Posts Tagged ‘existentialism’

The Spectral Link by Thomas Ligotti

April 24, 2014 1 comment

the spectral link thomas ligotti

It’s a rather spooky experience, having read all the early works by Thomas Ligotti, to come back to him twenty years later to discover I’d hardly missed anything. While he was never what you might call prolific, he used to be moderately consistent. But, some ten or so years ago, he was affected by a form of writer’s block and has only just been spurred back into life. Actually, that’s a more literal sentence than you might imagine. In 2012, he was suddenly hospitalised and the near-death experience has sparked a resumption of the writing. So it comes to pass that I am holding a slim volume from Subterranean Press titled The Spectral Link. It contains two new stories from the master. That makes it something of an event in the horror community.

“Metaphysica Morum” sits comfortably in the class we might loosely call existential horror. Our protagonist is facing a form of psychological crisis. It’s not simply a matter of alienation or that he finds the world has grown meaningless. Either or both would suggest nihilist thinking. Rather there’s something about the way he perceives the world, both in his waking state and in dreams, that he finds profoundly depressing and unsettling. He seeks psychological help and, apart from having someone to talk with, he’s guided into meditation and relaxation therapy. In a not wholly professional way, his therapist assumes responsibility for organising our protagonist’s life. Before this meeting, our protagonist had not been sufficiently involved in the world to seek work or find any means of support for an independent lifestyle. The therapist places him in part-time work and provides a roof over his head. Although this offers the opportunity for more stability in his life, the lure of suicide grows stronger. Perhaps the expected trajectory for this story would be despair and the acceptance of death as hope is lost, but matters change when he receives a rather strange letter from someone who may be a member of his family. Ignoring whether the usual law of cause and effect applies, there’s also a change in the nature of his dreams. When he mentions the dream to his therapist, it triggers some alarm. The development of the plot then veers off into unexpected territory and arrives at a rather pleasing moment of unresolved ambiguity.

Thomas Ligotti

Thomas Ligotti

“The Small People” also deals with the nature of existence and considers both how we perceive the world and what may constitute a bigoted attitude towards one group of beings. Let’s for a moment assume this is an allegory about the effect of immigration. To those established in a place, the arrival of new people, perhaps of a smaller stature and not speaking the same language, might be viewed as threatening. Perhaps when they come, the original occupiers of the land feel uncomfortable and withdraw, leaving the newcomers to throw up whatever shelters they can using the materials to hand. It would all look chaotic, lacking the sophistication of the original township. Think about shanty towns or slums suddenly changing the urban landscape, creating blight, causing a loss in property values in neighbouring areas. Of course this is not something to be talked about openly, because to denigrate the immigrants would be to betray your bigotry. Discriminating against them would be illegal in some legal systems. But there does come a point when some feel they can’t retreat any further, when they have to take a stand on one of the issues they consider a moral imperative, e.g. mixed marriages between the original inhabitants and the newcomers. Yes, without getting too obsessed about the overall problem, focusing on just one issue might get results. And just think, all this could be a horror story not in any sense related to real-world problems. Allegories are like that. They enable us to think about socially difficult issues without treading on too many toes. . . You see that’s a part of the problem. Just how many toes do these newcomers have? The answer to the question actually asked in this story is typical of the paranoid thinking that afflicts some individuals who see other people as somehow different.

It’s a testament to Ligotti’s skill as an author that he makes two stories go a long way. This slim volume may be less than one-hundred pages in length but it packs a big punch both as an intellectual exercise and as horror for, when the chips are down, what can be more frightening than the product of an intelligent mind?

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Love in the Time of Metal and Flesh by Jay Lake

November 1, 2013 1 comment

Love in the Time of Metal and Flesh

Love in the Time of Metal and Flesh by Jay Lake (Prime Books, 2013) is a novella in a limited edition of 1,000 hardback copies which explores a human body both figuratively and literally. Ostensibly this is about Markus Selvage and his lover Danni as they make decisions about themselves as individuals and as a pair. At every point in their lives, there are limits on what they are prepared to do. The questions, of course, are under what circumstances they are willing to break through those limits and what the results will be.

