Sunday, February 24, 2013

Review: Quiet Houses by Simon Kurt Unsworth

In the afterword to Quiet Houses, author Simon Kurt Unsworth refers to the book as a two-fold experiment; an attempt to write intertwined stories in order to create a written portmanteau, as well as an attempt to utilize personal and familiar real-life locations as the settings for all the stories. Although some of the places in the stories are fictional, they are heavily based on real places, and the afterword does a great job of breaking down each location, going into their importance to Unsworth and the reasons he chose them. The final product of this experiment, although not perfect, could only be called a success.

Quiet Houses opens with an advertisement: "Do you live in a haunted house? Have you ever been to a place and had an experience that you cannot explain? Do you have a story to tell? Serious researcher wants to hear from you. Must be prepared to go on record. No timewasters. Tel: 01524 500501 ext 23 and leave a message." The book follows paranormal researcher Richard Nakata's investigations into alleged hauntings and is broken up into two different types of chapters: short "in-between" chapters which set the stage for Nakata's imminent investigation, and the larger chapters which detail the incidents themselves. Structurally, this works rather smoothly. The interlude chapters are short enough to set the stage without lingering too long, and work nicely as the cement that holds all the individual stories together.

Which brings us to the stories themselves. Each of these chapters is titled after a place, and although the earlier parts of the book continue with the premise of Nakata gathering stories from others, it isn't long before the chapters are of Nakata himself having experiences instead. Nakata's chapters are, unfortunately, the mixed lot of the bunch. I found that the four larger chapters featuring him were split; the first two (Beyond St. Patrick's Chapel, Heysham Head and The Temple of Relief and Ease) failed to resonate within me like the others in the book, while I found the final two (24 Glasshouse, Glasshouse Estate and Stack's Farm, Trough of Bowland) to be essential and very climactic. The first two chapters follow Nakata as he explores two areas that came to his attention. Although they have their moments, and I would still consider them to be good examples of storytelling, I felt that they were the weaker chapters of the book. The final chapters are the ones that truly tell Nakata's story. 24 Glasshouse explores Nakata's past, detailing a very important part of his life that will shape the Nakata of the present, while Stack's Farm is where all threads of the story culminate in a truly frightening and enlightening manner.

The three other chapters, which are the experiences related to Nakata by others, absolutely shine from a horror perspective, although their delivery varies in style. In the first of these larger chapters, a sad, older man tells Nakata his tale about The Elms Hotel in a cafe. The Elms takes place in the present, as a conversation in the cafe. The reader is able to follow Nakata's growing discomfort as the man's ghost story is told. The chapter is quite chilling, and makes for an excellent opener. The second of these chapters, The Merry House, is presented as a letter, and reads in the first person. This narrative shift, cutting out Nakata completely, makes for a more immersive reading experience. Instead of seeing Nakata's reactions, readers are now reading the letter for themselves, allowed to come to their own conclusions. This is also, without a doubt, the most terrifying story in the book, and goes way beyond being a ghost story. The third of these chapters, The Ocean Grand, is another story about a hotel, although this eschews despair for blood and action. Three men (self-dubbed the "Save Our Shit Crew") spend a few days camped within the long-closed, Art Deco style Ocean Grand Hotel, where they will appraise what art can be saved and restored. The narrative style of this story takes another turn by switching back to third person, however unlike the first chapter Nakata is not present in the telling and the story only focuses on the three men involved. The story itself is great, but this narrative choice is a bit jarring, as it's not clear until the end which character is the narrator introduced in the preceding interlude chapter, where he is not named. I believe this was intentional on Unsworth's part, as readers know going into the story that two of the men don't make it, and by withholding the name of the narrator Unsworth makes sure that the uncertainty and tension continue until the end.

Overall, Unsworth has succeeded in his quest to make a horror portmanteau. The majority of the stories in Quiet Houses stand strong, and the interludes threading them together work exceptionally well. I think I would have liked to see more stories related to Nakata by others, as I thought those were the best. As a whole though, I can't really complain because it came together so beautifully in the end. In the afterword Mr. Unsworth states, "I like Nakata; he'll be back." I can only look towards that day with eager anticipation.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Review: The White Hands and Other Weird Tales by Mark Samuels

I first stumbled upon Mark Samuels when I read his story A Gentleman From Mexico in the Book of Cthulhu II.  I found the story showcased an easy, confident writing style and it really made an imprint on me. Afterwards I ordered copies of his two in-print collections: The White Hands and Other Weird Tales and The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales (I also recently ordered a copy of Glyphotech, a short collection from PS Publishing that is now out of print).

