Tag Archives: horror

{Book} Sherlock Holmes and the Servants of Hell

Sherlock Holmes and the Servants of Hell

Sherlock Holmes and the Servants of Hell by Paul Kane

“What up with all the Hellraiser?” my husband asked me the other day.

‘Tis the season, I guess.

I do rather like Hellraiser, the movie and the Clive Barker story, “Hellbound Heart,” that it’s based on. I believe I’ve watched the second in the series as well, but haven’t further followed the franchise. The mashup of Sherlock Holmes and Hellraiser lore seemed intriguing to me.

How much Hellraiser is in this novel? Quite a bit. This more than a wink-nudge-nod. I don’t think it’s explicitly necessary to be familiar with the movies or additional literature, but I did find the protracted mention of various Cenobites from other sources to be a little tedious.

Similarly, there are a lot of mentions and allusions to the extended Holmes universe, which I enjoyed more since I’m more familiar with that. I am a little leery of non-canon Holmes fiction, especially when it runs along the lines of “Sherlock Holmes Meets [insert famous historical/fictional character]”, but the conceit of Holmes being drawn to the Lament Configuration after his near-death at Reichenbach was plausible. I thought the personality traits of Holmes and Watson were well-represented, but many of the plot points originated from character other than the duo. It wasn’t *quite* deus ex machina, but close in a couple cases.

It was a fun enough book, especially for an October read.


{Book} The Boats of the “Glen Carrig”

The Boats of the "Glen Carrig"

The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” by William Hope Hodgson

Being an account of their Adventures in the Strange places of the Earth, after the foundering of the good ship Glen Carrig through striking upon a hidden rock in the unknown seas to the Southward. As told by John Winterstraw, Gent., to his son James Winterstraw and by him committed very properly and legibly to manuscript.

As I mentioned in my Notes post, I had decided to read Hodgson’s The Ghost Pirates between Home Before Dark and the Sherlockathon, but an author’s note in that volume redirected me to The Boats of the “Glen Carrig”, the first of a loose trilogy, apparently. The second volume is The House on the Borderland, which I intend to read as part of my Classics List at some point. The House on the Borderland is commonly considered a foundational text of weird fiction and is well-regarded by the likes of H. P . Lovecraft.

I really enjoyed The Boats of the “Glen Carrig”. I get in the mood for sea adventures every once in a while, especially ones with a bit of supernatural flair. Two boats make it away from the wreck of the Glen Carrig. They encounter a desolate island full of shrieking fungi, storms, a continent of kelp, giant crabs and squids, and finally an island near another wrecked ship with survivors who have been marooned for seven years. Alas, the island/kelp sea’s natural inhabitants are strange squid men.

My forever beef with weird fiction is that it often falls back on “It was indescribable and therefore drove me insane!” Hodgson’s narrator does his best to describe all the uncanny elements and then he and his colleagues proceed to kill the things with fire. Is he later nervous and a little haunted by the things? Sure. But the goal is always survival. Does that make this a less sophisticated story? Maybe, but also a more enjoyable story in my opinion.

In the later part of the novel, Hodgson does get wrapped up in describing how the ship marooned in the kelp sea is eventually put into sailing shape again. All of the sea voyaging seems pretty realistic to me, which also grounds the fantastic elements, but some of these bits are drier than Melville’s whale chapters in Moby-Dick.

{Book} Home Before Dark

Home Before Dark

Home Before Dark by Riley Sager

I was on-board for this novel’s concept. The narrative is split, every-other-chapter, between a best-seller Amityville Horror-type book call House of Horrors and the experiences of Maggie, the grown daughter of the family who survived the haunting. Maggie’s life has been over-shadowed by “the Book,” but she doesn’t remember most of what happened at Baneberry Hall (the House of Horrors). Her mother and father, now divorced, won’t speak of it. At all. The only thing that she’s told is that she should never, ever go back to Baneberry Hall. Maggie believes there is a lot of lying going on. When her father dies and she learns that she has inherited the property (which her father still owned!), she of course goes to Baneberry Hall.

