A few reviews ago, I was asking myself why I continue to read horror. The answer I offered then was that the discovery of Victorian and Edwardian authors during the 1950s set me off on a hunt. Like these more modern people who obsessively seek out roller coasters in the hope of matching or beating their last white-knuckle ride, I live for finding my next frisson of alarm or fear when reading. Ironically, as I’ve grown older and more “sophisticated”, the thrills are fewer and farther between. Too many modern authors either try to get an effect simply by being more extreme, or they slavishly follow the magic formulae that used to work twenty or thirty years ago. The area in which it’s most difficult to hit the right contemporary note is the Mythos. For all his faults, and there were many, H P Lovecraft was a very sophisticated writer for his day. This was not simply in the level of creativity where he excelled by creating a detailed context for his fiction, but also in the rather florid writing style which, probably more by accident than anything else, suited what we’ve now come to call cosmic horror. As the years have passed and more people have come to play in the Lovecraftian sandbox, it’s become very difficult to keep the content fresh. To be considered “good” today, you have to be way better than those writing twenty and more years ago.
The Strange Dark One. Tales of Nyarlathotep by W H Pugmire (Miskatonic River Press, 2012) is my second look at this author. In the late 1990s, I read Tales of Sesqua Valley and thought the content quite interesting but the style somewhat overdone. With Pugmire becoming a more regular figure on the Lovecraft scene, I though the time had come for another look. We start of this slim collection with the titular story, “The Strange Dark One” and we’re immediately pitched back into Sesqua Valley. For those of you new to this author, the valley is home to a group of beings who are not, strictly speaking human. Although they have have taken human form and some might say this involves acquiring a soul as well, they have created an enclave for themselves. Most human folk never manage to find this “hidden” valley and its community. You need to have an affinity with outside forces to gain admission. Of course, having found your way in, there’s no guarantee you’ll ever be able to get out again. This time, the granddaughter of a book dealer who has taken over the business on her grandfather’s death, decides to sell some of his old books to a man from the Sesqua Valley. This is sufficient connection to open the door for her. What she finds proves upsetting as she learns not everything comes without a price to be paid. Although it has moments when the prose rescues the rather thin plot, I found the whole rather mechanical. “Immortal Remains”, on the other hand, is shorter and has a more pronounced sense of wonder about it. The young being confronts the ineffable and, after initial and not unexpected apprehension, embraces the chance to merge. It’s a pleasing balance between the prose style and the content.
“Past the Gates of Deepest Dreaming” is less successful because the conversations between all the interested parties both within and without the valley, lack credibility. People don’t speak to each other like this in real life. They speak using ordinary words even though what’s going on around them is wholly extraordinary. Indeed, it’s the incongruity between the everyday and the weird that heightens their and our emotional responses. This story is just trying too hard to use the heightened prose style throughout. It’s the same with “One Last Theft” where there are some genuinely strange vocabulary choices to distract the reader from a reasonably interesting plot. For example why “debauch” a plot rather than frustrate it? And what are we to make of this question, “Will you tell me of your rhubarb with the beast?” This must be an American usage of rhubarb meaning dispute or argument. “The Hands That Reek and Smoke” is more naturalistic and, set in a city, is more effective as Nyarlathotep offers himself as a muse. “The Audient Void” is another linguistically overwrought story with oddities, e.g. “. . .a blackness that whirled with spectral sentient.” “Some Bacchante of Irem” again falls into this strange hinterland of quite interesting plot and language which I find a poor fit. Finally, “To See Beyond” proves to be the most successful story as the series character from Sesqua Valley recruits an author from the human world and introduces him to a musician.
Taking an overview, we have some interesting plot ideas and, at times, the use of heightened language is very effective. But when the plot calls for the denizens of Sesqua Valley to interact with humans, I think the dialogue should moderate to something more everyday. The dissonance in the juxtaposition of the ordinary and extraordinary will usually enhance the sense of wonder. When everything is at the same linguistic pitch, it produces a slightly monotonous quality — no thrills for the roller coaster fans among you. This is also my first look at this small press. Sadly it fails to give the most professional impression. The type setting is left justified only and there are some setting mistakes, particularly in the use of linefeeds. Surprisingly, there are proofreading errors, e.g. entré as the past participle instead of entrez the imperative. So overall, I’m not beguiled (the author’s favorite word) by The Strange Dark One. Tales of Nyarlathotep as either a text or a physical object, although jacket artwork and internal illustrations by Jeffrey Thomas do hit the right notes.
