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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, June 11, 2017

Outlaws and Inlaws, Part the First.

I'm reading The Best American Short Stories of the Century, Ed. John Updike and Katrina Kenison, and The Outlaw Bible of American Literature, Ed. Alan Kaufman, Neil Ortenberg, Barney Rosset. 

Here's what we got so far:

From Best American Short Stories:

Zelig, Benjamin Rosenblatt. 

A small-town Russian Jewish guy and his wife must uproot themselves from the only place they've ever known to go live in Big City USA and tend to their sickly son. Nothing to do with Woody Allen's movie of the same title. Zelig finds work but refuses to learn English or integrate, since he insists he'll be going back to the old village ASAP. Word comes down that the village is no place to be what with anti-semitic pogroms, but Zelig ain't trying to hear that. 

Zelig's basic issue is a reactionary clinging to the past in the teeth of time's forward hustle. I've been that guy, and I've also been the guy who's frustrated with that guy. Family and coworkers try to sort him out, but he's stupidly obstinate. The finale is tear-soaked in a way that would be completely unfashionable in the literary fiction of a generation later, but is evergreen in pop storytelling everywhere.

Little Selves, Mary Lerner. 

This is basically a time travel story, only it does without the science fictional apparatus of time machines, wormholes, etc., and relies simply on memory. Time travel stories are always about history and/or memory, and our traveler in this tale is a genteel woman at life's end. She seems to be out of touch, lost in senility, but she's reviewing her recollections with quiet, urgent intensity. There's a real sense of traveling and searching, as she constantly goes too far back in time, not quite finding the lost memory she's searching for, the one that will bring her life's trajectory into focus. Some of the memories are fantastical and (accidentally?) Freudian, but the key memory, once she discovers it, isn't about love; it's about unlocking her talents. Once she finds that crucial memory, she snaps out of her revery and reengages her family, doing memory-work with them, unspooling family history.

A Jury of Her Peers, Susan Glaspell.

A man has been murdered, probably by his wife. The law needs to find a motive in order to clinch the case, so the menfolk set about examining the house, looking for clues. They don't find any, because they are patriarchal nitwits, but their wives figure out exactly why this husband needed killing. Then they destroy the evidence. See if you aren't cheering them on by the finale. 

One lovely aspect of this story is the way the women, who barely know or trust each other, finesse their way to an understanding about what they percieve and what they believe needs to be done about it. Masterful storytelling from Susan Glaspell, who was a playwright. It shows in the subtle, cautious, inch-by-inch dialogue.

From The Outlaw Bible of American Literature, which consists mostly of bite-sized excerpts rather than full stories:

The Sexual Outlaw, John Rechy. 

This is about a Hollywood hustler, but you know what he really wants to be? A Hollywood hustler, that's what. A pagan lustiness infuses this cheerful tale that's almost a detective story, as our hero, like a detective, enters stranger's homes and figures out what their lives are about. Plenty of faded Tinseltown glamour to gawk at along with unlimited omnivorous sexual consent that's pretty much the opposite of my Calvinist antiflesh default settings. Off to a great start, Outlaw Bible!

The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros.

We only get a page from Ms. Cisneros, and while it's a sweet account of teenage unrequited yearning, I'm not sure how it qualifies as Outlaw. Judy Blume is racier, although this fragment is keenly aware of teenage sexual bargaining, and the cost of not joining the game (see above Re: Calvinist antiflesh).

Live From Death Row, Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Another one-page fragment. In this one, a man on death row can't touch his visiting daughter, to their mutual sorrow. Our own tough-on-crime security state is chastised, not for locking a criminal up, but for "securing" his weeping daughter from her father's touch. The prose pours on the melodramatics; the story is sorrowful enough for a more restrained treatment. The author was on death row when he wrote it, though, so he can be forgiven for having more urgency than delicacy.

Ballad of Easy Earl, Barry Gifford. 

A guy who's screwed up hits the road to escape town (or should that be Escape Town?); along the way, he remembers the sad story of a buddy who also screwed up. From the author of Wild at Heart, this story has sass and swagger, plus crime and the open road. Yum.

