Monday, August 13, 2018

Buried Shadows

Buried ShadowsBuried Shadows by John Howard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This reading year has been chock full of great short story collections. Reggie Oliver's Mrs. Midnight And Other Stories, Alcebiades Diniz's opium-dream-like Lanterns of the Old Night, Paul Willem's The Cathedral of Mist, and Laird Barron's Occultation and Other Stories were all outstanding reads. I think I may have used up my allotment of superlatives on the stories contained in these collections.

Now I'm wondering if I shouldn't have kept a few of them in reserve. The quality of John Howard's writing met with perfect timing. I have been eyeball deep in "hauntology", with a focus on that-which-was-but-was-not. Not nostalgia, per se, but a mis-remembering of the past that has little concern with trying to accurately recall the past. For the absolute best delve into hauntology, go to Rouge Foam's entry on "Hauntology: The Past Inside the Present". Better pack your things. You're going to be a while . . .

This book as artifact is amazing, as I've come to expect from Egaeus Press. It has heft and texture not normally found in most books. The cover and end-papers show a crumpled, slate-colored map of Berlin. Throughout the book are illustrations based on the work of the mysterious Balthasar Holz, architect and theorist.

Of all things, I was most struck by the typography of the title on the cover. The "overtyping" lets the reader know that we are delving into the era of typewriters that didn't have the ability to correct themselves. That's actually an amazing touch. I know that the stories herein will either take place in or evoke some time from the 1890s to the 1970s because of the typography. Egaeus gets all the details right!

And the stories do not disappoint . . .

My current fascination with hauntology seems to have found voice in Howard's story about the ghosts of Berlin, "To the Anhalt Station". Here, the line between past and present is blurred, with a sense of fascination and loss for the events one never saw, but one sees now, out of time, against the grain of chronology. Anachronostic haunting is contagious, it seems. Four stars, bordering on Five.

If you had asked me to point to the perfect example of Magic Realism a week ago, I'd point you to Borges or Marquez. But now, I'd point you to "Mr S. and Dr S." This story is so finely-honed that you're unlikely to find another quite as good. I've tried, myself, to write an original doppleganger story. Trust me: it's no small feat. In Howard's tale, dopplegangers, possible traitors, Vigilance Police for a potential dictator, all mingle in this very weird tale of mistaken(?) identity. The mere fact that the characters even exist as they do provide a mystery worth plumbing, but Howard is careful not to reveal all. Why would he? The unanswered questions posed between the lines of this story allow you, the reader, to explore the streets of this city yourself, without a guide. Five stars for five Mr S.'s.

"Least Light, Most Night" first appeared in the Aickmann's Heirs anthology. You can see the tribute in the focus on the atmosphere and environment, as well as the open-endedness of the weird here. Weird because it's eerie (I'm using both words in the sense Mark Fisher defines them in his excellent work The Weird and the Eerie), because something fundamental is missing, namely closure. Four stars for this understated story that forces you to again read between the lines.

When I was a teenager, I was legally "banished" from a place that I loved. It's a long story involving the war on drugs. But I was literally, physically and legally cut off from my family, home, and friends. It kept me out of prison . . . of a sort. So I read "The Defiant Sky" and ached with that sense of longing that only the banished know. You need not have been banished from anything to enjoy the story, but it does intensify the effect, and the sting homed deep into my heart. This is a story of defiant hope and belief wherein the city of London becomes a means to an end. A mysterious end that isn't an end. Five stars.

Sex and murder and . . . architecture? Yes, it's as strange as it sounds. "Buried Shadows," the title story, was not my favorite. Not bad, but not terribly compelling, either. Three stars.

"Numbered as Sand or the Stars" is a humor-filled, yet deathly-serious foray into man's ability to adapt to new regimes that overlap the place where one lives, where one has grown. This thread interweaves with that of, of all things, economics and inflation. Issues of old versus new class structure and political power undergird all of it. The economy of cosmic-horror in the form of regime change and geography. It is in this story that Howard shows his most whimsical side, eschewing, for but a moment, the normally restrained, careful (yet mystically-charged) prose:

