Thursday, October 6, 2016

"Mrs. Andrews's Control"

"Mrs. Andrews's Control"
from The E.F. Benson Megapack
by E.F. Benson

A middle-aged couple dabble with the psychical, including automatic writing.  (This is more a humorous character study than a tale of horror.)

My Reaction:
The earliest known date of publication for this short story is September 1915.  In it, Benson plays with some ideas that he used in his Mapp and Lucia series of novels, which were published between 1920 and 1939.

Devotees of the Mapp and Lucia series will certainly recognize the playful gibes at dieting fads and fashionable "games" of a psychical nature-- specifically crystal-ball-gazing and automatic writing.   Benson pokes gentle fun without malice, and it's an amusing few pages.

References to WWI ("the German war") will be of particular interest to history buffs.

Bride of Pendorric

Bride of Pendorric
by Victoria Holt

(Edited) Blurb:
When Favel Farrington met Roc Pendorric on the Italian island where she lived with her father, they fell deeply in love, and there was no reason to suspect that they would not live happily ever after. When he took her home to Pendorric, the ancient family home on the Cornish cliffs, no family could have welcomed her more warmly than Roc's sister, her husband, and their twin daughters. In fact everyone in the house and the village was eager to meet "the bride of Pendorric". 
At first the phrase amused Favel. Then she found herself looking more and more often at the portraits of two other Brides of Pendorric who had died young and tragically-- one of them Roc's own mother. The very stones of Pendorric seemed to be waiting for her to slip; the courtyard seemed to have eyes. And was there speculation even in the eyes of the young twins, who watched her constantly? Did she imagine it, or was Roc curiously attentive to other women at Pendorric-- and did his absence grow more frequent? Surely no legend, no evil out of the past could threaten their happiness. Surely Roc's love for her had not been pretense. 
At last, in a terrifying moment, Favel can no longer dismiss as accident the strange things that are happening to her at Pendorric. She must confront the very real dangers of the present.

My Reaction:
I found this an enjoyable romantic gothic mystery and would recommend it to other fans of the genre-- while it's not particularly outstanding or literary, it's a pleasing work of "light suspense"-- excellent escapism.

This is yet another "gothic romance/mystery" that is less about the romance than the mystery/suspense.  The hero is distant-- both figuratively and literally!  Though the heroine tells us how much she loves him, it's not really clear why, and if you blink you'll miss their courtship.  (She seems to have an obsession with his satyr-like pointy ears, which was good for a few laughs.  Though Bride of Pendorric was published years before its premiere, I still find myself wondering if Favel ever watched Star Trek...)

Favel isn't always smart as a whip-- but she is young and inexperienced, so we can make some allowances.  On the plus side, there are three sets of twins-- two of them identical-- which was fun.

Certain aspects of the various mysteries were fairly obvious, yet I could never be completely sure exactly how everything would be explained, so it held my interest.

On the whole, I enjoyed it, even if it is just a silly little piece of gothic fluff.

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
-- I sometimes feel a bit hypocritical when remarking on strange character names, since I myself have a slightly strange name (for a woman).  In this case, however, I don't think it can be helped; there are so many strange names in this book!  Favel, Petroc (oops, I typed "Petrol" and had to correct it!), Roc, Morwenna/Wenna, Hyson, Lowella, and Barbarina.  That's a lot of odd names, right there.

--There seem to be a lot of gothic romance-mysteries set in Cornwall.  Either that, or I just happen to be finding a lot of them, lately.  There's often a strong emphasis on the beauty of the gardens in these novels, because the Cornish climate is milder than that of most of England (I gather).  I enjoy the little snippets about the gardens.

--In a list of other great houses along the coast, the author sneaked in "Mount Mellyn" and "Mount Widden", a reference to one of her earlier novels.  (I prefer Bride of Pendorric to Mistress of Mellyn, incidentally.)

--At first, I couldn't quite pinpoint when the action is set.  It must've been a contemporary setting, back when the novel was published, in the early 1960s.

-- Looking back with the knowledge that Lord Polhorgan is Favel's grandfather and that Roc knew it before he'd even met her, it seems strange that he should have spoken so disparagingly of him to her.  I don't remember his exact words, but I have the impression that he was fairly negative toward the old man.  He knew all along that Favel would probably eventually learn of the relationship, so why wouldn't he try to be more neutral?

--Is there another definition of "bridling" that I've never come across before?  Favel congratulates Mrs. Dawson on the success of the ball at Polhorgan.  Mrs. Dawson is described as "bridling", but she sounds happy-- and when she passes on the compliment to Mr. Dawson, we are told that "he was as pleased was his wife".  ...So either there's an alternate meaning or...

--Roc's defensiveness when Favel finally questions him about his relationships with a few women in the neighborhood is particularly unappealing.  He practically accuses her of jealousy-- but what normal woman wouldn't be concerned, under the circumstances?  This is not the kind of behavior I like in heroes, but then, Roc is pretty much a failure as a romantic hero, unfortunately.

