“The Lake”

This was last week’s subjection of discussion over at LibraryThing’s Weird Tradition group.

Review: “The Lake”, Ray Bradbury, 1944.

Cover by Richard Powers

The first part of the story is the narrator, a twelve-year old boy, at the beach at Lake Bluff, Illinois. (Yes, this is partially another Bradbury tale of childhood which he often depicts as the summer of life.)

There’s an air of passage and conclusion about. The merry-go-round is not turning; the concession stands are closed; the crowds are gone since summer is over, and the beach is nearly empty. There are a few other kids about.

It’s also sort of a last day for the narrator who is at the beach with his mother. The family is moving to California in the morning.

The narrator asks his mother to play further up the beach. Going there, we hear about the boy’s first love, Tally. She drowned in the lake the previous May, her body never found. The narrator thinks of her.

Before he returns to his mother, he performs an old ritual. He builds half a sandcastle. Tally used to finish the other half. He whispers her name in the wind.

(Spoilers ahead)

The next part of the story is the narrator ten years later, returning to Lake Bluff with his new wife Margaret. They are on their honeymoon and stay in town for two weeks. 

He says something peculiar: “I thought I loved Margaret well. At least I thought I did.” 

On one of the last days he’s there, he goes to the beach.

It’s late in the season though not as late as in the first scene. 

In sort of psychic timeslip, he feels twelve again and sees his mother on the beach. He does not mention this to Margaret.

He sees a lifeguard bring something out of the water. He tells Margaret to stay put and walks toward the lifeguard. 

The lifeguard carries a bundled body and tells the narrator it’s a strange thing. This body has been underwater 10 years. There’s no record of any unrecovered drowning victims in the lake – except Tally’s. 

The narrator asks to see the body. He talks about how we all change, grow – except the dead.  Dead children remain small.

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“Lorelei of the Red Mist”

This is kind of this week’s piece of weird fiction – several months ago. But I finally located the relevant volume in the numerous boxes of books from my “recent” move.

Review: “Lorelei of the Red Mist”, Ray Bradbury and Leigh Brackett, 1946, 1958.

Cover by Richard Powers

 The Science Fiction Encyclopedia says this story was first published in 1946 in Planet Stories and revised in 1953 and that seems the version I read. Supposedly, Bradbury finished this short novel for Brackett, and it dates from their first decade as published writers.

I suspect Brackett is the one, given her history of writing in multiple genres, for making this a mix of crime story, western, and historical tale. Given their later stories (in Brackett’s case I’m mostly basing this on the Science Fiction Encyclopedia entry for her) on a romantic Mars, it’s hard to say where all the startling, romantic (and, at times, erotic) decadent details of this version of Venus come from. 

The story starts out as a combination of crime story and western as hero Hugh Starke, a robber, is fleeing the agents of the Terra-Venus Mines, Incorporated after a heist. The western element comes as he draws near to the mysterious Mountains of White Cloud on Venus. His ship crashes there with a million credits of gold. 

He wakes up and knows he is dying. He sees a woman on a fur covered chair watching him. Her skin is very white, her dusted nipples are “pale-green”, and her hair and eyes are “sea-green”.  She tells him he is dying, but that he won’t die. He will reawaken in a new body and to not be afraid and let her mind guide him. 

He falls unconscious and then, when awakening, sees an image of the woman in his mind.  Again, she tells him he will not die but will awaken in a strange body and not to be afraid. He is laying on a bed of dirty straw. And he does have a new body, tall, muscular one quite unlike his original one which was stunted by malnutrition when young. He is glad to see it is at least a human body. Thus Bradbury and Brackett begin an interesting treatment of the bodyswitching theme. Though he curses the woman he saw, he has to admit he got the best of the trade. 

The room has lots of weapons on the wall and a fire in a fireplace. There are two men in the room with him. This is a disorienting scene for the reader as well as Starke as we learn more about them. One is a giant of a man, a superb physical specimen, very tall, and wearing only a leather kilt. He is scarred across the eyes and obviously blind. Starke knows that he was once a man who enjoyed life, women, and song and now feels the cruelty of pain and uselessness. The other is a “swamp-edger”, an albino with a harp. 

