Tuesday, November 29, 2011

George R.R. Martin - Tuf Voyaging

The plague star twinkles but little, shines down upon the land with a clear bright light. This is wrong, I told Janeel once; a plague star ought to be red. It ought to glower, to drape itself with scarlet radiance, to whisper into the night hints of fire and of blood. This clear white purity, what has that to do with plague? That was in the first days, when our charter ship had just set us down to open our proud little trade complex, set us down and then moved on. In that time the plague star was but one of fifty first-magnitude stars in these alien skies, hard even to pick out. In that time we smiled at it, at the superstitions of these primitives, these backward brutes who thought sickness came from the sky. (p. 14-5)

Tuf Voyaging opens with a planet bound glimpse of the orbiting Ark, a ship of the long lost Ecological Engineering Corps that, now abandoned, rains plagues down upon the surface of a ruined world. Our focus soon shifts upwards, as Haviland Tuf, the Tuf of our title, gains control of the ship and its near unlimited power. Though composed of eight distinct short stories, this is a collection with a strong arc, and it's one of power, responsibility, maybe even divinity, and – let's not forget – more inventiveness and wit than your average author can dream of.

The first and longest tale, The Plague Star, brings us to that celestial doom bringer and forces us to cower, antlike, before its mass. Like almost all of the collection's pieces, we are relegated to a somewhat distant view of Tuf, but here we don't see him as a titan come with benevolence or malevolence but rather as a man, a down on his luck trader hired to be the most expendable part of a crew made of near nothing but, hired to take them all to a prize so vast they'd all gain wealth beyond comprehension if they could secure it. Of course, as soon as Tuf's Cornucopia of Excellent Goods at Low Prices ferries their crew of retired soldiers, bodyguards, cybertechs, and career criminals to the colossal Ark, things fall right to hell. The Plague Star shows every character gunning for every other, a free for all filled with violence, cleverness, and trickery amidst the echoing corridors and dormant cloning tanks. Before long, a handy tide of delightful monsters and plagues have joined the fracas. Yeah, it's clear from the get go who's going to be relaxing on the bridge at the end of all the shooting, but that doesn't detract one bit from the mayhem. This's a rather different tale from the collection's others, focused more on action than theme, and it's likely the most fun, even if not the best.

From then on, with Tuf in firm (and sometimes not so firm) possession of the Ark, the collection becomes the story of his change (or, depending on your interpretation, lack thereof). In each of the tales to come, Tuf is presented with a seemingly impossible ecological problem and must find the solution. This is where, in my opinion, some of Martin's most colorful creations can be found. Handed the life-generating powers of the Ark, with the limitations and to some extent necessary realism of long form work removed, Martin lets his imagination fly here, presenting us with a variety stunning sights and ideas. In Guardians, for instance, we see a war between horrors beneath the sea and those in the seedships vast cloning vats: To hunt the drifting fire-balloons [Tuf] brought forth countless fliers: lashtail mantas, bright red razorwings, flocks of scorn, semi-aquatic howlers, and a terrible pale blue thing – half-plant and half-animal – that drifted with the wind and lurked inside clouds like a living, hungry spiderweb. Tuf called it the-weed-that-weeps-and-whispers. (p. 235)

The height of all that, though, is likely A Beast for Norn, which readers of Dreamsongs have experienced in slightly different form (along with, actually, the also just mentioned tale Guardians). A Beast for Norn has Tuf visiting a planet famed for its gladiatorial combat, each of its great houses pitting its monsters against the next. That, of course, is a situation just waiting for a man with a titanic vessel filled with all the great beasts of the ages, and so it proves, Martin somehow managing to balance a stylish and moral tale with exhibiting a menagerie resplendent with potential and sheer fun.

