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The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All by Laird Barron

February 26, 2013 Leave a comment

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All by Laird Barron

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All by Laird Barron (Night Shade Books, 2013) starts with a particularly amusing introductory piece by another of my favourite authors. Norman Partridge subversively plays with the commission and introduces the author and this collection with obvious enthusiasm. This is a collection that forces me to think about why I so like fiction that sits on the divide between horror and fantasy. To understand, we have to revisit the impressionable young reader growing up in the 1950s. Early on, he discovered novels, collections and anthologies of Victorian and Edwardian horror stories. He found some of them scary. There were the merely unknown sources of danger like “The Horla” by Guy de Maupassant and “Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” as one of many by M R James. But it was writers like Bram Stoker with The Jewel of the Seven Stars and The Lady of the Shroud, and William Hope Hodgson with The House on the Borderland and the Carnacki stories that clinched the deal with their blends of the supernatural, fantasy and horror. I suppose I’m still reading in the hope of finding new texts to invoke that same sense of goose-pimpled wonder. Among the modern writers, Laird Barron is one of the few who can still hit the sweet spot for my tastes, infusing Lovecratian Mythos with modern sensibilities.

“Blackwood’s Baby” was reprinted in The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Four edited by Ellen Datlow and is a wonderful example of how to use a hunt as a vehicle for suspense and excitement. Written in a pleasingly period style of prose, it begins by setting the scene and highlighting the differences in class that have so bedevilled our past as a species. Not content with finding distinctions in size, racial characteristics and gender, we had to go and invent an entirely new social classification system and assign people to its various grades. When men in a group are supposed to depend on each other for support and, if necessary, defence, the last thing you want are stresses and strains in the relationships. So when this group set off on the annual hunt for the fabled stag, we should not be surprised that not all will return. But the reason for each injury or death might be considered surprising unless the idea of an annual sacrifice to the woods and the creatures that live within is too weird for you to accept. “The Renfield Girls” switches genders as a different group goes off for a short break by a lake with an odd reputation. In theory, this is a more harmonious group of people who work together, but the dynamic is slightly thrown a curve ball by the unexpected arrival of a niece who adds one more to the number. Whereas the first story is more show and tell, this is an exercise in the manipulation of atmosphere. The lake itself, a little of its history and a few unsettling dreams are enough to start us off. What actually happens could just be accidents. People read too much into coincidences and talk themselves into believing all kinds of superstitious rubbish. It’s a very clever piece of writing.

Laird Barron with a monocular view of the world

Laird Barron with a monocular view of the world

Then we have “Hand of Glory” which turns out to be a classic hitman story of a young man following in his father’s footsteps and making a name for himself as an enforcer and killer for a local gang boss. Everything would have been wonderful except for his lack of self-discipline which leads him in self-destructive directions. Then a couple of freelancers try to take him out. He’s sober enough to be able to defend himself but this is all a little too much for his boss. Things need to be set right. So our “hero” must deal with the man who ordered the hit. Even without the supernatural elements, this is a tremendous read. Add in a little black magic and general spookiness and you have an outstanding story.

“The Carrion Gods in their Heaven” by Laird Barron describes the plight of a battered wife on the run with the emotional support of her lover. They take up residence in a remote cabin in the woods. Naturally, there are tales about an earlier occupant, but it’s only slowly the couple realise how believable old tales can be. This is a story firmly rooted in the reality of a fear so great and enduring that it destroys the self-confidence of the victim. The question it asks is whether flight or fight is better. The cabin can only be a temporary hiding place. Indeed, they may already have been discovered. So how far might one run if the opportunity presented itself? Laird Barron offers a nice answer because we can’t be entirely certain where the battered wife ends up. This first appeared in Supernatural Noir edited by Ellen Datlow.

In “The Siphon” we get to ask whether psychopaths are merely human or have connections to creatures living in the cracks between the worlds. In this case, a man with secrets is eventually recruited by the NSA and finds himself at the centre of an operation to track a spy who might want to “come in from the cold”. Unfortunately, this spy is also of interest to other people of power which leads to some tension between the different groups and the sense our hero’s secrets may no longer be safe. This first appeared in Blood and Other Cravings edited by Ellen Datlow.

