Saturday, May 30, 2020

Dissonant Intervals

Dissonant IntervalsDissonant Intervals by Louis Marvick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had seen the numbers: high ratings on Marvick’s fiction by my highest-tier of respected reader friends. I had heard rumors, but only in the genericized “he’s an amazing writer” and, of course, the inevitable “you’ll love his work!” Like anything of great worth, though, I had to experience it myself, to know for myself. Call me a readerly hedonist – it’s true! I took a chance, visiting the (very excellent) Sidereal Press website (through which I had ordered Hanns-Heinz Ewers’ The Hearts of Kings), owned by the exceedingly interesting and erudite John Hirschhorn-Smith. Given Sidereal’s reputation, I expected and received a beautiful book-as-artifact. With a nearly-clear dust jacket (save for the title and author’s name) that let the beautiful cover (the painting for which was created by the author’s brother, I believe) breathe its colorful miasma. As I read, I came to understand that this breath was infused throughout the stories in the book.

Straight from the beginning, I was struck by the writing. The first two sentences of the first story are perfect, from a writerly perspective. Perfect.

The first story, "Pockets of Emptiness" may be one of the most effective ghost stories I have read because it explicitly ignores any attempt at scaring the reader but instead slowly scoops hope out of the reader and fills the gap with a grey, drizzling depression. It is not scary, but absolutely dreadful. The writing is exquisite, carefully-crafted to draw the reader into a hazy mist of hopelessness. It powerfully robs the reader of power, pick-pocketing essence.

"Devil's Music" is the work of a literary craftsman who has done his (horrific) homework. I love a well-researched story and here Marvick shows that he has a firm grasp of musicology and liturgy (or at least he convinced me of such), as well as a touch of early modern history. Combine this with a good sense of moral repulsion for things that ought not to be, and this makes for a powerful, yet carefully restrained tale that disturbs deeply.

Forgive an author for his ever-so-slight over-reach. "The Mirror of Don Ferrante" strains just a tick too hard to be horrific, but does not stumble into ludicrous territory. The understated ending reins in earlier hints of melodrama and saves the story, keeping it disturbing, but not gratuitous. You will be wary of your reflection, going forward. Note the changes.

Marvick gets into territory that touches on some very personal experiences of my own, feelings I am deeply familiar with, musings that I've had myself, in "The Madman of Tosterglope". It's inspiring to me as a writer, causing me to dig deeper into my own sometimes painful experiences for inspiration. It has been a while since a work of fiction has pushed me in this way. Terrifying and refreshing, "The Madman of Tosterglope" is a drab revelation, the uncovering of an occulted soul, the scrying of a haunting brought on by heartache and brought to light (or darkness) through further heartbreak. It is a stunning piece of not-quite-doppelganger-horror. The balance is set and, within it, an imbalance is created, setting up the final resonance that restores balance, but in a malformed sense, full of remorse.

I admit it: halfway through "A Connoisseur of Grief," I thought "this is one of those stories that the author or editor plugged in here because it wasn't good enough to be published elsewhere. Then, things took a turn. The abrupt switch from flowing narrative to journal entries snapped the story into place. Into a very grim place. But a place that satisfied my grim sense of humor and scratched my dark itch. I found that many of Marvick’s stories in this collection start slowly, sometimes so slowly that one begins to lose interest. Then, at a certain point, the author turns on the lights, and one realizes that this entire long, slow-burn was a fuse leading to a powderkeg. It’s a difficult way to write, but powerful when it’s handled right, and Marvick knows how to handle it right.

How to classify "The Red Seed"? It's a historical mystery (by "historical," I mean having to deal with history - the story itself is a-historical), complete with a pulpish feel, but of a highbrow nature. Combine Thomas Ligotti, Clark Ashton Smith, and M.R. James, and you start to get an inkling of the idea, but just an inkling, the merest hint of a segue. This story is very much Marvick’s own. The adventure lies in uncovering secret connections and bringing to light mistaken interpretations. But at its heart it is an adventure, of sorts. An academic adventure of discovery and, ultimately, horror.