Authors are entirely human (unless they are AIs who’ve broken through into the fiction business) and, as is only natural, tend to get caught up in their own interests and obsessions. So when we go back to the start of the Laundry Files series, Charles Stross thought it was a wicked cool idea to take a Lovecraftian theme and wrap in into a pastiche format. Ignoring the shorter contributions, this worked rather well with the fairly generic style of Len Deighton for The Atrocity Archives but was, to my mind, a dismal failure with Ian Fleming when the joke proved repetitively interminable in The Jennifer Morgue. I think the series got back on track with The Fuller Memorandum because, although Stross claimed it was a pastiche of Anthony Price, it was nothing like any of Price’s novels. More to the point, even if it had been, only geriatrics like me have read and loved Price. So few people read him now, no-one would have known whether it was a reasonable approximation of the style. In other words, despite protestations to the contrary, Stross wrote an amusing Lovecraftian book. With the fourth book now out and titled The Apocalypse Codex (Penguin/Berkley, 2012), he’s again indulging in thematic pastiche. This time, we’re in Peter O’Donnell territory. Frankly, I haven’t read a Modesty Blaise book in more than forty years and wouldn’t want to read one today. I found them terrible. What was quick and amusing as a comic strip died when it was translated into prose. So here Stross introduces a strong, but occasionally vulnerable, woman to put up alongside the doughty Laundryman.
Who’s this woman, then? Well, as in the originals, she has a vaguely Greek background and, having wandered around Europe, ends up a British national. Of course, there’s the required trusty sidekick as well. Like Willy Gavin, he’s tough, has throwing knives, and is not at all frustrated in a strictly platonic relationship with the Mam’selle. Having given up the life of crime, they’re recruited into MI6 by Sir Gerald Tarrant as external assets which is where this novel takes up the thread.
The good news is the more serious tone of the novel. Although I’m not against the idea of an author introducing a general air of levity into “end of the world” scenarios — that Douglas Adam chap was moderately successful in getting a laugh out of the destruction of the Earth — there comes a point when the arrival of one or more of the Great Old Ones has to become more threatening given the likely loss of amenity around the planet. Indeed, the plot of this novel assumes the arriving being will be a little peckish and need to have a light snack to build up its strength. That’s why this cult has been planning for so long and has developed the power to ring fence several million people into an outdoor eating area otherwise called Colorado. So although there’s some of the mild satire on civil service speak and organisational culture, the primary focus is on Lovecraftian matters with the sidekick and the televangelist being Deep One hybrids.
In line with the slightly darker themes featuring baby production facilities and parasitical infections, there’s also more intelligence in the discussion of organisations and how best to structure them to get the best results. Although this particular version of reality is fictional, I applaud Stross for taking the time to explain the point of his satire on the civil service mentality. Too often, jobs have been mechanised so that anyone can do them with only a minimal level of intelligence and experience. This compensates for the systemic failures of the education service to spit out sufficient numbers of clever people to run government “properly”. With jobs defined by lowest common denominator ability requirements, administration can continue, with policy overseen by a small cadre of more knowledgeable individuals. The point of the institutional speak is to hide the differences in intellectual ability. With everyone speaking in the same preprogrammed way, it takes marginally longer for the general public to work out whether they are talking with a high-powered Mandarin or lowly clerk.
Put all this together and The Apocalypse Codex is the best of the series so far. It has a better balance between the characters with the series character, Bob Howard, sharing the point-of-view limelight with our new female heroine (and sidekick). The Lovecraftian threat is escalating nicely with portal technology allowing entry into a different dimension for on-site conflict. The evolution also extends to our view of the British Government and we see more clearly where Bob’s career path may be leading — if not into middle management. The good final piece of news is this can more obviously be read as a stand-alone. Although knowing the background from the previous novels and short stories would enhance your enjoyment, everything you need to understand this is thoughtfully included.
This novel has been shortlisted for the 2013 Locus Award.
When you look at the world of dark fantasy or horror (depending on the way you apply labels), it’s sad there are so few women who get the recognition they deserve. I suppose if we stretch the boundaries, we have to include Anne Rice among the really well-known. Of the “midlist” crowd, my personal favorites are Poppy Z Brite and Lisa Tuttle. All of which is probably not the best way to begin a review of Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart by Caitlin R Kiernan (Subterranean Press, 2012) but I thought I should make the point that the mass market is not given the chance to appreciate the quality of the dark fantasy or horror fiction that women write. Whereas the men are heavily promoted, women are not picked up by the mainstream publishers and so are less well-known. This denies the majority the chance to read work by Caitlin R Kiernan and others. Not only does she produce such good prose, but her work gives a fascinating insight how fiction written by a woman differs from the male version. In this collection, we also see a conscious effort made to blur the line between the “dark” and the “erotic”, i.e. to make explicit what many of the male writers tend to leave implicit. Those of you who know Caitlin R Kiernan will understand she has an insight into the spectrum of gender and so her fiction tends to approach sexuality and eroticism from less usual directions. This makes her work all the more interesting to read and, once again, we’re indebted to Subterranean Press for supporting her work.
“The Wolf Who Cried Girl” is an elegant story about the socialisation process. No matter how they first present as children, we intend to transform our young into adults we can be proud of. For the elite who are strong and the average, this works reasonably well, but when the non-standard have to contend with the prejudices of the peer group and authority figures, it’s very difficult to stay true to the inner personality. Those with gender issues are only too aware of this problem. This is the story of a wolf who’s magically transformed into a girl. Hospitals and counsellors attack her instinctive feral identity, forcing her to assume the appearance of a woman. Her decision to have sex with a man proves the final step in the magic driving the process of social change. The voluntary acceptance of the new identity is inevitably the surrender of the old. Except, of course, wolves never like to surrender and always fight to the end, particularly if they believe they have been tricked. The reverse is “Unter den Augen des Mondes” in which a female werewolf finds herself a prisoner and unable to transform into her human body. Living as a caged animal, all she can hope for is the opportunity to kill the man who taunts and abuses her.
