book reviews by Althea

The Rivals of Dracula: Stories from the Golden Age of Gothic Horror

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The Rivals of Dracula: Stories from the Golden Age of Gothic Horror
The Rivals of Dracula: Stories from the Golden Age of Gothic Horror by Nick Rennison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

*** Alice & Claude Askew – ‘Aylmer Vance and the Vampire’
From the brief bio provided about the authors, my first thought was that their lives would make a fantastic historical novel! (…)
However, this 1914 story is wholly by-the-book.
Vance and Dexter are a Holmes and Watson-esque detective pair who specialize in the supernatural. In this story (one of a collection featuring the partners), a young man comes asking for their aid: before he married her, his bride told him her family was afflicted by a vampiric curse. He pooh-poohed the superstitious idea – but now that his health is failing, and his wife refuses to leave her ancestral Scottish castle, he fears that she may have been telling the truth.

****EF Benson – ‘The Room in the Tower’
Previously read, more than once.
(1912) This one has appeared in quite a few anthologies over the years.
A young man has been having a recurring nightmare for over a decade. In the dream, he’s usually a guest at an acquaintance’s home. When the hostess lets him know that he’ll be sleeping in the tower room, he is overcome by an inexplicable feeling of dread.
Then one day, in real life, a friend invites him to a party. Although it’s a different friend, and the details are different, he is overwhelmed by deja vu as he enters the house. Will he finally find out what his dreadful presentiment foreshadowed?

***Mary Cholmondeley – ‘Let Loose’
An archaeologist wonders why his colleague always wears high collars. One day, he gets the tale out of him: while investigating a medieval fresco in a remote, small-town crypt, he learns why the local priest was so very reluctant to lend him the keys.

****FRANCIS MARION CRAWFORD, ‘For the Blood is the Life’
(1905) Previously read; more than once – this is a heavily-anthologized, classic piece!
A classic of vampire fiction; it features a seductive femme fatale whose unrequited love persists beyond the grave. The supernatural elements are mixed in with a story of mundane theft and murder in a small village, with all the expected drama of the Italian setting (as the author puts into his character’s mouth: “Deeds that would be simply brutal and disgusting anywhere else become dramatic and mysterious because this is Italy and we are living in a genuine tower of Charles V built against genuine Barbary pirates.”)
However, I found that the most memorable part of the story was its framing device, with the eerie image of the grave with a body lying on top of it, which is only visible from a distance.

**** Ulric Daubeny – ‘The Sumach’
In which it turns out that burying Spot the dog under a certain tree was probably not the best idea. It further turns out that this certain tree may have something to do with why this couple inherited the house and grounds after the previous owner’s unexpected and untimely death. Will the new owners escape her fate?

*** Augustus Hare – ‘The Vampire of Croglin Grange’
Apparently, this is an excerpt from the author’s memoirs, and is presented as “a true story told to me.” It definitely has the ring of fiction to it, however! Late on a summer’s night, a woman hears a scratching at her window… and sees a horrific creature trying to get in!…

*****Julian Hawthorne – ‘Ken’s Mystery’
Did you know that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son was a writer of pulp fiction? I did not! Although, calling this story pulp fiction is significantly underselling it. It’s one of the most beautiful depictions of an encounter with a femme fatale I’ve read, and is a credit to the Irish folklore that inspired it.
Two friends meet after one returns from a sojourn abroad. The banjo that one gifted to the other in now inexplicably aged and worn – looking more like something from the Middle Ages than a newly-crafted instrument. In explanation, the friend tells a strange tale of being lost in the Irish countryside, and of an encounter with a friendly and welcoming young woman whom he meets by the grave of a lady who died tragically two hundred years ago.

*** E and H Heron (Kate Prichard and Hesketh Prichard) – ‘The Story of Baelbrow’
Another in the ‘supernatural investigator’ genre. The old manor house of Baelbrow has long been known to be haunted – but for generations, the resident spirit has never bothered anyone. But when the owners rent the place out for the summer to a visiting professor, something changes – and a maidservant ends up dead. The professor calls in Detective Flaxman Low to see what could’ve happened with Baelbrow’s ghost.
Det. Low is awfully good at drawing a great many conclusions from a very few clues…

*** MR James – ‘Count Magnus’
A re-read…
(1904) The ‘Dracula’ influence is strong in this one… A definite must-read for fans of classic vampire fiction.
Some papers found in a long-empty house reveal the story of one would-be travel writer’s experience with the titular Count, whose locked sarcophagus lies in a remote Scandinavian church. The writer uncovers local stories of men who walk when they should be lying dead… and the reader can assume that there’ll be no good end to this investigation.

*** Vernon Lee (Violet Paget) – ‘Marsyas in Flanders’
At an old church, renowned for its old and reputedly miraculous crucifix, a guard is posted. They say the guard is there to protect the relic – but is the worry really thieves?
The local antiquarian tells an interested visitor this tale of the crucifix’s history, and the disturbing rumors that have surrounded it over the centuries.

*** Richard Marsh – ‘The Mask’
A protagonist who is remarkably dense and unable to pick up on incredibly obvious clues is victimized by an escaped lunatic with a remarkable gift for disguise.
After being robbed on a train, he describes the befuddling incident to a police detective, who basically says, “Well, duh, that ‘nice young gentleman’ clearly drugged and robbed you.” But there is more to the crime than even the detective – at first – guesses.

*** Hume Nisbet – ‘The Vampire Maid’
Seeking a break from city life, a young artist rents a room in a pleasant rural cottage. The presence of the alluring daughter of his new landlady seems to be nothing but an unexpected plus! But will he learn in time that he’s made a dangerous mistake?

**** Frank Norris – ‘Grettir at Thorhall-stead’
Excellent vampire story set in Iceland, on a remote farmstead. The landowner needs to hire a shepherd, and selects a man who seems capable, if not terribly personable… As it turns out, however, the hired hand’s social skills are the least thing this small community will need to worry about.
Very reminiscent of ‘Beowulf,’ the story is inspired by the Icelandic saga of “Grettir the Strong,” (…) but with a few good, original twists. The writing is a cut above the average.

**** Phil Robinson – ‘Medusa’
Confirmed bachelor finds himself unexpectedly smitten by a beautiful widow. Although he’s never felt the desire to commit to any woman before, he finds himself unable to keep his mind off her. Even when another man shows up, full of warnings about what happened to him – and the worse things that happened to her previous beaux, he’s unable to think anything ill of her… it’s almost as if he’s under a spell.
A very well-crafted horror tale.

**** HB Marriott Watson – ‘The Stone Chamber’
Wonderfully classic haunted-house story. In advance of bringing his bride to the old manse he’s renovating, a man invites his friend to come check out the place. However, after he sleeps in the small, damp room (complete with a bat flitting about the place), his behavior starts changing drastically. From congeniality and enthusiasm for the future, he snaps to strange fits of temper, and an uncharacteristic tendency toward intemperate drinking and gambling.
When the friend researches the house’s past – and why it was left empty so long – he discovers the history of a disturbing tragedy – which seems like it may be mirrored by the events happening now.

Many thanks to Trafalgar Square Publishing and NetGalley for the opportunity to read this collection of classic gothic tales. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

View all my reviews


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