Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Dr. Black and the Guerrillia

Reading a second book by an author one finds intriguing is, of course, always an interesting experience.  You wonder if experience will lead to new appreciation, or if you'll ask yourself what you saw in this writer in the first place.  Happily, with Brendan Connell's novella "Dr. Black and the Guerrillia" I had the former experience.  One thing I noticed was that, for all its range and vivid imagery, Connell's style is remarkably.  Because he isn't bound by the pure realist's need for proportional description, he can put together only the necessary details for the image he's constructing, then move on to whatever comes next.  If written in a less compressed style, "Dr. Black..." would be a full-length novel, but it wouldn't be any richer or more striking than it is now.

And how rich and striking it is.  Like "The Life of Polycrates," it's a multi-faceted story, complete with footnotes, ellipses, and digressions, but if anything, the setting, a Central American country covered with jungles and beset by civil war, is even more appropriate for Connell's vivid descriptions of the bizarre and the decayed.  The protagonist, Dr. Black, has come to this country to do research for his book, A Key to All Gods, and hopes to encounter an elusive tribe, the Yaroa, and learn more about their mysterious deity.  Along the way, he'll find himself facing death, caught up in revolution, and having other strange experiences that will break down his scholarly view of the world.  The encounter between the scholarly mindset and the non-rational world of natives is a common enough literary subject, but few have written about it in Connell's distinctive style, which is impossible to epitomize because it shifts, chameleon-like, based on the needs of the moment.  These two paragraphs, though, may give a hint of how he can evoke the way disconnected images combine to create mood:
The bus, dashboard decorated with a brightly colored statuette of St. Jude and garlands of latex flowers, was crowded.  The vehicle drove madly along a poorly paved and precipitous road.  They drove past fields: men on horseback moved through cows and half-naked children waved from the front of half-dilapidated cottages.  The smell of manure, drifting through the open windows, invoked a vivid memory: his uncle's ranch in Wyoming, where as a boy he sometimes spent his summers...  And then there was the smell of isoamyl acetate.  He turned his head.  A woman next to him was eating a banana.

The bus passed a huge patch of brown dirt, a mining operation, where the forest had been bulldozed away to expose bauxite deposits.  The massive naked roots of great tropical trees hung out along the edge of the clearing like the arteries from the neck of a slaughtered cow.  Huge yellow vehicles, like fantastic beasts, moved through the earth and gnawed at the forest, as if famished.  The doctor inhaled the smell of upturned earth, heard the sound of distant chain-saws.  Then the bus turned and rolled along the side of a hill, past a rocky cliff face and into the town which sat in a declivity, a nest of shacks and newly constructed, concrete domiciles.  It was dirty and sad.  An unwholesome odor hung in the air:one of liquor, cheap tobacco, excrement of livestock and sour poverty.  It was a place where the only flourishing enterprises were prostitution and shops catering to miners and adventurers; a place where humans rotted, putrefied in the over-humid air of the jungle, beneath the sharp arrows of the sun.
As the novella progresses and Dr. Black delves deeper into this desolate yet beautiful land, some of the description, which mixes scientific and other formal language with unsettlingly visceral imagery, is almost Lovecraftian, in the loose sense of that term.  There's also a powerful depiction of a drug-induced religious vision, a jaggedly structured series of guerrilla attacks, and a helluva "flashes before your eyes" moment.  All this, and occasional moments of wry humor, in about 75 pages.  If you're already familiar with the style of Brendan Connell, this book, a handsome signed, limited edition with a few crude but very appropriate illustrations by (I assume) a relative of the author, is well worth the $20-$25 you'll pay for a secondhand copy.  If you haven't encountered him yet, check out The Life of Polycrates and Other Stories for Antiquated Children, or Unpleasant Tales, or Metrophilias, and enter the odd, creepy, fascinating world of this unclassifiable writer.


