Friday, September 30, 2011

Ancestral Spirits

Although ghost stories are as old as human storytelling, they began to take recognizable form as a variety of fiction during the Victorian era, and while their settings, themes, and metaphysics have continued to evolve over the past hundred years, homage to the classics is of course very common. Too often such homage takes the form of dull pastiche, mistaking the choices of particular writers for a formal straightjacket. Happily, the stories in Ghosts by Gaslight, a new anthology edited by Jack Dann and Nick Gevers, make no such errors. Their styles, although rich with period diction, are as lively and readable as any contemporary fiction, and their content incorporates modern psychological and social wisdom without violating the mores of the setting. And, just as important, they're all thoroughly spooky. Packed with excellent stories and without a single dud, Ghosts by Gaslight is one of the finest anthologies of the year.

As the editors observe in their introduction, the popular image of the Victorian era has as much to do with gentleman scientists as with shadowy specters, and it's no surprise that several of the ghostly manifestations here are linked to experiments gone wrong. In James Morrow's "The Iron Shroud," a story whose ghosts have a perfect steampunk twist, an attempt to prevent the dissolution of the soul at death turns a promising inventor into a cruel tyrant. Sean Williams records how the study of mystical transformation leads to haunting, and murder, when Dr. Hugh Gordon encounters "The Jade Woman of the Luminous Star." And in "Mysteries of the Old Quarter," an atmospheric epistolary story of old New Orleans, research into communication with the dead gradually reveals an old personal tragedy.

Victorian colonialism, with its putative distinction between British rationalism and "Eastern" superstition, drives other stories. Robert Silverberg's "Smithers and the Ghosts of the Thar" subtly reflects the prejudices of race, class, and gender in a story about the secrets of the Great Indian Desert. Peter S. Beagle's "Music, When Soft Voices Die" posits an alternate history of relations between the British and Ottoman Empires, adding a further note of confused melancholy to a story of isolation and grief in which four socially awkward residents of a rooming house tap into something beyond their ken. And in "The Shaddowes Box," the ever-brilliant Terry Dowling builds on the discovery and exploitation of Egyptian mummies to explore the power of unmitigated darkness over the human mind.

Victoria may have been queen of the British Empire, but the Victorian era was a worldwide phenomenon, and several stories with non-European settings add a dash of variety to the anthology. John Langan's "The Unbearable Proximity of Mr. Dunn's Balloons" has a title that might sound parodic, but there's nothing funny in its meditation on terminal illness, regret, and Dunn's rather upsetting creations. In "The Grave Reflection," Marly Youmans uses Nathaniel Hawthorne as a character in a sequence of events reminiscent of the author's own darkly romantic allegories. Laird Barron's "Blackwood's Baby," set at a hunting lodge in post-WWI Washington State and subtly linked to one of his earlier stories, is furthest in tone and setting from the Victorian/Edwardian model, but so intense is its air of harshness, strangeness, and inexplicable human impulses that there can be no cause for complaint.

While most of these tales are quite dark and serious, a couple have a delightful comic edge. Garth Nix's "The Curious Case of the Moondawn Daffodils Murder" introduces an eccentric sleuth of the supernatural with unusual powers and the female medical student who keeps him under control. Their banter is so sharp, and the story's final line so tantalizing, that one can only hope Nix will revisit these characters. Jeffrey Ford's "The Summer Palace," on the other hand, is revisiting established characters, from his Well-Built City trilogy. I'm not familiar with those novels, but after reading this darkly hilarious social satire with a magical flavor, I intend to seek them out.

The names already mentioned will have given some sense of how distinguished is the anthology's author list. From established masters like Gene Wolfe and Lucius Shepard to rising talents like Margo Lanagan and Theodora Goss, the rest of the contributors are equally impressive, and while one or two of the stories are less powerful than the rest (the homage to Hawthorne in "The Grave Reflection" is somewhat awkwardly achieved, and "Smithers and the Ghosts of the Thar" suffers from an excess of straightforwardness), all are well-crafted and evocative of traditional ghostliness. Perhaps the standout is John Harwood's "Face to Face," which like all great ghost stories achieves heights of terror so subtly that one can hardly say how it was done, unless by simple mastery of language. The conceit of "Face to Face" is a familiar one, but Harwood breathes new life into it, as all the writers in Ghosts by Gaslight do, reinvigorating the nineteenth-century strange story in high style. Whether your tastes in horror are classical or contemporary, you can't afford to miss this anthology.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Freedom of the Vampire: Blood and Other Cravings

