Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The Rings of Saturn

The Rings of SaturnThe Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

And Sir Thomas Browne, who was the son of a silk merchant and may well have had an eye for these things, remarks in a passage of the Pseudodoxia Epidemica that I can no longer find that in the Holland of his time it was customary, in a home where there had been a death, to drape black mourning ribbons over all the mirrors and all canvasses depicting landscapes or people or the fruits of the field, so that the soul, as it left the body, would not be distracted on its final journey, either by a reflection of itself or by a last glimpse of the land now being lost for ever.

This sentence encapsulates what The Rings of Saturn is “about”. However, what exactly does that word “about” mean? Is it the meaning of meaning? A circumambulation around a subject? Or a loci-less meandering from subject to subject? “About,” in the context of The Rings of Saturn, is a heady admixture of all of these meanings. It’s a slippery thing – once you think you have it nailed down, it moves, like a fading dream. And this book is much like a fading dream. You know you have been impressed deeply, that feelings have been awoken while you slept, but to pinpoint the details? Impossible.

With that in mind, here are my impressions, scattered, yet tethered together, somehow.

This is a far-reaching, rambling, uncategorizable series of essays. Just the sort of thing I love. The first section, featuring a hospital stay, the physician Thomas Browne, nature shows, curiosity cabinets, and mystical creatures, is . . . really, a treatise on existentialism and attempts to avoid said dread. I sense that W. G. Sebald has drunk deeply from the well of the existential philosophers, but this book is more approachable, less theoretical, and more wrought from the authors experience and, most of all, his keen observations. A sense of . . . grey prevails. For example, section two, mostly about the seaside town of Lowestoft and the recollections of some of its residents, reads like a full-prose rendition of Morrisey's "Every Day is Like Sunday".

I will often judge the quality of writing by its turns of phrase or sentences. I rarely take notes directly from another’s work into my own writing notebook, but this time I did. I was struck by the phrase" . . . the terrible sight of Nature suffocating on its own surfeit,” describing a particularly fulsome harvest of herring. So much was gathered that the village and its environs that, much like the Jews gorging themselves on quail while in their desert exile, the presence of so much bounty was viewed as a curse, rather than a blessing. That phrase has got my writerly mind thinking and thinking and thinking. I'll be running with that theme. Thanks, W.G..

I am enamored of authors who can make convincing transitions from one seemingly unrelated subject to another. Sebald’s leap from Christ to Borges through a couple copulating on the beach is . . . well, a feat: tenuous, but it makes sense, in some senses, but not in others. I like the irreal quality of it all, though, as it causes my brain to break in directions it otherwise wouldn't, which is a feature, not a bug!

I also like to discover, in any given book, something unique that only that specific author could have written about, some piece of the puzzle that is uniquely for to that author. The Rings of Saturn does not disappoint. Here, it is Sebald's use and recounting of the life of his namesake, St. Sebolt that makes that connection. It's done with a deft touch, with insights that only Sebald himself would have, because of his "relation" to the saint. You can I couldn’t write this section of the book and, indeed, much of the book connects to and even hinges upon the good Saint.

I'm not big on biography, usually, unless the subject is unusual. But I do like interesting people. And Sebald seems to know more about eccentric people than any other kind of person. The book is simply swimming with them. Konrad Korzeniowski, aka Joseph Conrad, qualifies!

From Korzeniowski to Casement, the horrors of the Belgian Congo to the tragedy of Casement and his execution, there is a thread of despair throughout, intriguing and disturbing, like Conrad’s own work.

But the story of Vicomte de Chateaubriand shows a side of Sebald, a sensitivity that sometimes overshadows such disturbing accounts. Giving up love for the sake of writing (well, okay, he was already married) is not noble, it's tragic. This story, so full of pathos, is heartbreaking. Sebald is more than just an academic, intellectual writer. He also shows a lot of heart.

Sebald has a gift for reaching out from seemingly banal locations to the exotic in the blink of an eye. Physically, Sebald visits Swinton and Dunwich; spiritually, he visits Peking, relating the saga of the life of Dowager Empress Tz'u-hsi, ruminates on Tlön's various theories of reality, and ends with the dreamlike existence of the Pre-Raphaelite poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. Amazingly, it all hangs together, largely because of . . . silkworms. Yes, silkworms tie this whole book together. I’ll leave the discovery of how this is so to you, because if I were to try to explain it, I would have to recount almost the entire book.

Sebald's effortless ability to flow from the present to dream to true recollection and back to phantasy again is part of what makes this book so immersive. That and the near-utter lack of attribution (the man must hate quotation marks): the reader must sometimes go back and reread several times to know who is actually speaking at any given time. In this way, Sebald frays the ends of person, time, and setting until it becomes one long fever dream.

The grasp of the author on the threads of history is commendable. The first-person view of the decay of Ireland during The Troubles is burdensome and slow - not the writing, mind you, but the process itself. One is reminded of Gormenghast . . .

Sebald traces the descent from opulence to near-apocalypse of the eastern regions around Orford, where preparations had been made, literally for centuries, for war, both hot and cold. It's a bleak picture of what many consider a bleak region, where the green and pleasant land ends and the wasteland begins, sloughing off, eventually, into the inevitable sea.

This last section had a lot of personal relevance to me. The great hurricane of '87 happened the month before I left England, and given that I was forced to do so (plea bargain for . . . several charges – it was the war on drugs and drugs were not winning then), it struck me with particular poignance. Just as my life seemed to be falling apart and I was in the throes of one of the worst personal struggles of my life, the air heaved and threw the trees down. I remember. And, so does he.

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Thursday, September 24, 2020

The Voice of the Air


The Voice of the AirThe Voice of the Air by John Howard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I already knew that John Howard is an amazing wordsmith. And I knew that Howard knows something about architecture, as is evidenced by a few stories in his earlier collection Buried Shadows. What I did not know, and what was proven in The Voice of the Air is that Howard can sustain that beautiful writing and demonstrate architectural acumen at the novel length. Don't be fooled, yes, these are three novellas, but all of them tie neatly together in the character of Christian Luca, a Romanian architect with a gift that I shall not reveal, but that is pivotal to the long drama that unfolds here.

Christian Luca is a complicated character made even more complex by the multiple viewpoints from which Howard examines him, not the least of which is Luca's own view of himself. Though of one voice, the narrative is kaleidoscopic, morphing through perceptual changes. One must always ask "who is speaking now?" as each perspective sheds new light, casts new shadows, and reveals new aspects of this mysterious man.

Even the simplest of constructions serve Howard's auctorial purposes here. It's amazing what a little phrase uttered by a character can do to your perception of them. The phrase I am referring to: "How much can keep on being subtracted?"

There's more weight to this than that carried by the simple words. Much more. When you read it, in context, you will know . . .

One (ironically consistent) aspect of change throughout these novellas is that of shifting political winds before, during, and after the Second World War. This brings about an intriguing double twist: regime change and the questioning of whether Lucas' greatest architectural achievement (so far) ever even existed. Eerie brought on by weird. Mark Fisher (RIP) would have loved this.

Luca himself simultaneously acknowledges and preserves the mystery of his fluctuating appearance, vaguely referenced political ambitions, and apartment building, which may or may not have existed in this reality or never existed at all. Because of this, there is a note of sustained tension that plays through all three novellas, effectively tying them all together. It's difficult to find three novellas, each published separately, that "infiltrate" each other so well. Not only is the voice consistent (though varied), but the plot(s) layer on top of one another. And this is reflective of Christian Luca's very strange "talent," which, again, I will not reveal.

Eventually we get the view from inside Luca's head. The monologue about ghosts on pages 80 - 82 is a fantastic piece of writing. Too long to quote, but the thread from poetry to postage stamps to sedition to coup to ghosts embedded in the architecture is a thing of beauty, the sort of prose that a writer will devote to study in order to glean some insight into how it was created. I'll be studying those two pages for some time to come.

Luca is haunted by his past, and yet as he pushes toward the future(s), he, in some ways, inevitably moves backward, toward it, by trying to move forward. I don't know if this was Howard's intent in writing Luca's story, but this is the impression I get: a sort of "push-me/pull-me" action of past happenings, present action, and future possibilities. Like a tempo-spatial slinky toy.

Finally, Howard intertwines Luca with his architecture throughout. The man's life is a reflection of his building(s) and vice versa, including the demolition of both. He has his "secret stairway", built in the spiral of the public stairway, both in his building and in his soul. That is not to say that Luca is merely a meek architect, always withdrawn and introspective. No, there is action in the man, a conniving, plotting side. One does not survive so long by merely being passive. But one is strengthened by passing through things, or having things pass through . . . I must stop the utterance there . . .

I may have said too much.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Oppressive Light: Selected Poems by Robert Walser


Oppressive Light: Selected Poems by Robert WalserOppressive Light: Selected Poems by Robert Walser by Robert Walser
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I made the grave error of promising I would quote some of these poems in full in my review. Now I have to hold up my end of the bargain. I have reasons for each, but I don't want these few poems to overshadow the rest. Each is good, most are exceptional. And if I could plant a translator in your head so that you could read and understand the poems in the original German, I would. The translations are well-done for the most part, but miss some of the subtleties, the innuendos and shadings contained in the German. If you have even a rudimentary grasp of German, take that Langenscheidt off the shelf and dig into the words and phrases Walser so expertly weaves. I promise you, there are hidden rewards there.

