Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Head of Vitus Bering

The Head of Vitus Bering (The Printed Head Volume III, #7)The Head of Vitus Bering by Konrad Bayer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is no good place to begin a review of such a book. Because it "begins" all at once and "ends" all at once. Konrad Bayer's The Head of Vitus Bering is a phantasmagoric staccato nightmare of cannibalism and torture swirling in a tornado of anachronism and confused stories, none of which make an impact individually, but when combined into a stew of mixed syntax, somehow makes sense.

I would like to have a key or to have the patience to unlock any of the apparent formulae that Bayer used to write this work. There is a certain sing-song rhythm that betrays a pattern underneath, but like any work of complexity, the pattern can only be traced for a short while before one loses the path. This might be as much a function of intellectual laziness as inscrutability. How am I to know? Despite my shortcomings, however, there is evidence of rhyme and reason somewhere behind what would otherwise appear to be a random mess of words and broken phrases. I don't know whether to feel like Bayer is just messing around with his readers or if there was, indeed, a real plan, again, a formula, behind his experimentation.

Regardless of the real existence of possible patterns beneath the words, the evocative nature of the words themselves are sufficient to immerse any reader in the overpowering now that pulses out from the background of randomly-ordered events. By overwhelming the reader with chronological jumps to and fro, Bayer strips the reader of their sense of causation. In the whirlwind of suffering, all that matters is what is happening now. The sterilized academic tone of much of the book adds to this genericizing of time. Life, it seems, is just a machine through which one, including Vitus Bering himself, must pass, being ground down by the gears of experience. The universe is uncaring, the text seems to say, so why should the narrator of the work care? He is simply an observer, a canvas to be painted on, a manuscript to be typed with the impressions he receives.

What is the reader of this work other than a receiver of these impressions? Dare you try to interpret that which cannot be understood? Or will you just absorb the many lies and scant truths of The Head of Vitus Bering? If so, what are you, other than a palimpsest? In which case, time, chronology, causation really have no reward for you.

Now I find myself stuck in Bayer's most cunning trap: fatalism.

Still, it's sometimes intriguing to look up from the bottom of the pit and try to figure out the mechanism operating the trapdoor from far below, in the darkness. At other times, I'd rather just close my eyes and dream. But I can't stay down here forever, so, I climb.

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Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Inhabitant of the Lake & Other Unwelcome Tenants

The Inhabitant of The Lake & Other Unwelcome TenantsThe Inhabitant of The Lake & Other Unwelcome Tenants by Ramsey Campbell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

From Campbell's Afterword, it is clear that he is a bit embarrassed at having written these early tales. I can see why. No, these stories are not terrible, not by any means. But if you've read any of Campbell's later work, you can clearly see an emergent, if struggling, genius trying to claw its way out of the pit of pastiche with this collection. August Derleth, who initially edited these stories, was generous to the young Campbell. The letters back and forth between the two during their initial exchanges before this book was first published paint the picture of a kindly mentor who, though unafraid to call out the young (and I mean very young) Campbell in strong editorial terms, shows a soft spot that this editor (namely: me) would have cut out of his own heart. Call me mean.

But if Derleth had let his editorial judgement cut too deep, Campbell might not have ever emerged as the writer he has. And that would be a shame. So, good for Derleth having a heart.

Enough of sentiment. On to the stories.

We begin with "The Room in the Castle," which was good, but not great. Clearly a pastiche of Lovecraft, this relied a little too heavily on the old "shell game" of teasing a reveal, then pulling it back, then teasing and pulling it back again, then revealing the thing that was previously teased about at the very end. Not very startling, honestly. Well written, as you'd expect, but the mechanics of the piece felt amateur and really distracted this reader. Three stars

"The Horror from the Bridge" is more like it. Though I think that Campbell tips his hand way too much by "giving it away" without the reader having to work for it, I still liked this story quite a bit. Campbell himself admits in the afterword that he is sometimes guilty of "telling too much too soon". I'd say that's accurate. This tale is not outright scary, but "the mythos" don't necessarily have to be. It exhibits well Mark Fisher's notion of "the weird" as something intruding in our world that should not be there. Features both undead and mythos! Four stars.

"The Insects from Shaggai" is full of great things. The semi-material nature of the insects and the notion of possessing the victim and leading them to bring catastrophe upon . . . well, I can't give away too much. Ramsey's one weakness, and I've seen it in each of these stories so far, is that he telegraphs way too much. Foreshadowing is not fore-10000 -candle-watt-shining, Ramsey. Tone it down a touch! Four stars.