As a context for understanding this work, I need to remind readers that Jay Lake has cancer. In many cases this is a disease that strikes without fault on the part of the victim. It just happens. Consequently, he’s a dead man walking. The chemotherapy has recently produced a period of stability, adding another six months to his life expectancy. This is not without its costs, depression being one of them. No matter how much a man in this position may aim for stoicism, living from day to day can’t prevent him from wondering when the cancer will resume its progress. He may take some satisfaction from having delayed the inevitable and to having a not unpainful month or so in remission. But when you have no sense of walking into the future, it’s difficult to avoid considering the fallibility of the body and the inevitability of death. Not that I’m suggesting this novella is explicitly autobiographical. But it does draw on the author’s preoccupations and fears, offering him and us a chance to assess the relationship between the intellect and the physical body, and to muse on the way in which it can sometimes be convenient to forget some aspects of our life when memories would be too painful.

Jay Lake staying strong in the face of adversity

Jay Lake staying strong in the face of adversity

So the story of Markus Selvage is divided into discontinuous narrative threads. At one moment, we are with him as he nears death, considering the nature of his body, travelling into the highways and byways of the blood circulation system, and visiting essential organs like the liver to consider whether his lifestyle may have weakened it. Then we might voyage back with him to his childhood, or spend time with Danni. As a child, there are signs of innocence. He seems to misunderstand the relationship he’s supposed to have with his erratic mother. As a man in a partnership, he’s also not entirely sure who he is. His solution is to wait for Danni to expose him to new experiences, to enable him to find facets to his personality he never knew existed. Since she’s a Goth and somewhat extreme, this quite quickly takes him into a strange landscape.

Indeed, this novella is a work of extremes. The prose is, at times, achingly beautiful and tending to the poetic. Yet the content is sometimes remarkably explicit and will not be to everyone’s taste. It would not be unfair to identify a dissonance in the use of the language to describe somewhat perverse activity. However, when viewed in context, it’s perhaps a direction to be expected. If the body is not quite what the “owner” wants, the question would always be why it should not be modified. This story does not, you understand, involve the usual choreography of invasive or merely cosmetic surgery by licensed professionals. Anyone can pick up a knife and make experimental cuts. After several cuts, the self-modifier becomes increasingly confident and the cuts more radical. Characterising the body as a form of machine, the owner tinkers with it, changing parts, adding others. After a while, there can be pieces of metal where previously there was flesh, or there can merely be less flesh. The advantage is the metal parts cannot know fear or pain. All they can do is leak the machine oil, i.e. blood, from the surrounding flesh.

In the end, the book is unsettling. The author as artist has the power to puncture the wall of indifference we erect around ourselves as a defence against caring for or about other people. Perhaps Markus Selvage is betrayed and led into undermining his body’s strength by trying to make an impossible transformation. Or perhaps his body is inherently weak and he can only survive by adding incorruptible parts to his body. Either way, there’s an inevitable result. Flesh and metal cannot fuse into a single being. No matter what a mind may tell itself, unsterilised piercing and installations induce a source of corruption. The metal rusts and pollutes the flesh. Then he’s not capable of being salvaged. He’s only fit for being thrown on to the scrapheap of life.

So Love in the Time of Metal and Flesh is a kind of existential horror story. It has great power. I’m not sure it’s in any way entertaining, but it certainly provokes thought and, in these superficial times, that’s high praise.

For reviews of other books by Jay Lake, see:
The Sky That Wraps.
Jay Lake and Nick Gevers edited Other Earths.

The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis

December 1, 2012 1 comment

The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis

I’m going to break one of the unwritten rules about reviewing by mentioning a short story I read in the last book. Supposedly you only talk about the immediate book and don’t look back but, in this case, there’s a pleasing coincidence. “The Empress Jingu Fishes” by Kij Johnson* delivers a nicely judged parable about what almost every woman foresees for her life. She will marry a man who will most likely die before her or run off with a younger woman when he tires of her. This will delegate the fairly thankless task of bringing up her son knowing he will leave her as soon as he’s able to pay for his own independence. How can she love a man whom she knows will leave her? How can she care for a child who will abandon her as soon as he possibly can?

