Nightshade and Damnations and Nightmares and Geezenstacks – Classic Strange Stories reissued by Valancourt

nightshade and damnations - gerald kershNightshade and Damnations – Gerald Kersh
Valancourt Books – 2019 (Originally published 1968)

When I added Michael Blumlein’s The Brains of Rats to my to-read list on goodreads, this book by Gerald Kersh popped up in my recommendations. It’s a highly rated collection of short stories titled Nightshade and Damnations, so I threw it on the list too.

There’s quite a few similarities to Poe here. The range and focus of these stories is similar, the general outlook is as twisted, and these stories are superbly written. Kersh acknowledges Poe’s influence by actually framing one of the tales as a submission from Edgar to a local newspaper.

Aside from Poe, the closest thing to which I can think of comparing these stories is The X-Files. There’s communities of freaks, bendy men, radioactive time travellers and immortals. Of course, these stories were published long before The X-Files was produced. While reading this, I started to wonder if Alvin Kersh, the unpleasant boss character in The X-Files, didn’t get his name from the author. (This is apparently not the case.) One can easily imagine Mulder and Scully appearing on the scene at the end of most of these tales in an attempt to figure out what has been happening.

In truth, this collection wasn’t quite what I expected. These stories are not straightforward horror, but they are weird, and some are quite creepy. I’m very, very glad to have read this book, as I enjoyed it immensely. I strongly recommend it to anyone with any interest in strange, well written short stories. (If you don’t consider yourself part of that group, fuck off.)

 

nightmares and geezenstacks frederic brownNightmares and Geezenstacks – Frederic Brown
Valancourt Books – 2015 (Originally published 1961)

This collection caught me off guard. Most of the stories in here are short vignettes of speculative fiction. I wasn’t hugely impressed until I got to the 12th story, ‘The Cat Burglar’. It was at the ending of this tale that I understood the genius of Frederic Brown. While other authors throw out their ideas haphazardly, Brown takes his readers where he needs them to be before planting a one sentence bullet right into their skull. The final sentence in ‘The Cat Burglar’ is hilarious, but the plot twists in some of the later tales feel more like punches than punchlines. Frederic Brown was an excellent writer.

While many of these tales in here are lighthearted (or downright silly), some of the longer tales towards the end get quite dark. These were the ones I enjoyed the most, but I did like the rest of the book too. Stephen King claimed that this book was “particularly important” to the horror genre, and this would be true if all it contained were ‘The Joke’ and the ‘Little Lamb’. Both tales are similar in their set-up, but I enjoyed both immensely. 

 

These two books weren’t quite what I was expecting. Most of the short story collections I’ve read recently have been ultra-violent books of trashy horror. Gerald Kersh and Frederic Brown steer clear of that approach; their writing is far more interesting and enjoyable.  I wasn’t expecting the caliber of the writing to be so high, but that was just my naivety. Both books were recently reissued by Valancourt Books, and the general rule with Valancourt is that the books they put out are awesome. You should definitely read both of these collections.

 

 

My Work Is Not Yet Done – Thomas Ligotti

My Work is Not Yet Done ligotti.jpgMy Work is Not Yet Done – Thomas Ligotti
2002 – Virgin

I read a lot of books, but in truth, there are relatively few authors whose books I savour. I actually hold off on reading Thomas Ligotti because I don’t want the day to come when I have already read all of his books. His low opinion of humanity is both tragically hilarious and brutal, and while I don’t necessarily share the outlook of the narrators of his stories, I find his pessimism the perfect vehicle for horror. The message that our existence has no worth is perhaps the most disturbing idea that an author can offer to 21st century humans.

My Work Is Not Yet Done is a novella and two short stories. All of these tales are about workers’ lives as part of a corporation. There’s a very Kafkaesque vibe running throughout, but Ligotti covers the bureaucratic angst with layers of supernatural horror and misanthropy and turns it into something far darker. The first act of the eponymous novella portrays a man who decides to go on a killing spree in his office after he’s unfairly dismissed from his job. I know Stephen King found himself in hot water for writing a novel about a school shooting, so I was impressed that Ligotti had done something so extreme. I won’t tell you what happens later on in the story, but I will say that it’s actually far worse than what you’d expect.

