Low Res Scan: The White Hands and Other Weird Tales, Mark Samuels, 2003.
Samuels’ horrors frequently involve contagions both mental and physical. His characters are often socially isolated and, eventually, mentally isolated. His stories rarely involve solitary monsters but the intrusion or revelation of some group breaking into our world from the future, another dimension, or even underground to bring some horrible corruption upon us. Sometimes his characters’ alienation is a spiritual and physical wound inflicted by modernity, particularly in its manifestation in the modern office. If they seek transcendent revelation, it can be a dangerous and futile quest.
In “The Grandmaster’s Final Game” perfecting the play of chess takes on theological elements. One day Reverend Mooney is contemplating the chess problems he’s going to work on when his slow day taking confessions ends. But then in walks Leonard Hughes, a man with an eidetic memory who has given himself over to perfecting his chess game and developing his own strategy and style rather than just playing gambits from historical games he’s memorized. Hughes has a strange story and a stranger question: what if there are men so wicked that even Hell won’t take them.
After a six month period of monastic devotion to check, Hughes took an afternoon off and, by chance, bought a strange chess set in a second hand store, a set with no white pieces and oddly shaped black ones. Taking it home to test his skill by playing against himself, he finds himself in a game he must not lose when the black pieces start moving themselves. But Hughes does lose, and now his face is altered.
And Mooney recognizes his face as that of a devious Russian player he actually bested in one game, an unlikeable man with immense “tactical deviousness” and an odd ability to upset his opponents. But the Russian is dead, and the strain of that victory led to Mooney’s quitting tournament play and entering the priesthood. But now a challenge has been issued. Mooney knows what has to be done. The story’s startling conclusion brings theological questions to mind about the nature of God and the Devil.
“The Impasse” is a fine workplace horror story that is a bit of a satire and might owe something to Samuels’ days working for a company dealing with issuing with copyrights on theatrical productions. Here the protagonist, David Cohen, takes a job with the Ulymas Corporation. It’s in a squalid part of an unnamed city and at the end of a rail line. On his first day of work, Cohen is struck by how shabbily dressed and silent its employees are and the delipidation of its buildings outside and inside.
Things get stranger when his boss Franklin tells him he won’t be distrubed in his work which will be delivered to him. The computer on Cohen’s desk is little more than a paperweight, its monitor crammed with paperwork with “non-sequiters, ramblings, or repetitive phrases”. Franklin explains Cohen’s work will involve “serious infringements of Ulymas copyrights”. And the company has a very expansive view of its ownerships of certain “metaphysical speculations”. Accidental use is merely “psychic leakage” from Ulymas. Plagiarism of certain of its ideas are inevitable. Cohen’s job will be to make recommendations for Ulymas’ actions. It’s particularly concerned with ideas showing up in works of horror and weird fiction.
And, when Cohen finally find a long term employee who will actually talk to him, things get stranger.
Like some Arthur Machen protagonist, the unnamed narrator of “Colony” is given to nocturnal wanderings about some unnamed city. He becomes fascinated by Ravel Street, a shabby part of town by a black river and marshy area and composed of a lot of rundown, boarded up houses. During the day, few of its inhabitants are seen. At night, they walk the streets with expressions of utter desolation and loneliness on their faces.
The narrator gets the impression the area was settled by some “distinct ethnic or religious group” who have lost that identity but are bound together by that loss. He’s one of Samuels’ loners and rents a room in the neighborhood. Soon he finds himself apathetic, his employment outside Ravel Street increasingly like an hallucination. He also finds the remains of “ancient temples” in the neighborhood and observes rites to some god “discarded or dead”. And, in a classic weird fiction style, he sets out to learn more about those rites. The story moves to a quiet crescendo of nihilism and a variation on the motif of mysterious tomes so beloved in post-Lovecraftian weird fiction.
