Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Poppy Z. Brite & Caitlin R. Kiernan - Wrong Things

Released in 2001 in a limited edition by Subterranean Press, Wrong Things is a collaboration between Poppy Z. Brite and Caitlin R. Kiernan, two writers of Weird and disturbing horror known for their powerful prose. The slim volume contains a story solely by each author – The Crystal Empire and Onion – and then their combined piece. All of it operates at the level of the incredibly high level each has established in their solo work.

Things kick off with Brite's The Crystal Empire, a tale that is, like the stories in Swamp Foetus/Wormtongue (which I loved but did not, alas, get a chance to review), of the purest emotions perverted and of the darkest settings. Zee, Susan, Mathew, Jenifer, and a few other scarcely named and scarcely described low lifes occupy a rundown building. Zee, our narrator, is in love with Mathew. I don't mean ordinary love, like the kind between equals, though. Their relationship is more one of supplicant to messiah. But their world is about to shatter. "Remember the way I look now," Mathew says. "Something huge is going to happen – something huger than you can conceive of, Zee. It will change me." (p. 11)

That change comes in the form of music. The band is the Isle of Man, the singer Anthony LaGuerre, a man who sings with a sound so desperate, so lovely that every hair on my body prickled in sympathy and whose voice is a waterfall jumble of notes. (p. 16) He's something that they need and want, though Zee admits that she didn't know what kind of wanting it was; whether it was wanting to make love or to talk soul-deep with LauGuerre or to shut hum up in a little jeweled box and let his voice escape when Mathew turned the key, like a golden clockwork nightingale. (ibid) LaGuerre is, if you'll pardon the cliché, too good for this world. Too perfect and too beautiful. Mathew and Zee go to him, later, and, in the story's horrific climax, either soil or free his gift.

It's rather difficult to tell where the story is going when it's in motion, but the dark atmosphere, reeking of filth and desperation from start to finish, is still more than captivating. The characters, too, are powerful. Zee's twisted out of shape by her love and need for Mathew, but that doesn't make her unrecognizable. It's her vulnerability amidst the horror that makes all of it so affecting. At the end of the story, it's hard to tell just what, if anything, has indeed changed, and that's despite the tumult, violence, and death of the ending.

Kiernan's Onion, though, is the masterpiece of the collection. It is the aftermath of a Weird Tale. Think back to Lovecraft. In stories like The Call of Cthulhu and At the Mountains of Madness, he showed us ordinary men who saw behind the veil, saw their own insignificance and the incomprehensible and impossible nature of the universe, and that's where we closed, with that apocalyptic revelation. But Onion takes place years, even decades, afterwards, a story set in the shattered remnants of sanity. Frank and Willa are two such visionaries. It's clear from what we see that they truly do care for each other from what we see, but, nonetheless, Frank can't even remember the last time he saw "her smile, really smile, not just a smirk or a sneer." (pp. 70-1) The two work at soul crushing, dead end jobs. Though they decided to quit before the story's start, Willa is smoking again, now running low on cigarettes and money, on health and will.

Trying to cope, those who've seen and those who know hold meetings where they eat stale donuts, drink bitter coffee, and try in vain to make "sense" (p. 68) of what's happened to them. The meetings, needless to say, accomplish nothing. It's obvious throughout this slow slide from mania to something worse, something unimaginable that such experiences can destroy, but it's not obvious until the very end that they might also be defining, that, just maybe, a hint of something more – no matter how cataclysmic that hint or how awful that more – might be all that makes life worth living.

Of course, Kiernan is not Lovecraft but for the place she starts her story. First, there's the question of demographics. In Lovecraft's The Statement of Randolph Carter, it's two educated and erudite men that find the staircase waiting within the tomb, a scientist and an occultist that disappears down. The same stairs are found in one character's inexplicable experience here in Onion, but the two characters are young girls, not seeking knowledge but rather escaping the confines of home and looking for a smoke. The biggest difference, though, is certainly the prose. Kiernan's writing is rich and lush, dark and twisting, and, above all, alive, close to home, sweaty and virulent. It's excellent when describing the weird, but is no less so when making the ordinary alien, as when a subway ride is described as: Rumbling along through the honeycombed earth, the diesel and dust and garbage-scented darkness, and him swaddled inside steel and unsteady fluorescent light. (p. 77) Tied with that is Kiernan's constant tendency for oddities in phrasing and structure, little things that keep the reader perpetually off balance like a surfeit of fragrant or combined words like "raincool" or "angrysharp," (p. 68) a tactic that could surely be ruinously distracting in lesser hands but is just another part of Kiernan's spell here.