We then have a genuinely macabre allegory. “The Bed of Appetite” makes literal the cliché that people can be consumed by love. This inevitably involves one or both parties accepting some reduction in their individuality. They give up their freedoms, accept new responsibilities. But, as the relationship moves towards termination, what will be left of each person? “Subterraneus” is a simple but powerful Lovecraftian story. “The Collector of Bones” reminds us of the idiom that some people talk you to death. These three stories also consider the difference between dominance and submissiveness depending on the gender role. “The Bed Of Appetite” is particularly interesting because the woman begins to write the story, but it ends as the man dictates. “Beautification” continues the theme of submissiveness and self-sacrifice, except it’s not at all clear what benefit will accrue to the woman from this sacrifice. “Untitled Grotesque” returns to the world of gender mutability in a story of voyeurs where it’s important to understand who’s watching whom with the greatest interest. At least, in “Flotsam”, there’s an obvious pay-off for the submission. The victim longs to give blood to a vampire because it’s an ecstatic experience. Unfortunately, the sexual high emphasises the dominant loneliness and frustration because the donation comes only when it suits the convenience of the vampire. “Concerning Attrition and Severance” completes this small section by moving us from voluntary submission to sadism for the greater enjoyment of the sadist and her watchers.
“Rappaccini’s Dragon (Murder Ballad No. 5)” shows us that, with good preplanning, revenge can achieve the desired result, while “The Melusine (1898)” demonstrates that if you live in the moment, you can suddenly find your rational defences overwhelmed as love beckons. But if you hesitate, the magic is lost and the mundane rationality of the world reasserts control. “Fecunitatem (Murder Ballad No. 6)” asks if you have a close relationship with nature, will a death of your own choosing lead to a different view of the world? Perhaps a seed might take root and prove you as fertile as the rich earth. Moving into science fiction, “I Am the Abyss, and I Am the Light” describes a process whereby a human and an alien surrender their individual personalities and merge into a single being. In so doing, the individuals become something different, neither human nor alien, but a third species. During the process, both overcome the inherent loneliness of being one individual in a body, never knowing what others around them are thinking. Through this surrender of individuality, they accept each other in a form of relationship that’s intimate and permanent. Similarly, “Lullaby of Partition and Reunion” suggests that true love implies the two people will intermingle, will fuse both physically and intellectually — even become soul partners like siamese twins albeit with different parents.
“Dancing With the Eight of Swords” thinks about a serial killer who, while alive, believes the voice of another is guiding every action. Would it not be remarkable if, upon death, the killer might find a different way of relating to that voice, perhaps even of breaking down barriers to become a single individual who can make her own choices. “Murder Ballad No. 7” raises the possibility that, if a man could see past a glamour to the fairy below, he might be considered worthy of being a mate, albeit only within the fairy ring, of course. “Derma Sutra (1891) offers a Lovecraftian potential for two coming together through the application of various tattoos and the use of words from Ancient Books, while “The Thousand-and-Third Story of Scheherazade” is a nice inversion of the original Arabian Nights to keep a different relationship going. “The Belated Burial” suggests an intermediate step in the metamorphosis from dead human to vampire. “The Bone’s Prayer” reinvents the old trope of the message in a bottle and wonders how a small piece of soapstone with signs of the Elder Gods carved on to its surface might serve the purpose. “A Canvas For Incoherent Arts” has a couple playing S&M games based on sensory deprivation. What does the submissive partner become when she’s actually afraid? “The Peril of Liberated Objects” is a powerful Lovecraftian acceptance of dreaming as a form of voyeurism, showing an unexpected price paid out of sight. “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” was reviewed in Black Wings. “At the Gate of Deeper Slumber” continues the Lovecraftian theme with a wonderful box that offers the use of a portal if only you have the courage to open it. Finally, “Fish Bride (1970)” completes the frame of the first story. A woman is slowly going through the metamorphosis to become one of the Deep Ones. Unfortunately, she falls in love with a human man. As her gills begin to show and the call grows stronger to join her mother in the city beyond the Devil Reef, she realises the loneliness that awaits her without the man she loves. Here acceptance of the process produces the mirror image result but without the option to pick up a knife and strike with any meaningful purpose.
Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart is a collection of densely written stories, often with challenging content. As such, it rewards those who take their time to engage with the author and think through what underpins each story. Because of its frankness and some eroticism, it will not be to everyone’s taste. This is a shame because, regardless of the superficial descriptions, the underlying themes transcend physicality. Almost without exception, the stories are about the mind and how it relates to the world around it through the agency of the body. Yes, some of the stories are disturbing, but is one of the functions of art not to disturb, to challenge our safe view of the things around us we perceive as mundane?
