Sunday, September 16, 2018

September Reads Part One

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
The Separation by Christopher Priest
Pet Sematary by Stephen King

I read Sharp Objects in preparation for watching the tv show, and I'm glad I did, because there's a couple things the book does better than the show (not a lot, but a couple). My interest in the show was piqued by friends on Twitter claiming it was less of a mystery and more of a Gothic-style exploration of trauma and memory. The book is that, of course, but less so. The mystery and the noir style is first and foremost, but when Sharp Objects becomes focused on the unique suffering of women, often at other women's hands, it transcends its quotidian mystery (which, and I'm not bragging here, I solved within 100 pages, that's how simple it is). After seeing Gone Girl and reading this book, I begin to understand the appeal of Flynn. She's tapping into the desire to see complicated women villains, to see women villains who aren't just femmes fatale or golddiggers or maneaters. They're women living in a patriarchal system, inescapably so, and how they lash out or writhe against those bonds. The show doesn't quite hit this note as hard as it does its affecting and extremely empathetic portrait of mental illness, my preferred aspect of the novel. I definitely cried watching the show. Where the novel stumbles, other than in its by-the-numbers mystery, is a tendency to over-explain. The narrator is at pains for you to understand absolutely everything. I'm surprised the narrator doesn't explain metaphors too while at it. The show's final few minutes are exquisite: suggestive, allusive, enigmatic. This goes against the novel's final 30 pages which are laborious, exhaustive in detail. Both are quite good, but the show is excellent.

The Separation is my first Priest novel and I suppose the first "science fiction" novel I've read since May. Though, my categorization of this novel as science fiction derives from the market's assignation of alternate history as science fiction. Surely we can all agree that alt-history falls under the umbrella of the literature of the Fantastic, but where it nudges against sci-fi is determined on a case-by-case scenario. I'm sure Priest is difficult to market for his publishers. His novels resist easy categorization. The Separation is World War Two alt-history, with a puzzling blurring of the contra-history and the factual history. There's no easy solution to the divergence; Priest only suggests a couple lynch points instead of laying it out. Instead, the alt-history and Fantastic elements are the stage-setting for a nuanced and conflicted portrait of pacifism, duty, and the corrupting nature of war. I admit I struggled a bit with this one. While I loved the puzzle aspect of it, the waffling about pacifism struck me as almost metafictional pacifism, a refusal to stop sitting on the fence. What is this novel about, exactly? It's tough to say and I'm not sure I have a clear answer. Pacifism? Brotherhood? Why use fantastical elements to tell a story which could have been excised of alt-history and probably still make its points? I still quite liked this book—it's elegantly written, ingeniously constructed—but I don't think my critical lens is sharp enough to figure it out. This is like reading Adam Roberts: I can detect the allusions, references, the superstructure, but I can't grasp them with any authority, at least not enough to glean meaningful or productive insights. Still, my own ignorance hasn't stopped from enjoying Roberts or The Separation (or at least not enjoying to the fullest capacity) so I'll keep trying!

I put Pet Sematary at number two in my "for shits and giggles" ranking of Stephen King's work (here). I'd have to read 'Salem's Lot again to be sure, but I still think it's a solid Silver next to the latter's Gold. It's definitely in vogue to dismiss King and his prodigious output but I still believe that King produced a handful of all-timers, maybe more than most of the Great Writers. Pet Sematary was a great reread for me. I first read it when I was in university (the first time around) and I was trying to fill in the gaps in my King bibliography. I remember so clearly, so vividly, reading the final page and being blown away. King often struggles with endings but he completely nails it here. It's easily his best ending. What disappointed me a bit this time around and maybe I'm being oversensitive is that I remember there being more of a cosmic horror angle. There's a suggestion at the end there is more to the Pet Sematary that meets the eye but when the dead kid comes back to life, he's violent and crude and annoying in the way all King villains here. It's a bit deflating when the monster speaks like it has the Hollywood version of Tourette's Syndrome. I guess years of reading cosmic horror, Lovecraftian stuff, Weird fiction has made me a bit resistant to King's singular brand of folksy conversationalist horror. Still, very glad I reread this. What a whopper of an end.

