Tagged: novel

Robert Marasco, ‘Burnt Offerings’ (Valancourt Books, 2015)

9176952.jpgOriginally published in 1973 and adapted three years later for a film in the US, Burnt Offerings is described by Valancourt Books, the publisher of this new edition, as “one of the most original and scariest haunted house novels ever written”. That’s quite a claim, but I’d say it’s just about accurate. It’s certainly original and, in places, utterly chilling. Naturally, such originality proceeds from the fact it’s not a haunted house tale in the traditional vein. 

Ben and Marian Rolfe yearn for an escape from the oppressive, boxed-in nature of their Brooklyn apartment. Marian’s aspirations for higher standards of more genteel living are contained and constrained by the size of the apartment and their means, and when the opportunity presents itself for them to rent a country mansion in Long Island filled with antiques for what seems a meagre asking price, it all seems too good to be true. But Marian feels that fate, for once, is smiling on her. Her innate acquisitiveness compels her to fall in love with the house from almost as soon as she’s walked through the front door. And of course it is all too good to be true: the single condition attached to the family’s tenancy of the old house for the summer, aside from generally acting as caretakers of the place, is that they also need to look after the aged Mrs. Allardyce.

When the Rolfes arrive to view the property, the custodians Roz Allardyce and her wheelchair-bound brother assure them that their mother never leaves her room and needs just three meals a day. They won’t be aware of her at all; they won’t even see her. To Marian, it all seems so straightforward, although Ben is unconvinced. However, the house is a dream-come-true for his wife and any negative reaction to the oddness of the Allardyces’ condition is clearly overshadowed by her desire to live a lifestyle she has only ever read about in the style magazines and covets almost beyond anything else. Ben’s scepticism is won over, at least partially, and they up sticks and move to the house with son David and Ben’s Aunt Elizabeth in tow, the promise being that Marian will deal with all of Mrs. Allardyce’s requirements.

That may all sound more or less like the opening of a typical haunted house story but Burnt Offerings is something else, and its horror is a more subtle and insidious thing. The imagery and atmosphere of the book is striking and memorable; its characters similarly well-drawn and credible, with the family dynamic especially convincing in its exploration of dysfunction and conflict. I can’t say too much about how the narrative darkens and develops because I feel that would spoil the story; suffice to say, it had me reading on until I’d finished the book very quickly indeed.

Does the reader ever encounter the matriarch of the house? You’ll have to read it to discover, but the gradual build-up of unease and horror into the novel’s final pages is, for me, masterfully done. What I really enjoyed is that Burnt Offerings’ conclusion is as enigmatic and ambiguous as the opening description of the prosaic city life of the Rolfes is humdrum. The story’s creeping arc of destruction is perfectly handled by Marasco – it moves at a fair pace – and what frightens in this is, arguably, the fabric and hunger of the house itself rather than its closeted, unseen inhabitant. But is she in control of, or controlled by, the mansion; from where does the malign influence emanate? It’s difficult to reach a final view on that, but that’s just part of what makes this novel so enjoyable: it’s a book that has stood the test of time over the last 40 years and will, I’m sure, delight readers looking for something a little different from the typical supernatural tale.

Burnt Offerings is available direct from the publisher, in both print and ebook formats, as well as from the usual other outlets.

[My apologies for the lack of activity on here: life has been busy recently and although I’ve not stopped reading during the time away from here, I’ve not gotten around to collecting my thoughts, despite my best intentions. I will try and post more often as we get into 2016!]

Dennis Parry, ‘The Survivor’ (Valancourt Books, 2014)

The SurvivorI received a copy of The Survivor a few months ago as a gift from Mark Valentine, who has penned the new introduction to this, Parry’s third novel originally published in 1940. Mark has written a little about the book on the Wormwoodiana blog.

This handsome reprint is by Valancourt Books and the publisher describes it as ‘a classic story of the supernatural’. That’s an intriguing way to describe this novel, or at least the use of the adjective ‘classic’ is unusual. The Survivor doesn’t strike me as being typical in the sense I’d normally understand the term ‘classic supernatural fiction’: it’s not particularly Jamesian or like anything by, for instance, de la Mare, Machen, le Fanu or Blackwood. The ‘supernatural’ aspect to the story is placed upfront, and quite clinically described by Parry from relatively early on in the narrative; the remainder of the piece takes on quite a different kind of fictional clothing, akin to a period thriller with a race-against-time theme, I think. The events which unfold don’t particularly frighten or chill in that classic sense, and I didn’t really have that delicious sense of creeping dread I get from rereading those authors I’ve mentioned above in the context of classic supernatural fiction. However, I don’t really think that’s Parry’s intention with this novel. I’ll grant you, The Survivor’s revenant is not to be underestimated for the manipulative and cruel way it strives to destroy the family at the heart of the story. The novel’s conclusion also struck me as rather bleak and uncompromising.

