Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Nightfarers

The NightfarersThe Nightfarers by Mark Valentine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mark Valentine's name and fiction is often associated with authors such as Reggie Oliver, Quentin S. Crisp, John Howard, Stephen J. Clark, and Mark Samuels, largely because of these authors' associations with a handful of publishers known for producing extremely high-quality books, in limited editions, that focus on the borderline between the classic ghost story and the modern strange tale (e.g., Tartarus Press, Ex Occidente, Egaeus, Zagava, etc). These contemporary authors can be seen as the inheritors of a line of literary descent that includes such authors as M.R. James, Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen, and Robert Aickman, among others. And yet, to lump them all together does a disservice to the individual authors and to the unique approach of each author to writing stories of this ilk.

This is particularly true of Mark Valentine's work. Valentine's writing is not as "weird" as Oliver's or Crisp's, for example. Nor is it as horrific as Samuels' or Clark's work. It is more . . . "restrained," is probably the best word, though "stoic" might be used to describe his work, as well. There's a certain nobility to Valentine's work in subject matter, tone, and structure; a bit of the old "stiff upper lip", if you will. His characters (primary or secondary, depending on the story) are often aristocrats. The stories themselves, at times, are of a more formalist bent - not the straight academic track, mind you, but something more like an armchair philosopher or dabbler in history might find most attractive. Something you would expect to be written by a man wearing a smoking robe and using a cigarette holder routinely. This is not to say that Valentine's fiction is unapproachable. No, far from it. But there is a certain "air" about it that will sometimes make you wish you had worn your best clothes to read in.

This collection is a beautiful hardcover book put out by Ex Occidente, limited to 350 copies. The cover I have is a full wrap-around of a beautiful purple (literally) painting of a handsome figure, nude, staring at the painter with glowing, nay, glowering yellow eyes as it (he) rests his chin in his hand. Though the frontispiece in the book is done by John Coulthart (and is clearly, distinctively, one of his pieces of art), I don't know who did the actual cover painting. But it is beautiful and sinister and entirely appropriate to the mood of the book. So, on to the contents:

"The 1909 Proserpine Prize" is a wonder. A story about the judgement of a literary prize for dark literature in which one of the books itself has a say. Include mystic languages and auctorial subterfuge on a cold winter night locked away in a storied building and, well, you get the picture. But not until the very end! This is one of several books wherein Valentine shows, through his fiction, his love of book collecting. Five stars and this collection starts off with a bang!

"Carden in Capaea" is an ephemeral tale, or is it an ethereal tale of . . .? I forget. The words escape me. I felt that I had them, long ago, but their meanings have blanched from my memory, fading into . . . what I don't exactly recall. But whatever they were, they were beautiful, if indescribable. Five stars is all I know, was all I ever knew.

"White Pages" is a beautifully written ghost of a story that could, itself, have served as the beginning of a ghost story. The ending-as-beginning was intriguing, but could have been further built into something far more terrifying. Still, it provides its own sort of satisfaction by letting things play out in the reader's theater-of-the-imagination. Four stars.

"The Inner Sentinel" is a brooding story caught somewhere between the oast houses of Kent and a fantastical, dreamland weald. The sense of dread is palpable and the prospect of betrayal by infiltrators is unnerving. A moody story, not terrifying, yet disturbing in the same way that one might feel after waking from a nightmare and almost forgetting the specifics of the fright behind you. I loved this story for the way it caused my emotions to ebb and sway as I read it. Five stars.

"The Dawn at Tzern" is pretty, but unspectacular. It carries the mood of the stories before it, but does little to deepen it. It's not boring; neither is it particularly exciting. Three stars.

"The White Sea Company" is a ghost story without being a ghost story wherein the "ghosts" are spoken of, but never seen, their presence so thin as to be almost imperceptible. They are presented in a manner of storytelling that can only be called "ethereal". Thin MR James meets Dunsany, but with some unique, unexpected "twists" on the canonical oeuvre. Five stars you can barely see in the mists.

Well, the five star stories can't go on forever, can they? "Undergrowth" is erudite, but less than compelling. "Underwhelming" is, I think, the right word. Three stars.

Joyce's Ulysses, Richard Francis Burton, a masked ball, a bizarre octopus-god that might merely be a preserved carcass, yet-unwritten secret books, and rituals involving white-clad virgin boys invoking writing by candlelight. What's not to like about "The Seer of Trieste"? I loved this literary occult tale. Five stars!

Though I appreciate the dark mystical message and tone of "Their Dark and Starry Mirrors," I think this story suffers just a touch from a lack of engaging plot points. Normally, I don't mind this at all - I love atmosphere over plot - but in this instance, it just feels like a blank space in an otherwise excellent piece of prose. Four stars.

At first, I felt that the ending to "The Bookshop in Novy Svet" was abrupt; non-sequitur. But as I re-examine the plot lines, I see that it was inevitable. And when I recognize the titular reference to Prague, it is clearly evident: This strange story of actuarians, artists, booksellers, and poets ended right where it must. It is a story I will read again, several times, and savor, a masterpiece. This is the kind of story where any writer of strange fiction will say "I wish I had written this". Or at least this writer did. Five stars.

"The English Leopard: An Heraldic Dialogue" is intriguing in its subject matter and stylistically exploratory, but not compelling. I have to be honest here and only give three stars to this one. This is the one story where I felt that Valentine was waxing a bit too academic. I wanted to like this story more than I actually did, which is a shame.

"The Box of Idols" is more or less a mystery story, albeit a short, curt mystery story. Still, the story fills the measure of its creation and is a satisfying tale involving idols, the ancient Assyrian language, and the process of printing itself. It's a great dalliance for book lovers with a slightly dark bent. Four stars.

