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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

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.

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 happen 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 men 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.