Sunday, October 31, 2010

Terror, A List of Those Few Special Scenes

I don’t think that horror is defined by fear. Atmosphere, yes, certainly, but there’s a difference between atmosphere and fear. For me, atmosphere is the creeping sensation that the story’s real, that it’s inescapable, that it’s all around you. It’s what makes you believe in everything the author says and swallow every loathsome idea whole and unexamined.

Pure terror, though, is something rarer. Anyone who loves to read is obviously changed to a greater or lesser degree by what they’re reading at the moment, but to have that change become the dominant portion of your existence, for words on a page to push the fight or flight reflex to such extremes that you’re ready to beg for your life, well, that takes talent. So no, I don’t think that terror is the point of horror, but I definitely do think that it’s evidence that the author’s doing something right.

This is a Halloween list of those few books that have managed to terrify me, that made me forgot all about it just being a book, that had me on the edge of my seat with one hand gripping a the armrest so hard that my knuckles were turning white, frantically wondering how I could flee the room before It got there. Most of these scenes are not the climaxes of their respective books. Sometimes, they’re almost a throwaway. Yet, without exception, they all scared the shit out of me. So let’s take a look.

Before do, though, a warning: the following has spoilers for all books discussed.

To some degree, I think we all fear being helpless, and I’m damn positive that Evenson was thinking of that when he wrote one of the opening scenes in the second novella of Last Days. Kline is grievously wounded and under guard at a hospital. It starts: “Mr. Kline,” said the voice. “We’re coming for you.” And then the line went dead. (p. 113) There is nowhere for Kline to go, no way for him to get there.

He wakes up as his guard is killed, and then the assassin is standing over his bed. What follows is a game of wits, with one player feigning sleep the entire time, the whole struggle between them one of stealth, with near certain death hanging over every action. Unpredictability is the name of the game, and careful plans are devised, enacted, and abandoned, all without the other party ever knowing about their conception:

Inverting the syringe, she tapped the air out.

Now, he thought, tensing slightly, she will bring the needle close so as to inject it into my arm. When she does, I’ll plunge the mirror’s stylus into her eye and will kill her did.

Only it didn’t work quite the way he imagined. Instead of coming close and injecting it into his arm, she simply injected it into his IV bag.
(p. 116)

Gripping, original, and paralyzing in its strength; this is how you write a horror scene, as far as I’m concerned.

In my review I said that the hypnosis scenes were horrifying, but it’s hard to really understand just how much of a betrayal it is to watch your own vicariously inhabited and completely trusted body go insane, to watch it betray everything it holds dear:

Stop her, said the only voice left in the world, and as she lunged past him, Judge saw himself catch her hair in one first and snap her head back. She was wretched off her feet. Judge pivoted and threw her down. The furniture jumped when she hit the floor. A stack of CDs on an end table slid off and crashed ot the floor without a sound. Jude’s foot found her stomach, a good hard kick, and she jerked herself into a fetal position. The moment after he’d done it, he didn’t know why he’d done it.

There you go, said the dead man.
(p. 114)

Powerful and painful, Hill’s writing leaves you feeling complicit in an act that never happened.

I first read 'Salem's Lot quite a few years ago, on a Sierra Club hiking trip with my family. We’d just gotten back from some six mile uphill monstrosity, and I sat down in the lodge to read. I opened my book, and the two boys within decided they were going to walk through the woods to get to their friends house. As they walked, the woods creaked secretively around them (p. 115), and I started to get a little on edge. A branch snapped somewhere behind them, almost stealthily. (p. 115) Alright, more than a litte. Another branch snapped off to their left. (p. 115) A lot more than a little. Another branch snapped. Well, wait, calm down, Nat, they’re just kids. Nothing bad’s going to happen to the kids, right? Not quite right, as it turns out:

“In just a minute we’ll see the streetlights and feel stupid but it will be good to feel stupid so cunt steps. One…two…three…”

Ralphie shrieked.

“I see it! I see the ghost! I SEE IT!”
(p. 116)

I skipped the next day’s hike, in case you were wondering.

But why was the scene so scary? I’m not sure. On reread a few weeks ago, it was still powerful, but nowhere near as horrifying. I think that the excellence was in large part derived from my situation – being a kid of roughly comparable age to the protagonists, in the woods – but the scene is still perfectly developed. The reader, of course, knows that there’s evil afoot well before it takes place and sympathies far more with Ralphie’s whining than his older brother’s rationalism, but the way the atmosphere gradually builds as branches snap, the way that (even at the end) the older boy is convinced they’re at least being hunted by a human foe, the way the scene climaxes in disorientation and uncertainty, it’s all great writing and Stephen King at his chilling best.

This is the first book that I read that scared me, actually. I’d read Cell before hand, and Needful Things, but both were more entertaining than upsetting. This one, on the other hand, dripped atmosphere. We’re a third of the way through, here, and Danny’s investigating Room 217. He goes into the bathroom, and sees the expected corpse in the tub. Well, duh. It’s a horror novel, after all. The woman was sitting up. (p. 326) Oh shit, that wasn’t supposed to happen. Danny runs, reaches the door, but The door would not open, would not, would not, would not. (p. 328) Shit. Double shit. But it’s okay, because Danny figures out how to get clear, so it’s all gonna be fine:

His eyelids snapped down. His hands curled into balls. His shoulders hunched with the effort of his concentration:

(Nothing there nothing there not there at all NOTHING THERE THERE IS NOTHING!)

Time passed. And he was just beginning to relax, just beginning to realize that the door must be unlocked and he could go, when the years-damp, bloated, fish-smelling hands closed softly around his throat and he was turned implacably around to stare into that dead and purple face.
(p. 328)

No. God damn it, no! That wasn’t supposed to happen. These things just aren’t supposed to. The kid doesn’t get taken by the monster. He was okay, god damn it, O fucking kay! For about thirty seconds, I was determined to never read another word of The Shining. Then I decided that, if I did that, I would never know what had happened, and that would be far, far worse. So I finished and loved the book. But that scene scared me a hair’s breadth short of badly enough to make me give up on horror, and it did much the same thing on reread.

I think the reasons it’s so effective are fairly obvious, here. The investigation of the disturbance is something that we all know, and we play along with King for a bit when he first shows us the monster. Nice description, cool special effects, etc. Then it sits up, and the stakes raise a bit, but it’s okay, because Danny’s running to the door.

This is where the scene goes from entertaining to brilliant. See, here, horror comes from hope. Danny’s going to be okay, if he can just get to that door, except that it won’t open. Alright, fine, we expect the first attempt to fail, but there is a way out, there certainly is because Danny’s found it. And then King snatches that hope away, and it’s far more painful to have your chances dashed before your eyes than it is to have never had a chance.

The Ash Tree builds up its story of witchcraft and vengeance in an engaging but not revolutionary manner. Your average horror reader will no doubt be able to guess that when the rest of the party wishes Sir Richard a better night, his odds aren’t too great. Things happen exactly as you’d expect. What you probably won’t expect, though, is the friendly, inviting way in which the tragedy is told, the amiability of the words multiplying their effect tenfold:

And now we are in his bedroom, with the light out and the Squire in bed. The room is over the kitchen, and the night outside still and warm, so the window stands open.

There is very little light about the bedstead, but there is a strange movement there; it seems as if Sir Richard were moving his head rapidly to and fro with only the slightest possible sound. And now you would guess, so deceptive is the half-darkness, that he had several heads, round and brownish, which move back and forward, even as low as his chest. It is a horrible illusion. Is it nothing more? There! something drops off the bed with a soft plump, like a kitten, and is out the window in a flash; another – four – and after that there is quiet again.

“Thou shalt seek me in the morning, and I shall not be.”

As with Sir Mathew, so with Sir Richard – dead and black in his bed!
(p. 48)

The simple, unadorned language, the easy candor of the words, all of it lures you in to the easy confessions of a friend. Instead, you’re treated to the writhing monstrosities that cover a sleeping, a dying, man’s form.