Tuf's genesis, Martin reveals in Dreamsongs, was an attempt to generate a proper series, one centered on a "larger than life" (p. 563, Dreamsongs) character who "the readers would enjoy following story after story." (p. 562, ibid) To say that he succeeded is an understatement of the kind that Tuf himself might find rather excessive. Tuf is a vegetarian and a pacifist, the possessor of untold power and unmatchable physical strength besides, a fussy and fastidious man, as obsessed with formality as he is irreverent towards the customs of others. He's implacable and huge and hairless; his only sentimental attachment is his cats – named Dax, Suspicion, Doubt, Hostility, Ingratidue, and Foolishnes to commemorate the rude treatment he receives at his various ports of call – and he often extols the virtues of the feline to any and all who will listen (or, of course, that must listen). And none of that's yet touching on his fantastically dry wit. At one point, a military officer tells him that his seedship is "impossible," for "the EEC was wiped out a thousand years ago, along with the Federal Empire. None of their seedships remain." Tuf's response, in all its wry glory: "How distressing […] Here I sit in an illusion. No doubt, now that you have told me my ship does not exist, I shall sink right through it and plunge into your atmosphere, where I shall burn up as I fall." (p. 206)

But there's a troubling, thought-provoking, and nigh unforgettable core beneath all the collection's levity.  As things proceed, a truth soon becomes clear. It is not enough, and is not even possible, to simply solve the environmental symptoms of the problems that Tuf encounters. No, he can liberate the men he finds from the consequences of their mistakes, but he knows that, as he departs, they will make those mistakes again. And so Tuf changes again, and he begins to alter the men themselves.

The center of the collection's arc is the trio of tales set on S'uthlam, a world beset by overpopulation and long ago exceeded resources. The first time, Tuf tries to save them with simple technology. But, as he is shown again and again, there is no possible solution that is merely technological. So Tuf, witnessing a universe filled with problems, and aware that he has the ability to solve them, steps in to fix them. It's something he must do, he argues, no matter how much the people of that world wish him not to. Failure to decide, because you lack the right, is itself a decision, (p. 438) he says. Tuf remakes the worlds around him to match his own ideas of progress.

The dilemma of right and intervention is an interesting one, but the true blow from all this comes from the reader's own realization. Each of the collection's tales is an escalation from that preceding it, both in moral complexity and in the scale of Tuf's intervention. And while I'm sure the exact point each reader begins to feel queasy will vary, that moment of revelation will come, and it's that revelation – the realization that the reader has been blithely supporting this remaking, unconsidering and as unable to see beyond Tuf's exterior as the characters – that gives such awful power to Tuf's debatably megalomaniacal declaration to the man named Moses in the second to last story, Mana from Heaven:

"I was born human, and lived as such for long years, Moses. Yet then I found the Ark and I have ceased to be a man. The powers I may wield are vaster than those of many gods that humans have worshipped. There is not a man I meet but I could take his life. There is not a world I pause on that I could not waste utterly, or remake as I choose. I am the Lord God, or as much of one as either of you is likely to encounter.

"It is a great fortune or you that I am kind and benevolent and merciful, and too frequently bored. You are counters to me, nothing more – pieces and players in a game with which I have whiled away a few weeks." (p. 382)

Tuf Voyaging is the story of a man turning into a god, though whether it's a benevolent or malevolent diety he becomes is a question best left to each individual reader. This is not a collection that can be enjoyed in the same way as some of Martin's other work, like his landmark A Song of Ice and Fire. Reading, you don't sympathize with Tuf and, really, there's never any doubt at all about whether he'll succeed. This is, nonetheless, an excellent read well worth the attention of any of Martin's fans or any Science Fiction, a narrative of spectacle and humor with enough depth to comfortably envelop Tuf's vast ship.

[Note: all page numbers from the Meisha Merlin limited hardcover edition]

Friday, November 25, 2011

Robert McCammon - The Wolf's Hour and The Hunter from the Woods

My review of Robert McCammon's two Michael Gallatin novels, The Wolf's Hour and The Hunter from the Woods, is now up at Strange Horizons here.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

This Week's Review...

This week's review will be coming on Friday, when Strange Horizons posts my review of Robert McCammon's two Michael Gallatin works, The Wolf's Hour and the Hunter from the Woods.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Four

If you'll allow me to paint with a broad brush, I'd characterize Buffy the Vampire Slayer's evolution something like this: after the interesting but flawed first season, the second was a tightly plotted and gripping endeavor, where a relentless plot, driven by a brilliant villain, was underscored and aided by moments of character revelation. The next and third season, meanwhile, was less plot focused, instead allowing the characters, and their interaction and growth, to shape the story. When the main story gets started it's lackluster, but even that's nothing compared to how it takes nearly half the season to jerk into its sorry excuse for motion. The first nine episodes, and a fair few later ones, are concentrated filler, devoid of real character or plot growth, farce only made somewhat passable by witty dialogue. [A warning: SPOILERS follow.]

