Wednesday, October 12, 2016

July-August-September

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.

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