Saturday, December 28, 2019

At Dusk

At DuskAt Dusk by Mark Valentine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mark Valentine has to be my favorite contemporary writer. From his clever, yet sumptuous stories of the Connoisseur to his erudite and searching non-fictional essays on obscure writers to his weird fiction to his poetry, the man is one of the most accomplished writers alive.

His works are, at times, difficult to find and expensive to procure, and At Dusk is no exception. I've spent a pretty penny on Valentine's work in the past, and I mean to in the future. You won't find this rare gem (my copy is #48 of 235) laying around in some second-hand bookshop, fortunately or unfortunately, as the product itself speaks to its value. This Exposition Internationale edition is one of the more beautiful books I own, both in presentation and in content. The hardcover is split between a wonderful photo by Goticus Polus and a strange felt that imitates some sort of animal hide. It is a sturdy volume, heavier than one might think, with the silk ribbon that is an almost-required accessory for a book of such fine pedigree.

The heft of the book is not only in its thick pages of prose-poetry, interspersed with dark photography throughout, but in the weight of the words. For example, the piece dedicated to Gertrud Kolmar, entitled "Their Strange Beasts" begins as a beautiful ode to Kolmar's sense of poesis, then echoes, with a shock, her death at Auschwitz:

Unicorns, bears, black swans, brindled horses, eagles,
ravens, crowned stags, serpents. She dreamt of Teuton
heraldry, wrote about the badges of towns, their strange
beasts, their crests, their tinctures, their proud flourishes.

All the country was for her a living mythology. The same
burghers who sat under these grand arms gave her in the
end a badge: a yellow star.


Not all the poems are so grim, not by any means. Some pose a strange optimism, a hope for things beyond this world, as in the dedication to poet Antonio Machado, entitled "These Footfalls":

We walk in this world as if it were the only one. Yet there
is a side-step when we seem to stray into another. A few
moments pass, we waver on the brink of a revelation. We
could dissolve into another existence. Then, this world
tugs us back, and we return, as we think, to our usual
selves. But we are not unchanged by this glimpse, by
these footfalls towards another domain: we remember
with yearning what we briefly almost knew. A daydream,
or reverie; an uncanny intensity; perhaps, a sense of
drifting along some unremarkable street; or a strange
significance in the sudden look of a passer-by; something
in the turn of a road, or the fall of sunlight upon leaves,
the hovering of a shadow upon a white wall. If we are
fortunate, there might even seem to be a figure, waiting
for us.


I am tempted to reveal more: about the playfulness of "Gnostic Comedian" or the familial, domestic-banality-cum-mysticism of "Sabbath Candles" or any number of the other scintillating prisms through which Valentine shows us the breadth of the internal human experience. At Dusk is truly a kaleidoscope, one that will enthrall for a far longer time than it takes to read these short works. The power in them is their activation of the heart and mind, the setting in motion of the spirit, the becoming they allow.

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Thursday, December 19, 2019

Ornaments in Jade

Ornaments in JadeOrnaments in Jade by Arthur Machen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've shouted Machen's praises before, and even the praises of those who successfully evoke his work. I can't seem to get enough of his work. And so, I bought this slim little volume, even though fully half of these tiny postcard stories are collected in the Oxford World's Classics collection. Knowing that this was coming in the mail, I omitted any review of the stories contained in this volume when I reviewed the Oxford book. Call me a tease.

The most difficult thing about telling you about this work is telling you how great I think it is without spoiling anything. Most of these stories are 3, maybe 4 pages long. It was wonderful to read during my lunch breaks at my new job, because I knew I could squeeze one of these ornaments in and still have time for (inspired!) writing of my own. If I had thousands of these jewels, I might never read another thing on my lunch break again.

Yet, despite my fears, I will outline - very, very briefly - my impressions, at least, of the story. Because impressions left in the reader's mind might be the most important aspect of these wee tales. Not every tale can evoke a character's breadth of personality in a sentence or two (though some do) nor can a "satisfying" ending be presented each time when the ending is just a beginning (though, again, some stories do just this). Some of the works here might be considered mere fragments, even. Despite the incomplete jigsaw puzzle that is each story, a more-or-less coherent oeuvre emerges. One might think of each of these stories as "episodes" in Machen's psycho-emotional history of the world - they are "of a piece," though the characters and places are never connected. Here we see Machen's mind working, almost as if we are in his head looking out and exploring, grasping small coincidences and visions, while anticipating what lay before or after (or even during) them, beyond our chronological reach. This anticipation is what makes the collection complete.

"The Rose Garden" is beautiful not because of it's beautiful descriptiveness, but because of its somber, yet hopeful emotional resonance. Five stars. Machen at his poetic best.

"The Turanians" is a brief sketch of the encounter of a young, expressive, imaginative girl on the edge of womanhood. Her mother warns her about being too expressive and arranged for a young gentleman to visit, but not before the girl encounters a young Turanian boy who gives her a wonderful gift. There is so much more roiling under the surface of this story than what is presented, and one can feel it as one reads it, like standing outside of a concert hall and hearing the cadence of the music without being able to hear individual notes in the muddle of sound. But you know there is an intricate structure under that bass thumping. This is what I felt about the protagonist: There was something more about her, her life was on the edge of . . . something. Five stars.

"The Idealist" is a glimpse into a strange inner life of resentment replaced by weird accomplishment. This is a deep dive into the main characters inner thoughts, though there are hints of shadows beyond what is made explicit and it is in that darkness that the readers mind can fester and grow its own imaginings. Five stars.

"Witchcraft" is a tease. All prelude and even the climax and denouement happen offstage, and most of the story consists of decontextualized dialogue. This is one of the most stunning examples of how to evoke - pun intended! If I taught writing, I'd teach this! Five stars.

Another beautiful story, but one that seems less "anchored" in itself, is "The Ceremony". It lacks the depth and twist that Machen has spoilt me with. But still, like the grey stone, beautiful and forbidden. Four stars.

"Psychology" is a prelude without a story appended to it. It's beautiful writing, as you would expect, but it's just a fragment, a jumping off point that doesn't jump. This "worst of" the stories in this collection would probably be among the better stories in most collections. Three stars.

"Torture" is a complete tale, though we only see the outward actions of the young protagonist. But there is much more going on in his head, not made explicit, only inferred. Therein lies the story, in the unseen caverns of the protagonist's heart and mind. Five creepy stars.

Machen shows his fascination with illicit rites carried out by moonlight in his story "Midsummer". I happen to share that fascination with dancing in the groves at midnight, but more as an observer than participant. Though sometimes . . . Four stars

The splendor of "Nature" is carefully poured out, like honey, from the narrator. The trick here is the offstage, implied conversation that happened before the present dialogue, where the listener coaxed the passionate descriptions from the narrator. Five stars

A bored-with-life man (an artist and poet) takes an unexpected turn from ennui to an ecstatic vision of Holborn in "The Holy Things". This feels like the turnabout moment in a story of decadence, but we can only imagine the rest for ourselves. Four stars.

Years ago, in Ellen Datlow's fabulous series of The Years Best Fantasy and Horror, there was a story whose title I can't remember, where redactions (with actual blocks of blackness) "told" a story of sexual abuse and horror. It was a highly disturbing story and has stuck with me for many years now, probably one of the most deeply-affecting stories I have ever read. Ornaments in Jade works in much the same way, but without the disturbing subject matter. It is more eerie (in the sense used by Mark Fisher) than horrific. It is what is missing here that fills the volume beyond the capacity of the pages. We read into the void and hear it speaking back to us in a deep, reverberating voice.

