Sunday, December 27, 2020

2020 on Goodreads

2020 on Goodreads2020 on Goodreads by Various
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

2020 did not suck . . . as far as reading went. Au contraire, my methodology for limiting my "to read" shelf seems to be working. The secret is: I don't let my list get longer than 30 books. If I have 30 books on my TBR shelf on Goodreads, and I want to read another, I have to remove one. This causes me to be very careful in my pre-assessment of books. I read a variety of reviews (eschewing those with spoilers, of course) and give a good hard think to whether or not I want my "current crush" to displace something else on the list. My pickiness has paid off. I'm going to keep doing this. It also ensures that if I have had something on the list for a while, I better save up my geld and spring for that book before too long, or it might be pushed off the list by something more desirable.

To quote Devo:

Ain't it true
There's room for doubt
Maybe some things that you can do without
And that's good . . .

Another good thing is that I started the year reading Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. This set the tone for my year in many ways. I took two social media "fasts", one in February, one in December, which allowed me to read and write a lot more and focus on some projects that I had been wanting to accomplish for, in some cases, many years, including the publication of my books The Varvaros Ascensions and The Simulacra and the inclusion of a story in an anthology which I was very excited about. I was also able to spend time handwriting letters and snail mailing my favorite literary people (one of which I owe a letter, still). With my resolve hardened to spend more time in the analog world, I hit the books harder than even I anticipated.

I read so many great books that it's hard to narrow it down to my absolute favorites, but among them were definitely:

John Howard's The Voice of the Air

Benjamin Tweddell's A"> Crown of Dusk and Sorrow

Damian Murphy's Psalms of the Magistrate

The Journal of the London School of Pataphysics, #21>

Arthur Machen's
The Hill of Dreams

Colin Insole's Valerie and Other Stories

Louis Marvick's Dissonant Intervals

If you held a gun to my head (please don't), I would probably pick Howard's work as my favorite. I won't go on about it here - go read the review (then buy yourself a copy and read the book)!

Were there disappointments? Sure. I DNF Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, and my expectations for Mark Fisher's Ghosts of My Life were probably unrealistic, going into it. But I didn't read a bad book all year. Unsuccessful? Yes. Bad? No, not really.

For Christmas, my wife bought me five books. That, added to the 15 or so on my shelf, could last all year, who knows? No, who am I kidding? I'll buy more. But only up to 30 at a time! I have my limits!

Note that many of the books on my list this year and all of my favorites listed above, are from boutique small presses. I really do believe in getting the money to the authors directly, whenever possible, and to the publication houses, as the next best thing. Especially when people are struggling, I want my money to go directly to those who are producing such beautiful works, whenever possible. Yes, they are expensive. Yes, they are sometimes difficult to get a hold of. And, yes, I do sometimes buy from that one online book distributor. But I'm trying to keep it direct, as much as possible, since I'm in a position to do so. I know not everyone can do that (did I mention that many of these books are expensive), but if you can, please support the small guys out there. They need it now, more than ever, and I'd hate to see the wonderful sort of literature they are publishing and the beautiful editions that they are producing disappear.

With that, I should be spending waaaaaay less time worrying about the news in 2021, whether because of regime change or because I'm burying my head in the sand during a social media fast (I plan on "fasting" every two weeks for a two week duration, at least for the first part of this year). Oh, and I should mention: I'm not counting Goodreads as "social media" when it comes to the fast. I'm always up for intelligent conversation (or outright goofiness) when talking with readerly friends. You guys are the best!

View all my reviews

A Voyage to Arcturus

A Voyage to ArcturusA Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A spiritual quest, more than a science fiction novel - much, much more. The protagonist, Maskull (and, ultimately, Nightspore) take the hero's journey not through the underworld, but across the planet Tormance as it orbits the twin stars of Arcturus. He encounters several stock characters in his journey, each of which introduces him to a new perspective or philosophy, sometimes with all forthrightness, sometimes in spite of themselves and their masks. Through it all, Maskull seems to be coming to some sort of conclusion, but the clouds of the different philosophies make it difficult to see where he is headed (in fact, he doesn't know where he is headed, though he gains more confidence in his abilities as he travels further and further north). In the end . . . well, about the end.

Three years ago, I watched my father die. He had recently had surgery for a tumor in his sinuses. The cancer had wrapped around his optic nerve and his eye had to be removed. It was also revealed in the surgery that part of his frontal lobe was occluded and would need to be removed. At this same time, my mother had been hospitalized when her kidney's failed. To keep a four-month long saga of trips in and out of various hospitals, of hopes gleaned, then dashed to the ground, my mother passed away in February of 2018 and my father died in May of the same year. I was there for both instances because I had been the one to take each of them off of life support. Mom passed away after about 10 minutes of being off of life support - truth be told, she was practically dead when we made the decision to take her off. Dad's cancer had invaded his brain and it was riddled with tumors. He was inoperable and wasn't thinking straight because part of his brain had been removed during the initial operation. He was not himself. Dad had always been a highly intelligent individual and I'm fairly certain (he couldn't talk because of the tracheostomy that had to be given to him earlier) that he was in a living hell with part of his thinking machinery, so to speak, removed. It was inevitable that the cancer was going to kill him. There was no stopping it. So, after talking with my wife and a few very close friends and my kids, and after a lot of soul-searching and prayer, we decided to take him off life support.