I've tried more than once to get my mother, a big fan of young adult fiction, to read the short stories of Australian writer Margo Lanagan.  Every time she makes a dutiful effort and reports that what she read didn't do anything for her.  I know I ought to accept this and move on, but instead I bide my time and wait to try again.  Now that I've read Lanagan's marvelous new collection Yellowcake, I think it's time to launch another broadside.

I can't exactly blame my mom for not recognizing Lanagan's prodigious talent on first reading.  After all, I didn't myself.  My first exposure to Lanagan was in the copy of Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 20 that introduced me to so many great writers.  There were two Lanagan stories in that volume, two opportunities to be dazzled by her radiant imagination and evocative style and I failed both times.  I couldn't see the point of "A Pig's Whisper," a very dark piece about children lost in the woods, or "Winkie," a creepy reworking of a famous nursery rhyme.  It was only chance that led me to check Lanagan's collection White Time out of the library a while later.  I was still ambivalent after reading that one (oh, the shame), but curious enough to check out her later collections Black Juice and Red Spikes.  By the time I'd finished them, I was hooked.

There is, I'll admit, something challenging about beginning a Margo Lanagan story.  Her prose, while gorgeous, is often written in an idiom whose rhythms were once unfamiliar to me, whether because it's her own personal touch or common to Australian speech or fiction (of which I haven't read nearly enough).  The worlds in which her characters live are similar to our own in some ways yet bewilderingly different in others, and the differences aren't always immediately obvious.  You have to read on to learn more about these behaviors, customs, and desires, commonplace to her characters yet strange and wonderful to readers.

Yellowcake includes a brief "Where the stories started" section that does what it says on the tin.  But the mind of a great writer is a mysterious thing, and even knowledge of the sources of her stories can't explain the darkly marvelous ideas that run through Lanagan's work.  Many of her stories are inspired by classic fairy tales or other myth-- "The Golden Shroud" is a retelling of Rapunzel with a twist that's clever yet so simple I'm amazed no one has used it before, and "Ferryman" begins with the figure of Charon-- but others bring magic into the contemporary world, or into fictional lands no one else could have come up with.  "An Honest Day's Work," for example, might be compared to one or two classic works of fantasy fiction, but the particular twist that's placed on the basic concept is pure Lanagan.

For all her imagination, though, Lanagan's great virtue is her deft, sympathetic rendering of her characters, who are often young adults faced with grown-up terrors and responsibilities.  The protagonist of "Into the Clouds on High" is a boy forced to mature quickly because of his mother's strange condition, which may be a blessing, a curse, or both, and offers a poignant metaphor for the grieving process.  These stories may be accessible to young adults, but they're not light-hearted or patronizing, and while most are optimistic there are no easy answers on offer.  "Heads," an especially dark post-apocalyptic story, and my personal favorite in the collection, deals movingly with the ways in which children cope with sudden change and the collapse of expected order.  Lanagan's young heroes face all the darkness the world has to offer, which makes their survival all the more real and impressive.

And, on top of all that, there is her prose.  Longtime readers of this blog may have noticed that I often struggle to capture what makes a writer's style work, and post long quotes as a way of covering up this deficiency.  As I read a book, I usually keep an eye out for especially impressive or representative passages.  With Yellowcake, though, there were so many passages that seemed perfect that I had trouble selecting one.  Flipping through the book now, I suppose this section from "A Fine Magic" will do as well as any:
All is beautiful and wonderful, warm and alive while the carousel gathers speed.  Everywhere they look something catches the eye: the deft paintwork that makes that cherub look so cunning, the glitter of eagle feathers as the lights pass over, the way the giraffe runs beside them, clumsy and elegant at the same time, the lozenges of trompe-l'oeil that offer whole worlds in a glance, brine-plashy seascapes, folly-bedecked parks, city squares thronged with characters and statuary, alpine vistas where one might as easily spring up into the sky as tumble to the crags below.
Really, though, the effect of her prose depends on extended reading, which I would encourage any fan of inventive, resonant fantasy and horror to undertake, regardless of your age or general attitude to YA fiction.  How much do I admire Margo Lanagan?  When I heard that Yellowcake had been published in Australia, and that it would be a while before it was published here in the US, I immediately ordered an imported copy direct from the publisher, at 2-3 times the price I would have paid had I been content to wait.  And the thing is, having finished the book, I can say without hesitation that it was worth every penny.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A new subtitle

