Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Publications and News

I have a few announcements I've been meaning to make, some of them for a damn sight longer than I should have. So making today's post a nice spewing of them seemed like a nice Christmas present to get my To Do list.

The first category is publications. Since I've last discussed the matter, I've had two stories accepted. The first is "Defiance and Darkness," a Horror piece that has been snapped up by Space and Time Magazine. "Defiance and Darkness" represents a curious dead end for me. It was the first story I ever wrote intending to submit once it was done, and I wrote it in a style unlike that which I used for anything before or after. I quite like how it turned out. One of my close friends, and the fellow who's read more of my work than anyone else, considered it his favorite for a long while.

In the last few days, "Defiance and Darkness" was joined on its perch by "Solo." "Solo" is a Science Fiction tale that lies somewhere between quirky and Lovecraftian. This one is to appear in Interstellar Fiction.

Of the other two that have been slotted for publication for quite a few months now (which is to say, "Painting Nothing" and "Hope Immortal"), I can confirm that movement is indeed being had on both fronts. The two should be out for you to read before all that much longer.

Then there's the matter of Fungi, an anthology that I have nothing in but that, in my role as an Editorial Assistant over at Innsmouth Free Press, I did do some promotion towards. The book's got stories by a list of contributors that boasts VanderMeer, Mamatas, Bairron, Strantzas, Tobler, Pugmire, Tidhar, and more. If your tastes match up even vaguely with mine, I'd say that's a list that simply cannot miss.

Finally, I would like to direct everyone's attention over to The Arkham Digest. Its author, Justin, contacted me before going live and, though I did fire off a response or two, he has no doubt realized how absolutely atrocious I can be with emails sometimes. I apologize once more for that, Justin. Hopefully you'll forgive me if I tell all those folks reading this that The Arkham Digest has been posting varied, enjoyable, and insightful commentary since it debuted. He even has a Fungi review!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Jeff Long - The Descent

Like many great works of Horror and Science Fiction, Jeff Long's The Descent forces terror and awe upon the reader by a vast widening of scale. The Descent is all about what lies below. The Earth beneath our feet is filled with tunnels. And those tunnels are populated by evolutionary offshoots of man. The Hadals are brutal and calculating. Once, they were grand as well. Now they are coming up. As the synopsis on the back so states, We are not alone. Long uses this well conceived premise to create a few stunning scenes and images. That, however, is not to say that The Descent is an excellent novel, a good novel, or even a competent novel. It is not.

To be fair, The Descent does start off well and is not devoid of moments of awe later. The questions it poses about the Hadals' origins and evolution are fascinating and seem initially well grounded. Our early hints of their culture are rich with promise. The first chapter is a richly atmospheric piece of claustrophobic Horror. When a group of major characters begins to explore the subterranean world, the underground river and later sea that they encounter are incredible to first glimpse.

But The Descent suffers from two key problems, the first of which is that of how much stuff is packed into this novel. By stuff, I mean plot. No, wait, plots. As in, different plots. As in, Long is unable to resist changing the narrative focus of the novel every few dozen pages. The first four chapters, the first hundred pages, don't feature a single recurring perspective, and the novel doesn't cohere much afterwards. The few broad plots are constantly hampered by continuous sub plots that spring out of nowhere and go nowhere, a tendency of Long's that is certainly not helped when he realizes halfway through that he can stop chapters midway and give us one off characters as they experience various Incidents that never amount to anything. Developments as massive as proven reincarnation come out of nowhere and are never explored.

Don't think that, just because something is the main plot, it can't be demoted to sub plot and then demoted once more to forgotten. By the halfway point, we've moved on from almost every one of the questions of the novel's beginning. Entire characters fall through the cracks. One major character realizes that, when he let the expedition proceed without him, he got left behind by the plot. So he goes beneath the surface to chase after it. Alas, he is too slow, and we don't hear about him for hundreds of pages. When he does return, it's both briefly and irrelevantly.

But, ultimately, Long's problem is one of logic. By that, I mean that just about every single piece of The Descent's grand revelation is eventually unmistakably a mess of contradictions, stupidity, and nonsense. These innumerable holes serve to sabotage not only the novel's plot but its characters and pacing.

After a painfully slow build up composed of individually competent pieces – the novel's first 103 pages are composed of four almost unrelated chapters – the world finally sees not only the Hadals but the massive underworld beneath its feet. Armies descend. They encounter no resistance, meet not a single Hadal. They descend further and further. Thousands of men descend beneath the Earth, exploring miles of ground no one thought existed. Then all of the rising tension seems to explode. We have come to what the characters later call the "decimation" (p. 112). Having lulled the humans into a false sense of complacency, the Hadals strike on an international scale. They slaughter all resistance. They slay a quarter of a million soldiers (p. 113).

