Posts Tagged ‘semiotics’

The Man Who Collected Machen by Mark Samuels


Now I’ve retired (except when people pay me to write which, perhaps surprisingly, remains moderately common) I get to spend my days doing what I like the best which is reading and writing for fun. For all I’m reading professionally most of the time, the motive remains the same — to find authors whose work is interesting. With tens of thousands of books published every year, there’s no way I can read them all, and with Sturgeon’s Law endlessly proved correct, it’s a case of serendipity or following the recommendation of others to find the good stuff. With The Man Who Collected Machen by Mark Samuels (Chômu Press, 2011) it’s a punt into the small press world to try someone new to me. We start of with “Losenef Express”. This is rather elegant as a piece of atmospheric writing. We’re so far off the beaten track, even the track has given up caring where it is. Eddie Charles Knox, a disillusioned human being, looks up from the bottom of a bottle and sees a man in the shadows watching him. When the man leaves and goes into the foggy streets, Knox follows. It may not be the most original of plot ideas but the execution works well as an exercise in existential despair. The titular “The Man Who Collected Machen” plays with another well-known trope as a poor man who’s fascinated by the author but can’t afford to buy collectible editions, meets a man who’s been able to put together an impressive collection of books and ephemera. The outcome is rather pleasingly Machenish as a veil is lifted.

Mark Samuels

Mark Samuels

“THYXXOLQU” is a quite wonderful idea. In many ways, language remains one of humanity’s greatest achievements — the perfect system for communicating meaning both face-to-face and over distances. If there’s a flaw, it’s that, as a species, we never agreed on a single language. Consequently, we’re left with a veritable Babel of different scripts, syntaxes and vocabularies. Would it not therefore be convenient if we could all agree to speak the same language? No more problems with translation. Just universal understanding. Life would be so much richer if there were no barriers to communicating ideas. And talking of universality, “The Black Mould” shows us a rather more cosmic version of the drive to bring the multiplicity into the singular form. This story shows pleasing self-discipline, spending just enough time on the set-up and development, and finishing before the idea runs out of steam. “Xapalpa” is a small town in Mexico which may have had a slightly less than savory reputation in earlier times, but may just be the place for an American ex-pat to retire to. Or not, as the case may be. So when our hero sits down in the most obvious bar and finds a friendly face prepared to talk to him, he hears a little of the town’s history. The result is nicely understated.

It’s somewhat ironic to find a story like “Glickman the Bibliophile” in a collection from any publisher. It’s message is that the annihilation of meaning is double plus good and, if you don’t agree, we haff ways of making you zink zo as Nazi book burners pursuing Säuberung in 1933 might have said. “A Question of Obeying Orders” is a delightful joke, albeit one based on a rather obvious confusion. As you might expect, a German soldier might balk at continuing to fight once the battle has been won. It’s only natural he should run away. It’s just unfortunate he chooses this particular path out of the forest. “Nor Unto Death Utterly by Edward Bertrand” is another very effective atmosphere piece in which a village doctor is called in to examine a dying recluse only to find something rather unexpected. It has a nicely judged Victorian air about it as the veneer of his medical detachment is pierced, leaving a mixture of superstition and religion to fight over the ruins of his mind. “A Contaminated Text” returns to the central notion behind the earlier “THYXXOLQU” and produces a very elegant variation on the theme. In this case, we have a Mexican library receiving a consignment of books from a local collector, recently deceased. When they are shelved, something rather interesting occurs. “The Age of Decayed Futurity” moves along a parallel track and speculates there might be some truth to the conspiracy theories of a secret cabal running Earth. In some of these theories, these are beings from the future. But such beliefs are just the product of delusional minds. And, finally, we come to “The Tower”, an original story, which takes a highly political view of the world and an academic interpretation of how we perceive it and attribute meaning to it, and produces a kind of postmodern or semiotic horror story. Obviously we are all surrounded by our own small plot of geography as it moves slowly through time from the past to the future. If we were to become alienated from the world, we might withdraw into a small subsection of our environment. At times we might meditate. Alternatively we might explore the remnant of our world in search of a symbol, something to inspire us. If we conceived a tower as that totem, how might we approach it — assuming it was possible to do so? The answer is given here.