"Is for Ilinx" is a precarious story, set on the edge of a blade, both structurally and thematically. Thankfully, like so many of the stories in Dissonant Intervals, it balances there just so (as Nick Cave might say), where such a tale could lose balance and falter, with fatal results for everyone involved.

"Maculate Vision" is a weird tale where the denouement comes before the climax, a difficult and brilliant literary trick for such a strange tale. Supporting characters come to the forefront and the plot of the arc is not what the reader would expect at all. It is a lesson in the art of deception and the deceptin of art. Of course, the writing is beautiful, which sustains interest through the meanderings of the plot, especially as one approaches the striking end.

Marvick tricks us with a little sleight-of-hand by entitling the next story "Of Interactive Surveillance and the Circular Firing Squad" when this story of music, suffering, summoning, an innocence has nothing obvious to do with the title. But there are hidden symbols in the title, which I will not reveal. The story feels "loose" and "rambly," until the final scene, where it ties off in a spectacular frisson.

"The Purloined bibelot" is, well, a bibelot. At three and a quarter pages, it is a wisp, compared to the other work herein, but carries a powerful, if predictable punch, about the human need to damn another based on no evidence at all. This story punctuates the collection with another glimpse into the just plain rotten. I might also add that this last story is contradictory to all the other stories in being so succinct. Most of these tales are long, slow burns with a wicked twist at the end. This one gets to the point and drives it home like a nail to humanity's forehead. The contrast is stunning.

Throughout this collection, Marvick proves that he is a writer’s writer. Not a showman, but an artist, a crafter, with a high degree of skill – so high, in fact, that you won’t even notice what’s happening until you look back on the story you just consumed and dissect it in order to understand its full anatomy, the sinews and systems that give it literary life. It’s a fascinating study. One of the most compelling I’ve taken recently. Enroll yourself, but keep in mind: slots are limited. Mine is 175 of 300 numbered editions. It’s worth the tuition and worth giving your fullest attention.

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Thursday, May 28, 2020

The Spectacle of the Void

The Spectacle of the VoidThe Spectacle of the Void by David Peak
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is philosophy the way I like it: succinct, less jargon-ridden than many philosophical treatises I’ve read, and the referent examples are things I am either familiar with, can easily find online, or contextualized in such a way that I can fill in gaps in my own knowledge/experience.

The Spectacle of the Void is a short work, with only 96 pages of actual text. Its vocabulary is only as complex as it has to be, yet Peak gets his points across with exactitude. You don’t need a PhD to understand it, but a Bachelor’s degree helps. And I love that the examples used are from such things as the work of Brian Evenson, John Carpenter movies, and Junji Ito manga. Laymen’s sources? Sure. Well, except Evenson, who is a thinking man’s writer. But you’ll occasionally need to dip into the dictionary, as Peak doesn’t water down his thoughts, either.

I’d like to ask the question “what is the gist of the book?”, but there are several sub-theses going on here. Peak poses, as his primary thesis, that horror, at its heart, is about communication, or lack thereof. Whether it is our inability to communicate what we know, see, and feel properly or the fact that language simply cannot encompass the breadths of what we experience, particularly in those numinous moments when we sense something “beyond” what is communicable, we all suffer when communication is cut off, whether by us, by another, or by our circumstances. It’s an interesting take that plays out quite well through Peak’s facile use of examples that we either all know or can easily access with a little effort.

The examination of the thesis and corollary sub-theses was great. But what I drew the most from this was a number of notes in my writer’s notebook that got me thinking about how I construct stories and the thematic elements that make them ring or make them fail. I believe that, as a result of reading and understanding this work, I can be more engaging to potential readers. I can now more deliberately examine what aspect(s) of horror (internal or external, for example) affect my characters and determine, much more clearly, why they are affected by them. This is one of the best books about writing (that is not about writing) that I’ve ever read.

The section on extra-dimensionality is outstanding and makes clear something that has been in the back of my mind (in a pocket dimension?) for some time, but Peak makes it explicit. I'm surprised, though, that he did not reference House of Leaves as an example.

