Saturday, March 23, 2019


1Q84 (1Q84 #1-3)1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am a slow reader. Despite a battery of classes on speed reading and comprehension starting in 4th grade, when I was told I was a “gifted” reader, I still consider myself a slow reader. It might be the company I keep – I like to be around really smart people when I can – that makes me feel like a slow reader, in comparison. In any case, I do think I’m a slow reader.

It’s largely for this reason that I tend to avoid big doorstop novels. More often than not, they start out quickly, then slow to a crawl in very short order. And when I’m looking at over 1000 pages of text, the last thing I need is an uninteresting crawl.

I don’t feel that way with Murakami, for the most part, and especially with this novel, 1Q84. Murakami keeps things going here. Yes, there are slow spots, but if you’ve read or written (or both) enough, you’ll notice and appreciate that these spots are intentionally chosen to be slow. There are no real accidents in Murakami’s writing. Not in this novel, at least.

But there were plenty of places where he took chances.

Rather than giving a blow-by-blow of the novel (Aloha has done a magnificent job of reviewing the novel itself), I’d like to go where Murakami gambled and won. So, plug in some new retro synthwave music and read on!

Right from the get-go, Tengo, one of the story’s main protagonists, engages in a conversation with an editor, Komatsu, about writing. It’s interesting, to say the least, to read a writer writing about writing in his writing. And it works. Here, the reader gains some great insight into the act of writing, the strategic moves that one makes to make one’s writing great. Murakami does this in a non-pedantic, purely natural way. This is intentional: it is a setup for later metafictional moments throughout the novel. But it doesn’t feel intentional when the reader is in the midst of reading it. What a tangled web of reader, writer, and character Murakami has created here!

Komatsu later hatches a downright Dickensian scheme in which Tengo hollows out, plagiarizes, and rewrites the enigmatic Fuka-Eri’s novel. Here, Murakami sets the trap, as it were, for his characters and, it seems, for the reader. It’s an outstanding plot hook about a novel within the novel. You can probably see how things could go horribly wrong here for Murakami: If he overstates the scheme, the reader feels manipulated. If he understates it, the hook is ineffective. He pulls it off with panache.

One of the main “characters” are the Little People, which I won’t go into the trouble of explaining (nor do I want to spoil this for you). I thought of Arthur Machen’s The White People when I first read about them and, yes, Murakami is definitely giving a bit of an homage to Machen with them. But they are decidedly more intrusive and belligerent than Machen’s fair folk. Here, Murakami ran the danger of mimesis (or downright plagiarism), but he makes these Little People his own. I shall never read the words “Ho, ho!” again without a shudder. They give this novel a decidedly dark twist, darker than most of the Murakami I’ve read. Or, at least, the darkness is sustained for longer than it is in other works I’ve read by him. There are moments where this reads like an outright horror novel, and I’m not complaining about that a bit!

One thing that horrifies me almost beyond belief is a long info-dump. I have seen many an infodump soil an otherwise beautiful novel. I had to suppose that in a novel of this length, an infodump (or several) is unavoidable. Lo and behold, on page 203 (in the paperback), an infodump rears its ugly block-text, no break, no quote, too many worded head. I admit to flipping ahead and previewing just how much torture I was about to have to endure. Ten pages! That could be a deal-breaker for me.

Soon, though, I found myself entranced. Maybe it was the subject matter of the dump: the relationship and eventual suicide of the closest friend to Aomame (the other main protagonist, with Tengo). Or, perhaps it was the timing, one-fifth-ish of the way through the novel. I can definitely say that the writing was interesting, engaging, and, eventually, enthralling. Murakami pulled off one of the best infodumps I’ve read in the context of a novel. Kudos on this one. Gamble, win. Again.

One of the largest chances Murakami has taken with this novel is that of rushing headlong at the fourth wall. At first, he does so through writing about writing (see above), then he tackles the topic of the exploration of literature using a wonderful metaphor of exploring a deep magical forest, right at the same time that the readers are exploring this mental space themselves. Later, he becomes even more bold, with Komatsu stating “This is the magnificent world of a picaresque novel” when talking with Tengo about their current predicament. Of course, this is true on the level of their world and on the level of the reader, layers upon layers.

The metafictional nature of the novel doesn’t stop there. There is one element so important that I can’t give it away, that reveals to the characters that they might just be dealing with a reality within a reality. I can’t get more specific than that, but suffice it to say that while the characters do realize that, perhaps, they are “baked in” to an outside story, they still have their agency within it and can affect the outcome. They are not at the mercy of the author, or at least they think they are not. Murakami does an amazing sleight-of-hand in making the reader believe that the characters can make choices that affect the outcome of the novel . . . after having written the novel – the ultimate willing suspension of disbelief!

