Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Innsmouth Free Press Issue 12 Interviews

I've posted about Innsmouth Free Press' twelfth and newest issue before. Suffice to say, it's damn good Weird Fiction, and you should read it. Since, I've been doing a series of interviews with the contributors to the issue. As interviews with Weird Fiction authors clearly fall under this blog's purview, I figured I'd link those of you here to them:

Allen Griffin
KL Pereira
Steve Toase
E. Catherine Tobler

Of course, that's not the full roster of contributors yet. The rest should be up in the next few weeks, and I'll post again once they are.

In other IFP news, it's worth pointing out that the Swords and Mythos table of contents is out now and that there is a forthcoming collection of Mythos fiction from Nick Mamatas. The biggest change, though, is that the IFP magazine will no longer be free to read. That's sad news. The silver lining, though, is that, in addition to paid ebooks, print editions will be available. Being as big a fan of print fiction as I am, I can't regard this as all bad news.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Joan Sclonczewski - A Door into Ocean

Last semester, I took Professor Slonczewski’s “Biology in Science Fiction” class at Kenyon College. It’s a course she’s well qualified to teach. When not a professor and microbiologist, Slonczewski pens novels, and I’m sure a fair few here have encountered her name numerous times before and without the “professor” bit before it. Her second novel, A Door into Ocean, not only introduced her Elysium setting but also won her the John. W. Campbell award for best novel. With a scientist’s rigor and a writer’s imaginative flair, Slonczewski brings us to the ocean world of Shora. Other humans aren’t far behind us. Shora’s inhabitants, the Sharers, are about to be challenged by the military might of the Valans.

The contrast between Valans and Sharers, however, is more than environmental, and theirs is not simply a power struggle – it is, rather, a question of the very uses and expressions of power, of the structure of society, and of what is necessary for civilization to function. Of, even, what it is to be human. This is Science Fiction, after all, and the human race has long since learned how to destroy.

Mankind lives a life of strict control. The wonders that the Valans and their offworld overlords command are bare shadows of what they once were. Once, the human race was nearly wiped out, and now they live lives shaped so as to forget such a catastrophe’s recurrence. Theirs is a world carefully structured to exclude forbidden sciences (p. 33) and all learning that is not permissible (ibid). Their structure is strictly hierarchical, and it is a well armed hierarchy. Each level does all in its power to keep the entire structure intact by keeping the level below too weak to destroy it, a mechanism well illustrated when a city is annihilated for its flirtation with illicit nuclear power. Towards the novel’s end, a ruler of many worlds, a man well used to ordering genocides, gives his justifications: “How little keeps our world intact, safe from the law of the jungle. Always, in every age, a few strong men bear the burden of civilization.” (p. 393)

The Sharers, on the other hand, live a life of limitless technological and political potential. Their society is egalitarian and leaderless. Their decisions are made in gatherings. Where the Valans restrict every citizen to the point where he cannot harm himself or others, the Sharers give each and every one of themselves, each self-namer, limitless power. As Spinel characterizes it: Without any nobles and commoners, everyone got to be a High Protector (p. 61). This is joined by the Sharers’ immense technological strength. It is the Valans who come with guns, but we soon realize that each and every Valan can only live on Shora at the sufferance of the Sharers. The Sharers’ mastery of biotechnology is such that they, with ease, defeat any measure of the Valans that they find too intrusive, such that they could, with no trouble at all, devise a virus to end the threat.

This strength of the Sharers is kept cloistered by their personal restraint and strength of character, by what might even be called their wisdom. Despite their strength, violence is anathema to them. What it means to be a self-namer is to recognize oneself in the mirror of the water and in others, to understand the humanity that exists outside yourself, and to grasp a picture of life far vaster than your own concerns. That grasp, the ability to become a self-namer, is the defining feature of sentience to the Sharers, the defining feature of even humanity. As is said: There is more to a human than physiology (p. 77). It is not, either, a grasp that you can reach and then disregard. For, to truly understand life and humanity as it exists outside of yourself, is to step forever outside your own boundaries and to never again end your considerations with your own flesh and physical needs: Conscious beings were meant to control pain, to say yes or no to their physical selves, else how could their souls be freed? (p. 289). (It may be interesting to note, while we are on the subject, that the idea of humanity defined by transcending pain is one of many places ((another of which is the environment of her novel)) in which Slonzcewski is responding to Frank Herbert’s Dune.)

