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.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Horror versus Europe, Part 1.

Everywhere I go, everyone asks me the same question: "Should I read the classic horror fiction anthologies Dark Forces and The Best of Shadows, or should I instead read Best European Fiction 2010?" I'm always embarrassed to admit that I've never read any of them... until now.

Dark Forces. A classic anthology of horror fiction from 1980, edited by Kirby McCauley.

The Best of Shadows, another anthology of horror stories, this one edited by Charles L. Grant.

Best European Fiction 2010. Another anthology, edited by Aleksandar Hemon. 

Here's the deal: the 2 horror collections, combined, have roughly the same number of stories as the European Fiction 2010 anthology. I'm going to read through the books, and pair one horror story with one European story, giving a post to each pairing. The first story from Dark Forces gets paired with the first story from BEF 2010, then the second story from DF with the second from BEF 2010, etc.

First up: The Late Shift by Dennis Etchison Vs. The Country Where No One Ever Dies by Ornela Vorpsi.

Late Shift: a (presumably white) guy and his Native American friend (who, like all Native Americans in supernatural stories, is mystically plugged in to relevant lore) bump into an acquaintance who is now working the late shift at a crummy convenience store and seems really confused by life. The protagonists do some sniffing around and discover that someone is using dead bodies, between death and burial, to do a little extra zombie slave labor in... crummy third shift jobs. The conspiracy doesn't want word to get out.

Etchison's interest in the unglamourous side of modern American life is intriguing in a Denis Johnsonish way, and his use of the zombie trope as a tool for interrogating labor exploitation (not for nothing is the zombie friend Latino) is clever, but Etchison shifts from the horror of dead-end employment to pro forma thriller stuff. If only he'd seen his better ideas through instead of coasting into routine cat and mouse claptrap. 

In one odd scene, a villain witnesses for Christianity to another villain. In some writer's hands this would just be a cheap swipe at religious hypocrisy, but Etchison seems to understand the way people who do bad things try to maintain some faith in their own goodness... as well as a religious sense of meaning to justify exploitation.

Fun bit from Etchison's bio: "He is also keenly interested in screen writing..." That's one way to hang out your shingle.



The Country Where No One Ever Dies: A confessional tale with the feel of a fable. People in Albania are too tough to die, especially mean aunts who keep picking on you about how you're gonna grow up to be a slut because your mom's beautiful and your dad left. Without being a horror tale, this is full of ambiguous intimations of death, along with youthful worries about sexuality, and ironic scrutiny of social expectations in conservative cultures. Where Late Shift plays on the alienation of modern society, The Country Where No One Ever Dies plays on the tight, tight bonds and binds of a family-rooted culture that is always watching and judging. 

Compare/Contrast: Both stories suggest a culture that has a lot of activity but that regulates that activity with constrictive boundaries and a lot of nasty dead ends. Both use understated comic hyperbole to emphasize their angry satirical points. (I insist on the validity of the word pairing "understated hyperbole").

Verdict: Etchison lets thriller rigamarole dissipate the more interesting elements of his story. Vorpsi stays locked in to her real subject, and her story stays powerful all the way through.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Memo Random; or, Blog's Not Dead

Recently I read The Call of Cthulhu for the first time since adolescence, and the first thing I noticed was how psychotically racist it is. It's hard to believe I didn't pick up on this obvious fact as a young reader, but I had a tendency to airbrush out disappointing aspects of things I wanted to love.

Some Lovecraft fans try to shuck and jive their way around the racism so as to enjoy everything that's rewarding about Lovecraft without the unpleasantness (they do similar desperate workarounds for his frequently dismal prose style). But in Call of Cthulhu there's no getting around it; racism is at the thematic core of the story.

