Marked to Die

By 2017, Mark Samuels was admired enough by his fellow weird fiction writers that a tribute anthology was published by Snuggly Books (also the publisher of both Brian Stableford original works and some of his translations from French). Of course, being a Samuels fan, I had to check it out.

Review: Marked to Die: A Tribute to Mark Samuels, ed. Justin Isis, 2017.

As you would expect from this sort of book, you get people doing takeoffs on Samuels stories and themes, authors presenting some version of Samuels the man – including some fantastically ironic ones, and some stories that are only tributes to Samuels in the author’s minds.

It’s a thick book and most of its stories are worth reading.

The author notes from Thana Niveau describes the first category thus

If Mark Samuels is high quality cocaine, this book is like the weird diluted version that’s possibly cut with bleach and maybe even hallucinogens; it’s still going to get you messed up, but possibly not in the way you were expecting. Real Mark books = brand name prescription drugs, this book = generic version from a third world country.

Niveau’s own “Language of the City” channels his dislike of cities in a story about a woman who grew up in Devon and had a frightening experience when traveling to London as a child. Studying art and interactive media in York, she begins to have visions, intimations of York’s past and of a city alive and ready to attack. Years later, after she’s returned to Devon, her husband disappears in London, and she will come to realize a truth:

It’s not the death of civilization, because there is no civilization. There is only the city. We delude ourselves into thinking we built all this, that we conceived it and designed it to serve our needs. But that’s not true. We’re the constructs. We’re the ones who were built. 

The best of the stories inspired directly by Samuels is James Champagne “Chaoskampf”. It’s an original combination of technothriller and weird fiction listing various Tom Clancy and Samuels works (as well as providing a soundtrack) as its inspirations. Captain Karnov, commander of the Russian sub Crimson November (and bearing an uncanny resemblance to Bishop Fulton Sheen), is dispatched on a secret mission to the South Pacific to pursue evidence of a Nazi Wunderwaffe. He’ll discover a mysterious underwater object and a mutinous conspiracy onboard his ship. Interspersed with this are Karnov’s memories of his dead wife and his father, a religious dissident who died in a gulag.

Another of my favorites doesn’t have a trace of the fantastic is “Canticle” from Daniel Mills. Its narrator is a priest imprisoned and scourged daily. He seems to charged with some form of heresy since he seeks sacrements, but they are denied. Mills’ author notes says this story was inspired by both St. John of the Cross’ imprisonment in Toledo and Samuels’ essay “Beyond the Beautiful Darkness”.  

The Golden Dustmen” from Colin Insole seeks inspiration in Arthur Machen’s work, a commonality with Samuels’ ouevre. It follows Miriam Coelle who finds herself denied funding after turning in a dissertation on the “Lost Palaces of Tudor England”. She is offered a position studying the work of noted antiquarian John Leland who obtained many a rare manuscript when Henry VIII dissolved monasteries in England. She finds out her real funders are a group of avaricious seekers of rare manuscripts and occult knowledge, the Society of Golden Dustmen. Soon, staying at a house owned by them, she starts to have visions of historic London in which the Dustmen also show up, and she learns that her position is owed to being descended from a long dead perserver of ancient British manuscripts. And she starts to perceive a pattern in the many dwellings of Leland.

Also linked to Samuels through Machen is “Attraction” by John Mundy. It features a dark version of a mystical, secret Church revealed by an Old Man on his deathbed. Most of his relatives, who mocked his interest in magical relics and ancient volumes, are eager to hear how they will be inherit his great wealth, but there’s one who isn’t enraptured. It’s his adopted son who was also a seeker after occult secrets and knows what price has to be paid for the Old Man to get a soul in his dying moments.

Another story I liked was Adam LG Nevill’s “White Light, White Heat”, a satire on publishing and kin to Samuels’ stories of institutional horror. Its narrator has worked as an editor for a publisher firm for 15 years. It’s not a happy place. Once you enter a “consultancy period”, your days are numbered. No one ever sees management. Being fired dooms you to homelessness in this future dystopia in which the narrator shares a room with a drunk and lives on a diet of crappy soy. And, inevitably, since his 100 novels a year quota hasn’t been met – mostly because his stable of writers has either committed suicide or deviated from the prescribed formulas of writing placating and happy works  – the narrator gets notice he’s entered his “consultancy period”. But he’s not going to go quietly, especially under the influence of a relic a priest gave him.

Kristine Ong Muslim links physical and psychological blights together in “The Early Signs of Blight”. While it’s title suggests a fungal and supernatural menace of the sort you would see in some Samuels’ stories, it can be seen as a story of alienation and obsession brought on by modernity. They story starts out with a bogeyman’s arm seeming to come out of a closet to threaten a boy. His mother believes the menace is real and takes tragic steps to fight it. Her actions are only part of a series of strange murders in London.

Strange mannequins and weird things happening in hospitals are a feature of some Samuels stories and also show up in “The Men with Paper Faces” by John Llewellyn Probert. The narrator awakes in a hospital with a strange surgeon telling him he’s operated on his eyes. For a brand-new wing of a hospital, the place is dilapidated. And, when the protagonist leaves the hospital, he finds the world around him transformed. Now he realizes that some of the people he sees are made of paper. The world once thought alive, it seems, is revealed as partly dead and chaotic.

The volume’s long concluding story – “Slag Glass Lachrimae” from David Rix — is a rumination on the oddly comforting aspect of some weird fiction and about an intrusion into the world from outside. Jewelry artisan Feather discovers, in the Thames estuary, a peculiar black slag which she turns into jewelry. Some are disgusted by it. Others find it compelling if disturbing. A man buys a bunch for “crying rooms” in London, and Feather’s long time friend Leah, enraptured by weird fiction to the exclusion of almost everything else and survivor of many failed romances, is one of the latter. But Leah finds there is a link to Samuels’ collection Black Lachrimae (a fictional collection as far as I know), and she and Feather search out the book’s publisher who will reveal the power, comfort, and danger in Feather’s jewelry.