It took me a couple months before I cracked open The White Hands, but it only took me a couple days to zip through it. When I started I was wondering if the stories were going to be nearly as good as A Gentleman From Mexico, and as I finished I scolded myself for waiting so long before reading Mark Samuels.

The stories within are all exemplars of weird fiction. Samuels writes clear and concise, and is not shy about showing his influences. I knew going into this one that Lovecraft and Machen were influences on Samuels, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that some of the stories within echoed Thomas Ligotti's bleak, nihilistic style of horror.

The collection opens with The White Hands, a tale that reads like pure, classic weird horror. An academic decides to study a near-forgotten author named Lilith Blake, whose fiction is extraordinarily dark and bleak. He must use the collection of a former professor named Muswell, a hardcore Blake enthusiast. The story is an excellent opener, and reading about the protagonist's growing obsession with Blake's work is good fun. Following this story is The Grandmaster's Final Game. An enchanted chess set brings about a rematch between a priest and a wicked former opponent. The story starts off strong and keeps going right up until the finish.

The middle section of the book are the tales that to me are most reminiscent of Thomas Ligotti's work. Mannequins in Aspects of Terror is a creepy urban tale. Mannequins are creepy anyway, and Samuels takes it to a whole new level with this story, set in a mostly abandoned office tower which becomes a place of fixation for the narrator. Apartment 205 is another tale concerning a character who becomes enchanted and obsessed, only this time it's a certain room in a neighboring apartment which keeps drawing him in. Another tale with dark, pessimistic undertones, the story just gets creepier and creepier. The Impasse, one of my favorite stories of the collection, is 100% Ligottian corporate horror. The story is surreal from the start, and details a mans first day on the job at a strange firm. Events get stranger and stranger as the story goes on, and a feeling of hopelessness pervades throughout the story. The next story continues the theme of obsession, and similar to The Impasse it has a surreal feel early on that continues throughout. The protagonist of The Colony becomes enamored with a run-down, shady part of town that he stumbles across. He finds himself attracted to the bleakness of not only the place, but the denizens he encounters on his nightly jaunts. He decides to move into the desolate neighborhood, and the places pull on him intensifies further, culminating in a terrifying conclusion.

Although the previous four tales are the ones that seem to be the most influenced by Ligotti, the tale that follows reads like a Ligotti/Lovecraft mashup. Vrolyck follows a misanthropic insomniac who is more than he lets on. He meets a woman also suffering from insomnia in a cafe, which sends events spiraling. The tone is Ligotti but the plot is Lovecraft, making for quite a brilliant story.

The Search For Kruptos is yet again another tale dealing with obsession. The protagonist is a student who becomes obsessed with finding Kruptos, the unpublished magnum opus of an exiled author from days of old. The story takes place during the second World War, and although dealing with the idea of worlds in between dreaming and waking has a jarring ending that threw me off.

And finally, Black as Darkness brings readers full circle, as references to characters in the first story create a sense of a bigger picture. The tale follows two old men who have been lifelong friends, and what happens when a mysterious, bootlegged video tape shows up and dirty secrets are aired, leading to yet another bleak ending.

In conclusion, The White Hands and Others is a brilliant early collection. Readers of weird horror will find much familiarity here, although the voice is Mr. Samuels's own. I can't imagine any fans of the weird being disappointed in this collection, and I even find it hard to bring criticism against it myself. This book should be a welcome addition to any bookshelf, and since it's an in-print paperback from Tartarus Press (a wonderful publisher) it can be easily found online.

Are any readers already fans of Mr. Samuels work?  For folks who have already read this collection do you have any favorites or stories that didn't work for you? Comment below.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Review: Hauntings edited by Ellen Datlow

When purchasing an anthology, the first thing that readers typically look at is the table of contents to see which authors are represented. I admit, this is one of the things I look at when picking up an anthology as well, but not the first thing I look at. The very first thing I check? The editor. Each editor is different, and has his/her own tastes. When a reader reads an anthology that they find to be exceptional, they should not only remember which authors blew them away, but which editor compiled the satisfying volume. And when a reader finds an editor whose tastes align with theirs then they found something special.

What I am getting at is simple. Ellen Datlow has long ago caught my attention as one of the premiere editors working in the genre today. Whenever I see an anthology with her name on the cover I scoop it up without even looking at the contents, because I've come to trust her judgement. Hauntings is one of her latest offerings, a reprint anthology of twenty-four stories dealing with ghosts and the afterlife. In the introduction Datlow points out that many of the stories involve children and that with this anthology she hopes to broaden the readers understanding of what a haunting is. And in this she was successful, as these are not typical ghost stories.