I know full well the misery of working for a company that you hate, and while I’ve only spent a little over a year working in an “office job”, I spent enough of that year fantasizing about murdering my boss to have thoroughly enjoyed this book.

Little things about the book stuck out to me. Characters have stupid names – coworkers are named Sherry, Terry, Mary, and Perry, and detectives are named Black and White. Also, the purpose of the corporations that these characters work is barely discussed – the nature of the work that the characters engage in is almost entirely passed over. Why does Ligotti omit these details? Why doesn’t he put more effort into naming his characters? Because that stuff doesn’t matter. Human beings are entirely interchangeable. You are no different to the people you hate the most. What corporations actually do doesn’t make any difference to their workers. Nothing fucking matters. Every living thing is going to die without having made any noticeable difference in the universe, a universe in which every single atom will eventually decay.

Oh, I forgot to mention that this is the first post of 2020. Happy New Year everyone!

“Generally speaking: Expect nothing but nightmarish obscenities to be born when human heads come together in intercourse.

More generally speaking: Whatever is born will ultimately grow into a nightmarish obscenity – in the grand scheme of things.”

There’s moody nuggets like this sprinkled throughout the book, but the closing lines of My Work Is Not Yet Done sum it all up. I don’t want to quote those here as it might ruin the effect when you do get around to reading it, but fuck me, they’re perfect. Please believe me when I say that this is a novella worth reading.

I’ve also reviewed Ligotti’s Teatro Grottesco and The Conspiracy Against the Human Race if you’re interested. I read Noctuary years ago too, but I haven’t reviewed that one properly yet. There’s a copy of the Penguin edition of Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe on my shelf, but I’m waiting for a special occasion to allow myself the luxury of reading it.

The House on the Borderland – William Hope Hodgson

house on the borderland william hope hodgson.jpgThe House on the Borderland – William Hope Hodgson
1908

It’s coming close to the end of the year, and I have spent 2019 reading some absolute garbage. After reading and reviewing Fritz Leiber’s awesome Our Lady of Darkness last week, I really wanted to read another cool book. I’ve been meaning to read William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland for a couple of years, and when I found a free audiobook version last Sunday, I decided the time was right.

This was a very enjoyable piece of weird fiction. It’s about a strange man who lives in an old house in Ireland that seems to exist on the border of different dimensions. I spent the first half of the novel thinking it was basically just Night of the Living Dead with interdimensional pig-mutants instead of zombies, but the second half of the book has more in common with 2001: A Space Odyssey. (I just read Will Errickson’s review of this book and saw that he also made a 2001 comparison. Will, I swear this was coincidence!) There’s little wonder that H.P. Lovecraft was a big fan of this novel; there’s some very definite “the universe doesn’t care about you” vibes throughout.

I read William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki the Ghost Finder stories a little under two years ago, and while I enjoyed them, I seem to remember them being a good deal more straight forward than this. One of those stories also includes evil pigs, and a couple of them are set in Ireland too. I reckon I enjoyed The House on the Borderland more, and I’m planning to read more by Hodgson in the future.

The only problem with reading good books, especially popular ones, is that I find myself at a loss for things to say when reviewing them. This one is cool, short and available for free in multiple formats. You might as well check it out.

Our Lady of Darkness – Fritz Leiber

fritz leiber our lady darknessOur Lady of Darkness – Fritz Leiber
Berkley Publishing – 1977

A recovering alcoholic reads a weird book about evil architecture and a notebook belonging to Clark Ashton Smith and then begins to see weird stuff through his binoculars. That’s the premise of Our Lady of Darkness by Fritz Leiber. The protagonist is also an author of weird fiction, and repeatedly references Lovecraft, M.R. James and Bierce. I really enjoyed this book, and reading it has made me want to check out more stuff by Leiber.