The final place where Murakami gambles is in his expectation of readers’ expectations, particularly when it involves character motivation and the prospect of deception. There were at least two major characters that I felt were being deceptive. I was convinced that their deceit would turn the plot in a different direction by betraying the main protagonists, Aomame and Tengo. I was wrong. Dead wrong. Both of these minor characters were exactly what they said they were. Against all readerly expectations of an “unexpected” (though frequently expected, in actuality) plot-twist, Murakami plays his cards straight out, face up on the table. And it completely threw me! I was more surprised when I figured out that these characters, both of whom were in a position to provide plenty of surprises and subterfuge, were telling the truth all along and acting true to themselves. Murakami didn’t need a poker face – he had a royal flush in his hand the whole time and made it obvious to everyone, so obvious that the reader couldn’t help but interpose his own thoughts of deception and intrigue on two of the most straightforward people in the novel.

This is not to say that Murakami reveals all. Far from it. There are several mysteries that remain unsolved and plot points unresolved. I am perfectly fine with this. I actually prefer to have vagaries in my fiction (both while reading and writing). I don’t want to know everything. I want the mysteries to linger long after I’ve closed the book, and there are some here that do. Was Kumi Adache Tengo’s reincarnated mother? Maybe, maybe not. And what of the NHK fee collector who harasses people from the hallway throughout the novel – was this or was this not the ghost of Tengo’s comatose father? I don’t know. I like to think so, but there’s nothing explicitly demanding it be so. I appreciate that Murakami has left room here for readers to fill in the blanks or to leave them unfilled, as they see fit. Not only do his characters have (the illusion of?) agency, but he imparts it to the reader, as well. If you’re looking for a novel to tell you every fine detail, to force-feed your conclusions, you are in the wrong place.

Not only is it a work of technical genius, there is a great deal of emotion here, as well. At least there was for me. The timing of my reading was . . . strange and not, I believe, coincidental.

Last year, about this time, my mother had recently died (in February) and my father was, I would later learn, dying. I had to make the sole decision, in both cases, to take my mother, then my father, off of life support. Mom passed quickly: ten minutes after we took her off the trio of vasopressors that were thrashing her heart into (barely - 54/16 blood pressure) functioning, she passed away. Dad lingered for much longer. Two full weeks I spent with him. Every day and many nights I spent by Dad’s bedside as he slowly died. He couldn’t speak much due to a tracheostomy (which he had had since November previous), but he could talk a little. Very little. I spent a great deal of time thanking Dad for the good things he had done for me as a son, for my Mom, and for my family. He had rough spots, as any parent has, some of them very rough, but I know that Dad loved me, and I told him I knew that.

In 1Q84, Tengo spends a great deal of the novel by his comatose father’s bedside. There were similarities between my relationship with my dad and Tengo’s relationship with his father – both older men were rough characters that showed little in the way of emotion. My father was a soldier. I was born and raised in the military. Sometimes Dad could be a very strict disciplinarian, as my conduct could reflect badly on him (and often did – whenever I was arrested as a teenager, which happened a few times, my Dad heard about it from his commanding officers). Dad himself did not show much emotion, though I know he felt, sometimes deeply. The first time I ever saw my Dad cry was when I had to leave home at age eighteen because I was being banished from the Air Force base that we lived on. Yes, literally, legally banished – but that’s a different story. After my teenage years, Dad and I became reconciled and developed a great deal of love and respect for one another. We truly learned to love each other, deeply. Letting him go was one of the hardest experiences of my life. So, that wound was still pretty fresh when, less than a year later, I read 1Q84. Now, the parallels between my experience and the fictional Tengo’s break down on closer examination. But the point here is that Murakami brought up some of the deepest feelings I’ve ever experienced reading a novel. I recall reading on my lunch break at work and having to put the book away to wipe away tears. Thankfully no one else was in the office at that moment. I was a bit of a mess. But it was cathartic, and needed.

After all the heartbreak and terror, 1Q84 is, after all, a love story. A touching love story. As I read, I often thought of a song that I used to listen to when I was in a contemplative mood as a teenager, contemplating about love, the Simple Minds' song “Someone, Somewhere, in Summertime”. I would be shocked if Murakami hadn’t listened to this song while writing this, as it perfectly captures both the mood and, in some ways, the actual plot, of the love story portion of 1Q84. Oh, and did I mention that I was 15 years old in 1984 and deeply in love for a good portion of that year? That might have something to do with my feelings about the love story, as well.