Looking back, I think the pattern for season openers is rather clear, now: Buffy is in a bad place psychologically, and, by the episode's end, she's pretty much reverted to normal. This worked brilliantly in Anne, the opener of last season, but is, here, rather less successful. In The Freshman, she needs to adjust to college life and the freedom that it offers after being beaten up by a big, bad, super scary collegiate vampire. Once she decides, eh, it'll still probably die if she stakes it, she's good to go, and we're off. Ish.

Character growth?
One of the biggest, or at least earliest, changes between this and earlier seasons is the setting. Buffy and pals have now graduated high school, and, as the first episode – The Freshman – shows us, they're now off to college. But Buffy never becomes a show about college in the way that it used to be a show about high school. Classes are rarely shown, little of the campus is particularly interacted with, and nigh no attempts are made to really bring the overall place to life. About all this, Spike at one point says: You know how it is with kids. They go off to college, they grow apart. Way of the world. This is, of course, a dark thing that must be fought against and all, but, really, it's quite true. Deprived of the established location and feel of its prior sets – both due to moving on in the world and to them having been blown to hell at the end of Graduation Day – the show feels in some ways without a center, something certainly exacerbated by Xander and Giles, neither of which are attending the school, the latter for obvious reasons. They spend the season trying to prove their continuing relevance and largely failing. Giles drinks, is amusing, and is superfluous; Xander goes from odd job to odd job, hangs out with Anya, and develops no life at all outside of his old friends who have, as he notes, rather left him behind. 

Willow, meanwhile, has by far the most, and maybe even the only wholly, effective long term arc of the season. For the first time since season two, Oz must face the consequences of his lycanthropy, but things, expressed through his growing fascination for both the wild and for fellow werewolf Veruca (Paige Moss)), aren't so easy to solve this time. Without ever breaking his trademark stoicism, Oz realizes he's no longer able to so easily continue being the man he once was with the beast inside him raging, and he departs. Soon after, Amber Benson's Tara comes into the picture, a witch on or beyond Willow's level. More importantly, the chemistry between the two is fantastic. All of which sets up one of the season's most tragic, yet perfectly understandable moments: when Oz returns, later, and finds that, though he's managed to reclaim who he once was, everyone else has moved on.

Most Buffy episodes, and all of the best, straddle the line between humor and drama, making us laugh and also making us care. Most of season four's earlier episodes, on the other hand, fall right off the line and land smack in comedy, earning some fair laughs but possessing nigh no staying power. Beer Bad, in which we learn that alcohol of all varieties turns men in to cavemen, is likely the clearest example of this. It's also not the only one to try the moralizing game, and it's not the only one to fail. Pangs is about the rise of a Native American spirit determined to avenge the wrongs done to his people. The episode focuses on the morality of even opposing such a force. As Willow says: Thanksgiving isn't a-about blending of two cultures. It's about one culture wiping out another! And then they make animated specials about the part where... w-with the maize and th-the big, big belt buckles. They don't show you the next scene, where... where all the bison die, and Squanto takes a musketball in the stomach! (Pangs) All well stated and all, and I'm certainly not going to say the Native Americans deserved smallpox or anything like that, but equating a battle against the spirit with the trail of tears is absolutely idiotic. Want to know the difference? It's rather simple. The Native American in question here is dead. There is no longer a peaceful reconciliation. This is not a question of how to treat a people, but rather of whether it's the duty of all Sunnydale citizens to die at the hands of a corpse for crimes committed by their distant ancestors. Forgive me if I'm not all that conflicted.

As usual, there are some magic-focused episodes, and, as usual, they're amusing as hell and have the aftereffect of making everything a damn sight and a half less believable and consistent for episodes uncountable to come. Something Blue's here the main example of this, though Superstar certainly fits the archetype. Something Blue shows Willow accidentally wreaking havoc with a spell gone wrong. But, while the idea of Buffy and Spike getting married is a damn amusing one, this episode faces the same problem as a lot of the show's more magic focused episodes, namely that it entirely breaks… well, everything. If Willow can cast a spell to make her every whim reality, why've the gang yet to resurrect their foreign allies, slay their enemies, and wished for boatfuls of cash to boot?

