Monday, July 22, 2013

Freaksome Tales

It's always nice to see a writer whose first book you admired do something different with his second. And it's even nicer when the second book is right up your alley. William Rosencrans' The Epiphanist was a rich, thoughtful, science fiction novel about religion and politics; that I enjoyed it as much as I did says something, since science fiction isn't really my thing. With his new title, Freaksome Tales, on the other hand, I'm right in the middle of the target audience: I like old-fashioned horror fiction, but not so much that I can't laugh at it. And laughter is key, since as its full title (Freaksome Tales: Ten Hitherto Uncollected Stories of V. V. Swigferd Gloume) suggests, this is a book that straddles the line between comic horror and horror parody; the melancholy lives and stories of Poe and Lovecraft are gently and not-so-gently mocked. That kind of thing can easily go wrong; fake overwrought prose isn't much more fun than the real variety. Happily, Rosencrans understands that tweaking lugubrious fiction requires a light touch, so these stories are a pleasure to read rather than a chore.

The name V. V. Swigferd Gloume, and titles like "Vile Sickness of This World Born Not" and "A Haunting at the House of Quaddock" may suggest overripe parody, but the stories themselves are less aggressively stylized. They're formal, sometimes verging on pompous, but they aren't quite as bombastic as the worst (or, depending on your perspective, the best) of Lovecraft, which makes the parody feel subtler. "A Haunting at the House of Quaddock," for example, is ironic only in the juxtaposition between tone and setting, in a way that reminds one of Lord Dunsany's exercises in self-parody. Likewise, "The Hundred Doors of Kanhaksha the Mazdakite" plays out as a straightforward supernatural adventure tale, refusing to play up its inherent ridiculousness. It's true that at time one wishes for a little more in the way of overt humor, but the few hilariously arch lines are reward enough when they do come.

A great part of the charm of Freaksome Tales is the interplay between the stories and the personality of the invented author. Gloume himself, as revealed in the foreword and in story notes, was reclusive, racist, sickly, and neurotic, and those facts are reflected in stories like "Vile Sickness of This World Born Not," which literalizes the racial fear that undergirds certain lesser Lovecraft tales, and "Hysteria horrificans," which does something similar for male anxiety about female sexuality. "Flesh of My Flesh," meanwhile, and an associated psychiatric case history that doubles as another piece of fiction, mirror Gloume's unhealthy relationship with his overbearing mother.

It's not all politically-charged and vaguely Oedipal, though. "The Veil Betwixt" is a light, effective comic horror piece; it's only got the one punchline, but it's a good one. Likewise "Metempsychosis," which turns reincarnation and Lovecraftian erudition on their head. And the final entry, "The Hideous Dereliction of Mrs. Blaughducks," is a neat comic spin on "psychic investigator" stories. The least subtle of these ten stories, it's also the funniest. Perhaps the best parody is the penultimate tale, "Manuscript (Found beneath a Service Pipe)," which is almost something a bad writer could have produced in earnest. You have to stop and think a minute before grasping how ridiculous it all is, but the mental images are worth the payoff.

If you're a very serious-minded reader of Lovecraft, then you'll probably be scared off by the vaguely familiar cover portrait of Gloume, and won't have to read these stories and discover that they make light of something you care deeply about. But if you can laugh a little at Lovecraft and the American horror tradition without losing your appreciation for them, Freaksome Tales is worth a look. It's an elaborate, well-worked-out, somewhat reserved form of parody, but it's not afraid to go for the jugular when it needs to, and I think a lot of readers will have fun with it.

The author supplied a review copy of this book.

28 Teeth of Rage

I'm usually suspicious of reviews and blurbs that say "In the tradition of..." and "If you like that, you'll love this," but while reading Ennis Drake's short novel 28 Teeth of Rage, I found myself thinking that it felt like a wild hybrid of several classic and contemporary talents. There are echoes of and parallels to writers from Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard to Stephen King and Laird Barron. But that doesn't mean Drake's work is unoriginal, a mere pastiche. It has a rollicking energy all its own. At times, perhaps, that energy teeters on the verge of the ridiculous; there are structural issues, and the variety of modes in which the novel attempts to work simultaneously will be too much for the sensibilities of some readers. But if approached in the right spirit, 28 Teeth of Rage is a heck of a ride.