Outside the room are the sounds of battle. Then Starke realizes that he has a collar around his neck (he’s been chained before and served time in prison) and is chained to the floor. He has worn the collar long enough for it to gall his skin. A messenger from someone named Beudag says that they are still holding the Gate though the enemy has driven them back. 

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You Only Hang Once

Review: You Only Hang Once, David J. West, 2022. 

Cover by Anna Stansfield

Things aren’t looking good for Porter Rockwell and his friend Quincy Jackson at the beginning of this novel.

The girl Emily was dragged over a cliff and into the Colorado River by Mala Cosa’s dead body at the end of Crazy Horses, and Territorial Marshal Shaw is going to use the lack of her exculpatory testimony and other evidence he’s forged, suborned, or misinterpreted to send Rockwell and Jackson to the gallows.

And Mormon leader Brigham Young, who comes off a bit prissy here, isn’t going to intervene for church protector Rockwell. The US government is still investigating the Mountain Meadow Massacre, and Young doesn’t want any impression about that the church sanctions murder. So the importuning of his daughter, aka Roxy Lejune, goes for naught.

By this time, the relationship between Roxy and Quincy has firmed up into true love for each other, and Roxy takes steps to bust Quincy out of jail, and Rockwell manages his own escape.

Hearing rumors of a new criminal gang in the area, he heads for Montezuma City, the ruins of an ancient civilization of giant white men. There he’ll meet criminal mastermind Iblis and Emily, who isn’t dead after all.

In Montezuma City, Rockwell will encounter earthquakes, the Haunter of the Abyss, and make new allies.

This one is probably my least favorite of the three Dark Trails Saga novels. Perhaps that’s because it’s the shortest, and the escape scenes didn’t interest me as much. Again, though, West provides some good characters, and it was nice to see the development of Roxy’s and Quincy’s relationship.

Additional Thoughts with Spoilers

The backstory, delivered by Iblis, of Montezuma City evidently was inspired by a bit of Mormon folklore, specifically the Gadiantons. West also says it was inspired by Robert E. Howard’s El Borak (which I’m not familiar with) and the claims by one Cyclone Covey of a “Roman Jewish colony in America”.

Crazy Horses

Review: Crazy Horses, David J. West, 2017. 

Cover by Anna Stansfield

There’s a lot less lead thrown about in this sequel to Scavengers, but I liked it more.

It’s a pursuit story with Porter Rockwell and friends Roxy Lejune and Quincy Jackson both the pursuers and pursued.

At the end of Scavengers, Rockwell’s blood brother Chief Redbone showed up asking for Rockwell’s help after Mexican slaver Matamoros, who survived the carnage at the lost Spanish gold mine, kidnapped Redbone’s daughter.

That carnage produced 63 missing people in the Thorn massacre, and Territorial Marshall Brody Shaw thinks Rockwell had something to do with that. Brody wants to see Rockwell hang, and, as we see, he’s not above forging evidence to produce a conviction. Shaw’s hatred of Rockwell goes back to New York State when Mormon founder Joseph Smith stole Shaw’s flock away.

So, Rockwell and friends are pursued by Shaw as they pursue Matamoros through the desert around the Colorado River. They’ll encounter some of the women Rockwell freed from Matamoros in Scavengers after the slaver killed their husbands and raped them. One girl, Emily, stows away with the Rockwell party as they travel down the Colorado to follow Matamoros.

There’s a lot to like here. There is the Uninvited, a vampiric entity who appears as an old man seeking camp fires, the final showdown between Rockwell and Matamoros, and the bloodbath at the lair of Mala Cosa. He’s a sorcerer Matamoros needs to redeem himself with, and the price of redemption is Redbone’s daughter.

This one ends on a grim note.

Scavengers

Review: Scavengers, David J. West, 2017. 

Cover by Nathan Shumate and TheChunkyDesigner

This is the first book in West’s Dark Trails Saga of weird westerns featuring, of course, Porter Rockwell. 

If you want a western with plenty of lead being slung about, this one’s for you.