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Monday, December 16, 2019

Arthur Rackham: A Life with Illustration

Arthur Rackham: A Life with IllustrationArthur Rackham: A Life with Illustration by James Hamilton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this beautiful volume up while in Wales visiting the "book town" of Hay-on-Wye this past Summer. Now, I am normally very particular about which books I buy, whether online or by travelling halfway around the world (or thereabouts) as on this trip. I had a want-list and filled some of it. But this pickup was spontaneous. I had stopped late in the day at the last bookstore we would get to visit before having to get in the car and drive back over the border to the Cotswolds.

How did I end up picking this one, out of all the thousands of books (and this is no exaggeration) available in Hay-on-Wye? I think it was because of the place itself. Tolkien's ghost seems to haunt the area, or at least our trip. We ate at The Eagle and Child, the Oxford pub where J.R.R. used to drink a pint with C.S. Lewis - incidentally, they had the absolutely best fish and chips I've ever eaten - the town we were staying in, Moreton-in-Marsh (it isn't, really . . . in a marsh, that is, at least not anymore) was, apparently the model for Bree. One of the pubs there, The Bell, provided the inspiration for the Inn of the Prancing Pony, and they celebrated this with a map of Middle Earth drawn across one entire wall (scroll down after clicking the Moreton link and you'll see it). And if you closed your eyes and opened them again on a hike through the hills (and we took a 12 mile hike, one day), you would swear you were in The Shire. Eastern Wales was much the same and had even more sheep than the Cotswolds.

So, in my last desperate rush to pick out a book, I spotted this volume of Rackham's work. And I thought of Ian Miller's art of the '70s, which I grew up with as my visual token of Middle Earth. Take Miller's art, soften it (a lot), pump it full of whimsy, and give it ethereal tones of sepia and silver, and you've got Rackham. Of course, that analogy is an anachronism - Rackham died before Miller was born (both events on either side of World War II). In fact, I wonder if Miller was not heavily influenced by Rackham's books and prints? There is a certain likeness . . .

What about the book itself? It's a wonderful biography replete with lots of color pictures of Rackham's work. Unlike some monographs, this one is almost completely filled with his beautiful, dreamlike paintings. I believe only one non-Rackham art piece is featured, and that is a Durer engraving used to show how Rackham (self-admittedly) copied one of his painting's layouts from the German master's print. I greatly enjoyed the focus - I wanted a Rackham book, I got a Rackham book! My only real complaint is that the paintings and illustrations are not given in strict chronological order, while the biography is, of necessity so organized.

The biography is thorough and a touch coy with sensitive subjects. It's never completely clear to me whether or not Rackham had an affair or affairs, but . . . maybe? My blunt American-ness gets in the way of fully understanding English subtleties, at times, even though I lived in England for three years (from age 15 to 18). Rackham's life story is refreshingly normal, so far as biographies go. There is no attempt to make him a hero or a martyr. He lived life, had ups and downs, seems to have loved his family, went through times of financial difficulty and times of affluence, had health difficulties as an older man and essentially died working. If the book is to be believed, his remarkable-ness was poured entirely into his art. And it is remarkable!

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Thursday, December 12, 2019

Star Kites: Poems & Versions

Star Kites: Poems & VersionsStar Kites: Poems & Versions by Mark Valentine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've never confirmed the rumor, but my mom used to tell me that she was related to Alfred, Lord Tennyson through her father's line - second cousins or somesuch. Mom always did have a poetic streak in her, in fact she used to recite poems - some of them quite long - from memory. I've had a few poems published, but I am, at heart, a short-story writer. While poesis doesn't flow in my blood, it is like a distant cousin to me: I see the resemblance and feel familiar in its presence, but I don't spend enough time with it to have developed a truly deep relationship with it, more dilettante than expert.

I do, however, appreciate a good poetic voice. Valentine's own poems here are good and, at times, brilliant. His "versions," in which he mimics others' poetic voices, like a starling with a pen, are, on the whole, several shades darker and more textured. And I will be the first to admit that trying to mimic another writer's voice without sounding "tinny" is no small feat. These warrant repeated readings. The short biographies of the poets who inspired the "versions" are intriguing reading, in and of themselves, a sort of biographical-poetry, if not in form, then in function.

The best poetry, to me, not only titillates the imagination, but draws forth emotion from between the words, from the interstices of the reader's own brain. All great writing does this, whatever the form, but a poem that can do so with an enforced paucity of words is something special.

Valentine's "We leave . . ." (one of his originals, not a "version") is one such poem. You might guess that it caused me to think deeply, with great love and appreciation for my deceased parents, as well as on the effect I might have on others when it is my time to go:

We Leave . . .

We leave
in others' memories
images
that do not change,
though they may blur.

How many
carry us
within?

The child that was you
may exist for years
as a face,
as a question,
until at last extinguished.

A chance meeting
may be replayed
quite often
by someone
you have forgotten:
they have kept you.

Something you said
may still be heard,
your words
preserved
by one you think
you barely knew.

Another may have caught
your face in repose
or full of light
to help them
go towards
the night.

In my gallery,
amongst others:
old fingers twist
a piece of lace;
a boy's blond hair
stands on end; and
a voice whispers
forever

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Saturday, December 7, 2019

Fiendish Pamphlets

Fiendish PamphletsFiendish Pamphlets by Ramon Lasalle​
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Raphus Press is a little-known fine literary press - little-known except among a certain subset of small-press connoisseurs. Fiendish Pamphlets is a slim, elegant volume. Sexy, like a well-dressed Femme Fatale. Crisp and alluring. Physically, it's a model of what a book should be. I dare say, the production is near-perfect.

But what's on the inside? What will drive this reader-book relationship? Not much is given, a mere 44 pages of poetic prose. Because of small press economics, and the fact that this is a very limited edition, it's admittedly pricey. Maybe that's part of the allure - we covet that which is rare. But having obtained, what do we find inside?

Three (very short) segments of literary poetic prose fill the pages (along with some elegant illustrations that add to the luxuriousness of the volume). These are short pieces, but not something to charge through. Reading and appreciating them fully requires a slow hand, an examination of the text, ruminations, meditation. And they are meditative pieces.

In "Nocturnal Gardens," the self-discovery Demiurge, escapes into dreams, slipping the bonds of the workaday world. This was the least effective of the work, as far as I am concerned, and yet it is still of a very high caliber of work. Consider this piece an initiation into Lasalle's dark world.

"Distant Realms of the Kingdom" is an ode, of sorts, to animal instinct in the face of certain destruction. Beautifully lyrical and alien, there is a lot of meaning coded within the poetic language even when, or especially when it admits the inadequacy of expression in and of itself. This is the further descent into Lasalle's labyrinth.

"The Third Pamphlet" takes on a decidedly meditative tone, like some shadowy Zen philosophy of history filled with dark suppositions of causation and decay. This is the culminating ritual of the book, and it left me awestruck. Holding a rare, beautiful little book, reading about the covetousness of evil people lusting after a rare, beautiful little book . . . the effect is sinister, leaving one with a sense of wonder and a tinge of self-reproachment lingering in the background. Lasalle reintroduces decay into Decadence and ropes the reader in with a chaffing leather noose. This last segment is far more powerful than the sum of its parts, and it is the crown of the work.

Finis Opus Coronat

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Saturday, November 30, 2019

The Wanderer

The WandererThe Wanderer by Timothy J. Jarvis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Full disclosure: I published Jarvis' first piece of (published) fiction "The Imaginary Anatomy of a Horse" in the Leviathan 4 anthology, which I edited back in 2005. His was a slush-pile submission, picked out of hundreds. I was very pleased to "find" this author, though I think that with Jarvis' poetic voice, this was eventually bound to happen. Yet, I will attempt to remain as unbiased as possible in this review.