"The Axholme Toll" is a clever metafictional slight-of-hand about a mysterious series of islands and books associated with these islands. I enjoyed it, but I couldn't shrug the feeling that this is what an author does when he knows the story he really wants to tell but really doesn't know how to tell it. So I appreciate the careful artifice, but felt that there was too much left unexplored or left unexplored in the right manner. Still a four star story.

"The Seven Treasures of Bucharest" is a beautiful story to end this excellent collection. A spiritual, sort of Arthurian quest, but a quest carried out by the intellect, shrewdness, and diplomacy, rather than the sword. And rather than ranging across England, this quest is confined to a quarter of Bucharest. But the "adventure" here is no less than that of the Knights of the Round Table. The sense of mystical wonder that permeates this story is palpable. Five stars.

Up to this point, this is the most I've spent on one book. Ex Occidente titles are notoriously expensive, and this one is no exception. But was it worth it? Totally! The incredibly high quality of the book, from presentation to construction to contents, bumps this one well into the five star range. I think I have here yet another example of what I call my "chained books". I will lock this one up and take it out to savor from time to time, re-reading and smelling its pages, which reek of ancient magic, though produced not so very long ago.

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Friday, December 8, 2017

H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society

So here I am in California. Both of my parents were, until yesterday, in ICU, at two separate hospitals 35 miles apart. I flew from Madison when I heard that my Mom was on life support and I knew Dad was going in to have a tumor removed, which also involved the removal of one of his eyes and an operation to cover up the ensuing gap. Needless to say, the last week and a half have been rather stressful. Both parents are now on the upswing, but they have a loooong road of recovery ahead.

I've discovered, in these times of stress, that caretakers need to take care of themselves, even if it's for an hour or two a day, outside of getting enough sleep, of course.

So I fulfilled one of my bucket-list items between visiting Mom and Dad at their respective hospitals. I went to the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society brick-and-mortar store.

I've bought something from them before, some time ago: their excellent silent-movie version of the iconic Lovecraft story, The Call of Cthulhu, which, for the life of me, I can't figure out how I have not yet reviewed. Anyway, I heard about the store almost simultaneously on two of my favorite podcasts: The Good Friends of Jackson Elias and The Miskatonic University Podcast. Not that they mentioned them at the same time, it's just that I get my podcast listening done in spurts and these two coincided on my player. When I heard about it, a few months ago, I thought "I'll have to check that out someday".

"Someday" came last week, when I was in a bit of a daze trying to gather information regarding my parents' condition and visit them. I did, but Mom was completely out, and Dad was delirious after his surgery (which, I understand, isn't uncommon among the elderly). Glendale is a couple hours from where my parents live, and only an hour from where my Dad was hospitalized. I was halfway there already, so what the heck? Might as well kill some time and do something I want to do, decompress, get my mind of "things" for a little while.

I'm so glad I went.

Andrew Leman and Sean Branney are awesome. I talked briefly with Andrew, who was pretty busy working in the back, but spent a significant amount of time talking to Sean (thanks, Sean). It might seem strange, but it did me a world of good and really, REALLY helped me to de-stress a bit from everything I'd been dealing with. Horror is cathartic, they say, and this was catharsis with a great deal of good conversation, good humor, and compassion. I am emotionally indebted to Sean and Andrew for taking the time to show me their little place and talk all things Lovecraft.

Of course, you'll ask "how was the shop"? Compact and amazing!

The outside is fairly non-descript storefront, except for the sign showing Lovecraft's cameo silhouette seated above the words "Store", "Laboratorium", "Studio". And it is all those things!

Inside, you will find a cozy, wood-floor interior, not large, but large enough for their needs. The first thing you'll see, as you enter the door, is their reception desk:


That print on the wall, which I should have photographed directly (sorry, I was in a state of mind . . .), is a large map of Dunwich. But it was the ephemera and paraphernalia on the table that really caught my attention, for obvious reasons. This simple desk set the tone for the shop, which is somewhere between mercantile and museum. "Shop", "Laboratorium", and "Studio", indeed!

When I entered, though, my attention was instantly ripped from the desk (I came back to it, obviously). My head whipped right, in spite of myself, and I spotted this:


Yes, ladies and gentlemen, there he is, on the red carpet, Cthulhu himself, the actual model used in the silent film adaption! The detail on this model is incredible. He stands maybe two feet tall (?), and the level of detail on it is a testament to the sort of work that HPLHS is known for. I think of the tedium that must have attended the shooting of the stop motion in the movie, the delicacy of the movements and the materials (I didn't touch it - I dare not!), and I surmise that it must have been a very slow, painstaking process. Bravo, HPLHS!

After staring in awe at the maestro for a while, I scanned the bookshelf:


Well, bookshelves. It's a library, actually. Full of not only books of Lovecraft's fiction and scholarly works on the man (did you know he sent a letter into Scientific American regarding his theories about the canals on Mars? Me either.), but on an eclectic mix of . . . all sorts of stuff. From occult texts to almanacs to literary criticism to dream analysis, there was a little bit of everything, trust me. I even found a copy of Brian May's book (yes, that Brian May), Diableries, which I also own and treasure. I also learned about a possible upcoming project for HPLS, which I don't think I should divulge, because I never asked permission if this dark, sacred knowledge should be revealed to the rest of the world. I don't think the rest of the world would be ready for it . . . yet. Suffice it to say that HPLS has some very exciting potential projects up their eldritch sleeves!!! I'll be dropping money on them.

