on September 20, 2012
Molly Tanzer's stunningly original debut is unlike any tome you've ever encountered. Part reverse genealogy, part novel, part collection, part pastiche, it manages to be wholly original, by turns decadent, hilarious, erotic, and sinister. Imagine John Hughes directing an adaptation of a Gothic novel starring a young Rob Lowe opposite a younger Jeffrey Combs, or Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard cutting loose and collaborating on a picaresque, or Black Adder as envisioned by Roald Dahl, Angela Carter, Edward Gorey, and P.G. Wodehouse on an absinthe-bender, and you're only scratching the surface of the weirdest, most audacious work to come down the pike in many a strange aeon. For fans of historical fiction, Victorian pornography, Mythos horror, Tom Jones, sword-and-sandal epics, Jeeves and Wooster, the poetry of John Wilmot, and boys' school romps, *this* is the book you've been waiting for!
on October 10, 2012
My first encounter with Molly Tanzer's delightful fiction occurred at the 2011 World Horror Convention, where Tanzer read an excerpt from "The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins." This cleverly cockeyed story of inappropriate devotion between 18th century aristocratic siblings first appeared in the Innsmouth Free Press anthology Historical Lovecraft. It was soon reprinted in The Book of Cthulhu (Night Shade Books). Around the same time Cameron Pierce at Lazy Fascist Press invited Tanzer to turn the growing history of one peculiar family into a book. The result is A Pretty Mouth, and I haven't had this much pure, crazy fun reading a work of fiction in a long time.
For anyone looking for a good read, this is it. Tanzer knows how to tell a tale. The pacing is expert and the characters are immediately engaging. A Pretty Mouth is definitely a page-turner. Yet each period Tanzer recreates is specific and wildly vivid. Nothing is tossed off. The underlying foundation for the book is a solid grasp of history, language, and philosophy. So the more you know of British history and the more classics you have read, the more fun you will have.
The book is comprised of four short stories and a novella. Each tale is set in a different era and may be read and enjoyed separately. Together they form a substantial arc, revealing hundreds of years of strange (often supernaturally strange) behavior among the highborn Calipashes. The mysterious origin of the family curse is withheld until the last story, creating dramatic suspense while the author traces several generations in reverse chronological order.
"A Spotted Trouble at Dolor-on-the-Downs" takes place in Edwardian England at the Marine Vivarium, a resort hotel catering to the whims of the aristocracy. There Alastair Fitzroy, the twenty-seventh Lord Calipash, frets over the impending demise of his family's estate and wonders how to get his sister to stop languishing all day in her bath. The Lord Calipash is at a loss until he bumps into his old school chum Bertie Wooster. It seems Bertie's valet Jeeves is a wizard at solving problems.
The audacity of introducing these characters to assist in a Wodehouse-worthy situation is matched perfectly by Tanzer's facility with prose style. The entire story is recounted by Jeeves as an entry in the Club Book of the Junior Ganymede Club for Gentlemen's Personal Gentlemen. The language and historical references could pass for original Wodehouse, if not for the aquatic creature in a tank in the basement, and the amphibious inclinations of Lady Alethea in the bathtub. The conclusion is both fitting and hilarious.
"The Hour of the Tortoise" takes us on a Victorian Gothic journey. If the author has missed a theme from that privately kinky, publicly repressed era I don't know what it might be. Our heroine Chelone travels by train to her former home in the country, to visit her dying patron, a crusty old man to whom she may or may not be related by blood. Chelone was banished from the estate years ago and eventually earned her meager living by writing tales of erotic intrigue for a popular though disreputable magazine. Throughout the story Chelone weaves her Gothic fiction until the fate of our heroine and hers become inextricably entwined.
This darkly romantic story is worthy of a Bronte, except for the naughty bits written by our heroine for her demanding editor. The naughty bits are hugely entertaining, by the way. The language, setting, and characterization are flawless; all contribute to a keen portrait of an intellectual woman undone by patriarchal power. The madwoman in the attic has nothing on our fair Chelone.
