Wednesday, January 4, 2017

December Reads

Adrift on the Sea of Rains by Ian Sales
Light by M. John Harrison
The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself by Ian Sales
Nightside the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe
Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above by Ian Sales
Lake of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe
The Race by Nina Allan
All That Outer Space Allows by Ian Sales
The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

As with lots of science fiction I've read over the past few years, The Race was a recommendation from Jonathan McCalmont. And as usual, he was bang on; The Race is an incredibly tricky mosaic novel, one that suggests far more than explains, which is how I'm liking it. I can imagine a fan of David Mitchell enjoying very much Allan's début novel. Composed of 4 subtly connected novellas, The Race is quick to suggest some possibilities for how everything connects, but these possibilities are sometimes at odds with each other. Two of the novellas, the bookends, concern themselves with a near future in the midst of ecological and economic collapse in which genetically modified dogs perform in illegal races. The middle two novellas suggest they are not in the same "universe" as the other two novellas, though the connections, as I mentioned are more devious than assumed. McCalmont speaks of the novel's ambiguity as its biggest allure. He writes:
Nina Allan’s The Race is one of the finest science fiction novels of 2014 precisely because it encourages you to ask difficult questions of the novel, its plot, its characters, and its themes. Great novels don’t just give you a single well-crafted story; they give you the space to come up with messy ones of your own.
McCalmont's enthusiasm for the novel probably derives from Allan's interrogation of genre, an enthusiasm I share. The Race picks up and plays with traditional realist structures (the English country novel, for example) without sliding into a petulant abandonment of that genre which characterizes much "literary" science fiction. Ian Sales, another critic I'm a fan of (and an accomplished and effective genre writer himself) is a bit more withholding of his praise when he writes:
The end result is, I think, one of 2014’s more interesting genre novels, and certainly proves Allan is a writer to watch. I’m not convinced The Race is wholly successful, but it’s definitely a worthy attempt.
What makes Sales's criticism so interesting to me is that his Apollo Quartet, which I read this month, does similar work with genre. The Apollo Quartet, a series of thematically connected novellas, plays with hard sci-fi and historical fiction, using classic postmodernist strategies such as appendices and false documents to blur lines between fact and fiction, to blur history and fiction. It's pure coincidence I'm reading these two works together in December, but there's a sweet synchronicity to it. Both are prominent critics and both publish less commercial science fiction than say, even Alastair Reynolds or the execrable James S. A. Corey. Based on the little I've read of them, especially Ian Sales, I'm very impressed and excited about their future work.

The Apollo Quartet, as aforementioned, uses 3 novellas and 1 novel to demand difficult questions of genre borders. Each part builds on the other—not in terms of plot, but rather in methodology and thematic interests. The first novella, a hard science alternate history keeps the postmodernism in the appendices, while still offering an exciting sci-fi adventure. The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, the second novella, might have a not-so-great title, but it pushes further with the careful game Sales plays; instead of offering simply an alternative history/future, Sales poses a riddle, the solution to which requires work from the reader. I confess I don't fully understand the solution (which is provided in the author's afterword in the second edition), but I do understand the thematic implication of the solution. The quantum uncertainty, a similar principle driving Allan's The Race, supposes a simultaneous binary in which one thing is both at the same time. This echoes Sales's and Allan's forceful critique of and play with genre borders. Instead of slipping back and forth, The Race and The Apollo Quartet are both genre and "not-genre" at the same time—again, without the aggression of, say, M. John Harrison (not that Harrison's grumpiness isn't welcome! it definitely is!).

The third novella, Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, I wasn't as keen on. It didn't feel as ambitious as the second and it certainly wasn't as wide in scope as the fourth, All That Outer Space Allows, which I absolutely adored. The fourth part, a full length novel, (according the arbitrary rules of science fiction publishing, determined by word count) stars perhaps my favourite protagonist I met all year. Ginny Eckhardt is both an astronaut's wife in the 1960s and a science fiction writer of some repute. The novel follows her point of view as her husband is selected for NASA's Apollo program and as her science fiction writing deepens and matures. In possibly one of the finest sci-fi novels I've read in a couple years, Sales manages to successfully balance an array of complicated themes and goals, all through textured characterization and clever false documents. The crux of All That Outer Space Allows (with its title's obvious but not eyerolling reference to Douglas Sirk) is the parallel made between the gendered supporting duties of an astronaut's wife and the invisibility of a female science fiction writer in the 1960s-70s. Both identities require—or produce—a measure of invisibility, something the novel calls attention to explicitly, not only through a fourth wall breaking narrator but also through the novel's brilliant centrepiece, a full short story written in the voice of Ginny and presented as if published in a 1960s sci-fi magazine. The short story details an accidental solution to a military research project on the nature of invisibility: only the presence of women will turn this military vessel invisible, thus implying the necessity of women in the field. This necessity echoes outwards, from the short story to the novel (the necessity of women as astronauts, who are objectively better suited for the rigours of space) and from there to the rest of the quartet: the homosocial spaces of novellas 1 and 2 are implicitly critiqued by dint of an absence of women (though, "homosocial" is an imperfect word for the rigidly delineated labour space designated for men). My summary of the novel might make All That Outer Space Allows sound dry or academic, but the experience is far from that; instead, Ginny's plight for visibility in both her life of letters and her life with her husband is heartbreaking and... immediate, necessary.

Similarly, Nina Allan's The Race poses some important genre questions as well as the visibility of women's science fiction labour. While laureates such as Ursula K. LeGuin and Margaret Atwood get heavy attention (not coincidentally, both of them produced early work which slots comfortably into a now outdated eco-feminist outlook), women writers in the trenches, as it were, are invisible. The Race's second novella suggests, quite coyly, the necessity of women to science fiction: their ability to see what is not seen by the hegemony of sci-fi writers. Allan's writer character is praised for her ability to see the world and present it slightly askew, slightly tilted, familiar enough to be recognizable, but altered enough to produce a feeling of unease. Without explicitly naming it, Allan's character is lauded for her skill in producing the uncanny. Yet, the uncanny isn't instrumentalized for the sake of it; rather, tilting the world on its axis (figuratively, of course; the Earth is already tilted, hence the seasons) allows for new sight, new ways of seeing, new ways of apprehending information and even, in the case of the third novella, apprehending new information.

Still, that new information isn't concretized by either generic signifiers or narrative. Instead, like  The Apollo Quartet's relationship to genre, truth is much more ambiguous, hence, I think, a lot of positive accolades for Allan's work. Both Sales and Allan are writers to watch. The latter has a new novel coming out in June I think and the former maintains a blog.

M. John Harrison's Light is certainly not revolutionary in terms of plot, as it's the same bog standard "aliens meddle in humanity's grasp for the stars." What makes Light so arresting is Harrison's prose and attitude. Here's a science fiction author not terribly interested in perpetuating the same aesthetic status quo which clutters the sci-fi bestseller lists. So much of this novel coasts on its style, its wondrous contortions of words and phrases, to defamiliarize the words we understand, the generic signifiers we're used to, and to present them in fresh and alienating ways. The novum in Harrison's fiction so far appears to be aesthetic instead of conceptual, though he liberally tosses great ideas into the mix, ideas better than most paradigmatic space opera feature. I've been a bit wary of the phrase "all style, no substance" as I think style is in of itself substantial, especially when it's as aggressively anti-genre as this, so I hesitate to levy it against Harrison. Light was aesthetically pleasing, difficult, demanding, funny, and maturely petulant, if that makes sense.

I felt very intelligent to reach the natural conclusion of the implications in The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe. I patted myself on the back for finally grasping how I should disentangle the intricate threads of his obfuscation. Alas, the middle novella of this "collection" (really, a novel in three parts) was plodding and full of that shit Neil Gaiman fake fable nonsense I'm deathly allergic to. Still, the first section was fun (the novella always makes you feel smart when you pick up the breadcrumbs) and the third section, a sort of collection of false documents, like John Fowles' A Maggot, which ask the reader to generate their own conclusion, was gripping. The afterword, by another author, spells out the plot for those that didn't figure it out, and it was gratifying for my own deductions to be validated.

I'll say some more about The Book of the Long Sun once I've finished it, but for sure the first half was utterly gripping. Perhaps not as intricate or as impenetrable as his earlier works, but still wholly entertaining.

Monday, January 2, 2017

2016's best reads

I managed to read 89 books in 2016, according to Goodreads. I would estimate, let's say, 8 or so are graphic novels or collections of comics, so let's put novels and novellas read at 80. What follows after this paragraph is a list of books to which I deemed worthy of applying 5 stars on Goodreads. As I've stated repeatedly, the system of equivalence wrought by Goodreads' scoring arrangement is yet another manifestation of capitalism's desire to impose a price upon everything, up to and including works of art. Though even without this organization via score, I would still consider these objects deserving of consideration for best-of. Every year I perform a pantomime of hand-wringing over year-end lists. This year, I shan't bore my reader with such dissembling. Instead, here are some thoughts on the year's reading.

Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster by Mike Davis
Silver Screen by Justina Robson
Software by Rudy Rucker
Deception Well by Linda Nagata
Daughter of Elysium by Joan Slonczewski
253 by Geoff Ryman
The Sailor on the Seas of Fate by Michael Moorcock
The Queen of the Swords by Michael Moorcock
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson
Last Days by Brian Evenson
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
The Warren by Brian Evenson
Gateways to Abomination by Matthew M. Bartlett
Floating Dragon by Peter Straub
The Elementals by Michael McDowell
The Centauri Device by M. John Harrison
Phallos by Samuel R. Delany
All That Outer Space Allows by Ian Sales

As per usual, science fiction possesses my heart, or at least, the bulk of it. There is room, scant but still room, for horror and a touch of fantasy. This year, as in recent years, I've branched out from my usual comfortable hovel of science fiction, and it was to my surprise, worth the excursion. Both Michael Moorcock and Kai Ashante Wilson were exquisite discoveries and with only two novellas, Wilson rocketed to the top of my "writers to watch" list for the next few years. Similarly, Moocock's giant oeuvre whispered to me and I ended up picking up a good chunk of his works. Expect to see more Moorcock in 2017. I discovered writers new to me, such as Matthew M. Bartlett and Brian Evenson, and kept working at writers I'd thought worth keeping with, such as Joan Slonczewski and Linda Nagata. In each of those cases, I thought the first book in the series was okay but the second was a shocking improvement. The Slonczewski was a fantastic slow read which worked thanks to its steady accumulation of details. The Nagata was stupendous for its abandonment of accessibility: the plot is exceedingly intricate and I had problems following it, a positive in my books.

If I were to pick a single work or author to highlight for the year, I would have to go with Gene Wolfe, the author I read the most in 2016. I wish I could say it was Ali Smith or Octavia Butler or a writer who isn't a conservative Catholic, but alas, once I "got" Wolfe's specific style of obfuscation and intricacy, I was sold. I finished The Book of the New Sun in March, read the fifth volume in December, and then barrelled through the first half of The Book of the Long Sun before the end of the year. I also managed to squeeze in his novel of three parts, The Fifth Head of Cerberus just under the wire before New Year's, thus putting my total Wolfe books for the year at 6.

The allure of Wolfe comes from intersecting vectors of interest for me: science fiction, postmodernism, beautiful allusive writing, and a density of narrative which rewards rereading. His work with genre fascinates me. The Book of the New Sun presents itself as fantasy but past the surface, the superficial signifiers of the fantasy genre, the quintet is really far future science fiction, a dying Earth story a la Jack Vance. Wolfe's skill is the slow, achingly slow unfolding of an "objective" reality counter to the protagonist's belief. Normally, especially in genre fiction, this would take the form of revealing to the protagonist a secret history, a real history. For example, revealing to Luke Skywalker or any other chosen one, that they are indeed, the chosen one and that they were placed in their meager circumstances on purpose. The Book of the New Sun looks backwards: the protagonist is chronicling the adventures from a position in the future, so instead of the reveal having shocking implications, he takes it for granted the audience is already on board. For example, Severian remarks very casually, in an offhand comment, that the Moon is green. It's dropped into the narrative without any ceremony and could be easily missed by a reader without patience. It's not until a second time when Severian asks a character from another planet if their "Lune" is also green that the detail persisted with me. I guessed then, the Moon had been terraformed in the time when Severian's and Earth's ancestors fled the planet in their starships, leaving behind a population sinking backwards into a pre-industrial era. Now that spaceflight is out of everybody's grasp, the Moon has gone completely wild, becoming a satellite green enough to be seen from Earth.

To me, this detail represents everything I love about Wolfe's writing. Some might roll their eyes at my naivety, but to find science fiction so demanding of careful attention, such excellent economical prose, and an obvious intelligence is rare. I will happily read his greatest hits and even minor hits just to be rewarded with intelligent and demanding fare. Wolfe is not perfect, though; I wish Wolfe's gender politics weren't so infuriatingly retrograde and his political imagination so conservative. No matter how artful or so clever his tapestries of genre, at the heart of the Solar Cycle is a concern for power and men, with women being either pawns or villains (often both at the same time).

For 2017, I would like to return to a sort of gender parity I'd balanced in the beginning of the year. I would like to continue with  Slonczewski, Nagata, and Katherine Ann Goonan (did I mention I reviewed her book for the SF Mistress blog?) and hopefully, I'll review them for the aforementioned blog. I'd also like to continue with Octavia Butler; I've been reading them slowly as I don't want to finish them all too fast. I'd like to finally tackle some N. K. Jemisin, some more Pat Cadigan, more Justina Robson, more Melissa Scott, and definitely more Elfriede Jelinek (I still can't get over The Piano Teacher). I'd also like to finish off some series I've started, such as The Solar Cycle, Ken MacLeod's Engines of Light, Lumley's Necroscope, M. John Harrison's Light trilogy. I also have a boatload of Paul McAuley and Adam Roberts to read. 2017 looks to be promising for science fiction for me. Who needs new releases from James S. A. Corey when I have so many good books to get around to.

Friday, December 2, 2016

November Reads

The Hour of the Oxrun Dead by Charles L. Grant
The Influence by Ramsey Campbell
The Elementals by Michael McDowell
The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson
The King of Swords by Michael Moorcock
Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates
Ancient Images by Ramsey Campbell
Cold Print by Ramsey Campbell
The Centauri Device by M. John Harrison
The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall
Phallos by Samuel R. Delany
A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson
The Urth of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe

Maybe because it's been so long since I've read The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, if I've read it at all, but Kij Johnson's pastiche left me wholly cold. Going in, I thought the novella used Lovecraft as thematic inspiration, not literally precursor to this obvious sequel. The twists by Johnson on the Lovecraft formula were compelling (a middle aged woman is our hero; there's no racism!) but reading this novella left me wondering what was the point? Why read this when Lovecraft's version is perfectly acceptable? Johnson obviously has the skills of prose and characterization and a professional grasp of pacing and plot—yet I wonder what could have been if those energies had been directed towards something less literal or loyal to Lovecraft. I respect the project of rewriting the master to remove his racism and sexism, but erasing his bigotry does a disservice to the intrinsic qualities of what makes Lovecraft's visions so horrifying. Ultimately, I'm left cold by Johnson, though not full of respect for her craft, and I'm scrambling to pinpoint exactly what it was. It could be that my tastes for Lovecraftian fiction verge more towards the ruthless pillaging of his work than that which is inspired.

The Elementals is my third McDowell and at this stage, I can happily assert he was a true master of horror, at the level of King or Lovecraft. What makes him so interesting as a writer is his willingness to invest so much energy in his characters and their interactions. While The Amulet was impressive for its ruthless dispatching of characters, Cold Moon Over Babylon and The Elementals take their time building towards a crescendo of pure terror which works thanks to McDowell's characterization and astute eye for detail, either geographic or interpersonal. The Elementals represents, to me, horror fiction at its absolute finest: lean, intriguing, compelling, horrifying, frightening, and awe-inspiring. Throughout my read of this novel, which I parcelled out carefully as to savour the gorgeous prose, I kept experiencing frissons of excitement, giddiness, the kind that comes when you realize you're reading something so masterful and exquisite. It was pure pleasure to read The Elementals from its Southern Gothic miasma to its folksy charm. During the magnificent setpieces of terror, it dawned on me I was sweating, I was tense, a rarity for the jaded reader of horror. On top of this magisterial performance of fright, McDowell does productive work with the Southern Gothic discourse so finely tuned by masters such as Flannery O'Connor.

A major character in this novel is simultaneously a reinforcement of the "Magical N***o" and a repudiation of that trope. The white characters look to this domestic employee for information on the nature of the evil and though Odessa knows much, she keeps repeating she doesn't know everything. In fact, she insists the spirits do not abide by rational logic at all, making it literally impossible to ascertain their motives or even the rules by which they haunt. Odessa is "closer" to the spiritual world by dint of her blackness, an unfortunate reinscribing of the aforementioned trope, but she is not presented as all-knowing or a keeper of arcane knowledge out of reach from whiteness. A scene of Odessa performing a ritual to protect her white charges is shown later to be a failure—either because the titular elementals do not observe the common rules of haunting or because, it's implied, Odessa isn't armed with the correct command of the spirit world. As with much of McDowell's work, class and race in the South is never simplistic monochromatic concerns but nuanced and on a gradient of understanding. The Elementals isn't as engrossed in matters of class as The Amulet (which positively dripped with scorn for the illusion of class) though it does touch on these concerns with the usual charm and wit McDowell carries. 

