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Wednesday, November 4, 2015

John Connolly: "Night Music: Nocturnes 2"

Author:  John Connolly  
Title:  Night Music: Nocturnes 2
Plot Type: Short Fiction With a Supernatural Theme
Publisher:  Atria Paperback/Emily Bestler Books (An Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.) 

                              PUBLISHER'S BLURB                              

     A decade after Nocturnes first charmed and frightened readers, John Connolly gives us a second volume of tales of the supernatural. From stories of the monstrous for dark winter nights to fables of fantastic libraries and haunted books; from a tender story of life after death to a personal and revealing account of the author's affection for myths of ghosts and demons, this is a collection that will surprise, delight, and terrify.

     Many of the selections in this book appear in print here for the first time. Fans of The Book of Lost Things will be delighted to find "The Hollow King," a story set in that world. Night Music: Nocturnes 2 also includes two novellas: the multi-award-winning "The Caxton Private Lending Library and Book Depository," and "The Fractured Atlas," featuring the "Wanderer in Unknhair-rown Realms," previously published as an e-book and here developed into a five-part novella. 

     Night Music: Nocturnes 2 is a masterly collection to be read with the lights on—menace has never been so seductive.


     First, I must confess to having never read any of John Connolly's books before this one—a mistake I intend to rectify immediately. How can I explain the feeling of opening this book and finding that the very first story, "The Caxton Private Lending Library and Book Depository," is probably the best novella I have ever read. It could be (and probably is) used as an instructional manual on how to write short fiction. Not to go all rhapsodic on you, but really…it's an inventive, engrossing, fantastical story that I've been thinking about ever since I finished it.

     The overriding theme in the four longest (and best) selections is booksreal books, magical books, world-changing books, characters in books, readers of books, authors of books, and keepers of books. Connolly, obviously, is a lover of the written word, and these stories cover a wide range of supernatural fiction, encompassing humor and horror, melancholy and malevolence, and devotion and disembowelment. 

     If you are a fan of John Connolly's writing, you may or may not be familiar with a web site devoted to his works: "A Guide to the Works of John Connolly". The site is hosted by Ian S. Bolton and has received an endorsement from Connolly. Click HERE to go to Bolton's page on Night Music, where he includes links to more information about the previously published works. Click HERE to read Bolton's page on Nocturnes, the volume of Connolly's short fiction that preceded Night Music.

The best of the bunch are marked with this thumb's-up icon.

                              THE STORIES                              
"The Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository" 
Publishing History: Published previously in Bibliomysteries: Short Tales About Deadly Books; Available in electronic Audible format under the "Caxton…" title; Also available in Audible and e-book formats under the title "The Museum of Literary Souls" (its original title in the UK). 
Awards: Nominee: 2014 Anthony Award (Best Short Story); Winner: 2014 Edgar Award (Best Short Story)

I have already shared my enthusiasm for this novella in the introduction to this review. 
Now, I'll share Connolly's own summary of the story (from his web site). I'm presenting his summary because I don't want to reveal any spoilers (a mistake that, unfortunately, some reviewers have made). 
"Mr. Berger spent 34 years as a closed accounts registrar, keeping his life as quiet and empty as possible. He prefers the company of books to that of people, and when the opportunity for early retirement presents itself, he is happy to spend the rest of his years in the countryside, with only books for company. 
"Mr. Berger’s quiet life is interrupted one evening when he sees a woman fling herself before a train, in the manner of Anna Karenina. When he rushes to help, however, the woman is gone—and thus Mr. Berger is even more shocked when he sees the same woman do exactly the same thing again, a few nights later. His investigation leads him to the Caxton Private Lending Library and Book Depository, a place beyond all his imaginings. 
"The Museum of Literary Souls was originally published in print format as The Caxton Private Lending Library and Book Depository, exclusive to The Mysterious Bookshop in New York. It is available in electronic format as The Museum of Literary Souls through Amazon US and Amazon UK."

I feel compelled to share a few of my favorite quotations from the novella. (I marked many more but couldn't include them all.)

     "Mr. Berger was far less dull than he appeared. (To those who are themselves unhappy, the contentment of others can sometimes be mistaken for tedium.)"

     "He was not a great lover, and neither was he a tragic hero. Instead, he resembled those narrators in fiction who observe the lives of others, existing like dowels upon which plots hang like coats until the time comes for the true actors of the book to assume them."

