Last night, I saw a little film which really made an impression on me. It is an independent art-house effort called “The Eyes of My Mother” (2016). This movie was beautifully shot, in black & white, and very well acted. The dialog is minimal, but enough to keep one informed of what is going on and to give brief insight into the mind of the main character: a lovely, lonely sociopath named Francisca. It takes place in America (somewhere in rural New York) but much of the dialog is in Portuguese with English subtitles. I cannot say a lot without giving away the plot, but suffice it to say it is very disturbing, but it is neither explicit nor tasteless. Horrible things happen, but mostly off-screen. Even so, some scenes are a bit hard to watch and there are some scenes depicting taboo topics which I understand have made some critics accuse the film of pandering to exploitation. I disagree, however, because the camera never lingers on such things. There are elements of Takashi Miike’s “Audition” (1999), the Ed Gein-inspired “Deranged” (1974) and the Soska sister’s modern body horror classic “American Mary” (2012), but it also has a pathos and a subtlety which is unique unto itself. I recommend it if you are not squeamish or easily offended.
A few months ago, I was browsing in a Barnes & Noble when a book on a display caught my eye. It was a smallish book, octavo size (my favorite), a lovely deep green color (hunter green?) and it had what looked to be an image from a mediaeval tapestry of a unicorn in a pen.
Upon closer inspection I found it to be the latest book by Peter S Beagle, the fantasy author whose most famous book, “The Last Unicorn” was made into an animated feature which is a favorite of many young lovers of fantasy. Although I own a copy of the book, as well as some of his other works, I have never read any of it because I always considered it to be a children’s book. I have read other children’s books in my adult years, but I guess the cartoon actually turned me off rather than made me want to read it. Still, I was intrigued by this beautiful book. Wary of paying full price for anything unless I am 100% certain that I want it in my collection, I held off on purchasing it, but put in a hold request for it at my local library.
The other day I received a message that it had arrived, so I checked it out. Since I tend to vegetate in front of the TV when I return from work at night, I brought it with me to work thinking that I would read it throughout the week on my coffee breaks. Once I cracked open the book I could barely stand to put it down for the phone calls I must translate. It began a bit naively and a little too picturesque, a foreigner’s vision of life in a Southern Italian village, but it grew on me. The protagonist, Bianchi, is a short, middle-aged, grumpy farmer who lives alone with his animals, shunning society and writing poetry by night who reminded me a bit of myself. Although I am probably too lazy in my ways to run a farm, I would love to retire to the countryside to commune with nature and write.
His only point of regular contact with the rest of the village is his mailman, Romano, who suspects there is more to him than meets the eye. He is aware of Bianchi’s poetic endeavors and teases him about it, but the farmer is unyielding in his recalcitrance. Romano informs Bianchi that he is training his 23 year-old sister, Giovanna, to share his duties and that he should expect to see her soon. Bianchi is dismissive and goes back to his business.
Bianchi’s business is interrupted when he discovers a unicorn on his property. At first, he only sees it briefly before it vanishes, but eventually he is permitted to see it regularly and even approach it. He finds that it is a female and it is pregnant. He vows to protect it and keep it’s presence a secret. With the advent of this magical creature, he becomes inspired to write a lot more poetry and of a superior quality to his previous output. His life begins to revolve around his farm work and taking care of the unicorn.
One day Giovanna shows up at the farm. Wanting to see Bianchi who doesn’t greet her at the roadside to pick up his mail, she ventures onto the farm and finds him tending to the unicorn. She is overwhelmed. The unicorn however, has allowed herself to be seen, which says something. Giovanna swears to keep Bianchi’s secret and she gets him to agree to keep her in the loop and to talk to her every night on the phone to check in on the unicorn’s progress, since she only delivers the mail once a week.
Eventually, love blossoms between the unlikely pair and all seems wonderful until the secret of the unicorn gets out and the farm is swarmed by nosy villagers, media, animal rights groups, and eventually the ‘Ndrangheta (Calabrian Mafia). Bianchi must step up and protect his animals, his mythical guest and his new love, but is he up for the task?
This is a magical book. I had a hard time keep my composure while reading some of the more emotional portions of the story. The love affair is touching albeit unlikely. It hit a bit close to home since I have been in similar May-December romances which weren’t as successful as depicted here. I find the unicorn more believable than that part of the tale. The text is peppered with Italian word and phrases, but most times one can surmise their import through context. The tale is a bit gritty in spots and comes off more as a tale of magical realism that straight fantasy. Bianchi lives a hermit’s life in a remote location, but is still living in the 21st century. The only fantastic element is the unicorn. The language is at times frank and realistic, and some situations are not the sort one might expect to find in a tale about magical creatures. There is some violence which gets a bit graphic in spots, but it is not gratuitous and Beagle does not linger on it.