My opinion on Lee Moyer‘s contribution to the cover design provoked some debate so I’ve written a more detailed critique of the artwork at Cover Design For Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
The Croning by Laird Barron (Night Shade Books, 2012) starts off with a gem in its own right. Although it’s only the first chapter, it could be a free-standing short story retelling the Rumpelstiltskin myth with such verve and inventiveness, you want it to continue. Except you’re then abruptly moved forward in time to 1958 when Donald Miller and his wife Michelle, née Mock, go on a trip to Mexico City courtesy of Louis Plimpton, one of his wife’s colleagues. When his wife goes missing, Don tries to find her and is almost killed in weird circumstances he finds very difficult to recall. In 1980 agents, certainly government and possibly FBI or an early version of the NSA, are present at the death of a Person of Interest at Wenatchee, one Louis Plimptom. We then jump up-to-date with Don and Michelle into their retirement years although she stays more active, going off on trips every now and then. They live quietly in the Waddell Valley, possibly close to the The Sanguine Stone. So, the book hits the ground running and then slows to a walking pace before taking off again.
Now here’s the thing about families. Most of this happy couple’s relatives are either missing in action or sufficiently weird there’s no regular contact with them. Don has spent a lifetime as a geologist, both commercial and academic, and, not surprisingly, was an active spelunker when young. Michelle acted the part of a mainstream scientist, but was actually obsessed with the idea there are little people who live underground — as I recall, the fairy story reports Rumpelstiltskin was of small stature. Now, apart from trips with friends, Michelle largely restricts herself to the investigation of her family tree. The early Mocks, particularly the women, seem to fascinate her. Strangely, their son is prone to sleepwalking and has been found in odd places around the house and outhouses. He may also have memory lapses, and had a strange supernatural experience during a séance when a teen. But that’s new history.
Going back to our happy couple, the common denominator who brought them together in the 1950s was Professor Plimpton. He worked at the university they attended. When they eloped to marry, he let them use his farmhouse in Wenatchee. Indeed, he was the main driving force behind much of Michelle’s early work. That’s why they were saddened by the news of his death in 1980 and attended his funeral. Later that day, they went on to the Wolverton Mansion, perched high on a cliff overlooking a forest, for the wake. But Don’s memory of that evening and what he heard about the relationship between his grandfather, father and an unrelated young man vaguely connected to the Mock family somehow slipped his mind. Indeed, a lot of things have disappeared from his mind and only some of them have later returned.
This marks the nature of the narrative. As with all good unreliable narrators, the ageing Don is increasingly aware of just how much he might have forgotten. Obviously, by virtue of the memory losses, he doesn’t know how significant these gaps may be. But there are times when odd snippets surface. Indeed, in itself, the re-emergence of memories is strange. If his brain forgets certain events so completely, why should there be moments when he remembers odd events? Perhaps it’s all part of some cosmic plan. Yet what possible role could a mere mortal like Don play if other worldly forces are involved? Such is the underlying mystery as we slowly begin to see how the pieces in the jigsaw fit together. In this, Laird Barron is building on “Mysterium Tremendum” in which four men find a copy of The Black Guide. This small travel guide suggests there’s a dolmen somewhere in the foothills of Mystery Mountain out on the Olympic Peninsula. Their trip into the forest to find it proves challenging. So, Don’s life may somehow be set on a trajectory that will also bring him to Mystery Mountain. Planning such a life journey would require an ability to transcend time and exercise considerable influence over human affairs.
To get a better understanding of this scenario, think about the fiction of Arthur Machen who warns against lifting the veil to reveal forbidden mysteries. He, more than any other author of his time, was fascinated by the relationship between specific places and the mind, suggesting that sensitive people might connect with otherness by being the lonely figure on a landscape or, in our case, a cave system. In this, he was expanding on the idea of genius loci, the religious concept from Ancient Rome, in which numinous spirits interact with the mind. H. P. Lovecraft recognised his debt to Arthur Machen in developing the Cthulhu Mythos and, others following in Lovecraft’s footsteps have built on the supposed power of a place to produce a link between a human mind and different orders of being.
Laird Barron is one of the best of the writers currently exploring how this traditional cosmic environment can be developed to make the fiction more appealing to our modern sensibilities. He’s Lovecraftian in the general sense of the word, but he increasingly blends old-fashioned weird with Mythos tropes in modern settings to produce a different perspective from which to view old gods and monsters. The Croning, his first novel, sees him invest significant effort in Don, a character with whom we can readily empathise as he tries to reconstruct his memories and so find peace of mind. Then we have the detail of the family backgrounds and the careful structuring of the story to move us around in time. Once we have all the relevant information in our hands, it’s mounting dread as we accelerate towards the final revelations. Anyone even vaguely interested in cosmic horror with Lovecraftian overtones should read this. It’s beautifully paced and wonderfully innovative.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
So there’s me, sitting with a copy of Black Wings: Tales of Lovecraftian Horror and I come across this story by Jonathan Thomas called “Tempting Providence” and it’s so good, I immediately get hold of a copy of the collection, appropriately titled Tempting Providence (published by Hippocampus Press, 2010). So now I have the chance to take the measure of Jonathan Thomas at greater length.