The main plot of season four has a ton of potential, at least on paper. It addresses one of the aspects of Buffy I've always found lacking, namely the rest of the world's reaction to the whole vampire thing. Well, here, the government gets in on the game with the Initiative, a force of commandos posing as college students (…because) that capture and experiment on vampires and the night's other assorted beasties. The organization's two aspects are summed up in two characters (each of which ends up passing that torch along, but more on that in a bit). First there's Marc Blucas' Riley Finn, a soldier who exemplifies the dependable soldier archetype, determined to do good and sure he's doing it. Then there's everyone's favorite mad scientist, anything to get the job done figure, here Lindsay Crouse's Maggie Walsh, played cool and disapproving throughout.

Buffy, of course, comes in contact with the Initiative (or, well, she does after spending half a season doing nothing much), and she does so through Riley, who she begins to date, not knowing his penchant for night time camo and morning pushups. The drama here seems obvious… which is part of why it's so disappointing when it doesn't bother to show up. The Initiative's initial reaction to her being a Slayer is essentially "Oh, huh. That's odd," which is shortly followed by Maggie's decision that killing her would clearly be a good idea. So, alright, we skipped a few steps and most of the subtlety, but we're at least heading interesting places, right? Things are no longer as simple as demons bad, people good, and Buffy might have to face the implications of…

Moral complexity?
Oh, wait, never mind. That's not how it happens at all. Actually, Maggie Walsh is quickly bumped off by the fruits of her mad science, George Hertzberg's Adam, who is a Frankenstein/Prometheus character desirous of understanding and transcending the boundaries of mortality. He's not a bad character, even if he is a familiar one, and his detached musings do make a decent combination with his strength, but he's a simple character and turns it all into a simple situation. In the past, Whedon's proven a master of twisting the situation so that he can approach complex themes through simple metaphors, but here, having Adam signify everything that's bad about the Initiative in a nicely killable and demonic form deprives the set up of all its interesting parts. With its dangerous element gone, the Initiative – now sans Riley, who's been forced to question everything he's held dear in the one somewhat effective part of all this – bumbles around, irrelevant except when it wanders into the way of someone more important.

One of the side effects of all this is Spike, who's captured by the Initiative towards the beginning of the season. He escapes, but not before they put a chip in his head, and he finds himself suddenly unable to harm any living thing. The initial scenes of this are hilarious, with Spike attacking Willow, finding himself unable to bite her, and her then consoling him for a moment (You're being too hard on yourself. Why don't we wait a half an hour and try again? (The Initiative)) before bashing him on the head. All the same, it really does seem for much of the season that his character and magnetism might've been broken in the shift to impotence. He spends his time hanging around in Giles' house and then Xander's basement, doing nothing much at all, and the revelation that he can still hurt demons, though it seems placed to allow him to really join the good guys' side, doesn't end up amounting to much. It's only at the end, when Spike joins into an alliance with Adam, that he gets his agency and drive back, and his scenes again feel like they've a purpose. I love Spike, he's my favorite character by far on the show, but I hope that, if he's going to be staying around long term, he's given more to do in future seasons than wander about in Xander's cast off clothing.

In the end, Buffy defeats Adam, the Initiative is disbanded because demons are too dangerous to try and harness (because everyone knows the government usually gives up on incredible power just because it's dangerous), and things're just about restored. The main plot, though not awful once it gets going, is never that great. Like all the way back in season one, it's the side stories and one offs that here hold the power, chief among them Hush. The idea of a television episode, let alone one of such a wit-driven show as Buffy, being silent save for music for most of its length is a rather iffy one, on paper. In practice, though, it's one of the strongest episodes of the entire show. The villains, the calm and sophisticated looking Gentlemen and their horrifically demented helpers, are fantastic, and, here, the inability to scream heightens the terror immeasurably, casting every space, no matter how wide or populated, as the site of a claustrophobic nightmare.