I read this book in one day and loved it. It is a lot different than what I expected and I am glad I listened to my intuition and looked into it. There is much here for lovers of fantasy, as well as a well-told tale. The prose is poetic without being too self-conscious and the story is heartwarming but not cloying. I highly recommend it.
Just read a delightfully droll little book of manners by Hyacynthe Phypps entitled “The Recently Deflowered Girl: The Right Thing To Say On Every Dubious Occasion”, which is illustrated by Edward Gorey. Basically, it’s a book of bon mots for post-coitus conversation, each followed by a sort of summation of the situation, à la Aesop, by Ms. Phypps, and it is hilarious. I can imagine the eyebrows this little book must have raised when it first came out in 1965. See the attached scan for a sample.
Much has been written about Thomas Ligotti and his personal brand of psychological horror. Many have pontificated about the hidden meanings behind his enigmatic stories and thus proven their total lack of comprehension towards his art. I do not profess to understand the mind of this troubled genius nor shall I embarrass myself by putting forth my take, as it were. Instead, I will tell you briefly how I came to hear about him, totally misjudge him, and finally embrace the bleak nightmare vision which he delineates so eloquently.
I first came across Thomas Ligotti sometime in the early 1990’s. At the time, I was immersed in Lovecraftiana, and was scouring the 2nd hand bookstores for anything I could find which pertained to H.P. Lovecraft and his associates. This was the era, however, where much of that sort of fiction was unfashionable and many horror publications were printing a lot of “Splatterpunk” horror, which was known for it’s almost pornographic depiction of graphic and gruesome violence. Names associated with the scene are David Schow (the acknowledged progenitor of the genre), John Skipp, Craig Spector, and Clive Barker, to name a few.
Authors and enthusiasts of literary horror were torn between the two camps of Splatterpunk versus what was being touted as “Sublime Horror” or horror fiction which focused more on atmosphere and implied chills than the explicit offerings of these upstart authors. I, being a traditionalist, sided with the sublime crowd, and would not even consider looking at anything which smacked of serial killers, or just visceral horror in general. This kept me from exploring many worthwhile writers, including much of Robert Bloch’s literary legacy, until fairly recently, much to my personal shame and embarrassment. I did, however, read Clive Barker’s “The Hellbound Heart” and found it to be very beautifully written, and have since loosened up and read other genre writers such as Joe R. Lansdale, whose “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road ” I found to be very enjoyable.
Somehow, inexplicably, I lumped Ligotti in that group of taboo horror writers. I think that since I knew nothing about him, and he was a contemporary of some of these other splatterpunks I just assumed he was of their ilk. In 1990 or 91 I began to purchase the latest issues of the revived Weird Tales magazine which is where Lovecraft and his cohorts first got published back in the 1920’s and 30’s. I loved the artwork, and found the digest format very attractive. I collected them and read for the first time many authors I had only heard of in passing. It is here that I first got to read Robert Bloch’s non-Psycho related fiction, although I had actually read Psycho years before and loved it; why I had disparaged the rest of his work without having read it is beyond me now. Now matter how many times I saw his name pop up between it’s pages, however, I refused to read Ligotti.
Then came the short-lived “Journal of Terror”, “Tekeli-Li!”, which I actually donated to a fundraiser to help get the premier issue published. I did so because they promised to focus on “Sublime Horror”. There were only four issues, and I received each one as a missive from beyond preaching the gospel of old-school horror. In the fourth and final issue, they had a Thomas Ligotti interview, as well as an essay and the short story, “The Night School’ from his second collection “Grimscribe: His Lives and Works” (1991).
I read much of the other stuff in the journal, but skipped the Ligotti stuff. By now you’d think I’d get the hint that he wasn’t like I thought he was, but I was a bull-headed fanboy, and I stuck to y guns. I also, of course, passed up the opportunity to acquire many of his books in original editions which are now rare and fetch exorbitant prices, which leads us to how I finally gave in and found out what I had been missing.
In 2015 Penguin Books put out an omnibus of his first two story collections, “Songs of a Dead Dreamer”, and “Grimscribe: His Lives and Works”. I had been following their releases of classic horror since the first batch which featured many of my favorites; Poe, Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, Mary Shelly, as well as Ray Russell, whom I grew to love once I read his “Haunted Castles” collection from this series. When I saw Ligotti’s name listed in the second wave of releases, I began to wonder if I had misjudge him. I read about him on Amazon, Wikipedia, etc and found that two of his influences were Poe and Lovecraft! I took a chance and ordered a 2nd hand copy of the Penguin collection from the bookstore chain I worked for and from the first tale, I was hooked.
