Saturday, June 9, 2018

Cthulhu: Dark Fantasy, Horror & Supernatural Movies

Cthulhu: Dark Fantasy, Horror & Supernatural Movies (Gothic Dreams)Cthulhu: Dark Fantasy, Horror & Supernatural Movies by Gordon Kerr
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My introduction to Cthulhu and H.P. Lovecraft's work came in 1982 when a friend in junior high school handed me a copy of Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, vol. 1. I drank it up, digested it, and developed a taste that has lasted for a long time. With age, though, I'm wondering if it hasn't lost a little of its savor. Maybe it's just that when I discovered Lovecraft, it was rare . . . extremely rare . . . to find anyone else who had even heard of Cthulhu. Now, he's everywhere. I don't want to sound like the curmudgeonly old guy who complains about how things used to be, but the ubiquity of Lovecraftiana has probably made me a little lazy in the imagination. With the possibility of bombarding all the senses with all things Mythos-related, maybe my senses have had enough.

That's not to say that I didn't find this book enjoyable. I enjoyed the art a great deal. And the fact that a friend gifted me the book makes it all the more sweet (thanks, Tom - love ya, dude). Some of the pieces in this book are outstanding. Peter Siedl's Dark Young is an iconic piece - one that every Mythos lover should have on hand. And Cloud Quinot's image of a Prometheus-scale statue of Cthulhu will throw the hardened Lovecraft-phile into brooding meditation. Rick Sardinha's greyscale of a squatting Cthulhu enveloped in stars is dark and suitably mysterious.

But some of the images cheapen Lovecraft's creation. There's really just no other way to characterize it. Bringing Cthulhu entirely into the light makes the Old One just not that scary. And it's the initial frisson I had while first reading "The Call of Cthulhu" that I enjoy.

Perhaps I'm jaded. The (too) many narrative sections were much too conversational and casual for my tastes and left me feeling like I had just been read a wikipedia article by someone who was trying too hard to be my friend. Don't get me wrong: it's a valuable introduction to Cthulhu, but for one who's been exploring this creature/milieu for decades now, it's just a bit too twee. I'd say if you're a hardened veteran of the psychic wars*, this book isn't for you. If you're new to Cthulhu and Lovecraft, this is a good stepping stone. Welcome to R'lyeh.

*No, the song I've linked has nothing to do with Cthulhu, but I'll take any excuse to point you toward one of my favorite guitar solos of all time.

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Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Traitor's Purse

Traitor's Purse (Albert Campion Mystery #11)Traitor's Purse by Margery Allingham
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked this book up on a lark. I happened to be in a book store in Door County and saw this mystery on the cheap paperback shelf and thought "I haven't read a good mystery in a while. I'll give it a try."

Keep in mind that Traitor's Purse is one in a series of mystery novels about Albert Campion. I had no knowledge of the background of the character. I swore that if I got too lost and felt that I would need to back-read one of the preceding novels, I was going to lem the book. Thankfully, that didn't happen.

The reason is, the main character starts out waking up in a hospital bed with no memory of why he is there or even who he is (I've kind of experienced this myself, after my back surgery years ago). Tabula Rasa right from the get-go; we learn to know Albert Campion as he gets to know himself. And it sort of works.

I have to wonder, though, how much of the plot Allingham actually knew as she wrote the novel. It seems to meander, at times, with several oddly-placed sidenotes. Toward the end, things felt thrown-together. The reveal-ation of Campion's memories is very, very clumsy. It could have been much better had I felt that Allingham had a stronger auctorial voice. Strength of prose can carry an otherwise mediocre work to new heights, especially in a mystery novel (or, at least, it did in the few mystery novels I have read). I kept hoping that the novel would resolve itself more strongly and really come together, but it never really did.

I am, of course, lacking all context. Maybe if I had read a Campion novel or two before, or even one after, I might have a stronger connection with the plot. But maybe this is why I largely don't like reading series - give me what I need as a reader, please. In the words of Queen: "I want it all, and I want it now!"

I enjoyed the novel, but was often confused. More confused than I felt I ought to be. The most appropriate quote to describe how I felt is found in the book itself:

"He was trying to fit together a jigsaw puzzle without knowing what sort of picture the pieces were expected to make."

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Thursday, May 24, 2018

Occultation and Other Stories

Occultation and Other StoriesOccultation and Other Stories by Laird Barron
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Barron is a writers' writer. Believe me. Writing is hard work, and one can clearly see the results of Barron's efforts. It's a mean trick to be able to write so beautifully, and yet so brutally. The universe of Occultation and Other Stories fits in a dark niche between Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows," Brian Evenson's Dark Property, and Hemingway. It's a rough and tumble corner on the interstitial edge between body horror and high literary tradition, with some elements of cosmic horror. Though his work has been called "Lovecraftian" (a term I am beginning to hate), Laird Barron's work is so much more than that. It is far from pastiche, and his writing chops are far better than old H.P.'s.

Take, for example, the first story in the collection. How do you take a novel's worth of sweeping cosmic horror on an epoch scale and a deep-reaching character relationship and cram it all into a 27 page story? I have no idea. But if you read "The Forest," you can see the results. Here, Barron out-Lovecraft's Lovecraft, but without the treacle. This is a horror short that is as fulfilling as any literary novel, if not more fulfilling (and with hardly any "filler"). Five not-everlasting, but very long-lasting stars. Enough time to see constellations reshape themselves.

The title story shows a deft, deceptive hand, using anecdotal side stories and strange shadows to distract the reader long enough and convincingly enough to sneak up and smack the reader in the back of the head with the ending. Four stars for "Occultation".

"The Lagerstatte" is Barron at his subtley-rotting, understated, insidious best. Danni, the protagonist, may or may not be coming out of, or at least working her way through a fugue-state brought on by the accidental deaths of her husband and son, compounded by a long history of family misfortune. It's an excruciating tale, but wrapped up in familial "softness". Five stars.

"Mysterium Tremendum" is one of the best stories of cosmic horror I have read in a long time. Take Blackwood's force of nature, Lovecraft's cosmic scale and alien-ness, Ligotti's pessimism, add a layer of sheer terror and outright creepiness and you will start to get the idea. But that's only the start. Add depth of character and plausibility of setting and you've hit the 2nd layer. But there is so much more. Five stars.

I wondered at the title "Catch Hell," at first. But I can't think of a more appropriate title for this occult-drenched folk-horror story of oedipa-electrall revenge(???). Somehow, Barron has made every character in this story broken; every character a perpetrator, and every character a victim. Five stars.

When avant garde performance art goes wrong and the observer becomes the subject, "Strappado" is the result. Horrific for its understatement, this tale will work into your brain and leave all sorts of uncomfortable holes. Five brutal stars that I'd like to forget, but can't.

What is "The Broadsword"? A story, the name of a hotel, a weapon cutting through the veil around this world. It is a ghost story, an alien invasion, a revelation of cosmic terror, and a deep dive into drunkenness and insanity. It is all of these things, all at once, so sudden that the lines between them is indistinct, but slowly unfolding, like a cancer of thought and soul. Five stars.

"--30--" is as visceral, brutal, as primal a story as I've ever read. I'm still not sure if the narrator was insane or not, whether it was not all some grand hallucination. And, whether it was hallucination or reality, was it all engineered by the government or not? And how to Toshi and Beasley, from the first story in this collection, figure into all of this? Are they only peripheral or is there something going on in the off-stage shadows with these two? With so many questions left unanswered, one must ask "but did you like it with all these questions"? Yes, I liked it because of the questions! Five stars

"Six, Six, Six" blindsides you. Who is the bad guy or gal? What is evil? Who, even, is the protagonist? Tough questions, none of which are answered by the last, stunning line of the story. This thing was crafted and crafted well. You can feel the work that was poured into this story, but you can't see the cut marks on the marble, so to speak. Brilliant story, brilliantly written. Five stars.

Yes, you can see the work that went into these stories, but they are so clean and smooth in their execution that you don't notice the chisel marks. That is the beauty of Barron's craft and what sets his work above that of most of his contemporaries, especially those writing in the horror and dark fiction genres. Few are his equal. Precious few.

