Thursday, October 29, 2015

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe - Thomas Ligotti (2)




“You can just forget everything you thought you knew about yourselves and everything else in the universe. You know nothing. You are nothing. And the choices you have for dealing with this reality are to go insane or kill yourselves. How about them apples?” as quoted by Thomas Ligotti in one of his many interviews.

Penguin Classics 2015

Foreword by Jeff VanderMeer
My previous reviews of Thomas Ligotti
And of Jeff VanderMeer
And of Penguin Classics

A Ligotti story a day lets the Doctor stay.

When I make my real-time review of this collection’s GRIMSCRIBE section, my comments will be found in the thought stream below….

23 responses to “*

    I have only just started re-reading this celebrated story and my review of it will follow below in due course.
    Meanwhile, I confirm that over the years, at the back of my mind, I have thought that the paintings of Joan Miro are highly fitting as backdrop to Ligotti’s fiction. But I can’t see anywhere that a connection with this story has previously been mentioned, including its location of Mirocaw. For example, with the help of today’s internet, I have found a Joan Miro orientated website HERE that is headed ‘Tears of the Clown: Harlequin Carnival’. Potentially fascinating, I’d say.

  2. Following on from above….
    “To me the title of Clown has always carried connotations of a noble sort. I was an adroit jester, strangely enough, and had always taken pride in the skills I worked so diligently to develop.”
    A page-turning novelette that – in contrast to the last read story, the amorphous Vastarien – has a compelling linear plot and a strong dose of that Lovecraftian touch which imbues all Ligotti fiction. But Ligotti is, for me, this plot’s “festival within a festival”, the Ligotti within the Lovecraft (not the other way about), the Conqueror Worm bubbling at the centre of Azathoth – and note the ‘thoth’ there, echoing the namesake of the earlier Dr. Thoss as a new character here.
    The protagonist narrator builds up a picture of Mirocaw as a “distortion of perspective” brilliantly echoing earlier Ligottian towns, this one with its just-before-but-muddled-with-Christmas festival or feast that turns out to have its stronger if, paradoxically, more pallid or effete-with-the-lethargy-of-a-festival within it. It is mooted at one point that the outer festival was started to mitigate the inner festival.
    The description of the various natures of clowns and jesters is unforgettable. And there is much else to which I can’t do justice here. Indeed, it is a wonderfully atmospheric plot, one that evokes the concept of “holiday suicides”, and it is also one complete with a Kubrickian ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ element of the narrator as intruder in a larger group, an ingredient of many nightmares. Here, he is disguised but acting the part with – but separate from – the other effete or shuffling clowns in the inner but somehow stronger festival. I feel I am a similar intruder when entering the covers of a Ligotti book or partaking in the TLO discussion forum, except the end of this novelette tells me that it is useless for me to worry about that…

    “‘The Lost Grimoire of the Abbot of Tine,’ he giggled. ‘Transcribed in the language of–‘”
    I giggle, too, as I realise that the earlier possible typo was no such thing but the correction of an earlier typo.
    There are many angles of this book so far coming together in this work, where my imagining that I am an ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ intruder in the previous story now makes me feel that I fulfil the role of Plomb, being gulled by the sardonic narrator – who is an instrument of the freehold author? – leading to the “fabulous hoax” of the earlier ‘Masquerade TrageDIE’ story, one that features presumably the same pair of spectacles as this current work. The word ‘sardonic’ is in fact often used in this book, reminding me of possibly the most famous use of that word, i.e. to describe the Hound’s baying in that creature’s eponymous story by Lovecraft. Perhaps compare the spectacles here to the amulet there.
    This is an enthralling work by Ligotti turning my attitude to this whole book into knots. Plomb is groomed into believing each endlessly revealed Chinese box or Russian Doll ‘secret’ as it emerges but without a true revelatory climax of discovering the ultimate secret of the universe. However, is Plomb being played with who in turn is playing with that player? A cat and mouse game. The narrator’s recurrent nightmare making me think, after all, that I am the narrator not the eventually authorial Plomb? How DOES one plumb a Jackson Pollock painting, let alone a Joan Miro one?
    I have today discovered, on the new-fangled Internet, the following definitions of the word ‘plomb’, perhaps prefiguring, inter alia, the ‘toilet’ theme in the later ‘Teatro Grottesco’ collection that I reviewed HERE a few years ago:-
    [[ 1. (n.) Polite term for human excrement in a toilet that has failed to flush for one of a variety of reasons…(see i-iv below);
    2. Used to endearingly identify one’s offspring;
    3. Popular word to convey moment of impact and subsequent existence of (ideally) well-shaped (circular in cross-section) and solid ‘plomb’ in a toilet;
    4. Conveys the two most popular instances that ‘flash’ into the non-Creator’s mind upon detecting a plomb, (i) A BOMB!!… (ii) the precise moment it ‘plo’pped (in the water from within Creator);
    4. ‘Lead’ (metal) in French;
    5. (Orig.) fusion of ‘plop’ and ‘bomb’; coined in early seventies.
    Reasons for non-flush and therefore plomb:
    i. the Creator is still admiring its profile;
    ii. the Creator forgot to flush it, simply;
    iii. the Creator is still admiring its aquadynamics;
    iv. Creator failed to account for extended reading or repose and hitherto subsequent resilience of plomb;
    iv. the Creator has planted a deliberate ‘plomb’ for a non-Creator to stop in tracks and admire. ]]

    “Everything held for a moment to allow the wandering music from the box to pass on toward some sublimely terrible destination. I tried to follow it — through the yellowish haze of the room and deep into the darkness that pressed against the walls,…”
    Arguably, this story is a satire on the popular horror books of VC Andrews in the 1980s and 1990s, that started with FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC — ‘flowers’ that seem, by dint of its sequels’ titles, to have transposed themselves into the garden?
    On another level, it is a serious and effective deployment of the Ligottian “madness of things” theme (without recourse to the Ligottian ‘fabulous hoax’), a madness that perhaps soon was to become the New Nonsense, with the above ‘yellowish haze’ seeping into the later Ligottian works of horror that depicted Corporate employment amid such madness and desolation. Meanwhile, I personally loved the music box in this story.
    “With the darkness I saw the darkness.”