Lovecraft is unmatched when it comes to atmosphere. A Shadow Over Innsmouth builds up a rich tapestry of history and weaves a palpable feeling of unease. Still, Lovecraft stories are more cerebral than visceral, the ultimate horror more philosophical than emotional. Or, at least, that’s true of every story besides A Shadow Over Innsmouth. Because, see, while I was getting drawn further and further in by the view from the window, something was coming up the stairs:

I was irresolutely speculating on when I had better attack the northward door, and on how I could least audibly manage it, when I noticed that the vague noises underfoot had given place to a fresh and heavier creaking of the stairs. A wavering flicker of light shewed through my transom, and the boards of the corridor began to groan with a ponderous load. Muffled sounds of possible vocal origin approached, and at length a firm knock came on my door. (p. 842)

That knock broke all the rules. Lovecraft stories were about approaching elder gods, about learning horrible truths, about realizing that some cosmic force was about to crush your world without ever really knowing it was there. A Shadow Over Innsmouth, though, climaxes with a chase scene. All of a sudden, the cosmic force was right fucking behind you, and you were running for your life. The descriptive language that drew you so far into the story is suffocating, trapping the character in a world of sludgy details.

I read this story in a sitting at an airport, and I didn’t look up once until I was done. If I’d gotten there a few minutes later, I would’ve missed my plane without noticing until I’d turned the last page. As it was, I was practically shaking when I took my seat.

Sandkings is the story of a horrible thing happening to a horrible person. No big deal, right? Sucks for him, we laugh, move on, etc. Well, not quite. Because this bad thing is an army of sandkings all over every inch of his house. And those things are freaking terrifying, no matter who they’re directed at. It’s impossible to appreciate how much of a crescendo this tale builds to without reading it. The sandkings are everywhere and unstoppable, and the specialists called in to defeat them are slaughtered. The main character runs and…well, the twist in the final sentences is just yet another break breakingly awful thing about this story. Unfortunately, no quotes here, as I’ve been meaning to reread Sandkings for a while now, and I don’t want to dilute the effect by rustling through it a few days beforehand.

Banquet for the Damned’s opening is filled with little dream sequences. To crib my own review:

Throughout the first quarter of the narrative, we find ourselves inside character after character’s heads. They are not in their beds. They do not know how they got where they are. They have been suffering increasingly disturbing nightmares for days on end. Within a few pages, they will be dead. The inevitability of these sections is horrifying, and I found myself reading as fast as I could, sometimes having to force myself to not skip whole paragraphs, because growing acquainted with these pre-damned characters, understanding their thoughts and what makes them tick, was simply too painful. And, since this is horror, I mean that in the best possible way.

Horror can come from hope and from hopelessness, and this was definitely the latter. Disorientation begins the scenes and death ends them, the same every time, and you’re left watching as yet another sleepwalker is ripped to shreds. It’s a night empty of cloud and as still as space (p. 1), and the reader’s all too aware that it will end with death.

So, readers, what're your special scenes?

Reading in October

Generally a good month, starting some interesting series and wrapping up some others, as well as quite a few collections and stand alones. No Breaking New Ground books this time around, but I haven't abandoned those and will fit in some more next month.

Daniel Abraham is fast becoming, in my opinion, the ultimate unsung hero of epic fantasy. Tor never published a paperback version of The Price of Spring, and yet The Long Price was a series almost unmatched for its decisive pacing and marvelous, evolving characterization. Leviathan Wept, a collection of Abraham’s short fiction, lives up to the lofty expectations any reader of his previous work no doubt has. Review coming.

Close this tab. I’ve heard that Barker – close this tab – is a master of horror for years, and this (closethistab) is the first work of his that I’ve read. I’m closethistab more confused than awed, though. As far as I can tell shutoffyourbrowser this is a fairly standard, meandering and unexciting novel, albeit occasionally an amusing one, that’s rendered almost unbearable by the book’s nonstop begging (don’t read the rest) for you to put it down, putting you in the mood to do nothing so much as throw the book at the wall and yell (one last chance, close this tab): Alright, Mr. Barker, I think I will!

Jonathon Strange & Mr Norrell is a beautifully written novel. It’s more than a little meander happy, but excellent nonetheless. This is one of the very rare books that I can seriously call delightful every time I open it up. Not perfect, no, but dazzling enough to make up for that.

The Passage, at least in terms of marketing, seems like this year’s big novel. I did enjoy it, but I didn’t love it. Review coming.

My first Sherlock Holmes story is a success. Despite some pacing problems, I’m already looking forward to reading more of Doyle’s stories. Review coming.

The Halfmade World ran roughshod over my expectations. I was expecting good, very good even, and it delivered great. Comparing The Halfmade World to Thunderer is like comparing night and day. And that’s coming from someone who really liked Thunderer. Review coming.

I really, really love some aspects of Hamilton’s writing. And I really, really hate some other aspects. Judas Unchained seems to have magnified just about every good and bad tendency of its creators, and my opinion is mixed, though I did enjoy the read. Review of it and Pandora’s Star coming.

I always find M.R. James’s writing to be engrossing, but the reason isn’t the scare factor. There is something about James’s style, part formal antique and part colloquial, that makes me feel like the man is sitting across from me, telling me his experiences first hand. That isn’t, by the way, to suggest that these stories are tame. There are a few that the reader desensitized by the loudness and often excessiveness of modern horror will, sadly, find a bit hard to feel the horror of (I think the modern standard is for the doll’s to brutally murder at least three people; wood replaying old tragedies in the night simply isn’t bloody enough), but there are no weak stories here…

Except for the first tale in the collection, The Residence at Whitminister, which, for some reason, I found almost impenetrable. I’m not sure if this is a result of James’s writing or simply me being unused to his style after a long hiatus, but a reread did not solve the problem, and I’m left with a collection of out of order facts and occurrences without the slightest emotional thread to tie them together.

Newton’s debut is ambitious, well written, and not without the occasional flaw. Review here.

I loved The Folding Knife, and I went into The Engineer Trilogy with very, very high expectations. Devices and Desires is very good, and has quite a few very interesting elements, but it also has a few aspects that I’m more hesitant upon. All the same, I’m looking forward to starting Evil for Evil in a few days. Review coming when I finish the trilogy.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Stephen King - 'Salem's Lot

Being in the town is a daily act of utter intercourse, so complete that it makes what you and your wife do in the squeaky bed look like a handshake. Being in the town is prosaic, sensuous, alcoholic. And in the dark, the town is yours and you are the town’s, and together you sleep like the dead, like the very stones in your north field. There is no life here but the slow death of days, and so when the evil falls on the town, its coming seems almost preordained, sweet and morphic. It is almost as though the town knows the evil was coming and the shape it would take. (p. 315)

Published in 1975, 631 pages long, King’s second novel, ‘Salem’s Lot, is often considered the best vampire novel ever written, as the back so proudly states. Does it live up to its reputation as one of King’s best novels? Yes, though not quite on the level of his very finest works.

Stephen King debuted with Carrie. Carrie showed King’s strengths at both characterization and horror, as the guilt of Sue Snell and Margaret White rose in tandem. What the book did not show was King’s skills at working with people as a group, with manipulating and personifying an entire social set at once. Besides the principle characters, the cast of Carrie was fairly shallow and underdeveloped. (That’s not to say that Carrie is a bad book, mind you, merely a different book.)

‘Salem’s Lot, by contrast, is the first time that King unleashes his full powers on a large scale. The town of Jerusalem’s Lot is, in many ways, the center of the story. King builds up the people of the town, the town’s backstory and idiosyncrasies, and the relationships that define it. King’s characters are a varied bunch, most of them being pushed to the edges of their lifestyles and personalities. ‘Salme’s Lot is a town of myriad small evils, from adultery to abuse to things darker still. Each of those binds the town closer together rather than damaging it. The Lot is home to an inbred web of ties that, while occasionally dark, make it what it is. It’s a place of comforts and gossips, competent preachers and small scale alcoholics, happy couples and betraying spouses.

King establishes the main characters with care, Ben Mears and Susie Norton each growing and changing over the course of the book. Around them, he gives the Lot life. People seen in the periphery of the main story are given chapters or scenes of their own, exposing their changes and stagnations to the world. These glimpses are generally brief, but they’re both memorable due to the vividness of what’s described and because of their proximity to what’s already been created. The characterization of the Lot soon starts to snowball, with each shred of information shedding light on a dozen other lives.

