Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Dracula Papers: The Scholar's Tale

For lack of a better way to begin this review, I'm going to mention a few things that The Scholar's Tale, the first book of Reggie Oliver's Dracula Papers tetralogy, is not.  It's not really a "strange story" in the way of Oliver's short fiction.  There are short flashes of that kind of thing, particularly near the end of the book, but they're definitely more the exception than the rule.  Also, despite what the title may make some readers expect, this isn't a vampire novel in the familiar sense of that label.  Various forms and aspects of vampirism, both literal and metaphoric, pop up at intervals, but don't expect missing reflections, brandished crosses, or mysterious neck wounds.  In fact, I might argue that The Scholar's Tale isn't a horror novel at all.

What is it, then?  Well, if you put a gun to my head, I'd go with the overarching label "Gothic."  But Gothic is one of those words that can mean just about anything depending on who's using it, so let me expand on that.  For me, the essence of the Gothic is some form of exaggeration or excess.  It can be narrative (unlikely events), stylistic (fevered prose), or thematic (taboo issues), or all three at once.  In the case of The Scholar's Tale, it's most definitely narrative.  This is the kind of novel where the protagonist narrowly escapes death three times in the first hundred pages, meeting a female outlaw queen, the Holy Roman Emperor, and the Wandering Jew along the way-- and that's before he even reaches Castle Dracula.  It's the kind of novel where every castle has secret passages, and every resident of every castle has dark secrets, where a ten page diversion into a side-story of murder, lust, or religious mania is all part of the fun.  And The Scholar's Tale is most definitely a lot of fun.  It's also something more than that, however, which is a topic to which I'll return shortly.

But first, a plot summary.  What exactly are the Dracula papers?  The book opens with a fictional "introduction" credited to Reggie Oliver, which fans will recognize as a modified version of the story "The Devil's Number."  It transpires that Oliver has, as Gothic novelists will, uncovered a trove of papers, this one collected by Abraham van Helsing and relating to the life of Count Dracula.  There follows a foreword written by van Helsing sometime after the events of Dracula, though the "amusing" mangled English of Stoker's novel is pleasantly absent.  Then we come to the meat of the text, an autobiography of sorts written by the Renaissance scholar Martin Bellorius.  While still a young man, Bellorius was invited to become tutor to the sons of the King of Transylvania.  More than fifty years later, he sat down to describe those events, and the dark shadow they cast over the rest of his life.

Readers of Oliver's short fiction will know that, like the great M. R. James, he is a master of historical pastiche.  Here he manages to echo the straightforward, slightly pedantic style of Renaissance treatises (or rather, of the nineteenth-century English into which they were translated) without ever becoming boring.  Bellorius may stop, as a scholar would, to describe the detailed layout of a series of rooms based on the Kabbalah, but his language has a simplicity and a deceptive delicacy that makes it all read very quickly.  (I sped through the last 400 pages in a single night.)

This clarity of language, and the book's rollicking plot, may make it seem like The Dracula Papers is a mere potboiler, a vaguely historical, vaguely horrific entertainment that can be forgotten as soon as it's put aside.  But that's hardly the case.  Oliver once described M. R. James as a classicist writer, explaining that "the classicist believes in the principle that art lies in the concealment of art, in a pellucid surface with hidden depths."  I have no idea whether Oliver would call himself a classicist, but such concealed issues are at the heart of The Scholar's Tale.  This is a book that, without calling attention to itself, examines the complex, self-defeating hungers that define us as human beings.  The brutality and excess of the Gothic novel are not mere lurid diversions, but a lens through which to view our desire for love, power, life itself.

It's hard to be more specific about Oliver's thematic intentions with this epic story, because The Scholar's Tale is only the first quarter of it.  This also leads to my one minor frustration with the book.  Bellorius, a good Gothic narrator, constantly hints at some great darkness toward which the events he describes are leading, to the point where he is himself a terrified, haunted old man.  As the book rolls on, there is much drama and much tragedy, but nothing that exactly lives up to his dire warnings.  The ending is also slightly abrupt; I can see how it represents a turning point, and there's a wonderfully chilling revelation mixed in, but I also felt a sense of anticlimax that was difficult to shake.

