Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Ramsey Campbell - The Face that Must Die

His hand splayed a stack of newspapers across the counter, spreading headlines – NEW MURDER SHOCK – and razor blades. A dozen repetitions of the identikit drawing stared up at him, an unnatural family – as though the man had infected a dozen victims until they looked like him. (p. 13)

The Face that Must Die is a serial killer novel filled with malice and social commentary. As we learn in Campbell's afterword, Horridge (the star of our rather horrific show) is in large part based on Campbell's schizophrenic, misogynistic, homophobic mother. Coming off of the novel's ending, this is not as much of a surprise as one might think. Horridge is repugnant but all too believable. His views are egregious and caustic, yet human – Horridge is humanity reflected in the most putrid of grimy, stained, gore and shit stained pools, and yet there's something about his portrayal that makes him impossible to dismiss.

What makes The Face that Must Die so convincing is that it's not a novel about larger than life characters. This is not a book about a genius cannibal doctor; this is not a tale of a criminal mastermind. Horridge is disabled and paranoid, utterly unable to tell delusion from reality. He has no plan. He is a monster, but he is never an excused monster, never a character made so extravagant or set up so elaborately that his actions lose the trappings of reality. As Poppy Z. Brite says in the introduction:

[He had] a bleak childhood but not a freakish one. Like most of his real life counterparts, Horride is simply an ineffectual creep, his disposition toward mental illness stirred by a nasty experience or two, who eventually wills himself into being dangerous; he's never explained or excused. (p. 3)

Horridge is not an extraordinary man, and he is not an ordinary man reacting to extraordinary circumstances. He is simply a man (a weak, hate-filled, arrogant man) that is broken by altogether average, albeit unfortunate, circumstances and becomes an all too average demon. The only part of Brite's summation that I'd disagree with is saying that Horride ever "wills himself to be dangerous." Horridge despises homosexuals and those around them, yes, but it's not something that he sets out to act upon. In fact, the events of the novel are almost uniformly tragic accident rather than sadistic plot.

The Face that Must Die is a comedy of errors with the humor replaced by the horror. Nothing in this novel is smooth. Horridge travels with a limp, and he's always self conscious of how he's being perceived. Early in the book, he tries to see a movie. He dislikes brushing past row after row of people in the dark, so he shows up early – but he's in the wrong theater. He's hot and prickly (p. 33) every step of the run to the proper theater, and when he gets there he's forced to shove his way past crowds of loathsome people, past: hair that twittered away, cloth that squirmed; a pool of tobacco smoke drifted sluggishly about his face. A soft drink carton crunched beneath his heel. (p. 33) And then he finds out that he hates the movie.

The power of the book comes from such scenes, the murder's merely a symptom of the main character's twisted psyche. Horridge's mind is a frightening place to spend time. His world is oppressive, and every circumstance is misconstrued.  Horridge's home, Cantril Farm, was designed to confound him. The radio operator is mocking him. The people on the bus are tormenting him. The man standing beside him came here specifically to be beside him, and perhaps Horridge's being followed for a reason…

Horridge's views feel horrifically real due to their vitriol. Horridge does not have one reason to dislike gays or blacks; he's practically bursting with reasons. Horridge's internal rant (monologue feels far too tame a word) is livid and rife with contradictions, too impassioned to realize that it's making no sense. He has a thousand and one terms for what he fears. Characters are "sly as a homosexual," (p. 201) but homosexuals are also blundering. Homosexuals are perverse for fucking other men, but the women around them are depraved for what sexual deviancies they must get up to with their homosexual lovers. The homosexuals are flaunting and breaking the law, but they also control society. Even sexuality between a man and a woman is something to be feared, something to be controlled, and a society driven by its obsession with "painful orgasm" (p. 66) is obviously a depraved one, one populated by nothing but "creatures." (p. 243) It's the rage that makes the words feel real. Horridge is too vivid to be ignored, not the sane but (potentially) objectionable words of a social conservative but rather a rabid dog frothing at the mouth – he is mad, and yet his fear feels human all too human, not sympathetic in the least but loathsomely understandable all the same.

Bizarrely enough, Horridge's does not go into the novel with the intention of harming homosexuals. Quite the opposite in fact, even if his reasoning is reprehensible. A man is killing gays in Liverpool, and Horridge is convinced that the killer is a homosexual corrupting others and then killing them. Trying to do the right thing (or at least his idea of it), Horridge sets out to force the killer to confess. The man that Horridge decides must be the killer is Roy Craig, a denizen of a house on Aigburth Drive. The other lodgers there soon become a foil to Horridge, a brief taste of sanity amidst the killer's quest. Often, in scenes when Horridge and another character interact, Campbell will show us the event from both pairs of eyes in consecutive chapters. The transitions between the timelines aren't always smooth, but the contrast is the heart of the novel.

Cathy and Peter are our main non-nuts perspectives – and yet, of our three main protagonists, Cathy is the only one that is particularly normal. She's trying to save up money to buy a flat, but her husband, Peter, is reluctant and spends his money on drugs and comics. When not high, his perspective is irritable and rational, but things get interesting when he takes acid three quarters of the way through the book. Suddenly, Peter's perspective dissolves into a shifting nightmare similar to Horridge's life. Despite some interesting moments, though, Cathy and Peter are the novel's weakest link. They're fine where they are as far as being a foil for Horridge goes, but they never feel like particularly convincing characters in their own right. We often lose sight of them for dozens of pages at a time, and when we do see them, Peter earns our mild dislike while Cathy is abstractly okay but too passive to really earn our sympathy.

The Face that Must Die starts as a slow burn and, as it continues, builds to a manic sprint. Horridge is repugnant throughout, but he manages at least a thin veneer of sanity in the opening. Not so as we progress, and, as his grip on reality slips further, his actions become more drastic. The first third or so of the book consists of Horridge's attempts to unsettle Craig. This part is effective, if a bit over long, but it's nothing compared to the creepiness of when the book builds up steam. Anyone who can stop reading in the book's home stretch has super human self control, and the climax itself is excellent.

