Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The First Book of Classical Horror Stories

Music has charms to soothe a savage breast.
 -William Congreve, The Mourning Bride
And so it does. But it also has less pleasant capacities, darker magic to unsettle, to depress, to terrify. It is that sort of music that's performed in DF Lewis' latest anthology, The First Book of Classical Horror Stories. As with The Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies from the same editor, this is an intriguing, often remarkably effective set of stories, let down only by unpolished prose and imperfect structural decisions from a few of the contributors. However, this new volume is heavier than its predecessor on truly well-crafted work, and lighter on grating failures. The highs are also higher, and the lows aren't lower, making The First Book of Classical Horror Stories an easy anthology to recommend to admirers of subtle and surreal horror.

Things begin a little awkwardly with Rachel Kendall's "Chamber Music" and Andrew Hook's "The Universe at Gun Point," both of which are solid concepts imperfectly executed. Kendall's style lacks the command of diction necessary to allow her disturbingly evocative vision of a comatose giant on a hillside to achieve its fullest power. Hook, on the other hand, finds the right voice for his account of a musician's unusual source of inspiration, but the imagery and narrative arc are too insubstantial for the whole to have much impact; one is aware and appreciative of the story's intentions, but almost clinically so. Neither of these opening tales is bad, but there's a definite sense of reach exceeding grasp.

A run of more successful stories follows. D. P. Watt's "Vertep" is arguably more puppet horror than classical music horror, but either way it's a good one. Initially its narrator's flat affect is a mixed blessing, making the prose seem crude rather than simple, but as this tale of obsession builds toward its unexpectedly blatant climax, that bluntness becomes appropriately disturbing, a mark of insanity that strikes an appropriate balance between terror and a terrible humor. Admirers of Thomas Ligotti's later work are particularly advised to check out this story.

Given the theme of his collection A Pallid Wave on Shores of Night, it comes as little surprise that Adam S. Cantwell contributes a story to this anthology, and given the excellence of that collection, it comes as little surprise that "Beyond Two Rivers: A Symphonic Poem" is one of the anthology's triumphs. A great conductor has traveled to a Middle Eastern nation to lead its Philharmonic, but why, in the aftermath of a botched performance, is he waking up in a pitch-black rehearsal hall where the only sound he can hear is music? The Maestro's desperate search for answers in that darkened space is a fine exercise in gradual horror, but the real meat of the story is its flashbacks, in which the opulence and the despair of this dictatorship, and the Maestro's own psychological and moral weakness, are deftly sketched, creating a weighty counterpoint to the immediate terror. Cantwell has a gift, quite valuable in subtle horror, for crafting language that communicates its elegance without verbal pyrotechnics, simply by never striking (forgive the over-apt metaphor) a false note.

In "Anamnesis in Extremis" Dominy Clements uses the historical fact of the suicide of Gustav Mahler's brother Otto as the basis for a tale of fatal music. The prose is, given the narrator's formality and the seriousness with which he approaches the philosophy of music, competent, but it's only in the final two paragraphs that it becomes truly, er, musical. Lawrence Conquest's "Reverie" is a short, sharp, grim story about grief and the power of music to set a mood, with lean, poetic prose that is as powerful a mood-setter as the music it describes. Nicole Cushing's "The Fourteenth" takes its inspiration from Shostakovich's symphony on death, and considers grief in a manner entirely different from but as effective as that of the Conquest story, with a series of odd, almost comical encounters that nonetheless capture the deranged pathos of loss.

Like "Chamber Music," Stephen Bacon's "The Ivory Teat" isn't written with quite the skill necessary to make its images of urban isolation, awkwardness, and despair resonate, though the story nonetheless has a lurid charm. There's no charm at all in "Human Resources," easily the anthology's worst entry. The element of classical music is awkwardly joined to a framework of corporate horror, which could itself be interesting were it not for Karim Ghahwagi's torturously flabby prose, which makes becoming involved in the story so difficult that its underdeveloped narrative is especially unsatisfying.

Things take a turn toward the positive again with "Winter's Traces" by John Howard. It's not really a horror story, though there is one creepy notion at work, but a melancholy reflection on a frustrated artist and his peculiar life, and on the disappearance of cultural forms. Holly Day's "Excerpted" is more traditionally horrific, and works well on that level, although there's nothing especially surprising about what happens when the protagonist goes too far in performing the strangely dissonant alterations to classical compositions that he discovered in a convent library. Colin Insole's "The Appassionata Variations," like his story for The Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies, conjures up a world of Gothic cruelty, but the prose here is much stronger, creating an atmosphere of decadent corruption that is, in and of itself, sufficient reason to recommend the story to audiences who value such things.

