it, a solitary man ventures from his home on the moors into the freezing predawn night and has an epiphany about the universe. Other epiphanies follow and the tale ends up being sort of a gentle tale of cosmic horror. It was nice to see Mr. Russel venture into this territory.

So, yes, there are some good tales in Leave Your Sleep. But there are also some not so good ones. To be completely honest, I cannot even believe that Mr. Russell wrote the first story in this collection, “An Unconventional Exorcism.” While its setting, characters, and undercurrent of eroticism are typical of Mr. Russell’s past work, the complete lack of tension and what amounts to an almost comical, sitcomesque ending are completely out of keeping with his previous work. Authors are of course free to branch out from what they’ve done in the past, but I seriously doubt whether fans of Mr. Russell’s other work will find much to enjoy in this story. Much of the same things can be said of a later story in the collection, “The Dress.”

Many of the remaining stories in the collection are not bad per se, but they do not contain the tension and sense of unease that is the precise thing that makes Mr. Russell’s best work so good. I am a huge fan of Mr. Russell’s work, but Leave Your Sleep is easily my least favorite collection of his to date.

The True First

Leave Your Sleep was first published in October of 2012 by PS Publishing in a signed, limited edition of 100 copies as well as an unsigned edition.

[This review was based on an electronic review copy]

Review – At Fears Altar

Richard Gavin

As someone who is entranced by the deep ocean of the weird fiction tradition but has thus far barely ventured  beyond its shallows, I am constantly surprised at the extent to which that tradition appears to be rooted in the work of authors who lived and wrote decades or even centuries ago. While weird fiction is definitely not unique in this respect, its giants seem to loom especially large and cast almost freakishly large shadows on most of those who have come after them.

Nonetheless, there are authors writing today whose work ensures that the weird tradition speaks to the current age and that it does not grow stale in the future. Richard Gavin is such an author, and while he treads many of the paths blazed by his predecessors, his voice has an indelibly strange melody that is all his own.

I first encountered Mr. Gavin’s work a few years ago when I read his excellent collection The Darkly Splendid Realm (review here). That collection contains several of my favorite short stories of all time so I was anxious to read his latest, At Fear’s Altar. It turns out that At Fear’s Altar is nearly as strong as The Darkly Splendid Realm, if not quite its equal.

The collection begins with an unforgettable prologue that makes one practically  salivate for the stories that follow. The first story proper is the opening tale “Chapel in the Reeds.” While it seems susceptible to a number of different interpretations, I think of it as essentially being the story of an elderly widower whose sanity has been eroded past the breaking point by age and loss. As a consequence, his world essentially abandons him. Its familiar paths and comforts cease to reliably provide the succor and context that they once did. The result is disorienting and terrifying, both viscerally and in a cosmic sense.

The next tale, “The Abject,” is probably my favorite in the collection, although it must contend with one of the later tales, “Darksome Leaves,” for that distinction. On the surface, it is the story of an isolated mountain spotted in the middle of the ocean by a group of acquaintances who have gathered to watch an eclipse, but in reality it is about parallel tales of creation gone awry. The story has a heavy dose of cosmic horror, but what gives it real depth is the way that this thread is intertwined with the merely human aspect of the story. Cosmic horror often works by impressing upon the reader a sense of humanity’s insignificance, but this story manages to maintain that feeling while also making the cosmos strangely receptive to the human protagonist’s story.

“Faint Baying from Afar,” which Mr. Gavin refers to as “an epistolary trail after H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Hound’,” is another solid tale. After the first few pages, I thought it might just be a mediocre fan fiction tribute to Lovecraft’s story, but it turns out that it is a fantastic complement to it. It was so effective, in fact, that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to think of “The Hound” as complete without it.

After some stories in the middle of the collection that are less strong in my opinion, two of the final tales really impressed me. “Annexation” reminded me in a lot of ways of “The Abject.” It is the story of a mother searching for a son who has gone missing in pursuit of some sort of Aztec religious epiphany in Mexico. It, too, contains themes of death and renewal, tinged as you might anticipate by now with a healthy dose of cosmic horror. As I mentioned above, another contender for my favorite tale in the collection is the penultimate story “Darksome Leaves,” which reminded me in a lot of ways of another one of my favorite stories by Mr. Gavin, “The Astral Mask.”