He dreams of muttering and booming stars, the stars flung across the black sky like icing sugar. He runs and jumps among them, sliding along the frozen waterfall of the Milky Way and playfully hurls galaxies into the speckled blackness as if they were dinner plates or the flat stones he loves to skim across the river as it flows around the base of Castle Hill. The stars open their eyes and mouths to him, until each one is a silent exclamation or scream, wide as a zero. Then all the stars are zeros. Mihaly turns in fright but there is no Earth. All the zeros - every nought, every loss, every pain he can imagine - flow across the black sky and mount up over him like a wave about to break. Then Mihaly is falling through a tube or shaft made from the glowing rings of nothing. He looks down and can discern no end as he plummets. He breathes in to take a tremendous scream, his mouth opening wide in an empty zero. The zeros start to force their way into Mihaly's throat, threatening to drown him in nothings at all. All the time he is still falling. He cries out for his parents, the Emperor, and all the members of the Order of the Valiant he can name.

Five stars turning to the best possible nothings ever.

"The Shape and the Colour of the Moon" is one of the more beautifully dark stories I've read in a long time. First published in a Machen tribute anthology, it reads as if the ghosts of Machen and Borges where whispering in Morrisey's ear when we wrote "Every Day is Like Sunday". Transformation and devotion to the City behind London drive the subtle, evocative plot. I could drown in this grey story. Five stars.

"More Than India" is an emotional gut-punch of a story. A rather melancholy older man makes the acquaintance of a young rower on the River Thames. But the older man's life is now a sort of palimpsest of his younger life, and the faint words of his earlier story are starting to show through. A ghost story without ghosts, this is a powerfully emotional story worthy of five stars.

"You Promised You Would Walk" is an engaging exploration of Berlin and the cyclical nature of time that mentions and evokes Dr. Caligari. I feel like Howard "telegraphed" a little in this story, that I caught on far too soon to spoil the latter part of the story. I'll blame Twilight Zone: The Movie, as there is a similar vignette in there (though with much more deadly and deserved results). Still, this was more subtle and nuanced than TZTM. Four stars.

"The Floor of Heaven" is a dream - that dream where you know that there is someone, somewhere, who you have absolutely met, where you've absolutely been, but when you go to find that place and that person, they are impossible to find, though you know you are there. This is how I dream of England. Often. Like I'm back there, but the people and places that should be there are gone. It haunts me, not with potential terror, but with a dreamstate longing, a reaching that is unable to grasp, though I can feel the air moving between my fingers as the object of my desires - the sense of firmness of place and surety of remembered experience in physical space - escapes me. Now I think I am truly beginning to understand the tragedy of Tantalus in full. There are times when I yearn for my time in England, or at least my mis-remembering of that time, that place, those people. It breaks my heart and invades my dreams, repeatedly and unexpectedly. This story captured that specific feeling of pathos that I really don't have adequate words to describe.

And all the stars turn to noughts, to loss, to pain. Sweet pain. May it never stop hurting.

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Saturday, August 4, 2018

Gyorgy Ligeti: Of Foreign Lands and Strange Sounds

György Ligeti: Of Foreign Lands and Strange SoundsGyörgy Ligeti: Of Foreign Lands and Strange Sounds by Louise Duchesneau
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Though I am an avant-classical enthusiast, I am by no means an expert. I cannot read music and the instrument I play is electric guitar, and that, badly. But I'm willing to learn a few things, even if I clearly don't have time or the gumption to become a true aficionado. So you'll please excuse this layman's delve into a work that would speak far more clearly to the musically-trained. And yet, I can't help but think that while the intellectual appreciation of the book might be somewhat heightened by such training, my enjoyment of the book was only slightly hampered by my admitted ignorance. One need not have a thorough understanding of musical notation to appreciate Of Foreign Lands and Strange Sounds .

In fact, I wonder if such an acute focus on the music on the page itself might not get in the way of really enjoying the exploration of Ligeti's creative mind. Chapter Eight, in fact (which I would argue should have been Chapter One or Two, for the sake of the untrained reader), "Rules and Regulations: Lessons from Ligeti's Compositional Sketches," an essay by University of Washington Professor of Music Theory Jonathan W. Bernard, is an enlightening look into the many different methods Ligeti used to notate his own music-in-progress. Bernard shares a loose taxonomy of the "sketch types" Ligeti used while composing: Jottings, Drawings, Charts, Tables, and finally, Music Notation. Color plates in the middle of the book showing Ligeti's original papers augment the reader's experience. Here, one can get a more visceral feel for what Ligeti's music "looks like" on paper - a wonderful thing for those of us who are visual-kinesthetic learners! If you, like me, have little or no musical training, I would recommend starting with Chapter Eight.

