21 December 2007

Lugones' "The Pillar of Salt" and "Psychon"

I decided to finish the book off early, so the last two stories get bunched into one entry...

"The Pillar of Salt" is the story of a hermit who achieves spiritual transcendence and then seeks out the remains of Lot's wife. At this point, I can say that there seem to be two story types in this collection: creepy semi-parables and plot-less science fiction. This story is an example of the first and is pretty good.

"Psychon" is a pretty cool title, and the story despite being of the second, plot-less kind is pretty satisfying. This one is about a scientist who has managed to isolate a gas he believes may be the elemental representation of consciousness. The ending is just about at the right level of creepy and funny.

Lugones' "Yzur"

The first-hand account of a scientist who tries to teach his pet chimpanzee to talk. Interesting and not quite as plotless as some of the others. Some questionable evolutionary and linguistic concepts are cited, and it's idea of apes as humans evolved backwards is intriguing. Ultimately, the scientist beats the chimpanzee because he believes the chimp is hiding his ability to speak, with tragic results.

20 December 2007

Lugones' "Viola Acherontia"

OK, I have to admit the whole plotlessness of Lugones' fiction is starting to wear on me. This story may be a brilliant gem or it may simply be a lot of botany technobabble concluded with a creepy description of a very singular plant. Intriguing, but starting to feel too repetitious.

19 December 2007

Lugones' "The Horses of Abdera"

An interesting story which reads like something of a parable. The city of Abdera prides itself on its horses and spoils them until they rebel, besieging the city that has spoiled them. As with "The Firestorm" there's something creepy about the scenes of urban destruction, this time by a somewhat fantastic variation on the violence of mobs. It ends with a deus ex machina (emphasis on the deus) that had me scratching my head, making it a little less satisfying then Firestorm. It was hard to tell what the horses were meant to represent. Spoiled youths? Immigrants? The working class? (My guess would be the latter, though I'd have to know more about Lugones' politics to say definitively.)

18 December 2007

Lugones' "Origins of the Flood"

This is the most Lovecraftian of the Lugones' stories so far as Lugones' narrator reveals a prehistoric vision of life on earth that is as vast and alien as that of "At The Mountains of Madness." The narrator is unidentified at first, but near the end of the story we learn that it is a medium channeling the thoughts of one of the few proto-human survivors, a creature which is (in adding to the overall Lovecraftian vibe) half-woman/half-fish and as white as the moon. Again, there is some pretty dense pseudo-science describing the strange chemistry of prehistoric life. The science is particularly dated, as Lugones suggests elemental transformatios versus chemical (as opposed to nuclear) reactions, which we now know is impossible; but it's still sort of fascinating, an attempt to ground the fiction in theory.

17 December 2007

Lugones' "The Omega Force"

(A title which sounds like it could be a cheesy action flick.)

Sort of a companion piece to Metamusic, since both deal with an eccentric individual who creates an invention that harnesses the properties of sound in an interesting way (with ultimately disastrous results). And pretty much everything that I said about that story would apply to this one as well.

14 December 2007

Lugones' "Metamusic"

Wow, Lugones has got to be the master of early 20th Century technobabble! This is a story about an inventor who builds a machine that allows for a visual expression of sound. A man tells the story of his friend, who is a music enthusiast and an amateur scientist. One day, he gets invited to his friend's house to see the invention. Then they discuss the theoretical basis for the sound visualizer, and this takes up at least a good third of the narrative. I still found it fairly impressive, since even a century later, Lugones is exploring some interesting ideas, making this story closer to hard sci-fi.

13 December 2007

Lugones' "The Bloat Toad"

The story of a certain kind of frog that will come back to life and kill anyone who slays it. It's very short but creepy, with some atmosphere. Its spare compared to Poe, and it does feel as if it needs something else, a twist or red herring. Perhaps it's just my 21st century sensibility, but it would have been nice to see the threat drawn out a bit more.

12 December 2007

Lugones' "The Miracle of Saint Wilfred"

This is an interesting story which I'm finding difficult to describe without giving too much away. It struck me as a strange blend of Christian parable and horror story set during the Crusades. (That would make it Christian horror historical fiction?) The set-up is interesting as Lugones describes the landscape largely in terms of the historical and mythological (biblical and heathen) events associated with it. The climax seems pretty much straight out of a typical horror story of the murdered individual coming back to avenge his/her death in a rather gruesome fashion. Yet the horror seems to be framed within the tradition of saints, martyrs, relics, and reliquaries, so it's unclear whether it's really meant to play as horror. Either way, it makes for a rather curious combination.

