Saturday, October 6, 2018

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and GrimscribeSongs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a penchant for doing things in reverse order, especially when it comes to books. At least in my own mind. Like a literary Benjamin Button, when I wasn’t reading comics as a kid, I was usually reading “grown up” books (The Hardy Boys adventures being the big exception). And I didn’t read Moby Dick until I was 45, though I had many, many opportunities (and even assignments) to read it many, many years before that.

So, of course, I read and loved Thomas Ligotti’s Teatro Grottesco before having read all of Ligotti’s earlier stuff. Yes, I had read Noctuary and several of his then-uncollected short pieces in various anthologies, but I had not read his seminal collection, Songs of a Dead Dreamer nor Grimscribe: His Life and Works. I’m all out of order in my reading of this dark master’s works. I had been meaning to read these for some time, but until Penguin came out with their affordable (and even more attainable) collection in 2015, finances didn’t really permit this.

What did I learn reading “backwards”?

Thomas Ligotti is a brilliant writer.

Thomas Ligotti is not a perfect writer.

Thomas Ligotti went through growing pains as a writer.

The distinctive “voice” in his work took a leap at some point, but did not leap all the way to the finish line.

Like Pablo Picasso, Ligotti’s early work shows a breadth of talent and demonstrates that his work could have taken any number of successful directions.

On to the stories . . .

"The Frolic," while very creepy, still feels like a freshman effort for a writer such as Ligotti. I would be thrilled to have written such a story myself, but I expect more from Ligotti. Three stars.

I can't tell if I think the narrator of "Les Fleurs" tips his hand too much or too little. While there is a weird "spin" to the story, I found it decidedly average. Three stars.

I am rather fond of stories that riff off of Alice in Wonderland, having written one myself. "Alice's Last Adventure," hit all the right creepy chords for me. Growing old is difficult enough, but what happens when not only your age betrays you, but you are entrapped by your own creations? Five stars.

"Dream of a Manikin" is more disturbed than disturbing, more academic than terrifying, but the dream sequences are pure sugar for the gothic brain. I could revel in the reading of those dreams all day long and never feel flat, whereas the (possibly not) non-dreaming sequences felt like they needed more texture. A three-star story with five-star dreams lands this one squarely on four stars.

The first portion of "The Nyctalops Trilogy: I: The Chymist" is brilliantly written, with most of the action happening off-stage while the narrator responds to that action. This must have been a chore to write, but I'm glad for Ligotti's work here. It's a dangerous road, but Ligotti is successful in pulling it off. More than successful, really. Ligotti's drawn me in with 2nd person POV, which is not an easy catch. I had thought that Rose's fate would be simple, but I was dead wrong.

The condescending, nihilistic second-person voice carries on through "The Nyctalops Trilogy: III. Drink to me Only With Labyrinthine Eyes". We learn, only at the end, the fate of the subject of the first section. Ligotti walks a literary tightrope, which makes for some good readerly tension.

Sublimation into another's dreams and, eventually, into another's physical form, like a rabbit being absorbed from the thoughts out, makes the conclusion of Nyctalops Trilogy intriguing, but a little jarring. Yes, it's squicky cosmic horror that you like to read, but a little clumsy. Still, the mood, characterization, and beautiful writing overpower the jilting change in POV. Four stars.

"Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story" is as playful and erudite and absolutely psychotic a tale as I can imagine. What appears, at first, as an admittance that the narrator has failed to write a story, with a number of different analyses on how the story could have been written, turns into a psychotic roller-coaster ride, I have no other way of putting it. Five stars to this weird, delightfully unexpected story.

"The Christmas Eves of Aunt Elise" is the best holiday horror ghost story I've ever read. Someone should absolutely turn this into a haunted Christmas special. But it's not cutesy. Not in the least bit. This is some heady, weird horror. Shades of Hodgson, Aickman, James, and Machen. Five stars of Bethlehem for this amazing story.

For the first time ever, I have read a vampire story that I genuinely, thoroughly enjoyed. I’ve given plenty of chances to the vampire subgenre and, frankly, I hate it. At least I hate what I’ve read. There’s Dracula, then there’s everything else. "The Lost Art of Twilight" both subverts the hackneyed stereotypes and plays in the gothic murkiness of tradition. And to think that it was Thomas Ligotti, of all writers, who pulled it off . . . I'm almost speechless. I wonder, honestly, what Ligotti thinks of it, in hindsight, since finding his own voice. Five stars. I never thought I’d give five stars to a vampire . . . anything.

Dear Brothers Quay, please immediately drop whatever project you are working on, use it as a Blu-ray extra, and begin design work for the filming of "The Troubles of Doctor Thoss". Your urgency in the matter is appreciated. You will not regret having made the effort. Four stars.

Ligotti bucks my expectations again with "Masquerade of a Dead Sword: A Tragedie". Here he waxes medieval (or at least early modern) in language, vocabulary, and tone. It is clear he is exploring voice (and is very good at it) while the seeds of his later work can be seen in the nihilistic tragedy that plays out. He reminds me of Picasso - known for cubism, but he had so much more to offer. Five stars to this tale.

"Dr. Voke and Mr. Veech" is like a dark, creepy Three Stooges (yes, three, but no spoilers) doped up on a massive dose of nihilism. This is Ligotti coming into his own, at least how the tale is chronologically presented in this volume. The soliloquy of Dr. Voke on a laughing wooden dummy seems emblematic of later Ligotti, a manifesto, of sorts:

”Did you ever wonder, Mr. Veech,” Voke begins, parading slowly toward his guest while holding one side of his coat like the train of a gown. “I say, did you ever wonder what it is that makes the animation of a wooden dummy so terrible to see, not to mention to hear? Listen to it, I mean really listen. Ya-ha-ha-ha-ha: a series of sounds that becomes excruciatingly eloquent when uttered by the Ticket Man. They are a species of poetry that sings what should not be sung, that speaks what should not be spoken. But what in the world is it laughing about? Nothing, it would seem. No clear motives or impulses make the dummy laugh, and yet it does!

‘But what is this laughter for’ you might well ponder. It seems to be for your ears alone, doesn’t it? It seems to be directed at every part of your being. It seems . . . knowing. And it is knowing, but in another way from what you suppose, in another direction entirely. It is not you the dummy knows – it is only itself. The question is not: ‘What is the laughter for,’ not at all. The question is: ‘Where does it come from?’ This in fact is what inspires your apprehension. While the dummy does terrorize you, his terror is actually greater than yours.

Think of it:
wood waking up . I can’t put it any clearer than that. And let’s not forget about the painted hair and lips, the glassy eyes. These, too, are aroused from a sleep that should never have been broken; these, too, are now part of a tingling network of dummy-nerves, alive and aware in a way we cannot begin to imagine. This is something too painful for tears and so the dummy laughs in your face, trying ti give vent to a horror that was no part of his old home of wood and paint and glass. But this horror is the very essence of its new home – our world, Mr. Veech. This is what is so terrible about the laughing Ticket Man. Go to sleep now, dummy. There, he has gone back to his lifeless slumber. Be glad I didn’t make one that screams, Mr. Veech . . .

This is the Ligotti I stumbled on when I picked up a beat-up copy of Noctuary at the University Book Store years ago. This is the stuff I love. Five stars.