If we look to philosophy for help in answering these questions, ontology would have us not only consider whether such a woman exists, but what meaning her existence has. This ignores all accidental and transient attributes like her physical appearance or a state of mind such as love, and focuses on her essential properties, the most important of which is the role of bringing the next generation into being. This defines her identity in its current context. A slightly different and less abstract approach to answering similar questions comes in existentialism. It was Søren Kierkegaard who first suggested that it’s for each individual to give his or her life meaning and Friedrich Nietzsche who introduced the notion of Übermensch, i.e. moving up to society as a whole, the most important goal for humanity is to give meaning to itself by producing new generations of ever more perfect human beings. Of course, some people have interpreted this as a call for a formalised eugenics programme, i.e. you arrive at superbeings by selective breeding. But it’s equally the case that a society can slowly improve itself so that the characteristics we now deem signs of weakness no longer appear. This recognises you cannot breed for perfection of temperament. The nature side of the equation may be determined by genetic factors, but the nurture side encourages the development of intelligence, creativity and the other intellectual and emotional components we think part of the package comprising a superior person. In all this, note that the mother is not the Übermensch. As an individual, she’s no more than one of the many through whom children or grandchildren may become the Übermensch. She’s the means to the end.

Ian Tregillis looking relaxed and warm

Ian Tregillis looking relaxed and warm

The central character in The Coldest War, Volume 2 of the Milkweed Triptych by Ian Tregillis (Tor, 2012) has achieved an unmatched level in the field of of precognition. She has a precisely tuned ability to watch all the future possibilities play out and to see exactly what will happen. She can then be standing in the right place at the right time to give herself the opportunities to get the result she wants. This means she plays a very long game, planning and executing her behaviour to take advantage of the events on to the tracks leading to. . . Well, that’s the big question, isn’t it. In theory, she could be following us into a future in which the Übermensch are born and come to rule us. And who’s to say whether such a future would be good or bad? Even though we might fear what that future might be like, it’s entirely possible that many of the alternatives are far worse. Rule by superior beings may be humanity’s salvation and far better in this alternate history than the stand-off between the British, Russians and the other militarily-inclined nation blocks. So it’s premature to demonise her. We should always wait until her real motives are disclosed.

Indeed, I would go so far as to say most of the other reviews I have read which cast her as the series villain are entirely wrong. These reviewers seem to be assuming that she’s actually in control of humanity’s destiny. This denies the power of determinism. It’s assuming the future can be changed, that she has free will and her exercise of this will directs where the rest of humanity shall go. But, so far, we have not seen any causal determinism at work. All we have seen is a single chain of events from her point of view which has worked in the way she foresaw. Nothing she does necessarily implies she has control over cause and effect. She’s subject to the law of gravity and will always fall if pushed. Similarly, what has gone before determines what will follow and, to that extent, she’s subject to the passage of time. The other reviewers are confusing self-determination with determinism, assuming her motives and desires are somehow translated into reality for everyone else, no matter whether she’s aware of them. This would require her to be godlike and omniscient. So far, there’s no sign of this. But, of course, this excludes the fictional possibility of an eidolon ex machina, that a supernatural agency or Satanism, if you prefer, can have sufficient power to divert the future. Let’s put this another way. Let’s assume the future can’t be changed on this timeline. No matter what anyone does, this is a deterministic world. If that’s the case, you would need a way to cheat the system. And that’s why this book as book two of three is particularly pleasing.

The whole point of science fiction, with or without horror tropes, is that it allows us the opportunity to play with ideas. In particular, time travel stories can explore both the linear and nonlinear ways in which time might move. Although deterministic or multiverse scenarios may be given prominence in each story, they are really just a way of considering what prices we might be prepared to pay for changing outcomes. In Source Code, for example, we have the completely amoral extermination of people in sequential versions of Chicago until just the right combination of circumstances is discovered in which it can be saved. This is wildly contrary to Utilitarianism because the many die so that the few can survive. But that’s the price the developer of the system is prepared to pay. Ian Tregillis is asking a similar question in this trilogy and, in The Coldest War, we see the future to be avoided. This leaves our “hero” with the decision on whether he’s prepared to pay the price to avoid it. At every level and in every way, this is better than Bitter Seeds, the first in the series. But you absolutely cannot read this as a standalone. The way the plot fits together is like a finely crafted mechanism and you cannot understand the real significance of where we finish up in this book unless you started on page 1 of the first. Some of it is wonderfully coldblooded but, when you look back, you can see why it was absolutely necessary. Assuming, of course, that you approve of what our precog is trying to achieve.

