Sunday, December 25, 2016

Substantialreads: Black Christmas

It's the festive season! As if you're allowed not to notice. If your heart's as black as mine, and all that ceaseless commercial chirpiness is getting you down, nothing dulls the pain like chucking yourself into the yawning abyss and literally confronting your demons.

Way to step outside your comfort zone, Dave. Give me a break, it's Christmas.


Arthur Machen, The Three Impostors

1895 / Audiobook / 215 pages / UK

***

When I read The Hill of Dreams, Machen was instantly catapulted to the forefront of classic authors I was excited to read more from, and the roll has all been downhill since. This one occupies an unsatisfying middle ground between proper novel and collection of tangentially related occult tales, and while it's always nice to spend more time wandering sinister gas-lit 1890s London streets, I was hoping there'd be a destination at the end of it.


William Hope Hodgson, Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder

1913 / Audiobook / 288 pages / USA

***

I don't know which paranormal detective came first – Carnacki or Algernon Blackwood's John Silence – but they both came after Holmes, so it doesn't really matter. Carnacki's the more limited of the two, as his specific spirit fixation means he doesn't have time for werewolves, wendigos and the like, and the only variety in these investigations of haunted houses and castles is that sometimes the all-too-corporeal culprits are literally unmasked in a Scooby Doo ending and Carnacki looks ridiculous for taking it all seriously. The rest of the time it's ghosts.

Faves: 'The Gateway of the Monster,' 'The House Among the Laurels.'

Worsties: 'The Horse of the Invisible,' 'The Searcher of the End House' (there's not much between any of these, it just makes it look like I'm paying attention).


Dennis Wheatley, The Haunting of Toby Jugg

1948 / Audiobook / 352 pages / UK

***

My original plan for December was to read Dennis Wheatley's 12 retroactively serialised 'Black Magic' books, until a couple of those proved difficult to track down so I widened the scope. A good thing too, since this is considered one of his best, but for the most part it's interminable.

An injured WW2 pilot writes a therapeutic journal to aid his recovery and calm his supernatural anxieties about multi-limbed shadows outside the window. Ghost or mental? Be patient, first let him guide you through his distastefully privileged upbringing in tedious, unnecessary detail. It wishes it were Dracula.


Ray Bradbury, The October Country

1943-54 (collected 1955) / Audiobook / 306 pages / USA

****

I knew Bradbury was one of the pulp sci-fi greats, but I had no idea he could be so delightfully macabre too. Most of these murky tales imply the supernatural, but they're more concerned with examining our morbid fascinations and propensity to evil. There's also an unhealthy preoccupation with creepy carnivals, but when isn't there?

Faves: 'Skeleton,' 'The Small Assassin,' 'Jack-in-the-Box.'

Worsties: 'The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse,' 'The Lake,' 'Touched With Fire.'


Various, Four Color Fear: Forgotten Horror Comics of the 1950s

1949-54 (collected 2010) / E-comics / 320 pages / USA

***

As entertaining as the schlockiest vintage horror comics are, wading through boxes of cheap Tales from the Crypt knock-offs would be an arduous task that Greg Sadowski has graciously done for us in this extensive anthology of the "best" of non-EC PD (bloody hell, how bad was the stuff that didn't make it?)

Most of these tales are the same old thing about myriad monsters infiltrating everyday '50s life, but the most entertaining ones veer into more bizarre areas where the mainstream publications were too afraid to venture (because they wanted readers).

Faves: 'The Corpse That Came to Dinner,' 'Death Deals a Hand,' 'The Wall of Flesh.'

Worsties: 'Servants of the Tomb,' 'Mother Mongoose's Nursery Crimes,' 'Vision of the Gods.'


Robert Aickman, Cold Hand in Mine: Strange Stories

1969-75 (collected 1975) / E-book / 215 pages / UK

****

It's always satisfying to discover a new cult-favourite weirdo. I'd hoped Aickman might be this year's China Miéville in that regard, but his refusal to embrace the genre labelling that will inevitably happen anyway means his original collections can be very inconsistent. The best ones are indefinably unnerving.

Faves: 'The Swords,' 'The Hospice.'

Worsties: 'The Real Road to the Church,' 'Pages from a Young Girl's Journal.'


Guy N. Smith, The Slime Beast

1975 / E-book / 112 pages / UK

***

Superbly dreadful, I could not in good conscience award a higher than average rating to this hack B-movie of a book, but at the same time, it's one of the most entertaining page-turners I've read all year. I don't normally have the patience to ironically appreciate the awful, but this is as close to real-life Garth Marenghi as it's possible to get without knowingly taking the piss.