I don't think there is such a thing as a "good guy" in Barron's stories. At least not in this collection. The vagaries are so well conceived, though, that the reader finds himself spinning in circles in the dark, waiting for a blow to the back that may or may not come. It's a chilling sensation, and worth experiencing again!

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Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Looming Low Volume I

Looming Low Volume ILooming Low Volume I by Justin Steele
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Back in the early 2000s, there was a proliferation of speculative short fiction anthologies, a couple of which I edited. It was a kind of golden age where the internet was available as a tool, but it had not yet been saturated by so much dreck; a time when an author (or editor) still strove to have their work published in hardcopy, but when electronic communication (mostly in the form of message boards) allowed one to get one's name "out there" without having to spend a mint doing it.

When I saw the premise and cover of Looming Low, Volume 1, my heart skipped a beat. Or, rather, my heart hearkened back to those days of yore when Leviathan, Redsine, Polyphony, Flesh & Blood, Earwig Flesh Factory, Indigenous Fiction, and many, many others were within easy reach, if you knew where to look. I knew that Sam Cowan's Dim Shores press had been attracting a bevy of "name" horror authors, as well, so I thought I'd take a chance, albeit a fairly "safe" chance, since I knew that a few of these authors were going to have quality work included.

Story by story, here are my notes:

This is the first story I've ever read by Kurt Fawver. "The Convexity of Our Youth" uses a Millhauserian voice to tell a tale of transformation of children into orange balls. The syntax is satisfying and on the paragraph-level the writing is spectacular. But the story itself just wasn't to my liking. Too bland for such mechanically great writing. Three stars.

A.C. Wise "The Stories We Tell About Ghosts" was overly predictable, some of the kids in the story didn't speak like kids, and the plot was lackluster. The writing was technically sound, but had no real distinctive voice, nothing to set it apart. Two very disappointed stars.

Michael Wehunt's "In Canada" is a disturbing peek into the innocent mind of insanity, especially regarding questions of identity. It's a little predictable, but provides an excellent glimpse into the inner world of one gone mad vis-a-vis an outer world gone mad. Four stars.

As I've come to expect from Brian Evenson, his story "The Second Door" is exceptional. My favorite so far. Mix a vaguely post-apocalyptic setting with a narrator who may be slipping from reality, or, possibly reality is slipping away from him (or, perhaps, this strange reality is very real), then throw in the quandary of a language breakdown, and you've got a recipe for a beautiful disaster. Five stars.

Mill's "The Christiansen Deaths" was pretty standard fare, with an ending paragraph that showed a reaction that just seemed to accept the outre as very matter-of-fact. This lessened the impact of the story greatly. Still, it was well told. Three stars.

Betty Rocksteady's "Dusk Urchin" is a surreal (in the classic sense of the word) horror that relies on the unsteady mind of the main protagonist. The atmosphere is excellent and the fragility of the main character makes for an excellent unreliable narrator. At times the voice felt a little forced, but maybe that was the intent of the author. Four stars.

"The Gin House, 1935," by Livia Llewellyn, is the tale of Lillian, whose life, badly lived, becomes a transformation back into . . . Ah, ah, ah! No spoilers. Five stars for this tricky tale.

"This Unquiet Space" did absolutely nothing for me. Just nothing. Two stars.

Sunny Moraine's "We Grope Together, and Avoid Speech" is a plotless sketch, though sketch isn't the right word - perhaps "tableaux" about walls of mouths. It's as weird as it sounds, and creepy, both because of the delight the narrator takes in the description of these strange . . .entities, and because of the devious invitation at the end, where readers become implied characters in the not-story as the fourth wall itself melts away. Five stars!

"Heirloom," by Brooke Warra, is a morbidly poignant story about twins literally separated at birth. While separated, though, they are never fully apart. And that is the horror of it all. Weird folk horror. Four stars.

There's more than a little absurdism in Lucy A. Snyder's "That Which Doesn't Kill You". But it's not so ridiculous that it strays into pure silliness. Four stars.

Codependence, conspiracy, and slippage between realities dominate Simon Strantzas' outstanding tale "Doused by Night". There is a lot of density to this packed short story, with a whole unseen plot-between-the-lines undergirding the surface plot(s). Five stars.

Kaaron Warren's "We Are All Bone Inside," while well-fleshed out (readers will note the irony of that phrase), didn't do a lot for me. Three stars.

Lisa L. Hannett's "Outside, a Drifter," is not my usual fare. I've never been a huge fan of "body horror," but this story can't be pigeon-holed that easily. It is a strange sort of dark fantasy story about love and sacrifice and business. The folksy cadence of the story is an acquired taste, but I found it satisfying in the end. Four stars.

Lristi DeMeester's "The Small Deaths of Skin and Plastic" was strange and creepy, but lacked substance. Three stars is all I can muster for this story.

Scott Nicolay's "When the Blue Sky Breaks," outside of some clever syntactical moves, was decidedly "meh" for me. A rather weak story with linguistic potential. Two stars.

I admit it: I'm a bit of a prude when it comes to my literature. So I'm not big on erotica or sex scenes. But Craig Laurance Gidney's "Mirror Bias" is so incredibly well-written, I'll give it a pass. A big pass. A five star pass. The writing is exquisitely beautiful. I will be seeking more of Gidney's work, for sure. He is a masterful wordsmith.

"Boisea Trivittata" by Anya Martin was good. But I've seen this trick before. Ann VanderMeer and Jonathan Carroll both did similar things many years ago, and they did it better. It wasn't a bad story, just a tiny, tiny bit hackneyed (although I suppose that using the word "hackneyed" means it's been done many, many times before). If you haven't read VanderMeer's or Carroll's stories, then you might like this better than I did. Three stars.

Michael Cisco's scintillating "Rock N' Roll Death Squad" is a study in ultraviolence that belies the supposed exhiliration of mass murder. It's a bit like seeing A Clockwork Orange from the inside out, but lacking pathos - a horrifying thought indeed! Unfortunately this also means it doesn't really connect enough with the reader on an emotional level, though it explodes in the brain, more jazz than blues. Four stars.

"Alligator Point," by S.P. Miskowski has a cinematic sensibility. I could easily see this turned into a short movie. It's the sort of psychological tension-builder that Hitchcock would have loved. Four stars.

Jeffrey Thomas's "Stranger in the House" delves into the abyss of self-identity and its loss. It's a good story, well-written, but not as impressive as most of Thomas's work. For that, turn to The Endless Fall and other Weird Fictions. I hate to do this, because I really do love most of Thomas's work, but in this case, I can only honestly give three stars.

Christopher Slatsky's "SPARAGMOS" explores the shadows of dementia, family, and corporate evil. It's a disturbing, yet mildly comforting view of a dystopia and the mercy of forgetfulness. Four stars.

Richard Gavin's "Banishments" is an excellent foray into social media deception and its supernatural consequences. A very creepy story, I found myself thumbing back every couple of pages seeking more clarity on what had happened earlier. It might have been the piece-meal way in which I had to read the story (because: life), but it felt a little muddled at the beginning. Still fully worthy of four stars, though!

One of my favorites in this anthology, "The Sound of Black Dissects the Sun," by Michael Griffin is focused on dark ambient music (which I listen to a lot) and the occult. It's a reality-bender with a narrator that I felt some sympathy for, which might say some disagreeable things about me. Flattery aside, the pacing, atmosphere, and voice were just about perfect. The story "fits itself" well. Five stars.

I admit that when I started Nadia Bulkin's "Live Through This," I was underwhelmed, at first. By the end, however, I found myself swept up by this story of communal guilt in the face of the void. This was a long, slow burn sort of story that lasts, with a very satisfying character arc and a sort of folk-horror creepiness throughout, but folk horror from the inside. Well worth the read and well worth five stars.

Gemma Files' "Distant, Dark Places" is everything I expect a Gemma Files story to be: well-researched, with characters exhibiting a range of human emotions, and conspiracy-horror on a cosmic scale. You'll never look at the moon and stars the same way after reading this. Four stars.

