Happy Birthday to the Marquis De Sade!

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I’ve been meaning to do a post on the Marquis De Sade since I started this blog, and what better day to do it than his 276th birthday! De Sade’s life was as interesting as his books, and it’s hard to know where to start with him. I have an awful lot to say about the lad, and I’m sure this won’t be my only post on his work.

Trigger Warnings: Rape, Murder, Blasphemy, Bestiality, Rape

(You said Rape twice…)

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The 120 Days of Sodom & Other Writings – Marquis De Sade
Grove Press – 1987

My introduction to De Sade’s writing was 120 Days of Sodom. It is, without a doubt, the vilest book that I have ever read.  It’s a bit like the GG Allin of literature; it’s fucking horrendous, but it’s kind of cool that somebody did it. This book is so far ahead of its competition in terms of offensiveness, that any attempt to outdo it would seem petty.
It’s a fairly long book, and it’s very formulaic in some ways. I read it over a few days, and it really got to me. This is one of the very few books that has actually given me nightmares. (Imagine drifting off to the land of Nod only to find yourself being forced to attend a ‘blood-orgy’ in a subterranean vault. Yes, a ‘blood-orgy’; I distinctly remember that phrase from the dream.) As it so happens, this is also one of the very few books that has actually made laugh so hard that tears ran down my face. There is one part in which a man “fucks a goat from behind while being flogged; the goat conceives and gives birth to a monster. Monster though it be, he embuggers it.” Now THAT’S comedy! “Monster though it be” HAHAHAHAHA!!! The man is having sex with his own mutant offspring! LOL!!! 

When introducing one of the characters, a lady named Thérèse, De Sade notes;
“Her ass was peppered with wounds, and her buttocks were so prodigiously slack one could have furled the skin around a walking stick; the hole in this splendid ass resembled the crater of a volcano what for width and for aroma the pit of a privy; in all her life, Thérèse declared, she had never once wiped her ass, whence she had positive proof that the shit of her infancy yet clung there”
Some people view him as a philosopher, some ill-informed individuals imagine him as a sexual-revolutionary, but I think that De Sade has to be interpreted as a comedian with an extremely childish sense of humour. I can imagine him, sitting in his prison cell, chuckling away to his heart’s content as he wrote down the most vulgar, repulsive things he could imagine. The man had nothing to lose, and his writing gave him an opportunity to lash out at those who landed him in prison. His mother in law had had him jailed for abusing a prostitute, and if you read between the lines in books that he wrote in jail, all you’ll see is the phrase “You think that was bad? I’ll show you bad!”
Petulant, but truly hilarious.

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Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom, and Other Writings – Marquis De Sade
Grove Weidenfeld – 1990

Next up is Philosophy in the Bedroom/Boudoir. I actually read the Penguin Classics version of this one, but I own the Grove Press edition. This takes the form of a dialogue between a young girl and a group of libertines who attempt to convince her to abandon her morality. It’s been a few years since I read it, but I remember this being very, very funny. The blasphemies in here are priceless; I recall some of the characters attempting to shout out phrases such as “Christ be triple-fucked” as they reach their orgasms. There is a long and boring section towards the end that discusses 18th century French politics, but it’s not essential to the plot, and you can just skip over it. This one isn’t quite as repulsive as 120 Days, but it does get pretty nasty.

I have also read the Oxford’s World’s Classics edition of The Misfortunes of Virtue. The Misfortunes of Virtue, written in 1787, is probably De Sade’s most palatable book. It’s still full of rape and misery, but it makes its point without getting too disgusting. It’s about a virtuous young woman who does her best to stay good. Every time she fails to take the opportunity to do something bad, something horrendous happens to her. It’s a fairly depressing text. Four years after publishing this one, De Sade decided it wasn’t horrible enough, so he rewrote it with extra rape and pooing, and renamed it Justine. 6 years after this, he rewrote it again, making it even more repulsive. Unfortunately, the final, 1797, version has never been published in English. The text in my Grove edition is the second version, but I haven’t got around to reading it yet.

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Juliette – Marquis De Sade
Grove Press – Not sure of year of publication (This edition lists a website though)

Although I own a copy, I have not yet read Juliette. Juliette is the companion book to Justine. While Justine was a little Goody-Two-Shoes, her sister Juliette was a bad girl who reaped the rewards of evil. I’m sure Juliette is a hoot, but it’s 1200 pages long, and although I have enjoyed his other works, De Sade’s books aren’t easy reads. 1200 pages of horrendous rape and murder seems like quite a commitment at the moment.