And speaking of dropping money, I patronized. I saw a t-shirt on their little display, which I recalled lusting after months ago, but had forgotten where I had seen it. Well, it was on their website. So I bought it. And it's awesome. Then, in a fit of impulsiveness, I bought an LP of Lovecraft's poems, "Fungi from Yuggoth," read by HPLS's own Andre Leman, pressed and produced by Cadabra Records, and had it sent back home to Wisconsin. Can't wait to drop the needle on that one! I don't see it on the HPLS site right now, but I could just be missing it. In any case, the link to Cadabra's website is above. And I'd recommend any of their recordings. I'm really looking forward to their release of Jon Padgett's amazing The Secret of Ventriloquism which is, incidentally, the best book of cosmic horror I've read this year (LP hasn't been release yet, but is, I am assured, forthcoming).

I wandered around a bit and saw, on opposite corners of the room, this:



 And this:


I was tempted to put two-and-two together, but something whispered that I really shouldn't. It's probably for the better.

Next, I took a long, slow look through the library. I really wanted to see everything they had in there. I was rather pleased to see the extensive collection they had of books and boxed sets for the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game (one of my favorites). Here's a snapshot:



And not only the official Chaosium books, but others were present, as well. Oh, and a great selection of Modiphius Entertainment's Achtung Cthulhu, which I also love.

Now my "icing on the cake" might not seem like much to you, but man, it was an incredible piece of serendipity for me. I've been working for a couple of weeks now on a Call of Cthulhu adventure that I am hoping to hone, playtest, and publish. I've written some copy, but it still needs time and work. It's set in Chicago in the 1920's, and focuses on the Modern Abstract Art movement of the time (you know, Kandinsky, Klee, etc.). So, I'm looking at the library, and lo and behold, there is a set of almanacs for the city of Chicago in, you guessed it, the 1920's. So I took a couple photos (with permission) of the pages from the 1923 and 1926 almanacs showing information about the Art Institute of Chicago, which I had begun researching a few days before flying out:



Crazy, huh? I thought so, at least. 

So there you have it, an unofficial virtual tour of the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. Yes, they've got an official virtual tour on their website, but now you have confirmation! It's not a conspiracy, it's a real thing, a real brick-and-mortar place that you can walk in and browse and touch (most) stuff. It's a fantastic place, and Sean and Andrew are gracious hosts. The only caveat: parking is limited, so leave time to find a space on the street. Or, just invoke the correct hypergeometries so you can put your vehicle in your pocket when you get there. Or just have your Byakhee drop you off! And be sure to support HPLHS by buying something, if you can. To not do so would be . . . terrifying.




Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Art & Existentialism

Art & ExistentialismArt & Existentialism by Arturo B. Fallico
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Equal parts frustrating and fascinating. I admit that I am not entirely up to the task of a comprehensive review of the book, and am left with impressions born of a partial understanding. If you want a careful reading of some of the deeper details, check out Glenn Russell's outstanding review.

Much of the book, to be honest, was a grind. The reputation that philosophy has of being just so much navel-gazing is reinforced here in abundance. That's not to say that Fallico's insights are wrong, just that they are very difficult to follow without an extremely slow, highly concentrated read, re-read, re-read, and another re-read. I don't think my brain has been taxed this hard to follow along in a text since I read Hofstadter. Perhaps some more grounding in philosophical literature overall would help. Fallico dearly wants to write this so that anyone can understand, but the very nature of the subject matter - the act of art creation, the art of reaction to art, and the relationship between both and the drive to exist as a being of freedom - mitigate against an easy common understanding.

For example, Fallico states early on:

Only in art do we find experience which endures, not by substitution and displacement, but by the kind of self-identical re-positing which keeps self-identity in being.

At first blush, the thought of art as experience is counter-intuitive. Art is stuff, right? But Fallico makes a careful distinction between the act of art and the art-thing. The artist, during the act of art, experiences being (or existing, hence "existential" experience). But the observer, because of their interaction with the art-thing (which results from the act of art) can have a moment or moments of being as they react to it. And every instance of this individual reaction is unique to the person experiencing it. Furthermore, art critics, who publicly respond to the art-thing, have their own "act of art" (my quotes) when they write or speak their critique. Then further observers down the chain must react to the critique, re-positing both the critique itself and the original object of critique, the art-thing itself.

The art-thing itself, in the existentialist critique, should not be thought of as a representation of anything, but as a presentation. The existent one (the viewer of the art-thing) should not, in Fallico's estimation, worry about what the art is meant to represent, but should only focus on the art-thing itself as an entity unto itself:

The peculiar composure and independence of the art-object come into clearer view when we see that it is in the order of a presentation, rather than a re-presentation. A representation, as the very word seems to say, presupposes another thing, somehow made to reappear under the guise of the art-object. A representation is un-original by definition. The essential characteristic of the art-object is precisely that it is an original - a first presentation of a possibility truly felt and imagined. It can remind us, really, only of itself, even if, in the process, we may remind ourselves of non-aesthetic things and events extraneous to it.

Here begins a sort of philosophical machismo that permeates throughout the work. One wonders if this attitude isn't at the heart of existentialism, but my personal feelings are that a person's realization of their vulnerability to the inevitability of death tends to engender more humility than hubris. Fallico seems to favor the view that a true existentialist faces existential angst with bravado, and that this attitude can be found in art itself:

. . . the order of the art-object is one in which everything is preserved in its being, everything achieves actual presence together with everything else, and everything relates and refers to an existent. Everything in the art-object stands fully realized, unchanging, and in full view. Nothing is inessential, everything is required. A single line, a dab of color, a sound - all are constitutive and uneliminable from the whole. Their relationship to other lines, colors, or sounds as well as to the whole is never one of mere adjacency, correlation, or probability.

This sense of bravado becomes more than a little tedious as one progresses through the book. By the end, the chest thumping gets a little ridiculous. I'll spare you the details, but not without warning you that Fallico's ideal existential man is an intellectual he-man proudly displaying his statuesque breast to the world, defying the cosmos to the bitter end.

