24 December 2008

999 Challenge

As stated previously, I'm going to be keeping track of my 999 challenge here. This is actually going to be my second year of doing the challenge, which was the 888 challenge last year. (The whole thread can be found here.)

I'm using fairly different categories this year. One priority I had when designing the categories was devoting more time to reading books in Spanish. I only had one explicit category for books in Spanish last year, so I ended up reading less than I could have. So, this year I have two categories that are going to be full of books in Spanish, though the categories have been defined loosely enough to allow for substitution if I run into something else I really want to read. I've also added some easier categories to balance out some of the heavier things I'll be reading.

Without further introduction, here are the categories:

I. Gauchos y Porteños
Books by Argentine authors and about Argentina, with a minor emphasis on gauchesco literature.

II. Orientales y Otros Americanos
Orientales is an antiquated term for Uruguayos. This will be a more general category for Latin American authors and books.

III. Eastern European Authors
Nabokov, Kafka, Schulz, Babel, and other Eastern European authors. The seed for this was a passage I read somewhere regarding Kafka, Schulz, and Babel as three important Jewish writers. Since I had books I wanted to read of all three, I figured I'd branch out. Since there are several other Eastern European authors I've been wanting to read, I went that direction. (As opposed to seeking out more Jewish authors.)

IV. Obscure Works
Any work in my LibraryThing library that is shared with 10 or less people. I'll leave this category open, so what will matter is how many people list it at the time I start it.

V. Straight (NBSO) Horror: All the King's Men
VI. Queer (NBSO) Horror: Goths and Weirdos

NBSO = Not By Sexual Orientation. By straight horror, I'm thinking of mainstream contemporary horror, the best example of which is Stephen King, though I'll be trying to read a pretty broad range of authors within this area. The other category is for fiction that has a more marginal claim on horror, such as modern gothics (i.e. Shirley Jackson) and weird fiction (i.e. Liggoti, Aickman).

VII. Audiobooks

Because the library has a good selection and they're great for a daily commute or listening to while working out and they take some pressure off having to read 81 entire books.

VIII. Thugs, Templars, Illuminati
More of a broad secret societies category, with an emphasis on Thuggee. I'll even be attempting to read the Ramaseeana, which is challenging not so much for length as for being a googlebook, which I'll have to read off a computer screen.

IX. Lighter Fare

I was originally going to call this one Humor, but I figured I'd throw in YA, graphic novels, comic strip books, etc.--anything to balance my reading material out a bit. :)

18 December 2008

Getting back on track in 2009

I've been pretty bad about updating the blog lately. This isn't so much for not writing anything as not writing anything that I'm posting here. So, in order to try to get back into the swing, I'm going to be keeping track of my progress on the 999 challenge on here. The 999 challenge is to read 9 books in each of nine categories. Each person picks the categories and books, so it's pretty much just a way of nudging oneself to read more and/or read a bit more selectively. The Librarything 999 Challenge Group is here. I'll post again shortly with my category choices.

16 November 2008

Victoria Nelson's "The Secret Life of Puppets"

Oh, blessed puppets, receive My prayer, and teach Me to make Myself in thy image.
-- Thomas Ligotti, "Mad Night of Atonement"

It feels wrong to me somehow that a book published in the year 2000 with the name "The Secret Life of Puppets" which deals with simulacra and demiurges, fantasy in European high art and American pulp fiction, and Bruno Schulz and H.P. Lovecraft doesn't once mention Ligotti, but perhaps it's just me.

Anyway, I found the book fascinating and thought-provoking, even though I found myself mostly skeptical of the author's conclusions. The argument here is that after the Enlightenment, Platonic thinking has been largely relegated to the background, a consequence of which is that Aristotelian, empirical philosophies have pretty much dominated ever since. However, Platonism and transcendental philosophies provide people with a sense of connection to the greater cosmos, which has been lost in our embrace of rational materialism. Platonic and neo-Platonic thought has found an outlet in culture, both high and low, and the recent conflation of neo-Platonism with technology (as exemplified in movies like "The Matrix") shows that we may be on the verge of a great return of Platonism or new religious reawakening.

