Sunday, July 31, 2011


In the first scene of Joe Simpson Walker's new novel, the title character, a sensitive schoolgirl, is at home alone when a masked man forces his way in, binds and gags her, and goes on a rampage, destroying the contents of the family lounge.  The timely arrival of Sarah Thaine, a teacher who's been helping Jeanette with her education since she dropped out of school, scares the intruder away, and all seems to be well.  But Jeanette's behavior in the aftermath of the break-in is strange, and it's soon revealed that these events, and the characters involved, are much more complicated than they appear.

The "About the Author" section for Jeanette reports that "as a writer he is interested in bizarre psychology-- obsessions, compulsions, phobias, taboos, etc."  The obsessions, compulsions, and so on of Jeanette are largely sexual: the novel examines the subcultures of several behaviors that, as the cover copy notes were "still condemned as perversions" in the novel's early 1960s setting.  Of course, to some ways of thinking many or all of them are still condemned as perversions today, and people offended or disgusted by uncommon fetishes should most assuredly find some other reading material.  For those who share the author's interest in the psychology of uncommon drives, however, Jeanette is well worth a look.

The novel's prose, which is divided between first-person narration by Jeanette and third-person descriptions of other characters, is straightforwardly descriptive, avoiding both lurid detail that would smack of the prurient and spurious moralizing that would risk a sledgehammer effect.  The downside of this approach is that it can't always communicate the full intensity of the psychological forces at work.  Jeanette's troubles include episodes where the world around her comes to seem unbearable:
Then something happened.

The sheets were white and blue, cotton and wool, fresh and smooth to touch.  Only they weren't smooth.  They were woven, made up of threads, and if you looked truly closely you could see the weave.  I'd never noticed it before.  I stopped still and stared at it.  They didn't seem the same to hold.  They were rougher.  It was as if the weave was changing, turning coarser.  I could see it.  The smooth white sheet in my hand was becoming criss-crossed with squares, threads crossing each other, up and down and over and under.  The threads were expanding, getting thick as string, thick as window cords, thick as ropes.

I shut my eyes but still saw it.  I let go the sheets and backed away.  I was trembling.  Whatever was happening, it wasn't just my bed.  Wherever I looked the surface of things wasn't normal.  The curtains were closed but the morning light came through brightly.  There wasn't a shadow in the room.  The wallpaper glowed.  The paintwork was thick with lumps of dried paint and flaking off in scabs.  My desk and chair and wardrobe were rough as the bark of dead trees.  In the corner my boots lay on their sides, and they were as black and shiny as two pools of oil.  I couldn't move.  I wondered would everything be like this forever.
But underlying this simplicity of expression is a keen insight into the lengths to which those trapped in restrictive societies will go to fulfill their desires, and an understanding of the moral ambiguities to which those lengths can lead.  The most striking character in the novel, not excluding Jeanette, is Mark Child, the young man who shares some of her darkest secrets.  Although his treatment of her is, from most perspectives, pretty shoddy, it eventually becomes clear that Child is as much a victim of his needs as Jeanette, and that their relationship is, in its unusual and destructive way, based on pure impulses.  Despite the "depravity" of some of the behavior on display, this is a novel with no villains, only people trying to come to terms with unconventional longings.  Smart, humane, and sprinkled with dark comedy, Jeanette is transgressive fiction for thoughtful readers.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Seeking Decay: The Febrile Voices of Thomas Ligotti's Grimscribe

"The Last Feast of Harlequin," the first story in Thomas Ligotti's Grimscribe, is perhaps the author's best-known work, and certainly the most reprinted.  Dedicated to the memory of H. P. Lovecraft, the story has been called "perhaps the very best homage to Lovecraft ever written" by scholar S. T. Joshi.  I must admit that despite my admiration for the story's elegant structure, I've never been a great fan of "The Last Feast of Harlequin."  It seems to me to lack the strength of voice that makes both Lovecraft and Ligotti compelling.  In fact, I might argue that, in terms of the morbid intensity that continues to make him a controversial figure, the later stories of this collection are more clearly Lovecraftian, though the narrative techniques involved are quite different.   

Grimscribe is in fact a collection characterized by remarkable thematic unity.  Its characters are, like Lovecraft's, seekers after forbidden knowledge.  But in most cases this knowledge won't be found in ancient texts or isolated ruined cities, and it's less concerned with squamous creatures than with unseen, unnamed powers and forces that reveal the terrible, meaningless unity beneath the surface of ordinary life.  The settings may be classical-- rural communities, medieval towns-- or contemporary-- urban neighborhoods, movie theaters-- but all are subject to the imposition of Ligotti's special brand of decay, a merging and melting that, for all its philosophical underpinnings, retains a visceral terror.  A fictional introduction sets the tone:
There is a grand lapse of memory that may be the only thing to save us from ultimate horror. Perhaps they know the truth who preach the passing of one life into another, vowing that between a certain death and a certain birth there is an interval in which an old name is forgotten before a new one is learned. And to remember the name of a former life is to begin the backward slide into that great blackness in which all names have their source, becoming incarnate in a succession of bodies like numberless verses of an infinite scripture...
I know his voice when I hear it speak, because it is always speaking of terrible secrets. It speaks of the most grotesque mysteries and encounters, sometimes with despair, sometimes with delight, and sometimes with a spitit not possible to define. What crime or curse has kept him turning upon this same wheel of terror, spinning out his tales which always tell of the strangeness and horror of things? When will he make an end to his telling?
The thirteen first-person stories that follow include some of Ligotti's finest.  "Nethescurial" begins on terms recognizably traditional and Lovecraftian, with an obscure cult and its dark god, but evolves (as Matt Cardin has observed in an illuminating essay) through several narrative layers into something more modern and subtly disturbing.  "The Cocoons" darkly satirizes the in/ability of the medical profession to succor those doomed to confront everyday life as a bleak impossibility.  And "The Night School" is one of the best examples of Ligotti's capacity (on which I've previously commented) to capture the feel of nightmare in a satisfying narrative.  The lessons of the newly-returned Instructor Carniero demonstrate Ligotti's capacity to infuse the scientific edge of Lovecraft's vision with a more surreal terror:
Although I cannot claim that these often complex diagrams were not directly related to our studies, there were always extraneous elements within them which I never bothered to transcribe into my own notes for the class. They were a strange array of abstract symbols, frequently geometric figures altered in some way: various polygons with asymmetrical sides, trapezoids whose sides did not meet, semicircles with double or triple slashes across them, and many other examples of a deformed or corrupted scientific notation. These signs appeared to be primitive in essence, more relevant to magic than mathematics. The instructor marked them in an extremely rapid hand upon the blackboard, as if they were the words of his natural language. In most cases they formed a border around a familiar diagram allied to chemistry or physics, enclosing it and sometimes, it seemed, transforming its sense. Once a student questioned him regarding what seemed his apparently superfluous embellishment of these diagrams. Why did Instructor Carniero subject us to these bewildering symbols? "Because," he answered, "a true instructor must share everything, no matter how terrible or lurid it might be."
The school building itself has suffered alterations that are emblematic of the feverishly-twisted environments of Ligotti's fiction.
As I proceeded across the grounds of the school, I noticed certain changes in my surroundings.  The trees nearer to the school looked different from those in the encompassing area.  These were so much thinner, emaciated and twisted like broken bones that had never healed properly.  And their bark seemed to be peeling away in soft layers, because it was not only fallen leaves I trudged through on my way to the school building, but also something like dark rags, strips of decomposed material.  Even the clouds upon which the moon cast its glow were thin or rotted, unraveled by some process of degeneration in the highest atmosphere of the school grounds.  There was also a scent of corruption, an exhausting fragrance really-- like the mulchy rot of autumn or early spring-- that I thought was emerging from the earth as I disturbed the strange litter strewn over it.  This odor became more pungent as I approached the yellowish light of the school, and strongest as I finally reached the old building itself.
Such images of nature decayed and mutated lend Grimscribe its edge of physical as well as philosophical disquiet.  This blending reaches its most subtle and powerful expression in "The Shadow at the Bottom of the World," the collection's final story, which captures the essence of autumn while transforming it into a sinister invasion from which the collective voice of a town's citizens may not escape unscathed.

