Saturday, November 30, 2019

The Wanderer

The WandererThe Wanderer by Timothy J. Jarvis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Full disclosure: I published Jarvis' first piece of (published) fiction "The Imaginary Anatomy of a Horse" in the Leviathan 4 anthology, which I edited back in 2005. His was a slush-pile submission, picked out of hundreds. I was very pleased to "find" this author, though I think that with Jarvis' poetic voice, this was eventually bound to happen. Yet, I will attempt to remain as unbiased as possible in this review.

The difficulty with reviewing this kind of strung-together narrative, wrought and bound up in metafiction, is: where to start? Indeed, the end of the book is the beginning of the mystery, in many ways, and one's brain loops over and over trying to puzzle out what must be an eternal (and infernal) mystery. It is clearly a work of horror, with all "flavors" present. There is a Twilight-Zone-ish element to the overall central conceit - that living forever may be fraught with terror. But the work owes more to Hodgson, Ellison, and Machen than Serling (though I am aware of the connections between Ellison and Serling, especially in regards to Ellison's writing of what I consider to be one of the best short stories ever written, "Paladin of the Lost Hour," which was originally published in Twilight Zone Magazine). The post-apocalyptic narrative which seams the stories all together also owes something to Serling's show, but it also reflects M.P. Shiel's The Purple Cloud, albeit with a far less boring narrative voice.

I won't attempt to block out the plot step-by-step - others have done so in their reviews on Goodreads - but, suffice it to say that the plot is a complex folding of stories-within-stories-within-stories. Because of the structure, there were points where I felt "shot out" of the flow. For instance, one of the characters, Duncan, tells his tale and it becomes apparent that he is far older than anyone else at the table. Un-naturally old, in fact. I wondered why there didn't seem to be any reactions to this blatant anachronism on the parts of the ones listening, then, two sections later, there it was: a full justification for why the narrator did not share their reactions right away. Thus, there are times where I felt pushed out by the metafictional elements. They were rare, but noticeable.

That said, each story flowed well internally, as stories in and of themselves. And once one picked up the thread of the uber-narrative again, it was fine. Interesting that with the tales of several different characters being told, Jarvis' voice does not smother the individual character's voices, nor does it unravel into something that is not clearly recognizable as his voice.

Jarvis also effectively dances on the jagged line between supernatural credulity and banal insanity with his characters. They often call themselves into question but, ultimately, they know what they have seen and experienced and cannot deny it. The question is: when should and should the reader at all suspend disbelief? That tug and pull keep roping me back in when I'm ready to dismiss the narrative as hokey.

Then there is the background metafiction of Jarvis himself investigating the strange circumstances surrounding the disappearance of Simon Peterkin and the subsequent discovery of the manuscript of The Wanderer. After reading the book and returning to the introduction again, I see how Jarvis has folded in the theme of travel to the hidden plane of Tartarus (called by many names, but herein christened "Tartarus") and the disappearance of Peterkin, which one would not notice upon first reading. Like James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, one must loop back again to begin to understand what happens at the beginning - but, given the circular nature of the tale in The Wanderer, well, this is the whole point . . . as you will discover, time and time again, one eternal round.