The Basketball Diaries, Jim Carroll. 

Some junkies drag themselves through the multiracial streets at dawn looking for an angry fix. Really gives you a sense of the grubby day-to-day of being very close to junky dead-endedness.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Horror Vs. Europe, Part Finale

This is the final installment of The Horror Vs. Europe smackdown in which I pit stories from the scareiffic horror anthologies Dark Forces (Edited by Kirby McCauley) and Best of Shadows (Ed. Charles L. Grant) against stories from Best European Fiction 2010 (Ed. Aleksandar Hemon).

The Silent Cradle by Leigh Kennedy Vs. Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

The Silent Cradle by Leigh Kennedy: It’s to Charles L. Grant’s credit that he ran so many feminist stories in his anthology. This one’s about a two-parent, two-child family that realizes it has a third, unseen child, somehow. All the manifestations of a child are there except for the physical presence of a child. The story proceeds to game out the logic of that premise, which is similar to the big secret at the heart of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, to a paradoxically sad conclusion. It does this well, but is a bit like a wind-up toy; once you see how it goes, there’s not much to do but watch it run its course. That sting in the tail resonates, though, even if one sees it coming. I’ve complained previously about genre fiction’s weakness for pointless gimcrack twist endings, but this one works because it’s more interesting as an endpoint than as a jumping-off point; added to which, it’s a strong thematic resolution.

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy: This is an extremely tantalizing excerpt from a novel that was shortlisted for the Booker prize. A woman who seems to be improvising her life, love- and otherwise, turns up at a vacation home, only there’s confusion about reservations and 2 families are already there. Things almost stay polite. Tensions and hostilities are just barely restrained. Someone’s going to have to leave.

Compare/contrast: Both stories involve an unexpected arrival who throws a family or two into confusion. The former plays out its odd logic in linear fashion, while the latter twists about and lets us feel the jerk of every curve.

Verdict: Kennedy’s story might have hit me more viscerally if its structuring near-absence was a cat instead of a child. I’ve checked Swimming Home out from the library.

Additional proof of Swimming Home’s worth: negative reviews from obvious dullards on Amazon. Yeah, yeah, smug elitism, boo hoo blubber sob, I’M A MONSTER.

Wish by Al Sarrantonio Vs. Ballad of Ann Bonny by Alasdair Gray

Wish by Al Sarrantonio: A child got a wish, so now it’s Christmas every day. Imagine every kitschy representation of secular Christmas reworked as a dystopian anime and you’re in the ballpark. Sarrantonio has written my favorite Ray Bradbury story of this whole review project, and that includes the one that was actually by Ray Bradbury.

Ballad of Ann Bonny by Alasdair Gray: This story is a nautical murder ballad in eccentric but highly readable verse. All the rhymes are interior, which, combined with differing line lengths, yields a drunken wave-tossed verse that suits this drunkard’s confession of nautical loves and hatreds. The material seems grounded in authentic folk sources, while the style is enlivened by modernist stylings.

Compare/contrast: Both stories draw on pre-20th century folk materials (Christmas kitsch, nautical ballads) for source material, and both involve terrible problems at high elevations (to say more would be spoilery for both). Wish is overtly fantastical, and delighted with its own cartoonish audacity (as was I); the latter is more subtly outlandish, and more genuinely sorrowful. It is about murder, after all.

Verdict: I endorse both. I wanna see the animated version of Wish, and hear the song setting of Ann Bonny.

The Spider Glass by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro Vs. Indigo's Mermaid by Penny Simpson

The Spider Glass by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro: Another retro club tale. This is my favorite of the batch. A desperate woman tries to rob, but is subsequently employed by, a mysterious lordly man who may, or may not, be a worthy employer/lover. But this gothic tale is mediated by the frame story, which plays smart games with the cozily chauvinistic norms of club tales; the usual tipsy, garrulous men become drunken, bitchy, sexist creeps. Yarbro seems half-fond of them, as one might be fond of naughty children or destructive pets, but her feminist critique of the genre’s assumptions makes this a lively text, even though it’s rather long and has made most of its points well before the end. (Yarbro has perhaps heard such complaints before; much of the story involves men complaining that the story is too long, and the storyteller struggling to keep control of his audience.)