It's the story of Ernest Riley, a homicide detective, and Strom Wheldon, an Iraq War veteran who lost his legs to an IED. Riley is investigating a very violent crime, and what he has to go on are a tape-recorded message from Strom and the journal of Strom's wife, Jodi. But what exactly has happened to the Wheldons? What's up with the saw Strom was using to remodel the house? And what do a Civil War general and a legendary tribe of vicious Indians have to do with any of it? You'll find out... and pretty quickly too.

The great virtue and greatest drawback of 28 Teeth of Rage is that it's a short novel. There's a lot going on here, from the mysterious natives and blighted mansions of Southern horror to the visceral grossness of contemporary pulp to the bizarre cosmic landscapes of the Lovecraftian tradition to the human darkness of psychological horror-- and yet it all fits into less than 150 pages. That gives the book an undeniable sense of momentum; I read the second half in a white heat. At times, as I hinted above, the emphasis on psychological quirks and even the tone of the prose are reminiscent of Stephen King, but King would need at least three times the pagecount to tell this story, and much of its effect would be lost in the bloat. I do suspect, however, that while a Stephen King version of 28 Teeth of Rage would be way too long, the Ennis Drake version may be a little too short. While Riley's distinctive personality and dilemma are established immediately, Strom and Jodi never quite rise above the tropes of troubled veteran and concerned but uncertain wife. A slower build-up of their characters might have allowed for more depth, enhancing the genuinely dark themes Strom's capacity for violence suggests, and making the moment where events take a darker turn that much more meaningful. As it is, the plot shifts into high gear so suddenly that the impact of that particular development is lost.

My other niggle is that the way the parallel stories play out doesn't quite gel. Riley is, after that great introduction, relegated for too long to sitting and listening to/reading the Wheldons' accounts, dissipating the reader's connection to the character. It doesn't help that those epistolary accounts are themselves strained. The journal is so rarely used that it seems pointless except as an expository device, while the tape, which starts as a reasonable approximation of how Strom might express himself under those circumstances, almost immediately shifts into polished first-person prose that nobody would come up with spontaneously. It might have been better to abandon those devices and simply use Strom as a narrator in alternate chapters, allowing Riley to take investigative action, not simply soak up the plot.

But whatever structural flaws may present themselves in the first half of the novel are overshadowed by the skill with which the second half is carried out. It's not just that Drake combines several different varieties of horror-- it's that he's good at all of them. He knows how to render physical violence stomach-twistingly unpleasant but not crude or exploitative; he knows how to tap into the sense of place that renders Southern horror atmospheric if often politically incorrect; he knows how to capture the sense of alienating vastness that makes cosmicism powerful. The prose has the narrative exuberance of pulp and the polish of serious fiction. Some readers, I'm sure, won't like the overlap. They won't be able to take seriously a novel that includes not only this sentence: "Its shadow fell across the golden, sun-washed sand like spilled oil; the totem itself seemed too hideous to belong in this bright, still place; its images an unnatural tangle of angular sculpture-- disembodied legs and arms and demonic faces that spiraled toward the bloated pinnacle figure: a centipede, its thousand legs not insectan, but human"; but also this one: "The ball of shot exploded from the center of the first Indian's chest in a cloud of fractured bone, sizzling hunks of heart, gore and gristle." (Not to mention this one: "The sow is mine... and I will butcher her like the bitch-pig she is!") But if you like ambitious horror that works in several different registers at once, and don't mind occasional failures of reach vs. grasp, 28 Teeth of Rage is a book not to be missed.