Because this blog has ended up focusing less on ghost stories than I expected when I launched it six months ago, I've changed the subtitle from "Thoughts on Ghosts Stories and Other Horror Fiction" to "Thoughts on Weird, Strange, and Supernatural Fiction," which I think more accurately reflects the range of titles I review.  I've left "The Stars at Noonday" as the main title, in part because I still think it accurately describes what interests me, but mostly because I can't come up with anything better.

Coming soon: reviews of Brendan Connell's novella "Dr. Black and the Guerrillia" and Mark Valentine & John Howard's The Collected Connoisseur.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Life of Polycrates

I wasn't going to review this book.  I've reviewed all five previous releases from Chomu Press, but after finishing The Life of Polycrates and Other Stories for Antiquated Children I wasn't sure I had anything to say about it.  (I can already hear the cries of "That never stopped you before!")  Now, though, I find myself wanting to write a review whether I manage to say something or not.  So here goes.

Anyone who has studied the ancient world in an English-speaking classroom will be familiar with the style adopted by historians like Herodotus and their modern translators, with its slightly formal word choices, its long sentences, and its frequent parenthetical digressions.  That style forms the jumping off point for "The Life of Polycrates," the title novella of Brendan Connell's new collection.  That title itself has a footnote, which leads the reader down to a dramatis personae with descriptions like "his Brother, a Luxuriant" and "a Flatterer," and sprinkled throughout you'll find lacunae and scriptural references.  But that's only the beginning of the quirkiness on display in this ambitious novella, which supplements traditional history and anthropology with such delightful asides as a letter from a prospective court jester, a list of the contents of a dressing case, and "conjectural conceptions" that reveal the hidden thoughts behind these epic Greek lives.  The prose is never drily historical, and often finds a pleasing poetry of simple images:
On leisure days he would sit in his garden, under the shade of the amamaxudes, or else wander along the paths, sniff at the flowers and sample prime pieces of fruit from his orchard.  There were roses that were half white and half red and vines which carried both white and black grapes together, grapes that were not fit for wine, but for eating were deliciously sweet.  He had a mulberry tree which was grafted to a chestnut tree, a chestnut tree grafted to a hazelnut tree, and a pomegranate grafted to an oak.  He grew cadmium-yellow lemons which smelled of cinnamon, melons odiferous as peach blossoms, and artichokes which breathed the aroma of hyacinth, were without sharp prickles and tasted not unlike sweet plums.
While I had fun reading "The Life of Polycrates," I didn't know what the point of it was (beyond, of course, the hope that people would have fun reading it).  I'm still not exactly sure, but having read the rest of the stories in the collection, I could probably hazard a guess.  If this collection is anything to go by, Connell's fiction deals with eccentric passion in all its forms.  Whether the protagonist is an ancient Greek tyrant, a medieval pope, or an ordinary contemporary man, he or she is sure to manifest some bizarre behavior in aid of an equally bizarre desire.  The language of the other stories is more modern and experimental than that of "The Life of Polycrates," but the unique vision of the world remains the same.

Perhaps my favorite of these shorter works is "The Dancing Billionaire," which contrasts the search for purpose of a child of wealth with his aunt's unexpressed, disturbingly ambiguous devotion to him.  As in all his stories, Connell's voice varies to fit the needs of the moment, but this passage will do as well as any to demonstrate what he's capable of.
Next tableau:
The curtains glide open.
He appears, cane in hand, in black coat and tails, bow tie, top hat, tipped negligently to one side, and spats.
The orchestra bursts forth, coolly, his mouth drops open, utters words of song, strangely pathetic, ridiculously melancholy.

guests twist
that embarrassed sweat
glistening brows of red madness

Stepping out with my baby...

