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Couching at the Door by D K Broster

“…Art has nothing whatever to do with what is called ‘morality’; happily we know that at last!”

This is an intensely creepy work, evolving from a piece of fluff or “nothing now but a drenched smear swirling round the nymphs of Thetis!” to, I infer, a feather boa worn by the two ladies in Prague and Paris whom the writer (Augustine Marchant now at the more innocently countrified Abbot’s Medding) once met now being reconfigured in his so-called poetic work that his neighbours know little about, and then to a gigantic cobra, all three visions of such frightful realities threaded through with various images of the Garden of Eden, and, from a different point of view, we gain a glimpse of the same story as seen by the young callow illustrator who is to do the book’s artwork for Augustine’s writing and who is somehow palmed off by Augustine with this frightful furry familiar! Leaving Augustine free of it?
A work of hiding one’s art, guilt at one’s art, even absolving oneself of whatever dark creativity one does… and even writing such stuff myself and now reading, then openly reviewing this story being equivalent to my own guilty secret, but now no longer a secret as it is thus palmed off on you?!
There are some wondrous passages describing the horrific ‘familiar’, but by calling them ‘wondrous’, what is it do we do? The warmth of our snuggling up to the familiar in bed just being one thing here deployed.
I discern, to help his own self-exorcism, the older man’s grooming of the illustrator was effectively set in motion by an elbow trigger: “In the shaded rosy candle-light, his elbows on the table among trails of flowers he, who was not even a neophyte, listened like a man learning for the first time of some spell of spring which will make him more than mortal.” And each reader of this work will wrestle with their own vision of how this prose is couched. And maybe there will rear false aunt sallies to hide the actual nature of the serpent embedded in its tale? “For his own art was of infinitely more importance than the subservient, the parasitic art of an illustrator.”

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Context of above review: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2023/01/02/womens-weird-strange-stories-1890-1940/

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THE JULY GHOST by A.S. Byatt

“‘No illusions are pleasant,’…”

A man’s story told to an American woman at a party about meeting a married woman at another party and then lodging — with her as his ‘landlady’ (note that word literally) — at her house to escape his loss of his own woman Anne to another man. Already a disarmingly tangled situation, but then factor in the story of a blonde haired boy with a notable smile and other recognisable clothes arriving in the garden of his landlady (whose own husband has, by now, as we watch it happen, argued with her and left her) when her lodger is sitting at the same time in that very garden, apparently the ghost of the landlady’s son that only the lodger can see and converse with, the son who left the garden one previous July and been lethally run over by a car near a South London common. What is the common ground or land? Well, it is the reader’s mind who will remain haunted by the recurring vision of this ghostly boy and his catalytic attempts for the landlady and her lodger to reproduce him. Sad and lingering story — and proof that fiction can create real ghosts. But do humans tend only to find any such visions to be uneasy or unpleasant illusions and will not let them cohere further from apparent fiction reality into the hard truth where they ever exist without our fully acknowledging them? The boy’s smile prevails and makes this story something of a rare version of fiction where the answer to that question is ‘no’ whatever the story characters (more ghostly than the ghost itself?) themselves say about illusions.

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The anthology context of this review: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2022/12/16/twentieth-century-ghost-stories/

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TIPTOE: LAIRD BARRON

“I was a child of the 1960s.”

Me of the 50s. Lucky, unlike this narrator, I had no ‘perfect storm’ of a family to give me later complexes and fears …I think! Or is this wishful thinking?
Here in this story, it is an eeny-meanie tickling, shadow-casting father, a brother from cruel boyish tiptoe grasps to a later Vietnam jungle, an Aunt, a potential Cayce in point, all converging upon the traditional family holiday. Terror as a Lake typo. The creeping up behind of a touch from someone’s tiptoed touch on your … on your what? … for me, also a bit weird like his father was in hindsight, or more than just a bit in hindsight(!), this story has literature’s perfect elbow of a pre-climax trigger…
“…soundlessly tiptoeing along, knees to chest, elbows even with the top of his head, hands splayed wide.”