Indigo's Mermaid by Penny Simpson. Here’s a suggestion for any film producers who wish they could do a Nicholas Sparks, but lack the money and connections to snag the option rights; give Penny Simpson a look. In this tale a bereaved artist father (his son was murdered in lurid fashion) confronts his own jealousy of his son’s accomplishments, and makes tearful peace with the late son’s bohemian girlfriend. If you can’t make a hit movie out of that, you best find a different career.

Compare/contrast: both stories proceed from men who are jerks, to men who aren’t. In Yarbro’s case she accomplishes this transition by introducing a guy who’s better than normal men (despite, or because, he is A VAMPIRE); Simpson follows one man who starts out bitter and cruel, but learns to Let Go and be nice to pretty girls. HOP ON IT, MOVIE PRODUCERS. Also, both stories are concerned with artistic work as a subject. Yarbro’s narrator luxuriates in the details of his story while struggling to pacify his quarrelsome audience. Simpson’s sculptor protagonist is constantly challenged by the crafted representations of both his son (whose sculptures pop up all over the place) and the young woman (who plays a mermaid in a shop window, and makes various attempts to explain her side of the story).

Verdict: I enjoyed spending time with Yarbro as she lobbed spitballs at Victorian Red Pill MRAs. Simpson’s story has serious commercial potential unlike this blog thank you and goodnight.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Horror Vs. Europe, Part 10

Sneakers by Marc Laidlaw Vs. Basilica in Lyon by David Albahari

Sneakers by Marc Laidlaw: A little boy is hassled by a wisecracking boogeyman who travels across the threshold of dreams and reality to torment kids in their beds. Sound familiar? If the story reads like a spec audition for some Nightmare on Elm Street franchise work, it has the pop-fiction virtue of briskness; Laidlaw's got storytelling skillz, though his lightly-sketched boogeyman is less surreal than pre-sequels Freddie. Instead of Elm Street, Laidlaw ended up writing video game materials for the Half-Life franchise and getting retweeted by Neil Gaiman, which is further than I've gotten in life, so mazel tov, Mr. Laidlaw. 

Basilica In Lyon by David Albahari: A young woman has a cruddy time of it hitching a ride to Lyon and getting hassled or deceived by everyone she meets. A Lynchian vibe pervades. Finally she solves her problems in metatextual Gordian Knot fashion by announcing to a crowd of supporting characters that they're free to abandon this track, since they're unbeholden to the story their "careless" storyteller has put them into.

Compare/contrast: Both stories play with the fuzzy boundary between reality and dream/fiction.

Verdict: Both were diverting, but felt like reiterations of other storytellers' more robust efforts.

The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands
 by Stephen King vs. Prompter by Peter Kristufek 

The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands by Stephen King: King's duplication of the old Club Tale style (in which the denizens of an old-school sexist men's club gather around the fireplace and relate strange tales) is clearly the product of having delved deep into the source material. King doesn't pastiche 19th century genre material as vibrantly as Gene Wolfe or Russell Kirk, but he doesn't shame himself either.  It's the second story I've read for this series of posts where a white westerner goes to the East and gets cursed (the first being Lindsay and the Red City Blues, which is more suspenseful). The narrator goes in search of the cursed man, and finds out that the indignities heaped upon the Victorian poor are as appalling as any hoodoo.

Prompter by Peter Kristufek: Robert Coover's spirit enriches this lip-smackingly cynical satire in which a rundown town pulls Potemkin Village shenanigans to bamboozle visiting pan-European VIPS. A dignitary unwillingly gives a dopey speech that the titular prompter feeds him, drop by drop. Kristufek skewers shallow civic-mindedness. It's an excerpt from a longer work, and feels more like a fragment than some other excerpts in Best European Fiction 2010.

