The OG

The Phantom of the Opera Audiobook By Gastón Leroux cover art

Title: The Phantom of the Opera
Author: Gaston LeRoux
Translator: Alexander Teixeira de Mattos
Genre: Classic Gothic
Pages: 260
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Early on in my first ever dating relationship I read this book aloud to my girlfriend. Last week we listened to it together as an audiobook as we drove up north to celebrate our 19-year wedding anniversary. Given that history, I’m a bit biased in favor of this book and have probably rated it a bit higher than I otherwise would have.

That said, The Phantom of the Opera deserves its iconic status. Leroux created a monstrous antagonist who is nonetheless truly pitiable. The Opera Ghost is a master manipulator with a sadistic streak, a pathetic backstory, and physical deformity far beyond something that could be hidden under the wimpy half-mask that makes its way into every portrayal since Andrew Lloyd Webber.

The plot and narration are almost laughably melodramatic at times, but if you roll with it and embrace the Gothic-ness, it’s a lot of fun (and even moving). Leroux throws in very occasional dry humorous comments that show he isn’t taking this completely seriously himself, while at the same time presenting it as a personally researched true story.

Translation-wise, I have only read the very Victorian, public domain version. I suspect (corroborated by a little online research) that this is probably the least accurate version, so one of these days I will have to try a different translation. Speaking of which, I will be using this for my Classic in Translation category over at the Back to the Classics Challenge.

If you enjoy Gothic fiction, this is a must-read. If you like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, you should give this original source material a shot as well. You get more complexity of plot and depth of characters with all the melodrama. And if you’re looking for something to do with your SO, reading this aloud worked out pretty well for us…

Mini-Review Time!

The number of read-but-unreviewed books is piling up, so it’s time for some more mini reviews. No unifying theme here; just several books that I read about a month and a half ago:

The Only Good Indians: A Novel by [Stephen Graham Jones]

Title: The Only Good Indians
Author: Stephen Graham Jones
Genre: Horror Trying to Be Literature
Pages: 336
Rating: 4.5 of 5

I like stories that plop you down in media res and slowly reveal what is going on. This is one of those stories, and it is masterfully executed. The plot (that reads like heavily interconnected novellas) follows four Blackfeet men as they are haunted by something that they did when they were younger…whether that’s literal or metaphorical haunting I leave you to find out. Along the way, the author also explores themes of tradition, culture, community, family, and the Native American experience in general.

Judging from reviews online, this books seems to be a bit love-it-or-hate-it. I think that for some readers it’s too literary and slow-burn to be good horror, and for others it was too tropey and requires too much suspension of disbelief to be good literature. Personally, I thought that it worked very well!

Her Royal Spyness (The Royal Spyness Series Book 1) by [Rhys Bowen]

Title: Her Royal Spyness
Author: Rhys Bowen
Genre: Witty Narration and Amusing Characters (in a Murder Mystery)
Pages: 324
Rating: 4 of 5

I needed something light and fluffy to counter the stress of trying to navigate a major covid outbreak in our community, and this was just the thing! The murder mystery was pretty secondary to character development and witty narration. Our intrepid (but awkward) heroine is a minor royal from a family with ancestral lands in Scotland (described in disparaging detail) and no money. In this introductory book to the series she narrates her escapades in pre-WW2 London, where she has tea with the queen (who wants her to keep an eye on someone), tries to get a job (a big no-no for a royal), spends time with assorted upper-class twits & rogues, and becomes embroiled in a murder investigation. I will definitely be continuing the series!

Every Little Crook and Nanny by Evan Hunter

Title: Every Little Crook and Nanny
Author: Evan Hunter
Genre: Comedic Mob Fiction
Pages: 229
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This tale of the kidnapping of a mobster’s son was not what I was expecting. It is told as a series of vignettes, each one focused on a different person connected to the story. Most of the characters demonstrate massive incompetence and/or eccentric behavior to the point of being caricatures. Each chapter begins with a black and white photo of the starring character, and at first I thought it was some sort of movie tie-in, but apparently these are just the author’s (or his publishers’) acquaintances who agreed to pose for him. There is a comedic movie loosely based on the book, but judging from a quick perusal on imdb, there have been major alterations to the plot. I didn’t find this laugh-out-loud funny, but I suppose it was mildly amusing.