--I've written before that I have a weakness for diaries in novels.  That's still true, but sometimes they're a crutch-- an easy way for the author to quickly dump information that could otherwise be tricky or time-consuming to work into the story.  In the case of the diary that Favel finds and reads near the end of this novel, it is extremely convenient.

--At some point, it started to drive me crazy, the way the author so frequently trailed off before the last word or two of a sentence.  It began to get... annoying!  But I only started to notice it toward the last quarter or so of the book, I think.  It could've been... so much worse!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

"The Case of Frank Hampden"

"The Case of Frank Hampden" 
from The E.F. Benson Megapack
by E.F. Benson

A doctor suspects that his young cousin suffers from a type of possession.

My Reaction:
This is one of Benson's "scientific-spiritual" tales.  Though they're often based on interesting ideas, they tend not to be my favorites, and this was no exception.  The germ of the story reminded me a little of the movie Fallen (which I'm pretty sure I've referenced in other book reviews, because it made a strong impression on me), but this short story is not even in the same galaxy, as far as the sense of fear or horror goes.  There are a few creepy moments, but nothing to keep you up at night.

Silly Tidbit:
There are a couple instances of spiritual manifestation, and I found it particularly amusing that even the evil spirit is so concerned with decency that it appears "swathed" in some sort of spiritual (ectoplasmic?) version of clothing-- "some misty and opaque vesture".  It's funny enough that the spirit should necessarily take the shape of the body it inhabited, but that it should even be provided with clothing was the icing on the cake!

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Whispers in the Dark

Whispers in the Dark
by Jonathan Aycliffe

At the end of the nineteenth century, Charlotte Metcalf is a child of good fortune: a prosperous father, a loving mother, and a loved brother all cocoon her from the fears of the outside world. But then her father dies… and she is plunged into poverty and the workhouse becomes her miserable home. 
Yet Charlotte escapes, determined to find her lost brother, and her search brings her to Barras Hall, home of unknown relations where fine clothes, good food and wealth seem to promise her all she desires. But at night the horror begins – of sound and sense, surpassing all earthy terror. And Charlotte finds that daytime comfort comes at a price...and she must fulfill her terrible destiny.

My Reaction:
Don't expect an especially "literary" book, but come prepared for a spine-tingling Gothic chiller.  If you're hoping for a few shivers, you're likely to find them here.  Is it predictable?  Well, yes, but it made me shudder, all the same.

This is my second read of this author, the first being The Vanishment, and I hope to read the others, in time.  Aycliffe has a writing style that is (generally speaking) effortless to read, which makes the pages fly.

Having said that, the beginning of Whispers in the Dark is a little slow, and Charlotte's trials and tribulations before she arrives at Barras Hall are at times a trifle too melodramatic for my tastes-- but the pace soon picks up.

This tale is creepy, dark, and atmospheric.  There's not much gore, for those of us who abhor "body horror" or physical horror in general; instead, an abundance of eerie moments provide just the right level of fairly genteel creepiness.

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--I do like a story told in journal/diary format.  This one really takes that trick and runs with it!  Frames within frames!  We start out with correspondence between a vicar and the son of a doctor who had an elderly patient (Charlotte) with a most unusual personal history.  The son sends all relevant papers to his friend, the vicar-- chief among them, Charlotte's memoir/journal.  Now, within that journal, we are treated to two other journals/diaries (Caroline's and James Ayrton's), which Charlotte somehow remembers word for word after all these years.  (Yes, I know.  No fair, making fun of a format I've just professed to enjoy!)

--There are things we never learn for certain:

----What exactly happened to Antonia's fiance?  He's buried on the family grounds-- but not in the family cemetery, if I remember correctly.  Why?
----Was Caroline really Anthony's daughter?
----Did Antonia and Anthony's incestuous relationship start before or after Antonia's fiance's death?
----How much did the servants really know, and why did they go along with the Ayrtons' evil ways?  (We know that the housekeeper knew a lot, if not all.  Why on earth did she stay after her own son was killed?  To be closer to him, in some strange way?)
----What happened to poor Jasper?  (Ok, I guess we know; I just wish he'd survived... Poor doggy.)
----When Charlotte sees the housekeeper leaving the locked room, she thinks she sees her carrying some blood-stained cloths, which suggests that the Ayrtons are holding someone (Arthur?) prisoner in the room.  However, we later learn that Arthur's been in the folly the whole time.  So where did those bloodied cloths come from?  Did Charlotte just imagine they were blood-stained?
----What drives Antonia to burn down the house?  (Guilt?  Fear?  Emotional exhaustion?  Insanity?  What made her do it then, instead of any of the other times they'd been involved in the murder of an innocent?)
----What happens to the children that are sacrificed at the folly?  There is repeated reference to "hunger", but it's never completely clear what sort of hunger they're meant to satisfy, and there are a few suggestions that there may be a sexual component to the "destiny" of those sacrificed.
----And probably more besides...

--The darkest element of the novel would have to be the repeated insistence that there is no hope of peace in the afterlife.  Anthony tells Charlotte, "They are all in hell.  That is all there is, Charlotte.  All there has ever been."  She tells him she cannot believe that, but clearly she has come to a different conclusion by the time she writes her journal.

