Absinthe & Arsenic by Raven Dane. Book review

Absinthe & Arsenic by Raven Dane, Telos Moonrise, p/b, £12.99


Reviewed by David Brzeski

I’ve already favourably reviewed a couple of items from this collection in their original appearances, so I was pleased to be offered this book for review. Apart from the aforementioned items, the rest of the collection is all original.

The book opens with ‘The 10.15 to Lealholm’. There seems to be some sort of plot amongst the authors I review to see if they can’t change my generally negative views on flesh-eating zombie stories. The premise here is certainly intriguing. It’s set in 1877, long before George Romero permanently changed the public perception of zombies from their Haitian roots to the shambling flesh-eaters that usually bore me rigid today. Raven Dane is very, very good at capturing that period feel with her prose, and this goes a long way towards helping me get past my antipathy for the monsters. In common with many zombie short stories, the ending is left open and things look very bleak for Edwin and Gregory Hazeldine. I often feel, in these cases, that the author has decided they don’t actually know how the heroes are going to get out of this one, so they’ll just leave the reader hanging. I would quite like to see the author take up the challenge of expanding this opening into a longer work, with some sort of denouement.

I really liked ‘Annie by Gaslight’. No one can deny that Jack the Ripper has been overused in fiction. He’s fought just about every contemporary hero at some point, in fact I’ve lost count of the number of times he’s been pitted against Sherlock Holmes. This story is much more original. In fact I’d go as far as to say it’s the most original use of the character I’ve read. It’s a ghost story in the classic sense, with the slightest hint of Quatermass in the concept of something evil having been released during the excavations for the London Underground. Any impressions you may form about the story from those brief hints will very likely be wrong.

‘In Insomnium Veritas’ presents us with the mad ravings of an opium addict in his final days. Just enough reality creeps in around the edges of the protagonist’s consciousness to underpin the hopelessness of his inevitable decline into death.

‘Worse Things Happen at Sea’ is a creepy tale of malign spirits from beyond the grave, which could hold it’s own with many of the classics of the period in which it is set. Young Tom Jenkins is a mudlark—a scavenger in the filthy, disease-ridden mud flats of the Thames for anything that may be sold to buy a crust of bread. He lives with his grandfather, who hasn’t told him anything about his parents. One morning, he comes horrifyingly close to finding out the truth.

‘The Attic Nursery’ is a tale with a twist, which I have to admit I saw coming very early on. This may be because, as the author admits in her introduction, it was her very first attempt at a ghost strory from the dawn of her writing career. Or, it may simply mean that my mind is twisted in a similar way to Raven Dane’s.

Narrow escapes from the clutches of malign haunts seem to feature quite strongly in Raven Dane’s ghostly tales, and Pierre Antoine Lauzier certainly has one in ‘The Green Gown’.

‘An Inspector Falls’ is a bit of a departure from the supernatural overtones of the rest of the book. It’s a Victorian crime drama, featuring one of Scotland Yard’s, to say the least, lesser talents. Truly, even LeStrade would have had him shot for incompetence. It’s an amusing story, but it wasn’t really to my taste.

The next story I have already covered in my review of the Spectral Press book, ‘The 13 Ghosts of Christmas’. Here’s what I had to say about it…

I’ve tried absinthe. Didn’t like it–I’m not a big fan of aniseed at the best of times. Even had this not been the case, I’m sure ‘A Taste of Almonds’ would have put me off it. It’s a neat little morality tale. Raven Dane has a definite empathy with the Victorian period and her contribution reads with an authenticity that suggests it could have easily been written in that era.

I particularly liked ‘Shadows in the Limelight’, a classic tale of travelling entertainers and the sadness and despair that lies beneath the surface. What happened to the young ballerina, who disappeared after their last show in Hackney? Who, or what is the formless grey presence, glimpsed backstage?

Raven Dane is perhaps best known for her Steampunk novels, so it was with great interest that I moved on to, ‘Breath of the Messenger’, a Lovecraftian Steampunk tale. I was surprised and delighted to discover that it was a Cyrus Darian story, as I’d previously enjoyed the author’s two Cyrus Darian novels. It’s a fun little tale, involving the unleashing of a nasty elder god on Victorian London. Does it work as a Lovecraftian tale? If I’m honest, I suspect it won’t impress the purists. It has the trappings of a Cthulhu Mythos story, with a mention of the Book of Eibon, and a couple of ancient beings with unpronounceable names, but I suspect it would be very difficult to put over the classic Lovecraftian theme of mankind’s insignificance in an vast uncaring universe in a world, when there are Lords of Hell slumming around with adventurers in airships! It was an enjoyable story nonetheless.

‘An Máthair Ghrámhar’ is the highlight of the book. Both a classic ghost story, and a sad commentary on the hell the English put the poor Irish though in the famine that would be forever know as “The Hunger”. Henry Lloyd and his children are no strangers to grief and sadness, but they are fully aware that the tragedy in their lives does not compare to the sufferings of the poor people, who live outside their walls. The Lloyds are good, kind people. They do what they can for the local poor. It’s not much, but it might just be enough to save them from the fear gorta. If anyone puts out an anthology of “Best New Ghost Stories”, this story should certainly be considered!

Cyrus Darian returns in ‘A Fateful Encounter’, an excerpt from ‘Cyrius Darian and the Technomicon’, which I’ve previously reviewed for this website, so I’ll skip over it.

Lord John Harbinger is a ghost breaker. In ‘The Chill’, his particular mission is to expose all the false mediums that infest London. It was an encounter with one such, after the death of their daughter, that had forced him to commit his poor, grieving wife to a nursing home, where she sits unmoving, day after day, with dull, lifeless eyes. But even a fraudulent medium might have recourse to someone with real occult power; someone who might be able to curse Harbinger with an unnatural malady. In desperation, Harbinger consults the one man on his list of mediums-to-expose who just possibly might be the real thing. The ending is genuinely moving. I have no idea if Raven Dane intends to revisit this character, but I would like very much to see an entire book devoted to Lord John Harbinger and his mysterious new partner.

The run of high quality classic ghost stories continues with ‘Daniel and Lydia’. Lydia is a recently orphaned sixteen year old girl who is shipped off to stay with a mysterious aunt in Wychaven House, somewhere in the wilds of Yorkshire. In the hands of a lesser talent, this mixture of a cold, gloomy ramshackle house, decrepit manservant and mysterious warnings to get out before it’s too late from the few people still willing to work there, could be considered a cliché too far. Raven Dane, however, is a good enough writer to get away with it and, once again, the open ending left me wanting a sequel.

Next up is ‘Ghostlight’. London needs more cemeteries, and it is Philip Proude’s job to help initiate a scheme to build new ones in Hackney Marshes. He’d been given the impression that the land was uninhabited, but he was soon to discover old Mother Marsh, who lived in an old fire-damaged shell of a farmhouse. Things were not going to go as smoothly as he’d hoped.

Finally, the book ends on another high point. ‘Heart of Brass’ is the tale of a clockmaker in Lincoln, who is driven mad by the irregular ticking of a clock. The problem is, he can’t locate the clock amongst all the perfectly synchronised ones in his shop. It reminded me somewhat of Edgar Allen Poe.

Overall, this is a very strong collection of stories. Several made my ongoing list of potential candidates for best short story of the year. No less than three of the stories left me wanting to see more of the protagonists in the future. I hope Raven Dane finds the time in between her forays into Steampunk, to revisit this genre soon.