Daily Archives: March 20, 2011

In A Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le Fanu

In A Glass Darkly

By Sheridan Le Fanu

Format: Paperback, 272 pages.

Publisher: Wordsworth Editions, 2007.

 

What are the chances of two horror novels being reviewed in the space of a couple of weeks with titles based on 1 Corinthians 13 (“For now we see through a glass, darkly”), kind of slim, but that’s the kind of joined up thinking you get at Highlanders Book Reviews (or pure jammy fluke as they say round these parts!). Perhaps what’s more fascinating is that without Sheridan Le Fanu’s misquote it is highly unlikely that we would have ever arrived at Bill Hussey’s Through A Glass Darkly despite the 136 year gap, let me explain.

Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu was an Irish writer who, during the 19th C, was one of the founders of the written ghost story. For a more detailed biography have a look here or here but bear in mind this was a writer who directly influenced both M.R. James (master Victorian Ghost story writer) and Bram Stoker (more on vampires shortly!). This was a contemporary of Dickens, Browning, The Brontes and Stevenson who has largely been forgotten by the wider public so it’s great to see this collection back in print (raises glass to Wordsworth Editions yet again!).

In A Glass Darkly is a collection of 5 stories, each with a different supernatural bent but all loosely connected by the patient notes of a certain Dr Heselius who tries to explain the cases, generally using fairly bizarre pyschopathology. The stories are as follows :-

  • Green Tea – About…..well, green tea really, oh and a monkey of course!
  • The Familiar – A ghost from the past, Jacob Marley style.
  • Mr Justice Harbottle – Payback time for the hanging judge.
  • The Room In Le Dragon Volant – No dragons but a sting in the tail.
  • Carmilla – An everyday story of lesbian vampirism!

So, as you can see a wide range of stories, some of which work better than others. The Room In Le Dragon Volant is perhaps the least successful and also the least supernatural, It’s also the longest. The Familiar and Mr Justice Harbottle are the most traditional and Green Tea is frankly just a bit mad. The true standout for me however is Carmilla, the story which is thought to have inspired Stoker to write Dracula and which also inspired the Hammer films The Vampire Lovers (based directly on the story) and it’s sequels Lust For A Vampire and Twins Of Evil (thank you Mr Le Fanu!). The descriptive writing in this passage is superb :-

" The glade through which we had just walked lay before us. At our left the narrow road wound away under clumps of lordly trees, and was lost to sight amid the thickening forest. At the right the same road crosses the steep and picturesque bridge, near which stands a ruined tower which once guarded that pass; and beyond the bridge an abrupt eminence rises, covered with trees, and showing in the shadow some grey ivy-clustered rocks.
 Over the sward and low grounds a thin film of mist was stealing like smoke, marking the distances with a transparent veil; and here and there we could see the river faintly flashing in the moonlight.
 No softer, sweeter scene could be imagined. The news I had just heard made it melancholy; but nothing could disturb its character of profound serenity, and the enchanted glory and vagueness of the prospect. " 

Of course It’s not all like that, the writing is often of the stilted and dense style which we associate with Victorian literature and as such can often be hard work (I wouldn’t recommend this as bedtime reading) but that comes with the territory for writing that is 140 years old, stick with it and you will be rewarded with a glimpse of the very foundations of the modern horror story.

 

Rating 3 out of 5

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20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

20th Century Ghosts

by Joe Hill

Published by Gollancz

 

Isn’t it strange that every mention of Joe Hill begins with his family history (look I’ve done it as well..doh!). Well suffice to say no-one comments favourably on my ability to change a 60 watt light bulb even though my father was a professional electrician (“look, he can only change that light bulb because of his fathers influence”) and I don’t get too many offers to rewire peoples houses (well not since the fire that is :-)) so surely its irrelevant. Well yes, but I suppose when your father is one of the best known and biggest selling authors in the history of the English language it’s inevitable.