Of course, if we are defining humanity more by philosophy and behavior than by physiology, it’s suddenly rather questionable if the Valans fit the Sharer definition. And that’s a question that’s rather more than academic. If the Valans aren’t humans but just some particularly ferocious breed of beasts, than the Sharer viruses can be unloosed upon them without a backwards thought.

A Door into Ocean is a book about conflict, but that conflict is primarily philosophical. The Sharers have the ability to wipe out the Valans; if they choose not to exercise it, the Valans can more than certainly gun down their unresisting gatherings. As neither a one-stroke victory nor a protracted slaughter have all that much in the way of dramatic tension about them, our plot is less concerned with mechanics than it is with persuasion. Well the factions exercise the powers that they have? That question gives us the novel’s two arcs. The Sharer judgment on humanity is not only contingent upon their watching of the Valan hordes. Spinel, a Valan youth, was brought to the Sharer world just before the conflict’s height for just such a judgment, and we see his attempts to integrate into their (alien, entirely female, and landless) society. On the other side, we have the Valan resolve tested by Sharer pacifism and nonviolent resistance.

Both arcs are interesting ideas well conceived and explored that are dampened but not destroyed by their transformative moments being overstated and often rather cheesy. Slonczewski, I think it is safe to hazard, is rather more comfortable writing ecosystems and societies than single people or close friendships. This isn’t to say that she is a bad writer of character, necessarily. Her skill at conceiving and, then, depicting the interactions between people and the environment and society lead to moments of insight into people as well as into fish. Spinel’s youthful perspective and voice comes across authentically and leads to moments of juvenile but insightful commentary like that about high protectors quoted some paragraphs above.

In moments where the character has to come to the fore, however, moments of high and uncontrollable emotion, Slonczewski often falters, and characters begin to act out in the most dramatic and abrupt manners, leaving the reader’s emotions a good distance behind them in the dust. One characters sudden decision to enjoy some nice terrorism would likely be the prime contender for this, but she isn’t alone. For Spinel, crises are chiefly met with temper tantrums. This could be, to some extent, a function of his age, but it is no less exasperating for it, and, when hundreds of pages and huge personal growth later, Spinel reacts to an event with yet another fit of toddler-appropriate wrath, the reader can’t help but stare uncomfortably at how little he's come.

The dramatic power of nonresistance, meanwhile, is weakened by the inevitability of its victory. This is most obvious when Spinel brings its lessons to his hometown, where the police grumble for about five minutes before going home and giving way, but it sadly doesn’t vanish when the Sharers face the full might of the Valan military. The philosophical conflict at the novel’s heart is one with a very clearly favored side.

The Valans are a bunch of sadistic murderers. The second in command has a plan: “Line up those little ones and snuff them out before their mothers’ eyes. That would get results.” (p. 292) The overseer does too: “You shall activate the satellites to burn out the entire native population of the Ocean Moon. To the last mother and child – do I make myself clear?” (p. 391The main guy himself is no better. He is, after all, convinced that: In warfare there were no innocents (p. 206), and, knowing that, it was galling to have to protect natives along with his troops, and he hoped it would not be interpreted as a weakness (p. 284).

Is this a crowd that has gained your sympathies yet? No? Thought not. When one side is cackling while it devours babies, the reader knows who’s going to win long before the decision’s made, and so the Sharer’s victory becomes a matter not of if but of how, a persuasion that is essentially fated to occur. Besides which, the dissonance of having Valans intellectually capable of grasping the Sharer argument and yet subscribing so long to their kill and burn nonsense is rather hard to reconcile when the moment of epiphany comes knocking.

