Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Cold Hand in Mine

by Robert Aickman

as far as my love for genre fiction goes, college did a number on me and for many years i scorned my old high school loves of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. silly me; i'm glad i came back to my senses. during college, only a couple authors escaped my new-found scorn - one of them being the amazing Robert Aickman. pre-college, i enjoyed his sinister tales of uncertain, indescribable menace. in college, i found to my surprise that Aickman was a literary horror writer, and both my snobby new self and my buried-deep genre-lover rejoiced. i could appreciate him with a complete absence of guilt; if my postmodern buddies happened to notice his books on my shelf, i could defend him with ease. his stories were multi-leveled: they existed as menacing tales of horror - but they were also ambiguous, psychologically adept metaphors and analogies for life in all of its strange, unsettling complexity. nowadays, snob years long behind me, i enjoy him for both his literariness and his ability to weave a scary tale filled with dread.

but it is that literariness that really sets him apart. if you are a reader who wants your horrors to be straight-up and visceral, look elsewhere. Aickman crafted stories that are elegantly written, slow-moving, rich in nuance and detail, short on blood and shocks. he crafts - simultaneously - old-fashioned, shivery ghost stories and subtle, cerebral tales that muse on our fears and uncertainties. he is the obvious antecedent of Thomas Ligotti.

The Swords could be about a sadly inhuman and monstrous marionette who plies her abilities in tawdry sideshows and in the sex trade. it could also be about the fear of sex, the literal commodification of flesh, the dehumanization of women.

Cold Hand in MineThe Real Road to Church could be about a lonely woman who purchases a home that lives on the path of the dead. it could also be about a life lived without living - and a second chance, a chance to reinvent that life, and live.

Niemandswasser could be about a haunted lake. it could also be about the decadence and emptiness of aristocratic life, a shallowness so complete that it almost assumes its own kind of sad, meaningful depth.

The Hospice could be about a comforting retreat - comforting as the womb, comforting as the grave - in which our predictability-loving hero finds himself terrifyingly ensconced. it could also be about the logical end result of such predictability, a hell that pretends to be heaven.

The Same Dog could be about a vicious animal, perhaps even a kind of were-beast, one that takes captive our protoganist's first love. it could also be a literalization of how paths part, about how life moves us apart, how time changes everything, always.

Meeting Mr. Millar could be about a residence haunted by a living ghost and by a company of beings whose terrible motives remain tantalizingly beyond reach. it could also be about, well, growing up - learning that life is full of terrible things that we will never truly understand.

The Clock Watcher could be about a strange bride, a loving cipher whose existence seems to rely on her enslavement to the many ticking little cuckoo clocks that are brought into her home. or it could be a mordantly comic parody of the supposedly uber-efficient German character. it could also be about the deep gaps that exist between us all, in marriage, in our own understanding of the people around us.

so if you are new to Aickman, don't come to him expecting easy answers. expect to have to think about the purpose and meaning of why you are being supplied certain details, why stories are being framed in a certain way. Aickman does follow the traditional format of horror short fiction. a few pages are devoted to developing the story's protagonist, perhaps more pages than is typical. then the disturbing ambiguity begins, the horror unfolds... and then the tale ends. Aickman endings usually have little resolution and are almost always without an explicit explanation of what the reader has just experienced. that lack of explication is a hallmark of Aickman's style. but just as important are all of the details, important or seemingly incidental, the offbeat bits of dialogue, the disconcerting moments when the reader learns something that seems to come out of nowhere but yet somehow fits into the theme of the story being told.

i'll use "The Swords" as an example. the narrator, an impressionable traveling salesman, starts his narrative with an off-putting but perhaps often true generalization on the nature of sex, the first time, and all subsequent times. but then there is much odd detailing of the mysterious flophouses that the narrator must stay at, places he's led to by an ambiguous uncle, places teeming with squalid sexuality. these flophouses actually have nothing to do with the horror itself. later, there is a creepy conversation with a shop owner, who practically drools at the prospect of the young man before him having sex - he wants details, he wants it described to him. again, this conversation has nothing to do with the thrust of the narrative. and yet both the flophouses and the conversation have everything to do with what i think the story is about; they are there to further illustrate the story's implicit meaning. although they have little narrative purpose, they are still all of a piece. mysterious events are continuously detailed that have little internal logic but which make perfect thematic sense.

a last word on the story Pages from a Young Girl's Journal. this is in many ways an atypical Aickman tale - a journal account of a young lady's travels abroad, encountering a mysterious stranger, embracing his vampiric nature, becoming something new and terrible. the story's horrors are clearly delineated; the reader is made to understand exactly what is happening. it definitely shows that if Aickman had been of a mind to write straightforward horror, he could accomplish that in spades. it also illustrates a key strength: Aickman's skill at establishing a character. throughout all of his stories, i was continually impressed by how each protagonist was uniquely differentiated and by the depth of their characterization. they lived and breathed. but back to "Pages". although this was my favorite story of Cold Hand in Mine, i'm glad that this was not the direction that Aickman chose to go in most of his tales. i like the uncertain resolution, the creeping ambiguity. it is a pleasure not having things explained, to have to figure things out on my own. i love being able to approach his stories on whichever level i choose.

____________________

musical accompaniment

Sigur Ros: ()
Andrea Parker: Kiss My Arp


Monday, April 29, 2013

The Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

by Clive Barker

based upon the evidence of Books of Blood 1-3, Clive Barker sprung into the literary horror world fully-formed, a writer all grown up, already past the awkward growing pains of an adolescent period that other writers of his stature and widespread appeal suffered through before reaching their full powers. his ability to construct and sustain an intriguing narrative, his resonant themes, his stylistic flourishes, his use of irony and dread and gore and comedy, his strength at detailing truly real and deeply developed characters' lives, his expertise at creating an entire world within the space of a story... these are all the traits of an author writing at his peak, and so early in his career.

Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3the stories within these collections are truly sensational: their power comes from his consistent strength at conveying sensual, physical sensation. this is not to mean that he writes sexy horror stories; rather, he is a writer who knows how to write "body-based horror". in many ways, these stories parallel the themes and goals of the films of David Cronenberg - the body as something alien, the body as a sacred space, the body as a target or vehicle or ideal, the body turning against itself.

Peter Straub - an intellectual writer - locates his horrors within the mind: a place of murky motivation and potential evil, a site of invasion and transformation; his horrors are often as ambiguous and as ambivalent as mindspace itself. Stephen King - an emotional writer - places his horrors in scenarios that are wellsprings of sentiment and feeling, often squarely within the family unit or painful adolescence or the various dreams and ambitions of the heart itself; his horrors are often explicitly tangible things that exist to tear apart humanity's most beloved institutions. unlike those two, Barker's horrors are centered in the body as a battleground, a place where the mind and the heart are often at war. his horrors blur the boundaries of right and wrong; the various transfigurations that occur throughout his stories are often so dreadful because they are both unnervingly ambiguous and disturbingly familiar, intimate on a physical level - and in the end, almost infinitely unknowable. his bodies are places of both terror and wonder.