In the same way that he brings a character’s quirks to light through their everyday qualities, King’s prose uses down to earth diction and comparisons to the most basic of terms to illuminate his world. It’s a style so mundane as to be almost simplistic, and yet it feels anything but, taking familiar images and morphing them into new forms, taking your routines and twisting them into unfamiliar and discomforting shapes:

The fellow in question had driven up to Crockett’s office on a shimmering July afternoon just over a year ago. He got out of the car and stood on the sidewalk for a moment before coming inside, a tall man dressed in a sober three-piece suit in spite of the day’s heat. He was as bald as a cueball and as sweatless as same. His eyebrows were a straight black slash, and the eye sockets shelved away below them to dark holes that might have been carved into the angular surface of his face with drill bits. (p. 89)

Central to the Lot is the feeling that it is, despite being one of many small towns in Maine, all there is. People commute to and from it, yes, but in relatively small numbers, but they soon either assimilate to the general culture or remain forever outside, looking in. Every change in the Lot is a major one, every new arrival a potential crisis. We see the interaction between Ben and the town in great detail. He adapts to it as it adapts, ever so slightly, to him, and he makes his own path through its customs. And then something, in the form of two more arrivals, comes along to shatter the Lot as it is.

The arrival of the vampire and his assistant, Barlow and Straker, destroys the town’s equilibrium. The disturbances are first subtle and all the more terrifying because of it. The even vaguely astute reader will connect the two sinister newcomers with the vampire threat advocated on the book’s back, but the change wrought by their coming spreads with almost agonizing slowness. It starts with a moment of quickly building and climaxing tension, but then relents for a time, content to spread slowly and let the town grieve and the reader simmer.

When events finally kick into motion – and King is in anything but a hurry to reach that point – what makes them so horrific is the speed with which they happen. Like a plague, vampirism spreads through the town in an instant, a wildfire that sweeps over whole streets in a matter of scant seconds. The reader and characters are left vainly trying to understand the opening salvos long into the endgame, the hero’s actions seeming laughably trite in the light of what they face.

The dissolution and destruction of the carefully crafted ties that King spent the whole novel making is what makes ‘Salem’s Lot such an engrossing work. Relationships are torn apart and character after character isolated, rendering the book’s middle section a constant quagmire of change. And then, in the end, everything settles again into a configuration disturbingly reminiscent of the town’s isolated spirit in the beginning.

‘Salem’s Lot is the first novel of King’s golden age – where he seemed able to master theme, atmosphere and plot with the ease that most of us can only muster when it comes to the most rote of tasks – but it is still not King at his peak, and the work is marked with the occasional tinges of amateurism.

When, a quarter of the way through the book, workers are hired to move a suspicious looking package into the basement of the vampire’s house, the scene’s mood is subtly and powerfully built up. All of that is mangled, however, when the movers see a shirt in the villain’s house. Leaving the victim’s belongings in plain sight when you’ve just invited innocents to come in and take a look? Sorry, but no, that’s behavior as laughable for eon old vampires as it is for genius serial killers and preschoolers alike.

The more serious issue facing ‘Salem’s Lot, preventing it from going to a very good work to a great one, is that the evil is not a human evil. In his great works, such as The Shining, King used tragedy, both natural and supernatural, to evolve and transform his character’s relationships. In ‘Salem’s Lot, on the other hand, the great evil signifies an end to the subtleties that the rest of the book is built from, a simplification from the multifaceted world of the Lot to the good and evil domain of monster and monster hunter, stalker and victim.

Father Callahan describes the world in terms of big and small evils. The first portion of ‘Salem’s Lot is filled with small and big evils both, contrasting against each other to build a nuanced picture of the world. As the tale progresses, however, all of those intricacies are ironed out. The abuser and the abused both become vampires side by side, the cheater and the cheated upon united once the final bite’s sunken in. Using the title of Evil, King is able to shirk away from ever really defining his villains, leaving the vampires and Marstens of his world comparatively shallow and almost generic at times.

Coming along with Father Callahan is King’s treatment of religion in ‘Salem’s Lot. In most of his works, King is highly critical of the church, but ‘Salem’s Lot sees a more complimentary side of the man, where, though the father certainly has problems, Callahan can be a good man as a result of his beliefs and convictions. Still, this viewpoint is not developed. In the same way that we never get a real understanding of the forces of darkness, we’re never really sure why crosses are successful at repelling vampire. Some characters are made into avengers by their faith, then crippled by the loss of it, while others scrape by without being so much as a practicing Christian and yet receive almost the same benefits.

But none of those are real problems. No, ‘Salem’s Lot is not quite a masterpiece; King wouldn’t reach those heights for another year still. It is, however, an exemplary horror story. ‘Salem’s Lot is still a giant of the field and an essential read for anyone interested in reading King or modern horror in general.

And the vampires don’t sparkle.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Birthday Books

My birthday was the sunday before last, the 17th, and I got, unsurprisingly, books. A lot of books. A lot of books. Which made me very happy. I've been trying to get my hands on a digital camera to photograph the pile and put the pic up here, but that seems to be harder than I thought, as I don't own said camera, so I've pretty much given up on the idea. Still, I feel like posting a rather narcissistic list, so here goes:

Daniel Abraham - Leviathan Wept
Iain M. Banks - Surface Detail
Iain M. Banks - Against a Dark Background
Ray Bradbury - Something Wicked This Way Comes
Justin Cronin - The Passage
Arthur Conan Doyle - The Annotated Sherlock Holmes
Felix Gilman - Gears of the City
Felix Gilman - The Half-Made World
Joe Hill - Horns
Thomas Ligotti - Noctuary
George RR Martin - Sandkings
George RR Martin - A Song for Lya
Cormac McCarthy - All the Pretty Horses
Frank Miller - Batman: Year One
Alan Moore - V for Vendetta
K.J. Parker - Devices and Desires
K.J. Parker - Evil for Evil
K.J. Parker - The Escapement
K.J. Parker - Purple and Black
Steph Swainston - No Present Like Time
Brian K. Vaughn - Y: Cycles
Dan Wells - Mr. Monster
Willingham - Fables: Legends in Exiles

Almost all bought used, but generally in quite decent condition. I think I've got some good reading coming up...

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Ritual and The Crippled God [Cover Art]

I don't want The Hat Rack to become a vapid place filled with the newest images and jack shit in the way of commentary, and I'm aware that this double feature will bring the month's cover total up to four, so I've failed at that. I'll try and cut down, I promise, but, until then, we've got two new glimpses to drool at, starting with Nevill's third book. In my interview with him, he said that he thought the cover was: possibly the best cover I have ever seen on a horror novel. The Result?

Holy shit, he wasn't kidding. In fact, I'm going to go so far as to say it's the best cover that's been featured so far on the Rack (the limited time frame and generally random choices of what gets featured be damned). If the atmosphere in the book is as chilling as that oozing out of that painting, this'll be a great novel. And, judging by Nevill's past two works, the odds look to be in his favor. There's a teaser of this up here, for those interested. Blurb's as follows:

When four old university friends set off into the Scandinavian wilderness of the Arctic Circle, they aim to briefly escape the problems of their lives and reconnect with one another. But Luke – still single and living a precarious existence – cannot identify with his companions any more. Lost, hungry, and surrounded by forest untouched for millennia, Luke figures things couldn’t possibly get any worse.

But then they stumble across an old habitation. Ancient artefacts decorate the walls; bones are scattered upon the dry floors. The residue of old rites and pagan sacrifice for something that still exists in the forest. Something responsible for the bestial presence that follows their every step. Death doesn’t come easy among these ancient trees . . .

Finally, there's this short story that just went up. Check it out, it's a very short and quite enjoyable read.

Up next is the concluding novel in the Malazan Book of the Fallen, The Crippled God:

Alright, it's not quite breaking news anymore, but still. It's a very epic cover, albeit perhaps a bit silly in just how epic it is. I think I might be the only one who enjoyed the cheesy as hell US covers (well, with quite a few exceptions - Gardens of the Moon, Memories of Ice, Midnight Tides, and The Bonehunters were awful. Alright, so that's most of them.), but these seem to be fitting.

And now I promise I'll try and cut back on the cover art.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

K.J. Parker - The Folding Knife

It would be easy to mistake The Folding Knife for an epic. It seems to have all the usual trademarks: the detailed secondary world, the wars and affairs of state, the positions of leadership. And yet, to call The Folding Knife an epic would be a grievous mistake. This is the story of one man, a man both great and terrible, at once an idealist and a nihilist, somewhere between benevolent leader and tyrant.