More than twenty years ago, Ellen Datlow edited Blood is Not Enough, a mix of reprints and originals in which stories that offered novel twists on the blood-drinking vampire were combined with stories about vampires with even stranger needs. A few years later A Whisper of Blood struck a similar balance. And now there's Blood and Other Cravings, seventeen more tales of vampirism in all its forms. All three anthologies demonstrate that the vampire, far from being the used-up device its mass-market incarnations might imply, remains a frightening and a versatile creature. In fact, the stories in this latest volume are so diverse, and the theme of vampirism such a general one, that it feels more like a non-theme anthology of the first order. Ranging from psychological horror to ghost stories to dark fantasy to Lovecraftian cosmicism, Blood and Other Cravings has a first-rate story for readers of every taste.

The drinking of blood for sustenance features in only four stories, about a quarter of the total, and fittingly enough, none of the four has much in common with any of the others. Elizabeth Bear's "Needles" takes a familiar trope, the world-weary vampire, mixing in enough history and mythology to create something more suggestive and darkly melancholy than many a vampire novel. In "Blood Yesterday, Blood Tomorrow," Richard Bowes uses the knowledge of New York City's history demonstrated throughout his work for a decades-spanning story about flea markets, the seductive appeal of danger, and the cost of success. "Bread and Water" by Michael Cisco makes the suffering of an institutionalized vampire, craving blood but unable to stomach it, uncomfortably vivid by dint of Cisco's intense, almost hallucinatory language. And Laird Barron's "The Siphon," in which an NSA operative ordered to investigate a foreign-born anthropologist stumbles across something vast and ancient, features Barron's usual mix of sharp dialogue, decayed industrialism, and harsh natural landscapes in a tour de force of cosmic terror.

Other vampires feed on things less tangible than blood, but no less unsettling. Both Kaaron Warren's "All You Can Do is Breathe" and Barbara Roden's "Sweet Sorrow" deal with creatures who feed on the aftermath of particular types of disaster; Warren's story distinguishes itself by its portrayal of psychological despair, Roden's by her typical mastery of the form and structure of the classically subtle weird story. In "Keeping Corky" and "Miri," Melanie Tem and Steve Rasnic Tem use their signature styles of magical realism and surrealism to portray, respectively, the tragedy of a devoted but incapable mother with a strange power and the decline of a husband and father trapped by the memory of a former lover. The mostly-original anthology includes two reprints: from 2009, Reggie Oliver's "Baskerville's Midgets," a real chiller and a welcome wider exposure for a writer of strange stories who's mostly published by small presses; and Carol Emshwiller's "Mrs. Jones," in which the petty jealousies of two unmarried sisters are permanently disrupted by a mysterious light near their house, and the creature that comes with it.

Another standout is "X for Demetrious," in which Steve Duffy builds the fear of vampires into a masterpiece of paranoia, obsession, isolation, and regret, encapsulating an entire tragic life in less than 15 pages. But, as I always say because it's always true, the mark of an Ellen Datlow anthology is its consistency, and the primary cause of reader preference for one story over another will be the range of personal tastes to which this volume caters, rather than the variation in quality typical of most horror anthologies. Readers tired of the glut of overly familiar vampire fiction could hardly do better than to check out Blood and Other Cravings and its predecessors, and indeed, any horror fan will find something to enjoy.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Vine review: Harbor

My latest Amazon review is of the new horror novel by Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist, whose debut Let the Right One In was the basis for the Swedish film of the same name, as well as its American remake Let Me In. I haven't seen either film or read that book (probably I should), but Harbor is a compelling if technically uneven epic about an island community and its secrets. You can read my review here.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Lest You Should Suffer Nightmares

I'm both too young and on the wrong continent to have been a reader of the Pan Books of Horror Stories, a horror anthology series edited largely by Herbert van Thal and famous both for its longevity (thirty volumes in as many years) and for the debatable quality of some of its content. Nonetheless, I found Johnny Mains' new book on the series fascinating. Subtitled A Biography of Herbert Van Thal, it's actually much more than that. The biography proper takes up a little over a third of the volume; the rest is given over to such associational items as a selection of photographically reproduced letters relating to van Thal and the writers he worked with, a series of interviews and recollections with some of the Pan Books authors, and a reprinted magazine article providing an overview of the subject. The result of this mingling is a book that provides a window onto what might charitably be called pulpy writing and publishing in the mid to late 20th century. In this light, the book's digressive, slightly disjointed character becomes charming rather than frustrating.

