Playing on the Nerves

Front cover of In a Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le FanuIn A Glass Darkly, Sheridan Le Fanu

Far less known than his great admirer M.R. James, the Dubliner Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-73) may be an even better and more haunting writer. And yet he doesn’t rely much on the supernatural. Some of his stories seem to be more about neurological disease than about ghostly visitation. That kind of disease was much more common in his Georgian and Victorian day, when the toxicity of many chemicals wasn’t understood properly and people could be poisoned by arsenic in their wallpaper. But the horrors conjured by a diseased brain can be both stronger and more mysterious than a ghost or demon, because they’re more intimate and less easy to escape.

Le Fanu is intimate in another way: he has Robert Aickman’s ability to start currents swirling in your subconscious. You can feel yourself being drawn down into the abysses that wait there, dark and mysterious with sex, death and primal instinct. “Carmilla”, his classic tale of adolescent lesbian vampirism, is a good example. It also reveals his wider sympathy with humanity. M.R. James would not have written about women or about that kind of sex. Homosexuality and necrophilia seem to inform James’ stories; Le Fanu’s have the richness and bittersweetness of a man with wider sexual interests. Like Frankenstein or Sherlock Holmes, “Carmilla” may be more famous than its author is. It still appears in horror anthologies, partly because of its theme, partly because it’s probably his best work.

It’s also written more simply than, say, “The Familiar”. You often have to pay attention when you read Le Fanu’s prose:

The mind thus turned in upon itself, and constantly occupied with a haunting anxiety which it dared not reveal, or confide to any human breast, became daily more excited, and, of course, more vividly impressible, by a system of attack which operated through the nervous system; and in this state he was destined to sustain, with increasing frequency, the stealthy visitations of that apparition, which from the first had seemed to possess so unearthly and terrible a hold upon his imagination. (“The Watcher”)

If you don’t concentrate as Le Fanu throws you the words, you drop them and can’t juggle the whirl of metaphor and concept he wants you to experience. The effort required to read his stories is no doubt part of why he isn’t as well-known as he should be. But what you invest is repaid with interest and this collection, in Oxford’s World Classics series, is well represented by the painting on the cover: a detail from the great John Atkinson Grimshaw’s Dulce Domum (1885), with a melancholy-dreaming young woman sitting in a house rich with detail, from peacock feathers to Chinese vases.

Keeping It Gweel

Gweel & Other Alterities, Simon Whitechapel (Ideophasis Press, 2011)

This review is a useless waste of time. I can tell you very little about Gweel. It’s a book, if that helps. It’s made of paper. It has pages. Lots of little words on the pages.

What I can’t do is classify Gweel into a genre, not because none of them fit, but because the concept of a genre doesn’t seem to apply to Gweel. It stands alone, without classification. Calling Gweel “experimental” or “avant garde” would be like stamping a barcode on a moon rock.

It may have been written for an audience of one: author Simon Whitechapel. If we make the very reasonable assumption that he owns a copy of his own book, he may have attained 100% market saturation. However, there could be a valuable peripheral market: people who want to read a book that is very different from anything they’ve read before.

It is a collection of short pieces of writing, similar in tone but not in form, exploring “dread, death, and doom.” “Kopfwurmkundalini” and “Beating the Meat” resemble horror stories, and manage to be frightening yet strangely fantastic. The first one is about a man – paralysed in a motorbike accident, able to communicate only by eye-blinks – and his induction into a strange new reality. It contains a rather thrilling story-within-a-story called “MS Found in a Steel Bottle”, about two men journeying to the bottom of the ocean in a bathysphere. “Kopfwurmkundalini”’s final pages are written in a made-up language, but the author has encluded a glossary so that you can finish the story.