    “Thus far one can see that the drama enacted is a familiar one: the stage is rigidly traditional and the performers upon it are caught up in its style. For those actors are not so much people as they are puppets from the old shows, the ones that have told the same story for centuries,…”
    LETHE is a genuine antique word for oblivion from Life that, I feel, can only be Death itself, and in the title of this Ligotti work, we can descry NETHE, effectively a not-death, and then after using the whole title, ‘NETHE as CURE ALL’, we can identify a Horror without Victims by a series of NOTS, each NOT being ‘not a particular nasty thing’, itemised at length at the end of the story.
    This is perhaps the premonitory or, even, prepared answer to CATHR a generation later, in which work the NOT-DEATH emerges as a form of inverse culmination of this story: a ‘NOT-BIRTH’ called anti-natalism. My interpretation, in hindsight, of a cosmic jester’s cosmic jest.
    The work, like my möbius review of it, is itself a convoluted möbius of a story that evokes a certain concept — through the act of this post-Lovecraftian writing in the effective shape of a real-time narration as explicit dreamcatcher using words and describing the words that describe the story in their physical state of colour, consistency, smell etc.
    That concept is of the imputed Lovecraftian Idol that is planted in various randomly synchronised shards of truth and fiction, shards of itself hidden on each of many islands called Nethescurial, needing to be remade into the gestalt of itself. It is as if this very type of process of mine in reviewing this whole Penguin Classics book is already embodied within the dream process of this separate work within it!
    A symbiosis of pantheism and pandemonism as a Punch and Judy-like puppet show. And a Poesque adventure deconstructed.

    As with all my reviews, the aim is to judge matters from the pure fiction texts. I have only dabbled in TL’s many interviews etc. over the years and I have not yet read JV’s Foreword to this book. However, I have already read all TL’s previous published fiction including CATHR.
    Review soon to be continued below…

     Where in life we do everything we can to avoid anxiety, in art we must pursue it. -- Morton Feldman
    Where in life we do everything we can to avoid anxiety, in art we must pursue it.
    — Morton Feldman
    “…a precarious flirting with personal apocalypse, the striving for horrific dominion over horror itself.”
    …and the great megalo-paranoiac literary work of Ligotti seems to be tapped into or tapped from that very quotation. Meanwhile, this particular story itself is like Arthur Machen’s ‘Art of Wandering’ or the mystical visions in a city from that author’s ‘Fragment of Life’ (here in Nortown, kaleidoscopes of colour). The immaculate baroque-gothic text is otherwise a sporadically laid-back, delightfully tortuous stalking of the stalked through the cafes, bars and cinemas.
    A “Boschian Hell” disguised as a city, or vice versa, as one student flatmate grows concerned over the dark interests and sleepless nights of another flatmate called Quinn, and, after briefly looking at Quinn’s second-person-singular ‘spiral notebook’, he follows Quinn about Nortown in a rather similar way as the slow motion Pinteresque triangulations of what I now consider to be a seminal Ligottian work (Report on Probability A) and in a similar way as the slow paces with spaces between of the minimalist-plodding music of Morton Feldman, part of which score I show above not LOOKING minimalist at all! “The momentum of that night had all but run out.”
    It is as if Quinn actually needs the narrator as a half-glimpsed stalker or companion to enable his deadpan forays into the deadbeat city night, a city of which Nortown is part, neither nor, I guess, but somewhere in between. But who is the catalyst, who the passive one, Quinn or the narrator ‘voyeur’?
    And about we readers’ relationship with this book or, rather, about our distant, disconnected, arm’s length relationship with Ligotti himself since starting to read his work (in my case since 1987), this story has this to say: “…dreaming things out of him and dreaming things into him.” Or is it the other way about?

    This classic story, containing a viscously fluid apotheosis of the Ligottan prose style, presents the constructive power of “absolute terror”. And doubt as a strengthening of belief. And seeming as more certain than being. Nonchalance and a ‘delirium of history’ wherein speaking to the dead is more instructive that talking to the living. Byron’s ‘Darkness’ recreated at the end of this story as a nostalgia was merely something to be forgotten…a counterintuitive strength to keep the world from collapsing.
    Not wood waking up so much as a corpse blending with its coffin.
    The work tells of Klaus Klingman, “one of the illuminati” and known, among other names, as ‘Nemo the Necromancer’, and it tells of him telling the narrator of the time of seemingly endless twilight in Muelenburg in an ineffable prose of melted oxymorons.
    Forgetting is strength. Being alone makes unutterable night a pure enlightenment. And not understanding this story, as well as this whole book, I propose, is the only way of keeping our existence safe. Hence, this still on-going real-time review.
    “…an ancient tree was shunned and rumors spread concerning some change in its twisted silhouette, something flaccid and rope-like about its branches…”

    • PS: I note that Muelenburg is shown as Muelenberg in the contents list of the Robinson GRIMSCRIBE in 1991, where I originally read this masterpiece of fluidity. I wonder which is correct? Anyone know?
      With the BERG version I imagine ‘plombs’ floating as muelenbergs upon the oceans of mysticism.