It's not the only excellent episode, though. Where the Wild Things Are also successfully builds tension, atmosphere, and drama, something perhaps aided by how, with Buffy and Riley (ahem) occupied, the show needs to turn to its other elements. For character moments, though, Faith's two episode return is impossible to top. Over its course, as Buffy and Faith find their places quite literally switched, the two are forced to, to some extent, come to terms with the other. It's a concept that could have devolved into melodrama, but the excellent dialogue (humorous and anything but), tension, and Buffy's anger make it anything but. These episodes are fast moving and hard hitting, resplendent with all the energy, terror, and raw pain that made Faith's demise at the end of the prior season so unforgettable.

Season four's not awful, but it's certainly nowhere near the standards set by its predecessors. The main plot is slow to develop and only adequate when it does, and the side stories often fail spectacularly, leaving us with a show that often feels like it's coasting on its past success and only able to reach higher through its (excellent) dialogue. And then come episodes like the ones just described, and suddenly everything's back in place, and the quality level's as high or higher than it's ever been. Here's to hoping Whedon and co can, next time, keep those highs and, just maybe, find a main plot with a touch more spark…

STANDOUTS: Hush, This Year's Girl/Who Are You?, Where the Wild Things Are

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Peter Straub - If You Could See Me Now

After a prologue in which our child protagonist skinny dips in a quarry with his cousin love, and in which the two vow to meet again come twenty years to the day, If You Could See Me Now opens with its first person narrator, a now-aged Miles Teagarden, returning to the rural town of his youth. For him, the past is not done with. No, to him the past is something that inescapable and desirable, something that could, would, should be repeated indefinitely, that it was the breathing life in the heart of the present (p. 49). As the novel progresses, and as the date of Miles' promised meeting with Allison, his love, nears, he finds himself drawing deeper into a past more complex, horrible, and inviting than he could have imagined, a past that still colors the fabric of Arden and the surrounding farmland and decides the way that every man, woman, and child of the area views his return.

And oh, oh how I wish I could end this review's opening there, keep it as a discussion of intrigue and inevitability that carries the implicit promise of brilliant fulfillment. I was really looking forward to this book after all the things I'd heard of Straub, and the opening pages did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm. Alas, what followed did a more than ample job of that. This is a novel devoid of emotional impact due to a series of bizarre developments and stylistic choices, and it's also a novel that seems determined to, by the time the last page's turned, have undermined and shattered every one of its thematic conceits. A warning before we begin: there will be SPOILERS.

The center of our tale and its problems is, of course, Miles Teagarden. Miles is a narrator as detached as they come. Near the beginning, he mentions that he has "olfactory hallucinations" (p. 20). He smells things that are not there, a visceral reaction with no rational reason. Swap emotions for smells, and that's not a bad description of the reading of this novel, except that, where Miles says his hallucinations (which never play a major role in the plot) are "disquieting and unsettling," (p. 20) their effect on the reader is more one of disassociation. It's not that Miles never explains his actions, and it's not that he never shows emotion. No, he does quite a bit of both of those. It's just that there's a profound disconnect between the two. The decisions that Miles mentally agonizes about seem to have almost no resemblance to what he does, and his reactions to events seem to vary between disproportionately extreme and utterly muted.

We never come to have the slightest understanding of Miles as a person. He comes from a big name university back east, but we receive no glimpse of it. He is writing on D.H. Lawrence, but thinks about Lawrence maybe one or two times in the entire novel. Before long, he's abandoned that project, and instead spends his days writing… something, it's never really revealed what, but he certainly goes and does whatever it is a lot. Besides that, he hangs out with various people and does various bewildering things like pretending to shop lift and, for reasons undecipherable, ripping up paperback books in a bar. Okay. By their very nature, the actions here are building to nothing, and Miles is such a distant character, and one so devoid of sympathetic traits, that there's little reason to care about his odds if they were.

