Saturday, July 13, 2019

T-Minus 4 days

In an earlier post, I had mentioned my upcoming trip to Europe. That time is almost upon me, and I've made general announcements that I will be off social media for a couple of weeks, so I thought I'd make the same announcement here. I hope to be off social media, including the blogosphere, for two weeks. Technically we don't fly to England until July 18th, but I may turn things off sooner than that, even, so I can concentrate on getting ready and enjoying our once-in-what's-left-of-a-lifetime trip.

What exactly will we be doing and when? Glad you asked!

We will start our trip flying from Chicago to London. We're going to try to stay up all night and through the next day to get our body clocks adjusted. We'll see what these old bodies can do. If I was in my twenties again, I'd say "no problem". But I'm turning 50 while we're in Europe, so . . . 

Next day is our trip up to our AirBnB, with a stop in Oxford. I love Oxford. When I lived in England, I made a few trips there with friends (it was about two hours away by bus) and fell in love with that city. But we won't have a ton of time there. I'm hoping to see the Bodleian Library and The Eagle and Child, the pub made famous by it's patrons J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and, I think, Mervyn Peake (I could be wrong on that last one). Then we will wander a bit and then head to the little cottage we're staying at on the north end of the Cotswolds.

Saturday, we road trip to the famous Welsh "booktown" Hay-on-Wye. I'm not bringing any books with me except these:

I am really hoping to focus on my writing while we are away and plan on taking extensive notes on oddities, story ideas, experiences, etc. So I am not taking anything to read. But I am saving some space in my luggage for books that I will surely buy in Hay-on-Wye. I hear from people whose opinions I value that Hay Cinema Bookshop is not to be missed!

Sunday, we go off to Bedford, near where I used to live as a teenager. We'll go to church with my old congregation. Here's to hoping that I'll see some (very) old friends there! Then we will tour The Priory at RAF Chicksands, the haunted priory that my friends and I used to . . . visit . . . late at night . . . through a window . . . often.

Monday will be our actual "tourist" day in the Cotswolds. We have booked the day through Kooky Cotswold Tours and are very excited to tour with them! We shall be seeing Cirencester, Bath, and Bibury as part of that itinerary. Tuesday we will take a self-guided walking tour, also courtesy of Kooky Cotswold Tours. We are very much looking forward to some long walks through the English countryside! Of course, we will take pictures!

Wednesday we have the morning before we need to get to London to catch our next flight. I am hoping we can quickly visit one of the many ancient monuments in the area (barrow mounds, roundhills, standing stones, etc). I've got some advisement on must-see locations, now I just have to pick one or maybe two.

We fly from London to Munich Wednesday afternoon. We will pick up our rental car, a Mercedes convertible (yes, I am very excited about this!), spend the night in Munich, then test the Autobahn the next day. We will need to make our way down to Vienna by that night, but I am hoping to hit some unlimited stretches of the Autobahn on the way down and see just how fast this car can go! I'll have to start out slow, though, as I will have been driving on the wrong side of the road for a week and will need to get my frame of reference back.

Alright, I need to cut this short - things to do. Short story: 1 week in Austria (Vienna and Salzburg): Kunsthistorisches Museum, National Marionette Theater performance of The Magic Flute, The Eagle's Nest, then a day in Munich. See ya!

Monday, July 8, 2019

Songs from the Black Moon

Songs from the Black MoonSongs from the Black Moon by Rasu-Yong Tugen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm an existentialist, at heart, but not an earnest nihilist. While I do enjoy staring into the abyss from time to time, I don't dangle my feet over the edge for too long.

When I bought Songs from the Black Moon, I expected something dark and brooding. But I should have known from Ligotti's endorsement ("A book of beautiful and strangely tranquil outbursts of disaffection and dissolution. I wish everyone on earth lived by the sentiments expressed within it." (note the absence of exclamation points)) that this work is just a little too hopeless for me.

That's not to say there isn't beauty in this book. Ligotti is correct on that point. Whether it is in longer stretches of prose poetry:

I remain open to all the songs of abrogation that seem to course through my brain in the tear-laden sleep of cognition. You remain open and remain more open, infinitely open - even, and especially, open to what I most fear. You remain open to the seraphic and invertebrate dusk, to what could be or should have been, to our hermetic and deep mauve moonstone sleep. In myriad dimensions tarnished chromatic pieces of bark and branch and lichen fall upon your slender fingers and wrists and your reverberant and tranquil black hair.

Or in some of the "outbursts":

Across your tranquil, tenebrous forehead pass apparitions retrieved from the dimly-lit dusts of oblivion.

the Baroness de Tristeombre's words are resplendent.

And, yet, they are often too self-aware, in the way that poetry shouldn't be. I'll with-hold examples here, but there are many times when the works are full of blatant gothic posturing, odes to depression for the sake of depression, devoid even of a sense of rebellious energy. Just a big bag of giving up.

And I'm not about that. Here we have some diamond flakes among just too much coal. I would have liked things, if not shinier, at least a tiny bit less enthusiastic about an utter lack of enthusiasm.

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Sunday, July 7, 2019

The Star of Gnosia

The Star of GnosiaThe Star of Gnosia by Damian Murphy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

To reduce each piece of fictional art in this book to a "story" does it a profound disservice. This is a gathering of esoteric art and thought, a journey, if you will, into the hidden orders of the heart and mind. Each piece is unique, yet of a kind, in the same milieu, but with specific differences from one another. However, I will not dwell on the specifics of character, setting, and plot, as I feel that each reader must discover these touchpoints for himself or herself, as the reader's own experience will inform their interpretation of these elements. So I speak of each section only in the vaguest of terms, because I think they are so important and so subject to personal interpretation that I can only speak of them obliquely. It would be an injustice for me to interpose my own lens of experience here; in fact, it would be an injustice to me, since my interpretation is so very personal that I consider it a sacred thing. That said, this is not an overt religious text, though it may be interpreted as such by a few. It is a book full of symbols where the interpretation of these symbols and the events surrounding them are subject to the pre-existent experience of the interpreter. Your experience will not be mine, nor should it be. I cannot proscribe or even describe to you what you will feel as you read this work. Nevertheless, I can offer the following:

"The Imperishable Sacraments" is itself a ritual journey, but not without heart and light. i caught myself wanting to rush forward, but trained myself to stop and examine the details in this tale, soon becoming unaware of time, lost in the sacrifice of my sense of urgency to the rewards of attention (even if fought for against the weariness of the preceding day).

"The Apostatical Ascetic" is a foray into the frustrations of reaching out to the beyond, wrestling with the banal and with our lackadaisical acceptance of the everyday grind. Enlightenment comes on its own time, of its own accord. Our attempts at reaching are really only concentrated attempts at waiting for the ineffable to work itself into us. This is as much an occultic primer of yearning as it is a "story".

"A Perilous Ordeal" is not so much a story as it is an initiation or the ripples of an initiation through the surface fiction. This piece should be read and read again and again, as there is and will be something to gain, something to learn, with every repetition, as with every effective ritual.

Reading "The Hour of the Minotaur" was a truly transcendent experience. The prose initiates the reader into deep mysteries, the story strips the veil between reader and narrator, between subject and object. One becomes the mystic journey. Astounding.

"The Star of Gnosia" is three rituals in one: an act of rebellion, a recounting of strictest discipline, and the winsome gambol of a trickster goddess. It is a vision of possibilities tailored to the inherent strengths and weaknesses of the practitioner, their particular foibles, needs, and desires. it is yet another labyrinth where one stumbles from the banal to the sublime. A sort of awkward meditation that does not quite resolve fully - nor should it. As with all practice, one must return again and again to "sort it out". Experience will change the emphasis upon re-reading.

Overall, The Star of Gnosia is a deep well from which one can gather fresh water for, I am guessing, a very long time. For those who are scared away by the mystical references - there is nothing to fear here, outside of the fear of your own self-discovery. Am I a practitioner of "the arcane arts"? No. Do they interest me? They always have. Do I feel like I've compromised my integrity by delving into such a work? Not at all. I feel that I've read some amazing writing that has caused me deep reflection and given me some new avenues of meaning and world-viewing. I don't feel imposed upon and I don't have to impose my views or interpretations on the work itself or others to read it. To do that would not only rob the work of the "breathing room" it deserves, but would be to rob others the joy of discovering this remarkable work for themselves and rob me of the "widening of the gaze" that it has afforded me. And I am no thief, unless I am guilty of stealing insight!

