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.