The book’s uncredited “Coda” has a a distant space traveler, his spaceship running out of power and his body reduced to mere thought, receiving transmissions of a very Samuels type apocalypse occuring on the Earth he left long ago.

While I liked Simon Clark’s “The Singular Quiddity of Merlin’s Ear”, it seems somewhat distantly related to Samuels’ themes. The eponymous Ear is an obsolete bit of technology from World War Two Britain, a giant concrete structure designed to amplify the sound of approaching German aircraft. It just happens to be in an area associated with a medieval mystic and ancient Celtic sacrifices. A magazine writer, his wife, and supposedly mute stepson go on a voyage via canalboat to visit it. The son is changed, and the writer diminished by what they encounter. Clark does an excellent job of capturing the tensions in the writer’s family.

While I liked the above stories, I was less enthused by other works taking up Samuels’ themes.

Stuart Young’s “The Carnivore of Monsters” has an intriguing start. A young man, given cancer by a strange man who operated on him when the man worked as a teen in a London hospital (an operation leaving no scar), finds stealing certain smartphones from people keeps him alive. But then he picks the wrong couple as a target and soon finds himself the target (or subject of helpful concern) by two people who seem to represent cosmic forces, perhaps from the past and the future. I found it more confusing the more it went on despite the talk of multiple apocalypses threatening humanity.

Empty Houses” by Ralph C. Dodge references Samuels’ “Losenof Express” and has a powerful fantasy motif in its middle. What if you could be reunited with your dead parents, better versions of those parents than the one you had in a troubled childhood? It protagonist experiences just that when his father, dead from suicide 25 years ago, enters his life again. But, in interludes from his childhood, which involve a playful rite in the woods with friends, lead to a strange and not altogether clear ending.

Yarrow Paisley’s “Reinformation Theory” certainly has a Samuels theme, the idea that strict materialism is an explanation lacking complete explanatory power in describing the real world. The story starts out being narrated by a seeming hermaphrodite, a creature who, through repeated cycles, awakes, gets called to the Director of the Iterative Information Institute, and often goes into some heightened state of sexual arousal. But the narrator changes from cycle to cycle and that disturbs Director Renfrew because the opening narrator is a simulated personality. How could it be changing with no change in its material input? But I think this interesting story is marred a bit by some ambiguity concerning who, exactly, is responsible for the story’s conclusion. The opening narrator or Renfrew’s intellectual enemy, Dr. Insensible?  

There is, indeed, a Samuels reference at the heart of John Paul Rai’s “Prision Inquieta”, but it’s less weird fiction than horror when the protagonist encounters a horrendous prison in Africa after his African river cruise goes bad.

Samuels the man and author shows up in some stories.

The anthology’s foreward by Mark Valentine, “The Shadowy Companion” is a heavily fictionalized account of a conversation he had with Samuels in regards to Samuels’ philosophy. It’s an argument as to how wonder can be found everywhere. Humans are a cosmos and world unto themselves and reach out to worlds almost wholly unknown or conjectured. Usually, and probably for the best, those worlds are dormant. By accident, though, that striving can produce effects “which prove – nothing”. We only have “stale incense” as evidence of those other worlds.

And our task is harder even than that, . . .for we also have to invoke the grey fumes without denying the palpitating breath of roses. We have to give glimpses of a world that sometimes seems to work like a machine bent on some inexorable but inscrutable task, with all of us caught in its coils, cogs meshing always with the absurd, frantic pistons pushing away at the futile. . . .

And yet . . . we may also at times suggest a slight faltering in the grinding of the machine, or the brief opening of an unknown vista suggesting that the machine is not all that there is. 

That seems a good description of the horrors of secular modernity horrors found so often in Samuels’ fiction and the hope that can still exist.

It’s a decidedly more fanciful version of Samuels in “The Black Mass” from Justin Isis. Here Samuels is a physical fitness fan and martial artist with an international following, a popular website, and even showing up in an anime series. On a book tour in Tokyo, a man keels over in front of him at a book signing, and Samuels gets on the track of an apocalyptic cult, the product of an alien fungus. This story specifically notes a theme I’ve detected in many Samuels’ stories: “retrocasuality”, menaces from the future. It was a fun story that ironically casts this version of Samuels in a very Samuels style story.

A Bad Un to Beat vs. The Highgate Waterman: It’s All About the Benjamins” from Samuels’ friends Brendall Connell and Quentin S. Crisp goes even further. Here Samuels spends his time killing secret Cathars in London and also writing letters to his landlord begging for more time to make his payment. And we also get quotes from an essay on Samuels explaining why he is Machen’s successor in depicting the mysteries of London.

Not having much of a connection to Samuels’ themes is Reggie Oliver’s “Rapture”. In it, an unemployed web designer goes to complain to his neighbors about their loud hymn singing. Soon he’s ensnared by a cult. This story goes to an unexpected place, and I found it one of the book’s highlights.

However, I can’t say much in favor of DF Lewis’ “The Big-Headed People”. It’s a strange and slight story, rather a fable – though I’m not sure about what – about a big-headed man who meets the brother he never knew about. They take their big heads on a trip to a village of more people like them.

There are enough good stories in this anthology to recommend it even if you’ve never read a word by the author being honored.

2 thoughts on “Marked to Die

    • marzaat October 21, 2022 / 6:36 pm

      It’s because Cathars are, after all, heretics by Catholic rights. However, that’s more of an opening to the story than its main plot or theme.

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