It starts out with Marshall Rockwell pursuing Ferdie McGurdie, a horse (and pie) thief. It seems it’s not just the law that wants McGurdie but also the Cottrell gang and the strange German Reverend Mort who has allied himself with US Cavalry Captain Thorn. McGurdie managed to get the secret of a lost and reputedly haunted Spanish gold mine from an Indian shaman.

The Cottrell gang gets the drop on Rockwell and stakes him out to die in the desert sun with a defector from their gang, Quincy Cuthbert Jackson. (Rockwell spends a fair amount of this novel either disarmed or in captivity.) They are rescued by the very attractive Roxy Lejeune, possessor of what seems to be a cursed – but very luck for her – faro deck.

Rockwell isn’t very believing of McGurdie’s tale when he catches up to the fugitive, but he comes around eventually. If nothing else, he’s bringing the Cottrell gang in for killing his horse and leaving him to die. Quincy and Roxy, very interested in the tale of treasure, join him.

By novel’s end, the scavengers after that treasure will include a Mexican slaver gang, very annoyed Indians, Thorn’s crew, and the Cottrells. It’s an unsentimental story of brutality and survival.

The action is almost non-stop and it’s well-done, but the novel’s best feature is that interplay between Roxy, Rockwell, and Lejeune. It’s clear that Roxy is hiding some secret about her identity. Quincy is a black man and former member of the US Colored Troops, educated with a big vocabulary he likes to show off and resentful of any insinuation that he, always a free man, was ever a slave. Thrown together in adversity and saving each other’s lives, Roxy and Quincy have a tempestuous relationship between her secrets and the problems of a black man and beautiful white woman contemplating a life together.

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Six-Gun Serenade

Several reviews of weird westerns from David J. West are coming up.

Given their stats, my weird western reviews are about as useful as a lame mule dying of thirst in the desert. They don’t look capable of carrying their weight much longer. I’m tempted to put a bullet through their head. We’ll see if water shows up.

Review: Six-Gun Serenade, David J. West, 2017.

Cover by Go On Write

This is a teaser anthology with just two stories and an excerpt from a West novel which I’ll be covering in the future.

In “Six-Gun Serenade” it’s 1868 in the border of the Wyoming and Utah Territories, and chemistry teacher Amsa Davison finds himself playing host to some unsavory men in his house.

Led by Caleb Landforth, an Omar Khayyám spouting man who claims to also be a spiritualist, they are on the trail of treasure: a lost Spanish gold mine abandoned when the native slave labor rebelled and killed the Spanish there. They are confident they’ll find the mine but need Davison to assay any gold taken.

Meeting the rest of Landforth’s crew, Davison finds there even worst bad men when they expect apart from the cook and a couple of others. Then there’s Warner, a long-haired gunfighter with the steel blue eyes of a natural killer. It doesn’t take long, of course, for it to be revealed that Warner is none other than Porter Rockwell, a favorite character of West’s for his weird westerns.

And there is a bit of weirdness here since Landforth really does have psychic powers which lead him to the mine. But it’s also no surprise that Landforth has decided that he won’t need Davison for long.

It’s a engaging story that doesn’t hang around long enough to wear out it’s welcome, but I can’t say it’s particularly memorable.

The Money Light” was supposed to be included in West’s collection of linked stories, Whispers Out of the Dust, but ended up not being included for length reasons.

It’s a pleasant enough ghost story full of what I call faux Western dialogue – laconic and humorous, but I doubt people in the real American West talked that way.

Things start out with protagonist Saul Reynolds killing, in a card game, the Ferguson brothers who accuse him of cheating. (Spooner, Reynold’s friend, was the one actually cheating.) Given their reputation, the town is certainly not sorry to see the Fergusons dead, and Reynolds goes with the Ferguson bodies to their mother’s house. 

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Arkham After Dark

Cover by Marko Serafimovic

Review: Arkham After Dark, Byron Craft, 2022.

