“Reading in Bed”

The weird fiction being discussed over at Library’s Thing’s The Weird Tradition group a couple of weeks ago.

Review: “Reading in Bed”, Joan Aiken, 2011.

A genial story that’s kind of a tall tale and almost a deal-with-the-devil story. Our protagonist is Francis Nastrowski, a young Polish officer. And the story right up front tells us that being fond of wine and reading in bed may be “Harmless pursuits, one might say, but they nearly led to his downfall.”    

He was once rich but now stationed in former hotel by the sea in a small fishing village. One night, after drinking burgundy with friends and becoming “if not drunk, at least very, very friendly”, Francis retires to do some reading. 

He hears a noise outside the balcony and gets up with a “torch” (the only approximation of a time period for setting). He sees, in its beam and on the nearby pier, the Devil – whom he recognizes because of the “impeccable cut of his evening suit and his horns”. The Devil invites him across the water. 

Francis dresses, dives in the water, and swims to the pier. The Devil, smoking a cigarette and smelling of brimstone (which Francis isn’t particular about), offers Francis a hand up. The Devil puts a black fur coat on Francis which fits quite well and is warm. The Devil asks Francis if he would like to meet his niece. Francis says he would be honored to meet a relation of the Devil’s. 

They go to a waiting boat, the Devil carrying his tail negligently under an arm. Francis rows them across the water and compliments the Devil on his “very ingenious idea”. Disembarking at an unfamiliar part of town, they walk through “dark cobbled streets” and Francis sees an old man very weirdly swallowing poker after poker. 

Continue reading

Memento Mori

My look at West’s #Savant series concludes.

Review: Memento Mori, David J. West, 2020. 

Cover by Warren Design

Most of the plot revelations were taken care of in the preceding #Savant book, In My Time of Dying. About half of this story is a chase with Elizabeth Dee and bodyguard Porter Rockwell trying to rescue John Dee from Count Germain. And John isn’t going to be offering much aid remotely to Elizabeth this time since he has been almost completely silenced and immobilized by Germain aka Edward Kelley, Dee’s old associate.

The story starts around Cheyenne with Elizabeth and Porter Rockwell attacking a train to get John Dee back. It will end in the Liberty County Jail in Missouri – a place Rockwell knows all too well since he spent – as he did in our timeline – many months imprisoned there.

Along the way we get cameo appearances by Crazy Horse (who fights a duel with Rockwell) and the James Gang and a special guest villain appearance by Helena Blavatsky.

There’s mayhem aboard trains and steamboats, and Rockwell will once again get to use those prototype pistols John Browning gave him.

This story is darker, moodier than its predecessor since we get some flashbacks to violent episodes in Rockwell’s life. (I wonder if one particularly strange one is a recap of another Rockwell story West has written.)

Another winning weird western from West, and I look forward to the third installment of the #Savant series.

In My Time of Dying

I liked the fourth installment of the #Savant series enough, “A Manuscript Found in Carcosa” in Tales of the Al-Azif, that I decided to check out the first installment in the series. (The crosshatch in the series title makes sense in terms of the story, but I wonder if there also isn’t some Twitter marketing ploy at work.)

Review: In My Time of Dying, David J. West, 2019. 

Cover by Deranged Doctor Design

If my reviews of West’s work seem a bit short compared to others, it’s not just because his stories are in the novella or short novel range. It’s because they are well-done modern pulp, and part of the enjoyment of a good pulp story is usually the plot twists and turns and the set action pieces.

And there’s a lot to like here in terms of plot.

Our story opens not in the American West of 1875, where most of it takes place, but in the Himalayas in 1874. In a mountain fortress, a group called the Knights of St. Germain have a prisoner, and they’ve had him a long time. His name is John, an emaciated figure of skin and bones chained in a dungeon as he has been for many a decade. He is a sort of reservoir of lifeforce, constantly recharged by mysterious forces and then drained by Count St. Germain. Or, at least, that’s what he calls himself now. John knows him under his old name, Edward.

Certain readers will no doubt tumble on to whom these two men are, especially since our series heroine is Elizabeth Dee. But, for those who don’t, I won’t spoil West’s slow reveal.

John is a man of formidable resources, an ability to dominate wills, and he makes a break from the fortress – by flinging himself off its high walls.