One thing I see a lot of in my future is reading the works of Damian Murphy. His writing is truly unique. I can think of no other work quite like his, though Borges' most mystical writings approach the tenor of his work. There's a hint of Calvino's playfulness and the occasional snap of the literary trickster's fingers reminiscent of Robert Aickman. Now that I've used the names of three of my favorite authors ever in trying to describe Murphy's work, you can bet that I hold this man's writing in very, very high esteem.

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Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Analog Europe

I am approaching a once-in-a-lifetime trip (once in a lifetime for me because I doubt I'll be able to afford to make one like this again) for Europe: One week in England (mainly in the Cotswolds) and one week in Austria. One of my goals on this trip is to go mostly analog. Yes, I will have my phone with me, but outside of emergencies, I am hoping to use my phone only as a camera, GPS, and maybe for a little musical interlude here and there (but not often). In fact, I've been getting calls to upgrade my smart phone for a couple of weeks now. I'll pass for the moment. My reasoning is that when I lived in England as a teenager, there was no such thing as a smart phone, there was no internet, and, outside of a few dumb choices that I made that led to grim consequences, I really miss the feeling I felt there - often - of being fully engaged in life: hearing the trees and grass, smelling rain on the air, feeling heat and cold and wind wet and dry, talking to humans, walking in the landscape and feeling the Earth under my feet, all as a participant, rather than an observer. I want to be fully in this trip!

Today, the day before the release of Stranger Things 3 (which I intend to watch, digitally, on my Fire TV - which, incidentally, I won at a drawing at work: I didn't buy it), out comes another episode of my favorite podcast, Weird Studies, this one using a fabulous series of essays by J.F. Martel entitled Reality is Analog.

I originally read this essay several months ago, around the time that I posted a blog entry entitled Analog Kid (yes, after the song by Rush). In that post, I tentatively posited my thoughts on how I desired to return to a more analog existence. That notion hasn't diminished and has, in fact, grown stronger. I have begun the Snail Mail RPG I referred to, have written more letters since then than I did in the previous twenty years combined, and am spending a lot less time on social media. Yes, I'm still there, but in a passing way. I can "unhook" from social media much more easily now than in the past. I am also writing more, again, just having finished another short story.

Now, I am a believer that when one writes something down and presents it to the world, one is more committed to it. That's why we sign written contracts, n'es-ce pas? There is something like a covenant with oneself that one makes when one seriously puts a commitment down "on paper". In this case, I want to put a commitment on my blog, so it's publicly known, so I'm accountable.

While in Europe, I will not use my phone for social media. No Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram, no Mewe, no nothing. Two weeks. Even though I've been leaning this direction for some time, this is a painful thing to type. Really, this is extremely difficult to commit to, and it makes me downright nervous. But I want to do it. Take a "fast," if you will, from social media. I reserve the right to contact my children through Email and text, but I am not going to post anything for the last two weeks of July.

One thing that I am hoping will help: When I'm travelling, I usually do the social media thing at night, when I'm getting ready for bed. Instead, I have purchased a pair of beautiful Rhodia Landscape Webnotebooks (yes, I am aware of the irony here), within which I will take notes, jot down thoughts, maybe even do some sketches (thought I am not a visual artist, by any means). I'm not even taking something to read, which is near-blasphemy to me. Now, I am very likely to pick up a book or two, especially when we visit the booktown, Hay-on-Wye, in fact, I have a list of authors for whom I will be a-hunting. But I am really hoping to fill my time and brain with writing; creating, not consuming.

 Two weeks.

Who's with me?

Friday, June 21, 2019

Deadhouse Gates

Deadhouse Gates (The Malazan Book of the Fallen, #2)Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As I stated in my review of the previous book in this series, I am typically not a series reader. I very much dislike series, especially series composed of thick novels. The fact that I read the second book in this series says plenty about how good this pair of sword and sorcery novels are.

I shall not even attempt to write a summation of this excellent novel. There are all sorts of summations out there. Go and read.

But I cannot just leave it at that. Because, while my actions might be a good indicator of my like for this book, I’d like to tell you why it is so darned good. I am liable to repeat myself from my review of Gardens of the Moon, for which I apologize in advance. There are just not enough superlatives.
Steven Erikson has a gift for packing complexity in his characters and revealing it with the subtleties of dialogue. As a writer who struggles with dialogue (I really have to work at it and edit it like crazy), I admire that. He's pretty amazing at it. The dialogue here opens a window into the character’s internal thoughts and shows their feelings about each other without pedantry towards the reader. That’s a tough thing to pull off, and Erikson does it with panache.

That’s not to say that I like all of the characters – far from it. Yes, I love the assassin Kalam, who kills more people than you think he will in any given chapter (though you know it’s going to be a high number), and High Fist Coltaine is the greatest military strategist in Sword and Sorcery literature. But Felisin, I hated. This noble brought low (who is eventually exalted again, sort of, but not in the way you might expect) was every bit as whiney as Holden Caulfield, whom I hate with a flying passion. Now, Felisin, unlike Caulfield, had reasons for her whininess, but still, I just wanted to throttle her. And I have no doubt that Erikson wrote her that way. So, well-played, Mr. Erikson, well-played. You jerk.

My favorite character, though, was the ex-soldier, now-Historian (yes, capitalized, as in this is his title) Duiker. And it’s not just his personality that I like. I like how Erikson used him in the novel. Erikson's clever use of Historians such as Duiker is a shrewd maneuver. The Historian has to be at the crux of every important event or recitation, thus the reader gets to see much that a non-Historian observer would not have access to. In fact, the Historian is not only invited, but often required to see events personally, to facilitate the proper recording of such events. Erikson baked the storyteller right into the story, dodging the fourth while and breaking it at the same time. Duiker’s perspective as an ex-soldier, now Historian, often in the thick of combat, makes me remember that I would not have liked to have been a sword-wielding warrior, if I could have avoided it. I'll take the desk job, thank you.

There is plenty of fighting to be had in this novel. It is a military sword and sorcery novel, unapologetic in both its vividness and scope. Still, Erikson wields his weapons subtly, at times, portraying large, important sections of the combat and tactics off-screen, particularly when presenting the early engagements involving Malazan forces led by High Fist Coltaine. By presenting them from “around a corner” or “through a veil,” as it were, the author builds up a sort of mythical aura in the reader’s mind. Later, we learn that this mythical aura surrounding Coltaine’s conquest is shared by those in his world. Thus, we become observers of Coltaine’s exploits in the same manner as those who encounter him in the book: first as a shadow, then a rumor, then as the person he is, and the Ascendant that he is becoming.

“What is an Ascendant?” you ask. Frankly, I don’t know. There are many things I don’t know about this world, just like the characters themselves. We learn through their eyes, though there are many cultural assumptions and phrases that we just have to learn as we go. Yes, there are several very short glossaries to help you from going completely off the rails, but they are sparse and intentionally vague, leaving you to fill in the gaps as you go – or not: several things about . . . well, things, are never fully explained. Ascendancy is one of them. We know it happens and that those who are ascending are greater than mere humans. But are they gods, demigods, or merely heroes?

These vagaries are often presented in poetic language (and sometimes outright poetry). For example, one of the more epic battles in fantasy literature, the Battle of Sekala Crossing ends:

If not for a dumb beast's incomprehension at its own destruction beneath the loving hands of two heartbroken children.

Where else do you find poetry like that in fantasy literature (in a sentence fragment, no less), especially at the end of as grim a scene of combat as you've ever read?


Nowhere, at all.

Finally, Erikson shows a clever wit. The running dog jokes throughout are hilarious. I love Erikson's sense of humor. Kalam describing Salk as "breathtakingly sardonic" and the merchants' excuse to leave Tremorlor, that place of utter horror: "Now we must flee - ah, a rude bluntness - I mean 'depart' of course. We must depart."

I laughed out loud, which typically does not happen when I’m not reading Wodehouse. This lightness makes the darkness all the more bearable.

Still, I shall probably not read another volume of the ten-volume set. Honestly, this is the best sword and sorcery novel I’ve ever read, and I really don’t want to spoil it. I don't want to leave this higher ground.

And, yet, I’m still curious about that lapdog. Oh, that rare lapdog . . . I mean, the raw one . . . you’ll know what I mean when you read it. Enjoy!

