Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Roland Topor - The Tenant

Written in 1964 in French, Roland Topor's The Tenant is a mundane and horrific example of the most depressive strains of horror. As the novel opens, Trelkovsky learns of an apartment just vacated by a suicide. Nominally in order to pay his respects, and really to ascertain if she'll die so he can move in, he visits her in the hospital. Semi-conscious at best, the former tenant opens one eye to see a friend and Trelkovsky, and she responds with an "unbreakable scream." (p. 20) At the time, neither Trelkovsky nor the reader can understand her terror. By the end of the book, both will know all too well, for Topor's world is one where all of humanity is at once utterly absurd and grotesquely terrifying, and there is no escape.

I came to The Tenant, as a fair few others no doubt did, because of Thomas Ligotti. In The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, Ligotti discusses Topor as both an outsider and as an exemplar of the "anti-idealist position." (p. 195, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race) As far as those goals go, Topor does not disappoint, and it's easy to see why Ligotti – and the man's fans – found the novel so captivating. That being said, my Ligottian expectations were not perfectly accurate. It's true that, in the end, Topor's bleak vision is one comparable to Ligotti's, but his method of achieving that darkness is quite different.

Topor's writing is clear and rational throughout, conveying description and action in a carefully controlled fashion. This is a novel filled with both insanity and the most caustic of humors, but the organized nature of the prose proves a stabilizing bulwark against both. Like all the best of the hapless, Trelkovsky is unaware that his life is a source of bleak amusement, and, as for the madness, it's the logical way it's shown that makes this such a harrowing read. Topor describes the impossible, but he does so with such a straight face that, even in the midst of the climax's melodrama, you may take a few lines to catch the absurdity.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Topor and Ligotti, however, is that The Tenant is a fundamentally interpersonal story, one focused almost entirely on each man's relationship to both his friend's and his neighbors. Moments of eroticism, too, pervade the text. All of those however, proves hollow, sex a goal not for its own ends but for what it averts: And little by little, in the presence of swooning women and writhing flesh, the image of death became less clear, faded into the distance, and eventually vanished completely, like a vampire at the first light of dawn. (p. 27) Friendship, too, is, by the end of the novel, a tool to avoid loneliness rather than a boon on its own. Trelkovsky's interactions with his old pals is forced and unbearably awkward, and his romance with Stella is worse, a mixture of self deception and disgusting detachment sewn together by a talismanic fixation on her breasts and body.

Trelkovsky spends much of the novel studying those neighbors, spying into the building's toilet with a set of binoculars from his apartment window, and therein comes the second authorial comparison that I want to make. While the theme of The Tenant might be pure Ligotti, the execution is more similar to Cornell Woolrich's It Had to be Murder, which may nowadays be better known by the film adaptations by Alfred Hitchcock (entitled Rear Window, which the story itself now often seems to goes as in anthologies) and the more recent Disturbia. Like Trelkovsky, Woolrich's main character is a people watcher, spying on the inhabitants of the apartment building across the way with a set of binoculars and, eventually, he catches a murder by observing the subtle signs of nervousness he displays. That story's greatest quotation, too, applies just as well to both tales: The chain of little habits that were their lives unreeled themselves. They were all bound in them tighter than the tightest straitjacket any jailer ever devised, though they all thought themselves free. (p. 2, It Had to be Murder)

Both Woolrich and Topor believe that people reveal themselves with their habits and traits. Furthermore, I'd argue that both show that to break those traits is to transgress, to reveal your true self. That, however, is where the two stories diverge sharply. It Had to be Murder is a Crime story, and, as such, is exceedingly rational in its approach to the world. When the main character is cut off from the outside world, he remains connected to it in any way he can, but the villain reacts differently and abnormally. By deviating from the common path – a path that the protagonist, the other characters, the author, and the reader are all assumed to be adherents to – the antagonist gives himself away as a criminal. In Topor's tale, on the other hand, the common path is all there is. Underneath that, we humans are nothing. We're but a set of traits, but – as Ligotti might put it – puppets stumbling about their routines with no mind or soul underneath our felt skin, and we're only here because we delude ourselves into thinking that we are, as dear Trelkovsky realizes after passing street after street of grotesque humanity:

Martians – they were all Martians. But they were ashamed of it, and so they tried to conceal it. They had determined, once and for all, that their monstrous disproportions were, in reality, true proportion, and their inconceivable ugliness was beauty. They were strangers on this planet, but they refused to admit it. They played at being perfectly at home. He caught a glimpse of his own reflection in a shop window. He was no different. Identical, exactly the same likeness as that of the monsters. He belonged to their species, but for some unknown reason he had been banished from their company. They had no confidence in him. All they wanted from him was obedience to their incongruous rules and their ridiculous laws. Ridiculous only to him, because he could never fathom their intricacy and their subtlety. (pp. 97-8)

In Topor's world, humanity is omnipresent and oppressive, a corrupting force that can't be stopped. By knocking on his walls, they leave him a frightened animal cowering alone on his bed. They strip him of his personality and friends, turn him into a shut in too tamed to raise the slightest dispute. For dozens of pages, Trelkovsky tries to escape them by surrender, tries to turn into the perfect tenant. But they never stop. At some point, he begins to wonder if it's not simple malice that's driving them: The Bastards! What the hell do they want – for everyone to just roll over and play dead! And even that probably wouldn't be enough! (p. 95) But that's not it either, as Ligotti points out when discussing the book and that passage in the aforementioned Conspiracy Against the Human Race: [Trelkovsky] is more right than he knows. Because what they wants is for everyone to roll over and play them. (p. 198, Conspiracy…)

That, right there, is the core of The Tenant. This is a book, in the end, about the influence that we have on each other. So, Woolrich's solidly insider story written for insider readers, acts almost as proof of Topor's.  Here, the herd of humanity demands compliance and will achieve that end at all costs, forcing the outsider into whatever role it must to maintain the illusion of a sane society and a sane world, casting – as Woolrich's narrator does – the deviant unacceptable, a criminal, an enemy of all society. Trelkovsky, occupying the same apartment as the former tenant, finds the world pushing him into her role, and he can't refuse.

In The Tenant, the only reality is the purely physical. As such, when Trelkovsky's apartment is burglarized by his neighbors, causing him to lose his pictures and mementos of his childhood, he realizes that he "no longer had a past." (p. 64) Later, when he dons a dress in a fit of submissive dementia, he realizes that: It was a picture of a woman he saw in the mirror now. Trelkovsky was astounded. It was no more difficult than this to create a woman? (p. 121) Stripped of what he has, what is Trelkovsky now? What was there that was uniquely his, that made him an individual? What was there that differentiated him from everyone else. What was his label, his point of reference? What made him think: this is me, or, that's not really me? He sought the answers in vain, and was forced to admit at last that he didn't know. (p. 128) When those around him take the old physical hallmarks of his life away, Trelkovsky ceases to exist.

But, you're no doubt thinking, such a conspiracy is ludicrous. What would his neighbors gain from forcing him into a dead woman's life? What advantage could they possibly achieve by pushing for his suicide? When it comes to those questions, Topor plays a fine game. To outright write such a conspiracy, devoid of the supernatural or any other mollifying factors, would be to immediately distance the reader via the unlikeness of the whole affair. Instead, Trelkovsky is clearly insane, and so the conspiracy is at first easily dismissible and more. The novel seems an exploration of dementia. And then, at the height of Trelkovsky's madness, proof piles up. Conversations become inexplicable, and the actions of those around him go from absurd to malevolent. But no conclusions can be drawn, for our narrator is, alas, quite far round the bend. So, as the neighbors cavort in an obscene parody of a circus beneath Trelkovsky's window, the reader can retain his suspension of belief while, of course, anticipating the final blow. But that anticipation renders the result no less effective, for, in the superb final scene – the only one in the book to directly show the supernatural – we finally see undeniable proof that Trelkovsky's mania was real. And it is far too late.

