Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Epiphanist: Interview

After enjoying The Epiphanist more than I ever expected, I asked author William Rosencrans to answer a few questions about himself and his book by e-mail, and he agreed.


Your author biography on says "William Rosencrans was born and raised in New Orleans, the entropic center of the universe. Immediately after receiving a degree in medieval studies from Tulane University he fled for the wilderness. He spent years living in the Ozarks, then wandered the US before settling down in the mountains of western North Carolina, where he currently works as a stonemason and writer." An unusual career path-- could you tell us more about it, and about your life in general?

Sure. I was raised in a wonderful family by a mathematician, an artist, and a lawyer, who allowed me (mostly) to do whatever I wanted. I never had a curfew; I ate and read and dressed as I liked; and I made friends among the city’s criminal underbelly, its aristocracy, and various layers in between.

In college I declared a major in linguistics, then in astronomy, then in anthropology before deciding on English and medieval studies. Lovelife, employment, hairstyles: all very erratic. In the early 1990s, as New Orleans was becoming the most violent city in the industrialized world, I joined a commune in the Ozarks and learned how to weld, slaughter, garden, and weave a hammock. Four years later I abandoned the commune with my wife and baby daughter; moved the three of us, naively, into a van; traveled the country for two years...

Things are settling down now. For the last twelve years I’ve practiced stonemasonry in Asheville, North Carolina – the longest I’ve stuck with anything.

Tell us something about your development as a writer. Have you always wanted to be one? The Epiphanist is unusually polished and complex for a self-published first novel: is there earlier, unpublished fiction, or other writing? Who and/or what do you see as influences on your work?

Well, I’ve always told stories. But writing? You should take a look at the sample rough draft on my Amazon page. Two and even three lines of writing to every college-ruled line on the paper, heavily annotated, crossed out, arrowed, systems of colored ink violated impatiently... Even a simple three-word phrase can induce a fit of compulsive rewriting and re-rewriting: it might be a better use of my time to rock back and forth in a closet with my knees clutched to my chest.

The problem is that I love words so much. Now and then I open the dictionary at a random spot and read for a while. Boustrophedon, gowpen, sitzmark, slinkskin... Wow. I love them too much to be completely comfortable with the writing process; it should probably only be entrusted to a master.

At the top of my current list of masters are Graham Greene for how much meaning he can condense into a single sentence and Dickens for writing so beautifully and with such generosity. Science fiction favorites: Philip K. Dick, J. G. Ballard, Stanislaw Lem, Rudy Rucker... But lists are boring, aren’t they?

What are your hobbies and interests outside of literature?

Stonemasonry has been a major part of my life. I love it. I’ve practiced it for over a decade, building walls, paths, steps, columns, ponds, waterfalls, and so on. (There’s an online portfolio of some of my work at A few months ago I herniated three discs in my back working on a small dam for a distillery in Tennessee, though, so I’m doing lighter masonry work at the moment.

I could also draw all day, and on walks in the summer I like to take a sketchbook with me. Doing pen-and-ink drawings and sketches are an indispensable solace. My mother was a tremendous artist and allowed me unfettered, uncritiqued drawing time whenever I wanted it. And I’ve recently done some woodcarvings, working on big dead treestumps with a chainsaw and chisels.
How did you come to self-publish The Epiphanist? What was the experience of preparing print and electronic editions of the novel like?

It was great. Many fantastic books get rejected a dozen or more times before their publication, which begs the question of how worthwhile it is to try and run the gauntlet of agents and other gatekeepers in the first place, especially since publishers more and more leave the burden of marketing to the author. I was already skeptical of the industry, and after just three rejections I opted to self-publish.

I was encouraged by editing another book, Jean Henri Chandler’s The Codex Guide to the Medieval Baltic, a great work by a great scholar who had decided to self-publish. The draft copy he sent me was a perfect-bound book with a gorgeous cover, lavishly illustrated and beautifully formatted; I was floored to find out that this copy had cost him less to set up and purchase from Lulu, a self-publishing company, than the manuscript of The Epiphanist had cost me to print out at Kinko’s.

After doing some research I decided to do it through Amazon. Incredibly easy. Contractual obligations are negligible. I bought my own ISBN directly from Bowker for about $125, and have purchased copies of the book for potential reviewers. Beyond that I haven't spent a dime.

Editing, cover design, and promotion are all things one could hire out and which I opted to do myself; I think you could expect to spend several thousands of dollars otherwise (the bulk of it being for promotion). I’m a part-time copyeditor and edited a newspaper for a while, so that much was simple. Designing a cover was a painstaking process but I’m satisfied with the result. Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing service makes the e-book process very simple, and its Createspace branch does the same for printed matter.

Promotion is the tough part. I've been fairly lackadaisical about it, asking as many people as possible to review The Epiphanist or tell friends about it on Facebook or otherwise. Typically I've looked at reviews of books which were similar in style or content to mine, culled the best-written of those reviews, and emailed the authors if their contact info was available to see if they were interested. Out of 102 queries, 33 have responded; 19 of those have agreed to review it.

But those efforts are paltry. It takes real determination to do it right: setting up interviews on local radio stations and book signings at local bookstores; establishing a presence on forums related to your work, and, after you've built up some credibility, announcing the publication of your masterpiece; developing a website... I haven’t done any of this yet.
Where did the idea for The Epiphanist come from? How did you develop its unusual setting, which mixes contemporary and futuristic technology with historically-influenced social, economic, and political structures?

Well, the basic notion of a world in which high and low technologies exist side by side is hardly a new one, but I suppose the specifics here are more heavily researched than normal.

Of course my university studies provided some background. The Middle Ages were actually a time of incredible technological sophistication, every bit as revolutionary as current developments in nanotechnology are for us. A peasant lad travelling from his farmstead in, say, rural Prussia to a major city like Danzig would have been astonished no less than Vladimir is in The Epiphanist when he reaches the Holy City. It didn’t seem like too much of a stretch to superimpose current and future technologies on that same milieu.

The world is like that, though: it’s a temporal palimpsest whose earlier traces underlie everything. I have a certain fondness for the terminology used in medieval European social systems, and I used it extensively in the book, but those systems themselves aren’t too different from what one can find now in much of the world, even here in America in some ways.

The physical setting of The Epiphanist is crucial to this aspect of the story; all that simultaneity seemed to need a hot, overgrown environment to melt together in. The island is actually Borneo, whose jungles and swamps and mountains I spent several years researching – I amassed a huge pile of information about Borneo in the process of writing this book. I don’t like inventing things willy-nilly and I get a bit annoyed with science fiction and fantasy authors who pull implausible concepts out of thin air to move a story forward, or make up weird-sounding words to introduce a note of exoticism. Every strange plant and animal in the book, every peculiar geological feature, from the corpse lilies to the karst forests, is absolutely real. The same holds true for technologies (self-healing ceramics, biomimetics) and religion (early Gnosticism).
Religion is a major topic in The Epiphanist, with different characters offering a variety of views on its legitimacy, its ethics, the question of free will, the nature of visionary experience, and other issues. Would you be willing to discuss your own history with and perspective on religion?

Sure! I was raised in the Episcopalian church until about the age of eleven, at which time two things happened: I read the story of the Golden Calf, and my mother stopped attending. Both things extinguished my interest in religion for many years. The Golden Calf incident... Well, it seemed to me that only a psychopath would order his followers to kill their own sons, brothers, friends, and neighbors for praying to an idol.

For the next decade or so I thought of religion as a profoundly bad thing; there were just too many examples of devout people wreaking havoc in the name of their faith. I’ve since made a sort of peace with it, and a few people have taught me the extraordinary extent to which a religion can ennoble its followers.

Religion is a great framework in which to pose questions about ethics and free will. And it does give people a sense of community and hope. Beyond this, it fascinates me as a writer. The teachings of the Church in The Epiphanist are lifted straight from classical Gnosticism. The notion that there was once a God, that the female half impregnated Herself, that She cast the unborn child from Her womb into the void, that it survived and created a world for itself to be God of, and that we live in that world... Fantastic. Pure science fiction.
Politics is also key to The Epiphanist, which is set in a place in which it and religion are intertwined. Certain characters put forth what might, depending on one's perspective, be called a cynical or a realist view of the concerns and tactics of political leaders. What are your own feelings about the relationship between government and its citizens, and how do they relate to the content of The Epiphanist?