Because comparatively little is known about the details of van Thal's life, the biographical text itself (previously published in different form in the book Back From the Dead: The Legacy of the Pan Book of Horror Stories) pursues various sidelines, from interesting trivia about figures associated with van Thal to comments on which stories in particular Pan Books volumes are and are not impressive. Mains' obvious enthusiasm for his subject smooths over the intermittently awkward compression resulting from this approach, and of course there is a certain pleasure in agreeing or disagreeing with his judgments. I'm also tempted to spill some of the more interesting van Thal-related facts here, but that would hardly be fair.

The additional material is likewise charming. The reproduced letters, though there aren't many, provide the usual guilty pleasure of looking at someone else's mail, and suggest further facets to van Thal, who seems to have been a more fascinating figure than available information can convey. The author interviews and recollections, only small portions of which were used in the biography, reveal the mixture of craft and persistence involved in professional popular fiction, whether that fiction is horror, novelizations, or even screenplays. Despite having only a passing familiarity with the people involved, I enjoyed their reminiscences of a forgotten era; fans of these writers will surely be delighted.

Like The Mask and Other Stories, the Mains-edited collection of van Thal's own fiction, Lest You Should Suffer Nightmares is a limited edition curio that will appeal to horror experts and collectors. Less than 100 pages long, it's being released in an edition of only 100 copies, signed both by Mains and by artist Les Edwards, who provides a fine cover painting of van Thal. For ordering information on the book, which costs £12.99 plus postage, head to this link.

This review is based on an advance, uncorrected electronic copy supplied by the author.

The World of the Iskryne

One reason George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire has received so much praise is that it brings a gritty and explicit realism to some of the tropes of escapist fantasy, without denying or denigrating the pleasures of a well-told story in a magical milieu. Readers who appreciate Martin's integration of adult themes and complex psychology into classic fantasy tropes should also enjoy Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear's A Companion to Wolves and The Tempering of Men. Set in a milieu based loosely on ancient Scandinavia, these novels do for companion animal fantasy what A Song of Ice and Fire does for the epic variety. The result is an entertaining, intelligent series that, in addition to building a realistic non-modern world, reflects on the nature of human-animal relationships and on the ways in which societies create spaces in which atypical gender and sex roles can be tolerated.

A Companion to Wolves is the story of Njall, whose life as the son and heir of a local nobleman ends abruptly when he finds himself fascinated by a visiting trellwolf. Over his father's objections, he agrees to pledge himself to the local wolfheall, where men who've formed bonds with the giant wolves live when not defending ordinary people from the trolls who live in the northern mountains. Over the course of the novel, Njall, who quickly develops a connection with the bitch pup Viradechtis and takes the name Isolfr, learns the way of these wolfcarls, whose bonds with their wolves are more than a matter of pleasant companionship. The men share the sexual drives and behavior of their wolves, and in a society without women, this means that the heterosexual Isolfr must accustom himself to homosexual behavior, including the unavoidable brutality of open matings in which he'll be penetrated by several men in succession. But there is, of course, much more to the life of a wolfcarl than sexuality; Isolfr must also become a fierce warrior, able to face trolls and wyverns when they invade the lands of men. That ongoing conflict, in which Isolfr inadvertently makes a discovery that could change the course of history, provides a parallel narrative to his personal evolution.

That coming of age story achieves great emotional intensity because Bear and Monette write wisely and succinctly about a range of timeless issues, from ignorance about the ways of a new community to confusion over the true nature of honorable and ethical behavior to the mingled sense of fear, desire, and shame that accompanies sexual impulses one doesn't exactly want and can't control.  Never attempting to elicit cheap pity or create unearned pathos, the writers depict the painful process of coming to terms with the negative aspects of a way of life to which one aspires. For those capable of deep sympathy with Isolfr's situation, this can make for an intense, uncomfortable reading experience, which is, of course, a sign of the depth of the authors' insight.