Continue reading

Home on the Strange

My look at David J. West’s Cowboys & Cthulhu series concludes.

Review: Home on the Strange, David J. West, 2021

Cover by Carter Reid

A wagon train is wiped out by Indians leaving only Hannah, a girl, alive.

Captain Brady, newly out of West Point and sorry he just missed the action of the recently concluded Civil War, leads a cavalry troop to bring the Indian leader, Crazy Snake, and his men to justice.

Porter Rockwell serves as their scout. As a Mormon, he’s suspected of collaborating with the Indians.

And then, around the sinister outcropping of rock called the Pulpit, sentries begin to be picked off at night.  

It sounds like the elements of a typical western except it’s not because this is another in West’s Cowboys & Cthulhu tales. There’s something in the Pulpit besides hostile Indians. And there’s a voice in Hannah’s head who is giving her advice that she and Rockwell will need to drive the enemy in the mountain off.

This is another winning entry in the series, and it is the closest yet to a classic western plot. It’s got the humor and well-done action of other stories in the series. It’s classic pulp adventure in the Mythos tradition and a good weird western whose many surprising delights I will spoil with no further plot reveals.

There are some nice scenes out of the main action like when Rockwell meets Tanner, an old acquaintance of his who knows firsthand the secrets in Pulpit.

And it was nice to see Wovoka, the Indian prophet who inspired the Ghost Dance, getting a mention.

Let Sleeping Gods Lie

After reading West’s “A Manuscript Found in Carcosa” and “The Haunter of the Wheel”, I wanted to read more of West’s fiction with Porter Rockwell. The latter story is part of West’s Cowboys & Cthulhu series, and this story seems the first in the series.

Review: Let Sleeping Gods Lie, David J. West. 2019. 

Cover by Carter Reid

When three Chinese miners show up at Porter Rockwell’s saloon one night, they are in a hurry to abandon their diggings around the camp of Murderer’s Bar. One of them is dying. They want to trade a “dragon bone” and a book for a horse and wagon. They found working them their claim on the putatively haunted Scorched Devil Ridge. Rockwell trades them a cart and mule for the goods but not before the Chinese mention the Old Ones and hungry ghosts, and that, in two nights, the stars will be right.

Well, the group doesn’t get far on the trail to Sacramento. They are found dead on the trail by two sometimes comical characters – though courageous enough — Zeke and Bowles. For that matter, the night watchman at the saloon is killed too.

And they won’t be the last killings Rockwell, employee Jack, faithful hound Dawg, and the fearsome Bloody Creek Mary will have to contend with. The question is are they just the depredations of the local Mountain Hound gang or something far stranger?

This one has more the feel of the traditional western than “The Haunter of the Wheel” with Rockwell spending almost as much time battling outlaws as a menace from the past linked to Zealia Bishop’s and H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Mound”.

Of course, the mysterious Mr. Nodens shows up, always willing to provide hints to Rockwell but no actual help. Sasquatches do too.

Continue reading

The Majestic 311

For the last two or three years, I’ve hankered for weird westerns at the turn of the year. Don’t know why.

So, after finishing Make Me King and also wanting to read more Blackmore, I bought this book.

Review: The Majestic 311, Keith C. Blackmore, 2019. 

Cover by Karri Klawiter

As the subtitle says, this is a “very weird western”. 

It opens with a classic western motif: a train robbery.

Leland Baxter’s and his six men are sketched quickly with Blackmore’s typically skillful dialogue.

Baxter is a natural leader of men, opposed to unnecessary violence, and willing to let his men complain – even if he doesn’t do anything about their complaints. Former circus strongman “Shorty” Charlie Williams is his taciturn and loyal henchman. Another of his friends is James “Jimmy” Norquay, former buffalo hunter, who met Baxter in a residential school for Indians Norquay being a Metis. Mackenzie Cass is a cattle rustler possessed of surprising bits of learning. Gilbert Butler is a gunrunner from America. His partner is the volatile, profane, and frequently insolent Eli Gallant. The last is our protagonist, orphan Nathan Rhodes, who once sought a career as a lawman before killing a boy who resisted arrest.

