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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