On average, that's about three stars. And, though the book came with a beautiful bookmark and cardstock poster of the cover, I'm not inclined to bump it up. Bulkin, Griffin, Gidney, Strantzas, Moraine, Llewellyn, and Evenson have produced some outstanding work here. And many of the other stories might be five-star tales, in another reader's eyes. But the lows were, well, pretty low. And while I'm certain that other readers will look at my own edited anthologies and think that some of my selections were suspect, at best, I have to stick to my guns. Perhaps my taste has changed a little. Or maybe it hasn't changed at all, and it's just been that long since I've seen an outpouring of the sort of thing I love. In any case, I can't let nostalgia blind me.

That said, this anthology has encouraged me to take up editing again. Things are still in the nascent stages, but plans are afoot. Dark, nefarious plans . . .

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Saturday, May 5, 2018

Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto

Party of One: The Loners' ManifestoParty of One: The Loners' Manifesto by Anneli Rufus
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Most people who meet me in person have a hard time believing that I self-identify as a loner. They see me as pretty gregarious and comfortable in most social situations, even among total strangers. I'm not terminally shy, as they say.

But, in all honesty, I am very comfortable, MOST comfortable, being alone. Thankfully, my wife understands this about me and knows that there are stretches when I'd rather go down to my writing area and spend time there, writing pen in hand, trying to churn out books and games and books for games, more than anything else in the world. And those times come often. Being around people takes energy away from me. I have to give the energy. It is when I am alone that I recharge, where I find my spiritual/emotional reserve. Again, this doesn't mean I'm anti-social - far from it - but I am very careful about where and how and how often I expend my energy to be in the presence of others for long stretches. As a child, books were among my best friends. And I loved nothing more than to get on my bike, alone, and go exploring. That was the height of pleasure for me as a young one. And as a teenager living in England, I loved taking the train and bus down to London to go explore, again, alone. Of course, I did these things with other friends, as well, but I was often more than comfortable being my own best friend. And I still am.

So when I saw the title: Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto, I felt compelled to read the book. Even loners want to find "kindred souls", to be validated for their feelings, and to enjoy others' lone experiences (from a respectable distance). Note carefully where the apostrophe falls in the title. Loners want to know about other loners. Ironic? You be the judge.

Rufus covers a broad range of topics. One that struck me was the culture or anti-culture of being alone. I had not thought about how my life as a loner is facilitated by the idea of American individualism. I couldn't live as a Japanese person, for example, and be mentally healthy. At least I wouldn't be viewed that way. And I wouldn't have that American ideal to fall back on when my natural state was hedged by the notion of community-above-all. This makes me think about all the places I've lived and how this relates. I was raised in the military, having lived in Germany, the Philippines, Italy, and England, as well as in the south, midwest, east, and west before I had turned 21. And I mean lived in, not just visited. Every few years Dad would get orders and we would move. It's just what we did. People sometimes ask if it was hard, and I reply "I don't think so. It was just life. I didn't know any other way." Partially as a result of these frequent moves, I learned to live with and like myself. Perhaps this was a way of dealing with a life wherein my group of friends was constantly shifting, where I wasn't sure if I would ever see any of my childhood friends again in my lifetime (and I haven't seen most of them. In fact, it's extremely rare for me to see any childhood friends because we are scattered all over the planet and I am enough of a loner to have avoided High School reunions my whole life). Underlying all of this movement, though, was the idea, entrenched in my head, that I was American - my father was a member of the US military, and I was raised with this from day one, how could I not identify with the stars and stripes when it was all that I had known?

These first sections of the book were different than I expected, mostly in a good way. Rufus' insight into the layers of the loner/non-loner dichotomy, especially as they relate to popular culture, are compelling. I had not made the connection that most pop culture worships the loner (because pop culture is created by loners, for the most part), while at the same time being marketed to the non-loner crowd. I had to think about that for a while. But how else do you account for the burgeoning of "geek culture"? Not that all geeks are loners (far from it), but there is, I suspect, a much higher proportion of people who identify as "geeks" who are loners. I don't have any evidence for this, but it seems like a safe supposition.

On the subject of friends, Rufus points out that, yes, loners have friends, some very good friends. But they tend to choose depth over breadth, and their friends need to understand when the loner needs to be alone. My experience, exactly. I never quite understood those who held what I thought were multiple shallow friendships. I always looked for something deeper with the few friends that I had, sometimes at the cost of great heartbreak.

While Rufus did strike some familiar chords in me, the book, by and large, missed the mark. I have to register strong disagreement with p. 107, 1st full para, last sentence. Here, the author speaks of internet usage (which she calls "an absolute and total miracle" for loners). In examining the thoughts of those who criticize the use of the Internet because it keeps children from enjoying the outdoors, Rufus states:

they claim [the Internet] keeps kids from playing healthy games outdoors. They say it is a procurer for perverts, a weapon in hate crimes. Underlying all this, of course, is the real reason for their dismay: The Internet legitimizes solitude. The real problem is not that kids don't play outdoors, but that they do not play with other kids.

I understand the sentiment that led to this, but it's hyperbolic in the extreme. And this hyperbole, along with the assignation of ill-intent to those who don't understand loners, gets really tedious throughout. The book is passionate, but heavily flawed. And the reason for the flaws is that it is over-passionate. There's a lot of catastrophizing on the part of the author, a sensationalist approach that is intended to put non-loners in a bad light for thinking such evil thoughts against loners.

In later chapters, Rufus points out that many criminals, particularly violent criminals, are automatically labeled "loner" when, in fact, their need for social attention drives them to their acts. It is terribly ironic that many who kill do so because they lack meaningful relationships with others. Still, the militant stance against media and police who make the false assumption that every serial killer is a loner is a bit off-putting. The writing here, at times, reminds me of why I hate The Catcher in the Rye so bloody much.

The chapter on artists is fantastic. There is an eloquent series of anecdotes about how artists tend to be loners (though not always). And this, on artists, is compelling:

Artists hear what no one else hears. They see what no one else sees. They say what no one else says. They must. And to do this, they traffic in the slippery yield of their own souls. They bring to earth the wrack and lode of depths that only they can reach and still come back alive.

This is the kind of passion I can get behind!

Unfortunately, Rufus falls, yet again, into the trap of making assumptions about how masses of other people feel. The chapter on religion is a train-wreck, full of a whole litany of falsehoods and bad assumptions about loners and religion. At least she had the sense to quote Thomas Merton, but it isn't enough to save that chapter. It's a morass.

In her defense, Rufus does hit on some emotionally tough subjects that hit close to the heart. The whole idea of loners being viewed as crazy is an uncomfortable one to face, especially when one prides himself on being a loner and maybe a touch different, though not altogether insane. This is a deep emotional kernel of self-identity that I had to view through the microscope and am still thinking about, especially with the recent death of my parents, one of whom, my Mother, was clinically depressed and had borderline personality disorder her whole life. Being viewed as a touch crazy doesn't much bother me. In fact, I wear that badge proudly! But being viewed as outright nuts because I prefer to spend time with myself and lock myself away for hours on end (particularly when engaged in creative endeavors), that has the potential to hurt.

Sane or not, is book worth your reading time? Perhaps. For those who self-identify as loners, take this with a big grain of salt. Rufus' militancy might not reflect your own feelings. I know it didn't reflect mine. Maybe if I was still a teenager, I could get behind her rancor a bit more, but I'm over that phase. And for non-loners who read the book: please don't assume that every loner you know feels the same way as Rufus about how you view them. It's simply not true. What is true is that all of us are complex, subtly-shaded individuals, some of whom would rather be in a dark corner for awhile, alone, re-energizing.

So don't be offended when I ask you, maybe quite bluntly, to leave me alone! We'll all be better for it. Ugly caterpillars become beautiful butterflies when they come out of the cocoon. But they have to undergo their marvelous transformation all alone.



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Thursday, April 5, 2018

The Cathedral of Mist

The Cathedral of MistThe Cathedral of Mist by Paul Willems
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Willems was called "A sorrowful, distinctly Belgian Italo Calvino". I don't take this lightly, as Calvino is one of my favorite authors of all time. So I went into this little volume reading with my emotional and intellectual guards up.