“The Jaws of Saturn” takes us back to the same milieu as “Hand of Glory” with the same character manipulating people for his own purposes. This time, a hitman finds his girlfriend acting strangely and rashly decides to discuss the changes with the man apparently responsible. “Vastation” is a surreal jaunt through time as the only real human becomes, in his own way (if not only in his own mind) as ineradicable as the Old Ones. The question posed is existential. What would happen to a being who could transcend time and become whatever he wanted to be? Being godlike, it would be possible to make and unmake the world. But what would be the point? You could wipe out all the humans, then repopulate and watch them make the same mistakes all over again. It’s all potentially futile and not a little boring as the millennia pass. So why bother? Even the Old Ones spend their time sleeping, or go off and do other things, or simply exist without thinking about anything. Any of those might be better than hanging out on Earth with no real friends. Perhaps real cosmic horror is realising you’re alone and stuck with yourself so long as you can stand the pain.

“The Men From Porlock” is playing the prequel game to “Mysterium Tremendum”, “The Broadsword” and The Croning, his first novel. All are set in or related to the Pacific Northwest as an area where events of cosmic significance are likely to occur. This takes us back to the time when the Slango logging camp was still functioning and in need of fresh meat. The small group sent out to shoot some of the game running through the forest encounters unexpected problems. In all things, who’s to say where the effects from the cause will stop? Finally “More Dark” plays the name-dropping metafictional game as an author discusses whether life’s worth living, particularly after witnessing a performance by another cultish horror author who never speaks in public but has a puppet to do it for him. Of course, the appearance of the puppet and what it has to say could be evidence of a cosmic intent to spread fear and disharmony, or it might just be an extravagant coup de théâtre designed to appeal to the horror cognoscenti. Let’s all take a shot at deciding which is true.

Put all this together and Laird Barron offers a particularly diverse range of tone in The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All (to understand the significance of the title, you have to read “More Dark”). We have everything from “traditional” adventure style horror to more explicitly Lovecraftian cosmic horror and the occasional burst of slightly comic horror. It’s a terrific read for anyone who enjoys writing that sits on the cusp between fantasy and horror.

For reviews of other books by Laird Barron, see:
The Croning
The Light is the Darkness
Occultation

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

I’ve also interviewed him here.

This collection won the 2013 Bram Stoker Awards® for Superior Achievement in a Fiction Collection.

Beautiful Hell by Jeffrey Thomas

January 15, 2013 1 comment

Beautiful Hell

Beautiful Hell by Jeffrey Thomas (Dark Regions Press, published as a standalone in 2011 with the novella first appearing in 2007). It follows on from the admirable collection Voices From Hades, but it represents quite a radical shift in the narrative approach. We’ll come back to that in a moment. For now, let’s confirm the theme in this book remains consistent, so this is not something Christians might feel comfortable reading. As an atheist, I have no problem in accepting the notion that God might feel he hadn’t exactly covered himself in glory when creating the whole Heaven/Hell binary situation. As secularism spreads, it’s hardly fair to blame folk like me for not realising God is real and condemning us to Hell because we “denied” him. So there were churches. Well, try telling that to the Buddhists and all the other folk who honestly worshipped some other deities or held other apparently legitimate belief systems. Just because it turns out there’s only the one true God is no reason to stick us all in Hell for eternity. Once we have the epiphany of arrival at the Pearly Gates only to be turned away, we should be able to redeem ourselves by good works. Yes, I appreciate that may be a little tricky in Hell, but it’s the thought that counts and, as God has been only too keen to tell us, He’s omniscient and therefore knows when we’ve turned over a new leaf and understood the error in our previous ways. I’m sure the same goes for the Buddhists, Scientologists and anyone else prepared to do the whole humility schtick and grovel in apology.

Anyway, having got the question of the theme out of the way, we can come to the story itself and its metafictional form. Here we’re presented with an atheist author who, to his surprise, finds himself in Hell and decides to write a book about his experiences. We therefore get an autobiographical account of how the book we read comes to be written. This meets all the primary criteria to be considered a work of metafiction since the author is drawing our attention to the creative work of capturing “reality” in words. The idea of Hell being treated as real for the purposes of writing a work of fiction is rather elegant with our first-person narrator as the author commentating on the events as they occur and indicating how they will appear in the finished book. For the record, our author names himself Frank Lyre (a homophone of liar making the point that we’re dealing with an unreliable narrator). As is required since he’s writing either a sequel or a work in the same universe as the original author, he’s familiar with Voices From Hades. Indeed a copy of the book appears in this story with at least one character reading it with great attention.

