Friday, January 06, 2017

Horror Vs. Europe, Part 6

My country chose Trump, and God turned the skies dark. It's been too bleak and cold and horrible to write. Added to which, Google Analytics suggests that my readership consists entirely of the same Russian bots that elected that morally (and otherwise) bankrupt grifter, so my blogging morale has been at low ebb. Nonetheless, I have Calvin in my blood, and no weaker toxins can overcome that fell influence for long. I woke, and found that life was duty. Let the Horror Vs. Europe series continue!

The Stupid Joke by Edward Gorey Vs. Carlo Doesn't Know How to Read by Giulio Mozzi (aka Carlo Dalcielo):

The Stupid Joke by Edward Gorey: In classic Gorey fashion, this is an illustrated story. A young boy refuses to get out of bed. The images are all built around the bed. The people in his life crowd around to insist that he cease this retreat from reality. Then the bed sprouts wings and flies away. As someone who struggles with hikikomori tendencies, I know the seduction and the horror of such fantasy.

Carlo Doesn't Know How to Read by Giulio Mozzi (aka Carlo Dalcielo): Carlo reads literature with an autistic literalness that makes fascinating hash of literary devices and norms. His friends delight in his misreadings as a kind of accidental creativity, somewhat akin to the anti-reason writing experiments of Byron Gysin and William Burroughs.

Compare/contrast: Both stories involve an oddball who cannot engage life on the usual terms. Carlo engages art in an "incorrect" but revivifying fashion; the value of the Gorey character's retreat is, as so often in Gorey, left ambiguous.

Verdict: Gobble them both up like the little treats they are. Gorey is always worthwhile, and Mozzi suggests some potentially fruitful reading/detournement strategies.

A Touch of Petulance by Ray Bradbury Vs. Ants and Bumblebees by Inga Abele:

A Touch of Petulance by Ray Bradbury: Ray uses the "traveling back in time to advise/warn your younger self" troupe to address memory, regret and inevitability. A happily married guy meets his time-traveling future self, who warns him that he's going to fall out of love with his wife and try to murder her, unless he adjusts his attitude. It becomes pretty clear that this warning was for naught. Destiny as an explanation for sorrowful past events is on the table, here.

Ants and Bumblebees by Inga Abele: A woman with a difficult family (childish brother, cranky father) herds them through a trip to her mother's grave, followed by an emotionally fraught side trip to her father's mistress... This is a virtual road movie about dealing with intractable crochets and a demoralizing past as productively as possible. The conclusion finds its way to a paradoxical, renunciatory happy ending.

Compare/Contrast: in some ways this is the most logical double feature of all the forced pairings in this little project to date. Both examine dark feelings for one's family, and the ongoing struggle to rise above those feelings. Also, both involve someone seeing a dead person, whether through time travel or a visionary experience.

Verdict: I once heard Bradbury speak; the only thing I remember is that he told us to read 3 good poems and 3 good short stories a day. This struck me as worthy advice, but he added a punchline: don't read any contemporary stories except his, because they're all terrible. This touch of petulance has colored my fondness for Bradbury. With that disclosed, I think Ants and Bumblebees is the finer story, far less predictable. Anyone whose ever read a time-travel story of the sorrow-tinged variety will find no shocks in Bradbury's tale, while Abele's carries the reader down a steady stream of micro-twists and reread-rewarding internal correspondences. (This is hardly fair, but Bradbury also lost a letter grade with me for writing a forward to a coffee table book of science fiction illustrations in which he lambasted Jasper Johns for not being as imaginative as dudes who paint rocket ships.) I'm eager to read more Inga Abele.

Lindsay and the Red City Blues by Joe Haldeman Vs. Deep in the Snow by Mathias Ospelt:

