Category Archives: Book Review

Review of Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock

Many books receive plaudits and yet fail to live up to them, but Mythago Wood falls into that rare category of books that for all of its awards, exceeds the expectations of the reader, or, at any rate, this particular reader writing this review. Its concept is both original and deftly executed, breathing life into Jungian archetypes and the lost lore of Britain in the wildest of wildwoods that you could possibly enter.   

Set in the aftermath of the Second World War, the novel opens with a homecoming, but as with all such returns, the protagonist – Stephen Huxley – finds that all is not as it was. With his father now deceased, and his brother Christian behaving in a decidedly eccentric manner, we are gradually introduced to the enchanting, and sinister, world of Ryhope Wood. From the fragmentary notes of his father’s diary, the disclosures of his brother, and the sightings of shadowy forms that flit about his field of vision on the perimeter of the wood, we are gradually lured, along with Stephen, into the enigmatic and enchanting realm of the mythagos.

 The innocuous appearance of the wood, set amidst the tranquillity of the Herefordshire countryside, conceals a primal and ferocious domain, in which time and space are stretched beyond what the imagination could conceive from its external bounds. It is a place that exerts a teasing fascination that at once both attracts, and yet physically repels, those who attempt to penetrate its shaded depths; it is where men find their deepest desires, and fears, realised in a profound physicality, where the psychological, the psychic, and the mythic merge into an eternal and yet malleable ‘reality’. Wild and bloody rites, magic, lust, vengeance and the quest for personal wholeness through union with a significant, Pygmalionesque, other, constitute the meat of this engaging fantasy, in which the reader encounters plausibly imagined Neolithic tribespeople, Celts, Saxons, and many others who have called the English landscape their home through the passage of the ages. All coexist within the wood in an eternal present.

Ryhope Wood is a profoundly pagan place, so it strikes me as no mistake that Holdstock chose to bestow the name of Christian upon Stephen’s brother, and it is Christian’s presence that proves to be most destructive to the world that he enters. However, the destructiveness of the elder Huxley brother is in no way linked to any proselytising on his part, but merely to the vicious impulses that lie deeply embedded within the structure of his own personality.

This book came to be the first of a series, but can be quite happily read as a standalone novel. Whether its successors lived up to this initial promise, I cannot say, as I have not yet read any of them. Still, this is a book that I heartily enjoyed, even though fantasy is not a genre that I normally read. Highly recommended.

 It was interesting to see that Holdstock allowed a cameo appearance for the Celtic goddess Epona, who lies at the centre of my Victorian gothic ghost story of the same name. In the latter tale, however, it is the downland of Wiltshire rather than a pocket of ancient woodland that provides the backdrop against which the drama unfolds.

Aleister Crowley’s Corpulent Alter Ego

Maugham’s occult novel The Magician opens in the Paris of La Belle Époque, a place of light and gaiety where, none the less, it would seem, shadows still lurked, with the shadow in this particular instance being cast by the increasingly corpulent bulk of Oliver Haddo. With speech as ponderous and weighty as his physical form, Haddo, the eponymous magician of this tale, with his tall stories and florid speech, comes across as a more sinister cousin of Withnail and I’s Uncle Monty. It is, without doubt, the villain who gets the best lines in this book.

Maugham based Haddo upon the person of none other than the self-styled ‘Great Beast’ Aleister Crowley, whom he met during a sojourn in Paris in 1904. The former did not take to the latter, and writing some years later he noted that Crowley had published a review of The Magician in Vanity Fair, signing off as ‘Oliver Haddo’. In a later foreword to the book, Maugham wrote, ‘I did not read it, and wish now that I had. I daresay it was a pretty piece of vituperation, but probably, like his poems, intolerably verbose.’ So much for the background, but what of the story itself?

The first two chapters of the novel are rather sluggish and unremarkable, for Haddo’s presence is as yet unseen. They introduce us to the other four main characters: Arthur Burdon, an eminent London surgeon who is in Paris to visit his young ward and fiancée Susie Boyd; the aforementioned Miss Boyd; Margaret Dauncey, Miss Boyd’s older and plainer companion, and Dr Porhoët, a Breton doctor with an interest in matters relating to antiquarianism and the occult that has led him to become something of a specialist in this esoteric field.

It is only once we encounter Haddo in the Chien Noir along with the four other major characters, that the novel picks up pace and begins to hook the reader. Despite his being a narcissistic, snobbish, socially and physically repulsive braggart, Haddo manages to exert a certain allure, and somehow insinuates his way into the lives of this quartet. That there is something preternatural about this soon becomes apparent, and the mutual antipathy of Burdon and Haddo is what propels this story to its destructive denouement via the gaming tables of Monte Carlo, to its climax in the fictitious Haddo familial seat of Skene in Staffordshire.