The book’s story of spiritual takeover by a ruthless though brilliant doctor, James Marshall—for a tale of vengeful possession is what The Survivor is at its core—is told very well and with great gusto. I imagine parts of this must have been rather shocking for an audience in the 1940s, although to my more modern eyes, I confess some of the cultural references and the eccentricities of the family date the book a little, unsurprisingly perhaps since the ambit of the story is also one of parodying social mores and of railing against certain societal norms.

I hope this doesn’t sound like a negative reaction. I enjoyed The Survivor a great deal and I’m glad to have had the chance to read it: Parry’s writing is dense and articulate, particularly in the early descriptive passages of the winter- and epidemic-stricken fens, and his characterisation is splendid. James Marshall, the powerful, complex, flawed doctor at the centre of the narrative will remain in my memory for a long time as a larger-than-life and close-to-sociopathic ‘villain’, but who has, for all that, flashes of humanity (at least while alive!). There is something cinematic about his brand of cynicism and manipulation.

Mark Valentine makes the point in his introduction that The Survivor is a rarity precisely because it is a successful novel-length tale of the supernatural (how many others can you name?). And I think he hits the nail on the head by positing that “[Parry] has written a modern and ironic ghost story.” I think that’s a truer set of descriptors for this book, rather than classic supernatural fiction per se.

On the strength of the writing here, which is sharp and witty and dosed with a cruel irony, I would like to read more of Parry’s work: there’s no doubt he was a fine prose stylist. This is the first time The Survivor has been republished since its original outing in 1940. Parry had written ten novels by the point of his untimely death in a car crash at the age of 42 and seems to have been largely forgotten after that, which is a pity. An obscure author then, but this is a novel which I’m glad has been brought back to public notice by Mark Valentine and the good people at Valancourt. They state on their blog: ‘If you like intelligent, interesting, out-of-the-way fiction, give Dennis Parry a shot — you might be very pleasantly surprised.’ I think that’s a very fair summation of The Survivor, and one I’ve very happy to echo here.

Timothy J. Jarvis, ‘The Wanderer’ (Perfect Edge, 2014)

The Wanderer

The Wanderer is the debut novel by Timothy Jarvis. I read it a couple of months ago and the book’s blend of Shielian ‘last man’ fantasy and time-twisted, oneiric horror has stayed with me ever since the last page. This review is a much-expanded version of a short post I felt I had to put on Facebook shortly after reaching the end of this brilliant, brilliant book.

Jarvis himself has described The Wanderer‘s charms as ‘Highlander meets Arthur Machen’s The Three Impostors, meets M.P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud. With booze.’ Even if somewhat tongue-in-cheek, with a write-up like that, how could one resist? And there is booze. That part of his mini-write-up isn’t tongue-in-cheek at all.

Let me start by saying that I can’t recommend this book enough to anyone with even a passing interest in weird fiction and fantastical literature of the last 120 years or so. The Wanderer is simply superb: a highly original, deeply unsettling and utterly gripping novel, the imagery of which will, I’m sure, clutch at your innards for some time to come. It’s in part a portmanteau piece, with different character-led narratives that are interconnected in quite a fiendish way – and there is indeed a fiend at the heart of this novel, as grim and cruel and relentless as the psychopathic Mr. Punch himself. Jarvis describes himself as a writer of antic fiction, which is borne out here in large measure. But the nature of this beast is not just antic, but corybantic also – it’s supremely literate, but also frenzied and shocking and rending in equal proportion.

The novel’s dark premise is difficult to summarise without giving away important plot details, so I won’t do that here as it would spoil the flow of this unique book. The Wanderer is a complex, layered narrative with a central theme that becomes apparent only when the reader is quite far into the story, too far in to climb back out, perhaps: I will only say that once the novel’s revelations are laid bare, the earlier sections of the narrative take on an altogether more chilling aspect and the tension reaches a level of cloying tautness as the story hurtles towards its conclusion. Herein you’ll encounter a missing author of strange stories and his final manuscript, with the same title as this book, be it fiction or otherwise; immortality as the cruelest jest of all; a horrifying game of hunter and hunted across the millennia; a dying planet; an awkward camaraderie of characters that is shattered in chilling ways; and much more, all of which slots together ultimately like a complex puzzle. As Jarvis has noted, the novel has a flavour reminiscent of Shiel’s The Purple Cloud, a book I love for its grandiloquent strangeness and singularity, although I know it doesn’t find favour with everyone, but this novel goes beyond anything Shiel attempted.