ASIDE: But do we forgive, as we begin to forget, a forgetting like my new last ditch worldly medicine today makes me weirder in my forgetting even more?

My previous reviews of this author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/john-langan-nathan-ballingrud/

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Full context of above story: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2022/12/19/the-best-horror-of-the-year-volume-fourteen/

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SHARDS: IAN ROGERS

The old gramophone’s old ‘needle-shard’ and the rehandled deadeners of a time none of the surviving four young people out of five — Chad, Anabelle & Mark, Donna as two item pairs on a wild break in a cabin with a spinning empty vodka bottle and who all ended up gorily slaughtering the single Marcia — would ever forget. Somehow aberrationally horror-plotted and -propped but effective, nonetheless, this centres on a distant cabin airbnb to try outdo MMS’s city airbnb above. Then the police points of view and the four separate survivor guilt points of view cohering,..Through the seasons, a separate lust for heat turned into subsuming fire despite global warmth, a lust for paradoxical non-silence, a lust for spinning like a dervish (spinning like the gramophone found by Marcia under the cabin’s trapdoor and the spinning vodka bottle as a catalyst for a sort of real-time reality TV dating repercussions) and a lust for sleep….we all know the latter, at least, and even more so, perhaps, after reading this insidiously gauche story. A gauche story. You heard that here first. My coinage in this literary context. Remember that. 

Gauche like the music played on that gramophone “The auditory onslaught continued with a deep, pummelling bass that felt like a series of hammer blows against their eardrums.” For onslaught, read onslaughter. Much like the music I myself have always loved, a paradoxical apotheosis of Xenakis et al. Marcia’s own nickname as a soundfest! And the spinning gun cylinder at the end? Gramophones stemmed from cylinders, did they not?

“Step, step, spin, step, step, spin. […] …in wider and wider circles until she left the orbit of town […] …tiptoeing…”

PS: Watch out! Already in the pipeline, an independently published book called GAUCHE STORIES by a man too mean to be me!

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Full context of above review: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2022/12/19/the-best-horror-of-the-year-volume-fourteen/

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A Responsibility by Elizabeth Taylor

“Dirty confetti and the petals of cherry blossom edged the church path.”

Jessie has been co-opted by Gwen to become a Godmother of her and her husband Nicky’s baby, co-opted from behind the pub bar where Jessie works in this William Trevor-like scenario as a tranche of life, with the unfelt aspirations and the instinctive reactions to almost nothing. People with things that happen to them and things that are not made to happen, like having a baby and then deciding on the spur to have a Christening, and Jessie meets an Ex as part of this scenario, a man who is a friend of Nicky’s, both of them Poles. Gwen and Nicky live above the cleavers of yet another butcher’s shop. Jessie, I suddenly recall, did not know what was entailed with being a Godmother. Such an inchoate responsibility making her unconsciously keener to become a mother herself as she is left to hold or change the baby….but things tail off as if nothing had happened. A story actually designed to be easily forgotten. But my responsibility as reviewer thwarts such designs? As if each time, I become a reviewed story’s Godfather? Was it important, though? — Josie’s full name for the register or the nature of her faith in her own fiction? 

“‘Don’t say you are not Catholic,’ Nicky warned Jessie. He put a hand under his wife’s elbow and, looking with solemn fondness at the baby, went towards the [church] porch.”

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My ET reviews indexed here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2022/12/21/my-reviews-of-elizabeth-taylor-stories-in-alphabetical-order/

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CELUI-LÀ: Eleanor Scott

“Anyhow, he wasn’t going to give up his evening strolls for a superstition of someone else’s!”