As I said, it's an intriguing thesis, and I must admit I find myself mostly in agreement, at least with the way pop culture and art have adopted some of the roles/functions that used to be exclusive domains of religion. But I'm skeptical about the notion of the reawakening. The Matrix and its sequels have come and gone, and we've lost a large part of our obsession with virtual worlds. I'm almost tempted to bring out the old cliché of "9/11 changed everything," which like all clichés does have some element of truth. Anxiety and mystification of technology have been replaced by more conventional anxieties of violence by cultural outsiders. Of course, Nelson had no way of knowing that the western world would receive such a large shock, but at least for the moment the nature of cultural anxieties has shifted.

Another (lesser) criticism is the Lovecraft chapter, which I found interesting but pretty flawed. Nelson appears to be wanting to engage in a psychiatric reading of Lovecraft, which I could understand, but she relies too heavily on some broad generalizations. The impression I get is that Nelson is just trying to hard to find evidence of schizophrenia or syphillis trauma and is cherry-picking from Lovecraft's fiction to do so.

Those complaints aside, the book presents an intriguing look at philosophies of gnosticism and hermeticism, and their expression in popular culture and high art, as well as the way those have developed over the years. Nelson's approach has a certain playful ecclecticism, which is fun to read even when it's not entirely convincing.

25 June 2008

The Secret War: Betrayal

A little experiment in fiction:


That Summer, the Warlock entered into an alliance with Pedro Gutierrez. Nobody was surprised that this resulted in a complete break between him and the Astrolooger, but nobody expected it would happen so quickly.

The Warlock didn't know who he could trust, so his first impulse was to hole up with his few trusted cronies and get rid of everyone else. He had a long message, full of names and places, delivered to the Metropolitan Police, and he went to hole up in a hacienda outside San Luis with his crew. By then he was too well-connected to need worry about where the investigation would lead.

The Astrologer's betrayal was already underway when the police started breaking down doors. He had started organizing when the Warlock had made his first forays into going legit. The Astrologer had no illusions about where a Polack like him would fit into Gutierrez' operation.

He had already determined who was loyal and had began to arm them properly. Procuring so many weapons--knives, guns, explosives, artifacts--without the Warlock's knowledge had been easier than he had expected.

There had been one final item. He hadn't anticipated the depth of the Warlock's cowardice and was sure the battle would come down to a close-up fight between the two. He didn't particularly like the odds of this, as he knew that the Warlock was as skilled with the Nineveh Evocations as any man alive, nor could he hope to match the Warlock's mastery of Enochian.

He had met Guillermo Alberto only three weeks ago at Cafe Serrano on Calle Gallardo. He had first learned of the librarian from a friend of the Harlequin's, whose father had been in elementary school with the librarian. They had a good conversation at the cafe and had quickly struck a deal. The Astrologer was impressed by Guillermo's grasp on the mechanics of the criminal underworld.

It had cost him a lot, for the librarian had not been particularly interested in barter (save for some rare drugs and chemicals which would not have come cheap) but the paper now guarded in his jacket pocket had been worth it. The librarian had been too canny to reveal which book he had copied it out of. Though it was only three long lines of crabby script, it had taken intense study to decipher them, learn them, memorize them. The words had settled unsteadily in the Astrologer's thoughts. Sometimes he thought he could still feel the words taking form in his mouth, like a strong taste that lingered. It was the first time he had encountered Aklo. And he knew it would be the first time the Warlock did, as well.

Low-Fat Fiction: Tourism

I'm taking a class called low-fat fiction, mostly as an attempt to make myself try to write stuff. It's an interesting experience but a little intimidating. Anyway, here's the first piece I wrote for it.


It was in the Cafe Jujuy that I first met Rodrigo, who was arguing with the clerk about some matter of politics or sports. Even though it delayed my own order, I didn't hold it against him. We weren't really introduced until a few minutes later when he came over and told me having my map splayed out over the table made me look like an idiot tourist.