In "The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins," Tanzer ranges over the ideas and influences shaping society during the Seven Years' War. In Devonshire the ancestral home of the Lords Calipash sprawls across the countryside, dominating the landscape while reflecting a mania for architectural and garden design. Nothing is too ornate or superfluous to be considered worthwhile. The style of Tanzer's prose in this section would please Henry Fielding, and readers are frequently reminded that the shocking events presented are intended purely as an example of unacceptable behavior. In other words, it is a romp and it is delicious fun.
For the novella "A Pretty Mouth" and the short story "Damnatio Memoriae" the author mixes anachronistic language with historically accurate detail and strikes a perfect balance. "A Pretty Mouth" takes place at Wadham College, Oxford in the 17th century. The boys who attend the prestigious institution are typical of their age and degree of privilege. Their nefarious adventures will strike a chord with readers fond of stories about school days. But this magical tale is a far cry from the idealized world of Harry Potter and his little chums. These boys woo and taunt and brutalize one another. Their secret experiments are matters of life and death-and sex. In a stunning reversal we catch a glimpse of the vast gulf between genders in an era when girls were expected to sew and sing while boys studied Greek and Latin and grew up to rule the world.
Finally, "Damnatio Memoriae" takes us to the shores of Britannia circa 40 A.D., where our hero Petronius stumbles through an unwanted trek led by a female barbarian. Along the way we meet the ideal Roman soldier, who turns out to be an ancestor to all of the Lords Calipash we have encountered in the previous stories. To find out where that trek leads and how the dashing and courageous Roman acquires the family curse, you will have to read the book. Lucky you!
For reviewing purposes I requested and received an advance reading copy of A Pretty Mouth from the publisher, Lazy Fascist Press.
on October 8, 2012
I've been waiting (im)patiently for this book ever since I first read "The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins" in draft form back before it appeared in Historical Lovecraft. Even back then I knew that the story was too good to be the only tale out there of the debased and demented Calipash family, and now, at last, more of their stories can be told!
Part novel, part short story collection, part genealogy of the cursed Calipash family, Molly Tanzer effortlessly shifts gears from Wodehouse parody to sword-and-sandal epic, and from ribald comedy to gruesome horror to titillating smut, all without ever losing her fantastic authorial voice. This delightfully unclassifiable debut is one of the finest books I've read in years, and is like nothing else you've ever read, I promise.
on January 30, 2015
A TOP SHELF review originally published in the January 30, 2015 edition of The Monitor.
First, for the uninitiated, a quick definition of weird fiction: “A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain — a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”
That’s how H.P. Lovecraft, the master of the uncanny dark, defined the genre for which he’d be forever known. Many modern writers exploring the genre have in fact used Lovecraft’s literary universe (now in the public domain) as a sort of gruesome sandbox for their own delightful tales.
One of the most exciting voices at play in that universe is that of Molly Tanzer. Her 2012 collection A Pretty Mouth is a delightful blend of subtle, unnerving horror and historically contextualized debauchery, substituting excesses of the flesh for the violence more commonly found in such tales.
Consisting of four short stories and a novella, A Pretty Mouth gives us in reverse chronological order a multi-generational look at the Calipash family, a noble English house with dark and twisted predilections and pedigree.
The Edwardian-era “A Spotted Trouble at Dolor-on-the-Downs” details the aid an industrious valet renders Alastair Fitzroy, the 27th Lord Calipash, whose sister has become addicted to the secretions of an unusual cephalopod. “The Hour of the Tortoise” is a kinky Gothic exploration of patriarchal repression of intelligent women and the lengths to which they are driven by this marginalization.
Incest, black magic and blurred identities are just some of the themes of the slyly narrated “Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins.” Then in the titular novella, the stereotypical story of prep-school life is turned playfully on its head, as Tanzer explores the mischief of Calipash twins in 17th century using an inventive mixture of period language and modern slang. The final tale, “Damnatio Memoriae,” is a tongue-in-cheek sword-and-sandals tale of Romans in first-century Britain that shows us the founding of the bizarre Calipash clan.
Tanzer expertly weaves period-accurate language and cultural elements with mischievous mores and hints at cosmic darkness. Every story is wickedly wonderful and you’ll be left wanting to learn more about the debauched and gifted Calipashes.
on February 1, 2013
Originally appeared on my blog, The Arkham Digest
This is easily one of the most entertaining books I've ever had the pleasure of reading. Like most weird fiction authors, Molly Tanzer first caught my attention with her short fiction. I read her original tale of the debauched Calipash family and quite frankly, I was an instant fan. A Pretty Mouth is Tanzer's first collection, and what a first collection it is.