Compare/Contrast: Both tales involve deceit and secrets in a vexed milieu of multicultural cross-pollination. In King's story the initial problem of a curse sets the narrator down a path which reveals to him the horror of poverty and stymied financial mobility. In Kristufek's sketchy but entertaining excerpt, Potemkin Village chicanery and knee-jerk provincial pride form a thin cover over civic dilapidation. Also, there's an element of heightened style to both stories: King pays tribute to an archaic mode, leaving his familiar modern locutions behind, while Kristufek maintains a sneering drollery.

Verdict: I suspect that first-generation club tales are probably more intriguing, if less concerned for the poor, than King's overlong pastiche. I'd like to read more of Kristufek's whimsically snotty civic protest, but I hope in long form he's able to infuse his gags with a bit more depth than is presented in this sliver of his work.

At the Bureau by Steve Rasnic Tem Vs. Do You Understand? by Andrej Blatnik

At the Bureau by Steve Rasnic Tem: An office worker is creeped out by a mysterious figure lurking outside his door, so he goes to lurk outside the figure's office door; it's a Moebius strip. Heavy, man. Such gamesmanship can resonate in the hands of, say, Edgar Allen Poe or John Barth, both of whom have played similar Doppelganger games with far greater richness. Editor Charles Grant writes a wayward rough-drafty introduction; I had more fun poking holes in it than in reading this remedial story.

Do You Understand?
 by Andrej Blatnik: Flash fictions about (mostly failing) relationships. Stuckness, hopelessness. Also , in one vignette, transphobia, although it's not clear whether transphobia is being enacted or mocked, since the transphobic character is cheating on his wife with a person of uncertain cis-ness, and his unease simulates, without being, guilt. 

Compare/contrast: Both stories involve conflicts with no likelihood of happy resolution.

Verdict: Tem's story is a clunker; you, dear reader, can come up with a more interesting doppelganger story in the time it would take me to find out which letter of the word "doppelganger" should have an umlaut. Blatnik suits my post-election gloom, but not my post-election need for agency and faith in human potential. And that's probably just how he likes it. 

Macintosh Willy
 by Ramsey Campbell Vs. Revelation on the Boulevard of Crime by Julian Rios

Macintosh Willy by Ramsey Campbell: Some wayward boys run afoul of a scary tramp; or is it the other way around? This is a story about being haunted: haunted by regret, haunted by fear, haunted by sexual failure. Also, being haunted by a dead tramp. 

Revelation on the Boulevard of Crime 
by Julian Rios: Deal with the Devil story meets Time Travel Paradox story, but not to the benefit of either. A certain density of historical detail adds texture for those who like density of historical detail.

Compare/Contrast: Both tales feature guys getting into long-term conundrums with creepy maybe-supernatural strangers. Campbell's story reads like a rueful memoir of misspent youth, while Rios' is more concerned with the literary trick of turning two thinly connected events (the taking of a photograph and the reprinting of that photograph in a book) into a predestination/doom situation.   

Verdict: It's not often that a story from the Horror side of this project trounces a story from the Euro side, but in this event I think Team Genre enjoys a clear victory. Ramsey Campbell is an artist of the sort that commercial horror fiction doesn't always deserve. His passion for language and his passion for people form a double helix.

Following the Way by Alan Ryan Vs. Noir in Five Parts and an Epilogue by Josep M Fonalleras

Following the Way
 by Alan Ryan: A young male narrator keeps getting recruited by his genial Jesuit instructor. Ryan's protagonist submits stories to The New Yorker and The Atlantic, and Ryan writes like someone who aspires to such markets; his well-manicured gentility and cultivated humility is clearly modeled on upmarket lit fic. SPOILER WARNING: Priests are all vampires. Oh Alan Ryan.

Reading stories like this has gotten me thinking about twist endings, and why most of them suk. Here's my rule of thumb: if you'd rather read a story that begins with that twist, the story is probably a dead loss. Wouldn't you rather read a story about vampire priests doing vampire/priest stuff, rather than a story about polite discussions with a priest that ends with the vampire reveal? Note that Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and The Ransom of Red Chief, two icons of twist ending excellence, pass my little test; they wouldn't be improved by beginning with the stings in their tails.