Perhaps, though, that was only because I didn't want the story to be over, didn't want to have to wait for the publication of the second volume of The Dracula Papers, about which the Afterword to Book I offers some tantalizing hints.  I wanted, and want, more of this wide-ranging, funny, frightening, and thoughtful Gothic extravaganza.  The Scholar's Tale was one of my favorite books of recent months.  And it also contains this delightful sentence: "Meanwhile Razendoringer came up behind him and thrust the boat hook up his rectum."  How can you not want to read more about that?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Zombie Apocalypse!

I don't like zombies.

There aren't many monsters about which I'd make that kind of blanket statement.  I like ghosts.  A lot of the time I like vampires.  Werewolves have their moments.  Mummies... You know, I can't think of a single mummy story I've ever read.  There must have been at least one, but nothing comes to mind.  I don't dislike the idea of mummies, anyway.  But zombies.  Zombies bore me.

That doesn't mean I've never liked a zombie short story.  In fact, I can name five I've admired, right off the top of my head.  "Granny's Grinning" by Robert Shearman, "Wake-Up Call" by David J. Schow, "Nvumbi" by Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem, "The End of Everything" by Steve Eller, and... and....

Note to self: go back and change "five" in the previous paragraph to "four."

Anyway, the point is that I don't hate zombie fiction on sight.  The reason so much of it bores me is that of all horror monsters, zombies seem to me to offer the least potential for innovation.  They are, in the vast majority of stories, brainless, so how much can a writer do with them?  Obviously there are ways around that: each of the stories I mentioned above does something new, either with the zombies themselves or with the humans around them.  That's what I want from a zombie story: a novel way of looking at the concept.

All of which is by way of saying that I am probably not the best person to review Stephen Jones's recent anthology Zombie Apocalypse!  I picked it up based on the names of some of the contributors (Michael Marshall Smith, Tanith Lee, Kim Newman, etc.) and on Jones's deserved reputation as a top-notch editor.  I hadn't realized, however, how thoroughly the book's central conceit had been implemented.  As the cover copy says, this "epic story" is "told through a series of interconnected eyewitness narratives-- text messages, e-mails, blogs, letters, diaries, and transcripts."  Not only that, but each page is made to look like the narrative it includes.  If it's a handwritten diary entry, it appears handwritten, on a lined piece of notebook paper.  If it's a collection of Tweets, it looks like a printout of a Twitter feed.  The authors and story titles aren't even given on the first page of each story; for that information, you have to turn to the copyright page at the back.

In evaluating this approach, it's tempting to make comparisons with Max Brooks's World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, which also dealt with a global zombie outbreak via a series of personal accounts, though that was a single-author book and didn't try to mimic the layouts of its various narrative strands.  But I'm not going to go down that road, both because it's been a while since I read World War Z (at least two-and-a-half years), and because I don't think comparison would necessarily be revealing.  What I will say is that the existence of World War Z, and the ongoing resurgence of zombie fiction launched by Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Beating A Joke into the Ground, only increased the need for Zombie Apocalypse! to bring something new to the table.  And that, unfortunately, is where I felt the book fell flat.

Before I get to that, though, a few thoughts about the epistolary structure.  Many first person narratives are simply unrefined description of events, straight from the mind of the protagonist, rather than "real," refined written records or monologues.  Therefore, exposition, unnecessary detail, writerly asides, can all be explained by the conventions of fiction.  Something that presents itself as an actual document, however, doesn't have that luxury.  And the need for realism becomes all the more pressing when you mimic the actual format of the document itself.  The stories in Zombie Apocalypse! sometimes manage this, but more often they feel strained and unlikely.  I had particular problems with Robert Hood's "Wasting Matilda," in which the zombies reach Australia.  The bulk of the story is a transcript of a transmission received from a pilot after her plane crash.  With occasional pauses for a drink of water, she talks for 24 straight pages, remembering exact quotes from people she met and offering philosophical asides.  It doesn't help that she talks in implausible sentences like "The horror of these plague victims was making me physically ill" and "Faced by these utterly unnatural creatures-- the abysmal absence in their eyes, the inhumanity that threatens all the long-held notions you've ever had of the sanctity of life, the absolute nature of death and the stability of the existential world-- any pretense to notions of heroic action simply drain away."