One aspect of Art & Existentialism that really spoke to me, was Fallico's acknowledgement that:

. . . art has traditionally come to be associated with beauty. The beautiful, in turn, is associated with whatever pleases and suggests itself as ideal and perfection - and object of desire. Identification of art with the beautiful in this sense has ever been a pervasive error in aesthetics. And this is surprising, considering that so much of the great and respected art in every culture has to do, not with the pleasant and desirable, but with the ugly and the forbidding. Michelangelo's Pieta is not beautiful in the sense that it is pleasurable, nor are Picasso's Guernica or Guitarist. As such, pleasing, desirable, and attractive define the objects and objectives of action, not of aesthetic contemplation. This is not to say that the aesthetic necessarily concerns itself with the unpleasant and the unattractive, of course, but simply that it is utterly indifferent to such categories.

Huzzah! Someone finally said it! Art is not a beauty pageant! I've held to this for a long time. And while one can use the old soft argument that "beauty is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder," that argument is sometimes used as a way for those who have a certain, preconceived notion of what is "good" art to hand-wave the whole question about art that is not beautiful, but worthy of praise (and preservation). I readily admit that much of the music and art I love is considered ugly or awkward or just plain unpleasant by many. But does that mean that it has no worth? I'd argue that sometimes it has more worth because of it's ugliness. Take one of my favorite examples: Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, a particularly noisome piece of music. The evocation of feeling as one listens to this piece can be incredibly strong. I remember being literally moved to tears in college while listening to this piece and seriously contemplating what it must have been like to be present for this horrific event: the sounds of the air raid sirens, the droning of a single bomber flying overhead, the concussive blast, the flesh-melting heat, the thousands of structures shattered into splinters and blown to the wind, the roaring fires and burning bodies, the cries and moans of the survivors. Not a pleasant thing. Not beautiful at all. But evocative and, dare I say, necessary? Here, Fallico allows us to embrace the necessity of such a piece.

The fact that Daumier's court scenes, or Goya's prints about the horrors of war are not direct incentives to action (great art never is) must not mislead us into thinking that they have not latent in them the power to remodel human purposing with respect to how humans feel about injustice, or about the obscenity which is war . . . there is not a single work of art, not a single first utterance, which does not, in its own way, present us with at least a possibility of novel outlook and global perspective. What counts here is that this - if it is truly aesthetic, and if we truly are able to enact it - is a concrete and actual possibility, one that is tasted, fused with one's very being in the enactment. No man who really encounters Cezanne's apples ever sees apples again in the same way, just as no man who really reads Sartre's The Wall or CamusThe Stranger can look upon death and our contemporary values as he did before the encounters. It is true that a great majority of gallery- and theater-goers, no less than readers of novels, seem to be little transformed by their experiences - but if they have any ind of aesthetic sensitivity, who can measure the degree of transformation they truly have undergone by such experiences?

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Friday, November 24, 2017

The Street of Crocodiles

The Street of CrocodilesThe Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading Schulz's work is like discovering my newest, best literary friend. Bruno, I wish you had lived longer, though your tragic end might have been merciful, given the later alternatives. It was a strange end to an author of strange work.

The Street of Crocodiles is a fever dream. It is the exposure of the bizarre from behind the curtain of what is "proper". The setting here is every bit as much of a character as the humans, dogs, and birds we come to know:

After we passed a few more houses, the street ceased to maintain any pretense of urbanity, like a man returning to his little village who, piece by piece, strips off his Sunday best, slowly changing back into a peasant as he gets closer to his home.

This abandonment of pretense is a running theme throughout these vignettes. Civility is continually stripped away to reveal the ugly, beautiful, rotting, shining underneath. Is it any wonder that the Brothers Quay did a cinematic version of The Street of Crocodiles?

Take, for example, the account of madness setting into a narrator's father:

Then again came days of quiet, concentrated work, interrupted by lonely monologues. While he sat there in the light of the lamp among the pillows of the large bed, and the room grew enormous as the shadows above the lampshade merged with the deep city night beyond the windows, he felt, without looking, how the pullulating jungle of wallpaper, filled with whispers, lisping and hissing, closed in around him. He heard, without looking a conspiracy of knowingly winking hidden eyes, of alert ears opening up among the flowers on the wall, of dark, smiling mouths.

He then pretended to become even more engrossed in his work, adding and calculating, trying not to betray the anger which rose in him and overcoming the temptation to throw himself blindly forward with a sudden shout to grab fistfuls of those curly arabesques, or of those sheaves of eyes and ears which swarmed out from the night and grew and multiplied, sprouting, with ever-new ghostlike shoots and branches, from the womb of darkness.


But Schulz is not only able to paint a wonderful visual picture again and again; he also has a keen gift for evocation by allusion, as when he describes one of his characters, Charles, meditating:

One of his eyes would then slightly squint to the outside, as if leaving for another dimension.

Brilliant. If I knew nothing else about this character, this one line speaks volumes about Charles' motivations and inner life, while causing me to be instantly suspicious, as well as fascinated, by this one strange tic.

At one step of abstraction further, we must note that Schulz not only provides mood, he describes mood in a way that draws the reader in, or, rather, infects the reader in the mind's eye:

In an atmosphere of excessive facility, every whim flies high, a passing excitement swells into an empty parasitic growth; a light gray vegetation of fluffy weeds, of colorless poppies sprouts forth, made from a weightless fabric of nightmares and hashish.

In a word, his work is incredible. Schulz will take you to the extremes of exhilaration and debilitating depression. His work fascinates and enthralls, like a dream from which one cannot awaken. Even in its darkest moments, I would not want to awaken from such an awe-inspiring literary dream. The "weightless fabric of nightmares and hashish," indeed!