All that praise having been dispensed, and Topor's (sadly deceased) head having no doubt swelled to its full capacity, it's time to turn to the book's main flaw: the pacing. Now, condemnation here is difficult. As I discussed in the above paragraph, the normalcy at the beginning is absolutely necessary for the insanity at the end. That being said, the first two thirds of the book pass at a pace that can best be described as an amusing but near eventless crawl. Topor's dry, dry wit prevents the reader from ever growing genuinely bored, but little momentum is acquired until the reader's halfway through. I don't think it's a coincidence that the vast, vast majority of my memories of the book – and I only read it the morning of this writing – came from the final third, and so I was at least thirty or forty pages too early each and every time I went to search for a particular quotation.

Still, the Tenant is a labyrinthine and disquieting exploration of interaction and madness, with the ultimate conclusion that the two may not be all that far off. Though not the flawless gem that Ligotti's or Lovecraft's finest tales are, this is still one of the bleakest novels I've read. Beginning and ending on the same interminable note, The Tenant is a novel likely to haunt the back of your mind for weeks, coloring your every conversation. Upon finishing, you may cast about for what makes you you. And, if Topor's to be believed, that search will be at once brief and endless, fruitless and hopeless…

[A final word of caution: as I've no doubt made clear, Thomas Ligotti's analyses of the story in The Conspiracy Against the Human race is fantastic, and is – I believe – published in similar form in the introduction to the Centipde Press edition of the novel (which I, alas, do not own). That being said, his analysis of the story is filled with spoilers and reveals the end. While this is far from a twist based story, I would still advise reading the novel before the analysis.]

Monday, September 26, 2011

Linger Fiction

Linger Fiction has, it seems, stopped lingering, a damn shame because they published a damn huge number of damn good flash tales. Of course, among their archives lurked (lingered?) my very own The Metamorphosis of Jane Doe, a story that is once again homeless. Alas. I've not totally made up my mind about what to do with the story yet, though I am considering posting it here as a once-published writing sample for anyone curious.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Thomas Tessier - Wicked Things

Thomas Tessier's Wicked Things opens with insurance investigator Jack Carlson learning he's to go to the town of Winship to investigate a run of accidental deaths. When there, he soon discovers that things are not as they seem. Alas, exactly what they are like is never quite revealed. I'd say that this review has SPOILERs, but, to be honest, that would be implying that Wicked Things has a coherent plot to spoil. This is a generic horror novel set apart only by its numerous, numerous shortcomings.

To put it nicely, Wicked Things does not have too fast pacing or too slow; it has no pacing at all. To convey the utter aimlessness of this book, perhaps I should try and convey some of what happens. The first half of this slim novel (two hundred and forty-three pages total) quite literally consists of Jack faffing about. First, he attempts to speak to the man at the center of the claims, who appears nervous. Then he calls Jack and asks for a meeting the next day. Aha, this seems like where the case will be solved! Well, no, first Jack has to wander off and have sex with the secretary, though not without first acknowledging that: It was not a good idea to mess around with any woman connected with a case you're working. (p. 55) It's forgivable though; something, after all, has to happen around page fifty. After that, it's understandable to think the plot would get moving. Not quite. Instead, Jack investigates a few of the claims on their own and discovers… nothing. He goes to the prior established meeting, only to discover his contact killed, along with the woman he slept with. The killings tell him nothing. Left with no clues, Jack decides the best idea is more leadless investigation, none of which turns anything up.

To be fair to the novel, Tessier does have a decent detective voice going, one with enough dry remarks to keep it entertaining, but it never goes anywhere. Jack is a blank slate, characterized only by the occasional reference to prior loves that go utterly unsubstantiated. The only thing that stops him from becoming a full blown enigma is how damn boring he becomes once the reader understands that he's defined by nothing but a case there's no obvious reason for him to be personally invested in at all. Even the seasoned ring of his descriptions of prior cases soon seems hollow as the reader realizes that Jack is inept at discovering anything at all, though it's admittedly uncertain whether that's through his own limitations or more due to authorial roadblocks.

What I hope you're getting from all this is the complete lack of momentum displayed by this book. Quite literally, Jack Carlson causes none of the events of Wicked Things. Instead, things (of the nominally wicked variety) simply happen to him. His investigations reveal nothing; his interrogations are busts, one and all; his sources uncover nothing. Not only that, there is – as I said before – no reason for Jack to insist on staying the case once his boss urges him to pull out. Five pages from the end, Jack realizes that "Part of [him] wanted to Winship and the whole ungodly mess behind." (p. 238) Five pages from the end, the main character can only half bring himself to care and still can't think of a rational reason to remain. And the reader, despite Tessier's attempts at being both shocking and horrifying, can't either.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Throughout the first section, what Tessier's trying to do is clear. Winship, when first glimpsed, is paradise, and we're supposed to gradually realize the darkness within, something set up as early as the second chapter: It was the kind of area some people would call God's country, but they could have it. I see a pretty lake, and I can also see the big, ugly, old snapping turtle hiding beneath the surface, ready to bite off a chunk of my big toe. (p. 16) And so forth, snake in the Garden of Eden, and all that. The problem – well, one of many – is that Tessier is incapable of making us realize anything gradually. No, Tessier proves incapable of any levels of tension between climactic and flaccid. Jack is either strolling along confident or seeing a murderer in every bush. The town isn't so much sinister as segregated, with nice picket fences over here and a sin strip that would make large cities like Boston and Philly downright jealous (p. 204-5) over there. The insurance claims look completely and utterly believable, and then the owner shows up with some pals and rifles (fear not, though, reader! The situation's defused without anything so fascinating as backwoods murder). Put simply, we never see an idyllic community's dark heart; we just alternate between seeing the idyllic community and Hell itself.

As for the supernatural in the book, that's even worse. Mostly, we've got strange flashes, auroras, mysteries with the ground, and, above all, strange little children. But Tessier's style, reasonably assured as it is for interpersonal interactions and the dialogue that forms much of the book, falls horribly short when called upon to create any sort of atmosphere at all. No, the changes in tone that are supposed to feel disorienting and awe inspiring instead come off as befuddled and poorly lit slapstick. Of these, the worst is the aforementioned children, who supposedly sing perpetual and ethereal choirs but never rise above the image of elementary school kids wearing ghostly sheets. When they manage to beat up our tough guy detective protagonist, one doesn't conclude that they're super strong, just that, for a private eye, Jack Carlson has the bulk of a kindergartener.

The novel's second half, kicked off by the murder of Jack's initial love interest and the potentially scheming insurance agent, seeks to monopolize on the groundwork laid in the first half. This might have worked better if any groundwork had, in fact, been laid. As is, when a secondary character starts rambling about how  every single official in Winship – even the churches. Especially the churches. (p. 117) – are "like the Nazis, man," (p. 117) she doesn't so much come across as prophetic as she does unhinged. So how does Jack investigate all these people and even the churches? Why, by bumbling around accomplishing nothing and waiting for someone to hand the information to him, of course! I shouldn't give the impression that he's totally inactive, though. Jack does, after all, find a second girl to have sex with, this time an exotic dancer named Kelly who calls him daddy and gets wet when he talks.

And then we come the climax, which – as mentioned previously – doesn't have five pages build up. So, who turns out to be behind everything? How does the supernatural fit in? What does the mysterious Order of Saint Michael got to do with Winship? Well, the novel's last line sums it up pretty well: Paranoids are the only people who get it. (p. 243) As it turns out, every single person in the entire fucking town was evil, and every single one of them has nothing better to do than to ensnare Jack Carlson in the most convoluted web ever seen in inane fiction.

Now, I don't have an inherent problem with Everyone Dies style endings. In fact, in the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that I've even written one such story. But the difference is that, first, mine was ten, rather than two hundred and forty-three pages long and that, secondly, it was not simply a standard story with the protagonist failing rather than succeeding at the end.

