Sunday, April 28, 2019

April Reads Part Three

The Ivory Grin by Ross MacDonald
Spring by Ali Smith
Mr Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters by John Langan
The Nest by Gregory A. Douglas

There comes a time when you have to admit an author pulled one over on you. Usually, I can predict twists and solutions to mysteries. I've read enough mysteries to get a feel for how these stories move. The killer won't be that character because it's too obvious, but it can't be this other character either, because that's not tragic or shocking enough. And while I might have guessed a substantial part of the mystery in The Ivory Grin, the eponymous skull and the rest of its skeleton, surprised me. Which is lovely! It's fun to be surprised! As with other MacDonald novels, I loved this, especially its quiet moments. He deploys these Ozu-like transitions, these moments of quietude between long scenes of dialogue, and this is where the poet in MacDonald shows off:
It was late afternoon when I drove through Arroyo Beach to the ocean boulevard. The palm-lined sand was strewn with bodies like a desert battlefield. At the horizon sea and sky merged in a blue haze from which the indigo hills of the channel islands rose. Beyond them the sun's fire raged on the slops of space.
I  turned south into traffic moving bumper to bumper, fender to fender, like an army in retreat. The arthritic trees cast long baroque shadows down the cemetery hill. (210)
The novel grapples, quite consciously, with Black folks being railroaded by police. Even though one character couldn't have possibly committed the murder, he is arrested and jailed without charge because he is Black and he was there. MacDonald wrote this in 1952, 3 years before Rosa Parks, 3 years before Emmett Till, and 2 years before Brown v. Board of Education. For a white writer of mysteries, he risked little to express this sympathy for Black folks, but that he did is pretty commendable. However, his Black characters still have a taint of simplicity to them. Perhaps this improves with subsequent volumes.

The next Archer book in the series is Find a Victim, which I read in January of 2014. I'll skip it for The Barbarous Coast, the last novel in the "Archer in Hollywood" omnibus I own. After that is The Doomsters (which I read November 4, 2010) and then what everybody considers the high point of the entire series, The Galton Case. Eventually, and not in the too-distant future, I'll have read every single one, and I can go back to re-read the ones from 2014 and earlier.

Spring might be Ali Smith's longest novel and most ambitious. In one plotline, a washed-up TV director, now forgotten by the masses, considers suicide by train. In the other, a guard for a migrant detention centre gets roped into a journey by a little girl, fulfilling the classic Smith role of precocious disruptor. These two strands converge, things get disrupted, puns are made, and it ends with an honest-to-goodness climax. I liked this one more than Autumn, but not as much as Winter, which rises in my estimation with time. I don't have much to say about this, but we're 3 books down, with 1 to go, and this is an incredible project. I feel so blessed to live in a world where Ali Smith publishes a book a year.

I read the short story "Mr Gaunt" about four years ago in the anthology New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird and I was so jazzed by it, I started an entire blog post about it. I took notes, I drafted an opening paragraph, but then was distracted by this or that. On the strength of that memory, I purchased hardcover copies of the collection and his debut novel House of Windows (I picked up both used and cheap, so it wasn't the end of the world cost-wise). Finally, I got around to the collection, and it's a bit of a mixed bag. Rereading "Mr Gaunt" was a bit of a letdown, I'm afraid to report. I kept asking myself what I was so fired up about with this story. It's okay! Langan's prose is lovely, truly a close disciple of Henry James and M. R. James, both in prose and in affect. His stories are lush with detail, long and patient, but it's this adolescent self-consciousness which drags the stories down. He's not satisfied with clever easter eggs; his narrators explicitly name-check the influences. This attitude strikes me as snotty: "I'm not like those other horror hacks; I've read the classics and I want you to know." It weighs down the stories, makes them stuffy and almost inaccessible. The horror becomes distanced, more abstract than the physical details Langan describes intend. T. E. D. Williams managed this threading of influences with visceral horror quite a bit more smoothly. The final story, a previously unpublished novella titled "Laocoon, or the Singularity" was my favourite of the bunch: an sculptor discovers a weird Giger-style sculpture in the garbage, brings it home, and obsesses over finishing its face. The disintegration of his personal life, coupled with his failed artistic career, are handled well. The symbiosis of pop culture artifacts and texture with the horror and the personal doesn't quite work as well. Still, a good story. Langan shows a lot of promise, and hopefully with his next collection, he's shaken off the teen angst at being taken seriously.


I didn't read The Nest in the fancy new Valancourt edition. Nor did I read the American paperback with its famous cover. I did buy a copy online, expressly due to the cover, but the edition I was mailed was the UK edition, with a not-so-great cover, pictured above. It's also riddled with more type errors than I've ever encountered in a professionally published work. Yowza.

 This is one of the worst novels I've ever had the pleasure of reading. I try not to hate-read or hate-watch or irony-consume anything. I like to meet cultural objects at their level. And for most of The Nest, I did. I got a kick out of the purple prose, the completely wild violence, the better-than-average command of plotting. But as the novel wore on, for 450 pages, my patience began to deplete. Part of it is the incessant exposition, the entomology factoids lobbed at the reader, over and over. Two of the characters are the classic professor, the patrician expert from Harvard or whatever, spooling out reams of information, all meant to rationalize the horror. Which is my least favourite part about horror from the 80s. You don't need to justify the existence of this monster! Just let the monstrous invade the Real!! Perhaps that's why I gravitate more towards cosmic horror than creature feature stuff. I prefer my horror existential than physical.

And physicality is this book's raison d'ĂȘtre. There's an alarming amount of sexually-adjacent violence and genital mutilation described. In one telling scene, a man, running naked through the woods with his hand cuffed behind his back, decides to nestle into a pile of leaves to sleep through the night. No, the circumstances by which he finds himself there don't matter, so don't bother asking. He quickly realizes this pile of leaves feels enough like a woman (????), he is aroused, and he fucks the pile of leaves, the vibrations being enough to awaken the nest of sleeping cockroaches dangerously nearby. There are also numerous instances of penises being eaten or orifices being invaded by the villainous insects. One hilarious bit has a man and woman enjoying a steamy makeout session and he slips his finger inside her. She begins to protest because she doesn't like to be touched there—"there" being her anus—and it only takes the reader a second to realize the man isn't touching her there, but something else is!! A nasty bit of humour.   

As a final bit, I hope you're ready to enjoy the worst sex scene I've ever read. I'm going to quote it at length:
...and she spread herself wider, welcoming, wanting, lusting for him now. She felt Peter Hubbard enter her body. He was full and strong and straight. She uttered one cry which gave away in a moment to a gasp of ecstasy.
She held him fast inside of her as the deck of her life lsted in the sudden story of emotions she had never sailed before. She clung to him harder as her body became a skimming craft on swelling seas. She rose and fell, bobbed and turned and wheeled and heeled. She was a ship running before the wind of love; she was its sails; he was its keel. She was a bird; he was its wings.
Then suddenly she was the wind itself, and scudding clouds filled up with thunder and with the lightening he was charging up in her and charging up in her. Until she could contain it no longer. Like a storm sky she split, the thunder crashed out of her and the burst of her orgasm shook the world.
They came crashing to release together, both riven to the core. Then the tempest passed, easing easing at last to let their hearts clear and quiet in the fading wind, quieted the deep-breathing in a sleepy peace in each other's arms. (412)
Just awful. Men should be banned from writing about sex and/or women.

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