Tag Archives: Horror

My Best of 2010, Part Three

N. K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms

When I review books I tend to write about theme a lot. (I hope I’m less simpleminded and reductive about it than your average high school English teacher.) N. K. Jemisin’s books have plenty of interpretive possibilities–among others, there are ideas here about power, and how it interacts with religion, and how cultures use their gods even as they think of themselves as following or living under those gods–but I must confess that when I read these what I most appreciated was their narrative drive.

I read these books at times when I was frustrated with stories padded with meaningless action, narrative cul-de-sacs, and excess exposition. (Too many recent books, and way too many movies, seem to think that unless they overemphasize and overexplain everything their audiences won’t Get It.) Attention spans are shrinking, but so many novels and films feel weirdly long, harder to sit through than many genuinely longer older works. So it’s a relief to come across novels like The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms which earn their length. These books plunge straight into their plots, deliver worldbuilding and backstory as they go, and waste no time.

These are both “outsider caught in a world of complicated schemes and political maneuvers” books, and both sidestep one of the usual problems with this plot type: it often discourages active protagonists. It’s easy for this kind of book to resemble a stereotypical mediocre hard-boiled detective story whose narrator bounces from thug to thug, gets exposited at, and ends every scene by falling unconscious from a blow to the head. I was glad these books–The Broken Kingdoms in particular–starred narrators who had goals and were constantly making plans.

I also loved that these were two more entries in an my favorite fantasy-genre trend: series whose individual volumes are complete novels, not chunks of a 3000-page epic narrative. (In my cynical moods I suspect the epic-writers have no faith that their audience will come back unless they’re left hanging. In my case, they’re the ones I’m most likely to drop, partly because by the time I’ve picked up volume two I’ve usually forgotten the plot of volume one.)

Caitlin R. Kiernan, The Red Tree

I started writing a couple of paragraphs about this, then realized the paragraphs were threatening to turn into a short essay, as much about the horror genre as about this book. I hope to finish that essay and post it; in the meantime, I’ll just say I liked the book.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Memories of the Future

I wrote about this around the time I read it.

Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

This is another book I’ve already written about.

China Miéville, Kraken

As with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, I liked Kraken for the force of its story. It’s probably not China Miéville’s best novel, but he seems to have had fun writing it. The prose reads like it’s running, like it’s tripping over itself to get the ideas out–and there are a lot of ideas here: the book starts with the impossible theft of a giant squid and from there sprawls out in all directions. The pages ooze enthusiasm and some of that enthusiasm transferred to me at a moment when I was having a hard time feeling enthusiastic about anything at all.

Kraken is Miéville’s stab at the “hidden magical subculture existing in the margins of a modern city” genre. (I’m trying hard not to call it “urban fantasy,” because these days that term means at least two different things.) What distinguishes Kraken, besides Miéville’s abundant imagination, is its attitude towards magic. Sometimes these “the real world, but with magic!” stories set up a magic-vs.-science rivalry, in which “science” (or “technology”) is a mysterious force opposed to magic. Which annoys me. First, because it misrepresents what science actually is–it’s a process, not a hegemonic culture, philosophy of life, or force of nature. Second, because these stories always push us to root for magic–which is, wow, so creative and dreamy–and against science, which is cramped and closed-minded and inhuman, apparently. Anyone whose sense of wonder has ever been tripped by witty, enthusiastic science writing knows this is not an honest argument. Fantasy isn’t real, but it’s about reality, and when a story touches something real and isn’t honest about it, in a poetic or metaphorical sense, it grates.

So it’s wonderful that Kraken doesn’t prescribe any particular attitude towards magic. Maybe you’re awestruck, but it’s just as okay to think, as Kraken’s protagonist Billy does while pondering the Law of Sympathy, it’s “trite” that “a thing has power, moronically enough, because it’s a bit like something else.” Billy works in a natural history museum. He’s a tour guide, not a scientist, but he sees the world with a scientist’s eyes. Kraken,unusually for an urban fantasy, suggests that the rational, curious, investigative approach of a scientist might be as valid a way to understand a fantasy universe as it is to understand the real world.

M. R. James, “Wailing Well”

Any classic ghost story anthology worth the tree-pulping will have something by M. R. James. Usually it’s “Casting the Runes,” “Count Magnus,” or “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.” It’s almost never “Wailing Well.” “Wailing Well” is not one of M. R. James’s all-time best stories. Nevertheless, it has its good points.

The Premise

A troop of Boy Scouts are camping in the countryside. Their scout leaders warn them not to enter the area marked off on their map by a red line. This works as well as you would expect.

Where to Find It

“Wailing Well,” written in 1927, wasn’t included in James’s four original collections but is available in the Penguin Classics volume The Haunted Dolls’ House and Other Stories. There’s also an etext of this story at Gaslight so you might as well go read it before continuing.

Analysis (With Spoilers)

“Wailing Well” doesn’t begin like a horror story and continues looking unlike a horror story for what feels like a long time (though actually only a few paragraphs). Continue reading M. R. James, “Wailing Well”

The Uninvited Face

Cover Art

Casting around for ideas to get myself blogging again, I thought I might bow to October’s zeitgeist and devote the month to the horror genre–or at least to the part of the genre I like: the part that’s uncanny, not gruesome, and sometimes a little old-timey. I plan to cover ten underappreciated stories or movies. (Or more, if I can swing it. I briefly thought of going for 31, but in my current state of distraction that’s just a little overambitious.) Most will probably not be as long as this essay.