11 December 2007

Lugones' "An Inexplicable Phenomena"

The story of a man who manages to achieve some degree of projection but ends up suffering a division of his soul. Some interesting 1900s technobabble aside, the story is reminiscent of the lesser works of pre-Lovecraft weird writers: some intriguing set up but little emotional impact. The manifestation of division appears to have been inspired by Stevenson's "Jekyll & Hyde" or Le Fanu's "Green Tea," though I don't know enough about Lugones to state the case for either definitely.

10 December 2007

Lugones a story a day: "The Firestorm"

I'm reading the short story collection "Strange Forces" by Leopoldo Lugones, which is arguably the first Argentine work of science fiction. (A distinction which does not appear to be held in high esteem by his countrymen, who consider him an "outmoded writer.") I'm trying to read one story every weekday and record my immediate reaction.

"The Firestorm" is the story of a rain of a recurrent rain of burning copper that falls on an unnamed desert city (probably North African) as related by a misanthropic (and equally nameless) narrator. It's a fairly simple yet chilling story. No explanation is ever offered for the source of the cataclysm, but it's effects are devastating as the city is slowly but utterly destroyed. This vision of urban devastation echoes with notes of Sodom and Pompeii, but also seems to suggest the urban terrors that would come in the 20th and 21st centuries, including the firebombings of WWII, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and September 11th. That it was written in 1906 makes it seem particularly prophetic.

13 November 2007

The Outside Poet and Trash Surfing

Some authors have a way of infiltrating your head, working their way into your dreams. My second night of reading My Work is Not Yet Done inspired the following dream:

My consciousness appears semi-detached. There is a man and his girlfriend in the room. I am the man and I am also watching the couple--a strange bifurcation of consciousness that makes the dream sort of difficult to describe. The apartment is a curious blend of decadence and desolation. The walls were once covered with mirrors, and every surface appears to have been shiny, recalling a "futuristic" setting in a '60s sci-fi movie. The mirrors are in various states of destruction, some only cracked, others reduced to mere shards in their frames; the floor is littered with reflective detrius.

Somewhere outside of this room, lingering on the edge of our consciousness is the Poet, whose words create this world. I feel it when he is about to write, a sudden tension filling the apartment. At his whim, time moves forwards or backwards, the room degenerates or improves, the relations between the man and his girlfriend sweeten or deteriorate. There seems to be a randomness to these whims which destroys all sense of continuity. Ultimately, the Poet grows bored with writing this domestic situation. I am allowed an escape from the apartment.

And I find myself outside, atop a large garbage heap, looking down what must be four or five stories to a dumpster the size of a parking lot. I am among a small group of people. The garbage heap begins to slide forward, than plunge down, taking us with it. I try to stay on top of the shifting debris, seeing the ground come up at me, falling with that sense of exhilaration you get in dreams, where you know it won't hurt to hit the ground.

The landing isn't hard, but the garbage partially liquifies, becoming an opaque, turgid fluid in which float unidentifiable scraps. We struggle to get out, finally managing to cooperate to get a rope over the side of the dumpster so we can climb out.

09 November 2007

Books Compared: Lullaby/My Work is Not Yet Done

Only a cynic can create horror. For behind every masterpiece of the sort
must reside a driving daemonic force that despises the human race and its
illusions, and longs to pull them to pieces and mock them.

-Howard Philips Lovecraft

I think I've been mentally comparing the works of Thomas Ligotti and Chuck Palahniuk since the first time I read Haunted.* Both are cult authors with reputations as nihilists, and both write with distinctive styles and thematic concerns. 2002 turned out to be an interesting publication year for both. (Pardon the familiarity of using first names; but both have rather long surnames.) Chuck published his first foray into horror with the novel Lullaby; Thom published his longest work, a novella by the name of My Work is Not Yet Done in a collection of the same name. (I won't get into the other two, much shorter stories included in that book.)

The similarities extend beyond publication date. Both feature disaffected narrators who find themselves acquiring supernatural powers of a questionable nature, but more importantly both are intensely dark, funny and philosophical works. There's even overlapping themes, such as concerns over mortality, criticisms of modern capitalism, and some apocalyptic musings.The main contrast is the characteristic style. Chuck's minimalism is descended from Hemingway by way of Amy Hempel and Raymond Carver. It emphasizes the use of verbs over adjectives, and he prefers short sentences that mirror the way people speak. Thom's style, on the other hand, reflects the baroque and surreal influences of authors such as H.P. Lovecraft (adjectivitis!) and Bruno Schulz.