But no, that's not quite being fair to Tessier. This is not a standard man v. world story where the man loses. No, freed from the burdens of having to have it all tie together at the end, Tessier shows us a monumentally inept example of horror and detective fiction, where the reveal – they're all evil!!!!! – serves to do nothing but piss all over every single piece of character motivation previously established. If Jenny was evil, why did she tell him about the Order of Saint Michael in the first place? Why do people disappear? What do the tikes in white have to do with anything? Why didn't the townspeople, if it had no problems with murder, kill Jack Carlson days ago? Or when he's alone with them, as he is on dozens of occasions? How does such a small town have such a huge sin strip, anyway? Why are they in this whole conspiracy? Why does none of this make sense? And, above all, why should I fucking care? The final revelation that nothing makes sense leaves us with an utterly pointless and senseless story that spent its time not on showing the irrational nature of the world, or on conveying the author's most extreme and/or darkest visions, but rather on setting up threads that limped to nowhere and keeled over as they got there.

Also featured in this volume is the novella Scramburg, USA, an unrelated tale of small town justice that shares many of the main attraction's faults. We begin with local hotshot Howie Hackett out of town. Howie, incensed, sneaks back in to wreak some havoc with his friends. At this point I should point out that Howie's idea of vengeance has a lot in common with most peoples' ideas of domestic terrorism; he and his friends blow up cars and throw bombs at buildings. A town cop, determined to impress the newspaper mogul so he can win office as the biggest badass cop in town (and to not be outdone in the category of being complete psychotic), rounds up a fellow Vet, and they proceed to torture and execute Howie and his pals.

The characters are sketches, but much of Scramburg does prove entertaining in a slasher-esque, stuff blowing up kind of way, the allegory's not bad, and it's refreshing, after the main novel, to read something with at least the pretences of a fast pace. But there's one fatal flaw in the heart of Scramburg: the reader can never, even for a moment, fail to see Tessier's hand guiding everything towards the largest blast. Perhaps a part of this is that the novel's divided into neat sections, each of which focuses on one side and shows not a single setback for them until Tessier decides he's exhausted their possibilities for mayhem and switches to someone else in turn maiming/slaughtering the first group. But whatever the reason, not a single action here feels organic. How does Howie think terrorism's going to help him, exactly? Why do his relatively normal friends go along with this plan? Why, if the cop is trying to gain publicity, does he quietly kill Howie rather than arresting him? Why do Howie and his pals come back as ghosts to kill their killers, when the story up until then has had not the slightest hint of the supernatural? As far as I can tell, the answer to most of those questions is to attain the maximum amount of blood, and it certainly is attained, even if Tessier has to skimp on believability and common sense to get it.

On the cover of Wicked Things, there's a quote from The Washington Post saying that Tessier is one of horror fiction's best kept secrets. Some of you dear readers might have once noticed a similar quote adorning Thomas Ligotti's The Nightmare Factory, namely that Ligotti was the best kept secret in horror fiction. I know, I know, I bring Ligotti up all the time, and I really should stop. But I'm not the one who made the comparison here, now am I? The idea that Tessier is in the same league as Ligotti is, frankly, laughable. Tessier's brand of horror is the epitome of fun and mindless, but it fails even at that. I'll admit that I find the plot of Wicked Things, boiled down to its essence – private eye enters an evil town, is utterly overwhelmed and killed – rather amusing, in a sarcastically macabre kind of way. Tessier, however, fumbles every single aspect of the book's execution, ending with a product both nonsensical and actionless, aimless and devoid of spectacle. Let me put it like this: Wicked Things is rubbish. Don't read it.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

China Miéville - Embassytown

Embassytown (2011) is a novel about language and Language. In the midst of an alien city, surrounded by alien air, the citizens of Embassytown must communicate with the bizarre Areikei. The surface and biological strangeness of the Areikei, however, is nothing compared to their strangeness of thought. The Areikei, see, do not have symbolic language. To them, what they say is, and what is not cannot be said. In order to even gain such rhetorical tools as similes, the comparisons must be acted out so that they might be used. This is how our narrator, Avice, is introduced to them: she is quite literally made into a simile, transformed into a human girl who in pain ate what was given her in an old room built for eating in which eating had not happened for a time. (p. 26) Into this purity of language and Language and thought comes humanity, and we bring with us the concept of lying – and, with it, the collapse of the Areikei world.

The core of Embassytown's success is that the Language of the Areikei is not a glittering substitute for morality or some other more familiar concept. Language here defines thought and is not only the foundational difference that lends the Areikei their tremendous otherness but also the core of every aspect of Miéville's world building. Furthermore, such themes appears again and again in the novel, reinforced through different moments of epiphany, where consciousness is shifted not through gradual learning but through changes in thought and societal norms. Such layers even enter into the reality and construction of the overall universe. Here, the "real" is a manifestation of the immer, which spaceships slip into in order to travel across vast distances. The way the two relate is, of course, in the manner of thought and speech: "The best we can do is say that the immer underlies or overlies, infuses, is a foundation, is langue of which our actuality is a parole, and so on." (p. 31)

In addition to language, the novel focuses on manners of ruling and, especially, on colonialism. The change in Areikei thought, after all, was brought on from afar. The people of Embassytown, too, are ruled from outside, a situation that could perhaps be compared to American colonists wreaking havoc among the native populations while also squabbling with their far off backers. Much of the novel's politics play through off stage, as befits a book with an outsider main character, but the intrigue manages nonetheless to be believable and interesting once revealed. Through all this, Miéville marks the colony's change with deft shifts in language. At first, Embassytown is an aristocracy, but later it evolves into a nercocracy of language (p. 247) and, later still, even an explorocracy (p. 345). Those in power are, of course, revealed to be far less benevolent than they appear, and the cracks hinted at in the narrator's childhood are thrown wide before the story's close. After one such blackening of the colony's leadership, Avice is forced to reevaluate all those she's known for her whole life: I stared at MagDa. I liked them, I admired them. They'd known about this. (p. 216)

Miéville's approach to responsibility is not as black and white as that quote may imply, however. As lying destroys the Areikei civilization, and the very minds of its inhabitants, a group dedicates themselves to the preservation of the next generation by keeping them safe from ever hearing such a pervasive thing. Their means, of course, are the death of all the humans on the planet. Though it's hard to sully their aims or dedication, the people of Embassytown cannot accept the Areikei coming to kill us for sins we'd committed, if at all, without intent. (p. 278) The final part of that is the most important one. In the final portion of the novel, the end often does come to justify the means, at least when the problem presented is one so colossal. Many of the actions of Avice and her companions could be seen as questionable, including their willingness to let earlier injustices continue while they focus on larger and more immediate problems. When it comes to the ultimate issues of responsibility and to where the blame for the catastrophe's of the tale fall, Miéville's content to let the reader draw their own conclusions. The central questions of the novel – the morality of language, lies, and authority – are presented from different sides (language is the continuation of coercion by other means squaring off against [language is] cooperation), and the only hint Miéville gives about the validity of either side is that they weren't as contradictory as they sounded. (p. 316)

Embassytown is often a punishingly hard read, especially in its opening. The scenes and information shown there are all vital later, but their order often feels almost intentionally difficult to parse. As Avice says of her memory, she recalls episodes very well, but episodes, not a timeline. The most relevant times, the definitional ones. The rest of it's disorganized in my head, and mostly I don't mind. (p. 23) As such, the novel is, until catastrophe lends it order, a menagerie of events arrayed by impact and the vaguest of chronologies. True to its first person narration, Avice rarely explains that which a resident of the town would not need to know. Concepts are taken for granted and definitions often given in initially meaningless in world jargon. This method, though confusing at first, leads to massive payoffs before long. Complex concepts like Ambassadors are not revealed through lifeless exposition but rather through actions and the reader's increasing immersion into Embassytown's society. When the rules we've observed are later violated, our immediate reaction is not to spot an inconsistency in parameters we've been handed but rather the kind of shock that comes from having trusted rules that feel lived through break down. Though challenging, the novel's packed with revelations and rich with implications.