Even writing these short paragraphs on The Elementals infused me with excitement to read more of his works. His other novels are a bit hard to come by (such as Katie and Toplin) but I own two hardcover omnibuses of his Blackwater series. 

Ramsey Campbell is a name I've heard much about, but didn't know where to start. I picked up his collection of Lovecraftian short fiction Cold Print as my tome of entry into his significant bibliography. I had heard about his gorgeous, hypnotic prose, and interest in "quiet horror." Cold Print offered some delights, none of which blew me away until 1964's "The Horror From the Bridge" (which you can read here). The story's strong effect (affect) came from Campbell's seemingly innate understanding of how Lovecraftian fiction as well as a very strong, almost lordly command of the rhythm and possibilities of prose. This story was enough for me to dive into one of his novels. I chose The Influence for its garish 1980s cover and its promise of "quiet horror" (obviously not promised by the cover blurbs or publisher's feverish shrieks of advertisement, but promised by reviewers and the writer himself).

I read the entire volume in one day. Though The Influence provided no surprises (and indeed, followed a pattern seemingly wrought in ancient stone), it was Campbell's prose and characterization that had me reading so quickly. Rarely do the horror paperbacks of the 1980s offer such delightful turns of phrase as found in The Influence. And if Campbell didn't stack his novel with singular setpieces of terror, he at least found time for one tense sequence on a train, a sequence carefully tuned for maximum Hitchcockian anxiety. I'm so pleased with Campbell's work that I must devour more of his oeuvre. Expect more reviews of Campbell in the future.

Charles L. Grant is a name one sees enough when pilfering through piles of paperbacks in used bookstores. He sits underneath many "Edited By" credits on covers of anthologies and his Oxrun novels can be easily found. Here is yet another author I read on the promise of "quiet horror." The Hour of the Oxrun Dead is the first in a loosely organized 12 book series about a fictional city/town/village (depending on the author's need) called Oxrun. The first novel, with its back cover unspooling its secrets too easily, concerns a young widow stumbling across a conspiracy in Oxrun, with machinations from the highest of political/economic positions. The plot isn't noteworthy, but Grant's characterization is aces. His protagonist and her romantic possibility are charming as all hell, a Nick and Nora without the booze, and every scene is livened by Grant's semi-ironic awareness of how horror operates. This isn't horror for those who like King's realism thrust against the countenance of the terrifying unknown, but rather horror for those who appreciate personality and a carefree attitude towards the strict adherence to seriousness. Not that Grant is a humorist or wilfully detached from the importance of horror; rather, Grant knows we're all here for a good yarn and not much else. The Hour of the Oxrun Dead was a splendid confection. I'm going to happily read more of his stuff, but let's not pretend that this novel is an intellectual giant towering over everybody else. I feel his reputation as this Grandmaster of Horror might have coloured other people's generous readings of this novel. Still, it was imminently professional and excellently written.

I felt like I had been reading Bellefleur for a month, despite enjoying almost every moment of it. I purchased my copy at Myopic Books in Chicago (a fabulous bookstore, by the way) way back in 2014, but only got around to it this year. I read The Falls by Oates back then, as well, and enjoyed it.

I should really stop reading Goodreads reviews of books. They set up these expectations in my mind and more often than not, the reviewers on Goodreads are unimaginative, myopic, inelegant, and sometimes utterly wrong. Consider this poor schmuck on Bellefleur: "the narrative jumped around chronologically from chapter to chapter, which also adds to the cognitive confusion." Yes, those non-linear structures sure are the worst. Or this asshole: "If I have to edit the book myself, by removing unnecessary clauses and descriptors to tease out the meaning of the sentence, then the writing is too flamboyant for me." God help you if you're forced to witness some style, you cretin. Or this guy and his incorrect adverb: "Because it's literally impossible to keep things straight from one page to the next, sometimes even one paragraph to the next." Really? It's literally impossible? I understand the reviewer is being hyperbolic and deploying "literally" in its newest form (an intensifier)—this reviewer did give the book four stars, so at this point, I'm just being a judgey dick. Still, the pile of 1 and 2 star reviews, only a handful of which are well reasoned, are depressing. One downside to the democratization of art is the sheer buffoonery masquerading as criticism on sites like Goodreads.

As for Bellefleur, my opinion vacillates between "love" and "very much like." Certainly, I prefer this text over The Falls, which isn't to say the latter was a failure. Rather, Bellefleur scratched multiple itches for me: Gothic family saga, some unobtrusive magical realism (an aesthetic mode I generally struggle with), an endless brood of cats, and violence, heaps upon heaps of violence, without falling into the realm of exploitative horror. Instead, the violence, the death, the non-linear structure (which is deceivingly non-linear, as there is a supra-narrative which still runs forwards in time), all come together in a passage around the halfway point: "The living and the dead. Braided together. Woven together. An immense tapestry taking in centuries." Death is an integral part of living, the Bellefleur family find themselves reminding each other, and living is an integral part of death. The clever chronology of the novel serves the thematic structure: by juxtaposing the past against the present, the narrative finds a timelessness, not in the sense of "outside of time" but rather in the sense that all things happen at the same time. One of the younger members of the family, a surviving member, publishes a long scientific treatise on the nature of, the liquidity of time, further underlining Oates' aims with Bellefleur. Instead of a complex chronology in which the reader must remember who sires whom, Bellefleur asks the reader to imagine intersecting planes, planes of characters with similar names, planes of feeling, of death, of life, all co-existing at the same moment, but stretched out for the reader to comprehend the tale/tales in its totality. All the while, Oates' glorious, loose, attention-seeking prose cluttering the dense pages. Oates might never be mistaken for a prose stylist on the level of Nabokov but certainly her work here stresses the malleability, the limits of the word.

I had been meaning to read M. John Harrison for eons, especially after the positively glowing reception Jonathan McCalmont gave Light. Published much earlier, The Centauri Device is an essential text in science fiction for multiple factors: firstly, it's an example of New Wave science fiction, a fountain from whence sprung the New Space Opera and secondly, it's an example of proto-cyberpunk, a genre I've written ample about before, not necessarily in subject (as there is no hacking or Orientalism) but in overall outlook: bleak, cold, empty, a universe devoid of warmth or light. However, Harrison's novel doesn't wallow in darkness—at least not in the cartoonish way some late-era cyberpunk does. Instead, like the above Charles L. Grant novel, the characters bounce off the page with wit and liveliness, snarky and hilarious, without falling into the quippy Joss Whedon trap (a style I'm religiously allergic to). More than anything, the prose was utterly divine. Again, another book I hesitate to over-praise, but this was revelatory. I had little inkling prior to this that prose could do such beautifully twisting and magnificent things. Pure poetry. I loved this book. A strong contender for best of the year, easily.

Wolfe's The Urth of the New Sun was a terrific coda to the original quartet: thematically deep, full of rich allusions to the previous books, while simultaneously forging ahead in terms of plot. As usual, Wolfe's writing is gorgeous. I find one pleasure to be had in his fiction is his ability to open and then close off thoughts with only a sentence; Wolfe has very little need for semicolons or em dashes. It's an efficiency in descriptive power more authors should strive for. The concluding adventure of Severian offers as many questions as it does answers. A cursory Google search will exhume countless theories and speculations on the part of the series' fans, demonstrating the lasting appeal of Wolfe's multifaceted enigma. I waver on pronouncing the books, especially this final volume, perfect or masterpieces: I suspect Wolfe's strategy was more of obfuscation than artistic exploration. I don't believe there are any concrete answers to be had, neither in critical analysis nor in the following 7 (!) books. Even recognizing the deffering stratagem at its heart, Wolfe's novel bears pleasurable fruit: the enjoyment of the prose, the complexity of the plot, the Catholic handwringing which seems to be a quality of some of my favourite art (Ulysses, Scorsese, etc). After all, what is Severian's trial at the centre of this novel but the individual's wrestle with guilt over sin? Perhaps the greatest accolade I can pay Wolfe's quartet and coda is while reading The Urth of the New Sun, I felt exhilarated and compelled to return to the first novel and relive it all anew. Though not perfect—Wolfe's treatment of women probably never improves, no matter how many tomes he produces—I'm still excited about diving deeper into the waters of the New Sun.

I read Phallos and A Taste of Honey the same day, pure coincidence, though they both resonated with each other. Both were fabulous, especially the Delany (rare is a work by Delany that isn't goddamn brilliant), and I eagerly appoint Wilson my writer to watch from now on.

I'm working on a longer essay for Zoe Whittall's The Best Kind of People. For now, let me say I enjoyed it immensely.