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Monday, November 25, 2019

Art Deco

Art DecoArt Deco by Camilla de la Bedoyere
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wouldn't have wanted to live in the 1920s or '30s, but the art and architecture of that period are sublime. This is a sumptuous little book. Beautiful photos and excellent contextual explanations. I would recommend Arie van de Lemme's Art Deco: An Illustrated Guide to the Decorative Style, 1920-40 as a companion piece, as van de Lemme's work provides a more coherent chronology and a little wider view of the context in which the art arose. However, de la Bedoyere's work does an excellent job of tracing the two tracks of Art Deco: The upper-class-fueled (mostly French) school of "High Art Deco," and the (Bauhaus-influenced) mass-produced Art Deco works, whose primary consumer was the middle class. The main differences, at least early on in the movement, were craftsmanship and production, both of which seem fairly tight-knit factors in the "split" (my quotes). "High Art Deco" typically used more expensive materials such as exotic woods (ebony seemed to be a favorite) and ivory wrought by expert craftsmen by hand (and when I say "men," I also mean women - this was the era when women began to come into their own, in regards to being publicly recognized as artists), whereas the bulk of Art Deco pieces were designed by excellent designers, but after the initial model was created, these designs were mass-produced, much more inexpensively, for the mass market. Later, a sort of Hegelian synthesis occurred, in which expert artists designed the work, the body of the work was mass-produced using such modern materials as bakelite, chrome, and aluminum, then the finishing touches were hand-crafted by the initial designer. Either way, Art Deco had a strong impact on society, as items of convenience and ornamentation, such as bakeware, furniture, radios, and hood ornaments, were the focal point of much of Art Deco's style. Since such items were ubiquitous and often cheap, the movement had a lasting effect on the material culture of the years to follow. What would a '57 Chevy be without Art Deco coming before it? A box on wheels.

Art Deco was also a product of colonialism. I am amazed by the influence of the arts of Africa, Asia, and South and Central America on the art of that time. You can argue whether colonialism robbed the artistic traditions of these areas or paid homage to them, but you can't argue that European and American artists were not heavily influenced by those traditions at that time. Art Deco brought "World Art" to the western world's popular consciousness, changing it forever.

Even now, some Art Deco is highly sought after. If I had a fortune, I would buy some of Dimitri Chiparus' bronze and ivory statuettes in a heart-beat. But after looking up the prices of these works, I realize that I will never own one. Even the copies run into the tens of thousands of dollars each!

I happen to live about 40-minutes drive from Taliesen, so I was really glad to see Frank Lloyd Wright's work featured in this book. It baffles me when books examine the Art Deco movement and don't include his work. This is likely because of the euro-centric view of some publishers, but it is a shame that his work should not be front and center, as some of Wright's work epitomizes the style and function of Art Deco design. I'm lucky in that there are several of his buildings in the city where I live. They are beautiful, in person, and speak to a time when architecture on the smaller scale was art. Those days are, I'm afraid, over.

There is much more to this book, with too many examples of art and artists to truly do it justice in a review. It is a good, deep dive into the art and design of the era. I would recommend it as a part of your study of Art Deco. My biggest complaint about the book is the font in which the copy is typed - it is very small and very faint, not good for your eyes. Perhaps this was done to accentuate the beautiful full-page pictures, avoiding the distraction of dark text. But for those of us who actually read art books, having to read these (again, very faint) paragraphs under a strong artificial light actually takes something away from the beauty of the photos. The publishers might have benefited from heeding the Art Deco mantra "form AND function".

But these are the times we live in.

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Friday, November 15, 2019

Why I Love The Twilight Zone

I really don't watch much television, even in the age of streaming. As a child, my parents' TVs (plural) were on during almost every waking hour. I was exposed to a lot of TV as a kid and maybe I'm just plain burned out. I can't identify many actors by name and if you tell me about "that guy that was in that show (or movie) X," I will give you a blank stare, in all likelihood. The last series I watched beginning to end was Stranger Things 3. Before that was Stranger Things 2. Before that was Stranger Things. Before that . . . let's see . . . um, Sherlock? The one with Benedict Cumberbatch in it (see I do know some actor's names). And before that? I'm at a total loss. Twin Peaks? Thundarr the Barbarian? I have no idea. I'm no fun on movie/TV trivia night. No fun at all. I'd much rather be reading a book or playing in a tabletop roleplaying game or writing or hiking. My blog content speaks for itself, in this regard.

Some people find it difficult to pinpoint their favorite TV show. That may be because, unlike me, most humans watch a lot of television. With so many choices, how does one choose? For me, the choice is easy: the single greatest series to ever appear on television, the absolute pinnacle of consistently-amazing television shows, one after another, is The Twilight Zone. Rod Serling's original The Twilight Zone, to be precise. 