The difficulty with reviewing this kind of strung-together narrative, wrought and bound up in metafiction, is: where to start? Indeed, the end of the book is the beginning of the mystery, in many ways, and one's brain loops over and over trying to puzzle out what must be an eternal (and infernal) mystery. It is clearly a work of horror, with all "flavors" present. There is a Twilight-Zone-ish element to the overall central conceit - that living forever may be fraught with terror. But the work owes more to Hodgson, Ellison, and Machen than Serling (though I am aware of the connections between Ellison and Serling, especially in regards to Ellison's writing of what I consider to be one of the best short stories ever written, "Paladin of the Lost Hour," which was originally published in Twilight Zone Magazine). The post-apocalyptic narrative which seams the stories all together also owes something to Serling's show, but it also reflects M.P. Shiel's The Purple Cloud, albeit with a far less boring narrative voice.

I won't attempt to block out the plot step-by-step - others have done so in their reviews on Goodreads - but, suffice it to say that the plot is a complex folding of stories-within-stories-within-stories. Because of the structure, there were points where I felt "shot out" of the flow. For instance, one of the characters, Duncan, tells his tale and it becomes apparent that he is far older than anyone else at the table. Un-naturally old, in fact. I wondered why there didn't seem to be any reactions to this blatant anachronism on the parts of the ones listening, then, two sections later, there it was: a full justification for why the narrator did not share their reactions right away. Thus, there are times where I felt pushed out by the metafictional elements. They were rare, but noticeable.

That said, each story flowed well internally, as stories in and of themselves. And once one picked up the thread of the uber-narrative again, it was fine. Interesting that with the tales of several different characters being told, Jarvis' voice does not smother the individual character's voices, nor does it unravel into something that is not clearly recognizable as his voice.

Jarvis also effectively dances on the jagged line between supernatural credulity and banal insanity with his characters. They often call themselves into question but, ultimately, they know what they have seen and experienced and cannot deny it. The question is: when should and should the reader at all suspend disbelief? That tug and pull keep roping me back in when I'm ready to dismiss the narrative as hokey.

Then there is the background metafiction of Jarvis himself investigating the strange circumstances surrounding the disappearance of Simon Peterkin and the subsequent discovery of the manuscript of The Wanderer. After reading the book and returning to the introduction again, I see how Jarvis has folded in the theme of travel to the hidden plane of Tartarus (called by many names, but herein christened "Tartarus") and the disappearance of Peterkin, which one would not notice upon first reading. Like James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, one must loop back again to begin to understand what happens at the beginning - but, given the circular nature of the tale in The Wanderer, well, this is the whole point . . . as you will discover, time and time again, one eternal round.

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Monday, November 25, 2019

Art Deco

Art DecoArt Deco by Camilla de la Bedoyere
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wouldn't have wanted to live in the 1920s or '30s, but the art and architecture of that period are sublime. This is a sumptuous little book. Beautiful photos and excellent contextual explanations. I would recommend Arie van de Lemme's Art Deco: An Illustrated Guide to the Decorative Style, 1920-40 as a companion piece, as van de Lemme's work provides a more coherent chronology and a little wider view of the context in which the art arose. However, de la Bedoyere's work does an excellent job of tracing the two tracks of Art Deco: The upper-class-fueled (mostly French) school of "High Art Deco," and the (Bauhaus-influenced) mass-produced Art Deco works, whose primary consumer was the middle class. The main differences, at least early on in the movement, were craftsmanship and production, both of which seem fairly tight-knit factors in the "split" (my quotes). "High Art Deco" typically used more expensive materials such as exotic woods (ebony seemed to be a favorite) and ivory wrought by expert craftsmen by hand (and when I say "men," I also mean women - this was the era when women began to come into their own, in regards to being publicly recognized as artists), whereas the bulk of Art Deco pieces were designed by excellent designers, but after the initial model was created, these designs were mass-produced, much more inexpensively, for the mass market. Later, a sort of Hegelian synthesis occurred, in which expert artists designed the work, the body of the work was mass-produced using such modern materials as bakelite, chrome, and aluminum, then the finishing touches were hand-crafted by the initial designer. Either way, Art Deco had a strong impact on society, as items of convenience and ornamentation, such as bakeware, furniture, radios, and hood ornaments, were the focal point of much of Art Deco's style. Since such items were ubiquitous and often cheap, the movement had a lasting effect on the material culture of the years to follow. What would a '57 Chevy be without Art Deco coming before it? A box on wheels.

Art Deco was also a product of colonialism. I am amazed by the influence of the arts of Africa, Asia, and South and Central America on the art of that time. You can argue whether colonialism robbed the artistic traditions of these areas or paid homage to them, but you can't argue that European and American artists were not heavily influenced by those traditions at that time. Art Deco brought "World Art" to the western world's popular consciousness, changing it forever.

Even now, some Art Deco is highly sought after. If I had a fortune, I would buy some of Dimitri Chiparus' bronze and ivory statuettes in a heart-beat. But after looking up the prices of these works, I realize that I will never own one. Even the copies run into the tens of thousands of dollars each!

I happen to live about 40-minutes drive from Taliesen, so I was really glad to see Frank Lloyd Wright's work featured in this book. It baffles me when books examine the Art Deco movement and don't include his work. This is likely because of the euro-centric view of some publishers, but it is a shame that his work should not be front and center, as some of Wright's work epitomizes the style and function of Art Deco design. I'm lucky in that there are several of his buildings in the city where I live. They are beautiful, in person, and speak to a time when architecture on the smaller scale was art. Those days are, I'm afraid, over.

There is much more to this book, with too many examples of art and artists to truly do it justice in a review. It is a good, deep dive into the art and design of the era. I would recommend it as a part of your study of Art Deco. My biggest complaint about the book is the font in which the copy is typed - it is very small and very faint, not good for your eyes. Perhaps this was done to accentuate the beautiful full-page pictures, avoiding the distraction of dark text. But for those of us who actually read art books, having to read these (again, very faint) paragraphs under a strong artificial light actually takes something away from the beauty of the photos. The publishers might have benefited from heeding the Art Deco mantra "form AND function".

But these are the times we live in.

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Friday, November 15, 2019

Why I Love The Twilight Zone

I really don't watch much television, even in the age of streaming. As a child, my parents' TVs (plural) were on during almost every waking hour. I was exposed to a lot of TV as a kid and maybe I'm just plain burned out. I can't identify many actors by name and if you tell me about "that guy that was in that show (or movie) X," I will give you a blank stare, in all likelihood. The last series I watched beginning to end was Stranger Things 3. Before that was Stranger Things 2. Before that was Stranger Things. Before that . . . let's see . . . um, Sherlock? The one with Benedict Cumberbatch in it (see I do know some actor's names). And before that? I'm at a total loss. Twin Peaks? Thundarr the Barbarian? I have no idea. I'm no fun on movie/TV trivia night. No fun at all. I'd much rather be reading a book or playing in a tabletop roleplaying game or writing or hiking. My blog content speaks for itself, in this regard.

Some people find it difficult to pinpoint their favorite TV show. That may be because, unlike me, most humans watch a lot of television. With so many choices, how does one choose? For me, the choice is easy: the single greatest series to ever appear on television, the absolute pinnacle of consistently-amazing television shows, one after another, is The Twilight Zone. Rod Serling's original The Twilight Zone, to be precise. 