Friday, August 31, 2018

August Reads Part Two

The Ritual by Adam Nevill
Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell
The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay
The Likeness by Tana French

I last read Nevill in 2013, when I read Last Days. I guess he didn't make too big of an impact on me because it took me 5 years to get around to reading another one of his novels. I'd heard from a friend with excellent taste that Last Days isn't great but The Ritual is a big improvement, and I can definitely see that. I liked The Ritual quite a bit, especially the first half. In fact, I would go so far as to say I love the first half. Ever since reading Ketchum's Off Season and Simmons' The Terror, I've had a bit of a jones for survival horror or backwoods horror. The Ritual doubles down on this fairly hard in the first half, opening with the characters already lost, one of them already injured, and tensions running high. There is little time wasted on flashbacks or motivations or what have you. Rather it's just the four hikers against the oceanic black forest in Norway. Once I had reached the halfway point, and idly wondered how Nevill was going to fill another 200 pages after killing off most of his cast, the novel pivots to something else and it's a small letdown. I didn't love the direction the novel takes, but I also still enjoyed it. This isn't like Justin Cronin's deeply dumb The Passage (which I never finished because it was awful) which takes such an irritating left turn after its pretty decent opening. The Ritual doesn't have big ambitions like Cronin did. Instead, it just wants to fuck things up and give the reader a thrill. I can respect that. I can respect genre work which knows what it is and what its limits are. I was impressed enough with how little needless cruelty there was in this. In fact, there's a stupendous and very welcome amount of empathy in this novel, for its protagonists and even for its hapless misguided villains. I was shocked by how emotionally engaging the finale was. I don't think I'll wait another 5 years before reading another Nevill!

I last read Woodrell in July of 2013, the same month I read Nevill (!). It was just coincidence I revisited these two authors after 5 years in the same month. I don't remember a ton about Give Us a Kiss but I do remember really loving Winter's Bone. Tomato Red is more of the same, of course—not as refined as Winter's Bone in terms of plotting, but Woodrell's obvious empathy for the underclasses shines through. This novel gives us some absolutely fine prose in addition to the gentle sympathy. Here is Woodrell's narrator on the "holler," an Appalachian pronunciation of "hollow" (which is an example of an epenthetic r sound):

This holler, at night or during the day, either one, had the shape of a collapsed big thing, something that had been running and running until it ran out of gas and flopped down exhausted exactly here. The houses were flung out along this deep crease in the hills and the crease surely did resemble the posture of a forlorn collapsed creature. Scrub timber and trash piles and vintage appliances spread down the slopes and all around the leaning houses to serve as a border between here and everything that wasn't here.
Woodrell makes this stuff look easy, this hillbilly poetry, but his prose isn't simply gorgeous and all unexpected verbiage ("houses were flung," a great example of the expert passive voice) though this surely adds to his overall magic. No, it's not just the intensified physicality of the details, but this holistic magic trick. Woodrell is the type of author I can't get enough of: he performs sorcery with words but never loses his humanist attention. Here he is on the rich:
You know, the regular well-to-do world should relax about us types. Us lower sorts. You can never mount a true war of us against the rich 'cause the rich can always hire us to kill each other. Which they and us have done plenty, and with brutal dumb glee. Just toss a five-dollar bill in the mud and sip wine and watch bodies start flyin' about, crashing headfirst into blunt objects, and our teeth sprinle from our mouths, and the blood gets flowing in such amusing ways. Naw, it's always just us against us—guess who loses?
The plotting of Tomato Red doesn't quite make this happen as clearly as it could have been. Lots happens off-stage, with characters telling the audience what is happening. There's never a clear antagonist or threat to their existence. In noir, the most obvious obstacle to the protagonist is the protagonist themselves, something Woodrell picks up on, leaving behind the rich oligarchs to manipulate off-stage. 

