Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Great Night

Near the end of Chris Adrian's latest novel, one of the characters sends an important message to a former lover.  As the character struggles to put what needs to be said into words, the messenger offers a suggestion: "There is magic!" Given the knowledge that the messenger in question is a squirrel, what follows ("Exactly! [the other] said. And then: No, no... there is love! That's what I mean to say. Or did he mean magic?")  suggests something important about the book's fantastic elements. It isn't so much that the magic is only a metaphor as that it is, in the final analysis, no more of a marvel than anything else, a marker of the novel's membership in the great family of contemporary fiction that, awestruck at the wonder and horror of the world, can only describe those highs and lows, as if to say "Here's life! Ain't it a thing?"

In this loose retelling of A Midsummer Night's Dream, there are in place of the two mismatched couples three "brokenhearted" people. Henry's obsessive-compulsive behavior has driven away Bobby; Will's initially unspecified failings ended his relationship with Carolina; Molly is, after two years, still reeling from Ryan's suicide.  Also in San Francisco's Buena Vista Park this fateful night are a group of homeless who have conceived an unlikely explanation for a recent spate of disappearances, and concocted an even more unlikely show to put a stop to them. The rehearsal of these rude mechanicals is interrupted by faeries in flight from Puck, here no gentle trickster but a force of unstoppable violence.  Puck has been released from his binding enchantments by a Titania so stricken with grief, for a changeling child who died of leukemia and for the missing Oberon, that she scarcely cares whether Puck's freedom will bring on Oberon's return, a violent massacre, or both.

All this would seem the setup a complicated and lively narrative, but in fact the depth and power of The Great Night is in the flashbacks that establish how Molly, Will, Henry, Titania, and Oberon have been brought to their present unhappiness.  The titular night provides more of a linking novella, and not a terribly eventful one at that, although Adrian's faeries, charming and amusing without becoming intolerably cute, offer in a few lively passages.  The flashbacks, some laced with fantasy, some not, often make for deeply moving short stories in and of themselves.  (At least one has been separately published, an account of the changeling child's illness and death that juxtaposes Oberon and Titania's grandeur with the mortal misery of a children's cancer ward.  The effect is alternately comic and heart-rending, with no excess sentimentality.)  But, despite gradually-revealed connections among the protagonists, the flashbacks are too wide-ranging and scattered for the novel to achieve full coherence, and the chronological gaps between them mean that the human characters are too imperfectly seen to generate the level of involvement necessary for novelistic effect.  The rude mechanicals in particular are diverting but poorly integrated into the larger concept, and the others are often sympathetic but rarely compelling.

What makes The Great Night a rewarding experience in spite of its larger failures is Adrian's gift for writing about human frailty and yearning in a way that makes the non-fantastic elements of the story as hauntingly magical as the faeries and their spells.  From Molly's childhood in a Christian family band to Will's career as an arborist and short story writer to Henry's neurotic need to clean, the personal histories are uncommon, eccentric, but recognizable as versions of the near-universal desire for community, and of the guilt and shame brought on by failed attempts to connect.  These small tragedies ring truer than the novel's flights of optimism, including the climax, which is strikingly described and makes a certain mythic sense, but leaves behind the logic of human motivations in a forced, abrupt manner.  Magic may be wonderful, and love too, but this vision never becomes quite clear.  Despite a refreshing acknowledgement of the importance and wonder of sexual pleasure, the romances are described without much insight into anything beyond the hollow intensity of infatuation. Adrian's most natural mode is not grandeur, but its echo: the broken relationship, the lost sibling, the melancholy fate of former changelings.  There is still beauty in such things, of course, a terrible beauty, and flashes of it, like lightning strikes, grace this long night with an intermittent but potent illumination.

"A Tiny Feast," the standalone excerpt from The Great Night mentioned above, can be read here.

Monday, August 29, 2011

A new (OK, minutely altered) direction

This is my 100th post on this blog. I had hoped to celebrate the occasion (such as it is) with a post of actual substance that would provide a natural segue into this announcement (such as it is), but I haven't finished, or for that matter started, the book around which that post was to be written.  I haven't done much reading at all in the past month, and what little there has been has fallen outside the purview of this blog, even its expanded purview. Which is where the announcement comes in.

