Archive for Short Fiction

“The Step” by E. F. Benson

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , , , on January 9, 2013 by davehurwitz
A somewhat dangerous looking gent wearing a bow tie.

E. F. Benson

Okay, I’ll admit I didn’t actually read this one.  I listened to it at Pseudopod.org, which usually confines itself to contemporary horror, but will bust out a classic like this on special occasions.  I’ll also admit that I’d never  heard of E. F. Benson before, but based on the quality of ‘The Step’ I’ve reserved a copy of his collected ghost stories from the San Diego Public Library.

In his introduction, Pseudopod’s Alasdair Stuart says that Benson was “less scholarly than M. R. James.”  I feel this is a good thing, as James seemed to think that the best way start most of his foreign-set ghost stories was with a rousing discussion of church architecture.  Benson, in contrast starts us off in medias res, with his protagonist walking a night street in British India.

‘The Step’ is the story of John Creswell.  (I’m guessing at the spelling here.)  Creswell is a British businessman who makes as handsome living outsmarting his countrymen at cards and practicing usury among the natives.  Much of the story involves repeated encounters with a Levantine merchant and his wife, who Creswell has evicted from their home and business mere hours before a redevelopment project doubles the value of the property.  Benson depicts Creswell as man of little fellow-feeling, dedicated to his own pleasures and unconcerned with the suffering of others.

Woven between these encounters, and seemingly unrelated to them, are Creswell’s evening walks home from his club, which take him past the precincts of a mendicant Catholic monastery, where hear hears–or thinks he hears–the tread of invisible feet.  The story concludes when Creswell finally encounters the owner of that tread.

Regular reader will know that I like a bit of ambiguity in my horror, and Benson leaves it up to the reader to fathom the connection between Creswell’s uncharitable nature and his shadowy follower.  All in all, this is one of the better weird tales I’ve encountered, and the Pseudopod reading is well worth a listen.

Dave Hurwitz

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The Year of Reading Short Stories

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , , , on January 7, 2013 by davehurwitz

One of my resolutions for 2013 is to start reading some of the short story collections that I’ve been stockpiling.  They’re mostly collections of Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories, but there are other things as well.  I have The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard–all 1,200 pages of it–eyeing me speculatively from the hardback shelf.  There’s a Liz Williams.  And that beautiful H. G. Wells collection from Tartarus Press.  To say nothing of Caitlin R. Kiernan.

As a way to motivate both reading and writing, I thought I’d offer up short critiques and commentary here on The Rot every time I finish a story.  My goal is to read and write about at least one story a week all this year.  That may not sound like a lot, but bear in mind that I’ll have to break down and read some novels as well at some point.  After all, Titan’s publishing at least two Kim Newman books this year.  There’s a new Justin Gustainis due out soon.  Ben Aaronovitch will probably have something as well.  Oh, and I have a day job, too.

The expected spook ship painting coverI’ve just finished ‘The Ghost Pirates’ by William Hope Hodgson, who I mostly know from his Carnacki the Ghost Finder stories.  Somewhat Ironically, this is my most recent book purchase.  I walked into Mysterious Galaxy’s anual New Year’s Day sale with a gift certificate and no notion what I wanted to buy, but after a few minutes of browsing I spotted this on an end-cap and snagged it.  I’d been hunting for this book, off and on, for more than a year, but it was out of print and there were no copies to be found in any of the nearby library systems.  Kudos should go to Night Shade Books for bringing it back, though they deserve some teasing for the cover layout, which is blatant ripoff of the iconic Penguin Classics covers.

At one-hundred pages, ‘Ghost Pirates’ is more of a novella than a short story.  Those hoping for some Curse of the Black Pearl style swordplay are in for a long wait.  The vast majority of the story consists of a series of strange and unlucky shipboard incidents.  These become less explicable, and more lethal, as the story progresses, but it’s not until the final pages that ghostly marauders come swarming up out of the sea to engage the terrified crew in deadly combat.  Hodgson, who was a sailor himself in his youth, lays on the nautical jargon without explaining any of it.  If, like me, you don’t know a spanker from a royal, this can be downright annoying.  In addition, the crew speak in various dialects according to the nationality and station.  These frustrations aside, ‘Ghost Pirates’ succeeds in building an atmosphere of disquiet.  For most of its hundred pages, the reader experiences a sort of queasy expectation, so that it is almost a relief when the worst finally happens.  I look forward to reading some of the shorter works in this collection, though perhaps not immediately.

Dave Hurwitz