The Folding Knife is the tale of Basso’s life and term as First Citizen of the Republic of Vesani. Every word of this book is biased, the entire narrative shaped by Basso in the same way that he shaped the world. Even when Basso is offstage, this is unequivocally his story, and that is reflected in every aspect of the book down to its diction. Basso’s mother and Basso’s father are referred to only by their relationship to him, their tags being Basso’s mother (p. 5) and the boy’s (or Basso's) father (p. 11) respectively. In the same manner, Basso’s opponents are simply referred, save in exceptional cases, as either "the Opposition" or "the Optimates" (p. 250).

The books scenes have a slippery quality, sometimes advancing with a meticulous attention to detail and sometimes leaping forward by years. This is the story of a man’s life, and, as such, it is a messy affair with strands that meander and seeming dead ends everywhere. There is no approved guide to Basso’s life, no single authorially proposed path or meaning. Events that seem pivotal fade and recede, while minutia often steps to the fore of Basso’s mind and existence.

It is established from the opening pages of the novel that this is a tragedy. We open with Basso after his fall, looking back on the mistake that he believes led to every one of his failures, and so we know that he cannot succeed. But he does, again and again. The Folding Knife is the story of a great man, and his every success is all the more powerful because we know that the odds are stacked against him, that one day he is plans will all implode, that his creations will fall, no matter how sound their foundations now seem to us. Basso says to his wife: Destiny is the enemy, (p. 203) and that characterizes the entire outlook of The Folding Knife. The reader is gripped by every one of his schemes, knowing that one has to fail and yet so enraptured in the legacy of the man that believing that one will is impossible.

Towards the beginning of the book, Basso gets married. It is the first time that expectations, appearances, and actions fail to match up with reality. Basso gets married, yet everything remains hollow: This wasn’t love. He was prepared to accept that, in extreme cases, it was marriage, but only after half a century of egregious incompatibility. (p. 33-34) It is still early for Basso, however, and he convinces himself that things will change with time.

Such a thing, however, is not to be, for the turning point of Basso’s life, the “one mistake” of the back cover, comes shortly after his wedding. Basso walks in on his wife and his sister’s husband together. This moment – like most of the moments in The Folding Knife that, by all respects, should have been visceral – is instead marked first by confusion and then by a terrible, dreamlike decisiveness. Attacked by his sister’s lover, Basso kills for the first time with his folding knife. Then, stepping forward in a moment devoid of emotion, he kills his wife.

Basso’s killing determines everything that comes afterwards. The murders are the cementing of that hollowness that plagued his marriage, forever marking the separation between action and intent, reality and perception. Outwardly, Basso is the same man afterwards. Inwardly, however, Basso’s ability to empathize withers away. In his life, Basso is only to love two people, and both of those relationships are a direct result of his actions toward them, his need to redeem himself in the eyes of his sister and her son stemming directly from the murder of their father/husband. As for every facet of Basso’s life that does not revolve around this one moment, it fade entirely in his estimation, leaving him as a man of untold successes that he cares nothing of and a single failure that haunts every aspect of his being:

And it occurred to him that in his life he’d done many things that other people considered admirable, brilliant, wonderful; all of which he placed little value on, just as the conjuror knows he hasn’t really performed magic, no matter what the audience may think. There was just one admirable thing he’d done – one honest things – and the only other person who’d ever know about it hated him enough to want to see him dead . And therein, it pleased him to think, lies the true magnificence of Basso the Magnifying; his one honest thing, his only failure, the one thing he wanted and told himself he couldn’t have. (p. 363)

The dichotomy of perception and reality is exemplified when a plague strikes the Republic. Emergency measures are enacted, but are, of course, unhelpful. Desperate, Basso and his advisors try and figure out what is causing the plague. Their first guess is that it’s airborne, and they evacuate huge sections of the city. Their second guess is that it’s carried in the water of the city, so they divert as much water they can from a nearby river into the city’s cisterns. Eventually, however, it turns out that the plague was caused by tainted beef. All of Basso’s actions were in vain, and the only reason the entirety of the Republic didn’t perish was luck. And yet, the people love Basso. The citizenry’s relief at his decisive action was so great that not even the pointlessness of said action could shrink their gratitude.

The majority of Basso’s actions are the opposite, though. Time after time, Basso does something incredible for the people of the Republic for the sole reason that it benefits him. As a result, the core of The Folding Knife is the question of whether good can come from greed, of whether the intention matters: "A hundred of my predecessors tried to make the world a better place…They tried so hard, we’ve had poverty, economic collapse, and so many wars I lose count. My approach is, I try and make money for myself in a way that benefits the Republic." (p. 192) Basso is, without a doubt, a selfish man. He crushes his political opponents without remorse, and he manipulates the very state that he represents in order to escalate his own profits to absurd heights.

Still, the good that he does while in office is almost immeasurable. His second wife accuses him of only caring about morality, about great deeds like ending poverty and starvation, as a fringe benefit, (p. 193), but, no matter whether it was the primary intention, doesn’t the act still count? Can the good of increasing the purity of Vesani gold, bringing a veritable flood of foreign money to the city, be negated by the fact that Basso prospered more than anyone else? Can the Enfranchisement Act, a measure that finally grants citizenship to the various immigrants that make up so much of Vesani life, be really diminished because its primary aims were to allow Basso to marry who he wanted and to insure a massive influx of newly enfranchised voters that would never be loyal to anyone but him?

The Folding Knife isn’t devoid of the occasional blemish. The thematic continuity that runs from Basso’s murder to his downfall is powerful, but, as the novel reaches its climax, Parker tries to make Basso’s moral failing his material failing as well. Unfortunately, this attempt is not only unnecessary but actually detrimental to what came before. In her need to tie everything together so tightly, things that were once triumphs or disasters of chance or Basso’s own doing become a part of a hackneyed revenge plot that requires logic and established character to bend over backwards for its accommodation.

Furthermore, the immense presence of Basso shoves everything that he’s not interested in into obscurity. The Opposition is never developed, never really given a face, never anything more than a bumbling foe for Basso to run rings around. More importantly, the very sister that is the crux of Basso’s story is so spiteful that she becomes hard to take seriously as a threat. Yes, Parker tries to humanize her with our sympathy, but Basso’s picture of his sister is so egregiously off that the reader never confuses it with the reality, and we’re left with an antagonist both one dimensional and obvious.

Still, it takes a talented author to tell you exactly what she means to do, to then do exactly that, and to have it be every bit as affecting as you could’ve dreamed. Yes, Parker does overplay her hand in the end, but the emotional impact of Basso’s life and disgrace, and the intellectual impact of the questions and paradoxes that Parker raises, render The Folding Knife an excellent read.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Joe Hill - Heart-Shaped Box

“You deserve whatever happens to you…We both deserve it.” (p. 137)

Heart-Shaped Box’s greatest strengths is the voice of Jude Coyne. Jude’s voice is down to earth and unadorned, and the action is conveyed more through description and events than through introspection, but the heart of the character comes through all the same.

The book’s early horror builds off those events. The ghost is a hypnotist, and the prose – our entire connection to the character and his world – writhes like a snake in our hands when the ghost steps on stage. The same voice that drew you in on page five is, suddenly, wielding the knife that’s cutting towards everything you love, and the effect is one of the most acute betrayal, as if it was our own limbs being wielded against our own family.

That betrayal, however, is only a symptom of something much larger, an issue that is lying beneath every word of Heart-Shaped Box. It is Jude that tells us the story, Jude whose eyes we see through, Jude who has our sympathies, yet Jude does not exist. Jude is a construct: His own identity was his first and single most forceful creation, the machine which had produced everything in his life that was worth having and that he cared about. He would protect that to the end. (p. 65)

Underneath Jude’s callous disregard for those around him is another man, one whose every reaction and thought is subverted and subverted again to create an icon, an icon so all encompassing that the man that left home years before has all but ceased to exist. There is a more sympathetic character inside Jude, a man who cares for his girlfriends as more than kinky lays differentiated by state of origin, and yet, all we see of Jude and his world is what is written on the page, and, as far as we can tell, that other man does not exist.