He lived for two full weeks. I was with him every day, often spending the night in his room with him.

Losing my Mom and Dad was one of the most painful events of my entire life. It still hurts like hell just thinking about it now. Was it right to take them off of life support? I think so. But having to make that decision cut a deep scar in my heart. It will get better, it has gotten better, but it will never fully heal. I've learned to embrace the pain.

As I read A Voyage to Arcturus, I thought of my father, lying in the hospital bed conscious, but deteriorating, over the course of two weeks. By all rights, he shouldn't have lived that long. Dehydration should have killed him in a few days. But my Dad is one stubborn man, and full of fight. I often wonder what he was thinking, what he was even capable of thinking at that time. I know he knew I was there and I know he knew that I loved him and that he loved me. Beyond that, I don't know what was in his head. I suspect that in his painkiller-addled moments of delirium (which were far more frequent than his cogent moments) he was taking a sort of journey himself, maybe something similar to Maskull's journey. In the end, I think they might have come to the same conclusions, which you are free to learn for yourself.

Now, this book, while it tugged at my emotions, is anything but emotional. It is, in a word, flat. The characters are more "everyman" than anything. Their antagonists (and guides) represent ideas, not real people. I can see how this would be tedious to a lot of readers, and the reviews I've read bear this out. The writing is also clumsy and, at times, very stilted.

But for me, rather than criticize the surface appearances of the novel (it is, from a writerly point of view, ugly), I read with my heart, as well as my brain, and was put into a quite contemplative frame of mind. I reflected on the Tarot, of all things. If the Three of Swords could be expanded into a novel, then this might be it. Do I understand all the battling philosophies? No. Do I understand all the symbolism? No. But I understand the feeling that Lindsay was, especially at the end, trying to get across.

I know Krang, and I know him well. You'll know what I mean when you reach the conclusion . . .

. . . The Conclusion . . .

View all my reviews

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

The Unconsoled

The UnconsoledThe Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Why, you ask, did I give three stars (meaning "I liked it") to a book I DNF? Because I see what Ishiguro is doing here, and he does it masterfully. Reading The Unconsoled is like reliving some sort of dream, with all the unexplainable rifts in memory and sudden recollections, the impossible-in-real-life shortcuts, and the full knowledge of the context of a situation even though that situation is unfolding in-media-res. But I can only take so much of this. I quite like vagaries in my fiction (I'm a huge fan of Robert Aickman, for example. But there comes a point where I need to be able to at least infer a point, and 39% of the way through, I feel like I am taking one step forward and two steps back and forcibly so. It's one thing to let me noodle about an open ending, it's quite another to feel like I'm being yo-yoed by the author and he's not letting me come to my own conclusions. Frustrating, in a word. And yet, Ishiguro's prose is such a gentle, effortless thing. I fully admire what he's done here, but I'm going to admire this one from afar, as I'm a little tired of being led along. It's time to turn away, be grateful for the experience, and move on to something more substantial.

View all my reviews

Monday, December 14, 2020


 Did I mention that I'm fasting again? Social media fasting, that is. I would get used to it - the less time I spend on social media, the more I like being away from it, or at least limiting myself to blocks of time. At this rate, I will likely be spending more time off of social media than on it. Not that I'm anti-social - far from it - but I find that I just feel mentally healthier when I'm not on it constantly. Having that time allows me to work on writing and RPG projects, write snail mail letters to people I think are really cool, and do more blog posts like this, not to mention doing real-life projects (like I did with the Esoteric Denim). And while I do really enjoy most of my time on social media, I find that life without it, or with an intentionally-limited amount of it, is more fulfilling. I watched my parents die a few years ago, particularly, I spent the last two weeks of my Dad's life with him, and after that, I really took a more close assessment of what I really love to do in life, what makes me feel emotionally full and healthy, and social media was pretty far down the list. I don't disparage my friends who are on social media (some of which I became friends with because of social media), but there are only so many days allotted in a life, and I don't want to look back from my deathbed having spent a regrettable amount of time trying to get likes and getting in heated political arguments with people whom I don't even know, all the while feeling "hollowed out" in the process. Alright, enough of that.

One thing that I love to do, and that we can't really do now because of the coronapocalypse, is travel. Now, I can't afford to travel much. But in Summer of 2019, my wife and I went to Europe to celebrate my 50th birthday and our 28th anniversary. We spent two days in Salzburg as a part of that trip. This is all about day one. We had just spent about a week in Vienna (I'll do blog posts on that at a later date) and, after driving up from Vienna (in our nice Mercedes rental car), we found our AirBnB (man, I sure hope AirBnB survives COVID-19!), We simply crashed out. We woke, to this:

"Sehr schon," as they say, and that was just the view outside our windows! After a groggy awakening (mountain air is thinner, remember), we went online and got our bus tickets (Dear Biden administration: Want to really help the economy? Start subsidizing public transit on a large scale, especially in smaller municipalities. You're welcome.). We were about a ten minute bus ride from central Salzburg. But don't kid yourself - central Salzburg just means the "old town" - it's really not that big of a city at all. 150,000 people or so. And it felt much smaller than that! Still, the bus had to circle around for what seemed like forever before we disembarked, mostly due to that pesky Danube River one has to cross over. Note that the river was far from blue at the time. In fact, it was murky because there had been flooding up in the mountains. We saw chunks of wood rushing through the rapids that might have been pieces of houses, for all I know. After disembarking from the bus, we were here:

I love the high, steep walls abutting the calcareous alps. Cobblestone streets added to the charm, of course, as did the close alleyway shops. It just felt so darned European! Granted, we had been in Europe for almost two weeks by this point, but there was a certain quaintness about Salzburg that we really enjoyed.

