Friday, October 28, 2011

Accounts of Some Mercilessly Brief Visits to the House of Pain: Thomas Ligotti's Gothic Tales

Although he's best known for traditional short fiction, Thomas Ligotti's writing encompasses several other forms, from long and short non-fiction to poetry to brief prose pieces of the type usually called vignettes or sketches. A few of these sketches appeared in the author's third mass-market collection, Noctuary, and several others remain uncollected, but to date, the only volume devoted entirely to them is The Agonizing Resurrection of Victor Frankenstein and Other Gothic Tales. First issued as a 1994 limited edition from Silver Salamander Press that currently goes for ridiculous prices on the secondhand market, the collection has now been reissued by Centipede Press. As these pieces are quite brief, running only a few hundred words each, and the book includes only 19 of them, The Agonizing Resurrection is not a substantial volume. Its 98 pages of small print won't take even the slowest reader more than a couple hours to get through, and the price, which works out to about $1 a page at best, will put many readers off. But those sufficiently devoted to Ligotti's work to make the investment are likely to find that the peculiar effect of these pieces, and the high production quality of the book, negates the possibility of buyer's remorse.

Despite the difference in form, I think the work of Ligotti's to which these "Gothic tales" can most readily be compared is his collection of death poems. While his longer fiction features a stylistic and structural complexity that creates an unreal, philosophically-charged atmosphere, the diction and content of the death poems and the Gothic tales is simple, almost banal. The result of that directness in works that present, just as his more elaborate ones do, a profoundly pessimistic worldview and a preoccupation with despair is irony so dark that it's almost entirely devoid of humor; the mordant chuckles that some of these tales and poems elicit have nothing to do with amusement.

The juxtaposition is heightened in the present case by the details of these stories, most of which take their inspiration from classic horror tales. An illuminating preface by Ligotti, original to the Centipede edition, establishes that these pieces begin with the idle contemplation of ways in which one might heighten the horrific or pessimistic climax of certain major works, might offer, to quote Henry James, a further turn of the screw. Many of these pre-modern classics are written in a style that, however it was regarded at the time, now seems formal or elevated; Ligotti's comically exaggerated titles, such as "One Thousand Painful Variations Performed Upon Divers Creatures Undergoing the Treatment of Dr. Moreau, Humanist" and "The Unnatural Persecution, by a Vampire, of Mr. Jacob J.," are a reflection of this distinction. The difference between the prose of the originals and that of these reimagined versions, suggesting that these further turns of the screw call for the loss even of grandeur of tone, demand a reduction to the terror of the prosaic, increases the mood of pessimism.

But it's not only tone that loses its grandeur in these gothic tales. Many of them extend the original narratives by reducing the dignity of the protagonists, literally adding insult to injury. Classic horror stories, in which darkness is a much a stylistic concern as a philosophical one, often end with moments of tragic beauty, where the aesthetic resolution outweighs the bleakness. With The Agonizing Resurrection this is negated. In "The Heart of Count Dracula, Descendant of Attila, Scourge of God," Dracula's final moment is no confrontation with vampire hunters, but a fate far more ignominious for one who, as the story points out, was in his monstrous way a great man.  Other pieces torture their heroes and heroines with that commonest of fates worse than death: life. In a tragic horror story the protagonist's existence is often so painful that death provides only an escape from it, but in pessimistic horror there can be no escape, no paying off of debts with the bad check of mortality. Victor Frankenstein's resurrection is indeed agonizing, bitterly ironic, and a monument to existential loneliness. 

Mixed in with the extensions of familiar stories are some original vignettes, including "The Scream: From 1800 to the Present," a spin on tales of ghostly vengeance. Despite the absence of source material to be deconstructed, the deflating effect of these pieces is just as powerful.  To communicate that effect I feel I must return to the language of the collection, in which the clinical clearness I've noted in other Ligotti fiction, the contemporary vocabularly and diction, and the need to summarize the classics before they can be twisted result in something with the feel of subdued mockery. The opening to a variation on Poe's "William Wilson" is typical:
William Wilson has a namesake who looks exactly like him, walks like him, and is his equal in any game of wits. They first meet at Dr Bransby's school for boys, in England. There Wilson's namesake is constantly thwarting his designs, challenging his superior status among their peers, and on the whole making things difficult for him. Hounded beyond all human endurance, William Wilson one night takes leave of the school, aborting his academic career but at least ridding himself of his obnoxious twin.
Perhaps, without the rest of that piece and the context of its fellows, that looks like unexceptional language, but I think it has a disguised satirical ruthlessness that hums throughout The Agonizing Resurrection of Victor Frankenstein and Other Gothic Tales, a curious collection whose reinventions of the classics are not jeux d'esprit but exercises in laconic pessimism. They are, like most poetry, brief, and as is the case with poetry, that brevity is a sign not of the disposable but of the carefully-crafted, of writings that demand to be reread so one can understand the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which they work. The two hours' traffic of these pages is only the beginning of the process of appreciation.

At the risk of writing a review that's longer than the book, I'll take a minute to note the gorgeous design of the new edition. From the gold-lettering-on-black spine and black slipcase to the soft-cloth covers to the new illustrations by Harry O. Morris, this slim, tall hardcover, signed by both author and illustrator, is a delight to examine and to touch, the unusual dimensions emphasizing its distinctiveness without making either reading or contemplation awkward. Whether a particular limited edition is worth its price is surely a subjective question, but as ever, Centipede Press has provided visible value for the added cost.

The added cost of its publisher price, anyway. Yes, The Agonizing Resurrection, published this month, is already out of print, and from a little rudimentary searching it seems that price inflation on the secondhand market has already begun. This is, as ever, a regrettable side effect of the small press limited edition business model, and I see no use in complaining too much about it. I do wish, though, that these pieces, and various other Ligotti odds and ends that are uncollected or impossible to acquire inexpensively, could find their way into print in an affordable format. Prices on Ligotti's mass-market books have fluctuated and are a little ridiculous, but they do tend to be available secondhand at prices that aren't horrifying even to collectors, and it would be nice for the poetry, the rest of the vignettes, and scattered stories to be likewise. Well, I can dream, can't I?

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Orphan Palace

One often hears the fiction of certain writers praised as poetic, but the effects those writers produce actually have little to do with poetry.  What makes their work so striking is a mastery of the rhythms of prose, so that their sentences fall with an elegance that may be simple or extravagant but is always orderly. Truly poetic language is another matter; largely the preserve of experimental writers, it awkwardly yet beautifully occupies the space between prose and poetry, can often be read either way depending on the moment and one's mood. Chomu Press has published a number of writers who explore this territory-- Brendan Connell and Michael Cisco come to mind-- but their latest release, Joseph S. Pulver Sr.'s The Orphan Palace, is the most mind-bending hybrid yet. The blurring of the line between prose and poetry is only the beginning; Pulver's sharp, dark narrative mixes Lovecraftian cosmicism, noir fiction, psychological horror, and urban squalor so seamlessly that it's hard to remember they ever worked separately. To say a book like this is "not for everyone" is a massive case of stating the obvious, but for the right reader, it's an awe-inspiring, mind-bending experience.

There's a plot. Of course there's a plot. "Plotless" is a word that's thrown around pretty often, but how many books really fit the label? Here, as is often the case in novels with such emphasis on style, the plot works around the demands of the language rather than vice versa. To quote Roger Ebert, it's the rhythm section, not the melody. The protagonist, Cardigan, twisted by terrible years in a children's home under the attentions of the cold Dr. Archer, is an arsonist and murderer, but in the world of The Orphan Palace, where inexplicable and unsatisfied yearnings are the only things you can be sure of and happiness is something to be observed from outside but never possessed, his insanity is simply a fact. Neither pathetic nor monstrous though his behavior can be both, Cardigan is simply who he is because he's incapable of being otherwise. His latest dangerous compulsion is a desire to head east, toward Dr. Archer and the unresolved past, even though he knows nothing good is likely to come of it.

Cardigan's journey, a series of small encounters with contemporary anomie and ennui punctuated by violence and by memories of his tragic childhood, is as marked by repetition as the mysterious, nearly-identical pulp novels he finds in a chain of worn-out hotels, but Pulver's language is never quite the same thing twice. At times it has the staccato quality of noir; at others a superficially similar style is so abbreviated and rhythmic that it becomes poetry; at yet others the poetry is far from spare, an ecstatic, irrational medley of morbid images that don't cohere on the literal level but have, when approached in the right spirit, the rolling intensity of revelation. No quotation can be representative, and the range of styles means that most readers will encounter some they don't care for. This is one of those books you can never quite get a grip on.  After finishing it I halfway wanted to start again from the beginning, reading more slowly to appreciate the style, and halfway knew I couldn't reimmerse myself in the paranoid chill of Cardigan's world so soon. The cosmic terror of mythos creatures (most notably the Hounds of Tindalos) fits perfectly within the mental disorder of troubled children, and both align with the fatalism of noir and the serial killer's overwhelming perception of crawling good and evil. In a fittingly Lovcraftian touch, explanations are suggested but finally withheld, although their general nature is as obvious as Cardigan's insanity.  There are bounty hunters, ghouls, elderly authors, and a talking rat, but somehow instead of feeling thrown together they're each as inevitable as the next note in a melody.  If it's anything, The Orphan Palace is an extended song, one without music, or with a music that exists only as part of the altered state of consciousness its twisting language generates inside a reader's head. Some readers will, it must be reiterated, find this formless and ridiculous, and those who have no experience with Pulver's style are advised to sample it before making a purchase. But some who open themselves to it will find unexpected rewards. My own early uncertainty, born of disdain for what I perceive in most contemporary poetry and songwriting as disconnected and unsubtle imagery, melted into the appreciation offered here. What can I say? Perhaps Cardigan's madness is catching.