Those two/three stories make up about half of Gweel’s length. The remainder mostly consists of shorter work that seems to be more about creating an atmosphere or evoking an emotion. “Night Shift” is about a prison for planets (Venus, we learn, is serving a 10^3.2 year sentence for sex-trafficking), and a theme of prisons and planets runs through a fair few of the other stories here, although usually in a less surreal context. “Acariasis” is a vignette about a convict who sees a dust-mite crawling on his cell wall, and imagines it’s a grain of sand from Mars. The image is vivid and the piece has a powerful effect. “Primessence” is The Shawshank Redemption on peyote (and math). A prisoner believes that because his cell is a prime number, he will soon be snatched from it by some mathematical daemon (the story ends with the prisoner’s fate unknown). “The Whisper” is a ghost story of sorts, short and achingly sad.

No doubt my impression of Gweel differs from the one the author intended. But maybe his intention was that I have that different impression than him. Maybe Gweel reveals different secrets to each reader.

I can’t analyse it much, but Gweel struck me as an experience like Fellini’s Amarcord… lots of little story-threads, none of them terribly meaningful on their own. Experienced together, however, those threads will weave themselves into a tapestry in the hall of your mind, a tapestry that’s entirely unique… and your own.

Original review

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Previously pre-posted:

It’s The Gweel Thing…


Another reprehensible review of this teraticly toxic tomelet:

The Eyes by Jesús Ignacio Aldapuerta

As per the opening kayfabe, The Eyes was written by a deceased madman called Jesús Ignacio Aldapuerta who fashioned sex-toys from the bones of children.

I don’t want to be the guy who says there’s no Santa Claus, but this wouldn’t be the first time someone ghost-wrote an “alternative” book under the name of an imaginary lunatic. The true author of The Eyes is apt to be alive, sane, and well, and has likely done no more than give himself a backrub with the bones of children, if even that.

But that’s neither here nor there. The Eyes is disgusting, unforgettable, hard to read, harder to stop reading. I have read only a few books like it. One of them is Satanskin by James Havoc, another hoax author. He died in 1999… and was so dead that he reappeared in 2009 and started writing books again. Anyway, like Satanskin, The Eyes contains short stories meant to give you an inside view of hell. Some stories offer but a peek. Others give you the grand tour.

Pedophilia, cannibalism, it’s all here. Some stories (“Armful”) are so ugly that a summary would sound hyperbolic no matter what words I use. Generally, the tales in The Eyes provoke one of two reactions. The first is a horrified “WHAT?!” The second is like what you feel immediately after stepping on a nail. You don’t feel much pain, not at first, but there’s the sense that you’ve done yourself severe trauma.

Aldapuerta is one hell of a writer. James Havoc has a tendency to pile on the purple and overwrite beyond the point of self-parody, but The Eyes is lean and to the point. It’s not without a poetic edge. Aldapuerta’s forte is the quickfire mot juste. “Her hot little leaf of a hand.”… “the pale leaping tongues of his semen”…etc. Neat.

“Ikarus” is the most terrible creation in The Eyes, not a story but a black detonation of horror. A man explores the hull of a B-17 bomber, and discovers something that never will be explained, never could be explained, and never should be explained. “Ikarus” is almost a net liability to the book, as the other stories come up short next to it.

As it nears the end (its end, not yours), The Eyes gets increasingly strange. As the nostalgic schoolmaster’s fantasy of “Upright” ends, “The Winnowing” begins, which largely consists of a Czech man filling out a form. The final sentence… what am I supposed to take from that? That he was being sterilised? The book finishes with “Pornoglossia”, a list of words the author has invented for use in your own Marquis-de-Sade ripoff. The verb “Raí”, for example, means using an empty eye-socket as a sexual orifice. These words are in little danger of making their way into Merriam-Websters’ in the near future.

There may not be a hell, but Aldapuerta (or Whitechapel, or whoever wrote this) have proven that it is possible to create one on the page. The Eyes is genuinely amazing. Hopefully some day Aldapuerta will return to life, pick up his child-femur pen, and write a new collection of stories.