    On one level, a post-Lovecraftian vision of Bulwer-Lytton’s ‘The House and the Brain’ or Danielewski’s ‘House of Leaves’ or Poe’s various houses. About a haunting and an exorcism with spiritual crises and kaleidoscopes of colours to spice the weird plot, dense and textured with dark theosophies, and in many ways, for me, delightfully inaccessible, like the building of this book itself. Inaccessible, but something does permeate the reader involuntarily.
    Like the earlier J.P.Drapeau work, this presents another version of the philosophical core of the whole book, the book as this House of Spare, transposed as the structure of all our body parts as a single body-gestalt with the metaphor of optically stained-glass apertures looking in and looking out, originally spare or antiseptic inside, a “spiritual wasteland”, with the apertures shuttered before birth, with an unknown outside, an outside eventually bearing in on the post-birth self, a birth, as if forged by the shape of the house’s turreted erection. A “ceremonious desecration”, the only defence mechanism becoming the act of showmanship, the trumped-up histrionics of some tout of mystical freak shows – to use words trumped-up by myself from the text. A “marriage of insanity and metaphysics.” Ultimately a self “bare and abandoned”, as it once began with birth’s antiseptic hopes, hopes now dashed.
    There is a paragraph in this story (including six extra lines at the end of it which were not included in this paragraph by the Robinson text of the story in 1991*), a paragraph that now straddles pages 372 and 373 of the Penguin Classics book. I feel it is significant to the phenomenon that is the inferred author, whatever today’s value of my own views as represented by this my own quickfire and instinctive real-time analysis of these pure texts day by day in accordance with my own obsessive sense of the Intentional Fallacy in literature, texts re-read by myself since first reading them in 1989 and 1991 (inasmuch as the texts are assumed to be largely unchanged).
    And I also feel this paragraph is significant whatever the perceived value of the author’s own such “esoteric analysis” (in the sense of that phrase as used in this paragraph), an analysis of possibly misremembered intentions upon proofreading (and editing, subtracting from or adding to) the text of this new book.
    The past is its own shadow of another world here today, but presumably a longer, more tenuous shadow. A shoddy shadow, or as the above specific paragraph has it, a ‘sacred’ one?
    *this example is the only time so far that I have studiously compared the two texts at length.

    • Although I still have a few stories left to re-read and review in the Penguin Classics collection (to re-read for the first time since 1989 and 1991 in the two Robinson collections), I thought I would make my first trial conclusion about this new double book —
      Melted oxymorons: a text that is a blend of various pairs like scatological and eschatological, avant garde and traditional, Gothic and Baroque, Horror and Philosophy, Fiction and Truth, Not-Death and Not-Birth, showman-like and serious, nihilistic and subliminatory, accessible and inaccessible, inspirational and desperate, entertaining and dryly fustian, Intentional and Non-intentional…
      Regarding the Intentional Fallacy literary theory itself, to the Wimsatt version of which I was introduced in 1967, I can empathise when people tell me it is important to have a biographical approach, i.e. read interviews with the author and learn about other such matters external to the pure text, before being able fully to judge that author’s work of fiction.
      But when I read Ligotti’s fiction, my faith in the Intentional Fallacy is renewed. By reading the pure Ligotti text and trying to insulate it from what I know about the man himself, I am reminded that there are forces outside the author’s control that are bearing down upon or lifting up the nature of his work. After all, that very phenomenon is what the stories are written about and, in my view, what the stories are overtly instigating – successfully so.

      • PS: In other words, having slept on it, the whole perceived ethos of the Ligotti fiction canon so far seems to me to be essentially predicated on some form of authorial Intentional Fallacy existing, a fact that I have felt to be the case since reading the earlier ones in the 1980s.
        This perhaps at least is partly true of much fiction, but I feel this consideration is central to the REAL cosmic and human terrors that transcend fiction like Ligotti’s and Lovecraft’s.

    “You’ve put me in the position of having to cater to your anxiety that the world is not ruled by regularity. But it’s time you realized that nothing is bolted down, so to speak.”
    Dr. Dublanc is one of those Ligottian doctors that not even an apple a day can keep away. He wakes you while you are trying to get to sleep and takes you to see a Mr. Catch who hatches insect-like creatures from the skulls of grubby tramps. The doctor took you there to cure your Asperger’s syndrome, I guess. You see, this story itself cures you from any expectations, from any hope of its gestalt of disconnected connections connecting with the rest of the book, assuming that you should read it at all with its deconstructed sloping streets, leading you to one of the tunnelback houses where corridors lead themselves to all manner of off-putting things that make you feel unsafe.
    To stop yourself from catching anything from reading it, simply don’t read it. A shell of a story and one that fits no pattern. Don’t swallow it. As I have done. Don’t even read these words of mine that have hatched from the act of reading the story’s own words…

    “Mainly these thoughts were about my desire to know something that I was sure was real about my existence before it was my time to die…”
    “The lessons in measurement of cloacal forces. Time as a flow of sewage. The excrement of space, scatology of creation. The voiding of the self.”
    The above two separate quotes exemplify how this story on a certain level is threaded upon one of the melted oxymorons that I have already identified above, the scatological-eschatological one.
    The protagonist student, taking a short cut late at night past the school, one coat-button awry, has heard the rumour that Instructor Carniero has returned from sick leave and has resumed his strangely dual-diagramed lessons in what turns out to be an Escherine school building (one that in my own recurrent nightmares, even at my age, embodies my fear of slipping behind lessons as a student) – one that takes on the bonfire smoke and Nature’s seasonal fecal material slipping up and down its walls to where he learns the lesson is being taught on an impossibly high storey. He seeks this lesson with the strange Instructor almost desperately, the text having broached the question (without satisfactory answer) of whether there has been an ‘assignment’ set, a question asked at both the beginning and the end of that text.
    This is an intensely nightmarish and effective blending of death with its prior decay of life and vice versa, blending knowledge with sewers. And I now see this 1980s work as also premonitory of the plague of massacres that has since transpired in educational establishments, a form of anti-natalism before it is too late.
    It is perhaps that ultimate so-called ‘assignment’ which our protagonist manages, at least temporarily, to shake off, but not without being fed a reference, for later use, to a “native putridity” which phrase in the context of the passage where it is used (e.g. “the dark compost of those about to be born”) makes it obvious that the word ‘native’ here is just a natural synonym for ‘natal’, as it is.
    The more normal of the Instructor’s diagrams being one thing, but the embellishment of other diagrams around them quite another.
    “…’a true instructor must share everything, no matter how terrible or lurid it might be.'”

    “I saw nothing that I have not described,…”
    A man who wanders parts of a town that he has never visited before. I must have wandered this story before but I have not been able to remember reading it. I visit a cinema with purple light and cobwebs like hair, an aura and “diseased viscera imitating all the shades of sunset.” An art cinema that is a möbius avant garde film of itself, where faces and people are seen folding back on themselves to become someone else, and a new management despite its closing down tonight. The word ‘ligotti’ I have claimed means ‘knots’, and there are möbius knots in the hair, I infer? A story that is the nearest to a pointless ‘happening’ I have ever read, but one that still hangs about in the mind, sometimes couched in the most textured, the most Ligottian style you will ever likely encounter. I saw nothing that I have not described.

