Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Sub Rosa

Sub RosaSub Rosa by Robert Aickman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wouldst thou like to write sentences deliciously, like this?

I might compare them, though a little distantly, with the once controversial last works of the late Charles Sims: apparently confused on the surface, even demented, they made one doubt while one continued to gaze, as upon Sim's pictures, whether the painter had not in truth broken through to a deep and terrible order.

Of course, you would. You're tired of Lovecraft's confused, adverb-sodden descriptions. Bored with his hundreds of pale imitators. But you still want to capture that eerie sense of something missing.

You, my friend, want to read Robert Aickman.

Aickman's clarity and ability to plunge the reader under the water of the mind and personality of his narrator here locks the reader in and provides confidence that the author is going to deliver something special. Reading this is a lesson in writing. A graduate seminar, no less. Like any class, there is at least one "slow" point, but this might be a mercy, rather than a failing. Given the height of literary airs here, one must come down into the atmosphere to breathe, at least once. Given the depths of subtly-hypnotic writing that draws the reader down like a long-missed lover on a warm bed, one must, for a moment, come up for air.

The opening breath, "Ravissante" is, at turns, wonderfully subtle, then ridiculous, then embarrassing, then horrifying. There may or may not have been a supernatural element to the story - a black poodle that was as much spider as dog, a domineering crone who stoked the bellows of lust in the narrator for a girl that may or may not have been real, an insect-demon, all of which might have just been occlusions of the mind - or not. Marlowe is banging his head against his sarcophagus because he knows what Faust could have been, since Aickman has shown the world how to best portray the invasion of the demonic into the banality of life on planet earth. Five stars that may be either real or imagined. You decide. Aickman isn't telling.

As the trees around me became yet bigger and thicker, fear came upon me; though not the death fear of that previous occasion, I felt now that I knew what was going to happen next; or, rather, I felt I knew one thing that was going to happen next, a thing which was but a small and far from central part of an obscure, inapprehensible totality. As one does on such occasions, I felt more than half outside my body.

"The Inner Room" is a creepy dollhouse story. Take the best of Danielewski, Angela Carter, and Brothers Quay, stir it together, make the syntax perfectly exquisite, the imagery simultaneously vivid and murky, and each character's mannerisms subtly but thoroughly manifest through their dialogue and actions, with just a touch of philosophical insight into people's hearts, and you have a start. But only a start. Add this bit of inner dialogue, which accurately portrays the strange frisson that children often feel, or at least that I often felt as a child, before an ominous, momentous event:

As the trees around me became yet bigger and thicker, fear came upon me; though not the death fear of that previous occasion, I felt now that I knew what was going to happen next; or, rather, I felt I knew one thing that was going to happen next, a thing which was but a small and far from central part of an obscure, inapprehensible totality. As one does on such occasions, I felt more than half outside my body.

. . . which is reflective of the way I felt as I read this story. Five stars.

"Never Visit Venice" coddles you in hope, warmth, and the promise of love. It lulls you, like a gondola on the water. Then, it thrusts you into the waves and begs, nay, insists the question: Is it preferred to live like a lion for an hour than to live a lifetime like an ass? Five stars above a lilac sky with the waves lapping up against the sides of your wooden gondola.

There's synchronicity in that I read "The Unsettled Dust" at the same time I read Est: Collected Reports from East Anglia. A (un?)happy coincidence(?). Like the landscape it's set in, this is a slow, malingering, matter-of-fact character study intertwined with the supernatural. This one is a little more straightforward for Aickman, but still sprinkled with the dust of uncertainty. Four stars.

"The Houses of the Russians" is a prime example of Aickman's ability to control pace. You think you're coming to a horrific conclusion, then find out you're not. You think you are going to gain some great knowledge, and you do not. You think that the nightmare is over, but it has just begun. Aickman says this is his own favorite story of the collection, but what does an author know about his own work? Nothing, I can assure you. And though this is a fabulous story, I don’t think it’s the best of the collection. Then again, how does one compare one story’s quality against another’s when every story is a miniature master-class in writing? Five eerily-meandering stars to this tale of anachronistic spectres . . . or not.

"No Stronger Than a Flower" is the one disappointing tale in the book; inscrutable, really. Is Nesta a vampire, insane, or merely symbolic? Maybe all three? In any case, her withdrawal seems merely whimsical, perhaps a touch spoiled. A mere three stars here.

AAAAH!!! CREEPY CHILDREN! "The Cicerones" has them. This tale is particularly chilling when compared to the others in this collection. “Sinister” doesn’t even begin to describe the level of paranoia-inducing conspiracy that this tale dredges up from the catacombs. Yep. I've got the shivers now. And yet, this story still has that Aickmanesque power of understatement (unlike my screaming introduction to the paragraph). The ending phrase "especially after everyone started singing," so seemingly innocent when seen alone, is absolutely one of the most terrifying things I have ever read in context. I do not want to hear that hymn! Five stars.

The novella, "Into the Wood," the centerpiece of the book (though it appears last) is one of the most satisfying reads I've had all year. Ostensibly a story about insomnia, it's really a (strange) tale about self-discovery and empowerment of the main characters, Margaret. It's a walk into dreamlessness that blurs the line between night and day, erasing notions of the way things "should be," while remaining gentle and respectful of the needs of those who don't follow the same path. It's about as feminist a work as a man writing in the early 1960s could produce. Consider the thoughts of Margaret, the protagonist, who has accidentally checked in at a Scandinavian resort for insomniacs while her husband attends to business matters in a nearby city:

Margaret took a small pull on herself. Henry must be broadly right and she broadly wrong, or life would simply not continue as it did, and more and more the same everywhere. The common rejoinder to these feelings of rebellion was, as she knew well, that she needed a little more scope for living her own life, even (as a few Mancunians might dare to say) for self-expression. But that popular anodyne never, according to Margaret's observation of other couples, appeared in practice to work. nor could she wonder. It reduced the self in one to the status and limits of a hobby. It offered one lampshade making, or so many hours a week helping the cripples and old folk, when what one truly needed was a revelation; was simultaneous self-expression and self-loss. And at the same time it corrupted marriage and cheapened the family. The rustling, sunny forest, empty but labyrinthine, hinted at some other answer; an answer beyond logic, beyond words, above all beyond connection with what Margaret and her Cheshire neighbours had come to regard as normal life. It was an answer different in kind. It was the very antithesis of a hobby, but not necessarily the antithesis of what marriage should be, though never was.

This paragraph perfectly brings to light the desire and need I have to read and write "spooky" or "strange" fiction, as well as my drive to immerse myself so much into roleplaying games, and my penchant for strange art and hiking alone in the woods. I've learned something about myself and my desires/needs that I couldn't articulate before, but Aickman renders clearly and compellingly into words. Wonderful!

The satisfaction of "Into the Wood" is worth the entire price of the book. And, while Aickman thought "The Russian Houses" was one of his best stories (in this volume, at least), I think he under-rates what he's created here. The depth of insight here, into desire for self-satisfaction (without hedonism) and into the pleasures (not sexual) of losing oneself, is profound. This story is ripe for analysis, whether Marxist, feminist, or what have you. I sense that this story would hold up to any sort of theoretical microscope under which it is examined. It is a writer's story by a writer's writer, nearly perfect in every way. Five stars.

If you are not a writer, have no fear. Well, I take that back. Have some fear, but let Aickman serve it to you in little, enticing doses of unease and just a hint that something isn't right, though it may be; but it probably isn't, unless you look at it in a certain way, which you shouldn't. You think I'm full of vagaries? Try Aickman. The difference is that Aickman's vagaries are as carefully measured and doled out, calculated, really, as mine are flippant and chaotic. Aickman is in control.

Aickman is always in control.


View all my reviews

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Analog Kid


If I don’t write this post now, I never will. I’ll get too caught up in other social media and waste my time away. So, I’m writing now, while the thoughts are hot.