And now for some stories. Keep in mind this was an ARC and the layout of the stories could change between now and publication.

Pat Cadigan's Eenie, Meenie, Ipsateenie opens the collection with a truly chilling tale concerning a childhood game gone wrong. The story goes back and forth from the present (well, 1983 when the story was written) and the past. The narrator is revisiting his old neighborhood and reminiscing, all while strolling and chatting with a young boy from the neighborhood. The man's recollections are not pleasant, and are about his last night in the neighborhood as a small, anxious boy, and a game of hide and seek that goes completely wrong. There is a darker undercurrent here as well, and by the end it seems apparent that the man has become a child predator of some sort. One of the things that really struck me about this story was how it can be interpreted not just as a ghost story, but also as a story of a man whose mental issues stem from that night long ago, and drive him to do what he now does.

The next story is quite similar in a few ways. Dale Bailey's Hunger: A Confession features a child narrator whose state of mind is also called into question. The young boy is tormented by horror stories told by his older brother, but the tables are turned when they move into an old house with a gory past and the young boy finds a bundle of rusty, old butcher tools under the basement furnace. Bailey expertly builds up the tension to the story's ghastly conclusion. Like the previous story, the ghostly element could be taken at face value or as an aspect of the mentally disturbed narrator's mind.

Cargo by E. Michael Lewis was a story I first read in one of Datlow's Best Horror of the Year collections. This tale concerns one of the great tragedies of the 20th century; the Jonestown Massacre. An Air-Force loadmaster is in charge of a cargo of caskets, and has a hair-raising experience while en route to the Dover Air Force Base. The story is more heart-wrenching than scary, but powerful nonetheless.

Lucius Shepard takes readers to the jungles of Vietnam in Delta Sly Honey. The insanity of war is apparent, and things get even crazier when a young radio operator who jokingly tries to make contact with a ghostly regiment is finally answered. There are truly some weird events going on, and the story has some nice bits of action.

Another heart-wrencher is David Morell's Nothing Will Hurt You. This is a depressing story about a parent driven mad by grief when his daughter becomes the victim of a serial killer. The night she is killed, her father saw Sweeney Todd, and from that night on has the song "Nothing Will Hurt You" stuck in his head. The story serves as a reflection of grief and obsession, and it definitely hits home seeing how the father of the victim falls apart. This is a story which is more about a man being haunted by the events that happened than by an actual ghost, and the supernatural events can once again just as easily be attributed to the madness brought about by grief than by actual spirits.

Caitlin R. Kiernan is an amazing writer. The Ammonite Violin (Murder Ballad No. 4) is another story featuring both a serial killer and music. In this tale a killer who fancies himself a collector has a violinist travel to his house to play a very special instrument that the collector had special made. The story is beautifully written, and a perfect example of Kiernan's gift with language.

Joyce Carol Oates is a literary writer who sometimes dabbles in the horror genre. Whenever I come across one of her tales in a horror themed anthology I know I am in for a treat. Her story Haunted is just as impressive as I knew it was going to be. Oates has a way of leaving the reader chilled, and often hints at the horrors rather than exposing them. Haunted is presented as the writings of a middle aged woman reminiscing about her childhood best friend and their love for exploring abandoned places. Oates brilliantly builds an uneasy atmosphere and stretches it taut until the end. There's a lot here to like.

Following the chiller from Oates is a light-hearted story from Elizabeth Hand called The Have-Nots. The language is fun, and told in the voice of a southern woman, telling a story of her friend and their weird, ghostly experience as she tries to sell her makeup to some of her housewife acquaintances. It's quite humorous, and touching.

Neil Gaiman comes next with Closing Time, a frame story which makes for quite an effectively creepy tale. The narrator is in an after-hours club drinking with a few other regulars and a stranger when they decide to swap ghost stories. The story-within-a-story is told about a young boy's terrifying experience after school. The imagery is quite chilling, and the story is about the loss of innocence if anything else. There is also more going on under the surface, and the identity of just which character tells the story is called into question, making this a story that rewards rereads.

A few tales lighter in tone follow. F. Paul Wilson's Anna is a straightforward tale about ghostly revenge. Jonathan Carroll's Mr. Fiddlehead focuses on a type of "ghost" that we can create ourselves, and Terry Dowling's The Fooley is a silly little story about a man's experience with a stranger on a nighttime road.