Jeffrey Thomas with studded indifferent walls

Jeffrey Thomas with studded indifferent walls

Our author has found himself a not wholly uncomfortable role as a sex slave. Well, perhaps that’s how it started but he’s actually grown quite fond of this demon and they have regular sex sessions together. While he’s on his own, this life passes with few problems but then God, a few Popes and reliable support staff come down to Hell. Included in this team is his ex-wife who was a staunch believer. Our author now finds himself caught between two females: an increasingly jealous demon and an angel who might just be persuaded to spend serious time with her ex in Hell. Putting his personal feelings to one side, there’s also the question of why God should be making this visit and it soon becomes apparent he’s come to make some changes. As all of you will know, no-one likes change. Everyone gets comfortable with the way things are so, not surprisingly, the demons are soon up in arms to make their feelings absolutely clear. Except there’s this omnipotence thing. The fact the demons are not consulted, that this is the Old Testament unilateral God who just decides and then does, makes the demons even more outraged. The least He could have done is to ask what the demons thought, consulted on what changes might actually improve the situation. So this visit is equivalent to a declaration of war.

Well there you have it. Beautiful Hell is an irreverent return to Hell with the threat of change being the order of the day. On balance, it’s a book I admire rather than find exciting. It makes a good sequel and leaves things nicely poised for another visit should the author (whoever it turns out to be) choose to write it. Those who, like me, are Jeffrey Thomas fans, should acquire a copy.

For more reviews of books by Jeffrey Thomas, see:
Blood Society
Blue War
Doomsdays
Lost in Darkness
Red Cells
Thought Forms
Voices From Hades
Voices From Punktown
Worship the Night

The Good Thief’s Guide to Venice by Chris Ewan

December 28, 2012 Leave a comment

Good Thief;s Guide to Venice-dec-2011

When we reviewers want to show off, we tend to bandy words like “metafiction” around as if we actually know what they mean. I‘m not entirely sure such academic extravagance is justified but, in this case, it does give me the right starting point to talk about The Good Thief’s Guide to Venice by Chris Ewan (Minotaur Books, 2012). In many ways I’m always inclined to like books that self-consciously play with the medium of writing. Here we have a first-person narrative exploring the world of a semi-retired thief called Charlie Howard. As someone experienced in dishonest arts, this potentially makes him an unreliable narrator but, only in certain key moments does he actually hide things from the reader. For most of the book, he’s disarmingly honest and not a little confused by the circumstances in which he finds himself. That said, he’s abandoned the life of crime to focus on writing crime fiction. Appropriately, he’s created a burglar as hero who, in fiction, plays out some of the “real” crimes the author has committed. Should he ever be suspected as a very good thief, the police would only need to read his books to identify his methods and some of the crimes he had committed. Such are the minor excitements of an author when he choses to write about what he knows best. More importantly, it also gives Chris Ewan the chance to play with the craft of writing and, for example, discuss how to arrive at those sentences at the end of chapters intended to hook you into turning the page rapidly to find out what happens next.

This would all be wonderful if our author had stopped there. But he has also decided to engage in what’s intended as a slight aping of past prose styles. I would have been happy with a parody of hardboiled pulp. Having grown up surrounded by the detective magazines and adventure/mystery fiction that so dominated the first four decades of the last century, I enjoy an affectionate reprise if it’s done well. Nostalgia for days of innocent fun still runs strong. Unfortunately, instead of aiming high for Chandler or Hammett, we have something rather closer to a poor parody of Leslie Charteris filtered though Wodehouse. Now don’t get me wrong, the tradition of the gentleman as a thief is littered with interesting historical relics. The Saint is paper-thin plots but some morality, while Hornung’s Raffles shows slightly more brio. Perhaps the Maurice Leblanc creation Arsène Lupin is the best both in their originals and all those who followed in his footsteps. He does at least manage to avoid looking foolish. Chris Ewan has similar pretensions with his “good thief” taking on criminals who are at least as bad if not worse than he. That he emerges in one piece speaks loudly of some skill and quite a lot of luck, i.e. he does look foolish some of the time.