I spoke too soon. "Professor Nobody's Little Lectures" is actually the Ligotti manifesto:

Madness, chaos, bone-deep mayhem, devastation of innumberable souls - while we scream and perish, History licks a finger and turns the page.

There is some fantastic insight in this essay, especially in "Pessimism and Supernatural Horror - Lecture One". Five stars.

"Dr. Locrian's Asylum" drips with the esoteric - hermetic knowledge only brought to light in the darkness of insanity and death. A ghost story, but so much more, a ghost story of cosmic horror, but a horror that is tempting in its promise of revelation concerning the mysteries of existence and what lies beyond our conception of "reality," what lies beyond the veil. I might be tempted by such knowledge. Five stars.

"The Sect of the Idiot" is a Lovecraft story that Lovecraft never wrote, more "Lovecraftian" than H.P. himself. Many people's (false) notions of what L wrote are realized here, but it is Ligotti manifesting the cults, cosmic horror, and strange philosophies in a somewhat less florid, but more effective language than the Mythos originator ever wrote. Four stars - perfectly executed, but somewhat derivative work.

Egon Scheile, Franz Kafka, and Bruno Schulz have a baby. It's name is "The Greater Festival of Masks". It is beautiful. It is hideous. It is not quite the same at the end as it is at the beginning. It changes in . . . ways. Five stars.

If you've ever been unable to sleep at night and gone out for a walk, and if you've ever attended a performance of some entertainment alone, now knowing anyone in the audience or the performers, if you find the nether reaches of a dark city titillating, then "The Music of the Moon" is for you. And I don't just mean the story . . . I mean the music itself. Five stars.

"The Journal of J.P. Drapeau" is an homage to the decadents and symbolizes, even so far as to be set in and written about Bruges, a focal point of both movements. Ligotti's oeuvre underlies this piece, but does not permeate it; stifled, it seems, by a bit too much slavishness to 19th-Century tropes and traditions. Four stars.

I can see why Jon Padgett has named his Ligotti-centric journal Vastarian after this story of the same name. A book, keyed to a certain reader, that is itself a key to unlocking the secret cosmos behind the veil of sanity. The theme is amazing, but the execution seems jumpy, the ending pegged on. Four stars.

"The Last Feast of Harlequin" has as its ending tagline: TO THE MEMORY OF H.P. LOVECRAFT. And while I can see this, in spirit, in practice there is little that points directly to Lovecraft outside of the discovery that you are not who you thought you were. Favorite lines:

"What buries itself before it is dead?"

. . . I felt myself a novitiate of a more rarefied order of harlequinry.


and much more. Five stars for out-Lovecrafting Lovecraft without pastiche and without obsequious mimesis.

"The Spectacles in the Drawer" is a hypercube of a story, layers of mirrors where the horror is squeezed in the interstices. The plot is less a twist than it is a klein bottle - fabulously surprising and shocking in its revelations. Five stars to this one (which I didn't even know existed until I picked up this volume - unlike others of Ligotti's that I have heard of by reputation, at least). This is genius.

"Flowers of the Abyss" is . . . adequate? The mood is right, the language a touch overblown, the philosophy intriguing, the point-of-view rare, the story thin and weak. So, it's "adequate" fiction, but not a peak-Ligotti story. Three stars.

"Nethescurial" seems like it should be the kind of cosmic horror that just seems cool. But, I admit, it gave me the jitters. The floors started creaking and I grabbed the nearest knife! This tale will make you afeared of EVERYTHING! Even yourself. It should come with a warning about creating existential paranoia in the reader. Five (still shuddering) stars!

"The Dreaming in Nortown" was . . . good, but a touch slow. I wasn't convinced by the ending/epilogue. It tried too hard to exhibit a power that the rest of the narrative was lacking. I think the author under-played his hand throughout the main body of the story and tried to shock at the end, when the tale might have been better if it was a little bolder throughout. Still weird and well-written overall. Three stars.

I found "The Mystics of Muelenburg" lacking; a bit flat. The atmosphere was right, but the greyness of it all was monochromatic and dull. So dull that it flattened Ligotti's normally compelling language. I know every author will have stories I don't like, but I didn't expect such a feeling of "I don't care" coming from a Ligotti story. Still, three stars, though. It was . . . alright.

Take 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, replace the ocean with the cosmic ocean, and ramp up the insanity by a few orders of magnitude, and you get the idea of the baseline for "In the Shadow of Another World". Add in a haunted house and a character named after Austin Osman Spare. Here, the pacing is perfect and enough is revealed to cause awe, while enough is hidden to cause terror! Five stars.

"The Cocoons" is a tight story with dark emotional undercurrents - a story "under" the story, three actually: The narrator's relationship with the doctor, Mr. Catch's relationship with the doctor, and the degenerate insectoid whatsits tying everyone together . . . almost. I could read stories like this all night long: multilayered, dark, with a hint of dark philosophy and a clever narrator duping his doctor. Five stars.

In "The Night School" we see Ligotti's nihilism in full swing and the great swelling of absurdity, which so typifies his later work: the universe is not inimical, it just doesn't care, so why should you care? Existence is an empty joke eliciting hollow laughter. What are the lessons of the night school? Does. Not. Matter. Four stars.

I can see, in "The Glamour," Ligotti's methods coming into full fruition, as manifest later in Teatro Grottesco. Here, it is the repetition of the phrase "a part of town I had never visited before". Ligotti repeats this seemingly banal phrase in sinister contexts, turning the ordinary into the horrifying.

Yet the places now revealed on the movie screen . . . were the fundament of the sinister and seamy regions which cast their spectral ambience on the reality of the theater but which were themselves merely the shadows, the superficial counterparts, of a deeper, more obscure realm

This is yet more of the Ligotti I love.

In "The Glamour," we discover Ligotti discovering his voice . . . almost. Repetitive banalities, the meaninglessness of existence, a hideous world behind a world where we are only germs in the belly of the beast - it's all there. Except the ending. That lingering ending that haunts you for days after you've read the book. This story didn't have it. It is the penultimate voice of Ligotti we hear, not the final product. Four stars.

Every author has to have a library story, right? Ligotti's "Library of Byzantium" is an institution where defacing the property has lethal consequences. A less visceral, more "spectral" story for Ligotti, this one has a hopeful ending that I don't think I've seen in his work before. It has more in common with an M.R. James piece than the typical Ligotti fare. A beautiful, dark story. Five stars.

"Miss Plarr" would make an amazing black and white movie with strong noir sensibilities. Tom Waite would narrate, though the protagonist is a child. Nick Cave would provide the soundtrack, along with Pye Corner Audio. But who would play Miss Parr? Helena Bonham Carter? Gwyneth Paltrow? Dunno. Five stars.

"The Shadow at the Bottom of the World" teeters on the edge of what could have been greatness, could have been one of the best pieces of folk-horror ever written . . . but it turns away from its potentialities and loses its virulence at the end. I admit I was disappointed. Not a bad story (can Ligotti write a bad story?), but it could have been much, much more with the right ending. Four sighing stars of disappointment.