To this point the stories have aided the construction of a review by falling into runs of better and worse. In the last third of the collection, though, the patterns fall apart. Tony Lovell's "The Holes" is another surreal piece that doesn't quite make its strangeness meaningful, while Daniel Mills' "De Profundis" is a brilliant cosmic horror story of deepening obsession that returns to the motif of music's power to alter the world in upsetting ways. "Boris' Aria" by M. Sullivan could be a great little piece of comic horror, but in its present form it doesn't take full advantage of its potential, whether because it wasn't conceived as horror or because its author doesn't have the requisite stylistic chops. S. D. Tullis' "Strings" suffers from a couple unfortunate comparisons, one of which I'll get into below, and one of which comes from the use of quotes from finer stylists at the beginning and end of the style, which can only serve as reminders that Tullis' own prose lacks their natural rhythms. Carmen Tudor's "Grace Notes" is another traditional horror notion, somewhat hampered by imperfect prose. Mark Valentine's "Without Instruments" is a delightful example of his aesthetic, esoteric fiction, which whether supernatural or not has a marvelous transporting effect not unlike that described in this story, which can be seen as a sort of companion or contrast to his "The Atelier at Iasi." In "Songs for Dead Children," Aliya Whiteley takes on the bleakness of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, and says something powerful about the price of truly understanding tragic art. And the collection ends with Rhys Hughes offering his usual dark brand of whimsy in the one-page, one-joke, fairly satisfying "The Trilling Seasons."

Readers familiar with the table of contents for The First Book of Classical Horror Stories will have noticed that I've left one story out of this perhaps overly exhaustive rundown. I was about to type a one-sentence review of Sarah O'Scalaidhe's "He Had Lived for Music," but it would have been essentially the same as several other one-sentence reviews: "prose doesn't quite do justice to" etc. The deeper problem, for O'Scalaidhe's story and several others, is that, despite differences in setting and style, many of the contributing writers are trading on similar basic notions, often to do with the power, either emotional or literal, of music. "Strings," for example, isn't really a bad story, but both "De Profundis" and "Anamnesis in Extremis" have done basically the same thing at a higher skill level. Sameness is often an issue in theme anthologies; here, given the mediocrity of some of the contributions, it means that they slip rapidly from the mind. (Badness is often more memorable than adequacy; I'm certainly not going to forget "Human Resources," but I had already lost track of "The Ivory Teat" in the week between finishing the book and writing this review.) To an extent, this works in the anthology's favor, since only the good stories contribute to the reader's impression of it. And there are a lot of good stories, and only the one real clunker, which means that as anthologies go, The First Book of Classical Horror Stories is quite strong. Will there be a Second Book of....? I don't know, and I don't know whether the concept of classical horror is strong enough to support a series. But for one volume, it works out reasonably well.

The publisher supplied a review copy of this book.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

On the World Fantasy Award Nominees for Best Novel

A few weeks ago, when the World Fantasy award nominations were announced, I looked at the list of Best Novel contenders and thought, "Hey, I've read three of those, and I just downloaded a fourth from the Kindle Library. Why not read the fifth too, and have an informed opinion on one category of one major award?" So here we are.

The nominees are:

  Those Across the River, Christopher Buehlman (Ace)
  11/22/63, Stephen King (Scribner; Hodder & Stoughton as 11.22.63)
  A Dance with Dragons, George R.R. Martin (Bantam; Harper Voyager UK)
  Osama, Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing)
  Among Others, Jo Walton (Tor)
Three of those were selected by this year's award judges (John Berlyne, James P. Blaylock, Stephen Gallagher, Mary Kay Kare, and Jacques Post), while two were the top vote-getters among the convention members. I think it's pretty obvious that the Buehlman and the Tidhar are judge selections. It's tempting to suggest that the Walton is the third and that the two bestselling doorstoppers are the member selections, but I'm not sure of that. The Walton just won the Hugo, so it has plenty of support among convention-goers, for reasons that we'll (unfortunately) be getting to. I don't know that the judges would have added the Martin, especially since they're also giving him a Life Achievement Award this year, but I suppose they might have picked the King. It hardly matters, anyway.

So which one of these would I vote for, if I were on the jury? The Tidhar, I suppose. My main reaction is that it's a pretty weak slate of nominees. I can think of quite a few novels from last year that are more deserving, and not because they're masterpieces; they just lack the glaring flaws of four of these five nominees, and are more ambitious and innovative than a different four of the five. Yes, these nominees include a novel whose craft is consistently elegant and a novel whose content is appropriately contemporary, but they aren't the same novel. So which are which? Let's go down the list in order.

