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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