There, now that you've read Chapter Eight, turn to Chapter One: "'We play with the music and the music plays with us;: Sandor Veress and his Student Gyorgy Ligeti," by University of Calgary Musicology Professor Friedemann Sallis. This will give you the background on Ligeti's early studies, the discipline instilled in him by Veress, and his growth both with and against those teachings, much of which was (later) pushed by political circumstances around him, especially the suppression of folk traditions and traditional folk music by the mid-20th-Century Communist regimes in Eastern Europe.

Now that one has this background, the reader can (should?) then skip up to Chapter Seven, written by Ligeti's long time assistant (and co-editor of this volume), Louise Duchesneau: "'Play it like Bill Evans': Gyorgy Ligeti and Recorded Music". Here we explore Ligeti's like and dislikes and take a deep delve into his personal record collection! I found this fascinating, not just because of Ligeti's wide interests (he took a liking to Supertramp at one point, after being introduced to their music by one of his students), but because Duchesneau here outlines the entirety of Ligeti's career, conveniently parsing his music into several distinct phases. Though the borders between these phases were not always crystal clear, sometimes they were, as in the time when he rejected "Modernist" work and returned to his Hungarian folk roots after a many-decades-long absence or, more properly, intellectual exile (partially self-imposed, partially imposed by the external chilling effect of having to flee oppression of expression).

From there, one may read the rest of the book in order (yes, you have my permission), as the sequence of Chapters Eight, then One, then Seven, will give you all the under-girding you need to contextualize the other essays, which vary from examinations of specific pieces to poetic connections, Ligeti's fascination with African music, his appreciation for and the influence on his music by the principles of chaos and fractals, Stanley Kubrik's use of Ligeti's music in his movies (an amazing cross-media examination that my Humanities professors would have loved), and impressions of those who were his students.

One theme that ran through the book, whether explicitly or implicitly, was that of a man un-moored from his homeland who longed to retain some aspect of that homeland which he had left, but who was not blindly beholden to the place of his birth and childhood. This is where the book connected with me emotionally, rather than just intellectually. I am an American citizen, born in Germany into a U.S. Air Force family, and have lived all over the world. Though I love the place I live now, it has taken me many years to call any one place "home". With the recent passing of my parents (who lived in California, though I only lived there for three years, and two of those years as a married man not living at home - not to mention the fact that I was very happy to leave California when that opportunity presented itself), I feel even more "unmoored" and adrift in the world. While Madison has become home, largely because we raised our children here and do genuinely love this city, I still get the occasional sharp pangs of wanderlust in me and long to just begin walking and keep on walking until I can walk no more. But where would I walk? Of course, I would explore new places, I can't help myself or my curiosity. But I have a longing, at times, to go back to see the places I have been before, the places I have lived before, with the full knowledge that some of those places, most, really, don't actually exist as I knew them then. The air base I lived at in England is now a British spy base, and I could not go back and see the places where I spent considerable time. The little town in Minnesota where I lived with my grandmother for a year, has grown from about 3,000 residents to over 17,000, The base I lived at in Italy has been essentially demolished and replaced by a city. The base I lived at in the Philippines may still be under volcanic ash, so far as I know. And the military hospital I was born in now bears almost no resemblance to the place my parents knew. But I still want to see these places, at least once. Ligeti, I think, shared some of the same sentiments, if not the same feelings, given the loss of family members to the holocaust, his flight from his homeland, and his itinerant life abroad. Perhaps I am just projecting, but we wanderers tend to understand each other. The feelings of humans displaced (whether voluntarily or not) are complex and often shared in their complexity and intensity, at least that has been my experience in talking with others who have moved frequently, particularly those who have moved to places where their language was not the local tongue, where they were strangers in a strange land.

Paul Griffiths, in his essay "Invented Homelands: Ligeti's Orchestras" captures the connection between these experiences and Ligeti's creative drives perfectly:

The Violin Concerto is the richest of his invented homelands, and may persuade us that feelings of belonging are complex, ambiguous, mutable and probably illusory.

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Saturday, July 21, 2018

No Man's Land: View from a Surveillance State

No Man's Land: Views from a Surveillance StateNo Man's Land: Views from a Surveillance State by DeSieno Marcus
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Outside of an introduction by Ariel Shanberg outlining the aesthetic purposes behind DeSieno Marcus' photographs and an outro by Martha A. Sandweiss delving into the technologically transgressive nature of the project, this book is all about the photographs. The simple design lets the photos breathe in a startling way.