I enjoyed "The Render of the Veils," but it is a story that definitely needs more breathing room (another early habit of Campbell's that he admits to in his afterword). One of the two main characters just seemed to willing to go along with just about anything with little or not questioning. A longer lead-in might have made it more believable. Naivete might have been developed, rather than curtly assumed. A longer story would have helped to develop more dread, as well. This might make an interesting setup for a Delta Green one-shot scenario, but it doesn't make for great fiction. Good fiction, but not great. Three stars.

The story "The Inhabitant of the Lake" fires on all cylinders, save one: The info-dump by the realtor is unlikely and un-necessary. The story would have been stronger without it. Still, that doesn't keep this one from five star territory. There is good reason for its reputation for frisson. It is a solid piece of cosmic horror that earns its laurels. I see why this was chosen as the title story. Five stars!

"The Plain of Sound" hits the sweet spot of giving the reader just enough to think they have an idea of what the horror really is, while keeping it "tucked away" enough that the reader's imagination reaches and claws for it, but never quite sees it full-front. And it's this yearning that creates the terror in the reader: the realization that you *want* to stare the horror in the face, but can't. A strange twist on possible invasions from another dimension that reminds me (though "remind" is anachronistic here, except that my reading order didn't match the publishing order) of Jeffrey Thomas's story "Bad Reception" from his collection The Endless Fall and Other Weird Fictions. Five stars!

"The Return of the Witch". Meh. Too much meh-tafiction in the form of a Doctor providing information he couldn't possibly know. Meh-chanically clunky grammatical structures. A meh-andering plot. Meh-phistopholes would have loved this story. Just meh. Two stars.

"The Mine on Yuggoth" was what I hoped for when picking up this book! Eerie, unspoiled by infodumps and credibility-straining coincidence. A protagonist who just can't help but want to know more, until he knows too much. Subtle until the end, then BAM! This is how cosmic horror is done! Five inscrutably sentient stars!

Ah, those crazy folk-magic practicing villagers. I hate it when I stumble into their village and am sacrificed to Shub-Niggurath only to find that there are fates worse than death. Next time that happens, though, Campbell will have provided me with a great example of how to document these strange happenings with "The Moon Lens". Four stars.

Besides the strength of the stories (and I do think that most of them were strong), this volume includes an awkward tell-all afterword by the author, several pieces of correspondence between Campbell and August Derleth, and the first drafts of all the stories (and one that didn't - thankfully - make it into the collection). It's an interesting piece of Lovecraftiana that only owes its inspiration to Lovecraft. The ancillary materials add to the collection overall, I think, even if it predisposes one to judge the stories themselves a little more harshly. Actually, maybe they would excuse the stories' juvenalian aspects if one were to read the afterword first. But that would be putting the Lovecraftian cart before the horse and might spoil the eerie enjoyment that does infuse many of the pieces.

All-in-all, the book is not a good introduction to cosmic horror (though a couple of the stories are), but a definite must-read for those who love their Lovecraft or who want to read the seminal stories of one of the modern masters of horror.

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Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Quay Brothers' Universum

The Quay Brothers' UniversumThe Quay Brothers' Universum by Marente Bloemheuvel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This entire book is a Wunderkammer. It's a memory of a relationship I've never had with the Quay's, incomplete snippets of our shared experience, though we've never met. I remember as I read, but there are memories hidden in the gaps between pictures and words, interstitial recollections that may or may not be fully material. This has steeped my brain in ether. I don't know if I will wake up. What is waking, what are dreams?!?

Suzanne Buchan's introductory essay "Short Circuits and Footnote Traces" is sheer brilliance, and by "brilliance," I mean a murky shadow of darkness. Buchan has articulated what I love about the Brothers Quay works in a way that I cannot. And I will not go into depth on her essay here. It deserves to be explored by you directly, without my interference. If you love Quay or are merely curious, let her essay be your Baedeker.

