“The Motion Demon”

This week’s piece of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing – nominated by me as it turns out.

Review: “The Motion Demon”, Stefan Grabinski, trans. Miroslaw Lipinski, 1919.

I suspect Mark Samuels’ “The End to Perpetual Motion” was inspired by this story though it goes in a very different direction. This story is certainly weird and full of mystery and ambiguity.

The story opens on an express train running between Paris and Madrid. We start with the perspective of forest creatures seeing the frightening train, to them, roar past. 

We then shift to a first-class compartment where a man is alone and dozing, a book titled Crooked Lines on his lap and a stamp in the book giving us his name: Tadeusz Szygon. 

A conductor comes in to check the man’s ticket, and a terse exchange follows. 

The man doesn’t have a ticket. He doesn’t know why he didn’t buy one at the station. Yes, he’ll pay the fine. No, he doesn’t know where on the line he got on the train. Let’s just assume it was Paris and bill the whole fare plus the fine. No, he doesn’t care that a ticket will get him only to Madrid. He’ll get another train there as long as he can keep riding. 

The conductor says he’ll have to go away and prepare the ticket and figure out how much the fine will be. Szygon’s attention becomes fixed on the insignia on the conductor’s collar. It’s jagged little wings weaved to form a circle. 

Then Szygon becomes angry:

‘Mr. Wings, watch out for the draft!’

‘Please be quiet; I’m closing the door.’

‘Watch out for the draft,’ he stubbornly repeated. ‘One can sometimes break one’s neck.’” 

The conductor mutters that Szygon is either crazy or drunk and leaves. 

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“Death in All Its Ripeness”

I picked up this anthology because it has two of my favorite authors in it.

One is, of course, Mark Samuels, which means this story gets its own post. David Hambling’s story will get its own post too. The rest of the anthology will be covered later.

Review: “Death in All Its Ripeness”, Mark Samuels, 2020.

Cover by John Coulthart

Death is, indeed, ripe in this story.

It’s the autumn of 1936, the last autumn of Lovecraft’s life.

Lovecraft is revising Mrs. Renshaw’s Well-Bred Speech in the late hours. It isn’t just the infelicities of Renshaw’s style that is tiring Lovecraft. It’s his strained eyes and, above all else, his poverty, a specter he tries to keep from distracting him.

A few days later a respite seems possible when a package arrives in the mail from one Ezekiel Nantwich. Inside is $200 and some fanmail. Well, not really, not after Lovecraft reads the letter.

While he’s flattered by the attention, he is not amused by Ezekiel’s claim that, with Lovecraft’s help, he can write a “true occult book”. At least Ezekiel knows the Necronomicon isn’t a real book. Lovecraft, ponders telling Nantwich he should turn his aesthetic attention to weird fiction rather than writing occult works. Being an honest gentleman, he sends the money back to Ezekiel since Lovecraft won’t commit to the project. 

The next scene is with Ezekiel, and we quickly learn he’s an unpleasant man. He lives on a farm where he beats his bedridden father, steals money from his father’s mattress, and drinks a lot.

Ezekiel goes to the country store of Joshua Corwin. After Ezekiel picks up his letter from Lovecraft and an issue of Weird Tales and other pulp magazines, Corwin, who doesn’t think much of Ezekiel or his reading choices, asks if Ezekiel has a penpal. Ezekiel tells him to “stick to your Bible fairy tales”. 

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“Caught in the Rain”

This is another bit of Samuels’ fiction I got through his Patreon page.

Review: “Caught in the Rain”, Mark Samuels, 1988. 

This was Samuels first story and published in Black Brain Recluse #11 and, as a mature writer, he’s certainly aware of its faults.

It’s a little too vague and has a theme of environmental apocalypse. 

The plot is simple. 

The story’s protagonist, and its only character, is waiting for a bus in a deluge with excessive lightening. When he gets on the bus, he is filled with dread. There is a bit of overwriting here with a metaphor that doesn’t work – “droplets streaming along the window like transparent maggots”. 

He gets off at his regular stop and sees no one, but the location is alienating, unfamiliar. The lights in buildings seem distant. There is trash everywhere. He has the feeling of somehow being pursued. His heart begins to beat heavily. The branches of swaying trees seem to claw at him. There is a horrendous flash of lightening, and the rain becomes monsoon like. 

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I’m a member of Mark Samuels’ Patreon account and have access to various Samuels works. For obvious reasons, I’m not going to review his unpublished works, drafts, and alternate versions of published stories. However, from time to time, I’ll review some works I’ve come across there that have been published.

Review: “Amelia”, Mark Samuels, 1994. 

This is an early version from 1994 of what would become “The White Hands”. It was published in the magazine Black Altars

As Samuels notes on his Patreon page, it’s notable difference is a theme  aligning more towards “Poe-like Romanticism” than “The White Hands”. 

Most of the incidents are similar except, unlike the longer version of “The White Hands”, the narrator doesn’t visit Lilith Blake’s tomb. Indeed, there isn’t a Lilith Blake in this story but a very similar writer: Amelia Jefferys aka Henry Priestly. Muswell, when speaking of Jefferys, says

supernatural isolation when confronted with infinity, the sense of eternal loss and a love which cannot be consummated constitute the romantic impulse

as Edgar Allan Poe knew. 

And the narrator, once he sees Jefferys’ picture, falls in love with her. He takes steps to have Jefferys’ coffin exhumed and gaze upon her “supple and youthful” neck. While we hear of the narrator, named John Harrington, writing to Lilith Blake at the end of “The White Hands”, here we get a letter from Harrington to Jefferys.