Grimscribe, like all Ligotti's early collections, was for a long time out of print, and has recently been reissued in a revised, definitive edition by Subterranean Press.  However, even that new version is down to low stock and the publisher and will soon demand inflated prices.  Readers curious about the author's work would do well to acquire this handsome version of one of his best books sooner rather than later.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Literary Remains & "The Beautiful Room"

The ambiguities that define the stories in R. B. Russell's second collection (after the out-of-print, heinously expensive Putting the Pieces in Place) are not simply about the presence or absence of the supernatural.  Their true significance is as much social and psychological as it is narrative.  Characters find themselves unwilling or unable to confront relationships with others, with art, with themselves, resulting in a mood of unhappy confusion that complements the puzzling occurrences that drive individual plots.

"Llanfihangel," one of the collection's finer stories, draws its power not so much from the narrator's mysterious school friends or the dilapidated and abandoned mansion with which they are associated, as from the evocation of his anxiety over whether he has or hasn't been deceived, and from the realization thus brought on that much knowledge we deem secure is tentative and can easily be manipulated, whether by con artists or by deeper, darker forces.  Another brilliant tale, "Una Furtiva Lagrima," presents an ambiguously supernatural manifestation near its conclusion, but compared to the layered agonies, secrets, and failures to connect of its human characters, the question of a few ghostly figures is almost an afterthought.

Romantic and sexual (dis)connections are a prominent theme, from the perhaps-too-subtle title story, in which a young woman finds the home of a recently deceased ghost story writer to be less empty than expected, to "Blue Glow," in which an uncanny exchange of lifestyles may or may not be just what a newly-divorced man needs, to the especially Aickmanesque "A Revelation" and the final entry, "Where They Cannot Be Seen," an excellent story whose clever conceit I find myself unable even to hint at without giving the game away.

I mention Robert Aickman.  Russell's stories echo Aickman's deft awareness of the balance between social and spiritual unease; the mundane difficulties of foreign travel in "Another Country" are but a prelude to something truly bizarre.  But Russell captures more strongly the psychological discomfort of his narrators and point of view characters, who are more immediately human and sympathetic than Aickman's, less apt to obfuscate, downplay, or be ignorant of their own deeper workings.  (I don't mean to suggest that Russell is unsubtle about characterization, only that its relevance to his stories is more overt than is the case with Aickman.) The atmosphere thus generated is as disquieting as in Aickman, but redolent more of melancholy and less of mystery, although the precise meaning of events is often every bit as elusive.

The stories in this collection are, to be sure, effective taken individually (I first read "Loup-garou," an unsettling story that has less to do with werewolves than you might imagine, in an anthology, and very much admired it).  But read as a cohesive whole, preferably in one sitting, they reveal a profound awareness of human drives and limitations, an understated but very real sense of the large and small tragedies that characterize our lives.  Literary Remains is dark fantasy of the first order.

*          *          *

Postscript: What I've said of Literary Remains is equally true of Russell's "The Beautiful Room," a short-story chapbook temporarily available for PDF download to BFSA voters and other interested readers.  Check out the Tartarus Press news page for a link.

The Old Knowledge and Other Strange Tales

The eight stories in this first collection by Rosalie Parker, co-proprietor of Tartarus Press and editor of that publisher's Strange Tales anthologies, tend, at least on first glance, toward the traditional end of the supernatural fiction continuum.  Two stories feature contemporary city dwellers running afoul of the traditional ways of rural villagers; another deals with the possibly haunted house a group of siblings inherits from their late father; two more may, or may not, feature infamous creatures from literature and film.  This air of familiarity, and a tendency toward sudden, vague resolutions, leaves some of the stories feeling too insubstantial, but the total effect of the collection is pleasantly unnerving.

Ambiguity in the supernatural tale is itself a phenomenon of ambiguous value.  When well-executed, it can capture and reflect the fearful uncertainties of human existence, generating an unease greater than any form of explication could achieve.  Less successful attempts lead to stories that seem to stop just on the point of becoming interesting, or to have chosen ambiguity because neither a supernatural nor a non-supernatural explanation would be particularly interesting.  The Old Knowledge demonstrates both these virtues and these faults.

"Spirit Solutions" is for much of its length a well-written story of four siblings, the subtle tensions that separate them, the snow building up outside the house whose fate they must decide, and the signs of a presence haunting that house.  The enigmatic e-mail messages from the titular detective agency are especially effective.  But the story's conclusion is a shade too abrupt, too evasive, to pay off the atmosphere that's been generated.  "Chanctonbury Ring," on the other hand, has a satisfying plotline, but despite a fine description of encroaching mist reveals too little about its ancient monument and the unexpected person met there for those events to acquire the necessary weight of atmosphere.

Other stories may at first seem unsatisfying, but on further consideration show hidden depths and demonstrate the particular type of covert effect for which the less successful tales also strive.  The first and longest story in the volume, "The Rain," initially reads as a stock effort: a vacationing urbanite, taciturn locals, signs of an imminent threat.  It is only on further consideration that one can see how subtly Parker undermines those tropes, producing a story in which straightforward, unassuming prose belies a keen psychological insight.  "The Cook's Story" likewise plays with readers' expectations, leading to a climax that, while not a million miles removed from what would have occurred in a more traditional story, attains surprising force simply by the roundabout way in which it is reached, and the suddenness with which it arrives.