After the work-heavy beginning sections, Miéville refrains from introducing many more elements but rather concentrates on those already established. As such, though the novel's pace is always slow, the second and third acts are far easier reads. There's never a surfeit of external action, but Miéville's ideas are fascinating enough to draw the reader in. Like the author's previous works, Embassytown is loaded with so many good throw away ideas that its leftovers could populate another dozen inventive Science Fiction extravaganzas. Nothing about the world depicted here is static. The most innocuous of details are given consequences and imaginative, dizzyingly strange results, such as the fact that the human city exists in the planet's only area of (manufactured) believable air: Outside, gulls sounded. They veered, headed constantly for the sea they glimpsed kilometers away, were turned back constantly by sculpted winds and aeoli breath. It was very rare that any broke out into the proper local air, and died. (pp. 119-20)

Strangely enough for a novel told entirely in the first person, and one with such a distinctive and admirable voice, our narrator, Avice, is one of the least interesting and important aspects of the book. In fact, characters as a whole takes a back seat here. This is very much a book of ideas, and the people in it are well defined but always peripheral. At no time does our interest come out of a love of anyone presented, and many of Embassytown's officials and the novel's side characters are defined far more by their roles than their personalities. All that being said, Miéville's characterizations are powerful, if often quiet in their construction. Our cast is made up of those who are sympathetic but not without their flaws and petty arrogances, people able to at once devote their lives to their ideals and also change themselves not out of grand declarations and missions but simply because they're "bored." (p. 38)

That surplus of fallible reality defines the romances of the novel as well. Seemingly star crossed lovers soon discover they've little physical chemistry and fairly quickly gave up on sex. (p. 38) Other relationships get even less of a yearning description. Potential attraction between Avice and another character are merely implied by a never unsubstantiated reference of "some prurience." (p. 204) Despite all of that, however, there is a faint romanticism to Avice's narration – perhaps even to Miéville himself, back on the other side of the page – as is always evident in her later dealings with CalVin and her ruminations about a fraternity of those who once loved [her], or still did? (p. 242) Such a thing is like as not more a product of Avice's occasionally quite arrogant mind than of the other characters', but the existence of such ruminations in and of itself is significant.

Miéville's prose is, as expected, filled with the immense vocabulary that it's somewhat infamous for, but his reputation as a stylist does not rest solely on his obscure diction. The writing here differs sharply from that in Perdido Street Station (2000) or The Scar (2002), glimpses supplied for atmosphere as opposed to a baroque concentration of detail, but is no less effective and often stunning in its flow and power: I could say it was depressing, that party, like a walk through purgatory, we at the end of the world rutting into oblivion and drugging ourselves idiot to autogenerated rhythms and a hammer of lights through smoke. Perhaps to those participating it was joyful. (p. 189) Outside of such fantastic paragraphs, the novel is littered with clever combinations and concepts, such as the aforementioned narcocracy (p. 247) and the description, as Embassytown falls apart, of the ruling class as suicide pioneers (p. 218).

Such flourishes never, it must be noted, reach the point of arrogance, and Miéville's able to write hiddledy-piggledy (p. 255) and have it fit the tone as much as he's able to do the same by titling the first section a Proem. Such mixes of erudition and knowing, genre-savvy winks are common here. Examples include references to vampires (p. 320) in the midst of one of the novel's most important chapters and comparisons to zombie movies (Protagonists were in an edifice full of products, and sicker enemies than before relentlessly came for them. (p. 220)). As the conclusion begins, Miéville combines revolutionary fervor and his jokester tendencies, coming up with what's perhaps the most amusing line in the whole affair: "I don't want to be a simile anymore," our narrator says. "I want to be a metaphor." (p. 296)

China Miéville's early work won its fame in part because of its combination of gripping, pulp fun and highly literate intelligence. That grouping seemed abandoned with the man's last two novels, The City and the City (which felt like all the latter) and Kraken (seemingly all the former). Embassytown does not return to that earlier blend. Though certainly strange and often mind bending, this is a book far removed from the monsters and chases that characterized much of, say, Perdido Street Station. But, though it's in a different style, Miéville here shows a level of mastery equal to or, perhaps even greater than, those seminal, movement-defining novels. This is a novel about language and Language, written with a love of language (and Language?) that is the perfect example of Science Fiction as the genre of ideas, a novel powerful enough that, for the time the reader's turning the pages and beyond, the world looks like a genuinely different place. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Interview: Thomas Ligotti

Thomas Ligotti is the author of Songs of a Dead Dreamer, Grimscribe, Noctuary, My Work is Not Yet DoneTeatro Grottesco, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, and others. He has won the International Horror Guild Award, multiple Bram Stoker awards, and has been nominated for several World Fantasy Awards. Often considered a successor to Poe and Lovecraft, Ligotti's developed an incredibly dedicated following on fan sites like Thomas Ligotti Online and The Art of Grimscribe. On a personal level, I can think of no living author who's had a greater impact on the way that I think and perceive the world. The results of our conversation are as follows…

1. The Subterranean Press reissues are definitive editions of Songs of a Dead Dreamer, Grimscribe, and the forthcoming Noctuary are, we're told, the "revised, definitive edition[s]." So, of course, the question must come: what's different? Was there a specific element you looked for with your changes, an intended change of focus, or were they more focused on strengthening the effects already present? Would it, perhaps, even be possible for you to quote some later-altered line and its newer counterpart, and state the reason for the changes therein?

One thing I did not do is deliberately seek out changes. Of course there would be errors that needed corrections and phrases that needed to be polished. But I didn’t look to shorten or lengthen the stories or any part of them, or to make my prose leaner or more baroque, or to in any way alter the tone of a given story. I just read the books carefully from start to finish and keep on the lookout for additions and deletions that would enhance each story, at least to my mind. The following paragraph was chosen at random and illustrates typical revisions I made throughout Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe. It’s the penultimate paragraph of “The Last Feast of Harlequin.”

At certain times I could almost dissolve entirely into this inner realm of awful purity and emptiness. I remember those invisible moments when in disguise I drifted through the streets of Mirocaw, untouched by the drunken, noisy forms around me: untouchable. But in instantly I recoil at this grotesque nostalgia, for I realize what is happening and what I do not want to be true, though Thoss proclaimed it was. I recall his command to those others as I lay helplessly prone in the tunnel. They could have apprehended me, but Thoss, my old master called them back. His voice echoed throughout that cavern, and it now reverberates within my own psychic chambers.

At certain times I could almost dissolve entirely into this inner realm of purity and emptiness, the paradise of the unborn. I remember how I was momentarily overtaken by a feeling I had never known when in disguise I drifted through the streets of Mirocaw, untouched by the drunken, noisy forms around me: untouchable. I was the feeling that I had been liberated from the weight of life. But I recoil at this seductive nostalgia, for it mocks my existence as mere foolery, a bright clown’s mask behind which I sought to hide my darkness. I realize what is happening and what I do not want to be true, though Thoss proclaimed it was. I recall his command to those as I lay helplessly prone in the tunnel. They could have apprehended me, but Thoss, my old master, called them back. His voice echoed throughout that cavern, and it now reverberates with the psychic chambers of my memory.           
It would be a lengthy process for me to point out every change and why I made it. One thing I particularly like is the sentence that includes the added phrase “the weight of life.” I feel that it bolsters and encapsulates the theme of the story in four words. I’ll leave it to the reader to consider other additions and deletions, and to judge whether they improve this passage. In several stories throughout the two books—including “Flowers of the Abyss” and “Eye of the Link”—I sat back at some early stage of revision and thought, “What is this story really about?” These cases might involve the addition and deletion of whole pages to focus the original intent of the story.              

2. Revising these stories must have involved countless rereads of them. How did it feel to revisit in your older work in that fashion? If you were to articulate one major way your writing's changed or evolved in the time since Songs of a Dead Dreamer, what would it be?

Well, since I’ve revised only my first two collections, I can’t say that I’ve seen that much change in the stories gathered in these books. If anything, I would have to say that with Grimscribe I started to venture further into more symbolic narratives and landscapes while still keeping them leashed to typical “reality” of the horror tale. I should point out that “The Last Dream of Harlequin” and “The Dreaming in Nortown” were written before the stories in my first collection.

