Monday, December 24, 2018

Demiurge: The Complete Cthulhu Mythos Tales of Michael Shea

Demiurge: The Complete Cthulhu Mythos Tales of Michael SheaDemiurge: The Complete Cthulhu Mythos Tales of Michael Shea by Michael Shea
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I remember the exact moment when I first encountered H.P. Lovecraft’s work. It was eighth grade, and I had just walked out of the lunch room onto the Mission Junior High School courtyard when I heard someone behind me yell my name. I turned, bracing for a fight (which happened frequently at that school – think bully jocks and all that rot), but found one of my good friends, John Hayes (who has since passed away from a heart attack, just a few years ago) running up to me with a book in his hand. “Do you want this?” he asked. The cover was that of a skull with brains exploding out of holes in the top of its head entitled Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. I was intrigued. If I recall correctly, John said something like “My mom says I can’t keep this book. Do you want it?”. My response was something like “hellz, yeah”! Thanks, Mrs. Hayes!

And so, my journey into Lovecraft and those who shared his mythos began. I can honestly say that this book changed my life and sent me in directions I otherwise would never have explored. It was a rich stepping off point for many of my interests in life (existentialism, philosophy in general, avant classical music, surreal cinema, etc). It has made my life richer. Since then, I have read much and written a few pieces that would be considered “Lovecraftian,” along with a piece or two (read and written) that riff directly off of Lovecraft’s creations.

I still hold a great deal of fondness of weird fiction. Not “Weird” with a capital “W”, necessarily. This has become a marketing category that I’m becoming unenchanted with. Well, not “becoming,” now that I’ve finished this book. I am, I think, fully ready to leave “Weird” fiction for “weird” fiction. I still love the strange, the metaphysical, love cosmic horror and the “Lovecraftian,” but more as a concept than as a marketing category/genre.

I have heard a great deal about Michael Shea’s work and how amazing it is. Forgive my bluntness, but, while Shea’s writing style is excellent, his ideas, characters, and plots are mostly hackneyed. Yes, I know, that’s no way to talk about a dead man who can’t defend himself, but really: as a thirteen-year old, I would probably have loved this work. But I’ve grown up a little and my reading tastes have matured, as a result. I see the potential for greatness here – Shea’s writing, as I have said, is quite good, borderline exquisite, at times. But the matrix in which the beautiful syntax is set happens to be broken or, at best, boring. It’s like setting a single diamond in the middle of a bracelet that is composed of glass baubles. The diamond is cheapened by its setting, and the baubles look even worse in comparison.

With that, here are my story notes:

Groveling at the altar of Lovecraft, no matter how eloquently, is still groveling at the altar of Lovecraft. Clever turns of phrase cannot save a weak, thin, and most of all, unsubtle story. My disenchantment with the "mythos" grows. This is fanfic. Well-written fanfic, but fanfic nonetheless. Two stars to "Fat Face," and I think that's being overly generous. I hope this collection improves or . . . lem!

"Nemo Me Impune Lacessit" sings prettily, but the lyrics are shallow and hackneyed. Three stars and I am quickly losing all patience with this collection. (note that I did read to the end, surprisingly).

In "The Presentation," street art meets comix meets the 1% meets . . . something . . . beyond. While I didn't enjoy the metaphysical aspect of it, this was a pretty good story. The writing, the syntax, the vocabulary were all impressive, but the metafictional aspect of it was quite jarring. Not great, but worth the read. Three stars floating in space around a cosmic blob in the void.

“The Pool”: Again with the metafiction and the outright references to Lovecraft and the extreme strain to my willing suspension of disbelief? Is there no subtlety? Bleh. One step closer to lemming this. (note again that I showed great restraint in not tossing this book). Two stars. If there's another two star, I'm quitting. (I didn’t – shame on me). Life's too short, even with well-written sentences. A waste of talent. But hey, I'm not Shea. Still, bleh.

"The Recruiter" is the kind of story I was hoping for from this collection. A modern dirge of timeless dread. An existential survey of the landscape of death and being. And not one mention of Cthulhu or any of his cronies, at least not directly. Four stars. Pushing on . . .

"The Battery" is a pulp fiction story in the vein of Lovecraft. Maybe too much in the vein of Lovecraft. Frankly, I couldn't get excited about the characters, the premise, or all the Lovecraftian doo-dads. Two stars.

"Copping Squid" is a great story. Far and away better than all the other stories in this collection. Sacrifice and complicity create a tangled web, with some deep characterization, as a result. The horror is just as much in the inner contemplation of decisions as it is in the outward cosmic forces that feed on the universe. This story is a darkly wonderful exploration of agency and respectful awe vis-a-vis stark terror. Five stars. Does this long story make it worth it to buy the whole collection? No. Not by a long shot. But it’s a great story that deserves your attention. Unfortunately, I don’t know where else you might find it. Remember my earlier analogy about a diamond among baubles? Yeah . . .

Dear "Dagoniad", I'm sorry, but we just can't go on like this. Your blunt granting of "mythos" knowledge (and your characters even call it "mythos" knowledge) to common hookers is, well, just obscene. Not because of the hookers, mind you, but because of the unashamed way in which you spit in the face of willing suspension of disbelief. It’s not a wink and a nudge, it’s like you’re opening your trench coat and exposing yourself to strangers on the street. You're the kind of story that would take it for granted that everyone reads Lovecraft and knows everything about the mythos because they read it. Yuck! Uh-uh. No more. We can't go on. One star. Next story up, please.

I'm torn. Some of the writing in "Tsathoggua" is exquisite, Especially the segments about Maureen's transformation. But, again, "deus ex machina" comes in the form of someone, introduced halfway through the story with no preamble, who just happens to have all this mythos knowledge. Honestly, it's getting really, really tiresome. Three stars.

Nothing really happened "Beneath the Beardmore". The protagonists didn't do much protagonizing, and there was a lot of explaining about Shoggoths and tentacles and stuff. But the characters were flat and unimpressive. Meh. All the trimmings and none of the substance of cosmic horror. The poetic voice of the "guide" was at least intriguing. But only intriguing enough to earn three stars.

When I read the words Great Old Ones Ale near the beginning of the story, I thought that "Momma Durtt" might end up a puerile, trivial, mimetic, unoriginal,, silly, bleached-out shell of worn-out Lovecraftian elements that tried in vain to be funny and horrific and the more it tried the worse it became, until it nose-dived into a downward spiral of inane dreck.

And I was right. One star.

Why, yes, of course every Antarctic submarine researcher carries a Tommy gun with them, just in case. And riding a submarine down an icy slope like a bobsled is perfectly believable. Isn't it? "Under the Shelf" comes in under three stars. Two, to be exact.

"Demiurge" is an interesting take on what it's like to be an alien intelligence possessing others' bodies that ends as the most ridiculous thing in the entire collection. It was pretty good until the last page, then, UGH! Three stars.