A Pretty Mouth is a reverse, incomplete history of the Calipash family. Within it's pages are four short stories (two of which have been previously published elsewhere) and a long novella. Every story present can easily stand alone, but when strung together they paint a twisted picture of the Calipashes over the centuries.
A quick look at the stories:
The collection opens with an original, A Spotted Trouble At Dolor-On-The-Downs, in which Tanzer takes the character of Reginald Jeeves (the butler/manservant created by author P.H. Wodehouse) and places him in the middle of a sticky conundrum. While vacationing at Dolor-On-The-Downs, a seaside resort, Jeeves's employer Wooster comes into contact with an old school mate, Alastair Fitzroy, the twenty-seventh Lord Calipash. What follows is an unfortunate turn of events in which Jeeves is forced into the service of Fitzroy. The story, like every story in the collection, is a weird tale through and through, but tinged with enough hilarity to really make it something special.
Tanzer follows with The Hour of The Tortoise (originally appearing in The Book of Cthulhu II). Whereas the first story takes place in the early 20th century, The Hour of the Tortoise rewinds the clock to the 19th century and follows Chelone Burchell, a pornography writer and cousin to the Calipash family, as she returns to the estate after many years in a sort of exile. This story was a standout in the anthology that it first appeared, and Tanzer does a brilliant job of blending humor, sexuality, and creepiness so that the final result is a smooth read with an entertainment factor that's through the roof. This one still remains one of my favorite stories of this debauched family.
Next comes the story that started it all, The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins. This one takes readers back to the 18th century, and features what will become common elements to every Calipash story: nods to Lovecraft, twins, hilariously perverse sexuality, debauchery, plenty of the macabre, and, of course, gut-busting dark hilarity. This was, appropriately, my first Tanzer story, and the one that started this whole wicked history. The plot is just like the title implies, and details the history of a wicked set of twins.
A Pretty Mouth, the title novella, is perhaps the best piece in the collection. And saying that is difficult, because every story was brilliant. In this one Tanzer gives reader a view into 17th century school life at Wadham College in Oxford. This tale follows Henry Milliner, a young man who would do anything to get in with St. John Clement, the Lord Calipash and the most popular student at Wadham. The boy finally finds an "in" but finds out that being a member of the Blithe Company might not be all it's cracked up to be. The story is filled with plenty of twists and turns, and shows that Tanzer is comfortable working in the realm of longer fiction.
And finally, the collection finished with Damnatio Memoriae, which takes readers all the way back to ancient Rome. An expedition to barbaric Brittania goes awry, and readers are introduced to the first of the Calipash line to set foot on the British Isles.
With this collection, Molly Tanzer has become one of my favorite new authors. Her love of Victorian literature is present, and combined with some modern elements the result is something quite special. The humor is spot-on in every story, and balanced so well with the macabre elements that it brings to mind a perverse hybrid of HP Lovecraft and Edward Gorey.
I really can't recommend this collection enough. It's hard to remember the last time I had this much fun reading a book, and was actually sad for it to come to an end. Readers looking for a wild frolic through a twisted, bizarre, depraved, nefarious, ingenious and unabashedly perverted mind should look no further, this is the book they've been waiting for.
on May 28, 2014
A Pretty Mouth is one of those books I had heard a lot about well before I ever decided to purchase it. Molly Tanzer has an obvious talent for the weird and eldritch, and the praise that preceded her and her book was not to disappoint. APM is not exactly what I expected, however. It is not a novel, but rather a sort of connected short story collection, centering around a central novella, all focused on the family history of the house Calipash, told in reverse chronological order. If that sounds confusing, it can be. But if you stick with it, everything becomes clear and you will find yourself with a powerful desire to reread the book from the beginning, lest you not know what you've missed.