Generally the relationship looks like a pretty bad one, doesn’t it? Everyone seems to agree that it could be much better. Democracy, like Gandhi’s quip about Western civilization, “would be a good idea.”

In The Epiphanist, a nanorobotic fly introduces Vladimir to the concept of the state as an egregor – an entity with its own agenda, distinct from the individuals who nominally control it: a sort of demon. The initial idea came from the concept of demonic “powers and principalities” as expressed by William Stringfellow, a theologian who adapted the idea from the Book of Revelations to American politics.

Do I believe that the state is a demon, complete with horns and tail? Of course not. But it’s a useful metaphor for some states, at least, and the personae they seem to acquire as they grow. And, leaving the metaphor behind, it’s painfully obvious that most people in positions of political power have no concern for average citizens.

In the part of North Carolina where I live, until the late 19th century, we had a population of yeomen, which in the US meant non-slaveholding, small-landowning family farmers. I’m not one to romanticize hard physical labor, especially since my back went out (though white-collar workers throw their backs out, too), but these were independent people who got by perfectly well and had a supportive community. They got sick, like we do; they died, like we do. But they had a degree of autonomy unfathomable to us now. It was a far better situation, in my opinion.
What do you think you'll write next? Is more fiction in the world of The Epiphanist a possibility, or have you said all you want to say about that setting?

I’ve thought about writing a sequel, but Vladimir’s transformations make it pretty much impossible to write from his point of view ever again. It would be a shame to leave the jungles of Borneo forever, though; I really fell in love with them. I’d like to tackle a sequel from another character’s perspective.

I have a number of ideas for other novels. I’ll avoid mentioning specifics. The goal in writing any future novel, for me as much as any other novelist, is to use our beautiful English language as well as possible, pack in some interesting ideas, and do it all in the context of a ripping good yarn.


I'm grateful to Mr. Rosencrans for taking the time to indulge my curiosity, and obviously I encourage you to read his novel. Now.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Epiphanist: Excerpt

From Chapter 1:


He had come at last to the fields. The jungle stopped here abruptly, the trees leaning out past the jungle’s edge as though by the momentum of their growing. A dry, shallow moat, burned clean of vegetation, ran along the boundary to keep the wilderness at bay, and immediately past it, where the trail to the road began, three policemen sat rolling dice. They ignored him. Sir Wenceslas’s tobacco field was laid out neatly under the sun, and the tobacco hands were pulling off the little bouquets of unopened blossoms now that the day was cooling down.  

Past the tall tobacco barn the road opened, and now the entire manor was spread out before him: its contoured hills and sloped fields, rice silos, the banana and lime orchards, the water buffalo in their pasture, the reed-thatched huts of the crofters cobbled together from mud and tufa blocks, and then the battery of coke-ovens hazing the air with sulfur gas. Beyond them the river cut a long lazy curve to the south, and an armored police boat motored across it from the big station house on the opposite bank.

On a little terraced hill was a green park used for feast days where a work party was now setting up tables and ribbons for tomorrow’s holiday, the Feast of the Transfiguration. The cartouchiers would fire a fusillade of star shells and firedrakes. And when the police weren’t looking he could trade them a little nitrous oxide for a paper bag of squibs...

An acre of green rice stippled the mirror of the floodplain. Four people were standing in the water, sickling the earliest of the ripening heads into their baskets. And well past the river and the paddies stood the castle itself, grey granite walls pitted and scarred, surrounded by shockfences and a great self-healing ceramic rampart.    

The hut was empty when he arrived. Nana was in the kitchen at the castle cooking the Baron’s dinner but had made a stack of rice balls with yam, eggplant, and chili pepper from their little plot for dinner, and he took two, though she would yell at him for it. If there were any treats she had hidden them well.

In the shade of a banana tree he ate the rice balls and thought about his teacher and the New Believers. He had seen Revival Moon once, in Chowtown, while Nana was at the bazaar trading cigarettes for cutlery. The man wore only a loincloth, so that his almost fleshless flanks and ribs – wracked by cancer, torn by the flagellants’ lash, branded with charms – would inspire believers and rebuke the wicked. His shaved head was knobby like a fist. He was squatting next to a watering trough for oxen with a copy of the Evangels open on his lap, talking and smiling ecstatically to a small crowd of followers.

Nana had found him sitting there and pulled him away, bowing her apologies to the catechist, who ignored her. She was devout, but the fanaticism of the New Believers’ flock seemed to make her uneasy, as did Vladimir’s piety.

Vladimir, who walked to the manor’s small church every evening with Nana to light candles before going to bed, had felt the Holy Spirit enter him many times, starting at a river service when he was eight. First his body had come strangely apart from him; it had slumped over, while he watched from behind his own eyes as Nana reached down to pull him up from the grass. Then it had started to shake and he had stood as if yanked to his feet by two great hands and began shouting strange words in a voice not his own, a man’s voice which bullied, cajoled, and wept, and the pastor had put his rough hands on him for good luck, and then everyone had. 

Afterwards, flushed with compassion for the sinners of Abaddon, he had decided to save Mr. Singh from his atheism, but the next morning the teacher had mocked his efforts with such energy and pleasure that he gave up and spent the next several weeks inventing terrible torments for the old man in Hell: spiked wheels, flensing hooks, iron crowns glowing with heat, beds of black nails, tubs filled with pit vipers and kraits, and other punishments derived from the Inferno Book of the Evangels.

Long known as a libertine who drank, gambled, fornicated with prostitutes, and scorned the Church, Mr. Singh had said that if Moon and the others were right, then he would be punished for his sins after he died. Therefore the New Believers, in calling for his arrest, were claiming divine justice for themselves and were thus guilty of a very terrible sin. He had read passages from scripture which seemed to back him up. Vladimir had, in the end, agreed, and if the fly had spoken the truth and Moon wanted to crucify him, then the Church had a responsibility to rein the catechist in and so prevent an offense against God, and he knew that it would not.

Was the Church, as Mr. Singh said, just another suzerain, and Moon its vassal knight?

The world seemed to draw away from him suddenly as he sat in the garden, finishing the second rice ball. His teacher believed that the world was surrounded by a void. No heavens, no hells, no God. What, then, had taken hold of him at the river, and made him stand up? Whose voice had come from his mouth? 

He felt deeply alone, and spat out the mouthful of rice, a thing of the world he didn’t belong to. A tiny pink snail was crawling up the damp fibrous trunk of the banana tree. He flicked it off and crushed it sadly under the ball of his thumb.

The sun was lower, its light failing on the shadowed ground, and he got up, fed the rabbits in their hutch, and went to tend the coke-ovens. It seemed to take a very long time to get there. Few people were out, and he stared at them as they passed: they looked almost hollow to him, husks animated by something else inside, like snails. A star appeared in the east, or an untwinkling white dot rather like a star.

Farther and farther away the edges of the world were peeling from him, like an old photograph. He cupped his hands around his eyes the better to see it, a frail, pretty thing of painted fields and sky, full of murderers and fornicators, and wept, and began praying for their redemption, their release from the flesh.

He was still weeping, deep in prayer, when he reached the ovens. The smell of rotten eggs was overpowering, and the respirator he put on filled his ears with the sound of his fervent supplications to God. A coal car was scraping along the rails above the battery, dumping charges of fine crushed coal into the glowing trunnels as it went. Below, a figure in an asbestos hood and gown raked the charges flat, the heat from the open doors making his outline flutter. Vladimir was supposed to turn on the pump, and brick the oven doors shut, and the foreman raised her own respirator, exposing a face like cured ham, and yelled at him to get to work, but he couldn’t stop praying.

She swore and pushed him, and he got to his feet, making the sign of the chiasma over her as she shoved him toward the pumphouse. At last she gave up.

“Vladimir! You’re sick again. God damn it, get the fuck up. Get out of here.”

He stared at the animated shell of her face, its rough glossy surface not like skin, and said a prayer for the burned. When he reached out to bless it she reared back.