I reviewed Those Across the River exactly a year ago, and my opinion hasn't changed much in hindsight. It's a well-written novel in the sense that its prose isn't awkward or workmanlike, a standard not all of the nominees can equal, but it's not a masterpiece of style either, and the plot covers familiar territory for rural horror. I'm not sure its treatment of race is ideal; like John Farris' All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By, it invokes black revenge on white cruelty in ways that can be troubling. Suggestive and explicit horror are carefully balanced, and the ambiguous ending is powerful, but these aren't enough for the novel to transcend its ultimately conventional nature. This is Buehlman's debut fiction, and as such it's impressive; I wish the World Fantasy Award had a first novel category, so his accomplishment could be acknowledged without suggesting that it's one of the best novels of the year, which it isn't.

I didn't review 11/22/63. I think Stephen King could have written a good changing-the-past story. And I think he could have written a good historical novel about Lee Harvey Oswald. And I think he could have written a good sentimental novel about a late 1950s smalltown romance... no, scratch that. I think he could written a competent sentimental novel about a late 1950s smalltown romance, because books like that tend not to be good. You see where I'm going with this, anyway. The trouble with changing-the-past stories is that there are only two types: the one where you can't change the past, and the one where you can but you shouldn't. There's still some pleasure to be had in a clever execution of each, and King uses his particular narrative mechanics to construct a great suspense sequence at the climax, but let's not confuse that with great writing.

The bigger problem with 11/22/63 is that by the time King actually gets around to playing out his time-travel premise, you've already read 900 pages of two other books, the endessly good-natured, achingly derivative smalltown romance, and that Lee Harvey Oswald novel, in which his mother is one of King's usual shrieking-harpy moms, much like Eddie Kaspbrak's. And speaking of It, there's also a long interlude in which the narrator tests the time-travel mechanism via a trip to 1950s Derry, and if you think characters from It won't have a charming-but-gratuitous cameo, you haven't read enough King. The Derry interlude isn't terrible in and of itself-- King, whose prose over the years has become, if not more graceful than at least less graceless, writes about the shadow over the city rather well given the flatness of his style-- but it, and all the other sidelines, make the novel so long that the resolution of the central narrative feel like an afterthought. It's simply not interesting or inventive enough to be worth all that wait. I liked the book-- to one degree or another I liked all five nominees-- but none of the four or five better books trapped inside it pokes far enough out for it to be award-worthy.

I reviewed A Dance with Dragons, but you shouldn't read what I wrote about it. Really, don't click there. It's an utterly fannish response that barely mentions, and severely understates the depth of, the novel's flaws. I'm not as down on A Song of Ice and Fire as some in fandom. I still think it's virtually the only doorstopper fantasy series that can be taken seriously in terms of complex characterization and remotely credible storytelling, and that its attempt to offer the pleasures of a certain kind of fantasy in a story that also reflects on what real life in such a milieu would be like is laudable. The enthusiasm that radiates from that review (seriously, don't read it) is still there.

But the thing is, A Song of Ice and Fire just won't stop growing. If Martin had delivered the story he envisioned when he sold the series, the last book would have been released twelve years ago. Instead, as we all know, three books became four six seven and counting, and the gaps between them keep getting longer. A Dance with Dragons is 420,00 words long, and it's still only 50% of a proper novel. This is an improvement over A Feast for Crows, which was 40% of same, but still. In the half of the overall story it focuses on, A Dance with Dragons builds toward two major events, and then stops right before either one happens. That's just bad structure, and I don't care that putting the actual ending in would have made the book too long to bind. I love the trivial world-building with which the series is loaded, but not when it prevents a book from reaching an actual conclusion.

The more pertinent issue is that the endless ballooning of the plot has dragged Martin's themes out so long that they lose what originality they had. One of the series' major concerns is with the difficult nature of leadership, the possibility that good, well-intentioned men-- heroes-- may not be good leaders. Over the first four books of the series we've seen, oh, three or four leaderships styles of major characters prove ineffective or disastrous. So when A Dance with Dragons offers two more, the response is not, "What a thoughtful commentary on issues fantasy typically ignores," but "Yes, yes, it's tough, we get it already!" If you dig deeper into the text there are more complex topics to be debated-- I read niggling debates on as much as anyone-- but still, the depth of thematic content is out of proportion to the breadth of pagecount.

