Burial Rites – Book Review

Title – Burial Rites

Author – Hannah Kent

Genre – Fictionalized biography

br
Picture sourced from the internet. I read the e-book version.

“People claim to know you through the things you’ve done, and not by sitting down and listening to you speak for yourself.”
~Agnes Magnúsdóttir (1828)

When I love a book, I waste no time in talking and writing about it – people need to know, and they need to read. There are very few books which strike such a chord that I’m left dwelling on them long after reading – whatever I say will not be enough; no review would ever do justice. “Burial Rites” falls in the latter category. This book came highly recommended from an online literary forum I follow, and in spite of receiving numerous recommendations I only recently got around to reading it. And what a treat it has been! I usually avoid reading fictional accounts of true incidents, and rather opt for non-fiction books on the same subject, if available. But Hannah Kent’s debut work was highly spoken of and I decided to give the then twenty-eight year old writer a shot. “Burial Rites” is a novelization of a true story set in the early 1800s cold, wintered landscape of Iceland, and is centered around the conviction and final days of a woman sentenced to death for a double murder – commonly known as the Illugastaðir murders, the farm where the killings took place. Capital punishment was abolished in Iceland in 1830, and Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last woman to be beheaded.

Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a thirty something housemaid, is charged with the murder of her master and his friend. The district commissioner Björn Blöndal has entrusted her to the household of one of the officers – where she needs to be kept until her execution. In his words, death row convicts need to be placed in the homes of upright Christians who would set a good example and inspire repentance in the criminals, and at the same time benefit from the work these prisoners do in and around their farms as they await their judgement. The family is compensated by the government for their contribution to society, and officers are also present on the premises to ensure no harm comes to the locals. A young priest, Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson is required to visit the household and pray with the criminal to ensure she is repentant by the time of her execution. The family is horrified at the prospect of housing a murderess and avoid interacting with her. The reverend has no prior experience in dealing with murder convicts, and all he can contribute are passages from the Bible. Agnes has nothing to do at the farm since the family is wary of giving her any “tools” – suspicious of what she can use to kill them with. Even a request to knit is almost a plead, with the possible harm she could do with knitting needles. Having to idle away time till her death and no one to talk to, Agnes hopes to be killed then and there itself. “Why not kill me here and now? It is the waiting that cripples.”

The story is narrated through a series of correspondence between the various officials involved in the case – the district commissioner, the priests, the district officer, various clerks and officers handling the criminal records. Not to be confused with an epistolary novel, these were actual letters exchanged at the time which the author has translated and presented to the reader. Each chapter begins with numerous letters, and then follows changing narratives from the third person’s accounts of the happenings in the case, to Agnes herself speaking in first person. And step by step, the reader is led through Agnes’ story – her childhood and adulthood, her parents and siblings, her work life, ultimately leading to the core of the murder mystery that shook Iceland in the early nineteenth century – What exactly happened on the day of the murder that led Agnes to her present state?

“They have strapped me to the saddle like a corpse being taken to the burial ground” , says Agnes, when taken to the farm that will house her till her death. And this is the crux of “Burial Rites” – the entire book is a rite of passage for Agnes as she readies herself for death. Agnes looks forward to living at the farm even when none of the residents want her there (and are only abiding to the district commissioner’s orders), being “grateful that I am returning to the valleys, even if I will die there”. Because living (and dying) in nature is better than “rotting slowly like a body in a coffin” – the atmosphere of the prison she was housed in before being transferred to the farm. Set in the present moment at the farm, the story is narrated in flashback mode through conversations and interactions with various family members – the officer, his wife Margret, the daughters Steina and Lauga, the priest Toti, and Agnes’ thoughts. And as the day of execution nears, the wife, daughters and priest learn of the other side to the sensational double murder story as projected by the authorities and rumor mills. Her final audience to life’s lonely narrative. An absolutely riveting account as Agnes goes from wanting to die to wanting to live, when people finally hear and understand her. “I don’t want to be remembered, I want to be here!” But can they do more? Appeal to the government? Stop the execution?  No spoilers here since we know what finally happened to Agnes Magnúsdóttir – the last person to be executed in Iceland, before the country finally abolished capital punishment in 1830.