The Face that Must Die is not an enjoyable read – but it is an excellent read. This is a fascinating horror novel that takes on key issues in the way that only a horror/crime novel can. This is the first Ramsey Campbell book that I've read, but it certainly won't be the last.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Half Accepted (Video Games)

I've been thinking lately about video games. More particularly, how they're viewed by mainstream culture. Pop back a few decades, and you've got the gamer nerd with the social skill of the pimples on his face. Nowadays, though, people seem a bit smarter, and someone's finally picked up on the fact that, if 103% of Western males play videogames, and a good chunk of females too, at least two or three percent of those guys must have, at some point in his life, had sex, or the human race would be about to atrophy. From this came the perception of gaming as a normal part of life, not a defining characteristic. Amusingly enough, though, both views are still around.

Which brings us, finally, to the point of this post. Go watch this (brief) Alienware ad, but pause the video at :07 and do your best to forget who Alienware is. Which stereotype is it going for? I sat through this thing a few times before my daily doses of Zero Punctuation the last couple days, and each time I failed completely to spot any real cues. On one hand, the waitress is smiling. On the other, he was just randomly gyrating in public, and she could just as likely be giving him a weirdo nerd smile as a let's go out on a date and make babies smile. Honestly, if I had to guess from just those first seven seconds, I would have gone with the latter interpretation, but I'm guessing that's not what the video game-affiliated company was going for. This is, I guess, what comes from having two stereotypes in effect and having them both be approached almost exactly the same way.

That's it. What, were you expecting some kind of insight? Go read a book or something.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Catherynne M. Valente - Ventriloquism

The first story in Catherynne M. Valente's Ventriloquism, Reading Borges in Buenos Aires, bends reality, the light of a dozen worlds reflecting on the story's lone immutable details: someone, in Buenos Aires, is reading Borges, and the reading and the person and the city are all shaping one another. In one paragraph the reader is old, in the next young. Facts, pasts, and the characters around the reader dissolve and are rebuilt, changing from page to page. In the final story, 13 Ways of Looking at Space/Time, scientifically analyzed creation myths are balanced with the affecting story of a certain unnamed science fiction writer, and possibilities are given birth and then die as timelines coalesce: I am writing the word and the word is already published and the word is already out of print. Everything is always happening all at once, in the present tense, forever, the beginning and the end and the denouement and the remaindering. (p. 328) In between those two stories, six years of Valente's fiction bring thirty of those permutations to life, thirty different tales united by that unnamed science fiction author's vision and sprawling across genres and years and narratives.

Valente's prose unifies the disparate tales found here. Her writing is baroque and dense, sentences composed of tightly packed imagery that rolls over the reader, such as a childhood described in La Serenissima: Never since I was a girl did my feet grace a stair but that the embroidery of my shoes was soaked through, red thread to black, green to black, blue to black: rain-sodden, rimmed with street-mold (p. 67) or the opening of A Dirge for Prester John: We carried him down to the river. It churned: basalt, granite, marble, quartz – sandstone, limestone, soapstone. Alabaster against obsidian, flint against agate. Eddies of jasper slipped by, swirls of schist, carbuncle and chrysolite, slate, beryl, and a sound like shoulders breaking. (p. 23)

It's true that the storm of images is imposing, occasionally even overwhelming, but that's not to say that Valente isn't a versatile writer. She's capable of bringing the same richness to almost any emotion and the same vividness to almost any place. She shows us bitter self loathing in Milk and Apples: I had been wicked, yes, because I had borne a dead daughter, I had squeezed a little pale corpse from my body as though I were nothing but a fat coffin, and buried it in the snow-hardened fields. (p. 147) She shows us sinful opulence with Gobulash's decadent wine: This is a wine that swallows light. Its color is deep and opaque, mysterious, almost black, the shadows of closed space. Revel in the dance of plum, almond skin, currant, pomegranate. The musty spike of nutmeg, the rich, buttery brightness of equine blood and the warm, obscene swell of leather. The last of the pre-war wines – your execution in a glass. (p. 278) And she shows us, too, levity, dry wit, and grandiose plans in How to Become a Mars Overlord: No matter what system bore you lifted you up, made you strong and righteous, there is a Mars for you to rule, and it is right that you should wish to rule her. (p. 300)

Valente's love of language is evident in more than just her prose's richness. In Ventriloquism, writing has the power to change the world, and Valente's protagonists spread awareness through slyly delivered pamphlets (The Anachronist's Cookbook) and through writing on pregnant stomachs (The Harpooner at the Bottom of the World) while Valente delivers the same messages through her tales. Many stories here are almost as concerned with how the story is being told – with its writing – as they are with what the story itself is. The Days of Flaming Motorcycles is shaped and titled by the cover of the notebook the narrator is writing in. In The Secret History of Mirrors, the narrator becomes the center of attention due to her tale, and her contempt for those around her who don't speak for themselves is plain: Ah, but they pound so upon the door of my cell, and demand their sides be told! Have you ever heard of such disagreeable folk? As if this was the first manuscript written from within our hexagonal chambers! As if vellum and gall were so rare as to the hunted across the fields like harts and hares. (p. 218) It's true that not all of the first person stories have such central frames, but even those that do not are filled with identifying flourishes, the narrators eschewing banal "My name is…" introductions for proud declarations such as, from The Dirge for Prester John: And after all of these, feet bare on the sand, skirts banded thick and blue about her waist, eyes cast downward, walked Hagia of the Blemmyae, who tells this tale. (p. 24)

In his introduction, Lev Grossman says: You will encounter those stories in a new way here. You won't recognize them at first, when you meet them. they will have taken off their glasses, and let down their hair. And you'll lay, like the old boss says to his secretary in the soap opera, in surprise and wonderment: Good heavens! You're beautiful! They will smile. And then they will rip your heart out. (p. XII) It's hard to think of a better way to describe Valente's fiction, her self-proclaimed mythpunk. These stories start out enchanting. Opulent, yes, but seemingly innocuous. They show you fantastic things and let you revel in glorious new places, and then, sometimes slowly and sometimes suddenly, they grow dark and twisted. There are no spell-breaking shifts here, no contrived tonal changes. There are, instead, revelations, the reader realizing that they've allowed bright lights and sweet aromas to blind us to misery all around us.