3. Your work is complex and thematically rich, the stories well suited to sprout a variety of different interpretations on TLO and elsewhere. Amidst all that, do you have any stories that you feel have been continually misunderstood? Also, has there ever been a theory (or theories) so strange that you couldn't at all understand how they drew that from your words?

I’ve read only formal reviews and essays on my stories, and I can’t say that any of them have veered toward readings that I didn’t intend for the most part.

4. You write fiction about the darkness of the world, and yet so many have gained great pleasure from your works, myself included. How can you reconcile this? Is there something wrong with enjoying such dark fiction, some sort of suicidal mechanism that makes the rare defective organism enjoy being told of its inadequacies?

Your question implies that there is an ideal human against whom those who read dark fiction may be compared. But there is no such organism. All human beings are randomly generated, arbitrarily conditioned units. What we would call “defects” in a given individual is probably best measured by characteristics relevant to its fitness to survive and reproduce. Everything else has to do with psychological or sociological conventions and peculiarities. By the broad conventions of modern Western civilization, reading dark fiction is a form of escapist diversion like any other. (Getting bored yet?) In this sense, it might be considered one of many survival mechanisms we employ to burn off the cognitive excess endemic to our species. We think too much, and thinking is the destroyer of what we need to live. And what we need are irrational, immediate pleasures or an unreasoning prospect of the same. Nothing of great importance in our lives—what we consider makes them worth living—is rational. This includes pleasurable emotions and sensations derived from a variety of sources, such as sex without reproductive purpose, mountain climbing, and rock and roll. Without these and other irrational enjoyments, life is not worth living for human beings. You could even add to the previous list irrational activities that are not usually considered hedonistic:  devoting ourselves to the well-being of others from whose survival we seem to have nothing to gain; prayer or meditation intended to release us from an egoistic, survivalist way of life; reproducing more human beings for the continuance of a race that cannot be proved to be worth continuing, and so on. All these irrational actions are of the conventional sort, and their purpose of which is not often questioned.

As for psychological or sociological peculiarities, reading dark fiction to burn off the cognitive excess endemic to our species is frequently viewed as a perverse pastime that is especially irrational and practiced with enthusiasm by only a small cadre of human beings. Although it does serve a survival need as an escapist from of diversion like any other, it does so in a roundabout manner that on its face is indefensible and at a deeper level is a negation of what makes life worth living. From the perspective of survival and reproduction, reading dark fiction is a degenerate indulgence that revels in what is against human life. Aside from the common self-satisfying pleasures that we believe make existence worth the trouble, there are other pleasures that are uncommon in their satisfactions. They are unhealthy and sometimes are demonstrably the pursuit of those who have been randomly generated by a corrupted line of genetics or arbitrarily conditioned by traumatic experiences or detrimental environments. People who tend to the use of alcohol or illegal drugs must have some reason for engaging in such self-destructive habits, notwithstanding that these reasons cannot be pinpointed with exactitude. Ultimately, however, their principal reason is analogous to that of more healthy individuals: to experience the pleasurable emotions and sensations that make life worth living over and against those and emotions and sensations which put in question the worth of life—physical or mental illness (either due to genetics, traumas, or pernicious environmental conditions), tragic events that cast a shadow over an individual’s existence, a general lack of existential satisfactions, and other types of awful experience. 

Even if the genetics, traumas, and environments that drive us to alcohol, drugs, or dark fiction are not obvious, they may nevertheless be in play all the same. What makes nightmares? More to the point, what make an individual dwell with a morbid excitement over his nightmares? And what makes someone wish to convey their nightmares in artistic form for the excited consumption of others with a taste for some of the most sick and morbid productions of the human brain? There are those who yearn for the days of carnival freak shows, to lay their eyes on the rare and repulsive beings nature is capable of sprouting forth. While such individuals may not wish to visit hospitals where such aberrations are given birth many times per day in this world, they shiver with delight to read of them on the page or see them on the screen. Like addicts of the emotions and sensations granted to us by nature’s bounty or a pharmaceutical laboratory, fanatics of dark fiction must have what they must have, because their lives would be deprived without it and their bodies and minds would tremble with craving for depraved imaginings. Thus, in my opinion, if your life—or some portion of your life—depends on the consumption of fiction founded on the darkness of the world for it to be worth living, then there is definitely something wrong with you both as a conventional and a peculiar being.

When I was a child reading horror comic books, I was told by my parents that a priest was coming to visit our house. Immediately, I gathered up my horror comics and him them under the cushion of one of the living room sofas. When the priest entered the house, he was invited by my parents to sit down. Of course, he sat upon the cushion of the sofa beneath which I had hid my horror comics. I was terrified because I believed he knew what I had hidden there. I was a very religious child, and I felt intensely that reading those horror comics was a sin. I’m not exaggerating this anecdote in the least. I felt it was diabolical for me to be enjoying horror comics for the same reason that you asked me if it was irreconcilable to take pleasure in reading dark fiction and wallowing in the darkness of the world—because it is diabolical and irreconcilable. Years later, when I had started writing horror fiction, I asked one of my co-workers who was a born-again Christian if he thought that I was doing something sinful. He was someone I considered a work-friend and had conversely with honesty on a variety of subjects. He said he didn’t think that writing horror fiction was sinful. Later, he wrote a book on the conservative thinker Russell Kirk, who wrote what I would describe as moral horror stories. Maybe my work-friend didn’t think that writing horror fiction was sinful because he was thinking of moral horror fiction, which is mostly the kind of horror fiction that is written. The point is that even when I was in my twenties, and an atheist, I still wondered if enjoying horror fiction was sinful—sinful and wrong. Sometime later in life I had ceased to care whether reading or writing horror fiction was wrong. I had read all kinds of literature that was considered sick and evil, and I loved it because it was sick and evil. I loved it because it was against the human race and its values. Perhaps that’s why other readers of horror fiction—or at least certain kinds of horror fiction—get pleasure from it. They can answer only for themselves. You have my confession.

5. The Agonizing Resurrection of Victor Frankenstein is clearly a very different work than the most of your stories, seemingly a homage in large part. What were your intentions when writing it?

I didn’t have any intentions of writing a book of “rewrites” of classic horror fiction and films when I wrote the first piece in Agonizing Resurrection. In the early eighties, I was asked to contribute a short piece to a one-off fanzine with the title and theme of “Animality.” I wasn’t sure what the editor wanted, nor what “anamality” might imply. After thinking a while, H. G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau occurred to me as a narrative that could be described as focusing on the idea of anamality. In the novel, Dr. Moreau’s mission was to turn animals not only into human beings, but into human beings of an ideal rationality (if you read the book). In my version, however, the manwolf’s behavior is wholly irrational by its display of courtly sentimentality when he kneels with loving devotion before Moreau’s female assistant (an extra character introduced for my purposes). This is not what Moreau had in mind at all, and once again he has failed. “Now the creature,” as I write in the introduction to The Agonizing Resurrection of Victor Frankenstein, “will require further adjustments in order to nudge its nature closer to that untainted rationality that Moreau values above all else.” He wanted to make men, not silly sops—brutes on the make that will as likely tear out their fellow creatures’ throats as they are to beg pathetically for what they want. Such a gesture implies the capacity for a range of actions endemic to human beings what it meant to be human, something that did not include the courtly sentimentality that the manwolf displays. Moreau’s House of Pain was intended to torture animals into becoming human, to mutilate and brainwash them into the kind of heartless because that Wells portrayed Moreau as exemplifying.

Now, my wont has never been to produce short, stand-alone pieces. Even my so-called poetry collections are cyclical and follow connective theme of some sort. So naturally I wanted to write more pieces along the same lines as “Moreau.” First, I did two more rewrites of horror narratives that featured other scientists—Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll—and thus had a short series of tales with like characters. I also had a theme that was common the series. In my early horror stories, I seldom produced any works that turned on romantic or strongly emotional relationships between people. (Examples include “Les Fleurs” and “Dr. Voke and Mr. Veech.”) At some point I made a conscious decision not to include this element that was so common to horror, and especially Gothic literature. It just seemed irrelevant to what I was trying to do as a writer, which was to portray a wholly nightmarish existence. This was the essence of my experience of being alive, and everything else seemed of little or no import. However, it so happened that around the time I was asked to contribute a work of short prose on the theme of animality to a one-off fanzine I was again ready to write about romantic or strongly emotional relationships, and to use them to express the most excruciatingly painful scenarios I could conceive that were based on such relationships. This was how I expected The Agonizing Resurrection of Victor Frankenstein to be perceived by readers, although I’m not sure it was. Nevertheless, the first person to read the entire book, believe it or not, described it as an “apotheosis of pain.” Bingo.