This is not Ligotti’s masterpiece. But Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe is a gallery’s-worth of studies that show the breadth of his work and the slow development of what will become his distinctive, authoritative, singular voice. In hindsight, it is a happy accident that I read this collection and Teatro Grottesco in reverse order. I highly recommend this anachronistic dive into darkness.


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Thursday, September 27, 2018

A Year in The Country: Wandering Through Spectral Fields

A Year In The Country: Wandering Through Spectral Fields: Journeys in Otherly Pastoralism, the Further Reaches of Folk and the Parallel Worlds of HauntologyA Year In The Country: Wandering Through Spectral Fields: Journeys in Otherly Pastoralism, the Further Reaches of Folk and the Parallel Worlds of Hauntology by Stephen Prince
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If I’m not mistaken, all the content in A Year in the Country is available at the website, A Year in the Country. It’s a smorgasbord of strangeness and organized clutter, something like an old punk zine, but centered around the English landscape, the ‘60s and early ‘70s, folk music on the periphery, the subversion of idyllic notions of old Britain, collective mis-memory, and the sometimes-difficult-to-define realms of Hauntology. But reading what was constructed as a blog, now in the form of a (picture-less) book makes for a bit too much repetitiveness. If I see the term “left-of-center” one more time, I shall scream. I have no problems with the usage, and the phrase makes sense in the context of the places in which it is used. But the blog format more-or-less requires one to re-use terms to explicitly point the reader in the “right” direction. Since one almost never reads the entirety of a blog at once (oh, that I had the time), the author must include such phrases, and often their definition, on several different pages. Problem is, when you collate all of this into a book and don’t pare things down, these phrases become repetitive to the point of utter annoyance.

That said, it is rather difficult to effectively convey what we’ve got here in the form of a book, mostly because there is so much going on and so much overlap between (very short) chapters. And there’s no particular order to the book, either, since the blog format (there’s that word again) is really not much of a format at all, but, rather a dumping ground for ideas that spill out of the author’s head when the muse strikes, with no need for a relationship between blog posts that come before or after the post in question.

I’m making this sound much worse than it really is, but I’ve always been interested in questions of scope as it informs the way we look at the world. In fact, they fascinate me. But enough about the picture frame, let’s look at the picture.
A Year in the Country is intellectual goulash, meaning it’s messy, but very, very yummy. So here’s the recipe:

SOCIOLOGICAL CONSIDERATIONS

Underlying this whole work is a soft socialist narrative. It’s a fair look at the edge-lands of popular culture of the ‘60s through the early ‘80s. Having been a child at that time (born in Germany in ’69, graduated High School - in England - in ’87), I have memories of that time period (okay, well, not the ‘60s). Now I was raised in a military home. Dad was a veteran of the US Air Force for 26 years, 18 of which I was living at home. The first stirrings of politics I felt was during the Reagan years. Being young and dumb, I was a pretty staunch Reagan conservative. That has changed quite dramatically. Call me a Leftist, a snowflake, a democratic socialist, whatever. Times change and so have I.

And that’s the rub here. Times change. And when we look back on times, we tend to idealize or demonize what was happening “back then,” depending on our past and present proclivities. One thing I admire about this book is that it points out the seeming loss of the dream of a utopian society that was born in the ‘60s. The examples given herein show in movies and music, primarily, the decay of that dream as it is taking place. Such films as The Wicker Man and such television shows as Robin Redbreast are cited as examples of a Britain turning inward and re-examining the ‘60s view of an idealized Acadia, peeling back the pastoral glamor to look at the potentially ugly underside of rural life in the UK.

This idealization of rural life is posited by Rob Young as being the result of the Inclosure Acts from around 1760.

. . . common land was put into private ownership by government Inclosure Acts, forcing agricultural workers towards the newly expanding cities and factories . . . this displacement could be one of the roots of the British empathy with the countryside, with relics such as songs or texts from the world before this change having come to be revered as they seem to represent or connect to a pre-industrial “Fall” golden age.

Combine this with the fact that those who live in the cities were increasingly priced out of the market for open rural land, and one can see where the seeds of discontent were sown, seeds which started to grow in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but were ignored and left to dry up with the distraction of the glitzy ‘80s and Thatcher’s (and Reagans) Conservative government.

MUSIC

Much of A Year in the Country is taken up with the examination of music, particularly music that grazes in the interstices between folk and popular music. Another area that is examined in great detail is the rather esoteric realm of electronic music that is intentionally anachronistic and obscure.

For those of my age and older who lived in the UK for any amount of time, you will recall the ubiquity of bizarre background music on certain TV shows (I am talking primarily of British TV here, though there was a touch of this sort of thing in the US on some television commercials that I vaguely recall) and the strange electronic compositions that were sometimes used in the introduction of shows, accompanied by some abstract geometric shapes coming together to form the logo of some affiliate of the BBC or other government-sponsored sub-agencies who were responsible for producing educational shows, in particular. I suppose public television in the US had some of this, as well.

Believe it or not, there is an entire subgenre of music of this type (or derivative of it) that is being composed and released today. I’m listening to some right now as I type up this review. I quite like it. Your mileage may vary.

Again, this is rife with political implications. The music was primarily composed and performed by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Given the tension between the BBC and conservative political elements at the time, one can see why this music would now, in this day, be lauded as anthemic, “left-of-center” (augh, that phrase!), socially-conscious, publicly-owned music.

And here we intersect with that slippery notion of hauntology, that our present remembers the past as we want to remember it, rather than as it really was. In fact, the whole notion that we can even possibly remember the past as it really was is called into question. We idealize, we decontextualize, we recontextualize, and we celebrate a past that never was, longing for the faint wisps of a dream from our childhood-that-never-was.

But isn’t there something wonderful in this? I listen to a lot of what’s called “retrowave” or “synthwave” music – music that emulates the synthesizer music of the ‘80s, but is being composed now. I admit that when I allow myself the luxury of listening to this music, it “takes me back”. But back to what? Let’s face facts: Middle school sucked. I hated it. I tried to kill myself once at that time. My home was a bit of a wreck. I self-medicated to cope. Really, it was full of all kinds of suckitude. And yet, there were happy, good times, as well. When I listen to this music, it brings me back to the good times, not because those songs were real when I was young – they hadn’t even been written – but because it emulates the ideal ‘80s, the storybook Breakfast Club ending, where everyone is cool and “in this together”. This idea only exists in my head.

Isn’t that the wonder of imagination? That it can, over time, heal the soul, if we let it? Call it a survival mechanism, call it escapism, call it what you will – it works for me, and makes my present that much more bearable.

MOVIES

I am not much of a cinephile. I hardly ever watch TV any more. Outside of the occasional show that I come to love (Hello, Stranger Things!), I really haven’t watched much since, oh, about 1987 or so. And when people start conversing about actors and movies, I’m out. I just don’t have the brainspace to remember all the actors. I’m much more into reading and experiences than TV or movies.

When I do watch movies, I tend to have strange tastes. I love experimental film. Give me The Brother’s Quay and David Lynch all day long.

