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Monthly Archives: September 2019

“In the Shadow of Spindrift House” by Mira Grant

Mira Grant’s Into the Drowning Deep depicts an expedition beset by murderous aquatic creatures following the general body plan of mermaids. Her new novella In the Shadow of Spindrift House also deals with underwater life-forms that don’t have humanity’s best interests at heart, though its scope and tone is very different. Harlowe Upton-Jones and her friends have been a successful teen detective agency in the mode of the Scooby Gang or Encyclopedia Brown. But they’re growing out of the “teenage” part, and Harlowe wants to give them one last hurrah before they go their separate ways. This takes the form of investigating the mysterious Spindrift House, whose ownership is debated and which has been the site of unexplained disappearances and deaths.

Seanan McGuire uses the Mira Grant pen name to write stories with a somewhat darker tone, but Spindrift House shares one major commonality with some of her best work as McGuire. As in the Wayward Children series, the theme of “found family” plays a major role here. Harlowe and her friends understand each other’s quirks, help each other through difficulties both major and minor, and generally act as siblings to each other. Harlowe has even been adopted into her friend Kevin’s family, with his mother acting as a surrogate parent to her after the death of her parents and abandonment of her grandparents. Some of this closeness comes from their shared experiences solving mysteries—it’s implied that a few of the mysteries had truly supernatural conclusions, so the “these are the only people who believe me about what happened” element that draws children to Eleanor West’s school in Wayward Children is present here too. But some of it comes simply from their willingness to accept each other as they are, treating their differences as something to be accommodated and respected rather than feared or shunned. This adds greater emotional stakes to the central conflict in the book, which forces Harlowe to choose between biological and found family.

Interestingly, Spindrift House uses a similar premise to a novel I read and reviewed back in 2017, Edgar Cantero’s Meddling Kids. In both cases, a group of erstwhile teen detectives confronts a spooky house whose secret turns out to have distinctly Lovecraftian overtones. The tone and prose style of the two books is very different, however. While Meddling Kids’s longer length gives it more time to develop its characters, I preferred Grant’s take on the premise. While someone who loved the esoteric genre mashup in Meddling Kids will probably enjoy the similar mélange in Spindrift House, I suspect that the stylistic difference will predispose readers to strongly preferring one over the other.

As expected for Grant, some of the language in Spindrift House has a lyrical quality. She does an excellent job evoking the ceaseless, unhurried rhythms of the sea. There’s a dreamlike aspect to the writing in some passages that mirrors Harlowe’s actual dream scenes, and the symmetry there serves to show how the barriers are breaking down between Harlowe’s everyday life and something else.

I do have one quibble with the characterization, but because it’s dependent on a major plot event, I’ll discuss it at the very end so readers can avoid spoilers. Overall, In the Shadow of Spindrift House has a lot of depth to it, despite its brevity. While it was initially published as a limited-edition hardcover from Subterranean Press, the publisher has recently made it available as an eBook as well. Hopefully, this wider distribution will make the story available for more people to enjoy, as I think it’s worthy as an addition to readers’ personal collections, as well as for awards such as the Bram Stoker.

 

–Spoilers Ahead—

 

Addison generally struck me as manipulative, selfish, and unworthy of Harlowe’s crush on her. That substantially blunted the emotional impact of her death. The tragedy of its effect on Harlowe and of Harlowe’s forced complicity in it is counteracted by a sense of “Eh, I didn’t like her anyway.” At the same time, she isn’t so unlikeable that her death is cathartic or seen as a just comeuppance (e.g. Joffrey in GOT). The reader doesn’t get to experience either the gut-punch of a tragic death or the catharsis of a deserved one.

“The Voyage of the Basilisk” by Marie Brennan

The third volume in Marie Brennan’s Memoirs of Lady Trent series takes its heroine on an ocean voyage around the world to study dragons. In the service of her ambitious project to assemble a definitive taxonomy of dragons, Isabella Camherst endures a devastating storm, makes a momentous archaeological discovery, and finds herself in the middle of an incipient war.

As in the previous installments, Brennan constructs interesting, detailed cultures to inhabit her world. Like the Vystrani and Bayembe, the Keongans have a fully realized society, with its own politics, traditions, and spiritual customs. Not only is this distinct from the culture Isabella’s used to, it’s different from those of the other societies introduced in this and previous books. Brennan’s writing gives the impression of a world that, like our own, is vast and filled with a wide array of people who have different perspectives on their surroundings.

In her travels, Isabella is aided by a number of interesting characters. In particular, I hope to see the gruff but adventurous sea-captain Aekinitos and the archaeologist Suhail in future books. (I have particular hopes for Suhail, since he’s established to be Akhian, and the next book is set in Akhia.) I also liked Heali’i, who becomes Isabella’s guide to Keongan culture. Although I was eager to see what Isabella’s next destination would be, I was also sad to see her leave the Keongans behind, and a large part of that was because of Heali’i’s character.

Finally, of course, there are the dragons. Most of the dragons that appear in this book are sea serpents, and the question of whether they even count as “true” dragons is discussed. This book also continues the plot thread of the ancient Draconeans and their relationship to dragons. The discoveries Isabella makes here seem to be laying the groundwork for more revelations in the last two books of the series, and I’m looking forward to seeing where they lead.