The cane toyed with, an extension of the procreative
obsession, violins
waves of colorful insects.

smooth sailing 'cause I'm trimming my sails...
 I generally prefer a more direct, undramatic style, but Connell generally handles this well enough that I have no complaints.  From time to time there's an abstract sentence that doesn't flow right, feels too much like an unconnected block of nouns and adjectives, but that's rare enough to be written off as an occupational hazard.  And I'd say that the disturbed yet all-too-human personalities of Connell's stories-- cross-dressing big game hunter, motorcycle daredevil with a gambling-addicted wife-- demand such an approach.  In fact, one of the stories I didn't think quite worked, "The Chymical Wedding of Des Esseintes," is a perfectly adequate piece of suggestive fantasy, but pale and underdeveloped compared to the rest of the book.  To resemble human beings rather than ironic caricatures, Connell's characters also need a degree of human specificity, and again, most of the stories provide that, generating sympathy as well as shock.  A couple, though, most particularly "The Slug," lack that level of detail, and as a consequence read more like exercises in describing degradation than like full-fledged stories.  Even these lesser works, though, offer a distinctive voice whose equal you're unlikely to find in contemporary fiction.  The Life of Polycrates, like other Chomu Press books, is most certainly not for everyone, but if you enjoy weird and experimental literature, you'll very likely find it worth your time.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

"Remember You're a One-Ball!"

Freud, over-ambitious fantasist though he was, understood (as many had before him) the importance of childhood to the psychological shape of the adult.  His mistake was in over-emphasizing the influence of the parents on the child-mind, and in neglecting that equally great force for socialization, the "educational" system.  Parents define the private life, the personal sphere, but the public persona is as much the product of teachers and the schoolyard.  And how baleful their influence can be.  On some level we all understand this, but we pretend it doesn't matter, that bullying is something to be vaguely regretted in the abstract and tolerated in the real world.  Then, when the horrifying but logical extremes of such behavior break into the news, we tut and make token efforts to address the problem.  But individuals willing to confront these inherent cruelties directly are few and far between.  In his compelling novel "Remember You're a One-Ball!", Quentin S. Crisp joins that distinguished group.

The protagonist, Ramsey Blake, has, for lack of a more meaningful occupation, trained as a teacher, and finds himself returning to his old primary school as a teacher.  The experience of seeing his childhood world through adult eyes is one of potent nostalgia-- as powerful, in its way, as one covering a much great span of years-- and Crisp's evocation of it is quite moving.  As a new employee, low on the totem pole and unfamiliar with the rituals and personalities of his new society, Ramsey has in some ways become a child once again, and as the narrative develops, it becomes clear that he must in fact come to terms with a lesson insufficiently learned during his own school years.  Faced with a monstrous secret that links one of his students and a dimly-remembered classmate, he has no choice but to decide where his loyalties lie, and what his future will be.

The secret Ramsey uncovers is so unlikely, so paranoid, that some readers will be inclined to reject it as a flight of fancy, an overheated metaphor from someone still smarting over being picked last in gym.  But it is precisely that tendency to trivialize childhood suffering that makes the novel's central metaphor so potent.  Only by entering the nightmare world of conspiracy and brutality that Crisp conjures can we come to recognize that its intensity is nothing less than an accurate reflection of how cruelty and authority function in the minds of children.  When witnessing what many would dismiss as boys-will-be-boys naughtiness, Ramsey aptly notes, "I knew that what I was witnessing was as brutal as any mugging or gang rape."  Likewise, the adult behavior that Crisp postulates is no harsher than that which is authorized under the dubious rubric of "toughening children up."