A Year in the Country gave enough references to strange (sometimes experimental) movies and TV to last me a very, very long time. You can take a look at the website to see those pieces referred to in the book. I don’t have any kind of exhaustive analysis of the analysis of the role of movies and television in this book, but you’ll find said analysis interwoven throughout. The last two chapters on “Zardoz, Phase IV, and Beyond the Black Rainbow: Seeking the Future in Secret Rooms From the Past and Psychedelic Cinematic Corners” and “Winstanley, A Field in England, and The English Civil War Part II: Reflections on Turning Points and Moments When Anything Could Happen” are particularly compelling.

PSYCHOGEOGRAPHY

One of my favorite things to do as a child and, particularly as a teenager, was to explore. I had the luxury of living outside of my native country for a good portion of my life. About ten of my first eighteen years of life were spent outside of the US. And since I lived in an age where bicycle helmets were optional, no one could call me on my cell phone, and parents believed that it was good for children to get outdoors, I was able to wander quite a bit. From World War II bunkers on the Italian coast to Roman pillars in far-flung artichoke fields to abandoned churches to a 12th-Century English priory that we broke and entered numerous times (ah, the parties we had in the wine cellar and the secret passageways we discovered!), I saw much that kids in the US didn’t get to see, and many of them never will, which is unfortunate. I count myself lucky.

One thing that I learned in Europe is that the sheer age of a place seems to hold a mystique, a “spirit,” if you will. The priory mentioned above was supposedly haunted, and I saw and heard some strange things there. Granted, me and my mates had been drinking a little and were probably over-excitable, since we had illegally broken into a “protected” (not very well) historical site. But I swear there were some things that were just plain unexplainable and seemed to arise from something beyond nervousness, a buzz, and coincidence.

Keep in mind that, while overseas, most of my time was spent living on a US Air Base (except in Italy, where we went native and lived in downtown Brindisi). I was surrounded by the Cold War. That war was my Dad’s business (the stories I can tell – well, the ones he told me before he died), and the accoutrements were all around. At the bases I lived at in Italy and England were antenna arrays called “Elephant Cages,” for example.

Now that the Cold War has ended (though I suspect round two is around the corner), many of these structures were left derelict. Since the threat of nuclear annihilation has subsided (for now), there are old, decommissioned structures that remain as a sort of temporal signpost for the war-that-never-was. Here again we slip into the realms of hauntology.

These empty shells where (classified) activity was frantic and fearful exude a sort of past paranoia for a coming apocalypse that didn’t come. But one wonders if the sense of fear that must have drenched such places didn’t rub off a bit, a’la Nigel Kneal’s The Stone Tapes (also mentioned repeatedly in this book). For that matter, since I’m referring to The Stone Tapes, couldn’t any place, any structure, be saturated with the psychic echoes of the past? This is the whole notion behind haunted houses, so there’s some precedent for this in the popular imagination, at least.
This idea of places having a certain “spirit,” combined with the earlier-mentioned flux between population centers from rural to urban areas (and the desire to get back to an idealized rural life again) speaks to me. Here’s why: I lived on the edge of several worlds as a child. I was mostly a loner, and I loved to explore those “edge places” between the city and the country, when suburbs were much less of a soft boundary between the two environments. I recall being fascinated by abandoned lots on the edges of farm fields, for example. While in England, a few of my English mates and I explored an abandoned, shutter-boarded school on the edge of a town (I can’t remember which town, though it was likely in Bedfordshire). You could stand with one foot on the cracked asphalt of a playground and another foot on a farmer’s field that stretched off into the hills, as far as the eye could see. I admit that I loved these interstitial spots, where one could almost feel a break in the psychogeography of a place. Furthermore, I was an American living overseas for most of my childhood – caught between two worlds. And even when I was in the US, I felt the clear distinction between civilian kids and us military “brats”. I find myself comfortable in that uncomfortable space between social circles. Which has, ironically, helped this self-avowed loner to learn to reach out to different people in different ways, according to their likes and needs. I am, if nothing else, a chameleon.

Or, at least, I remember being that way. Now that I’ve settled into life a bit more, my parents have both passed away (earlier this year), my children are adults, and I’ve lived in the same location for twenty-odd years now, perhaps I’ve lost my touch. I hope not. I seem to be able to take two sides of a given argument and at least give fair thoughts to both (though I have my opinions and am not afraid to state them, bluntly, at times – c.f. Twitter). I don’t really ever want to lose the magic of being on the edge between two worlds, whether sociological, cultural, or geographical. I’m comfortable in the spaces in-between. Maybe that’s because I have two or more potential escape routes!

LAST THOUGHTS

This whole idea of hauntology has, pardon the horrible “dad pun”, haunted me since I’ve discovered it. My memory is not what it used to be, and I recently watched my father lose his capacity for memory in the months before he died. My biological aunt, my father’s twin, has suffered from dementia for some years now. Guess I have something to look forward to. In the meantime, my emotional rear-view-mirror has become a bit idealized. Yes, I remember some heartache, but the good times are more vivid in my memory than the bad times: Being with friends, discovering the world, falling in love, the opening of new vistas (visually, intellectually, emotionally). There is a certain sadness, some grieving for lost friends and relationships, for permanent changes to places I once knew and loved. But I embrace that grief. It’s a part of who I am. I don’t wallow in it, but I embrace it. Maybe I’m just a nostalgic old fool in love with his own imagination. If so, fine. Leave me to it. I’m not living in the past, but I’m coming to peace with it and with the changes that come from its loss and mis-memory. In Stephen Prince’s words:

. . . we are possibly going through a period where there is a sense of loss of loss. This is a side effect of the contemporary endless and precise archiving and replication techniques which are available via digital technology, which is in contrast to previous eras . . .

So, let the past decay! I don’t much care about the idea of the “true” past as a whole (and I’m a historian, by academic training). My memory of the past is truth, for me. And it’s quite enough, loss and all.


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Monday, August 13, 2018

Buried Shadows

Buried ShadowsBuried Shadows by John Howard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This reading year has been chock full of great short story collections. Reggie Oliver's Mrs. Midnight And Other Stories, Alcebiades Diniz's opium-dream-like Lanterns of the Old Night, Paul Willem's The Cathedral of Mist, and Laird Barron's Occultation and Other Stories were all outstanding reads. I think I may have used up my allotment of superlatives on the stories contained in these collections.

Now I'm wondering if I shouldn't have kept a few of them in reserve. The quality of John Howard's writing met with perfect timing. I have been eyeball deep in "hauntology", with a focus on that-which-was-but-was-not. Not nostalgia, per se, but a mis-remembering of the past that has little concern with trying to accurately recall the past. For the absolute best delve into hauntology, go to Rouge Foam's entry on "Hauntology: The Past Inside the Present". Better pack your things. You're going to be a while . . .

This book as artifact is amazing, as I've come to expect from Egaeus Press. It has heft and texture not normally found in most books. The cover and end-papers show a crumpled, slate-colored map of Berlin. Throughout the book are illustrations based on the work of the mysterious Balthasar Holz, architect and theorist.

Of all things, I was most struck by the typography of the title on the cover. The "overtyping" lets the reader know that we are delving into the era of typewriters that didn't have the ability to correct themselves. That's actually an amazing touch. I know that the stories herein will either take place in or evoke some time from the 1890s to the 1970s because of the typography. Egaeus gets all the details right!

And the stories do not disappoint . . .