I’m no luddite. I embrace technology. I’m on a lot of different social media platforms, Youtube is almost constantly streaming at my home (for obscure music, if nothing else), I have this here blog (duh), I host a podcast etc. And though I’m about to hit the half-century mark, I don’t consider myself “old,” not by any stretch of the imagination. I finally admitted I was middle aged when I turned 48 (reason: Grandma died at 96, and that’s one of my uncontrollable goals). In my church volunteer work, I spend many hours, every week, working with and alongside singles aged 18-30. Even years after back surgery, I *feel* young. No, not ride-my-bike-to-strange-unexplored-places-for-an-entire-day young, but still, young. I keep telling my kids that I’m still 16 in my head; 17 on a particularly mature day.

But I know, especially after burying both of my parents this past spring, that I don’t have all the time in the world. I love my parents, but they were hardcore television addicts. They did other things, of course, but as far as I can remember there was rarely ever a time when the TV wasn’t on in our house. Even as an adult, when I would call or visit, the TV was always blaring in the background. I wondered, as my father was dying, if he regretted so much time spent in front of the TV. He couldn’t communicate at that point, yet I wondered. I don’t watch much TV at all. Haven’t since I moved out of the house decades ago. I don’t know much about actors and TV shows – a little here and there from shows that I’ve watched, but nowhere near as much as almost everyone I interact with. I just don’t want to waste my time and brain space on that much TV. Again: Life is too short. Way too short. That has been hammered home to me in a big way this past year. Hammered right down into my heart with a sharp spike of grief. Twice.

And yet, I will get roped into surfing the internet and, in particular, social media, quite regularly. I probably waste nearly as much time on that as my parents did on TV. Not quite, but close.

A month or so ago, Google announced that it would no longer be supporting Google Plus outside of business use. I was big into G+, since the roleplaying game community there is a Big Deal. Artists use Instagram, authors and actors use twitter, bored housewives use facebook, and gamers use G+. And now, G+ is going to go the way of all flesh.

So, there was a mass scramble for “where to go” in the gaming community. Many of us ended up, for a number of reasons, on MeWe. It seems to be a happy medium between FB and G+, with some of the features of both and, of course, missing stuff from both. But it seems adequate to the task. And I don’t want to lose contact with my many gamer friends. At least not most of them.

In the process of all this, author Michael Curtis (known for his work for Goodman Games, primarily) wrote a post about something he had been thinking about for a long time, a physical newsletter, in which people would mail him (yes, with physical mail, not Email) a note and an SASE (that’s Self-addressed Stamped Envelope for those who don’t know) and he would, in return, send the newsletter and, if you wished, include your name and physical address in the newsletter as one who would desire to be contacted by others.

Michael also pointed out the very interesting RPG “DeProfundis,” which is based on, you guessed it, letter writing. I've just purchased it, in fact, after reading Michael's writeup about it in his newsletter. While they recommend writing in the medium that is “of the era” (so Email and texts for modern games, letters for older games), I would think letters all the time might be very cool, if it was limited to a small number of people who you are profoundly connected with in terms of gaming. I can think of a handful of people like that very easily! Back when I first started gaming, if you didn’t game face to face, you either did “play by mail” or you didn’t game at all! I’d LOVE to see “play by mail” resurrected. Seriously, handwriting the story that you exchange with each other, anticipating that letter arriving in the mail, opening it to discover what creative additions your other players have included – now THAT is exciting stuff!

As a teenager, in the days before Email, we used to (gasp!) write letters to each other all the time. Real, physical letters that oftentimes bared our souls to the recipient. You think it’s tough doing long-distance relationships now? Hah! Hahahahahaha! Anyway, when Email came along, I embraced it wholeheartedly. It was so much easier (and cheaper) to send an Email than to send a letter. Then along came social media, making connections with old friends as simple as a click.

But some things were lost. A lot was lost, in fact. Not a lot of information. In fact, I have access to far more information than I even thought existed back then. I can easily and conveniently look up information on any number of subjects, so long as I’m willing to winnow through the chaff of misinformation that exists on the internet now. Books that I had thought would be lost forever are easily found scanned into electronic nooks and crannies everywhere. The encyclopedias of my youth are entirely worthless at this point. Almost all he music in the world is at the tip of my fingers. I can look up and contact many old friends at will, or for a small fee.

The ubiquity of information is, overall, a good thing, if one is wise. Lost, though, is a lot of the heart and soul, the human-ness that went into establishing and maintaining connections and in creating new information and art to add to that which already exists. We have been digitized and de-humanized, to some extent. Futurist will argue that this is the next step in evolution, but when the tool becomes the user and the user becomes the tool (I’m looking straight at you, Facebook), are we evolving or are we surrendering growth to and becoming subjected to those who are wielding the tools, that is, wielding us. Your information online is not your own. You are fooling yourself if you don’t think you’re being fed information and influenced every time you start up a web-browser.

Again, though, I’m not a luddite. I’m not here to convince you that you should give up technology. I love it.

Still, something has been lost. And I feel it. I feel it in my soul. Just before Michael Curtis announced his initiative, I had sent a couple of snail mail letters out to friends of mine – good friends, close friends who I initially “met” online, but have since met in person several times. Friends that I leaned on when my parents died, even. These are not cursory relationships.

Yet so many of my online relationships are cursory. This is just a question of statistics – I get it. I’ve got almost 5,000 followers on Twitter. I can’t follow all of them every day. I’d have no life at all. So I cull my “must check on” list to 150 people. Still, that’s 150 people, the so-called “Dunbar’snumber” – the number of people that one can realistically maintain stable social relationships. And that’s just on Twitter. Add in Facebook, Instagram, and now MeWe (acknowledging that there is some overlap) and it’s still just . . . too . . . much.

When I sent those letters and when I received Michael’s little newsletter, I felt CONNECTED. And that’s what I long for, feeling really, truly connected in meaningful ways to interesting people whom I love. I also want to feel connected with myself! So often, I lose myself in social media, and I mean that in all the worst ways. I lose time, I lose focus on my existential being here and now, I get distracted from those with whom I want to build the strongest relationships, and I don’t take the critical, soul-feeding time I need to be creative and let my mind wander and expand on its own, away from the noise of social media.

In time, I’m going to probably abandon Facebook. I need to be on there now, because of the church responsibilities I mentioned above. But I will only be in my current position for two more years, after which I plan on really ramping down on FB usage and maybe just leaving it altogether. As it is, I really only go on to wish someone happy birthday or to see pictures of my grandson that my daughter has posted. Even then, though, the distraction, the hook, is waiting there, just off to the side, to drag me down into a fugue of wasted time and empty conversations, away from my creative energies, away from my analog self.

Twitter seems to be about my speed, and I don't see myself leaving it for a while. But I am careful to cull those who I follow, but who don’t follow me, unless I feel really compelled to do so. There are certain artists and thinkers and book publishers who I will follow that will never follow me (Nick Cave, Useke Ueno, I’m looking at you two), and I’m fine with that. But by and large, I am purging Twitter of those who just want to advertise to me or who don’t provide me something meaningful to me.

MeWe is a work in progress. I’m connected to far fewer people than I was on G+, and this is a bit of a disappointment, because gamers are my crew, so to speak. But I’m okay with thinning the herd a bit, too. That let’s me concentrate on those who fill my heart, head, and soul.
Instagram is a clean interface, but I've gone into it really limiting who I follow, for reasons that should be apparent by now, if not by the end of this post. 
Pinterest is a great place for collecting images. But definitely not a good social media platform. I consider it more of an idea dumping ground than anything. 
Tumblr I hardly use specifically because it is way too easy to become enwrapped there. I pretty much just don't go there anymore, and I'm happier and more fulfilled for it.
For a time, I was really, really into Goodreads as my preferred method of social media. I don't quite know why I got away from that. How cool is it to be able to connect with people about books. You'll always have something to talk about there, and I've developed some great, real life relationships via Goodreads. Goodreads stays! In fact, if I were to cut down my social media list dramatically, Goodreads would be the last thing to go.
I'm hoping that clearing a bit more space in my analog life by cutting out some virtual life will also free me up to do what I love most: writing and gaming and reading and hiking and learning to play that darned guitar, as well as spending time with my wife, kids, and grandson, as well as those friends who are in proximity (or travelling to bring me in proximity with those friends). I need to interact directly with the world. And the internet is not the world. It's a mask. I'm ready to begin clawing off the mask.