This is shown no where better than in the second of the novel's two Hansel and Gretel tales. A Delicate Architecture begins with a fairy tale world, a girl living with her father, the greatest confectioner to ever live, and living a life where everything is made of sweets. As the tale progresses, however, the price of such sweets becomes all too clear, the proof of the father's words: He told me very seriously that I must always remember that sugar was once alive. It grew tall and green and hard as my own knuckles in a far-away place, under a red sun that burned on the face of the sea. I must always remember that children just like me cut it down and crushed it up with tan and strong hands, and that their sweat, which gave me my sugar, tasted also of salt. (p. 83-4) The narrator is harvested for the sweetness that she can bring, and, while the tale's initial flights of fancy are still present, it's plain that such paradises are not for everyone.

Hidden costs lie underneath almost every story here. Valente manages to both show us the fabulous power of such dreams and, devastatingly, their painful realities. Amid the wonder of airships, The Anachronist Cookbook's protagonist writes: What you do not see are the Children who wind the Gearworks, stoke the Fires, load the Aerial Bombardments, pack Powder and scrape Bird Offal from the Engines. (p. 58) Such sentiments abound in fairy tales told by side characters and villains, in flights of fancy only held down by their cost, and in tales of heroic struggle cheapened by those it carelessly destroys.

Admittedly, not all of the collection's tales are equally powerful. Valente's prose is a dominating thing, and it can, at times, overwhelm the reader. Some stories, such as The Anachronist's Cookbook, are interesting ideas that lose their power through digressions. In that story, the messianic protagonist fights a battle against a cruel world through her stealthily disseminated pamphlets, but the drama of the story is waylaid by an excess of those pamphlets, and the conclusion is unsurprising. Other stories also occasionally lose the grand picture for the power of the details – and yet, if you're going to pick a reason for a tale to fail, I think excellence of prose and description is a pretty damn good one. No, I would not say that every story in here is a masterpiece. But I will say that there is no story in here that you can ride with half an eye, no story that won't drag you into its every depiction, and no story that is a safe tale that one has read before and has no interest in reading again.

Catherynne M. Valente is a distinctive author, a unique voice. Every tale in this collection asserts her style within the first page, the first paragraph, the first sentence, and any limiting genre indicators never manage to assert themselves until long after the reader is swept away and shore is no longer in sight. Valente's fiction is like the delicate wines of Golubash or the handcrafted sugars of A Delicate Architecture, and I think I'm going to be savoring choice tales and discovering new layers for a long time. 

Friday, March 18, 2011

Someone Light a Candle...

Seems the Hat Rack's turned one today. Not that I first posted a year ago today. Or that I first started posting regularly a year ago today. Nope, this day's not all that important - but hey, everyone can have some cake. That'll make it all better. (Just note that we're splitting the cakes that you guys brought; no one could seriously expect me to bake on my special day, now could they?) I'd like to do a long speech about how much this means to me, but really, no one wants to read that. So I'll just say that 7,376 hits and counting in 12 months is totally awesome, far above my expectations, and that every single person reading this blog has been scientifically and objectively proven to be far, far, far cooler, smarter, and better looking than anyone reading anything else on the internet. Or something like that, I might've misread the numbers. Just go eat your cake.

I'll throw up a bonus review tomorrow to obscure the drunken remnants of tonight's party.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Patrick Rothfuss in Brooklyn

Tuesday night, I went to go see Patrick Rothfuss in Brooklyn. He was everything he sounds like in interviews and writes like on his blog, funny, charming, and intelligent. 

The Barnes & Noble, on the other hand, was infuriating, and, if there'd been another venue where I could've purchased my book and not missed the signing, I would've done so if it was twice the price. Because there "wasn't room," the discussion and question and answer portions of the signing were cancelled. Now, it was obviously true that the store lacked room – after all, they didn't even have an events room, making me wonder where exactly they were planning to put all these people before they shrugged and decided they couldn't be bothered and left us to wait outside. 

I've no complaints about Rothfuss, but if I'd known that the store was so incompetent I probably wouldn't have made the trip. Hopefully Rothfuss chooses a better venue next time he visits New York.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Ian C. Esslemont - Stonewielder

Stonewielder is Ian C. Esslemont’s third novel in the Malazan series. His first novel, Night of Knives was an acceptable entry into the mythos, but far from extraordinary. His second effort, Return of the Crimson Guard, was more successful at creating the epic world of Malazan, but was plagued with crippling flaws. Stonewielder is perhaps the most epic Esslemont effort to date. Like Erison’s Midnight Tides, Stonewielder seeks to bring to light an entire continent (albeit a smaller one), and it’s a continent filled with different factions, a continent host to not one but two Malazan armies, one renegade. This is, without a doubt, Esslemont's best work – which isn't to say it's necessarily a successful book.

Despite bearing Greymane’s title on the cover, Stonewielder is not focused on the man. Greymane himself is only viewed from the periphery, and even Return of the Crimson Guard’s main character Kyle is now primarily seen from the eyes of others. This works well for Kyle; the man is far more interesting when seen from the side. Greymane, however, is off-screen for so much of the read that it’s hard to really feel his importance, and his key role in the climax comes as almost a surprise. Still, the Malazan versus Malazan aspect of the book is by far the strongest thread. The renegade’s position is believable and interesting, and Ussu – a mage for the renegade Malazans – was probably my favorite character of the book. On the Malazan side, Stonewielder’s salt of the earth point of view, Suth, is rather bland but not unpleasant. More exciting, Esslemont’s skill with large scale battles is undiminished here. The book’s highlight comes about halfway through in a massive naval confrontation. The stakes are high, the viewpoints scattered and busy trying to survive, and the overall picture we get of the scene is epic in every sense of the word.

The Korelri Stormwall is one of the book’s other key plot threads. A variety of viewpoint characters are gathered there, including several from the Crimson Guard, and the feel and desperation of the area is well established, even if the sections suffer from the importance of the characters involved; there’s never any doubt that Iron Bars, say, will be killed after so many pages have been devoted to his rescuers’ journey to him. Besides which, there’s the measure of the pile of plot holes that such a wall brings up, chief among them the burning question of why the riders don’t just go around the freakin' wall.

Some plotlines are far less successful. Bakune, an investigator trapped in a city of increasing religious fanaticism as the invaders draw near, seemed all set to have an interesting plotline. It was not to be. In Return of the Crimson Guards, one of my chief gripes was the lack of obvious character motivations. In their absence, it was almost impossible to tell where anything was going; we had important characters, but we did not have characters that drove the plot. Though a far better character than Kyle was, Bakune is far too passive to be interesting. He never does anything of his own volition; he is simply batted about by powers stronger than he is.