I imagine most people will find Chuck's style a little more accessible. MWINYD is actually among the lower end of the baroque for Thom, but overall I find his style more effective, especially at evoking the requisite atmosphere of a horror story, than Chuck's.

Lullaby is easily Chuck's best work, but as a work of horror fiction it has some flaws. As I've already stated, his minimalism is less effective at creating atmosphere than Thom's subtle surrealism. Horror fiction revolves around the emotion of fear and its various permutations, and Lullaby is not particularly scary.

My other criticism of Lullaby as a work of horror is Chuck's handling of the supernatural element. Supernatural elements can be tricky to handle effectively in fiction, especially horror. When handled skillfully, they serve to effectively bind the story together, giving substance to submerged or displaced issues. (i.e., the way Cthulhu embodies Lovecraft's pessimism or Dracula lurks in the shadows of Victorian sexuality) When handled poorly, they come off as plot contrivances with little rhyme or reason.

Lullaby falls somewhere in between. I liked its haunted houses and visions of sonic plague, but I thought the culling song hadn't really been though through properly and its grimoire was a little silly. MWINYD's supernatural elements, however, seemed a much more natural fit for the narrator/author's philosophy and his concern with the meaninglessness of existence.

Both books, in fact, struggle with the question of the meaningless of existence, which is approached from a perspective of profound skepticism bordering on nihilism. Though both authors are considered nihilists, there is actually a fair amount of difference with Chuck's sunny nihilism an interesting counterpoint to Thom's bleak nihilism. As Tyler Durden says in an earlier Chuck book: "It's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything." I suspect the Frank Dominio, the protagonist of MWINYD, learns we're never free completely free to do anything and losing everything is its own reward.

As with writing styles, I think Chuck's work is probably the more accessible. Behind the bleakness and the dark humor lurks a heart in search of redemption as sincere as that of a Dr. Phil fan. Thom's philosophy is bleaker, like a shadow version of Zen, where we are only free when we lose all illusions, but to do that you must accept freedom itself as an illusion.** (Again, personal preference here leans towards Thom's more absolute darkness.) Ironically, these different outlooks reflect to an extent their literary influences; contrast Hemingway's humanism with Lovecraft's cosmicism.

* Haunted's prologue invokes the conceptual slipperiness between human beings and their simulacra (puppets, mannikins, etc.); while this concept was certainly not invented by Ligotti, he has evoked it more uniquely and effectively than any author since Bruno Schulz.

** Or to contrast two interesting quotes, one from Haunted, one from "The Nightmare Network" (the third story in MWINYD):
Chuck: "Each of us striving to be the camera behind the camera behind the camera"
Thom: "The camera pulls back on the entire universe. There is no one behind the camera."

07 November 2007

Open Circle Theater: "The Dreams in the Witch House"

Every year Seattle's Open Circle Theater puts on an adaptation of Lovecraft, usually several pieces grouped together. This year's performance followed the same pattern, adapting four Lovecraft short stories into ~90 minutes of theater.

The works in question were "The Picture in the House," "Nyarlathotep," "The Cats of Ulthar," and "The Dreams in the Witch House." Lovecraft doesn't seem a natural to adapt to theater since some of the horrors he describes seem as if they would be indescribable even with CGI, but the limitations of the stage make for some interesting approaches.

Last year's adaptation involved interlinked stories, one of which ("Strange Magicks") was original. This one was structured differently, with Nyarlathotep and Cats of Ulthar nested in Picture, and Dreams as a separate piece.

"The Picture in the House" was a relatively faithful adaptation, with only a few minor changes. The unnamed narrator still seeks shelter in an aged structure to avoid a rainstorm while out visiting the Arkham countryside. However, the events take place in the modern day, so that the narrator speaks his observations into a voice recorder. (A clever device for allowing for narration.) Inside the house, he discovers a series of books and meets a strange old man who asks him to read from the book. The stories he reads are "Nyarlathotep" and "The Cats of Ulthar." The core effect of the story is kept, though the writers felt the need to make explicit what Lovecraft never really stated. (Understandable, since the slow accumulation of little details is a little more difficult in theater than in writing.)

