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___MINI-VIEWS #7___

EXTREMELY INADEQUATE THUMBNAILERS OF BOOKS I'M TOO LAZY OR TROUBLED TO ACTUALLY REVIEW, OR, TOO BORED, DISTRACTED, MADDENED TO EVEN FINISH READING.

 

NINE HORRORS And A Dream by JOSEPH PAYNE BRENNAN, c.1958.

All that happens in our universe is natural; under Law; but an extension of our so limited normal consciousness can reveal new, extra-ordinary powers etc., and the word "supernatural" seems the best word for treating these in fiction.

--Algernon Blackwood, as quoted by Peter Penzoldt in The Supernatural in Fiction (1952), Part II, Chapter 7

 

So much of Modern Horror—meaning from the 1970s forward—is focused on the gruesome, the shock, the controlled scare from that thump of adrelinine bursting your heart. There's nothing wrong with this; it is the reality of the Modern World, afterall. But its fixations sometimes overwhelm and neglect the reflective, less pandering terrors of Horror; that is, that sense of discovery, of awe, of ponderances of things and experiences beyond our empirical, trusted awareness.

“Levitation”, a quite-laconic story in this collection is the best example of this I've come across in a long, long time.

It opens to the trope of the creepy carnival appearing in an isolated mountain hamlet. The Hypnotist starts his show, looking “disinterested, scornful.” Abe Lincoln-like tall and gaunt, his black suit adds a “final Mephistophelean touch” (Arkham House, c.1958, p.36). His volunteer climbs onto the stage, acting silly with nervous laughter. A buddy, to the delight of the fidgety crowd, lobs a popcorn ball at him and breaks the Hypnotist's concentration. Furious, he stops the show and goads the perpetrator to take his prior volunteer's place, and convincingly spells him into a slow levitation from his prone position on the floor.

At this moment, the Hypnotist grabs his chest and falls dead on the platform.

At first, the crowd is distracted by this deathly horror, not noticing the commanded boy moving ever upward. Then they begin screaming, “Wake up! Come down! Stop! Frank!” until “the floating form . . . was no more than a tiny speck . . . then it disappeared altogether” (p.40).

I interpret this as God is dead—or, at best, disappeared—and we are now adrift in the twinkling void, all alone and left to our own, inappropriate conclusions. For me, this concise and seemingly-simple story is mesmerizing; giving way to myriad of thoughts fastened to the metaphysics of life and its opposite inevitability—death.

But, more importantly, it opens access to a sentiment, something so deep and barely touched I could almost call it my soul. It leaves me feeling melancholic, untethered, mused, and—in relevance to this amorphous genre called Horror—scared. Brennan consigns more than just an intellectual conceit. In the end, don't we all float off, alone?

There are other wonderful finds in this collection, like “I'm Murdering Mr. Massington”, a story about an ordinary man obsessed by the notion that he will leave no trace whatsoever of himself on this mortal soil. He badgers a small-time writer into writing the very story the reader is reading, and, upon publication, “he will sit down in a chair and calmly fire a bullet into his brain” (p.99).

Then there's the lead story, “Slime”. I've been, ah, slimed by this tale from the numerous appropriations it has spawned, including Koontz's Phantoms (1983) and King's The Raft (1982). But, most impressionable of all was Steve McQueen's blockbuster from 1958, The Blob. That put my 11-year old horrified body under the seat at the movie theater in Phoenix, Arizona(1).

Perhaps the most celebrated story here is “Canavan's Back Yard”, mainly because it is apotheosized by The King himself in Danse Macabre as a “fascinating idea of perspective gone haywire” (Everest House, ISBN 0896960765, c.1981, p.275). Again, the terror is not delivered in buckets of blood, but the ordinary gone malevolently askew, creating that upchuck dissonance akin to the first freefall of a roller coaster.

Inspired by the works of Edgar Allen Poe, Joseph Payne Brennan wrote for Weird Tales from 1952 until its demise in 1954. He founded the magazine Macabre now revered by enthusiasts for 23 issues from 1957 to 1976. He is also known for his poetry which was published in his other self-authored magazine called Essence that ran from 1950 to 1977, comprising of 47 issues.