The overall effect of this book is of a writer who loves ideas and the power of words to express them. Each of the stories is most carefully controlled. Young writers feel length is important and they overwrite. These stories which, I suppose, one classifies as supernatural, weird, or postmodernist horror are told with economy and therefore power. I’m pleased and relieved the recommendation given to me proved correct and I pass on the recommendation to you.

The Gist by Michael Marshall Smith


When I was young, there was a very famous story about miscommunication during the First World War. Allegedly, the original message sent was, “Send reinforcements. We are going to advance.” but by the time the relay radio operators had finished transmitting and retransmitting it, the message became, “Send three and fourpence. We are going to a dance.” Although this is probably apocryphal, it spawned many variations like, “Enemy advancing with ham-shanks. Send three and four pence.” There are also references to wild Italians and the need for pants to be pressed. It’s improbable that any of the stories are true. Even in the fog of war, people would not make such fundamental mistakes. The least competent message retransmitter would ask for clarification if what he thought he heard made no sense. The most likely explanation is bored copyrighters in newspaper offices were relieving the tedium of spinning out stories from the trenches by adding a little humour. It’s a process shadowing the game Chinese Whispers in which a group of hopefully well-lubricated people sit in a circle. One whispers a message in the ear of the next person and so on until the final person in the circle announces the message received. The opportunities for hilarity are obvious.

Michael Marshall Smith

Michael Marshall Smith

The Gist by Michael Marshall Smith (Subterranean Press, 2013) is a very brave publishing experiment which I applaud. Since I speak and read French quite well, it proved an interesting hour or so of study. The point of the exercise is simple. Michael Marshall Smith writes a short story about a man tasked with extracting the gist of meaning from a book thought untranslatable. The story is then translated into French by Benoît Domis and then back into English by Nicholas Royle. The translators were only allowed to ask technical questions. The English translator was not allowed to talk to the author.

The point is to see how far the second English version drifts from the first. It’s a classic exercise in semiotics. The meanings one group of people choose to give to groups of letters is initially arbitrary, but through consistency of usage, significance accumulates. Indeed, as the story itself points out, meanings for individual words drift so what begins its life as a signifier implying a responsible person can morph into a signifier implying an individual with a criminal purpose: the example given is henchman. By studying the context, it’s possible to date a work by deciding which meaning is intended for the given word. Moving from the immediate decoding level of attributing meaning to individual words and rising to a meta level, the reader can aim for an overview. At such a level, the individual words of the source become less significant as we strive to capture the gist of what was written. This need not be a mechanical summary. It can actually ignore much of the text and communicate an underlying truth about it. We can call this analysis or interpretation or, if you want to get technical, deconstruction. Whatever words we use, the point is to encapsulate an element of the meaning and make it stand for the whole.

The good news is that The Gist is a reasonably good short story. It’s certainly not the most original and, in a way, I think it’s a little too preoccupied with setting up the philosophical basis for the publishing exercise rather than allowing the natural “horror” to emerge. I’ve read many better variations on this theme. Perhaps that’s why it changes only slightly when retranslated back into English. Both translators would be familiar with this trope and with the necessary apparatus, e.g. the double-sided desk. It would have been interesting if the work could have been translated into cultures which lack such specific artifacts or locations. In saying this, I’m not taking anything away from the translators who worked on the text. Indeed, we should offer them both a sustained round of applause for having most faithfully processed the words to preserve meaning. The only difference is in the length. As a language, French prefers to use more words to carry the essential meaning. English is inherently more pithy. Thus when Nicholas Royle translates back into English, the result is that the text becomes slightly fuller. That’s really all I need say about this interesting experiment, if you get my meaning, that is.