"Nyarlathotep," on the other hand, required quite a bit of adaptation to bring to the stage. The original story is a rather surreal prose poem of a travelling showman who appears to bring the world to ruin. (The story very dreamlike and provides for a certain ambiguity as to whether the destruction is real or hallucinated.) The piece is presented through the eyes of two men, Robert Chambers and Ludwig (or is it Edward?) Prinn, who are investigating the travelling showman. Like "Strange Magicks" the action ends with Lovecraftian revelations in a darkened theater. That can be a hard thing to make convincing and not goofy, but John McKenna manages to deliver it with the right degree of dramatic flair.

"The Cats of Ulthar" is also a tricky story to adapt. Written by Lovecraft when he was most under the influence of Lord Dunsany, it's set in a mythical dreamland and told almost as a fable. As with Picture, the adaptation makes explicit something that Lovecraft only points at. (Though in such a way that there is only one obvious conclusion.) It ended up capturing some of the fable-like feeling of the original, though still seemed a bit shortened.

Of all four performances, "The Dreams of the Witch House" was probably the weakest. The source material certainly presents its own sets of challenges, but even taking that into account, a lot of material seems to have been cut out, in contrast to the other adaptations where material was added in to provide coherency. The creature effects on Brown Jenkin were pretty cool, though.

Overall a good show, though not quite as good as last years. They had changed venues to a smaller space, and I wonder if that did not affect the kind of show they could put on. The OCT web site states that they recently moved to a new location, so I hope the space next year lends itself better to interdimensional horrors.

25 October 2007

Books Compared: Hyperion/Haunted/City of Saints and Madmen

Chuck Palahniuk's Haunted and Dan Simmons' Hyperion are both works of genre fiction structured around a framing narrative. Despite being genre works (science fiction and horror*, respectively) both novelists are unashamed to telegraph literary aspirations, not just structurally, but with reference to literary figures such as Keats (Hyperion) and Mary Shelley (Haunted). Hyperion is an innovative exploration of genre fiction in service of a larger story with philosophical and political themes; the other is a messy affair, intermittently concerned with its genre, poorly plotted and rife with implausibilities.

Hyperion tells the story of a group of people traveling to an important location on the planet Hyperion as the interstellar empire of which they are subjects hovers on the brink of war. Each of the travelers has a particular reason for making this trip, revealed through the respective stories they tell. Simmons uses this structure as an exploration of genre fiction, incorporating elements of hard sci fi, space opera, cyberpunk, philosophical sci fi, even horror and noir fiction. The universe that Simmons creates through these stories is a fairly ambitious amalgam of literary and mythical elements, and though not as innovative now as it was at the time of its original publication, is an entertaining and thought-provoking exploration of empire, technology, and free will.

Haunted tells the story of a group of people at a writer's retreat, all of them participants save for the organizer (Mr. Whittier) and his assistant (Mrs. Clark). The other characters do not use their names but colorful titles (Agent Tattletale, Countess Foresight, etc.) and have signed up believing that this writer's retreat will allow them to create their respective "masterpieces" that will make them rich and famous. (Except for the ones that are already rich and/or famous and the ones that are hiding from the law, mob, CDC, or international arts conspiracy.) The writer's retreat turns out to be an abandoned theater whose decadent furnishings are meant to evoke Poe's "Masque of the Red Death." Some characters rebel against being trapped in a rundown theater, others decide being trapped in a run down theater will be the perfect "real life" story that will make them rich or famous. (While some believe a run-down theater is the perfect place to hide from the law, mob, CDC, or international arts conspiracy.)

What makes Haunted inferior to Hyperion is the complete lack of focus, as the stories veer from graphic or psychological horror (with odd stabs at the supernatural) to tales of callow individuals behaving badly. The framing narrative is meant to provide a coherency to the various stories, but it's inertness compounds the problem. (I personally gave up any hope that the book would redeem itself shortly after a character tales a story about being a werewolf. His animalistic aspect has been sketched pretty heavily up until that point, so it's not implausible that within the main plot he really could be a werewolf. Yet none of the other characters seems to consider that the presence of a werewolf in their midst should be a cause for worry. What should have ratcheted up the tension only ends up draining it of what life it had left.) Palahniuk has a talent for shock value which serves to distract from all of the glaring plot holes. (Why, for example, does the Earl of Slander, who in his story "Swan Song" describes himself as a wealthy, Pulitzer-prize winning celebrity journalist, go to a writer's retreat?) My most generous take on the novel is that it is a "suicidal novel," a novel that refuses coherency and eschews plot or plausibility, in order to repudiate the very idea of writing or art. (Like a Pynchon novel taken a nihilistic extreme, or something the Teatro Grottesco would release in hardcover.)