It’s a cold, wintery night in the Canadian Rockies. There’s a train from Canada bound for western Canada with the payroll of a mining company. And, since it has to slow to start climbing the Spirals, a winding tunnel going through the Rockies, it’s the perfect place to hop on it.

That’s the plan. But when Nathan and Baxter find a literally skeletal engineer in the cab – who opens the throttle up before leaping over the side, and the rest of the gang find way too many cars and no passengers, things get strange.

Continue reading

Tales of Yog-Sothoth

I’m moving out of reading sequence here because David Hambling was kind enough to send me a copy of this and another book, The Book of Yig, which I’ll be reviewing next post. It promised to be just thing with not only another Harry Stubbs tale from Hambling but a weird western story in the book from David J. West.

Review: Tales of Yog-Sothoth, ed. C. T. Phipps, 2021.

Cover by Steve Smith

As Phipps notes in his “Foreword”, H. P. Lovecraft didn’t call his related set of stories the “Cthulhu Mythos”. He called them “Yog-Sothery”. Phipps likes Yog-Sothoth and regards that god, with his ability to open dimensional doorways and mate with humans, the key entity of the Lovecraft universe which has spawned who knows how many stories since.

The organizing structure is the same as Phipps’ successful anthology Tales of the Al-Azif: a set of stories from diverse authors, often working in their own Lovecraftian series, presented in chronological order with some links between the stories. I suppose, if you’re the sort of person obsessed by continuity and consistency, you may balk at that. I’m not and I don’t. I think of the Mythos as a bit like the Arthurian cycle of stories: a set of characters and their relationships which are reworked and elaborated by a variety of authors for their own ends. [Update: Matthew Davenport co-edited Tales of the Al-Azif.]

Or think of it as a literary equivalent of an AK-47: a bit loose in the way the parts fit together but reliable enough for rapid fire which usually hits the target.

However, I didn’t think this book worked as well that earlier book of Phipps.

It starts out well though.

Phipps’ own “The True Name of God” was excellent. I’ll admit my interest in the Crusades may have played a part in my enthusiasm. Set in Akka (aka Acre) occupied by the Crusaders, it follows Ali ad Fariq, an accomplished member of the Order of Assassins as he takes a strange job for an unexpected client. Rabbi Yosef ben Yosef wants him to hunt down something that’s killing Jewish women in the city. The victims include his own daughter.

Continue reading

Fantastic Fiction and the Great War

This column seems to have disappeared from the Innsmouth Free Press website where it appeared in 2016.

Essay: Fantastic Fiction and the Great War

Arnyvelde, Andre. Translated by Brian Stableford. The Ark. Black Coat Press (August 15, 2015). Paperback USD $22.95. 313 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1612274324.

Atherton, Gertrude Franklin Horn. The White Morning: A Novel of the Power of the German Women in Wartime. Amazon Digital Services (March 6, 2012). Kindle USD $0. 124 pages. ASIN: B007HT2OGA.

Benson, Stella. Living Alone. Amazon Digital Services (May 17, 2012). Kindle USD $0. 280 pages. ASIN: B0084BB9YI.

Burroughs, Edgar Rice. The Lost Continent. Running Press (June 25, 2014). Kindle USD $0.99. 149 pages. ASIN: B00LAMPLG0.

Froisland, Frois. Translated by Nils Flaten. The Man with the X-Ray Eyes & Other Stories From the Front. Harper & Brothers, 1930. Hardcover USD $275. 276 pages.

Meyrink, Gustav. Translated by Mike Mitchell. The Green Face. Dedalus (October 2004). Kindle USD $13.99. Paperback USD $10.75. 224 pages. ASIN: B0038U2V8S. ISBN-13: 978-0946626922.

Phillips, Forbes and Hopkins, R. Thurston. War and the Weird. Amazon Digital Services (March 24, 2011). Kindle USD $0. 116 pages. ASIN: B004TQ205O.

Robida, Albert. Translated by Brian Stableford. The Engineer Von Satanas. Black Coat Press (July 31, 2015). Paperback USD $24.95. 337 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1612274256.

Stableford, Brian. “An Accidental Prophet: Albert Robida’s Future Wars.” New York Review of Science Fiction no. 322 (June 2015). Kindle USD $2.99.

Stevens, Francis. The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy. University of Nebraska Press (October 1, 2004). Paperback USD $21.95. 404 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0803292987.