    “My earliest philosophy regarding the great priestly tribe was therefore not a simple one by any means; rather, it comprised a thick maze of propositions, a labyrinthine layering of systems in which abstract dread and a bizarre sort of indebtedness was forever confronting each other.”
    If ‘The Glamour’ just presented for me the apotheosis of the Ligottian style, then I was wrong. This story, is the richest yet with intertwining sacerdotal and demonic lend-and-borrow elision and exegesis, a sort of painterly ‘Temptations of St Anthony’ allusion, elusion and illusion, with the quote above linking spectrally with the Loan of Olan that I mentioned earlier in this review. The boy or youth who stays invalid-like in his room with his own complex attempts at depiction by drawing in his drawing book (the whole story is steeped in medicines and prayers) is accustomed to Father Orne visiting his parents, but when Father Sevich arrives instead… A masterful character study by Ligotti of pure melted oxymoron, an inscrutable chalk-faced priest with an endlessly page-turning tissue-paper prayerbook whence the boy surreptitiously steals a woodcut tissue page… And there is from that point a spectral link between this boy and Sevich wherever Sevich happens to be in truth, dream or holy and unholy vision, including in the latter’s Library of Byzantium that links with VanderMeer’s tunnel as tower, tower as tunnel, and with the ambiance of parts of Area X…
    But who was the revenant, whom the haunted. Who the debtor, whom the indebted. “Unmentionably ludicrous, so I will not mention it.”
    Now I am myself part of the pecking-order, of the links, of the debt and non-debt, having had to mention it here.
    “The hands remained thus placed for some time, as if an invisible transference of fabulously subtle powers was occurring, something being given or received.”

    “Even late at night, when the structure of the house expressed itself with a fugue of noises, Miss Plarr augmented this decrepit music with her own slow pacing upon the stairs or outside of my door.”
    With his mother bedridden with a “pseudo-illness”, this is another boy in his room sketching (or sketching after she arrived), and instead of Father Sevich, we have here, yes, her arrival, that of Miss Plarr, a hauntingly dark version of another housekeeper or governess with the initials MP, I guess, but Plarr’s role is at first uncertain as is the place uncertain where she has billeted herself in the house with her suitcase.
    You know, re-reading all these stories, as I have done, in the last week or so, means that I have been spoilt with riches. If I had read this story alone without reading any of the others, I would have considered it a masterpiece, and it probably is, but I find it difficult now to see the landings from the hallways, the operatic TrageDIE from the cloying relationships in almost Scriabinesque counterpoint summoned by this and the previous story. Difficult to see the human author from the visionary conduit.
    This story is not just a Turn of the Screw, but an anguished tightening, a bolting of things down for the Aspergic. Towering edifices that double as castles or crypts in comparison with a small attic. Another instructor from a Night School who needs to teach how lurid things are. That ‘stinging air’ evoking the thrashing of demons or, for me, the eventual knotting of such “long whips lashing in darkness.” Brutality and exile. The teacher and the taught, just another loan back and forth?
    This writer honouring which of his readers as the heir of his visions and other “visceral practices”? I now approach the end of my review of this monumental book.

    The final section of this book containing just one story.
    And the Nemonymous Voice finishes his review….
    “…with some feverish intent.” – as the story below reminds me.
    It now seems appropriate that I started this review with the picture of two apples, not exactly true to this final story’s epithet of “apple red” as such, but fresh enough to eat. But now those two apples have begun to decay in real life. So what about them apples?
    This story I shall take personally. But first, it is of course a celebrated masterpiece of the Horror fiction genre. Take that as read. The concept of the scarecrow standing in ground that won’t turn cold, after it has been cleared. The obnoxious growth that sprouts from the ground like a hand into it as if into a puppet. The decay of Mother Nature, with mankind as part of it, like that decay already beginning with those two apples, is described in the most effective way, and I cannot possibly do justice to it here with my own words describing such utterly mind-blowing Ligottian descriptions. Too many ripe-to-mulch quotes to quote, so I won’t quote any. The “self-murder” of Mr. Marble who seems to become the scarecrow itself or its spawn and whom I see as a darkly tutelary and premonitory extension of the author and his authorial intent, even if nobody, including this book’s author-conduit himself, can possibly fathom such intent… Well, I could go on. Suffice to say that it is the perfect climax of the book.
    During the last few months, I have felt like I myself have the “texture of spoiled fruit”, and that that hand, like cancer, has come into my own scarecrow’s puppet-body. Tomorrow, suitably, I complete my course in having that ‘hand’ cauterised, at least delaying my death for a nonce – so that I can perhaps write more book reviews than I would otherwise have done! But this story reminds me that there is also much comfort in immersing myself in the decay that besets us all sooner and later, gaining an understanding of this story’s description of “a perverse reluctance, as in the instance of someone who is hesitant to have a diseased part of his own body cut away to keep the disease from spreading.”
    This book is ‘a dead monument to once ancient hope’, but one that has now perhaps earned its alien imperishability, a form of marble impervious to the heat death that otherwise awaits our planet.
    The review is now complete. A dreamcatching review as my personal journey through this new Penguin Classics collection. I hope it can be seen – in addition to the listed factors in my now fulfilled ‘trial conclusion’ earlier in this review – as “disclosing prophecies that no one would credit at the time.”
    (The latter quoted words are from the book’s last story just reviewed. They appear in both the 1991 Robinson version and this Penguin one.)

    Having slept on the above review of TSATBOTW, I realise that I forgot to mention its pareidolia, making faces and shapes from all those elements of Nature, that I have been doing with my photos over the last few years. That seems to fit perfectly with everything else I mentioned.
    Also, as an aside, I wonder if Father Sevich in 'The Library of Byzantium' is another form of naive parental invitation toward a 'frolicking' similar to that of John Doe.