At Fear’s Altar is an impressive collection; as impressive as what I’ve come to expect from Mr. Gavin. While it does not contain as many of my all time favorite stories as his last collection, it does contain some truly world class tales. Mr. Gavin’s gift is not just that he writes excellent cosmic horror (which he assuredly does). It’s also that while remaining completely true to cosmic horror’s signature focus on the indifference of the vast cosmos towards humanity, his starting point is often a place of sympathy for the plight of his human protagonists and their myths. This makes it all the more terrifying when the cosmic forces he writes about inevitably vanquish these ill-fated individuals.

The True First

At Fear’s Altar was first published by Hippocampus Press in October 2012. Unforgivably, no hardcover edition is available.

[This review was based on an electronic review copy]

The Desolate Presence and Other Uncanny Stories

Thomas Owen

I was recently lucky enough to snag an affordable copy of Thomas Owen’s elusive The Desolate Presence and Other Uncanny Stories, and doing so ended a quest that began for me several years ago. I had first been clued into the existence of Mr. Owen’s work when I came across a brief article about him by translator Edward Gauvin. Sadly, this only collection of Mr. Owen’s work to have been translated into English proved extremely difficult to find and impossible to find at an affordable price. Once the book arrived, I devoured it quickly and can now report that while it contains some excellent stories, it does not quite live up to its billing in my opinion.

Mr. Owen’s work is often mentioned alongside that of his more famous countryman, Jean Ray, and indeed the two authors’ work does share certain similarities. The tales of both authors often describe cold, windy, mist-shrouded places and both men’s oeuvres are effective primarily because they work by inducing a creeping sense of unease. Ultimately, however, I think Mr. Ray’s work is superior to Mr. Owen’s.

“Two of a Kind” is the first story in the book and it is one of the collection’s best. In it, the protagonist meets a very peculiar man after the two narrowly survive a bizarre train accident. The man, who says that he is “called Vassil, Pierre, John, Hermann, Julius – whichever you prefer,” periodically appears during the remainder of the protagonist’s life, making ominous claims, urging the protagonist not to write or speak about his experiences, and contributing in no small measure to the increasingly debilitated protagonist’s madness.

Another excellent story is “The Girl in the Rain,” in which a vacationer takes a stroll on the beach during a cold rainstorm and encounters a young woman who literally has blood on her hands. He follows her to an abandoned house and finds there something that may have been sort of expected but that is nonetheless inexplicable.

Unquestionably, the best story in the collection in my opinion is “The Sow.” It is the story of a man who is forced by dense fog to make an unexpected stop at what amounts to a local tavern. The locals there challenge him to a game that he proceeds to win.  As a result, he is given a flashlight and sent to the neighboring barn to take a look at “the sow.” She is not what he expects.

Despite the inclusion of some excellent stories, The Desolate Presence suffers from two issues in my opinion. The first is that many of the stories are relatively uninteresting and, dare I say, pointless. Often this is because Mr. Owen seems to rely on the sort of last paragraph gimmicks that most modern readers abhor. “The Hunger,” for example, is an almost absurdly pointless narrative unless one gets satisfaction from the last minute revelation that another character is actually doing what we thought the main character was doing. Along similar lines, “A Dead Butterfly’s Wing” is nothing more than a brief and uninteresting riddle explained over the span of a few pages. Even the best short story writers inevitably produce some less than stellar tales, but the sheer number of them in this collection detracts from its overall quality.

My second issue with this collection is that even its most effective tales often suffer from a lack of tension building. Much of the imagery found in these stories is as effective as anything ever produced in weird literature, but the buildup, the execution often leaves a lot to be desired. It’s as though Mr. Owen had devastating glimpses of the unknown but was then at a loss as to how to convey what he had seen to the reader. The best example of this is probably the eponymous story “The Desolate Presence.”  It has a mightily effective nucleus, but I found myself constantly thinking that an author like Simon Strantzas, Adam Golaski, Richard Gavin, or a dozen other modern masters would have made much more of it.

If you are a weird fiction aficionado wondering whether or not seeking out this elusive volume is a worthwhile endeavor, the answer is definitely yes. The Desolate Presence is a solid addition to the weird literature canon, but it is not a top tier exemplar of the genre.

The True First

The Desolate Presence and Other Uncanny Stories was first published in the United Kingdom in 1984 by William Kimber. It is unclear when the stories that comprise the collection were originally published in French.

[This review was not based on a review copy]

Review – On the Hill of Roses

Stefan Grabinski

Getting one’s hands on a book released by a new small press for the first time is one of the great pleasures of reading life. Each small press has its own idiosyncrasies, its own priorities, and makes its own humble additions to the sacred art of creating tangible compilations of the magic that is the written word.