We were really hungry, fresh of the bus, so we stopped at, what else? A sausage stand in the city square. My wife got Currywurst, while I opted for the more traditional Weisswurst. Oh, my, oh, my, oh, my. I had forgotten how much I loved that stuff. I don't think I had eaten it since I was a kid and my grandmother (oh, so very German) cooked it for us. It's a good thing we were only visiting, or I would have had to check into the hospital after eating there for, oh, about a month or so. Those lederhosen don't pop out like that for lack of good sausage.

After this nice, hot breakfast, we dove into the alleys and had a look around:

If you can't tell, there are a LOT of churches in Salzburg. You wonder why the joke about Wisconsin is that every town has at least five bars and five churches? Look no further than their germanic roots. Speaking of churches, we ducked into one church, mostly because it was next to the most accessible public restrooms and, given the lines, I needed something to do while waiting for my wife to make it through the seemingly interminable line. Here are some snaps from that:

As to why they had the Witch King of Angmar seated outside one of the bigger churches, I can't tell you. No one seemed to want to approach this statue for reasons I can't fathom. I did have a look a the plaque on the base there, but I didn't think to take a picture of it. This is probably just as well. If I had, I'm pretty sure my eyes would have been scoured out by some vengeful spirit that night, a'la M.R. James.

It wasn't all traditional Austrian tropes there, though. There were some oddities. Take, for instance, these:

The Nazgul looked out on the scene you see in the first picture here. I was practically sitting on his lap when I took that picture. Was that the icy hand of doom I felt on my shoulder? Probably. Yes, that's a human figure atop that gold . . . ball . . . thing. I can't remember who it was. Maybe the founder of the city or some important historical figure, I dunno. Perhaps I should have paid more attention. And what's with the junior Nazi goat? Modern art, that's what! You can direct any further questions to the artist herself.  The Green Man is a more traditionally historic figure, but finding this statue in the middle of a small parking lot behind some buildings was highly unexpected, and yet, creepily welcome. 

After wandering many of the labyrinthine streets of Salzburg, we decided to climb up to the castle. Okay, truth be told, we didn't make it all the way up. Well, we did, but to actually enter the castle would have cost us something ridiculous or at least something out of our budget at the moment. Stupid American tourists thinking you can just walk into a castle for free. Oh well, we still got a great view over the rooflines. I kept waiting for a spontaneous LARP of Assassin's Creed to break out. You can see why in these pictures:

And, yes, we were bedraggled. Once again it rained a bit and we were unprepared for it. Oh well. We dried out later.

Returning to street level, we entered the labyrinth again. While there, I took a photo of the traditional Austrian dress, mostly because I was seriously lusting after the jacket there. Actually, I had been lusting after one since we were in Vienna, but wanted to get a picture of this specific one because I knew I couldn't afford it (did I mention funds were dwindling at this point?). Someday, though, I might spring for one. That Von Trapp getup is rather appealing to me.

I'm not too keen about the lederhosen, but that jacket is. To. Die. For.

There were some other quaint buildings. The courtyard in the first photo is something you don't really see in the US anymore (did you ever?) - a true Biergarten. And the yellow building is something something Mozart's birthplace something . . . 

Speaking of Mozart, one of the highlights of our trip (for me, at least) was attending the Salzburg Marionetten Theatre. Oh, yes, I had those tickets months in advance! I was not going to miss this! We went to see Mozart's Die Zauberflรถte. This was the first full text I read in German in college and I love the fantastical, mystical story, full of occult themes and, well, magic. It was such a treat! If you're ever over there and if you have any liking for The Brothers Quay, Jan Svankmajer, etc., like I do, you cannot miss this! I couldn't take pictures of the performance, of course, nor would I have wanted to. I was too busy being transported into another world to fuss with a camera (besides, it was verboten). I hadn't been so eyeball-deep in a performance in a long time. It truly was magical. While in the lobby, I took some pictures of past puppets, sets, and murals.

I loved them all, but I was particularly enamored of the devil-bugs, though I can't remember what play they were taken from. In any case, they had a strong influence on one of my current (still secret, but you'll hear about it early next year) roleplaying projects I'm working on for Mutant Crawl Classics. If you need a dose of weird inspiration, I give the Salzburg Marionetten Theatre my absolutely-strongest recommendation. A must-see!

The next morning, we awoke and went back "downtown" to await our bus for The Eagle's Nest and Berchtesgaden (a tale for a later day).While we were waiting, I took a couple of shots, one of a garden and another of a stage in the middle of the garden's maze. I texted and told my daughter (a Shakespearean actress - I can call her that because she's been paid to perform Shakespeare) that I would love nothing more than to see her perform on this little, hidden-away stage. Perhaps someday.

Someday . . . 