The Likeness was better in some ways than French's first novel and worse in other ways, I'm sad to report. It seems everybody claims her second novel is her best, and if that's the case... I'm not sure how many more in this series I'll finish. The Likeness is fine. Just fine. Very readable. The prose is great, French's management of suspense is great, her characterization is pretty good. What she excels at is the low descent into chaos, the way her characters think they have things under control but they don't, the reader knows it and in the back of the protagonists' minds, they know too. Where The Likeness really sets itself apart from what I assume as vast swathes of homogeneous murder mysteries is the centering of the victim herself. I'm going to quote at length a bit of narration from Cassie, the protagonist.
Here's one of the more disturbing things about working Murder: how little you think about the person who's been killed. There are some who move into your mindchildren, battered pensioners, girls who went clubbing in their sparkly hopeful best and ended the night in bog drains—but mostly the victim is only your starting point; the gold at the end of the rainbow is the killer. It's scarily easy to slip to the point where the victim becomes incidental, half forgotten for days on end, just a prop wheeled out for the prologue so that the real show can start. (152)
It's hard not to read French as frustrated with her peers. And it's exactly the reason why I struggle with so much of the mystery genre: this pornographic obsession with the body of the victim and nothing to do with the life. Cassie's focus on the victim has a cost, much like the detective of the previous novel paid a cost for his investigation. The ambitions of The Likeness are admirable but it just wasn't enough to wow my socks off and I'm not sure if I can pinpoint what could have been done to do so.

Tremblay's novels have been enjoying hyperbolic praise, especially this new one, and I felt I had to read it. I'm not sure I can accurately state how good this book is. I'll have to leave it as just this, I'm afraid. Sometimes novels are so good as to defy analysis or review. I can't wait to read more of his work.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

August Reads Part One

In the Woods by Tana French
The Fungus by Harry Adam Knight

I generally avoid modern mystery novels because I find the violence inherent to the genre quite distasteful. The victims end up being forgotten, or barely props, their bodies poured over in almost pornographic detail, and usually, the victims are women, their violent deaths "solved" by troubled but brilliant detectives. From the reputation and the covers, I avoided French's series. However, the admin department at my work are all going bananas for these novels. They're all reading them and gushing over them, and since I trust (some of) them, I gave the first one a try. The great big positive I can say is that it's readable and the solution to the mystery is an afterthought, in the best way. Murders can't be "solved"; murder is an irrevocable problem without a reversing fix. Detectives can only find the transgressor and hope justice might prevail. I prefer my mystery novels to either have no solution (such as George Pelecanos' sublime The Night Gardener) or consider the irreparable damage a murder can have. French's In the Woods has two mysteries, only one of which has a solution, and that solution is presented without any of the usual fanfare. In fact, the detectives figure it out during a interrogation, an almost quotidian ending compared to most climaxes. However, the drawback to this casualness is that the victim and her family are less important to the whole narrative than the narrator's emotional crisis. The whole cast, save for the narrator's partner, feel disposable, like props in a stageplay to be discarded during a soliloquy. Thus, In the Woods feels like two competing, opposing forces: an investigation into the way the past haunts us and a murder mystery about sociopaths and the lengths they'll go to get what they want. It doesn't quite add up and it's almost frustrating because French clearly has a way with words and with characterization. The prose reminded me a lot of John le Carre, surprisingly, in the long spools of twisting dialogue and the careful, melancholy observations of the physical world. Everybody in the back office says the second one is better so I suppose I'll keep going.

The Fungus was the most fun I've had with a horror novel in a long time. I'm struggling with things to say about it, but I think it captures the kind of horror I like the most: the fungus is unstoppable, it is everywhere, in everything, from the largest to the microscopic and it is so terrifying in its totality that the novel verges on pure nihilism, an existential panic so complete as to be paralyzing. This novel marks a great halfway point between the more implacable Weird fiction and the creature-feature genre, which externalizes an internal threat (in this situation, the fear of plague and contagion). Fungus is one of my favourite "characters" in horror fiction and I'm surprised more isn't written about this mysterious and singular kingdom. This, by the way, is the cover of the edition I purchased.