Now, let me clarify a big misconception about Mr. Ligotti, which I see proliferated through countless reviews of his work. Yes, Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft were two of his influences, among others like Franz Kafka and Bruno Schulze, but his work is nothing like either of those writers or any other others for that matter. Ligotti is sui generis. Occasionally one may see an odd reference or tribute to one of his mentors, like the forbidden tome (like Lovecraft’s “Necronomicon”) in “Vastarian”, but he is his own man. His stories are beautiful nightmares. He speaks in the language of the subconscious and he mines the deep psychological hang-ups and fears of the human psyche. Anyone looking for blood and viscera need not look here, but conversely, anyone looking for tentacled monsters from outer space are in the wrong place too. His horrors are subtle and often only wryly implied. I confess, sometimes I have to re-read a passage to get the gist of what he is trying to get at, but that is not his fault, I’m just not on the same level as he, intellectually. Ligotti doesn’t write down for the common man. His stories are for the thinking person whose vocabulary extends beyond the parameter of the latest bestseller. His concepts are deep as they are dark. He has a very nihilistic view of existence and it shows in his work. Yet, in spite of it all, I find his work inspiring.
Stand-out stories for me were the Frolic, a story about a serial child killer which in the hands of a lesser writer would have become a sordid exploitation piece, yet in Ligotti’s skillful hands it becomes and subtle tale of metaphysical horror and a nihilistic commentary about the inexorable advance of Doom. Ligotti also penned a screenplay for a short film based on this story, by Brandon Trenz, which is fairly faithful to his tale. It is only 22 minutes long, but it is worth watching if you can find it.
Another stand out was “The Chymist” from “The Nyctalops Trilogy” which is the tale of a chemist who develops a drug that allows him to have his way with the recipient, but not in the way you are most likely imagining as you read this.
There is “Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story”, in which Ligotti gives a Master Class on how to write a Horror story. He creates a scenario, which he writes out in several different styles, each with a unique outcome. It is at once entertaining and indicative of his mastery of the genre.
“The Lost Art of Twilight” is a vampire tale to end all vampire tales. It is contemporary and unique in his conception on the creatures of the tale and it is truly frightening.
And the list goes on…
If you like your horror tales to be a little more involved than the zombie apocalypse of the week, and are not afraid of the dark recesses of the human psyche, then I highly recommend Thomas Ligotti’s “Songs of a Dead Dreamer”. I’ll have more to say once I read “Grimscribe”.
While looking up book covers on the Internet Speculative Fiction Database I came across this collection of Hawthorne stories in French. I couldn’t figure out what the title was in English, so I checked the contents which usually has the original titles next to the translations. Once I did I realized it was a title I’d never heard of before called “The White Old Maid” (1835). Apparently it has been included in a few ghost story anthologies, as well as in the expanded edition of Hawthorne’s “Twice-Told Tales”, so I looked it up and found it on the Wikisource page for “Twice-Told Tales”. It actually was rather good, but not on par with his more celebrated tales.
It starts with a sort of MacGuffin: two young women, one haughty and the other gentle, tearfully hovering over the cadaver of a young man in state. There is some transgression which the proud one has made, but it is never divulged. She asks if the other will betray her, but the gentle one, who is named Edith, says,
‘”Till the dead bid me speak I will be silent,” answered Edith. “Leave us alone together. Go and live many years, and then return and tell me of thy life. He too will be here. Then, if thou tellest of sufferings more than death, we will both forgive thee.”
“And what shall be the token?” asked the proud girl, as if her heart acknowledged a meaning in these wild words.
“This lock of hair,” said Edith, lifting one of the dark clustering curls that lay heavily on the dead man’s brow.’ [Nathaniel Hawthorne “The White Old Maid” 1837, retrieved from Wikisource 02/22/17]
The proud woman goes off and lives her entire life wearing the same white dress and trailing behind every local funeral cortege, presumably in penance for her unnamed transgression. She eventually becomes a town fixture and any funeral she doesn’t attend is seen as being ill-favored. Then, one day she is seen walking the main street by herself when there is no funeral. People crowd the street to see what is amiss…but you have to read the story to find out what happens next.
In truth, it isn’t really a ghost story per se, although there is some question at the end as to the status of an old servant of the house of the young man from the beginning of the tale. I’m surprised it has never been filmed. I could picture it as a Val Lewton movie, not too explicit, but with class and atmosphere to spare. The French title, La vieille fille blanche et autres contes fantastiques, which roughly translates to “The White Old Maid and other Fantastic Tales” features a depiction of the maid in question. The only discrepancy is that the woman in the story always wore the same white dress, and the woman in the artwork is wearing black.