The latest small press to draw my attention is Hieroglyphic Press, whose web page states that it is “a small imprint primarily dedicated to publishing works of an eclectic and rarefied nature: to use a quote from elsewhere we wish for spiritual art – Decadence, Esoterica and Symbolism.”

This sounded right up my alley and, combined with the fact that the press will also be publishing a biannual journal to be co-edited by Mark Samuels, made me extremely eager to get my hands on the press’s first effort. In retrospect, I should have realized that it was completely unfair of me to expect that any press could do what none before has managed to do. That is, I should have realized that there is in all likelihood no press on Earth capable of getting me to finally appreciate the work of Stefan Grabinski.

On the Hill of Roses reproduces in its entirety the first collection to be published by Mr. Grabinski under his own name in 1919 and throws in an additional story for good measure.

Much is made of the place that Mr. Grabinski’s work occupies in the history of weird fiction. On its website, for example, the publisher says “[w]e at Hieroglyphic believe that his work forms an important thematic bridge between European Symbolists such [as] De L’Isle-Adam and English language writers of metaphysical fiction such as Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen.” This is all well and good, but we here are at Speculative Fiction Junkie are in the business of reviewing stories for their quality as stories, not for their historical or academic significance per se.

So how do the stories that make up On the Hill of Roses stand up as stories? Not so well, to be honest. In a recent interview, author Simon Strantzas was asked what draws him most frequently to weird fiction. He answered in part that “[g]ood fiction needs to express its themes and characters and plot in a way in which each are balanced, each revealing themselves in a strange and bizarre way.” I agree with him and think that the greatest shortcoming in Mr. Grabinski’s fiction is that it fails in this respect.

Far from balancing themes, characters, and plots, the stories in On the Hill of Roses often contain almost no plot to speak of. One tale, for example, is essentially about a man who takes a nap on a hill against a four-sided brick wall and what he discovers when he decides to climb it one day. In another, the first half describes how the protagonist is followed and tormented by another man every where he goes and the other half is devoted to what happens to the protagonist psychologically once the man is killed. While wonderful works of weird fiction have been constructed from much less, in Mr. Grabinski’s case, the prose is so inartfully sparse and the development of atmosphere so completely absent, that in the final analysis there just isn’t enough of a foundation from which to build quality stories.

What these stories do contain is a surfeit of  tiresome chatter about various psychological and physiological phenomena. Consider this passage from the story that gave this collection it’s name:

Every point of a body sends out a scent of a special and, to a certain extent, individualized tinge that calls forth a corresponding stimulation in my olfactory center. If we conceive a fragrance to be a movement of particles of ether, similar to the motion of a light or heat wave, and the like, then the affair becomes clear. The sum of these stimulations, arranged at the cerebral cortex according to their source, gives an overall impression and through this underground path is transformed into a sum of visual stimulations heading to the optical center and producing mental pictures. In a special circumstance, there probably existed a very close relationship between my sensitivity in my centers of smell and sight. The slightest change in one elicited an immediate response in the other: these centers seemed to share mutually reciprocal sensations. To be sure, another element also involved in this was an intensification of an unusually fine memory, which having had a history of experiencing various stimulating smells in the air would elicit a corresponding series of visuals of every possible association and combination. Perhaps just as a brilliant musical scholar is able to play to the end an entire symphony based on a few notes, I was able to surmise from not much its entirety.

Whatever other purpose this sort of thing might serve, it irretrievably destroys the stories’ pacing along with any sense of atmosphere that they might otherwise possess. Perhaps the best clue to what is going on here is found in translator Miroslaw Lipinski’s statement in the introduction that:

The overwhelming majority of his stories have a sincere investigatory basis. He was not writing stories to simply elicit a frisson or capture a mood, or to top other writers in bizarre situations and effects….In his stories, Grabinski was attempting to address and explore the mysteries of life and the varied, intricate dynamics of the human mind.  Yes, one can read a Grabinski story and just enjoy its form, plotting, and intellectual sharpness, but if one approaches the story from Grabinski’s investigatory perspective, it can become atypically confrontational, even psychologically frightening.

I think Mr. Lipinski has identified the heart of my problem with these stories: they aren’t stories in the conventional sense. Mr. Grabinski is less concerned with writing tales composed of the elements that have defined the best stories for thousands of years; form, plotting, atmosphere and the like. He is more interested in investigating the mysteries of life in a more direct way. His work may be valuable in that sense, but the resulting tales don’t hold up in my opinion as stories per se.