Two shorter pieces, "In the Garden" and "The Supply Teacher," are not so much ambiguous as slyly ironic, demonstrating anew how the most innocuous subject can provide cover for darker impulses.  That is, perhaps, the keynote for this slim collection: the trickiness of expectations.  Sometimes, classical stories of the supernatural provide just what they promise.  At other times, events play out on terms one would never have suspected, leading to a very different answer, or no answer at all.  Old knowledge is never without its secrets and mysteries, and neither is The Old Knowledge.

Out of print from The Swan River Press, The Old Knowledge and Other Strange Tales is now available as an e-book from Tartarus Press.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Teatro Grottesco: Exploring The Nightmare World of Thomas Ligotti

[As its colon-ized title might suggest, this is less a review and more of an appreciative/analytical essay. It discusses plot details more than a review would, and I recommend that those who have yet to read Teatro Grottesco avoid the review until they have.  Although Ligotti's stories are atmospheric expressions of a worldview, their effect is communicated as much by plot as by anything else, and that effect may be lessened if you read the stories for the first time knowing how some of them end.]

"Where I live is nightmare, thus a certain nonchalance."
--Thomas Ligotti, "The Mystics of Muelenburg"

In his essay "The Last Messiah," Peter Wessel Zapffe identifies four mechanisms by which human beings avoid dwelling on the inherently tragic nature of human life: isolation, anchoring, distraction, and sublimation.  I first encountered this framework in an early draft version of Thomas Ligotti's monograph The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, which transformed my own mechanism from anchoring (constructing the illusion that certain principles transcend or defy the horror of existence) to sublimation (acknowledging that horror but using the knowledge of its existence as a source of action and consolation).  As time has passed, I've found my interest in sublimation limited, and moved on to distraction, amusing myself with entertainments and getting caught up in the business of daily life.  I still regard the pessimistic view of existence as accurate; I just don't find it very interesting.  I retain, however, my enthusiasm for fiction that expresses this view, fiction that is, like the essay and monograph mentioned above, itself a form of sublimation.  And Thomas Ligotti remains one of the premier contemporary authors of such fiction.

In a recent discussion on a Ligotti-devoted message board, I remarked after rereading it that the story "The Red Tower"
has always been a favorite of mine. What struck me this time was how it, like so much of Ligotti's work, evokes the incomprehensible experience of nightmare in its surreal but vivid imagery and its paucity of explanation. And yet the story has both the narrative coherence necessary for a satisfying reading experience and a strong philosophical undercurrent. This balance between the formlessness of dreams and the structural rigor of literature is not an easy one to strike, as any study of the myriad unsatisfying dream sequences in all types of contemporary fiction will demonstrate. It is, I think, Ligotti's mastery of that balance that makes his fiction so unsubtly disturbing on levels both visceral and intellectual. Everything in his stories is pregnant with meaning, but precise definitions constantly escape us-- just as they do in the sideshow world we call reality.
In reply to that comment, after a duly modest acknowledgement that not all readers share my appreciation of his work, Ligotti remarked that I had described
the influence of my masters as mirrored in my stories. For instance, if you want to hold a reader's attention throughout what might be an otherwise boring dream scenario, mix in a dose of the banal. Ask Bruno Schulz about that. And if you want to tell a story that satisfies the reader's sense of being "about something," at least on a superficial level, while being about something more on a deeper level, simply leave out some exposition, something that would perhaps illuminate what the writer himself may only dimly feel. Ask Poe why the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" murders the old man whom he says he loves. There isn't a clue aside from the distressing effect the old man's eye has on the nervous tale teller. There's only our entrapment inside the narrator's mad mind where both he and his readers hear the pounding heart of the old man after he has been savagely slaughtered and dismembered. That's enough for the casual reader, and the rest--the deeper level--is strictly for those who would gaze into the reflecting abyss of that "pale blue eye with a film over it" and absorb into themselves what is both there and not there.
In this essay I hope to expand on some of those ideas, with reference to "The Red Tower" and other stories from Teatro Grottesco, Ligotti's most recent and possibly final collection.  (It should go without saying that my extensions of Ligotti's comments are my own, and may well not reflect precisely what he meant by them.)

I.  "A World of Rain and Darkness"

It's easy to say that a story's atmosphere is dreamlike, but what does one mean by it?  Anything that truly captured the chaotic non-structure of a dream would, almost by definition, be an unsatisfying piece of fiction.  What Ligotti's work does is to isolate certain features of that non-structure, and combine them into something of greater coherence that nonetheless captures the mystery and disquiet of a most memorable nightmare.

One such feature is incomplete context.  The dream world is never fully realized; even if a dream happens in a specific actual location, that location is isolated, devoid of connection to the larger locations and notions that define it (even if we are rarely conscious of that act of definition) during waking existence.  And more often dreams occur in an imaginary spot cobbled together from our experience of similar places: a bedroom or park or grocery store drawn from many realities but resembling none of them.

Ligotti's fiction is similarly without context.  The time, though usually contemporary, is never stated, and while towns and cities occasionally have names, states and nations never do.  References to real-world places, events, and concerns are virtually non-existent.  There are only such characters and settings as are vital to the story.  Some of this, of course, has to do with the short story form itself, which demands a great degree of concision.  In Ligotti's work, however, the effect of this constricted focus is to suggest that, both in a literal and philosophical sense, there is nothing else.  Take the opening of the story "Gas Station Carnivals."
Outside the walls of the Crimson Cabaret was a world of rain and darkness. At intervals, whenever someone entered or exited through the front door of the club, one could actually see the steady rain and was allowed a brief glimpse of the darkness. Inside it was all amber light, tobacco smoke, and the sound of the raindrops hitting the windows, which were all painted black. On such nights, as I sat at one of the tables in that drab little place, I was always filled with an infernal merriment, as if I were waiting out the apocalypse and could not care less about it. I also like to imagine that I was in the cabin of an old ship during a really vicious storm at sea or in the club car of a luxury passenger train that was being rocked on its rails by ferocious winds and hammered by a demonic rain. Sometimes, I thought of myself as occupying a waiting room for the abyss (which of course was exactly what I was doing) and between sips from my glass of wine or cup of coffee I smiled sadly and touched the front pocket of my coat where I kept my imaginary ticket to oblivion.
These images of isolation can be taken as expressions of the protagonist's state of mind or the author's philosophy, and indeed they are that, but they also suggest that there may literally be no world beyond the Crimson Cabaret, because that is the setting of this tale, this nightmare.