I didn’t know anything about the author when I started reading Our Lady of Darkness, but I only got a few chapters into this book before I realised that the main character is supposed to be him. Leiber’s name was Fritz, and the character’s name is Franz. They  have the same job, and I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but there was something about the sections on the protagonist’s wife and her death that had me convinced that Leiber was writing from experience. Sure enough, he lapsed into alcoholism after the death of his own wife, and this is obviously a largely autobiographical work. Although this novel contains some fantastic elements, this autobiographical stuff keeps it grounded and makes the weirdness all the more discomforting.

And the weirdness here is quite weird. The antagonist of the book is Thibaut de Castries, the author of Megapolisomancy: A New Science of Cities, a book about the supernatural power of large cities and their buildings. I found this idea quite Ballardian, not in the sense that Ballard was also fascinated with architecture but in the pairing of two seemingly disparate concepts. (De Castries links occult forces with architecture in a similar way to how Ballard links sex and car crashes.) It was cool to come across an idea as strange as this in a fantasy/horror novel.

I don’t have a huge amount else to say about this book. It’s a classic of weird fiction, and you should read it if you haven’t already.  An earlier version of the story was published as The Pale Brown Thing in Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and I read yesterday that Leiber considered this an alternative telling of the same tale rather than just an earlier draft. Swan River Press published an edition of this version in 2016, but it’s long sold out. It would be cool if somebody could upload scans of the original printing to the internet. I’d be delighted to read another version of this story.

The Cipher and Bad Brains by Kathe Koja

koja cipher bad brains
My offering this week is a couple of books by Kathe Koja. These immediately went on my to-read list after I saw them in Paperbacks From Hell. It took me quite a while to find copies, but they’re so deadly that it only took me a few days to read them.

the cipher kojaThe Cipher
Dell Abyss – 1991
This is the story of a couple who find a weird hole in the corner of an unused maintenance room in their apartment building. The hole is weird because stuff that goes into it comes out quite different. Dead bugs come back to life and mutate. Human body parts that are inserted come out grossly disgfigured. When a video camera is lowered into the hole, the resultant video footage is so disturbing that it radically and permanently affects its viewers’ lives.

No sensible explanation of the hole is ever given, and the narrative is enhanced by this omission. The plot here is quite simple, and atmosphere is what drives this novel. It’s original title was ‘The Funhole’, and while that title definitely makes more sense than ‘The Cipher’, it might have made the book sound far less dark than it is. I don’t know why they went with ‘The Cipher’ though.

Nobody is happy in this book, and everything that happens is uncomfortable. It’s fairly long too, and while I enjoyed it immensely, it won’t be to everyone’s tastes. It’s very 90s, very dark and a little bit arty. If you like Nine Inch Nails’ early records, you’ll love this. (I can’t imagine a movie version of The Cipher that doesn’t end with Head Like a Hole playing over the credits. There were talks of a movie version, but I don’t think it ever happened.)

The Cipher is an original, exciting and disturbing horror novel, truly deserving of its reputation, but it has been out of print for a long time. I managed to find a copy at a thrift store for the price of a cup of coffee, but copies currently go for silly amounts online. Luckily for you, there’s an ebook version available, and Meerkat Press are publishing new hard copies next year. I can wholeheartedly recommend that all horror fans pick up this book; it’s seriously awesome.

kathe koja bad brainsBad Brains
Dell Abyss – 1992

Bad Brains is Koja’s second novel, and it has a lot of similarities with The Cipher. In this one, the protagonist trips over a curb, and smashes his head. The resulting brain damage fucks up his life. This book has nothing to do with everyone’s favourite Rastafarian hardcore punks.

Again, the plot is quite straightforward. It’s the slick, shifting prose and atmosphere that carry this novel. The text is fantastic, but I found the pacing a little uneven with this one. There’s a lot of build up to a very cool, but overly short ending segment. Also, the blurb on the back of the Dell edition gives away the most surprising element of plot, so don’t read it until after you’ve finished.

Bad Brains is certainly a horrible story, but it’s less of a horror story than The Cipher. Weird stuff happens, but the central character is so messed up that it’s impossible to know how much of what’s being described is hallucination and how much is real. The definite supernatural element here, the Dorian Grayesque alterations of the protagonist’s paintings, are background events that occur far away from where the story is unfolding. I reckon that the most frightening element of this book is the way it forces you to contemplate the fragility of the human brain.