And so we come to The Rest of the Wrong Things, the collaborative piece, set in Brite's setting The Missing Mile. The story's opening switches between two scenes, one of which shows our main characters – Terry, Vic, and a girl whose name we learn is Tyler – at the vandalized Sacred Yew. Amidst the scrawled swastikas, the characters speculate on what outsiders might have done this until Tyler says: "Well, that's what everyone always wants to believe, isn't it? […] The bad shit always comes from somewhere else. From outside us. outside our world. at least, that's what we'd like to think. That's why Dracula has always been so much more popular than Jekyll and Hyde. But werewolves are a lot scarier than vampires, even if no one wants to admit it. (p. 103) Sounds like a set up for a story that shows us that we're really the monsters, or that they're among us, or something like that, right? Not at all. If that – quite good – quotation's any thematic or plot-based connection to the rest of the story, I just don't see it.

But none of that matters once we get to the Mill, scarred by fire and now inhabited by something strange and foreign, something profoundly other. Their descent into it is an exercise in, as Kiernan puts it in the collection's afterword, "urban archaeology," a vividly described and pitch black maze of rusted machinery and decay. And, waiting at the bottom, is the entity itself, something maybe even risen from that so-damaging flame. As Tyler says: Sometimes things pass too close to us. […] Things from other places. Machineries of blood and starlight. Wrong things. (p. 107) Our three protagonists venture to very edge of that other reality, and then Terry and Vic fall back, disoriented and disturbed, while Tyler advances forward and is gone. At the end of the action, those that're left stumble out to the silent, brooding hulk of the Central Carolina Cotton Mill and the indifferent carpet of stars spread out overhead. (p. 114) In the course of the tale, Tyler, and then Terry, each say a quotation from Alice in Wonderland: "Down, down, down […] I wonder how many miles I've fallen by this time? I must be getting somewhere near the center of the earth…" (p. 112) It doesn't matter that, come the end, Terry and Vic have survived and will not be troubled again. They've been forever altered by what they've seen and experienced.

In the aforementioned afterword, Kiernan says that the role of The Rest of the Wrong Things in the collection is "more a starting point than a centerpiece." (p. 129) As such, I can't help but make connections. In that final tale, we're told that: One dry, onionskin layer of the night peeled back and this is what was buried underneath. (p. 100) Is that what this is, the story a close up and in-depth manifestation of the extra dimensional and life-altering experiences of Onion? It's certainly true, after all, that each of the stories manages to show us something other, something outside ourselves and absolutely awful, even if Brite manages to show us her Wrong Thing without ever needing to depart the confines of our reality and emotions. In any case, regardless of interpretations, this collection is fantastic. The second piece is my personal favorite, but there is not one of these that isn’t filled with mood, feeling, style, mastery, and, as Terry says at one point, "weird shit." (p. 98) Highly recommended.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Weird Fiction of Daniel Defoe

It shouldn't come as a surprise to any readers of this blog that I'm rather interested in Weird Fiction, that so-fascinating niche of horror that was popularized and defined by H.P. Lovecraft in his seminal essay Supernatural Horror in Literature:

The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain--a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space. (p. 1043, HP Lovecraft: The Fiction)

And so we have its foundations. The Weird Tale is a widening of perspective, a confrontation with the vastness of reality, a style of story that takes our limited and mortal perspective and enlarges it until we cannot help but scream at our own insignificance, cannot help but never again trust the fragile world of man about us. Lovecraft, of course, was not only a historian of the Weird but also its foremost practitioner. One of his most famous passages, one that brings forth and rams home almost every aspect of the Weird and of Lovecraft's own horrors, comes at the opening of The Call of 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 light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. (p. 335, HP Lovecraft: The Fiction)

Of course, many authors have followed Lovecraft, not the least of them Thomas Ligotti. But the invocation of the Weird is certainly not something limited to those few that have heard of it. The question of man's place in the cosmos is, needless to say, one that's been pondered often, and sometimes in unexpected places.