Barker illustrates how the body can be a site of fearsome splendor and violence in the collection's first story: The Book of Blood, in which a fraud's appealing body exists first as a landscape encouraging erotic contemplation and then as a horrific diary of the dead. in the masterful Dread, a psychopathic guru lives to sadistically push his trainees past their base physical fears, and eventually meets his match in a student who has learned his lessons all too well. the horror of Jacqueline Ess comes from the terrifying protagonist's ability to wield utter control of the body itself. New Murders in the Rue Morgue revisits the classic story with a new (and rather sympathetic) focus on the idea of what truly, physically, makes a man? and in Confessions of a (Pornographer's) Shroud, the story serves as both an ironic commentary on pornography's rigorous mono-focus on body parts and as a clever rejoinder to the idea that a meat-based body is even necessary to create horror - let alone to enact bloody vengeance.

the author's themes remain intact and even more visceral in those stories that are straight-up, traditionally structured servings of familiar, monster-based horror. The Midnight Meat Train features ancient, physically mortified beings who must be paid their due in flesh and has a classic "ambiguous" protagonist who finds his goals in life may soon be adjusted in favor of a more transformative purpose. Pig Blood Blues is wonderfully bizarre (its malevolent foil... a demonic sow!) and explicitly depicts potential physical change and transformation as an undeniable terminus for its victims, villains, and hero alike. and the now-classic Rawhead Rex has a monster whose mind dreams of domination and whose physical body yearns for both freedom and the flesh of children; his achilles' heel, his personal horror... the fertile woman, the menstrual cycle.

Barker can also do comedy with an expert touch. The Yattering and the Jack is laugh-out-loud funny, a wry tale of a lower-level demon vs. The Most Boring Man in the World, a man who apparently has no terrors or temptations based in the flesh or other physical things. the quaintly nostalgic and drily amusing Sex, Death and Starshine sees the decay of the flesh and a rotting life existing beyond the grave as, well, not so bad, really.

there are a few stories that are less successful, although they are by no means abortions. Hell's Event - Deadliest Marathon Ever! the entire world is at stake! - centers its horror within a runner's body. Son of Celluloid finds a lonely cancerous growth making its own body and invading a fading movie palace. Scape-Goats' horrors rise from the undisposed corpses of the long-dead and their reaction to a quartet of obnoxious tourists who obliviously pay their bodies no respect.

there are three stories that are now amongst the finest modern horror stories that i've ever had the pleasure of reading.

Books of Blood Volumes 1 - 3The Skins of the Fathers is an often amusing send-up of gun-toting hick americana. more importantly, in its unsettling tale of the male gender's First Fathers and their practice of holy/unholy procreation, it decribes not-so-alien physiognomies in detail - but makes the key decision to replace disgust with awe, to replace the Terrible Other with Ancient Adam (and his many brothers).

Human Remains is a mordant and moody story of the escalating relationship between a street hustler/ wannabe gigolo and a being that seeks to not just mimic (and protect) that hustler's body, but also endeavors to recreate that poor fool's history into a life that contains emotional depth - rather than a life of empty ambition, callowness, and apathy.

my favorite story of all 3 books is In the Hills, the Cities. this is a truly awesome tale, in all sense of the word "awesome"... a mind-boggling, bizarre, many-leveled account of two very different travelers and lovers, of two very similar rural villages, of an archaic tradition that replaces a many-bodied battle with two very unique bodies, of bodies coming together to create something greater, something terrible - something that the two travelers choose to either turn away from in horror or to embrace as a new form of physical being. the story is amazing.

__________

musical accompaniment

Coil: Gold Is the Metal, Hellraiser Themes
DJ Spooky: Songs of a Dead Dreamer


Sunday, April 28, 2013

The King in Yellow and Other Stories

by Robert W. Chambers

5 Stars for the wonderful opening story "The Repairer of Reputations".

The King in Yellowalthough i wonder if 'wonderful' is the correct word. after all, this is a story that opens with a bizarre, sometimes dire alterna-history leading up to a 1920s America that features public "Lethal Chambers" where the dispirited meet their final destination as on-lookers gather to contemplate this terminal disportment. and after this bit of surprising strangeness, the reader is plunged right into the mind of a classic Unreliable Narrator (the poor lad struck his head after a fall from a horse and was never quite the same again), complete with insanely grandiose ambitions and malicious thoughts of revenge and devious yet doltish plans for his enemies - who are everywhere, simply everywhere! with the added bonuses of the creepy title character, various books of ill repute, and some surreal shenanigans starring a peculiarly malevolent cat. all in all, it is a bracing and imaginative bit of darkness on the page. and, to me at least, quite wonderful. the style is so breezy, the pacing so brisk, the imagination so fertile and so oddly modern, the experience was pure pleasure. it is hard to believe that this story was written over a 100 years ago.

i also enjoyed the three tales of weird horror that followed. they did the job, and they did it right. interesting and off-kilter and pleasingly sinister - but perhaps nothing to write home about. the big take-away is the idea of a monstrous play ("The King in Yellow") that horribly impacts anyone who dares read it, and which is a key element in each of the first four stories.

here's an excerpt from said monstrous play (please don't kill yourself or anyone else after reading):

The King in YellowCamilla: You, sir, should unmask.
Stranger: Indeed?
Cassilda:
Indeed it's time. We have all laid aside disguise but you.

Stranger: I wear no mask.
Camilla: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!

 if you are at all familiar with this author or classic Weird Fiction in general, then you know the drill. those first four stories (along with Ambrose Bierce's "An Inhabitant of Carcosa") set the template for much Weird Fiction to come, from H.P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith to Karl Edward Wagner and beyond. the names, the places, the idea of fell books of unhealthy influence, creeping dread, hysterical romanticism, humans viewed as repulsive insects... this story-cycle's place at the beginning of it all is well-known.

it is also a well-known disappointment. only those first four could be classified as Weird Fiction. a fifth, "The Demoiselle d'Ys", is an elegant, wispy ghost story/romance - and is also quite traditional. following that is "The Prophet's Paradise" - a collection of bits of ambiguous prose poetry, or impenetrable fable, or snatches from a larger tapestry never completed, or something.

The King in Yellow and Other Horror Storiesthe remaining four tales (each fancifully titled after certain streets) have barely a whiff of horror about them and so have met a chilly reception over the years from Weird Fiction enthusiasts. they are all about living the lifestyle of a bohemian art student abroad in bohemian Paris' bohemian Latin Quarter. think Trilby minus Svengali. they are about romance, art, naive americans, lack of money, enticing but sometimes tragic whores, some bloodshed (at least in one story), a sad and lonely ending (in another story), some unbearable lightness of being... what it feels like to be young and artistic and ready to enjoy life in a bustling and sometimes violent big city. these stories were slim, rather quaint, rather witty, and quite vibrant. i particularly enjoyed "The Street of the First Shell", which plunges the reader into a you-are-there-now account of the milieu itself and then what it feels like to suddenly find yourself in the middle of a bloody, confusing battle full of chaos, terror, and death.

overall this is an unusual and surprisingly quirky collection of stories. none of them were failures, all of them were interesting, and a couple really sang.