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Monday, November 20, 2017

World War Z

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie WarWorld War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am not a big zombie person. In fact, I couldn’t care less about, for example, The Walking Dead. I just am not into zombies. Never have been. Okay, 28 Days Later was okay. Okay. And Shaun of the Dead was actually good, but that’s because it made fun of all the zombie tropes. But really – I do not understand the fascination with zombies.

So, of course, I’m going to read World War Z, hate it, and give it one star, maybe two, if I’m feeling generous, right?

Wrong.

Now, let’s not kid ourselves, this is not a great novel, definitely not a masterwork of literature. Its prose is utilitarian. Interesting, in places, but lacking eloquence – maybe intentionally so. Because this is a novel about people, many of them ordinary people, dealing with an infestation, a war against those who were once family, friends, fellow-countrymen, but are now undead.
But it’s not about the zombies. Not really much at all. And this made it, not a great novel, but a good novel. It’s really more about what it means to be human, and all that comes from that status, good and evil. It’s about dreams, family, bravery, cowardice, love, friendship, terror, technology, survival, profiteering, pride, and regret. The zombies are merely a foil against which the human stories are set. And that works to its advantage. Sure, you’ll find a few harrowing accounts of battles with the living dead, but the most terrifying aspects of the book lie in what humans, driven by fear, will do to other humans. It’s messy and complicated, tragically triumphant with a question mark after it, sort of like life. It will leave you asking questions about how you would react in the circumstances, as presented. The answers might be a little uncomfortable. Would you have what it takes to survive such an apocalypse and, more importantly, would you want to have what it takes? The novel cannot answer this for you. In fact, it poses many questions to which there is no one good answer or questions that are altogether unanswerable.

One of the greatest questions implicit in the novel is not “What is a zombie,” but, much more poignantly, “What is a human”? World War Z will present that question to you again and again, and that question will haunt you long after you’ve finished the book, rearing its ugly head from time to time, like a slow-moving army of the undead.


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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkuhn As Told By A Friend

Doctor Faustus: The Life Of The German Composer Adrian Leverkuhn As Told By A FriendDoctor Faustus: The Life Of The German Composer Adrian Leverkuhn As Told By A Friend by Thomas Mann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It took me nine months to read this book, and now I'm supposed to summarize it in a review limited to 20,000 characters? Pah! I don't dare even attempt it! Many others have outlined the plot (such as it is) and explored in greater detail than that of which I am capable, the parallels between the story and Mann's bout of cultural guilt over the Third Reich. Anything I say about this would only serve to expose how much I did not understand about this novel. And because I didn't understand the entirety of this novel, I will present my thoughts scattershot, with little or no context, as I don't have the capacity to provide it. My reading of this book, like my reading of Beckett's Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, has left a great gaping void where my brain used to reside, but a void more capable of being filled now, because of the beautiful trauma that has been inflicted therein.

Since I am ill-equipped to address the slow-burning, then fast-burning plot, the emotionally deep and most-often tragic characters, or even the many clever uses of metafictional technique throughout, I will concentrate, quite simply, on one of the central conceits of the novel: the music of the composer, Adrian Leverkuhn.

Mann has caught my innermost feelings regarding what I will call "avant-classical" music. The sort composed by Ligeti, Penderecki, Part, Crumb, Xenakis, Schnittke, and Stockhausen. I have a perverse love of this seemingly-nihilistic music, a certain spiteful soft-spot for the naughtiness of it all. The brooding goth that lives behind my heart delights in the sheer transgressiveness of the music, while I take great intellectual interest at the same time, a real fascination that I can't explain, but is a core part of my deep life. It's a mixture of fear and delight, a rarefied emotional state that makes me feel connected with the rest of the cold, dark universe. Mann's prose, while not directly explaining the feelings I feel when I'm listening to such music, hints at them in a sidelong way:

Contagious diseases, plague, black death, were probably not of this planet; as, almost certainly indeed, life itself has not its origin on our glove, but came hither from outside. He, Adrian, had it on the best authority that it came from neighbouring stars which are enveloped in an atmosphere more favourable to it, containing much methane and ammonia, like Jupiter, Mars, and Venus. From them, or from one of them - he left me the choice - life had once, borne by cosmic projectiles or simply by radiation pressure, arrived upon our formerly sterile and innocent planet. My humanistic homo Dei, that crowning achievement of life, was together with his obligations to the spiritual in all probability the product of the marsh-gas fertility of a neighbouring star.

"The flower of evil," I repeated, nodding.

"And blooming mostly in mischief," he added.

Thus he taunted me, not only with my kindly view of the world, but also by persisting in the whimsical pretence of a personal, direct, and special knowledge about the affairs of heaven and earth. I did not know, but I might have been able to tell myself, that all this meant something, meant a new work: namely, the cosmic music which he had in his mind, after the episode of the new songs. It was the amazing symphony in one movement, the orchestral fantasy that he was working out during the last months of 1913 and the first of 1914, and which very much against my expressed wish bore the title
Marvels of the Universe. I was mistrustful of the flippancy of that name and suggested the title Symphonia cosmologica. But Adrian insisted, laughing, on the other, mock-pathetic, ironic name, which certainly better prepared the knowing for the out-and-out bizarre and unpleasant character of the work, even though often these images of the monstrous and uncanny were grotesque in a solemn, formal, mathematical way.