One last note on the Valan military: its leader, Raelgar, is the fiancĂ© of one of the humans living with the Sharers. She soon realizes how much of a bastard he is, but that betrayal is not so stunning for the reader. It’s a situation nearly identical to that shown in Vernor Vinge’s disappointing The Children of the Sky. In both, a protagonist’s fiancĂ© turns out to be the embodiment of darkness, and we are expected to feel the betrayal of it. But neither shows us the loving relationship that must precede such a betrayal, an omission that just leaves us wondering how the sane one could ever love the beast. Why do Science Fiction authors seem to think that our sympathies are immediately secured by the mere mention of an engagement?

Such issues, though, are not wholly damning. A Door into Ocean is a novel that is absolutely fantastic in its ideas and good even if not great in its execution. It brings a strange world to light, plays out a grand and excellently conceived conflict in its pages, and raises innumerable interesting questions (its treatment of gender, for instance, is an absolutely fascinating issue that I must admit I find myself unqualified to dig deeply into).

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

H.P. Lovecraft - "The Nameless City"

That is not dead which can eternal lie
And with strange aeons even death may die
(p. 30).

For the Lovecraft enthusiast, the most obvious lures of “The Nameless City” are bibliographic, the way that it introduces Abdul Alhazred and his couplet (quoted above) and prefigures At the Mountains of Madness with the idea of artwork giving a window into a lost civilization’s history. But it is also a powerful tale in its own right. As the narrator descends beneath the sands of Araby, Lovecraft displays his gifts at toying with history and building atmosphere, but he also works with wonder in a way which I had not often considered in my prior readings of his work.

[Be warned before continuing that I am assuming some familiarity with Lovecraft as a whole and so will not be going into great detail on the more obvious topics, such as the specifics of his dark revelations (in a word, scale; in a few, the realization that the universe is infinitely vaster than we are and that we do not matter) or how many adjectives he can cram into a single sentence. There will, also, be some spoilers for the story discussed. Finally, note that all page numbers come from the Penguin Classics edition of The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories, edited by S.T. Joshi.]

In popular culture and brief references, Lovecraft is often reduced to one emotion: fear. Occasionally, at moments of great specificity, that might be clarified to fear of the unknown. I don’t mean this in a purely derogatory way. Fear of the unknown is a huge part of Lovecraft’s work, and he evokes it masterfully. But “The Nameless City” exhibits the other driving force behind much of Lovecraft’s work: wonder, and our need for it.

The narrator here is not forced into his predicament. He came to the Nameless City of his own volition, well aware of its reputation. He endured many hardships to see it, even excepting those he encountered after his arrival that he could never have expected. Early on, he talks of “curiosity stronger than fear” (p. 32). Shortly afterwards, he writes of “that instinct for the strange and unknown which has made me a wanderer upon earth and a haunter of far, ancient, and forbidden places” (p. 34). Curiosity, the drive to seek the wondrous, then, is a matter integral to the narrator’s character. And it is admirable. We are not dealing with a dallier, here, but rather with a man that has managed to trace forgotten legends to their source, one whose search for knowledge has left him fluent in Lord Dunsany’s short stories, Thomas Moore’s poetry, and Greek mythology.

This need for wonder is not a fleeting thing. It might be the driving force for the erudition just discussed, but it goes farther than that. Just before descending into the Nameless City, the narrator says that he was “more afraid than I could explain, but not enough to dull my thirst for wonder” (p. 33). Fear, then, goes beyond what can be put into words, past what is rational. But so does wonder, for the narrator’s wonder trumps his fear. Remember, after all, that he has not yet entered the city when he feels that way. He could have simply turned around and seen no more. Right up until the final revelation, the narrator insists that “wonder drove out fear” (p. 39).