“Go home,” the woman shouted, and she unbuckled his respirator and tore it away. “Go to your Nana. Go to your Nana, you little shit. She’ll give you your medicine.”

The sun was setting now. More stars had come out, and he strode away from the glowing ovens and onto the road, waving his arms, shouting benedictions. A patrol car screeched to a stop in front of him and he blessed the driver, who laughed and waved him on. His prayer turned into a carol and he ran singing over the earth with its little huts, all of it like a picture from a book. He could see words written across it now, and he slowed down, amazed, staring at the richly inscribed vision, dwarfed by the great wheel of the constellations. It was a picture from the illuminated version of the Evangels, but one he had never seen before, a secret page. The wind blew down to help. You’re sick again, little sinner, it whispered. Sick under the dome of the heavens.

A figure was walking along the road up to him. It was the Savior, radiant on the darkening road between the lime orchard and the open fields of cassava. As in the illustrations, His face was round and white in death, and He was clad in a white winding cloth. The figure walked or drifted over the road until He was in front of Vladimir and the world folded completely away. There was nothing but the road, and the two of them.

Do you know the Word, the Savior asked. Do you remember how the aeon in Heaven turned away from her consort, and got herself with child; and how she came to know her error before the child was born, that it was deformed, and to spare her shame she cast it from her womb into the void; and how the demigod fell, and did not die but lived as it fell through the void, and created a world for itself. Do you remember the Word.

Savior, he said, I do remember the Word. It’s from the First Book of the Evangels.

Then continue it for Me. 

The false, aborted god created the world of flesh, Vladimir said, and bodies of flesh to be cages, and he trapped sparks from heaven in the cages, and the sparks were of life and we call them souls. And You came to teach us how to open the cages, and were killed by agents of the aborted god, and have come back to help me.

It is so, said the Savior. Now you should go home, and let your Nana give you your medicine, for you are very, very sick.

Then the Savior’s face changed, and Vladimir screamed, and the thing loped after him on all fours, chasing him in the gathering dark back to the croft. Nana was sitting on the bench taking off her sandals when he burst in. Sobbing with terror he told her what had happened, and she sucked in her breath in shock and shushed him, and said his raving was very blasphemous and would bring bad luck. The Savior didn’t look like that in any pictures she had seen, she declared. She made him sit down, filled a hypodermic syringe with his medicine and dosed him, and he fixed his eyes on her old, capable-looking face and stubbled chin as the familiar icy numbness flowed up his arm.

Then she had him lie down facing the wall. After a while his breathing steadied, and he passed out, and when he woke up he was back in the world. He lay still in bed while Nana bustled in the kitchen finishing dinner and grouching to herself. The episode was losing clarity already, like a dream; he couldn’t remember the strange way things had looked, and a wave of melancholy swept over him. His mouth was parched, and he sat up and drank from a clay pitcher of water, crying a little.

The Epiphanist: Review

When discussing self-published writing there is the unavoidable impulse to grade on a curve. There are good reasons for it. Most self-published material is below the not-exact-lofty standards of professional fiction, in ways that become obvious on page one. But even when better books come along, I sometimes find myself diminishing their achievement, thinking of them as "good (for something self-published)," even when they're no worse than what you'd find on a bookstore shelf from a major publisher. And then I read William Rosencrans' The Epiphanist, a novel that made such condescension impossible, a story so polished, thoughtful, and rich in sense of place that it demands to be thought of as a fine science fiction novel full stop. In fact, I liked it so much that I'm breaking new ground for this blog and posting an excerpt and an author interview as well as a review. The excerpt will appear later today, while the interview will follow on Wednesday. I'll update this post once both are available. (If I haven't, leave a comment reminding me.)

Because it is on the simple level of sentence construction that the typical self-published novel most visibly falls down, I should begin with the question of style. Since a long excerpt from The Epiphanist will appear separately, I'll forego my usual practice of quoting a couple passages. It would be hard to find appropriate ones, anyway, though this Amazon review does a good job; what makes Rosencrans so unusual among self-published writers, and, alas, among the traditionally-published as well, is the simple clarity of his sentences. There are no verbal pyrotechnics here, even when there are literal ones, but the language is never cluttered, banal, or obvious. I am embarrassed to admit that a lot of books bring out the clucking English teacher I never became, making me want to go over them with a red pen: "this word isn't used in this sense," "that modifier ought to be somewhere else." Not so with The Epiphanist, which is carefully wrought and occasionally finds a gentle beauty in the flow of images through the mind of its quietly observant protagonist.

It may seem odd to praise a book's style almost entirely by saying that it isn't flawed, but there are stories that almost demand this sort of subdued, difficult-to-describe prose, and The Epiphanist is one, precisely because its world is so lively, both physically and intellectually. The setting is the future (vaguely post-apocalyptic, though the details of how we got from here to there are not a major focus) and the war-torn island of Abaddon. The inhabitants of Abaddon are exiles, those deemed unsuitable for the wider world due to behavior or to perceived flaws in the templates from which they've been genetically engineered. But there is hope: if they can prove their moral worth by passing the examen, a rigorous study of their past actions (as recorded by the ever-present but invisible monitors) and present beliefs, they can enter the Holy City and live a life of peace and luxury. Of course, almost no one is ever deemed worthy. But Vladimir, the novel's young hero, may have some hope-- if he lives long enough to get there.

As this outline may suggest, the distinctive thing about The Epiphanist is its blend of old and new, strange and familiar, futuristic ideas used to explore ancient questions about right action, social order, and the possibility of goodness. The novel takes a nuanced and balanced approach to these questions, allowing different characters to put forth a range of opinions on religion, politics, and the underlying morality of each, always credibly, without force-feeding the reader a required perspective on anything (though that's not to say the book lacks an attitude of its own). The protagonist and title character does, as the title suggests, have his share of sudden revelations, but the reader isn't expected to agree with them, and can enjoy the flow of ideas and plot developments in a number of different ways, right down to the hauntingly ambiguous ending, which manages at once to reveal a good deal and to leave itself open. That Rosencrans can engage such heavy topics in the course of a long story without once becoming dogmatic is another sign of his depth as a writer.

But even before noticing that, the first-time reader of The Epiphanist is likely to be struck by the eccentric richness of its setting. Abaddon is a tropical island, and its flora and fauna have the intensity of the jungle, but the politics, society, and technology of the isle are a fascinating mix of varying places and times, past, present, and future. Gunships, swordsmen, feline-human hybrids, coke ovens, feudalism, limousines, gnosticism: it ought to feel like a meaningless hodgepodge or a showy collection of notions, but instead, unfurled gradually and without ugly exposition in Rosencrans' direct prose, it becomes a credible community, recognizably human for all its wildness, the best kind of science fiction milieu.

I haven't said much about the plot, nor will I. It isn't the point, nor is it especially "action-packed," though there are a few harrowing sequences of different sorts. The joy of The Epiphanist is the surprising world it unfolds (and if you think my laundry list of elements above has given everything away, don't worry: there's more where that came from), the old philosophical issues which are given new relevance in that setting, and the character of Vladimir, who wants to know what is true and right but is torn in a dozen different directions and is, like any of us, capable of terrible things. Like much thoughtful fiction, this novel is more about laying out dilemmas and showing possible responses to them than about providing easy answers, but the narrative arc, which ultimately reminds us that certain historic processes work regardless of how we interpret them, provides a sense of closure greater than that offered by explicit thematic summing-up.

Does this book have limitations? Of course. Gripped as I was by it, I never wanted it to move faster, but some may feel that Vladimir's peregrinations in the middle section go on too long. Readers led by my praise to expect great novelty will probably be disappointed; the blend of ideas here is unlike anything else you've read, but the individual components are readily recognizable from other science fiction. But these are the debatable flaws of a good novel, not the indisputable errors of an obvious failure. The Epiphanist is one of my favorite novels of 2012, and while you may not like it as much as I did, it's definitely worthy of your attention. The Kindle edition is a mere 99 cents (in the US; I assume it's roughly similar in the UK), a remarkable bargain for a novel of this caliber; even a print copy is more than worth its present price. William Rosencrans is a writer of prodigious gifts, and I'm eager to see what he'll do next.

