Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Poppy Z. Brite - Liquor

Poppy Z. Brite spent the nineties writing raw, character driven horror like Drawing Blood and The Lazarus Heart before, in two thousand, jumping genres with Liquor, swapping blood and pain for food and New Orleans. But the book is still about people, and the people have always been Brite's strength. Though it never reaches the emotional power of Drawing Blood, Liquor does similarly meander through a lax plot with some great friends along the way.

Ricky and G-man are great cooks condemned to bounce between kitchens, fired and abused by dumb rulers and dumber bosses. Rickey, the ambitious part of their pair, wants them to strike out on their own. He has an idea, too. In this drink-crazed city, what could draw more people than a restaurant based entirely around liquor? But having the idea's not enough if you don't have the cash to bring it off. They get their break when they meet Lenny Duveteaux, a rich and trendy restaurateur who thinks they are onto something. With his backing, they just might be able to bring Liquor to life.

The strange thing about this restaurant plot is how little tension there is; the book gets just about all of its melodrama from its sideplots (which we'll get to before long). I don't mean to say, however, that the creation of Liquor is boring. Watching Rickey and G-man establish Liquor is like hearing two close friends tell you about their own struggle for their dreams. You care, not because the stakes are so high or the path so twisted, but because you care about the people, and their small problems therefore become fascinating. There's never really any doubt in the reader's mind that Liquor's going to happen, and it's true that a few characters – Lenny in particular – are nicer and more helpful than is strictly probable. But it all feels real, and it all does work.

Rickey and G-man are never subjected to the extreme horrors that Zach and Trevor are in Drawing Blood, and so Brite never quite drags their souls onto the page, kicking and screaming and stained red with blood, as she does there. The characterization here is quieter, less made up of reactions to trauma and love than it is by reactions and quirks, like how, on their first night cooking together after a miserable patch of unemployment: "We're getting killed!" said G-man happily. They weren't really, but he found that he had missed being able to say it (p. 82). All of this is effective and gives the feeling of there being a real human being underneath, but we don't get under their skin. Still, this is only the first of many novels featuring them, so Brite has time yet to force me down into their psyche.

Where prior Brite novels had blood and blows, Liquor has food. At first glance, a frying pan doesn’t seem as powerful a way to plumb emotional depths as a knife, but Brite proves himself an excellent food writer before long. Cooking is tied deeply into the character's lives, often occurs at the novel's points of highest tension, and the descriptions not only prove that Brite knows what he's talking about but that he knows how to spell out a mouth watering meal. His prose is relatively restrained for most of the novel, but meals are the lavish exception to that. Sometimes the description is in the narrative, but other times it falls to dialogue, with Rickey and G-man raving together in a synthesis of character and food writing, as they do after a particularly stunning dinner at the Commander's Palace:

G-man came in and began to undress. "That drum was so moist," he said. The potatoes were golden, but the fish wasn't dry at all."

"Yeah, I was just thinking about that."

"It's the potato crust. The water in the potatoes crisps them and steams the fish at the same time. Real simple, but smart."

"You'd want to have your heat nice and high in a real heavy pan."

"Was that a caper beurre blanc, or were the capers just scattered over it?"

"Just scattered over it. But they were, like, toasted or something."

"Toasted capers,"  mused G-man, sitting naked on the edge of the bed. "They do some wild shit."

"They really do. It's traditional, but it's also wild as hell. I'd love to do stuff like that."

"Looks like you're gonna get your chance." (p. 111)

Despite the laid back nature of its main plot, Liquor is a book with thrills. Alas, they are all shoehorned in and are by far the novel's least convincing aspects, often giving the feeling that Brite didn't quite believe he could pull off a gripping novel without blood and so stapled a psychopath or two to its plot. Rickey's former boss, Mike Mouton, believes Rickey and the world to be conspiring against him. This is kicked into high gear when Rickey and G-man purchase the property for Liquor. Decades back, see, that building held another restaurant; in it, Mike's uncle was gunned down by the mob in what became known as the Red Gravy Murder. If all of that strikes you as wildly implausible, rest assured: it comes off no better in the book. For all their meticulous research, neither Ricky, nor G-man, nor Lenny and his entire organization ever thought to do so much as a cursory google search about the place, and knowledge about the murder seems to shift at random between common and nonexistent. The final showdown, in which Mike barges into Liquor with a gun and takes Rickey hostage, is not so much poorly executed as it is irrelevant. It feels like an epilogue to the book's true emotional climax, the well done opening night of Liquor in which Rickey and G-man cook their dreams into reality.