A definite recommendation for anyone who likes there horror on the weird and Lovecraftian side.
on December 19, 2012
There were times while I was reading Molly Tanzer's debut collection that reminded me of Perdido Street Station . . . Interesting, but big, too big, no way to bring this all together and make it seem natural . . . I was wrong then. I was wrong now. Molly does something I love, she plays with other people's toys, she plays with language, she misdirects, she conceals, she lies. She knows how much to show, and when, and where. One can think of this book as something of a weird burlesque spanning British literature and styles in a manner that draws the reader in and doesn't let go. Fans of British humor and their sense of the ribald will find a home here, as will fans of the decadent. Many have called the book Lovecraftian, I see the influence, but also that of Chambers, of Hodgson, of Wilde. This book, A Pretty Mouth takes the weird tale in a direction that few others have dared, and the journey is well worth the price of admission. The author hints that there are other tales of the Calipash Family yet to be told, I look forward to one day owning the Compleat History of the Family Calipash.
on May 15, 2014
If the glowing reviews from authors like Baron, Kiernan, Pugmire, Langan, etc don't convince you to pick up this book, then perhaps nothing in the multiverse could. But what a shame that would be! The stories in this collection are a lot of fun, clearly well-researched (though I did found the language too modern at times), and could have only come from a rather twisted mind. In tone and characters, it reminded me a lot of that fantastic storytelling game Gloom. Would be a lot of fun to play that game with a Calipash expansion. I would have loved to see horror of a more cosmic bent infuse some of these stories, but as it was the Stuart Gordon level squick worked perfectly.
on March 15, 2013
In four short stories and a novella, A Pretty Mouth traces the long and sordid history of the Calipash family, renown for their incestuous and demonic tendencies. It's a tongue-in-cheek Lovecraftian pastiche (with more emphasis on tentacles than cosmic horror), but Tanzer writes is skill and a distinctive, flexible voice. She engages the gothic genre, signature Lovecraftian tropes such as the apocalyptic log, and dozens of historical quirks and clichés with the fondness that marks her Lovecraftian pastiche--it's incisive and lascivious parody, but it's parody which loves its subject matter. The collection begs something like a family tree or framing narrative; the in-character author's note provides some overarching structure, but it's too little too late at the end of the book. And while this is my favorite brand of parody, I confess I'm not one for humor: in the end I wanted something less clever and more substantial. Nonetheless, A Pretty Mouth is a delight: distinctive, as flagrant as incisive, and difficult to put down. I have some caveats but I recommend it, and I look forward to more from Tanzer.
on January 5, 2015
My confession, would you have it. I write to inform you of a book which has crossed my hands--a book that will disrupt your working hours and most certainly your nights, because once you read these...we shall call them stories, though they seem rather to be historical transcriptions, if you take my meaning...you will never find sleep's seductive embrace easily again.
Of course, I had the pleasure of listening to the Lady Tanzer (shall we call her such? Only here.) read from this manuscript this past spring when our paths did chance to cross in the distant city of P----. When I learned the pages were actually to be bound into a book...
If this is my confession, I cannot lie. There was a moment of pure terror which slid down my spine like a sliver of ice, but within this missive and only to you I shall also admit a pleasure at the very idea. These stories collected into one tidy package? One I might take anywhere? (How lovely that one may take a book anywhere, indeed.) I was helpless to resist. It goes beyond the exposed line of a slim stocking-clad ankle, you understand.
Sirs, my confession must also include the fact that the lady gave me this review copy herself. She did, in no way, coerce this confession from me. These facts do not change the nature of the book, that it is beautiful and beautifully made, from its unsettling and graphic cover, to the typefaces within. Someone clearly took great care with these stories, presenting them as one does fiction (though we alone know better, don't we?).
The voice of this book--this is what may capture one, draw one in. I think of all the readers who have yet to discover this lady's works (surely there are more, as there are stars in the heavens) and I shudder, sirs. I shudder. That they shall encounter these worlds, and "characters" for the first time yet--oh, to have that pleasure again. Our world slips away under a veil of fog when one opens this tome; one is drawn wholly and effortlessly into these tales and it is an effort to come back to what we know to be true. (Or do we? I confess to confusion on that point.)
Sirs, I must close here for the hour grows late and the air creeps with chill. The Ivybridge twins are coming for tea. You understand. Still, I remain--
Ever your friend.