The author supplied me with a review copy of this book.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Five Degrees of Latitude

I recently read Five Degrees of Latitude, Michael Reynier's debut collection and part of the Tartarus Press  Contemporary Fiction line. I recommend it highly to all admirers of the classical supernatural tale. Reynier's prose is uncommonly polished for a debut author, and his style is perfectly suited to the mode in which these five novellas work. The tales are reminiscent at one time or another of Machen, Blackwood, M. R. James, Edith Wharton, Le Fanu, Hawthorne, Lovecraft, and others, not because Reynier's work is fundamentally derivative but because he is a new and distinctive writer working in that distinguished tradition. United though they are by their elegantly suggestive approach to the supernatural, these tales are each slightly different in tone.

"Le Loup-Garou" may, as its title suggests, be a werewolf story, but it's also a story about the power of the natural landscape to dominate a human community, and about the psychological struggles that occasionally erupt from beneath that community's surface. A disordered chronological structure creates an impression of eerie timelessness parallel to the mental dislocation of those who live in the forest-shadowed village of La-Chapelle-aux-Trois-Vallons, and also allows the plot to come together at an appropriate pace. That plot is made up of some traditional Gothic elements, but they are used well to create a story of old-fashioned psychological weight; it is here that the comparison to Hawthorne is strongest. And the very final scenes add that frisson of the numinous that distinguishes great supernaturalism.

"No. 3 Hobbes Lane," though as elegantly written as the others, is perhaps the weakest of these novellas. There is a disconnect between its ambitious themes, too bluntly stated in a key final scene, and the narrative devices to which that scene is tied, those of the charming but philosophically flimsy ghostly story. Unlike "Le Loup-Garou," which manages to be supernatural and psychological at once, "No. 3 Hobbes Lane" would be better without its shadowy creatures, relying on on the almost Dickensian drama of Ezekiel Hobbes. But there is a great pleasure to be had in unraveling along with the protagonist the mystery of a house that is turned entirely aware from the grand view toward which all its neighbors face. I do wish, though, that the local dialect had not disappeared from that character's speech just when it became necessary for him to narrate events in a more formal style...

"The Rumour Mill" is perhaps the most unusual of these novellas, and has no supernatural element, though it relies on and uses effectively the familiar device of discovered papers, in this case those belonging to a professor who has since disappeared in the course of experiments that grew out of a children's party game. It isn't terribly difficult to guess the direction in which the story is tending, and once a particular character appears the subsequent course of events is obvious. But there is a note of light comedy to the story that at first entertains and then, given subsequent events, disturbs, and as is often the case in such stories, the arrival at the expected ending still manages to satisfy.

"Sika Tarn" is, to my mind, the most chilling tale in Five Degrees of Latitude, and all the more so because in some sense it ought not to work. At first one seems to be reading a tale of alien presences in a remote landscape; there is an echo, intended I think, of "The Willows." But what haunts this isolated lake turns out to be something entirely different, on a smaller scale, and yet every bit as terrifying and sad as if it had had cosmic implications. What might otherwise have been commonplace devices are deployed in just the right way to make a massive impression, as in Edith Wharton's "Afterward," and the themes at work, similar to those of "No. 3 Hobbes Lane," feel much more natural than in that story, and contribute to the mood. "Sika Tarn," like Quentin S. Crisp's "Ynys-Y-Plag," is one of the finest contemporary novellas in the weird tradition.

"The Visions of Lazaro" demonstrates that it isn't only the tropes of fantasy and horror that make for atmospheric supernatural fiction. The trappings here are those of science fiction, but the effect of this "found manuscript" story is as dislocating and ominous as those of the other four. The inclusion of a fictional "Editor's Note" that clarifies certain plot points is, I feel, a miscalculation; not since The Ring has a genre work explained and explained and explained in a way that sucks out the atmosphere. Some subtle connections that I had missed were revealed, but it's better for such things to be discovered gradually on re-reading and contemplation than to have them handed to you. Still, "The Visions of Lazaro" is a fine piece of weird science fiction, with an almost bittersweet air of pessimism running throughout.

Tartarus Press' primary output is handsome hardcover limited editions, but many of its titles are also available in ebook, either from Amazon sites or direct from the publisher, and it was in that format that I read Five Degrees of Latitude. Although the experience of a Tartarus hardcover is not to be missed for aesthetes of the physical book, quality fiction transcends format: these novellas are every bit as evocative on a screen as they are on the page, and the ebook is more readily affordable for readers on a budget. However it happens, Five Degrees of Latitude deserves to be read by any fan of authors like those mentioned in the first paragraph of this review. Michael Reynier has enormous gifts, and I'm very much looking forward to his next work.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The First Book of Classical Horror Stories

Music has charms to soothe a savage breast.
 -William Congreve, The Mourning Bride
And so it does. But it also has less pleasant capacities, darker magic to unsettle, to depress, to terrify. It is that sort of music that's performed in DF Lewis' latest anthology, The First Book of Classical Horror Stories. As with The Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies from the same editor, this is an intriguing, often remarkably effective set of stories, let down only by unpolished prose and imperfect structural decisions from a few of the contributors. However, this new volume is heavier than its predecessor on truly well-crafted work, and lighter on grating failures. The highs are also higher, and the lows aren't lower, making The First Book of Classical Horror Stories an easy anthology to recommend to admirers of subtle and surreal horror.

Things begin a little awkwardly with Rachel Kendall's "Chamber Music" and Andrew Hook's "The Universe at Gun Point," both of which are solid concepts imperfectly executed. Kendall's style lacks the command of diction necessary to allow her disturbingly evocative vision of a comatose giant on a hillside to achieve its fullest power. Hook, on the other hand, finds the right voice for his account of a musician's unusual source of inspiration, but the imagery and narrative arc are too insubstantial for the whole to have much impact; one is aware and appreciative of the story's intentions, but almost clinically so. Neither of these opening tales is bad, but there's a definite sense of reach exceeding grasp.

A run of more successful stories follows. D. P. Watt's "Vertep" is arguably more puppet horror than classical music horror, but either way it's a good one. Initially its narrator's flat affect is a mixed blessing, making the prose seem crude rather than simple, but as this tale of obsession builds toward its unexpectedly blatant climax, that bluntness becomes appropriately disturbing, a mark of insanity that strikes an appropriate balance between terror and a terrible humor. Admirers of Thomas Ligotti's later work are particularly advised to check out this story.

Given the theme of his collection A Pallid Wave on Shores of Night, it comes as little surprise that Adam S. Cantwell contributes a story to this anthology, and given the excellence of that collection, it comes as little surprise that "Beyond Two Rivers: A Symphonic Poem" is one of the anthology's triumphs. A great conductor has traveled to a Middle Eastern nation to lead its Philharmonic, but why, in the aftermath of a botched performance, is he waking up in a pitch-black rehearsal hall where the only sound he can hear is music? The Maestro's desperate search for answers in that darkened space is a fine exercise in gradual horror, but the real meat of the story is its flashbacks, in which the opulence and the despair of this dictatorship, and the Maestro's own psychological and moral weakness, are deftly sketched, creating a weighty counterpoint to the immediate terror. Cantwell has a gift, quite valuable in subtle horror, for crafting language that communicates its elegance without verbal pyrotechnics, simply by never striking (forgive the over-apt metaphor) a false note.

In "Anamnesis in Extremis" Dominy Clements uses the historical fact of the suicide of Gustav Mahler's brother Otto as the basis for a tale of fatal music. The prose is, given the narrator's formality and the seriousness with which he approaches the philosophy of music, competent, but it's only in the final two paragraphs that it becomes truly, er, musical. Lawrence Conquest's "Reverie" is a short, sharp, grim story about grief and the power of music to set a mood, with lean, poetic prose that is as powerful a mood-setter as the music it describes. Nicole Cushing's "The Fourteenth" takes its inspiration from Shostakovich's symphony on death, and considers grief in a manner entirely different from but as effective as that of the Conquest story, with a series of odd, almost comical encounters that nonetheless capture the deranged pathos of loss.