KKK Horror

Ring Shout by [P. Djèlí Clark]

Title: Ring Shout
Author: P. Djèlí Clark
Genre: Alternate/Secret History Horror
Pages: 172
Rating: 4.5 of 5

I went into this expecting an escapist monster-slaying romp with some sort of Klansmen-as-monsters twist. There was a gratifying amount of Klansman-monster slaying, but there is also some real depth to the book.

The author mixes together real life horrifying ideology and events (e.g. Klan “night rides,” The Birth of a Nation, the Tulsa Massacre, etc.) with the supernatural to capture the experience of living as a black person in early 20th century America. It reminded me a lot of Lovecraft Country but, unlike that book, this one succeeds in both evoking the right racist-horror atmosphere and telling a good cosmic horror story (while also celebrating aspects of African and African American culture, religion, and folklore).

It’s difficult to say much more about the plot without spoilers. Suffice it to say, this is not simply a tale of revenge or violent wish fulfillment. Ultimately, it explores what hatred does to people (the hater and the hated). This was headed to a 3.5 star rating for me, but the finale bumped it up a whole star and put P. Djèlí Clark on my “I have to read something else by him!” list.

Creepy Mini-Reviews

My reading is starting to outpace my reviewing again, so it’s time for some mini reviews. In honor of October, I’ll focus on my recent horror/gothic/weird reads. Presented in order read:

Last Days by [Brian Evenson, Peter Straub]

Title: Last Days
Author: Brian Evenson
Genre: Cult-related Horror
Pages: 200
Rating: 3.5 of 5

There’s nothing supernatural in this crime novel, just the horror of human beings with wicked hearts and weird beliefs. In this case, the belief that voluntary amputations are pleasing to God (the more, the better!). The plot follows a former cop who suffered a traumatic injury and is now being forced to investigate a crime related to the internal workings of this amputation cult. This was a disturbing, disorienting read with moderate amounts of profanity and a lot of gore. Don’t read the intro as it contains spoilers (and is pretty pretentious besides).

The King in Yellow Rises [Annotated] [Illustrated] [Translated]: The Lost Book of Carcosa (Lovecraftian Librarium 3) by [Charles Baudelaire, Ambrose Bierce, Robert W. Chambers, Lord Dunsany, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edgar Allan Poe, Marcel Schwob, Kent David Kelly]

Title: The King in Yellow Rises
Authors: Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe, Lord Dunsany, Robert W. Chambers, and Others
Translator (and Editor?): Kent David Kelley
Genre: Classic Weird Fiction
Pages: 246
Rating: 4 of 5

This volume collects Robert W. Chambers’ original King in Yellow stories as well as classic works that influenced or riffed on his ideas. There is no denying the quality of the stories contained here or their influence on later weird fiction and cosmic horror. The editor (I think it is the same person listed as the translator) is what cost this book a star. I appreciate him rounding up these stories and printing them all in one place, but his commentary is sporadic and uneven in style. He wraps up the book with a rambling section about these stories’ influenced on H. P. Lovecraft and then apologizes for not including any Lovecraft stories (yet) because he’s not sure if they’re in the public domain…but he promises to add these and others later if he is able. It all felt a bit unprofessional.

Title: The Invisible Man
Author: H. G. Wells
Genre: Classic Sci-Fi
Pages: 167 (usually quite a bit shorter, but this was an illustrated edition)
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This isn’t really horror/weird, but the invisible man was one of those classic black and white movie monsters, so I’m including it here. This is a pretty slow book, taking way too long to get to the big reveal that this mysterious stranger is an invisible man (which seems especially pointless given its title). After we finally get that out of the way, things get a little more interesting as we see how being invisible might affect a person mentally and morally. Add in some solid cat and mouse stuff toward the end, and it’s an interesting enough read.

