Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Horror Vs. Europe, Part 9


Start here.

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.

YOU ARE NOW LEAVING THE QUARANTINE ZONE

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.