Beyond the introduction are dozens of stills from the Quay Brothers' films interspersed with prose selections by Robert Walser and Bruno Schulz. A short selection from The Diaries of Franz Kafka is also provided, like Walser's and Schulz's fictional pieces, without context. Those familiar with the Quay's films will feel the spontaneous firing of synaptic connections as they read, more from the feel of the prose than from direct situational or plot parallels (though they are present, as well). This method of loose association probably won't do much for those who are unfamiliar with the Brothers Quay cinematic art. But for those of us who already love their work, this book allows for a subconscious association with the film art while away from the film. The inclusion of fragments of Karlheinz Stockhausen's score for Helikopter Streichkwartet, Werk nr. 69 is another example of this dynamic. One cannot actually hear the music and one is not actually watching a Quay film in real-time, but one familiar with both will find their brain stretching to reach back into the darkness and pull forward "sounds" and "images" from memory.

And this is one of the qualities of Quay films that I love: The sense, while watching, that there is something hidden, some memory that holds the key to understanding, just outside of our conscious perception. I strive to find that (collective unconscious?) memory, but never quite find it. Yet, in that striving, I find something, some meaning, partially, at least, but never fully-formed, which keeps me striving even harder, which keeps me engaged, immersed.

I gladly submit to being thus lost, again and again. How can I resist the pull of the simultaneously eerie, yet numinous shadows that the Brothers Quay lead me into? I am driven by wanderlust into the dark, seeking enlightenment, doubtful that I will ever find it, though it is possible that, in seeking, I already have.


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Monday, July 10, 2017

The Endless Fall and Other Weird Fictions

The Endless Fall and Other Weird FictionsThe Endless Fall and Other Weird Fictions by Jeffrey Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've known Jeffrey's work (and Jeffrey) for a very long time now, nearly twenty years. I must admit that I am one of those horrible acquaintances that pops up every few years (or more) and remembers "Oh yeah, Jeffrey. I wonder what he's up to?"

Well, my timing was good, at least, this time around. I had been poking around the Lovecraft eZine website and noticed that Jeffrey had a new book out at about the same time I had wondered what he (and his brother, Scott, also an excellent writer, though of a very different tone) was doing. When I saw the cover, I was absolutely smitten. I have a penchant for bizarre art, and the cover by Nick Gucker fit squarely into that crevasse of my brain that loves to dwell on pulp surrealism. It was not long after that the Lovecraft eZine podcast featured Jeffrey's new book on an episode. When I learned that the title story in this collection was based on the art of the cover, I dove for my wallet.

Like any short story collection, some stories appealed more than others. But none of them are bad, not even borderline bad. Not a one. But I expect a lot from Jeffrey. So let's see how he did!

"Jar of Mist" proves that weird, horrific fiction need not be unsympathetic or lacking positive emotions. This story tugs at your heart (but leaves it in your chest, even if it's broken). This was five star material. I love strangeness in my horror, but when you can tug at my soft spot while dosing out the strange, that's a winner!

"The Dogs" is a nice atmospheric piece. Weird, very weird, of course, but with less emotional impact than the first story. And the assumptions that go into the suspension of disbeliefaere a tiny bit difficult to absorb, but not so jarring that it throws the reader out of the story. Four stars go to the dogs.

"Ghosts in Amber" is a very strange story in which Thomas creates a palpable frisson with not only his creepy descriptions of bizarre things, but also through his evocation of the inner sense of fear, the raw feel of terror in your body. A sad story. Four stars.

"The Prosthesis" is good, but not great. Well-crafted, but I didn't feel that the twist "caught" me, though the setup was perfect. Could have been much better, like really over-the-moon cool, but it sort of fizzled for me. Three stars.

"The Dark Cell" is a near perfect example of effective auctorial sleight-of-hand. Oftentimes, I can tell when a writer is trying to deceive the reader, but the twist in this story caught me totally off-guard.

Pun intended.

You'll know what I mean when you read it. Five stars.

"Snake Wine" reads like a modern update of an old pulp horror story from Weird Tales. Well told, if a little "already done". Three stars.

"The Spectators" is a heartbreaker. Man, I ached for the narrator. An emotionally-effecting story with an incredible sense of loss, along with catharsis, to say the least! Five teary-eyed stars.

"Bad Reception" is the most Twilight Zone-esque story in this collection so far. And seeing that Twilight Zone is my favorite TV show ever (the original TZ, that is) and that this story is very strange and very well-written and set in the atomic age, I'm giving it five stars. Speaking of TV, you might not see yours the same way after you've read this story! I really loved this story. A collection of stories that gave me the same sense of dissociation, the eerie, and a twinge of nostalgia for an apocalypse that never happened; well, such a collection would truly knock my socks off.