"They're watching, you know, all the time," he explained.

He folded the map into a bowtie and handed it to me, flashing a yellowing smile. A short discussion on the literary merits of the city led to an invitation to be shown around the city.

We ventured out of the cafe, into the streets and sidewalks, filled with potholes and people.

The Libreria Sansabar was crammed into an L-shaped space and seemed to specialize in a particular kind of academic tome. A short perusal resulted in little of value.

It was a twenty minute walk to the Libraria Truco, past buildings abandoned then taken over, and Rodrigo seemed to watch for something. The steel door that guarded the shop gave it the feel of a hideout, and concealed the size of the interior.

The shadows had grown long by the time we stepped outside, my bag somewhat heavier.

There was one more, Rodrigo insisted, in the old part of the city, underneath an old mansion.

Twenty minutes later, he turned and asked, "Why'd you come here?"

I didn't see the blade, but something about that smile made me flinch. I fell back, trying to turn out of the way, and the pack struck him in the head.

It was seconds later that I realized I was running, what little sense of direction I had guiding my way back.

14 April 2008

Horror as Initiation: Lee Foust

I wanted to piggyback onto my blog from a few days ago to mention an alternative take on similar material. Lee Foust has a couple of brilliant essays on the h2so4 site.

The Horrific Experience of Countercultural Initiation

The Horrific Experience of Coming Face to Face with the Other 2

I find the distinction between female and male gothic modes rather interesting. Which I think gets back to what I find interesting with Lovecraft. It's common knowledge that Lovecraft projected a certain degree of his racism onto his monsters, often using similar terminology to describe both. Yet, I think Lovecraft also projected a certain amount of his own self image onto those monsters.

I'll mention one early story "Facts in the Case of Arthur Jermyn," which can be read as a neurotic phobia of miscegination. Yet, when HPL describes how the first Jermyn seemed to prefer being put in a madhouse to being around to see his son grow up, I find myself wondering about Lovecraft's own father who ended up in a madhouse and wasn't there to see his son grow up. Jermyn's son, as it becomes clear, is clearly monstrous, only half-human.

So, with respect to female and male gothics, where does Lovecraft fall? Except for a few pieces, his monsters aren't just entities to be beaten so order can be restored. I would argue several of his better regarded stories ("The Shadow Over Innsmouth", "At The Mountains of Madness", "The Outsider") present rather human monsters. But does Lovecraft really fall into the female gothic, where the monstrous ultimately comes to be accepted as good and beautiful? So, does Lovecraft present us with a male or a female gothic, or is it actually something weirder, some form of hermaphroditic gothic?

06 April 2008

The Ritual in the House: Horror Tale as Initiation

I wouldn't say I was a huge fan of horror when I was growing up. I was more into science fiction, which could certainly provide some chills, as in the ending of The First Men in the Moon and the feeding scene from The War of the Worlds. I also picked up a library book by somebody (not Ray) Bradbury about super intelligent animals who gone on a killing spree. (I was in the public library looking for Ray Bradbury but did not pay significant attention to the author's first name.) And I guess I did read the winners of the Miami Herald's Halloween scary story contest and the odd ghost story here or there. But I never really sought out the stuff. I remember when all my classmates were reading Stephen King and V.C. Andrews my reaction was the 80s equivalent of "meh."

It wasn't until I had graduated from college that I found myself interested in reading horror as a genre. The catalyst for this change in taste took place while I was hanging out with my friend Steve at his house. We were discussing books, and he said to me, "You really should check out Lovecraft. He's pretty good" (or something to that effect) and handed me The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurling Tales of Horror and the Macabre with its rather lurid cover:

By this point I'd heard of Lovecraft, from my college roommate Josh (who had attempted to get a CoC campaign going with amusingly disastrous results) and from Illuminatus Trilogy. I was not quite sure what to make of the book and still a little suspicious of the genre, I decided I'd just start with the shortest story. This turned out to be "The Picture in the House" which I read while Steve puttered about on the computer. The story hit me with a certain indefinable force. It didn't have quite the visceral shock of other horror I'd read, but the thing seemed to worm its way into my head in a way that had me hooked. After that, I read pretty much everything Lovecraft had ever written and continued on to many of the pastiche works that fall under the "Cthulhu Mythos" category.

