Saturday, July 21, 2018

No Man's Land: View from a Surveillance State

No Man's Land: Views from a Surveillance StateNo Man's Land: Views from a Surveillance State by DeSieno Marcus
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Outside of an introduction by Ariel Shanberg outlining the aesthetic purposes behind DeSieno Marcus' photographs and an outro by Martha A. Sandweiss delving into the technologically transgressive nature of the project, this book is all about the photographs. The simple design lets the photos breathe in a startling way.

Once one understands (through reading Sandweiss' essay) the subversive nature of Marcus' methods, the landscapes take on a decidedly hauntological tone, but in a twisted way. Rather than fostering a vision of a past that never was hoping for a future that never will be (as in the Ghost Box Records oeuvre, for a musical example), Marcus' photographs subvert our inner version of the "wilderness" by tricking us about our assumptions. Without context, one looks at these photos and thinks that they are beautiful vintage photos of the world's great wildernesses. The astute observer will see that there are sometimes elements - a line of power poles, for example, or a graded road - that indicate that these are not necessarily old photographs and that the photographer might have used old techniques to emulate antique photographs. This is true . . . partially.

The true hauntological element comes in when one realizes that the way Marcus produced these photos was by hacking into trailside and wilderness security cameras. He then sets up a wooden camera (complete with bellows and brass fittings) and shoots a picture of his computer screen. Then, using "a waxed paper negative process", he creates images that look as if they were shot in the very early days of daguerreotypes.

Genius. Pure, subversive genius.

Of course, this opens up a whole Pandora's box of questions: Since he is hacking into security cameras, who is watching who? And if you happened to be on the trail or in the landscape at the time Marcus "took" his photographs (I use the word intentionally) and you are now viewing those photographs, are the observer and the observed the same? Or, through Marcus' manipulation, has the observed changed in some way because of the nature of the transformation? Furthermore, what about the purposes of the trailside cameras? Are they "secure"? Do they reach the objective of their "security" if they can be hacked by an outsider, then viewed by the world, at least in a frames'-worth snapshot in time?

The hauntological implications are really quite staggering. How often do we fool ourselves into accepting a certain vision of "the past," when, in fact, that vision has been manufactured in the present? I was a child of the '80s - graduated high school in 1987, if you must know - and it is easy for me to listen to music, for example, that was created recently, but that I swear could have been present at that time, but absolutely was not. The retrowave synth movement is the classic example of this. Listening to it, I can say that, yes, it evokes the way it felt to be a teenager in the '80s (I realize I am generalizing my nostalgic feelings and applying them to millions of people, which I have no right to do, since each individual experience of that decade was different), but if asked to provide examples of where and when I heard such music, I am hard-pressed to come up with good examples. I suppose the movies Tron, Escape from New York, and Blade Runner and their soundtracks provide the best readily-accessible example, but not every movie in the '80s was Tron, Escape from New York, or Blade Runner. In any case, none of these soundtracks are identical to the retrowave music being produced today (and vice-versa), so, really, even the nostalgia I feel when listening to new-retrowave music is not truly memory, it is a reflection of my present views of the past, not a mirror of the past itself, an imposition of my present mind laid on top of my muddle memories of the past. My memories of the past are haunted by the phantoms of the present and my present impressions are haunted by the underlying memories of the past.

Which begs the question: Am I even myself? The question . . . haunts me.

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Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The Potemkin Mosaic

The Potemkin MosaicThe Potemkin Mosaic by Mark Teppo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There is no linearity to Mark Teppo's incredible The Potemkin Mosaic. If you are looking for a straightforward plot and real-world logic, look elsewhere. This will sear your eyes out of their sockets. This is the realm of dream, of astral fields, of the hidden tunnels of gnosis and the far-depths of psychology.

Perhaps we should start with the book's blurb:

TH3y want you to be TH3iR agent.
Harry wants you to be free.
Nothing is what it seems, but everything herein actually happened.

Ten years ago, dream doctor Harry Potemkin realized someone was editing his identity, in much the same way that he ventured into the minds of his psychologically damaged patients. In order to discover how he was being changed, he started a dream journal. He also built a lexicon, a persistent record of the symbolic markers that would enable him to remap his consciousness should it become severely fragmented.

Ten years ago, Trinity Pharmacopoeia was about to release a new neurological nootropic called Atramabor, a drug that would revolutionize how we sleep and dream. Teh first promotional commercial for Atramabor aired once, and was then mysteriously pulled. Lawsuits, contending that subliminal messaging was hidden within the thirty second spot, were filed. Within six months, Trinity Pharmacopoeia canceled all plans to release Atramabor. A year later, the company dissolved.

