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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