Friday, December 2, 2016

November Reads

The Hour of the Oxrun Dead by Charles L. Grant
The Influence by Ramsey Campbell
The Elementals by Michael McDowell
The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson
The King of Swords by Michael Moorcock
Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates
Ancient Images by Ramsey Campbell
Cold Print by Ramsey Campbell
The Centauri Device by M. John Harrison
The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall
Phallos by Samuel R. Delany
A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson
The Urth of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe

Maybe because it's been so long since I've read The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, if I've read it at all, but Kij Johnson's pastiche left me wholly cold. Going in, I thought the novella used Lovecraft as thematic inspiration, not literally precursor to this obvious sequel. The twists by Johnson on the Lovecraft formula were compelling (a middle aged woman is our hero; there's no racism!) but reading this novella left me wondering what was the point? Why read this when Lovecraft's version is perfectly acceptable? Johnson obviously has the skills of prose and characterization and a professional grasp of pacing and plot—yet I wonder what could have been if those energies had been directed towards something less literal or loyal to Lovecraft. I respect the project of rewriting the master to remove his racism and sexism, but erasing his bigotry does a disservice to the intrinsic qualities of what makes Lovecraft's visions so horrifying. Ultimately, I'm left cold by Johnson, though not full of respect for her craft, and I'm scrambling to pinpoint exactly what it was. It could be that my tastes for Lovecraftian fiction verge more towards the ruthless pillaging of his work than that which is inspired.

The Elementals is my third McDowell and at this stage, I can happily assert he was a true master of horror, at the level of King or Lovecraft. What makes him so interesting as a writer is his willingness to invest so much energy in his characters and their interactions. While The Amulet was impressive for its ruthless dispatching of characters, Cold Moon Over Babylon and The Elementals take their time building towards a crescendo of pure terror which works thanks to McDowell's characterization and astute eye for detail, either geographic or interpersonal. The Elementals represents, to me, horror fiction at its absolute finest: lean, intriguing, compelling, horrifying, frightening, and awe-inspiring. Throughout my read of this novel, which I parcelled out carefully as to savour the gorgeous prose, I kept experiencing frissons of excitement, giddiness, the kind that comes when you realize you're reading something so masterful and exquisite. It was pure pleasure to read The Elementals from its Southern Gothic miasma to its folksy charm. During the magnificent setpieces of terror, it dawned on me I was sweating, I was tense, a rarity for the jaded reader of horror. On top of this magisterial performance of fright, McDowell does productive work with the Southern Gothic discourse so finely tuned by masters such as Flannery O'Connor.

A major character in this novel is simultaneously a reinforcement of the "Magical N***o" and a repudiation of that trope. The white characters look to this domestic employee for information on the nature of the evil and though Odessa knows much, she keeps repeating she doesn't know everything. In fact, she insists the spirits do not abide by rational logic at all, making it literally impossible to ascertain their motives or even the rules by which they haunt. Odessa is "closer" to the spiritual world by dint of her blackness, an unfortunate reinscribing of the aforementioned trope, but she is not presented as all-knowing or a keeper of arcane knowledge out of reach from whiteness. A scene of Odessa performing a ritual to protect her white charges is shown later to be a failure—either because the titular elementals do not observe the common rules of haunting or because, it's implied, Odessa isn't armed with the correct command of the spirit world. As with much of McDowell's work, class and race in the South is never simplistic monochromatic concerns but nuanced and on a gradient of understanding. The Elementals isn't as engrossed in matters of class as The Amulet (which positively dripped with scorn for the illusion of class) though it does touch on these concerns with the usual charm and wit McDowell carries. 

Even writing these short paragraphs on The Elementals infused me with excitement to read more of his works. His other novels are a bit hard to come by (such as Katie and Toplin) but I own two hardcover omnibuses of his Blackwater series. 