I just got this in the post the other day. It’s a novel about the Marquis from the 1960s. I’m sure it’s trash, but what a great title!
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Everyone has heard of De Sade, but not many people have actually read his books. He was a funny chap, but he was also a pathetic loser in a lot of ways. His anti-moral philosophies seem to have been a major influence on several forms of modern Satanism, and while I understand his point of view and agree with much of what he as to say about religion, I think that most of what he has to say is very shitty. Shitty, but sadly realistic. Anyways, that’s enough for tonight. If you want to discuss De Sadean/Sadistic philosophy, please give me a shout.

Happy Birthday Donatien Alphonse François!

*Although this post appears to have been posted on the 3rd of June, it was actually written and posted on the 2nd. De Sade was born on June 2nd, 1740.

Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood – Weird Fiction from the Golden Dawn

2016-05-06 19.05.55The Three Imposters and other stories – Vol. 1 of the Best Weird Tales of Arthur Machen 
The White People and other stories – Vol. 2 of the Best Weird Tales of Arthur Machen 
The Terror and other stories – Vol. 3 of the Best Weird Tales of Arthur Machen
Chaosium Publishing

It’s very rare that I would read a book of short stories in the same way that I would read a novel. I usually have a book or two of short stories on the go that I’ll dip in and out of when I’m between other texts. It can take an awfully long time to get through a book in this manner, but it stops me from getting bored of the author’s style. (The Collected Stories of M.R. James, for example, took me about 7 months to finish, but I got through another 35 full texts in that same period.) In this particular case, the collection of short stories was broken up over three books, and I interspersed other collections between each of these volumes. It has hence taken me about 4 years to get through Chaosium’s collected weird tales of Arthur Machen, and I can’t honestly say that I remember much about the first ones that I read other than that I absolutely adored them.

Much like Penguin’s editions of Lovecraft’s stories, the first volume of this collection contains the best material. I took a copy of it out of the library after reading about Machen online, and I enjoyed it immensely. These creepy stories about freaks, weird experiments and dark forces are top notch stuff. I’ve already linked to my posts on James and Lovecraft, and I feel that Machen, at his best, occupies the middle-ground between these two authors. Every story in here was deadly. You should buy and read this book.

The second volume has some good stuff, but some of it is lame. This book contains the Angels of Mons stuff.  During the first World War, Machen wrote a story about some angels appearing on a battlefield at Mons. The story was published in a newspaper, and many people, including some of the soldiers who had been in that battle, took it to be a factual account. It’s kind of cool that this happened, but the story isn’t that great. The Red Hand and The White People are the highlights in this volume. Maybe take this one out of the library, or read those two stories online instead.

The third volume is plop. There were a few stories that seem promising at the beginning, but these either teeter off into incoherence or abruptly turn to shit. Changes was worth reading for the hideous, yellow-faced goblin-child, and Out of the Picture was entertaining if quite silly, but the rest of the stories in here are garbage. The title story is actually the uncut version of a story that appears in the second version, and it’s a drawn-out piece of trash. Speaking of what is contained in this volume, S.T. Joshi claims; “None of these works add anything to Machen’s overall reputation as a horror writer.” I agree. Joshi afterwards mentions other works of Machen’s which were too poor to be included here. Those stories must be the literary equivalent of sniffing a shit-stained pair of britches. Don’t bother with this one unless you’re a completist. It’s not an enjoyable read.

Machen also wrote a novel called Hill of Dreams. I haven’t read that yet, but it’s supposed to be good. I’ll get around to it someday.

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Ancient Sorceries and Other Weird Stories – Algernon Blackwood
Penguin  – 2002

I took this book out of the library right after finishing the first volume in the above Machen collection. I read it straight through without breaks, and while I thoroughly enjoyed most of it, by the end I was getting burnt out on short stories. It has been a long time since I read this book, but I seem to remember the individual stories from this one better than those from the first Machen collection. There’s 9 stories in here, and they are all quite different. The weird in ‘Weird Fiction’ is a tricky thing to pin down, but I found that Blackwood’s stories are weirder (in the common sense of the word weird) than those of Machen or Lovecraft. That being said, this is the only collection of Blackwood’s that I have read, and maybe his other work is different. I would love to hear from anyone who has any recommendations on Blackwood’s other stuff. The layout of this book is nice; it has an almost identical format to the Penguin editions of Lovecraft (an introduction by Joshi and a small article and set of notes for each story). I would recommend picking this one up.

Both Machen and Blackwood were members of the magical order of the Golden Dawn along with W.B. Yeats and Aleister Crowley. Whatever though. I’m not going to get into that. If you’re interested, you can find out more about their involvement in this magical order online.