The Necromancers Kindle Edition

Title: The Necromancers
Author: Robert Hugh Benson
Genre: Moralising Gothic Fiction
Pages: 196
Rating: 2 of 5

This book amounts to little more than a warning against Victorian era spiritualism (as well as any other dabbling in communication with the dead). As a Christian I wouldn’t disagree with the overall point, but it’s a pretty dull read for the most part. After a lot of breathless hinting about the grave spiritual dangers and some minimally described seances, we finally get some real creepiness and ill-defined spiritual confrontation around the 85% mark. Meh.

The Abyssal Plain: The R'lyeh Cycle by [William Holloway, Brett J. Talley, Michelle Garza]

Title: The Abyssal Plain: The R’lyeh Cycle
Editors: William Holloway & Brett J. Talley
Genre: Splattery Cosmic Horror
Pages: 300
Rating: 2 of 5

The four loosely linked short stories in this volume describe a world in which “the stars are right” and the old ones have returned. Cthulhu’s spawn rampage across the drowned world as civilization falls apart and strange cults rise. As with any anthology, quality varies, but the first story was just too much for me. It was about life-destroying decisions and addictions with Lovecraftian elements as a mere backdrop/counterpoint. I guess it was clever in that it showed that realistic graphicly described human misery is more disturbing than splattery sci-fi, but the torrent of profanity, booze, drugs, vomit, adultery, abortion, theft, murder, and other human misery and self-destructive behavior was more than I wanted to read. The other three stories were fairly standard (if extra splattery) post-apocalyptic Cthulhu fare that could definitely hold their own within the genre.

Audiobook Mini-Reviews

The last week and a half has been a bit rough here with myself and all three of the kids sick (my amazing wife activated Mommy-immunity and stayed mostly healthy). So, while lying miserably in bed or on the couch I made it through four audiobooks that I’ll be review now. I had a fever, headache, etc. through most of the time I was listening to these so take everything I say with a grain of salt. I don’t really have any comment on the narrators other than nobody stood out as either terrible or phenomenal.

What Ho, Automaton! (Reeves & Worcester Steampunk Mysteries Book 1) by [Dolley, Chris]Title: What Ho, Automaton!
(Reeves & Worcester Steampunk Mysteries – Book 1)
Author: Chris Dolley
Genre: Steampunk Mystery Parody
Pages: 292
Rating: 4 of 5

This is clearly intended as a parody of P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves & Wooster stories, and I’d say the author nails it. He captures the tone perfectly while transforming Jeeves (Reeves) into a steam-powered automaton and giving Wooster (Worcester) delusions of being a consulting detective on the order of Sherlock Holmes. Like the Wodehouse original, it’s light, breezy fun.

The Scapegoat by [du Maurier, Daphne]Title: The Scapegoat
Author: Daphne du Maurier
Genre: Classic Crime?
Pages: 348
Rating: 2.5 of 5

In this unlikely tale, a boring British professor of French history (John) meets his aristocratic French double (Jean) who (more-or-less) forces him to switch places. It turns out his French doppelganger is a morally reprehensible person from a family with a myriad of unsavory secrets. The story slowly unfolds as over the next week John plays at being Jean, uncovering and tinkering with the workings of the corrupt de Gué family. There is some interest in the slowly unfolding story, but overall it is completely unbelievable and has a non-ending that leaves pretty much all the storylines up in the air (and I really didn’t appreciate the casual attitude toward a married man having a mistress…especial with her seemingly being one of the wisest/best people in the book).