This story is a wrapped superstition within the truth of a haunting. Roughshod and clumsy, it carries a punch, paralleling both the mimicking buildings above with a church in Brittany being attached to a derelict church next to it like a tumour, with yellow and gold and crimson paint and revealing a mural that echoes a being, a woman or monk or a walking insanity, that was seen earlier on the beach, and a second shadow where only one should have been, also echoing the Breton ambiance in The King In Yellow (reviewed here.) A figure as if from Oh Whistle! (reviewed here). On the shingle beach indeed, to the sound of howling and a bed of toads (or a single toad like Azathoth?), and the friend sent here to convalesce by another friend, and which one of them, as they get confused in my mind, Foster and Maddox, treading clumsily upon the superstitions of the fearful, local curé with a found art from the beach as casket with a parchment pointing to the something that could only be called THAT ONE. A necessarily nemonymous evil… Clumsily told on purpose! — to make the horror oblique or askew enough, to creep in naively where many other stories can’t … to worry even the bravest or most experienced reader of ghosts.

“I had hoped for lilies of gold, but gold paint, it is incredible, the cost! And the new chapel I will have in crimson for the Sacred Heart, with hearts of yellow as a border. It will be gay, isn’t it?”

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UNFINISHED BUSINESS context of above review: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2022/12/07/unfinished-business-a-ghost-story-anthology/

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Unraveling: Barbara A. Barnett

“Why should she fear unraveling the Mad Prophet’s threads?”

This story was designed to disturb me, and me alone. To ‘unnerve’ me, unravel me, before I unravelled this story. A story in the guise of a story of a woman translator of an ancient Mad Prophet, also as woman, yes, a studious translator or word unraveller working in her study, receiving notes, not the usual notes from her servants pushed under the study door about domestic matters or the imploring messages from an ex (a male ballet dancer), but these are notes from her study closet itself, pushed under its door, a closet to which nobody could have access. There is big difference between eccentricity and madness, as these words claim, if I unravel them aright. And I fear now what I have known for some while without admitting it. Indeed there is a dire gestalt that I fear I reach out for, by teasing out threads, as I ever do! I am actually deeply affected by this story pushed under some door in my consciousness.

“Why your obsession with language has left you with so little to say.”

***
But I shall try to resist the effects of this story, because a story it surely is. It is merely a story of an embittered ex trying to get his revenge, with himself subsuming herself. En pointe?

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But to ravel is also to unravel! — ‘To RAVEL means both to Disentangle and to Entangle.’ — as stated five years ago: HERE

My previous review of this author almost exactly 12 years ago: HERE
(What can have I opened? Seriously. OMFG.)

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The context of above review: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2022/11/25/vastarien-vol-5-no-2/

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Someone Take These Dreams Away — Nicholas Royle

‘Art’s impossible without ambiguity.’

This is possibly one of the most disturbing stories I have read by Royle, or by anyone, come to think of it. The title is evoked here as the essence of dread and, post-dread, never being able to get rid of that dread…. involving another Nick and a fellow student from Nick’s boys school but in a different year stream looking for Nick, filling in for Nick amid University office academic and personality politics, stalking him back into memories of the school where all the boys were told to swim naked in the school pool — with all the resonances permeating later the Nicks’ Kiss, tied up with IF..IF.. and a Fifty-something woman who played a character in that colour cinema film amidst black and white interruptions, a character that has haunted the student or the older man or other boyish sexual Mrs Robinson fantasies throughout the land ever since, as ever found in the found art of found DVDs, a woman now a neighbour of Nick in place as well as in age? But which Nick? So much more in this substantive example of dark literary Roylety that I can’t cover here. Its pervasive ambiguity is clear

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Context of above review: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2022/11/26/manchester-uncanny-nicholas-royle/

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SUMMER OF ’38: Colm Tóibín 

“He talked to her about the dam, explaining its strategic importance and how old some of the systems were, which meant that only someone experienced could deal with the levers, someone who knew that a few of them would not respond if pulled too fast, and also that if one of them was pulled halfway it would have the same effect as pulling it the whole way.”