Some of the quotes are so beautiful I thought they deserved a mention here:

~I was worst to the one I loved best.

~I will speak in bubbles of air. They will not be able to keep my words for themselves.

~The home had begun to disintegrate, a hovel that had spread its own state of collapse to its inhabitants.

~A tight fear, like a fishing line, hooked upon something that must, inevitably, be dragged from the depths.

~A tremble of exhilaration passes along my skin, like the tremor on the surface of a pot of water about to boil.

~Memories shift like loose snow in a wind, or are a choral of ghosts all talking over one another.

~There was some comfort in talking about death aloud, as though in naming things, you could prevent them from happening.

~There is so much illness in the world…so much that can go wrong with a person.

~A person you love as much as you hate the hold they have on you.

~They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine.

Kent’s interpretation of the Illugastaðir murders and executions is based on years of research through accessing ministerial records, parish archives, local publications,  historical records, letters and documents. There are several works of literature and poetry mentioned, highlighting the high literacy rates among Icelanders since the end of the eighteenth century. Some sagas quoted go as far back as 1245. I loved the snippets of Icelandic, and was glad to learn some phrases in the local language. Kent’s meticulously researched and written account is commendable indeed – for a debut writer, and just at twenty eight years of age when the book was published. When you already know how the story ends, it takes a great writer to hold the reader’s attention till the end. In today’s social media age, people’s opinions and judgements of each other are often based on what is read or heard or seen on feeds, posts and pictures. In the early 1800s, Agnes Magnúsdóttir raised the same question – What happens when one’s life is based on the stories told by others? Without speaking to the person, the world claims to know all about them. The fairness of the original proceedings of Iceland’s “most notorious woman” was questioned even centuries later, and reading “Burial Rites” is not for everyone. A difficult story to read but one that needs to be read for the many questions it raises. Kent is a talented writer and efficient researcher, and this is one of the few books where the author and protagonist of his/her story compete for attention – such is the brilliance of this speculative biography, a beautifully haunting, gripping, and outstanding debut work of literature. I read this on Kindle, but plan on procuring a paperback – it deserves a place in the library.

My rating – 5/5

Advertisements

Reading Goals 2018 – An Ode To Translators

It’s my birthday today! Rather than keep New Year resolutions, I set various goals on my birthday that follow through till the next birthday. As part of my bibliophilic endeavors, the past year was dedicated to reading regional books from around India – a way of travelling around the country through literature. India is a very large country with myriad local languages within its many states. Although Hindi is the national language, each of the states have their own languages, and there are many more dialects within. Reading a large number of translated books over the year got me thinking about the role played by translators in literature. We read books from around the world – many of them translated works of the literary greats – and aside of the name of the book and original author, the name of the translator often isn’t remembered. I also came across many poorly translated books – fabulous stories by the original writers, but appallingly translated with grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, and several editing issues as well. Badly translated books make you wish you knew the original language, because one misses out on so much literature on account of not knowing every possible language in the world.

This led me to plan reading goals for this year – read world literature comprising exclusively translated books, as an ode to translators who make books available to us around the globe. Italo Calvino had once said, “Without translation, I would be limited to the borders of my own country. The translator is my most important ally. He introduces me to the world.” Translators need to not only be proficient in both the original language and the language being translated into, but also be efficient writers to ensure the author’s words stay as true to his/her intentions as possible. A good translator can cause a mediocre book to be well appreciated by efficient writing skills. A bad translator can turn readers away from a great piece of literature. This brings us back to Calvino – the most translated contemporary Italian writer, whose books have frequently been translated by William Weaver, and are a beauty to read even in the English language.