He died in 1990 and is out of print, but is still held dear by a diminishing number—I suspect—of older enthusiasts.

 

(1) Well, actually, it put my Mother, but that's another story. It was I Married A Monster From Outer Space from the same year that put me under the seat.

08/01/2010

BLACK HILLS by DAN SIMMONS, c.2010

Following his current bent of taking impeccably-researched historical events and spinning supernatural possibilities into them, author Dan Simmons adds Black Hills, a story similar in layout to Berger's Little Big Man of 1964, in that it is primarily one person's Herculean story segmented throughout a lifetime of occurrences where people, places, and things drop in and out of the narrative flow, usually without chronological consistency. We meet 11-year old Paha Sapa—Lakota for Black Hills—as he counts coup on a dying General Custer at the climax of the most famous battle of the American Indian Wars in the latter 19th Century. At that moment, Custer's ghost enters Paha Sapa, setting up what you think will be the paramount thread of this story.

Think again.

Ol' Long Hair has, in fact, very little to do with this book. He probably could have been left on the prarie without inhibiting the strength of Paha Sapa's tale(1). For two-thirds of the book, his sparce appearances are mainly monologues, libidinously rambling over his sexual couplings with his wife Libby as if he's in some spiritual jack-off fantasyland(2). Finally, Paha Sapa, now 68-years old, takes him to meet his 91-year old widow. After scouring the memory of the love of his life with shockingly unflattering visages like “bent spine”, “sticklike forearms”, and “rheumy and unfocused”(p.304) eyes, Custer tries his afterlife perspective concerning “Custerphobes or Custerphiles”(p.312), Buffalo Bill's lying entertainments via his Wild West Show, and finally, the real reason for his defeat: too many damn Indians. There is no sympathy or mention of his two brothers, a nephew, a brother-in-law, plus the 268 men who died following him into battle.

But among these puerile frothings from his invisible presence with his wife, there lies one of the best summations of our protagonist, Paha Sapa.

 

The loneliest man you have ever met or ever could meet, my love, a man who has lost his name, his relatives, his honor, his wife, his son, his gods, his future, his hopes, and every sacred thing ever entrusted to him. . .

--p.320

 

Now, that's what this story is about: loss, and, somewhat begrudgingly, regeneration, too, and dragging with it all the literary manifestations possible.

Unfortunately, the book reads like an overly-zealous party guest, blasting away with facts and figures while your eyes glaze over with TMI syndrome. For instance, pages are spent on backstorying the technological achievement of the Brooklyn Bridge, sidebaring with its miserable working conditions, immigrant laborers' histories, and whocares? facts concerning length, weight, span. Later, Paha Sapa spends pages climbing the Bridge, rewarded with a vision from the Six Grandfathers mealy-mouthing that individuals such as him can change things, yet “the twining is the secret. The twining is the waken (3)(p.290).

Simmons does not pander to any revisionist manifestos of the Noble Savage. Crazy Horse, that enduring idealization of native resistance, would mercilessly cut Paha Sapa's throat simply because he will not predict his death. The author is continually reminding us of the Indians' barbarous as well as their humane behaviors. The spectacular central vision of Paha Sapa's Quest is that of the stone giants of Mount Rushmore rising and pounding a path of destruction along the four compass points of the continent. This engenders his life-long obsession to dynamite the imposing arrogance of invading US President facsimiles from his beloved Black Hills of South Dakota. We are led into enthusiastic agreement of this obsession—I've fantasized this ever since I read Deloria's(4) Custer Died For Your Sins in 1969—yet author Simmons through the voice of Custer and with Paha Sapa's reluctant acknowledgement(5), gives a scathing denouncement by declaring “you Sioux were a ruthless, relentless invasion machine”(p.429) who ran out the Crows and Pawnees just years prior to bragging that the Black Hills had been Sioux territory forever.

There is also an attempt to parallel the Lakota supernatural auguries and explanations—which are presented as actualities—to waken Science and Technology as highlighted in the Columbian Exposition of 1893 chapter. But, other than magic meaning power—usually power over somebody or something—and the allusion to the “wonders of the Machinery Hall”(p.157) as being the real religion of the United States, the similarities beyond the naively obvious escape me.