Beside the inherent problem of realism in this format is the issue of gimmickry.  After I started to feel that too much attention had been paid to coming up with new media to co-opt.  Tweets and text messages and e-mails and a webcam transcript and and home-made video transcripts and...  It can seem too flashily clever and modern.  But I could look past these complaints if the book as a whole had something deeper to offer.  But I don't think it did.  Too many stories showcase a flat stock character (a silly teenage girl, a zombie nerd, a horny Twitter user) and throw zombies at him or her.  And the ending is almost always the same, which means that underneath its play with forms the book is quite repetitive.  The best sections are the earlier ones, as the zombie menace slowly reveals itself.  Because they're not dodging brain-eaters, the characters have more space to reveal themselves as characters with histories and personalities.  However, here as elsewhere they're often reduced to types.  This is the opening to Sarah Pinborough's "Diary Entry #1":
OMG! I'm 13. Finally! At last! A teenager!! I wonder if I look any different? I sooo feel different, even if I'm not having a great big grown-up party like Emma Bolton and Charlotte Partridge had last month. (Joint of course, cos like the Barbies could ever do anything apart???) I don't even really want a huge party but if I had one I wouldn't invite them anyway cos they never invited me to theirs even though they invited George-- but that was probably just to get Alex to go. (Alex-- sigh.)
That's cute enough, although a little goes a long way, but instead of an actual teenager's diary, it feels like the distilled cultural notion of the Teen Girl Diary.  Likewise, the zombie nerd who writes the blog in Lisa Morton's "They're Coming to Get You!" is a young wiseass with a lot of knowledge and girlfriend problems.  Not quite groundbreaking. In a movie, brought to life by an actor with specific mannerisms, he'd be an interesting character, but on the page he falls flat.  Peter Atkins satirizes Hollywood in "The Show Must Go On," but it's the same kind of Hollywood satire that's been on offer for years now (liberties with the facts! brainless action films with lame one-liners! and the great whipping boy of 21st-century pop culture, reality TV!), amusing but a little stale.

I don't mean to suggest that I disliked all the stories in Zombie Apocalypse!  Christopher Fowler's "Dead Ground Zero," which details a lone scholar's desperate attempts to warn the British government that its plan to dig up an ancient cemetery is a Very Bad Idea, was fun and subtly spooky, and Paul Finch's "Special Powers" made good use of the police-report format to control paced and create tension.  (It's pulled down a bit though by its one-dimensional antagonist, an authoritarian careerist who's also cheating on his wife, just in case we hadn't understood that he was the bad guy.  Part of the context for the zombie outbreak is an increasingly controlling UK government, which is a very real issue but which is treated throughout the book in ways that make Avatar seem nuanced.)  And there's my personal favorite, "The Reign of Santa Muerte" by Mark Samuels, which offers the last ever broadcast of a Mexico City radio station, as its reporters investigate rumors of a pseudo-Catholic zombie cult in the barrio of Tepito. 

But even these fine stories don't stand out as they should, because of the overall sameness of Zombie Apocalypse!  In nearly every story, the zombies reach a new location and we learn via a new narrative format how they overwhelmed it.  The characters whose lives they disrupt have some depth, but not enough to make me care whether they live, or die, or die, and then come back to life hungry for brains.

Despite these causes of dissatisfaction, I have to concede that Zombie Apocalypse! works well on the level it's aiming for.  Most of the stories are well-written, the epistolary structure makes for a quick, engaging read, and there are a few nice moments of brain-crunching, monster-crushing terror.  For fans who can't get enough of the zombie menace, I'd strongly recommend this book.  Those who are less enthusiastic about the undead may want to proceed more cautiously, but will probably find something to enjoy here as well.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Sub Rosa