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Monday, May 27, 2019

Last Jigsaw

I don't think I ever posted this here. My last jigsaw puzzle. Only took about a year and a half to complete. My next one is full of scary dolls. I'll be putting that one together in the basement . . . alone . . .

No photo description available.

Snail mail RPGing

Back when I was a kid, I remember reading "wanted" ads in Dragon magazine and White Dwarf magazine where people were looking for play-by-mail players for their RPG. Invariably, there was a fee involved, usually rather exorbitant. I didn't play them, because, as a kid, I couldn't afford to. This was back in the '70s and '80s. Lo and behold, the mid-'90s rolled around and with it, the interwebs. This has opened up a plethora of opportunity to game with those who live far away from you, something I take advantage of every week or so, while running and/or playing AD&D 2e with old friends and new. Currently, I am DMing a Dark Sun campaign, as I just wrapped up playing in a Greyhawk campaign. Good fun (until Google hangouts dies, then we have to move to some other technology).

I will admit that during the time from about 1994 until now, I have spent WAY too much time online. It's really gotten under my skin, and this past year, I decided to do some things about it. I am cutting a lot of my time on social media and will dispense altogether with Facebook (except to have my account still there and available for people to contact me, if they wish) once a volunteer commitment for my church is done and over in August of 2020. I'm looking forward to turning my back on FB, honestly - just a breeding ground for family and non-family arguments, by and large. Not only that, but I am trying to fill my time with more analog pursuits: taking time to read more real physical books, getting out and hiking like I did when I was younger, exercising more regularly (i.e., more than every couple of weeks), doing more jigsaw puzzles (which I love and which keeps my brain young), and taking the time to write actual, physical, snail mail letters to people I really dig.

As a part of this, I've invited a few people who I know are excellent roleplayers or who are incredibly interesting persons, to participate in a snail mail campaign with me. We had to coordinate things via email, to begin with, but I think the groundwork is laid. I just prepared the first snail mail letters to send out this week:

The central conceit is very loosely based on the Trail of Cthulhu supplement Bookhounds of London. But this is a horror game without tentacles. We have agreed to a theme of Cosmic Horror, but cosmic horror in the abstract, NOT Cthulhu and friends, which has gotten a bit old. We are also interweaving themes of "The Weird" and "Cults and Conspiracies" throughout. Our main ruleset is DeProfundis, second edition. And for a twist, we are using the rules to the little-known (but rather clever) solo RPG English Eerie to create some randomness on the individual level, which will play into the interaction between the six of us. I will also draw heavily on the Chaosium supplement for Berlin: The Wicked City and the graphic novel (can you call it that?) Night Falls on the Berlin of the Roaring Twenties, for reasons I will outline below.

We settled on a timeframe starting in 1933. The biography for my character, Felix von Wagner, goes a little something like this:

Felix von Wagner – An English-born German raised in the England by a German father, Alric, and Irish mother, Alaia. His childhood was spent on the edge of the Cotswolds, just west of Oxford. His father was a wealthy man, having inherited a stipend via his petty- noble family (hence the “von” designation}. The elder von Wagner had left Germany to open a pharmacy in the town of Burford to live with his love, Alaia, whom he had met while on holiday in Venice in his early ‘20s.

The child, Felix, showed academic promise at a young age. Recognizing this, Felix's father sent the boy to attend Magdalen College School, where he received honors and eventually landed at Oxford to study Medieval History with emphases on Catholic Architecture, Irish Catholicism, and German Folklore. He graduated - barely - spending "far too much time" in the Bodleian Libraries and not enough time concentrating on his core studies. His fascination for the printed word led to indiscretions, thankfully never discovered, which gave him a (stolen) start in the rare book trade. His knowledge in his chosen subject matter has served him well in this trade. Being raised bilingual, with enough knowledge of Latin to get by, has helped in sourcing books, as has a knack for finding books that are desirable to his clientele. A touch of risk-taking has given him opportunities that the squeamish and highly-principled might not enjoy.

Felix currently resides in Berlin, where "anything can be bought," though political unrest has lately made the procurement of desirable tomes more difficult and has led to some close brushes both with the civil authorities and those elements who would subvert them. 

I say that the bio is a little something like that because there are several things about Von Wagner that I am not yet ready to share. It might be too much of a temptation for my fellow-players to sneak a peek online and learn too much too soon!

Now, how do we play this? Frankly: I don't know. We write and make stuff up, really. Everyone has a character with a different background, from different places in the world. I think we have two characters in different areas of Canada, one in northern Minnesota, one in Milwaukee, one in NYC, and Felix in Berlin. The thing that binds us together is our search of rare and strange books. But, really, I am relying on these five interesting people, all of whom are great roleplayers, and each of whom has some common interest with my own (and, I am certain, they will discover what interests they share with each other). 

As a practical matter, we are willing to accept some limited level of anachronism. For example, some of the events in Berlin in 1933 might be just a titch out of order, else Felix's story veer wildly out of control from day one. Yes, the Nazis are still screwing things up today (don't even get me started). But for the most part, we are sticking to 1933, a very interesting time, given the Great Depression, the repeal of prohibition, and the rise of Fascism. A crazy time, indeed.

I shall provide updates, from time to time, but since I will be handwriting all of my correspondence for this (except for the Raro Libro Quaestores Aerarii or RLQA newsletter), you may have to settle for scans of letters, etc. Others are, so far as I know, going to write by hand or by typewriter, for those who have one. And I am all about the wax seals on my letters! I love the smell of molten sealing wax!

Monday, May 13, 2019

The Satyr & Other Tales

The Satyr & Other TalesThe Satyr & Other Tales by Stephen J. Clark
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Try as I might, I have been unable to identify what it is about Stephen J. Clark’s syntax that I find so mesmerizing. It’s clear that there is a pattern - In Delirium's Circle has the same "fingerprint". But I can’t pinpoint, mechanically, where and how his syntax turns to create the great looping shape I feel as I read his writing. There is something of the labyrinth in all of this, and I am so fascinated being lost in it that I can’t focus on the gears that make this machine turn.

Take, for example, the main protagonist (or antagonist?) in the title story. I can't quite tell if Marlene is half-crazy, outright insane, or the wisest person on the crumbling streets of London. Is she really Marlene Dietrich? If not, does she actually think she is? Maybe she's bluffing. Maybe not. In any case, though, I find her fascinating.

The very setting of the story is, itself, a labyrinth – a bombed-out London during World War II. The city blocks are ruined crenellations along the castle of the underground. But by “setting,” I don’t just mean the physical setting, but also the sociological and even mystical setting. Clark has the ability (and a way) to infuse the knockabout underworld of London with a certain mysticism, even a shift from the banal mean streets to a series of transcendental portals. Grit and magic meld together in a way that seems not only natural, but logical.

Clark's ability to clearly describe "dream logic" is awe-inspiring. Such a difficult thing to describe, yet Clark does so in such a way that reading the words on the page invites one into the dream there portrayed. It is a spell, a summoning of the reader into Morpheus' realm.
“The Satyr” is a strange, esoteric thriller, as if David Lynch and Alfred Hitchcock had collaborated on a film script. Yes, it’s as good as you’re imagining it. In fact: it’s better.

Here is a sample of the beautiful, dark, opium-dream prose:

The Lanes I tried to follow pulsed with lightning. At each junction paths multiplied around me. As I staggered on through the furnace of that red-brick maze my fingers trailed cracked walls, unsettling a lacework of shadows in my wake., Alleys wheeled about me as I turned to take another direction, so I reached out from one wall to the next, feeling my way like a blind man, the furrows of the world deepening and multiplying as I went. Pausing to wait for an eternity the intoxication would not pass, yet to remain standing still only left me vulnerable to the widening fissures beneath my feet. If I hesitated the pavements and walls were sure to sprout coarse black hair. All were signs that suggested whoever t was that had hired Bloaters had now sent something far worse after me. So I pushed on even if it meant I had to crawl.

Casting my gaze upward provided no peace or hope of escape. A barrage balloon in the sky overhead throbbed in time with my heartbeat as distorted faces emerged from the enflamed clouds around it. As thunder filled the alleys naked strangers ran criss-crossing from one yard doorway to another. From broken windows ancient faces peered, their translucent skin lit by their bones within. All around me ack-ack fire erupted against the sounds of agonized cries and collapsing walls. And the flies again buzzing; everywhere buzzing.