I found out last night that venerable (but expensive) publisher Valancourt Books is releasing new editions of this fantastic title and Knight's harder-to-find Slimer. I also picked up, just by chance, Knight's Carnosaur (the basis for Roger Corman's Jurassic Park cash-in). So look back for more Harry Adam Knight in the next few months because I definitely loved this one enough to give more a try.

Friday, July 20, 2018

July Reads Part Two

The Moving Target by Ross MacDonald
The Drowning Pool by Ross MacDonald
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

I've exhaustively catalogued my desire to revisit MacDonald over the past two months, so I won't go into that here. The Moving Target is the first Lew Archer novel and I believe MacDonald's fourth overall. The mystery itself is simple and his usual gaggle of greedy wealthy Californians turn out to be relatively innocent, which is bizarre, considering the author's ire for them in later novels. The prose is stellar. Moments of introspection or descriptions of weather leap off the page. I'm not sure what the fuck I was talking about all those years ago when I said MacDonald was lifeless. Instead, it's Archer's malaise and weariness that provides the flatness, an aesthetic flatness, similar to Didion and Bret Easton Ellis. It's affected. This was great, especially as a dry run to the existential unease MacDonald will go on to perfect.


What a huge improvement. The second Archer novel, The Drowning Pool, takes 70 pages before getting to the murder so luridly referenced in the synopsis, and takes long detours (literally and figuratively) throughout much of the plot, leaving behind the ostensible subjects of the investigation. Archer is initially tasked with identifying the writer of a blackmail letter but his employer is absurdly reticent to provide any helpful information or workable leads. Archer's mix of stumbles and intuitive guesses lead him from the oil-rich—and regular richcounty in California to across state lines in Nevada. He meets a mendacious chauffeur, a conniving wife and star of illicit pornography, two men coded as gay, a psychotherapist whose favourite method is hosing down his patients, among others. Some of what makes this style of detective fiction (in the Hammett/Chandler mode) so memorable are the oddballs and ne'er-do-wells the protagonist meets along the way. These weirdos show up only for a scene or two, so they're not in dire need of deep, textured characterization; in fact, the more weird and shallow they are, the more sardonic and witty the protagonist's rejoinders can be. Of course, the trade-off is a lack of thematic cohesion. Which this one suffers from, a smidge. The plot veers into this scary psychotherapist and loses a bit of the overall picture, but gamely sticks the landing. The epilogue and finale are completely devastating and speak to the humanity and morality these books traffic in. He still hasn't quite coalesced the mystery and the exploration of unhappy families the way he does in later books, but there's a more obvious sign of the genius to come with this second novel than the first. I gave the book 5 stars on Goodreads but it should have been 4 and a half (Goodreads does not allow ½ stars).

Recently, a customer in the bookstore where I work overheard me mention I was reading Little Women; she complimented me, exclaiming "a man? reading Little Women Well done!" I said nothing, other than some noncommittal murmur, but I felt a bit weird about it. How low is the bar set when I can be congratulated simply for reading a pivotal text of American literature? That reading works by women is in of itself a task worthy of celebration? I didn't tell the customer that I try to read 50% gender parity (even though I haven't hit that number in two years) and I didn't tell her that my collection of Virago Modern Classics is about to hit a total of 75 titles. I felt the need to do so, to almost defend myself, even though her surprise was complimentary. I felt almost compelled to dismiss the praise, to minimize it, but I knew it would accomplish nothing but make the conversation, the social interplay that much more sticky, more complicated. After all, our subject positions are different. What I should have told her, but didn't, is that I quite liked it, and its insights into a specific class of white women in 19th century Maine are fascinating and alluring, all the more so for the novel's glimpses into that which is heretofore inaccessible for me.