Chris Ewan showing a little British understatement

Chris Ewan showing a little British understatement

So where does all this leave us? I like the plot of this novel. There’s a certain elegance on display as we slowly work our way through the revelations to the punchline at the end. There are, however, a number of problems. I prefer to avoid coincidences and the arrival of one figure as we work our way up to the final confrontations is an egregious example of the phenomenon. It’s all a little too convenient in a story that had been moving along comfortably under its own steam. Secondly, there’s a serious problem in the tone of the book. Even at the best of times, it’s very difficult to generate humour out of a thriller scenario. In this instance, the reason for the failure is the metafictional self-consciousness of the first-person voice. When the author is smiling with us, showing us how clever he is in deconstructing the process of writing a page-turner, it’s difficult to make us laugh with or at the narrator when he falls flat on his face or goes through some other experience that might otherwise have raised a smile. This is easier with a third-person show-and-tell. A more omniscient author can expose the mechanism of the prat fall by walking us through the scene, giving us a sense of anticipation, and then laughing as the expected catastrophe befalls the character. In the first-person form, the main feeling is the embarrassment or humiliation of the victim.

Finally we come to the problem of a book wanting to be a caper movie. Although my heart will always belong to Rififi, we’ve all sat through and enjoyed The Italian Job, the Ocean’s series and all the others where the pleasingly criminal show off their skills with a sly but endearing smile. Sadly, this hero could not be played by George Clooney. Worse, the wit and humour, such as it is, comes over as rather more laboured. Earlier in the review, I referred to Wodehouse and the humour of this book has a certain period charm about it, i.e. it is populated by slightly eccentric characters with curious interests and superstitions (our hero feels he can’t write unless he can look up at the first edition of The Maltese Falcon he stole early in his career) with two strong female characters to help and hinder. But the version presented here is too long, the slight jokiness wears thin, and the payoff is not really amusing. It just feels like a reasonably good place to stop. So, on balance, The Good Thief’s Guide to Venice would have been better if a strong-willed editor had persuaded the author to cut out the deadwood and leave us with a faster-paced thriller where we might actually feel our hero was in real danger.

For a review of the next book in the series, see The Good Thief’s Guide to Berlin

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

Black Wings II: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror edited by S T Joshi

October 18, 2012 1 comment

Black Wings II: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror edited by S T Joshi (PS Pubishing, 2012) sees the second anthology offering stories inspired by H. P. Lovecraft. I’m not convinced this is as good as the first but there are some outstanding stories to be found here (more towards the end than at the beginning).

“When Death Wakes Me To Myself’ by John Shirley is a Charles Dexter Ward type of story in which a mind from the past assumes control of a modern body, the main differences lying in the identity of the mind and the association with cats. It’s nicely done although, to my mind, it’s a little prosaic, lacking a truly cosmic feel. “View” by Tom Fletcher has a delightful sense of humour in describing an estate agent’s tour of a house for sale. With a little effort required of those viewing, they are rewarded by an exploration of a rather unusual extension. “Houndwife” by Caitlin R Kiernan is a richly evocative prose piece of temporal discontinuities as a woman iterates towards a destiny mapped out for her. She may have hints of the future courtesy of a tarot reading, or she may be the one who, in a thousand year cycle, finds a rather different role for herself as a human woman. Is this reincarnation and memories of previous lives, or are these discontinuities in memory from a single life moving inexorably to a climax? “King of Cat Swamp” by Jonathan Thomas gives a perfect demonstration of how the inexorability of the conclusion fires the tension. This is a beautifully judged piece of writing, not overstaying its welcome as the King returns to reclaim his home. “Dead Media” by Nick Mamatas is slightly flat being one of these trail-of-breadcrumbs type stories in which the curious end up in the wrong place. “The Abject” by Richard Gavin picks up the pace as human and alien tragedy overlap during an eclipse so that both get what they need to make their existences endurable. The atmosphere of this particular location is wonderfully described. If it exists, I would like to visit before I die or, perhaps that should be, so I can die happy.