This is the twelfth book from Chomu Press, and like all their fiction, offers something you can't get from any other publisher. What's all the more remarkable is that its releases provide the truly distinctive without sacrificing quality: whether new writers or established names in the small press, Chomu authors use language so carefully and inventively that even the occasional misstep is less disastrous than one would expect in newly-launched unconventional publishing. There is no easy category in which to place Chomu's releases; the closest thing I can come up with is "disturbing fiction," where "disturbing" is more than an elite way of saying "frightening." It means breaking up, if only temporarily, the way one looks at the world, providing a new and baffling perspective on the reality we all inhabit but rarely observe. Whether that perspective is the absurdism of Rhys Hughes, the subtle moral philosophy of Reggie Oliver, or the discordantly poetic bleakness of Joe Pulver, it's always idiosyncratic and unexpected. Publishing being the business it is, presses that can maintain such a vision are rare, and those, like Chomu, that manage it deserve all the support that readers who genuinely appreciate the unique and the memorable can give them.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Haunts

When my copy of this new ghost story anthology arrived, I showed it to my mother, who reads Stephen King and likes a good ghost story but otherwise isn't much interested in horror. She promptly laid claim to it, and because I already had enough horror piled up to be getting on with, I let her take it. I share this domestic interlude not because I've mistaken this review for a LiveJournal entry but because my mother's perspective on the anthology is quite different from mine, making me wonder if my standards are too exacting. Whatever the reasons, she liked every story in the roughly half the anthology she read before I borrowed it back, while I, having read the whole thing, find it decidedly uneven, with a number of dated or uninspired stories. There are enough worthy reprints and original gems to earn the anthology a hesitant recommendation for adherents of the ghost story, but its frustrating variations in quality prevent Haunts from creating the consistent atmosphere of unease that permeates a truly successful horror anthology.

After a striking reprinted poem by Richard L. Tierney, the anthology's first story is its only famous reprint: the M. R. James classic "A Warning to the Curious." I've recently written about some of the reasons this story works so well; a one-line summary might be that James' prose is deceptively simple, disguising a mastery of voice behind a unstylish exterior. There are, unfortunately, a couple stories in Haunts that show what you get when such methods are used by writers with less of a gift for them. R. Chetwynd-Hayes' "The Door" and Basil Copper's "Ill Met By Daylight" both use antiquarian narrative devices reminiscent of James, but their language is less simple than crude, utterly failing to create the crescendo of terror on which his brand of subtlety depended. These stories, while satisfying on a basic level, lack both the spark of originality that memorable fiction generally requires and the excellence of style that can sometimes stand in for originality.

If there's a consistent problem in Haunts, it's that lack of ambition.  Too many entries build on the tropes of the ghost story, offering at most a single insignificant twist on old formulas, or seem content only to elicit a mild scare rather than true terror or a more complicated response.  Reggie Oliver's recent stories have built on his interest in human psychology and its moral consequences, but "Hand to Mouth" is a thoroughly traditional Gothic ghost story. Its account of a haunted chateau and a narrow escape is successful enough on those terms, but its horrors are fairly superficial. Another original, Christopher Fowler's "Poison Pen," feels like a leftover from the era of EC Comics. The freakish deaths of a wealthy man's boorish relatives as they greedily squabble over his will are not a subject that allows for much nuance, and the story's morality is heavy-handed and rather cruel in the way that supernatural revenge stories can be if their authors take them too seriously. The final sequence, while ludicrous, is at least unexpected, and thereby more powerful than anything that has preceded it.

The logic behind editor Stephen Jones' decisions on which stories to reprint escapes me. Again, there's nothing outright bad, but given the 40-year span on which he draws, it's hard to believe there wasn't anything more substantial. Stories like Richard Matheson's "Two O'Clock Session" and John Gordon's "The Place" are so slight that despite being well-crafted they rapidly fade from the mind. No one could accuse Karl Edward Wagner's novella "Blue Lady, Come Back" of being insubstantial, but that's only because it's a rambling, unfocused piece whose ghost story elements are dwarfed by uninsightful descriptions of the protagonists' hard-drinking lifestyle.

Two of the reprints that do work well are baffling because they're recent stories that have already been reprinted in very visible anthologies. "The Mystery," a Peter Atkins story that by declining to explain itself gives its traditional concept a genuinely uncanny spin, was reprinted in the 2010 Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, while John Gaskin's "Party Talk," rendered eerie by style in a different but equally powerful way, appeared in Jones' own Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 21. Obviously not all readers of Haunts will be familiar with those anthologies, but are there really so few recent ghost stories worth reprinting that these two had to be chosen?

Other stories, both reprints and originals, deserve unambiguous praise. Kim Newman's "Is There Anybody There?" from 2000 at first seems to have nothing to go on but an inventive high concept, but it develops in an unexpectedly dark direction, and its different take on the ghost is welcome after so many traditional stories. In  the 2005 story "City of Dreams," Richard Christian Matheson enlivens a Hollywood ghost story with a compelling narrative voice that's wry yet wounded and yearning. The two best stories here, both originals, are Conrad Williams' "Wait" and Robert Shearman's "Good Grief," very different takes on husbands in freefall after the sudden deaths of their wives. Shearman offers his usual brand of very dark comedy, which in this case is simultaneously creepy and laugh-out-loud funny, while Williams brings to the table a reality-breaking psychological surrealism similar to that of Steve Rasnic Tem. The weirdness, in all sense of the word, of these two stories provides a powerful contrast to the classical ghostliness of many other selections, and makes them stand out from those surrounding efforts.

To return to my original question: am I underwhelmed by so many of these stories, including several I haven't mentioned because I can find absolutely nothing to say about them, because I've read too many ghost stories for my own good, gotten used to demanding too much? Perhaps. But I'm hardly alone in that. Every form has its borderline-snobby connoisseurs. I admire ghost stories that innovate, that pursue intensity of effect, that explore the ambiguous depths of the human mind. Some of the tales in Haunts have that level of ambition, but most are more direct. If you're like my mother and can wholeheartedly enjoy that approach, then by all means give this anthology a spin. If you're more like me, you might want to be more cautious about investing your time and money, but there's still plenty here to enjoy.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Some Features of Narrative Voice in "A Warning to the Curious"

I've been reading Haunts, a new ghost story anthology edited by Stephen Jones that mixes reprints and originals. Happily, most of the reprints are recent or obscure material rather than the familiar classics that everyone knows. The one exception is M. R. James' "A Warning to the Curious." While reading the story (for what must be the fourth or fifth time) I was struck, as I often am when reading James, by how effective it was, and how difficult it was to tell precisely how that effect was achieved. James described his own aesthetic of the ghost story in an often-quoted essay; in fact, a section from it appears in Haunts' introductory note to "A Warning to the Curious:"
Two ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are, to me, the atmosphere and the nicely managed crescendo… Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.
This is a valuable principle, and one can track its application in many of James' stories, but in the case of "A Warning to the Curious" I'm not sure it's relevant in any obvious way. Although the hints of it have the innocuous tone that inspires a grim yet pleasant knowing-ness in the alert reader, the ominous thing remains, as far as I can see, at a consistent level from near the beginning of the story until near the end. Although there is something of a crescendo, it lacks the careful and delicate gradation of those in other major M. R. James stories. The difference here, I think, is that the subject of the haunting knows from his first appearance in the story that something terrible is happening to him. He describes the development of that certainty, but with a hindsight that most James protagonists lack.

What, then, makes "A Warning to the Curious" work?  Obviously there can be no simple, all-encompassing explanation of how any piece of fiction succeeds or fails. For the purposes of this essay I'll focus on certain features of narrative voice, an aspect of his fiction for which James, perhaps because of the deceptive simplicity of his language, has received little credit, although many have commented on his related talent for pastiching the diction of different times, places, and social classes. "A Warning," like many of James' tales, features a frame narration by a unspecified person, perhaps intended to be James himself, who is not directly involved in the action. That this creates an emotional distance allowing for subtle, carefully-crafted descriptions of terrible experiences, and for the humor with which James leavens his terror, should go without saying. In the case of "A Warning," however, the narrative situation is even more complex. The person who is telling the story to the primary narrator is himself not at its center, and the person who is recounts his story to the secondary narrator. Thus we have a tale within a tale within a tale.  (The fact that Paxton in turn recounts what he is told by various locals further complicates things, but this essay doesn't go into that added layer.) The remarkable thing about this is that, although the three narrators are not rounded characters in a literary sense, each has a slightly different approach to story-telling, and the interplay of their voices, effortlessly realistic even as it weaves a story of ghostly fear, creates an atypical crescendo of its own.