Last night, I attended the Fathom Events presentation for the 60th Anniversary of The Twilight Zone. It was a simple affair on the big screen, six classic episodes, followed by a short documentary about Rod Serling. "Walking Distance," "Time Enough at Last," "The Invaders," "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street," "Eye of the Beholder," and "To Serve Man" presented one after the other. Included were Serling's previews that were given the week before each episode aired. Because of syndication, when one watches the episodes rerun on TV, the previews for the upcoming week are either drowned out by announcements regarding the next show or they are cut out altogether. These short little segments lasted perhaps a minute, but they were a great testament to Serling's charisma and ability to inflame anticipation in the viewer. 

And Rod Serling had charisma aplenty. I'd score him an 18 if he was a Dungeons and Dragons character, no doubt about it. The documentary made this undoubtedly apparent. Everyone who knew him loved him, most especially his daughter, some of whose comments are captured in an article that correlates strongly with the documentary. It was touching, hearing friends and family, students and co-workers, and the incredibly high praise heaped on Serling as a human being. Yes, he was a great writer, but he was also an incredible human being, one who did not tolerate intolerance, one who tried to keep his family out of the spotlight as a protection to them, and one who worked for good in the world. He marched with Martin Luther King and he and his wife had a close relationship with Coretta Scott King, with whom he had attended college. He was the kind of guy that aspiring great guys aspire to be.

Now why, you might ask, would a self-admitted television non-watcher have such a man-crush on Rod Serling and his work? On the surface, it's obvious - I love weird fiction. But there's plenty of other weird television shows out there, even some from the same era. There's Black Mirror, The Outer Limits, Tales from the Crypt, Space:1999 (think it's not weird and doesn't belong amongst this company? Go watch the first season), and many others, both old and contemporary. 

Maybe it's the cinematography? Watching The Twilight Zone is a master class in cinematic composition. From the obtuse angles of the carousel shots in "Walking Distance" to the carefully-veiled movements of the doctors and nurses in "Eye of the Beholder" to the panning back and resulting isolation of a now-blind Henry Bemis standing in the midst of a ruined post-apocalyptic landscape in "Time Enough at Last," Serling shows a deft hand in conceptualizing, realizing, and editing shots that is largely absent from today's television. When I was a teenager, I had a subscription to Twilight Zone Magazine, and in the back of each issue was a screenplay of one of the episodes as written by Serling, complete with stage directions and camera instructions. These were taken, not from his hand, but through a dictophone where he recorded what he wanted for each episode. That record was then transcribed into the typed page, as it appeared in the back of Twilight Zone Magazine. Yes, the man was a genius. But there are other genius film-makers and television show producers out there who make clever use of the medium. David Lynch comes to mind first, and, of course, Kubrick.

What really sets it all apart for me is this: the weirdness of the fiction and the cunning cinematography (not to mention some excellent acting) were upheld by a fervent emotional undergirding that came from Serling's heart and mind. Watching the documentary, it was clear that Rod Serling was absolutely passionate and dedicated to what he was doing: telling stories that served as critiques of the darker elements of human nature and the foibles and failings of society at large. One cannot watch more than a few episodes of The Twilight Zone without realizing that there is a moral and ethical element that is largely absent from most entertainment today. Serling felt that some things were right: rediscovering one's innocence, tolerance and forgiveness, and the embrace of things outside of the frantic race to appease the almighty dollar and popular trends in society; and that some things were wrong: the embrace of violence in war, societal conformity for the sake of conformity, and racism. The list could go on and on. Though the moral fables are not always blunt and up-front (though sometimes they are), there was always a sense of something underneath it all, that The Twilight Zone wasn't being weird for the sake of weird, nor was it art-for-art's sake (and I do argue that the series was Art), but that Serling's personal experience and heart held it all together.

I'll use "Walking Distance" as an example. Spoilers ahead . . .








(Spoilers begin here)

In this episode, a 30-something year-old business man named Martin Sloan, eager to get away from his high-stress job in New York City, stops at a rural gas-station to get his car gassed up and tuned up. While there, he sees a wooden sign showing "Homewood 1 1/2 miles". The man recognizes that this sign points to his hometown, where he was raised. He decides to make the walk there, to see the place of his childhood. Over time, it is revealed that he has stepped back in time, back to a memorable summer of his childhood. He meets . . . himself. And his parents, who take him as a madman, at first. Cutting to the end, we see Martin Sloan meeting his father, who is finally convinced that this 36-year-old man is, indeed, the same person as his 12-year-old son. After discussing the situation, Martin is convinced by his father that he can't remain in Homewood, that the younger Martin Sloan has to live his youth as himself, to experience the joy of childhood as a child, as a unique individual. Upon parting, the father says, simply "Goodbye, Martin," to which he replies "Goodbye, Pops".

A sentimental, perhaps sappy scene, yes? Nostalgia at its strongest. Even the bandstand and carousel in the episode were modeled after Recreation Park, Binghamton, New York, where Serling was raised. Now, if one stops at that, you have an excellent story about seeking out one's childhood and knowing that you can never return there, at least not to stay.

But what takes it to the next level is this: When Serling was serving in the military near the end of World War II, his father died, age 52, of a heart-attack. The military refused to give him leave even to attend his father's funeral. Serling never had the chance to  say "goodbye" to his father and, as Rod Serling's daughter, Anne writes in her memoir, "It is a loss of such magnitude that he will never truly recover". Knowing this single fact propels "Walking Distance" from a great story, well-told, into the realm of the poignant and even the sublime. 

That poignancy is apparent in other episodes, as well. Watch "Eye of the Beholder" in the context of 1950s-60s societal conformity and, even more profoundly, in the light of the Civil Rights Movement, and you will feel much more deeply the pathos in Maxine Stuart's voice as she pleads to be accepted, to be "normal," not to be cast out and shunned. Overacting? Hardly! More a channeling of the frustration of every individual who has ever wanted acceptance and a chance to live as they please. 

I could go on, but an exhaustive examination of The Twilight Zone is way out of scope here. The point? When I say that The Twilight Zone is the best thing to ever appear on television, I mean it! It's what television can be (and has been) if we let our hearts lead. Not a mindless medium to waste away our time, but a mindful medium that causes viewers to examine their times and their places within that time.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Starve Acre

Starve AcreStarve Acre by Andrew Michael Hurley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Note: This is a review of the The Eden Book Society edition, released under the pseudonymn Jonathan Buckley.

"Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me."

As I made my way through Starve Acre, I could not help but notice the strong similarities between the initial conceit and that of the movie Wake Wood, a movie I greatly enjoyed. But the copyright on this edition read 1972, claiming that the book was originally published in that year and re-released by a reincarnated Eden Book Society. I thought, "Wow, the makers of Wake Wood must have ripped off this obscure book"! Silly me. Only when I saw "the 1972 Subscribers" and recognized friend's names and twitter handles in the list did I realize that I had been duped. No, it appears, the author of this book ripped off Wake Wood, at least in a couple of key elements: 1) The death of a couple's child is the central driving factor of the narrative and, 2) the locals know something that the new move-ins do not, and they are all acting rather strangely.

After that, the plot, thankfully, becomes more original. I won't spoil it for you, as there are plenty of spoilers that could give it away, but the real power in the book shows in the denouement, not in the body of the story, really. The beginning of the end of the book quite took me by surprise, but while making my way through the ending I thought "no, this couldn't have ended any other way". It was then that I really saw the brilliant confluence of the writing, seemingly disparate narrative threads coming together seamlessly, like an atonal symphony (albeit a simple one) that comes together in an inevitable crescendo. But after the action of what one would consider the end (on many different levels), the after-action sequence is what shocked me. Downright shocked me, sending those proverbial chills up my spine. It was a tight, sudden knife twist, after I had already been stabbed, unexpected, and elevating the horror to another level.