…Paco, a neuro-diverse man and his dam routines! This passage seems to encapsulate allthe forces working in this perhaps ever-resonating story, till it bursts into its own gush of gestalt? 1938, Spanish Civil War, a woman’s dalliance with one of Franco’s soldiers, by whom she fell pregnant and thus she induced her marriage to Paco, to obviate the shame of it, and the politics? Her now ancient photos show her first daughter, a child who was not Paco’s, but her erstwhile lover’s, one photo revealing the latter in a later grandson! Fifty years later, the woman now a widow, and the erstwhile lover, now an old man, returns to the area of the dam, and she is told by an intermediary that he wishes to meet her. She diverts this meeting of daughter and father, precariously, on the same day, with ever-diverging trains. Ever-divergence of all her photos, too.

“She tolerated him [Paco], and then grew fond of him. Slowly, too, as she realized that her parents and her sisters were still laughing at him, she saw less of them. She began to feel a loyalty toward Paco, a loyalty that lasted for all the years of their marriage.”

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THAT GLIMPSE OF TRUTH context of above review: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2022/11/06/that-glimpse-of-truth-6/

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THE PEAR TREE, THE MILLER’S TALE, LATE, LEAP YEAR, DR. IGGATT & PIG: stories by Walter de la Mare

The Pear-Tree (A Cornish Idyll)

“The old man fumed in thought. ‘Look’ee here, Mr Tinker,’ he said, ‘it’s better to know all than part. Hoist yourself up into yonder pear-tree and cry what you see!’”

This is a memorable ghost story, no question. About a tinker on his way to Treboath, stopping partway for company and seeng an old man trying to hone his rusty axe on a poorly plied grindstone, and offered his own better grindstone, but then wondered what the old man wanted to do with his axe. To cut down a large pear-tree where sat at night the ghost of the rich old man’s young wife’s once sweetheart, the latter looking in at her, and much we learn of the incriminating backstory and the outcome, as a new outcome transpires while we readers watch in real-time for why ‘it’s better to know all than part.’

“…hidden above on high in the pear-blossom, tempting and cajoling, and pleading with the young wife as never serpent wooed Eve to the apple.”

***

THE MILLER’S TALE

“I had been ranging unfamiliar country; and rejoiced to find myself issuing out of the more than nocturnal gloom of the valley I had been traversing – a valley with darker hollows, occasional impenetrable thickets – impenetrable, I mean, by the eye; and particularly to be free from its more or less concealed and inscrutable, and yet, as I felt within me, its attentive and sinister denizens or inmates.”

And from that disarming start to the narration, we reach a pure and penetrable classic WDLM story, one that I’m surprised is not more famous — the narrator’s vision of a windmill ablaze on a hilltop and the so-called ‘demented’ miller later telling the narrator a tale of fiends or devils that set the sails a-spinning in the depth of each night, but to grind what? This fire was the miller’s purging of such dream or reality.

***

LATE

“Even the beauty of a thing was its imperishable sadness.”

This is the utterly sad and dangerous letter (dangerous for any reading it, even today, and no wonder it was rejected as a story at the galley-proof stage), a letter written by man to his male friend about what had happened and was due to happen after his wife left him for another, a third, man, and the way how such lost love created revenge as this now late letter-writer — with mixed feelings, mixed motives and, importantly, unreliable narrations — works us towards a final meeting with his wife at a country style.

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LEAP YEAR

This is a discussion between Judy and her grandmother by a roaring fire, involving a poker, the latter who seems to be the narrator, a discussion, yes, about Judy wondering whether she could propose to a man, and the grandmother asking who the man is? I failed to grasp any of this, and why the grandmother threatens to blow the man’s brains out, whoever he is, and the word ’suicide” is mentioned by Judy, and is it possible that her ‘Hurry, Hurry’ was misheard by the narrator as ‘Harry, Harry.’ Could it be that the man’s name was Punch?

“…only by sheer blindman’s intuition I had found and seized her hand.”

