on July 16, 2007
The book consists of nine perfectly crafted tales of the supernatural. The first, "The White Hands" concerns the obscure authoress of horror fiction, Lilith Blake and her book, "The White Hands and Other Tales." It is brilliant in its portrayal of the ability of truly great horror fiction to blur the lines between the real and unreal. Only in Lovecraft and Ligotti have I seen this idea done with such virtuosity. The story also has my favorite quote from the whole book, "Realism, in his view, was the literature of the prosaic. It was the quest for the hidden mysteries, he contended, which formed the proper subject of all great literature." In this first shot of the book, Samuels focuses on a theme that he returns to again and again in the later stories, that of the pursuit of power. In weird fiction, the theme is usually dealt with indirectly not directly. The individual, for example, wants knowledge, but never admits that power is their fundamental pursuit. Samuels makes this explicit in a way I have never seen done. Other writers who attempt to deal with power as it relates to weird fiction seem to feel as if it is taboo, the way parents know they need to talk about sex to their children but avoid the topic. Perhaps these writers feel as if power is too provincial a theme to monopolize a tale. They would not be far off the mark as many individuals who make it a central theme usually fail miserably (think of the sword and sorcery fiction that attempts to incorporate Lovecraftian themes). Samuels, however, succeeds where others have failed.
The second tale, "The Grandmaster's Final Game" tells of a chess game between two opponents, a final game based on manipulation of reality and mind. It is one of the weaker tales of the collection, but when I say weaker, it is still far better than 95% of weird fiction out there right now, kind of like saying one of Michael Jordan's weaker performances.
The third tale, "Mannequins in Aspects of Terror," moves the weird tale directly into the urban landscape, reminiscent of Leiber. It tells of a disillusioned architect that gradually becomes enamoured (almost seduced) by the slowly decaying building that he daily views from his high rise office building. Its final climax in the art exhibit "Mannequins in Aspects of Terror," is one of the finest denouements in any modern weird tale.
The fourth tale, "Apartment 205," concerns a young medical student living in Paris and his discovery of the truth of the cosmos that was catalyzed by his meeting with the man from apartment 205. The psychomantium, a device to bridge the gap between the world of the living and the world of the dead, is the key to such revelations for the stories character. "You are simply a dream . . . and I am tired of dreaming" is the message he receives. This is one of my favorite tales from this collection as Samuels shows most explicitly in this tale (and in "The Search for Kruptos") his inclination towards philosophical horror. It also is one of the few recent horror tales I've read that scared the hell out of me.
The fifth tale, "The Impasse," has a deceptively simple structure for its plot, a man's first day at his new job. The atmosphere Samuels creates is reminiscent of Ligotti's "My Work Is Not Yet Done." The main character, Cohen, is required to file legal documents for the Ulymas Organisation regarding "something to do with intellectual property rights." The sense of dehumanization and decay that permeates the setting (and the nature of his work) is as near to poetry as modern weird fiction can get.
The sixth story, "Colony," could best be described as a modern "Shadows Over Innsmouth." Samuels manages to recreate an Innsmouth-like city, within the span of a few pages. The power of this story lies in its portrayal of the seductiveness of evil.
The seventh story, "Vrolyck," concerns a book that forms a physical and metaphysical link between our world and the world of Vrolyck. Samuels' description of the text and its descent of one of the central characters into something much more horrific than madness are beautifully executed, and his connection to modern street graffiti is a nice touch to this story. Kind of like the cherry on top of a sunday.
The eight story is "The Search for Kruptos." If I had to pick a favorite out of the entire collection, this would be it. This was the story that left no doubts in my mind that Samuels was a master of the weird tale. Once again, a sinister book that not only holds metaphysical mysteries, but is itself a metaphysical mystery, is central to this tale. This book being the magnum opus of Thomas Ariel, "Kruptos." I looked for echoes of Borges in this tale (particularly "The Library of Babel"). I looked for echoes of Danielewski, Ligotti, Lovecraft. If one looks hard enough one can find anything. However, at the crux of this tale, I have to say that here, in as distinct and sharp a sound as possible, is Mark Samuels own voice. It was at this story that I realized that I needed to stop looking for imitations ("homages" if one wishes to use a euphemism) of Lovecraft, or of Leiber, or of Borges, or of a dozen other writers. This was the story when, like a light switch, it clicked: Mark Samuels is not an imitation. Mark Samuels is that rare find, a truly original voice in weird fiction. And though one can find influences, it is his voice, and his voice alone that ultimately speaks through each and every one of the tales in this collection. "The Search for Kruptos," in particular, was as flawless a tale as I have ever seen.