Travel is a good thing; it stimulates the imagination.  Everything else is a snare and a delusion.  Our own journey is entirely imaginative.  Therein lies its strength.
This quote from Louis-Ferdinand Celine, used as the epigraph for Robert Aickman's novelette "Never Visit Venice," could also serve for the entire collection in which it appears.  Seven of the eight stories in Sub Rosa features some form of travel.  Whether it's a business trip to Bedfordshire or a vacation to Belgium, Aickman's characters leave home and encounter ghosts and other mysterious phenomena.  Aickman called his work "strange stories," which is as good a label as any for the elusive and allusive feel of his fiction.  It's difficult to describe the nature of his work, or its likely effect on any reader.  His sensibility either appeals or it doesn't.  As Neil Gaiman once said,
I think that Aickman is one of those authors that you respond to on a very primal level. If you're a writer, it's a bit like being a stage magician. A stage magician produces coin, takes coin, demonstrates coin vanished... That tends to be what you do as a fiction writer, reading fiction. You'll go, "Oh look. He's setting that up."...Reading Robert Aickman is like watching a magician work, and very often I'm not even sure what the trick was. All I know is that he did it beautifully. Yes, the key vanished, but I don't know if he was holding a key in the hand to begin with.
 For myself, I think Aickman wrote some of the greatest ghost stories of the 20th century, but also produced some real clunkers, fiction in which his motifs and preoccupations are tedious or even offensive rather than chilling or psychologically potent.  Sub Rosa, fortunately, is much more tilted toward the former than the latter, including a number of my favorite Aickman works, and only one real clunker.

Because the original British editions of Aickman's collections are rare and rather pricey, I first read his work in the slightly-cheaper American collections.  Only one of those, Cold Hand in Mine, is a straight reprint of a British version; the other two, Painted Devils and the posthumous The Wine-Dark Sea, mix stories from several of his British collections.  As a result, when I received a copy of the handsome new Tartarus Press edition of the British collection Sub Rosa, I had already read seven of its eight stories.  However, that was no bad thing; Aickman's stories often feel so different on rereading that it's like encountering a whole new story.  In more than one case I liked a story much more after finishing it the second time than I had the first.

A case in point would be the opening tale, "Ravissante."  At a party, the narrator meets an ex-artist who now collates soulless books of reproductions.  They become friends, and after the ex-artist's untimely death, the narrator inherits a first-person account of the artist's meeting with Madame A, the widow of a famous symbolist painter.  As is often the case in Aickman, the events of that meeting are just unusual and baffling enough that it seems they must have been supernatural, even if each individual aspect can be explained by eccentricity or psychological breakdown.

The first time I read "Ravissante," I wasn't sure what to make of it.  It seemed to me that the opening section with the narrator went on too long, and that the artist's encounter with Madame A was too random to be frightening or disturbing.  But this time the meeting seemed much simpler and more symbolically potent, and as for the opening... Well, as R. B. Russell observes in his introduction to the Tartarus edition, in Aickman's stories "that which is left imperfectly explained haunts the more imaginative reader, who will go over the story for clues and hints."  Although I'm never sure whether meaning in Aickman is real or an illusion, I do find myself forming theories about just what's going on.  When it comes to "Ravissante," I can't escape the feeling that there may be some connection, literal or symbolic, between Madame A and the wife and later widow of the artist, a shadowy figure who appears prominently in the opening but is absent from the flashback.  And yet, what's the evidence for that idea?  Why, none at all.

"The Inner Room," the next story, features a dollhouse, which is a potent device for a ghost story, as any reader of M. R. James's "The Haunted Doll's House" can attest.  But, while there are a few skin-crawling moments here, mostly to do with the suggestive rather than the explicit, "The Inner Room" is as much about guilt, neglect, and the power of the unconscious as it is about spirits.  I liked this story a lot when I read it in The Wine-Dark Sea, and I enjoyed it even more in Sub Rosa.  It is, I think, one of Aickman's more straightforward works, to the extent that that word is ever applicable to his "strange stories."

I think it most certainly is applicable to "Never Visit Venice," a story in which devices Aickman uses well elsewhere fall apart entirely.  Driven by a recurring dream, the world-weary Henry Fern travels to Venice in the hope of some revelation, only to find it a cheap, tawdry disappointment.  Aickman's overlong description of Venice rather reminds me of Nathaniel Hawthorne's from his overlong romance The Marble Faun: it would be nicer, they both seem to think, if only there weren't so many filthy Italians in it.  By the time Fern takes a gondola ride with a mysterious woman, my patience has been exhausted, and what follows is no help.  The symbolic significance of the black-clad woman isn't real hard to work out, and Fern's sexual encounter with her feels like crude wish fulfillment.  Generally when Aickman writes about characters disappointed by ordinary life, his creations are detailed enough that they feel like people rather than a loud authorial voice, but Henry Fern is thin, and feels like a self-pitying device whether he is or not.  There's no substance to "Never Visit Venice," and the fact that it's well-crafted on a basic level doesn't make up for that.