If you enjoyed The Cipher, you’ll enjoy this. It’s a lot easier to find too.

impermanent mercies kathe kojaLoving that comic sans action.

I also read by Impermanent Mercies by Koja. It’s a short story featured in the second Splatterpunks anthology about an accident involving a kid’s pet puppy. It’s fairly bizarre. I’m planning a post on the 2 Splatterpunks anthologies for the near future. Stay tuned.

Aside from her books, Kathe Koja is pretty cool. She doesn’t eat meat, and she doesn’t like Donald Trump. I plan to read more of her books in the future.

 

The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be – Lovecraft’s Legacy, Part 4

the book of old ones - scorpio.jpgThe Book of Old Ones – Scorpio
Finbarr – 2002

Truly, there are terrible primal arcana of earth which had better be left unknown and unevoked; dread secrets which have nothing to do with man, and which man may learn only in exchange for peace and sanity; cryptic truths which make the knower evermore an alien among his kind, and cause him to walk alone on earth. Likewise are there dread survivals of things older and more potent than man; things that have blasphemously straggled down through the aeons to ages never meant for them; monstrous entities that have lain sleeping endlessly in incredible crypts and remote caverns, outside the laws of reason and causation, and ready to be waked by such blasphemers as shall know their dark forbidden signs and furtive passwords. – from The Diary of Alonzo Typer

When I read a book on Lovecraftian magic, I want to learn about the aforementioned dark forbidden signs and furtive passwords. Unfortunately, this is never what these books contain. The one I’m reviewing today, Scorpio’s The Book of Old Ones, might well be the silliest of all the Lovecraftian grimoires I’ve read.

Imagine what a grimoire would read like if its author had absolutely zero understanding of magic. It’d probably contain powerful spells that are quick and easy to perform and unfailingly effective regardless of whether the person performing them believes in them or not – ‘say this magic word under your breath, and the girl beside you on the train will become your sex slave’ kinda crap. Take 20 pages of that garbage, add a few Lovecraft references and some stories about pathetic losers trying these rituals and then becoming rich, sexy and succesful, and you’ve got Scorpio’s Book of Old Ones.

Much like The Necronomian Workbook, this book shows little understanding of the total apathy of Lovecraftian entities towards human beings. The Old Ones are bigger and older than us. Their children made us for the sake of their amusement. Cthulhu is not concerned with the affairs of mere mortals. He’s plotting revenge on the elder things that imprisoned him. I doubt he’s interested in watching over you as you go on sea voyage, and I really struggle to imagine him helping you find a girlfriend.

cthulhu love spell.jpg
Seriously?

This book is stupid. The author understands neither magic nor Lovecraft’s mythos, but he has written a book combining them. This Scorpio guy seems like a real moron. Then again, this was published by Finbarr, so I’m not quite surprised.

I have made fun of the authors published by Finbarr Publications quite a few times at this stage, and I had initially planned this week’s post on two grimoires written by another of their authors. After doing a little bit of research though, I discovered that this guy actually has a learning disability and has suffered tremendously with his mental health. I’m not being facetious. I decided against reviewing his books, as he uses his real name, and I don’t want to cause any suffering for a person with serious mental problems. I mention it here only to highlight the remarkably low standard of stuff that this publisher puts out. I didn’t find out much about this Scorpio guy, but he’s clearly an imbecile too.

 

lovecraft horror in the museum.jpgH.P. Lovecraft – The Horror in the Museum
Wordsworth
This is the second entry in Wordsworth’s Lovecraft series, and it is comprised of works that Lovecraft worked on with other authors, only one of which I had read before. Most of the stories in the other 3 Wordsworth entries are included in the Penguin editions which I read and reviewed years ago, and after a year of rereading tales I had previously encountered, it was really cool to dive into a fresh batch of unread terror. The quality here is pretty high, and I enjoyed most of the stories in here more the fantasy stuff in Volume 3 and the odds and ends in Volume 4. Picking favourite stories from this collection is quite difficult. The tales in here are really good, and many of them flesh out the Cthulhu mythos – there’s references to Yog-Sothoth and Cthulhu every few pages.