Their work also, and without abandoning the particular social structure and expectations of the non-modern milieu, demonstrates the complexities of sex, gender, and authority in any society. All wolfcarls, regardless of their pre-existing desires (some are homosexual) and wolf-driven sexual behavior, must be and are strong and fearless fighters, ready to die, as indeed many do, in the defense of women and wolfless men. Their culture, influenced by the ways of wolves, can be harsh, taciturn, traditionally masculine. But, influenced by the deep sense of pack loyalty the bond generates and by the need to create a complete social experience within an all-male environment, it can also be gentle, nurturing, traditionally feminine.  The wider human culture also reflects certain recognizable ambiguities: although women are nominally powerless and weak, Isolfr's mother is a brave, intelligent woman, unafraid to exert influence through her powerful husband.  The customs of non-human species further complicate the novel's examination of these issues. In a mere three hundred pages, Monette and Bear lay out a world of remarkable nuance with obvious implications for the study of real cultures.

They also write some great action sequences. Fantasy novels can and should reflect on reality, but there's nothing wrong with the less intellectual pleasures of the form, and the small-scale battles in this novel are beautifully conceived and described, so that one can follow what's happening in detail without losing the intensity of the action.  The non-human creatures are also impressive, inspired by familiar myth but given striking details that could only have come from the present writers, at once awe-inspiringly alien and recognizable as intelligent beings with many of the same concerns as humans. Only the surface of their existence is scratched in A Companion to Wolves, but what Tolkien called the impression of depth is there in abundance.

The Tempering of Men provides a fascinating counterpoint to the earlier novel. Focusing on characters other than Isolfr, it shows how he's viewed from the outside, providing an especially vivid reminder that our internal dramas are not accessible to others, and that we may create impressions entirely opposite from what we mean. The new point-of-view characters also allow the authors to explore different aspects of the sexual and romantic difficulty wolfcarls can experience. But the most striking thing about The Tempering of Men is how it expands the milieu yet further, exploring the consequences of major events at the end of A Companion to Wolves and showing how large social transitions begin. New cultures, both human and non-human, enter the picture as well, and Bear and Monette even-handedly acknowledge the temptations they might offer to those strongly committed to their traditional existence.

The breadth of The Tempering of Men comes at some cost to its coherence. The stories of the three protagonists are closer to linked novellas than to balanced portions of a novel, and rather than telling a standalone story of personal and historical scope, the book begins one, ending at a turning point that may or may not be followed up in the further novel in this setting that the authors have sold to Tor. It's certainly clear that the evolution of the characters is, perhaps inevitably, incomplete. Despite this open-endedness, the novel remains compelling by dint of its thoughtful characterization and the new wrinkles it adds to an already complicated world.

Too often, exotic animals in fantasy novels are treated as little more than cool pets, to be coddled and condescended to. By taking seriously the behaviors of wolves and making their human companions equals rather than masters, A Companion to Wolves and The Tempering of Men remind readers that all animals have societies of their own, that their behaviors may be more elaborate than our conception of their intelligence allows for, and that their relationships to humans may not work in precisely the ways we imagine. Whether writing about animals, humans, or invented species, Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear combine serious literary analysis with powerful storytelling in novels that show just how much the fantasy genre is capable of achieving.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Nell Gwynne's Scarlet Spy

The late Kage Baker, after completing the main narrative of her Company series (about time-traveling immortals tasked with preserving that which would otherwise be lost to history), continued writing fiction set in that universe, but focused now on various sidelines to the larger story of the Company.  The novel-length expansion of her earlier novella The Empress of Mars was one such work, as were several pieces dealing with the Company's Victorian-era counterpart, the Gentlemen's Speculative Society, and its Ladies' Auxiliary. Baker's final Company-universe novel, Not Less Than Gods, chronicled the rise of Edward Alton Bell-Fairfax, a familiar character from the main series. That novel, while as engaging and dryly humorous as all of Baker's writing, felt rather tentative and episodic, less a fleshed-out story than a series of engaging but distantly-observed sequences. A similar quality is evident in the two shorter works collected in Nell Gwynne's Scarlet Spy, a trade paperback from Subterranean Press. Not as compellingly structured as her other fiction, these stories are nonetheless briskly humorous and eventful enough to entertain fans of the late, lamented storyteller.