In essence, my problem is with the bare-faced mansplaining that goes on in the guise of some expert on “the mythos” suddenly showing up out of nowhere and exposing all the mysteries of said “mythos” to protagonists who either just accept what is given them or become so awestruck that you expect them to suddenly yell out “dude, that’s totally rad!” whenever a Shoggoth appears (and Shea had an unhealthy obsession with Shoggoths). It got old. It’s still old. Maybe I’m just getting old. But I can’t do this anymore. Going forward, I am very likely to avoid anything that directly takes Lovecraft’s creatures as inspiration, at least those, like this, that are borderline fanfic (if not outright fanfic). I’m all about the cosmic horror, all about strange stories, but I think I’ve done with tentacles in my fiction. I’ve got plenty of boardgames and roleplaying games if I want tentacles. I am banishing them from my plane of existence. Ia, Ia!

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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice

Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice: A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action (Manifesto)Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice: A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action by J.F. Martel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I sometimes hear critics decry artists as being “indulgent” when they do something they love that isn’t popular with said critics. I recall the one season of American Idol that I watched (the one where Adam Lambert should have won) wherein one of the early contestants was called “Indulgent” for singing what I thought was a not terrible rendition of Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy”. I’ve been similarly accused and, in fact, used said accusation in my writer’s bio from time to time. You see, I don’t care if I’m viewed as indulgent. I write because I like to write. Some publishers happen to have liked what I’ve written and have published some of my work. Pardon my flippancy (or don’t), but . . . get over it.

Those who have spent any time with me in person know that I’m not so bold in person. I’m a pretty nice guy, sometimes a bit too deferential. But when it comes to my writing and my reading tastes, I am my own man. Writing is my drug. MY drug. Your drug may be different, and your experience with writing may be (and should be) different. It should be your own. All art should be your own because it is your interface with art that matters, not the art itself. The object that elicits the feelings within you, the emotional and intellectual connection, the reaction, will never be the same for another person. Nor should it be.

Here we have one of the central points of J.F. Martel’s “treatise, critique, and call to action”: Art is different for every person, while artifice is intended to engender the same reaction from each person who encounters it. Art is about expression, with the viewer taking an active role in interpreting the meaning of the object/picture/performance, while artifice is about communication, with the viewer taking the passive role of receiving the message which the deliverer wishes to inject into his or her heart or mind. One is a complex symbol open to many different interpretations, while the other is a sign pointing to an ideology to which the creator wants to assign one true meaning:

The moment we reduce a work of art to its references to other things, as with statements such as “Kafka’s Trial is a story ‘about’ modern bureaucracy” or “Fargo" is a film ‘about’ the corrupting influence of money,” we risk losing sight of what art alone can do, because we are effectively turning it into something that can be deciphered . . . a work of art is not ‘about’ any one definitive thing. Captain Ahab isn’t “just” a man obsessed with a whale any more than Moby Dick is “just” a story about whaling and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Ahab and his obsession are inseparable from one another. He is formed by his drive to kill the white whale – and cannot exist apart from it. Nor is Ahab’s preoccupation with hunting down Moby Dick a generic characteristic that, in his particular case, happens to be directed at a large sea mammal. Rather, his obsession is itself inseparable from Moby Dick; it is an aspect of the whale as well as an aspect of Ahab. The madness at the heart of Melville’s story becomes an abstract “character trait” only once we have extracted it from its specific context, stripping it of its singularity and generalizing it into a psychological opinion . . . the hunter, the hunt, and the hunted constitute an indissoluble system, each part of which exists by virtue of the force exerted by the others.”

The need to dissect and dissemble art into its constituent parts, while laudable in academic circles, does, to some degree, rob one of the mystery of discovery that one feels when encountering a moving piece of art for the first time. As an undergraduate, I studied Humanities with a history emphasis. I learned how to examine art, music, dance, theater, drama, architecture, and cinema in historical context, but always with a bias toward one school of philosophy or another. The intent was that we students would become exposed to and possibly even facile in criticism of various forms. I spent several good years of my life doing this and, while I am grateful for the intellectual exercise (and actually enjoyed it, to some extent), I felt an overwhelming sense of relief when, one summer, I read The Complete Sherlock Holmes and Tolkien’s The Silmarillion (followed by The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings series) after a particularly grueling semester of Marxist and Objectivist analysis of several works of art and literature. It took a week or so to deprogram from the academic rigor of that semester, but when I did, and when I read the books without any preconceived analysis, I felt . . . free! And, strangely, when I did have the analytical devil whisper over my shoulder, my thoughts “uncoiled” quite naturally. Maybe I had just been indoctrinated, I don’t know. But I was able to enjoy the fruits of my studies when I let myself relax and enjoy the art itself, first and foremost. My sense of mystery returned to me as I let these works unfold on their own terms, without the need for analysis.

As Martel notes:

Astonishment has an intellectual as well as an emotional component - in it, the brain and the heart come together. Far from distracting us from the strange and the uncanny in life, the astonishment evoked by great artistic works puts them square in our sights . . . the world is not what we thought it was: something hidden, impossible to communicate . . . [is] clearly expressed in the work.

That aesthetic astonishment (which, I will note, is also often felt by the artist while in the act of creation) is the “drug” I seek in either bringing art to life or engaging with the art of another. While I appreciate the careful analysis and dissection of a work (watch me at a museum – I’m the guy the guards keep an eye on because I want to get nose-close to the painting to see the individual strokes), I also realize that the appreciation of art is not a scientific endeavor. Scientific thinking can never explain the magic I felt, for example, when I first heard Kronos Quartet play live, or when I saw my first Redon painting in-person or when I first read A Clockwork Orange. It cannot tell me why I loved these things and why they moved me inside, why they created such a strong emotional and intellectual response.

”Why?” is a problem science can’t lick; in fact, the very nature of science prevents it from even framing the problem. What science does – and does beautifully – is to enrich the mystery by revealing ever deeper layers of the physical universe, which becomes more puzzling with each new discovery. Any adequate response to the mystery of existence must be poetic, for only the poetic can take on the “why.” If poetic answers are always figurative, never literal, it is because no sooner has the question of being been raised than we leave the world of determinate things to travel in a far stranger country.

This strange country is where the artist lives and thrives. It is of little use to ask me why I love the aforementioned pieces. And, in fact, it’s more than a little distracting from my enjoyment of the piece. What matters is that startling moment of revelation, that twist of the brain and heart that sends a thrill of excitement or dread or any other unanticipated feeling response that the art invokes in me.

Not to wax overly meta-, I present the following quote from Martel’s own work as an example of something that struck me on a deep level. Now, keep in mind that Poe’s poem, “The Raven” is an old favorite. It is also the first poem that my daughter memorized (the entire thing – as a nine year old, no less!) and that she recites, even as an adult, around Halloween. Now, with that in mind, read this seemingly innocuous quote:

At the literal level, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” (1845) features a bleak November night, a black bird, and a dead woman – only this and nothing more.

SWOON! Do you see what he did there? If not, go back and read the poem. Then read that quote again. It’s an esoteric twist that I had not at all expected. I almost shed a tear at this. Why? That’s my secret, my experience, involving my relationship to reading, writing, and my daughter. I can’t explain it. Either you feel it or you don’t.

And if you don’t feel it, that’s fine. But I do. So, indulge me and call me indulgent. This sentence was written for me. At least I choose to take it that way. Martel encourages the profound idea that one should engage a work of art as if it was created and meant specifically for you. Or, in the case of those who create art:

. . . this means taking the job seriously enough to pursue the visions that come from within rather than those that are foisted upon us by social pressures, popular taste, and the whims of the market. It means making it our principal task to let the symbol speak through the work rather than trying to speak through the symbol. We need to revive the ancient idea of art as a holy madness in which one is guided by external forces. Only thus can we bring forth what we have never seen, yet desperately need to see.