Attempting to rescue an author from obscurity is almost always a worthwhile and noble endeavor, and this is certainly true of the work of those who have labored for years to elevate Mr. Grabinski’s reputation to what they feel is its rightful place. Mr. Lipinski in particular deserves the greatest respect for his tireless work on Mr. Grabinski’s behalf. Regrettably, though, I cannot number myself among the growing ranks of Stefan Grabinski’s admirers. As for Hieroglyphic Press, I am eagerly looking forward to their future output, and I’ll note here that many of Speculative Fiction Junkie‘s favorite independent presses have had books reviewed here that have received relatively low scores, including Cemetery Dance, Midnight House, Night Shade Books, PS Publishing, Tartarus Press, and The Swan River Press.

The True First

The Hieroglyphic Press edition of On the Hill of Roses was first published in 2012 in a limited edition of 300 unnumbered copies.

[This review was not based on a review copy]

Review – This Hermetic Legislature

Dan Ghetu & D.P. Watt (Editors)

If short stories in general are under appreciated by the reading public, then I think short stories written and collected as an homage to a particular author are even more so. I have no real proof to support this suspicion, but if you search the Internet for reviews of such collections, I suspect that you’ll find that there are far fewer out there than there are for single author collections.

This Hermetic Legislature: A Homage to Bruno Schulz is the third homage volume from Ex Occidente Press. The first, Cinnabar’s Gnosis, was an homage to Gustav Meyrink, and as I am not a huge Meyrink fan I gave it a rather cursory read at best. The second homage volume, The Master in Cafe Morphine, was a tribute to Mikhail Bulgakov, and as I have never read anything by Mr. Bulgakov before, I passed this one up completely. Bruno Schulz, by contrast, is a writer I am more familiar with and as such, I thought it was time to finally see what these Ex Occidente homages are really all about.

I am by no means a Schulz scholar, but I have read and enjoyed his two major works and am of course familiar with his infamous murder by a Nazi officer. And while I am sure that many of the nuances and references contained within the stories contained in This Hermetic Legislature escaped me, I grasped  enough to really appreciate what a wonderful job the editors and authors have done of paying tribute to the vision and style of Schulz. Some of these tales pay tribute to Schulz by including him as a character or reworking events in his life; others do so by telling stories in what one might call Schulzian prose. All of them, though, contribute in one way or another to the formation of a picture of the regrettably absent man and his work.

To me, the two main characteristics that distinguish Schulz’s work from the work of others are its extreme nostalgia for lost days and its intense playfulness with the laws of time and nature. While these two facets are separate in a sense and are each fully mature in their own right, they also work together in a way that is almost magical.  Nostalgic tales of lost youth are not simply retold but are instead transformed through Schulz’s willingness to tinker with time and natural laws into myths. And this playfulness with reality often works to transcend the inescapable sadness that is inevitably at the heart of much of Schulz’s work.

As I mentioned above, each of the stories in this collection contributes in some measure to the overall project, but four stories in particular are worth singling out. Surprisingly, none of the four was written by Speculative Fiction Junkie favorites Mark Samuels, D.P. Watt, or R.B. Russell even though all three contributed pieces to the collection. Instead, all four were penned by authors whose work has never been reviewed here before. These four stories are among the best short stories I have ever read.

The first is the extremely nostalgic “Letters in Black Wood” by Joel Lane. In it, a man recalls the time spent with his father in his youth, and the hole left when not only the father but the whole world that the family inhabited together is gone. Mr. Lane’s prose is so poetically evocative and beautiful that my eyes nearly burned out when I read this story. I will definitely be reviewing more work by Mr. Lane in the future and can’t really explain why I haven’t done so yet.

On the more playful end of the Schulzian spectrum is the marvelously imaginative “The Messiah of the Mannequins” by Rhys Hughes. It is the story of a clockmaker in a town populated by deformed individuals who decides to animate all of the town’s mannequins because he is convinced that the imminent return of a comet means that the mannequins’ Messiah will soon make an appearance. The vibrancy of the town is reminiscent of the locales that appear in Schulz’s work, as is the playfulness of the plot and the way that Mr. Hughes bends the conventions of normality. Statements like “Unlike so many fanatics, Barabas had a conscience; but he kept it in a jar at home and never took it out with him on a mission” are found throughout.