"Sunset in Megalopolis" is a quaint, simple story about a superhero with no one left to protect. Cute enough for three stars.

"Portents of Past Futures" is exceptional. A freaky-weird noir detective story with surreal overtones centering around the subject of street art. Yet another story where a static-riven TV screen serves as a key plot device (the first was "Bad Reception"), giving the whole an un-nerving sense of evil just beyond our perception, but wanting to come in front and center. Thomas at his best. Five stars!

"Those Above" is as nihilistic piece as any I've read. It was great, however, I am not a big fan of steampunk. And here, the steampunk elements featured so prominently seemed over-emphasized, even shoehorned in. Perhaps this is why it was first published in Steampunk Cthulhu. I felt that the gears and brass and leather elements were so exaggerated, so forced that they were calling attention to themselves and away from the narrative. Four stars.

"The Individual in Question" is a marvelous 2-page story of cosmic horror in the idiom of detective noir. I really loved this little story. So much packed into such a little space! Combine this with "Portents of Past Futures" and add a few more similar stories, and you'd have one of the best weird-detective collections available. Five stars.

"The Red Machine" is an excruciating tale about a tough life and revenge. But it's not the revenge story you've come to expect. Thomas plumbs the depths of desperation in this excellent story. Five stars.

The titular piece "The Endless Fall" is a beautifully-strange piece of science fiction based on the book's cover art (by artist Nick Gucker). It is an atmospheric piece about survival and its consequences in a situation where time and causality have all gone wrong. A wonderful, wonderful way to end this collection! Five stars!

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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and OrganizingThe Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondō
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My mother is a hoarder. There's no two ways about it. She never saw a thing she didn't want to keep. I don't want to go too deep into the psychology of it all, but mental illness plays a part in this.

Thankfully, I didn't inherit the hoarding genes. I'm not a neat freak, either, not by any means. I, like most people, fall in the middle somewhere. I do recall, however, a time in my life when everything I owned fit into a military duffel bag (no, I was not in the military at the time). This lasted for about a year and, you know what? It felt good. Really good. But you fall in love, you get married, you have kids, and next thing you know, you've got stuff. Again, I'm not a hoarder, so it's not like I'm overburdened with my stuff. But we have a small home (I wouldn't have it any other way) and from time to time you just need to get rid of stuff.

Most years, I will do spring cleaning of my wardrobe. This means I will toss a t-shirt or two that has become full of holes or a sweater that's become unraveled. If I'm feeling really ambitious, I will use the "three year rule" - if I haven't used it for three years, I get rid of it, unless I have a really good reason to keep it.

This past year, I didn't do my normal spring cleaning. Also, my income is a lot more steady and I've earned a little extra from various writing projects, so I've had the luxury of buying a few more things, mostly books, as you might imagine.

So when I stumbled across this title, I thought what the heck, I'll give this book a shot.

I admit that, at first, my eyes rolled completely around in my head (I saw the inside of my skull) when I read the cutesie manner in which the book was written. But Kondo had some solid ideas, and if I set aside the "twee," the book was actually pretty captivating and read very quickly.

I'm not going to go into all the details of Kondo's methods, but they seemed to work for me. So far, I've only gone through my wardrobe, but I took two large bags of clothing to the Goodwill down the road from us and felt really good about it. The main gist of Kondo's method is "if it brings you joy, keep it, if it doesn't, don't". Now, I added the practical caveat that if it's something I use regularly or that serves a specific task that nothing else can serve, keep it. But by and large, she's got it right. Why saddle yourself with stuff that doesn't bring you joy?

But what about those sentimental/nostalgic items? This is where I found her advice really useful. She notes that the joy of receiving gifts is mostly in the receiving. How many times have you kept something you didn't really want because someone gave it to you? They're happy about having given you something, your relationship was probably solidified by the giving of the gift, and you're better for having participated in that interaction. But do you really need to hold on to this thing that you don't really like and that serves no practical purpose in your life? Nope. Get rid of it. And do it all at once - don't try to nip and tuck, just suck it up and DO IT! That's how I cleaned my clothes out. One day. No time to get overly sentimental. Just do it.

One thing that makes getting rid of these (and other) items more palatable seemed really cutesie to me, at first, but in looking back on the experience, this one "trick" helped me a great deal: Thank your item for the purpose it served. Yes, seriously, hold the item up and thank it. "Thank you for serving as a great pair of shoes for so long," or "thank you for bringing my friend joy by her giving of you to me". It sounds ridiculous, but there is something psychologically freeing about saying the words aloud.