The last tale in the collection, "Black as Darkness," sees a move from literature to cinema for its effect of what I can only describe as metaphysical disorientation, a trait common to all the tales in this collection. It is a masterstroke by Samuels. Many of the previous tales in the collection have had a focus on sinister books ("The Dybbuk Pyramid," "Kruptos," "The White Hands and Other Tales"). This story brings back, though beautifully indirectly like a howl heard in the distance, the character of Lilith Blake. Like many good books, one of Blake's stories has been decided to be adapted to film, the title, "Black as Darkness." This story follows the outcome of that.
As a whole, this collection will perhaps be one spoken of in the same breath as Lovecraft's "The Outsider and Other Tales," Aickman's "Sub Rosa," Campbell's "The Height of the Scream," and Ligotti's "Songs of a Dead Dreamer." It is a masterpiece of weird fiction in every sense of the word. I cannot recommend this work highly enough and envy the reader new to Samuels' work.
I read this book in a single night. That has something to do with the slimness of the volume, but more to do with Samuels' prose, which is never less than eminently readable, and conveys deep philosophical issues with great clarity. That alone would be enough to make this collection worth reading in spite of any other virtues and flaws, both of which, fortunately and unfortunately, it has.
In my review of Samuels' later collection The Man Who Collected Machen, I agreed with Reggie Oliver's comment that Samuels was able to acknowledge influences while keeping his own voice dominant. With the stories in The White Hands, however, that's less true. It's very easy to find echoes of Thomas Ligotti in several of these stories, and the less Ligottian stories are reminiscent of classical weird tales. It's no bad thing to be influenced by the best, but when one's own voice isn't strong enough, the resulting stories can feel overly familiar or second-rate, absolutely enjoyable but not quite memorable or distinguished. Several of the stories in The White Hands left me thinking, "Well, that didn't do anything particularly wrong," when I was hoping for a "Wow!"
"Mannequins in Aspects of Terror," for instance, is very well-crafted, but, with its solitary, brooding protagonist and the decaying office tower/mannequin-based art installation to which he's drawn, echoes so many of Ligotti's motifs that it feels more like an echo than anything else. "Colony," in which a man is irresistibly drawn to a decayed neighborhood, is likewise a piece of familiar music, the kind of thing you hear on the radio and vaguely like while recognizing its debt to better work. "The Grandmaster's Final Game" has a clever (both literally and intellectually) final twist, but up to that point its world-weary priest and malevolent chess-playing spirit are more like stock figures than interesting or frightening characters. And the title story reminds one of Machen and Poe without capturing the intensity of either writer, despite a few fine character descriptions.
So about half of the stories were less than satisfying. But others are classic Mark Samuels, which as I've said, means they're very good indeed. "The Impasse" is somewhat similar to Thomas Ligotti's corporate horror stories, but Samuels offers enough distinctive imagery that the piece succeeds in its own right. There are what might be echoes of Ligotti in "Vrolyck," about an author whose horror stories have a special mission, but the story also feels a little Lovecraftian, and features Samuels' own recurring motif of language as a virus. In this case, the play of influences produces the distinctive voice I associate with Samuels' finest fiction. And "Apartment 205" is likewise original; although there's something classical about its general outline: a mysterious disappearance, an empty apartment, an ancient organization, and unbearable but mesmerizing secrets revealed at great cost.
I had mixed feelings about the last two stories in the collection. "The Search for Kruptos" has more excellent language as virus/obsession imagery, and up until the last two pages I was quite enjoying it. I'm not sure, though, that the coda (and the material elsewhere in the story leading up to it) is necessary or appropriate. It's hard to discuss without giving things away, but as a rule I'm touchy about genre fiction dealing with this particular topic, and in the specific instance I don't think the story gains much from that element. But it may be that I've failed to understand the point Samuels is making. "Black as Darkness," on the other hand, I admire for its late twist, but I'm not sure the story is fully developed enough to make that twist relevant to the (striking) horror imagery that's wrapped around it. There's a tiny link back to "The White Hands," which is nice, but only underscores my feeling that the elements of this story aren't fully integrated.