Original review

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Alda News (Dat’s Fit to Print)

Some more reviews of The Eyes, with commentary by the esteemed Espanish exponent of extremissimity:

I wasn’t half as impressed with this short-story collection as I hoped to be. It’s too well-written to be called bad and too disturbing to be called boring, but of all the stories, only “Ikarus” approaches greatness. The rest begin as vague and confusing messes until they reach that certain moment of horror and atrocity that seem to wake the author up; then they abruptly end. I couldn’t dismiss the impression that Jesús Ignacio Aldapuerta himself took no interest whatsoever in anything he wrote here but for those few paragraphs of shocking perversity. It’s not enough to make The Eyes worth reading. Except for “Ikarus.” This story is like all the others until a nameless man crashes a rocket-powered interceptor called a Bachem Ba-349 Natter into a B-17 bomber. From there the story evokes a surreal atmosphere of cosmic horror and unknowableness as the pilot explores the strange bomber, walking its huge cathedral-like fuselage while the airplane “floated kilometers high over a black, unending sea. Far, very far below, almost directly under him, the reflection of an almost full moon lay flat and corroded on smooth water.” Then he finds an alien device torturing a woman to death. If it had all been like this, I would be calling The Eyes brilliant, but none of the other stories reached this level of fascination for me.

Original review

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This isn’t a bad book, just an exceedingly oversold one. It’s the first and thus far only English-language collection of stories by the late Jesús Ignacio Aldapuerta, the so-called “Andalusian de Sade” who specialized in scatological excess. In truth this book’s gross-out quotient is about equal to that found in the writing of better-known practitioners of Sadean literature like James Havoc and Simon Whitechapel, even if the back-cover description proclaims that “to read all the stories of Aldapuerta’s infamous THE EYES is, perhaps in fact, to become mad, or worse” and that “Once read, they will be with you always.”

If the introduction by Lucía Teodora is to be believed, Jesús Ignacio Aldapuerta was a petty thief obsessed with pornography who immolated himself (or was murdered) in 1987. THE EYES, originally translated into English by Aldapuerta himself in 1986, is representative of his many unsavory obsessions, and possibly of his actual crimes. The prose, alas, is only intermittently effective, which may have something to do with the translation, or simply the fact that Aldapuerta, who died at age thirty-seven, still had a ways to go before fully hitting his stride as a writer.

The eleven stories collected here all pivot on death and perversion, more often than not in the form of sociopathic individuals who happen upon the aftermath of horrific accidents that inflame those individuals’ psychoses. Particularly representative examples include “Ikarus,” about a Nazi pilot who discovers a woman enclosed in some kind of bizarre torture-machine, “Yin & Yang,” in which a man makes weird patterns with the flesh and organs of some frozen corpses he discovers in a crashed plane, and “Orphea,” featuring a nut who fellates himself with a woman’s severed head.

The most effective of THE EYES’ stories, and the only one that really lives up to the grandiose back-cover claims, is the startling and repellent “Armful.” It’s about an incarcerated pervert who literally devours a little girl he (rather improbably) finds locked up with him. The poetic grotesquerie of the tale is very much in the vein of the aforementioned James Havoc, yet with a verve unique to Mr. Aldapuerta, who was a sick fuck without question but also a (somewhat) talented one.

Original review

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Take De Sade’s “120 Days of Sodom”, add a dash of George Bataille’s “Madame Edwarda”, “Blue of Noon”, “The Dead Man” and garnish with the ‘grand finale’ of André Pieyre de Mandiargues’ “Portrait of an Englishman in his Château” and you have a rough idea of the bloodsport and delights to be found herein. (Don’t forget your “Lobster Bib” and a Big Grin before you dig in!). Positively ‘lip-smacking’!