Now, I need to go through my books. I love books. Some of them I love dearly. And some of them I have paid a good amount of money for. But when I look back, I have to ask myself: "Which of these can I get from the library or online, if I really need them?" and "Which of these have I re-read, really?" There are a few volumes that I've re-read multiple times and some that I know I must read again. Some are reference books that I use for my own writing (see my caveat above). But, in all honesty, I can sell off or give away a good portion of them and not miss them, if I'm honest with myself. So that's the next step. I don't have a certain number of books I want or need to get rid of, but I can quickly identify several that won't make the cut, that I will either give away or sell. Probably sell, so that I can buy others. And the circle continues. As some of you know, I've been trying to cut my TBR list down to about 50 titles. Some of those titles are rather expensive. So if I sell off a portion of the books I don't read, I might be able to afford some of those more expensive titles. And hopefully I'll love them enough to want to keep them. Or maybe I'll sell them off, in time, as well (hopefully at a return on investment - I'm sentimental, but I'm not stupid).

After having gone through my clothes and given a couple large bags full away, I'm feeling like a lean, mean, fighting machine. Not spartan, mind you. But not a hoarder, either. I have what I need and if I need more, I'll get it. No sense in being burdened by un-necessary stuff.

Books: you're next. I love you guys. But some of you will be even better loved at another home.

Then, after the books, it's all the miscellaneous stuff. Actually, I can't wait to get to that. I'm guessing that this whole process will probably take me until the end of the summer or so? I did my clothes in one day. Books will take one full day. The other stuff? I dunno. That might take a while. But I'm going to do it. I feel too good after leaning down my clothes to the ones that give me joy to not do this with my other things. Cutesie or not, Kondo is on to something.

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Sunday, June 11, 2017

A Field Guide to Imaginary Trees

A Field Guide to Imaginary TreesA Field Guide to Imaginary Trees by Joseph Bulgatz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"I'll bet you can't see the Forrest for the trees!"

har-dee-har-har.

Now that we've got that bit of stupid out of the way, let's move on.

"Run, Forrest, run!"

Oh, bahaha! It is to laugh! I've never heard that one before. *disgusted look of doom*

Yeah, with a name like mine (which I'm very proud of, it was my good Grandfather's name, by the way), you get used to being razzed. Once in a while, a friend or acquaintance will come up with something involving my name that is actually quite punny. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, though, I have to suppress a deep well of bitter sarcasm that comes vomiting up through my gullet when I hear the jokes. It's not because of the joke itself, I laugh at myself and laugh with others at myself all the time. And it's not because I'm offended - I've gotten over that feeling a long, long time ago. And I understand that people are just trying to open some fun-loving dialogue through a shared experience of seeing a movie years ago about an imaginary character that has no bearing on civilization - sorry, did I say that out loud? Seriously, though, I get that people throw little jibes at that, usually because they like you, not in an effort to be cruel. But it still makes the sarcastic monster within me scream to get out into the open. Why? It's because, well, sometimes people are just so unimaginative. I mean, come on, if you think you're the first person to pull the "Run, Forrest, run" gag, guess what? You're not. I'm glad you think it's funny and it makes you feel connected to me, but you'll have to forgive me - the grimace on my face is not meant personally, it's just me trying not to vomit.

So you can probably tell that I place a high value on imagination. A very high value. Otherwise, I never would have written a novel and I would not spend inordinate amounts of time and money on roleplaying games. Heck, I pay good money to go to conventions where imagination games are played and writers get together to talk about . . . imagination, ultimately.

With a title like A Field Guide to Imaginary Trees, wasn't it inevitable that I should read and review this book? It's a n0-brainer, N'est-ce pas?

So what is A Field Guide to Imaginary Trees? Well, it's probably better to start by stating what this book is not. It is not non-fiction. But it reads like non-fiction for a good portion of the book. It is not a coming of age novel carefully disguised under a title whose meaning only becomes obvious two thirds of the way through the book, by which time you don't even care that the phrase (the only phrase of any weight or meaning in the entire book) has reared its head through pages of dross. It is not a book of poetry. It is not a natural history of trees. It is not a natural history of human's interactions with trees.