Despite the recent set of George R. R. Martin reviews, I've always thought of this as a "horror" rather than a "fantasy" blog, to the extent that those are distinctions worth pursuing. But rereading A Song of Ice and Fire seems to have put me on a "fantasy" kick, and I want to review that reading here rather than elsewhere.  So the scope of this blog now includes fantasy without major elements that are dark or weird or strange or supernatural or whatever the hell you want to call it.

My next review will, I think, be of Chris Adrian's literary fantasy The Great Night. Beyond that, I have plans for R. Scott Bakker's The Darkness That Comes Before, the new Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, and Tanith Lee's Secret Books of Paradys series.  A recent trip to the Borders liquidation sale has given me a large pile of new books to read and review; the question is how long it'll take me to get that.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Zone One

Another Amazon Vine review of possible interest to my readers: Colson Whitehead's literary zombie novel Zone One. If you've read much of the excellent zombie fiction of the past ten or twenty years this won't have much to offer that's new, but as post-apocalyptic novels of pessimism, loneliness, and social collapse go, it's not a bad read.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies

For horror fans who enjoy fiction about fiction, the new anthology from editor and author D. F. Lewis is a rare treat.  As its title suggests, The Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies features stories about volumes that reveal the dark corners of existence.  From real titles to invented ones to those that stretch the term in striking ways, the anthologies that drive these twenty tales expose their writers and readers to worlds of confusion, obsession, and terror within their pages.  From ghost stories to absurdism to visionary horror, the works selected for inclusion here are as varied as those in an anthology with no theme, let alone a self-referential one, and, though the authors' command of style and subtlety is often limited, the concepts in play are strong enough to sustain the anthology through those rough patches.

Some of the most readable stories feature "anthologies" that collect horrors of a different order.  Daniel Ausema's "Tree Ring Anthology" uses the description of the rings on a tree stump to recount a range of ecological nightmares with a science fiction edge, demonstrating again that perspective and voice can lend any subject a strange and disturbing atmosphere.  In Colin Insole's "The Apoplexy of Beelzebub," the anthologies also collect fact rather than fiction, the cruelties of a decayed city whose residents keep elaborate records of the nastier aspects of their history.  And the haunting "Flowers of the Sea" by Reggie Oliver uses a particularly upsetting homemade anthology to reflect on the ravages of dementia and grief.

Other successful stories use more traditional anthologies.  "The Follower" by Tony Lovell traces the melancholy connection between a woman and the stories of "her" anthology from youth to old age.  Joel Lane's gift for the evocation of contemporary urban despair and the darkly redemptive promise of the uncanny makes the remembered anthology Midnight Flight powerfully symbolic in a story of the same name.  In "The Rediscovery of Death," Mike O'Driscoll adapts the responsibilities and uncertainties of a small press editor and the seductive quality of great fiction to comment on gradual psychological collapse.

At times these symbolically-potent treatments of horror fiction are weakened by prose that, in striving to generate atmosphere, states themes too clearly or disrupts itself through awkwardness.  To state tragedy too clearly is to dampen its effect, seeming maudlin rather than insightful, and absurdism demands a greater mastery of style than straightforward realism to avoid an impression of amateurism and immature style.  For exaomple, Nick Jackson's "Paper Cuts" has some fine images and a workable concept, but its surreal setting lacks the paradoxical coherence necessary for such a story to succeed.  S. D. Tullis' "Horror Planet" attempts an elaborate and compressed prose style that allows for some excellent moments but also falls prey to distracting digression and flashes of awkwardness.

But the thing to take away from my comments on these stories is not that I found the execution awkward but that I liked the ideas involved.  In the past I've praised anthologies that included well-written stories I found dull, but more and more I feel inclined to swallow my distaste for unpolished prose in the hope of finding fiction of striking imagination.  In that regard, The Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies delivers.  Despite its basic print-on-demand book design (enlivened by Tony Lovell's cover image) and language that is likewise initially unpromising, the anthology provides a satisfying range of thoughtful dark tales.

For ordering information on this book, click here.