For reviews of the first and third books in the series, see Bitter Seeds and Necessary Evil. There’s also a free-standng Something More Than Night.

* The story is contained in At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson.

Beyond Here Lies Nothing by Gary McMahon

November 20, 2012 1 comment

Beyond Here Lies Nothing by Gary McMahon (Solaris, 2012) is the third and concluding volume in the Concrete Grove Trilogy and represents a genuine triumph of the imagination to capture some quite profound ideas in what’s ostensibly a supernatural horror story. While I was growing up into my present role as cynical old man, I developed a slightly more than passing interest in Jean Paul Satre and his ideas about existential phenomenology. He attempts to focus interest on the existence experienced by human beings rather than on the context of the world in which humans live. In other words, Satre was interested in the “human condition”, essentially seeing the world as indifferent to the lifestyle choices made by each individual. This is perhaps best caught in his foremost book, Being and Nothingness. He proposes that there are two different types of reality. The first is what we might call “identity”. It emerges from our consciousness and enables us to establish self-awareness and, perhaps more importantly, to understand the existence of “nothing”, i.e. we define the limits of ourselves by comparing ourselves to the world. The second allows the creation of the formation of transcendent moral principles that could apply to everyone in comparable situations.

Gary McMahon packed and ready go go in search of the nothingness


So let’s say we live in a small urban area called Concrete Grove. By way of defining our individual identity, we learn about the place and the others who live there. If we come into the area one day expecting to meet Harry Rose but find he has died, this creates an absence. Indeed, we could talk of this absence as haunting us. This is not merely a psychological reaction. This is also a physical reality. There is literally nothing in the spaces he used to occupy. But it takes a human mind to comprehend that absence and give it meaning. Let’s change from death to something different but equally destructive. Suppose four young girls are taken from this area. This is like an earthquake. It changes the human landscape through the sudden loss of four individuals in inexplicable circumstances. Those who are involved are changed. The parents, relatives and close friends are devastated. At an intermediate level, the police officers like Craig Royle who devote their time and energy are defined by the scale of their efforts and commitment. They are judged by their failure to find the girls. Even those not directly involved like Harry Rose are caught up in the moment and its aftermath.


One of the characteristics that we say represents the higher aspects of our intelligence is the ability to frame meaningful questions. When we ask what happened to the girls (or to others who have disappeared at other times and other places), we hope for positive answers, but also accept we may never know. To that extent, we float in a state of uncertainty, between what we know and do not know, between something and nothing. In such a position, we have freedom of choice. Ignoring the social constraints of the law or conventions, we have the physical ability to do whatever we want (ignoring the thought of whatever consequences may follow). So Marc may decide to sleep with Abby even though he has been warned not to, or Erik may kill even though he knows it is morally and legally wrong. Such spontaneous expressions of freedom are what defines each individual as human with a consciousness of his or her own existence. Yet beyond us lies nothing (or something we do not yet understand).


Marc Price is in Concrete Grove to investigate what may have been a supernatural event some years ago. His identity and the fact he was haunted proves pivotal. He finds Harry Rose, an old man, prepared to talk with him about the local myths and legends. Yet before he can get to the real heart of local mysteries, Harry dies. Except that death opens a literal and metaphorical door in the attic to the house the old man occupied. He also finds himself drawn to Abby, the mother of one of the four girls who disappeared. This displeases the father of the missing girl, Erik Best, who pays him a visit and leaves him in no doubt of the dire consequences if he should repeat this adventure. Meanwhile DS Royle is still investigating the strangeness of his patch. He’s never completely abandoned the idea of finding the girls and stays in touch with all the families. When the first of the uncanny scarecrows appears, he finds his world growing rapidly more frightening. The results of this combination of circumstances are wonderfully spooky in their own right, but gain must greater resonance because of what has gone before in The Concrete Grove and Silent Voices. There have probably been better supernatural horror books written. If I put my mind to it, I could come up with a list of contenders. But that would rather miss the point. These reviews are written in the heat of the moment. They express my feelings in a stream of consciousness and, for now, Beyond Here Lies Nothing is the best for a long time. In no small way, this is because of the first two volumes. Seeing the whole now creates a sense of wonder. Put aside all my opening thoughts about Satre and nothingness. Forget my musings in the earlier reviews on the relationship between dreams and reality. A climactic conclusion is no good unless it follows a credible build-up. As a coherent plot spread over three volumes, this is in a class of its own. If you want to see beyond the superficial words on the page, there’s real philosophical weight available on the relationship between existentialism and nihilism. Otherwise just wait to see what Captain Clickety is aiming for and whether, through the sacrifices we make, there can ever be a real balance between the something and the nothing.


