Friday, April 1, 2011

The White Hands and Other Weird Tales

When I reviewed Mark Samuels' excellent collection, The Man Who Collected Machen, I mentioned that I had a copy of his earlier book The White Hands on the way, but that it hadn't arrived yet.  Yesterday it came (along with three other lovely books from Tartarus Press, and there was much rejoicing), and last night I read it.  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 TMWCM review, 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.
*          *          *
The White Hands is in print from Tartarus Press as an inexpensive paperback.

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