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Orphans on Granite Tides

Orphans on Granite TidesOrphans on Granite Tides by Adam S. Cantwell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am sorely tempted to leave you with the one-word analysis of "sublime," but I can't trust that it would cut deeply enough to make an impression unless one spent a very long stretch of meditative time contemplating, studying, cognitively and emotionally meandering around and in and through what that word means. And, yet, this is the only word that (when fully realized) encompasses my feelings as a reader upon "finishing" the work. "Finishing" belied by quotation marks, because the work lingers in the psyche after the words have ceased. The journey is dreamlike, the ending an existential happening, an event that one must participate in from beginning to end to truly understand.

Rather than describe the oneiric plot, the mystery, discovery, and stark, unforgiving realizations, let me simply quote the philosophical crux of the novella, that on which all else hinges, or at least seems to hinge:

At night I lay sleepless and unspooled the secret knowledge I'd been bequeathed by the forest column. By steadfastly refusing to contemplate any reality other than what is; and then, by denying even that - the secret people create and maintain the world in all its terrible collision of potential and materiality and thought and essence, deed and intention and violence.

The secret people, and the others: the hiders and harvesters. The hiders hide but they do not shrink as the secret ones do. I thought on these potencies and felt like I lived on the surface of a soap bubble. I expected at every moment to be engulfed, that the coast would heave up under me, that forces would rend me in the full light of the day while, on the other side, my deserved demise would be noted only by secret ones who would never testify. But of course I was less than nothing to the world, and the world made its way without heeding my disasters . . .

While the story that elicits this response from the narrator and the story surrounding that story (realities within realities) may seem like a simple test of whether the reader believes in the canny or the uncanny interpretation of its contents, it is much more than that. I must admit that it took me a moment to see the folding within the unfolding, to understand that the existentialist questions posed by the work, which might appear to be boldly answered, are, in fact, not answered at all, but are themselves subsumed in an inward, curling spiral at the heart of the story (and the story within the story). When you think you understand the conflict, you will understand that you are, in fact, becoming a piece in it. Your seeming agency, like that of the characters in that of what I will call the "outer" narrative, may not be your agency at all. Your so-called "knowledge" may be utter ignorance. Who can tell?

Be careful. Do not mistake the end of the story as the end. Reflect back on what you have read, how the story within the story reflects the outer narrative and, indeed, the world at large. Then, you will begin to understand that the only word to describe Orphans on Granite Tides is, in the end (if there is such a thing), "sublime".

View all my reviews

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Fast to Last

 Back in early November, I announced (har, as if anyone listened!) that I would be taking a social media fast for the month. No Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Now it's December and what have I learned?

1.  I want more. Meaning: I want less. For the next several months, I'll be taking a two weeks on, two weeks off policy when it comes to social media. I would do an every other week fast, but it takes me a week to detoxify/decompress/get in the groove of not being on social media. So, that will be my modus operandi for a few months.

2.  I'm way more productive when I'm off social media. I keep a bullet journal, of sorts. Here's what last month looked like:

The important things are those big X's. That's where I accomplished something I had been meaning to do. Some of those items have been in my bullet journal for a long, long time. For instance, writing the Blackstar Ritual for Carcosa blogpost has been in there since November, 2017. You'll see "finish esoteric denim" there as well. Okay, it's not completely finished, but it is most of the way. Getting there only took a year. I first put that in my bullet journal in December, 2019. Blogging about Oxford? I'd been wanting to do that since August, 2019. There are some shorter-term things I got done, too, but you get the idea. It feels absolutely fantastic to get some of these things done, and it feels even better to be submerged in the process of doing them, giving them the time they deserve and giving me the breathing room I deserve. I feel more accomplished and mentally healthier!

3. I feel more socially-focused, not socially-scattered. I wrote a few letters to friends. Yes, snail mail letters - the original social media! And I plan on writing more. If you're interested in pen-pal-ery, make a comment and I'll fit you in where I can. Going back to Twitter tonight, I noticed there were some people whose feeds I was genuinely excited to read. But I also noticed that there are a lot of people who I want to know better, and some who I really (harsh reality) don't miss at all. Not that I dislike them, by any means, but I feel like I want to focus my time on those who I find the *most* interesting, the *most* engaging, people whom I know I "feed" and who "feed" me in many different ways. There are a few accounts that I follow that will never follow me - that's cool, I'm allowed to have "idols," right? But I don't want most of my time spent on goo-gooing over celebrities I will never meet and who don't do more than merely entertain me. Life is about more than entertainment, though I, like any other human, like my share. I feel more like "me" when I'm interacting and not just gawking. What I really need to do (and might never because it's a lot like real work) is divide those whom I follow on twitter into separate lists and check them on a regular, rotating basis. Organizing my social media usage could be extremely helpful in preventing me from spiraling off into the never-never land of the interwebs.

4. I like blogs. So, kill me. I prefer longform blogs to social media, for the most part. I'm old-fashioned and, frankly, I miss the wild west days of the internet when search engines kinda sucked and there was some crazy stuff out there to discover. Reading blogs gives me that feeling more than social media does. Maybe it's something about the curatorial aspect of blogs that I like more than the spin and scan and skip of social media platforms. Blogs let people's personality shine through more than social media does, by and large, if the blog writer is thoughtful and gives her thoughts room to breathe. I wish all the people who I find the most interesting on social media kept a regularly-maintained blog. I know, I might as well wish for a cure for cancer and to discover the philosopher's stone, but a man can dream.