Like "Chamber Music," Stephen Bacon's "The Ivory Teat" isn't written with quite the skill necessary to make its images of urban isolation, awkwardness, and despair resonate, though the story nonetheless has a lurid charm. There's no charm at all in "Human Resources," easily the anthology's worst entry. The element of classical music is awkwardly joined to a framework of corporate horror, which could itself be interesting were it not for Karim Ghahwagi's torturously flabby prose, which makes becoming involved in the story so difficult that its underdeveloped narrative is especially unsatisfying.

Things take a turn toward the positive again with "Winter's Traces" by John Howard. It's not really a horror story, though there is one creepy notion at work, but a melancholy reflection on a frustrated artist and his peculiar life, and on the disappearance of cultural forms. Holly Day's "Excerpted" is more traditionally horrific, and works well on that level, although there's nothing especially surprising about what happens when the protagonist goes too far in performing the strangely dissonant alterations to classical compositions that he discovered in a convent library. Colin Insole's "The Appassionata Variations," like his story for The Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies, conjures up a world of Gothic cruelty, but the prose here is much stronger, creating an atmosphere of decadent corruption that is, in and of itself, sufficient reason to recommend the story to audiences who value such things.

To this point the stories have aided the construction of a review by falling into runs of better and worse. In the last third of the collection, though, the patterns fall apart. Tony Lovell's "The Holes" is another surreal piece that doesn't quite make its strangeness meaningful, while Daniel Mills' "De Profundis" is a brilliant cosmic horror story of deepening obsession that returns to the motif of music's power to alter the world in upsetting ways. "Boris' Aria" by M. Sullivan could be a great little piece of comic horror, but in its present form it doesn't take full advantage of its potential, whether because it wasn't conceived as horror or because its author doesn't have the requisite stylistic chops. S. D. Tullis' "Strings" suffers from a couple unfortunate comparisons, one of which I'll get into below, and one of which comes from the use of quotes from finer stylists at the beginning and end of the style, which can only serve as reminders that Tullis' own prose lacks their natural rhythms. Carmen Tudor's "Grace Notes" is another traditional horror notion, somewhat hampered by imperfect prose. Mark Valentine's "Without Instruments" is a delightful example of his aesthetic, esoteric fiction, which whether supernatural or not has a marvelous transporting effect not unlike that described in this story, which can be seen as a sort of companion or contrast to his "The Atelier at Iasi." In "Songs for Dead Children," Aliya Whiteley takes on the bleakness of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, and says something powerful about the price of truly understanding tragic art. And the collection ends with Rhys Hughes offering his usual dark brand of whimsy in the one-page, one-joke, fairly satisfying "The Trilling Seasons."

Readers familiar with the table of contents for The First Book of Classical Horror Stories will have noticed that I've left one story out of this perhaps overly exhaustive rundown. I was about to type a one-sentence review of Sarah O'Scalaidhe's "He Had Lived for Music," but it would have been essentially the same as several other one-sentence reviews: "prose doesn't quite do justice to" etc. The deeper problem, for O'Scalaidhe's story and several others, is that, despite differences in setting and style, many of the contributing writers are trading on similar basic notions, often to do with the power, either emotional or literal, of music. "Strings," for example, isn't really a bad story, but both "De Profundis" and "Anamnesis in Extremis" have done basically the same thing at a higher skill level. Sameness is often an issue in theme anthologies; here, given the mediocrity of some of the contributions, it means that they slip rapidly from the mind. (Badness is often more memorable than adequacy; I'm certainly not going to forget "Human Resources," but I had already lost track of "The Ivory Teat" in the week between finishing the book and writing this review.) To an extent, this works in the anthology's favor, since only the good stories contribute to the reader's impression of it. And there are a lot of good stories, and only the one real clunker, which means that as anthologies go, The First Book of Classical Horror Stories is quite strong. Will there be a Second Book of....? I don't know, and I don't know whether the concept of classical horror is strong enough to support a series. But for one volume, it works out reasonably well.

The publisher supplied a review copy of this book.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

On the World Fantasy Award Nominees for Best Novel

A few weeks ago, when the World Fantasy award nominations were announced, I looked at the list of Best Novel contenders and thought, "Hey, I've read three of those, and I just downloaded a fourth from the Kindle Library. Why not read the fifth too, and have an informed opinion on one category of one major award?" So here we are.

The nominees are:

  Those Across the River, Christopher Buehlman (Ace)
  11/22/63, Stephen King (Scribner; Hodder & Stoughton as 11.22.63)
  A Dance with Dragons, George R.R. Martin (Bantam; Harper Voyager UK)
  Osama, Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing)
  Among Others, Jo Walton (Tor)
Three of those were selected by this year's award judges (John Berlyne, James P. Blaylock, Stephen Gallagher, Mary Kay Kare, and Jacques Post), while two were the top vote-getters among the convention members. I think it's pretty obvious that the Buehlman and the Tidhar are judge selections. It's tempting to suggest that the Walton is the third and that the two bestselling doorstoppers are the member selections, but I'm not sure of that. The Walton just won the Hugo, so it has plenty of support among convention-goers, for reasons that we'll (unfortunately) be getting to. I don't know that the judges would have added the Martin, especially since they're also giving him a Life Achievement Award this year, but I suppose they might have picked the King. It hardly matters, anyway.

So which one of these would I vote for, if I were on the jury? The Tidhar, I suppose. My main reaction is that it's a pretty weak slate of nominees. I can think of quite a few novels from last year that are more deserving, and not because they're masterpieces; they just lack the glaring flaws of four of these five nominees, and are more ambitious and innovative than a different four of the five. Yes, these nominees include a novel whose craft is consistently elegant and a novel whose content is appropriately contemporary, but they aren't the same novel. So which are which? Let's go down the list in order.

I reviewed Those Across the River exactly a year ago, and my opinion hasn't changed much in hindsight. It's a well-written novel in the sense that its prose isn't awkward or workmanlike, a standard not all of the nominees can equal, but it's not a masterpiece of style either, and the plot covers familiar territory for rural horror. I'm not sure its treatment of race is ideal; like John Farris' All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By, it invokes black revenge on white cruelty in ways that can be troubling. Suggestive and explicit horror are carefully balanced, and the ambiguous ending is powerful, but these aren't enough for the novel to transcend its ultimately conventional nature. This is Buehlman's debut fiction, and as such it's impressive; I wish the World Fantasy Award had a first novel category, so his accomplishment could be acknowledged without suggesting that it's one of the best novels of the year, which it isn't.

I didn't review 11/22/63. I think Stephen King could have written a good changing-the-past story. And I think he could have written a good historical novel about Lee Harvey Oswald. And I think he could have written a good sentimental novel about a late 1950s smalltown romance... no, scratch that. I think he could written a competent sentimental novel about a late 1950s smalltown romance, because books like that tend not to be good. You see where I'm going with this, anyway. The trouble with changing-the-past stories is that there are only two types: the one where you can't change the past, and the one where you can but you shouldn't. There's still some pleasure to be had in a clever execution of each, and King uses his particular narrative mechanics to construct a great suspense sequence at the climax, but let's not confuse that with great writing.

The bigger problem with 11/22/63 is that by the time King actually gets around to playing out his time-travel premise, you've already read 900 pages of two other books, the endessly good-natured, achingly derivative smalltown romance, and that Lee Harvey Oswald novel, in which his mother is one of King's usual shrieking-harpy moms, much like Eddie Kaspbrak's. And speaking of It, there's also a long interlude in which the narrator tests the time-travel mechanism via a trip to 1950s Derry, and if you think characters from It won't have a charming-but-gratuitous cameo, you haven't read enough King. The Derry interlude isn't terrible in and of itself-- King, whose prose over the years has become, if not more graceful than at least less graceless, writes about the shadow over the city rather well given the flatness of his style-- but it, and all the other sidelines, make the novel so long that the resolution of the central narrative feel like an afterthought. It's simply not interesting or inventive enough to be worth all that wait. I liked the book-- to one degree or another I liked all five nominees-- but none of the four or five better books trapped inside it pokes far enough out for it to be award-worthy.

