Book Review: Stories from Sleep No More

Book Review: Stories from Sleep No More edited by August Derleth

Sleep No More was a 1940s anthology of horror fiction put together by noted Wisconsin historical fiction (and horror) author August Derleth.  It featured primarily creepy stories from the pulp magazines of the 1930s.  In the 1960s, a paperback reprint came out.  To make it a manageable size with the binding limitations of the time, only the first nine stories were included; and presumably there would have been a sequel with the rest had sales justified it.

Stories from Sleep No More

“Count Magnus” by M.R. James leads off with the tale of a would-be travel book writer who visits Sweden and wakes up something that should have been kept sleeping.  Like many tales from the era, it’s told at a remove, reported by someone who found the protagonist’s papers and pieced together the story from them.  That aside, it’s an excellent example of horror by implication–none of the presumably gory bits happen on page, and the results are not directly described.  The moment of most terror is a lock that should not be open being open.

“Cassius” by Henry S. Whitehead is set in the West Indies.  A man who’s had an ugly growth removed is hunted by a small but deadly enemy.  It starts well, but the explanation for the terror is heavily racist, involving some dubious genetics and “race memory.”  Also, the ending is an anticlimax.

“The Occupant of the Room” by Algernon Blackwood is the oldest story in the collection.  A schoolteacher who altered his holiday plans on a whim finds himself at a Swiss inn with no vacancies.  Wait, there is one room, but the catch is that the occupant just vanished a couple of days ago–they may or may not be returning.  The room’s atmosphere is oppressive, leading to thoughts of suicide.  Unnatural thoughts!

“The Return of the Sorcerer” by Clark Ashton Smith has a desperately unemployed man (who happens to know Arabic) get a job as secretary to reclusive scholar John Carnby.  Carnby turns out to be an occultist with eccentric habits, and a fear of leaving his room at night.  Supposedly, the noises in the halls are rats, but the glimpses the secretary gets don’t look like any rats he’s ever seen.  Mr. Carnby needs some passages from the Necronomicon translated at the highest priority, passages about sorcerers being able to come back from the dead.  The job does not end well.

“Johnson Looked Back” by Thomas Burke is a rare second-person story.  The reader is addressed as though they were Johnson, who is pursued by a mysterious blind, handless man.  The narrator urges Johnson not to look behind him, but of course he does and dooms himself.  The ending is kind of kludgy, suggesting the whole story is a metaphor.

“The Hand of the O’Mecca” by Howard Wandrei is set in Minnesota, not far from Mankato.  Finnish-American farmer Elof Bocak is crossing the fields at night to woo his neighbor, Kate O’Mecca.  Perhaps he should have paid more attention to the superstition about bats on the ground.  Some nice local color, but the twist is telegraphed.

“‘He Cometh and He Passeth By!'” by H.R. Wakefield concerns a barrister named Edward Bellamy.  He’s contacted by an old school friend, Philip Franton.  They’d fallen out of touch after the War, but now Franton is in a spot of trouble.  It seems he was for some months host to Oscar Clinton, a fascinating fellow who Philip was quite entranced with initially.

Eventually, Clinton’s less appealing habits (impregnating chambermaids, stealing and forgery) became unbearable, and Franton broke ties with the man.  Some time later, Clinton tried to use his “friendship” with Philip as a recommendation to a club, and the wealthy man blackballed him.  Clinton was not well pleased, and sent Franton a supposedly cursed image.  Now Philip is jumping at oddly shaped shadows.

Bellamy is unable to prevent his friend’s horrible death, but perhaps he can get a little extrajudicial revenge?

Oscar Clinton is cartoonishly decadent.  To quote:

“I fancy,” said Clinton, “that you are perplexed by the obstinate humidity of my left eye.  It is caused by the rather heavy injection of heroin I took this afternoon.”