With its silent spectre and its inexplicable layers of lingering dust, "The Unsettled Dust" is the closest thing to a traditional ghost story in Sub Rosa, but the real driving force of this story is shattered, dysfunctional human relationships.  Mr Oxenhope works for the Historic Structures Fund, which buys British country houses from their occupants and allows them to continuing living there in exchanging for maintaining the houses as museums.  Staying at Clamber Court for a nearby project, he meets the Brakespear sisters, whose covert feuds make for a series of uncomfortable evenings, and disrupt the sexual tension between the narrator and one of the sisters.  And then, one night in his room, he sees a mysterious figure...  "The Unsettled Dust" also tilts more toward the straightforward, but the characters are so richly drawn, and their pathetic conflicts and desires so real, that the story is a triumph anyway.  The only sour note is that project Oxenhope is working on.  He says that he won't focus too much on it because it's irrelevant to his story, which it is, but he says rather a lot about it anyway.  This may be a subtle piece of characterization, but the portrayal of Oxenhope's antagonist on that project is so one-sided that I wonder if Aickman, who worked for a similar organization at one point, is working out some real-life issue in fiction.  Either way, this material drags the story down somewhat.

"The Houses of the Russians" is also more traditionally ghostly, to the point where I can't find much to say about it, except that it is, as with Aickman's best work, allusive and chilling, mining a real landscape and real history for ghostly effect, and sending a shiver down the spine even though I don't know what, if anything, the events described actually mean.

"No Stronger Than a Flower" is the one story in Sub Rosa that doesn't deal with travel, but with another sort of new world: marriage.  It's also the story I hadn't previously read, so I'm hesitant to analyze it too much, lest I come back to it in the future and realize how stupid my initial interpretation was, but on one reading I found it an intriguing story of psychological warfare that goes farther than anyone could have guessed, with a realistic, aptly-observed newlywed couple and an ending that is literally absurd but makes perfect surreal sense-- another Aickman trademark.

In the brief but invaluable story notes unearthed for the Tartarus edition of Sub Rosa, Aickman remarks that the events "The Cicerones" happened to him, "(almost) precisely."  And indeed, John Trant's experiences at the Cathedral of Saint Bavon could almost have happened to someone, and yet they are also uncanny and deeply disturbing.  I admire this story, but I can't escape the feeling that there's something about it I don't quite understand.  Maybe if I researched the paintings described at the Cathedral I would be less in the dark.  Or is that only an illusion?

The collection ends with its longest and, to my mind, best story, "Into the Wood," one of my two of three favorites among the Aickman I've read.  Set at a sanatorium for insomniacs in Sweden, it mines the phenomenon of insomnia for all its disturbing value, observing that those who can't sleep can, in a certain light, seem almost like vampires.  But, like many of Aickman's best works, it also addresses the ambiguous nature of metaphysical revelation.  Molly Sawyer, the American who finds herself at the sanatorium with a decision to make, may be saved if she ventures into the wood, or damned.  Or the two may be the same thing.  This is another story that brilliantly blurs the line between ordinary eccentricity and the supernatural.

I wasn't sure at first whether it would be worth buying the new edition of Sub Rosa.  It's pricey, and I already owned most of its content in other editions.  But I received a copy for Christmas, and now I'm glad I did.  The stories work very well collected in this order, as intended by Aickman, and being spurred to reread them has made me admire his work all the more.  The Tartarus edition of another collection, Dark Entries, is forthcoming soon, and although there is once again only story I haven't read, I definitely intend to buy it.  If you're a ghost story fan and you haven't experienced Aickman yet, do yourself a favor and try to find one of his collections in your library system.  Whether you enjoy it or not, you'll be having a literary experience like no other.