I reviewed A Dance with Dragons, but you shouldn't read what I wrote about it. Really, don't click there. It's an utterly fannish response that barely mentions, and severely understates the depth of, the novel's flaws. I'm not as down on A Song of Ice and Fire as some in fandom. I still think it's virtually the only doorstopper fantasy series that can be taken seriously in terms of complex characterization and remotely credible storytelling, and that its attempt to offer the pleasures of a certain kind of fantasy in a story that also reflects on what real life in such a milieu would be like is laudable. The enthusiasm that radiates from that review (seriously, don't read it) is still there.

But the thing is, A Song of Ice and Fire just won't stop growing. If Martin had delivered the story he envisioned when he sold the series, the last book would have been released twelve years ago. Instead, as we all know, three books became four six seven and counting, and the gaps between them keep getting longer. A Dance with Dragons is 420,00 words long, and it's still only 50% of a proper novel. This is an improvement over A Feast for Crows, which was 40% of same, but still. In the half of the overall story it focuses on, A Dance with Dragons builds toward two major events, and then stops right before either one happens. That's just bad structure, and I don't care that putting the actual ending in would have made the book too long to bind. I love the trivial world-building with which the series is loaded, but not when it prevents a book from reaching an actual conclusion.

The more pertinent issue is that the endless ballooning of the plot has dragged Martin's themes out so long that they lose what originality they had. One of the series' major concerns is with the difficult nature of leadership, the possibility that good, well-intentioned men-- heroes-- may not be good leaders. Over the first four books of the series we've seen, oh, three or four leaderships styles of major characters prove ineffective or disastrous. So when A Dance with Dragons offers two more, the response is not, "What a thoughtful commentary on issues fantasy typically ignores," but "Yes, yes, it's tough, we get it already!" If you dig deeper into the text there are more complex topics to be debated-- I read niggling debates on as much as anyone-- but still, the depth of thematic content is out of proportion to the breadth of pagecount.

And the other consequence of the series' physical and chronological explosion is that it's now been 16 years since A Game of Thrones was published. Its grim, gritty approach to fantasy was fresh then. It isn't now. Newer fantasy series, from authors who tend to lack Martin's skill, have made that sort of thing common as paint. I'd rather see award nominations go to writers who are doing new and unexpected things now than to those who did them in 1996. The fact that Martin is receiving a lifetime achievement award the same year A Dance with Dragons is a best novel nominee is unfortunately telling.

Speaking of "new and unexpected things," we've come to the novel I guess I would want to win. I'm hesitant because Osama isn't actually a very good novel. It's a promising idea, and it could have made a brilliant novella, but at novel length it's a frequently tedious slog through dreamlike interludes that add nothing to plot, theme, or character, and aren't stylish enough to be interesting simply as exercises in language. Anyone who would ever read a book like Osama is going to work out the ending well before the halfway point, and while I suspect Tidhar realizes that, he doesn't offer anything else to hold the reader's attention. There are some neat passages-- one in an abandoned subway, another at a convention-- but many others, evidently striving for a surreal variation on the modes of the detective novel, fall flat.

This isn't really a novel about terrorism in a deep thematic sense, which is just as well, since its observations on the phenomenon aren't much beyond what reasonably intelligent readers will already be familiar with. But writing about terrorism and the power of the idea of Osama bin Laden is at least something modern fantasy writers ought to be doing, rather than rehearsing the cliches of epic fantasy, rural horror, and time travel. I really do wish Tidhar had shaped this material into a novella, because that version would have been bursting with powerful images, and its ideas would have seemed more than sufficient given its wordcount. The novel is something I'm glad I read, and it's the only one of the five nominees that I think actually deserves a nomination, but in a better year it certainly wouldn't be the book I hoped to see win.

Among Others won the Hugo the other night. It's already won the Nebula, so if it gets the World Fantasy Award (which I think is a real possibility, especially if it was one of the three judge selections) it will, I believe, be the first work of fiction ever to win all three awards. I find this mildly distressing, not so much because Among Others is a bad book as because the things that are good about it-- its forbidding, ominous take on magic, some promising secondary characters, an eye for the atmosphere of its Welsh landscape-- are shoved aside by the author in favor of what people like about it: a long, plotless meditation on how awesome it is to be an SFF fan and how awesome everybody else in fandom is. Walton does this with just enough subtlety that I was able, while reading the book and deluding myself that plot and character development were going to arrive eventually, to imagine that there was some distance between the teenage narration and the adult writer shaping it.  But I'm no longer certain that's the case, and I certainly don't believe that the people who have been supporting the book are focused on anything like that.

No, I'm afraid they're more likely to enjoy the embarrassing moments, like when the narrator congratulates herself on being superior to her classmates, who only care about sports and the house cup while she cares about deep things, like the fiction of Robert Heinlein. Or when she thinks, "The handsome boy I met at the local SF book club could never like me, because I'm not pretty," only to find out that he does and she is. Considering what it is, Among Others is well-executed, and it captures the charming and less-charming aspects of a teenaged fan's voice whether or not it realizes that the latter exist. But there's so much that exists to no evident purpose-- that scene with her father, the stuff about her paternal aunts, the thing with Wim and his ex-girlfriend-- unless it's to distract from the thinness of the central love letter to fandom. There may also be a hint at unreliable narration, but this, like everything else, is more gesture than serious attempt. In the final analysis the book is what it looks like: a list of books read and precocious but shallow reflections on them. It might be fun to live, and if you're in the right mood it's fun to read, but it's not a great novel.

I'm not surprised when some Hugo and Nebula winners turn out to be unexceptional; whether the people voting on them are fans or writers (to the extent that those are distinct groups), various group dynamics are bound to come into play that will influence what wins. I was the opposite of shocked that the combination of Neil Gaiman and Doctor Who won the Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) Hugo this year, even though a few funny lines, a bunch of fanservice, and another one-dimensional sexy chick for the Doctor to banter with and then cry over are hardly the stuff of great drama, even by the standards of contemporary genre television. But I had hoped an award where nominee selection is split between fans and a jury would produce a better slate. The Tidhar, in addition to being the best of the lot, is also something ordinary members might not have heard of, but otherwise the jury selections are hard to distinguish from the fan picks, aesthetically speaking, and that's a shame. But that's the nice thing about juried or part-juried awards: the makeup of the jury changes every year, so you can hope for better things in the future, rather than the usual fan favorites racking up further hard-to-justify nominations. If you're looking for an optimistic conclusion to this post, that's the best I can do.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Quick Thoughts on Three Ash-Tree Press E-Books (and a Related Title)

I knew it had been a long time since I'd updated, but three months? Ouch. It's not that I haven't been reading stuff I'd like to review. I wish I'd had time to write about several books: George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois' cross-genre anthology Songs of Love and Death (remarkably consistent in its mediocrity, with perhaps two stories actually worth reading), Kim Newman's The Bloody Red Baron (entertaining at first but runs out of energy, and undermines its own theme; the new novella in the Titan Books edition is lightweight but amusing), William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki the Ghost-Finder (a few masterpieces, but over-reliant on certain structures and devices), Caitlin R. Kiernan's The Drowning Girl (a further evolution of her extraordinary talent, with a powerful climax), Terry Dowling's Clowns at Midnight (a baffling novel made up of elements from bad horror films, saved from utter ridiculousness only by Dowling's inherent skill), and R. B. Russell's Bloody Baudelaire (a fascinating exercise in eerie ambiguity, though I'm not sure the ending works). Yes, I wish I could write more than a parenthetical sentence about each.

But I lack free time lately, what I do get I'd rather spend reading than reviewing, and what I do spend reviewing is usually on books I've committed to by accepting a review copy. I still have a few of those pending, including a ridiculously late review of Ellen Datlow's latest annual best-of, and a rather late review of Ennis Drake's 28 Teeth of Rage. But this isn't either of those reviews. I've already written one full review today, for an Amazon Vine title (remember that you can read all my Amazon reviews here), and that will suffice. Instead, here are capsule reviews of some e-books I've read lately.