Let’s start with a few thoughts about what it means to write weird fiction. The use of the word “weird” to describe strange or unusual events has been around for centuries but, as a description of a style of writing or the content, it spins off the concept of Gothic by dropping the romantic element, refining the terror element, and occupying a niche between the rock of horror and the hard place of fantasy. As the Enlightenment took hold and we came to value rationality over faith, there was still a need to discuss the inexplicable — those situations in which the primitive flight or fight instincts were roused. No matter how tough we like to think ourselves, there’s a limit to what materialism can provide and cynicism may help us believe. Hence, fiction that described events going beyond what we can easily understand grew in popularity as a kind of safety valve to release our more primitive fears. Characters on a page could engage with the unknown and offer us vicarious thrills as they survived encounters with the eldritch. Except, of course, many turned out to have no defence against these dark forces. This proves the old adage. Without deaths, there can be no terror.
“Dead Man’s Shoes” shows this in action. A casual walker gets off the beaten track and finds himself caught up in a funeral. For reasons he cannot explain, he goes to the wake in a small village. People talk to him as if he’s the dead man reincarnated. He plans to leave. He wants to leave. But something, perhaps it’s fear of the village headman, or something they put into the wine, or something unknowable, keeps him there. He feels his old identity slipping away. Jed is dead, long live Jed. Except our hero never acknowledges himself as Jed. He refuses to be sucked into what he considers a group delusion. Yet he stays. Time passes in tending the land to provide food. Although this is displaced into a weird context, we all know what it’s like to be trapped by circumstances in a role we never looked for. Think of all those who wake to find they are suddenly carers for family members. All it takes is an accident or illness. In this story, all it takes to change the role from civilised man to country bumpkin is an accidental meeting with a funeral cortège. Now that’s weird!
“Into Your Tenement I’ll Creep” is more overtly supernatural in that a man who worms his way into the affections of an accommodating young lady learns something new about his vocabulary. Most people use “tenement” as referring to a building or piece of land which has multiple tenants. Yet there’s no reason in principle why the word should not apply to any vessel that may hold many different occupants. This may seem, at first sight, to be unremarkable until you remember how destructive some tenants can be. Some have no respect for the buildings they occupy and allow everything to fall into a great state of disrepair.
“Tempting Providence” appealed to me so strongly because it roused a memory of a story I read back in the 1950s in which a man awakes to find a really strange-looking new toaster on a work surface in his kitchen. Rerunning the same idea in an elegantly described Providence with recognisable academic characters produces an entirely more satisfying result. “A Different Kind of Heartworm” asks and answers an uncomfortable question for all of us who marry or enter what we hope will be stable relationships. Must there be a full disclosure of all our faults and weaknesses, or can we hold things back? More importantly, should a failure to disclose creep like a worm into our heart and kill the love that was there? “Gumball Man” also tackles a difficult subject. Parents who shout and scream at each other create the wrong environment for a small boy growing up in their home. With role models like that, could the boy develop real social skills as the years go by? Perhaps he would stay an alienated outsider or become an axe murderer. Who can say. . .
“The Silence in the Copse” is a beautifully atmospheric piece in which we speculate on genetic heritage. If we are predestined by our genes to particular likes and dislikes, it’s only a matter of time before they manifest themselves. For me, this is the stand-out story. “The Lord of the Animals” is less substantial although it’s an interesting example of minimalist weird, doing no more than is needed to introduce the uncanny and then move on. “The Salvage Saints” is a more or less straight piece of historical fiction where one of the corrupted looks for wealth in the incorruptible. It interprets and so fictionalises the past in a way allowing the sea to judge saintliness for the benefit of those who follow the faith of the day. It’s altogether more arbitrary than the modern system for assessing sainthood, but no less reliable. “Passenger Bastion” is a kind of future steampunk where the oil has peaked, but air travel is still desirable. It ponders on what makes a hero and what rewards are reaped for those who answer the call.
“Power of Midnight” takes us back into the distant past where we were young and obsessed by the obscure in music, always pawing through boxes of LPs in the hope of finding that one rarity. But suppose that ultimate grail was inherently evil, a gateway to doom. Would we be cursed if we found it or, worse, were given it? Would our world end immediately or would the destruction of our world come more slowly? “The Men At the Mound” catches the Anglo Saxons on the cusp between the old religion and the invading Christianity, between different times and different perspectives. Finally “Three Ounces over Advent” provides us with extremely unreliable narrators, one of whom may be in possession of more than a few ounces of street drugs.
This is an elegantly restrained book both in terms of the content, and as a physical production. Indeed, it’s pleasing that a small operation like Hippocampus Press can make a good job of design. Overall, this is a very interesting collection and signals an author to watch.