Oppressive Light

Two trees stand in the snow,
the sky, tired of light,
moves home, and nothing else
but gloom close by.

And behind the trees
dark houses tower up.
Now you hear something said,
now dogs begin to bay.

And the dear, round lamp-
moon appears in the house.
And the light goes out again,
as a wound yawns open.

How small life is here
and how big nothingness.
The sky, tired of light,
has given everything to the snow.

The two trees bow
their heads to each other.
Clouds cross the world's
silence in a circle dance.

Joy of Life

How beautiful it is when you're silent,
when you stop talking to yourself.
There you see happy and beautiful
people, charmingly joined into a circle,
enjoying their conversations beneath
the trees, cute dancers who move
to the rhythm of a concert. Nature
is a sugar baker's confection; costumes,
elegant gestures! On the water
those who rock in boats delight
in their gliding over a mirror,
the landscape seems painted,
life, you imagine, is eternal,
and an unpleasant parting from these
gracious, flowered pastures, impossible.
How difficult it is to dress death
and his harsh suffering in fertile words.

Now, lest you feel that Walser's poems all reflect some inner nihilism or that his dark corners are only the misgivings of a mentally-troubled man, I share with you the defiant poem "Self-Reflection". I am reminded of Henley's Invictus, but with a less grim, much more mischievous bent. Walser is a trickster with the kind of attitude I find often resonating in the halls of my own skull and heart. If I were ever to get an entire poem tattooed on my body (not bloody likely, but if), this would be it:


Because they didn't want me to be young, I became young.
Because i should've been a sufferer, many pleasures flattered me.
Because they tried their best to put me in a bad mood,
I sought and found ways into moods more welcome than any I ever
could've wished for.
Since they impressed fear on me, courage cheered and laughed with
They abandoned me, so I learned to forget myself,
which allowed me to bathe in my inspired soul.
When I lost much, I realized losses are winnings,
because no one can find something he didn't first lose,
and to discover what's lost is worth more than any safe possession.
Because they didn't want to know me, I became self aware,
became my own understanding, friendly doctor.
Because I found enemies in my life, I attracted friends,
and friends dropped away, but enemies, too, stopped being hostile,
and the tree that bears the most beautiful fruits of luck is called
On life's path, we lift all the peculiarities given to us
by our birth, our family home and our schools,
and only those who couldn't help but strain themselves need to be
No one who's content with himself ever needed help,
unless he happened to be in an accident and needed to be carried to the

Probably too many letters for a headstone engraving, huh?

We'll see . . .

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Monday, September 7, 2020

Hard Copy Short Fiction Bibliography (so far)

 While moving, I tried packing together all the physical books in which I had a story appear. I'm recording those here, now. Consider it a sort of bibliography, but without the appearances in online venues, the novel, and any of the short story collections. Here goes:

"The Nut Lady's Cabin" - Earwig Flesh Factory #3/4, Fall/Winter 2000

"Wachui" - Indigenous Fiction #7, February 2001

The Reverie Styx" - Flesh & Blood #8, 2001

"The Pressures of Being a Single Parent" - Thirteen Stories #1, September 2002

"Willendorf Venus" - (Poem) Lunatic Chameleon, October 2002

"Somewhere Between Delta Piscium and Van Maanen's Star" - (Poem) Lunatic Chameleon, October 2002

"Bearing Seed" - Yellow Bat Review #4, Fall 2002

"Downstream Flow: A Fugue" - Flesh & Blood #10, 2002

"Queen Phoebe" - Whispers from the Shattered Forum #9, 2002

"The Enthroned Remember" - Redsine #9, 2002

"McKendrick's Bayonet" - (co-authored with Scott Thomas) Redsine #10, 2002

"Waiting for Felicity" - Journal of Experimental Fiction #24, 2002

"The Search for Savino" - (co-authored with Brendan Connel) Neotrope #4, April 2003

"Kaleidoscopes of Africa" - 3rd Bed #8, Spring/Summer 2003

"Return from Abaddon" - Flesh & Blood #11, 2003

"Submissions Status" - 3rd Bed #10, Spring/Summer 2004

"The Bones of Ndundi: An Archaeology" - Notre Dame Review, Winter 2004

"Frenzy" - Problem Child #2, Winter 2004

"Matriarch" - All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories, 2004

"Over Alsace" - Polyphony 4, 2004

"The Further Adventures of Star Boy" - Surreal Magazine #2, Spring 2005

"The Other" - The MacGuffin, Fall 2005

"Soma" - Tel:Stories, 2005

"Color of Laughter" - Wondrous Web Worlds 4, 2005

"The Seven Tattoos of Inisto Cantaglia" - Prague Literary Review v.3, #1, 2005

"Among the Ruins" Polyphony 5, 2005

"Jamalerdapala's Refractor: A History" - American Letters & Commentary #18, 2006

"Treason is" - Grendel Song, 2006

"Keys I Don't Remember" - Polyphony 6, 2006

"The Death Machines" - Scribe Revolution Volume II: Virology, 2006

"The Saint of the Bells" - Postscripts #11, Summer 2007

"The Auctioneer and the Antiquarian, or, 1962" - Asimov's, June 2008

"Andretto Walks the King's Way" - Paper Cities, 2008

"Ecphoriae" - Avant-Garde for the New Millenium, 2009 (also in Hatter Bones, 2009)

"Never nor Ever" - Clockwork Phoenix 2, 2009

"Clockwise, Counter" - Falling Star Magazine 2010

"Subscription" - Pear Noir! No. 4, 2010

"Fossiloctopus" - Gargoyle 50, 2010

"The Flowering Cage" - Kaleidotrope, Fall 2011

"Der Automatikmann" - Space & Time #115, Fall 2011

"Langknech and Tzi-Tzi in the Land of the Mad" - The Book of Apex #3, 2011

"Geppetto" - Gargoyle 57, 2011

"The Arch:Conjecture of Cities" - Tattered Souls 2, 2011

"The End of Right Ascension" - (Poem) Poe Little Thing Presents: In Space, No Once Can Hear You Scream, 2011

"Red-Roofed Temples in the Mountains Beneath Me" - Postscripts 30/31, 2013

"Sinfonia 22" - Farrago's Wainscot Anthology, 2016

"Putting the Pieces Back Together" - Cyaegha #19, Spring 2017

"Four Elemental Invocations" - Infranoir, 2017

"All the Stage is a World" - Vastarien vol. 2 issue 1, Spring 2019

"MirrororriM" - Eldritch Tales v. 2, #6, 2019

"Creatures of Breathtaking Beauty" - Synth #4, 2019

"Gemini" - Eighteen: Stories of Mischief and Mayhem (Underland Tarot #2), 2020

"The Ivory Tower" - The Varvaros Ascensions, Mount Abraxas Press, 2020

"Shadow Ensemble" A Vigil of Black Scars (forthcoming, Mount Abraxas Press)

"The Simulacra" (forthcoming standalone with Raphus Press)

That's 53 (as of September 2020, when I'm creating this post) so far and two on the horizon. Again, not including some stories that appeared exclusively online and not including stories that were first published in my early collections: The Butterfly Artist (2002) and Fugue XXIX (2005). Honestly, I feel like I'm just getting started . . . 

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

The Acephalic Imperial

The Acephalic ImperialThe Acephalic Imperial by Damian Murphy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

While in my mid- to late-teenage years, I lived in England. As an American raised in a military family, I had already lived overseas several times, but England, at that time of my life, felt magical.

On the base where we lived was Chicksands Priory, an old (12th-century, possibly earlier) building that was supposedly haunted by the ghost of a nun whose monk-lover had been killed. Rumor was, when I lived there, that the nun had been walled up in a window bay while giving birth to the baby. My friends and I became awfully fond of breaking into the Priory, drinking, making out - all the things you would expect teenagers to do in an ancient haunted building.

One day, me and two of my friends, Randy and Marc (who were brothers), were planning our next foray into the Priory, to take place that night. We were sitting around, joking, as we always did, playing with our D&D dice - not actually playing the game, but playing with the dice. Someone, I can't remember who, said "Okay, I'm going to roll this dice and whoever's age shows up on the dice first - something bad is going to happen to them". Randy rolled the d20, then me, then Marc, eventually, we hit the number 14 - Marc's age. We laughed about it, then went about our day, eventually meeting up with the other guys and girls that we were breaking in with.

Somehow we didn't have any alcohol on us (a rare thing when we went into the Priory), but the girls and a couple of the guys made up for the giddiness of alcohol by doing a seance in an upper room in the priory, a semi-hidden room, quite small, where they made a makeshift Ouija board with the floor, some markers, and a matchbook for a planchette. Randy and I grew bored pretty quickly, as we wanted to go exploring. In the past we had found hidden tunnels in the walls of an upstairs hallway (I kid you not - with removable wall panels and all), a medieval stone wine cellar (where we usually went if we were going to drink), and a trapdoor that led to a tunnel that had been walled off about 50' down, but, we were told, used to connect to an abandoned church in Clophill, several miles away, before military personnel walled up the tunnel to prevent egress. This was the Cold War and we were on a US military installation, after all.