The first of the narrators, who disappears after the first two pages of the story, is the closest of the three to James' usual voice. At once formal with James' ingrained erudition and conversational from the origin of many of his stories in readings for friends, it serves here primarily to set the scene by nostalgic descriptions of Seaburth that have the elegant, suggestive simplicity by which James manages atmosphere. The story begins:
The place on the east coast which the reader is asked to consider is Seaburgh. It is not very different now from what I remember it to have been when I was a child. Marshes intersected by dykes to the south, recalling the early chapters of Great Expectations; flat fields to the north, merging into heath; heath, fir woods, and, above all, gorse, inland. A long sea-front and a street: behind that a spacious church of flint, with a broad, solid western tower and a peal of six bells. How well I remember their sound on a hot Sunday in August, as our party went slowly up the white, dusty slope of road towards them, for the church stands at the top of a short, steep incline. They rang with a flat clacking sort of sound on those hot days, but when the air was softer they were mellower too. The railway ran down to its little terminus farther along the same road. There was a gay white windmill just before you came to the station, and another down near the shingle at the south end of the town, and yet others on higher ground to the north. There were cottages of bright red brick with slate roofs... 
These recollections are, for readers with a sense of the potency of memory and the power of well-hewn direct language, a small delight, but James' self-deprecating sense of humor is not far behind. Immediately after the above ellipses comes:
but why do I encumber you with these commonplace details? The fact is that they come crowding to the point of the pencil when it begins to write of Seaburgh. I should like to be sure that I had allowed the right ones to get on to the paper. But I forgot. I have not quite done with the word-painting business yet.
This is as charming in its own way as "the word-painting business" itself, and as a literary tactic it has the advantage of agreeing with both those who like such details and those who do not. Its very gentility sets up, despite the absence of characters, the opening placidity for which James had called, while the humorous description of the act of writing, as breezily postmodern as any of the contemporary games that earn that label, also creates the impression of truth, of reality reported rather than fiction crafted. We might be reading an elderly gentleman's privately-printed reminiscences

Shortly the second narrator, also unnamed, begins his account. Because his voice is, like the first, not lugubriously stylized, readers may not consciously observe its distinctive features, but they are obvious from the first paragraph on.
I know all that country more or less (he said). I used to go to Scaburgh pretty regularly for golf in the spring. I generally put up at the 'Bear', with a friend - Henry Long it was, you knew him perhaps - ('Slightly,' I said) and we used to take a sitting-room and be very happy there. Since he died I haven't cared to go there. And I don't know that I should anyhow after the particular thing that happened on our last visit.
I've called the James-voice "conversational," but this one is far more so, or rather its conversation is less refined and academic, with a casual air; its turns of phrase-- "more or less," "pretty regularly," "I don't know that I should anyhow"-- are far more offhand. Perhaps the distinction is that the James-voice's conversation is rehearsed, with the tone of a prepared after-dinner speech, whereas this voice is more genuinely of the moment. But it's also more brusque: its eventual description of Paxton, the third narrator, as "rather a rabbity anemic subject" would be impossible for the James-voice. (Contrast the introduction of Parkins in "Oh, Whistle" to see how that voice describes a similar type.) A slightly later passage reinforces the character of the second voice.
After some remarks, which I forget, he became rather confidential. 'You'll think it very odd of me' (this was the sort of way he began), 'but the fact is I've had something of a shock.' Well, I recommended a drink of some cheering kind, and we had it. The waiter coming in made an interruption (and I thought our young man seemed very jumpy when the door opened), but after a while he got back to his woes again. There was nobody he knew in the place, and he did happen to know who we both were (it turned out there was some common acquaintance in town), and really he did want a word of advice, if we didn't mind. Of course we both said: 'By all means,' or 'Not at all,' and Long put away his cards. And we settled down to hear what his difficulty was.
From the almost-mocking bluntness of "which I forget" and "he got back to his woes again" to the robust non-nonsense attitude of "a drink of some cheering kind," to the patronizing inclusiveness of "our young man," this is a noticeably different personality to that of the first narrator, not so much less intelligent as less scholarly about its intelligence.

The third narrative voice, Paxton, is something of a hybrid of the first two, sharing the intellectual edge of the first and the chattiness of the second:
'It began,' he said, 'more than a week ago, when I bicycled over to Froston, only about five or six miles, to see the church; I'm very much interested in architecture, 'and it's got one of those pretty porches with niches and shields. I took a photograph of it, and then an old man who was tidying up in the churchyard came and asked if I'd care to look into the church. I said yes, and he produced a key and let me in. There wasn't much inside, but I told him it was a nice little church, and he kept it very clean, "But," I said, "the porch is the best part of it." We were just outside the porch then, and he said, "Ah, yes, that is a nice porch; and do you know, sir, what's the meanin' of that coat of arms there?"
It is difficult to imagine the second voice being interested in church architecture (as, of course, James himself was), and equally difficult to imagine the first referring to "one of those pretty porches with niches and shields." But the most distinctive quality of Paxton's voice is the edge of despair built into it. His desperation has a nicely-managed crescendo of its own, rising from asides along the lines of "I wish this hadn't happened" to a very long paragraph that I feel compelled to quote in full.
Then it all came out: Paxton looked over his shoulder and beckoned to us to come nearer to him, and began speaking in a low voice: we listened most intently, of course, and compared notes afterwards, and I wrote down our version, so I am confident I have what he told us almost word for word. He said: 'It began when I was first prospecting, and put me off again and again. There was always somebody - a man - standing by one of the firs. This was in daylight, you know. He was never in front of me. I always saw him with the tail of my eye on the left or the right, and he was never there when I looked straight for him. I would lie down for quite a long time and take careful observations, and make sure there was no one, and then when I got up and began prospecting again, there he was. And he began to give me hints, besides; for wherever I put that prayer-book - short of locking it up, which I did at last - when I came back to my loom it was always out on my table open at the flyleaf where the names are, and one of my razors across it to keep it open. I'm sure he just can't open my bag, or something more would have happened. You see, he's light and weak, but all the same I daren't face him. Well, then, when I was making the tunnel, of course it was worse, and if I hadn't been so keen I should have dropped the whole thing and run. It was like someone scraping at my back all the time: I thought for a long time it was only soil dropping on me, but as I got nearer the - the crown, it was unmistakable. And when I actually laid it bare and got my fingers into the ring of it and pulled it out, there came a sort of cry behind me - oh, I can't tell you how desolate it was! And horribly threatening too. It spoilt all my pleasure in my find - cut it off that moment. And if I hadn't been the wretched. fool I am, I should have put the thing back and left it. But I didn't. The rest of the time was just awful. I had hours to get through before I could decently come back to the hotel. First I spent time filling up my tunnel and covering my tracks, and all the while he was there trying to thwart me. Sometimes, you know, you see him, and sometimes you don't, just as he pleases, I think: he's there, but he has some power over your eyes. Well, I wasn't off the spot very long before sunrise, and then I had to get to the junction for Seaburgh, and take a train back. And though it was daylight fairly soon, I don't know if that made it much better. There were always hedges, or gorse-bushes, or park fences along the road - some sort of cover, I mean - and I was never easy for a second. And then when I began to meet people going to work, they always looked behind me very strangely: it might have been that they were surprised at seeing anyone so early; but I didn't think it was only that, and I don't now: they didn't look exactly at me. And the porter at the train was like that too. And the guard held open the door after I'd got into the carriage - just as he would if there was somebody else coming, you know. Oh, you may be very sure it isn't my fancy,' he said with a dull sort of laugh. Then he went on: 'And even if I do get it put back, he won't forgive me: I can tell that. And I was so happy a fortnight ago.' He dropped into a chair, and I believe he began to cry.
This is our closest glimpse at the story's ghost, but what really makes it unsettling is the psychological disorder and dissolution hinted at by its air of distraction and interjection. Paxton's chronological account of events rises and falls erratically in intensity;  even as he attempts to make his problem clear, he is forced by the sheer strangeness of his situation into ominous vagueness and abrupt changes of subject from the eerie to the banal that underline his confusion and fear: "all the same I daren't face him" followed by "Well, then, when I was making the tunnel," or "he has some power over your eyes" followed by "Well, I wasn't off the spot very long before sunrise."   These "wells" and "you knows" have the usual effect of empty conversational filler integrated into dialogue, making the speech seem ragged and the speaker at loose ends. That James presents this monologue as a single paragraph increases this impression of unstructured thought.