There is something, it would seem, to the powers claimed by this practitioner of the dark arts, and he has a goal in mind dear to the hearts of the adepts of Paracelsian alchemy: the creation of the homunculus. Quite why either Haddo, or Paracelsus, would wish to go to such great lengths in an attempt to create such a monstrous parody of the human form, rather than adopting the rather simpler expedient of a little, and rather more pleasurable, conjugal rutting, is quite beyond me. Still, this novel makes for an enjoyable read, even if it should be at times a little overwrought and melodramatic, as well as somewhat purple in its prose.

To be amongst the first to view and download H.E. Bulstrode’s occult novel Upon Barden Moor at an initial discounted price of 99c/99p, sign up to his mailing list by clicking here. It will be published in the spring of 2018.

Bram Stoker’s Ventriloquist

Such could be the honorific title that deserves to be bestowed upon William Meikle in the penning of this short, restrained, and engaging story, in which the author takes upon Stoker’s persona in its writing. The conceit of this tale, and others in the collection from which it is taken, is that it is but a rediscovered piece by one of the leading lights of the late-Victorian literary firmament, all of whom gather to tell each other tales of the uncanny, and the supernatural, in a gentleman’s club: the Ghost Club. Who should preside over this fictitious entity, but none other than Henry James himself. 

This was the era in which supernatural fiction, particularly the ghost story, flourished, and reached its apogee, and Meikle’s decision to produce a compendium of tales employing the voices of some of its foremost exponents, is an appealing one. With respect to In the House of the Dead itself, the author’s prose strikes the right tone for its period, and the story is related with a commendable restraint. Its central theme of loss and yearning is an eternal one, as is the understandable, and yet delusional, desire to bridge the divide that separates the living from the dead. It is, in a sense, a dilemma that is here resolved, but be warned: death dominates this tale; it stalks every page.

To purchase a copy of In the House of the Dead, please click on the image above.  

Review of ‘Corsair’ by Tim Severin

Tim Severin is an explorer, historian, and author of historical fiction: a man of many accomplishments. His knowledge of seafaring is both extensive and first-hand, with him having undertaken a number of remarkable voyages in reconstructions of historical craft. These include replicating the alleged voyage of sixth-century Irish Saint Brendan across the Atlantic in a wood and leather currach; travelling from Oman to India and China in a replica of a ninth-century Arab dhow, and undertaking two voyages in a replica Greek Bronze Age galley in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. That he should thus turn his attention to matters maritime in his fiction should come as no surprise.  

In Corsair, Severin focuses upon a different period again: the seventeenth century, with his theme being Barbary piracy. As you would expect, this proves to be a thoroughly well researched book, a fact that shines through in its wealth of historical detail and convincing descriptions of life aboard ship. If the reader should be inquisitive to learn about the conditions in the bagnios (the slave pens of contemporary Algiers), different gradations and uses of gunpowder, or the routines aboard one of Louis XIV’s war galleys, then their curiosity should be satisfied. If, on the other hand, the reader hopes to find engaging characters with whom they can in some way identify, or feel any sympathy for, then I am afraid that they are likely to be grievously disappointed, for it is in his characterisation and passages of stilted dialogue that Severin is at his weakest. Moreover, it does not help that his protagonist – Hector Lynch – an Irish teenager with limited life experience who is taken into slavery from an insignificant Irish village, seems to effortlessly insinuate his way into the charmed circle of each influential personage with whom he comes into contact.  

There is a certain lack of emotional charge to the language employed by the characters which renders the dialogue flat. It also results in the characters themselves – with the exception of the tongueless, noseless, and earless Karp – being poorly differentiated. Hector Lynch speaks in a fashion not overly dissimilar to that of the Maybot, just ‘getting on with the job’ of moving the reader from one expository scene to the next, where you can learn how to row, blast rock with different grades of power, or slaughter and disembowel a camel before drying its flesh for consumption on your journey across the desert. What you will not learn about are the inner psychological workings of the individuals named on the page, for there does not appear to be a great deal going on inside their heads. Perhaps I am being a little harsh in saying this, but I get the feeling that this is so because it appears that the book is aimed at a young adult market, and thus does not require a great deal of psychological or emotional sophistication. That it is such a book is purely a guess on my part, but if it’s piratical derring-do on the high seas that the reader is looking for, I’d recommend Sabatini’s Captain Blood over this any day, for it is a work that possesses both wit and verve, both of which Corsair, sadly, lacks.  Although I’ve not read any of Severin’s other works, I suspect that his history books are far more engaging than his works of fiction, because I did find the historical detail in this novel fascinating at times, it was just the story that let it down.