Lindsay and the Red City Blues by Joe Haldeman: A tourist in the Middle East lets a local boy take him on a tour of the tourist-unfriendly part of the city. This turns out to be a terrible idea. Grifts, cons, and orientalist exoticism abound. One gets the impression that Haldeman, who is a seasoned traveler and a Vietnam Vet, is trying to convey some lived experience of being a stranger in a strange land while still extending respect to foreign cultures. I'm iffy on how well he succeeds at mining a culture without othering it; but then I'm a Texas Chainsaw fan, which basically extends the same treatment to American hillbillies that this story extends to Arabic people, so one might accuse me of hypocrisy. OTOH I'm close enough to hillbilly culture to gauge how closely Texas Chainsaw captures it (Basically, Hillbillies + Meth = Texas Chainsaw Massacre - cannibalism) but I'm not close enough to Middle Eastern culture to suss out how fair Haldeman plays with the people he makes the adversary. To be fair, he does portray his protagonist as an ugly American and a fool who probably deserves a bad end, instead of making the Arabs the only creeps in the story. Oh, and if you factor out cultural sensitivity as a concern, the story's tight, keeping you guessing about when things will turn from bad to monstrous. Fear not; things get really bad for our hero.

Deep in the Snow by Mathias Ospel: An unreliable young dude leads another young dude (who should know better) over a stupid shortcut through the snowy mountains at night in an effort to get to the PAR-TAY. It's an adventure tale that captures the cruddiness of getting lost at night in an uncomfortable and potentially threatening landscape. My kinda cathartic fun. Also, the dumdum who gets our hero into this fix doubles as the kind of unreliable narrator who beguiles you but keeps life interesting with his false promises and real misadventures. He's like a storyteller who enchants you with a tale, then leads you into predicaments that test your mettle.

Compare/Contrast: They're both about dangerous trips with dodgy guides. In one the guide is a dangerous con artist; in the other, he's just a dreamy doofus.

Verdict: Both are thrilling. Lindsay and the Red City Blues is longer, grosser, and of dubious cultural sensitivity, which may not be a bad thing in a grossout horror nightmare. Ospel's story gets you into a recognizable bad situation and ends with an equally recognizable comic twist.

A Garden of Blackred Roses by Charles L. Grant Vs. Allure of the Text by Giedra Radvilaviciute:

A Garden of Blackred Roses by Charles L. Grant: A house in Anytown USA boasts a beautiful bush of odd roses, and the Norman Rockwell locals can't help but pilfer a few. Afterwards, terrible things happen to the thieves. 

This is the kind of story where people curse silently, and young women hold their schoolbooks over their breasts. In other words, Grant is building his Anytown USA on a foundation of Anyfiction USA. He does it with a certain glib virtuosity; his prose is a bit like radio-ready soft rock, smooth and bland and familiar. The horror twists are distressing, though, and deserve a more keenly observed milieu to play out against.

Allure of the Text by Giedra Radvilaviciute: Radvilaviciute begins her story with some thoughts about what makes prose memorable, and provides a few examples that I found far more compelling than Charles L. Grant's slick cliches. From this essayistic beginning she segues into a story of a family feud, and how going to meet a cousin whom she hadn't seen since childhood expanded her sense of story. Radvilaviciute, with help from translator Darius James Ross, writes prose that fulfills her final standard for prose: it draws one back. Sadly not much of her work is available in English.

Compare/Contrast: Both stories unify a variety of concerns: Grant tells stories about various characters, unified by small-town familiarity and the curse of the roses. Radvilaviciute draws family, prose (as subject as well as process), memory, and lived experience together in a bouquet.

Verdict: Radvilaviciute writes the kind of fiction that, for me, makes reading worthwhile. Grant not so much, but if you like Ray Bradbury and mid-20th century sentimental fiction, you might dig him. Grant edited The Best of Shadows, which I'll be reading to round out the horror half of this project, so hoo boy.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Horror Vs. Europe, part 5

Start here. 

The Whistling Well by Clifford D. Simak Vs. Sky over Thingvellir by Steinar Bragi

The Whistling Well by Clifford D. Simak: A writer researching his family history travels to an isolated crag where his ancestors kept a farm. Simak's clear, unshowy prose takes us on a tour that's so detailed, you just know the location has some real world source that he wanted to memorialize. Happily for horror fans, Simak remembers to make the place haunted. I'd recommend this story as a companion piece to Lovecraft's Whisperer in Darkness, which also involves hidden creepy critters in a desolate mountainous region. Where Lovecraft leans in hard on his usual fear and loathing of The Other, Simak enacts a reconciliation between his hero and the ancient horrors (which are ambiguous, but sometimes appear to be dinosaur ghosts, an idea whose time has come).