But now we're getting a bit closer. Let's try this:

It is mostly a book of fiction, a collection of short pieces ("stories" isn't the right word, though it is, sort of) that highlight the human experience with trees and how humans project themselves onto the trees by anthropomorphising them and building myth around the relationship of humans to trees. Furthermore, it illuminates the way in which our stewardship of them or destruction of them reflects on our humanity or lack thereof. It is a humorous, then melancholy book about what we get from trees and what we give or take away from them, all couched in the a mythic garb, whether the myths are those of our ancestors, or future myths that may need to be told to account for our collective responsibility and, possibly, collective guilt about how we treated the trees as a whole.

The one piece of clear non-fiction is Bulgatz's excellent essay that opens the collection. In it, the author argues that, in the past, a classical education involved the learning of the art of memorization. Our memories in this day and age are sadly incomparable to those of the past, before vast amounts of data could be stored in a separate, yet easily-accessible place, as we have today. Back then, information was collected, largely, in one's head. Over the years, we have lost much of that ability to collect data in our head not because our brains are any smaller (quite the contrary), but because we have not needed to exercise our minds to practice the techniques of memory.

Bulgatz points out that, while the loss or diminishing of these memory-skills is saddening, an even more important loss is on our horizon - the loss the knowledge of how to exercise our imagination, which cannot be compensated for by computers.

Our dependence on external imagery may well have made us mentally flabby, an unsatisfactory condition for which the Art is the appropriate remedy. For the rest, we need only ponder Anatole France's observation that "To know is nothing at all; to imagine is everything".

Bulgatz structures the rest of the book by subject matter, though his method of addressing each subject (and oftentimes, his writerly voice) varies from chapter to chapter. For instance, "Mythical Trees of the Middle Ages," the first chapter, is a pretty straightforward recounting of exactly what the title says. In "Four Versions of the Tree of Knowledge," however, we have the fictional recitation of the old Biblical tale from the point of view of The Serpent, Eve, Adam, and a theologian speculating on The Lord's view of these events. Later, we move on to "The Tree that Brought Fire to Man," the account of an early hominid who accidentally discovers the connection between trees and fire, much to the bafflement of those of his tribe who had earlier cast him out, because he was an idiot. "Daphne/Laurel" tells the classic myth from the point of view of Daphne herself, including her later life in New York City, including a little peek into her therapy sessions. Because, yes, you might need therapy if you had been turned into a tree, as well, if only temporarily. "The Battle of the Trees" is a recounting of a war between conifers and deciduous trees that mirrors Rush's song "The Trees," though I am told that both this story and Rush's song hark back to an ancient Welsh Poem titled "Cad Gaddou" (thank you, [Name Redacted] for pointing this out to me). There is then a piece of legal history entitled "The Prosecution and Punishment of Trees," which provides some fascinating cases of trees being tried and punished for various offenses.

My favorite piece in the collection (outside of the opening essay) is "Tlon Revisited," an homage to Borges done in the most Borgesian of voices:

In Martin's Ferry, for example, a tree established by Michaux, in appearance only an ordinary copper beech, became a favorite site for picnics because of the shelter and shade afforded by its great branches. Those who spread a blanket within its leafy embrace, however, found themselves experiencing the thoughts and feelings of their companions exactly as they appeared in their heads and hearts, before they had been smoothed and prepared, if not sometimes reversed, by the censoring forces of society. There were some startling consequences: sudden insults and violence were not uncommon, bringing to a bloody end what had begun festively; the slow pas de deux of courtship became an amorous sprint; there were unexpected declarations of love, hurried engagements, and spontaneous copulations, but also the sudden end of what had seemed to the world successful marriages and even the repudiation of close family ties.

Further along, we find Dendranthropy, the psychological history of a man who was convinced that he was turning into a tree. I have no good way of confirming whether this was an actual case, or if the account springs straight from Bulgatz's imagination. Frankly, I don't care, the story is brilliant, either way. Then we encounter "The Orange Trees of Chelm," which is the sort of story that Italo Calvino would have written, had he been a native Russian, rather than Italian. "The Shmoo Pear" reads like a very convincing piece of non-fiction until one realizes that Bulgatz is conflating that strange marshmallow-like character that appeared in a 1970's kids cartoon (yes, I watched it as a child) that was a blatant rip-off of Scooby Doo. I probably should have caught that with the subtitle "Pyrus Caapii", after the cartoonist who created Shmoo, Al Capp. You got me, Bulgatz. Well-played.