 

The Fiery Angel – Valery Bryusov

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Neville Spearman – 1975 (Valeri Briussov)
Dedalus – 2005 (Valery Bruisov)

I came across the title of this book when I was reading Colin Wilson’s The Occult two years ago, and from his description, I knew that I’d have to read it at some stage. I spent a while trying to track down a copy at a decent price, and when I found one, it spent a few months lying on the shelf before I got around to reading it. When I finally got around to it, I was met with an unpleasant surprise. Some of the pages were entirely blank. See the below video for details:


Like I said, I had ordered this a good while before picking it up to read, and so I didn’t feel it fair to demand a refund. I doubted that the bookseller had known about the defect, but I was having a slow day in work, and I decided to drop them an email to pass the time. Below is the message I sent.

my email

When I wrote that email, I did not expect a response. Fortunately, I was wrong; they replied promptly:
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Many’s the stupid email I have sent, but I have never been so satisfied with a response. Normally you get a feebly polite apology. I take my hat off to the individual who sent the above response to me. It makes me happy to think that there are companies out there that deal with customers as they should be dealt with. If you’re talking to a jackass, talk to them like they’re a jackass. (Although, note that the seller did very courteously offer to send me a replacement.) I was extremely satisfied with my dealings with this seller, and I encourage all of my readers to buy books from them whenever the opportunity arises.

Anyways, I soon thereafter bought a different copy of the book (the more recent Dedalus edition), and that version lay on my shelf for another year before I got around to it. While the Spearman edition has a foreword by Colin Wilson, the Dedalus version has an afterword by Gary Lachman. Surprisingly, the Dedalus version also omits a two page foreword by Bryusov himself that really should be part of the text. In it, Bryusov claims to be the editor of the tale and not the author so-to-speak. Otherwise, the text of the two books are identical copies of the same original printing. (There are identical imperfections on the same pages in both versions, one of which looks like a squished fly.) If I had to choose, I would buy the Spearman version, but I would make sure that it has all of the pages before buying! (My copy is missing pages 76, 77, 80, 81, 84, 85, 92, 93, and a few more.)

Two things before I start my actual review. First of all, the name of the author is spelled differently on my two copies of this book. It’s spelled Valery Bryusov most places online, so I’m going to use that spelling. Next, this post contains a few spoilers. If you are sure you want to read this one and you’re like me and like knowing as little as possible about a book before reading it, maybe you should read the book before you read the rest of this. (But make sure you do come back to finish reading this when you’re done. I discovered some cool stuff about this book that you’ll want to know!) If you’re not sure about whether or not you want to read this one yet, read away. The spoilers here won’t ruin the suspense of the novel.

So what’s the big deal here? Why did I bother with this book? Well, it’s a novel about magic, the witch-craze, repressed sexuality and perversion. What more could I possibly ask for? Set in 16th century Germany, it tells the story of a hard man called Rupprecht who’s making his way home after gallivanting around Mexico for a few years. He becomes enchanted by a girl who is staying in the same hotel as him, but he quickly notices that she’s carrying some serious baggage; she is possessed by demons and she practices black magic. As so often happens, this woman’s personality flaws make her seem all the more attractive, and Rupprecht decides to wander around with her for a while. She tells him that she’s searching for a former lover, and Rupprecht agrees to help her find him. Oh, and it also turns out that her old lover is either an angel or devil. (We’re never made entirely sure which side this ‘Fiery Angel’ is on.) At this point, Rupes’s compliance makes you start to wonder whether it was by natural or infernal means that he was so enchanted; shouldn’t he be taking this as his cue to tell Renata to fuck off?

Well, they wander around a while looking for the Fiery Angel, but Renata gets disheartened and decides that the only way to find him will be to ask the devil for help. Renata doesn’t want that kind of guilt on her conscience though, so she convinces Rupprecht that he should sell his soul so that she can find out where her boyfriend is. Rupprecht is a hard man and everything, but he clearly gets off on kinky sado-masochistic power struggles. The more he can debase himself for the sake of his lady, the stronger his mental ‘gasm shall be! He offers his soul to Satan and actually kisses the Dark Lord’s ringpiece in order to cuckold himself; what a creep!

There are several other twists and turns in their complicated relationship, but eventually Renata runs away on Rupprecht. After a bit of moping around by himself, he bumps into Faust and Mephistopheles and wanders around with them for a while. When he finally stumbles across Renata again, she has joined a nunnery, changed her name to sister Maria, and she’s gotten herself accused of witchcraft. (Typical, right?) She is of course guilty of witchery, but one gets the impression that the reasons she is being charged have less to do with her actions and more to do with the fact that nunneries are mad places full of mad people. The whole thing very quickly turns into a Devils of Loudun situation, and Renata is sentenced to death. Rupprecht tries to rescue her, but things don’t really go according to his plans.