The author supplied a review copy of this book.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Orphans on Granite Tides

Readers who've stuck with this blog through thick (the period when I reviewed everything, whether I had something to say about it or not) and thin (now, when this blog gets updated about as often as George R. R. Martin finishes a novel) will recall my enthusiasm for Adam S. Cantwell's A Pallid Wave on Shores of Night. I also enjoyed his contribution to D. F. Lewis' The First Book of Classical Horror Stories. But I still wasn't prepared for the experience of his new novella, Orphans on Granite Tides. Cantwell's earlier stories demonstrated a pitch-perfect command of elegant but understated language and subtle horror, but Orphans on Granite Tides offers a new level of ambition and complexity. Not as superficially frightening as "Moonpaths of the Departed" or "Beyond Two Rivers: A Symphonic Poem," it's more directly philosophical, combining several traditions of supernatural and aesthetic fiction into a rich and strange meditation on mysticism, modernity, and meaning. Some readers will find it too abstruse; I myself began to wonder around the halfway point if it was going to add up to anything. But taken in the right spirit, it's just what small press fiction should be: thoughtful work for a small but demanding audience.

The structure at first suggests straightforward antiquarian horror: a recovered manuscript with an ominous tale to tell. But the manuscript, the personal history of a California Indian whose encounter with Russian settlers begins a journey that will take him around the world, proves to be more mystical than horrific. And like real mystical manuscripts, it can be a frustrating experience for more literal-minded readers, especially since lacunae in the text withhold information that might help one get a grip on things; just as events take an interesting turn, "pages missing" or "text missing" will interrupt the flow. This is, of course, a conscious decision, and it's the right one in terms of what Orphans on Granite Tides is ultimately about, but it may be off-putting for some, especially since it takes a while (perhaps too long) for the frame story, which is more graspable, to come back into play. I'm not going to say too much about the frame story, precisely because its details don't come into focus for a while, but it's an important counterpoint to the manuscript, bringing in the mid-century European vibe that, along with supernatural horror, is the hallmark of Ex Occidente Press.

Enough about plot. What matters here is tone and theme. The Indian's visions are suggestive of hidden cosmic powers in the vein of Lovecraft or Machen, but in the context of the frame story, these elements are less visceral devices and more a way of approaching questions about purpose and meaning in a time when the physical world has been fully explored and humanity has produced technological marvels to rival the mystical experiences of earlier generations. Dislocation abounds. Human activity, even a great exhibition, might be fleeting or self-defeating. There is a melancholy, perhaps, an awareness of something that has been lost, for which the contemporary reader of earlier esoteric texts searches in vain... if the search does not become hollow, an end in itself.

I worry that I'm on the verge of incoherence, perhaps because I haven't fully understood the implications of the unusual conversation with which Orphans on Granite Tides ends, a high-flying debate in which (it seems to me) so many issues are implicit and explicit that it would take forever to tease them all out. I begin to feel that I ought to reread the novella, slowly and carefully, if I want to have any hope of saying something meaningful about it. But then, no. Whether I could write a thesis on it or not, I can still hold onto the aesthetic experience of first reading, the pleasure of realizing how much is at stake in this unusual, fascinating story, the ambitions that led the author to describe it as "a metaphysical grotesque." That shock of intellectual pleasure is, to my mind, at least as true as a more diligent analysis would be... though I expect at least one of the novella's characters would disagree, for dueling sorts of truth, scientific and artistic, are another of the subjects here.

I haven't said very much, but I think in my ramblings I may have given some sense of whether Orphans on Granite Tides is the kind of thing you would enjoy reading. You may also want to read DF Lewis' review; his description of the book as "tantalisingly difficult" is as apt as anything. If you want to be tantalized, you can buy a copy from Ziesings Books, and possibly from other dealers as well. I reviewed the book based on a PDF of the final text, so I can't comment on the physical production, but I'm sure that like other Ex Occidente titles, it's well-designed enough to justify its price, an aesthetic object from another, possibly better age... not unlike a rare manuscript.

The author supplied a review copy.