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Go out with you? Why not... Do I like to dance? Of course! Take a walk along the beach tonight? I'd love to. But don't try to touch me. Don't try to touch me. Because that will never happen again. "Past, Present and Future"-The Shangri-Las

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Horror vs. Europe, Part 3.

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.

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. The witch's self-aware struggle against her own lack of compassion gives her some moral depth, 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 protagonistsdo 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.