Connections abound. The heart is a lonely place, sometimes, but it’s well worth the effort to keep reaching, whether it be for a family member, a romantic interest, or a desired aspect of life. Life is fleeting, and love is fragile, but powerful. Keep reaching and you’ll find the connections you need, if you look long and carefully enough. Keep reaching. Don’t stop!

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Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Flower Phantoms

Flower PhantomsFlower Phantoms by Ronald Fraser
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On the strong recommendation of a few people whose literary opinions I highly value, I took a chance with this unknown-to-me author. With an introduction by the highly-reputable scholar of obscure English works, Mark Valentine, I had at least some assurance that the book was likely not going to be awful.

The work starts out, blandly enough, as a sort of domestic story of class, family, and wooing one might expect from an interwar-era work. But a tiny sliver of decadence, a delicate kind of decadence, shows up about a quarter of the way in as Judy, the protagonist, is being, as is her wont, a touch aloof from her soon-to-be-betrothed Roland. Roland, poetic but not terribly sharp, looks into her eyes and states:

"My god, Judy, the human eye is a very terrifying thing. It's so inhuman. There's no soul in it. It's a machine. A lot of cloudy, spongy, extremely queer stuff with a sinister black hole. It's expressionless, when you look close. Laughter, kindness, everything that makes people human. seems to disappear. What a strange and terrible thing mind must be . . ."

Later, we find just what a strange and terrible thing mind is. At least strange and terrible to those who cannot see inside another's mind to understand its workings. This is especially so when that mind does not seem to function "correctly".

And Judy doesn't "function correctly". I like her chutzpah. She is a surprisingly complex figure for a female character written by a man in the 1920's. I had not expected this. In time, the complexity of Judy's malfunctioning thoughts becomes intriguing. I wondered if Judy's quirks were harmless or if there was something seriously deranged in her thinking. My greatest fear, though, was that Judy might become "domesticated" or portrayed as an indecisive ditz. I hoped neither of those things happen. I liked her too much as-is.

Not long ago, someone very, very close to me suffered a bout of temporary psychosis. It was one of the most harrowing experiences of my life, to see this person that I know so well in a state of paranoia and mania. It broke my heart to see this. The person I knew was not the person ranting and raving during that spell. It was sad and terrifying to be a part of that suffering and to see it up close, first hand. I catch myself using the word "crazy" far too often, and I now know that this word has special, specific meaning, and that it has nothing to do with fun and frolic. It has become a slur and a word to be avoided. But years of habit are hard to break, and I still catch myself letting it slip. But I correct myself, out of the deepest respect I hold for this friend.

So, as Judy progresses (or falls?) into a state outside of reality, I asked myself what was happening, partially, I think, as an emotional protection to myself, given what I so recently witnessed. Was Judy suffering from insanity (and note that suffering is the precise word to use when describing what the insane are going through)? Pollen-induced hallucinations? Remote memories of a past life or a soul caught between states of existence? Whatever the source, it was beautiful, sad, and languid.

As the novella progresses, one sees Judy slip more and more away from "reality" to the point where the reader questions what is real and what is not. Despite the sensitivity of the subject matter, the "trippiness" of the second part of the story is a nice contrast to the bland domesticity of the first.

In summation, Flower Phantoms shows a most sympathetic view of madness. This is not what I expected from a piece of writing from this period and definitely not what I expected when I began reading. It is touching, but not maudlin, decadent in its subject matter but more practical in its portrayal, and seething with existentialism but not buried in fatalism. Judy is a complex, if sometimes confused, character: she is broken, but not weak. Confident, but fallible. All in all, a human being.

Each reader will pull something different from this novella, depending on one's experiences (and proximity in time and space to said experiences), but it may just shatter your expectations . . . subtly, without undue fanfare or heroics. An extremely interesting, surprising read.

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Saturday, March 16, 2019

Introducing Sartre

Introducing Sartre (Introducing... S.)Introducing Sartre by Philip Thody
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked this up on a whim at a local second-hand bookstore. My only meaningful experience with Sartre was reading and seeing the play No Exit and the examination of Sartre and his work as presented in the (most excellent and strongly-recommended) book Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy. I thought I could stand to learn more about the man and his philosophy. So, I thought I'd pick up Introducing Sartre and see if I could learn a little something.

I did. But very little. And something more of his political beliefs than his core philosophical examinations. I've learned more about Sartre's philosophy from Barrett's book than I did from this. Much more, in fact.