-And again:

. . . a barbaric rudiment from pre-musical days, is the gliding voice, the glissando, a device to be used with the greatest restraint on profoundly cultural grounds; I have always been inclined to sense in it an anti-cultural, anti-human appeal. What I have in mind is Leverkuhn's preference for the glissando. Of course "preference" is not the right word; I only mean that at least in this work, the Apocalypse, he makes exceptionally frequent use of it, and certainly these images of terror offer a most tempting and at the same time most legitimate occasion for the employment of that savage device. In the place where the four voices of the altar order the letting loose of the four avenging angels, who mow down rider and steed, Emperor and Pope, and a third of mankind, how terrifying is the effect of the trombone glissandos which here represent the theme! This destructive sliding through the seven positions of the instrument! The theme represented by howling - what horror! And what acoustic panic results from the repeated drum-glissandos, and effect made possible on the chromatic or machine drum by changing the tuning to various pitches during the drum-roll. The effect is extremely uncanny. But most shattering of all is the application of the glissando to the human voice, which after all was the first target in organizing the tonic material and ridding song of its primitive howling over several notes: the rerun, in short, to this primitive stage, as the chorus of the Apocalypse does it in the form of frightfully shrieking human voices at the opening of the seventh seal, when the sun became black and the moon became as blood and the ships are overturned.

My dark fascination was inflamed as I read and recognized that Mann could convey that which I could not, my love of that dark, mysterious music. His ability to put into words, albeit indirectly, the feelings I feel when listening to this color of music, is, frankly, astounding. And while there were some sections on music theory that baffled me, there were long stretches of prose that enveloped me. The existentialist in me is in love with a good portion of this book. I can see myself hiding in its shadows frequently. Or maybe I can't see myself at all. And maybe that's the point.


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Friday, October 6, 2017

Africa

Well, James Raggi made it official in an announcement sent out to those subscribed to the Lamentations of the Flame Princess E-mail list: I have been working for a good two years on a supplement for a developing line of historical books usable with the Lamentations of the Flame Princess RPG. I won't give the title out until James does, but suffice it to say that I'm finally using my Master's Degree for something directly related to my grad school studies back in the day.

As evidence, I present a few of the piles of books I have researched as I've worked on the project:




Now, this is barely the tip of the iceberg. I pored over literally dozens of volumes researching this. I spent days - DAYS, full 8 hour days, and many of them, in the University of Wisconsin's awesome Memorial Library doing the research for a supplement on West Africa in the 1630's. This is a fairly exhaustive survey of the lands, peoples, and customs of the region ranging east-to-west from the Atlantic coast to present-day Cameroon and north to south from the edge of the Sahara Desert down to the Ivory Coast/Gold Coast/Slave Coast.

My studies in grad school focused mostly on precolonial and early colonial East Africa (though my Master's Thesis was on later colonialism in East Africa), but we were trained to be broadly conversant in African history all the way around the region and for all historical time periods. So I had several courses and wrote several papers on West African history back in the late '90s. Nevertheless, I hit the books hard for this project and poured a great deal of effort into the research, construction, and writing of this survey. I wanted to do something that could go well beyond role-playing games, while retaining RPG use as the primary thrust of the writing.

The initial draft is done, edited, and submitted. I am awaiting another, related project, which I need to leverage, in order to complete my work. This will require a thorough rewrite of one particular section of the book, which I'm actually very excited about. Then, it's on to working with the cartographer for maps, working on the book design, etc. I can't give away the secrets yet, but this projected line of books that James has just announced will be an awesome addition to your LotFP library, your RPG library, or just your plain old library (for those who are history buffs).

I've written the book I wish I had in grad school, at least the one with a focus on early 17th-century West Africa. A huge amount of effort has gone into this - about the same amount of effort that went into writing my Master's Thesis itself, which was an incredible undertaking. I haven't poured this much effort into a book since my novel. And writing this might actually have been more difficult. Actually, yes, it definitely was more difficult. Writing non-fiction is a lot like real work!

More news as it happens and I'm allowed to share it!

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Road

The RoadThe Road by Cormac McCarthy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I co-host the Glowburn podcast; a podcast about post-apocalyptic roleplaying. I've been a fan of the post-apocalyptic genre since I was very young, being raised as the son of a military man during the cold war. It seemed fated that one day the bombs would drop and we would all wake carrying guns openly in the streets fighting four-armed, two-headed mutants with glowing eyes.

Or at least, that's what we wanted to believe.

But that's fantasy.

The Road hits closer to potential reality. And it isn't glitz and guns and heroic escapes. It's about survival and scraping by in a gray, boring landscape where most of the other inhabitants - when you can find them - want to rape you, kill you, then eat you. Every step is tedious and terrifying.

And yet, somehow, McCarthy has carved out a thing of dark beauty here.

Part of the beauty is due to the sheer economy of words the author uses. Much of the dread is unspoken, implied between the words.

He woke whimpering in the night and the man held him.
Shh, he said. Shh. It's okay.
I had a bad dream.
I know.
Should I tell you what it was?
If you want to.
I had this penguin that you wound up and it would waddle and flap its flippers. And we were in that house that we used to live in and it came around the corner but nobody had wound it up and it was really scary.
Okay.
It was a lot scarier in the dream.
I know. Dreams can be really scary.
Why did I have that scary dream?
I don't know. But its okay now. I'm going to put some wood on the fire. You go to sleep.
The boy didn't answer. Then he said: The winder wasnt turning.


Simple, and easy to gloss over, but on reflection, this little vignette is terrifying in that it opens a window on a little boys fear of the unexplained, the inexplicable. And much of the world he inhabits, with his guardian father, goes unexplained. There are many answers to many questions, few of which provide any hope.

So hope has to be made on the fly. Faith has to be lit and stoked from within.

The boy sat tottering. The man watched him that he not topple into the flames. He kicked in the sand for the boy's hips and shoulders where he would sleep and he sat holding him while he tousled his hair before the fire to dry it. All of this like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you've nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.