Original review

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For the Love of Mycology

Mushrooms, Roger Phillips, assisted by Derek Reid, Ronald Rayner, Geoffrey Kibby, and Alick Henrici, designed by Jill Bryan (MacMillan 2006)

In 1981, Roger Phillips began his career in natural history publishing with a book on mushrooms. In 2006, he was back for another bite at the chanterelle. And it would have been a fitting way to end his career, because this is one of the most important books ever published on fungi. It puts its best photo forward for hundreds of pages and hundreds of species, all the way from the massive, like the Giant Puffball, Calvatia gigantea, which can be bigger than a man’s head, to the minute, like the Conifer Disco, Lachnellula subtilissima, which is smaller than a baby’s fingernail. En route, it takes in the gorgeous, the gaudy, and the grotesque, like the Angel’s Wings, Pleurocybella porrigens, the Vermilion Waxcap, Hygrocybe miniata, and the Goliath Webcap, Cortarius praestans. With the g-crew come the delicious, the deadly, and the delicate: the Oyster Mushroom, Pleurotus ostreatus, the Destroying Angel, Amanita virosa, and the Milky Bonnet, Hemimycena lactea. And let’s not forget the phantasmagoric, the phosphorescent, and the phallic: the Devil’s Fingers, Clathrus archeri, the Jack O’ Lantern, Omphalotus illudens, and the Stinkhorn, Phallus impudicus. Which is Latin for “shameless dick”. Fungi can also look like ears, brains, and birds’-nests: the Jelly Ear, Auricularia auricula-judaei, the Morel, Morchella esculenta, and the Common Bird’s Nest, Crucibulum laeve. Oh, and they can look like cages, clubs, and coral too: the Red Cage, Clathrus ruber, the Giant Club, Clavariadelphus pistillarius, and the Violet Coral, Clavaria zollingeri.

And that covers only their appeal, or offence, to the eye and the taste-buds: they can also appeal to, or offend, the nose and fingertips. On olfactory side there are the Coconut Milkcap, Lactarius glyciosmus, the Pear Fibrecap, Inocybe fraudans, the Geranium Brittlegill, Russula fellea, the Mousepee Pinkgill, Entoloma incanum, the Iodine Bolete and Bonnet, Bolitus impolitus and Mycena filopes, and the “Stinking” set: the Brittlegill, Russula foetens, the Dapperling pair Lepiota cristata and L. felina, and the Earthfan, Thelephora palmata. On the tactile side, there are the various Velvets: the Bolete, Suillus variegatus, the Brittlegill, Russula violeipes, the Shank, Flammulina velvutipes, the Shield, Pluteus umbrosus, the Tooth, Hydnellum spongiosipes, and the Toughshank, Kuehneromyces mutabilis. There are too many shaggies, slimies, and slipperies to list, like the Shaggy Parasol, Macrolepiota rhadoces, the Slimy Waxcap, Hygrocybe irrigata, and the Slippery Jack, Suillus luteus. All in all, mushrooms make me muse on Middle-earth. Tolkien’s world is full of richness and variety. So is the world of fungi. The folk and things of Middle-earth can be beautiful or ugly, delicate or sturdy, colourful or drab, tasty or deadly, lovers of light or dwellers in dark. Mushrooms, toadstools, and their smaller relatives are the same. You could find one or more species in this book to match all of Tolkien’s creations: men, wizards, hobbits, elves, dwarves, orcs, trolls, ents, and more. The Cortinarius genus is hobbit-like, for example: stocky, sturdy, and coloured mostly in earthy ochres, yellows, and reds. More elf- and wizard-like are the genera Lepiota and Macrolepiota: these mushrooms are taller and more attractively proportioned. For pre-Tolkienean elves, look to the small and slender Micromphale, Omphalina and Mycena genera, shaped like little umbrellas, bonnets, and parachutes.