What lies ahead? I’m not sure. Changes, definitely. But not all at once. Consider this post a declaration of intent and a beginning. I’m not abandoning the internet, no, far, far from it. I’ve developed many real and lasting friendships there. But the internet is a starting point for me, now. Not an end in and of itself. It’s a place to test the waters, but not a place to dive to the bottom. I want to see who is out there and what they have to offer, but you’ll find me concentrating on far fewer people, far more deeply than before. If you feel like maybe I’ve been inattentive to you online, maybe it’s time for you to reach out a bit, too, huh? Leave me a message here with your Email address, for starts. Then let’s exchange snail mail addresses. Of course, I won’t be able to take up correspondences with everyone, but we might just strike it rich and be rewarded with getting to know each other better than the virtual masks we both wear online. I’ll start. Here’s my snail mail (which I will keep up until some doofus does something stupid, but I’m willing to take that chance), coded to screw with bots:

1^7^1^8 W^e^b^e^r D^r

M^a^d^i^s^o^n^, W^I 5^3^7^1^3

U^S^A

Send me a letter. Or a postcard. Or knickknacks. Whatever you like (so long as it’s legal and not obscene, please). I’ll get something back in the mail to you until I can’t afford the time or postage anymore.

And, of course, feel free to ping me at all the usual social media. Just remember that you’re up against thousands of other people and all their potential distractions. Your chances of getting my attention are infinitely larger via snail mail. Now, I’m off to send another SASE to Michael!

Est: Collected Reports from East Anglia

Est: Collected Reports from East AngliaEst: Collected Reports from East Anglia by Wendy Mulford
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Place possesses us. Place colonises us. It is a dirt simple, soil simple truth that we so often deny.

I lived a tough, yet charmed life as a child. Tough because I was raised by a military man, with all that implies. Charmed because, as a military brat, I lived in more places around the world than most people even see in their lifetime. People often ask "what was it like moving around so much"? To which I reply "It's all I ever knew. It was just how we lived." To recap, I was born in Germany and lived in The Philippines, Italy, England, and all over the US. And I mean lived, not "visited," not "touristed," not "vacated"; Lived. Yes, we saw the sights, but I was much more likely, for example, to intentionally find my way to the seedy parts of London, get propositioned by hookers, watch bums fighting, drop into a game store and play a game of Dungeons and Dragons, and drink at the local pub than to visit the Tower of London (never been there) or Madame Tussauds (never been there, either). Each country and each section of each country had their own je ne sais qua. But of all the places I lived, I loved England most. I lived on RAF Chicksands, near Bedford, Beds, in the "midlands" as they call it. I gathered, during my time there, that Bedford was considered one of those towns - so big that you had to acknowledge it was there, but with so little to do that no one went there for anything in particular. With London less than an hour train ride south, why would you go to Bedford? Well, suffice it to say that me and my mates found ourselves off-base, in Bedford, often enough. Getting off-base was always a good thing (those who have lived behind the barbed wire know why I say this).

We didn't always head straight for Bedford, or London, for that matter. My favorite city was actually Oxford. And my favorite area to "get away" from people was the Cotswolds. My wife and I are hoping to make it over there next year, in fact. We'll see what circumstances and finances allow.

Very occasionally, thrice, I think, I went to the area known as East Anglia. Frankly, there wasn't much there to do. We went to the coast there to pick up our car when it shipped from the States. I went to a Model United Nations Human Rights day at RAF Bentwaters (which is the subject of one of the essays in this book) and had a one night stand with another student there (I happened to be assigned to room at her house, which we both . . . like very much). And the third time, I can't remember why I was out there, just that I was out that direction.

As much as people ignored Bedford, they downright looked down their nose at East Anglia. For American readers, East Anglia is sort of the equivalent of the plains of North Dakota. People live there, but few of them really want to live there. It was considered a waste-space, to be honest.

So, what did I want out of this book? Maybe it's gritty nostalgia. Or my fascination with the cast-off corners of all places, the liminal zones between desireable and undesireable places. Maybe I wanted to recapture the feeling of living near there. I don't know. But, in the end, I felt satisfied, possibly because of the immersiveness of this book. This is a broad range of essays and poetry, but not so broad that it loses all semblance of structure. It's eclectic in both style and subject matter, just the sort of quirky, undefinable sort of book that I love most.

It feels like there's a touch of pride nestled into the self-deprecation of the introduction, and an appreciation for the hidden glory of the banal. Maybe that's what I seek: justification for the "small guy" living in the undesirable spaces. I might just have a chip on my shoulder. While I most miss the hills of the Cotswolds and the bustle of London, East Anglia was very near my home for an important time in my life, my "coming of age" in my late teen years (15 - 18). I do recall hiking out that way over what seemed like a lot of sand dunes, or at least sandy-soiled hillocks. There was a certain ruggedness that held appeal, like the way some people love the desert (though not me!) or the bayou. And the scent of the ocean was always just over the . . . well, not hill, um . . . horizon. Though the horizons there were vast. One felt, at times, like one could fall into the sky.

But it wasn't just the land itself. People lived here. One thing Americans just do NOT understand is the vast old-ness of Europe. Sure, there were people in the Americas thousands of years ago, but there's no tangible sense of inheritance or continuity from those times. In Europe, there is that sense. For example, when I was a teenager, we used to sneak into a priory that had originally been established in 1150 - eight hundred and thirty five years before I arrived in England - to hold seances, frighten girls (they cuddled more that way, when they weren't punching you for being a jerk) and drink, mostly. There were actual secret passages in the walls and a couple of underground tunnels, though one of them had been bricked up by the police years before and the other led to an old stone wine cellar. And it was supposedly haunted. I have so many good, spooky memories of that place!

David Southwell hints at what we were on about in his essay "The Empty Quarter:

Fossil spaces - buildings that outlived their original purpose - still sing songs of their former lives. We march to them not to find shelter nor succour, but something of ourselves. Something lost. What was forgotten in the static of the city, now waiting on the horizon as derelict memories. Ready to be walked to, ready for conversation with us. Ready to live in our imagination.

As you can see, there is some great writing in this collection. One of my favorite segments is this haunting historical anecdote by Edmund Blakeny:

Our travels begin where all my journeys ind, in the fishing town of Cromer, which bravely faces the iron sea. She is a strange sloping town forming an 'L' shape from the four pinnacles of the church tower to the fantastic limb of the pier stretching out beyond the coast. The town and the sea coexist with relative ease, though this has not always [been - sic] the case. Indeed, at one time Cromer was far removed from the abyss and relatively inland, for beneath the frowning arch of the horizon, beneath the swelling waves, lies the memory of Cromer's older brother, the town of Shipden.

It was a cold Medieval night, as the Angelus rang out over the rising gale, imploring the townsfolk to prayer, when a devilish storm was riding out at sea. it lashed the charging waves with its lightening whip and roared with malevolent glee. Terrified by the hollow crash of air against the cliffs, not a single man, woman nor child dared answer the Church's call fr fear of being struck down without mercy, and so the village hid in terror. But the storm was too cruel to accept their submission. The galloping waves smashed into the weak shield of the cliff; rain and hail, like stones from a sling, were hurled against the earth; the wind tore trees and gorse up out from the ground; and the jetties and houses were swept away as the angelus continued to ring out over the chaos. The next day, Cromer awoke to a sky of remorseful pink hanging over the sea's flat and mournful expanse, like a satin cloth covering the tomb of Shipden.

Five centuries later, in 1888, the steamer
Victoria was travelling en route from Cromer to Yarmouth when it struck an unknown object and rapidly began to take on water. The local fisherman rushed to rescue the passengers as the ship was consumed by the sea. When it was discovered that the vessel had collided with a church steeple rising above the waves, Shipden emerged from the mists of history and tales rapidly began to circulate.