Thursday, November 10, 2016


As I write this at 3 am, November 10th, 2016, I wonder if the Internet really needs another #hottake about President-Elect Trump. But, like many things on this blog, I write for myself, I write for my mental health, my intellectual exercise, my desperate need to put into words the feelings I have about the world as I see it. 8 years ago, I wrote of Obama's win of the election: the promise of 4 years of change, the inspiration of the nation's first black President, the optimism of leaving behind the legacy of Bush. 8 years later, America reacted against this tide by electing a vile grotesque mockery of a statesman.

Thinking about blame: maybe we can lay some blame at the feet of liberals who needed to express the election in terms of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and other famous works of fantasy. Memes were shared comparing Trump to Sauron, Voldemort, Jabba the Hutt, and Emperor Palpatine, memes that dangerously reduced the complex mire of politics to the level of escapist fantasy. Maybe if political discourse had been expressed in real terms with context, social/historical/etc, and not fantasy, the import of this election would have been internalized by the populace. In other words, liberals infantilized by the culture industry who hold dear their nostalgia might have been coaxed into considering the repercussions of their actions, either their participation in the democratic system or their complicity in the media's softballing of Trump during this entire election. Adorno's culture industry has never been more relevant than this election: a reality tv figure, cushioned by preposterous amounts of privilege, elected to a powerful position, on the narrative of "outsider" and "anti-elitism" by dint of noisy distractions. SNL and Jimmy Fallon should be taking hard looks in the mirror for the next while. I exhort them to consider their part in the creation of this Frankenstein's Monster.

Perhaps even more blame can be imparted to liberals: in recent years, the Left has made itself inhospitable—to anybody. I've been repeating, as a mantra, as a salve for my mental health, the idea that "perfect is the enemy of good." We in the Left have been so busy eating each other alive, leaving not even the bones behind, of our allies, our friends, our leaders. Instead of learning together, we have been holding each other to these impossible standards where no perfect media figure exists and any misstep results in radical denunciation and ostracism. Recently, figures such as Lena Dunham, Matt McGorry, Amy Schumer, etc, have been excoriated for mistakes, either rightfully or wrongly. Schumer's transphobia is awful, yes, but is it irrevocable? McGorry's childlike optimism and enthusiasm has been met with eyerolling and scorn. Why? Why would we push away a straight white male with a platform when he can do some good? We vilify these media personalities for not reaching a bar that's all but impossible to meet though, I stress, they should be educated. We should be working together.

I've become alienated from the Left in recent years. The Left at the political level has been moving towards the centre for decades while, on the ground, the Left has been myopically enamoured of identity politics to the point of forgetting that even straight white men can oppressed on the axis of class. I've seen many politically moderate white men completely ignored or abused by the Left ("you can't have an opinion, your opinion doesn't matter, your presence here is unwelcome"); already feeling unmoored from any group, these are probably the young white men who ended up voting for Trump: "well, if the Left won't have me, it sounds like Trump will at least."

While I believe strenuously identity politics are vitally important, often life-saving (eg. Black Lives Matter, trans rights), I also believe we in the Left haven't been appreciative of how class oppresses us all. Disenfranchised straight white men need to be folded into the movement and made a part, not completely avoided or rejected. I cannot believe I'm writing in defence of straight white men; I practically choke on the idea; but this is more important than infighting amongst the Left. Feminism, we're instructed, is for everybody. We need to organize together. I'm not arguing for centring the movement on the desires and needs of white people; instead, I hope we can enfold white people's liberation into the goals of the Left.

I can predict a reaction to this piece: "another white dude, proclaiming the importance of white dudes" yet it is this very attitude that pushed moderates into the arms of Trump. It is this dismissive attitude, in part, that led to widespread feelings of alienation.

Though, not all blame can be levelled at liberals or the mainstream media. I would be needlessly repeating the good analysis and astute observation of countless pundits, so I'll skip that. In place of that, I might try expressing how scary this Trump win is. It's not so much the individual who won the mantle of President but rather the assemblage of a Republican House, a Republican Senate, and a robust infrastructure of thinkers and policy-makers with access to unfettered Executive powers. Trump is an easily bored blowhard but he will surround himself with like-minded politicians, lobbyists, associates, and others who understand the subtleties of bureaucracy and lawmaking. It's all of them combined that make this frightening, not the figurehead on his own. On top of all this, even if Trump is impeached, Mike Pence, an even more terrifying proposition, would ascend to the throne. In other words, this is scarier than we thought. It took over two hundred years to attain the meagre freedoms enjoyed today by marginalized people; it will take the Trump administration but a scant four years to dismantle all that hard work: Roe v Wade, LGBT rights, Obamacare, etc etc etc.

I'm frightened. And I'm resistant to the narrative that this is a "nightmare" or a "dream" or "Earth-2" or "the darkest timeline." I'm resistant to this narrative because if you were shocked that America could make such a disastrous move, then you weren't paying attention. This is the world that marginalized people live in every day and now we all see it. I'm additionally resistant to this "darkest timeline" nonsense for the same reasons why I vehemently reject comparisons to fantasy such as Harry Potter: if your understanding of politics hinges on reductive analogies to escapist fantasies, then I fear for your skills of analysis and observation and critical thinking. If your solutions to the problems posed by this political process make reference to superheroes such as Superman and Batman, then you are part of the problem. Solutions won't come from simplistic crypto-fascist fables of "might makes right." Instead, results can only come from hard work, political participation, education, and organization. This isn't a dream; this is the hand we are dealt. Now we must work together.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

October Reads

Off Season by Jack Ketchum
Flesh Gothic by Edward Lee
Floating Dragon by Peter Straub
The Light at the End by John Skipp and Craig Spector
Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Drawing Blood by Poppy Z. Brite
They Thirst by Robert McCammon

Though I had previously only read Straub's Ghost Story, I hold the author in high esteem; from his deceptively sophisticated prose to his baroque structure, Straub was probably dealt a bad hand in being thrown together with King and his ilk. Though, I wonder if the horror boom of the 80s provided Straub with both a blessing and a curse: blessed to be published so widely, cursed to stay in the horror genre for all time. Floating Dragon feels more like an over-the-top Stephen King 80s horror paperback, more in line with the 80s boom than the quiet unease of the superior Ghost Story. Likewise, Floating Dragon suffers from the bloat wrought by King. What should have been 400 pages balloons up to 600, even if it never drags, the novel should have been cut judiciously. The joy of reading this novel comes from the classic "small town figures (sometimes comical) meet their doom in gruesome and horrifying ways" which figures into many novels of this era (Salem's Lot being the best example). Straub devises uniquely devious methods for dispatching his cast, using a cornucopia of descriptors. One of my favourite moments of authorial murder comes at the hand of an obsequious old lady who literally screams herself to death (at the sight of the antagonist and something it's carrying). In other words, the death scenes, like the best horror media, are exquisite.

However, Straub's novel isn't simply a sequence of chiaroscuro Grande Guignol scenes of violence and murder. Using an unreliable narrator and a shifting timeframe, Floating Dragon mines historiographical themes. Like many works of horror in the classic mode, the past is mobilized against the present, with history being literalized as a ghost. What is history but a spectre that haunts us? Straub, thankfully, is more ambitious than the rest of the pack. Straub remembers sagely that the past isn't some objective concrete constant, but instead, like a game of Pick-Up Sticks, a jumble of lines piled on the ground, some purposefully placed while others more haphazardly. These lines stretching backwards intersect, run parallel, but all have power in their direction. Controlling the narrative of the past means controlling the narrative of the present. Straub plays in this space using the aforementioned unreliable narrator and some self-reflexivity in the narration. In other words, the seeds of his play with metafiction that began in Ghost Story continue here (reaching apotheosis in The Blue Rose Trilogy, I'm informed). At no point was I distracted or irritated by the metafiction as it was threaded through the novel's thematics. What is history but the self-reflection of those in power?

Floating Dragon, allegedly a send-off to the genre of horror, was extremely entertaining and a rare 80s horror boom paperback that aged with dignity.

Flesh Gothic was absurd. Imagine if the Clive Barker of the 80s maintained his juvenile interests, abandoned his poetic prose, his interests in the social fabric, and had nothing to say but lurid descriptions of the female form: thus born was Edward Lee's grim but readable novel Flesh Gothic. I certainly didn't hate this book; I read it in two or three sittings; but I certainly didn't like the novel—I tolerated it. The structure was similar to Jackson's impeccable The Haunting of Hill House but there the favourable comparisons end. I never really had a grasp on what Lee was trying to say or even do with the classic haunted house trappings. My suspicions are that Lee had ideas of shocking with transgression, but as a jaded consumer of horror and transgression, his attempts never raised my hackles. Still, he has a talent for imagery, even if that imagery is trite and borrowed from greater minds (eg Barker); many times the protagonists dream or astral-project into a room made entirely of breathing, sweating, gasping flesh—one wall features a mouth lasciviously whispering to anybody who will listen. 