The novel's blood and guts silliness doesn't end there. Throughout, there is tension between taking Lenny's money and keeping control. In several places, this manifests well as a struggle between practicality and artistic integrity. Then a citizen, paid off by the dastardly Mike, lodges a complaint against their getting a liquor license. In response, Lenny sends goons to his house. They prepare to rough him up. Before they get a chance, he dies. This murder begins on page two hundred and forty-four of a three hundred and thirty-nine page novel. Until page two hundred and forty-four, the book, besides one event twenty years ago and a psychopath mumbling in a corner, consists of chefs making cool food. Throwing a murder into that, one perpetuated by an otherwise sane character and one that doesn't even become a particularly crucial plot point, is a tonal shift analogous to a How I Met Your Mother episode featuring a Lovecraftian subplot. When Mike first wonders if Rickey and G-man might have had the complainer killed, we are told: In some hazy part of his mind, Mike knew he was crossing the boundaries of real paranoia (p. 267). That's perfectly accurate; Mike's taking a swan dive from sanity at the time. But so has the rest of the narrative.

Liquor doesn't quite hit the emotional highs of some of Brite's previous work, though it is, oddly enough, closest to her normal standards when sticking far from her usual territory of madness and pain. Still, the story of Rickey and G-man is compelling and the food delicious. I shall be returning for seconds of the duo before too long with the next novel in the sequel.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

William Hope Hodgson - Carnacki the Ghost Finder

Following only a few years after Algernon Blackwood's John Silence, William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki is one of the earliest occult investigators. The first collection of Carnacki stories hit in 1913; by the 1948 Arkham House edition, which added three tales unpublished in Hodgson's lifetime, the set as we know it today was complete. Hodgson's command of atmosphere is immense, here, but that atmosphere rarely survives to the story's end.

The collection's first triumph comes from how each of the stories build on one another. Carnacki's character, admittedly, is rather stock; we see little of his personality or life outside of his investigations. His circle of friends and manner of telling, however, does bring a human element to the stories. Each begins with his four closest friends coming to his home, eating a meal with him, and then sitting down expectantly to hear of his most recent case. Before long, the reader feels like they, too, are sitting in an armchair before Carnacki as the fellow smokes and begins his yarn. This feel is enhanced by Carnacki's frequent mentions of and questions to his listeners, such as his asking them: Can you picture it all? (p. 185)

The successive cases aid the supernatural as well. Carnacki never develops a complete mythos, but multiple elements carry over from tale to tale and begin to sketch his world. References to the Sigsand Manuscript, the Saaamaaa ritual, and hints as to the means and nature of the impossibilities Carnacki imagines come together to form a cohesive mystery that is more pernicious than disconnected hints could be. Backing up the idea of a growing understanding of the void, Carnacki frequently recalls prior cases as he speaks and draws comparisons, and he sometimes references his listeners to imagined lectures and books for more information on a particular occult topic.

When it comes to the occult, Carnacki is not some overconfident fool. He knows that: We are but speculating on the coasts of a strange country of mystery (p. 270). Always, his inquiries into the unknown are rational and methodical. He has much of the private investigator in him, but he is also a man of science. He neither unthinkingly accepts all he hears nor dogmatically dismisses it. As he says, he never allows himself to be blinded by a little cheap laughter. (p. 168). He is an unprejudiced sceptic (p. 138), and he continues to ask questions, and keep [his] eyes open (p. 168). In some, Carnacki finds the genuinely supernatural; in others, he does not. For all the problems this raises (which I'll get to shortly), it does give credit to Carnacki's position.