And the other consequence of the series' physical and chronological explosion is that it's now been 16 years since A Game of Thrones was published. Its grim, gritty approach to fantasy was fresh then. It isn't now. Newer fantasy series, from authors who tend to lack Martin's skill, have made that sort of thing common as paint. I'd rather see award nominations go to writers who are doing new and unexpected things now than to those who did them in 1996. The fact that Martin is receiving a lifetime achievement award the same year A Dance with Dragons is a best novel nominee is unfortunately telling.

Speaking of "new and unexpected things," we've come to the novel I guess I would want to win. I'm hesitant because Osama isn't actually a very good novel. It's a promising idea, and it could have made a brilliant novella, but at novel length it's a frequently tedious slog through dreamlike interludes that add nothing to plot, theme, or character, and aren't stylish enough to be interesting simply as exercises in language. Anyone who would ever read a book like Osama is going to work out the ending well before the halfway point, and while I suspect Tidhar realizes that, he doesn't offer anything else to hold the reader's attention. There are some neat passages-- one in an abandoned subway, another at a convention-- but many others, evidently striving for a surreal variation on the modes of the detective novel, fall flat.

This isn't really a novel about terrorism in a deep thematic sense, which is just as well, since its observations on the phenomenon aren't much beyond what reasonably intelligent readers will already be familiar with. But writing about terrorism and the power of the idea of Osama bin Laden is at least something modern fantasy writers ought to be doing, rather than rehearsing the cliches of epic fantasy, rural horror, and time travel. I really do wish Tidhar had shaped this material into a novella, because that version would have been bursting with powerful images, and its ideas would have seemed more than sufficient given its wordcount. The novel is something I'm glad I read, and it's the only one of the five nominees that I think actually deserves a nomination, but in a better year it certainly wouldn't be the book I hoped to see win.

Among Others won the Hugo the other night. It's already won the Nebula, so if it gets the World Fantasy Award (which I think is a real possibility, especially if it was one of the three judge selections) it will, I believe, be the first work of fiction ever to win all three awards. I find this mildly distressing, not so much because Among Others is a bad book as because the things that are good about it-- its forbidding, ominous take on magic, some promising secondary characters, an eye for the atmosphere of its Welsh landscape-- are shoved aside by the author in favor of what people like about it: a long, plotless meditation on how awesome it is to be an SFF fan and how awesome everybody else in fandom is. Walton does this with just enough subtlety that I was able, while reading the book and deluding myself that plot and character development were going to arrive eventually, to imagine that there was some distance between the teenage narration and the adult writer shaping it.  But I'm no longer certain that's the case, and I certainly don't believe that the people who have been supporting the book are focused on anything like that.

No, I'm afraid they're more likely to enjoy the embarrassing moments, like when the narrator congratulates herself on being superior to her classmates, who only care about sports and the house cup while she cares about deep things, like the fiction of Robert Heinlein. Or when she thinks, "The handsome boy I met at the local SF book club could never like me, because I'm not pretty," only to find out that he does and she is. Considering what it is, Among Others is well-executed, and it captures the charming and less-charming aspects of a teenaged fan's voice whether or not it realizes that the latter exist. But there's so much that exists to no evident purpose-- that scene with her father, the stuff about her paternal aunts, the thing with Wim and his ex-girlfriend-- unless it's to distract from the thinness of the central love letter to fandom. There may also be a hint at unreliable narration, but this, like everything else, is more gesture than serious attempt. In the final analysis the book is what it looks like: a list of books read and precocious but shallow reflections on them. It might be fun to live, and if you're in the right mood it's fun to read, but it's not a great novel.

I'm not surprised when some Hugo and Nebula winners turn out to be unexceptional; whether the people voting on them are fans or writers (to the extent that those are distinct groups), various group dynamics are bound to come into play that will influence what wins. I was the opposite of shocked that the combination of Neil Gaiman and Doctor Who won the Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) Hugo this year, even though a few funny lines, a bunch of fanservice, and another one-dimensional sexy chick for the Doctor to banter with and then cry over are hardly the stuff of great drama, even by the standards of contemporary genre television. But I had hoped an award where nominee selection is split between fans and a jury would produce a better slate. The Tidhar, in addition to being the best of the lot, is also something ordinary members might not have heard of, but otherwise the jury selections are hard to distinguish from the fan picks, aesthetically speaking, and that's a shame. But that's the nice thing about juried or part-juried awards: the makeup of the jury changes every year, so you can hope for better things in the future, rather than the usual fan favorites racking up further hard-to-justify nominations. If you're looking for an optimistic conclusion to this post, that's the best I can do.