high-spirits

Yesterday was Halloween — and with that in mind, a lot of the reading I did in the week leading up to the holiday in question fell onto the supernaturally-charged side of things. Sometimes that led to ominous, terrifying work; at others, ghosts and hauntings took on a knowing, almost comic air.

We’ll start with a trio of collections. I have no idea why Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove has been on my to-read shelf unread; the only reason I can think of is that the story about the human-silkworm hybrids creeped me out to the point where I was afraid to read it. Anyway. I should state from the outset that Russell’s “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis” is one of my favorite short stories of the last few years — maybe my favorite, honestly. And that’s what closes this book, so Russell probably could have filled the rest of the book with post-it notes and I’d still be recommending it. Thankfully, the rest of the stories are also fantastic, from explorations of immortality to a surreal Midwestern landscape.

And, after reading with the author and being floored by the story that he read, I picked up and subsequently read Laird Barron’s The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All. I suspect that I’ll read more of Barron’s work before the year is done: the stories here are a smart blend of horror and noir; the general tone is understated, despite the cosmic terrors that many of the stories summon. There’s a lot to love here: the evocation of the Northwest; the way that some of the stories connect, but not in a heavyhanded way; Barron’s command of dread. If you haven’t read Barron yet but are fond of, say, Brubaker and Phillips’s Fatale, you’ll find a similar fusion of styles here, carried out with deft prose and some horrifying images.

I also enjoyed the ghost stories collected in Robertson Davies’s High Spirits. These were an annual tradition of Davies’s, and that tradition ends up becoming referenced part of the way through. There are more than a few inside jokes in here, and at times there are slightly reactionary bits that haven’t aged well. (It’s one of the few things I don’t love about Davies’s shorter work — there’s a tone of mild hectoring in some of the pieces here, as with some of the essays of his that I’ve read, and it seems at odds with the more humanistic elements of his fiction that so impresses me.) That said — I appreciated the breezy tone, and the best of these stories achieve a nicely creepy power. Specifically: there’s one involving a reanimated cat, and another about a sinister bust of Charles Dickens, that are at once knowingly academic and viscerally unsettling.

In Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races, the familiar gone awry; set on an isolated island, the community there conducts an annual race on the ocean’s shores — only the horses ridden there come from the sea, sometimes scream, and have a taste for meat. (Occasionally from humans.) It’s impressive just how unsettling these elements are; throw in nicely-drawn characters, a pared-down but wrenching conflict, and a nicely-arranged setting, and you have a nicely compelling novel with jarring moments aplenty.

I picked up Herbert Read’s The Green Child in part due to Lincoln Michel’s blurb on the back cover; because of the ways in which the plot develops, I think the less said about its events, the better. It begins with the former dictator of a South American nation returning to his British hometown, where he comes across a man feeding a green-skinned woman blood. And from there, things get strange. Except that, at times, they don’t — Read juggles the fantastical and the realistic very well, and at times this novel feels like a considered, often surreal meditation on the concept of utopia. And it haunts in just the right places.

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