Consider also the end of "The Red Tower."
I myself have never seen the Red Tower - no one ever has, and possibly no one ever will. And yet wherever I go people are talking about it. In one way or another they are talking about the nightmarish novelty items or about the mysterious and revolting hyper-organisms, as well as babbling endlessly about the subterranean system of tunnels and the secluded graveyard whose headstones display no names and no dates designating either birth or death. Everything they are saying is about the Red Tower, in one way or another, and about nothing else but the Red Tower. We are all talking and thinking about the Red Tower in our own degenerate way. I have only recorded what everyone is saying (though they may not know they are saying it), and sometimes what they have seen (though they may not know they have seen it). But still they are always talking, in one deranged way or another, about the Red Tower. I hear them talk of it every day of my life. Unless of course they begin to speak about the gray and desolate landscape, that hazy void in which the Red Tower - the great and industrious Red Tower - is so precariously nestled. Then the voices grow quiet until I can barely hear them as they attempt to communicate with me in choking scraps of post-nightmare trauma. Now is just such a time when I must strain to hear the voices. I wait for them to reveal to me the new ventures of the Red Tower as it proceeds into ever more corrupt phases of production, including the shadowy workshop of its third subterranean level. I must keep still and listen for them; I must keep quiet for a terrifying moment. Then I will hear the sounds of the factory starting up its operations once more. Then I will be able to speak again of the Red Tower.
There are three ways to look at this passage, two of them relevant here.  First is the allegorical.  Elsewhere in the thread linked above, Ligotti pointed to an interpretation of "The Red Tower" that echoed his own intentions for the story.  In that reading, the Red Tower stands for existence itself, protruding into and marring the perfection of nothingness, and the narrator's claim that everyone is speaking of the Red Tower must be true, because the Red Tower symbolically encompasses everything of which one could possibly speak.
A second way to look at the passage is to extend that symbolic notion into the realm of the story, by imagining a world that is, in fact, rounded out by the Red Tower and the plain surrounding it, a world like that of dreams, somehow, impossibly, vast and tiny all at once.

II.  "A Fog of Delusion and Counter-Delusion"

But these perspectives, though possibly diverting, are in a way beside the point.  What's absent may have something to do with the atmosphere of a Ligotti story, but what's present is by far more important.  Because they are, with a few exceptions, stories of the supernatural, there are, of course, many elements in Ligotti's work that are literally impossible and therefore in some sense dreamlike.  But not all that is imaginary is truly oneiric.  (As Ligotti observed in one of his essays, the vampire has been so well-defined, given so many "rules," that its power as a manifestation of disturbance is basically nil.)  What, then, makes the difference?  Events that evoke nightmare are strange, unexplained or ill-explained, yet accepted in the fiction, as in dream, with an indifferent shrug.

One could point to several examples of-- the child protagonist of "Purity," unsurprised by the products of his father's strange experiments and by the barren hostility of the world beyond his rented home; the narrator of "The Clown Puppet," for whom the title object's baffling visits are not an exception to the normality of the world, but the epitome of its nonsensical nature.  (These attitudes have implications for the philosophy of Ligotti's fiction, to which we will return.)  But I intend to focus on three stories that invoke, in different ways, one of the most unnatural, dislocating aspects of dreams: the change of perspective.

We have all, I imagine, had dreams in which we suddenly become a different person.  Once an observer of events, we are now a participant, or vice versa.  Death in a dream sometimes means not waking up, but becoming another player in the same scenario.  And at times, of course, we shift to something so different that it might be another dream altogether, except for the inexplicable sense of continuity.  In "Gas Station Carnivals," "The Bungalow House," and "Severini," these changes are paralleled by similar revelations about or shifts in the identity of each story's protagonist. 

Much of "Gas Station Carnivals" is a dialogue between the narrator, who suffers from a stomach ailment, and Stuart Quisser, an art critic who has earned the enmity of the Crimson Cabaret's owner by calling her a "deluded no-talent."  They discuss the titular carnivals, themselves quite unlikely and nightmarish, over the narrator's mint tea and Quisser's wine.  But after Quisser departs for the bathroom, something shifts.  Suddenly Quisser's wine glass has disappeared, and on investigation he is gone from the Crimson Cabaret.  When found he claims that he was never there, but stayed home suffering from a stomach ailment, and that the narrator was the one who called the proprietor a deluded no-talent.  Nor is this the end of the confusion.  "All of us had problems, it seemed, whose sources were untraceable, crossing over one another like the trajectories of countless raindrops in a storm, blending to create a fog of delusion and counter-delusion."

The narrator of "The Bungalow House" becomes obsessed with a series of taped monologues left at a local gallery by an unknown artist.  After begging the gallery manager to contact the artist on his behalf, he is granted a meeting... only to discover that the artist is an illusion, his own creation that he can't remember generating.  "Severini" is similarly a story of the identity between the artist and an observer, who prove to be two halves of a divided whole, part of an obscure ritual to cleanse the body of disease.  These alterations in being, as surprising to the reader as to the characters, have the same bewildering sense of opening out or shifting sideways as what one experiences at the pivot point of a dream.

Part of what makes nightmares so unbearable is that they offer the illusion of getting away.  Like a horror movie in which the coed escapes the masked maniac and meets a kindly cop only to discover that he's allied with the maniac, nightmares allow you to escape for a moment, only to heighten the atmosphere of dread.  This breeds in the sufferer, who can sense that his hope is false, a kind of paranoia, a belief in the imminence of something horrible because that is the tone of the dream.  One might say that all dreamers are mad.

In this light we may return to the climax of "The Red Tower."  A third way of looking at it is that the narrator is insane, has allowed his obsession to cloud his judgment so that he believes everyone is speaking of the Red Tower, whether they are or not.  The possibility of mental defect hangs over other characters in these stories, from Grossvogel, reputed to be heavily medicated, in "The Shadow, the Darkness," to the narrator of "The Bungalow House," told by the gallery director that he "really [is] a crazy man."  Crazy these characters may be, or they may be responding in as sane a way as possible to what goes on around them, a milieu that is itself insane: the milieu of nightmare.

III.  "An Aura of Meaning or Substance"

I have often strained to describe the characteristics of Ligotti's prose style.  Ellen Datlow has called it baroque, but I'm not sure that's quite the word.  It has an air of formality, to be sure, an almost clinical quality, but it's not quite elaborate enough to be baroque.  In fact, it was that word "clinical" that helped me pull things together.  Ligotti's language, direct but with a certain coolness about the horrors it describes, is not unlike that of a psychologist writing a report on a patient, perhaps describing the patient's dream.  (The story "Dream of a Mannikin" from the collection Songs of a Dead Dreamer is, in fact, such a report, with a twist.)  On making this observation, it further struck me that some of Ligotti's stories involve first-person narrators who recount in summary fashion things told to them by others, increasing this sense of reportorial distance.  (The second-hand storyteller is, of course, a common device in horror fiction for a number of aesthetic reasons.)  Here is an exemplary passage from "Gas Station Carnivals:"