The White Hands, then, is a curious collection. It contains work by one of the contemporary masters of the weird, but to me that work feels transitional, slightly tentative, whereas his recent work satisfied me more. On the other (white) hand, this collection was praised in its own right by many famous names, such as Thomas Ligotti himself, Ramsey Campbell, and T.E.D. Klein, and I can't deny that Samuels' prose is invariably polished in a way that few writers can manage. It's likely that most readers will find a least a couple stories to treasure in The White Hands, and on that basis I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it. But if you want to see Samuels working at full power, I'd go for The Man Who Collected Machen first.
Postscript: the paperback edition of this book is readily available from the publisher at a very reasonable price. Google can take you to the appropriate website. [Later update: and, of course, an authorized Kindle edition is now available here on Amazon.]
on February 21, 2013
Originally posted on my blog, The Arkham Digest.
I first stumbled upon Mark Samuels when I read his story A Gentleman From Mexico in the Book of Cthulhu II. I found the story showcased an easy, confident writing style and it really made an imprint on me. Afterwards I ordered copies of his two in-print collections: The White Hands and Other Weird Tales and The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales (I also recently ordered a copy of Glyphotech, a short collection from PS Publishing that is now out of print).
It took me a couple months before I cracked open The White Hands, but it only took me a couple days to zip through it. When I started I was wondering if the stories were going to be nearly as good as A Gentleman From Mexico, and as I finished I scolded myself for waiting so long before reading Mark Samuels.
The stories within are all exemplars of weird fiction. Samuels writes clear and concise, and is not shy about showing his influences. I knew going into this one that Lovecraft and Machen were influences on Samuels, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that some of the stories within echoed Thomas Ligotti's bleak, nihilistic style of horror.
The collection opens with The White Hands, a tale that reads like pure, classic weird horror. An academic decides to study a near-forgotten author named Lilith Blake, whose fiction is extraordinarily dark and bleak. He must use the collection of a former professor named Muswell, a hardcore Blake enthusiast. The story is an excellent opener, and reading about the protagonist's growing obsession with Blake's work is good fun. Following this story is The Grandmaster's Final Game. An enchanted chess set brings about a rematch between a priest and a wicked former opponent. The story starts off strong and keeps going right up until the finish.
The middle section of the book are the tales that to me are most reminiscent of Thomas Ligotti's work. Mannequins in Aspects of Terror is a creepy urban tale. Mannequins are creepy anyway, and Samuels takes it to a whole new level with this story, set in a mostly abandoned office tower which becomes a place of fixation for the narrator. Apartment 205 is another tale concerning a character who becomes enchanted and obsessed, only this time it's a certain room in a neighboring apartment which keeps drawing him in. Another tale with dark, pessimistic undertones, the story just gets creepier and creepier. The Impasse, one of my favorite stories of the collection, is 100% Ligottian corporate horror. The story is surreal from the start, and details a mans first day on the job at a strange firm. Events get stranger and stranger as the story goes on, and a feeling of hopelessness pervades throughout the story. The next story continues the theme of obsession, and similar to The Impasse it has a surreal feel early on that continues throughout. The protagonist of The Colony becomes enamored with a run-down, shady part of town that he stumbles across. He finds himself attracted to the bleakness of not only the place, but the denizens he encounters on his nightly jaunts. He decides to move into the desolate neighborhood, and the places pull on him intensifies further, culminating in a terrifying conclusion.
Although the previous four tales are the ones that seem to be the most influenced by Ligotti, the tale that follows reads like a Ligotti/Lovecraft mashup. Vrolyck follows a misanthropic insomniac who is more than he lets on. He meets a woman also suffering from insomnia in a cafe, which sends events spiraling. The tone is Ligotti but the plot is Lovecraft, making for quite a brilliant story.
The Search For Kruptos is yet again another tale dealing with obsession. The protagonist is a student who becomes obsessed with finding Kruptos, the unpublished magnum opus of an exiled author from days of old. The story takes place during the second World War, and although dealing with the idea of worlds in between dreaming and waking has a jarring ending that threw me off.
And finally, Black as Darkness brings readers full circle, as references to characters in the first story create a sense of a bigger picture. The tale follows two old men who have been lifelong friends, and what happens when a mysterious, bootlegged video tape shows up and dirty secrets are aired, leading to yet another bleak ending.
In conclusion, The White Hands and Others is a brilliant early collection. Readers of weird horror will find much familiarity here, although the voice is Mr. Samuels's own. I can't imagine any fans of the weird being disappointed in this collection, and I even find it hard to bring criticism against it myself. This book should be a welcome addition to any bookshelf, and since it's an in-print paperback from Tartarus Press (a wonderful publisher) it can be easily found online.