If you like a tough-talking private eye as narrator (though his secretary is ugly, his wife beautiful, and a cobbled together family waits at home for him every night), encountering the dark mysteries of the Cthulhu Mythos, then the Arkham Detective series is for you. (No, he has no other name except when he shows up in R’lyeh: The Lost Realm, the last volume of Craft’s R’lyeh series.

This installment takes place right after the last one, Who Stole the Necronomicon?. It’s December 1934. Prohibition has ended, but the nation is still poor, including Arkham with some local, one-time bootleggers fallen on hard times. 

The Detective is hired by series regular Otto Meldinger, curator of the Arkham Museum of Antiquities, to find the brother of his girlfriend, Astrid Norse. The brother is Vernon Bellows, a professor employed by that same museum. 

Not so coincidentally, the museum is peparing an exhibit about the recent Lake Expedition to the Antarctic.

The Detective’s investigation will take him down the mean streets of Arkham, into pawn shops, and bookie hangouts, and even into the sewers.

Several characters from earlier in the series show up, and there are even some illustrations including one by Clark Ashton Smith – whose work is displayed at the museum.

Medi-Evil 1

And I did pick up the first installment of Paul Finch’s  historical horror stories and read it on my birthday a few months back.

Review: Medi-Evil 1: Historical Horror and Fantasy, Paul Finch, 2011.

There are three tales in this book.

The best, in terms of its inventiveness and plot twists, is “The Blood Month”. It opens in 1030 at the Battle of Stiklestad in which the forces of Christian King Olaf are defeated by pagan Vikings under King Sveyn. Two brothers, Radnar and Ljot, escape the slaughter of their fellow Christians, but there are bounties on their heads, so they find themselves going to remote Greenland where their Uncle Sigfurth has a holding. Radnar, the oldest, has doubts about the wisdom of his conversion to Christianity, but Ljot, having adopted the faith at an earlier age than his older brother, doesn’t.

When reaching Sigfurth’s lands, they find hostility to their faith. But it’s muted because Sigfurth needs every warrior he can get. Something is killing his warriors one by one. The brothers offer to help end the menace whatever it is.

Yes, it does sound rather like Beowulf which Finch freely acknowledges when one of Sigfurth’s men grumbles, as that poem is abouted to be recited, that he doesn’t want to hear some Christian poem from those English dogs. But Finch’s plotting is masterful, and this tale doesn’t end as you would expect whether it’s the nature of the killer stalking the land, the trajectory of a romance between Ljot and a Christian slave-girl, or the course of the brothers’ Christian faith. And Finch ends his tale on a dark joke.

It’s London in the year 1581 in “Flibbertigibbet”. This one is sort of a Jack-the-Ripper story crossed with a spy-who-came-in-from-the-cold story. The story opens with the drawing and quartering of the Jesuit Edward Campion. Our hero, Robert Urmston, watches the event disgusted. Though born a Protestant, he is disgusted that his is a now a country where men can be tortured for their opinions. Subjected to strict military training after failing to meet the standards to become a laywer like his father, he used to work for Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster Francis Walsingham. But, sickening of his duties, he resigned from his job of hunting down Catholic subversives.

But Walsingham has other ideas, and Urmston finds himself back in the Queen’s employ with a job a little more agreeable to his conscience. Walsingham wants him to track down a killer who has tortured and killed six women in the Southwark section of London. These are divisive times, and Walsingham doesn’t want these crimes to be the spark that ignites the powder keg of the capital city.

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King Death

Since this is relevant to an upcoming post, I thought I’d re-post this review of mine from January 2, 2012 on the Innsmouth Free Press site.

Finch, Paul. King Death. Spectral Press, 2011. 22 pp. $8.00.

It is 1349 and England is in the grip of the Great Mortality, what later generations will call the “Black Death”. A caravan goes down a road, its coaches weighed down with tapestries and ermine-trimmed robes and gold cups. It is a train of the dead met by only one of the living.

His name is ‘Rodric’, a knight in black armour. The skull painted on his visor and shield proclaims him “King Death”, though he was born a peasant and was a mercenary before the Pestilence. But it is a handy mask for scaring the few living he encounters as he travels a land of unburied bodies, deserted villages and castles, looting where he can.