Review of ‘Imperium’ by Robert Harris.

Harris breathes life into the world of late-republican Rome in a taut tale narrated through Tiro, scribe to the greatest orator of the day, Marcus Tullius Cicero. In an effort of the imagination, the author brings us Tiro’s lost biography of the Roman lawyer and statesman, with this being the first volume of a trilogy which charts his rise to power as consul. The names of many of the leading characters in this book – Crassus, Caesar, and Pompey – will be familiar to those with an interest in this period of history, and it is through his vivid portrayal of their rivalries, scheming, and politicking, that we are permitted to play the role of disinterested spectators, although no reader could surely feel anything but antipathy towards such monstrous specimens of humanity as Verres and Catalina.  

Key to Cicero’s rise are his eloquence, sharp wit, and sheer political nous, and Harris ensures that certain enduring features of electoral politics – corruption, compromise, and emotional demagoguery, amongst many others – are also given centre stage, with parallels being alluded to with respect to the politics of the early 21st-century. Harris, being a former prominent supporter of the Labour Party, would appear to be drawing certain parallels between Cicero and another then ambitious young lawyer who had become Prime Minister in 1997 – Tony Blair. 

Pompey’s war on the pirates is also made something of a metaphor for the ‘War on Terror’, although in many ways it is but a poor comparison, for pirates possess no motivating ideology other than that of predatory self-serving greed. Islamism, on the other hand, is a coherent, albeit irrational, ideology, as well as a protean and existential threat, springing up hydra-like with the backing of vast reservoirs of funding from certain wealthy Arab regimes that are allegedly our ‘friends’. If anything, this latter fact serves to demonstrate the eternal perverting influence of vast sums of money on the political process, bringing to mind an image of the figure of the current incumbent of the White House swaying, sword in hand, in unison with the flowing-robed moneyed interests of his Arabian companions, whilst denouncing the very ideology that they propagate. In many respects, Trump resembles Crassus, albeit a far less intelligent version of the latter: a cynical plutocrat, willing to purchase the votes of the plebs to satisfy his own vanity. O tempora! O mores! Everything changes, and yet it remains the same. I look forward to reading the next two volumes in this trilogy.

Review of ‘Thursbitch’ by Alan Garner

Garner’s novel is a curious affair, and all the better for it. Compact, and spare in its prose, it manages to pack much into the generously-spaced text of its 158 pages. Interweaving two periods and two sets of characters united by a single space – the eponymous Pennine valley of the title – he creates a tale in which the landscape becomes a place of enchantment, possessed of an atmosphere dense enough to hold the imprint of memories of lives and events long since passed.  

It opens with a packman and his train of horses amidst a snowstorm on an open hillside track in 1755, and it was thanks to a short and enigmatic inscription in memory of this John Turner, that Garner’s imagination set to work in crafting this piece of prose. Turner died in that storm, and but for that bare fact and mention of the print of a woman’s shoe in the snow by his side, nothing more concrete is known. Garner’s creative imagining provides the reader with a plausible character and tale behind the name, embedded within a local community linked by his wanderings to the outside world, but resolutely insular, and minded to observe its own customs and ways. Pagan echoes resound about the valley of Thursbitch, its eighteenth-century inhabitants thinking nothing of their mushroom-induced hallucinogenic rites, which with its sacrificial climax brings to mind the imagery of Mithras slaying the bull. They speak in dialect, faithfully rendered and richly textured, that some readers may not find to their taste. To my mind, however, it lends the tale an authenticity that it would otherwise lack.  

The lives of these characters somehow intersect with those of an academic with a penchant for geology, and her friend, a Catholic priest, who live on the cusp of the twenty-first century. They too are enamoured with Thursbitch, but they are transitory visitors, rather than residents, who tread its paths for leisure rather than trade. A vessel fashioned from Blue John, that tumbles from above and through time, brings their worlds into contact, and fleeting glimpses suggest that the span of the years has been bridged on more than one occasion.  

It is a tale of love and death, and the nature of time, place, and enchantment. The lives of both ‘couples’ is ultimately marred by loss, but Thursbitch, and their attachment to it, remains, seemingly, outside of time itself. An enchanting read.