Ivanr, however, is the character with the dubious honor of most objectionable plotline. Basically, he’s a Toblakai who believes in pacifism. The character shares Bakune’s passivity, and the entire plotline around him is weaker than the rest of the novel, but what makes him truly infuriating is his hypocrisy. As I said, he claims he’s nonviolent. And yet he fights every chance he gets. He disassociates himself from the violence, takes no credit for it, and then wades into the bloodshed and endangers the life of everyone around him. Towards the beginning of the book, he beats an entire squad of mounted soldiers to a pulp with the back of his spear:

Dirt smeared the side of [the man’s] face from his fall. the eyes found their focus. “I thought you’d sworn some kind of vow,” he said, accusing.

“I swore that I’d never kill again – not that I wouldn’t fight. I think you’ll find that none of your men are dead. Though a few might die if you don’t them attention soon.” (p. 101)

Always nice to have a character who sticks to their principles, isn’t it? Suffice to say, I went through the whole book waiting for someone to realize how much of a pompous fraud the bastard was and stick a knife into him. It didn’t happen; I think that Esslemont was as enamored by his faux-Zen martial nature as the various sycophants that soon surround the character.

Still, even in the weaker plot threads, Stonewielder has one immeasurable advantage over its predecessors: Esslemont’s prose has evolved. I would not say that Esslemont is a master here, but his work is far ahead of the chunkiness exhibited in Return of the Crimson Guard. Stonewielder’s strongest scenes, especially those with Ussu and the renegade Malazans, have a palpable atmosphere, one that’s dark, oppressive, and expansive:

Borun stopped at a great iron sarcophagus some three paces in length lying within a metal framework upon the bare stone. He set his torch in a brazier, then took hold of a tall iron wheel next to the frame. This he ratcheted, his breath harsh with effort. As the wheel turned long iron spikes slowly withdrew from holes set all down the sides of the sarcophagus, and in the rows across its front.

When the ends of these countless iron spikes emerged from within the stained openings a thick black fluid, blood of a king, dripped vicious and thick from their needle tips. A slow rumbling exhalation of breath sounded then. it stirred the dust surrounding the sarcophagus.

Ussu bent over the coffin. “Cherghem? You can hear me?”

A voice no more substantial than the breath sounded form within. I hear you. (p. 135)

Esslemont’s grasp of atmosphere also serves to illuminate the scenes set at the Stormwall and, most of all, the scenes of Kiska’s journey through the warrens. Characters bumbling about in places they don’t understand is almost the series’ chief mode of storytelling at this point, but here Esslemont manages to both humanize Kiska and invoke the same sense of wonder that one gets throughout the more bizarre sections of House of Chains or the other mainline novels in the series.

In the end, it is, bizarrely enough, the sense that the events of the book aren't particularly crucial to the overall world that gives the work its scope. For the entire book, the reader is focused on Korel and its struggles, convinced that the events here are the true deciding events. Then  it becomes clear that what was happening here is only a part of the picture, and perhaps a small part at that. It's the feeling that the Malazan world is not only big enough to house an epic fantasy story but to house a half dozen of them running at once that renders it so interesting and monolithic.

Stonewielder is Ian C. Esslemont's best book so far. It's not a perfect by any means, but this is a novel that manages to be epic and engrossing throughout. For the first time, I can recommend an Esslemont novel as a worthy read on its own merits, not just to fill out the blind spots of a greater work. If Esslemont continues to improve at this rate, his upcoming Darujhistan novel might just do the city justice. Maybe.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Shock Totem #2

Shock Totem’s second issue was a long time coming. The supposedly biannual magazine didn’t end up released until a full year after the original. Reading the issue, however, it’s hard to be upset. Changes are immediately apparent. The issue’s shorter (with more readable font), there’s only one interview, there is a nonfiction article, and, more importantly, the more whimsical nature of many of the first issue’s stories is gone, replaced by something darker and more relentless.

Ricardo Bare’s The Rat Burner opens the collection, an oppressive and moody piece about life in a bizarre, run down, and infested future city that the reader can learn in the story’s notes is a transformed Austin. Like many of the issue’s pieces, this is more of a mood piece than one particularly concerned with plot. There’s no traditional structure here, no true beginning middle or end. That’s not to say that nothing happens, though; the populace’s (and the neighborhood’s) steady, inevitable disintegration is painful and intoxicating to watch.

The most haunting mood piece, however, is Leslianne Wilder’s Sweepers, a flash story set in post-apocalypse New York City. The characters come through strongly, the imagery of the destroyed city is powerfully evocative, and her prose is mesmerizing:

Some cried and wiped their eyes with hundred dollar ties. Some jumped. They dropped down into the soup of everything that had been, and where they hit they left little black holes where they dragged the bodies down with them. Then the holes closed up. (p. 27, Sweepers)

Some of the mood pieces are not as successful. None of them are outright bad, but a few fail to attain the necessary weight of atmosphere to make their stories more than passively interesting. Christian A. Dumais’s Leave Me the Way I was Found shows a mind-destroying, Lovecraftian youtube video that savages the world as it goes viral. The concept is interesting, and the story is certainly amusing, but there’s never enough of an idea of just what the video actually is for the story to be particularly affecting. Cate Gardner's Pretty Little Ghouls is also intriguing in its premise, and manages to make the reader desperately want to know more about the world it shows, but I felt I had far too many questions at the end of the brief piece to be satisfied.

Of the fuller stories, most are quite successful. In his introduction to The Exit to San Breta (in Dreamsongs), George R.R. Martin says that he wanted to update the ghost story, taking the traumatized undead from gothic mansions and putting them in the middle of where modern tragedy occurred: the expressways. Taking Martin’s 1972 logic and bringing it to the 21st century, Grá Linnaea and Sarah Dunn explore death through facebook in Messages from Valerie Polichar. Over the course of the story, Valerie becomes a sympathetic character, and the way that she becomes obsessed and then is taken over by her obsession is chilling.

Vincent Pendergast’s The Rainbow Serpent, too, intertwines invented mythology with the modern world and never loses the flow of either. The imagery is bizarre and fascinating here, and the multitude of threads make for a well done dreamlike feel. Though the story seems to be building to a predictable finale, Pendergast manages to avoid the obvious ending and manages to make all of his story’s various strands end satisfyingly.