Noir in Five Parts and an Epilogue
 by Josep M Fonalleras: A guy hangs out in a brothel but mostly just makes awkward chitchat. Meanwhile, his ex researches a story by rolling with a (dirty foreign devil) truck driver who's running some horrifying contraband. What do these two narrative threads have to do with each other? Is it possible to rub up against the vilest crimes and remain untroubled? Dread of immigrants brings a regrettable touch of Lovecraft/Le Pen/Trump to the mix. Weird lingering questions and troubling clues mean you'll have to read this one twice. 

Compare/Contrast: Both stories circle around shocking revelations. One follows a familiar setup/punchline approach. The other staggers and layers its revelations, weaving horrors and banalities together in ways that reveal the secret crimes that are just outside the door if we only knew when to peek.

Verdict: Ryan's homogenized New Yorkerish style lacks the peripheral observations and sly wit of the real stuff, and his big reveal is a groaner. Fonalleras upset me and compelled me in equal measure. THAT is horror.

Next time: the final installment. *PHEW*

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Horror Vs. Europe, Part 9

Naples by Avram Davidson Vs. Didi by Michal Witkowski

Naples by Avram Davidson: I dunno what Naples did to deserve this treatment. The story is basically a guided tour of a terrible crappy rundown bad place which may or may not resemble the real Naples, but would have horrified the Naples Tourist Board, had this book been a best-seller. Then there's a supernatural sting in the tail which has little bearing on the rest of the story, and ought to have been the basis of its own tale. It feels like Davidson just wanted to character-assassinate a city, then slapped on a twist ending so he could sell it to the genre mags. 

BTW I haven't read much of Davidson's other work, but I have a lingering fondness for him because in high school I read aloud his much-anthologized story The Golem for Prose Reading competitions; it went down much more smoothly with judges than the Norton Anthology modernism I usually inflicted on them. Davidson's polished prose blends chatty mid-20th century "slick" writing with 19th century stylings that remind me, just a bit, of Gene Wolfe's more filigreed antiquarian approach in his Dark Forces installment.
Didi by Michal Witkowski: An extended excerpt from a longer work, this is an account of a teen trans streetwalker's life; adjectives like "gritty" fail to do justice. (There are only subtle hints that Didi is trans, but the author's note was more direct.) It's so deftly plotted, sympathetic, and incident-crammed that it manages to be entertaining despite, or because of, its horrifying verisimilitude. It's like drinking champagne made from subway mop water. 

Compare/Contrast: Both are tales of the naked, suppurating city. One feels like a whimsical hatchet job, the other like sympathetically researched reportage.

Verdict: I liked them both, but Didi is the one worth rereading for its sympathy-demanding portrait of down-and-out life. Naples felt like an amusing card trick with a muffed payoff. 

The Gorgon by Tanith Lee Vs. dona malva and senhor jose ferreiro by Valter Hugo Mae:

The Gorgon by Tanith Lee: A tourist swims to a small forested Grecian island despite cryptic warnings from the locals. There he encounters a sophisticated woman who wears a mask. Is she a Medusa? OR ARE WE?

This tale is prescient; a woman who hides her appearance and ought to be known for her knowledge and accomplishments is, nonetheless, known and judged only by her appearance. A tale for the Instagram age, way back in the 80s.

Lee requires no introduction for literary fantasy fans of a certain age, but I'll always regard her as the best Blake's Seven writer, admittedly not a high bar. She added romantic complications to the dying days of that space opera which the show both needed and squandered.

dona malva and senhor jose ferreiro by Valter Hugo Mae: (BTW the lower-case is the author's) Oh man, do you like haunted houses with bleeding walls? Do you like buggin'-out female hysteria? If not, buzz off. If yes, you need to check this story out. A shot of sawtooth horror with a spritz of magical realism.

Compare/contrast: A woman, viewed from a certain distance, has a rough time of it in both stories, more subtly in Tanith Lee's story.

Verdict: I want to read more from both authors.