I can hardly deny that "Remember You're a One-Ball!" is often an unpleasant book to read.  Ramsey, as much a product of the system the novel is indicting as any other character, is often difficult to like, very prone to self-pity, and his sense of moral superiority, however justified, can be infuriating.  His social awkwardness, and the victimization he and others suffer, is so well-evoked as to be heart-breaking.  The novel's climax, which is simultaneously a powerful symbol and a visceral reality, is highly disturbing.  But Crisp is so adept a writer that I never felt unnecessarily brutalized.  Difficult subjects require difficult reading.

Crisp is particularly good with the overwhelming power of visual stimuli and the force of memory.  From the almost primal image that launches his strange, strained romantic relationship to the simple yet haunting descriptions of a neighborhood both changed and unchanged by term, his prose propelled me along, so that I finished a 270 page novel in about two and a half hours.  The following passage, slightly modified to prevent unnecessary plot revelations, is typical:
I had no idea why, but looking at [it], I began to experience a kind of rising up as from remote regions inside, or perhaps outside of myself, of a whole array of poignant feelings which, although I fear it is misleading, I am compelled to call nostalgic.  On the tide of feelings were borne scraps of images and other fragments.  I thought of Norman with his knees drawn up to his head, wrapped up in his coat.  "Leave me alone-- I'm hibernating!"  Within the coat was the warmth of blood, red and glowing.  Debris stirred in the liquid and with them came the smell of pencil shavings wrapping around me and blurring the world into a leaden haze.  The haze was a tunnel that led back to some ancient time where boys were playing with conkers and girls were skipping to their skipping rhymes.  There was a chant, an absurd and menacing chant.  All I heard was the word "remember" bullying in my head over and over.  I was as alone as this hand in my pocket.  A hand in my pocket.  Hibernating.  For years.  Down the haze of the leaden tunnel to focus upon one small object.
I fear I've only begun to capture the richness of Crisp's prose, and of his novel, which manages to encompass a number of related themes without ever drawing away from its central, darkest one.  "Remember You're a One-Ball!" is both a powerful piece of dystopian horror and a literary novel of the first order, pitiless in its judgments yet blazing with compassion.  It stands alongside work by acknowledged masters of dark social observation, and deserves thorough consideration by the widest possible audience.  If you only read a single book I recommend this year, make it this one.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Dark Entries

The more I read of Robert Aickman, the more I realize how thoroughly unfathomable his stories are.  I'm forced to wonder whether their depths have a bottom, or whether their mystery extends forever, meaningless.  This ought to matter, some part of me is insisting, but I know full well that it doesn't.  The reason I read the six stories in Dark Entries in a single, nausea-inducing sitting, even after finishing two other books the same day, was not that I was doing the literary equivalent of a crossword puzzle, but that I was caught up in the workings of a particular kind of mind, a machine where product is irrelevant and pleasure exists simply in watching the gears turn.

This was Aickman's first solo collection of strange stories, and what strikes me about it is how fully-formed his sensibilities were.  These stories are no less suggestive, elaborate, and baffling than those included in his later collections.  There is no sense that Aickman, like other writers of the strange and the weird, went through an early imitative phase before developing his voice.  Perhaps this has something to do with the fact he became a published writer at mid-life; he was in his thirties when his first collaborative collection appeared.  It may be that the lesser efforts never saw the light of day.  Whatever the case, I felt as I read that a full-length biographical study of Aickman is much to be desired.  From what little I know, he doesn't seem the sort of person to be easily got at, but any light would be a help.

The stories themselves number only six, but most are quite long.  The first, "The School Friend," remains as wonderfully confusing to me as it did after I first read it in the reprint collection Painted Devils.  I can see how the story's epigraph, Elizabeth Bibesco's remark that "To be taken advantage of is every woman's secret wish," must have something to do with it, and it's perfectly possible to decode the story as a metaphor for the restrictions society sets on women's achievement.  (Given the slightly lascivious attitude toward women in many of his stories about male characters, it's somewhat surprising how sympathetically Aickman treats female protagonists.)  But that sounds terribly reductive, and as Glen Cavaliero notes in his introduction to the Tartarus Press edition of Dark Entries, there is much tangible detail in the story, so much that I feel treating it purely as metaphor would be a great mistake.  However one reads it, "The School Friend" offers that gradually mounting sense of disorder, leading to a final moment of inexplicable terror, that one hopes for in any strange story.

