Agatha Christie really was the queen of the Golden Age of murder mystery writers, and this book, published in 1920, was the first to feature that curious Belgian, Hercule Poirot. After having been a volunteer nurse during the First World War, Christie gained knowledge of poisons that evidently stood her in good stead in this, a spectacularly labyrinthine 'country house'-style whodunnit. Although the characters often seem a little like stereotypes, the amazing complexity and number of suspects help the story impel itself along in a delicious manner, and the plot device, almost 'Hound Of The Baskervilles'-style, of a separate narrator (the venerable Hastings) who is sometimes misled as Poirot pursues his own agenda, works amazingly well. Oh, and the almost schoolboy-ish crush Hastings gets on one of the possible suspects is not only amusingly chivalrous, but serves to toy with the reader even further. The end result is a gripping book which can plainly be seen as a foundation for one of the most spectacular careers in crime fiction. Sure, it's all convolution, but what deliciously designed convolution!
This wonderful pulp novel, written by Walter Brown Gibson under his Maxwell Grant alias, was one of many stories starring The Shadow, aka Lamont Cranston. In fact, Gibson was contracted to write 24 'Shadow' novels per year! This one involves gold coins being split between ne'er-do-wells in the Caribbean, suspicious antiques dealers, beautiful dames, assassination attenmpts, and, of course, The Shadow stepping in to save the day. Although the plot is a little confusing at times, the dialog and action are refreshingly hardboiled, with machine-guns raking the streets of New York as hero and foes battle it out for the prize - and the gratitude of the beautiful lady, naturally. Interestingly, Walter Gibson was a conjurer and ghostwriter to such famed magicians as Houdini before he created The Shadow, although the hero doesn't use any tricks in this story, just.. super-human speed, cunning, and strength. Which is always handy, mind you. Anyhow, another entertaining, action-packed read for those who enjoy the Arnie and Bruce action-movie approach to books, which can actually be refreshing after a little too much erudition.
Oddly, I ended up reading this title whilst on holiday in Hawaii, and whilst there, I got a chance to view the massive, extinct volcanic crater at Haleakala. This is a strange coincidence since it's a long-dormant volcanic crater, albeit in Iceland, that provides the starting point for an epic journey under the Earth's crust in this classic story. Another example of science fiction in the era where science was sufficiently in flux that the fiction could conceivably be fact, this novel is filled with exciting action sequences, dazzling depictions of underground oceans and beings lurking under, and generally a tremendous sense of suspense. This is cleverly heightened by the constantly dwindling food and water of the explorers, who are a German scientist, his nephew, and a hulking Scandinavian guide. There's some wonderful ideas, some wonderful description, and a truly excellent and nailbiting resolution, and it's easy to see why Verne has such a reputation as one of the best adventure novelists ever - it's richly deserved. Quick, sign up Sean Connery and Ben Affleck for the remake!
These fascinating occult short stories were written for The Idler magazine in 1910 by the acclaimed but sadly short-lived Hodgson (he was killed at Ypres, Belgium, whilst serving England in the First World War.) They feature the stories of a ghost-hunter who uses scientific equipment such as camera equipment and electric pentacles to investigate and shield himself from the dark forces haunting specific old country houses and strange places. HP Lovecraft himself was a fan of Hodgson's work, and it's easy to see why - his descriptions of spiritually amorphous eldritch horrors and extended passages of pure dread are unputdownable, and the blending in of the uncertain mystery element (it's especially interesting that some of the mysteries are frauds, but some are genuinely forces from beyond) work to enthrall the reader. Honestly, these stories are some of the most gripping in the genre I've ever read - almost Holmes-ian in their setup, but with extraordinary depictions of ancient foreboding. Unfortunately, these six stories are most of the Carnacki canon (though a couple more were published by Arkham House posthumously which aren't on the web yet, I believe) but Hodgson produced a number of other short stories and books which I will now hunt down and check out - "The House Of The Borderland" and "The Night Land" are particularly recommended, apparently.
A most intriguing, and not completely doolally, piece of optimistic Canadian pamphleteering, this 30-page essay was produced anonymously in 1883, and porported to be written in 1983, looking back on what had happened over the previous 100 years. It's amusing as a piece of Canadian propaganda ("Canada's ways of doing things came to be quoted in other countries as a precedent. Our cities were the best built, best drained, cleanest and healthiest, and our city populations the most orderly and most enlightened."), but it's also most interesting in some of the details of technology it gets partially right, such as travelling amazingly fast on 'rocket-cars' (ok, we use planes!) that you can arrive places before you started, and the last great European war being in 1932. As ever, there are some wildly over-hopeful claims about there having not been a murder in 50 years, and all diseases (including cancer) having been wiped out, but as a possible perspective on the future from a viewpoint of more than a century ago, it's a fascinating insight. And as for the more out-there claims like scientists having control of the weather.. well, Sean Connery did it in "The Avengers" movie, at least :P
Not necessarily what I was expecting, this distinctly dark piece of work exhibits all the wonderful wit and quotable moments you'd expect from the reputation of Wilde. But the story of a beautiful young man gradually corrupted by sin, and the strange portrait which is the key to the whole macabre mystery, grabs you in and won't let you go. It seems audaciously cynical both in what it says about the futility of relationships and the wonderousness of hedonism, and then showing the eventual disaster of those who follow that path. Most of all, this was an unexpected story for me in the way that it brings the unreality of the supernatural into an otherwise perfectly normal, if salacious, society story. It's a genius juxtaposition which is truly chilling, and especially wonderful if seen in the context of the multitude of 'selling soul to the devil' stories that it echoes. In short - I must read more Wilde, and soon - he's a delight.