But the lost town had long since been a present reality for the people of Cromer before the
Victoria disaster: on frozen nights when the sea strikes out at the cliffs, a toll can be heard resounding under the storm; a sorrowful chime, again and again, like an Angelus bell calling the fearful to prayer.

This is some exquisite writing. This is the sort of non-fiction that can carry one away into the numinous without any reliance on the supernatural. It's rare to find non-fiction prose this good, especially on such a banal subject as the landscape. Yet, here it is.

As I mentioned, I've been to RAF Bentwaters, back when it was an active US Air Force base. Funny that they don't mention the well-known UFO incident that happened there in the '80s, which is still, even now, causing controversy. They do mention the fact that the runway, the longest in Europe (to accommodate the Space Shuttle, should it have needed to land there) is paved over the central village of the East Angles, who ruled the region for 400 years. There has to be a symbol there

Speaking of strange happenings, through this book, I discovered "Seahenge," an ancient stone circle that seemed to emerge from the waves (shades of Lovecraft) long after I had left England.

As most of my Goodreads friends know, I like to read more than one book at a time (life's too short not to). I've been reading Robert Aickman's Sub Rosa in between the chapter breaks for Est. I went from reading Aickman to reading Lander Hawes' short piece without skipping a beat. This is a huge complement to Hawes, whose atmospheric piece here, "His Winter View," is an evocation of the relationship between man and land.

Elaine Ewart's essay on the archaeology of Sutton Hoo and the deaths of her loved ones, "Digging," resonated deeply with me, since my parents both passed away this past Spring. That was a hard read for me, but cleansing for the soul in some ways. Books do that to you, sometimes, baptize your soul with fire, as it were. I needed that read.

On the less pathos-driven, but no less compelling front, there is a bookstore story in here! And a wonderful one, at that, about a bookstore being opened in an abandoned chapel in the heart of an East Anglian village. Robert jacksons "the Chapel" is a delightful read!

"Living Landscape," by Darren Tansley, is a fascinating natural history of the Essex/Suffolk border region of the Stour Valley that reminds me that Britain is, after all, very small, an island where changes in climate and human practices have immediate effects on the land. In very few pages, Tansley gives the reader a strong sense of the earth-spirit of the area, a short glimpse that provides a great deal of "knowing" in its few words. Nature writers should strive to emulate this sort of "unfolding" writing that allows the reader to peek under the covers without shoving his face into the sometimes crassness of academic science. The essay feels, well, natural.

"Deep Traces" goes underground. Here archaeologist Philip Crummy outlines the evidence of Roman inhabitants and, strikingly, the Boudicann destruction of the invaders. In the matter of five pages one is immersed (almost literally) into the pre-Christian history of Britain, learning the human stories behind the artifactual remains. Wonderfully insightful and even evocative. This is how archaeology should be written!

MW Bewick pens a delightful skip through East Anglia by way of Ian Fleming and his famous character in "00". Bond bonds it all together. An interesting contrivance for pulling disparate thoughts together. A neat piece of literary sleight-of-hand. What would you expect from an essay whose touchpoints are spy novels?

There is good poetry interspersed throughout this volume, but none rises to the level of Wendy Mulford's gothic "The Doppelganger II," a dark, melancholy poem of loss brought on by The Great War happening within earshot of the shores of East Anglia.

Across the channel, the guns. That's all she hears.

I won't quote it in full, out of respect for the author. But it is one of the more compelling poems I've read in an age or two. A wonderful way to cap off this excellent volume!

Whether or not you've been to or live in England, you would do well, especially on a drizzly autumn day, to immerse yourself in Est. Though it didn't bring me "all the way back" to England (that's what next year's trip is for!), it did provide enough glimpses to remind me of my time there and the wonderful place it is, even in its most undesirable, empty spaces.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2018

On the Impossibility of Communicating Ideas


A few months ago, I fortuitously stumbled across the Weird Studies podcast. It is a brilliant podcast, definitely one of my favorites and the exploration of themes by the hosts (and they really are exploring as they go, by and large) makes for a sort of intellectual jazz with human heart. I’ve been catching up on some earlier episodes and I was absolutely thrilled to listen to their reading of M.R. Jame’s “The Mezzotint,” along with their follow up episode, entitled “Art is a Haunting Spirit”. They do some hard-digging, sometimes clumsy coming-to-grips with what the story has to say about modernity and art. There are too many ideas for me to elaborate on here, so go listen to the reading and the follow-up on your own. You won’t regret it.

But you might end up scratching your head a bit. There are times when Martel and Ford are searching about in the muck for meaning and moments when they outright contradict themselves (c.f. Ford’s direct contradiction of himself when early on he posits that the spectre in “The Mezzotint” is symbolic of the modernity of art, then later posits that the spectre is a refutation of the replicability of modernity – or maybe I just didn’t hear things correctly. This is entirely possible). This is one of the features I enjoy most about this podcast, the real, grinding exploration of some of the most difficult questions.

As an undergrad, I majored in Humanities with a history emphasis and an anthropology minor. Humanities is a broad set of subjects ranging from visual arts to music to dance to architecture to theater to cinema to history to philosophy and in a number of other directions that I am forgetting. I loved studying in that major. One thing I liked about it was the sheer lack of “track” structure. There was little progression or prerequisite qualifications for classes (except for the senior level seminars, which were amazing), so I could take many classes in whatever order I wanted. Because of my desire to take certain classes that were only offered intermittently, I ended up taking Introduction to Philosophy as a senior.

 By this time, I had been accepted into graduate school, and I knew that if I ever got bored in class, I could say something controversial to ensure that I was being entertained and getting my money’s worth (hate to tell you this, kids, but universities are businesses, and you are paying for a product, so you have to do what you can to get what you want). So, I was dead bored in Philosophy 101, having examined most of the material already for several years through different lenses. I was feeling salty and decided I’d spice things up by stating that “The so-called Socratic Method is a farce”. Oh, boy, did that set the freshmen in that class to giggling. “Socrates claims that he and his audience are learning together, exploring thought and meaning, but that’s not true. He’s asking leading questions because he wants to channel his students answers to where he wants them. It’s a trap.”

This just about sent my poor professor into paroxysms. He was not a happy camper. Later, on my midterm, I continued pressing the issue and received a poor grade on that test. On the final and all later papers, I just puked back what the professor fed us and pulled an “A” out of the class. I suppose I didn’t want to jeopardize my grade for the sake of my record, so I played along and pretty much ignored the class. Thankfully, all of my other professors invited such challenges and challenged me back, but based on logic and sound argument, not the authority of tenure or some desire for respect. I mention all of this just to say that I am quite happy to hear Ford contradict himself here, as it means that he has a malleable mind that really is seeking for the “truth” of the matter.

One of the points that Ford and Martel bounce back and forth is the idea presented by music theorist Ferruccio Busoni in his essay “Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music” that no one, not even the composer himself, can fully communicate the “idea” of a piece of music. Because he has to work through notation and representation and because the composer’s music has to be played through instruments, which he has to choose, and because the composer has to choose a certain key to write in, he can never communicate, directly, the music that is in his brain/heart/soul. In fact, the composer can’t even fully know what it is he’s trying to communicate. There simply aren’t tools to capture the feelings of the experience of creativity happening inside the composer at the moment that composition takes place. Therefore, after the moment, well, the moment is gone.