It’s probably meant to evoke the image of the notorious “Wickedest Man in the World” Aleister Crowley.  While Clinton only mentions sex with women, there are homoerotic undertones in his relationships with Franton and Bellamy.  His comeuppance is satisfying.

“Thus I Refute Beezly” by John Collier is titled after Samuel Johnson’s famous rejoinder to Bishop Berkeley.  “Small Simon” Carter is a friendless child who spends most of his time in the garden, playing alone.  He claims to be playing with a “Mr. Beezly” who is hard to describe, and no adult has ever seen.

Small Simon’s father, who insists on being called “Big Simon”, is a dentist with some odd ideas about parenting.  Big Simon is big on science and fact, and when Small Simon won’t admit that Beezly is imaginary, decides to punish the lad.  That’s a mistake.

This story is more often reprinted than most in this collection, and there’s analysis of it at various websites.  What struck me was that the author is being snotty about “modern” parenting methods of the sort where parents insist on children calling them by first name.  “See?  This fellow is all ‘progressive’ and such, but when logic fails, it’s back to corporal punishment just like normal folks!”

Rounding out the collection is “The Mannikin” by Robert Bloch.  A schoolteacher picks a random isolated town for vacation, only to discover that this is the hometown of his old school friend Simon Maglore.  In the time they’ve been parted, the deformity of Simon’s back has gotten a lot worse, and the superstitious locals shun him.  The basic twist is the same as “Cassius”, minus the racism.  Some Lovecraftian references in this story, too.

Most of these are good if dated stories; “Cassius” is the only one that has become outright uncomfortable to read due to its attitudes.  While it’s long out of print, the paperback edition should be relatively easy to find in finer used bookstores.

Manga Review: Dream Fossil

Manga Review: Dream Fossil by Satoshi Kon

Satoshi Kon (1963-2010) was an acclaimed anime director, making a handful of movies (including Paprika) and one television series, Paranoia Agent.   His themes of confusion of dreams and reality, and madness lying just below the surface of society, made his works fascinating.  He also spent some time as a manga creator, creating several stories in the 1980s before going into anime full time as an assistant to Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira).  This volume collects his short works.

Dream Fossil

The lead story is “Carve.”  After a war polluted the old places of habitation, most of humanity moved to “The City”, a haven of high technology.  However, when a minority of humans started developing psychic powers, they were kicked out of The City, and scrape by in the now less toxic old cities.  Sculptor Kei and his female friend/model Ann notice that Specials are starting to disappear from their neighborhood.  Are The City people up to something?

The fifteen stories cover a range of genres.  There’s a couple of baseball stories, some slice of life, a samurai thriller, and some more speculative fiction.  The characters tend towards the realistic, even if the circumstances are often bizarre.

One standout is “Kidnappers”, about a car thief who discovers that he has a small child in the back seat.  He wants to get the kid back to the parents, but doesn’t want to go to jail for swiping the vehicle–and the actual kidnapper is after him too.  The main character is well drawn as a bad person, but one that doesn’t want to be that bad.

There’s also  “Waira”, the samurai thriller I mentioned.  A feudal warlord has been betrayed by his vassal/brother-in-law, his troops massacred, and now he and a handful of surviving followers are fleeing through a mountain forest in the middle of the night.  The brother-in-law and his troops pursue, but their guides warn them that the mountain is haunted by a murderous creature named “Waira.”  Who will survive?  The nature of Waira comes as a bit of a surprise–it’s so out of place that it might as well be supernatural.

I can really spot the Otomo influence in several of these stories.  The art and writing are decent, but Kon doesn’t sparkle here the way he does in his animation work.  A couple of the stories are photocopied from magazine appearances as the original art is lost; this affects the print quality.

The last story in the volume is Kon’s debut work, a two-parter titled “Toriko” (prisoner).  It’s very YA dystopia.  Yuichi, a teenager, lives in a future society ruled by implacable robot police, and in which you must have your identity card ready at all times for any transactions or even just walking down the street at the wrong time.  When he and his friends break curfew, they are remanded to The Center for “rehab” to become “productive citizens.”  Good thing Yuichi managed to snag a weapon!  Downer ending, depending on your point of view.