Then the confines of the backstreets gave way to an overwhelming sweetness of sap, of burnt stripped bark as I found myself straying across an open green surrounded by blasted and still-burning trees. An unearthly silence fell within the square of lifeless facades surrounding me, every pathway a glittering mosaic of glass slivers, until another cataract of incendiaries enveloped the rooftops with streams of dancing blue-white flames. In the debris and embers, in the depths of the white-hot flames fluid forms, shapeless phantoms stirred and rose up, invoked in the fire. From the blackened rafters, from the spaces in between, wings unfurled and limbs were born, reaching out only to vanish again. And what did I hear crying as it was born that night? As all of my childhood haunts were devoured, the blaze of all those memories burned at once; it was the sound of one world dying as another emerged. Through the great veil of broken frames and shattered glass I glimpsed the world’s secret face.

As the dream-labyrinth that is “The Satyr” ends, the question remains: "Who is dreaming and who is the dreamed". Our view from the labyrinth (or from the wartime "trenches," psychogeographic trenches, really) it's never completely clear.

In addition to this most excellent novella, there are several shorter stories. In "The Horned Tongue," a young bookseller finds that his dead wife had had congress with the Devil. Clark does what he does best, weaving an intricate web of intrigue and betrayal, though one must not pity the young bookseller . . . Five luciferian stars for this beautiful weaving of deceipt and desire, with language itself as a supporting character (or is that "characters")?

To give a mental glimpse of the next story, “The Lost Reaches,” imagine Jan Svankmajer, Angela Carter, and David Lynch getting together to do a long story about prisoners fleeing soviet agents and finding themselves in The House of Leaves - but worse . . . on acid. This is a different tone for Clark, to be sure, but not bad-different, just different. A phantasmagoric cabinet of wonders.

“The Feast of the Sphinx” takes place in Nazi-occupied Prague. The dialogue between a prisoner and his possibly-altruistic interrogator, as well as the slippage from within the prisoner from starving artist to “the Countess” is what makes "The Feast of the Sphinx" really hum. A lot of people, a lot of readers, in fact, would say "no one really talks like that"!

You know what? You're right. No one really does talk like that . . .


Banality is not automatically "artistic" or "daring" or "outre". Give me a pile of adjectives, strange syntax, beautiful metaphors. Shove me into that syntactical maze, never to escape. Give me the literary esoteric . . .





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Saturday, May 4, 2019

Garycon 2019 Rogues Gallery

In lieu of a proper report from Garycon 2019 (which, frankly, I cannot do justice), I give you my Rogues Gallery, the characters that I played in my sessions at Garycon. Keep in mind that I also Judged a session of Dungeon Crawl Classics: Crawling Under a Broken Moon and that I was a Keeper for the Call of Cthulhu adventure, Gatsby and the Great Race. These characters are not in the order I played them or in any particular order, for that matter. This is just to give you a hint as to the awesomeness that one can have at a tabletop roleplaying convention. If you haven't had the opportunity to go, GO! I recommend Garycon and Gameholecon, though I've been to few others. I hear from those that go to a lot of cons that these are two of the best, so it's more than just my opinion you're getting here. I'm thinking that in 2020, I might try to hit a third con: Evercon, Con of the North, or Gencon (thought the mere thought of Gencon terrifies me). We shall see if time and life and money allow for a third, though. For the time being, I am quite content with Garycon and Gameholecon. Now, on to the Rogue's Gallery.

Buckingham and Herbert Kornfeld II (Dungeon Crawl Classics: Crawling Under a Broken Moon) - two zero levels that actually survived the mayhem of their funnel. Herbert actually became a formidable opponent once he had a SawBlade Slinger in his hands, much to the chagrin of several of the undead overseers of Chris Zank's adventure "Damn Tasty".

Egebe (Top Secret New World Order) - I played the original Top Secret as a kid "back in the day," as they say. This was my first experience with the new game and I was quite impressed. They use an exploding dice mechanic which makes things very high-octane, as you would expect a spy game to be. My character contributed in a few places, but most importantly in the high-speed chase where he used his (stolen) Bugatti Veyron to run the bad guy's Porsche off the Autobahn, killing said bad guy while providing some critical information for the cadre to complete their mission. I'll have to be careful not to try to replicate this when my wife and I visit Germany this summer!

Kyub (Gamma World 1st Edition) - Not a whole lot to say about Kyub, a Pure Strain Human who learned how to use a bolt action rifle to good effect in a "scout and destroy" mission upriver from a settlement of mutants who had been forced to offer some of their members as slaves to a group of PSH elitists up-river from them. Frankly, the side adventure of exploring an old crashed airplane was more fun than the "actual" adventure, but that's how it goes sometimes.

Arthur K. Bennet (Call of Cthulhu) - A manager of some washed-up mystics who lost their abilities to Harry Houdini. Bennet, along with his group, are invited to the reading of Houdini's last will and testament, a meeting that unlocks some unforeseen doors. "Do Spirits Return?" was an as-always outstanding production (and I mean production - these guys are over the top) by the You Too Can Cthulhu crew. I ALWAYS reserve a slot for a YTCC adventure at cons!

Cotswold (Bunnies and Burrows) - One of two party fighters. I had wanted to play Bunnies and Burrows for many years, having seen ads for the game back in Dragon Magazine a loooong time ago, but this was my first time at the table. I LOVED it! Think Watership Down, the RPG. The system is simple and fun, easy to learn, but rich. The adventure "Warren of the Black Rabbit" was somewhere between Watership Down and The Shadow Over Innsmouth - it was really dark, but fun and exciting that the 7 year old and 10 year old at our table had a great time, while us older players wallowed in the pseudo-eldritch tone of it all. I will definitely play this game again.

Bertram Codwoddel (Dawn Patrol) - Technically not an RPG, Dawn Patrol is another game I've wanted to play for many, many years and was thrilled to be at the table with a bunch of experienced players, as well as a few other noobs. I shot a German plane face on, which is bad etiquette, from my understanding, but it was necessary. It all ended in a draw.

All-in-all a great convention. And I had a blast DMing the games I did. While I have some serious misgivings about the way Garycon does their "featured" events, I'll be back next year, of course. And Gamehole is taking event submissions. Which reminds me - I need to get on that!!!

The King in the Golden Mask

The King in the Golden MaskThe King in the Golden Mask by Marcel Schwob
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wakefield Press has been publishing some wonderful translations of works that are under-exposed to readers of English-language books. “Overlooked gems and literary oddities,” as they put it. Their presentation is clean, tight, and, in the examples I’ve read, accompanied by erudite and insightful analyses and introductions.

Normally, I would elucidate each story in a collection, but not this time. There are 21 stories contained in this book, each of them only three or four pages long. If you’re interested in my little notes on all of them, you can find those notes in my status updates. It’s not that there isn’t something wonderful in all of these stories – there absolutely is. But the stories are so short and so concise that to mention even a sentence-worth of insight on some of them is enough to give the whole story away. I found them punchy and immersive, the perfect thing for reading a story on every lunch break at work (which is exactly what I did – one beautiful story a day for 21 working days – the perfect thing to help me through my day).

I live in a rather small home. Three bedrooms, 1200 square feet finished, one and a half bathrooms. We raised four children in this home. Now that they are (mostly) out on their own, it’s the perfect size for us. And that’s how I’d characterize The King in the Golden Mask - the perfect size, with perfectly-sized stories.

But these stories were expansive mentally, emotionally, mythically. Speaking of myth, I have to admit that my initial draw to the book was that title, evocative of Robert W. Chambers “The King in Yellow”. I noticed, as I read, that many of the themes that people often associate with The King in Yellow were present in Schwob’s book, and I wondered if aficionados of the Hastur mythos don’t conflate Chamber’s work with Schwob’s (and, frankly with Poe, as well). The themes of disease, masks, and the upending of existing social order is prominent in all three, but I feel that with the titular story of this collection, Schwob best integrates these themes and allows their mythical symbolic implications to carry the story and add a depth of internal resonance somewhat lacking in both Chamber’s and Poe’s works.

I cannot deny that a confluence of events aided me in enjoying one work in particular, the story “The Terrestrial Fire”. The imagery in this story is absolutely stunning. My reading of the story was nearly simultaneous with the announcement of the Sunn O))) LP, Life Metal. If I were to set this story to music, it would be to this album. Stunning and beautiful and horrifying, all at once. The serendipity of the timing of the album’s release and my reading of the story is Magic.