Kurt Newton’s Sole Survivor and Nick Bronson’s Return from Dust both suffer from being too familiar. Sole Survivor’s immediate action is compelling, but the overall setup is overused and has lost its punch through repetition, leaving the story unable to compete with Newton’s 32 Scenes from a Dead Hooker’s Mouth from the first issue. Return from Dust is also interesting in its telling, but the tale is ultimately devoid of surprises. The final tale, David Jack Bell's Upon My Return, is a relatively familiar concept but told well. The gifted but strange carnival worker manages to evoke our sympathies quickly, though the conclusion feels rather obvious when it pretty much explicitly states the tale's core.

There are less interviews this time around, but Yardley’s chilling nonfiction prose more than makes up for it. Like before, the reviews cover a wide array of horror releases, from books to games and music. They’re generally good, though I did note a bizarre phrase in John Boden’s review of the Road: This is a PG book: No Swearing, very little violence, and sex free (p. 44). Good to know that books don’t impact people based on content, just language. After all, cannibalism and slow but inevitable starvation were my favorite middle grade reading material.

The first issue of Shock Totem was very good; almost every story in it was well worth reading. The second issue is even stronger. There are a few weaker tales here, but the strengths of those that do work make this magazine essential reading for horror fans.

Standouts: Sweepers, The Rat Burner, Messages from Valerie Polichar

Shock Totem Magazine

Reviews of the biannual horror magazine.

Shock Totem #1

Shock Totem #2

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Thomas Ligotti - My Work is Not Yet Done

Thomas Ligotti writes to prove human existence a blind travesty and an unending tragedy. His stories are dreamlike and oppressive, seething with atmosphere and malevolence, and his characters are the deformed and the sick. My Work is Not Yet Done, a collection of "Three Tales of Corporate Horror" marks a deviation from his usual, Lovecraft-influenced Weird Tales style, focusing not on the supernatural or the metaphysical as the source of their horror but rather on society, work an all encompassing metaphor for the futility and barbarity of humanity.

The opening and eponymous story is by far the longest piece of fiction that Ligotti has written. The seasoned Ligotti reader will notice several changes right off the bat, one being the absence of any supernatural elements for quite some time. Ligotti’s dense and ornate prose is still, in part, present, but it’s offset now by a far leaner style and a sardonic wit. Our narrator, Frank Dominio, is a bitterly unhappy man who’s been sorely abused by the corporate framework he finds himself in. When he tries to please his new bosses and creates a new product, he finds his creativity exploited and is driven out of the company by the panel of supervisors he was once a member of, the group he refers to as The Seven Dwarfs: "Barry, Harry, Perry, Mary, Kerrie, Sherry, and, of course, Richard." (p. 18) Cast out from the company, exiled from his old role of invisible and inoffensive worker, Dominio recasts himself: There are no angels unless they are Angels of Death…and I would never again doubt my place among them or lose my resolve to serve in their wild ranks. (p. 102)

Dominio haunts abandoned buildings and is fascinated only by the broken, by the "humble charms of wabi, the morose pleasures of sabi." (p. 67) Like many a Ligotti narrator, he rarely hesitates to discuss the emptiness he sees behind our lives, but Dominio is not your standard authorial spokesman. He is only too aware of the absurdity of his position, of how far outside the norm it leaves him. He’s fond of bitingly sarcastic commentary and never-ending slander against his coworkers, but there’s an unmistakable element of self mockery to his words. The world has attacked him so many times that he can do nothing but join in, even while he tries to preserve what’s most important to him:

But what could I say to her? that I'm drawn to those old buildings and junk because (voice beginning to seethe)…because they take me into a world (the seething builds)…a world that is the exact opposite of the one (voice seething to a pitch)…the one I'm doomed by my own weakness and fears to live in (uncontrollable, meta-maniacal seething)…to live in during my weeks, my months, my years and years of work…work…work? (p. 53, My Work is Not Yet Done)

To this point, My Work is Not Yet Done is an odd specimen of a Ligotti tale. Darkly pessimistic words have been spoken, yes, but our perspective has been more the whiny and wronged worker than the psychotic subjected to the truths of existence, the equivalent of reaching the end of Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness  and finding a polar bear instead of an inter-dimensional monstrosity. Our hypothetical Ligotti reader, the one who went in expecting the cosmically grandiose and so far has received comparative normality, will no doubt be relieved to see the tale explode from the gate as part two of our tale begins. As he prepares to embark on his quest for vengeance, Frank Dominio dies. But his work is not yet done.

The mundane quest of Frank Dominio here takes a turn toward the cosmic, our friendly worker quite literally meeting the meaning behind life. In his nonfiction work, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, Ligotti discusses Schopenhauer’s idea of the Will-to-Live and also its counterpoint, Philipp Mainländer’s idea of the Will-to-Die. Both ideas attribute life to a single all powerful but unconscious force that propels our unthinking bodies -- and everything around us -- for its own ends. The difference between the two is that, for Schopenhauer, the Will struggles to continue existence, while Mainländer believed the purpose of life to be its inevitable end. In My Work is Not Yet Done, Ligotti brings those ideas to grotesque life. Dominio’s entire miserable existence was leading him up to the slaughter of his coworkers, and he will not be allowed to stop until his life’s work is completed. As Dominio realizes, the world is nothing but premeditated strife, conflict engineered for its own sadistic sake:

I -- and you -- now understood: We were brought into this world out of nothing.

I -- and you -- now understood: We were kept alive in some form, any form, as long as we were viciously thrashing about, acting out our most intensely vital impulses, never allowed to become still and silent until every drop had been drained of the blackness flowing inside of us.

I -- and you -- now understood: We would be pulled back into the flowing blackness only when we had done all the damage we were allowed to do, only when our work was done. The work of you against me…and me against you. (p. 127, My Work is Not Yet Done)

As the enacting of a philosophical idea, My Work is Not Yet Done is a complete success. From death on, Frank Dominio is both more and less than he ever was. He is, in fact, a deeply considered version of the standard vengeful ghost seen so often. His view of his coworkers has changed. He now sees them as arbiters of everything wrong in the world, and, at the same time, no more truly in control than he is, ultimately irrelevant to the grand scheme of things. Dominio's new perspective doesn't change his mission, and he sets out to destroy them one by one.