S T Joshi — the ultimate Lovecraft expert

“Dahlias” by Melanie Tem is one of these unexpected stories which capture the imagination in a few words as different generations briefly share a moment and consider their own mortality. “Bloom” by John Langan is simply marvellous. The couple find a cooler sitting openly on the road and, thinking it might contain an organ needed for an urgent transplant operation, take it home and begin telephoning around the local hospitals. Only when all their avenues of inquiry come to naught does the notion take root that they have found something rather different. And, of course, after the rooting, comes growth and the blooms. As slow-burners go, this is one of the best. “And the Sea Gave Up the Dead” by Jason C Eckhardt is a not very original retelling of the usual island emerging from the sea. “Casting Call” by Don Webb shows the mark of a true professional is to stay calm no matter what’s going on around you. In this case, an actor who takes the Stanislavski method to its logical conclusion just fails to make the cut when Rod Serling holds a casting session for an adaptation of Pickman’s Model. It’s a pleasing riff on an old theme.

“The Clockwork King, the Queen of Glass, and the Man With the Hundred Knives” by Darrell Schweitzer is a remarkably good story — the best in the book by my standards — but I’m not convinced it’s even vaguely Lovecraftian. It’s clearly about access to different dimensions where battles for supremacy are fought, but anything else is all lies and speculation. Similarly, “The Other Man” by Nicholas Royle is fascinatingly spooky take on surrogacy, but the links to Lovecraft are tenuous at best. “Waiting at the Crossroads Motel” by Steve Rasnic Tem has the same problem if we’re going to be strict about looking for cosmic weirdness. It’s another engrossing story about the blending of humans and otherness with possible connections to themes raised in “The Mound”. Had I read it anywhere else, I would have been overjoyed. In this context, I’m not so sure. “The Wilcox Remainder” by Brian Evenson is thematically back on track with a very haunting story of an amulet that not only brings dreams but also judges the current person in possession. “Sorrelated Discontents” by Rick Dakan has that remarkable quality of a mistake in the typesetting of the title. It should, of course, be “Correlated Discontents” (as an aside, I noticed two or three other errors that escaped the proofreading stage but this is the first time I can ever remember seeing an error on the title of a short story). The story itself is metafictional in the recreation of Lovecraft, the man, through an AI project, capturing his personality and opinions through an analysis of the extensive collection of correspondence. The inclusion of the story bravely breaks with tradition and is a success. “The Skinless Face” by Donald Tyson wins the prize for the best final sentence. There’s a tradition in writing these stories that there should be something dramatic imparted by the end words. It does not need to be a “twist” but it should shed a different light on what has gone before. This archaeological dig gone spectacularly wrong is outstanding. “The History of a Letter” by Jason V Brock is a metafictional and intertextual contribution in which the author addresses us directly, explaining why he’s been distracted from writing the commissioned short story. The letter he has found is indeed intriguing and the consequences of his investigation seem to be advancing rapidly. Finally, “Appointed” by Chet Williamson is merely intertextual, finding parallels between a previous film and a con where fans can come and hobnob with the stars.

For a review of the other anthologies in this series, see:
Black Wings: Tales of Lovecraftian Horror
Black Wings III: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror.

Tai Chi Zero or Taichi 0: From Zero To Hero 太極之從零開始 (2012)

October 8, 2012 2 comments

Quite simply, Tai Chi Zero or Taichi 0: From Zero To Hero, 太極之從零開始 (2012) is exuberant fun from start to finish. To understand the approach taken by the director Stephen Fung and the screenwriter Kuo-fu Chen, you need to understand what can go wrong with a smörgåsbord. This is the Scandinavian approach to a buffet meal. When you enter the restaurant, you are confronted by multiple dishes. Done well, there’s a real synergy between all the different tastes and flavours. Done badly and, despite there being one or two dishes you find enjoyable, the entire experience is something of a disaster. The team behind this film have done their homework and noted all the different styles and techniques that can be put together in a film. When triggering a flashback, for example, they know they can change the aspect, shoot in black and white and use a shaky camera to suggest a home movie. Or they can more generally fade from a freeze frame into a pop-art image, use comic book animation, borrow the video-game need to keep fighting to get to the next level, and so on. When showing kung fu, they can use slow-motion and draw the flow of chi on the screen so we can all follow the logic of the moves and see their consequences. I could go on, but you get the idea. This film is literally a mosaic of different methods but, so elegantly have they been put together that the result rises above mere collage as a pasting of bits on the same screen. This is film-making art, blending the disparate elements into one of the best tai chi, kung fu films I’ve seen for a long time. Indeed, to complete the irreverence to traditional conceits, it’s directly metafictional in using the subtitles to introduce the different actors by their names and not their roles, and to mention odd facts about their real-world backgrounds.