This may be giving the novel too much credit as its self-mutilation appears to be motivated (as with the characters therein) out of a desire for financial success. As Palahniuk describes it, he was originally wanting to release a collection of short stories. His agent informed him that collections of short stories don't sell as well as novels, so he adapted a story about self-destructing critics into a frame story of self-destructing writers. The term applied to this sort of work is "fix-up novel," which makes Haunted an interesting comparison with Jeff Vandermeer's City of Saints and Madmen.

City of Saints and Madmen (just City from here on out) lies somewhere between anthology and novel, and I have seen it described as a "kaleidoscopic novel" or "mosaic novel." Like Haunted, City is a genre work of multiple stories, mostly fantasy though of an unconventional sort. (Vandermeer is one of the more prominent members of the New Weird, which defies conventional genre definitions.) However, while Haunted fails to gain coherence from its frame, City achieves a considerable coherency while dispensing with a conventional frame. City is structured as a collection of four novellas and an appendix of supporting material, but this set-up is deceptive. For example, the first story "Dradin, In Love" is a third-person narrative about a missionary having a mental breakdown after returning to Ambergris. (The city of which saints and madmen make up a significant portion.) Only later are we told that "Dradin, In Love" is a work of autobiography published in Ambergris. The third "novella" turns out to be a tourist pamphlet outlining the early history of Ambergris, in whose footnotes we catch a glimpse of another history of academic rivalries among Ambergrisian scholars. City is full of these Borgesian games, which seek to lend a degree of verisimilitude to the most outlandish of elements.

Both novels are concerned with the creative process, as it relates not only to writing but to other forms of art. Two stories, for example, which have striking similarities are Palahniuk’s "Ambition" (Terry Fletcher's/Duke of Vandals' story) and Vandermeer’s “The Transformation of Martin Lake,” both of which revolve around artists who find themselves drawn into shadowy conspiracies which push them into criminal acts. Interestingly enough, the description of the Duke’s paintings makes them sound kitschy, and the story attributes his success to his involvement with the cabal. (His paintings are of his mom, his girlfriend, and his dog named Boner.) Martin Lake’s works are presented as dark, surreal representations of the crimes in which he has become involved, crimes for which his only reward is continued survival. Palahniuk’s story comes off as a cynical take on how the pursuit of profit will manufacture success out of crap, whereas Vandermeer’s story is a more haunting meditation on art, its ability to both reveal and conceal, and the varied inspirations that give rise to it.

The same pattern holds for the two novels as wholes, with Haunted feeling unfocused yet insular, and City feeling like something of a city in itself, cohesive yet open.

* Haunted's failures as a work of horror outnumber its failures as a novel. However, the book was marketed as a horror novel, so I will not quibble whether it really qualifies as one.

22 October 2007

The Starry Wisdom

The Starry Wisdom is one of the more unique collections of Lovecraft-inspired fiction that I've come across. Instead of simply new variations on the seeker running into monstrous entities with unpronouncable names or even a collection of stories trying to bring Yog-Sothothery into the 20th (or 21st) century (a la The Children of Cthulhu), The Starry Wisdom's goal is to view the Lovecraftian mythos through the eyes of the sort of late 20th Century occultism which has itself been much inspired by the Old Gent. Or as editor D.M. Mitchell states:

My aim is to dig deeper and access the subterranean channels of archetype and
inspiration with which Lovecraft was connected... the current of semi-occult
symbolism and shamanic imagery.

While a worthy goal, the collection fails to consistently live up to it. As with a lot of collections, it's hard to avoid the feeling that some of it is filler. Far too much space is devoted to unengaging prose poems more interested in the connection between sado-masochistic impulses and Crowleyian notions of magick and the new aeon than to anything more Lovecraftian than the usual name dropping (Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, Old Ones, etc.) Additionally, there are several stories of fairly good quality which seem almost wholly unconnected to Lovecraftian themes at all, further contributing to the sense of padding. That leaves about half the collection, which thankfully has some pretty strong pieces. Among the standouts were stories by Grant Morrison, Robert M. Price, Alan Moore, D F Lewis, Brian Lumley (although he seems much too convential considering the goals of this collection), Don Webb, and D.M. Mitchell's own "Ward 23". Additionally, there are three illustrated/comic book-style stories. John Coulthart's adaptation of "The Call of Cthulhu" is "worth the price of admission alone." The other two "Third Eye Butterfly" and "Pills for Miss Betsy" are less overtly Lovecraftian while still evoking a certain Lovecraftian dread. The book concludes with a collection of three essays concerning the relationship of Lovecraft's fiction to modern occultism, which will likely be of more interest to the student of ceremonial magick than to the casual Lovecraft fan.