Last night, I attended the Fathom Events presentation for the 60th Anniversary of The Twilight Zone. It was a simple affair on the big screen, six classic episodes, followed by a short documentary about Rod Serling. "Walking Distance," "Time Enough at Last," "The Invaders," "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street," "Eye of the Beholder," and "To Serve Man" presented one after the other. Included were Serling's previews that were given the week before each episode aired. Because of syndication, when one watches the episodes rerun on TV, the previews for the upcoming week are either drowned out by announcements regarding the next show or they are cut out altogether. These short little segments lasted perhaps a minute, but they were a great testament to Serling's charisma and ability to inflame anticipation in the viewer. 

And Rod Serling had charisma aplenty. I'd score him an 18 if he was a Dungeons and Dragons character, no doubt about it. The documentary made this undoubtedly apparent. Everyone who knew him loved him, most especially his daughter, some of whose comments are captured in an article that correlates strongly with the documentary. It was touching, hearing friends and family, students and co-workers, and the incredibly high praise heaped on Serling as a human being. Yes, he was a great writer, but he was also an incredible human being, one who did not tolerate intolerance, one who tried to keep his family out of the spotlight as a protection to them, and one who worked for good in the world. He marched with Martin Luther King and he and his wife had a close relationship with Coretta Scott King, with whom he had attended college. He was the kind of guy that aspiring great guys aspire to be.

Now why, you might ask, would a self-admitted television non-watcher have such a man-crush on Rod Serling and his work? On the surface, it's obvious - I love weird fiction. But there's plenty of other weird television shows out there, even some from the same era. There's Black Mirror, The Outer Limits, Tales from the Crypt, Space:1999 (think it's not weird and doesn't belong amongst this company? Go watch the first season), and many others, both old and contemporary. 

Maybe it's the cinematography? Watching The Twilight Zone is a master class in cinematic composition. From the obtuse angles of the carousel shots in "Walking Distance" to the carefully-veiled movements of the doctors and nurses in "Eye of the Beholder" to the panning back and resulting isolation of a now-blind Henry Bemis standing in the midst of a ruined post-apocalyptic landscape in "Time Enough at Last," Serling shows a deft hand in conceptualizing, realizing, and editing shots that is largely absent from today's television. When I was a teenager, I had a subscription to Twilight Zone Magazine, and in the back of each issue was a screenplay of one of the episodes as written by Serling, complete with stage directions and camera instructions. These were taken, not from his hand, but through a dictophone where he recorded what he wanted for each episode. That record was then transcribed into the typed page, as it appeared in the back of Twilight Zone Magazine. Yes, the man was a genius. But there are other genius film-makers and television show producers out there who make clever use of the medium. David Lynch comes to mind first, and, of course, Kubrick.

What really sets it all apart for me is this: the weirdness of the fiction and the cunning cinematography (not to mention some excellent acting) were upheld by a fervent emotional undergirding that came from Serling's heart and mind. Watching the documentary, it was clear that Rod Serling was absolutely passionate and dedicated to what he was doing: telling stories that served as critiques of the darker elements of human nature and the foibles and failings of society at large. One cannot watch more than a few episodes of The Twilight Zone without realizing that there is a moral and ethical element that is largely absent from most entertainment today. Serling felt that some things were right: rediscovering one's innocence, tolerance and forgiveness, and the embrace of things outside of the frantic race to appease the almighty dollar and popular trends in society; and that some things were wrong: the embrace of violence in war, societal conformity for the sake of conformity, and racism. The list could go on and on. Though the moral fables are not always blunt and up-front (though sometimes they are), there was always a sense of something underneath it all, that The Twilight Zone wasn't being weird for the sake of weird, nor was it art-for-art's sake (and I do argue that the series was Art), but that Serling's personal experience and heart held it all together.

I'll use "Walking Distance" as an example. Spoilers ahead . . .