I wasn't familiar with the novel beforehand, I have never seen any film adaptation, and as I was raised a boy, it was never a part of the fabric of my North American childhood, though it has been for countless women. Thus, I was surprised how the first half of the novel is structured as a loose series of moral lessons, small easily digestible snippets of daily life, though intentionally instructive. Little Women is not shy about this, frontloading its intentions in the first chapter. Alcott deftly sketches her four protagonists, though nobody can fault her that the sheer dynamism of Jo overshadows the other three by a tremendous degree. Jo is easily one of the most endearing protagonists of 19th century literature I've so far encountered. Not even Dickens seemed capable of making a more likeable, yet flawed human being.

We sometimes talk about bravery in art, about the strength needed to open one's self up for consumption by audiences. What we're often referring to, when we collectively congratulate authors for their sacrifice, is bifurcated by gender: for men, we applaud them for showing us their worst behaviour; and for women, their revealed trauma. Bustle, the women-centric blogging site, made an industry of mining women for their trauma (see Gawker's essay about this here); many of these writers were called brave but few enjoyed literary success or critical commentary. But authors like Knausgaard (whom I've never read and never plan to) are deemed "brave" for their style of confessional writing, which is more rooted in their base and craven behaviour. "Brave" as semantic categories shifts depending on subject position.

Alcott, like countless authors who are autobiographical in their fiction, is brave for a different reason. While confessional in that we learn Jo hasn't always been the best behaved, Little Women isn't pornographically focused on Jo's faults or how she has been hurt. Instead, there's a bravery in that Jo is a complicated character, based on the author, who isn't perfect, who isn't always likeable, who is often infuriating. This is confession without the lurid excess of violence or pain. This is confession for emotional maturity, not rapacious clicks. And thus, I find it a type of bravery no longer fashionable. And completely alluring.

Likewise, the series of moral lessons is scaffolded by this gentle strain of melancholy, the kind specific to parents can't help but watch their children learn all the small cruelties of everyday life. It's inevitable, from the opening scenes, the fates of the characters: they must all grow up. The pain of adulthood is so carefully and expertly drawn. We all know childhood must end, but the parting is still sorrowful, even if under the happiest of circumstances.

Little Women is a terrific read, even if its idealization of narrow fields of femininity are a bit bunk. What a looming shadow this novel casts over young adult fiction!

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Turning Around

An expired horse I tend to flagellate is questioning the purpose of my blog. Recently, I identified four uses of the blog: the archive, the exercise, the prose, and the growth. This last aspect applies to this post, in which I cogitate on the malleability of my opinions and the usefulness of my blog for charting that same shifting. Opinion drift, we might call it.

I've been itching quite badly to revisit Ross MacDonald (which I mentioned in my last meta-post) even though my earlier reviews of his novels make them seem a lot more average. I've kept working at MacDonald because I'm convinced there's something wrong with me, rather than something wrong with him. As the years have gone by, I've thought a lot about The Underground Man and my reaction to it. I wrote that I found it bland and lifeless. I'm embarrassed to report that I wrote this:
But a lot of the time, the muscular tough guy prose, a hallmark of the genre, is absent, replaced with simple flat descriptions. Like Hammett at his worst.
Oy vey. I can understand where Past Matthew was coming from; the reputation of a Chandler descendant made me believe I was in for, say, a Daniel Woodrell-style mystery (now there's an author I should revisit!) but what I read was something more. MacDonald's style is not one of detachment or aloofness, but a careful control of emotion. The danger in his novels isn't just bodily harm but letting these crimes, these generational crimes and lies and abuse wear Archer down. He has to stay apart, he has to stand away for fear of becoming embroiled or entangled in their sordid small lives. The dirt and decay of criminality is contagious in MacDonald's world and Archer, like Marlowe, must do what he can to stay clean. Hence, Archer's coolness. What I called "simple flat descriptions" are artfully composed and self-collected observances of an awful world.