Sky over Thingvellir by Steinar Bragi: Hints of Nabokov's Transparent Things in the introduction, in which we, the privileged observers, fly like birds, or perhaps the midges that annoy the protagonists. Such play is abandoned as swiftly as the gratuitous framing stories that, before Tolkien, were de rigueur in literary fantasy novels (Eddison's Worm Ouroborus etc.) and the story gets down to business: a young couple's picnic/breakup. The girlfriend is dissatisfied with her beau, the boy is smitten with the girl, and they try to justify their purely emotional perspectives in terms of Grand Ideas and philosophy. Puppyishly sincere, they deploy every idea in their little young-people noggins as tools, or weapons, in their efforts to save or destroy the romance. Inevitably they end up critiquing each other with desperate petulance.  Quite the flashback to college. The Icelandic landscape is mostly a backdrop until the end, when a human artifact is cast into the chilly water.

Compare/Contrast: Both stories involve conflict in a desolate wilderness area, and a merging between human and landscape. In one (the "horror") the merger is redemptive, while in the other it's a renunciation of relationship.

Verdict: For carefully observed landscape and dinosaur ghosts, the first is worth considering (although if you want the landscape, along with the theme of a personal connection to the land, without dinosaur ghosts, go read My Antonia, which is nearly perfect). For bratty youngs turning their emotional whims into ostentatious psychodrama, the second is worth a look or a dodge depending on your appetite for such fun. Take your pick.

The Peculiar Demesne by Russell Kirk Vs. Jeremiah's Terrible Tale by George Konrad 

The Peculiar Demesne by Russell Kirk: Imagine a Batman Versus Joker story in which the Joker gains the powers of a minor Dr. Strange villain, and the Batman is Decadent in an overripe orientalist manner, like if Tim Burton had cast Johnny Depp instead of Michael Keaton, and done the whole thing as a tribute to Fu Manchu movies. Russell Kirk, onetime Conservative thought leader, tries to keep the whole "exotique" thing from entirely veering into the racism into which such pulp usually veers, and throws a gleeful party (indeed, a party is the frame story, in which the louche protagonist tells an agog audience his tale of struggle while teaching them to snatch raisins from burning rum). I know little of Kirk's political thought, but I do know it was pretty far removed from President-Elect Pussygrab Grifterbigot's brand of value-free Republicanism, and Kirk seems to be on board for more diversity than is compatible with Trumpism. He's also a virtuoso of rococo pulp prose.

Jeremiah's Terrible Tale by George Konrad: An old man is visited by a heavenly chariot that offers to take him to heaven. He's not ready for this so he hits the road, turning up at a synagogue where a woman becomes convinced that he's the messiah. Soon she's taking care of him, preparing meals, while he hangs loose and enjoys it. She wonders if he's actually gonna start messiahing in any active fashion... Then we flash back in time a few generations to learn about a historical Rabbi from whom our hero is descended; this Rabbi goes on a journey of his own and comes back with a story that his congregation hates; we never hear the story, or the end of the old man's story. Konrad gives us a quiet succession of avoidances and gentle refusals. No closure, just an amble from one unresolved anecdote to another.

Compare/Contrast: Both stories take us on a journey; Kirk's is a straight-ahead adventure in a make-believe exotic setting, while Konrad's is a gentle drift in a magic realism rooted in Jewish culture.

Verdict: I dig 'em both. I'm more likely to dig deeper into Konrad's work, just because I find it pleasantly beguiling, while Kirk's, though fun, is a bit familiar in the manner of rising-tension adventure tales. Still, Kirk gives you a lot of playful ornament and real moral probing to enliven his yarn.

Where the Stones Grow by Lisa Tuttle Vs. Orphan and the Mob by Julian Gough 

Where the Stones Grow by Lisa Tuttle: According to legend, three standing stones were once three misbehaving sisters, transformed into monoliths as outsized punishment. The protagonist believes that these stones murdered his father. Further, he believes that they're pursuing him across the ocean. For me the opening sequence, a nightmare glimpse of an unnatural force killing one's father, is the truly chilling bit. The rest, which attempts to vindicate that opening in logical terms, is as dull and unconvincing as most attempts in fantasy to fauxthenticate (props to M. John Harrison for coining that portmanteau).