 

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Wendigo

by Algernon Blackwood

a rainy, windy, chilly night with nothing to do but gaze lovingly at my overly full bookcases. so why not reread one of my favorite classic horror novellas? this one is about, wait for it, The Wendigo and its prey du jour (du nuit?) - some hunters and their guides. but is the story really about this so-called "wendigo" or whatever... or is it more concerned with the awful beauty of uncharted nature - its allure and its dangers? knowing the author, probably the latter.

The Wendigothird time down, the tale is still flavorful to the taste. Blackwood clearly loves the natural world. he knows how to write about the deep dark woods and lakes and the wind and the sounds you hear around a campfire. or better yet, the sounds you hear when no one is awake around you as you lay huddled in your tent with a sleeping buddy. or perhaps even all on your lonesome, your nervous and don't-want-to-admit-you're-scared lonesome. he can write about wonder and terror all at once. he paints a mighty attractive picture of the great outdoors. makes me want to go camping! all by myself!
the wendigo itself is marvelously obscure - an ambiguous monster that flies through the trees, creeps upon sleepers, that somehow knows them, takes them on a terrible journey, transforms itself and its victims, perhaps even releases them. this is no tacky bugaboo - it is a mythic, unexplainable creature. listen to the cry of its victim:
 
"Oh, oh! My feet of fire! My burning feet of fire!
Oh, oh! This height and fiery speed!"

although this is mainly a straightforward tale of horror, Blackwood's obsession with Transformation remains intact. he has a thing for it, the idea of moving beyond ourselves and this finite mortal coil, and the many variations of transformation have been at the heart of nearly everything i've read by him. often it is a source of a bizarre kind of epiphany. in The Wendigo, transformation equals terror. but an awe-inspiring kind of terror, unknowable and indescribable. a wilderness forever uncharted by prosaic humans. makes me not want to go camping.

The Boats of the 'Glen Carrig'

by William Hope Hodgson

The Boats of the 'Glen Carrig'A creepy travelogue set in 1757, following a diminishing group of men through alien waters after the foundering of the title ship. hey, do you want some giant sea squid, terrifying sounds in the night including some heavy breathing and light shrieking, trees that ooze blood and display tormented human faces, horrible slug-like 'weed men', squirmy flappy tentacled stinging biting things etc? you got it. you want a survival story that has a nuts-n-bolts approach to dealing with clean water, food, repairing a boat, making a fire, all those basic details of an adventure tale? you got that too. hey, do you want a brave & kind & loyal & stronger & smarter than anyone around him type supporting character as your blue collar The Real Hero? with this novella, you get a grade A specimen of the type, free of charge. (oh noble unnamed bo'sun, you rock the house!)

William Hope Hodgson is one of the senior members of the classic Weird Fiction crew, and yet he gets less love than melodramatic Lovecraft or the arch & ironic Clark Ashton Smith. unlike Lovecraft, he knows how to restrain himself. his style is wonderfully archaic but he rarely goes over the top and is able to capably conjure up an atmosphere of creeping dread without getting all hysterical about it. he's no Lovecraftian drama queen (don't get me wrong, i love Lovecraft). and unlike CAS, he doesn't seem interested in being witty or using sardonic drollness to create a kind of ironic distance from his horrorscapes (don't get me wrong, i love CAS the most of the Weird writers). Hodgson is rather dry, very sincere, practically humorless, and despite the palpable horrors of Boats, there is a kind of naturalist-slash-spiritual side to him that makes this tale particularly convincing. of all the Weird writers, i would say that his closest brother would be Algernon Blackwood.

4 stars for the first two-thirds, which is expertly written and wonderfully dark and atmospheric. unfortunately, 2 stars for the last third, where a very annoying second boat is found, full of annoying people, and worst of all, The Tender & Brave Romantic Interest. that last third brings out the worst in both Hodgson and the narrator. on the one hand, we have endless descriptions of ropes & kites & repairing ships & oh yawn i'm falling asleep again. on the other hand, we have a narrator who suddenly embodies the most cloying aspects of Victorian culture (although, to be precise, the narrative actually takes place in the Georgian era) and who plunges into a particularly labored and trite romantic affair. it's like being forced to sit in Great Aunt Hortensia's stuffy, musty, doily-shrouded parlour and listening to her endless and microscopic descriptions of the Victorian Mating Ritual. especially irritating when i came over to visit Grandfather Jedediah and listen to some of his eerie ghost stories. get away Aunt Hortensia, your stories make me a little nauseous. and your tea is too sickly sweet.

this was my first audiobook and i have to say that i didn't enjoy the experience. i have a couple more on my ipod so i will try again; hopefully this will turn out to be an anomaly. the narrator was as monotone as they come and the sinister, atonal sound effects & music - although suitably unnerving at first - eventually became wearying (although they did add a delightfully macabre quality to the saccharine romance). but worst of all was my inability to go back, reread, and so further enjoy all the glorious WORDS ON THE PAGE. it was frustrating and it made the experience so much less immersive.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Blood Crazy

by Simon Clark

Blood Crazyit seems as if this quasi-young adult, sorta post-apocalyptic, kinda zombie-horror, new-fangled Lord of the Flies type novel published in 1995 is somewhat of a cult classic. i think it completely deserves that status and wish it were even more well-known. i have rarely seen it referenced, but given how it straddles different sorts of subgenres, i suppose that is understandable. still, it deserves more attention. at the very least, if you are a fan of any of those subgenres i mentioned, this should be considered as particularly interesting reading material.

one day in April, 17-year old Nick Aten ("yeah, it rhymes with Satan") learns to his extreme surprise and displeasure that everyone age 20 and over has had their mind switched over to something more sinister, more herd-like. in essence, adults have become bloodthirsty, zombie-like beings with minimal intelligence and whose main priority appears to be to capture and quickly, brutally, horribly kill their own children. lesser priorities for these transformed adults is the killing of any other children that may cross their path and the building of odd geometric patterns that they form out of their children's belongings, their children's bodies, and their own dying bodies as well. but above all, their main mission remains to kill their own kids - to the point of tracking them down and hunting them with some kind of uncanny homing instinct. 

Nick starts out in a kind of state of shock (rather understandable) but quickly learns to survive, picking up and protecting a few fellow kids on the way, including the obligatory love interest. he is an amiable and amusingly laddish protagonist: recently graduated, with some skills in the fixing of cars, but whose main priorities in life are hanging out, drinking lots of beer, contemplating girls, and planning further engagements with his ongoing rival Tug Slatter within their suburb of Doncaster. the first quarter of the book details Nick & company's sometimes panicky, sometimes steady-handed attempts to drive around and figure things out. the rest of the novel becomes a study in contrasting ways to build communities, as Nick finds himself an increasingly important part of several different kid communes, each of which has reacted to the global disaster in different ways.

the writing is plain, unadorned, at times crude. Clark's greatest skill may be in simply making this all seem real - i did not have to carefully suspend disbelief to enjoy it. despite the atrocities being committed and the horrible ways that kids die, this is not the kind of novel that goes into graphic detail about those kinds of things - visceral, splattery horror elements are rather slight; brief descriptions are the norm. sadistic and rape-y behavior from some particularly bad kids are noted and reacted against by the young heroes, but they are not dwelt upon by the author in a leering way. mainly Blood Crazy is a fast-paced page-turner, one of those books that you may find yourself skipping ahead a bit to see if any characters die or if anything especially terrible will happen next, if you are the sort of reader who worries about that kind of thing (i certainly am).