I love the idea, briefly touched on in relation to the movie Blowup, that the closer we try to examine something from a distance, the blurrier it gets. That is good insight that one must keep in mind when constructing horror.

The section on "Transformers" (no, not those Transformers) draws upon my favorite Junji Ito story "The Enigma of Amigara Fault" to demonstrate how this content hole can be extrapolated into the general frisson of one's experience of time's passage, where we are constricted and reshaped in our inevitable journey toward death. Peak’s examples are extremely helpful, in that they are scalable – one can extrapolate a larger meaning from the specifics of a story, and Peak is very good at showing the reader the way.

I will have to revisit this book again and again and set it near my dictionary, thesaurus, and other reference books I use for writing. Like any good philosophical text, it has caused me to think deeper about the subject. While the existential (and sometimes nihilistic) focus of the book can sometimes be draining, overall, I have been energized by the read and return to this one again and again.

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Saturday, May 16, 2020

Hellebore #1: The Sacrifice Issue

Hellebore #1: The Sacrifice Issue (Samhain 2019)Hellebore #1: The Sacrifice Issue by Maria J. PĂ©rez Cuervo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The inaugural issue of Hellebore shows great promise for the folk-horror afficionado and the acolyte alike. You won’t find any jargon-filled occult ramblings or rehashings of horror movie fandom. No, Hellebore is much more approachable and, one must use the word “staid” than all that. Adventurous? Yes. Fun? Of a sort. But not “twee”. The articles in this first issue are eclectic in their subject matter and approach, but a steady editorial hand is evident here. Each essay is of an academic bent, but without the egotistical esotericism one often finds in related literature.

Katy Soar's essay "The Bones of the Land" outlines the historical emergence of ideas that tie stone circles to ritual sacrifice. The connections are tenuous, mostly fiction spurred to life by Romantic writers, rather than based on unbiased historical fact. But there is some connection between these places and death, as evidenced by remains (sometimes cremated) at several of these sights. That connection may not involve human sacrifice, but there is a connection. I recall on my last visit to England, when my wife and I stopped at Devils Quoites, Oxfordshire, that there was an explanatory plaque there indicating that both human and animal bones had been found by archaeologists on-site. But in looking at the actual archaeological paper written on the excavations there, it is noted that only 1 of the 200-odd bone fragments found there is human. Evidence for human sacrifice at this megalithic site? Not likely. And Soar doesn’t take the bait here that might lead into sensationalism. Her analysis is restrained, well-reasoned, and well-written, yet entertaining and engaging.

"Eye of Newt and Toe of Frog," written by Deedee Chainey, explores the . . . complicated relationships between witches, cunning folk, and animals. A great overview by one of the creators of Folklore Thursday.

Maria J. Perez Cuervo traces the emergence of the ties between fertility rites and folk horror in "From His Blood the Crops Would Spring" (name that TV show!). They are much more modern than you might think!

Ronald Hutton, historian of witchcraft, etc., is interviewed in an enlightening Q&A regarding witches, witchcraft, and their place in modern social discourse.

John Reppion's analysis of "The Bodies in the Bog" is a carefully-reasoned essay regarding so-called Bog People, ancients whose remains are found well-preserved in peat moss deposits. I am impressed by the restraint and balance present here (and in the other essays). Sensationalism is minimized, logic emphasized. This isn't fan fiction disguised as academic work. This is good, scholarly effort.

"The Ritual of the Hearts," by Mercedes Miller, gives some context to M.R. Jame's story "Lost Hearts" with a bit of speculation on whom the villain Mr. Abney may have been modeled after.

Verity Holloway pens an art history/archaeology/anthropology crossover essay about the St. Peter & St. Paul medieval church located in Bardwell UK in her essay "The King of Terrors". An excellent piece of local history, but much more than that, this is the sort of cross-disciplinary work the intellectual world needs more of.