One of the failings of the collection is a rather superficial handling of "the current of semi-occult symbolism and shamanic imagery" in Lovecraft's fiction. The stronger works, such as Morrison's "Lovecraft in Heaven," Moore's "The Courtyard," or Lewis' "Meltdown" approach HPL's imagery with a knowledge of the tradition of weird fiction which he was working in. The prose poems, on the other hand, seem to take Lovecraftian themes as an entry for dwelling on their authors' own "semi-occult symbolism" which could be interesting for someone interested in the psychosexual baggage of modern occultism, but is much less so for anyone interested in the Lovecraftian tradition.

19 September 2007

Choking the Shark

Though the prophet tells us that it was invented by the Devil, I am rather fond of reasoning by analogy. A new analogy occurred to me with regards to Chuck Palahniuk's writing as I was part way through "Diary." There is something very shark-like about his writing: sleek, primal, brutal. Unfortunately, just like a shark a Palahniuk story must maintain forward momentum, or it will suffocate and go belly up. Dead in the water.

Case in point: Choke.

The novel is not without its merits. It is certainly the most heartfelt of Palahniuk's novels; were it more skillfully written it would likely qualify as poignant, instead of sentimental. That the novel aims for the former but achieves the latter may be a difference of opinion, and may be due in part to one's tolerance for Palahniuk's sloppiness.

The warning of things to come arrives in the first chapter, not with the narrator's hostility to his story or his contempt for a small boy. It arrives with a seemingly innocuous story about a Greek girl who develops a romance with a boy visiting from a foreign land. After some time he gets news that he has to go back to his country, and they will never see each other again. The girl uses coal to trace his silhouette (created by a candle flame) on the wall, so as to never forget what he looks like. The girl's father then uses the silhouette as a model for a sculpture. And that is the source of all art.

Yes, the source of ALL art.

Never mind the hunt, the harvest, or the handling of the dead, all of which have much better claims to that title. All art is derived from a girl wanting to remember the lover she'll never see again. It is at this point that I started wondering if Palahniuk is Ukranian for "Mitch Albom," or at least "manipulative uplift." Though not fatal, it certainly serves to rob the shark of plenty of momentum. Enough to go from sleek in its brutality to simply stupid and crude.

"Choke" was the first book Palahniuk book I read in which I was painfully aware of the sentimentality lurking beneath the surface, which served to highlight the problems with the book. Palahniuk's flaws are usually hidden being the transgressive nature of his characters and the shock value of their actions. When Victor, our narrator, tells this story, without comment or irony, all his subsequent anti-social behavior became robbed of impact. He was like a teenager listening to satanic-themed metal because it's, you know, scary.

The story is not helped by the rather ridiculous mystery regarding Vincent's mother. (Spoiler Warning) We are given to understand that Ida Mancini, Vincent's mom, immigrated to the US from Italy to attend med school, and that she has never told Vincent about his father. Because she engaged in acts of "cultural terrorism" (switching hair dye colors among boxes, stealing school buses), Vincent grew up in foster homes. At the end we learn that Vincent was a random baby that Ida had snatched from a stroller so she wouldn't be sent back to Italy.

Although Palahniuk deserves kudos for avoiding stereotypes, he seems to have no idea how to portray an immigrant. (I don't know if that's just his insularity or if it's outside his range as a writer.) He attempts to pass this off by stating that immigrants often seem more like Americans than those native-born do. There is a grain of truth to that, but it comes off as more of an excuse for poor writing than anything else. Firstly, unless they immigrated as children, even immigrants who wholeheartedly embrace American culture and society will seem bit different, too enthusiastic in their Americanism. Secondly, the type of immigrant who is going to practice "cultural terrorism" is not going to be all that interested in assimilating. It doesn't help that Ida is something of a left over from the '60s. If she was native-born, her hair dye switching might seem kind of edgy. In Italy, the Red Brigades would probably consider it a paltry bourgeois copy of real revolutionary action. (Maybe Ida emigrated out of embarrassment over being such a sad excuse for a radical.)