For those of you who haven't read it, the story is one of the most complex and successful iterations of a standard Lovecraft setup: an anxious young man's uncle dies, and the young man takes up the late uncle's research into a mysterious cult that seems to exist all over the world. Wanna find your local chapter of the Cthulhu cult? Just look for some people who aren't white. If they aren't in the cult, they'll be able to direct you to people who are. The cult is an open secret to everybody who isn't white and educated; the story follows the narrator's research into this cult (research plays the same role in Lovecraft that more direct investigation does in most genre fiction, which helps explain Lovecraft's appeal to bookish nerds like me), which worships a psychic leviathan that slumbers the eons away in an Atlantis-like sunken city. From time to time the island city bobs to the surface, and cultists have a chance to go there and awaken Cthulhu; during these times of opportunity, Cthulhu's psychic dreams are broadcast around the world, riling up all the cultists and troubling the slumbers of "queer" effete aesthetes, presumably because, despite being (in many cases) white and educated, queer effete aesthetes are on the fringes of "normal" society, and in a border zone between Lovecraft's people and The Racial/Cultural Other.

Lovecraft blood libels the hell out of nonwhites, and presents Cthulhu as a source of terror to anyone who isn't a murderous human-sacrificing cultist.  The narrator's uncle died, seemingly of natural causes, after being bumped by a "nautical-looking negro" whom the narrator speculatively accuses of poisoning his uncle in order to prevent him from getting any closer to The Horrible Truth. Lovecraft never reveals exactly what Cthulhu is gonna do once it's awakened; one cultist, Old Castro, claims that cultist theology has it that Cthulhu will usher in something that sounds a bit like The Jazz Age as seen through the eyes of a blood-libeling racist, and a bit like what white nationalists, bitterly clinging to their guns and Turner Diaries, fear: nonwhites gaining more power and cultural cache than whites (One reason this story linger in the memory is its Saragossa Sea of nested narratives, with a multiplicity of narrators whose unreliability is left completely open). The story ends with a batch of white sailors massacring a shipload of cultists in one of the story's several exterminate-the-brutes racism orgies, then inadvertently awakening Cthulhu; this confrontation is memorably bananas, and the unveiling of information continues Lovecraft's clever play on the nature of research. For example, we learn the names of the 3 sailors Cthulhu scoops up, but we don't learn what happens to them afterward; as in real research, you get a surfeit of data, but not enough answers. Nerd canon has it that Cthulhu eats the sailors (leading to the internet slogan/joke "Cthulhu will eat us all," and if your response to that joke is to clutch your sides and shriek "I'm gonna pee! I'm gonna pee!" then by all means you should seek out as much Cthulhu humor as possible, because it's all that good) but there's nothing in the text to tell us what happens next. Perhaps Cthulhu adopts them as pets. That's a spinoff story waiting to happen: what it's like to be the hostage/pet of a slumbering psychic monster god.

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I've read Moby Dick recently. It's interesting to read it through the lens of Cthulhu, since both stories involve a quest for a terrifying ocean monster, as well as racist depictions of nonwhite sailors. Moby Dick's racism is more complex than the narrow neurotic loathing in Loathcraft (see what I did there? Aren't you glad I'm blogging again?) and Melville at least seems to regard a multiracial society as more fun than an all-white one. He adheres to white supremacy, but with less certitude than poor pitiful Lovecraft. The early chapters of Dick throb with homoeroticism, as narrator Ishmael falls in love with his cannibal friend Queequeg. (Spellcheck recognizes Cthulhu but not Queequeg, which tells you everything you need to know about The Coding Class.) If Melville was submitting his manuscript today, the savvy modern editor would insist that the rest of Dick include a whole lot less in the way of essays on the cosmic overtones of 19th century whaling practices, and a whole lot more bunk sharing between Ishmael and Queequeg. Anyway, both stories end with a long-sought Monster rising out of the ocean, slaughtering almost everyone, and escaping. In Melville the Monster is a really big and really strong version of a real creature that just wants to be left alone; in Lovecraft the creature is a chimeric made-up "gelatinous" god, which either suggests Terrifying Breaches in the Universe or utter silliness depending on one's willingness to go where Lovecraft leads. Melville is unquestionably the greater writer with greater scope to match; he is willing to rhapsodize about the joys of life and, in equal measure, stare without flinching at real horrors; Lovecraft invents horrors that aren't necessarily there.