Imagery is not the sole strength of Schwob’s work, not by a long shot. What is even more compelling is Schwob’s breadth and depth. From the far-post-apocalyptic “The Death of Odjigh” to the weird-pirate story “The Flute” to the pastoral “The Return to the Fold” to the sheer medieval brutality of "The Faulx-Visaiges,” this work runs the gamut of tone, mood, and genre.

Schwob is at his best, though, when he plays the part of the ancestor to the weird tale. If, for example, I used the phrase "Shades of Carcosa," I could not use a more appropriate phrase, full of multi-layered meaning, to describe the story "The Sleeping City". Part Robert E. Howard, part Clark Ashton Smith, part Robert W. Chambers - a beautifully-wrought weird tale that precedes and possibly informs Smith and Howard’s work (Schwob and Chambers were roughly contemporaries, and I’m not sure if they knew or read each other’s works). Again, there is a certain internal resonance that Schwob’s work contains, Smith’s does occasionally, and Howard’s simply does not.

My favorite story of the collection was “The Blue Country”:

In a country town I wouldn’t be able to find anymore, the sloping streets are old and the houses are decked with slate. Rain runs along the sculpted pilotis, and its droplets all fall in the selfsame place, with the selfsame sound. The round little windows have sunken into the walls, as if to keep from being struck. There is nothing brave in these streets, save for the ivy above the doors and the moss atop the walls: the ivy’s dark and shiny leaves bare their teeth, and the moss dares consume all the large stones that sit outside its yellow velvet – but the people here are as fleeting as the shadow of rising smoke.

An uncharacteristically hopeful(?) ending (at least for all those who aren't the narrator) punctuates this sluggishly-whimsical story. I absolutely loved "The Blue Country" and even have a soundtrack recommendation to go with your grey, drizzly-day reading of this fine, dark tale. Alas, you will be done reading this tale long before the soundtrack is over. So, read it again. And again. And again.

In fact, do that with the whole collection. I will. I will. I will!

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Wednesday, April 17, 2019


CopsfordCopsford by Walter J.C. Murray
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As a child, I roamed. I was born to roam, I suppose – an American born in Germany who lived in Germany, Texas, the Philippine Islands, Italy, and Minnesota all before the age of ten. Lived – not visited. I have a difficult time remember all the places we visited as a family during that time. Like most children of that day and age, before over-protectiveness stifled wanderlust, I wandered on my own a fair amount, too. After Minnesota, we moved to Nebraska and, when I was 15, we moved to England, where I wandered far and wide, rarely with family, sometimes with friends, often alone – me, on foot, bike, bus, or train, all across England. This summer, my wife and I are planning to travel back there (tickets are already bought) to spend a week in England, then a week in Central Europe (mostly Austria, where my wife lived for a year and a half in her early twenties). But we are avoiding, as much as possible, the glitz of London, the dance halls of Manchester, and spending the vast majority of our time in the area I learned to love by wandering its hills: The Cotswolds. I am planning on doing myself the favor of shutting off my smart phone, save to take photographs or get directions. I long to unconnect, then reconnect. I am fighting to regain my right to roam untethered, if only for a short time.

What do I mean by reconnecting? I struggle to know if it is the vanity of trying to connect with myself or some idealized connection with the world that I strive for, that I enjoyed so much in carefree hours as a child and that I only get today in snippets. It is manifest in a return to the sense of the smell of the fields, the feeling of sun on my skin, the sight of wind combing long grasses, the various voices of wind through the trees. While the sensations are brought from the far reaches of the world (or possibly even beyond, at least in my romantic imaginings), I am the receptacle of the sensations. So, whether the search is vanity or altruism – I cannot tell.

Copsford came at a fortuitous, unexpected time. I am a steady consumer of Tartarus Press books, but this one is significantly different for them – a naturalist work with no supernatural elements at all, a non-fictional work (if Murray is to be trusted, and I think he is). While it takes place in east Sussex, far away from the Cotswolds, I also recall hiking on the High Weald, very near where the book takes place, so I have an affinity for that area, as well. When I first read the notice that Tartarus was producing this work in hardcover, I jumped on it and ordered it as soon as I could, not arguing with the magical timing of the release vis-à-vis my trip back to a place I have not been in over thirty years.

The truth of the matter is that I was legally banished from the place that I had lived in England at the age of 18. It was the late ‘80s, the war on drugs was in full swing, and I lost a battle. Faced with the possibility of a long prison sentence, I count myself blessed that the judge only banished me from the Air Force Base on which the laws were transgressed. Now, the base has been decommissioned, and I will get to go back without fear of the law, to visit the place I once loved. Of all the places I’ve lived in the world, I miss England the most and most especially, the English countryside.

Keep in mind, also, that the last time I lived with my parents for any appreciable length was when we lived in England. With the passing of my Mother last February and my Father last April, is it a coincidence that life has favored me now with the opportunity to go back, just at the time this book was released? You decide.

Copsford recounts the stay of the author, Walter J.C. Murray, at a derelict cottage on a farm, far to the south of London, where he had resided before then. He only stayed there for a spring, summer, and a winter, but it was obviously a profound event for him. Were I not married, with obligations to children and a grandchild (and another, before we leave on our trip), I might be tempted to take the pauper’s course and do something similar, odd as it may sound. But Murray lived in a time in which he could harvest and sell herbs at a good enough rate to actually survive (with some of his savings, from his employment in London), whereas I would stand a good chance of starvation, should I try the same.

It was characteristic of the place that I heard it before I saw it. As I approached, the blustering wind brought to my ears the forlorn rattle of ill-fitting windows that had not been opened for twenty years. There was, too, the thump-thump of a door that swung heavily but never latched: And then I saw it. Grass grew up to the very door-step. The walls were bare, hideously bare; no ivy, rambler, not a plant or shrub nestled against them, just stark brick from grey slate roof to the ground. It would not have been Copsford had bowers of honeysuckle overhung the port or sweet clematis smiled about the sills. There were four windows and a door, not in the usual childish arrangement, but three on the upper floor, and one on the ground floor to the left of the front door. They were square-cornered and grim, and several broken panes gaped darkly at me. There was an ugly grey chimney-stack at the south end, the cottage face east, and on the north wall was a half-ruined brick-and-slate shed to which the door was gone. There had been a wood fence between what should have been the garden and the field, but only the uprights remained and one or two tumbled cross-bars, crumbling in their slots. The rough grass of the field swept in unhindered, lapped the walls of the cottage, washed round behind it. Like a flood-tide, it swamped everything; the cottage stood, a barren, inhospitable rock in the midst.

This introduction is symbolic of the push and pull between beauty and decay that Murray moved between. It was not all flowers and birdsongs (though there if plenty of these, as well). Writers interested in giving a realist bent to post-apocalyptic fiction should read this chapter about Murray's war against the rats. There is grist for the mill here. Now I see why giant rats were a thing in Dungeons and Dragons.

Much of the heartbeat of Murray’s experience had to do with his keen awareness of his surroundings: The weather ruled all, and I often thought of all those millions in London, and indeed in every town and city, to whom changes in the weather meant no more than carrying or not carrying a gamp to the station, office, or workshop; all those for whom work went on just as ever it had done, no matter whether skies were blue or grey, no matter whether the sparkling dew drenched the awakening countryside, no matter whether the wind set hard and dry in the east or wet and billowy from the west. And I wondered, wondered at the artificiality of their lives, cut off from natural loveliness, variety and life . . . Being a city-dweller now for some years (right on the wild edge of a major city), I do miss that connection, or at least a fullness of it, that one feels when one lives in the landscape. Some of this has to do with not having the time to wander like I did as a child, to feel the land in you.

For a time, in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, I worked at the largest canoe and kayak shop in the US (at that time, anyway). My house is a block from one of the main lakes in Madison (a city built “on” four interconnected lakes) and I was able to canoe to and from work each day, so long as the water wasn’t yet hard. During those commutes, I often felt locked in with nature, that my human body was once again a part of the Earth from which it arose (and to which it will return). One of the primary reasons for this was the connection I felt with the light of day and its energizing effect on me. Murray puts it this way:

. . . during those summer months at Copsford, when I was oppressed by no anxieties or worries, when no evil bore me down, when I lived to the full every carefree hour, when perhaps my eye was single, it was then that light had its strongest hold upon me. Do not we take light too much for granted? Is not light the only chain that links universe to universe at last?