    Finally, I shall now read for the first time Jeff VanderMeer's Foreword to the book, expecting it to give me more food for thought...

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Hill of Cinders of Colin Insole

2 thoughts on “The Hill of Cinders of Colin Insole

  1. An extremely luxurious, meticulously designed, dustjacketed hardback tome – with 64 pages of about 5″ square.
    My edition is numbered 23/85.
    Pages 7 – 31 (about halfway through this story)
    “As he lay awake, it seemed that the moon, the stars and the hill, were aligned, part of the slip and drift of the cosmos, whilst he remained below, cut off from its magic.”
    As I read that passage, I immediately thought of another book by this author, one entitled ‘The Gold of Decayed Stars’.
    This story so far really hits certain notes that any Colin Insole fan would expect, as I am, as I do. The school where James Bulverton attended in 1912, and we crisscross with his time then, and now returning to the area in 1940, with memories of action in the First World War, all to the striking visual backdrop in words, that of the red terrain around the school, the hill itself from the title, the mining and its collapsed remains, a sense of the chemical smell, with James also thinking about the school’s self-imposed ‘cocktail of horror and glamour’ of two necessary scapegoat pupils who grew up treacherous, and James’ anti-paradisal Miltonic epiphany, where he boisterously became his own boyhood person by absconding — like (in my mind and perhaps my mind alone) The Magic Mountain’s Hans Castorp in his epiphany amid the snowy Alps — to this quite contrastive red terrain. The meteor shower, the affinity of the terrain with Flanders that he had then only experienced retrocausally, I sense.
    Somehow I do not wish to read the rest of this story – until I have to. As I will. Later rather than sooner, to keep the work on the brink of completion as long as possible.
  2. Pages 32 – 59
    I now know why I instinctively wanted to finish reading this book halfway through last night. It was because, in hindsight, I unaccountably knew that I could not proceed in this review without dropping plot spoilers like bombs in 1940 upon the school buildings, their windows duly blacked-out — or without dropping red ash from some meteor storm upon James Bulverton as he sought out the old site, on Cinders Hill, of his epiphany in 1912.
    You see, this is one of those rare events when my sense of wonder about a story becomes exponential. It is really something special, and I dare not tell you anything specific, but the various teasers and trailers in the first half fit perfectly with what transpires in the second. It is absolutely perfect. The cunning interpretation of intentions, the descriptions of environment both cosmic and local, scapegoats feeding on scapegoats, and past bullying recouped. The school itself as an entity, the hidden thoughts of those associated with the school artfully revealed through the reader’s own ability to scry them, having been given that ability by the structure of the story itself.
    Some may claim that one story (that I estimate to be between 9000 and 10000 words) to be given a single physical book as its vehicle is going over the top. The book is indeed spectacularly designed and superbly handleable with what I assess to be the costliest of materials, and this story does indeed deserve this exquisite setting. In fact it can only be read in such a setting, and in two bites, as I have just done, otherwise you would b diminishing the experience. A landmark experience of both form and content for anyone. And the scapegoat is finally transcended or fulfilled.
    Still, I do easily imagine this story being republished time and time again with the retroactive impulse of future literary history. And those future readers will very much appreciate it, no doubt, for what it is, but they will never be able to appreciate it in the way that owners of this book as its first readers were privileged to read it.


    Sunday, October 18, 2015

    Year’s Best Weird Fiction – Volume Two

    Year’s Best Weird Fiction – Volume Two

    My purchased copy arrived today.


    Edited by Kathe Koja and Michael Kelly (2015)

    My other reviews of Undertow Publications HERE (including Volume One of above series)

    Stories by Nathan Ballingrud, Siobhan Carroll, Julio Cortázar (Michael Cisco), Amanda C. Davis, K. M. Ferebee, Karen Joy Fowler, Cat Hellisen, Kima Jones, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Rich Larson, Carmen Maria Machado, Usman T. Malik, Nick Mamatas, Sunny Moraine, Jean Muno, Sarah Pinsker, Karin Tidbeck, Charles Wilkinson, Isabel Yap.

    When I real-time review this anthology, my comments will be found in the thought stream below or by clicking on this post’s title above…