This is what I seek when I write. Call it indulgent. I call it art. No apologies.

For those interested in more of J.F. Martel’s musings, I cannot recommend his podcast (along with Phil Ford) Weird Studies strongly enough. It has quickly climbed to the top of my list of favorite podcasts and never fails to satisfy, no matter what the specific subject matter. Please give it a listen!

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Friday, November 23, 2018

The Haunted Sleep

The Haunted SleepThe Haunted Sleep by Jonathan Wood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I cannot tell you whether or not the choice of cover art for this slim volume was intentional. I can tell you that it is meaningful: The Queen of Clubs, faceless, hollow, her head a gateway to void, one hand upraised (as Mary's is frequently represented in medieval and renaissance art) to heaven, the other holding a dagger, ready to strike. There is no deception here, things are what they seem. The Haunted Sleep awaits us all.

Wood presents with a series of prose poetry and verse. I admit that it took a moment for me to key in to the syntax, as it is often "experimental" in nature. Narrative flow is often implied, but never explicit. And yet, there is a skeleton, if you will, to which the words always return, a base of existentialism that sometimes dips into pure nihilism, but sometimes embraces the need to accept and embrace inevitable fate in a way that is bounded by paralytic complacency, on one hand, and futile, but optimistic action, on the other.

At times, the nihilism can be overwhelming. But as the reader pushes forward, they will find that the void and the stark recognition of its final, utter blackness, is a baseline for experience. There are moments of . . . not hope . . . rather, acceptance of the mystery of what does or does not lie beyond. "In Lonely Distant Temples We Dream of Freedom from the State," for example, points to the "little death" of the French as one moment, lasting merely seconds, when we are truly free of everything, even the self. It is a minor escape, but an escape, nonetheless, from fear and oppression, available to all.

My parents both passed away this year. Mom in February, Dad in April. They were hospitalized within one week of each other for different reasons. But neither of them came home. And, in fact, we had to make the decision in both of their cases to take them off life support. I spent every day of my Dad's last two weeks with him, knowing he was dying of a cancer that was riddling his brain. He had a very difficult time communicating, since he had a tracheostomy and since he was losing his facility for speech and coherent thought quickly. But in the snippets of conversation we were able to have, I knew that he knew that Mom had passed (this was not a foregone conclusion - it's too long of a story to share here, but he knew that she had passed, forgot, remembered, several times). Maybe two days before he died, I asked him if he was ready to go, to which he nodded, feebly, "yes". I asked him if he wanted to see Mom again, to which he also responded positively. Now, say what you will about people's belief or unbelief in life after death, but my father found comfort in the knowledge that he would see his wife again and also, I learned through further conversation, in the possibility of seeing his parents, aunts, uncles, etc.

Because of this, "Folk Memory," which is a prayer, a ritual, to one's ancestors, struck deeply. It is the most hopeful of pleadings to the ancestors in the dead of winter. It is a matter-of-fact acceptance of the inevitable, with a touch of hope that while we sleep in winter, winter will, ultimately end.

Threaded throughout the volume (it is, incidentally, a beautiful artifact, in and of itself) is this acknowledgement of death. It is open eyed, morbidly candid, and seems to open a Hegelian dialectic between utter hopelessness and overly-naive optimism. This dynamic doesn't take place by comparing the two, but by walking toward the void, noting the banal along the way, and seeing the abyss as a way ahead, as the only way ahead, never slackening one's pace, even as the vast awesomeness (I use the term in it's sense of "full of awe") opens its unstoppable maw to engulf the individual, who is then free, finally free, from the pains, stresses, and complications of mortality. Carpe Diem , even when the day is the Day of the Dead.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2018

De Profundis

De Profundis 2nd EditionDe Profundis 2nd Edition by MichaƂ Oracz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As I pointed out in a recent blog post, I was introduced, indirectly, to this game via a newsletter (yes, a physical newsletter sent via post) that a fellow gamer created. I was so intrigued that I bought this book and immediately set about reading it.

De Profundis is written in the form of letters, an intriguing conceit given that the game itself is played by writing letters to one another and riffing off of each other's comments, pulling questions forth from your correspondents, and tweaking your responses a bit to construct a shared universe on the fly. It seems theoretically simple, but I'm intrigued to see how it plays out in real-time.

The trick, of course, is managing expectations. To do this, the person proposing the "campaign" constructs, either alone or with other potential correspondents, a "Society," complete with goals, members (i.e., characters), an agreed "convention" (e.g., "X-files" or "High Victorian Society" or whatever), the expected literary "level" of the game, and, for games specific to the Cthulhu mythos (which was the original intent of the game), what level of weirdness or eeriness should be permitted/aimed for during play. And, of course, one needs a starting plot to get things going, a premise, an opening riff.

There are several examples of such Societies given in the book, and this is a good thing, as the high-level description would be too vague without some concrete examples. The authors are very self-aware that there is a tendency to unravel if clear expectations aren't set from the beginning. That said, there is no arbiter, no game "master". All should participate with an equal level of agency and, potentially, input. Dice may be rolled, and random tables are provided with each example, but instructions on when they are to be used are either not there or I lost them in the rest of the text (both possible).

After reading De Profundis, I have dedicated myself to figuring out a way to carry out a campaign with a very select group of my favorite gamer friends. But rather than be subject to the rules vagaries regarding the use of tables, I think I will tweak another great RPG find of late, English Eerie: Rural Horror Storytelling Game, which is a solo game that can optionally be played with others. I don't think it will take much to integrate the two, and English Eerie has more clear guidelines on how to randomize events (using face cards instead of dice - a good excuse to pick up a cool set of playing cards). Combining the strengths of the two could provide a thoroughly engaging game of correspondence. I am excited to experiment with this!

Just the other day, a letter arrived in the mail in response to my blog post. It was from an individual who has become even more disenchanted with social media than I have; a person whom I have gamed with both in person and online, a great roleplayer! Last night, I bought a bunch of decorative (read: dark, gothic) paper and some fancy pens and wrote him a response, folding the paper into an envelope that I'm hoping will survive the rigors of the US Postal Service. He will be one I will definitely invite. I'm take another step back toward analog, toward more personal interaction than what I normally get on social media. Goodreads is, of course, the exception. But it's more than just a social media, isn't it? So much more.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Sub Rosa

Sub RosaSub Rosa by Robert Aickman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wouldst thou like to write sentences deliciously, like this?

I might compare them, though a little distantly, with the once controversial last works of the late Charles Sims: apparently confused on the surface, even demented, they made one doubt while one continued to gaze, as upon Sim's pictures, whether the painter had not in truth broken through to a deep and terrible order.

Of course, you would. You're tired of Lovecraft's confused, adverb-sodden descriptions. Bored with his hundreds of pale imitators. But you still want to capture that eerie sense of something missing.

You, my friend, want to read Robert Aickman.

Aickman's clarity and ability to plunge the reader under the water of the mind and personality of his narrator here locks the reader in and provides confidence that the author is going to deliver something special. Reading this is a lesson in writing. A graduate seminar, no less. Like any class, there is at least one "slow" point, but this might be a mercy, rather than a failing. Given the height of literary airs here, one must come down into the atmosphere to breathe, at least once. Given the depths of subtly-hypnotic writing that draws the reader down like a long-missed lover on a warm bed, one must, for a moment, come up for air.