Once one understands (through reading Sandweiss' essay) the subversive nature of Marcus' methods, the landscapes take on a decidedly hauntological tone, but in a twisted way. Rather than fostering a vision of a past that never was hoping for a future that never will be (as in the Ghost Box Records oeuvre, for a musical example), Marcus' photographs subvert our inner version of the "wilderness" by tricking us about our assumptions. Without context, one looks at these photos and thinks that they are beautiful vintage photos of the world's great wildernesses. The astute observer will see that there are sometimes elements - a line of power poles, for example, or a graded road - that indicate that these are not necessarily old photographs and that the photographer might have used old techniques to emulate antique photographs. This is true . . . partially.

The true hauntological element comes in when one realizes that the way Marcus produced these photos was by hacking into trailside and wilderness security cameras. He then sets up a wooden camera (complete with bellows and brass fittings) and shoots a picture of his computer screen. Then, using "a waxed paper negative process", he creates images that look as if they were shot in the very early days of daguerreotypes.

Genius. Pure, subversive genius.

Of course, this opens up a whole Pandora's box of questions: Since he is hacking into security cameras, who is watching who? And if you happened to be on the trail or in the landscape at the time Marcus "took" his photographs (I use the word intentionally) and you are now viewing those photographs, are the observer and the observed the same? Or, through Marcus' manipulation, has the observed changed in some way because of the nature of the transformation? Furthermore, what about the purposes of the trailside cameras? Are they "secure"? Do they reach the objective of their "security" if they can be hacked by an outsider, then viewed by the world, at least in a frames'-worth snapshot in time?

The hauntological implications are really quite staggering. How often do we fool ourselves into accepting a certain vision of "the past," when, in fact, that vision has been manufactured in the present? I was a child of the '80s - graduated high school in 1987, if you must know - and it is easy for me to listen to music, for example, that was created recently, but that I swear could have been present at that time, but absolutely was not. The retrowave synth movement is the classic example of this. Listening to it, I can say that, yes, it evokes the way it felt to be a teenager in the '80s (I realize I am generalizing my nostalgic feelings and applying them to millions of people, which I have no right to do, since each individual experience of that decade was different), but if asked to provide examples of where and when I heard such music, I am hard-pressed to come up with good examples. I suppose the movies Tron, Escape from New York, and Blade Runner and their soundtracks provide the best readily-accessible example, but not every movie in the '80s was Tron, Escape from New York, or Blade Runner. In any case, none of these soundtracks are identical to the retrowave music being produced today (and vice-versa), so, really, even the nostalgia I feel when listening to new-retrowave music is not truly memory, it is a reflection of my present views of the past, not a mirror of the past itself, an imposition of my present mind laid on top of my muddle memories of the past. My memories of the past are haunted by the phantoms of the present and my present impressions are haunted by the underlying memories of the past.

Which begs the question: Am I even myself? The question . . . haunts me.

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Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The Potemkin Mosaic

The Potemkin MosaicThe Potemkin Mosaic by Mark Teppo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There is no linearity to Mark Teppo's incredible The Potemkin Mosaic. If you are looking for a straightforward plot and real-world logic, look elsewhere. This will sear your eyes out of their sockets. This is the realm of dream, of astral fields, of the hidden tunnels of gnosis and the far-depths of psychology.

Perhaps we should start with the book's blurb:

TH3y want you to be TH3iR agent.
Harry wants you to be free.
Nothing is what it seems, but everything herein actually happened.

Ten years ago, dream doctor Harry Potemkin realized someone was editing his identity, in much the same way that he ventured into the minds of his psychologically damaged patients. In order to discover how he was being changed, he started a dream journal. He also built a lexicon, a persistent record of the symbolic markers that would enable him to remap his consciousness should it become severely fragmented.

Ten years ago, Trinity Pharmacopoeia was about to release a new neurological nootropic called Atramabor, a drug that would revolutionize how we sleep and dream. Teh first promotional commercial for Atramabor aired once, and was then mysteriously pulled. Lawsuits, contending that subliminal messaging was hidden within the thirty second spot, were filed. Within six months, Trinity Pharmacopoeia canceled all plans to release Atramabor. A year later, the company dissolved.