    20 thoughts on “Year’s Best Weird Fiction – Volume Two

    1. I reviewed the first two stories in this book HERE and I copy those reviews below. (I don’t think I have previously read any other stories in this book.)
      The Atlas of Hell by Nathan Ballingrud
      “…the language of deep earth that curdles something inside me, springs tears to my eyes, brings me hard to my knees.”
      There’s something I don’t get about this story but I know enough about this story, having just read it, to be pleased at least that I don’t get it! It has the aura of a brutal, conniving city gangster ethos that migrates to the swamps outside the city, where books and skulls are not distinct from each other and where Whovian metal boxes allow insulated migration from Hell itself, ending with a boy dangling these boxes like huge lanterns … or gas masks? It seems a perfect follow-on from the previous story but, as yet, I know not whither all this is taking me… A reading journey is only complete when every bit of that journey, that is still unread, has later been taken further into eventually complete hindsight.
      The Ballingrud language here is like bone containing blood and vengeful vistas, apertures, double dealing, all sweetly searing inward. My previous review of one of his books here.
      siobhan shearman kiernan kaaron warren mcmahon barron ellen langan nathan cadigan caitlín
      Wendigo Nights by Siobhan Carroll
      “‘The air is full of ghosts.’ She delivers this information as though it were an ozone reading: a fact, visible to us all.”
      From the Attic to the Arctic. Not only an ozone reading, but also an osmosis one, where the words infect us with the same insidious power as by which the plot infects its characters…? This, like the book’s first story, is at first glance another adventure Whovian template of gathering characters working or investigating (here in the Inuit Arctic), characters whom we have enticingly adumbrated for us, their template as threatened by some inferred monster. Here it is a canister given forth from these melting Arctic wastes…or a “Holy Grail”, a container, like this book, that emits holy as well as unholy, where a combination of both is more powerful than either.
      A story blending, inter alia, the mist ghosts of Kaaron Warren and the ‘retrocausality’ of Pat Cadigan; we gradually work out what I feel is Eucharistically threatening these characters, except, intriguingly, their retrocausality is not linear in any particular direction…as part of the aforementioned infection? I shall read this story again one day.
    2. HEADACHE by Julio Cortázar, translated by Michael Cisco
      “…Camphora monobromata, which causes one to believe one is going in one direction when in reality one is going the opposite way.”
      Having recently real-time reviewed the stories of Silvina Ocampo and Clarice Lispector HERE and HERE respectively, I was looking forward to this Cortázar (as translated by Cisco whose work I have admired over the years) – but nothing could have warned me about the exponential hypnotism of this work. Whether or not I understand the technical terms for their ailments and the medicines, the type of animal they are keeping in the corrals outside and their habits and needs, the almost musical flow of the weather symptoms in tune with all of these phenomena, the type of disloyalty of their helpers, the onset of the police almost as a side issue to be brushed off, the slow accretion of their house into the human head, I was certainly not merely captivated but captured by this hyper-temperamental gazetteer of the nurturing and the nurtured amid such methodical struggling. Still am.
    3. LOVING ARMAGEDDON by Amanda C. Davis
      “There’s vile satisfaction in making an Ouroboros out of a fight:”
      I loved this short short fuse of a story. Terrifying as living alongside one’s own life.
      Also a stunning new addition to the methods of calling ‘time out’ in an otherwise endless lovers’ argument…
      “The apples were small and hard, but sweet-smelling. She rolled one in the palm of her hand.”
      Having once had published a novel about the Earth and everything under, even with skies under, I was intrigued by the title before reading the story. Of course, this story is nothing like that novel, but it helped to know others had travelled such skies.
      A gently beautiful fiction, in many ways, with the death of a witching woman’s husband and, in this story’s world, many feared the witching and sealed off his grave to prevent its witching by her. But birds began breaking from the earth all over the land, the largest of which, when cut open, contained letters from her husband as he made his rite of passage.
      That brief description cannot do sufficient justice to this haunting, aching work.
      The witching woman’s relationship with the eventually helpful sheriff is touching, one that I sense growing almost without volition of the author or the ‘words’ and ‘wounds’ involved.
      I sense, too, that the story, arguably complex in itself, miraculously allows the reader to have simple thoughts about it while never missing anything that it wants to tell you. “Hunger, not-hunger, and sometimes the moon.”
      Perhaps carries a blend of the nurturing gaia of the Cortázar with the hair-trigger message-within of the Davis.
      “But this was just a little storm. A strange and little storm.”
      A localised storm, as if you are only subject to such a storm while you are reading this story, a gentle storm at first, a fairy story about a fairy story (thus making it real?), but when one sees the accretive assuming of roles, it takes on a colder, more haunting aspect, when others are missing or just late home, and vice versa, the potential for changelings among two small twin girls, so temperamentally different from each other if otherwise identical, and their Nanny (who tells the inner fairy story) accretively, too, taking the devious place of their Mummy as unexpectedly both parents (if there are two parents actually able to do so) can’t return in time for Christmas.
      I thought this charming story was its own changeling, and it was raining, not snowing. It would be unbearably horrific to have read the foundling version. Or perhaps I did.
      Any story that makes one doubt even oneself like this must have something special about it.
      And the sheriff in the Ferebee turns up here as the policeman?
    6. THE GIRLS WHO GO BELOW by Cat Hellisen
      “…though I do not know how we can return to a place we have never been.”
      I enjoyed this rhapsodic, fairy-tufted text of two dissimilar sisters who bathe and lave each other lakeside to the heady strains of their discovered beau’s violin playing – a blend for me, at first, of the style of Katherine Mansfield, the DH Lawrencian sisters and, dare I say, Jane Austen, with their mother expressly wanting them to marry well, then reminding me delicately of Ferebee’s witching Earth-under above (with these Hellisen sisters currently doing a world atlas jigsaw) and of the foundling or changeling Fowler sisters, the latter’s comparison to the Hellisen sisters becoming more significant in tune with the deadpan-expressed but, at heart, devastating event that is said to occur later in the lake between them, devastating unless it did not occur at all by means of one sister, as the text reveals, overwriting her diary about it? One story, as in the Davis hair-trigger heart, engulfing another, or one sister cancelling out the other?
      Much of this entrancing book so far has a fey or fay heart.
    7. NINE by Kima Jones
      “And who doesn’t bleed a little coming back to life?”
      Not fey or fay, now, but more a nitty gritty nose-bleeding of a bodily recrimination by this book’s earlier witching, here of hex (juju) and possession, not in a Crossroads Motel so much as in a cross-racial one. If some of the previous stories were ones of wistful savouring this has an al dente mastication. One where I think we learn of the undercurrents that both support and deny miscegenation. And zombie restraints like being tagged in the real world for house-arrest. But here the tagging clings and cloys at each margin of potential escape.
