Review: The Man Who Collected Machen by Mark Samuels

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Connoisseurs of weird horror are fortunate to live in a time when skilled wordsmiths are so plentiful. However, seers of the truly black, dreadful, and bizarre, remain as rare as they come. Mark Samuels is one name that stands out among the priestly class in supernatural literature. Never content to just shape the fearful ideas conceived by others into his own tales, Samuels is a literary psychonaut, most interested in exploring and inventing outre realms previously hidden to the masses. His previous short story collections, The White Hands and Glyphotech and Other Macabre Processes, delved into crazed fault lines first glimpsed by H.P. Lovecraft and Arthur Machen, places where the broadcasts of a deranged, rotting psyche invade our world. In The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales, Samuels has actually entered those obscene places, and returned with souvenirs mankind can barely understand, but certainly can fear.

Unintentionally or not, this book is the finest themed horror collection produced by Samuels. The UK author hits his readers in waves of recurring manias focused on decrepit barriers in time, as well as virulent languages that infect mind, body, and books. Samuels skillfully cross-pollinates exotic ideas with equally exotic places, reshaping curious locales to contain or mirror his uneasy philosophies. Many stories take place in forgotten sectors of Mexico and Eastern Europe, while others are in British neverlands - venues where the ignorance of many toward these places acts as a sort of charm. Yet, even Brits, Mexicans, Slavs, and Magyars will recognize Samuels' weirdly enriched cities only as warped versions of home.

"Losenef Express," which opens The Man Who Collected Machen, is the first stop in a globe trekking journey to digest Samuels' strange knowledge. A hard drinking, embittered American seeks to escape his writerly woes in a forgotten and decayed town, Strasgol, somewhere between Poland and Ukraine. As usual, trouble comes to alcoholic Yankees very easily, but no booze could prepare Samuels' fiend for a train ride with living corpses. Rather than flesh eating zombies, the horrors here are more akin to Stefan Grabinski's insane imaginings on the rails, as is the displacement of time and space fully experienced in a final surreal twist, once the train arrives in Losenef. A decadent and foreign edge is deliciously added to the atmosphere with every sensation, from the overpowering absinthe-like liquor, to Strasgol's ancient, decaying balconies.

Another tale, "A Question of Obeying Orders," captures the same elegant, yet distorted European atmosphere. A German soldier deserting his unit during the First World War encounters another living corpse in an old couple's home. The warrior begins to pursue the creature. This time, though, what begins as an enjoyable, but unremarkable re-telling of the vampire legend is brilliantly turned on its head. There are abominations, but they seldom have one mask in Mark Samuels' stories, and never familiar ones.

"Xapalpa" and "A Contaminated Text" use Mexico as a backdrop for their macabre happenings. In a rather Lovecraftian tradition, an overworked student visits "Xalpapa" for a mental break from his labors. Unfortunately, a severed head venerating cult, an ancient graveyard, and bleak looking pinatas disrupt what should be a vacation. In Glyphotech, Samuels speculated on what a Lovecraftian apparition in Mexico's culture might look like. It seems this cross-bred fascination is continued here, in a more subtle form. "A Contaminated Text," which introduces another damned book in the Lovecraftian and Jamesian tradition, hideously expands on an old technique. Rather than just sitting on the shelves harboring forbidden knowledge, The Abyss of the Voola spreads its diseased contents into other books, and soon throughout a library in Mexico City. The Voolans, malicious squid-like creatures residing in the hollow earth, function much like stereotypical demons. But rather than being one more race of Cthulhoid horrors tormenting mankind, Samuels instead uses them in a philosophical exercise illustrating the innate strangeness and, yes, horror of language and books.

"THYXXOLQU" furthers the concept of a toxic language in Mark Samuels' own unique apocalypse. When gibberish begins corrupting the books and mouths of those around him, a Londoner attempts to solve the mystery. Though it offers little relief, the full horror is unmasked in conspirators more jarring than the Voolans. "THYXXOLQU" is an infectiously unique story. "The Black Mould" offers an alternate Armageddon, and can be examined as a rare gem of weird science fiction. For this story, Samuels combines aesthetic cues from H.P. Lovecraft, Thomas Ligotti, to recount the history of an encroaching, self-loathing mold slowly spreading across the entirety of an already diseased universe.

The Man Who Collected Machen would be a deceptive title if it didn't feature stories that toy with the hopes and anxieties of the bibliophile. Its titular story, "The Man Who Collected Machen," plays with the dangers of collecting those wonderful, musty, and always expensive rarities so common in the weird fiction genre. There are always other fanatics, no matter how obscure the texts, and Samuels' oddball collector of Arthur Machen books should give one pause before they plunk down hundreds of dollars or go to the other side of the earth for their next limited edition horror tome. "Glickman the Bibliophile," rather than elevating books, is a bibliophile's worst nightmare. Here, mindless vandals who savagely attack books are revealed as unwitting servants in a grander conspiracy seeking to undo modernity's accumulated, overflowing knowledge. The story might even be read as social commentary on the uncertain fate of printed materials, in a time when e-books are exploding in popularity, and retail titans imploding beneath the frightful onslaught of endless changes.

Time's oppressive haze torments Mark Samuels, and his mental anguish becomes our own in several other stories. "The Age of Decayed Futurity" exposes the Reassembly Cartel, yet another pack of supernatural conspirators. Static, the dead, and mind control are appropriated, misshapen, and combined by Samuels in exceptionally interesting and horrific ways, as his Polish novelist mistakenly tries to use the ultimate conspiracy for her art. Another look at time's ravages, particularly the conquest of the present by death, is offered in "Nor Unto Death Utterly by Edmund Bertrand." Unlike other pieces, Samuels elects to use a dated style heavily inspired by Gothic writers and Edgar Allan Poe, with the pen name of his dark scribe from past stories (an Easter Egg for longtime readers?). "The Tower" discusses philosophy, time, and society under the symbolic guise of a hallucinated, mysterious tower. This is quite different than the collection's other stories, but brings the book to a satisfying conclusion by synthesizing the many mind-bending exhibits one last time.

Mark Samuels has always been an innovator, and weird horror is always in desperate need of such figures for its own endless mutations. Like celebrated visionaries, past and present, Samuels' work may one day contaminate texts well outside the horror genre. His chief problem, like other writers has always been exposure. Luckily, The Man Who Collected Machen is available in ample quantities from Chomu Press, in an affordable paperback that expands on its previous incarnation by the unreliable Ex Occidente Press. The old edition only had a print run of less than two hundred - far less than runs of Samuels' other out-of-print books. Thanks to Chomu, his nightmares are prepared to lift off like never before...assuming Samuels' words are not already the dominant echoes from another epoch, designed to enslave today's minds to the will of the grave.

-Grim Blogger

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