Let us step back for a moment and remember that this is the Lovecraft that, in a 1930 letter to August Derleth, wrote that: Time, space, and natural law hold for me suggestions of intolerable bondage, and I can form no picture of emotional satisfaction which does not involve their defeat – especially the defeat of time, so that one may merge oneself with the whole historic stream and be wholly emancipated from the transient and the ephemeral. An escape from strict, material reality like the kind that Lovecraft there described certainly sounds like a matter for wonder to me.

In fact, it leaves me wondering if wonder might not be the other pole of the cosmic dread that makes up so much of Lovecraft’s worldview, if his protagonists, aware of the unsatisfactory nature of the mundane, find that their only chance at joy is to strive for something greater than what is commonly perceived. That question is starting to go beyond “The Nameless City,” admittedly. While the narrator certainly does show a drive for wonder, we do not get to see any of his ordinary life, nor his state before the expedition. But the distinction between wonder and terror is one I certainly do plan to keep in mind when I next return to Lovecraft’s work.

What “The Nameless City” does provide in ample detail is how a search for wonder, for something greater than the limited perception that we all have ends if it ever really succeeds. Needless to say, it ends poorly. By the time he has escaped the Nameless City, the narrator can bleakly boast that “no other man shivers so horribly when the night-wind rattles the windows” (p. 30). The knowledge he has gained burns away any shred of joyous wonder.

In his imparting of that overawing knowledge, Lovecraft operates by taking successive steps away from the narrator’s comfort zone, enlarging the frame each time but doing so by subtle enough degrees that we follow him until the final shocks. From Araby* to the uncharted desert to the ruins to the strange temple and on, each step seems tied to the last. Many of the piece’s more evocative details serve to bridge and strengthen the gaps between conceptual shifts. The seemingly source-less wind that leads the narrator to the passageway down, for instance, is an admirably physical hook that keeps things from feeling too easy or too bodilessly concerned with alien art.

(* In any other author, the fact that “Araby” seems utterly unpopulated save for the narrator and a few briefly mentioned sheiks would seem like whitewashing. In Lovecraft’s work, it just left me glad that we were spared any execrable descriptions of cultic natives dancing about a fire.)

The most interesting thing about the different stages might be how easy it is to cross from one to the next. It does not, of course, look that way at first. “There is no legend so old as to give it a name, or to recall that it was ever alive” (p. 30) Lovecraft tells us of the Nameless City before, after a semicolon, continuing with: “but it is told of in whispers around campfires and muttered about by grandmas in the tents of sheiks, so that all the tribes shun it without wholly knowing why” (ibid).

Of course, if there are no legends about it and no one has ever heard of it, it is difficult to see how so many people are whispering about it. One could be forgiven, therefore, for thinking that Lovecraft let his grandiosity get away with him. But I think the seeming contradiction shows something deeper. There are barriers to seeing the cosmic truths behind the mundane, but those barriers are perspectival and not material. It is not that all knowledge of this past is truly gone. Rather, we fervently wish that all knowledge of it was, and so we loudly declare that even as we whisper the truth to those closest to us.

Then there is the crucial fact that Lovecraft does not reach the end of these stages. He never says that he is done, that all truth has been revealed, and that the reader can rest contented. Rather, at the end, he gives us a glimpse of more vistas yet to come, even if we could never manage to tread upon them. The artwork grants the narrator great knowledge, but it is incomplete. It does not take him to the present day. Instead, he is left knowing that: “Of what could have happened in the deological aeons since the paintings ceased and the death-hating race resentfully succumbed to decay, no man might say” (p. 39). The final revelation, then, is that, even with the veil torn back, there is still an incomprehensible vastness beyond it, still infinitely more to be known that can never be known, other and innumerable gaps of cosmic time that even this monolithic revelation cannot come close to filling.