Because Floss (Murray’s dog) and I rose early to greet the sun on those happy summer mornings, it must not be thought that I was one of those unbelievable persons who can always spring on waking, from their beds, fresh and energetic. In those Copsford days, it was natural; it would have been unthinkable, impossible, to lie in bed with the July sun rising high in the heavens . . .

One reason for my distance from nature must have to do with driving. When I lived in England, I did not drive, but bussed, rode my bike, and walked everywhere. I walked a lot. I still take great joy in walking when winter has abated. But time is limited now, and I cannot wander, as I did as a child, for hours on end. I am, sadly, more connected with pavement than with dirt, though I do take opportunity to hike when I can. Because of this, I have a great deal of jealousy for Murry and his summer on foot:

We walked on regardless of time and distance. That upland turf is a carpet which never seems to weary those who tread it. So short it is, so compact, so springy; and the view and the sea and the distance hypnotized us; and the roll of the hills, fold on fold, lured us on. There should be no end to such travellers’ joy.

I could not agree more. I am ready to wander and not be lost. Catch me if you can!

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Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Ghost Stories of an AntiquaryGhost Stories of an Antiquary by M.R. James
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mark Fisher, in his erudite examination of horror, The Weird and the Eerie, notes that eeriness is characterized either by “a failure of absence or a failure of presence”. I would posit that M.R. Jame’s arguable opus, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, is full of textbook examples of each. It would be spoiling the book to note which stories failure absence or presence, but it must be noted that this book could be taken as a master course in the eerie. It must also be noted that Jame’s (intentional?) elimination of summary explanations in (or about) his stories is part of what gives these tales this nearly-mystical feeling. You won’t find stories here that are neatly tied off, for the most part, with a “big reveal” that provides that opium for the masses of readers: closure. No, you will find that many of these stories are unresolved. They end, simply, as matters of observed facts. You might construct an explanation in your own mind of what happened, who did what and why, and what went horribly wrong. But all of these explanations happen, as they do with all good literature, in your head. You will become a participant in these stories. You, like many of the characters therein, will be haunted by the experience. Let’s draw up our salt-circle (or not) and summon the ghosts:

"Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book" had to inspire many of Lovecraft's stories. Antiquarian book? Check. Occult rituals? Check. Suspicious-seeming natives? Check. Creepy noises in the dark? Check. "Journal entries" (marginalia, really)? Check. Investigation of strangeness with academic undertones? Check. Freaky creature? Check. Just add tentacles and hyperbole. I liked this a lot more than most of the Lovecraft I've read, but I'm a little burned-out on the Mythos, to say the least. I grow tired of Lovecraft and his imitators. Give me four eerie stars, without tentacles, please! In all seriousness, if someone with a mind like Sandy Peterson’s had picked this story to create an investigative roleplaying game, we might not have Call of Cthulhu now, we might have Call of Canon Alberic! Of course, if you're looking for ghostly roleplaying of the Jamesien variety, look no further than English Eerie. I recommend it. And now, we return from our commercial break . . .

"Lost Hearts" is another tale that evokes Lovecr. . . Wait - I see what you did there with the title, James! You sly old dead dog, you. I love this little ghostly/occult tale. I would love to see it rewritten to show what would happen had Mr Abney succeeded . . . that could make another terrifying tale, possibly overshadowing the origi. . . Hmm . . . I've got some paper and a pen. Hmm . . . first let me draw these four stars. I'm never going to get this review done, at this rate.

I've read "The Mezzotint" before, and heard a fantastic audio adaption of it on what has become my favorite podcast, of late, and yet, despite all my familiarity, it still does not fail to make on shiver. One of the best "weird" stories written. This one has staying power, with latent images that only partially fade over time. The imagery is burned on the lens of my mind. And my mind created it, prompted by James' words that I read with my eyes, or rather, my mind transformed the words - it is a strange thing to think about. Where do these creations of the mind come from? What makes words form images in my brain? I will meditate upon these five stars and give it more thought.

Ew, ew, ew, eeeewwwww!! "The Ash-Tree" = #nopenopenope. Just. No. And not the most effective story thus far, but still better than most other strange stories of a similar ilk. But this story gives me the jibblies for fifteen minutes straight. In all seriousness, this pushes too far into gross territory for me. I'm not about gross or gory. Creepy is not the same as gross. Four slightly disgusted stars.

"Number 13" is a great little mystery. Not the strongest story so far, but by no means weak. If you wonder where Mephistopheles took Faust, this might give an indicator. And it's closer than you think. In fact, it might be right next door. The trick is to find the door . . . and avoid it at all costs! Four stars cast the shadow of Danielewski’s House of Leaves.

At first, I thought "Count Magnus" was a novella. We need more novellas in the world. Many, many more. I wish the majority of published works were novellas. But I'm a snob that way. Then, after skimming ahead a second and third time, I discovered that "Count Magnus" is NOT a novella: Whomever did layout on this edition (Good Port) done screwed up! After this story, we have "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad," and "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas". The layout is so screwed up, in fact, that these last two don't even appear in the table of contents. So if layout is your thing, best pick a better port than Good Port.

"Count Magnus" is the most evocative story in this collection. By "evocative," I mean that it is . . . well, not subtle, but not "in your face," either. It's more creepy than horrific, and that's the sort of thing that I love. This could easily be a Twilight Zone episode! And, like my favorite TV show (the ORIGINAL Twilight Zone, or OTZ), this story gets five stars.

My first note on the next story: "*Sigh* you had to go and blow the whistle, didn't you, Parkins? This is the part where things go horribly, horribly wrong, I suppose."

And I supposed right.

Important safety tip: If you find something in a grave, don't play with it. Whatever you do , don't touch it to your lips! Yuck!

"Sinister" is the best word, I think, to describe the feeling of the story "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You My Lad". The apparition therein is the scariest of all in this book thus far. I did not sleep well the night I read it, all wrapped up in bed sheets. This story makes innocent bed sheets terrifying. Sleep tight! Five shuddering stars.

"The Treasure of Abbot Thomas" is a textbook mystery marbled through with supernatural elements. The narrator's presentation is a well-played shell game of obfuscation and revelation. I would have liked a more consequential ending, but that trick was for later authors. Five stars, despite the flat-ish ending.

There is no doubt why this collection gets reprinted again and again (sometimes poorly, as you can see from my review). If there ever was one "classic" single-author collection of ghost stories, this is it.




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Saturday, April 13, 2019

Art Deco: An Illustrated Guide to the Decorative Style, 1920-40

Guide To Art Deco Style 1920 40, Illustrated Guide To The Decorative StyleGuide To Art Deco Style 1920 40, Illustrated Guide To The Decorative Style by Arie van de Lemme
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For the life of me, I can't understand the low ratings given for this book on Goodreads. Then again, some of the same people who gave it low ratings also gave The Catcher in the Rye five stars, and you know my opinions regarding that putrescent skid mark on the underwear of literature.

Now that I've gotten that out of my system . . .

As an undergraduate, I was a Humanities Major with a history emphasis. This meant that I studied a bevy of disciplines, including visual arts, sculpture, architecture, dance, cinema, theater, music, philosophy, history, and literature. It was a good education. While studying, I became particularly enamored of a few different artistic movements: Art Nouveau, Modern Abstractionism, Pre-Raphaelite art, and Art Deco. I did a fairly exhaustive study of each (I had to in order to graduate!), so I'm coming at this as someone who knows a bit about the movement and the art movements that were chronologically before, during, and after Art Deco. There was a lot going on there between the two World Wars, and I don't have the time or patience to outline the historical precedents and antecedents of the movement known as Art Deco.

I don't really have to, because Art Deco: An Illustrated Guide to the Decorative Style has done a pretty good job of it. No, it's not a philosophically deep treatise. If someone were looking for that, I'd recommend a book a little longer than 128 pages, many of which are taken with pictorial examples of the trends being examined therein. But the introductory chapters give a very good, high-level overview of the context in which the movement arose, taking L'Exposition Des Arts Decoratifs Et Industriels of 1925 as an approximate starting point. From hence the term "Art Deco" arose.