the explanation of why this is all happened to the adults is, for me, what lifts this novel into 4-star material. there is a rather mind-blowing rationale for it all, one that includes the idea that God is simply a projection of our unconscious, in some ways a Jungian symbol that we are all genetically predisposed to believe in. i did not expect to read that in this book! the explanation/revelation occurs during an info-dump that is over 25 pages long. from reviews i've read, this sequence is intolerable to many readers. Clark does try to tart up the dryness of this passage by having it delivered during a sexy massage ("Now turn over, I'll do your front"..."You know I'm getting as much pleasure from this as you are") by a sweet young lady who had just spent the previous few days drugging up our hero and pretty much raping him night after night (upon learning this, Nick is at first irritated but then basically shrugs it off - he has bigger things to worry about). this sequence was completely absorbing. so was the entire book.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Dead Sea

by Tim Curran

this is a big, meaty slice of steaming cthulhu-horror goodness. somewhere near the sargasso sea, a sinister fog envelopes a ship, its crew, and an often ostentatiously manly group of contractors... and deposits them in some horrible other-dimension. this new world is just that: "new", in the sense of a world that is pretty much a primal soup of creeping crawling flapping flying swimming life, almost completely fog-shroud, land nowhere in sight.

Dead Sea"He likened that sea to a petri dish, warm and wet and clogged with organic profusion, a metabolic medium, a fluidic slush of life and death and potential."

potential, indeed! the survivors of the soon-to-be-sinking ship are confronted with a host of typical denizens of a fetid Cambrian (and i suppose pre-Cambrian) world. that equals danger. the survivors also have to deal with each other, which is basically no problem, except for one seriously demented, paranoid, knife-happy asshole who suffers from an increasingly grotesque infection. that equals more danger. then there are the assorted horrid and often soul-sucking supernatural and alien presences, perhaps likewise trapped in this dimension, often making their homes in the various stranded wrecks littering this evil-soup planet. that equals danger times 10. and then of course there is the cthulhic deity that also calls this place home, comfortable with manipulating minds from afar but also happy to breathe nuclear chaos on any unfortunates in its path. that equals danger times infinity!

the novel is all of a piece. it is all wall-to-wall horror, men stuck with each other on a foreign and hostile world, being picked off one by one, basically trapped in a dimension of terror that feels like the biggest, swampiest haunted house of them all. Dead Sea does not let up. although there are moments of more gentle emotions as various men briefly flash back to their normal lives, and occasionally bond with each other, there is a distinct lack of sentimentality and corniness. there are many lengthy sequences where the men are just sitting in their various boats and are basically shell-shocked by their situation... these frequent bits skirted monotony, but were also essential to the plot and atmosphere. when the horrors do arrive - which is fairly regularly - they come fast and furious, grisly and literally gut-wrenching. the creativity in differentiating the horrors from each other is impressive... Curran's imagination is as bizarre, monstrous, and full of disgustingly primal life as the "dead" sea itself.

also, i was scared. i'm not usually scared by too many horror novels. maybe i'm jaded or maybe i'm just unimaginative or maybe the horrors of real life are enough to scare me. who knows. but Dead Sea was unusual for me in that it was a genuinely scary experience. kudos!

the main flaw of the novel is a certain tendency towards overwriting. nowhere near enough for me to sneer at, and a lot of it is clearly in homage to Lovecraft's signature purple prose. the main offense, and boy does it happen often, is Curran's annoying tendency to try to create some kind of effect by isolating a trying-to-be-impactful sentence.

you know, like this.

see, i'm making a point here.

it gets a little obvious at times.

anyway, that caveat aside, this is great stuff if you love horror. it may lack the resonance of classier and/or more transcendent pieces of horror fiction... but it really delivers when it comes to setting up an atmosphere filled with dread and fear, and then following through with shuddery, visceral, no-brakes horror.

_________________________

musical accompaniment

PGR: The Chemical Bride
Chrome: Into the Eyes of the Zombie King
Thessalonians: Soulcraft


Monday, April 22, 2013

ROBERT DUNBAR

THE PINES

The PinesDunbar takes the slow route to get to his horror and i appreciate it! the writing is bleak, cold-eyed yet haunting, evocative - a kind of southern gothic set in the new jersey pine barrens. most characters are portrayed as human insects of three varieties - predatory, on a sad downward spiral, or both. when positive human emotions and interactions come to the forefront, its almost as if a great battle has been won to allow those rays of humanity their brief moments... the smallest positive gestures become almost profound when set against a backdrop of such unrelenting darkness. the supernatural element is handled with a very careful touch. some great, scary set pieces, particularly the trailer attack and the climax. of course the real horrors in this novel are the living conditions portrayed and the basic (and nauseating) callowness of most of the characters. overall this is an excellent and well-written horror novel with none of the cheesiness of other Leisure titles and i'm surprised it's not better known. perhaps this is due to the slowly unwinding narrative; although i found it to be quite gripping, the reader interested in a visceral rollercoaster will no doubt grow impatient. for me, the slow unwinding is part of what sets this novel firmly in the literary horror tradition - the richness of the language and murkiness of what is exactly occurring makes the experience a pleasantly challenging one. Dunbar clearly knows how to write traditional, "modern" horror (as presented during the opening sequence and, most effectively, in the disturbing bits involving a a doomed camping trip)...and just as clearly he has set his sights higher.

***

THE SHORE

The ShoreDunbar's follow-up to The Pines is a satisfying experience. it seems as if the many years between novels has served to intensify rather than decrease his disinterest in presenting traditional horror thrills, and this novel is if anything even more challenging to the reader expecting a simple, scary narrative. straightforward suspense is still available: during the prologue (The Pines contains a similarly suspense filled teaser) and in particular during a very entertaining sequence in which a classic sociopath toys with an equally classic foe - a haughty psychoanalyst. but that's pretty much it - the rest of the novel is for fully engaged readers only. thoughts from characters are presented in an almost stream of conscious type format, disallowing easy identification and instead creating an overwhelming mood of weak, despairing humans grasping ineffectively at basic reasons for their existence. horrible murders occur, but the focus is placed almost entirely on those too-weak humans, the complete inability of any of the characters to truly understand each other's motives, the slow decay of a seaside town, the atmosphere of wintry isolation and a cold, dead, encroaching sea. if the novel has a weakness, it is one that is oddly shared by The Pines: in that novel, the female protagonist often comes across as too smart, too hard, too ruthless in her outlook; in The Shore, the female protagonist comes across as the opposite - at some points, so dithery as to appear almost mentally disabled. but perhaps there is purpose in that too. at one point a character theorizes the horrors may be a sign of sinister changes facing the human world, evolution as something to be feared. i saw something quite different: de-evolution, of a sort: the chthonic past coming back to haunt the present, forcing the regression of civilization back into the primal. the rather magnificent final set piece felt like a metaphor for this backwards movement. as the various characters chase and are chased around the town, in and out of abandoned buildings, a police station, an amusement park...nature itself smashes the landscape, wind and rain and floods quickly dismantling the built-up world, the sea itself rushing in to destroy all in its path, as the characters struggle to understand each other, themselves, and the horrors that threaten to submerge them.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Last Werewolf vs. Zone One vs. The Passage

by Glen Duncan, Colson Whitehead, Justin Cronin

Glen Duncan + werewolves + ? = The Last Werewolf
Colson Whitehead + zombies + ? = Zone One
Justin Cronin + vampires + ? = The Passage

three individualistic, well-acclaimed and well-awarded but not exactly a household name literary wunderkinds decide to take a go at writing genre fiction. specifically Horror and three of its Big Bads. why did they do it? to reach a wider audience? to rake in the greenbacks? to see if their personal visions can somehow avoid degradation (or at least not be completely diluted) during larkish forays into the lucrative world of page-turning Scary Adventures? some mysterious combination of the above? who knows!