The House Of Night And Chains (Warhammer Horror) by [Annandale, David]Title: House of Night and Chain
(Warhammer Horror)
Author: David Annandale
Genre: Sci-Fi Horror
Pages: 244
Rating: 2.5 of 5

This is a fairly standard haunted house story set in the Warhammer 40K universe. Early on, an awful lot of time is spent on details of political maneuvering that is completely overshadowed and made largely irrelevant by the avalanche of events and revelations later in the book. The Warhammer 40K setting doesn’t contribute much to the story other than making local government into planetary government, substituting a cleric of the Emperor for a priest of God, and similar cosmetic tweaks. If you’re into haunted house stories you might enjoy it…I found it pretty “meh.”

The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by [Turton, Stuart]Title: The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
Author: Stuart Turton
Genre: Trippy Mystery
Pages: 480
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This book starts like a classic “murder at the manor house” kind of story, but things quickly get all wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey. I don’t want to give away too much since figuring out what is going on is half the fun. The over-simplified version that’s not any more spoilery than the back cover of the book is: our narrator inhabits 8 different witnesses, reliving the same day 8 times trying to solve (or stop) a murder. Most of the people involved have a nasty secret or two, and the twists, turns, and surprises come thick and fast all the way up to the end. I think that in the end it all weaves together nicely and makes sense, but I’d have to read it again (when I’m not sick) to be sure. It’s well worth reading and will probably make my “top 5 fiction” list for the year.

Grownup Gwendy

Title: Gwendy’s Magic Feather
Author: Richard Chizmar
Pages: “330” (probably half that when use of white space is taken into account)
Genre: Horror/Weird/Mystery/Family Drama
Rating: 2.5 of 5

The first Gwendy book, a novella in which Chizmar collaborated with Stephen King, was one of my favorite reads of 2017. I originally said this about it:

This short book falls more into the “weird” category than actual horror. It could be seen as a sort of twist on the story of Pandora’s Box…only this box comes with sinister buttons (especially the big black one) and a couple nice levers. This isn’t high action and doesn’t provide nice neat answers at the end, but it’s an excellent example of “the weird.”

Chizmar’s solo effort at expanding the Gwendiverse was disappointing in comparison. The titular “magic feather” has very little part in the story. Instead, we’re treated to another round of Gwendy inexplicably receiving the magic button box and indecisively dithering about whether or not she should use it…but only after 1/4 of the book catches us up on what Gwendy has been doing with her life over the last couple decades.

We already have a pretty good idea of the general function of the button box, so that major fascinating element of the original story is missing. It’s replaced with a hodgepodge of storylines including Gwendy engaging in AIDS activism, being an anti-Trump (though he’s not called Trump and it’s the 90’s) congresswoman, trying to catch a possible serial killer, and dealing with her mother’s cancer. Toward the end the box does demonstrate one new power, but it just feels like an amazingly convenient way to wrap up one of the storylines.

Overall, it felt like this mocking description of Darth Vader from one of the Night at the Museum movies:

Stick with Dracula

50048113Title: The Beetle
Author: Richard Marsh
Genre: Victorian Era Horror
Pages: 335
Rating: 2 of 5

The Beetle was published the same year as Dracula and originally outsold it. Having read it, I’m not surprised that Stoker’s masterpiece has endured while this tale of an ambiguously-gendered Egyptian were-beetle seeking revenge on a British MP fell by the wayside.

The book starts out strong with some truly creepy moments involving human misery and supernatural compulsion. Unfortunately, the story became increasingly less interesting as we detour into a Victorian love triangle (or possibly pentagon) complete with a disapproving parent and wealthy spinster. One of our narrators at this point is a mad scientist who talks a bit like Bertie Wooster but whose mad science ends up playing no significant part in the plot (such a waste!).

The author never managed to recover the creepiness of the first quarter of the book. Once the supernatural stuff really picks up again, there’s the usual product-of-its-era casual xenophobia, sexism, etc., an uninspired telegraphing/dashing around trying to find the damsel in distress chase sequence, and a ridiculously abrupt ending.