My current fascination with hauntology seems to have found voice in Howard's story about the ghosts of Berlin, "To the Anhalt Station". Here, the line between past and present is blurred, with a sense of fascination and loss for the events one never saw, but one sees now, out of time, against the grain of chronology. Anachronostic haunting is contagious, it seems. Four stars, bordering on Five.

If you had asked me to point to the perfect example of Magic Realism a week ago, I'd point you to Borges or Marquez. But now, I'd point you to "Mr S. and Dr S." This story is so finely-honed that you're unlikely to find another quite as good. I've tried, myself, to write an original doppleganger story. Trust me: it's no small feat. In Howard's tale, dopplegangers, possible traitors, Vigilance Police for a potential dictator, all mingle in this very weird tale of mistaken(?) identity. The mere fact that the characters even exist as they do provide a mystery worth plumbing, but Howard is careful not to reveal all. Why would he? The unanswered questions posed between the lines of this story allow you, the reader, to explore the streets of this city yourself, without a guide. Five stars for five Mr S.'s.

"Least Light, Most Night" first appeared in the Aickmann's Heirs anthology. You can see the tribute in the focus on the atmosphere and environment, as well as the open-endedness of the weird here. Weird because it's eerie (I'm using both words in the sense Mark Fisher defines them in his excellent work The Weird and the Eerie), because something fundamental is missing, namely closure. Four stars for this understated story that forces you to again read between the lines.

When I was a teenager, I was legally "banished" from a place that I loved. It's a long story involving the war on drugs. But I was literally, physically and legally cut off from my family, home, and friends. It kept me out of prison . . . of a sort. So I read "The Defiant Sky" and ached with that sense of longing that only the banished know. You need not have been banished from anything to enjoy the story, but it does intensify the effect, and the sting homed deep into my heart. This is a story of defiant hope and belief wherein the city of London becomes a means to an end. A mysterious end that isn't an end. Five stars.

Sex and murder and . . . architecture? Yes, it's as strange as it sounds. "Buried Shadows," the title story, was not my favorite. Not bad, but not terribly compelling, either. Three stars.

"Numbered as Sand or the Stars" is a humor-filled, yet deathly-serious foray into man's ability to adapt to new regimes that overlap the place where one lives, where one has grown. This thread interweaves with that of, of all things, economics and inflation. Issues of old versus new class structure and political power undergird all of it. The economy of cosmic-horror in the form of regime change and geography. It is in this story that Howard shows his most whimsical side, eschewing, for but a moment, the normally restrained, careful (yet mystically-charged) prose:

He dreams of muttering and booming stars, the stars flung across the black sky like icing sugar. He runs and jumps among them, sliding along the frozen waterfall of the Milky Way and playfully hurls galaxies into the speckled blackness as if they were dinner plates or the flat stones he loves to skim across the river as it flows around the base of Castle Hill. The stars open their eyes and mouths to him, until each one is a silent exclamation or scream, wide as a zero. Then all the stars are zeros. Mihaly turns in fright but there is no Earth. All the zeros - every nought, every loss, every pain he can imagine - flow across the black sky and mount up over him like a wave about to break. Then Mihaly is falling through a tube or shaft made from the glowing rings of nothing. He looks down and can discern no end as he plummets. He breathes in to take a tremendous scream, his mouth opening wide in an empty zero. The zeros start to force their way into Mihaly's throat, threatening to drown him in nothings at all. All the time he is still falling. He cries out for his parents, the Emperor, and all the members of the Order of the Valiant he can name.

Five stars turning to the best possible nothings ever.

"The Shape and the Colour of the Moon" is one of the more beautifully dark stories I've read in a long time. First published in a Machen tribute anthology, it reads as if the ghosts of Machen and Borges where whispering in Morrisey's ear when we wrote "Every Day is Like Sunday". Transformation and devotion to the City behind London drive the subtle, evocative plot. I could drown in this grey story. Five stars.

"More Than India" is an emotional gut-punch of a story. A rather melancholy older man makes the acquaintance of a young rower on the River Thames. But the older man's life is now a sort of palimpsest of his younger life, and the faint words of his earlier story are starting to show through. A ghost story without ghosts, this is a powerfully emotional story worthy of five stars.

"You Promised You Would Walk" is an engaging exploration of Berlin and the cyclical nature of time that mentions and evokes Dr. Caligari. I feel like Howard "telegraphed" a little in this story, that I caught on far too soon to spoil the latter part of the story. I'll blame Twilight Zone: The Movie, as there is a similar vignette in there (though with much more deadly and deserved results). Still, this was more subtle and nuanced than TZTM. Four stars.

"The Floor of Heaven" is a dream - that dream where you know that there is someone, somewhere, who you have absolutely met, where you've absolutely been, but when you go to find that place and that person, they are impossible to find, though you know you are there. This is how I dream of England. Often. Like I'm back there, but the people and places that should be there are gone. It haunts me, not with potential terror, but with a dreamstate longing, a reaching that is unable to grasp, though I can feel the air moving between my fingers as the object of my desires - the sense of firmness of place and surety of remembered experience in physical space - escapes me. Now I think I am truly beginning to understand the tragedy of Tantalus in full. There are times when I yearn for my time in England, or at least my mis-remembering of that time, that place, those people. It breaks my heart and invades my dreams, repeatedly and unexpectedly. This story captured that specific feeling of pathos that I really don't have adequate words to describe.

And all the stars turn to noughts, to loss, to pain. Sweet pain. May it never stop hurting.

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Saturday, August 4, 2018

Gyorgy Ligeti: Of Foreign Lands and Strange Sounds

György Ligeti: Of Foreign Lands and Strange SoundsGyörgy Ligeti: Of Foreign Lands and Strange Sounds by Louise Duchesneau
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Though I am an avant-classical enthusiast, I am by no means an expert. I cannot read music and the instrument I play is electric guitar, and that, badly. But I'm willing to learn a few things, even if I clearly don't have time or the gumption to become a true aficionado. So you'll please excuse this layman's delve into a work that would speak far more clearly to the musically-trained. And yet, I can't help but think that while the intellectual appreciation of the book might be somewhat heightened by such training, my enjoyment of the book was only slightly hampered by my admitted ignorance. One need not have a thorough understanding of musical notation to appreciate Of Foreign Lands and Strange Sounds .

In fact, I wonder if such an acute focus on the music on the page itself might not get in the way of really enjoying the exploration of Ligeti's creative mind. Chapter Eight, in fact (which I would argue should have been Chapter One or Two, for the sake of the untrained reader), "Rules and Regulations: Lessons from Ligeti's Compositional Sketches," an essay by University of Washington Professor of Music Theory Jonathan W. Bernard, is an enlightening look into the many different methods Ligeti used to notate his own music-in-progress. Bernard shares a loose taxonomy of the "sketch types" Ligeti used while composing: Jottings, Drawings, Charts, Tables, and finally, Music Notation. Color plates in the middle of the book showing Ligeti's original papers augment the reader's experience. Here, one can get a more visceral feel for what Ligeti's music "looks like" on paper - a wonderful thing for those of us who are visual-kinesthetic learners! If you, like me, have little or no musical training, I would recommend starting with Chapter Eight.