At some point, I became rather bored with the Cthulhy Mythos stuff, most of which is pretty derivative and lacks much of the power of the original works. As I tried to read more broadly in the genre, I've encountered works of a much more visceral nature (Palahniuk's Haunted) as well as those of a much more cerebral sort (Ligotti, Borges). Last year, though, I decided to re-read "The Picture in the House," thinking I might find it tame or hackneyed. I was surprised by how powerful it seemed.

Part of my surprise was because on some level the story shouldn't work. It's about a man travelling around the back country of Massacussetts. He wanders into an old house to avoid the rain and there meets up with a (New England) redneck who happens to be fond of a book with a drawing of a cannibal who is cutting up victims. It turns out that the old man is himself a cannibal and the consumption of flesh has allowed him to live far beyond his years. He is, in fact, over 150 years old. Shortly after the traveller realizes this, a bolt of lightning obliterates the house and knocks him unconscious.

So, murderous rednecks, cannibalism, deus ex machina--all elements that in another story would have me scoffing or throwing up my hands. (Yes, that's you, Haunted. Except for the rednecks.) So, what is it about the story that manages to transcend such hackneyed conventions? I've come to the conclusion that what makes the story so powerful is that it is a story about reading horror and about being affected by it.

The picture that the old man is so fond of is in a book called Regnum Congo, and the drawing is associated with an entry on the Anzique cannibals. If a picture is worth a thousand words, than this picture can be thought of as a horror story. Having "read" this horror story, the old man finds himself developing a strange fascination. As he says: "Queer haow picters kin set a body thinkin'."

Having read and been affected this horror story, he then proceeds to create his own horror story. Namely that of a murderous redneck who consumes human flesh. Though he attempts to cover up this story, he ends up relating it to the traveller nonetheless, who is now involved in his own horror story, which he relates to the reader. The reader thus finds himself reading a horror story about a man hearing a horror story about a man seeing a horror story. It is no surprise that one suddenly finds oneself wondering, however subconsciously, "Am I in a horror story?"

But what really makes this story potent is the strange speech of the old man. (It helped that at the time I had an interest in magical traditions, in Crowley and Sanskrit and the whole lot.) Not only does he say, "Queer haow picters kin set a body thinkin'." He later goes on to add, "Queer haow a cravin' gits a holt on ye." Somehow, the product of these lines echoed in my head, eventually transmuting into "Funny how an idea gets hold of you," a thought which stuck with me long after I had finished the story.

When he was writing horror, Chuck Palahniuk described how one of the features of the horror story is its cyclical nature. This is not a bad insight but seems overly schematic to me. The cyclical nature of the story suggests that it bears some kinship with the practices of pre-modern, pre-Christian life, dominated by its rituals of agriculture, of death and rebirth. I would posit in a world more and more divorced from its own cycles, both those of growth and harvest and those of birth and burial, horror keeps some of those themes alive, hovering on the edge of the culture which has spurned them.

But not all rituals nor all horror stories are or need to be cyclical. One of the oldest, best known horror stories has to be the Book of Revelations, and its reader base certainly believes that's only going to happen once. On a much smaller scale, it can be said no man will ever have more than one Bar Mitzvah. Certainly a community would see many Bar Mitzvahs, but the person for whom it means most will only experience it once. It marks something, a change which is irreversible, like the flow of time itself. It says, "Childhood is over. You can't return. The person you were is no more." In this, it points to the arrow of time, which has only one destination.