For reviews of other books by Gary McMahon, see:
The Concrete Grove
Dead Bad Things
Reaping the Dark
Silent Voices.


ad eternum by Elizabeth Bear

February 26, 2012 1 comment

ad eternum by Elizabeth Bear (Subterranean Press, 2012) continues in the New Amsterdam series. This time, we move on from the Russia of The White City to New Amsterdam. The time is now 1962 in this rather pleasing alternate history of vampires living more openly in human society. As the title suggests, we’re into a consideration of how one should approach the question of practical immortality. It gives an additional refinement to the notion of existentialism when the series character knows he’s likely to be around for more years than the humans surrounding him. The problem, of course, is ennui. There’s no need to sleep, so our unfortunate wampyr is denied periodic unconsciousness while some hours pass by. He’s obliged to endure every second. Like any sensible person, he cultivates hobbies. In this novelette, he practises his knitting and reads a lot, but there comes a point when even the most challenging of knitting patterns fails to inspire interest. Boredom looms ever larger and he’s threatened by the notion that existence itself is growing meaningless. In philosophical terms, we might assume that if our lives were full of contentment, the fact of continuing existence would have little value in itself. It would simply be the means for continued contentment. But if there’s nothing but boredom, life would be like moving through a fog. We would only dimly see people, places and things around us. Nothing would motivate us. Like those who wait for Godot, we would begin to worry whether the wait is worth the effort.

Elizabeth Bear protecting her neck from unwanted attention

So it is that our wampyr crosses back across the Atlantic to New Amsterdam. It’s his first opportunity to look at the new technology of powered flight. Yet, within minutes, he sees it is no more than a means to an end. Yes, it may be faster than a zeppelin, but it’s less opulent and the functionalism dominates as the plane chases the night across the ocean. Once he lands, he dodges past the paparazzi to make a quiet return to his old home. Yet, within twenty-four hours, he finds himself invited to meet a small group. They have a proposition for him. They plan the establishment of a new university which will teach all things supernatural and magical. They invite him not only to put up the money, but also to pass on his knowledge and experience.

It’s a curious coincidence to offer a role that might regenerate some interest in the lives of humans. Yet one of those in the group is an annoyance. Although a human, he pretends to be immortal. His research is as impeccable as it can be and, for flickering moments, he’s halfway convincing, but nothing beats actually living through the times he talks about. Yet why should our vampire care? Surely he should be amused a human should be such a poor fraud. He must ask himself why the emotion he feels approaches anger. When he himself is tempted to end it all by standing on a rooftop while the sun rises, it’s surely ironic a human should be trying so hard to be like him.

Summing up, ad eternum is a quietly meditative disquisition on existential matters. It’s not in any sense intended as one of these Hollywood style vampire sagas in which gangs of bloodsuckers fight with werewolves or an armed group of humans. We’re simply offered the chance to observe a vampire as he goes through a mid-death crisis. As always, Elizabeth Bear delivers a beautifully written novella but here comes the rub. If you’re a fan, you’re going to think the asking price from Subterranean Press for one of these elegantly produced hardbacks is excellent value for money. Otherwise you might think it better to wait until this novelette is anthologised or collected.

For reviews of books also by Elizabeth Bear, see:
Book of Iron
A Companion to Wolves (with Sarah Monette),
Range of Ghosts,
Seven for a Secret,
Shattered Pillars,
Shoggoths in Bloom,
Steles of the Sky and
The Tempering of Men (with Sarah Monette).