After the lighthearted excursion, Datlow brings us right back into horror by throwing us head first into the deep end. First Paul Walther brings readers to the lake shore on the last day of summer in The Toll. A young lifeguard deals with an increasingly creepy man who has failed to mature past his teenage years all while seeing shadowy figures out in the water.As creepy as this story is, it is only an appetizer for the next one.

Simon Kurt Unsworth's The Pennine Tower Restaurant was perhaps my favorite story in the entire book, and had me genuinely creeped out. The author took the approach of presenting the story as nonfiction. He describes how a former coworker, who appears to be falling apart at the seams, approaches him with files and asks him to write about why the Pennine Tower Restaurant can not be reopened. What follows is a compilation of events that transpired in the restaurant over the years. The matter-of-fact presentation of the events lends a certain coldness to the story that adds to the overall effect, making for a grade-A horror tale.

Distress Call by Connie Willis is an interesting story, a bit confusing at times as it seems to jump around, although the confusion seems intentional, helping the reader relate to the confused protagonist. The story eventually comes together but still leaves several questions open. Overall not a bad story, but not exceptional either.

Stephen Gallagher's The Horn follows three men trapped in a blizzard with an angry ghost. There are some pretty strong moments in the story, but it seems more like a monster story than a ghost story.

Michael Marshall Smith's Everybody Goes is another story that's not scary, and has a nice little twist of an ending.

Transfigured Night by Richard Bowes is another story that touches on the theme of childhood's loss of innocence, although in a much more disturbing manner than Gaiman's story. The story itself has moments that are quite intense, and is probably the darkest story in the book. A lonely boy cuts his finger, uses his blood to make a circle, and wishes for a best friend. His wish is answered, with the appearance of a boy who seems to know too much for his age. As the man grows into a drifting hustler, he goes on a dark, bloody quest to be reunited with his old friend, bringing the story full circle to quite a conclusion. Definitely a haunting story, this one will be stuck in the mind for awhile.

James P. Blaylock, an author mostly known for being a pioneer of steampunk, pens a tale about a man searching for something. He doesn't really know what it is he is searching for, but it seems connected to a visitation he had during his childhood. Not a horror story, Hula Ville is more of a dark fantasy and whether or not it's about a ghost is up to the reader to decide.

The Bedroom Light by Jeffrey Ford is an interesting story, while there isn't really much of a plot. A couple lies in bed, avoiding a certain conversation topic, instead talking about their neighbors, in particular a creepy young girl they refer to as the "demon seed". Despite not much actually happening, Ford's talent as an author is on display; conversation that feels truly natural and some creepy stories shared by husband and wife.

Spectral Evidence reads as a case file at a paranormal research facility. The file consists of photographs which are described, the notes on each photograph (written by three different characters), and footnotes written by another character. While not scary, the story works on many levels and is quite a fun read. It makes for a perfect example of why Gemma Files is an author well worth reading.

Kelly Link brings us into space with Two Houses. Members of a decades-long space mission awaken from slumber and swap ghost stories. While some of the stories are interesting and some interesting questions are raised I thought the ending was a bit of a let down.

Adam Nevill, a British horror author who has really been making a name for himself with his novels, brings us a story of cinematic horror with Where Angels Come In. Two schoolboys decide to brave the huge white house on the hill, in order to find some sort of treasure and come back as schoolyard heroes.What they find in the building (Is it a mansion? An asylum?) is something that completely justifies their fears and helps explain the many disappearances in the town. Nevill excels when it comes to creating horrific imagery, and leaves enough unexplained to add a sense of dreadful mystery to the setting.

The collection closes with Peter Straub's Hunger, An Introduction. The narrator is a psychopath who is quite clearly delusional, and is definitely a character most readers will be familiar with. Everyone knew or went to school with one of these people at some point. A person who can be quite smart yet thinks they are much smarter than they are, lacking in social skills, quick to point out other's failings and alienating themselves from everyone else. Instead of finding the success they wrongfully think they are entitled, they usually tend to be underachievers who live in their own little world. The narrator is one of these familiar faces, and is quite far from likable. When he comes into contact with a ghost from his town's local folklore he finds a sort of inspiration. The narrator also has an interesting theory about ghosts and why they haunt the living, and the end of the story shows why this is the perfect story to close out the collection.

Datlow once again proves herself as a master editor. Her mission to broaden readers' concepts of what a haunting can be is nothing short of a success, and the twenty-four stories on display run the gamut from explicitly terrifying to eerily familiar. Readers who wish to be haunted themselves should not miss this one. Highly recommended.