There were always only a few carnival rides, Quisser said, and these were very seldom in actual operation. He supposed that at some time they were in functioning order, probably when they were first installed as an annex to the gas stations. But this period, he speculated, could not have lasted long. And no doubt at the earliest sign of malfunction each of the rides was shut down. Quisser said that he himself had never been on a single ride at a gas station carnival, though he insisted that his father once allowed him to sit atop one of the wooden horses on a defunct merry-go-round. 'It was a miniature merry-go-round,' Quisser told me, as if that gave his recollected experience an aura of meaning or substance. All the rides, it seemed, were miniature, he asserted - small-scale versions of carnival rides he had elsewhere known and had actually ridden upon. Beside the miniature merry-go-round, which never moved an inch and always stood dark and silent in a remote rural landscape, there would be a miniature ferris wheel (no taller than a bungalow-style house, Quisser said), and sometimes a miniature tilt-a-whirl or a miniature roller coaster. And they were always closed down because once they had malfunctioned, if in fact any of them was ever in operation, they were never subsequently repaired. Possibly they never could be repaired, Quisser thought, given the antiquated parts and mechanisms of these miniature carnival rides
This quality of reportage is one of the things that mitigates against the dreamlike atmosphere of the stories, providing them with a certain solidity that, paradoxically, they would not possess if told in the intense language of nightmare itself.  The banal details with which the reader is presented-- the excellent pastries of Mrs. Angela's psychic coffee house, the panels framing the stage at the Crimson Cabaret-- are, given the general sparseness of incidental description in Ligotti's stories, like facts elicited from the memories of the dreamer, the nothings that find their way into the dream alongside that which is of psychological import.  All fiction is founded on details that create the illusion of depth, that make us believe, just for a moment, that we are dealing with the real and that the bag of bones is as complicated as an actual human being.  In Teatro Grottesco, such details are provided sparingly, but have, given the authorial voice at work, disproportionate power.

The other element that binds Ligotti's stories into cohesive wholes is the habit of repetition.  In many of his stories certain words and phrases recur at intervals.  Whether details like Mrs. Angela's pastries, words taken out of the mouth of a character, or the nihilistic credo of the narrator of "The Bungalow House," these motifs remind the reader that, despite the chaos inherent in these scenarios, there are guiding principles at work, a conscious design more focused than the unconscious riot of dreams.  It is toward those principles that this essay turns in closing.

IV.  "Only Nonsense and Dreams"

Both of the stories I have quoted at length in this essay were among six that appeared originally in the Ligotti omnibus The Nightmare Factory as the only pieces original to that volume.  These stories have a number of common features, some of which have been discussed above.  One of those features is a certain apparent frustration with the weird tale itself.  Perhaps "awareness of the limitations of" is a better phrase than "frustration with."  The narrator of "The Bungalow House" declares that the author of the dream monologues has "totally failed on both an artistic and an extra-artistic level.  You have failed your art, you have failed yourself, and you have also failed me."  The gas station carnivals that Stuart Quisser describes are likened to the narrator's own stories... and then are promptly dismissed as a useless delusion.

This awareness is elevated in "The Shadow, the Darkness," a novella published a few years after The Nightmare Factory that may be the most perfect fictional statement possible of Ligotti's philosophical position... which is to say, is of necessity a deeply imperfect statement.  Why?  Let us hear it from one of the story's characters.
The answer to that is exactly what Grossvogel has been preaching in both his pamphlets and in his public appearances.  His entire doctrine, if it can even be called that, if there could ever be such a thing in any sense whatever, is based on the non-existence, the imaginary nature of everything we believe ourselves to be.  Despite his efforts to express what has happened to him, he must know very well that there are no words that are able to explain such a thing.  Words are a total obfuscation of the most basic fact of existence, the very conspiracy against the human race that my treatise might have illuminated.  Grossvogel has experienced the essence of this conspiracy first-hand, or at least has claimed to have experienced it.  Words are simply a cover-up of this conspiracy.  They are the ultimate means of this cover-up, the ultimate artwork of the shadow, the darkness-- its ultimate artistic cover-up.  Because of the existence of words, we think that there exists a mind, that some kind of soul or self exists.  This is just another of the infinite layers of the cover-up.  There is no mind that could have written An Investigation into the Conspiracy Against the Human Race-- no mind that could write such a book and no mind that could read such a book.  There is no one at all who can say anything about this most basic fact of existence, no one who can betray this reality.  And there is no one to whom it could ever be conveyed.
 It is this awareness of  absolute falseness, and the simultaneous awareness of the inability of fiction, or anything else, to convey such philosophical truth that punctuates "The Bungalow House," that makes Ligotti's characters indifferent to the nonsense that surrounds them, that demands the presence of nightmare in Ligotti's fiction.  Only that fractured world can even approximate the reality being gotten at, a reality that is impossible to communicate in full, which can only be apprehended experientially by an individual existing in his own corner of the shadow, the darkness.  Zapffe's acknowledgement, shared by Ligotti, that the writing of pessimistic works is only another defense mechanism becomes the point: there can only be defense mechanisms.  Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.  And there is, ultimately, nothing whereof one can speak except dreams, nightmares, and other illusions.

Fort Freak

Created during the shared-world anthology craze of the 1980s and revitalized after editor George R. R. Martin's rise to national prominence as the author of A Song of Ice and Fire, the Wild Cards series now runs to twenty-one volumes, with more on the way.  Its fictional history spans more than sixty years, from the day in 1946 when an alien virus was released over New York, bringing death, disfigurement, and superpowers in its wake, to the present, a time when super-powered aces and horribly mutated jokers are as integrated into society as any other minority.  Which is to say, not always harmoniously.

It might seem that a series with such a history would be inaccessible to new readers, but this volume, like the initial "relaunch" trilogy from Tor Books, is self-contained and self-explanatory, though long-time fans will know some of the protagonists and recognize small references to characters and events from the series' past.  For new readers, these elements simply serve to emphasize the depth of the milieu, which is now so long-standing that characters who were young when the series began are growing older, developing the melancholy of age.

This volume is set entirely in New York City, and focuses on the officers of the 5th Precinct, who may have horns, dragon heads, or other unusual accoutrements, but are still cops through and through.  Which makes for a small problem.  Despite its genre elements, Fort Freak is pretty heavy on the cop story cliches.  The opening story, Melinda Snodgrass' "The Rook," is standard rookie cop fare: he has a family reputation to live up to, makes some embarrassing mistakes, strikes out with a pretty girl, and is eventually recognized as one of the gang.  The jokers and aces involved prevent it from being entirely dull, but the story spends too much time in familiar territory to be compelling.  The book's interstitial narrative, Cherie Priest's "The Rat Race," shows us what comes at the other end of police tropes: the lonely detective on the verge of retirement, unsure what his place in the world will be, desperate to solve that one last case.