That leads us to the core of the book’s success: Jude is in the wrong. The original sin in this book, the first deed of near unpardonable cruelty, is Jude’s. His girlfriend before Georgia, known as Florida and named Anna, was sick, out of her mind and in dire need of help. Jude turned her away. Forced to return to the life from which she’d fled, Anna killed herself. Jude cloaks his wrongdoing in the same self assured voice that he tells us everything in, only the hints of the deed escaping and refusing to go away, along with the other, more humane man inside Jude who understands the wrong of what he’s done. Everything that the rock-god Jude is was forged by avoiding confrontation, by viewing things in his own light and ignoring everything that doesn’t fit his world view:

The ghosts always caught up eventually, and there was no way to lock the door on them. they would walk right through. What he’d thought of as a personal strength – he was happy to know about her only what she wanted him to know – was something more like selfishness. A childish willingness to remain in the dark, to avoid distressing conversations, upsetting truths. He had feared her secrets – or, more specifically, the emotional entanglements that might come with knowing them. (p. 176)

Jude is in the wrong. His act is one that is almost impossible to forgive. It would be one thing if he was unrepentant, if he truly did not care for his girlfriends and tossed them aside when they posed the slightest problem. If that was the case, it would be a simple matter to simply despise Jude. We could cut ourselves off from him, detach ourselves from his story, even root for his death, and so lessen the pain to ourselves. Horror [is] rooted in sympathy, after all. (p. 295)

Yet, Jude is not all black. He regrets what he’s done, though he only gradually comes to realize that regret. More, it’s the appalling circumstances that he and Georgia are placed into, and the growth that they undergo as a result, that makes them characters worth loving. It’s that sympathy – our knowledge that, despite his horrible acts, Jude is a man worth saving – that make the book come to life for the reader and prevent them from ever looking away, in the same way that it is Jude’s love for Anna, and later Georgia, that makes his betrayals so horrible, that make it so affecting when Georgia says:

“I’ve been with a lot of bad guys who made me feel lousy about myself, Jude, but you’re something special. Because I know none of them really cared about me, but you do, and you make me feel like your shitty hooker anyway.” (p. 137)

No change of heart, however, can erase the crime, and it was the knowledge that, no matter the lengths the characters went, they could never completely atone that made the book so powerful. Which was why I was so disappointed when, two thirds of the way through, all moral ambiguity went out for a smoke and ended up stepping on a landmine. The main characters are, it turns out, absolved of any crime, because what they thought was a suicide was actually an elaborate plot, and all that soul searching and growth that Jude and Georgia went through turned out to be sort of unnecessary. The vengeful ghost, a stepfather who came back from beyond the grave to avenge the horrible wrong done to his daughter? Nah, he’s now just a scary, evil ghost. Oh noes.

Also, perhaps because the tension leaves at this point like the air out of a punctured balloon, I got to thinking around here, and it occurred to me that, while Vengeance From Beyond the Grave is undeniably badass, it would be far simpler to have vengeance on this side of death’s veil, wouldn’t it? And wouldn’t that avoid the whole having-to-kill-yourself-first thing?

Heart-Shaped Box ended as an enjoyable read, and the characters of Jude and Georgia were well drawn enough that my day felt brighter for their happy ending. That being said, the book’s chance for greatness died with our belief in Jude’s wrongdoing, and what’s left is a far cry from the excellence I was sure I was experiencing as I tore through the first hundred or two pages.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Mark Charan Newton - Nights of Villjamur

Every detail mattered to her. It could be the difference between dying and getting home to Villjamur. (p. 3)

Striving to be a fusion of Epic Fantasy grandeur and New Weird aesthetic, it could never be said that Nights of Villjamur is not an ambitious novel. Though all of the various strands do not always come together as they should, this is still a powerful novel that has just enough experimentation to feel fresh and bold while still never venturing too far from the beaten path.

The core of Nights of Villjamur is the city of Villjamur and the world around it. Newton uses two techniques to make his settings feel real and vibrant. The first is his prose. Newton’s writing is highly descriptive, packing a multitude of details into tight paragraphs that have to be unraveled carefully lest the intricacies of the image be lost. He guides these descriptions with about faces that give the story a cinematic feel, twisting our view around just as we begin to comprehend what we’re seeing:

Back across the city.

Lanterns were being lit by citizens who perhaps had expected a brighter day. Glows of orange crept through the dreary morning, defining the shapes of elaborate windows, wide octagons, narrow arches. It had been a winter of bistros with steamed-up windows, of tundra flowers trailing down from hanging baskets, of constant plumes of smoke from chimneys, one where concealed gardens were dying, starved of sunlight, and where the statues adorning once-flamboyant balconies were no suffocating under lichen.
(p. 15)

Villjamur has a very different feel from many fantasy cities. Newton’s setting is not traditional fantasy, but rather dying earth, taking place in the distant future rather than the imagined past. The juxtaposition between the seemingly all powerful cultist relics and the swords and bows of the military is an excellent and bizarre one, a dynamic further enforced by Newton’s diction. Newton sprinkles his prose with modern terminology; generally, this gives the setting a unique feel and twists the descriptions into a new light, though the word choice, on occasion, borders on sticking out too much: It seemed only a talented archer stood a chance of deleting one from the skies. (p. 18)

The second way that Newton brings his setting to life is his characters. The players in Newton’s story are a diverse lot, and they start in all manner of places, some closely connected with their peers and others entirely apart. Each of these characters is given their own life, filling the story with motion in the form of plots and subplots, all competing against the strains of day to day life.

Amidst all of that, the main thrust of Nights of Villjamur is hard to detect, but that is, perhaps, the point. There’s no single direction or threat that the characters face. The world is crumbling around them, but each once perceives the threat that they face in a different way, each struggles against a different foe, each tries live their life in their own way.

The disparate characters are the greatest strength of Nights of Villjamur. Though there are not, by epic fantasy standards, any great number of them, the even handedness with which they are all treated render each storyline interesting in the reader’s eye, and each tale reinforces the other, even without always having the various player’s direct presence. Brynd’s work to defend Villjamur is more meaningful because we know that Eir is inside, living a wholly unrelated life, and the multitudes that Inspector Jerryd sees around him are given character by the hint of Randur Estevu’s presence among them, leaving us believing that each of those that we see around us has their own story to tell.

Unfortunately, the various characters are also the novel’s biggest weakness. With so many plot threads, it’s hard for any of them to stand out, and no one threat or crisis ever seems particularly urgent or paramount. One of the book’s first chapters features Brynd and his elite Night Guard being ambushed and suffering bad losses. The events come on so suddenly, though, that the reader can’t really grasp them as they happen in real time. Then, next chapter, we’re with Jeryd, living an entirely separate existence with no thought to spare for the soldiers. When Brynd comes back we learn that the loss was almost unprecedented, tragedy and debacle in one, but by then it’s too late, and the reader’s hard pressed to give the events the importance they deserve in light of the fact that no one else in the city seems to care.

Beyond that, some of the various sub plots simply function less well than others. The mystery, in particular, falls far short of the standards established by the rest of the book. The killer is obvious from the book’s opening, but fine, maybe it’s more about how Jerryd pieces the puzzle together than it is about the exact identity of the killer. Halfway through the book, Jerryd figures out the killer: Suddenly he remembered how the suspect…[did something incriminating]. (p. 236) He does nothing for a hundred or so pages. Then he figures out the killer again: “Damn,” Jeryd repeated, and sat back in his chair. He laughed, his tail thrashing form side to side. “How stupid of me. All the time I’ve been telling myself it wasn’t [name] (p. 304) and decides to go do something about it. Er, excuse me? What just happened – or, better yet didn’t happen – in those intervening pages?

Newton doesn’t aim low when he lists influences, and a writer that cites authors like Vance and Mieville as influences has a lot to live up to. When it comes to reaching those great heights, Newton doesn’t hold back. The results are, however, mixed. Much has been made of the supposed combination of New Weird and Epic Fantasy that forms this book. Now, it’s true that the combination is in play, but the Weird elements are primarily used as flavoring, here. The city of Villjamur is multifaceted, but the various plots that unfold within it are, generally, of a more save the world from the evil [name]! than, say, Iron Council.

Which is, mind you, not a negative. The majority of the bizarre elements are worked in so closely to the characters that they come off as totally natural, such as the Rumels that form up much of the city’s population, or the enhanced prowess of the Night Guard. Contrasting against those are the remnants of the prior age (our own?), which stick out so strongly against the rest of Newton’s world that they create depressions around them in which everything else seems dull and blunt compared to their powers, a slideshow suddenly looking drab when compared with a motion picture. The reader’s reaction to the cultist’s relics is the same as many of the characters – one of awe and apprehension – and the chapters from a cultist viewpoint are some of the most interesting in the book.