Off Season intrigued me as fare such as The Hateful Eight and Green Room do: how, as a writer, do you maintain the single setting and how do you work your characters through the fire without boring the audience or resorting to cheap tricks. I knew going in that Ketchum wouldn't bother with the classic structure of slowly building tension. He introduces the clash between the two groups of protagonists and antagonists (respectively) at the halfway point and then follows through in minute and gory detail. I've read and seen some hardcore shit in my time as a reader of horror and Ketchum might be in the upper echelons of hardcore. It's not so much the clichéd threat of sexual violence (though I hear that's the bulk of his other lauded novel The Girl Next Door) but the sheer savagery of the physical violence he wreaks on his tiny cast. I was reminded a lot of (the superior) Green Room which wrought much violence upon its meagre troupe. The major difference is Green Room attempts characterization. Off Season has no interest in understanding its cannibals; the novel wants to revel in the nihilism of the situation, as the author himself gushes in the victory lap afterword. I was impressed by the ferocity of the novel, but Off Season doesn't have much to say other than "the universe is a cold bitch." I can get brutality anywhere. I want the brutality to at least mean something.

I really struggled with Heuvelt's much celebrated English début Hex. Boasting a spectacular premise, the novel at least distinguishes itself from the rest of 2010s horror by sheer uniqueness. The set-up: this small almost rural town has been cursed by a witch who still haunts them, but their ancestors have managed to chain the witch and sew her eyes and mouth shut, limiting her to wandering the town hoping somebody will free her. The town erects a sophisticated panopticon of surveillance using apps and cameras to track her movements to hide her presence from the outside world. Some teens begin messing with the witch, and then the novel starts its inexorable descent into the chaos and terror which characterize horror literature. Hex is working with some complex themes: the town's citizens must voluntarily submit to indoctrination into the rules and limits of this witch's power.  To disregard the power of the town (the State) is to submit to further indoctrination (imprisonment and conditioning) or in the case of a more dangerous violation, public flogging and/or execution. Similarly, the State empowers the citizens to watch each other on the pretence of surveilling the witch (the State furnishes free iPhones, all of which are programmed with key loggers). A cursory glance at the surface of the novel will reveal an interest in the much-trod territory of "we were the real monsters after all!", the kind well explored by Rod Serling's "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" and Stephen King's Needful Things among others. I'm not spoiling anything by revealing the town descends into self-inflicted chaos at the barest hint of the witch's true power. 

Where the novel loses me is in the aesthetics. I don't read horror fiction for superior prose, but it's always pleasant to stumble across a writer who can actually construct a pleasant assemblage of sounds and syllables. Heuvelt, or his translator, has the dullest ear for prose. Perhaps not as clunky as Dan Brown, Hex waddles corpulently with dull meandering sentences, none of which ever linger in the memory after the next sentence. This might sound harsh, but the prose and dialogue—oh god the dialogue—truly distract from Hex's very purposeful and intriguing project. On the same tack, the last third of the novel is tedious as all hell; the ending slots itself into place, forcing the reader to trudge through sub-Barker descriptions of horror and destruction before getting to where the reader has already divined the plot will go. Hex should have been 250 pages—maximum. In its current state, it's average in execution but superior in the abstract. If only the author's mechanical skills could have matched his brilliance in devising such a situation.

Horror critic S.l. Bagley (previously mentioned) posted on Facebook he had completed an interview with John Skipp. Coincidentally, this was posted the same day I had completed The Light at the End. I commented so, mentioned I thought it was supremely entertaining, save for the era's homophobia, and Skipp "liked" my comment. I wish he had responded to my mild rebuke so I could ask more questions: was it really a product of the time (New York in the 80s) or was there something happening Skipp might be more aware of now, with the benefit of hindsight and wisdom? Alas, he did not respond, leaving me to wonder why such a fun novel written in the "splatterpunk" mode was so casually homophobic (something Bagley warned me about before I had started reading it). I still think The Light at the End is entertaining; we can like problematic things after all.

I wrote of their later collaboration Animals: "I hadn't expected the narrative to care so much about its own characters." Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of this earlier work. Where Animals was a smaller character piece, The Light at the End is violent, nasty, and ultimately a meat grinder for its cast, all of whom are sketched in the most amateur of ways. The characters never really ascend from the page into the realm of the living. This could be an effect of either disinterest on the writers' part in their own characters or a mechanical inability to do so, something they would improve on with subsequent works. Still, horror literature still functions with cardboard characters and certainly The Light at the End still fascinates and entertains.

I was reminded a lot of Samuel R. Delany's Times Square Red Times Square Blue while reading Skipp and Spector's vampire novel. In his memoir, Delany posits the decay and filth of New York City helped create a vibrant and complex queer subculture (being out of sight allowed for its development) which was then criminalized and destroyed by gentrification. The Light at the End comes close to the beginning of gentrification: New York City is still an apocalyptic teeming metropolis, hungry and brutal, feeding on the weak (ie the poor and marginalized). Where Delany gestures towards white supremacy and heteronormativity as the culprits and beneficiaries of the demise of Times Square as a queer space, Skipp and Spector leave a glaring hole in their version of NYC's nastiness: the figure of power benefiting from the chaos is physically absent from the space (though psychically linked) and is never really shown to be an integral part of the narrative beyond its position as primum movens. Politically speaking, then, Skipp and Spector create a world in which a rich dude catalyses intra-community violence among the poor and marginalized, though this conclusion isn't forceful or coherent enough to be a pointed political critique.

What The Light at the End lacks in cogent opprobrium, it attempts to make up in pure attitude. Perhaps because I'm so temporally distant from the original splatterpunk, and mired in a cultural logic inspired by those brats, but the "punk" of Skipp and Spector didn't particularly impress me. Over at Too Much Horror Fiction, Will Errickson writes: "This is the kind of novel that wants to impress you with its attitude, casual and swaggering, and it might work if you were a teenager (like me) when you first read it." The novel expresses an interest in less famous folks such as bike messengers, cinephile nerds, and "gothy streetwise ladies" versus the typical patrician protagonist labourers of cops, doctors, lawyers, politicians etc. This might have been novel in 1986, but thirty years later, I wasn't stirred or roused beyond the usual frisson I feel reading horror. This isn't a slight against Skipp and Spector's efforts; instead, my lack of enthusiasm for the attitude speaks to their lasting influence to the point where I can be underwhelmed by the progenitors.

Speaking of marginalized folks, we have Drawing Blood by Poppy Z Brite (now Billy Martin). I wanted to like this, thought the prologue was stupendous, but the writing, the characters, even the mode of horror (a cyberspace chase? really???) were all so painfully earnest and 90s. Horror really struggled in the 90s and here's the perfect example of why: everything feels too blunted and forced in its attempt at disengaging with the popular mode that characterized the boom of the 80s. There's also the uncomfortable fact that while Brite may not have been aping Rice, Drawing Blood slots in perfectly into the "fetishizing gay white men for female consumption" that permeated the 90s and persists in fanfiction today. The two lead protagonists, while well drawn, felt like somebody's memory of what the 90s were like: painfully thin, pale, tight low rise pants, quirky affectations, and a boringly casual relationship to drugs. I loathe reading scenes of characters doing hallucinogenics and this novel had the most boring "tripping" scene I've read in a long time.

There's so much to like about the novel though: Brite's insatiable interest in the margins of society, both the characters and the literal limits of society; his eye for detail is exquisite, especially place (his New Orleans felt more real to me than any other depiction I'd ever read); the sheer inclusivity of the novel (nobody in the circle bats an eye; an old man thought to be homophobic and mean turns out to be wistful for when he had a queer romance). Plus, the prose was always a delight to read. I wouldn't mind reading more of his later work, but the subjects of those novels fail to spark my interest.

Like Errickson over at Too Much Horror Fiction, this blog has a strained relationship with Robert McCammon. I read Speaks the Nightbird (please don't read those reviews; my writing was awful) and his paean to the apocalypse Swan Song both eons ago. McCammon's horror has a severe problem: he's too much indebted to Stephen King. This could either be a product of the constraints of the 80s horror market or it could be the limits of McCammon's talents. I never bothered reviewing Swan Song but I remember it being pretty average and while I enjoyed Speaks the Nightbird, it's in a vein decidedly different than his earlier, career-defining work. Neither of them filled me with the unstoppable urge to continue reading his work. But that's not to say I didn't enjoy my time with McCammon.