After a brief, but more than adequate review of the history, the book plunges into the various areas in which Art Deco manifested itself. Far from being a merely artistic (that is, painterly) phenomenon, Art Deco was a true movement, an attitude, really, of some parts of society (those that would afford it - though mass production and cheap materials made Art Deco more easily available to common folk) that was reflected in the material culture of Europe and the United States. This inhered in the realms of great commissions (such as the great luxury ship Normandie, The Hoover Factory in Britain, and The Chrysler Building in New York City), furniture, metalwork, tableware, ceramics, glass, fashion, painting, design, and jewellery [sic], all of which are addressed in this work. One of the more interesting aspects of this movement is the fact that there was very little by way of visual arts (namely painting) and that other visual movements, such as cubism and fauvism, were predominant in the world of painting. There are few paintings outside of posters that can be termed "Art Deco" proper, but almost any painting of the time would likely be surrounded by Art Deco sculpture, framed in wood crafted in an Art Deco style, and many of them would be housed in a building that was composed of Art Deco elements. Think of Art Deco as, quite literally, the world in which other art was housed.

One can gather from this that the line between art and craft was often blurred during this period. Many of the more prominent practitioners of one discipline were inclined to cross over into another or, at least, to collaborate with another. For example, the famous metalworker Edgar Brandt, created bronze jardinieres with cobras rearing their heads, which were, in turn, surmounted by exquisite glass work by the famed Antoine Daum. The architect Frank Lloyd Wright (one of our hometown heroes here in Madison, Wisconsin) designed furniture in his signature style, and many other craftsmen and artists worked magnificent pieces outside of their moyen.

My solitary complaint about the book is that sometimes a piece is referenced on a page nowhere near its picture, and a few pieces that are lauded with high praise do not appear in the book at all. A few of these are because the artifact that held them (namely, the ship Normandie) was scuttled and no longer exists. Not all the sands of time make it from the top of the hourglass to the bottom, unfortunately.

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Thursday, April 4, 2019

The Stars My Destination

The Stars My DestinationThe Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Stamped on the inside front cover of this used book is the following:

William Howell
620 N. Oakhill
Janesville, WI


Who was this? He owned and likely read this book 8 years before I was born. He might be older than my father, if he's still alive. Is he? My daughter and grandson live in Janesville. Do they ever walk past that address? Does he still live there? Is any of this relevant to the book? Maybe . . . maybe . . . in the end. But I’m not giving away the end. No, you need to work for it.

I suppose the mystery engendered by this name and address put me in the proper frame of mind to explore the personality of Gulliver Foyle, the anti-hero of the book. Gully is driven by vengeance, driven by himself – and I mean this in a very literal, physical sense. But you won’t know why I mean that until the end. Like William Howell, he is an enigma. Even an enigma to himself, which we grow to learn as we explore the interstices of Foyle’s near-animal brain.

This book must be read straight through. Don’t set it aside. This book is . . . sudden. It takes sudden, unexpected turns. Yes, it starts out with an infodump. And normally I hate infodumps. But this one is critical to the story. When you get to the end . . . again, don’t stop till you get there . . . you will see how the infodump at the beginning was totally necessary to the success of the entire story. Bester has ensured that all the necessary loose ends are tied up. “Necessary,” because there are plenty of loose ends left at the end. But they make sense, in the context of the story. This is a tight biome for your brain, but it leaves room for . . . “growth” is the word that comes to mind.

Now, you might want to cheat and head straight to the end and read it. But I guarantee the story will make no sense whatsoever to you if you do that. This is as much an experience as it is a piece of writing. It envelops the reader’s brain while the reader’s brain simultaneously envelops it. It’s as close as one can get to some of the deeper mysteries of quantum mechanics by merely reading words on a page. And it causes the reader to reflect on their own inner being, a sort of science-fiction Rorshach test.

It took me by surprise. Though I had heard for many years just how “good” it was, I don’t think that any words (other than the words of the book itself) can convey the way that Bester grabs the attention of the reader and immerses them in the tale. As one finally starts to come up for water, one realizes just how deeply enmeshed they are in the story. Love or hate him, we are all, in some way, Gully Foyle.

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Saturday, March 23, 2019


1Q84 (1Q84 #1-3)1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am a slow reader. Despite a battery of classes on speed reading and comprehension starting in 4th grade, when I was told I was a “gifted” reader, I still consider myself a slow reader. It might be the company I keep – I like to be around really smart people when I can – that makes me feel like a slow reader, in comparison. In any case, I do think I’m a slow reader.

It’s largely for this reason that I tend to avoid big doorstop novels. More often than not, they start out quickly, then slow to a crawl in very short order. And when I’m looking at over 1000 pages of text, the last thing I need is an uninteresting crawl.

I don’t feel that way with Murakami, for the most part, and especially with this novel, 1Q84. Murakami keeps things going here. Yes, there are slow spots, but if you’ve read or written (or both) enough, you’ll notice and appreciate that these spots are intentionally chosen to be slow. There are no real accidents in Murakami’s writing. Not in this novel, at least.

But there were plenty of places where he took chances.

Rather than giving a blow-by-blow of the novel (Aloha has done a magnificent job of reviewing the novel itself), I’d like to go where Murakami gambled and won. So, plug in some new retro synthwave music and read on!

Right from the get-go, Tengo, one of the story’s main protagonists, engages in a conversation with an editor, Komatsu, about writing. It’s interesting, to say the least, to read a writer writing about writing in his writing. And it works. Here, the reader gains some great insight into the act of writing, the strategic moves that one makes to make one’s writing great. Murakami does this in a non-pedantic, purely natural way. This is intentional: it is a setup for later metafictional moments throughout the novel. But it doesn’t feel intentional when the reader is in the midst of reading it. What a tangled web of reader, writer, and character Murakami has created here!

Komatsu later hatches a downright Dickensian scheme in which Tengo hollows out, plagiarizes, and rewrites the enigmatic Fuka-Eri’s novel. Here, Murakami sets the trap, as it were, for his characters and, it seems, for the reader. It’s an outstanding plot hook about a novel within the novel. You can probably see how things could go horribly wrong here for Murakami: If he overstates the scheme, the reader feels manipulated. If he understates it, the hook is ineffective. He pulls it off with panache.

One of the main “characters” are the Little People, which I won’t go into the trouble of explaining (nor do I want to spoil this for you). I thought of Arthur Machen’s The White People when I first read about them and, yes, Murakami is definitely giving a bit of an homage to Machen with them. But they are decidedly more intrusive and belligerent than Machen’s fair folk. Here, Murakami ran the danger of mimesis (or downright plagiarism), but he makes these Little People his own. I shall never read the words “Ho, ho!” again without a shudder. They give this novel a decidedly dark twist, darker than most of the Murakami I’ve read. Or, at least, the darkness is sustained for longer than it is in other works I’ve read by him. There are moments where this reads like an outright horror novel, and I’m not complaining about that a bit!

One thing that horrifies me almost beyond belief is a long info-dump. I have seen many an infodump soil an otherwise beautiful novel. I had to suppose that in a novel of this length, an infodump (or several) is unavoidable. Lo and behold, on page 203 (in the paperback), an infodump rears its ugly block-text, no break, no quote, too many worded head. I admit to flipping ahead and previewing just how much torture I was about to have to endure. Ten pages! That could be a deal-breaker for me.

Soon, though, I found myself entranced. Maybe it was the subject matter of the dump: the relationship and eventual suicide of the closest friend to Aomame (the other main protagonist, with Tengo). Or, perhaps it was the timing, one-fifth-ish of the way through the novel. I can definitely say that the writing was interesting, engaging, and, eventually, enthralling. Murakami pulled off one of the best infodumps I’ve read in the context of a novel. Kudos on this one. Gamble, win. Again.

One of the largest chances Murakami has taken with this novel is that of rushing headlong at the fourth wall. At first, he does so through writing about writing (see above), then he tackles the topic of the exploration of literature using a wonderful metaphor of exploring a deep magical forest, right at the same time that the readers are exploring this mental space themselves. Later, he becomes even more bold, with Komatsu stating “This is the magnificent world of a picaresque novel” when talking with Tengo about their current predicament. Of course, this is true on the level of their world and on the level of the reader, layers upon layers.

The metafictional nature of the novel doesn’t stop there. There is one element so important that I can’t give it away, that reveals to the characters that they might just be dealing with a reality within a reality. I can’t get more specific than that, but suffice it to say that while the characters do realize that, perhaps, they are “baked in” to an outside story, they still have their agency within it and can affect the outcome. They are not at the mercy of the author, or at least they think they are not. Murakami does an amazing sleight-of-hand in making the reader believe that the characters can make choices that affect the outcome of the novel . . . after having written the novel – the ultimate willing suspension of disbelief!