Harry Potemkin never woke up from his dreams. In fact, there is no evidence he ever existed.

Nor are there any copies of the Atramabor commercial, though there are documented interviews with individuals who claim to have been changed by what they saw. All corporate records regarding Trinity Pharmacopoeia have been expunged from state and federal databases.

And yet, the battle between Potemkin and Trinity is very real. It continues to this day. TH3y know he can stop them, unless TH3y get to him first.


The Potemkin Mosaic is Harry's exploration of his fragmented dream psyche. This is the only record of his identity.

TH3y want you to read it, because this is the only way Harry can be caught.


And this is as straightforward as anything gets with this . . . novel? Yes, novel. Originally produced at the sadly defunct Farrago's Wainscot (where your's truly had a few pieces of fiction published), The Potemkin Mosaic, in its original incarnation, was a hypertext novel of incredible depth and complexity. When I first heard that Mark was going to try to wrestle this non-linear virtual text into something less non-linear, in physical format, I was skeptical that it could even be done. But he's pulled it off with panache.

It would be one thing, a minor miracle, if Teppo pulled off the structural heist alone. But he's gone way beyond that. The prose is compelling, the subject matter an esotericist's dream . . . literally. Take, for example, the entry on page 163 entitled "Cage"(with the zodiac symbol for Aquarius underneath - the book is full of symbols and interesting typography):

CAGE

"Black Iron Prison" is the term you'll hear used by the modern seeker of gnosis. It's a reference to the Archonic Construction of the Universe, a theorythat multi-dimensional intelligences are preventing us from realizing our full spiritual and cognitive potential by locking our minds in these psychic prisons.

There are a number of analogous mythological scenarios strewn throughout history, so as a cosmological definition, the Archonic Construction of the Universe is as good as any. It benefits from being connected to Philip K. Dick's paranoid visions, which any competent oneironaut appreciates.

Modern culture suffers from a lack of decent mythological canon. We should make our own, because, really, we are children of the 3rd millennium. It's time we believed in our own gods.

Which brings me back to the concept of cages. We continue to be trapped by second-millennial constructs. Hell, even the apocalyptic terror of the end of the first millennium still pervades our psyches. We're still too busy looking over our shoulders to realize the first apocalypse of the third millennium is rapidly approaching.

That's another story. I'll get to it later.

Cages. No man can ever be imprisoned against his Will. Crowley knew this once, though he forgot it shortly after the other initiates and adepts started fawning over his "transmission from teh desert." Yes, you can cage the flesh and you can even lock the mind into a cell, but the Will is unbreakable.

Jung gave it a different name - "individuation" - but didn't allow himself the freedom to imbue it with any lasting power. Freud (the last black magician of the twentieth century, frankly) had managed to bind Jung tightly enough that the Swiss psychologist never truly realized he had been . . . caged.


Now, you could just turn the page and continue, reading the entry on Casual Disarray (with the symbol for Virgo under it), but what's this? To the side of paragraph 4 is a reference:

* fragmentary
p. 209


And to the side of the last paragraph:

* burnblack
p. 26


I like the side of burnblack. Let's turn there. It reads (starting with a triangle character, which I'm not able to replicate here because my html skills suck):

"Burnblack, o falling star!"

I've tried to find the source of this quote, but it has eluded me. Like a number of the mythological and symbolic elements within my dreams, I'm starting to believe it as an admixture. There is a fusion going on in my head, and I can't quite tell if it is a matter of too much time in the Oneiroi or too many days and nights of being under the influence of narcotics, hallucinogens, and other psychotropic compounds. My head is already warped enough.

More likely,
burnblack is of archaic origin, possibly some lost bit of biblical apocrypha. A reference to the fallen angels. Or maybe the first of the fallen ones.

Quomodo cecidisti de caelo, lucifer, fili aurorae?

How else would you describe the back of a being who was not burned by the fire of his wings, but was burned by the fire of his fall? And, as my hand unconsciously strayed as I was writing down my dream: "sun-darkened (burnblack, o falling star!)" If God is the sun and you have been cast away from his grace, would not "sun-darkened" accurately describe your state?

To be burnblack is to be fallen. But falling is necessary to find the path to ascension. At least, one must be willing to fall - one must understand the fall.


Quod est inferius est sicut quod est superius, et quot est superius est sicut quod est inferius, ad perpetranda miracula rei unius.