Hodgson's evocation of the occult is superb and is effective precisely because of its obliqueness. Little direct, physical action is taken by supernatural forces, let alone violent action. When such things are done, they come as rich climaxes, abrupt releases of the atmosphere's tension. Hodgson creates his moods through the subtle manipulation of the senses and through Carnacki's meticulous work at assembling every unearthly clue.

Often, Hodgson's tool is sound. After pitching his scenes into utter darkness, Hodgson leaves his investigator with nothing to go on but his ears, and then he fills the room with noises, each of which is not only a creepy bang in the night but is rife with significance to the man willing to think it through. In "The House Among the Laurels," Carnacki realizes that the sounds he hears are the breakings of the seals he placed on the mansion's doors; without a single visual, Hodgson impresses upon us the slow ghosting open of each of the doors and the implications thereof. "The Horse of the Invisible," meanwhile, has the horse's oncoming gallop be the knell of onrushing disaster. In "The Whistling Room," Hodgson goes farther still, and the room's infernal noises actually reach a climactic pitch, a succession of sounds with a certain, horrible personal note in it; as if there in the darkness you could picture the room rocking and creaking in a mad, vile glee to its own filthy piping and whistling and honing; and yet all the time aware of you in particular (p. 196).

When working with sight, Hodgson still does not rely simply on lurid imagery but rather bends and toys with light and vision itself. In "The Haunted Jarvee" it is unnatural shadows that first spell doom, but it is "The Searcher of the End House" that truly excels in this regard. It is here that light shifts before us, changing the very fundamentals of our perception into something unearthly. I give you (part of) the first paragraph in which Carnacki and those he's with glimpse the apparition:

In the very instant that I made this movement [towards my lantern], the night which filled the passage seemed to become suddenly of a dull violet colour; not, mind you, as if a light had been shown; but as if the natural blackness of the night had changed colour, as I might say from the inside. Do you understand what I am trying to tell you? And then, coming through this violet night, through this violet-coloured gloom, came a little naked child, running. In an extraordinary way, the child seemed not to be distinct from the surrounding gloom; but almost as if it were a concentration of that extraordinary atmosphere; almost – can you understand? – as if that gloomy colour which had changed the night,, came from the child (pp. 215-6).

Against even the excellence of all the stories listed, "The Hog" still likely stands out. Of all the stories here, it is by far the most cosmic in its Horror and its implications. The infernal, dream-haunting Swine-things within it hearken clearly back to those in Hodgson's The House on the Borderland, and this tale seems to give some of the grand backdrop against which that epic plays out – and, in the process, actually might have increased my appreciation for each work. In the short, Carnacki's investigation into a man plagued by awful dreams brings him into contact with that which in ye earlier life upon the world […] [had] power, and shall again in ye end (p. 300). "The Hog" is the longest of the Carnacki stories by a good bit, but I tore through it like a man possessed and rushing to reach the closing doors of sanity. The approach of the frightful Hog is excellently done, with one particularly powerful bit of imagery coming as the Hog rises up through Carnacki's defenses:

I saw through the slow whirl of the cloud curtains that the violet circle had begun to leave the floor. It was being taken up on the spread of the vast snout. […] Straining my eyes to see through the swaying funnel of clouds I saw that the violet circle had melted and was running down the pale sides of the snout in streams of violet-coloured fire (pp. 304-5).

Still, as in The House on the Borderland, Hodgson does not accompany his broadening in metaphysical scale with a broadening in morality. Those stories in Carnacki the Ghost-Finder that veer into cosmic forces do so in a fashion that is still black and white, or at least gray and white. For, you see, in addition to the Monstrous Ones (p. 300) that reside in the Outer Circle (p. 313), Hodgson also has an even more powerful Protective Force (p. 301) in his universe. The grand beasties exist in a rather amoral but horrific predatory fashion. As Hodgson describes it: They have desires regarding us which are incredibly more dreadful to our minds when comprehended than an intelligent sheep would consider our desires towards its own carcass (p. 315). The Protective Force, however, has no stated naturalistic reason for its aid. So, for all that it expands our conception of the universe, Hodgson's fiction once again keeps the idea of a benevolent and (so far as can be discerned) all powerful watcher over us.