For a review of a collection by Michael Marshall Smith, see Everything You Need.

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

The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson

December 22, 2012 2 comments

The Emperor's Soul

According to Brandon Sanderson, the author, The Emperor’s Soul (Tachyon Press, 2012) is set on the same world as Elantris which was the quite spectacularly wonderful first novel he published. In my estimation, it’s now been relegated to his second best book but, if you have not read it, you should. It’s a remarkably assured piece of fantasy writing. For our immediate purposes, there’s no need to have read Elantris to enjoy this novella. Although the seeds of the system of magic are the same, this can be read as a standalone. So what’s it about?

Let me start off with a question for you. Suppose there are two people whose command of the craft of painting is so complete, they can both replicate the styles of well-known and collectible artists. One uses this skill to copy existing masterpieces. He then steals the originals and replaces them with the copies. His motive is the satisfaction in knowing the works on display are fakes but of such high quality, no-one viewing them would ever be aware of the substitution. The other paints creatively in the style of well-known artists. He then “discovers” previously unknown masterpieces and sells them on as authentic. Needless to say, he has to forge documentation providing the paintings with due provenance. But both painters arrive at the same result, namely that their paintings hang on display with everyone accepting them as genuine. Indeed, you could argue that the more people see the paintings and accept them as genuine, the more strongly genuine the fakes become. If you like, the collective belief in their validity transcends reality and gives them a greater veneer of respectability. The more time passes, the greater the public certainty the paintings are masterpieces. Why does this matter? People collect originals for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the most important is more than a passing respect for the artist’s vision. When you see the picture, it’s as if you are looking through the artist’s eyes, seeing the world as he or she did. There’s also the attraction of owning something with a reputation — the longer the reputation the better if you are caught on the third reason which is the investment potential. Or perhaps there’s a rather more subtle ineffable emotion, a kind of mystique surrounding the ownership of a genuine example of beauty. Whatever the reason, some people’s lives are built around collecting. For them, it would be very distressing if they were to discover they had a fake hanging on their walls. Yet, in a way, it might suit them to deny such accusations. Admitting they had been deceived would make them look less than expert. It might be better to insist the paintings were real.

Brandon Sanderson — now the standout fantasy author of this century

Brandon Sanderson — now the standout fantasy author of this century

It’s the same with people. If you want to pretend to be someone you’re not, the way you present yourself to the world has to be authentic. Mere imitation will never succeed. Everyone has to believe you are real. For example, someone like Frank Abagnale was able to persuade people he was an airline pilot, a doctor, a lawyer, and so on. The question, of course, is how you appear to be genuine. It’s all to do with the signs. You have to be in the right place, wearing the right clothes, adopting the right manner with other people around you accepting your right to occupy that role. The more other people reinforce your credibility, the more likely it is that newcomers will fall into line and also accept your performance as genuine. Identity and status are very much in the eye of the beholder.

So let’s meet Shai. She’s a Forger (note the capitalisation) and a thief — although being a thief is incidental to her primary trade which is using a form of magic to persuade objects and places to remember being something different. Such are her skills, she can make more or less anything appear to be a genuine example of [insert appropriate noun]. This could be changing a crudely made vase into a beautiful jug or persuading a wall it would look better with a hole through which she could escape capture. She has been captured while attempting a rather complex series of substitutions. This is fortuitous because Emperor Ashravan has been attacked by assassins and left as an empty body. The ruling council decides to use Shai to recreate the Emperor’s “soul”. The idea is simple. If she can fake an object, why can she not fake a person so that all around him would accept him as genuine. The fact this person happens to be the Emperor raises the stakes and makes it an interesting challenge. The ageing Gaotona accepts the primary role of go-between while she goes through the creative process. This is just as well because he’s the only truly honest person on the council.

