Reviewed by Paul Kane
The White Hands and Other Weird Tales
By Mark Samuels
Tartarus Press, October 2004, ISBN 1872621899
Altogether, there are nine stories in Mark Samuels’ debut collection, and each one contains a germ of dread that imprints itself upon the mind, is resistant to reason and persists long in memory. To induce such dread, Samuels does not, however, have recourse to blood and gore. Instead, this author is able, by employing a subtly restrained prose of great literary quality, to create and sustain his own peculiarly individual atmosphere of unease and disquiet.
The curiously titled “Vrolyck” was my favourite tale, a subtle and clever hybrid of science-fiction and horror. It is set, or seems to be set, in our world, on the eve of an extraterrestrial invasion (or perhaps it is about a person deluded enough to believe that he is an extraterrestrial). Vrolyck is an extraterrestrial who has recently arrived on earth – he is one of the first – and now inhabits a human host. He is beginning to make contact with others of his kind, including one who inhabits the body of a young woman. Here is how the story ends:
She knew now, as did I, that we are here only temporarily, until these physical shells rotted away. Then we would have to move on again, fleeing the death that pursued us. But for now, like me, she was trapped within the human carcass, suffering the horrifying existence of the biped simian, the maddening trace-memories lingering within the fabric of their brains: a dead person’s memories, names drawn in the sand just beyond the reach of the black ocean before it. (pp.107-108)
This passage impresses both because of the quality of its prose and because it offers a sympathetic view of the alien as body snatcher, where the horror is to be human;and it gains its power because it is not unlike our own individual experience of mortality. The alien’s predicament is ours too.
Throughout, these stories are full of fascinating notions. In one story, “Apartment 205”, we are told that “it is the dead that sustain the structure of the waking world through their dreams … all living existence is illusory“(p.58); in another, “Black as Darkness”, a story about a cult film that causes misfortune to all who view it, we are told of “the bizarre claim that Blake’s work was not fiction at all but a series of cryptic incantations, whose dissemination could lead to disturbing consequences”(p.129). The Blake referred to here is not the Romantic poet, but Lilith Blake, an imagined (as far as I’ve been able to ascertain) Victorian authoress who also makes an appearance (as the Goddess in her deathly, leper-pale aspect) in the title story; the cult film in question is based on an adaptation of one of her fictions.
Certainly it is clear that, for Samuels, horror fiction is cerebral as well as visceral, and provides an opportunity for metaphysical speculation. And often it is not suspense, the vexed question of “what happens next?”, but rather seeing what use the author makes of his ideas that enthrals the reader. An example par excellence of this is “Mannequins in Aspects of Terror”, which takes as its subject a visit to an artist’s installation. The tale includes a manifesto in which the artist explains the rationale behind his work; here is part of it:
The greatest fear of which I can conceive is not that of murder or torture, or any of the so-called horrors that man inflicts upon his fellow man. The greatest fear is the prolongation of life indefinitely, where all thoughts are endlessly revisited, where every memory loses its meaning by repetition, where all thoughts finally blend into one: consciousness doomed to immortality – a mind filled with the nightmare of its own being, a mind that is dying in perpetuity without final release. (p.43)
The mannequins are meant not only to tap into our sense of the uncanny (which, as Freud said, is derived from the uncertainty of whether something is dead or alive); they are also simulacra that make clear the falseness of much of the everyday. For the installation takes place in an abandoned office building and the puppets are posed as though carrying out the many routines of office life. T.S. Eliot once famously wrote that life is composed, in the main, of horror and boredom; and one suspects that Mark Samuels might go further and assert that the two are closely intertwined. For boredom, and especially the interminable boredom of office life, is a theme in other stories too. In “Colony”, it is a symptom of ennui, drawing the victim out from the crowd, towards his fate:
As the weeks wore on my life beyond the quarter seemed like a garish hallucination and I gradually lost all interest in it. I resigned from my job. My work had ceased to be intelligible anyway, and the company gratefully accepted my offer to quit. (p.87)
Finally, another tale, “The Impasse”, has a definite Kafkaesque quality and is, on one reading, a black comedy about the absurdity of office life.
The White Hands and Other Weird Tales is a highly impressive, extremely well-written book that will appeal to all with an interest in contemporary horror or “weird” fiction. This is one to place on the bookshelf in the company of Robert Aickman, Elizabeth Hand and Thomas Ligotti.
For more information about the book visit: http://www.tartaruspress.com/samuels.htm
About the reviewer: Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org