That seems like the beginning of a grand conflict, no? No. Within pages, the decimation is forgotten. By everyone. No more Hadals are spotted. Private companies and militaries descend again and encounter no one. They assume that all is safe. Before long, we are hearing countless statements like "A lot of people think the hadals have died off." (p. 170) Just in case this assumption, coming mere months after a quarter of a million armed men made that assumption and paid for it with their lives, isn't quite dumb enough, we learn soon enough that "All around the country. All around the world. […] We know they're coming up into our midst. There are sightings and killings ever hour, somewhere in metro and rural America." (p. 223) Lest you think the page differences between the quotes mean that the Hadals were thought gone, then returned again, here's another, this one from after we have confirmed, constant, and continuous sightings of them: "We are not even sure they exist anymore." (p. 237)

So Long is setting up the dumber than bricks human race for a second fall, right? Wrong. See, Long forgets the decimation too. In fact, as we learn more of Hadal culture, we see that their grandness is all in the past. They are a fallen race, and they now number scant thousands. Those few that we see could never pull something like the decimation off. They show no sign of ever having even attempted such a thing. All I can think to explain it is that the decimation was a holdover from an earlier draft – or perhaps an entirely different novel with a somewhat similar concept – that was somehow dropped in a fifth of the way through the book to permanently ruin any kind of pacing or coherency that Long was going for.

So the Hadals prove to be no threat. In fact, every single Hadal character – slaughtering or not – that we see is actually a human that was captured by them and became a part of their culture. Long may have set an entire novel around the Hadals' existence, but he'll be damned if he so much as names one of them. But the true villains of the novel – or at least some of them – turn out to be characters that were totally irrelevant at the beginning and suddenly matter halfway through: random power hungry humans!

The evil corporation Helios, organizers of the previously mentioned expedition, is going for world domination, or at least underworld domination. The expedition I mentioned previously turns out to be a rights grab by Helios, in which they scheme to control the entire sub-planet. Of course, being somewhere first doesn't necessarily confer ownership, but the army (US or otherwise) seems disinclined to stop them for… some reason.

As for the expedition itself, it is, who is surprised, a mess of inconsistencies. It takes place below the surface and is resupplied by drilling through the sea floor to drop down supplies. So why doesn't the ocean rush in after those supplies? No idea. If they know exactly where the underground trail will take the scientists well enough to drill down supplies at the right spots, why do they need to explore it? If they can send down people with these supplies (as they do once but only once), why don't they explore it in that fashion?

But the expedition is only where Helios' plans begin. See, Helios has an ace up their sleeve to stop the nonexistent Hadal threat. They have what is genuinely the absolute worst super villain plan I have ever encountered. Meet Prion 9, the horrific and endlessly reproducing poison gas that they plan to cleanse the underworld with. It kills all life it encounters in under two seconds. But fear not, humanity, it can't get up to the surface, for It only lives – and only kills – in darkness. It dies in sunlight (p. 311). It was at this point that my jaw simply dropped and I couldn't help but wonder why nobody had ever bothered to inform Helios' genius researchers of the existence of the fucking NIGHT.

I still haven't gotten to the most illogical part of the book yet, still haven't gotten to Satan. See, the underworld is decided to be where myths of hell came from. From this, a group of scholars have, as they so farcically put it, deduced the existence of Satan. To be fair, when this is first brought up, they quickly point out that they are looking for THAT Satan. No, they are merely using that as a term for the Hadal's leaders. They then follow that immediately with: The term Satan signifies a historical character. A missing link between our fairy tale of hell and the geological fact of it. Think about it. If there can be a historical Christ, why not a historical Satan? (p. 161)

The above tells us two things: 1) we are looking for Satan-Satan, I guess. 2) The speaker, all appearances to the contrary, is spellbindingly stupid and is practicing something unspeakably far from any sort of academic or scientific method. Beyond which, I can't help but point out that Satan's companion would not be Jesus but God and that Satan was never supposed to be a mortal wandering about Earth.    

To be honest, criticizing the scholars' reasoning is almost insultingly easy and feels less like arguing with a theory than it does sniping at homophobic youtube commenters' attempts at argument. But that's the poor lot of the reviewer. Their evidence – we get to hear quite a bit of it – is an attempt to synthesize various bits of Satan's mythology (non Judeo-Christian aspects of mankind's racial history not welcome) into a coherent psychological profile. Into this gets swept up a fair few things having little to do with Satan, like the Shroud of Turin, a proud exemplar of the pseudo logic employed by Long's characters, in which they take small details and draw absurd conclusions from them as they are hurtled along their mindless path by Long's authorial hand.