And this, after the man had washed the boy's hair of the brains of a dead man who had tried to kidnap the boy from his father. Tried . . .

Still, hope is hard to come by.

They scrabbled through the charred ruins of houses they would not have entered before. A corpse floating in the black water of a basement among the trash and rusting duct-work. He stood in a livingroom partly burned and open to the sky. The waterbuckled boards sloping away into the yard. Soggy volumes in a bookcase. He took one down and opened it and then put it back. Everything damp. Rotting. In a drawer he found a candle. No way to light it. He put it in his pocket. He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.

There is no triumph in such a world. Only pyrrhic victory and a dim candleflame of hope against the gale winds of decay.

But there is, in the end, love and memory, which keep that dim flame lit until the last inch of wick is finally, quietly, consumed.

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Thursday, September 21, 2017

Stealing Cthulhu

Stealing CthulhuStealing Cthulhu by Graham Walmsley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Years ago, I learned a number of surrealist games meant to spur creativity and put one’s mind into a frame where those playing the games could see the world in new and surprising ways. For example, “n+7” is a game in which one takes a text, say a paragraph from a novel, and identifies all the nouns. After this, the player grabs the nearest dictionary and looks up the first noun. Then, in the dictionary, the reader counts the next seven nouns and inserts the seventh noun for the one in the original text. This is an excellent way to spur the brain into an entirely different mode of thinking, having a form of logic, but with illogical, even jarring, signposts along the read.

Now imagine taking the already strange works of H.P Lovecraft, Ramsey Campbell, and Colin Wilson, pulling elements out, decontextualizing, then re-contextualizing them. Vary the levels of granularity (from such elements as a mythos monster, to a specific trait of a mythos monster, from a thematic element to a specific setting, for example), and you instantly have a multifaceted mythos mixing board from which you can subtract, to which you can add, wherein you can focus or blur – you get the picture.

This, along with the "Playing the Game" section of the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook should give enough tools to any would-be horror writer (whether of games or fiction) to create a fantastic breadth of work that still retains its core “Lovecraftiness”.

This is all well and good, but my introduction to the work here seems far too mechanical. As I review books, I always like to take notes to inform my later review of the book. In this case, though, I want to give my updates to you in their raw, unadulterated form. Not because I’m lazy (though I am), but because I cannot effectively convey the utter delight I felt in reading this book, not from the post-reading perspective. This book made a strong impression on me, and I think it best to show that via the notes I made in real-time. So, here they are:

“This is one of the best arguments for plagiarism . . . er, adaption of another's material that I've ever read.”

“Well, this is definitely whisking away my reading time. Easy read, great advice.”

“The color out of space is quickly becoming my favorite "bad" guy.”

“Ah, I see, this is where we take the wisdom gleaned from earlier chapters and apply it to specific creatures of the mythos. Good stuff. I like that structure - helps the lessons to really sink in.”

“Leveraging Flying Polyps as representations of elemental creatures. Interesting. Hadn't thought of that. And substituting other elemental creatures (fire, earth, water, ???) in the seminal story "The Shadow Out of Time" to turn it into an adventure - simple, yet brilliant. Walmsley is giving a textbook lesson in adventure writing here. So glad I hunted down a hard copy of this book.”

In essence, I loved it. I can't recommend it strongly enough. And I am really glad I bought the hard copy (good luck - they're out there, but they're not cheap, and you can have mine when you pry it from my cold, dead hands). I will be returning to this book again and again. It is definitely making it near the top of my list of books about writing (which I normally despise), whether for games or for fiction. Apply these techniques to any genre you can imagine, heck, it's probably best to intentionally cross genre lines while using them. The possibilities are . . . expansive.

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Sunday, September 17, 2017

Speaker for the Dead

Speaker for the Dead (Ender's Saga, #2)Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s been just under five years since I first read Ender’s Game at my kid’s bequest. As I pointed out in my review, the last chapter of that book, which occurred after all the action, was the part of the book that I found most compelling (and which pushed my assessment from a mere 3 stars up to 4). I mentioned this to my kids and they, having read almost all the books in the “Ender” series, told me that I should read Speaker for the Dead, that I would enjoy it much more than I did Ender’s Game.

They were right!

While far from perfect, I found Speaker for the Dead far more interesting and complex than the punch-‘em-in-the-face shoot-‘em-up that was the prequel. I had expected Card to take a condescending tone and to push his religious views on the reader, but found that Ender’s philosophy and the tackling of religious, moral, and political themes that predominate throughout, was much more subtle and nuanced than I expected. I also found the complexity of relationships and the navigation thereof to be, if not altogether believable, given the timelines involved, interesting and surprising.

To give a plot outline would involve me accidentally spoilering things that I ought not, and others have addressed the plot adequately already. Like many good works of literature, the plot doesn’t really matter all that much – it’s a platform from which Card explores, more than anything, the notion of forgiveness and compassion. There were moments that I found emotionally affecting, and was brought near tears more than once. It is not a comfortable read, and anyone who is paying attention to their own reaction as they read it will find that one’s emotions run strong. Some will feel manipulated. Others will feel guilty. Others will try to blow off their feelings and accuse the writer of being shallow and even callous. Still others will become angry. Just take a look at all the Goodread’s reviews! In any case, this book has a way of getting “under the skin” and provoking a reaction.

I know a lot of authors who would love to get that kind of reaction from their readers, this one included.