What then happens is a fascinating discussion about the nature of authenticity and the extent to which it can ever be faked. This is beautiful storytelling combined with some provocative ideas about how we view the world and the extent to which we can be manipulated. Although it’s properly to be classed as a fantasy, it’s actually a fake. It’s really literature exploring notions more usually found in dry books dealing with semiotics and psychology. Not that this thematic subtext should deter you. This is pure fantasy — no, really, it is! I unreservedly recommend The Emperor’s Soul. It’s a joy to read!

For reviews of other books by Brandon Sanderson, see:
Alcatraz versus The Scrivener’s Bones
The Hero of Ages
The Rithmatist
The Way of Kings
The Well of Ascension
The Words of Radiance

This is nominated for the 2013 Hugo Awards for Best Novella.

Act of Faith and Jimmy’s End

November 29, 2012 Leave a comment

The question to start us off is what makes an image or sequence of images interesting to the audience. It could just be the content. No matter what the quality, if the mind invests the image with significance, it will be considered important. For these purposes, it doesn’t matter what form the image takes. It could be photographic or line-drawn, in oil paint or acrylic, old or new. It could be in a book or tattooed on to the skin. It could be spray-painted on to the wall of a public building or held in an encrypted file on a computer. The significance given to it is all that matters when the individuals with access come to judge it. Alternatively, the content may be invested with greater meaning because of external attributes. So we might consider preserved dead animals achieve a meaning that transcends their inherent reality simply because of the person whose name appears as an artist and the place where they are displayed. If the bodies were in an abattoir, not even Damien Hirst’s name could save them from being turned into food. But if they are designated an art installation and displayed in Park Avenue, they can take on a greater significance if that’s what the viewers want. Calling the whole, “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” is also seeking to provoke thought. Whether it actually needs the pickled sheep to make us think about death is a different matter. Turning to erotica or pornography, Umberto Eco suggests that a sign can be used as a substitute for something else. All we have to do is accept a social convention that an image of, say, a banana can stand in for the penis. This is a convenient process because it allows a discussion about normally “prohibited” issues by using a code. Language can be too obvious, crude if you prefer. Equally, images can be too explicit, i.e. they do not lie about their content but show it for what it is. So exploiting connotative meanings in words or images allows greater freedom to deal in shades of significance so long as all the viewers understand the process and can decode the intended meaning.

Siobhan Hewlett going through her ritual preparations


Having set the scene in typical academic fashion, we come to two short films made by Alan Moore and Mitch Jenkins. The two are linked by a common character, Faith Harrington played by Siobhan Hewlett. In the first, Act of Faith, we have an autoerotic asphyxiation potentially going wrong. The question, “What happens to faith?” is of course, theological. But an answer of sorts is provided in the second film, Jimmy’s End, where she appears in a distinctly different club environment which lurks as a kind of flytrap for people like James Mitchum (Darrell D’Silva). What makes this pair of short films so interesting is that this is Alan Moore setting out to use film as his medium of expression. He’s been remarkably dismissive of the various attempts made by others to translate his printed work into a cinematic experience. In a gesture of semi-anarchic purity, he’s resisted all efforts to associate him personally with the film-making, asserting it is pointless to take static images created as a comic book or graphic novel and recast them as moving images. For him to take his own money, write this pair of script for filming, and oversee production is therefore brave. It’s asserting his own aesthetic is superior to Hollywood directors and cinematographers.

Darrell D’Silva not quite at wit’s end but close


In part this comes from the content. He’s not competing directly. Mainstream Hollywood does not so overtly deal with the erotic. In the first, we’re shown a woman who’s stepped away from social life with her colleagues at work, who distances herself from her father. For her weekend entertainment, she prefers something a little more exciting. This, of course, begs the question why people do push beyond the conventional. It’s important in this to recognise the ritual being performed. The choice of clothing, the way in which the different items are put on, the style of makeup, and so on, are an essential part of the experience. Only when viewed as a whole do the parts come together to enhance the final climatic moments. This scenario forces the film-maker to play with the conventions of soft porn and voyeurism to establish the mind game being played. More importantly, the title shows the ironic intention because, by timing her arrival in that particular position, she’s literally putting herself in the hands of another. It’s a real act of faith because we all know how unreliable other people can be.