The roar of the wind was so constant, so deafening, that Hauberrisser began to think that all around was shrouded in a deathly hush. It was only when he went to nail back the trembling shutters, so that they would not be blown against the glass, and found he could not hear the hammering, that he realised how great the din outside must be.

… when he did risk a tentative glance, he saw it still towering up undamaged, but it was an island in a sea of rubble: the rest of the frieze of spires, roofs and gables had been almost completely flattened.

How many cities are there left standing in Europe? he wondered with a shudder. The whole of Amsterdam has been ground to dust like crumbling rock; nothing left of a rotten civilization but a scatter of rubbish. He was gripped with awe as he suddenly comprehended the magnitude of the cataclysm.

Published in the middle of the Great War for Civilization, Austrian Gustav Meyrink’s 1916 novel The Green Face imagined a post-war Amsterdam crammed with refugees from many nations. Hauberrisser, a man tired of “the old game of civilization: first peace to prepare for war and then war to win back peace,” wants to see “a fresh, unknown world.” Idle curiosity propels him on a mystical quest that starts with a chance entry into Chider Green’s Hall of Riddles. He moves through a city of unemployed intelligentsia and the “dregs of Paris and London, of the cities of Belgium and Russia, fleeing in panic the revolutions that had broken out in their own countries … aristocrats who would rather die than crawl.” He will meet a Zulu witch doctor, a fake Polish count, a mystical entomologist, and a group of occultists who seek eternal life by slow transformation of their bodies. One predicts his ward, Eva, who longs for death, may be Hauberrisser’s prophesied wife in a marriage of destiny out of which will come a new world.

That wind that roars through Europe at the end of the novel blows in a new spiritual order.

Continue reading

“History of the Young Man with Spectacles”

This week’s work of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing is an episode from Arthur Machen’s The Three Imposters. I suspect it’s more interesting if you’ve read the rest of the novel. I have only read other excerpts presented as short stories. I may rectify that soon.

Review: “History of the Young Man with Spectacles”, Arthur Machen, 1895.

Cover by Matthew Jaffe

Narrated by Joseph Walter, a would-be scholar, seduced by a decadent secret society. 

Right at the opening paragraph, the narrator tells us he’s holed up in his crummy apartment in London’s bad Clerkenwell district and awaiting his destruction when he goes outside. His story is a warning.

He spends a great deal of time at the beginning telling us he “chose the glorious career of scholar”. But he’s not going to practice the scholarship of “these days”, merely annotating and editing books superfluously. His project is to spend his life learning everything. He waxes rhapsodic about the dome over the British Museum’s reading room where, supported by a small income, he spends his days. 

There are lots of people in the reading room every day, and one makes their acquaintance through little things like “a casual offer of assistance, a hint as to the search in the catalogue”, and one such man he meets is Dr. Lipsius. It’s a German name, and Lipsius tells Walters that, with his “wonderful resolve” to pursue an “infinite career” in scholarship, he should have been a German. Justus Lipsius was the name of a Renaissance philosopher who sought to fuse stoicism with Christianity. Machen’s choosing the same name may be a bit of irony since Lipsius is certainly not a stoic or Christian.

Continue reading

“Green Tea”

This week’s bit of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing.

Review: “Green Tea”, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, 1869.

This 1869 story is considered one of the first occult detective stories.

The narrator in this story, told as letters to his friend and former patient Professor Van Loo of Leyden, is the German doctor Martin Hesselius. He introduces or narrates (the anthology’s introduction is not entirely clear) the stories in Le Fanu’s collection In a Glass Darkly. However, this is the only story in the collection featuring Hesselius.

The story centers around the Rev. Jennings, a middle-aged man with a strange problem. He can’t officiate at his church in Kenlis. Partway through the services, he stops and can’t continue except with “solitary, inaudible prayer” and starts to shake and grow pale. One might expect some sort of slacking off from Jennings’ appointed duties. His dear friend Lady Mary Heyduke thinks it “nerves and fancy”. 

We then hear Hesselius’ impression of Jennings on their initial meeting. He initially observes Jennings without talking to him, and his impressions are favorable. He does note how Jennings frequently looks at the carpet with a sidelong glance. 

Continue reading