The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales by Mark Samuels
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I am becoming convinced that Mark Samuels is incapable of writing a bad story. No writer is perfect, and there are a couple of "misses" in this collection, but none of the stories are bad. And while I didn't find The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales to be as strong as The White Hands and Other Weird Tales, it is still essential reading for lovers of "weird" fiction (whatever that means).
Unfortunately, this collection got off on the wrong foot for me. Thankfully, it recovered gracefully and continued on in a remarkable manner. The opening story, "Losenof Express" is a predictable, pedestrian effort for a writer of Samuels' caliber. I expected much better. I can only give this story 3 stars. I'll be honest, this was an inauspicious start that caused me to put my guard up with repeated chantings of "please don't suck, please don't suck, please don't suck".
The title story soon resolved my concerns, and in a very powerful way. I thought that Samuels had stumbled again when I read the rather abrupt, and particularly jarring phrase: I had the bizarre notion of having entered into occult territory, a phrase that seemed to artificially "push" the story in a self-aware way that smacked of railroading the reader. But while this sentence seems to tear the narrative structure asunder, it also serves as a segue into a very different voice that ultimately resolves in a most satisfactory way. It's the closest thing I've ever seen to a literary Hegelian dialectic. I am not certain if Samuels did this with intent or not, but either way, it is extremely effective in pulling the reader down the rabbit hole, shedding disbelief the whole way down and transforming the mindscape in such a way that one feels fully immersed in strangeness. I had wondered why this story was used as the title for the collection, but after feeling the sheer muscle of this story, I now know why this 5 star tale should lend its name to the whole collection.
Of course, stories after the titular tale are always disappointments, right? Wrong. In fact, "Thyxxolqu" is a perfectly-paced story about language and its corruption. It is a dark revelation, a creepy peek into forbidden enlightenment. You speak into the abyss until the abyss speaks back and you come to a full understanding of its words. This reminds me of the game mechanic in the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, in which a character sees dreadful things or is given unholy revelations that drive her sanity over the edge. If she sees too much at once, the game dictates that she must do what is called an "idea" roll. Usually, you want to pass your idea roll, as it gives you insights into things you might not otherwise realize. Unfortunately, when faced with cosmic horrors, you want to fail your idea roll so that you do not come to the full realization of how awful the universe and its shadowy denizens are, in reality. You want to fail that roll so that you do not come to that full realization, saving you from potentially permanent insanity. To put it in these terms, the protagonist of "Thyxxolqu" . . . well, you'll see. 5 dreadful stars.
"The Black Mould" is the most "Lovecraftian" story I've read by Mark Samuels. Or, maybe that's "Ligottian". In any case, it's a baroque non-story of existential, even nihilistic dread. Beautifully written, yet it tries so hard to be significant that it becomes insignificant. I'm still giving it 4 stars for the writing, though. The writing is amazing, and if there were a bit of plot, it would have received 5 stars.
It seems like every horror short-fiction author just has to write a scary story about Mexico and strange old cults. They can't help it. Simon Strantzas' collection Burnt Black Sons has a couple, I believe the collection The Gods of HP Lovecraft has one, and I could probably point to a few more with little effort. "Xapalpa" is Samuels', and it's very, very good. 5 stars.
Once in a while, an author seems to be trying to mimic another author's style (note I said "seems" - this is not to say that this is intentional) when the other author has already done something so perfectly as to ward off all pretenders. I got this feeling while reading "Glickman the Bibliophile". While it is a good piece of conspiracy literature with a philosophical bent, it isn't up to snuff with Brian Evenson's works (whom it seems Samuels might be imitating, though I don't really think he was intentionally doing so) in the same vein. Here, Samuels' work is a shadow of Evenson's, I am sorry to admit. Still, a good story, well written, if a little rushed and somewhat hollow. 3 stars.
"A Question of Obeying Orders" finishes with a nice O'Henry ending. And while that twist can get old, if overused, it hit all the right spots for me here. Prussian soldiers and seances, a sense of twisted cosmic justice, and abominable things-that-should-not-be. Vampyres? Fah!!! 5 stars.
"Nor Unto Death Utterly by Edmund Bertrand," despite it's somewhat overwrought prose, is an existential tale worth the read. It pulls primarily from the 19th-century decadent tradition interwoven with threads of very modern cosmic horror. If you can stomach the first few treacle-smothered instances of narrative extravagance, the read is extremely rewarding in the end. 4 stars.
"A Contaminated Text" is a simultaneous ode to and metatextual subversion of Lovecraft, Borges, and Bierce. It is a story that invades the reader's brain, but only once one is finished reading it. I think this one bears a few re-readings. It is, structurally and thematically, a labyrinth. One doesn't realize where he is in the trap until it is far too late. 5 stars and my favorite story of this collection.
"The Age of Decayed Futurity" is a pop-culture conspiracy-cum-contagious-paranoid-fantasy that provides a peek "behind the curtain," a'la The Matrix, but with an even more sinister antagonist: the spirits of the dead from the future who work through Hollywood celebrity to create a world of TV-entranced zombies. Now, I'm not a big TV watcher to begin with, as I'd much rather be reading and writing and playing games than watching TV most of the time. And I'm a bit of a snob when it comes to knowing everything about celebrity lives, who was in what movie, blah, blah, blah. Honestly, I couldn't care less, for the most part (there are exceptions). But I don't know that I've ever felt that the Illuminati have infiltrated Hollywood. But now I wonder. Suddenly, late night TV static has a much more sinister connotation. 5 stars.
While I typically love stories with strong philosophical underpinnings, particularly those of existentialism, I felt that "The Tower" might work better if stripped altogether of any pretense of "plot" or "story", rather than being a mass of philosophical muscle hung on an etiolated skeleton of prose fiction. Still, it is a solid piece with great eerie moments that warrants 4 stars.
While the average star rating of the stories, collectively, is 4.45, I have to round up based on the strength of a couple of the stories. The title story and "A Contaminated Text" alone give reason to push this one up into 5 star territory. If you haven't read Samuel's work before, I'd recommend going with the stronger collection The White Hands and Other Weird Tales first, then take in The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales.
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