Hauntings is due to be published in April, and can be pre-ordered HERE.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Video Game Review: Amnesia

Amnesia: The Dark Descent is probably the greatest horror video game ever made. In the video game world the horror niche is dominated by horror/action hybrids. Games like Resident Evil, Doom, Left 4 Dead. Amnesia takes a different approach to gaming terror, and is a first person adventure game, focusing on physics based puzzles and putting a strong emphasis on immersion.

Amnesia sets the mood right from the get-go. The setting is typical horror Gothic: a decaying old castle complete with twisted paintings and suits of armor. The protagonist is a man named Daniel, who awakens on the castle floor with no memory of how he came to be there. He knows his name, that he is from Mayfair, and that something is after him. All he has on his person is a note which tells him that he erased his own memory and that he must travel to the Inner Sanctum of the castle and kill the Baron Alexander. To reach the Inner Sanctum Daniel must explore the castle completely and has to make his way through all sorts of areas such as: dusty libraries, crypt-like archives, a foggy sewer, a few levels of dungeons, torture chambers, and some more mystical areas far underneath the castle proper.

 The castle is riddled with rooms featuring
disturbing images.

Along the way Daniel finds and picks up tinder boxes, which he can use to light candles and torches throughout the castle. He also has a lantern he can use to traverse dark spaces, but lantern oil is limited so it should be used sparingly. Standing in darkness too long will lower sanity, which causes Daniel's vision to become distorted. Due to the darkness, it is recommended to play the game in a dark room. Not only does this eliminate glare, it also helps to induce immersion, making the player really feel like he's part of the game. I myself played this game in the dark, with surround sound headphones on, and never have I had such a tense experience playing a video game.

The horror is not just to be found in the ambiance either. Daniel does not roam around with a weapon blasting away at monsters. He is alone, and powerless to fight back. This in itself is enough to make the game terrifying, by making the player helpless to truly defend himself. When Daniel encounters something hostile the player must utilize stealth, and sometimes run. Finding a hiding spot is key, and the most Daniel can do to defend himself is to throw something at an enemy, which only serves to slow them down. Some of the game's moments literally had me jumping out of my chair, which is something I can't really say about most video games.

A grotesque fountain.

There are also many nods to Lovecraft to be found in Amnesia. The mad, occult-science that the Baron is a part of, the concept of forbidden knowledge being too much to handle, the idea of other "dimensions" hidden behind the veil of reality, weird archaeology, and even the narrative style, in which the protagonist is slowly unraveling the story and coming to see the truth. The game's engine is even named the HPL engine, as a nod to the master himself.

Fans of horror games who value the horror experience over the action should definitely not miss out on this one. Every aspect meshes for the ultimate horror game experience. The developers, Frictional Games, also have a small trilogy that predates Amnesia and takes place in an abandoned underground facility in uninhabited northern Greenland. The Penumbra series (subtitiled: Overture, Black Plague, Requiem) have also been well received, and although utilizing a cruder version of the physics engine, are still worthwhile for fans of Amnesia.

If anyone has played Amnesia or Penumbra share your thoughts in the comments below.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Review: The Color Over Occam by Jonathan Thomas

Publisher Larry Roberts has been consistently putting out some wonderful work. Arcane Wisdom Press is one of his imprints, and one series under the imprint is the Modern Mythos Library. Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi and Larry Roberts have teamed up to print what S.T. Joshi's blog refers to as "vital and significant contemporary works of Cthulhu Mythos fiction by leading authors." As to date the series is two volumes strong; Cthulhu Cult by Rick Dakan, and The Color Over Occam by Jonathan Thomas.

In the introduction S.T. Joshi explains how Thomas approached him and proceeded to woo him with some short fiction. One thing led to another, and as of now Thomas has two short story collections, Midnight Call and Other Stories, and Tempting Providence and Other Stories (both of which are published by Hippocampus Press). The Color Over Occam is Thomas's first published novel, and upon reading it's easy to see why Joshi scooped up on the chance to include it in the Modern Mythos Library.

Any Lovecraft fan should read this title and instantly recognize what this novel is based on: H.P. Lovecraft's 1927 tale The Colour Out of Space. For readers who are not familiar, The Colour Out of Space is one of Lovecraft's more famous stories, and one that is more overtly science fiction than most of his other works. It also bears the distinction among Lovecraft's stories as being the one most adapted to film. The story is about a meteor that crash lands on an Arkham farm in 1882. The "being" that came with it is basically a non corporeal life form that appears as a shimmering color. Weird horror follows.