Knowing now that the book was written by Andrew Michael Hurley, and having heard from a lot of people that I "ought" to read Hurley (that "ought" being something that, frankly, makes me bristle a bit), I can see why people like his writing style. It flows very well (this was a very quick read) and the characters are strong. The wicked ending after the ending almost makes up for what I take to be the blatant theft of ideas from Wake Wood. I will likely read Hurley (I hear The Loney is not to be missed), but I won't be reading the Hurley version of the book, newly released. So, feel free to send spoilers my way. But, keep it on the down-low. We don't want to dig more creepy things out of the ground, do we?

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Friday, November 8, 2019

The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories

The Great God Pan and Other Horror StoriesThe Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories by Arthur Machen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had previously read two stories (novellas, really) in this volume: "The Great God Pan" and "The White People". I liked those stores and was excited to re-read them. And Machen's reputation among horror aficionados whose opinions I appreciate and respect, especially those who favor a more literary style (as I do), gave me confidence that I might enjoy the remaining stories. I seem to recall that Lovecraft lauded Machen's work, as did Stephen King. Those were good indicators from two pretty good writers, as well.

But as I read The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories, an unanticipated question kept percolating up in my thoughts: When you say "Machen is a great writer," who do you mean? Yes, "Arthur Machen" is the obvious answer. But which one? Which Machen are you referring to? The Arthur Conan Doyle-like page turner of “The Red Hand” (which I wanted to keep calling "The Red Right Hand" - thank you very much, Nick Cave), the writer of “The Monstrance” with powerful echos of M.R. James, the Charles Dickensanian “The Tree of Life,” or the Dunsanian visions of “N”?

Machen is all of these, but with something more, something unique – a subtlety of hand and a careful movement of plot, sweetly lead by his studied use and manipulation of Word and Phrase. I capitalize these, because in Machen’s hands, these elements, these tools, are elevated beyond the banal usage of the terms. They become something special and “new” under his pen (though when one reads his strange mutation of certain terms, one is compelled to say “of course, why did I ever think of this word/phrase in any other way? In any case, I shall never think of it in the same way again!”

For instance, there is this from "The Three Imposters":

". . . I too burned with the lust of the chase, not pausing to consider that I knew not what we were to unshadow."

This is the sort of turn-of-phrase that I love in Machen. And that word: "unshadow," so evocative and full of implication. Given the context of a Russian-doll series of narratives within narratives, the term is especially apropos and lends a certain gravity to the meta-narrative from within the narrative - the meta-narrative "in the shadows" beyond the reader and the explicit words on the page. With one word, Machen pushes us out into the unknown; a sort of literary practical joke aimed at the careful reader.

And these stories do deserve a careful reading. They are not shocking in that Lovecraftian "the entire universe wants to eat us all, oh no, my poor sanity!" way. They are most definitely not the antinatalist murky depths of Thomas Ligotti (though there is a good deal of existentialism throughout these works). They are much more subtle. More careful and deliberate.

But that does not mean they are "straightforward". Far from it! I believe that "The Great God Pan" benefits from what seems like disorganization of thought. Vagaries and jagged connection points lead the reader on a frenetic, dreadful path, allowing each individual to come to their own conclusions, their own "end plot". "The Three Imposters" is mind-blowingly complex. Wheels within wheels, all shot through with decadence and hauntings and rotting bodies and tentacles. It works not because Machen ties off all the ends in a neat little bundle (he does not), but because the readers mind takes the disparate directions and waypoints and makes its own blurred map of what might have happened in the tale. I loved "The White People," but to tell you what it was "about"? Um. No. It's essentially plotless, a labyrinthine meandering through the eyes of a young girl discovering . . . well, she can't tell you all that she's discovered. It's simply not possible. Machen does a wonderful job of using inference and redaction to tease the reader with an intentionally occulted (I use the word exactly) vision of what lies beyond, accessible, but hidden.

You will exit many of these stories in a state of utter confusion, wondering what just hit your brain. But you will feel the impact of something sinister hiding in the veins of the earth or just beyond that hill ahead or in the complex motivations of the seemingly innocent. These stories are insidious!

Even in stories where there is a "traditional" twist ending, there is something in the subtle way that Machen lays his tales out that allows for a "twist" ending that isn't a cheap-shot, like I find in many short stories (especially those written by less-experienced authors). "Ritual," for example, is no exception. It's microfiction, or close to it, so it relies on a twist at the end, but by the time you get there, you're like a frog that's been slowly brought to boil in horror. Your realization comes too late! And even after the twist is revealed, your brain will continue tumbling forward, making suppositions and venturing guesses as to what really happened.

This is what Machen provides, then: a labyrinthine path to uncertainty and, hence, insecurity, where the only thing you are sure of is that you can't trust anything to be what it seems. There is darkness, horror, wonder, and awe, all combined, in this realization; a case study in Schopenhauer's philosophy of Aesthetics and The Sublime. It is a journey worth your while, all the way to the bitter, beautiful end.

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Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Purple Cloud

The Purple CloudThe Purple Cloud by M.P. Shiel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Those who know me know that I self-identify as a loner. But a loner with a social side. So a novel about what it is to be utterly alone (as in everyone else in the human race has died off) could seem like the perfect segue to delightful flights of fancy. But I did mention I have a social side. Shiel may have had a social side, but if his protagonist, Adam Jeffson, is any mirror of him, Shiel must have been quite aloof; borderline sociopathic.

Shiel is an interesting, if scandalous, person. His biography - some of it his own fault, some of it just the circumstances he was born into - reads like a bad decadent soap opera. Arthur Machen said that he wasn't sure that Shiel knew that there was such a thing as "right" and "wrong". Again, judging from The Purple Cloud, I'd have to agree with Machen's assessment.

Shiel is (or was) a fully capable writer. His description of Turkey after the worldwide apocalypse are exquisite. The (pre-apocalyptic) narrative about the medium, Mary Wilson, is incredibly well-written. The description of her exercising of her gifts is fascinating. The characterization is strong and the writing downright mystical itself.

As we read on to the portion regarding the Arctic expedition (which was all the style, back then), we learn that the narrator is, in fact, a homicidal . . . well, maniac isn't the best word. Let's say he has homicidal inclinations (which he carries out). Maybe we should have guessed this earlier when we discovered that Jeffson's fiancee had an unhealthy fixation with poisoning people. Or maybe that little tidbit is there to make us feel better about Jeffson himself, in comparison. Yes, he shot someone in cold blood, but he didn't poison them! Or maybe, just maybe, Machen's assessment of the book's author was spot on.

In the long run, it doesn't matter, since everyone but Jeffson dies and he spends the next several years and the majority of the novel visiting exotic places, burning them all to the ground, and possibly (though it's never 100% clear, just 95%) having sex with corpses. Did I mention Machen's words about Shiel?

There follows a long struggle between absolute and utter decadence and a God complex. The book becomes very thin, at spots, in the middle. Then Shiel picks up on some strange and compelling idea that I had not considered. For example, Jeffson finds (surprise!) lots of corpses. Thousands of corpses. He is squeamish about stepping on them (but as noted, not about making sweet love to his dead fiancee's partially rotting, partially mummified body), but they become a routine sight. Then, just when you think you are about to be bored out of your skull (no pun intended), you find that you are reading about the evidences of the manner in which these people, faced with a known extinction, react not to the threat, but to one another. It's a varied set of reactions, and Shiel illustrates these variances in the positioning of the dead vis-a-vis one another (and their potential refuges from the purple cloud). The novel, at these points, becomes a primer on human psychology, and a compelling one at that. Shiel's portrayal of the remnants of civilization (i.e., piles and piles of dead bodies) who died due to debauchery and violence, when threatened with oncoming mass extinction, presages later zombie-apocalypse scenarios where most of humanity had more to fear from each other than from the real threat. He paints a horrifying scene, without showing the actual horror as it happens. My reactions to these sorts of "pivots" in the meta-narrative of the plot were sometimes emotionally deep and complex, as I thought of how I might react to such a threat. Impressive bit of writing, that.