A big part of the reason I bought a Kindle is the recent commitment of small supernatural fiction publishers like Tartarus Press and Ash-Tree Press to releasing some of their titles in electronic form. Ash-Tree in particular is to be commended for the substantial range of titles it has made available in less than a year, including much highly-regarded work that was out of print and only available at high prices. Buying all six volumes of Ash-Tree's collected H. R. Wakefield in hardcover might cost close to $1,000; the six e-books are available for a mere $41.94. Even for an in-print title, the e-book is still about 1/10 of the total cost of the hardcover. For readers on a budget, or uncertain they like a given author enough to want a classy hardcover, e-books are an invaluable option. I've only bought a few Ash-Tree titles so far, but as soon as I clear my backlog of unread horror fiction, I'll be picking up more. Here, in the meantime, are those reviews.

Steve Duffy, The Night Comes On: A collection of M. R. James pastiches. Generally James pastiche is as miserable an experience as Lovecraft pastiche-- if it isn't quite as groan-inducing, that's only because James' reserved style is less inherently risky than Lovecraft's febrile histrionics. What makes Duffy's work enjoyable is that he has a natural command of the Jamesian narrative voice, so that the sentences flow naturally rather than clunking along. He's especially good at the sort of light social comedy with which James leavened his terrors. The language here is, despite the storytelling mode, slightly more formal and long-winded than in James himself, which can become somewhat tiresome, and only occasionally do the key horrific images match James' best, but fans of the antiquarian ghost story will find themselves better-served by this collection than by almost any they might select. Notable stories include "Off the Tracks," a railway horror story that's one of four newly added to the collection for this electronic edition, and "Running Dogs," which is, despite the lack of traditional antiquarian elements, the collection's finest; Ellen Datlow included it in the horror half of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. With story notes by the author.

A. F. Kidd, Summoning Knells and Other Inventions: more Jamesian stories, though these are less direct stylistic homages, and a great many of them have to do with bell-ringing. There are 47 stories here (a third non-Jamesian), and as you might expect they tend not to be very substantial, in the literal or the aesthetic sense of the word. The gradually-constructed sense of terror of which James was a master is not much present here-- the structures are simple-- and the bell-ringing stories in particular, with their specialized vocabulary, tend to blur together in the mind. But as subtle, ghostly horror goes, Kidd is very good: her Jamesian imagery is even better than Duffy's. And there are surprises like "Great Emmanuel," whose terror is surprisingly mythic and awe-inspiring for so short a story. The non-Jamesian pieces add a pleasing variety to the collection (possibly they ought to have been mixed in among the rest) but are not enormously accomplished in and of themselves.

Chet Williamson, Figures in Rain: Not Jamesian. Well, there are one or two stories that owe some debt to James, including "Ex-Library," in which the key image from "Oh, Whistle..." plays an important role. But there are also debts to Lovecraft, to Poe, to Rod Serling... variety is the watchword here, as Joe Lansdale's introduction notes. The stories are arranged chronologically, so things begin a little roughly with competent but uninspired stories like "Offices" and "A Lover's Alibi." Soon, though, come weightier stories like "Prometheus's Ghost," which has a thoroughly creepy spirit, an unexpectedly clever solution to the problem it represents, and a bleak yet moving conclusion. Or "The Music of the Dark Time," in which Williamson manages the difficult task of writing a supernatural story about the Holocaust that doesn't feel manipulative or inappropriate. He's good at varying his style according to the demands of the story, whether it's the refined/uptight Poe-style narrator of the amusing "His Two Wives," the surreal recollections of "The House of Fear," or the journalistic parody of "A Collector of Magic." A few stories don't have much going on or their twists fall flat, but all are well-crafted, and as a whole the collection is a fine overview of a significant talent in contemporary horror. Story notes by the author.

John Whitbourn, Binscombe Tales: The Complete Series: This isn't an Ash-Tree e-book, but the stories included were first collected in two Ash-Tree volumes (which also featured one story and an extensive afterword not available in the e-book) and I just read it, so I'm mentioning it here. These weird stories about a village in southeastern England are appealing, to the extent that they are, not so much for the concepts, which are pretty basic-- a few different parallel words, a few haunted objects, a general Twilight Zone air-- as for the charm of the linking elements, a new resident named Mr. Oakley, a pub called the Argyll, and the enigmatic Mr. Disvan, who is often forced to explain to the confused Oakley the peculiar features of Binscombe life. A few good jokes are mixed in, but as with a traditional sitcom it's not so much a matter of sheer skill as of the pleasures of formula. Not all readers will find these stories worth the effort, but if read slowly, so that the overall sameness becomes a virtue rather than a flaw, they can be fun.

And that's that. I hope it won't be another three months before the next post, but no promises.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Croning

When a writer known and acclaimed for his short fiction releases a first novel, there's a temptation to frame one's response in terms of the writer's command of the "new" form: is she as good at the novel as she is at the short story? The different lengths place different demands on a writer's skill, and devices that work in short fiction may fall flat in long. Some writers are undeniably good at one and not at the other. The trouble with applying this framework to a debut is that there's only the one novel to go by. A single awkward story would not demonstrate a loss of command, and a single awkward novel doesn't demonstrate its absence. You may gather from this lead-in that I didn't find The Croning, the first novel by Laird Barron, fully successful. It takes a while to get going, and doesn't take full advantage of the various types of added complexity that its length allows. But Barron's stylistic virtues-- charged, ironic dialogue, imagery that is cosmically remote yet viscerally disturbing, and an atmospheric world that mixes noir, espionage, and horror-- are intact, and the last quarter of the novel is a tour de force of Lovecraftian cosmicism.

After an opening chapter that blends fantasy and horror in an unusual retelling of a well-known fairy tale, The Croning is the story of Don Miller, a generally mild-mannered geologist, and the rather rowdier and more dangerous existence to which he is intermittently exposed by virtue of his marriage to Michelle Mock, an anthropologist whose interest in hollow earth theories and in the eccentricities of her very old family hasn't prevented her from becoming well-respected and an associate of certain movers and shakers. Different chapters show us Don in youth (a trip to Mexico during which his wife disappears and his efforts to find her lead to one of a few odd lacunae in his memory) and middle age (an unconventional wake and a dangerous excursion in the Pacific Northwest), but the major narrative takes place in the present day, when he's an elderly man, forgetful but, despite his wife's secretive behavior and other quirks, generally content. Until strange things begin to happen...

Which takes a while. The non-linear structure allows for some striking early scenes, but the novel is about half over before any real urgency develops, and some of that material (particularly in the present day chapters) could easily be removed without any loss to plot, character, or atmospheric effect. Because of the way the relationship between Don and Michelle becomes important to the resolution, these chapters might have been used to develop their characterization, making it clear what holds them together as a couple despite certain evident differences in temperament. But there isn't anything like that, and the connection between the two remains thinly drawn, a variation on the femme fatale and the poor schlub who gets caught up in her wake. There's nothing wrong with that-- it's a valid horror trope-- but in a novel a bit more depth in the dynamic would be welcome.

The flip side of the inessential material earlier in the novel is a sense that later events don't provide the tying-together of threads that makes for a fully-satisfying resolution. Barron puts a lot of characters and settings in play, blending different varieties of dark fiction to suggest a dark world of elite decadence, government and scientific intrigue, and malevolent or coldly indifferent alien forces. (The dark sarcasm and depraved indifference with which characters allude to these powers, part of Barron's debt to the cynicism of noir, gives his dialogue its distinctive appeal.) Part of the point of a milieu like this is that it remains allusive only (and alert readers will catch references to other Barron fiction), but the degree to which the climax of The Croning incorporates what has come before is underwhelming, more appropriate perhaps to a novella than a novel. On the other hand, the element that had seemed least relevant comes back with a vengeance, adding a human dimension to the epic terror of the ending.