I was ready to give this 3 stars as passable product-of-its-era Gothic horror if the author could land the ending, but it was so bad that it brought down the entire book. It feels like he couldn’t decide how to end it, got bored with writing, and covered it all up with a couple dei ex machina and a liberal dose of “it was too horrible for words.” Weird/horror stories don’t need to give the reader all the answers, but this ending was a complete cop out. Stick with Dracula!

Catch-up Mini Reviews

It’s been a little bit longer than usual between posts as I’ve been furiously reading to rack up entries in the local library’s summer reading prize drawing (can’t let my kiddos show me up!). Here are five of the most recent (out of 22 over the last 2 months):

Monster Hunter International (Monster Hunters International Book 1) by [Correia, Larry]Title: Monster Hunter International
Author: Larry Correia
Genre: Gun Nut Enthusiast Wish Fulfillment
Pages: 715
Rating: 2.5 of 5

I enjoy Dracula and Cthulhu mythos stories, so I figured why not try out this pulp action-spinoff of the Lovecraftian and Gothic tales. While some of the monster lore and overall plot was fun, I give it a “meh” overall.

I think that the intended audience is the we-distrust-the-government-and-LOVE-guns crowd, and while that describes some of my friends, it’s not me. For me, the frequent doting  listing of gun models and specs and the breathless descriptions of firing said guns were absurdly over the top. And these guys would rather just blast away at the monsters with silver bullets (no matter how ineffectual it repeatedly proves to be) than actually try to come up with anything clever. Add to this some ham-handed foreshadowing, sprinkle in some poor word usage and factual errors (e.g. compulsive instead of convulsive, Peloponnesian War instead of Trojan War), and I probably won’t be continuing this series…I’ll stick with Warhammer 40K for my absurdly violent pulp needs.

Title: The Annotated Hunting of the Snark
Author: Lewis Carroll (annotations by Martin Gardner)
Genre: Nonsense Narrative Poem + Pretentious Commentary
Pages: 196
Rating: 4 of 5

I love the nonsense poem Jaberwocky, so I’m not sure how I didn’t know about Carroll’s full-length narrative poem that is very much in the same vein. The poem itself is a lot of fun (if a bit grim) and worthy of a 5 out of 5 rating. However, for the most part the annotations/commentary add very little enjoyment unless you are utterly obsessed with the poem. The one lengthy section of commentary that I really enjoyed was an extended satirical “analysis” of the poem that is clearly making fun of  people who (like our main annotator) pompously try to impose deep, complex meaning on the nonsense.

The Warden - Chronicles of Barsetshire, Book 1 audiobook cover artTitle: The Warden
(Chronicles of Barsetshire – Book 1)
Author: Anthony Trollope
Genre: Classic Fiction
Pages: 240
Rating: 3.5 of 5

I am using this book for my 19th Century Classic category over at the Back to the Classics challenge. My brother-in-law, who is also a pastor, recommended the Barchester series as a humorous take on church politics (with a warning that this first book wasn’t quite as good as the others).

Trollope perfectly captures the earnestness, good intentions, greed, pettiness, and arrogance that swirl together to generate church politics. His characters, squabbling over how a charitable institution should be run, are quirky but believable, and he gets in some good jabs at the press and national politics along the way.

I take issue with the pervading theme that time-honored abuses of the system for personal gain should be allowed to continue so long as they are not really hurting anyone. After all, attempts to reform will only make things worse for everyone…just look at that troublemaker Charles Dickens! That said, there was enough cleverness in here that I’ll probably give the next Barchester book a shot at some point.

Title: The Swordbearer
Author: Glen Cook
Genre: Dark Fantasy
Pages: 256
Rating: 3 of 5

I read this more out of curiosity than because I expected a good book. It’s one of Glen Cook’s first fantasy books (maybe the first?), and we all know how rough an author’s early works can be. This stand-alone novel feels like three parts Elric of Melniboné, one part Lord of the Rings, and one part semi-original stuff that would later be cannibalized and reused in the much better Black Company stories.

