Riding the Crazy Train with Nick Marsh’s The Express Diaries

The Express Diaries, the fourth novel from UK writer Nick Marsh, features a highly unusual gestation, certainly one of the strangest that I’ve seen: the book is an authorized, although not official, novelization of a campaign for the horror roleplaying game The Call of Cthulhu — specifically, an out-of-print campaign, originally published in 1991, called Horror on the Orient Express. Further, the book is the first title from a new press, Innsmouth House Press, an offshoot of the Lovecraftian game fan-site yog-sothoth.com, and its publication was funded by a kickstarter.com campaign. Got all that?

Backstory aside, The Express Diaries is set in 1925 and is told in more-or-less epistolary fashion, via the journal entries of the various characters. Representative of its RPG roots, it also includes images of several “artifacts” of the story, such as train tickets, flyers, and newspaper clippings. Indeed, the entire tale is presented as sort of a 1920s version of the “found footage” approach that’s been such a popular motif for horror films in the last decade. As the Editor’s Note states:

The tale that is told within these pages did not give up its secrets lightly. The story of how the disparate parts were pieced together is one almost as fascinating as the story itself. From humble beginnings – the chance discovery of the journal of a Mrs Violet Davenport – it took almost a decade before my colleagues and I were able to unlock the final piece of the mystery, and view the story as a whole.

It’s an offbeat and engaging approach… at least initially. But eventually the style wears a bit thin, and ultimately creates a sense of “distance” between the reader and the story that is not conducive to suspension of disbelief.

The main cast of characters features retired Colonel Neville Goodenough, the group’s matriarch Mrs. Betty Sunderland, her secretary Grace, and her niece Violet. Betty attends a lecture by her friend, Professor Julius Smith, regarding an ancient statue called the Sedefkar Simulacrum, which he is in pursuit of. Shortly thereafter, Smith is critically burned in a fire, but before dying he reveals that others with evil intent are also after the statue, which has been broken into several pieces but which, if recombined, will bring great power to its owner. At Betty’s urging, the group takes up Smith’s quest, embarking on a journey that takes them across Europe via the famed Orient Express.

The narrative is initially related in such a genteel fashion that it’s truly shocking when violence intrudes and characters suddenly die. In fact, even hough the story may ultimately go where the reader expects, the journey to get there is paved with more than a few surprises. It’s also notable that Marsh frequently interjects subtle humor — for example, when juxtaposing Mrs. Sunderland’s journal entries, which make vague allusions to the medicinal nature of her late-night libations, with others’ entries, which openly complain about her drinking problem.

As is hopefully obvious from the above description, there are some wonderful aspects to this book, but I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it, due to the journal-based approach, which left me feeling a level removed from the story, as well as an remarkably over-the-top and ill-advised late scene in which our intrepid investigators manage to re-board the train while it’s traveling at high speed.

Postscript: Taking a page from Innsmouth House Press’ book, Chaosium — the publisher of the Call of Cthulhu game and the Horror on the Orient Express campaign — has announced a kickstarter.com project of their own, to “raise the money required to reprint and revise the iconic boxed set, originally published in 1991.”

Examining The Fairer Sex in Richard Davis’ The Female of the Species

Shadow Publishing’s collection of Richard Davis’ short fiction, The Female of the Species And Other Terror Tales, is the type of book that I love to see from small presses — a gathering of never-before-collected tales by an overlooked writer from decades past.  Davis is perhaps best known for his editing work, and most notably for editing volumes 1-3 of The Year’s Best Horror Fiction (the series later edited by Gerald Page and Karl Edward Wagner), but he was a writer as well, and quite a good one.  Shadow Publishing’s owner, David Sutton is the perfect person to resurrect the author’s work, as he knew Davis back in the day, and in fact purchased a story from him for publication in the 1971 anthology New Writings in Horror and the Supernatural.

That 1971 date falls smack in the middle of Davis’ fiction-writing career: all 11 stories he published are gathered here, and they originally appeared between 1963 and 1978. Also included is an interview Sutton conducted with Davis in 1969; the text of a speech Davis gave on horror fiction at a 1971 convention; an article that Davis wrote about Late Night Horror, a short-lived BBC for which he was Story Editor; and a bibliography.

Despite all the wonderful ancillary material, the main draw is obviously the fiction, and there’s a lot to like in that department, starting with the title story, which is related via the narrator Jim’s journal entries, a series he’s started while his beloved wife Viola is traveling to visit her brother.  Unfortunately, Viola’s plane crashes, leaving Jim devastated and lonely…until he adopts a kitten, who quickly bonds with him.  What ensues is perhaps a tad predictable, but it’s effectively told, resulting in both suspense and chills.

Jim was a loner even before Viola’s death, and a similar social outcast, although female in this case, features in “The Lady by the Stream,” the story of a middle-aged spinster’s growing obsession with a young boy in her neighborhood.  There’s nothing supernatural to be found in this story, but it’s probably the most disturbing tale in the collection.  The following story, “The Inmate,” also documents a disturbing relationship, this time between the wife of a wealthy man who’s created his own private animal preserve and one of her husband’s animals…namely a gorilla.  Unlike its predecessor, though, “The Inmate” is a bit too sensationalistic — likely a result of the fact it was tailored for its appearance in the often over-the-top Pan Book of Horror series — to ultimately be successful.

The other three tales I want to mention all prominently feature young boys and their fathers.  In “The Clump,” a cheating husband is on holiday with his family, visiting a small Caribbean island.  The husband is so busy scheming to kill his wife that he pays no attention as his son wanders into a forested area of the island that’s the subject of local superstition…for good reason.  The father in “The Nondescript” is much more attentive, and helps his son Bob to identify just what it is that he’s found in the attic of the old home they’ve just moved into.  The attic find is an eponymous nondescript — a fake creature, created by attaching the shaved torso of a monkey cadaver to a fish tail, employed during the 18th and 19th centuries by hucksters to extract money from the gullible.  Unfortunately for Bob and his father, there may be a real-life inspiration for their taxidermic terror.  The father in “Guy Fawkes Night” is selfish and overbearing, and after his actions lead to the death of his son’s beloved dog, the son is determined to exact revenge, which he does in frightening fashion.

There are one or two subpar stories, most notably “A Nice Cut off the Joint,” which has logic holes you could drive a truck through, and I don’t care for the cover art by Caroline O’Neal, but every other aspect of The Female of the Speciesis top-notch.  It’s a shame Davis, who died in 2005, didn’t live to see the appearance of this collection, but readers who appreciate 1960s- and ’70s -era horror should rejoice, for there’s much to like here.