A large part of this is that we're not clued in to major swathes of the motivations that Miles does have. Some measure of the town's hate can be explained by Miles' outsider status in a time fresh after a murder, but the personal animosity and hatred he receives – the pastor delivers an entire sermon against him personally – beggars belief. Indeed, hints soon start to accumulate about Miles' past, references to dark deeds and the terrible outcome of his cousinly swim out at the quarry that we glimpsed the beginning of. Then there are the statements that are littered through the narrative, first person accounts given by the townspeople to the police of Miles' actions, and the way that each of these differs so strongly from the way that Miles himself depicts those events. The final revealer comes not long after, when Miles takes the letters he's been mysterious letters he's been receiving, tied to dear Allison, to his old buddy (or so he thinks) the Police Chief, and the Chief says that the addresses are done in his handwriting.

Alright then, right there, case closed. Fellow readers of horror, say it with me, as we've seen it so many times: Miles is insane. Clearly, we've trespassed into the territory of unreliable narrators, here, and our protagonist is either lying or utterly clueless about what's going on. From there, it's not a far leap to get to the source of all the townspeople's hatred, of Miles' longing, of the disparate clues littered about the narrative. Allison is dead, likely ever since that night at the quarry, and it seems our boy Miles had something to do with it. All this is put on the table a short while later, a reveal just before the second part begins, albeit a reveal explicitly stated on the back cover, because evidently nothing entices people to read a novel quite like giving them the twist.

So, our supernatural cards on the table, things turn into a waiting game as the 21st approaches. Straub's primary method of building otherworldly tension relies on dreams and the like, which might be fine, except that the sense of evil never leaves them, never crosses over the clearly marked line and into the main text. Yes, there're moments of terror, even one or two when Miles' eyes aren't shut, but they're all kept well away from the main scenes, and there're warning signs a plenty as they approach. Much like how the monster isn't scary if it agrees to go away at a particular time, these scenes do little to contribute to an overall feeling of dread.

The whole thing is built up as love, love gone sick and perverted and twisted, a real life reenacting of the tragedy of Duane's "dream house," ineptly built to fit his love and left empty and broken forever. But for all this to work, the reader would have to care for Allison, would have to feel the strength of the narrator's bond with her as well as it's darkness, and, like how there's little reason to feel such fear, there's no reason at all for the reader to love Allison. She's never glimpsed again outside of the prologue, and the characters of the novel ,save the narrator seem to have almost totally forgotten her. She wasn't some avatar of kindness, and, though we're told she was a spirit of freedom, our only evidence of that is that she had sex with a variety of men that included her teacher. And here we are, two decades later, and the narrator's never been able to truly love anyone else.

Anyway, on the mundane level of the town of Arden, tensions continue to grow. Miles manages to discover the events of that night at the quarry, and who Allison's real killers and rapists were, namely Duane and the Police Chief. He responds to this revelation with sulking, they with limp anger. Meanwhile, as a third girl of Allison's rough age has gone missing, the town is in an uproar. Though there's the matter of his absolution for Allison's death, and a red herring or two, the reader's prime suspect is (or, at least, mine was) Miles. After all, his actions are still bizarre, and surely some kind of madness must lie behind his coming to meet a dead girl, his bizarre actions throughout the novel, and the detached and irrational way in which he speaks and acts.

But… no. Actually, the returning dead girl is – brace yourself – evil! And Miles realizes this with rather little fanfare, just mute acceptance. After wondering whether to just wander away for a bit, Miles decides to go to the quarry on the night of her return, though there's no better reason given than that it would be "where it would end." (p. 302) He sits through the night, and it looks for a second like he really might be mad, like he might be "stranded alone in only the human world," (p. 308) and faced with the knowledge that he did kill those kids. But wait! Nevermind, there's our climax, just running a bit behind schedule, and, after the ghost kills those who killed her twenty years ago, he gets to blow her up with some gasoline and run out of a burning house. Day saved.

If You Could See Me Now seems to be setting itself up as a story of tortured love, about how we can never escape our pasts. That's a story that, here, is crippled by the fact that we're never given a reason to care about that past. Even the concept falls down and collapses when Miles does glibly overcome his past and burns his old love to hell in a nice action movie finish, before driving off into the sunset, his every action having apparently been normal, his questions answered, and his revenge gotten without him having to dirty his hands. I know this is a damn well regarded novel, but I can't for the life of me see why, and I can't think of a single aspect that hasn't been done better elsewhere.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

H.P. Lovecraft - The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

In his life, H.P. Lovecraft wrote only three novel length works, the second of which was The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Lovecraft thought the tale poor, calling it, in a letter to Barlow, a cumbering, creaking bit of self-conscious antiquarianism (p. 389), and he never made any attempts to publish it. In the time since, however, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward has come to be considered a more than worthy addition to Lovecraft's body of works. This is a human story, one where characters and their aims dominate the stage, and, perhaps stemming from that, this may be Lovecraft's most plot focused work. [Two brief notes before we begin: First, SPOILERs will follow. Second, all page numbers come from the Penguin Classics edition of The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories unless otherwise noted.]