It is worth noting that it is not necessary to have read The Colour Out of Space before delving into The Color Over Occam, but of course it does enhance the reading experience to be familiar with the tale it's based on.

The novel follows Jeffrey Slater, city clerk by day and amateur paranormal sleuth by evening. Slater and his friend Wil run a public access cable show of the "ghost-hunters" variety. While out one evening investigating "corpse lights" at the local reservoir, they have a strange encounter which prompts further investigation by Jeff, leading him down a proverbial rabbit hole. It is apparent that something buried under the reservoir is finally making it's move, and is beginning to affect the town of Occam (renamed from Arkham) in numerous ways. Jeff begins a one man campaign to investigate this mystery and do what he can to save the town of Occam, although it's apparent from early on that he's fighting an uphill battle.

The entire novel is told in first-person from Jeff's point of view, and has a very noir-ish flavor all throughout. Jeff is an interesting character to follow, and is not without his faults. He is a cynic, he only has one friend, and while Jeff is intelligent he sometimes doesn't do the smartest things, although he is usually quick to catch himself after the fact. His dealings with the matter starts to induce a high level of paranoia, and it's not long before Jeff finds himself totally alone, convinced that everyone is part of a conspiracy and out to get him. As the story progresses Jeff becomes more and more obsessed with the mystery of "The Color", and makes a few desperate, ill-thought out attempts to do something about it.

While the noir style of narration is a huge strength of the novel, it's also the way in which Thomas handles the ideas and concepts from Lovecraft's stories. Thomas effectively and respectively utilizes some of the core ideas and concepts, all while making the story his own. There are some moments of hair-raising horror, and some moments of just plain strangeness. Also Lovecraft fans should pay attention to many of the character's surnames, as there are plenty there to tie many of Lovecraft's stories together in the present day setting.

It's obvious that Thomas put a lot of time and effort into this novel, and as a sequel it works perfectly. The noir-style of narration is spot on, and couldn't be done any better. In the Lovecraftian realm of fiction it is the short story and novella that dominate, and it's not very often a novel-length work comes along. The Color Over Occam is a more than welcome addition, and fans of Lovecraft's classic tale of alien horror will find a lot to enjoyable. Also, fans of supernatural noir or the X-Files wouldn't be remiss to check this one out.

The Color Over Occam had a limited run of 150 signed copies. The book is of great quality, and I recommend grabbing one now before the publisher runs out. You can order one at Miskatonic Books. If you order one, be sure to mention The Arkham Digest!

Monday, February 4, 2013

Interview: Molly Tanzer

Molly Tanzer's fiction has been turning heads in the realm of weird fiction, and for good reason. She shows a remarkable talent for writing tales that embody the humorous macabre. Last week, in my review of her first collection, A Pretty Mouth, I said that I don't remember the last time I had so much fun reading a book. I couldn't recommend it enough.

Awhile back I asked Molly if she would be interested in doing an interview for the blog, and what followed was quite a nice little chat.

JS: First off, I'd like to thank you for the interview. Your book was a blast!

MT: No, thank you!

JS: So I guess my first question has to be, what is the major inspiration behind what I am now dubbing as "The Calipash Cycle"? 

MT: Major inspiration … well, in other interviews I’ve cited the moment in time when I was watching Barry Lyndon and resolved to write a picaresque about incestuous twin necromancers (and thus “The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins”) but that’s just the one story. Basically after it became apparent people enjoyed the Twins, I thought to myself “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if this was like, a Blackadder kind of thing?” So when the gentleman who became my editor at Lazy Fascist contacted me about maybe writing more about the Calipash family I pitched that and he said he thought it was a cool idea.

But more specifically, the major inspiration behind the Calipash stories is my love of English literature. My Master’s was largely focused on 18th century English novels, specifically women’s novels that contained a Transatlantic element, but I also read quite a bit of Victorian lit and 17th century stuff during my time in academia. So I had that core of research to help me with the middle three pieces.

JS: Your stories contain a lot of humor mixed with the macabre. Do you ever find this blending difficult to achieve?

MT: It’s always felt natural to me, but I grew up watching Tim Burton movies, reading books written and/or illustrated by Edward Gorey, and worshiping Christina Ricci as Wednesday Adams in the Adams Family movies. So yeah, that sort of dreary, macabre mix of humor and horror is what I find myself enjoying—for example, Lemony Snicket’s latest is queued up on my Kindle right now—and I always try to write things that I would want to read!