One character states that the Shroud is a fake. Okay, fair enough. It's not an image of Jesus. Alright, that would go with the fake bit. It's the image of the faker. Okay, still comprehensible. That faker is obviously Satan, because he was a trickster that was attempting to infiltrate Christian culture through their own image (p. 283). This is perfectly sound reasoning, because, as we know, there has never been another trickster in the world, nor another propagandist. This not only might be Satan but MUST be him, and it is a prime example of how every single glimpse of these infernal scholars goes.

There is a certain point at which a plot hole stops being something to pick at and simply swallows the novel. This is a novel constructed almost entirely of such plot holes. They render the story a staggering mess that shifts and degrade before our eyes. By the halfway point, the opening is essentially forgotten. None of its intriguing questions are answered. A great illustration of the way the novel shifts (endlessly) can be seen in how, early on, the expedition picks up a radio signal from one of its members that is digitally dated months in the future. As we are still in the early part of the novel, where we are concerned with evolutionary questions and scientific names, the scientists tear into this with all sorts of logical objections. Hundreds of pages later, the fellow makes the transmission in complete earnestness. None of the earlier problems with it are mentioned. The Descent does not answer or transcend the questions of its opening. It forgets about them. It becomes a different book.

The reader is forever prevented from investing in the expedition's journey because that journey shifts wildly every once in a while. There is no organic development to speak of in this novel. Instead, endless new plot threads run in and stampede over whatever build up there was. Since these plot threads are conjured from thin air, they cannot be anticipated and destroy all semblance of tension. None of the individual scenes save the first chapter are good enough to stand up to this disjointedness.

The characters, hamstrung by their sudden dips and rises in focus, are not enough to save the book. For some reason, much of its cast is involved in the Catholic religious order, including the nun, Ali, who is our main viewpoint for the expedition. To say that she does not come off as a nun is an absurd understatement. She never thinks about the Catholic Church's position on Hadals (surely it must have one?), never questions what the Pope might say about a quest to find Satan. She abandons her vows and then claims to still strictly follow God without so much as a rationalization to explain the cognitive dissonance. In fact, she rarely thinks of God at all and certainly never in particularly Catholic terms.

The rest of the cast is either nothing at all or a flashy surface hiding nothing. Besides Ali, the only memorable cast member is Ike, star of the first chapter, who begins and dies as a fascinating enigma. He was captured by the Hadals and held by them for eleven years. That is the very foundation of his character. And yet we never hear about it. For all his promise, he amounts to naught. The scholars and their god awful Satan theory go either no deeper than names or, like Ali, have extremely unusual backgrounds (such as the blind, excommunicated fellow) that don't actually shape them at all. The expedition is made up of Ali, Ike, and a bunch of names and one note repetitions, such as the whiny fellow or the other whiny one.

The Descent is not a novel without good ideas. But those ideas are strung together with shoestring and nothing. This is a mess.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

"A Game of Distance" in Plasma Frequency Magazine

Plasma Frequency Magazine just released its third issue, and my Fantasy short "A Game of Distance" is the first story in it.

Were I to sum up "A Game of Distance" in three words, I think I'd go with espionage, magic, and friendship. Unless, of course, I could just write awesome in triplicate. Years back, the story was inspired by  a scene in Peter F. Hamilton's The Night's Dawn trilogy, in which a spy grows to know their quarry, and was the first flash piece I wrote. It's been touched up a bit since, and I doubt it has any actual similarities to Hamilton's Science Fiction epic, but I do quite like the little piece. Hopefully you do too.

The issue does, though, have a bevy of other fiction and other content as well. The print edition is ten bucks, but you can also read for free. Check it out!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

David Goodis - Five Noir Novels of the 1940s & 50s

The world was spinning in the wrong direction (p. 190).

Decades ago, David Goodis penned millions of words for the pulp magazines, worked on innumerable screenplays, and released a slew of classic Crime novels, including The Wounded and the Slain. Now the Library of America has released five of Goodis' novels in a single hardcover volume, and I gladly took the chance to delve deeper into the author's brutal depiction of our urban underbelly. Between the five, the characters, plots, and the presence of hope all vary considerably, but the quality of Goodis' work and the desperation of his vision are inescapable throughout.