About three-quarters of the volume is taken up by a reprint of The Women of Nell Gwynne's, originally released by the same publisher as a standalone hardcover novella.  Winner of the Locus and Nebula Awards and a nominee for the Hugo and the World Fantasy, it comes with an impressive pedigree, and indeed there is much to admire in Baker's evocation of Victorian society. She captures its formal absurdities without the stiff period prose of much historical fiction. An early passage dealing with the return of a lost daughter is a fine example of Baker's mischievous wit:
Lady Beatrice arrived on their doorstep and was greeted by shrieks of horror. Apparently Lady Beatrice's letters had gone astray in the mail. Her mother fainted dead away. Uncle Frederick's wife came in and fainted dead away as well. Charlotte and Louise came running down to see what had happened, and while they did not faint, they screamed shrilly. Uncle Frederick came in and stared at her as though his eyes would burst from his face.

Once Mamma and Aunt Harriet had been revived, to cling to each other weeping on the settee, Lady Beatrice explained what had happened to her.

A lengthy and painful discussion followed. It lasted through tea and dinner. It was revealed to Lady Beatrice that, though she had been sincerely mourned when Mamma had been under the impression she was dead, her unexpected return to life was something more than inconvenient. Had she never considered the disgrace she would inflict upon her family by returning, after all that had happened to her? What were all Aunt Harriet's neighbors to think?

Uncle Frederick as good as told her to her face that she must have whored herself to the men of the 13th Foot, during all those months in Jellalabad; and if she hadn't, she might just as well have, for all that anyone would believe otherwise.

At this point Mamma fainted again. While they were attempting to revive her, Charlotte and Louise reproached Lady Beatrice in bluntest terms for her selfishness. Had she never thought for a moment of what the scandalous news would do to their marriage prospects? Mamma, sitting up at this point, tearfully begged Lady Beatrice to enter a convent. Lady Beatrice replied that she no longer believed in God.

Whereupon Uncle Frederick, his face black with rage, rose from the table (the servants were in the act of serving the fish course) and told Lady Beatrice that she would be permitted to spend the night under his roof, for her Mamma's sake, but in the morning he was personally taking her to the nearest convent.

At this point Aunt Harriet pointed out that the nearest convent was in France, and he would be obliged to drive all day and hire passage on a boat, which hardly seemed respectable. Uncle Frederick shouted that he didn't give a damn. Mamma fainted once more.
In the aftermath of this unpleasant scene, Lady Beatrice flees and, having no other option, becomes a prostitute. She is, like many of Baker's characters, sufficiently tough-minded that this presents no practical or psychological difficulties, and indeed the difficulties of prostitution, and lower-class British life in general, are but briefly alluded to before Lady Beatrice receives an unexpected offer and finds herself an employee of Nell Gwynne's, a highly respectable house of prostitution whose real business is the secrets that can be coaxed from rich and powerful clients, secrets that are, as far as the women are aware, used for the good of the British Empire.

To help in their tasks, the women of Nell Gwynne's receive various pieces of ingenious technology from their associates at the Gentlemen's Speculative Society, including unexpectedly modern cameras, miniature guns, and other steampunk devices. These inventions prove especially useful when, as is sometimes necessary, the women become involved in activities slightly outside their general line. Just such a situation arises about one-third of the way through the novella, when a reclusive British nobleman who has been spending his fortune on a mysterious endeavor based at his ancestral home invites a group of millionaires there for a demonstration of... something. Naturally, these millionaires require entertainment of the feminine variety, so Lady Beatrice and three of her fellows have been assigned to learn as much as they can about the secrets of Basmond Hall.

The succeeding chapters set up the hall and its inhabitants with the brisk lightness of touch that makes Baker's work so delightful to read. But that lightness can, under certain circumstances, come at a cost to the depth of the narrative. That's especially the case here, in which the conflict is resolved in a quick and straightforward manner that lacks the sheer cleverness of the author's best work. Impersonation, violence, captivity, and international intrigue pass by so quickly that they lack the impact they deserve, and the length of the denouement is seriously out of proportion to the rest of the novella. Still, the quiet resourcefulness and sharp tongues of the ladies balance out the slightness of their adventure.