5.  I have to deal with boredom like I was a kid again. I was in college when the interwebs truly came on line (pun intended). When I was younger, I had to provide my own entertainment. That took many forms, but some of my favorite ways to kill time were to read, work out, and play RPGs. Granted, the coronapocalypse has made this more complicated, but I've found the way and have the time, when not on so much social media, to really dive in. And, of course, I love to write. Not being on social media affords me more time to write both fiction and roleplaying material, and maybe even a blog post or two.

6. This might sound weird, but I've been more keyed in on music. I remember the wonder of discovering new music as a kid and the sonic bliss I felt at times just putting on headphones and drowning myself in music. I listen to music all the time, now - that's one of the cool things about the internet - but it's often only as backgroudn filler while I'm surfing social media. I find it much more rewarding, however, to listen *deeply* to something with nothing but liner notes in front of my eyes. As a result of my social media fast, I'm redisovering the bone-deep joy of new music!

On a peripheral note, I also physically fasted much in the past month. My longest stint was 62 hours of fasting, with three other stints of 37 hours, 38 hours, and 38 hours. Did I lose all the weight I wanted to? No. But man, do I feel healthier. Which is a good thing, given that I'm now sitting here waiting on my Coronavirus test to come back. Yep, I'm pretty sure I got it, since two of my adult sons have tested positive and we spent a lot of time in close contact when they were contagious. I'm feeling a little icky, but nothing terrible yet. Maybe I'm bad at causation, but I find it interesting that I fasted as long as I did, recycling a lot of old, bad cells in the process (autophagy begins about 24 hours into fasting) and, if I am positive, I've had a pretty easy go of it so far. Famous last words, huh? Besides that, though, I have dropped some body fat and built muscle while doing it. I feel and look a lot "tighter," even though my weight hasn't dropped much. I'll probably continue to do this twice a month. If nothing else, it's good to purge old cells and create new ones. And I must admit there is a sort of physical high that happens when you break your fast (slowly, with soup at first). It's exhilarating (but can make you feel "blech" if you eat too much too fast, which happened a few hours after my initial long fast). There's also something to the feeling of self-discipline associated with it, as well. Maybe I have long lost Spartan ancestry I don't know about. In any case: Recommended (after consulting with your doctor).

Alright, gotta keep my bullet journal from filling up with un-done items again. So much analog life to live!

Monday, November 30, 2020

Splendid in Ash

Splendid in AshSplendid in Ash by Charles Wilkinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Charle Wilkinson's sophomore outing with the elegant and accomplished Egaeus Press is less of a novelty to me than his first Egaeus book, A Twist in the Eye. My earlier "discovery" of Wilkinson was startling and swept me off my feet. Now that I've become more familiar with his work, it feels more . . . well, familiar. And that's not a bad thing. The ebbs and flows of a reader with "his" author can become a sort of cat-and-mouse game, where some maneuvers lose their surprise and others add a whole new dimension to the readerly relationship that would otherwise not emerge. We grow, taste changes, the author's voice ages, and yet, there is, inevitably an element of wonder amidst the familiarity. Here is my "dance" with the text of Splendid In Ash:

The title of the first story in Wilkinson's second collection. "In the Frame," is a triple entendre: one for art, one for being set up, and one for ten pin bowling. The one that is most horrific is not the one you're thinking of! Deftly written, as usual, this story will send your expectations into a tailspin in a fit of readerly vertigo.

"The Ground of the Circuit" is a strange admixture of folk horror and technological terror. The ending reminds me of Aickman - one is left wondering what has already happened, while seeing clearly what is coming, and it's not going to turn out well for the man who was a husband. The disjointedness of rurality and modernity, combined with the short circuited thoughts of both pro- and antagonist, frame it all well.

Did I predict the ending of "Slimikins" well before it came? Sort of. The overall event on which it ended, I saw coming. But I did not see the exquisite detail forthcoming. Wilkinson has an eye for details and, in this case, that meant absolutely plunging the reader into the final moments of a story. Yes, it was inevitable. But by "shoving your face in it," so to speak, the story is raised to an unexpected pitch!

One part David Lynch, one part Robert Aickman, one part Brian Evenson
Limn rim with Charles Wilkinson bitter and salt
Stir quickly
Stir the other direction, quickly!
Shake vigorously
Voila! "Boxing the Breakable"

And though the influences are apparent, this drink is undiluted Wilkinson. Bitter, salty, with a lingering aftertaste, intriguing, and altogether unpleasant.

A marvelous weird cocktail. Bottoms up!

The elements of "The White Kisses" were just a touch too ephemeral for me. I like open-ended stories that don't have to explain themselves, but I prefer a story that is thematically tighter. Don't explain everything, but explain something, please. Anything. Or at least "hang" all the elements together. Sorry, but this one just dissipates into wisps for me. There's potential, but I felt this one too easily forgotten. One needs a few touchpoints, and "The White Kisses" didn't press hard enough for me.

"The Lengthsman" is a tale that bubbles with meaning underneath. You can sense the horror rising from below, surfacing as a bubble whose surface tension expands the dread. Wilkinson does well to let that tension grow, but leaves it to the reader's imagination to pop! The cultural underpinnings are also redolent with alienation and hints of barbarism. An outstanding tale that shimmers with an earthy darkness.

"Absolute Possession" does nothing to slake my thirst to revisit Wales. Quite the contrary. Again, Wilkinson subverts expectations by thrusting the reader even deeper into the weird than expected. Here, nature itself, the land itself, is the realm of the weird. The issues of ownership, free agency, and self are questioned here in the most fundamental of ways. Is it a marvelous escape, or a trap? Or both?

