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.

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