Lacking depth of characterization, James' stories often depend on the reader's projection of himself or herself into the place of the protagonist (the "this could happen to me" effect), but Paxton's ramblings, with the pathos of the culminating "And I was so happy a fortnight ago," make him more an object of genuine and intense sympathy than virtually any other victim of the supernatural in the Jamesian canon. He's also unlike the James protagonists who meet terrible fates in that we see his end from a much closer perspective, that of the second voice, who even on the basis of a limited acquaintance knows and cares about Paxton far more than the narrators of "The Ash-Tree" and "Count Magnus" care about Richard Fell or the hapless Mr. Wraxall.
The notion of Paxton running after - after anything like this, and supposing it to be the friends he was looking for, was very dreadful to us. You can guess what we fancied: how the thing he was following might stop suddenly and turn round on him, and what sort of face it would show, half-seen at first in the mist - which all the while was getting thicker and thicker. And as I ran on wondering how the poor wretch could have been lured into mistaking that other thing for us, I remembered his saying, 'He has some power over your eyes.' And then I wondered what the end would be, for I had no hope now that the end could be averted, and - welI, there is no need to tell all the dismal and horrid thoughts that flitted through my head as we ran on into the mist.
Here, and in the ensuing description of the aftermath of Paxton's death, the second narrator's brusqueness, threaded through with sympathy, adds to the sense of disquiet and tragedy, making Paxton's grisly end less the structurally-required conclusion of a supernatural revenge story and more a disturbing occurrence in its own right. The final sentences-- " Paxton was so totally without connections that all the inquiries that were subsequently made ended in a No Thoroughfare. And I have never been at Seaburgh, or even near it, since"-- have a laconic and pessimistic finality, and it is no surprise that the James-voice, with its comic asides and delicate word-painting, does not return for a curtain call. Perhaps M. R. James' last great story, "A Warning to the Curious" is a masterwork of narrative voice. Other stories show his ability to work in wildly different voices-- "The Residence at Whitminster" comes immediately to mind-- but "A Warning" seems to me the finest use of that gift in the structuring of a ghostly tale.

Monday, October 17, 2011

A Book of Horrors

The new non-theme horror anthology from acclaimed editor Stephen Jones comes with a mission. As Jones' introduction puts it, "the time has come to reclaim the horror genre" from an "avalanche of disposable volume aimed at the middle-of-the-road reader." These disposable volumes, it transpires, are the non-horror monster and supernatural stories that are in vogue at present, which Jones-- sounding, it must be said, too much like a cranky old man-- notes are not your father's Creatures of the Night. Despite the contempt implicit in "middle-of-the-road reader," Jones claims that the popularity of these books would not be a problem, "if publishers and booksellers were not usurping the traditional horror market" with such books.

He never gets around to providing evidence for this usurpation (are major publishers actually releasing less "real" horror than they did before the rise of the horror-lite category? are sales of "real" horror particularly lower than they have been since the collapse of the mainstream horror market in the late 1980s?), simply assuming that the success of these two types of fiction is part of a zero-sum game. The introduction ends with the rather grandiose claim that "if you enjoy the stories assembled within these pages, then you can say you were there when the fight back began." Whether A Book of Horrors will have anything like the success and influence necessary to back up that assertion, it's a very fine anthology, one that will delight readers already acquainted with the genre and give fans of paranormal fiction a sense of what "real" horror has to offer.

It begins with an author who reminds us that some horror fiction, at least, still sells pretty well: Stephen King, whose novels still top the bestseller lists even in the days of Harry Dresden and Sookie Stackhouse. Alas, the most popular author in the anthology turns in its weakest tale. "The Little Green God of Agony" has promising if traditional elements: a billionaire who, in the aftermath of a horrible plane crash, turns away from modern medicine for relief of his unbearable pain. As his skeptical nurse watches, a Christian faith healer explains that the billionaire's pain is not a byproduct of injury, but a force unto itself, and can be removed with the right tools.  As sometimes happens with King's fiction, its sheer earnestness works against it, crushing thematic subtlety. Eventually the nurse delivers an impassioned speech about how some patients flee their pain rather than confront it; this is followed by an impassioned speech from the minister about how some nurses become inured to suffering and lose sight of the pain their patients are in. The learning of lessons is palpable. The story picks up a little near the end, but cuts off just as one senses the potential for something truly interesting, and truly scary.  I admire the intention behind this, but it doesn't really work, and readers hoping for terror of the type for which King is known will be disappointed. Happily, there's another story here that almost out-Kings King, to which we'll come in a moment.

Before that, though, there's CaitlĂ­n R. Kiernan's "Charcloth, Firesteel and Flint." Labelled original to this volume but actually a reprint from Kiernan's Sirenia Digest, this encounter between a mysterious hitchhiker and the young man who picks her up has many hallmarks of its author's work: characters with heavy emotional burdens, evocative use of weird, often Fortean historical or scientific details, and the presence of powerful, ageless forces whose capacity for destruction is somehow awe-inspiring. Kiernan is a writer whose style calls up a weird atmosphere even before inexplicable events occur; there is something in how she casts her sentences that's bewildering and diminishing in just the right way. "Charcloth, Firesteel and Flint," devoid of superficially horrific events or images, is a welcome demonstration that supernatural fiction is a broad church, and can disturb its readers on many different levels.


It's "Ghosts with Teeth," by Peter Crowther, that feels very close to something Stephen King might have produced; it's even set in King's (and my) home state of Maine, although King's characters would presumably not use British idioms, and he would know that there is no place in the state that's a half-hour's drive from both Portland and Bangor, unless that drive is undertaken at criminal speed. Nitpicks about the setting aside, "Ghosts with Teeth" is an excellent novella. What begins as a quietly eerie story of  odd behaviors and minor glitches in communication takes a nasty turn, revealing a monster whose lunatic sadism is creepily compelling.  For those who like their horror visceral without being crude, dark without being intrusively psychological, this is a real winner.


"The Coffin-Maker's Daughter," by Angela Slatter, imagines a world where the making of coffins is an art, one whose rituals are the only way to lay the spirits of the dead to rest. After her father's sudden death, the title character takes on his profession, but her commission to build a coffin for a wealthy man is complicated by a flirtation with his daughter, and by her father's mocking ghost. Barely ten pages long, the story conjures a complicated, flawed character, sympathetic yet hard-edged, and the cruel fairy-tale world in which she lives. As with Kiernan's contribution, this is more dark fantasy than horror, and the contrast between their work and the more down-to-earth monsters of King and Crowther increases the effect of all four stories.


In the psychologically harrowing "Roots and All," Brian Hodge uses a rural community devastated by the spread of methamphetamine, a prison guard driven toward extremes of cynicism by his profession, and a legendary creature known as the Woodwalker to explore forms of personal and communal degradation. Lesser writers might have used these elements in a pat, simplistic story of supernatural justice, but Hodge presents no trite resolution, only a sorrowful and pessimistic look at a miserable situation. Dennis Etchison's "Tell Me I'll See You Again," whose young protagonist has a tragic past and a strange gift, is equally harrowing, with the air of the unstated and unexplained that distinguishes the author's stories of solitude, regret, and failure.


Next is Let the Right One In author Karl Ajvide Lindqvist's first short story written for an English-language market, "The Music of Bengt Karlsson, Murderer." At first it seems that the title has given too much away, removing any suspense from a traditional story of good and evil ghosts in a haunted house. But the trouble that ensues when a widower encourages his distant, computer-addicted son to take up the piano is no safely familiar story of restless spirits: it turns unexpectedly into a dark meditation on obsession and the lengths to which people will go to escape their grief, not unlike Lindqvist's novel Harbor, but even more morally ambiguous and forceful, with no light at the end of the tunnel.


Another horror master, Ramsey Campbell, shows that his talent hasn't ebbed in the course of a nearly fifty-year career, with a grim morality play about the consequences of "Getting it Wrong." Mr Edgeworth is a friendless middle-aged man, using his DVDs of classic films to escape a dull, dispiriting job at a modern megaplex. When a co-worker phones to get his help with a radio quiz show, he suspects a practical joke, but what he can't see may very well hurt both of them. Edgeworth at first seems an arrogant old coot, but like most of Cambell's protagonists, he's soon in so far over his head that pity becomes the more appropriate response. It's never quite clear what the consequences of a wrong answer are, but Campbell's occasional hints are more sardonically upsetting than straightforward description could be.


Like all Robert Shearman's stories, "Alice Through the Plastic Sheet" begins as a surreal dark comedy whose universal emotional themes become newly affecting through the bizarre narratives in which they're contained. But, fittingly for this anthology, the darkness eventually overwhelms the comedy in this unexpectedly upsetting story of new neighbors, very loud Christmas music, a sick dog, and the perils of social conformity. Shearman may satirize the hapless Alan, his assertive wife Alice, and their his suburban existence, but underneath is his usual sympathy for those who can no longer navigate the bewildering regulations of contemporary life.