Here's a collection of short stories from _such_ a famous author, but known primarily for one work - "Dracula". This collection starts off with a relatively unknown short story, "Dracula's Guest", which was apparently taken out of the original "Dracula" MSS (?) for length reasons and only published after his death. It's pretty neat, but the highlight of the collection must be the horror classic "The Judge's House", which is truly chilling, as well as some interesting, more oblique short stories that are reminiscent of JB Priestley and other classic ghostly storytellers. But in fact, one of the attractive things about some of these stories are that they're not explicit and gory - rather restrainedly and cunningly macabre, such as "The Coming Of Abel Behenna", set in the evocative confines of Cornwall. Oh, and "Crooken Sands" is a pretty amusing social commentary on those misguided moneybags who lust after being 'lords of the manor', as well as a strangely chilling story in its own right. All in all, well worth checking out, and probably least of all for the most attractive-sounding story, the one featuring a certain blood-sucking Count.
Rather than a novel from the immortal creator of Sherlock Holmes, this is a fascinating personal opinion regarding an obsession of his which had a profound effect on his life - the concept of the afterlife, spirits, and psychic research. Bear in mind that this document was written in the early years of the 20th Century, where anything seemed possible, and it's all the more fascinating. It's, basically, an analysis of what the afterlife might be, why not all mediums and psychics are to be trusted, but why some are the genuine article. It goes on to talk about why cogent, scientific minds should take notice of psychic phenomena, voices from beyond, and so on. It's particularly interesting because Conan Doyle is clearly a very intelligent, logical, scientifically trained man, and his belief in this tract is that there will shortly be a breakthrough that will let us more completely understand how to relate with those who have passed away. Indeed, he says that this brand of psychic research is 'an enormous new development, the greatest in the history of mankind'. Clearly, psychic research has not come to the progressive end he wished for. But for truly thought-provoking ideas on what the afterlife is, how the concepts he has mesh with religion, and why even sane scientific minds should take some notice of psychic phenomena.. you need look no further. Very thought-provoking.
The immortal English humorist and creator of Jeeves and Wooster made a whole mess of books in his lifetime, at least 70, apparently, and this particular out-of-copyright one is a real gem. It deals with the English scallywag Psmith, loose in New York in the '10s (with colorful detailed pastiche courtesy of Wodehouse having lived there for a time.) Psmith ends up re-tooling the homespun magazine 'Cosy Moments' to become a hard-hitting expose of New York corruption, with inimitably stylish results. It's got prize fighters, cat-loving gangsters with guns, a touring cricket team, and it's quite simply a delightful read. The beauty of Wodehouse is not only the wonderful sentence-to-sentence writing, but the cleverness of the overall plot shaping. And despite having a noble English type as a protagonist, this book is surprisingly gritty - yep, there's shootings and violence and all, if Wodehousianly amusing and stylised in nature. :) Well worth your time perusing, in any case. More info on Wodehouse would be here. Neato.
This very well-traveled English writer (1869-1951), who also lived in Canada and America and traveled throughout Europe, is apparently (so the Blackmask section heading says!) a significant influence on HP Lovecraft. I can see the reasons why in this wonderfully dark and foreboding tale in which nothing really ever happens, but the psychological and 'spectral' elements are brought so far to the fore that they practically overwhelm the reader. Essentially, it's about the overall consciousness of a forest overwhelming and undermining the relationship between a husband and wife. Again, I feel a little of the over-denseness of prose which was much more acceptable in Victorian or Edwardian times. But it's easily surpassable, and the descriptions of the plant life and the collective soul that rises up, unlocked by a painter of flora, and nurtured by the husband as he strays further and further from the human world, are evocative and spectacular. I found this piece most enjoyable and haunting - highly recommended. And as a parting note, there's a good biography of Algernon Blackwood here.