_89197777_thinkstockphotos-497124232

So, this year I will be identifying translators from around the globe. I have listed down languages starting from each letter of the English alphabet, and will be picking and reading translated works from each of those languages. Here’s the list I came up with and have already procured books from some of them.. A few books been lying around for a while and fit well with the theme. There were some classics I wanted to revisit and authors who had long been in the to-be-read list. As always, the books will include a mix of fiction and non-fiction, prose and poetry. A challenging task ahead when a reader is completely at the mercy of translators. The languages I know have been pushed to the far end of their categories. If time permits, I will pick up translated works as a tribute to those translators. My reading habits over the years will also be taken into account when prioritizing literature – hence the preference of Greek over German, Swedish over Spanish, and Turkish over Tamil.

A – Arabic, Assamese, Armenian, Albanian

B – Basque, Belarusian, Bulgarian, Burmese, Bangla

C – Catalan, Croatian, Cantonese, Czech

D – Danish, Dutch

E – Estonian, Esperanto

F – Flemish, Finnish, French

G – Greek, Georgian, German

H – Hungarian, Hebrew, Hindi

I – Icelandic, Italian

J – Japanese, Javanese, Jarai

K – Korean, Kurdish, Khmer

L – Latin, Latvian, Lithuanian

M – Mandarin, Macedonian

N – Nepali, Norwegian

O – Ojibwa, Oriya

P – Polish, Portuguese, Persian

Q – Quechwa

R – Romanian, Russian, Rwanda, Romani

S – Serbian, Swedish, Swahili, Spanish

T – Turkish, Thai, Tamil

U – Ukranian, Urdu

V – Vietnamese

W – Welsh, Warlpiri

X – Xhosa

Y – Yiddish, Yoruba

Z – Zapotec, Zulu

books
Piled up a few of them – and have a couple on Kindle as well – to start off with.

If you have read English translations of any of the languages listed above, share your titles of recommended reads. If you’d like to join me in this endeavor, hop on board. Let’s read the world! 🙂

 

Finale Of The Birthday Bookathon

For someone who can never seem to quench my thirst for literature from around the world, I had set out to read books from around India, in keeping with my reading goals for the year. The idea was to “travel the country through literature” – read at least one book from each of the twenty-nine states and seven union territories, making up a minimum of thirty-six books. The birthday bookathon started on the 14th of November last year (my birthdate), and concluded today. The objective behind this literary endeavor was to explore India through books. I wanted to identify lesser known books/authors, give a chance to newbie writers, dig into books I might have missed in the past, explore regional literature and translated books. Not all of the titles I picked up are popular books that might show up on a Google search. I intentionally avoided googling lists on Indian literature, and stayed away from recommendations from book clubs, for the simple reason that the same books/writers keep showing up and one’s reading gets very limited. I went about the task by listing down all the states and union territories and looking for local writers from each place. The criteria that had to be met for a book to be included in the bookathon were – it needed to be set in a particular state or any city within that state, or the author was a native of that place though the book wasn’t set there, or the author was writing about his/her own hometown. Preference was given to translated books from regional languages.

These were the books I read through the year (specific to my birthday reading goals. Overall, there were more books not part of Indian literature). As usual, I tried to maintain a mix of fiction, non-fiction, short stories, novels, anthologies, plays and poetry. Many have been reviewed on this blog site, and I’ll get around to writing about the pending ones as I get the time.

STATES

1) Assam – If A River by Kula Saikia

2) Arunachal Pradesh – Land of the Dawn-lit Mountains by Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent

3) Andhra Pradesh – Stories from Andhra by Ramakanth J

4) Bihar –  A Matter of Rats by Amitava Kumar

5) Chhatisgarh – The Burning Forest by Nandini Sundar

6) Goa – Poskem by Wendell Rodericks

7) Gujarat – Fence by Ila Arab Mehta

8) Haryana – Come, Before Evening Falls by Manjul Bajaj

9) Himachal Pradesh – A Year in Himachal by Humera Ahmed

10) Jammu-Kashmir – The Siege of Warwan by G.D.Bakshi

11) Jharkhand – The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar

12) Karnataka – Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, and Hayavadana by Girish Karnad

13) Kerala – The Sixth Finger by Malayatoor Ramakrishnan, and The Legends of Khasak by O.V.Vijayan