As a novel, however, My Work is Not Yet Done has serious problems. Surprisingly, those problems are in large part precisely what makes Ligotti’s short form work so effective. What works for an eighteen page short story, however, does not necessarily work as well at a hundred and forty-eight pages. The story here is interesting both for its execution and its implications, but it’s never one that the reader wants to follow for its own sake.

The very things that contribute to such a pure depiction of the grand Will-to-Live and Will-to-Die ideals does not work as a narrative. The plot is inevitable; Dominio is unstoppable and near omniscient, his foes mortal but, essentially, everywhere and everything. As a result, there’s no tension when Dominio confronts his former coworkers, because we know that they cannot stand before him, and there's no tension when he tries to track them down because we know he will not fail. As for the confrontations themselves, the various gruesome tortures that Dominio enacts upon his fellow man are nothing short of sickening. In all likelihood, that revulsion was intended – but intent doesn't make disgust more appetizing.

The characters of the novel are resolutely unsympathetic. The arrogance and flaws of the Seven Dwarfs – and Dominio’s relentless mockery of their character and being – make them thoroughly unlikable, but they’re no better than Dominio himself. When the idea of the massacre first occurs to Dominio, he tries to write a manifesto that would insure he wouldn't be "dismissed as just another kook," or, "Even worse -- to be perceived as a psychological casualty of the times." (p. 70) He never succeeds, because he realizes that there is simply no way to write his thoughts without saying: "They made me feel bad, so I bought some guns and killed them all." (p. 152) Of course, it’s the very senselessness of the violence that makes the novel’s ideas shine through so clearly. If Dominio was sympathetic, or if he was truly accomplishing something with the barrel of his gun, we wouldn’t be left with the same horrifically dark vision that we are. But that doesn’t make the reader care about any of the characters, and without caring about killer or victim, the violence is distant and unaffecting even while it upsets us, reading like spectacle for its own disturbing sake even while being anything but.

The other stories in the collection are both focused on similar settings and themes, though neither’s as graphically bloodthirsty as the title tale. The book's second piece, I Have a Special Plan for this World (a title that Ligotti also used, earlier, for a poem), is far more atmospheric than the prior story, but is hamstrung by the obviousness of its creation and the metaphors therein. Tension palpably fills the office to the point where the workers can’t see clearly for more than a few feet. The former supervisors of the town aren’t fired but killed. The new supervisor doesn’t even bother to wear a mortal face but is, instead, the simple, amoral, ruthless presence of the company’s soul itself. Etc. Surprisingly, this story’s faults are almost the direct opposite of the prior one’s. Where My Work is Not Yet Done was too open, too focused on rubbing our faces in the hideous edge of its protagonists acts, I Have a Special Plan for This World leaves all consequences off-screen, creating a piece that’s interesting but never emotionally engaging. If located in one of Ligotti’s other collections –Teatro Grottesco, say – I Have a Special Plan for This World would be fairly unremarkable, neither sticking out as a failure or being remembered as one of the volume’s key tales.

The Nightmare Network is the collection's one unqualified success. It's told through brief, disconnected scenes and documentation from OneiriCon and the Nightmare Network, two corporations that seem to encompass everything we know and can ever know. The story is similar to The Red Tower from Teatro Grottesco in being utterly devoid of any human elements. There are no characters here, no suspenseful plot, nothing but mood and the ideas that come as the reader fits the tale's pieces together. The other main note of interest when comparing The Nightmare Network to the rest of Ligotti's work is that, despite Ligotti's stated disinterest in the genre, it's quite obviously science fiction, right down to the "artificial entities" (p. 194) that pop up now and again. Despite that, the writing here is the closest thing in this collection to the claustrophobic, opulent density of the man's usual prose. The tale may shift between perspectives and scenes fast enough that it's difficult to ever get one's bearings, but the prose is anything but disorganized. It's flowing and dark, amusing without losing its edge, and it's both expository and churning with atmosphere:

Our names are unknown and our faces are shadows drifting across an infinite blackness. Our voices have been stifled to a soft murmur in a madman's ear. We are the proud failures with only a single joy left to us -- to inflict rampant damage on those who have fed themselves on our dreams and to choke ourselves on our own nightmares. In sum, we are expediters of the apocalypse. There is nothing left to save, if there ever was anything...if there ever could be. All we desire (in all our bitterness) is to go to our ruin in our own way -- with a little style and a lot of noise. (p. 193, The Nightmare Network)

Ultimately though, no matter how interesting The Nightmare Network is, the main part of the collection's impact comes from the story that takes up three quarters of its length. My Work is Not Yet Done is, like all of Ligotti’s work, something that I greatly admire. But it’s not something that I can enjoy. Is that a problem? Is it wrong to seek enjoyment in a work as bleak as this? Perhaps, but I think it’s a problem when the reading is, at times, as unpleasant to the reader as it is to the characters. If My Work is Not Yet Done was the first thing that I’d read of Ligotti, I would still have respected it -- but I’m not sure that I would have sought out more of the author’s work.

[Note: All page numbers from the Mythos Books hardcover edition]

Friday, March 4, 2011

Fantasy & Science Fiction: March/April 2011

This is the third issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine that I've read. Of all of them, it's probably got the strongest standouts, though it's also got a few weaker tales.

Albert E. Cowdrey's Scatter My Ashes starts us off, one of the many horror tales in this issue. Cowdrey has been present in each of the three F&SF issues that I've read and seems equally adept at whatever he turns his hand to. The characters and situation are rapidly set up (a mysterious family tragedy, an aging and rich woman, the dark and mysterious sorcerer, and the writer to investigate it all), and Cowdrey is able to flavor his story with brief spurts of Russian dialogue and character quirks without drowning in them. Perhaps best of all, Cowdrey is quite capable at wryly mocking his own set up, leading to several humorous lines such as: [The servant] had the highly suspicious feature of not understanding a word of English, when when spoken by a Hearst reporter in a firm, clear voice. (p. 14) The story's final line is predictable but loses little of its charm for that. And yet, for all the skill of its construction, I wouldn't say that Scatter My Ashes is an excellent tale. The concluding line really sums the story up: familiar, well executed, and enjoyable, but not exceptional in any way.