(There is some criticism that Sager uses “Baneberry Hall” a lot, more than is needed. I will contest, it’s weirdly addictive. Baneberry Hall.)

The problem with this sort of past/present narrative device is that, as a writer, you either need to be very honest with the story and make sure there are no holes, or you need to sweep the reader up in such a whirlwind of events that there is no time for questions. Sager goes for the latter and honestly that works for many readers. But I can get pretty annoyed by petty things, and that happened to me here. I had too many questions. (Possible spoilers ahead:) For example, knowing a little about the amateur ghost hunting community, how is it possible that there is no information online about the pet cemetery or the breech in the wall around the house? Maggie does some internet research and it’s stated that there are a lot of tourist “ghouls” interested in the house. I find it pretty unlikely that there wouldn’t even be a rumor online that the Book isn’t entirely factual. Were Polaroid instant cameras in the 80s-90s light enough to maneuver around for “selfies” and did the pics develope fast enough to track a ghost? I’m guessing that the modern instant cameras are lighter, less bulky, and have better developing processes, but my grandma’s Polaroid was a brick and after waiting for a few minutes for the picture to develop, you’d realize the lighting had led to over-exposure. Also, in what reality was there ever the attitude of “Oh, a teenager is dead. Who cares?” (July 6, Day 11, pg 318 in my copy…) Especially in a small New England town?

There was just too much of those things for me, and honestly, not enough creepy atmosphere to keep me distracted.

The King in Yellow

The King in Yellow: And Other Stories

Like many people, I hadn’t really heard of The King in Yellow before the first season of True Detective which originally aired back in 2014. I was intrigued enough to add the Robert W. Chambers to my TBR list, but not enough to actually read the collection until six years later… Since The King in Yellow is considered a foundational text of genre literature, I included it on my Classics Club list, but was finally spurred to read it by the lectures of Michael Moir, whose Weird Lit class is available through YouTube.

Funnily enough, Chambers’ stories only have peripheral connection to True Detectives‘ narrative, and the King in Yellow, the play and personality, only have peripheral connection to the stories in this anthology.

The King in Yellow refers to a fictional play referenced in the first four stories of this collection. Reading the play is said to drive individual mad. The King in Yellow was published in 1895. Artifacts of forbidden knowledge were not unknown at this time to readers of M. R. James, Ambrose Bierce, and other authors of weird tales who preceded and inspired Chambers. The brain-break of insight will later become the bread and butter of writers such as H. P. Lovecraft.

As I mentioned, the first four stories of this collection directly mention the the King in Yellow, the Yellow Sign, the Masked Stranger, and the strange other world of Carcosa; all things from the fictional play which we are never given to read. The first story “The Repairer of Reputations” is possibly science fiction. Its setting is New York City in 1920. The United States has been at war with Germany and emerged from the conflict as a world power. Hildred, the narrator of our tale, assures us that he is totally, utterly fine, despite the head injury he recently sustained. His stay in an asylum was instead due to reading “The King in Yellow.” Because of his now keen insights, Hildred becomes a believer in the conspiracy theories of Mr. Wilde (whose death is cause by Wilde’s unhinged pet cat). Considering the unreliability of Hildred, the futuristic setting is probably just a delusion of the narrator. None of the other stories seem to involve the future.

I enjoyed the second story most of all. Many of the stories in this collection involve artists, but “The Mask” contains one of my personal favorite sub-genres of horror, though I’m not sure if I have a succinct name for it. It’s the type of horror in which the creation of art is the byproduct of something horrorible. Something like Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood in which a struggling artist stumbles upon a method of creating great sculptures…by covering the subject in plaster. Or the (possible) use of human intestines for violin strings in “The Ensouled Violin” by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. In “The Mask,” weird science innovated by reading the “The King in Yellow,” of course, inspires a sculptor to use a liquid-nitrogen-like substance to preserve living things. The effects are not permanent which leads to a strangely not unhappy ending for such a tale.