Harry Potemkin never woke up from his dreams. In fact, there is no evidence he ever existed.

Nor are there any copies of the Atramabor commercial, though there are documented interviews with individuals who claim to have been changed by what they saw. All corporate records regarding Trinity Pharmacopoeia have been expunged from state and federal databases.

And yet, the battle between Potemkin and Trinity is very real. It continues to this day. TH3y know he can stop them, unless TH3y get to him first.

The Potemkin Mosaic is Harry's exploration of his fragmented dream psyche. This is the only record of his identity.

TH3y want you to read it, because this is the only way Harry can be caught.

And this is as straightforward as anything gets with this . . . novel? Yes, novel. Originally produced at the sadly defunct Farrago's Wainscot (where your's truly had a few pieces of fiction published), The Potemkin Mosaic, in its original incarnation, was a hypertext novel of incredible depth and complexity. When I first heard that Mark was going to try to wrestle this non-linear virtual text into something less non-linear, in physical format, I was skeptical that it could even be done. But he's pulled it off with panache.

It would be one thing, a minor miracle, if Teppo pulled off the structural heist alone. But he's gone way beyond that. The prose is compelling, the subject matter an esotericist's dream . . . literally. Take, for example, the entry on page 163 entitled "Cage"(with the zodiac symbol for Aquarius underneath - the book is full of symbols and interesting typography):


"Black Iron Prison" is the term you'll hear used by the modern seeker of gnosis. It's a reference to the Archonic Construction of the Universe, a theorythat multi-dimensional intelligences are preventing us from realizing our full spiritual and cognitive potential by locking our minds in these psychic prisons.

There are a number of analogous mythological scenarios strewn throughout history, so as a cosmological definition, the Archonic Construction of the Universe is as good as any. It benefits from being connected to Philip K. Dick's paranoid visions, which any competent oneironaut appreciates.

Modern culture suffers from a lack of decent mythological canon. We should make our own, because, really, we are children of the 3rd millennium. It's time we believed in our own gods.

Which brings me back to the concept of cages. We continue to be trapped by second-millennial constructs. Hell, even the apocalyptic terror of the end of the first millennium still pervades our psyches. We're still too busy looking over our shoulders to realize the first apocalypse of the third millennium is rapidly approaching.

That's another story. I'll get to it later.

Cages. No man can ever be imprisoned against his Will. Crowley knew this once, though he forgot it shortly after the other initiates and adepts started fawning over his "transmission from teh desert." Yes, you can cage the flesh and you can even lock the mind into a cell, but the Will is unbreakable.

Jung gave it a different name - "individuation" - but didn't allow himself the freedom to imbue it with any lasting power. Freud (the last black magician of the twentieth century, frankly) had managed to bind Jung tightly enough that the Swiss psychologist never truly realized he had been . . . caged.

Now, you could just turn the page and continue, reading the entry on Casual Disarray (with the symbol for Virgo under it), but what's this? To the side of paragraph 4 is a reference:

* fragmentary
p. 209

And to the side of the last paragraph:

* burnblack
p. 26

I like the side of burnblack. Let's turn there. It reads (starting with a triangle character, which I'm not able to replicate here because my html skills suck):

"Burnblack, o falling star!"

I've tried to find the source of this quote, but it has eluded me. Like a number of the mythological and symbolic elements within my dreams, I'm starting to believe it as an admixture. There is a fusion going on in my head, and I can't quite tell if it is a matter of too much time in the Oneiroi or too many days and nights of being under the influence of narcotics, hallucinogens, and other psychotropic compounds. My head is already warped enough.

More likely,
burnblack is of archaic origin, possibly some lost bit of biblical apocrypha. A reference to the fallen angels. Or maybe the first of the fallen ones.

Quomodo cecidisti de caelo, lucifer, fili aurorae?

How else would you describe the back of a being who was not burned by the fire of his wings, but was burned by the fire of his fall? And, as my hand unconsciously strayed as I was writing down my dream: "sun-darkened (burnblack, o falling star!)" If God is the sun and you have been cast away from his grace, would not "sun-darkened" accurately describe your state?

To be burnblack is to be fallen. But falling is necessary to find the path to ascension. At least, one must be willing to fall - one must understand the fall.

Quod est inferius est sicut quod est superius, et quot est superius est sicut quod est inferius, ad perpetranda miracula rei unius.

Finally, some use for those two stifling years of Latin classes - from before the experiments and the drugs. Not all of it was wasted time.

Again, in the margins, we are given the choice to seek out "labyrinth", "fire", or "descent", with corollary page numbers. Or, you could just continue reading, going to the facing page titled "IV The Library" and attempt to forge a linear path through this labyrinth. But you won't. Your curiosity will pull you to another side entry and you will travel down the rabbit hole until you feel that you, yourself, are "living the dream" of Harry Potemkin. Oh, and incidentally, for those who were wondering, and I know some of you were wondering, this book was published the same year that David Bowie's Blackstar was released, though the original hypertext novel was published nine years earlier. Methinks they were on the same wavelength, if not tapping into the same esoteric substance.

Potemkin reaches into the ethereal, grasps its strands, and becomes enmeshed in the mists of dream, puncturing the veil, from time to time, in sudden moments of startling lucidity, only to find that beyond that veil is another and another and another. It is an ambitious work, a labyrinthine carnival that leaves the reader clutching at the ever shifting walls of reality and perception - the author's, the reader's, and that of Potemkin himself. Read, wander, lose yourself, and try to find yourself again. Sleep easy, if you can.

The original hypertext novel is still available here, but I strongly recommend you pick up the physical book, which is both a little more manageable and a little more unruly than the original, in good ways. Good luck. See you on the other side.

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The Children of Gla'aki: A Tribute to Ramsey Campbell's Great Old One

The Children of Gla'aki: A Tribute to Ramsey Campbell's Great Old OneThe Children of Gla'aki: A Tribute to Ramsey Campbell's Great Old One by Brian M. Sammons
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I began this book, I took the following note: "On a bit of a Lovecraftian kick, but it will soon pass. I won't say I'm burning out on it, but I'm . . . more wary than I was in the past."

After reading this volume, maybe I'm leaning more toward the burnout stage. A few stories herein have kept me from the brink of just saying "Quatsch" to everything with the descriptor of "Lovecraftian". But there was a fair amount of dreck. On average, was it worth reading? Yes. The really great stories in here are really great. Perhaps you need the bad to highlight the good, like a diamond atop mud. But having to clean off all the muck is getting old. Perhaps I had high hopes, because I enjoyed Ramsey Campbell's The Inhabitant of the Lake & Other Unwelcome Tenants, despite his self-reproachment for the immaturity of some of the stories. Maybe that's the problem - writers taking cues from an unstable source. Some of these writers were able to fashion gems, others cheap baubles, still others, broken, useless shards.

Nick Mamatas's "Country Mouse, City Mouse" was, as I expect from Mamatas, well-written and dipped its toes in explorations of tolerance and diversity. It expands the "universe" of Campbell's work by extending its reach. But I didn't find it all that horrific, outside of the fatalism expressed at the end. Three stars to this tale.

John Goodrich's "Tribute Band" isn't the sort of story I normally like. But what should have been a hackneyed story of rock and roll gone wrong was actually really enjoyable. It's a little "cute" and somewhat predictable, but the voice is distinctive and likable. The balance between folksy structure and challenging vocabulary is excellent. I just plain found myself drawn in. Three stars. Better than I would have guessed!

Robert M. Price's "In Search of Lake Monsters" is as pulpy as they come, with all the trappings one would expect. Then again, it had all the trappings one would expect . . . Still, I enjoyed it a lot. Four stars full of guilty pleasure. Sometimes you just can't really explain why you like a story, you just do. That's the case here.

While Pete Rawlik's "The Collection of Gibson Flynn" has an intriguing twist ending, the buildup paid so much homage to Lovecraftiana that it read like one giant inside joke, a pastiche of itself, mythos masturbation. The ending saves it from the realms of hackneyed mediocrity, but only just. Three stars, barely.

Outside of the intriguing title, W. H. Pugmire's "The Secret Painting of Thomas Cartwright" was uninspired and not nearly as intriguing as the title. Two forgetful stars.

Edward Morri's"I Want to Break Free" is a lesson in tension: the push me, pull me between cosmic forces and self-will, the intestines of genius and insanity, even the fence-hopping from pop culture references to literary stylistics. This story has VOICE. Punch. Chutzpah. Up to this point, the best story in the anthology, and it's not even close. I want to read more Morris! Five stars.

I'm admittedly out of touch with the weird fiction world. So this was the first Scott R. Jones story I've ever read. I am impressed. "The Spike" is a deep exploration of the alien-ness of, not Gla'aki, but a piece of Gla'aki. It's like Roadside Picnic but with the horror turned up to eleven. The writing is sparse, punchy, yet descriptive. Five stars.

I am certain that Thana Niveau must have better work than "The Dawning of His Dreams," given her publication history. This . . . I don't know what to call it, a story, I guess, did absolutely nothing for me. It's a hot mess. As an editor, I would likely throw this thing across the room. One star, because it was written. That's the best I can do.

William Meikle's "The Lakeside Cottages" featured a narrator that was too clever and self-aware by half. It read like a Call of Cthulhu session with a narrator who seemed to possess great knowledge of the Old Ones, which might be great for a recurring character, like an occult investigator, but didn't work in this one shot. Still, okay. Three stars for the three eyes of Gla'aki.

I have high expectations for Orrin Grey's fiction, and "Invaders of Glaaki" didn't disappoint. Yes, I'm a sucker for '80s nostalgia, and this story is full of it. But it takes things in a horrific direction. Imagine The Last Starfighter meets cosmic horror. I am not a big fan of second-person viewpoint, but it kind of worked for the story. I enjoyed this. Four stars.

Sorry, but Tom Lynch's "Scion of Chaahk" is a Campbell pastiche while Campbell is pastiching Lovecraft. I . . . just . . . can't . . . Maybe I'm just done with pulpy mythos fiction? Two stars.

Konstantine Paradias' "Cult of Panacea" is everything that Niveau's earlier story could have been. Yes, it's a history, but its presentation in the context of the story makes sense and forms a bleak, resigned picture of what it means to be a cultist of Gla'aki in the far-future wake of Earth's decrepitude and demise. It's rare to find a science fiction horror piece like this. It held my interest well. Four stars.

I think it's time to admit to myself that I do NOT like mythos pastiches, especially those that are trying to be funny, but are not very funny. Josh Reynolds' "Squatters Rights" just hit all the wrong buttons for me. I'm becoming leery of these Cosmic Horror Mythos-inspired anthologies. I'll finish this one. There have been some great stories here. But not this one. Two stars and my tastes are a-changin'.

Lee Clark Zumpe shows considerable writing skill through most of "Beneath Cayuga's Churning Waves," then ends flat. The ending was a disappointing deus-ex-machina, which could have been the ending to just about any detective thriller. It was as generic an ending as I could think of, like something right out of a "You Too Can Write Detective Stories" formula book. The story is still worthy of four stars, but the ending felt so tacked on that it doesn't deserve a fifth.

Despite a number of poor stories in here, some shine. Tim Waggoner's "Nature of Water" is one such. Simultaneously flipping the horror on its head and embracing it, this is a tale of horrific redemption. What could have easily been revenge schlock, Waggoner turns into an emotionally meaningful, yet terrifying end, deftly avoiding the obvious. Wonderfully written and full of pathos, I loved this story. Five stars.

That's three reality-show stories now. I'm tired of them. This one, "Night of the Hopfrog" by Tim Curran, claims to be the raw transcript of video for a ghost-hunter style show. But then where is all the parenthetical notation coming from? Who wrote these notes? The story would be more effective without them actually. Even then, with proper editing, I would only give it two stars. I never liked reality TV anyway.

The fiction ends on a strong note with John Langan's "Mirror Fishing," which subsumes Gla'aki in folk tradition that blooms into cosmic horror. The characters are wonderfully complex, from the young Pat to his tutor in the ways of Auld Glaikit, Lisa. The descent into the depths of Gla'aki's fractal-dimensional realm is amazing, and the folksy conceit refreshing. I enjoy those tales where human folk conception maps onto true cosmic horror in a sort of cargo-cult worship of those things that we cannot understand. This is a story that will stick with me for a while. Five stars.

Mathematically, I'm coming in at an average just above three stars. I'm rounding down to an even three, which seems about right. On average, The Children of Gla'aki is . . . average (despite the high praise Campbell heaps on ALL the stories in his afterword). The heights are really high: There are a few truly amazing stories in here. But the depths . . . well, Gla'aki himself will be well fed by some of these stories sinking to the bottom of the lake. I suppose some of the danger in editing such an anthology is that, in order to fill a word count and get readers, you might take a few pedestrian stories from "name" writers. I've never hewed to that philosophy myself, when editing. I only take the stories I love. If they happen to be "name" authors, that's helpful. But I also love giving the underdogs a chance. You have to start somewhere, right? Maybe at the bottom of the lake.

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