Alan Moore, Mitch Jenkins and Siobhan Hewlett coming together in the cutting room


Switching to Jimmy’s End we have a similar theme played out from the male perspective. Come the evening, a certain type of man goes out to a succession of pubs. This can be treading a well-worn path or an entirely random journey from sobriety to a state of mind in which he feels comfortable in going to a different part of town where he can find a different form of entertainment, perhaps involving women. He’s not a roué. In some senses, he may be debauched, but he’s not leading a life of sensual pleasure. There’s a form of self-imposed degradation about each night’s outing. The result is our “hero” accepting an invitation into a demimonde “club” environment in which he’s plied with free drinks, introduced to Faith and comes into the ballroom for the main event. He’s free to leave at any time but elects to become the main focus of the night’s entertainment. What’s clever about this is, first, that it’s understated in its depiction of shades of sexuality, while the subtext is that life can become as monotonously boring as all the catchphrases and jokes that are recycled into meaninglessness. What might have been fresh the first time we heard it, becomes tiresome and then part of the wallpaper. All the people we see in the club are bored, going through rituals out of habit and not in the expectation of enjoyment. We can speculate on why any one them is present. For the majority, it’s as if participation is not wholly voluntary. This behaviour has been woven into the fabric of their lives over time. For the few movers and shakers, there’s profit to be made from the needs of others. This may be malicious exploitation, a kind of louche sadism in exposing the vulnerabilities of the majority. Or the relationship may be more complex.


Without being overly “arty” or trespassing too far over the boundaries of good taste, both films represent a pleasingly idiosyncratic view of sex and sexuality, using the conventional signifiers to make some interesting comments in the subtext on the potential for boredom in the routine of sexual behaviour. Although some of the cinematography is slightly static and posed, this is partly because we’re not engaged in a classic narrative being told through the usual visual conventions. The camera is being used in a more dispassionate way to record events and to comment on behaviour by highlighting features of significance. It’s very successful at this length, but more stylistic variation would have to be added if a full-length feature film was to avoid creating its own clichés. That said, both films are a testament to a different eye being brought to bear on film-making conventions. Alan Moore and Mitch Jenkins are to be applauded for demonstrating real professionalism in all aspects of the film-making process. If Hollywood was prepared to trust Alan Moore, it would be interesting to see what kind of film would result.


Both films are available to view on Youtube:
Act of Faith
Jimmy’s End


The prejudices betrayed by what we say and write

August 23, 2012 4 comments

Sometimes, when reading non-related items in the news, the mind can suddenly identify a common denominator. Since it happened today, I’ll celebrate the event with an opinion piece. It seems there’s a self-published book called The Pearls: Defending Eden by Victoria Foyt and Weird Tales, under its new management, has tied itself in a knot over whether it should reproduce the first chapter of this book in its magazine. Also in America, I note that Todd Akin has refused the demands of his political party to withdraw from the election to represent Missouri in the Senate — as an aside, the drunken skinny-dipping episode in the Sea of Galilee may suggest other members of the same party can act in a debauched way. For the record, Akin distinguished between legitimate and other types of rape, asserting the belief that women could control their bodies to ensure they could not become pregnant if unwillingly impregnated. On our side of the pond, George Galloway offered the opinion that Julian Assange was not guilty of rape as he understood the word. Rather it was a case of bad manners or poor social etiquette. This on the day the Augusta National Golf Club ended its eighty-year single-sex membership rule and admitted its first two women members. It seems Darla Moore and Condoleezza Rice are now lining up as many of the male members as possible in friendly competition on the golf course with a view to demonstrating they are better players of the game (the ambiguity is deliberate).