      This is a strong story – and I respect its own soul, one, like the Cortazar, we need to work at to garner its thrust gradually, like, say, what or who Rinny happens to be that they need to feed and that later someone or something decides to eat. There are some amazing passages, some well-characterised hybrid characters such as Newt and ‘Uncle’ Tanner, and biting as well as poignant resonances with Davis’s hair-trigger innards.
      “Like someone snatched a piece of fruit from a tree inside her and kept snatching and snatching and instead of taking the last piece of fruit or letting it drop to the ground for harvest, they stood on their tiptoes, opened their mouth to the branch and ate her seed and stem and all.”
    8. As I did last year with the first volume of this series, I shall make a few brief words about this book generally. I understand that any Year’s Best Fiction as a commercial title is not necessarily to be taken literally, as it depends on what is available to be considered as well as subject to the overall taste and vision of its lead editor. But, like last year’s stories, this year’s seem overwhelmingly (other than Solaris and Granta?) taken from the publications of North American publishers. There are significant streams of great weird fiction from, say, TTA Press in UK and a certain publisher in Romania that keeps changing its name, both of which I regularly real-time review. Not a criticism, but an observation.
    9. BUS FARE by Caitlín R. Kiernan
      “You’re kidding me. You hitch rides with vampires, but you don’t believe in werewolves?”
      There’s one paragraph in this tantalising story that – as a prelude to a tournament of riddles between two well-characterised girls, one albino and the other olive-skinned – potentially itemises the plot of several weird horror stories in one go. Not that the whole work is exactly of the horror or weird genres, but more a mythology of our “deserted, boarded-up” future as if seen from its own future like mythologies usually are. And that perhaps is the intrinsic riddle of the complete story, one also subtly echoing the riddle of skin miscegenation in the Jones, with a metamorphosis exploding from within of the Davis or an act of becoming a changeling in full view from the Ferebee and Fowler during the reader’s gradually realised accretion of the full significance of this scenario in the same manner as the earlier scenario in the Cortazar… So, the whole Kiernan story becomes itself itemised like its own single itemising paragraph that I cited above.
      Unique in itself – with clever riddles – but paradoxically a uniqueness that seems tapped bit by bit from the crammed Collective Jungian Unconscious that is owned by all of us. Including the Unconscious of the story’s Seraphim – and even of the Greyhound Bus, too.
      “In her head, Dancy counts off the contents of her cigar box…”
      “…and felt a distant embarrassment about the grout creeping between the bathroom tiles.”
      An engaging gradual-realisation-by-accretion of a story, one that, like the previous story, encourages the reader eventually to itemise – items like Skype, Acer, Kindle, Emails, Wikis and Auden, Melville, Kierkegaard, Ibsen, Hans Christian Andersen… An almost hypnotic effect that enhances this meticulously built-up scenario of living on a Baltic rig, the male protagonist in difficult internet relationship with his pregnant wife, whilst being visited by a female who appears to have lived under the rig before climbing aboard to believably strike up or have struck up a (mermaidish?) relationship with him… Another foundling or, even, changeling, and those earlier ‘girls who go below’?
      I was particularly poeticised by her eventual beautifully described departure from the rig, the “rending sound of flesh and bone finding new places” with the bony development of a baby’s head… And the latter’s small voice beyond Skype’s dial-tone.
    11. THE HUSBAND STITCH by Carmen Maria Machado
      “Stories have this way of running together like raindrops in a pond.”
      …like the stories in this book, as well as the möbius ribbon of stories in this story itself, the pond now become a lake for the ‘girls below’ , the ‘mermaid’, too, from the previous story… “Then her face slips somewhere else for a moment as if she has slipped beneath the surface of a lake.” — “Mermaids grow feet and it feels like laughter.”
      Having recently read the complete stories of Clarice Lispector (with my review here), perhaps it is not surprising that I find there seems to be a kindred spirit with this story, a splendidly methodical or deadpan ribbon of events, some magically real, others as part of a changeling alternate world when an escaped madman approaches that same lake, with events that differ afterward, and we then would never have had these stories onward from this woman narrator’s childbirth, with a slight incision to ease the birth, and the growth of her son page by page until he is a teenager, as interspersed with tantamount to another story that is made up of the stage directions of this story’s eventual gestalt, how to read the story aloud…
      And the man’s search for that möbius ribbon and its eventual unfurling from her body…And a musical ‘dying fall’ as its ending leading back, I infer, to that car wherein it all started beside the lake. The word-felt stitching and unstitching of sex, narrative grope by narrative grope, each a light touch.
      by Carmen Maria Machado
      “Also Herman Hesse was a bastard and I don’t want to talk about him anymore.”
      An author is a character in his or her own fiction, if you believe the Intentional Fallacy theory of literature. This eggstrapolation heightens my sense of the kindred spirit with Clarice Lispector regarding her own accidental similar theme and variations on an egg, with ‘egg’ uncannily patterning the page, too, the Lispector effect of which I visually showed HERE a few weeks ago before knowing I was going to encounter this Machado version. I feel privileged to have witnessed this dual but separate parthenogenesis today made clear by the truth of Machado’s… “Sometimes, in another place entirely, another person has also cracked open an egg and is also looking inside, and you are both, in fact, looking at the innards of the exact same egg.”
    13. RESURRECTION POINTS by Usman T. Malik
      “There are no sides. Only love and hate.”
      It’s like Machado’s earlier audit trail of stage directions for reading her story aloud. And now I am implicitly given a similar lesson in making the text judder or arch its back. The story is already alive within itself; a story needs its text to bring it alive with its own fingertips, tip to tip with the reader like God’s with Adam’s on the Sistine ceiling?
      This is a story of Muslim-Christian dichotomies, one even dividing the marriage from which Daoud was born, and we learn of the clinic where Daoud works with his father, in a form of chiropractic electric healing by triggering bodies into life from deathly inertness through the healer’s fingertips. Like a prayer between man and God, but which way does a prayer work? A satisfyingly but open-endedly poignant tale that ends with Daoud evolved into almost our saviour with a nurtured skill at this type of healing, a skill possibly getting out of hand with his kingdom come of onward zombie soldiers marching as to war? A just war or just another war? The questions continue resonating.
    14. EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP by Nick Mamatas
      “Everyone here eats ice cream in the winter time.”