JS: Something I ask all weird fiction writers: Since Lovecraft's influence is apparent, are there any stories by Lovecraft (or his contemporaries) that are favorites of yours?

MT: Sure. Anyone who knows me knows I have what might be called “a thing” for “Herbert West - Reanimator.” Other stories at the top of my Lovecraft list are “The Temple,” “Nyarlathotep,” and “From Beyond.” I also really love “At the Mountains of Madness.” Tekeli-li!

JS: Besides the humor another aspect of your fiction is the rampant, no holds-barred sexuality, which you write so well. Although it mostly seems tongue-in-cheek and intertwined with humor when it is delivered, do you ever find it awkward to write these scenes?

MT: If I say not really, does that make me a creep?

Seriously though, I am interested in the history of human sexuality and the taboos individuals and groups have created (and still create) around sex, for good or for ill. I’ve always enjoyed seeing how writers treat this very basic part of being human, as well as how the era in which said writers are writing makes that more or less difficult. Honestly I don’t think there’s anything that much more risqué in A Pretty Mouth (the novella) than one would find in the poetry of John Wilmot or Abraham Cowley. And “The Hour of the Tortoise” is definitely pretty raunchy, but compared to the actual pornography Chelone Burchell would have read and written it’s extremely tame. Like, everyone in that is … let’s say of age and leave it at that.

The only thing I find awkward is when people assume that because I write frequently about sex it means I’m interested in discussing my personal taste in such matters. This is not true! Honestly, there are few topics I enjoy discussing less in groups of people. (Not that this question was doing that—it just happens.)

JS: Interesting and sometimes antiquated cocktails sometimes make appearances in your work (such as the Corpse Reviver #2) and you recently hosted a cocktail contest on your blog in honor of fellow author Jesse Bullington's latest book, The Folly of the World. What can you tell readers about your love and knowledge of cocktails, and are there any favorites that you think everyone should try?

MT: I got into “mixology” after going to a bar called Peché [] in Austin, TX, the last night of World Horror 2010. They mix exquisite pre-Prohibition style cocktails there, and I was lucky enough to be there with my friend (and author) Andy Romine, who has a vast and impressive knowledge of cocktail ingredients and history. I believe it was he who suggested I order the Corpse Reviver #2, actually. Anyways, I was quite taken with the various cocktails I tried that night, and decided that I was going to explore mixing them on my own.

I think the best advice I can give those interested in beginning to mix cocktails is this: If you’re truly interested in the art, get a good book on drink mixing. Don’t just try things off the internet willy-nilly. The internet can be a great resource, yes, but as with anything else on the internet, any old asshole can put up some garbage, claiming to be an authority, and then you’ve wasted your time and someone’s—maybe your—good booze.

The best overall print guide I’ve found is The Gentleman’s Companion by Charles H. Baker, Jr., more specifically the second volume (Being an Exotic Drinking Book). If you can find it for a decent price, it’s worth picking up … just be aware that most of the recipes are complex in terms of method and ingredient list. You have to have a well-stocked bar, basically. It’s also so old that it has a paean to “Mr. Waring’s Blender” at the beginning, and waxes prosy on what The Blender might do for the future of cocktail mixing. Indeed! More modern, and in some ways just as good is Imbibe! by David Wondrich. It’s more reasonable in terms of the scope of what you need for one drink, and the recipes are great, including the best recipe for a mint julep I’ve tried (which is actually the original, the Prescription Julep).

So, for those who imbibe and are looking to branch out, some of my favorites are the Sazerac (with real absinthe, please—you can get the real stuff now so there’s no reason to buy Herbsaint, or any of the stuff with artificial dyes), the previously mentioned Corpse Reviver #2, the French 75, and the Dark n’Stormy. (I recommend for that last one a very specific combination: Kraken rum, Cock and Bull ginger beer, lime, and also 1 tsp fresh grated ginger on top.) I also have some free recipes of my own design on my website [], the best of which, in my opinion, are The Heavenly Twins.

JS: As for YOUR contemporaries, what current writers of horror and the weird do you think are really giving the genre a run for it's money?

MT: You mentioned my friend Jesse Bullington above, and he’s great. I’m also a big fan of S. P. Miskowski, her book Knock Knock is seriously good. Then of course there’s Nick Mamatas, Caitlin R. Kiernan, John Langan, Nathan Ballingrud. Alan M. Clark’s novels through my publisher are superb. Oh, and re: other bizarro authors, there’s Carlton Mellick III. His The Kobold Wizard’s Dildo of Enlightenment +2 (an adventure for 3-6 players, levels 2-5) is amazing, and likely anyone who laughs at the title will like the book.