Moving Night by Nancy Holder Vs. Three Hundred Cups by Cosmin Manolache:

Moving Night by Nancy Holder: A boy is terrified by the kinds of things that scare kids in the night, in the dark. But are this boy's fears vindicated? Reversals loop-de-loop in a concise, twisted shocker that recalls another horror classic, It's a Good Life. Sadly, the bathetic prose is much poorer than the structural cleverness. Imagine the dialogue in the dopiest flashback from the shoddiest serial killer movie. It's like that.

Three Hundred Cups by Cosmin Manolache: A visit to a history museum triggers a poetic rumination on Romanian history, then considers the cups cosmonauts used in space. The story turns into a poem, listing 300 metaphorical cups (that could be one: "The metaphorical cup") that the cosmonauts might have drunk, each one suggesting a lens through which one might perceive life afresh. And then the story slides into a gross misogynistic fantasy about impregnating a streetwalker. Yes, it's doing cunning metaphorical tricks, as the streetwalker is identified both with Russia and the cosmonauts' ship (her theoretical future fetuses are the cosmonauts, see, and...) but I found it awfully distasteful.

Compare/contrast: Both stories are kind of terrific and kind of crappy; clever, but undermined by something I find unacceptable. In Holder it's the prosecraft; in Manolache, his tasteless humor. Needless to say, terrible prose and gauche jokes are perfectly acceptable to many readers, so take my groans as you find them.

Verdict: Nancy Holder seems to have built a busy career writing genre and franchise fiction. I was sufficiently dazzled by her cleverness to consider checking in and seeing if she's refined her prose. I'm not looking for Nabokov here (clearly, or I wouldn't have made it this far into this ridiculous reading project). Manolache cast a gentle, oceanic spell over me, and then shattered that spell with his offhand misogyny. Nonetheless, I grudgingly recommend Three Hundred Cups. Manolache's narrative recalls Montaigne's essays, drifting along and offering a tool kit for looking at life from new angles. I guess I'm more of an aesthete than a moralist. The aforementioned Nabokov would be proud.

Jamie's Grave by Lisa Tuttle Vs. Friedmann Space by Victor Pelevin: 

Jamie's Grave by Lisa Tuttle: A single mom centers her life around her little boy, whom she adores. Lately, though, he's ditching her to go dig in the backyard and commune with a mysterious imaginary friend. Mom pines for the day when he was a cuddly, sweet-smelling baby. As is mandatory in all stories of this type, the imaginary friend isn't imaginary, and is SPOILER WARNING a babylike creature that smells and feels just like the boy did as an infant. In cuckoo's egg fashion, the creature replaces the boy in Mom's affections. 

Jamie's Grave is a clever use of an old narrative template to address issues of parenthood and misdirected love. It's a smart idea for a story, undermined by flavorless prose. Tuttle's account of a mother's thoughts and feelings for her child have heft, but there's not much imagination in her telling of it. Reading this story was a drag, but the payoff was as wise as the setup was dull. 

Harold Bloom cracked that anyone could retell Fall of the House of Usher better than Poe told it. I'm not cosigning that verdict, but it's an interesting way of looking at the validity of adaptation and retelling. In other words, Jamie's Grave could provide the basis for a crackling Twilight Zone episode, if and when they bring that back.

Friedmann Space by Victor Pelevin: Some Russian investigators discover that rich people are swallowed into a perceptual black hole that warps their view of the world in ways that no one can understand. The researchers use large sums of money to make people temporarily rich and study the results. This sly satire slips the scalpel into post-Communist Russian wealth while delivering absurdist twists. The ending complicates the social commentary (the researchers' methods are undermined by sloppiness, as happens in research more often than breathless science reporters like to let on) without blunting the satire.

Compare/contrast: Both stories take on big topics via an investigatory narrative. Both have a sting in the tail, although Tuttle's sting delivers the message, while Pelevin's is more of a rococo bonus.

Verdict: I've read 2 stories by Tuttle now, and while I respect her thoughtfulness, I'm bored by her prose. Apparently she's edited an Encyclopedia of Feminism, though, which I might check out. Pelevin and/or his translator keeps the prose lively, which you'd better do if you're going to write fiction about such potentially dry subjects.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Horror Vs. Europe, Part 8

I'm varying the format a bit here. 