Unfortunately, any clear vision through the commoners or celebrities of this phenomenal and controversial time in our history is muddled by Simmons' strategy of segmenting his narrative into time jumblings that disregard linear progression. I received too much vital information about character relationships through paststory or future projections to develop strong bonds with them. Combined with the novel's wearisome volubility and annoying lectures, it required more persistence and patience than I possessed. To be gracious, I'd hafta say Black Hills is just too ambitious, and its subjects too deeply imbedded in the always-undulating American psyche as we re-imagine ourselves, decade after decade, debacle after debacle.

Dead at page 346 out of 487.

 

(1) I dumped the book before coming onto Simmons' real reason for the Custer/ghost setup; however, I still contend that putting Custer on a pedestal to preach at me was unnecessary.

(2) My favorite is when he shoots a buffalo then they eat its liver and leaves the rest. Covered in “blood and bile”(p.97), he and Libby fuck on horseback while they ride to a stream to wash off.

(3) This is the Sioux name for the Anglo invaders, but I enjoy Wasichu, meaning Fat Takers (p.178). However, this hot-potato concept—that of working together for harmony between races and indigenous populations—is probably the only “visionary” solution I agree with in this book, and it is to Simmons' creative credit that he voices it through a Native American mouth rather than, say, Buffalo Bill Cody.

(4) Go here and here for info on this Native American author.

(5) Paha Sapa calls warring against other tribes “fun”(p.429)

08/09/2010

COLD HAND IN MINE by ROBERT AICKMAN, c.1975.

Peter Straub writes in his introduction to The Wine-Dark Sea: “What attracted Aickman to ghosts was not the notion of dripping revenants but the feeling–-composed in part of mystery, fear, stifled eroticism, hopelessness, nostalgia and the almost violent freedom granted by a suspension of rational rules–-which they evoked in him.” (Arbor House, ISBN 1557100357, c.1988, p.8)

The always-enigmatic, often-haughty, and forever bewildering Robert Aickman lies somewhere along the road between the tundra of Franz Kafka and the sloughs of Thomas Ligotti. His characters are singular, often lonely, easily irritable, scarred by some loss or simply childhood, and usually timorous victims, pompous crowers, or suicidal eccentrics. They are almost always male, whereas females tend to be mysterious, unknowable, and usually conniving, or bland and leaning toward carpiness, but congenitally supportive of superiors. Situations are deliberately incomprehensible because his stories are like windows into a semi-darkened room: everything is never revealed, actions usually happen in the next room, and what you see is evidence, not explanation. His stories happen in your mind as much as on the paper before you.

His plots seem honest, very deliberate and precise. But, unlike most authors, Aickman is not interested in a tidy, wrapped-up conclusion. It's more about how it feels than what it is. He shuns big-ticket, serial slaughter for the living, constant terror of never knowing the real situation or how and when it's going to explode. There's always that ever-present foreboding that you have just entered—or about to—the ambiguous, frivolous, and disengaged world of, let's say, Meursault. And what's worse is the world's far more surreptitious than it was in 1942 when Camus wrote The Stranger. Political systems, bureaucracies, social philosophies, institutions—hell, even world-views become slithery ghosts of truths never spoken and principles compromised when core actions come under scrutiny. Is it any wonder that Mr. Millar's business is far more insidious than accounting in “Meeting Mr. Millar”? Or, that the asylum-like hotel in “The Hospice” carries its commitment to hospitality much further than expected? The reasons don't matter. It's only the affect and how that affect trickles down that's important. Blame is meaningless, as is closure on anything out of your jurisdiction. Most of the time, you don't even have mere influence. Aickman's world is one where we're all “caught up in some devil's bargain”(1).

"In Aickman's stories he offers us a world in which the inexplicable, the ghostly and the macabre are manifested, but the source and meaning of such intrusions are not at all clear. Very often the explanation of events would seem to be supernatural, but this alone will not account for everything that has happened. It would appear that we should look at the mental state of Aickman's protagonists if we are to fully understand the implications of his stories. An examination of their unconscious minds would seem to be the way forward, but neither does this approach entirely suffice. It is reasonable to assume that these two driving forces, the supernatural and the psychological, could be brought together, but the results of this are often contradictory. Aickman seems to have given us more than enough clues to the puzzles he offers in his tales, and yet they do not quite account for all that happens in them."