That isn't to say that the book doesn't have merit. On the contrary, the high-level overview of Sartre's work is fairly well done (if a bit disorganized, in spots). For those who know absolutely nothing about Sartre, I can see how this would be a good introduction; an interesting, but not absolutely compelling mix of biography, political, and philosophical explication.

One note that stuck out to me (that has everything to do with the times in which we now live) is the authors' take on Sartre's analysis of anti-Semitism as a weird sort of coping mechanism for weak-minded people who are seeking to absolve themselves of responsibility. This is being born out in the US, UK, and elsewhere right now, and not just with anti-Jewish sentiment. People would rather blame and persecute than do the actual work necessary to truly exercise their inherent freedom. They become trapped inside their own hatred of those they think are impinging on their freedom. Ironic.

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Saturday, March 2, 2019

The Old Knowledge and Other Strange Tales

The Old Knowledge and Other Strange TalesThe Old Knowledge and Other Strange Tales by Rosalie Parker

Rosalie Parker who, with her partner, R. B. Russell, run one of my favorite small presses, Tartarus Press, presents here, in a beautiful Swan River Press edition (another of my favorites), eight short stories of strange fiction. it is a slight volume, but beautiful, as one expects from Swan River. The autumnal cover, designed around one of Russell's pieces, create the proper mood - rich and loamy, but with a cold edge - for reading.

First impressions are important. At first, I thought "The Rain" might be a well-written rehash of the 1970 TV drama Robin Redbreast. I was so wrong! There are elements of homage (whether intentional or not) to that (in)famous drama. This is far more horrifying, yet the frisson is brought on by careful omission and ominous indicators, by what is explicitly not said or shown, rather than with the literary equivalent of jump-scare scenes. This is something Rod Serling would nod to and smile. Oh, it's five stars worth of eloquent dread!

Nearly as enigmatic, but not nearly as convincing, "Spirit Solutions" evokes the feelings of siblinghood that anyone with a brother or sister will recognize, all in the context of a night spent by two brothers and two sisters in the haunted house of their recently-deceased father. Four stars.

I was not terribly surprised by what I found "In the Garden," but was I supposed to be shocked? I don't think so, honestly. I wasn't even creeped out . . . much. A little. But I ended the story feeling a little that Parker felt I should be more scared or surprised than I was. However, I know full well that auctorial intent is seldom what the reader thinks it is or was. Still, three rowan-berry stars to this domestic(ated) tale.

As far as straightforward strange stories, "Chactonbury Ring" is, well, just that. A good story, well-told. Perhaps if there were a little more folkloric background or context, I might have enjoyed it more. But, as I said, it's a good story worth three stars.

"The Supply Teacher" is a clever little story with a clever little twist. The beautiful prose and perfectly-timed dialogue are what make it a four star story. I could just as easily see this as a novel excerpt as a short story, though it is impactful even in its current form.

"The Old Knowledge" is unrevealed until the end, and what an end! A story of barrows and witch bottles and the trickster in the dirt, as it were. Folk horror without the horror, really, but a fine specimen of the form, if not the outright oeuvre, of folk horror. This is a grim, yet beautifully capricious story worthy of five bronze or flint stars. This story made me chuckle a wile- pun intended.

"The Cook's Story" is an excellent little ditty with multiple angles of obfuscation. Definitely one of those tales that leaves you guessing, but gives several possibilities as to what really did happen and what really is happening. I'm not big on stories about the chosen subject matter, to be honest, but this is well done and a wicked little read. This story has come back into my mind time and time again, like a dog to its vomit, as they say. Be careful what you eat . . . four stars.

I might like "The Picture" best of all. A piece of Symbolist art comes at a cost, again and again and again. The ending out O'Henrys O'Henry. A deliciously twisted story that takes the notion of The Monkey's Paw two steps forward and one step back, or maybe it's taking a side road through musty antique shops and back alleys, I don't know. I have a hard time putting into words what this story does, but it does it sneaky and sinister and leaves you begging at the end. For what? Can't tell. If you're lucky, you'll find out. Five stars!

In the end, you have to admire Parker for her endings. They often work, and are always clever. Maybe a trite too clever once in a while, but still, you can tell she's honed her storytelling craft. I'll often read, and sometimes state, that a collection is "worth it" for this story or that. This collection is worth it for all the stories. Some more than others. But altogether, this is a nice little meal - not too much, not too little - of strange tales to read by a warm fireplace with a cup of hot cocoa. You'll want just a hint of chill in the air. And if you can't crack open the door to let it in, The Old Knowledge will do it for you.