BORING EXPLANATION QUARANTINE: The next horror story is The Mist by Stephen King, which is easily the longest of all the tales I'm considering in the Horror Vs. Europe project. Also, the roster of horror stories in the 2 anthologies has one story more than The Best European Fiction 2010, so I've pulled in a ringer to pair with The Mist: Boy In Darkness by Mervyn Peake, who's best known as the author of the Gormenghast novels.


The Mist by Stephen King. I'm not a Kingologist, so I can't situate this tale in reference to his oeuvre, but I see why he's so popular. He caught something of contemporary 80s urban life, with its distinctive blend of products, messages, and attitudes. His characters are often one-note caricatures, but they sound their single notes with emphasis, and they tote their narrative water efficiently. King is more thoughtful than his critics give him credit for, and one gets the feeling he'd be a delightful person to hang out with. He peppers his campfire tales with observations and ruminations that add heft to the incidents and provide thematic gravity. But perhaps most importantly, at least for his popular appeal, he handles the carpentry of suspense with a craftsman's pride. The value of this really jumped out at me because I recently read Dagon by local (to me) literary legend Fred Chappell. 

Dagon is the story of a young preacher who becomes completely subjugated by a cult of degenerate hillbilly lunatics. Very timely reading, since our country is in much the same fix. Also, there are references to Lovecraftian mythos lightly sprinkled throughout the story, although Lovecraft might have blanched at the explicit carnality of this novel (and most Lovecraft fans will be disappointed by the walk-on role assigned to Cthulhu et al) . It's fun to peruse various blogposts by more dedicated horror fiction bloggers and watch them wrestle with Dagon; many of them lament the lack of suspense. They ain't wrong. It plays out more like intense masochistic erotica than a suspense thriller; reading it is like pawing through a plague victim's soiled bedsheets. It's artfully repetitive, like drone music. King doesn't drone; he rawks. When King gets to the monsters and the battles, he gives you your money's worth and then some. (I loved Dagon. After Rump took the oath, I needed some harsh homeopathic treatment to prep me for the New World Odor. Dagon was just the thing.)

Mist, though, is kin to Day of the Triffids, the classic post-Blitz novel in which the sun sets on the British Empire because everybody's blind and huge monster plants are slaughtering everybody. Also, of course, Romero's zombie movies, in which the zombies are a problem but, as in Triffids, it's contentious fellow humans who make the real trouble.

Boy in Darkness is another tale of horror that doesn't bother with suspense particularly. Peake is famous for being a dense, difficult read, although his ornate prose style usually takes the blame. His indifference to keeping the pace taut (compared to King, anyway) is another reason his work doesn't move a lot of popcorn. 

In Boy in Darkness, a boy (basically Titus Groan, from the Gormenghast novels) wanders into the wilderness, only to be captured by Hyena and Goat, two animal-human hybrids who serve The Lamb, a sorcerous Dr. Moreau (or Circe) who yearns to transform Titus into a critter. Don't get too excited, Furry fans; The Lamb doesn't do cute and lovable. It turns people into twisted, spiteful beasts, or else unstable creatures that cannot live long (we learn about the late, lamented Lion, in one of Peake's characteristically melancholy and fragmentary digressions). Peake's gift for grotesques and cruel awe are much in evidence, although his famously rich prose is occasionally marred by cliches (some things are white as snow, heavy as lead, etc). The Lamb is anything but cliched, though; the mystery of this villain only deepens with its demise. The Lamb is ripe for resurrection by some stealthy fantasist.

Verdict:  I enjoyed The Mist well enough; it's the only 100+ page thrilling adventure tale I need this year. Boy in Darkness has Peake's trademark blend of antic and distressing characters and conundrums, and while Titus Groan and Gormenghast are richer and stranger, BiD is a worthy pendant.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Horror Vs. Europe, part 7

Owls Hoot in the Daytime by Manly Wade Wellman Vs. Fourteen Little Gustavs by Goce Smilevski

Owls Hoot in the Daytime by Manly Wade Wellman: A wandering adventurer meets a noble dwarf hermit in the woods, shares a meal with him, and learns about the scary cave-devil that the self-denying codger has been containing for a lifetime. Guess what happens then. When I was a kid I was entranced by a book titled Jack Tales by Richard Chase; it was a collection of fairy tales retold in an Appalachian idiom. Manly Wade Wellman is working in the same basic idiom. The battle between hero and devil is less interesting than the dinner and conversation between hero and old man. In a Jack tale, the hero would best the Devil with guile and cunning; here, he bests the Devil by pushing real hard. Still, it's Appalachian fantasy; I'll take all I can get.