Orphan and the Mob by Julian Gough : An orphan accidentally blasphemes a historical site, and an angry mob tracks him to his orphanage. "Don't copy Henry James; copy The Simpsons," advises Gough in his author's note, and he certainly follows his own advice, demonstrating, in the process, how vivid, truthful, and delightful the results can be. The Irish author rips into Irish cultural shortcomings with a fury that would appall the liberal sweethearts who admonish us to approach Trump voters with tender concern. Gough's brand of well-informed sneering blows raspberries at concern-trolling respect for underclass folly, but he's remarkably affectionate to the quasi-abusive, doddering clergy who run the orphanage; they are constantly beating the children, but with such weak blows that the kids regard it as a pleasant massage.

Compare/Contrast: Both stories involve an ordinary person being pursued by a batch of implacable haters. Interestingly, the comedy one is scarier than the serious one. Also, the one where a little boy is in danger of getting lynched isn't the "serious" one, and the one about the guy getting followed by evil rocks isn't the silly one. That's the magic of genre.

Verdict: Gough's on my short list of writers from this reading project to explore further. Tuttle hasn't made it, although she'll get another chance since she's in the Best of Shadows anthology that I'll be using to round out the Horror half of this series.

The Night Before Christmas by Robert Bloch Vs. Camino by Orna Ni Choileain

The Night Before Christmas by Robert Bloch: Bloch wrote the novel Psycho, basis for the film, but even without that he'd be a thing in horror circles; he's written a slew of stories. This isn't the best. An artist cuckolds a big strong mean gangster. Revenge ensues. Bloch's prose goes in for a lotta mimeographed hardboiled mannerisms. The big dumb obvious twist ending is straight out of a lesser EC comics tale. Knife this one in the shower.

Camino by Orna Ni Choileain: A thriller, although that's not immediately obvious. A young man in an isolated village worries about his dicey job situation while tending to the frail wise woman who's his only remaining family. She's a psychic, and desperate people trek over to ask for her guidance. One day she tells some grieving parents where to find their missing child's body. The story hits the news, and the serial killer responsible for the girl's death decides to revenge-kill the wise woman. But he forgot that she sees all, knows all... The characterization isn't going for nuance; straight genre functionality is the order of the day. But the genre shift from mopey realism to bananas thriller is more surprising than the solid thriller twists of the second half.

Compare/contrast: two lo-lit suspense items. One sucks, the other's okay.

Verdict: wut

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Horror Vs. Europe, Part 4.

Start here. 

The Detective of Dreams / Gene Wolfe: In this gleeful pastiche of some antiquated rococo fiction or other, a gentleman with a reputation as an amateur sleuth investigates reports of a mysterious man invading peoples' dreams and filling them with guilty fear. The twist ending might inspire paradigm shifts in some readers; others (me) will find it entirely sensible.

 Foreign women / Elo Viiding: An unnamed macho Eastern European author plays host to a succession of translators, liberated Western women all, who come to visit, bringing the perceived contagion of feminism with them. The writer's wife is jealous of the Westerners' free spirits. She's also not too crazy about the furrin womens' cheerful critiques of the traditionally subordinate female role the wife has embraced as her best route through life. She also resents the translators' harsh opinions of her entitled husband, even though (or because) it's pretty clear that those opinions are hard to argue against; the guy really is a spoiled chauvinist. At the same time, the western women are devoted to materialist, consumerist, individualist lifestyles that seem to leave them bereft of the wife's sense of cultural belonging. Plus the western women drink a lot. 

In short, women who vote for Hillary versus women who vote for Trump. As a lifelong resident of the American Southeast I've seen this kind of conflict between put-upon tradition versus urbane individualism in action. I like to imagine a constructive synthesis of these dialectical forces might in our collective future, merging self-reliant confidence with communitarian belonging, but Viiding doesn't see it happening; there's no binding or bonding between the two types of women he portrays.

Crucially, the prose (or perhaps the translator's style) windsurfs swiftly over threatening deeps; we see threatening vistas without sinking into them or becoming becalmed. A deft, even giddy, treatment of a potentially dreary subject.

Compare/Contrast: Wolfe is a virtuoso prose poet who seems to have mastered an antiquarian music. His story is a rococo cuckoo clock with a startling religious icon popping out in place of a cuckoo. Viiding is less showy and more observational, with a restrained, affectionately satirical edge. Both are playful prosecrafters. Both are staring long and hard, though sympathetically, at human foibles.