“In the Court of the Dragon” and “The Yellow Sign” have more connection to the forbidden manuscript and are more straight forward horror stories, but are maybe less interesting for it. In both, the narrators are harried by uncanny physical supernatural forces after reading “The King in Yellow.” Unfortunately, much of what these narrators experience is beyond description.

The lecture on these four stories mentioned two Ambrose Bierce tales that served as some direct inspiration to Chambers. In “Haïta the Shepherd,” Bierce names the god of shepherds Hastur. Hastur becomes a mentioned character in the forbidden play. Bierce’s story is pretty much a fable. Haïta is visited by a beautiful maiden, who leaves him when he tries to question or possess her. The maiden is, of course, named Happiness.

Carcosa plays a bigger part in Chamber’s works and is fairly close in nature to Ambrose Bierce vision in “An Inhabitant of Carcosa.” Carcosa is a limbo of sorts, or maybe the world as a spirit experiences it. The last line of Bierce’s story implies that the preceding was told by a spirit through a medium. Carcosa isn’t the comfortable Summerland that most spiritualist of the time touted.

Actually, the allusions to The King in Yellow don’t end after “The Yellow Sign.” Hastur is mentioned in “The Demoiselle d’Ys” and Chamber’s story actually bears a resemblance to “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” as the narrator travels through a strange dream-like landscape. The Wikipedia entry states that “The Demoiselle d’Ys” anticipates H. G. Wells’ “The Door in the Wall.” While I can see some similarities, it really very different. (I’ll be reading the entire The Door in the Wall collection in the near future and provide more thoughts on it then.)

I don’t believe “The Prophets’ Paradise” mentions “The King in Yellow,” but it’s not the most comprehensible work for a Chambers neophyte to read. It is a few pages of prose/poem fragments. “The Street of the Four Winds” was much more engaging and creepy; the best of these stories to read on a stormy Halloween night.

After this, according to Wikipedia, the stories shift to a more romantic philosophy. There are many bohemian artists, living in Paris. I skimmed my way through most of “The Street of the First Shell,” but then really lost interest in the anthology. Chambers is not an elegant or straight-forward writer. I think it’s in the ambiguities and gaps that his weird stories are interesting to most readers. Like many of that genre, I have a hard time investing in horrors that are too terrible to be named.

My Classics Club list

{Book} The Changeling

The Changeling

The Changeling by Victor LaValle

Apollo Kagwa has had strange dreams that have haunted him since childhood. An antiquarian book dealer with a business called Improbabilia, he is just beginning to settle into his new life as a committed and involved father, unlike his own father who abandoned him, when his wife Emma begins acting strange. Disconnected and uninterested in their new baby boy, Emma at first seems to be exhibiting all the signs of post-partum depression, but it quickly becomes clear that her troubles go far beyond that. Before Apollo can do anything to help, Emma commits a horrific act—beyond any parent’s comprehension—and vanishes, seemingly into thin air. Thus begins Apollo’s odyssey through a world he only thought he understood to find a wife and child who are nothing like he’d imagined. His quest begins when he meets a mysterious stranger who claims to have information about Emma’s whereabouts. Apollo then begins a journey that takes him to a forgotten island in the East River of New York City, a graveyard full of secrets, a forest in Queens where immigrant legends still live, and finally back to a place he thought he had lost forever. This dizzying tale is ultimately a story about family and the unfathomable secrets of the people we love.

Summary via Goodreads

I really enjoyed LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom and was looking to read more from him. I believe I put The Changeling on my TBR list when I was looking for successors to Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks. As I was reading I thought that The Changeling was like a cross between War for the Oaks and the movie Hereditary, so I guess it scratched that folklore-in-the-mordern-world itch!