If you haven’t guessed by now, I am a very big fan of the weird pulp writers of the early 20th century. I enjoy the mixture of Victorian naiveté and pre-code exploitation in truly imaginative Horror and Fantasy stories, and I just love the cover art! Sometimes when I am bored I’ll surf the web in search of illustrations from the original publications of tales that I review on here. On one such a search I encountered the January 1933 cover for Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror by H.W. Wesso. The image was so striking that I was drawn to it immediately. Upon further investigation I learned that it depicted a climactic scene from the vampire novella “Murgunstrumm” by Hugh B. Cave.
Come hell or high water, I vowed to find that story! As luck would have it, I found it only a few days later in a collection of vampire novellas edited by Martin H. Greenberg called “A Taste of Blood”. I didn’t care much for the cover art, but couldn’t argue with the selection which featured everything from Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” to Clive Barker’s “Son of Celluloid”.
I began reading as soon as I got a chance to see what this tale was all about and to find out what exactly was being shown in the Wesso cover art. Unfortunately, the story moves at a very slow pace. Without giving too much away, Paul (the protagonist, a prim, proper and annoyingly self-righteous young man) escapes from an asylum where he has been stashed away after he and his girlfriend try to tell the authorities about their near-death experience with some supernatural villains. His plan is to trick the doctors that committed him into coming along on a trip back to the scene of the event to convince them that he isn’t mad after all.
The chapters read like a script for a talkie melodrama with the occasional spooky scene designed to make young girls cling to their beaus in the darkened theater. There are some decent descriptive passages but they quickly devolve into predictable pulp pablum. I imagine the vampires in their evening dress and pomade-slicked hair look like undead silent movie idols. The most interesting thing about them is their ability to turn into a blue fog leaving only their penetrating green eyes to hypnotize their prey.
Most of the horror happens off scene in other rooms and when our hero and his friends do find some nasty surprises in the forbidding lair of the vampires, their findings are only hinted at, rather than described. There are a couple of scenes near the end which are a little more explicit, but not by much.
My biggest disappointment was the title character, the ghoulish cripple who minds the lair of the vampires and does their bidding. I don’t want to spoil the tale for the curious, but I felt a bit let down by how ineffectual he turns out to be in the end after such a build up from his first appearance in the doorway of the dilapidated inn.
Even so, I am glad that I read the tale, and I do recommend it to fans of classic vampire literature. The story can also be found in the 1977 collection of Hugh B. Cave stories by Carcosa entitled “Murgunstrumm and Others” which features some macabre artwork by the inimitable Lee Brown Coye.
In the early oughts I ran around with a young woman many years my junior (she 19, I somewhere in my early 30’s). She was a brilliant writer, but she had some issues, as do I. We were both lonely, so we gravitated to one another and were inseparable for a few months. Eventually, our respective issues collided and she dumped me. To heal, I wrote many poems, some good, others not-so-much. I hope these are some of the former. The first was a ditty which popped into my head as a song, complete with a melody from some obscure nursery song I cannot recall otherwise. I sang it to her and she loved it. The second was penned after everything went south. In it, I compare our May/December relationship to that of Merlin and Nimue (Vivien, the Lady of the Lake):
I love my Polly, oh yes I do / No one’s as pretty or smart as you
We go out dining and play at pool / We muse on past lives and laugh at poo
We smuggle J.D. into you room / Chase it with o.j. to mask the fumes
We watch the X-Files and Lenny Bruce / Wax philosophic and get real juiced
Narrow hands just like an icon / I love her more than my bacon
Eyes of absinthe: green and cloudy / Lips like cushions, flush and pouty
Skin so soft and fair complexioned / She’s as sweet as crème confection
Florida’s boring, but we’ve got smokes / Long Island Iced Teas, sun-ups and jokes
We’ll go to Vegas and make our name / Then move to Madrid, grow old in Spain
I Love my Polly, oh yes I do / No one can move me quite like you do
Verlaine and Rimbaud, that’s me & you / Here’s hoping this round things go more smooth
Piscean, watery enchantress ardent, lubricious Lady of the Lake
Merlin, assotted, awaits you, though he knows your kiss means to quell
Nimue, bury me in your joyous garden–once curiosity is slaked
The loving cup you offer over-brims with a philtre fell
Eyes of pale green luminescence, searing my soul straight through
Nipples like red Chinese lanterns on hillocks of new-fallen snow
I hate you, I hate you, I hate you–but know that I love you still true
In a place where time is suspended, tho’ forgiveness and love freely flow…