In addition to a few color pages, there’s also an interview with Susumu Hirawara, a composer who worked with Satoshi Kon on musical scores for the anime projects.  (One last film, Dreaming Machine, is being slowly finished.)

The intended audience varies, a couple would be suitable for young readers, but overall this anthology seems to be seinen (young men’s.)  Several of the stories have lethal violence, there’s some nudity, underaged drinking and smoking, and one story has an attempted rape.

Fans of Satoshi Kon’s other work will want to own this anthology; others will be better served by checking it out via library loan.

Book Review: The Wall

Book Review: The Wall by Mary Roberts Rinehart

Marcia Lloyd is an upper-crust socialite who is not as wealthy as she used to be.  Not by any means broke, but when she comes to her summer home, Sunset, in New England, she can only afford to employ a handful of servants for a house that needs a dozen or so.  Still, Marcia is looking forward to a break from Depression-Era New York City–until she discovers that her brother Arthur’s ex-wife Juliette Ransom is in town.  The conniving Juliette insists on staying at Sunset, being rather vague about her reasons for being on the island.

The Wall

Juliette is known for her expensive tastes and fondness for playing with men’s affections, so it’s perhaps not too surprising when she goes out riding one day and never comes back.   Some time later, her corpse turns up, and it’s pretty obviously it was murder.  But who did it?  Was it Marcia, our narrator?  Arthur, who can no longer afford the ruinous alimony payments?  The mysterious painter Allen Pell, who knows Juliette from somewhere but won’t say more?  Any of the dozen or so men of “the summer people” Juliette partied with in the past. or perhaps a local?  Or a complete stranger?

Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958) was a prolific author perhaps best remembered for her mysteries; she was at one point known as “the American Agatha Christie.”  This book is an example of the “Had I But Known” school of mystery writing, where a character (usually female) has incomplete information, or fails to grasp the significance of the information she has, and makes blunders that cause the  mystery to be harder for the investigators to solve.

Marcia often mentions bits from further along in the story–“I did not know then who Juliette had seen in the town” and fails to get clues to the sheriff in a timely manner because she doesn’t realize they are clues.  In the early part of the novel, she also doesn’t reveal what she knows about the activities of her brother Arthur as she’s trying to protect him, muddying the waters.  But Marcia is scarcely the only one at fault, Arthur and several other male characters also make mistakes that tangle up the investigation to avoid scandal or pursue their own agendas.  Plus the murderer is of course not telling the police anything.

The book is very much a period piece; not just because of the vanishing way of life Marcia and the “summer people” represent, but the little cultural references.  For example, “Bank Night at the movies” is mentioned offhand.  In 1938, Ms. Rinehart’s readers would have instantly understood; nowadays most readers will need to consult Wikipedia.

One amusing bit is that the house is wired with bells to summon servants, and these keep going off at random intervals when no one’s there, despite the electrician claiming all the wires are functioning correctly.  Marcia tells us right up front that the bells have nothing to do with the mystery, and they are still unexplained at the end, even after the title of the book is finally explained.  (This part may or may not be based on something that happened at Mary Roberts Rinehart’s real-life Maine summer house.)

There’s also a romantic subplot, as Marcia develops a thing for Allen Pell, and vice-versa, despite the very real possibility that he’s a multiple murderer.

Content issues:  There’s a fair amount of classism, some period sexism, a couple of ethnic slurs and discussion of suicide.  Marcia and most of the other characters smoke heavily and drink alcohol (overuse of alcohol leading to tragedy is a plot point.)

While not Ms. Rinehart’s best known work, this is a fun read if you are willing to put up with the characters acting rather stupidly and some twists that seem to come out of nowhere.   Recommended for fans of old-fashioned mystery novels.

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