I would like to end, though, on a slightly smaller scale: with an allusion to mythology. As the narrator journeys to the Nameless City, he sees the sun, and we hear that he “fancied that from some remote depth there came a crash of musical metal to hail the fiery disc as Memnon hails it from the banks of the Nile” (p. 31). To those that either know the myth or alternatively turned to S.T. Joshi’s handy footnote (I will admit that I fell into the later category), the description of the natural world seems poetic, tinged with greater stories and imaginings. Lovecraft brings the allusion back at the tale’s end, and those same words are then utterly overshadowed by the vaster horrors below. Similarly, wonder functions in the story throughout, growing putrid and awful as it is attained but no less present for it.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

H. A. Goodman - Breaking the Devil's Heart

After reading and reviewing enough books, most reviewers, I think, start to have a general idea of how novels fail. Generally, the problem is not gaping flaws. Most of the time, it’s just that they don’t do much at all. Most mediocre books are perfectly competent but provide no reason to bother with them. Breaking the Devils Heart is nothing like that. Goodman has great ideas. Alas, those ideas are frequently let down by a kind of clumsy yet pedantic over-eagerness.

Stewart is an Observer, a man between Heaven and Hell that has given his (after)life to attempting to destroy Satan. His life before death prepared him well for all this. Working for the CIA, he was tasked to Find the root of evil and learn ways to destroy this impulse within mankind (p. 10). Already, you can likely see many of the novel’s strengths and weaknesses. Goodman is not a boring or easily contended writer. He finds the biggest issues that he can, levels his lance at them, and charges. Best of all, he actually has some interesting things to say about them.

But those issues are so large that he also has to squash them to fit, and his campaign against them frequently becomes so optimistic and (morally) good that it loses all believability. The CIA deciding to eradicate evil so that America’s enemies won’t be so depraved as to attack it is, for instance, a bit like a high school student setting out to cure cancer to improve his college application. Solving all of humanity’s problems in order to protect America’s borders is nice on a few levels, but it seems to be swapping about what really matters.

The novel operates at the midway point between a thriller and a philosophical exploration of evil. Bizarrely enough, the contrast works. Stewart and his love interest, Layla, bluff their way onto a tour through hell and explore Heaven too, seeing throughout different scenes from Earth that explain or get at different facets of evil. The general ballsiness of the whole venture keeps the different example-type scenes interesting and actually manages to build a fair bit of narrative momentum. Goodman also does look at a pretty admirable slice of history in his work.

Looking at the scenes and discussions of morality themselves, though, problems begin to appear. First, Stewart is a white American guy and approaches problems accordingly. Now, I am not the most Social Justice-conscious review out there. For the most part, I don’t feel particularly qualified to delve into such issues and back off unless they are particularly egregious. But Goodman has set his sights on exactly this kind of stuff, so not engaging with him on it would feel like shying away from problems that are in the book’s core.

Americans are the angels. I mean that figuratively and literally. To a greater and lesser extent, Goodman does too. Both Stewart and Layla are from the US, and Stewart’s go to comparison for Heaven’s struggle with Hell is how America fought the Soviets. When demons refer to the angels as you Americans (p. 64), it is true that Steward and Layla are Americans. But every other angel we meet is from the States as well. It’s only the force of hell that don’t all come from the Atlantic’s western shore.

The choice of moral examples and exemplars reflect this to an uncomfortable degree. The first scene of evil that we are shown is an Islamic honor killing. Far later, we do turn to America. But we only partially do so to find Horrors. Stewart goes to see the Freedom Riders as they are beaten in order to witness the heroism needed to stand up to oppressive systems. This leaves us with a historic example of American evil – and the heroes that stood up to it and, at least within the novel’s confines, abolished it. Foreign evils, alas, are still going on and don’t seem to have the necessary heroes to stop them without Stewart’s intervention. To add the discomforting cherry on top, the Freedom Rider that Stewart chooses as his hero to emulate is white.

The broader problem with Stewart’s quest to eradicate evil is that evil is rather built into Earth. Goodman realizes this and, every once in a while, his characters brush up against the limits of their quest. Before long, they have admitted that Hell is not responsible for all the evil in the world (which seems to leave Satan as sort of superfluous, but okay). But setting out to destroy something within humanity has some ethical considerations that go along with it. One of Goodman’s snazzier ideas is that God is just as allusive in the afterlife as in reality. Addressing that, Stewart says: I longed for some eternal referee to come down and actually fix things instead of standing behind the notion of free will as if it were a concrete barrier blocking him from reality (p. 344). That comes in the third to last paragraph, and it is only then that Stewart admits that he is butting up against free will and arguably the core of humanity in his quest. Alas, his moral exploration ends there, before he can start to question just what removing free will for goodness’ sake would mean.