Cold Hand in Mine contains the story in which Aickman won the World Fantasy Award, "Pages from a Young Girl's Journal", and is the only trophy recognition he received during his lifetime.

(1) Joni Mitchell, "Woodstock", Ladies of the Canyon, c.1969

Copyright 10/05/2010 by Larry Crawford

BEGGARS IN SPAIN by NANCY KRESS, c.1993.

Okay, I admit, I tried to get away just reading the novella of this book which won the Nebula award back then, but it stopped after the first section of four, leaving way too much unresolved.

So, onward to its expansion via this novel and into a dialogue of social, political, and biological quagmires. The conflict necessary for plotting is quite simple: one group commands the biological changes that alter humanity forever, and the left-behind group is pissed. The specific is Sleeplessness and its side-effect, possible immortality. The rub is that it can only be created in vitro and is very expensive. Wanna try an' raise a Sleepless baby on no sleep?

Remember the early 90s? It was an era of technological euphoria. Microsoft, cell phone technology, another and better damned DVD format. Science Fictional product ideas like R2D2 cleaning robots, 3D gaming glasses, The Segway, inter-actional holography, complete-immursion virtual reality, and, of course, the Internet. Scientific breakthroughs produced Dolly the cloned sheep along with more sophisticated, genetically-engineered crops, DNA identification and GPS location, plus the start of the Human Genome Project and the installation of the Hubble telescope in space. The economy was rolling in greenbacks from teckkie gadgetry produced by 20-something software billionaires. Suddenly the dork with the pocket protector and wader trousers that you teased with spitballs in high school could buy and sell you ten times over.

The Nerds had taken control and they spoke a language as different as a surfer's Hodad-Gremmie-Big Kahuna lexicon. Hypertext. JavaScript. Computerese. The ebb and flow between comprehension and productivity began to widen.

When information became a commodity, the line was firmly set in the sand. The geeky Brainiacs were steering the boat and you'd better find a floatation device because a big, economic wave was coming. Driven by the nano-second speed of multi-quad processors and sophisticatedly-written software simple enough even Wall Street banksters could pound the right keys, this red tide of WMDs finally crashed on the beach in the fall of 2008 as the Credit Deficit Swap.

Beggars in Spain contemplates The Outsider in this way, drawing its conclusions in extremity. Earth society, after it's initial massive cringing and pity-party creating the We-Sleepers, abdicates like water finding level and lets the Sleepless do all the work. The World moves into three tiers: Livers who exist on the Dole like 18th Century aristocrats but without any intellectual or social pedigrees, the Donkeys who are enhanced Sleepless and run the economic and political as well as the industrial machines under the electoral whip of the 80% Livers population, and the brightest and most powerful Sleepless who chose defensible isolation and elope off to an orbital called Sanctuary in space.

The novel does an excellent job of world-building using plausible tie-ins to the ever-present bogies of cultural development: envy and greed. The expansion from novella to novel, however, becomes quite soap opera-ish, breaking up the blarney with technical side-effects and their subsequent societal influences. You know, like, what happens when Sleepless use their advantage for evil gain, or just go psycho-dog batty? How ‘bout what to do when Sleepless start having Sleeper babies? (Clue: think unwanted runt in a litter of kittens). And, comprising the race to the finish: the impact of the upcoming Super-Sleepless generation. These conflicts add readability among a cast of ever-growing characters—time frame of the novel spans generations—but more means less when connecting interest and engagement to these newbies. By the time I approached Book IV even the main personalities—Leisha Camden as the good yin and Jennifer as the bad yang—were diluted like weak tea and had lost a lot of their flavor past the initial savorings.

Dead at page 322 out of 438.

Copyright 11/11/2010 by Larry Crawford

 

THE WARDED MAN by PETER V. BRETT, c.2009

I like this book a lot, I really do. It easily held my interest through a medieval-like world that's charged at night by corelings, or demons coming up through the surface of the earth. It's been happening for so long humanity does not fight the demons, but merely tries to protect itself from their ravenous attacks. Until, of course, a common farmer youth named Arlen swallows back his fear and stands toe to toe with them in the darkness. Thus, the Warded Man is created to lead and teach us all that destiny's road is changed by the drivers, not the obstacles.