The central theme of the book, the inner struggle that Jeffson comes to, is this:

Must I not, in time, cease to be a man, and become a small earth, precisely her copy, extravagantly weird and fierce, half-demoniac, half-ferine, wholly mystic - morose and turbulent - fitful, and deranged, and sad - like her?

Nevertheless, a sort of redemption might be available to him, if he will only allow it. You will have to discover this yourself. Suffice it to say that Jeffson is not what I would term "normal". It's quite a bumpy journey to the end.

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Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Gameholecon 2019 Schedule

In case you're looking for me at Gameholecon this week, here's where I'll be:

I won't be there Sunday, but I will be there Wednesday night, probably running something off-books.

See you all there!!!



Wednesday, October 23, 2019

"Gemini" in XVIII

I am proud to announce the inclusion of my story "Gemini" in the upcoming anthology XVIII, a part of the sure-to-be-outstanding Underland Tarot series, based on the Major Arcana, published by Underland Press. The TOC list follows:

  • Forrest Aguirre - "Gemini"
  • Darin Bradley - "Sweet Water"
  • Scott Edelman - "A World Without You in It"
  • Christopher East - "Introduction to Immersive Memory-Crafting"
  • Nicole Feldringer - "Diamondskin"
  • Benjamin Gamblin - "A Reckoning"
  • Ingrid Garcia - "The Taste of Things to Come"
  • A. P. Howell - "Like Gold Upon Her Tongue"
  • Emma Johnson-Rivard - "The Spread"
  • Elizabeth Eve King - "Summer's End"
  • Jessie Kwak - "Once More with Soul"
  • Shannon Lawrence - "Following the Rules"
  • Gerri Leen - "She"
  • Mark Mills - "Snake Eyes"
  • Jonathan Mosman - "Old Gar"
  • Christi Nogle - "Unschooled"
  • Tammie Painter - "A Case of Mamma's Love"
  • Josh Rountree - "Rewind"
  • Erica Sage - "The Collective"
  • Lorraine Schein - "SP World"
  • Richard Thomas - "How Not to Come Undone"
  • Wendy Wagner - "When Only Bears Carry Arms, Only Weapons Will Be Born"
  • John Waterfall - "What Remains of the Great Alchemist"
  • Todd Zack - "It's Good to Be Here in Alaska"


Especially grateful to be TOC mates with Darin Bradley and Josh Rountree, both of whom have inhabited a nearby segment of the literary astral plane as myself. If you haven't checked out their writing before, repent and go forth and read! Congratulations to everyone!

Saturday, October 5, 2019

E(xtinction)/E

E(xtinction)/E(xtinção)E(xtinction)/E by Alcebiades Diniz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am reminded of the more psychedelic instances of Decadence Comics, but less psychedelic and much, much more mystical. This is an introspective graphic novel. Now, you don't have to have read Lanterns of the Old Night to fully enjoy this wordless wonder, but one's insight is accentuated, having read it.

(Limited edition, 40 of 45)

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Thursday, October 3, 2019

Mothership: Dead Planet

Mothership: Dead PlanetMothership: Dead Planet by Donn Stroud
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A few years back, I raved about the ingenious and innovative design of the role-playing supplement Vorheim. With Dead Planet , Fiona Maeve Geist, Donn Stroud, and Sean McCoy have taken those innovations and built (with cybernetic implants and a dash of sorcery, no doubt) what might be the best RPG supplement I have seen in ages, surely the best Science Fiction RPG supplement I've seen in many, many years. The judges of the 2019 ENnie Awards agree with me (or, perhaps, I agree with them?), awarding the supplement the Silver award for Best Adventure, right behind Chaosium's amazing Masks of Nyarlathotep (let's face it, no one was going to beat Masks this year).

How do I characterize Dead Planet? Take part Pandorum, part Alien and part Event Horizon and map the tropes not only on a ship, but on an entire planet (the Dead Planet) which is surrounded by orbiting derelict ships.

The first section gives an example ship, The Alexis, and a mini-adventure/exploration that would make a great one-shot (at least I hope so - I'm running a Traveller hack of this for my weekly gaming group next week!) or introduction to a Dark Planet campaign. Following this is a derelict ship generator that allows the Game Master (or "Warden" if you are playing the Mothership Sci-Fi Horror RPG - also an ENnie winner - for which Dead Planet was written) to create as small or as large as of a ship as desired by throwing dice and consulting easy-to-use tables (yes, this includes generating a map on the fly, randomly, as well). Then, find the Moon Colony Bloodbath section - a mini-campaign packed into a zine, essentially. But without the usual "quirkiness" of zines (I know, I know, I've made my own, I know . . .) - no, this supplement is eminently usable at the table. Everything you need is here or can be generated on the fly quickly and efficiently by the Warden: facilities, planetary maps, NPCs, competing factions, monsters (some human), and more random charts than you will know what to do with, but which will all become useful in a mini-campaign. Dead Planet has it all! So put on your vacsuit, charge up that vibrachete, and get ready for action. Just remember, as the old saying goes: "In space, no one can hear you scream!"



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Wednesday, October 2, 2019

The White Goddess

The White GoddessThe White Goddess by Robert Graves


I came for the witchcraft, I stayed for the poetics . . .

While I was on my one-day book-procurement trip to the "booktown" of Hay-on-Wye, Wales, I stopped at Richard Booth’s bookshop (among many others) and picked up Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. I knew, vaguely, that the book was about the witch cults of Great Britain and something about druids, and that’s about it. I had read several works that referenced Grave’s book, so I thought I’d cut to the source and see what all the fuss was about.

I had expected an erudite study of witchcraft and its antecedents, replete with thorough bibliography and oodles of footnotes.

Not so.

In fact, the book hardly mentions witches (by name, at least) at all and there is no bibliography. There are some footnotes, but they are sometimes even more cryptic and self-referential than the text itself. But I was far from disappointed.

The White Goddess is one of those books like Gödel, Escher, Bach or Hamlet’s Mill: a rumination, of sorts, that only a genius will fully understand on the first read through, a work rife with speculation and some arguably false jumps in logic, but a brilliant work, nonetheless. It is, above all, Grave’s (very well-informed) opinion. I’ve read other reviews panning the work, and I had my problems with it, but I don’t think that it should be rejected wholesale.It is a deep, deep well to draw the waters of knowledge from.

Yes, Graves jumps from god to goddess, from tree-species to alphabetic characters, from stag cults to bull cults, then from the masculine bull-cult to the feminine partridge-cult, implicating everyone from Achilles to Christ in the process, and ends with a horribly trite last couple of chapters about politics and religion that could (and should) have just been abandoned. Graves isn’t apologetic about his promulgation of his own opinions and the fact that he is openly exploring the subject as he writes, either. I find it commendable, actually, that, at one point, he openly admits that some of the answers to the questions he was exploring came to him as he was meditating, as in doing a formal meditative practice. He’s not beholden to the sometimes-stultifying idea that ideas need to come in some sort of controlled laboratory environment. In fact, Graves shows a certain disdain toward formal academia, especially as it dulls the poetic senses:

. . . there are no poetic secrets now, except of course the sort which the common people are debarred by their lack of poetic perception from understanding, and by their anti-poetic education (unless perhaps in wild Wales) from respecting. Such secrets, even the Work of the Chariot, may be safely revealed in any crowded restaurant or café without fear of the avenging lightning-stroke: the noise of the orchestra, the clatter of plates and the buzz of a hundred unrelated conversations will effectively drown the words – and, in any case, nobody will be listening.