Said case, a shootout at a grimy diner, is one of several recurring elements in Fort Freak.  Others include a rash of mysterious, borderline impossible burglaries and the effort to bring down two dirty cops.  The intermingling of stories by several authors, and the diligent work of Martin and assistant editor Snodgrass, balances these plotlines fairly well after a slow start.  The prose styles of most of the writers are solid but occasionally awkward, and generally don't offer much in the way of individual voice.  The exception is Paul Cornell's "More!", a hilarious farce in which the narrator, a British actress with a highly inconvenient ace power, tries to seize her big chance but becomes caught up in the troubles of a very well-established Wild Cards character.  Other standout contributions are Stephen Leigh's "Hope We Die Before We Get Old," which uses the wild card to make a tragic real-world ailment even more difficult to bear, and Kevin Andrew Murphy's "The Straight Man," a look at the chaos that Halloween in Jokertown can bring.

As with the earlier Tor releases, many characters have romantic or sexual storylines to play out, which is natural enough, but they're all so shallowly written that it feels like the same thing several times over: the first flush of attraction, some unlikely banter, sex, and then there's a stable couple.  The writers don't-- perhaps, given the space available, can't-- do enough to make these relationships credible, and they end up having the depth of a wish-fulfilling romance novel.

When the Wild Cards series began, adult approaches to superhero storytelling were novel.  Nearly a quarter-century later, the concept isn't as unusual as it once was, may have lost some of its edge.  But there's still nothing quite like it in prose fiction, and the authors involved are still doing a fine job of giving real world people, places, and things a superhero spin. Fort Freak isn't the most exciting installment in the Wild Cards series, but it's a fun read all the same.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

A Feast for Crows

This review contains no major spoilers for A Feast for Crows, but it does outline the basic premise of a few characters' storylines and mention the identity of new point-of-view characters.  There are major spoilers for earlier books in the series as well.

The contrast between A Feast for Crows and its immediate predecessor, A Storm of Swords, could scarcely be greater.  Narrowly the shortest book in the series (to date) as Storm is narrowly the longest, Feast is about the peace following the war that was so violently and definitively resolved in the earlier book.  And, because of unforeseen complications in the structure of the series, Feast only features about half the characters from earlier books.  This changed to a limited scope and a less rapid pace has caused many fans to treat the book as a failure, easily the weakest in the series.  As I've said, I go against the grain a little by regarding Storm as the weakest.  I can now add that I go against the grain that much further, in thinking that A Feast for Crows is, given its inherent limitations, the best installment of A Song of Ice and Fire so far.

One of the problems long-time fans have is the introduction of many new point of view characters, and the relative absence of familiar ones.  It's true that 27 of the book's 45 chapters feature new points of view, and an additional 12 feature characters only introduced in the most recent book.  Inevitably there's some adjustment to be made to the lack of well-known voices, but I find the new points of view so fascinating that it's well worth the effort.

The most prominent character in the book, old or new, is Cersei, who is, after the deaths of her son Joffrey and her father Tywin, the unquestioned Queen Regent of the Seven Kingdoms.  The war seems to be over and her other son Tommen's throne secure, but Cersei is far from relieved.  She believes the Tyrells, whose support helped her family end the war, are now scheming against her, and the (incorrect) notion that her dwarf brother Tyrion murdered Joffrey has reawakened older, stranger fears.  Cersei has always been unstable, but her insanity reaches new heights in A Feast for Crows, and her reflections on previous events in the series expand the character and make her more dramatically credible without obscuring her cruelty.  This unreliable narration substantially heightens the novel's mood, of which more later.

The other major new point of view character is Brienne of Tarth, whose quest to find Sansa Stark is essentially all she has to live for.  As readers we know where Sansa is, and therefore can recognize just how hopeless Brienne's search is.  This could make her chapters frustrating, but the milieu in which they occur is compelling enough that the seeming irrelevance of the plot becomes a minor annoyance.  Like Jaime and Arya's chapters in A Storm of Swords, Brienne's storyline shows us the effect of the war on the riverlands, and like those chapters it's plagued with unexpected, highly coincidental reappearance of familiar secondary characters.  But there are striking new characters as well, and the riverlands are now rebuilding in the aftermath of war, so the tragedy is tinged with hope.

In addition to Cersei and Brienne, there are nine chapters featuring six new minor point of view characters, who provide a window into events on the Iron Islands and in Dorne.  These chapters have also been controversial, with some complaining that their relevance to the overall story is not, as of this book, particularly clear.  That's true enough, but in a transitional novel I can forgive the presence of a few dangling threads, especially when the characters and locations are as rich as in these chapters.  The scorched land of Dorne, its gout-ridden, cautious Prince Doran, and the daughters and nieces who urge him to throw himself into the game of thrones, are particular favorites, and the vicious lifestyle and Lovecraftian religion of the Iron Islands are, as ever, darkly compelling.

Imagery of metaphorical crows feeding on carrion is prominent in the book, perhaps excessively so, and the Seven Kingdoms are indeed so exhausted by the recent war that only crows can be truly satisfied.  And amongst the tentative efforts at rebuilding are forewarnings of the horror to come, creating an atmosphere of prophecy, magic, mental decay, and encroaching doom.  A Feast for Crows may not have the scope and speed of A Storm of Swords, but it more than makes up for that loss with a vividly-evoked portrait of characters and a society perched on the edge of a knife, thinking safety is in reach, but actually about to be skewered.

A Storm of Swords

This review contains no major spoilers for A Storm of Swords, but it does outline the basic premise of a few characters' storylines, including two that resolves a cliffhanger from A Clash of Kings, and mention the identity of a new point-of-view character.  There are major spoilers for A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings as well.

More than 400,000 words long and over 1,000 pages in hardcover, A Storm of Swords is, albeit narrowly, the longest book to date in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire.  It's also regarded by many or most of the series' fans as the best book yet, full of the gritty detail, unexpected twists, and shocking deaths that set the series apart from other contemporary epic fantasy.  Full the book certainly is, and its most momentous scenes are every bit as wonderful as the fan reaction suggests.  But I must confess that to my mind A Storm of Swords is, not the best book in the series so far, but the worst.

Part of the problem is simply its length.  There's often a desire among readers to see each book in a series become thicker than the last, and most of the time I share that desire.  But 400,000 words' worth of the level of detail Martin provides is something else altogether.  It's not that any particular storyline, historical detail, character, location, or miscellaneous piece of description is dull or extraneous; it's that, taken together, they cause the book to bog down a little, in spite of the rapid resolution of so many storylines.

Another distracting element is a reliance on unlikely narrative coincidence.  Despite the vast size of Westeros and the scope of the story, point-of-view characters cross paths with each other and with minor supporting characters surprisingly often.  The issue here is that Martin has introduced some fascinating secondary protagonists and needs to keep them in the story even when they move away from the primary characters who previously provided our perspective on them.  So, out all of the people in all the kingdoms they could encounter, they walk into some of the other primary characters.  It's not a fatal flaw, and in a story of this size some contrivance is forgivable, but it is distracting, and runs counter to the realism for which the series is justly praised.