(Spoilers begin here)

In this episode, a 30-something year-old business man named Martin Sloan, eager to get away from his high-stress job in New York City, stops at a rural gas-station to get his car gassed up and tuned up. While there, he sees a wooden sign showing "Homewood 1 1/2 miles". The man recognizes that this sign points to his hometown, where he was raised. He decides to make the walk there, to see the place of his childhood. Over time, it is revealed that he has stepped back in time, back to a memorable summer of his childhood. He meets . . . himself. And his parents, who take him as a madman, at first. Cutting to the end, we see Martin Sloan meeting his father, who is finally convinced that this 36-year-old man is, indeed, the same person as his 12-year-old son. After discussing the situation, Martin is convinced by his father that he can't remain in Homewood, that the younger Martin Sloan has to live his youth as himself, to experience the joy of childhood as a child, as a unique individual. Upon parting, the father says, simply "Goodbye, Martin," to which he replies "Goodbye, Pops".

A sentimental, perhaps sappy scene, yes? Nostalgia at its strongest. Even the bandstand and carousel in the episode were modeled after Recreation Park, Binghamton, New York, where Serling was raised. Now, if one stops at that, you have an excellent story about seeking out one's childhood and knowing that you can never return there, at least not to stay.

But what takes it to the next level is this: When Serling was serving in the military near the end of World War II, his father died, age 52, of a heart-attack. The military refused to give him leave even to attend his father's funeral. Serling never had the chance to  say "goodbye" to his father and, as Rod Serling's daughter, Anne writes in her memoir, "It is a loss of such magnitude that he will never truly recover". Knowing this single fact propels "Walking Distance" from a great story, well-told, into the realm of the poignant and even the sublime. 

That poignancy is apparent in other episodes, as well. Watch "Eye of the Beholder" in the context of 1950s-60s societal conformity and, even more profoundly, in the light of the Civil Rights Movement, and you will feel much more deeply the pathos in Maxine Stuart's voice as she pleads to be accepted, to be "normal," not to be cast out and shunned. Overacting? Hardly! More a channeling of the frustration of every individual who has ever wanted acceptance and a chance to live as they please. 

I could go on, but an exhaustive examination of The Twilight Zone is way out of scope here. The point? When I say that The Twilight Zone is the best thing to ever appear on television, I mean it! It's what television can be (and has been) if we let our hearts lead. Not a mindless medium to waste away our time, but a mindful medium that causes viewers to examine their times and their places within that time.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Starve Acre

Starve AcreStarve Acre by Andrew Michael Hurley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Note: This is a review of the The Eden Book Society edition, released under the pseudonymn Jonathan Buckley.

"Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me."

As I made my way through Starve Acre, I could not help but notice the strong similarities between the initial conceit and that of the movie Wake Wood, a movie I greatly enjoyed. But the copyright on this edition read 1972, claiming that the book was originally published in that year and re-released by a reincarnated Eden Book Society. I thought, "Wow, the makers of Wake Wood must have ripped off this obscure book"! Silly me. Only when I saw "the 1972 Subscribers" and recognized friend's names and twitter handles in the list did I realize that I had been duped. No, it appears, the author of this book ripped off Wake Wood, at least in a couple of key elements: 1) The death of a couple's child is the central driving factor of the narrative and, 2) the locals know something that the new move-ins do not, and they are all acting rather strangely.

After that, the plot, thankfully, becomes more original. I won't spoil it for you, as there are plenty of spoilers that could give it away, but the real power in the book shows in the denouement, not in the body of the story, really. The beginning of the end of the book quite took me by surprise, but while making my way through the ending I thought "no, this couldn't have ended any other way". It was then that I really saw the brilliant confluence of the writing, seemingly disparate narrative threads coming together seamlessly, like an atonal symphony (albeit a simple one) that comes together in an inevitable crescendo. But after the action of what one would consider the end (on many different levels), the after-action sequence is what shocked me. Downright shocked me, sending those proverbial chills up my spine. It was a tight, sudden knife twist, after I had already been stabbed, unexpected, and elevating the horror to another level.

Knowing now that the book was written by Andrew Michael Hurley, and having heard from a lot of people that I "ought" to read Hurley (that "ought" being something that, frankly, makes me bristle a bit), I can see why people like his writing style. It flows very well (this was a very quick read) and the characters are strong. The wicked ending after the ending almost makes up for what I take to be the blatant theft of ideas from Wake Wood. I will likely read Hurley (I hear The Loney is not to be missed), but I won't be reading the Hurley version of the book, newly released. So, feel free to send spoilers my way. But, keep it on the down-low. We don't want to dig more creepy things out of the ground, do we?