Verdict: Enjoy them both, and make sure your own critiques are as humane as theirs.

Vengence Is by Theodore Sturgeon Vs. [from] Extinction by Juhani Brander.
Vengeance Is / Theodore Sturgeon: Trigger warning: wall to wall rape. 

A rape/revenge story with a biohorror science fiction twist. Two ogrish brothers terrorize an isolated town, raping women with impunity, until a couple passing through hoists them on their own pretard. The whole story is told in a pair of clunky expository monologues, both by men: the first storyteller is a bartender who fills us in on the monsterous brothers; the second is the husband who couldn't save his wife from violation. The story of a woman's suffering is turned into her husband's story. The woman's body is weaponized and used to kill the villains. Perhaps this story's meant to be empowering, but the woman's perspective is only glimpsed in passing, as med dominate the events. Sturgeon is regarded as something of a holy man in science fiction literary circles; Dark Forces editor Kirby McCauley claims that Sturgeon is likely to be read and remembered long after the New Yorker types are forgotten. Let's hope the literary future's not so bleak as all that. 

[from] Extinction / Juhani Brander: a cascade of unpredictable, tragicomic vignettes that remind me of one of my favorite living writers, Joy Williams. Like Williams, it's vividly contemporary and full of moonbat human absurdity. Rich whimsy, not the saccharine kind. It's never clear in advance just where any given story is going, but afterwords there's a clarity and logic to it. Believably odd characters try to have fun and get their relationships going, and when it all crashes down it makes quite a bang.

Compare/Contrast: Sturgeon's story is horrific, but mostly it coasts on the borrowed gravitas of abuse. Brander's tales inflect even the grimmest of outcomes with the vivacity of energetic talespinning. That's the power of prose style. She packs more imagination and emotional impact into any given paragraph than Sturgeon gets into many pages.

Verdict: Brander is more entertaining and more insightful that whatever that YA novel is you've got in your bookbag. As for Sturgeon, maybe he lives up to his Dusty Age of Rocket Ship Stories-era reputation somewhere, but yeesh, not here. He comes off as Ray Bradbury on angel dust. 

The Brood by Ramsey Campbell Vs. Hotel Komaba Eminence by Christine Montalbetti (with Haruki Murakami).

The Brood by Ramsey Campbell: No relation to David Cronenberg's film of the same title, Campbell tells us about a weary veterinarian who's concerned about a local street-person's stray-hording ways. Eventually he's drawn to investigate a derelict house that keeps emitting disturbing noises, and finds out why the woman was bringing critters to the house. Twist upon twist, as Campbell uses, without merely coasting upon, all the shuddersome horror tropes (weird noises, derelict houses, unidentifiable critters) that he weaves into this creeper. Campbell has cited Nabokov as a key influence, and while you won't mistake one for the other, Campbell displays a laudable devotion to imaginative, vivid, curious prose that becomes half the significance of his tale, without ever sacrificing his story's logic and forward momentum.

Hotel Komaba Eminence by Christine Montalbetti (with Haruki Murakami).

Montalbetti ets lunch in a hotel restaurant with the (real life) literary rock star Murakami. The outside trees that fill the window become threateningly triffidlike, and there's the intimation that Murakami is mystically, secretly orchestrating a hypnogogic and threatening event; but is he? Who's really in charge? A cunning pastiche/tribute to Murakami's ambiguous magic realism.

Compare/Contrast: both tales revolve around odd intrusions into normal life, intrusions that grow like a fungus that turns into a hissing rabid rodent before your eyes have quite adjusted. Both also involve agents of the natural world becoming unexpectedly threatening. But where Campbell situates his story in a sadly rundown and anonymous urban neighborhood, Montalbetti sets hers in a perfectly nice restaurant that draws out, yet contrasts with, her fictionalized self's growing unease. 

Verdict: Read both, whenever you need to wrestle with macabre unease, which for me is on the regular.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Horror vs. Europe, Part 3.

Start here.

Where the Summer Ends by Karl Edward Wagner Vs. And All Turned Moon by Georgi Gospodinov.