“The Dark Descent” by David G. Hartwell (editor)

Originally published in 1987, David G. Hartwell’s The Dark Descent collects a number of the best short horror stories written to that date. At over a thousand pages, it’s a substantial collection. Hartwell divides the stories into three thematic categories, but there’s another way in which one could divide the book into thirds. Some of the stories in The Dark Descent were written by giants of the field (and many are themselves classics of the genre); others are works by lesser-known horror writers; and still others were penned by writers famous in genres other than horror.

Fans of horror will probably already have read some of the stories in the first group, like Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu.” In other cases, avid horror readers may be delighted to read “new” works by authors they already love. Stephen King, for example, is known primarily for his novels, but The Dark Descent includes two works of his shorter fiction, “The Monkey” and “Crouch End.” One of the most interesting stories in this set is Henry James’s “The Jolly Corner.” James’s The Turn of the Screw is a classic ghost story, despite the uncertainty over whether or not there’s actually a ghost. “The Jolly Corner” also presents a twist on tales of hauntings, with the main character conceiving of the house he grew up in as being haunted by the spirit of the man he would have become if he’d stayed there. When he tries to catch this spirit, the roles reverse, and he begins thinking of himself as the ghost.

Of the stories that fall into the second category, my favorites were Karl Edward Wagner’s “Sticks” and Robert Hitchens’s “How Love Came to Professor Guildea.” “Sticks” is a truly creepy tale of a man who finds sculptures made from tied-together twigs in the woods near his home. Despite its having won a British Fantasy Award, I haven’t seen this story reprinted anywhere else, and Wagner’s work seems not to have been widely reprinted in general. “How Love Came to Professor Guildea” tells of a misanthropic scholar who’s haunted by a presence that holds no ill will toward him whatsoever. On the contrary, it seems to love him. This may not seem like a promising setup for a horror story, but Guildea finds its presence revolting, and Hitchens conveys his feelings of being oppressed and smothered so well that the reader naturally empathizes with them.

Finally, several of the stories presented here are by authors who are famous not for horror, but for science fiction. While Ray Bradbury is primarily known for sci-fi works like The Martian Chronicles, he also wrote a fair number of stories that fall into the realm of horror or dark fantasy. Some of the best are collected in The October Country, including “The Crowd,” which is reprinted here. It takes the already uncomfortable phenomenon of people rubbernecking at car accidents and turns it into something truly sinister. The Dark Descent also features Philip K. Dick’s “A Little Something for Us Tempunauts.” Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” was adapted into the iconic sci-fi film Blade Runner, and here he straddles the line between science fiction and horror by positing a time-travel voyage gone horribly wrong.

While most of the stories in this anthology are well-chosen, there are a couple of puzzling omissions. John W. Campbell Jr.’s “Who Goes There?”, the basis for John Carpenter’s movie The Thing, is influential enough to have been included in the SFWA’s Science Fiction Hall of Fame. And while Harlan Ellison’s “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” is certainly a chilling tale, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” surely merits inclusion in an anthology of short horror fiction. Despite this, however, the collection is certainly a worthy purchase for anyone looking for a comprehensive survey of horror stories up to the 1980s.

“Ghost Wall” by Sarah Moss

The theme of Sarah Moss’s latest novel, Ghost Wall, can be summed up by a William Faulkner quote: “The past is never dead. It isn’t even really past.” Sylvie’s father plans an unusual vacation for their family: joining a local college professor’s project to spend a couple of weeks living the way British people did in the Bronze Age. This involves some of the physical discomforts you would expect, such as foraging for food in the summer heat and living in huts. But things take a darker turn as Sylvie’s father’s fascination with the period deepens into obsession. And not all the hazards of the era were natural ones; there’s evidence that a nearby bog was a site of human sacrifice.

Several times, Sylvie’s father makes some pronouncement about how things were done “back then,” only for the professor to reply that experts aren’t really sure. The past that Sylvie’s father is so invested in is part constructed or imagined. Ghost Wall asks what happens when our narratives about “how things used to be” are challenged. It also points out our tendency to gloss over or romanticize the uglier parts of history. In the mind of Sylvie’s father, the early Britons were better than modern people, living close to the land and having a tight-knit community. They didn’t live in fear of nuclear war or mass shootings. But they also practiced human sacrifice.

The way Sylvie’s father allows his imagined past to become more real than the present also lends itself to social commentary. Nostalgia for “the good old days” can lead to a resistance to change or an unwillingness to challenge an unjust status quo. At one point in the story, the characters build the titular “ghost wall,” which was originally believed to be a defense against invaders. For Sylvie’s father, modernity itself is the invader, and he tries to keep it out with the ghosts of the past, whether metaphorical or literal.

For such a short book, Ghost Wall is surprisingly complex in its themes. However, I found my enjoyment of it undermined somewhat by the simplicity of one of its central characters. Sylvie’s father is so one-dimensional that it’s impossible to feel any sympathy for him. I think the story of his growing obsession would have been stronger if he had started out as a stern but reasonably decent person and steadily become harsher and more unstable as said obsession deepened. As it is, he feels like a cardboard cutout, which stands in startling contrast to the nuance of the rest of the book.