David Southwell (of Hookland renown) gives a 30,000 foot-view of "Landscape Punk" and calls on us to become the cunning people in his inspiring essay "Re-enchantment is Resistance".

This first issue of Hellebore is packed with information, but does not read like a dense academic text. It owes much of its aesthetic to the zines of the ‘70s, but with better, more consistent production values. There’s an underlying folk-punk vibe here, the movement of a nascent community. I also love that each of these articles is short enough to read in a brief amount of time, but "full" enough to keep the mind going long afterwards. And I hope that Hellebore and its emerging community goes on for some time to come.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology, and Lost Futures

Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost FuturesGhosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures by Mark Fisher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I can’t prove it, but I believe there’s a bit of a cult of personality surrounding thinker/critic/philosopher Mark Fisher. It’s easy to see why. His work The Weird and the Eerie, for example, is must-read material for readers of dark fiction and horror, as clear an explication of the distinction between the weird and the eerie in several media as you will ever read. I also strongly recommend watching his lecture on The Slow Cancellation of the Future, wherein Fisher elaborates on the book currently under review – specifically the first essay in the book.

“The Slow Cancellation of the future” diverges from the lecture, as you would expect. One difference is his concentration on the British TV show Sapphire & Steel . I was in the UK just a bit too late to see that show, so I you-tubed (is that a verb now?) the last episode. Frankly, it was a bit shocking, and I see why he examines it so closely. It is a symbol of being trapped in time, which is the central focus of the essay: We are trapped in time – the future has been cancelled.

I hit chronological adulthood in 1987. This is just when Fisher argues the future was in the middle of being cancelled. I can actually see what he means. I was a first-hand witness to exactly what he was talking about. In short: Take any music from the current decade and project it into the past, say, into the early 2000s. People in the early 2000s hearing todays music would not bat an eye at it. It’s no different, really. Whereas, if one took music from the early 2000s and pushed it back to the ‘80s, there would be many eyebrows raised. Amortize this dynamic over movies and television, and you can see where this is leading – innovation stalled, and this stall began during my childhood. This theme carries on through several of the other essays in the first third of Ghosts of My Life.

Unfortunately, few of the other essays in this first section even approach the tightness of Fisher’s initial manifesto. At times, the impetus of his argument is stretched to near breaking, as when he claims that society has lost confidence that there can be any kind of future at all, in his essay “The Past is an Alien Planet”.

If you’re into really obscure music, this book is for you, as well. I was introduced to a few new musicians that I was not familiar with, but one of my favorite pairs of essays was about The Caretaker, who I know well.

"Sleevenotes for the Caretaker's Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia" was exactly the sort of essay I was hoping for from this volume. It helps that I own two Caretaker albums. This playful essay declares in perfect terms the displacement, both in location and time, encountered when one listens to the album. This is a key hauntological essay that, along with the interview with The Caretaker, which follows, strikes at the heart of the matter:

. . . the kind of nostalgia that is now so pervasive may best be characterised not as a longing for the past so much as an inability to make new memories. Fredric Jameson described one of the impasses of postmodern culture as the inability 'to focus our own present, as though we have become incapable of achieving aesthetic representations of our own current experience.

"Home is Where the Haunt is: The Shining's Hauntology" is a fabulous essay that jabs and pokes, but never fully lays out the hauntological corners of The Shining (both the novel and the film). It reaches out from around corners and taps the shoulder, then disappears. It is heard as distant moans and seen only in flashes of white. It's a fabulous essay, haunting in and of itself. Fisher in top form!

Unfortunately, not all of the essays are of this quality. “Hauntological Blues: Little Axe” felt like Fisher reaching for straws in asserting that Little Axe was something much more than a (admittedly fantastic) blues outfit. It’s a hollow attempt to assert meaning where there is none, of laying a hauntological template over the band's music simply because Fisher likes it. Truth be told, I like it, too. But it's not hauntological. It's the blues, plain and simple. This imposition of symbolism, meaning, and the theme of hauntology where it doesn’t seem to belong is also evident in "Old Sunlight from Other Times and Other Lives: John Foxx's Tiny Colour Movies," though the interview with Foxx that follows is excellent because Fisher lets Foxx carry the microphone to speak for himself and his work with his own voice.

