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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