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Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Collected Connoisseur

The Collected ConnoisseurThe Collected Connoisseur by Mark Valentine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Two of my favorite contemporary authors, Mark Valentine and John Howard, combine their talents on what I thought might be a promising character, The Connoisseur - aesthetical detective extraordinaire. I had been waiting a while to savor this. With a few days off on holiday, I was able to bathe in this reading a bit more than is usual with my frantic life. I'm glad I took this one slow - I'm hoping I've given Valentine and Howard more time to write more Connoisseur, because I didn't want this to end. This might be as close to a perfect short story collection as I will ever read. This is definitely becoming one of my "chained books" (meaning I'm figuratively chaining it up so you'll have to remove it with a bolt cutter to get it out of my library or pry it from my cold, dead hands). It ranks up with Brian Evenson's The Wavering Knife and Thomas Ligotti's Teatro Grottesco as one of my favorite single-author collections of all time. Every story is excellent, and the sum of the parts is an order of magnitude more magnificent than the stories themselves. Yes, this collection is THAT good. Tartarus Press is offering this in an affordable paperback version. I cannot recommend it strongly enough.

You probably have some sort of notion about what an "aesthetical detective extrodinaire" should be and do. And, in places, you would be correct. But it's when the stories buck my preconceived ideas that they shine the brightest. That's not to say that I was displeased when a story met my expectations, but the surprises were the best.

The collection starts with "The Effigies," which is just what I had hoped it would be: witty, erudite, fantastically well-written in such a way that the eloquence is un-noticed, just absorbed. The Connoisseur explains his vase, which holds water, but never flowers, and for good reason. Imagine if the physical objects of Huysman's Against Nature each had a tale to tell. This should give a bit of a hint as to what an "aesthetical detective" is all about. Five stars.

"After the Darkness" has it all: a pre-Great War poet, a masquerade, an apparition, and a mystery involving a sundial - or is it a moondial? In any case, what's not to like? Five stars.

I was reminded of Doyle's "The Hound of the Baskervilles" when reading "The Paravine Cries," for reasons that become obvious when one reads the story's conclusion. I won't spoil that ending, however. Suffice it to say that, while it does reflect some of those old tropes, it does so in a fresh way. Fresh enough for four stars like glowing eyes in the night.

"Pale Roses" is as English a winter's tale as there could possibly be. It brought back those always rainy, sometimes snowy days of my youth when I lived in England. If you're not familiar with English history, you may want to brush up. If you are familiar, you are in for a treat, a mystery surrounding the Connoisseur's ailing cousin leads to decay and a discovery about a possible lost scion of the Stuart house. How does the protagonist know what he knows? I don't care. I want to believe. Five stars.

"In Violet Veils" is an exquisite piece that owes its existence to both the Decadents and the Symbolists, but that takes it's own place in the hierarchy of each. Five stars

How apropos that, so close to the end of the year, I read what may be the best story I've read all year. "The Lost Moon" is a hypnotizing piece of esoterica. Truly an "occult detective" story so deeply immersive and compelling that it will not leave me for a long, long time. An enigmatic orrery, a secret society, and Saturn. What more do you need? Five stars circling the wrong direction, summoning chaos itself!

From darkness to light . . . "Cafe Lucifer" is not merely a switch in emphasis from "The Lost Moon", it is a deeply poignant story. Any who have loved and lost quickly will feel a pang of deep emotion resounding in the heart. I recall a "tryst" I had in the Netherlands with a girl who I met there. Vicki was her name, but I can't recall her last name. It's probably changed now anyway. She was beautiful. Probably the most beautiful girl I ever loved. We were together for two weeks, while we were both representing our High Schools at the Model United Nations in the Hague. Alas, her father was stationed at a different Air Force base in England that was a ways away from the base I lived at. Given our meager means and the fact that I didn't have a car (no one really *needed* a car in England), I didn't ever see her again, though there were two occasions where I might have run into her: once, when I visited the base she lived at and another when I went to London to see U2 and a bunch of her friends were going to the concert, as well. It was a grueling few months, and I don't know that I ever got over it. I am quite happily married to the most wonderful woman in the world, but I'm still curious what ever happened to her. So, if you know anyone named Vicki whose father was stationed at RAF Upper Heyford in 1987, let her know I'd love to hear from her and find out how she's doing. But it wasn't just the deepness of my own emotions that caused this story to stand out. I still have the images of Cafe Lucifer and its mysterious prism-embedded-in-a-glass-sphere burning deep in my brain. The visual cues were enough to make this story unforgettable, let alone the emotional connection I made with the characters. Needless to say, this story gets five stars.