Therefore, while his effects are very similar to Lovecraft in many ways, his thematic intentions are anything but, which is my chief problem with views like those espoused in this article by Lee Weinstein. As Weinstein, observes, Hodgson succeeds admirably in attaching the emotion of fear to the vastness of the cosmos. But Lovecraft's fear did not simply come from the size of the cosmos but also from their composition; his yawning vistas were not frightening solely (or even primarily) for the creatures that occupied them but rather for their size, for the way they cast humanity into insignificance, and for their emptiness of purpose and benevolence. Of course, Hodgson cannot be called inferior to Lovecraft simply for having different thematic interests. This paragraph and the one preceding it are more pointed at those, in my view, misconstruing Hodgson's work than they are at Hodgson himself.

What does directly damage the stories here, however, are their endings. Just about all of them close with Carnacki dishing out the hitherto utterly unguessable facts. That, in and of itself, is fine. Many of them, however, then rationalize away their supernatural elements as mere hoaxes, a move so infuriatingly, atmosphere-destroyingly similar to a century-older Scooby Do that one can hear the culprit of the hour screaming "I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren't for you meddling paranormal investigators!"

 In this article, Ellery Queen (yes, THAT Ellery Queen) defends the endings, stating that:  These natural elucidations, frowned on by devotees of the weird, must be applauded by devotees of the detective story; they transform Carnacki from a mere dabbler into the unknown to a legitimate and authentic detective. I can't help but noting that Queen never gives a single literary reason for why these explanations are good besides that they make Carnacki more of a detective. As to that, fair enough, but I don't think many would say a story is always bettered by including a detective, no matter what. In these cases, that inclusion (going by Queen's definitions) harms the stories quite a bit.

My problem is not simply that the endings are not supernatural – I am more than capable, needless to say, of enjoying realistic mysteries and other kinds of literature – but that they fatally undermine the story before them. Revealing that blood descending from a ceiling is actually colored water is simply silly (the genius detective did not verify that the blood mist was made of, you know, blood?), and that is, to be honest, one of the better reveals. Many of the absurd revelations contained herein are frankly less plausible than the idea that a ghost did it.

Their absurdity cheapens the atmosphere. When the reader knows that the otherworldly terror they felt came from a man controlling an absurd number of doorways with a hook, or one somehow running down a crowded hallway and escaping gunfire while wearing a mask and pretending to be a ghost, the reader's main reaction is not only that the preceding story was not worth their dread but that the next one will almost certainly not be either, and that they had better not invest themselves too closely emotionally, lest they simply be cheated again. This, needless to say, damages every piece in the collection, not only the supposedly realistic ones.

The worst examples come when Hodgson includes both a hoax and a real haunting, having one more unexplainable, clearly supernatural incident follow the apprehending of the – now terrified – prankster. But, by that point, it's too late, and I'm not about to fall under the sway of another illusion, even if this one happens to be genuine. The result of trying to come back from a Rube Goldberg-style haunting with the genuine article is simply to reinforce the reader's disbelief with yet another impossibility.

Very few, though that is not to say none, of these stories ended without leaving me in a state of some annoyance, feeling like a truly great reading experience had been snatched away from me at the last moment. But to entirely dismiss thirteen pages of superb atmosphere and writing for the final three, as in the case of the unfortunately ended "The House Among the Laurels," feels simply churlish. Having finished my second work of Hodgson's, I find myself in a similar position as when I finished The House on the Borderlands: frustrated and more than a bit awed. Hodgson is a writer too powerful for those interested in the Weird to pass by, even if I have yet to find the work of his that I can read or recommend without severe reservations.

  1. All page numbers from The House on the Borderland and Other Mysterious Places, the second volume of the Night Shade Books Collected Fiction of William Hope Hodgson
  2. I would like to thank Sam Gafford for his work at http://williamhopehodgson.wordpress.com/, which is where I discovered both articles on Hodgson discussed in this review and also many fascinating others.]