But what do we mean by goodness? If Stewart is going to add an extra dose of conscience to humanity, cut back on this whole free will thing, and set us on the path of righteousness, it seems like we should have a path of righteousness planned out. But we don’t seem to. For a book that spends so much time exploring evil, Breaking the Devil’s Heart leaves good remarkably untouched, as if it were an obvious matter that we all agreed on long ago.

This can be seen in Heaven where, in the absence of good, we are told that fundementalists of all faiths have taken matters into their own hands. In their own words: Our heaven is based on holy books, every single holy book ever written (p. 303). Now, mind you, we are in heaven. Everyone living under this fundamentalist regime is already good in the sense that they have not, say, murdered anyone. Which means that the new Heavenly order the fundamentalists are imposing has to do not with the few universal religious diktats but with the more peripheral stuff. Only, all of that peripheral stuff seems like it would be an area of some disagreement. How have Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, etc. fundamentalists agreed on the Sabbath’s particulars, again? From the brief glimpse that we get, it seems like the answer is that they became the US Bible Belt.

That brings us back to the broader question of good. If all of mankind is going to be made good, it seems dangerously possible, given the aforementioned USA! traits of Stewart, that the world will be made into America. The Islamic honor killing that I described a while back is described as the consequence of tribalism and cultural norms (p. 27), a description that is not inaccurate but does seem to place us in the strange place where cultural norms can lead to violence – except in America, where we have all of that solved. Referring to positive consequences of culture, Stewart says: There aren’t many unintended consequences from a Thanksgiving Dinner or opening presents on Christmas Eve (p. 112). Negative cultures are found in the Middle East and lead to murder. Benevolent cultures like America’s have nice holidays – at least one of which is amusingly enough intricately tied to the whole genocide-through-disease founding of the nation.

Nonetheless, the darker side of Stewart’s morality was not my main problem with Breaking the Devil’s Heart. Stewart often expresses his views in debates, and his demonic opponents do get to smack him down a fair few refreshing times. Odds are, those demons are not the characters closest to Goodman’s heart. Still, their retorts are included and are often not only cutting but certainly more insightful than Stewart’s own arguments, at least in this reviewer’s opinion.

No, Goodman’s real problem is prose. At his best, his writing fades into the background or elicits a chuckle or two. But sentences so shambling that calling them clunkers seems merciful abound: Upon hearing the Boss’s surprising evaluation of his personality, the bitterness within Ted was so palpable that I pulled Layla back several feet for fear of him venting his fury in some violent manner (p. 100). First, it’s interesting that Layla, a badass Observer in her own right, would not be capable of stepping backwards on her own if the need arose. But more pertinently here, there is not a single clause in there that could not be more concisely stated. In moments like this, Goodman manages to both exclusively tell rather than show and to also be extremely vague. Besides which, grammatically, it was “the bitterness within Ted” that was doing the listening, not Stewart.

Let’s look at another: Too often, men and women experience the world, as well as each other, in disparate ways because of societal norms and other aspects of human life (p. 71). The first half – people experience things differently – is a truism. The second half, which seems poised to expand upon it, starts off fine by going into “societal norms” (an area that, as we’ve seen, Goodman continually approaches but then shies away from) but then ventures off into territory so bland and nonspecific as to be utterly meaningless. “Other aspects of human life” could include, quite literally, anything at all.