Yuan Xiaochao getting the maximum leverage

 

So what about the plot? Well, the poster alleges this is steampunk but that’s not strictly true. Although the track-laying machine is an exaggeration of what even modern technology can achieve, all the basic machines on display are more or less in period. With the exception of the central machine, there’s nothing so completely anachronistic that it qualifies as steampunk. What we have is a very traditional kung fu film in which China’s culture is being subverted by evil Westerners. In this case, they want to build a railroad and, through local agents, are literally not going to let anything stand in their way. It’s a standard plot having been recycled through films like Tsui Hark’s great series Once Upon a Time in China (1991) which invites us to lament the end of an era in which tradition was made redundant by a different cultural approach supported by foreign technology. The trilogy shows the worst effects of colonialism and the cultural imperialism that accompanied it.

Angelababy prepared to take on all-comers

 

Hence, this film shows us an idyllic village where traditional values have been fiercely guarded for generations. After a long prologue in which we see the birth and training of our hero in the hard fighting styles, Yang Lu Chan (Yuan Xiaochao) arrives hoping to learn the soft style for which the village is famous. He has a serious medical problem and, if he persists in using the hard styles, he will kill himself. Unfortunately, the villagers have a strict policy not to teach outsiders. The village is therefore a metaphor for China, resisting outside influences and preserving the “old ways”. To prove the value of the old ways, the village is then subject to destabilising forces. Our hero will not take no for an answer and learns the core of the soft tai chi style by fighting the villagers and learning from what they do. This is not a theft of their knowledge. Rather it’s using the local strength against itself. If they did not fight him, he could not learn from them.

Tony Leung Ka Fai showing us the traditional way is best

 

The second challenge comes from within. Fang Zijing (Eddie Peng) was a villager who went overseas and learned foreign ways. He returns to the village as an agent for the East India Company to persuade them to allow the railway to pass through. As a child, he was loved by Chen Yunia (Angelababy), but he’s now being backed by a British woman and her access to British technology. So this is a film about balance. Fang Zijing’s rejection must be set against Yang Lu Chan’s assimilation of the old ways. Similarly, the hard fighting styles will not work against armour-plating. You need the soft approach to slip inside its defences and then use the machine’s internal energy against it. The strategy comes from Master Chen (Tony Leung Ka Fai) who hopes to use the outsider Yang Lu Chan to defeat the British. That way, no-one will blame the village. Unfortunately, his daughter Chen Yunia joins in the fight directly, fueled by anger and jealousy for Fang Zijing. This leads to a direct attack in retaliation and gives us a chance to see Master Chen in action.

Eddie Peng cultural traitor taking on British ways

 

I accept Tai Chi Zero may not be to everyone’s taste. It’s a halfway house between the traditional Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) style and the more Western comic-book fantasies like Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010). The fighting choreographed by Sammo Hung is terrific, helped by the casting of Yuan Xiaochao, a former Wushu world champion. So, putting all this together, I left the cinema with a big smile on my face, looking forward to the second half which is due later this year. Yes, Stephen Fung filmed the two halves back-to-back and, if the clips are anything to go by, this may actually be more steampunkish with airpower adding to large cannons arriving by sea. Obviously, Western strategists recognise you can always defeat hand-to-hand prowess by aerial bombing and artillery fire from a distance.

 

Other films featuring Tony Leung Ka Fai are:
Bruce Lee, My Brother (2010)
Cold War or 寒戰 (2012)
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010)
Tai Chi Hero or 太极2英雄崛起 (2012)

 

Costume Not Included by Matthew Hughes

July 31, 2012 1 comment

Once again, I’m pitching into a book on religious themes and need to remind people that I’m an atheist and so you may detect bias in this review. When you read a book that advertises itself as the first in a new series, there’s always that moment of doubt when you come to the second book. Will the author manage the difficult trick of maintaining the standard of the first while moving us forward? Being born decades ago, the world of entertainment was dominated by the cinema and recording studios. If a Western hit the box office for a big take, Hollywood would immediately churn out half-a-dozen, hoping to catch the wave. If a singer or group blasted to Number 1 in the Hit Parade with the first single, the second would, more often than not, be a clone of the first. Indeed, other singers and groups would be looking to copy the track without actually infringing copyright. Think “Do You Love Me” as recorded by The Contours suddenly featured in the repertoire of Brian Poole and the Tremeloes, the Dave Clark Five and The Hollies. This is not a hundred miles from “Twist and Shout” which started off its life as “Shake It Up, Baby” recorded by The Isley Brothers, but was more successful when The Beatles recorded it. Which just goes to show that if someone, somewhere has a good idea, there are hundreds willing to jump on the bandwagon and thrash it to death.