The final piece in the book, "The Last Tree: Abies silversteinensis," is a piece of science fiction that will leave a hole in your heart, a yearning for the preservation of the wonderful trees around us. It is in this sad conclusion that the real pathos of the book hits one right in the heart. The possibilities of loss are profound and very real.

This last one really got to me. We live on a fairly heavily-wooded 1/4 acre lot. 4 shagbark hickories, a large honey locust, a cherry tree that is so big and old that it won't produce fruit anymore, and several tall maples dot my property. Growing grass is not the easiest thing to do here, to say the least. We've had to take a few of these trees down - a box elder that grew into power lines (before we bought the house) and a pine tree that really just had to go, went. But a couple of months ago, we had to take down a maple behind our house that had become diseased and was dying from the top down. I recall watching my kids (who have all grown now) climb into that tree and create a treehouse out of boards and ropes, swinging from branch to branch like their tree-living ancestors, laughing while dangling, panicking when they lost a grip (thankfully no one ever fell and broke anything), and growing together as siblings. I was sure to take a picture of that tree before it was cut down and it nearly broke my heart, knowing that the nest of those memories was now gone. Still, like Silverstein's famous tree, it keeps on giving. I have spent hours splitting the logs that came from that majestic tree, and have many more hours of hot, sweaty labor ahead of me, swinging my splitting maul. My greatest consolation is that this wood will, from time to time, warm my daughter's expected child beginning this winter. And as this child grows, more trees will grow, giving he or she shade and a place to climb and explore. No doubt, some tree, probably many trees, will spur this child's imagination, just as trees have inspired her parents and grandparents, and on back through the generations.




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Monday, May 29, 2017

Weird Detective

Weird DetectiveWeird Detective by Fred Van Lente
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I sincerely hope that this is not the first and last of this excellent comic. The premise is intriguing: Detective Sebastian Greene is not Detective Sebastian Greene, though he . . . it . . . is housed in Detective Sebastian Greene's mortal coil, so to speak. As the blurb says "It takes a monster to catch a monster". Greene's not-being-Greene is portrayed quite well here, as he . . . it . . . whatever . . . learns how to move in human society and, in particular, through the maze of NYPD corruption headed by mastermind J. Randall Carter. The story just touches the possibilities of complexity available, given the setting and characters. There is much more here that is available to explore. Still, Van Lente does an outstanding job of plumbing his characters' depth, tapping into their emotions, fears, domestic issues, and hopes with a likable sense of humor throughout. The running joke about Canadians is, well, funny if you're not a Canadian. Or maybe even if you are. I wouldn't know.

So just how "Lovecraftian" is it? Very much so! The mythos elements are critical to the heart of the story, not just because of Greene's actual identity, but also because a couple of key Lovecraftian mythos entities are critical to the engine of the story. They are not mere cameos or pastiches. They are keys (and locks and doors) to the plot. That said, this is, primarily, a detective story, and should be enjoyable even to those who know nothing of the mythos, though Lovecraft fans will find much to enjoy here that might be hidden from those unfamiliar with the eldritch master's work.

I've read some fantastic comic interpretations of Lovecraft's work, some very good original work loosely based on his work, and some not so great (but not horrid) homages, as well. This is definitely among the best!

That's not to say it's perfect. I'm finding, in my dotage, that a great story, competently drawn and colored, still leaves me a little flat. Don't get me wrong - this is a five star book, but it could have been much more. Each section, for instance, is led by a monochrome plate in a strange green tone showing one of the frames from the story after it. I understand that this is meant to provide some contrast with the work following, but why stop there? Why not do an entire graphic novel in this beautiful monochrome? Do it in this strange green and let the artist's lines be the center of the visual narrative! Dump the full color, and you put the viewer in an unfamiliar visual milieu, snapping the reader's mind out of their preconceived notions of what a graphic novel "should" be. This visual "alienation" could be leveraged to add a strangeness to the whole that would greatly enhance the overall presentation. Besides, Guiu Vilanova's artwork is adequate in and of itself, in fact, I think it is enhanced by the monochrome, allowing it to breathe, rather than to be drowned out by traditional coloring techniques. Or, take the amazing pinup artwork by Rafer Roberts in the back of the book and use that pulpy, aged style instead of your standard line work. My brain is on fire with the possibilities of what this could have been. Still, this doesn't take anything away from the work as it is, which is a must-own for fans of Lovecraftian fiction with an eye for graphic novels.

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