Friday, 27 November 2020

The Rivals of Dracula - Nick Rennison


A collection of vampire tales from around the time of Stoker's classic.  There are familiar faces here.  M R James's 'Count Magnus' is always worth reading and it was good to see 'Aylmer Vance and the Vampire'.  There are oddball entries too, some very odd Norse vampires and a vampiric plant.  But there are also several duds, I'm afraid - 'Ken's Mystery' for example, by Julian (son of Nathaniel) Hawthorne, and Mary Cholmondely's 'Let Loose'.  On the whole, though, a good range, well worth reading.

Wednesday, 25 November 2020

The Great Gold Snatch - Grierson Dickson

This is the way to read your period crime thrillers - in a weekly magazine from May 1937!

I was interested in 'Jimmy' Dickson because he was a friend of Max Knight, the original M, and like Max himself and most of his friends, he wrote crime fiction.  I wanted a sample but I didn't want to pay Amazon's COVID-inflated prices.  So I found this on Ebay and eminently satisfied.

The crime itself is explained in this magnificent header page:

A truckload of gold bullion is hijacked along its route from Croydon Airfield to the Bank of England despite a fully armed police escort.  When Superintendent 'Cissie' Marlow arrives on the scene the gold has completely vanished.  How?  Well for once I spotted the clue, not that it matters.  The novella is genuinely thrilling, with high speed car chases and forensic science and close encounters of the gangster kind.  Dickson might have made a ghastly misjudgement in his hero's sobriquet, but boy, can he handle pace.

An added virtue is that it's set right on the cusp of traditional flatfoot policing and modern investigation.  There is a Flying Squad, with Q cars and a lab at Hendon, but look at the not very secure security van in the image.  It is just a van with reinforced wooden doors, because at that time no one had ever stolen such a volume of bullion, largely because of sheer weight.

I loved the cover image (signed A Jones, which is not much help) and the uncredited interior artwork.  I am on the lookout for more Dickson (but I'm still not paying Amazon's current prices).

Thursday, 19 November 2020

The Model - Robert Aickman


The Model is a novella, left by Aickman when he died in 1981 and published in 1988.  It is now a Faber Find and I got the ebook.  Aickman told a friend he thought it was his best work.  I wouldn't go that far but it is different and it is always great to see a dying man branching out into a new field.

What we have is a grim fairy tale, set in Tsarist Russia sometime in the second half of the Nineteenth Century.  Elena is a young girl who lives a very sheltered life in a remote town.  Her mother is an invalid, her father the local lawyer.  A visiting couple leave her a book about ballet which inspires Elena to build a model theatre.  A very strange man then pays a flying visit and gives her toy dancers.

Elena is on the verge of puberty and her parents start pressing her to look to the future.  Her mother wants her to become a nun which, she has been told by God Himself, will keep the mother alive a little longer.  Her father, however, wants Elena to become the 'companion' to the local nobleman's mysterious son and, all being well, to marry him.  But Elena is set on becoming a ballerina and takes herself off to the nearest town with an opera house.  She travels alone through the bleak Russian winter.  Along the way she meets a talking bear and a prince who wants to be a revolutionary.  She makes her debut her first night in town, but is taken in by a strange brown lady with simian servants, only to be rescued by a distant cousin of one of her friends back home - a young woman posing, for reasons vaguely connected to her university studies, as an officer in the hussars,

The Model is, in short, a triumph, very different to Aickman's other work (much of it reviewed elsewhere on this blog).  It is beautifully written, full of colour and imagination, and strongly recommended.

Monday, 16 November 2020

Three-Fifths - John Vercher


Three-Fifths is the debut novel by Amercian writer John Vercher.  It is a slim, powerful noir set in Oakland at the time of the OJ Simpson trial.  It is about everybody trying to do the right thing, which inevitably ends the wrong way.

Vercher keeps his focus extremely tight.  There are no more than ten or a dozen characters and their lives are all entangled.  Up front is Bobby, who is mixed race but passes for white.  Aaron is his one and only school friend; at school, as one of very few white people, Aaron played at being black.  This landed him in jail for drug dealing.  Now he is out, muscled-up on steroids but wrecked in mind and soul.  The same night Bobby's mother Izzy bumps into Bobby's father, Robert.  Robert didn't even know Izzy was pregnant.  Since then he has married, been through IVF hell with his deeply-loved wife and is now getting divorced.

To say more might be to give away key plot elements.  The point is how tightly Vercher has wound his narrative line.  And boy, it pays off.  Very dark, very bleak, but full of humanity and its essential urge to do right, and deeply compelling.  A brilliant debut.  Highly recommended.

Wednesday, 11 November 2020

American Midnight - Laird Hunt (ed)

Nine 'Tales of the Dark' introduced by Laird Hunt, whose House in the Dark of the Woods I reviewed earlier this month.  What makes the selection son enjoyable for British readers is that these are American classics which we rarely see over here.  I had read the Chambers story before, as part of his celebrated The King in Yellow, and feel sure I must have read 'The Masque of the Red Death' but if so remembered none of it.  Anything by Edith Wharton and Shirley Jackson is always worth reading, and I had forgotten how amusing Mark Twain can be.  Overall, my favourite was 'An Itinerant House' by Emma Francis Dawson, in which the house does the haunting.  Again, there are no duds.

Sunday, 8 November 2020

From the Depths - Mike Ashley (ed)


Building on the success of their classic crime series, the British Library now does reprints and collections across many genres, including the supernatural.  From the Depths is specific - 'strange tales of the sea' - but right up my alley as a diehard fan of William Hope Hodgson.  The great man appears here with one I hadn't come across before - 'The Mystery of the Water-Logged Ship' - but there are other tales of the Sargasso, by Ward Muir and Frank H Shaw, plus two of floating islands.  The last, 'No Ships Pass', is by Lady Eleanor Smith, is very weird and captivating.  A great collection.  Not a dud amongst them.  I wonder if there is a Volume Two...?

Tuesday, 3 November 2020

The House in the Dark of the Wood - Laird Hunt


Laird Hunt was a discovery for me.  I had never come across his work before.  This was an offer from Pushkin Books, the ebook for 99p - and what a result!  The House in the Dark of the Woods is a modern fairy tale in the style of Angela Carter.  Like Carter, Hunt plays with traditional folk tropes, in his case American as opposed to Carter's English.  Wandering off into the woods seems to me fundamentally American, and that is what Hunt's unnamed heroine does here. The period seems to be the Puritan era, circa 1700.  The name those she comes across choose to call her is 'Goody' - very Hawthorne and Salem Witch Trials.  The modernist twist is that the woods is where the women hold sway: Eliza, who may well be a witch, and the roistering Captain Jane.  The 'magic' is very original, too.  Eliza exists in multiples, for example.  And as for Red Boy, the supposed master of the woods ... well, that's one of those things you have to read the book to find out.

I was hugely pleased with The House in the Dark of the Woods.  The length was spot on, 160pp or so.  That meant absolutely no room for filler or exposition, which are wholly irrelevant in folk/fairy lore.  The style, to my ear, was note-perfect.  It will come as no surprise that I followed up by buying Hunt's anthology for Pushkin, American Midnight