The revelation of Vincent's background mostly made me wonder why Palahniuk had not bother to think through this development. Does it really work that way? Can you just walk into an INS office, flash them a toddler and get upgraded to permanent resident status? Without even a birth certificate? And once you're incarcerated and custody of your only child taken away, do they let you keep your resident status? No wonder we have an immigration problem.

Of course, there's a possibility to explain all this, one of which sadly makes a lot of sense. Ida isn't really Italian. Maybe her parents were, but they emigrated to the U.S. At some point, she may have visited, even lived there for a couple years. That would explain why she seems about as Italian as Chef Boyardee and also why another character refers to her as "having spent some time in Italy," a phrase not usually reserved for people who were born in and spent their formative years in a country. And since Ida Mancini may not be from Italy, perhaps Vincent Mancini was not abducted as an infant.

Of course, this dulls much of the drama that might arise from the final revelations. Vincent tells us that we spend too long dwelling on the past and would do better to forget it, yet this blurring of reality suggests that those who do not learn from the past are destined to hopelessly muddle the present.

13 August 2007

Terror in Old Ægypt: "Nyarlatophis"

I have to admit I'm actually a bit torn about reviewing "Nyarlathopis," for two reasons.

  1. Sargent has an obvious affection for the source material.
  2. Whatever else I can accuse "Nyarlathopis" of, it definitely was not lazily written.

The concept for the story certainly has a lot of promise: Nyarlathotep (Nyarlathopis being the more accurately Egyptian version of his name) tries to conquer Egypt in the 13th century BC but does not succeed. The story is based on the first-hand account of the Pharaoh's lead adviser at the time. Considering that Nyarlathotep is a vaguely Egyptian figure, putting him into an Egyptian milieu should generate some interesting results. And Sargent provides a lot of historical detail, covering everything from Egyptian mythology to its governance structure.

Despite all this potential, the story never really transcends the level of mere pastiche at which most Cthulhu mythos fiction seems to aim.The story is beset by anachronisms which serve to undermine whatever sense of suspense or weirdness the plot should generate. Sargent writes in a straightforward descriptive style which whatever its merits is completely wrong for this story, for it fails to capture the feel of an ancient text documenting an epic struggle against an unimaginable evil. Certainly a style more in keeping with that associated with ancient texts (the Bible, Hammurabi legend, Beowulf, etc.) would have been more appropriate. It would not even have had to be particularly authentic to provide the requisite atmosphere of weirdness. (And being a weird tale, however derivative, a sense of the weird is always a plus.)

The stylistic problems are compounded when more outlandish concepts are introduced. (And this being a Cthulhu mythos tale, outlandish concepts are kind of a prerequisite.) Concepts such as "the other side of the universe" or the primal chaos at the center of creation are handled as if they were fairly straightforward concepts, despite the fact that they are being presented by a narrator who thought the sun was a chariot and had never seen a body of water larger than the Nile. (Or perhaps the Mediterranean.)

A few other factors serve to dull the atmosphere, among them the muddling of the mythos and the author's info dumping. Sargent sets up a religious war between the Egyptian gods and the Cthulhu Mythos, a somewhat Derlethian approach which reduces Nyarlathotep to a cartoon villain. As for the info dumping, because the author has placed the story in a setting with which his audience is likely unfamiliar, he has to provide quite a bit of background information. At first, this is provided by the framing story of the translated papyrus, but a lot of information is still provided by the narrative itself which leads to inauthentic digressions while the narrator explains things that his expected audience should be familiar with. While some people may consider the use of footnotes in fiction distracting or (even worse!) postmodern, when you're tale is framed as a historical document it is an effective way to bridge the gap between the fictional audience and the real audience. After all, what is the point of all those details to add veracity to the tale if they are introduced in a way which completely undermines that veracity.

I am perhaps being a bit harsh; as I said before, most of this kind of writing is written at the level of pastiche. The story certainly ranks above average in comparison with the majority of mythos fiction, lifted a bit by the detailed historical setting. If you're a fan of Lumley's Titus Crow or August Derleth's various works, you would probably enjoy this story. If you're, like me, a bit jaded regarding Cthulhu Mythos fiction, you'll probably find it sadly lackluster.