The horror of The Wanderer is visceral in places, too – and I use that word both figuratively and literally so fevered is the author’s imagination – yet that only helps to cement the strangeness of the narrative as it jumps to the far-distant future and back with casual disdain for standard frames of temporal reference.

This is an intelligent, ludic work, beautifully articulate and poetic, with respectful yet impish reverence given to the best writers of strange stories over the last few decades. It’s also surprisingly and delightfully grim in all the right ways. I wouldn’t say it’s Aickmanesque per se but I got from it some of the grotesque otherness of Aickman’s finest, most genre-defying pieces.

The Wanderer has been my novel of the year so far, and there’s only a few weeks left of this one so I can’t see it being bettered; in fact, I haven’t read as cohesive and compelling a weird fiction novel in a very long time. The fact that it is a debut makes it all the more revelatory and I cannot recommend this book enough. Even with the teetering pile(s) of titles on my to read list, I sense that I’ll be revisiting this one very soon to see what I may have missed along the way the first time.

It should (in a perfect world!) be available from all good bookshops. The novel is published by Perfect Edge Books, and you’ll find their details and some information on how to buy The Wanderer here.

Philip Hemplow, ‘Ashes’ (self-published, 2014)

AshesI’d read a number of Philip Hemplow’s previous novels before now, notably The Innsmouth Syndrome and Sarcophagus and I’d enjoyed both of those works, as they take well-traversed Lovecraftian paths and twist them subtly to work in a contemporary setting. As Hemplow’s work has progressed over time, it’s been pleasing to note that the subtlety of the Mythos overlay has been even more deftly employed in later works. Which brings us to Ashes.

This is the author’s most recent work and it’s a very effective modern-day supernatural chiller, with historical threads, set in and around the Yorkshire Moors; the historical aspect comes from a callback to Elizabethan times thanks to the device of an centuries old, age-damaged diary found at the heart of the broken 16th Century house around which the story revolves.

The novel has shades of Lovecraft too, it seems, but those shadows form so faint a skein over the proceedings that they’re barely there at all and don’t intrude on the narrative or overstay their welcome. For those who know something about Carcosa, there will be that added frisson of recognition and excitement, but unlike some Lovecraft-inspired fiction, you don’t need to be steeped in the work of the Old Gentleman, and his admirers and imitators, to get the most from the novel. What is there adds piquant flavour to an already good story and perhaps the names to invoke here should be Bierce and Chambers; only distantly, through the lens of the centuries, do we catch a glimpse of that place where the black stars hang.

The principal characters are women (as they are in the other two books mentioned above), and they come across convincingly on the page. For reasons that become clear early on, the main protagonist, Patricia, is not a particularly likeable person and the author captures her mounting anxiety rather well as the story progresses.

The numerous excerpts from the Elizabethan diary add a layer of authenticity to parts of the story which could easily have fallen flat if not handled properly. But handled appropriately they are: the story is well-paced and Hemplow keeps the tension running high right up to the rather startling conclusion. Granted it’s perhaps a little obvious what is going to happen in the end (at least in part), but Ashes is a taut, well-written and highly entertaining short novel – I read it quickly (in the course of two or three days) and with real zest to learn how the story would conclude. With its focus on the razed Gaunt House, soon to arise from the titular ashes as the sympathetically restored Phoenix House, the book is, in a sense, a haunted house tale but that would be to read it too narrowly, I think. It’s much more than that and I’d encourage you to seek it out if you like deftly-handled modern tales of subtle horror.

The book is available electronically here (UK) and here (US), and you can also follow Philip on Twitter here if you’re so inclined.

Andrew Michael Hurley, ‘The Loney’ (Tartarus Press, 2014)

The LoneyThe Loney is Andrew Michael Hurley’s first novel, after two collections of short stories (The Unusual Death of Julie Christie and Cages And Other Stories). As usual for Tartarus Press, the book is sumptuously presented, the oblique miniature on the dustjacket disclosing little about the novel’s contents but nonetheless setting the tone at just the right pitch from the outset: a haunting, blurred landscape sliced through by a menacing swathe of trees; in the background stands the shadow of an old house; this glimpse no more than a far-off echo of the titular stretch of brooding coastline which although unspoken is one of the novel’s main protagonists.

On the surface, the book is the story of the narrator Smith (does he have a first name? Smith seems such an everyman surname…) and his mentally disabled brother Andrew, or Hanny as Smith calls him. They gather with family and acquaintances for a pilgrimage to a noted Catholic shrine in a remote coastal area of Lancashire, ostensibly seeking a miracle ‘cure’ for Hanny. It is the story of a transformation, of transfiguration and of the place faith has in the boys’ lives and the lives of the others around them. Resolution of a sort does come, but the genesis of the miracle is uncertain and what will come later, after we read the final pages of the book, is terrifyingly unclear.