Am I better reader now than then? Undoubtedly. Every year I grow (I hope) as a reader. My tastes haven't changed remarkably since I began this blog: I still prefer genre fiction over literary; I'm skeptical of realism but understand its practicability; aesthetics and structure interest me just a smidge more than the rudiments of plotting. However, my opinions on certain things have shifted, thanks to, in part, my growth as a reader.

Yet, I can't ascribe the entirety of opinion drift to how I read. I should responsibly attribute some of opinion drift to that fourth dimension, time. A glaring rot in the ecology of criticism is the immediacy of it: paid critics are paid to produce reviews in a timely manner, usually before or around the release date of the product. In film criticism, there's a rush for clicks by publishing one of the earliest reviews. io9 publishes articles aggregating early reactions to critic screenings of movie, an Ourobouros of first takes. Reviewers are encouraged to tweet their opinions while the end credits are still rolling.

But not all objects give up the goods that quickly. Some texts need time to work their magic, to burrow into the mind, to linger there, to take up residence. Some movies, for example, I thought were pretty good when I watched them, but as time marches forward, my opinion rises steadily, until I can't stop thinking about how much I loved that movie. I had a blast with Gareth Edwards' Godzilla (2014). Years later, I saw it a second time in the theatre and I had an almost transcendental experience with it. The film went from "fun monster movie I liked" to "existential environmentalist nightmare I worship." The shift wasn't instantaneous. Going into the theatre a second time was simply the tipping point. Rather, the opinion drift was slow and inexorable. The movie just needed time to work its way into my brain.

Likewise, Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries, which I read in February of 2014. I wrote that it "was pretty damn good." But time helped. I haven't reread it yet, though I will, because now I think about it as one of the best novels I've ever read, painstakingly plotted, ambitiously structured, practically flawless in its thematic exploration of greed, capitalism, colonialism. It's a novel I recommend to people all the time. Some texts strike you as stupendous the first instant (How to be both by Ali Smith, or really, any Ali Smith) and some take only a couple days (Sarah Schmidt's See What I Have Done). The Luminaries was "pretty damn good" but it just needed a year or two to work around in my head.

A final example: Jack Ketchum's Off Season, which I read in October of 2016. I wrote that it was empty misanthropy but that I was still impressed by its ferocity. Now I think of it a lot when I think of extreme horror. I think of how much it shook me, how much it carved me, lacerated me, wounded me. Visceral, thrilling, chaotic, but still tightly controlled. I found myself checking the results of the recommendation algorithm on Goodreads to scratch that itch of survival horror. That same month, I read Floating Dragon, which stunned me for its grandeur, but I search my memory and it didn't electrify me in the same short shock way Off Season did. I think I sold my paperback of it, which was a critical mistake. Which isn't to say that Straub hasn't improved in my memory. I often recollect the horrors of Koko and Mystery, but they didn't quite stir me the same way Floating Dragon did.

I stuck mostly with positive examples of opinion drift in this post. I could have gone on with just as many, if not more, examples of films and books I've soured on in the intervening years. I thought I might keep proceedings upbeat for this post, because on the whole, I'm grateful for opinion drift. I like that my thoughts and feelings aren't static. I'm not inflexible, this proves. I'm not stuck in the same place, this shows. I look at my blog and though embarrassed by things I've wrote, I've never deleted a post (I have made some posts inaccessible because I feared I was being plagiarized by university students seeking free intellectual labour). I'd rather look back and see how I feel differently and why. It's much more interesting that way. Why bother blogging if it's going to be the same thoughts tilled over and over?