With "Ringing the Changes," one of Aickman's best-known stories, I feel on slightly firmer ground.  Metaphor is not the only thing at work here, but I marvel that on first reading I missed the connection between the honeymooning protagonist's mundane anxieties and the horrifying supernatural events that threaten to engulf him.  This is something that has often happened to me with Aickman, I must admit.  I read a story once, think it's rambling and pointless, then read it again and realize how tightly structured and clever it is.  That's not to say I understand everything about "Ringing the Changes."  I haven't yet grasped what, if anything, is the deeper spring of the wonderfully-named Commandant Shotcroft and his actions.  But again, that doesn't matter.  What makes the story-- and many of Aickman's others-- memorable is the way it turns events that are ordinary, if deeply atypical, into something with a collective effect that's menacing or uncanny.  Drunken hoteliers, a melancholy guest, a town where church bells ring all night and the beach is hard to find in the dark-- nothing sinister there, and yet...

"Choice of Weapons" was the only story in Dark Entries I hadn't previously read, so I was delighted to see that it was long, the longest in the volume in fact.  For most of its length it seemed (for Aickman) unusually comprehensible, and it was only when I came to the ending, which seems abrupt and which I am utterly unable to interpret, that I realized I had been skimming along on the surface, enjoying Aickman's description of unrequited love and decayed gentility without thinking enough on the larger intentions of the story.  For now, then, I can only admire the characters, lovestruck Fenville, seemingly-guileless Dorabelle, and the friendly yet somehow disturbing Doctor Bermuda.

"The Waiting Room" is rather short and straightforward; like his much longer "The Unsettled Dust," it's about as close as Aickman ever came to writing a traditional ghost story.  There is little enough to say about it, except perhaps that the most salient feature of Pendlebury's dream is a reminder of one of Aickman's recurring themes: that our only hope for an escape from the wearying dailiness of life may be a heightened existence that is equally ghastly in its own way.

That theme is even more prominent in "The View," one of at least four Aickman stories in which a world-weary man travels to a new place, meets an attractive woman/women, forms a sexual relationship with her/them, achieves something like an epiphany, and then discovers the consequences of these actions.  (The others are "The Wine-Dark Sea," "Never Visit Venice," and "The Stains.")  "The View" is the earliest of the four, and I think possibly the best.  The motif of changing and unchanging patterns is used to great effect, and the final revelation makes sense in a way that is beyond logic.

With "Bind Your Hair," the final story, I found a third stage in my Aickman-reaction pattern.  I had found the story impenetrable on first reading, but this time I thought I was understanding it as a metaphor for, almost a kind of satire on, certain anxieties in the protagonist about her future and its potential limitations.  But, again, the details defeat me.  I know it to be an excellent story, but... What do the children mean?  The pigs?  The maze?  Lateness?  Even as I type these words a new theory is forming in my mind, but it feels so preposterous that I hesitate to set it down.

I know I will have to read these stories, and Aickman's others, 13 of which are still unknown to me, many times more.  Not, as I say, in the hope of finding "the answer;" I'm not sure it exists.  But, just as Aickman's characters stumble through strange landscapes in the possibly vain hope of finding clarification and safety, so must his readers.  It can be a frustrating journey.  Even now, as a deeply committed Aickman reader, there were times when I wanted to say "This means nothing!" and toss the book aside.  But instead I read on, and was entranced by a strange detail, a new nuance, a possible symbol that made it all worthwhile.  The Aickman reader may have to bind his hair before entering the maze, but as it may not have been for Clarinda, what he'll find there is worth the trouble.