The synopsis on the volume's back describes Dark Passage as the story of an innocent man railroaded for his wife's murder. It's accurate, but the railroading is broader than that. Goodis' characters entire lives have been railroaded. They have been condemned to live in a world they did not create, in a hopeless situation that they almost certainly cannot escape. As Goodis writes of Nathaniel Harbin in The BurglarThe world was an avalanche, taking him down (p. 362).

Goodis writes of desperation and of defiance. His men and women may find themselves in a hopeless world, but they do not surrender to it, and they will not, no matter the damage it does to them. In Street of No Return, a famous singer is beaten by two thugs. He can stop the blows any time he wants. All he has to do is give up on the woman he loves. Convinced? they ask as the blackjack falls. Convinced now? Every time, his answer is No (pp. 702-3). Finally, they hit his throat, and he loses his voice. They leave him, and he thinks that they have won. But, if Goodis is the visionary of hopeless realities, he's also a master of the hope within us, no matter the odds against it. As the singer tells himself, They didn't convince you after all (p. 749).

This kind of hope is not one borne of chances or a belief in success. It's not an indomitability of flesh but of spirit. It's not simple masochism; it's neither a wish for pain nor an ideal belief to hold actionless in the night. It's simply that Goodis' characters cannot, and will not, quit, and their determination is a matter of them and their goals, not of attainability. At the end of one novel, an innocent man, his case now hopeless, speaks to his love one last time and begins to list the nearly endless fortune they would require to ever see each other again. We'll skip the ifs, she tells him (p. 192). Reading those lines is a strange experience. Everything in the novel before them has gone wrong. The protagonist is on the run, and he can never fully escape. And yet the reader is feeling almost empowered as they turn the last page.

While hope is crucial to Goodis novels, ambition for the worldly is not. The things – the luxuries – that ambition brings are, for Goodis, almost immaterial. Though some are, it's a mistake to think every Goodis protagonist destitute. The wonderfully named Nathaniel Harbin is even covetous of material wealth, and Nightfall's James Vanning has stumbled across a massive fortune. But those fortunes prove as restraining, and as ruining, as poverty. Nathaniel knows that, ultimately, luxurious sensations never lasted for long and even while it happened was accompanied by the dismal knowledge that it would soon be over (pp. 417-8).

Goodis' characters hope for simpler things, more essential things. They crave survival, though it is far from a sure thing in these pages. They want happiness, nothing extravagant, but rather the simple and ordinary kind (p. 5), as the protagonist of Dark Passage puts it. And, perhaps the most powerfully of all, they hope for love and love's success. They know, of course, that these goals are not necessarily all compatible. Caring for another hurts them. Love hurts their chances. It is, without a doubt, a problem (p. 596). Often, it threatens to doom them or actually does. Nonetheless, it may be the only thing that makes all the pain worthwhile. It may be the only way to truly escape, or maybe even to transcend, the misery of the world. Speaking of Street of No Return's singer and the love he was beaten for, Goodis writes: In the bed with her it was dark but somehow blazing like the core of a shooting star. It was going 'way out past all space and all time (p. 689).

All of this is beautifully forced upon the reader by some of the strongest prose I've ever read. Goodis' writing is a complex art crafted from the simplest of building blocks. On the sentence level, Goodis is fully capable of fantastic imagery, such as: In the ash tray near the bed, the stubs became a family that grew through the night (p. 298). But those sentences are easy reads, graspable things, and, above all, perfectly in character. Every sentence is the very embodiment of the speaker or viewpoint's soul and mood and thought. It's likely this gift with plain but evocative prose that grants Goodis his gift for dialogue. His characters speak with their own voices, and he has the rare gift of being able to let them converse on any topic that enters their mind while still showing so much of their character so as to never feel as if he is going off topic.

Things don't stop at the sentence level, though, for, at the novels' key moments, these sentences flow into one another, thoughts flowing into thoughts, until we end with passages of nearly free association, of a stream of consciousness made of the simplest parts that never loses their easy heart of understandability. In this way, Goodis blends individually clear images with one another to create wholly new modes and tones, and his protagonists wrestle with themselves and their own thought as the text follows along with their argument, an internal debate that reads with all the force of our own. A relatively brief example, in which the protagonist of Dark Passage thinks of the constraints he was under even before the crime:

He was going back and taking chunks out of his life and holding them up to examine them. The young and bright yellow days in the hot sun of Maricopa, always bright yellow in every season. The wide and white roads going north from Arizona. The grey and violet of San Francisco. The grey and the heat of the stock room, and the days and nights of nothing, the years of nothing. And the cage in the investment security house, and the stiff white collars of the executives, stiff and newly white every day, and their faces every day, and their voices every day. And the paper, the plain white paper, the pink paper, the pale-green paper, the paper ruled violet and green and black in small ledgers and large ledgers and immense ledgers. And the faces (pp. 102-3).