If Scatter My Ashes is the refreshing and enjoyable cup of coffee that leads you into your day, Paul di Filippo's A Pocketful of Faces is a delicious and disquieting brew had in the alleyways of a city you've never been to before and never will return to. This is a Science Fiction story that manages the rare trick of combining intensity and atmospheric, intriguing setting without letting up on either element. The narrator is a policeman tasked with hunting down criminals that illegally outfit their robot "twists" with stolen faces, replicas of people in their lives. The story is filled with amusing references (The Man of a Thousand Faces, The Face that Must Die, and so on), and is host to enough powerful images and scenes that the rushed-feeling climax fails to detract from its power.

Sophie M. White's Metaversal is a poem that rapidly branches out and, in four verses, manages to launch us through quite a multitude of realities. The poem's amusing, and fits well between A Pocketful of Faces and the story to follow.

Ken Liu's The Paper Menagerie is an affecting modern fantasy tale. The story's opening draws the reader in with sweet and seemingly innocuous imagery:

A little paper tiger stood on the table, the size of two fists placed together. The skin of the tiger was the pattern on the wrapping paper, white background with red candy canes and green Christmas trees.

I reached out to mom's creation. Its tail twitched, and it pounced playfully at my finger. "Rawrr-sa," it growled, the sound somewhere between a cat and rustling newspapers. (p. 64-5)

Before long, however, the characters begin to draw apart, and the idyllic opening scenes give way to a melancholy middle. The situation is likely familiar to most readers – and the fantasy content is rather slight – but Liu manages to create character sympathetic enough that they make us feel for them up to and beyond the story's close, and the tale never loses its charm.

Sheila Finch's The Evening and the Morning is the issue's centerpiece and by far the longest tale here. Unfortunately, it's also the issue's weakest piece. This is the concluding tale of Finch's Xenolinguist series of shorts, which I haven't read, but, as it's here published without the benefit of the prior dozen-or-more tales, I think it's fair to judge it on its own merits. The opening scene is a meeting between Crow (the main character) and the alien Tu've. The two are old friends, which does come across, and the setting is interesting, but the scene is smothered with details and information, preventing the newcomer from getting through the door. Compounding the problem, Finch has a habit of drifting off in the middle of her own sentences, seemingly losing her train of thought halfway through and then regaining it, ending up with awkward constructions like: One week later, the Venatixi craft, nameless as all Venatixi ships were – how the Venatixi overcame the resulting confusion was something Crow couldn't image – stepped out of deep space just inside the orbit of Earth's satellite and commenced normal cruising speed. (p. 83)

Once the tale gets moving, things don't much improve. Crow, several humans, and Tu've's daughter travel to the long-lost Earth and are eager to explore. Instead of finding a paradise still functioning (but in isolation), they see nothing whatsoever made by human hands. Now, the backstory seems odd to me, but, fair enough, I haven't the prior knowledge to make sense of it. More damning is the fact that the desolate earth is never felt by the reader, and that the characters – though they're quick to lament the tragedy of earth's fall – never come off as particularly upset, save for a few rather maudlin scenes. In fact, the characters besides Crow are uniformly shallow; Tu've's daughter is the worst of the lot, her every action incomprehensible and illogical. The tale's resolution bears with it a few interesting elements but doesn't manage to justify the story's length or even answer the questions that the story itself raises.

Things get more interesting again with The Night Gauntlet, a round robin Lovecraft mythos tale. The only author I'm familiar with is Pugmire (and even there not first hand), but all the participants must be commended; there are no jarring transitions to be found here, and the atmosphere is carried along throughout. The meat of the story isn't groundbreaking, but the tale is enjoyably seasoned with a commendable knowledge of horror Lovecraftian and otherwise (including a reference to that Ligotti fellow I'm always harping on about), and there are several images here that are quite successful. This isn't an essential story, but it is a capable horror tale rendered all the more impressive by the number of its creators.

Happy Ending 2.0 by James Patrick Kelly loops around the turning point of a happy couple's relationship. Returning to the spot where everything started to go downhill, the two end up out of step with one another with one foot in each time stream. The story's not surprising in the least, but it's concise and emotional enough to pass muster.

The Second Kalandar's Tale, written by Francis Soty, is a bit of an enigma, to say the least. The events, characters, and prose style are larger than life and flashy enough to keep the reader's attention, but it's tough to say, upon turning the last page, what significance – if any – the whole thing has.

Karl Bunker's Bodyguard tries for pathos on a grand scale and doesn't quite manage it. The story's protagonist, a human amidst an alien culture, seems like an interesting figure, but the reader never grasps enough of the culture or the wider world to ever understand his situation. There are well done moments, here, but the story as a whole feels distinctly more like watching someone have an emotional breakdown than it does having one yourself.

Kali Wallace's Botanical Experiments for Curious Girls is a slow building tale, one filled with eerie, small details such as: Miss night used to put Rosalie to bed every evening while snow fell outside the window, but one day her fingers had curled up like brittle twigs and she couldn't unfasten the buttons anymore. (p. 223) The oppressive tone only gets stronger as the tale goes on, and the protagonist soon manages to arouse our sympathies, all culminating in an excellent ending.

After the humorous but brief Ping (two sentences long), we reach the issue's closing tale: James Stoddard's The Ifs of Time. From the first paragraph, Stoddard is quick to invoke the bizarre and the epic: Evenmere is a house of infinite proportions. Within its gabled halls, beneath its countless roofs, are countries and kingdoms, dominions and principalities, walled fields and farmed courtyards. The manor is the mechanism that regulates the universe, and its many servants light the lamps, wind the clocks, repair the walls, polish the doorknobs – a thousand tasks – so light and time and space, the stars and the worlds, continue. (p. 239) Stoddard is able to keep the same vibe throughout the story without having to sacrifice characterization or immediacy for it. The meat of the tale is the four stories-within-a-story told by a strange group of friends. Each is an interesting piece in its own right, and the frame story's climax is powerful and interesting.

The March/April issue of F&SF is a very strong one overall and one I'd recommend to any fan of genre short stories. The highlights here are well worth remembering – in particular I'll be searching out Filippo's prior work and keeping an eye out Wallace's future fiction – and a good majority of the rest is comprised of stories that, if not excellent, were certainly not poor.