let's play a few rounds of Compare & Contrast

I, Monster
The Last Werewolf (The Last Werewolf #1)
Cronin's vampires are expertly realized: terrifyingly monstrous, completely hideous, totally devoid of charisma - and yet with certain of the central vampires, genuinely sympathetic in their wretched backstories. these monsters are a great antidote to current trends of sexy vampirism; their appalling malignance is downright scary. Whitehead's zombies are also reinventions; existing as un-living metaphors for the human condition and featuring a new addition to the zombie stable - the near-harmless sorta-zombified zombies called "stragglers". because these zombies are basically literary conceits used to give legs to the author's themes, i only experienced the slightest of shivers. mainly i was terrified by the potential of so much annoying existential ennui - i'd rather be dead! Duncan's title werewolf is actually a nicely develped manimal, a real human and a real monster, one who is capable of kindness & generosity, and who has also enacted the sickeningly monstrous. but let me just get a little assholish here and say that this monster is more pussy than wolf. a carefully three-dimensional pussy, but a pussy nevertheless. the predictably passive, futile reactions of our protagonist as he gets repeatedly beaten, tricked, abused, and generally fucked-over became almost hilarious in their pathetic constancy. Big Bad Wolf indeed! rather a fail in terms of scare.

"Literariness" and Stylistic Bravado
Zone One
lauded genius Whitehead probably couldn't write a straightforward genre novel if his life depended on it. practically each sentence in Zone One is a frickin' work of art. this is prose at its most lusciously heady... i got so lost in all of the beautiful sentences that i continually forgot about being tense about any particular situation. i was surprised once by an attack, and that's all; otherwise i was just digging the gorgeous word scenery. great job, Whitehead, your Macarthur Genius Grant will not be rescinded! literary miniaturist Cronin's novel is also written with painterly flair, full of scenes that drip with startling imagery and moments full of lovely stillness, sinister quiet, chaotic beauty... swirling sandstorms containing terrible dangers and haunted road trips full of fear and loss, etc, etc. he also pulls off a startling transition through a bold narrative break; a challenge that many literary readers are probably well-equipped to deal with but a decision that drove many genre fans up the wall in irritation. of the three, maverick British writer Duncan probably does the most streamlining of his literary style to fit his novel within the modern genre novel's aesthetic. but he is still at heart a literary writer, and i think his cred probably remains intact... if only for the novel's primary bit of ongoing literariness: when near potential prey, our protagonist experiences that person's life in a kaleidoscopic montage of tender, even wistful defining moments. the results are some brilliantly meaningful and moving splashes of literary finesse that were awesome to read and reread.

Depth of Characterization
The Passage (The Passage, #1)
Cronin, you win. that's pretty much the sum of it. to use a predictable compliment: his characters live and breathe. phenomenal work. Duncan is not far behind. besides those brilliant flashes of lives mentioned above, the title character and a few key supporting characters are lovingly detailed, realistically quirky, and truly alive. as far as characterization is concerned, Whitehead is left far behind. his boring cipher of a protagonist seems more of a vehicle for the author's various critiques than an actual person - his flatness would be perfect for a Bret Easton Ellis novel (if Ellis had even half of Whitehead's poetic sensibilities). and so the result was that i rolled my eyes quite a bit at the predetermined lack of character resonance. i found little empathy for Zone One's characters; instead there was a lot of intellectual target practice. but is this even a critique? i guess it depends on the literary preference of the literary reader - the history of literature is full of amazing authors and provocative subgenres where the invitation to create empathetic and "human" characters is firmly declined. simply too bourgeois! so if that's your preferred cup of tea, then Whitehead is definitely serving your flavor.

Adult Themes

i found the themes in The Last Werewolf to be the most personally moving. aging, alienation from routine and perhaps life itself, the dangers of empathy and the pitfalls of love... wonderfully profound stuff and often deeply emotional. Duncan approaches his themes with warmth and vigor. Cronin's themes are also serious - as serious as his mysteries. and yet, because of those mysteries, The Passage's themes are in many ways entirely familiar to genre readers... what does the future hold for us... how does human nature survive transformation... how does a person cope with the horrible unknown... is there a greater meaning to it all? and back to Whitehead. Zone One is clearly intended to be a means for serious contemplation, i.e. it does not rollick and it does not roll (over). reader, you are meant to be provoked: in your understanding of life & death & death after life & death while living; in your experience of New York City; in Whitehead's detached and cynical presentation of humankind's apparently pitiful and meaningless essence. but there is a one-note quality to these themes, a kind of hollow and jaded sophistication that i found to be interesting, but also quite sour. i prefer Duncan's more robust and full-bodied vintage. compared to The Whitehead's chilly and somewhat lofty perspective, Duncan's concerns just felt more human. Cronin seems like a wise man that i'd trust with my children. Whitehead seems like he would be amusingly cerebral at a dinner party. i'd go on a road trip with Duncan - i bet we'd have a lot to talk about.

Writers and Storytellers

...or, Literary Skills versus Narrative Skills. Whitehead is a Writer with a capital W. A+ on the writing itself. but as far as storytelling is concerned... not so much. totally boring story; totally wondrous jewels of unique prose. Cronin's writing may not soar to Whitehead's heights, but it still glistens on the page. his storytelling is a win as well - The Passage is occasionally a challenge in its narrative structure, but first and foremost it is a thrilling page-turner. of the three, Duncan seems to have most clearly chosen the route of storyteller. despite the moody thoughtfulness of our hero's various ruminations, this is a novel that wants to quicken the pulse and heat the bloodstream; it wants the reader to think on things, of course, but it mainly wants you to quickly turn the pages, to rush forward, to delve deeper into the fascinating mysteries that have been carefully strung out before you. in that respect, it succeeds. i read this one straight through to the two-thirds mark by staying up all night, and the last third in one long afternoon. i will definitely recommend this one to literary and genre lovers alike. but it will be Zone One that i will be thinking & arguing about in the future and it will be The Passage that i will love as a favorite novel. The Last Werewolf is a bit less exalted: a smart, entertaining, and exceedingly well-written minor-league diversion.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Dark Hollow

Dark Hollowby Brian Keene

the horror begins when our hero and his dog Big Steve take a stroll in the woods. and there he sees a local woman on her knees fellating a statue of Pan. the statue slowly turns from stone to warm-blooded life. ha! i totally get where you're coming from Pan, sometimes it's those little gestures of appreciation that make me feel alive again too. anyway, after Pan enjoys his friend's ministrations, he proceeds to piss all over her. so that's pretty much where Pan and i have to part ways. way to ruin the moment, Pan. while this occurs, Pan notices our protagonist/voyeur and gives him some serious come-hither eyes that seem to be psychically saying you come over here and worship me too buddy, it'll be awesome. our hero decides it's time to run away. he'll watch a gal give a bj to a statue - but being asked to join the party is simply a bridge too far. he's not that kind of guy for chrissakes!