I gobbled They Thirst over a few days, all the while, wondering what I would read next. I found myself in this zone of both enjoyment and impatience. On a sentence by sentence level, McCammon is satisfactory, finding elegant turns of phrase and gripping description. His characters have a semblance of life to them. Overall, the mechanics are there. They Thirst boasts some of my favourite tropes in horror fiction: the town disparately organizing themselves against an evil, Los Angeles, foreboding castles looming over urban locales, people dying in gruesome and interesting ways. There's even a fantastic long setpiece using a brutal supernatural sandstorm that shears skin off those unlucky enough to find themselves without shelter. On the other hand, McCammon does too much, stretching a 350-400 page novel to 565 pages: there are too many characters, too much setup, too much annoying doubt on the part of the cast. Though an admirable attempt at verisimilitude, having characters refuse to believe in the existence of vampires for so long is exhausting and distracting.

Likewise, as with Swan Song, the presence of King looms far greater than any castle could in this novel. They Thirst is a long mash-up of the vastly superior 'Salem's Lot and The Stand. Characters pulled from either book are thrown together to a changed setting of California, but without any sense of place. Part of what makes Los Angeles such an intriguing setting for fiction is the city's character; LA is unlike any other city on the planet. But They Thirst opts to plunk down these purloined characters in the city of angels without finding that sense of place. At least with King, his fictional towns of Castle Rock and Derry felt damn compelling because of his commitment to understanding the character of the place.

Yet, for all my complaints, I still read the book in a few days. It's entertaining, gory in the ways I like, and hums like a machine. Though McCammon may not set himself apart from the pack enough, he understands how narrative works. There's not a hair out of place in this maintained coif of fiction.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016


The last novel I finished reading was Necroscope III (which I didn't review, but I did review the second instalment) back in May(!). I watched a metric tonne of films and wrote about some of them. I chalked my lack of interest in reading as a focus in film, but I think there may have been something else going on with me. To wit: I drove home from the lake, a 2 hour drive, in the early evening, my eyes already a bit tired. It was on the highway, at night, that I realized my eyesight had deteriorated substantially, enough to cause alarm during night driving: I couldn't gauge the distance of oncoming traffic, road signs were impossible to read until too late, even the car's dash display was a bit out of focus. A mental block finally lifted; I couldn't see and I couldn't read. The culprit, guilty of depriving me my reading, wasn't a lack of focus but an inability to read the pages. Words swam and shifted when I read, making it almost impossible to concentrate. Slowly, the veil lifted from my mind, only to reveal that there was a veil over my eyes. I suspect I had repressed my deteriorating eyesight as a defence mechanism; I haven't been handling ageing very well, to be honest. Quickly, I realized that both my long distance and close-up eyesight had worsened considerably, an inconvenient truth I buried deep down. After all, my laser eye surgery was supposed to last longer than 10 years. Thus, I made an eye appointment and in the mean time, I took the plunge: I purchased glasses, a pair for distance and a pair for reading and lo! I could read again.

Here then, is a list of books I've read since July:
Planet Hong Kong: Popular Art and the Cinema of Entertainment by David Bordwell
Mise en Scène and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art by Adrian Martin
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson
The Girls by Emma Cline
Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett
Biohazard by Tim Curran
Last Days by Brian Evenson
Cthulhusattva: Tales of the Black Gnosis edited by Scott R. Jones
Singing with All My Skin and Bone by Sunny Moraine
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
The Warren by Brian Evenson
Animals by John Skipp and Craig Spector
Resonator: New Lovecraftian Tales from Beyond edited by Scott R. Jones
Gateways to Abomination: Collected Short Fiction by Matthew M. Bartlett
and finally, I finished Fungi edited by Orrin Grey and Silvia Moreno-Garcia

A clear pattern emerges: I am captivated by horror fiction right now. I've also still tried to include women identified authors and, by accident, a non-binary author who uses they/them pronouns (Moraine).

Here are some thoughts on the books I've read.

With Rebecca, I had expected a Gothic romance in the mode of Jane Eyre (one of my all time fav novels), perhaps not in style, but in plot and/or tone. I had inklings that Rebecca was a ghost story, or at least, a tricksy story about a haunting, either literal or figurative. I suppose I set myself up for disappointment by bringing a suitcase of presumptions. However, I can happily report that though the novel confounded all my conjecture, I enjoyed it immensely.

I had not realized how much of an influence on my beloved Sarah Waters did du Maurier have. The plotting in Rebecca and The Paying Guests, at least in how incident is accumulated, is mostly the same: no ellipsis, a steady onslaught of complication, and a methodical precision. The unnamed narrator of Rebecca only skips forward in time twice: during her honeymoon and during a short span before the great party that Manderley hosts that sets off the final third of the novel. Similarly, in The Paying Guests, the narrator only skips slightly in time with the two protagonists' love affair and with the trial at the end. Otherwise, every day, every incident is catalogued with monumental exactitude. Though, this is how suspense is built: the imbuing of the quotidian with narrative weight. The denouement, of which I'll say more in a bit, struck me as being most similar to Waters. The outcome is inevitable; it is the sinking desperation of the situation that compels the reader onward.

I adored the tone and atmosphere that du Maurier carefully builds. The prologue, with its famous opening sentence, sets up a more oneiric novel than the one produced, though this doesn't mean Rebecca is as straight forward as the plot suggests. The careful citation of dreams and memories does suggest an unreliable narrator, but whether or not there's a tangible counter-narrative, I can't say without reading the novel a second time.

What I didn't love was the final third of the novel, once Rebecca's body has been found. The unnamed narrator, previously an active witness, with opinions and thoughts, slips into a passive observer, with her presence in the narrative being inconsequential. She watches but does not act on anything, either narratively or literally. Similarly, this slip in her role mirrors the prose's slippage into a workman like dullness. I can appreciate the prose's simplicity in the final stretches as an attempt at increasing suspense (and it worked: I was determined to sprint to the end) but it was in reflection afterwards when I realized I much preferred the beginning and middle to the final third. Even still, I adored Rebecca and would definitely read it a second time to savour the prose.

The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps was an exquisite experience. It's the rare gay Black fantasy work, but not in the "checking off diversity" kind of way contemporary genre literature can tend towards. Rather, this novella uses Black experience to inform and affect the setting and the characters. Just as whiteness as epistemological field saturates fantasy literature without calling attention to its own race category, The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps features Black characters, speaking in various dialects (AAVE, traditional fantasy, etc) and code-shifting as the context changes. 2015 was a productive year for cultural objects investigating code-shifting, with Key & Peele's mixed bag Keanu and the continued rise of Kevin Hart and the sitcom Blackish. There is clearly a market for intelligent works by Black authors and there always was, but at least the mainstream is finally getting the memo. The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is also an exquisite fantasy novel, careful and subtle with its world-building, and wisely intense with characterization (much fantasy I've read has been a Dungeons and Dragons game peppered with shades of people). Wilson's command of character and prose is impeccable and I'm very interested to see the next work (set in the same universe) as this.

Oddly, the Goodreads reviews show a disturbing trend: many reviewers have found this novella difficult (one reviewer spoke of the author's tendency to "obscurantism"). I've said it before, but Goodreads as a community of book reviews is a packed post-apocalyptic metropolis of gifs masquerading as discourse and "celebrity" reviewers all with the depth of a thimble. The whole thing should be unceremoniously deposited into a rocket and sent into the deepest, coldest quadrants of the universe, figuratively of course.

I have such mixed feelings about Emma Cline's much-fêted début The Girls. While I loved the compelling and evocative depiction of "teenage magic," I found the narrator so off-putting I struggled mightily. I'm not one to normally really give a shit about the protagonist's likeability or whether or not they're relatable, but the narrator's unrelenting negativity and judgement of every single character wore on me. For sure, The Girls is meant to convey a sense of internalized misogyny, the rapacious compulsion for women identified folks to judge other women identified folks. It succeeds in this measure: I've heard from quite a few folks that Cline nails the internal monologue of a teen girl. Still, it's hardly pleasant to be subjected to this judgement for 300 pages. The narrator finds every single person pitiable. She judges them for their physical imperfections, their movement, their behaviour, their class. Nothing is spared. Though the narrator's position at the chronological end of the novel throws the novel's own judgement of her into question. In her 60s, the narrator is alone and without friends, forced by circumstances to mix with children and other lonely people. She claims she's happy with her life, but her solitude raises some questions unanswered by the novel: is she alone because she's truly unpleasant or did her time with the cult push her into solitude? On the whole, The Girls was an enjoyable read, but perhaps not as good as the reviews are making it seem.

Brissett's Elysium has an intriguing premise which is unfortunately spoiled by any information about the novel. It's best to go into this one completely blind, but unfortunately, that's just not possible.

Elysium introduces itself with two characters whose gender, age, social/economic position shift with each iteration/chapter/scene. The names are similar enough so the reader can follow, but many questions begin to emerge: who are these people? why are their identifies not stable? Chapter breaks occur with the appearance of code, machine language, suggesting there is an error in programming. The reader begins to clue in: this is a scenario being run by a corrupt program. The truth is more complicated and much more intriguing, but the journey to get there is still fun. As each sequence in the code is self-contained, it's difficult to muster allegiance to the characters; investing in their emotional journey is an almost impossible task, yet the novel's themes, its obsession with the "love across time and space" trope demands the reader to invest. Elysium, thus, is not entirely successful in its endeavours. While its ultimate solution to the mystery isn't as unique as one would hope, its execution is ambitious enough to smooth over any issues I had with the overall novel. Sometimes you just have to tip your cap at something audacious.