Standouts: A Pocketful of Faces, The Paper Menagerie, Botanical Exercises for Curious Girls, and The Ifs of Time

Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine

This is a review index for my reviews of the magazine. I'm now a subscriber and will be attempting to do some justice to each issue. As it's a continuing short fiction publication, introductions to the various issues would end up just feeling unnecessary, so I'll be getting right into the stories.

Issues Reviewed:

March/April 2011

Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Dance with Dragons

A Dance with Dragons is coming out on July 12th, and it will be A Storm of Swords sized. Martin talks here.

I'd try and add something, but...what's there to say? It's a Dance. With freakin' Dragons. Preorder a copy, instruct it to be delivered by private jet, bribe the postal workers with thousand dollar bills to bring it a single hour early, whatever you have to do.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

David Goodis - The Wounded and the Slain

So if the question is asked What’s it amount to? the answer comes sliding out easily: It’s just a merry go round that stops every now and then for some to get off and others to get on, and no matter how much you pay for your ticket, no matter how many brass rings you snatch, it’s only a matter of time before our place is taken by the next customer emerging from some womb to start the ride. So in the final analysis, it’s merely the process of being taken for a ride, and despite all the bright colors and the hurdy-gurdy music, despite the gleeful yells as the amusement machine goes round and round, the windup is a hole in the ground where the night crawlers get awfully hungry when it rains. (p. 180)

The Wounded and the Slain is a meandering and squalid crime novel that focuses on the depressed lives of its protagonists and staggers around in their beaten-down footsteps. The novel’s focus isn’t on whether the two can succeed, but rather whether they can change themselves enough to even attempt change.

James and Cora Bevan are unable to connect with one another and are miserable from their attempts to try. Cora has never been able to enjoy intimacy with James. The two were deeply in love, however, and each did their best to live with the other’s needs and inadequacies. Love wasn’t enough, though, and James soon finds himself stagnant and miserable in what he’d always thought would be a blazing romance, drowning, The way a moth goes for the blue-white flame, but it turns out to be an icicle that freezes him to nothingness very quickly. (p. 17)

James and Cora, acutely aware of how they’re perceived by those around them, have no ability to help themselves. Their lives have been dictated by their roles and their society. He works on wall street, acting and looking exactly as you’d expect. She forces herself to try and connect with him again and again, no matter how much it hurts her. Shaped by those around him, he’s a smoothly polished custom-tailored nothing (p. 230), she a meaningless ornament wearing a dress (p. 245).

The two of them are in Jamaica, taking a physician-recommended vacation that neither wants or believes can help. The city of New York was never their problem; the problem was the way that James, desperate to find something worth living for, first finds solace with a prostitute and then (when decorum and conscience forces him to break that off) loses himself in the accepted, understood stupor of alcohol.

James is not deluded. He knows exactly what he’s become, and his self-punishment – an endless cycle of recriminations that drive him to further immoral depths – soon causes him to resolve the seemingly normal people all around him, the healthy and wealthy and well-adjusted tourists that fill the Laurel Rock Hotel:

And yet, as he gazed down from the opened window, he knew there was something wrong with the picture. What you mean is, he thought, there’s something wrong with this party looking at the picture. This party doesn’t belong in that setting. That setting is strictly for sober-minded individuals who know how to behave themselves. And this party here, this weak-kneed, weak-brained gin-head – oh, yes, this perfect example of ruination, this absolute failure – (p. 31)

As a result, James does his best to leave the culture he’s known all his life and heads to the worst areas of Kingston that he can find. Barry Street is filled with robbers, killers, and vicious fights, and it’s there that James settles and proceeds to do his best to drink himself away while contemplating suicide and the many, many ways that he’s failed the trappings of his successful lifestyle.

This is where, almost as an afterthought, the actual crime portion comes into play. Don’t get me wrong, The Wounded and the Slain is a crime novel; it’s just that the crime, rather than being the motivator or crisis that the characters are put through, is a result of the characters, a symptom rather than a cause of their predicament.

James, almost accidentally forced into the role of murderer, has as little idea of how to play this new part as he did about how to play his old one. In an attempt to give his life agency and motive, he tries to cast himself as a willful slayer, a beast out for blood, but such a guise soon becomes unpalatable and dangerous in the wake of his actions.

Both James and Cora are dragged, perhaps willingly, into the depths of Kingston. There is a chance that they will find their answers there, but there is also a chance that they will not, and it is clear from the text and conclusion of the novel that Goodis is not a writer concerned with fleeting moments of personal revelation. He gazes, instead, at the agonizing yeas before and after those too-brief epiphanies, the dark times when it’s uncertain whether anything has been or can be accomplished, and, during their journey through those dark years and dark places, dirt stains and destroys the fastidious image that the Bevans have created and tried to pretend was their lives. As a Jamaican character says: And de lesson of it is, when dey leave de fine hotel and come down to play in de mud, dey get muddy. (p. 190)

The best way to describe David Goodis’s prose is passionate, albeit not in any typical definition of the word. Goodis writes freely, loosely, allowing ideas to flow into one other with a deadbeat energy that defies the dreariness of the events he depicts. He pays little attention to the supposed rules of writing. His story is, in large, part telling rather than showing, large segments of internal debates often written in either second or first person breaking up the vivid third person scenes of motion. In addition to his more character focused passages, Goodis is adept at flowing descriptive passages that bleed atmosphere and tone:

If it wasn’t opium it was hemp, and they had a way of treating it to make it extra-powerful, lifting the smoker very high above the earth, allowing him to soar up there with all the great ones, all the famous singers and dancers, all the champions and leaders. This special hemp they sold along Morgan’s Alley was a very pleasant habit when it was available. When it was not available, the loss of altitude was sudden, a sort of plunging, and so finally they had to take it all the way and jump off a pier. Or sometimes they ignited themselves with matches. Another popular method was wrapping a cloth very tightly around the head to cover the nose and mouth so one couldn’t breathe. It was the only thing to do when the hemp was not available to a user. (p. 205-6)

Make no mistake and never doubt it, The Wounded and the Slain is a miserable read. There is nothing romantic or idealized here, just ramshackle poverty and loveless life, senseless violence and misapprehended men. It’s not clear if Goodis’s protagonists have a chance of redemption at the end, but what’s never in doubt is that their lives up to those final pages were a frigid, multicolored hell and that there’s a very good chance that that’s all that there is.