So here’s a conundrum for you. If a quintessentially British publisher hires S T Joshi, an Indian American editor, to produce an anthology based on H. P. Lovecraft’s mythos — he’s a quintessentially American author — in which version of English should the book be typeset? Having been in the publishing game myself, I always set my books in British English. I am therefore intrigued to find Peter Crowther setting Black Wings (PS Publishing, 2010) using American English spellings and conventions. Thus, he favors settings like “this,” and past-participles like gotten. Of course, I recognise that the majority of these rather handsome hardbacks are likely to be sold into the US market. But, having just reviewed Clowns at Midnight by an Australian author with British English settings, I would be interested to know why this publisher does not appear to have a consistent policy. Anyway, as those of you who have read these reviews will know, I’m a Lovecraftian mythos person. ’Nuff said.
Staying with the opening issue of language brings me to “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” by Caitlin R Kiernan. This is a rather elegant recreation of the literary style of the late 1920s with heavily convoluted sentence construction and context-specific vocabulary. It’s heartening to see an author prepared to subsume her own personality in this first-person, stubborn man’s narrative. She produces a rather pleasing story that investigates the links between the artist Pickman, his friend’s suicide and an actress. It’s a nicely ambiguous story in which we consider what happens when we deny our beliefs. Just imagine, we might believe the world normal, or we might know it was not and wish to renounce it. “Desert Dreams” by Donald R Burleson is a more routine story locating the source of the dream summons in the New Mexico desert. Our hero travels for his enlightenment. “Engravings” by Joseph S Pulver Sr. has a nicely cruel Nyarlathotep using his own seed to open the way. This is a more modern and muscular story that makes it point with appropriate economy.
Then we come back to the question of language. “Copping Squid” by Michael Shea is a wonderful exploration of what it takes to write cosmic, if not eldritch, contemporary fiction. Here is an author at his best, crafting a vehicle with such a curiosity bump, you would want to ride all the way in it to perdition. Everything is right: the vocabulary and the flair with which it’s used, turning the rational world upside down as our reformed alcoholic suddenly finds himself addicted to a different way of viewing the world.
“Passing Spirits” by Sam Gafford is one of the more original Lovecraftian stories in the anthology, featuring Lovecraft himself and many of his creations, bending the real world of uninsured horror as our hero’s brain cancer spreads. What we perceive and understand about the world is all mediated through our brains. So if anything were to disrupt the smooth working of this fine engine, we would find it increasingly difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. Probably, because of our creativity and imagination, the fiction would win out. “The Broadsword” by Laird Barron touches all the right bases in Mythos terms but is somewhat diffuse, failing to pick a focused conclusion and work towards it. This may be to unmask an alien in a human body, or show a kind of kidnapping in which an alien is implanted, or have aliens come out of the cracks of the walls and feast on local people, or two long-term friends are separated in wilderness trauma but later reunited. Anything along one of these lines would be sufficient. As it is, the detail of the Broadsword Hotel and its failing infrastructure adds little to the outcome. Our hero’s fairly routine life as a senior could have been anywhere. There is a good story here but the logic of events is not as clear as it should be, and it should have been edited down to its core essentials.
“Usurped” by William Browning Spenser is a simple bait-and-switch story as Azathoth waits in the desert for passing snacks. Unlike Barron’s wandering epic, this is economical and powerful. “Denker’s Book” by David J Schow follows in similar fashion with a wry take on the power of the Necronomicon to open the way into different dimensions. It manages to be steam punkish and contemporary. No mean feat when the Old Ones are around. “Inhabitants of Wraithwood” by W H Pugmire is a genuinely macabre, if not weird, notion that people themselves may be canvasses or perhaps become living works of art or maybe they’re just dying to be a part of the big picture. This is all very deft with nothing really explained but enough hinted at to be completely fascinating. “The Dome” by Mollie L Burleson is unconvincing. When you have to rely on day-time coincidences with no significant dates, you should know your plot is poor. “Rotterdam” by Nicholas Royle is an editorial choice I find strange. This is an excellent piece of crime fiction, nicely playing off Antony Gormley’s use of figures in landscapes to enhance the urban atmosphere of potential menace (as in Event Horizon, New York). But the only link to the theme is that the men are searching for locations to make a Lovecraft film. This strikes me as stepping outside the remit. Really good story, though.
“Tempting Providence” by Jonathan Thomas is the longest story in the anthology and replays the old trope of fishermen and their lures with a nicely Lovecraftian twist. I was beguiled not only by the memories of Providence, but also by the impeccable awareness of the hero, understanding the significance of the temptations and reacting with appropriate caution (for a review of a collection by Thomas, see Tempting Providence). It is always satisfying to meet an author who believes in establishing credible characters even though they may be stuck in incredible circumstances. “Howling in the Dark” by Darrell Schweitzer has our hero meet with a Black Man who walks through the darkness to gaze upon the immensity of Azathoth, all the while trying the reconcile his inherent humanity with the necessity of sloughing off all emotions if he is to be one with the night.