They didn't stay up for long. They couldn't. What my heart shielded me from, my mind let slip past. And when my thoughts were strong, I melted, emotionally. These works wove their way through me until I thought, by the end, that perhaps I was the titular Cathedral of Mist.

The opening story,"Requiem for Bread," is sorrowful and beautiful, a plaintive story of love, longing, and death. The title acts as a kind of magnifying glass to the tale itself, focusing one in on its disarming simplicity, while opening the reader to a shocking, yet touching, emotional state. It is a dream of a story; exquisite.

"An Archbishop's Flight" is a journey into northern decadence, as if Huysmans had gone to the arctic to die and kept a journal until the very end. A delightful dream-state vignette. There was no real plot to speak of, but that isn't the point of this type of story, is it?

"Cherepish" is agonizing tragedy distilled down to the last paragraph. What a gut-punch! The dreamlike imagery and slow, methodical pace caused me to let my emotional guard down even further, then "Pop!" - like an unexpected kick straight to the ghoulies! This story broke me. It left me on my knees, in agony, wondering what hit me.

"In the Horses Eye" is a beautiful and awe-full story narrated in a voice somewhere between Algernon Blackwood and Calvino. Gorgeous and dark, this story venerates the power of words and our potential intimacy with them.

"The Palace of Emptiness" is . . . "squicky" is the word that comes to mind. An abandonment of love for the soul-shattered void of co-dependence. There is no hope in this story. None at all. It is the most uncomfortable thing I've read in a while. Horror writers would do well to look, not at the subject matter here, but the emotional state generated by Willems' words. When your writing leaves the reader in the same state, you might just have something worth publishing there.

"The Cathedral of Mist" is compelling and smacks strongly of Borges. It isn't quite magic realism, nor is it truly "surreal" in the strictest sense. But it is weird, rife with things that should not be, but are. This isn't to say that it is a dark tale. Far from it. I found it rather light and airy, despite the ominous title and explicitly dark setting. But there is, because of this strange optimistic taint, a strong sense of loss, in the end. And, in fact, this story is, really, all about loss: The tangible evidence of a miracle can never be erased quickly enough. Miracles belong only to the moment, and live on only in memory.

After the six stories, two essays, one on reading, and one on writing, are included. Here, the intellectual echoes of Calvino are strongest, particularly Calvino's Six Memos for the Next Millenium. Willems' chapter on Reading is the most beautiful reflection on the act I have ever read, which sounds almost incestuous but is perfectly right in so many ways. It really is beautiful. For example, this paragraph:

Time's traces are everywhere in the libraries of old houses . . . libraries are dials of darkness and shadow whose hours I like to picture as blue or violet, slowly dyeing the pages of their books. Extraordinarily evocative remnants.

Willem's essay on writing is, like the very act itself, a burbling up of disparate thoughts that somehow form a coherent idea. But what that idea is, exactly, will differ from writer to writer and reader to reader.

I find myself closing this book as if waking from a dream. And like some mornings, I just want to crawl back into bed, close my eyes, and dream some more.


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Thursday, March 22, 2018

Haunted by Books

Haunted by BooksHaunted by Books by Mark Valentine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How could a true bibliophile resist such a title as Haunted by Books? Add the fact that it was written by Mark Valentine and the siren's lure was irresistible. Having recently read Valentine's stellar collection The Nightfarers, I was altogether hypnotized by the prospect. One might say "possessed".

But, like all unrealistic expectations, some aspect of anticipated pleasures are bound to disappoint. Thankfully, the disappointments here are few.

For example, the chapter on Aickman I found to be a bit of a stretch. The exposition on a couple of lines of Aickman's writing, lauding the complexity hidden beneath so few words, just wasn't very convincing to me. Aickman's a great writer, but looking at the same text as Valentine, I think he's stretching the evidence to the breaking point.

And if Valentine was hoping to encourage me to read Vernon Knowles' work, his attempt was a spectacular failure. If he was warning me away from it, mission accomplished! Still, a poignant story.

I also had a hard time seeing the influence of hermeticism in Vansittart's work, judging purely from Valentine's essay. I'm sure he is a fine writer, but how can you title an essay "Secret Names: The Hermetic Fiction of Peter Vansittart" and not have a hint of hermeticism in the essay? I felt a little cheated by the title, though it did spawn in me a number of thoughts which I shall be taking down in my writing notebook. So it's not all a loss.

These disappointments did not last long, however. I found much to like in this volume. Heart-rending stories about writers who nearly rose to prominence, then faded to obscurity, abounded. As it a bevy of accounts regarding anonymous writers or well-known writers whose works have been lost to time. And not a few books were added to my "must read someday" list: Mary Butts' Armed with Madness, Morris' Bretherton, The London Mercury (which I should like to see resurrected), and the lost volume A Book of Whimsies - lost to me, anyway, as I can't find any reference to it outside of Valentine's essay. I am haunted by the absence of these books.

Valentine is at his best when he is digging through the layers of creation, showing how a writer does what they do. Valentine's analysis of Walter de la Mare's Seaton's Aunt is the sort of essay that makes me want to be a better writer and reader and gives me the tools to do so. It is a careful unpacking of a subtly horrific story that gives a peek behind the panels at the gears that make the story move. Fantastic stuff.

Valentine uses Sax Rohmer's The Orchard of Tears as a digging tool to uncover the shadowed trends and hidden interstices of occult movement happening at, or just before, the writing of the novel. I am fond of these socio-intellectual archaeologies. They are so rare and so rarely done well. I could stand to read a book filled with such insightful essays.

Digging among the dead stirs up ghosts. And there are ghosts of all different kinds here.

The essay on Charles Welsh Mason was everything I hoped for: a thoroughgoing assessment of an extremely interesting writer whose career faded into the mists of time under most mysterious circumstances. This sort of essay was what I thought of when I first saw the title Haunted by Books. Fascinating and eerie.

As a young man growing up in the time of James Leslie Mitchell, I might have loved his fiction, particularly his shorter works. Alas, I was born to late and am probably too jaded to fully appreciate his work. But maybe not. There is a certain wistful longing for simpler times in me. I am a haunter out of time, it seems.

Valentine's premise of the inverse relationship between the amount of esoteric/occult content in a book and the book's popularity (at least among mid-twentieth-century readers) is interesting. Readers want a glimpse of the occult, but they don't want to read a text that might imply that they have actually learned something of esoteric teachings. Interesting fiction/non-fiction dynamic there. These readers are haunted by longing, but unable to receive revelation, in a sort of limbo of faith. A literary purgatory.

I should give a copy of The Fifth of November to my daughter and see if she can figure out it isn't Shakespeare. I constantly tease her about Shakespeare being Francis Bacon or Robert Marlowe. She has acted in several Shakespeare productions and actually been paid professionally to do so on a couple of occasions, and I'm a Dad, so I can't help teasing her about Shakespeare's reality or lack thereof. I suppose I am, in some strange way, haunting her with my own notions of literature. Poor woman!

"Or Opaline Algol" is a sweet, sweet mystery - an anonymous poet of significant talent remains, somehow, completely anonymous. The texts drop hints of the author, but never enough to reveal them. This is what I anticipated when I first read the title Haunted by Books: The identity of the poet is just around the corner, but when you spin around it to look down the hall, you only catch faint, ectoplasmic wisps dissolving up into the ceiling.

The story of the Johnsonians is poignant and possibly the most well-written essay in this entire book, so far. Valentine's personal anecdotes of his childhood are creepy and insightful into his mode of thinking. Haunted by books, indeed!

"What Became of Dr. Ludovicus" is a fascinating archaeology of creativity and the vain quest to seek publication, only to later become lost to the sands of time - except for the correspondence between the two authors who were working on it. It's like an epistolary novel that might or might not have ever existed. A little eerie by reason of omission. What is not seen is usually much more terrifying than what is perceived directly.