Oh, I would spend a healthy sum of money on the creations of "The Craft of Arioch". Or an unhealthy sum of money. A wonderfully whimsical tale of rocking horses . . . and others. The phrase "flights of the imagination" perfectly encapsulates this magical story, but doesn't do it enough justice. It is an exquisite piece of fancy with a central conceit that is simple, yet enervating. This five star tale was one of the more playful of the collection, but play of the most serious sort!

"The Secret Stars" feels, at first, like Valentine and Howard are veering far away from The Connoisseur's oeuvre, like the narrative is spinning in a different direction than the authors intended. But, at the end, the narrative clearly "belongs" to The Connoisseur. Four secret stars.

"The Hesperian Dragon" should be turned into a BBC one-shot staring, of course, Benedict Cumberbatch as The Connoisseur. This is the longest and most "film ready" of the stories in this collection so far. Unfortunately, it is way too "smart" and steeped in aesthetic theory for it ever to be translated to the screen. A shame. Brush up on your Milton/Confucius, cretins! Five multicolored stars. You'll know why . . .

"The Lighting of the Vial" may be a perfect story, without blemish or fault. It is the most beautiful thing I have read in many years, possibly the most beautiful and poignant story I've ever read. Here, the Connoisseur relates his journey to the museum of an artist, Hugh Kerwyn, a friend of his, from the hints that are given. Kerwyn's friends and admirers gather there for a wake for the recently deceased artist. There hope is to recreate the moment captured in his most-perfectly-realized still life painting. But, for some reason, the anticipated moment does not "take" as they feel it ought to have done. Afterwards, The Connoisseur is approached by a young woman who admits to replacing one of the objects in the still life with a substitute, which is enough to break the spell, as it were, of the original.

'I looked at her. she settled herself on the bench, straightening her pale dress. I resumed my place, and she continued: "I sometimes wonder if poeoples' thoughts might stay in a place. You know, if they thought about something in a certain way so they were almost a part of it, whether that might stay behind when they are gone. We would sort of know their thoughts were there but not quite. So we would feel strange about the place, or feel it was special somehow, but we couldn't be sure why."

'I nodded thoughtfully and prodded the dust with the toe of my shoe. The drifting fragrance returned dimly to my senses. It was as if there was a palpitant ache in the air. We gazed at the tumbledown garden silently.

'Suddenly I thought that I did not want these moments to end: the decaying garden, the earnestness of the young woman from the quiet town below, the frail flow of the late noon, the cracked stone flags, the slow flowing of the countryside beyond, the cool lustre of the little flagon in my hand, the merest possibility of some lingering presence of the thoughts, the whimsical meditations of Hugh Kerwyn: all these things seemed so finely, so perfectly poised before me; I did not want to emerge from them. I would gladly have stayed all the while that the long day dwindled into dusk, trying to stem its ebbing, to seize some moments of it, some few fragments, to try fiercely to prevent it all from disappearing into the darkness.

'But: "I must go," she said. The words descended like a first chill shiver across that strange onrush of bliss. I shook her hand somewhat awkwardly, told her I was sure she had acted rightly in saving the little jug from that foolish ritual, and said I hoped our paths might cross again whenever I revisited the museum. Then, settling back on the bench and watching her go through the blue wicket gate at the garden's end, savouring the active, poignant vacancy caused by her leaving, I thought again of what she had said, comparing her impressions with what I remembered of Hugh Kerwyn's art and thought.'

This touched me deeply. This is something I believe. Something that rings a familiar, melancholy chord, especially since the death of my parents last spring. I will never forget this story. It may be the most wonderful, sad, and meaningful story I've ever read. 5 stars.

"The Nephoseum" is as fragile and ethereal as its subject-matter and its protagonist. Unfortunately, despite its utter stunning beauty of form, the story's frailty is one touch too ephemeral. Of course, anything would be a disappointment after reading the perfect story just before. Four stars.

"Sea Citadels" is a song to the British isles, a sort of keening for the ancient days that taps into a certain resonance between the sea and human longing. It is the tonal inverse of Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth". And where HP's loquacious purple-prose falters on the shoals of the ears, Valentine's simple eloquence is like a gentle wave-born lullaby, like a Dunsany for the sea. Four stars.

"The Prince of Barlocco" is a gentle, yet powerful tale of dignity in the midst of degeneration. It's almost a sort of parable (though not exactly such) about the power of family in one's later years. Or maybe I'm just reading it this way because my daughter just told us our 2nd grandchild is on the way (!). 4 stars.