At other times, the prose is not so much bad as it is simply strange. In case the reader is utterly unfamiliar with human interaction, Goodman defines what “thanks” means: “Thanks, babe,” I [said], wanting her to know I appreciated her gesture immensely (p. 146). Elsewhere, Goodman uses allusions. Most of these actually work quite well, such as a description of Hell as “Dante’s Inferno meets Boiler Room” (p. 98). After having a character quote Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” though, Goodman helpfully outlines the purpose of an allusion, just in case someone in the back row had thought such quotations might be chosen entirely at random: The beauty of using this stanza of Poe’s “The Raven” was that it actually described our current precarious circumstance (p. 159). And it’s not only the reader that is assumed to be dumber than a brick. At one point, Stewart explains to Layla that “We’ve been in a serious, committed relationship for several years now,” (p. 75) something that you would really hope she would be capable of remembering on her own.

You could describe Breaking the Devil’s Heart as a novel that bit off more than it could chew. That’s not quite accurate, though. Goodman’s philosophy is problematic but also large and daring enough to be engaged with. That could sound like damning with faint praise, but I don’t mean it that way. Goodman advances into territory that few dare to, and the demons’ comments give me hope that he has enough self-awareness to correct (most of) his problems in future novels in the setting. The prose does not seem as easily correctable. The novel’s ideas are not flawless but are still impressive, but the writing proves a barrier that ends up casting the whole venture into doubt. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Yoko Ogawa - Revenge

Deciding exactly what Yoko Ogawa’s collection Revenge is in a top-down, definitional fashion does not work particularly well. The collection is subtitled “Eleven Dark Tales,” and that is certainly accurate. But dark is not the most precise of terms, even if it may end up being all that we are left with. Of course, any reader that has held the volume in their hands (but not yet turned its pages) is likely unsure what I am so confused about. True, the blurbs come from varied sources. Hilary Mantel and Junot Diaz, figures of Literature both, serve to somewhat complicate the picture. But the cover quote from Joe Hill and the large-font of Peter Straub’s endorsement seem, at least insofar as marketing is concerned, to seal the deal: this is horror.

Indeed, Revenge does achieve many of the same effects as Horror – but its meaning of achieving them are so different from those used in the Horror genre that, while Horror may be its destination, that leaves the journey unilluminated, and this is very much a work about the journey and the process. To be fair, there are some moments of genuine Horror-style horror. There are murders here and grisly disfigurements. Lurid descriptions of torture, too. For the most part, those moments did not work particularly well for me. They felt like some of the collection’s weakest. The heart of the collection was not those few violent motions but the general picture that it built, the quiet collection of observations and experiences. This is not a book about a grand event that is seen but rather about the process of observing.

 The eleven stories in Revenge are each told by a different first person narrator. Though this is not a mosaic novel – there is no single story that is being crafted throughout – the narrators do encounter one another, and those passing glimpses of another’s pain or catharsis give the reader a powerful reminder of how different those experiences look from outside that character’s head. The effect does not end there. Within the stories themselves, Ogawa is always playing with differences, with what we see of each other. Often, the answer is not much. Near the beginning of the collection’s opening piece, “Afternoon at the Bakery,” Ogawa writes that You could gaze at this perfect picture all day – an afternoon bathed in light and comfort – and perhaps never notice a single detail out of place, or missing (pp. 1-2). From there, the collection becomes a subtle teasing out of what is out of place – and how horrifically off it is – and a reminder of how all pain is hidden in plain sight.

Crowded together in this modern world that we inhabit, it’s easy to think that nothing is hidden anymore. The narrator of “Old Mrs. J.” certainly thinks that. Living in close proximity to innumerable neighbors, he believes that: Just as I could see everything that went on in her apartment, she missed nothing that happened in mine (p. 30). But such surface transparency really serves to hide so much. This can be seen when Mrs. J. is in his apartment. Such encounters are uncomfortable. But, more than that, they show how much we miss. Mrs. J. reads the titles off of the narrator’s bookcase and, even standing right there, “got them all wrong” (p. 28). No matter how clearly we see, the world is not exactly as we perceive it. And that lesson is rammed home at the story’s close, as no one in any of these seemingly transparent, seemingly visible apartment notices the murder in their midst.