Where the Summer Ends: Knoxville, Tennessee (where I was born) is the setting for this tale, in which a young antiques lover and his girlfriend befriend a grouchy antiques dealer whose shop is being overrun by kudzu. What does the kudzu have to do with the odd skulls the shopkeeper collects? Why does the shopkeeper drink so much? Why is he so skeered? Wagner knows how to paint an atmospheric picture of the down-at-heels yet aspirational lifestyle, as well as the grunge of unremarked southern poverty; it's too bad he died young. Someone could turn this story into a rockin' low-budget movie.

And All Turned Moon / Georgi Gospodinov: Elegiac satire. It's like a license to print money!

 In a near future, a environmentalist scientist prepares to commit suicide (or rather, be voluntarily euthanized) as he comes to terms with his failure to convince people to stop ruining the environment. Also, his son won't call him. Humanity has become completely consumerist; modern plants have no odors. Our protagonist concludes that the basic building block of the universe is loneliness. He waits in vain for his estranged son to contact him before it all ends. And, as the enigmatic final sentence tells, all turns moon.

Compare/Contrast: Both stories build towards futility and loss. In Where the Summer Ends the problem is only revealed at the very end; it took me a second read to see how hints and warning signs were woven throughout the story.

In And All Turned Moon the causes of futility and loss are not mysterious; the story's energy comes from the protagonist's ruminations on his failures and lack of hope.

Verdict: Both stories are finely crafted; it's a matter of taste as to which, if either, you should read. Atmospheric and cinematic Southern horror, or woebegone lamentation for an empty future? Or both? Or neither? You should probably trust your gut with this decision; I'm confident I've given you all the info you need for a solid consumer decision.

The Bingo Master by Joyce Carol Oates Vs. Veres by Neven Usumovic.

The Bingo Master by Joyce Carol Oates: Oates has written warmly of H. P. Lovecraft, and has written quite a bit of Gothic fiction, so she could easily produce the kind of horror tale one might expect from a collection titled Dark Forces, but here the Dark Force is just a violently priggish jerk, which in some ways is scarier than imaginary boogers. It's a nonfantastical tale about a woman who is bright and ironic in her correspondence with female friends, but painfully uncertain in romantic relationships. The contrast between her sharp-witted internal monologue and her clumsy behavior makes her a compelling character; nowadays she'd be a big fan of The Toast (but then, who isn't?). She decides to discard her overdue virginity with a likely Lothario who runs the local bingo parlor. Shirley Jackson and Flannery O'Connor would probably approve of this sprightly yet distressing story about isolated oddballs who damagingly misunderstand one another. 

Veres / Neven Usumovic: A refugee in Budapest befriends a fellow exile who works at a Chinese restaurant. Their nervous conversations open up the absurd underground world of Budapest crime families. A story that begins at a favorite lunch spot becomes an account of evil children, bloodthirsty birds, exploitative human smugglers, and employers who may or may not be slavers. It's told with an off-the-cuff cheer and a deft sense of humor that delays but deepens the impact of the horror. The floating uncertainty of the refugee really comes through.

Compare/Contrast: In Oates, two people try to come to an understanding but fail due to utterly different sexual values. In Usumovic, two fellow countrymen come to an appalling understanding about the alliances they must make to survive in their new country. Both are horror in a flamboyant, expressionistic, but essentially reality-based mode.

Verdict: Read both.

Children of the Kingdom by T. E. D. Klein Vs. Bulbjerg by Naja Marie Aidt.

Children of the Kingdom / T.E.D. Klein: Put a big ol' trigger warning on this for rape and racism. It's like Where the Summer Ends, except it's New York, it's psychotically racist, its characterization is more type-driven, and it's a lot longer. Maybe Klein thought he was upending racism ("y'see, black people are scary but white underground troglodytes are even worse, get it?") but no sale. He'd need to have some black characters who amount to something more than "ghetto thug" or "Aunt Jemima" to have a shot at upending anti-black racism here. The story does generate some authentic terror; his rapacious sewer-dwelling sons of Cain do HORRIBLE things, and his depiction of a riot during a blackout conveys a powerful sense of why Guiliani got and held office. As an artifact of early 80s New York I suppose this story is of some future sociological value.