Finally, some use for those two stifling years of Latin classes - from before the experiments and the drugs. Not all of it was wasted time.

Again, in the margins, we are given the choice to seek out "labyrinth", "fire", or "descent", with corollary page numbers. Or, you could just continue reading, going to the facing page titled "IV The Library" and attempt to forge a linear path through this labyrinth. But you won't. Your curiosity will pull you to another side entry and you will travel down the rabbit hole until you feel that you, yourself, are "living the dream" of Harry Potemkin. Oh, and incidentally, for those who were wondering, and I know some of you were wondering, this book was published the same year that David Bowie's Blackstar was released, though the original hypertext novel was published nine years earlier. Methinks they were on the same wavelength, if not tapping into the same esoteric substance.

Potemkin reaches into the ethereal, grasps its strands, and becomes enmeshed in the mists of dream, puncturing the veil, from time to time, in sudden moments of startling lucidity, only to find that beyond that veil is another and another and another. It is an ambitious work, a labyrinthine carnival that leaves the reader clutching at the ever shifting walls of reality and perception - the author's, the reader's, and that of Potemkin himself. Read, wander, lose yourself, and try to find yourself again. Sleep easy, if you can.

The original hypertext novel is still available here, but I strongly recommend you pick up the physical book, which is both a little more manageable and a little more unruly than the original, in good ways. Good luck. See you on the other side.

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The Children of Gla'aki: A Tribute to Ramsey Campbell's Great Old One

The Children of Gla'aki: A Tribute to Ramsey Campbell's Great Old OneThe Children of Gla'aki: A Tribute to Ramsey Campbell's Great Old One by Brian M. Sammons
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I began this book, I took the following note: "On a bit of a Lovecraftian kick, but it will soon pass. I won't say I'm burning out on it, but I'm . . . more wary than I was in the past."

After reading this volume, maybe I'm leaning more toward the burnout stage. A few stories herein have kept me from the brink of just saying "Quatsch" to everything with the descriptor of "Lovecraftian". But there was a fair amount of dreck. On average, was it worth reading? Yes. The really great stories in here are really great. Perhaps you need the bad to highlight the good, like a diamond atop mud. But having to clean off all the muck is getting old. Perhaps I had high hopes, because I enjoyed Ramsey Campbell's The Inhabitant of the Lake & Other Unwelcome Tenants, despite his self-reproachment for the immaturity of some of the stories. Maybe that's the problem - writers taking cues from an unstable source. Some of these writers were able to fashion gems, others cheap baubles, still others, broken, useless shards.

Nick Mamatas's "Country Mouse, City Mouse" was, as I expect from Mamatas, well-written and dipped its toes in explorations of tolerance and diversity. It expands the "universe" of Campbell's work by extending its reach. But I didn't find it all that horrific, outside of the fatalism expressed at the end. Three stars to this tale.

John Goodrich's "Tribute Band" isn't the sort of story I normally like. But what should have been a hackneyed story of rock and roll gone wrong was actually really enjoyable. It's a little "cute" and somewhat predictable, but the voice is distinctive and likable. The balance between folksy structure and challenging vocabulary is excellent. I just plain found myself drawn in. Three stars. Better than I would have guessed!

Robert M. Price's "In Search of Lake Monsters" is as pulpy as they come, with all the trappings one would expect. Then again, it had all the trappings one would expect . . . Still, I enjoyed it a lot. Four stars full of guilty pleasure. Sometimes you just can't really explain why you like a story, you just do. That's the case here.

While Pete Rawlik's "The Collection of Gibson Flynn" has an intriguing twist ending, the buildup paid so much homage to Lovecraftiana that it read like one giant inside joke, a pastiche of itself, mythos masturbation. The ending saves it from the realms of hackneyed mediocrity, but only just. Three stars, barely.

Outside of the intriguing title, W. H. Pugmire's "The Secret Painting of Thomas Cartwright" was uninspired and not nearly as intriguing as the title. Two forgetful stars.

Edward Morri's"I Want to Break Free" is a lesson in tension: the push me, pull me between cosmic forces and self-will, the intestines of genius and insanity, even the fence-hopping from pop culture references to literary stylistics. This story has VOICE. Punch. Chutzpah. Up to this point, the best story in the anthology, and it's not even close. I want to read more Morris! Five stars.