And that terror is substantial. From time to time I find aspects of Barron's prose awkward, but on the whole he is a master of language that combines the cold awareness of universal vastness and human insignificance that characterizes cosmic horror with cruder details calculated to create visceral discomfort.
Then he was asleep again and dreaming of Michelle. She stood naked and smiling before the entrance of a cave. Strange, bony hands emerged from the shadows and caressed her, drew her into the cave. The moon flared.
The Man in the Moon turned his misshapen head, beamed green cheese eyes upon Don's cocooned form. The Man in the Moon said, It feels good, my boy. A black swarm of insects poured from his chasm mouth, took wing and scattered into the icy void of limitless space.
--the capsule revolved and the Earth slewed below the rim of infinite night and someone's water bottle floated toward the nose of the shuttle, someone's belt, an alabaster string of lower intestine, a wristwatch, the crucifix and rosary end over end. The Lieutenant vomited inside his helmet; window plates turned black as empty sockets and bloody light seeped from somewhere deep within the ticking heart of melted circuitry. One of the others babbled through the headset and beneath that a discordant tone, an animal growling, wires sputtering, a train wreck, an avalanche and who was shrieking, who--
As fine as those passages are for those of us who like this sort of thing, there are some in the final chapter that are even better. And the chapters leading up to that, in which two expeditions in different time periods come to sinister ends, create powerful narrative momentum that make the book difficult to put down. If the beginning and middle were as tightly constructed and disturbing as the end, The Croning would be a modern masterpiece of horror. As it is, it's still a fine novel, easily recommended to admirers of Barron's short fiction, and certainly worth consideration by any reader of hard-edged contemporary horror.

The publisher supplied an electronic review copy of this book.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Black Horse and Other Strange Stories

The latest release under the Contemporary Fiction banner at Tartarus Press is Black Horse and Other Strange Stories, the debut collection by American writer Jason A. Wyckoff. Not only is this Wyckoff's first collection, it's also his first-ever appearance in print. Reading the early work of a new writer is typically an exciting yet anxious experience for a reviewer, because there's no existing baseline for comparison: one is offering a judgment, however tentative, on an entire career. There are, generally speaking, three possible responses to debut fiction. It might be so underwhelming that one doubts the writer will ever produce great work; at the other extreme, it might be so powerful that one heralds it as great work in and of itself. Or more commonly it might occupy the middle ground often labeled "promising," in which the author isn't doing great things yet but demonstrates the potential to do so. It is in that thoroughly respectable territory that Black Horse lands. Wyckoff's prose has its drawbacks and not of all of the ideas he explores have found their ideal forms, but the range of his imagination and his particular command of eerie, psychologically-fraught supernaturalism make him decidedly a writer to watch.

Although Wyckoff's style is admirably developed and natural considering his lack of previous publication history, there is nonetheless a slightly stiff quality to much of his language, an echo perhaps of the formal feel of the classical supernatural fiction on which his work often represents a modern spin. Precisely because his characters are modern, the description of their thoughts and actions in this manner sometimes creates a distancing effect, and in any case the language doesn't flow as naturally, or with quite the desired distinctiveness of voice, as when used by the best adherents of such style. An extended quotation may demonstrate what I'm getting at:
Either because of the chasm of their years, or because he had less shared history with Martin than his father and grandfather, Jesse was less affected by the degradation of the old man, and was, ironically, able to suffer his presence more easily. Because of this, Jesse was assailed more frequently with the strange, taunting fragments about the treasure that everyone else dismissed as the fantasies of dementia. But, though there was nothing in the specifics of the telling that could be considered convincing, there was a perspicacious earnestness pervasive in Martin's comments that led Jesse to believe some truth was trying to claw out from behind the incipient madness. Jesse thought that if there were a treasure, then Martin's dismay at his weakened memory may have prompted him to reveal its existence, just as the meanness corroding his personality caused him to hold back its location--the result being exactly as witnessed: a series of indistinct teases dropped among knowing or suspicious looks.
That's from "Hair and Nails," for which the formal tone is a particularly odd fit, as it's a direct, faintly ironic supernatural revenge story with a (by traditional standards) gruesome climax. In other tales it feels more logical, but there are still places where a loosening of the vocabulary and sentence structure ("perspicacious earnestness pervasive") would enhance Wyckoff's stories. (On a more trivial note, it would also help to use character names less often: once a paragraph is about sufficient, and reading "Joe... Joe... Joe... Joe..." and similar disrupts the reading experience. A small concern, yes, but in fiction as dependent on mood as this, small concerns can have large effects.)

When the stories of Black Horse are themselves less than satisfying, it's generally not because the concepts involved are inherently flawed, but because they haven't been used to their fullest effect. The opening story, "The Highwall Horror" (available as a PDF preview here), is a case in point. The elements are more traditional than is usually the case with Wyckoff: an unexpected disruption in something mundane (in this case, a cubicle wall) reveals a world inhabited by monstrous creatures (insects) with which the protagonist is in danger of becoming obsessed. All promising in the abstract, but the story draws to too abrupt a conclusion before any of these features have been used to their fullest effect. There's something to the idea of leaving things unsaid, but in this case the result feels jagged rather than subtle. In the title story, on the other hand, there is rather too much (wonderfully suggestive) build-up toward a resolution that turns out to be more mechanical and (as the supernatural goes) straightforward than the story deserves. It has both a good beginning and a good ending, but they don't quite mesh.

"The Trucker's Story," which comes come to being a brilliant story of inexplicable dislocation, stumbles when the ending makes a certain thematic point too explicit. The reasons for this artistic decision seem clear (and this reviewer admittedly wouldn't have grasped what was being gotten at otherwise), but it's still something of a letdown. The only story that seems in need of thorough reconsideration rather than reshaping is "The Bells, Then the Birds," in which a folk music enthusiast pursues a song about a spurned woman's ghostly legacy. Again, traditional stuff, but there's a pleasure in the form, and the story starts strongly with the logical development of the protagonist's research. Once he reaches the town behind the story, however, there's only one way for events to develop, and there are no unexpectedly powerful images or turns of phrase to elevate the expected denouement.

From the descriptions of stories like "The Highwall Horror" and "The Bells, Then the Birds," one might imagine Black Horse to be a collection narrow and familiar in its scope. In fact one of the best things about the volume is its variety. From the satiric fantasy of "A Civil Complaint" to the short, sharp, melancholy ghostliness of "The Walk Home," from the surreal urban horror of "An Uneven Hand" to the unexpected conclusion of the wonderfully odd "A Willow Cat in Meadowlark" and the postmodern vampire of "A Matter of Mirrors," there are enough different forms of the supernatural to make for a rich collection, and to demonstrate the versatility of Wyckoff's mind. The settings and characters are equally diverse-- architects, archaeologists, farmers, undertakers-- but always described with well-chosen details that have the feel of reality. One gets the sense that these sixteen stories are only the beginning of the long revelation of Jason Wyckoff's talent.

The finest stories in Black Horse are often laden with a disturbing ambiguity, as though they might almost fit together if one just knew a little more; there is something of Robert Aickman about the overall effect. Such is the case with "The Night of His Sister's Engagement," in which a late-night boat trip leads to a pair of strange encounters that could, barely, be explained away, perhaps, but which also have mythic resonance; and with "The Mauve Blot," in which escape from a stressful marriage brings its own dangers to a harried wife and mother whose inherited house contains an unusual blur of light. "Knott's Letter," on the other hand, is reminiscent of Lovecraft, not because of any alien entities with unpronounceable names, but because its account of a search for Sasquatch cemeteries has the formality, the meticulous detail, and the febrile awareness of impending doom that characterizes some of his finest work. In this case the unusual manner of the prose works in the story's favor, adding an odd pathos to the narrator's awkward attempt to write an apologetic explanation to the family of a lost friend. Then there's "Panorama," in which the masterpiece of a missing painter is dense with loosely-connected, evocative images, almost impossibly so. This story, in which the description of the panorama's elements becomes hypnotically compelling both for the character and the reader, is perhaps the finest and most distinctive in Black Horse. It's not the sort of thing to be read at night as one prepares for sleep, when certain mental barriers fall and notions of reality become malleable.

The description of a debut collection as "promising" might seem to be damning with faint praise, a tacit suggestion that readers wait for a later, better book before laying their money down. With regard to Black Horse and Other Strange Stories, this is certainly not the case. Jason Wyckoff may not yet be a great writer of supernatural fiction, but he is already a good one, and sometimes very good. Readers in search of further indirect yet intense horror are especially encouraged to give this collection due consideration, but any reader who collects limited editions in the field will likely find at least one intriguing tale to reward their purchase.

The publisher supplied a review copy of this book.