In terms of the novels themselves, the first two are by far the closest of any of the pieces here. Both Dark Passage and Nightfall star men wrongly pursued by the full weight of the law and desperate to clear their names. Furthermore, both possess puzzle style crimes that the protagonists must solve if they are to have any hope or proving their innocence. The mystery in the latter relies to a large extent on one very nonsensical act that makes guessing it before the reveal just about impossible, so, in that regard, the former is the stronger. Still, Nightfall can boast the bizarre but fascinating relationship between its protagonist and the detective that pursues him and, gradually, begins to believe in his innocence and to strive as hard as he to clear his name.

Like those two, The Burglar has a suspenseful plot that has its characters struggling to escape the law and keep their lives. But, and rather unlike them, its heroes are most certainly not innocent. Nathaniel Harbin and his closest friends are professional burglars. But while they might be nominally outside of society's rules, they are not out of its heart: Every animal, including the human being, is a criminal, and every move in life is a part of the vast process of crime. What law, Gerald would ask, could control the need to take food and put it in the stomach? No law, Gerald would say, could erase the practice of taking. According to Gerald, he basic and primary moves in life amounted to nothing more than this business of taking, to take it and get away with it (p. 416).

Nathaniel and his fellows were born at the bottom, were left with nothing. They refused to stay there, and they have fought their way to a living. But that living is not secure, and, now, they have come up against a foe that may prove as unprincipled and as determined as they are. Despite its solid illegality, The Burglar is not an amoral novel. Though a crook, Nathaniel has not left honor. Behind as his mentor once said: What mattered, what mattered high up there by itself all alone […] was whether things are honorable (p. 418). As it progresses, The Burglar becomes a tale of honor tested and also of different and impossible kinds of love. I won't spoil the finish's particulars, but I will say that The Burglar has one of the most crushing endings of any book I've read.

Though still certainly a Goodis work, The Moon in the Gutter is a very different beast from its fellows here. Like The Blonde on the Street Corner (not included here), it is a largely plotless exploration of society's lowest rungs. Kerrigan is very aware that he and all the other denizens of Vernon Street are riding through life on a fourth-class ticket (p. 496), but he has nonetheless fallen in love with an uptown woman who loves him back. Furthermore, he must face his sister's pointless and ugly death mere months before. The novel's climax comes as Kerrigan looks out a window, over the houses and denizens of Vernon Street, and suffers the following revelation:

And no matter where the weaker ones were hiding, they'd never get away from the Vernon moon. It had them trapped. It had them doomed. Sooner or later they'd be mauled and battered and crushed. They'd learn the hard way that Vernon Street was no place or delicate bodies or timid souls. They were prey, that was all, they were destined for the maw of the ever hungry eater, the Vernor gutter.

He stared out at the moonlit street. Without sound he said, You did it to [my sister]. You (p. 615).

Though inevitable, the revelation is not altogether satisfying. When Kerrigan decides that he and his love can never be together, it's not a surprising decision, but the reader has still never seen a single scene of their failing to be so, only presentiments that it will happen. It's painful to see one of Goodis' narrators give up his struggle and bow his head to fate, but, while The Moon in the Gutter is a powerful read, it's the least successful one in this collection.

Street of No Return is a more eventful than the preceding read, but its strongpoint is not its plot, which is held together by a bevy of coincidences and a revelation that is not as hard to piece together as the characters might have you believe. That is not, however, to say that it is a weak novel, for here Goodis excels with his atmospheric depictions of Philadelphia and through his portrayal of his protagonist, the once-famous singer that I discussed long ago in the review's beginning and that singer's slow motion suicide, his life lived after his loss as Going down. One step at a time (p. 708). Furthermore, Goodis quickly and sympathetically establishes his police characters and those of the other souls the novel's protagonist meets in his flight. The book's climax is a triumph, and a clearing of the main character's name, but it is not a final triumph, and, after what could in many novels be a Happy Ever After, Goodis shows his hero return without a word to the near-hopeless brutality of the life he's left.

In this collection, the Library of America was kind enough to give us five brutally powerful novels, each resplendent with not only overwhelming darkness but also strength and hope. David Goodis is a master of Noir, and this is the largest, and likely best, collection of his work you'll find anywhere.