JS: 2012 was the year you have officially established yourself as a modern master of the weird. So tell readers, what is in store for Molly Tanzer in the year 2013, and the question that must be asked, have we seen the last of the Calipash family?

MT: While I contest that 2012 established me as any such thing, I was very fortunate to have my first book and several short stories I’m proud of published last year! As for this year, I’ve got some more short fiction coming out, and there are some larger projects I’m working on, as well. As for future installments of the Calipash family, I’m definitely open to writing more, but I have no current plans to do so.

JS: Once again, I'd like to thank you for chatting with me!

MT: My pleasure! Thank you for having me! 

More about Molly Tanzer on her website:

Friday, February 1, 2013

Review: A Pretty Mouth by Molly Tanzer

I've managed to finish quite a few good books in January, so it's only appropriate to kick off February by reviewing one of the most entertaining books I've ever had the pleasure of reading. Like most weird fiction authors, Molly Tanzer first caught my attention with her short fiction. I read her original tale of the debauched Calipash family and quite frankly, I was an instant fan. A Pretty Mouth is Tanzer's first collection, and what a first collection it is.

A Pretty Mouth is a reverse, incomplete history of the Calipash family. Within it's pages are four short stories (two of which have been previously published elsewhere) and a long novella. Every story present can easily stand alone, but when strung together they paint a twisted picture of the Calipashes over the centuries.

A quick look at the stories:

The collection opens with an original, A Spotted Trouble At Dolor-On-The-Downs, in which Tanzer takes the character of Reginald Jeeves (the butler/manservant created by author P.H. Wodehouse) and places him in the middle of a sticky conundrum. While vacationing at Dolor-On-The-Downs, a seaside resort, Jeeves's employer Wooster comes into contact with an old school mate, Alastair Fitzroy, the twenty-seventh Lord Calipash. What follows is an unfortunate turn of events in which Jeeves is forced into the service of Fitzroy. The story, like every story in the collection, is a weird tale through and through, but tinged with enough hilarity to really make it something special.

Tanzer follows with The Hour of The Tortoise (originally appearing in The Book of Cthulhu II). Whereas the first story takes place in the early 20th century, The Hour of the Tortoise rewinds the clock to the 19th century and follows Chelone Burchell, a pornography writer and cousin to the Calipash family, as she returns to the estate after many years in a sort of exile. This story was a standout in the anthology that it first appeared, and Tanzer does a brilliant job of blending humor, sexuality, and creepiness so that the final result is a smooth read with an entertainment factor that's through the roof. This one still remains one of my favorite stories of this debauched family.

Next comes the story that started it all, The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins. This one takes readers back to the 18th century, and features what will become common elements to every Calipash story: nods to Lovecraft, twins, hilariously perverse sexuality, debauchery, plenty of the macabre, and, of course, gut-busting dark hilarity. This was, appropriately, my first Tanzer story, and the one that started this whole wicked history. The plot is just like the title implies, and details the history of a wicked set of twins.

A Pretty Mouth, the title novella, is perhaps the best piece in the collection. And saying that is difficult, because every story was brilliant. In this one Tanzer gives reader a view into 17th century school life at Wadham College in Oxford. This tale follows Henry Milliner, a young man who would do anything to get in with St. John Clement, the Lord Calipash and the most popular student at Wadham. The boy finally finds an "in" but finds out that being a member of the Blithe Company might not be all it's cracked up to be. The story is filled with plenty of twists and turns, and shows that Tanzer is comfortable working in the realm of longer fiction.

And finally, the collection finished with Damnatio Memoriae, which takes readers all the way back to ancient Rome. An expedition to barbaric Brittania goes awry, and readers are introduced to the first of the Calipash line to set foot on the British Isles.

With this collection, Molly Tanzer has become one of my favorite new authors. Her love of Victorian literature is present, and combined with some modern elements the result is something quite special. The humor is spot-on in every story, and balanced so well with the macabre elements that it brings to mind a perverse hybrid of HP Lovecraft and Edward Gorey.

I really can't recommend this collection enough. It's hard to remember the last time I had this much fun reading a book, and was actually sad for it to come to an end. Readers looking for a wild frolic through a twisted, bizarre, depraved, nefarious, ingenious and unabashedly perverted mind should look no further, this is the book they've been waiting for.

Also, for fans of the book, Skurvy Ink has a really cool A Pretty Mouth shirt: HERE.