For the dark side of Tolkien’s world, look everywhere: almost every group of fungi can supply poisons and sicken or slay the incautious or ignorant. But the deadliest of all are the Amanitas. There’s something suitably and sardonically Sauronic about the modus operandi of the Deathcap, Amanita phalloides:

Poisoning by the Deathcap is characterized by a delay of 6 to 24 hours between ingestion and the onset of symptoms, during which time the cells of the liver and kidney are attacked… The next stage is one of prolonged and violent vomiting and diarrhoea accompanied by severe abdominal pains, lasting for a day or more. Typically this is followed by an apparent recovery, when the victim may be released from hospital or think their ordeal is over, but death results from kidney and liver failure in a few days. (pg. 144-45)

No antidote has yet been discovered to the amatoxins, as the most dangerous compounds are called, and the mortality rate from Amanita poisoning is “still up to 90%”. The Fly Agaric, Amanita muscaria, with its red, white-spotted cap, is the most famous in the genus, but not responsible for the most fatalities. It’s trippily toxic: “a strong hallucinogen and intoxicant, and used as such by the Sami of northern Scandinavia” (pg. 140). Phillips suggests that the Sami began to use A. muscaria by “observing its effects on reindeer”, which “like it so much that all one has to do to round up a wandering herd is to scatter pieces of Fly Agaric on the ground.” Elsewhere in Europe, it was used against flies: the common English name “comes from the practice of breaking the cap into platefuls of milk… to stupefy flies.” Fungi are not plants and form a separate kingdom in biological classification, but they are like plants in the way they can be either delicious, deadly, or dementing.

But if some weren’t so delicious, some others wouldn’t have dealt death so often: the Amanitas are similar in appearance to the Wood mushrooms in the genus Agaricus and can be found in similar places. Agaricus contains some of the most widely eaten of all mushrooms, including the Cultivated Mushroom, A. bisporus, “believed to be the wild form of the many cultivated crop varieties” (pg. 242). But literally cultivated mushrooms don’t compare to wild-grown: I can still remember the richness and flavour of some Field Mushrooms, A. campestris, I picked near the witches’ haunt of Pendle Hill in Lancashire. My other gastro-mycological excursions have included wild-grown puffball and a large Oyster Mushroom that had sprouted from the wood of a sea-side ice-cream stand. It fell off under its own weight, or I wouldn’t have carried it off: Oyster Mushrooms aren’t just good to eat, they’re also good to look at and I would have left it undisturbed otherwise. But picking a mushroom is rather like picking an apple or pear: the visible part is a fruiting body that sprouts from the thread-like hyphae growing in soil, wood, compost, or dung. So you don’t necessarily kill a fungus by picking the part you can see, though you do obviously interfere with its reproduction. The part you can see is what this book is about: unlike David N. Pegler’s Pocket Guide to Mushrooms and Toadstools, there are no drawings of the microscopic spores, merely descriptions: for example, “9-12×5-7μ, elliptical to almond-shaped. Spore-print dark purplish-brown. Chrysocystidia absent. Cheilocystidia lageniform, thin-walled” is in the entry for the Blueleg Brownie, Psilocybe cyanescens.

The fungus itself is described as “hallucinogenic” and “said to be extremely strong” (pg. 253). This book isn’t just for those seeking succulence: it can guide the searcher for synaesthesia too. The Liberty Cap or Magic Mushroom, Psilocybe semilanceata, doesn’t just open the doors of perception: it can throw down the walls of the senses too and make you hear sights or taste colours. The psycho-active psilocybes are all covered and described, but I’ve preferred to leave psycho-mycology alone and get my mental thrills from the look of, and language about, fungi. The scientific names, as always, are interesting, informative, and occasionally uninspired: with a common name like Angel’s Wings, Pleurocybella porrigens has a disappointing scientific name. But there’s a surprisingly complex descriptive vocabulary to learn if you’re interested in acquiring an expertise in these apparently primitive plant-alikes. You’ll even have to dabble in chemistry: the simplest way to distinguish some species is to dip them. The “chrysocystidia” mentioned above are cells “that turn yellowish” – Greek chrysos, “golden”, is hyperbolic – in “alkali solutions”. That’s from the glossary on page 13, but the weird and wonderful words – chlamydospore, dendrophyses, gloeocystidia, lageniform, merulioid, sphaeropedunculate – aren’t illustrated, only defined. This isn’t a textbook of mycology, but an identification guide. And I wouldn’t say it was a work of art like Pegler’s Pocket Guide. It’s well-designed and aesthetically pleasing, but photographs have a superficiality, even a triviality, that Pegler’s drawings don’t. Yes, you can see exactly how the fungi look from a photograph, but there’s no room for the wit and quirkiness I described in my review of the Pocket Guide: the closest you get to the extra-mycological touches I described there is an occasional pine-cone, as in the photos for the Pine Milkcap, Lactarius musteus, the Pinecone Cap, Strobilurus tenacellus, and the Rosy Spike, Gomphidius roseus.