Of course, Mieville is not renowned solely for his settings. Newton’s treatment of theme is, again, mixed. He brings up interesting issues, but we rarely see them examined in anything but the most perfunctory of manners. Much of the book is concerned with the vast hordes of refugees crowding Villjamur’s gates, pleading to get in, but they also happen to be an indistinct mass, a blur of undiscribed faces and unknown mannerisms. Lacking a character who lives among them, or even one who spends more time than just their respective climax worrying about them, the refugees are hard to really feel for, rendering any point that has their survival as its delivery mechanism half cocked at best.

When dealing with smaller matters, however, Newton is far more successful. I’ve already talked about the characters, but what makes them so fascinating is their personal, not professional, lives. The intersection between work and pleasure, life and duty, is an interesting area, and every time Newton’s characters are interrupted on a journey the book becomes that much more colorful and interesting:

He turned, sniffed the chill air, began to walk away –
- A snowball slapped his head.
(p. 154)

It’s odd, in a way, for the mundane to be the primary fulfillment of the book’s high aims, but it’s in the little details of his characters’ lives that Newton sets himself apart from authors that can handily string up a paper king and a cardboard vizier and have the two battle it out with improbably large weapons.

Nights of Villjamur’s strengths and weaknesses are so intertwined that it’s hard to imagine a version of it without either of them. Though this is a flawed novel, it’s still both an interesting experiment and a good read, and I’m looking forward to seeing how Newton develops what he’s established in City of Ruin.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Thomas Ligotti - The Nyctalops Trilogy [Short Story Review]

[Note: 1. This is a more in-depth analyses of a group of stories from Ligotti's Songs of a Dead Dreamer collection.

2. The following has spoilers for Dream of a Manikin and the Nyctalops Trilogy]

Like the rest of the collection, the three stories that make up The Nyctalops Trilogy stand perfectly well on their own. Also like the rest of the collection, however, their placing, the shifts in tone and content, the order that builds the images higher in your mind with each word and story read, lends the stories even more power when considered in their context. Like the rest of the collection, The Nyctalops Trilogy is a work open to several interpretations.

Dream of a Manikin, the story before the trilogy, introduces us to the concept of shared dreams. In it, a male psychologist is investigating a patient’s dreams, which are not so much fantasies as they are images of a wholly separate life. At the end of the tale, we discover the possibility that it might not have been the male psychologist writing at all, but rather a third character who was dreaming him. The bizarre and shifting roles and viewpoints drive Ligotti’s point home and stayed with me as I continued to read. I found myself viewing the following Nyctalops Trilogy through the lense that Dream of a Manikin provided and, to my surprise, discovered that not only did the theory of dreaming other lives make sense to explain the trilogy, it fit the stories better than any other explanation I could think of.

The Chymist is the story of a man meeting a prostitute and driving to her home, told entirely through the man’s monologue, every word coming directly from that one character’s mouth, from within that real time scene. The style is, on the surface, bizarre for Ligotti’s style of atmosphere and vivid description, but Ligotti manages to turn the unconventional narration into the story’s greatest strength. Every line of this tale is measured, the words coming with an off kilter yet driving beat that forbids you from looking away and drags you into its cadence.

The core of that is that, as all of Ligotti’s fictions amply shows, Ligotti is not writing from a “normal” mindset. His characters, instead, are the bizarre and grotesque edges of society and of sanity. As a result, the constant narration comes off not as artificial or masturbatory but as organic and as a mirror by which we may learn more about the speaker from his words than we ever could through any other means.

Unlike many of Ligotti’s stories, the core of The Chymist is motion. The story is constantly on the move, the characters constantly advancing towards their respective destinations. Change is the center of this tale, exhibited both in the main character’s steadily shifting conversation and in the environment around them:

Blank locales you’d rather not think about, but at the time couldn’t keep from your mind. Another time you could have. No two times are the same. No two lives are alike. We’re like aliens to one another. And when you’re travelling through these streets with some stranger, you have to contend with how they see things, the way you now must deal with my 20-20 visions and I with your blasé near sightedness. (p. 78, The Chymist)

The story’s climax is a twisted fulfillment of the prostitute’s desires, the narrator using the drugs that she asked for to twist her very essence in the same way that the city morphs around them and the narrator alters her name with each mention. As the tale concludes, the man, in a move reminiscent of the conclusion of Dream of a Manikin, takes complete control of the woman’s body. He is dreaming (p. 82, The Chymist) her. The two are about to embark on a bizarre journey:

We are presently coming into perfect tune with each other, my dreams and my dream girl. You are about to become the flesh and blood kaleidoscope of my imagination. In the latter stages of the procedure anything might happen. Your form will know no limits of diversity as the Great Chemists themselves take over. Soon I will put my dreaming in the hands of prodigious insurrection of eternity, and I’m sure there will be some surprises for both of us. (p. 82, The Chymist)

It’s obvious that the two are now going to enter into wholly new things. Perhaps even entire new lives? After all, we know that what they experience will change them: Under the stress of such diverse metamorphoses, the original structure of the object somehow breaks down. The consequences of this is simple – you can never be as you once were. (p. 82)

Drink to Me Only With Labyrinthine Eyes, the second story of the trilogy, is a story about hypnosis, and, as such, it’s fitting that the prose is enveloping and flowing. This is a story that you can lose yourself in, sinking into the power of the narrator’s spell even as you try and keep your wits about you. This is not an ordinary tale, as is made plain by every word uttered by Ligotti’s pen, but the seductively smooth writing lures you closer and erases all traces of apprehension from your body:

Everyone at the party comments on them. They ask if I had them altered in some way, suggest that I’ve tucked some strange crystallized lenses under my eyelids. I tell them no, that I was born with these singular optic organs. They’re not from some optometrist’s bag of tricks, not the result of surgical mayhem. (p. 85)

Like every story in the trilogy, the principle characters here are a man and a woman, the man narrating and, as the story progresses, dominating and shaping the woman. We begin with the female character hypnotized and able to perform extraordinary feats. If we view each story as being linked, this isn’t surprising in the least. In the Chymist, we see that the narrator has complete control over the female character’s form. He takes away her ability to scream by changing her physical appearance: I’d better dream of someone who hasn’t anything to scream with. (p. 82, The Chymist) Surely, if he can erase her mouth, he can break and heal her limbs to let her fit in a box and that and the divine metamorphoses previously quoted would certainly back up her near-transformation to a celestial icon (p. 89, Drink To Me Only With Labyrinthine Eyes).

At the end of the story, we discover that the female was really a corpse all along, the guests only unable to grasp that fact due to their hypnosis. When the narrator releases them from his spell, he’s confident that they will be amazed (p. 92, Drink To Me Only With Labyrinthine Eyes). The sudden shock at a transformation isn’t a new thing; it came up at the end of the Chymist. There, we’re told that the female is going to be in some curios incarnation (p. 82, The Chymist) and die shortly after he departs. She is, in fact, going to rattle the wits of her whoever discovers her. I think that that death is the equivalent of the physical death that comes with the end of the second story.

While Drink To Me Only With Labyrinthine Eyes struck me as the physical death/transformation of the narrator, I viewed The Eye of the Linx as the mental equivalent. It deals with giving her (and keep in mind that the female characters in both The Chymist and Eye of the Lynx are prostitutes) a twisted version of what she wants, subservience, in perhaps the same way that The Chymist deals with giving the female character the drugs she was after, just in a perverse and soul-destroying way.

In the opening conversation, the male narrator has a complete understanding of everything the female character will say before she can say it: “You sure have,” I thought to myself. “You sure have,” echoed the blonde…”What will it be tonight?” I inwardly asked me. “What will it be tonight?” she asked aloud. (p. 96). This state of affairs is reminiscent of the conclusion of The Chymist, where the male again knows the exact thought process of the female: Damn! I supposed that was your attempt to scream. (p. 82, The Chymist). In addition, the singular optic organs (p. 85, Drink to Me Only With Labyrinthine Eyes) might come up again here, where we learn that: Locked doors were no obstacle for my eyes. (p. 100, The Eye of the Lynx)

The Eye of the Lynx takes place in the gothic brothel “The House of Chains.” In Ligotti’s hands, The House of Chains becomes a nexus of sorts, the various rooms along its hallways like other worlds: There was much to see on the way – a Punch and Judy panorama with characters of all kinds as well as the occasional whacking stick. Each scene flipped by like a page in a depraved story book. (p. 99, The Eye of the Lynx).