The opening breath, "Ravissante" is, at turns, wonderfully subtle, then ridiculous, then embarrassing, then horrifying. There may or may not have been a supernatural element to the story - a black poodle that was as much spider as dog, a domineering crone who stoked the bellows of lust in the narrator for a girl that may or may not have been real, an insect-demon, all of which might have just been occlusions of the mind - or not. Marlowe is banging his head against his sarcophagus because he knows what Faust could have been, since Aickman has shown the world how to best portray the invasion of the demonic into the banality of life on planet earth. Five stars that may be either real or imagined. You decide. Aickman isn't telling.

As the trees around me became yet bigger and thicker, fear came upon me; though not the death fear of that previous occasion, I felt now that I knew what was going to happen next; or, rather, I felt I knew one thing that was going to happen next, a thing which was but a small and far from central part of an obscure, inapprehensible totality. As one does on such occasions, I felt more than half outside my body.

"The Inner Room" is a creepy dollhouse story. Take the best of Danielewski, Angela Carter, and Brothers Quay, stir it together, make the syntax perfectly exquisite, the imagery simultaneously vivid and murky, and each character's mannerisms subtly but thoroughly manifest through their dialogue and actions, with just a touch of philosophical insight into people's hearts, and you have a start. But only a start. Add this bit of inner dialogue, which accurately portrays the strange frisson that children often feel, or at least that I often felt as a child, before an ominous, momentous event:

As the trees around me became yet bigger and thicker, fear came upon me; though not the death fear of that previous occasion, I felt now that I knew what was going to happen next; or, rather, I felt I knew one thing that was going to happen next, a thing which was but a small and far from central part of an obscure, inapprehensible totality. As one does on such occasions, I felt more than half outside my body.

. . . which is reflective of the way I felt as I read this story. Five stars.

"Never Visit Venice" coddles you in hope, warmth, and the promise of love. It lulls you, like a gondola on the water. Then, it thrusts you into the waves and begs, nay, insists the question: Is it preferred to live like a lion for an hour than to live a lifetime like an ass? Five stars above a lilac sky with the waves lapping up against the sides of your wooden gondola.

There's synchronicity in that I read "The Unsettled Dust" at the same time I read Est: Collected Reports from East Anglia. A (un?)happy coincidence(?). Like the landscape it's set in, this is a slow, malingering, matter-of-fact character study intertwined with the supernatural. This one is a little more straightforward for Aickman, but still sprinkled with the dust of uncertainty. Four stars.

"The Houses of the Russians" is a prime example of Aickman's ability to control pace. You think you're coming to a horrific conclusion, then find out you're not. You think you are going to gain some great knowledge, and you do not. You think that the nightmare is over, but it has just begun. Aickman says this is his own favorite story of the collection, but what does an author know about his own work? Nothing, I can assure you. And though this is a fabulous story, I don’t think it’s the best of the collection. Then again, how does one compare one story’s quality against another’s when every story is a miniature master-class in writing? Five eerily-meandering stars to this tale of anachronistic spectres . . . or not.

"No Stronger Than a Flower" is the one disappointing tale in the book; inscrutable, really. Is Nesta a vampire, insane, or merely symbolic? Maybe all three? In any case, her withdrawal seems merely whimsical, perhaps a touch spoiled. A mere three stars here.

AAAAH!!! CREEPY CHILDREN! "The Cicerones" has them. This tale is particularly chilling when compared to the others in this collection. “Sinister” doesn’t even begin to describe the level of paranoia-inducing conspiracy that this tale dredges up from the catacombs. Yep. I've got the shivers now. And yet, this story still has that Aickmanesque power of understatement (unlike my screaming introduction to the paragraph). The ending phrase "especially after everyone started singing," so seemingly innocent when seen alone, is absolutely one of the most terrifying things I have ever read in context. I do not want to hear that hymn! Five stars.

The novella, "Into the Wood," the centerpiece of the book (though it appears last) is one of the most satisfying reads I've had all year. Ostensibly a story about insomnia, it's really a (strange) tale about self-discovery and empowerment of the main characters, Margaret. It's a walk into dreamlessness that blurs the line between night and day, erasing notions of the way things "should be," while remaining gentle and respectful of the needs of those who don't follow the same path. It's about as feminist a work as a man writing in the early 1960s could produce. Consider the thoughts of Margaret, the protagonist, who has accidentally checked in at a Scandinavian resort for insomniacs while her husband attends to business matters in a nearby city:

Margaret took a small pull on herself. Henry must be broadly right and she broadly wrong, or life would simply not continue as it did, and more and more the same everywhere. The common rejoinder to these feelings of rebellion was, as she knew well, that she needed a little more scope for living her own life, even (as a few Mancunians might dare to say) for self-expression. But that popular anodyne never, according to Margaret's observation of other couples, appeared in practice to work. nor could she wonder. It reduced the self in one to the status and limits of a hobby. It offered one lampshade making, or so many hours a week helping the cripples and old folk, when what one truly needed was a revelation; was simultaneous self-expression and self-loss. And at the same time it corrupted marriage and cheapened the family. The rustling, sunny forest, empty but labyrinthine, hinted at some other answer; an answer beyond logic, beyond words, above all beyond connection with what Margaret and her Cheshire neighbours had come to regard as normal life. It was an answer different in kind. It was the very antithesis of a hobby, but not necessarily the antithesis of what marriage should be, though never was.

This paragraph perfectly brings to light the desire and need I have to read and write "spooky" or "strange" fiction, as well as my drive to immerse myself so much into roleplaying games, and my penchant for strange art and hiking alone in the woods. I've learned something about myself and my desires/needs that I couldn't articulate before, but Aickman renders clearly and compellingly into words. Wonderful!

The satisfaction of "Into the Wood" is worth the entire price of the book. And, while Aickman thought "The Russian Houses" was one of his best stories (in this volume, at least), I think he under-rates what he's created here. The depth of insight here, into desire for self-satisfaction (without hedonism) and into the pleasures (not sexual) of losing oneself, is profound. This story is ripe for analysis, whether Marxist, feminist, or what have you. I sense that this story would hold up to any sort of theoretical microscope under which it is examined. It is a writer's story by a writer's writer, nearly perfect in every way. Five stars.

If you are not a writer, have no fear. Well, I take that back. Have some fear, but let Aickman serve it to you in little, enticing doses of unease and just a hint that something isn't right, though it may be; but it probably isn't, unless you look at it in a certain way, which you shouldn't. You think I'm full of vagaries? Try Aickman. The difference is that Aickman's vagaries are as carefully measured and doled out, calculated, really, as mine are flippant and chaotic. Aickman is in control.

Aickman is always in control.

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Saturday, November 3, 2018

Analog Kid

If I don’t write this post now, I never will. I’ll get too caught up in other social media and waste my time away. So, I’m writing now, while the thoughts are hot.