And where were the police? you ask. They wouldn't come into the Priory at night. We knew a couple of the police quite well and they told us that when they were on duty, if they got an alarm at the Priory, they would simply wait outside and see if anyone came out. If no one came in ten minutes, they would leave. We knew we were pretty safe if we hunkered down in there.

Or were we? This was a haunted Priory, after all.

Randy and I took our leave of the others. We found an interesting room where there was some restoration being done. I decided to take one of the metal cross-members of some scaffolding as a weapon because it's well-known that ghosts can be hit with iron, right? And Randy had a knife with him, so we could protect ourselves.

Next door, we stumbled on what was an excavation of the floor of a room. The flooring had been removed and digging in the dirt had begun. We were careful not to spoil it - even vandals have their limits. It was one of the more intriguing things we had ever spotted in the Priory. We wondered if there were bones underneath that dirt (given the number of skeletons that have been found on the property since then, there actually is a pretty good chance that there were remains interred there). With that creepy thought, Randy and I left that area.

We made our way to one of the previously-restored areas where there were occasionally dances hosted by the youth club or the high school (even though our high school was 45 minutes away). We turned the corner to walk down the longest straight stretch, a hallway running perpendicular to the front door of the Priory. Ahead of us, to the right, were the front doors. To the left, directly across from the doors, was a large stairway that led up to the area nearest where the others were having their seance.

About halfway between the place where we entered the hall and this junction of door and stairs, Randy and I looked back. There, against the wall of the hall behind us, maybe thirty feet away, was a single chair, nestled in the corner. It was very dark in that corner, darker than all the other parts of the Priory that we had been in that night. We both stopped. "Do you see that?" we both said, almost simultaneously.

It appeared that the darkness there got a little lighter, but in that subtle way that makes it difficult to tell if the light actually changed, or if one's eyes were just becoming acclimatized to the darkness.

It was enough.

"It's her!" we both said in a whisper-scream. We backed away from that end of the hall, toward the door and stairs behind us. On our left was a doorway, which we passed with some hesitancy, exposing our flank. And at that moment, the world seemed to explode.

A sound like an explosion shot out from that empty doorway. We screamed at the top of our lungs and bolted to the stairs and up! The seance-attendees all stood up screaming, in confusion "What's going on?!?" We all gathered into one ball of teenagers, all nine or ten of us, and ran screaming down the stairs.

About a third of the way down, Randy and I realized that the horrid sound that had erupted from the doorway was the automatic-flush toilets, timed just right to send us into a frisson of terror. We both started laughing . . .

. . . then Marc, who was trying to get ahead of us, tripped over the metal staff I was carrying and went tumbling down the stairs.

Randy and I stopped laughing, looked at each other, looked at Marc, who was scrambling to get up from his fall, an started screaming again. 14! The prophecy was true!

We burst out of the front door, something we never did before or after, for fear of running into the arms of the police, but there were no police waiting for us. We ran out into the night across the front lawn of the Priory.

When we looked back, we saw that one room, that we knew was dark when we entered the Priory, now had a light on. None of us had turned it on and no one else had been in the Priory with us. There were no proximity lights at the Priory at that time. But that light had definitely, somehow, turned on. This was 1987.

Summer, 2019: My wife and I go to Europe. I take her to the Chicksands Priory, where we do a formal tour with the local historical society. I share some of the things I knew about the Priory with our hostess, and elderly lady who had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the Priory. We speak for quite some time before, during, and after the tour, during which time I show here some things she had not known about the Priory. She also shows me some things I did not know about the Priory. After a time, I confess that the reason I knew so much is that, as kids, we broke into the Priory all the time to party, make out, and scare each other. I feel a trite guilty. This elderly lady smiles and gives me a knowing wink and says "I think it's wonderful. Kids will have adventures, won't they?"

I share this story (all of it true) because amidst all the obfuscation there is a clarity to Murphy's work. I am glad that I am unable to explain that clarity in any other way than sharing my own experience, completely divorced from the book - or is it? It's a "color" of sorts that imbues his work - playful, bright, but at the same time, regal, dignified. It is also a space, a room, perhaps painted with subterfuge and scattered with idols of trickster gods. I cannot describe this to you as it is my space alone, though the author has invited me to come in, has opened the portal and left it up to me to peek in through the darkened glass.

This is everything you need to know about The Acephalic Imperial. Everything. Those who know, know . . .

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Saturday, August 29, 2020

Empire of the East

Empire of the East (Empire of the East, #1-3)Empire of the East by Fred Saberhagen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've read Fred Saberhagen's work for a long time now, since my early teen years when I used to devour his Berserker books. I loved that series of novels and short stories and have extremely fond memories of reading them (some of them, I have yet to read all of them) as a kid. But they were not great literature, at least as my adult brain remembers things. But they were a great yarn, with lots of intriguing stories about these rogue robotic war machines bent on destroying all life in the universe.

So, when I went into the Empire of the East I had, admittedly, very low expectations. I knew, from the Goodman Games announcements regarding their release of Empire of the East materials for the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, that this was a swords and science set of novels set in a far post-apocalyptic future whose level of technology and political milieu were decidedly built on those of medieval Europe. I knew there was a tank involved (the armored kind that people in southern California sometimes like to take for a drive) and lots of demons - just look at the cover of the DCC supplement, for example. That is, incidentally, one of the most beautiful covers I've ever seen for any roleplaying supplement. Amazing. That artwork would have taken my expectations up a notch, but, no, I had been fooled before. I was going into this with a heavy dose of skepticism. I was prepared to be disappointed.

Wow. Was I surprised! This book is a gem. I don't want to go through the plot - I'll leave that for you to read - so it's difficult to know where to start . . .

I suppose the first thing that jumped out at me was the language and sentence structure. Saberhagen shows, in these volumes, more writing chops than I would have given him credit for. Far more. Saberhagen is an outstanding writer, stylistically speaking. He's good with turns of phrase and imparts and implies a lot of information in an economical way. For example, there's this sentence, which is used during a scene in which one of the characters has been left alone after his compatriot has climbed up a rope into a cave on a cliffside. They are deep in enemy territory, and Rolf, the one left behind by Thomas, who had gone up to explore, is inexperienced, alone, and in a very dangerous circumstance. After Thomas disappears and the rope stops moving, we read:

The rope hung still, and held time with it.

This is the perfect sentence for the circumstance and speaks volumes about the feelings that Rolf must have felt while waiting for Thomas to return. A simple prop, the rope, is used not to explain the feelings of the character, but is used to allow the reader to get into the character's headspace, to feel those same feelings, all in an unobtrusive, subtle way. It's an absolutely brilliant sentence. And there are many more throughout. However, the narrative moves along quite smoothly, not jilted or hampered by an author's self-conscious attempt to appear clever. No, Saberhagen's feeling flows and feels quite natural to the reader. I'll tell you, as a writer, this is a difficult maneuver to pull, let alone doing it multiple times across over 500 pages of narrative. Again: Brilliant!

Saberhagen's adroit presentation of the inner lives of his characters leads to the second thing that struck me: The characters themselves. No one is "the" hero of the book(s). There are many heroes who play different parts. A group of readers reading this book would each, individually, pick a different "main" character. Given that the book is about a rebellion, over time, of many people, this lends a democratizing aspect to the book. No one is the hero, everyone is the hero. Because no one is typecast as the hero, Saberhagen's characters are allowed to breathe, to be flawed, and to have their personalities develop over the course of the story. I was particularly fond of Chup, a likeable villain at first, then . . . well, I don't want to spoil it for you. Keep in mind that I found Saruman to be the most compelling character in Tolkien's books . . .

The third thing that struck me was the balance between technology and magic. Both not only co-exist in this world, they are inter-twined. It is because of technology that magic is introduced into the world, through the creation of demons, djinn, and elementals that are negotiated with, cajoled, and manipulated into servitude to man. Incidentally, I have no doubt that Jonathan Stroud found inspiration for his character Bartimaeus from this work. No doubt at all. If Stroud tells you anything contrary, he is lying. Those who have read both books know what I mean. The sub-story I am referring to shows a Djinn being summoned by a wizard who cajoles the very reluctant imp into building a technological device of the ancients. I don't think I've read of an instance of magic, born of technology, being used to recreate technology from the time before magic was created. It's complicated . . . but it works perfectly.

Again, I'll leave it to others to reveal and/or spoil the plot. It's a good yarn. But Saberhagen's carefully-crafted writing, excellent characterization, ability to put the reader into his characters' heads, and his intriguing ideas take this story up a notch from your "typical" pulp story. If you are of a more "literary" bent and want to dip your toes into swords sorcery, demons, robots, and, yes, tanks, please give it a try. If you're already a fan of speculative pulpy fiction, grab this and read it now! This book "ups the game," so to speak. Saberhagen has produced an under-known classic.

Maybe I need to go back and give those Berserker books a re-read.