The same is true of "The Bohemian Astrobleme," a novelette featuring Lady Beatrice that firsts appears in print here, having previously been made available free online by the publisher. In this story, agents of the Gentlemen's Speculative Society discover a new source of a rare mineral that will be invaluable for their work, but the precise location of the mine is held only by a close-mouthed local. So it becomes necessary for a representative of the Ladies' Auxiliary to loosen his tongue...

Even more than the novella, this novelette feels rather like a detailed outline, not a complete story.  There's a possibly-supernatural mystery with a very funny solution, an ingenious scheme to obtain the mine, a roguish fellow agent, and a neat new bit of covert technology, but we're told about them more than shown them, and their charm is thus diminished.

At 165 pages of good-sized print, Nell Gwynne's Scarlet Spy is a slim title, and the abruptness of its content furthers that air of the insubstantial. For those not yet acquainted with the author's work, it probably wouldn't serve as the best introduction, and readers who have already purchased the novella in hardcover form might be better served by reading the new novelette online. But for devotees of the Company's cheerful anachronism and Baker's wry genius who haven't yet met the women of Nell Gwynne's, this volume is an essential supplement.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Vine review: The Traitor's Daughter

My latest Vine book is a romantic fantasy with dark elements, including just a hint of horror. It might appeal to fans of writers like Jacqueline Carey, who provides a blurb. You can read the review here.

A House with Too Many Windows

House of Windows is the first novel by John Langan, whose short horror fiction (including the collection Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters as well as a number of as yet uncollected stories) has been justly praised for its deft mixture of supernatural terror with literary observation. House of Windows is similarly ambitious, attempting to balance a Lovecraftian haunted house story with a study of a difficult father/son relationship and the decline of an unlikely marriage. But Langan's characterization and themes, which might have been substantial enough to support a novella, lack the depth necessary for a full-length novel.  The resulting book is repetitive, unsubtle, and only intermittently involving, although a few fine passages, both "literary" and "genre," and a strong climax demonstrate the underlying potential of the material.

The novel's primary narrator is Veronica Croydon, whose much-older husband Roger has been missing for two years. One night she reveals to a casual acquaintance that she knows what happened to him. Over two nights she tells the full story: her relationship with Roger, which began when he was a famous, married professor, and she a graduate student, in the college English department; Roger's strained relationship with Ted, the child of his first marriage, a soldier older than Veronica and disgusted at his father's new life; Roger's emotional collapse in the aftermath of Ted's death in Afghanistan, culminating in a leave of absence from teaching; his and Veronica's ill-fated decision to move back into Belvedere House, the mansion where Ted grew up; and the growing certainty of both that an inhuman presence has fixed its attention upon them.

Obviously, the premise of the novel is potent enough: fraught father/son relationships are very real, the death of a son is a tragic loss at any age, and marriages with a large age gap are sure to have their own difficulties and unexpected virtues.  The trouble is that House of Windows never provides much specific or resonant insight into any of these issues.  Despite backstories featuring troubled family relationships of their own, Veronica and Roger never emerge as complicated characters with distinctive personalities. He is smart, stubborn, moderately arrogant-- in other words, precisely the image of an distinguished but aging intellectual.  Veronica is equally smart, with a feisty stubbornness of her own.  You can see in the abstract how they might be a good match, but without establishing more nuance of personality the novel can't do much to make their dynamic real.  Roger's estrangement from Ted likewise fails to build on the inherent pathos of the concept because their relationship is so broadly drawn, with a generic strict father and sullen teenager of the type you'd encounter in a movie of the week.  Their poignant childhood bonding experience is literally the act of tossing a baseball around.

It doesn't help that Veronica's monologue shows a marked lack of subtlety. At various points she dutifully explains what Roger is thinking and why, laying out the novel's uncomplicated themes with a directness that further obviates this power. (Theoretically this could be unreliable narration, but if that was the intention it doesn't come across.) Although the climactic sequence features some potent supernatural symbolism whose meaning is left to the reader to interpret, the very last page offers a fictional quote from Roger's scholarly writings that serves as a blunt thematic summation.