I’m no luddite. I embrace technology. I’m on a lot of different social media platforms, Youtube is almost constantly streaming at my home (for obscure music, if nothing else), I have this here blog (duh), I host a podcast etc. And though I’m about to hit the half-century mark, I don’t consider myself “old,” not by any stretch of the imagination. I finally admitted I was middle aged when I turned 48 (reason: Grandma died at 96, and that’s one of my uncontrollable goals). In my church volunteer work, I spend many hours, every week, working with and alongside singles aged 18-30. Even years after back surgery, I *feel* young. No, not ride-my-bike-to-strange-unexplored-places-for-an-entire-day young, but still, young. I keep telling my kids that I’m still 16 in my head; 17 on a particularly mature day.

But I know, especially after burying both of my parents this past spring, that I don’t have all the time in the world. I love my parents, but they were hardcore television addicts. They did other things, of course, but as far as I can remember there was rarely ever a time when the TV wasn’t on in our house. Even as an adult, when I would call or visit, the TV was always blaring in the background. I wondered, as my father was dying, if he regretted so much time spent in front of the TV. He couldn’t communicate at that point, yet I wondered. I don’t watch much TV at all. Haven’t since I moved out of the house decades ago. I don’t know much about actors and TV shows – a little here and there from shows that I’ve watched, but nowhere near as much as almost everyone I interact with. I just don’t want to waste my time and brain space on that much TV. Again: Life is too short. Way too short. That has been hammered home to me in a big way this past year. Hammered right down into my heart with a sharp spike of grief. Twice.

And yet, I will get roped into surfing the internet and, in particular, social media, quite regularly. I probably waste nearly as much time on that as my parents did on TV. Not quite, but close.

A month or so ago, Google announced that it would no longer be supporting Google Plus outside of business use. I was big into G+, since the roleplaying game community there is a Big Deal. Artists use Instagram, authors and actors use twitter, bored housewives use facebook, and gamers use G+. And now, G+ is going to go the way of all flesh.

So, there was a mass scramble for “where to go” in the gaming community. Many of us ended up, for a number of reasons, on MeWe. It seems to be a happy medium between FB and G+, with some of the features of both and, of course, missing stuff from both. But it seems adequate to the task. And I don’t want to lose contact with my many gamer friends. At least not most of them.

In the process of all this, author Michael Curtis (known for his work for Goodman Games, primarily) wrote a post about something he had been thinking about for a long time, a physical newsletter, in which people would mail him (yes, with physical mail, not Email) a note and an SASE (that’s Self-addressed Stamped Envelope for those who don’t know) and he would, in return, send the newsletter and, if you wished, include your name and physical address in the newsletter as one who would desire to be contacted by others.

Michael also pointed out the very interesting RPG “DeProfundis,” which is based on, you guessed it, letter writing. I've just purchased it, in fact, after reading Michael's writeup about it in his newsletter. While they recommend writing in the medium that is “of the era” (so Email and texts for modern games, letters for older games), I would think letters all the time might be very cool, if it was limited to a small number of people who you are profoundly connected with in terms of gaming. I can think of a handful of people like that very easily! Back when I first started gaming, if you didn’t game face to face, you either did “play by mail” or you didn’t game at all! I’d LOVE to see “play by mail” resurrected. Seriously, handwriting the story that you exchange with each other, anticipating that letter arriving in the mail, opening it to discover what creative additions your other players have included – now THAT is exciting stuff!

As a teenager, in the days before Email, we used to (gasp!) write letters to each other all the time. Real, physical letters that oftentimes bared our souls to the recipient. You think it’s tough doing long-distance relationships now? Hah! Hahahahahaha! Anyway, when Email came along, I embraced it wholeheartedly. It was so much easier (and cheaper) to send an Email than to send a letter. Then along came social media, making connections with old friends as simple as a click.

But some things were lost. A lot was lost, in fact. Not a lot of information. In fact, I have access to far more information than I even thought existed back then. I can easily and conveniently look up information on any number of subjects, so long as I’m willing to winnow through the chaff of misinformation that exists on the internet now. Books that I had thought would be lost forever are easily found scanned into electronic nooks and crannies everywhere. The encyclopedias of my youth are entirely worthless at this point. Almost all he music in the world is at the tip of my fingers. I can look up and contact many old friends at will, or for a small fee.

The ubiquity of information is, overall, a good thing, if one is wise. Lost, though, is a lot of the heart and soul, the human-ness that went into establishing and maintaining connections and in creating new information and art to add to that which already exists. We have been digitized and de-humanized, to some extent. Futurist will argue that this is the next step in evolution, but when the tool becomes the user and the user becomes the tool (I’m looking straight at you, Facebook), are we evolving or are we surrendering growth to and becoming subjected to those who are wielding the tools, that is, wielding us. Your information online is not your own. You are fooling yourself if you don’t think you’re being fed information and influenced every time you start up a web-browser.

Again, though, I’m not a luddite. I’m not here to convince you that you should give up technology. I love it.

Still, something has been lost. And I feel it. I feel it in my soul. Just before Michael Curtis announced his initiative, I had sent a couple of snail mail letters out to friends of mine – good friends, close friends who I initially “met” online, but have since met in person several times. Friends that I leaned on when my parents died, even. These are not cursory relationships.

Yet so many of my online relationships are cursory. This is just a question of statistics – I get it. I’ve got almost 5,000 followers on Twitter. I can’t follow all of them every day. I’d have no life at all. So I cull my “must check on” list to 150 people. Still, that’s 150 people, the so-called “Dunbar’snumber” – the number of people that one can realistically maintain stable social relationships. And that’s just on Twitter. Add in Facebook, Instagram, and now MeWe (acknowledging that there is some overlap) and it’s still just . . . too . . . much.

When I sent those letters and when I received Michael’s little newsletter, I felt CONNECTED. And that’s what I long for, feeling really, truly connected in meaningful ways to interesting people whom I love. I also want to feel connected with myself! So often, I lose myself in social media, and I mean that in all the worst ways. I lose time, I lose focus on my existential being here and now, I get distracted from those with whom I want to build the strongest relationships, and I don’t take the critical, soul-feeding time I need to be creative and let my mind wander and expand on its own, away from the noise of social media.

In time, I’m going to probably abandon Facebook. I need to be on there now, because of the church responsibilities I mentioned above. But I will only be in my current position for two more years, after which I plan on really ramping down on FB usage and maybe just leaving it altogether. As it is, I really only go on to wish someone happy birthday or to see pictures of my grandson that my daughter has posted. Even then, though, the distraction, the hook, is waiting there, just off to the side, to drag me down into a fugue of wasted time and empty conversations, away from my creative energies, away from my analog self.

Twitter seems to be about my speed, and I don't see myself leaving it for a while. But I am careful to cull those who I follow, but who don’t follow me, unless I feel really compelled to do so. There are certain artists and thinkers and book publishers who I will follow that will never follow me (Nick Cave, Useke Ueno, I’m looking at you two), and I’m fine with that. But by and large, I am purging Twitter of those who just want to advertise to me or who don’t provide me something meaningful to me.