That’s the basic plot of it, but there’s a tonne of cool bits that I’ve left out. Rupprecht attends a witches’ Sabbath, he spends time with Cornelius Agrippa and Johann Weyer, he performs ceremonial black magic and summons demons, and Renata and he have a tonne of kinky sex. (Ok, so we don’t get the juicy details, but judging by the way they act with eachother and the fact that Rupprecht claims that Renata wanted to do more than just regular inny-outty, we can assume that no door was left unopened!) One interesting feature of the text is the fact that although this is a novel about witchcraft and magic, it is also very much a piece of historical fiction. At no point in the book does anything happen that might not actually be explained in real life. Perhaps the most curious thing that occurs is that Renata knows Rupprecht’s name before he introduces himself, but I’m sure you can imagine 100 different ways that a person might find out the name of another guest at the same hotel as them.

Despite the fact that it is mentioned in neither Colin Wilson’s foreword in the Spearman edition nor Lachman’s afterword, it turns out that this book, particularly the last few chapters, is actually largely based on a true story. In 1749, a nun named Renata Maria Saengen von Massau was one of the last women in Germany to be executed for the crime of witchcraft. (She died in 1749, but The Fiery Angel is set over 200 years earlier; I don’t think any dates are specifically mentioned, but Cornelius Agrippa, who dies at the end of the book, actually died in 1535.) I found two different accounts of the real Renata’s life in my library. One is from Robbin’s Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology. This is a rather sympathetic account that suggests that poor Sister Renata was a victim of mass hysteria. The other account of her life that I read was in Montague Summers‘ book, The Geography of Witchcraft. Monty was fully convinced that this woman was indeed a vile Satanist, and his account is even more fanciful than Bryusov’s.

Despite their different standpoints, Summers and Robbins both present the same basic story. Sister Renata had entered a nunnery when she was about 19 years old. She spent the last 15 of her 50 years in the nunnery as the subprioress. Everything was going fine in her life until a girl named Cecilia Pistorini started throwing fits in order to gain entry into the convent. Cecilia believed her hallucinations and spasms were messages from God, and she thought that this should allow her to skip through the novitiate stage of becoming a nun. Renata wasn’t convinced, and she suggested that the girl might have been putting it all on. Cecilia remembered this, and when she eventually became a nun, she convinced herself and others that Sister Renata was a witch. As she was dying, another senile old hag of a nun claimed that Renata had bewitched her, and this forced to the prioress of the convent to look into the matter. Word got out, and the idea that Renata was a witch caught on with other idiot nuns in the convent. They started imagining that they had been bewitched or possessed and a bunch of them started screaming things out during mass. The more attention they got from the local priests, the more horny they became and the more they acted up. This did not look good for poor Renata. She denied all of the allegations at first, but after twenty lashes with a consecrated rawhide bullwhip, she started to remember her sins.

In Renata’s confession, she claims to have given herself to Satan when she was only 8 years old. She spent her teenage years having sex with demons and learning the craft of Satanism, and then when she was old enough, she decided to join the convent with the sole purpose of bringing it down from the inside. (It’s a bit hard to understand how the other nuns didn’t notice anything for the first 49 years that she had been there.) She claims to have ridden to the Sabbath several times a week, to have made love to the Devil on countless occasions, and to have stolen consecrated hosts with the purpose of throwing them into the toilet. The way she stole the hosts was pretty cool. Before she would go to receive communion, she would cut slits in her flesh, and when the priest would give her the communion wafer, she would sneakily stick it into the communion-shaped holes that she had carved into her own body. She did this just so she could throw the body of christ into the crapper. What a legend!

There’s an interesting part in the Verbatim Reports from Sister Renata’s trials that might have been Bryusov’s source of inspiration for the character of Rupprecht.

“Q. Was she a witch?
A. Yes.
Q. Where did she learn this and from whom?
A. A grenadier had taught her in Vienna, where she and the whole household had gone with her father during the Hungarian war.
Q. How did she meet this grenadier?
A. As happens in wartime. The grenadier had often given her bread when she was hungry, and finally he promised to teach her something.
Q. What then did this grenadier finally teach her?
A. He gave her a paper, on which all sorts of letters were written. On this paper she had to draw a circle and stand inside it. In addition, she had received a charm [Zetel] with various words on it; and if she could read these words, then she could make passers-by in the street lame and crippled.”

In The Fiery Angel, Rupprecht doesn’t meet Renata in Vienna, but he is a soldier that meets her in a time of need, and they do spend time together studying the black arts. I think it’s quite likely that Rupprecht originated as a re-imagining of the mysterious grenadier from the real Renata’s confessions.