Dust jacket artwork is again by Patrick Arrasmith.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Jim and the Flims by Rudy Rucker

Years ago, before the current vogue for labelling genres really took off, we were able to use the word “weird” in the more general sense of something that was rather strange or bizarre. Yes, there were overtones that the source of the weirdness might be supernatural. But the word was equally applied to people and the way they dressed and behaved as much as to the uncanny. However, thanks to the development of the ghost story into a more mythic supernatural form, e.g. as written by Lord Dunsany, H. P. Lovecraft and others, it’s come to describe a mixture of other-worldly fantasy and horror fiction, with New Weird flowing from the likes of China Miéville. Well, in the rather more old-fashioned sense of the word, Jim and the Flims (Night Shade Books, 2011) by Rudy Rucker is weird. Or, perhaps it’s an example of absurdism. . . or surrealism. . .

Starting from basics, this book retells the classic myth of Orpheus, where our hero enters a rather curious version of the Underworld in the hope of rescuing his lost wife. Although music does play a part in this venture later on, we begin with the more usual symptom of absurdism: a hero who, because of the collapse of his life as a low-level research scientist, followed by the death of his wife, loses any real sense of purpose in his life. In existential terms, the accumulated tragedies destroy the meaning in his life. He drifts, creating a parable of modern life in Santa Cruz, California where strung-out surfers are paralleled by equally strange folk on the “other side”. Except this would suggest a relatively benign allegory with drug-induced fantasies proving all too “real” when our hero has a seizure and, thanks to copious amounts of different substances, is then able to cross between worlds that are separated only by a shy snail — yes, it’s that kind of weird. All he has to do is open the snail’s mouth and walk through. Fortunately, this is a mirror-image gastropod, so he does not have to emerge anally. There’s another mouth in the other dimension — a Janus snail, you might say. Except this is also a war story and, in war, we have propaganda so the first thing sacrificed is truth (whatever that is).

Rudy Rucker, "If only it had been an apple I could invented gravity!"

I suppose the good thing about the way the book begins is that it has quite a jaunty feel to it. There’s whimsy and elements quite fantastical. It bowls along with a kind of free-wheeling, free-association quality as we’re bombarded by different images without any real sense of logic or reality as a constraint. Except, after a while, this quite entertaining quality loses it appeal and, by the time we finish, it’s grown rather annoying. When something is novel, it seduces the reader by its difference and originality. Yet, through repetition, what was pleasingly absurd becomes normal and devolves into a cliché of itself. The mark of good absurdism is knowing when to cut your losses and stop. This just grinds on until, frankly, I kept reading only out of a sense of duty to see how it was resolved. It’s rather the way I was brought up. Sometimes during a visit, your host offers you food. Naturally, you eat it and, even if it’s the worst thing you ever tasted, you manage to find a smile and nod happily, finding an elegant excuse for refusing seconds. Well, Rudy Rucker has invested oodles of his time in writing this so, out of the same sense of courtesy, I finished it.

Now it’s entirely possible you may like this non-stop quirkiness. After all, death is rather depressing so the idea you can pop through a convenient snail into another dimension, find the spirit or ghost of your wife, and bring her back, is likely to improve your mood. The fact you might have to become the host for an invasion force when you return to Earth is a small price to pay if you’re recovering the one you love. So, discarding my dislike for the prose style, is the story any good? If it had been written as a straight weird fantasy, would I have liked it? I think, with a different structure, it could have been rather more entertaining. At the heart of this book is a malign plot to destroy the Earth as we know it. Although, truth be told, there’s actually a further plot in motion, but we don’t have to go into spoiler territory for this review. The chain of cause and effect is quite a work of art and, if instead of this faint jokiness, we’d had the atmosphere of a threatening Egyptian mummy, real parasitism and the incidental deaths at the outset described with a sense of impending doom, I would have been hooked. As it is, we get to the other side and find farmers, a more testing skate park, and a shopping mall with a difference. You just can’t maintain the credibility of a threat when nothing is taken very seriously. So Jim and the Flims is only for the die-hard Rudy Rucker fans.

The jacket art by Bill Carman is actually quite pleasingly surreal and, for those who like this style, his portfolio is worth a look.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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