      I left this story via its metaphorical gift shop, expecting to look around it, think about it, and to buy some handy keepsake or aide memoire, even a short explanation of its plot, a reason for not having to return to it. But instead I was instructed to keep looking “straight fucking ahead.” An irony. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed this story of a Rehoboth with all its resonances, both Biblical and New English for an Old Englishman like me. The hitchhiker, the Haunted Stretch of road that is purpose built almost bespoke for this story, costing more than a small fortune to travel. A rollercoaster of a ride, one of self and not-self blending as a parthenogenesis of raw sex along a Bible Belt’s Genesis, a real-time dangerous relationship, which you can’t leave either via GPS or the gift shop. “Anyways”, I sensed this was a significantly cathartic work and I still can’t help worrying at it.
    15. SO SHARP THAT BLOOD MUST FLOW by Sunny Moraine
      “Death always has to go somewhere.”
      A story that fulfils the promise of this book’s witching, various mermaids and ‘girls below’, but also here the promise of Machado’s stories running together like raindrops in a pond. There the pond became a lake. Here, like Larson, the sea itself, but also, at first, the yearning to be sea foam. And insulating those stories one from the other, where death or blood-drops running together or different story-endings reside.
      This has a fairy tale ambiance with the sporadic staccato of enticingly naive verse as prose, where a Prince and Princess on a romantic sea voyage suffer the sharp touch of tail-slapping as a leap of jealousy or Brothers Grimm.
    16. THE GHOUL by Jean Muno (translated by Edward Gauvin)
      “Each of us moves forward with our own death for a shadow. Each of us, sooner or later, abandoned.”
      Having recently read a collection of stories by Jean Ray (reviewed here), I was looking forward to reading this work and I am not disappointed. Alone worth the entrance fee to have this translation crystallised here in print. A highly atmospheric and disturbing vision of recurrent stalking, but who is stalking whom out of the seemingly four characters involved, including the narrator (author?), the narrated male protagonist, the Melancholy Woman who pushes the woman in a wheelchair and the woman in the wheelchair. This all takes place in a beautifully described sea situation and a town one, the sense of stalker and stalked in each other’s arms, or as an appendage like a homunculus parasite with its host, or nurse with patient, lover with lover, friend with enemy, narrator with narrated, author with reader, not only with but also within: arguably perpetrator and victim as a single ghoul, while embodying its theme of “The rapture of borders”, borders geographical, personal and spiritual. An eschatological nightmare, “the limbo haunted by spectral stories”. Those stories running into one story like water drops, the story that still evolves as this book’s gestalt so far.
      “You don’t work a horse with a harness sore.”
      This is a moving story in itself with its wonderfully naive and grass-grows-greener-goal- and girl-yearning characterisation of Andy and the botched indelible tattoo using the name of a fickle girlfriend called Lori on one of his arms – and his other arm, plus a chip in his brain, following a combine harvester accident, becoming a robotic one with a pincer.
      But it is also a striking work with both or either arm being connected not with becoming a phantom limb but with something that actually becomes a road to that greener grass for which he yearns, in full tune with Mamatas’ earlier Haunted Stretch of road (surely this was conspiratorially planned by both authors as it is too much of a coincidence otherwise!) and, less obviously perhaps, as part of this book’s striking reading experience, his robotic arm is also known as a ‘rig’, the same name as a much bigger contraption in the Larson story, a rig that also turned out to have a girl attached like the other arm…
      And Machado’s eggs, too, make an appearance.
      For me, give or take such connections, this Pinsker story is a significant piece of work that seems to play with some original aspects of artificial and real intelligence.
    18. MIGRATION by Karin Tidbeck
      image“A seam has split along the cardigan’s right shoulder.”
      …and a seam has split in the panoply of reality, too, it seems,as Edith provides a real but dream-like fluidity of a metaphor for migrants and the holes they need to build on beaches, or caves to inhabit where the ocean ends. Also a flaking painted ocean amid the stalactites. Like most of this book, there is an undercurrent of the ocean or the undercurrent of womanhood beneath or above that ocean. Edith flows with the migrants amid a Pilgrim’s Progress of characters like the Neighbours, the Janitor, the Caretaker and her friend Irma, between the endless stairwells, a make-do-and-mend society in the city flats that seem to be attacked by ‘invaders’ – hence this vision of what I see as a figurative prose poem of fantasy treehomes and caves (a prose poem with dialogue) deploying the distorted fluidities, the moral migraine of migration. And the seemingly positive ending begs a negative question of doubt. Another stretch of highway.
      “It’s never good when things happen.”
    19. HIDDEN IN THE ALPHABET by Charles Wilkinson
      “Their dancing steps in the brilliant white water foaming about their feet.”
      Since first encountering his fiction in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction a few years ago, Wilkinson has joined the ranks of my favourite living authors. And this intriguing and stylistic work has confirmed such a feeling in me. It has the methodically deadpan, but poetic, triangulations of detailed viewpoints and Pinteresque allusions (akin to similar effects in what I consider to be an overlooked fiction masterpiece from 1968 entitled ‘Report on Probability A‘ by Brian Aldiss). It tells of an ‘auteur’ and the gradually evolving past when his son and niece were still young and there are insinuations of the film he took of them together. Today, in later time, negotiating his inscrutable accident outside a hotel, his broken spectacles, visits (by himself and his niece separately) to an optician, and his projected reunion or reconciliation with his son. Nothing of it fully crystallises but it would have been an anti-climax if it had done so. The optician’s eye-test cards with alphabets of letters evoke writerly considerations of wordplay such as anagrams and assonances. Things that my reviews seem to thrive on! A shriving at the altar (auteur) of the past? Also resonances with the concept of cousin-with-cousin births needing changelings or foundlings amid the waterside or sea-foam love, sex and death that seeps in from the rest of this book. Seabirds like flowers behind a window.
      “What the film will never remember was how fine the sand was, silkily running through her toes.”
    20. This is a perfect closure for the whole book, but a rhapsodically rarefied story in itself, strongly passive with Japanese tea drinking and the meeting of others in communal baths, such as the woman with the water-creature kappa who once saved her from drowning, but a creature that normally eats the insides from out of women. The story tells of this woman who once wished to be a Disney princess, but now she suffers a beautiful grief, as some in Japan say grief is beautiful, while nursing her dying husband.
      I have not looked back to reread the Rich Larson story in this book, but memory seems to say there is something telling about the comparison with this story. There it was a man and his love union with a mermaid that transcends his marriage. Here, it is such a union by woman with the gender-indeterminate but male-leaning kappa that not only transcends this woman’s marriage but saves it. But for whom is the cucumber carved and dropped in the river? I think I know.
      A classic ‘Beauty and the Beast’ story with an original twist that stays with me yearningly, so far at least.
      This whole book seems to unify above and beneath a fairy-tale watery shimmer, where creatures and passions move along with others to match or resist, a distaff feel, sometimes with the spear of something more trenchant to widen the choice available in any review or debrief, through the gift shop, towards the stretch of road that is you.