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Sylvia Shults - Price of Admission

My review of Sylvia Shults' paranormal romance, Price of Admission, is now up at Innsmouth Free Press. I can't say I was a fan.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

"Hope Immortal" and "Solo"

I know what you are thinking. That Katz guy is a great writer, but where are the spaceships? Can he even call himself a Science Fiction fan? Well, I have good news for you, my SF-demanding (and totally not hypothetical) reader: the SF has arrived. The year’s end saw not only one but two of my Science Fiction tales hit the (e)shelves.

First up is my story “Hope Immortal” in Earthbound Fiction’s Dark Stars anthology. What's it about? Well, we start with dear Naryk waking up, alone, on a ship hurtling through space. And the air is running out. I'll give you the first small section as a little sampler:

Naryk woke and could not breathe. He was pressed against an unyielding barrier, 
and black spots danced against a darker backdrop in his eyes, like stars. He realized he 
was standing up, his hands crossed over his chest and his legs tight together.

There was a button, wasn’t there? Men in crumpled uniforms had told him, told 
all of them, about a button. 

What button?

There was no air. His fingers were intertwined, and he didn’t have the space to 
separate his hands. He was dying; he would die here in the dark, alone.
His hands were wrapped around the button, that’s where it was. A button for 
emergencies right beneath his intertwined fingers. 

He pushed it.

The glass slid away, and a hissing filled the air, a lone harbinger of sound almost 
unbearable after the silence that had come before. Naryk fell into a new world of light 
and pain.


I wrote "Hope Immortal" a long time ago, but I think that it's held up extremely well, and I hope that you do too. Of course, it's not the only piece in the anthology. For your three bucks, you also get tales by Samuel Mae, Deborah Walker, and a whole host of others.

Then there is the matter of "Solo," which is a quirky little piece that I quite like. Interstellar Fiction has it up to read, and for free, so there is really no conceivable or earthly reason to not pop over right now and devour every delectable sentence of the thing. It is, to give the briefest possible account I can, a Science Fiction reenactment of Lovecraft's themes that aims to both effectively execute them and to be downright silly and a great deal of fun throughout.


Wednesday, January 2, 2013

2012 in Review

I read 136 books in 2012. Not many of them, I must admit, were new releases. Those that were, I discuss in my part of this Strange Horizons yearly sum up article. Not so surprisingly for readers of this blog, my picks of the year (or at least of the limited slice of it I've so far gotten to) are: Caitlin R. Kiernan's The Drowning Girl: A Memoir, K.J. Parker's Sharps, and Felix J. Palma's The Map of the Sky.

As for the books I read in 2012 that were either a handful of years or more than a few centuries older, twelve in particular seemed worthy of note...

Beginning this list with a sixteenth century epic poem was not something I expected to be doing. Ariosto, however, writes with such sheer style that the poem’s age becomes irrelevant, that its gargantuan length becomes a blessing that simply promises more lines to love. The knights that we meet here are larger than life. They battle heroically, engage in fantastic (in every sense of the word) quests, and dish out truly stunning amounts of sass. (Many of these strengths are wonderfully brought out by David R. Slavitt’s translation… which also wanders away with barely a nod to the poem’s second half. Goal for the new year: figure out how it ends!)

The Company Man is a novel about lost causes. It has a noir hero navigating a steampunk world that is gradually subsumed by the cosmic. Its gaze is unflinching and far-reaching. And its marvels are manifold. I talk more about Bennett’s powerful novel here.

Like Lovecraft, Blackwood was a writer of Weird tales from the early part of the twentieth century that has now, decades later, received the hallowed status of a classic in the genre, even if he has never received Lovecraft’s wider acclaim. To view Blackwood as simply a contemporary of Lovecraft, however, is to do a great disservice to this venerable practitioner of the cosmic. Blackwood writes with insight and great skill of the shallowness of our world and perceptions, and, amidst his frequently naturalistic settings, he uses a mixture of the subtlest signs and the most powerful and building climaxes to ram home the majesty of what is beyond. I wrote about this particular collection of his at great length here.