I didn’t know where this book was going to take me and I really enjoyed that. I don’t know how much I want to say about the crux of this book because it surprised to me and I really don’t want to spoil it. There was a really great interplay between technology/social media and old world folklore. To me, if you’re going to tell urban fantasy stories, that’s what’s needed to be more than “Hey, look! A werewolf in the streets in the year 2018!” (Note: werewolves are an example here. There are no werewolves in this book.)

But, my other comparison is Hereditary. The Changeling is definitely horror. There are some horrific things, but also a pervasive sense distrust and wrongness throughout the story which makes it tense and discomfiting. The story is slow to get going, but that’s because LaValle carefully lays a base for these characters. Their pasts matter to the story; not just in making the reader care for them, but giving them reason for acting the way they do and what situations they find themselves in.

In general, I haven’t enjoyed a horror novel this much since Glen Hirshberg’s Motherless Child. Victor LaValle is fast becoming one of my favorite “new” authors.

Publication: Spiegel & Grau, 2017
My Copy: Overdrive/Kindle edition, Tempe Digital Library
Genre: horror

{Book} Meddling Kids

Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero

1990. The teen detectives once known as the Blyton Summer Detective Club (of Blyton Hills, a small mining town in the Zoinx River Valley in Oregon) are all grown up and haven’t seen each other since their fateful, final case in 1977. Andy, the tomboy, is twenty-five and on the run, wanted in at least two states. Kerri, one-time kid genius and budding biologist, is bartending in New York, working on a serious drinking problem. At least she’s got Sean, an excitable Weimeraner descended from the original canine member of the team. Nate, the horror nerd, has spent the last thirteen years in and out of mental health institutions, and currently resides in an asylum in Arkham, Massachusetts. The only friend he still sees is Peter, the handsome jock turned movie star. The problem is, Peter’s been dead for years.

The time has come to uncover the source of their nightmares and return to where it all began in 1977. This time, it better not be a man in a mask. The real monsters are waiting.

Cover and summary via Goodreads

Meddling Kids has been on my TBR list for a while, but I decided to read it now because it was the June pick for the Occult Detective Book Club.

I wanted to like this book more than I did.

I’m not a huge Scooby-Doo fan, but it was one of my favorite cartoons as a kid and has probably had an out-sized influence on the way I see the world. While I like reading about the supernatural, I don’t actually believe in it. Scooby-Doo is kind of the opposite of occult detectives: the mysteries investigated look supernatural, but aren’t. It sits firmly in a skeptical space. I was a skeptical kid and I’m a skeptical adult.

But as I said, I do like reading about the supernatural, so I was looking forward to the twist of Meddling Kids. The gang, grown up, face a paranormal mystery. Additionally, the story is set in the Lovecraft-verse.

I liked the setting, but I wasn’t very attached to the characters. I liked the majority of the plot. The reversals were nice and I like a good dead-friend’s-ghost advisor character. Unfortunately, the real hurdle for me was the writing.

There are a lot of winks and nudges. Zoinx River? Jinkies. While Arkham is mentioned by name, H. P. Lovecraft is referenced as an author named Howard. According to Wikipedia, Meddling Kids is also inspired by Enid Blyton’s the Famous Five series that began publication in 1942. The Famous Five are Julian, Dick, Anne, Georgina (nick-named George) and their dog Timmy. I had no idea about this series, but the nods are obvious, especially since Meddling Kids is set in Blyton Hills, Oregon. And it comes off as a little too clever for its own good.

Also in that too-clever category, some of the writing seems stunt-like. Kerri’s hair being sort of cartoon-sentient was…weird. (I have curly red hair. It isn’t that fun.) Some of the adverbs choices were odd. A candleflame silence, a flock of hair. Then there was the page and a half long sentence that was part of an action scene. Kind of the equivalent of a long one-shot in a movie. Speaking of movies, sometimes the dialogue would slip into screenplay-ish format. What is that about? Maybe I’m old and boring, but it was a little too much for me.

I didn’t totally dislike Meddling Kids. I did finish reading it after all, and it was a fast read, but it didn’t quite live up to what I hoped it would be.