Anyway, The Damned Busters by Matthew Hughes, To Hell & Back Book I was a very good book published last year and, as I might have predicted, it failed to win any prizes. This just goes to show I’m an infallible judge. No matter how well an author manages to hit the target with a fantasy book dealing with the sometimes fraught relationship between Heaven, Hell and humans on Earth, it’s going to offend all the Christians who have no sense of humour (probably most of them), and not appeal to the secularists because they don’t read books with religious themes — they act like reformed alcoholics being invited to read reviews of the latest crop of new French wines. So here we go with Costume Not Included (Angry Robot, 2012), the continuing struggles of Chesney Arnstruther to avoid his mother’s baleful influence while living the unassuming life of an actuary during the day and a caped crime fighter at night. Now we’ve got beyond the basic set-up with his demonic sidekick Xaphan to stage-manage the detection and apprehension bits for the maximum impact, it’s on to the announcement that his potential father-in-law Billy Lee Hardacre wants to proclaim Chesney as the next prophet, if not the Messiah. This does not exactly sit well with our hero, if that’s what he is. He feels fighting crime is quite enough excitement in his life. Except circumstances seem to be conspiring against his desire to have a quiet life.

Matthew Hughes producing the Klingon look just by thinking

This is hugely (the almost pun is intended) enjoyable on so many different levels. As a character, Chesney has lived in the shadow of autism all his life, having to learn how to read people and, where appropriate, simulate the right social responses to situations. He’s really only felt comfortable in solving mathematical problems. Manipulating numbers gives him certainty even when he’s modelling probabilities, i.e. trying to measure uncertainty. This has made him outstanding as an actuary but held back his career because he’s never been able to make and keep acquaintances, let alone friends. In the first book, he was increasingly forced out of his comfort zone and now finds himself in even more confusing waters. Yet, this time, his confidence in his ability to think has been boosted by the arrival of his first girlfriend and, by a stroke of good fortune, he also meets someone else with a healing touch. It’s a delight to watch him slowly open out and join the human race.

The second feature is the wonderful metafiction. Billy Lee Hardacre’s entire religious ministry is based on the notion that everyone from the angels to the lowest demons (and all the humans in between) are just characters in the book God is writing. With this in mind, he sets off to bend reality in his direction by writing a new “book”. In this worthy task, he’s helped by an angel. It seems God might be delegating some of the basic creativity to Billy Lee. Now all the new puppet master has to do is get Chesney to play ball and the world will soon be headed in the “right” direction. Except, of course, Billy Lee remains a character in God’s book and Satan might also have literary ambitions. In this Matthew Hughes has managed to construct one of these delightful wheels-within-wheels plots where all the major characters may shift in status from hero to cardboard cutout depending on who happens to be doing the writing. In many ways, it doesn’t matter who’s pulling the strings at any one time. The entire exercise is simple, unalloyed fun from start to finish.

I’m now going to repeat myself from the first review. Costume Not Included may not be “the” Good Book, but, as the second in this series, it’s certainly “a” good book that not only continues the themes of the first, but enriches them and moves us to a point where, instead of being a Batman, Chesney needs to become a one-man FEMA, such is the scale of the potential disaster left as a cliffhanger. Roll on Book III, preferably sooner rather than later. In this, note another nice illustration of key plot elements in the excellent cover art by Tom Gauld.

For all the reviews of books by Matthew Hughes, see:
Costume Not Included
The Damned Busters
Hell to Pay
The Other
Song of the Serpent
Template.