"Wraiths," the long-lost poetry of some fin-de-siecle would-be-writers which have been utterly lost to the sands of time, are the perfect haunters for this book. Beautiful words like a vapor, or so it is rumored.

"The Piccadilly Goat" was the most entertaining, whimsical essay of the book. It reads like a turn-of-the-(20th)-Century Harpers article and hits all the right notes. Absolute perfection.

The final essay sends the reader off into the atmosphere of what might have been. A wonderful way to end this eclectic, but intellectually-upward-spiraling work. The reader finishes the book with a sense of awe, as of watching spirits rise from a graveyard through the illuminated fog on a moonlit moor.

footnote: Special thanks to Acep Hale for his generous loan of the book to me.

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Saturday, March 17, 2018

Rule Dementia!

Rule Dementia!Rule Dementia! by Quentin S. Crisp
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I admit it: sometimes I will take an author's introduction as a challenge to see if they live up to their own assessment of their work. But given that Crisp has here included two introductions: one from 2004 - a somewhat trite and generous assessment of his own work, and one from 2016 - an apologia, of sorts, for the former; I am stuck between the two Crisps. At times, the work in this volume seems naive (as hinted at in his 2016 forward), but I believe that this naivete is intentional, that Crisp wants at least some of his protagonists to be so full of innocence that their loss of the same is all the more tragic. The feelings that I felt the strongest while reading this volume were sympathy, pathos, sadness, and pity. All of this, of course, was set against the foil of "happiness", and by that I mean "self satisfaction" of the characters, some of whom are unwholesome chaps.

"Jellyfish Joe" is a beautifully-written story of a messiah, of sorts, who forms a cult based on the metaphysical philosophies of the jellyfish. It is an interesting meditation on the interface between naivete and faith and the reactions to the ultimate test of one's deeply held beliefs and spiritual experiences. What if miracles happen in spite of the miracle-worker, where the Messiah considers himself a complete fraud, but his followers do not? This story digs deeply at the very nature of faith. It gets in your heart and brain and is extremely poignant, especially for those of us who have equal doses of religious faith and incredulity warring within us. Four stars.

Remember those episodes of the X-Files that were intentionally self-effacing, goofy as heck and, yet, somehow sinister? That's what "The Haunted Bicyle" "feels" like. And more on the goofy side, with an intellectually-clumsy narrator and some weird characters and situations he encounters. I'm having a hard time describing this story, and that's good! There is one little self-referential slip regarding surrealism. Nothing is less surreal than saying you're surreal. And I don't know that the character meant it in jest.

Despite this slip, Crisp is very good at portraying whimsical awkwardness. Or is it awkward whimsy? In either case, it is strange and playful and I like it in a twisted sort of way.

"The Haunted Bicycle" has one foot in Bizarro-land, one foot in the old English ghost story, and one foot firmly planted ankle-deep in William S. Burroughs' grave. Lurking behind it is a veil (eventually rent) of cosmic horror and more than a touch of insanity. And, yes, the story is about a haunted bicycle. Five crazed stars to this unclassifiable, yet utterly delightful story.

"Zugzwang" is one of the most effective stories of paranoia I've ever read. A relative of mine (through marriage) was once clinically diagnosed with paranoia. I've spoken with him about it a couple of times, and it's a scary, helpless twisting of reality. This story is a fair fictional approximation of the disorder, with a touch of cosmic horror, which makes it truly disturbing. Four stars, only because of the unlikelihood of the relationship that begins it all, which is rather jarring and requires a self-conscious suspension of disbelief.

"The Tao of Petite Beige" is an esoteric story about pornography addiction, if nothing else. The occult journey, a sort of sublimation from banality to heaven to hell, portrayed therein is compelling, the ending predictable. It is a beautifully written story, as evidenced here in the paragraph before the very final moments of the story:

Paul floated, seemingly without volition, closer to the mouth of the alley, the two celebrants still holding his arms. The crowd slowed in its approach, like backed-up water, the trickle that passed through picking up speed again. As Paul observed the movement of bodies at this bottleneck, a word rose inexplicably to the surface of his mind to describe it - 'fulfilment'. His life was narrowing down to this single channel. Soon he would be sucked in. All the wide, glittering detail he had come to think of as his very life would be jettisoned as redundant. When he thought about 'life' becoming 'fulfilment', about an aimless ocean becoming a stream, he could not suppress a sharp sense of loss, something like the dizzying panic he had been feeling of late just walking the streets of the wide world. Here in the eddying before the final entrance to that fulfilment, the sad waters of the ocean he was to leave forever seemed to toss and pitch, like water about to run away through a crack in the earth's surface. In those waters he saw so much, he never realised his life had contained such heartbreaking detail - his long years of failure, Mother, drunken conversations with friends that had to end somewhere and yet still seemed to be going on, relationships that never started, loves and lusts never told (just count them), studies that were never made use of, clothes worn and thrown away, music listened to and tired o, places seen from the window of a moving train and never visited, letters lost or gathering dust, days wasted - all this was running away down a crack in the ocean floor. And though there was panic and sadness attached to this wide world, that too was running away. Paul was feeling more and more detached. Fulfilment!

Four stars, with a warning that this story is for adults only!

"The Waiting" is the kind of story that you read and the bottom drops right out from under you. A cosmic conspiracy on a grand scale. There are strong echoes of Thomas Ligotti here, but Crisp's own peculiar voice is always in the background. Four stars

Crisp certainly knows how to tug at the heartstrings, then rip them clean out. "Unimaginable Joy" is an ironic title, a double-entendre. You cannot imagine joy, and there is a conspiracy afoot to ensure that this is the case. It is beyond you. Any joy you think you might have grasped was only a hazy mirage. Only those who embrace the void know true joy, but it is not joy as you think of it! A heart-rending story of innocence lost and the victory of debauchery. Don't read this on a down day. It will not help your mood. Five depressing stars.

When you hear the name Quentin S. Crisp associated regularly with the names Reggie Oliver and Mark Valentine, you can bet that the work is going to be of excellent quality. And so it is. It's not as dignified as Oliver or as intellectually suave as Valentine's work, but Crisp does fit in with them like the somewhat awkward kid at the back of the smart-kid crowd, the one who laughs a bit more than the rest, but you know has a wicked brain brewing up schemes in there that no one else will - or ought to - see in public.

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Monday, February 19, 2018

Modern French Theatre: The Avant-Garde, Dada and Surrealism

Modern French Theatre: The Avant-Garde, Dada and SurrealismModern French Theatre: The Avant-Garde, Dada and Surrealism by Michael Benedikt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading a play that is meant for the stage is always a dangerous proposition, especially when we're talking about plays that represent the Creme de la Creme of Surrealist and Dada theater. As with any collection, this is a mixed bag. I include some (though not all) of my notes herein as a crude guide to my thoughts as I read these works:

The shadow of Jarry looms large, it seem, in Modern French Theatre. The overview provided by Michael Benedikt is a great guidebook to the evolution from surrealism to dadaism to the modern avant garde. A valuable guide for those of us who aren't steeped in knowledge of these movements.

"King Ubu" is ridiculous in too many ways to count. I can see how this led to riots, given the dramatic realism that had evolved before its debut. And I can see how this clearly led to surrealism. Bawdy and entirely nonsensical. I loved it. I would love to see this played live, but I question how American audiences would take it, given the current administration. Sometimes truth is equivalent to, if not stranger than, fiction.

There were whiffs of Monty Python throughout this collection, starting with Cocteau's in "The Wedding on the Eiffel Tower". I would not be surprised to learn that the Python troupe was thoroughly familiar with these plays.

Radiguet's "The Pelicans" was . . . well, it was drop-dead boring. Meh!

I quite liked Tzara's "The Gas Heart". Highly experimental and, while it's not meant to be taken seriously (the playwright is explicit about this), the brain seeks meaning anyway, ridiculous as the search might be.

Okay, I get that the whole point of Automatic Writing is that it isn't to be edited. But Breton's play, "If You Please," needs editing. Except Act 4, which is beautifully edited.

Aragon's "The Mirror-wardrobe One Fine Evening" is definitely the most dramatic of these plays so far, as well as being one of the most poetic.