I'm also listening to an audiobook of Lovecraft tales, and many of his stories are reversible garments. If one reads with the assumption that Lovecraft is desperately blood-libeling his monsters, smearing his racist anxieties onto his imaginary Others, then the stories are wide open to positive reinterpretations; the horror drips away. (Another Cthulhu spinoff story waiting to happen (if it hasn't already): Cthulhu as seen from a non-racist, non-blood-libeling perspective, in which the creature is revealed as the harbinger of a golden age of equality.)

 Dagon, an early embryonic iteration of the boilerplate Lovecraft narrative formula, is an effective chiller about a castaway who discovers amphibious intelligent life that appears to have religion, art, and writing of its own. The creature never threatens the narrator, merely appears and worships at a shrine, but the narrator, in telling this tale, frames it with a heavy dollop of "I'm suicidally despairing, and you'll understand why when I tell you my story." Well, no, I don't. Granted that different people respond to trauma in different ways, but suicidal despair doesn't seem like the most likely response to discovering alternative intelligent life... unless you're so super racist that you're racist against nonhuman intelligence. Sure, it'd be scary to encounter such a creature unexpectedly, but afterwards I'd think most people would say "Fire up the Bathysphere! Let's go say hi to our neighbors!"

Perhaps Lovecraft realized that he hadn't quite managed to harness his narrative engine to his neurotic thematic cargo, which led him to the healing power of blood libel. Way to problem solve, dude. Speaking of which, his story The Whisperer in Darkness is a hilarious example of what happens when someone who sucks at problem solving tries to plot a tale about an unsolvable problem. Basically, the main character's attitude is "To get away from the scary monsters, I'd have to go outside, but that ain't gonna happen." Maybe that's not so absurd; I know (heck, I've been) the guy who'd rather stay inside and be miserable than go outside and possibly find a solution to his problems, although my problems didn't come in the form of giant dog-killing bat-winged muttering crabs from space. If they had I woulda left, man.

Another intriguing Lovecraft tale: The Rats in the Walls. A cunning (and as usual, super-racist) riff on Fall of the House of Usher (of which Harold Bloom memorably claimed(on a Radio Open Source interview that I can't find online) that anyone could retell it better than Poe told it). This tale uses eclectic multi-culti architecture as an objective correlative for Miscegenation. Oh, Lovecraft. It's also a good read for anyone with house maintenance problems that extend underground.

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Speaking of dodgy pulp writers, I'm listening to the audiobook version of V. C. Andrew's Flowers in the Attic. As better folks than myself have pointed out, it's really bad on a lot of levels, but I find it well worth engaging. Writer M. John Harrison once blogged (I'm paraphrasing from memory, here) that a writer/artist should give you a taste of an individual mind, and Andrews certainly does that. NO one else would say that a missing husband has "found another super-broad."  The most astonishing thing about the book, more than the creepy incest/BDSM fantasies that throb through it, is just how ANGRY it is. I don't know much about Andrews as a person, but for all her sentimentalism and tenderness, she was really mad at somebody, and she poured all that scorching bile into her writing, to jolting affect. No wonder this book found an enthusiastic audience; it's steamy and sordid and naive and viscous. What teen could resist?

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Submit to Lulu

I'm fascinated by Franz Wedekind's Lulu plays, which are the basis for both the classic Louise Brooks film Pandora's Box and the opera Lulu by Alban Berg. Lulu is the kind of woman men ruin their lives for, and her romances tend to end in syphilis, suicide, or murder. She's often regarded as a femme fatale, but in my view the fatalities owe more to pre-feminist sexism than malice on her part; Lulu keeps bumping up against male expectations that she cannot/will not fulfill, and the men respond very, very badly. The play exists in several versions, since Wedekind had to rewrite his original single-play version to get past the censors, and Wedekind revised the details continually, expanding one play into two. The plays are also filled with odd details that don't necessarily advance the narrative but do lend texture to his expressionistic social critique. As a result, the material is bottomless; every engagement turns up fresh connections and possibilities.

