Friday, March 2, 2018

February Reads Part Three

Jerusalem by Alan Moore
The Stay-Awake Men and Other Unstable Entities by Matthew M. Bartlett
Mystery by Peter Straub

My word I had a productive February: 9 books—two of which are "novella" length, and one of which was 447 pages of densely packed, tiny type; I did not read all of Jerusalem in one month lol. I read some long novels (Children of Time was over 600 pages; Mystery, Pushing Ice, and Dune were each over 500 pages). The grant total, if I might boast, is 3,716 pages of fiction in one month! My goal of reading longer novels for 2018 has so far been a success, especially since I completed Jerusalem, of which I won't say too much, as I'm hoping to write something a bit substantial (fingers crossed I find the energy).

It should be no surprise that I loved Bartlett's collection, The Stay-Awake Men and Other Unstable Entities. I purchased it from a small press in the US, and including shipping, the 93 page hardcover cost me over 50 dollars. Before purchasing this, I hemmed and hawed, wondering if it would be worth the steep price. The ratio of page to dollar was higher than I like to spend, he said only half facetiously. What finally pushed me was my memory of reading Gateways to Abomination (reviewed here, at the end of the post)(I didn't realize that was more than a year ago! It felt only like last year!). I adored that collection so much, and a smattering of Bartlett stories I had read throughout 2017 (including one that felt strangely out-of-character in this collection) so of course, I rationalized the expense and went for it. I wasn't disappointed. While not every story had the same zing and zap as others I had read, the collection on the whole is terrific, frightening, and beautiful. Bartlett's skills aren't simply in finding new spins on old horror tropes, nor his admirable skill in describing violence and gore, but in his unparalleled ability to sustain an atmosphere of unease and weirdness throughout the entire piece. The worlds in Bartlett's stories are recognizable as our own, but slightly askew, slightly off, providing a tremendous and horrifying potentiality—anything can happen in Bartlett's stories. His pieces do not seem to care about the traditional pathways of narrative in horror fiction—he zags where everybody else zigs. I know Mark Fisher would adore Bartlett had he read this obvious master of horror.

Mystery was an improvement over Koko (reviewed here) but not by much. This is my second Straub in a row where I wasn't disappointed, per se, but not overjoyed the way I was reading Floating Dragon or Ghost Story. I complained that Koko was missing the baroque prose and intricacy I was used to, and at least Mystery provides those two in spades. Reading this was often a pleasurable experience simply for Straub's delicate and tender description. You can tell that Straub likes to write and he likes to push himself. Here's an author trying something new every time, not repeating himself. Mystery improves on Koko thanks to its more myopic focus, on the emotional development of a single character, rather than the sprawling cast of the latter. Tom Pasmore, our precocious protagonist, is sometimes an emotional blank slate, a bit of a robot at times, but the overall arc, his disillusionment with the status quo, is more often than not compelling. The central mystery at the heart isn't as compelling, but one of the characters provides an explicit reason for this: mystery novels are often more about the psychological journey of the detective than the solution to the plot. We're asked, more than once, to consider how it feels to detect, to solve. I wish the novel had been a bit shorter; there's an affliction plaguing these authors from the 80s and 90s and that's bloat. Not all novels have to be 500+ pages, Mr. Straub. I'll continue with the Blue Rose Trilogy, as I hear the metafiction games get more complicated in the third volume.

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