Publication: Doubleday, 2017
My copy: Tempe Public Library Overdrive edition

{Book} The Beetle

{Book} The Beetle by Richard March

‘It changes its shape at will. It compels others to do its bidding. It inspires terror in all who look on it…’

Eminent politician Paul Lessingham is the toast of Westminster, but when ‘the Beetle’ arrives from Egypt to hunt him down, the dark and gruesome secret that haunts him is dragged into the light. Bent on revenge for a crime committed against the disciples of an Egyptian goddess, the Beetle terrorizes its victims and will stop at nothing until it has satisfaction.

(via Goodreads)

Hey, finally a Classics Club book that I (mostly) enjoyed! This is not a comment on the virtue of classics, it’s just how it shakes out when you make up a list of 50 books. Some of them you like, some of them you don’t. I managed to pick three “eh” books in a row from my list of 50.

The Beetle was published in 1897, the same year as Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Unlike Stoker’s novel, The Beetle was first published as a serial, starting in March and lasting through June. (Dracula was published in May.) It’s said that The Beetle initially outsold Dracula. While one book is about a vampire and the other is about a cult of Isis, there are actually quite a few similarities.

The Beetle is split into four parts, each part a narration by a different character. We start with Robert Holt, the Renfield of this piece. For creepiness, the second chapter of this book blows away pretty much anything in Dracula. Holt is mesmerized/possessed and ordered to break into the house of a politician, Paul Lessingham, and stealing some letters. The second section is narrated by Sydney Atherton, a scientist and fickle romantic. His scientific specialty is chemical warefare. This isn’t entirely science fiction in 1897, but the use of such a horrible weapon was a societal worry. Atherton seems enamored with the idea of killing many people at once… He’s (currently) in love with Marjorie Lindon, who is engaged to Paul.

Marjorie is the Mina/Lucy here; she’s a good woman and everyone is in love with her. The third section of the book is from her point of view and Marjorie is just great. She’s smart, she’s snarky, and she has no time for men driveling all over her. Unfortunately, there has to be damsel in distress and Marjorie is the only damsel around. (She would hate being called a damsel.)

The last section is narrated by Augustus Champnell, a character who hasn’t really been part of the story, but is a friend of Atherton’s. We finally get some information from Lessingham about his past. When he was travelling in his youth, he was seduced by a strange woman who is the high priestess of a cult of Isis. (Queue Victorian Orientalism, not that the book wasn’t chock full before this…) After months of sex and human sacrifices, Lessingham overcame the priestess and escaped. (Similar to Jonathan Harker in Dracula.) There is a surprising amount of nudity mentioned in The Beetle, so maybe it isn’t surprising that it outsold Dracula in its time. It’s now three years later. The priestess has hunted down Lessingham for revenge, and kidnapped Marjorie.

It seems like Marsh wasn’t sure how to end this novel because this last section is padded out with Champnel, Atherton, and Lessingham chasing around and being tripped up by people of lower class. Eventually Marjorie is rescued by deus ex machina.

The Beetle is perhaps most notable these days for its interesting look at gender identity. The priestess of Isis is a shape-changer, able to take the form of a beetle, but also being able to present as both/either male and female. Of course, since she’s a white-lady-sacrificing, Englishman-corrupting monster, this is not progressive. When Marjorie is mesmerized into going along with the priestess (or “Arab” in her male form(?)), she is disguised at a young man—her hair is cut off and she’s made to (gasp) wear pants. When word gets back to our trio of pursuing men that the Arab is now accompanied by a young man (and they’ve already found Marjorie’s dress and her cut off hair), it takes them way too long to even consider the disguise.

For scares, honestly, The Beetle does better than Dracula, but the latter is a much more well-crafted novel. I’m glad I read it though. A shape-shifting Egyptian priestess is a nice change-up.

  • Genre: horror
  • Publishing info: serialization as The Peril of Paul Lessingham: The Story of a Haunted Man in Answers, 1897
  • My copy: ebook via Project Gutenberg