But David Pegler covered far fewer species in a smaller and more subjective book. His science was stronger because he included images of spores, but Roger Phillips has contributed more to mycology, let alone to other fields of natural history. If I had to choose between the two books, I would choose the Pocket Guide, because it’s richer and earthier, and also more minor, in a way that suits its topic better. Fortunately, I don’t have to choose: both books are available for mycophiles and both help explain what is fascinating about fungi. But there are universal aspects to their appeal, beside the particularity of their fungality: maths, the Magistra Mundi, or Mistress of the World, reigns among mushrooms as She reigns everywhere else. Like beetles, though rather more so, fungi are topological variants on a theme: evolution has shaped, squeezed, slendered, squattened, and swollen them over millions of years to produce the huge variety on display in this book. I think architecture can illuminate how they grow: fungi face some of the same problems as architects in erecting and securing their fruiting bodies, but they’re working with less sturdy material. Fungal flesh doesn’t have the toughness and flexibility of wood or the solidity and sturdiness of stone, but it can do surprising things: the Pavement Mushroom, Agaricus bitorquis, is “sometimes found growing through asphalt” (pg. 241).

“Pavement Mushroom”, like “Orange Peel Fungus”, “Purple Stocking Webcap”, “Rooting Poisonpie”, and “Snaketongue Truffleclub”, is one of the odd common names that may catch your eye in the detailed index, which offers specific and generic names, including the outmoded ones that Phillips wanted to update from his early book. But he’s expanded as well as revised, adding some oversea species that “travellers might find on their visits abroad” (introduction, pg. 6). Or might find unexpectedly at home: the Plantpot Dapperling, Leucocoprinus birnbaumii, is a “tropical species that can be found in heated greenhouses” and is shown growing with a potted cactus on page 135. Not illustrated, but mentioned in the entry for the Deathcap, is the “tropical fungus Galerina sulcipes”, which “has a higher α-amanitin content” and is “occasionally found in hothouses” (pg. 145). That would be a sinister note to end on, so instead I’ll end on the Scarlet Elfcup, Sacroscypha austriaca. This is one of my favourite fungi in the book. It is indeed scarlet, it does indeed look like a cup, in the early stages of its growth at least, and its common name is a reminder of why mushrooms are associated with magic and fungi with the fantastic. They can appear very suddenly in unexpected places and have a special association with the melancholy and mystery of autumn. The more elaborate and evolved plant and animal kingdoms are more obvious and found in more places, but they couldn’t exist without fungi, which “break down leaf litter and dead wood and thus ensure that the surface of the world has a fertile layer of soil rather than being a heap of detritus” (pg. 6). In other words: no fungi, no flowers, firs, or figs. In short: no mushrooms, no man. The fungal kingdom isn’t, and can’t be, conscious of the debt owed to it by the other two kingdoms, but this book can be seen as part payment. To see the inhabitants of that mycological Middle-earth in all their variety and strangeness, look no further, because you’ll find no fungaller.