Biohazard by Tim Curran was my return to the horror writer after years being apart. I can't say I missed his company, but I was in the mood for something extremely gory and just overall extreme. Curran did not disappoint. I've not read many other novels so completely stuffed with the cavalcade of grotesqueries offered by Biohazard. Detailed descriptions of: corpses, in all manner of decomposition; violence; radiation sickness; violence; gore; violence—all awaits you in Curran's novel of extremes. I was not disappointed by the level of gore I had been hoping, nor was I disappointed by the preponderance of Conservative values the novel suggests. I know by now extreme shit like this is usually written by middle aged white dudes who vote Republican and espouse Conservative ideals: eg survivalism, inequality of the sexes, the dominance and ingrained hyper-competence of the white male. Biohazard is the assembled rantings and ravings of a 15 year old boy, complete with that sticky feeling the reader gets when gazing into the id of a teen. Still, it feels almost unfair of me to criticize Curran for this; I knew what I was getting into. He has made a (successful?) career of delivering this kind of horror fiction and thus there's a market for this. How can I begrudge him his success with such masturbatory fantasies? 

It was synchronicity for me to discover Brian Evenson. The bookstore I work in received copies of the reissues of his books, and any unified book design is sure to catch my eye. Thinking nothing of it, I passed on them. Fast forward a smidge, and I've befriend critic and author S.j. Bagley on Facebook. This was a mistake as they suggested so many great things to read, including Evenson. I dashed back to work to pick up Last Days only to find the copy had been placed on hold by a friend, who had coincidentally only heard of Evenson the previous week through a different avenue! Spooky. I simply borrowed my friend's copy and devoured it. Last Days is comprised of two novellas: the original novella published elsewhere and then a follow-up novella added so it could be sold as a single book.

This is one of the rare cases in my entire life where I wish I had stopped halfway. Not that the second novella is bad (in fact, it's quite good and takes an incredible detour into violence), it's that the end of the first novella is so damn good, perhaps one of the best endings I've ever read. I hesitate to say more about these two novellas (or one novel) as Evenson is operating at a wavelength I feel not intelligent enough to comment on. Evenson is clearly interested in some gems of critical theory and philosophy (the abject, just for one example) and I can sense he's playing with the ontology of selfhood, but I'm just not well-read enough in this realm to comment on Evenson's success or failure at suggesting these complicated themes. Luckily, the novel is more than philosophical propositions but also a propulsive and compelling narrative about cults, dismemberment, and what constitutes a human being. 

Cthulhusattva: Tales of the Black Gnosis features some great short fiction in the Lovecraftian vein, something I never seem to tire of, but more importantly, features one of the best single short stories I've ever read in my life. Stefanie Elrick's piece, "Mother's Nature" was revelatory. Rarely do I finish a piece and then immediately return to the beginning to savour it again. I felt obsessed with the story: I read excerpts to my partner, I read excerpts to friends, I posted about it on Facebook, I tweeted about it. I felt like I needed to deliver a sermon on the mount about Elrick's stupendous prose and careful suggestion of horror. A sample sentence: "Static shivered through the air, fondling the hairs on my scalp and my arms." UGHHH that's so good. The rest of the anthology offers some incredible delights: "We Three Kings" by Don Raymond was very successful at evoking a feeling of dread and horror (and wonder) in me, something a jaded cynical reader of horror such as myself feels so rarely. This was another Bagley suggestion and a successful one!

Sunny Moraine's Singing With All My Skin and Bone was amazing. Individual stories ranged from excellent to so-so, but as a collected whole, this book touched me in a way I hadn't expected. I've only recently come out as "gender creative" (a term that I'm not married to and am exploring other avenues) but I'm finding myself breathing all these moans of relief when I encounter something that beautifully depicts a similar relationship between the self and the body. Sunny Moraine's short stories have felt like the clearest signal I've heard in a long time that just *gets* the antagonistic relationship I have with my body. They (they use they pronouns, I checked) depict trans characters (but not in that showy "look how diverse I am" way) in Weird Fiction and horror, though the characters' gender expression isn't incidental nor is it "an issue" in the stories. Rather, their use of the fluidity of gender relates, thematically, to the slippery fluidity of reality, fiction, genre, and corporeality. It's been a long time since I read an author that seems to understand how I feel about my body: a decaying, strange prison of flesh that transmutes and changes with or without my consent (more often without). The eponymous story features fairly graphic descriptions of self-harm, but as a form of magic, a form of freedom, but without falling into the trope of "mental illness as exotic or special." With these stories, I seem to enjoy a cycle of emotion: shock, awe (at their prose proficiency), relief, and sometimes tears, tears that somebody understands me and my fucked up body.

I'm incredibly late to the party (57 years late) but The Haunting of Hill House was also revelatory. I was expecting a cosy haunted house narrative in the vein of M. R. James or Henry James but I was delighted to find it far from those masters, in a category all to Jackson's own. First of all, the prose and characterization was superb. Many how-to guides suggest avoiding adverbs, but thankfully Jackson eschewed that hoary canard. She has the power to pinpoint the absolute most perfect adverb for a sentence, taking the description from satisfactory to a realm of sublimity. I wish I had noticed sooner so I could have recorded them all, but one stands out: she describes a statue sitting "sternly" in the middle of a room. This is the type of prose I go gaga for: understated, meticulous, and precise.

The Haunting of Hill House isn't just the portrait of a master of prose but also a harrowing examination of the tremulous and permeable borders of sanity and subjectivity. I kept expecting a twist ending à la Blatty's Elsewhere, though Jackson avoids something so crass or obvious. Instead, she uses the much more effective strategy of suggesting the protagonist's subjectivity has blurred with the house's animus. The psychological complexity and depth of this novel astounded me. Hill House mines incredibly sophisticated territory of the self and of the mind, putting the novel squarely in the tradition of horror fiction while simultaneously forging new ground in suspense, tension, and questions of phenomenology/epistemology. I'm positively shocked I haven't read this before. I would place this novel firmly near the top of finest horror novels I've ever read and certainly the finest haunted house novel I've ever read.

Returning to Evenson, we have his slim novella The Warren, clocking in at only 100 pages or so. Here again, we have Evenson dabbling in complex matters of the self and the meanings of "person" and "human." The epigram notes the novel is "for" Gene Wolfe, which immediately prepared me for narrative trickery and unreliable goings-on. The Warren might try to do too much and too little at the same time, which didn't really diminish the experience for me. There is, of course, the Gene Wolfe-style obfuscation, the narrator's faulty memory and careful lying, but there's also meaty suggestions of a counter-narrative that's only ever hinted at, making the novella seem bigger than its length would suggest. At the same time, there are only two characters, with one character off-screen for the bulk of the novella, appearing at the beginning and at the end (very conveniently). Perhaps a third character might have livened up the middle section, which feels like a bit of a slog, to be honest, but this might off-set the thematic and subjective myopia of the entire thing. I quite liked this tiny volume and its secrets gnaw at me, asking me to reread it.

Skipp and Spector's Animals wasn't recommended to me, per se. Rather, my friend John remarked he had always wanted to read their work as it promised, in the 90s, to be the most extreme, goriest horror out there. Working firmly in the splatterpunk vein, Skipp and Spector wrote 5 novels together, all of which have a strong reputation in the splatterpunk horror scene. I chose their werewolf novel as my first go-around, a 400 page hunk of horror. My expectations were confounded, as they often were, but not in a negative way. I had expected something more in line with the "punk" epithet of the genre, but Animals was not punk in any way. Rather it's a conventional werewolf story with increased sex and a compassionate look at depression(!). I hadn't expected the narrative to care so much about its own characters. Even some of the more morally grey characters generate sympathy. Much of Animals is focused on fleshing out the three primary characters as they orbit around each other. Not much happens, really, save for intense characterization labour performed.

Similarly, and I'm sure this is unintentional, but Animals is also a sombre and sober critique of monogamy as an institution. The core narrative conflicts in the novel derive from monogamy as this oppressive controlling discourse, forcing characters to act according to how the system wants them to. As I said, I'm not sure this is intentional but it was fascinating. In terms of the rest of the novel, I found it enjoyable, enough that I ploughed through it in good time. I'm definitely going to read more from these two.