Titling the first section of the book Three Scientists, I proceeded to write other sections of a like nature, taking my characters and narratives from famous works of horror fiction and films and giving each of them a twist that I thought made them more appalling than the originals. Some of the sections contained pieces of my own devising. These were stylistically and thematically similar to the pieces based on the Wolfman and Dracula, The Phantom of the Opera and the Phantom of the Wax Museum, etc. These were not intended to be homages to the works featuring these characters but extensions or mutations of them linked by a common
subject. Ultimately, the book was an entirely fortuitous project, if I may be generous to myself.

6. The majority of your fiction is not only out of print but scarce, with the rarer works regularly commanding prices well beyond a hundred dollars. How do you feel about the exclusivity that brings, and the cost that any potential fan must pay before reading your work? Are there any authors that you collect in such a manner (by which I mean the hunting down of rare and costly volumes, or the obsessing over particular editions)?

I’ve never been a book collector, but I’ve always found that I had enough money to spend on the books I’ve wanted. I feel bad that readers of my books have to pay high prices for some of my books. I wish my books had more readers and brought in more money. Just because the cost of my books if high doesn’t mean that I make a lot of money from them. In my experience, the more a book cost is in inverse ratio to how much an author makes on the book. Authors receive a certain number of copies of their books from a publisher. Sometimes I make more money selling these books than I do from the advance I received for the book itself. On the other hand, having a pricey book released means that it will be of a higher production quality and will probably be around longer than an author whose book was published in a print run of five thousand copies.

7. A major tenet of the brand of antinatalism you discuss in Conspiracy is that most men are unaware of the horrors around them, that they are deluded in their faiths and securities. But, if asked, the devout Christian would answer that those without Christ are deluded, and the happy atheist would confirm that answer with different words along with the Jew, the Muslim, and anyone of any other faith that you cared to ask. How can you be sure that antinatalism is not just another delusion, that the rationality of depression and/or ego-death is not just another false enlightenment?

I don’t think that a Christian or a believer in any religion is less aware of the horrors around than an atheist. Ask Blaise Pascal. They may be less aware, but it’s not a major tenet of antinatalism that they are or that they are specifically because they believe in Jesus. If I believed in God, I think I would go mad with the horror that the universe is some kind of moral laboratory. Fortunately, no one can prove that God exists, not even God. Whatever wonders He performs for us could be attributed to an advanced life form, even if it tries to pass itself off as one or another of the gods portrayed in religious scriptures. But that advanced life form would have a time of it impersonating all gods at the same time. If he did, then we would be in the same position of factional belief we are in now. Of course, an advanced life form might be able to do anything it wanted. Then we would have to decide whether we are all being fooled into believing in multiple gods or an advanced life form that can impersonate multiple gods.

Antinatalism is based on the principle that suffering of whatever kind or degree should not be caused or perpetuated, and that human existence necessarily entails suffering that we can neither escape nor justify, least of all by experiencing pleasures. Thus, the only way to end all suffering would be to cease producing beings who suffer. In the abstract, I hold to that principle and believe that those who do not hold to it are simply of a different mindset. In everyday life, I live for the most part as a deluded individual except when I sit down and recall what I believe in principle. Writing Conspiracy against the Human Race was the same kind of drug for me as believing in Jesus is for some people. If it hadn’t been, then I wouldn’t have written it. I say as much in the book. As for ego-death, we don’t know what it is or how it happens. Personally I believe that ego-death is a neurological condition that by many accounts mimics what has been called “enlightenment” among those who are concerned with this phenomenon. I also believe with Thomas Metzinger and many other philosophers that ego-life is an illusion. Now, whatever one believes or does not believe, as I wrote in Conspiracy, is an opinion. I quote a lot of antinatalists in my books, but I don’t think that I argue that if someone isn’t an antinatalist they are immoral or knowingly perpetuate pain in the word. To quote from Conspiracy:  “Opinion: There are no praiseworthy incentives to reproduce.” I can’t prove that there are not praiseworthy incentives to reproduce. If someone has an opinion that there is a praiseworthy reason to reproduce, I’d love to hear it. For years I’ve queried parents or women who are pregnant if they could offer a reason for having children that was based on the good of the child and not on the good of the breeders and their society. I do try to contrive perspectives from which this opinion may appear sound, which is why I subtitled my book “A Contrivance of Horror.” And I do say that no one can prove either that life is desirable or undesirable. And no one can. Most people think that they can prove that reproduction is praiseworthy and that life is by nature desirable. But their opinions don’t stand up to scrutiny. They absolutely can’t prove that their opinion proves mine to be wrong. This is not a problem for me, because I will never contribute to the produce of a child whose life may, by conventional opinion, not be worth living. I won’t ever have to imagine the pain of that child or experience pain for having produced it. I can be sure of this. But no prospective parent can be sure that they won’t be responsible for the making of a child with such a fate. No one can say what vicissitudes may cause a life to become not worth living. Parents may or may not blame themselves for producing a life that in the worst way becomes not worth living. But they can always take comfort in the fact that it was not their intention for their offspring to end up having such a life. However, we can at this point in time prevent children from coming into the world with defects that would almost surely—or sometimes surely—make their lives not worth living. I’m not speaking of birth defects of all types. I’m speaking of defects that, barring any beliefs that would preclude abortion for fear of hellfire, would cause few but radical pro-lifers to disallow the parents from exercising the abortive option. So while no one can prove that there is any praiseworthy incentive to reproduce, there are cases in which most would agree there are praiseworthy, or at least not blameworthy, incentives not to reproduce. This fact is not definite proof that antinatalism is the correct stance to take, but it’s not just an opinion either.

8. If the majority of people are existing in a fashion that they consider better than not existing, if they would answer that Life is Alright, how can it be stated that Life is Not Alright for the entirety of the human race?

This question is rather difficult to sort out. It’s certainly possible, subjectively, for an individual to feel that “it’s good to be alive,” but that doesn’t mean that it was always good to be alive for that individual or that it will always be good to be alive for that individual. I know that it’s possible for some number of people not to have a “good day” for practically their entire lives. It’s also possible for some number of people to never have a “bad day” for practically their entire lives. But it’s pretty futile to get into calculating how many people have never had a good day or a bad day, and by this means conclude whether or not being alive is all right. The whole proposition is so hypothetical that it’s not worth giving a moment’s regard. To my mind, it’s also rather crass and unfeeling to propose that as long as a majority of people exist in such a fashion that they consider it better to exist than not to exist, it can be said that life is all right for the entirety of the human race—that the minority counts for nothing in this useless calculation. Furthermore, those in the majority at one time may find themselves in the minority at another.  At the end of any given generation, it would be possible for almost everyone to occupy a place in the majority as well as the minority. Then you would be back to where you started. And where you started is where we are now and have always been, not to speculate that it is where we will always be. The pronouncement of the majority with respect to the value of live is the one that rules. Antinatalists must be insane. My children will not be one of those people who never have a good day for practically their entire lives. My children will be in the majority, if there really is a majority and not just a deluded consensus.

9. While I agree that the minority shouldn't be discounted, can it really be counted equally with the majority with regards to a subjective question (which, without the consideration of some kind of god or objective truth, that of life's worth seems to be)? Regardless of the malleability of the borders and the frequency of migrations between the two, if the larger of the two camps would argue that Life is Alright, can the negative be said to be true in any sense greater than the personal?