In thinking about my experience writing, it is much the same. When I write, whether writing fiction or writing roleplaying game materials, I honestly cannot communicate what it is I’m feeling when I’m writing. I can give signifiers and indicators and hope that readers have had similar experiences that will allow them to approximate the experience that happens in my brain: the flashes of insight, the subtle connections of ideas, the emotion, the purity of the imaginative experience of creation. But in the end, it’s all an approximation. Not everyone will feel approximately what I feel and absolutely no one will ever feel exactly what I feel when I write. It’s a personal, almost sacred thing. I want to share it, but the sharing of that feeling is so dependent on circumstances far beyond my control, that the best I can do is provide some outside boundaries, no, not even that, some random signposts of what I was thinking and feeling while creating. This is a blight and a blessing. I want, so badly, to communicate with exactitude the things I think, but I’m fooling myself if I don’t acknowledge that my thoughts are far more complex than words can ever relate. The subconscious background bubblings, the leaps of logic, the distant horizons of thoughts that are forming but have not taken shape yet – all these things I am absolutely incapable of relating with language. If I could draw, illustrations might help. If I could compose, music might help set the mood, as well. Then again, with each layer of media that I add comes a layer of complexity and, soon, I am like an acrobat trying to spin plates on sticks.

Yet, I persist. I can’t seem to help myself. Writing is a drug, the creative process is my heroin, it unlocks the pleasure centers of my brain in a way that other acts and substances simply cannot. I’ve been accused of being self-indulgent in my writing and, I suppose that’s true. I firmly believe that a writer needs to write what pleases them, not what is pleasing to the masses (unless that is what also pleases the writer – which is highly unlikely – c.f. everything I’ve written so far in this post). But I want to find other like-minded people who take pleasure in something similar to what I feel and what I see in my thoughts, as difficult as it is to actually communicate this with any sort of specificity.

In the meantime, I’ll hold a place for you at my side. No, you won’t see things exactly as I see them. You’ll see something different. And it’s likely that my life will be richer because of what you see in my work that I cannot. And if you utterly despise what I create or if I fumble in my attempts at communicating, so be it. I could just write what I write only for myself. In fact, I have notebooks full of things you will likely never see. But give it a chance and let’s see if we can’t cross aesthetic paths, if only for a little while, like hikers on a sparsely-travelled path. I’m tipping my hat to you and wishing you a good hike. If you're looking for a place to stay for the night, there's some space in my head. Though, if you lay down to rest therein, I might never find you. Enjoy your stay.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Hiero's Journey

Hiero's Journey (Hiero, #1)Hiero's Journey by Sterling E. Lanier
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've been a fan of the post-apocalyptic genre for many, many years. I'm such a fan that I actually co-host a podcast about post-apocalyptic roleplaying games (if you're curious to hear what I sound like on a microphone, if not in person, follow the link). So Marc, one of my co-hosts, had started reading Hiero's Journey and was so excited about it that he bought me and James, the other co-host, a copy of the book. So, grateful for the fine gift, I read the book. I'm finished. Marc isn't even done, which shows that he has more of a life than I do, I suppose. That's okay. I enjoy my reading addiction.

Hiero's Journey is one of those books hallowed by nerds as part of the "Appendix N" canon. This refers to an appendix in the original Dungeon Master's Guide for Dungeons and Dragons, which lists several books that influenced the creation of D&D. So as I read, I had my brain wide open, hoping to find some snippets of pre-D&D lore.

And I did.

It's clear that Hiero's Journey influenced Gary Gygax's optional psionics rules. That said, like may other "gygaxisms," Lanier's system wasn't lifted wholesale. For example, I do like that there are consequences to Hiero's psionic scrying. It's a two way window if you try to scry through the wrong eyes (rhyming unintentional). That isn't the case, so far as I can see, in the first edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Maybe someone else can point out where I'm wrong.

One thing that surprised me is that it is clear as day that this book is where Gygax (or maybe it was Dave Arneson) got the idea that certain slime and mold creatures might have a latent psionic ability. I thought they just made that up for giggles, but, no, it's right there in Lanier's book!

Unfortunately, the slimy, moldy chapters don't happen until one is very close to the end of the book. And they are, by far, the best chapters. There's a whole lot of infodumping that comes before this, with a few necessary obstacles in the way along the way. This book suffers from being written in the time it was written. Precursors were the old pulp novels and, unfortunately, the New Wave of '60s avant-scifi/fantasy (read: Michael Moorcock, M. John Harrison, et al) didn't quite affect the mainstream speculative fiction writing market in the US and Canada, at least not by that point. So there wasn't a whole to build on. Sorry, but when your baseline is E.E. Doc Smith and John Norman's [fill in the blank] of Gor, your starting at a low point. Add to the incessant infodumping some very clumsy auctorial decisions, and you've got a poorly-written work with some interesting ideas and a bang up good ending. One way around this would have been to allow the infodumps to be spread out and introduced via narrative and revelation-through-action. Another way would be to throw all the infodump into an introductory piece, a "chronicle," maybe, then cut the first nine chapters down to about six chapters. Yes, there's that much chaff in it.

But I didn't hate it. No, there was a lot to like here. As a historical artifact, it's interesting and provides some insight into the creation of one of the greatest games ever created. As a post-apocalyptic science fantasy, it is quite good, with a surprisingly progressive bent to it, especially as regards the characters. As a piece of literature it's . . . quaint. But still recommended to those hungry for a decent piece of post-apocalyptic fiction.

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Saturday, October 6, 2018

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and GrimscribeSongs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a penchant for doing things in reverse order, especially when it comes to books. At least in my own mind. Like a literary Benjamin Button, when I wasn’t reading comics as a kid, I was usually reading “grown up” books (The Hardy Boys adventures being the big exception). And I didn’t read Moby Dick until I was 45, though I had many, many opportunities (and even assignments) to read it many, many years before that.

So, of course, I read and loved Thomas Ligotti’s Teatro Grottesco before having read all of Ligotti’s earlier stuff. Yes, I had read Noctuary and several of his then-uncollected short pieces in various anthologies, but I had not read his seminal collection, Songs of a Dead Dreamer nor Grimscribe: His Life and Works. I’m all out of order in my reading of this dark master’s works. I had been meaning to read these for some time, but until Penguin came out with their affordable (and even more attainable) collection in 2015, finances didn’t really permit this.

What did I learn reading “backwards”?

Thomas Ligotti is a brilliant writer.

Thomas Ligotti is not a perfect writer.

Thomas Ligotti went through growing pains as a writer.

The distinctive “voice” in his work took a leap at some point, but did not leap all the way to the finish line.

Like Pablo Picasso, Ligotti’s early work shows a breadth of talent and demonstrates that his work could have taken any number of successful directions.

On to the stories . . .

"The Frolic," while very creepy, still feels like a freshman effort for a writer such as Ligotti. I would be thrilled to have written such a story myself, but I expect more from Ligotti. Three stars.

I can't tell if I think the narrator of "Les Fleurs" tips his hand too much or too little. While there is a weird "spin" to the story, I found it decidedly average. Three stars.

I am rather fond of stories that riff off of Alice in Wonderland, having written one myself. "Alice's Last Adventure," hit all the right creepy chords for me. Growing old is difficult enough, but what happens when not only your age betrays you, but you are entrapped by your own creations? Five stars.

"Dream of a Manikin" is more disturbed than disturbing, more academic than terrifying, but the dream sequences are pure sugar for the gothic brain. I could revel in the reading of those dreams all day long and never feel flat, whereas the (possibly not) non-dreaming sequences felt like they needed more texture. A three-star story with five-star dreams lands this one squarely on four stars.

The first portion of "The Nyctalops Trilogy: I: The Chymist" is brilliantly written, with most of the action happening off-stage while the narrator responds to that action. This must have been a chore to write, but I'm glad for Ligotti's work here. It's a dangerous road, but Ligotti is successful in pulling it off. More than successful, really. Ligotti's drawn me in with 2nd person POV, which is not an easy catch. I had thought that Rose's fate would be simple, but I was dead wrong.

The condescending, nihilistic second-person voice carries on through "The Nyctalops Trilogy: III. Drink to me Only With Labyrinthine Eyes". We learn, only at the end, the fate of the subject of the first section. Ligotti walks a literary tightrope, which makes for some good readerly tension.

Sublimation into another's dreams and, eventually, into another's physical form, like a rabbit being absorbed from the thoughts out, makes the conclusion of Nyctalops Trilogy intriguing, but a little jarring. Yes, it's squicky cosmic horror that you like to read, but a little clumsy. Still, the mood, characterization, and beautiful writing overpower the jilting change in POV. Four stars.

"Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story" is as playful and erudite and absolutely psychotic a tale as I can imagine. What appears, at first, as an admittance that the narrator has failed to write a story, with a number of different analyses on how the story could have been written, turns into a psychotic roller-coaster ride, I have no other way of putting it. Five stars to this weird, delightfully unexpected story.

"The Christmas Eves of Aunt Elise" is the best holiday horror ghost story I've ever read. Someone should absolutely turn this into a haunted Christmas special. But it's not cutesy. Not in the least bit. This is some heady, weird horror. Shades of Hodgson, Aickman, James, and Machen. Five stars of Bethlehem for this amazing story.

For the first time ever, I have read a vampire story that I genuinely, thoroughly enjoyed. I’ve given plenty of chances to the vampire subgenre and, frankly, I hate it. At least I hate what I’ve read. There’s Dracula, then there’s everything else. "The Lost Art of Twilight" both subverts the hackneyed stereotypes and plays in the gothic murkiness of tradition. And to think that it was Thomas Ligotti, of all writers, who pulled it off . . . I'm almost speechless. I wonder, honestly, what Ligotti thinks of it, in hindsight, since finding his own voice. Five stars. I never thought I’d give five stars to a vampire . . . anything.

Dear Brothers Quay, please immediately drop whatever project you are working on, use it as a Blu-ray extra, and begin design work for the filming of "The Troubles of Doctor Thoss". Your urgency in the matter is appreciated. You will not regret having made the effort. Four stars.

Ligotti bucks my expectations again with "Masquerade of a Dead Sword: A Tragedie". Here he waxes medieval (or at least early modern) in language, vocabulary, and tone. It is clear he is exploring voice (and is very good at it) while the seeds of his later work can be seen in the nihilistic tragedy that plays out. He reminds me of Picasso - known for cubism, but he had so much more to offer. Five stars to this tale.

"Dr. Voke and Mr. Veech" is like a dark, creepy Three Stooges (yes, three, but no spoilers) doped up on a massive dose of nihilism. This is Ligotti coming into his own, at least how the tale is chronologically presented in this volume. The soliloquy of Dr. Voke on a laughing wooden dummy seems emblematic of later Ligotti, a manifesto, of sorts:

”Did you ever wonder, Mr. Veech,” Voke begins, parading slowly toward his guest while holding one side of his coat like the train of a gown. “I say, did you ever wonder what it is that makes the animation of a wooden dummy so terrible to see, not to mention to hear? Listen to it, I mean really listen. Ya-ha-ha-ha-ha: a series of sounds that becomes excruciatingly eloquent when uttered by the Ticket Man. They are a species of poetry that sings what should not be sung, that speaks what should not be spoken. But what in the world is it laughing about? Nothing, it would seem. No clear motives or impulses make the dummy laugh, and yet it does!

‘But what is this laughter for’ you might well ponder. It seems to be for your ears alone, doesn’t it? It seems to be directed at every part of your being. It seems . . . knowing. And it is knowing, but in another way from what you suppose, in another direction entirely. It is not you the dummy knows – it is only itself. The question is not: ‘What is the laughter for,’ not at all. The question is: ‘Where does it come from?’ This in fact is what inspires your apprehension. While the dummy does terrorize you, his terror is actually greater than yours.

Think of it:
wood waking up . I can’t put it any clearer than that. And let’s not forget about the painted hair and lips, the glassy eyes. These, too, are aroused from a sleep that should never have been broken; these, too, are now part of a tingling network of dummy-nerves, alive and aware in a way we cannot begin to imagine. This is something too painful for tears and so the dummy laughs in your face, trying ti give vent to a horror that was no part of his old home of wood and paint and glass. But this horror is the very essence of its new home – our world, Mr. Veech. This is what is so terrible about the laughing Ticket Man. Go to sleep now, dummy. There, he has gone back to his lifeless slumber. Be glad I didn’t make one that screams, Mr. Veech . . .

This is the Ligotti I stumbled on when I picked up a beat-up copy of Noctuary at the University Book Store years ago. This is the stuff I love. Five stars.

I spoke too soon. "Professor Nobody's Little Lectures" is actually the Ligotti manifesto:

Madness, chaos, bone-deep mayhem, devastation of innumberable souls - while we scream and perish, History licks a finger and turns the page.

There is some fantastic insight in this essay, especially in "Pessimism and Supernatural Horror - Lecture One". Five stars.

"Dr. Locrian's Asylum" drips with the esoteric - hermetic knowledge only brought to light in the darkness of insanity and death. A ghost story, but so much more, a ghost story of cosmic horror, but a horror that is tempting in its promise of revelation concerning the mysteries of existence and what lies beyond our conception of "reality," what lies beyond the veil. I might be tempted by such knowledge. Five stars.

"The Sect of the Idiot" is a Lovecraft story that Lovecraft never wrote, more "Lovecraftian" than H.P. himself. Many people's (false) notions of what L wrote are realized here, but it is Ligotti manifesting the cults, cosmic horror, and strange philosophies in a somewhat less florid, but more effective language than the Mythos originator ever wrote. Four stars - perfectly executed, but somewhat derivative work.

Egon Scheile, Franz Kafka, and Bruno Schulz have a baby. It's name is "The Greater Festival of Masks". It is beautiful. It is hideous. It is not quite the same at the end as it is at the beginning. It changes in . . . ways. Five stars.

If you've ever been unable to sleep at night and gone out for a walk, and if you've ever attended a performance of some entertainment alone, now knowing anyone in the audience or the performers, if you find the nether reaches of a dark city titillating, then "The Music of the Moon" is for you. And I don't just mean the story . . . I mean the music itself. Five stars.

"The Journal of J.P. Drapeau" is an homage to the decadents and symbolizes, even so far as to be set in and written about Bruges, a focal point of both movements. Ligotti's oeuvre underlies this piece, but does not permeate it; stifled, it seems, by a bit too much slavishness to 19th-Century tropes and traditions. Four stars.

I can see why Jon Padgett has named his Ligotti-centric journal Vastarian after this story of the same name. A book, keyed to a certain reader, that is itself a key to unlocking the secret cosmos behind the veil of sanity. The theme is amazing, but the execution seems jumpy, the ending pegged on. Four stars.

"The Last Feast of Harlequin" has as its ending tagline: TO THE MEMORY OF H.P. LOVECRAFT. And while I can see this, in spirit, in practice there is little that points directly to Lovecraft outside of the discovery that you are not who you thought you were. Favorite lines:

"What buries itself before it is dead?"

. . . I felt myself a novitiate of a more rarefied order of harlequinry.


and much more. Five stars for out-Lovecrafting Lovecraft without pastiche and without obsequious mimesis.

"The Spectacles in the Drawer" is a hypercube of a story, layers of mirrors where the horror is squeezed in the interstices. The plot is less a twist than it is a klein bottle - fabulously surprising and shocking in its revelations. Five stars to this one (which I didn't even know existed until I picked up this volume - unlike others of Ligotti's that I have heard of by reputation, at least). This is genius.

"Flowers of the Abyss" is . . . adequate? The mood is right, the language a touch overblown, the philosophy intriguing, the point-of-view rare, the story thin and weak. So, it's "adequate" fiction, but not a peak-Ligotti story. Three stars.

"Nethescurial" seems like it should be the kind of cosmic horror that just seems cool. But, I admit, it gave me the jitters. The floors started creaking and I grabbed the nearest knife! This tale will make you afeared of EVERYTHING! Even yourself. It should come with a warning about creating existential paranoia in the reader. Five (still shuddering) stars!

"The Dreaming in Nortown" was . . . good, but a touch slow. I wasn't convinced by the ending/epilogue. It tried too hard to exhibit a power that the rest of the narrative was lacking. I think the author under-played his hand throughout the main body of the story and tried to shock at the end, when the tale might have been better if it was a little bolder throughout. Still weird and well-written overall. Three stars.