It is this aspect which so haunted me about "The Picture in the House" and which I still recognize when I go back to it. "Funny how an idea gets a hold of you." It suggests psychosis, but it also suggested to me one Thug's comment about their initiation ritual: "The Gur of the Tuponee changes you. It would change the nature of a horse." It doesn't matter what you might have thought you were. That is no more. Welcome to the new reality, where feeding on people creates monstrous new realities--where you look over your shoulder to make sure you're not living in a horror story, soon to repeat it to someone else who will be irrevocably changed by it. Then you no longer think "meh" when you see those lurid covers but find yourself fascinated by these stories you believed beneath you.

It really is funny how an idea gets a hold of you.

16 March 2008

Books Compared:Diary/Rosemary's Baby/"The Shadow Over Innsmouth"

Diary is the second of the three books put out by Chuck Palahniuk in which he sought to reinvent the horror genre. It is also written as an homage to the work of Ira Levin, particularly Rosemary's Baby. At the time I read Diary, I was not directly familiar with the work of Levin and the comparison that first came to mind was with an older, shorter story: H.P. Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth." (I was indirectly familiar with the work of Levin in that Baby and The Stepford Wives, particularly in their film adaptations, are so well known as to be part of the lexicon.)

Diary is told as a series of entries in a coma diary, kept by a middle-aged woman (Misty Marie Wilmot) for her husband, a contractor who is in a coma after an unsuccessful suicide attempt. As a young woman she aspired to be an artist and live in a big, beautiful house. In art school, she met a young man whose family lived in a big, beautiful house on an the rather exclusive (and very isolated) Waytansea island. She became pregnant, and they got married and moved back to the island. Both her and the island have fallen on hard times by the time the husband attempts suicide. As the story progresses, the "island people" push Misty into painting again (which she hasn't done in years) and messages start to turn up in the houses that Peter had worked on. These messages warn hysterically about some doom that is to come upon the "summer people" who have begun to rent from the island people.

Rosemary's Baby is the story of a woman who moves into a large gothic building in New York with her husband. Shortly before she gets pregnant, strange things begin to happen around her, beginning with the suicide of a young woman she met in the basement of the building. As the story (and her pregnancy) progresses it becomes clearer that the people around her (especially the other inhabitants of the building) have some ulterior motives regarding the child growing in her womb.

"The Shadow Over Innsmouth" is the first-hand account of a young man following an antiquarian tour of New England in which he found himself taking a detour into an old dilapidated town by the name of Innsmouth. It was an old trading port which was decimated by some sort of plague and became isolated, its inhabitants developing odd deformities, perhaps as a result of inbreeding or miscegination. While there, he sought out on old drunk named Ezekiel who told him some very strange things about the history of the town. Then the bus out of town broke down, and he was forced to spend the night in the local hotel.

And from here on out There be spoilers!

Not surprisingly, things turn out to be far stranger and sinister than the hapless protagonists expected.

The young antiquarian whose name is never given soon learns that the town has been taken over by hybrid fish-men who worship a strange, ancient deity and seek to interbreed with humans. After a night of frightening close calls, he manages to escape. Not long after his escape, however, he comes to learn that he is himself descended from the strange fish-men and is slowly transforming into one. He sinks into despair, considers suicide, then finally chnages his mind and heads to the sea to start his new life as a monster.

Rosemary finally stumbles upon some clues that the friendly old people in the building are, in fact, witches. Fearing for the safety of her child, she attempts to flee. But she is turned in by the doctor she confides in and taken back to the apartment, where she gives birth. She is told that the baby is born dead, but doesn't believe it and sneaks into the apartment of the head witches. It turns out that the child is the offspring of Satan, whom the witches summoned up to rape her. Though she considers killing the child, she changes her mind and decides that even the Son of Satan deserves a mother's love.