As if that's not bad enough, people who hear her story or visit the former site of Barras Hall are also "infected" by its horror.  Her doctor, for whom she records the tragic events of her past, goes into decline and dies not long after reading her journal.  Religious men who had been strong in their faith find themselves irrevocably shaken after involvement with Barras Hall.  One goes so far as to kill himself.

--There's one thing above all others that I simply can't understand about this book, and that is this: Why would Charlotte ever have willingly had children, knowing (and believing in) the curse that flows through her bloodline?  Her husband, we know, would also have been familiar with at least some of her frightening past.  Wouldn't they have discussed it and come to the conclusion that they should not have children of their own?  Why not adopt, instead?  Or would she have decided that adopting children would still confer the curse upon them?  Maybe she figured that if she didn't tell them about their family history-- if they never knew it and never visited the family land-- they would live normal lives and be no more doomed than anyone else.  (I assume she believes that all people are doomed to an eternity in hell.  That certainly seems to be the implication, though it doesn't fit with Mrs. Manners' typical messages from beyond the grave.  Those, we are told, are usually words of comfort and reassurance that all is well.)  However, still, that doesn't explain why she would have children.  It seems a very selfish decision, and it simply doesn't make sense to me.  (Of course, the real reason for it is that it makes an ominous ending for the novel, with Charlotte's grandson on the verge of rebuilding the cursed hall and unwittingly exposing more people to the evils that still haunt the surrounding land.)

--Some of the covers of Aycliffe's paperbacks are atrocious!  There's one cover for this book that depicts a young woman in anachronistic garb standing between two of the closest-set eyes you ever did see.  Amusingly, there's another of his books with a very similar cover.  A different woman in different clothes, but still standing between hilariously close-set eyes.  Crazy...

Monday, September 19, 2016

What's So Funny?

What's So Funny?
by Donald E. Westlake

In his classic caper novels, Donald E. Westlake turns the world of crime and criminals upside down. The bad get better, the good slide a bit, and Lord help anyone caught between a thief named John Dortmunder and the current object of his intentions. Now Westlake's seasoned but often scoreless crook must take on an impossible crime, one he doesn't want and doesn't believe in. But a little blackmail goes a long way in... WHAT'S SO FUNNY? 
All it takes is a few underhanded moves by a tough ex-cop named Eppick to pull Dortmunder into a game he never wanted to play. With no choice, he musters his always-game gang and they set out on a perilous treasure hunt for a long-lost gold and jewel-studded chess set once intended as a birthday gift for the last Romanov czar, which unfortunately reached Russia after that party was over.
From the moment Dortmunder reaches for his first pawn, he faces insurmountable odds. The purloined past of this precious set is destined to confound any strategy he finds on the board. Success is not inevitable with John Dortmunder leading the attack, but he's nothing if not persistent, and some gambit or other might just stumble into a winning move.

My Reaction:
This was a "shared read" with my husband.  (When we choose a book to read together, we tend to select humor, which seems to contend best with the vagaries of the shared read, which are mainly delays between reading sessions and variations in the length of time spent reading, each time.)

This is only the second Dortmunder novel I've read, so far.  The first was Drowned Hopes, which I seem to remember being better than this, though it felt a bit long.  The handful of reviews I've glanced through suggest that this, one of the last novels in the Dortmunder series, is not one of Westlake's best, and that the early-to-middle novels of the series are better, in general, than the later books.  I'll try to keep that in mind, the next time we're in the mood for a caper.

Positive:  It's funny (at least in parts) and the gang's all here (which probably means more to you if you've read a few more of these novels than I have).

Negative:  It felt like it took a while to really get going.  Once it did, I enjoyed it, but the lead-up to any significant action was dragged out too long.

I'd give it 3.5 stars, but I'm not moved to round up to 4, this time.

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--I was a little disappointed we didn't get a more definite ending for... what's-her-name, the grand-daughter.  So, did Mrs. W. really run away with the young woman's boyfriend, or will she simply help him get a job?  Even if the relationship between Mrs. W. and the cartoonist boyfriend is purely platonic, it seems tricky for the young woman to keep her great job with Mrs. W. and maintain a relationship with the boyfriend, if he gets a job in a distant city.  It was an oddly open ending.

--The chess set's ending was funny and appropriate, I guess, though I found it frustrating.  However, it doesn't seem especially realistic to me-- all because of Eppick's police connections.  Dortmunder's crew could probably give Eppick a good description of the vehicle, if not the exact tag number.

There aren't that many fancy-schmancy giant Cadillacs with MD tags in NYC, surely, so it should have been easy enough for Eppick (with a little help from his buddies still on the force) to find out that the Cadillac had been recovered.  A little more follow-up, and they'd find the chess set itself.  Sure, they'd have to make up some story to get the set from the old-folks' home... Maybe just say it was stolen and has sentimental value, but they'd be happy to donate a nice set or two to replace it (or maybe just make a generous donation to the home).  ...But I guess it's more entertaining to think of a solid-gold chess set being used by an unsuspecting bunch of old folks in their "golden years".