The various scenes all around the narrator, made of playacting prostitutes and their clients, are described like their own grotesque worlds: Behind one [locked door], where every wall of the room was painted with heavy black bars from floor to ceiling, the Queen of Pain – riding crop raised high – sat atop her human horse. (p. 100, The Eye of the Lynx). When the narrator and the female character enter their own room, there’s almost no transition. The situation as, suddenly, changed to that of puppet master and puppet, as if the two left their forms behind and dressed themselves in new roles.

Our first glimpse of other perceptions, however, comes even before the hallway, occurring on the second page of the story, where the narrator spots a security camera and wonders how the camera’s eye would translate that redly dyed room into the bluish hues of a security monitor…We might all be electronically meshed into a crazy purpurean tapestry. (p. 96, The Eye of the Lynx). The multiplicity of worlds, their intersections and the ease with which the narrator falls from one to the other, is more than a little evocative of Dream of a Manikin’s levels of dreaming.

All three stories also seem to have a preoccupation with audience, as if it isn’t enough for the two main characters to do what they do alone, the crucial element being how they were observed by those around them (and by the reader?). In The Chymist, we are told that the prostitute’s remains will rattle the wits of whoever is unfortunate enough to find [her].(p. 82, The Chymist) In Drink to me Only With Labyrinthine Eyes, the focus is not on the female character’s transformations, nor on the male’s acts, but rather on the crowd all around them. Finally, The Eye of the Link opens with an outward view of events, including both the aforementioned security camera and quotes from various journalists relating to the narrator’s activities.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that two thirds of the trilogy a meaningless fever dream, but rather that the mechanism of dreaming someone else we were introduced to in Dream of a Manikin was at use once again, and that the male character was following and influencing the female through a string of different lives. Each story in the collection stands on its own, the trilogy most certainly not exempted, but I kept finding little interconnected hints, such as how in a wholly separate story, the narrator spots his mother speaking to a man with labyrinthine eyes (p. 146, The Lost Art of Twilight). Regardless of how you interpret it, The Nyctalops Trilogy was one of my favorite pieces in Songs of a Dead Dreamer, and that’s saying something when one looks at the sheer quality on display in every single story.


My full review of Songs of a Dead Dreamer is here.

My analysis of Dr. Voke and Mr. Veech is here.

There's no better place to go for Ligotti discussion than right here.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Book of Transformations [Cover Art]

Mark Charan Newton's third book has had an interesting history when it comes to cover art. Evidently, we internet folks get a bit more sway than we thought, because we were first presented with two choices to chose from:

Unfortunately for Mr. Newton, the consensus seemed to be: neither of them. And that's where things get surprising. On Westeros, Newton said:

Anyway, just to show the power of the internet, for the hardcover we're looking to have the character removed completely and work on the city. Hardcovers are a totally different market to the mass market reader (the casual reader who shapes careers, and they look for something different to the rest of us in cover design), so maybe we were wrong in choosing a figure for that.

But if it tanks, you all owe me a drink.

The result? Right here:

Somehow, I don't think we're going to have to all chip in for Newton's next pitcher. That thing is freakin' gorgeous.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Marjorie M. Liu - The Iron Hunt

It is of us, I read, this wild raging hunt that takes upon itself the nature of an age, and destroys to that others may be reborn. It is why, I think, the leader of the hunt must so frequently change, because Ages change, and what defines on era cannot be relied upon to characterize the next . A new voice is required, a new heart.

The hunt is defined by hearts, for good or ill. We have learned that lesson in the most brutal ways imaginable, and we will learn it once more. We have no choice. This fearful omen, so deep in our memory it has become sunk in human blood, has opened and closed, again and again. Faster now, like the hum of wings. And when it stops, we shall fall.
(p. 303)

The Iron Hunt is the first novel in Marjorie M. Liu’s urban fantasy series. The world building is standard enough that even an Urban Fantasy outsider should be able to recognize most elements, but Liu attempts to breathe new life into the archetypes with original and well drawn characters and her prose.

The characters, for the most part, are developed. The main source of that comes from their maturity; these are not characters that feel like they were first brought to life on page one and will die on page three hundred and five. Instead, we are shown people shaped by circumstances and relationships. Liu never feels the need to tell us Maxine’s feelings for Grant in laborious detail, because the two have known each other for so long that their trust is solid and obvious from every one of their interactions.

Maxine is defined by the supernatural, both when it comes to her drive and her body. The demons that tattoo her flesh are as integral a part of the story as any of the characters and, though I wish we’d gotten a few more tastes of their prowess, they become such a part of the narrative that, when Liu is separated from them, the reader feels naked and vulnerable alongside the character.

And yet, it’s hard to reconcile the demon-bearing hunter of the night with the personality that Maxine exhibits throughout the narrative. We are told that this woman was trained to be, that she is, a hardened warrior. Some parts of this characterization are powerful and cutting. Ever since Maxine’s mother was killed with a firearm, Maxine has refused to use a gun, even though she knows that it makes her less effective. The little failings, the ways she believes she isn’t living up to her mother’s legacy, are the time’s when the character truly shines. In fact, the absolute strongest section of the novel occurs when Maxine is cut off from everything but her and her demons and is forced to try and survive, to try and escape, on her own resources. The changes that come over the character here bring her struggle to life and affect the reader just as much as they do the character.

But then there is Byron, an orphaned boy who is caught in the crossfire, so to speak, of her confrontation with a zombie towards the book’s beginning. Maxine feels guilty, which is understandable, but her constant obsession with protecting and helping him seems odd when compared with the rest of the narrative and, at times, feels blatantly manipulative. It’s hard to swallow that a woman who must have, if she’s survived for this long, encountered similar situations countless of times is so entangled in this one life that she simply can’t see past it, hard to believe that a guardian this sentimental could have possibly survived for this long.

The external supernatural elements come off as well as Maxine. Though individual possessors never really come to feel like a threat, Liu’s description of larger demons is vivid and disquieting:

Concrete cracked. Like a thousand spines behind me, and I looked down and saw feet shaped like knives; literally, blades; or claws that might have been blades, long and straight, shining quicksilver. The demon stood on those feet like a dancer ,en pointe, and took a step. His toes clicked as they cut the sidewalk. His head remained bowed, cloak shimmering like dark water. (p. 68)

Still, the mythology of the book is where the majority of The Iron Hunt’s problems stem from. Meeting a ten thousand year old being in human skin would, undoubtedly, be an incredible experience, and Liu’s right to make it feel as such, but the sheer profusion of these mythical beings combine to render any one of them, no matter how otherwise jaw dropping, mundane. By the end of the book, it’s honestly difficult to think of a single properly human character with a speaking part. Along the same lines, it makes sense for such a cosmic being to be mysterious, for their purposes to be hard to fathom, etc. I’m fine with magic having a bit of uncertainty. Its gets annoying, however, when your entire cast is busy being mysterious. There are so many people talking in riddles here that it’s almost impossible to know the book’s main plot until said plot is halfway through its conclusion and you can finally look back and decipher who was doing what and why. Or, at least, try to.

Liu raises several questions through the course of the story. Is it right for Maxine to lash out at the possessors when they had little alternative for what they did? Is it right to punish someone if they might have been rehabilitated? Can you build something good out of something terrible? Unfortunately, none of these questions are never really explored. Grant is attempting to save the demon’s morality, while Maxine is trying to stamp them out, and the tension that the two viewpoints bring up is interesting, but it’s a question that never gets an answer. Still, this is only the first book of many, so I’ll forgive that and assume that Liu goes into the issues in more depth later.