MeWe is a work in progress. I’m connected to far fewer people than I was on G+, and this is a bit of a disappointment, because gamers are my crew, so to speak. But I’m okay with thinning the herd a bit, too. That let’s me concentrate on those who fill my heart, head, and soul.
Instagram is a clean interface, but I've gone into it really limiting who I follow, for reasons that should be apparent by now, if not by the end of this post. 
Pinterest is a great place for collecting images. But definitely not a good social media platform. I consider it more of an idea dumping ground than anything. 
Tumblr I hardly use specifically because it is way too easy to become enwrapped there. I pretty much just don't go there anymore, and I'm happier and more fulfilled for it.
For a time, I was really, really into Goodreads as my preferred method of social media. I don't quite know why I got away from that. How cool is it to be able to connect with people about books. You'll always have something to talk about there, and I've developed some great, real life relationships via Goodreads. Goodreads stays! In fact, if I were to cut down my social media list dramatically, Goodreads would be the last thing to go.
I'm hoping that clearing a bit more space in my analog life by cutting out some virtual life will also free me up to do what I love most: writing and gaming and reading and hiking and learning to play that darned guitar, as well as spending time with my wife, kids, and grandson, as well as those friends who are in proximity (or travelling to bring me in proximity with those friends). I need to interact directly with the world. And the internet is not the world. It's a mask. I'm ready to begin clawing off the mask.

What lies ahead? I’m not sure. Changes, definitely. But not all at once. Consider this post a declaration of intent and a beginning. I’m not abandoning the internet, no, far, far from it. I’ve developed many real and lasting friendships there. But the internet is a starting point for me, now. Not an end in and of itself. It’s a place to test the waters, but not a place to dive to the bottom. I want to see who is out there and what they have to offer, but you’ll find me concentrating on far fewer people, far more deeply than before. If you feel like maybe I’ve been inattentive to you online, maybe it’s time for you to reach out a bit, too, huh? Leave me a message here with your Email address, for starts. Then let’s exchange snail mail addresses. Of course, I won’t be able to take up correspondences with everyone, but we might just strike it rich and be rewarded with getting to know each other better than the virtual masks we both wear online. I’ll start. Here’s my snail mail (which I will keep up until some doofus does something stupid, but I’m willing to take that chance), coded to screw with bots:

1^7^1^8 W^e^b^e^r D^r

M^a^d^i^s^o^n^, W^I 5^3^7^1^3


Send me a letter. Or a postcard. Or knickknacks. Whatever you like (so long as it’s legal and not obscene, please). I’ll get something back in the mail to you until I can’t afford the time or postage anymore.

And, of course, feel free to ping me at all the usual social media. Just remember that you’re up against thousands of other people and all their potential distractions. Your chances of getting my attention are infinitely larger via snail mail. Now, I’m off to send another SASE to Michael!

Est: Collected Reports from East Anglia

Est: Collected Reports from East AngliaEst: Collected Reports from East Anglia by Wendy Mulford
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Place possesses us. Place colonises us. It is a dirt simple, soil simple truth that we so often deny.

I lived a tough, yet charmed life as a child. Tough because I was raised by a military man, with all that implies. Charmed because, as a military brat, I lived in more places around the world than most people even see in their lifetime. People often ask "what was it like moving around so much"? To which I reply "It's all I ever knew. It was just how we lived." To recap, I was born in Germany and lived in The Philippines, Italy, England, and all over the US. And I mean lived, not "visited," not "touristed," not "vacated"; Lived. Yes, we saw the sights, but I was much more likely, for example, to intentionally find my way to the seedy parts of London, get propositioned by hookers, watch bums fighting, drop into a game store and play a game of Dungeons and Dragons, and drink at the local pub than to visit the Tower of London (never been there) or Madame Tussauds (never been there, either). Each country and each section of each country had their own je ne sais qua. But of all the places I lived, I loved England most. I lived on RAF Chicksands, near Bedford, Beds, in the "midlands" as they call it. I gathered, during my time there, that Bedford was considered one of those towns - so big that you had to acknowledge it was there, but with so little to do that no one went there for anything in particular. With London less than an hour train ride south, why would you go to Bedford? Well, suffice it to say that me and my mates found ourselves off-base, in Bedford, often enough. Getting off-base was always a good thing (those who have lived behind the barbed wire know why I say this).

We didn't always head straight for Bedford, or London, for that matter. My favorite city was actually Oxford. And my favorite area to "get away" from people was the Cotswolds. My wife and I are hoping to make it over there next year, in fact. We'll see what circumstances and finances allow.

Very occasionally, thrice, I think, I went to the area known as East Anglia. Frankly, there wasn't much there to do. We went to the coast there to pick up our car when it shipped from the States. I went to a Model United Nations Human Rights day at RAF Bentwaters (which is the subject of one of the essays in this book) and had a one night stand with another student there (I happened to be assigned to room at her house, which we both . . . like very much). And the third time, I can't remember why I was out there, just that I was out that direction.

As much as people ignored Bedford, they downright looked down their nose at East Anglia. For American readers, East Anglia is sort of the equivalent of the plains of North Dakota. People live there, but few of them really want to live there. It was considered a waste-space, to be honest.

So, what did I want out of this book? Maybe it's gritty nostalgia. Or my fascination with the cast-off corners of all places, the liminal zones between desireable and undesireable places. Maybe I wanted to recapture the feeling of living near there. I don't know. But, in the end, I felt satisfied, possibly because of the immersiveness of this book. This is a broad range of essays and poetry, but not so broad that it loses all semblance of structure. It's eclectic in both style and subject matter, just the sort of quirky, undefinable sort of book that I love most.

It feels like there's a touch of pride nestled into the self-deprecation of the introduction, and an appreciation for the hidden glory of the banal. Maybe that's what I seek: justification for the "small guy" living in the undesirable spaces. I might just have a chip on my shoulder. While I most miss the hills of the Cotswolds and the bustle of London, East Anglia was very near my home for an important time in my life, my "coming of age" in my late teen years (15 - 18). I do recall hiking out that way over what seemed like a lot of sand dunes, or at least sandy-soiled hillocks. There was a certain ruggedness that held appeal, like the way some people love the desert (though not me!) or the bayou. And the scent of the ocean was always just over the . . . well, not hill, um . . . horizon. Though the horizons there were vast. One felt, at times, like one could fall into the sky.

But it wasn't just the land itself. People lived here. One thing Americans just do NOT understand is the vast old-ness of Europe. Sure, there were people in the Americas thousands of years ago, but there's no tangible sense of inheritance or continuity from those times. In Europe, there is that sense. For example, when I was a teenager, we used to sneak into a priory that had originally been established in 1150 - eight hundred and thirty five years before I arrived in England - to hold seances, frighten girls (they cuddled more that way, when they weren't punching you for being a jerk) and drink, mostly. There were actual secret passages in the walls and a couple of underground tunnels, though one of them had been bricked up by the police years before and the other led to an old stone wine cellar. And it was supposedly haunted. I have so many good, spooky memories of that place!

David Southwell hints at what we were on about in his essay "The Empty Quarter:

Fossil spaces - buildings that outlived their original purpose - still sing songs of their former lives. We march to them not to find shelter nor succour, but something of ourselves. Something lost. What was forgotten in the static of the city, now waiting on the horizon as derelict memories. Ready to be walked to, ready for conversation with us. Ready to live in our imagination.

As you can see, there is some great writing in this collection. One of my favorite segments is this haunting historical anecdote by Edmund Blakeny:

Our travels begin where all my journeys ind, in the fishing town of Cromer, which bravely faces the iron sea. She is a strange sloping town forming an 'L' shape from the four pinnacles of the church tower to the fantastic limb of the pier stretching out beyond the coast. The town and the sea coexist with relative ease, though this has not always [been - sic] the case. Indeed, at one time Cromer was far removed from the abyss and relatively inland, for beneath the frowning arch of the horizon, beneath the swelling waves, lies the memory of Cromer's older brother, the town of Shipden.