Drawing Blood is the story of Zach and Trevor, and those two young men are some of the strongest and most alive characters I’ve ever encountered. Brite binds their every feeling inextricably with the readers', dragging us along as they live their bizarre lives. And, when they hurt, we feel every bit of their pain. I reviewed the novel here.

There has never been an evocation of shame like this. Nor has spite ever come forth like this from the written word. The Underground Man is a genius, and he is a hateful and loathsome beast, and his every utterance stabs deep. He begins: I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man (p.1). When reviewers and writers and instructors yammer on about having a voice, it is this that they are wishing for.

Goodis writes noir of the most downbeat, hard-hitting variety, and The Burglar shows him at its best. The novel has a gripping plot packed with turns, characters struggling with their all, and the world poised to take them down regardless. I talk about the novel, and others, at greater length in my review of the Goodis collection Five Noir Novels of the 1940sand 50s.

In her second Mathew Swift novel, Kate Griffin takes everything that worked about A Madness of Angels and improves it. This is a wildly creative book stuffed with gripping pyrotechnics, writing that forces you to see, and an apocalyptic villain that few can match. I reviewed it here.

Dune vividly demonstrates the heights that Science Fiction can reach. It has a truly epic plot, a world that is both consistent and wondrous, and interacts with the most profound philosophical ideas. The rise of Paul Atreides works on every level, an arc that is half messianic and half simply badass.

This may be one of Haruki Murakami’s early novels, but it is the one of his that has most stuck with me. Here, Murakami is wry, surreal, imaginative, and more than a little brilliant. I reviewed the novel at some length when I reread it at the beginning of this year, to which I will just add that, as it nears its climax, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World also boasts the best evocation of melancholy I’ve ever seen in fiction. Pressed to name a favorite novel, I would quite possibly go with this one.

More than a few moments in Lolita had me holding the book as far away from myself as I could as if trying to avoid contact with some hideous contagion or foul mess. This is a sickening read. It grabs you and shoves you up against the darkest corners of our collective morality. There is no way to not confront its issues when reading it. And there is the little fact that Nabokov’s prose is simply peerless:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta (p. 1).

To call Nabokov’s prose beauty amidst filth is to sell it horribly short. Alas, we would probably need Nabokov’s own skills to devise a suiting panegyric for it, so we shall have to be content with that.

The inclusion of The Lord of the Rings on a list like this probably isn’t so surprising, but I must admit that I actually was rather surprised when I reread the trilogy this year for the first time since my childhood. Tolkien’s work may have been picked at by generations of scavengers by this point, but it still possesses a strength that almost none of them have been able to match.

Each of the three stories in Wrong Things is packed with heart and, as the characters might have it, weird shit (p. 98). Despite the high standards of all, Kiernan’s “Onion” is still the clear winner. It’s the aftermath of a Weird Tale, a painful look at the human suffering left in the wake of the cosmic. I discuss it and the others at more length in my review.


The above, though, doesn’t say much about my reading for the year as a whole, being the cherry picked highlights of it. As for the rest, well, I’ve kept lists of all books read for a few years now, but this is the first time I’ve sorted them into (childishly simple) piles. The results rather amused me, and I figured they might amuse some longtime readers as well. Needless to say, books can be in more than one category, some were not in any category, and the whole tallying is a tad inexact:

Fantasy: 15 books read
Science Fiction: 27 books read
Horror: 19 books read
Crime: 7 books read
Literature: 31 books read
Nonfiction: 26 books read
History: 16 books read
Not (originally) in English: 27 books read
For class: 45 books read
By female authors: 24 books read

The spread of genres did not wholly surprise me. Ordinarily, I certainly don’t read primarily Science Fiction, but the Warhammer binge over the summer (thirteen books total, read almost straight) pushed it over the edge. Literature’s winning overall was not unexpected, as it not only had the greatest number of reads from classes but also got to suck in many of the non-genre reads that I had no idea what to do with, such as the aforementioned Orlando Furioso.

The other significant figure up there is the last number, that of books by female authors. Twenty-four out of one hundred and thirty-sex is not very impressive there. Actually calculating out the numbers rammed home how unbalanced my reading is, and I would like to swing the total back the other way a bit next year.