Though things generally do progress in a chronological manner, the power of the plot does not come from a traditional escalation of events and tensions but rather through successive revelations. Frequently, the importance of events cannot be discerned until well after their passage, and, in the novel's first half, our protagonist, dear Charles Ward, is himself attempting to unravel the dark past surrounding his ancestor, Joseph Curwen. In addition to that, not only is the reader trying to piece together facts, and not only is the character, but the narrator, too, is writing with an outsider's eye, combining numerous sources to try and comprehend the true happenings of the tale with varying degrees of success.

The downsides of such a style can be felt strongly in the opening. After the intriguing first section, we switch to a view of Ward's youth that is filled in endless historical details, near no tension, and that does, alas, serve to justify a bit of Lovecraft's dismissal of the work. But, soon after, disquiet seeps into the narrative, something that only serves to grow, often exponentially, as Ward's probing turns from the innocuous past and to its darkest aspects. When, in the story's final chapters, we do finally understand the tale's core and events surge forward, the scholarly detail and multiplicity of sources from which it's been compiled, lend the text an air of powerful authenticity, leaving the reader not feeling like they've been told of great and dark happenings but that, through their own insight and research, they've discovered those happenings themselves.

One result of this is Lovecraft's prose throughout the story. Lovecraft's style can be, perhaps, said to consist of two interlocking parts. First, there's the scholarly side, something superficially aided by his intentionally archaic spellings and diction but really coming forth in his approach to detail, in how many of his stories start with what could serve as the openings to essays, and in the erudition he always displays. Then there's his penchant for climax and even hysteria, the moments of startling eloquence where his words seem as grand and immortal as the farthest reaches of whatever he's describing, as well as, alas, his oft parodied excesses.

While both of those are, to some extent, present in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, it's by far the former that predominates. With only a few exceptions, the majority of the text's first, say, two thirds, are devoid of stylistic flourishes, and those that are there, interestingly, are often of a more positive or beautiful nature, brief reprieves from the darkness that, depending on the mindset of the soul seeing them, may or may not be perceived: That he said nothing of antiquarian rambles in the glamorous old city with its luring skyline of ancient domes and steeples and its tangles of roads and alleys whose mystic convolutions and sudden vistas alternately beckon and surprise, was taken by his parents as a good index of the degree to which his new interests had engrossed his mind. (p. 141) It's only far later that Lovecraft's writing takes on any of its sometimes-donned oppressive weight, layering and filling the sections spent in the bowels of Curwen's home with, at once, a sense of dark majesty and of nigh irresistible claustrophobia.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward has, I think, some of Lovecraft's strongest work with character. Now, mind you, I don't mean that in a third person limited point of view, follow them around and know their lives sense. What I do mean, though, is that, as we accumulate and acquire facts that allow us to understand the characters' actions, we begin to see the characters themselves. In large part precisely because of how little of his inner workings are ever shown, Charles Ward becomes a tragic figure, his passions and light wholly subsumed into the darkness brought on by Curwen's influence. The other figures, too, receive depth through the narrator's assembly of their story's, but the most interesting aspect is the contrast between Curwen and Ward.