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Thursday, August 6, 2020

Leviathan 4 Hardcovers

In my move, I have discovered a box of Leviathan 4 anthologies in hardcover. Leviathan 4 followed the World Fantasy Award-winning Leviathan 3 anthology. These are going minimally for about $15 + shipping a piece new on the Amazon 2nd hand market. I'll let mine go for $12 a piece and pick up media mail shipping in the Continental USA. And, if you like, I 'll sign it, since I edited it. Great stories by Jay Lake, Stepan Chapman, Michael Cisco, Ben Peek, Catherine Kasper, KJ Bishop, Darla Beasley, Ursula Pflug, and Tim Jarvis. This is a showcase of the weird and fantastical, all about cities. Ping me and get a copy - I really want these to get out of my writing area so I have more room to create new stuff! Let me know if you want yours signed. And would you just look at that cover art? Rowr!


Choose Your Own Adventure/Endless Quest Bundle

I've got some old, fairly beat-up copies of the following. I'd like to get rid of them all at once. First person who offers $20 (Postage paid in Continental USA only) gets them. I'm surprised how much some of these are fetching out there, but these are in crap condition, so 20 bucks gets them all. Pay via paypal. 

Included are the following:

D&D Endless Quest Mountain of Mirrors

Choose Your Own Adventure 1, The Cave of Time

CYOA 86 Knights of the Round Table

CYOA 87 Exiled to Earth

CYOA 110 Invaders from Within

CYOA 128 Viking Raiders

I will not split these - it's an all or nothing sale. I will send USPS media mail. 

Here are the pictures:

Friday, July 31, 2020

The Double Star and Other Occult Fantasies

The Double Star and Other Occult FantasiesThe Double Star and Other Occult Fantasies by Jane de La Vaudère

Jane de La Vaudère's The Double Star and Other Occult Fantasies came highly recommended to me from some readers whose opinions I highly regard. Those kind of expectations set me on edge, sometimes, as I'm prepared to be disappointed because, well, taste is taste, and no one has exactly the same taste. I went in, then, with a little trepidation, but some excitement, as well. I steeled myself for the worst . . .

. . . then I melted into the pages. I found myself oozing into a pool of decadence and supernatural fantasy. And though there were moments that tested my patience (more on this later), it was an enjoyable read. A good read, bordering on great.

Kafkaesque suffering and injustice meet Borgesian ecstasies in the mist of a Coleridge opium-dream in "Emmanuel's Centenary". The poetics here are extraordinary and the plot at once excruciating and sublime. The voice is beautiful and terrifying. Heaven and hell, all at once.

"A Vengeance" may or may not have a supernatural element to it. The reader's tilt, in this regard, will determine if the story is a piece of horror or simply a thriller. At issue is a statue and whether or not said statue had . . .intent. It all rides on this. It is an effective story in pushing the reader to make a decision and thus become more vested in it. I, for one, lean hard to intention!

The titular story, "The Double Star" is a hallucinatory phantasmagoria of celestial imagery and occult symbolism. At moments a bit pedantic about non-vegetarians, it still shines with a certain gnostic luster, albeit of dubious philosophical merits. I'm making it sound like I didn't enjoy the story, but I rather did, in fact. Just a titch condescending is all. Really, a marvelous read!

Mesmerism and a strange form of vampirism combine in the decadent tale "Reincarnation". And by "decadent," I mean clearly in the vein (pun intended) of the Decadent writers of the end of the 19th-century. A Dorian Gray-esque mechanism of transference is used to restore life and love. The story became a little long in the tooth with elaborate explanations of occult philosophy in the middle. It wasn't unbearable, but it was tedious. Very tedious. I noted this tendency in a few of the stories herein. I could have done with much less explication and more showing of doctrinal and theoretical concerns through the characters' dialogue, through action, or through the story structure itself. It's not a deal-breaker, but definitely slowed things down and dampened my enthusiasm. This story ended differently than I had expected, but in a guilty-pleasant surprise. I shouldn't have liked the ending, but I did.

"Astral Amour" suffers from the same structural weakness-of-frame as "Reincarnation", and is more predictable in its ending. It is not quite as effective as the preceding tale, but it still stands with a high degree of quality and writerly aplomb. For example, this story contains the most eloquent description of anti-natalism I've ever read. And making anti-natalism into a thing of eloquence is quite a feat (just ask Thomas Ligotti).

One day, I learned that Viviane was a mother. I conceived a profound chagrin in consequence, for it seemed to me that the little being who was scarcely breathing would take all the solicitude of the woman. Nature has determined that there should be an infinite tenderness in maternity, in order that the torture of childbirth should be braved and desired even by those faint hearts who do not understand the futility of their mission and the cruelty of their obedience. An admirable folly that consists of making with one's flesh and blood sad and paltry beings whose life will be spoiled by the thought of death, and who will toil daily without a single moment of real happiness! A proud folly that consists of building temples and palaces that the wind will sweep away, and which will have scarcely more duration than the pygmies who constructed them!

"Yvaine" is a convoluted, engrossing tale of love, betrayal, incest, murder, black magic, and spectral vengeance. The framing mechanisms' dated feel do not lessen the impact of the story. Like all great horrific tales, this one extends far beyond the pages, with an ending full of frisson. How this story was not anthologized several times over, I don't know. To me, it is a Classic. This story is worth the full price of the book and then some.

"Sapho" is a clever little story. Very clever. Very short. Who is the real hunter and prey in this tale? It all depends on your perspective.

Another circus story, this one entitled "Red Lust," isn't quite as effective as "Sapho," as it misses the cleverness of the former tale. La Vaudere has a fascination with black panthers and circuses, I've noticed. Still, a good story, well-told. It could have benefited with a little more background on the antagonist, Antonia.

"The Dream of Myses" is, indeed, a nightmare, albeit a poetic one. The story is of the much and rightfully-maligned "it was all a dream" type, but in an inverse fashion. I'm also not a big fan of stories set in ancient Egypt - I don't know why, I just don't like the setting. It's a good story with strengths, but it didn't astound me like some of the others in this collection.

Though stilted, in places, this is a strong collection. "Yvaine" is one of the stronger stories I've read in a while and, as I said, compensates for the price of admission all on its own. The other stories range from rather good to outstanding, and de La Vaudère's signature voice can be heard throughout (undergirding a variety of voices from here varied characters, some of whom are quirky enough that you might identify people you know "in" them). If I saw an anthology with one of her stories in it, I would be sure to pick it up, as I am certain that her voice would add strength that otherwise might remain unseen, if we are only to rely on the male decadent writers, as good as some of them are. I would hope that future decadent anthologies would include her work, particularly as translated by the inimitable Brian Stableford. Her voice must be heard!

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Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Mörk Borg

Mörk BorgMörk Borg by Pelle Nilsson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was first attracted to this RPG by the black-metal aesthetic, truth be told. I was pleased to find a rules-lite RPG heavy on creating atmosphere and, in particular, one that builds that atmosphere into character creation and history. Character quirks, habits, and background are amazing and dark, dark, dark. These are true murder hobos! The mood here shares similarities to Mothership and the setting book Vorheim.

The character classes (all optional - you can play without classes) are excellently constructed, both in terms of their strengths and weaknesses. Truly unique abilities and disabilities accrue to each class. All the ad-hoc home rules you've always wanted for creating a scumbucket character? They're here.

The monsters who these broken characters will face are equally evocative. For example, "Lady Porcelain" are vengeful undead spirits of murdered children inhabiting porcelain dolls in which their bodies had been entombed alive. YAAASSS!!! And they bite!

Speaking of things horrific, the adventure included herein, Rotblack Sludge is a tough little dungeon (a true, actual dungeon, in the old medieval sense) that will most definitely kill careless characters. Those who are very careful *might* survive. It's a short adventure, probably one session-worth, or two if the players are as careful as they ought to be. A nice addendum that fits the mood perfectly.

This is unlike any other RPG book. The dark poetry of the words and art lets the campaign setting breathe into your brain. It will infect you. You have freedom to despair under the crushing blackness of Mörk Borg . . . however you like! The campaign is more than a setting, though, it is a summoning, an evocation. Brilliant in all its darkness. Oh, and look for the glow-in-the-dark sigils on the spine. Yes, you read that right . . . but it may be the last thing you see in the dark, ever!

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Saturday, July 25, 2020

The Varvaros Ascensions

I am very happy to announce that my book The Varvaros Ascensions will soon be available from Mount Abraxas press! I have loved Mount Abraxas books (and their sistercompany Ex Occidente) for quite some time now and have longed to have work printed in one of their beautiful books. Now is the time. Inquiries about purchasing should go to the email address listed in the announcement below. I am also including rough-cuts (not fully complete) of some of the wonderful art that will be a part of this volume.