“The Truth About Pickman” by Brian Stableford is a wonderfully malevolent story in which we can watch a cunning man in action. How appropriate that the US and Britain should not only be separated by a common language but also from common infections. Lurking on the threshold of this story awaiting admission is a wicked sense of humour. “Tunnels” by Philip Haldeman is a slightly more conservative effort in which the denizens described in De Vermis Mysteriis emerge into our underground world of tunnels and cellars.”The Correspondence of Cameron Thaddeus Nash” by Ramsey Campbell is an elegant conceit but I found it grew rather boring, failing to build any real tension or anticipation.
“No Violence, Child of Trust” by Michael Cisco is rather an odd story in which the country family goes through its rituals. Sadly, I had a brain malfunction and didn’t really understand it. “Lesser Demons” by Norman Partridge gets me back into more familiar territory with a roller-coaster ride through a zombie plague with a twist. If you are going to bend Lovecraft, this is an excellent way to do it, pitting bookish curiosity against a pragmatic approach to problem-solving. “An Eldritch Matter” by Adam Niswander is a pleasing joke. Humour is the most difficult of tricks to pull off when everything around you is weird, so kudos to both the author in writing it and the editor for including it. “Substitution” by Michael Marshall Smith also represents a slightly sardonic take on the Mythos theme as our hero with a jaded palate talks himself out of the frying pan and then wonders why it’s getting hot. And, finally, “Susie” by Jason Van Hollander has a devoted servant leaving this mortal coil with things undone.
For those of you who read Mythos stories, there are some real gems to savour here but, as is always the case when personal taste confronts editorial choices, there are also stories I found rather indifferent. Overall, it’s good value for money for Lovecraft devotees.
This anthology has been shortlisted for the Best Anthology category in the 2011 World Fantasy Awards.
For a review of the sequel anthology see Black Wings II: New Tales of Lovecraft.
If in doubt, it’s always better to start off by mangling someone else’s words. It makes a statement about your own standards both as an editor and as someone not at all bothered by the notion of borrowing another’s ideas. So, in my best Churchillian tones, I offer the notion that, “Never in the field of human communication have so many words been offered to so many in service to so few credible narrative purposes.” Or if you prefer Shakespeare, “It is a tale, full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing.” or “It is a tale, full of a raging and discombobulated torrent of images and dreams, signifying nothing.” (page 251, US edition)
As another delaying tactic, let me offer an anecdote from my youth when I was a member of a modestly successful theatre group. On several occasions, one of its bigger egos was heard to boast that he could act through a blackout and still have the audience in the palm of his hand. On a slow night during one scene set around a dinner table with real candles (this was in the days before fire regulations made such recklessness illegal), the lighting crew slowly dimmed across the board until only the natural flickering light remained. As true professionals, the actors kept going and, remarkably, none of the lighting crew were fired. Ego enhanced, the targeted actor dined out on his performance for months thereafter.
Words are functional things, employed by authors to get their meaning across. In writing fiction, the aim may variously be to beguile, delight or, if all else fails, merely entertain. To that end, we writers gird whatever it is we gird when putting fingers to keyboards — does anyone still use pen and paper? — presumably as a protection against repetitive strain injury for those of us who hunt and peck using only the same two fingers.
What’s that? There’s a restless shuffling of feet out there. You’re waiting for the review of Kraken by China Miéville, thinking I should be getting on with it. But this is how I felt as I was reading Kraken. I kept waiting for the book to start and it never did.
Now don’t get me wrong. There’s prose covering some 500 pages and some of it is quite witty and thought-provoking. But words on a page are not enough on their own. The words must be in service to believable characters in a viable plot. What we actually have is a change of style from our author of previously unblemished reputation. This is not the roccoco New Weird, nor the subversive YA Un Lun Dun, nor the noir genre-blurring The City & the City, all of which have been more than merely enjoyable. This is intended as a light froth, a knowing wink to those of us who like H. P. Lovecraft and others who either walk in the same cosmic footsteps or more generally write (old) weird or horror. We are expected to welcome the tropes uncritically (including some geeky Trek stuff), ticking them off as they parade through the pages, and not care that it’s as exciting as reading a laundry list (and not in the Charles Stross sense).
The core problem is that none of the primary characters are in the slightest interesting. We have the naive innocent who has the “power” or “access to hidden knowledge” but does not know what he got, the soldier or loyal sidekick, the not-so-competent witch in thrall to a “special” police unit, a scary couple of killers, a disembodied ancient Egyptian union organiser, the spunky girl who proves determined to get involved and, because it’s Miéville, we’ve got the city what knows more than it’s letting on. Sadly, none of this crew shows any real development as what passes for the plot staggers from one episode to the next. Instead, everyone reacts to circumstances and, as the pages turn, we are sequentially introduced to new cultish groups, none of whom have stolen the damned tentacled-thingy, but wish they had or are generally pissed off that someone else has. Well, there just comes a point when I just throw up my hands and pray fervently to Cthulhu that someone finds the bloody thing so we can all go on to read another book. Then comes the big irony. We do find out who took the pesky mollusk, and we get it back, except that still leaves us having to save the world or London at least.