Direct, onscreen action is a rarity in Ogawa’s stories. It would remove all the layers of ambiguity and perception that underlie so much of what she is doing here. Rather, the tragedies in these stories are glimpsed out of the corners of our eyes, are talked about or remembered or even just imagined. “Welcome to the Museum of Torture,” my favorite tale in the collection, is composed of the last of those and also serves to tie together and comment upon the collection as a whole. The narrator, questioned by the police about a murder that occurred in one of the other stories, finds the whole procedure exciting. Her boyfriend finds that disgusting. “Do you find it amusing that someone died?” (p. 84) he asks. That’s not an unfair question, really, to ask of readers of Ogawa in particular and of Horror in general, but Ogawa does not simply ask it and wander off.

Pained by her boyfriend’s leaving her for her answer, the narrator enters the nearby Museum of Torture to take her mind off of things. What happens next is not what you think. She is not tied down and brutally tortured. No, she is simply shown through the museum, and the kindly, attentive curator describes the exhibits to her. The interactions between the curator and her are some of the easiest, most connected conversation to be found in the whole collection, and the narrator knows it: “He certainly was interested in what I had to say, unlike my boyfriend” (p. 93). This moment of genuine human interaction occurs amidst pain. None of the torture devices are used onscreen, but each is described, and the narrator and reader imagine their implementation. It is horrific. To give just one example, in the curator’s words: “Next we have this leather strap and those pliers. The victim’s wrist was attached to a table with the strap, and the pliers were used to extract the fingernails. Note the unusually delicate tips of the pliers” (p. 90). Yeesh!

But why wander the halls of the museum of torture? Well, the aforementioned connection is part of it, but it’s not the only part. To start with, it must be admitted that, yes, there is something (horribly) amusing about death. As the curator says, “The desires of the human heart know no reason or rules” (p. 90). But even that is not the whole picture, for to say that we encounter death because we are interested in it is to wholly flip the equation. After all, as the narrator knows, “torture was everywhere” (p. 91). This is confirmed by how, throughout her tour of the museum, the narrator hears of devices that the reader has seen in previous stories, albeit in less extreme contexts. Those encounters, too, were torturous. And if pain is all around us, then our choice is not whether to seek it out because it is amusing or to healthily prevent it. Our choice is whether to acknowledge reality or to pretend.

Ogawa, needless to say, does not pretend. She approaches pain in all its guises, approaches loneliness and vulnerability and murder. Very occasionally, Ogawa does break the slowly woven web with a moment of abrupt violence, or at least the sudden revelation of one. This occurs in “Lab Coats,” where a conversation takes a sudden and drastic shift at its end with the disclosure that one of the participants killed her boyfriend. Though twists like that do shock the reader, they were my least favorite parts of Revenge, because the sudden upset left me less rather than more engaged with the narrator’s perceptions. Thankfully, such sharp turns are rare. Generally, the hurt at the center of each story is only slowly brought out as the narrator tries to go about their life. It comes on stage calmly, gently, until it is, by the end, all that the reader can see or think about.

Though not a speculative fiction author exactly, Ogawa does toy with impossibilities and fantastic metaphors. This can be best seen in “Sewing the Heart,” in which the narrator meets a women with a bizarre defect: her heart is outside of her chest. Just before seeing it for himself, the narrator realizes that he has “never seen a human heart before, and the thought filled me with fear and disgust” (p. 65). The moment of true and very literalized insight into another, though, does not actually leave him disgusted. Rather, he finds it impossibly alluring. He wants to caress her heart. By the end of the story, he wants to possess it. The story, before long, becomes one of the collection’s most troubling. We are too far from one another to ever truly see them, it seems to say, save in the most extraordinary circumstances. But, if we actually could, that might not help matters. It might be only our distance that prevents us from doing even more harm to one another.

No matter how far from each other we may ultimately be, though, writers as skilled as Yoko Ogawa can give us a glimpse behind the curtain of other minds. In the way that it builds and progresses, Revenge is a soft collection filled with pathos. It is also a cutting knife.