Much of the coincidence and path-crossing involves events in the riverlands, where the bulk of the fighting in this War of the Five Kings has taken place.  Unlike some fantasy and historical novels, which treat war and conquest as a game for aristocrats and ignore the consequences for ordinary people, A Song of Ice and Fire is at pains to show the disease, destruction, and death that peasants suffer when the powerful cross swords.  This is a noble intention, but I can't help feeling that A Storm of Swords takes it too far, to a point where readers may be frustrated rather than inspired to thought or sympathy.  One character spends most of the novel bouncing helplessly between one miserable situation and another, his or her storyline advancing very little.

There's another character who also provides a perspective on the riverlands, but his storyline is anything but static.  Jaime Lannister becomes a point of view character in A Storm of Swords, and in terms of psychological complexity he's perhaps Martin's richest creation to date.  In the aftermath of a long imprisonment the power and arrogance that have prevented Jaime from confronting the egregiousness of his own behavior are diminished, and his grudging respect for Brienne of Tarth, his captor as he crosses the riverlands, leads him to reexamine some of his infamous crimes.  It's nothing so cheap and straightforward as a redemptive arc-- he remains Jaime Lannister, proud, snide, and capable of viciousness-- but it does enrich his characterization, adding notes of tragedy and contemplation to what had previously been a monstrous villain.

Regardless of which side they're on in the great conflict, for many of the series' established characters the events of A Storm of Swords are dark ones.  Jaime's brother Tyrion remains a point of view character, and in addition to the disfigurement he suffered at the end of the previous book, he has to deal with his father's return to the city, displacing Tyrion from his powerful position as the Hand of the King.  Uglier than ever, and unappreciated for his contributions to the successful defense of the city, Tyrion finds his situation going from bad to worse as the novel progresses.

Mother to one of the other contenders for the throne, Catelyn Stark has her own troubles as the novel opens: a dying father, worry over her son's fate in battle, and guilt over her secret release of Jaime Lannister in the hope of recovering her daughters.  When Robb returns, he brings news that makes the desperate situation of House Stark even worse.  The youthful King in the North has won every battle, and yet finds himself in danger of losing the war.

Separated by distance from the intrigues of southern Westeros, Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen continue their isolated storylines.  Jon is posing as one of the wildlings to bring information about their intentions back to his brothers on the Night's Watch, but he discovers that keeping to his vows while posing as a spy may not be as easy as he had believed.  The unusual ethics and (sometimes literally) larger-than-life behavior of the wildlings enriches the astonishingly deep milieu of the series yet further.  As does Slaver's Bay, the region in which Daenerys arrives early in the book.  In need of an army, she considers buying the fiercely loyal, viciously trained troops known as the Unsullied from the slave city Astapor.  But such a purchase demands a high price, and the young queen's way of paying it may bring her more trouble than triumph.

All these storylines, and several others, evolve toward a major turning point, the end of the first movement in George R. R. Martin's very long story and the beginning of the second.  The last third of the novel is so loaded with vivid sequences and jaw-dropping developments that my other complaints come to seem like quibbling.  I do believe that A Storm of Swords is the least of the first five books in A Song of Ice and Fire, but that simply means it's the weakest length in a remarkably strong chain.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Father Raven and Other Tales

While reading this collection of supernatural, fantastic, and absurdist stories by A. E. Coppard, I struggled to identify another writer, any writer, to whom he can easily be compared.  I was about to give up in despair when I noticed an advertisement for another book on the back inside flap of the jacket for this.  Of Rhys Hughes' Stories from a Lost Anthology, the copywriter says, "Hughes is a latter-day, post-Modern A. E. Coppard."  I read that, and thought, Yes, exactly.

Although Hughes' stories are (even) more whimsical and wide-ranging than Coppard's, like so much of the best contemporary literature more playful in their structure, the two share a tendency to interlock different levels of the bizarre and the unlikely in ways that should fail, but are instead delightful.  Even some of Coppard's story titles suggest the delightful skew of his imagination: "Arabesque-- The Mouse," "Clorinda Walks in Heaven," "Piffingcap," "Crotty Shinkwin."

The opening paragraph of the last-named story offers a useful example of one of the modes Coppard often employs, that of the idiomatic Irish storyteller:
This was a little man I'm telling you, Crotty Shinkwin, a butcher once, with livery eyes and a neck like a hen that was not often shaved.  He knocked out a sort of living by the coast of the cliff and the sandy shore of Ballinarailin, a townful of Looneys, Mooneys and Clooneys, the Mahoneys, Maloneys, the Dorans, Horans and Morans, but if you were to ask what was their scheme of life it could only be said they were seen gathering weeds from the sea and stones from the shore, which is poor stuff anyway to be passing the time of day on.
As you might expect, this story and others like it are tall tales, though less about heroism than about passing encounters with the subtly disturbing (as in "Crotty Shinkwin," where a mishap with an anchor causes a journey to an unusual island) or the numinous ("Marching to Zion," a yarn of a journey with an uncertain purpose alongside larger-than-life companions).  The conversational brogue in which these stories are narrated is not an easy one for any writer to adopt without descending to patronizing cliche, but Coppard threads the needle, producing funny, engaging, and not infrequently poignant tales.

There are thirty-one stories in this 301-page book, which might make a reader imagine that many or most of them are insubstantial, but Coppard is so matter-of-fact about the fancies he weaves that he can pile them on top of one another, to the point where (as Mark Valentine notes in his introduction) some compress a novel's worth of plot into about a dozen pages.  These miniature worlds are so diverse that I'd have to describe each story at some length to do justice to all of them, but here are a few of the elements that go into a few of the stories:

* A cemetery where the spirit of the last to die is forced to serve all the other "residents";

* A very strong man whose good nature forces him to accede to all requests for help whether he wants to or not... until a leprechaun makes him invisible;

* A trio of giants who menace a futuristic London, and the unlikely hero who defeats them;

* A man who at first seems to have become a ghost without realizing it, but who's actually experiencing something even stranger;

* And an almanac maker who has to find Father Christmas to save the world from a goblin named Old Moore.

Many of the stories in Father Raven are light-hearted and comical, but very few are pure escapism, and several are visionary, dark, or melancholy.  In "Arabesque-- The Mouse," for example, an everyday encounter with a household pest leads to an inescapable, upsetting chain of memories and associations focusing on loneliness and the cruelty of the world.  "Polly Morgan" and "Ahoy, Sailor Boy!" are ghost stories, one deeply ambiguous, the other simultaneously psychological and viscerally frightening; both feature young women whose seemingly small failings leave them tragically isolated.  And the final story in the collection, "The Gruesome Fit," is a vivid portrayal of a life-destroying maniacal obsession.  Coppard's storytelling brio and wild imagination should not lead readers to dismiss his body of work as a mere diversion.