Two other parallel stories play out, adding richness to our understanding of this culture and the invariable ways human beings act out their fears, desires, compulsions and dreams. Leesha is that busty beauty sporting Pollyanna behavior with a fiery streak of independence that ultimately leads her to become the Herb Gatherer or holistic healer of her village. Her talents--and affections--will help bring the Warded Man away from the envelopment by the Undead and back among the civilized. And Rojer, well, he's the physically-impaired--he's nicknamed "Halfgrip"--novitiate to a besotted Jongleur who discovers the secret power his music has over the insatiable demon hordes.

It is certainly no surprise these three hook-up on the road during the treacherous and deadly nighttime hours. Naturally, they combine to create a fighting opposition their world of hamlets and castles has not seen for 300 years. It is the perfect predicament to launch the second book of the series, The Desert Spear.

I like this book, I really do. I just wish I'd discovered it as an adolescent so I could continue with the series, wide-eyed and unsullied.

Copyright 06/05/2010 by Larry Crawford

 

 

THE IMAGO SEQUENCE by LAIRD BARRON, C.2007

Like Thomas Ligotti and Gary Braunbeck, Laird Barron is a writer I just don't get. The Imago Sequence is a group of nine short stories, each developed with obvious skill and surprising variance, sporting obscure but colorful characters and baffling, obtuse plot machinations. Most of the protagonists are stereotypicals usually found in actioneers, like the burned-out CIA agent in “Old Virginia”, the hoary Pinkerton detective stomping through “piss-burned saloon facades . . . of Old World decadence and frontier excess” (Night Shade Books, TPB edition of 2009, ISBN 9781597801461, c.2007, p.78-84) in “Bulldozer”, the whiny, unemployed actor hangin' with some jacked-up skip tracers in “Proboscis”, or a first-person narrator who is a celebrated but delusional artist and maybe/maybe not be a Bundy-style serial killer in “Parallax”. The best story here is probably the title piece, "The Imago Sequence". Again, it takes a pulp-level personality--ex-wrestler, hired muscle type--as its taleteller and imagines a far greater and deeper complexity in its unraveling. The central image of utter, anthropomorphic strangeness frozen in timeless amber and constructively revered with deistic demonism haunts far after the book is closed.

The formula governing the amounts of withhold verses exposure seems weighted the wrong way. Barron is working from previously-dressed mannikens and clothing them in original and complex outfits for renewed interest and mystery. He's not trying to de-emphasize the plot like Robert Aickman does, but his ways for distributing meaning does not match the pure connections of Joseph Payne Brennan's approach, either. Like these authors, too much happens offstage for any blanket conclusions, but then the high points of comprehension seem as absent as the incongruous facts revealed seem unsatisfactory. Barron's literary pitons are just not strong enough for me to summit with confidence. Or, manage a descent of creepy yet fascinating conclusions. The writing of it all just makes little sense to me.

A consideration is that I have not been able to complete a single story in one sitting. The finishline session is always marred by non-remembrance chasms, which indicates—to my ego, anyway—that the writing lacks resonance with certain fundamental commonalities like interest, comprehension, recognized protocols. These are withholds, I'm afraid, purposely scrambled to engender mystery and curiosity, yet come off more like discarded, broken yokes. I mean, hell, who'll take the time to dig out the grail if you don't know what it is nor receive the inspiration to care? Ultimately, I don't sense a governing or identification with this preceptor. It could be a simple matter of author Barron using caricatures instead of archetypes, thereby lulling me to relax and ingest, thinking I'm here for mere sensation, instead of awake and hunting for enlightening breadcrumbs of devilish irony or the subtle muscle of hidden epiphanies.

At any rate, bored and confused is not mesmerized or terrorized by the “stygian wasteland of night . . . of an indifferent, devouring cosmos” (back cover blurb).

Others disagree, or, at least, present a far worthier analysis. http://www.strangehorizons.com/reviews

 

Copyright 10/23/2010 by Larry Crawford

 

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