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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

A Collapse of Horses

A Collapse of HorsesA Collapse of Horses by Brian Evenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've made no secret of the fact that I love Brian's work; both his non-fiction and his fiction. I've published his work myself not once, but twice. I've only had the chance to meet him in person once, many years ago, but have had correspondence with him off and on for a long time now. He even let me have the honor of accepting the International Horror Guild Award on his behalf when he couldn't make it to a convention I was attending. So I might be a little biased. But only a little; even if he appears in my personal appendix N. I try to be objective when I read Brian's work, which means that, at times, I am a harsher critic than I ought to be. Then, along comes a story that entirely blows my mind and, well, there goes any semblance of objectivity or decorum, for that matter.

And what did I think of this collection? Brian's The Wavering Knife is one of my favorite single-author collections of all time, so A Collapse of Horses is up against its own stiff competition. Here are my thoughts on each story:

The structure (though not the subject matter) of "Black Bark" is reminiscent of the opening and closing sequence of the Twilight Zone movie, but much, much more scary. Wanna see something really scary? Four stars.

"A Report" is Kafka . . . *cough* *cough* Evenson at his most Kafka-esque. It's the absence of punishment that makes the torture portrayed here so excruciating. Four stars for "A Report".

"The Punish" is a story of bullying. And a story of revenge, sort of. But it doesn't play out quite how you'd expect. There is little of vengeful anger, little emotion at all, involved. At the center of it all is the sense of what's fair, what tit-for-tat comprises and how it plays out over the long term. Like much of Evenson's work, it is brutal in its lack of emotion. Five stars.

A tragedy that is not a tragedy is all the more tragic because it is not, in "A Collapse of Horses". Five stars.

"Three Indignities". Yes. Yes they are. Four cringe worthy stars that made me flinch and tremble, especially after having experienced one of them immediately after my back surgery, a few years ago. I did not care to relive that.

Using "Cult" as the title of this story may be the most clever use of a title I've seen in a while. Not the best Evenson story, but it still creeps into four star territory.

"Seaside Town" is an eerie, dissociative story that may or may not involve time travel. It reminds me of the work of Roland Topor, particularly The Tenant. A four star stay at the seaside town.

"The Dust" has a sense of paranoia that is almost palpable. It's a claustrophobic psychological horror story in a science-fictional setting. Fairly straightforward, by Evenson's standards, and yet flawlessly written to unfold a psychotic narrative that reminded me, simultaneously, of Pandorum and Carpenter's The Thing, but exactly not either of those. Four stars.

Don't judge a story by it's title! "BearHeartTM" was way less stupid and way more scary than I thought it would be from the title. Four stars, and a nod to Talky Tina.

"Scour" will . . . er, scour your soul. Evenson's ability to put the reader in the protagonist's head and cause the reader to, with her, willingly make the emotional phase shift from fear to sheer absence of will, is a draining spectacle to behold and be a part of. Four stars.

"Torpor" was a bit of grotesquery that I just didn't much care for. But you always have to admire Evenson's technically-perfect execution. Three stars.

"Past Reno" is clearly a riff on Lovecraft's idea of man's inability to correlate all the contents of the mind, along with the notion that what is off-screen is often more terrifying than what is right before you. But I've seen this done even more effectively elsewhere (though I can't for the life of me remember the title of the story that appeared in Ellen Datlow's Year's Best Fantasy and Horror that used redactions to horrifying effect - I'd be indebted if someone could help me remember what that story was and who wrote it. It was brilliant.). Still, a solid four star story.

"Any Corpse" will make you laugh, if you have as sick a sense of humor as me. I'm reminded of Evenson's Dark Property, but with a wry grin that quickly fades into a grimace. Five stars.

Many writers try to relay the feelings and sensations one encounters in a hallucinogenic experience. Evenson is one of the very, very few that actually catch the sensation of displacement that one feels during those experiences. Then he takes it two steps further, causing the reader to question reality itself in "The Moans". This is the PERFECT Evenson story, something transcendent. Five stars.

"The Window" appeared in the Fearful Symmetries anthology. Evenson hits the theme right in the middle in this ghost(?) story. Four stars.

"Click" is my new favorite Brian Evenson story. It may become one of my favorite short stories of all time. The sense of disassociative insanity is a fugue of unreliable narration, a drowning flood of swirling irrealities. I want someone to turn this into a black and white noir movie. No, not "someone". Definitely David Lynch working with the Brothers Quay. No one else could do it justice. Five gray supergiant stars!

I think I just read a Brian Evenson vampire story in "The Blood Drip". I think so, but I'm not sure. It ties in well with the opening story of the book and provides a thematic thread tying the beginning to the middle to the end, but it just didn't have the "pop" and "smarts" that I expect of Evenson's work. Three stars.

All told, that's a 4.1 average. And while I absolutely love "Click" (which should go in the end-of-the-world master textbook on how to write a short story) and "The Moans", I can't justify bumping it up to five stars. Though "The Blood Drip" and "Black Bark" bookend the collection and "A Collapse of Horses" provides a third equine leg to stand on, the various voices of the collection, the incongruous tones created by the overly-eclectic manuscripts, just didn't "bring it all together" for me. I think what we have here is two collections mashed into one: 1) stories that are more "clever" and sometimes downright funny and, 2) the more somber and grim (yet more linguistically playful) tones. My brain couldn't reconcile the two in such close proximity to each other. I appreciate both for what they are, but the two tended to repel each other, rather than pull the collection tighter together.

Still, four stars. And you're a fool if you don't rush out right now and find "Click" and "The Moans", whether in this collection or in their original incarnations. As usual, even with intervening weaknesses, Evenson proves that he is one of the greatest artists of the short story form alive today.


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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Head of Vitus Bering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Inhabitant of the Lake & Other Unwelcome Tenants

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

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

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

Enough of sentiment. On to the stories.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Quay Brothers' Universum

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Monday, July 10, 2017

The Endless Fall and Other Weird Fictions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pun intended.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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