So we come to this post's sharp departure from what is traditionally thought of as horror fiction, or Weird Fiction, or anything of that sort. We're venturing all the way afield until we reach a certain, seemingly-deserted island, one where Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe's been forced to make his home. I will admit, I am not a fan of Robinson Crusoe, not of the man and not of the book. Nonetheless, the following quote did rather strike me:

This furnish'd my Thoughts with many very profitable Reflections, and particularly this one, How infinitely Good that Providence is, which has provided in its Government of Mankind, such narrow bounds to his Sight and Knowledge of things, and though he walks in the midst of so many thousand Dangers, the Sight of which, if discover'd to him, would distract his Mind, and sink his Spirits; he is kept serene, and calm, by having the Events of Things hid from his Eyes, and knowing nothing of the Dangers which surround him. (p.165-6, Robinson Crusoe)

Admittedly, the diction's more archaic than even Lovecraft chose to go, but the same ideas are there. The nigh-infinite nature of our existence, the unknowable and uncountable dangers about us, and our utter ignorance of our true position, even if here that ignorance is due to the mercy of a supreme being that is most certainly absent in the cold materialism of Lovecraft's mythos. Though the presence of that supreme being does make the whole thing a bit questionable, at least to me. It's all well and good that God has shielded us from these, as Lovecraft would have it, black seas of infinity, but it does rather raise the question of why that God, supreme creator of all and all that, chose to make those terrifying vistas of reality and those thousand dangers in the first place...

Monday, February 20, 2012

Me, The Weaving Knight, and an Interview

My good friend Travis Knight just posted his interview of me over at his excellent blog, The Weaving Knight. It is, if I do say so myself, a rather interesting read, complete with a mention of my writerly beginnings in fanfiction of all things. Check it out.

[And have no fear, book reviews will be returning come next Tuesday with a look at Poppy Z. Brite and Caitlin R. Kiernan's Wrong Things, by far the greatest piece of Weird (and horror) fiction I've experienced since I reread The Case of Charles Dexter Ward last October. Between now and then I do also have a small quotation/comparison between Lovecraft and a rather unexpected (and quite Christian) source that I'll be posting on, I believe, Friday.]

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


My story Strings just got published in Eschatology Journal. The reading's free, so why not head on over and check it out?

Hands of the Marionette Player by Tina Modotti 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

This Week

This week's content will be coming on Wednesday, with the publication of my story Strings in Eschatology Journal...

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Brandon Sanderson - The Alloy of Law

"Oh, I do want to change the city," she said, growing eager. "Though I feel that tracking down every criminal and punching holes in them with pieces of metal moving at high speeds is a terribly inefficient way to do it."

"Sure can be fun though." (p. 157)

Brandon Sanderson is, without a doubt, one of the most important names in fantasy today, and a large part of why that is can be seen in the story of The Alloy of Law's writing. In the midst of completing the gargantuan Wheel of Time series, Sanderson somehow managed to rewrite and release The Way of Kings, the first volume of his own ten part epic. Then, taking a break from both projects just before leaping into the Wheel's final volume, Sanderson managed to create this 325 page return to the Mistborn world, a book set between the already released (and thoroughly enjoyable) first trilogy and the projected second, one that rather stretches the meaning of the term side project to the breaking point. Simply put, Sanderson is a writing machine, pumping out words and works at a pace far beyond almost any of the genre's other authors. The actual material on offer here, however, is rather disappointing when compared to both the man's ascendant (perhaps by now ascended) reputation and the strength of the Mistborn setting's prior books.