Another story that will forever be one of my favorites is “With Shadow All the Marble Steps” by Oliver Smith, who I have never heard of before. While it addresses some very weighty matters at points, it is on the whole a playful tale and has absolutely hilarious moments. It takes place in Argentina and opens with a government spy enjoying breakfast with the man he has been assigned to spy on and explaining to the man’s servant that he has been tasked with spying on this particular individual because the latter’s tangoing is a grave threat to the Republic. One of its main characters is the still conscious brain of Adolph Hitler, which has been preserved in a pickle jar that it shares with other cucumbers. This leads to one of the most hilarious passages I’ve read in some time:

     Adele was propelled before Dr Fausto’s Panzerfaust. Through the glass, Senor Adolpho was shouting in German. From what I could make out, he was demanding a larger jar. The cucumbers tumbled and dived like frenzied lampreys. I was disturbed to see his eye bulging towards my own temporarily vacated vessel and under Senor Adolpho’s direction the pickles were charging at the thankfully impenetrable glass barrier. He was shouting about being keen to see our living room. He seemed to think it would make a nice new home for his cucumber people.
Adele was staggering beneath the weight. They emerged from their circumnavigation of the orchestra and at last Dr Fausto spied Father. Through her hand Adele could feel the strengthening vibrations of ‘Deutschland Uber Alles” rising from the glass.

The final of the four standout stories in this collection is “A Calendar of Cherries” by Colin Insole. Seven years after most of the town’s men left to fight in the Great War and were captured, they unexpectedly return to their home town. But instead of arriving at the town’s modern train station, they arrive on a track of the old empire that has been unused for years. During the men’s captivity, the entire world has changed, including their own town, which is now dominated by the poster board people. Instead of reintegrating into this new world, the men increasingly retreat to the rooms at the top of their houses and there attempt to hang onto the world that they knew. I will definitely be reading more by Mr. Insole if I can get my hands on his other works.

These four stories are absolute masterpieces, and while understanding their connection with Schulz gives them an added dimension, one can fully enjoy them without ever having read any of Schulz’s work at all.

My only major complaint about this collection is one that will be familiar to readers of this site. Namely, only 122 copies of this book were printed, and yet the stories in this collection deserve to be read by so many more. I truly wish that Ex Occidente Press would partner with a press like Chômu Press to make some of the former’s releases more widely available. My only other two minor quibbles with the book are that it did not come with the slipcase it was supposed to and that it failed to include this awesome image of Schulz that can be found on Ex Occidente’s website:

I don’t think there will ever be a more powerful tribute to Bruno Schulz than This Hermetic Legislature: A Homage to Bruno Schulz. This collection contains far more beauty than I would have thought possible. And that beauty isn’t generic, it’s of a sort that Schulz himself created and made possible.

The True First

This Hermetic Legislature: A Homage to Bruno Schulz was first published by Ex Occidente Press in June of 2012. It is limited to 122 hand-numbered copies.

[This review was not based on a review copy]

Review – Strange Ephiphanies

Peter Bell

Peter Bell has quietly been building a reputation as an author of top notch short fiction for several years now. Until recently, however, his work had never been collected and made available in book form. Thankfully, the increasingly impressive Swan River Press has remedied this situation with its recent publication of Strange EpiphaniesSarob Press quickly followed suit with its release of another Bell collection, entitled A Certain Slant of Light.

Brian J. Showers, the man behind Swan River Press, has said that while the latter collection focuses on Mr. Bell’s ghost stories, Strange Epiphanies focuses on his mystical tales. While I haven’t yet read A Certain Slant of Light, it is definitely true to say that Strange Epiphanies contains predominantly mystical tales.

A majority of Bell’s protagonists are lonely individuals dealing with personal loss on such a scale that it threatens their very existence. Many have lost partners under tragic circumstances. The resulting tales are melancholy in the extreme and often involve these listless individuals coming face to face with a mystical reality whose intensity overpowers and ultimately annihilates them.

One of the finest tales in the collection in my opinion is “M.E.F.” It is the story of a man who returns to the Hebrides every year to mark the anniversary of the death of his partner on one of the islands and, in a parallel vein, attempts to locate the cairn that marks the spot where another young woman died under mysterious circumstances decades earlier. He soon finds that his passage to Iona has been more than just a physical one:

To arrive on Iona is to cross a series of borderlines: England to Scotland; Glasgow City, through the Highlands, to the Argyll glens; over the Firth of Lorne to Mull; twenty miles across the mountains, beneath Ben More, along the Ross, then the passage of the Sound of Iona. And there is a spiritual borderline too. At times, these past few days, I have felt I could remain here forever, that I belonged on Iona. I am not sure it is a wholesome thought; but if this journal is a record of anything, it is a record of borderlines, and the transgression thereof.