In Conspiracy I anticipated your question. On page 44, I wrote that one of the arguments used (by the majority) against the reason that pessimists believe certain things is their “intractable wrongheadedness, a charge that pessimists could turn against optimists if the argumentum ad populumwere not the world’s favorite fallacy.” That is, pessimism must be wrong because, even though it is an outlook that has lived for thousands of years and articulated in the most sophisticated terms, the majority denies its precepts. You’ve applied the same fallacy to antinatalism that others have applied to pessimism. You’ve also entertained the idea that holding to the question of antinatalism versus pro-natalism is a subjective matter. It’s hard to see how antinatalism could be any more subjective than many other, quite reputable, philosophical questions (determinism versus free will, for instance) just because neither side has proved its case, which by its nature may be not be subject to proof. Despite the fact that neither anti- nor pronatalists can prove their positions, pro-natalists have to live with the possibility that they might be wrong. That is a heavy burden to carry, and a heavier burden to pass on to subsequent generations. Antinatalists don’t have a similar burden. When action is taken on their side and a child is not born, no harm is done. No one has to suffer and die. If the whole species chose extinction, the situation would be the same, because extinction is our fate. Someday it won’t matter if anyone lived or died. But that doesn’t mean that we aren’t presently doomed to live in a world where people suffer and die. Personally, I’m afraid of suffering and afraid of dying. I’m also afraid of witnessing the suffering and death of those who are close to me. And no doubt I project these fears on those around me and those to come, which makes it impossible for me to understand why everyone isn’t an antinatalist, just as I have to assume pronatalists can’t understand why everyone isn’t like them. In an essay on David Benatar’s antinatalist book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, the Finnish philosopher, Sami PihlstrÖm (Metaphilosophy, Volume 40, Number 5, October 2009 , pp. 656-670), argued that whether or not life is worth living is a question that is intolerable and should never be discussed. I hope things don’t come to that.

10. It's one thing to argue, as you do in Conspiracy, that the joys of life are, essentially, delusions and escape mechanisms, but it's another to argue that that invalidates those joys. Even if our art is created solely to allow us to forget the darkness around us, why would that make the resulting joys less true?

Maybe I let my fingers slip across my keyboard at some time during the writing of Conspiracy, but I don’t recall arguing that joys are delusions. Here’s a quote from p. 43: “Optimists may have fugitive doubts about the basic desirability of existence, but pessimists never doubt that existence is basically undesirable. I you interrupted them in the middle of an ecstatic moment, which pessimists do have, and asked if existence is basically undesirable, they would reply ‘Of course,' before returning to their ecstasy.” Just because a given joy (such as reading dark fiction) is an escape mechanism doesn’t mean it’s invalidated  or untrue, whatever those words may mean  in this context. But the very fact that we can legitimately refer to joy as an “escape mechanism” doesn’t say much for joy.     

Metzinger's Being No One
11. For me – and, I suspect, for others – the section of Conspiracy that was most powerful was on determinism. One of its most memorable parts was your mentioning of a saying by Metzinger, namely: Can one really believe in determinism without going insane? In the light of those words – and your arguments surrounding them and quotation of them – do you believe in determinism? If so, how can you reconcile that with daily life?

I don’t argue that determinism is true in Conspiracy. To do so would be futile.  I do discuss the subject because it’s related to other matters in the book, especially the reality or unreality of the “self.” Whether our thoughts and behavior are determined or free is of no consequence if, as Metzinger argues, no selves exist or have ever existed and there is nothing that can be determine or free. I think the question of the self is far more interesting because scientists are getting closer to being able to test how our perception of ourselves, other people, and the world in general are formed. My own opinion regarding the issue of determinism versus free will is that it has no practical import in our lives. Either of these positions, or any of their many combinations and variations, function more as philosophical doctrines in which one believes than can actually experience in a definitive way. If I stop and concentrate on how I perceive other people, I have to say that they seem to me like robots in their behavior and their being. This is definitely the case when I see people on TV who are accused of murder. I never blame them or hold them morally responsible for their actions. It seems stupid to do so if you look at the situation with a cold eye. Surely such a radical act must have had radical causes, some of which seem obvious and others of which seem unknowable. This perception is more difficult when it comes to considering someone closer to you in your life.  I’ll look at someone I believe I know very well and think: ”Who is that? What makes them act the way they do and not some other way? What’s going on inside them, if anything?” That can be upsetting. People who are getting divorced have been known to say about their ex-beloved, “I thought I knew (him or her), but I couldn’t have been more mistaken about (him or her).”  Supposedly we extrapolate from our experience of ourselves and transfer that experience to other people, and that this gives you the sense that they’re like you—that you can read their minds in some way. While it may seem to work that way, it really can’t. When I turn from other people to myself, I can’t say much more about how I work. I can never know what my next thought is going to be—how it forms or where it comes from, so to speak. I absolutely don’t feel that I’m choosing my thoughts. They just come one after another depending on the circumstances of the past and present, some of which I could name but most of which I can’t. It’s the same with my behavior. In everyday life, none of this matters because we don’t think deeply about it on an hourly basis. I have impulses to do things, but I don’t know how those impulses formed or why they make me do a particular thing and not some other thing. Whether we’re puppets or real human beings, whatever the latter may be, we go on thinking and acting in certain ways because we’re moved to do by certain forces we’re not aware of. You could argue with this perception, but it’s my perception and the whole thing would come down to I say, you say. To me, determinism just seems common sense, but I couldn’t tell you why it does. Since it’s so ferociously opposed by most philosophers and lay persons, it must be a disturbing idea that they don’t want to be true. I can understand that. Even if determinism seems like common sense to me, it does seem to be a component of this world of horror we live in. And just by discussing it in Conspiracy, although not arguing for it, it was my intention to arouse a sense of the uncanny in my readers. When I’m writing for an audience, people don’t seem like robots to me. I’m not sure they seem like anything. In the end, I suppose the best thing is not to think about it.

12. Is antinatalism a philosophy or a lifestyle? By this I mean that, if the sane Christian attempts heaven and the sane Buddhist enlightenment, why do antinatalists not work towards their own paradise, their own nonexistence? Furthermore, how can antinatalists (and, for these purposes, determinists along the lines of those quoted and studied in Conspiracy) profess love or even have children? Do these things make them hypocrites or human? If life is a hell, and nonexistence a heaven, then are things like murder acceptable to the antinatalist? If it is better to not live, then, are murderers and even the perpetuators of genocide not doing good deeds?

I think that the antinatalist counterpart of the Christian’s heaven (Buddhist enlightenment actually is a type of antinatalism in a superficial sense) would be to reduce this world to a place where no one was ever born. Obviously, this is not sane idea. (I’ll leave it to others to decide the sanity of believing in heaven or enlightenment.) As for love or the desire to have children, these are powerful impulses in most people and not possible to override under normal circumstances. Galen Strawson, one of the most deterministic determinists, was asked a version of this question in an interview. He answered that in his everyday life, he was just like anybody else. David Hume said the same thing. This answer makes no rational sense, but neither do love or the desire to have children. They are nature’s way of keeping the species going until something happens and we cease existing, an eventuality that will certainly come about and has almost come about a number of times in the past. As for antinatalists, falling in love has nothing to do with their principles. Some antinatalists have had children before they became antinatalists. From what I’ve read, they love their children as most parent do but regret having reproduced. An antinatalist who does not have children would cease to be an antinatalist if they willfully and knowingly reproduced. Not all people who do not reproduce are antinatalists, although some of them do not reproduce for similar reasons as antinatalists. Nonexistence isn’t anything, so it would have nothing to do with antinatalism. The desire not exist would be a tenet of pessimism, and some antinatalists are pessimists. But pessimism isn’t required for antinatalism. A pessimist believes that being alive is not all right, and even if it occasionally seems all right, this is an illusion. As Cioran wrote, “Pleasure prepares pain.” Antinaltalists don’t necessarily think that life is hell, they just think that it necessarily involves such suffering that anyone would be better off not having been born. Interestingly, those who believe that life is worth living often begin making their case by pointing out the goodness of ice cream. If you’re not diabetic, lactose intolerant, obese, or have any number of other ailments, ice cream is indeed very good. Given the link made between antinatalism and murder or genocide, I hope that the replies I’ve given to this question demonstrate that no such link exists. An antinatalist may have a passion for murder and genocide, but this is by no means an element of antinatalism. Murder and genocide are two phenomena that antinatlists would offer as reasons for why it would be better never to have been born. I hope the logic of this statement is evident.    