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Friday, November 8, 2019

The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories

The Great God Pan and Other Horror StoriesThe Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories by Arthur Machen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had previously read two stories (novellas, really) in this volume: "The Great God Pan" and "The White People". I liked those stores and was excited to re-read them. And Machen's reputation among horror aficionados whose opinions I appreciate and respect, especially those who favor a more literary style (as I do), gave me confidence that I might enjoy the remaining stories. I seem to recall that Lovecraft lauded Machen's work, as did Stephen King. Those were good indicators from two pretty good writers, as well.

But as I read The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories, an unanticipated question kept percolating up in my thoughts: When you say "Machen is a great writer," who do you mean? Yes, "Arthur Machen" is the obvious answer. But which one? Which Machen are you referring to? The Arthur Conan Doyle-like page turner of “The Red Hand” (which I wanted to keep calling "The Red Right Hand" - thank you very much, Nick Cave), the writer of “The Monstrance” with powerful echos of M.R. James, the Charles Dickensanian “The Tree of Life,” or the Dunsanian visions of “N”?

Machen is all of these, but with something more, something unique – a subtlety of hand and a careful movement of plot, sweetly lead by his studied use and manipulation of Word and Phrase. I capitalize these, because in Machen’s hands, these elements, these tools, are elevated beyond the banal usage of the terms. They become something special and “new” under his pen (though when one reads his strange mutation of certain terms, one is compelled to say “of course, why did I ever think of this word/phrase in any other way? In any case, I shall never think of it in the same way again!”

For instance, there is this from "The Three Imposters":

". . . I too burned with the lust of the chase, not pausing to consider that I knew not what we were to unshadow."

This is the sort of turn-of-phrase that I love in Machen. And that word: "unshadow," so evocative and full of implication. Given the context of a Russian-doll series of narratives within narratives, the term is especially apropos and lends a certain gravity to the meta-narrative from within the narrative - the meta-narrative "in the shadows" beyond the reader and the explicit words on the page. With one word, Machen pushes us out into the unknown; a sort of literary practical joke aimed at the careful reader.

And these stories do deserve a careful reading. They are not shocking in that Lovecraftian "the entire universe wants to eat us all, oh no, my poor sanity!" way. They are most definitely not the antinatalist murky depths of Thomas Ligotti (though there is a good deal of existentialism throughout these works). They are much more subtle. More careful and deliberate.

But that does not mean they are "straightforward". Far from it! I believe that "The Great God Pan" benefits from what seems like disorganization of thought. Vagaries and jagged connection points lead the reader on a frenetic, dreadful path, allowing each individual to come to their own conclusions, their own "end plot". "The Three Imposters" is mind-blowingly complex. Wheels within wheels, all shot through with decadence and hauntings and rotting bodies and tentacles. It works not because Machen ties off all the ends in a neat little bundle (he does not), but because the readers mind takes the disparate directions and waypoints and makes its own blurred map of what might have happened in the tale. I loved "The White People," but to tell you what it was "about"? Um. No. It's essentially plotless, a labyrinthine meandering through the eyes of a young girl discovering . . . well, she can't tell you all that she's discovered. It's simply not possible. Machen does a wonderful job of using inference and redaction to tease the reader with an intentionally occulted (I use the word exactly) vision of what lies beyond, accessible, but hidden.

You will exit many of these stories in a state of utter confusion, wondering what just hit your brain. But you will feel the impact of something sinister hiding in the veins of the earth or just beyond that hill ahead or in the complex motivations of the seemingly innocent. These stories are insidious!

Even in stories where there is a "traditional" twist ending, there is something in the subtle way that Machen lays his tales out that allows for a "twist" ending that isn't a cheap-shot, like I find in many short stories (especially those written by less-experienced authors). "Ritual," for example, is no exception. It's microfiction, or close to it, so it relies on a twist at the end, but by the time you get there, you're like a frog that's been slowly brought to boil in horror. Your realization comes too late! And even after the twist is revealed, your brain will continue tumbling forward, making suppositions and venturing guesses as to what really happened.