Next up is my final entry regarding "The Taint of Lovecraft"

09 August 2007

Mythos Inversion: "Live Bait" and "The Black Brat of Dunwich"

Though each of these two stories is substantial enough to merit its own review, they share enough similarities that I should comment on them together. Both stories take place in a world where Lovecraft was a sort of reclusive Truman Capote, writing non-fiction using the tools of fiction. Both stories also attempt an inversion of the good/evil spectrum present in the original Lovecraft stories to which they refer.

To expand a bit on the first point, "Live Bait" features a businessman making a visit to the town at the center of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," a story based largely on the nameless narrator's first hand narration to HPL. "The Black Brat of Dunwich" is the story of two researchers who meet someone with a rather different account of the events that took place in "The Dunwich Horror," which was based on a combination of newspaper coverage and HPL's interviews with Henry Armitage.

[I've always found Lovecraftian stories featuring Lovecraft as non-fiction author to be something of a cheat, though "Black Brat" manages to use this tired concept in an interesting way.]

And just to cut to the chase, since it will become obvious soon enough, of the two stories "Black Brat" was certainly the strongest. "Live Bait" starts strong and has moments of suspense and a few good ideas, but its attempt to cast the Deep Ones as victims fails to "humanize" them to the extent that the author may have intended. (It doesn't help that Lovecraft's original story ends with the human/monster dichotomy already shredded. Had "Shadow" ended right after the narrator's escape, the inversion would seem much fresher.) The Innsmouth locals are little better than caricatures, more like copies of Deliverance hillbillies than truly sinister individuals. (Though Sargent does a fairly good job of copying Lovecraft's odd Innsmouth dialect.)

By way of contrast, "Black Brat" is a pretty successful "humanization" of Wilbur Whateley. It falters a bit at the end; Sargent seems to be straining to wrap everything up a little too neatly. By contrast, the middle section dealing with Wilbur and the inconsistencies in Lovecraft's tale is fairly thought provoking. There is an interesting tone of homoeroticism brought to the material which surprised me on my first reading, but on a second reading it seemed very appropriate, resonating with Lovecraft's theme of alienation and body horror. Sargent handles the theme well, pushing it enough to get you thinking without letting it become heavy-handed.

Next: "Nyarlatophis"

08 August 2007

Sargent's Taint: "Their Love of Craft"

Stanley Sargent's The Taint of Lovecraft kicks off with the science fiction/horror hybrid "Their Love of Craft." Having read a fair share of Lovecraft-inspired short fiction, I've developed something of a loose hierarchy or classification scheme. At the top are stories which manage to echo Lovecraft's work yet bring an author's individual approach to it. (i.e. Ligotti, T.E.D. Klein, Karl Wagner) At the bottom are works which attempt to slavishly copy Lovecraft without managing a whit of suspense or mystery. (Authors to remain nameless.) And while "Their Love of Craft" doesn't quite rise to the heights of the former, it certainly doesn't sink to the depths of the latter.

The story is a cross between At the Mountains of Madness and The Forbidden Planet. Though somewhat derivative, the unlikelihood of the pairing (and the unexpected resonances between the two sources) make for an entertaining story. Sargent does pile on a bit with Lovecraftian in-jokes, which almost border on being too clever, yet he still gives the story an atmosphere of subtle dread or mystery as one would expect from the Old Gent himself. Well, somewhat more subtle than HPL, but its presence is always welcome even in a story with it's tongue halfway in its cheek. (Somewhat reminiscent of Kim Newman's "Big Fish" in this department.) The ending, italicized in the style of HPLs older stories, is darkly (or grossly) funny in a way that felt a bit anticlimactic, but the story otherwise balances its horror and humor elements pretty well.

Next up is Mythos Inversion: "Live Bait" and "The Black Brat of Dunwich"

07 August 2007

Reviewing Sargent's The Taint of Lovecraft - Preamble

I find it tricky to review collections of short stories. Even when they come from the same author, there tends to be a certain degree of variety in the stories even if all from the same author. (Sargent's book being no exception.) I'm not fond of oversimplification, so attempting to sum up a collection of stories feels somewhat wrong or at least beyond my current ability to achieve successfully. My tendency would be to review each story individually, but I imagine this would make for an unnecessarily long-winded review, one perhaps itself lacking in cohesion.

So, in approaching Stanley Sargent's The Taint of Lovecraft I've decided that the most reasonable thing to do might be to split the difference. I will review several stories individually, followed by a review of several of the lesser stories, then I will attempt to conclude with a summary of some sort. In all likelihood, I will skip over the poetry (for which I have no ear), though I may comment on the essays.

My first entry: "Their Love of Craft"