When we finally get to the end, we make an exciting discovery. Forget your taxonomies, my son. This whole thing’s about the epistemology, init? You may think you know your Darwinism and your Creationism. There’s this whole accumulation of what we know about the history of the world and the species that have lived within it. But suppose we could edit not just our memories of what we know, but also change the knowledge itself. Now that would really be something, wouldn’t it? Almost horrifying, you might say. So let’s all sit down and talk it through, argue the toss or write ourselves a note. You never know who might be watching or listening in.
If this had been held to around 250 or so pages, it would be an excellent read. As it stands, it’s bloated in the real sense of the word, namely swollen with gas so that, like a dead fish, it floats up to the surface. If netted, our fish could then be preserved in a glass case and become the hero of a weird novel. Indeed, thinking back to my youth, it reminds me of an interminable story an actor used to tell of how he acted through a blackout. It reinforced his ego and bored the pants off all who heard it.
This is a finalist in the 2011 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel.
In approaching this book, I’m reminded of decades of musical interventions where jazz and other musicians have taken pieces of classical music or well-known tunes, and variously mangled them, depending on your point of view. Indeed, the Classical Jazz Quartet is currently mining the same field ploughed by the Swingle Singers forty-something years ago, while people like Yngwie Malmsteen write their own orchestral concertos for electric guitar. Similarly, the idea of riffing on old literary favourites is captured in the increasingly contentious practice where “mashup” meets plagiarism. This year, you only have to think Helene Hegemann (as, of course, you all do) or Kaavya Viswanathan, who has just begun work with Sullivan & Cromwell, a top firm of attorneys — kinda ironic, huh!?! — to see the problem emerge into the full glare of the light. With the internet now making it possible to lay your hands on a wealth of content, it’s very difficult not to give into the temptation of an odd phrase here and there.
Now this is not to say there’s even the slightest hint of plagiarism about The Fuller Memorandum (apart from mentioning the phrase “here be dragons” twice which is the title of one of Anthony Price’s books). Indeed, for all its advertised homage to Anthony Price, I’m able to report there’s almost nothing even remotely like a David Audley book on display.
At this point, I admit to a prejudice. I used to be a collector and was the proud possessor of a complete set of Price first editions. He was a quite remarkable author. One who does not deserve to have been lost in the mists of time. The beauty of the books is the blend of history and two puzzles to be solved. There’s always a historical mystery, beautifully researched, and the solution of that mystery leads to the resolution of the contemporary mystery and the unmasking of the criminal, spy or terrorist. As a historian, the “hero” Audley thinks his way through both puzzles and, with the help of more active helpers, catches the bad guys. For anyone who wants an intellectual but exciting adventure story, you can’t do better than Price, particularly the early books. As he got older, there was a slightly wooden quality to the writing. But there are some great books to savour.
So Charles Stross, having been inspired by Len Deighton and Ian Fleming in the first two Laundry books, now claims Price. You need not worry. This is the same as Hollywood asserting a film is based on a true story, i.e. the filmmakers dramatise reality and so turn it into something different. This is the usual Stross first-person narrative where the now familiar Bob Howard struggles his way through the morass of problems until he emerges battered but victorious (and, according to Stross in June, he’s pitching another outing). First, the good news. This is way better than the second in the series, The Jennifer Morgue, which kept the Bond theme going far too long. The Fuller Memorandum succeeds in no small part because, although there are the texts of some historical documents included, Stross is not interested in copying the style or tropes of his inspirational source. Whereas even the living dead have either read a Bond book or seen one of the films, I’m probably one of a dying breed who could give you chapter and verse on Audley. Without Price fans to appease by including this favourite element or that, Stross could be unconstrained and just write a good Lovecraftian romp.
It has been interesting to watch Bob Howard’s development from The Atrocity Archives onwards. He’s losing his naive geekiness and becoming increasingly competent. In this outing, from the moment he misjudges the extent of the problem in RAF Cosford and inadvertently kills someone who proved to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, to the end where there are rather too many dead around for it to matter any more, we can see a man growing more comfortable in his ability to take on the dark forces and win.
And all is told with considerable wit. I can hear Stross cackling as, like one of these slightly manic entertainers who bend balloons into funny shapes, he takes ordinary sentences and wraps them round each other to make the entrails of something diabolically amusing — or which might represent a human sacrifice and so admit a power from beyond. Although there are moments where there’s an odd repetitiveness about the writing, it’s high pulp and not ashamed of it. This is not a book you sit down to read as brain food. It’s not intended to be anything other than great fun. In this it succeeds admirably and represents the best book Stross has published since Halting State. That our first-person hero can assert what others are doing at the same time in different parts of London just adds to the madcap feel of the whole thing. So once we have done our stretching exercises, it ambles along happily for the first half and then runs frantically to get to the end. There are no real mysteries in the Price style to solve except to wonder how Stross manages to stay so amusing so long.
Definitely recommended for those who like Lovecraftian fiction with a subversive attitude.
This is a finalist in the 2011 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel.