Tuesday, September 24, 2019


AbyssiniaAbyssinia by Damian Murphy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

But just begin.

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

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Saturday, September 21, 2019

On the Hill of Roses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, September 19, 2019


GyoGyo by Junji Ito
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

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

Alas . . .

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Wednesday, September 18, 2019

A Second Nature

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Night falls on the Berlin of the Roaring Twenties

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, September 7, 2019

The Book of Jade

The Book of JadeThe Book of Jade by David Park Barnitz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

While I love poetry, I am far from qualified to analyze it in any depth. For me, getting The Book of Jade was an attempt to deepen my ability to read and dig into poetry with greater depth. Because of the breadth of this volume (all the writing contained therein that are explicitly not poetry), I feel like this was a fantastic way to take a deep dive. This is not to say that I don't appreciate (what I consider to be) good poetry - I really do love the form. But I'm just not very good at plucking out themes and some poetic subtleties like others can. That's also not to say that I don't have opinions. About half of the poems here are ones I would consider "good" poetry - and, no, I'm not even going to attempt to define "good" here. That's all subjective: I know it when I see it. Your identification of a "good" poem will likely disagree with mine. Such is art.

Barnitz opens with a dedication "To the Memory of Charles Baudelaire" - an auspicious start, before the poetry has even begun! You can do much worse than to lead with that.

I will also play the coquette (or whatever the male equivalent is) by not telling you, title-by-title, which poems I considered the best. Here, I give only a faint gloss on the poems themselves because this volume is so much more than the mere poetry.

"Sombre Sonnet" is a goth manifesto. I approve. I've always had a little goth, who hides behind my heart and peeks out occasionally - most especially when I am writing fiction. The poem's first stanza is:

I love all sombre and autumnal things,
Regal and mournful and funereal,
Things strange and curious and majestical,
Whereto a solemn savor of death clings:

This is made abundantly evident throughout. It is Barnitz's morbidity, more than anything else, that stands out to fan and critic alike.

"Nocturne" is a poem worth quoting in full. Alas, I don't have the time, stamina, or legal team to successfully transcribe this four-page-long love poem. If you have goth friends who are planning on getting married, offer to read this at their wedding, then at their respective funerals. They will not be disappointed!

If you are prone to a mid-life crisis, do not read "The House of Youth". It is not for the sentimental, nor the nostalgic, especially if guns, pills, ropes, or cutting tools are near at hand. It hurt to read that poem, which, to me means that, yes, it was good. But bad. In a good way.

My single favorite line amongst all the poems is: "Until the dead stars rot in the black sky", found in the poem "The Grave". Neither Ligotti nor Lynch could have done better. Barnitz occasionally leaves the merely decadent and rises through the dark clouds to the sublime.

"Fragments" is, ironically, the most cohesive and comprehensive poem in the entire Book of Jade. It might be Baritz's best (though I'm confident that the critiques I read disagree with me)! At eight pages, it has breadth, but does not meander. Every word is chosen carefully, and the meter escapes the sometimes-trite rhyme schemes that make some of the works in The Book of Jade seem dated and even "twee".

Barnitz also wrote essays, which are included in this volume. In the first, he utterly annihilates Rudyard Kipling in what I can only call an Anti-eulogy for the dead writer (though Kipling was not dead when this was written - Barnitz asserts that Kipling's writing was symbolically dead at the time of writing. In point of fact, Kipling outlived Barnitz, who died early either from suicide, heart failure, or drug overdose, depending on which sources you believe). Essentially, he destroy's Kipling's reputation by saying there is no reputation there worth destroying. If I were to define the word "scathing" by way of using a literary critique as an illustration, this would be the one.

Barnitz's essay "The Art of the Future"(1901) is an intriguing overview of the state of affairs in American art, music, and literature at that time. There's acknowledgement that not much is happening, but an overly-hopeful patriotic streak runs wide throughout. Barnitz is an excellent essayist, and I would have liked to have read more, even if I didn't fully agree with him or his stylistic choices.

There is a biography included, as well, which shows Barnitz to be a contrarian, plain and simple, one of those people who channels his high intelligence into focused spite. Normally, I might laud Barnitz's snarkiness toward his father, but while reading this biography, I am feeling more and more that he was just a petulant jerk of a son. It's too bad he died young, or he might have gotten over himself and proven a great contributor to dark poetry, maybe even philosophy. Middle age tends to do that to a person.

With so much happening with decadence in and around Harvard during the time Barnitz attended there, it's a wonder that we have very little direct evidence that he interacted with his poetic peers. One wonders if he was a misanthrope or even sociopathic? In any case, he died ignominiously and his work was forgotten until discovered by those who "discovered" H.P. Lovecraft, who mentions Barnitz in a couple of his letters.

Many of the contemporary reviews of The Book of Jade are damning. Most of the critiques of his work are unforgiving, merciless. If you asked the critics, it's a wonder that Barnitz was ever published at all, though I think this is an unfair assessment. Still, I've gotten in trouble on GR for writing reviews like these!

Following the reviews is a section replete with various biographical sketches and references to Barnitz. I realize that this section is meant to satisfy the completist, but I grew tired of it quickly. It's like a really, really boring phone game in which people ("scholars") perpetuate and morph errors again and again. Make it stop!

Next follows a series of essays, and this is what I consider the brain of the book (the poems themselves being the heart, of course, the previous section of biographical sketches the bowels and bladder). K.A. Opperman's essay "The Perfection of the Corpse: Necrophilia in The Book of Jade" is exactly the sort of scholarship I was hoping for in the extra material of this volume. It's a careful thematic analysis focused on one aspect of the poems that draws the subject of necrophilia to the forefront. Now, necrophilia might not be your "thing" (it's not mine, either), but the treatment of the subject is an amazing piece of scholarship, not too academic, but exacting enough that one must take it seriously.

The essay "The Grotesques: Sins Against the Afterlife" by Ashley Dioses really helps my appreciation of Barnitz's ouvre. As I've said, I'm not a good poetry analyst. I'm learning, but I'm far from erudite in this regard: a real amateur! So, it's great to read an essay like Dioses' that I can apply as I go back and reread the poems in my efforts to become better at reading poetry. I'm making progress!

If it was illustrated with cartoons, the first segment of Matt Sarraf's essay on "Barnitz and Pessimism" would read like a reverse Jack Chick tract on anti-natalism. That said, Sarraf does an excellent job of concisely laying out the philosophical war between Hegel and Schopenhauer and arguing (successfully, I think) that Barnitz based his text for the poem "Hegel" on Schopenhauer's arguments against the Hegelian view.

Chuck Caruso, in his essay "I am Weary of that Lidless Eye", gives a fantastic line-by-line analysis of Barnitz's "Mad Sonnet". He also explains Hegel's "abyss of subjectivity" quite well. But his reading of the poem "Hegel" misses the mark and his analysis of Barnitz's poems through the lens of Hegelian philosophy is strained and unconvincing. Interesting that this essay should follow after Sarraf's. Score: Sarraf +1, Caruso 0.

Gavin Callaghan's critique of Barnitz's critique of Rudyard Kipling, "Two Dead men: Park Barnitz and Rudyard Kipling" rightly points out some of the inherent hypocrisy in Barnitz's essay on Kipling. But there is a decidedly pro-conservative bent to the whole essay that becomes as derisive of Barnitz as Barnitz was derisive of Kipling. It's good to have the balance of views, but taken by itself, the essay was off-putting.

Barnitz's poems range from trite to awe-inspiring. If this volume only contained the poems, I might be wont to give it a three, possibly four-star rating. But, given the inclusion of so much scholarly material (so much that one can easily grow tired of it, honestly) of varying viewpoints, this is clearly much more than that. If you are an aficionado of decadence with an eye for scholarly criticism being bandied about, this is your book. If you are, like me, an aspiring comprehender-of-the-poetic, you would do well to pick it up and dive deep into the "loathed sty"!

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