No Sale by Patrick Conrad

July 15, 2012 2 comments

Those of you who read these reviews will know that, although there’s never any chance of film or television replacing my love for books, I do in fact enjoy the visual media. It therefore comes as a pleasant surprise to encounter a book where the love of film is intrinsic to the plot. No Sale by Patrick Conrad (translated from the Dutch by Jonathan Lynn) (Bitter Lemon Press, 2012) is a wonderful, not to say magnificent, piece of metafiction dressed up to look like a police procedural and murder mystery. For those you you who like the jargon, the primary devices are intertextuality and the use of an unreliable narrator.

In the world of semiotics, the concept of intertextuality has been rather overdone of late but, if you wanted to find an example of it, this comes as close as it’s possible to get. At more or less every point during the narrative, we get examples of vertical intertextuality with references to films, or to the dialogue within films, or to the real-world identities and lives of those involved in the making of films, or to songs and their lyrics, the lives of the singers and composers, and so on. We also have significant horizontal intertextuality with long quotes from different sources based on separate literary conventions incorporated into the narrative, thereby connecting the reader to different views of the same set of circumstances. Naturally, all the text appearing in the book is written by the same author except where otherwise attributed, but the sense and meaning of the words is being drawn from the work of different creative individuals. So, for example, one character may describe the scene of a murder and, later, a second character may give the synopsis of a film plot which has features matching the initial murder. This is art mirroring cinema with the fictional serial killer meticulously staging the murders to recreate actual film scripts or real-world events associated with film stars. The author is reminding us that we should never see one work in isolation. Our understanding is always enhanced by being able to relate elements of the text being read to other texts and symbols.

Patrick Conrad

Patrick Conrad: thriller writer, poet, screenwriter and film director

I need to note one other semiotics-related irony. The author has gone to much trouble to translate many lines from US noir films into Dutch for his intended readership, only for Jonathan Lynn to translate them back into English for us to read. Presumably the meanings stayed the same even though the languages were different.

There are two narrative tracks through the text. The key figure in the expanding investigation is Professor Victor Cox who teaches the History of Cinema at the Institute of Film and Theatre Studies. He comes to the attention of police when the body of his wife, Shelley “Dixie” Cox, is fished out of one of the docks in Antwerp. The initial signs are that of a hit-and-run with the dead body thrown off a bridge. The second thread features Chief Superintendent Fons “The Sponge” Luyckx, and Detective Inspector Lannoy who assume the responsibility of trying to unravel a number of murders which, at first sight, appear unrelated. The Sponge is the quiet thoughtful one who hates to be beaten by any problem, while Lannoy is quicker to feel the frustration of being unable to make progress through the mass of detailed information that emerges.

At first, the Professor appears entirely normal insofar as anyone so obsessed with the study of any single subject can be considered normal. He’s amazingly encyclopaedic on early American cinema and we’re treated both to excepts from his lectures and memories that suddenly seem relevant given events around him. There’s also a direct link with Lolita by Nabokov in that our “good” Professor seems perpetually drawn to young women, preferring those who resemble the heroines of his favorites films. It’s at this point we encounter a real problem because he’s not proving to be consistent in what he remembers nor how he sees the world. Indeed, there are distinct indications he may be mentally ill — schizophrenia would be a distinct possibility if, in the usual way it’s shown on the screen, this involves twin personalities as in Jekyll and Hyde. The structure of the book is carefully managed so we’re never sure whether the Professor is a retired academic helping the police solve a series of murders or the murderer hiding in plain sight and misdirecting the police.

I was hooked from the outset because I love a good mystery and am a sucker for noir films. There are also some rather pleasing jokes as the book goes along. However, I’m forced to raise one slight caveat. In a way, the book is slightly too clever for its own good. It has to twist the events so that they fit the needs of the immediate plot while staying faithful to the sets of circumstances being replicated. This gives the whole a slightly surreal form. In the more general sense of the word, mysteries need not be credible. If we’ve willingly suspended our disbelief, authors can convince us their murderers can do anything. But it does raise a slight problem when we’re in a police procedural. This subgenre is somewhat more real than reel, i.e. the police should be seen chasing down criminals based on the evidence that emerges. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely anyone could actually commit these murders. That said, No Sale is a masterful piece of writing and creates a genuinely tragic figure in Professor Cox. He’s a man who seems to have the capacity for great suffering and, when reality becomes so unpleasant, who would blame him for retreating into the world of his own imagination and, perhaps, acting out what he finds there.

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

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