In the book, Renata dies in Rupprecht’s arms, but the real Renata was not quite so lucky. Her judges decided to show her some leniency in her execution though, on account of the fact that she had been seduced by Satan at such a young age. She was shown the courtesy of having her head chopped off before being thrown into a barrel of burning tar. Apparently the executioner made such a clean cut that her head popped clean off her body with the first blow from his sword, and he was given a round of applause for his accuracy. Imagine a crowd of people cheering a man for decapitating a 69 year old woman.

All in all, this is a very interesting book. I found the first half dragged a little bit, but it really picks up later on. Bryusov knew his stuff when it came to witchcraft, and there are a few books mentioned in here that I am going to have to try to track down. In truth though, this book is more about the psychology of attraction than it is about black magic. Apparently the plot of the story is largely based on events from the author’s own life. He basically took the story of a love triangle that he had been involved in, chose characters from a famous witch trial to play the roles, and set the story 200 years before those people had actually lived. The result is actually deadly. I mean, as mad as it sounds, I think this book would be an enjoyable read for a person with no interest in witchcraft or demonology. For those of us who are interested in those topics, this is a must read. Five stars.

Happy Birthday Edgar Allan Poe!

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(Card made by my wonderfully creative wife)

Were he still alive, Edgar Allan Poe would be 207 today. If you haven’t read all of his stories, stop wasting your time on my dumb blog and check them out. It would be rather difficult for me to overstate how much I love Poe. Teaching English, I’ve had to read the Tell-Tale Heart, the Cask of Amontillado, and Masque of the Red Death more times than I can count, and I still get excited every time I get the opportunity to go back to them. There’s so many other great tales though. The Black CatThe Imp of the Perverse, and Fall of the House of Usher are some of my other favourites, but he wrote plenty more that are equally as brilliant.

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The pictured books are just some cheap collections I’ve picked up in the last few years. There are countless editions of Poe’s works out there, and I can’t recommend any in particular. (I will say, as I have said before, that the Complete Poetry Collection is a handy one for taking into the bathroom on a slow Sunday morning.) When I get rich, I’m going to buy a hardback edition of his collected works for my fine mahogany bookshelves. I’d also love a copy of Tales of Mystery and Imagination with the illustrations by Harry Clarke, but I guess shitty thrift store collections and the internet will have to suffice until I hit the big time. Anyways, Happy Birthday Edgar!!!

And just so ye know; I’m right in the middle of the busiest part of my course at the moment, and this blog might get a little slow for the next month or so, but don’t fret; it won’t be long until I get to put down the textbooks and take up some quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore!

Here is just some of the utter garbage that I’ve picked up recently:2016-01-13 22.56.47

The Phantom of the Opera, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Nightmare Abbey

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I recently started back at university, and I won’t have much time for reading or blogging for the next year. Still though, I’ll try to get a few posts up whenever I get the chance. Here are three books that weren’t as good as I hoped they would be.

The Phantom of the Opera – Gaston Leroux
Signet Classics – 1987

This one was actually pretty good for most of the book. I just felt that the ending was a let down. I read it a good while ago, and I have actually forgotten how it ended. I could look it up for the sake of this blog post, but I don’t think that my fragile heart could bear to go through that disappointment again.
Although the characters in here are annoyingly see-through, I think that the biggest problem for this book is living up to the reputation that Hollywood has created for it. The Phantom of the Opera, as an archetypal villain, is in the same league as Dracula or Frankenstein. Unfortunately the book that he comes from is not nearly as good as those of his rivals. It’s still fun though, and I probably enjoyed this the most out of any of the three turds.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson
Golden Press – 1978

I had a cool Jekyll and Hyde board game when I was a kid, and I grew up imagining that the book would be as much fun as that game. Unfortunately, it isn’t. It basically tells the same story twice: once from the point of view of Jekyll and once from the point of view of Hyde. The plot is framed around a twist, but  I can’t imagine that there are many readers who don’t already know who’s who of this tale. This was another book that I read on a plane, so maybe it’s better than I remember. Still though, I’m not going to reread it.

Nightmare Abbey – Thomas Love Peacock
Penguin Classics – 1986
This one isn’t all that bad; it was just quite a bit different to what I expected. It’s often included in lists of classic Gothic literature, and while it is fairly morbid, it’s just not that spooky. Not a lot happens in it either; it’s mostly dialogue. It’s not an all-together bad read though; I definitely got a few laughs out of it. My edition also includes another novel by the same author. I probably won’t bother. Much of the inspiration  for that terrible Gothic film by Ken Russell came from this.

There you go faithful readers; three turds in the bowl. I’m sure this post has been even more disappointing than any of the books reviewed. Que sera, sera.