14) Madhya Pradesh – A Breath of Fresh Air by Amulya Malladi

15) Maharashtra – Zopala by V.P.Kale, Rangresha by Shanta Shelke, and Bloodline Bandra by Godfrey Joseph Pereira

16) Manipur – Mother, Where’s My Country by Anubha Bhonsle

17) Meghalaya – Onaatah by Paulami Dutta Gupta

18) Mizoram – Zorami by Malsawmi Jacob

19) Nagaland – Son of the Thundercloud by Easterine Kire

20) Odisha – A Life Like No Other by Sujata Prasad, and Yagnaseni by Pratibha Ray

21) Punjab – Time Out by Jasjit Mansingh

22) Rajasthan – Annals of Mewar by James Tod

23) Sikkim – Beyond the Goal by Mohammad Amin-ul Islam, and Don’t Ask Any Old Bloke for Directions by Palden Gyatso Tenzing

24) Tamil Nadu – Poonachi by Perumal Murugan, and A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman

25) Telangana – The Mango Season by Amulya Malladi

26) Tripura – Human Interference on River Health by Shreya Bandyopadhyay and Sunil Kumar De

27) Uttar Pradesh – Run to Realise by Abhishek Mishra, and Nirmala by Premchand

28) Uttarakhand – My Kumaon by Jim Corbett, and Love Among the Bookshelves by Ruskin Bond

29) West Bengal – Murder in the City by Supratim Sarkar

UNION TERRITORIES

1) Andaman and Nicobar Islands – Islands in Flux by Pankaj Sekhsaria

2) Chandigarh – Crossroads by Preeti Singh

3) Dadra Nagar – Did not find any literature

4) Daman and Diu – Travelling Through Gujarat, Daman and Diu by Adam Yamey

5) Delhi – Korma, Kheer and Kismet by Pamela Timms

6) Lakshadweep – Lakshadweep Adventure by Deepak Dalal

7) Puducherry – Evolution and the Earthly Destiny by Nolini Kanta Gupta

Forty-four books in all, comprising regional literature from all around India. Here are some of the books from the Birthday Bookathon – borrowed ones have been dutifully returned, and Kindle reads cannot be stacked.

20181113_124133

In addition to these books, I also identified numerous others which have been added to my list for future reading. Literature is so vast, and new books are written even as one struggles to finish previous works. Those of you who have been following this blog site and have read my book reviews, would be aware of my reasons for selecting each book. Reading, for me, is not merely to add titles and increase the yearly count of books read. The purpose of the Birthday Bookathon was to learn more and move beyond what I had already been reading – for instance, Rabindranath Tagore has been intentionally avoided for West Bengal because I have read a lot of his works; I had read Premchand’s Nirmala in English years ago, and hence read the original Hindi version now; P.L.Deshpande is a popular name in Marathi literature whom I have already read a lot from, causing me to opt for Shanta Shelke for Maharashtra. I also found books after I had finished reading from that particular state – reading will continue in tandem with the new goals I set for my birthday this year. Another observation was that most translated books tended to be fiction – I suppose it has to do with the popular notion that people prefer stories, and books are accordingly picked for translation.

For those interested in exploring Indian literature, this is the original link to the article I had written on my birthday last year. It includes books I had already read at the time, and also new ones from where I picked titles for the bookathon. If I come across anymore titles, I will keep updating this original blog-post as a handy guide to country specific books. (I had undertaken similar reading initiatives for South Africa and Australia in the past, but wasn’t blogging at the time.) In case you decide to take up this challenge too, happy ready and happy travelling! 🙂

 

 

 

 

Bookstore Visit – Bargain Book Hut

Bookworms possess unique skill sets to sniff out and identify bookstores anywhere. The weekend combined book shopping with running kit collections. Bargain Book Hut is a quaint book shop nestled in the bylanes of Kala Ghoda – a little distance away from Colaba, the venue for the expo of the upcoming Navy Half Marathon. Post picking up my running number bib and racer’s kit, I visited this niche outlet of the chain bookstore known for its heavily discounted books. The space is small (unlike the humongous Kitab Khana I had featured a few days ago), but the stock keeps changing frequently. The deals on box sets, children’s books, and hardcover books are the largest, making this store a must-visit for those looking to build a home library. They have numerous compilations and anthologies that make for good gifting items. The store does not allow photography – one can click pictures of the books, but they object to photography of the interiors and decor as a whole, and posing around and clicking selfies is a definite no-no. They take their reading seriously and patrons are expected to do the same. Books receive prime importance.