The lives we lead as social beings inevitably involve the use of signs and symbols to transmit meaning to each other. We talk, we write, we draw, and we use body language and facial expressions to package the meaning and send it to others. This means our society must agree what meanings are to be given to combinations of letters or symbols, and to lay down rules for the interpretation of what we see. As you might imagine, this would appear to be an immensely complicated communication system to learn if you saw it all written down. But we assimilate it as part of the socialisation process. Growing up, we listen to authority figures and interact with our peers. When we say and do things meeting with group approval, we’re rewarded. When the group disapproves, we may suffer social penalties or more formal punishments. This stick and carrot approach throughout our formative years teaches us how to conform or, at least, how to appear to conform.

As adults, we’re the sum of all our prejudices and beliefs. Everything we see and hear is filtered through the lens of our personal sensibilities. If input matches our prejudices, we applaud. If input fails to match our prejudices, the reaction can range from simple dismissal to an angry physical retaliation. In my early schooling, we were taught self-reflection, to look with some degree of honesty at what we believe and decide whether those beliefs are “legitimate”. Today, no-one in the schooling system is taught critique whether for self-reflection or the assessment of others. People unthinkingly communicate with the world not realising how they reveal themselves in what they say and do.

So what would happen in a book written by a homophobe? Well, early on, the previously well-regarded A is outed as gay. Suddenly, all his co-workers stop co-operating with him and his employment is terminated because he can no longer perform his job effectively. His reputation follows him so no new employer will offer him a post. He ends up losing his home when he cannot pay the mortgage and, in the final pages, is beaten to death when found begging on a street corner. This would conform to the prejudices of many readers and they would buy the book. What might a gay author write on the same subject? When A is outed and suffers discrimination, he takes his employers to court and gets substantial damages for wrongful dismissal. He uses this money to establish his own business which supplies goods and services first to the gay community, and then more generally. When the opportunity arises, he offers employment to gay and straight people, making no secret of his own sexuality nor of his policy for equal treatment. He becomes a multimillionaire and buys the company that fired him. In a management evaluation exercise, he reallocates all the homophobes who abused him to work under managers who are openly gay.

Both books would be considered parables, expressing different points of view to appeal to niche groups of buyers. In other words, authors don’t suddenly stop being prejudiced when they write. They write about what they believe and express opinions about what they think is right and wrong. Fueling this process, organisations exist to make awards, but their criteria for deciding who deserve the awards represent their own prejudices. So, for example, The Libertarian Futurist Society makes an annual Prometheus Award to the books best demonstrating what it means to be free. The Black Caucus of the American Library Association Literary Awards are given to outstanding works of fiction and nonfiction by African American authors. There’s no overlap between the award winners.

In an election, voters look for candidates holding opinions similar to their own. If they are anti-abortion, they will vote for candidates who deny abortion no matter how the woman became pregnant. If the political tide is turning against overt sexism or racism, people and organisations can trim their sails to move elegantly into line, or they can try to swim against the tide. So Augusta can, with whatever grace it can muster, offer membership to two token women of high status. The blogosphere can turn on Weird Tales for offering support to a book the commentators have labelled as racist. British George Galloway feels free to comment on the Swedish laws as they define rape. All these events mean we live in a society where we value free speech. For better or worse, people can say what they want to get elected to high political office and publish what they think will sell. Looking back this year, I’ve read books that suggest grooming young women to be sex slaves is OK, that killing illegal immigrants is OK although, if you want to be kind, you could intern them and then deport them by sending them out to sea to become someone else’s problem, or that trying to depose a military leader because he’s gay is always justified even if the country’s defence is then put at risk, and so on. There are as many opinionated authors as there are books published. It’s sad so many of them have no idea that what they write can seem [insert word]ist to others not sharing their beliefs. Or perhaps they are aware and actually want to offend those who don’t share their beliefs. Whatever the truth of the matter, it doesn’t really matter because the alternative of censorship is not in the public interest. We should all be allowed to make fools of ourselves or become heroes in the eyes of others for saying what needs to be said. As an elderly, white, male atheist, I’m no exception since I frequently hold opinions at odds with the rest of the world and assert my right to publish them.