This volume contains the following stories:
The Green Meadow, Poetry and the Gods, The Crawling Chaos, The Horror at Martin’s Beach, Imprisoned with the Pharaohs, Two Black Bottles, The Thing in the Moonlight, The Last Test, The Curse of Yig, The Elecrtic Executioner, The Mound, Medusa’s Coil, The Trap, The Man of Stone, The Horror in the Museum, Winged Death, Out of the Aeons, The Horror in the Burying Ground, Till A’ the Seas, The Disinternment, The Diary of Alonzo Typer, Within the Walls of Eryx and The Night Ocean
(Imprisoned with the Pharaohs appears in the Penguin collections as Under the Pyramids.)

Some of these tales are fairly racist. The word ‘nigger’ is thrown around quite a bit. One of the stories, Medusa’s Coil, is particularly nasty. It’s about a very evil woman. I was quite confused when I finished reading it. In this edition, the last line reads; “It would be too hideous if they knew that the one-time heiress of Riverside… was faintly, subtly, yet to the eyes of genius unmistakenly the scion of Zimbabwe’s most primal grovellers.” I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of this, so I looked up a summary, and it seems as though the editor at Wordsworth actually cut the final line of the story. The original text ends: “No wonder she owned a link with that old witch-woman—for, though in deceitfully slight proportion, Marceline was a negress.” The final revelation of tale is that the anatagonist is a bit black. This is not made very clear in the Wordsworth edition. In 1944, August Derleth anthologised this story and altered the final line to say “though in deceitfully slight proportion, Marceline was a loathsome, bestial thing, and her forebears had come from Africa.” At least Derleth’s version kept the meaning. The redacted Wordsworth edition makes the ending confusing rather than ugly. This is obviously a horribly racist ending to a horribly racist tale, but I’m pretty disgusted that Wordsworth thought it acceptable to censor it. I absolutely hate when publishers do that. If you choose to publish a dead racist’s work, don’t pretend he wasn’t a racist.

So why do I devote so much of my time to reading and reviewing books by and about this horribly bigoted individual? Well, it has a lot do with passages of writing like this:

These scribbled words can never tell of the hideous loneliness (something I did not even wish assuaged, so deeply was it embedded in my heart) which had insinuated itself within me, mumbling of terrible and unknown things stealthily circling nearer. It was not a madness: rather it was a too clear and naked perception of the darkness beyond this frail existence, lit by a momentary sun no more secure than ourselves: a realization of futility that few can experience and ever again touch the life about them: a knowledge that turn as I might, battle as I might with all the remaining power of my spirit, I could neither win an inch of ground from the inimical universe, nor hold for even a moment the life entrusted to me. Fearing death as I did life, burdened with a nameless dread yet unwilling to leave the scenes evoking it, I awaited whatever consummating horror was shifting itself in the immense region beyond the walls of consciousness.

Come on. That is brilliant. This is from The Night Ocean, the last story in the collection. Of all the stories in here, this one is the least explicit in its horrors, but the sense of gloom and despair that pervades the narrative is perfectly effective. Lovecraft may have been a horrible racist, but damn, his work does a damn fine job of expressing the futility of life. Interestingly enough, the author of The Night Ocean (Lovecraft was mainly an editor for this one) was gay. He was also an anthropologist, and was actually one of William Burroughs’ professors at Mexico City University.

There’s another curious little tale in here called Till A’ the Seas that I really liked. It’s about the last human on an Earth that has overheated. It’s set in the distant future, but by now it could believably be set 60-70 years from today. You should definitely read the full story (link above), but if you’re too lazy, just read this:

And now at last the Earth was dead. The final, pitiful survivor had perished. All the teeming billions; the slow aeons; the empires and civilizations of mankind were summed up in this poor twisted form—and how titanically meaningless it all had been! Now indeed had come an end and climax to all the efforts of humanity—how monstrous and incredible a climax in the eyes of those poor complacent fools of the prosperous days! Not ever again would the planet know the thunderous tramping of human millions—or even the crawling of lizards and the buzz of insects, for they, too, had gone. Now was come the reign of sapless branches and endless fields of tough grasses. Earth, like its cold, imperturbable moon, was given over to silence and blackness forever.