I wonder, somewhat, though, whether or not Graves was trying to inoculate himself against arguments from the outside that perhaps the rigor of his research was lacking? While I feel sympathy and agreement with Grave’s anti-University tirades (he has a couple in the book, both reflective of some of the feelings I had and have about graduate school), I also fear that populist anti-intellectuals might use his arguments as justification for their own (usually racist and/or misogynistic) goals. Though Graves only really argues against the problems of formal college education, his sentiments could easily be twisted into anti-intellectual arguments, the sort of which feed reactionary movements. But, since he takes a secularized view of Christianity (and, in fact, pushes for a further split between the views of the Historical Jesus and the Mystical Christ), such reactionary movements are likely to become very confused by Graves’ work. Besides, the gaps in Graves' arguments regarding early Christianity are big enough to drive a semi through. Still, I like his chutzpah and the fact that he's willing to play the provocateur, as he forces the reader to think about exactly why he's wrong. It's almost like he's taunting his audience into reacting.

As a result of all this deconstruction and reweaving of myth, it is very difficult to pin down Graves theses. One thesis is that of the poetic continuity of the worship of The White Goddess in ancient times through the Irish and Welsh poetic traditions (by way of the Greeks, mainly the Dannites, if I understood correctly) and even further through the cult of Mary and Jesus. Much of the last half of the book is dedicated to these arguments. I found them somewhat convincing, but I still have strong doubts about a few of his inferences regarding some sects of Christianity and the Jewish tradition from which they stemmed.

Another thesis that I find of great interest is that the true language of the goddess is traceable through the correlating of evidences in the Ogham alphabet relating to certain trees, which correspond, in turn, with positions on a dolmen, which correspond with calendrical events, which correspond with the fingers and palms of the hand, which correspond with certain animals, which . . . Yes, it gets exhausting, at times. My interest waned and was about to leave me altogether when the book posits that specific positions on the fingers and palms of the human hand correspond with specific letters in the Ogham alphabet. When I read this and the example given, it clicked! This was Thieves’ Cant, or a mystical, esoteric equivalent: Hidden coded messages couched in a poetic language of signs! Of course, this was 300 pages in, but well worth the wait.

Though there are many other sub-theses that I will not address, the third thesis that I found to be of most interest was probably more incidental than central. I also found it to be the most poignant. It has to do with methodology and echoes with some of the same laments as the earlier-quoted paragraph. Graves says:

What interests me most in conducting this argument is the difference that is constantly appearing between the poetic and prosaic methods of thought. The prosaic method was invented by the Greeks of the Classical age as an insurance against the swamping of reason by mythographic fancy. It has now become the only legitimate means of transmitting useful knowledge. And in England, as in most other mercantile countries, the current popular view is that ‘music’ and old-fashioned diction are the only characteristics of poetry which distinguish it from the prose; that ever poem has, or should have, a precise single-strand prose equivalent. As a result, the poetic faculty is atrophied in every educated person who does not privately struggle to cultivate it: very much as the faculty of understanding pictures is atrophied in the Bedouin Arab. (T.E. Lawrence once showed a coloured crayon sketch of an Arab Sheikh to the Sheikh’s own clansmen. They passed it from hand to hand, but the nearest guess as to what it represented came from a man who took the sheikh’s foot to be the horn of a buffalo.) And from the inability to think poetically – to resolve speech into its original images and rhythms and re-combine them on several simultaneous levels of thought into a multiple sense – derives the failure to think clearly in prose. In prose one thinks on only one level at a time, and no combination of words needs to contain more than a single sense; nevertheless the images resident in words must be securely related if the passage is to have any bite. This simple need is forgotten, what passes for simple prose nowadays is a mechanical stringing together of stereotyped word-groups, without regard for the images contained in the. The mechanical style, which began in the counting-house, has now infiltrated into the university, some of its most zombiesque instances occurring in the works of eminent scholars and divines.

I may not agree with the vociferousness of Grave’s obvious rancor, but I agree with the premise. We have lost the mindset of poetics, having surrendered to a stiff logic that doesn’t allow for the breadth of poetic expression and, in fact mocks it as an obfuscation of clarity. But this obfuscation was intentional, meant to keep the secrets of the mystical cults of the past, to hide the mysteries of life and the universe to all but the initiated. The initiated have been suppressed, in the modern age. As a result, the skill of poetic interpretation has died on the vine, and we may never be able to bring it back. However, I feel that there will always be a poetic underground that does the work necessary to carry on the essential esoteric tradition of the bards. I hold a hidden hope.

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Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Abyssinia

AbyssiniaAbyssinia by Damian Murphy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Esoteric, by its very definition, dictates that only those "in the know" are "in the know". Consider Abyssinia an esoteric work on two levels: 1) It is a work about the esoteric and 2) until you read it, you cannot know it's depth, meaningfulness, and beauty. I cannot relate it to you. I don't have the words.

Still, I must venture an attempt. "Sublime" is the first word to come to mind, and in the Kantian philosophical sense of something so immense and grandiose as to be beyond an individual's comprehension. I cannot enumerate the feelings inside me as I read Damian Murphy's offering. Nor can I quantify "how much" I enjoyed it. It is beyond all that.

"Delightful" is not a word I use often. I suppose it's because I think of fairies and old English grandmothers using the word to describe a flower or a cup of tea. I'm using the word to describe a lightness of soul that I felt as I got to know the characters and understand their motivations.

I might have thought, had I not been so submerged in my love of the characters, that Abyssinia was about the hidden heart of the Hotel Argentum. Though The Constitution and Bylaws of the Hotel Argentum ". . . elucidated a doctrine of sedition and dissent," it was in the thoughts, feelings, and actions of the characters, particularly Petra, that I saw the laws enacted. And though I had a particularly fond place in my heart and mind for Petra - I related to her on a number of levels, but particularly on her penchant for finding the hidden and trespassing in sacred spaces - I fell in love with every character in the hotel. Petra, Dominik, Celia, Karl Reginald, the Colonel, the Apostate, his sister/wife, even the hotel manager. Their interactions are what make this book deep and beautiful. Infuse A Room with a View with mystical philosophies and a hit of absurdism, and you begin to get the idea.

But just begin.

Not until you delve in, abandoning yourself to the void, I am afraid, will you truly understand. This story, this book, this initiation, is precious. The art by Jose Gabriel Alegria Sabogal is a fitting robe for the beautiful body of this work - resplendent and shimmering, from cover to cover. It is an artifact, a totem, really, to the freedom of spirit and the spirit of freedom, carefully hidden, except to those who know not only where, but how, to find it.

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Saturday, September 21, 2019

On the Hill of Roses

On the Hill of RosesOn the Hill of Roses by Stefan Grabiński
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Just today I read a short, tweeted lament by author Laird Barron regarding the lack of opportunity for short story collections to be published because they "don't sell". As those of you who read my reviews can tell, I love reading (and writing) short fiction. Yes, I read novels, as well, but a good short story can dig into my brain and, sometimes, into my heart and leave an impression that stays deep-seated. lodged in there, for some time. And, I'll be honest, I'd rather take the time to read short stories and novellas because, frankly, I don't want to spend hours reading a novel that comes out as a disappointment. If I waste an hour on a short story, oh well. But if I waste several hours on a novel. Well, I'm not too happy about that. So, give me a collection of short stories any day. I love them, especially when they are as good as Grabinski's On the Hill of Roses.

