Archive for nyrb

Forbidden Tomes: TO WALK THE NIGHT by WILLIAM SLOANE

Posted in Forbidden Tomes with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2016 by smuckyproductions

It’s been quite some time since I published a Forbidden Tomes review, and I can think of no better way to revive the tradition than to discuss my latest cosmic read. This story is one of many that found new life last year, finding a place amongst authors like Charles Beaumont, Ray Russell and Thomas Ligotti. Yet it sets itself apart from those by creating a style that I find wholly unique. Our tome today is William Sloane’s quiet tale of monstrosity called TO WALK THE NIGHT. 

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The plot is straight out of Lovecraft – after finding their old professor burning to death under impossible circumstances, two college friends become involved in the professor’s enigmatic wife. When one falls in love with her, the other succumbs to unnamable fear, and unravels a truth too horrible to mention.

Lovecraft might have written this, but his version would have been drastically different from Sloane’s. The story is set when the narrator returns to his friend’s home to tell the man’s father the truth of his death. From the first sentences, we are instilled with a sense of tragedy, but also dread. Lovecraft’s stories have always been fairly emotionless, evoking nothing but fear. Sloane sets himself apart by infusing his terror with human sadness. It managed to draw me in from the first page, and when the fear came into play, I was already vulnerable.

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Sloane moves his plot along at a quiet, patient motion – most of the scenes are utterly mundane, but with this mystery dangling over us, they become uncomfortable. Those who want instantaneous monsters and tentacles need not look here. Our characters are the centerpiece of the story. But through masterful descriptions of landscape and memory, Sloane creates a sense of smallness that haunts them – and us – throughout the everyday interactions. He creates fear out of almost nothing, a lesson today’s writers have not yet learned.

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By the time we are ready for the revelation, set brilliantly in the vast desert of the Southwest, we already have guessed at most of the elements. Sloane still manages to surprise us by bringing back that tragedy. At its core, this becomes a story of loss, loneliness, and the inability to accept the ‘other.’ Like the best of horror, it is about outcasts. The cosmic notion of a vast, impenetrable universe only amplifies this sense of sadness. I was chilled by his story, but also felt heartache, and when horror can do that to me, I can’t help but love it. Sloane chooses small details to frighten the reader, but also to bring across that tragedy, and make it visceral.

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Due to its slow pace, it will not please everyone. But for those who can be patient and are willing to accept the human elements, there is a majorly entertaining read waiting for them. We must thank NYRB for re-releasing Sloane’s novels. This is a lost gift to horror fans, and a reminder of how much power the genre can hold.

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Forbidden Tomes: THE BLACK SPIDER by Jeremias Gotthelf

Posted in Forbidden Tomes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2015 by smuckyproductions

Today’s unearthed tome is a bit unusual in its intention. Jeremias Gotthelf is a pseudonym used by a Swiss pastor and author, whose writings always tended toward a religious moral. But Gotthelf did not hold punches when delivering these morality tales. This is evident in his best-known work, an astounding monster tale called THE BLACK SPIDER.

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I implore those with intense arachnophobia to read no further. You know why.

Gotthelf begins his story in a lovely Swiss village on the joyous day of a baby’s christening. When the family gathers back in the big manor house for a celebration, one of the younger guests asks the grandfather about a curious shriveled black piece of wood that doesn’t match with the others. Oh, that’s simple enough, says grandfather, there’s just a vicious devil-spider sitting in there that can come out at any moment and eat you. (But as long as you follow scripture, you’re safe.)

Thus begins a ruthlessly, and surprisingly, violent tale of a Medieval village under the sway of a cruel lord. When the Devil comes along and offers them reprieve in exchange for the next baby, the peasants take the offer – but refuse to hand over the baby when the time comes. So the Devil unleashes the Black Spider upon them (grown out of a poor woman’s FACE), wreaking plague and painful death upon all who stand in its way.

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The descriptions of the spider are vividly and grotesquely rendered by Gotthelf – a scuttling, omnipresent demon-bug that springs from victim to victim and leaves them to rot to death, growing more powerful with each life it takes. His prose is direct, which makes it all the more disturbing. I was in awe at the violence described, something we often forget was a staple feature in sermons during those times. Pastors would horrify their flock into obeying the Lord’s will. Honestly, I was half-converted by the time I finished “The Black Spider.” Imagining that thing crawling up behind me and sinking its fangs, turning my skin putrid and black… Anyway.

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Considering the era in which he was writing, the outright gruesome fantasy of this story is quite remarkable. It predates Lovecraft by a number of decades. Writers back then were not delving into this world of parable and fable, and “The Black Spider” seems to carve out its own genre of the modern fairy tale, something that we begin to see often enough in later authors. But Gotthelf takes the cake for the strength of his beliefs in the horror he has created. His almost surreal characters and images are stamped firmly in their own reality, which makes them hard to deny, especially when the damned spider starts eating them. He understands human behavior well enough to translate it believably into this fantastic world of devils and monsters. And he forces us to go with him.

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This story, particularly due to its overwrought sermon at its conclusion, is not for everyone; but for those who appreciate a good, nasty fable, “The Black Spider” is a dream come true. Just be prepared for that tickle on your arm as you imagine eight legs crawling up to get you. Hopefully you’ve already said your prayers.