Anyway, there's a scene in some versions of the play in which Lulu browbeats her favorite lover, Dr. Schon, into writing a breakup letter to his fiance. Lulu dictates the letter, and he writes it while moaning about how ruinous this is. Sure, it's a femme fatale moment, but Lulu and Dr. Schon have had a tortured on-again off-again relationship for a long time (he was her foster father before he was her lover; such is the ickyness of Wedekind's world). It only recently occurred to me that they may have done dry runs for this letter-writing domination before. It may be that writing (or transcribing) this letter, which destroys Dr. Schon's forthcoming marriage along with his hard-won reputation, is the most erotically thrilling moment of Dr. Schon's life. Compare and contrast to the depressing fetishes of financial domination and erotic blackmail (don't worry; this is a link to a Salon article, not a smut site). 

One big difference between the silent Pandora's Box and the Lulu plays is the representation of (big spoiler warning) Jack the Ripper, who murders Lulu at the end. In the silent film he's sentimentalized, a Nice Guy with a Hands of Orlac problem. The plays have no time for such nonsense. Wedekind's Jack (who isn't necessarily meant to be Jack the Ripper, but he is a murderer of prostitutes in Victorian Whitechapel so y'know) is pure dirtball. He haggles over the price of a night with Lulu and cuts an absurdly skinflint bargain; it comes across as low-grade sadism. Lulu gives in to this loser because poverty, prostitution, and life on the lam have left her bereft of hope and resources. No more power games; she just wants someone to hold her through the cold night, and without her wiles she's unprotected against the male rottenness she's always fended off before. In the filmed opera production starring the luminous Christine Schafer, it's suggested that Jack's haggling is motivated by anxiety rather than sadism, as if he's half hoping she'll throw him out and he won't give in to the demons driving him, which is a sensible (and probably realistic) compromise between the tortured representation of the movie and Wedekind's utterly non-romanticized Ripper. Still, as I read it, Jack's chiseling is motivated by nothing more than dull-witted sadism, and if I were directing a production, I'd want Jack to be pure garbage person; after all, he was.

I have a sweet tooth for shows like Chris Carter's Millennium, a corny post-Lecter dollop of risible serial killer chic. Its villains are the logical descendants of the baddies in Thomas Harris's novels; they are motivated by absurdly rococo Rosicrucian schemes. Wedekind's Ripper is the antidote to all that claptrap; the dumb, reeking, jizz-stained banality of evil.

Other nasty nuggets from Wedekind's plays:

One act takes place in Paris, where we find that the upper crust men of Paree are all blatant predatory pedophiles, begging a mother they know to let them debauch her young daughter. Mom demures but keeps hanging out with these guys, who apparently debauched her when she was her daughter's age. Their subplot does not end happily.

At one point Dr. Schon's son, who grew up as stepbrother to Lulu, is lying in her lap and boo-hooing to her about how he's always yearned for her. She tersely confesses that she poisoned his mother (while Lulu was still quite young, but already in love with Dr. Schon). They are immediately interrupted by the Doctor. Despite plenty of opportunity, neither of them ever raises the issue again.

Countess Geschwitz, a wealthy lesbian, proves that a woman can do anything a man can do, including ruin her life for Lulu. She dies (of cholera in some versions/translations, but of Ripper slaying in others) after witnessing Lulu's murder, and gets the last words of the play. In the original German the last words are actually a repeated nonsense syllable, "Sch... sch..." A chilling end to a mournful play. English translators insist on rendering this as "Shit!" or variations thereon, with the exception of Edward Bond, who changes the word to "Submit..." Mr Bond is known for his angry leftist politics, and perhaps this "submit" was intended as some kind of sociopolitical protest against exploitation of women/the working class. Or maybe he was drunk that year. Anyway, the poor Countess is the only one of Lulu's circle who never betrays Lulu, even though Lulu repeatedly exploits her and tosses her aside. Apparently the masochistic lesbian is a cliche that modern lesbians are done with, but perhaps it wasn't so musty a hundred-plus years ago.

Oh, there's loads more nastiness where that came from. The Lulu plays by Franz Wedekind. Gobble 'em up. They're delicious. I named my cat Lulu.

Also, if you're not convinced that these depictions of fin de siecle decadence are relevant to today, they're a subplot about overhyped tech stocks ruining peoples' fortunes.