At other times, the artist is self-aware of the hauntological nature of their work. It is intentional and insightful. Such is the case in "Nostalgia for Modernism: The Focus Group and Belbury Poly’" an insightful analysis into the Ghost Box record label, one of my personal favorites. Of interest, among other things, is the idea that much of this music points us not toward pop culture of the past, but to hints of incidental TV music or library slideshow presentations. The sort of thing that is woven into the background weft of life. It is the trivial that evokes the feeling of an era, in these cases. Or, more specifically, it is the promise for the future (that never came) which speaks in the voice of the Zeitgeist of the past-looking-forward to the future.

It's those things lurking at the background of attention, things that we took for granted at the time, which now evoke the past most powerfully.

The last section of the book, “The Stain of Place,” seemed the “loosest” of the three sections. I found myself yearning, throughout, for past places. As a child, I lived over half of my life overseas. I’ve seen a lot of the world, not as a tourist, but as a person living in foreign lands. And, as a curious child, I found myself often in those oddball nooks and crannies that are never seen by the casual tourist – back-alleys, abandoned lots, unkempt ruins, wastewater gullies, abandoned factories, and half-finished construction zones. I had a knack for finding that sort of place as a kid. I never went to the Tower of London or Madame Tussauds when I lived north of London, but I watched bums roll each other in dirty alleys near Carnaby Street (now, sadly, gentrified) and was propositioned by hookers off urine-drenched back doors in Soho.

So reading Fisher’s essay on Laura Oldfield Ford’s Savage Messiah, with its references to liminal spaces, was highly intriguing to me. And while the essay “Nomadalgia: The Junior Boys’ So This is Goodbye” took fully 2/3rds of the essay to get started, the last 1/3, about the nostalgia felt specifically by frequent travelers, was relatable.

I really liked how the essay "Grey Area: Chris Petit's Content" celebrates the banal in the English landscape. I love the beauty of the Cotswolds, but there is some blase beauty in the flats of East Anglia (I lived on the western edge of this area when I lived in England). I am reminded of the wonderful collection Est: Collected Reports from East Anglia, and that is a thoroughly good thing.

Speaking of books about place, I have The Rings of Saturn on my bookshelf, waiting to be read when my yearning to get back to England will inevitably crash into my inability to get back there. I worry that Fisher's self-avowed skepticism of Sebald's work might subconsciously cause me to put my guard up, rather than taking in the book as it is. This is the danger of reading critical essays, I suppose.

In a change of p(l)ace, Fisher, in "The Lost Consciousness: Christopher Nolan's Inception" points out what the movie Inception might have been. I found it interesting that one of Nolan's main themes is "the lies that we tell ourselves to stay happy". After just watching The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, I am really struck by this theme and its utility as a way to critique film, literature, and art. But, honestly, what’s this essay doing in a section about place?

At first, I was a bit taken aback by Fisher's assessment of Inception as a fairly banal film, but after watching him break it down and thinking about it myself, I'm convinced that he's right. The film could have been so much more . . . dreamlike, but it wasn't. It's like a "Starbucks" idea of dream, more shoot-em-up than oneiric and, therefore, quite disappointing when analyzed closely.

I can’t end this essay without mentioning the elephant in the room: Mark Fisher’s suicide in 2017. There are threads of depression throughout the work – it’s right there in the subtitle. One can see hints, perhaps warning signs, that Fisher’s depression was intractable. But the final essay, while openly acknowledging the damage done by privatization, the abandonment of public assistance, etc., is, in the end, downright hopeful. I never thought I'd say this, but Fisher's “”Tremors of an Imperceptible Future” is far too optimistic in its hope that the 2008 financial crisis might have turned our attitudes toward capital and climate change around. Not. A. Chance. I wonder if the loss of this hope was part of what drove him to suicide. It has to be more complicated than that, but I wonder if it was a contributing factor. We will never know.

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