I found "The Mystics of Muelenburg" lacking; a bit flat. The atmosphere was right, but the greyness of it all was monochromatic and dull. So dull that it flattened Ligotti's normally compelling language. I know every author will have stories I don't like, but I didn't expect such a feeling of "I don't care" coming from a Ligotti story. Still, three stars, though. It was . . . alright.

Take 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, replace the ocean with the cosmic ocean, and ramp up the insanity by a few orders of magnitude, and you get the idea of the baseline for "In the Shadow of Another World". Add in a haunted house and a character named after Austin Osman Spare. Here, the pacing is perfect and enough is revealed to cause awe, while enough is hidden to cause terror! Five stars.

"The Cocoons" is a tight story with dark emotional undercurrents - a story "under" the story, three actually: The narrator's relationship with the doctor, Mr. Catch's relationship with the doctor, and the degenerate insectoid whatsits tying everyone together . . . almost. I could read stories like this all night long: multilayered, dark, with a hint of dark philosophy and a clever narrator duping his doctor. Five stars.

In "The Night School" we see Ligotti's nihilism in full swing and the great swelling of absurdity, which so typifies his later work: the universe is not inimical, it just doesn't care, so why should you care? Existence is an empty joke eliciting hollow laughter. What are the lessons of the night school? Does. Not. Matter. Four stars.

I can see, in "The Glamour," Ligotti's methods coming into full fruition, as manifest later in Teatro Grottesco. Here, it is the repetition of the phrase "a part of town I had never visited before". Ligotti repeats this seemingly banal phrase in sinister contexts, turning the ordinary into the horrifying.

Yet the places now revealed on the movie screen . . . were the fundament of the sinister and seamy regions which cast their spectral ambience on the reality of the theater but which were themselves merely the shadows, the superficial counterparts, of a deeper, more obscure realm

This is yet more of the Ligotti I love.

In "The Glamour," we discover Ligotti discovering his voice . . . almost. Repetitive banalities, the meaninglessness of existence, a hideous world behind a world where we are only germs in the belly of the beast - it's all there. Except the ending. That lingering ending that haunts you for days after you've read the book. This story didn't have it. It is the penultimate voice of Ligotti we hear, not the final product. Four stars.

Every author has to have a library story, right? Ligotti's "Library of Byzantium" is an institution where defacing the property has lethal consequences. A less visceral, more "spectral" story for Ligotti, this one has a hopeful ending that I don't think I've seen in his work before. It has more in common with an M.R. James piece than the typical Ligotti fare. A beautiful, dark story. Five stars.

"Miss Plarr" would make an amazing black and white movie with strong noir sensibilities. Tom Waite would narrate, though the protagonist is a child. Nick Cave would provide the soundtrack, along with Pye Corner Audio. But who would play Miss Parr? Helena Bonham Carter? Gwyneth Paltrow? Dunno. Five stars.

"The Shadow at the Bottom of the World" teeters on the edge of what could have been greatness, could have been one of the best pieces of folk-horror ever written . . . but it turns away from its potentialities and loses its virulence at the end. I admit I was disappointed. Not a bad story (can Ligotti write a bad story?), but it could have been much, much more with the right ending. Four sighing stars of disappointment.

This is not Ligotti’s masterpiece. But Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe is a gallery’s-worth of studies that show the breadth of his work and the slow development of what will become his distinctive, authoritative, singular voice. In hindsight, it is a happy accident that I read this collection and Teatro Grottesco in reverse order. I highly recommend this anachronistic dive into darkness.


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Thursday, September 27, 2018

A Year in The Country: Wandering Through Spectral Fields

A Year In The Country: Wandering Through Spectral Fields: Journeys in Otherly Pastoralism, the Further Reaches of Folk and the Parallel Worlds of HauntologyA Year In The Country: Wandering Through Spectral Fields: Journeys in Otherly Pastoralism, the Further Reaches of Folk and the Parallel Worlds of Hauntology by Stephen Prince
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If I’m not mistaken, all the content in A Year in the Country is available at the website, A Year in the Country. It’s a smorgasbord of strangeness and organized clutter, something like an old punk zine, but centered around the English landscape, the ‘60s and early ‘70s, folk music on the periphery, the subversion of idyllic notions of old Britain, collective mis-memory, and the sometimes-difficult-to-define realms of Hauntology. But reading what was constructed as a blog, now in the form of a (picture-less) book makes for a bit too much repetitiveness. If I see the term “left-of-center” one more time, I shall scream. I have no problems with the usage, and the phrase makes sense in the context of the places in which it is used. But the blog format more-or-less requires one to re-use terms to explicitly point the reader in the “right” direction. Since one almost never reads the entirety of a blog at once (oh, that I had the time), the author must include such phrases, and often their definition, on several different pages. Problem is, when you collate all of this into a book and don’t pare things down, these phrases become repetitive to the point of utter annoyance.

That said, it is rather difficult to effectively convey what we’ve got here in the form of a book, mostly because there is so much going on and so much overlap between (very short) chapters. And there’s no particular order to the book, either, since the blog format (there’s that word again) is really not much of a format at all, but, rather a dumping ground for ideas that spill out of the author’s head when the muse strikes, with no need for a relationship between blog posts that come before or after the post in question.

I’m making this sound much worse than it really is, but I’ve always been interested in questions of scope as it informs the way we look at the world. In fact, they fascinate me. But enough about the picture frame, let’s look at the picture.
A Year in the Country is intellectual goulash, meaning it’s messy, but very, very yummy. So here’s the recipe:

SOCIOLOGICAL CONSIDERATIONS

Underlying this whole work is a soft socialist narrative. It’s a fair look at the edge-lands of popular culture of the ‘60s through the early ‘80s. Having been a child at that time (born in Germany in ’69, graduated High School - in England - in ’87), I have memories of that time period (okay, well, not the ‘60s). Now I was raised in a military home. Dad was a veteran of the US Air Force for 26 years, 18 of which I was living at home. The first stirrings of politics I felt was during the Reagan years. Being young and dumb, I was a pretty staunch Reagan conservative. That has changed quite dramatically. Call me a Leftist, a snowflake, a democratic socialist, whatever. Times change and so have I.

And that’s the rub here. Times change. And when we look back on times, we tend to idealize or demonize what was happening “back then,” depending on our past and present proclivities. One thing I admire about this book is that it points out the seeming loss of the dream of a utopian society that was born in the ‘60s. The examples given herein show in movies and music, primarily, the decay of that dream as it is taking place. Such films as The Wicker Man and such television shows as Robin Redbreast are cited as examples of a Britain turning inward and re-examining the ‘60s view of an idealized Acadia, peeling back the pastoral glamor to look at the potentially ugly underside of rural life in the UK.

This idealization of rural life is posited by Rob Young as being the result of the Inclosure Acts from around 1760.

. . . common land was put into private ownership by government Inclosure Acts, forcing agricultural workers towards the newly expanding cities and factories . . . this displacement could be one of the roots of the British empathy with the countryside, with relics such as songs or texts from the world before this change having come to be revered as they seem to represent or connect to a pre-industrial “Fall” golden age.

Combine this with the fact that those who live in the cities were increasingly priced out of the market for open rural land, and one can see where the seeds of discontent were sown, seeds which started to grow in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but were ignored and left to dry up with the distraction of the glitzy ‘80s and Thatcher’s (and Reagans) Conservative government.

MUSIC

Much of A Year in the Country is taken up with the examination of music, particularly music that grazes in the interstices between folk and popular music. Another area that is examined in great detail is the rather esoteric realm of electronic music that is intentionally anachronistic and obscure.

For those of my age and older who lived in the UK for any amount of time, you will recall the ubiquity of bizarre background music on certain TV shows (I am talking primarily of British TV here, though there was a touch of this sort of thing in the US on some television commercials that I vaguely recall) and the strange electronic compositions that were sometimes used in the introduction of shows, accompanied by some abstract geometric shapes coming together to form the logo of some affiliate of the BBC or other government-sponsored sub-agencies who were responsible for producing educational shows, in particular. I suppose public television in the US had some of this, as well.