Thursday, July 5, 2018

July Reads Part One

The Terror by Dan Simmons
The Bridge by John Skipp and Craig Spector

I bought The Terror the day it was released, way back in January of 2007. I had graduated university, during which I devoured his Hyperion Cantos, all four books, and had dabbled in some of his other books (such as the eye-rollingly bad Darwin's Blade, a novel I'm shocked I managed to finish) but none of his non-science fiction works excited me. The Terror has a cracking premise: what if the lost Franklin Expedition was actually picked off by a terrible beast? The first time I read it, I thoroughly enjoyed the first couple hundred pages but I stalled out, thanks to Simmons' renowned loquacity and clumsy exposition. This time, I had a bit more luck (opting to check the item out from my local library, instead of buying the book a second time).

Simmons does a lot of research for his novels and he wants you to know it. Every page feels crammed with arcane facts and hyper-specialized jargon gleaned from endless hours of research. However, where Simmons stumbles—other than his notorious and well-documented Islamophobia—is the integration of research into narrative. I'm the last person to quibble that exposition feels forced or unnatural. I'm not married to realism. However, sometimes Simmons gives us a bit of prose so cumbersome as to elicit chortles. Here's a tin-eared chunk from page 368:
Bridgens smiled. "I was almost jealous when he lent you that book. What was it? Lyell?"
"Principles of Geology," said Peglar. "I didn't really understand it. Or rather, I did just enough to realize how dangerous it was."
"Because of Lyell's contention about the age of things," said Bridgens. "About the very un-Christian idea that things change slowly over immense aeons of time rather than very quickly due to very violent events."
Not only does it sound awful but it doesn't quite make sense. Why would Bridgens be jealous a book was lent to anybody if he didn't know what it was? And also, if he knew what it was, and what the book was about, why would he be jealous? The next page features something even worse:
"Charles Babbage?" said Peglar. "The fellow who tinkers with many odd things including some sort of computing engine?"
Barf. I do like historical fiction and I especially like anachronistic historical fiction—historical fiction is, by definition, a construction and a fantasy, so why adhere so strictly to "historical fact" which is meaningless. However, the knowing winks and prodding elbows like that aforementioned Babbage line provide more cringes than the warm comfortable knowledge. That's all these knowing asides are for: comforting the reader, making them feel smart for "getting" the joke. It's empty manipulation. 

When Simmons lets go of this ungainly style and stretches forward into phantasmagoria, I'm entirely on board. The main protagonist, Captain Crozier, quits drinking after his private reserves run out and he goes through intense withdrawal. Instead of portentous dreams laden with symbolism, Simmons flashes forward and across space, giving Crozier glimpses of his fate and how the lost Expedition touches other lives. It's all the more horrifying because the reader knows everybody's eventual future (death on the ice) and Crozier does too; there's little he can do to avoid it.

The Terror is pretty good but boy does it need a trim. The climax happens with ~100 pages still to go. There's a killer 500 page novel in here but without that long steady march to oblivion which characterizes much of the horror (not the monster but the survivalist stuff) it might not be as effective.

I read The Light at the End by Skipp and Spector back in October of 2016. I wrote of that novel, "The Light at the End is violent, nasty, and ultimately a meat grinder for its cast" and the same can be applied to The Bridge. Where the former novel fascinated me for its depiction of a dystopic New York City, the latter, with its didactic environmentalism and abundance of characters, frustrated me. When The Bridge is describing its horrors, its wonderfully over-the-top abominations, the novel works for me. When it's introducing yet another character, an inevitable victim for the meat grinder, I was a bit impatient. I wish The Bridge had been a bit longer or a bit shorter. With more room, characterization, something Skipp and Spector are quite good at, could have improved. I guess I keep wondering how and why these two authors could produce something as sweet and caring as Animals but be more well known for obviously inferior stuff like The Bridge. If the Bridge and The Light at the End and The Clean-Up (which I found for 2 bucks at a local bookstore just recently) are what Skipp and Spector are famous for, what influenced and impacted a generation of horror writers, then imagine how much more ahead of the curve they were with Animals, a stupendous exercise in empathy (a key ingredient in effective horror). I still liked The Bridge but I wanted something more or something leaner. At its current length, it's not quite enough or it's too much to be the shock it wants to be.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