Daniel Mills' first novel is bookended by Nathaniel Hawthorne.  It opens with an epigraph from one of Hawthorne's most famous stories, "The Black Veil," and ends with an acknowledgments section mentioning Mills' "considerable debt" to him.  And indeed, any reader familiar with Hawthorne's powerful if difficult fiction will recognize similarities in the subject matter taken on by the two writers.  Both recognize the marvelous atmospheric potential of colonial America for dark fiction: a vast continent, unexplored and (to European sensibilities) wild and dangerous, and the tiny towns that dotted it, bound together as much by isolation as by a fierce religion that was merciless in its treatment of ordinary human frailties.  Both write about those in a sympathetic yet pitiless way.  And both allow hints of the supernatural, of some force so large and strange that it can only be called fate.

Where Mills and Hawthorne differ is style.  Anyone who was assigned The Scarlet Letter at school will remember how Hawthorne writes, and while I admire his fiction very much, I admit that it can be difficult to read, especially in the longer works.  (Assigning these to schoolchildren is ridiculousness of the sort tragically common in educational systems.)  Mills' style, on the other hand, is equally distinctive, but sharply contemporary, written in third person present tense that's atmospheric but easily readable in a way that Hawthorne is not.  Like Hawthorne, Mills recognizes the powerful symbolism inherent in the physical world, the way in which what is seen, and how it is seen, has to do with the mental state of the one doing the seeing.  Here is a particularly fine example:
The fog is suffocating, a flat stink that turns sour in Edwin's nostrils, a cold stillness perched at bone and center.  In its coils, the village is a no-space, dank and dimensionless.  Houses fade into the mist only to surface again unexpectedly, veering close with the sounds of voices: a man reading scripture, a family sharing Sunday supper.  The trees are black lines, nothing more.  Voices grow louder before subsiding to whispers, drifting away to leave an immutable silence.
A wolf shrieks and shatters the dreamlike calm.  James begins to walk faster.  He passes Edwin's father and stalks ahead into the mist, taking on speed until only his lantern can be seen.  William calls after him.  He hurries after the carpenter, and Edwin must run behind to catch up.  His chest heaves as he sprints and he prays he can keep his footing, unable to look down at the track for fear of losing his father's light.
These descriptions have substantial cumulative effect.  And that's a good thing, because for a large chunk of its length the novel has little else to offer.

The first fifty pages, in which the characters' complicated histories and relationships are slowly revealed, are excellent.  But following that is roughly a hundred pages in which the characters are stagnant, and the narrative moves in ways that are predictable even if you haven't read the cover copy, which gives it all away.  The descriptions of landscape and of the protagonists' ruminations are well-crafted but thematically repetitive (as is often the case in Hawthorne's novels), and one begins to wonder if anything much is ever going to happen.

At about the halfway point of the novel, something does, a series of inexplicable but suggestive incidents that reminds one how a strange landscape can, like the mind, blur past, present, and future, in disturbing ways.  From that point, the narrative takes a more satisfying pace, leading to revelations and resolutions, but not, fittingly, to any redemption for the harsh, guilt-ridden world of colonial New England.  There is only the town, and the wilderness beyond, and the people, struggling with an existence that ought to be unbearable.  It is this milieu that is the ultimate subject, and triumph, of Revenants.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The White Hands and Other Weird Tales

When I reviewed Mark Samuels' excellent collection, The Man Who Collected Machen, I mentioned that I had a copy of his earlier book The White Hands on the way, but that it hadn't arrived yet.  Yesterday it came (along with three other lovely books from Tartarus Press, and there was much rejoicing), and last night I read it.  That has something to do with the slimness of the volume, but more to do with Samuels' prose, which is never less than eminently readable, and conveys deep philosophical issues with great clarity.  That alone would be enough to make this collection worth reading in spite of any other virtues and flaws, both of which, fortunately and unfortunately, it has.