Sanderson has always been a master of setting, a creator of unique and in-depth magic systems and adept at showing that magic's effect on his worlds. Here, of course, he's not starting from scratch but rather returning to the world of the Mistborn series, now 300 years after the literally world-shattering and –shaping finale of The Hero of Ages, where we witnessed one character's genuine apotheosis. In the time since, society's managed to rebuild itself, and the already inventive fantasy landscape's been forever altered by the introduction of gunpowder, a, needless to say, interesting mix with Sanderson's metal-based magic system of alomancy. To say that I was interested to see the results of all this, particularly how the world would be altered by an objectively extant God of only a few centuries remove, would be an understatement.

The first part, the interplay between gunplay and alomancy, lives up to expectations. The combinations between alomancy, feruchemy (a variant magic system, one of three along with alomancy, from the first trilogy), and weaponry are fascinating, cinematic, and often extremely clever. The idea of twinborn – that is to say, those with both alomantic and feruchemical powers – multiples the various powers a Misting could have well beyond easy comprehension, but that's never an issue in the story, where, after a few early expositions, Sanderson keeps a good balance between understanding and surprises.

It all does, however, raise a question. Our protagonist, lawkeeper turned lord Waxillium or Wax, and his friend Wayne at one point awe the city's numerous but useless constabulary by decimating an entire criminal gang, thirty strong, by themselves. The reader can certainly understand their awe, and can maybe even feel it themselves after the action scene they've just witnessed, but it still raises the question why the constabulary doesn't have such warriors on its own staff, why they aren't well used to this thing and ready to take advantage of it for their own ends and stop it when it's used against them. We do, of course, hear various token protests that Mistings are rare and Twinborn rarer, but such things have little effect when almost the entirety of the cast is the former or (more commonly) the latter and when the only people overawed by such things are the faceless, and sometimes nameless, criminals that get in the way and the constables powerless to stop them.

Then there's the other issue that I was so keen to see, the handling of religion and divinity in a world with such an interesting and immediate history. The results are rather more than lackluster. In the whole of the novel, our newly minted God directly acts but once, and even then it's done in the vaguest and least useful possible way, muttering all along the so-familiar excuses for irrelevancy like: I must be careful playing favorites. […] It upsets the balance (p. 286) and The point is Harmony, creating a way for as many as possible to make their own choices. (ibid) You could, of course, argue that I and this God simply have different ideas of what's appropriate, but the idea of God not taking sides and being a force of just balance meets a bad logical stumbling block when one considers that the small help it does offer Wax is just as disruptive to all this, just as destroying of man's ability to makes its "own choices" (ibid), as a genuinely useful bit of intervention, and, besides, why does a god concerned more for balance than man's definitions of right or wrong care at all about these criminals?

The effects of religion on society prove no more interesting. Here we don't even have the original trilogy's Sazed and his surprisingly deep and well-done questioning of faith. Instead, things seem to have settled into a kind of polite religious toleration that is, to me, rather hard to swallow in dual light of the facts that this is debatably three hundred years into the (recorded) history of the civilization and that, more importantly, that history's beginning was started by an objectively present God who laid out many of the specifics of his will.

But enough about my personal thematic interests; I can't smash Sanderson too badly for not sharing them. The novel's main conflict is between Waxillium, a nobleman who left to go out to the Roughs and enforce the laws there who's now returned to rule his ancestral house, and Miles, a former lawkeeper who's become convinced that he wasn't doing good but was, as he says to Wax, a hound, kept in line with false promises and stern orders. […] You worked every day to fix the world, Wax. You tried to end the pain, the violence, the robberies. It never worked. The more men you put down, the more troubles arose. (p. 212) Miles is done fighting the symptoms. He's turned his sites on those who've oppressed the Roughs for so long, on the rich men of the city. He's doing, as he says, what nobody else will. You stand up for the downtrodden, make things better, stop the criminals. Well, I've just decided to set my sights on a more powerful brand of criminal. (p. 213) All of this could be an interesting conflict. Wax admits that he sees some truth in Miles' view and even goes so far as to admit that, in the more tumultuous (and now legendary) time of the first trilogy, Miles would have been a hero. But Wax insists that things have changed, and he stands up to the destruction and upheaval that Miles causes and represents.