Pan - well, it probably isn't actually Pan, maybe just some random dime-a-dozen satyr - decides to invade the local blue-collar community. this is bad timing because our hero is dealing with some pretty heavy shit in his life. ah well, when it rains it pours i guess. anyway, at the beginning of his reign of terror (mainly kidnapping the local women folk), Super Satyr takes a huge dump in our hero's house, to illustrate his contempt. yep, i would say that that was a pretty straightforward way of being contemptuous. sometimes i wish i could be that straightforward towards people i dislike. no real grey area there, no possibility of putting a spin on things, no hemming & hawing or using euphemisms. our hero has made an enemy and his enemy wants him to know it! 

things are so much simpler when you're a satyr, which makes me... envious.

although occasionally diverting and infused with a surprising amount of empathy for its troubled protagonist, the final result for me was that the flat supporting characters, insipid dialogue, and overall lack of suspense eventually equaled lots and lots of eye-rolling and sighing and thinking surely Keene must have been high when he wrote this? or maybe he just really needed to pay some bills.



sorry, the erotic satyr above in no way resembles the bestial villain of Dark Hollow. sad sigh? and hey look, he matches my blog background.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Gunslinger

by Stephen King

A Gunslinger, a Man in Black, a Child Out of Time & Space, the Beginning of a Cryptic Saga...

A Second Read. the first time: unimpressed, bored, agitated, gave up. the second time: so much better, a lot to consider, an enjoyable experience...

A Strangely Sparse Narrative, perhaps too much mystery, perhaps too much of a tease and not enough action, perhaps too much to think about, a frustrating lack of detail...

A Tarot Card: THE HANGED MAN...

Sacrifice... Renunciation... Contemplation... Waiting...

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A Brilliant Passage detailing the life and death of a boy from 1970s NYC...

A Pretty Good Passage detailing the strange beginnings of a gunslinger from Gilead, a knight from Inner-Earth...

An Enjoyably Creepy Passage detailing the death of a town...

A Tarot Card: DEATH...

The Ending of a Cycle... Transitioning Into a New State... Regeneration... Goodbyes...

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A Poorly Characterized Villain, too many arch comments and rote phrases, villainy by numbers...

A Kind of First Novel, recently upgraded, impressive in conception, less impressive in execution, and yet...

A Good Start: despite the flaws, despite the thinness: a beautifully written and an intriguingly mythic start to a series, one that i will continue reading, i need to see the end of it all...

A Tarot Card: THE TOWER...

Chaos, Sudden Change... Crisis, Revelation... Disillusion, Crash... Ruin, Explosive Transformation...

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Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Taking

by Dean Koontz

What will make a man despise all that is around him? What has happened in his life that he would rejoice in the drowning of a world, that he sees precious little of good in his fellow adults? What has happened that his love is now reserved only for children, animals, nature? I found myself wondering this as I read Koontz’s apocalyptic invasion of earth-cum-spiritual odyssey The Taking. I also couldn’t help but think of the protagonist of The Mosquito Coast and of Mel Gibson.  The Koontz I read when much younger was a libertarian no doubt, and he filled his fast-paced narratives with typically feisty heroines, stalwart heroes, inherently evil villains – yet they all lived in a world that was not visibly a portrait of Sodom & Gomorrah before its fall. Clearly Koontz’s world view has changed – narrowed? Soured?  Slowly transformed into something much darker? What happened to Koontz?
The Taking

After reading his bio on-line, I couldn’t see anything that would have changed a man so utterly and am left only with the vague notion that too much time in the hands of a very rich man is often not a widening experience. Perhaps it is one where the man becomes so entrenched in his basic belief system that everything around him becomes a symbol – or symptom – of all that he loves and all that he despises. Idle hands are the Devil’s tools perhaps. Although Koontz is far from idle, he is practically a novel-writing machine. Still I can’t help but wonder what his thoughts would be if he were engaged in a more ordinary life, burdened by 9-5 work and by responsibilities and by simple things like saving money and making sure there's enough to pay bills and make mortgage payments; if he didn't have the isolation that a life of extreme wealth can bring - a life in which the everyday company of peers and the general flow of surrounding people have become diminished or even absent... then perhaps he wouldn’t have the time or even the inclination to brood so malevolently on the world and how sick to death it makes him. How the world should be remade, to his liking. It may be that the destiny of the rich and too-well-known is to eventually sink into a pit of their own making. There are no real world responsibilities to act as signposts in viewing how the world operates - at least from a realistic, complicated, ground-level point of view.

His targets remain the same, although here they have acquired a more sinister sheen. He still hates Hollywood, the “liberal” prison system, the “myth” of global warming, the mainstream media (odd, coming from one of the foremost supermarket paperback novelists living today), and he still enjoys defiling his own personal bugaboo – the liberal professor. In this novel, the liberal professor is actually an alien puppet of infinite malice. Literally. But now Koontz's targets are more than targets, they are the logical reason why the earth should suffer its second Deluge. At one point the protagonist realizes that they are in a time of Sodom & Gomorrah because murder is so easily allowed. Strange. It is the point of view of a person who only reads the paper and watches the news in order to see more and more evidence of the barbarity of humanity. Perhaps he doesn’t live in a world that is filled with people who also hate murder (now who do you know who is actually pro-murder?)... folks who make it obvious that not everyone is sick with greed and callousness. A world where a drink does not automatically equal debauchery. Or one where a liberal professor is not a figure of control and despair, but just a liberal professor. A world that includes sickening evil but is not simply sick and evil. You know - a genuinely complicated world, the real world.

The TakingThis skewed perspective became stifling. Fortunately there were plenty of his trademark Dogs Are Special People type scenes to distract me. I love dogs. See, Koontz, we have something in common after all! Do you really want to destroy me?

The novel itself is interesting. Koontz has replaced his no-frills style with one that yearns for poetry and meaning. It is successful perhaps half the time and the other half is eye-rolling and even head-scratching. But The Taking does have its many moments of interest, of eerie horror and phantasmagoric tableau. There was a sequence relaying the final, terror-filled dialogue of a space station under unfathomable attack that was pretty riveting. And the spirituality is rather absorbing to contemplate and, certainly, it is passionately expressed! In a funny way, the story itself is the reverse of a Scooby Doo or Doctor Who plot: in the end, silly reader, it’s not the so-called rational science fiction answer, it is indeed the devil’s work! And the devil wants you and all your ilk because, well, nearly all humans suck and pretty much deserve to be swept from this earth. Time to start fresh, on The Mosquito Coast, in Mel Gibson-land.

oh, one more thing: a demonic storm with rain that feels and smells like sperm. wow! EVIL is literally seeding the earth! sperm is EVIL!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

TIM LEBBON

NAMING OF PARTS

zombies attack! 

wait, don't roll your eyes. this odd novella by obscure but somewhat aclaimed english author Tim Lebbon is something different.