Believe it or not, there is an entire subgenre of music of this type (or derivative of it) that is being composed and released today. I’m listening to some right now as I type up this review. I quite like it. Your mileage may vary.

Again, this is rife with political implications. The music was primarily composed and performed by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Given the tension between the BBC and conservative political elements at the time, one can see why this music would now, in this day, be lauded as anthemic, “left-of-center” (augh, that phrase!), socially-conscious, publicly-owned music.

And here we intersect with that slippery notion of hauntology, that our present remembers the past as we want to remember it, rather than as it really was. In fact, the whole notion that we can even possibly remember the past as it really was is called into question. We idealize, we decontextualize, we recontextualize, and we celebrate a past that never was, longing for the faint wisps of a dream from our childhood-that-never-was.

But isn’t there something wonderful in this? I listen to a lot of what’s called “retrowave” or “synthwave” music – music that emulates the synthesizer music of the ‘80s, but is being composed now. I admit that when I allow myself the luxury of listening to this music, it “takes me back”. But back to what? Let’s face facts: Middle school sucked. I hated it. I tried to kill myself once at that time. My home was a bit of a wreck. I self-medicated to cope. Really, it was full of all kinds of suckitude. And yet, there were happy, good times, as well. When I listen to this music, it brings me back to the good times, not because those songs were real when I was young – they hadn’t even been written – but because it emulates the ideal ‘80s, the storybook Breakfast Club ending, where everyone is cool and “in this together”. This idea only exists in my head.

Isn’t that the wonder of imagination? That it can, over time, heal the soul, if we let it? Call it a survival mechanism, call it escapism, call it what you will – it works for me, and makes my present that much more bearable.

MOVIES

I am not much of a cinephile. I hardly ever watch TV any more. Outside of the occasional show that I come to love (Hello, Stranger Things!), I really haven’t watched much since, oh, about 1987 or so. And when people start conversing about actors and movies, I’m out. I just don’t have the brainspace to remember all the actors. I’m much more into reading and experiences than TV or movies.

When I do watch movies, I tend to have strange tastes. I love experimental film. Give me The Brother’s Quay and David Lynch all day long.

A Year in the Country gave enough references to strange (sometimes experimental) movies and TV to last me a very, very long time. You can take a look at the website to see those pieces referred to in the book. I don’t have any kind of exhaustive analysis of the analysis of the role of movies and television in this book, but you’ll find said analysis interwoven throughout. The last two chapters on “Zardoz, Phase IV, and Beyond the Black Rainbow: Seeking the Future in Secret Rooms From the Past and Psychedelic Cinematic Corners” and “Winstanley, A Field in England, and The English Civil War Part II: Reflections on Turning Points and Moments When Anything Could Happen” are particularly compelling.

PSYCHOGEOGRAPHY

One of my favorite things to do as a child and, particularly as a teenager, was to explore. I had the luxury of living outside of my native country for a good portion of my life. About ten of my first eighteen years of life were spent outside of the US. And since I lived in an age where bicycle helmets were optional, no one could call me on my cell phone, and parents believed that it was good for children to get outdoors, I was able to wander quite a bit. From World War II bunkers on the Italian coast to Roman pillars in far-flung artichoke fields to abandoned churches to a 12th-Century English priory that we broke and entered numerous times (ah, the parties we had in the wine cellar and the secret passageways we discovered!), I saw much that kids in the US didn’t get to see, and many of them never will, which is unfortunate. I count myself lucky.

One thing that I learned in Europe is that the sheer age of a place seems to hold a mystique, a “spirit,” if you will. The priory mentioned above was supposedly haunted, and I saw and heard some strange things there. Granted, me and my mates had been drinking a little and were probably over-excitable, since we had illegally broken into a “protected” (not very well) historical site. But I swear there were some things that were just plain unexplainable and seemed to arise from something beyond nervousness, a buzz, and coincidence.

Keep in mind that, while overseas, most of my time was spent living on a US Air Base (except in Italy, where we went native and lived in downtown Brindisi). I was surrounded by the Cold War. That war was my Dad’s business (the stories I can tell – well, the ones he told me before he died), and the accoutrements were all around. At the bases I lived at in Italy and England were antenna arrays called “Elephant Cages,” for example.

Now that the Cold War has ended (though I suspect round two is around the corner), many of these structures were left derelict. Since the threat of nuclear annihilation has subsided (for now), there are old, decommissioned structures that remain as a sort of temporal signpost for the war-that-never-was. Here again we slip into the realms of hauntology.

These empty shells where (classified) activity was frantic and fearful exude a sort of past paranoia for a coming apocalypse that didn’t come. But one wonders if the sense of fear that must have drenched such places didn’t rub off a bit, a’la Nigel Kneal’s The Stone Tapes (also mentioned repeatedly in this book). For that matter, since I’m referring to The Stone Tapes, couldn’t any place, any structure, be saturated with the psychic echoes of the past? This is the whole notion behind haunted houses, so there’s some precedent for this in the popular imagination, at least.
This idea of places having a certain “spirit,” combined with the earlier-mentioned flux between population centers from rural to urban areas (and the desire to get back to an idealized rural life again) speaks to me. Here’s why: I lived on the edge of several worlds as a child. I was mostly a loner, and I loved to explore those “edge places” between the city and the country, when suburbs were much less of a soft boundary between the two environments. I recall being fascinated by abandoned lots on the edges of farm fields, for example. While in England, a few of my English mates and I explored an abandoned, shutter-boarded school on the edge of a town (I can’t remember which town, though it was likely in Bedfordshire). You could stand with one foot on the cracked asphalt of a playground and another foot on a farmer’s field that stretched off into the hills, as far as the eye could see. I admit that I loved these interstitial spots, where one could almost feel a break in the psychogeography of a place. Furthermore, I was an American living overseas for most of my childhood – caught between two worlds. And even when I was in the US, I felt the clear distinction between civilian kids and us military “brats”. I find myself comfortable in that uncomfortable space between social circles. Which has, ironically, helped this self-avowed loner to learn to reach out to different people in different ways, according to their likes and needs. I am, if nothing else, a chameleon.

Or, at least, I remember being that way. Now that I’ve settled into life a bit more, my parents have both passed away (earlier this year), my children are adults, and I’ve lived in the same location for twenty-odd years now, perhaps I’ve lost my touch. I hope not. I seem to be able to take two sides of a given argument and at least give fair thoughts to both (though I have my opinions and am not afraid to state them, bluntly, at times – c.f. Twitter). I don’t really ever want to lose the magic of being on the edge between two worlds, whether sociological, cultural, or geographical. I’m comfortable in the spaces in-between. Maybe that’s because I have two or more potential escape routes!

LAST THOUGHTS

This whole idea of hauntology has, pardon the horrible “dad pun”, haunted me since I’ve discovered it. My memory is not what it used to be, and I recently watched my father lose his capacity for memory in the months before he died. My biological aunt, my father’s twin, has suffered from dementia for some years now. Guess I have something to look forward to. In the meantime, my emotional rear-view-mirror has become a bit idealized. Yes, I remember some heartache, but the good times are more vivid in my memory than the bad times: Being with friends, discovering the world, falling in love, the opening of new vistas (visually, intellectually, emotionally). There is a certain sadness, some grieving for lost friends and relationships, for permanent changes to places I once knew and loved. But I embrace that grief. It’s a part of who I am. I don’t wallow in it, but I embrace it. Maybe I’m just a nostalgic old fool in love with his own imagination. If so, fine. Leave me to it. I’m not living in the past, but I’m coming to peace with it and with the changes that come from its loss and mis-memory. In Stephen Prince’s words:

. . . we are possibly going through a period where there is a sense of loss of loss. This is a side effect of the contemporary endless and precise archiving and replication techniques which are available via digital technology, which is in contrast to previous eras . . .

So, let the past decay! I don’t much care about the idea of the “true” past as a whole (and I’m a historian, by academic training). My memory of the past is truth, for me. And it’s quite enough, loss and all.


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