 Fourteen little Gustavs by Goce Smilevski: In this excerpt from a novel, we learn that visionary painter Gustav Klimt (or at least this fictitious representation of him) didn't treat the women in his life as well as he treats your eyeballs. He sired a bunch of sons with a bunch of ladies, but his actual wife remained childless. This is the story of how she became a caregiver to all those sons, and how they tried to repay her once she was in a position to need help.

Compare/Contrast: Both tales involve self sacrifice that's motivated by necessity. In Owls a man lives alone in the woods, a self-appointed guard protecting travelers from a devil. He's a dwarf compensating for his outsider status, and choosing loneliness and terror over mockery. In Gustavs, a woman compensates for a faithless husband by providing for the children he has with other women.

Verdict: Owls is sweeter candy to me, but Gustavs is a tender meditation on how we make familial ties where we can find them, and how that isn't always enough.

Where There's a Will by Richard Matheson and Richard Christian Matheson Vs. Resistance by Stephan Enter:

Where There's a Will by Richard Matheson and Richard Christian Matheson: A guy's been buried alive. Little by little he fights his way out of the coffin, out of the grave. Then there's a twist ending (spoiler warning: he's a zombie). Richard Matheson was one of the key figures in 20th century horror; his Twilight Zone scripts alone make him legendary in the field, and Stephen King has cited him as a key influence. Matheson's son RCM is a punchy prosesmith in his own right. Together they craft a taut, detail-oriented action thriller with vivid physical and psychological detail that serves, rather than slows, the rockin' pace.

 Resistance by Stephan Enter: A confessional tale about a guy who regrets a youthful act of peer-pressured ingratitude. Dumb ideas about manliness lead a group of chess-loving boys to sneer at their nebbishy new tutor, even though he turns them into unstoppable chess warriors. If you're ever anguished about bad things you did when you were a kid, this is pretty close to trigger warning territory.

Compare/contrast: in both tales the protagonist fights the good fight, all the way to triumph, only to discover he's a loser in a bigger picture. One's a quick pulse-pounder which follows Poe's dictum that a story should have a continuous tone throughout; the other's a longer bildingsroman-in-a-bag which alternates cheer (it is about a group of boys doing something they enjoy, after all) and melancholy.

 Verdict: Read the first when you want an espresso shot of horror-tainment; read the second when you want to mourn the mentors you never hugged.

Traps by Gahan Wilson Vs. Waves of Stone by Jon Fosse

 Traps by Gahan Wilson: The great cartoonist, whose semi-melting figures are always embroiled in horror, gives us a whimsical tale of exterminators versus cunning rats. It's almost like one of his cartoons in textual form.

Waves of Stone by Jon Fosse: Literary minimalism that builds to a fantastical expressionism. A narrator, in a boat in a fjord, eavesdrops on a couple on a cliff over the sea. The boundaries between human and landscape dissolve, and this slippage between people and landscape takes on mortal significance. If Steve Reich and Magritte collaborated on a short story the result might be something like this.

Compare/contrast: In Traps, rats act like humans, specifically like canny guerrilla warriors, to the astonished horror of humans; in Waves of Stone, a complex slippage between people and landscape suggests that the conservation of mass and energy extends to departing souls.

Verdict: Traps is a bit of fun, though Wilson's cartoons are even more fun and even shorter. I love an ostentatious run-on sentence that utterly justifies itself, and Waves of Stone is built on such sentences, alternating with quick-chop bursts of dialogue. A quietly audacious study of loss and landscape, Waves of Stone is one of the most formally interesting stories in either collection so far.

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.