Le Fanu’s Short Stories – Madam Crowl’s Ghost and In a Glass Darkly

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Sheridan Le Fanu – Madam Crowl’s Ghost & Other Stories / In A Glass Darkly
Wordsworth Editions – 2006 and 2008

Here are two collections of short stories from one of my favourite writers. I would recommend the Oxford edition of In A Glass Darkly, as that one contains nice notes at the back. Wordsworth editions are bare bones and rarely contain annotation. They are cheap however, and I own quite a few of them.

In A Glass Darkly is the better of the two collections. It’s been a few years since I read it, but I distinctly remember the joy I felt when the evil monkey appeared the first story. It’s also great because it contains lesbian vampires in a vampire story that predates Dracula. I think my favourite story in here is the novella: The Room in Le Dragon Volant. It’s not as spooky as the others, but I really like Le Fanu’s writing

Madam Crowl’s Ghost is a nice collection of ghost stories compiled by none other than M.R James. I read this one more recently, but I read the first two stories on a transatlantic flight and didn’t end up enjoying them as much as I would have were I to read them on the couch at midnight with a cup of peppermint tea. The stories in here are collected from different sources, and the quality and tone varies quite a bit. Some are great though, and most of them are set in Ireland. You can imagine my sheer delight on finding a story in here about a man from my hometown who shares my name. I loved this book, but the other collection is probably a better place to start if you haven’t read Le Fanu before.

Maldoror and Poems – Le Comte de Lautrémont

Maldoror

Penguin – 1978
The full title of this work is “Les Chants de Maldoror”, and it is supposedly a collection of “songs”  written by an extremely nasty individual. Imagine all of the bad guys of gothic literature rolled into one and you’ll get an idea of what Maldoror is like as a person. He’s equal parts Manfred and Melmoth, but he also has a little Dracula and Curval in him too. He hates man, god and almost everything else. Sounds pretty cool right? Well some of it definitely is. The parts where he recounts his crimes and insults god are  damn sweet. He isn’t just a little bit naughty either; he’s full on evil. He boasts about brutally torturing people and he’s a bit rapey too. I’m surprised more metal bands haven’t used the name Maldoror. I can only find one black metal band from Italy with the name, and they look absolutely shit.

This wasn’t a book that I rushed through. I enjoyed the protagonist’s horribly nihilistic outlook, but I read the book in July, and it felt wrong to sit down with it when the sun was shining. I had to wait until the hour of 12 before delving into this hateful work of misanthropy. Also, the prose is quite dense, and it was a bit of a chore to get through. Some of the sentences are ridiculously long (the narrator comments on this himself), and there’s no underlying plot to the book, so it can be difficult to follow.

Nobody knows much about Le Comte de Lautrémont, but his real name was Isidore Ducasse, and he died at 24, only a few years after this book was written. I would imagine that parts of this book are autobiographical and reflect the author’s outlook. There are brief incidents in the text where a hitherto unknown character appears and is treated as if he has been part of the story all along. These parts struck me as probably having meaning to the author alone; perhaps they are masked accounts of his own experiences. That’s one of the difficulties with surrealist writing though; the author is under no obligation to explain himself.

And this book is quite surreal. There are some truly mental parts in it. Some of them are entertaining; I particularly enjoyed Maldoror’s dalliance with a shark, but many are confusing and are made downright unenjoyable by frustratingly convoluted prose. This confusion is not accidental though, and the difficulties facing the reader of this book are undoubtedly deliberate. One of the opening lines of the book reads; “It is not right that everyone should read the pages that follow; only a few will be able to savour this bitter fruit with impunity.” Maldoror does not want his readers to enjoy these songs; he wants them to suffer. This is basically a deliberately discordant black metal album in the form of a book.

I wanted to like this book more than I did. It’s a cool idea; I just don’t think it was executed as well as it could have been. In saying that though, this is a translation, so maybe the fault lies with Paul Knight. Then again, maybe I just didn’t get it. This is definitely a book that you have to ‘get’ to enjoy. It’s surrealist fiction, so a load of it is utter bollocks that makes no sense. I would say that the grisly parts make it worth reading, they’re gross, funny and metal as fuck, but don’t expect to enjoy the whole thing. If you find yourself having a great time while reading this book, you are definitely doing it wrong.

This edition also contains Lautrémont’s poetry. Apparently he had gotten all of this negativity out when he wrote Maldoror, and his poems are supposed to focus on more positive things. I didn’t read them. I probably never will. The edition that I am reviewing also has a deadly cover. It’s from part of this painting by Anton Wiertz.wiertzL’Inhumation précipitée

The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James

Wordsworth Books – 20072015-04-29 20.24.35

I recently reviewed Hans Holzer’s Gothic Ghosts. It was an absolutely atrocious piece of garbage, but in retrospect, I think that one of the reasons that book seemed so shitty to me was the fact that I had been reading it on my commute into work each morning while simultaneously spending my evenings reading the ghost stories of M.R. James. Holzer is shit at best, but in comparison to James, he is the shit of a shit.