13. Let's end on a happy note. What's the most enjoyable thing you did this week?

I watched Little Murders, an old favorite of mine.

Thank you once again for doing this interview, Mr. Ligotti.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Dashiell Hammett - The Continental Op

Then I turned on all the lights in the room, lighted a cigarette (we all like to pose a little now and then), and sat down on the bed to await my capture. (p. 111)

Though Sam Spade, famous for his starring role in the Maltese Falcon, might have a higher profile, it's the Continental Op that narrated the lion's share of Dashiell Hammett's fiction, including Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, and the bulk of the man's short fiction. Containing seven stories written between 1924 and 1930, the The Continental Op collection from Black Lizard is filled with tales that perfectly show one of the genre's best on his home turf.

Mystery – the hodgepodge bookstore section for mysteries, crime, and thrillers, that is – is at its heart a rational genre. To boil the genre down to a single glib sentence, the genre is the solving of puzzles. At the opening of the story, the detective, and the reader, is confronted with a situation that makes no sense. Then, like the Scooby gang demasking another supernatural ghost to find a middle aged man, the detective makes sense of the clues and replaces impossibility with a logical procession of events. Any in genre story by Poe, Doyle, or any of their authorial descendants, begins with a series of incomprehensible clues and ends with motive, miscreant, and method all neatly tied up and – if the author's good at what they do – no disappointing coincidences or absurdities remaining.

Dashiell Hammett's stories do not function like that at all, though the Continental Op does indeed go through his own process of investigation. Hammett's aim is not the puzzle but rather the implications of the puzzle, and his stories are not riddles that can be satisfactorily deduced by even the most skilled reader-sleuth hybrid. Hammett's mysteries are mysteries of people and society, not of circumstance, and the Op learns far more by sheer force of will and his own dogged determination than he does from any brilliant analysis of clues.

This is perhaps best exemplified by the collection's first story, The Tenth Clew (available for free here). The Op and the local police find themselves confronted with a murder and a surfeit of clues – or, as I suppose I must, clews. Instead of following the trail to the bloody end, however, the Op disregards all of them and focuses on the man behind them, hunting the personality rather than the evidence. For Hammett, the deduction is, at best, a sideshow, and not only is the reader almost never given all the pieces before the reveal, they're also almost never even shown the Op's process of discovery.

But those are but surface differences. No, the true difference between the genre of mysteries and the writings of Dashiell Hammett is what Steven Marcus discusses in his fantastic introduction. As I said about, mystery is inherently a rational genre. But Hammett is inherently not a rational writer. Like all detectives, the Op reveals the lies of common sense and criminals for what they are, but the truth he uncovers is just as illogical as his foes' deception. Hammett's stories are all but made out of defied expectations, and his revelations are filled with people who are not who they claim to be, crimes committed for reasons incomprehensible, random bursts of violence, and coincidences and hapless fate so twisted as to be delicious. As Marcus says:

Yet what happens in Hammett is that what is revealed as "reality" is a still further fiction-making activity – in the first place in the Op's, and behind that yet another, the consciousness present in many of the Op stories and all the novels that Dashiell Hammett, the writer, is continually doing the same thing as the Op and all the other characters in the fiction he is creating. That is to say, he is making a fiction (in writing) in the real world; and this fiction, like the real world itself, is coherent but not necessarily rational. What one both begins and ends with, then, is a story, a narrative, a coherent yet questionable account of the world. (p. XXI)

For Hammett, the world as we see it is a very flimsy thing, a construction easily sidestepped by both the intending and the oblivious. Identity, for him, is a passing thing, a garb easily donned and discarded. As one captured villain says of their slipping through the cracks: Then I took an apartment on Ashubry Avenue under [an assumed name], and I was an altogether different person. (p. 169, The Girl with the Silver Eyes) (name removed for the sake of spoilers)

Perhaps the Continental Op is a bulwark of justice in such an immoral world, but the Op himself doesn't seem so much moral as amoral, a nameless everyman in appearance and intellect notable only for his force of will. The Continental Op does not share the ambiguity that adorns Sam Spade throughout the Maltese Falcon, but he is also as far as cry from Chandler's Philip Marlowe as he is from Sherlock Holmes. Like in Red Harvest, the Op doesn't care about methods so long as he gets the job done, and his idea of the job is often a far cry from that of his employer's.

In The Golden Horseshoe, we see that the Op's goals are not that of the law, but rather of justice. Providing he can see justice done, the Op doesn't care what story he has to feed the law. In The Main Death, the Op goes one step further. In case too convoluted to ever be won at trial, he takes the law into his own hands, regains the victim's property with force, and buries the facts under a happy outcome. In The Farewell Murders, he reveals that his idea of justice doesn't even extend to seeing the good prosper – he just needs to see the wicked suffer. The Op responds to the continued misfortune and even tragedy of his employer without even a sympathetic word, and he weathers years and false ends all so that, at the end, he can see the guilty hanged.

The Op's justice is a harsh one, and, to him, the guilty deserve no rights at all. When he tells the story of a former cop, Duran, it's clear where his sympathies lie: He used to be captain of detectives in one of the larger Middle Western cities. Once he tried too hard to get a confession out of a safe-ripper, and killed him. The newspapers didn't like Duran. They used that accident to howl him out of his job. (p. 190) I don't believe it's a coincidence that five of the seven stories ends with the following emotionless sentiment: They hanged him. (p. 319)

We've established by now that the thrill of a Hammett story is not the solving of the mystery, but we haven't yet looked into where precisely the thrill is to be found. The answer comes from the prose and the hardboiled, unsentimental, and unflinching interaction of the Op and the world around him. Hammett's writing is clear, terse, and able to both convey volumes of style while simultaneously revealing almost no emotion at all. In the midst of this, the Op often further reinforces his detachment with instances of wit so dry and caustic they're liable to start forest fires: The face she made at me was probably meant for a smile. Whatever it was, it beat me. I was afraid she'd do it again, so I surrendered. (p. 57)

Among other things, Hammett has a gift for pegging characters in only a few lines and in picking out the one detail that makes them memorable. Alas, while he refrains from over indulging in pointless back stories, he loves to drown the telling and significant details he's created in oceans of white noise and minutia: Age about 30; height about five feet ten; slender, weight about 140; medium complexion; brown hair, suit, and shoes and a gray overcoat. (p. 252) I suppose that, if the infamous police report style of description is to ever find a home it would be here, in a novel about a private detective, but that doesn’t change the fact that such a storm of details leaves the reader with far less, not far more, of a picture than they would otherwise have had. And lest you think that example unique, here's another from the same page: [he was] about five eight inches tall, would weight about a hundred and seventy pounds, had brown hair and eyes, a dark complexion, a flat, broad face with his cheekbones, and wore a blue suit, gray hat, tan overcoat, black shoes, and a pear-shaped pearl tie-pin. (p. 252)

The newest of these stories is eight decades old, and it's true that their levels of gore and profanity feel tame to a modern audience. Their core, however, feels anything but. Hammett's grasp of atmosphere and pace is excellent here, and his ability to build tension is unmatched. After a classic Hammett moment of false perceptions, The House on Turk Street becomes a deadly game of cat and mouse in an unlit house. Other stories, too, are prone to sudden escalations that lead to scenes of violence that are either so brief as to be downright blunt as well as merciless or long, drawn out passages of waiting for the flash of gunfire to give away the enemy. Both styles of action work incredibly well, and each is stronger for the downbeat forced calm that surrounds it.

The Continental Op is a collection of stories that will make your pulse pound. It's also a collection of stories that contain surprising amounts of depth and even revelation. This is an essential read for anyone interested in Dashiell Hammett, noir, mystery in general, or even just good fiction.