God damn, that’s beautiful.

Originally, the second collection of Lovecraft’s work put out by Wordsworth was titled The Loved Dead, but this story was removed from this collection after the people at Wordsworth decided that Lovecraft’s influence on that tale was only minor. Also, Through the Gates of the Silver Key is curiously absent from this collection despite being a collaboration between Lovecraft and E. Hoffmann Price. Through the Gates… is the only story to appear in the Penguin editions of Lovecraft’s work that is missing from the Wordsworth collections. I’m planning a fifth and final post in this series on the few tales by Lovecraft that are missing from this series, so keep an eye out for that in the near future.

Edit: For convenience sake, I’m including the links to all of the posts in this series for anyone who’s interested. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5)

Teatro Grottesco – Thomas Ligotti

teatro grotessco thomas ligotti.jpgTeatro Grottesco – Thomas Ligotti
Virgin Books – 2008 (First published 2006)

This collection of short stories makes most of the horror fiction I’ve read seem like a children’s cartoon. This isn’t bump in the night stuff; it’s black, oily, suffocating horror. It is the second book that I have ever read that actually gave me nightmares.

Nightmares are interesting things. While they always contain some kind of unpleasant element, they also have to be similar enough to our day to day lives to actually disturb us, and it’s this fact that gives this Teatro Grottesco a truly nightmarish quality.

This collection is truly weird weird-fiction, but while the scenarios it describes all contain an element of the fantastic, their reality is never far enough from our own to void the message they deliver. And there is a message in these tales. Ligotti is a philosopher as well as a fiction writer, and it is his takes on reality that make these stories truly horrifying. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has read his The Conspiracy against the Human Raceone of the most pessimistic books in existence. I read and enjoyed that one a few years ago, but my one complaint was that although the arguments therein are convincing, they didn’t hugely influence the way I was feeling when I read them. I was able to brush them off as somebody else’s bad attitude. For me, it was far more effective coming across these ideas in fictional narratives than in a treatise of philosophy. The final tale in this collection, The Shadow, The Darkness, is one of the most profoundly articulate discussions of the futility of human existence that I have encountered. It made me feel quite bad when reading it. Indeed, the horror of Ligotti’s prose is more directed at its reader than at its characters.

The characters in these tales are very strange. They appear more as shadows than as distinguishable individuals. They’re all artists or managers of boarding houses. The narrator of any one tale in this collection could be the narrator of any of the others. This might seem like a criticism to somebody who hasn’t read the book, but I strongly suspect that it was intentional. One of the key ideas throughout this collection is that the self is an illusion. Human minds and souls aren’t real; they are a symptom of the sickness of reality, and the attempt to distinguish between one person and another is a pathetic exercise in futility. In one of the tales, a character describes himself thus:

“My body – a tumor that was once delivered from the body of another tumor, a lump of disease that is always boiling with its own disease. And my mind – another disease, the disease of a disease. Everywhere my mind sees the disease of other minds and other bodies, these other organisms that are only other diseases, an absolute nightmare of the organism.”

Get the idea? What difference does it make who is narrating the story if every living thing is just a drastically diseased and deluded tumor? This book is horrible – horrible but also absolutely deadly.

Shout out to my mother in law for buying me this for Christmas. It’s probably my favourite book that I’ve read this year – I really, really liked this one. It’s also the third of Ligotti’s books that I’ve read, and from what I can see online, most of his books are fairly difficult to come by. This is unfortunate because he’s a brilliant writer. I’ve seen a bunch of stuff that talks about how Ligotti is like a modern Lovecraft, but I find his writing more similar to that of Samuel Beckett than to any horror writer I’ve read. (I think the similarity lies in how both writers present human relationships – maybe I’ll write an essay about this some day.) Anyways, I am going to try to find a copy of the Penguin edition of Ligotti’s first two books and review it in the very near future. This is the kind of horror I want to read.