Ironically, James’s ghost stories, while hugely entertaining and infinitely better than Holzer’s tripe, are also quite formulaic. They’re nearly all about elderly, educated, asexual gentlemen who find some kind of ancient artifact whilst on a vacation in a rural town. This ancient whistle, book, photograph, map, key, dollhouse or manuscript will prove to be haunted, and terror will ensue. That might seem unenjoyably predictable, but it’s the atmosphere and sense of impending doom that make these stories so entertaining. You know from the start that something fucked is going to happen; it’s the build up that allows the ghouls to get right in under your skin. I found audiobook versions of some of the stories on youtube, and listened to them whilst lying in bed.  While doing so I took great precautions to avoid the icy grasp of any skeletal hands that may have been reaching up from underneath my bed. I kept my arms, legs and head safely under the blanket.

These stories are magnificent. The Tractate Middoth, A View from a Hill, A Warning to the Curious, and Wailing Well might be my favourites, but most of the stories in here are top notch. There are a few stinkers; Two Doctors is crap, and The Story of a Disappearance and Appearance, although it does contain a chilling nightmare sequence, is fairly disappointing. The book I am reviewing here is the Collected Ghost Stories, not the Complete Ghost Stories. James wrote 4 other ghost stories that are not included in this publication. They are:
The Experiment
The Malice of Inanimate Objects
A Vignette
The Fenstanton Witch
They’re not James’s best, but they’re all worth reading if you like the stories in this book. A quick google search will sort you out.

I don’t want to spend too much time discussing James or his tales, as there is an abundance of information on both him and his writing online. I really enjoyed the BBC documentary on his life, and the M.R. James Podcast is good for additional information on each of the tales.

I’ve already mentioned that the cover of this book is fairly shit, but the real disappointment with this edition is the lack of notes. James was an exceptionally well-read individual, and he makes reference to many peculiar characters, events and texts. It would be really nice if the book included short explanations of these obscure references. I’m not sure if other publisher’s editions have notes sections either, but I know that the Wordsworth Series are crap for this kind of thing. I read the Oxford edition of Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly, which had extensive helpful notes, but the Wordsworth edition that I bought has none. (Incidentally, M.R. James was a huge fan of Le Fanu.) Also, it bears repeating that this is not the complete collection of his ghost stories. I don’t know which is the best edition of James’s tales, but I know for sure that this isn’t it.

Either way, this gets an 8.5/10. It’s an extremely enjoyable read, and one that I will surely come back to in the future.

Gothic Ghosts – Hans Holzer

Pocket Books – 1972
2015-04-28 00.28.59

This book is absolutely terrible. It’s a collection of about 20 ghost stories, all of which are supposedly true. There are no sources given, and all of the stories follow the same formula. The following could be substituted for any of the included accounts:

Marjory, an art student, always knew that she had occult powers, but she never realized the full extent of her ESP until she moved into the old house on Pooey Street.

Number 15, Pooey street was a Victorian mansion. It was beautiful on the outside and luxurious on the inside, but there was a catch! Upon entering the mansion, any individual possessing any variety of paranormal sensitivity would feel a rumbling in their guts and immediately thereafter, they would void the soupy contents of their bowels into their britches.

Marjory was able to adapt to this sticky state of affairs by constantly wearing an adult diaper. The house was cheap and spacious, and Marjory was a poor student in desperate need of a studio for her art. A smelly bum and a dose of nappy-rash was a small price to pay for such a perfect home. Marjory soon adapted to life in the old house, and things seemed to be going swimmingly for her. That was until she saw the figure on the stairs!

One night, she awoke from her slumber and arose to fetch a glass of water from the kitchen. She drearily walked out of the bedroom and turned to walk down the hall. There, on the stairs in front of her, floated a ghastly specter! A full body it was not; only a repulsive, mouthless face that stared menacingly at Marjory who was now frozen stiff at the top of the steps. The face had two hairy cheeks and a singular brown eye that seemed to be winking horribly at Marjory. Marjory wondered if it was the ghost of a cyclops who had died of conjunctivitis and mumps, as the gaping eye was smeared with a rotten brown crust and the cheeks were rotund and fleshy. A small trunk-like appendage arose from under the eye and sprayed Marjory with a rancid milky ectoplasm. That was when Marjory fainted and fell down the stairs.

She awoke in the hospital days later. She had suffered severe brain damage and was never able to walk again. It just goes to show that an old ghost never learns new tricks!

