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".

Friday, September 9, 2016

Grey Mask: A Miss Silver Mystery

Grey Mask: A Miss Silver Mystery
by Patricia Wentworth

After Charles was jilted at the altar by Margaret, he discovers that she is mixed up in a vicious kidnapping plot masterminded by a sinister figure in a grey mask. Charles turns to Miss Silver to uncover the strange truth behind Margaret's complicity, and the identity of the terrifying and mysterious individual behind the grey mask.

My Reaction:
I believe this was my first time reading anything by Patricia Wentworth, but I'm sure it won't be the last.  Though it was disappointingly thin on Miss Silver (the sleuth in Wentworth's thirty-two mystery novels), I found the book enjoyable-- a pleasant read in the "Golden Age" style.  I'll just look forward to learning more about the unusual Miss Silver in the next book or two...

There were some things that didn't make complete sense to me, but in the end, I simply didn't care.  It kept me entertained, which was all I asked.

Yes, Margot Standing is frightfully silly, but I found her much more amusing than annoying (to read about; she'd be awful to encounter in real life)-- you'll probably figure out the identity of Grey Mask before the "unmasking"-- and you may scratch your head at the conveniently bizarre behavior of some of the characters (not just telling one another things, mainly)-- but it's not bad for an author's first mystery.  There's every reason to hope that the books improved as the series continued.