Salacrou's "A Circus Story" is the closest thing I've read to a Loony Toons show in written form. Insert Bugs Bunny, Yosemite Sam, Porky Pig, etc, etc, stir, let rise, feast.

Daumal's "En Gggarrrde" = The Beatles' most psychedelic years condensed into a four page play.

Vitrac's "The Mysteries of Love" has pretty much zero redeeming qualities. It is not cutting-edge, it is not clever, there are no stretches of exquisite prose, not even any funny nuggets. There is nothing at all to recommend this play except that (SPOILER) a member of the cast shoots a member of the audience at the end. Frankly, that audience member might already be bored to death before the end anyway.

"Humulus the Mute" is just plain wicked. Hilariously funny, but so sardonic. This is dark humor at its best!

Robert Desnos' "La Place de l'├ętoile" is a sometimes funny, sometimes disquieting look at love. The writing reminded me mostly of Sterne in Tristram Shandy, which is meant as high praise in every way. This is one I really wouldn't mind seeing on the stage, a surreal feast.

All-in-all, worth the read, but probably more worth seeing on the stage. Break a leg. In fact, break all five of them.

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Monday, February 5, 2018

Lanterns of the Old Night

Lanterns of the Old NightLanterns of the Old Night by Alcebiades Diniz Miguel


Coming in at a mere 45 pages, you would think that Lanterns of the Old Night would be a quick, breezy read. And you would be completely, 100% wrong. Mind you, tedium is not an issue here. The stories (and I use the term very loosely) are compelling labyrinths that draw the reader/dreamer deeper in with each sentence. It is easy - and comfortable - to become lost in Diniz Miguel's maze(s).

The artifact itself is a monument, if you will, to the literature found therein. I mean this in the most literal of ways: The books physicality is stunning. The dust jacket, fully illustrated by Rainbath, is wordless; a piece of occult art that stands by itself. One could easily frame and display this cover on their wall. Under this, the book's cover is relief-stamped with feathering and an old stylized lantern, a fitting symbol for the collection. Canary-yellow end-pages then open to an esoteric-symbolic plate by of a seeker entering a pyramid, candle in hand, followed by a fold-out micro story entitled "Divine Buildings" (replete with a ghastly illustration on the back), which is, in turn, followed by another, larger-than-book-sized piece of Promethean art. Just these elements make this a volume worth owning and displaying (or, perhaps, locking away from prying eyes).

The multi-layered vignettes provide their own style of art. There are five pieces herein (not including the easter-egg story, "Divine Buildings"), but each of these five stories contain multiple stories, like a series of literary Russian dolls. Alcebiades Diniz Miguel's many voices are unique, but one can find therein echoes of Roman classical works, touches of the English ghost story, a hint of cosmic horror, and even some dry academic syntax. These various influences ebb and flow, eddying around each other, confusing the floor, walls, and ceiling of the labyrinth, further drawing one in.

One thing that Diniz Miguel does particularly well here is to turn the reader toward a certain viewpoint, say that of a poor prisoner in a dilapidated cell, then spin the reader around to see into the ethereal realms and beyond. Oftentimes, his narrators dream and are then forcefully pulled back to reality, as in "Lunar Empire":

Perhaps the moon was the most perfect black mirror that had ever existed. he imagined a photographic inversion of the night sky, soft white with gray spots in which an imperfect black circle or semi-circle hung in the midst of the pale landscape, milky and infinite. What might this black mirror of cosmic dimensions reflect? At that moment he realized that he had lost sight of the moon . . .

In the second vignette, a weaving path, in and out of reality, inevitably crawls toward death. Albertus Magnus swept up in a demonic vision while meditating on Cicero's mnemonic techniques, discovers that . . . he is not Albertus Magnus. "Some Dead Rats" slingshots between beauty and decay with a quickness that leaves the mind reeling. Enlightenment and dolor are never far away from each other in this nihilistic tale that teases with hope.

"The Ago of Ice and Gold and Mud" is a plotless meditation on ritual, oppression, cultural memory, and genocide. It is a contemplative piece, an intellectual riff on the collision between colonialism and the luminous, which results in a somber, gray realization of one's place as a receptacle of collective conscience. This one sticks in the brain for a time after reading it.

"The Devil, Almost" lends credence to the title of the book. Here, illusions cast using lantern projections prove a precursor to things, entities, which are anything but illusion. An occult excursion starts in the deception of audiences with visual sleight-of-hand, but ends in dark interstices that are far too real. Here, the light is the deceiver, cast upon the wall, creating ghostly shadows of truth.

The final piece contextualizes the whole of the book by mapping a metaphysical course, implied in the story structure, that causes one's best thinking to fall back into the labyrinth and become, again, engulfed in dark wonder:

Now, my vision could embrace, almost effortlessly, a considerable fraction of the universe, a stellar whirlwind that propelled the ancient material, withered and bright, along a course of black and icy viscosity. The inhalation of an abyss coordinated the swirling regions, holding galaxies in infernal gars whose function was to devour and exfoliate. The vastness of celestial gravity worked as the wheel of a mill and soon what had been an endless ensemble of celestial matter was reduced to dust decanted to its atomic level, uniform and frail ash, or the residue of crushed bones. This mill, however, is only the first cogwheel. The remaining atoms are recombined in a moving patter of cyclic formations which transcends mere repetition; no two formations are identical, neither are they entirely dissimilar. Planets, stars, galaxies, are each equipped with elements of various composition with which to establish their celestial dance that, once set in motion, might unfold over an immeasurable time in which millennia pass by like seconds. But even this space of time is not truly infinite. One day, the whole universe will again be old, decrepit, moribund. It will again go through the same destruction and disintegration process, resurfacing in an eternal cycle, replete with variations in tempo, tone, detail. There is no death, not even the hope of permanence or stasis. Because the universe needs eternally to repeat itself and the beauty of its unfoldment, a dead cosmos will never exist.

Neither will the reader's mind ever fully escape this welcome literary labyrinth.

(This is number 43 of 77 hand numbered copies)

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Thursday, February 1, 2018

With a Voice That Is Often Still Confused But Is Becoming Ever Louder and Clearer

With a Voice That Is Often Still Confused But Is Becoming Ever Louder and ClearerWith a Voice That Is Often Still Confused But Is Becoming Ever Louder and Clearer by J.R. Hamantaschen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received this book as a Goodreads Giveaway, for the record. I went into this book fairly blind, not having read the author's work before - and I pride myself on being in touch with what's happening in small press horror/dark fiction. Somehow, Hamantaschen had slipped under my radar. So I registered for and won With a Voice That Is Often Still Confused But Is Becoming Ever Louder and Clearer, one of the more inventive and evocative titles for a book that I've seen. Hamantaschen's titles are, to some degree, works of art in and of themselves.

Not knowing what I was getting into, I found myself in a cloud of depression and gore. Now, I'm not too keen on depression and gore, though I've read and written my share of horror. I'm more bent on the weird and the eerie than I am on the outright horrific, so I had a little bit of apprehension about the stories contained herein. Depression reigns supreme here, outright nihilism. And there is more than a fair amount of gore here, which is just not my thing.

That said, I did find a lot to like here. It's kind of like visiting a museum that I'm not entirely enamored of, but finding the occasional painting or sculpture that trips my trigger. There are enough interesting details that I was never so put off by the stories that I wanted to give up reading the collection. There were a fair amount of grammar errors, but I edit professionally, so those are going to stick out to me. I'm not such a snob, though, that they got in the way of appreciating some of the fine thought and good workmanship that went into the book. Just annoyances, really. "A trifle," as Ligotti would say.

I liked, but didn't love "Vernichtungsschmerz". The central conceit - the chance to be rescued from an eternity of suffering - was well-conceived and laid out. In practice, though, this story of four childhood friends could have been written without the third friend and been better for it. The concept was stretched a bit too thin for me. A solid three star story.