I might note there that a few other stories in the volume are set in Wales (unsurprisingly, given that this is where Wilkinson lives). When I visited the booktown of Hay-On-Wye in summer of 2019, I was a bit saddened that I didn't see Wilkinson's work in any of the bookstores there. Someone has to rectify this! Come to think of it, I had a hard time finding a Machen book there, which is downright criminal and unpatriotic, though I did eventually find a copy of The Hill of Dreams. Anyway, I digress. I'd like to digress permanently to Wales, but my wife won't have it. Oh well.

"Mr. Kitchell Says Thank You" is . . . scattered. Like it's trying to be too many things at once. There are intriguing elements - an occult master, motive for revenge, academic intrigues. And while there is a thematic continuity of . . . elephants . . . the theme isn't strong enough to tie it all together. It's a decent enough story, but I'm not nearly as compelled to love it as I was with other tales herein.

I found "Drawing Above the Breath" a fine story, but also uncompelling. There's a very slight twist on the vampire and fountain of youth myth, a fine point, if you will, on the canon. While the subtlety of the idea is interesting and the writing gorgeous, at times, I can't view the story as anything other than minor, given the context of a volume with so many excellent stories. And, truth be told, I'm just not a fan of vampire stories. Bauhaus did me in on that front. The Count is dead, long (un)live The Count.

"Aficionado of the Cold Places" is a thematically-solid tale whose banal title belies a deeply-fantastical weird, even borderline-surreal story of yearning and the haunting past. The understated use of the word "Aficionado" for such a life-preserving need gives this very serious tale a bitter (I use the word intentionally) twist. Stark beauty pervades the setting, the characters, and the mood. Wonderfully chilling.

Sometimes you pick the perfect soundtrack for reading. This was the case as I listened to Paysage d'Hiver while reading "Catapedamania," thus far, and by far, the most outright disturbing tale in this volume. Bizarre and forlorn with a touch of schizophrenia, just like the musical accompaniment.

In lesser, more rudimentary hands, I would call "The Solitary Truth" a clever story. But Wilkinson's facile handling of language and character make this story not just clever, but intelligent, even cunning. There is a certain dark manipulation happening here that sneaks up and taps you on the shoulder when you least expect it. It could be a sad story, or not, depending on whom you believe. The story is a kind of Rorschach Test with no pass or fail.

"His Theory of Fridays" is an ethereal, yet altogether satisfying story of four siblings, one of whom has a theory . . . of Fridays. The theory isn't mentioned and, in fact, cannot be, according to the narrator, as there are no words to form it. Yet it is a reality, unwritten, unspoken, possibly even unformed. A ghostly-wisp of a story, this is, in a way that "The White Kisses" was not, vanishing, yet fulsome.

"An Absent Member" is the most classically-surreal of the stories in this volume. Ribald, if a bit silly, I found the story enjoyable in its farce, especially in the way it never took itself seriously, even if the narrator did. A nice little change-of-pace story that would normally upset the "flow" of a collection, but seems to appear at just the right point here. I don't know if that was Wilkinson's choice or that of the editor, but it was well-played.

With a heavy does of Brian Evanson-esque matter-of-fact irreality, "Might be Mordiford" shows a glimpse of a bureaucratic hell that would torment even Franz Kafka. Stultifying consequence is not so easy to shake when even memory loss is no excuse for paying the price of one's misdeeds.

"Legs & Chair" (the ampersand is important!) is a science fiction story (so far as I can tell) in the mold of the New Wave (now old) of Science Fiction, tinged with an extra dose of Philip K. Dick. A good story, strange and heartfelt, and a different voice for Wilkinson. Not a fully dystopian vision of the future, but definitely a view of a dysfunctional future society.

The collection ends powerfully with "The Floaters," a post-apocalyptic tale of the erosion of the land and relationships and the crumbling of language itself. The tight narrative speaks volumes more than its word-count. And, in the end, it really is about words and how they are tied to our reality. When one disintegrates, so does the other. As above, so below, but only in a hopeless sense. Grim, grey, awe-inspiring. Reading this could be a way to ease in to Beckett's Molloy trilo- no, who am I kidding? Nothing can prepare you for that.

You will note that I drop the names of several authors throughout this review. While I disagree with at least one review that stops just short of calling Wilkinson's work a wholly derivative mishmash of weird fiction, the influences are apparent, at times. This happens with all writers. I've done my share of channeling other writers myself, even to the point where I have a 100K page manuscript of a science fiction novel that I will have to rewrite, oh, say 90K pages of to make it mine (I was channeling Alastair Reynolds, if you must know). So, maybe I'm remiss in looking past that to some extent. Wilkinson is his own man. And this is his own collection. But, if you like Aickman and Evenson as much as I do, you're going to want to get a copy of this and see what he brings to the table!