Review: ‘Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories’

Book titles are sometimes misleading, perhaps no more so than in this instance, for the stories contained in this volume were not penned by Dahl, but selected by him as being exemplary pieces within the genre. That said, I was aware of this fact when I received this as a welcome Christmas present, so was not disappointed with its content. Dahl’s only contribution is in the form of an introductory essay, which outlines how he came to be tasked with selecting a number of ghost stories for adaptation for a US television series many years ago; this also outlines his thoughts on what makes a good ghost story.  

As with any selection of tales, the reader’s enjoyment will, to at least a certain extent, be conditioned by the coincidence, or otherwise, of his or her taste with that of the editor. In this instance, Dahl lets us know that he’s a very picky reader by stating that he managed to find only two dozen genuinely good stories amongst the 749 that he read for this project, fourteen of which are published between these covers. Luckily for me, there seems to have been a considerable overlap between my taste and that of the editor in this instance, for of the fourteen, I found eleven of them quite gripping.  

Strangely, not all of these tales are ghost stories, but they are nonetheless all possessed of a heavy dose of the uncanny. Two of the best are the introductory and closing tales, the first of which – W.S. by L.P. Hartley – features not a ghost, but an author’s creation come to life to seek an audience with his maker. It is a humorous piece, but unsettling all the same, and got me thinking as to which of my own characters I would not much relish meeting. Authors beware!  

The Upper Berth by F. Marion Crawford, manages to elicit a frisson of nautical terror accompanied by the salty stench and decay of something that has momentarily escaped the depths of Davy Jones’s Locker. Other spirits that stalk the pages of this book are possessed of a most malign intent, such as the eponymous character in A.M. Burrage’s The Sweeper, and the felt-hatted visitor in Edith Wharton’s Afterward, but others – such as the shade in Cynthia Asquith’s The Corner Shop, – are of a more benign disposition. 

Overall, this book makes for a satisfying and rewarding read for those whose tastes incline more towards the traditional ghost story, but would probably not satisfy anyone who favours gore and breathless action-driven narrative. I would have given this volume five stars, but for the inclusion of Elias and Draug by Jonas Lie, which was not a ghost story, and by Dahl’s own admission, not a very good translation from the Norwegian. 

In the mood for some fresh shivers? Here are a couple of new ghostly works that you may find to your taste.

Review: ‘Collected Ghost Stories’ by M.R. James

Having just finished savouring this volume of classic tales by the master of the ghost story, M.R. James, I am delighted to see that BBC4 will be treating us to a celebration of his work this coming Christmas Eve, starting at 9:00pm with Mark Gatiss presenting a documentary on the erstwhile Cambridge scholar. This will be followed by Gatiss’s own treatment of The Tractate Middoth, as well as an adaptation of No. 13 and an interpretation of A View from a Hill. The festive shudders do not end there, for the viewer may also relish Christoper Lee’s unparalleled reading of two of his classics – The Stalls of Barchester and A Warning to the Curious – complete with port and flickering candlelight. Only Dickens is permitted to interrupt this schedule, with an excellent version of The Signalman starring Denholm Elliot, which I have not seen since I was a child when it was originally broadcast.   

Returning to James, the Wordsworth volume gathers together all but a tiny handful of his shorter and more obscure tales, and is such a treasure house of the supernatural and the uncanny that it is difficult for me to single out my favourite half a dozen tales, let alone a story that I could possibly say ranked above the others. That said, I find that the earlier tales in the book – those originally published as Ghost Stories of an Antiquary in 1904 – are of a consistently higher quality than some of his later efforts, although there are undeniably gems amongst his later pieces such as An Episode of Cathedral History, A View from a Hill, and A Warning to the Curious, that rank amongst the author’s best. Given the nature of his posthumous popularity, it would be interesting to know what James, being an accomplished mediaeval scholar, would have made of being remembered for a series of tales that he penned for personal amusement. For me, however, as well as for many others, his stories represent a high watermark in the English ghost story tradition. Understatement and restraint are key to their effectiveness; they are atmospheric works of suggestion that lure the reader into a suspension of disbelief, with their success being as dependent upon what they do not show, as what they do. Such a style may not be as popular today as it once was, but for my tastes, this more genteel approach to ‘horror’ is one that resonates more profoundly than the plethora of formulaic vampire and zombie tales, stripped of adverbs and adjectives, that casts its pall over the dulled imaginations of readers today.  

So, this Christmas season, I ask you to join me in raising a glass of port in remembrance of James, whilst savouring the morbidly living vitality of his works. May they, like so many of the creeping creations that populate his tales, endure.   