June Reads Part Three

Pact of the Fathers by Ramsey Campbell
Slow Horses by Mick Herron
Burley Cross Postbox Theft by Nicola Barker

It's been too long since I enjoyed a Campbell novel. He's such a unique voice in today's market; his version of "quiet horror," from a long lineage including Charles L. Grant and Robert Aickman, just doesn't seem marketable any more. My guess is that Campbell's horror isn't as "cinematic" as other horror writers such as Clive Barker or Stephen King. Even big upcoming horror writers doing Weird fiction (capital W) such as Michael Wehunt or Matthew M. Bartlett are more "cinematic" and thus easier to market than Campbell's quiet slow horror. The allure of Campbell isn't so much the horror aspects but the exacting poetic prose and his control of narrative. In Pact of the Fathers, nothing much happens and nothing surprises the reader. From the moment the plot begins, there is little that will shock the reader. Instead, I devoured this novel thanks to its masterful control and its stunning prose. In one instance, Campbell describes a cold glass of water as "musical with ice." This description has stuck with me for days! I'm never disappointed by a Campbell novel, but I still haven't read one which pushed into the realm of superb. He's just a comforting read.

Slow Horses and the rest of the Slough House series has been garnering some intense praise in the UK. One article, listing the greatest spy novels of all time, put the first book of the series at the end of the list(!). I had heard Herron uses the long lineage of spy fiction, especially Le Carre, to subvert, to interrogate. I can't say I was terribly impressed with the first 100 or so pages—too much quippy dialogue and too much exposition—but after the volta if you will, my interest was quite piqued. Herron has a great skill with plotting but shows off his hand a bit too much. I reread my review for The IPCRESS File, and I noted I found the novel tedious thanks to its interest in seemingly extraneous details. I think reading it now, I would find it a different experience, one more opaque and exclusionary (I can't seem to find a review or even a listing marking the exact month in 2012 I read Funeral in Berlin, which I remember adoring it in comparison to the first of the "Harry Palmer" novels), which I must admit interests me a bit more than Herron's expository style. If there's a spectrum, with the opacity of Deighton's IPCRESS File on one end (along with Le Carre's The Honourable Schoolboy), then Herron is almost at the opposite end, but not quite all the way. He withholds some details, enough to give jolts of surprise but only ever in the next scene. In other words, Herron is writing marketable spy fiction which upends much of the stalwart, stiff upper lip aristocratic tropes of Le Carre but is still resolutely within the bounds of marketable genre fiction. Herron's George Smiley, as it were, is a flatulent, corpulent grumbler, wearing still the same shabby overcoat with ludicrously deep pockets. Jackson Lamb, this character, is fun in the way Trickster characters, like the Seventh Doctor or Willy Wonka: the bumbling is only subterfuge. I think I'll read the next in the series. Let's see how Herron refines his approach.

 Another month, another Nicola Barker, this time her epistolary novel, Burley Cross Postbox Theft, which has the clever premise of a collection of letters presented as evidence in the investigation of the titular theft. The Byzantine plotting Barker is a fan of gets even more elaborate as the holistic picture is left to the reader to assemble. The solution to the mystery, if it can be called a mystery, is probably impossible to solve thanks to the plot's impenetrability. Still, I don't read Barker for clever mysteries; I read Barker for her prose, her wit, her weirdness; and this novel has these ingredients in droves. Populated by a gang of outsiders, weirdos, hippies, stuffy aristocrats, this village is teeming with the small (but not unimportant) drama of everyday life. Barker mines comedic gold from the dissembling and obfuscation in personal narrative, such as, in an extreme example, a translator's version of African French to English not matching the original letter, also included (but in English). This novel was a bit more slow going for me than her other books if only because instead of her usual tintinnabulation of conversation she opts for long paragraphs of first person narrative. Still, Barker's similes and obvious cleverness shine through each and every letter, making this a treat. Very few writers know their way around an adverb like Barker does.