The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales

It was July 4th, and I wasn’t going to go through boxes of packed books on my day off to find something to read. So, I went through books on the Kindle and decided two Mark Samuels titles, Christmas gifts, seemed like just the thing.

Review: The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales, Mark Samuels, 2011.

The stories of Mark Samuels are filled with perilous literary scholarship, sinister cartels, and encroaching decay of body and intellect – a mold of modernity. Yet, sometimes, hope is to be found in the alleys and wrecks of cities.

Some of the stories are homages or pastiches to dead writers of horror and the weird fiction: Poe, Stefan Grabinski, Karl Edward Wagner, Ambrose Bierce, and, of course, Arthur Machen. Bibliophilia, book collecting, and literary scholarship lead to strange places in Samuels’ fictions. Sometimes mere casual epigraphs from dead writers are surprisingly revelatory.

The first story, “Losenof Express”, is a fine example. Alcoholic horror writer Eddie Charles Knox hoists a shot of Jack Daniels to Poe as he drinks by himself in the obscure Eastern European capital of Strasgol. A well-paying career writing “the pulp adventures of Mungo the Barbarian and the sexual shenanigans of Mother Superior Lucia Vulva” seems like a waste of his talent, a betrayal of his one-time reputation as the “Berserker of Horror”. And when another man in the café seems to mirror Knox’s self-loathing, he becomes enraged and follows the man, eventually killing him. But things become strange when he hops the train out of town to flee arrest.  

There are probably some allusions I missed and elements I don’t appreciate in “The Man Who Collected Machen” since I don’t collect Machen and have only read half of his fiction. But I have read enough Machen, know enough of his life, to appreciate this story as a well-done pastiche and tribute. Machen enthusiasts will see elements of “N”, The Three Impostors, The Secret Glory, and “The Lost Club”.

It’s one of H. P. Lovecraft’s literary acquaintances, Robert H. Barlow, that gets a mention in “Xapalpa”. Frank Mason is looking for a second retirement home in Mexico and finds himself in Xapalpa looking for a house to rent. Over drinks a local tells him the history of a local house that’s available. It’s the tale of young anthropologist visiting town, the local “Head Cult”, and the man’s disappearance.

While I liked the homage to Barlow and the Mexican location (Barlow is considered to be one of the founders of Mexican archaeology), I thought the story’s menace was a bit too obscure for my taste.

Nor Unto Death Utterly by Edmund Bertrand” is a well-done Poe homage set in 1868. Bertrand, a doctor, is called to treat Arnold, a rich recluse who plans to live forever by an act of will. But he’s being brought low by a fatal case of constipation and his mind seems increasingly dominated by another. As a Poe fan, I liked this one.

There are a couple of stories that blend the book’s predominant themes of intellectual and memetic infections with pastiches and tributes to dead authors.

The first is a story with an unpronounceable title: “THYXXOLQU”. Its premise may owe something to William S. Burroughs’ “language is a virus” notion, but it definitely is inspired by a quote from Thomas de Quincy’s (published pseudonymously) “Voices from the Grave”. Our protagonist, proficient in multiple languages, begins to see ads with bits of a strange language in them. Then a co-worker begins to sprinkle strange words in his speech, and more and more the protagonist hears this strange tongue, spoken and written by ever more of the public. And this linguistic corruption seems to be accompanied by a leprosy-like infection. One of my favorites in the collection.

The second such story is “A Contaminated Text”. Written more like an essay than a piece of fiction, we hear about how a new text arrives at Mexico City’s Megabiblioteca, the country’s national library. And we’re off on another quest of literary provenance. The text, The Abyss of Voola, may be attributed to one Wolfgang Martz, but it also owes something to Bulwer-Lytton. In 1914, Martz gets a job in a mental asylum in the city and meets Major X, a patient there and a former member of the Sodality of Darkness. Martz’s work is a contaminating as well as contaminated text as the contents of the library start to change.

There are other tales of infection from both the past and present. “The Black Mould” is a short piece of weird, existential science fiction about a fungus that evolves sentience on a planet, spreads all over it and throughout the universe eventually consuming Earth. The mold wants to destroy itself and hopes, by consuming all sustenance in the universe, to die through want of nourishment. 

Glickman the Bibliophile”, another story of infection, is also sort of a takeoff on the zombie story. Glickman is a book collector and horror author who goes to his publisher Nemesis Press one day. He finds it is full of people now devoted, in what seems to be a parody of deconstructionism (and, perhaps, mainstream publishing), to destroying all texts printed and in cybersphere:

‘All texts were without a centre of meaning. Their interpretation rested with the reader, not the author. There could be no agreed purpose to a text. All was chaos. The text was an autonomous entity. In short, without the reader the text did not even exist save as a cipher.’

We have another of Samuels’ evil organizations with blandly sinister titles. The Bibliophobos Collective has deep roots in the past and plans for the future as “anti-publishers” and “anti-thinkers”.

The Age of Decayed Futurity” is a signature title not only in its metaphor standing in for so much of Samuels’ most affecting work but for the story itself. In a nested series of tales, a Polish science fiction writer, facing a dwindling bank account and dissolving popularity, takes a room at a seaside resort. There she learns of the sinister Disassembly Cartel, billionaires so powerful and rich their names are unknown. But is their use of the cult of celebrity to transform the world really their idea? And how much of the story, in the end, is true?

Despite its World War One setting, I found “A Question of Obeying Orders” to be the slightest tale in the book. A deserter from German Army forces his way into a house and finds that he is in time for a séance. More than most stories here, it’s dependent on a surprise ending.

The Tower” is original to the collection, a story of spiritual frisson and hope. A man, his money running out in London, catches a glimpse of a mysterious tower through the mist. He can’t approach it physically. It is a passage of sorts that can only be activated through the mind. And the story seems a fictional rebuttal to Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.

Mark Samuels continues to be a writer I find very pleasing, solace in our current age of decayed futurity.

Additional Thoughts (with spoilers)

Samuels uses, in both “The Age of Decayed Futurity” and “The Tower”, the metaphor of tv screens (analog ones). In the former story, the wave of annihilation advancing from the future is described as a wall of static. In “The Tower” (which repeats the phrase “decayed futurity”). “television eyes” are a symbols of those possessed and degraded by modernity.

I suspect Samuels took the metaphor from the opening line of William Gibson’s Neuromancer: “The sky over the port was the color of a tv tuned to a dead channel.”. (Gibson, in turn, seems to have been inspired by the beginning of Samuel Delany’s Babel-17.)

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