Their ideological struggle is crippled by the fact that, much as it pains me to say it of a Sanderson book, the world is a shady, shadowy thing that's never properly understood. Not only do we never truly see the supposedly so-oppressed Roughs with our own eyes outside of a prologue rather preoccupied with the gunfight at its heart, we never come to see the city. Wax says that its nobility is no longer as oppressive, but is that true? We never see either way, never know more of the noble life than a few half-glimpsed parties and balls, and we see nothing at all of the lower classes. The few halfhearted attempts to show the problems with its bureaucracy – like Wayne's statement that the constables spend their time walking about the city, picking on respectable folk (p. 142) – go unsupported and unexplored.

Nowhere is this lack of depth and substance more evident than in the novel's opening, during the brief period where Waxillium thinks maybe he'd best just be a nobleman and leave off all that dashing about in the night. I think most genre fans are used to these never carried out surrenders of profession by now, but it's rare that I see one quite so skimpy as this. We're told how important his duties as a lord are, but we never see what those duties might be. There is, of course, the obligatory mention that these months of "reports, ledges, dinner parties, and business deals" place "among the hardest he'd ever lived," (p. 74) but, without ever really seeing the difficulty, there's not much feeling behind or evoked by the statement. And when we hear the old standby that "Shooting people would be too charitable for you city folks," (p. 78) it's hard to not be perplexed when, so far, the most dastardly thing a city dweller's done is a snub with wedding invitations. Forgive me if I'm not reaching for my handgun, Wax.

The novel's mystery element, one of the main things differentiating it from Sanderson's other work, feels similarly shallow. Wax has a reputation for this kind of thing, and the scene with him furiously delving into the allomantic makeup of the enemy's aluminum is quite well done. But what we see of his actual deductions falls well short of that standard. Upon discovering a cigar box in their enemy's lair, Wayne says: This is just the sort of thing [Wax] likes. It'll probably lead him to some grand theory about how our boss smokes cigars, and that'll somehow let him pick the guy out of a crowd. (p. 181) From the cigar box to his smoking habits? Incredible detective work! It's only at the end that his probing reaches deeper, and we cut out right as the case pops open to reveal something far larger behind it and everything finally grows interesting.

Underscoring all of this is Sanderson's prose. It's not bad, but it's almost never good, the very essence of workman like throughout, each sentence conveying what information it needs to before departing without leaving much of an impression. That is, slightly, relieved by Sanderson's use of in-world slang like "true as titanium" (p. 175) or dismissing someone as a "bad alloy," (p. 79) something many fantasy authors try but few succeed at (though, of course, there is the occasional misstep here, like the curse Harmony's forearms! (p. 77)). An always controversial aspect of Sanderson's writing's been his humor and wit, which is thankfully both toned down and more effective here than it was in The Way of Kings. At one point, Waxillium remarks on another character's speed in reaching conclusions that took him all night to grasp. When she responds: "I had some modest help from you," he says that: "It might be said that I had modest help from myself, technically." (p. 137)

The Alloy of Law is a fast paced, fun book with some cool ideas and some well done fight scenes. But it's also a light book that falls far short of exemplary. Sanderson had some very cool ideas going in, but almost none of them reach their potential, or even fall anywhere near it. The world building's far sketchier than it is in any of the author's other works, and even the pure action/adventure elements are more ho hum than particularly great. This isn't a bad way to spend a weekend, but it's hardly the genre-defining event its profile would suggest, and one can only hope that Sanderson delivers better in the second trilogy proper or in the later volumes of The Stormlight Archive.

Sunday, February 5, 2012


The Hat Rack got its thirty thousandth visitor earlier today. Of course, it took about two years to get there, and 30,000's certainly not the be all and end all of blog numbers. Then again, those bloggers far exceeding the stat generally have the brevity (sanity?) to keep their average post below a healthy two thousand or so words and the focus of their top page more rational than, at a brief glance, a mixture of Japanese surrealism, Science Fiction, Joss Whedon's various television shows, and atheism. Guess they're just not having as much crazy, excessive fun.

Anyway, thanks for clicking through, ye many thousands, and I hope it was worth your while.

Here's to another thirty thousand?