     "It was one of those passingly pretty English settlements, best suited to those whose time on this earth was drawing slowly to a close, and who wanted to spend it in surroundings that were unlikely to unduly excite them, and thereby hasten the end."

     "There appeared to be only two types of business in the town: everybody's business, and business that was not yet everybody's but soon would be once the local gossips had got to work on it."

And here's one mystery that is resolved within the plot of this story: "For one day, in all extant copies of Alice in Wonderland, there was a whale at the Mad Hatter's tea party…"

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"The Blood of the Lamb"  
In this chilling tale, a couple's priest has asked for assistance from the Vatican in evaluating their daughter's suddenly developed ability to heal people, but the result of a priestly visit is anything but comforting. This one has the same foreboding tone as William W. Jacob's "The Monkey's Paw." In fact, Connolly's Mr. and Mrs. Lacy could easily be neighbors of Jacob's Mr. and Mrs. White.

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"A Dream of Winter"
Publishing History: Published previously in Shortlist magazine. Click HERE to read this short, short story in its entirety on the Shortlist web site. 

How can such a perfectly formed, wonderfully creepy tale be told in just 300 words? Connolly's eerie short, short story about a boy and a man and a cemetery will send chills up your spine.

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"The Lamia"  

In this gut-wrenching revenge story, a young woman strikes back at her rapist, an arrogant man who got away with his crime—or so he believes. Here's the best character description I've seen in a long time: "…a tall, sickly woman with prematurely white hair and a face that appeared to be composed of skin without any flesh. It clung so tightly to the shape of her skull that Carolyn could see the whiteness of the bone beneath, as though her sharp cheekbones might at any moment erupt bloodlessly through their covering. Her eyes were gray-blue and protruded from their sockets like pale bubbles about to burst. She moved slowly and carried the weight of her impending mortality like a hissing black cat on her shoulder." Wow! What an eerie picture Connolly paints—a perfect portrait!

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"The Hollow King": From the Universe of The Book of Lost Things
Publishing History: Written for a three-part BBC radio broadcast entitled "Blood, Sweat and Tears" (5/2015).

In this fairy-tale story, a king and his queen deal with the horrific consequences of a hellish bargain. This appears to be a prequel story for The Book of Lost Things

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"The Children of Dr. Lyall"  
Publishing History: Published previously in OxCrimes (2/2015). (5/2015).

In the aftermath of the London Blitz, two young looters find more than they bargained for when they search for treasure in the home of a reclusive widow. This one begins as a strong, suspense-filled adventure but, unfortunately, it devolves into an anti-choice screed that left me feeling cheated and betrayed 

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"The Fractured Atlas—Five Fragments"  
        I. "The Dread and Fear of Kings" 
      II. "The Djinn 
     III. "Mud" 
      IV. "The Wanderer in Unknown Realms" 
       V. And In Darkness Shall We Dwell" 
Publishing History: "The Wanderer in Unknown Realms" was previously published in 2013 as an e-book. 

In this slow-paced novella, Part IV is where the bits and pieces of the plot gradually come together, connecting the people and events of Parts I-III. But the big twist doesn't come until Part V. Basically, this is a fantastical, Lovecraftian tale that follows an otherworldly book through the centuries as it warps and destroys the lives of anyone who reads it—or even touches it. As one character warns another, "You understand that there's books and more-than-books." 

Reading this tale is like shuffling through a Halloween horror house, trying to keep watch over your shoulder while still paying heed to what's in front of you, only to be attacked from the side. Although the pace is sometimes glacial, I didn't mind because Connolly's language is so beautiful—gothically dark and precise, particularly in his character descriptions, which are entertainingly succinct and witty. 

Because the story moves so slowly, I had plenty of time to revel in Connolly's masterful imagery. For example, "Quayle himself was a surprisingly elegant man of sixty winters or more. (One might equally have said 'sixty springs' or 'sixty summers,' but that would have been inaccurate, for Quayle was a man of bare trees and frozen water." And then there is Quayle's obnoxious, supercilious clerk, Mr. Fawnsley (such a delightfully Dickensian name): "I often suspected that, at five o'clock on the dot, Quayle turned a dial on Fawnsley's neck, sending him into a stupor, then laid him carefully in the alcove behind his desk, there to remain until eight the following morning when the necessity of resuming business required his reanimation." 