View all my reviews

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Blackstar Carcosa: a Hex and a Ritual

 With the upcoming fifth anniversary of David Bowie's departure into the unknown caverns of space and time, I thought I might use his song Blackstar, with its incredible accompanying video, as a springboard for some material for Carcosa. You'll need the Carcosa RPG book to fully utilize this, but one might steal elements from this for use in just about any campaign. In fact, I could see this leading to an entire campaign based around the various avatars of David Bowie, a campaign that could last for many years with a wide variety of adventuring flavor. Such a campaign need not be set on Carcosa, but I think that the planet's pull might be irresistible. For those who followed Bowie through his incarnations and who know Carcosa well, I think you will see the connections quite readily. I would love to hear, in the comments, how you might springboard off of this theme. Here are just a couple of short starting points:

Hex 1310

The hideout of the Orange brigands has been cleared of their previous inhabitants by a group of Blackstar cultists, who raided the hideout, killing 10 of the brigands and sacrificing the remaining 11 in unknown rituals. The hideout was built into a veritable citadel, the Villa of Ormen, in which a solitary candle burns night and day with an un-extinguishable fire. The cult consists of 13 barren women, one of each color. Strangely, they do not experience the prejudices and racial acrimony that almost inevitably occurs among men of opposed colors on Carcosa. Their leader is a 16th level Bone woman sorceress who is also a powerful psionicist. Each of the other women are 9th level sorceresses that are also psionically gifted. All thirteen are "blessed" with some sort of positive mutation. The Brigands never stood a chance . . .

The narrow cleft in the stony hills has been cleared of it's denizen, the cultist having banished the green ooze to another dimension, and the beautiful green sorceress having been utilized in another ritual. This is sacred ground for the cultists, the place where they witnessed the apotheosis, through ritual and death, of their god, Major Tom. The Bone woman sorceress can almost always be found here, alone, unless she is being joined by her compatriots from the Vila of Ormen. Here she broods and communes with the avatars of Blackstar in his many guises.

Ritual: The Day of Execution

This ritual takes exactly 9 minutes and 57 seconds to complete. It requires the willing self-sacrifice of a Bone man, who willfully plucks out his own eyes and allows himself to be beheaded. Thirteen participating individuals are required for the ritual, one bows and allows the severed head of the sacrifice to be placed on his or her back. The one governing the ritual leads the others as they first jump in a circle, then kneel on the dirt, sweeping the floor in unison with their hair. 

The ritual has several effects:

1) All non-participants within one mile of the ritual center are paralyzed from the moment of the end of the ritual until 9 minutes and 57 seconds later. There is no save.

2) The severed head of the sacrificial bone man speaks, channeling one or more of Blackstar's avatars. For the 9 minutes and 57 seconds that he is able to speak, the one overseeing the ritual may ask any questions of the head, and the head must reply truthfully to the best of its knowledge. Depending on which avatar(s) manifest, the answers may be profound and wise, or something that might come from a drug-addled moron. The avatars know about much more than Carcosa and can sometimes, if questioned properly, speak of far off places with strange names like "Earth", "Mars", "Moon", "The Labyrinth," or even "Blackstar" itself. The answers always come in the form of a poetic song, sometimes beautiful, sometimes dissonant. In the context of Hex 1310, several of these answers have been written down in a book covered in the tanned hide of an Ulfire man.

3) The ritual inevitably and uncontrollably summons the Shambler of the Endless Night to the lavender fields nearby the Villa of Ormen. There it roams for 9 minutes and 57 seconds, attacking and eating any who have succumbed to the paralysis of the Day of Execution ritual. The cultists will have crucified three individuals among the fields in order to keep the Shambler distracted from their working in the cavern, but this foul creature is not always satisfied with merely three victims, but will stalk the environs of the citadel for what little time it has. At the end of the duration, the dimensional space around the Shambler explodes, destroying it (for now) and causing one random mutation to all within 100'.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Oxford July 2019

 It's been over a year now. Things are a bit hazy, just like the sky was when we landed in London last July. After a long wait in Chicago (10 hours delay that also cost us £96.75 - thanks a bunch, American Airlines. Jerks.), we took the approximately 8 hour flight over to London. I don't fly particularly well, so I didn't rest much. Pretty much kept my eyes either on the flight monitor map or on my pinball app. I didn't want to watch any movies that might even hint at an air disaster and I didn't need any reminders that the wreck of the Titanic was somewhere far below us. I might have taken a couple of benadryl before getting on the plane, I don't remember.

Morning found us going straight from Heathrow to the car rental place (did I mention the £96.75 in lost hotel fees because of the delay?) where the nice young man there tried to upsell me to a Mercedes. No thank you, I was saving my Mercedes for the Autobahn when we went to the continent the following week (what a great drive that was, but that's a different story). 

Here are the taxis we didn't take (but I had to get a picture):

Cute, aren't they? Unless you've been watching Sherlock

I quickly found that driving on the other side of the road is, frankly, terrifying. I'm surprised my wife didn't just kick me out of the (right hand) driver's side door. I was freaking out - a lot. Eventually, though, we miraculously made it to Oxford, our first stop of the trip. I was so relieved to get out of the car.

We took a double decker into Oxford. Yes, quaint, I know, but it really was the most convenient way to get into town from the carpark. I have to admit it brought back a flood of memories and feelings from when I was a teenager living in England. Back then we'd sit in the back of the top and smoke cigarettes. It might have even been legal back in the '80s, I don't know. Not that illegality would have stopped us.

Yes, there's a sign telling you you're in Oxford. Helpful, that.