The Hebrides prove to be a place of violently inconsistent weather: rain that lasts all day and howling wind that blows from all directions through the night give way to occasional moments of calm and beauty. And this physical tumult is accompanied by a spiritual one, as the protagonist vacillates violently between gray melancholy and religiously-tinged euphoria, to the point that we soon begin to doubt his sanity. It soon becomes clear that in coming to Iona, he has left whatever protections were afforded by daily life and entered a realm where he is exposed to a disorientingly intense reality.

Another one of the collection’s best tales is “The Light of the World.” It too features a man struggling in the wake of the death of his companion. Throughout his life he periodically encounters a mysterious elderly Italian couple who always warn him: “Attenti! La Luce del Mondo!” This in turn rekindles a childhood horror of the eponymous painting by William Holman Hunt. What follows is a journey that is in many respects similar to the protagonist’s in “M.E.F.” in that it ultimately results in a glimpse of an annihilating reality that in this case is seen just before the end.

Perhaps my favorite tale in the collection is the truly remarkable “An American Writer’s Cottage,” which appears in this collection for the first time. It is the tale of an intellectual who comes to the Hebrides seeking escape from her personal and professional obligations for a time. The same theme of crossed boundaries is present in this story from the very beginning, as the protagonist waits to be ferried to the island:

Emerging indistinctly from the gloom, his hunched spectacle called to mind Charon crossing the Styx….It was, she reflected, a threshold; and it made her ponder, not for the first time here in the isles, on the frailty of civilisation and our craven dependence on its trappings.

Here, though, the annihilating reality she encounters is more overtly terrifying than in the other two stories discussed thus far. Through an increasingly thick haze of alcohol and cigarettes, what begins as a vague sense of personal loss and Hebridean gloom, steadily becomes something more ominous as she starts questioning the island’s mysteries and as the nighttime darkness and isolation oppress her more and more.

The other tales in the collection, are good but are not in my opinion nearly as good as these three. Nonetheless, if the others don’t seem quite as impressive it is only because these three are so fantastic.

Mr. Bell writes about an area of experience that seems to be almost wholly neglected by other writers. I’m not sure what to call it exactly. He writes about people whose experiences and dispositions have rendered them uniquely susceptible to the power that certain places can exert over the properly attuned. These people seem drawn to such places and experience a stunning combination of awe, fear, and melancholy once they arrive. It is a testament to Mr. Bell’s abilities that their ultimate annihilation seems to be a completely natural consequence of their entrance into this more intense reality. I keep returning again and again to the image of a man walking stoically into a rough ocean and simply letting the waves crash over him until they finally carry him away. I can’t wait to read his next collection.

The True First

Strange Epiphanies was first published by the Swan River Press in April of 2012 in an edition of 350 copies. Stunningly, as of the time of this review, there are still copies available for purchase from the publisher.

[This review was based on a review copy]

Review – My Own Private Spectres

Jean Ray

Running Speculative Fiction Junkie has been far more rewarding than I ever could have imagined it would be. I have met some great people through this site and been introduced to some truly masterful works of fiction that otherwise would have almost certainly remained completely unknown to me. The most tangible kindness a reader has ever bestowed on me, though, was one reader recently tracking down a copy of the ultra elusive Jean Ray collection, My Own Private Spectres, and even more incredibly, selling it to me for less than half of what it would fetch on the open market.  Thank you again to my benefactor, who shall remain unnamed.

If you are reading this review, you are probably aware of what a huge deal it is to find a copy of this book. It’s ellusiveness, like its author, is legendary and I have never searched for a book as persistently or longingly as I did this one. It is therefore with mixed emotion that I tell those of you who are still looking for a copy of this book, that it is easily the worst collection of Jean Ray stories available in the English language.

The collection of Mr. Ray’s work that was published a few years ago by Ex Occidente Press, The Horrifying Presence and Other Tales (review here), didn’t contain a single disappointing story. Nor did Ghouls in My Grave. The same cannot be said, however, of My Own Private Spectres, as several tales felt like wasted opportunities to get the best Mr. Ray has to offer into the hands of English readers.

Ray’s chief virtues as a writer are his ability to pen atmospheric, frightening tales that often contain elements of adventure mixed with his unique brand of humor. I am sure that some will disagree, but in my opinion, stories like “My Dead Friend,” “Streets (A Document),” “Spider Master,” and “Twenty Minutes Past Midnight” completely fail to showcase Ray’s talents in this regard. And while there is certainly no requirement that every story ever written by a particular author be excellent, it seems odd to include these lackluster stories in a collection meant to showcase Mr. Ray’s work to a readership that was probably not too familiar with his work. My experience reading some of the stories in this collection marked the first time I’ve ever been underwhelmed while reading Jean Ray.