The final place where Murakami gambles is in his expectation of readers’ expectations, particularly when it involves character motivation and the prospect of deception. There were at least two major characters that I felt were being deceptive. I was convinced that their deceit would turn the plot in a different direction by betraying the main protagonists, Aomame and Tengo. I was wrong. Dead wrong. Both of these minor characters were exactly what they said they were. Against all readerly expectations of an “unexpected” (though frequently expected, in actuality) plot-twist, Murakami plays his cards straight out, face up on the table. And it completely threw me! I was more surprised when I figured out that these characters, both of whom were in a position to provide plenty of surprises and subterfuge, were telling the truth all along and acting true to themselves. Murakami didn’t need a poker face – he had a royal flush in his hand the whole time and made it obvious to everyone, so obvious that the reader couldn’t help but interpose his own thoughts of deception and intrigue on two of the most straightforward people in the novel.

This is not to say that Murakami reveals all. Far from it. There are several mysteries that remain unsolved and plot points unresolved. I am perfectly fine with this. I actually prefer to have vagaries in my fiction (both while reading and writing). I don’t want to know everything. I want the mysteries to linger long after I’ve closed the book, and there are some here that do. Was Kumi Adache Tengo’s reincarnated mother? Maybe, maybe not. And what of the NHK fee collector who harasses people from the hallway throughout the novel – was this or was this not the ghost of Tengo’s comatose father? I don’t know. I like to think so, but there’s nothing explicitly demanding it be so. I appreciate that Murakami has left room here for readers to fill in the blanks or to leave them unfilled, as they see fit. Not only do his characters have (the illusion of?) agency, but he imparts it to the reader, as well. If you’re looking for a novel to tell you every fine detail, to force-feed your conclusions, you are in the wrong place.

Not only is it a work of technical genius, there is a great deal of emotion here, as well. At least there was for me. The timing of my reading was . . . strange and not, I believe, coincidental.

Last year, about this time, my mother had recently died (in February) and my father was, I would later learn, dying. I had to make the sole decision, in both cases, to take my mother, then my father, off of life support. Mom passed quickly: ten minutes after we took her off the trio of vasopressors that were thrashing her heart into (barely - 54/16 blood pressure) functioning, she passed away. Dad lingered for much longer. Two full weeks I spent with him. Every day and many nights I spent by Dad’s bedside as he slowly died. He couldn’t speak much due to a tracheostomy (which he had had since November previous), but he could talk a little. Very little. I spent a great deal of time thanking Dad for the good things he had done for me as a son, for my Mom, and for my family. He had rough spots, as any parent has, some of them very rough, but I know that Dad loved me, and I told him I knew that.

In 1Q84, Tengo spends a great deal of the novel by his comatose father’s bedside. There were similarities between my relationship with my dad and Tengo’s relationship with his father – both older men were rough characters that showed little in the way of emotion. My father was a soldier. I was born and raised in the military. Sometimes Dad could be a very strict disciplinarian, as my conduct could reflect badly on him (and often did – whenever I was arrested as a teenager, which happened a few times, my Dad heard about it from his commanding officers). Dad himself did not show much emotion, though I know he felt, sometimes deeply. The first time I ever saw my Dad cry was when I had to leave home at age eighteen because I was being banished from the Air Force base that we lived on. Yes, literally, legally banished – but that’s a different story. After my teenage years, Dad and I became reconciled and developed a great deal of love and respect for one another. We truly learned to love each other, deeply. Letting him go was one of the hardest experiences of my life. So, that wound was still pretty fresh when, less than a year later, I read 1Q84. Now, the parallels between my experience and the fictional Tengo’s break down on closer examination. But the point here is that Murakami brought up some of the deepest feelings I’ve ever experienced reading a novel. I recall reading on my lunch break at work and having to put the book away to wipe away tears. Thankfully no one else was in the office at that moment. I was a bit of a mess. But it was cathartic, and needed.

After all the heartbreak and terror, 1Q84 is, after all, a love story. A touching love story. As I read, I often thought of a song that I used to listen to when I was in a contemplative mood as a teenager, contemplating about love, the Simple Minds' song “Someone, Somewhere, in Summertime”. I would be shocked if Murakami hadn’t listened to this song while writing this, as it perfectly captures both the mood and, in some ways, the actual plot, of the love story portion of 1Q84. Oh, and did I mention that I was 15 years old in 1984 and deeply in love for a good portion of that year? That might have something to do with my feelings about the love story, as well.

Connections abound. The heart is a lonely place, sometimes, but it’s well worth the effort to keep reaching, whether it be for a family member, a romantic interest, or a desired aspect of life. Life is fleeting, and love is fragile, but powerful. Keep reaching and you’ll find the connections you need, if you look long and carefully enough. Keep reaching. Don’t stop!

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Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Flower Phantoms

Flower PhantomsFlower Phantoms by Ronald Fraser
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On the strong recommendation of a few people whose literary opinions I highly value, I took a chance with this unknown-to-me author. With an introduction by the highly-reputable scholar of obscure English works, Mark Valentine, I had at least some assurance that the book was likely not going to be awful.

The work starts out, blandly enough, as a sort of domestic story of class, family, and wooing one might expect from an interwar-era work. But a tiny sliver of decadence, a delicate kind of decadence, shows up about a quarter of the way in as Judy, the protagonist, is being, as is her wont, a touch aloof from her soon-to-be-betrothed Roland. Roland, poetic but not terribly sharp, looks into her eyes and states:

"My god, Judy, the human eye is a very terrifying thing. It's so inhuman. There's no soul in it. It's a machine. A lot of cloudy, spongy, extremely queer stuff with a sinister black hole. It's expressionless, when you look close. Laughter, kindness, everything that makes people human. seems to disappear. What a strange and terrible thing mind must be . . ."

Later, we find just what a strange and terrible thing mind is. At least strange and terrible to those who cannot see inside another's mind to understand its workings. This is especially so when that mind does not seem to function "correctly".

And Judy doesn't "function correctly". I like her chutzpah. She is a surprisingly complex figure for a female character written by a man in the 1920's. I had not expected this. In time, the complexity of Judy's malfunctioning thoughts becomes intriguing. I wondered if Judy's quirks were harmless or if there was something seriously deranged in her thinking. My greatest fear, though, was that Judy might become "domesticated" or portrayed as an indecisive ditz. I hoped neither of those things happen. I liked her too much as-is.

Not long ago, someone very, very close to me suffered a bout of temporary psychosis. It was one of the most harrowing experiences of my life, to see this person that I know so well in a state of paranoia and mania. It broke my heart to see this. The person I knew was not the person ranting and raving during that spell. It was sad and terrifying to be a part of that suffering and to see it up close, first hand. I catch myself using the word "crazy" far too often, and I now know that this word has special, specific meaning, and that it has nothing to do with fun and frolic. It has become a slur and a word to be avoided. But years of habit are hard to break, and I still catch myself letting it slip. But I correct myself, out of the deepest respect I hold for this friend.

So, as Judy progresses (or falls?) into a state outside of reality, I asked myself what was happening, partially, I think, as an emotional protection to myself, given what I so recently witnessed. Was Judy suffering from insanity (and note that suffering is the precise word to use when describing what the insane are going through)? Pollen-induced hallucinations? Remote memories of a past life or a soul caught between states of existence? Whatever the source, it was beautiful, sad, and languid.

As the novella progresses, one sees Judy slip more and more away from "reality" to the point where the reader questions what is real and what is not. Despite the sensitivity of the subject matter, the "trippiness" of the second part of the story is a nice contrast to the bland domesticity of the first.

In summation, Flower Phantoms shows a most sympathetic view of madness. This is not what I expected from a piece of writing from this period and definitely not what I expected when I began reading. It is touching, but not maudlin, decadent in its subject matter but more practical in its portrayal, and seething with existentialism but not buried in fatalism. Judy is a complex, if sometimes confused, character: she is broken, but not weak. Confident, but fallible. All in all, a human being.

Each reader will pull something different from this novella, depending on one's experiences (and proximity in time and space to said experiences), but it may just shatter your expectations . . . subtly, without undue fanfare or heroics. An extremely interesting, surprising read.

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