It was a cold Medieval night, as the Angelus rang out over the rising gale, imploring the townsfolk to prayer, when a devilish storm was riding out at sea. it lashed the charging waves with its lightening whip and roared with malevolent glee. Terrified by the hollow crash of air against the cliffs, not a single man, woman nor child dared answer the Church's call fr fear of being struck down without mercy, and so the village hid in terror. But the storm was too cruel to accept their submission. The galloping waves smashed into the weak shield of the cliff; rain and hail, like stones from a sling, were hurled against the earth; the wind tore trees and gorse up out from the ground; and the jetties and houses were swept away as the angelus continued to ring out over the chaos. The next day, Cromer awoke to a sky of remorseful pink hanging over the sea's flat and mournful expanse, like a satin cloth covering the tomb of Shipden.

Five centuries later, in 1888, the steamer
Victoria was travelling en route from Cromer to Yarmouth when it struck an unknown object and rapidly began to take on water. The local fisherman rushed to rescue the passengers as the ship was consumed by the sea. When it was discovered that the vessel had collided with a church steeple rising above the waves, Shipden emerged from the mists of history and tales rapidly began to circulate.

But the lost town had long since been a present reality for the people of Cromer before the
Victoria disaster: on frozen nights when the sea strikes out at the cliffs, a toll can be heard resounding under the storm; a sorrowful chime, again and again, like an Angelus bell calling the fearful to prayer.

This is some exquisite writing. This is the sort of non-fiction that can carry one away into the numinous without any reliance on the supernatural. It's rare to find non-fiction prose this good, especially on such a banal subject as the landscape. Yet, here it is.

As I mentioned, I've been to RAF Bentwaters, back when it was an active US Air Force base. Funny that they don't mention the well-known UFO incident that happened there in the '80s, which is still, even now, causing controversy. They do mention the fact that the runway, the longest in Europe (to accommodate the Space Shuttle, should it have needed to land there) is paved over the central village of the East Angles, who ruled the region for 400 years. There has to be a symbol there

Speaking of strange happenings, through this book, I discovered "Seahenge," an ancient stone circle that seemed to emerge from the waves (shades of Lovecraft) long after I had left England.

As most of my Goodreads friends know, I like to read more than one book at a time (life's too short not to). I've been reading Robert Aickman's Sub Rosa in between the chapter breaks for Est. I went from reading Aickman to reading Lander Hawes' short piece without skipping a beat. This is a huge complement to Hawes, whose atmospheric piece here, "His Winter View," is an evocation of the relationship between man and land.

Elaine Ewart's essay on the archaeology of Sutton Hoo and the deaths of her loved ones, "Digging," resonated deeply with me, since my parents both passed away this past Spring. That was a hard read for me, but cleansing for the soul in some ways. Books do that to you, sometimes, baptize your soul with fire, as it were. I needed that read.

On the less pathos-driven, but no less compelling front, there is a bookstore story in here! And a wonderful one, at that, about a bookstore being opened in an abandoned chapel in the heart of an East Anglian village. Robert jacksons "the Chapel" is a delightful read!

"Living Landscape," by Darren Tansley, is a fascinating natural history of the Essex/Suffolk border region of the Stour Valley that reminds me that Britain is, after all, very small, an island where changes in climate and human practices have immediate effects on the land. In very few pages, Tansley gives the reader a strong sense of the earth-spirit of the area, a short glimpse that provides a great deal of "knowing" in its few words. Nature writers should strive to emulate this sort of "unfolding" writing that allows the reader to peek under the covers without shoving his face into the sometimes crassness of academic science. The essay feels, well, natural.

"Deep Traces" goes underground. Here archaeologist Philip Crummy outlines the evidence of Roman inhabitants and, strikingly, the Boudicann destruction of the invaders. In the matter of five pages one is immersed (almost literally) into the pre-Christian history of Britain, learning the human stories behind the artifactual remains. Wonderfully insightful and even evocative. This is how archaeology should be written!

MW Bewick pens a delightful skip through East Anglia by way of Ian Fleming and his famous character in "00". Bond bonds it all together. An interesting contrivance for pulling disparate thoughts together. A neat piece of literary sleight-of-hand. What would you expect from an essay whose touchpoints are spy novels?

There is good poetry interspersed throughout this volume, but none rises to the level of Wendy Mulford's gothic "The Doppelganger II," a dark, melancholy poem of loss brought on by The Great War happening within earshot of the shores of East Anglia.

Across the channel, the guns. That's all she hears.

I won't quote it in full, out of respect for the author. But it is one of the more compelling poems I've read in an age or two. A wonderful way to cap off this excellent volume!

Whether or not you've been to or live in England, you would do well, especially on a drizzly autumn day, to immerse yourself in Est. Though it didn't bring me "all the way back" to England (that's what next year's trip is for!), it did provide enough glimpses to remind me of my time there and the wonderful place it is, even in its most undesirable, empty spaces.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2018

On the Impossibility of Communicating Ideas

A few months ago, I fortuitously stumbled across the Weird Studies podcast. It is a brilliant podcast, definitely one of my favorites and the exploration of themes by the hosts (and they really are exploring as they go, by and large) makes for a sort of intellectual jazz with human heart. I’ve been catching up on some earlier episodes and I was absolutely thrilled to listen to their reading of M.R. Jame’s “The Mezzotint,” along with their follow up episode, entitled “Art is a Haunting Spirit”. They do some hard-digging, sometimes clumsy coming-to-grips with what the story has to say about modernity and art. There are too many ideas for me to elaborate on here, so go listen to the reading and the follow-up on your own. You won’t regret it.

But you might end up scratching your head a bit. There are times when Martel and Ford are searching about in the muck for meaning and moments when they outright contradict themselves (c.f. Ford’s direct contradiction of himself when early on he posits that the spectre in “The Mezzotint” is symbolic of the modernity of art, then later posits that the spectre is a refutation of the replicability of modernity – or maybe I just didn’t hear things correctly. This is entirely possible). This is one of the features I enjoy most about this podcast, the real, grinding exploration of some of the most difficult questions.

As an undergrad, I majored in Humanities with a history emphasis and an anthropology minor. Humanities is a broad set of subjects ranging from visual arts to music to dance to architecture to theater to cinema to history to philosophy and in a number of other directions that I am forgetting. I loved studying in that major. One thing I liked about it was the sheer lack of “track” structure. There was little progression or prerequisite qualifications for classes (except for the senior level seminars, which were amazing), so I could take many classes in whatever order I wanted. Because of my desire to take certain classes that were only offered intermittently, I ended up taking Introduction to Philosophy as a senior.

 By this time, I had been accepted into graduate school, and I knew that if I ever got bored in class, I could say something controversial to ensure that I was being entertained and getting my money’s worth (hate to tell you this, kids, but universities are businesses, and you are paying for a product, so you have to do what you can to get what you want). So, I was dead bored in Philosophy 101, having examined most of the material already for several years through different lenses. I was feeling salty and decided I’d spice things up by stating that “The so-called Socratic Method is a farce”. Oh, boy, did that set the freshmen in that class to giggling. “Socrates claims that he and his audience are learning together, exploring thought and meaning, but that’s not true. He’s asking leading questions because he wants to channel his students answers to where he wants them. It’s a trap.”