And then he meets one more of the living, a young page who believes his disguise, who offers to lead him to a castle full of riches, where all are dead, and only asks, at the end, to join his kin in death.

Thus begins Finch’s short story.

He gives us a quiet, unpeopled land of fallow fields, bloated bodies, and a smell of death that no perfumed sachet can conquer. The agony of the boy, the callousness and peasant cunning of Rodric as he seizes his one chance at a fortune, are shown well and often. The atmosphere is despondent. Even the hardened Rodric almost feels sympathy for the noble dead he finds, once his social betters and not yet his equals in death. The scenes are just what you want in a post-apocalypse story: moody and lurid.

And that was the beginning of the problem for me but maybe not for you.

It’s unfair of me to penalise Finch for my own limitations and one is that I generally don’t like historical fiction unless it has a substantial fantastical element in it. Otherwise, I often find myself always questioning if a particular detail is true and deciding I might just as well read an actual history of the time rather than fiction set in it. That was not the case here, though.

Instead, having read several books on the Black Death, I was too familiar with the setting. I questioned those unburied bodies when historical accounts have the English maintaining their social coherence during the Plague and burying their dead in a well-ordered fashion. Life went on there in the midst of death. Marriages were made, land transferred, boys apprenticed. The Plague never approached anything like the mortality rate we see and hear of in this story.

In short, things were bad then but not that bad.

And, while I hoped for a story of dwindling and threatened life or a desperate, fantastic revel in the manner of “The Masque of the Red Death”, I got, ultimately, a classical horror story ending which, for me, didn’t work here tone-wise.

Your experience, though, may be different because Finch is an effective writer. He’s not given to anachronistic characters or language. The story is so full of medieval terms, most having to do with arms and armour, that there is even a two-page glossary at the end.

And, beyond the formulaic climax, the story’s concluding imagery is satisfying.

While I was disappointed by this story, I did like it enough to go to Finch’s personal website. I’m intrigued by his Medi-Evil series of anthologies featuring historical horror and fantasy. I suspect, with another historical setting, my critical brain will let Finch’s prose take full effect.

If your brain is more flexible than mine and thinks King Death sounds like your thing, you may have to wait awhile. This chapbook appears sold out, but, of course, the story may be reprinted elsewhere in the future.

La-Bas (Down Below)

Review: Là-Bas (Down Below), J. K. Huysmans, trans. Keene Wallace, 1891, 1928.

While I’m told Huysmans’ À rebours (Against Nature) is considered a jewel of Decadent literature, it’s not clear if this novel is a work of Decadent fiction.

If I’m understanding its definition, Decadent literature, in its English and French varieties, portrays the present as decaying and advocates for enjoying the long fall of civilization with sex and drugs and outré experiences.

This novel votes yes on the decaying society part and no on the pursuit of strange aesthetic pleasures. Rather, it postulates that decay brings mysticism to the fore, and here that mysticism takes on two strains: Catholicism and Satanism.  

“It is just at the moment when positivism is at its zenith that mysticism rises again and the follies of the occult begin.”

According to Wikipedia (I doubt Huysmans is sufficiently controversial these days for an editing war to be centered around his entry), a friend of Huysmans said, after À rebours was published, that Huysmans was going to have to eventually chose between “the muzzle of a pistol and the foot of the Cross”. Huysmans would eventually choose the latter, ending up as a Benedictine monk. This considered one of the great novels of “literary Satanism”, but Catholics of a conservative bent (it was one who recommended this book to me) also admire the Durtal trilogy.

Durtal’s progression from Decadent to monk is paralleled by three Huysmann novels featuring the writer Durtal, generally considered to be Huysman’s alter ego. Là-Bas is the first of that trilogy.

Durtal’s newest project is a biography of the infamous Gilles de Rais, French noblemen, defender and champion of Joan of Arc, Marshal of France – and raper, torturer, and killer of hundreds of children. The puzzle Durtal seeks to answer is why Rais, “a brave captain and a good Christian, all of a sudden became a sacrilegious sadist and a coward”. The novel will present the story of Rais throughout and conclude with Durtal’s ideas on the Marshal’s motivations.

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