Cover design for Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart


In my review of Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart by Caitlin R Kiernan, I expressed the opinion, “For once in a discussion of a Subterranean Press book, I have to say I find the jacket artwork from Lee Moyer rather cheesy.” In a blog posting, Caitlin R Kiernan greeted my one-line comment with the equally dismissive assertion that I’m “dead fucking wrong”. I think my original comment had marginally more class than the consequent riposte.


The word “cheesy” is a word of fairly precise meaning but it has connotational layers of pejorative meaning. At a denotational level, it means the food tastes of cheese. However, the scope of the word has slipped to imply that, despite the taste, the food does not actually contain cheese. It merely sports the flavour. As now applied to any situation, it implies that, no matter what the superficial impression, the product is of poor value or fake in some material way. As applied to human behaviour, it implies insincerity.

How to approach critiquing a jacket design and its artwork

I need to start by saying how undervalued the work of the jacket artist is. Many people discount the jacket as part of the overall design without thinking through the contribution the artist and book designer make to the decision to buy. Although there will always be a hard core of buyers who routinely acquire the latest titles by their favoured authors without regard to the physical package, the design of the book more generally encourages us to pick it up and enhances our appreciation of its potential value. In effect, we’ve been trained to become consumers of the pictures used, the choice of font, the placement of title, author and blurb quotes, and so on. All these elements are signifiers in the process of communicating meaning to us.

So, for example, the signified central image might take the form of an old woman holding a broom but, in order to decode its meaning, we need to look at the style and, more importantly, at the context. On a book whose design signals a historical saga set in a Victorian village, the signified might be intended as a farmer’s wife or a maid at the country house of the lord of the manor. On a book presented as fantasy, we would provisionally attribute the characteristics of a witch to the old woman and look for other visual evidence to confirm or deny the hypothesis, e.g. the presence of a cat or other familiar. So there’s a denotational level of interpretation where we take a conventional and literal meaning from what we see. That’s followed by our assessment of the connotational meanings depending on a multiplicity of other signs and signals constituting the book’s physical design as a set of meanings for us to decode.

This makes all meanings relative and, to some extent, dependent on multiple factors not under the control of the artist or the publisher. For example, as an elderly British man, the sum of my cultural experiences accumulated over the years may predispose me to interpret an image in a way completely different to a young American woman. Everything we see is filtered through the lens of our own preconceptions and adjusted according to our personal tastes. In this I separate aesthetics as a set of abstract norms of what I take to represent “beauty”, “cruelty” and other intangibles, and my subjective attitudes. We can hold up yardsticks and make a subjective assessment of whether we like that colour choice or the way the light is used to create a particular effect without it changing our overall assessment that the picture shows, say, a megalomanic in full flow and so delivers the right message in the right context.

When it comes to commercial art, nothing should happen by accident. Whereas fine art may allow for the possibility of serendipity and accident to play a part in the final composition, people paid to supply art to market a product have to understand how the majority of people will understand the picture. So, for these purposes, we examine the artwork as presented to us.

An analysis of the jacket design

Let’s start with the title, Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart. The human heart only has four chambers so the source of the heart cannot be a human body, i.e. as depicted, the purple demon cannot have removed it from the woman in front of her. Now as to the context, the content of the book may legitimately be classified as erotic dark fantasy. So the brief given to the artist might be to signal eroticism as the dominant theme. Yet that could pose commercial dangers. If artwork is too explicit, it probably deters the more casual buyers who prefer their dark fantasy without anything tending to what they deem pornography. So what do we have? The purple demon is obviously female so this is a same sex couple albeit interspecies. The demon’s right hand rests on the woman’s shoulder in a position suggesting dominance and control, yet her eyes are looking directly at us as viewers. One possible interpretation might be that we are voyeurs invited to draw satisfaction from what’s about to happen. Notice the demon’s smile. It’s conspiratorial. We and the demon are assumed to know what will happen, hence the clear way in which the heart is being held up for us to examine. Except, of course, we’re not in the conspiracy. No-one has told us what the heart is for.