Misty eventually learns that her painting and the diary are both part of a larger scheme. Every hundred years, a woman who was not born on the island will paint a series of pictures which render people catatonic (via Stendahl syndrome). This will allow the "island people" to enact a major tragedy on the "summer people" (and quite a few of themselves, as well) which will make them rich again. It has been done twice before, after which the island people enjoyed 90+ years of prosperity before going nearly bankrupt and having to enact another massacre. The diary is key because the two former artists also kept diaries, and it is important to reproduce the events in the life of the artist for the plot to unfold. Misty attempts to stop the tragedy but is stopped by the police, and the massacre unfolds. She ends her story by mailing a copy of her diary to Palahniuk so he can write a book to, I guess, stop the pattern a hundred years hence.

Of the three, Diary is the one that tries hardest to be readable as allegory. As par for the course for Palahniuk, it is meant to be a statement on the plight of the artist, the nature of capitalism, and gentrification and immigration (ie. Portland property values). Baby appears to have been inspired by a certain 60s era anxiety over the increased secularization of the American populace. One character mentions that the death of God is not just a line from Nietzchie but an actual event taking time at that place. (Palahniuk himself interprets Baby as presenting a strongly pro-choice argument, but I suspect he hasn't read the novel.*) Shadow reflects some of Lovecraft's phobias--of foreigners and the ocean, in particular--but ends is powerfully ambiguous note, calling into question its own assumptions about monstrosity.

Curiously enough, though Lovecraft tends to be a far more verbose writer in terms of style, Shadow probably has the strongest, most disciplined finale of all three works. After Rosemary decides she wants to nurture her Satan Spawn, she has an argument with the head satanist about whether the baby is to be named Adrian or Andrew. Meanwhile, a Japanese satanist who shouts "Hair Satan!" (difficulty with "l"s) takes pictures of everyone. I'm not sure if Levin had campiness in mind when he wrote that scene, but there sure is a lot of it and it undercuts whatever eerieness the final revelation is supposed to bring.** Misty, in her attempt to foil the final step of the plot, ends up running around in front of a crowd, yelling, "You're all going to die! I'm Leonard da Vinci! I'm Lord Byron." It's hard not to sympathise with the crowd for thinking she's nuts. By contrast, the slow realization of the narrator of Shadow that he's becoming a monster and his wrestling with what to do about it are written as a slow accumulation of details. By the time he writes "I cannot be made to kill myself," it has an almost existentialist courage to it.

One of the things that struck me about Diary was the extent to which Palahniuk's attempt at allegory conflicts with the power of the story. There's an unresolved question at the heart of the plot: who or what is really behind the plot in question. The book implies that the first time it happened was by accident, and the second was only discovered when it was already taking place. It would appear that the island people stumble onto some pattern of human sacrifice older than them. In fact, the paintings that Misty paints are photo quality reproductions of scenes of the island itself, which again reinforces the idea that it is the island itself that seeks the massacre with the island people secondary beneficiaries. This appears to take human agency largely out of the equation, which makes it less convincing as social allegory regarding the evils of gentrification. And frankly a time scale of 100 years suggests that it is not the island which sets the plot in motion but an author looking for a nice round number.***

Curiously enough, Waytansea island is fish-shaped and it is described as a place where "even the dogs are inbred" which connects it strangely to Lovecraft's Innsmouth. It's an odd parallel, but one that makes me wonder: Was Palahniuk aware of this parallel when he sought to reinvent the horror novel? And if not, has he ever considered that he might himself be a "summer person" on this particular genre/island, just another interloper whose read a few guidebooks but doesn't know the territory or understand the history?

* This may be an unfair charge, but his interpretation seems a case of wishful thinking more than anything else. Rosemary starts out wanting a baby, and once she realizes something is up ends up fearing for the life of her child against those who would see it as less than a person. It might represent a certain degree of pregnancy anxiety but is a pretty insubstantial argument for legalized abortion.

** And seriously, satanists? I know it was written 40 years ago, but does anyone really find satanists scary? Perhaps it's just me, but I find them two-dimensional and dated. In Shadow, someone says the Innsmouth people were accused of being devil worshippers but that it's a pretty silly charge. Then it turns out the "devils" they worship (and are) don't really care about Christian theology.