To be fair, the collection does have some excellent stories, chief among them “The Mainz Psalter.” Furthermore, some of its best stories are appearing in English here for the first time, such as “The Uhu,” “The Pink Terror,” and “The Hand of Gotz von Berlichingen.” All in all, though, I couldn’t escape the sense that the story selection was weaker than in the other two Ray collections.

My second problem with Spectres is in part a product of the story selection issue but is also a problem in its own right: Ray’s unique voice–the terror his stories inspire and the dense sense of atmosphere he is capable of creating–simply doesn’t dominate this collection like it does the other two.

Part of this may be attributable to some very odd word choices by the translator. Just to give you a taste of what I’m talking about, here is a partial list of some of the seldomly encountered words that appear in this collection: dogshift, skipper’s daughters, sleepout, needlefurzle, temerary, diaphanity, gasbag, aspic, frangipane, luthern, hansom, budrigar, patronymic, portuary, anent, cadastral, newel, babbitry, demaisnes. I’m sure these are all legitimate words but I often felt like I needed a translation of the translation. Consider, for example, the difference between the translation of a portion of “the Mainz Psalter” as it appears in Ghouls in My Grave and as it appears in Spectres:

From Ghouls in My Grave: “‘Walker will take the helm to begin with,’ I said. “All he’ll have to do is watch for patches of white water. If we hit a submerged rock…..'” (p. 91)

From My Own Private Spectres:  “‘I’ll put Walker at the wheel. He can keep an eye on those skipper’s daughters, we don’t want to go down to Davy Jones just yet.” (p. 102)

“Skipper’s’ daughters”? This may be a real term but it is very obscure. How obscure? Take a look at the discussion available here. Every time I encountered this sort of thing while reading Spectres, it got in the way of the reading experience.

As a more general matter, as I stated above, Ray’s voice just isn’t as discernible in this collection as it is in the other two. We can again turn to “The Mainz Psalter” as an example:

From My Own Private Spectres:  “…[I]nstantly a loud imprecation rent the air. There was a frantic patter of naked feet overhead, followed by a terrible scream.
Horrorstruck we looked at one another. Presently from afar there came to us a sort of high-pitched gibberish, which for all the world sounded like a bout of Tyrolean yodelling.
As one man we made for the bridge, cursing and bumping into one another in the dark. At first glance everything seemed all right: the sails were scarcely filled by the breeze. Close to the wheel we found the abandoned thermos, brightly illumined by the lamp next to it. But there was no one at the helm. Our poor Walker had been abducted by the silent, impersonal night.
‘Walker! Walker! Walker!” we cried, numb with terror.
Somewhere out in the fog-enshrouded gloom something tittered.” (p. 103)

From Ghouls in My Grave: “Just then we heard loud imprecations overhead, followed by the sound of bare feet running rapidly toward the deckhouse, and then a terrible cry.
We looked at each other, horrified. A high-pitched call, a kind of yodel, came from far away.
We all rushed up on deck at once, jostling each other in the darkness.
Everything was calm. The sails were purring happily; near the helm, the lantern was burning brightly, illuminating the squat shape of the abandoned thermos bottle.
But there was no one at the helm.
‘Walker! Walker!’ we shouted frantically.
Faraway, from the horizon blurred by the night mists, the mysterious yodel answered us.
The great silent night had swallowed up our poor Walker forever.” (p. 92)

In my opinion, the translation from Ghouls in My Grave is unquestionably more powerful and less cumbersome.

Any appearance of Jean Ray in English is a cause for celebration, as his genius has barely even been whispered of in the English-speaking world, and My Own Private Spectres certainly goes some way towards bringing a new generation of readers to the work of Jean Ray. It is, however, not nearly as good as the other two collections of Mr. Ray’s work that are available in English. My suggestion to most would be to stop searching for My Own Private Spectres and start saving for a copy of the far superior and easier to find The Horrifying Presence and Other Tales instead.

The True First

My Own Private Spectres was first published by the sadly now-defunct Midnight House press in 1999. It was limited to only 350 copies.

[This review was not based on a review copy]

Review – Nightingale Songs

Simon Strantzas

If you’ve ever read and enjoyed a work of weird fiction after reading a review of it here at Speculative Fiction Junkie then you owe a small measure of gratitude to Simon Strantzas, whose second collection, Cold to the Touch (review here), was my introduction to weird fiction. I found it so compelling that I have been reading and reviewing works of weird fiction ever since. There are, quite simply, few things I look forward to more than a new collection from Mr. Strantzas. Nightingale Songs is his first new collection in over two years.