Lisa Tuttle's contribution is one whose resolution provides that sense of grim supernatural logic, of cause and effect being twisted according to some dark design, that distinguishes a particular variety of strange story. A young wife uncertain about the future of her marriage to a loving but easily angered husband tries to enjoy her new house, but the experience is spoiled by a sense of something looming over the desolate landscape, a sense that began on the journey to the house, when she was sure she saw the corpse of "The Man in the Ditch." A visit to a psychic whose enigmatic pronouncements signal the psychological undercurrents at work is a highlight of this uncanny tale.


Set on a nineteenth-century English estate, Reggie Oliver's "A Child's Problem" may generate expectations of a pastiche of the antiquarian ghost story, a form Oliver has several times shown his mastery of. But "A Child's Problem" is, like "The Look" from his recent collection Mrs Midnight, so much a story of human evil, of the eccentricities that guilt and fear breed, that the eventual emergence of explicit supernatural vengeance is practically beside the point. The heart of the story is the coming of age of its young protagonist as he discovers the secrets of the ill-tempered uncle with whom he has been forced to live, and learns unpleasant but useful lessons about human relationships and their hierarchies. Like much of his recent work, this novella shows Oliver, always a skillful horror writer, evolving into a "literary" writer of great subtlety and complexity.


The two penultimate stories in A Book of Horrors deal with grieving husbands. The one in Michael Marshall Smith's "Sad, Dark Thing" is drifting through pointless days and nights after being abandoned by his wife and daughter, until a drive through the woods leads him down a side road toward a tiny tourist attraction that will bring about a permanent change. The story reaches for a deep melancholy, but despite Smith's effective prose the protagonist isn't well-drawn enough for his suffering to have much weight, and on the whole the story is overshadowed by Elizabeth Hand's "Near Zennor." Here the husband has suddenly become a widower, and while going through his wife's things he finds a series of letters she once wrote to a beloved children's author, whose books were "like Narnia, only much scarier". Feeling compelled to investigate this mysterious one-sided correspondence, he plans a visit to an old friend of his wife, and winds up exploring the title locale, a ruin-littered countryside where time moves oddly and technology fails. Reminiscent of the classical weird tales of Sarban and Machen, this novella is redolent of the uncertainty of liminal states both physical and emotional, and of the powerful atmosphere of its isolated rural fields and valleys.


Following "Near Zennor," the longest story in the anthology, is "Last Words," its shortest. As a rule ending an anthology with a long story and then a short one is a bad idea; the two can mutually overshadow each other and end the volume with a whimper. Here, though, master of very short horror fiction Richard Christian Matheson crafts a story of madness that, in its vastly different way, has as much impact as the novella that preceded it. Capturing the voice of insanity and arranging his simple plot in just the right way, Matheson gives readers a profound chill that ends the anthology on an intense note, reminding the reader of just how scary, in a variety of ways, all the stories have been. Loss and loneliness, whether brought on by death, disappearance, abandonment, rural life, or the rejection of society, link most or all of them, a reflection perhaps of the fact that the primal fear, one that drives many others, is the fear of being alone; but the forms this fear takes are countless, and Stephen Jones' authors explore fourteen of them without any sense of overlap or repetition.


Back at the beginning of this review, untold paragraphs ago, I took issue with the editor's implication that paranormal romances, mysteries, and thrillers have somehow usurped the market that belongs to horror fiction. But whatever the cause, I agree that horror, once too big for its own good, is now depressingly small, too much a market of small presses whose books go unnoticed and quickly become unavailable. Major writers and editors can still get horror released by large presses, but surnames other than King and Hill have less luck, especially when it comes to short fiction. I'm not sure there's any solution to this problem, but a top-notch anthology with contributions from a variety of major names can hardly hurt. A couple are less powerful than others, but most of the stories in A Book of Horrors would be standouts if they were scattered across lesser anthologies. Together, they show those who might have been inclined to doubt that, whatever its market share, horror fiction is as robust and vibrant now as at any point in its long history.


A Book of Horrors hasn't been released in the U.S. yet that I know of, but you can buy the Kindle edition from Amazon.com (linked below), or import the UK hardcover from a site like The Book Depository.

Friday, October 14, 2011

House of Fear

The new haunted house anthology by Jonathan Oliver has an uninspiring title: the hopelessly generic House of Fear, which sounds like it ought to be attached to a bad 1980s horror flick. (It doesn't help that the title is printed in a red-orange font that likewise belongs on a movie poster, or that the back cover, in the same font, offers what could be that movie's tagline: HOME IS WHERE THE HORROR IS.) But issues of presentation aside, this is a very strong anthology in which major names offer a variety of spins on the haunted house. None of the stories are less than solid, and while a few have minor imperfections that limit their effect, another few are top-notch, making on the whole a very readable set of tales.

Mark Twain once observed that "The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." Small differences can also have major consequences for the ghost story, in which the creation of atmosphere and other effects is a perilously delicate process.  Stories that fall short in these mild ways are by no means bad; it's only that they bring on a sense of "Almost..." that can, in the moment, be as frustrating as larger failure. It is in that spirit that most of my quibbles with various stories in House of Fear are offered.

Stephen Volk's "Pied-a-terre," for example, about a real estate showing in which events take an unexpected turn, does a fine job of generating unease through the very claustrophobia and unattractiveness of the house, enhanced by small moments of oddness. But the story's thematic point, intended to be subtle, is made too blatant by a characterization that, while far from crude, is nonetheless easy to interpret given how familiar it is.  Adam L.G. Nevill's "Florrie," in which an apartment has an unusual effect on its new resident, has a similar problem: the changes in the protagonist aren't gradual enough to build an eerie mood or keep the reader from guessing right away what's happening, and the power of everything that follows, including an excellent final image, is diminished.

It's the story's final moment that's the problem in Christopher Fowler's otherwise excellent "An Injustice," where amateur ghost hunters, including an obnoxious buffet-style student activist, find something more than they bargained for in an abandoned London house. The final line disrupts what has been a suggestive atmosphere and a subtly-made point with an unnecessary bluntness that's a distraction rather than a capper. The distraction in Terry Lamsley's strange story "In the Absence of Murdock" is wooden dialogue that turns its characters into ciphers, while in Garry Kilworth's "Moretta" the language has a directness that's more appropriate to a story for preteens than one aimed at adults.

Other stories struck me as more roundly successful, with flaws that mattered less in the scheme of things. Rebecca Levene's "The Windmill" describes its prison milieu and the drug dealer who moves smoothly within it with such effortless, unsensational realism that its supernatural manifestation has an added impact, and even the conventional explanation that follows can't diminish it. Another unnecessary explanation, which reaches for emotion but doesn't achieve it, follows the haunting faced by a college student in an abandoned farmhouse in Joe R. Lansdale's "What Happened to Me."  This story is more Lovecraftian than ghostly, but for sheer terror nothing else in the anthology can match it. Another real chiller is Weston Ochse's "Driving the Milky Way," in which the lengths to which a lonely man will go to find the friends he lost decades before add a definite jolt to what has been a gently nostalgic story.

Three great stories come in a row near the middle of the anthology. Chaz Brenchley's "Hortus Conclusus" has a simple concept, but the gift for achingly melancholy language demonstrated in Brenchley's other ghost stories makes its haunted garden a genuinely tragic one. There's also a garden in Robert Shearman's "The Dark Space in the House in the House in the Garden at the Centre of the World," but it's the Garden of Eden... more or less. This time the residents are Cindy and Steve, and God is given to speaking in long monologues that Shearman brings off with a delightful comic flair. Like much of the author's work, "The Dark Space..." is an ironic and moving dark fantasy in which bizarre events symbolize the pain of ordinary life. The editor's introduction to "The Muse of Copenhagen" by Nina Allan correctly observes that it has something of the flavor of Robert Aickman; its skewed suggestiveness and mysterious femme fatale could have come from several of his stories.