Ramsey Campbell is a name I've heard much about, but didn't know where to start. I picked up his collection of Lovecraftian short fiction Cold Print as my tome of entry into his significant bibliography. I had heard about his gorgeous, hypnotic prose, and interest in "quiet horror." Cold Print offered some delights, none of which blew me away until 1964's "The Horror From the Bridge" (which you can read here). The story's strong effect (affect) came from Campbell's seemingly innate understanding of how Lovecraftian fiction as well as a very strong, almost lordly command of the rhythm and possibilities of prose. This story was enough for me to dive into one of his novels. I chose The Influence for its garish 1980s cover and its promise of "quiet horror" (obviously not promised by the cover blurbs or publisher's feverish shrieks of advertisement, but promised by reviewers and the writer himself).

I read the entire volume in one day. Though The Influence provided no surprises (and indeed, followed a pattern seemingly wrought in ancient stone), it was Campbell's prose and characterization that had me reading so quickly. Rarely do the horror paperbacks of the 1980s offer such delightful turns of phrase as found in The Influence. And if Campbell didn't stack his novel with singular setpieces of terror, he at least found time for one tense sequence on a train, a sequence carefully tuned for maximum Hitchcockian anxiety. I'm so pleased with Campbell's work that I must devour more of his oeuvre. Expect more reviews of Campbell in the future.

Charles L. Grant is a name one sees enough when pilfering through piles of paperbacks in used bookstores. He sits underneath many "Edited By" credits on covers of anthologies and his Oxrun novels can be easily found. Here is yet another author I read on the promise of "quiet horror." The Hour of the Oxrun Dead is the first in a loosely organized 12 book series about a fictional city/town/village (depending on the author's need) called Oxrun. The first novel, with its back cover unspooling its secrets too easily, concerns a young widow stumbling across a conspiracy in Oxrun, with machinations from the highest of political/economic positions. The plot isn't noteworthy, but Grant's characterization is aces. His protagonist and her romantic possibility are charming as all hell, a Nick and Nora without the booze, and every scene is livened by Grant's semi-ironic awareness of how horror operates. This isn't horror for those who like King's realism thrust against the countenance of the terrifying unknown, but rather horror for those who appreciate personality and a carefree attitude towards the strict adherence to seriousness. Not that Grant is a humorist or wilfully detached from the importance of horror; rather, Grant knows we're all here for a good yarn and not much else. The Hour of the Oxrun Dead was a splendid confection. I'm going to happily read more of his stuff, but let's not pretend that this novel is an intellectual giant towering over everybody else. I feel his reputation as this Grandmaster of Horror might have coloured other people's generous readings of this novel. Still, it was imminently professional and excellently written.

I felt like I had been reading Bellefleur for a month, despite enjoying almost every moment of it. I purchased my copy at Myopic Books in Chicago (a fabulous bookstore, by the way) way back in 2014, but only got around to it this year. I read The Falls by Oates back then, as well, and enjoyed it.

I should really stop reading Goodreads reviews of books. They set up these expectations in my mind and more often than not, the reviewers on Goodreads are unimaginative, myopic, inelegant, and sometimes utterly wrong. Consider this poor schmuck on Bellefleur: "the narrative jumped around chronologically from chapter to chapter, which also adds to the cognitive confusion." Yes, those non-linear structures sure are the worst. Or this asshole: "If I have to edit the book myself, by removing unnecessary clauses and descriptors to tease out the meaning of the sentence, then the writing is too flamboyant for me." God help you if you're forced to witness some style, you cretin. Or this guy and his incorrect adverb: "Because it's literally impossible to keep things straight from one page to the next, sometimes even one paragraph to the next." Really? It's literally impossible? I understand the reviewer is being hyperbolic and deploying "literally" in its newest form (an intensifier)—this reviewer did give the book four stars, so at this point, I'm just being a judgey dick. Still, the pile of 1 and 2 star reviews, only a handful of which are well reasoned, are depressing. One downside to the democratization of art is the sheer buffoonery masquerading as criticism on sites like Goodreads.