In my TMWCM review, I agreed with Reggie Oliver's comment that Samuels was able to acknowledge influences while keeping his own voice dominant.  With the stories in The White Hands, however, that's less true.  It's very easy to find echoes of Thomas Ligotti in several of these stories, and the less Ligottian stories are reminiscent of classical weird tales.  It's no bad thing to be influenced by the best, but when one's own voice isn't strong enough, the resulting stories can feel overly familiar or second-rate, absolutely enjoyable but not quite memorable or distinguished.  Several of the stories in The White Hands left me thinking, "Well, that didn't do anything particularly wrong," when I was hoping for a "Wow!"

"Mannequins in Aspects of Terror," for instance, is very well-crafted, but, with its solitary, brooding protagonist and the decaying office tower/mannequin-based art installation to which he's drawn, echoes so many of Ligotti's motifs that it feels more like an echo than anything else.  "Colony," in which a man is irresistibly drawn to a decayed neighborhood, is likewise a piece of familiar music, the kind of thing you hear on the radio and vaguely like while recognizing its debt to better work. "The Grandmaster's Final Game" has a clever (both literally and intellectually) final twist, but up to that point its world-weary priest and malevolent chess-playing spirit are more like stock figures than interesting or frightening characters.  And the title story reminds one of Machen and Poe without capturing the intensity of either writer, despite a few fine character descriptions.

So about half of the stories were less than satisfying.  But others are classic Mark Samuels, which as I've said, means they're very good indeed.  "The Impasse" is somewhat similar to Thomas Ligotti's corporate horror stories, but Samuels offers enough distinctive imagery that the piece succeeds in its own right.  There are what might be echoes of Ligotti in "Vrolyck," about an author whose horror stories have a special mission, but the story also feels a little Lovecraftian, and features Samuels' own recurring motif of language as a virus.  In this case, the play of influences produces the distinctive voice I associate with Samuels' finest fiction.  And "Apartment 205" is likewise original; although there's something classical about its general outline: a mysterious disappearance, an empty apartment, an ancient organization, and unbearable but mesmerizing secrets revealed at great cost.

I had mixed feelings about the last two stories in the collection.  "The Search for Kruptos" has more excellent language as virus/obsession imagery, and up until the last two pages I was quite enjoying it.  I'm not sure, though, that the coda (and the material elsewhere in the story leading up to it) is necessary or appropriate.  It's hard to discuss without giving things away, but as a rule I'm touchy about genre fiction dealing with this particular topic, and in the specific instance I don't think the story gains much from that element.  But it may be that I've failed to understand the point Samuels is making. "Black as Darkness," on the other hand, I admire for its late twist, but I'm not sure the story is fully developed enough to make that twist relevant to the (striking) horror imagery that's wrapped around it.  There's a tiny link back to "The White Hands," which is nice, but only underscores my feeling that the elements of this story aren't fully integrated.

The White Hands, then, is a curious collection.  It contains work by one of the contemporary masters of the weird, but to me that work feels transitional, slightly tentative, whereas his recent work satisfied me more.  On the other (white) hand, this collection was praised in its own right by many famous names, such as Thomas Ligotti himself, Ramsey Campbell, and T.E.D. Klein, and I can't deny that Samuels' prose is invariably polished in a way that few writers can manage.  It's likely that most readers will find a least a couple stories to treasure in The White Hands, and on that basis I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it.  But if you want to see Samuels working at full power, I'd go for The Man Who Collected Machen first.
*          *          *
The White Hands is in print from Tartarus Press as an inexpensive paperback.

Killer Move by Michael Marshall [Smith]

I'm now a member of Amazon Vine, a program that provides members with advance review copies of various books.  Mostly I won't mention my Vine reviews here, since they'll be of books with no relevance to horror fiction, but my latest read is an exception.  The thriller Killer Move is written by Michael Marshall, a pseudonym of the much-lauded horror writer Michael Marshall Smith, and while it's a non-supernatural novel, the bewildering world into which its protagonist is cast has an air of inexplicable menace that I think would appeal to many horror fans.  My review of the book, which comes out in hardcover at the end of June, is here.

Coming soon (like, within a couple hours): a review of The White Hands and Other Weird Tales, by Mark Samuels.