Forrest Aguirre is the Winner of World Fantasy Award (2003) and THE VARVAROS ASCENSIONS is his first exclusive book for Mount Abraxas Press.
A collection of two novellas, published in the same series of tall, oversized books as SALT FLOWERS FROM THE YEARS OF DROUGHT (Colin Insole), THE VARVAROS ASCENSIONS is an astonishing, intoxicating, heavy slab of Weird and Fantastic Literature.
The book's feverish artwork is by the amazing Valin Mattheis.
An obscure bibliographic reference to "The Arch: Conjecture of Cities" leads a student of Urban Planning on an obsessive search, resulting in the discovery that at the root of all cities are people; mostly oblivious to the part they play.
"The Ivory Tower" links the chains between the deep history of mankind's emergence from the bowels of the earth and its reaching up into the cosmic void.
Both works explore the question: does Man create civilization, or does civilization create man?
A black curse, an endless wound and an invocation of Nihil for all clandestine dreamers.
Hail, hail the Nightmare!

If you'd like to purchase any of my other books, books I've edited, or books from publishers I may have worked with in the past, please check out this blog post, which should have plenty to whet your appetite!

Monday, July 20, 2020

Some Books for Sale

I have just moved out of my residence of the past 18 years, from Madison, WI to Janesville, WI, due to a (welcome) change of employment. In clearing out the old house, I happened upon several boxes of books that I had stored from years ago, back in the day. These books are in mint condition, straight from the printer (into a box, then into my storage for several years). Note that they are all softcover, except for Leviathan 4 and Homefront. I will protect them as best I can, but will ship them Media Mail.

New: Buy 5, get one free. You tell me which one you want for free. Seriously!

There are some great titles here (if I may say so myself). If you want to buy one of the books that I authored, appeared in, or edited, and you want a signature, just tell me so. Shipping in the Continental USA is included in the cost. I will list the title, author, the initial number of copies I have for sale, and cost/ea. I won't be updating the number of copies, however, so you'll need to check with me to see if the book(s) you want is (are) still available. I've priced these to move, checking Abe Books to ensure that my prices are low, if not the lowest. And if you buy one of my books from elsewhere, I can't sign it! Email me at experimentaleditor at yahoo dot com to discuss payment.

And what am I going to buy with this money, you ask? Duh. Books. Just not as many.

Please, please, please tell your friends, share, retweet, repost, whatever, as I really want these off my hands. There will be more, down the road, as I have others I need to offload, as well. But for now, here . . . . you . . . go!

Swans Over the Moon, Forrest Aguirre, (6), $10

Leviathan 4, Forrest Aguirre, editor, (8), $12

The Beasts of Love, Steven Utley, (2), $12

Twenty Questions, Jerry Oltion, (1), $10

Laughin' Boy, Bradley Denton, (2), $12

Greetings from Lake Wu, Jay Lake, (2), $10   (RIP. Love you, Jay. Miss you, dude.)

Space Magic, David D. Levine, (8), $10

American Sorrows, Jay Lake, (2), $10

The River Knows its Own, Jay Lake, (1), $12

Can't Buy Me Faded Love, Josh Rountree, (3), $10

The Nine Muses, Deborah Layne & Forrest Aguirre, eds, (10), $15

Polyphony 1, Deborah Layne, ed., (2), $10

Polyphony 2, Deborah Layne, ed., (1), $10

Polyphony 3, Deborah Layne, ed., (1), $10

Polyphony 4, Deborah Layne, ed., (1), $10

Polyphony 5, Deborah Layne, ed., (1), $10

Polyphony 6, Deborah Layne, ed., (2), $12

The Keyhole Opera, Bruce Holland Rogers, (3), $10

Thirteen Ways to Water, Bruce Holland Rogers, (4), $10

Homefront, Scott James Magner (2), $15

Rudolph!, Mark Teppo (5), $12

Court of Lies, Mark Teppo (2), $12

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Lost Knowledge of the Imagination

Lost Knowledge of the ImaginationLost Knowledge of the Imagination by Gary Lachman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am at a bit of a loss as to where to start with this book. To call it "life-changing" would be false, but I can clearly see how it could be life-changing to some. For myself, the term "life-restoring" seems most appropriate. I have not been so deeply affected by a book in a long, long, long time. I will be re-reading this book multiple times. Saying "I can't recommend it strongly enough" seems entirely inadequate.

The title Lost Knowledge of the Imagination, while catchy, doesn't capture, for me, what this book does or can do, or what it did for me. Restored Hope for the Inner Life just begins to approach my feelings.

As a child, I had, as they say, a wild imagination. Part of it was escapism - I was raised in the military during the Cold War. There were lots of reasons to not want to think about outside reality. So, I created a comfortable inner reality and often found myself retreating into it. Reading, drawing, long walks or bike rides by myself, music - these were all escapes for me. Life was not always happy, much of the time far from it (I suffer from occasional depression even now, but much more so as a child), but I was afforded the luxury of an escape route through the means I've already described. As a teenager, with more of a need for social interaction, I found myself among others who sought escape and found new means of escape, mostly through drugs and alcohol (though music and roleplaying games were also an important part of my self-medication). After a hard crash and facing the threat of a very long prison term, I became much more religious and gave up drinking and drugs. I found an awesome woman whom I married and we have raised four wonderful children. But life has been hard, as it is, I realize, for everyone. I'm not special in this regard: life is difficult, oftentimes almost unbearably horrific, for every human being. Realizing this, a certain amount of jadedness, subconsciously meant to protect my emotional self, I believe, crowded out a great deal of the innocence, wonder, and hope that I had in my inner life as a child. That's not to say I've become some kind of empty shell, far from it! But my inner life, my soul, has changed dramatically from my childhood. There's no going back, I know, but going forward can be, at times, excruciating.

The need to escape is felt by many. Look at the ever-increasing money pumped into the entertainment "industry" for evidence of this (the word "industry" is interesting, as it puts entertainment on the same level as food production, building houses, making machines that sustain our lives and livelihoods. It implies that entertainment is a life-need.) - we look to the outside world to feed our need to avoid thinking about the horrible things that happen to us and those we love. We apply a topical narcotic, supplied to us by outside sources, to make us temporarily forget our inner pain.

This escape into fantasy is explicitly not what Lachman is arguing for in this book. He is careful to make a distinction between Fantasy, collage-like constructions of what we observe coming into our sensory input from the outside, and Imagination, which is something that emerges from within us, rather than a collection of things from without. Imagination is the activation of the inner life, the life that plays out inside your consciousness every day, that place where no one else can go (though we intuitively know that others have a similar place "inside" of them). Note that imagination, as defined here, is more of a verb than a noun. It is always active and going on within us. Think of the difference between "thought" and "thinking". We can think thoughts, but to think about thinking, the actual mechanism of thinking, requires stepping beyond the mere acknowledgement that we have thoughts. "How do I think?" (not what do I think about is an important question to ask oneself when exploring the inner life.

Really engaging with that question opens up doors. One such door is the thought that there is a truth beyond the external inputs of data coming from the outside world, that the way you apprehend the world from your inner-self is every bit as "true" as all the scientific data in the world. The balance between these two truths is what Lachman seeks to restore. He argues, convincingly, that while science and hard data have provided one way of knowing, that there is another way, and that this other way of knowing arises, again, not as a construct of what we observe outside us, but from somewhere within us. We apprehend the world via our thinking, and all the extraneous data "out there" is simply that, until we observe and act upon it.

There is no outer world until we complete it with our inner one.

The idea here is not a rejection of science, but it is a rejection of "Scientism," where subdividing the world and explaining it purely from the viewpoint of measurable, explainable data has become a religion in itself. Scientism has become, since the Enlightenment, the predominant way of knowing, and it has crowded out all other kinds of knowing in the public sphere. Of course, this happened as a retort against the reductionist religious view of the world, often enforced by violence and murder, that was predominant in Western society until the Late Renaissance. But the worship of measurable data and step-by-step explanation of phenomena has simply stepped in and taken the slot left vacant by the churches.

Lachman shows that the way of knowing as hinted at in Lost Knowledge of the Imagination is not at odds with science, but that the two are ends of the same pole. At times, it is more beneficial to lean toward the scientific end, at others, it is more beneficial to lean toward the imagination. Science and imagination are not mutually exclusive and, in fact, moments of Gnosis on one end often lead to a more nuanced understanding and increased output from the other.

As I said in my introduction, this book has had a profound effect on me. I feel that by reading and contemplating it, my sense of wonder has begun to rush back in, that sense that I had as a child when discovering new beautiful aspects of the universe that I had not known before. Along with that sense of wonder is a newfound hope I haven't felt in some time. Of course, this is my imagination being re-awakened. Will yours undergo the same restoration as mine? Only you can tell. Only you. YOU!

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Sunday, June 21, 2020

Dark Entries

Dark EntriesDark Entries by Robert Aickman

To say that Robert Aickman is a Master-Craftsman may be redundant. If you are unaware that I consider Aickman to be one of the best writers of the 20th-century, you haven't been reading my reviews. Or, perhaps, you think I'm engaging in hyperbole. Make no mistake about it: Go into Aickman's work with high literary expectations - they will be met and, many times, exceeded. I hate to rely on Neil Gaiman as any kind of authority, but even he states, about Aickman: "He really is the best". If that doesn't work for you, read the last section in here by Ramsey Campbell, who was a friend of Aickman's. Not only is it an intimate look at the author himself, it shows, quite clearly, the high standards of writing he set for himself (and expected of others).