In the introduction to Father Raven, Mark Valentine lists several notable writers and literary experts who esteemed Coppard's work highly, from Walter de la Mare to Elizabeth Bowen to Ford Madox Ford.  To that list we can add Herbert van Thal, who in the 1940s identified Coppard as among "living masters of the short story," one of three writers who "are vital, and distil for you more sheer essence than you will find in any average and laborious novel."  And indeed, Father Raven, although a comparatively slim collection of brief stories, has the richness of many a lesser writer's entire oeuvre.

Two Ways of Looking at A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

[I received one of the copies of A Dance with Dragons that were accidentally released early.  (Spoiler-phobes should avoid the comments to that article.)  What follows are two reviews of the book.  The first is an informal, completely spoiler-free commentary for fans of the series who want to read a quick judgment of the book.  The second is a longer, more wide-ranging review, which includes some mild spoilers about the premise of various characters and the structure of the book, as well as comments on theme and tone that may imply larger spoilers.  Spoilers for earlier books will also occur.]

So.  Is it better than A Feast for Crows?

The question is a leading one; it assumes that Feast was a bad or a weak book.  I actually liked Feast quite a lot, both on first reading lo these many years ago, and on rereading it in recent weeks.  Considering what the evolution of the story had made it, I thought it was the best book it could possibly be, and that the author's atmospheric world-building and vivid characters were supplemented by a sense of encroaching doom, the imminence of magic and of winter.

But of course I'll concede that for many the book's relaxed pace and style was a disappointment after the ridiculously-eventful A Storm of SwordsA Dance with Dragons has more surprises and revelations than Feast, but those who absolutely despised that novel will very possibly be frustrated by this one as well, unless what they disliked was the particular characters involved rather than the structure.  The beginning is strong, with a number of developments and answered questions people may not have been expecting, but after that the middle of the book returns to the significant but very gradual plot evolution that characterized Feast.  There are some atmospheric world-building and set pieces that are very effective, but perhaps not worth inclusion in a book that's very long, and focuses on only half the characters to boot. (Some of what seems irrelevant may turn out to be important later, of course.)  The climax, though, ups the ante again, with more sudden and shocking developments, capped by what I think is the best final chapter in the series to date.  The Winds of Winter looks set to return to the constant action and rapid development of A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords, and while some may wish that could have happened at the beginning of Dance rather than near the end, I think there's enough going on in this book to satisfy all but the most disaffected readers.

[Mildly spoilerish review begins here.]

Here it is.  Nearly six years after the last installment of A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin's gritty epic fantasy, the new book, A Dance with Dragons, has arrived.  But in some ways the wait for this book has been even longer, as 2005's A Feast for Crows only featured half of the series' major characters, because the novel grew so much during the writing process that it couldn't be published in its original form.  The author originally hoped to published this companion volume within a year of that book, but the story grew more and other problems intervened.  As a result, A Dance with Dragons marks the first appearance of some of the series' most popular characters in over a decade.

Tyrion Lannister, the brilliant but increasingly bitter dwarf son of one of the realm's great houses (Richard III is an obvious general model for the character), has fled the royal seat at King's Landing after murdering his father.  Aimless at first, he is soon set on a new path by an ally of the eunuch spymaster Varys, who had been vital in his escape.  But the journey he faces is long, uncertain, and dangerous, and several dark developments along the way threaten to further his decline into cruelty.

Jon Snow is now Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, the organization sworn to guard the massive Wall against incursions from the frozen north.  Jon is determined to make the changes he believes necessary to meet the Watch's purpose in changing times, but he must contend with doubtful subordinates and the presence at the Wall of the rebel king Stannis, who seems determined to test the Watch's commitment to staying out of the politics of the realm.  Caught between the king and the Watch, Jon must walk a narrow path where a single misstep could bring disaster.

Daenerys Targaryen, last survivor of the realm's former royal house, is half a world away, trying to rule the city she has conquered.  She has three dragons and a large, well-trained army on her side, but Meereen's customs are alien to her, its people difficult to rule without draconian measures she cannot accept, and the price she must pay for control may prove more than she can bear.  Even the blood of the dragon is not guaranteed easy allegiance.

These are the three most prominent characters of A Dance with Dragons, taking up about half its length, but there are many others, including a few returning faces from A Feast for Crows.  The presence of those characters and their storylines gives the novel's climax an added energy it sorely needs, for the middle of the book is, by structural necessity, slow-moving, as various situations gradually approach the breaking point.  This pace may be familiar to certain frustrated readers of A Feast for Crows, who had expected something closer to the relentless action of A Storm of Swords, the third book in the series.  But A Dance with Dragons is undeniably more eventful than A Feast for Crows, and certain character arcs are structured to end in the middle of the book, which means that their resolutions come early and offer a jolt of action to counterpoint those arcs that are still developing.

Questions of plot aside, the author's characterization and world-building are as fascinating as ever.  Jon and Daenerys are very young, and unlike many youthful heroes in the fantasy genre, who rule nations or command armies when little more than children and do it perfectly, they have their flaws and failures as well as virtues and successes.  There are no unambiguously good or bad leaders in Martin's world, only characters with different personalities and worldviews who are all determined to manipulate the current chaos to their own benefit.  As rich as the milieu has been in the first four volumes, A Dance with Dragons gives us awe-inspiring new locations, as well as old ones seen in new ways.  The Winds of Winter may be the title of the next volume, but this one gives us a haunting foretaste of what that chill will be like.

The world of A Song of Ice and Fire has always been harsher than that of many fantasies, inspired by real history, less romanticized and putting as much emphasis on the cruelties and desolation of medieval warfare as on noble heroism and elegant courtly intrigue.  A Dance with Dragons is no exception, and the evolution of the story in this book is along dark lines, dominated by failures that sow seeds of chaos the next volume seems likely to reap in abundance.   The final chapters mark a return to the unexpected and fast-moving action to which fans have become accustomed, and confirm what many readers have hoped: that a beloved but delay-plagued series is, after a long middle period, finally entering its endgame.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Out of His Mind

Most of the stories in Stephen Gallagher's first collection fall somewhere between The Twilight Zone and Tales from the Crypt in sensibility, though happily the former influence is more prominent than the latter.  The least impressive stories have predictable Zone-style twists and grim endings, as in the schoolboy revenge fantasy "Magpie" and the evil car story "Driving Force."  The best succeed by force of imagery and a deft balance between the suggestive and the explicit.  These highlights include "By the River, Fontainebleau," a disturbing meditation on rural depravity and the imagination of the artist; "The Visitors' Book," an ambiguous tale of the strangeness of vacationing in another person's home; and "The Jigsaw Girl," in which a jigsaw puzzle that may tell the future is nowhere near as haunting as the sad little girl who owns it.  Although about 1/3 of the included pieces are weak or unmemorable, some of the others are very fine indeed, and detailed story notes reveal the sources for Gallagher's realistic, nuanced portrayals of different environments and emotional states.