The title story puts the "decay" back in "decadence". I figured out the central conceit very early on (which is, admittedly, one of the dangers of reading a lot of short fiction), but the journey to get there was delightfully atmospheric and horrifically rewarding. Well worth the read, even if you guess what's going to happen in the end. Five stars.

"The Frenzied Farmhouse" was, like the first story in this volume, predictable, but the perverse joy of the journey more than makes up for having foreseen the destination. As Deep Purple used to say "It's not the kill, it's the thrill of the chase". Five stars.

I need to read the last 1/3rd of "On a Tangent" again! It's a brilliant unraveling of sanity and reality. Something very Roland Topor-esque about this story. Literary and manic at the same time, with the redolent smell of science fiction. I will note that there are a LOT of typos here that spell-check would not pick up, but a good editorial run would have. Despite the shoddy editorial work, five stars.

The line between psychological dysfunction and the Changeling or Skin Walker is blurred in "Strabismus". Or, if you will, it is a story about a doppelganger that is not, but is the one who sees it, like a rabbit re-absorbing its young, only the young is itself. If this is not making sense to you, perhaps you should just read the story. Four stars to this enigmatic, swirling tale of borderline personality disorder(?).

Now, while I enjoy tapping the deep parts of my brain while reading - this is my "entrance" into the labyrinth of reading - I am delighted when a story goes beyond just teasing my brain and sets its hooks in my heart. The next story did just that. I have three sons. I have a hard time imagining them ever being at odds with each other for too long. So, the story-behind-the-story in "Shadows" saddened me a great deal. It's a tale of two brothers who find themselves on the opposite . . . wait, now, you didn't really think I was going to spoil that, did you? An emotional gut-punch of a tale with a touch of the strange. Five stars.

I had a hard time with "At the Villa by the Sea," at first. There was a lot, too much, of explication and info-dumping in the beginning. Thankfully, the first stretch of the tale (and it was a long one) was subsumed in the overall tale. By the end, the story unfolded like a gothic lotus, dark, dreamlike, and with it's own intoxicating odor. I started out disliking it and ended up liking it very much. Five stars, in the long run.

The recipe for the last story in the collection, "Projections": Mix one part The Stone Tapes, one part True Detective (season one, of course), and three parts ancient cultist ghost of a nun driving a man, a rather M.R. Jamesian or Robert Aickmanesque protagonist, insane. Despite the comparisons, this story (created well before TV even existed) is a compelling whole with a nasty ending that I wasn't quite expecting. Five stars!

Grabinski's writing style reminds me very much of Brian Evenson's (which I love), with anachronistic back-echoes of Roland Topor (whose name I often accidentally spell "T-o-r-p-o-r" - I wonder why) and, has been mentioned, James and Aickman. As I also pointed out, there are lots of typos in this book, which is a disappointment, but not enough of a reason to drop my overall enjoyment of the volume. It is a beautiful little hardcover, published by Hieroglyphic Press, with stunning cover art by Eleni Tsami, the sort of gorgeous artifact that only the small press seems to be doing nowadays. As long as they are putting out collections of this quality (sans typos, please), I will continue to be a champion of both short stories and the small press boutique publishers. Long live the written word.

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Thursday, September 19, 2019

Gyo

GyoGyo by Junji Ito
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I like weird. I truly do. But I'm not a big fan of trying-so-hard-to-be-scary-that-it's-silly. Nor am I a big fan of stretching credulity to the complete breaking point. The number of far-fetched "coincidences" in Junji Ito's Gyo- that the main character's uncle is so tied in with this worldwide threat, that the "stench" follows the female second (Kaori) across islands and it's only her, at first, and no one else, who can detect the coming disaster. I didn't buy it. The art was incredible, the story too long and drawn out and just plain dumb. I enjoyed the weird flourishes, especially the circus, which came out of nowhere, had almost nothing to do with the rest of the story, and still seemed like the strongest section of the entire book.

At the end of this are two shorts. The second, "The Enigma of Amigara Fault," was outstanding: a creepy, existentialism-soaked story of inevitability and cosmic dread that really got me thinking and really did cause me fear, unlike the rest of the book. Had all the main body been as startlingly good as "The Enigma of Amigara Fault," I would be giving this book my highest rating.

Alas . . .

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Wednesday, September 18, 2019

A Second Nature

A Second NatureA Second Nature by José Gabriel Alegría Sabogal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an art book. It is a book of esoterica. It is a meditation, and, if the author has his desire, an experience for the reader and viewer. It is a book to be used, not merely contemplated, though one would do well to slow down, not rush through, flipping from page-to-page. There is much here that can burrow between the folds of one's brain, slide behind the veil of the soul. This work demands more than just viewing and reading, it demands your participation in its journey, a path toward and, possibly, even to that hidden grotto inside yourself, beyond the pale of mere-sensory existence.

Granted, the art, which approaches the craftsmanship and style of the Renaissance masters (but more specifically, Durer), is beautiful, if work of such strangeness and morbidity can be laden with that descriptor. The writing is . . . overwrought, at times, but at times brilliantly insightful and poetic.

By definition, an esoteric work hides meaning from the uninitiated. This book can be enjoyed by the layman, simply on the merits of the surreal art contained therein. Sabogal's introduction (clumsily, at times) shows the beginning of the ways in which the work can be decrypted, but he leaves the work up to the contemplative to sort out, to find meaning for themselves. Those who will glean the most will be those who have sacrificed the most to be steeped in Wisdom and a knowledge of the Hidden. You know who you are.

Death plays a drum of human skin.
With a sound more beautiful and stronger
Than the beating of a human heart.
Therefore I must learn to dance.


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Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Night falls on the Berlin of the Roaring Twenties

Night falls on the Berlin of the Roaring TwentiesNight falls on the Berlin of the Roaring Twenties by Various
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My initial desire to read this comes out of a snail-mail roleplaying game project that I am currently undertaking (using the De Profundis RPG rules, among others). The idea is to immerse myself into the Berlin of 1933, triangulating this book with Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu supplement, Berlin: The Wicked City (speaking of which, I need to buy myself a hard copy of that one!) and the Trail of Cthulhu supplement Bookhounds of London. I am just starting the actual play of the game, so we shall see how it goes. Getting people on the same page (so to speak) for a snail mail RPG is like herding cats, especially when you have several talented people with wide ranging interests and responsibilities. But I want to game with interesting people, so I sometimes have to deal with the "stop and start" a bit.

Whether you RPG or not (and if not, why not?), Night Falls on the Berlin of the Roaring Twenties is well worth your time and hard-earned cash. It is a Taschen book, which already qualifies it as "good," and it's one of the better Taschen books I've read, which is saying a lot. It is part graphic novel, part educational text, like the old Dorling Kindersley books, but for adults. And it IS only for adults! Nothing is held back in this expose of the roaring '20s. Nothing. So, please, don't let your kids go thumbing through this unless you want them asking "Mom, what's BDSM?" or "Dad, why are they all naked?"

On the other hand, with nothing held back, there's a lot to like here. There are several one page (or sometimes longer) biographies of notable people of Berlin from Marlene Dietrich to Max Ernst to Bertolt Brecht to Albert Einstein and a slew of others you've never heard of, from the police to the underworld, composers to criminals, politicians to prostitutes, it's all here. There are sections on the movies, hotels, traffic, airport, festivals, and brothels of Berlin, noting their features and, oftentimes, events that unfolded at each.

But this is not just a history book, it is a book of cultural unfolding, decadence, and collapse. Its scale is epic, for a work about one city in one decade. This focus provides an immersive experience for the reader. The inclusion of a CD with several recordings of songs from the period help in the immersion, an unholy baptism into the wicked city. You may come to this volume an agnostic, but you'll leave a believer!

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