This is what Machen provides, then: a labyrinthine path to uncertainty and, hence, insecurity, where the only thing you are sure of is that you can't trust anything to be what it seems. There is darkness, horror, wonder, and awe, all combined, in this realization; a case study in Schopenhauer's philosophy of Aesthetics and The Sublime. It is a journey worth your while, all the way to the bitter, beautiful end.

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Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Purple Cloud

The Purple CloudThe Purple Cloud by M.P. Shiel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Those who know me know that I self-identify as a loner. But a loner with a social side. So a novel about what it is to be utterly alone (as in everyone else in the human race has died off) could seem like the perfect segue to delightful flights of fancy. But I did mention I have a social side. Shiel may have had a social side, but if his protagonist, Adam Jeffson, is any mirror of him, Shiel must have been quite aloof; borderline sociopathic.

Shiel is an interesting, if scandalous, person. His biography - some of it his own fault, some of it just the circumstances he was born into - reads like a bad decadent soap opera. Arthur Machen said that he wasn't sure that Shiel knew that there was such a thing as "right" and "wrong". Again, judging from The Purple Cloud, I'd have to agree with Machen's assessment.

Shiel is (or was) a fully capable writer. His description of Turkey after the worldwide apocalypse are exquisite. The (pre-apocalyptic) narrative about the medium, Mary Wilson, is incredibly well-written. The description of her exercising of her gifts is fascinating. The characterization is strong and the writing downright mystical itself.

As we read on to the portion regarding the Arctic expedition (which was all the style, back then), we learn that the narrator is, in fact, a homicidal . . . well, maniac isn't the best word. Let's say he has homicidal inclinations (which he carries out). Maybe we should have guessed this earlier when we discovered that Jeffson's fiancee had an unhealthy fixation with poisoning people. Or maybe that little tidbit is there to make us feel better about Jeffson himself, in comparison. Yes, he shot someone in cold blood, but he didn't poison them! Or maybe, just maybe, Machen's assessment of the book's author was spot on.

In the long run, it doesn't matter, since everyone but Jeffson dies and he spends the next several years and the majority of the novel visiting exotic places, burning them all to the ground, and possibly (though it's never 100% clear, just 95%) having sex with corpses. Did I mention Machen's words about Shiel?

There follows a long struggle between absolute and utter decadence and a God complex. The book becomes very thin, at spots, in the middle. Then Shiel picks up on some strange and compelling idea that I had not considered. For example, Jeffson finds (surprise!) lots of corpses. Thousands of corpses. He is squeamish about stepping on them (but as noted, not about making sweet love to his dead fiancee's partially rotting, partially mummified body), but they become a routine sight. Then, just when you think you are about to be bored out of your skull (no pun intended), you find that you are reading about the evidences of the manner in which these people, faced with a known extinction, react not to the threat, but to one another. It's a varied set of reactions, and Shiel illustrates these variances in the positioning of the dead vis-a-vis one another (and their potential refuges from the purple cloud). The novel, at these points, becomes a primer on human psychology, and a compelling one at that. Shiel's portrayal of the remnants of civilization (i.e., piles and piles of dead bodies) who died due to debauchery and violence, when threatened with oncoming mass extinction, presages later zombie-apocalypse scenarios where most of humanity had more to fear from each other than from the real threat. He paints a horrifying scene, without showing the actual horror as it happens. My reactions to these sorts of "pivots" in the meta-narrative of the plot were sometimes emotionally deep and complex, as I thought of how I might react to such a threat. Impressive bit of writing, that.

The central theme of the book, the inner struggle that Jeffson comes to, is this:

Must I not, in time, cease to be a man, and become a small earth, precisely her copy, extravagantly weird and fierce, half-demoniac, half-ferine, wholly mystic - morose and turbulent - fitful, and deranged, and sad - like her?

Nevertheless, a sort of redemption might be available to him, if he will only allow it. You will have to discover this yourself. Suffice it to say that Jeffson is not what I would term "normal". It's quite a bumpy journey to the end.

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