The book also struck me as being about loneliness and isolation. The Loney: shades of alone and lonely, though the word might at first seem a playful, even childish name for a stretch of countryside. It’s obvious as the book progresses that the Loney is unwelcoming and unforgiving. Hurley handles the effect of the landscape well and his narrative is allowed to unfurl at a pace which is perfectly suited to the story’s various minor and major revelations and which never feels hurried. The Loney as a place is ominously present throughout, even if not everything in the story occurs there. There is a highly convincing, pervasive atmosphere of uncomfortable dampness and otherness; a half-remembered feeling of the 1970s before the advent of a technology that no longer allows anywhere to be forgotten or abandoned.

Aside from the painterly skill with which he depicts the growing sense of unease and unreality in that forgotten landscape, it’s also noteworthy how the author reproduces the dialogue in the novel. The interaction of the dysfunctional main characters, all tied together by their devout Roman Catholicism and a strict over-reliance on its rituals and structure in the wake of the death of their former parish priest, is masterful. These people have little else in common but their faith, or what they perceive as faith; without it, everything else is lost and relationships crumble. The scenes where the characters converse, particularly the narrator and Father Bernard, are remarkably credible and fluid. I was there with them, eavesdropping, uncomfortable and uncertain; and also afraid.

What is also critical in the protagonists’ lives and in the story proper is the part played by faith, even if it’s obvious by the end that faith can take many forms, not all of them a matter of personal choice. I suspect that Hurley was brought up with Roman Catholicism: the detail of this in the novel is so authentic and convincing that I’d be surprised it he hadn’t been. Having had a similar upbringing, I found the novel all the more realistic for the verisimilitude of religious detail – and, by its end, that authenticity makes things quite horrific.

Father Bernard calls Smith by the nickname Tonto, no doubt after the Native American partner of the Lone Ranger (there’s that word lone again); that same Tonto who fondly calls the Lone Ranger kemosabe (‘faithful friend’). But Smith’s faith is uncertain, never clarified and by the end, even he is not sure what he believes, or if faith has transmogrified into fear.

When I think back on reading The Loney, I realise that, consciously or unconsciously, it is a book of dualities. Two very different houses, Moorings and Thessaly, separated by a dangerous stretch of coastline only passable at certain tides, and unpredictably so it seems. Separated, too, by their outlooks: on the surface, both faded, unwelcoming and alien, but the surprise comes with the revelation of which house breeds the stronger faith and which is filled with sickness.

Then there are the two boys, Smith and Hanny, opposites in some ways but who have a communication only they truly understand. There are the two priests, Father Wilfred, recently passed away, and Father Bernard, different aspects of Catholicism, the old and the new. And finally there is the competition of creeds which becomes the central brooding duality of the book.

Comparisons have been drawn between Hurley’s novel and The Wicker Man. I can see why that is, but I think it’s also slightly misleading. To me, the horror of The Wicker Man has always been that sense of finality and utter hopelessness in its denouement. It’s shockingly, brutally clear what befalls Howie in the climax to the film: we watch, horrified, in no doubt as to his fate, at least on Earth if not in the hereafter. With The Loney, things are a little different and left more vague; it’s a gnawing, questioning vagueness that one gets in the most oblique supernatural fiction. I’m still not certain, after quite a bit of reflection, what exactly happens in the concluding sections of this book and in my view that is a major triumph of the story. It’s the hidden spaces and the places in between that haunt this story, and raise doubts about what did happen to Hanny–and to the narrator–and what is to come after the last words of the novel end and only the blank page is left.

What I loved about The Loney is that it struck me as the kind of book Robert Aickman might have written if his strange stories had expanded into strange novels. Yes, it’s more narratively linear and “filled out” than Aickman’s work, and possibly Hurley’s portrayal of the novel’s human characters as distinct from the landscape is less contemptuous and alien than some of Aickman’s. There is, however, a real question at the end of this book as to what the horror actually was, or remains, and what we are meant to take from it. And that strikes me as remarkably Aickmanesque in tone, and therefore as a very good thing indeed.

The Loney is highly recommended for those who like articulate, striking supernatural writing that challenges after the fact and lingers in the memory. It’s one of the most convincing pieces of modern weird fiction I’ve read in a long time.

The book is available from Tartarus Press in both hardback and ebook formats. There is also a lovely book trailer and interview with the author on YouTube here, put together by the good folks at Tartarus.