I’ll start with “The Uninvited Face,” a short story by Michael Asquith, because, damn, this one really is obscure. I had no idea how obscure until I tried researching it: as far as I can tell (from, admittedly, just Google and Google Books) Michael Asquith never wrote anything but “The Uninvited Face,” and “The Uninvited Face” never appeared anywhere after it first saw print in The Third Ghost Book edited by Lady Cynthia Asquith (1955). And what with the double Asquith, I’m guessing that was nepotism.

Despite that, it’s very good. (And not the only obscure but stunning one-off story in this volume. Marghanita Laski had a long writing career, but “The Tower”–briefly reviewed in The Third Ghost Book’s entry in Stephen Jones and Kim Newman’s Horror: Another 100 Best Books–is apparently her only ghost story.)

To save time, I’ll use a set format for these reviews–first the premise, then where to find the story, then some analysis.

The Premise

Dr. Graham, an elderly physician, recounts the story of Julian Ferris, a government scientist plagued by the knowledge that, in the Cold War 1950s, his work will be turned to no good end… and by the apparition of a friendly, but not quite human, face, which seems to be offering something Julian begins to think he should accept.

Where to Find It

As stated above, you’ll pretty much have to find a copy of Lady Cynthia Asquith’s Third Ghost Book.

Analysis (With Spoilers)

This might be the only story ever published by Michael Asquith, but this can’t be the only thing he ever wrote; the writing is too assured. If there’s a flaw, it’s that Asquith sometimes summarizes things that might have been played out in dialogue–Julian’s first description of the Face, for instance. Asquith’s style reads smoothly and he knows when and how to change it: he shifts to a fast-moving, almost stream-of-consciousness present tense for the chaotic climax.

One of the few slips in tone comes when Dr. Graham tells us Julian’s father, a painter, was “a portrayer, that is, if I may speak bluntly, of the diseased, the blasphemous and the obscene.” That’s right: Mr. Ferris was (gasp) a surrealist. I bet he also listened to jazz music and hung out with beatniks! It’s not clear just how reliable a narrator Dr. Graham was intended to be. On an Occam’s-razor basis, I’d assume “perfectly.” But Dr. Graham’s inadvertently hilarious get-off-my-lawn moments affect how much I want to trust him, which affects how I read the story. More on this later. Continue reading The Uninvited Face

Widdershins, Black Spirits and White

Widdershins by Oliver Onions and Black Spirits and White by Ralph Adams Cram are collections of ghost stories available from Project Gutenberg.


Oliver Onions’s most famous story is “The Beckoning Fair One.” Oliver Onions’s only famous story is “The Beckoning Fair One.” Now that I’ve read Widdershins I think I know why. All writers have wells they go back to but in Widdershins Onions found one he couldn’t leave alone. He gives us “The Beckoning Fair One,” and then every second story is “The Beckoning Fair One” again, only less good.

Onions’s favorite subjects are writers and artists. He likes stories about artists driven to madness by dubious muses. “The Beckoning Fair One” is of course the best of these. The narrator of “Benlian” falls under the spell of a sculptor who is literally putting himself into the creation of an inept statue. The most fearsome side effect of Benlian’s domination is the narrator’s loss of his sense of aesthetics: the longer Benlian controls him, the better the crappy statue looks. In “Io,” to vary things a little, Onions writes about a young non-artist woman driven to madness by the Greek Gods. Her brother seems to have wandered in from the Drones Club. It reads like P. G. Wodehouse wrote a story confusing Keats’s “Endymion” with the Necronomicon.

Onions keeps returning to conflicts between popularity and greatness, which in his mind are incompatible. Genius is abrasive. Artists create popular crap, or see their good work go unrewarded. In “The Beckoning Fair One,” Oleron’s frustration with the latter situation may make him particularly vulnerable to the ghost. In “Hic Jacet” an Arthur Conan Doylishly self-loathing detective novelist struggles with the spirit of a deceased avant-garde colleague, and loses. I wonder whether Onions had nightmares about waking up to find his name in the bestseller list?


Ralph Adams Cram wrote exactly six ghost stories, collected in Black Spirits and White. They range in quality from treacly to terrifying. “Sister Maddalena” is the romantic treacle. “No. 252 Rue M. le Prince” and “The Dead Valley” are classics, and “In Kropfsberg Keep” and “The White Villa” are decent. Four out of six isn’t a bad record.

Cram was an architect and looks at everything with an architect’s eye. In one story the narrator solves a mystery by deducing, with his architectural knowledge, that a window should exist in a wall where there is none. Most of Cram’s stories are named after their settings, almost all of which are buildings–“No. 252 Rue M. le Prince,” “The White Villa.” “The Dead Valley” is set in the wilderness, but it’s still about a vividly detailed place. Every one is meticulously imagined–just the decor of No. 252 is enough to keep you up at night.

The people who inhabit these places are sketches. The real central characters are buildings. What’s important to Cram isn’t so much what’s haunting these places–we never learn exactly what’s going on at No. 252, or in the Dead Valley–as the places themselves.