The investigation of strange artists real and dead is another Samuels’ motif. “The Search for Kruptos” is another unnamed narrator’s quest for a writer, here notorious nineteenth century metaphysician Thomas Ariel and his unfinished work Kruptos. Ariel is compared to Poe’s and De Quincey’s is concern for “the mechanissm of dreaming” as a “function of limitless possibilities”. But, unlike Poe and de Quincey, Ariel’s work was eventually suppressed in 1824 and a warrant issued for his arrest in England. (The story also bears the faint imprint of Ambrose Bierce.) The narrator tracks Ariel’s movements to Germany in 1842, Basel in 1879, and a traveller’s account of meeting Ariel as he headed north to the city of Karnswilloch, a polar settlement under the northern lights, a place where Ariel wants to smoke opium and die and, maybe, finish his magnum opus Kruptos.
The narrator is a Jew, a refugee from Nazi Europe and, with an Irish passport, travels in 1940 to Karnswilloch, a strange polar bibliopolis with abandoned houses and a tower. Books are everywhere. They come out windows, they are in the streets and plaza, and ghostly forms go through them.
And, in the highest part of the tower, the narrator discovers Ariel, still alive and still writing. And, at last, he gets to read Kruptos. Like “Colony”, this is a nihilistic tale on the futility of seeking ultimate knowledge.
“Black as Darkness” is the most unusual tale in the book in that revolves around a 50-year friendship between ex-soldiers Jack and Ben and is Samuels’ entry into the “lost film” subgenre of horror. It’s also the last tale in the book but plays on the collection’s first tale, “The White Hands” (which I’ve reviewed elsewhere).
Set in London in the 1990s, the story opens with Jack getting a letter from Ben. It fills him with trepidation. He hasn’t spoken to Ben in two weeks. While they’ve had arguments in the past, they only ever fell out once. But Ben hasn’t been returning Jack’s calls, and he isn’t answering the door.
That past falling out was over a woman they met in Paris after its liberation in World War Two. Her name was Verna Kandress, an actress. Jack took an instant dislike to the beautiful Vedna. Ben was instantly smitten and married her. But Vedna disappeared.
In a scene two weeks before the opening scene, Ben is in a video store looking for some horror movie for him and Jack to watch. And then he gets a shock when the clerk mentions he has a bootleg copy of Black as Darkness, a legendary film that was only shown once at a private screening.
While appearing flawless during editing, the final copy had visual distortions, whole scenes unaccountably left out and “idiotic dream sequences” inserted. Strange whisperings somehow made it on the soundtrack. Mutual recriminations of sabotage were made by producer and director, and Vedna’s breakout attempt came to nothing despite her performance being acclaimed during production.
The movie was an anthology of ghost stories. The story with Vedna was based on “The Reunion”, a story by one Lilith Blake, the mysterious Victorian weird fiction writer at the center of “The White Hands”. And that’s not Vedna’s only seeming connection to Blake,
Ben puts the tape in his machine. And Vedna begins talking — to him.
It’s a spooky tale of friendship, secrets, betrayal, and also a bit of a consideration of how all movies are ghost stories.
It’s a fine collection and well worth picking up if you are a weird fiction aficionado.
Additional Thoughts (with Spoilers)
One of the secrets in “Black as Darkness” is that Jack killed Vedna and buried her “in the cemetery on top of the coffin”, not “a coffin”, but “the coffin”. Given that Jack lives in Highgate and that Lilith Blake is buried in the cemetery there, is the implication that Jack put Vedna’s body on top of Lilith’s. No mention is made of such an arrangement in “The White Hands”.
Vedna looks strikingly like Lilith Blake. Is she or her vengeful ghost another appearance by Blake? Or is either or both some sort of dream creation by Blake as she lies dreaming in her coffin?
Finally, I’ve often wondered about names in Samuels’ stories and if they have any coded significance. Is “Ulymas” a backwards version of “Samuels? Also is the name Ewers in “The Search for Kruptos” an allusion to weird fiction writer Heinz Hans Ewers?