***

Dr Iggatt

“…the faint trickling of his water-tap was engaging in a duet with the gas-bracket,…”

Dr I thinks his last patient has gone, his own hair gone through with his hand several times already, but then he finds one more patient in the waiting room, a Mr Laman who suffers from seven years of sleeplessness and wants a prescription in writing. Dr I watches him leave and approach the gate outside (“In the midst of a semi-circle of metal upon it hung a lamp, casting its light chiefly among the green leaves of a lime tree that grew beside the pavement of the road beyond.”)
He looks at the prescription in such light and then throws it away.
I wonder if it is significant that Laman had thick hair, too?

“It is odd how, when some men vanish from sight, it is almost as if they had never been in the place which they vanish from.”

***

PIG

“Claw-set pearl in cravat, his elbows rested on its arms, and his double chin on the wide white wings of his starched collar, he had been to the Society what its acorn was to an oak, its keystone is to an arch, its mainspring to a clock, its tail feathers to a swallow.”


Sir Andrew, once young Andy and his ‘motherly’ friend Jimmie; they worked for the Universal Sorbeau Sausage Company but Andy had eye to eye, even soul transmigrating to soul, communion with a particular pig being led to slaughter if not this story’s ironic laughter! And he and Jimmie became vegetarian activists and today, as Sir Andrew faces his own God’s putting down, he officiates at the “Fortieth Annual General Meeting of the S.S.C.P.P.” (Society for the Suppression of the Consumption of Pig and its Products) ,and faced, in senile ‘reverie’, with the impossible question: how does their magic recipe SORBO differ from the sausage firm’s SORBEAU? This story has it own magical ingredients that turn me into another version of a senile reverie and eventually set to die in dire laughter, amidst much ‘pawky’ ‘squeeching’! Just look in the mirror and see a pig, or feel sad at the tiny gold piglet thrown into Jimmie’s grave, or simply drift away into the quoted examples below of this work’s magical ingredients as a comic masterpiece worthy of the author of THE ORGY: AN IDYLL. Georgie Porgie Pudding & Pie.

“But as he mused, yet again, stealthy, seductive as the spice-laden breezes of Cythera, there wisped beneath his nostrils an odour – the odour of bacon-rashers frying in the pan. His cheek paled then purpled, he beckoned secretly but violently to a minor employee fortunately standing under the nearest window. And with an airy waft of his hand bade him shut the window above his head.”

“Never before had he thought of these weekly victims of the Universal Sorbeau Sausage Company – such was the somewhat arrogant designation of the firm in which he was employed – as a collection of unique individuals.”

“‘When their thoats are slit and the blood’s come, they are scalded and scraped … And then I suppose,’ he [Jimmie] added pensively, ‘they’re pork.’ A longer pause followed: ‘I wonder if they think.’ Andy allowed this bitter comment to sink in.”


“Would you say that what we eat has anything to do with – well, what we look like?”

“Every Cause, every Institution, every Crusade, with very few exceptions, has had its idea, its origin – even though it were an origin as minute perhaps as a grain of mustard seed – in one single human head. This was its germ, its nucleus. Wheel, Plough, Ship, for example; and Guillotine. How far that of the Society for the Suppression of the Consumption of Pig and its Products had been the outcome of a niggardly Manager’s refusal to add half a crown to the weekly salary of a junior clerk; how far of a mute and casual, though afflicted, glance from the squinny little eyes of a small pig on its way to execution; how far to the fact that Andy’s physiognomy somewhat took after that common to all the members of its species; and, finally, how far to Jimmie’s tender sensitiveness and loyal affection for his friend –“

“If it had, then Jimmie, he would instantly have admitted, had been its mistress-jewel. Mistress rather than ‘master’ because Jimmie had possessed that half-secret something which a boy may inherit straight from a passionate and impulsive mother. And Jimmie’s mother, as Andy knew, had died young.”

“Secret ham and baconism orgies? Bedroom porkists?”

“…a minute piglet in pure gold – which immediately concealed itself from view beneath the verger’s sprinkling of ‘dust and ashes’.”

***

But the whole thing spoilt by the silly punchline at the end of PIG?

end

ALL MY WDLM REVIEWS: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2022/11/02/my-reviews-of-walter-de-la-mare-in-alphabetical-order/

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