the mammoth book of thrillers, ghosts and mysteries.


Thought I’d go over a great old anthology, The Mammoth Book of Thrillers, Ghosts and Mysteries, edited by J.M. Parrish and John R. Crossland and published by Odhams Press in 1936. It’s a musty old thing, embossed with a flying bat on the cover and filled with illustrations by a variety of magazine illustrators from the era. It has a sealed section at the end, comprising many of the choicer terror tales, and marked with hyperbolic warnings about reading alone and at night. Each selection comes with its own author portrait, drawn by an unknown artist or series of artists. Some of these are rather bad, such as the oddly sinister one of M.R. James, where he looks like some sort of angry banker who has just found out his workers are unionizing – but others are quite good, such as Aldous Huxley and Guy de Maupassant. (The purveyors of the illustrations themselves are credited on their own page.)

I picked this up for 12 bucks about two or three years ago, so my memory of the contents is not as vivid as it could be, but I write down all the decent stories I read in a notebook so that helps. I’m not going to give this a serious critical dressing-down, as this is more about providing a casual look-through at a relatively easy to find anthology which is still running at an affordable price and is packed with lesser known contributions to the tradition of British strange fiction.

Some of the highlights are Michael Arlen’s “The Ghoul of Golders Green,” a story so enjoyable I didn’t even mind that it had a blazing atrocity of a crap ending. This was my first introduction to Arlen (the former Dikran Kouyoumdjian), an acquaintance I was glad to extend when I later read his excellent and uproarious “The Gentleman from America.” J.D. Beresford contributes an enigmatic puzzle of a tale in “Powers of the Air,” a piece that might give Robert Aickman a run for his money in the unpopular ‘How Many Unexplained Things Can You Have in Your Story’ contest.

Joseph Conrad’s unremittingly tense “The Secret Sharer” is included. A piece by the aforementioned Mopin’ Maupassant, “The Hostelry,” also quite strong and atmospheric; a man keeping watch over an out of season and snowed-in hotel, deep in some European mountains whose specific location I can’t bring myself to give a shit about and remember.

Huxley’s “The Dwarfs” is great, James’ “The Mezzotint” is one of my favorite bits by him (I’ve included the illustration for it below). Jerome K. Jerome’s “The Dancing Partner” is here, and it is a deserved classic, brutal, abrupt, and horrid in every way. Onion’s “Rooum” is solid, Barry Pain’s “The Green Light” is a fun but slighter offering from him.

Robert Louis Stevenson steals a folktale from Hawaiians and comes out with “The Island of Voices,” likely my favorite thing by him. The anonymous “Tale of a Gas-light Ghost” is tremendous, which I was not expecting at all. I had my first dalliance with L.P. Hartley here, in the well-known “A Visitor from Down Under,” which is as humorous as it is unnerving, and condenses everything I love about the British style of doing weird, odd, and strange fiction.

William Hope Hodgson also contributes his woeful tale of fungal foibles in “The Voice in the Night,” which still astounds me that it was written in 1907 and is so thoroughly and wonderfully cruel, disgusting, and funny. This was quite a bit before the housing fungal-fiction bubble in the late 20th century, long before the gob of fungi became a standard device and fetishized accoutrement in the world of weird fiction.

I can remember little of P.C. Wren’s “Presentiments,” but I graded it an ‘A’ in my notebook so it must have been good. It was Freudian, as I recall, about a smothering and jealous mother who hounds her daughter into an early grave and is not even consciously aware of her own smoldering hatred for her offspring.

This anthology is still out there and relatively affordable, and it comes with my entirely worthless and dubious recommendation. Apparently this post has screwed up my blog’s format, somehow, which irritates me to no end but which I don’t feel like doing anything about now.

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the catacomb of books is growing, coughed the tuberculitic rector.


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I have accumulated all of these despite working a near minimum wage job. The joys of being single and childless truly know no bounds. A few of the books I look forward to the most are Anna Tambour’s Crandolin, recently out from Chômu Press, The Evening Standard Book of Strange Stories from 1934, and my first Tartarus press splurge, Nugent Barker’s Written with my Left Hand.

step across the border: the (not at all) as usual dance.

Last night I re-watched Nicolas Humbert and Werner Penzel’s 1990 documentary about Fred Frith, Step Across the Border. I watched it with my housemate who had never seen it before. I had not seen it for about seven years, since I was in high school. To say that it was an invigorating and inspiring experience was to say the absolute, minimal least. I can say without hesitation that it is one of my all time favorite films, from the perspective of musical performances captured, cinematic beauty, and the exciting interplay of editing and found sound which I have not seen in many other documentaries.

If you are unfamiliar with Fred Frith, he is an avant-garde multi-instrumentalist and composer, primarily known for his work on the guitar. You can look up his work, an overview of his discography. His tenure with Henry Cow, Massacre, Skeleton Crew, and the Art Bears. His solo work for prepared guitar. You don’t need to know any of it to be stunned and pleased by this film. (Even my high school girlfriend who I watched it with seven years ago, who mostly liked bland indie pop music, was charmed by Frith.)

Frith is captured in this film as an unabashedly arty man, charming and practically detonating with talent. It was once said of comedian Peter Cook that he was “funny in the same way some people are beautiful.” Fred Frith is musical in the same way some people are beautiful. Un-self-consciously, constantly. Joyfully. This is a man who can be captivating by doing nothing more than casually humming out bars from compositions he has written, using his hands against the couch for percussion. One of my favorite scenes from the film shows Fred Frith from distance at a beach, wrapped in thick layers of coat. Above, seagulls whirl through the air and fill it with their cries. The camera zooms in and you realize that Frith is holding a violin and mimicking the seagulls, scraping the strings in imitation of their nasal cackling. We stay with him while he tries out five or six different calls, each time finding the exact note for the gull’s voice, such that if you had your eyes closed you might suppose the filmmakers had decided to include a lengthy scene of gulls crying for atmospheric purposes.

There are many highlights, however. The scenes of Massacre rehearsing their dissonant, free-jazz Balkan punk; “The Morning Song,” featuring an alarm clock; a jam between John Zorn and Frith in a dimly lit room, so that Zorn appears to be some sort of alien insect hidden inside a jacket (shades of Wollheim’s “Mimic”), blowing out something resembling interstellar blues; a mind-erasing piece featuring Frith playing percussion on prepared guitar and a Japanese percussionist wielding hammers against an indomitable wall of drums. Little in the film is forgettable.

It is apparent that Frith sees a connection between his music and his (left) politics. Just as his musical work seeks to estrange and distance itself and deviate from standard structures, he hopes his music, in some humble way, can help others to see through the mist of pre-given opinion. He says in the film that he has given up on his youthful hopes of changing the world and has instead seen the value in challenging, if for a moment, the expectations a listener had for music or what their definition of music was. If he can get a few listeners to come up to him and ask, “What in the world was that about?”, then he has done something of value. From the Skeleton Crew song, “The Border”:

A step across the border

One foot after another

Think! Think!

A small step into elsewhere

To follow the quick light

Tom Cora, Iva Bittová, Pavel Fajt, Arto Lindsay, and many other figures wander through Step Across the Border. It is a charming and enervating film, a chaotic coughing of musical spores into the air. They get into your throat, they get stuck in your eyes. The next few days, you find yourself feeling their effects, tapping out rhythms on inappropriate surfaces, speaking with greater confidence about art and why it is important. You cough a few spores yourself. It travels round.