*** I can't help but wonder what Borges would have done with a story about an artist whose act of writing reproduces a tragedy 100 years old. Although I think a nice touch would be to rewrite Diary with Sonia Greene as the practical aspiring artist finding herself forced to work to support the family and Lovecraft himself as the creepy artist of ambiguous sexuality with the weird family.

21 February 2008

Richard's "Memorial Day"

This is the last of the stories in Charity, a collection which I thoroughly enjoyed. It is a shame that he has not published more. His writing is very much of a Southern Gothic cast, but it's neat to see how he plays with both elements (Southern, Gothic) of that tradition using his own particular style. Sometimes, one is reminded of other authors, from Melville to Lovecraft, but always told in Richard's great style. If he ever chose to write horror stories, I would be eager to read them.

Though Death himself makes an appearance in "Memorial Day," it is not a horror story. It is, like a lot of Richard's stories, a story of people making do in marginal circumstances. For several days, a little boy shoos Death away from the little house where his brother lies sick, delirious. The local medicine woman requests a special ingredient to cure the brother, so the boy weaves a basket and goes out to fetch it. The end, surprising, ironic, bittersweet is like something out of O Henry, or at least a twisted version of said author.

20 February 2008

Richard's "Tunga Tuggo, Lingua Dingua"

This is the story of two brothers out looking for the remains of their father, who has disappeared and is believed dead. One thing I really like about Richard's style is his skill at creating a feeling of place, one he has in common with my some of my favorite horror authors. Just as Lovecraft has his haunted New England and Ligotti's stories often seem to take place in a rust belt where decay has infested everything, Richard's vision of southern oceanside towns captures a sense of decadance that is both realistic and mythic. Ironically enough, though not a horror story, the brothers' adventure does end on a somewhat Lovecraftian note.

19 February 2008

Richard's "Plymouth Rock"

"Plymouth Rock" is the story of a two brothers at their parent's house for Thanksgiving Dinner. The narrator is something of a loser, but his brother, who appears to have been something of a bully, is with the secret service. Nothing much happens, but it makes for an entertaining blend of politics and family discord.

18 February 2008

Richard's "Charity"

The story is superficially similar to "The Birds for Christmas" since both deal with abandoned children in pediatric wards. However, "Charity" really ramps up the surrealism with its stranger assortment of fellow inmates and rather nightmarish, if oddly funny, conclusion. Though it's well-written, I think I prefered "Birds" with it's more bittersweet conclusion.

05 February 2008

Richard's "Charming 1 br" and "Never in this World"

As I tend to do way too often, I've fallen behind on blogging these stories and am now working on getting caught up. After these two, I hope to have all the posts up by next Friday.

The first story's full title is "Charming 1br., fr. dr. wndws, quiet, safe. Fee." which is probably meant ironically since it is a story of an insomniac living in a seedy neighborhood who watches some gangsters as they leave a nearby restaurant. Richard has a way of making the smallest things seem major. Though brief, there's a nice sense of a greater story going on.

"Never in this World" is about a boy and a girl out on a date. The boy is trying to tell ghost stories to get the girl in an amorous mood, without much success. Finally, he tells her two rather unique ghost stories, and though it is unclear whether they have the desired effect, the stories seem to reach out to a greater reality, towards the importance of memory and compassion.

04 February 2008

Richards "Fun at the Beach"

This story's opening seems particularly quote-worthy:

Got a letter from a girl said we ought to get together before her
husband gets parole. Said maybe we could rent another bungalow down at Big
Bill's Beach Cabanas like last time, maybe steam up some shrimp and suck out the
heads, maybe break a box of old 45s against the walls, the tequila-drinking
things, things like me doing it to her from behind with her leaning out the
bungalow window whistling at sailors on the boardwalk, what did I think?
I wrote back and said, Do I know you?

After a few more of these exchanges, the girl shows up, husband in tow. Though this story--as with most of the stories in the collection--is low on plot, I loved the way Richard sketches out this strange little corner of the Florida coast, giving a good sense of a town that manages to be simultaneously backwater and touristy. (It reminds me of Melville's line that "true places" are not to be found on any map.)