The dialogue is also surprisingly wooden, particularly Roger's. I assume it's an attempt to capture the stiff diction of some academics, but it's ridiculously exaggerated. Here is a long but representative sample of his casual conversation:
Just as the ride was beginning, I heard someone call my name, twice. Not 'Roger,' but 'Roger Croydon,' so I assumed it was someone I knew. After all, how many Roger Croydons can there be? More than one, apparently, for I spent the next few minutes searching through the crowd for a familiar face, and found none. I was certain whoever had called to me was standing across the room. The voice sounded rather distant. In a space of that size, however, with everyone talking and the carousel's music playing, who can say for sure? The consequence was, I was occupied for the length of your ride.
It's like a formal report from a bureaucrat with no sense of language.

Certainly the novel's lack of emotional resonance is not due to a paucity of detail. House of Windows is laden with facts, digressions, and partially integrated or otherwise superfluous material. The frame story is a case in point. While the bulk of the book is taken up by Veronica's account of events, there's also occasional narration by the man to whom she is telling her story, a horror writer with a wife and child of his own. Frame stories of this type have, of course, a venerable history, but that doesn't mean they're always the right choice, and this one adds little. The central problem is that, even allowing for dramatic license, Veronica's voice, while ideal for the conceit of first person prose, is impossible to credit as a spontaneous account in actual spoken words. The writer's fears and uncertainties about his own young son do provide a thematic counterpoint to the story of Roger and Ted, but there are less involved ways to achieve a similar effect.

The frame story also undercuts the momentum of Veronica's tale, in a way that demonstrates just how overloaded House of Windows is.  In the first 13 pages (which owing to narrow margins and long paragraphs, is a more substantial chunk of text than you might imagine), the writer offers a concise precis of Roger and Veronica's history: Roger's unhappy marriage, his affair with Veronica, Ted's death and Roger's disappearance from public life.  Then, when Veronica starts talking, she reiterates this material, at greater length but without greater interest; it is just what you might think an intellectually-charged affair between a young grad student and a sixtyish professor might be, exactly how an estranged's father's grief would play out. It takes another 50 pages, by which point the novel has run over 30,000 words, for the story proper to begin. I hope it goes without saying that I don't object to slow-building horror novels, but this one doesn't build at all; it idles.

A paragraph from around the moment when things begin to liven up may help demonstrate what I'm getting at. During his leave of absence from the college, Roger takes up jogging.
Sometimes, Roger varied the route he took to or from the college. Once he'd crossed the bridge over the Svartkill, he'd turn right on Water Street and push up the steep hill, there. Or he'd turn left, onto Founders, loop around to 32, and follow that into town. At first, he did so for the sake of variety, to look at some different scenery. He took other routes, too. Over breakfast I'd ask him where he'd gone and he'd narrate his run: past Pete's Corner Pub, only recently emptied from the previous night, its doors open to air the place out; past the bus station, full of early morning commuters to the City; or past the quiet neighborhoods around the college, nodding at the occasional fellow-jogger. If he was feeling especially ambitious, he kept going past SUNY to Dunkin' Donuts.
On its own, the paragraph is unexceptionable. The language is clean, what's described is thoroughly realistic. It's also utterly without interest. What are we to glean from all these facts, this miniature gazetteer? The first sentence makes the important point about the character, and sets up the eventual revelation that he spends more and more time jogging past Belvedere House; the subsequent sentences say nothing unexpected or striking about Roger, the act of jogging, or the places through which he jogs. I imagine it sounds like I'm harping unduly on this, but the pace of the novel is so slow that sterile detail of this type is prevalent, and deeply distracting.

Even some of the novel's better supernatural sequences feel slightly surplus to requirements. At one point, trying to escape the atmosphere of Belvedere House, Roger and Veronica take a trip to Cape Cod, which proves disastrous, as the horror follows them. What Veronica sees on Martha's Vineyard is the first scene that feels more substantive than suggestive, but it's also metaphysically rather random, and the (beautifully evoked) menacing side of the Vineyard is detached from the mode and setting of the rest of the novel, more like a separate short story on similar themes. As in any haunted house novel, the house itself has a shadowed history, involving two famous abstract artists, one of whom had unusual and suggestive theories about the power of place. What there is of this backstory is quite effective, but it's so scanty compared to the main tale of Roger, Veronica, and Ted that it fades into the background, and its significance to the ultimate resolution is minimal.

