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.