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 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.