There are other striking stories in the anthology, including Nicholas Royle's surreal "Inside/Out," in which an unrequited crush and the social isolation of a Briton in Japan are abstractly linked to a mysterious house. In fact, none of the stories are poorly written or utterly without interest, which is enough of a rarity in the world of the horror anthology to make House of Fear worth a recommendation on that point alone. That several of the stories are brilliant only reinforces that recommendation. Jonathan Oliver may not (yet) have the profile of major horror editors like Ellen Datlow and Stephen Jones, but he's produced an anthology that's on par with their work, and shouldn't be missed by their readers.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

John Harwood: THE GHOST WRITER and THE SEANCE

The reading room of the British Museum is not, I think, the first place in which most of us would seek refuge from a consuming grief, especially not in winter, when fog creeps into the great dome and hangs like a damp halo about the electric lamps. Nor are ones fellow readers always the most desirable company, some being less than fastidious in matters of dress and personal cleanliness, whilst others, seemingly on the verge of madness, conduct whispered conversations with phantoms, or crouch motionless for an entire afternoon, glaring at the same unturned page. Others again lie sprawled in attitudes of abandoned despair or exhaustion, snoring away the hours with their heads pillowed upon priceless volumes until the attendants come to turn them out. There are of course many industrious souls deep in concentration or copying busily, so that the dome seems to echo, at times, to the faint sound of a hundred nibs scratching in unison, but to a troubled mind that sound can too easily suggest the fingernails of prisoners clawing upon stone.
So begins "The Gift of Flight," one of four stories within the story of John Harwood's debut novel The Ghost Writer. Devotees of the nineteenth-century ghost tale will perhaps recognize in this passage the conversational tone and light social comedy of M. R. James, but "The Gift of Flight" evolves into an allusive, suggestive psychological tale more reminiscent of the other James, or perhaps of other classical practitioners as Onions and de la Mare. In the final analysis, fictional author "V. H." is no narrow pastiche of a particular style, but a voice all its own, credibly nineteenth century but with the timeless quality of all great ghostly fiction.

I begin with the stories inside the story because they are slightly more accomplished and resonant than the main narrative of The Ghost Writer. But in a way this is a false distinction, as the interplay between the levels of fiction creates much of the off-kilter mood that renders this superficially uneventful novel so compulsively readable. The Ghost Writer is the story of Gerard Freeman, the Australian son of an English mother whose dull life is enlivened by two things: his relationship-by-correspondence with a wheelchair-bound English girl named Alice, and his curiosity about his mother's past on the beautiful family estate she fled for reasons she refuses to elaborate. The novel's opening sequence, juxtaposing Gerard's experience of his hot, dry, insect-ridden Australian hometown with his image of the delicate beauty of the English countryside, amply demonstrates Harwood's gift for generating atmosphere on classicist terms, with simple but elegant images and without linguistic pyrotechnics.

To give away too much of the plot would be to deny the reader the experience of its gradual unspooling. Suffice it to say that Gerard quickly discovers a connection between the fiction of V. H. and his mother's hidden past. In addition to being fine ghost stories in their own right, these pieces, which make up just under half the novel's length, capture the ways in which autobiography is transformed at a certain remove into fiction, and create a powerful set of recurring images. It's not only V.H.'s reworking of personal history that causes those images, however; unnatural and seemingly impossible coincidences will suggest to the attentive reader that some subtle supernatural force is at work, and make the ghost stories part of the larger narrative rather than entertaining diversions from it.

It must be said that certain aspects of the plot will become obvious to an attentive reader before Gerard begins to suspect them; the book employs a particular device that can hardly be kept from raising audience suspicions (he said vaguely). Nonetheless, Gerard is more than a hapless hero, and he combines other pieces of the puzzle as rapidly as the reader will. The last two-fifths of the novel, in which a, abandoned mansion of the traditional variety makes a pleasantly spooky appearance, are the sort of thing that demands to be read in one sitting, and the final sequence, in which long-standing expectations are confirmed, manages to attain supernatural heights of eerieness despite superficially non-supernatural events. No fan of the period ghost story or of historical family mysteries should miss The Ghost Writer, which is that rarity of rarities: a perfectly-crafted debut.

Harwood's second novel, The Seance, has obvious general similarities to The Ghost Writer, but is also profoundly different. Instead of the present-day setting and single narrator of that novel, The Seance is set entirely in the Victorian era, and features a series of linked narratives. It begins with Constance Langton, whose grief-stricken mother and indifferent father make her home life a miserable one. Desperate to ease her mother's pain at the loss of younger daughter Alma, Constance becomes involved in the spiritualist movement. A reader might suspect the set-up for a novel of spiritualism and skepticism, not dissimilar to Sarah Waters' Affinity or a number of other works exploring the connections among grief, nineteenth-century rationalism, and gender roles. But events quickly take a startling turn, and before long Constance finds herself in possession of an unexpected inheritance and an unusual collection of documents.  The first of those documents, an account by solicitor John Montague, is the second narrative strand; its opening will suggest what sort of novel The Seance really is, and provide another example of Harwood's mastery of Victorian prose:
I have at last resolved to set down everything I know of the strange and terrible events at Wraxford Hall, in the hope of appeasing my conscience, which has never ceased to trouble me. A fitting enough night for such a decision, for it is bitter cold, and the wind howls about the house as if it will never cease. I shrink from what I must reveal of my own history, but if anyone is ever to understand why I acted as I did-- and why else attempt this?-- I must not withhold anything of relevance, no matter how painful. I shall feel easier in my mind, I trust, knowing that if the case is ever reopened after I am gone, this account may help uncover the truth about the Wraxford Mystery.
This, then, is at once a haunted house story and a sensation novel, and intimations of murder, blackmail, child-switching, and fraud will run parallel to accounts of events yet more bizarre. Montague's narrative, with the suggestion of shadowy research into ancient texts, plays out as an antiquarian ghost story written with scholarly distance, after the manner of M. R. James or the more stylistically subtle works of H. P. Lovecraft. A third narrator returns to some of the characters from Montague's account, but the events detailed this time offer another spin on spiritualism. Eventually Constance Langton comes back to the fore in a lengthy section that integrates the varied elements in a satisfying and largely surprising manner. Unreliable narration of an especially tricky kind is involved here, but there are enough hints that the device doesn't feel cheap.

Although the novel's primary focus is not on seances of the type that have captured the popular imagination, its thematic concerns are not far removed from what the opening might have led one to suspect. He goes about it subtly enough that readers caught up in the story may not notice, but Harwood is at pains to capture the precarious state of women in upper-class Victorian society, dependent on male relatives-- fathers, brothers, husbands-- for their financial security and ever susceptible to the threat of poverty or forced institutionalization. Acknowledging both the hope that spiritualism could give to a society riven by premature death and rationalist skepticism, and the frauds that were often perpetrated to create that hope, the novel refuses to offer a simple verdict on the question of the supernatural. Anything might exist, and the existence of common trickery cannot rule out real cases of the inexplicable. As with The Ghost Writer, this is a novel whose ambiguities are irrelevant to its remarkable atmosphere: haunted or human, its settings and characters are unsettling. The resolution is rather too abrupt, and a certain twist on the traditional formula of such novels doesn't have enough impact, but these are quibbles: The Seance is another masterpiece from one of the finest 21st century practitioners of the ghostly novel. One can only hope that a third John Harwood novel will not be long in appearing.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Damned Highway

The premise of Brian Keene and Nick Mamatas's The Damned Highway is the type that makes a lot of reviewers say "How did they ever come up with that!" (With a subtext, at times, of "What were they smoking?") But in fact a hybrid of the gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson with the horror fiction of H. P. Lovecraft, of radical political critique with cosmic horror, is eminently natural. They have in common a conviction that dark forces are moving behind the scenes, an exclusion from mainstream society, a paranoid intensity that is, under the circumstances, justified and saner than the usual variety of sanity. Cthulhu doesn't exist, but the pathetic tininess and isolation of humanity that he symbolizes is very real; the details of a given iconoclastic political ideology may be unconvincing, but that power serves itself at the expense of the mass of mankind is hardly arguable.

I am, alas, unfamiliar with the work of Hunter S. Thompson, so I can't judge how well Mamatas and Keene have captured his voice, but that their prose has a distinctive voice is indisputable. Cynical, frustrated, forceful, neurotic: descriptive labels come to mind easily enough, but only a quotation can capture it.
The world has turned dangerous and strange, like some severely deformed child who should have been put down at birth in an act of mercy, but instead has been allowed to live and suffer for far too long. There is something prowling around outside my front door, and though I have heard it many times tonight, I don't know what it is. It can't be the peacocks because I killed them earlier in a moment of blind rage and gripping paranoia, but there is something out there, lurking in the night. It might be a deer or a coyote or a big bastard of a bear, but then again, maybe not, because the darkness has a way of changing things. Darkness is mother nature's LSD, and instead of a wild animal, the thing on my doorstep could be a cop or a politician or even an editor. Worse, it could be a fan. I hate fans as much as I hate editors. They fill my heart with fear and loathing. But never mind that, eh? I am armed with a typewriter and many guns, and I have cigarettes and whiskey, and a wide assortment of pharmaceutical enhancements that the peacocks didn't eat, and with these, I can handle almost anything.
Thompson's mood rarely gets much better as the novel progresses, and the wry bitterness that he maintains even as he finds himself hip deep in a bizarre and terrifying conspiracy, is laugh-out-loud funny. Ordinarily I try to avoid quoting the funny parts of a book, since readers should get to experience them for themselves, but The Damned Highway has so many great moments that I can share a couple and still leave plenty more to be discovered. There's his encounter with a nervous bus station employee:
The ticket agent seems uneasy, perhaps frightened by the look in my eyes or the smile on my face. Her bottom lip quivers and she tugs at her earlobe. Enjoying the effect I'm having on her, I request a one-way ticket to Arkham. I pay cash, and she takes the bills cautiously, her expression suggesting that perhaps I've wiped my ass with them or sprayed the money with LSD. It is a good idea, and I make a mental note to try it later.
Or his thoughts on discovering Thomas Eagleton undergoing terrible torture at the hands of a Lovecraftian conspiracy:
First I run to Senator Eagleton. As a journalist, I shouldn't interfere. As someone about to be pummeled to death, I should just leave. As a human being, I should be thrilled to see a real-live United States senator stretched out before me, injured and helpless, his brain full of guacamole. But I am a merciful god above all else, so I do the only thing I can-- push the two tabs of Kirby acid I have with me between his lips.
As the hints above might suggest, The Damned Highway has a hell of a plot, but I don't want to say too much about it: it ought to be experienced the way I experienced it, with no foreknowledge, in a single reading session that makes its breakneck pace and wild turns feel like the literary equivalent of an acid trip, if acid trips also involved profound political statement.