It's also a lot like a desperately adult '70s Doctor Who or Children's BBC serial (there's even an Uncle Jack), only with less plot logic and more deflowering and entrails. While writers often use alien invasions as allegories for various contemporary fears, Guy N. Smith doesn't burden us with subtext. He just marks this out as a product of its time with an abundance of authentic period perviness.


Thomas Ligotti, The Nightmare Factory

1981-96 (collected 1996) / E-book / 552 pages / USA

****

I only knew Ligotti from a weird spoken word E.P. he did with Current 93, but it turns out he's one of the most distinctive and consistent nightmare scribes this side of Lovecraft. After the uneven first book in this bumper compendium anyway, when he cannily picks out the themes that worked (eerie dreamscapes, desolate streets, cobwebs 'n' moonshine) and doesn't look back. Most of these atmospheric vignettes don't run much over 10 pages, the perfect presomnial apéritif.

Faves: 'Vastarien,' 'The Last Feast of Harlequin,' 'In the Shadow of Another World,' 'The Glamour,' 'The Clown Puppet.'

Worsties: 'Les Fleurs,' 'Dream of a Mannikin,' 'Masquerade of a Dead Sword,' 'Conversations in a Dead Language.'


David D. Gilmore, Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors

2003 / E-book / 225 pages / USA

***

This chronological atlas of beasties was informative, comprehensive and disappointingly dull. It reminded me of the long essays on silly subjects I cheekily got away with at university, which were similarly lacking in character and supported entirely by references to earlier, better studies with just a few of my own reckonings.

I guess what I really wanted was an illustrated A-Z like last year's Encyclopedia of Demons. How am I supposed to choose my fave and worstie beasties when you keep interrupting with musings on evolutionary psychology? I did like the strict but arbitrary rules he imposed on himself though: like not counting ghosts and zombies because they're too human, but Jekyll & Hydes are okay.


China Miéville, Kraken

2010 / Audiobook / 509 pages / UK

*****

Miéville foregoes ingenious sideways worlds to tell this tentacular tale. It's Lovecraft done as a Dan Brown 'parody' that has its giant squid and eats it. I expect Hollywood will make an exciting movie out of it some day that completely misses the humour.


Various, Dead Funny: Horror Stories by Comedians

2008-14 (collected 2014) / E-book / 224 pages / UK

****

Destined to be not especially great, this was a fun and worthwhile exercise all the same. From various interviews and podcasts I've listened to over the years, being the slightly sinister, horror-obsessed kid at school is almost a prerequisite for becoming a stand-up comedian when you grow up (at least the sort of comedians I like), and this is their chance to revisit and pay homage to that old favourite genre. Or, if you're Reece Shearsmith and that Garth Marenghi guy, another day at the office.

The rules are lax for this anthology, which ranges from the excessively gory to the tongue-in-cheek. Not all contributors go down the implied route of tempering the frights with chuckles, but the most blackly humorous ones are usually the best.

Faves: 'Dog,' 'A View from a Hill,' 'For Roger.'

Worsties: 'The Patient,' 'In Loving Memory of Nerys Bag,' 'All Warm Inside.'


Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows, Providence

2015-17 (not yet finished) / E-comics / 488 pages (so far) / UK/USA

*****

I'd got used to the idea that Alan Moore's comics heyday was behind him and that there wouldn't be a serious contender for his all-time best released in my reading lifetime, since I didn't have the good sense to be born a decade or so sooner. That's why I didn't even bother checking out his latest smart-arse literary/magickal indulgence when it began its eldritch trickle last year, having not made it very far into his previous Lovecraft riffs (clearly because they were epilogues to a main feature that hadn't been written yet).

But part way through the first issue (every panel dense with symbolism and references that I was confident I was only picking up on 20% of at most – fortunately, there's an OCD guide), I knew I was on to something special.

When the back pages offered a second, more intimate take on events via our closeted hero's journal, I felt the stirrings of an addiction that's normally reserved for the season finale of an ace TV show, however much I try to pretend I'm literary. After all, there were 11 more issues where that came from, and things had barely even started to take their inevitable plunge to the Weird. Just how good was this going to get?

The last issue isn't out yet, but Providence is already threatening to topple From Hell from its formerly stable perch as Moore's finest. Which is the same as saying it might be my favourite graphic novel of all time, and up there with Milton and Adams as reasons to never even think about bothering to pick up a pen. I suppose most of the credit should really go to Lovecraft, since he originally wrote the stories this is based around, but he was just laying the groundwork for this definitive mash-up cover version.

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