1
The non-fiction section – There is a good range available in the cookery and health and fitness hardcovers.
2
The children’s book section with special deals on the Hindu mythology genre, on account of the Diwali festival.
3
A special section with offers on the classics – hardbound with gold embossed covers.
4
My book stash, along with a 3D bookmark and the runner’s kit. They have numerous animal themed 3D bookmarks, with quotes specific to each animal. 

Bargain Book Hut is a unit of the Wilco Publishing House – the chain of concept bookstores having been designed to make books affordable to book lovers everywhere. There are special imports made available at discounted rates, causing titles selling out and new titles being introduced frequently. This isn’t one of those bookstores within an eatery, or with an accompanying café. It is not a huge space to sit around while you skim through books. And you’re not allowed to take pictures of anything else besides the books. If one is not obsessed with selfies and social gatherings while picking up books, this is the perfect place to spend some time alone purely with books as you browse the narrow aisles. If you find yourself in the far end of South Mumbai, give this one a visit.

The Light of Knowledge – Bookmarks for Diwali

Happy Diwali, everyone. To those who celebrate the festival of lights, I hope you have a great holiday season with the festivities. I made these sparkly bookmarks today, to go with the Diwali theme. Bookworms look for any occasion to celebrate books. And don’t books add light to our lives?  😀

45497756_10157964314054937_1160440433269014528_o

Penguin Classics Book Festival

When a bibliophile is let loose in a bookstore, along with fellow book lovers, during a book festival, a great many things happen! The Penguin Classics Festival is an ongoing literary treat for readers around the country. Several venues in different cities are part of the month long festival that celebrates the classics – both originals and translated works. A wonderful opportunity to revisit the classics, and/or pick up books/authors one might have missed in the years gone by. I marched in on the first of November itself – it’s important to inaugurate bookish events. A few books were selected for myself and as gifts; another trip has been planned for this weekend. Here are a few pictures of bibliophilic endeavors.

1
The upper section of the Kitab Khana bookstore in South Mumbai which is hosting the festival.
2
The books below are not part of the festival; all Penguin books are upstairs.
3
There’s always a book for everyone.
4
A bookworm at home in a bookstore.
5
Fellow readers should be recruited in all bookish pursuits.
6
The loot, with apple tea and caramel cake. (The bookstore has a cafe hidden inside. Unless you’re a reader, you wouldn’t know about it. Our own little getaway to eat and read.)

 

Fred & Rose – Book Review

Title – Fred & Rose

Author – Howard Sounes

Genre – Non-fiction, Crime

849573

Fact is truly stranger than fiction. I have spent the past month reading a number of horror and thriller books – a spook fest dedicated to Halloween. One of the books I read (Murderabilia – will review in due time), touched upon the theme of serial killers. The names Fred and Rose West led me to discover this book by Howard Sounes. The month ended with “Fred & Rose” , a true account of the serial killer couple who gained notoriety in British criminal history for murdering numerous women and children over a period of twenty five years; their own children being among the victims. Author Howard Sounes was a journalist at the time the crime was uncovered in 1994, and had reported for the Sunday Mirror newspaper in London under the headline “House of Horrors” – the title the case came to be known as (before the Josef Fritzl case of 2008). Cited to be among the most extraordinary murder cases that shocked even police authorities and medical experts, the skeletal remains of twelve young women and children were discovered – all tortured and killed by the West couple. Nine remains were discovered in the house the couple was living in – buried in the cellar, under the bathroom tiles, near the chimney – as life continued normally in the household. The remains of twelve corpses were identified; it is not known how many people Fred and Rose West killed in all during their murderous spree from the late sixties to the early nineties.