The Damned Highway's notion that Cthulhu might be behind Richard Nixon is more than a jeu d'esprit, the linking of one boogeyman with another. In one of the novel's many clever plays on Lovecraft's mythos and its modern development (others include such locations as Joshi's Place and Pickman's Motel), Thompson is given some very special hallucinogenic mushrooms: fungi from Yuggoth. The first time he takes them, he's granted a vision of a nightmare orgy involving Nixon administration figures and tentacled creatures. But when he gives them to someone else in an attempt to duplicate the experience, the visions that come are more real, and more terrifying. This is a novel of recent political history, of tragedy, despair, and a growing sense of helplessness, as relevant to 2012 as to 1972. As with the Lovecraftian inventiveness, the political insight comes fast and fierce, with a sarcastic edge, but it's not just a joke.

This is one of those books where no review can communicate just how effective it is: how powerful and compelling the narrative voice, endlessly acerbic yet deeply human; how cleverly bits and pieces of real history are reworked on Lovecraftian terms and Lovecraft's stories are given a political twist; how absolutely unique is the overall feel. (One might loosely compare it to Laird Barron, what might be called "macho cosmicism" if that label weren't terribly misleading; but the differences very much outweigh the similarities.) Perhaps the best summation is this: if, on hearing about the concept, you thought, "That would be really amazing if they got it right," have no fear. They did get it right.

The publisher provided me with an electronic review copy of this book.

Mrs Midnight and Other Stories

'You people always want an explanation, don't you?' said Mr Pigsny. 'Well, what if there isn't an explanation? Or what if there is one, but I couldn't make you understand it, not in a million years? What if there just aren't words in the poxy English language to express a meaning, you bone-headed little shit?'
--Reggie Oliver, "Mr Pignsy"
The stories in Reggie Oliver's first collection, The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini and Other Strange Stories, demonstrated a mastery of the traditional English ghost story, most especially the antiquarian variety associated with M. R. James. Oliver's settings and characters showed a remarkable range of knowledge and understanding, but his diction and his particular form of subtle supernaturalism were classically ghostly. In subsequent collections, however, the style of his work has evolved, encompassing other approaches to the supernatural: the ambiguous, the absurd, even on occasion the physically revolting. The title of his fourth collection promised Madder Mysteries, for as the publisher observed, these stories travel "even deeper into his own bizarre territory." Now Oliver's fifth collection has been published. The thirteen tales in Mrs Midnight and Other Stories are frequently eccentric, frequently terrifying, and always erudite and well-observed. As a proof of the author's insight and versatility, this collection can scarcely be bettered.

In the introduction to Masques of Satan, reprinted in altered form in the omnibus Dramas from the Depths, Oliver writes, "The stories that follow may contain humour and artifice, but they are essentially serious. They are not divertissements... My ideas derive from some tiny fragment of experience or research. When these fragments connect with some problem or passion that has been exercising me, a story is born." This is an important consideration, for Oliver's choice of mode (the ghostly tale) and prose style (straightforward language, not poetic in the lugubrious sense of the word) might lead one to suspect that his work is mere entertainment, as M. R. James (perhaps not sincerely) claimed of his fiction. In fact Oliver is a deeply literary writer, if we take that word to suggest concern with human behavior and its moral consequences. Because he is never didactic or dogmatic, this is easy enough to miss, but such a failure grossly underestimates Oliver's writings.

What distinguishes this literary vision is its sense of moral precariousness. Oliver is very aware that small decisions may have large consequences, that people who are basically good may make terrible choices, that evil is not an obvious thing. It is perhaps misleading to bring up M. R. James again-- both are Etonians and masters of pastiche, but Oliver is hardly James in modern dress-- yet two comparison spring to mind. As Oliver observed in an essay on James, outright evil is rare in the latter's work, typically kept "offscreen" in favor of characters whose flaws are more mundane. So it is with Oliver: even characters who have done horrible things are not cartoonishly monstrous. James, in expressing a preference for ghost stories with a reasonably contemporary setting, once wrote, "A ghost story of which the scene is laid in the twelfth or thirteenth century may succeed in being romantic or poetical: it will never put the reader into the position of saying to himself: "If I'm not careful, something of this kind may happen to me!'" James was, at least superficially, referring only to the possibility of being caught up in a supernatural nightmare. But in Oliver's work, this sense of a vortex extends to moral choices more generally. It is trite to say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but as with many trite sayings its very familiarity can make one forget that it is quite true. In Oliver's fiction, the hell at the end of the road is often real rather than metaphorical, but one need not agree with him that such things exist, or that belief in them is necessary to the construction of a satisfactory ghost story, to appreciate his gift for addressing moral topics.

Part of what makes Oliver's evocation of human frailty so keen is his eye for eccentricity. In the ghost stories of Robert Aickman, eccentricity creates social awkwardness, distancing the reader from the eccentric and generating an atmosphere of unease that supernatural events will soon heighten. In Oliver, however, eccentricity is more gently observed; his protagonists neither gape nor judge, and eccentricity does not overpower the humanity of his unusual characters. In fact it increases it; we are all, in our own ways, eccentric. The flipside of this, of course, is that while eccentricity is not a mark of vice, neither is it a sign of virtue. Seeming harmless is not being harmless, and colorful people may have unimaginable secrets and weaknesses.

I dwell on these issues because I am convinced, now more than ever, that Oliver is, like a number of other "horror" names, a writer of the first order irrespective of genre. But I don't want to lose sight of the fact that, while they are not mere divertissements, Oliver's stories are terrifically diverting. This begins with the milieux in which they are set. The theater is, as ever, a common backdrop, but the times and places in which these theaters can be found are remarkably varied: contemporary England, to be sure, but also 1970s Kenya, or the Black Sea in 1919. Scholars and clergymen, contemporary or nineteenth-century, reflect Oliver's debt to the antiquarian ghostly tradition, but readers will also find a reality TV star, an exiled Balkan king, a young boy, and a First World War soldier within the pages of Mrs Midnight.

Oliver has mastered the classical ghost story's air of gradual revelation, as signs of darkness settle around characters who, unaware they are trapped within a ghost story, fail to recognize them.  This is most obvious in "The Giacometti Crucifixion," which includes the tale within a tale "Quieta Non Movere," a Jamesian piece attributed to a fictional analogue of MRJ. An ancient tomb, an unheeded warning not to disturb it, mysterious sights and sounds: Oliver shows again that he knows just how these features are to be applied. But the larger narrative of "The Giacometti Crucifixion," a wry tale in which a seemingly-parallel events plays out in the present day, serves as a reminder that something more than mere pastiche is at work here.

If "The Giacometti Crucifixion" reaches back to where Oliver began, the collection's title story shows where he has arrived. Some of the elements here may sound traditional: an abandoned music hall, a half-seen figure whose omnipresence the narrator fails to notice, research into credibly-pastiched historical documents that reveal its origin. But the cross-dressing animal comedian "Mrs" Midnight is hardly a traditional specter, and "her" secret is too bizarre, too viscerally disturbing, for the old school. (MRJ, touchy as he was, would have been disgusted.) While the story's narrator, a reality show host with a sharp tongue and a chip on his shoulder, represents one of Oliver's few partial failures of voice, his complex but perhaps not redeemable personality is keenly observed, and  "Mrs Midnight" is an especially chilling story.

Presented as extracts from the journals of a young nineteenth-century clergyman, "The Brighton Redemption," which I previously discussed in my review of Bite Sized Horror, is another piece with a classical feel. But its supernatural manifestation is (even) more suggestively uncanny than one might expect, and the story's thematic observations are especially acute. Rich with echoes of the Constance Kent case and of Lord Longford's relationship with Myra Hindley, it reflects wisely on the nature of self-delusion and the ambiguities of social uplift. For sheer elegance of construction, "The Brighton Redemption" is one of its author's masterpieces.