My interest in this particular title was piqued by its relation to Alan Moore's genius America's Best Comics title "Promethea", in which the heroine, called Sophie Bangs, is apparently related to this author (and some of the content has similar themes). "Promethea" the comic is a symbol-filled romp through underworlds and otherworlds of all kinds - as Moore freely admits, just a chance for him to advance his own peculiar world view (and before this review continues - Alan Moore is one of the most amazing creators of the past 100 years, you owe it to yourself to check out all of his work.) Anyhoo, "A Houseboat On The Styx" is a bit of a turn-of-the-20th-Century excuse too, an excuse to put famous historical figures who's passed on together all in one place, a floating gentleman's club in which Charon is janitor. It then has them pit their wits and brains against each other in all kinds of theoretical and intellectual arguments. The concept is rather fabulous, and Bangs (1862-1922) plays out figures such as Shakespeare, Darwin, Barnum, Dr. Johnson, even biblical figures, in humorous and witty banter amongst themselves regarding vogue-ish subjects of the day. It's clever stuff, and though it suffers from some of the 'famous' characters then not being quite so well-known now, there's lots of gems in the witty writing, including constant quips about Shakespeare having all his plays written for him. Another highlight is a section on why the dinosaurs didn't make it into Noah's ark, since prehistoric lizards were all the Pokemon-style vogue back then, what with massive skeletons in the National History Museum in London, Darwin bustin' out with evolutionary theory, and so on. Well worth checking out, imho, and there's a sequel and other offbeat titles available on Black Mask for your reading pleasure.
Of course, you know it already, but have you read it since childhood? Or did you ever read an unabridged version? I decided to check out "Alice In Wonderland" again, and it's every bit as enchanting as I semi-recalled. It's possible that everyone remembers the characters, who are surreally inspired in themselves, but not everyone recalls the crisp, excellent dialog, and the clever word-shapes embedded in the text, and the spectacularly readable flow. So whether it's the Caterpillar with the enormous hookah, the Queen insisting on head-offing, or, indeed, 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Bat', there's plenty of delightfully surreal turn-of-the-20th-century whimsy to wander through. The perfect accompaniment, of course, is the Arthur Rackham illustrations for the 1907 version of "Alice"..
I found this particular occult-orientated, pulp-derived book extremely interesting, even if it is extremely dense and difficult to make it through at times. It appears this story was originally written in 1919, and appeared in the pulp "Amazing Stories" magazine over several months in 1927. It's a mythologically themed fantasy novel which involves massive supernatural creatures, entire lands deep beneath the Earth, and much strange and dense imagery. But the depth of imagination, especially for the age of the piece, is so spectacular that, if you can wade through the sometimes dense and complex story and prose, you'll be richly rewarded, especially with the richly thought-out and complex plot involving multiple fantastical civilisations and native worshippers both in the South Seas and deep below the Earth's crust. Apparently, Merritt was a keen exotic plant collector, especially the more macabre and bizarre varieties such as mandrake and monkshood, which mirrors his dark and occultish leanings in his fiction, plus explains some interesting side-references to botany in the book. Decent bio and bibliography of Abraham Merritt is here.
Well, I knew this was meant to be a classic English Victorian novel of idlers and gently satirical fun, and essentially, that's what it is. Umm, end of review? Well, no. Like the Lovecraft book above, there's more. But back to basics - "Three Men In A Boat" is about 3 chums (and a dog) who go for a resoundingly successful/unsuccessful, if incident-filled cruise in a pleasure-boat up the Thames in the 1880s. Not ostensibly something that sounds remotely interesting, then. But it's a classic, simply because it's _so_ satirically well-written. Simply clicking on the html link and reading the first few paragraphs (about the narrator's hypochondriacal tendencies) sends me into fits of giggles. It's an enchantingly flippant book, and not just because of the misadventures of the triumvirate, but also because of the beautiful descriptions of the Thameside scenery and the countryside. But mainly, it's about getting drenched, not cooking food competently, and finding a decent pub to hear tall tales about monster fish in whilst cruising the Thames through outskirts of Victorian London and beyond. Classic. Oh, and here's a link to good biographical information on the man, who started 'The Idler' magazine all the way back in the 1890s (presumably the same one making a resurgence recently!)
I'd been a fan of the Cthulhu Mythos for quite a long time, quite possibly through playing the 'Call Of Cthulhu' RPG when I was younger, and so was very intrigued to read this collection of short stories (containing many of the all-time classics) from the very unearthly Lovecraft, who died back in 1937 but whose tales are still vibrant today. And it didn't disappoint, though some of the tales surprised me quite a lot in ways I'll go on to explain - dreamy, opiate-resonating nice ways, tho :P In any case, it seems the stories in this volume can be divided up into the macabre, gothic tales of unutterable monsters and the undead, which Lovecraft does better than almost anyone ("The Tomb", "The Music Of Erich Zann", and the title story to this collection are particularly recommended - oh, and the ever-famous "Lurking Fear"!) Also, there were more unexpected turns for me, the mythically filled, wordy dreamscapes and evocative legends, almost redolent of Tolkein's more dense and heritage-filled passages. But, when digested, these were strangely beautiful (try "The Doom That Came To Sarnath" or "The Crawling Chaos", which are still uniquely macabre in their own way, but much more coded and indirect than I expected, sometimes almost as folktales, sometimes, as in the latter case, as epic, seemingly drug-induced dreams/nightmares.) All in all, a fascinating collection, and well worth a read, even if you need to skip some of the crazily dense and wordy dream tales and get right to the "Lurking Horror", so to speak. (If you're interested in getting more information on Lovecraft himself, there's an excellent website here, btw.)