Trolls, Shub-Niggurath, and the Dark North

Valancourt Books (previously) has increasingly been releasing horror in translation in recent years. Their Valancourt Book of World Horror Stories does what work in translation should do, “bringing the news” from other parts of the world to your own, or at least to your own language, and has shown up in reviews, on syllabi, and other places of honor. Not coincidentally, the press won the 2021 HWA Speciality Press Award, testament to their impact on the field, from reprinting forgotten classics to their translation work, to the Paperbacks from Hell series.

Recently they released a book that’s even better than the norm for them: Anders Fager’s Swedish Cults (Valancourt|Bookshop|Amazon). I no longer buy books based on blurbs, but I can honestly say that the blurbs for this book are correct. It’s a vigorous collection of Lovecraftian horror that belongs on a shelf with Caitlín R. Kiernan & kin. Reading it, I felt the same old/new shock that I got on reading Charles Stross’s “A Colder War,” that sense of a new take. Fager’s blend of sex and surreality is distinctive, he has one of the best uses of Shub-Niggurath I can remember reading, and there are no bad stories in this book. If any of the above resonated with you, check it out. Good reading for dark nights…

Anders Fager's book on a shelf of Lovecraft books
Swedish Cults in their native (?) environment

I should probably say that I was predisposed to be interested in Fager’s book. Growing up Scandinavian-American, my childhood was full of the usual stuff: lefse, rosemaling, Ole & Lena, etc. It also featured more than a little Norse mythology and folklore, including trolls of all shape and size. My interest in that has revived in recent years, partly for personal reasons and partly due to encountering works like Midsommar and Swedish Cults. I’ve bought or repurchased various related titles, some pictured below.

D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths, Berenstain's The Troll Book, the Kittelsen/Nunnally edition of Troll Magic, and the Nunnally/Gaiman Complete and Original Norwegian Folktales of Asbjornsen & Moe

Tack for reading, and check out Fager if his book sounds up your alley at all!

The Horror of the Past, the Horror of the Present

In an essay recently published at LitHub, Rebecca Solnit  shared some thoughts on what it takes to be a writer, and I found myself nodding along with a lot of it. I almost suffered a spinal injury while nodding at this:

Read good writing, and don’t live in the present. Live in the deep past, with the language of the Koran or the Mabinogion or Mother Goose or Dickens or Dickinson or Baldwin or whatever speaks to you deeply. Literature is not high school and it’s not actually necessary to know what everyone around you is wearing, in terms of style, and being influenced by people who are being published in this very moment is going to make you look just like them, which is probably not a good long-term goal for being yourself or making a meaningful contribution. At any point in history there is a great tide of writers of similar tone, they wash in, they wash out, the strange starfish stay behind, and the conches.

“Co-signed,” I say. My reading has included plenty of horror and weird fiction and fantasy and such, but also: a ton of history, folklore, literary criticism, foreign (German, Greek, Latin, more) literature in the original and in translation, poetry, and a large, non-representative thwack of 20th century U.S. fiction. And for as long as I have even flirted with the idea of writing seriously, I’ve encountered poets and writers the same age as me who shrugged at the idea of reading books older than they were, or outside their area of specialization. Unfortunately for a lot of them, it showed in their writing. Almost to a one, nobody wanted to hear “you should read some Henry James,” or “have you tried Seneca,” or “dude, Christina Rosetti.”

valancourt book of horror stories coverAll of which brings me to the first volume of The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories, [B&N | Amazon | publisher] edited by the publishers of that esteemed house, James D. Jenkins and Ryan Cagle. If you have any interest in horror fiction, I urge you to give this book a try. Two-thirds of the names in the Table of Contents were either unfamiliar to me, or very nearly so, and the stories in this volume come from across the last two centuries of the tradition of Anglo-American horror. Some are early 18th century, some less than ten years old. You’re not going to find Blackwood, Brite, Stoker, King, Langan, Rice, or the like in this book, which is kind of the point. Tread these waters, and you’ll encounter new voices and new stories, told in forms and rhythms that may just change you.

One of the supposed joys of reading anthologies is that you encounter a range of authors, a kind of heady stew that takes you in new directions. In practice, many’s the anthology I go to read where 50-90% of the authors are familiar to me, and sometimes that’s exactly what I want. This anthology, however, not only introduced me to new authors, but to authors whose work I intend to seek out (some of which can be found in Valancourt’s catalogue): Michael McDowell, Stephen Gregory, John Trevena, M.G. Lewis, and Charles Birkin.

This book contains many gems, from Christopher Priest’s transgressive “The Head and the Hand,” to Mary Cholmondeley’s “Let Loose,” a proto-vampire tale that plays with various conventions of the vampire tale seven years before the publication of Dracula. Michael McDowell’s “Miss Mack” is a tale of dread and female friendship, with a strong Southern flavor in keeping with the author’s background.

If I had to point to one story I liked best, I’d say Stephen Gregory’s “The Progress of John Arthur Crabbe.” The story is excellent and elliptical, and I’ve already read it several times. This is a case where I had not only not read the author, but hadn’t even heard of him, as best I can recall. He’s a Welsh author of horror fiction, with a number of books out there and is still publishing. I’m grateful to Valancourt Books for this collection in general, but in particular for opening  such promising new rooms to me in the mansion of horror fiction.

A Pagan Suckled in a Creed Outworn

flowers in landscapeFor the last couple months I’ve been on social media very little. This was on account of sundry deadlines, projects, and all the other reasons people typically get offline. I’ve been happier and measurably healthier since then, albeit missing the connection. The horrors of this past week have spurred me to political participation, but not to dwell constantly on injustice, and I’m so glad not to be as much in places where the parade of atrocities never ends. I still hew to Wordsworth’s famous formulation, and I’m endeavoring to live for the things I care about most.

cover of forthcoming Valancourt anthologyAt times when the world does press in, I think it’s important to remember the things that don’t. This week I was talking with James Jenkins of Valancourt Books about the merits of reading classic (or simply older) fiction, and I don’t think it can be overstated. One of the best things I’ve done for myself as a reader or writer in the last year was read all of M.R. James‘ tales, of which I’d previously read some, but not all. No one asked me to do so; as a rule, dead authors are not particularly demanding. Still, the desire was there in me, and it led in a roundabout way to my writing “En Plein Air,” a short story that will appear this October in volume two of Nightscript, and which I think is one of the most effective things I’ve written to date.

Last week I placed an order for a small pile of books, using some of the earnings from my Richmond Young Writers gig, recent things that I’ve read from the library or about which I’ve heard really excellent advance praise. What I also look forward to reading are the things that nobody is urging me to read. Part of that involves plumbing bibliographies and reference books, part of it involves finding reprints, and part of it involves hewing to the titular requirement of this post.

Egyptian_-_Gnostic_Gem_with_Scarab_-_Walters_42872_-_ReverseThe survival of work from the past can be a chancy thing, and what is saved is not necessarily good, and what is lost is sometimes better forgotten. The finding of it, however, is part of a quiet and almost Gnostic kind of quest that demands nothing. It is the sort of thing that many authors have engaged in over the years, and which cannot—perhaps should not—always be repackaged for the demands of social media. Some quests are public, some private, but either way, I think that we forget our quests at the peril of our lives, to say nothing of our art.