"The Look," original to this collection, is barely a supernatural story at all; its ghost is, compared to its strange, rather pathetic human protagonists, barely worth thinking about. Encouraged to visit an old friend of his father while performing at a theater in Nairobi, the narrator finds himself caught up in the lingering effects of a decades-old murder, and the active yet hollow lives of its survivors. And yet the ghost, if ghost you call it, punctuates the story, makes manifest its understanding of a particular brand of darkness:
The same mist that I had seen the previous night had gathered itself on the veranda, about five yards away from me, but this time the upper part of it had assumed a recognizable form. The form was a face, a mask with eyes, no more than that; the rest was vague. It was a young woman's face framed by a suggestion of pale, lustrous hair. The features were well-chiselled, the lips sensuously curved, the eyes heavy lidded, but it was the look that held me. Tilted downwards it seemed to stare at something that would have been at its feet if it had had them. The look itself was very particular, but hard to describe: a kind of hungry fascination, I suppose you might call it, with a slight smile on the lips as if pleasure were being taken from something that pleasure should not be taken from. The look had a certain beauty, because the features were those of a beautiful woman, and there was a rapture in it, but it filled me with fear and despair.  I realize that I have been avoiding the use of the word "evil" because I do not know what it would mean in this context. It is too general. This was a look that belonged to a particular person at a particular moment, a moment of ecstatic degradation.
Another original, "A Piece of Elsewhere," reminds one that Oliver's talent for pastiche involves more than the prose styles of the distant past; the ghost of a club comedian performs a unexpectedly revealing monologue in which garish, hackneyed patter acquires a disturbing, lunatic edge. As if that weren't enough, there's also a darkly ironic reflection on how children see things that adults, whose suspicions are too often misplaced, fail to recognize.

Each of the stories in Mrs Midnight is a gem; I haven't even mentioned "Meeting with Mike," an allegory of the demands cult makes on their members, or "The Mortlake Manuscript," a long story of forbidden knowledge that's indirectly linked to The Scholar's Tale, the first novel in Oliver's Dracula Papers tetralogy. But the collection's true masterpiece is "Minos or Rhadamanthus," in which a soldier returned from the trenches meets his former headmaster and reflects on the man's petty and pathetic existence. Touched by the numinous yet intimate with the squalid details of human cruelty, keen in its judgments yet tempered with pity, "Minos or Rhadamanthus" is haunting in the profoundest sense of the word.

Although Mrs Midnight and Other Stories was only published a few days, early demand has been so strong that the book is already out of print at the publisher. Readers who wish to own a copy of this handsome hardcover, which, like Oliver's other collections, includes fine black and white illustrations by the author, are advised to seek it out from supernatural fiction dealers as soon as possible. Three of Oliver's first four collections are now out of print from their respective publishers, and command prices in the middle three figures on the secondhand market. There's no reason to suppose Mrs Midnight won't reach the same heights, and sooner than you might imagine. I came to the party late, paid a grand total of $750 for the three, and felt I'd gotten a good deal. If you're not careful, something of that kind may happen to you.

Update: As of January 2012, Mrs Midnight is in print once again, as a trade paperback and an e-book. Click here to order. The first 200 copies of the paperback are signed and numbered by the author, so order quickly if you want Oliver's signature. I'll try to update this post when I hear the signed copies are gone.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Light is The Darkness

Over the past ten years or so, Laird Barron has emerged as one of the most popular and critically acclaimed writers of horror and dark fantasy. His stories, which might loosely be called Lovecraftian but blend cosmic supernaturalism with the grittiness of pulp and noir in ways only Barron himself could come up with, have been reprinted in more than a dozen annual best-of volumes and nominated for just about every genre award there is.  Now, after two Shirley Jackson Award-winning collections, Barron's first piece of novel-length fiction has appeared. Published in a gorgeous limited edition by Infernal House, with interior art from David Ho, The Light is the Darkness is hallucinatory weird fiction with a harsh edge in which the cold, vast strangeness of the universe, the seething power of the natural world, and the quiet self-sufficiency of driven human beings create a powerful atmosphere of frantic desolation.

The protagonist, Conrad Navarro, is drawn away from-- well, it's not what you'd call a career-- as a fighter in the Pageant, a secret, bloody, and fatal gladiatorial combat, by the disappearance of his sister Imogene, an FBI agent who was hunting the mysterious Dr. Drake, the scientist whose unorthodox treatments she suspects were response for the death of their third sibling, Ezra. In chasing Imogene and Dr. Drake, the forceful yet unflappable Conrad enters a world even darker and more baffling than that of the Pageant, in which family secrets, government experiments, and rumors of godlike entities with untold power are all in a day's work.

Yet the plot is, in many ways, not the point, but simply a matter of tone, the outline around which the novel's themes and images are placed. The key is in the title: the light is the darkness, ugliness has a beauty all its own, and good and evil aren't even relevant terms. Whether the characters are hardened fighters, stern FBI agents, or decadent billionaires, they're all in it for themselves, survivors who have seen or done terrible things, and the world through which they move, though superficially our own, takes on other qualities in Barron's stark yet poetic prose. A rundown apartment building can have a terrible grandeur:
The foyer was damp and papered by dead leaves. A wheezing, shuddering elevator with brassy wall plates raised them to the third floor, deposited them in a claustrophobically narrow corridor that went on and on under a series of dim globes, many of which were broken out, or blank as glass eyes. Flies shrilled in the dark globes; tiny, damned souls searching for the light. Rough plaster walls were scarred by fissures, brown water stains and occasional jags of graffiti that almost made sense to Conrad if he regarded them from the corner of his eye. Voices seeped through the plaster, mingled with the complaints of the flies. Pipes groaned.
And even more effective than the ordinary rendered bizarre is the exotic rendered unworldly, as when Conrad's dying mentor arranges a last party:
Attendants wheeled the great man into the hall aboard a mahogany chair oversized as a throne and carved in the likeness of a dragon. Kosokian had dispensed with the oxygen mask and donned resplendent silk robes of crimson trimmed in gold, and jeweled rings on every finger. He laid an obsidian rod across his knees. A golden pendant set with an obscenely large ruby reinforced his image as the moribund potentate, a sorcerer-king who'd stepped from a tarot card to hold a final debauched court.

Servants in crimson livery arrived with platters and decanters while a sextet of troubadours decked in medieval garb mounted a dais and started in with their flutes, harps, and recorders. Incense bubbled and spat within strategically-placed braziers, cloying odors of lotus and dragons'-blood overwhelming the rot of Kosokian's bandages, the reek of his decayed flesh.
The laconic, psychologically opaque nature of Barron's prose heightens the force of the images by keeping the novel's pace taut.  In less than 200 pages it covers a dizzying range of alienating landscapes and menacing characters, moving from one situation to the next with the grim determination of its protagonist. The effect of all this is to create an altered state of consciousness, as if the book itself were a drug, a gateway to the unimaginable vistas at which it hints.

That impression is only enhanced by the elaborate production of the present edition. Limited to 174 copies and priced at $175 (a 26 copy lettered edition at the princely sum of $1250 is also available), the book is bound in leather with a ribbon marker and golden endpapers and comes in a sturdy ribboned traycase. Photographs (some are available here and a couple more here) can capture the visual beauty of the presentation but not the extraordinary tactile experience of the supple leather binding, which makes the book feel like an authentic ancient tome full of unpleasant secrets. The carefully-reproduced interior art adds another dimension of weirdness to the experience. A trade paperback reprint will be made available eventually, but for fans of Barron's work or collectors of fine editions of supernatural fiction, scraping together the money or credit for this one is a must.  (It can be purchased from the publisher's shop at Miskatonic Books, or from dealers such as Camelot Books and Realms of Fantasy Books.)

Like all great horror fiction, The Light is the Darkness is disturbing and entertaining at the same time, the fear and cruelty of its milieu balanced by the intensity of its action and by the sharpness of its dialogue, which is compact and drily sarcastic.
"The fellow wasn't fond of sharing his secrets. Too many dark secrets. Too many enemies from his service with your government. Imogene was to be his weapon against them. That's why he made certain she was groomed for law enforcement. She served him well. You, he wished to protect from his foes. Believe it or not, he loved you, Conrad. That is why he sent you to me, why you were cloistered here in my demesne." Kosokian sucked a tall glass of Tiger's Milk and breathed heavily. "Your father had other plans for you. Alas, his breakdown and untimely demise derailed everything he'd worked to accomplish. He would not approve of your Quixotic pursuit of Imogene. She became embroiled in his vendetta with the forces of darkness, as it were. No sense following her into oblivion."

Conrad said, "You talk a lot for a guy on oxygen."
Laird Barron's shorter fiction had made obvious his gift for crafting impossible yet frighteningly real cosmic and landscapes, and this novel demonstrates that his imagination becomes only more potent in work at greater length. His next novel, The Croning, is currently in progress; if it's anywhere near as oddly wonderful as The Light is the Darkness, it'll be a real treat.