Nightingale Songs collects 12 short stories, 4 of which have never been published before. While his previous two collections were similar in a lot of ways, the stories in his debut, Beneath the Surface (review here), tended to be a bit more stark and in-one’s-face than those found in Cold to the Touch. The latter was comprised of tales that were generally more subtle and atmospheric.  Nightingale Songs bares a closer resemblance to Cold to the Touch than it does to Beneath the Surface in that most of the tales it collects rely on subtlety rather than starkness to work their destructive magic on the reader.

Already accomplished in this regard, Nightingale Songs shows that Mr. Strantzas is becoming even more adept at navigating the logic of dreams and nightmares. Just as dreams are sometimes obvious metaphors for one’s life and other times seem practically nonsensical, Mr. Strantzas’ work is truly dreamlike in that it is often difficult to discern the significance of what one encounters in his stories, even as it is obvious that one is staring at and contending with symbols, metaphors, and other reflections.

“Tend Your Own Garden” is a perfect example of a story that is more nakedly metaphorical than some of the others. It concerns a man who returns to the home that he had shared with his wife until they split up and he was replaced by his wife’s former lover. Ostensibly, he has returned for a box of old blueprints that he thinks he has left in the house. While there, he recalls how while he was renovating their marital home–shoring up its foundations–she was laying the seeds of infidelity by reconnecting with an old lover via their computer. Once in the house, the man quickly discovers that he is disoriented and doesn’t remember where anything is. The metaphor is obvious but that does not diminish this story’s power in the least.

On the opposite end of the spectrum in the sense that its symbolism is much less easy to discern, is the first tale, entitled “Out of Touch.” Here, one gets an early glimpse of one of this collection’s most pervasive themes: imprisonment. “Out of Touch” is about two boys who are trapped in numerous ways. One is imprisoned in his room by illness, the other imprisoned by the brokenness of his family in the wake of his father’s departure. Both are further imprisoned by the monotony and monochromatism of suburbia; so much so, that an oddly nonconforming house that is across the street from one of the boys–the mirror of the boy’s house–becomes irresistible, the only means of escape.

Somewhere between these two lies the excellent “Her Father’s Daughter,” which first appeared in Strange Tales: Volume III from Tartarus Press (review here) and which also concerns imprisonment of a sort. In it, a young woman’s car breaks down in the middle of a stretch of unfamiliar farmland on a winter night while she is taking a detour on her way home from school. Her father’s past admonitions and likely reactions to her present poor planning are ever present as she tries to figure out what to do. In the only nearby house, however, she encounters overbearing paternal presence run amok in a way that is quintessential Strantzas.

Another standout story that I have been unable to stop thinking about since I read it is “The Nightingale.” It is the only story in this collection that really seems to be of a piece with the kind of work collected in Beneath the Surface. It is far less dreamlike than the other stories in this collection and is really more of a traditional horror story than the others. It is about the beautiful songbird Elaina Munroe. Two men hear her singing at the Nightingale club one night and find her irresistible; so much so, that one of them asks her to accompany him overseas. The man left behind, however, is unable to forget about her and may yet be destroyed by her irresistible songs.

Another story dealing with imprisonment is “Pale Light in the Jungle,” a story that does a wonderful job not only of illustrating our culture’s addiction to television but also of showing how frightening the world can be for us addicts when we finally try to cut the cord. This is one of the most atmospheric tales in the collection and also one of my favorites.

The remaining stories in this collection are all enjoyable, but those discussed above are easily my favorites.

With Beneath the Surface, Mr. Strantzas proved himself to be a compelling new writer of weird fiction. Cold to the Touch showed that he was not the sort to rest on his laurels but instead was continuing to evolve. With the release of Nightingale Songs, Mr. Strantzas has truly arrived. He has perfected a voice and style of weird fiction that is all his own and has cemented his reputation as a modern master in a field already crowded with talent. Whether you read these stories in the traditional manner or are lucky and cursed enough to hear them sung to you late one night by Ms. Elaina Munroe, Nightingale Songs will stay with you.

The True First

Nightingale Songs will be released in February of 2012 by Dark Regions Press. It will be available in two editions: a signed, lettered edition limited to 26 copies and a signed, limited edition of 100 copies.

[This review was based on an electronic review copy]