I'm admittedly out of touch with the weird fiction world. So this was the first Scott R. Jones story I've ever read. I am impressed. "The Spike" is a deep exploration of the alien-ness of, not Gla'aki, but a piece of Gla'aki. It's like Roadside Picnic but with the horror turned up to eleven. The writing is sparse, punchy, yet descriptive. Five stars.

I am certain that Thana Niveau must have better work than "The Dawning of His Dreams," given her publication history. This . . . I don't know what to call it, a story, I guess, did absolutely nothing for me. It's a hot mess. As an editor, I would likely throw this thing across the room. One star, because it was written. That's the best I can do.

William Meikle's "The Lakeside Cottages" featured a narrator that was too clever and self-aware by half. It read like a Call of Cthulhu session with a narrator who seemed to possess great knowledge of the Old Ones, which might be great for a recurring character, like an occult investigator, but didn't work in this one shot. Still, okay. Three stars for the three eyes of Gla'aki.

I have high expectations for Orrin Grey's fiction, and "Invaders of Glaaki" didn't disappoint. Yes, I'm a sucker for '80s nostalgia, and this story is full of it. But it takes things in a horrific direction. Imagine The Last Starfighter meets cosmic horror. I am not a big fan of second-person viewpoint, but it kind of worked for the story. I enjoyed this. Four stars.

Sorry, but Tom Lynch's "Scion of Chaahk" is a Campbell pastiche while Campbell is pastiching Lovecraft. I . . . just . . . can't . . . Maybe I'm just done with pulpy mythos fiction? Two stars.

Konstantine Paradias' "Cult of Panacea" is everything that Niveau's earlier story could have been. Yes, it's a history, but its presentation in the context of the story makes sense and forms a bleak, resigned picture of what it means to be a cultist of Gla'aki in the far-future wake of Earth's decrepitude and demise. It's rare to find a science fiction horror piece like this. It held my interest well. Four stars.

I think it's time to admit to myself that I do NOT like mythos pastiches, especially those that are trying to be funny, but are not very funny. Josh Reynolds' "Squatters Rights" just hit all the wrong buttons for me. I'm becoming leery of these Cosmic Horror Mythos-inspired anthologies. I'll finish this one. There have been some great stories here. But not this one. Two stars and my tastes are a-changin'.

Lee Clark Zumpe shows considerable writing skill through most of "Beneath Cayuga's Churning Waves," then ends flat. The ending was a disappointing deus-ex-machina, which could have been the ending to just about any detective thriller. It was as generic an ending as I could think of, like something right out of a "You Too Can Write Detective Stories" formula book. The story is still worthy of four stars, but the ending felt so tacked on that it doesn't deserve a fifth.

Despite a number of poor stories in here, some shine. Tim Waggoner's "Nature of Water" is one such. Simultaneously flipping the horror on its head and embracing it, this is a tale of horrific redemption. What could have easily been revenge schlock, Waggoner turns into an emotionally meaningful, yet terrifying end, deftly avoiding the obvious. Wonderfully written and full of pathos, I loved this story. Five stars.

That's three reality-show stories now. I'm tired of them. This one, "Night of the Hopfrog" by Tim Curran, claims to be the raw transcript of video for a ghost-hunter style show. But then where is all the parenthetical notation coming from? Who wrote these notes? The story would be more effective without them actually. Even then, with proper editing, I would only give it two stars. I never liked reality TV anyway.

The fiction ends on a strong note with John Langan's "Mirror Fishing," which subsumes Gla'aki in folk tradition that blooms into cosmic horror. The characters are wonderfully complex, from the young Pat to his tutor in the ways of Auld Glaikit, Lisa. The descent into the depths of Gla'aki's fractal-dimensional realm is amazing, and the folksy conceit refreshing. I enjoy those tales where human folk conception maps onto true cosmic horror in a sort of cargo-cult worship of those things that we cannot understand. This is a story that will stick with me for a while. Five stars.

Mathematically, I'm coming in at an average just above three stars. I'm rounding down to an even three, which seems about right. On average, The Children of Gla'aki is . . . average (despite the high praise Campbell heaps on ALL the stories in his afterword). The heights are really high: There are a few truly amazing stories in here. But the depths . . . well, Gla'aki himself will be well fed by some of these stories sinking to the bottom of the lake. I suppose some of the danger in editing such an anthology is that, in order to fill a word count and get readers, you might take a few pedestrian stories from "name" writers. I've never hewed to that philosophy myself, when editing. I only take the stories I love. If they happen to be "name" authors, that's helpful. But I also love giving the underdogs a chance. You have to start somewhere, right? Maybe at the bottom of the lake.