The characters are so flat and numerous as to be difficult to keep track of, and there is frequent info-dumping, but I’ve read much worse first attempts. If you’ve ever read and enjoyed the Elric books, this is worth a read… if the whole book being an “I feel like a pawn of this evil soul-devouring sword” mope-fest grates on your nerves you might want to give it a miss.

The Fall of Arthur by [Tolkien, J.R.R.]Title: The Fall of Arthur
Author: J. R. R. Tolkien (Christopher Tolkien, Editor)
Genre: Epic Poem Fragment + Page-count Padding Commentary
Pages: 233
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This is just another Christopher Tolkien publication of a fragment from his father’s work padded out to book length with commentary. As always, the narrative poem fragment is well-written and interesting (as long as you have some interest in Arthuriana), but it is even shorter than usual (cutting off well before the actual battle in which Mordred dies and Arthur maybe-dies). Christopher’s notes are much better organized than usual, but still overlong. The tracing of various versions of the fall of Arthur through medieval literature is probably the most interesting part of his contribution. Unless you are the kind of fan who has to have every published fragment by J. R. R. Tolkien, this isn’t worth buying…just borrow it from the library, read the poem fragment, and skim the notes to see if any of the sections sound interesting to you.

Speak of the devil…

The Devil Aspect: A Novel by [Russell, Craig]Title: The Devil Aspect
Author: Craig Russell
Genre: Psychological Horror
Pages: 414
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Psychiatrist Viktor Kosárek believes that horrific criminal behavior is caused by the “devil aspect,” a dark facet of human nature present in everyone to some degree. His new appointment to the Hrad Orlu Asylum allows him to study Europe’s most infamous violent criminals: the “The Devil’s Six.”

The story drips with atmosphere. The asylum is a sinister castle (an Elizabeth Bathory-like nobleman figures in its past) in 1930’s Czechoslovakia (Nazis casting covetous eyes on the Sudetenland) with a serial killer known as Leather Apron on the loose in Prague. The plot splits its focus between the hunt for Leather Apron and Viktor’s sessions with each of the Devil’s Six as he attempts to isolate the “devil aspect.” Add a sprinkling of Slavic mythology, and chilling, gory details abound.

As much as I appreciated the atmosphere, this was only a 3.5 for me. Some of the Devil’s Six material (chilling as it was) felt like it contributed little to the plot. The pacing was slow until the end which was rushed and unsurprising (the foreshadowing of Leather Apron’s identity was fairly obvious much too early in the book). I was also very annoyed by the final coda as it eliminated a certain intriguing ambiguity. Overall, this is worth reading if you are a fan of psychological horror, but I feel like it could have been a lot better in terms of plot & pacing.

Indian Evil

Song of Kali by [Simmons, Dan]Title: Song of Kali
Author: Dan Simmons
Genre: Cosmic Horror?
Pages: 320
Rating: 3 of 5

I’m not quite sure what to make of this disturbing tale. In it, an American  travels to Calcutta with his wife (who is Indian) and infant daughter in search of a lost book of poems by an author long thought dead. The plot takes forever to get off the ground, but once it does every parent’s worst nightmare ensues.

The author expertly evokes an atmosphere of human misery, darkness, corruption, and horror (some of it too explicit for my taste) that appears to be driven by a great cosmic evil. There’s just enough wiggle room for possible lying, hallucinations, nightmares, etc. that you can’t be 100% sure how much of what is going on is truly supernatural.

If that was all there was to it I’d probably give it an “amazingly atmospheric but a little too disturbing for me” rating. However, the author also seems to be indicting Indian culture in general as almost completely calloused, corrupt, disgusting, and evil. Putting the fullest expression of that accusation in the mouth of an Indian character doesn’t make it any less insulting.

Overall, the book was horrifying and convoluted enough that I kept reading just to see where it was all going. However, once I was done I felt like I had read the ranting of an ethnocentric tourist who visited India, didn’t deal well with culture shock, and decided to turn his negative experience into a horror story. (Also, this is my fourth book read for the 2019 TBR Pile Challenge).