"A Related Corollary" is a sharp, deep dive into the depressive mind. A good explication on what it feels like to be shrouded in depression and, specifically, how the logic of cynicism oppresses while simultaneously giving a sense of empowerment. More a philosophical exploration than a true "story", but I enjoy philosophical deep-dives. Four stars.

I quite liked "The Gulf of Responsibility". It had some issues - overly detailed descriptions and one sidelong character relationship that had absolutely no bearing on the story at all - but I really liked it. Conspiratorial, surreal, horrific, with an unexpected, but inevitable ending. The social issues here are handled with a bit of paranoia that is justified by the context of the story. Four stars.

"Big with the Past, Pregnant with the Future" is outstanding! This is the kind of subtle, understated story I love, one that doesn't explain too much; One that lets the unstated carry the story - the darkness in the background that is the abode of dread. Five stars, and I wish there were more like this in the collection. A testament to what good editing can do to keep a story from being overwrought.

"Soon Enough this will Essentially be a True Story" was good, not great. Frankly, I'm not a huge fan of gore horror. And, truth be told, I'm almost certain I know who the character "Karen" is modeled after (she is one of my Goodreads friends, but I have a few, and, no, I'm not telling you who I think it is - if you dig through the other reviews of this book, you'll know), so it seemed a little . . . indulgent? Three stars and now I fear for my life for giving it that rating. You'll know why after you read the story.

"I'm a Good Person, I Mean Well and I Deserve Better" is A) funny, B) trite and silly, C) poignant, or D) all of the above. The correct answer is D) all of the above. This story runs the gamut of emotions, a run that will leave most people uncomfortable. For this evocative, yet intentionally insipid story, four awkward stars.

"Cthulhu, Zombies, Ninjas and Robots!; or, a Special Snowflake in an Endless Scorching Universe," takes cynicism and elitism to a new level. If you've ever been to a convention where geeks hang out, or if you happen to be one of those geeks, you'll find some awfully familiar things here. But you'll also find one awful thing that you (hopefully) have never found at such a convention. A nice twist on what it means to be "Lovecraftian". Four stars.

"Oh Abel, Oh Absalom" is a satisfying story with a nod back to "The Gulf of Responsibility," a nice trick that Jon Padgett used to great effect in The Secret of Ventriloquism. Massive conspiracy, a bad guy stuck in a bad place, with more cosmic horror than the other stories, but not quite as pedantic as some seemed. Four stars.

So, if you, like me, sometimes look at what seems to be a rather ordinary painting, but can appreciate the deft use of chiaroscuro or the way a swatch of color flashes out just so at a certain angle, and if you tend toward the strange more than the awful, there is definitely something here for you. Maybe four stars worth, as there was for me. Keep peeking into those hidden corners to find that beautiful something . . . but don't stick your finger in there.

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Friday, January 19, 2018

Mrs. Midnight and Other Stories

Mrs. Midnight: And Other StoriesMrs. Midnight: And Other Stories by Reggie Oliver
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reggie Oliver might be the greatest living writer of the weird and eerie story, at least the more subtle flavor of the subgenre. There is an auctorial control that I don't see in many other writers (much less myself). This infernal mixing of weird, eerie, and subtle results in a rarefied creepiness and sometimes outright frisson in the reader's mind. But most of Oliver's tales (that I've read so far) also have heart - a sense of quirkiness and even humor that make one feel the promise warmth in the distance, not enough to drive the chill away, far from it, but enough that the hope for warmth might make the frosty pain even more acute.

I had high expectations going into this. I bought two volumes of Oliver's work based largely on the strength of his collection The Complete Symphonies of Adolf Hitler and Other Stories, and this was one of them. My expectations were absolutely met and, in the case of a couple of stories, exceeded. I am so glad that I have another book of Oliver's on hand to read beyond this one. I really can't get enough.

I was impressed right away by the titular story: What I thought was a mistaken switching between tenses is very intentional, and gives voice to the narrator's lack of education. The dissonance actually makes sense when one hears it over the longer haul. The humor herein is sly and wry: "Since I stopped working for the tabloids I've tried to avoid cliches like the plague". And this story of zoophagy is creepy beyond creepy. The layering of horrific themes in this story is stunning, with Oliver threading together at least three of them in the end. A dark literary hat-trick. Five stars, absolutely.

"Countess Otho," a ghost story or a story about madness (or, perhaps, both) completely subverted my ideas of how the story would end. This is a fairly complex short story, though so skillfully told that it doesn't get into its own way, like some stories do. It is not too clever for its own good, but it is clever. Very clever.

And in this tale we learn that sometimes, succumbing to madness is the best move. Or that hauntings don't necessarily have to be bad experiences. Five stars.

"Meeting with Mike" is an innocuous title for a devastatingly brutal story of brainwashing, conspiracy, and cult machinations. The portrayal of the Institute for Psychic Health (I.P.H.) is sinister and chill-inducing. The weird comes to take front-stage by the end of the story, but I won't spoil it. Suffice it to say that the ending is rather bizarre and very, very unsettling. Five stars for this excellent story.

Sometimes I love Reggie Oliver's sidelong humor, as in this line from "The Dancer in the Dark":

What first hinted to me that something very strange was going on? Is it only retrospect that makes me think it was the toupee?

"The Dancer in the Dark" isn't as weird as most of Oliver's stories, but the characters are well-fleshed-out and believable. This is a classic ghost story done to perfection. The catty characters devolve into rife immaturity like only a cast full of professional actors can. Oliver knows drama, both how to produce it and amongst his characters. You can tell he has acted professionally . . . or professionally acted! Another five star tale.

And then RIGHT back to the weird. "Mr. Pigsney" is as weird as they come. This story of gangsters, ming vases, garden slugs, and the afterlife is shot through with strong occult elements, which make it an engulfing story for the reader. The thought that maybe just plain old cessation-of-existence is preferable to living forever makes it intellectually satisfying, as well. Here, as in other stories in the collection, Oliver portrays something of a clash of classes, or at least a clash of social circles. He's done this in a few stories, and this dynamic always seems to add a certain tension that would otherwise be absent. Five stars for this tight, astounding tale.

"The Brighton Redemption" is high on the creepy factor. An imprisoned child murderer (both in terms of her victims and her own age at the time of the crime) practices bilocation, a miracle reserved for saints. But she is no saint! Four stars.

"You Have Nothing to Fear" - oh, Reggie Oliver, you clever dog. I see what you did there. Pun intended, eh? Still, a highly entertaining story only slightly cheapened by the pun. Still would have liked to have seen a little more depth of character. They are memorable, but uncharacteristically (pardon my own pun) unsubtle. Still very good, though. Four stars.

"The Philosophy of the Damned" portrays a more-or-less dying theater venue during the Russian revolution and the way in which it is, er, invigorated, by a new act in town. I really enjoyed this surreal story, which is thick on the weirdness, but not bombastic. A nicely balanced tale with a touch of horror, just a pinch, suit to taste. Five stars.

"The Mortlake Manuscript" is everything about Reggie Oliver's writing I love. An academic researches an obscure occultist, a scion, magically-speaking, of John Dee. Through this, he is led (wittingly and unwittingly, at the same time) to the so-called Mortlake Manuscript, wherein he learns the truths about life eternal and final death. This story is a masterpiece and is the best one in the volume. In fact, I think this is my favorite Reggie Oliver story period. That may change as I read future collections (and I will . . . I will), but for now this story gets the five most enthusiastic stars I've given in a long time. Hyperbole seems trite in this matter. You must read this story!

At first, I was prepared to award "The Look" four stars, as an excellent, but not outstanding tale of murder-mystery and revenge with a slight supernatural element, right up till near the very end. And I mean the very end. Then . . . that last sentence. That last sentence! O'Henry, the end!!! Five stars well-played yet again, Reggie Oliver, well-played!

It's funny: the ending of "The Giacometti Crucifixion," while trying to be clever, came up a little flat for me, unlike the ending of "The Look," which really worked for me. Still, the body of the story is tremendous, which makes the end a bit of a disappointment. Still a solid four-star story, though. I quite enjoyed it most of the way, most especially in the middle.