Naming Of Partsit is set during a small family's panicky flight away from their rural home and takes place entirely in the mind of its pre-teen narrator. clues to the nature of the threat are dropped here and there in an almost offhand fashion, but the focus is really elsewhere: (1) the state of shock of the family and (2) flashbacks to the narrator's relationship with his sister. the writing is surprisingly beautiful at times. there are sequences of visceral gore where the horror is of the in-your-face variety, but mainly this is all about dread and terror and confusion and a constant, sickening feeling of unease about what may come next. the opening sequence, when our lad hears scrapings at the windows in the deep of night, is perfectly accomplished. the whole novel manages to be both a tightly paced thriller and a digressive extended contemplation on the nature of family. job well-done, Lebbon.

my only complaints are that it is sometimes quite overwritten, particularly with the repetitive emphasis on "The Naming of Parts", and at times the narrator seems way older than his years. that really annoyed me. now i bet the english school system is miles ahead of the american school system, so i tried not to be aggravated by some word choices that felt wrong. but the kid often thinks about things in a way that is clearly coming from an adult mind. i wish the author had shown a bit more consistency in that regard, because it was genuinely off-putting.

still, overall, this is a great novella and a very pleasing surprise.

***

CHANGING OF FACES

it's the full moon... shape-shifting were-things attack!

this is the sequel to Naming of Parts... and yet it is so completely different. Alien vs. Aliens kind of different. different goals, different style, different tone, different set-up entirely.

Changing of Facesa few weeks after the events in Naming of Parts, the zombies have apparently died off. survivors are holed up in an abandoned ferry that has washed up on shore - and now there are horrifyingly gigantor-sized animal-people on the prowl, waiting to eat people up. so what does this mean? has the scifi horror rationale been replaced by some kind of dark fantasy horror rationale? are both novels a kind of extended metaphor? Lebbon doesn't really explain things, so be prepared to just let certain key questions go. overall, Changing of Faces is pretty good - Lebbon's command of language and ambiguity and his ability to create an atmosphere of constant dread remain at a high level. the opening attack sequence, as survivors react to the bizarre, horrendous, totally surprising onslaught... top-notch. genuinely unnerving.

it does lose its way after that. not so much that it becomes a bad read - it is enjoyably tense and exciting from beginning to end. it just seems to lose focus. an extended riff on a kind of Gingerbread House (complete with cannibalistic old lady) is eye-opening but also rather annoying, somewhat overly-familiar. and the novella ends on the worst kind of cliffhanger climax. ugh.

but still, i would say that this is a good one. it is certainly an original.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Teatro Grottesco

by Thomas Ligotti

His trembling words also invoked an epistimology of 'hope and horror', of exposing once and for all the true nature of this 'great gray ritual of existence' and plunging headlong into an 'enlightenment of inanity'
- "In a Foreign Town, In a Foreign Land"

reading the collected tales in Thomas' Ligotti's Teatro Grottesco over the course of a rainy, gray day and the rest of a chilly, glum weekend was an interesting experience. it certainly helped to create a gray, glum, and introspective mood, like moving through a kind of self-induced fog, contemplating my place in the grand scheme of things, watching people move about from my window, ignoring various phone calls, watching a couple Cold War era spy films... FUN! well, my kind of fun.

let's just get this out of the way: Ligotti is an icy, condescending misanthrope. in his worldview, life is a trap and living any kind of life, playing any kind of role, is the worst kind of joke... like a person spending their life wallowing in the mud, then sticking their head out of that mud to stupidly proclaim "Look at me, I'm not truly in the mud, not all of me!" reading this book reminded me of reading Zone One - both authors seem to share the same deterministic, rather wearyingly depressing outlook on poor, deluded humanity.

Teatro Grottescoperhaps this sounds like a bad review. it is not! Ligotti is, in a word, BRILLIANT. his perspective may be rote but the way he expresses that perspective is amazing. he is a beautiful writer. his style has a twisted elegance. his voice is, by turns, wry & overwhelmingly pessimistic & nastily bitchy & serenely contemptuous... it all had me constantly reacting to his stories on different levels. and his ability to create morbidly bleak, phantasmagoric, despair-filled landscapes is superb. he's the real deal.

Ligotti does not write traditional tales of suspense and horror. his stories will not 'scare' you - although their implications are quite fearful. they often exist purely on the level of metaphor and often function as analogies for sad aspects or even the entirety of our existence. they are built for contemplation, not for narrative enjoyment. i'm not sure Ligotti actually knows what the term "enjoyment" even means.

the first section of this collection is entitled Derangements and the stories within exist almost solely as metaphor. they feature stunningly stark towns and brutally grim tableau (including an abandoned factory that once churned out an array of vicious little nic nacs and has a 2nd level basement graveyard for chrissakes). my favorite is the first story "Purity", which is almost overloaded with bizarre, beyond-creepy situations and characters... a fatalistic boy drawn to the dark corners of abandoned, junkie-ridden flats in order to contemplate the darkness around him... his father, a mad scientist compelled to drain out the essence of what allows humans to imagine a greater world around and above them... his sister & mother, prone to sinister "vacations" and muttering mysteriously about hermaphrodites... a child-killing, serial killer cop who pays a visit to the wrong house at the wrong time for the wrong reasons. good stuff!

the second section is entitled Deformations and its stories detail the cruelly pointless lives lived in two towns, one south of a border and the other north of that border, both completely ruled by the mysterious and malevolent Quine Organization. this section is perhaps too explicit in showing exactly how pointless Ligotti feels day to day work to be. it is not just drudgery, it is not just being a spoke in the great wheel of business... it is a genuine living death. my favorite story is "Our Temporary Supervisor", a cold and cunning allegory for on-the-job performance improvement. the vision of an amorphous, tendrily shadow figure viewed only behind the frosted glass of his office yet slowly able to transform his workers into completely obedient robots was perfectly accomplished.

i found the third section The Damaged and the Diseased to be the weakest. but perhaps this is a personal thing. the stories were fine, more than fine actually, beyond competent - they were genuinely visionary at times. but i suppose i have a natural antipathy to the subject matter: these stories all concern the dangers and lures of art, the pathetic tragedy of artists, the supposedly sad, frail worlds they build for themselves. i've lived a lot of my life surrounded by artists, so i assume my slight disinterest may come from too much experience rolling my eyes at various artistic stances, pretensions, self-absorption, etc. still, i found "The Bungalow House" - a mordant ouroboros of a tale, one concerned with some exceedingly desolate surroundings that come to obsess our narrator - to be genuinely ingenious. 

this last section also encapsulates Ligotti's perspective on how to truly achieve success in the world: simply let your useless mind and spirit go, and allow your body to function as it should... as an unthinking machine, as an unfeeling virus, as a forward-moving, soulless instrument that strikes the same predictable notes time and again. i'm not sure i'll be seeing that advice on any daily calendars anytime soon.
__________

musical accompaniment

Cranes: Self-Non-Self, Wings of Joy
Einsturzende Neubauten: Tabula Rasa
Chris and Cosey: Trance, Songs of Love and Lust


Thursday, April 11, 2013

gay king






















gay king the best king! should have married gay knite and rule Westeros! 
DIE JOFFREY DIE!!