What makes this scene surprising is the passivity of the woman. Neither by physical resistance nor facial expression does she register objection. She appears indifferent even though she’s in the presence of a demon. If this scenario is intended to show actual or anticipated sexual activity between the two individuals depicted, the eye contact would be between the partners and their expressions would reflect their respective points of view. We would expect more animation from the woman, but her expression and body language does not signal the anticipation of sexual satisfaction from the use of the heart. Indeed, the pose does not even fit the paradigm of an S&M session staged for the benefit of a voyeuristic audience. The whole point of S&M is for the submissive partner to signal her fearful agony at the prospect of what’s about to happen. She should be looking at the heart with horrified anticipation. This would give the more sadistic among us the chance to vicariously enjoy toying with her fear and then subjecting her to whatever adverse effect the heart has. As it is, the woman’s expression looks more like, “I’ve paid a lot of money to have this heart poultice applied to my hair and I wish this demon would just get on with it.”

In other words, my decoding of the signifiers suggests they do not add value to the marketing of the book. They do not show unambiguously lesbian activity to highlight the book as erotic. There are many legitimate reasons for two woman to hold this pose including a session at a beauty parlour or hairdressing salon. The fact the demon is looking at the viewers is also equivocal. She may be demonstrating the health spa techniques to trainees or there may be potential customers watching this demonstration treatment in the expectation they will be signing up for treatment next Tuesday. From her smile, the demon has obviously just told a slightly risqué joke. Similarly, it’s not an S&M session because the expression of the woman in the submissive position is all wrong.

So taken as a whole, the artwork as a part of the book’s design is not signalling the presence of conventional horror, more traditional fantasy, Lovecraftian horror, a science fiction element, nor overtly sexual content. I don’t think the artist could decide exactly what message he wanted to send to those who view the finished product. Worse, as a title, Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart is unhelpful. Is this the true life confessions of the heart itself? You know the kind of thing: the places I’ve been, the things I’ve done. . . Or is it intended to signal confessions from the demon or the human woman on the uses she’s made of the heart? Thus, to my mind, the picture does not match the title and, by not characterising or defining the nature of the book’s content, does not add value to the marketing of the book. In my vocabulary, that makes the jacket design cheesy because no matter what my appreciation of the aesthetics of the picture, I have no clear idea of what meaning the publisher intends me to draw from the totality of the signifiers. In reaching this conclusion, I do not necessarily attach any blame to the artist. Indeed, he may very well be the victim of an equivocal brief from the publisher or have been given specific directions on what to paint. Ultimately, the publisher carries the responsibility for what I take to be cheesiness because nothing appears on the jacket without the publisher’s express approval.

Having seen a draft of this explanation, Lee Moyer responded:

Thanks for elucidating your brief comment about my cover.

My cover was drawn from the story “Dancing With the Eight of Swords”. I had supposed that readers would find that my illustration the tall violet demon with glassine horns unmistakable and that after reading the tale, they might find cover recontextualized. Maybe in surprising ways. I don’t wish to say more lest I spoil the superb story, but suffice it to say that even the misty background of the cover is specific.

I’m sorry the cover didn’t work for you, but I’m glad to hear your thoughts thereon.

As a final thought from me:

Functionally, the design of the cover should communicate appropriate meaning before the book is read. In the case of a collection where disparate themes may be present, I concede this is a challenge but, to my mind, it’s a challenge the artist should accept. Whether a person who has read the book later recognises the scene from one of the stories is not entirely relevant. For the publisher, the proper consideration is how many potential readers might not be induced to buy and read the book. In this case, both the artist and publisher knew the picture took one scene out of context, but nevertheless incorporated the image plus the other signifiers into the cover design to communicate a more universal meaning. Frankly, I did not and do not find the image in any way representative of the contents of the book. Accordingly, I confirm my opinion that both the artist and the publisher produced a cover design that is, not to put to fine a point on it, cheesy.

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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