In “Fred & Rose” , Sounes has attempted to understand why so many people died in and around 25 Cromwell Street – the House of Horrors. The book begins back in time with the grandparents and parents of both Fred and Rose. A background into their individual childhoods helps us understand what motivated such violence and how they developed into people capable of such behavior. Both Fred and Rose were born to parents suffering from mental illnesses at various points in time, and were abused as children themselves, and didn’t see anything wrong in what they did to other people, including their own children. According to them, pedophilia was a part of family life – something they too went through growing up. (Their grown up children later said they loved their parents, and assumed the abuse was what happened in all families.) To the outside world, they appeared as any normal couple – cheerfully greeting people on the street, helping out neighbors with chores, providing accommodation to lodgers at cheap rates – they seemed to go out of their way to help others. 25 Cromwell Street was in the middle of the city. Numerous visitors went in and out of the house. And yet no one had an inkling of what was going on within.

The targets included hitchhikers, problem children from delinquent hostels, runaways – people whom no one might inquire about if they went missing. Fred and Rose would drive around town together, offering rides to hitchhikers. Sometimes they would take their children along too. Women who might have been suspicious about getting into a car with a single man, did not see any danger with a young woman and/or children alongside. Young women were invited to work as nannies for their children. They provided lodging at cheap rates affordable for poor students. The women who trusted them were abducted, tortured, raped, killed, cut into pieces, and buried within the floors of the house. Some of their own children too met with the same fate. (The ones who survived did so because they ran away.) Pregnant women had their bellies cut up because Fred wanted to check the gender of the babies. (Fetal remains were found next to the remains of the mothers.) The crimes went undetected for twenty five years. Schools didn’t check when a child stopped turning up for classes. Emergency units treated wounds without bothering to inform the police about abuse. Social services did not follow up on pregnant women who were registered under their care. Children who complained to neighbors were answered with, “They would never do something like that” . Lodgers who inquired about screams at night were told the children must have been having nightmares. Out of all the remains found over two decades later, only six women had been reported missing by their families. The rest said they thought their relatives had left home and didn’t want to be bothered. The House of Horrors case was as much about the sadism of Fred and Rose West, as it was about the failure of society as a whole.

The couple did not know the names of all their victims, and barely registered the faces of the ones they picked up at night. Remains were identified on the basis of dental implants and superimposition. Evidence of torture was identified on the basis of cracks in the bones, cords around decapitated heads, tape and fabric around skulls, nails stripped from fingers. There might have been many more victims whose bodies were never located. Before writing the book, Howard Sounes had broken the story and covered the murder trial of the West couple. In an age where the media often plays judge and jury, Sounes has presented the book as plain facts. Beginning from their own childhood, up to the lives of their surviving children as adults, we are provided a case study of a life in crime in forensic detail, showcasing a fascinating and frightening account at the same time. Sounes does not let his own emotions about the killer couple influence the reader, and urges us to read and reflect for ourselves. Whether one chooses to see Fred and Rose as victims themselves on account of their own abusive childhoods affecting their personalities and later behavioral traits, or one feels the punishment they received from the courts wasn’t enough for the depravity of their crimes, this book is a must read for the case details it provides. The discovery and unearthing of the skeletal remains, forensic identifications of the victims, the court trial, police interviews with the couple, media frenzy, people trying to make a quick buck by claiming to be former victims, actual victims and police detectives selling stories to newspapers and book publishers – Sounes has everything covered about the House of Horrors case. Depictions of torture are gory, but however squeamish one feels as a reader, one realizes that people actually went through the sadism of Fred and Rose. Not a read for the faint-hearted, but a book that deserves to be read as an ode to the victims who finally got justice over two decades after their disappearance and death. My rating is for Sounes’ presentation of facts and writing quality of the book. The content is absolutely heartbreaking.