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Saturday, June 9, 2018

Cthulhu: Dark Fantasy, Horror & Supernatural Movies

Cthulhu: Dark Fantasy, Horror & Supernatural Movies (Gothic Dreams)Cthulhu: Dark Fantasy, Horror & Supernatural Movies by Gordon Kerr
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My introduction to Cthulhu and H.P. Lovecraft's work came in 1982 when a friend in junior high school handed me a copy of Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, vol. 1. I drank it up, digested it, and developed a taste that has lasted for a long time. With age, though, I'm wondering if it hasn't lost a little of its savor. Maybe it's just that when I discovered Lovecraft, it was rare . . . extremely rare . . . to find anyone else who had even heard of Cthulhu. Now, he's everywhere. I don't want to sound like the curmudgeonly old guy who complains about how things used to be, but the ubiquity of Lovecraftiana has probably made me a little lazy in the imagination. With the possibility of bombarding all the senses with all things Mythos-related, maybe my senses have had enough.

That's not to say that I didn't find this book enjoyable. I enjoyed the art a great deal. And the fact that a friend gifted me the book makes it all the more sweet (thanks, Tom - love ya, dude). Some of the pieces in this book are outstanding. Peter Siedl's Dark Young is an iconic piece - one that every Mythos lover should have on hand. And Cloud Quinot's image of a Prometheus-scale statue of Cthulhu will throw the hardened Lovecraft-phile into brooding meditation. Rick Sardinha's greyscale of a squatting Cthulhu enveloped in stars is dark and suitably mysterious.

But some of the images cheapen Lovecraft's creation. There's really just no other way to characterize it. Bringing Cthulhu entirely into the light makes the Old One just not that scary. And it's the initial frisson I had while first reading "The Call of Cthulhu" that I enjoy.

Perhaps I'm jaded. The (too) many narrative sections were much too conversational and casual for my tastes and left me feeling like I had just been read a wikipedia article by someone who was trying too hard to be my friend. Don't get me wrong: it's a valuable introduction to Cthulhu, but for one who's been exploring this creature/milieu for decades now, it's just a bit too twee. I'd say if you're a hardened veteran of the psychic wars*, this book isn't for you. If you're new to Cthulhu and Lovecraft, this is a good stepping stone. Welcome to R'lyeh.

*No, the song I've linked has nothing to do with Cthulhu, but I'll take any excuse to point you toward one of my favorite guitar solos of all time.

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Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Traitor's Purse

Traitor's Purse (Albert Campion Mystery #11)Traitor's Purse by Margery Allingham
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked this book up on a lark. I happened to be in a book store in Door County and saw this mystery on the cheap paperback shelf and thought "I haven't read a good mystery in a while. I'll give it a try."

Keep in mind that Traitor's Purse is one in a series of mystery novels about Albert Campion. I had no knowledge of the background of the character. I swore that if I got too lost and felt that I would need to back-read one of the preceding novels, I was going to lem the book. Thankfully, that didn't happen.

The reason is, the main character starts out waking up in a hospital bed with no memory of why he is there or even who he is (I've kind of experienced this myself, after my back surgery years ago). Tabula Rasa right from the get-go; we learn to know Albert Campion as he gets to know himself. And it sort of works.

I have to wonder, though, how much of the plot Allingham actually knew as she wrote the novel. It seems to meander, at times, with several oddly-placed sidenotes. Toward the end, things felt thrown-together. The reveal-ation of Campion's memories is very, very clumsy. It could have been much better had I felt that Allingham had a stronger auctorial voice. Strength of prose can carry an otherwise mediocre work to new heights, especially in a mystery novel (or, at least, it did in the few mystery novels I have read). I kept hoping that the novel would resolve itself more strongly and really come together, but it never really did.

I am, of course, lacking all context. Maybe if I had read a Campion novel or two before, or even one after, I might have a stronger connection with the plot. But maybe this is why I largely don't like reading series - give me what I need as a reader, please. In the words of Queen: "I want it all, and I want it now!"

I enjoyed the novel, but was often confused. More confused than I felt I ought to be. The most appropriate quote to describe how I felt is found in the book itself:

"He was trying to fit together a jigsaw puzzle without knowing what sort of picture the pieces were expected to make."

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