Bulbjerg / Naja Marie Aidt: A deeply disfunctional family trip. Aidt plays some intriguing games with her vile narrator, an unfaithful husband whose internal monologue uses variable tenses (you/she) to keep us guessing about when he's thinking of his wife, and when he's thinking of his lover/sis-in-law. Both parents live to protect their autistic son, and this may or may not be enough to keep them together. The poor family dog doesn't come out ahead. Aidt cites Cormac McCarthy as an influence. You'll believe it. This savage tale is a critic's darling prestige TV series waiting to happen, in the "conflicted sociopath" vein of Sopranos and Breaking Bad. I'd watch.

Compare/Contrast: Klein's scared of bogus bogeymen; maybe Klein 2016 isn't racist, but Klein 1982 published a grotesquely racist story (and overlong... odd that he's famous for writer's block. Maybe he figured out that black people aren't really evil and, deprived of racism, his muse dried up.) Aidt understands real evil. She also understands the ways that rotters try to grope their way toward some kind of goodness. Redemption isn't out of the question in Bulbjerg, but there are NO completely good adults here. Only kids and dogs are innocent, and they both suffer at the hands of the creeps in charge of their lives.

Verdict: I'll be looking for more by Aidt. I've got another story by Klein on my shelf, and I'll check it out due to his exalted reputation in the horror lit community, but the title is The Black Man's Horn so you know I'm not optimistic.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Horror Vs. Europe, Part 2.

Start here.

The Enemy by Isaac Bashevis Singer (Dark Forces) Vs. While Sleeping by Antonio Fian (Best European Fiction 2010)

The Enemy: Editor Kirby McCauley got Isaac Bashevis Singer to contribute to a grisly horror anthology! Well done. The narrator bumps into an old friend, who tells the tale of his shipboard battle against a sadistic waiter. A paranoid nightmare of refugee survivor guilt ensues. As dark as this might sound, Singer's celebrated yarnspinning style keeps the tone mercifully light; he's too confident a storyteller to burden the reader unduly. It's also rather distanced: it's all told from the frame story of a conversation between friends. The frame story, with two friends explaining themselves to each other, seems to be at least as important to Singer as the story within the story. 

While Sleeping: Imagine Donald Barthelme and Franz Kafka trying to make each other laugh, but they're both really sleepy and neither is even close to top form. Vignettes where things go horribly wrong, but people manage to contrive some absurd sense from it all. The author's note states that the author wishes he were better known for his longer work, not for these bite-sized whimsies.

Compare/Contrast: Both stories involve startling and distressing turns of events that the protagonists manage, however provisionally, to fit into a big picture sense of rightness.

Verdict: As fond as I am of Kafka and Barthelme, I can't work up much enthusiasm for While Sleeping, though it amused on a first pass. The Enemy seemed richer on a second pass. The pointless persecution which the waiter visits on Singer's hero is never stable; the pointlessly cruel waiter might be a manifestation of the protagonist's unconcious, or of evil cultural forces like antisemitism. Dark Forces wins this round.

Dark Angel by Edward Bryant (DF) Vs. The Murderer by Peter Terrin (BEF 2010) 

Dark Angel: a sociopathic modern witch revenges herself on a heel of an ex. The body-horror punchline gains a bit of resonance from the vexed portrayal of the protagonist's motivations: the ex really does deserve a comeuppance, but her supernatural payback may (or may not) be much too much, depending on one's point of view. This vexed portrayal of a vengeful woman shows her self-aware struggle against her own lack of compassion, but the prose style is flat, robbing the telling of savor. It reminds me of the moment in Our Town when the choir director chides the choir to remember that the Lord gave us music to bring folks pleasure. The Lord gave us prose for the same purpose. Bryant writes as though prose is a sorrowful obligation, but his tale could get a discussion group arguing the way Oleanna or Gone Girl did.

The Murderer. A man has murdered his neighbor. The story spirals out to reveal why and how, but also, slowly, reveals the sociopolitical environment that has made this event, and many more such, possible. Telling, specific details set this story on a much, much higher level than the thudding prose of Dark Angel. I haven't seen the Purge movies, but I suspect that someone involved in them might have read this story. As a North Carolina resident, where the socalled Bathroom Bill is a source of pride for our incurious dullard politicians, I'm delighted by this tale's dissection of how crapbrained lawmaking leading to social disfunction. So far, this is the best horror story I've read in this exercise. Catch up, Dark Forces.