This does not mean, however, that Aickman's greatness comes from an effusive use of descriptors or the perfectly placed "reveal". Quite the contrary. While Aickman's sentences are masterful works of art, they oftentimes only serve as a frame for what is missing. It is in what is not there, that which remains unsaid, that the horror of these stories festers and grows. Aickman creates voids that act as pocket dimensions of potentiality, as outlined in both David Peaks The Spectacle of the Void and Mark Fisher's The Weird and the Eerie.

Take, for example, the first story in the collection Dark Entries, "The School Friend". Hear, about halfway through this story of old "friends" returning, one expects a jump scare as the protagonist, Mel, explores the strange home of her friend. The abandoned, then reclaimed house, the strange friend, Sally, who disappears and comes back changed in a twisted sort of way (and who currently owns the dilapidated house), the dismembered stuffed animals strewn on the floor - any reader can see these as signposts of some sort of abject horror about to reveal itself in full horror. Sally discovers Mel inside the house, and Mel hears ". . . and animal wailing above . . . [and] a noise resembling that of a pig scrabbling."

Sally, who is decidedly insane at this point says "Do you love children, Mel? Would you like to see my baby? . . . Let me tell you, Mel . . . that it's possible for a child to be born in a manner you'd never dream of . . .Will you be godmother? Come and see your god-child, Mel."

A scuffle ensues and then . . . no more mention of the baby. At all. Nothing. The potentiality that is left in the air, as it were, is positively haunting, a terrifying possibility out there, in the darkness, just around the corner, or upstairs . . . somewhere. The words in the final sentence, ". . . shall probably . . .," usually banal to the point that we don't even acknowledge that they have been read, have now become two of the most horrifying words in the English language.

And yet, in the next story, "Ringing the Changes," we get a sentence like:

Her expression indicated that she was one of those people whose friendliness has a precise and never-exceeded limit.

I cannot describe that expression to you, but I know it. I see it and, more importantly, feel it. That one sentence does more to explain the attitude of the character than paragraph after paragraph of blatant description could ever convey. It is exactly the right sentence to convey what Aickman wants us to know about this woman.

One must note here, also that "Ringing the Changes" must have had a profound effect on movie director David Lynch. Awkward, stilted conversation, the growing presence of a looming something, the unspoken, willfully-unacknowledged terrors felt by strangers in a community that seems to have "gone wrong," and the permanent, but unknown changes that come to those who have experienced true horror, are all Lynch's hallmarks. They are all present here.

Does all this mean that Aickman is absolutely comprehensible all of the time? No! I was left completely baffled by "Choice of Weapons". Is it a story of mesmerism? Vampirism? Hallucinatory madness? All of these? None? Lust and unrequited love, or a test of love, are at the heart of it, though there is an overtly political element to it, with its emphasis on caste and class. Despite my confusion, it is an engulfing story, especially at its twisted, unresolved ending. It left my brain churning. I loved this vortex. Or maybe it was lust?

At other times, his plots are pretty stock (though this is rare, I must admit). One of the more straightforward and predictable stories of Aickman's tales, "The Waiting Room" makes up in execution (pardon the pun, yes, it was intentional) what it lacks in originality. You know the plot (though I'm not going to reveal it), you've read it before, but you don't know with what exactitude and precision Aickman can write such a tried and true story until you read it yourself. His deft crafting adds a dimension lacking in other stories of its ilk, but it's not a mere embellishment of existing tropes. Aickman truly makes it his and his alone by the way he exercises his auctorial pen.

"The View" returns us to the labyrinth of imagination. There are few way-markers here, and the story roils in on itself, much as the house in which it takes place and the hostess of the house baffles the protagonist. We have here a house every bit as complex as the House of Leaves (though much less inimical). But, whereas Danielewski uses hypertextual methods to open the house to exploration and the reader's imagination, Aickman does so with a single sentence:

Apartments of the most various shapes and sizes led into one another in all directions without doors; and as no two apartments seemed to be decorated alike, the mirrors set up a chiaroscuro of reflections co-existent with but apparently independent of the rich and bewildering chiaroscuro of the apartments themselves.

Take a moment and digest that sentence. Who but Aickman could use the word "chiaroscuro" twice in the same sentence and make it feel like it's the most natural, sensible thing in the world? It enables the imagination without jilting the reader's thoughts. Yes, one may have to read it twice, carefully, in order to let the image fully bloom in one's mind, but it is worth a patient reading and meditation.

Even in describing the subtleties of the relationships between lovers, Aickman shows a deft hand:

. . . he . . . did not risk another of those so natural interrogatives she so lightly made to seem so heavy and unnecessary.

This sentence speaks volumes about the tension between the two characters of "The View," but also of the sensitivities of each character toward one another. One should not be surprised, then to find that "The View" is winsome and absolutely heart-rending. It has caused in me a genuine fear of growing old, something I have never really felt before. This is more from the sense of things past and lost than worry about future decrepitude. This is the empty hole at the center of nostalgia, a true existential dread. This story bit deep into my heart. It hurt, and I am better for it.

Finally, Aickman descends into decadence with "Bind Your Hair," a story about one innocent's introduction to what really goes on in a rural English village. This is folk horror with an Aickmanesque touch - the ending leaves us at a precarious point as to what to expect for the heroine; this unpredictability engendering a more lasting dread. Fear for her safety and innocence continue to rise after the last word is read. The potential is there for both good and bad in her future (short and long-term), and we agonize to know what she will choose, and which path she will go down, and what the consequences will be. We know the stakes are high, but the answers to all those questions are obfuscated from us.

Only the reader can supply the final narrative.

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Saturday, June 13, 2020

The Deepest Furrow

The Deepest FurrowThe Deepest Furrow by Jonathan Wood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As is always the case with Mount Abraxas Press, this artifact is beautiful. The woodcut cover by Matus Durcik is deceptively quaint and rustic. And while the narrator of The Deepest Furrow seeks solace in a return to the rustic, he finds it anything but quaint. Voluntarily leaving the drudgery of urban office-labor, with its demeaning social structure and seemingly shallow inhabitants, the narrator abandons civilization for the simplicity of life "among the peasants" so to speak. He finds that the simple life isn't so simple (especially when he interacts with the children of the rural folk) and that a return to the soil is, well, precisely that.

This is the second Jonathan Wood book I've read. I found this one a bit more accessible than The Haunted Sleep. Wood's facility with poesis is evident here, with just enough of an experimental edge to add zest, but not so much as to overwhelm. The subject matter kept things down-to-earth (at times, literally), and the narrator's voice, that of a mid-level office-worker, felt correct.

One must note the strong existential streak herein, as noted in my review of The Haunted Sleep. It is a prominent part of the fiction, though this is more of a working-man's existentialism, more Kierkegaard than Nietzsche. In the end, though, does it really even matter? I think Wood would argue "no".

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Tuesday, June 9, 2020

The Journal of the London School of Pataphysics, #21

The Journal of the London School of Pataphysics, #21The Journal of the London School of Pataphysics, #21 by Stephen Quay
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading of this clinamen for the uninitiated will prove a portal into the strange unscience of pataphysics. I will only go so far as to say that immersion only requires reading. Understanding will come later.

There is a corollary for those watching the Quay brothers’ cinematic art. There is much to understand, but most of it is obscured through symbols and signs, some of which are present merely to distract and lead one down . . . alternate paths. One does not watch a Quay artwork and simply traipse from point A to point B, noting the static scenes along the way. No, their cinematic space is more immersive and entrancing (in the most literal sense of the word), with side-tunnels and branches that lead nowhere and everywhere all at once. The primary experience in entering the Quays’ world with any degree of attentiveness is just that: experience. One does not watch Quay cinema, one is baptized in it and must be careful to hold one’s breath, at times, lest the initiate drown and come up vomiting brackish waters. One considers a Quay experience, but one cannot fully apprehend it. This is what is so inviting about their work – there is always something new, something previously occulted, that peeks out from the interstices.

Some have a difficult time getting “into” the Quays’ films. This remove is understandable, as the medium of stop-motion cinema is something outside of our normal experience. Objects do not, simply put, move like that. The Quays have an admittedly strange way of looking at things and bringing them to life.

But what is an object in this sense? According to physics – as pataphysical today as it was in the time of Lord Kelvin – objects are only partially accessible to the approximations of our sensory mechanisms, because they consist of no more than a constant flux of virtual particles. The philosopher Nelson Goodman summarized this situation with the phrase: “An object is a monotonous process.” So it is perfectly reasonable to consider the “persistence of objects” to be in every way equivalent to the persistence of vision that causes us to interpret a sequence of still pictures as a moving image. The cinematic illusion is indistinguishable in any meaningful way from our perception of the “real” world, because while animation creates a cinematic illusion of what we take to be actuality, its semblance of movement is not qualitatively different from the apparent stasis maintained within the “real world” by so-called actual objects that appear the way they do only because we perceive them that way, and, in the great scheme of things, only momentarily, like a still from a film. The Great Pyramid has persisted for thousands of years, but it is not categorically different [as an object] from a mayfly, only somewhat more “monotonous”.