Resonator: New Lovecraftian Tales from Beyond, edited by Scott R. Jones (the same as the above Lovecraftian anthology), had many gems, but was a bit tough to read all in one go thanks to the unified theme of Lovecraft's Resonator machine. Each story stars a variation of the machine and a minute variation of the machine's effects. Some of the story use formal or structural trickery to stand out from the pack (the delectable "IPO" by Darrin Brightman) while others use generic signifiers but without any imagination or innovation (“Bug Zapper” by Richard Lee Byer—yawn). A handful were bonkers good: “Film Maudit” by Christopher Slatsk and "Programmed To Receive" by Orrin Grey, just to mention two. The whole anthology, while a bit same-y in the theme, gets an enthusiastic thumbs up due to the unique nature of the theme. Most Lovecraft works deploy the Old Ones and the rest of the menagerie while Resonator avoided any of the obvious names. I'm going to be keeping a close eye on both Scott R. Jones and Martian Migraine Press—I'm really impressed with what they've done so far.

Finally, Matthew M. Bartlett's Gateways to Abomination, a firm contender for one of the best works of short fiction I've ever read and perhaps one of the best works of horror I've ever read. I hesitate to dump too much praise on this slender work for fear of tumbling into the land of hyperbole, but I can't help myself. I want to proselytize for this to all. At first glance, a collection of short and flash fiction, Gateways slowly unfolds a more sinister and dreadful game: rather than a collection of discrete stories, Bartlett uses flash fiction to construct a fictional history of an area in New England under siege by a radio station broadcasting pure malevolence. To say any more would spoil the content—not surprises or twists, per se, but a holistic portrait of evil and fear. Very few books of horror have actually made me feel dread: Bartlett (who is also in the Resonator anthology up above) can rank with the true masters for his unnerving and completely unsettling work. This is truly one of the best books I've read all year and I will voraciously devour as much of his stuff as I can.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Locke & Key

I'm very lucky: I work at a bookstore and sometimes receive free stuff. Most of the freebies come in the form of advanced reading copies (eg. I received Alan Moore's Jerusalem and have barely made a dent) but sometimes the receiving department provides free damaged copies of booksbooks too bent or folded to sell, but too costly to return to the publisher. Recently, I was fortunate enough to get my hands on the slipcase box set of Locke and Key; it had been seemingly crushed from the top during transit or packing at the warehouse. The box broke slightly and the tops of each individual collection (six volumes) have been irrevocably bent. However, it's still readable and the receiving people were kind enough to give me the entire set. This was providential timing as I had been toying with purchasing the three hardcovers that collected the entire series. I read the comic on my laptop—in one long sitting—and it has stuck with me enough that I wouldn't mind owning the physical versions.

Locke and Key seems like it was designed with me in mind: a single artist in an unbroken run (I lose patience quickly when the artist changes during a run), a limited run (I can't handle ongoing titles), horror (obvs), and seemingly coherent in the whole. Luckily, Hill and Rodriguez pulled off a major feat with this title.

Reading it a second time made more obvious the tight construction of the entire narrative. The creators clearly imagined the story in its totality before constructing the narrative, or perhaps more helpfully, they had the entire fabula in mind before constructing the syuzhet. The fabula is very influenced by how Stephen King structures his stories. An overarching obsession in King's fiction could be articulated as "we may be through with the past, but the past is never through with us." Although, honestly, I could say the same mantra about any work of mainstream horror; after all, what is a ghost but a manifestation of the past? However, King's specific story constructions include the slow unveiling of past events as they impinge on the narrative's present. Say, for example, the history of the town of Derry in King's magnum opus It.

Similarly, in Locke and Key, Hill and Rodriguez control the flow of information about the past. The protagonists' father and friends acted in ways that reverberates into the present, as if they put the pieces in place for the present narrative to pick up. The fabula consists of the first generation moving the keys across the board followed by the second generation picking those keys up. The syuzhet has the creators teasingly trickle out information as it pertains to the relevant present day narrative. 

Over at Electric Literature, Jeff VanderMeer writes about knowing how and when to start and stop a narrative. He writes:
Once you get to the point where you have a sense of your story elements — the general situations, the impetus or driving force — you still have some decisions to make. You have the shape of your story — in this case, depicted as a lizard — but you still have decisions as to where you’re going to begin and where you’re going to end, not just the story but also your individual scenes. Where you end or begin your scenes is not only a question of pacing. It’s also a question of what’s right for the story you’re telling, for the kinds of characters that you’re using, and in the context of their unique characteristics.
His whole lecture is worth a read, even if it you might recoil at prescriptive writing lessons like I do. VanderMeer is articulating something that Hill and Rodriguez have clearly took to heart: knowing where and when to start the story and knowing when to deploy the oft-misused flashback. 

One of my favourite moments in Locke and Key comes around the beginning of the second act: Kinsey Locke, the middle child of the Locke family, finds herself and her friends in the Drowning Cave, a series of caves once used as a military installation. They are looking for some graffiti possibly made by her father when he was a teen. After a narrow escape from drowning, they leave the caves, only for the narrative to reveal that at the bottom of the caves, deep underwater and buried by tons of rocks, there lies the decaying corpse of a woman. It's not until 16 issues later that the creators reveal how that corpse got there and who it was. A reader knowing the full history of the story, the full fabula, will have picked up that the creators hint at this corpse's identity many issues earlier, even earlier than when Kinsey descends into the caves.

Mostly, the showing of the corpse works as foreshadowing, urging the reader onwards. The reader wonders at the identity of the cadaver and hopes that the narrative will show its hand. Additionally, the dead person works to heighten suspense, that the games with keys are anything but play and that whatever secrets the past holds, it includes death. In addition to this, the corpse hints at the level of craft involved with the construction of the syuzhet: it becomes apparent through the masterful control of exposition that the creators did not simply deposit a dead person into the narrative without already knowing how and why it got there. 

Locke and Key works for me in the same way that Alan Moore's narratives work for me: they are tight closed loops. Everything that is introduced at the beginning pays off by the end and the end validates and intensifies the work done by the beginning. What better example of the tightness of Moore's writing than pointing to the first meeting of the Crimebusters in Watchmen?

This scene is, without a doubt, the most important moment in the comic. Everything that happens in the syuzhet derives its impetus from this meeting. The characters assemble for the first time, Adrian gets the idea for the masterplan, Rorschach realizes the inefficacy of organized crime fighting, Dan begins to see Rorschach as insane (though the unhinged vigilante is vindicated in many ways), Jon notices Laurie, Laurie notices Jon (the beginning of their love is what convinces Jon to return to Earth after giving Laurie a chance to convince him), and most of these realizations come from their interactions with the key character and primum movens of the syuzhet, the Comedian. 

Moore and Gibbons revisit the scene two or three times, only though in single panels, to convey the importance of this sequence. It's not until the end of the series that the reader realizes how pivotal this moment is for the entire cast. 

Locke and Key features many moments of this type of construction: where and when keys are placed, lines of dialogue echo across the gulf of years, images reverberate, shiver and vibrate with meaning only after the fact. Tyler Locke, sitting around with Sam Lesser, asks Sam to kill his dad in a brief unthinking joke. This moment is revisited multiple times in multiple ways to underscore the theme of guilt (Tyler and his father Rendell suffer from their guilt, whether misplaced or true) and to underscore the theme of manipulation (Lesser has been convinced by the ghost of Dodge to do this, though Tyler thinks it was he that planted the idea in Lesser's head). Hill and Rodriguez bring up this moment maybe three or four times, each iteration working towards the complex tapestry of thematics that made Locke and Key the strong work it is.

Though, the series isn't perfect. There are multiple instances of well-meaning liberal ignorance, a trait Hill came by honestly from his famous father. There's the key that switches the race of the holder, from white to black and vice versa. It's used in only one issue but the creators stumble badly, making blunt, didactic gestures towards the complex subject of race, an almost irreducible part of American life. There's also the gender key, which is really only used for the syuzhet to obfuscate Dodge's true identity (his actual, in-story motive for using it is fairly empty and unthinking). Unfortunately, in a similar well-meaning but boneheaded move, the creators use the gender bending key to a) stress the binary of gender and b) imply that sexual orientation is tied to gender expression. As a young child, Duncan, Rendell Locke's younger brother, is dismissed a few times by other characters as the kid who likes to become a girl. Of course, the character who likes playing as a girl is the only gay member of the family. Ugh. Again, it's the best intentions of the creators to be progressive and liberal, but it has all the nuance and complexity of a brick falling on the reader's head. Moreover, it's simply wrongheaded.

Still, I love Locke and Key and consider it one of the best comic book series of the 21st century. Even with its faults and its wonky characterization (Tyler Locke never really emerges as anything but a blank slate, a boring white dude with nothing particularly interesting about him; the Spider Jerusalem analogue is irritating and tryhard), I think the series is beautifully constructed and endlessly recompensing. Few narratives reward a second reading; Locke and Key does so admirably.