01 February 2008

Richard's "Where Blue is Blue" & "The Birds for Christmas"

Both of these were pretty short so I figured I'd just read/review both of them.

"Where Blue is Blue" has a pretty gruesome beginning that sneaks up on you like a sick joke. And it has an equally surprising ending that somehow manages to be both gruesome and transcendent. Along the way, it tells an interesting story about the feeding of beasts, the male gaze, and the similarities between art and detective work. I like to be surprised, even a little shocked, by a good short story and this one achieves it well.

"The Birds for Christmas" is about two boys in a hospital/orphanage at Christmastime. It's a pretty bleak and depressing setting with overtones of horror. Yet it's also funny and has a rather sweet turn at the end, and I thought Richard's ability to give voice to the young protagonist is dead-on.

31 January 2008

Richard's "Gentleman's Agreement"

"Gentleman's Agreement" is the story of a boy who breaks the family car's windshield and is threatened with a dire punishment by his father. His father then goes off to fight a forest fire, and the boy is left alone to fend for himself and try to keep from getting in trouble. Place is never specified, though the way it's described I imagine it as some decrepit town in the Florida panhandle. It's all sort of distorted, seen as it is through the eyes of a little kid, yet completely believable. The ending is unexpected, and manages to be both sweet and creepy at the same time.

24 January 2008

Does the Dagon Church need a masturbation saint?

If you'll pardon the stream-of-consciousness intro, I'm dredging up a tongue-in-cheek theory I dreamed up a couple of years ago with regards to a character from Chuck Palahniuk's Haunted.

Yesterday, I picked up Mark Richard's Charity from the library. I first encountered Richard when a friend gave me Fishboy as a birthday gift in high school. I actually didn't really care for Fishboy the first time I read it, but I pulled it out last year and re-read it. Much to my (pleasant) surprise, it turned out to be a great read. (In fact, it sort of inspired me to give Moby Dick a try, but that's a different story.)

Richard seems to get grouped together with Palahniuk, probably because they have similar literary influences. (Amy Hempel, Gordon Lish, Raymond Carver) And Fishboy shares some superficial similarities with Haunted. Both aim for dark, gruesome humor and both feature stories within the main narrative. The books are otherwise very different, much to Richard's benefit.

Charity is a collection of Richard's short stories, and I've decided that I'm going to be reading it and giving it the "story a day" treatment I gave Lugones' Strange Forces. I thought the approach worked really well with Lugones, allowing me to organize and get a better feel for the authors style and themes.

That prompted me to think it might be worth treating Haunted like a short-story collection and giving it the story a day treatment. Some people might say this is unfair, since Haunted is a novel, not a short story collection. To which I call bullshit, since it was conceived as a short-story collection and Frankensteined up into a novel. (The zippers still show.) That's something down the road as I debate whether to re-read the accursed thing or just review the stories from memory, but in the meantime I thought I'd dredge up my Deep One explanation for St. Gut-Free's curious biological properties. Previously I had tried to lay it out in a somewhat convoluted, rambling style, but since I've already been pretty rambling about getting to the theory itself, I'm just going to bullet-point it for ease of read. Anyway, without further ado...

Evidence that St. Gut-Free is actually a Deep One

  • Despite having no body fat, no surplus muscle mass, and a poor ability to absorb nutrients through his digestive system he manages to survive a period of starvation that incapacitates normal people.
  • His sperm is able to survive for prolonged periods in chlorinated water. Once it detects an ovulating female, it instinctively swims up her cervix to fertilize available eggs.
  • He masturbates underwater. Obviously the water-womb association has a particular significance for him, what with his who mother who hides herself away. (What could be more humiliating than the Innsmouth look?)
  • He hooks up with Mother Nature. (The dude's quite the Oedipal mess, see above.) Out of all the women, he picks the one who represents a primal, pre-human state of existence.
  • His intestines taste like squid tentacles.