Taking this cue from the prologemenon of this volume of The Journal of the London Institute of Pataphysics, one starts with a good idea of what the Brothers Quay are trying to do with their work. But this is only a beginning. One must go to the words of the Brothers themselves to gain further insight into the dark nooks and crannies that feature in their work. This comes as an answer to the (long dead) Heinrich Holtzmüller’s interview questions:

HH: I’m curious about the stories you were proposing to tell with your puppets? They don’t seem to be fairy tales per se or anything easily recognizable. Why?

QQs: I think initially we were merely trying to establish for ourselves just what puppets might be capable of; what kind of subjectivity, what kind of thaumaturgical murmurings, or pathological drifts were possible; and scenographically speaking, what cartographies and “voyages of no return” could occur and what places of the soul might be rendered explorable. And since we’ve always believed in the aesthetic power of the illogical, the irrational and the obliqueness of poetry, we didn’t exclusively in terms of “narrative”, but also of the parentheses that lay hidden behind the narrative. It is always generally assumed that narrative should dictate everything, but we wanted the domain of puppets and objects to have its own distinct “light”, and especially its own “shade”, so that the subject could pulsate with unknown possibilities – typhoons of splinters at 1/24th of a second.

This statement sheds light on what makes certain people so susceptible (nay, subject to) their art: It makes explicit what some love in the peripheral interstices of works they read (and write), the shadowed recesses that are not always explicitly "plot," but that make the difference between adequate writing and enjoyable writing. The Quays make peeking into those crevasses their primary concern, but these dark cracks, these interstitial planar windows, exist in all truly great work.

As one of those devotees to the Quays’ art, this volume comes as a sort of holy book in many ways.
The prologemenon is akin to the Rabbinical treatments of the Talmud, the explanatory notes and explications, the fables and allusions around the work that both expand the context of their work and, in some ways, fence it in. The constraints of pataphysical theory (are those really constraints at all?) provide a certain reading of the Quays oeuvre, but an expansive reading.

Following this devotional is the iconography: a section of 13 photographic plates showing never-before-seen images of the Holy of Holies, the Quays’ London studio (which, since this volume was published, has moved – giving the whole an ephemeral quality bordering on the mystical).

Next is “The Embellished version of On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets”. It is “Embellished” from the original interview between Holzmüller and the Quays found in the original. This is a significantly deeper dive, a higher order of initiation, if you will, into the working of the twins’ minds. If you want to enter the inner creative temple of the Quays, this might be it.

Holzmüller’s Liber Perutilis, a primer on Renaissance calligraphy, is next. This is the volume from which the Quays draw the alphabet that they use in the title-cards for their films. Consider it a mystic alphabet, something akin to Grave’s Ogham alphabet, the symbols of evocation used to call up devils or call down angels.

The culmination of the experience is in the mysteries, here presented as portions of Alfred Jarry’s texts on marionettes and puppets, particularly Pere Ubu.

In all, this volume is a sort of esoteric experience, with tongue firmly planted in cheek. But beyond the jocularity is a modicum of seriousness that demands reflection and adoration.

View all my reviews

Saturday, June 6, 2020

A Day Hike in the Cotswolds

Last summer, my wife and I took a trip we had wanted to take for a very, very long time. When we were young and very poor, we sometimes talked about what we would do if we had more money. We both agreed that we'd like to travel. Fast forward several jobs later, after our kids were adults, and after my parents passed away, leaving a little extra money behind, and the opportunity presented itself. Most of my childhood was spent overseas. I was born in Germany, baptized in Italy, and graduated High School in England. So, when my parents passed away and we collected my father's life insurance money, we thought that there would be no more appropriate thing to do than to take some of that money and travel, as we had talked about in leaner times. I'm certain it's what Mom and Dad would have wanted us to do, no doubt about it. My wife had lived in Austria for a year and a half, so Austria was definitely on the list, and I wanted to return to England, more than anything. We ended up spending a couple of days in Germany, as well, but the bulk of our time was in the Cotswolds in England and in Vienna and Salzburg in Austria.

Before we left, I prepped myself. I intentionally tapered down my social media presence and usage because, frankly, I wanted to enjoy my real-time experience of being in the moment in Europe and I wanted to be there with my wife. This was also a chance to get back in the swing of writing, which I badly needed to do. Writing is my drug, and because of the craziness with my parents both passing away within a couple of weeks of each other and the ensuing legal "fun" that came afterwards (and is still going on - don't ask), I had not had my fix for quite some time. It really was time to get away from it all, including the digital world.

I've outlined the overall itinerary elsewhere, but I promised that I would, at some point, do some blog posts about the trip. Well, the month in which I was going to do said blog posts, I got caught up in my esoteric denim project (which was incredibly therapeutic, and now I have the coolest denim jacket I've ever owned), so I ran out of time. Now, I mean to make it up. That might mean less time on social media, too. In fact, that's very likely. So much to do, so little time. I'll have to do these posts in chunks. No way can I do one after the other. We're way too busy getting ready to move to our new house for that (I should probably do a post or series of posts on that some time, too). So, I've decided to start off with our last day in England, where we took a long hike through the Cotswolds, around 12 miles in a day. Which might not seem like much, but for us middle-aged types, that's a pretty good hike. So, without further ado, here it is: Our day hike in the Cotswolds.

Our base of operations was Moreton-In-Marsh, the town that J.R.R. Tolkien used as his model for Bree. Of course, we happened to pick the third hottest day of the year that year to go hiking. 31.6 Celsius (88.88 F), which, for England, is blazing hot. And we felt it, right from the get-go.

What we also felt, not long after we left the market at Moreton, was . . . stinging nettles! Oh, yes, nothing like hiking in that kind of heat having walked through a patch of nettles. Luckily, I was just being inoculated against fairy mischief and black magic. Or, at least that's what I chose to believe. I needed to believe in something other than pain at that moment. English nettles seem somehow more potent than their American cousins. Or maybe I'm just getting to be a wimp in my dotage.

The first thing I noticed because of their contrast with the surrounding lush countryside, were some dead trees. Nothing spectacular, just notable for their lack of greenery among such verdancy.

What can I say except that I love trees with character. Nothing says "I've temporarily abandoned electronics for this trip" like dead trees. They are the ultimate symbol of what it means to go analog.

As I mentioned earlier, this day was HOT! Seeing those trees, all parched and dead, right after walking through a bunch of nettles and having my calves peppered with stings, not to mention the incessant itching, did little to encourage me. But I've been hiking for a long time and what I lack in athletic ability, I make up for with sheer stubbornness. Onward we pressed.

First, we passed the village of Batsford, hidden away behind the barley and trees on a hill opposite our trail. We had been in the Cotswolds for nearly a week by this point, but I remarked, upon seeing the village: "Okay, now we are in the Cotswolds!"

Hills just south of Batsford

Three succesive views of Batsford. We hiked left to right, top to bottom, in these pictures. 

Near Batsford is the Batsford Arboretum. We skimmed past it, but were surprised by a herd of (Red?) deer that we didn't know was there. They were pretty skittish and did not like having us hiking so close to them. I can't blame them. They looked pretty tasty and I was probably drooling a bit.

One thing you'll see a lot of in this part of England is stone fences. No, these were not defensive works. They were meant to keep sheep in, rather than people out. Seeing the length and good condition of these fences (none of which seemed to be actually mortared together), one wonders how many hours went into building and maintaining them. They are beautiful and impressive and ubiquitous.

As some of you know, I am a big fan of weird fiction and have a particular like for folk horror. It was appropriate, then that I should be spooked by getting a glimpse of a church out among the trees to our left (west) as we journeyed this part of the trail. I had no idea it was there, only having really looked at the map for the shape of the trail, rather than for features (honestly, I was hoping we would get a bit lost - more on that later). So, when I saw this very old looking church suddenly pop up between some trees, I had visions of grim monks staring out from the belfry at us as we passed by.

Things got even weirder after we past the church, as we walked through what I can only call Faerie Tunnels - portals, maybe? I had the strangest sensation as I looked back on one of the trails, like Frodo has in the Lord of the Rings movies when he's being pursued in the Shire by the Nazgul. It was creepy and cool at the same time. Here, have a look:

Next, we walked past the arboretum's parking lot, I think? Not quite sure what the building was here, as it's not named on the map (and most buildings in the area, at least those of any historical significance) are named.

After this we turned west and climbed a killer hill. This thing just kept going UP! It was on a small road, the kind of road where you worry that someone in a mini is going to whip around the corner and smack you one. We stayed off the road as much as possible, which means we hugged another stone fence. I tried to walk along the top of it. Mistakes were made. I might have had to re-stack a few stones that had somehow fallen off disturbed by I-have-no-idea-what . . . (stupid American tourists).

I really wondered how two cars could go by each other on this road, as it was super tight. Thankfully, I didn't have to see a mishap, as traffic was very sparse. I think we might have seen two vehicles going up that (very, very long) hill.

We topped the hill and crossed the road, because that's what the map told us to do. We thought there should be a stile there, but there wasn't. There was a gate. So, we hopped it. We quickly found out that we had chosen poorly, and lost the trail. Or had we chosen wisely? Take a look at the views this opened up - which otherwise we never would have seen - and you tell me if we chose poorly.