There, now that you've read Chapter Eight, turn to Chapter One: "'We play with the music and the music plays with us;: Sandor Veress and his Student Gyorgy Ligeti," by University of Calgary Musicology Professor Friedemann Sallis. This will give you the background on Ligeti's early studies, the discipline instilled in him by Veress, and his growth both with and against those teachings, much of which was (later) pushed by political circumstances around him, especially the suppression of folk traditions and traditional folk music by the mid-20th-Century Communist regimes in Eastern Europe.

Now that one has this background, the reader can (should?) then skip up to Chapter Seven, written by Ligeti's long time assistant (and co-editor of this volume), Louise Duchesneau: "'Play it like Bill Evans': Gyorgy Ligeti and Recorded Music". Here we explore Ligeti's like and dislikes and take a deep delve into his personal record collection! I found this fascinating, not just because of Ligeti's wide interests (he took a liking to Supertramp at one point, after being introduced to their music by one of his students), but because Duchesneau here outlines the entirety of Ligeti's career, conveniently parsing his music into several distinct phases. Though the borders between these phases were not always crystal clear, sometimes they were, as in the time when he rejected "Modernist" work and returned to his Hungarian folk roots after a many-decades-long absence or, more properly, intellectual exile (partially self-imposed, partially imposed by the external chilling effect of having to flee oppression of expression).

From there, one may read the rest of the book in order (yes, you have my permission), as the sequence of Chapters Eight, then One, then Seven, will give you all the under-girding you need to contextualize the other essays, which vary from examinations of specific pieces to poetic connections, Ligeti's fascination with African music, his appreciation for and the influence on his music by the principles of chaos and fractals, Stanley Kubrik's use of Ligeti's music in his movies (an amazing cross-media examination that my Humanities professors would have loved), and impressions of those who were his students.

One theme that ran through the book, whether explicitly or implicitly, was that of a man un-moored from his homeland who longed to retain some aspect of that homeland which he had left, but who was not blindly beholden to the place of his birth and childhood. This is where the book connected with me emotionally, rather than just intellectually. I am an American citizen, born in Germany into a U.S. Air Force family, and have lived all over the world. Though I love the place I live now, it has taken me many years to call any one place "home". With the recent passing of my parents (who lived in California, though I only lived there for three years, and two of those years as a married man not living at home - not to mention the fact that I was very happy to leave California when that opportunity presented itself), I feel even more "unmoored" and adrift in the world. While Madison has become home, largely because we raised our children here and do genuinely love this city, I still get the occasional sharp pangs of wanderlust in me and long to just begin walking and keep on walking until I can walk no more. But where would I walk? Of course, I would explore new places, I can't help myself or my curiosity. But I have a longing, at times, to go back to see the places I have been before, the places I have lived before, with the full knowledge that some of those places, most, really, don't actually exist as I knew them then. The air base I lived at in England is now a British spy base, and I could not go back and see the places where I spent considerable time. The little town in Minnesota where I lived with my grandmother for a year, has grown from about 3,000 residents to over 17,000, The base I lived at in Italy has been essentially demolished and replaced by a city. The base I lived at in the Philippines may still be under volcanic ash, so far as I know. And the military hospital I was born in now bears almost no resemblance to the place my parents knew. But I still want to see these places, at least once. Ligeti, I think, shared some of the same sentiments, if not the same feelings, given the loss of family members to the holocaust, his flight from his homeland, and his itinerant life abroad. Perhaps I am just projecting, but we wanderers tend to understand each other. The feelings of humans displaced (whether voluntarily or not) are complex and often shared in their complexity and intensity, at least that has been my experience in talking with others who have moved frequently, particularly those who have moved to places where their language was not the local tongue, where they were strangers in a strange land.

Paul Griffiths, in his essay "Invented Homelands: Ligeti's Orchestras" captures the connection between these experiences and Ligeti's creative drives perfectly:

The Violin Concerto is the richest of his invented homelands, and may persuade us that feelings of belonging are complex, ambiguous, mutable and probably illusory.

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Saturday, July 21, 2018

No Man's Land: View from a Surveillance State

No Man's Land: Views from a Surveillance StateNo Man's Land: Views from a Surveillance State by DeSieno Marcus
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Outside of an introduction by Ariel Shanberg outlining the aesthetic purposes behind DeSieno Marcus' photographs and an outro by Martha A. Sandweiss delving into the technologically transgressive nature of the project, this book is all about the photographs. The simple design lets the photos breathe in a startling way.

Once one understands (through reading Sandweiss' essay) the subversive nature of Marcus' methods, the landscapes take on a decidedly hauntological tone, but in a twisted way. Rather than fostering a vision of a past that never was hoping for a future that never will be (as in the Ghost Box Records oeuvre, for a musical example), Marcus' photographs subvert our inner version of the "wilderness" by tricking us about our assumptions. Without context, one looks at these photos and thinks that they are beautiful vintage photos of the world's great wildernesses. The astute observer will see that there are sometimes elements - a line of power poles, for example, or a graded road - that indicate that these are not necessarily old photographs and that the photographer might have used old techniques to emulate antique photographs. This is true . . . partially.

The true hauntological element comes in when one realizes that the way Marcus produced these photos was by hacking into trailside and wilderness security cameras. He then sets up a wooden camera (complete with bellows and brass fittings) and shoots a picture of his computer screen. Then, using "a waxed paper negative process", he creates images that look as if they were shot in the very early days of daguerreotypes.

Genius. Pure, subversive genius.

Of course, this opens up a whole Pandora's box of questions: Since he is hacking into security cameras, who is watching who? And if you happened to be on the trail or in the landscape at the time Marcus "took" his photographs (I use the word intentionally) and you are now viewing those photographs, are the observer and the observed the same? Or, through Marcus' manipulation, has the observed changed in some way because of the nature of the transformation? Furthermore, what about the purposes of the trailside cameras? Are they "secure"? Do they reach the objective of their "security" if they can be hacked by an outsider, then viewed by the world, at least in a frames'-worth snapshot in time?

The hauntological implications are really quite staggering. How often do we fool ourselves into accepting a certain vision of "the past," when, in fact, that vision has been manufactured in the present? I was a child of the '80s - graduated high school in 1987, if you must know - and it is easy for me to listen to music, for example, that was created recently, but that I swear could have been present at that time, but absolutely was not. The retrowave synth movement is the classic example of this. Listening to it, I can say that, yes, it evokes the way it felt to be a teenager in the '80s (I realize I am generalizing my nostalgic feelings and applying them to millions of people, which I have no right to do, since each individual experience of that decade was different), but if asked to provide examples of where and when I heard such music, I am hard-pressed to come up with good examples. I suppose the movies Tron, Escape from New York, and Blade Runner and their soundtracks provide the best readily-accessible example, but not every movie in the '80s was Tron, Escape from New York, or Blade Runner. In any case, none of these soundtracks are identical to the retrowave music being produced today (and vice-versa), so, really, even the nostalgia I feel when listening to new-retrowave music is not truly memory, it is a reflection of my present views of the past, not a mirror of the past itself, an imposition of my present mind laid on top of my muddle memories of the past. My memories of the past are haunted by the phantoms of the present and my present impressions are haunted by the underlying memories of the past.

Which begs the question: Am I even myself? The question . . . haunts me.