Obviously I got a bit carried away when writing that. If the book was full of stories of that caliber, I’d be giving it a solid 10/10. No, this book is nowhere near entertaining. It’s basically the same stupid story of a dead scullery maid looking for attention, told twenty times over.

I can’t remember how this piece of trash found its way into my book collection. I either picked it up at a library sale for 50 cents, or perhaps the ‘Gothic Ghost’ of Hans Holzer planted it in my collection in order to have it reviewed. Sorry Hans, this is fucking terrible. I’m giving your shitty book a 1/10.

The Irish Gothic – Uncle Silas, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Dracula

irish gothic Well it’s Saint Patrick’s day on Tuesday, and what better way to celebrate Irishness than to review some classic Gothic Literature from the Emerald Isle. I won’t go into too much detail as all three of these novels are absolute classics, and I expect anyone who is following this blog to have read them all.

The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
Dell – 1978

dorian
Dorian looking a bit scaldy.

This novel is great. It’s been a long time since I read it though. Either way, I won’t hear a word said against our Oscar. It’s a pity he didn’t write more novels. 7.5/10

Uncle Silas – Sheridan Le Fanu
Oxford – 1981
silas
Howiye Maud?

This is one of my favourite books of all time. It’s standard Gothic fare really; a young girl loses her parent and she has to go live in creepy uncle’s house. The chapter in which Maud, the protagonist, encounters her repulsive governess for the first time had me shitting in my britches. The way that creepy bitch comes down the hill is absolutely CHILLING.

My edition of the novel is nicely annotated, and there is one note that I found particularly amusing. “414 a clumsy old press: in Ireland and Scotland, press = cupboard” Visiting my in-laws would be so much easier if I could get that printed on a t-shirt.

Anyways, this book is magnificent. If you like Jane Eyre or The Mysteries of Udolpho, then this is the book for you. If that doesn’t sound like your thing, then sorry, but we can’t be friends.

Dracula – Bram Stoker
Penguin – 1994
dracula
Nice ‘tache Drac. (Sweet diddys too!)

Well, this is obviously one of the greatest novels ever written. This was also one of the first books that I read after graduating from university. I had just spent four years reading books that had been selected by other people, and to have the freedom to choose a book according to my own tastes was tremendous. I remember actually looking forward to going to bed at night, just so I could get stuck into this absolute masterpiece.

I’ve always had an interest in ghosts and monsters: I grew up watching Ghostbusters and reading Goosebumps, and I’ve always preferred horror films to any other genre. I was expecting to enjoy this book, but I was not expecting to be frightened. Well, I was; there are parts of this book that are damned scary. There’s nothing in here that I hadn’t seen in a hundred movies; but reading Dracula, I realized that all of those movies had used this book as a template to produce their scares. I was spooked good and proper when the lads start to go missing on the boat as the count is lurking in the shadows. Pure deadly.

There’s also some weird sexiness to this novel. That’s not just something that Hollywood added to make the film versions more successful. There’s a lot of heaving breasts in here. Mina and Lucy sound like absolute babes. The count is a kinky one too, check this out:
With his left hand he held both Mrs. Harker’s hands, keeping them away with her arms at full tension; his right hand gripped her by the back of the neck, forcing her face down on his bosom. Her white nightdress was smeared with blood, and a thin stream trickled down the man’s bare breast which was shown by his torn-open dress. The attitude of the two had a terrible resemblance to a child forcing a kitten’s nose into a saucer of milk to compel it to drink.
Dracula! She’s a married woman, ye dirty bowsy!!! And you’d think he’d be satisfied with those lovely vampire wenches he keeps in his castle. I’ll tell ye now, if I was a single man I’d have no bleedin’ bother lettin’ them have a little suck, wha?

Anyways, I’ll give this a perfect 10/10. If you haven’t read this book, you have no reason to be wasting your time reading this blog.

There are other fantastic works of Gothic fiction to have emerged from Ireland. Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer might seem like a glaring omission from this post, but I have a plan to review that later on in conjunction with another book. I’m also planning to review more of Le Fanu’s works in the near future.

I think it’s rather interesting to note that all three of the authors reviewed in this post were Dublin protestants. (Maturin, who was incidentally Oscar Wilde’s great-uncle, was also a Church of Ireland clergyman.) These three books were also written within 50 years of each other. You’d wonder what the Church of Ireland were putting in their non-transubstantial eucharist to get their congregation to be such creeps. I’ve read that Dracula represents Stoker’s alienation from the largely Catholic Ireland, but I reckon it was just dodgy proddy communion wafers.

These books are all savage. Fuck going to the parade this St. Patrick’s day; read one of these smashers instead.