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.