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Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The Potemkin Mosaic

The Potemkin MosaicThe Potemkin Mosaic by Mark Teppo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There is no linearity to Mark Teppo's incredible The Potemkin Mosaic. If you are looking for a straightforward plot and real-world logic, look elsewhere. This will sear your eyes out of their sockets. This is the realm of dream, of astral fields, of the hidden tunnels of gnosis and the far-depths of psychology.

Perhaps we should start with the book's blurb:

TH3y want you to be TH3iR agent.
Harry wants you to be free.
Nothing is what it seems, but everything herein actually happened.

Ten years ago, dream doctor Harry Potemkin realized someone was editing his identity, in much the same way that he ventured into the minds of his psychologically damaged patients. In order to discover how he was being changed, he started a dream journal. He also built a lexicon, a persistent record of the symbolic markers that would enable him to remap his consciousness should it become severely fragmented.

Ten years ago, Trinity Pharmacopoeia was about to release a new neurological nootropic called Atramabor, a drug that would revolutionize how we sleep and dream. Teh first promotional commercial for Atramabor aired once, and was then mysteriously pulled. Lawsuits, contending that subliminal messaging was hidden within the thirty second spot, were filed. Within six months, Trinity Pharmacopoeia canceled all plans to release Atramabor. A year later, the company dissolved.

Harry Potemkin never woke up from his dreams. In fact, there is no evidence he ever existed.

Nor are there any copies of the Atramabor commercial, though there are documented interviews with individuals who claim to have been changed by what they saw. All corporate records regarding Trinity Pharmacopoeia have been expunged from state and federal databases.

And yet, the battle between Potemkin and Trinity is very real. It continues to this day. TH3y know he can stop them, unless TH3y get to him first.


The Potemkin Mosaic is Harry's exploration of his fragmented dream psyche. This is the only record of his identity.

TH3y want you to read it, because this is the only way Harry can be caught.


And this is as straightforward as anything gets with this . . . novel? Yes, novel. Originally produced at the sadly defunct Farrago's Wainscot (where your's truly had a few pieces of fiction published), The Potemkin Mosaic, in its original incarnation, was a hypertext novel of incredible depth and complexity. When I first heard that Mark was going to try to wrestle this non-linear virtual text into something less non-linear, in physical format, I was skeptical that it could even be done. But he's pulled it off with panache.

It would be one thing, a minor miracle, if Teppo pulled off the structural heist alone. But he's gone way beyond that. The prose is compelling, the subject matter an esotericist's dream . . . literally. Take, for example, the entry on page 163 entitled "Cage"(with the zodiac symbol for Aquarius underneath - the book is full of symbols and interesting typography):

CAGE

"Black Iron Prison" is the term you'll hear used by the modern seeker of gnosis. It's a reference to the Archonic Construction of the Universe, a theorythat multi-dimensional intelligences are preventing us from realizing our full spiritual and cognitive potential by locking our minds in these psychic prisons.

There are a number of analogous mythological scenarios strewn throughout history, so as a cosmological definition, the Archonic Construction of the Universe is as good as any. It benefits from being connected to Philip K. Dick's paranoid visions, which any competent oneironaut appreciates.

Modern culture suffers from a lack of decent mythological canon. We should make our own, because, really, we are children of the 3rd millennium. It's time we believed in our own gods.

Which brings me back to the concept of cages. We continue to be trapped by second-millennial constructs. Hell, even the apocalyptic terror of the end of the first millennium still pervades our psyches. We're still too busy looking over our shoulders to realize the first apocalypse of the third millennium is rapidly approaching.

That's another story. I'll get to it later.

Cages. No man can ever be imprisoned against his Will. Crowley knew this once, though he forgot it shortly after the other initiates and adepts started fawning over his "transmission from teh desert." Yes, you can cage the flesh and you can even lock the mind into a cell, but the Will is unbreakable.

Jung gave it a different name - "individuation" - but didn't allow himself the freedom to imbue it with any lasting power. Freud (the last black magician of the twentieth century, frankly) had managed to bind Jung tightly enough that the Swiss psychologist never truly realized he had been . . . caged.


Now, you could just turn the page and continue, reading the entry on Casual Disarray (with the symbol for Virgo under it), but what's this? To the side of paragraph 4 is a reference:

* fragmentary
p. 209


And to the side of the last paragraph:

* burnblack
p. 26


I like the side of burnblack. Let's turn there. It reads (starting with a triangle character, which I'm not able to replicate here because my html skills suck):

"Burnblack, o falling star!"

I've tried to find the source of this quote, but it has eluded me. Like a number of the mythological and symbolic elements within my dreams, I'm starting to believe it as an admixture. There is a fusion going on in my head, and I can't quite tell if it is a matter of too much time in the Oneiroi or too many days and nights of being under the influence of narcotics, hallucinogens, and other psychotropic compounds. My head is already warped enough.

More likely,
burnblack is of archaic origin, possibly some lost bit of biblical apocrypha. A reference to the fallen angels. Or maybe the first of the fallen ones.

Quomodo cecidisti de caelo, lucifer, fili aurorae?

How else would you describe the back of a being who was not burned by the fire of his wings, but was burned by the fire of his fall? And, as my hand unconsciously strayed as I was writing down my dream: "sun-darkened (burnblack, o falling star!)" If God is the sun and you have been cast away from his grace, would not "sun-darkened" accurately describe your state?

To be burnblack is to be fallen. But falling is necessary to find the path to ascension. At least, one must be willing to fall - one must understand the fall.


Quod est inferius est sicut quod est superius, et quot est superius est sicut quod est inferius, ad perpetranda miracula rei unius.

Finally, some use for those two stifling years of Latin classes - from before the experiments and the drugs. Not all of it was wasted time.

Again, in the margins, we are given the choice to seek out "labyrinth", "fire", or "descent", with corollary page numbers. Or, you could just continue reading, going to the facing page titled "IV The Library" and attempt to forge a linear path through this labyrinth. But you won't. Your curiosity will pull you to another side entry and you will travel down the rabbit hole until you feel that you, yourself, are "living the dream" of Harry Potemkin. Oh, and incidentally, for those who were wondering, and I know some of you were wondering, this book was published the same year that David Bowie's Blackstar was released, though the original hypertext novel was published nine years earlier. Methinks they were on the same wavelength, if not tapping into the same esoteric substance.

Potemkin reaches into the ethereal, grasps its strands, and becomes enmeshed in the mists of dream, puncturing the veil, from time to time, in sudden moments of startling lucidity, only to find that beyond that veil is another and another and another. It is an ambitious work, a labyrinthine carnival that leaves the reader clutching at the ever shifting walls of reality and perception - the author's, the reader's, and that of Potemkin himself. Read, wander, lose yourself, and try to find yourself again. Sleep easy, if you can.

The original hypertext novel is still available here, but I strongly recommend you pick up the physical book, which is both a little more manageable and a little more unruly than the original, in good ways. Good luck. See you on the other side.

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The Children of Gla'aki: A Tribute to Ramsey Campbell's Great Old One

The Children of Gla'aki: A Tribute to Ramsey Campbell's Great Old OneThe Children of Gla'aki: A Tribute to Ramsey Campbell's Great Old One by Brian M. Sammons
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I began this book, I took the following note: "On a bit of a Lovecraftian kick, but it will soon pass. I won't say I'm burning out on it, but I'm . . . more wary than I was in the past."