Now, I believe the village in the last photo is Aston Magna (which is technically a "hamlet," not a village). Natives: correct me if I'm wrong on that. Quaint looking little town when you're spying it from the top of the hill, anyway.

After looking out on this and resting a moment (the hill with the wall alongside it is much steeper than it appears in the picture!) we were able to eventually find the trail again. The real trail entrance was about 40 feet down the road, but so surrounded by chest-high grass, that we didn't see it when we crested the hill. They say "it isn't an adventure until you get lost". This was the first time on this hike where we became lost. Definitely not the last time. I must say, though that the maps provided by the incredibly awesome Kooky Cotswold Tours (whom I *strongly* recommend!) were great. We got lost because . . . well, we got lost. The maps were right all along, even if our interpretations of it weren't!

We soon found that we were, thankfully, under trees again. It was sweltering hot, and it felt great to walk under the shade of some immense, old trees. I had visions of druids and faerie folk when we saw these trees.

Of course, dehydration may have had something to do with my dreams of fae and wizards. We brought and drank a *lot* of water, but should have brought half again more with us. I knew we had enough for a couple more miles, but after that, yes, we would survive, but we would both have a splitting headache if we didn't find some more water before too long.

Our trip through the old, gnarled trees took us up on a high ridge (someone needs to tell me if this is technically considered a "Down" - I'm not entirely clear on the proper usage of the word). The trees gave way, in places, to open hillside spilling down beneath us to the Village of Blockley.

I joked with my wife that some of the trees were "Blockleying" the view. I'm surprised I survived the incident, but she was a captive audience and I had the map . . .

The most prominent feature of Blockley was, as with many, if not most, Cotswold villages, the church. We later learned, on returning to the States, that this church is used as a set-piece for the Father Brown TV series on the BBC. I can see why they picked that location. It's a beautiful village, even from afar.

While it would have been nice to go down to the village, we would have had to have crossed several farmer's fields and, potentially, fields of nettle. I had had enough nettle for the day. So, we carried on.

After leaving Blockley behind, we were found ourselves trekking through farmland at the top of the highest set of hills for miles around. The are was rich, they sky was blue and very hot. Here the trail got tricky again, and we found ourselves meandering on the wrong side of the fence . . . twice . . . until we were able to backtrack and find the trail again. We trespassed on several farmer's fields, but no one seemed to mind. They were probably used to amblers wandering off the trail.

At times, the trail was very clear, bounded by walls and ferns. My wife didn't really want me to share too many pictures of her, but I'm sharing this one anyway, as it shows, around her, the beauty of these little stretches.

And, looking back up the trail . . . 

See, that's a trail you can't get lost on! But, like I said, we had already been lost a couple of times, so this was, by now, a full-fledged adventure!

We hooked around the other side of Bastford Arboretum, then downhill before taking a right turn to head, again, up hill toward the aptly-named Bourton-On-Hill.

Did I mention there were sheep? Lots of sheep? This one was marked, so we resisted the urge to steal it and turn it into a curry and wool sweater. Tempting.

We hiked up the hill on which Bourton is . . . er . . . on. And up into the village itself. We already knew it was quaint and lovely, as we had passed through it on our (harrowing left-hand-side) drive to our awesome airbnb. Still, seeing a village from the car is very, very different than seeing it on foot, especially after you've been hiking for 5 miles.

Here, we intentionally veered off-track just a bit, skipping the left-hand (south) turn on the map and continuing up-hill. The reason was, this:

I have literally never been so happy to see a pub (even in my old drinking days). We needed, more than anything, to sit down in a cool dark place get some sustenance. This was the place. And this was the meal:

I had tagliatelle, my favorite pasta, which I learned to love while living in southern Italy as a kid. Natalie opted for an American Cheeseburger. Note that, in this pub, at least, the burger was served without a bun. I don't know if that's how they're always served there (outside of McDonald's, which serve burgers in buns, or they did when I was a teenager) or if that was just a Horse and Groom pub thing. Regardless, it was all delicious. That was some smacking good tagliatelle. Makes me hungry just typing this. Not as fancy as some meals we've had, but, boy, did it hit the spot! We tanked up on water, as well. I think we ordered three large bottles of water, drank them all down, then filled out bottles again. We rested up a bit there, really enjoying the air-conditioning. We got strange looks from locals (in the room to my left, Natalie's right, in the picture) and a dropped and shattered glass (by our awesome and particularly busy hostess) turned heads our way even more. I think that the elderly regulars there didn't want to walk past us because we were so sweaty. Or maybe it was just because of me. I have that effect on people sometimes.

We then headed back downhill and past the church, which was just stark and blocky enough that I thought it would make an awesome Black Sabbath album cover:

We passed the Church, took a right, as the map instructed, then found ourselves facing a sign that say "Private Road". We were at a "T" intersection on the road, with a path going straight on. But that sign was clear - it was a private road. We looked at the map, took our best guess and turned . . . right. We ended up walking up the hill (yet again) and ended up at a dead end house. So, we went back down. We stood, again, at the same spot, right in front of the "Private Road" sign, but couldn't make heads or tails of where we were supposed to pick up the trail. We just sort of stood there, dumbfounded, in the middle of the road, quite lost (again - adventure!) when an older gentleman who was walking his dog (a beautiful Setter) asked if he could help. We explained that we were trying to follow the Monarch's Trail, but that we had lost it at this point because where the trail should be, there was, instead, a private road. He sort of chuckled and said "Oh, that. You're standing on the private road." The sign was oriented such that it looked like it was announcing that the path beyond was private. No, it was the road that ran parallel to the sign that was private. Thanking him (with a great deal of gratitude and embarrassment), we set off down the path. He probably thought we were burglars.

Not far outside town, we passed Sezincote House, an architectural symbol of the colonialism (and Orientalism) that is such a part of English history. It was pretty, from a distance, but we were here to hike, not to gawk. Besides, it's a private home and it felt a little squicky even taking this picture of it:

The next stretch, from the outskirts of Bourton-On-Hill, to the village of Longborough, was, to this point, the longest uninterrupted stretch of countryside we had gone through. This was where the meditative calm of walking really kicked in for me. We talked a bit, of course, but mostly we were slogging our way across the countryside, past fields, over stiles, through gates, many of them "kissing gates" (yes, I kissed my wife through every one of them - she humored me, or maybe "tolerated" is the better word). Walking in silence (punctuated by the occasional kiss) helped me feel like I was "part" of the trail, a single particle in the long concourse of souls who had walked before me and those who would walk after me. One with the trail. This was what we had come for, on this stretch of our holiday. I cannot tell you how good it felt to lose myself in the walk. After my parents' deaths, it felt like my soul had been repaired a bit by returning to the land I loved (and I do love England) and simply moving my body through it. It was restorative and healing.

Through the fields, we entered the Village of Longborough. It was getting on evening time, so there were very few people about. In fact, I don't think we saw one living human there while we walked through, but we saw lots of memorials to dead ones. It's actually quite creepy when I think about it. Like something out of a Folk Horror movie

The next stretch, from Longborough to Moreton-In-Marsh, was the absolute longest leg of the hike. I don't have any pictures from that leg, as I just wanted to enjoy the walk, not to mention my phone was running out of juice by this point. If you look at the pictures above showing the fields between Bourton-On-Hill and Longborough, it was much of the same, with a twist . . . the twist is: we became lost several times on this stretch. I recall it was at least four times, possibly five, where we lost the trail and became seriously disoriented. We wandered over fields we probably had no business being in, through thistle patches, across barley fields that had been cut across by mowers in seemingly random crisscross patterns, over a creek (or was it two? Or was it the same creek meandering?), past bees and flies, under massive pylons, and, finally, into the outskirts of Moreton-In-Marsh. I will be the first to admit that I *loved* getting lost in this way. We always knew the general direction of Moreton, and before too long, we could see the clocktower at the market square peeking up above the trees in the far distance. But we most definitely carved a trail of our own. It was frustrating, hot, sweaty, achy, itchy, and totally worth getting lost for the sake of the adventure! I would definitely do it all over again. Maybe someday . . . 

Our hike was at an end. We stopped for dinner, for our last time on this trip, in the UK. We had started our trip with a meal of fish-n-chips in Oxford and Natalie, being a Culinary Arts teacher, wanted to have fish-n-chips again to get the English food experience. I opted for some delicious pork. Natalie ordered what I normally order for desert, chocolate cake, and I went out on a limb and had a lavender-infused creme brulee. A well-deserved meal and, besides, we could definitely afford the calories!

The people who were sitting behind Natalie were speaking German. An interesting correspondence (maybe magic?) since we would travel to Germany the next day. It's like we were being eased into the Germany/Austria portion of our trip (which I will blog about at a later date). But for the moment, I had one piece of unfinished business: Moreton-In-Marsh was the town that Tolkien used as his model for the Village of Bree. And The Bell, a pub on the market square, was the model for The Prancing Pony. So, I had to stop to take a picture. I couldn't live with myself if I didn't. I gave up drinking a long time ago, so I wasn't going to have a pint there. And they didn't serve dinner that day, so I just popped over to get this shot. A fantastical end to a fantastical visit back to the UK.