That resolution, in which a nightmare journey through the rooms of the house captures the pain, emotional and physical, of the cycle of familial violence and cruelty is quite intense, communicating emotional force earlier passages lacked. Also moving are the details of Roger's coping mechanism after Ted's death, a mixture of academic research and ill-defined spiritual reasoning, which is a realistic variation on recognized grieving processes, and fits the book's general atmosphere quite well.  These portions of the novel, and a few scenes in which Roger displays a lighter side that play against his stereotype, remind the frustrated reader that Langan is a gifted writer of laudable ambition. While he may not have yet mastered the novel form, House of Windows is a smoothly-written novel that promises great things to come.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Those Across the River

In 1935, Frank Nichols, a disgraced, unemployable academic receives a letter from a distant relative, informing him of an unexpected inheritance, a manor house in a small Georgia town.  Ignoring the letter's eccentric suggestion that he must sell the house and avoid the town, he and Eudora, the woman with whom he had the affair that ended his career, move to Whitbrow, where he hopes to write a history of the distant relative who owned the old family plantation on the other side of the river from town. After his death in a violent slave uprising at the end of the Civil War, the plantation and surrounding lands were abandoned, and the land across the river became a vast, empty woodland.  But according to long-standing tradition, the people of Whitbrow chase two pigs across the river every month, in what they claim is simply a sign of thanks to God.  But when the hard times of the Depression cause the Chase to be abandoned, a horrific series of events unfolds, suggesting that the tradition may have other sources, and that the forest across the river is not as empty as it might seem.

As its plot summary suggests, this first novel by poet and playwright Christopher Buehlman is a traditional tale of rural horror, replete with local color, ominous hints, and a slowly-building atmosphere before the dark forces at work are fully revealed.  The first dozen chapters lay out the details of milieu (the town's hardscrabble existence and strong sense of community), character (Frank's lingering trauma from his time as a soldier in WWI France, which manifests in a series of grim nightmares), and backstory (the fall of the plantation, local cautionary tales about some ghostly presence on the other side of the river). Buehlman's clean prose encourages page-turning and makes this material very readable, although the evocation of place is never very strong, and his subdued approach to the casual racism and sexism of the times is admirable.  Rather than score cheap moral points by treating his early 20th-century southerners as crude, bigoted rednecks, he describes the cruelties and small kindnesses of which they're capable in an even tone. When Eudora, who has taken a job as the local school-teacher, encourages the father of a female student to allow the girl to pursue her education, he is a gruff man, uncertain about the value of book-learning, but no ogre. What seems likely to be a broad fable of oppression and revenge becomes more complex and melancholy.

The characters may not be stereotypes, but, with the exception of Frank, they don't achieve quite the depth that might be hoped for given the length of the novel's stage-setting.  They come closer to the genial types of a horror film, made pleasant enough in act one so that we feel a little twinge, but not too much of one, when the monster gets them.  (Eudora in particular is so beautiful, so lovable, so under-developed that some dark fate seems inevitable.)  However, the twinge readers are apt to feel once the antagonists of Those Across the River finally appear is more large than small.  The subject of this second half of the novel is nothing less than the dissolution of a town, and while his individual characters may be somewhat lacking, Buehlman is quite deft at portraying the collapse of a community in suspicion and terror.  The cruelty of which "those across the river" is capable is, after the gentle suggestiveness of the novel's opening, likewise genuinely unsettling.

The novel's climax, in which various elements that might have seemed extraneous return in a clever and satisfying manner, strikes an appropriate note of tragedy and moral ambiguity for a novel that, despite some explicitly violent and psychologically disturbing passages, is more quietly pessimistic and literary than out-and-out shocking.  Buehlman is playing with familiar elements here, but uses them adeptly enough to please readers comfortable with traditional horror.  Reminiscent of John Farris' All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By, Those Across the River is a compulsively readable novel of guilt, fear, and the lingering consequences of man's inhumanity to man.

Vine review: Cain

My latest Amazon Vine review is of Jose Saramago's Cain, a different take on the early narratives of the Hebrew Bible that I think would appeal to readers of reimagined myth, transgressive fiction, and pessimistic literature.  You can read it here.