Jean Giono, A King Alone
Jean Giono’s A King Alone is a realist novel, but just for its uncanny tone it would probably appeal to fans of M. R. James and Algernon Blackwood. It takes place over the course of several winters in a 19th century mountain village hemmed in by snow and fog. It’s a cloudy limbo where a man climbing down from a tree seems to come from thin air. Anything can happen.
What does happen is a murder mystery, followed by a wolf hunt, followed by.. what? The title might be more literally translated as A King Without Diversion. The “king” is Langlois, the hero of the first two plots, decisive in a crisis, quick with a gun, and the idol of the villagers. A King Alone deconstructs the adventure-novel hero. The real measure of a person’s strength isn’t how they cope with a crisis but how they cope with ordinary life.
A King Alone does interesting things with narration. The story is told by a village historian living a couple of generations after the events, reporting tales of Langlois secondhand, and seamlessly transitions into the voices of their original sources. The narrator is as often “we” as “I,” like the spirit of the village is piecing Langlois together from collective memory.
This book’s best asset is its otherworldly feel and uncanny imagery. A tree cradles murder victims in its branches, the pursuit of a killer is a weirdly slow and calm walk through clouds and snowdrifts.
Margaret Irwin, “The Book”
I recently came across Margaret Irwin’s story “The Book” for the second time–the first was in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s anthology The Weird. It’s good, but I still haven’t read any of her (apparently few) others. She collected them in a book called Madame Fears the Dark which is not in print and not affordable used.
It’s a deal-with-what-might-be-the-devil story about a grimoire that’s found its way onto the shelves of a mild-mannered middle-class businessman. The plot’s predictable–the book presents Mr. Corbett with newly-written investment advice, asking for increasingly-alarming favors in return–but not every story needs a twist ending.
What’s distinctive is how the grimoire seduces Mr. Corbett. It haunts his library. He doesn’t notice it’s there at first; it’s just one of a batch of books inherited from an uncle. But every night the second shelf on the dining-room bookcase gains a strange gap, like something’s left to wander around. And Mr. Corbett has suddenly gone off books. Dickens isn’t funny anymore: “Beneath the author’s sentimental pity for the weak and helpless, he could discern a revolting pleasure in cruelty and suffering.” Jane Austen is “a prying, sub-acid busybody in everyone else’s flirtations,” Charlotte Bronte is “a raving, craving maenad seeking self-immolation on the altar of her frustrated passions.” The classics suck, and Mr. Corbett is the first person to notice! Obviously, this is because his mind is “so acute and original he should have achieved greatness,” but until then, Mr. Corbett reads to explore “the hidden infirmities of minds that had been valued by fools as great and noble.” When he finds the one book on the dining-room shelf not newly revealed as idiotic, he’s ready and willing to fall under its spell.
In other words, the grimoire corrupts Mr. Corbett by turning him into a smug, edgy contrarian. Anyone who’s seen too many Twitter threads of the Hey, what’s the worst book you had to read in high school kind might not find the idea too farfetched.
Elizabeth Hand, Wylding Hall
Any interesting writer (even a writer of the “every book is different” kind) will have subjects or themes they return to, because to be interesting a writer has to have interests. I’m only somewhat familiar with Elizabeth Hand’s work–I’ve read this, her mystery novels, and a few short stories–but her go-to theme seems to be counterculture types of the 1960s and 1970s dealing, gracefully or not, with aging, and leftover damage from decisions made decades ago.
Wylding Hall is one of those stories. It’s written as an oral history of Windhollow Faire, a Fairport Convention-style folk rock group, and their legendary final album, recorded at and named after the titular country house. There’s no “objective” narrator, just interviews with the surviving members responding to questions we never hear. The one missing voice is Julian, their lead singer, who vanished during production.
In form Wylding Hall a blend of folk horror and Arthur Machen. Under the surface this is a story about the proverbial kid who goes a little too far in search of something more and drops out or burns out. As with “The Book,” if you’re genre-savvy you can guess where this story will end up. That doesn’t matter: it’s effective in its details and watching it get there is affecting and chilling. This is one of the best stories of its type I’ve read in ages.
It helps that I’m a sucker for the horror tropes Wylding Hall leans on. The hall is a House of Leaves-style impossible space, accumulating styles like a centuries-long physical history of British architecture, expanding and contracting and revealing different rooms to different people. We also get uncanny media: a song may also be a spell, photos show something (and it’s quite a thing) nobody knew was there. And then there’s the fictional album at the center of the story: even in reality, there’s an uneasy aura around last recordings, final books, any artifact created just adjacent to a sad ending.
The key to pulling off this kind of story is to explain neither too much or too little. The multiple viewpoints help; Julian vanished forty years ago, and a lot of these people spent the summer stoned, and the proceedings have just the right amount of fog. In the end it’s not even clear whether Julian’s end was, from his own perspective, horrible or happy. Like A King Alone, this is a story where we only see the lynchpin character from outside. From outside it’s often hard to tell.