As for my own offerings within this genre, well, they naturally pale in comparison, but his understated approach is something that I have sought to adhere to in the likes of At Fall of Night, The Ghost of Scarside Beck, and Old Crotchet.

Review of ‘The Beckoning Fair One’ by Oliver Onions

Detail from Wilhelm List’s ‘Transfiguration of St Elizabeth’

This is the most famous and highly rated of Onions’s stories, as well the first one that I have read in a weighty 657-page anthology of his ghostly tales. When any story, book, or film is spoken of so highly, I harbour a fear that I will be disappointed in what I find when I come to encounter that work, but in this instance, my apprehension proved to be misplaced. Then again, I must own that my misgivings of this type are generally attached to contemporary works, where marketing budgets are apt to skew the judgement of critics and public alike. As The Beckoning Fair One was first introduced to a general readership before the First World War, and continues to be recognised as a classic of its genre, it can be fairly assumed that it possesses merit, and that the passing of time has winnowed out those productions of lesser talents that have proved unworthy of a lengthy posterity. 

Although this may be a tale of a haunted house, it is of a subtle and understated kind, in which the building itself takes on as much of a personality as any of the human characters written into the story. The reader knows from the outset that it has remained long uninhabited before its protagonist – the author Paul Oleron – takes up residence there, and is thus curious, as is Oleron, as to why this should have been so. At first, he finds it a perfectly charming abode, although it has an immediate stultifying impact upon his creativity. He finds himself doubting the worth of the novel that he is working upon, particularly the merits of its central character, Romilly, who happens to be based upon a close female friend of his. Alas, it is not long before these doubts extend to his regard for the character of this friend – Elsie Bengough – whom he eventually comes to shun, despite her love for him. It would seem that it is the house, or something within it, that drives the two apart, causing him to despise her, and from the first moment that she sets foot in it, she voices the opinion that he will find it impossible to work whilst he lives there. This concern he dismisses out of hand, but that there is a latent antipathy within its structure towards his friend soon becomes apparent, owing to a couple of freakish accidents that she experiences during her visit.  

For anyone who has ever written a novel, or attempted to, Oleron’s doubts concerning the worth of his literary creation, as well as his resultant creative paralysis, will strike many a chord. Hopefully, however, that is where any element of self-recognition and identification with the character and his situation should end, as it is one that proves to be deeply disturbing, and unsettling. The novella builds slowly to a nausea-inducing denouement, in which the protagonist descends into squalor and disintegration, but as to whether the horror that is encountered in these pages derives from some presence within the building, or within the psyche of Oleron himself, is left for the reader to adjudge.

Review: ‘Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance’ by M.R. James

Rocky Valley Labyrinth, Cornwall

This tale was originally published in 1911 as part of James’s More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, and as in a number of the author’s stories features a single gentleman with scholarly tastes, who finds himself in the fortunate position of inheriting his single uncle’s considerable country estate. The latter was, so it seems, something of a valetudinarian, and, moreover, had never met his nephew, so the latter was particularly blessed to be released from his dull civil service job by the inevitable demise of his unknown relative.  

Set during the closing decade of the nineteenth century, James presents the reader with a picture of country life in which society is clearly ordered, and everything, and everyone, in their allotted place. One cannot help but speculate whether one of his favourite hymns might have been All Things Bright and Beautiful which features the now often omitted verse:  

‘The rich man in his castle,

the poor man at his gate,

God made them high and lowly,

and ordered their estate’ 

I digress somewhat. Returning to the story, Mr Humphreys finds that he is now the owner of a substantial country house dating, most likely, from the 1770s, which happens to possess a well-stocked library, as well as an intriguing maze, the gate of which has been locked for many decades. A locked gate seldom fails to arouse the curiosity of the onlooker, and Mr Humphreys proves to be no exception to this rule, asking Mr Cooper (the bailiff entrusted to sort out the affairs of the deceased uncle and hand all over to the nephew) why the maze should be sealed off in such a manner. He receives, of course, an answer, albeit a far from satisfactory one, as well as the information that a certain Lady Wardrop had once written requesting access to the maze, but had been denied it. From there, via an intriguing document entitled ‘A Parable of the Unhappy Condition’ found in the library amongst a collection of late seventeenth-century sermons, we begin our journey into the dark mystery of Wilsthorpe Hall. I shall say no more with respect to the plot, for to do so would spoil the enjoyment of the reader. 

This proves to be an engaging enough read, although I would not place it in the first rank of James’s work. The locals are provided with suitably ‘rustic’ speech, and James’s customary understated approach to horror is well deployed, but there is little to unsettle the reader until the tale has nigh on run its course.