"The Black Eros" holds a compelling idea. It is far more sinister than mere satanism or the occult. Yet the "reveal" seemed a bit contrived. Still, a beautiful idea, mostly well-executed. Four stars, but it could have easily been five had the underlying tensions and reveal been left to boil a little longer. A textbook example of what happens when the author is over-eager to get to the end or when artificial word-limits hold a story back from its full potential. I'm not sure which way to interpret that here, but it is a bit of a shame, either way.

"The Mad Lutanist" starts off slowly and hits a crescendo of supernatural strangeness, but it is in the denouement that Valentine pulls his most deft auctorial maneuver: just when one thinks that it is an unnecessary info dump via Deus-Ex-Machina, the other shoe drops and one is smitten by the perfect brilliance of it all. I love this sort of sleight-of-hand. Five stars.

"The Mist on the Mere" feels like the Classic English Ghost Story, with deep roots in James and Dunsany. It is the first of these that is structured like a standard Occult Detective story. This is, simultaneously a strength and a weakness. Four stars glowing like Celtic goddesses in the mist.

"The White Solander" is exactly the sort of story I imagined for The Connoisseur before I had ever read any of these stories. I'm glad it came later in my reading, however, so that I could explore his many other facets first. Here, though, is a true occult detective story, replete with incantations, swordplay (of a sort), Symbolist poets, and a beautiful conspiracy from early modern times. Five stars to this gem.

"The Last Archipelago" is what Algernon Blackwood would have written had he he wished to reprise "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym" or "At the Mountains of Madness". It's more subtle than either of those, more spiritual, if you will, but clearly a story of nature's winsome personality. This is my least favorite story of this collection, thus far, and still it clocks in at a very solid Four stars.

Empires folded within empires in a timeless, but time-stricken state. "The Rite of Trebizond" is a mystery and a history of the trickle of power between the interstices of civilization. The Holy of Holies is hid right in our midst, and we do not see it. World-builders walk in our midst and we are unaware of the intrigue. This is a beautiful story in which nothing happens, but everything happens. Five stars.

"The Serpent, Unfallen" would make an excellent Call of Cthulhu scenario. I am not joking. And I am seriously thinking about writing such a thing. Anyway, the Oil of Mercy figures prominently in this occult tale of satanic ritual and its despoilers. One of the more straightforward tales of the Connoisseur, and yet a very satisfying one. Five stars on the crown of a black serpent . . . with or without wings.

Even a less-clever Connoisseur story like "The Temple of Time" deserves four stars. The plot is unsurprising, the main protagonist (not The Connoisseur, this time) is forgettable, the language is, as always, excellent. But what gives this story strength is it's poignancy of speculation: a "what if" that sinks deep into the heart and mind.

Folk horror, Phaeton, and fire-worship are all on brilliant display in "The Descent of the Fire". This is an excellent conclusion to the collection, gathering all of The Connoisseur's cohorts in an effort to stop the burgeoning of luciferean cabals. Five bright stars!

Your reading experience may be different than mine, of course. As I have shown, this collection hit some emotional resonances with me that are the result of my experiences and my time in life. I'm glad I read it when I did. The perfect book at the perfect time. Perhaps it's your time?

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Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Quay Brothers: The Black Drawings

The Quay Brothers: The Black DrawingsThe Quay Brothers: The Black Drawings by Edwin Carels
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's no secret that I am a huge fan of The Brothers Quay and their films. I've been ever-so-slowly and carefully working on roleplaying game materials for some sort of Quay-influenced campaign (here, here, and here, if you'd like some free content and ideas), I've seen most of their films now, and I'm starting to collect more books on them and their work. Truth be told, I'm not usually obsessive about movies, directors, or actors. When friends talk about actors, for instance, and call out a name, I am 95% likely to not have a clue who they are talking about. I'm just not that good at pop culture, at least not TV and movie pop culture. I'm pretty picky . . . VERY picky about what I watch. I just don't spend much time absorbing mainstream TV and movies. Yes, some (make mine Marvel, for instance), but really not that much.

But the Brothers Quay are different. If you doubt that and haven't seen any of their films, just go to youtube and have a gander. You will likely either love them or hate them or, like me, both at the same time. I am simultaneously completely drawn in by their work and inwardly repulsed by it. It's a strange place, for me, but I am willingly caught in their labyrinth. Rather than speedily trying to escape from the labyrinth, however, I am taking my time to observe the labyrinth's construction, to feel my way along the dark walls, to smell the moldy eruptions kicked up by my boots, to know this place.