As for Bellefleur, my opinion vacillates between "love" and "very much like." Certainly, I prefer this text over The Falls, which isn't to say the latter was a failure. Rather, Bellefleur scratched multiple itches for me: Gothic family saga, some unobtrusive magical realism (an aesthetic mode I generally struggle with), an endless brood of cats, and violence, heaps upon heaps of violence, without falling into the realm of exploitative horror. Instead, the violence, the death, the non-linear structure (which is deceivingly non-linear, as there is a supra-narrative which still runs forwards in time), all come together in a passage around the halfway point: "The living and the dead. Braided together. Woven together. An immense tapestry taking in centuries." Death is an integral part of living, the Bellefleur family find themselves reminding each other, and living is an integral part of death. The clever chronology of the novel serves the thematic structure: by juxtaposing the past against the present, the narrative finds a timelessness, not in the sense of "outside of time" but rather in the sense that all things happen at the same time. One of the younger members of the family, a surviving member, publishes a long scientific treatise on the nature of, the liquidity of time, further underlining Oates' aims with Bellefleur. Instead of a complex chronology in which the reader must remember who sires whom, Bellefleur asks the reader to imagine intersecting planes, planes of characters with similar names, planes of feeling, of death, of life, all co-existing at the same moment, but stretched out for the reader to comprehend the tale/tales in its totality. All the while, Oates' glorious, loose, attention-seeking prose cluttering the dense pages. Oates might never be mistaken for a prose stylist on the level of Nabokov but certainly her work here stresses the malleability, the limits of the word.

I had been meaning to read M. John Harrison for eons, especially after the positively glowing reception Jonathan McCalmont gave Light. Published much earlier, The Centauri Device is an essential text in science fiction for multiple factors: firstly, it's an example of New Wave science fiction, a fountain from whence sprung the New Space Opera and secondly, it's an example of proto-cyberpunk, a genre I've written ample about before, not necessarily in subject (as there is no hacking or Orientalism) but in overall outlook: bleak, cold, empty, a universe devoid of warmth or light. However, Harrison's novel doesn't wallow in darkness—at least not in the cartoonish way some late-era cyberpunk does. Instead, like the above Charles L. Grant novel, the characters bounce off the page with wit and liveliness, snarky and hilarious, without falling into the quippy Joss Whedon trap (a style I'm religiously allergic to). More than anything, the prose was utterly divine. Again, another book I hesitate to over-praise, but this was revelatory. I had little inkling prior to this that prose could do such beautifully twisting and magnificent things. Pure poetry. I loved this book. A strong contender for best of the year, easily.

Wolfe's The Urth of the New Sun was a terrific coda to the original quartet: thematically deep, full of rich allusions to the previous books, while simultaneously forging ahead in terms of plot. As usual, Wolfe's writing is gorgeous. I find one pleasure to be had in his fiction is his ability to open and then close off thoughts with only a sentence; Wolfe has very little need for semicolons or em dashes. It's an efficiency in descriptive power more authors should strive for. The concluding adventure of Severian offers as many questions as it does answers. A cursory Google search will exhume countless theories and speculations on the part of the series' fans, demonstrating the lasting appeal of Wolfe's multifaceted enigma. I waver on pronouncing the books, especially this final volume, perfect or masterpieces: I suspect Wolfe's strategy was more of obfuscation than artistic exploration. I don't believe there are any concrete answers to be had, neither in critical analysis nor in the following 7 (!) books. Even recognizing the deffering stratagem at its heart, Wolfe's novel bears pleasurable fruit: the enjoyment of the prose, the complexity of the plot, the Catholic handwringing which seems to be a quality of some of my favourite art (Ulysses, Scorsese, etc). After all, what is Severian's trial at the centre of this novel but the individual's wrestle with guilt over sin? Perhaps the greatest accolade I can pay Wolfe's quartet and coda is while reading The Urth of the New Sun, I felt exhilarated and compelled to return to the first novel and relive it all anew. Though not perfect—Wolfe's treatment of women probably never improves, no matter how many tomes he produces—I'm still excited about diving deeper into the waters of the New Sun.

I read Phallos and A Taste of Honey the same day, pure coincidence, though they both resonated with each other. Both were fabulous, especially the Delany (rare is a work by Delany that isn't goddamn brilliant), and I eagerly appoint Wilson my writer to watch from now on.

I'm working on a longer essay for Zoe Whittall's The Best Kind of People. For now, let me say I enjoyed it immensely.

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