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Saturday, April 6, 2013

The House Across the Way

by Brian McNaughton

McNaughton is yet another lost, unsung author - a tragedy! although he did receive some recognition in his life, in the form of a World Fantasy Award for Throne of Bones - a morbid and beautifully written tale of corpse-eating ghouls.

The House Across the Way
The House Across the Way - despite its faerie villains - is pure horror, set in the here-and-now. basically the story is about a few residents of a small college town learning how much the faerie world really wants to fuck over humans, in the worst possible ways. blood-sucking, co-ed murders, corpses walking, dreams of the future and the past, entrails strewn hither and thither, a sinister house-cum-demonic castle, a bizarre and upsetting faculty party, the Eldritch King and his vengeful but sometimes less-than-effective servants, a blind granny, a chase through dimensions and time, and a haunted playhouse are some of the items featured. the writing is fluid, equally at ease in detailing everyday details as well as the many supernatural, hallucinatory events.

the elements that set this one apart from most horror novels are the structure of the narrative and the perspectives of the characters. the reader is plunged right into things - not in a way that inspires breathless page-turning, but rather one that keeps things constantly off-kilter: details parsed out slowly and ambiguously, versions of past stories differing surprisingly depending on the teller, the meaning of the events and mysteries surrounding the cast of players only becoming gradually clearer as events unfold. characterization is also fascinatingly conveyed: although the characters remain fully grounded in reality, they also exist on multiple levels, and somehow McNaughton is able to make them both very real and disturbingly mythic. another virtue: pulling away from the action or what may even seem like the climax of a key event, only to let that event be recounted through another character's perspective. the author is not afraid of graphic depiction, but even better, he is comfortable with meaningful ambiguity.


the first chapter, perfectly detailing a sad outsider's frame of mind and his disturbing transformation, is striking to say the least; the last three paragraphs - jaw-dropping, horrific. another chapter - a firsthand account of the long, terrifying night of a corpse that walks - is brilliantly unsettling and dreamlike, a grim and grotesque journey but also the second sympathetic portrayal of a terrible being's confused thought process. and another chapter, depicting the advent of a deadly home invasion while a blind grandmother struggles to come to terms with her simultaneous life in two different dimensions, starts out as compelling, almost amusing, and ends in one of the more gripping horror sequences that i've read in a while. the final struggle between granny and the Eldritch King is powerful, surreal, and really moving. the entire novel demands close attention and i found myself constantly flipping back and forth through the pages to re-read and puzzle over various clues and multi-leveled comments from characters. passive readers will not find much of value in the experience; i absolutely loved it.


Outpost

by Adam Baker

it is a remote refinery in the arctic. there is a disparate crew. there is freezing cold and isolation and all of those sorts of things. these are the sorts of things i often like to read about. there is a mysterious worldwide disaster. there are zombies, a new kind of zombie, metallic zombies. there is a space-born plague, maybe? the plague is from nanobots, maybe? one can only guess. there is an abandoned luxury liner. it is full of zombies. 

there is an ambiguous ending, which is perfect.


Outpost (Outpost, #1)the book has a certain kind of writing style. there are a lot of short, declarative sentences. it is like so. it actually drove me crazy in the beginning. it was so monotonous. everyone sounded the same. but then it began to work. it sorta began to work. Baker's monotonous style never changed, never became invisible, but it began to feel like the exact style needed for his tale. but i don't want to underplay the frustrating monotony of the style. it got under my skin. like a metal-based nanobot? maybe so.

there is a fat chaplain - she is our protagonist. the 'fat' part is important, it becomes the key to understanding her character, her motivation and her isolation and her self-loathing. 


there is a ruthless young lady. she may be going mad. she may be our villainess. hard to say, but an absorbing character.

the characterization is not the strongest part but those two characters were quite well-done. there is a third character who is even more compelling. her name is Dr. Elizabeth Rye. she is also well-characterized. her background and her context and her thought processes made sense. the next sentence is a spoiler. she becomes a zombie. we continue to read her thoughts. her thoughts are fascinating and her story is bizarre and frustrating and tragic. she is my favorite part of this novel.


 photo tumblr_mi14r9hi1p1r3gb3zo1_400_zpsb05e1e35.gifthe book is grim, grim, and grim. but it is not all grim. there is some hope in the book. the book is not necessarily scary but it certainly creates a mood. the mood is grim. it is a cold feeling but the book did not leave me cold. i don't like the cold but i like to read about the cold. i liked the book.



The Sorrow King

by Andersen Prunty

DO NOT RUN FROM THIS BOOK'S LURID COVER!

The Sorrow KingThe Sorrow King is a real find. my only other experience with the author - the extremely goofy The Sex Beast of Scurvy Island - may have not been the best introduction to Prunty. the man is talented and the novel is unusually sensitive and moving. the imagery is unearthly. the writing is wry, lean, and clear-eyed. and the protagonists... heartbreaking. the story is one of classic horror. a sort of suicide virus is taking out the teens of Gethsemane, Ohio. moody teenager Steven flirts with his own depression. his father is a sensitive sort who has built up his so-called life as one of solitary contemplation. and then a troubled girl comes along, one who may be the link between the rash of suicides and a sinister supernatural presence with many names.

have you seen an obscure 80s horror film called Strange Behavior? if not, you should. it is also about a small town haunted by multiple deaths, and an offbeat but tender relationship between a father and son. the film has its moments of straight-up horror, but much of the tone is almost wistfully nostalgic. i was reminded of Strange Behavior while reading The Sorrow King, and i was reminded a bit of Twin Peaks as well - that same dreamy, at times surreally elegiac unearthliness. unlike Twin Peaks, The Sorrow King is not teeming with quirky characters. instead it has an almost underpopulated feel to it, a chamber piece of sorts, with three main characters and very little else in the way of supporting characters. we see the world through our three protagonists, and it is a very real world of sadness, lack of affect, and free-floating anomie, one where angst equals melodrama and is therefore skirted, where pathos equals mawkwishness and is likewise avoided. the dialogue is wittily off-kilter but is anchored by the depth, delicacy, honesty, and offhand despair of the characterization. in the end, the novel is a distinctly <i>emotional</i> experience. it is also full of surprises, both within the story and with the narrative itself - surprises that are often unpleasant yet exciting in their execution. i appreciate Anderson's smarts and especially his unsentimentality in constructing his novel. although it lead to a particularly painful and unexpected scene that left me genuinely upset.

one last thing: the novel portrays teenagers perfectly. well, certain sorts of teenagers - the moody ones, smart and self-absorbed and yearning and pitiless and awkward and melancholy. i remember the emotions on display, the casual cruelty, the equally casual tenderness, moving from nervous agitation to studied nonchalance, that feeling of being such a small player in life's strange pageant, that sense that - despite everyone saying the world will open up - that life after high school will just be a series of diminishing returns. the novel gets all of that without reducing its world to a BE Ellis level of predetermined nihilism. there are no false notes; the novel gets it right. i finished the last chapter and sighed, a thoughtful and sad and satisfied sigh.