After reading this volume, maybe I'm leaning more toward the burnout stage. A few stories herein have kept me from the brink of just saying "Quatsch" to everything with the descriptor of "Lovecraftian". But there was a fair amount of dreck. On average, was it worth reading? Yes. The really great stories in here are really great. Perhaps you need the bad to highlight the good, like a diamond atop mud. But having to clean off all the muck is getting old. Perhaps I had high hopes, because I enjoyed Ramsey Campbell's The Inhabitant of the Lake & Other Unwelcome Tenants, despite his self-reproachment for the immaturity of some of the stories. Maybe that's the problem - writers taking cues from an unstable source. Some of these writers were able to fashion gems, others cheap baubles, still others, broken, useless shards.

Nick Mamatas's "Country Mouse, City Mouse" was, as I expect from Mamatas, well-written and dipped its toes in explorations of tolerance and diversity. It expands the "universe" of Campbell's work by extending its reach. But I didn't find it all that horrific, outside of the fatalism expressed at the end. Three stars to this tale.

John Goodrich's "Tribute Band" isn't the sort of story I normally like. But what should have been a hackneyed story of rock and roll gone wrong was actually really enjoyable. It's a little "cute" and somewhat predictable, but the voice is distinctive and likable. The balance between folksy structure and challenging vocabulary is excellent. I just plain found myself drawn in. Three stars. Better than I would have guessed!

Robert M. Price's "In Search of Lake Monsters" is as pulpy as they come, with all the trappings one would expect. Then again, it had all the trappings one would expect . . . Still, I enjoyed it a lot. Four stars full of guilty pleasure. Sometimes you just can't really explain why you like a story, you just do. That's the case here.

While Pete Rawlik's "The Collection of Gibson Flynn" has an intriguing twist ending, the buildup paid so much homage to Lovecraftiana that it read like one giant inside joke, a pastiche of itself, mythos masturbation. The ending saves it from the realms of hackneyed mediocrity, but only just. Three stars, barely.

Outside of the intriguing title, W. H. Pugmire's "The Secret Painting of Thomas Cartwright" was uninspired and not nearly as intriguing as the title. Two forgetful stars.

Edward Morri's"I Want to Break Free" is a lesson in tension: the push me, pull me between cosmic forces and self-will, the intestines of genius and insanity, even the fence-hopping from pop culture references to literary stylistics. This story has VOICE. Punch. Chutzpah. Up to this point, the best story in the anthology, and it's not even close. I want to read more Morris! Five stars.

I'm admittedly out of touch with the weird fiction world. So this was the first Scott R. Jones story I've ever read. I am impressed. "The Spike" is a deep exploration of the alien-ness of, not Gla'aki, but a piece of Gla'aki. It's like Roadside Picnic but with the horror turned up to eleven. The writing is sparse, punchy, yet descriptive. Five stars.

I am certain that Thana Niveau must have better work than "The Dawning of His Dreams," given her publication history. This . . . I don't know what to call it, a story, I guess, did absolutely nothing for me. It's a hot mess. As an editor, I would likely throw this thing across the room. One star, because it was written. That's the best I can do.

William Meikle's "The Lakeside Cottages" featured a narrator that was too clever and self-aware by half. It read like a Call of Cthulhu session with a narrator who seemed to possess great knowledge of the Old Ones, which might be great for a recurring character, like an occult investigator, but didn't work in this one shot. Still, okay. Three stars for the three eyes of Gla'aki.

I have high expectations for Orrin Grey's fiction, and "Invaders of Glaaki" didn't disappoint. Yes, I'm a sucker for '80s nostalgia, and this story is full of it. But it takes things in a horrific direction. Imagine The Last Starfighter meets cosmic horror. I am not a big fan of second-person viewpoint, but it kind of worked for the story. I enjoyed this. Four stars.

Sorry, but Tom Lynch's "Scion of Chaahk" is a Campbell pastiche while Campbell is pastiching Lovecraft. I . . . just . . . can't . . . Maybe I'm just done with pulpy mythos fiction? Two stars.

Konstantine Paradias' "Cult of Panacea" is everything that Niveau's earlier story could have been. Yes, it's a history, but its presentation in the context of the story makes sense and forms a bleak, resigned picture of what it means to be a cultist of Gla'aki in the far-future wake of Earth's decrepitude and demise. It's rare to find a science fiction horror piece like this. It held my interest well. Four stars.

I think it's time to admit to myself that I do NOT like mythos pastiches, especially those that are trying to be funny, but are not very funny. Josh Reynolds' "Squatters Rights" just hit all the wrong buttons for me. I'm becoming leery of these Cosmic Horror Mythos-inspired anthologies. I'll finish this one. There have been some great stories here. But not this one. Two stars and my tastes are a-changin'.

Lee Clark Zumpe shows considerable writing skill through most of "Beneath Cayuga's Churning Waves," then ends flat. The ending was a disappointing deus-ex-machina, which could have been the ending to just about any detective thriller. It was as generic an ending as I could think of, like something right out of a "You Too Can Write Detective Stories" formula book. The story is still worthy of four stars, but the ending felt so tacked on that it doesn't deserve a fifth.

Despite a number of poor stories in here, some shine. Tim Waggoner's "Nature of Water" is one such. Simultaneously flipping the horror on its head and embracing it, this is a tale of horrific redemption. What could have easily been revenge schlock, Waggoner turns into an emotionally meaningful, yet terrifying end, deftly avoiding the obvious. Wonderfully written and full of pathos, I loved this story. Five stars.

That's three reality-show stories now. I'm tired of them. This one, "Night of the Hopfrog" by Tim Curran, claims to be the raw transcript of video for a ghost-hunter style show. But then where is all the parenthetical notation coming from? Who wrote these notes? The story would be more effective without them actually. Even then, with proper editing, I would only give it two stars. I never liked reality TV anyway.

The fiction ends on a strong note with John Langan's "Mirror Fishing," which subsumes Gla'aki in folk tradition that blooms into cosmic horror. The characters are wonderfully complex, from the young Pat to his tutor in the ways of Auld Glaikit, Lisa. The descent into the depths of Gla'aki's fractal-dimensional realm is amazing, and the folksy conceit refreshing. I enjoy those tales where human folk conception maps onto true cosmic horror in a sort of cargo-cult worship of those things that we cannot understand. This is a story that will stick with me for a while. Five stars.

Mathematically, I'm coming in at an average just above three stars. I'm rounding down to an even three, which seems about right. On average, The Children of Gla'aki is . . . average (despite the high praise Campbell heaps on ALL the stories in his afterword). The heights are really high: There are a few truly amazing stories in here. But the depths . . . well, Gla'aki himself will be well fed by some of these stories sinking to the bottom of the lake. I suppose some of the danger in editing such an anthology is that, in order to fill a word count and get readers, you might take a few pedestrian stories from "name" writers. I've never hewed to that philosophy myself, when editing. I only take the stories I love. If they happen to be "name" authors, that's helpful. But I also love giving the underdogs a chance. You have to start somewhere, right? Maybe at the bottom of the lake.

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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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