Our first order of business was filling a dream of mine: Visiting the Bodleian Library. If I had a million dollars, I'd go on a world tour of incredible libraries and bookstores. On my meagre budget, we were able to go to the Bodleian and stop at an Oxfam to buy a book or two later that day. Well, there was the booktown trip to Wales, but that was not this day (why is it I hear Aragorn's voice when I type that?). Here' is the first photo I took:

Next, one the courtyard:

And one of the library's facades, viewed from the courtyard:

Sorry, fellow Yanks, but America just doesn't have this kind of architecture. This building was older than America itself and yet, there it stood.

We paid our two bits (okay, it was more like twenty quid) and stepped inside for the tour. We started in the Divinity Room, where most of the tour was held. 

Here's the door we came through. Lots of people were coming and going, so it too a while before I could get a "still" shot of it:

"Wow," you might be thinking "what an architect!" Well, yes and no. There were two architects. One of them an artisan whose name I can't remember. Like all good corporate entities, the board of trustees wanted to cut costs, so they hired another builder (whose name I also can't remember) who was more . . . practical. And less expensive. You can actually see where one quit (I can't remember if he died, retired, or was fired) and the other took over:

You can see, on this cornice, where the fluted columns give way to something more . . . prosaic. That's not to say the newer part of the build (still older than America, I must add) was not beautiful, it was, just a little less baroque than the earlier work.

Now, rather than continue teasing, here's a shot of the ceiling:

Look closely and you'll see words up there (among other ephemera). They form important religious and scholarly phrases (in Latin, if I remember correctly) that seemed profound at the time. I mean at the time we were there, not just . . . before America.

And, what's this? The Oxford Coat of Arms? Here? You don't say. Of course, it's held up by angels. This is the Divinity School after all.

And if that wasn't enough divinity for you, here is . . . um . . . I think it was John the Revelator (is he eating a book? If so, that's him). And definitely a Madonna and Child (ah, fertility cult left-overs):

I joke about it, but it really was beautiful. If only my picture-taking skills were as heavenly as this iconography. 

Next, we went into what I think was the exam room, where students quivered and fainted in the presence of their examiners:

The examiners would stand up behind those pulpits to question students. Not intimidating at all! And, hey, what is that distracting oddity in the window?

Of course! It's a stained glass . . . sundial? Yes, it is. I would argue that, given it's provenience in England, it was useful for perhaps one out of every three days. But it's a nice gesture, anyway. And, yes, you can tell time by the way the shadows fall (if there's sunlight). Pretty ingenious.

Next, we went into the room where Oscar Wilde was held on trial and kicked out of Oxford. I don't know if this was the place where he was tried and sent to Reading Gaol, but he was definitely kicked out of the university from this place. Here's the imposing entrance:

I was too busy being awestruck and touching the table that Oscar Wilde had sat at to take a photo in that room. But my wife took this shot of the paneled walls. Probably the last thing that Wilde saw as his university career was snatched away:

I half expected to see "O.W." carved into the wood somewhere, or maybe "D.G.".

We were then taken up to the holy-of-holies, where we were expressly forbidden from taking photographs - the Medieval Collection, where King Charles I studied in his (and the Queen's) own reserved kiosk(s) after the young soon-to-be-regent asked to have a book sent to him, but was denied by Sir Thomas Bodley himself, who felt he had a sacred duty to hold up the injunction imposed by the Archbishop of London (who had rebuilt the collection after it had been ransacked during the Reformation) that none of the collection could be checked out. This is exclusively a research library! I was also able to see here, in person, my first chained books. And while I would have surreptitiously taken a picture or two (trust me, I totally would have), we had to lock up our cameras and phones before going upstairs to the medieval library. But it was worth it to fondle a couple of medieval chained books!

Many of these "facts" may be misremembered or outright fabrications. What do you expect after an utter lack of sleep for two days straight and having to rewire my brain to drive on the other side of the road?

Lastly, there was this little guy right near the entrance to the Bodleian gift shop. A leering bard, perhaps?

After the Bodleian, we had another appointment - for lunch - at another literary must-see:

"What's so big about a pub?" you say? Never speak to me again.

This, my friends, is the Eagle and Child, noted as the pub where JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis would hang out and chat over a pint. I understand Mervyn Peake was also occasionally in on the conversations, as are other minor writers whom I will probably never read.

There is the famed Rabbit Room, which was filled with people in various states of drunkenness. We ate down the hall, under a quote by Lewis:

This will surprise those of you who knew me in high school, but I don't drink. Haven't had a drink since I was 18. So rather than enjoying a pint, we got a meal. Fish and chips and smashed peas. And, I must admit, this was the best fish and chips I've ever eaten. Ever. And I've eaten a lot of fish and chips. On that rainy day, this just hit the spot:

And since my wife wanted to taste English cuisine, this was a dive into the deep end! Satisfied, nay, stuffed, we took our leave of the Eagle and Child, back out into the rain:

After this, we traipsed around a bit, stopping at the aforementioned Oxfam and a chocolate shop, admiring the beautiful old tudor buildings, among other sights.

And where else would you expect this? Because: Duh!

Let's face it: Hogwarts is Oxford, and Oxford is Hogwarts: Magical!

But we were soon driving (*insert terror here*) to our lodgings in Moreton-in-Marsh to get some much-needed rest and have our body clocks adjust a bit. The next day was our trip to Wales and the booktown of Hay-on-Wye. Even now, though, the joy of Oxford lingers. It is truly one of my favorite cities in the world (and I've seen a few). Perhaps someday, money permitting, we can make it back!