This is where The Quay Brothers: The Black Drawings comes in. It's a sort of blueprint (blackprint?) of what came before the twins started making their movies. This is the initiation of the visual shouts that later echo throughout their cinema. Before they made movies, the Brothers Quay were graphic designers working for a few different publishers before establishing themselves as directors. The Black Drawings are pencil drawings that the brothers created from about 1974 to 1977. Obviously, they are dark, but what is not obvious is the unexpected subject matter, which usually involved soccer players and trolleys. The trolleys are obviously artifacts from their years spent in Poland after leaving their home town of Philadelphia. The pre-eminence of soccer players in many of the drawings cannot be so easily explained. The twins were not permitted to play contact sports as children because they had braces, which their parents did not want to endanger. They ran cross country, but did not play soccer. So, maybe this is some strange sort of wish fulfillment. Or, perhaps these figures are symbolic of the European spirit (soccer was most definitely not a popular sport in the US in the '50s, when they would have been children). But, for some reason, this is part of the symbolic (?) language that they developed in their drawings. There also seems to be a fascination with electrical pylons, vaunting buildings, factories, and tall streetlights casting shadows over sports fields. Maybe not what you would expect from the young Quays.

But look a bit more closely at their films, and you will see many of these symbols pop up in various guises. I won't spoil any surprises, but after reading this book, I know I will rewatch their works with even more wide-eyed wonder than I do now, like going on an Easter egg hunt for black, gothic eggs.

One idea that struck me came from the phrase used to describe The Black Drawings as "film without film". These drawings were, essentially, movie posters for movies that had never been made. I've used a similar notion in some of my short fiction, writing "stories without stories" - plotless spirals into character, or merely descriptive lists, that allow the ambitious reader to read between the lines and form their own story, with my work providing the prompts, while their brains actually create the plot or at least shadows thereof. I like writing these kinds of "stories without stories" and I enjoy reading them. I suppose much of long-form poetry fulfills the same function.

The book begins with a rather lengthy preamble to the "exhibition" that contextualizes the drawings by giving an extensive history of the time period in question. Suffice it to say that the Quay Brothers' films didn't arise ex nihilo , but that several influences converged (not least of which their travels overseas) to form a proto-oeuvre that later coalesced into the films through the medium of their "films without films" posters.

Next, the drawings are presented, with a thorough examination of each and a bevy of corollary evidence that mostly backs up the author's contentions. The one exception is the analysis of the psychopathia sexualis vis-a-vis the drawing "Chateau de Labonnecuyere," which I found to be an awful stretch, not to mention pretentious in the sort of way that distances the avant-garde from the rest of the world. The rest of the analysis is sound, but this condescending sort of work is exactly why we see anti-academic strains in society.

While I found something of interest or something to enjoy about each of the Black Drawings, two of them stood out. "The Lover Practicing Hate" is one of the more intriguing Black Drawings: more dynamic than the others, graphically intriguing, even emotive (something lacking in many of the others), though the specific emotion being evoked is really up to the viewer.

My favorite is "Guegamp-Sans-Gavotten," which definitely takes its cues from the expressionists. It's a charged drawing, full of energy, with a story unfolding before the viewer's eyes. Again, though, the plot of that story is up to the beholder. This poster would make an excellent "Rorshach test".

One of the hidden treasures in this labyrinth of a book are the numerous references to the obscure, often avant music, cinema, and books scattered about in the footnotes and sometimes hinted at in the text. These provide a path to the story behind the story behind the story. I look forward to opening the trapdoors in the floor and exploring the underground to the labyrinth as much as I've enjoyed my stay up above. Who knows what lies beneath? I may never come back.

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The Hearts of Kings

The Hearts of KingsThe Hearts of Kings by Hanns Heinz Ewers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This short, cutting work is a decadent delight. Written in the mythopoetic style so familiar to readers of decadent literature, this story holds dearly to the human elements of tragedy, madness, and artistic genius. There is a strong latency from the Symbolist movement throughout, one must understand that, as a work of decadence, the title is to be taken literally and viscerally. The story cuts to the heart of power and its exercise over society, as manifested in Stefan Eggeler's darkly-beautiful etchings. The drawings and prose, housed in a gold-embossed cloth cover with bronze- and gold-faux-foil endpapers, are a treasure within a treasure. This is a book that is not, however, for the faint of heart. If you are looking for fairy tales of royalty, you will soon find yourself looking askance at this grueling tale, which leans more toward Poe than Huysmans.

This (absolutely gorgeous) edition is one of 493 copies, available from Ajna. You may ask yourself: "Self, do you really want to spend that much money on a 52 page book?"

Yes. Yes, you most definitely do. Trust me on this one: it's worth way more than you'll pay, until they go out of stock and the price just starts getting higher and higher as this peculiar gem of a work is sought after more and more.

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