Rating – 5/5

Victorian Horror Stories – Book Review

Title – Victorian Horror Stories

Editor – Mike Stocks

Genre – Horror, fiction

VHS

The spook fest continues as our countdown to Halloween grows shorter. “Victorian Horror Stories” is an anthology of some of the scariest short stories from the nineteenth century, featuring a mix of British, French, and American short story writers. The stories range from tales of the supernatural to more explicitly horrific subjects. Some of the authors featured here include Guy de Maupassant, Samuel Savage, W.C. Morrow, Mary Cholmondely, as well as some stories whose writers were never identified. The tagline states that Mike Stocks has selected and retold these tales. In his introduction, Stocks mentions how this compilation targets young readers, while introducing them to the horror genre. The font size is fairly large and the book is peppered throughout with numerous sketches keeping in line with the stories. Stocks also explains the original context for each of the stories when they were written centuries ago, and the significance of their themes.

“Victorian Horror Stories” brings in the chills almost immediately by starting off with Mary Cholmondely’s “Let Loose” , loosely inspired by Guy de Maupassant’s “The Hand” – a horror classic from the greatest French short story writer. When an evil person dies, does evil itself die? What happens when severed body parts of a killer have a life of their own when the killer is killed? Samuel Savage’s “The Cat” is about a cat that might not really be a cat, as its fifteen-year old narrator is left to solve the mystery.

“In that room, at twelve o’clock, something unimaginable happened to me. The room was an ordinary room. The day had been ordinary, too. I went to bed without the slightest reason for thinking something extraordinary was about to happen.” Fitz-James O’Brien begins “The Beast From Nowhere” quite simply, and the narrative turns completely eerie in no time. How do you confront a beast you can’t see? If you can’t see it, does that make it a beast to begin with? A perfect analogy for the things we fear but can’t see, as O’Brien connects physical horror with psychological terrors.

W.C. Morrow ups the ante with “An Original Revenge“. Some of the scariest stories are those without a supernatural element. They prove that reality can be just as horrifying, or even more than fiction. A soldier tormented by a captain to such an extent that he takes his own life. A threatening suicide note left behind. The horrifying demise of Charles Gratmar and its aftermath stays with you much after the story has ended. This was one of my favorite tales from the book.

There are some stories by unknown writers as well, and it is commendable how Stocks dug them up for readers. “One Silver Bullet” , as the title suggests, is about werewolves. “It was the noise of everything that is horrible, a howl of evil, dying out slowly, lingering in the air like a foul stench.”  The narrative draws you in and keeps you guessing till the end, as a nightwatchman takes the onus of destroying a werewolf who might be more than what he believes it is. “The Head of Jean Cabet” is another one from the anthology that stood out for me with its brilliant portrayal of pure horror writing. “One spring evening in the middle of the eighteenth century, a group of villagers stood around a pond. High above, skylarks sang. It should have been a beautiful and tranquil scene. It wasn’t. In the middle of the pond, a body was floating, a dagger plunged into its back.” These haunting opening lines have nothing to do with Jean Cabet, and have everything to do with him. As you conclude reading, the head of Jean Cabet literally haunts you. Such is the atmospheric writing by the, unfortunately, unknown author.

I love anthologies because short stories have much lesser time and space to get to the point, unlike novels. It’s a hit or miss within a few pages. There’s a thin line between scratching the surface and providing depth. Too much too soon gets overwhelming for the reader, and rambling on for too long bores you till you get to the end. “Victorian Horror Stories” is a treat for fans of the horror genre. A brilliantly edited anthology which, in spite of its macabre theme, serves as an introduction for young readers into classic horror, and is equally enjoyable for adults as well. I was hoping to read more of them. Stocks, however, has gone a step ahead and listed down more authors and some of their works readers might be interested in looking up. Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allen Poe, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft are some of the more familiar names. Shelley, Stoker and Wells are popularly known more for their novels, but their chilling short stories are worth reading as well. Those interested in art will love the sketches that accompany the writing. Give this one a go if you like the chill factor in reading and appreciate classic literature.

Rating – 5/5