Amongst the scenes of horror, Connolly slips in some dark humor: "His eyes were vapid, and his chin was almost one with his neck. Never trust a man who, by his presence in a room with two others, brings down the average number of chins by a third." When one character makes a snide remark to another, it "almost brought a smile…, but his facial muscles were unfamiliar with the action, and it collapsed somewhere between a grin and a sneer." At several points, Connolly gets philosophical: "If 'why' was the first and last question, then 'because I was curious to see what would happen' was the first and last answer. A version of it had been spoken to God Himself in the Garden of Eden, and it was always destined to be the reason for the end of things at the hands of men."

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Publishing History: Previously published in Black Static magazine #47 in 7/2015 

In this traditional bogeyman tale, some bootleggers run afoul of the local forest monster in northern Maine in the 1920s, and one learns the literal meaning of the old saying "pay as you go." 

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"On The Anatomisation of an Unknown Man (1637) by Frans Mier" 
Publishing History: Previously published in From the Republic of Conscience, proceeds of which benefit Amnesty International (2010)

Jim Fitzpatrick's illustration (at right) accompanied Connolly's story in From the Republic of Conscience. This story starts out as a dry art history lesson about a painting of a gristly medical scene, but as the narrator becomes more and more unreliable and creepy, the tone moves from authoritative to ominous, and finally to horrific. It's a very creepy story.

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"A Haunting"    
Publishing History: Published previously in Haunted: Dark Delicacies III (2009)

In this poignant story, a grieving husband revisits a hotel in which he stayed with his wife during happier times. It's a ghost story with an overriding feeling of compassion and peace.

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Publishing History: Published previously in The New Dead: A Zombie Anthology (2010)

The Book of John, Chapter 11, is the source of the Bible's shortest verse: "Jesus wept." But this chapter is primarily known for telling the story of Jesus' raising of Lazarus from the dead. The biblical story ends with Lazarus emerging from his tomb, trailing his grave-shroud behind him, but Connolly takes the story further, following poor Lazarus through the next few days as he, his sisters, and the people of Bethany try to readjust to his return to life. Let's just say that sometimes resurrection isn't all it's cracked up to be.

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"Holmes on the Range: A Tale of the Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository"   

This is a bookend to the opening story, a shorter story that deals with the consequences of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's decision to kill off Sherlock Holmes in The Adventure of the Final Problem (1893) and then to bring him back to life a decade later in The Adventure of the Empty House. I don't want to say more about the plot because it's much more fun to read the story cold. In this tale, we learn why Conan Doyle decided to get rid of Holmes, why he had to bring him back, and why his later Holmesian novels were (purposefully) not as well written as his earlier ones. 
This is a highly entertaining story, particularly the interactions among Holmes, Watson, Conan Doyle, and Mr. Headley (the Caxton librarian at the time).

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"I Live Here"
Publishing History: first published in a limited edition of 1,000 in Ireland in 12/2013 

The final piece is an essay in which Connolly explores his childhood bookshelf and discusses the effects of a wide range of 
supernatural books and films on his own writing. His discussion includes the Hammer Horror Films; classic horror stories (e.g., Dracula, Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein); and the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King, and M.R. James. He calls James "the greatest writer of short supernatural fiction that the genre has yet produced." This is a delightful essay that provides a fascinating overview of more than a century of supernatural fiction and its effects on an extremely talented modern-day author. The tone is informal and chatty, with many witty, humorous digressions and some wonderful anecdotal footnotesa joy to read. 

In his discussion of Poe's writing, Connolly discusses his fascination with "the possibility of combining the rationalist traditions of the mystery novel with the anti rationalist underpinnings of supernatural fiction," a technique that he has explored to great effect over the years. He also discusses the negative reaction his writing gets from the purists in the mystery community—the "self-appointed guardians of the mystery genre's past, present, and future" who "reserve a particular hatred for any hint of the supernatural." His explanation for his use of supernatural elements makes perfect sense to me: "I was curious about that disparity between law and justice, the difference between our imperfect human system of justice and the possibility of a divine justice, and the implications that the existence of the latter might have for the origins of evil." 

The title of the essay comes from an incident in Connolly's own life—an anecdote with a supernatural twist that puts the final polish on this volume. 

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