As the novel progresses, and as Ward loses more and more of his humanity, we see several letters, written in a dense and anachronistic style, between Curwen and his confederates, not a one of them any longer mortal in the traditional sense. And the fascinating thing is that, in marked contrast to Ward's obsession, these letters are, in places, positively warm, showing evidence of a genuine friendship amidst the deepest darkness: I rejoice you are again at Salem, Curwen writes, and hope I may see you not longe hence. I have a goode Stallion, and am think'g of get'g a Coach, there be'g one (Mr. Merritt's) in Providence already, tho' ye Roades are bad. If you are dispos'd to Travel, doe not pass me bye. (p. 130)

On the surface, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward seems to fit snugly within the mythos and their thematic implications that Lovecraft is so (justly) famous for. To sum things up in the briefest manner possible, the mainstay of Lovecraft's fiction focuses on man's place in the universe, and how that place is wholly insignificant, irrelevant, ephemeral, and so on and so forth. The Call of Cthulhu, to pick what's likely his best known work, or The Colour out of Space, to pick what's likely my favorite of the lot, both focus on man coming to terms with the wider world and being brushed aside, trampled, and ignored, surviving only because forces greater than he don't care enough to extinguish him any more than we'd wage a global war against ants.

Here, the surface details do seem to match up. Not only does this happen to be the first place where the recurring Mythos entity Yog Sothoth is mentioned, the tale's horror comes from a man venturing beyond the spheres of mortal and sane life and even past time (p. 203). In fact, in its focus on the dark sides of science and progress, the story serves to illustrate the so-famous opening paragraph to Call of the Cthulhu: The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. (p. 355, H.P. Lovecraft: The Fiction)

But The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is a human story in a way that the majority of the Mythos' centerpiece tales are not. Of course, this is not the only instance where the great beyond has its human familiars, or even its dark sorcerers, but Jospeh Curwen and his associates are different from the crazed cultists of the Call of the Cthulhu, the degenerate Whatley of the Dunwich Horror, or whoever else you care to name. Curwen, see, is in control. He ventures "beyond the spheres," yes, and does things no mortal ever could, but he himself is the architect, and his aims are, in their twisted way, human ones. It's not interdimensional monstrosities that he creates from his essential saltes (p. 90) but rather the titan thinkers of all ages (p. 186), and, though his aims may alter all civilization, all natural law, perhaps even the fate of the solar system and the universe (p. 186), their acts in doing so are driven by humans with their ends also being comprehensible in nature, even if their means are not. This is not a tale of man discovering the entity greater than itself that will destroy us, but rather of man discovering powers beyond what can be conceived and destroying itself.

Of course, this interpretation can be contested, especially with regards to the recurring warning throughout the text to never call up Any that you cannot put downe. (p. 190) And Curwen, after all, is, it's implied, killed the first time by a creature that he lost control of. But I think the fact that any control at all was possible, no matter that he lost it in the end, show this to be an exceptional case in Lovecraft's Mythos. After all, can you imagine a man, no matter his ultimate fate, slapping a saddle on the back of Cthulhu or, for any time at all, directing a shoggoth?

All that, though, is not to say that there is not a free and supernatural agent in the text, for there is, but – and here's the amazing thing – it's actually a force for good, and one called, one must not forget, more by a well-meaning character's bumbling than by dark designs. The rising of the entity, that which was therein inhum'd (p. 190), that Willet accidentally calls to life forms a damn excellent climactic moment, but its implications are far greater than just that. It's this man, whose identity can never be confirmed (though that does nothing to diminish the fun of speculating i), that strikes the greatest blows against the unnatural practices of Curwen and his cohorts, a man capable of wielding stronger weapons (p. 195) than the simply mortal. That benevolent and supernatural force, and the happy(ish) ending it brings, are certainly anomalies in Lovecraft's so-strictly amoral Mythos.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is a fascinating and, once it gets going, gripping novel that's far greater than Lovecraft himself thought. I don't think I'd recommend it as an entry point for the man's work – there are far more immediately enthralling tales, and it'd likely be best to understand the core of Lovecraft's Mythos before venturing to their outskirts – but this is nonetheless a necessary read for anyone looking for a complete understanding of Lovecraft's writings, Mythos, and thoughts.It's damn difficult to find meaning in a world where life can be created and dissolved by the mad, where the laws of society and nature are just playthings for the powerful. And yet, with the text's close, the men perpetrating the evil, if not the ability for the evil itself, have been destroyed, and the evidence of their actions undone. True, Ward has fallen victim to his tragic need to know and understand, and those around him will never be the same, but the world does go on. Maybe, if we stay huddled in our corners and never stray too far, it'll stay that way.