"A Piece of Elsewhere" is, by far, the creepiest story in this volume. And weird, to boot. You'll never look at comedians the same way. Humor and horror make strange bedfellows or, in this instance, they make bedfellows strange. Stranger than you want to know. This story strings a frisson of terror into what feels like a nightmare too long for such a short story. It packs a punch. Or, perhaps, Punch? Five sardonic laughing stars.

Almost every boy has or had an adult they feared, loathed, and hated. "Minos or Rhadamanthus" is their story. Not a story of cold vengeance, but of eternal fates and the scales of justice. A touch sad, but right as rain, as they say. A story that "fulfills the measure of its creation," to put it in biblical terms. An outstanding tale, well told. Five stars.

All told, I couldn't think of a better book to curl up with next to the fire on a winter's night. If you have any inclination to gothic romanticism at all, you need to read this book while enjoying a hot chocolate while it snows in the dark beyond your window. If I were holed up in a castle or a dark Victorian study and wanted to read the perfect book to match the mood, This. Would. Be. It!

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Monday, January 1, 2018

On Trails: An Exploration

On Trails: An ExplorationOn Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Man is built to walk. Actually, man is built to jog, slowly, speaking from a physiological point of view. However you ambulate, our bones and muscles are constructed to move and keep moving. Sedentary life is no life at all (he says while sitting in a chair, typing up this review). I love to walk. If you have been reading my reviews or blog for long enough, you'll know that. This is part of the reason I was so worried when I blew my back out in late 2014 and was so relieved when my surgery in 2015 was largely successful. The thought of not being able to walk, for me, makes me almost stop breathing.

But Moor is not so concerned with the act of walking itself. He is concerned with what it is we walk on, paths and trails, and how they are formed and, sometimes, conceived and maintained. He starts with the first trails, "traces," really, to be technically correct (trails are, by definition, a place where more than one organism has trodden the same path or where one has traveled repeatedly), made by strange part-plant, part-animal organisms during the Ediacaran period, a time that I did not even know existed when I began the book. These bizarre, almost alien life forms (surely they would seem alien in the current geological age - the descriptions given to these creatures made me think that H.P. Lovecraft might have been revealing more in his fiction than we could have known before the discovery of these weird critters) left traces in mud that petrified some 500 million years ago. Their efforts were spastic, halting, and meandering, but they're the oldest traces we can find of self-propelled mobility.

From this beginning, you might think that this book then goes through subsequent eras of trail-building and use, finally reaching to the modern age.

You'd be wrong.

This book meanders. And it meanders wildly. Personally, I liked that aspect of it, but if you're looking for a concise history of trails from Point A to Point B, this is not that book. If you're looking for a more leisurely wandering through not only the history of trails, but across disciplines such as history, environmental science, technology, and anthropology, then Moor's On Trails is for you. Like any trail, it's not perfect, and the author acknowledges that (giving his personal E-mail address near the end in order to receive readers' feedback, which I think is awesome). Nor is it completely comprehensive. But like any good trail that you might walk, there is really too much to gather in over the course of one journey. I'll be revisiting this one from time to time and am curious to see how future revisions differ from this initial printing.

That stated, there were a few highlights that I found intriguing, sometimes compelling. Please excuse my meandering as I point them out, in no particular order:

Believe it or not, Moor is unafraid to dive into the depths of the philosophy of science. Though this is more of a side-trail of the work, rather than a full-on excursion, he points out some interesting thoughts, particularly those coming from a scientist acquaintance of his. Moor had asked him about the intentional falsification of data by some scientists, some of whom extend bold conjectures in order to claim scientific territory. Apparently it is not out of the ordinary for scientists to extrapolate, from their limited data, views that "reach" for the truth. Moor, in speaking with his friend, called this practice into question. The response is intriguing:

Karl Popper would have said that astrophysics and paleontology are not real science because you can't go out and sample it . . . I think absolutely the opposite. I think this is actually where science is. It's trying to guess what lies over the hill and map terra incognita. When people come in and colonize, that's just technology.

For behaviorists, chapter 2 is a must-read about individual agency vis-a-vis the group hive mind, feedback loops, and amplification mechanisms in the formation of trails. It is a great analysis of group and individual behavior!

Kudos must be given to Moor for not only collating so much theoretical information, but for living his research. For a short time, he worked as a shepherd with a Navajo couple (who spoke no English) for a number of weeks, learning about herding and trails (or, more properly, trying to keep his flock on the trails, mostly unsuccessfully). This section was cringe-inducing in its awkward hilarity. I felt sorry for Moor, who admits he didn't have a clue what he was doing. Luckily for him, none of his flock became casualties as a direct result of his ignorance - a miracle, given the mis-steps he made!

One thing that comes up again and again in this book is the fact that members of western society have a number of misconceptions about cultures and history. I was disabused of a few notions: the idea that America was truly "wild" when Europeans invaded (Native Americans actually carefully-groomed and managed their lands, particularly hunting lands within the forests of the Eastern seaboard, using strategic burning in particular to clear areas of underbrush and mosquitoes), the mistaken idea that Native American trails would, of course, take the path of least resistance (they did not - "A trail might go to great lengths to avoid enemy territory or detour to visit kinfolk; it might gravitate to sacred sites, or bend around haunted ones"), and the "fact" that modern hunting and fishing regulations were primarily an organic outgrowth of conservation efforts (actually, most of them come from medieval English laws meant to protect the local noble's hunting grounds from pesky peasants).

Even the very idea that "Wilderness" is something that pre-exists at all is a judgement error, or at least an error in perspective, according to Moor:

It may sound strange (even sacrilegious) to some, but in a very real way, wilderness is a human creation. We create it in the same sense that we create trails; we do not crate the soil or the plants, the geology or the topology (although we can, and do, shift these things). Instead, we delineate the place, by defining its boundaries, its meaning, and its use.

The author actually does an excellent job of presenting and validating this argument through numerous examples, many associated with the attempted expansion of the Appalachian Trail to the International Appalachian Trail (extending across Greenland to Scotland to Spain and even to Morocco). Far from being a "natural" phenomenon, trails are technology that define and delineate wilderness, rather than cutting "through" it.

Moor gets even further off the path of expected subject matter for this book when he delves into the ways that technology shapes the land around us and forces us to walk on trails that are dictated by the advance of technology. He does not pass a value judgement on this progression, necessarily:

In large part, the continued interest in hiking seems to stem from a desire to cut through the techscape to get to some natural substratum: to borrow MacKaye's phrase, to see the "primeval influence" beneath the "machine influence." But ironically, the act of hiking is also dependent on technology. Many of the earliest hikers relied on trains and automobiles to reach the mountains. Today, some forms of technology (like cell phones or ATVs) are considered obnoxious, while others (like water purifiers, camp stoves, and GPS locators) are excused. In either case, technology inexorably trickles into the wild, allowing hikers to reach new lands, travel in new ways, think in new terms, and optimize to new values.

This melding of technology and the wild is, well, natural. There is no natural barrier between "civilization" and "wilderness". This exclusivity is created in our own minds. Yes, there are some areas left more "natural" than others, but much of the separation is a mental construct. Moor relates the following about Eberhart, a legendary hiker that he spent some time walking with along highways and through "wilderness" areas:

The problem, [Eberhart] said, was that hikers tended to divide their lives into compartments: wilderness over here, civilization over there. "The walls that exist between each of these compartments are not there naturally," he said. "We create them. The guy that has to stand there and look at Mount Olympus to find peace and quiet and solitude and meaning - life has escaped him totally! Because it's down there in Seattle, too,on a damn downtown street. I've tried to break those walls down and de-compartmentalize my life so that I can find just as much peace and joy in that damned homebound rush-hour traffic that we were walking through yesterday."

The irony of me, a walker, sitting here at a computer typing up a review about a physical book I read (I do so prefer physical books as artifacts to e-books, though I've read both) because of my love for being out in "nature" is not lost on me. The irony of you, reading this entry about a book on walking, from the comfort of your home or library or Starbucks or wherever you are (I'm guessing you are not outside walking at the moment, but I could be wrong) shouldn't be lost on you, either!


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