The best word for Liu’s prose is deliberate. At times, the writing will be declarative and interrupted by fragments, leading to a broken, gritty feel; at others, Liu’s prose is elaborate and decorative, sometimes even poetic. The contrast between the two fuels the story’s pacing, determining every aspect of how you process the story without ever being artificial enough to draw undue attention to itself, both sides contributing equally to the jagged atmosphere of the tale:

Hurt like it should. Skin tearing. Flayed by smoke and shadows. I swallowed bad noises, throat aching, and tore off my gloves. Shook so hard my teeth chattered. Minutes ago, tattoos would have covered my hands – fingers, palms, even my nails – black and etched with lines. But now bodies writhed, silver skin dissolving into a mist that poured from beneath my clothes, and I felt hearts pound that were not my own. Slender, muscled limbs slid hot and heavy through my hair. Small fingers caressed my cheeks. Melodic whispers mated with the patter of the rain (p. 35).

The story being told in The Iron Hunt is interesting, but ultimately too familiar and externally driven to be gripping. Still, the book is powerful due to the well established atmosphere, the characters, and, most of all, the prose. Liu is clearly a talented author, but The Iron Hunt doesn’t fire on all cylinders.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Series in Progress

I figured I'd post this here, because stealing ideas/comments from Floor to Ceiling Books is called good bloggin', no?

While long, this isn't nearly as grotesquely huge as I thought it'd be. I didn't list novels that had just recurring characters (Kate Griffin's Mathew Swift books) or the same settings (Banks's Culture), it needed to have a continuing plot:

R. Scott Bakker’s The Second Apocalypse (4/(9?))
Glen Cook’s Black Company: Books of the North (2/3)
Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Gap* (1/5)
Steven Erikson’s Malazan (9/10)
Lynn Flewelling’s Tamir Triad* (1/3)
Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth* (1/?)
Peter F. Hamilton’s Commonwealth Saga (1/5)
Frank Herbert’s Dune* (2/5)
JV Jones’s The Book of Words* (1/3)
Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time (12/14)
Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen’s Bastards (2/7)
George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (4/7)
Elizabeth Moon’s Deeds of Paksenarrion** (1/(4?))
Mark Charan Newton’s Legends of the Red Sun (1/4)
Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast (1/3)
Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives (1/10)
John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War (1/3)
Dan Simmon’s Hyperion (2/4)
Steph Swainston’s The Year of Our War (1/(4?)
Sam Sykes’s Tome of the Undergates (1/(3?))
Jack Vance’s Tales of the Dying Earth* (2/4)
Brian K. Vaughn’s Y (1/10)
Dan Well’s John Cleaver (1/3)
Gene Wolfe’s Latro Series (1/(3?))

* May finish
**Will not finish

Friday, October 8, 2010

Brian Evenson - Last Days

Last Days is a streamlined punch to the gut. There are no wasted words here, no auxiliary threads to subtract from the main thrust, nothing to prevent Evenson’s ideas from shooting directly into your skull. The tone is fast and fevered throughout, events always accelerating towards a conclusion that promises to be anything but neat, the resolution of plot threads anything but surgical.

It is impossible to get over a feeling of unease while reading these two novellas, impossible not to feel dirtied with each word that passes beneath your gaze. Kline’s past is heroic, but it’s taken to such extremes that the reader can’t read it without feeling a tad queasy, the sort of victory that the celebrants will always wonder if it might have been better for everyone involved if it had been a defeat, instead:

[They had] read about his so-called heroism and how, even when faced with the man with the cleaver – or the “gentleman with the cleaver” as they chose to call him – he hadn’t flinched, hadn’t given a thing away. Was it true, they wanted to know ,that he hadn’t flinched? That he had simply watched the man raise the cleaver and bring it down, his hand becoming a separate, moribund creature? (p. 25)

In the same vein, every sympathetic character is also a monster, every simple decision a potential moral abyss, every simple task labyrinthine and difficult. The reader feels sympathy for Kline but should they? Gous is nice, companionable, even. And yet he is also depraved in their own way, caught up in the cult until it is more powerful than right or wrong, life or death, to him

That cult, The Brotherhood of Mutilation, is the center of this story. Taking Mathew 29 (And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out…) to the extreme, they’ve developed a religion out of the process of self mutilation, glorifying in disfigurement to the point that their leader is nothing but a tongue-less head and a nipple-less torso. It’s easy to simply classify the Brotherhood as evil, and it often seems right to do so, but they are often more alien than wrong, more amoral than immoral. The utter incomprehensibility of their mindset, held together by its unapproachable but unassailable logic, is one of the greatest strengths of the text, dictating the course of almost every conversation between Kline and the cult members:

“You can’t all be Paul,” [Kline] said.

“Why not?” said the man. “Is this a teaching?”

“A teaching?” said Kline. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Should I write it down?”

“Write what down?”

“’You can’t all be Paul.’ And whatever else comes thereafter from your lips.”

“No,” said Kline, a strange dread starting to grow within him. “I don’t want you to write anything down.”

“Is this too a teaching?” said Paul. “Write nothing down?”

“Nothing’s a teaching,” said Kline.
(p. 132)

The Brotherhood is a place of contradictions. On one hand, mutilations are a source of distinction approaching religious ecstasy, something that is an unbelievable honor and something to be revered above all else. At the same time, lower members of the Brotherhood often get their amputations at amputation parties, events were everyone socializes and drinks until the evening culminates with anesthesia and the bite of the knife or cleaver. That combination of reverence and irreverence colors much of Last Days.

Evenson’s narrative is one of disorientation. Events move at an intentionally jerky, artificial pace, as Kline is thrown, shoved, and otherwise man handled to revelation after revelation. This is effective at subjecting the reader to Kline’s confused mental state, forcing the reader to struggle to process information at the same speed as Kline. Over long periods of time, however, the technique becomes tiresome, leaving the reader with almost nothing to grasp onto as progress for the occasional long stretch. Up until the end, Kline is not the arbiter of his own destiny, and very few of the book’s events are determined by him until then. Kline, though physically and mentally powerful, is not a strong character in the traditional, plot-driving sense, and it can grow annoying to have a story almost wholly directed by outside elements, though Evenson’s writing and pacing are too strong for that to ever grow into a truly debilitating issue.

Combining with the tautness of the story, Evenson’s prose is so bare as to be effectively invisible for most of the book, simply dragging the reader along by the throat and standing aside to let them see the events looming up above them. Motivations are rarely shared, and the dialogue is almost always declarative, often in fragments. Character’s seem to talk at one another far more often than to one another, leaving whole aspects of story and mysteries open to be connected, if there even is a connection, by the reader. Every once in a while, Evenson will display the same irreverence that he does to mutilation and matters of faith to the characters’ conversations and the book’s mysteries:

“I’m here because of Aline.”

“Who’s either dead or not dead.”

“Exactly,” said Kline.

“There’s a big difference,” said Gous. “That’s what we intend to find out.”

“What?” said Ramse.

“That,” said Gous.

“What?” said Ramse, looking around. “What’s going on?”

“Exactly,” said Kline. “That’s what I want to know.”
(p. 84)

Much has been made of how terrifying Last Days is. Now, fear is obviously a fairly personal thing, and it’s unlikely that the same section will affect two different readers in the same way, but I have to say that, for the most part, I did not find Last Days frightening. Grotesque, yes. Disturbing, yes. Terrifying, no… Except for one scene in the beginning of the second novella, that is, where the powerlessness of the narrator is rammed home so hard that I was almost falling off my chair I was so freaked out while reading it. So I guess I’ll take it back, Last Days can be pretty frightening when it really wants to be.

The first novella here, Brotherhood of Mutilation, is the tighter of the two. The concepts are at their freshest and the disorientation at its most acute, yet least forced. In addition, the novella twists its central scene and throws it back at us again and again, in dreams and memories and recurrences, until we feel as haunted as Kline, turning the pages in order to escape his past.

By contrast, the first while of Last Days feels like the reader’s treading water in a shifting sea; they may be moving, but it’s by no action of their own. Once that part concludes, however, Last Days begins to pick up speed and never stops doing so. Despite a few mishaps, it becomes almost the equal of the first novella and in many ways that book’s inverse. Brotherhood of Mutilation was all about Kline being controlled, about Kline being powerless in his own destiny, but that theme was so much a part of the story’s structure and foundations that it was never questioned. In this novella, on the other hand, Kline lashes out at the ties that bind him, the novella concluding in him asserting his own dominance to the detriment of everyone around him.

The differences between the two novels are what gives the collection as a whole its identity, the overall tale managing to take the strengths of its two halves, with each novella generally balancing out the other’s weaknesses. Last Days is an immersing and a disturbing read.