The Crest of Thirty-Sixby Davis Grubb (DF) Vs. Zidane's Melancholy by Jean-Philippe Toussaint (BEF 2010) 

The Crest of Thirty-Six: Now I reckon you've heard tell of the classic film Night of the Hunter, where that Robert Mitchum fella has "good" and "evil" written on his fingers; well, as sure as molasses goes with biscuits, this here Grubb's the very soul what wrote the novel it's based on, and here he's done written us a yarn about a nervous wharfmaster and the mysterious witch-woman he's married. She's one of those shifting, liminal magic ladies that fantasy fiction serves up from time to time, and I knows some women who delight in such characters, and others what deplores them. Way I see's it, tain't no place of mine to go mansplaining one way or t'other which way you oughtta regard the situation. Also, Grubb writes in a slick-magazine version of folksy talk, and can't nobody plumb the depths of my liking for such tomfoolery, but if you cain't hardly stand such things, you might do well to put plenty of land betwixt you and this here tale.

Zidane's Melancholy by Jean-Philippe Toussaint: A tightly-packed prose poem on a real world athlete's final game, in which he finished his career by injuring another player. Athletes and artists are compared, the mysteries of perception vis-a-vis sports spectators are engaged, and Poundian footnotes abound to explain all the inside baseball, as it were, around the World Cup. It's more of a dense, wintry essay than a traditional story.

Compare/Contrast: Crest is old-school satisfying yarnspinning. Zidane is a delicate consideration of an event through multiple distancing lenses. 

Verdict: Read 'em both. If you read Zidane a second and third time for pleasure like I did despite not being a sports fan, HMU and we'll start a podcast.

Mark Ingestre: The Customer's Tale by Robert Aickman (DF) Vs. At the Sarajevo Market (BEF 2010) by Igor Stiks.

Mark Ingestre: The Customer's Tale: A young man in the Victorian era stumbles into the wrong Fleet Street barber shop, know what I'm sayin'? Although this story hails from the same era as Sondheim's magnificent musical on the same subject, it takes a different path: Sweeney Todd is a hypnotist rather than a throat slitter; the slide from Todd's customized chair to the basement happens with such mesmeric ambiguity that the unprepared reader will have no more understanding of what's just happened than the hapless customer; and Mrs Lovett is a slatternly seductress. A grotesque eroticism, no less troubling than the impending murder that our hero faces, demonstrates that great legends can be flexed in different directions. No "authoritative versions" are needed or desired; it's the rich malleability of tales like Todd's (though Todd is a minor player in this rendition, a mere gatekeeper to Mrs Lovett's lethal boudoir/kitchen/slaughterhouse) that makes them vital and enduring. Aickman's vivid depictions of settings and bodies, along with the formal yet pungent physicality of his prose, help to make this my favorite story in Dark Forces thus far.

At the Sarajevo Market: A couple visits a market in Sarajevo during its troubles in the 90s. The wares on offer have presumably been dug out of attics to raise some emergency capital, and the protagonists are mostly interested in what the merchandise reveals about the city's culture. Much bibliophiliac consideration of books for sale, and pondering of books' irrelevance to most people. Then the couples' attention turns to an antique engraved watch, as they imagine the fates of the lovers whose lives are suggested by this artifact. They give their speculative story a happy ending, but fail to bring such easy closure to their own teasing relationship, and we are left to speculate about their post-war fates just as they speculated about another unknown pair of lovers.

Compare/Contrast: The only connection I can make offhand between these very different tales is that both involve shifting and uncertain relationships in a context of broader uncertainty. Sarajevo's couple is never sure where their relationship, or the half-real, half-imagined relationship connected to an antique watch, are going, as war threatens everything and everyone they see. In Ingestre, a seduction disguises a maleviolent intent; a less subtle confusion, but if Ingestre had a Victorian smart phone handy he could update his relationship status to "It's complicated."

No, wait: both stories involve unreliable storytelling. Ingestre is an unreliable narrator for reasons that involve a frame story almost a century after the alleged encounter with Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd.

Verdict: Both are worth reading, but Ingestre's exploration of mesmeric gutter crime and lurid eroticism makes it essential.