This just about sent my poor professor into paroxysms. He was not a happy camper. Later, on my midterm, I continued pressing the issue and received a poor grade on that test. On the final and all later papers, I just puked back what the professor fed us and pulled an “A” out of the class. I suppose I didn’t want to jeopardize my grade for the sake of my record, so I played along and pretty much ignored the class. Thankfully, all of my other professors invited such challenges and challenged me back, but based on logic and sound argument, not the authority of tenure or some desire for respect. I mention all of this just to say that I am quite happy to hear Ford contradict himself here, as it means that he has a malleable mind that really is seeking for the “truth” of the matter.

One of the points that Ford and Martel bounce back and forth is the idea presented by music theorist Ferruccio Busoni in his essay “Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music” that no one, not even the composer himself, can fully communicate the “idea” of a piece of music. Because he has to work through notation and representation and because the composer’s music has to be played through instruments, which he has to choose, and because the composer has to choose a certain key to write in, he can never communicate, directly, the music that is in his brain/heart/soul. In fact, the composer can’t even fully know what it is he’s trying to communicate. There simply aren’t tools to capture the feelings of the experience of creativity happening inside the composer at the moment that composition takes place. Therefore, after the moment, well, the moment is gone.

In thinking about my experience writing, it is much the same. When I write, whether writing fiction or writing roleplaying game materials, I honestly cannot communicate what it is I’m feeling when I’m writing. I can give signifiers and indicators and hope that readers have had similar experiences that will allow them to approximate the experience that happens in my brain: the flashes of insight, the subtle connections of ideas, the emotion, the purity of the imaginative experience of creation. But in the end, it’s all an approximation. Not everyone will feel approximately what I feel and absolutely no one will ever feel exactly what I feel when I write. It’s a personal, almost sacred thing. I want to share it, but the sharing of that feeling is so dependent on circumstances far beyond my control, that the best I can do is provide some outside boundaries, no, not even that, some random signposts of what I was thinking and feeling while creating. This is a blight and a blessing. I want, so badly, to communicate with exactitude the things I think, but I’m fooling myself if I don’t acknowledge that my thoughts are far more complex than words can ever relate. The subconscious background bubblings, the leaps of logic, the distant horizons of thoughts that are forming but have not taken shape yet – all these things I am absolutely incapable of relating with language. If I could draw, illustrations might help. If I could compose, music might help set the mood, as well. Then again, with each layer of media that I add comes a layer of complexity and, soon, I am like an acrobat trying to spin plates on sticks.

Yet, I persist. I can’t seem to help myself. Writing is a drug, the creative process is my heroin, it unlocks the pleasure centers of my brain in a way that other acts and substances simply cannot. I’ve been accused of being self-indulgent in my writing and, I suppose that’s true. I firmly believe that a writer needs to write what pleases them, not what is pleasing to the masses (unless that is what also pleases the writer – which is highly unlikely – c.f. everything I’ve written so far in this post). But I want to find other like-minded people who take pleasure in something similar to what I feel and what I see in my thoughts, as difficult as it is to actually communicate this with any sort of specificity.

In the meantime, I’ll hold a place for you at my side. No, you won’t see things exactly as I see them. You’ll see something different. And it’s likely that my life will be richer because of what you see in my work that I cannot. And if you utterly despise what I create or if I fumble in my attempts at communicating, so be it. I could just write what I write only for myself. In fact, I have notebooks full of things you will likely never see. But give it a chance and let’s see if we can’t cross aesthetic paths, if only for a little while, like hikers on a sparsely-travelled path. I’m tipping my hat to you and wishing you a good hike. If you're looking for a place to stay for the night, there's some space in my head. Though, if you lay down to rest therein, I might never find you. Enjoy your stay.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Hiero's Journey

Hiero's Journey (Hiero, #1)Hiero's Journey by Sterling E. Lanier
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've been a fan of the post-apocalyptic genre for many, many years. I'm such a fan that I actually co-host a podcast about post-apocalyptic roleplaying games (if you're curious to hear what I sound like on a microphone, if not in person, follow the link). So Marc, one of my co-hosts, had started reading Hiero's Journey and was so excited about it that he bought me and James, the other co-host, a copy of the book. So, grateful for the fine gift, I read the book. I'm finished. Marc isn't even done, which shows that he has more of a life than I do, I suppose. That's okay. I enjoy my reading addiction.

Hiero's Journey is one of those books hallowed by nerds as part of the "Appendix N" canon. This refers to an appendix in the original Dungeon Master's Guide for Dungeons and Dragons, which lists several books that influenced the creation of D&D. So as I read, I had my brain wide open, hoping to find some snippets of pre-D&D lore.

And I did.

It's clear that Hiero's Journey influenced Gary Gygax's optional psionics rules. That said, like may other "gygaxisms," Lanier's system wasn't lifted wholesale. For example, I do like that there are consequences to Hiero's psionic scrying. It's a two way window if you try to scry through the wrong eyes (rhyming unintentional). That isn't the case, so far as I can see, in the first edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Maybe someone else can point out where I'm wrong.

One thing that surprised me is that it is clear as day that this book is where Gygax (or maybe it was Dave Arneson) got the idea that certain slime and mold creatures might have a latent psionic ability. I thought they just made that up for giggles, but, no, it's right there in Lanier's book!

Unfortunately, the slimy, moldy chapters don't happen until one is very close to the end of the book. And they are, by far, the best chapters. There's a whole lot of infodumping that comes before this, with a few necessary obstacles in the way along the way. This book suffers from being written in the time it was written. Precursors were the old pulp novels and, unfortunately, the New Wave of '60s avant-scifi/fantasy (read: Michael Moorcock, M. John Harrison, et al) didn't quite affect the mainstream speculative fiction writing market in the US and Canada, at least not by that point. So there wasn't a whole to build on. Sorry, but when your baseline is E.E. Doc Smith and John Norman's [fill in the blank] of Gor, your starting at a low point. Add to the incessant infodumping some very clumsy auctorial decisions, and you've got a poorly-written work with some interesting ideas and a bang up good ending. One way around this would have been to allow the infodumps to be spread out and introduced via narrative and revelation-through-action. Another way would be to throw all the infodump into an introductory piece, a "chronicle," maybe, then cut the first nine chapters down to about six chapters. Yes, there's that much chaff in it.

But I didn't hate it. No, there was a lot to like here. As a historical artifact, it's interesting and provides some insight into the creation of one of the greatest games ever created. As a post-apocalyptic science fantasy, it is quite good, with a surprisingly progressive bent to it, especially as regards the characters. As a piece of literature it's . . . quaint. But still recommended to those hungry for a decent piece of post-apocalyptic fiction.

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Saturday, October 6, 2018

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe

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

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

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

What did I learn reading “backwards”?

Thomas Ligotti is a brilliant writer.

Thomas Ligotti is not a perfect writer.

Thomas Ligotti went through growing pains as a writer.

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

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

On to the stories . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What buries itself before it is dead?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is yet more of the Ligotti I love.

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

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

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

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

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

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