Review: Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror, Chris Priestley

Though short stories — which is what Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror is, short stories with a frame device — are not generally my thing, the genre of short story most likely to please me is horror. (Ghost horror, not serial killer horror. Ghosts are imaginary, but serial killers are very real, and terrifying.) I ordinarily discount short story books unless they are pressed on me by friends who are sure they can change my mind about short stories (they can’t), but the horror thing and the thin, weird, slightly Goreyish illustrations made me decide to give Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror a try.

Edward enjoys going to visit his Uncle Montague, who lives in a big old house full of strange and mysterious objects, all of which seem to have frightening stories attached to them. Edward assumes that his uncle is just trying to scare him, but as the evening wears on, he is forced to confront the possibility that the stories of horrors that befall selfish children might be true.

To my joy, I enjoyed these stories. I like how everyone in them dies. Okay, not everyone, but many of them! Because, you know. Death to naughty children, that’s the name of the game. The other notable strength of the collection — and something I tend to love in all stories but especially horror ones — is how you think you know what’s going on and it’s X. And then TWIST!, you find out that all along what’s really been going on the whole time was Y.

(Cf. Helen Oyeyemi’s White Is for Witching. When the house — highlight if you have read White Is for Witching already because otherwise this will mess up a quite chilling moment in the book and will make no sense to you — says “Africa? Really”, it just sends chills up my spine.)

These are stories for children, but that doesn’t stop them from being quite frightening. If I had read them when I was a little kid I would probably never have slept again. I was a timid child. Luckily I am much braver now because it has become clear to me that ghosts & demons & monsters are pretend, and now I only have to worry about serial killers, none of which occur in the pages of Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror.

Others who reviewed it include: things mean a lot, Stuff as Dreams Are Made On, The Written World, Stainless Steel Droppings, Graeme’s Fantasy Book Review, Fleur Fisher in her World, My Favourite Books, Polishing Mud Balls, All about {n}. Tell me if I missed yours!

I will never catch up on reviews

…if I don’t do a bunch of short ones all at once. Thus:

The Golden Mean, Annabel Lyon

I checked this out on Gavin’s recommendation and because I love Alexander the Great. Your claims that he was a psychotic alcoholic have no effect on me because in my mind he is exactly the way Mary Renault writes him in Fire from Heaven and The Persian Boy. The Golden Mean is about Aristotle when he comes to Macedon to tutor young Alexander. Though Lyon was clearly influenced by Mary Renault’s books, she gives a more nuanced picture of Alexander, showing a brilliant but disturbed young man who provides real heads for plays and mutilates the bodies of soldiers he has killed. Lyon uses modern language, with much swearing, and although that could have come across as stilted, it, er, it doesn’t. Hooray. Also, check out Ms. Lyon’s list of ten very good books about the ancient world.

The Magicians and Mrs. Quent, Galen Beckett

Advertised as Jane Austen with magic, The Magicians and Mrs. Quent completely failed to satisfy me. Other reviewers have noted that the book’s three sections are dramatically different in tone, the first being quite Jane Austen and the second quite Turn of the Screwy, and the third more straight fantasy. This bugged me, and I didn’t care for the characters anyway, and the world-building felt lazy. So, not a success. This was for the RIP Challenge.

The Fall of Rome, Martha Southgate

Big yes to this one. I have been wanting to read it for ages, on Eva’s recommendation, and it didn’t disappoint me. Latin teacher Jerome Washington has been the only black faculty member at a Connecticut boarding school for boys throughout most of his career. His ideas about decorum and racial equality are sharply challenged with the arrival of Jana Hensen, a longtime teacher in the Cleveland inner city, and Rashid Bryson, a young black student trying to get away from a family tragedy. Beautiful, complicated racial and family dynamics and lovely writing, multiple narrators, Latin, and a boarding school setting. I wish Martha Southgate had written fifteen more books besides this one, instead of only two. Behold this quotation, which I think is great:

“Racial integration?” He nodded. “What about it?”

“Well, I’m not against it, obviously, or I wouldn’t be here, right? But there’s some problems with it that I just want to talk to people about. How this place isn’t really integrated enough. We – I mean people like me – are just here to round out somebody else’s experience. That’s what it feels like, anyway.”

American Furies: Crime, Punishment, and the American Prison System, Sasha Abramsky

The American prison system is awful. It’s just awful in every way, what with the insanely punitive mandatory minimum sentences, and the poorly-trained guards, and the lack of care for the mentally ill, and the shortage of educational programs, and the–look, just everything. It’s awful. Sasha Abramsky is a careful, clear writer, and I defy you to read this book and not feel furious at the end of it.

Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Alan Moore is just not for me. When I read his books, I think of how much in sympathy I am with his views, and how important a writer of graphic novels he is, but I do not think, Wow, this is an enjoyable read. I more think, Wow, this is rather a slog. Wish I could be reading something more awesome. Now and then an image or a plot element will catch my eye and please me greatly, but these never last long enough to make my reading truly enjoyable. I also found the conclusion deeply unsatisfying: just a big info-dump of cackling villainy. I was fascinated, as I always am, with the way the 1980s seem to have been predicated on the assumption that nuclear war with Russia was imminent. And then the Berlin Wall came down! Miraculous! This was for the Graphic Novels Challenge, which I have already been awesome at this year but I cannot stop being awesome at it because graphic novels are worthwhile! Even when they are not my particular cup of tea.

Glimpses, Lynn Flewelling

Glimpses is a collection of Nightrunner short stories, with lots of fan art. It was sent to me as an e-book by Reece Notley of Three Crow Press, for which much thanks. These are stories that fill in the gaps in Seregil’s and Alec’s history: how Seregil came to be Nysander’s student, a small glimpse of Alec’s life with his father, and like that. If you are a fan of the Nightrunner series, and do not mind lots of graphic sex (I admit I can be slightly squeamish this way), you should check this out. To me, the nosy girl who wants to know exactly how everything went down, this short story collection is an excellent addition to the Nightrunner world. Lynn Flewelling has a light, amusing way of writing, and I always enjoy spending time with her characters. But if you are a stranger to the series, do yourself a favor and read Luck in the Shadows and Stalking Darkness first.

The Illustrated Man, Ray Bradbury

My sister said to read this, so I bought it at the book fair last month.  Ray Bradbury can write some disturbing stories, I tell you what.  He writes beautifully – such good imagery and dialogue.  I like the frame mechanism, of the  man with illustrations on his body that begin to move, to tell the stories.  I’d read two of these stories before, the one with the nursery and the one with the falling star – hated the star, loved the nursery.  Which is about how I feel about them generally.  I like the ones that start out sort of pleasant and domestic, and then you gradually come to realize they aren’t pleasant and domestic at all but in fact really creepy.

I feel pleased with Ray Bradbury.  Maybe I will read Fahrenheit 451 again.  It’s been years.  I didn’t care for it much when I was in middle school but I am much older and more cynical these days.