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. 

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“The Interminable Abomination”

Review: “The Interminable Abomination”, Mark Samuels, 2021. 

Cover by George Cotronis

Sometimes, if you’re a protagonist in a Mark Samuels story, trouble just finds you – corruption propagating back from the future or another dimension or the dead taking over the world or taking a job in some monstrous company or just going to the hospital. And another common way of finding trouble is to be a book collector or literary scholar. In the first case, the horrors discovered are generally apocalyptic. In the second case, it’s a more personal horror.

This is a story of the second kind.

Our narrator is a semi-retired bookseller operating in London for 30 years. He’s felt the usual vicissitudes of the business: internet competition and gentrification pushing out the spaces to conduct retail at. And lugging boxes of books around has wrecked his back. He produces a quarterly mail order catalog called Vathek’s Book-List. He specializes in horror works and now finds himself under a compulsion to write an account of his life which is also a horror story. 

One day he gets a call from Colonel Archibald Dawson, a long-time customer of his though he’s never met the man since he orders by mail. He knows Dawson has bought some good stuff from him over the years, so he’ll actually go to Dawson’s house to see what he has to sell. 

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“If Destiny Still Reigns”

I picked up the first issue of Penumbra – A Journal of Weird Fiction and Criticism solely for this story.

While I won’t be reviewing much else in the magazine, I will say it’s worth picking up if you like weird fiction. Not only are there stories by writers currently working in the genre but also reprints of classic works including translations from non-English works. There is also some decent poetry. The critical articles are mostly jargon free, often insightful, and, at worse, merely state the obvious.

Review: “If Destiny Still Reigns”, Mark Samuels, 2020. 

Cover by George Cotronis

The story opens with one of those sinister tv transmission that frequently show up in Samuels’ work. The so-called December 8th transmission appeared on the world’s televisions for about a minute. The commentariat had an explanation.

The already limited attention span of the average consumer of mainstream mass media was further shortened when responsibility for the transmission was claimed by an obscure climate change campaigner and technology insider who also maintained that he had hacked into the network systems delivering terrestrial and satellite data streams.

But, while the impressions viewers of it had are written off as pareidolia, they seem remarkably consistent:

another world, one whose surface consisted of cratered, rusted, and blackened metal. The succession of still images were rapidly intercut and speeded up in order to incorporate the greatest number of them within the limited time available. And in that series of desolate tableaux I espied an almost infinite series of underground tunnels in what was a honeycombed, machine planet; one populated entirely by hideously wrought components, cogs, or other mechanisms of incomprehensible import. There was nothing in those images that pertained to organic life, nor any indication of its having had prior existence there at all

The narrator, a journalist seeks answer, and he knows whom to ask: a Russian communication expert named Josef Rostok who lives in the polluted Siberian mining city of Arkilsk, once a gulag.

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The Prozess Manifestations

I’ll be returning to Brian Stableford’s Sexual Chemistry shortly, but the usual method of operation at this blog is that the “literary reconnaissances” are posted in the order of observation, and I finished this book before Stableford’s.

As a reminder, posts marked “essay” contain extensive spoilers.

Essay: The Prozess Manifestations, Mark Samuels, 2019.

Samuels is not generally a weird fiction writer associated with a “mythos”. However, if you read enough Samuels, you realize some of his work is a constellation of stories around his fictional Victorian writer Lilith Blake and the area around London’s Highgate Cemetery.

And then there’s the series of stories in this book, most referencing a Doctor Prozess. But it’s not a mythos linked by plot or place or a chronology. Rather Prozess, as we’ll see, is more a symbol, and avatar of deeper forces and drives in our lives.

I’ll be looking at the stories in order, and some I’ve looked at before.

Decay“ has a setup reminiscent of an early William Gibson cyberpunk story since its protagonist, Carlos Diaz, is hired by the grotesquely fat Hermes X (a name suggestive of a seeker of magical secrets) to spy on one Cornelius Parry. Parry is a former researcher in artificial intelligence (I suspect the name “Parry” is an allusion to an early artificial intelligence program that simulated the personality of a paranoid schizophrenic) whose researches seem to have continued and yielded fruit.

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Glyphotech and Other Macabre Processes

Low Res Scan: Glyphotech and Other Macabre Processes, Mark Samuels, 2008, 2016.

Cover by Mark Samuels

Processes are those legal, political, technological, bureaucratic, and scientific things that define our modern world, a world Mark Samuels is not fond of. So it’s no accident that the very word process shows up in this collection’s title. I’ll eventually be looking at another work of Samuels’ called The Prozess Manifestations.

As befitting the “Low Res Scan” designation, I won’t be reviewing “Sentinels”, “Cesare Thodol: Some Lines Written on a Wall”, “Ghorla”, “Regina vs. Zoskia”, and “A Gentleman from Mexico” since I’ve looked at them already in my post on The Age of Decayed Futurity. This is a variant edition of Samuels’ 2008 Glypotech collection sans “The Cannibal Kings of Horror”, a satire story he deemed “wholly undertaken by even more outlandish developments”.

Psychotropic drugs had dulled its effects to the extent that he was almost able to ignore the surrender of the human race to this phenomenon of sham. But the medication only produced neutrality; one more means of ensuring his tacit compliance if not his participation. Early on, when he first recognised the all-pervasive nature of the sham-existence, he had talked to others about it. However, they did not seem to realise that all apparent solutions were equally part of the problem. Science, psychology, religion and philosophy were likewise only manifestations. There seemed only one viable way to circumvent the circus that is sham-existence: annihilation.

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The White Hands and Other Weird Tales

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.

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