What is clear though, is that it shouldn’t matter, the only thing that counts here is the quality of writing and Joe Hill has no problems on that front. So, I am delighted to say there will be no mention of the “K” word here. Hill only revealed his identity in 2007 after the stories in this collection had already been published (and had won awards), sure he may attain a greater degree of success now the secret is out but the stories won’t change!

20th century ghosts is a collection of 15 short stories (16 including the one cunningly hidden among the acknowledgements). They are firmly of the horror/supernatural genre but range widely from the truly horrific (Best New Horror) to those with only a passing nod to horror (Bobby Conroy Comes Back from The Dead). What they all have in common is both the standard of ideas and the impressive power of the writing. At times they read like an 18 certificate version of the Twilight Zone (that’s a good thing to my mind) at other times like one of those slightly disturbing foreign animated films you saw as a child, at all times they are hugely entertaining.

The first four stories in this collection are the strongest and I believe are up there with the classics. In particular “Pop Art” whilst only horrific in its demonstration of the effects of childhood bullying, achieves a degree of emotional engagement rarely found in a short story. If someone told you this could be achieved in a story about an inflatable boy, you would consider them crazy, well call me a teapot but read it and see if I’m not right. This surely tells you all you need to know about the quality of the writing.

As with all short story collections there are some that don’t work as well as others, “Better Than Home” and “The Widows Breakfast” are for me the weakest but even here we are talking merely good rather than brilliant. None of these stories fail, it’s just that some succeed better than others.

Joe Hill has the talent to be a truly brilliant author, thanks goodness he chose the horror genre and who knows in years to come we may see his books dominating bookshelves alongside the greats such as Lovecraft, Bradbury and even Stephen King (damn, I wasn’t supposed to mention him!!).

Rating 4 out of 5

 

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Banquet For The Damned by Adam L G Nevill

Banquet For The Damned

By Adam L G Nevill

Publisher: Virgin books

First novels are always a bit of a gamble but when you are browsing and find a book which has elements of the occult, witchcraft, supernatural, ghosts, rock stars and is set in the quaint Scottish town of St Andrews it becomes a lot easier to take that gamble. In fact, it could be argued that it is our duty as horror/SF/fantasy fans to support these authors by taking that gamble, only then can we reclaim the genre from the overpowering decay of the (writing by numbers) dark fantasy/vampire/romantic novels which dominate the increasingly smaller shelves of the horror section and replace it with good old fashioned ghost stories. So buy the book out of principle and feel good about yourself, then read the book and you will be justifiable proud that you were there at the start supporting a major new talent and getting to read a bloody good book into the bargain.

While the plot is fairly standard fare the writing is above average. Two musicians are invited by an occult guru to take part in research in St Andrews, needless to say when they get there they are confronted with a slightly different reality and are immediately embroiled in a web of occult happenings. The book really impacts with its sense of place as we see behind the facade of the grand old buildings of the university town to the darker nooks and crannies beyond. St Andrews is a town I know well and this book certainly succeeds in imbuing the place with the right atmosphere, on the face of it clean cut and good living but underneath a grimy underworld with a dark heart.

The author knows his history of the supernatural and many of the aspects of the horror are based on apocryphal tales or real life characters. The horror itself is implied through glimpses, thoughts and sounds. This is less the blood and gore of Shaun Hutson and more the supernatural of Phil Rickman. Indeed early Rickman (before bloody Merrily!) or later Herbert would appear to be the major comparison points, there is the same sense of place, flawed characters and underlying occult influences all tied together in a rollicking good plot.

So any flaws, well minor ones really, but to my mind some of the dialogue writing was poor and the plot had a couple of points where the characters actions seemed improbable but nothing that seriously impaired my enjoyment of a good first novel and a worthy addition to the library of great ghost stories. Ghosts, hags and rock’n’roll what’s not to like.

 

Rating 4 out of 5

 

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